“I Can’t Breathe”

There’s a sick sort of doubling occurring at the moment, exacerbating our global distress and malaise.

“I can’t breathe” once again becomes a way for protestors to identify with the deceased, but it now cuts through two forms of diminished life, whether that be citizens suffocated by police or by disease.

Our present (all too personal) problems, that have defined the last few weeks of lockdown — selfish, noisy neighbours, and the constant banging from a nearby building site; freelance precarity and mental health instability — feel so parochial right now. However, rather than the riots making Covid life feel less pressing, life becomes even more claustrophobic as we incessantly watch the constant streams and video clips shared by citizen journalists on the other side of the world. Our little flat, where we’ve been huddled for months now, feels even more detached from a society falling apart all around us. It is a distance that is almost comforting, but the comfort also nauseates.

Twitter doesn’t help. As both a place of online protest and the dissemination of political information, and as the one place that has retained some sense of normality since social distancing came into effect, there is a strange guilt that comes from using the platform to watch the world unravel and also to keep tweeting as usual.

On Friday night, a friend sends me a digital flyer sharing information about protests scheduled to take place in London over the weekend and I can’t think of anywhere I’d rather not be. That feeling is vindicated the following day when I see video footage of crowds in Trafalgar Square — a landmark I used to walk over on my way to work; a walk I did every other day for two years — and I feel sick just looking at that aerial throng navigating streets that used to be so familiar — before all this.

I haven’t been to central London since February.

The thought of being in a crowd for any reason at all at the moment is anxiety-inducing, but at what point does Covid-19 paranoia lead to state complicity? My timeline is split between friends still suffering from post-Covid complications and those on the front line in cities experiencing unrest.

I’m anticipating my monthly Patreon payment to come through next week. A modest amount and not my main source of income. Right now I’m thinking which organisations I can send it to. It feels like the right sort of gesture to make with this platform but, social media optics aside, it doesn’t feel like much.

What, if anything, can pierce through the strangely resonant disparities of police brutality and state incompetence?

The covered faces of rioters, whether by medical masks or skull bandanas, melt into a mire of anonymity, as the reality of the pandemic remains both ever-present and fades into the background. Talk of “outside agitators” speaks to both conspiratorial sociology and paranoid virology. The horror expressed at communal “self-harm”, encapsulated by damaged businesses, overrides any discussion the communal “self-harm” that comes from flouting social distancing advice. The state demonstrates an indifference regarding the escalation of either contagion — whether it is violence or disease that spreads, the state just adds fuel to every fire. Arguments from reactionary citizens that deplore the damage being done to local economies fail to land when those economies are already so anaemic.

What kind of world are we staying indoors to preserve? What kind of world are we burning down?

The burning of buildings feels like an ever more important symbolic act against this backdrop, and especially after so many months spent sheltering in place. Now more than ever we are like hermit crabs moving house, swapping the discarded and barnacled Coca-Cola can for something new. On an individual level, we spend every day daydreaming of a life outside the city, outside this overpriced shoebox flat, in some cheap two-up-two-down in a down-and-out seaside town that is, for better and for worse, detached from the drama. It has become more and more apparent that there was no shitter place to be than a city when a pandemic hits. On a collective level, we spend every day struggling to birth a new system, attacking one pillar of society that only makes the others hide behind militaries and demagogic threats. It has become more and more apparent that there was no shitter place to be than a city when the state hits.

It’s true that nothing has ever died by its contradictions but a consciousness of those contradictions has never been more readily within our grasp. Seeing the contradictions for what they are — the bookends of our frenzied stasis; the fault lines of capitalist realism — is the first step towards building new and desperately needed futures.

More Theology of the Seething Cosmic Void: Notes on Scaling from Spinoza to Negarestani

As part of the XG Discord reading group, we’ve been reading (and reading around) Reza Negarestani’s Cyclonopedia.

In week one, we talked about how the text is written, its since-removed online origins, and its chaotic references, contradictions, and plot holes, all of which allows the text itself to germinate and pollinate like Nerium Oleander — that strange and toxic plant seemingly without origin, spotted by Kristen Alvanson in the back of a taxi on her way to meet S.

Cyclonopedia is, in this sense, a “bad book” that demands not only to be read but also researched. In trying to figure out what it’s trying to do, it entraps you, and sees how much cognitive noise you have the capacity to filter.

In week two, we connected this to the chapter “A Good Meal”, talking about Reza’s sense of affordance: the way the book suspends an excessive faith in anthropocentric agency that has the capacity to “reach” the outside and instead emphasises, in quite an explicitly Lovecraftian manner, how the outside opens us — it all depends on how much of it you can afford.

We extrapolated outwards from this, and the inter-scalar manoeuvres Reza makes from subjective to cosmic perspectives, to Bataille’s theory of general economy and, similarly, to Nick Land’s essay “Sore Losers”, which might be the most cyclonopedic text published in the 2010s, echoing the various discussions between Nick and Reza on Islamic exotericism that went into Reza’s first book.

For week three — in a discussion held on Friday afternoon over Discord (that was sadly not recorded for Patreon, hence this spirited post trying to gloss all that we discussed) — we decided to jump from Cyclonopedia to Spinoza’s Ethics, exploring to what extent this cosmic perspective — which allows Reza (and us) to view a general economy of the 21st century, entwining capitalism and Islamism in an apocalyptic death spiral — is made possible by the sort of cold rationalism put forth by Baruch Spinoza.

Part of this desire comes from my attempts (undertaken without much success) to articulate what connects Cyclonopedia to Intelligence & Spirit. Something does, I think but something slippery — and it is something similar to that thread that connects Fisher, no matter how inadvertently, to Bataille — as also discussed by Ed Berger recently: the sense through which the noumenal nature of our desires requires that any rationalism come packaged with a certain occultism. This kernel, when fully explored, may constitute, as Ed magnificently put it, “a Lacanian-Spinozist theology … of the seething cosmic void.”

What follows is a brief and idiosyncratic attempt to sketch out this trajectory before it falls out of my head. Please excuse the speed with which I am about to traverse it…

In Spinoza’s pondering of the nature of God, as well as in his challenge to Descartes, he argues that the central fallacy that undermines human reasoning, particularly when it is applied to God, is that we too often try to think of God in the same sense that we think of ourselves. The truth is that we, in fact, cannot.

This is, in part, because it is a logical fallacy to imbue what Spinoza calls “God-or-nature” — the two are inseparable in his philosophy — with any sort of anthropomorphised principle or purpose. Nature does not adhere to rules and rationalisations like we do. It is fundamentally indifferent.

And yet, once we understand this, the ways in which we have historically thought of God nonetheless reveal something about ourselves. That is to say, in thinking rationally about God-or-nature, by detaching ourselves (to the best of our ability) from our socialised sentimentalities, we are able to separate what is “true” of God-or-nature, and what is “true” only of ourselves. As Spinoza writes:

The reason therefore or cause why God or nature acts and why he exists is one and the same. It follows that since he does not exist for the sake of a purpose, he does not act for the sake of a purpose either; but as he has no principle or purpose in existing, so he has no principle or purpose in acting. And the so-called final cause is nothing but a human appetite itself, considered as a principle or primary cause of a thing. For example, when we say that habitation was the final cause of this or that house, we are surely saying simply that human beings had an appetite to build a house because they imagined the advantages of a home. Therefore habitation, insofar as it is considered a final cause, is nothing but this particular appetite, which is in truth an efficient cause that is considered as a first cause because people are commonly ignorant of the causes of their own appetites. For, as I have said, they are certainly conscious of their actions and their appetites, but are ignorant of the causes which determine them to want something.

Here we find clear evidence for Fisher’s claim that Spinoza inaugurated psychoanalysis three hundred years ahead of schedule. Because, in assigning to God-or-nature a certain all-knowing “perfection”, all we are doing is projecting an unknown quality or lack, which is ours and ours alone, onto a noumenal God we cannot know.

This will be obvious to anyone who has ever asked a religious person a seemingly unanswerable question. Take, for instance, that old classic: “Why does God allow people to suffer?” With no answer available, the religious defer to God’s all-knowing benevolence. He definitely has a reason — we just don’t know it yet — it’s all just a part of Gods plan and you gotta have faith, blah blah blah. But isn’t it more likely that God-or-nature is just indifferent? And this does not mean delectably cruel, as Hannibal Lecter might have it; it simply means that God, insofar as God is nature, is naturally indifferent and exists outside our realm of rationalisations.

Whilst Spinoza writes “God or nature”, it is arguably best to just assume Spinoza is talking about nature as the world-in-itself here. Spinoza’s confluence seems to ask his reader: “We would not ask such questions of intent of nature so why should we of God?” For instance, we do not ask why God allows tigers to kill cuter, smaller animals, because the fallacy of a tiger’s indifference to the aesthetic qualities of an animal or the moral qualities of not killing do not compute in that context. This does not mean the tiger is evil. It is simply outside our realm of understanding. (I’m reminded here, perhaps tellingly, of Bataille’s famous remark that a “sexual act is what the tiger is in space.”)

