Nihilism Without Negativity (in 2020)

An excellent response to some predictable Twitter snark has me feeling quite inspired going into this weekend.

Kevin Rogan recently tweeted the following:

mark fisher’s legacy is complex. was he an interesting writer? yes. did he write way too much about how bad music evidenced something called ‘libidinal’ this or some shit? yes. but most importantly, has he led to an insufferable cadre of online ‘theorist’ dipshits? extremely yes [1]

It proved a popular shitpost, and it is easy to appreciate as nothing more then that, but it’s also very telling in the wider context or Twitter’s various Cold Wars. Rogan has long been a virulent subtweeter, showing distain for almost anyone who does anything.

This is to say that, whilst on the one hand, it is hardly expressing a controversial opinion — that Mark Fisher needs to be saved from some of his biggest fans is surely widely acknowledged at this point — on the other, it is clear that, for many on Twitter, this sentiment extends to just about any para-academic (or purely “pop”) engagement with Fisher’s work.

It’s always best to just ignore this sort of thing — it’s mostly all rooted in anti-accelerationist sniping going back years now — but some of the replies to this tweet, which were less triggered and more just sad about a desperate need to be contrarian, were encouraging to see. Specifically, I thought this response from Twitter user @miker2049 was excellent:

This is kinda a bummer take to me if only because [Fisher’s] demonstrative effort to deprofessionalize and democratize the work of theory by writing earnest blogs about whatever instead of just working on tenure or being a good academic was so great and I think a net positive thing. [1]

I’d rather have a million “dipshits” thinking about the relations between mental illness and capitalism than a handful of smug career academics who are probably trapped in terrible institutional jobs. or are just assholes [2]

This is something always worth remembering.

Before coming across like a total hypocrite, it is clear that I’m no saint in this regard — I’ve had my fair share of gripes, slinging critiques at Mark Fisher Facebook meme groups I do think are partly responsible for Fisher’s incredibly reductive posthumous legacy. I’m also partial to being grumpy on Twitter, having gotten myself in hot water over this very recently, but what often makes me grumpy in the first place is precisely this sort of sniping, that looks to pick pointlessly at others’ projects and offer nothing that could be mistaken for a productive impulse.

I want to tread lightly here. The temptation to declare that all Twitter miserablists are part of the Vampire Castle that Fisher despised leaves one open to easy ridicule, since that sort of dismissal is very much overused at this point, but it is worth noting how Fisher defined his Grey Vampires. He wrote on the k-punk blog:

Grey Vampires don’t feed on energy directly, they feed on obstructing projects. The problem is that, often, they don’t know that they are doing this. (That’s one difference between them and a troll — trolls usually aren’t under any illusions about themselves, they just find spurious justifications for their activities.)

This is an important point to consider. Whilst negging on the timeline 24/7 might make you feel smart and like you have exercised your critical faculties, you can hardly call that a positive critical project. So where does that leave you? Impotently beholden to the compulsive obstruction of anything you’re not keen on? Ever wonder where that compulsion comes from? (I have some idea.)

These are questions genuinely worth asking. I think it is true that most don’t know that they’re doing it, particularly when engulfed in academia. I’d probably be more of a miserable arse myself if I was stuck chasing the ghosts of clout through my alienated academic labour in a modern university, precisely because the system makes you feel that way — like the rest of the world at large, it makes you feel like an atomised individual swimming resentfully against the current. (The further I get some academia, the more productive and zen I feel, personally.)

Interestingly, this was precisely what the early accelerationists hoped to counter. They didn’t just want the negation of negation but the negation of a postmodern negativity that defined itself purely through what it didn’t like. This was even how Fisher described the resonant strategies of Deleuze and Guattari and Nick Land. (Plenty of questions remain unresolved regarding what we do about this but, as a starting point, it remains provocative and productive.) He writes that theirs was

a kind of nihilism without negativity; the only interdiction was on the negative, in all its senses: the ‘No’ of a sclerotic leftism characterised (or caricatured) as eternally resisting and repressing and the miserabilism of all the parties of depressive deceleration were to be abjured in favour of the unleashed full positivity of Capital as monstrous ex nihilo propagator without limit. The vast, sublime mechanism of Capital as planetary artificial intelligence would liquidate (the illusion) of human agency: you either submit and enjoy or act out the dead drama of your own impotence.

It remains as controversial a position now as it was then, and it is clear that, for Fisher, the benefits of networked communication technologies did not outweigh the further impositions they made upon the postmodern subject. This is perhaps to say that, whilst the choices are clearly the same on social media — submitting and enjoying or exercising your own impotence — that doesn’t mean I get much of a thrill out of infinitely scrolling through the results.

