Front Window #11: Obelisk Hunt

Another Friday walk, from about a month ago, following #9 and #10.

This time we found ourselves swooping back and forth under a motorway, on the hunt for an obelisk that we didn’t find. We skirted the edges of suburbia and picked flowers and wild garlic.

This is the weekend that Boris gestured towards lifting some of the lockdown restrictions. (Still no idea what is or isn’t allowed anymore.) We were stopped, at one point, by a police officer, out in the middle of nowhere, where we had stopped to eat lunch. She didn’t seem to care that we were there but there had apparently been reports of a moped gang in the area. We hadn’t seen or heard anything.

Later we took a wrong turn somewhere and interrupted a fox stalking baby rabbits in a big open field. We also got told off by a farmer after somehow ending up on his land whilst looking for the obelisk.

The beaten tracks were busier than previously weeks and so we made a bit more of an effort to wander off them.

The Crisis of the Negative: The Relativist Right Never Change

Two things inaugurated the blogosphere’s engagement with accelerationism: the financial crash of 2007/08 and Slavoj Žižek’s analysis of Zack Synder’s 2006 film, 300, for Lacanian Ink.

I discovered this the other day by doing a big deep dive and, whilst I’m saving a proper excavation of this moment for something else, I can’t stop thinking about it at the moment as all the usual suspects come out with their dumbest middling takes on the Black Lives Matter movement. They tend to look like this:

The furious facepalming going on in response to this is obviously justified but I’m just so bored of it at this point. The contrarianism is so tired but it’s also been dismissed so many times over the years. You’d think we’d have moved on. Unfortunately not.

Not that this is something unique to this account. There’s little difference between this shit and the stuff that about a dozen other accounts put out on Twitter. You know who they are. From where I am, they’ve all just morphed into some indistinguishable blob of Justin Murphy podcast alumni. I have most of them on mute.

What this has to do with the moment the accelerationist blogosphere was born is that, funnily enough, accelerationism basically came about in response to this sort of Žižek Edgelord Playbook. It was moronic then, almost fifteen years ago, and it’s moronic now, but the difference is that everyone seems to have forgotten the reason why.

I’m sure everyone remembers 300 — for the memes if not for its actual storyline. (I don’t think I ever saw it, personally, but all those kicking memes are still ingrained in my mind like an inescapable pop song.) Since its release is 2006, most have tried to forget about it, however, despite its influence being hard to ignore. That’s because it is generally considered to be a precursor to a lot of alt right bullshit.

There’s a great article on this that was written a few years back for the AV Club, which argues:

This is a movie that makes a grand, mythic spectacle out of the whole defending-the-white-homeland trope, and if you look at the YouTube comments on any of the scenes [described] above, you will witness some serious human ugliness. It would be a pretty big stretch to blame 300 for Donald Trump or whatever, but the movie really did lionize the heroic white warriors fighting to repel the endless dark-skinned hordes — to, in the gravelly narrator’s words, “rescue a world from mysticism and tyranny.” (Oh no! Mysticism!) This sort of bullshit did help establish a world where Donald Trump could be elected president, and it deserves to be remembered for that. It’s an influential movie in all the wrong possible ways. It’s our Birth Of A Nation.

This was written in 2017 but of course 300 is a film that Slavoj Žižek once wrote a glowing appraisal of back in 2007.

In stereotypically Žižekian fashion, the Slovenian philosopher uses his article on 300 in Lacanian Ink to attempt to subvert the film’s fascistic overtones and instead affirm its narrative of militaristic and sacrificial discipline from the left.

Ignoring the film’s racialised antagonists, amongst other things, he disagrees with the ways the film has been “attacked as the worst kind of patriotic militarism with clear allusions to the recent tensions with Iran and events in Iraq”. Instead, Žižek argues that the film should “be thoroughly defended against these accusations.”

Žižek’s case is superficially contrarian. For starters, he points out that the film in fact tells the story of “a small and poor country (Greece) invaded by the army of a much larger state (Persia), at that point much more developed, and with a much more developed military technology”. The Spartans are clearly the underdogs and so, if we are to draw parallels between the film and the US’s then-recent interventions in the Middle East, surely the supposedly American — that is, white — heroes of the saga are instead representative of the Taliban?

This is most clear following the film’s climax. “When the last surviving group of the Spartans and their king Leonidas are killed by the thousands of arrows”, Žižek argues, “are they not in a way bombed to death by techno-soldiers operating sophisticated weapons from a safe distance, like today’s US soldiers who push the rocket buttons from the warships safely away in the Persian Gulf?”

Žižek does not go on to suggest that the film is an opportunity for consciousness-raising, however, as one might generously expect, through which the American movie-going public might potentially develop empathy for the Other. Instead, he argues that the film offers the left a chance to develop a revolutionary spirit through discipline and sacrifice. Quoting his friend and fellow philosopher Alain Badiou, he writes:

“We need a popular discipline. I would even say… that ‘those who have nothing have only their discipline.’ The poor, those with no financial or military means, those with no power — all they have is their discipline, their capacity to act together. This discipline is already a form of organization.” In today’s era of hedonist permissivity as the ruling ideology, the time is coming for the Left to (re)appropriate discipline and the spirit of sacrifice: there is nothing inherently “Fascist” about these values.

This controversial argument emerges from Badiou’s suggestion — in the same 2007 interview from which Žižek is quoting — that the left should make contact, once again, with the militancy of Marxist-Leninism, albeit in a form appropriate to the new challenges of the twenty-first century. Žižek’s suggestion that 300 is somehow representative of this move is unconvincing and no doubt purposefully antagonistic, but Badiou’s original argument is nonetheless an interesting one.

The left, he argues, seems allergic to effective organisation, precisely because it is the State that organises most effectively. In trying to negate the State — that is, embody everything that the State is not — the left are dooming themselves, relegating themselves to never becoming more than a weak, impotent, subservient and disorganised opposition to bourgeois oppression and state power.

It’s a familiar position. You might even think it’s not far from Terese’s shitpost above, but, unlike that tweet, there’s a little bit more to it.

Badiou grounds this problem of opposites, of mirroring the State in negative, within Marxism. “For Marx,” he argues, “the dialectical conception of negation defined the relation between philosophy and politics — what used to be called the problem of dialectical materialism.” Drawing on German idealism, Marx argued that Hegel’s philosophy of the dialectic — the idea that the comprehension of a unity between opposites, through logic and reason, leads to the production of new thought — must be applied to lived experience in the material world rather than just the life of the mind. When considering the constitution of a capitalist society, this means understanding the interrelations of the working and ruling classes, the proletariat and the bourgeoisie, so that the proletariat might rise up and escape the unjust conflicts that keep the system in motion. To do this, the proletariat must understand the positivity of their nonetheless negative position. This is to say that it is only in affirming the strengths of their negative existence — for instance, their greater numbers over a relatively small elite — that the proletariat can change the world.

