Our pervasive tendency to anachronistically historicize all recent contributions to intellectual discourse, showing how they were prefigured rather than what new observations they bring to the table, is itself a product of capitalist realism.
That there are resonances between ideas, irrespective of the time and place of their emergence, is important for us to consider – not only so that we can appreciate a diversity beyond the Western canon (although that is never a bad thing), but because it prefigures the problems that faced the twentieth century’s Marxist-Hegelian view of history.
Understanding that idealism and materialism were not conflicting theories but two parts of a wider feedback loop, the idea of the linear development of history came repeatedly under fire. For Gilles Deleuze, history did not unfold neatly one way or another. History – real history – cannot be sorted like the genealogy of a family tree: a repetitious series of pairings unfolding in an evolutionary line. Anyone who has investigated their own genealogy will know this. The more information you add, the more extended family you include, the more our relations spread outwards in an amorphous cloud of names and faces. Our records only go back so far, but there is no final ancestor to which we can ultimately attribute our existence. Our social histories and the history of ideas functions in much the same way for Deleuze. To constantly assign predecessors and antecedents, losing track of the particular temperament of the present, is to fall head first into philosophy’s own Oedipus complex. In truth, our canonical sense of intellectual progression is nothing more than a convenient framing device. But this is not to say that history isn’t evolutionary, rather we require a new way of understanding how history unfolds.
Deleuze argues that history is rhizomatic, with a central point of origin impossible to ascertain. Though we can follow certain lines through history, they do not simply pass “from one point to another”, he writes, but pass “between points, ceaselessly bifurcating and diverging, like one of [Jackson] Pollock’s lines.” To trace the line of development of a certain idea, then, is not to find a linear development but a multiplicity, capable of existing in multiple times and places at once, and referred to by many different names.
“Multiplicities are made up of becomings without history, of individuation without subject (the way in which a river, a climate, an event, a day, an hour of the day, is individualized)”, Deleuze continues. Channelling Heraclitus, for whom one cannot step into the same river twice, Deleuze argues that this very idea — the concept of becoming — is immediately undone once we individualise the river in question. The River Thames, for instance, remains the River Thames whether I paddle along its silted shores on a cold Thursday in January or a hot Monday in June. In naming everything individually, though life assumes a certain order as a result, the flowing multiplicity of the river and its relations is buried under certain signifiers. Its true nature is rendered as an abstraction, and the abstraction is discarded as useless and imprecise. But what is discarded is reality in all of its psychedelic complexity, and we do ourselves a disservice when we reject complexity out of hand.
To note the reductive nature of categorisation – of individualising the River Thames as the River Thames – is not to genericise the river as such, however. For Deleuze, “the abstract does not explain, but must itself be explained”. It forces us to offer up a more comprehensive explanation of the river’s becoming, its changing states, the ways it is impacted by the things around it, without relying on the one-dimensional shorthand of proper nouns and possessive understandings. Drawing on Whitehead, and echoing his often misused comment about footnotes to Plato, Deleuze insists that the aim of philosophy “is not to rediscover the eternal or the universal, but to find the conditions under which something new is produced.” When we historicise and point to this prefigurement of that, we focus entirely on what has been rather than on what has newly been created. And so, to stick with our example, by unpacking the individualised River Thames, which has cut through the heart of London for eternity, we suddenly unlock a perspective of the river underneath and the different things it has meant to different people – not the universal concept of the Thames but the plurality of a river’s history.
To take another example, we might consider the Ship of Theseus – one of the oldest thought experiments in Western philosophy. The ancient historian Plutarch penned the first recorded version of the tale, in which he explains how Theseus’s ship has been preserved over so many years. The people of Athens, he writes, “took away the old planks as they decayed, putting in new and stronger timber in their places, insomuch that this ship became a standing example among the philosophers, for the logical question of things that grow; one side holding that the ship remained the same, and the other contending that it was not the same.” If every part on Theseus’s ship is changed over the course of a long and treacherous voyage, is it still the same ship? That is the question, or so we’re told. But Deleuze reveals the fallacy at the heart of this experiment. The point should be that the ship is, of course, still a ship. To debate whether it is still Theseus’s ship, since all the parts of the ship he originally owned have been replaced, covers over the ingenuity of his crew, who have found so many creative solutions to keep Theseus afloat. Whether Theseus recognises it possessively as his ship is short-sighted. If anything, the ship is now even more representative of the crew, of the multiplicity of persons who have sailed on board.
This not only describes Deleuze’s approach to history but philosophy itself. In his infamous “Letter to a Harsh Critic”, he explains that he belongs “to a generation … that was more or less bludgeoned to death with the history of philosophy”, which is nothing more than “philosophy’s own version of the Oedipus complex: ‘You can’t seriously consider what you yourself think until you’ve read this and that, and that on this, and this on that.’” (This remains a familiar sentiment today, of course.) Resentful of the overbearing weight of history, used as a straitjacket rather than productively, Deleuze engages with the history of philosophy through “a kind of buggery”, he explains, “taking an author from behind and giving him a child that would be his own offspring, yet monstrous.”
This, in turn, was the Ccru’s relationship to Deleuze and Guattari. But it is a relationship that we struggle to maintain with many of the Ccru’s former associates today. It is, notably, what killed accelerationism too. Accelerationism became a meme, and in the process, lost its motor — a militant insistence on the production of the new. As Vincent Garton wrote on this very topic: “Unleashing ideas — intercepting signals — demands a different approach.” We should know our history and we can work with it to produce new ideas, just as Deleuze did, but historicism quickly becomes a blunt instrument if used incorrectly. As Vince adds: “In the course of the history of ideas, reshaping and novelty have always trumped antiquarian precision.”
It is telling that most “memeings” of contemporary figures forget this. Memes of concepts encase events. They don’t unleash ideas but reify them. They turn a free-floating concept into a flat signifier. When created to services the desires of a new generation of philosophy-curious young readers, they abuse novelty by putting it in service of antiquarian precision (and even then, precision is often lacking). We and they deserve better…
Can you tell this is a subtweet that got out of control?
The UK’s response to the coronavirus pandemic has been mismanaged from day one – not least because “day one” was marked much later than it should have been. It has led many in the media to biopsy Johnson’s character and his suitability for the job, just as they had done when he was foreign secretary and, prior to that, mayor of London. What they found came as no surprise. As with Trump during his presidency, the media loves to boil Johnson’s character flaws down to his narcissism. Columnist John Crace, writing for the Guardian last year, went so far as to describe Johnson as a “narcissists’ narcissist”, because he thinks he can do whatever he pleases both at home and in government. Crace’s colleague Nick Cohen used his own column in the same newspaper to report that even Johnson’s fellow Conservatives talk about him “with a venom few socialists can match”, describing him as “a pathetically insecure narcissist who turns on you if you don’t feed his craving for applause.” More articles followed suit on other news websites and political blogs. Collating them all, a notable pattern emerges – armchair diagnoses of narcissism are an acutely liberal pastime.
