Further Notes on an Ethics of the Dialectic

I’m in research mode at the moment and going in deep on the relationship of psychoanalysis to philosophy. It’s been fruitful so far, although it has led me to read more closely a few thinkers who I’ve never previously paid too much attention to — specifically Lacan and Žižek.

I’d sort of skim-read Žižek‘s The Sublime Object of Ideology a few years ago and really enjoyed it but rereading his preface to the book tonight I found the notion of dialectical conversation — previously just waffled about to Kantbot — becoming more and more concrete.

The purpose of the book, Žižek reflects, was to explore how the two supposedly discredited theories of “psychoanalysis and Hegelian dialectics may simultaneously redeem themselves, shedding their own skins and emerging in a new shape.” The use of this for Žižek seems to be that both Hegelian dialectics and (Lacanian) psychoanalysis share a process of simplification. (Just as the dialectic reduces a thing to its “unary feature”, Lacan draws the same process out from Freudian psychoanalysis.) Žižek explains:

The dialectical approach is usually perceived as trying to locate the phenomenon-to-be-analysed in the totality to which it belongs, to bring to light the wealth of its links to other things, and thus to break the spell of fetishizing abstraction: from a dialectical perspective, one should see not just the thing in front of oneself, but this thing as it is embedded in all the wealth of its concrete historical context. […] Hegel’s formulation is here very precise: the reduction of the signifying ‘unary feature’ contracts actuality to possibility, in the precise Platonic sense in which the notion (idea) of a thing always has a deontological dimension to it, designating what the thing should become in order to be fully what it is.

I liked this, and thought about it in relation to many things. Accelerationism came to mind first.

Reduced to its “unary feature”, Accelerationism becomes, for many, a desire to “go fast.” This is certainly the “kind of epitomisation by means of which the multitude of properties is reduced to a single dominant characteristic” that Žižek describes, but it also rejects its embedded position within contemporary thought more generally. The question, then, for many of us, becomes: “How do we continue to work in this area of thought whilst simultaneously rectifying this popular understanding?”; “How do we shift the narrative from an inaccurate certainty to a more accurate potentiality?” Because potentiality is the concern, in every guise that Accelerationism takes, isn’t it? Accelerationism, no matter which qualifier it carries with it, asks: “What is the potential that arises out of a subjugated capitalist subject?” The Accelerationist formation of Žižek‘s question, more specifically — “What must the subject of capitalism (be that human or otherwise) become in order to be fully what it is?” — also contains appropriately Promethean overtones.

I also thought about this sense of the dialectic is relation to D.H. Lawrence and some of those others modernist figures previously discussed with Kantbot. You would think that a writer, long dead, is only who they are (or were) and has no more becoming to do, but that does not seem to be the case for Lawrence, whose works, to my mind, often in spite of themselves, have a fascinating resonance in our contemporary moment. The question then becomes: “What does Lawrence have to become in order to be fully what he is today?”

It is this process that I was describing with that transgressive holy trinity — Nietzsche, Bataille, Land. Each successive work on the latter’s thought seems to do this absolutely. Each is dragged into a present that updates them for now whilst nonetheless staying true to their defining trajectory.

In the comments of my previous post, an argument broke out about this between myself and Dominic Fox. Dominic seemed to interpret this function — which I linked to Blanchot’s “infinite conversation” — as some sort of suspension of judgement — something which wasn’t in the spirit of Mark Fisher’s often barbed judgements on music, ideas, or people at all. Rejecting this apparent lack of judgement, Dominic argued: “I don’t think it’s illegitimate to pick and choose from among the different manifestations of Mark as a thinker and a person.” It is possible to “accept and recognise the whole inconsistent bundle without affirming everything in it simultaneously.”

I remain bemused as to how this ended up being the reading gleaned from the previous post but I doubt any progress is possible in that regard. More to the point, I have no interest in trudging up the particulars — it didn’t seem to really go anywhere — but the above, as explained last time (or so I thought), is what I have sought to do with Mark‘s writing. And that’s explicitly involved judgements of various kinds. Is it wrong to hold the door open a crack, on the off chance my judgement changes?

It is only in this sense that I defer making a final judgement about him or others. If this is emphasised, on occasion, it is because it is already clear that, in some ways, our collective imagination has already selected the parts of Mark’s thinking that will be carried forwards. Often, these parts are little more than glib understandings, in the sense that any popular understanding of a person is always ill-fitting and inaccurate, even when dressed up in a fluency with their own terms and concepts. They’re broad strokes, because that’s all the average person has any interest in. But they are nonetheless informed by certain dominant voices.