Fisher’s blogpost was, of course, written before the likes of Facebook and Twitter really tightened their stranglehold on communication, but the problematic he is provocatively describing remains unresolved. There is an abundance of cultural and political negativity in circulation today that rarely escapes the flows in which it has long been trapped. Social media certainly won’t save us from this capture — in fact, it epitomises this capture — but, thankfully, there are plenty of other spaces left online for sharing our surplus of info-knowledge. Blogging is still fun — honest. And the driver behind that first blogosphere, for many, was precisely to maintain an output for this negativity that was not beholden to the productive pressures of capitalism. Whether that remains true today is another matter but it certainly feels possible if you’re able to separate it from the generic treadmills you remain handcuffed to in daily life.

This largely depends on the platform being used. Posting on social media is a kind of production lacking in remuneration that nonetheless brings incredibly amounts of wealth to tech giants. Very aware of my own position, I still know an independent domain is better than a WordPress. As such, what Fisher called “touchscreen capture” remains an issue, and it is far better to take that curiosity and find ways to make it productive IRL than subject it to Zucc capture for eternity. This is surely why Fisher left social media in the first place. But he didn’t log off altogether. In fact, whilst the assumption has often been that he got angry and then sold out or tuned out, Fisher instead decided to put his money where his mouth was.

Most don’t realise this — evidenced by the fact his most controversial essay continues to be misread as the very thing he wanted to critique — but it is worth noting that, after “Exiting the Vampire Castle” fell somewhat on its own critical sword, Fisher’s response wasn’t to double down on his anger but instead become the change he wanted to see in the world. He left social media and focused his efforts on building a positive project. Writing for Plan C, for instance, he explicitly sided with feminist theorists like Nancy Hartsock, emphasising that “the point is to develop an account of the world that treats our perspectives not as subjugated, insurrectionary, or disruptive knowledges, but as potentially constitutive of a different world.” The underlining message here, for me, is that being a thorn in the side of a dominant conversation, whether on Twitter or at a much larger scale, is precisely the default melancholic position that has made the left so impotent. Being a gobshite is fine, of course, but if you really care about the things you claim to be defending, surely you should be striving for more than that?

In recent weeks, I’ve been feeling this quite intensely. The cliques and spats have made me think that only posting on the blog or just writing for myself and ignoring the internet altogether might be a much more preferable set-up once I’ve left the big city — extending the clean slate to cyberspace. But I do think retaining some sort of networked presence is vital, despite the drawbacks, and how you contribute to that kind of network does matter. The question is: how can we change things? If such a network is to be sustainable and not lead to yet more miserablist burnout, the least we can do is amplify and repeat @miker2049’s point: Compared to the constant miserablism displayed by so many on Twitter, a popular enthusiasm is surely the lesser of two evils. If all you want to do is pose a problem, good for you, but are you a part of that problem? If correctives are necessary — note to self — better to make them in a way that doesn’t push other people away completely, but rather encourages them to look deeper into what they are interested in.

Everything — every argument, every critique, every shot across the bow — should end up in a positive project. If it doesn’t, you’re just shooting blanks.

2 thoughts on “Nihilism Without Negativity (in 2020)

  1. I am a North American, specifically of the US variety. And I do live in a college town, even having been raised by an academic father, the reason I ended up here. But I’m not an academic and, in fact, I don’t have a college degree.

    Though all of my friends are college graduates, none are in academia and they have jobs about the same as my own. So, I can’t claim to know much about the academic world. But I have known aspiring academics hoping for careers and they expressed feeling desperate about it. The American job market for academics is tight.

    So, what you describe about American academia is probably correct. It’s the social Darwinism in nearly every aspect of this society. I found it to be true in local activism and community organizing. There are too many people sniping, tearing each other down, and defending their turf.

    It wasn’t worth all the grief and nothing seemed to come of it. My union leadership ended up officially backing Hillary Clinton in 2016, despite the majority of union members supporting Bernie Sanders. If even my union doesn’t represent me, that leaves me with a challenge in how to respond to a situation ever worsening.

    I likewise gave up on social media. I’d been slowly disentangling myself for years. For some reason, I felt inspired to commit myself to no longer visit Facebook and Twitter, unless there is some specific and rare reason to do so (I do still have family members on FB). I logged out of my accounts and I feel much better.

    Blogging is much more satisfying. It’s not exactly clear what is my positive project. That is a good thing to keep in mind. My mood has been shifting lately, after decades of severe depression having lifted with dietary changes. It’s left me wondering what I am to do with myself without depression, as it so powerfully defined me in the past.

    I still hear the lesser evil voting arguments. And I understand that Trump is demented and potentially dangerous. But the mindset of focusing on our fears gets ever less inspiring over time. If we aren’t working toward a positive project, then we will inevitably create a fearful world that conforms to our obsessive fantasies of doom.

    Something else is needed, an entirely different attitude. I’ve too often fallen prey to negativity and complaining, even mean-spiritedness. I don’t want to be that way anymore. And I don’t want to participate in anything that promotes it.

    Like

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