A huge thank you to everyone who swung by YouTube to watch my talk last night, hosted by the Association for the Design of History. I also want to thank Pete Wolfendale, who joined for the discussion afterwards, which turned my 40-minute spiel into a really deep and vital 150-minute conversation on left-accelerationism, political strategy and, of course, the legacy of Mark Fisher.
This talk was a snapshot into some research I’ve been doing for most of the past year, building on the accelerationism course written with Meta Nomad, and I was actually quite nervous to hear Pete’s thought on this trajectory I’ve been sketching out of a blogosphere that he was more actively involved with, but the conversation that followed was brilliant and triggered so many new thoughts in turn. I thoroughly enjoyed it. I hope others did too.
I’d like to add, just in case it gets lost to the longevity of our discussion, Pete’s final point on Mark Fisher the strategist. Following on from some clumsy remarks from me, trying to articulate the relationship between philosophy and praxis — a vague attempt to gesture at Marx’s adage that we mustn’t only interpret the world but change it — Pete offered some clarifying comments that were probably the perfect note to end on, and I’d like to clip them here for posterity. Thank you again, Pete.
Mark was one of the greatest strategists. Mark was looking into the twenty-first century, far ahead of anybody else, because he could see the blockage in the imagination of everybody else. His task was, “how do I kick and punch and find wads of C4 that I can blow holes in this blockage with?” And he was so much more effective at this than basically anybody around him. To the point where, after his death, he can be seen as this incredibly successful and influential figure. But at the time… he wasn’t given fucking employment! He had to hustle.
I’m loathe to say that philosophy is praxis because, when the owl of Minerva flies, it might turn out that you were one of the failures. I genuinely believe that when we talk about things as experiments, it’s not an experiment unless it can possibly go wrong. And most experiments fail. But, retrospectively, Mark’s experiments didn’t fail. Mark had an incredibly high success rate for anyone doing remotely anything like theoretical work. A crazy-high success rate. And I think it’s only in retrospect that we can start to see what the overall strategy was, because all of the moves looked like these little bits of tactical brilliance. And if you zoom out, and start trying to see this trajectory, from the work on William Gibson and human security through capitalist realism to acid communism, you start seeing that there’s this always-unfinished project but [also] — to be Badiouian again — this commitment; that Mark articulated this commitment, this truth-procedure that could outlive him and outlive decades more people who will follow.
If I can say one final thing about that: if I was to classify Mark, and say what kind of strategist Mark was — Mark was one of the great strategists of class war. Mark saw himself as being involved in a class war that nobody else around him could see — at least that they couldn’t see at the level of strategic vantage that he managed to see. And how he did this — through reading culture, through understanding ideology, through reinterpreting Spinoza and cyberpunk — it doesn’t matter. You’ve got to see what all of those things add up to, and it’s strategizing within a class war, in very much the same way as Debord and the Situationists — very clearly, strategy and class war; Gramsci — same thing — these people who are, very clearly, thinking about strategy within the context of class war.
You can watch the talk and the discussion above. Below, you can read along to my talk, if it helps!
The Philosophy of Salvagepunk:
On the Missing Link between Accelerationism and Hauntology
Hi everyone. Thanks very much for having me.
When Sebastien first invited me to speak today, on some then-undetermined aspect of the work of Mark Fisher, I couldn’t help but think about a talk Mark gave at the Digital Bauhaus Summit in Weimer in 2016. His talk was titled “Designer Communism” — you can still find it on Vimeo — and it is clearly something of a precursor to what Mark would later call “Acid Communism”.
Mark begins, in typically self-deprecating fashion, by saying “I don’t know why I decided to talk about designer communism to a room that includes a lot of people who do actually know something about design.” In approaching this talk, I initially felt a similar way; I would hardly describe myself as design-literate.
And yet I’m very excited to be here because, whilst Mark may have felt like a philosopher among designers at that event, it is clear that the Association for the Design of History takes the issues that concerned Mark most towards the end of his life very seriously — that is, how to design a radical future into existence.
