Kanye West got Kim Kardashian a hologram of her dead dad for her birthday but what weirded me out more than that gesture in itself were the replies directly below her tweet.
Many of them — far too many of them — argued that this was callous and insensitive to people who have recently lost loved ones to Covid and couldn’t say goodbye. Taking a video of your dead dad’s hologram is just failing to check your privilege. It doesn’t matter if he’s been dead seventeen years. You shouldn’t flex like that when not everyone has that sort of opportunity.
This is a cursed response that nonetheless feels hard-baked into the Kardashians’ whole USP. They’re people to keep up with — through their reality show, but also materially as well. Just like the Joneses, they’re America’s #1 family to aspire to know and aspire to be. If Kim’s got a dead dad hologram, you should get one too.
Immediately, in complaining about that image being shared, we enter a new world where the concept of having a dead dad hologram has become normalised. It, too, becomes another aspirational luxury.
The darkly humorous angle to take here is wondering, if this kind of thing was readily available, who would you bring back from beyond the grave? Is this even possible if you’re not already a celebrity? Who do you know who is dead that you have a sufficient amount of visual data on that you could realistically turn into a hologram? This brings about the somewhat bleak realisation that I’ve known quite a few people in my life who have died but the majority were before the advent (or at least the ascendency) of social media. I have friends who live on in my memories but who never had any sort of substantial social media presence.
That isn’t all that extraordinary, but it does hit different when you realise there is a generation alive right now that doesn’t know the poverty of that kind of internal memorial to their peers.
Anyway, if I did have the opportunity to bring back a dead relative, the only person to come to mind is my great-nana Cowie — my dad’s grandmother; mother to the grandmother I am currently radicalising through my own paper output. I only met her a handful of times but she made an incredible impression.
My main memory of her is in an old folks’ home, chain-smoking in front of the TV, getting a bit rowdy watching Wrestlemania, sometime in the mid-Nineties. A hologram of her would be priceless, although if it was constructed solely from my interactions with her it would no doubt be a horrifyingly glitched-out caricature.
This is to say that, whilst we can somewhat innocuously aspire to one day have holograms of all our dead friends and family members, what is required on our part to make that possible isn’t just wealth but fame. Kanye can produce an apparently realistic likeness of someone who died seventeen years ago because Robert Kardashian was probably one of the most photographed people in the Nineties due to his role in the OJ Simpson trial.
This is similarly how certain companies were able to make holograms of 2Pac and Michael Jackson. There is ample footage of both these men performing; all you really need to do is rotoscope that footage. In this sense, the real innovation back in 2012 was the projection technology rather than the reproduction of their likenesses. Now we have deep fakes and whatever else, things get a bit — or maybe a lot — more uncanny.
Of course, prior to Robert Kardashian’s resurrection, we already reached the lowest low in digital necromancy when the parents of Joaquin Oliver, who died in the Parkland school shooting of 2018, repurposed their son’s image in aid of a voter drive.
Nevertheless, in each instance, there is a lively political undercurrent to each holographic instance that retains some sense of the uncanny.
These instances have never had the desired effect on the viewer, which is typically one of mournful affiliation rather than abject revulsion. They raise questions about everything but their intended provocation. In the case of 2Pac, I’m reminded of Toby Heys’ essay for Unsound:Undead on “rapparitions”, in which performers appearing from beyond the grave raise more questions about the value of culturally significant black lives than was perhaps intended.
But an undead Robert Kardashian does something different. This isn’t a political statement or an attempt to cash in on his likeness but a husband’s extravagant birthday gift to his wife. As such, the conversation is different. Below the generalised revulsion towards the uncanny, digital immortality becomes a luxury to be desired for perhaps the first time.
There is an important point to be made here about hauntology. Despite what most meme groups will tell you, hauntology isn’t just a pretentious word for “nostalgia” — well, it is for some, but let’s not go there… The whole point of the word is the fact it is a pun on “ontology”. This pun isn’t just for the lulz; it is a neologism that highlights a particular relation between our experiences of the past and the future. In essence, then, hauntology is a name for that peculiar cultural by-product of nostalgia. It is what is ontologically produced by the past’s influence on the future, not just in terms of cultural artefacts but attitudes and social norms.
At the risk of jumping the gun, we can see a shift in social norms happening live here today on our Twitter feeds — if not with the general public, at least a large number of those people who aspire towards keeping up with the Kardashians. They don’t call them “influencers” for nothing…
But this sets an unnerving and fatally Oedipal precedent.
To explain why I think this is the case, bear with me as I go on something of a (nonetheless Hallowe’en-themed) detour…
Boards of Canada’s classic slab of hauntological pondering is called Music Has the Right to Children for good reason — it is an inspired and somewhat twisted statement on the future of music made through the regurgitation of PSAs and, notably, children’s voices. 
Children are eerie and quite explicitly hauntological in a very important way. They’re like little clones of ourselves that we make in order to — in a classically conservative sense — retain a certain longevity for our genes and our surnames and whatever else, but they also have lives and agency of their own. They can be very unpredictable and, whilst we might help them to grow, they are innately chaotic entities.
There are so many classic horror films about this, especially those that are centred on orphaned children who are literally displaced from their familial lineages…
But what these stories about demon children cast into stark relief is the Oedipal nature of our society. These children are little creeps not just in their own chaotic nature but because they are separated from literal fathers and, most importantly, the Father; the Holy Spirit. Damien from The Omen is understood to be the Antichrist, after all — and just as Jesus Christ was the child of God, the Antichrist must be a child as well.
And yet, here is the catch-22 we find Boards of Canada falling productively in-between. Their album is an affirmation of this creepiness. Despite itself, it insists upon music’s right to children and the (witch)craft of (re)production. BOC do not, despite their plunderphonic MO, insist on music’s right to immortal father figures. They affirm the chaotic maternal lineage that is devoid of God-like paternal influence.
I think this speaks to how important but also unstable acts of creation are in relation to worlding. On the surface, that is an obvious point, but creation is always a tightrope pulled taut between past, present and future; it is often a kind of double articulation, tangled up in maternal and paternal politics (symbolically, if not literally). It is always this complex balancing act between preservation, experimentation, and innovation. An album like Music Has The Right To Children is fascinating, I think, because it captures that tension pretty masterfully. Still, to this day, I listen to that album and feel in the presence of a deep engagement with the past that is nonetheless geared towards the future.
When I see the hologram of Robert Kardashian, all too aware of Kanye West’s own sense of himself as a visionary, I do not see a finely-tuned balance between conservation and innovation. I see patriarch reproducing patriarch to enchant the mother of his children.
Maybe that’s a stretch. Perhaps this is just a personal thing that is not worth being so concerned about. After all, it is perfectly understandable that the Kardashian sisters would have a tremendous amount of feeling attached to the image of their dead dad… But when they export that image to the world as something to aspire to, by their very nature as influencers, it is nonetheless horrifying to see the inadvertent retrenchment of digital patriarchy and Oedipal attachments that comes with it.
Happy birthday, Kim Kardashian… Happy Hallowe’en, everyone else…
I’ve written about this before, in an essay that I wish had a wider reach because the conversation around hauntology hasn’t improved much since, although perhaps that’s because it’s already died a death of its own. My critical interventions might be nothing other than holograms of my own.