It is important to clarify this because Spinoza’s indifference is not an argument for a kind of universal relativism but rather a “neutral monism”. It is not a suspension of moral judgement but rather a suspension of the judgement of God (as Deleuze, via Artaud, famously put it). The fundamental exercise of rationality is, then, for Spinoza, simply being able to distinguish between the two. As Spinoza writes:

As concerns good and bad: they too indicate nothing positive in things, considered, that is, in themselves. They are simply ways of thinking or notions which we form by comparing things with each other. For one and the same thing can be at the same time both good and bad, and even indifferent. For example, music is good for a melancholy person, but bad for a person in mourning, and to a deaf person it is neither good nor bad. But even though this is the case, we have to retain these words. Because we desire to form an idea of a human being as an exemplar of human nature to which we may look, it will be useful for us to retain these same words in the sense I mentioned. In what follows therefore I will mean by good anything that we certainly know to be a means for us to approach ever closer to the exemplar of human nature that we set for ourselves; and by bad that which we certainly know hinders us from relating to that same exemplar.

What is key here, I think, is that, in writing his Ethics, Spinoza’s main argument is that we must strive for a mastery of the passions — that is, of our emotions and desires; of our emotional responses and actions that are rooted in our desires. To do this, we must know our passions and their objects, and we must recognise that this desire for mastery is a human endeavour alone. To insert the indifference of God-or-nature into this is to distinguish between what is a (or is informed by) human judgement and what emerges the Real — and the possibilities that result from this process of differentiation are, for many, radical and infinite.

This is to say that, whilst Spinoza’s rationalism, on the surface, seems quite explicit and obvious in its claims, it nevertheless leads philosophy to some of its strangest places. To extrapolate this distinction outwards is to distinguish body from organs (Deleuze), moralism from monotheism (Nietzsche), capitalism from realism (Fisher), science from ideology (too many people to count), and all of the above and then some (Negarestani). It is to affirm the ways in which we (as well as God-or-nature) exist and persist irrespective of our categorisations of our (or its) being.

For Spinoza, this insight seems to emerge from his understanding that God-or-nature does not have the same idealised sense of itself as we do, nor does it attempt to shape and filter its own desires based on, for instance, laws or morals. Instead, “to love God” (in Spinoza’s terms, at least) is to become attuned to the distinctive ways in which our passions are products of nature or human judgement. This is not to say that we should therefore suspend our senses of good and bad — or else we suspend ethics — but we must nonetheless reflect on these judgements in light of our understanding of and knowledge of an indifferent God-or-nature that does not share them — that is, we must be able to separate what is “true” from that which just seems ideologically apparent.

It is in this way that we might ultimately find true human freedom — Spinoza’s ultimate goal — which is both a freedom from the passions and, in a way, freedom from ourselves; from our own categorisations of ourselves that limit and dilute the human Real.

Whilst this kind of rationalism is often grounded in the discourses of science, there is a sense — at least at the level of popular science — that science increasingly choses to erase this Spinozistic distinction. I was watching the film Contact recently, for example, famously based on a novel by Carl Sagan.

Here is a movie in which science finds itself hopelessly entangled with ideology — both from within and without. I couldn’t help but wince, for instance, when a Christian extremist suicide-bombs the alien portal generator that humanity has built because he believes that scientists don’t deserve to talk to God, and in sweeps capitalism to save the day — one of the benefits of money and statecraft, the movie argues, is that you can build secret backups for when the zealots shut you down. This is to say that, in myriad ways (many of them hilariously unsubtle), this movie is often incapable of separating the “rationality” of science from the “rationality” of capitalist realism, often despite itself.

Lest we forget that Fisher references Spinoza repeatedly in Capitalist Realism, making precisely this point when he writes:

Spinoza has immense resources for analysing the affective regime of late capitalism, the videodrome-control apparatus described by Burroughs, Philip K. Dick and David Cronenberg in which agency is dissolved in a phantasmagoric haze of psychic and physical intoxicants. Like Burroughs, Spinoza shows that, far from being an aberrant condition, addiction is the standard state for human beings, who are habitually enslaved into reactive and repetitive behaviours by frozen images (of themselves and the world). Freedom, Spinoza shows, is something that can be achieved only when we can apprehend the real causes of our actions, when we can set aside the ‘sad passions’ that intoxicate and entrance us.

(Slavoj Žižek’s The Ticklish Subject is a book I’ve been dipping in and out of recently that goes into this in way more depth, exploring, for example, the Cartesian subject as the spectre that continues to haunt Western academia and the entanglement of science and ideology in late capitalism — suffice it to say that these are all issues within philosophy that go far beyond Spinoza but we’ll be sticking with him for brevity.)

For many of those involved with and adjacent to the Ccru, the perspective from which this freedom is achieved must involve certain inter-scalar manoeuvres that we most often find deployed by weird fiction and some speculative philosophies. What the Ccru do so surreally and effectively, then, is dramatise the stakes of a thought stretched between two perspectives — the all-too-human and the unthinkably cosmic — affirming the gulf between them and the ways that our often flawed knowledge of one can nevertheless tell us a great deal about the other.

What often results from this, in practice, is a strange entangling between science and the occult. But that’s not really rational and Spinozist, is it? After all, Spinoza’s central critique of Descartes is that the latter rests far too much on the unknowable qualities of the “pineal gland” — a gland that is, for Descartes, little more than an anatomic screen onto which he projects his unknowns.

For Descartes, the pineal gland is a kind of God-gland, and Spinoza doesn’t buy it. “Surely I cannot properly express my bewilderment”, he writes, “that a philosopher who had stated firmly that he deduced nothing except from self-evident principles, and affirmed nothing except what he perceived clearly and distinctly, and who had so often rebuked the scholastics because they attempted to explain obscure matters by means of occult qualities, should take up a hypothesis that is more occult than any occult quality.”

There is a kernel of something here, however, which Spinoza wishes to grasp and hold aloft triumphantly. Descartes at least had the right idea when grounding his observations of a certain “animal spirit” in an actual part of our anatomy. This is to say that, rather than the pineal gland being some organ of indeterminate intention, as Descartes has it, it is simply a part of the brain that retains some sort of indifferent function from God-or-nature.

In light of this, Spinozism is a philosophy that seems to resemble Bataille’s Gnosticism, which, “in its psychological process, is not so different from present-day materialism, I mean a materialism not implying an ontology, not implying that matter is the thing-in-itself.” Bataille continues:

For it is a question above all of not submitting oneself, and with oneself one’s reason, to whatever is more elevated, to whatever can give a borrowed authority to the being that I am, and to the reason that arms this being. This being and its reason can in fact only submit to what is lower, to what can never serve in any case to ape a given authority.

Here, Bataille does not affirm our impulses as the will of God but affirms their emergence of Cyclonopedia‘s oily materialism, its “blobjectivity”, reemerges for us. In submitting himself to what is below, Reza submits himself to oil, the thick life blood of the Middle East, and this submission is powered quite explicitly by Reza’s initial infection with the thought of Nick Land.

Land, in his book on Bataille, The Thirst for Annihilation, makes infrequent references to Spinoza but he nonetheless appears like a key antecedent, at least in his establishment of a certain Counter-Enlightenment tendency that is later picked up by far more explicitly transgressive thinker. Similarly, Land himself argues that, “beneath the shadow of the cross”, Spinoza’s “neutral monism” foreshadows the limits of Kantianism first dramatised by the Marquis de Sade, going so far as to write that “Spinoza and Sade occasionally reach a comparable pitch of anegoic coldness” (although never getting quite as cold as Nietzsche).

What is most important in Bataille, it seems — a manoeuvre he takes up from Nietzsche and his “view from the summit” (previously discussed) — and, arguably, also from Freud — is that he inaugurates a practice of scaling that becomes key to Deleuze and Guattari and also to the Ccru. This scaling is the scaling — the “inter-scalar manoeuvres” — previously discussed, where the Unconscious and geological strata find themselves entwined, where subject and planet come into a counter-intuitive relation. It is arguably Spinoza’s rationalism that makes this possible but it is Bataille who takes it to extremes. As Land writes:

Scaling is the positive superfluidity of God inherent to matter, but its gradations of relative transcedence must be commensurated with an impersonal nature exhausting the real: genealogically rather than metaphysically explored. The labyrinth is the unconscious of God, or the repressed of monotheism. The illusion of ego in general requires that it remain unthought. What God really was is something incompatible with antyhing ‘being’ at all. Real composition is not extrinsically created nature, but if this is a Spinozism, it is one in which substance itself is sacrificed to the scales.

This process of scaling remains central to a lot of post-Ccru thought and I think the best book to affirm this practice in recent years — this link between scales but also between occultism and scientific knowledge, via philosophy and psychoanalysis — is undoubtedly Thomas Moynihan’s Spinal Catastrophism. His frequent references to Sandor Ferenczi, in particular, are fascinating. After all, it was Ferenczi most explicitly — that is, more explicitly even than Freud — who connected the chaos of the passions to the earth’s own thalassic nature.

