Introduction to K-Punk, Vol. 3:
English Language Version

Prior to the release of K-Punk, Vol. 3 — the third and final volume of Caja Negra‘s Spanish translation of k-punk: The Collected and Unpublished Writings of Mark Fisher (2004-2016) — I was invited to write an introduction that further contextualized Fisher’s “reflections” for a Spanish-speaking audience.

Alongside a collection of interviews, these reflections include some of Fisher’s most misunderstood and most venerated essays, such as “Exiting the Vampire Castle”, “Good For Nothing”, and the unfinished introduction to “Acid Communism” (all found in parts four, five and six of the big English edition, which Vol. 3 brings together in a separate volume).

Considering how these essays might be read outside of the Anglosphere has been a very interesting exercise. But to read this introduction back in its original language may be slightly jarring for English readers, as it assumes ignorance of ten-year-old trivialities within (particularly) English and (to a lesser extent) American popular culture. Footnotes also add copious details that would surely be overkill in an Anglospheric context. However, in my experience, the Anglosphere’s view of the 2010s and Fisher’s role as a critical voice within them remains muddy and unclear at best (with the strangest readings, in my experience, coming from American readers who mistakenly conflate his often parochially English experiences with their own.) As a result, we have accumulated a popular understanding riddled with inaccuracies, which have continued to linger over more contemporary engagement with Fisher’s work, including my own. I hope this return to the very heart of the matter will provide English speakers around the world with some much-needed context as well.

The strange thing is that Spanish readers, particularly in Latin America, may be far more familiar with the sentiment that carries through Fisher’s work, explored below, than your average English speaker. Indeed, recent electoral results in Peru suggest some countries in the region may have less to learn from Fisher than his own countrymen. At the same time, perhaps his growing popularity among Spanish speakers is because they recognize his concerns as their own. Either way, I hope the following essay provides further context for those lucky enough to be unfamiliar with the concerns of your average British centrist or American “neo-anarchist”. I also hope it illuminates the Anglosphere’s own blind spots, so that an international dialogue can increasingly flow both ways, with comrades in other regions contributing further to our debates and showing the West what it continues to misunderstand in the fight against neoliberalism.

You can find the Spanish version of the essay, translated by Patricio Orellana, on the Caja Negra blog here. The essay is also included inside K-Punk, Vol. 3, available now from their website and elsewhere. Many thanks to Ezequiel Fanego for the commission.

There will be more to come from Caja Negra in the near future, with a Spanish translation of my book Egress expected early next year as well. Watch this space.


Introduction to K-Punk, Vol. 3

Exit, Pursed by a Bird

In 2013, Mark Fisher left Twitter. One would hardly expect this move to provoke much controversy, but Fisher made quite a scene when he did so. The essay written to accompany his departure was provocatively titled “Exiting the Vampire Castle”. It was bold and the backlash to it was considerable.

Central to Fisher’s essay was a renewed sense of class consciousness, which was, at that time, struggling to emerge. Long since curtailed in Britain since the 1990s, when the Labour Party first declared that “we are all middle-class now”, the issue had gradually returned to the fore – thanks, in part, to Owen Jones’ 2011 book Chavs and the confounding patchwork persona of comedian Russell Brand.[1]

Though moving in separate circles of public discourse, Jones and Brand both hoped to engender a new popular radicalism by making demands for real change heard within mainstream culture and politics. This, in turn, illustrated how detrimental a decade of centrist discourse had been on many already maligned members of society. Jones, on the one hand, spoke out against grotesque working-class stereotypes at the forefront of the political imagination[2]; Brand, on the other, lampooned how anaemic that political imagination was more generally, insisting on new ideas that might better remedy cruelly criminalised social problems like drug addiction.[3]

Both were successful, dominating conversations across the political spectrum in 2013. And yet, they also irritated many people as well. Jones was too loud, too visible, too idealist; Brand too extravagant, too camp, and too prone to the use of sexist epithets. Though the right’s distaste for their politics was to be expected, it was the left’s cynicism that disappointed Fisher the most. The two men were soon caught up in an internal battle taking place on the left – a battle between the centrist establishment, which had lorded over the Labour Party for two decades, and post-Occupy “neo-anarchists”, who had witnessed the emergence of a newly emboldened undercommons around the financial crash of 2008, but who also rejected the corrupting potential of any political or cultural influence whatsoever.

It is worth shining further light on this context. Though it reached a tipping point in 2013, Fisher had consistently attempted to intervene in this postmodern stalemate. His first book, Capitalist Realism, had been an implicit attack on Tony Blair’s Labour Party, which he denounced for producing a politically apathetic generation defined by its “reflexive impotence”. Describing the apathy of his own students, Fisher writes: “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.”[4] By 2013, the impact of this impotence was clear. It was not only endemic among the young but the majority of commentators who represented the left online as well.

Socialist Sell-Outs

Following Jeremy Corbyn’s rise to public prominence as leader of the Labour Party in 2015, there is now vocal grassroots opposition to the UK’s centrist orthodoxy. Just two years earlier, however, many openly mocked the idea of a left-wing party ever functioning as a parliamentary opposition, never mind forming a government. With few politicians to direct their ire at, most ridiculed commentators like Owen Jones instead. “I was 14 when I got my head round how fantastically far removed my tribal anger and knee-jerk leftism were from ordinary British voters”, wrote Labour Party affiliate Luke Akehurst in a 2013 article dedicated to trashing Jones. “Although out of his teens”, Akehurst suggests “it’s not too late for Owen to come to his senses.”[5]

What irritated Fisher more than the likes of Akehurst was the absence of any mainstream opposition to this derision from those much further left of centre. Echoing the handwringing of 1990s rock’n’roll fans, who mistakenly saw any contact between counter-cultural politics and pop-cultural success as “selling out”, the public prominence of Jones and Brand was seen as somehow antithetical to their political aims. Natasha Lennard, for instance, in an influential essay for Salon, argued that, whilst Brand’s politics were very agreeable, he was nonetheless complicit in a broader capitalist machine. We should be sceptical, she writes, of those moments “when radical or militant ideas or images enter the popular imaginary under capitalism.”[6]

It is ironic, of course, for a professional writer to criticise someone making political points for money. Lennard was aware of this. “Brand is navigating the well-worn conflict facing those with a public platform in the current epoch (myself among them)”, she writes. But this “well-worn conflict” was entirely of the left’s own making. Paralyzed by its own contradictions, many commentators insisted that the only choices available were doing nothing or actively engaging in self-harm. Lennard recommends the latter. “We have to be willing to obliterate our own elevated platforms, our own spaces of celebrity”, she insists.[7]

Antonio Gramsci was no doubt spinning in his grave. Capitalism’s cultural hegemony had no effective opposition whatsoever. Rather than constituting a new militancy, this attitude was nothing more than a mutation of the “reflexive impotence” Fisher had witnessed in the classroom in 2009.

This is not to suggest that Lennard’s warnings should go unheeded, of course. Capitalism is certainly capable of appropriating radical politics for its own aims, and certain radical political strategies can also function as a welcome mat for capitalism’s own emergent tendencies. We can never fully predict how our own politics will be used against us, but we will be waiting for an eternity if we insist on cultural abstinence until a political imagination emerges that is not produced “under capitalism”.

It was this abstinence, more than anything, that Fisher hoped to argue against. “Purism shades into fatalism”, he writes. The left’s denial of their own cultural influence was just another self-fulfilling prophecy. Brand may not have been the spokesperson many wanted, but there were few other options to choose from, precisely because the left had sworn itself off cultural representation altogether. As Fisher writes, the left mistakenly believed that it was “better not to be in any way tainted by the corruption of the mainstream, better to uselessly ‘resist’ than to risk getting your hands dirty.”[8] On the contrary, there is no outside to capitalist hegemony. The only way out is through.

Popular Modernism

If the only way out is through, who should lead the way? Contra Lennard, no one was calling on Brand to start a new vanguard party of celebrity revolutionaries to drag us out of our impotency – least of all Brand himself. The entire premise of “Messiah Complex”, the stand-up show Brand was touring at that time, was that things must be bad if it is up to someone like him to raise awareness of progressive issues. But Brand also recognised that his platform allowed him to contribute something genuinely valuable and currently missing from mainstream culture. He was able to raise his audience’s political consciousness and insist, with great passion, that another world is possible.

