Neo-rat versus the Swarm

A slightly garbled tweet that I think warrants a blog note — the mental image is proving useful:

Neo-rat is engineering one of these contraptions and attaching it to your own head.

Libidinal materialism is trying to describe how the resulting experience feels (for the rat).

The Negarestani trajectory is trying to go from the tortured to the torturer.

Front Window #4: Notes on Fear

Monday 30 March 2020

An empty day. Blissful, even. I read or wrote for all of it.

Tuesday 31 March 2020

I called the NHS hotline on 111 this evening. My girlfriend has had her dry cough for a week but that’s not what’s worrying me. After two days of it seemingly receding, her fever came back — and hard.

The nurse’s advice on the end of the phone was simply to take paracetamol, which was slightly anticlimactic. As I relayed her symptoms she said, “Yep, that sounds like Covid.” I could sense the adding of a line to a tally on the desk in front of her and a sudden urgency to get onto the next call.

It’s not that I wanted an air ambulance sent to whisk her to the field hospital at the Excel Centre but, to my mind, a fever this high that lasted this long would be more of a cause for concern under normal circumstances.

I suppose these are not normal circumstances.

It was good to have some sort of confirmation though. It’s also slightly surreal that this crisis has hit home like this. We’ve been sensible and disciplined, and anxious about the virus sooner than most people we knew. We haven’t left the house in over a week regardless of symptoms. In truth, we didn’t expect to get it but feared more for others than ourselves. And now it’s in here with us.

It’s still the boredom that is overwhelming. I’m keeping myself occupied but she doesn’t have the energy to open her eyes to watch TV. I’ve been reading Jane Eyre to her instead. I think we’re both enjoying it. I’ve read it before but not out loud. Out loud the poetry of it sings, and the existential turmoil of this young child in the opening chapters is so lucid and beautiful and witty. I’m left wanting to re-read all the classics out into the air. We might have the time on our hands to do so.

It feels like a miracle right now that I don’t have it too. If we both caught it simultaneously I think we’d waste away into nothing. Already the fridge is empty. We’d planned a trip to the shop tomorrow but I’m not sure that’s on the cards anymore. We’ll need to figure out a workaround.

Wednesday 1 April 2020

April’s fools are suddenly everywhere.

I wake up groggily to the blaring sound of our fire alarm. My girlfriend was already up and ready to go. I was less convinced and panicked by the situation. I work from home a lot. I am used to the false alarms.

The alarm was shut off before we made it through the front door, much to her frustration. A message later went around the building’s WhatsApp group that explained some plumbers had set it off.

I was surprised to hear plumbers were even allowed in the building but that was when I caught a glimpse of the developing hysteria. A plumbing issue can’t wait. Nevertheless, I felt afraid for those two men on the job. They were working on our floor just a few doors down. I felt like maybe we should put quarantine tape on the front door or something, just to warn the neighbours. It’s stupid, really, but I had these thoughts regardless.

With it being so early in the morning, and with nowhere to be, I decided to go back to bed. Once horizontal, I picked up my phone only to find a text from a man saying he was in the area to carry out some pre-booked energy efficiency testing. It was something the landlord arranged a few weeks back. We’d forgotten about it — him included when I text him to ask about it — and we were all very surprised to hear that the tester still planned to go ahead with the testing. Plumbing is one thing but I don’t think checking the efficiency of our flat’s insulation is all that pressing. I text him back saying so.

“We are still working under the current safety guidelines,” was the response.

The next thing I knew he was calling us from inside the building. “What’s your flat number?” he kept asking. I told him my girlfriend was sick with the virus and that it was unlikely he had enough PPE (Personal Protective Equipment) to put our minds at ease.

“So you’re cancelling?”

Err, yes…

At around three o’clock I started to make a late lunch. We’re moving around so little that we barely have any appetite and the shocking deficiency of snacks in the cupboard meant we were spending more time talking about food and driving ourselves crazy.

There are plenty of people in the local area we could probably call upon to help us out but neither of us has the nerve to collate a list of comfort foods to get us through the boredom. We’ll just keep using up what we’ve got until her symptoms pass.

