The Slow Cancellation of…
Sorry, What Were We Talking About?:
Some Concessions and Further Notes

Thanks to Matheus Calderon, who sent over the text for Noys’ lecture. Below is a more in-depth commentary on Noys’ talk, made up of a few concessions, notes and further confusion following my previous post.

With that previous post in mind, let’s turn to what Noys actually had to say. You can watch the talk back below.

In my previous post, I was mostly confused by Noys’ appeals to the present. This is clarified very early on. Drawing on various texts from queer theory, afrofuturism/afropessimism, and accelerationism, Noys writes:

In all cases, there are complex articulations of past, present, and future that could be discovered in these texts and in these contrasting lines of thought. They are also, obviously, turning to the future and the past to address the present. This complexity does not, I argue, invalidate the point that the orientation to past and future risks abandoning the present. The splitting between a past primal wounding that provides a negative rupture and a utopian future that sends its ‘tendrils’ into a destitute present, leave us living in the worst of all possible worlds… In these orientations, however, this absent present is addressed as a moment of stagnation, degeneration or decadence, what Badiou calls an ‘atonal world’ that lacks points of decision.

But this still ignores Alex Williams’ founding accelerationist argument where he explicitly affirms these same Badiouian points of decision, calling on us to address them.

I can nevertheless see what Noys is trying to do. He is attempting to intervene in a kind of Parmenidean paradox. To say things need to start moving suggests an impossible moment of prior stasis. Noys seems to be arguing that, in presenting the present as static, we trap ourselves in an impossible perspective that is fatally limited to the first-person. The point should be to get beyond the privileged positions we give ourselves as individuals — what Noys nicely conflates with “the bourgeois viewpoint” — which observes the world in its flux only in relation to our own stasis. For Parmenides’ partner Zeno, in particular, the opposite was also true: we cannot say the world is still, only because we ourselves are moving at speed. Either everything is moving or nothing is, and nothing, as a kind of radical stillness, is an impossibility. Instead, we should look to the bigger picture of what is happening around us.

This is how I am understanding Noys when he writes:

If we currently exist in a present emptiness, one half of the bourgeois viewpoint, the alternative offered is an original, or future, fullness. While these theoretical currents claim to transcend the antinomies of bourgeois thought, we may also be suspicious of such self-characterisations. Certainly, the antinomy between original fullness and present standstill does seem to remain resonant, even if these terms are reworked by the currents I have sketched.

But wasn’t this Lyotard’s point regarding the impossibility of an outside, later taken up by the accelerationists?

Putting Lyotard to one side, our references to the pre-Socratics are intentional here, since Noys mentions them repeatedly, albeit only in passing, noting Heidegger and Nietzsche’s turns to antiquity, which they acknowledge as that founding moment in philosophy. There we find a familiar discussion regarding the generative capacities of finitude and infinitude, which has particular bearing on how we are able to categorise difference, change, and the new.

I don’t want to expand on this history too much here, as I’m planning to write on this in far more detail for my upcoming talk at Ctrl Network. I’ll no doubt have to work some of Noys’ points into that lecture between now and then. For now, suffice it to say that what we find in the pre-Socratics are those first attempts to rigorously stamp out the obscurantism of Heraclitean riddles. For Heraclitus, the apparent truism that we cannot step into the same river twice is not just a philosophy of nature but a way of problematising epistemology as such. For him, all language is poetry, the meaning of which can change in every instance we encounter it. But this is only true from the limited perspective of the individual, so argued Parmenides and Zeno. Collectively, we can speak of things that are true for all of us. Indeed, that must be where we turn our attention. (Mathematics takes the cake here, and continues to.)