This Hallowe’en, Repeater Books are teaming up with the Neon Hospice to bring you almost 12 hours of live-streamed spooky goodness. There will be live sets and mixes from — as well as conversations with — Leila Taylor, Kemper Norton, English Heretic, and Claire Cronin, and more!
I’m going to be presenting an introduction to the eerie, considering how Mark Fisher’s final book The Weird and the Eerie relates to his capitalist critiques, before we broadcast a rarely-heard “eerie mix” by k-punk himself.
From October 30th to November 13th, the spooky folks at Bristol Transformed are organising a series of Goth Communism events that, frankly, couldn’t be any more up my street…
In 2020 every day is a horror. Join Bristol Transformed in a celebration of the dark and the macabre. But Goth Communism can show you the light in the abyss.
We’ll explore how leaning into the darkness can reveal a path forward for the movement.
You can keep tabs on the full lineup of events (with more to be announced) over on Facebook.
On Sunday 8th November at 14:00 GMT, I’ll be taking part in “Hauntology House”, a one-off reading group where we will look at the new Mark Fisher collection, Postcapitalist Desire, specifically the fourth lecture on “Union Power & Soul Power”.
You can book tickets for the event here and keep tabs on it on Facebook here. Every ticket comes with a free eBook of the collection so get involved! I’m very much looking forward to this — not least because it provides ample opportunity to talk about my two favourite if seemingly disparate interests: goth and disco.
You can read Bristol Transformed’s introduction to the session below:
In partnership with Repeater Books, we’ll be reading a new collection of lectures from the late Mark Fisher — Postcapitalist Desire: The Final Lectures. We will be joined in this discussion by Matt Colquhoun
Matt Colquhoun is the collection’s editor and author of Egress: On Mourning, Melancholy and Mark Fisher. He will be discussing a little bit about how the book came about before we dive into a discussion on the chapter titled: “Union Power & Soul Power”
People who register free for the event ahead of time using the link provided above will receive a free copy of the Ebook + a zoom link. The deadline to register is Friday 6th November and spaces are limited.
If you somehow haven’t heard, a YouTube video that showcases the entirety of Leyland Kirby’s six final instalments of the Caretaker project has become a kind of endurance test for zoomers, who “duet” their reactions over the six hours it takes to listen to it in its entirety, commenting on their experience of the dissolution of the self as they interact with and juxtapose previous iterations of their TikToked selves.
Confused? You are but a mirror image of their strife, boomer.
If there were ever an “I wish Mark Fisher were here” moment for 2020, I think this takes the biscuit.
In many ways, and with Mark in mind, the sudden popularity of Kirby’s project with a plugged-in generation under quarantine makes total sense. Having a better affinity with their elders’ experiences of dementia is one thing — and much has been made of the project’s consciousness-raising/razing function in that sense — but I think there’s a lot more to be said about how the Caretaker project as a whole reflects young people’s present experiences. In fact, it surely epitomises an earlier Caretaker project — the one that Mark wrote the liner notes for: Theoretically Pure Anterograde Amnesia, which takes its name from “a condition where it’s impossible to remember new events.”
There’s a certain irony that so many of these TikToks begin with a nihilist and despondent anterograde-amnesiac sentiment. “A six-hour endurance listening session? Well, I’ve not got anything better to do…” And with that, these kids spend a day tumbling down the rabbit hole, just to feel something, before it is back to 2020’s boring dystopia. They keep on TikToking, like nothing ever happened.
“Could it be said that we all now suffer from a form of theoretically pure anterograde amnesia?” This was Mark’s opening gambit on the liner notes to that release; later reproduced in his 2014 book Ghosts of My Life. What was a provocative and cynical statement back in 2006 seems far more applicable now.
As we look around our present landscape of mental trauma, this kind of cognitive scarring, whether retrograde or anterograde, seems pervasive. I have read numerous government reports this week, for instance, talking about “lost generations”.
My advance copies of Mark Fisher’s Postcapitalist Desire: The Final Lectures arrived in the post the other day. I’m not usually one for book fetishism but the finish on these is absolutely stunning. The photo nerd in me was genuinely blown away by how well the hardback holds the colours in Johnny Bull’s already iconic cover. Repeater Books have outdone themselves with this. It feels incredibly special and I cannot wait for you all to see it in the flesh.
If you want one, there is currently no pre-order but they will be out in January 2021, online and in bookshops. Keep your eye on the Repeater Books website here, where you can currently buy the eBook. (We’re also planning a bunch of online events around the launch so you’re unlikely to miss it once it’s out…)
Over the weekend, I followed @thejaymo down a clickhole for his incredibly wholesome web show, Come Internet With Me. We spent an hour talking about what I’d probably be writing about if I wasn’t doing all this other nonsense — tornadoes — as well as Microsoft Excel…?
Towards the end of our hour-long chat, we ended up reading about tornadoes in London — one that occurred in 1091, apparently destroying London Bridge and another that happened in 1954. For some reason, there’s only footage of the aftermath of the second one but its a terrifying sight. It is reminiscent of the London Blitz in a way must have been pretty traumatic for people.
I promised Jay I would continue this click hole to see where else it led me.
I ended up looking up two further storms to strike Britain in the twentieth century — not just singular tornadoes but “outbreaks”. One was in 1913, which led to two tornadoes in England and three in South Wales — this website provides a pretty thorough timeline of the destruction — and the other was in 1981, the largest tornado outbreak in European history. This resulted in tornadoes touching down in Liverpool, Birmingham, Hull, Manchester, the Welsh town of Holyhead and the Warwickshire village of Stoneleigh. Over a five-hour period on the 23rd April that year, there were 104 confirmed tornadoes. I found this very dense 2016 academic paper with diagrams galore re-examining the conditions that led to the outbreak.
I think part of my interest in tornadoes comes from the few I used to hear about happening over Hull. I remember one year there were reports of one that felled a tree and flipped a few cars. I tried to find a few reports about this but couldn’t find one I recognised. There were, however, various reports of other tornadoes forming (if not quite touching down) over Hull with a surprising frequency. The most recent was in 2019 (with video here), another in 2014 which caused considerable damage (with another report here). The one I heard about must have been in the mid-2000s.
I wonder if East Yorkshire experiences these things more frequently than I first thought? It would explain the strange synchronicities I’ve found in relationships with people over the years. I will never forget the first time I ever met my birth mother, we somehow ended up on this topic and I told her that it was a secret dream of mine to live in a van for a year and just chase storms full-time. She literally replied, “oh my god me too!” And that was weird…
Anyway, tornadoes are crazy and fascinating and wild.
Go check out the rest of Jay’s stuff on his website. He publishes a wonderfully diverse range of content and is legitimately one of the most interesting people I know.
[Critical Theory] holds that truth in all forms is subjective, a function of power exerted by the privileged over the victimized. This power envelops not just the “marginalized” but everyday language, law, science, medicine and academic research. All these intellectual realms are mere creations of “an entrenched patriarchal ascendancy”. Only identities and emotions may be treated as “reified” or real.