We’re not struggling yet anyway. I made some pasta and we sat in bed. My girlfriend put on the news which we’d decided to more or less ignore for the past week. The forced updates of social media apps are about as much as we’d like to know at this point

The BBC newsreaders were going through various reports and they all kept talking ominously about … The Peak. Just like that as well. They’d take a slight pause — dramatic but not melodramatic — right before they said the words, which were in themselves also slightly emphasised. The Peak. We are approaching … The Peak. How long is the government estimating it will be before we reach … The Peak. The death toll is rising daily — how bad is … The Peak … going to be? Then they start talking about plateaus. After … The Peak … the death toll will begin to plateau. “Plateau” is said with a little more urgency, with a certain relief. Peaks and plateaus. Plateaus and peaks.

We eat quickly and turn it off.

Despite the media’s dramatics, there is a sense that the government is trying to soothe people’s anxieties in the wrong way. They report on the numbers but with this tone that says, “Hey, you know, things don’t look too bad… Statistically, it’s mostly all fine… People die everyday… Things could be getting better sooner than we thought!”

It’s hard not to witness this and watch activity pick up again outside our window. We watch the frequency of cars passing increase with a certain terror. Some non-essential works are still going ahead without anyone taking the time to figure out the risks. Everyone seems to want to get in our building or into our flat to carry out works that can wait.

I feel like we have had too many close calls today, too many opportunities for the virus in our flat to spread through our building. Everyone seems eager to get back to work or get out of the house, and that’s understandable, but I can’t help but think it’s moronic. Although I don’t blame anyone. It’s like they are been pushed through their front doors by some unconscious kick — the myoclonic jerks of a capitalist system being told to go to sleep. Nevertheless, I wish everyone would stay indoors as stubbornly as we are.

We’ve got the fear today and the fear is real. It’s that same fear that used to emerge on the last day of the summer holidays. The fear that still emerges on a Sunday evening as you stare down the barrel of the week ahead.

“No more miserable Monday mornings” was Mark’s dream for himself and the world at large. In the introduction to Acid Communism, he took up this same phrase to write about the Small Faces’ “Lazy Sunday” — a song through which “the fog and frost of a Monday morning [is] abjured from a sunny Sunday afternoon that does not need to end…”

We’re living through a very long Sunday at the moment and, the longer it goes on, the more monstrous the Monday to follow seems like it will be. Because it isn’t the dream of no work that keeps us in bed but the dream of no illness — or, now, not spreading the illness any further — and that seems like a drive worth listening to.

The lazy Sunday is over. Now we’re back to thinking neurotically about the correct use of soap…

Thursday 2nd April 2020

My Dad is texting us for daily updates now. He’s concerned but it’s nice. We usually only drop each other an email every few months. Today he rang me to see how we were getting on. A mundane gesture but unusual for him. His fear has been real for over a month. I laughed about it at first. I’m not laughing now.

I even had a somewhat wholesome chat with the landlord about how he’s talking this opportunity to potty train his kid (“That’s brave”) before he offered to relax the rent if things were getting tough. It was quite the relief.

I went outside to take the bins out and bumped into the neighbours. I think they’re new. They woke us up at 4am the other week whilst having what I assume was a house-warming party. I went round like a grumpy old boomer and asked them to keep it down. The walls in this building are very well insulated. You wouldn’t know anyone lived around you if it wasn’t for the occasion noise from the corridor passing under the front door. The fact they made enough noise to wake us up was saying something.

They looked pretty sheepish but I smiled and said hello. Everyone is different newly awake at 4am than they are during the day. Water under the bridge as far as I’m concerned. Maybe they weren’t sheepish about that though. Maybe they’d heard my girlfriend’s incessant coughing through the walls…

Prison Politics: A Note on “Cancel Culture”

Below is an off-cut from my previous post on Dorian Batycka’s article written against a dangerously indeterminate form of taboo.

In that article, there is a brief exploration of cancel culture, of which Batycka writes:

While critics of cancel culture propagate a myth that being cancelled is akin to a form of censorship or an attack on free speech, cancel culture is voluntary withdrawal of attention, be it through a public re-reading or harsh critique.

I was thinking about this and the use of the phrase “voluntary withdrawal of attention” immediately prior to “public re-reading or harsh critique”. It stuck in my head for a bit. It is a paradox, like much of the rest of the article, where a virtuous retreat is defined through a mode of attack.

After thinking about it for a while, I wrote the following, reflecting on my own perceptions of cancel culture — both first- and second-hand.

From experience, having known a few people who have been “cancelled” — deservedly and undeservedly — the result of this situation is the imposition of a traumatic cognitive dissonance; a kind of ego-inflating paranoia.

