The Double-Edged Sword of Postmodernity:
On the Trussed-Up Ideology of Liz Truss

Liz Truss, the UK government’s Minister for Women and Equalities, made a truly bizarre speech the other day.

It was bizarre for lots of reasons. On the one hand, much of the press — on both the right and the left — have been groaning over her push towards “facts not fashion” in the general debate around equality (which sounds like more than a heavy nod to the unending argument around Black Lives Matter and trans rights to me).

What’s strange, though, is she foregrounded this comment with some hollow affirmations about Britain always being a place where you will have “the opportunity to succeed at whatever you wish to do professionally, that you can be whoever you want to be. Dress however you want to dress. Love whoever you wish to love and achieve your dreams.”

Talk about “facts over fashion” — the Minister for Equalities prefers the oratory stylings of post-Obama platitudes to delivering anything of political (or even just rhetorical) substance…

Before we get into it, I want to emphasise — really emphasise — that this must be the takeaway here. This speech, by and large, is an attack on the perceived postmodern tendencies of contemporary progressive politics — that is, relativism, the politics of appearances and hollow gestures, ideological demands reduced to fashionable trends, etc. — but it makes these points through the very deployment of those tendencies.

It is a paradox, clear as day, but — as we should all know by now — nothing has ever died from its contradictions. To quote Deleuze and Guattari:

The death of a social machine has never been heralded by a disharmony or a dysfunction; on the contrary, social machines make a habit of feeding on the contradictions they give rise to, on the crises they provoke, on the anxieties they engender, and on the infernal operations they regenerate.

Contradiction is the reactor core of neoliberalism, giving it the illusion of progress when all we’re really left with are controlled explosions within sense and reason.

We should know this but, as ever — and with a certain degree of irony — it does always bear repeating, much like the system itself.

The main thing to trouble the chattering classes about Truss’s speech was her invocation of Foucault, who she named as being one person particularly responsible for the postmodern mess we’re in, where nothing has any meaning anymore and we’re all very confused about the world. She writes, under the sub-heading “The failed ideas of the Left”:

The ideas that have dominated the equality debate have been long in the making.

As a comprehensive school student in Leeds in the 1980s, I was struck by the lip service that was paid to equality by the City Council while children from disadvantaged backgrounds were let down. While we were taught about racism and sexism, there was too little time spent making sure everyone could read and write.

These ideas have their roots in post-modernist philosophy — pioneered by Foucault — that put societal power structures and labels ahead of individuals and their endeavours.

In this school of thought, there is no space for evidence, as there is no objective view — truth and morality are all relative.

The outrage is understandable. How is anyone supposed to take seriously these hollow appeals to truth when it is categorically false to attribute such bizarre positions to someone like Foucault? He’s a seminal academic — that doesn’t mean he is beyond reproach, but it does mean that you can probably find a few thousand books and articles — and even YouTube videos at this point — explaining what his position is, and how it isn’t that. As far as Truss’s appeals to truth go, this one is pretty easily debunked.

But the point is that it doesn’t matter. Nothing is true; everything is permitted. That is an old adage capable of being put to use by either side. That is the double-edge of postmodernity. Postmodernity as such isn’t simply the elimination of foundational truths; it is capitalism’s tendency to appropriate and lay claim to everything, even its opposition.

What that means, in more practical terms, was best summarised by Amelia Horgan [locked account]. It is not so much that the government’s understanding of Foucault is poor but that its diffuse attack on academia demonstrates the current government’s immersion in a “right-wing … and antisemitic culture wars framing”.

“Facts not fashion” is a remix of Ben Shapiro’s “facts don’t care about your feelings” schtick, for instance, and blithely using broadly leftist thinkers as strawmen for irrelevant arguments is all Jordan Peterson really has left in his arsenal at this point. They are the same tired tactics expressed by the right-wing’s mass media mouthpieces, who are just looking to further fuel the online chaos. That a government official — the Women and Equalities Minister no less — would be echoing these purposefully confused takes is a truly depressing moment for an already very depressing year to end on. (We expect this sort of thing from the Trump administration, but it’s becoming ever clearer that the UK government is hardly any different — it’s just less airbrushed and manicured; the British lie hasn’t quite infiltrated the level of appearances yet.)

However, Amelia makes a further point here that also warrants some emphasis. She quite rightly points out that “I don’t think academics can win … with ‘well actually I think you’ll find Foucault said nothing of the sort’.”

“Academic” is already a by-word for something not of any practical relevance. That isn’t just a dig at academics as such, however; it is a systemic problem within an academia itself — an amorphous institutional assemblage that is all about the apparent production of new knowledge within its own internal market, but which struggles to effectuate change outside its own bounds.

If that’s too subtle, academia is more closely resembling capitalism itself by the day, but that’s of no surprise to anyone working inside of it. The marketisation of academia is well-documented, and that process is not the fault of academics themselves; this is simply how the system is now set up.

Consider, by way of a further example, how academia is an “industry” — it feels weird to call it that, but who are we kidding? — that is now predicated on atomising research as a practice and making itself more academic to the detriment of the system’s own influence on the world within which it exists. To fight over the particulars of Foucault’s theory may make many academics feel like they are fighting the good fight, but they are falling for the bait. It is bait used precisely to lure academics into fitting the image the outside world has of them.

