I’ve been thinking a lot about The Haunting of Bly Manor this week — ’tis the season, after all. Following the genuine terror of the first season’s Shirley Jackson adaptation — which I wrote about a couple of times — I found this Henry James affair to be a major disappointment. The narrative tricks deployed are all familiar, as most of them were all put to excellent use last time round — how relationships between people are affected by the impositions of their own personal demons, for instance, and how the line between person and demon is not always clear cut — but nothing really hits the mark here.
It could generously be argued that this is an attempt to stay loyal to the source material, echoing James’ quintessentially eerie tale in which the source of the horror seems to be almost entirely subtextual. However, the show also feels like it has suffered from the habits of many a supernatural series in recent years — it has given in, at times, to the fans of the first series, to the point that it occasionally feels written by fan-fiction committee. Moments that stick out are those that could easily be cribbed and poured over by tabloid media sections looking for something to analyse and generate comments about; what could be interpreted as Jamesian allusivity instead looks like a scattering of cheap Easter Eggs for what used to be known as the Tumblr crowd, and often at the expense of the story itself. These hidden objects in the frame give the illusion of depth to, and help generate a marketing buzz for, a show that quickly falls apart when taken at face value. (Truly, despite his rapid fall from critical grace, the shadow of M. Night Shyamalan remains long.) These habits add up and further illuminate the eeriness of the production itself, turning my excitement over subtextual horror into a metatextual revulsion.
This is compelling, in a way. As someone interested in that sort of thing, it has allowed me to watch the entirely of the series with few complaints, but it doesn’t necessarily make for good telly.
These problems are epitomised, I think, by the ineptitude of its location design. Despite James’s original tale being a sort of British-American hybrid, this adaptation totally fails to convince me of its transatlanticism. It’s quite funny, really. How does an American TV show best convey a sense of Englishness? It films in Canada, of course. But The Haunting of Bly Manor‘s vision of Britain is so utterly unconvincing that it feels like an acutely American existential horror despite itself. This isn’t the story of an American woman haunted by the English countryside — this is American TV execs thinking Canada is a good enough substitute for Essex.
This is less an instance of snobbery with regards to a false sense of authenticity, despite how it may sound, but it does make a difference to “foreign” viewer. It is difficult to invest myself in its exploration of outsideness when, semiotically, the show is so painfully insular.
These jarring settings are everywhere. Whilst viewers are no doubt used to McMansions standing in for English country manors, the pubs and high streets that supposedly make up London are so obviously North American as to make the show feel like little more than a cheap exercise in Anglophilia — but, as ever, going to Europe to find yourself reveals more about the superficiality of home than the apparent depth of the old world.
On the surface, this is quite interesting. For a show that is preoccupied with — and eventually becomes wholly entrapped within — screen memories, the Epcot Centre vision of an Essex manor only compounds the ungroundedness of the show’s excellent lead, Victoria Pedretti. (She was the strongest presence in The Haunting of Hill House, so it was only right that we got to see her in her stride here.) However, this ungroundedness does not stay at the surface. It seeps into every level of the show.
For example, the script is so wooden at times — particularly those lines given to Yorkshirewoman Amelia Eve, which genuinely grated on the ears. (Whether she’s actually from Yorkshire or not, I don’t know; again, no interest in authenticity here, but, to be frank, I’m also still not over the abhorrent class drag of Kit Harrington and Rose Leslie in Game of Thrones.) It transforms each of the characters into vague caricatures of Englishness with little depth. Although the show gives the illusion of character development, beyond the actors’ own expressiveness there is very little psychological exploration of the relationships between people here — just a kind of snooker game where blank characters continuously ricochet off each other and occasionally let off a bit of sexual steam.
This kind of hollow personhood is, again, exacerbated by the show’s set-up, which includes cliched horror staples like a doll’s house which mirrors the actual house. The blank-faced dolls that populate this child’s model of home have their (somewhat) material counterparts — the creepy effigies that occupy each room in miniature are representative of the real ghosts that linger around the house — and, at first, this is an interesting set-up but one which barely amounts to anything. On the one hand, that’s an intriguing choice — these faceless ghosts that haunt the manor are barely present but their absence creates a tense atmosphere throughout. They also represent a threat that lingers over the show’s protagonists, caught up in atemporal screen memories, who might become faceless husks themselves if they do not find a way out of their psychic drifting.
Flora, the young girl who lives in the manor, is attuned to these ghosts. She doesn’t fear (most of) them and even seems to successfully befriend a few of them. One scene shows Flora befriending a faceless boy in her attic, for instance. In attempting to humanise him, she gives his blank visage a doll’s face. It is a creepy image, undoubtedly, but again it feels like a metacommentary on the show itself — the hollow nature of the landscapes and the characters that populate them offer us many creepy moments but they end up far less than the sum of their parts. Putting an expressive face on a poorly written character doesn’t do much — in this sense, despite deserving the lead, Victoria Pedretti had little to work with here. This show looks the part but it still feels hollow underneath. Taking its time-warped narrative to extremes doesn’t help matters. In the end, we’re left with a parade of hollow characters who don’t know who they are caught up in a hollow world that doesn’t know where or when it is.
In an era of self-referrential postmodern media, perhaps all of this is intentional; perhaps this is what Henry James looks like in the twenty-first century. As a comment on an America adrift, it would be inspired. But being able to conceptually account for its flawed nature doesn’t make it any less so. It just makes for a compellingly shit watch.