This was the power of “popular modernism” – Fisher’s term for the productive intersection between popular culture and the avant-garde that had defined his post-punk youth.[9] In the twenty-first century, these two modes of cultural production had been cleaved apart. Not only that, culture and politics were denied any meaningful relationship whatsoever. This, too, is evidenced by Lennard’s article. Commenting on the inherent anti-feminism of Brand’s prominence, she suggests – with tongue in cheek – that if leftists in the US are so excited about British comedians talking politics, they might as well “reinstate a monarchy with Brand as sovereign, Kanye [West] as chief advisor”.[10]

Lennard’s use of Kanye West as a punchline further illustrates the problem at hand. Ever the divisive figure, in 2013 West released his most politically charged album to date, Yeezus, which featured tracks like “New Slaves” and “Blood on the Leaves” that furiously engaged with the paradoxical relationship between black liberation and black aspiration under capitalism. Though much of this work was arguably undone by his uncritical support for Donald Trump, from his declaration that “George Bush doesn’t care about black people” in 2005 to his spectacular homage to UK grime at the 2015 Brit Awards, West arguably did more to raise black political consciousness in mainstream culture than any other artist that decade.[11]

Kanye’s mutation into an unstable pariah in more recent years is arguably symptomatic of the frame his work was forcibly encased within. His attempts to run for the US presidency, whilst equally laughable and horrifying to many, are clearly the result of our false equivalence between politicised voices and politicians. The truth, of course, is that the two are not mutually exclusive – not everyone who cares about politics needs to make it their career. Nevertheless, thanks to neoliberalism’s compartmentalisation of political voices and their affects, cultural and political representatives were paradoxically held apart from those spaces were culture and politics take place.

Fisher sought to undo this separation in all of his writings, emphasising the extent to which our cultural malaise feeds into our political apathy. He argued repeatedly that the role of culture in politics is to help people engage more effectively in what Raymond Williams called our “structures of feeling”. Williams argued that contemporary culture often provides an outlet for political feelings that are inchoate and unarticulated. These feelings may speak to experiences that are contrary to received articulations of political affect (e.g. capitalist realism) and, as such, are able to generate new ways of thinking in the present. The cynicism applied to Brand and Jones, as well as the likes of Kanye West, from both the left and the right, undermined this role, which Fisher noticed had atrophied since his youth.[12]

A year after “Exiting the Vampire Castle” was published, with attitudes like Lennard’s firmly in his sights, Fisher returned to this point explicitly. Discussing the “sound affects” of Paul Weller and The Jam, he writes:

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 [in the Seventies and Eighties] 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.[13]

The Vampire Castle, then, does not resist power but feeling. It does more to smother the emergence of new movements than it does to create them. Though it might feel good to denounce the mainstream and its prominent voices, all the left had developed as an unsightly addiction to its own auto-erotic asphyxiation.

Fangs For Nothing

Though it gained a certain “cult” status online, the general response to Fisher’s essay was poor. The feelings he sought to articulate did not crystallise in that moment. Instead, the point he hoped to make was overshadowed by both his polemic (and, therefore, apparently hypocritical) tone, and the fact that he had backed the wrong horse. (For many, his defence of Brand, in particular, was bizarre.) For the few who heard them, however, his questions were deeply resonant with the present moment. Fisher implicitly asked, why do we desire individual perfection over collective potential? Why do we expend more energy attacking individuals than building solidarity around them – not so that they might become new “masters” or “gods”, as Lennard feared, but as examples of emerging spokespeople for the sort of new and radical future that had been denied us for decades?

Fisher had long been opposed to such self-defeating cynicism, especially within academia. On his k-punk blog, he once wrote scathingly of academia’s “Grey Vampires”, for instance – people who “don’t feed on energy directly, they feed on obstructing projects”.[14] By 2013, he had seemingly had enough of their growing presence online as well. Whereas party political meetings and activist events remained, in his experience, exuberant and joyful occasions, social media instead amplified our worst communicative impulses. It was a space that algorithmically encouraged quick-fire outrage and cynicism, dismantling a sense of comradery and solidarity that was already in short supply.

These were not the complaints of a man who misunderstood the unwritten rules of communicative technologies in a new era. In fact, Fisher’s observations were prescient. We now take for granted the fact that social media platforms – particularly Facebook – are algorithmically predisposed to exacerbate and encourage political polarisation. Fisher, and others within the blogosphere, saw that world coming.[15] They understood that pessimistic clickbait was far more complicit in capitalism’s networks of disenfranchisement than the rabble-rousing affirmations of Brand and Jones.

This, in itself, constituted a change of heart for Fisher. He had previously championed the potentials of cyberspace and blog theory as the digital continuation of a counter-cultural DIY sensibility. Since his time in the Cybernetic Culture Research Unit (Ccru)[16] – of which he was a part whilst studying at the University of Warwick in the late 1990s – the internet had always been a liminal space for the proliferation of popular modernisms, distinctly other to that original Vampire Castle: the academic philosophy department.

Stalking the corridors and lecture halls of the neoliberal university, hiding their true intentions beneath a thin veil of academic conviviality, Grey Vampires “are profoundly suspicious of commitments and projects”, Fisher writes. They engage with others in a manner that will no doubt be familiar to anyone who has ever set foot in a graduate seminar: “all they want is a few clarifications, as if they are just on the brink of being persuaded, when in fact the real aim is to lure you into the swamp of skeptical inertia and mild depression in which they languish.”[17]

Whereas the Internet had once been a refuge from this sort of depressive anti-production, it had since become infected with this vampirism as well. On Twitter especially, the Grey Vampire was increasingly common, and naturally suited to such an environment, already well-populated by its close relative, the “troll”.

In laying out this online taxonomy, Fisher was not taking the moral high ground. He was describing a set of tendencies that we are all prone to. Vampirism, after all, is infectious. If you’re bitten enough times, you discover the strange pleasure in biting back. As Fisher continues: “Part of the reason I can’t hack it as an academic is that, in a university environment, I invariably find myself pincered between the troll and Grey Vampire positions.”[18] That Fisher had come to feel the same way about social media was, for him, a great shame. What was once an outcrop of experimentation and new cultural potentials had been, like every other outlet available to us, co-opted and assimilated into a new system of control. This was confirmed by the average Twitter vampire’s mirroring of various capitalist dynamics.

“Capital… Vampire-Like…”

In his symptomatology of the social media condition, Fisher lists those tendencies most exemplary of online vampires, including drives to “individualise and privatise everything”; “make thought and action appear very, very difficult”; “propagate as much guilt as you can”; “essentialise”.[19] Although many saw his descriptions of the Vampire Castle as doing exactly what he was trying to criticise, these dynamics were not individual for Fisher. They were instead a reflection of dominant tendencies at work in the system at large. After all, this isn’t just how people act online, it is, as Karl Marx famously argued, how capitalism operates everywhere.[20]

This point has been lost on many readers in recent years, who have seized upon Fisher’s essay as an early shot fired during the antebellum of the so-called “Culture Wars”. As such, Fisher has been mistaken for an early critic of “identity politics” and “cancel culture”. But Fisher was not concerned about the mass criticism of certain obnoxious and reactionary voices online, whose views are over-amplified in a world that is trying to move on from certain stagnant and outmoded twentieth-century values. He was instead concerned about the left’s interest in disparaging those within its own ranks over building any kind of common project. The point bears repeating: this was not because Fisher despaired from a superior position. He knew how infectious these habits could be.

In 2014, Fisher published “Good For Nothing”, an essay that attacks these capitalist tendencies from another angle. One of his most personal essays on depression, Fisher turns from Twitter miserabilism to the default disparagement internal (and integral) to capitalist subjectivity. “Depression is partly constituted by a sneering ‘inner’ voice”, he writes. “Of course, this voice isn’t an ‘inner’ voice at all – it is the internalised expression of actual social forces, some of which have a vested interest in denying any connection between depression and politics.”[21] Swapping “depression” for “leftist negativity”, this is the same point made in “Exiting the Vampire Castle”. Both essays are analyses of how capitalism’s co-option of social technologies encourages certain desires whilst blocking others. What Fisher called “neo-anarchy” was not a response to capitalism, in this sense, but a symptom of its consciousness-deflation. Cybernetic decentralisation, once a utopian alternative to state control, was now used more effectively by state-capitalism itself to undermine solidarity around the world. Twitter’s default cynical mode, therefore, was not just an issue of social etiquette but of political agency.

In this context, Fisher’s polemics can be seen as an attempt to diagnose a new strain of leftist melancholy, which was manifest as impotent negativity online. This melancholy was by no means a new problem for the left. Wendy Brown – a great influence on Fisher – notes that Walter Benjamin was the first to diagnose this condition that so badly afflicted “the revolutionary hack” who internalises the failures of the past and transforms them into a political pathology. Benjamin’s diagnosis, she writes, represents “a refusal to come to terms with the particular character of the present”. But more than this, it also betrays “a certain narcissism”, as demonstrated in two distinct ways by both Akehurst and Lennard, “with regard to one’s past political attachments and identity that exceeds any contemporary investment in political mobilization, alliance, or transformation.”[22] Just as the capitalist establishment insists that communism does not work – it has been tried and must never be tried again – the melancholic leftist resists praxis and structural analysis of any kind. What Fisher called “capitalist realism” – the belief that there is no viable alternative to capitalist hegemony – leads to the erosion of not just class consciousness but any historical-materialist understanding of the social media age whatsoever.

Such an analysis nonetheless remains essential. “Technology reveals the active relation of man to nature, the direct process of the production of his life,” Marx argued, “and thereby it also lays bare the process of the production of the social relations of his life, and of the mental conceptions that flow from those relations.”[23] If we are to retain such an understanding of our relationship to technology in the present, our politics must include a critique of social media and the ways it both exacerbates individualism and undermines collective action. But this does not mean abstaining from those networks. We must intervene in them with cunning and vigilance, even fury, as Fisher did repeatedly.