The point to be made, surely, is what does this instant say about how discourse functions as a whole, beyond academia’s own purview? The irony, of course, is that it is precisely Foucault who can tell us.

The ironies don’t stop there, however. The ultimate irony of this whole debacle no doubt comes from the government’s own backtracking over Truss’s speech. Quite shockingly, the section on Foucault quoted above, along with various others, has been removed from the government’s own website at the time of writing, replaced with the hilarious-if-it-wasn’t-so-depressingly-ironic redacted placeholder “[political content]” — yes, politicians are now redacting their own politics for being political. [NB: Because of this, the above quote from Truss’s speech was retrieved from the WayBack Machine.]

This slippery slope, where politicians will self-censor their own political embarrassment because it is too “political”, is less a Foucauldian irony than a Deleuzian one. These are the serpentine coils of a control society, infected by its own word virus. (William Burroughs’ discussions around “the word virus” as control system are clearer and more prescient than anything else I’ve read on the topic, and guess what — pronouns are the fucking least of his worries.) It is postmodern politics criticising a strawman of itself. It’s that fucking spaceman meme looking at a spaceman and saying, “wait, it’s all a spaceman?” before another spaceman say “yes, yes it was” and then shoots the first spaceman in the back of the head. It’s postmodern sidewinding at its most obvious but we still don’t know how to attack it.

That’s pretty heavy, man. So, what’s the response?

Well, maybe Paul Mason has the answer…

Before you get your hopes up, he definitely doesn’t… But he did recently tweet the following thread:

1/ Liz Truss speech signals Tories planning a sustained onslaught on anti-racism, feminism, LGBTQ+ … but I’m not going to resist it by defending Foucault. Postmodernism was a dead end for the left, as I said in #ClearBrightFuture

[…]

6/ […] Foucault, funnily enough, did make moral statements, as in the intro to D&G’s Anti-Oedipus… it’s just that they’re (a) inadequate and (b) not grounded in truth claims about reality

7/ Postmodernism was the slave ideology of neoliberalism; a justification for our atomisation; the denial of objectivity and a profound anti-humanism. It led, naturally, to the disaster of critical post-humanism and Neo-vitalism…

[…]

9/ So to people leaping to Foucault’s defence… don’t waste your time. He did some interesting lectures at the CDF, fine. There is a humanist Marxism that arms us with a moral defence of class politics and support for the scientific method…

10/ I know that for Gen-X ers this means realising a bunch of stuff you were taught at college is wrong, but that’s not a disaster. For more on the humanist and Aristotelian renewal of Marxism go here… [Plugs his own book]

11/ Final thought for the remaining pomo adherents on the left. This century is gonna be Marx vs Nietzsche: planetary human liberation or climate Nihilism. Leave Nietzsche to the fash: there’s zero value in anti-rationalist nihilism… (as I say, again, in How to Stop Fascism)

Originally tweeted by Paul Mason (@paulmasonnews) on December 18, 2020.

Unfortunately for Paul, this is definitely not it. This little rant boils down to “facts not fash” and that is just about as useful a response as “facts not fashion” was in the first place. Whilst I am broadly sympathetic to his striving for truth claims, dismissing “postmodernism” in this manner just makes you look like the Left’s Jordan Peterson.

To be more generous, perhaps he wants to be closer to the Left’s pop Badiou, but striving for truth makes you no less ripe for appropriation by the forces you’re trying to resist. That’s precisely why Foucault — and especially Deleuze — remain of essential use to us. In fact, appeals to truth require far more vigilance than ever before, from the left and the right, precisely because asserting truths in the current climate is like fighting quicksand: the more you struggle, no matter how righteously, the more susceptible you are to sinking further. Whether that’s Mason’s Aristotelian Marxism or Truss’s fight for fairness, it’s all taking place within the same swamp. That swamp is named “postmodernity” and, in the West at least, there is no untainted zone to escape to that is somehow beyond it.

And yet, it is precisely that level of immanence that we should be affirming rather than fighting against. We don’t need to escape postmodernity itself but rather its appropriations that trap us into impotence. To do that, we have to affirm the full range of possibilities available to us through the revaluation of our values.

To many, this might sound like an accelerationist position, and you’d be right, but it is also an ethical position that might inspire us on how to deal with this perpetual agitation when faced with constantly contradictory messages from all sides.

Truss’s allusions to identity politics are a prime example. Governments and the media love to pick on certain examples and portray them as special interest cases. They make them out to be exceptional transgressions, far too risky within the context of their own ideology of gradualist reformism. But challenging the unspoken value-judgements applied to certain identities is precisely the point. Ungrounding certain givens remains a emancipatory gesture. Black Lives Matter, for instance, insists that black life is worth far more than society at large thinks it is. But rather than redress that deflation of vakye, the very name finds itself under attack, abstracted and made into a Proper Noun rather than a statement, precisely because it raises consciousness around our “values”. And “values” is the perfect word for it — our moral and economic interests are woefully intertwined.