Design should not be about polishing the turd of the present. The CIA’s recent makeover that went viral at the beginning of this month is perhaps a case in point. Design is always at its most uncanny when it reduced to improving the user experience or the aesthetic qualities of presently monopolising and dystopic platforms. In essence, design is (or should be) innately speculative — it is imagining (or imaging) something before it is made. Design is a form of production, in this sense, specifically the production of the new, and design is of the utmost importance here because it is precisely “the new” that has long been in crisis.
Of course, I’m sure this isn’t something I need to tell anybody here, but I want to say the obvious upfront and use it as a foundation nonetheless, because the name of the Association for the Design of History is also suggestive of a certain templexity, and it is this templexity that is going to be the background of my talk today.
So, let me put it like this: we typically understand history to be that which has already happened — debatable, I know, but let’s park the contentions for a moment. The question becomes: how do we design — that is, imagine ahead of time — something that has already occurred? The ADH starts to sound like an attempt to take design back to the future, and to me, that paradox isn’t simply a fun play on words, but a great way of summarising the strange position we’re in, and have been in since at least the new millennium.
In recent months, this has been the focus on my research, leading on from the introduction I recently wrote for Mark Fisher’s final lectures, which I’m developing into a book of my own on accelerationism. The central question, for me, is: how have we so far, in the twenty-first century, dealt with the problem of the production of the new? In the mid- to late-2000s, this topic was central to the blogosphere, as it is often called — a gathering of blogs run by philosophers, cultural critics, and anonymous interlocutors. Mark Fisher, in particular, made his name there. In around 2006, along with Simon Reynolds, Fisher became particularly well-known for his various writings on the topic of “hauntology”.
“Hauntology” was originally Jacques Derrida’s term for the lost futures that linger in our collective imagination following the collapse of the Soviet Union and the apparent ultimate success of global capitalism. Communism was seemingly, at that time, the last socioeconomic alternative available to us. When it was vanquished in 1991, capitalism suddenly appeared to be the only option. Without that defining Cold War antagonism at the heart of the twentieth-century, Francis Fukuyama famously declared we had reached the end of history. And yet the idea of communism, beyond its disastrous authoritarian mutations, and Marxism more generally, staggered onwards, despite this supposedly ultimate defeat, continuing to embody, in the words of Herbert Marcuse, that spectre of a world that could still be free.
For Mark Fisher, Simon Reynolds, and other members of the blogosphere, the same was true of all the counter-cultural currents that were vanquished by the end of the 1990s. Punk was long dead. Post-punk too. And rave died shortly after the dawn of the millennium. Each, in turn, became less an active striving for new musical forms and instead became over-defined musical clichés in their own right. They were sonic or visual aesthetics to adopt rather than philosophies to carry forwards. They were signs of taste rather than alternatives. As Reynolds wrote of post-punk, the impetus had always been to rip it up and start again. Post-punk was not a sound but an attitude. Now it means any post-Joy Division pastiche. As a result, it seems like starting again is no longer an option.
Nevertheless, the ideas of the counterculture, punk, post-punk and rave have never really gone away. They linger on like ghosts, their hollowed-out presence re-emerging in strange ways. These sonic graveyards become, in themselves, new sonic landscapes on which to conjure up old potentials, mutated by the passage of time.
This was what Mark Fisher heard in the music of Burial. Burial had never been to a rave himself, but he grew up in the immediate aftermath of that cultural moment, wandering through the smoke of a fire that had just been put out. His ghostly, melancholic and suppressed music was like nothing anyone had ever heard before, and yet it was also clearly the sound of the familiar in a moment of decay. It was the new sound of a decaying past. Credit where due, Burial later changed up his sound, pushing the boundaries of his own music, to new lengths and new intensities. But his first two albums became classics, fixed in time — a time we are still yet to escape from. And the sanctity of those records, arguably, pulls Burial back down into the reified time that he was precisely attempting to claw his way out of.
Because of this, for many, this new hauntological tendency wasn’t good enough. It was all too susceptible to the reifying tendency it was trying to critique. This was down to its own internal melancholy. In other words, pointing out that we are stuck in the past does little to help drag out us of it. This made hauntology, for someone like Alex Williams, little more than a form of “good postmodernism”.