However, for Badiou, this conception of the negative in relation to political praxis is no longer sufficient. He explains:

Just as the party, which was once the victorious form of insurrection, is today outdated, so too is the dialectical theory of negation. It can no longer articulate a living link between philosophy and politics. In trying to clarify the political situation, we also need to search for a new formulation of the problem of critique and negation. I think that it is necessary, above all in the field of political action, to surpass the concept of a negation taken solely in its destructive and properly negative aspect. Contrary to Hegel, for whom the negation of the negation produces a new affirmation, I think we must assert that today negativity, properly speaking, does not create anything new. It destroys the old, of course, but does not give rise to a new creation.

It is Badiou’s interjection here, suggested indirectly through the garish cultural expositions of Slavoj Žižek, that sent up a flare over the blogosphere of the late 2000s. Badiou, unfortunately, seemed to be correct; the then-recent protest movements, particularly Occupy, which had emerged following the financial crash certainly seemed largely inept for the task at hand.

Steven Shaviro, who (amazingly) continues to run the blog The Pinocchio Theory, was the first to pass comment on Žižek’s article. Shaviro suggests that, rather than extending Badiou’s argument, he only manages to epitomise it absolutely. Although he may believe that he is firmly on the side of a rationalist Marxist-Hegelianism, through which “the free subject of Reason can only emerge through a ruthless self-discipline”, Shaviro instead argues that Žižek’s “contrarianism is just a sort of idiotic macho one-upmanship (as in: I can be even more outrageous and anti-commonsensical than anybody else), of the same sort that is routinely practiced by right-wing political economists … or evolutionary theorists like the guys … who wrote about how rape was an adaptive strategy.”

In other words, this is precisely the sort of negativity that Badiou was denouncing. Žižek isn’t producing new thought or action through his contrarianism; instead, he only entrenches the mire of postmodern impotence displayed routinely by the relativist right. As Shaviro damningly declares, Žižek “totally depends upon the well-meaning, right-thinking liberal ideology that he sets out to frustrate and contradict at every turn. His own ideas remain parasitic upon those of the postmodern, multicultural consensus that he claims to upset.”

It is nonetheless intriguing, considering the vast amount of material Žižek has produced throughout his career that attempts to skewer this kind of ideological trap, that he would find himself so complicit in that which he claims to despise. Shaviro concludes with a similar bemusement, noting how his “theories are little more than yet another demonstration, or symptom, of the situation that he himself has pointed to: the fact that, in the current climate, we find it difficult to imagine any alternative to capitalism; that in fact we find it easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism. Žižek’s thought itself is one more demonstration of our current blockage of imagination.”

Nevertheless, thanks to Žižek’s utter embodiment of the issue at hand, Badiou’s initial question somehow manages to penetrate the postmodern fuzz. We are indeed in the thrall of a “crisis of the negative”, as he calls it. “Our problem today is that the destructive part of negation is no longer, in and of itself, capable of producing the new.” It is from here that accelerationism was born.

The post-Ccru crowd took this charge very seriously and, for all their missteps and wrong turns, they consistently produced school after school of thought that — even if only for a time — revitalised a para-academic domain of philosophy and politics and, in some cases, made genuine in-roads into the hallow halls they’d previously hoped to escape from. They were all the more capable of doing this, I believe, because they kept this crisis of the negative in mind. They knew what impotence looked like and did their best to escape it whenever it started to take hold.

The Twitter gobshites have no such aspirations, obviously — although they’ll continue to trade on their PhDs if they’ve got them — and no such capabilities. There’s no desire to actually effect anything on display here. It’s the sort of post-European bourgeois ineptitude that defines so many East Coast edgelords. All soft hands and plush chaise longues and drinking problems, but they’re far more bovine than Madame Bovary.

The impotence of this sort of post-right thinking demonstrates the extent to which they missed out on the lesson from Occupy. They’ve slipped back into — or, even more likely, never left — the right-wing need to say dumb shit loudly for likes, emboldened by the system they claim themselves to be free radicals within.

Of course, Terese and her sort don’t openly define themselves by what they reject, but they are nonetheless parasites that feed upon the sensitivity of popular opinion. It looks all the more pathetic in this moment, as an emboldened left is fucking shit up and making changes in a way that previous protest movements couldn’t force through. The fact that that is as true over here in the UK as it is in the US is astounding — we never get anything done!

Disavowing this kind of rubbish is worthwhile, but it is best to remember the above as well, I think. This Žižekian playbook is dusty, but its also demonstrative of the kind of thinking those with genuine nous have been ridiculing for a long, long time. And we’re in a moment where the left is showing signs of shirking off the gravitational pull of an impotent black hole they gleefully lurk on the edges of.

Break loose.

Hegemony of the Cliché: Pomophobia Revisited

This is something that emerged fleetingly from the Q&A following my lecture yesterday for the University of Birmingham’s Contemporary Theory Reading Group — which was fantastic by the way; I’ll post about it when the lecture recording goes live.

Hailey Maxwell asked a question about how I see myself and my project in relation to Fisher. I’ve obviously had a lot to say about this recently but it led to a coinage in the moment that Niall later suggested could be a decent alternative to capitalism realism: the “hegemony of the cliché”.

This emerged explicitly from my recent reflecting on Dan Barrow’s article about my book — particularly his affirmation of the fact that Egress reaches for a “Mark Fisher beyond the cliché”, something I deeply appreciated.

This was certainly my intent, quite explicitly in fact, but I have also recently expressed a tandem frustration regarding the suggestion that the presence of Bataille and Blanchot in my book is worthy of disavowal because Mark himself didn’t like them.

Writing beyond the cliché of Mark Fisher is one thing but what about the ways in which the text moves beyond the clichés of Bataille, Deleuze and others?

I’ve said all I have to say on that particularly thought-provoking article but there remains much to be said, I think, about the ways that many thinkers, of all stripes, are made impotent by the clichéd figures that are constructed around them as well.

I’ve written a few scattered things on this before but it is a difficult thing to articulate. For instance, there is a sense, particularly online, that everyone wants to Cliff Notes reading of a particular text rather than be supplied with the tools to excavate new readings for themselves.

There are many cases where these tools warrant further use. Nietzsche is always the first to come to mind as a figure whose legacy is still being debated. But also, how do we dismantle this desire for fast thought in a way that doesn’t just sound like obfuscation and gate-keeping?

When I think about this stuff, the death of the author, as famously described by Roland Barthes, always looms large, and I’m left wondering to what extent this has produced new (albeit oddly distanced) impositions upon how we think about texts?

Barthes’ argument that a text cannot have a single interpretation, grounded by its author’s intent, has led — perhaps inadvertently but nonetheless intractably — to the sort of postmodern relativism that Derrida has likewise been derided for contributing towards.

It is a slippage critiqued most powerfully by Mark Fisher himself and Robin Mackay in their conclusion to the Ccru era essay “Pomophobia”, in which they decry “the clogged digestive system” of the postmodern subject, “of the West’s Last Men”, which “expresses all too acutely the constipated Eurocontinence of these constricted bodies, themselves minor fascicular elements of a resonant system of transcendental miserabilism disseminated across all levels of culture.” (Suffice it to say that it is densely packed text and we’ll try untangled some of it in due course.) They continue:

The dreary textocratic dribblings of post-theory are merely the transcendental idealist counterpoint to the empirical realism of postmodern culture. Kurt Cobain embodied what theory disembodies, the raging stomach pains which plagued him finding their disintensified correlate in the chin-rubbing, brow-furrowing protocols of urbane academic anxiety. Smells like Hegelian Spirit.