Simon Jenkins’ review of Cynical Theories in the latest issue of the Times Literary Supplementis a masterclass in jerking off with the hand that feeds you. He demonstrates so succinctly how the ouroboros of neoliberalism seeks to neutralise any and all opposition to itself, precisely by casting its enemies in its own image. In the case of “identity politics”, this occurs when pundits attack the egg that the golden goose of neoliberalism (as the ideology of late capitalism) has laid for us. This is most apparent in that final sentence of the quotation above — “Only identities and emotions may be treated as ‘reified’ or real.”
Surely this is a point of agreement between Marxists and today’s conservative pundits? The reification of social relations — “identities and emotions” — is a central critique of capitalism’s impact on subjectivity; one made by Marx and Marxists repeatedly for over a century. The problem with identity politics more broadly is that this process of reification is precisely how idpol ends up playing into capitalism’s hands. By making individual identities and emotions things to trade on, rather than starting points for the construction of anti-capitalist solidarity, they are reified and commodified. Enter “woke capitalism”, or, as it used to be known, “pink capitalism”. First there was the appropriation of sexual politics by corporations, now we have an appropriation of racial politics by corporations — but it’s all done in service of the same agenda: maintaining capitalist realism. Demonstrating how capitalism cares about its underclass and is doing all that it possibly can to help them (honest!) emboldens the view that radicals and critics are unreasonable and impossible to satisfy.
Today, this logic is becoming increasingly twisted. This process of alienation does not just occur in the realm of popular culture, where it can be critically compartmentalised and dealt with accordingly; now the right is taking aim at the apparent last bastion of defence — academia — exploiting an internal rot that has, again, been encouraged by the “neoliberalisation” of universities themselves. As such, those who have arguably encouraged cancel culture’s pervasiveness the most (by banging on about it for years now; it is a hyperstition if ever there was one) now attribute it to their old enemies.
In Jenkins’ review (and, supposedly, the book in question), the blame bizarrely lies at the feet of Gramsci, Derrida, and Foucault — Deleuze and Guattari’s term “micropolitics” gets a mention but seems to be lumped in with “microaggressions” as a snowflake grievance, rather than one of the more useful concepts at our disposal for explaining how we’ve ended up in this mess. Jenkins, playing the useful idiot, instead conflates this cognitive dissonance within an understanding of leftist theory to an inherent unreason within anti-capitalist theory itself, conveniently obscuring the fact that, for the last hundred years, Marxists (and plenty of others besides) have attributed this propensity for unreason — the encouragement of theory to eat itself — to the dialectic of capitalism itself.
What is notable is that this amorphous and hapless “critical theory” is not once given its proper name. Nor is the central target of its critique ever mentioned: capitalism. Instead, “critical theory” is hopelessly generalised at every turn — much like the “science” and “reason” that Jenkins claims to support in its stead. Despite the acutely political nature of the problem at hand, it is depoliticised and pathologies, and turned into an argument between madness and truth.
The generalised narrative put forward by Jenkins is that the “postmodernists” (read: “poststructuralists” et al. — postmodernism is the cultural logic of late capitalism, not its critics proper), having “seen a transformation of policy and practice on race, gender and homosexuality”, thanks to their own theories, must “shift their target from ‘material advances within social structures’ to ever more obscurantist grievances.” But what is obscured here by Jenkins and, presumably, the subjects of his review, is that progress and reform are, of course, not the aim here. It’s not about improving capitalism but removing it and surpassing it. What they obscure here instead, in very convenient and leading terms, is a consistent analysis of how capitalism adapts to its critiques whilst retaining its grasp on society.
As a result, what gets lost in Jenkins’ review is a century of consistency offered up by the theoretical left. Instead, at every opportunity, we see a preference for muddying the waters.
I do wonder how successful a sustained history of the “neoliberalisation” of subjectivity could be in our present moment. (There are arguably already a few out there but none that has broken into popular discourse and skewered the noise of the present.) Many have written on this over the decades but now more than ever we can see how this cyclone of attacks on the left’s negative praxes has its roots in neoliberalism itself — and the left has the receipts to prove it. Why not collate them? Aren’t there some opportunities left to exploit here? To watch the right attack the left for becoming what it has encouraged them to become surely leaves a few open goals for those sensitive to late-capitalism’s contradiction engine?
Then again, the left has a serious problem when attempts to retain a fidelity to its rich theoretical history start to sound like I know you are but what am I? But this too seems intentional. The right’s present obsession with “cancel culture” and “identity politics” and “leftist intolerance” begins to feel like a vicious opportunism. Finally, the left has started to succumb to capitalism’s influence; now is the time to attack this chink in their armour with everything we’ve got. The irony is that, in choosing this mode of attack, the right leaves itself open to critique in turn.
In attacking the left’s present state, it highlights the results of its own processes. Attempts to blame many of the left’s most famous theorists are always poorly researched and desperate. This is because the real source of the left’s worst habits is the very thing they hope to defend.
Jenkins reports, for instance, that Cynical theories deems cancel culture to be the biggest threat to Western democracy and reason since the Soviet Union, but our current moment isn’t the product of authoritarian state legislation from behind the Iron Curtain; it’s the result of capitalist dynamics being let loose in communication channels. This leads to an antagonistic circle jerk devoid of any substance, and least of all any class analysis and actual Marxism.
The problem for Jenkins is that the left has a solution ready and waiting. It knows exactly what to do to rectify the anemic group politics of late capitalism. More communism, please!
I was reminded of this after seeing this tweet from Ash Sarkar the other day —
— which I’d say expresses the exact same argument made by Mark Fisher seven years ago in his controversial essay “Exiting the Vampire Castle” —
The issue for Fisher was that many of our elite cultural and academic institutions have erased class from their considerations for too long. The focus of Fisher’s critique was, of course, the left — partly why the essay was so controversial — but this was for good reason. The UK left’s blind spot around class in the twenty-first century — a hangover from the New Labour years — was a leak hole within which its opponents were establishing an enemy within. The left had suffered from decades of neoliberalisation and, as a result, had found itself, at least at the level of mainstream discourse, to be a mirror image of its opponents. This was only obvious to the majority in the UK following the rise of Jeremy Corbyn, but that moment was arguably prefigured by the likes of Mark Fisher and Owen Jones, who repeatedly attempted to re-energise this waning class consciousness during the first decade of the new millennium.
In response, we have seen a re-treading of right-wing tactics from the 1960s and ’70s. Just as the working class had broadly been forgotten about and demonised and effectively erased from (inter)national consciousness since the 1970s, the left’s attempts to reverse this in the 2000s were met with a repeat of the right’s cajoling of a reactionary working class. This process has had a detrimental effect on the left, as it suggests that, Yes, okay, if you insist, there are working class people but they’re not leftists — all leftists are bourgeois. The right holds a mirror up to its opponents and whilst, in most circumstances, this would be a fickle and easily-sidestepped manoeuvre, as we reach the end of the long game of neoliberalism we find ourselves unfortunately confounded, because as superficial as their retorts are, there is now some truth in them. The left has indeed been infected by a kind of bourgeois subjectivity — a subject position made the default by neoliberalism’s war on class consciousness. Therein lies our chicken/egg scenario.