Collective Reflections

The essays collected in the present volume – and, indeed, its two predecessors – trace the development of Fisher’s thought in this regard. Viewed in isolation, however, this collection may suggest that Fisher took a break from writing after the publication of “Exiting the Vampire Castle” and “Good For Nothing”. On the contrary, this was far from the end of Fisher’s engagement with popular leftism. He recognised that his fierce critique had backfired. It was rejected by those it concerned, and used as another stick for the right to beat the left with. Because of this, the essay continues to split opinion to this day. But Fisher was smart enough to move on from it. Essays such as “No Romance Without Finance”, “Abandon Hope (Summer is Coming)” and “Democracy is Joy”[24] – all written in 2015 – further clarify the affirmative nature of Fisher’s later thought, during which time he swapped Twitter arguments for grassroots organising. Elsewhere, he continued to interrogate the negative influence of social media on our lives[25] as well as the potentials still waiting to be actualised in cyberspace.[26] These are the essays that continue the far more positive project Fisher described in “Good For Nothing”, which concludes with a series of potential focus points for contemporary politics. “Inventing new forms of political involvement, reviving institutions that have become decadent, converting privatised disaffection into politicised anger” – these are just some of the areas the left can focus on anew, “and when it does, who knows what is possible?”[27]

Fisher sought to answer this question in his next book, Acid Communism, the unfinished introduction to which is also included here. In this essay, we see the argument of “Exiting the Vampire Castle” inverted, with Fisher focusing more on the left’s collective desires over its individualising critiques. However, with Fisher better known for his polemics, few saw the connection between the two when it was first published in English in 2018. Many were also surprised by his newly sympathetic view of hippie culture, which he had also previously denounced for its reflexive impotence.[28]

Contextualised alongside a decade’s worth of prior reflections, Fisher’s argument for an acid communism is nonetheless familiar. “Instead of seeking to overcome capital,” he suggests that we “focus on what capital must always obstruct: the collective capacity to produce, care and enjoy.”[29] Though this suggestion may resonate with “Exiting the Vampire Castle” and “Good For Nothing” most explicitly, such an argument was not new for Fisher. In fact, encouraging this collective capacity to produce, care and enjoy was the very purpose of his k-punk blog.

In the 2004 blogpost, “Spinoza, K-Punk, Neuropunk”, for example, which is also included in this collection, Fisher warns that there is no guarantee new technologies will free us from capitalist enslavement. If there is any radicality innate to our machines, it is their potential to distance us from our all-too-human habits. The greatness of the blogosphere, for instance, lay in its capacity to sustain “a depersonalising, desubjectifying network” that was able to produce “joyful encounters … in which mammal-reptilian conflict defaults are disabled.”[30] Written years before the ascendency of social media, Fisher’s optimism might seem misplaced today, when such platforms are used predominantly to exacerbate the ugliest of human habits. But Fisher was aware that an active reasoning was necessary if we were to use our machines correctly, interrupting the human organism already “set up to produce misery”. With this in mind, the present collection includes a number of Fisher’s interventions online in the late 2000s, from the founding of the Dissensus forum to the closing of the k-punk comments section. Though strange documents, at least when removed from their original context, they demonstrate how Fisher’s acid communism was not a new politics for him but a new articulation of a lifetime’s worth of cultural intervention and criticism.

Despite popular speculation, no more material from Fisher’s next book exists. We do not have the full picture of his thought at this time – and perhaps never will – but there remains an Acid Communism to be constructed. It is his Sagrada Família, combining counter-intuitive perspectives and traditions to produce a new vision that was sadly left incomplete in his own lifetime. K-Punk Vol. 3 nonetheless provides us with its essential foundation, encouraging us to continue building this project, and there remains much work to do.

As we embark on such a task, we should bear in mind Raymond Williams’ concept of the “structure of feeling”. Our feelings are complex, ever shifting, sometimes contradictory, and increasingly polarised. But the strength of feeling on display in the present suggests a forceful politics to come. Acid Communism was to be a psychedelic programme that hoped to manifest such feelings through a materialist politics, all whilst undermining leftist melancholy, thwarting vampires, and building movements. This was a task Fisher embarked on with the help of Baruch de Spinoza, whom he had first read at the University of Warwick in the late 1990s. Writing of capitalism’s impact on human subjectivity in 2004, he writes: “When an entity starts to act against its own best interests, to destroy itself – as, sadly, Spinoza observes, humans are wont to do – it has been taken over by external forces. To be free and happy entails exorcising these invaders and acting in accordance with reason.”[31] These invaders are not always explicitly capitalist in nature; melancholy, in particular, is an affect capitalism produces and sets apart from itself. To address this disparity required a new orientation towards the future, as well as a better appreciation of the past. As such, Fisher called for manifesting not just our future feelings but the very ghosts of our lives.

Acid Exorcisms

In a recent interview with Jacobin magazine, the documentary filmmaker Adam Curtis commented on his friendship with Fisher. They “used to meet regularly in a café by Liverpool Street station [in London] and have long conversations”, he says, about the ghosts of twentieth-century politics and culture that continually haunt us in the present. This “hauntological” mode is synonymous today with Fisher’s most melancholic writings regarding the slow cancellation of the future. But, as Curtis notes, what fascinated them both was “this idea that you could force the ghosts out of people’s heads to produce a new kind of society”.[32] Hauntology was, in this sense, a kind of inverted psychedelia; there has long been a dichotomy between remembering and hallucinating. Much like his disaffection with academia and social media, Fisher too often found himself pincered between his hauntological and psychedelic modes. The point, however, was to synthesise the two, breaking the inverse dialectic of modernity, and not letting either side win out. Such was Fisher’s task – difficult and easier said than done. But, as Fisher himself declared, once we understand these impulses, and their active potentials over their passive affects, “who knows what is possible?”


[1] For an insight into class consciousness in Britain at this time, see: Owen Jones, “We’re not all middle-class now: Owen Jones on class in Cameron’s Britain”, New Statesman, 19 May 2014: <https://www.newstatesman.com/culture/2014/05/we-re-not-all-middle-class-now-owen-jones-class-cameron-s-britain>

[2] See: Owen Jones, Chavs: The Demonisation of the Working Class. London: Verso Books, 2011. Jones’ book attacked the pop-cultural ubiquity of the word “chav”, denoting a stereotypical working-class person who lives on social welfare and loves Burberry baseball caps and petty theft. In schools up and down the country, to call someone a “chav” was arguably the most popular insult in the average teenager’s vocabulary, second only to being “gay”. In the 2000s, casual homophobia and classism were equally rife. Jones’ book single-handedly triggered a moment of reckoning across the nation, uncovering the origins of this strange word not just culturally but politically. The ubiquity of the word “chav” in our national lexicon, he argued, was the diffuse result of decades of class-consciousness deflation and attacks on the poor, encouraged by the political establishment. Within just a few years, its usage became as unfashionable as the stereotype it was beholden to.

[3] See: “Paxman vs Russell Brand – full interview – BBC Newnight”, YouTube, 23 October 2013: <https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3YR4CseY9pk> Like Jones, Russell Brand complicated the stereotype of the average working-class man. Open about struggles with addiction and a poor upbringing, his nonetheless effervescent Dandy vocabulary and charming style of argumentation flummoxed people from all backgrounds, but particularly an established media class. His infamous 2013 interview with Jeremy Paxman on the BBC’s flagship current affairs programme Newsnight remains a case in point. Brand comes across as articulate, engaged and eloquent, unlike Paxman, who is otherwise famous for his stoic intelligence but who is here reduced to a closed-minded has-been of a dying political order. Many in the press nonetheless dismissed Brand’s argument for revolution as over-excitable and incoherent, but he spoke for a section of the left that had lost its mainstream voice, and which remained unrepresented in government until the Corbyn era. It was for this reason that Fisher and others admired him.

[4] Mark Fisher, Capitalist Realism: Is There No Alternative. Winchester: Zer0 Books, 2009, 21.

[5] Luke Akehurst, “Oh dear. Oh dear. Owen Jones”, LabourList, 22 January 2013: <https://labourlist.org/2013/01/oh-dear-oh-dear-owen-jones/>

[6] Natasha Lennard, “I Don’t Stand with Russell Brand, and Neither Should You”, Salon, 25 October 2013: <https://www.salon.com/2013/10/25/i_dont_stand_with_russell_brand_and_neither_should_you/>

[7] Ibid.

[8] Mark Fisher, “Exiting the Vampire Castle”, in K-Punk: The Collected and Unpublished Writings of Mark Fisher (2004-2016). London: Repeater Books, 2018, 743.

[9] See: Phoebe Braithwaite, “Mark Fisher’s Popular Modernism”, Tribune, 18 January 2019: <https://tribunemag.co.uk/2019/01/mark-fisher-kpunk-popular-modernism>

[10] Lennard, “I Don’t Stand with Russell Brand, and Neither Should You”.