By contrast, synthetic culture disorganises the docilising regimes of disciplinary body politics. Hip hop and jungle work on the body, not in the overlit luminotopological epistemoscapes of necrospective mummification, but in the dark zones where you don’t have a chance to think about what things would mean before they happen. Effects arrive before objects, scrambling the operating system of the automonitoring signifying apparatus.

The speed of jungle is important here. In racing passed apprehension as a flurry of unintentified sonic objects, it reaches down into the truth of speed itself as an intensity rather than as a commodified categorisation or USP — no one has ever said they like jungle for the speedy efficiency with which is delivers its constitutive parts to your eardrums. It raises the subject up, in a sense, to hitch a ride on the speed of the world around it, but subculturally speaking we can also consider its opposite.

Following the heydey of grunge, in which Cobain would ironically write hits critiquing the bulimia of the pop market, slowcore hit the scene. The band Low, in particular, made a name for themselves by, in their own words, playing as slow as possible in front of crowds who came for the next mindless angst-relieving thrashy grunge band. This wasn’t a rejection of speed as such but just a rejection of the markets expectation of it. Either you speed up even faster than expected (jungle) or you slow down — so long as you’re jamming the signal.

Here affect (or, more accurately, intensity) is still the name of the game but also we find ourselves confronted by what that intensity contains: the unadulterated “truth”, the Real. Cobain may have wrestled — alongside his stomach pains — with suggestions Nirvana had sold out but the band stayed true to itself even as it was dragged by the market into some kind of inauthenticity.

The distance between these two things — authenticity and truth — can seem superficial but authenticity is, again, firmly within the purview of the postmodern. Truth is perhaps that which is buried beneath the all too easily available. It is that which passes beneath the hegemony of the cliché — an all-powerful blanket of superficiality.

This is similar to what I think Fisher and Mackay are gesturing towards when they point, in their essay, to “samploid music and video games” that emerge “as the leading probe-heads of synthetic culture precisely because of their overt machinism, their asignifying functionality, their indifference to epistemological conundra brewed up in the depths of the strata.” (As far as video games are concerned, this is arguably no longer the case.)

It is a function that is demonstrated by the text itself. This is a gourmet word salad; a linguistic Impossible Burger, a billion dollar lab experiment made to imitate a Big Mac. This is to say that, although it has the cognitive effect of a rapid fire look through a thesaurus, hitting you with affective utterances that may appear pretension and superficial, the technical nomenclature also demands a slow reading in order to be understood, as each term used packs a punch that perforates the “epistemological conundra” of the (c)overtly familiar. This is not philosophy as sleek Ferrari but philosophy as backyard kit car, ready for a deconstruction derby. If it’s Derridean, it’s Derrida with a cattle pod up his arse.

It’s messy and it’s dirty. There’s no fetishing this. And that resistance to fetishisation is largely the point. As Fisher and Mackay continue:

What is dissolved in synthetic culture is not commodification per se, but commodity fetishism as it regulates the bourgeois object system, in which everything is assigned a proper place. Synthetic culture sheds no Benjaminite tears for the lost aura of objects in the age of mechanical reproduction, celebrating instead the way in which the subject-object dichotomy and its attendant pathos are reconfigured as machinic circuits in the age of cybernetic replication. “The transaesthetics of banality” plays upon the poignant, if bathetic, aura of found objects, but for abstract culture everything that’s ready made, or mass-marketed, is there to be dismantled and relocated into the unfamiliar architectures of the synthetic composition, the “uncanny adjacencies” of the hip hop or jungle track, where they have a machinic, rather than merely a citational, role to play: decomposable elements on a plane of consistency, not cut up fragments.

To the jaded eyes of the PoMophile, sampling can appear to be part of its own aesthetic of incongruent bricolage, yet another example of the crippling self-consciousness bedevilling a culture so exhausted it is fit only to sort through its own entrails. But, far from being imprisoned in the past, synthetic culture unlocks the machinic surplus value in the already actualized, stretching and warping time into nonorganically reprogrammed somatic circuits of inhuman speeds and slownesses.

A breath of fresh air, a little relation to the outside, that’s all schizoanalysis asks.

Sample culture precisely employs a kind of machinic thinking through which sounds are repurposed beyond the cliché; that is, behind their smooth reception in a culture that always wants to flog the convenient and familiar. (I’m reminded of rkss’ DJ Tools here.)

These reintensifications are possible (and necessary) with so much culture, not just with music. I’ve spoken about it in recent months in relation to DH Lawrence and Virginia Woolf but the truth is that I think it is possible with anyone. It is always worth looking beneath the philosophies you think you know and excavating explicitly those concepts and frameworks that jar with that abstract sense of market propriety. Getting down into how something feels always reveals untold connections to present affects. That which you think you know can always be updated to a present in which it finds itself resituated.

This is not to say you must suspend your judgement of things; rather it is to argue that you can find in almost anything an understanding that grates against the system in which we presently live. This is like the arguments that the removal of the statue of Edward Colston from Bristol isn’t an erasure of history but history happening. The “destructive” repurposing of a statue for protest is sample culture at its most potent. The affective release of the act is more powerful than any object, all too comfortable on its pedestal.

The final question of the Q&A, asked by Niall, was what exactly did Mark Fisher hate about cultural studies despite being somehow who, arguably, “did” cultural studies himself, and I think the answer lies in this very suggestion. When Barthes argued that no text should be limited by the immediate (material) context in which it was produced, he nonetheless set the stage for a kind of cultural studies that has made little attempt to feed back onto the immediate (still material) contexts of its readers. “What does / did it mean?” supercedes “How does it / could it change the world?” But as Marx (and, more explicitly, Stuart Hall) made clear, the former should always lead to the latter, otherwise cultural studies is doomed to impotence. It is doomed to support, rather than intrude upon, the hegemony of the cliché.

The Games Industry: Accelerationism and the Hauntological in Microcosm

I’m currently doing a load of research into accelerationism — when am I not — for a new thing. I’ve been digging far back into the blogosphere to try and accurately trace its development from its 2007 beginnings to the present, but without all the distracting retconning of various philosophers who have at one time or other expressed an accelerationist opinion. (I found a very early Benjamin Noys post where he offers a few examples of accelerationist positions and one was a quote from Roland Barthes so I’m left feeling like just about anyone could be a Noysian accelerationist at this point.)

What I’m currently intrigued by is how the accelerationist split first emerged. (Alex Williams’ (at least I think it’s his) old blog is proving to be fascinating reading right now — straight-up red-hot Landianism over there — no surprises he’s since deleted most of it.) In fact, its split is arguably its founding gesture — an appropriate Big Bang moment for the first blogosphere when the first atom split and birthed a whole network of weird social media enclaves that just keep splitting.

Most people should know by now that “Accelerationism” as a term related to political philosophy was coined by Noys but it was arguably Mark Fisher and Alex Williams who made it what it is. (And, credit where due, Steven Shaviro’s blog was arguably the blog where the initial discussion started.) I’ve mentioned this a few times on here and on Twitter but the initial developments came from  Noys writing his 2010 book The Persistence of the Negative in which he critiques Continental philosophy’s obsession with affirming a certain kind of negativity. Fisher, in deftly trollish fashion, then affirmed Noys’ negative critique. In hindsight, this may have been a mistake on Fisher’s part but, for better or for worse, the name stuck and everyone has been confusing Noys’ and Fisher’s versions ever since.

