Thanks to Rickard Eklund for inviting me to speak to students on the Materialities course at the Royal Institute of Art in Stockholm yesterday. It was a really interesting afternoon. Rickard had spent the morning using the I Ching to generate a title for their forthcoming exhibition, and I spoke a bit about my research and different ideas of how the new in produced in philosophy and culture more broadly, from the recombinant new to the new created ex nihilo.
It was something of a dry run of my talk at the University of Birmingham next week, organised by the lovely folks in the CTRL Network. As a reminder, I’ll be giving a brief history of the new. If you want to listen in and participate in the chat afterwards, you can register your interest here.
(Sidenote: Rickard made an accelerationist t-shirt last year with a quote from me on, if you wanna show everyone how you just gotta go fast.)
Drive is a kind of compulsion or force. It’s a force that is shaped, that takes its form and pulsion, from loss. Drive is loss as a force or the force loss exerts on the field of desire. […] That the drive is thwarted or sublimated means that it reaches its goal by other means, through other objects. Blocked in one direction, it splits into multiple vectors, into a network.
At the risk of making it appear like this review lives rent-free in my head — and, to some extent, it still does on occasion — there’s a opportunity to further clarify something here (for myself, if no-one else).
Some readers seem to miss the fact that Egress is a product of grief (despite making that point repeatedly and explicitly). It’s no secret. The book is an experiment in self-writing, or auto-theory, and a gesture towards an outside to a specific and individualised starting point. It’s certainly melancholic — and openly mournful — but the point is that individual mourning can refract outwards into collective overcoming. “Blocked in one direction, it splits into multiple vectors, into a network.” That’s why the book starts with “I” and ends with “us”.
It isn’t collective politics as a sort of feel-good Hollywood spectacle. It’s not the happiest of reads. But I still think the proof is in the pudding, which is ostensibly beyond the bounds of the book itself. Egress was written as an attempt to get out of personal melancholy and move into collective action, which Mark’s writings insist we do. But that doesn’t mean the former was thwarted in favour of the latter in any absolute sense. It’s a conscious process, and one which I’m still confident Egress sufficiently documents.
The Tribune review understands this point and succintly reiterates it, but gesturing to these politics without acknowledging the space we’re starting from, or dismissing it as left melancholy despite its otherwise blatant thrusts beyond that, is a missed opportunity. Knowing the direction of travel counts for nothing if you can’t honestly access the blocked place you’re starting out from. That was what I set out to do.
[The opening quote is, once again, taken from Jodi Dean’s Blog Theory. We’re reading it in the XG reading group at the moment and it is really excellent.]
Blogs and search engines are different approaches to the same problem, different occupations of the same place. They point, though, in different directions. Faced with the challenge of providing a trusted guide through a chaotic, indeterminable, changing field, search engines say “trust the algorithm”. In contrast, blogs say, “trust doesn’t scale.” So while the former offers a reliability based in equations and crawl capacities, the latter says, know the knower. It focuses on the person providing the link, offering the searcher the opportunity to know this person and so determine whether she can be trusted. Social network sites refract the problem of truth yet again: if the issue with blogs is the credibility of the guide or writer, the issue for social network sites is trust in the audience, in the others who might be following me.
In her 2010 book Blog Theory, quoted above, Jodi Dean gives us a snapshot of online trust at the start of the last decade. Reading it today, at the start of a new decade, illuminates just how much has changed.
“Knowing the knower” is the foundation for blogging’s value. Dean explains how early blogs were little more than curators of links on a radically disorganised and decentralised internet. Knowing the blogger, respecting their opinion, shaped your experience of navigating the World Wide Web, that may have otherwise been utterly and hopelessly formless.
In many respects, the purpose of blogging today remains the same. In others, however, it has been inverted. All too aware of its own value, the blogger has further gone underground. Knowing the knower is now, in some cases, impossible — and that is often the attraction of a blog’s output. Though there is an abundance of content, scarcity of self is exacerbated. This is no doubt because the idea of an “authentic online self” has been undermined absolutely by capitalist capture. The more authentic you are online, the more attractive you are to capitalism, because your trust can be commodified and transformed into marketing gold. Just look at Instagram — anyone who has been on that platform long enough will have likely seen a fun account, run by an extroverted someone just sharing their day, perhaps pursuing some niche interest or occupation. (Case in point, my girlfriend and I follows a couple shepherdesses.) Suddenly breaking into a new zone of visibility, their authenticity is easily hijacked by corporations who then pay the authentic blogger to advertise and/or recommend their product.