The right — and even the government, at this point — is dismissing the chaos of no certain truths that this process of revaluation supposedly instigates, but only within their own cloistered view of the world. This view is easily identified. They all start from the same basic position: “capitalism is truth”, and extrapolate outwards from there. When the likes of Foucault and others challenge that “truth” most fundamentally, ungrounding the world the establishment has built on top of it, of course all they see is chaos in their wake. Their absolutes are shaken, as other possible forms of truth enter the fray. But not all truths are worth as much as each other. The only truths worth their salt are the one that exist beyond that narrow purview of capitalist realism– and that is a lot easier said than done, Paul.

The postmodern twist, undermining Mason’s position, comes from what is a dead-end for him: the realisation that late capitalism itself is dependent on shifting rates of exchange, as Deleuze points out in his “Postscript on the Societies of Control”. Because of this, if we want our political processes of transvaluation to remain pertinent to the futures we desire, we have to do all that we can to keep them outside the pernicious control of capitalism’s open circuits.

That doesn’t mean just appealing to elusive universal truths; there’s every chance you’ll end up a useful idiot like Paul Mason if that is all you do. Instead, we have to appeal to truths and keep an eye on how they are manipulated. If truths are subsumed and made impotent, precisely because of the threat they pose, we have to look for new ones. As Deleuze puts it, when faced with the in-grown logics of a serpentine neoconservatism: “There is no need to fear or hope, but only to look for new weapons.”

I think Ryan Diduck explains this ethical position far better than I could, and so I’d like to end with a quotation from his really marvellous recent book The Limits of Control, which has been living in my head for a few weeks now. Speaking about the coronavirus pandemic, and its exacerbation of both control mechanisms and conspiratorial chaos, he writes:

These crises are premediated through the media control calendar, only appearing random — not because of illiteracy, but because of hyper-literacy, the dromological Semioblitz constantly refreshing, constantly updating, constantly wiping. The simple reason that these things — pandemics, racist violence, terminal unrest — keep happening is because they already happened. (Pre-recorded.) Tonight’s episode is a rerun. Even these déja-vu words dreamt up and performed, activated, made mobile through virus lines.

It is precisely the repetitious purgatory of our being-mediated that demands the transvaluation of values. Liz Truss’s appeals to truth and fairness are hollow precisely because we’ve heard them all before and nothing has changed. Black Lives Matter itself comes up against vile cynicism because it becomes a familiar sentiment as well. It’s all been said and nothing has changed so shut up already, Millwall fans say, but in that instance it is precisely the repetition of the gesture that holds power. The appropriation of repetition from market re-runs keeps the topic front and centre, and whilst attention and patience may wane, like a surreal Andy Kaufman sketch, the power of the repetition comes back around and, in the end, it ends up even more radical than when it started. It is for this reason, Diduck continues:

What Deleuze calls for in his final publication is an army of “possible forms” to transform virtual immanence “into something transcendent.” Sounds vague on the surface of it, but there are many possible forms these “possible forms” could take. Deleuze suggests the “Homo tantum” as a first step

The “homo tantum”, contra Mason, is a kind of inhumanism, emphasising the incomplete nature of the human as a philosophical or social or political category. It is a formula that folds two points within itself — that our conception of the human is still full of potentials, and that our conception of the human has itself been radically reduced. It is for this reason, Diduck writes, that “the inherent and irrepressible value of a life”, for Deleuze, has to be

divorced from its productive value, the existence of self and other in absence of evaluative criteria, the ultimate dignity of every person. If a few possible forms were dedicated to this project, we’d start to solve some major problems. And if and when there were crises, we’d be far better poised to confront them head-on, together. This is not progressive politics, but what Brian Massumi called a “processual” ethics.” What we value — those goods and services dubbed essential, but also the big table upon which this tournament forever continues — is too valuable to be amassed by 2000+ billionaires, the Technopriests, the biopharma lip-licking lizards, and those who willingly or unwittingly bid on their behalf. A revaluation of value would produce a post-capitalist field in which injustice would no longer be necessary, no longer be of any value to Control.

The Christmas No. 1:
A Hauntological Frontline?

Mariah Carey’s ubiquitous Christmas single, “All I Want For Christmas Is You”, recently topped the UK Singles Chart for the first time. This achievement has been celebrated by fans as a kind of retribution for a song that never quite had any “official” recognition as a “modern Christmas classic”.

When the song was first released back in 1994, it was pipped to the Top of the Pops post by East 17’s arguably more iconic, if less lyrically explicit in its Christmassyness, “Stay Another Day”.

It’s strange that it has taken this long for Carey to top the charts. It didn’t quite happen for her in 1994, but it also didn’t happen for her in 2003, when the song surely got a second wind following its appearance in Love Actually. It has felt wholly unavoidable since then, regardless.

It’s left me wondering just how much of a weathervane Christmas No. 1s are. What does it say about 2020 that Carey’s 26-year-old hit has finally been recognised by something like the UK Singles Chart, which has struggled to retain relevance or profile over the last few decades, following the decline of sales and the rise of streams? The most likely answer is “nothing at all”, but Christmas No. 1s have often been strangely significant for various other reasons. In many ways, they reflect where the nation’s head is at, at the end of a given year. They often reflect events or broader social trends or certain sentiments that, I’d argue, tell us more about ourselves than the No. 1 song during any other week of the year.