In that sense, maybe it is perfect viewing for this spooky US election season…
Adam Harper has reviewed the new collection of Mark Fisher lectures, Postcapistalist Desire, for ArtReview. It’s a lovely text, emphasising the fact that it “was not just his writing that was celebrated after Fisher’s death but his teaching, too, by the lucky few who got to experience it.” It also includes a nod to one strand I expected to be taken more heretically, commenting on Mark’s accelerationism — perhaps even more controversial (and misunderstood) now than it was back in 2016:
Fisher wanted to pose challenging questions about the possibilities of moving beyond capitalism such as: ‘is there really a desire for something beyond capitalism?’ To what extent ‘is our desire for postcapitalism always-already captured and neutralised by capitalism itself’? And, rejecting the idea that a critique of capitalism necessitates a complete rejection of modern life and everything in it, ‘is it possible to retain some of the libidinal, technological infrastructure of capital and move beyond capital?’
Fisher senses that it might be, and so for him, postcapitalism is ‘a victory that will come through capitalism… something that developed out of capitalism. It develops from capitalism and moves beyond capitalism.’ As both Fisher and Colquhoun observe, this hotly debated position has come to be known as accelerationism, and for Colquhoun, Fisher was ‘attempting to describe to his students, from the ground up, a new praxis for a left-accelerationism.’ The question of what can be salvaged from the enemy in the fight against it has been one of the most urgent and controversial in left-wing thought for well over a century.
The review is short and sweet but it is a much-welcomed affirmation of this project. I am so relieved that its strengths shine out beyond its fragmentary and unfinished nature. As Harper concludes:
Postcapitalist Desire is thus very much the course it was originally intended to be: a primer on the topic, with Fisher’s curation and guidance as strident and insightful as ever, but by no means sidelining the exploratory, improvisatory and indeed democratic dimension of the teaching process — as Fisher puts it towards the end of the first lecture, ‘far too much of me talking today’. It was not just his writing that was celebrated after Fisher’s death but his teaching, too, by the lucky few who got to experience it. And with this book, the growing number of readers Fisher has accrued since his death, many of them beyond academia and the theoretical left, have an incisive yet personable (and frequently humourous) introduction to writers as canonical and formidable as Herbert Marcuse, György Lukács, and Jean-François Lyotard as well as lesser known names such as Ellen Willis, Nancy Hartsock and Jefferson Cowie, and key but complex concepts such as the death drive, ressentiment, standpoint epistemology, reification, and even capital and capitalism themselves.
In one of the book’s most densely informative lectures, ‘From Class Consciousness to Group Consciousness,’ Fisher discusses the political strategy of consciousness-raising, its history, and how it gives groups of the oppressed a clearer view of their common struggles. As he talks so relatably through the frustration and absurdity of life under contemporary capitalism with his students, this is precisely what Fisher was doing in the classroom of postcapitalist desire.
After moving up to Huddersfield, I had one final day to spend dashing around London. Thanks to Covid-19, the van hire firm were not doing pick-ups so I had to drop the vehicle back myself before getting picked up by my girlfriend later that evening. An eight-hour round trip that we could have done without after an exhausting and nightmarish weekend.
On the bright side, this meant a six-hour lay-over, which I decided to spend in New Cross, hanging around Goldsmiths with Natasha Eves and Giles Thackway, whilst Giles was getting prepped for the opening of his MFA degree show that Friday evening.
Another artist involved in the show was Rafael Pérez Evans. As we sat and caught up, Giles mentioned that Rafael would be dumping three tonnes of carrots at the Ben Pimlock building at 3pm. It sounded like something to do. Also, at first, I thought he said “off” the Ben Pimlock building, MIT-style…
This was not the case but the result was nonetheless jaw-dropping. It turned out it wasn’t three tonnes but twenty-nine, and when they fell out the back of the truck they momentarily took on the consistency of water. I posted a video on Twitter and within 24 hours it had clocked up 100,000 views. Some Twitter users noted it was a good demonstration of Fermi energy… I don’t know about any of that physics stuff, but it was an incredible sight.
My genuinely shocked response seemed to capture something of the energy and anticipation circling an act that no-one present seemed to understand.
Frankly, the not-knowing only added to the surreality of it all. It was a quintessentially Goldsmithsian spectacle. Nevertheless, on his website Pérez Evansexplains that the piece, called “Grounding”, is “a site-specific intervention exploring some of the tensions in visibility between the rural and the city”; “a monumental gesture” combining “farmers’ protest with a simple therapeutic ritual.”
Dumping is a form of protest, regularly used by European farmers that react against a central government which devalues their labour, agency and produce to points of ridiculousness. This devaluation often produces an enforced invisibility, which is often reciprocated by farmers who create hyper-visible gestures by dumping their devalued produce. Vegetables such as carrots or potatoes become monumental barricades that can block governmental buildings or roads and with it interrupt the usual city flow. The city is a site that suffers from food, plant and soil blindness, a place hyper-separated from its periphery, its food and its labourers. Dumping protests bring blinded city people into an alarming contact with their forgotten foods and its production.