Fisher and co. had repeatedly declared that postmodernism was their enemy. It is, as Fredric Jameson once put it, the “cultural logic of late capitalism”. For Mark Fisher and Robin Mackay, writing in the mid-1990s, the “cardinal features of [postmodernism] — the arbitrary aesthetics, the simulated gestures, the boredom,” and, perhaps most importantly, “the poignancy of the lost object — combine to produce a transcendental miserabilism: a deep sense not only that there is nothing to be done, but that nothing could ever have been done.” Hauntology’s double-bluff, then, as far as Williams was concerned, seemed to be that this acquiescence to the end of history could nonetheless be generative. “Beached as it seems we are at the end of (cultural) history,” he writes, “it is certainly a seductive argument.”
Writing on the kind of haunted dub epitomised by the likes of Burial, the Caretaker, and those artists on the Ghostbox label, Williams continues: “By foregrounding the processes at the material level (sampling, versioning, deliberately invoking buried/false childhood memories etc) it is contended that such music comes to terms with the deadlock which we face, the inability to properly think the new as such, and makes of this condition something positive.” But this makes hauntology little more than a snake biting its own tail. Indeed, it is a positive embrace of postmodernism’s feedback loop, that nonetheless retains postmodernism as its enemy. Hauntology, in this sense, was postmodernity mournfully celebrating its own catastrophism. It wasn’t anti-postmodernism, but the latest twist in late-capitalism’s in-grown dialectic.
Williams, then blogging under the name Splintering Bone Ashes, sought a far more affirmative and less miserablist approach. His argument to the contrary is rabblerousing. He writes:
Hauntology is a cowardly move, lusting after utopias that never were, or which are now unreachable, a retreat into childhood/youth, just as trapped in the endless re-iterative mechanistics of the postmodern as the lowest form of retroism, merely in a hyper-self-aware form.
Hauntology, then, “cedes too much ground to what it attempts to oppose.” For Williams, this wasn’t good enough. He didn’t want to try and half-heartedly negate capitalism’s internal negativity but celebrate it — that is, celebrate the negative potency of capital, which has a tendency to produce and even sustain its own enemies.
In this sense, Derrida’s spectral communism didn’t signify the foundational strength of a long-lost communist ideal but was rather a sign of capitalism’s ultimate weakness. Without anything left to vanquish, capitalism may have won but, in doing so, it has undermined its own sense of progress. There’s no sense of achievement in winning a one-horse race, and so capitalism cannot help but produce opposition to itself, only to then fold that opposition back into the fray, later producing even more new enemies to once again absorb. It is this postmodern feedback loop that we are currently captured by, albeit now several circles down in its hellish late-capitalist purgatory, and so Williams argued in favour of the intensification of this self-undermining tendency. We need to seize one of the opportunities that capitalism itself provides us with. We have to affirm capitalism’s flawed production of the new to undermine capitalism from within. We have to intensify the capitalist production of anti-capitalism.
So, how exactly do we do this? Williams offers up to a two-pronged alternative. He suggests that
we might think a more nihilist aesthetic which seeks not merely to foreground the processes of postmodern audio-necromancy, but rather to accelerate the system to its ultimate demise, to speed up the rate of fashion-flux to a point of irredeemable collapse. Rather than an act of reverence, of mourning, of touching at impossible universes from a distance, this would be a deliberate and gleeful affirmation. Alternatively, we might consider Badiou’s analysis of the emergence of the new, which would entail a more strategic examination of precisely where the pop-musical evental sites and historical situations exist within our current time: those regions which appear, from the in-situational point of view, to be marginal, and properly undecideable.
There’s a lot to unpack there, but if we can summarise this two-pronged approach, and also emphasise the fact that Williams is concerned with culture and aesthetics more than any insurrectional political practice, we can see two modulations on what would later become known as accelerationism.
Firstly, it’s worth emphasising Williams’ focus on what he calls “postmodern audio-necromancy”. The approach discussed here, of intensifying systems until they collapse, is similar to what William Burroughs and other literary postmodernists had long been advocating for in the twentieth century. Using the master’s tools to dismantle the master’s house, as it were — a notoriously contentious argument, but one given a certain buoyancy considering the nature of capitalism’s own feedback loop. For Burroughs, this was something to be achieved through writing. Writing is that ubiquitous tool used, he says, “to cause confusion, to create and aggravate conflicts, and to discredit opponents”. Language itself is a virus, Burroughs suggests, and one which capitalism has long had control over. But Burroughs was, of course, himself a writer, embracing the fashion-flux and innate instability of capitalism to lampoon and undermine it from within. This is, arguably, an approach best encapsulated by the work of Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari — an appropriate to the new that is all too aware of what has come before it, that slides between the unending dance of difference and repetition to bring about newly recombinant futures.
