“Exiting Left”: Geoff Shullenberger on ‘Egress’ for Athwart

Many thanks to Geoff Shullenberger for writing this essay on the work of Mark Fisher and my book Egress.

It’s a thorough and very intriguing perspective that does an excellent job of pulling together the book’s various theoretical threads. However, I’m not sure its grounding of the term “egress” as a variant on Hirschman’s “exit” is strictly accurate — and that assumption might be my fault anyway — but it is an interesting suggestion nonetheless. This is partly what the book (and this blog, in 2018 at least, during our collective patchwork fever) spent much time trying to make sense of.

Personally, I’d argue that “egress” is an attempt to pull exit back from the libertarian right’s perhaps better known understanding of it — an understanding that causes the left to throw the baby out with the bath water, over-reacting (in a very literal sense) against it. This is much like my argument that the Red Pill has far more potential than its memetic sibling gives it, which Shullenberger discusses here too. It is a sort of ideological Prometheanism but one which, in its original instance, does well to dramatise various leftist problematics.

Whilst the right uses it, at present, to signal a “based” exit from the left’s cultural hegemony, the left has long had the capitalist totality in its sights instead. This is what makes the assertion that this is Hirschman’s concept originally quite intriguing. Whilst I don’t think this is correct, it does make me wonder: When did the “right” — an inevitably ahistorical concept at this scale; bourgeoisie is not much better — first come to understand its desire to “exit”? Has this not always been tied to the exoticism of colonialism or imperialism? Similarly, when did the “left” first come to understand its desire to be emancipated? “Voice” and “exit” become interesting terms when split in this way — one is related to subjectivity, the other to space. My own interest in Hirschman came from an understanding of the fact that, in postmodernity, both of these categories become further complicated and intertwined with one another, but no consideration of this should obfuscate the underlying (and foundational) relation that exists between bourgeois exotic fantasies and proletariat emancipation.

However, one further thing I think is worthy of note today is that many of these (particularly accelerationist) discussions are attempting to answer the question of what is to be done after our bitter acceptance of the fact that, following Lyotard, there is no non-alienated region left to exit onto. Wherever you move to, capitalism is already there, or we’re so indoctrinated that, even if we could, we would probably take it with us without thinking about it — Robinson Crusoe-style: we set up camp on some untouched land, fully capable of starting over, and just replicate (somewhat shoddily) the ideological landscape we have come from.

Egress, to my mind, is an attempt to sidestep these kinds of misadventures. Exit, in so many senses — not just Hirschman’s — is entangled with Christopher McCandless-type primitivist fantasies of returning to nature and leaving modernity behind. They’re seductive tales, not least for the kind of challenge they represent to consciousness, but we must be careful in how we navigate these sorts of fantasies. They can quickly become unproductive and so require considerable vigilance.

I’ve been speaking to people about this recently as part of the accelerationism course, actually. Twice in the seminars we discussed the fallacy of Ted Kaczinski and the ethics of Henry David Thoreau, for instance. Poor Ted K was a bit of an idiot when he exited. He was fine in his cabin until the deforestation company came and that’s when he started sending out his mail bombs. But Ted was naive to think he could set down roots and the capitalist machine wouldn’t catch up to him eventually.

Thoreau, for all the fetishisation of his exit, was far more nomadic, in that he was able to continually adapt, and in the sense that his years “in nature” were still spent in earshot of the town. The main benefit of his exit was to see the town from the perspective of the woods, to see it outside of itself and gain a new perspective, but not to leave it entirely. He did much the same thing from jail. To be removed from the flows of society was not to turn his back on them but see them for what they really are, in their totality, so that he might intervene in new ways.

In this sense, Thoreau understood the power of voice and exit in tandem and exercised both simultaneously. However, for those of us unable to just take a trip out to the woods, Fisher’s egress offers an exit from captured consciousness in the here and now, in line with his Spinozist “psychedelic reason” — “getting out through your head.” That sort of endeavor is all the more important when we note, as Shullenberger does, that “voice” is in crisis.

There is more about this in the Postcapitalist Desire lectures. Egress, for what it’s worth, deals with the difficulties of these questions in a very specific context. Other contexts are available — and much more hopeful.

At its best, and on a very personal level, Egress was an attempt to do what it was describing: find a way out of that depressive mode of thinking when I felt entirely and hopelessly immersed within it. It worked — although the blog hasn’t seen much of the benefits as yet — but what is coming next from me is far outside that cloistered consciousness and I’m excited about it.

Anyway, below are a few passages from Shullenberger’s essay that I think sketch this trajectory very well, extending Egress out into our present COVID moment also. It’s a very life-affirming turn of events, I think. As difficult as imagining alternatives was in 2017, and as horrific as this year has been, in 2020 we’re not just thinking about egresses but enacting them. In that sense, I hope the book remains quite prescient.


Fisher adapted Jacques Derrida’s neologism “hauntology” to evoke the melancholic presence within 21st-century culture of futures never realized by the 20th century’s utopian projects. He differentiated between the sterile nostalgia of “retro” culture and a distinct “hauntological melancholia” attuned not so much to the specific contents of earlier historical moments as to the conditions of possibility, trajectories, and energies embedded within them. While nostalgic retro culture may fall into the pathological impasses Freud and Brown identified, Fisher argued, hauntological melancholia might conversely sustain a defiance of “the closed horizons of capitalist realism” and inspire “a refusal to adjust to what current conditions call ‘reality.’”

Colquhoun develops this idea, suggesting that mourning transfigured into melancholia can render visible the “impossible Real” hidden by capitalist realism. Central to this claim is Jacques Lacan’s notion of the Real as that which any socially defined “reality” suppresses. For Fisher, “one strategy against capitalist realism could involve invoking the Real(s) underlying the reality that capitalism presents to us.” “Negative Reals” such as mental illness and climate catastrophe, that is, might “allow us to see Kapital’s striplit mall of the mind for what it actually is.”