The produce in the piece are unwanted carrots, carrots that the food industry in the UK deems not worthy of shelves, the full 29 tonnes of vegetables will be collected after the exhibition and sent to feed animals. This site-specific intervention offers itself as a sculptural exercise in grounding, ‘bringing back to earth’ some of the dissociative and opaque practices of the metropolis and the university industrial complex.
Unfortunately, and somewhat unsurprisingly, this explanation didn’t placate what felt like a large portion of the internet descending on my mentions after my video of Evans’s “grounding” went a little bit viral. Not that an artist’s statement means people have to like something — in fact, more often than not they really don’t help these things — but the reactionary hoards looking for a fight were mind-numbing nonetheless, especially since I now lived 300 miles away now and was probably the person least connected to the whole affair who was present. If people have an issue with it, best to take it up with the university or Rafael; I was simply passing through.
In the end, I had to go on a muting frenzy to shut up all the repliers wanting to shoot the messenger about this waste of food or those endlessly wishing to ask the “but is it art?” question. There was even a comment left on my “Moving Day” post, to the tune of “Using edibles to show off with is the action of spoiled little rich children with no actual concerns. A bit like faking being a gothic demon.” Fair enough, I guess? Truly, people are idiots. The whole thing has made me feel much better about the current sparsity of my onlineness. I’m curious to see how long I can make it last.
Suffice it to say, posting the video felt like tipping up my own lorry of Twitter users, as a hundred people all responded with variations on the exact same opinion. I later had a load of journalists sliding into my DMs wanting to broadcast it in various places. In the end, I signed it away to Storyful — an interesting experience in itself. Later I ended up on Yahoo! News as the “carrot laugher” — the cherry on top of an already strange few days.
Moving house was an absolute nightmare — the less said about it the better — but, all things considered, this was a fun and unexpected end to a nightmare week. All the craziness died down over a week and a half ago but I’ve only just got back a roll of film on which I took a load of photographs of the resulting carrot pile. Again, if I’d planned ahead and known what was coming, I probably wouldn’t have shot twenty-nine tonnes of orange in black-and-white… Nevertheless, here’s some more photos from Rafael Pérez Evans’s controversial carrot drop.
The blog turns 3 today. Every year I’m that little bit more astounded that this little thing I made whilst sad and subletting in Sydenham in 2017 has become a platform around which my entire life revolves. So here’s to that, I guess.
As is tradition around these parts, all milestones are celebrated with chill AMA videogame streams. I’m going live with some Bloodborne at 20.00 BST on 11th October 2020. If that’s now, come say hello. If that’s in the past, have fun watching me die over and over again.
Hypnosifl left a comment on my previous post that resonates nicely with a few other things I’m working on at the minute. They write:
Speaking of iPhones and their effect on the way we think, something I’ve wondered when reading Fisher (and other accelerationists) is whether their picture of the transition away from capitalism requires some degree of voluntarism at the level of social movements (the hope for a spontaneous shift in popular consciousness), or whether it’s compatible with a more strict historical materialist idea that changes in the cultural/political superstructure are generally a secondary effect of material changes, especially new technologies.
For example, if you look at the lost potentials of the “post-work” ideas from the 60s that Fisher wrote about in the Acid Communism introduction, I think a lot of that was driven by optimism about the possibility of increasingly “cybernated” manufacturing that could produce an era of abundance with little need for drudge work, optimism which did have a basis in the actual technological trends and expert forecasts of the time. I could see a future scenario where advances in 3D printing and robotics allowed for fully automated flexible production, and where this could be a catalyst for much more widespread interest in possibilities like publicly owned automated factories, basic income to make sure everyone would get a share in goods which were now much cheaper to make, and other changes that would move us to a new kind of economic system. But without those technologies existing or seeming to be very near on the horizon, it seems less likely that ideas like this could be the basis for a movement with very broad appeal.
There are two points buried in here that Fisher addressed repeatedly in the last few years but never quite got the attention they deserved.
For one things, Fisher wrote repeatedly and explicitly against any kind of “magical voluntarism” (as David Smail calls it), particularly when writing about mental illness. However, it should be said that “voluntarism” is typically used to cynically refer to capitalism’s emphasis on individual agency. In many ways, it points to a kind of neoliberal strategy for differing responsibility — Margaret Thatcher’s “care in the community” model of social care is a good example. This sort of care isn’t legislated, mandated or regulated (although perhaps it should be) and so, instead, it is left to individuals to pick up the pieces, as it were. It is very easy to spin this as a positive thing — this is the sort of community support and togetherness we want, isn’t it? — but this is simply a way of giving positive spin to state irresponsibility.
It is a bit like how some countries have become to trial universal basic income. Yes, we want UBI, but more often than not it is implemented as a replacement for the welfare state rather than being supplementary to it. In this sense, it is a quintessentially neoliberal reform. It is the amplification of a silver lining in a hurricane.
This is the difference between voluntarism and volunteering — the latter can be used to highlight the state’s reliance on voluntarism and, indeed, be an expression of collective agency that exceeds the bounds of neoliberal expectations. The question of how this kind of voluntarism relates to collective agency remains open, however — and there are critiques of this kind of collective agency often applied to the likes of JK Gibson-Graham and Hardt & Negri, whose Spinozism Fisher was particularly inspired by; I’ve been going back to this old post on the topic by Steven Shaviro again and again in recent months — but there is certainly nothing about it that is spontaneous. All Fisher’s writings on consciousness raising emphasise the fact that there is a great deal of work to be done to overcome the problem of “immediacy”, as many Marxists call it.