[11] During the inaugural Mark Fisher memorial lecture at Goldsmiths, University of London, in 2018, Kodwo Eshun mentioned that he and Fisher had a long-standing interest in Kanye’s public profile and its political impact, hoping to one day edit a collection of essays together called Kanye Theory. See: Department of Visual Cultures, Goldsmiths, “Kodwo Eshun: Mark Fisher Memorial Lecture”, YouTube, 6 February 2018: <https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ufznupiVCLs>

[12] See: Mark Fisher, Ghosts of My Life: Writings on Depression, Hauntology and Lost Futures. London: Zer0 Books, 2014.

[13] Mark Fisher, “Going Overground: The Jam between Populism and Popular Modernism”, Post Punk Then and Now, eds. Gavin Butt, Kodwo Eshun and Mark Fisher. London: Repeater Books, 2016, 100.

[14] Mark Fisher, “Mommy, what’s a grey vampire?”, k-punk, 21 June 2009: <http://k-punk.org/mommy-whats-a-grey-vampire/>

[15] On this point, Fisher was inspired by Jodi Dean and her theorising of twenty-first century “communicative capitalism”. See: Jodi Dean, Blog Theory: Feedback and Capture in the Circuits of Drive. Cambridge: Polity Press, 2010.

[16] See: http://ccru.net/

[17] Mark Fisher, “Some Clarifications”, k-punk, 18 June 2009: <http://k-punk.org/some-clarifications-2/>

[18] Fisher, “Mommy, What’s a Grey Vampire?”

[19] Fisher, “Exiting the Vampire Castle” in K-Punk, 741-742.

[20] “Capital is dead labour, which, vampire-like, lives only by sucking living labour, and lives the more, the more labour it sucks.” See: Karl Marx, Capital: A Critique of Political Economy, Vol. 1, trans. Ben Fowkes. London: Penguin Classics, 1990, 342.

[21] Mark Fisher, “Good for Nothing” in K-Punk, 747.

[22] Wendy Brown, “Resisting Left Melancholy”, boundary 2, Vol. 26, No. 3. Durham, North Carolina: Duke University Press, 1999, 20. Available online via Verso Books: <https://www.versobooks.com/blogs/3092-resisting-left-melancholia>

[23] Marx, Capital Vol. 1, 492fn4.

[24] All three essays are found in K-Punk: The Collected and Unpublished Writings of Mark Fisher (2004-2016).

[25] Mark Fisher, “Touchscreen Capture”, Noon 6: An Annual Journal of Visual Culture and Contemporary Art. Gwangju, South Korea: Gwangju Biennale Foundation, 2016, 12-24.

[26] Mark Fisher, “Digital Psychedelia: The Otolith Group’s Anathema”,  Death and Life of Fiction: Modern Monsters: Taipei Biennial 2012 Journal. Taipei City: Taipei Fine Arts Museum, 2014, 160-166.

[27] Fisher, “Good For Nothing” in K-Punk, 749.

[28] For Fisher, “hippie was fundamentally a middle-class male phenomenon”; a kind of “hedonic infantilism.” This infantilism, he writes elsewhere, is symptomatic of a kind of capitalistic Oedipus complex; a “consequence of the infant’s belief in the Father’s omnipotence [through which they obtain] the conviction that all suffering could be eliminated if only the Father wished it.” See: Mark Fisher, “K-punk, or the Glampunk Art Pop Discontinuum” and “What If We Had A Protest and Everyone Came” in K-Punk.

[29] Mark Fisher, “Acid Communism (Unfinished Introduction)” in K-Punk, 753.

[30] Mark Fisher, “Spinoza, K-Punk, Neuropunk” in K-Punk, 697.

[31] Mark Fisher, “Emotional Engineering”, k-punk, 3 August 2004: <http://k-punk.abstractdynamics.org/archives/003767.html>

[32] Miles Ellingham, “Adam Curtis Talks to Jacobin About Power, Politics, and His New Film”, Jacobin, 10 March 2021: <https://jacobinmag.com/2021/03/adam-curtis-bbc-cant-get-you-out-of-my-head-interview>

XG Reading Group 2.8:
Interlude

Welcome back! Just a brief hangout this week. We were scheduled to discuss Gilles Deleuze’s essay “Bartleby, or, the Formula” from Essays Critical and Clinical, but we had a low turnout. Nevertheless, rather than just straight-up reschedule, we had a hang out anyway and the chat was good!

We talked about the changing state of Covid, a little bit about Bartleby and Deleuze’s interest in the outsideness of American literature, as well as Benjamin Bratton’s new book The Revenge of the Real, which I think we’ll read together soon once it is out properly and people can pick up hard copies if they so wish.

We’re not leaving Deleuze alone just yet though. We’ll take another run at this chapter next week, hopefully with a few more people available to chat about it. Until then, enjoy this nice hour of a few of us just shooting the shit.


A few links to things discussed. Here’s the Plato meme, also embedded above, and here’s the reply about how there’s actually no outside

Below is the true crime YouTube channel I’ve been binge-watching at work, which I think is genuinely interesting as a phenomenon (and as content). Still, it’s very existence just goes to show that we really do live in a society…

Cruella

We watched Cruella the other night. A bizarre movie experience, it was rife with anachronism. But in such a way that felt quintessentially cinematic and postmodern.

For starters, the film is set in London. Nothing unusual about that in itself, but with the majority of the outdoor scenes shot in Piccadilly, I couldn’t help but take note of where things were in real life, having spent a couple of years working a day job in the area. It’s not a obstacle to enjoying anything. I quite enjoy the location spotting, peeking behind the illusionary veil of cinematic space, as you notice just how compressed space becomes between scenes. Locations that are miles apart are made to look adjacent. It’s a common occurrence. But I’ve never noticed a film do this quite so nonchalantly with time as well before.

The original book on which the film is based came out in 1956. At times, you’d think the film was set in that moment. But then we have cultural references and nods to fashion trends that suggest the Summer of Love is on the way. Hippie is shown to be hot on the the heels of 50s fashion, before overshooting its mark and colliding straight into glam and punk simultaneously. Cultural movements are flattened, as if whole decades of innovation took place within a single season of high fashion rivalry.

The anachronism only becomes more pronounced in car chase scenes where no effort had been made to remove modern digital signage from certain roads. Space and time are simultaneously churned up and soon enough the entire twentieth century seems to pass in a blink of Walt Disney’s eye. I found it dizzying. In true Disney style, about 40 years and 4 square miles of London are squashed into a single context.

Can any fashion historians out there watch it for me and properly break it down? I feel like this weird unwarranted anti-heroine origin story might just be 2021 postmodernism’s Rosetta Stone…

Mare of Easttown:
2021’s One True Cop Show

After a protracted break halfway through the season, my partner and I finally binged the last few episodes of Mare of Easttown last week.

It’s a good show. Though I got odd True Detective vibes — meaning it will probably be unbearably cringe on repeated viewings — and there were a few excellent essays that noted how much it aped the major plot points of Twin Peaks, it was Aaron Bady’s essay for the LA Review of Books that really nailed what made Mare of Easttown such a compelling watch in 2021:

The normal life of a cop turns out to mean being an exceedingly unwelcome presence in the life of her town (which is also her family). Or at least this sure seems to be what we mostly see in Mare of Easttown, where no one’s problems have policing as their solution, and where no one seems to like our protagonist. The sister who won’t press charges on her brother — because what would that accomplish? — sets the tone in episode one, and it goes on from there. As a cop, we see Mare erase video evidence, tackle an old man with dementia, and plant drugs in Carrie’s car. But the most socially beneficial cop interventions we see are specifically non-carceral, like calling the gas company to yell at them for turning off the heat, driving someone to the parish shelter, or just rounding up a bereaved father’s family to comfort him when you bring the bad news. When Mare is in full on badge-and-gun mode, she mostly just brings violence to her town, which is also her family, who avoid her as much as possible.

After a cold winter of Black Lives Matter and #KillTheBill protests, when the function of policing in contemporary society was called into question more damningly than at any other time in recent memory, Mare of Easttown starts to feel like strangely appropriate viewing.

Just a few months ago, the UK was gripped by Line of Duty fever. A weirdly written piece of “copaganda”, the show was mostly so entertaining because it got so high on its own self-regard. The British answer to your average cloyingly American cop show, it often had laugh-out-loud moments where none were intended. But that was part of its charm. The ridiculousness of its vision of British policing was pure escapism. And yet, for many, it didn’t really sit right. Considering all that was going on around it in real life, it felt more than a little tone deaf.

On the contrary, Mare of Easttown, for all its flaws, felt perfectly placed. A cop show that persistently puts forward the implicit suggestion that policing solves little. Though Bady rips the show to shreds, and smugly highlights plot holes I didn’t even register, it is hard to disagree with his reading. But I think that makes me like the show even more.

Repeater Radio presents:
K-Punk Marathon

This Saturday, on 12th June 2021, Repeater Radio will be broadcasting (over) a day’s worth of K-Punk content. This will include another opportunity to hear January’s For K-Punk event, commissioned by the ICA, rebroadcast in full.

The full line-up is massive — the image below is only part of it — with a lot of new material being created especially for the event. Sign up to Repeater Radio’s mailing list to get all the announcements for this and all future broadcasts.

Don’t sleep.