Though it is easy to be cynical about the rhetorical habits of liberal pundits, this is not to deny the veracity of their observations – at least to an extent. Johnson certainly has a maladjusted and overinflated ego, but he is hardly the sole narcissist in government or even in the media. As the pandemic has entered its second year, more and more information regarding the government’s misconduct throughout the early stages of the pandemic has come to light, just as more and more journalists have been accused of a dangerous sycophancy in facilitating their political games. It is now for members of the political and media classes to be subject to accusations of “playing politics” – that is, not simply doing their jobs as politicians and journalists, serving the general public, but making political and/or journalistic decisions based on what best serves their own interests.
This self-interest has frequently made headlines, particularly recently, when Keir Starmer sought to question Tory MPs’ personal conduct and the motives behind certain governmental decisions, highlighting them as evidence of “the return of Tory sleaze” – a catchphrase that was popular for about a week but ultimately failed to “cut through” to the general public.
Starmer’s Labour Party made a great deal of fuss about messaging that could “cut through” the noise and stick in the minds of the public in this way, seemingly oblivious to the media’s overall bias in favour of establishment interests. In truth, contemporary liberals no doubt feel like they are caught between a rock and a hard place. They are reliant on the press whilst being aware that the press has no interest in their success. Rather than challenge this status quo, most politicians attempt to half-heartedly appease the media, mirroring its hostile lack of political imagination. But the Labour Party’s attempts to adapt to a hostile media have been blatant and have only affected ratings negatively. As a result, no matter how incompetent Johnson was made to look, Starmer slumped in the polls to levels worse than the supposedly unelectable Jeremy Corbyn. Those much further to the left argued that, yes, whilst Johnson bumbled through life making terribly poor decisions, at least decisions were made. Starmer avoided making any decisions whatsoever. As journalist Moya Lothian McLean argued, in a now-infamous article entitled “Keir Starmer is a Wet Wipe”, Starmer “does not lead proactively; he reacts, passively.”
Does this not make Starmer a “narcissist” too? Not a reckless and self-aggrandising narcissist like Boris, of course, but a narcissist who lurks at the more depressive end of the spectrum. So concerned is he for his own position and likeability, and especially concerned about how he is perceived, Starmer experiences a depleted ego as he walls himself “off against the unrealistic claims of an archaic grandiose self”, as Heinz Kohut writes in his classic text of narcissistic personality disorders, describing how a narcissist often responds to psychoanalysis. The “archaic grandiose self” nicely describes your typical Tory, but Starmer also walled himself off “against the intense hunger for a powerful external supplier of self-esteem”, which we might argue, in this instance, refers to pollsters and the wider electorate. But for columnists like Crace and Cohen, this makes Starmer’s lack of popularity a good thing, actually – at least for him personally. It means he is devoid of harmful narcissistic personality traits like a desire for success or any political ambition whatsoever.
Facetious jibes aside, we see once again how accusations of narcissism are seldom effective, becoming ever blunter the more frequently they are used. Particularly when thrown around by the media, such armchair diagnoses restrict our understanding of political leaders to their mediated personality traits, distancing us from an opportunity for material – rather than flawed psychological – analysis.
Consider how the American psychologist Mary J. Trump writes about the media’s understanding of her uncle in her best-selling exposé on the then-president and his upbringing. She explains how, throughout Trump’s presidency, she witnessed “countless pundits, armchair psychologists, and journalists [repeatedly] missing the mark, using phrases such as ‘malignant narcissism’ and ‘narcissistic personality disorder’ in an attempt to make sense of Donald’s often bizarre and self-defeating behavior”. The same can be said of the British media’s analyses of Boris Johnson. But the intention here is not to suggest that such labelling is inaccurate. “I have no problem calling Donald a narcissist”, she continues – “he meets all nine criteria as outlined in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5) – but the label gets us only so far.” This is not only because Trump’s observable pathologies are, in her opinion, “so complex and his behaviors so often inexplicable that coming up with an accurate and comprehensive diagnosis would require a full battery of psychological and neuropsychological tests that he’ll never sit for.” More to the point, it is precisely because he is a member of a social elite that such generic pathologizing is useless. It reduces Trump’s – and, by extension, Johnson’s – decision-making and egotism to circumstantial gossip, which utilises psychological nomenclature to sound intelligent but which is ultimately devoid of any actual substance. We need only consider how other psychologists hedge their bets when discussing the psychological make-up of world leaders.
In the Independent, Chantal Gautier writes that, “aS a PsYcHoLoGisT” — emphasis added — “I look at Boris Johnson and worry for Britain.” Gautier explains that she works in the field of “business psychology”, and introduces “trait theory” as a way that business psychologists understand what makes a good leader. It is a theory essentially concerned with subjective characteristics and perceptions of personality. Gautier argues, for instance, that “the key to successful leadership is grounded in integrity.” But what is “integrity” exactly? And how are we supposed to measure it clinically, outside the court of public opinion? It is not long before “trait theory” appears to be focus group fodder rather than a genuine diagnostic tool. In fact, it shares many issues with theories of personality in general. On the one hand, it seems like Gautier is steering away from making any wild claims but diagnosing public figures with psychological disorders in public newspapers — even if they are shit — doesn’t look good. On the other hand, I’m unconvinced this thin veil of professionalism is actually covering over any measure of actual substance.
It is worthy of note that many psychologists today are increasingly unlikely to diagnose patients with personality disorders – be they “narcissistic”, “paranoid”, “schizoid”, “borderline”, “obsessive compulsive”, etc. The mental health charity Mind explains on its website that such disorders are controversial because they are difficult to understand, often generate stigma and, most importantly of all, they don’t take social context into account. “People are complicated. There are many social factors that can affect our capacity to cope, to relate to others and to respond to stress”, the charity explains. These factors include childhood trauma, experiences of poverty and deprivation, as well as experiences of discrimination or abuse. But it is not only socially negative contexts that we need to take into account.