(We should also note that it is incorrect to limit “historical materialism” to the evolution of objects and technologies here. Lived experience is material — that only reduces culture and politics to a secondary level if we are deploying a kind of false-Cartesianism here between body and mind, nature and society, subject and object. The reality is more complex. (This is hardly a settled topic of debate within Marxism, but it’s what I personally think.)
The point hypnosifl makes about technology is related to this. Indeed, how we view our technological potential and how we view our own agency are very much interlinked. (See: Prometheanism.) The same problems also apply. Not all collective action is voluntarist, and not all technologies are emancipatory. The key thing that will change this, however, is our own perspective. Late capitalism, and its ideological partner-in-crime neoliberalism, have put blinkers on us. Fisher’s definition of “capitalist realism” is only an overarching consideration of the myriad problems we face. It is a molecular philosophy, in that respect. It is not just capitalism that we see no alternative to but also all of its constituent parts.
This is part of the problem that haunts questions around automation. I’d argue that it isn’t that we need just one more invention to get us over the threshold into a newly liberated space — that space is already possible with the technologies we have, but we are blinkered in understanding how they can be put to use.
This was another thing often written about by Fisher: late capitalism has essentially stolen a lot of ideals from the Soviet Union. He makes the argument twice, in two very similar essays — “Postcapitalist Desire” from What are we fighting for: A Radical Collective Manifesto, and “Designer Communism”, written for an exhibition by Christopher Williams. In both essays he quotes the following passage from Richard Stites’ 1989 book Revolutionary Dreams on the communalism of Soviet planner L.M. Sabsovich:
In Sabsovich’s vision, communal life replaces the wasteful and deadening private household, a “scourge that deforms the lives of adults and children alike” …
The aim of communalism? To free all workers (especially women) from responsibility for the provision of daily needs and from the private obligation of child-rearing and education, to make woman equal to man by opening the doors of her domestic jail, to release energies for the fulfilment of individual needs and collective life, to enhance the health of children, to raise the cultural level of all people, and to end the distinction between hand and brain labor. The means? The “industrialisation” of all tasks previously performed, separately and wastefully, inside the “petty bourgeois” home. Building on the whole tradition of socialist dreams of household collectivism, Sabsovich imagined the coordination of all food producing operations in order to transform raw food products into complete meals, deliverable to the population in urban cafeterias, communal dining rooms, and the workplace in ready-to-eat form by means of thermos containers. No food shopping, no cooking, no home meals, no kitchens. Similar industrialisation of laundering, tailoring, repair, and even house cleaning (with electrical appliances) would allow each person a sleeping-living room, free of all maintenance cares. Russia would in fact become a vast free-of-charge hotel chain.
For Fisher, these grand aims, which address many of the supposedly “new” problems introduced into our understanding labour in the 21st century, are even more relevant now than they were then. Whilst Sabsovich might have been deemed something of an idealist, the problems he hoped to solve have only gotten more and more pressing. It is in this sense that Fisher is hopeful. Concluding his essay “Postcapitalist Desire”, he writes:
The Soviet system could not achieve this vision, but perhaps its realisation still lies ahead of us, provided we accept that what we are fighting for is not a “return” to the essentially reactionary conditions of face-to-face iterations, “a line of racially pure peasants digging the same patch of earth for eternity”, or what Marx and Engels called “the idiocy of rural life”, but rather the construction of an alternative modernity, in which technology, mass production and impersonal systems of management are deployed as part of a refurbished public sphere. Here, public does not mean state, and the challenge is to imagine a model of public ownership beyond 20th century-style state centralisation.
In response, he calls for a re-evaluation of Soviet “relics” not as by-gone dreams but as models for “yet-to-be-realised postcapitalist future[s] in which desire and communism are joyfully reconciled”. Still, there’s a sense of hoping for some new world over the horizon here, but when Fisher returned to this argument a year later, these Soviet dreams were even more immanent to him. We don’t necessarily need to redesign the whole public sphere that we currently have, we only need to improve it and make it function as it is supposed to, and that doesn’t require the installation of a new technology but a new ideology. In fact, what is most embarrassing for capitalism and the conservatives who attempt to keep it on a leash is that they are now aping the communist and socialist ideals they otherwise declare themselves as being wholly against.
I mentioned this last time in terms of social media — I doubt it will go away under communism, but chances are we will be encouraged to use it a lot differently than how we are at present — but we might apply this same logic to capitalist infrastructure as a whole. Whilst late capitalism, particularly in recent years, has tried to sell itself (dishonestly) as being about communities and our “big society” and pulling together, it is utterly unfit for purpose. It is as if it has heard the cries for communality that our species has been calling out for but, like a petulant child that doesn’t want to do its chores, it has decided to deliver on these demands in the absolute worst way possible, in the false belief that we’ll stop asking it to help us as a result of its performative ineptitude.