Fisher got taken to the cleaners for this suggestion a few years ago, and his essay has since been appropriated by those on the right as an early essay written in their reactionary favour, but in the fervour of disagreement the actual argument is buried time and again. What Fisher deemed necessary was a new drive “to identify the features of the discourses and the desires which have led us to this grim and demoralising pass, where class has disappeared, but moralism is everywhere, where solidarity is impossible, but guilt and fear are omnipresent — and not because we are terrorised by the right, but because we have allowed bourgeois modes of subjectivity to contaminate our movement.”
Any nuance is smashed out of this argument by the right themselves — and it was telling how many respondents to Sarkar’s tweet felt she was similarly talking gibberish. But the irony is that Simon Jenkins holds the same view. As he sees it, “the politics of group identity” are affected by “a bourgeois preciousness that privileges some groups to the neglect of others, such as the poor, the alienated, the disempowered and perhaps even the unconsciously racist.” (He bizarrely blames Kimberlé Crenshaw’s concept of “intersectionality” for this at one point, but Crenshaw’s concept targets this same bourgeois sentiment as it manifests in institutions of law.)
This hop, skip and jump linking poverty to “unconscious” racism is the primary maneuver behind the right’s construction of a reactionary working class, but somehow it’s the left who are blamed for it. Why? For the same reason that has stalked the West for decades; as Fisher notes repeatedly in his Postcapitalist Desire lectures, this is where the problems began — the right-wing driving a wedge between the left (who are supposedly all posh) and those they claim to represent (the poor), leading to the creation of a reactionary working-class that sides with the actually posh establishment and calls it aspiration.
This has presented the right with the perfect bait-and-switch. As the left mutates under a pervasive right-wing influence, the right can attack them using the left’s own moral standards, obfuscating the fact that the present nightmare of popular political discourse is the spawn of the right’s policies and political interventions going back decades. As such, through this increasingly twisted logic, they are able to declare the left to be the epitome of 21st-century paranoia and moralisation, only to cast their own moral bankruptcy as a virtue. The distraction provided by the left’s auto-immune disease then allows the right to fall back on their familiar arguments of “leftism just doesn’t work”.
I would not be surprised if, in a decade or so, once we have (hopefully) climbed out of this impotence, the right will declare “well, you had your shot a few years ago when you took over the universities and that was a disaster” — to which the left will reply “a leftist university has never been tried.” The mind-numbing arguments that stalk state communism echo down the years, in ever more parochial contexts… And the right remains content in making sure its chicken-or-egg approach to discourse continues forever, all to the benefit of capitalism.
Because this kind of discourse is, of course, a prime foundation for capitalist realism. The right insists, time and again, that we’ve tried it the leftist way and it was a disaster. Meanwhile, all the interventions and barricades and coups are conveniently scrubbed from the history books. We see the same thing happening now. What is supposedly authoritarian about a present left-wing agenda is that it seeks to shine a light on a capitalist unconscious — and where else does capitalism really operate other than there? The left has been happy to simply shine a light on capitalist dreamwork and shout, “Look! Look at these cracks in the firmament! Look at the unconscionable things used to fill in the cracks! Look at the foundations of this world in which we live — built on atrocities hidden in plain sight!”
This isn’t enough. We have to build a consciousness around these issues in a way that doesn’t simply feed into the right’s narrative. One way of doing this — the most common, as I see it — is simply refusing to play the game. But the other option is playing the game better than they are. This is surely possible. Their tactic, so far, amounts to a chant of “stop hitting yourself, stop hitting yourself” as they throw our own theories back at us. But this is the future they always wanted. This is the end game of neoliberalism. If they hate the straw man of a reactionary left so much — a left that they themselves have summoned — they best be careful what they wish for, because the best alternative will likely be a truly leftist one. We should try demonstrating that.
The last month or so has been tough and falling for the beautiful melodrama of Phoebe Bridgers after about the fourth recommendation really hasn’t helped me be any more mellow about things.
I was hardly surprised that Phil Elverum is also a fan. I came across the following nod to Bridgers in a recent interview he gave to Pitchfork. When asked about his songwriting style, Elverum explains what it is about lyrics and poetry are resonates with him:
Adrian [Orange] is able to talk about bad food packaging and shiny paint jobs on mid-priced cars — and it’s not gratuitous. That’s all he has to say and you’re there on the sidewalk with him. Poetry works better when you are grounded. Recently, I’ve been listening to Phoebe Bridgers, and she is really good at getting hyper-specific. There are ways to abuse that too: overused specificity. But I think she is able to bridge the poetic version of songwriting with more feet-on-the-ground stuff. That’s what I like.
I think I’ve been into poetry recently for much the same reason. I felt like I was in this totally grounded place, singing along to Microphones in 2020, reading a lot of Lawrence, Auden and Heaney, feeling this excitement about a return to nature and a return to the North, my life vicariously affirmed by Elverum’s expressive look back at the continuum that carries him forwards as I too looked out on a bright new horizon with feet firmly planted.
We are moving to West Yorkshire and it is going to be a big, new adventure!
I was calm about the whole thing and excited about being closer to places and people I’ve been missing for some years now; about getting out of London and making a new home in a new place that is slower and quieter and closer to big open spaces; about having a garden and not constantly feeling that sense of financial burden that comes from the capital’s tandem normalisation of extreme rents and precarious employment — what’s not to be excited about? I was so excited I wrote a poem of my own about it. That feeling of groundedness felt really powerful and empowering. In the midst of all this change, I was feeling very confident about where I was and what I wanted.
And then, just like that, it all went away. The horizon became a cliff edge and, one night, after someone else’s leaving doo, and after a few drinks too many, the sudden vertigo was overwhelming. Change rushed into view and the sensation was soundtracked by yet more Bridgers. Original context aside, “Motion Sickness” — her catchy break-up anthem about a push-pull of people and places underwritten by equal amounts of joy and trauma — offered up a potent anthem for the resulting nausea. I’m still singing it to myself weeks later.
Following a poorly-timed shift in my dosage of anti-depressants and the first couple of goodbyes, I started to realise just how grounded I’ve been in London. Yes, I’ve felt utterly devoured by it and often talked a big talk about one day getting out — as everyone does — but when the opportunity finally arrived and we jumped at it, I discovered I was actually more comfortable in the belly of the beast than I’d previously admitted to myself.
To suddenly find comfort in our little corner of that alienating metropolis was the exact opposite of what I’d just been feeling on our recent return to the North. My self-confidence collapsed in on itself. I suddenly felt myself torn between two perspectives, both recently reacquired. I felt utterly disorientated and not grounded at all.
It is because of this that what follows is fragmentary. It is six weeks in the making — an unfathomable amount of time to spend on a blogpost for me. It has unfolded in fits and starts. Vignettes overlap and contain echoes of each other. I’ve tried to cut it down but I can’t. The slight repetitions feel apt — it mirrors the stuttering thought processes of a writing mind uprooted and suddenly off its track. Somebody roll the windows down.
The writing compulsion persists despite not knowing what to say about how I feel. Writing it anyway helps alleviate the writerly constipation. Suffice it to say, I’ve been derailed and I’m trying to get back to where I was — mentally, creatively, existentially… We’ll see if this unruly ramble helps.