Mary Trump’s appraisal of her uncle explores Trump’s upbringing almost exclusively. Not only does she steer away from personality disorders as a result, she also suggests that Donald (and Boris) can’t really be considered using the diagnostic tools we use to understand other people within everyday society. Because Trump and Johnson have never lived in everyday society. Whilst he was still in office, Mary argued that “we can’t evaluate [Trump’s] day-to-day functioning because he is, in the West Wing, essentially institutionalized.” But this is nothing new. Just as the UK collectively suffers under “the curse of the public schoolboy” (as Douglas Murphy puts it in Nincompoopolis), with our leaders often raised in the privileged enclaves that are private boarding schools, so America suffers under the curse of the dynastic prodigal sons of business magnates. Shielded from real life by extreme wealth, “Donald has been institutionalized for most of his adult life”, Mary argues, and “so there is no way to know how he would thrive, or even survive, on his own in the real world.” A question re-emerges: is this kind of posh zoochosis we call “narcissism” just a way to pointlessly pathologize the otherwise familiar over-confidence of the ruling classes? And in attempting to understand the personality traits of our leaders psychologically, do we not deny ourselves the opportunity to see the personal – and, indeed, the psychological – as political?
When the personal and the political do come into contact in the mainstream media, it is often to highlight their disconnection. Returning to John Crace, for instance, in reference to Johnson’s often poor rhetorical performances in the House of Commons, he quips that, whilst “Boris can dump wives, mistresses, ministers and friends … he just can’t get rid of Keir Starmer.” Though his narcissism might get him what he wants at home, it isn’t necessary met without resistance in office. Crace argues that, for “the first time in his life, Johnson has come up against an immovable object.” His political life differs significantly from his personal life. But again, the analysis is meaningless, because Starmer hasn’t been able to dump Boris either. Their face-offs at weekly sessions of Prime Minister’s Questions (PMQs) are institutionally orchestrated. They’re not battles to the death where one side can oust the other from political life. Instead, the narcissist’s narcissist has spent the pandemic locked into a protracted stalemate with the liberal’s liberal, and it is telling that most commentators cannot see the reciprocity between the two. Indeed, just as Narcissus himself is captivated by his own image, these two leaders, jousting across the dispatch box in the House of Commons, constitute a narcissistic relation in themselves. They represent two parties tormented by the mirror image of themselves, but rather than transform they embrace their impotence in all its perfect, immovable harmony.
But there is plenty of friction here, as demonstrated by Matt Hancock’s mess of a personal and political life this past week, when it was revealed he was having an affair with a senior aide, Gina Colangelo. Hancock resigned as a result. Although texts from Boris Johnson to Dominic Cummings, calling Hancock “totally fucking useless” were leaked just a few weeks prior, Johnson feigned disappointment in Hancock’s decision, suggesting that his political conduct and his personal conduct are wholly unrelated and he should not feel the need to resign over gaffs related to the latter — never mind the thousands of death causes by “gaffs” related to the former. Whilst the rest of the country asks questions about corruption, whether Colangelo was given preferential treatment (professionally speaking…), and whether this was another example of government minister giving contracts to friends and booty calls (just as Johnson had done with Jennifer Arcuri).
If all of this seems like a confusing mess, with no-one entirely sure how to talk about it, perhaps it is because our attempts to connect or disconnect the personal and the political are wholly outdated. That once-ubiquitous phrase, “the personal is political”, started its life as an empowering mantra for raising feminist consciousness in the 1960s and 1970s, connecting personal experience to broader social structures. It allowed a generation of liberated women to drag the hidden politics of domesticity, for example, into the public arena of patriarchy. Since then, however, the phrase has become an albatross around the neck of modern subjectivity. We have realised that, if the personal is political, then the political is also personal. This may seem like an obvious tautology, but for all the attention we give to the impact of personal experience on contemporary politics, we often fail to appreciate how new forms of personal expression and influence often open up new strategies for electioneering to influence how we see our personal lives in turn. This is a dynamic felt increasingly by all, with social media acting as the kernel around which this personal-political feedback loop franticly revolves, but in the media it is typically made visible through the weathervane fortunes of our political class.
Johnson’s bizarre but nonetheless continuous success in our contemporary political landscape epitomises this. He is not an outlier, whose personal life intrudes upon politics, to be put in place by sensible liberals who are all politics without personality. The ugly truth is that Johnson’s broad appeal, which inexplicably emerges unscathed from his innumerable gaffes, defines our shift away from the dialectic of the personal-political, which has since been transformed into something altogether one-dimensional: the “social”.
This “social” understanding comes very easy to our political class, because whether feminists had to fight for their personal experiences to be taken seriously in the political sphere, the political class has never known any different. Your colleagues in government are likely to be part of a wider social circle you have known your entire life. And so, whilst “the personal is political” works as a way for normal people to understand the complex nature of your everyday experiences, it actually works to simplify and obscure the relationships that come naturally to the establishment. This is how Donald Trump, who was a part of establishment social circles for his entire life, could create a false barrier between himself and “career politicians”, by exacerbating an otherwise negligible gap between his personal life and his political life. What’s more, media and the entertainment industry have been prepping us to respond to this kind of dynamic for decades.
As Jodi Dean writes in his 2010 book Blog Theory:
Radio brought leaders’ voices directly into people’s homes, integrating leaders into their intimate spaces. Broadcast television likewise occupied a domestic space as it addressed its audience as personal members of a nation, perhaps imagined like a family (respected newscaster Walter Cronkite was affectionately referred to as “Uncle Walt”).
Despite the social nature of establishment relations, with any hard division between the personal-political being an illusion, some of our most beloved television shows have programmed us to see an entertaining gap between the two, embracing the awkward collision between the personal and the political as a loveable and humanising occupational hazard. To demonstrate this, we need only examine Johnson’s trademark “zaniness”, epitomised by his inability to adapt to whatever government role he finds himself in – be that mayor of London, foreign secretary, or prime minister. The purposes of this are not simply to better understand Boris Johnson, but a culture of narcissism that keeps electing him to high office.