Addressing this, Fisher rounds on a similar argument in the conclusion to his essay “Designer Communism”. Here, he returns once again to Sabsovich’s communalism:
If we adopt Sabsovich’s perspective for a moment, we can see late capitalism, with its shoddy ready meals, dreary franchise coffee bars, inadequate and expensive childcare arrangements, and disintegrating family units, as a blind and flailing attempt to attain what Sabsovich planned. In the spirit of Fredric Jameson’s startling suggestion that there are utopian possibilities to be found in something as super-capitalist as Wal-Mart, it’s possible to argue that, far from signalling the ultimate triumph of corporate capitalism, the success of something like Starbucks — which has proliferated through high streets and retail parks with all the implacability of a commercial super-virus — is testament to a thwarted desire for communism. It’s striking, in fact, how much the cliched attacks on Starbucks echo the caricatures of communism: both are condemned for their homogeneity, for their generic replicability. What if the desires that Starbucks caters for were nothing other than the desires for a public space that neoliberalism has dismantled at the level of ideology but which capitalism is now forced to reconstruct in a disavowed form? After all, what is sought out in Starbucks has little to do with capitalism or consumerism: the pleasures here are to do with the predictability and anonymity of standardised spaces. Many, in fact, go to Starbucks because of its public toilets — and it can’t be an accident that Starbucks has risen to popularity in the wake of the decline of public amenities under neoliberalism.
In conditions where the world is increasingly dominated by the same few multinational chains, it is hard to argue that capitalism is delivering the diversity or choice that it promises. But the poverty of experiences in such spaces actually make the task of revivifying public space seem like a surprisingly easy one. The very homogeneity of corporate chain space compels us to imagine a superior form of homogeneity: one designed for public enjoyment rather than corporate profit. Surely it is possible to envisage standardised spaces — public non-places — that are far better designed than the ones we currently endure? In any case, this is the project that designer communism must undertake.
It is in this sense that I would refute the suggestion that we need new technologies to unearth our vanquished desires. We are already finding outlets for them in the here and now, albeit poor and inefficient ones. This is why consciousness raising, and Fisher’s “psychedelic reason”, are valuable resources. We have to be more vigilant about how we view our present and the technologies that populate it, and this can only be done together. Whilst we can certainly start by taking better account of our own thought processes and the nefarious conditions that influence them — again, see: our “social dilemma” — we must understand how to short-circuit neoliberal “voluntarism” and turn it into a kind of collective “volunteering” that can change other minds rather than double down on the impotence of a moralising individualism.
This is to say that, yes, there is work to be done, but it is our various understanding of what that “work” is that needs to change.
I started watching Fear the Walking Dead this week. I had previously seen the first season and enjoyed it back when it first aired but I didn’t bother keeping up with it after its parent show, The Walking Dead, became the dead horse that AMC wouldn’t stop flogging. (A further new spin-off series was launched on Amazon Prime the other day, which I just couldn’t stomach. The AV Club, as ever, has the best small-screen reviewers — Alex McLevy is right that the show “makes the rookie mistake of treating its clear mission to be more YA-friendly as an excuse to be more simplistic.”)
Fear the Walking Dead has pleasantly surprised me so far. It’s a decent watch and better than most of the other crap that passes for small-cast sci-fi these days. It is a welcome reminder that, despite the whole Walking Dead franchise’s many flaws — and it has plenty — it’s still the source for the best zombie media that I’m aware of. Whether that’s the original comics or the TV shows or those Tell Tale video games, whilst it has produced some wet farts in all categories, at its best it is the best around. Fear the Walking Dead is a welcome addition so far, in that it manages to carry forward a number of the original show’s strengths in a compelling new location and time-frame. And I’m a sucker for anything zombie-related, truth be told. It only has to be halfway decent to get me hooked.
This penchant for undead shufflers has made the last few months quite interesting, particularly when listening to the radio. After playing through both parts of The Last of Us in lockdown and watching a few favourite movies, the PSAs on various radio stations about stopping the coronavirus with some community Blitz spirit often make me feel like I am in a zombie movie. I’m sure I’m not the only one.
However, as is the nature of our boring dystopia, it only makes it more disorientating that — in Britain at least — we are presently experiencing all the semiotic cues for the zombie apocalypse without any of the spectacle. Some days have been so mundanely British in their horror, at the start of the pandemic in particular, as to feel like a lame Shaun of the Dead re-enactment.
I was reading about Baudrillard and the hyperreal the other day and, on a related note, it is surreal to feel that term is now inverted. Plenty of hauntologists have been banging on about this for a decade or so but it has never been this palpable, surely? There was a time, for example, when Hollywood used to have to exaggerate our normal lives in order to make it feel real. And the production process flowed that way explicitly — it was always art exaggerating life, even if it didn’t feel exaggerated to our semiotic-expectant brains. But now things feel different. It feels like the polarity has been inverted. Our worst nightmares are here but they are more mundane than any satirist could have reasonably thought possible. They are not filled with an overabundance of references to the real but a complete lack of evental resonance with the irreal.
Clichés abound from here on out, albeit wrinkled and deflated. It’s as if we’re living in a moment of pure Hollywood anhedonia. It’s The Truman Show but after the producers all died. It’s Dead Set but dull — in fact, for some, it has been exactly like that. The real has returned to us, like a boomerang, but it is barely even an imitation of the psychological insecurities we first threw into our movie studios. It is, instead, just an echo of our deepest fears, played out and numb. It is as if we really are living in the zombie apocalypse right now but late capitalism is so dysfunctional that the dead can’t even be bothered to come back for it. This is not the heavy-handed anti-consumerism of Dawn of the Dead; instead, our government has to get us back into shopping with literal carrot-and-stick statics. “Eat out to help out!” What we’re staggering through right now is the twilight of the living.