A few examples: Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody” was first a Christmas No. 1 in 1975; it returned to the top of the charts in 1991 as a sort of sonic memorial, following Freddie Mercury’s death in November of that year. On other occasions, a Christmas No. 1 has been a chance to raise money for good causes with novelty songs or a way to cash in on some pop-cultural trend. Band Aid might be the most famous novelty project, winning it twice with two equally tone-deaf charity numbers in 1984 and 2004. But in 1980, for instance, the top slot went to St. Winifred’s School Choir; in 1993, it went to Mr Blobby; in 2000, it went to Bob the Builder; and 2018 and 2019, it went to LadBaby for two separate songs that were nonetheless both about sausage rolls — the first time the Christmas No. 1 has gone to the same artist consecutively since the Spice Girls won it three years in a row in the mid-Nineties. Do not underestimate this country’s love of pastried meats…

Though it all sounds a bit daft, each of these Christmas No. 1s does tell us something about the extent of our yearly insanities. Looking down a list of all the No. 1s, you can easily tell when Beatlemania was in full swing; you can tell when the Spice Girls took over the world; you can see that 2005 was the year that British talent shows and singing contests first took over the Christmas airwaves — a reign that lasted just short of a decade.

In 2009, Rage Against the Machine’s “Killing in the Name” took the top spot. That was an interesting moment. A campaign was launched, perhaps initially in jest, to deny a fifth consecutive Christmas number one to some disposable X Factor winner. The campaign raised around £70,000 for charity and was hailed by all sorts of rock royalty as a cool gesture of protest against corporate mediocrity.

Although the song was originally written as a protest against America’s military-industrial complex and penchant for racial injustice — making its deployment against televised talent shows a painfully British sort of rock protest, arguably making it a gesture as hollow as anything Simon Cowell has been responsible for in his career — it did show… something… I guess? (Matt Cardle, winner of the 2010 series of X Factor, took the Christmas number one the following year.)

Are Christmas No. 1s points of reference along our cultural decline? Or our cognitive decline? Does each successive year maybe tell us something about our collective dementia? This is not a defence of any of these songs. Very few of them are any good, but it is precisely because they’re not good that they seem to more honestly demonstrate the fickle nature of the market and how it manipulates us.

There is, occasionally, a genuinely interesting song that tops the charts at Christmas that doesn’t just reflect back our worst impulses, however. There are occasionally songs that come along that, often inadvertently, reveal something genuinely insightful about ourselves.

In 2016, for instance, Clean Bandit took the Christmas top spot with “Rockabye”: a sonic identity crisis that was, arguably, the first seasonal hit single to sound representative of modern British pop (for better or worse) since Girls Aloud’s “Sound of the Underground” in 2002.

The winter of 2016, following Trump’s election and the Brexit vote, was precisely a year of identify crises around the world, and the song’s video, in particular, reflects this. Despite its aping of summertime Ibiza highs and Sean Paul’s unmistakeable dancehall patter, it kind of does feel like a Christmas music video? It’s got dreary grey men in pubs miming and a rustic dance routine; it could almost be a Pogues video, caught between glamour and destitution.

With the sound off — or even with the sound on — “Rockabye” becomes an oddly hauntological affair. There’s something not quite right about it. Its identity crisis makes it eerie. Though I’m not sure I would say this of the song on its own, the whole audio-visual package does feel like “the sonic equivalent of the ‘corner of the retina’ effect that the best ghost stories have famously achieved”, as Mark Fisher once put it. There’s the flicker of an insight here, just out of audible range. A deeper message about how, at Christmas, we have a tendency to repress the horrors of the year under inauthentic cheer. Here, what is spectrally out of reach is a hard Christmas truth.

Fisher continues:

To understand what this entails, we need to reverse, or at least nuance, the commonplace§which has it that the ghost is at its most scary only when it can’t fully be seen. To say this implies that the ghost could be made the positive object of apprehension. Yet spectres are unsettling because they are that which can not, by their very nature (or lack of nature), ever be fully seen; gaps in Being, they can only dwell at the periphery of the sensible, in glimmers, shimmers, suggestions.

Applied to Clean Bandit, this isn’t to say that some hidden truth is capable of being uncovered and laid bare. It is a message that it subliminal perhaps even to the musicians themselves. It is a message that can only be partially glimpsed through the false consistency of the song’s high-energy atmosphere.

This is the hauntological presented to us in a mode distinct to that which we are used to. Burial, for instance, makes hauntological forms very explicitly by producing aural screen memories of raves never been to. The glimmers are, very knowingly, the point.

Clean Bandit is less on the nose about its eeriness, but it is similarly a slice of culture that struggles to sit with itself. It is, all at once, a lullaby and an Ibiza banger. It’s a song about night life told from the perspective of a struggling mum — a story of a very different kind of night life to the one we’re used to singing along with but it is rendered as a singalong for us all the same. To layout everything going on in that song in front of you, in an attempt to take all of its disparate and ill-fitting parts in, beyond the false consistency of its pop production, is to see a strange amalgamation of affective lacunae.