The second approach that Williams offers up is more explicitly philosophical. He refers here to Alain Badiou’s philosophy of the event.
Much of Badiou’s philosophy is concerned with how, philosophically and mathematically rather than just aesthetically speaking, the new is generated. There are many ways of approaching this thought — and indeed, Badiou explores the new via numerous disciplines, often simultaneously. However, for many, and particularly those more familiar with the Deleuzian understanding of accelerationism, Badiou is little more than a heretic who dismisses Deleuze and Guattari out of hand as adherents to what he calls “the fascism of the potato”.
There is no denying that it was Deleuze and Guattari who wrote, firmly if ambiguously, that we must “accelerate the process”, but Badiou argues that Deleuze and Guattari don’t really understand what that process is. Their thinking of the dialectic, as the antagonistic process that drives our contemporary status quo, is apt if impotent. All they are in favour of, Badiou argues, is an “aesthete’s acquiescence to the proliferating splendour of all rubbish.”
In many ways, this makes Deleuze and Guattari the philosophers of our postmodern cultural moment. Sitting at the end of history, history becomes a seemingly infinite sandbox of potentials, to which we have a now-unprecedented access. We can Google anything, and find an inexhaustible reading list allowing us to explore the complexities of any given moment, and we plunder these results and recombine them, like Burroughs’ cut-ups, at will. We can reach back and draw upon almost anything that have come before us. It is an empowering place to be that requires no real explosive sense of revolution. However, this becomes a problem when we understand that the means of accessing all of this information are nonetheless wholly captured by capitalism. There is little decision-making or strategy on display here. It is an acquiescence to capitalism’s own desiring-production.
For my sins, I’ve been reading a lot of Badiou throughout the pandemic. If I were to plant my flag anywhere, it would still likely be on the side of Deleuze and Guattari, but rather than dismiss Badiou out of hand for his unorthodox and heretical take on Deleuze, I’ve come to now appreciate the generative power of his militancy.
In reading Badiou, even (or especially) when you disagree with him, his provocations become sharpening stones for your own positions. This isn’t always the case but at his best, and whether he is right or wrong, he moves thought forwards.
Most recently I’ve been reading the English essay collection known as The Adventure of French Philosophy, which might just be the perfect example of how Badiou’s thought operates in this way. Here we have his infamous essay on the “potato fascism” of Deleuze and Guattari, among other striking polemics that are unlikely to convince many readers of his value, but Bruno Bosteels’ translator’s introduction frames Badiou’s provocations in the right way. He writes of a series of what he calls “constitutive polemical knots that give Badiou’s philosophy its distinctive orientation, tonality and feel”. For Bosteels,
one of [Badiou]’s greatest virtues — which to others might seem to be a defect, especially in his writing on other philosophers — lies in giving thought a decisive orientation by leading readers to the point where they must take a stand in one way or another. Each of Badiou’s knots, in this sense, begs to be cut. And the task of his thought — for example, in reviewing someone else’s work — lies in facilitating these cuts and in elucidating the consequences of choosing one knot and one cut — one act — over another.
When reading this for the first time a week or two ago, it felt like Bosteels was describing Badiou’s thought as having a fidelity to an innately post-punk manoeuvre — a strange way to frame Badiou, I know. It made me think of Phil Christman’s recent and poignant review-essay of Mark Fisher’s Postcapitalist Desire lectures, written for Commonweal Magazine, in which he writes — in quite Badiouan terms, come to think of it — of Fisher’s fidelity to the event of post-punk:
not the loud, colorful, simple, proudly incompetent, and often nihilistic music known then and now as punk rock, but the strange and often foreboding music that came immediately after it, made by artists who occupied the space of possibility that punk had created by saying “No” to manners, taboos, and musical skill. Such artists — Joy Division, the Mekons, the Fall, the Raincoats, Wire — turned punk’s nothing into something, or many somethings.