Don’t get me wrong — this isn’t a complaint. Nor is this the naïve disappointment of someone isolated from the very real horrors that have been experienced by many. We have cried for all our friends who have lost loved ones, and who we wish we could comfort but who, in truth, we’ve barely seen for what feels like a year. But as life continues regardless, the capitalistic sense of our being the “walking dead” is hard to deny. We are returning to a depression, a dearth of unemployment not seen since Capitalism Classic was all the rage. Never mind our recent talk about the “precariat”, now the vast majority of us are wrestling with the fact that we are “non-essential”. As we just try to survive, we find ourselves made inert by the lingustic ticks of the state, reduced to homogeneous statistics and economic cattle.
What is so darkly humorous about this is that it’s not a realisation that has taken much effort to come to terms with on my part. (Again, I’m sure I’m not alone in that.) The slower pace of life — at least in terms of work load — is something I have welcomed with open arms (even if the social side is really starting to take its toll, six months in). It feels like the world is moving more at a pace I can keep up with without burning out. The ideological pressures feel shared also. Previous desires that would lead to accusations of being workshy or lazy have become the norm and even encouraged. The shame that often comes from being a sort of superfluous worker that has stalked me and many other working class arts professionals I know since we were first eligible to work suddenly feels shared. To have the rest of the nation come to terms with their own “non-essential” status is really quite strange and, as nightmarish as the circumstances are, there is a strange sort of comfort in it.
With this in mind, I found myself haunted by a scene from the first season finale of Fear the Walking Dead. Much of the season follows Nick Clark, a young heroin addict who first discovers one of the flesh-eating infected on a bleary morning after the night before. The first few episodes mostly show Nick losing his mind, as he struggles to ascertain whether what he saw was real or the result of a drug-induced psychosis. To his relief, and everyone else’s horror, it turns out he was right.
By the end of the season, Nick’s character arc has been decentred, but he remains the most interesting character in the show. There is great tension in his struggles with addiction and the heightened horror of his selfishness at a time when those around him are doing everything that they can to pull together; to become a post-apocalyptic community after becoming all too accustomed to the dysfunctional disparities of late-capitalist life. And yet, at the same time, his selfishness is also more mundane compared to the violent individualism of the paranoid survivalists they come across. He continues to exist in this strange in-between space — socially speaking — but it makes me a stronger person as a result.
In a short scene with his mother, he addresses his newfound lucidity:
“I feel strange.”
“Yeah, we’re spinning off the planet. We don’t know where we’re going.”
“That’s the thing. I never knew where I was going. It’s like I’ve been living this for a long time. And now everyone is catching up with me. It’s strange.”
For all the depressive realism of the Covid-19 eschaton, I do wonder about the silver lining of our moment in this regard. We previously lived in a world where Mark Fisher’s essay “Good for Nothing” felt like a missive from a silent mass, unaccounted for within our society and particularly within the cultural sector; we now live in a world where the majority of us non-essential workers have had to come to terms with the fact that we are all good for nothing, wasting our time in bullshit jobs that, as it turns out, society can function just fine without.
And by “function”, of course, I mean stagger on. As Fisher once wrote elsewhere: “Neoliberalism now shambles on as zombie — but as the afficionados of zombie films are well aware, it is sometimes harder to kill a zombie than a living person.” His advice on what to do is perfect, encapsulated in a joyful if darkened gothic pun. As with zombies, so with neoliberals: you’ve got to aim for the head — you’ve got to roll out a program of Cold Rationalist consciousness-raising and kill the parasite from within. The result could be something special. We might find ourselves inventing “new forms of political involvement, reviving institutions that have become decadent, converting privatised disaffection into politicised anger”.
Saying this when Fisher said it might have been easier said than done. Right now, there’s no better time for it. When the vast majority of us have been labelled social detritus, we might find the collectivisation of this disaffection, openly shared in the commons, to be a moment that is (politically speaking) priceless.
A discussion took place in the XG Discord the other day about the tension between technological progress and class war, in part inspired by Mark Fisher’s Postcapitalist Desire lectures. More specifically, the question asked was about the shifting nature of the working class and how we are supposed to define the “working class” as such in an information economy. My own contribution went down quite well and people asked to share it so here it is, extended and in blog form.
What I find compelling about Fisher’s writings on class in relation to technology is that he doesn’t try to conjure up any new class positions — for example, like “the precariat”.
Whilst “precariat” is a useful term, in some contexts, it is also a slippery one. It exists as if to give form to a new category of person, produced by shifts in the pomo Venn diagram of class relations; “the precariat” brings together more classic class positions and allows them to all mix together. Most generically, it covers everyone from Deliveroo drivers to freelance writers — new “working class” jobs are combined with more stereotypical but nonetheless financially precarious “middle class” jobs. But even these categorisations are misleading.
It is nonetheless a useful term for articulating how the nature of work is changing and, in that regard, it is a term that emphases the dissolution of the idea of a “job for life”, previously enjoyed by our parents and grandparents. But it is a term that also equates precarity with proletarian experience in a way that is often unhelpful.