Rather than prefiguring his inevitable demise, Johnson’s zany mannerisms are arguably his most aesthetically attractive (and quintessentially conservative) qualities. Writing in 2012, long before Trump and Johnson rose to such unfathomable prominence, cultural theorist Sianne Ngai argues that “zaniness” is one of the defining aesthetic categories of our postmodern age. She charts its emergence from the 1950s, following capitalism’s desire for its workers to not only possess certain demonstrable skills but certain demonstrable character traits as well. (Hi again, “trait theory”.) This requirement is intuitively understood today. Our success is not only dependent on how good we are at a job, but also how we present ourselves while doing that job. Beyond our generic constitution as shiny happy people, we should be infinitely adaptable, ready to seize every day and meet every challenge capitalism throws at us head-on. The emergence of this kind of post-war work ethic was perfectly suited to Great Britain’s repressive tendencies – the pop-cultural ubiquity of the Blitz mantra, “Keep calm and carry on”, printed on infinite mounds of tourist tat, reminds Londoners of this daily. However, Ngai notes that, as our cultural understanding of this new capitalist ideal emerged, we began to admire the fool more openly – that is, we began to admire those who, try as they might, cannot conform to this image of capitalism’s ideal subject. Instead, both on film and the emergent medium of television, the work ethic “encouraged by the postwar service economy [made] the very concept of ‘character’ seem comically rigid”, inviting people to laugh “at characters incapable of adjusting to new roles and social situations quickly”.
To demonstrate this, Ngai draws on Lucy Ricardo, Lucille Ball’s character in the classic American sitcom I Love Lucy, which pioneered the genre and dominated US living rooms throughout its original run in the 1950s. In the show, Lucy is a housewife to Ricky Ricardo, a singer and bandleader. Desperate to make it in showbiz like her husband, the show comically dramatizes the impossible demands placed on Lucy as a new woman in a new era. In her attempts to shake off the rigid performativity and expectations of a housewife, she bounces between various service jobs as she chases her dream, climbing to the top of the new working world now open to her, acquiring enough capital to comfortably take her shot at stardom. But as Lucy juggles various versions of herself, taking on various odd jobs, she finds the roles she is required to play are far more demanding and ridiculous than those she was previously used to. As Ngai notes, “each of Lucy’s temporary occupations requires her to put on a costume and act like someone else, as if to suggest a new instability in the postindustrial United States”. In losing the singular performative shackle of the “housewife”, she moves onto spinning various sociocultural and/or occupational plates. But these plates are essentially identical. The skills she needs to make it in showbiz are precisely those she needs to manage her domestic responsibilities, and so she cannot achieve one dream without improving in the role she wishes to leave behind. The result is a comic catch-22 that made I Love Lucy the televisual phenomenon of its generation.
Though seventy years have passed since it first aired, I Love Lucy remains relatable in this regard, and its enduring popularity with American audiences attests to this. But we might also consider how the sitcoms of our present era have further developed this zany archetype, with many examples revolving around the plate-spinning of our political class more specifically. Consider Parks & Recreation, or Armando Iannucci’s trans-Atlantic political sitcoms The Thick of It and Veep. Somewhat predictably, given their American context, both Veep and Parks & Rec follow the I Love Lucy model, revolving around women who are trying to have it all in a “new” world that is reluctant to relinquish all that it promises. But rather than playing with the tension between domesticity and showbiz, these shows more explicitly explore the relationship between the personal and the political.
Veep stars Julia Louis-Dreyfus as Selina Meyer, Vice President of the United States. Well-meaning and passionate, Meyer wants to have a positive impact on the nation more than anything, but her ambitions often come second to the daily bureaucracy of high-level government. Parks & Rec stars Amy Poehler as Leslie Knope, the Deputy Director of a Parks and Recreation Department based in the fictional city of Pawnee, Indiana. She, too, is well-meaning and passionate, and struggles to rise above the myopia of local government bureaucracy. She idolises – both sincerely and to comedic excess – pioneering liberal women like Hillary Clinton, Madeleine Albright, Condoleezza Rice and Nancy Pelosi. As she daydreams of writing nationally significant legislation, she is interrupted by zoning codes and the anti-social behaviour of local adolescents.
Despite these obstacles, both are successful and ambitious women (over)reaching for a dream – the same dream, funnily enough, of being President of the United States. One of them is certainly closer to that goal than the other, but both are quintessentially zany, according to Ngai’s definition, in that they flail their way through the conflicting responsibilities often associated with the personal and the political. Though they have risen high above the small-town diner or the factory line, these zany characters nonetheless remain trapped in this dichotomy’s affective paradox, often failing at one job as they daydream about another, just like Lucy Ricardo. They work tirelessly to maintain themselves as stable and reliable “characters” or “personalities”, as their public-facing or otherwise demeaning jobs demand, but both nonetheless reveal themselves, time and again, through their zaniness, to be all too human.
“Zaniness is the only aesthetic category in our contemporary repertoire explicitly about this politically ambiguous intersection of cultural and occupational performance, acting and service, playing and labouring”, Ngai writes. As Poehler and Louis-Dreyfus demonstrate with aplomb, zaniness also has a “stressed-out, even desperate quality that immediately sets it apart from its more lighthearted comedic cousins, the goofy or silly.” (It’s telling, too, that it remains feminine-coded in almost all instances.) As such, it is an aesthetic category that is perfectly at home in twenty-first century political spaces, as “an aesthetic of action pushed to strenuous and even precarious extremes.” With the stakes of contemporary politics being so high – or, as in Parks & Rec’s local government setting, often hilariously low – the political sitcom is a pressure cooker for the zany archetype. There is surely no job more stressful, strenuous or precarious, and we love to watch as those who “selflessly” answer an apparent call of duty, choosing to serve in public office for the betterment of all, have their unavoidable selves revealed to them as constant companions and trip-hazards. This makes the characters that Louis-Dreyfus and Poehler play both relatable and loveable. They embody the ideal work ethic of late capitalism whilst revealing, with both relief and schadenfreude, that maintaining such a work ethic is humanly impossible. It is precisely their wrestling with the familiar impossibilities of neoliberal expectation that humanises them.
However, in the UK, a very different approach to the zany takes precedence. Contrary to the loveable nature of their American cousins, the cast of The Thick of It are notably denied any humanising dimension. Whereas as Knope weathers all manner of public humiliations with a strained smile as she strives to live up to her political ideals, The Thick of It reveals that the personal and the political are much harder to keep apart in contemporary Britain. Indeed, our attempts to do so are partly why our political class appears so grey and dull. But this is not to say that politicians should do more to humanise themselves, revealing more about their personal lives. The pantomime of political discourse in the UK revolves around the fact politicians are damned if they do and damned if they don’t.
The Thick of It embraces this political theatre of cruelty. With a quintessentially dark British humour, there is no relatable respite in Iannucci’s Westminster sitcom. It is, instead, pure schadenfreude. Perhaps this is because Britain is more rigidly divided along class lines. The aspirational trajectory that defines the “American Dream”, which drives the I Love Lucy model of zaniness, is not part of our British sensibility — although so much of our media and social expectations are becoming increasingly Americanised. (When did Love Island become a 90-minute advertisement for cosmetic dentistry and American gob-ceramics?) On the contrary, British citizens seldom rise above their station, or experience class mobility as an alienating trauma if they do. Nevertheless, The Thick of It’s cast are no less zany because of their establishment credentials. As Ngai notes, they still give form to what Herbert Marcuse calls the “euphoria of unhappiness”, even if it is only the viewer who experiences the euphoric part of the equation.