It seems to me — although I’m still untangling this — that Fisher did this to demonstrate that Noys’ position as being somehow above this entanglement of negations and affirmations was a fallacy. In late capitalist society, we affirm negations and negate affirmations every day. The problem is that this process is far from the vaguely similar process first described in Marx’s dialectical materialism. This is to say that, in the 21st century, the dialectic of capitalism’s positives and negatives has become wholly impotent. This was the discussion within the blogosphere. It was not simply about how all the Conties affirm the negative but about how the negative itself was and remains in crisis.

So why not just be positive? Fisher’s argument was that that is what capitalism wants. It wants positivity all day every day. In this sense, the negative takes on a new potency but it has lost its effective charge. The question was, how can the negative produce the new? Accelerationism, in Noys’ hands, as that byword for everything “bad” about capitalism was the perfect sandbox to try this out in. Can we affirm the negatives of capitalism to produce the new?

It wasn’t as simple as that though, because nothing ever is. Accelerationism was also picked up by the blogosphere because it had obvious implications for the various and already well-established discussions around hauntology.

The relationship between the two is quite interesting, I think, and it is also far more nuanced than the usual assumption of accelerationism is fast and hauntology is slow. As Fisher noted in one post, this is not a philosophy of mind-numbing tautologies where what is negative is bad because it is negative and what is positive is good because it is positive. In fact, what seems to really galvanise discussions around accelerationism is that it is seen as the positive cultural charge to hauntology’s negative charge. Taken together, each with their own internal positives and negatives, they describe a strange tension within the 21st century.

The full argument I have about this might get hashed out somewhere else in more detail but I thought of an illustrative example of this relation that is culturally still prevalent (if not more prevalent) over a decade later but which doesn’t fit into what I’m working on: the games industry.

Accelerationism, as hauntology’s hyperactive cousin, was seen by Fisher and others as an analysis of the ever-increasing speed of technological progression under capitalism and how this was affecting human cultural production and the production of subjectivity. These issues are all still pertinent today. In fact, they can arguably be seen most readily in the microcosm of the games industry.

There, technological hardware is being improved at an astounding rate, with new devices, consoles and ways to play appearing with an increased frequency, and yet it is also an industry currently infatuated with remakes of classic games.

Why is this?

In some ways, the reason is practical. The technological innovations far outpace cultural development so that those foundational cultural experiences become lost as the hardware improves. Because we have memories longer than the rapid cycle of a “console generation”, we don’t just desire the new all the time. Sometimes we want the comfort of something we know. So what do you do if you want to play your old games?

There are some obvious answers. People might still own their old consoles, for example, but playing them on modern TVs can be a nightmare. (I, for instance, still lug my N64 with me wherever I go but it is increasingly temperamental.) Do I need to keep time capsules of all my old home entertainment technology if I want to enjoy something? This level of fetishism is commonplace, with people preserving old setups like vinyl nerds, but it’s hardly practical. There are other workarounds and emulators, of course, but the industry itself seems like it is only just coming to appreciate its tandem responsibilities — not only pushing out new products to feed the desire for the new and improved but also its responsibility to archive and retain access to past experiences that are in danger of being left behind and lost to the casual player who doesn’t sideline as an amateur games historian.

The main reason why this is an important consideration is that it is arguably one not shared by any other medium. Although they do get remade with a depressing frequency, a film doesn’t need to be entirely remade to be enjoyed easily in the same way that a game does. For games, it is a question of accessibility as much as aesthetics. This is to say that it is not always just a money grab but a way to celebrate the existence of something technologically maligned and also remind aging gamers of their foundational gaming experiences that they might want to enjoy for a lot longer than the rapidity of technological development may allow. Still, speed is a factor here. We’re not talking about experiences from decades ago. One decade might be all it takes for the remake treatment to become feasible. This timescale might shrink in future if nothing changes.

Here’s the problem of capitalist speed and cultural drag in a nutshell. The quick fix of just remaking old titles and making them shiny again is one way to do it but it doesn’t always solve the practical problem.

There is a further side effect from this, however. I wonder, considering how precarious gaming culture is, with technological progression and cultural instability leading to what we have at present — a frenzied stasis — isn’t it also this precarity that has led to a largely reactionary culture within the gaming community? One that salivates over superficial progression (graphics!) whilst hating real change? Is this not the very same issue that we see everywhere in society, albeit on a micro scale? That is to say, isn’t it precisely this capitalist acceleration, independent of human culture, which only causes it to drag, that leads not to a frustrated capitalism but to an increasingly reactionary subjectivity? Isn’t the fact that gamers are often such sensitive small-c conservatives a result of a sort of cultural-subcultural negative feedback loop? Stasis becomes a demand left oddly unfulfilled because capitalism cannot help but speed ahead of the lifespan of our desires.

“Well done, Xeno”, I hear you say. “You’ve demonstrated an obvious point about late capitalism using a really annoying example.” But part of me also feels like, if gamers could see themselves as the microcosm of neoliberalism that they are, maybe they’d be less sensitive about incompetence in their industry and more sensitive about how that incompetence mirrors the wider world around them.

Biden is Bethesda, you guys. Will you think a bit more about politics now?

Ignore the Neurosis

Clarifying my thoughts about and my intentions with Egress is undoubtedly an unnecessary endeavour that reveals far more about my own neuroticism than it reveals about the book itself.

The present obsession with defending the presence of Bataille and Blanchot feels wholly ill advised and boarding on obsessive, and I’d take it all down if it wasn’t actually really useful for getting my own head straight.

Unfortunately, as of late, I have allowed the book to become wholly defined by its readers — for better and for worse. The death of the author has been embraced as an opportunity for needless self-flagellation and cringe over-protection but, worst of all, it has also allowed my own understanding of the book to be diminished and distorted in my own head. And that’s been quite a sad process — to forget or lose sight of why I cared so much to write something; to lose sight of that initial motor that made the thing worth pursuing. Without that, what is left behind isn’t pretty.

But in trying to keep sight of it I’m aware that I’ve become increasingly one-track minded. It’s not a good look and it feels pretty shite as well.

The problem is that, although Egress isn’t about me, it nonetheless feels like so much of me is in there, just under the surface, from my proudest memories to some of the memories I hate most about myself.

Anyone who knew me at Goldsmiths during the time described in the book will likely be able to confirm just how much of a fucking mess I was. I’d wager half the book was written drunk just so I could just get through it, which begs the question: why bother?

But who ever said writing was a healthy outlet?

When I write at the start that the book is as much a product of mourning and melancholy as it is about those two things, I don’t say that for effect. Frankly, publishing it has been a massive headfuck as echoes of depressions come around with every bit of shilling and press coverage and I’m sure it has showed. I’m far too close to it, even now, and, with the book coming out immediately prior to lockdown, it has been hard to find my distance. That distance is needed and desperately, or else I’ll continue to crowd the book and the discussion around it, killing it and the impact I hoped it would have.