It is sort of like how, in the UK at least, first-time students are basically understood (economically speaking, at least) as being temporarily working class. You’re probably not earning much money or paying taxes or really contributing much of anything to the economy and you are essentially receiving government benefits to have three years of study so, when it comes to how you’re seen by the state, you’re seen as working class. Of course, in reality, that’s not very useful and it imbues a false sense of hardship in the experiences of some students who might not have any money troubles at all. It is a definition useful for civil servants but one which hardly holds up against the complex and diverse material experiences of young people in this country.
I think we must similarly be wary of how a “precariat” narrative can play into the hands of a new kind of obfuscating discourse. Fisher speaks often about “the invention of the middle” in his lectures, for instance, and charts the nefarious influence of a sentiment like “we’re all middle class now” on class consciousness. In many ways, it is a paradoxical statement — he explains how it is a term that denies the existence of class through a class position. What a term like the precariat can do, if misused, is similarly cheapen working class experience and instead reduce material hardship to nothing more an inconsistent income. In truth, we can find precarious work being undertaken by people from all walks of life.
Understood in this way, our sense of who the “precariat” are resembles an erased class consciousness coming to terms with itself through new social and technological relations. Precarity nonetheless remains a poor metric to determine hardship. Precarity is, instead, an increasingly common fact of life for all of us. To associate this, via some nifty neologising, with the proletariat explicitly is reductive and unhelpful in the grand scheme of things.
Personally, I don’t think we need any new names for being working class. I don’t think that the situation now is really any more nuanced than it was in the nineteenth century. We have a tension between a proletariat class and a bourgeois class and various degrees of abstraction and alienation, in terms of our labour, that both keep us in relation with one another whilst also disconnecting us from a total view of that relation. If anything, the ultimate ideological victory of capitalism has attempted to universalise a “petite bourgeois” mindset. If the establishment wishes we were all middle class, it is in that sense — obedient, aspirational, enamoured to power.
Perhaps that’s reductive. There are certainly more kinds of experience caught up within that understanding but, more often than not, complicating this relation with new levels of detail often feels like a slippery slope towards new forms of capitalist obfuscation to me.
What further complicates a term like the “precariat” is how reliant such a class position is on technology. Can you be an Uber driver or a Deliveroo worker or any other kind of precarious worker without a smart phone? Can you work freelance in this day and age without a steady WiFi connection at home and a decent laptop? These things are hardly a sign of privilege these days, at least in urban environments, but it is nonetheless seen that way in the public unconscious. How are we to understand digital luxury when these forms of technology are essential to most job markets? They’re essential even to accessing and browsing those markets in the first place, never mind actively participating in them.
The response to this, of course, isn’t that you can’t be working class if you own an iPhone or a laptop. The question we need to ask is how are we to understand the feedback loop between these products and the means of production? Despite how some have joked in the past, I don’t think everyone owning a smart phone is equivalent to us seizing the means of production, even if we are all influencers now, in our own ways. In fact, what we are presented with is a wholly dystopian version of full automation. Because, in many respects, the social media economy is automated, but by ourselves as much as by bots and algorithms.
This is to say that, yes, our social media feeds are automated in the sense that they “work by themselves with little or no direct human control”, but we also consume the content put in front of us by these automated channels “spontaneously, without conscious thought or attention.” Call me Charlie Brooker, but we really do live in a society of drones led by drones.
What is important about this observation, however, is that we come to understand how this situation has been constructed. When we talk about technology’s place in the dissolution of class consciousness and class structures, we also need to note what Herbert Marcuse says about capitalism’s need to conjure up a “biological foundation” for itself. (This essay by Marcuse never fails to blow my mind; it is incredibly prescient.) Arguing that we need to establish “a biological foundation for socialism”, he writes:
In the affluent society, capitalism comes into its Own. The two mainsprings of its dynamic — the escalation of commodity production and productive exploitation — join and permeate all dimensions of private and public existence. The available material and intellectual resources (the potential of liberation) have so much outgrown the established institutions that only the systematic increase in waste, destruction, and management keeps the system going. The opposition which escapes suppression by the police, the courts, the representatives of the people, and the people themselves, finds expression in the diffused rebellion among the youth and the intelligentsia, and in the daily struggle of the persecuted minorities. The armed class struggle is waged outside: by the wretched of the earth who fight the affluent monster.
Travelling through time, there is perhaps a call for a certain Ludditism here. (I’m intrigued by this forthcoming book from Verso, Breaking Things at Work.) There is a sense that, if we really want to fight the affluent monster, we need to resist its utter permeation of private and public life — and what does that sound like other than social media?
However, things are more complicated than simply smashing up our iPhones. Marcuse, in conjoining Marx and Freud, notes how, in control societies, our desires can be sublated into oppressive laws and institutions. It’s not just about physical oppression anymore but psychological repression as well. For instance, following Freud, Marcuse notes how sexual desire is instituted through the sexual moralism of marriage. And yet, despite supposedly existing solely within the psyche, Marx’s negation of the negation can just as readily rear its head here as it can in the world of private property.