In his highly influential 1964 book One-Dimensional Man, Marcuse argues that a “comfortable, smooth, reasonable, democratic unfreedom prevails in advanced industrial civilization”. This unfreedom represents capitalism’s inability (or, more accurately, reluctance) to provide us with “freedom from want” – what Marcuse calls “the concrete substance of all freedom”. But why is capitalism reluctant to make us truly free from desire? Capitalist society and its globalised trade networks would surely be capable of providing everyone with everything they might possibly need by now. Doesn’t that sound positively utopian? Ours is a world of almost unfathomable abundance. But without want, without lack, we are freed from desire as capitalism’s driving force. As Karl Marx first argued, in allowing us to grasp the dangling carrot of desire, capitalism begins to generate the conditions its own demise. The carrot must be graspable, therefore, but it must always be immediately replaced with something shinier and more attractive. Caught on this treadmill, our economic system nonetheless faces a productive conundrum of its own making.
For Marcuse, the potentials of grasping the carrot once and for all are hard to ignore. “If the individual were no longer compelled to prove himself on the market, as a free economic subject”, he argues, then freedom of enterprise – the freedom of private businesses to operate for profit – would surely disappear. This is an unambiguously positive turn of events. It would be “one of the greatest achievements of civilisation”, he argues – nothing less than the dawning of a post-work society. The potentials of such a transformation are enormous, releasing “individual energy into a yet uncharted realm of freedom beyond necessity.” What’s more, the “very structure of human existence would be altered; the individual would be liberated from the work world’s imposing upon him alien needs and alien possibilities.” But it is precisely through the imposition of these alien needs and possibilities that capitalism, in advanced industrial societies, retains overall control of its subjects. In generating artificial wants, and at the same time sating those wants itself, the system feigns generosity, all the while implementing an artificial scarcity of choice. It is in this way, Marcuse argues, that capitalism is “totalitarian”. The system may not have a single all-powerful ruler, but it is nonetheless ruled by “a specific system of production and distribution”; a false plurality of newspapers and political parties all parroting the same line: there is no alternative. As a result, a central political figurehead is replaced by an ideological apparatus that “precludes the emergence of an effective opposition against the whole.”
Still, these desires for other worlds and alternatives make themselves known to us, Marcuse argues, through our pervasive discontent. No matter how much we buy or consume, we are never truly satisfied. There is always something more to acquire and achieve. This is not a product of humanity’s innate industriousness. It is instead a sign that we are simply deferring the real problems in the world. We satisfy our individual desires as the social world around us does not change. Nevertheless, we take pleasure in our stagnant ability to strive.
As Marcuse puts it, the satisfaction of certain alien needs – “to relax, to have fun, to behave and consume in accordance with the advertisements, to love and hate what others love and hate” – only constitutes relief from the capitalist drudgery that we are otherwise required to undertake in order to acquire those means in the first place. This is not to say that relaxation and fun are unworthy goals but false ones, because the means of relaxation and having fun are sold to us by the very system that undermines them in the first place. Capitalism, then, is a socioeconomic feedback loop – a system that promises to provide relief from the pain and suffering it causes. Still, there is no denying that capitalist relief is relief nonetheless. But the result, Marcuse writes, “is euphoria in unhappiness.” The satisfaction we experience is not our satisfaction but the satisfaction of the system itself. The freedom we experience is not ours but the guiding hand of a controlling society.
This situation has morphed and twisted itself over the decades, but the overall social structure remains in tact. After all, this euphoria is often shared. To “love and hate what other love and hate” is to affirm our social connection to others and our similarities. “The personal is political” turned this sense of comradery on its head, as loves and hates were not defined by the system but by the people themselves, raising consciousness around their material conditions, contra ideological projections of the system at large. As a result, the guiding hand was revealed and slapped away, even if only momentarily. But today, our politicians still follow this model and embrace it. They make themselves relatable through their incompetence. As we watch zany characters like Johnson and Trump, we see figures who are struggling through the mire of contemporary society just as they are. This is why Conservatives love a culture war. “Woke” politics is defanged and painted as yet more liberal bureaucracy, yet more pitfalls for the average person to struggle to navigate. Social justice movements call for more freedom — freedom from “toil and fear”, as Marcuse puts it — but neoliberal governments decry the expansion of freedom as the expansion of rules and regulations.
This is the paradox lurking in our understanding of what constitutes “free choice”. Marcuse was already aware of it, of course. He writes:
The criterion for free choice can never be an absolute one, but neither is it entirely relative. Free election of masters does not abolish the masters or the slaves. Free choice among a wide variety of goods and services does not signify freedom if these goods and services sustain social controls over a life of toil and fear — that is, if they sustain alienation. And the spontaneous reproduction of superimposed needs by the individual does not establish autonomy; it only testifies to the efficacy of the controls.
The Conservatives are aware of this too. What is produced is a double-edged sword that works constantly in their favour, precisely because liberals cannot oppose it at its core. On the contrary, they buy into it. Their “biting” satire and criticism only helps to normalise it. Shows like The Thick of It help with this too, further normalising the idea that our politicians are just like us. They get their kicks where they can and eek pleasure out of an unjust world. Their world — their bubble — is obviously shit. Who’d be a politicians these days? All the more reason why we shouldn’t slut-shame Matt Hancock for any personal dalliances. (The argument that we shouldn’t project our sexual prudishness onto public figures is a very Twitter-level take, it must be said.) Because who hasn’t had an office romance? Who hasn’t done something they shouldn’t at the Christmas party? Who hasn’t had a bit of a mental breakdown under the weight of a piece-of-shit day job? We’re all navigating this stupid world, and so being a bit more forgiving when our politicians cock up allows us to be more forgiving of ourselves. Better that, of course, than actually change it.
That is what is required. But Starmer’s Labour doesn’t get it. They fail to appreciate the extent to which our present understanding of the personal and the political is not inconvenient for Conservative politicians, despite them feigning ignorance and acting all embarrassment when the two things touch. This state of affairs suits them, precisely because they know, at a societal level, it also suits the electorate.