A particular passage that comes to mind is Moynihan’s discussion of Ferenczi’s 1916 essay “On the Ontogenesis of the Interest in Money”, in which he argues that our

drive-to-accumulate [comes] from the sublimation, corollary with uptight posture, of the infant’s desire to play with its own faeces (a desire which Freud, of course, saw as itself a recapitulation of quadruped forms of life and libidinal olfactions). In spinal erection, we repress our anal desire for our own ‘faecal property’, which duly becomes deflected into the drive to accumulate money’s ‘filthy lucre’…

Moynihan is a master of scalable rationalism, dragging scientific understanding to the heights and depths and farthest reaches of the thinkable. What emerges here is a kind of Ferenczian scaling that echoes Cyclonopedia magnificently, retaining the linguistic limit-experience whilst losing the ferocious libido. More specifically, it is a scaling that connects the occultism of an alchemical understanding to the biological reality of intestinal expenditure and psychological repression — a form of psychoanalytic investigation, informed by geophilosophy, that brings to mind that fabled mythological process of alchemy that connects us, through the transformation of matter, to God.

I’m thinking here, specifically, of that scene in Jodorowsky’s The Holy Mountain, in which the thief, on his journey to reach God on the titular summit, meets an alchemist who turns his shit into gold — a process that resembles a kind of alchemical-scientific feedback loop, where the thief is sat within a man-made system of glass organs that digest him and his faeces, the fumes triggering an abjectly psychedelic experience, symbolically connecting his biological systems to a system outside of himself: a kind of fractal alchemy of expenditure and accumulation.

Moynihan connects this allusion to turning shit into gold to Bataille explicitly. He continues:

In this way even capital itself is derived from Ferenczi’s ‘biogenetic ground principle’ of ‘phylogenetic’ repetitiousness. To reach this conclusion, the Hungarian rallied the argument that ‘capitalism’ is ‘not purely practical and utilitarian, but libidinous and irrational.’

That an entire economic system is neither ‘utile’ nor ‘practical’ is, perhaps, a strange notion at first sight. Yet Ferenczi was writing in the midst of the first of the two world wars. Decades later, just after the Second World War, it was Georges Bataille … who noticed that these global conflicts represented ‘the greatest orgies of wealth — and of human beings — that history has recorded’, and that, whilst they may well ‘coincide with an appreciable rise in the general standard of living’, such an upswell in our quality of life represents — like the wars — just another way of expending surplus energy. Bataille was masterful in his sustained revelation of the fact that the capitalist global system is, in Ferenczi’s terms, ‘utterly libidinous and irrational’. For, when any system has an inevitable point of total exhaustion (and our globe is, in the longest term, just such a system), every single process that will ever have taken place within said system becomes utterly indistinct from a route towards that terminal point: thus, what may locally be called ‘means’ or ‘utilities’ are all alike revealed so many avenues through which the wanton and squandrous ‘end’ announces and hastens its arrival.

This, too, brings us back to Negarestani. In Cyclonopedia, Reza famously presents oil as a sort of plane of consistency, or the form(lessness) of “blobjectivity”, where these various affects and processes similarly become “utterly indistinct”.

For Reza, oil is a kind of solar excrement that we hoard, even go to war over, all because it allows us to expend more energy. In burning fossil fuels — that is, in burning the latent energy retained in spent forms of life — that are seized from the war-torn Middle East, we similarly hasten the arrival of an Islamic apocalypticism.

To understand this, and to understand all the entangled processes that constitute the oily Islamism of the desert, is precisely Negarestani’s attempt to unearth an occultism that is necessary for us to engage with if we are to truly understand the Real. Islam is not simply capitalism’s Outside, in this sense, but rather its opposite. Considered from a cosmic perspective, capitalism and Islamism start to resemble the ying to the other’s yang, and yet all of this becomes indistinct when ground down into desert sand.

The way that Reza describes the desert is worth paying close attention to here, particularly when seen as part of the hypercodex previously discussed. In Cyclonopedia‘s glossary, he writes:

The Xerodrome (or the dry-singularity of the Earth) as both the all-erasing monopoly of the monotheistic God and the Tellurian Omega or the plane of base-participation with the cosmic pandemonium (Dust, Sun and the Tellurian Insider). Desert signifies a militant horizontality or a treacherous plane of consistency — in a Deleuze-Guattarian sense — between monotheistic apocalypticism and Tellurian Insurgency against the Sun (god). As a dry-singularity, desert is usually linked to unheard-of wet elements and thus brings about the possibility of revolutionary but anomalous (and perhaps weird) cosmogenesis or world-building processes.

Once again, the density of Reza’s prose reflects the very processes he is describing. The plane of consistency becomes a plane of indifference where god and oil and dust and sun become indistinguishable. To try to rationally — that is, for Parsani, archaeologically — understand it, we must approach the desert from a cosmically wide perspective and accept that, in digging beneath the indifferent sand where all processes become immanent, we are also digging beneath our own skin. [1]

Furthermore, with this in mind, we shouldn’t understand this text as being obscurantist in a wholly negative sense. It instead constitutes a sort of xenopoetics, invoking a Lacanian Real that escapes all language. What is being discussed is that which slips between the spaces like sand in an hourglass. The “true” nature of what we are left with is hard to parse but it is in this sense that Cyclonopedia establishes itself as a kind of excremental product of Negarestani’s philosophical process.

Here we find our understanding of Cyclonopedia as a “bad” book taken to new depths. It is not just “bad” but “shit” — a shit book where rational understandings of the desert, oil, geopolitics, Islamism, Zoroastrianism, geology, geophilosophy, psychoanalysis, and untold other specialisms, find themselves excreted as a noxiously consistent language-turd. In beginning our task of figuring out what Reza cognitively “ate” is to become complicit in the very processes of economical and intellectual accumulation that connect philosophy to capitalism and capitalism to our repressed animalistic desires to play with our own poop.

It is arguably this process of disentanglement that Reza later seeks to externalise. To follow Moynihan, it is as if, in now rejecting his first foray into libidinal philosophy, Reza now recognises the “immaturity” of his thought and desires, in his neorationalist mode, to stand upright.

There is a chapter in Intelligence & Spirit that I think speaks to this explicitly. In “This I, or We or It, the Thing, Which Speaks (Objectivity and Thought)”, Reza uses an extended analogy of a child (or “CHILD (Concept Having Intelligence of Low Degree)” to describe a form of cognition that is underdeveloped –much like this post, perhaps. I can’t help but wondered if this process of cognitive distancing that Intelligence & Spirit inaugurates — where an AGI becomes an independent subject to be reared, and that is itself not yet upright — is precisely a form of (psycho-)Analytic philosophy that attempts to determine the constitution of our own SHIT (Subjective Holism Infected by the Tellurian) without getting its hands dirty.

[1] Side note: in our conversation on Friday, Bob spoke about Reza’s passages on the film Begotten, in which God disembowels itself, and we connected this autobiopsy to the horror of a Spinozist geophilosophy — something I’ve written about previously — that does not take the surgeon’s distancing of seeing only the organs of another but instead looking upon the reality of the body of the self and cuts anyway. This is a good analogy, perhaps, for what Reza calls Parsani’s “leper creativity” — the freedom from human bondage that results from a literal shedding of flesh: a catastrophic becoming-desert, or becoming-dust.

Front Window #10: Storm Chasing in Surrey

Following the previous week‘s very successful walk through the woods in Surrey, we headed out that way again for another secluded couple of hours in nature.

The day had been shifting back and forth between bright heat and dark showers. It was another strangely psychedelic day in the deserted countryside, walking along the very edge of an enormous storm, navigating an edge of rain like existing in some weather-exclusion zone in an unending sound studio, whilst not pushing our luck by spending too much time under trees during the lightning.

The bluebells were still beautiful and I made some duck friends on the way. Then the sun came out again and it was uncomfortably hot so we went home.

Fragment on Riotous Subjects and Riotous Objects

As Minneapolis burns, I spent a bit of time thinking about this tweet from Nick Land today:

Suspending the actual rhetorical purpose of this classic @Outsideness shitpost, on the face of it, ‘protestors or rioters’ seemed like a flawed formula to me. Because what even is protesting anymore? A “protest” — at least of the large-scale variety — and especially in the UK — hasn’t brought about social change from below on any occasion this side of the millennium.

I began to think about a third category. Might it be better to ask ourselves: what differentiates a demonstration from a protest and a protest from a riot?

The last “protest” I went on, for instance — an anti-Brexit protest — was distinctly little more than a demonstration. I found myself acutely embarrassed to be there. It was clear that the anti-Brexit “protests” weren’t actually protesting much of anything. They were simply demonstrating that an opposition existed by publicly performing democratic disappointment.

A protest, by contrast, enacts and embodies its opposition and makes it known through blockages to infrastructure. Extinction Rebellion protest effectively by shutting down large portions of London (or other major cities). In getting their message across that “time is running out”, they attack time itself. They delay and postpone and slow down. They temporally disrupt the comings and goings of (the) capital. And yet, whilst protests disrupt, at the level of the state, what do they change?

Riots are protests that attack space. They don’t just block space to slow time but attack it outright. They disturb capital. They treat property how the state treats bodies. They are retaliations.

The sense with which conservative commentators disapprove of rioters for having a lack of decorum only shows how distanced they are from actual material existence, but there is more to it than left and right. From this perspective, Land’s “protester / rioter” binary echoes a sort of “subject / object” binary.