No other Christmas number one before or since has managed to encapsulate and demonstrate the weirdness of this country’s festive season so inadvertently. But it raises questions about what the excessive hits we choose to indulge at Christmas — whether for good causes or lost causes — are inadvertently revealing. The nation doth sentimentalise too much, methinks. To what end? To collectively shout “everything is fine” at the end of successively infernal calendars?

In 2020, granting Mariah Carey an opportunity previously missed 26 years ago surely says something about our feelings regarding this lost year, dyeing which the forces of retrospection have been at their strongest.

Christmas is that time of year when the last twelve months of cultural turmoil are delivered to us on a grotesque pop platter. For the last 15 years, almost every Christmas has been defined by stasis or ironic pastiche. Perhaps a 26-year-old song topping the charts for the first time, and thereby combining these two tendencies, is the weird Christmas entry we deserve.

What’s the opposite of a palette cleanser?

The Right’s Meme Illiteracy

The other day, I saw some memes.

One of the first people in the UK to get a COVID vaccine was denounced by online conspiracists because she once posted a copypasta meme. Instead of recognising the meme as a meme, her oft-replicated words revealed her to be a bot deployed by the deep state to get people to willingly vaccinate themselves.

Later, Crit Drip’s marvellous Deleuze & Guattari Tree Removal t-shirt was held up as an example of a leftist “front”.

It’s funny, but it’s also points to an interesting shift in how the online right thinks.

Back in 2016, you had Richard Spencer gloating to Vice that meme magick had hyperstitioned Trump into the White House. In 2020, QAnon shows how right-wing cunning has eaten itself.

This was already apparent in orbit of the 2020 US presidential election. The right reacted to their loss far worse than the left had done four years previously. But the left hadn’t memed Trump out of the White House; the right had simply kept undermining their own reality until they fell in the hole they had dug for themselves.

Whereas the right previously wrote the playbook on using memes to undermine (on the left) — as well as build (on the right) — political consciousness online, now they’ve come to exemplify their own postmodern brain rot, where nothing is true and everything is permitted. This old maxim is less a tactic for psychological warfare and more a way to dismantle their own agency.

They had allowed Trump to sweep into power on the coat-tails of chaos only to keep churning that chaos until they lose all grip on their own reality; their own principles.

I say “their own” reality because what sort of state must the right be in if it can’t distinguish memes from conspiracies? I thought that was how they had previously trolled the left? Now their cries that “the left can’t meme” seem moot. The right doesn’t even know what a meme is anymore.

“Look for an Exit”:
T-Shirts in the Snow

Killing two birds with one stone: a sneak-peak at a future “winter walk” post as well as an opportunity to show off some of the new merch.


On Saturday morning, I received some samples of the new XG merch, beautifully designed by Craig of the Acid Horizon podcast and Crit Drip fame. Almost as soon as they arrived, I threw on one of the t-shirts to give it a test drive before heading out into the snow for a walk around the Marsden moors of West Yorkshire.

The pictures above were taken after a somewhat impromptu disrobing as we watched the sunset over the snow-covered hills. I wasn’t in a t-shirt for long but I was left paying for it on Sunday. I felt rough; I definitely caught a chill. It was beautiful weather though, and I am very happy to be able to confirm now that these t-shirts really came out great.

Please consider getting yourself or a reader one this Christmas! The proceeds really will help me out this holiday season after what has been a bleak 2020. Visit the store here to see all that’s on offer, and go support Craig over at Crit Drip too. His designs are excellent.

Buddies Without Organs — Episode #02

In case you missed it, the second episode of Buddies Without Organs went live over the weekend. Check it out here on our fancy new website: buddieswithout.org. (Shout out to @thejaymo for that ingenious URL suggestion.)

On the website, you’ll find all of our episodes, along with show notes and maybe, in future, some longer-form essays based around the topics we discuss. You can also now find us on Spotify and iTunes. (Let us know if there is anywhere else you’d like to be able to find us.)

We’ll be recording our third episode shortly before Christmas and we’re excited to expand this new venture even more in the new year. Watch this space!

Gaming in a Present Future-Past:
Notes on the Polygon Review of Cyberpunk 2077

About a decade ago, back in June, The Last Of Us Part 2 was released, foregrounded by unbelievable hype and followed by a strange outpouring of praise and critique. Hoards of fans slammed the developers, and even the actors, for its brutal storyline that was otherwise resolutely praised by critics. Those critics who were less glowing in their reviews provoked controversies all of their own.

Maddy Myers’ review of the game for Polygon succeeded, in hindsight, in defining the critical sphere in which the game was to be considered. Balanced and insightful, celebrating its strengths whilst retaining a firm grasp on its unfortunate flaws, it was a review that lingered in my head throughout my entire play-through.

Though I loved the game and was reluctant to say goodbye to the universe it created, playing it with an excitable fervour whilst trying to savour every moment, I ultimately agreed with Myers. The story’s overbearing moralism, coupled with the player’s very limited influence on the overall plot, made it feel like a parable on rails. It’s open-world was magnificent and its scope incredible, but the game was frequently undermined by the linearity of its own overweight story.