When Plato later banishes poets from the republic, in the name of his theory of forms, he does so to service this kind of truth. Poets are still great thinkers, and contribute much to culture and society, but he insists that we must be able to decide on the proper names for things — as Ideas or Forms — before we can begin to play with them. Otherwise, how would we have language? We need shared understanding. Without it, how would we be able to converse with one another? (This is of central importance to Plato. Conversation is the primary form that his dialectical philosophy takes, after all.) In the end, we can say there is difference, and naming difference is how we give form to the new, and even new ideas. It is the goal of philosophy to set that process to work and maintain its motion.

It is downstream from here, from this Platonic river of forms, that we find the great ocean of philosophy. The tension here is never quite resolved. Aristotle makes an attempt, and reigns supreme for centuries, but Plato soon returns to the fore, both positively and negatively. The battle over his contemporary relevance no doubt falls to that central dialectic of the mid-2000s blogosphere, between the anti-Platonism of Deleuze and and the Cantorian Platonism of Badiou.

Even prior to that moment, we might turn to Alfred North Whitehead, who was famous for having said that “the European philosophical tradition … consists of a series of footnotes to Plato.” But this was not to diminish the thousands of years of thought to have followed since Plato’s own, as if it is all derivative in a pejorative sense. It is instead to understand philosophy – and, indeed, thought itself – in a Platonic manner. Whitehead’s comment is, in this sense, reflexive: the form of Plato’s ideas – nothing less than a theory of ideas themselves – provided a structure from which all ideas since could emerge. He provides us with an Idea of philosophy, against which we can judge all other variants. We find ourselves connected across millennia. Plato sought truth and so do we. And yet, a fundamental tension remains.

If there is such a thing as truth – and we know that there is: two plus two will always equal four, for example – then how do we account for all that has changed in the meantime? If truths don’t change, how do we keep inventing new ones? Are we even “inventing” the new if truths are things that have always been true, but were previously unknown? If we “discover” the new, is it still really new? Or only new to us? This tension defines twentieth century philosophy, and underlies some of its central texts: Being and Time, Process and Reality, Difference and Repetition, Being and Event. (There are other examples still, albeit not of the same canonical stature, but Yuk Hui’s Recursivity and Contingency is another that comes to mind.)

Suddenly, our understanding of the new no longer seems so linear… Indeed, not even Plato can be held up as a central origin; his theory of forms was not wholly original in itself. Philosophical positions very similar to his were already circulating in other parts of the world at this time. Confucius, for instance – whose thought predates Plato’s by about a century – developed his own theory of forms. His “reification of names”, as it was called, is worth noting because it perhaps clarifies why Plato’s theory is so important to his Republic that he would ban all poets from the city in its name. Contrary to first impressions, Plato is not a joyless authoritarian but rather seeks to build a utopia based on the true order of things. He hopes to live, first and foremost, in accordance with nature and natural law – an attractive proposition, since to do so would negate all the pretensions of ideology. Similarly, Confucius suggests that all social disorder can be traced back to an inability to give things their proper names. The theory of forms, then, takes on a social dimension – to name each thing in its proper place, not just Plato’s tables but emotions and experiences as well, is to be able to articulate one’s self in accordance with nature. “When names are not rectified, what is said will not seem reasonable”, Confucius writes. “When what is said does not seem reasonable, nothing will get accomplished.”

The political dimension of the new now comes to the fore, and it is this sentiment that is explored consistently throughout the entirety of recorded history — not history understood as a linear progression but as a problematic always re-problematised in the present in which we encounter it.

It is from here we uncover the tension between idealism and materialism that Noys points to when he argues tangentially against a certain form of capitalist realism, which collapses capitalist ideology onto a Platonic understanding of the universe. This is to say that capitalism establishes itself as eternal, as always having been here, and it has now finally won out over the twentieth century’s alternatives. “The end of history”, though a point of critique for Fukuyama, is then picked up and affirmed by conservatives who herald their own victory. Truth has won out and its name is capitalism. For many, it is no doubt very easy to believe them, as they appeal to various habits of human relations — exchange, trading, etc. — that have always been with us and which, for them, constitute the seeds of our true capitalist nature. That is, until we put in the work to actually track capitalism’s development. Suddenly we see how forms and names can be manipulated. So we look for the origins of language — structuralism — before acknowledging that, yes, language does not lie inert and unchanging. It does change in every instance we encounter it — post-structuralism — but all the more reason to make note of those encounters and the differences between him, in the present. (Shout out Althusser.) So Noys writes:

These statements do not say all we have is the present, but rather we must account for this present through historical reconstruction, hence the Phenomenology of Spirit or Capital, while tracing the possibilities of the present as potentials to realise a future of self-determination and freedom. In each of these iterations of the phrase it is implied that we have to grasp the present conditions as the site of overcoming. My point, therefore, is a simple one: contemporary radical theoretical forms have embraced the future or the deep ontological past in a flight from the present. Images of stagnation and inertia remain to characterise the present of high capitalism in accents that are more Nietzschean than anything else.

From here Noys goes on to challenge this history, attacking the forgetting of Being in Heidegger. “Western metaphysics begins, with Socrates and Plato, to forget Being and Being leads a fugitive role in the history of that metaphysics”, Noys writes, summarising Heidegger’s position. “We need to return to before the rift, to the moment of the pre-Socratics,” Heidegger argues, if we are “to find a thinking of Being qua Being.”

As mentioned last time, this is where we can turn instead to the importance of Whitehead, and of Steven Shaviro’s speculative injunction in the philosophy of the late 2000s (as well as his particular brand of accelerationism, which I find to be wholly commensurate with much of what is called “unconditional accelerationism” — or, as Shaviro might describe it, “accelerationism without criteria”.) “What if Whitehead, instead of Heidegger, had set the agenda for postmodern thought?”, he asks. The question of beginnings is once again central. Shaviro continues:

Where does one start in philosophy? Heidegger asks the question of Being: “Why is there something, rather than nothing?” But Whitehead is splendidly indifferent to this question. He asks, instead: “How is it that there is always something new?” Whitehead doesn’t see any point in returning to our ultimate beginnings. He is interested in creation rather than rectification, Becoming rather than Being, the New rather than the immemorially old.

Oddly, Noys does not follow this trajectory, which feels characteristically accelerationist to me, in being contrary to capitalism’s insistent that it is immemorially old. Indeed, there is plenty out there that explores and further clarifies Noys’ own position. Instead, he seems to be on the lookout for enemies. He turns to Nietzsche’s “philosophy for the future”, which is “scathing towards the ‘frivolous deification of the present’, and dismissive of ‘the barbaric turmoil known as “the present”‘.”

The non-linear development of thought presents itself again. Though it feels more natural to suggest Nietzsche’s futurism inverts Heidegger’s history, the opposite is true. But then what was Nietzsche reacting to? Isn’t Heidegger following that Enlightenment tendency, from Rousseau through to Freud and all the rest of it, of finding our primal scene? Nietzsche certainly emerges from this context as an anti-Enlightenment figure, in the way that he attempts to prefigure, as Noys puts it, “a past of hierarchical authority that throws a bridge to a future authoritarian rebirth of rank.” But both are accelerationists, apparently, in their own ways. Together they give form to the double-articulation that accelerationism, in Noys’ view, hopes to affirm: Nietzsche cloaks the left hand of a dark future whilst Heidegger shrouds the right in the truth of philosophy’s deep past, before it alienated itself from its true object.

Soon enough, Heidegger falls away, his role left unresolved. Noys instead warns against any form of left-Nietzscheanism that may seem tangentially resonant with much of Marxism. We must not confuse the two, he insists, even though Nietzsche’s elitism may seem to resonate with the vanguardism of Marxist-Leninism.