On many occasions, I have watched as a cancelled person shows their face in public and wrongly assumes that everyone in a room is talking about them. They smirk to themselves maybe — if they are strong enough to remain defiant — believing that their enemies are disgruntled at their appearance in spite of their apparent removal from public life. In truth, most won’t know who said person is or care what they have to say.

This isn’t because the cancelled person lacks any self-awareness but because this is the unseen impact of this process on a socialised sense of self. Cancellation is, in this sense, a form of gaslighting, where abject scrutiny is replaced by a “withdrawal of attention” at such speed that the two actions appear simultaneous, leaving the cancelled person not knowing where they stand.

It should come as no surprise to anyone that, in many cases, mental health issues are triggered or inflamed by this sort of experience. This is the trauma of cancellation that is forever left unacknowledged by those who feel protected and on the right side of the mob, emboldened by the fact they believe the person concerned deserves everything they have coming to them. But rarely is this a righteous case of judgement and atonement or disagreement and separation. All too often, the impact is purely psychological and betrays a cruelty that those responsible will often deny that they themselves are capable of.

This was what happened to me towards the end of my time at Goldsmiths — and this is the sort of diffuse example I’m speaking to, which makes up the lion’s share of what people despise about “cancel culture”, I think, and not the sort of fraught public pursuit of extrajudicial justice that is defined by something like the #MeToo movement or no-platforming the alt-right.

In late 2017, a friend very viciously declared that they were cutting off all communication with me because they didn’t like the way I was “treating Mark Fisher’s work”. What they meant by this was never confirmed and any attempt on my part to push them into a further explanation was denounced as “bullying”.

This was not a singular incident, it should be said, on their part or more generally. This happened in 2017, when a broad mental health crisis subsuming the left resulted in various occasions where friends would lash out at friends, strangers at strangers, trying to root out the indeterminately dangerous and impure people in their midst. It was a McCarthite paranoia of the highest order. Whilst the shutdown of the LD50 Gallery inaugurated this process for us locally, the fallout spread far and wide and attached itself to something bigger that was looming.

It was like the left had developed an auto-immune disorder. An overproduction of white blood cells, produced to fight off a perceived invasion, led to the left carelessly attacking itself.

The unfounded nature of the particular critique levelled at me seems largely vindicated in my favour now. Nevertheless, the psychic whiplash I experienced was irreal and deeply traumatic. What began with an announcement of intense scrutiny was followed by a complete withdrawal of attention and communication.

Although I know now that this person was a very small minority, they did everything they could to appear bigger than that. For the next six months, I would wander around the pubs of New Cross carrying with me a deep-seated paranoia, assuming this person’s associates knew more about my apparent crimes than I did and felt I was not to be trusted. Whether I was actually being regarded with such pervasive suspicion or not was never ascertained on my part, but it felt that way.

I was left feeling downbeat and adrift, without any actual misbehaviour to reflect upon. One person had simply decided that I was not to be liked and this led to a public outpouring of silent scorn. As such, I didn’t know of any way that I could possibly defend myself because I wasn’t wholly certain of the charges brought against me in the court of public opinion, or of the identities of people now told to avoid me (although I had my own suspicions). Most of the people who seemed to view me with suspicions of their own were people I didn’t actually know. The paranoia intensified. It triggered a very real depression.

This experience very nearly pushed me into an even darker place — politically and mentally — and led me to lash out, on occasion, at a political home I now found riven by a weird McCarthyism. (We all know that McCarthyism was for rooting out communists but not by other self-identifying communists?!) I’m amazed, to this day, that I somehow managed to use the initial anonymity of this blog to write myself out of it, and retain a firm belief in our unavowable communities in the process. Nevertheless, I have since seen this same process be repeated numerous times since.

Cancel culture paradoxically makes such a huge spectacle out of withdrawing attention that when the process of excommunication is over and done with, the undesirable expunged from the culture finds that very same culture taking over their thoughts completely.

This is to say that the cultural impact of cancellation absorbs the mind of the person cancelled whilst life goes on unaffected for everyone else. It is a form of bridge-burning that has only ever led to people being pushed further into the arms of those they may have so far only been accused of associating with, worsening the disconnection that may or may not have existed in the first place. A sense of belonging is powerful and it both fuels cancel culture and the continued existence of the left’s apparent enemies.