As Myers put it, “The Last of Us Part 2 depicts the future, yet it fails to escape its own past.”

At around this same time, whilst very much enjoying this new game on the market, I was thinking about how the games industry was also obsessed with its own past. The other game I had been playing at that time was Resident Evil 3 — the blockbuster remake of a game that had largely defined my childhood; a remake that followed Resident Evil 2, Crash Bandicoot and Spyro the Dragon: the already remastered games of my youth.

Connecting this compulsion to remaster with the theoretical tension at work between hauntology and accelerationism in the first blogosphere, I wrote:

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

Why is this?

In hindsight, there’s a strange irony on display here. Of course the most successful and critically acclaimed remakes in recent years are zombie games. In many respects, this is why, despite its flaws, The Last of Us Part 2 still functions as it is supposed to. To depict the future whilst failing to escape our own past is the driving force behind just about every zombie game. (Emphasis on game; zombie films do not have this same innate templexity — that is, a texplexity beyond the anarchonism of the living dead.) Even in worlds that look like our own, like in Resident Evil, the living dead are combined with technologically-advanced tools that are made available to slay them. Whether explicit or implicit, every zombie game seems to be set at least a bit little ahead of our present.

So, what happens when this tendency emerges within another genre? Chances are, it’s a lot harder to ignore…


Fast-forward to the present day… After years of marketing finesse and levels of hype that somehow exceeded the games industry’s already excessive norms, Cyberpunk 2077 is about to be released to a salivating public.

Apparently, it’s buggy as hell. And it seems like another instance of a highly-anticipated property being undermined by its own marketing cycle. But I’m not one to judge — I’ll save that for after I’ve played it myself, no doubt in many months time. (I’m still not over the absolute waste of money that was my Fallout 76 pre-order.)

Nevertheless, I have just read Carolyn Piet’s review of the game for Polygon, and it once again seems like Polygon’s astute and objective review is going to define this game’s critical reception.

Piet’s comments on the game’s character customisation options are already doing the rounds. Championed during development for the choices on offer, the game was supposed to allow players to build any character they desire, from the transgender to the transhuman. The reality is that there are limits, and those limits are politically quite clumsy.

But, beyond this issue, what I found interesting in Piet’s review was how she described Cyberpunk falling into a familiar trap. Indeed, the review’s tagline echoes that of The Last of Us Part 2 before it. Piet writes:

Though the word cyberpunk evokes a radical vision of the future, there’s nothing revolutionary on offer here. Instead, it’s a game obsessed with the past.

There is, once again, a strange templexity here. I doubt many are genuinely anticipating some grand vision of the future. Cyberpunk, after all, as a genre, is synonymous with the 1980s to my mind. In truth, there is overlap with the 1970s and the 1990s but, either way, Cyberpunk 2077 was always going to be a celebration of a late-twentieth century vision of the future.

The issue, then, is not that the game is “obsessed with the past” but rather that it is haunted by the present. As Piet rightly notes, “There’s real potential for a grim world like the one Cyberpunk 2077 offers to serve as a lens through which our own world is critiqued”. However, by the sounds of it, it is a game that has put its fascination of the past ahead of its actual place in the present. It’s trans representation is the most obvious example of this for many. For Piet, it seems like the game offers up the potential to play as a trans character, with a light sprinkling of other queer signs and signals, in the sort of lacklustre and exoticized way that plenty of media in the 1980s did. As Piet explains:

Here in 2020, people boldly and bravely hack gender all the time. And yes, I know that Cyberpunk 2077 takes place on a separate timeline in which the year 2020 looked very different than it does for us, but it’s still a world in which people push their bodies to the extreme of technological modification, sometimes swapping out eyes or limbs like they’re changing clothes. You’d think transgressing gender norms would be pretty commonplace, too, and that as a result, a fundamentally different understanding of gender and of trans identity would have taken root in the world.

Instead, Cyberpunk‘s world is one of pervasive transphobia.

The backlash to this review almost writes itself. This cold dystopian future shouldn’t have to align itself with your woke ideals in the present. But that is only part of the issue for Piet. It isn’t just that it’s politics are predictably superficial — it’s that they are wholly unimaginative for a game set 50+ years in the future. As such, according to Piet, the game fails to engage with how the concerns of our cyberpunk past might look different in a future projected from the present.

If this is a shame, it is one compounded by how the game supposedly succeeds in other areas. Commenting on the game’s primary location, Night City, Piet notes that it is “not just an amalgamation of imagery lifted from other influential sources, but an original creation that incorporates many signifiers of cyberpunk genre flavor (lots of Japanese kanji in neon, airships slowly drifting through the sky) while also feeling like a place we haven’t seen before.” Clearly, this is an update on the genre we might otherwise know from films such as Blade Runner.

But this is complicated further still by one character who, although he allows you to better engage with the city in which you wander, is nonetheless a ghost from the past. That character, played by Keanu Reeves, is

Johnny Silverhand, the once-legendary rock star whose digitized consciousness takes up residence in your head via a highly sought-after biochip you slot into your brain during a heist gone sideways. Johnny is central to some of the biggest upheavals in Night City history, and as you carry the cybernetic construct of his personality around with you, playable flashbacks thrust you into that history, giving you a taste both of the blur of sex, drugs, and rock n’ roll that made up much of his life, and of the anticorporate actions that have him branded as a terrorist in some people’s eyes.