There is a responsibility that comes with determining these strokes, I think, and people should be more careful about the strokes they’re adding to the picture. Similarly, I think observers should be more vigilant as to what motivates a final picture — particularly one still being posthumously constructed — taking on certain contours.

A few examples:

Is Acid Corbynism really representative of what Mark Fisher’s thought? Or is it an abomination? Is it a self-serving attempt to grab hold of a developing narrative? Or is it just a half-baked populist philosophy, innocuously hollowed out of the ways in which Mark’s Acid Communism was to be vital?

Was Mark really someone who undermined his own politics of group consciousness by being grumpy online? Or was his coldness to the thought of some interlocutors commensurate with his vague desire to abolish the individual? Are either of those questions even relevant? Or is it all just a few disgruntled former friends getting a final dig in?

Is there any real communal momentum left over from Fisher’s life? Or is a book like Egress just wishful thinking? Is there a political project to be affirmed despite Mark’s death? Or is it the shadow of an ideal kept buoyant by lingering grief?

It is inevitably true, to whatever extent, that in each instance, each person in question requires Mark to become something specific and — in the sense of his still-yet-to-be-established “unary feature” — new, so that they might process who he was or might have been. In that sense, mourning is integral to each example above, and the fraught nature of mourning is what keeps the truth from being uttered and the hardest questions from being asked.

I know how I feel about these questions, personally. Regardless, the fact is that time will tell, and I hope that, later down the line, these questions get replaced by new ones. The point is not to suspend judgement but, in most cases, to affirm the potentiality still left in a body of work and the associations that become attached to it. I’m sure the Acid Corbynistas take refuge in the fact that, regardless of its fidelity to what Mark was working on, it is a positive project. I feel the same way about my book — a book which makes that very process explicit. For me, the heart of the Fisher-Function — “a need to ensure this is a moment when the force [Mark] brought into our world is redoubled rather than depleted” — when translated into these new terms, becomes: “What needs to be added to Mark’s legacy so that it is able to become what it fully is?”

There were other comments made in orbit of this previous argument. Apparently, Mark thought Blanchot was boring and that Bataille was silly. That’s okay. In that sense, the line between his thought and mine is clear. More to the point, it makes the detachment and assertion of a positive project more explicit, in that it makes additions. This is the gesture that I feel stays loyal to Mark’s thought, even if the references themselves do not.

All this is to say that, despite what some of his former interlocutors might like to think, Mark persistently transformed the arguably hypocritical and vampiric qualities of his negative critiques into a series of positive projects. He remained wedded to his thoughts, in sickness and in health, which is to say that the consistency of his arguments is impressive even if the tone was variable and sometimes problematic. There is nonetheless something to be affirmed here.

The initial barbed assault might have been an inadvisable approach — a scorched-earth strategy, as it were — but Mark always reemerged later with the same critique made positive. The unfortunate thing was that many remained more concerned with the previous mess or bridge burnt than the eventual strength of the end result. (Another aspect of this deontological tendency, perhaps, that is hard for some to stomach or acknowledge.) Everyone has read “Exiting the Vampire Castle”, for instance, but who has read “No Romance Without Finance” and made the connection? Both are concerned with a project of group consciousness raising that rejects and supersedes an identity politics corrupted by neoliberalism’s mandatory individualism, but only the negative critique is remembered whilst the positive project is left to the margins.

This isn’t just true of Mark. Mark, as ever, is simply the most readily available reference point. I’ll move on from him at some point, I’m sure, but not from this central gesture. That is the main way in which Mark continues to inspire me, despite the persistent announcements of his interpersonal flaws, supposedly to the contrary. He always came to realise, within his own writing, what needed to be added or transposed so that the potential of his argument could become what it fully was in actuality. Sometimes, the end result fell on deaf ears. But the stakes of an infinite conversation, as far as I am concerned, rest in the continuation of that project, especially when the other person has dropped it — through choice or through death.

This is what I find most palpable and poetic in Blanchot’s project (whether Mark liked it or not): in the persistent plurality of our voices, tomorrow is always what is at stake. That remains true whether you, personally, have a tomorrow or not.

Is that a deferral of judgement to another day? Or are judgements instead being made that keep the horizon in sight?


  1. Regarding “vague desire to abolish the individual” – where is a good place to start reading more about this, in Fisher or elsewhere?

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