The right, whenever there is a riot going on, cannot help but demonstrate the grotesque reality of what happens when business ontology — “the ideology that any social or cultural structure must exist as a business” — collides with an object-oriented ontology — the philosophical insistence that anything must exist as an object (giving particular resonance to Pete Wolfendale’s speculative dystopia: “It is this that reveals the age of objects for a new dark age.”)

Black bodies and businesses face off to insist on which mode of destruction is a more horrifying spectacle, and the answer that comes back from capitalist realism only fuels more hatred from below. An orientation towards objects over subjects, every time the levy breaks, only enables the state to claim criminal damage when it goes against them and collateral when it does not.

Les débordements adolescents du True Norwegian Black Metal: XG in Audimat

My old series of posts on True Norwegian Black Metal, “Cascading Adolescence”, recently got a little polish before being stitched together and translated into French. The final product has been published in issue #13 of Audimat, available here, alongside essays by Simon Reynolds, Dave Tompkins, Dan Dipiero, Fanny Quément, Catherine Guesde, and George Prochnik.

The intro for the essay on their website is very nice and made me blush. It captures the thrust of the essay beautifully — an essay about True Norwegian Black Metal that considers “the relationships that this scene maintains with adolescence, of which Colquhoun reveals the metaphysical significance: if we are to continue to cherish the experience of adolescence, and that although it always save it from itself, it is because immaturity is political and it is now a problem of cosmic scale.” (Also, the idea that my neurotic and excessive blogging makes me something of a Stakhanovite gave me a great laugh.) Read the intro in French and in full below:

Matt Colquhoun est un blogger britannique stakhanoviste, l’un des derniers à entretenir la flamme d’une scène d’auteurs qui nous fut chère. Il publie en ligne sous le nom de Xenogothic, en référence explicite à son modèle, feu Mark Fisher, qui est aussi le sujet de son premier ouvrage récemment paru, Egress. Ce texte adapté de son blog marque l’entrée tonitruante du Black Metal dans Audimat, à travers le retour sur quelques figures fondatrices du « True Norwegian Black Metal » et leurs émules. Bardé de références érudites, cet article indique sans doute l’un des rapports possibles à ce genre. Nul besoin d’être un spécialiste néanmoins pour être sensible aux relations que cette scène entretient avec l’adolescence, dont Colquhoun dégage la portée métaphysique : si nous devons continuer de chérir l’expérience de l’adolescence, et cela bien qu’il nous faille toujours la sauver d’elle-même, c’est parce que l’immaturité est politique et qu’elle est désormais un problème d’échelle cosmique.

If you’re just a filthy Anglo, you can read the original series of posts by following these links: Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4.

A Lacanian-Spinozist Theology of the Seething Cosmic Void: Ed Berger on Fisher and Bataille

A really fucking excellent comment from Ed, responding to my earlier post on Fisher and Bataille, that fills in a bunch of gaps in my understanding of the context of the original anti-Bataille lecture Mark is commenting on. Ed draws the same conclusions but from a much broader historical perspective than I’m in possession of.

As ever, I’d hate for this to languish “below the line” — because who reads comments here apart from me? — so here it is in full for your pleasure:

I’ve thought about that bit about Ginzburg quite a bit in the past, and spent some time trying to track down his writings on Bataille. Almost came to the point of thinking that it was a sort of theory-fictional critique of Bataille using the actual figure of Ginzburg as an avatar (because Ginzburg’s scholarship elsewhere is top-notch, and his work on the witch’s sabbath is an important source in early CCRU materials like the ‘swollen footnotes’ to “Flatlines”). But eventually I found a reference to Ginzburg’s critique in Dennis Hollier’s “Absent Without Leave: French Literature Under the Threat of War” and in an essay by Susan Suleiman. The latter is particularly interesting because she draws a comparison between Ginzburg and Zeev Sternhell, who is pretty much the person who tried to cement a historical connection between the ‘counter-enlightenment’ and fascism. Sternhell and other scholars close to this camp use this dynamic to diagnose a host of individuals, even those opposed to fascism like Bataille, as being covertly fascist (Sorel too was made persona non grata from this camp). But this critique is rooted in a particular iteration of liberalism, one that holds the Enlightenment — particularly the line running through Kant and his French followers — as the source of liberalism, democracy, etc.

Sternhell’s critique has no time for the way that Adorno and Horkheimer problematize the Enlightenment, and basically dismisses them with a hand-wave saying that they are effectively characterizing the Kantian-French-liberal tradition. But Sternhell is missing the meat of the argument, that this trajectory does lead to liberal democracy, but also leads to this other thing, and that these currents are not counterposed but locked together into a continuum (which can easily be reconciled via a materialist analysis). And instead of doubling back to ‘make good’ on the Enlightenment’s promises, Adorno himself certainly seemed to want to find something beyond it (leading blackpilled Horkheimer to accuse him of having a ‘penchant for theology’)… hence negative dialectics, with its emphasis on differentiation, nonidentity, etc. It seems to me that Bataille was working towards a similar aim, also drawing up radical differentiation, nonidentity… like in his letters to Kojève, writing of something unable to be assimilated into synthesis — shades of Marcuse: “the outside… [is] the qualitative difference which overcomes the existing antitheses inside the antagonistic partial whole — and remains ‘leftover’.” And from there, to Lacan and his real, the incompleteness of the symbolic, the gap, denial of permanent, stable resolution — and thus to Fisher himself, with his great debt to Lacan! There’s a debate, earlier on in K-punk, where somebody raises Lacan’s relationship to Bataille in response to the condemnation of the latter, that Fisher dismisses… but like you point out above and in Egress, the limit experience is something pursued by both, and is refracted through influences that sync together in a common intellectual history (I would go as far as to draw comparisons between Fisher’s attempts circa 2004-05 to build a Lacanian-Spinozist theology based on the seething cosmic void — which I suspect Nick cribbed a bit from for his Gnon-theology — and Bataille’s own fascination with the negative tradition within Catholic theology).

I guess what I’m trying to say really just echoes what you are saying, lol: that Fisher’s own work can just as easily be read as being ‘counter-enlightenment’ as Bataille, even if he was more committed to a (very atyptical) rationalism far more that our weird Frenchmen. After all, how does he present the remaking of the world? Not simply in the rational remaking of the world, but in libidinal engineering, limit-experiences, strange references to shamanism and sorcery, gaps, ritual and myth… in other words, all the things one would find in the workings of the College de Sociologie!

Surfascism and Surneoliberalism: Notes of Fisher, Bataille and Accelerationism

Another bit of cribbing from @k_punk_unlife that has raised some interesting questions for me this fine Sunday afternoon.

Taken from Fisher’s review of a Carlo Ginzberg lecture from 2004, originally posted on the Hyperstition blog [currently down but available here], Bataille and the College of Sociology receive a bit of a damning appraisal. Mark writes:

Between Baudelaire and Foucault lie Bataille and the College de Sociologie, but implicit in Ginzburg’s narrative was a total debunking of any claims that Bataille’s advocacy of cruelty, sacrifice and the transgressive was in any way ‘radical’. On the contrary, and as should be clear by now, the College’s withdrawal from reason, its conception of the cosmos as a gigantic cruelty machine, is part of a well-established reactionary tradition.

Bataille emerged in Ginzburg’s story as a figure frighteningly close to Dostoyevsky’s Underground Man — a minor civil servant with fantasies that would be dangerous if they had any possibility of being enacted. Thankfully, they didn’t (‘Bataille was not a man of action,’ Ginzburg remarked, in a masterpiece of understatement). The story of Bataille’s ludicrous attempt to become a human sacrifice (he offered himself to three people, none of whom would kill him) is as comic as it is pathetic.

The connection between Bataille and fascism should by now be obvious: the same withdrawal from secularized modernity into a blood cult, the same ‘alphabet of unreason’ (Ballard). Naturally, it’s too quick, too crass, to say that Bataille was a fascist. But Ginzburg did more than enough to establish that it wasn’t for nothing that the Acephale group were accused of being ‘Surfascists’ (a name they themselves happily appropriated). The group had praised Hitler’s virile forthrightness and Bataille, Ginzburg said, had been bewitched by the phallic power of the Nazis. He sought, impossibly, tragically, to attain the ‘innocence of animals’, to sink into the porcine ignorance-bliss of a creature consciousness unburdened by intellect and reason.

I was aware of this post but never paid it much mind. I don’t know this Ginzberg but the appraisal of Bataille and the College offered up here is as batshit and reaching as an Elisabeth Förster-Nietzsche appraisal of Nietzsche. And yet, perhaps this post is more worthy of acknowledgement, particularly given the fact that my book on Mark draws on Bataille quite extensively.

A few weeks back, Dominic Fox pulled on a similar thread that no doubt had this old post at the end of it, believing that many of the references in Egress to those French inter-war crazies are “disorientatingly inapposite”. This was coupled with a few reported comments from Owen Hatherley that Mark thought Blanchot a snob and Bataille silly.