To me, Badiou’s thought feels very similar. He too hopes to turn nothings into somethings, rather than following Deleuze and Guattari’s lead of producing more somethings from already-existing somethings. Indeed, this is the foundation of what Badiou calls his “subtractive ontology” — the assertion that being is produced ex nihilo, or from nothing, making the void or zero his foundation, which is contrary to Deleuze and Guattari’s schizophrenic fidelity to infinity or multiplicity.
Badiou’s thought feels newly resonant at the moment, when the left is considering how to move forwards after the nightmare of four years of Trump. Many conservatives, in recent years, have described themselves as the new punk, and, following Christman, they’re broadly correct. The alt-right was a loud, simple and proudly incompetent movement, built upon a refusal of liberal propriety, and one that has taken up and bastardised the name “accelerationism” to signal their desire for an intensification of their own talking points. But no longer. The general assault on Trump, his soapboxes and his supporters feels like a defiant attempt to cut the knot of incompetency rather than seek to unentangle it with a blank and passive civility. The left now needs to reaffirm its post-punk instincts, turning Trump’s nothing into something new.
But, we must remember that, for Alex Williams, these two versions of accelerationism — Deleuzo-Guattarian and Badiouian — were not diametrically opposed to one another. His post against hauntology suggests that they were two paths leading off from the same crisis, but his later writing suggest these approaches are much more entwined. Williams was heavily influenced by Ray Brassier, for instance, who, in his 2004 essay “Nihil Unbound” — not to be confused with his 2007 book of the same name — suggests that Badiou’s voided ground does not negate Deleuze and Guattari’s project but rather makes a return to it all the more essential. He even seems to suggest, albeit indirectly, that Badiou’s mathematical approach, grounded by zero, is no less complicit in capitalism that Deleuze and Guattari’s. Indeed, the numerical foundation of his ontology makes it strangely compatible with the punk imposition of Nick Land’s cybernetic neoliberalism. For Land, “counting always happens on the outside”, and this is likewise why Badiou favours mathematics as a way to instantiate his philosophical truth-procedures.
But where Badiou differs from Land is that he cuts the knot of Deleuze and Guattari’s accelerative ambiguity, and this is a useful and powerful act, even if it only provides new ground for their thought to begin again. For accelerationism in 2008, the argument to be extrapolated from this is that we should perhaps use the perspective provided by the end of history to develop newly militant strategies for rupturing capitalism from within. The knot of communism has been cut. Now we can re-establish our commitments from new grounds.
This is what I think Mark Fisher was intending to do with his unfinished book Acid Communism. I have previously expressed my firm belief that Acid Communism was not a do-over, pure and simple, rejecting his prior critiques of the left in favour of a new fidelity with a pop-leftist project. The transition is more complex and more interesting. From his hauntological writings to his accelerationist provocations, acid communism emerges as an accelerative hauntology. In recognising the cut afforded by the present, he can newly return to the potentials of the counterculture — not only the ways that those potentials haunt us but rather how these potentials remain salvageable.
This notion of salvage brings me to the topic promised by the title of this talk: “salvagepunk”. It was a term similarly born from the blogosphere of the late 2000s which I think combines the Deleuzo-Badiouian imperatives of an accelerationism contra hauntology far more explicitly, and it is all the more useful for us today, I think, precisely because it is a term that has been forgotten. Though roughly the same age as the concepts we have so far discussed, it lacks any of the baggage and, as such, is primed for salvaging itself.
I first came across the term “salvagepunk” just a few months ago. Mark Fisher refers to it in an old issue of The Wire magazine, whilst writing on the plundering practices of James Kirby (his V/Vm project rather than the Caretaker) and the eccojams of Oneohtrix Point Never. He notes how, for “American theorist Evan Calder Williams … ‘salvagepunk’ provides a broader context for thinking about how these [sample-based] methodologies deviate from their banal twin, postmodernity.” Fisher continues:
By opposition to postmodern pastiche, in which any sign can be juxtaposed with any other in a friction-free space, salvagepunk retains the specificity of cultural objects, even as it bolts them together into new assemblages. That’s precisely because salvagepunk is dealing with objects rather than signs. While signs are interchangeable, objects have particular properties, textures and tendencies, and the art of salvage is about knowing which objects can be lashed together to form viable constructions.