From the Repeater Radio mailing list:

We are in a fallow period as we plan out our upcoming K-Punk marathon and station relaunch on the 12th of June. The 12th will see us rebroadcast and expand this year’s For K-Punk festivities, a full day’s online extravaganza featuring mixes and music from Oneohtrix Point Never, Time is Away, Iceboy Violet, Incursions, Mark Lawrence and visuals by Sweatmother. The artists will also be in discussion around the idea of postcapitalist desire.

Extending and expanding our overview of Mark Fisher’s work we’ll also have Mark Stewart’s Nun Gun, an original piece by Thomas Nordmark meditating on Fisher’s legacy, Pulp Modernism: Julia Toppin, Eddie Otchere and Andrew Green in conversation on Junglist, Mark’s Out Of Joint Lecture Hall tribute mix, Cynhia Cruz on K-Punk and Savage Messiah, Mike Grasso and Matt Ellis on “The Slow Cancellation of the Future” from Ghosts of My Life and “What Is Hauntology?,” a collaboration with Acid Horizon podcast, plus lots more still to come.

Save the date and see you then.

Narcissus in Bloom:
On Self-Transformation in the Age of Social Media

John Williams Waterhouse, Echo and Narcissus, 1903.

Narcissus blooms in spring. They are striking flowers that seem to grow anywhere. Their yellow and white trumpets sprout forth from gardens, roadsides, woods and fields. Around March, the supermarkets start to sell them in little bundles. Along with chocolate bunnies and hot cross buns, they are a sign that Easter is coming.

Better known by its­ common name, the daffodil, the scientific name for this complex genus of flower is nonetheless a source of much confusion. Many assume that Narcissus is named after the infamous hunter from Greek mythology, who was so fatally enchanted by his own watery reflection that he fell into it and drowned. But in the classic telling of the tale, penned by the Roman poet Ovid in his Metamorphoses, Narcissus tears himself apart. Captured by his gaze and unable to escape his own attractive pull, he does not fall into his reflection but dies trying to get away from it. After his death, the nymphs of spring mourn him and prepare a pyre on which to burn his remains. When they return to collect his body, it has gone. “Instead of his corpse, they discovered a flower with a circle of white petals round a yellow centre.”[1] A Narcissus grows in his place. This is no coincidence. The flower was already well-known at that time, suggesting that the man was named for the flower rather than the other way round. Indeed, the hunter is arguably a personification of the flower’s cultural associations, just as Echo, the nymph who inadvertently lures Narcissus to his own reflection, is the personification of her namesake as well.

This confusion around etymological origins is nonetheless long-standing. Writing around the same time as Ovid, in the first century AD, the Roman philosopher and naturalist Pliny the Elder was the first to use the now familiar plant’s Latin name, discussing its medicinal qualities in his exhaustive Natural History. He notes that, when taken orally, the plant “is injurious to the stomach … and produces dull, heavy pains in the head: hence it is that it has received its name, from ‘narce,’ and not from the youth Narcissus, mentioned in fable.”[2] The word “narce” remains in usage today, becoming the prefix “narco-”, as in narcotic, which is common to many Indo-European languages.

This relationship to narcotics is hardly surprising. Narcissus was certainly a man who became intoxicated with himself, but for the ancients, “narce” primarily referred to feelings of “numbness” and “lethargy”, and so the flower has associations with tiredness and sleep as well. These, too, have persisted into modernity. Narcolepsy, for example – literally meaning “an attack of numbness” – is a chronic brain condition related to excessive daytime drowsiness and sudden lapses into unconsciousness.

Still, the flower isn’t all bad. Though dangerous if administered incorrectly, Pliny describes Narcissus as a “very useful” flower. When ground down and mixed with oil to create an ointment, it is an effective treatment for burns and sprains, as well as bruises, frostbite and earache. Though it might make you sick, itis also useful when “employed for the extraction of foreign substances from the body.”[3] Most famously, it is “good for tumours”, he writes – a use also mentioned by Hippocrates, for whom it was a recommended treatment for uterine tumours in particular. This usage has more recently led to the flower being adopted as a symbol of hope by various cancer charities.

Between cancers of the womb and sleeping disorders, the flower is unsurprisingly also associated with death. The ancient Egyptians saw it as a tomb flower to be grown around burial sites, and daffodils are still a familiar sight in cemeteries around the world today. But they are also a symbol of life, birth and resurrection – lest we forget their symbolic ties to Easter in Christian countries, with Jesus’ resurrection retaining Pagan echoes of seasonal new beginnings. In Iran, too, they are tied to celebrations of Nowruz, or the New Year, held on the spring equinox. This does not make the daffodil an emblem of contradiction but of transformation. With death comes rebirth. The end of winter brings with it a new spring. Narcissus, as a perennial, will itself return year on year. As one of the first flowers to show itself after the deep sleep of winter, its droopy appearance is a fitting form for a lethargic creature newly awoken from a long hibernation.

Daffodils in a West Yorkshire cemetery, May 2021.

Despite these complex associations, today Narcissus tends to remind us of one thing: “narcissism”. The hunter’s pride becomes a cardinal sin, or a pathological affliction in the age of psychoanalysis. To be a narcissist is to have an excess of vanity or pride, particularly regarding one’s looks, or to indulge in delusions of grandeur regarding one’s social status. In the age of social media, it seems to be an increasingly common disorder. The politics of aspiration lead to a social landscape in which most hope to appear somehow above their station. To be a narcissist is also to post too much online, or “overshare” the minutiae of your daily existence, as if we are all narcissistic in assuming that the details of our lives warrant so much attention from others. At a time when everyone has a platform and can acquire their fifteen minutes of fame on any given day of the week, there is a narcissist to be awakened in all of us. (Those who abstain are by no means exempt, as even cultivating an offline air of mystery is seen as putting oneself above the chattering masses.) Though ubiquitous, and therefore surely innocuous, to be a narcissist is apparently one of the worst things a person can be. From behind our computer screens, we repeatedly diagnose the most deplorable members of society with narcissistic personality disorders (NPDs).

Clinically speaking, an NPD can take many forms. In his seminal study of this spectrum of conditions, Heinz Kohut explains that a narcissistic personality disorder is often “the result of the psyche’s inability to regulate self-esteem and to maintain it at normal levels”, but this understanding of the disorder “extends from anxious grandiosity and excitement, on the one hand, to mild embarrassment and self-consciousness, or severe shame, hypochondria, and depression, on the other.”[4] Despite this, narcissism is popularly understood as a form of sociopathy today, since we more readily associated its stereotypical displays of self-centredness with a distinct lack of care for others. This understanding has only become more pronounced since the United States of America elected a narcissist-in-chief to the White House in 2016. As a result, many now see narcissism as the defining pathology of our deluded age.

But we may already sense that there is another “narcissism”, lurking beneath our popular understanding of the term. The narcissism of self-transformation, rebirth, and self-overcoming. Though lying in plain sight, revealing itself to us every spring, and continually dramatized and depicted in cultural forms around the world, this narcissism is otherwise hidden from view. It is drowned out by the unending production of self-help books or works of popular psychology, not to mention the casual symptomologies paraded around by the media, which scream that narcissism is a plague whilst audiences nonetheless continue to yearn and strive for something new – be it new selves or new worlds.

Can narcissism ever be a positive affliction? Though such a suggestion may sound exceedingly contrarian, in considering its understated place in popular culture we might note that its initial theorisers were very much of the opinion that this pathology was a complex set of psychological traits that emerged following a drastic need for change following trauma. The feedback loop of the gaze of Narcissus is, in this sense, a form of repetition compulsion. It was not a cardinal sin but a symptom of libidinal blockages. Because, despite being self-destructive, narcissism is often rooted in one’s own drives for self-preservation and self-transformation.   

First coined by the German psychiatrist Paul Näcke in 1899, “narcissism” was, at that time, a term used to describe the “perversion” of autoeroticism, exemplified by a wide range of (largely innocuous) sexual behaviours, including homosexuality and masturbation. Sigmund Freud’s more popular reading of the term suggested that, whilst he could corroborate Näcke’s clinical observations of sexual “misfunction”, there was much more to narcissism than that.

In his case studies, as with Kohut, Freud found that your average narcissist’s excessive self-concern was not always vainglorious but also anxious. Indeed, certain traits described in Näcke’s pathology were common to many mental disorders. Freud surmised, then, that narcissism was not just an expression of self-love but also the product of great pain, since a person in pain so often “gives up his interest in the things of the external world, in so far as they do not concern his suffering.”[5] Though he retains Näcke’s view that narcissism is a deviation from nature – through which our sexual and self-preservative instincts are blocked inside the ego, rather than finding satisfaction in external objects, as they should – he recognises that this pathology can be acquired through trauma, rather than defining a person outright through a series of uncorrected personality traits. This makes narcissism a central part of various illnesses, from anorexia nervosa and hypochondria to dementia praecox (or, as it is now known, schizophrenia). Each is defined, through delusion, paranoia and dysmorphia, by a maladjusted self-image and, furthermore, an excessive concern for and control of that image.