At first, I had welcomed the return of a bigger picture. I was reclaiming a grasp on the length and breadth of this nation that London had somehow shrunk in my imagination. This was aided by consecutive weekends spent shuttling ourselves between London and West Yorkshire, looking for a new place to live. On each trip, we took every opportunity to explore a North that we no longer knew.
As we looked at houses and negotiated viewings from our base at my girlfriend’s parent’s house, we would cross the top quadrant of the Peak District National Park daily, doing loops around the Holme Moss transmitting station. One weekend, for my girlfriend’s brother’s birthday, we drove up to Carlisle for a night and spent two days exploring mountains and caverns in the Lake District.
After four years more or less tethered to the M25 and its orbit, the wide-open spaces of the North of England felt unreal. What had previously felt like home — a landscape where I’d personally spent dozens of dodgy school trips and damp family holidays — was now another world. I felt more appreciative of it than I’d ever been before and excited to become reacquainted with its peaks and valleys. I kept looking out the car window, mouth agape, just going on about how big everything was. It all felt so new. It was the best thing we could have done to reconnect with a part of the world we used to know but had lost touch with.
And yet, in truth, I was already suspicious of my own romanticising of a once-familiar landscape. The creases in my ideal were beginning to show and the reality of our move was creeping up on me.
Having dipped my toe into the resurgent cottage industry of new British nature writing, I have always found myself repulsed by the stories of middle-class urbanites exploiting their London wages, buying big homes in poorer areas and gentrifying the great outdoors. I felt myself spinning a similar mental yarn of post-London reconnection, but this was no prodigal-son-returned narrative; a financially-bolstered return to innocence. This was claustrophobic lockdown horror, moving north to counter a sudden loss of income. Cheaper lodgings with more room to breathe felt like a smart move, financially and for my mental health, even if we were moving into a more high-risk area. But despite the move making sense, I found myself stricken by the opposite experience to many a nature writer. I had no sense of green-thumbed relief.
On our descent from the mountains, a new letting contract in hand and two weeks left to pack up our belongings, I found myself surprised by just how small London could be, and how cosy. I suddenly liked our little world, our shoebox flat, and the closeness of our friends. I suddenly saw London for what it was — as I’d seen it on my first night in the city, from the roof of some Peckham tower block, looking down on prospective loved ones and all the small details of lives lived.
Back then, I saw London through the naïve eyes of a Northerner afraid of the urban sprawl. I’d spent much of the six months prior to moving isolated in the High Peak, seeing very little of anyone and, frankly, feeling quite suicidal. I spent my days driving around aimlessly to sad songs — getting lost; feeling lost. I was utterly dreading the move but I was in a place that I could stay no longer.
I’d never had any desire to live in London previously. In fact, I was oddly proud of having avoided it — that Hull Housemartins hangover — but it just so happened to be where Goldsmiths was, and I couldn’t find anywhere else I’d rather study.
After all my attempts to avoid it, I fell in love with it pretty quickly. I found people who I connected with effortlessly — a first. It was everything, until it wasn’t, and when Mark died those friends got each other through. Then, four years since I moved, almost to the day, I saw London again with those wide eyes, from the summit of some new but still prospective Northern existence, and with a renewed appreciation of what it could offer. I saw its scale and still felt dwarfed by it, but I saw the intimacy of it all too, which I hadn’t experienced since I first made south-east London my home. And that was truly what I saw as I turned my back and drove away — home.
In that moment, I admitted to myself that I loved Deptford and I loved New Cross. I loved Lewisham and Greenwich and Nunhead and Brockley. I loved the south-east. I loved our quick drives out to the Kentish coast and its strange flatness. I loved Hastings and Dungeness and Whitstable and Margate. Unfortunately, enraptured by a new Northern scale, I felt I had already said goodbye to these places and their tensions and their flows and their traffic. They seemed already distant. As I juggled these two perspectives — one of grandeur, one of intimacy — I also realised how much I had taken London and these other places for granted. You don’t know what you’ve got ’til its gone. I no longer knew what I wanted or where I wanted to be.
Poetry was no longer good for me. It hurt. What had felt empowering now made me motion-sick. Each detail and moment felt more pointed than poignant. I went to bed each night on a bed of nails.
The last few weeks in London were spent in a sudden depression. Grief was resurfacing. I had travelled back in time to 2017. On the night the black cloud fully descended, I was talking to my friend Natasha about all that we’d been through and all that we had not said. Between the two of us, we’d been through a lot and not always seen eye to eye, but our friendship has thankfully persisted. There may have still been a few cracks that were generously glossed over but never accounted for. I felt, in those last weeks, we accounted for many more of them. The past reared up and we greeted it like an old friend, and I felt we were better friends in that moment for it.
But Natasha made a comment that I have a tendency, on Twitter and on this blog, to obfuscate the communities about which I’ve written so much. She wasn’t wrong. In many respects, Egresswas an opportunity to tell it like it really was; to do a rollcall of everyone so important to the last few years of life in London — not just important to my life but to each other’s; the whole web of relations. For what it’s worth, I am happy to talk about anyone — a little too happy sometimes — but I do not take lightly the sense of exposure that might result from being namechecked on a blog such as this. It took me a long time to acknowledge myself, as the man behind the mask, never mind the friends who inspired me to adopt it.
In reality, all I had managed to do was disconnect this world from that one, and alienate those close to me from a new life lived online.
Given how fraught communication has often been in these online spaces, and how disconnected from my real life I have tried to keep it, Natasha admitted that, prior to the publication of Egress, she was reticent about the book and how everything might be portrayed. I am grateful that, in the end, its publication seemed to inaugurate a moment of healing for our somewhat strained friendships. It was clear, I hope, to those named within its pages, that it was a tribute to everything that we had achieved together and to our continued survival in the face of all things. But there was still no denying the fact that I had spent close to a year writing about our community in a depressive isolation.
It was realising this, and regretting it, that hurt the most. Lockdown only made things worse by normalising this insular existence. And yet, despite how I may have acted, I felt very differently.
Whilst there was so much about life in the city that I was happy to give up, I nonetheless underestimated the emotional roots laid down there regardless. I underestimated my attachment to the details, even if I found the overall picture repugnant. I realised that, more than anything, I was going to miss the people.
The most beautiful thing about a big city is the sheer volume of friends you can have in one place. Never have I known and loved so many people collectively, but what really began to hurt was the realisation that I had let many of these friendships atrophy, and not for the first time. I’m just not very good at friendship — the philosophical weight attached to the concept in Egress is more an expression of neurosis than pretentiousness. I think a lot about what Kodwo said about it — it does some very heavy lifting — but that is also how it feels. As such, I find maintaining a social life to be a bit like spinning plates. It does not come naturally to me. I find it to be something of a miracle that I ended up making as many friends in London as I did.
It was this experience, more than anything, that informed Egress — the intensity of big city friendships; how one friendship could create a dozen other bonds. This was a powerful experience for me, particularly when thrown under the harsh light of grief. Our very movements in and around this city quickly gave form to an amorphous web of interconnectivity, a feeling that you are never really alone, and it was the details that gave form to these people-place relations that I found myself mourning so intensely in anticipation of a final goodbye. It was the specific experiences, the mundanity of being in each other’s daily lives, that I found it difficult to let go of.