I’m sure no one cares about any of this, of course. Suffice it to say that my oversensitivity is becoming deeply embarrassing with the slightest bit of hindsight but it’s a sign of something deeper than an author’s narcissism, so forgive me.

I’ll figure a way out of this headspace eventually. Unfortunately, the usual way I get out of headspaces is by writing about them…

First Step; Next Step. (I Was Moved.)

I’m still reeling from Dan Barrow’s article in Tribune, published online the other day — but in a good way. My previous post about it may have read slightly glibly — and I edited it multiple times after first publishing it to try and get the tone right — but in the process of thinking about the article, after my initial pointing to it, I realised that the balance I was seeking so desperately (and perhaps ill-advisedly) was one that could affirm the message of Dan’s article whilst also affirming the ways that my “perverse” references support that very gesture.

Is the latter affirmation even necessary though?

As much as I am (perhaps a little too) willing to defend my references and my own personal viewpoint in Egress at every opportunity, the article, along with the additional comments that Dan added on Twitter (embedded above), really encapsulated the impetus behind publishing the book in the first place — and it did so without them.

This made me reflect a bit on what the book was meant to do and what it means to me now, almost a year on from when I first (thought I had) finished it and sent it to Repeater Books.

This time last year, I’d been sat on the manuscript for Egress for almost eighteen months, not knowing what to do with it. I’d wanted to self-publish it but Robin Mackay politely stopped me, generously offering to edit it to make sure I got it right and didn’t just throw it into the world because I wanted rid of it, like an albatross around my neck. That was in December 2018. It took another year to achieve an outcome I was fully satisfied with.

Even in its final form, Egress is a book more full of questions than answers but, as the years slipped by, these questions became sharper and more refined. And yet, they were questions aimed at a Mark who jarred with this “other Mark” that people were now talking about in earnest online and in the press. The Mark I knew — and then later got to know even better through a complete immersion in his work — was decisively different from the one I saw rising up through various popular discourses.

In his article for Tribune, Dan encapsulates this same sense of morbid consensus when he writes about Jeremy Gilbert’s bastardisation of Acid Communism (which this blog has doggedly been trying to publicly dismantle since it was inaugurated in late 2017) and the more insidious flattening of “capitalist realism” into a one-dimensional notion. Dan writes:

The careless re-reading of what was already a fragmented, idiosyncratic set of interventions reduces capitalist realism to a mindset issue or a miasma of “identity politics” to be combated by the necromantic revival of the mid-century workers’ movement. This rhetorical habit is only a few degrees worse than the tic of citing Fisher that substitutes for political analysis in the music press.

What this looked like in practice was the incessant presentation of a Mark who was only good at articulating popular opinion rather than making incisions across it; a Mark caught within capitalist realism rather than striving to reach the outside of it.

I was discussing another aspect of this yesterday with Matheus Calderón: considering the nuances contained within Mark’s writings on hauntology, it is nauseating that Mark himself is reduced to some spectre for the popular left. This has led to Mark becoming entombed in a caricature of his own work, to the extent, in some cases, that his work can no longer be effectively put to use.

Part of the frustration that comes from the scattered reception of my book thus far comes from the fact that this mythical straw Mark — who is combatted implicitly, for the most part, in Egress, since most of the book was written before the strawman was fully established — looms too large to be undone by my book alone. A few reviews have battered the book, unable to accept how the book challenges their misconceptions. From the other side, however, a few other people, who knew Mark and his work far better than most, have since questioned the Mark that I have presented in Egress and elsewhere also, but I think it sort of comes with the territory that my book about this fragmented and idiosyncratic writer had to make knowing incisions into Mark’s thought as well as my own fragmented and idiosyncratic experiences.

Doing this, however, has led to the development of a certain amount of oversensitivity — if that wasn’t already very apparent — but that’s been a lesson learned the hard way: don’t wear your scabs on your sleeve if you can’t handle other people picking at them.

This sensitivity is complex. In part, it comes from trying to persistently fight for the unsettled and complex Mark that most have barely read but have nonetheless tried to exorcise and ignore; it also comes from the continuing experience of navigating a strange set of feelings and emotions that are still quite raw and have even been renewed in the face of the new level of public scrutiny that comes with being published.

Today, each of these modes of inquiry and criticism is distinct from the other, in my mind at least, even if my responses to them still often share a defensive register or a defiant tone. (I am too used to fighting what has long felt like a one-man war and I have perhaps become a little jaded after three and a half years of trying to swim upstream.) However, this complicated response on my part no doubt comes, above all else, from the traumatic reality of Goldsmiths in late 2017 when, after the academic year was over, I lost friends over my comments, written and verbal, about Mark’s works.

These were friends who disagreed with their sanitised vision of Mark being challenged. Not that it was even my intention to be challenging. I didn’t understand, at that time, why my position was controversial. I simply spoke up for a Mark properly read and failed to comprehend what all the fuss was about since I had the receipts to back up my interpretations. This is not to suggest I was sociopathically defiant, although I’m sure some would prefer to see me that way. In fact, I ended the year like everyone else — battered, bruised, and on the brink.

The process of receiving reviews of my book is oddly triggering, reminding me of that dark time, and making the process far less enjoyable than I had hoped and anticipated.

However, at the risk of banging on too much about my own use of Bataille and Blanchot in the book, it was precisely in pursuing and coming to terms with the fallout of this fraught gesture that Bataille was acutely and persistently relevant to me and my project. The way he attempted to write his way out of the political impotence of wartime, for instance, in his Summa Atheologica, was a key touchstone for me as 2016 came to a close and 2017 opened with the tandem events of Mark’s suicide and Trump’s election. The way he wrote towards an ethics of fraught communication was also a much firmer ground to start from than that offered by Mark in “Exiting the Vampire Castle” and elsewhere.

All this is to say that what I wanted to do with Egress was write my way out of (left) melancholy in much the same way that Bataille did. (When Dan notes that “Egress remains, despite its best efforts, trapped in the same ‘left melancholia’ as its Labourist and social democratic counterparts”, there is surely no question that this is the case, as I write explicitly about trying to grasp left melancholy effectively from within it, at the precise moment it was complicated by grief of another — albeit related — sort.)

It is also worth noting that Bataille and Blanchot were first put to use (that is, put to use together) in the text as I attempted to explore and navigate this complex and often grotesque gesture of scab-picking in order to get to a “truth” about where we were at, collectively and politically. Long before Egress was even conceived as a book, it was an essay that extended my own research into the ethical and largely posthumous relationship between Bataille and Blanchot, through which I was exploring how their strange conversations with their predecessors and contemporaries influenced much of the thought around the political relevance of communism in the philosophical circles of France up to the 1980s. (Again, all of this is explained in the text.)

(Additional sidenote: the influence of this French communist debate on more recent thought is most explicit in the work of another of Mark’s key influences: Slavoj Žižek — but a discussion on this was cut from Egress as it only threatened to derail what is already a lively and meandering text.)