Contra Näcke, this was not an opportunity to moralise mental illness but recognise the obvious. Drawing on a marvellously succinct couplet from the comic poet Wilhelm Busch, who is writing about his toothache, Freud summarises this broader view of narcissism in another way:

Concentrated is his soul
In his molar’s narrow hole

With this version of narcissism in mind, we might ask the following questions of our narcissistic age: Are we not in pain? Do those who overshare their lives online perhaps have the most difficulty coming to terms with the offline lives they see reflected back at them? Is our societal self-concern not encouraged by the media or capitalism more generally, which blocks our desires inside its narrow purview? Are we, as a result, not morbidly aware of our own fragility – not just as people but also a part of a wider and endangered natural world? Institutions and organisations, with unfettered access to ourselves, now ventriloquise our worries and our ideals for their own gain, encouraging our ecological self-destruction and our own individualised paranoia in order to line their own pockets. Am I doing enough? Perhaps not, but the solutions to the problems of our era are unlikely to be extracted from capitalism’s exacerbation of our individualised self-concern. Caught between arrogance and hypochondria is a clear desire for a new (or renewed) world.

The politics of narcissism are not limited to crises of ecology, of course. What of the depressive narcissism that supposedly afflicts the underrepresented and the marginalised in society today? After all, marginalised communities have persistently struggled with the tandem scrutiny and self-knowledge often thrust upon them in the modern world, and the age of social media in particular.

The discourse surrounding the Black Lives Matter movement, for instance, supposedly has narcissists on all sides, with the notion of a “collective narcissism” being hurled repeatedly across the divide between the movement’s supporters and detractors. Aaron Smale, writing about Black Lives Matter for the New Zealand news website newsroom. has argued that racism itself is an example of collective narcissism. “Narcissism in individuals is characterised by self-centredness, arrogance, seeing others as objects rather than equals, perceiving themselves as unique or special”, he writes, describing the pervasive entitlement he sees displayed within white supremacist societies. Indeed, nationalism and supremacy in general are narcissistic pathologies for Smale. “When that pathology grips a whole group of people and the institutions they have run for hundreds of years, it isn’t going to die overnight.”[6] The problem, however, is that critics of Black Lives Matter agree with his characterisation, albeit when used to describe the movement itself. For those critics, the movement’s eponymous motto is the perfect example of excessive self-concern.

For the conservative commentator Shelby Steele, writing for the Wall Street Journal, watching “the antics of Black Lives Matter is like watching people literally aspiring to black victimization, longing for it as for a consummation.”[7] In his framing, the collective narcissism of Black Lives Matter is a form of mass hysteria or, perhaps more accurately, mass hypochondria. Society is sick, the protestors say, and racism is endemic. Those who have nothing demand reparations or the redistribution of wealth and power. But Steele believes that freedom is far more pervasive than those who resent their more successful peers are willing to believe. “We blacks are, today, a free people”, he writes. “It is as if freedom sneaked up and caught us by surprise.” That’s not to say that racism has gone away though – Steele concedes that there will always be some racism in society – but that doesn’t mean we need to bleach it in some great revolutionary gesture. Like a mysterious rash, racism is an affliction that might always be with us, he argues, and so we mustn’t worry ourselves too much out about it. Like a hypochondriac making a nuisance of themselves at the hospital, to keep demanding treatment for some relatively innocuous blemishes risks doing more harm than good.

In a blogpost written for The American Conservative, Rod Dreher makes the connection between Smale and Shelby’s positions far more explicit. Black Lives Matter is an example of “collective narcissism” as well, he argues – a term he borrows not from Smale but from psychology researcher Agnieszka Golec de Zavala. Intriguingly, de Zavala’s research around collective narcissism is promiscuous – an article she has written about the term is illustrated with an image of English far-right nationalists but discusses Muslims and Argentinians as two groups who have been collectively offended by perceived insults made by individuals or relatively smaller groups.[8] Though de Zavala may have been aiming for impartiality, Dreher’s conclusion is predictable. Whilst the right’s “collective narcissism” may well have fuelled wins for Brexit in the UK and Trump in the US, “it’s only fair”, he says, that we “ask the same about black protesters and their critics.”[9] But rather than indulging in whataboutery, Dreher goes on to make an interesting point. Perhaps the problem is with the diagnosis. In being so easily applicable to both sides, collective narcissism, he rightly notes, might just be “a way to dismiss a group’s grievances by psychologizing them away”.

Narcissism, then, at the level of pop-cultural understanding, is less a useful diagnosis than a blunt scalpel taken to societal scar tissue. But what is missed in all of the analyses above, by those on both the left and the right, is the full spectrum of narcissistic personality disorders, which already covers the full breadth of opinions typically associated with conservatives and progressives. On the most basic level, we can say the obvious: progressives want change, conservatives do not. One group believes that things are fine just as they are and so they are vainglorious in their cultural hegemony; the other believes that change must come, and it will risk self-destruction to free itself from its given image. In this regard, both are clearly narcissistic, according to one definition or another, but who can really blame Black Lives Matter for their self-concern? In fact, if anything, BLM epitomises the torment of Ovid’s Narcissus absolutely.

Captured by their own gaze, black communities see themselves routinely frogmarched across television screens and murdered in body-camera footage. Whereas other social groups may look upon these images and find a way to distance themselves from supposed “criminals” or “anti-social” persons, finding any opportunity to “other” those on screen who supposedly deserve death for their misdemeanours, black communities see themselves and, like Narcissus, are tormented by it. They may lash out, and politicians may dismiss the resulting communal “self-harm”, but such violence is a sure sign of a need for transformation. Riots break out and property is damaged as black communities tear at their own social flesh, doing anything to free themselves and transform.

Yes, Black Lives Matter are the real narcissists, but in the only way that matters.

This understanding of narcissism may appear far less contentious and provocative when we consider the plights of other marginalised and maligned groups. Many of the most seminal works of queer art and literature produced over the last two centuries, for instance, from Oscar Wilde’s 1890 novel The Picture of Dorian Gray to James Bidgood’s 1971 film Pink Narcissus and beyond, have a very different relationship to Ovid’s classic tale than your average political commentator.

By reclaiming ownership of Näcke’s offensive pathologizing of homosexuality – in Wilde’s case, even pre-empting it – artistic explorations of homosexuality have been as concerned with the surreality of same-sex love as they are with the difficulty of self-acceptance, and the ways that sexual fantasy and self-reflection are entwined together in queer culture provide each of these narcissistic works with a great psychological depth. What is most notable about these examples is that, alongside their expressions of pain and self-critique, there is a clear striving for self-transformation, and not just a transformation of the self but of one’s wider social standing as well. In Bidgood’s Pink Narcissus, for example, the protagonist imagines himself as such – that is, as a protagonist – seemingly for the first time. As a sex worker left alone in a client’s apartment, all too ready to sate the needs and appetites of others, he places himself centre-stage and enacts a series of fantasies where he is cast in various lead roles. Power is not always in his hands – in one sequence, he is a slave to a Roman emperor – but he is nonetheless the focus of attention. (Submissiveness can, of course, be its own kind of power play.) In every instance, the protagonist’s fantasies do not define his self-obsession but give form to his dreams of self-overcoming. The pink Narcissus raises himself up in the world, as perhaps only he can.

We seldom hear from these narcissists today. Though daffodils remain popular symbols for rebirth, recovery, renewal and change, we rarely think of these associations when we consider our own habits of self-reflection, whether at an individual or societal level. But this is hardly surprising. Though an inexhaustible source of inspiration for millennia, there are very few well-known readings or adaptations of Ovid’s tale that hope to affirm Narcissus’ floral becoming directly. But why not? Yes, Narcissus loved himself to death – and any drive that culminates in one’s own death is catnip to the Freudian psychoanalyst – but Ovid’s tale is not a moral one. Indeed, Narcissus is hardly described as having an overabundant ego. His beauty is objectively recognised and so, in being captured by his own reflection, his demise is narrated like an occupational hazard.

Furthermore, though Narcissus’ self-transformation was a reason to mourn for those who saw and loved him, it nonetheless brought him relief from his suffering. And Narcissus did suffer. His beauty was so intense that few allowed themselves to get close to him. Though loved, he was painfully alone. This may explain his chosen profession as a solitary hunter. Unaware of his own beauty, Narcissus did not understand why he was shunned by the world around him, but he was not so vain as to lash out at their inattention. Instead, he retreated into the wild. But when he was eventually captured by his own reflection and experienced what it was like to both see himself and be seen, the torturous feedback loop was too much to bear. “I am in love, and see my loved one”, he declares, “but that form which I see and love, I cannot reach, so far am I deluded by my love.”[10] The hunter is caught in an erotic feedback loop. Whereas those around him can simply avoid him or turn away, Narcissus cannot separate himself from himself.