Because what is a place to any of us other than a set of social relations? The city is a shoreline on which to admire this to-and-fro tide of friends and friendships. Now that we were packing up and leaving our sunny spot on the beach, turning our backs on that tide, I had a desire to reconsider every grain of sand before I left. It’s knowing that, whilst I will see all these people again at some point in the future, it won’t be in this context or in this moment or in this configuration. No longer caught up in the same current, I anticipate every future visitation will be to a different place with different people. The whole experience made me feel shattered and refracted. A context is a strange and intangible thing to mourn.
The friends who have been subjected to my sentimentality in recent weeks have no doubt found themselves surprised by my sudden affections. The Matt of 2017, the Matt in Egress, who narrates a collective effort towards consciousness-raising, was almost lost over the intervening years when I tried to finish the book. Egress was, in this sense, something of a life raft — it was something to hang onto as I tried to retain a grasp on a sense of collective purpose and belonging that was later undermined by the emotional fallout of that fateful year.
(If so much of this blog has been given over to reflecting on its release during lockdown, this is why — I did not anticipate it to enter into a world where its communal ideals were being challenged so fundamentally, not just by the individualising forces of capitalism but by a virus that makes social intimacy as a social threat. The two events in tandem — release and lockdown — have been more of an existential shock than I could have ever anticipated.)
Whilst some experienced my onlineness as a slide to the dark side, I felt I was pushed there by an unwarranted paranoia. I felt like an early, if minor, casualty of the culture wars, but I have since managed to divest myself of such a perspective. The truth is that, on the left and on the right, paranoia only begets more paranoia. We might ridicule the present state of affairs where both fascists and antifascists point at and accuse each other of a true fascism, but if there is any truth to the back and forth, it is that both sides can have a tendency to fall head first into a paranoia encouraged by the information cyclone that is social media. Foucault’s preface to Anti-Oedipus comes to mind: to truly live a non-fascist life we must “free political action from all unitary and totalizing paranoia”. Over the last five years, that central tenet has been all but forgotten — not least by myself, for a time.
In late 2017, attacked by people I thought were friends, I found myself embittered and infected by the paranoia they themselves had fallen victim to. I ended up very online and captured by a paradox that has befallen a few others around these parts: a paranoid hatred of leftist paranoia. It is unsurprising that many began to question my allegiances, but this questioning only sent me deeper down the rabbit hole.
From then on, and with a tragic lack of self-awareness, I buried my head in the sand. I disconnected from the spaces I had hoped to champion in Egress that were acutely unparanoid, and as I interpreted my friends’ growing concern for me as yet more paranoia, I almost rendered myself an utterly lost cause.
In recent weeks, some readers have commented on the fact I seem to have found a new clarity of expression and purpose. I think this is true. After three years, I have managed to shake off this lingering cloud of paranoia. A deep, libidinal investment in new writing projects — the Postcapitalist Desire lectures in particular — have laid the foundations for this, but it is leaving London that has been the most galvanising event. It has meant excavating myself from my hovel, before taking one last look around at what I was too afraid to acknowledge. I have been filled with regrets. I have been telling people that I love them.
The issue is, perhaps, that whilst London encourages its own form of intimacy, it is also easy to live an isolated life within its bounds — a life that is observant rather than participatory.
I have often felt cosy (if nonetheless afraid) in my London flat, hemmed in by ghosts wandering around outside — ghosts that nonetheless provide a sort of tuning-fork ring that shimmers under the day-to-day white noise of city life. Whether I’m with people I know or home alone, the sound comforts and gives the constant noise a homely texture, which emanates from the strings of social relation.
I was sad to say goodbye to that presence, even if it was a presence I struggled to fully engage with. The fact that it was there was often enough. As I have dug myself out of a paranoid hole, I have come to recognise an obscured reality. Knowing it is there isn’t enough for me; taking part is what matters. No matter how much I struggle through it, or find myself exhausted by the effort required to remain social, it is always worth it. Better to suffer for collective joy than suffer alone.
This realisation, as painful as it is right now, will hopefully serve me well. I am aware that what is necessary now is a synthesis of these two perspectives; of grandeur and intimacy. Do not relegate organisation and affection to the bounds of the M25, I tell myself everyday like a mantric mouthful. Open your heart to include the nation, not just the parochial capital. I must once again relate to friends as I used to, but on a grander scale, across boundaries and borders. I mustn’t use the internet as a shortcut. Be present in the stuff of people’s lives. (Solution #1: mail art?)
In a strangely backwards fashion, it was returning to London after our various trips up north that I rediscovered this intimate grandeur. If anything, it was a new sense of this combination that I found so hard to swallow. The strangeness of its texture meant it stuck to the roof of my mouth. The skyline, in particular, as seen from the perspective of the nation’s arterial motorways, took on a cybergothic air. Its skyscrapers emerged from the flat landscape as if signposting a bloated Ballardian hamlet, built upwards rather than outwards.
I felt this tension again as I walked back and forth along the Thames Path. That great river seems so slender and serpentine from above, and is so famously depicted from that perspective, but the reality of its breadth is breath-taking when seen in certain lights.
After Natasha and I navigated its twists and turns from Deptford through Greenwich and close to the Woolwich border, I was left haunted by the sight of a lone rower. Again, London’s cybergothic tendency was writ large, as this pond skater skirted the watery void between royal palaces and central banks — time-twisted monuments to a wealth we were not privy to.
That rower, passing between the two clefts of a pollutant-mutant Dickensian London, entirely of their own volition, dwarfed by the flows of water and capital around them, was a figure to envy. At that moment, I felt utterly without a paddle. Whilst this reconnection between grandeur and intimacy felt revelatory, it was nonetheless a trauma. I felt the sharp pain of pinching together an old wound so that it might finally be stitched shut. I started to miss that old sense of gliding through the raw.
As I went about both my physical and mental farewell tour of favourite spots with a few of my favourite people, I found myself loving these moments as I was in them; loving the details of things. I’d become newly attached to a long-neglected film camera and quickly found myself caught up in the materiality of the photographic process. I eagerly awaited the return of my negatives, sent out from London but returned to Huddersfield, on which the memories of these last few weeks had been etched tangibly forever. As I struggled to write and finish this meandering eulogy to London life, it was the photographs that I waited for, which I knew were needed to provide structure, to provide references points beyond the emotional instability. The Barthesian melancholy of film photography took over. I felt like I had begun to see in black-and-white.
Herein lies the poetry of photography, similarly rediscovered after a few years spent neglecting what was previously my medium of choice. Having suddenly found a love of poetry and then lost it as its lightness became too heavy to bear, photography provided a foundation to fall back on, as a way to ground and feel grounded.
I have often thought about photography in much the same way that Elverum describes his preferred brand of lyricism. My favourite photographs are photographs of the details that ground and unground us: the trash of everyday life that becomes surreal when removed from the fog of immediacy. Forget all the technical fetishisation that drags photography down into a utilitarian mundanity; at its best photography is a way to ground yourself, even when that might be the last thing that you feel in a given moment. This is because to take a picture is always to plant one’s feet and, with each click of the shutter, say yes to the world around you.