At the time, I didn’t see why those opinions should have any bearing on the references used by another. A book that stuck to Mark’s own references would hardly be that interesting a read, or a book that I’d feel comfortable calling mine. And so, the only real thing I took away from these bitchy comments was that I could have perhaps clarified where my tastes diverge — sometimes pointedly — from Mark’s own in my book. (My response at the time was that I didn’t see the need and anxiously that drawing lines around things would only interfere with — and potentially undermine — the project at hand.) But I think it’s also worth explaining why Mark’s view of these thinkers — if his views had indeed remained the same since 2004 (personally, I have my doubts about that) — was sadly mistaken.

As far as I’m concerned, Mark’s appraisal of Bataille — at least at this time — is hypocritical and inaccurate — and all the more so in hindsight. Many of his (second-hand) critiques of the College above could just as easily be applied to the Ccru, for instance — and I’m sure some readers would nod along to that with glee. But what becomes apparent to me, very quickly, in reading Mark’s work, is that his critiques and his vigilance regarding the role of culture and aesthetics in constituting a political imaginary often come quite close to Bataille’s own.

On his visit to Portmeirion, for instance, Mark writes:

Like punk, Surrealism is dead as soon as it is reduce to an aesthetic style. It comes unlive again when it is instantiated as a delirial program (just as punk comes unlive when it is effectuated as an anti-authoritarian, acephalic contagion-network). Chtcheglov resists the aestheticization of Surrealism, and treats De Chirico’s paintings, for instance, not as particular aesthetic contrivances, but as architectural blueprints, ideals for living. Let’s not look at a De Chirico painting —- let’s live in one.

From the same post, Mark recalls a quip made by Iain Hamilton Grant:

Remember that Andre Breton thought that the British – with Edward Lear , Lewis Carroll and their ludic ilk – had little need of Surrealism, since they were already Surrealist. (Though it’s always worth bearing in mind, when thinking of Breton, Iain Hamilton Grant’s elegant put-down at Virtual Futures 94. Grant was incredulously pondering Jameson’s formulation, ‘Surrealism without the unconscious’. ‘What would that be? Breton I suppose…’ LOL)

This was Bataille’s critique of Breton also. Indeed, when Bataille embraced the “surfascist” insult applied to him — as Mark recounts with an air of horror — he did so because it situated him precisely where he wanted to be: above fascism whilst under occupation.

This was a far more preferable position than that of the Surrealists who had, as Bataille writes in his essay “The ‘Old Mole'”, “continued persistently to express their basic predilection for values above the ‘world of facts’ with such banal formulas as ‘revolt of the Spirit’, etc.” For Bataille — contrary to Ginzberg’s appraisal reported by Mark above — it was better to be “above” the mythological realm of the Third Reich than to be “above” reason.

Similarly, Bataille’s critique of the Surrealists also echoes Fisher’s critique of the hippies and the counterculture, who allowed their “revolutionary” aesthetics to disarticulate class struggle from any vaguely political gesture. Bataille again writes:

It is of course difficult to avoid a feeling of contempt for revolutionaries to whom the revolution is not, before all else, the decisive phrase of the class struggle. Nevertheless we are not concerned with ephemeral reactions, but with a verification of a general nature: any member of the bourgeoisie who has become conscious that his most vigorous and vital instincts, if he does not repress them, necessarily make him an enemy of his own class, is condemned, when he loses heart, to forge at once values situated ABOVE all those values, bourgeois or otherwise, conditioned by the order of real things.

As I argue in Egress, this critique finds its most pointed articulation in Bataille’s novel Blue of Noon, but the point of Bataille’s essay here (which, for what its worth, does not appear in my book) is precisely to psychoanalyse the bourgeois repressions that allow the Surrealists to embrace their superficial freedom. He writes:

With few exceptions, this is the pitiful psychology of bourgeois revolutionaries before the Marxist organisation of the class struggle. It leads to a representation of revolution as redemptive light rising above the world, above classes, the overflowing of spiritual elevation and Lamartinian bliss.

Here we find Bataille connecting Marx to a politics of below, preempting the Deleuzo-Guattarian “Geology of Morals” and its implicit relevance to a truly surrealist materialism, connecting the earth to the psyche and to class consciousness. Bataille continues, explaining his titular reference:

“Old Mole”, Marx’s resounding expression for the complete satisfaction of the revolutionary outburst of the masses, must be understood in relation to the notion of a geological uprising as expressed in the Communist Manifesto. Marx’s point of departure has nothing to do with the heavens, preferred station of the imperialist eagle as of Christian or revolutionary utopias. He begins in the bowels of the earth, as in the materialist bowels of proletarians.

There is a double-articulation here, of course, just as there is in Deleuze and Guattari’s version. To say that the proletariat must “wallow in the mud” is nonetheless to affirm the hierarchy of capitalism. This is arguably an attempt here to make the plane of revolution more horizontal, just as Nietzsche’s thought (through Zarathustra most explicitly) takes on a quasi-religious form when taking the view from the summit — viewing the world from above, on mountaintops that are, nonetheless, instances of ground raised up through tectonic movement. Embodying a sort of atheistic Buddha or the proto-communist Franciscan monks, Zarathustra’s appeal, then, is to a “highest poverty”.

The real problem with Surrealism, then, just as Grant reportedly quipped, is that it rises high only to forget about the low — it ascends beyond any real engagement with the Unconscious, for instance, or similarly dwells in the Unconscious without making contact with the political realm of action. For Bataille, in this same sense, Surrealism finds itself as little more than a “servile idealism” that rests impotently on nothing more than a “will to poetic agitation”. As above, so below — or don’t bother.

The Surrealists, obviously, did not like this attack and it created a vicious rift between Bataille and Breton that would persist all through the war. Taking this ‘Old Mole’ article — and perhaps Bataille’s other text, “The Psychological Structure of Fascism” — into account, they proceed to denounce Bataille was a surfascist, as if to say he is a hypocrite in taking a stand and looking down upon them. Again, Bataille would no doubt argue that this was his Nietzschean perspective — he cast judgement upon them from his “view from the summit” and was capable of doing so without abandoning the politics of below.

Stuart Kendall, in his translator’s introduction to Bataille’s On Nietzsche, has a particularly illuminating passage on the emergence of the insult that Bataille embraced. He writes:

The precise origin and intended meaning of the term “surfascism” remain in dispute. Henri Dubief attributes it to Jean Dautry as wordplay modeled on “Surrealism”. Pierre Andler has also claimed responsibility for it, and we encouter the term in a note on fascism he wrote in April 1936: “Just as fascism is only a definitive surmarxism, a Marxism put back on its feet, similarly the power that will reduce it can only be a surfascism. Fascism does not refer to itself as surmarxism, since it is called fascism. Similarly, surfascism will not refer to itself as surfascism. It is not forbidden to seek the name that surfacism will bear tomorrow.” Henri Pasoureau, for his part, claimed in a letter to scholar Marina Galletti that “the word surfascism had been invented by the Surrealists. It can designate both a surpassed fascism (positive) or an exacerbated fascism (negative).” As a charge leveled against [Bataille’s counter-surrealist group] Counter Attack by the Surrealist group, the term is clearly intended negatively, as an assertion that Bataille and his other collaborators — including Georges Ambrosino and Pierre Klossowski, among others — were “more fascist than the fascists.” There was more than a little truth to the accusation, and intentionally so. In a letter to Pierre Kaan written in February 1934, during the planning stages of Counter Attack, Bataille had said explicitly: “I have no doubt as to the level on which we must place ourselves: it can only be that of fascism itself, which is to say on the mythological level.”


The accusation of surfascism, in the very thick of his militancy against fascism, seems to have been just the provocation that would push Bataille not only to manifest his Nietzscheanism overtly but also to give it a central place in his political program moving forward. As he wrote to Roger Caillois weeks before the war began: “My insistence on claiming Nietzsche for myself alone indicates the direction I’m going.” The nature and continuity of this concern is my point here. Despite the chaos of the era and the apparent chaos of the texts, from the accusation of sur-fascism in 1936 to the writing of Sur Nietzche in 1944, Bataille’s thought betrays a profound, though not seamless, continuity. […]

Bataille’s Promethean push, in both Acéphale and On Nietzsche, would be to steal some fire from the Nazis — to steal Nietzsche back from them by demonstrating that he was neither bourgeois nor nationalist nor an anti-Semite.

It was with this understanding of Bataille’s trajectory in mind, having studied it for much of 2017, that I remember first making my case that Bataille was less antithetical to Mark than Mark himself may have at one time believed. I first said this in a reading group on Mark’s “Acid Communism” at Somerset House in London in 2018. It was Dan Taylor, at that time, who similarly brought up Bataille in orbit of some of Mark’s later works and, erring on the side of caution, I seem to remember that Dan invoked Bataille as a thinker that Mark would not have had a lot of time for. I remember interjecting and saying something along the lines of: whilst that may have been true, I think Bataille has more bearing on Mark’s work, particularly later on, than he may have been aware of.