But the tale does not end there. Narcissus’ delusions cause him to scratch and lash out at his body, now reflected before him. Though he may love his aquatic imago, he is tormented by it, and soon he wishes to shed the outer shell that has so forsaken him:

In his grief, he tore away the upper portion of his tunic, and beat his bared breast with hands as white as marble. His breast flushed rosily where he struck it, just as apples often shine red in part, while part gleams whitely, or as grapes, ripening in variegated clusters, are tinged with purple. When Narcissus saw this reflected in the water … he could bear it no longer. As golden wax melts with gentle heat, as morning frosts are thawed by the warmth of the sun, so he was worn and wasted away with love, and slowly consumed by its hidden fire.[11]

It is surely no coincidence that Narcissus’ decay is repeatedly compared to the seasonal transformations of nature in bloom. In the end, though the man may be dead, his desires suddenly seem more befitting of a flower anyway, and so Ovid’s Narcissus quickly complicates the convenient view of the early psychoanalysts, who saw narcissism as a deviation from nature. The tale instead depicts nature’s return or, at the very least, its transformation into a new phase of itself. Narcissus, then, is the story of nature’s self-overcoming. It is the story of the seasons, and nature’s yearly cycle, which may start with pollination and germination, but which always ends with a holocaust of its own making, only to begin again.

Though we moralise and criticise our propensity to gaze at ourselves, rarely do we discuss this part of the story today. But perhaps we should. It would certainly save us the repeated embarrassment of re-discovering, apparently against all the odds, our own capacity for self-renewal. This is so often demonstrated by our cultural commentators, who publicly despair over our propensity for self-obsession, turning their backs on a society supposedly tearing itself apart, taking it upon themselves to prepare the funeral pyre on which to lay the dreams of a dozen self-critical social movements. But when they return, they too may bear witness to a transformation they did not expect. Not a death, but a new beginning, and an affirmation of a radical future that our past selves have been desperate to give form to.


[1] Ovid, Metamorphoses, trans. Mary M. Innes. London: Penguin Books, 1955, 87.

[2] Pliny the Elder, The Natural History, trans. John Bostock. London: Taylor and Francis, 1855. Accessed via the Perseus Digital Library, Tufts University, edited by George R. Crane: <http://www.perseus.tufts.edu/hopper/text?doc=urn:cts:latinLit:phi0978.phi001.perseus-eng1:21.75>

[3] Ibid.

[4] Heinz Kohut, The Analysis of the Self: A Systematic Approach to the Psychoanalytic Treatment of Narcissistic Personality Disorder. Chicago and London: The University of Chicago Press, 2009, 20.

[5] Sigmund Freud, “On Narcissism: An Introduction” in On Metapsychology: The Theory of Psychoanalysis, trans. James Strachey, ed. Angela Richards. Harmondsworth: Penguin Books; The Pelican Freud Library, Volume 11, 1984, 75.

[6] Aaron Smale, “A collective narcissism”, newsroom., 13 June 2020: <https://www.newsroom.co.nz/a-collective-narcissism>

[7] Shelby Steele, “Black protest has lost its power”, Wall Street Journal, 12 January 2018: <https://www.wsj.com/articles/black-protest-has-lost-its-power-1515800438>

[8] Agnieszka Golec de Zavala, “Why collective narcissists are so politically volatile”, aeon, 12 January 2018: <https://aeon.co/ideas/why-collective-narcissists-are-so-politically-volatile&gt; The author describes collective narcissists as follows: “Collective narcissists are not simply content to be members of a valuable group. They don’t devote their energy to contributing to the group’s betterment and value. Rather, they engage in monitoring whether everybody around, particularly other groups, recognise and acknowledge the great value and special worth of their group. To be sure, collective narcissists demand privileged treatment, not equal rights. And the need for continuous external validation of the group’s inflated image (a negative attribute) is what differentiates collective narcissists from those who simply hold positive feelings about their group.”

[9] Rod Dreher, “Racial Protest and ‘Collective Narcissism’”, The American Conservative, 16 January 2018: <https://www.theamericanconservative.com/dreher/racial-protest-collective-narcissism/>

[10] Ovid, Metamorphoses, 86.

[11] Ibid., 87.

AI is Good Actually:
Notes on Commie Grimes and Intelligence & Spirit

A tweet was doing the rounds today, laughing at a TikTok made by Grimes in which she argues that the development of artificial intelligence is “the fastest path to communism”. That it instantaneously became a meme was somewhat depressing. Ignoring the fact that it is Grimes, partner of Elon Musk, making the argument, it is telling that so many people think she’s crazy just for saying automation is good actually.

This unthinking reaction reminded me of the communist thread running through Reza Negarestani’s Intelligence & Spirit, particularly his reading of Plato’s concept of the Good alongside Hegel and Marx. That many who otherwise identify themselves as communists would ridicule her assertion that AI can radically change the present state of things shows how far we still have to go if we are to escape the bounds of capitalist realism.

Yes, even communists — especially communists — are ideologically affected by capitalist realism — something made obvious when you ask them what it would take to escape the bounds of capitalism. That a communist defines their political beliefs by what they know ought to be done means little if they cannot imagine the full spectrum of what possibly can be done. Any communism that is held up as an ideal, but has little material relation to present circumstances, isn’t a political project — that’s just cope.

This is something that Reza explores in a really fascinating way in Intelligence & Spirit. For Reza, the creation of actually existing artificial intelligence — that is, as a form of computational intelligence — is a viable technological project because it expands our notion of what intelligence is, and anything that separates humanity from its own arrogant exceptionalism is worthwhile. This is useful for political projects like communism precisely because it pokes holes in capitalist realism, or, as Reza might call it, capitalist intelligence. He writes:

Intelligence posits the objective reality of that which is, and in doing so retroactively recognizes its conditions of realization. The first operation is a leap from the atemporal domain of ideas into the realm of the sensible… the second [operation is] a leap… that retroactively recognizes how the ideas are linked to the sensible… But as the leaps from the simple reality of the sensory flux to the formal reality of ideas grow proportionally larger, as the positing of a more cohesive reality requires a greater leap over the sectors of the line, as the expanse of what is intelligible broadens, the risks become greater, and there is much more to lose by a misjudged leap. What is at stake now is not the body of intelligence but its very idea. Yet it is only through these leaps (positing the measures of all reality and the retroactive recognition of its realization as such) that intelligence can bind together and cohere the divided parts — an operation without which there would be no intelligible reality and no realization of intelligence.

This is undoubtedly the point at which Reza’s project gets the most Badiouian. One of the most strikingly simple and intriguing points made by Badiou in his work, which he borrows from Althusser, is that scientific and technological developments have been largely disconnected from developments in philosophical and political thinking. Throughout the history of philosophy, new ideas have helped midwife new worlds teased by scientific discoveries. Kant did not exist in a vacuum — he helped bring about a philosophical world that understood Newtonian physics. The same is true of Nietzsche, Bergson and Deleuze, who brought about a philosophical world that understood the developments in our understanding of biology across the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Badiou asks the same question of now. Where is the new philosophy to help midwife a new understanding of the world, already upon us thanks to technological developments, such as the Internet, and scientific advancements in the realm of, say, quantum physics? It doesn’t seem to exist, or has yet to penetrate the popular imagination in any meaningful and revolutionary way. (Though everyone likes to talk about how irrelevant he is these days, Žižek has tellingly taken this project very seriously, with his last book attempting to philosophically think through quantum mechanics very explicitly.)

The truth is that, today, these areas of thought are incoherent. Philosophy and politics are largely disconnected from technology and science in the popular imagination. If anyone does attempt to think about politics and AI or philosophy and the blockchain, the immediate assumption is that it is some bad-news, reactionary, capitalistic project trying to bridge incompatible worlds. This is understood as the smart and sensible approach. It is not.

Reza makes this point by arguing that the reconnection of these segments of thought is what Plato calls the Good:

For Plato, the Good makes intelligible all of reality, as well as acting on the intelligible. Absent the Good… the line can never be divided and the divided segment can never be integrated, and therefore both the intelligible and intelligence must succumb to impossibility. Intelligence is that which acts on the intelligible, and the intelligible is that which is differentiated and integrated by intelligence. The underlying principle that warrants both is the Good as the principal mutuality of intelligence and the intelligible according to which the conception of intelligence, at every juncture of its history, is simultaneously a craftsman, the exercise of the craft or production of mixtures or intelligibilities, an ingredient of its craft, and the product of this ongoing craft. In so far as the Good is not just one transcendental idea or form but is their transcendental or formal unity (the form of forms), neither intelligence nor the intelligible can ever be taken as a fulfilled ideal or completed totality. Once either of the two is seen as concluded or continued in the absence of the other, the irruption of pathologies and tragedies is certain.

Though knotted, what we have here is an elucidation of those first two operations described by Reza in the first paragraph. The Good is a form of becoming — the form of forms, yes, but also the forming of forms? How different modes of knowledge factor into the Good simultaneously is something we struggle to ascertain today, given how sprawling our total knowledge is. But knowledge can never be and has never been held in a totality. Our brains don’t work like that. And even if we were able to learn everything by rote, rote learning isn’t a factor in intelligence — intelligence, as Reza makes clear, is acting on the intelligible.

Take the relationship between Newton and Kant. Newton sees the apple fall, and from that observation the concept of gravity becomes intelligible to him. Kant’s further elucidation of Newton’s discovery that there is a world of forces unseen and unknowable (at least directly) to us is a demonstration of Kant’s intelligence. Kant takes the knowledge of philosophy he already has and he combines it with this new intelligible world revealed by Newton. This is, essentially, the relationship Hegel and Marx expand upon, further strengthening the feedback loop between idealism and materialism. That neither is ever fully complete, in being dependent upon events like the falling apple, is important because it leaves us with a certain responsibility when it comes to responding to contingency and combining otherwise distinct strands of knowledge.