Egress folds these inquiries back onto the narrative of Fisher’s own life and death. In particular, it explores the possibilities found within the collective experience of his mourning among his students, friends and colleagues. As Colquhoun writes, “the surreality of death as it is experienced by those that remain alive injects a strangeness deep into the heart of our communities [and] ruptures the strange behaviours we take for granted.”

[…]

The Covid-19 pandemic exemplifies Fisher’s “negative Real.” It is a traumatic irruption that has burst through the seams of our reality and forced us to reassess our ideas of what’s possible, individually and collectively. In Egress, Fisher’s death provides the primary instance of such a Real, but the virus and its economic fallout have lately played this role for all of us. The fact that a massive spontaneous protest movement emerged in the wake of these developments might support Colquhoun’s claim that moments of catastrophe and loss can generate new political subjectivities. On the other hand, the rapid embrace of the movement’s messages by the full spectrum of corporate interests should be cause for concern for anyone who has read Fisher, since it seems to confirm capital’s endless ability to absorb and profit from crises.

However you contemplate the current scene, the politics of voice are in crisis. The fact that recent protests have culminated more in unilateral corporate actions than in coherent political responses is one measure of this fact. The impact of the virus has thrown the sustaining rituals of politics into disarray and accelerated the migration of social life into a privatized virtual realm. Biological and technological trajectories are unfolding in the absence of effective political control. The question is not whether some political collective can harness these tendencies to some determinate political end, or whether we can only watch them unfold. The question is whether anyone is even in a position to make such a choice.

One thought on ““Exiting Left”: Geoff Shullenberger on ‘Egress’ for Athwart

  1. I might frame this in terms of the reactionary, as discussed by Corey Robin, Mark Lilla, and others. Reactionaries aren’t only those basket of deplorables over there. The reactionary has become a psychic hegemony of our shared imagination, what shapes our identity and drives our behavior. The only exit is awareness and perspective, an understanding of one’s predicament, seeing things clearly for what they are.

    There has to be a shift in consciousness, another way of being and relating, maybe what Mark Fisher meant by “getting out through your head.” That might require us to understand where consciousness, as interiority, originated. There are societies that have entirely different mentalities, as seen in the anthropological record but also as be discerned from ancient texts. Our folk psychology understanding of the human mind might be fundamentally wrong.

    Your discussion of ‘voice’ has much to do with consciousness. Our interiority is ruled by a particular kind of voice, far different from the more externalized voices of some other societies. It is through voice that what Julian Jaynes calls authorization has its power over what we think, feel, and do. We rarely think about where comes the voices we’ve internalized or what kinds of voices they are, much less how they speak and what they tell us.

    Jaynes points out how, as the experience of voice changed, a kind of nostalgic longing arose with the new interiority of egoic consciousness that took fuller form in the Axial Age. People began to lament about the voices of gods, ancestors, etc having gone silent, laments that were never expressed in earlier texts. A sense of a lost past became dominant in the human mind and nostalgia has been part of our society ever since. Robins and Lilla consider the nostalgic turn as the foundation of the reactionary mind.

    This relates to addiction and repetition-compulsion. Johann Hari argues that addiction replaces relationship and so the addict is the ultimate individual. That is to say the addict most fully embodies and expresses the modern mind, individualism pushed to its extreme where ‘voice’ doesn’t connect us but isolates us. And in isolation the radical imagination is shut down, such that ideological realism like a demiurgic force maintains its rule over us.

    We don’t need to deny or escape nostalgia that is the underlying pull that keeps us trapped. Instead, we need to reclaim it and full experience what it represents. Then we might be able to redirect it as a nostalgia for the Real, nostalgia for the unimagined, nostalgia for the future. About ‘egress’, the following might be relevant:

    Agamben’s Joyful Kafka
    by Anke Snoek
    Kindle Locations 358-375

    “Kafka’s ideas on imprisonment, catastrophe, freedom and ways out are not as simple as they might seem on the first reading of, for example, The Trial . The short story ‘A Report to an Academy’ provides further insight into the type of freedom that Kafka had in mind. The hunting expedition of the Hagenbeck Company captured an ape. To train him, they put him in a very small cage on the company’s steamboat, a cage that was too low for him to stand up and too small for him to sit down. At the same time the sailors tormented him. The ape realizes that if he wants to live he has to find a way out. But he does not contrast his distressing situation with freedom: ‘No, it was not freedom I wanted. Just a way out; to the right, to the left, wherever ; I made no other demands ’. The way out is not directed so much to a specific goal, i.e. freedom or return, but is simply a way out. The ape continues his story:

    “I am afraid that what I mean by ‘a way out’ will not be clearly understood. I am using it in the most common and also the fullest sense of the word. I deliberately do not say ‘freedom’. I do not mean that great feeling of freedom on all sides. Perhaps I knew it as an ape and I have known human beings who long for it. But as far as I am concerned, I did not ask for freedom either then or now.

    “What kind of hope does Kafka have in mind when claiming that hope exists? It is not freedom, ‘that great feeling of freedom on all sides’. Kafka has something more modest in mind: a way out. But how can this way out be found? In any case, the ape Red Peter concludes: ‘I no longer know whether escape was possible, but I believe it was; it ought always to be possible for an ape to escape. … I did not do it. What good would it have done me anyway?’ After all, he could be captured again and put in an even smaller cage or be eaten by other animals that are on the boat, such as the large snakes. He could also jump overboard, but then he would probably drown. Flight only means new forms of imprisonment or death.

    “Kafka’s characters do not flee.”

    Liked by 1 person

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