If I might end on one more example of a lib commentator missing this point completely, consider this essay from Paul Mason, published on the New Statesman website at the start of the 2019 general election. He begins:
The French novelist Édouard Louis once wrote that “for the ruling class, in general, politics is a question of aesthetics: a way of seeing themselves, of seeing the world, of constructing a personality. For us it was life or death.” Nothing better illustrates this than the chaos and self-obsession that has characterised the opening days of the Conservative election campaign.
He’s not wrong, of course. But he fails to consider just how much of a stranglehold aesthetics has on society at large. As a result, all his essay boils down to is yet another commentator impotently decrying the Conservative government as a tribe of narcissists. It obfuscates the fact that, yes, whilst government incompetence does have a very real and horrific impact on our lives — the personal is political — it ignores how the entertainment factor of these fuck-ups only helps keep us in line.
Mason goes on to argue that politics, “for Johnson and the entire clan surrounding him, has become a form of showing off. And like all narcissists, they cannot abide an accurate reflection.” In fact, the strange truth is that they can. Not only do they abide it, they curate it — Boris Johnson especially. His zany incompetence is his primary selling point, against an opposition that is all politics without personality. Though we might despise it in principle, commentators like Mason rarely address the fact that even these damningly accurate reflections are also aesthetically instantiated. Their zany exploits help us feel better about ourselves. Their failures serve a purpose — keeping us drunk on the euphoria of unhappiness, the one thing the working class and the political class apparently share.
In physical theories of dynamical systems there is the notion of “attractors” in the space of possible configurations of the system (the system’s ‘phase space’), where these attractors aren’t due to some external teleological force but just due to mathematical consequences of the system’s own internal dynamics. These sorts of attractors could exist in far more complex systems than the ones analyzed in physics; for example, in biology there are lots of examples of convergent evolution, where species living in similar ecological niches evolve similar forms or behaviors independently. So to me it seems premature to make any strong judgments about the degree of contingency vs. necessity in social formations, or to rule out hypotheses like Marx’s that assume a fair amount of determinism when one looks at sufficiently broad types of historical changes. Steven Jay Gould mused about “replaying life’s tape” with some small alterations starting from the evolutionary distant past, and wondering how different such a replay would turn out — we could ask similar questions about human history, and since we can’t actually do such an experiment, we can’t be justified in putting any great confidence in whether such replays would be broadly similar as Marx and Engels assumed, or would show more contingency as implied by Althusser’s ideas.
Even if the ultimate truth is that there is a large amount of necessity in certain historical changes, including possible future ones that take us beyond capitalism, we can’t know in advance what trends and potentialities in the present will be most important in bringing about such changes, so we can’t rely on any pre-given formulas for how best to accelerate them. Something similar would be true for any creative intelligence trying to solve a problem whose solution it doesn’t yet know, even an AI whose internal workings are ultimately completely deterministic. I haven’t read Intelligence & Spirit yet but I think this lack of relying on fixed formulas of understanding, the need for intuitive groping at potentials that are sensed but not yet fully named or understood, could be one way of reading the Negarestani quotes in the post — someone correct me if this reading is incompatible with other things he says in the book.
I’d like to drag this out from the comment section and leave it open to discussion if anyone has anything they’d like to add. I fear much of this may go beyond my areas of expertise, but I am curious to hear others’ thoughts — particularly Reza’s, if you read this, my dude!
It is well known that the total book is as much Leibniz’s dream as it is Mallarmé‘s, even though they never stop working in fragments. Our error is in believing that they did not succeed in their wishes: they made this unique Book perfectly, the book of monads, in letters and little circumstantial pieces that could sustain as many dispersions as combinations. The monad is the book or the reading room.
— Gilles Deleuze, The Fold
When we consider the Repeater Books’ k-punk collection, it is surely as an impossible project. I do not envy Darren Ambrose the task of putting it together. What texts to choose? What to leave out? Though it is a shelf-buckling book of considerable proportion, it does not (and could not) include everything. A different editor would no doubt produce a different book every time. But that’s not reason enough to say a project should not have been undertaken. It is a valuable document of disagreeably alive and precarious thought, which poetically reflects the present in being so.
But the vast amount of work Mark produced still presents us with a problem — one that is no less impossible to manage, even after the anthology’s successful publication. In fact, surely Darren had to embrace the project’s impossibility in the editorial process? Could we not argue that, in quite literally “book-ending” Mark’s life, with its tombstone-like appearance, it creates a capstone on which others might build? That is partly why people dislike it — a capstone is not a continuation but an end. But given the fact it ends with an unpublished draft, it is, paradoxically, an elliptical capstone. And better that than some formally completist project.
Like the rest of Fisher’s work, the k-punk anthology wavers uncomfortably between forms and contexts. Gathering everything together would not solve this. It would make up thousands upon thousands of pages, volumes upon volumes of books. But maybe that would be an admirable testament to Fisher’s productivity? To see it all printed out would give us a visceral sense of the work of a life, and illustrate bittersweetly how much more he could have said had he continued to live for a “full” lifetime. But isn’t that also a strange and somewhat morbid way of thinking about it? And aren’t we ignoring the biases Fisher otherwise set about challenging when we measure his work by the width of a spine? The internet wasn’t made for printing off, after all. It was a new way of doing things and entombing that new way in an old format breaks something. It betrays the original medium and stops us from appreciating blogged texts in their proper context, which are so often more ephemeral and fleeting, and more reflective of our present for being so.
Urbanomic recently published an English translation of an excellent essay by Enrico Monacelli and Massimo Filippi that precisely argues this point, whilst at the time entangling itself in the complexities of feeling the collection elicits. It is a critical text that, as Enrico put it originally on Twitter, provocatively argues the k-punk volume should not exist. But it is not a critique made lightly. It is a critique that respects the work, whilst at the same time carving out a space for vital if uncomfortable questions relevant to the entirety of Fisher’s corpus. A paradox emerges as a result, which the essay navigates deftly, asking questions that too many denounce thoughtlessly, barely unfolding the true content of Fisher’s body of work.
(As Deleuze might put it: “We do not even know what a body [of work] is capable of… We do not even know of what affections [it is] capable, nor the extent of [its] power.”)