Salvagepunk, then, is a question of “repurposing (rather than simply citing)”, which sounds like a somewhat arbitrary distinction, but let us consider the far-right appropriation of accelerationism, which merely cites a lazy definition rather than engaging specifically with any of accelerationism’s central contentions.
I should probably add at this point that Calder Williams would perhaps see my use of his term in this context as somewhat heretical. In a poetic talk on salvagepunk, co-authored with China Mieville and presented at London’s Serpentine Gallery in 2012, accelerationism is framed as a fly-like mania, buzzing around shit. “The diphtheric is no dialectic”, Mieville says. The fly, feeding on the refuse of the world, is not a salvagepunk but a fetid little shit-eater. We can hope to intensify this habit but, Mieville says, we end up with a strategy like that of Renfield, the fly-eating companion of Nosferatu. He is only a sycophant to the vampire proper — capitalism itself, feasting on dead labour. The accelerationist Renfield, instead, possess a “mania [that] is a function of the world” in which he lives, Mieville says, “not of Nosferatu.” Renfield is all too human. He has “a fool’s capitalist envy — he tries to imitate its voracity with cringe-making misprisions.”
Together, Calder Williams and Mieville seem to take the same view as Badiou of Deleuze and Guattari, extrapolated outwards onto capitalism itself. Postmodern capitalism is an industrialist’s “acquiescence to the proliferating splendour of all rubbish”, quite literally. Look upon this “garbage world” and the human and non-human scavengers that live — again, quite literally — upon its industrial dumps, and nonetheless eke out a living.
Mieville quotes from those who have lived in abject poverty on the industrial wastelands that pepper our planet and notes their wonder at what would be, to us, in all our first-world cleanliness, a truly apocalyptic existence. He quotes Zimbabwean author Dambudzo Marechera, who speaks with disturbed wonder about the sorts of treasure that could be pilfered, free of charge, from the empire’s refuse — dolls and corpses, each all too like the other in their discarded state. We should not picture Marechera pitiful or in need of our patronising charity but rather as kin. His relationship to the abject landscape of the rubbish dump is one we should adopt for ourselves, because we too live in such a world — semiotically if not quite as materially. This requires not the civic dutifulness of recycling but rather a new attentiveness to what capitalism, as totalizing structure, deems to be its own discarded excess — both toy and human alike.
Mieville later insists upon a new meeting point between human and monster. Not a Renfield, rather something much less pathetic. “At one end of the continuum is the human, the other the monster, and neither helps”, he says. “We have to have recourse to a mediating animal point between… We need an animal copula, a conjunction to attach us-ness to the rubbishness in which we’re lost” that doesn’t merely feed on that which we deem to be a lower form of life.
This is salvagepunk. It is, as Calder Williams argues, “the other side of salvage … when the properties of things become a sabotage of their purpose, unbound from their identity as if by flies, bound together with other broken things as if by flies.” Here, despite its subtle disregard, salvagepunk finds itself overlaid upon our contemporary understanding of accelerationism, which has precisely been unbound from itself and then haphazardly bound to the other broken ideologies of postmodern fecundity. Indeed, at this point in time, we might see salvagepunk as a better name for what accelerationism first set out to do.
Accelerationism is dead, long live accelerationism. From the carcass of this moronic reaction, epitomised by our present moment especially, following the impotent insurrection at the United States Capitol building, accelerationism’s initial claims might finally be salvaged. But not cleanly. In fact, scraping off the mess of ambiguity is part of the process — a process that Calder Williams refers to as differentiation; that which capital cannot do, recognising the distinction between corpse and toy.
With this in mind, I think Mieville’s animal copula is precisely how the relationship between hauntology and accelerationism should be seen today. One is all too human in its attachments, the other monstrously inhuman in its mechanistic complicities. But, taken together, we build a go-between that deals more decisively with late-capitalist apocalypse.
Calder Williams’ project takes this apocalypse firmly in its sights in his 2012 book Combined and Uneven Apocalypse. He hopes to bring into focus the “scattered tactical expressions that try to grasp the consequences of this world order” — a late-capitalist world order — that is “coming to an end”. What are the strategies lying behind these expressions, he wonders; behind this cascade of post-apocalyptic media that is perhaps more than just a symptom of our nostalgic terror, that one day this present shithole might be something we’re forced to miss.