Since it was a continuation of a thought that preceded Mark’s death, Mark’s thoughts on Bataille and Blanchot were not a consideration. I was already immersed in them before Mark died and so I simply put them to use without much thought regarding Mark’s opinions on either of them. In this sense, as well as defending their genealogical relevance within Mark’s thought (despite his own superficial dismissals of them), Bataille and Blanchot were most important, for me, in thinking through Mark’s death. They were invaluable as I attempted to write about death without falling into certain rhetorical traps; as I attempted face up to such traps honestly in my fraught attempts to navigate them in real time.

To write this here is to affirm, once again, that Egress was the product of a very specific time and process — a time and process that no doubt any future book on Fisher will have no reason to deal with. To write a less idiosyncratic book about Mark would have required a lot more distance than I had available to me. So why not just wait? Because that lack of distance was important — indeed, it was the very motor of the writing — and I think this motor remains important in our present moment of coronavirus and Black Lives Matter protests. That sort of distance is a luxury we did not have and many still do not have, and so I was happy, at the time, to sacrifice certain things to preserve that immanence to a moment and its affects.

It no doubt sounds childish to say “I meant to do that” to every criticism that appears for my book but, the truth is, for the most part, I did. Egress is a flawed book but it was unavoidably so if it was to be the book I wanted it to be, so I tried to affirm its flaws regardless, just as the flawed books of Bataille and Blanchot affirmed their own limits and the limits of writing so that they might get up close to these linguistic barriers that stop us from speaking to the unspeakable. This proto-Derridean noodling was no doubt a part of what Mark disliked about their works but, confronted by death — and by Mark’s death in particular — the stakes of this thinking reemerged in a way that was far more explicitly Lacanian (and the influence of Lacan on Mark’s thought is far more blatant).

This is the most frustrating thing about reading critiques that point out flaws I’m aware of, and which I feel make the book what it is. Egress is precisely the book I set out to write — warts and all. I would change plenty of things now, from a new and ever-shifting vantage point, but the idea was to stay true to the moment in which it was written — particularly that first year that followed Mark’s death. Bataille and Blanchot, as I make clear, were central to that moment for me. They were my background if not Mark’s.

However, this subjectivism doesn’t simply arrest time and contain the book, protecting it from criticism. Writing about how useful Bataille and Blanchot were in 2017 says little about their persistent relevance today. Maybe, from the vantage point of 2020, their inclusion really is perverse. On reflection, however, I still think not — but in a potentially productive way rather than a purely defensive one.

If my image of Mark appears to be as “a philosopher of abstract community”, as Dan describes it, this was not how it felt at the time, in the intensity of the moment in which those ideas were deployed. This is to say that, whilst Blanchot and Bataille’s writings certainly seem to float about on some ethereal plane of abstract theory, the experience from within which Egress was written was so powerful because it felt like that ethereality was — for a time — made palpable and material. Our consciousness was changing through experiences that were distinct from the sort that Mark himself had called for. His calls for joy were intensified absolutely but only because we were so depressively mired in their opposite.

Other thinkers were necessary to consider this complication that was, at the time, traumatically unresolved. I reached for the two closest to hand in my theoretical armoury. They are less close now, for whatever that is worth, although their influence still persists. But, strangely, considering the process of writing the book for the perspective of now, almost a year after it was completed, they might remain even more relevant in hindsight.

For instance, I recant, early on in Egress, the story of Bataille’s retort to Sartre’s scathing review of his 1943 book Inner Experience, in which Bataille oddly praises Sartre for cutting him down and opening him up so publicly, as Sartre accuses Bataille of speaking to some mystical realm beyond the material reality of political communication. But Bataille affirms Sartre capacity to do this — perhaps valiantly, perhaps pathetically — precisely because he is the outsider that Bataille himself calls forth. Humorously, in his response, Bataille imagines some weird ritual of ballroom potlatch, with himself and Sartre entangled in a dance; for Bataille, even if Sartre hated his book, he is nonetheless complicit in the very mode of communication he sought to describe, that erupts violently from deep within and from far without.

I was writing about this at the time to draw parallels (in a roundabout sort of way) between how our experiences of grief did not always intersect at Goldsmiths in 2017, and how that experience of communal critique and political patience was as informative as it was traumatic. Nevertheless, it was as hard to affirm then as it is now. But when I think about Egress now — when I can bear to — and it truly does feel like it was written a lifetime ago — I struggle against the still-unanswered questions of how effective our actions were in that moment. Perhaps we were all simply caught up in the idea of community whilst nonetheless butting our heads up against the thick glass of our abject individualisms. (Such were the questions Jean-Luc Nancy asked of Bataille’s work, later rebutted by Blanchot.) This would certainly explain the eventual fallout that resulted, with most of the group that organised the Fisher-Function sessions at Goldsmiths lashing outwards and retreating towards; traumatised.

Furthermore, the distance inaugurated by Egress becoming “A Book” probably has something to do with this ethereality reemerging for some readers. The communities described in the book certainly aren’t what they used to be, but it also lacks the immediacy of the blog and of a moment passed. But perhaps the conversation around the book, rather than the broken communities it describes, particularly at its most critical, is a positive way to restore this lost weight. That’s certainly part of my desire in remaining vocal about the book after the fact. That the publication of the book should inaugurate my silence and my stepping backwards from a conversation I’ve hoped to inaugurate is a “professional” expectation I am continuing to struggle with navigating, particularly because, even in my silence, I remain firmly in the firing line.

Take, for example, my own capacity to weather criticisms of a book that still feels so personal and how this process of weathering, in its very difficulty, calls the book itself (and myself) into question again. It is worth remembering, under the hubbub of professionalised reviews and comment pieces, that the stakes haven’t changed in this regard, and Dan’s essay gets at this notion very effectively. Indeed, the desire to build something off the back of such encounters rather than just pat backs or tear chunks off each other abstractly is something that Dan’s article has reminded me of, now that the dust has settled.

It’s a great article because, above the particulars of what he did or didn’t like about Egress, the central gesture of the book is nonetheless extended further still. Whether I agree with his criticisms or not, I can’t help but admire that and be grateful for it. (I was moved.)

The initial gesture of extension inaugurated in Egress was one that I hoped (perhaps naively and pretentiously) would be akin to Deleuze’s philosophical sodomy: his writing of bastard books divorced from their subject matter that are nonetheless monstrous products of a loyalty to his subject’s thought. (In this sense, I’m happy to embrace the “perversity” of Egress.)

The problem with Deleuze doing this, however, is that he often made it very difficult to follow suit, so that the conversation he inaugurated was largely one-sided (or explicitly caught between himself and Guattari, as well as being somewhat resistant to additions from others). So, instead of Deleuze, it was the relationship that Blanchot had to Bataille’s work that was most inspiring to me in this regard, and the way that Blanchot used Bataille posthumously in The Unavowable Community especially — the way he takes Bataille’s unruly and controversial thought and puts it to work in a conversation that builds towards an explicitly communist project.

This was an example of a gesture of friendship that I wanted to embrace for myself, at its most melancholy and earnest as well as its most defiant and combative. It is frustrating that, for some, this key gesture — which is quite explicit, I think — is lost to memories of Mark’s poor appraisals of two thinkers who dramatised the problems of the left in their time in much the same way Mark did for himself, and through the same odd confluence of occultural communities and Marxist materialism.