Piet continues:

This is what I least expected about Cyberpunk 2077: that its notions of “cool” are so tied up in the digital persona of a past-his-prime rocker that the game sometimes feels like looking through your uncle’s musty record collection while he talks about how great the Rolling Stones are. When William Gibson’s genre-defining novels like Neuromancer and Count Zero first appeared in the mid-’80s, they were thrilling in part because they offered a vision of the future that felt entirely new, and with it, a whole new vision of “cool.” I believe there’s still potential for cyberpunk stories to be so boldly visionary and relevant, but Cyberpunk 2077 prefers to look back, an attitude reflected not just through Johnny’s efforts to avenge old grudges and to recapture the glory days of his band Samurai. In fact, the game’s entire worldview feels like the product of someone who’s about 30 years behind the times, who may have been rebellious and liberated once but who nowadays doesn’t understand why it’s messed up to call sex workers “whores,” as Johnny routinely does.

Following the hauntological zombie-romp that is The Last of Us Part 2, where the past (read: the dead) constantly stalks and threatens to rip the throat out of the present, Piet’s appraisal of Cyberpunk 2077 seems oddly complementary, despite the two games being from entirely different genres. The difference, however, is that in Cyberpunk‘s future, the past does not stalk the present in any material sense; it is instead installed directly into your cerebellum. It literally lives rent-free in your head…

What’s strange about this is that it is The Last of Us Part 2 that seems to be more progressive — not just politically speaking but also temporally. That doesn’t feel right. The necrotic transcendentalism of The Last of Us is purposefully set in a recognisable future — the rotten husk of our present — and yet, despite that depressively melancholic perspective, it is more forward-thinking than Cyberpunk‘s transhumanist free-for-all?

After all, in The Last of Us Part 2, Ellie and Dina, scavenging in the zombie-infested wastes of Seattle, are able to see great potential in the ruins around them. As I wrote in a previous post on the game:

Joel’s nostalgic nature isn’t something I want to criticise. In fact, it is all too relatable. In his role as father figure, he wants to inspire Ellie with his knowledge and expertise, showing her things about the old world that she can take with her into the new. Whilst Ellie’s excitement and curiosity in this regard is endlessly endearing, Joel’s own melancholy never quite fades into the background. And it is an understandable melancholy too. If I was able to watch old films or listen to old records depicting a world catastrophically destroyed by a zombifying pathogen, I think the cognitive dissonance would soon start to take its toll. For the younger characters in The Last of Us Part 2, however, this disconnect is taken to be a given. They don’t focus much on what has been lost but always push forwards, considering what they can do next. They seem inspired by the old world but only because it shows them the kind of cultural production possible in the new one they hope to build.

In this sense, the young adults of The Last of Us Part 2 are enthralled by the magic of relics.

Cyberpunk 2077, at least according to this one reviewer, doesn’t inspire as much hope. Instead, as the flawed product of a flawed tech industry, it seems to do what many other over-hyped recent games have done in recent years: it has inadvertently highlighted the problems with our own world and its dominant ideological perspective, by failing to offer the kind of revolutionary new perspective its marketing campaign promised.

For Piet, Cyberpunk 2077 remains a game that speaks more readily to the past. Her closing sentiment is almost heartbreaking in its disappointment. She writes:

Yes, I know I shouldn’t look to a colossal game that was itself produced under exploitative labor conditions to lead the charge of anticapitalist liberation, but I wish the sparks of Johnny Silverhand’s ideological rage got to burn brighter, that Cyberpunk 2077 felt more interested in envisioning new futures than in reminiscing over bygone glories. Neither its gameplay nor its narrative can imagine the bold possibilities that I find so central to the best of cyberpunk. But what it does offer is visions of people trying to make do and get by in a world that’s trying to eat them alive, and sometimes those people get by with a little help from their friends.

The revolution will not be gamified, that’s for sure. But Piet’s disappointment doesn’t just seem to be aimed at this blockbuster game; it also feels like a disappointment with the world in which it was made. The harsh truth lurking under the surface here is that Cyberpunk 2077 speaks far more to our present than we are prepared to admit.

Piet attempts to find some silver lining in that suspended realisation but stops herself. She concludes: “It’s not the revolution I hoped for, but it’s something.” What that something is barely warrants thinking about; that something is our all-too-familiar reality. Piet may not see herself, as a trans woman, reflected in the game as promised, but is the silver lining here really that she at least finds herself represented and reflected as a browbeaten but defiant capitalist subject? Trans representation in the game could have been a wondrous affirmation but, denied that, we shouldn’t settle for a half-baked identity politics instead. That is perhaps a more depressing conclusion that she realises.