In this way, salvagepunk accepts hauntology’s doom and gloom. Yes, it says, this crisis is terminal. But it rejects its melancholy — “in trying to put our feet down and take stock of where we stand,” Calder Williams writes, we must make sure “we aren’t dragging our feet.” But he also rejects accelerationism’s innate complicity in the crisis. He seems to recognise both hauntology and accelerationism as two sides of the same coin, and so cuts a diagonal between them, by affirming the cultural proliferation of the apocalyptic not as a potent negativity and punk refusal but as the tingling sense that a new world is coming for which we do not yet have a blueprint.
“If we call these apocalyptic times, we do so because of what is revealed”, he says. “Namely, the pervasive structures of capitalist apocalypse and the fantasies needed to approach and mediate them, not in the simple fact that an era is drawing to a close.” The sense of revelation he is in pursuit of, he says, is “the end of a totality, here meaning not the sum of all things but the ordering of those things in a particular historical shape.”
Here salvagepunk challenges the founding gesture of capitalist realism. The end of the world is easier to imagine than the end of capitalism, yes, but that is where the process starts. Why are we imagining the end of the world in the first place? Precisely because it is ending. And so we must see what is unveiled by this process, and shift our perspective accordingly. Calder Williams’ summary of the stakes in John Carpenter’s film They Live is wonderfully succinct on this. It is a case of “suddenly seeing what ‘was there all along,’ even as it insistently works, against its own grain, to blow its own cover story.” As cathartic as Nada’s one-man war against the bourgeoisie is, for Calder Williams the film is a “wish-image of an absent clarity.” We long for images of apocalypse because they at least give us a firm sense of an ending — something which capitalism does all that it can to abjure, even as it taps into our thirst for imagery exploring its own demise.
The task, then, is not to ridicule our blinkered imaginations but rather interpret them as so many dreams. For Calder Williams, an apocalypse
is the coming-apart of the rules of the game, and in the ruined wake of this, the task isn’t one of rebuilding, of mourning, or of moving on. It can only be … the ceaseless struggle to dismantle and repurpose, to witness the uncanny persistence of the old modes of life, and to redraw the maps and battle lines of the sites we occupy.
This is how we become post-apocalyptic, here understood not as a dark age following an undetermined catastrophe, but rather as contemporary repurposing of the logics of post-punk. That is to say, to be a post-punk in the twenty-first century is to understand a new agency delivered by punk apocalypse. [I wrote along similar lines, via DH Lawrence and in the context of the coronavirus pandemic, back in 2020.] Calder Williams continues:
We become post-apocalyptic when we accept the present as rubbish, as undead, and as under attack. And when we refuse this acceptance, to salvage the scraps of antagonistic history that we inherit, to articulate militant reason out of the obscene persistence of what refuses to die, and to make the apocalyptic not a temporal event but a spatial organisation. To be post-apocalyptic is to make of a given condition a decision and a commitment.
What is this if not a Deleuzo-Badiouian orientation towards the future? A cutting of the knot of undifferentiation? It is a thought that adheres to neither and, therefore, to both, speaking to “that turn that’s neither the radically new nor the simple continuation of the information already given.” Calder Williams uses the brilliant analogy of a punch line to a good joke. To be post-punk, to be post-apocalyptic, is to utter “the groan of realization, when the punch line reveals a sub-current already present from the start, something dirtier, meaner, or more joyous.”
Whilst working through the recently-released final lectures of Mark Fisher, I came to realise that this is precisely the realization that Fisher seemed to want to share. He had, in his possession, the punch line — that Marxism and its various countercultures do not haunt us like discarded corpses but rather jut continuously like a line of toys from the trash heap at the end of history, ready to be pilfered, reassembled and repurposed. Rather than tidy it all away and accelerate the organising process, readying all this trash for the incinerator at double time, we can construct new assemblages from the void of history’s end. We might struggle to rush in the radically new, but using what we have, what is buried but not dead, in new ways, might just be good enough. This is the process of the design of history, not just for history but with it.