This was also part of what was so frustrating about the review in The Wire, which deployed such a piss-poor interpretation of Mark’s work, and that initial PopMatters review, which suggested my book was one in which “Mark Fisher’s insights are often obscured”. In truth, the latter reviewer’s advice for an alternative book on Fisher — one that might “begin with Fisher’s interest in radical politics and then show how this manifested itself in his writings on musical forms such as post-punk and electronica and on the weird fiction of H.P. Lovecraft, Nigel Kneale, and others” — painted such an abysmally basic picture of Fisher as to be worthy of far more ridicule than I dared give it at the time.

I didn’t want to write or publish a book like that. I wanted to add to Mark’s thought by entangling it with my own lived experiences and interests rather than just describing his thought and being done with it. I wanted to produce an -ology rather than an -ography. But this desire shouldn’t be stored away just because the book has come out and been “finalised”. These lingering questions and fault lines, partly forgotten in the fervour of the last few months, were affirmed during the writing process precisely to inaugurate, as Dan comments, “a first step” in truly reading Mark’s work for all it has to offer.

Egress is an attempt to open a door and I embarrassingly let it infuriate me every time a review or online comment responds by shutting that door in my face. With this in mind, sticking my head up above the parapet as The Mark Fisher Defender was not the desired result of this book-writing process, but it has been a hard mantel to resist. As Dan wrote in Tribune: “Few contemporary thinkers have needed more defence from their greatest admirers.” It has become abundantly clear that even just starting this sort of conversation is an uphill battle, however. Some of the reviews have demonstrated this profoundly, whether “professional” or “casual”. Many readers have reacted incredibly positively, of course, but the negative reviews resonate in my mind all the more when they fail to account for the clichéd Fisher they are putting to work in their appraisals of a book that wants to tear that false image down. This is to say that they are criticising the book for not being something I purposefully wanted to avoid. In stark contrast to this, Dan Barrow’s article for Tribune might be the first review, positive or negative, to see the door opened and, regardless of the shape of it, take a further step through it.

In this sense, Dan’s article is also the first to truly skewer this tension and critique it productively. As kneejerkingly defensive as I can be about a book still so new and dear to my heart, it’s worth remembering — note to self — that, when done right, even a negative review can build towards the Mark I had in mind. And that’s not to say that Dan’s article is even all that negative. It is clear to me that, even through its skewering of certain faults, it is a piece wholly supportive of the gesture the book attempts to inaugurate. This is a really important thing for me to realise right now and a part of the article I would like friends and the not-so-friendly alike to recognise in equal measure: that the gesture at its heart can still remain in tact, despite the particulars of how it is presented. For me personally, staying true to this gesture over my own hard-fought version of it is perhaps the new challenge; the next step.

Dan is absolutely right that we are only at the beginning of interpreting Mark’s thought and it would make Egress a futile endeavour if things just stopped here. It it because of this that I heartily welcome the next book to take on Fisher’s thought and I hope, whatever sort of book it is, it makes my book show its age. That agedness, inevitable due to how situated it is in a time and place, will be a sign, I hope, of how things have changed; how far we have come; how much the world has progressed. That’s what the Fisher-Function was all about, after all. As Robin said in Mark’s memorial:

Many of us naturally feel a need to ensure this is a moment when the force [Mark] brought into our world is redoubled rather than depleted. And to do so, to continue his work and our own, we have to try to understand his life, and the consequences of his death, at once horrifying and awakening, as a part of the Fisher-Function. And I don’t simply mean the intellectual contributions that we can appreciate, extend, take forward into the future; I also mean what we need to learn in terms of looking after ourselves and each other, right now.

The Fisher-Function is, in this sense, that thing, that function, which exceeds Mark — it is his excess — and it is precisely this excess that Bataille wrote back so consistently. The excess of “incandescent joy” that makes beings insufficient. The insufficiency I write about in Egress ,in this regard, is not just a sign of what we lack — a collective subjectivity — but also an acknowledgement that we cannot sufficiently contain all that we are — nor can the fascist state, which was Bataille’s extended argument in the Summa Atheologica, and nor can capitalism, which was Mark’s argument in his essay “Baroque Sunbursts” most explicitly (an image, borrowed from Jameson — first used by Mark on k-punk here — that is explicitly Bataillean in its grotesquely ocular explosiveness, in which he speaks of “a diseased eyeball in which disturbing flashes of light are perceived or like those baroque sunbursts in which rays from another world suddenly break into this one”).

It is this same excess that Dan channels in his article also. He concludes:

It’s precisely the excess, the “Red Plenty” of a boundless flow of “the collective capacity to produce, care and enjoy”, that could pour through the everyday life of a reclaimed modernity, that Fisher identifies in the confluence of acid communism. Labour’s recent difficulty in galvanising support for an electoral program of state-sponsored joy, riding on new enthusiasm infused into an old organising model, suggests the distance of 21st century socialists from the necessary radical implications of their own project, which Mark Fisher struggled more than anyone else to clarify.

Egress‘s central and most foundational flaw was that it too could not contain the excess that it sought to describe. It had to emerge wounded. As much as some might deny it, I would argue that Bataille and Blanchot remain key to any effective understanding of this excess and how it wounds us and what we are to do with that wounding. Few struggled to clarify this more than they did — except, perhaps, Mark.

“Mark Fisher Beyond the Cliché”: Dan Barrow on ‘Egress’ for Tribune Magazine

An excellent write-up on Mark Fisher and my book Egress in the latest issue of Tribune magazine: “Mark Fisher Beyond the Cliché”, penned by Dan Barrow.

It’s great to see a swift appraisal of Mark’s writings that contends with his bizarre posthumous reputation. Barrow writes:

On the margins of academia and “Very Old Media”, [Fisher’s] work was informed by a training in ultra-libertarian cybertheory, as a co-founder of the Cybernetic Culture Research Unit, and a tradition of music journalism that the British press itself had marginalised. When the diagnostic nous of his first book, Capitalist Realism, made it a surprise hit, it also became “the unofficial manifesto for the leftist resurgence of 2011”, in Alex Niven’s words, a wave of energetic, broadly humanist socialist agitation, newly engaged with institutional politics. The last substantial work Fisher himself published before his death in January 2017 was a think tank paper, co-authored with soft left political theorist Jeremy Gilbert. We might ask: what happened?


The question is partly prompted by the odd silence around the 10th anniversary last year of Capitalist Realism, and the publication this March of the first monograph on Fisher’s work, Egress – On Mourning, Melancholia and Mark Fisher, by Matt Colquhoun, a former student of his at Goldsmiths. While Capitalist Realism the book still does stellar business, “capitalist realism” the concept is in abeyance. One social catastrophe after another, we’re told, proves that “capitalist realism is finished”. But the very inheritors and popularisers of the concept they claim to have overcome still act as if “it is easier to imagine the end of the world than it is to imagine the end of capitalism”, their horizons of social change constrained to a very narrow conception of the collective and the political. The resources that Fisher’s work offer to an emergent 21st century socialism have to be extracted from the sanitisation of a complex, rebarbative, tactical and often difficult writer and its conversion into an intellectual commodity. Few contemporary thinkers have needed more defence from their greatest admirers.