This is a fair observation, but from here I am lost. Noys turns to Mark Fisher, rather than the more obvious choice, Nick Land, to explore the fallacies of such a thinking. He makes Fisher out to be the central left-Nietzschean of our age. This is a reading immediately complicated by any consideration of Fisher’s far more prominent Spinozism (not to mention Nietzsche’s anti-Spinozism), but let us take Noys at his word here. In reference to Fisher’s critique of “the slow cancellation of the future” that he began his talk with, Noys writes:

The cultural diagnosis of Mark Fisher we cited, for example, is explicitly Nietzschean, and Fisher identifies with Nietzsche’s aristocratic critique of culture. While Fisher identifies capitalism as Nietzschean ‘slave morality’: resentful, levelling, opposed to innovation, identifying the working class with experimentation, the structure of aristocratic critique remains. The present remains a stagnant present. While this Nietzschean critique is often given a radical accent, or presented as a radical gesture, or even ‘the most radical gesture’, it comes at the cost of fundamentally losing the basis of a critical radicalism.

It is here that my inchoate critique reemerges.

What is this “critical radicalism” that Fisher was losing sight of? It was a “critical radicalism” that manifest itself as a “reflexive impotence”, recently discussed here. In previously citing Natasha Lennard’s article for Salon, I mentioned how what was being rejected at that time was the looming “celebrity vanguard” that many on the left feared the likes of Russell Brand and Owen Jones represented. This was a left whose “critical radicalism” amounted to nothing more than an impotent horizontalism; a radicalism that didn’t so much critique its pop-cultural figureheads as denounce any cultural representation whatsoever. It was a leftism that kept making appeals to an illusory outsideness, arguing that what we needed was a form of cultural representation that wasn’t produced under capitalism. Fisher’s point was that familiar Lyotardian one: there is no outside, the only way out is through.

Though he may reference Lyotard and Nietzsche in his critiques, this thought has next to no relation to the hysterical accelerationism Noys once took aim at in The Persistence of the Negative. This is Fisher’s “popular modernism”, which decries the impotence of a “critical radicalism” that no longer sees any role for popular culture in the creation of certain structures of feeling. It is an argument that has since been vindicated. When the left eventually dropped this pretension to an impossible purity, it discovered a resurgence of its ideas in the political imagination. In 2015 Jeremy Corbyn broke through, with the grassroots movement surrounding him making active use of capitalism’s cultural dynamics, producing memes and conflating Corbyn with designer fashion as part of an irreverent merchandising campaign — a clear example of what Fisher called “designer communism”.

Though defeated in parliament, this new leftist energy has persisted. The memetically intelligent and culturally attuned Northern Independence Party is showing how this kind of defiant cultural participation can actively produce new conversations and, one hopes, real change. It was this sort of role that Fisher saw in the likes of The Jam and, yes, Russell Brand. Though a controversial suggestion, then and now, even Brand acknowledged that things must be dire if it was up to someone like him to raise consciousness in the 21st century. Brand arguably rose to the top because there were few other representatives to rally around. (Now his influence seems to have diminished somewhat, but only because people have followed his lead and engaged with politics in a way that, at one time, only Brand dared to.)

Clearly, this wasn’t elitism. This was generating structures of feeling, and using popular individuals to awaken collective undercurrents — something that Noys’ “critical radicalism”, at that time, was quite allergic too. As Fisher writes in his 2014 essay “Going Overground”:

One of the problems with many of the horizontalist models of political action is that they assume that we already know what we think and feel, and we are simply prevented from expressing ourselves by oppressive power structures. Yet mass mediated art could name and focus feelings that were not only suppressed – by ‘internal’ as well as external censoring agencies – but which were inchoate, unformed, virtual. Mass mediation transformed, not merely ‘represented’ these affects; after they were named and brought into focus, the feelings ‘themselves’ were experienced differently.