It was only after the negatives were returned and I could look over a lockdown’s worth of photographs that I felt I understood this sense of displacement; this sliding between scales. There was this strange moment of transition, from focusing on the details of everyday life to suddenly seeing the world at a distance.
This was most apparent in two pictures at the start of the roll, taken back in February, a week or two before Egress came out and about a month before the coronavirus lockdown. At that time, I was running a short postgraduate module at the Royal College of Art on walking and the positive feedback loop of an embodied aesthetics. I was presenting a version of my “Points of View” essay from 2018, in situ at the National Gallery. We were talking about self-portraiture — Rembrandt, Lee Friedlander, Kim Kardashian — and our art-historical tendency to depict of ourselves as “people-things”. I have long held a fascination with that kind of self-regarding distance; of self-objectification and the almost sacred groundedness that comes from seeing oneself as an person-thing.
Later it was images from Knole — our go-to Sunday walking spot and the former home of Vita Sackville-West, the inspiration for Virginia Woolf’s Orlando. I have thought often about the way that Woolf writes Vita’s inheritance of the manor into the end of her novel. In real life, she was denied such a privilege but, more than that, Woolf declares that Vita / Orlando will inherit time itself — the house and all 365 of its rooms. Vita becomes an essence from this perspective, rather than a woman. She transcends the personal whilst forever epitomising it.
On our last visit, we saw the stags a final time. They are my favourite creatures. Always distant, vigilant, but reminding me of home and of the Colquhoun family crest and that melancholy motto, si je puis — adopted, in more ways than one.
If I can…
For all my hand-wringing about the aftermath of publishing my first book, it all comes back to this sort of strange self-regarding experience. As I worked feverishly on it, neglecting a life beyond my laptop screen, I thought, “Just wait — if I can finish it, I’ll be real again. I’ll have closure on this moment of irreal grief and then I’ll come back to reality, if I can.”
The opposite happened. I found myself feeling more irreal by the day. A large part of my emotional life for three years was siphoned off into bounded paper and then when other people got their hands on it I couldn’t take it.
At that time, I was so fascinated by being a person-thing, until I eventually felt myself becoming alienated from my own lived experiences, in a way that was out of my control. I should have anticipated it. Egress was a living document, after all, and it had to come to end sometime. But the journey it described wasn’t over. It was the dissection of a person lost and a momentum gained and finishing the book was never meant to be the end of that momentum but the start of something else itself — a way of sharing it out even further afield that we could have anticipated back in 2017. But as I felt the book itself almost derailing that momentum, getting it out in the world at that time was a “now or never” ultimatum to myself.
I had to move onto other things and those other things turned out to be the people around me.
My roll of film reflected this. The photographs taken on an all too brief sojourn spent teaching and our quarantine walks around Knole were followed by murky photographs of friends, silhouettes, figures in blackened voids, blurs escaping the capabilities of the camera in low light.
Then, a cut…
I am over two hundred miles north, looking out over our prospective new home and basking in the scope of the landscape and the big, big sky.
There were five or six photographs of reservoirs that follow this. At the time, I found these spaces to be particularly awe-inspiring. As we walked or drove around them, these massive bodies of water, I couldn’t quite get over the fact that they were man-made. After living in London where space is at a premium and every new structure feels like a suffocating imposition, the idea of this kind of space being created as both a utility and a place of natural beauty was a big idea to ruminate on, especially when faced with the sheer scale of the thing.
And yet, there was a tension here — exacerbated by a first reading of Sarah Hall’s debut novel, Haweswater.
Digley reservoir, on the outskirts of Huddersfield, is seemingly one of the most popular short walks around. Its two car parks tend to overflow on the weekends. This waterlogged gouge in the landscape was undeniably beautiful but the uncanniness of its constructed nature gave the impression that these were local people entranced by the echo of some monumental act of destruction; an act so well hidden in plain sight as to disappear completely to most. I would not have thought of this at all were it not for Sarah Hall and the bloated corpse of a sheep, rendered plastic-like by the elements and looking, at first glance, like a bundled tarpaulin, like man-made material, floating in shallows.
Still, I did not take pictures of these giveaway details. I shot perspectives that felt one step removed, like bird’s-eye views.
In the past, I’ve often taken photographs of people and places like this — classically composed, playing for scale, figure-in-the-landscape sort of stuff. Germanic Romanticism; a rabbit in the headlights of the cosmos. At that scale, people get blown out of the picture. If they are present at all, they are figures, sliding between different meanings of the term — they are shapes, diminished but all important, or figures that become figurative: real lives made metaphorical. They cut an eerie presence that stands both for human existence and cosmic indifference — the photograph becomes a fissure, representing both human sentimentality and a blank, mechanical vision.
On returning to the London fold, I noticed myself looking out on our compact neighbourhood with the widened eyes of a returning Northerner. I found this new distance having a violent impact on my memories. I felt my size in the maw of the world and cowered, threatened by my own (re)cognition. Indeed, I felt like I could feel the pain of memories forming and jostling for position. I felt like Neo in the Matrix, gasping through the discomfort of hard-lined knowledge acquisition. But this wasn’t a direct upload of kung-fu to the cerebellum; this was just life being lived.
Please forgive the melodrama. I’ll stop myself there. I chalk the hypersensitivity of experience up to chemical imbalances. It was clear that the excess of emotions felt during the last few weeks in London was down to my shift in my medication, but the experience was real nonetheless. That is to say, my emotions were true but I had a harder time processing them. What was most intriguing was that my dreams became erratic and more akin to real life than I can ever remember them being. I would go out and spend time with friends only to fall asleep and dream about them, as if the mind was latching onto moments it didn’t want to end, or which it could not emotionally deal with. I would wake up the next day feeling like a door had been closed on a place or a person that had been alive and well in my mind but which now existed only as a memory. I felt painfully attuned to the mechanisms of cognition in more ways than one.
This oneiric experience was a bit like leaving a door open, with a piece of thread tied to the doorknob, the other end tied to a tooth or some part of my brain. As I closed my eyes, sleep shut the door on an evening had — the last evening of its type, most likely — and when I woke up I felt like something had been torn out of me, something I wasn’t quite ready to lose or which I didn’t realise I was so attached to, and the raw nerves left over caused an ache that burnt for days. This burning also had a tendency to accumulate.
It is in this sense that I’d argue I’m clinically melodramatic, at least in some circumstances. Whilst I’m exceptionally calm in a crisis, slow-burning emotional transitions are my Kryptonite; give me a sudden disaster over a long goodbye any day. It leads to “catastrophising” — so it’s called. Even that sounds silly; a big name for a bad thought habit. But having experienced it both mentally and physically, I know it’s a dangerous tendency with often innocuous beginnings.
A few years ago, I used to have recurring stomach problems — a by-product of an occasionally recurring eating disorder. Confused as to what it was required to do, my body would produce too much stomach acid and, when I’d go to sleep, it would slowly tickle up my throat and burn the parts of my oesophagus not protected by stomach lining. This wasn’t just the splash of acid reflux but a pooling. The pain, which crept up on me as I slept, was excruciating. The first time it happened, I found myself losing control of the pain over the course of a few hours. Not knowing what was happening, my girlfriend eventually found me bent double on the bathroom floor and had to call an ambulance. I had a morphine drip installed into my arm as I sat crumpled in the corridor of our Cardiff flat.