This is what Althusser calls “aleatory materialism”. The real movement of history — and, yes, the “real movement” of communism, in the words of Marx and Engels — must be open to chance and contingency. In fact, that is all that the real movement is. To hold every new technology or innovation up against a pre-existing ideal of what communism is and see how it fits into our dreams is to always be disappointed, and it is to effectively fall back on a kind of transcendental miserablism, denying yourself a role in shaping the future because you think you already know what it will look like.

For further clarity, this PhD thesis seems like good further reading on this topic. The abstract defines Althusser’s conception of history in a way immediately relevant to the topic at hand:

Aleatory materialism is an attempt to conceptualise history as open-ended but nevertheless amenable to scientific inquiry. Althusser argued that theories of history which supposed their object had a fixed direction or telos rested on unscientific premises. Such theories were premised on circular reasoning. By taking particular patterns of events to be universal and timeless, those particular patterns could only be explained by pre-existing themselves. […]

The way out of this impasse, Althusser argued, was to treat all social forms as contingent, rather than necessary, outcomes. Social structures included strategies and institutions to secure their continued reproduction. They were, however, unable to totally suppress the contingency that initially gave rise to them. It is because of contingency that the laws governing human behaviour can change. Social systems can transition into new systems comprised of new sets of laws. No particular configuration is destined to arise or persist indefinitely. Althusser showed that it is possible to accept both that history is amenable to scientific inquiry and that it is an open system, with a future that is not preordained but over which the actions of agents have a genuine influence. In doing so, this theory demonstrates how teleological theories are mechanisms of justification for prevailing forms of social power, by which they portray themselves as inevitable and natural outcomes, not accurate accounts of history.

Hopefully the relevance of this brief definition is immediately apparent. Though associated with Althusser’s late thought, when he was mentally unwell, in hindsight we take this insight for granted today. Aleatory materialism is a critique of capitalist realism ahead of time, and demonstrates how Reza and other post-Ccru acolytes moved towards accelerationism, which, as I’ve recently argued, was always quietly influenced by Badiou. The accelerationist argument is the same as Althusser’s, albeit updated to now — when we forego the political potentials offered by scientific and technological innovations, we find ourselves immediately engaged in reactionary thinking. Just look at the mind-numbing cynicism projected onto NFTs for a recent example — that we judge NFTs by how similar they are to already-existing forms of social power, or how quickly the new is seized upon by those same forms, rather than what is precisely new about them, tells you everything you need to know about where we’re at. Capitalist realism isn’t ending — it is alive and well in our knee-jerk social media cynicism and our reluctance to counter emergent forms of capitalist capture.

Reza argues that the one way to overcome this cynicism is to embrace the “transcendental excess” of the Good, which resembles a kind of Bergsonian divide between matter and memory. Though the two are intrinsically related, one cannot hope to fully contain its other. We cannot remember all matter, and matter cannot hope to capture the entirety of memory. There is a similar line between what Reza called intelligence and the intelligible. What is immediately intelligible to us does not and cannot define the limits of intelligence as such. Reza puts it like this:

This excess is precisely what demands that intelligence must never rest, but must expand the scope of the intelligible and thus the realization of itself… Driven by the transcendental excess of the form of ideas — the Good — intelligence is compelled to extend its retroactive power of knowing (the intelligibility of its conditions of realization) and to readjust its realization to new intelligibilities… It is the transcendental excess of the Good that deepens the abyss of the intelligible through which intelligence conceives and reshapes itself. Accordingly, transcendental excess (the Good) is what points to the excess of reality. It is because of this transcendental excess that the excess of reality in respect to thinking can be postulated and uncovered. Scientific knowledge of reality is a Good-in-itself, but it is only knowledge to the extent that it is an idea afforded by this transcendental excess, unbound and set in motion by the Good as the idea of ideas, the form of forms.

This is to say that scientific knowledge is often new, but when we fold it back into our view of the world as defined by capitalist realism, we hollow it out. And that’s not the Good… That’s the Bad.

Already, I think we see the relationship between artificial intelligence and communism starting to emerge here, as well as the cynicism immediately afforded to Grimes. The point here is not, of course, to argue that Intelligence & Spirit says we should take Grimes seriously, but the reaction to her otherwise basic comment on how technology and communism are related shows that her argument is less a product of billionaire-grade weed than it is currently unintelligible to us. That’s capitalism’s fault, not hers.

Similarly, though we associate AI more generally with sci-fi depictions of the horrors of capitalism, as if the machines embody capitalism absolutely, capitalism (and capitalist realism) is instead in here with us. If there is no “outside” to capitalism, it is because there is no outside to our own sensory cognition. Capitalism determines our entire world view in a false totality and tells us what is and is not a given. It adjudicates our expectations and our sense of what is rational and possible. Actually-existing AI, on the contrary, explodes that capture. It eliminates the myth of the given as a foundation for capitalist realism. It transforms what can be done, by establishing new forms of intelligence.

If this sounds idealistic, and wholly contrary to what we have been told about AI and its potentials under capitalism, we should put more effort into questioning what we have been told rather than denouncing anyone who entertains other possibilities. Because the truth is, when we see horrible and dystopic visions of AI in the media, we aren’t seeing a new world but a reflection of the worst of ourselves. Whether Google Deep Dream or the Terminator films, we’re not seeing psychedelic futures or sociopathic machinery, we’re seeing the limits of our own imaginations.

[I have a short text on Google DeepDream coming out in an essay collection later this year, and so I don’t want to rehash the argument too much ahead of time, but it is a good example of these limits.]

When we understand how Google Deep Dream works, for example, we can see that it isn’t imaginative or innovative or “intelligent”. It is effectively an interesting failure. What we think of as “hallucinations” are in fact a computer’s inability to process the new. We give it an image it has likely never seen before, and in attempting to make that image intelligible, it transforms it into what it already knows in abundance — pictures of dogs. That’s not “artificial intelligence”, that’s artificial dementia. Reza’s view of AI is radically different to this anemic pop-culture understanding. He continues:

In so far as intelligence is only intelligence in virtue of recognizing what is intelligible and acting upon it in light of the transcendental excess of the Good, which perpetually dissolves the limits of what is intelligible, if intelligence were to stop at any particular stage and accept it as the totality of what there is, it would retroactively abort its own reality as intelligence. Simply put, an intelligence that takes what is currently intelligible for the totality of reality can never have been intelligence to begin with.

Here’s looking at you, Google DeepDream.

The continuity of the line cannot be mistaken for the manifest totality of its segments. The Good, as the expression of this continuity, demands that intelligence dissolve all manifest totalities, suspend itself in ever more bottomless chasms of the intelligible, and, in doing so, transform itself into an intelligence more accustomed to wider domains of intelligibilities and more capable of acting upon what is intelligible. It is only by assimilating itself to the abyss of intelligibilities — ontological, epistemological, and axiological — that intelligence can be realized as intelligence. In the end, it is Plato who stares into the abyss by breaking apart one firmament after another, while Nietzsche rests supine on the ground staring blankly at the given sky above.

Reza’s Platonism is here a kind of Marxian real movement, and he quotes Marx and Engels in a footnote, clarifying this point succintly:

Communism is for us not a state of affairs which is to be established, an ideal to which reality [will] have to adjust itself. We call communism the real movement which abolishes the present state of things. The conditions of this movement result from the premises now in existence.

And so, in this respect, Grimes is right. Whether it is a point best expressed on TikTok is another matter — and its virality across a cynical social media landscape tells us a great deal about contemporary limits rather than contemporary possibilities — but nothing she says is inaccurate at face value. And that is true whether we are thinking historically, in that it aligns with the thought of Marx and Engels, or whether we are thinking about the possibilities of now. Again, that this is a point even tangentially associated with Elon Musk doesn’t bode well, but again, this shows how the limits of the present are so often entangled with present possibilities — a point Reza’s discussion of the Good ends on. He writes:

[The limit] makes intelligible the abyss of reality, bringing new sectors of it into focus by introducing measures, and thus enabling intelligence to answer the question of what ought to be thought and done. [The unlimited], meanwhile, expands the horizon of what can be made intelligible. And finally, the interplay of both is what dissolves any manifest totality that lays claim to reality, thereby enabling intelligence to explore what can be thought and done. The relation between the two is one of mutual reinforcement. In this context, we can speak of a maximal communism of the Good as that which dissipates all seeming totalities of history. But this is the Good as an expression of the transcendental excess through which intelligence at once makes itself intelligible to itself in ever broader domains, and reworks itself by comporting itself with what is intelligible. The transcendental excess of the Good is neither that of the transcendent nor that of nature.

When we conflate Grimes and Musk, we conflate what he, as a dodgy billionaire, ought to do with her creative thinking regarding what can be done. Indeed, their relationship may well epitomize the conditions of our age in that regard, but it does not represent those conditions in their totality. That Twitter fails to realise that shows just how unintelligent that platform truly is.