For Fisher, new psychic and material possibilities and potentials (along with new horrors) were introduced by the introduction of the iPhone into modern life specifically. Truly, here is an example of an affluent capitalist society coming into its own. Despite only being launched in 2008, within a decade Apple established the smart phone as an indispensable tool that we all need in order to live and communicate with one another. This produced a “biological foundation” for what Jodi Dean calls “communicative capitalism”. Marcuse describes how this happens perfectly. Although he is speaking of moralities — he is writing in orbit of the sexual revolution — his explanation resonates more generally as well. He writes:
Once a specific morality is firmly established as a norm of social behavior, it is not only introjected — it also operates as a norm of “organic” behavior: the organism receives and reacts to certain stimuli and “ignores” and repels others in accord with the introjected morality, which is thus promoting or impeding the function of the organism as a living cell in the respective society. In this way, a society constantly re-creates, this side of consciousness and ideology, patterns of behavior and aspiration as part of the “nature” of its people, and unless the revolt reaches into this “second” nature, into these ingrown patterns, social change will remain “incomplete,” even self-defeating.
This is to say that, for better or for worse, social change has to reach the level of biology if it is to stick. Moralistic fads come and go, but if we’re going to change society we have to get under our own skin. The iPhone has done this. It wasn’t just a new fashion accessory, like the Apple Watch or Google Glass — it got under our skin at that biological level and became an essential part of how we exercise that most human of activities: our sociality. In 2008, this might have sounded downright conspiratorial, but this sort of libidinal engineering is increasingly prevalent, particularly in the global South where Facebook is not just a site you can visit to scratch a social itch — it essentially is the internet; the two are synonymous. (A long read by Rahul Bhatia from 2016, on Facebook’s attempts to establish itself as an internet monopoly in India, remains essential reading on this.)
Before Facebook and Google and Apple’s more insidiously unsubtle attempts to monopolise whole nations, Fisher famously used the example of Louise Mensch on Have I Got News For You to demonstrate the teething problems present in this sort of capitalistic moralism and how we understand — or rather don’t understand — this process of biological foundation at the level of popular culture.
Mensch argues that the left’s use of the technological “fruits of capitalism” — smart phones and instant coffee — undermines any criticism they might have of capitalism. If you don’t like it, stop using all the wonders it provides! The ugly truth is that, when capitalism attempts to prolong its existence through biological foundations, the use of these sorts of wonders is less and less of a choice. Their addictive qualities aside, they become essential gateways to all manner of essential tasks and forms of labour.
And indeed, that’s precisely the point. The issue today is that smart phones are now essential tools for communication. As such, despite retaining a sense of luxury, they are in fact getting cheaper and more accessible. Tech companies want us to have them, not only because it means we are giving them money for handsets but because they can then sell our attention through adverts and whatever else. Apple and Facebook and Google and co. want to make access to their products easier and easier so that they can have more and more free labour from us. They want us to keep producing social media content so they can keep selling our attention. They need us.
Again, the most obvious response to this is to log out and unplug, but Ludditism isn’t the only option here. Indeed, whilst smart phones have provided a biological foundation to “communicative capitalism”, when detached from the driving forces of the attention economy we might find other potentials lurking here too. The main question for Marcuse in his essay on liberation, after all, is: Can we construct a biological foundation for socialism? This is a question of aesthetics and art for him. He imagines a utopian socialism wherein “men and women would fashion their reason and tend to make the process of production a process of creation”. This would lead to “the ingression of freedom into the realm of necessity”. There have long been glimmers of this other world online and in other countercultures but these forces remain curtailed by the capitalist necessity of the maximalisation of profit.
Nevertheless, the social has arguably never been more central to our lives than in the era of social media. We might argue that social media, just as Marcuse intuited, “crosses the frontier between the capitalist and the communist orbit; it is contagious because the atmosphere, the climate of the established societies, carries the virus.” That virus is the social, it is our relationships with each other, and if we can retain (and even strengthen) the joy of our new interconnectedness whilst exorcising the capitalist imperative, what are we left with?
This is an increasingly important question at the moment, I think — particularly as we remain obsessed by the inane spectacle of the so-called culture wars. But this war is driven by the attention economy. Dissensus means clicks means profit. And that has serious consequences for how we relate to one another. Indeed, this is arguably the source of our present identity politics, on both the right and the left. We are all engaged in a kind of oppression Olympics but only because we lack a shared consciousness to bond over. Instead, identity is underlined by competition, by war — a war to be won by ad revenue and flash polls.
When we think about the fact that we’re all content produces for advertising algorithms now, you might expect someone somewhere to advance some new terminologies to demonstrate the fact that we’re all somehow working class now, because we are all at the coalface of social media production. It is arguably this sentiment that feeds the culture wars, where everyone feels dwarfed before the wailing wall of anons. However, I believe we can nonetheless find new ways to build consciousness around these new modes of social relation. And the best way to do that is perhaps by socialising social media.
For example, if there is any meaningful sense in which we can seize the means of production in an information economy, it’s bringing these social media platforms into social ownership. Consider the fact that, in the UK, during the last election, the Labour Party suggested that broadband should be made into a public utility. It was laughed at at the the time but it has since become an increasingly popular policy across political lines. Why? We might cynically assume that the Tories now agree with public-owned broadband in principle because they can then treat it like every other public utility they’ve managed to get their hands on — establish a monopolised façade that they can then outsource to their mates. However, in principle, and for the left in particular, this policy opens the door for a new kind of Marxist expropriation of the expropriators, albeit coming to bear on the twenty-first century.
It is a way of taking the long road back to CyberSyn, and the establishment of a truly social(ist) media.