It leads me to a depressing conclusion of my own. Though I will wait to play Cyberpunk 2077 for myself before casting any final judgement on it, by the sounds of things, and despite its obsession with the past, this is a game far more representative of the reactionary crises in our present than first appearances suggest. It is exemplary of the postmodern in all its impotence — not lost futures but future-presents with an eye to the past. The “no future” of punk echoes cybernetically down the years, not as a refusal but as a prophecy. Our own imagined progress becomes a flattened temporal disk where high tech surfaces cover over an abject lack of depth. A futuristic game that doubles down on our lack of future is certainly one kind of cyberpunk, but today nihilism is a rational fact of life and not a cool kids’ ideological choice. And if cyberpunk — as game or genre — cannot adequately deliver on nihilism’s Promethean potentials then it is unfit for purpose.

More than that, it’s ironically played out and time-twisted. It renders Cyberpunk 2077 as a hot new property, a brand new game, built with all the logic of a remake. It might look great and it might feel great but it is shortsighted. It is more zombified than a zombie game — old ideas clawing their way to the fore of our collective unconscious, only to remind us of what we’ve lost — not “the future” in itself but our very capacity to refuse it.

The scorpions might attack, but the systems stole the sting
Cyberpunk is dead

Postcapitalist Desire:
Repeater Books Competition Winners

On Friday, the folks at Repeater Books decided to hold a little competition. To be in with the chance of winning 1 of 3 copies of Postcapitalist Desire: The Final Lectures of Mark Fisher ahead of its official January release, you just had to quote-tweet the tweet below with your favourite Fisher quote:

Attention – Fisher fans! 📢📢

To whet your appetites for POSTCAPITALIST DESIRE, we’re giving away 3 x copies ahead of official publication on 12th January 2021

Retweet this post along with your favourite Fisher quote before midnight on 6/12 and @xenogothic will pick the winners

Originally tweeted by Repeater Books (@RepeaterBooks) on December 4, 2020.

Competitions like this are pretty common. All things considered, it’s a good way to promote something and make it more visible. It’s easy to be cynical about that sort of marketing strategy when Mark Fisher’s posthumous legacy is involved — and some people weren’t shy in expressing that — but what I really loved about this little weekend comp was that it served to illustrate, beyond the cliches and usual go-to’s, the consistency of Mark’s project and his often-searing sense of humour.

It’s with those two things in mind that the three winning quotations I chose for the competition are as follows:

“The reason focus groups and capitalist feedback systems fail is that people do not know what they want. This is not only because people’s desire is concealed from them… Rather, the most powerful forms of desire are precisely cravings for the strange, the unexpected, the weird”

Originally tweeted by 📚Jimi 📖 Cullen 📙 (@JimiCullen) on December 4, 2020.

@JimiCullen was one of the first to respond to the competition, I think, but his chosen quotation continued to resonant over the weekend. It is a line from Capitalist Realism, but one which complements Mark’s later work wonderfully, particularly The Weird and the Eerie and the sentiments expressed in the new Postcapitalist Desire lectures.

Similarly, @feldwerk’s chosen quotation, from the unfinished Acid Communism intro, published in the 2018 K-Punk anthology, further emboldens how the strange, unexpected and weird do not necessarily lie in front of us.

“The past has to be continually re-narrated, and the political point of reactionary narratives is to suppress the potentials which still await, ready to be re-awakened, in older moments.”

Originally tweeted by vs (@feldwerk) on December 5, 2020.

Our history is a vast archive of paths untaken and re-establishing the suppressed potentials of supposedly vanquished mo(ve)ments, particularly following “the end of history”, is a point that illustrates the complexity of Fisher’s hauntological thinking. The negative and obstructive ways in which the past haunts the present are one thing, but there are other, more positive and generative ways of operating here — be they accelerationist or salvagepunk.

Nevertheless, this is often obscured by the contemptuous relish of Mark’s critiques of postmodernity, and it is this that @gouldp7070 reminded me of in selecting this blistering one-liner from an old k-punk post, “Postmodernism as Pathology, Part II”.

Tony Blair and Robbie Williams seem to exist only for the gaze of each other.

Originally tweeted by Peter Gouldson (@gouldp7070) on December 4, 2020.

PoMo is a nefarious enemy. It’s hard to evade its capture. In many ways, we might be better off accepting its enclosure and plotting ways to puncture it. In the 2000s, that was what k-punk was best known for: adeptly sketching the finer cracks in the firmament. “Williams and Blair are two sides of one Joker Hysterical face”, he argued: “two cracked actors, one given over to the performance of sincerity, the other dedicated to the performance of irony.” With the Joker today being an icon for those who are, at all times online, either ironically sincere or sincerely ironic, it demonstrates one more way in which Mark’s view of an alternative present was painfully prescient, and how even that pop-political construction has collapsed in on itself. But recognising that trajectory is the first step towards getting ahead of it.

I hope the winners enjoy their books and thank you for reminding me — and, I hope, others too — of what Mark still has left to offer us.

Huge congratulations to the winners of the POSTCAPITALIST DESIRE competition, as selected by its editor, and author of EGRESS Matt Colquhoun (@xenogothic)

@feldwerk @gouldp7070 @JimiCullen – DM us your addresses, please! 💝

Originally tweeted by Repeater Books (@RepeaterBooks) on December 7, 2020.