In my jumble of thoughts provoked by his abstract, I suggested that Noys’ critique of Fisher was dependent on a misremembering of what form this “critical radicalism” took, which was either impotent horizontalism or neoliberal centrism. However, it doesn’t seem to me that Noys is so forgetful. Unfortunately, it seems worse than that. Noys seems to affirm the leftist melancholy of the late 2000s, as if we didn’t get to see the results of that moment’s great negativity. He recruits Mario Tronti to his cause, affirming Tronti’s argument “that working class passivity and lack of struggle could have effects on capitalism.” Drawing on Tronti’s analyis of the crash of 1929, Noys suggests that a

lack of struggles… robbed capitalists and capital of the ability and knowledge it gained from the struggle by workers. Without workers’ struggles no innovation and no development and no knowledge.

We could argue there is an air of “anti-praxis” here, taken from unconditional accelerationism, or even the horrorism of Nick Land’s “do nothing”. Either way, the same issue lingers over Noys’ talk. But the real implication is that this is nothing more than an echo of the dominant leftist position that emerged around the crash of 2008. No leaders, no programme — that is how we win.

But we didn’t win. Nothing happened. Austerity instead made everything worse. Noys’ position suddenly appears like more of a kakocracy than accelerationism ever was. It echoes the impotence that define an era, that Fisher and others put on blast, and which accelerationism was an ardent rejection of. Noys was always a critic of accelerationism, so perhaps this is unsurprising, but I’m sure many would not expect the rejection of accelerationism to be such a depressive rejection of praxis. Though Noys’ talk began by denouncing a Fisherian pessimism, he suddenly seems more pessimistic than Mark ever was.

This, to me, feels like an instance of throwing the baby out with the bathwater. In light of Noys’ full critique, I am willing to admit that Fisher’s theoretical allegiances may have been a bit confused. Nietzsche’s aristocratic radicalism is certainly less popular in the present, and Fisher may have been conflating his Nietzschean analysis with a sort of Marxist-Leninism, as Noys seems to suggest. (Although there is clearly more of an emphasis on the latter here, compared to some of Nietzsche’s more loyal twentieth-century adherents, who Fisher was explicitly not a fan of — Bataille and DH Lawrence come to mind, even though I’d argue they both lie on the pop-mod spectrum in that they encouraged the emergence of specifically psychosexual structures of feeling in their own times.) Regardless, the point of the previous post remains intact. Noys’ appeals to a “critical radicalism” are misplaced. What counted for critical radicalism at the time Fisher was writing was a leftist melancholy that refused to engage with the present, which Noys nonetheless seems to interpret as the only viable response to a present defined by “weakness and disorientation”. Surely this is more indicative of the self-fulfilling prophecies of “reflexive impotence” than Fisher’s “slow cancellations of the future”? As Fisher remarked of the reflexively impotent:

They know things are bad, but more than that, they know they can’t do anything about it. But that ‘knowledge’, that reflexivity, is not a passive observation of an already existing state of affairs. It is a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Denouncing left-Nietzscheanism might sound good now, in the aftermath of Losurdo’s newly translated critique, but what this amounts to, placed back into the historical context under consideration, is a defense of a period when the left was arguably least capable of engaging with the present as a site of struggle. Tronti’s argument that an end to class struggle may presage an end to capitalism, rather than vice versa, may have once seemed attractive in its contrarianism, but not now. His analysis of the post-crash world after 1929 hardly seems resonant with our post-crash world since 2008. That is, in part, because class struggle had already been eliminated — at least semantically. The beginning of the twentieth-century was defined not just by the ultimate ascendency of global capitalism, but also by the defaulting of an entire country to the middle class — that generic class position used to deny the very existence of class as a struggle. In the late 90s, the British centre-left declared that we are all middle class now, and suddenly everything was meant to be fine. But capitalism kept churning regardless.

Yes, capitalism may generate struggles that we allow to persist in our resistance against them, but I’d argue that is because our resistance has not been strong enough. Any argument that suggests the left should once again weaken its own position is an awful one, and one that is wholly out of touch with the actual struggles of the present.

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