Consider Fisher’s (or, more recently, Repeater’s) less reasonable critics. They do not just denounce the k-punk anthology but all archival work that hopes to develop and prolong Fisher’s legacy — my own work included. The general critique argues something along the lines of, “Can we wait for him to be in the ground a bit longer before dredging up and profiting off the ephemera?” (The assumption that profits are made for those who do the work never ceases to entertain.) But I am left wondering, is there any part of Fisher’s work that isn’t ephemeral? Capitalist Realism could not be shorter if it tried; The Weird and the Eerie feels like it is over in an instant. Ephemerality is not a simple case of length, of course, but Capitalist Realism, in particular, is only a few millimeters off being a pamphlet — and intentionally so. Ghosts of My Life is more substantial but also more openly addresses its status as a collection of polished blogposts and articles, acting as a capstone Fisher put together himself, underwriting a period of “hauntological” blogging he would move on from whilst, at the same time, becoming best known for it. (If I might offer up a confession, it is the book of Fisher’s that I’ve spent the least amount of time with, because I was a k-punk reader before its release and so always saw it as a compilation.) Still, we forget, deferring to this collection’s relative transparency, that drafts from Capitalist Realism and The Weird and the Eerie are still available for us to read on k-punk.org. Each book, then, in turn, functions as a more digestible summary of an already public thinking.
In that sense, how different is k-punk from what came before it? From what Mark curated for himself? But I still think Enrico and Massimo are right. The context lost when Mark’s work is gathered and shaped into a book is peculiar and awkward, but something else is lost more broadly as well when philosophers and other writers “graduate” from online media or independent spaces only to take up columns or book deals in more traditional publishing zones. This is not to say that successful writers should not have nice things — and I think the role of Repeater Books, in particular, as a space to celebrate new and often online voices, is valuable and always aware of the changing critical landscape — but we do lose something as a result of this kind of transition. But what exactly? A certain philosophical spirit, maybe, that is gestured towards with this post’s opening quotation. We lose the monadic (and nomadic) relations writing is otherwise entangled in. We may gain a book but we lose the reading room.
This is not to suggest that blogs and books can’t work in harmony, of course. What is a “reading room” if not precisely a space for books and the transitions between them? I have no problem with Fisher putting out more polished arguments in physical form, even if I’ve read them before in another context. I can also appreciate, simply on a practical level, how, when time is precious, firing off a quick blogpost is a useful way to generate drafts you can come back to later, eventually stitching together a patchwork for further refinement. (Although this process of refinement is looked down upon by a surprising number of readers, in my experience at least, who want books to be made up of material not thought about publicly — as if bloggers aren’t time-poor enough already that they have to maintain two places to think simultaneously.)
That being said, as I’m working on numerous projects right now, I’m actually keeping most of them to myself, but it is a harder task because of this. I find holding a full manuscript more or less in your head, carrying it around all day as you spend too much time daydreaming and falling into habits of mental editing and resequencing, starts to feel like a full-time job. (And I already have one of those.) Tragically, at least for me, plenty of ideas and thoughts fall out, eventually lost forever. A blog is not just a pin board though, but a proving ground. To blog something makes it easier to remain in touch with that element otherwise too easily lost when you disappear up inside your own over-ambitious book plans — that is, the poetry of the social.
I am continuing to think about Ben Lerner’s recently discussed book The Hatred of Poetry at the moment, in which he writes that the gesture at the heart of all poetry is “the impulse to launch the experience of an individual into a timeless communal existence”. (Again, a prime concern of Egress and, I imagine, everything I do going forwards.) I am interested in it because I think you could go through Lerner’s book and replace every instance of the word “poetry” with the word “photography” and you’d have the book I wish I’d gotten round to writing about the latter medium. But I also think the same is true of blogging as well. This certainly explains the particular tone of Fisher’s work. It is not “poetic” in a stylistic sense — his post-Ccru work generally stirs clear of abstractions and instead works to clarify and demystify ideological apparatuses. But I find the k-punk sentiment reflects Lerner’s poetic impulse regardless (“making the personal impersonal”, etc.) — indeed, it is a central strand of any popular modernism.
I think this poeticism is precisely what gets lost when Fisher’s work is taken off his blog, whether by Fisher himself or others. A process of transfiguration takes place when blog becomes book. This might just be practical for many — a kind of formalization takes place — but for Fisher some of the lifeblood is drained also. This is what Enrico and Massimo point to when they write how the anthology creates “a certain discomfort” as we “re-read these ‘live’ interventions within the bounds of a book that, volens nolens, reterritorializes the deterritorializing flows of Fisher’s diffractions.” (Again, for the sake of argument, this was my experience of reading Ghosts of My Life also.)
Speaking of the second volume of the Italian translation of k-punk, which is titled Screens, Dreams and Spectres, they write:
All the pieces that make up Screens, Dreams and Spectres and, more generally, the entirety of K-Punk, were conceived of as interventions on a blog, interventions loosed without precautions — like screenless dreams — into the magmatic flow of the web. They were bullets aimed at the present in fieri, moved by the desire to be quick and compact, to hit the flesh of the collective imagination right where it hurts most. In short, they were interventions designed to be fragile, contingent, and lethal creatures.
They were, in their own way, poems.
(I often think this is what is meant be the phrase “literary criticism” as well, which is hardly restricted to critiques of literature. It also means critique that has “literary merit” or, preferably, critique that struggles with the existential questions of culture just as much as the culture under consideration does. I think the latter certainly describes Fisher’s MO — cultural critique as cultural production.)
Enrico and Massimo continue:
We cannot, therefore, fail to notice the pungent smell of incense that spread from this premature embalming. Perhaps this anthology is the expression of an excess of zealous tact toward writings that continue to claim their right to die together with what they criticised or celebrated.
We are aware, however, that the extraction of these writings from a blog that could disappear at any moment is an operation not without merit. In other words, we would not want to lose forever the chance to read, for example, Fisher’s lightning-fast and illuminating diagnostic reports…
It is particularly telling, I think, that this torn critique — infrequently verbalised in hushed tones by British readers — has emerged loudly and proudly from outside of the Anglosphere. How are non-English(-speaking) readers (or, more accurately, non-domiciles of this tiny fascist island) expected to understand the context of these blogposts? For those reading them in their own tongue, perhaps for the first time, out of their blogospheric context, the distance between blog and (translated) book must be all the more pronounced. But this, again, was always already true. We might consider that, even whilst Fisher was alive, Americans often seemed to be the worst readers of his work, if only because they often didn’t grasp its very British idiosyncrasies and class concerns. This is true on the most banal level. So many k-punk posts come to mind that are, in essence, running commentaries on late-night screenings of obscure movies or shows on under-watched British TV channels.