Mark’s writings on rave and the fête, for instance, or on Lyotard and accelerationism, betray Bataille as a silent collaborator, who influenced many of those thinkers that Mark was more prepared to take seriously. I think this is especially true after the advent of Accelerationism. Noys’ critique that many post-’68 philosophers were fetishising a philosophical negativity, for instance, was roundly flipped by Mark in his essay “Terminator versus Avatar” in a positively Bataillean fashion. The essay begins:

In the introduction to his 1993 translation of Lyotard’s Libidinal Economy, Iain Hamilton Grant refers to a certain ‘maturity of contemporary wisdom.’ According to this ‘maturity’, Grant observes, Economie Libidinale was ‘a minor and short-lived explosion of a somewhat naive anti-philosophical expressionism, an aestheticizing trend hung over from a renewed interest in Nietzsche prevalent in the late 1960s’. Grant groups Lyotard’s book with three others: Deleuze and Guattari’s Anti-Oedipus, Luce Irigaray’s Speculum of the Other Woman and Baudrillard’s Symbolic Exchange and Death. ‘Libidinal Economy has in general drawn little critical response,’ Grant continues, ‘save losing Lyotard many Marxist friends. Indeed, with a few exceptions it is now only Lyotard himself who occasionally refers to the book, to pour new scorn on it, calling it his “evil book, the book that everyone writing and thinking is tempted to do”.’ This remained the case until Ben Noys’ Persistence of the Negative, in which Noys positions Libidinal Economy and Anti-Oedipus as part of what he calls an ‘accelerationist’ moment.

He continues, a little later on:

Of the 70s texts that Grant mentions in his round-up, Libidinal Economy was in some respects the most crucial link with 90s UK cyber-theory. It isn’t just the content, but the intemperate tone of Libidinal Economy that is significant. Here we might recall Žižek’s remakrs on Nietzsche: at the level of content, Nietzsche’s philosophy is now eminently assimilable, but it is the style, the invective, of which we cannot imagine a contemporary equivalent, at least not one that is solemnly debated in the academy. Both Iain Grant and Ben Noys follow Lyotard himself in describing Libidinal Economy as a work of affirmation, but, rather like Nietzsche’s texts, Libidinal Economy habitually defers its affirmation, engaging for much of the text in a series of (ostensibly parenthetical) hatreds. While Anti-Oedipus remains in many ways a text of the late 60s, Libidinal Economy anticipates the punk 70s, and draws upon the 60s that punk retrospectively projects. Not far beneath Lyotard’s ‘desire-drunk yet’ lies the No of hatred, anger and frustration: no satisfaction, no fun, no future. These are the resources of negativity that I believe the left must make contact with again. But it’s now necessary to reverse the Deleuze-Guattari / Libidinal Economy emphasis on politics as a means to greater libidinal intensification: rather, it’s a question of instrumentalising libido for political purposes.

It is my view that, if anyone exists at the heart of this endeavour, this project that Mark would carry forwards into his Acid Communism — and, as a soon-to-be-released project will demonstrate, accelerationism and its discourses were the most important influence on Mark’s emerging thought on Acid Communism — it is Bataille.

It is Bataille who exists at the heart of Lyotard’s reading of Marx and it is Bataille’s attacks of the fascist caricature of Nietzsche and on Surrealism that foreshadow Mark’s own accelerationist manoeuvres and capitalist-realist critiques — whether Mark liked him or not. In fact, it is Mark, in many respects, who I see carrying forward the original Landian mode of accelerationism, perhaps even more so than Reza’s Cyclonopedia, into new productive territories — precisely because he interrogates this mode rather than just LARPing it. It is sur-Landian to Reza’s fan fiction.

This is to say that, just as the Ccru has found itself derided for its appeals to a “macho neoliberalism” or a “Deleuzo-Thatcherism”, this negative appraisal is sidestepped by Mark and made positive, just as Bataille affirmed the positive reading of the surfascist insult for his own purposes.

In Fisher’s hands, accelerationism becomes a surneoliberalism proper, taking a view from the summit and reaffirming the importance of class struggle that the Ccru may have, at times, abstracted a little too much. His psychedelic reason collides with Bataille’s own project of a materialist surrealism that rejects the bourgeois impotence of a purely artistic movement. It was similarly Mark’s call for a “democracy of joy” that echoes the fury of Bataille’s own ethical call for a “practice of joy in the face of death”, as a rejection of neoliberalism’s Pod-person affectless cheeriness; its happiness at the expense of autonomy. It is also Bataille’s strange habit of joustin with his own agnosticism that foreshadows Mark’s own Spinozist call for a kind of atheistic religion.

Others might pour scorn on my own uses of Bataille (and Blanchot) in orbit of a Mark who publicly denounced them, but a decent familiarity with either thinker surely reveals that these lines were previously drawn in haste — by Mark especially. We needn’t do the same and remain in ignorance, especially at a time of great political confusion that echoes the time of the College of Sociology. The left once again finds itself maligned by a kind of mythological propaganda from the right, and whilst the College may not have been successful, and its forms may no longer resonate with society today, their militantly antifascist aims certainly do — and their surfascism especially.

Update #1: Ed Berger’s comment on this post — below, and given a post of its own here — is an essential addition to the above. I’d implore you to read it.

First Thought Best Thought

Simon Reynolds has informally celebrated his eighteenth blog birthday with a reflective post on what it means to blog and for so long. He’s posted a little something here (which includes a nice hyperlinked shout-out to Xenogothic, along with a few other bloggers in the current blogosphere). It also signals a sad end though, as Simon points out that Bruce Sterling’s blog at Wired is shutting this month.

Sterling’s blog has been an interesting vector for weirder goings-on in cyberspace and, in his farewell post, he talks about how that was always his intention. (We were chuffed back in 2018 when Bruce posted about Vast Abrupt, for instance.) Bruce writes:

When I first started the “Beyond the Beyond” blog, I was a monthly WIRED columnist and a contributing editor. Wired magazine wanted to explore the newfangled medium of weblogs, and asked me to give that a try. I was doing plenty of Internet research to support my monthly Wired column, so I was nothing loath. I figured I would simply stick my research notes online. How hard could that be?

That wouldn’t cost me much more effort than the duty of writing my column — or so I imagined. Maybe readers would derive some benefit from seeing some odd, tangential stuff that couldn’t fit within a magazine’s paper limits. The stuff that was — you know — less mainstream acceptable, more sci-fi-ish, more far-out and beyond-ish — more Sterlingian.

Simon writes that a lot of Sterling’s reflections on the use of blogging chime with his own feelings: “the value of unpaid labour: writing as freeform fun, as mental calisthenics, as intellectual hygiene… the blog as public notepad, a testing space or site for the construction of thought-probes.” (It makes blogging feel like a natural outlet for Robin’s brand of pop philosophy discussed a few weeks back — but then, of course it does.)

But blogging is also very messy, of course. There are plenty of weeks where I feel like I’m just posting inconsistent shite. It can be a challenge, sometimes, to accept those weeks as being just as much a part of the process, as the good stuff, the “popular” stuff — the swings from consistency and inconsistency, half-thoughts and full thoughts — and so it is great to see others, who have blogged for so long and published so much that I admire, relating to their blogs in much the way. As Simon writes:

One of the problems with having a blog (or blogs multiple) is that you start thinking bloggy  — everything becomes potential “material”, something that could be turned into a riff with only a smidgeon of effort, given the lax standards of the format and the tolerance of the readership.  The incontinence you see (not here these days, but still on the other blogs) is a fraction of the stuff that I have in bulging folders of scrawled notes… and there is more that never even reached paper at all. 

(Perhaps this level of mind-churn was always going on — and getting emitted in letters and later in emails — both of which tend to go copious — or in conversations in pubs and elsewhere. I don’t know. But there’s something about the itch caused by having a blog outlet that is generative, for good and for bad).

This is similarly echoed by Bruce over at Wired, who embraces the public notebook approach, even when it is at its most casual and self-serving, affirming that it really is a useful exercise, despite the occasionally sloppy optics:

The blog never trolled for any viral hits, or tried to please any patrons. Also, I never got paid anything for my blogging, which was probably the key to the blog’s longevity. This blog persisted with such ease, because there was so much that I didn’t have to do.

I keep a lot of paper notebooks in my writerly practice. I’m not a diarist, but I’ve been known to write long screeds for an audience of one, meaning myself. That unpaid, unseen writing work has been some critically important writing for me — although I commonly destroy it. You don’t have creative power over words unless you can delete them.

It’s the writerly act of organizing and assembling inchoate thought that seems to helps me. That’s what I did with this blog; if I blogged something for “Beyond the Beyond,” then I had tightened it, I had brightened it. I had summarized it in some medium outside my own head. Posting on the blog was a form of psychic relief, a stream of consciousness that had moved from my eyes to my fingertips; by blogging, I removed things from the fog of vague interest and I oriented them toward possible creative use.

It’s a genuine relief to read both of these reflections, particularly right now.

For what it’s worth, my current feeling — particularly as I try and tentatively turn a few bits of recent book-writing into blog-writing, and worry about potentially undermining some distant final product in the process — is that the blog is nonetheless still an essential tool. Without it, as I’ve found in recent weeks, the whole project quickly gets constipated and backed up in places. Not throwing down some stray thought, in the very moment I have it — articulating something no matter how brief and broken off from a wider context — often means it falls out of my head. Collecting things in some Word document somewhere just doesn’t do the trick. It’s becomes part of some piecemeal swamp. Making something at least bloggable, even if it means taking ten minutes to polish a thought rather than just scribbling it off hand and immediately filing it away, makes the thought stick better. As overused as the analogy is, every blogpost is a seed planted. To write it down is to stick it in the ground and see if it sprouts anything later. As Bruce puts it so perfect, and as Simon quotes for his post’s title: you tighten it and brighten it.