This transformation is often bittersweet. Those who let capitalism in are likely those who could use the financial boost, selling a self they may have shaped over the years in the service industry, in an environment where the self is often all you have to give, and where putting on a smile is the best way to gain tips. Though their authenticity is immediately undermined, such is the paradox of needing to pay your rent and having little else to give. In the social media age, personality can become a useful commodity.
In the theory blogosphere, hiding behind aliases and avatars was once seen a way to challenge this norm. “Getting out of your face again” was a rejection of the new face of capitalism and a way to seed knowledge on the peripheries of its libidinal circuits. This tradition continues to this day. The knower is, more often than not, hidden. But the reasons behind the donning of a cybermask are long outdated. Now, there is a problem: the unknown knower is just as susceptible to capitalist capture as their more visible rivals have long been.
The unknown knower sells their inauthenticity just as the authentic poster sells its opposite, albeit in a more clandestine fashion. The anon’s profile supersedes the authentic self, easily accruing more followers and more influence than their more visible counterpart, all because they are seen to be in possession of forbidden knowledge. Rather than putting their own face out there because they have something to gain, the anon hides their identity and corrals a sense that they may have something to lose. To hide is made brave, cowardice is inverted. A crowd gathers to listen to the untainted prophet.
The encouraged assumption that the unknown knower has more to lose is, in my experience, very accurate. But this is not because they are bearers of inconvenient truths. It is, more often than not, the establishment, the reactionaries, the conservatives who hide their faces online. They get off on its clandestine networks of tradposting. They go underground, only to disguise any chinks in their overground armour. All the while, those with something to say should go overground with more ferocity. Recognising that the right’s burrowing underground is down to their vulnerability overground suggests now is the time to rise up. Mark Fisher’s argument from 2014 is argubaly more resonant now than it once was:
Perhaps now is the moment when New Times can finally happen – if we can emerge, blinking, from our barricaded (but now extensively connected) cellars, and step out into the desert of a destituted public world, into a mass culture reduced to bland hedonic homogeneity by corporate depredation. Yes, this is hostile country, occupied territory. But how well defended is it? What possibilities are there for us here, now? What could happen, that is to say, if we go overground?
Update: Irony of ironies, the day after posting this I was tagged in a Twitter thread by someone’s burner Twitter account about former NRx blogger, Bryce Laliberte, doxxing his friend to a journalist.
Alt-right anons telling on alt-right face-posters who doxx their secretly alt-right friends sums up the whole circle jerk that is the alt-right mask economy better than I ever could. Most people don’t care, because it is clear that all they’re capable of is generating inconsequential outrage over an establishment that is guilty about protecting its own self-interests.
And someone’s shocked that alt-right solidarity is paper thin?
Buckingham Palace announced this morning that Prince Philip has passed away at the age of 99. In the interest of partisanship, most of the press has skirted around saying anything too critical, neglecting to mention his most horrific gaffes.
I’m all for not speaking ill of dead before they’re even in the ground, but as the press reflects on Philip’s influence over the royal family in the twentieth century, it is telling how his own ideological tendencies are revealed nonetheless. He has been held up as a moderniser, encouraging the royal family, as an institution, to adapt to a changing world. For better or for worse, I couldn’t help but see this attitude reflected in his work as a conservationist.
This legacy, in itself, was built on a founding gaffe. The Guardian, for instance, in its long-winded and otherwise glowing obituary, notes how Philip was credited with killing a tiger on a hunting trip to India in 1951, the same year he became President of the newly founded World Wildlife Fund. As if the Prince immediately turned on an ideological dime, various commentators have celebrated him today as an early public defender of the natural world. And yet, it seems that these two pursuits — of royal modernisation and natural conservation — are fundamentally connected, and in a far less “progressive” sense than the press hopes to suggest in its memorial coverage.
The Prince’s change of heart about killing those “kings of the jungle” seems to reflect his own sense of the royal family’s dwindling relevance. Watching the BBC’s increasingly awkward rolling coverage over the course of the day, the quotations chosen to illustrate the Prince’s interest in conservation seem to make this clear.
“We depend on being part of the web of life”, he is shown to say at one point. “We depend on every other living thing on this planet, just as much as they depend on us.” This attitude of “we’re all in this together” echoes the changing nature of the British class system, and the royal family’s relationship to its subjects. Over the decades since, this sense of a class equilibrium would gradually come to dominate. Our prior understanding of the “ruling” class has been downplayed in favour of a liberalised sense of difference, through which class positions are defined less by disparities of wealth and power than they are differences in taste and tradition.
Nevertheless, the twentieth century remained a time of great upheaval, and Philip’s fear for the monarchy shines through the ages. In a colour clip, evidently filmed later than the Prince’s appeals to equilibrium, increasing democratic power and its threat to the monarchy permeates his ecological anxieties. Philip says:
If we as humans have got this power of life and death — not just life and death, but the extinction and survival of other species of life — then we ought to exercise it with some sort of moral sense… Why make something extinct if we don’t have to?