This is what happened to me. Filled with a deep anger at the injustice I felt had been done to me, I found myself in company that was similarly angry but this anger was sometimes channelled into projects that genuinely scared me. Gradually, I made my way back, and whilst I still harbour a disgruntled attitude towards a left often ignorant to its own flaws, I’m glad to have done so, primarily for the wider communities I’ve found beyond a small one I was in that fell apart.

Thinking about this always reminds me of Jodi Dean’s Mark Fisher Memorial Lecture, when she spoke at length about Mark’s essay “Exiting the Vampire Castle”. (It was, tellingly, a very controversial lecture among many at Goldsmiths.)

Dean was talking about the stakes involved in calling someone “comrade”, rehearsing the argument of the book she would later publish with Verso. It was an inspired decision, I thought, to link Mark’s most controversial essay to the communal stakes involved in his nascent and increasingly popular Acid Communism.

More specifically, Dean was talking about the place of restorative justice in political organisations and how the communality of communism demands we take a harder look at how we deal with disagreement and social fissures. But people really didn’t like that.

There was an infamous moment in the Q&A at the end when someone asked, very provocatively, what the response would be if someone in a Communist Party raped another member. Do they just get allowed back into the party after some therapy and a time-out?

It reminded me of how, a few years prior, when the US justice system was really coming under scrutiny following the increased popularity of “true crime” TV series and podcasts documenting miscarriages of justice, there were many articles that would enthuse on the benefits of Norway’s prison system, with its focus on rehabilitation and restorative justice. And yet, a lecture audience in London’s leftiest university — on a social level at least — suddenly seemed squeamish about actually implementing these kinds of politics within its own ranks and immediate circles.

Dean, to her credit, did offer up some historical precedents for ways to deal with this hypothetical rapist but, really, it wasn’t a question Dean should have been asked in the first place. It said far more about the person asking the question then it did her argument and, as such, it’s the kind of question that those who proclaim to possess radical politics should ask themselves.

This isn’t to say that a rapist should be welcomed back into a political party but thinking about how that question affects the politics you sign your name to must surely be a necessary question to ask yourself? How far do your politics go? Are you really a communist? Or a prison abolitionist? I’m sure many present that day would have identified themselves as both those things but, when faced with the true stakes of those political identities — encapsulated in a limit chosen by themselves — they didn’t want to have to deal with it.

Perhaps these things are apples and oranges — prison abolition and being anti-cancel culture — but surely, if we are going to gleefully enter the business of discipline and punishment, the left should at least be consistent? At present it seems to be one rule for the state justice system, another when it comes to their own community relations.

The overarching point is that there are always ways of doing things that do not necessitate a psychological schism on the part of the person(s) concerned. (It is here that those who dismiss cancel culture after being cancelled for transphobia also tend to sound like hypocrites — this is a point that goes both ways and transphobia is another example of psychological violence that it is right not to tolerate. “Putting the other first”, as an ethical imperative, should not be placed under a priori conditions.) In this sense, even when the reasons for critique are very real and worrisome, the tactics of “cancel culture” are wholly antithetical to the politics they are meant to be protecting.

As far as I’m concerned, anyone who engages with or revels in such practices should not dare to call themselves a “comrade” in any sense of the word. They have no sense of the real work that a true belief in that term necessitates.

Music Journalism Insider: XG Interviewed

For those that don’t know, Todd Burns runs an excellent newsletter called Music Journalism Insider. It’s an amazing resource for music journalists and music journalism fans alike.

I’ve been a subscriber for a few weeks / months now — what even is time right now anyway? — so I was honoured when Todd popped into my inbox asking if I’d like to be interviewed for the newsletter.

As of yesterday, the interview is now live. You can read the full thing here — it’ll be live for two weeks and then go behind the paywall — and the rest of the newsletter here.

I talk a bit about how I got to this point in my life, trying to be a photographer for a bit and why I stopped. I talk about how that connects to my new book Egress and about the context from which the book emerged. Elsewhere in the newsletter, I recommend some stuff I’ve been reading and listening to recently and I also offer up a tip for would-be music writers (which is probably a bit rich coming from me because I’d hardly describe myself as a music writer — I’m a writer who likes music and other people’s writing about music — but I hope it’s of interest nonetheless.)

If music journalism is your passion — whether you love reading about the latest stuff or you want to get involved or you’re already involved but want to feel connected to a wider community — I really recommend signing up for the full version of Todd’s newsletter. It is a weekly inbox highlight for me and a truly formidable one-man magazine — the sort of thing this blog tries to be and which is, frankly, a dying breed.