I share these frustrations, having written on “the capitalist realism of ‘capitalist realism is ending'” just last month. In light of all this, it is nice to see Egress described as “a much-needed corrective.”

Barrow still has his criticisms, however; some that are now quite familiar:

However, in Colquhoun’s hands Fisher becomes a philosopher of abstract community. The “emergent figure of a collective subject… a strange and external agency from without which seems borne of love and an interpersonal familiarity found within” he draws from his writings, read through the work of Maurice Blanchot and Georges Bataille, remains purely prefigurative of a future communism.

To reach for these two figures in particular whilst ignoring major influences like Stuart Hall is a mark of the book’s perversity: Fisher disdained Bataille, whom he associated with “the solitary urinal of male subjectivity”, and gave Abi Titmuss more column inches than Blanchot.

These are the figures present because they resonate most with Fisher’s overall trajectory, in my view, whether he liked them or not — which is to say that, in the context of the history of ideas, they are relevant to Fisher’s thought regardless. Beyond the clichés of their own work — clichés Mark was also guilty of repeating — Bataille and Blanchot shared projects very similar to Fisher’s — albeit as part of a more explicitly French tradition, which Mark (and many of my own readers) may not like stylistically. Beneath that, however, they have more in common than not. But I’ve been through all this already, as I’ve addressed this critique on the blog in a couple of places over the last week — here, here and (less directly) here.

Nevertheless, I’m grateful Barrow still grasps the core of the book beyond this. He adds: “But Colquhoun quite rightly identifies at the heart of Fisher’s political theories an ‘egress’ from the reality of ‘mandatory individualism’ that capitalist realism sets as the parameters of subjectivity.”

This same argument is championed in a conclusion that I found to be a rousing distillation of how I too think Fisher’s thought deserves to be viewed at the level of pop-left politics in our present moment:

In Egress’s best chapter, Colquhoun points out that the [“Acid Communism”] essay’s apparently exotic aspects can in fact be traced far back in Fisher’s thought. In many early writings he associates “psychedelic reason” with the imperative of philosopher Baruch Spinoza to dissolve the “Human OS” of individual subjectivity. Following Spinoza and his later interpreters Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari, he sees the task of thought as the production of “joyous affect”, opposed to the depressive individualism he would later associate with capitalist realism. This “cold rationalist” pursuit of states of depersonalisation fed into his many artistic fascinations adjacent to the psychedelic, such as rave, the writings of William Burroughs and JG Ballard, the bleak, foggy sonics of The Caretaker, and jungle, described by his Goldsmiths colleague Kodwo Eshun as a “rhythmic psychedelia”.

This cyberpunk interpretation of philosophy of mind drew not only, as Colquhoun notes, on the theoretical resources of the CCRU, but updated Marxist theories of ideology in dialogue with poststructuralist theories of the subject. Capitalist realism preforms subjects and canalises their desires – or “reterritorialises” them, in Deleuze and Guattari’s terminology – into the self-reinforcing structures of “interpassive” leisure (the iPhone and the anxiety-inducing infinity of social media scrolling became Fisher’s prime examples). Michel Foucault, intriguingly, occupies a pivotal place in the “acid communism” essay, alongside libertarian Marxist Herbert Marcuse. Fisher focuses on “limit-experiences” in Foucault’s work, moments in which perspective shifts and “[t]he conditions which made experience possible could now be encountered, transformed and escaped”. Foucault associated these limit-experiences with hallucinogens, but they also informed his critical theories of regimes of individuality and knowledge as historically contingent arrangements of power. For Fisher radical politics becomes the functioning of just such a perspective-shift, infused with a “laughter from the outside”. 

This is a quite different vision from the reception of acid communism among much of the Corbynite left, which has portrayed it as the revival of, in Jeremy Gilbert’s words, “a psychedelic socialist structure of feeling” and sought to infuse political culture with an orientation towards “collective joy”. On the contrary, as Colquhoun rightly insists, the experience of contact with the Outside can be traumatic in its very liberation. It lies, in Freud’s phrase, “beyond the pleasure principle”. For Fisher these currents converged in the notion of “consciousness-raising”. A key political practice of second-wave feminism, the term took on other resonances from psychedelia and anti-psychiatry. In Fisher’s reading, it forms a conduit between subjectivity and organisational form, between the cell-forms of political groupings and the universality of a community of desire. Acid communism thus makes concrete the wager of capitalist realism for the 21st century left: not only that the stakes of altering subjectivity are political, but that any politics that truly contests neoliberal “reality programming” will involve collectively restructuring subjectivity. 

This notion of politics as a psychedelic contact with the Outside represents an intensification and capture of what Fisher, via Land and Deleuze/Guattari, saw as modernity’s potential for “destratification”. In a remarkable late text on ‘Post-Capitalist Desire’, Fisher asks whether the challenge of Land’s vision of capital as an overwhelming libidinal system can’t be seen as the basis for a socialist “counterlibido, not simply an anti-libidinal dampening”. The nervous boredom, deflated misery, anhedonic consumption and archaic hierarchies that regulate capitalist realism aren’t necessary: “can’t we conceive of consumer capitalism’s culture of ready meals, fast food outlets, anonymous hotels and disintegrating family life as dim pre-echo of precisely the social field imagined by early Soviet planners.” It’s precisely the excess, the “Red Plenty” of a boundless flow of “the collective capacity to produce, care and enjoy”, that could pour through the everyday life of a reclaimed modernity, that Fisher identifies in the confluence of acid communism. Labour’s recent difficulty in galvanising support for an electoral program of state-sponsored joy, riding on new enthusiasm infused into an old organising model, suggests the distance of 21st century socialists from the necessary radical implications of their own project, which Mark Fisher struggled more than anyone else to clarify.

Update #1: A few further comments from Dan Barrow on Twitter that I think are worth adding here:

I knew Mark for a number of years & owe him & his work an incalculable debt, & feel much of his reception — particularly since his death — presents serious problems, that are really the problems of the left in general [1]

we’re really only at the very beginning of interpreting him & if there’s resources to be found in an integrated understanding of his work I hope this piece helps nudge people in the right direction [2]

whatever criticisms I might have of Colquhoun’s book I think it’s a very constructive first step & will hopefully make the right people mad online [3]

I should be clear that, as much as I am willing to defend my references and my own personal viewpoint, this was precisely the drive behind publishing Egress in the first place.

I’d been sat on the manuscript for almost eighteen months, not knowing what to do with it, before submitting it to Repeater Books, and it was the posthumous Mark I had seen emerge during that time in limbo that made me feel like I had to be put it out now or never.

There’s plenty of soul-searching and melancholia in the book — unavoidably, given the context in which it was written — but I am very grateful to Barrow for drawing out the sharp end of it here. It is a sharp end that is all the easier to articulate in hindsight but, as Barrow says, the problems it cuts through — messily in my own book — are precisely the problems of the left.

It is not lost on me that those problems may also appear in the book itself. That was sort of the point. Egress is a document of a process of emerging out of them.

Almost a year on from when the manuscript was originally finished, I’m already painfully aware that I’d approach certain topics differently and I still have much left to say on Mark’s work, but it’s a snapshot of a moment and, if anything, I’ll be happy if it ages badly.

Update #2: An extended and further reflection on this article has been written and posted here.