More than any other clip, it is this one that contains the most subtext relevant to the royal family’s own survival. Nevertheless, Philip’s seemingly wholesome and compassionate attitude was repeatedly contradicted by his love of hunting and other stereotypical class pursuits, which make attempts to show a mastery and command over nature that no other stratum of class seems compelled to exercise.
The BBC, to its credit, nodded to this tension in its coverage, whilst nonetheless privileging the Prince’s own defences of fox hunting and the hunting of game birds. Defending himself, the Prince explains:
There is an advantage in people wanting to shoot, because if you have a game species you want it to survive, because you want to have some more next year. It’s exactly like a farmer — you want to crop it, you don’t want to exterminate it.
Though it may sound cynical, this seems commensurate with the ruling class’s attitude towards the working class and their own position in contemporary society. Don’t exterminate us, the royal machine cries, we are prime crop for tourism! It is an argument that seems to oddly resonate with the more reactionary quarters of the working class, who mistakenly believe the royal family contributes far more than their own families do, in terms of their economic impact on the national bank account. In the sprawling class (eco)system of the postmodern Britain, the royals position themselves as a particularly regal animal, which has its place alongside more common species.
It is a belief that the Prince would more or less confirm for himself in his later years. In an interview for the BBC, for instance, he rejects being labelled “green” — that is to say, an environmentalist in the compassionate post-hippie sense of the word. When asked why, he responds:
I think there is a difference between being concerned for the conservation of nature and being a bunny-hugger. When I was president of the WWF, I got more letters about … the way animals were treated in zoos than about any concern for the survival of the species. People can’t get their heads around the idea of a species surviving.
It seems the Prince, in turn, could not get his head around the fact that some people see survival in captivity to be a technicality rather than a life worth living. Meghan Markle’s complaints about royal life come to mind. Her experience of royal captivity made her suicidal. It seems that Meghan and Harry, in their arrogance, have revealed themselves to be bunny-huggers of another variety, more concerned about their own reputations and comfort than the survival of the royal species.
But here we see how Prince Philip’s ecological thinking has always been outdated. His primary interest was in preserving the natural world for his own enjoyment of its riches. Though his anxieties reflect the anxieties of the royal family in general, he hoped to maintain an existing ecosystem, static and doing just fine, rather than interrogate our understanding of ecology — the relationships between species, ourselves included, and the consequences of those relationships of the environment at large.
This was, of course, an argument put forward by Felix Guattari in his book, The Three Ecologies. Arguing that a new kind of ecological thought is necessary if we were to understand how the media, technology and class are integral to any genuinely radical environmentalism, he suggests that “this is the only possible way to get social and political practices back on their feet, working for humanity and not simply for a permanent reequilibration of the capitalist semiotic Universe”.
Guattari’s insistence that we think about the environment politically — that is to say, as a concern that is innate to other sociopolitical concerns, such as class and capitalism — casts the royals’ environmentalism is stark relief. In fact, it is telling that many members of the royal family have taken up environmental causes as a way to root around their agreement not to get involved in the country’s political affairs. (Although Prince Charles has often revealed how thin this line is in being repeatedly accused of political “meddling” on environmental issues.) Guattari was, once again, ahead of the curve here. He continues:
Current ecological movements certainly have merit, but in truth I think that the overall ecosophical question is too important to be left to some of its usual archaizers and folklorists, who sometimes deliberately refuse any large-scale political involvement. Ecology must stop being associated with the image of a small nature-loving minority or with qualified specialists. Ecology in my sense questions the whole of subjectivity and capitalistic power formations, whose sweeping progress cannot be guaranteed to continue as it has for the past decade.
In light of the present discussion, the royal family loom large as a peculiar set of actors in this debate. In making the environment an apolitical or suprapolitical issue, they have found a way to make a subtly political stand in favour of their own survival, reinforcing their own relationship to the land and the peoples and creatures who live on it. Prince Philip’s death has given the establishment an excuse to put this kind of thinking on display, and we might take note of this in thinking about the future of the royal family themselves, as members of what Guattari calls a “social ecology”.
The death of Prince Philip will remind many people that the Queen herself cannot be much longer for this world. When she passes, Prince Charles will likely become king, and Prince Philip has coached his son magnificently in the game of environmental suprapolitics. Charles’ own passion for Britain’s various ecosystems will surely enable the royals to persist in their place for decades to come. Unless, of course, we find a way to discuss their cynical environmentalism for what it is — a belief in the preservation of one species in particular: their own.