This is why blogging is so important for me personally. It is an opportunity to capture a first thought, no matter how fleeting and under-developed. In my experience, over the last three years that I’ve been word-blogging — as opposed to the ten years before that I spent strictly photo-blogging — this is always worth it in the long run. It was worth it with photography too. It helped to hone an eye and a taste for form that felt like my own. But with photography, there felt like there was little room for development beyond that. The gulf between blog and book felt so big. With writing, after about a year or so at least, that doesn’t feel like the case.

I think this is because blog posts of all kinds end up capturing some kernel of something, and taking the time to formulate it in some form, because of the blog’s public nature, often proves very fruitful later. So, in the spirit of Simon’s nod to Ivor Cutler — “I believe in blogs” — I ended up putting on that Ginsberg-inspired Arhtur Russell record: First Thought, Best Thought.

Beyond this, Bruce’s final post is really worth reading in full. I’m quite fascinated by this strange, perhaps counterintuitive picture he paints of himself as a kind of Batman-blogger:

My blog often had the sensibility of some midnight rookie patrolman with a flashlight, poking a night-stick into trash-heaps, watching rats and raccoons scatter. Cops know where the trouble is; they have to stay with the trouble; it’s their duty.

My blog was often darkly suspicious in tone, and keen to look for undersides and downsides. In retrospect, I can see that my blog promoted the blogger’s personal anxieties. Often, he wasn’t “informing the readers” so much as chasing half-seen wolves from his own doorstep. This wary, edgy view of life got a little monotonous sometimes, in the way that endless suspicion commonly does.

In public, cops are full of stoic dignity. But I’m not a cop, for I’ve never been a servant of the public peace and safety. My gift from the police was a lasting, burdensome awareness of dark motives, vulnerabilities and attack surfaces. That’s wisdom, but it costs an eye to get it.


This magpie ragpicking that I did within this blog, it was never scholarship; it wouldn’t make the readers morally better people; it was sometimes funny, but often just arcane, an autodidactic effort by some eccentric guy teaching himself things probably better not known by anyone. So I wouldn’t call the blog a “success,” yet it was still a success. As the late Mark E Smith used so say, back in the heyday of punk, “you don’t have to be weird to be weird; you don’t have to be strange to be strange.” That’s good advice; if you want to become original, you should keep an eye out for whatever you don’t-have-to.

There’s also some interesting advice for the present cyberspelunker, and a nice farewell as he enters blog — if not internet — retirement:

If I was a young person, and starting over today, I would not experiment with a weblog supported by a West Coast US technology magazine. Instead, I would try something more youthful in spirit, less conventional, more beyond-the-beyond. This blog was an experiment when I started it, but in modern conditions, it’s technically archaic; I’ve got a blog here that’s old enough to vote.

So I might well have gone on blogging here indefinitely, through dint of mature habit, but I can recognize that fate has handed me a get-out-of-jail-free card. The post-Internet may even be a different Monopoly board-game. So I will accept the situation graciously, and with a sense of contentment.

With all that, wonderfully said: ‘bye “Beyond the Beyond”. Thanks for the posts.

Damaged Lives: Notes on Adoption and Subjectivity

At the moment, I keep thinking — no doubt needlessly — about how a book about adoption, written by yours truly, could be perceived in the wider world. I have this anxiety, as I sink my teeth into it, that the end product might be appear, superficially at least, like a book that has been written with a very specific reader in mind — an adopted reader. In truth, I want to write a book about adoption that will be of interest to anyone.

I am left with a strange desire to start the book with a quick “hold on a minute…”. Something like: “If you have happened upon this book and assumed, at first glance, it was not written with you in mind, I would implore you to think again…”

The central premise of the book is that adoption is not an overtly specific topic, of interest only to those who identify with the central experience it implies. The adopted child is, instead, a quintessential subject, albeit one neglected for its apparent specificity despite the ubiquity of its cultural appearances.

Think about it. How many of your favourite characters in three millennia’s worth of cultural artefacts centre around orphans, adoptees, or fostered kids, all adrift from their roots? 

There are hundreds of them. 

There’s Moses, Oedipus, Hercules, Aladdin, Peter Pan, Oliver Twist, Pip from Great Expectations — probably a dozen Dickens characters, come to think of it — Harry Potter, Superman, Batman, Spider-Man, Worf from Star Trek, Eleven from Stranger Things, Tracey Beaker, the kid from Goodnight Mister Tom, Star-Lord from Guardians of the Galaxy, Jon Snow in Game of Thrones, the young King Arthur with his sword in the stone, that devil child from The Omen, the baby in Rosemary’s Baby, Pinocchio, Mowgli, Tarzan — being raised by animals is very relatable for many adoptees so, yes, it still counts… Which reminds me: Harry from Harry and the Hendersons, E.T. the Extraterrestrial,… 

It doesn’t matter how aware of this phenomenon you think you are, there are always new names to add to such a list. Why? Because the adoption story is one of our greatest myths — that is, in a classic sense: the adoption story is one of our defining cultural narratives, foundational to society. And adoption does indeed define us, culturally speaking, albeit often in negative. 

The recurring stories of how families are torn apart and individuals ripped from their roots tells us a great deal about how much value we place upon our families and our histories, but they also tell us how important it is for us to overcome these things and find our own paths. 

To put it bluntly, adoption stories are universal. From the Bible and the tragedies of Ancient Greece via the legacies of slavery and the kindertransport to superheroes, wizards, and stranded aliens, adoption is everywhere. And yet, despite the ubiquity of this sort of story, which houses universal struggles of self-discovery and Self formation, the diffuse pain of an adoptee is perhaps the most singular and misunderstood form of pain culturally available to us.

For instance, I have always struggled to express the grief I felt growing up of not knowing anyone who looked like me, who had a face like mine, to anyone who took for granted a family resemblance — that is, the vast majority of people. Conversely, I have found it just as difficult to express the surreality of seeing and recognising myself in the face of another for the first time, as an adult, rapidly accelerating through a phase of cognitive development otherwise skipped.

Nevertheless, I am grateful to have experienced both of these things. Not many adoptees can say the same. Many want to and may even have the opportunity to do so but they do not know how to approach the situation. And so many, like me, will begin to consult the relevant literature.

It is my hope that the book I’m working on will be beneficial and of interest to both kinds of reader. However, to write a book about adoption, as a reader of books about adoption, feels a bit like being conscripted into an eternal war; an unending battle to be heard. As you slot the latest motherly memoir back on the shelf beside you, before you sit down to write your own, you begin your inevitable mantra: This is my adoption book. There are many like it, but this one is mine…

Countless books have written over the last century or so that contend with this strange confluence of singular experiences — what I’ve referred to elsewhere, borrowing from Nancy Newton Verrier, as “the primal wound” — easing the adoptee into their own journey of self-discovery, untangling the knotted subjectivity they have been lumped with, deeply flawed as a result of their familial displacement, but doing all they can to make themselves feel whole — either again, or perhaps for the first time.

On my own journey, and in preparing to write my next book, I have been reading a lot of them. It is a veritable cottage industry. So much reading has not made me a cynic… yet. Every journey described and committed to the page is moving, in its own way. There is no doubt about that. Nevertheless, as with self-help books of any kind, they all end up giving more or less the same advice. 

The sad truth is, once you’ve read one adoption book, you’ve read them all. The details might all be different but the general thrust never really changes. We still gobble them up though, whether we are adopted or not. There will forever be a market for stories of abandonment and reconciliation, search and discovery. Nevertheless, one can start to feel like many of these recounted experiences are akin to having your fortune told — in order to have a high success rate, the author must generalise without generalising.

It is my hope that my book to be something a little different. It will be less a book for the adoptee adrift and more of a book about the gulf between the universal and the particular, the social and the individual. It is, as its working title suggests — One or Several Mothers: Adoption and Subjectivity — a book about adoption and its relation to subjectivity… This are terms I feel I will need to define and clarify as I proceed — I don’t want to alienate anyone at the first hurdle… For now though, at least as I try to find a way to work through this project, in part, on the blog, it may be useful to begin with certain questions — questions I considered when first sitting down to write the first few chapers:

Can a book about adoption reveal a philosophy, an ethics, lingering in plain sight, in popular view, that has not yet been fully understood? Can it grasp at an understanding of subjectivity, legible to both adoptee and non-adoptee, that enriches the picture of human existence for all rather than just the affected few? Can it do so whilst avoiding the narrative cliches, getting down into the reality of an adopted existence without losing its worth for the general reader? 

These questions sketch the outline of a book I longed for when consuming so much adoption literature — a book I could pass onto a friend or family member that didn’t advertise itself as helping the other understand me and any potentially abnormal behaviours and insecurities — which may sound strange but this is a unique selling point for many books on the adoptive experience (useful for you and your despairing friends and family) — but also reveal something to the other that might allow them to better understand themselves. After all, if we are all reading books and watching movies about adoptees all the time, why aren’t adoptees truly reaching outwards rather than inwards? Sharing their perspective rather than asking people to sympathise with theirs? Asking questions of everyone rather than those “just like us”?