It was the strangest experience. I later understood that what I felt was a kind of psychosomatic pain exacerbated by the mental fatigue of a very real physical pain. This wasn’t mind over matter; this is mind and matter woefully entwined.
I was eventually driven to A&E and, after doing a load of checks to make sure it wasn’t anything more serious, the doctors suggested that pain management might have been a factor. In reality, this pain could be kept at bay with a couple of Gaviscon but the body and mind can work together in self-defeating ways and having that sort of pain for so long without a remedy can make it grow into the sort of pain I needed an ambulance for.
It was interesting to learn this, and to have it taken seriously — at least as a physical ailment with mental characteristics — because depression is a lot like that with me as well, albeit inverted and never taken quite so seriously. A sad feeling, like the feeling of leaving a place full of loved ones, can run away with itself, and before you know it that requires a hospital visit too. Depression becomes a mental ailment with physical characteristics.
I’m not in that position yet — and at the time of writing, I think I have managed to keep the worst of it at bay — but I have been worried for myself.
In recent weeks, my emotions have been all over the place and, whilst grounded in real feelings, they have been enlarged until they have become wholly irrational. The problem is that recognising your own irrationality doesn’t make it go away (even if it does make those feelings slightly easier to ignore). It’s the sort of pain that needs a remedy but it’s not always clear what that remedy is — whether it’s chemical or therapeutic or something else. Having a downturn as we get ready to move house isn’t ideal for finding a quick solution either. I have to just excuse myself as I walk around the house with tears streaming down my face, waving myself away with an “ignore me please”. Half the time I’m the only one home and it’s still worth muttering to myself.
The video for the closer of Phoebe Bridgers’ recent album Punisher, called “I Know The End”, has become a strange sort of video-anthem for this diffuse sadness. Whilst the lyrics are pretty on-the-nose in this regard, for someone sad about not seeing enough of my friends during lockdown and perhaps taking them for granted before that — “I’ll find a new place to be from / A haunted house with a picket fence / To float around and ghost my friends” — the video itself has this oddly Lynchian quality. Not just Lynchian in that it is “surreal” but rather as a video that does a good job of communicating the abstract nature of intensity.
As Bridgers wanders between rooms, each set piece is disjointed. The scenes share a location — a football field and its adjacent facilities — but it is a location that seems to function only as a backdrop. In fact, given what happens there, the specificity of the place melts away. It comes to represent a mundane backdrop nonetheless associated with emotional experiences. As a result, as a viewer, I have no immediate sense of its geography. It’s like — and I mean this in the best possible sense — the sort of music video your Dad might make as he says goodbye to a life he knows but can’t explain how he feels other than in sports metaphors. This is understandable; a sports stadium is a place of high emotion and drama but, in Bridgers’ video, a lot of the semiotic significance is peeled away. What you’re left with is a series of visually intense motifs that don’t really express much of anything concrete — to the outsider — other than this shifting whirlpool of emotions. And sometimes that’s the best thing you can make in response to a collection of feelings.
A few months back, Natasha made a lockdown mix that captured this whirlpool of emotions well. Mixes are good like that. Unavoidably, they have beginnings and ends, but for the most part they are temporal swirls of emotive resonance. I’ve been trying to find the right moment to excavate my hard drives from storage and make one of my own. Instead, I’m left with this post, which feels like something of a mix in my mind — an accumulative series of loosely connected vignettes that represent a singular but shifting feeling that is hard to generalise.
I started writing all of the above weeks before we moved and I am finishing it now over a fortnight into our new life up north. It has been hard to disentangle a sense of beginning and end from the whole experience. Yes, we started in London and ended in Huddersfield, but it is the emotional wormhole between the two that has been so difficult to capture and document in space and time. (I should have probably just made a mix instead.)
Thankfully, there have been mixes by others to listen to. The fourth session of Kitty McKay and Archie Smith’s INCURSIONSradio show, for instance, has been such a deeply affecting document to listen to again and again these last few weeks. Hearing two brilliant artists like Kitty and Archie in their element, talking about Mark Fisher and themselves and their friends, as well as listening to Natasha talk about her time at Goldsmiths is one thing, but hearing Dan Taylor talk about the exact same sense of collective joy is so affirming.
It is increasingly the case that, as time passes, those of us at Goldsmiths when Mark Fisher died have gradually come to appreciate how insular our moment of grief may have looked from the outside. In talking so much about it, however, we only ever wanted to let the outside in. When moments of intimacy are concerned, it feels like you can only ever start from an “I” — as contradictory as that often is — but, in reaching out and sharing the “I”, hopefully something else in conveyed in the process. That “I”, paradoxically, becomes collective. My house is your house and your house is mine. My “I” and your “I” sit comfortably side by side and become more than the sum of their parts. They become a neighbourhood or a community or a public or a common or all of the above and then some.
This was far easier to achieve in the locality of Goldsmiths in 2017 but I think it was precisely the intensity of that moment that has allowed us to retain a certain intimacy across space and time — an intimacy that Kitty and Archie channel particularly well in their mix. As coronavirus and life more generally has scattered our friendship group across the world, the grandeur of intimacy fills in the gaps between us. I’m left wanting to quietly affirm it every day, beyond the waterfall of social media, instead taking a dip in that reservoir of feeling — uncanny and dark and cold though it often may be.
Public broadcast, at present, feels like a wonderful medium for conveying that — whether that is blogging, radio, podcasts… Moving to Huddersfield has made me so much more interested in that mode of communication, not because we feel particularly isolated here or because it is all the rage under quarantine but because it feels like a way to publicly express our connections beyond the paranoid signalling of social media follows.
Indeed, so much of the skyline around here is given over to transmissions masts and spires. Whereas previously it was the Shard that functioned as a somewhat alienating homing beacon in London town, up here it is the Emley Moor transmitting station (which I cannot look at without thinking about AYA’s 2019 EP, and departt from mono games). It is visible from all directions. If it is hidden for any moment, you can usually see one of its sister spires. They are so gargantuan as to feel more cybergothic than London ever felt. They are so large that they feel like they should not exist — at least not on this parochial isle. They have quickly come to epitomise the sort of stoic affection the North is known for — symbols for touching from a distance.
As I try to draw this post to a close, stalked by the feeling that if I don’t conclude it soon I never will, I think that is perhaps the best sentiment to end on. It is how I started this year and it feels an appropriate note to end on as 2020 draws unbelievably to a close.
This blog has repeatedly fallen in and out of a habit of communicating the one thing it has always wanted to communicate — a xenogothic tendency, a sort of warm coldness, an affectionate horror.It was a feeling galvanised in a secondary moment of loss, where intimacy failed to bridge the gap of graduation following a traumatic university experience, but so much has remained present over the years since, now documented here and in print, and all of this will remain present despite the flurry of London departures that have defined the social occasions of recent months. Under Covid-19, it felt like we only ever gathered to say goodbye. It is a trauma of its own but one I hope to use to reaffirm a communicative purpose.
That being said, I feel no more steady on my feet than when I started this post, but I have at least succeeded in reaffirming, around the time of this blog’s third birthday, the intention that grounded its creation…