These are the questions the book sets out to answer, but this is not to say that it is a book without precedence.

One of the central writers on adoption to feature throughout this book, both explicitly and implicitly, is Betty Jean Lifton. Born in 1926, Lifton wrote many books on a wide range of topics before her death in 2010. Perhaps best known for her children’s books and her writings on adoption, she also wrote a handful of books — some in collaboration with her husband, the psychiatrist Robert Jay Lifton — on the traumatic legacy of the bombing of Hiroshima on its residents, as well as a biography of Janusz Korczak — the children’s author, pediatrician, and orphanage director from Warsaw who heroically stayed with and died with the children in his charge when they were sent by the Nazis to the Treblinka extermination camp. He chose this fate, despite being repeatedly offered a chance to escape it by members of Warsaw’s Jewish police under Nazi occupation.

Lifton is perhaps the writer on adoption whom I admire most. She did not simply dedicate her life to a niche cause but rather a confluence of interconnected human traumas, from the uncommon to the hyper-specific, exploring the primal wounds and inherited guilt that are not only found diffusely in the adoption records of a hundred governments but in the unspoken intergenerational traumas that connect survivors of atomic bombings to survivors of the Holocaust, and the descendants of slaves to transracial adoptees. None of these experiences is equivalent to the other, of course, just as no adoption story is the same as any other, but the impact of each of these experiences creates a fragile web of relations that do not just define a minority of individuals but instead the very process of modernity in which we find ourselves captured. It is Lifton, then, perhaps more than any author, who has come closest to bridging the gap between the silent trauma of adoption and the intergenerational traumas that haunt the twentieth century. 

It is this gesture, this investigative kernel, that I want my book’s subtitle to refer to, and the philosophical nature of this question similarly warrants some unpacking.

Whilst “adoption” is a word that does not require much explanation, it should be affirmed here that I want use it in its most literal sense. The “adoption” of the book’s title, then, does not only refer to the legal process of taking a child born of another as your own, but a more general process of choosing and being chosen. Children can often find themselves, in this sense, being adopted by individuals, couples, communities, and states. To be adopted is for choices to be made, on your behalf, by another body that exceeds the traditional given “rights” of biological parenthood. But it also refers to the secondary process of adoption that may occur later in life. This is to suggest that to be adopted is to have more choice than most over what one “adopts”. The adopted child, in this sense, may find themselves with one or several families, one or several homes, one or several histories. What makes a person who they are has never been subject to more contingencies.

It is the relations that connect these contingencies that make up an adoptee’s subjectivity, but this subjectivity is by no means unique. It may, nonetheless, provide us with a foundational “subjectivity” to first consider, becoming the revolving door through which any and all persons may find insights of their own. “Subjectivity”, then, more so than adoption, becomes a promiscuous word that requires some further definition. 

The “subject” to which “subjectivity” refers can point to many things. In its original sense, we might think of how a person is a subject in a royal court; how kings and queens refer to their having “loyal subjects”. To be a subject, in this sense, is to be subjected; to be under the control of another; to be a citizen of nation, and to be subject to that nation’s laws.

“Subjectivity” might also be understood as the particularity of one’s own existence. We might talk about beauty as being subjective when we say it is in the eye of the beholder. We might also refer to the particular categories of identity into which one fits. Your subjectivity, in this sense, can be a sense of self, constructed both internally and externally — a sense of self that is produced by one’s own psychological development and the influence of outside (often social and structural) forces.

Here, two forms of subjectivity begin to overlap, which is to say that subjectivity is formed by that which we are subjected to: your sense of self is constructed through your implicit sense of gender, nationality, race, class, where you live, when you live, your job, your social responsibilities, etc., etc. In this sense, “subjectivity” is a concept as relevant to law and politics as it is to psychology, anthropology and philosophy.

When we think of an adoptee, is there an extent to which we can say that their present subjectivity — a sort of collective subjectivity, if such a thing can be said to exist — is damaged? Or, alternatively, stuck in a process of capture or change? Furthermore, considering how obsessed we are culturally with stories of adoption and displacement, might we say that this damaged subjectivity is a quintessential form of subjectivity that can be extended outwards to others? Whilst these questions may be specific, the extent to which our subjectivity is “damaged” or “stuck” has troubled much of modern philosophy and it is to this diffuse sense of rupture that I believe a closer consideration of the adoptive experience can provide insight. 

Take, for instance, Theodor Adorno’s most celebrated work, Minima Moralia. Written during and in the years that immediately followed the Second World War, the German philosopher considered, from the vantage point of that great international trauma, the extent to which a modern subjectivity constitutes what he calls a “damaged life”, making any attempt to consider subjectivity an impossibility.

“Our perspective on life has passed into an ideology which conceals the fact that there is life no longer,” he writes damningly. For him, it is capitalism that is to blame. Life is no longer worth living “in-itself”, because it must be torturously lived “for-itself” — one way of saying that, under capitalism, we must live to survive rather than live just to live. 

It is for this reason that Adorno argues, from the very beginning, that “considerations which start from the subject remain false to the same extent that life has become appearance.” Life is an illusion, in other words, in which our preoccupation with production and consumption has covered over the fact that modernity is a process aimed towards “the dissolution of the subject, without yet giving rise to a new one,” and so “individual experience necessarily bases itself on the old subject, now historically condemned, which is still for-itself, but no longer in-itself.” He continues:

The subject still feels sure of its autonomy, but the nullity demonstrated to subjects by the concentration camp is already overtaking the form of subjectivity itself. Subjective reflection, even if critically altered to itself, has something sentimental and anachronistic about it: something of a lament over the course of the world, a lament to be rejected not for its good faith, but because the lamenting subject threatens to become arrested in its condition and so to fulfil in its turn the law of the world’s course. Fidelity to one’s own state of consciousness and experience is forever in temptation of lapsing into infidelity, by denying the insight that transcends the individual and calls his substance by its name.

Here, Adorno is already attempting to come to terms with that scar across the modern subject — the Holocaust, as an aberration on the German, Jewish, and global psyche. It is a paragraph that seems entangled in a strange temporality. He is asking: who are we, after such an event? Who are the Germans? Who are the Jews? Who are we all that we could let something like this happen on our collective watch? Perhaps more worryingly, who were we before this event? And what aspects of our fated subjectivities led us to this point? When we become nostalgic for the good ol’ days, for traditional values, for a grounding that existed before ‘all this’, are we at risk of only longing for those seemingly innocuous things that nevertheless led to that. Such questions define the latter half of the twentieth century and every successive crisis only serves to further expose the fact that we are still without a categorical answer to any of them.

There will be plenty of opportunities to explore other figures than Adorno, who have also asked variations on questions such as these, but it is here perhaps, with him, that this central kernel finds its most concise expression. No matter the particular pressures of one’s existence, it is perhaps this challenge to subjectivity that we all feel to some extent in the here and now — the sense that our senses of self are based on certain “truths” that are now out-of-date. And yet, despite possessing a diffuse knowledge of this expiration, we remain trapped in a moment of subjective stasis, where the nature of life under capitalism, and the pressures of its particular brand of conformity, suspends whatever might be straining to come next.

The most visible example of such a stunted shift may be in relation to gender. Since the sexual liberations of the counterculture, in the 1960s and 1970s, we have seen the oppressive norms of gendered existence shift and slacken. Women’s social roles have, in many ways, been transformed — although, in some ways, not nearly enough. Men’s social roles have seen a reciprocal change but one which has, in many ways, led to a so-called “crisis of masculinity.” This is not to suggest that men are the victims of women’s liberation, although this is, of course, the argument voiced from many more reactionary quarters; the issue is, instead, that the social transformation of gender has been suspended for too long. The pieces were thrown up in the air but failed to land in any newly legible configuration, instead finding themselves trapped and suspended in a web of capitalist relations. As a result, our gendered subjectivities, progressing with nowhere to go, have instead become ingrown.

Another example of such a shift can also be found, explicitly, in the experiences of adopted children. At a time when the feminist clamour for social change through the abolition of the family has once again arisen with public discourse — with the reemergence of arguments dating back to the Seventies that reproductive labour should be transformed through new social relations and the latest technological advances — the question that is seldom asked, from this adoptee’s perspective, is what changes to the modern subject might these progressions produce? 

Whilst a potential liberation from gendered oppression is to be welcomed absolutely, the question nonetheless remains worthy of inquiry. Adoptees are, in essence, the living test subjects of such an endeavour. We are often bastards — the displaced products of “alternative” social relations; we are children born of (often inadvertent) surrogate parents; we are subjects that have slipped between the familial structures that foreground those of society more generally. And yet, the primal trauma that defines our lives arguably becomes fuel for neuroses throughout our adult lives precisely because, as Adorno proposes, there is still no subject-to-come for us to embrace. Instead, the adopted child acutely feels their slippage from the biopolitical structure of the mother-son relation and broader family structure.

As ever, a new subject is required. This is not to suspend revolution over some impossible horizon, however. We may find, in our consideration of adoptees, that this subjectivity already exists. What is needed, no less of a drastic task, is for the world to finally change to accommodate it.