His essays were undeniably parochial, for better or worse. They were grounded in his cultural experiences. Though he speaks to global(ised) issues and problems, his reference points are nonetheless often restricted to those things that he most enjoyed or at least understood intimately — a point as applicable to 1970s British TV as it is to the lived experience of depression. It is part of his charm for some, his uselessness for others. Personally, I think it is what was so compelling about his work. It so often highlighted, in its very bones, the tensions of postmodern subjectivity, torn between the local and the global, the personal and the political, whilst at the same time articulating how our burgeoning sense of “the social” conflates all of these things together. The travesty, as described by Herbert Marcuse, is that our understanding of the social is, instead, so utterly one-dimensional. “Social media” is a sort of flat signifier for our contemporary hellscape, for instance, but the social we should be striving for is a kind of consciously complex local-global-personal-political framework that embraces its own four-dimensional character.
The weird thing that has happened to Fisher himself is that many English readers have tried to subsume him into their one-dimensional world. But as his work enters translation, we begin to see the negative work of dumb Anglos undone. Because, as is the pop-mod sentiment, they have to put a bit more work in. They do not take for granted the mundane backdrop of British life.
Consider, for instance, how Fisher is currently finding a brand new audience in the Spanish-speaking world. (Something I thought about quite a lot earlier this year when writing this previously shared essay.) How many Fisher fans in Buenos Aires will have seen (or will be able to see) Channel 4’s Benefits Street and understand the particular context of that show beyond Fisher’s descriptions of it? I’d wager very few. It doesn’t really matter, of course, because the argument works without it, and the problems documented are hardly exclusively “British”, but something is lost nonetheless. There is something broader and more ephemeral that cannot be translated — that sense of immediacy, of a conversation around the coffee machine or in the pub the day after. But it is from the friction this distance creates that creative thinking emerges, and it is in this way that Fisher’s otherwise parochial concerns contribute to the real movement.
I hope this doesn’t sound patronizing. I think this is the real work to be done. Fisher may not have made it easy, restricting his talking points to those things that were within his own experience, but finding the connections and strands outwards is part of the task left to those who find his work engaging and resonant, even if the experiences or cultural examples are relatively obscure and foreign. It demands that the social aspects of his work be upheld, and I think that Enrico and Massimo’s essay is a perfect example of that kind of gesture. It is a gesture of grief also. What separates the k-punk anthology from Ghosts of My Life is Fisher was still around after its compilation to continue the conversation. There is a sense now that the books are all we have. No blog, no social.
My own interest in that kind of work is rooted in the thinking of Maurice Blanchot. My book Egress dealt with this explicitly (and even “perversely”, according to one reviewer), but I think Enrico and Massimo have articulated something and unlocked a further layer to this conversation. After reading this essay, I immediately revisited Blanchot’s book The Infinite Conversation and what I found inside, bursting forth with new clarity, was a sort of theorising of fragmentary writing that spoke to blogging and the blogosphere in a way I had never previously appreciated.
It left me wanting to do a close reading of The Infinite Conversation, or at least the book’s final section, with all of this in mind, interpreting its arguments through a blogospheric lens. I’d hoped to do this in a single post, but already this preamble is long enough. I’d also quite like to take my time with it and unfold it over the coming weeks. I don’t have a lot of time at the moment and I haven’t done a “series” of posts in over a year, so it feels like a nice exercise. As I continue to work on other things, this will be a series on blogging as a way of resisting the one-dimensionality of social media. Placing that forthcoming gesture in its proper context, before leaping into it, feels like a worthwhile endeavor.
A few weeks ago, Sean, Lucy and I were invited by Tom K. Kemp to play After the Maestro, a prototype TTRPG he has been developing “set within an ‘anthropomorphised anatomy’.”
Players adopt the roles of groups of microbial and cellular workers during the aftermath of a successful labour emancipation within the inner body, where the ‘Maestro’, or centralised vital force of the body, has been removed. Each session of the game generates a new narrative of anatomical and social re-organisation, complicating and estranging common body-politic metaphors into a tale of emancipatory body-horror.
We each chose a different organ or organism to role-play and navigate through a body in crisis. Sean, in true Bataillean fashion, plays the Pineal Gland; Lucy plays Toxiplasma-gondii; Tom plays the heart; and I bring the tone down by playing as Spermatazoa. But in each instance we learned a great deal about what these particular parts of the body do, and what they could do if emancipated from predetermined roles.
You can listen to episode one above, and episode two below.
Recorded at Rupert Residency, LT, I was joined by Matt Colquhoun aka Xenogothic, and Lucy and Sean of the horror philosophy podcast Wyrd Signal and Deleuze and Guattari podcast Buddies Without Organs. Over these 2 episodes, Matt, Lucy and Sean and myself use the game to tell a semi-improvised story incorporating biological fact, phenomenology, political analogy and ‘the body without organs’. How might toxiplasmosis parasites articulate their desires? What responsibility does spermatazoa have to its origin body? What lies beneath the ruins of a stopped heart?
Many thanks to Bec for having in the Liminal Lounge. We talked about photography and theory-fiction, and later got embroiled in one of my favourite topics, literary ley lines.
Thoroughly enjoyed chatting to Bec, as always, and do go check out her new website, Liminal Worlds, which is already a treasure trove of research and projects. It’s going to become a go-to rabbit hole in no time at all.
Join me, Lady Liminal, and the mighty, Matt Colquhoun AKA Xenogothic, as we wander and ponder the Liminal Worlds…
In this episode Matt and I discuss landscape, literature and the ley, amongst many other things.
So make yourselves comfortable, and prepare to lose yourselves within the Liminal Worlds.
I am transitioning from an Emily Brontë obsession into a Ted Hughes / Sylvia Plath research hole. (I have a tendency to become obsessed with the literary history of wherever it is I am living.) This has been triggered by a recent re-reading of Deleuze’s essay, “Bartleby, or, the Formula”, in which he draws on that zone of indiscernibility that revolves around Catherine and Heathcliff in Wuthering Heights.
“Whatever our souls are made of, his and mine are the same”, Catherine declares.
My love for Heathcliff resembles the eternal rocks beneath — a source of little visible delight, but necessary … I am Heathcliff — he’s always always in my mind — not as a pleasure, any more than I am always a pleasure to myself — but as my own being…
For Deleuze, this is reminiscent of various relationships from the novels of Herman Melville. The romantic and/or sexual unions found there are more than just the coming together of two individuals, he suggests. Like the wasp and the orchid, they represent something altogether more immanent that your average patriarchal union. In the case of the characters in Melville and Wuthering Heights, what haunts them is the reconciliation of two “originals”, two singular entities, that are nonetheless symbiotic. What troubles them and us is the reconciliation of a singular originality “with secondary humanity, the inhuman with the human.”
What Catherine declares, then, when she says “I am Heathcliff” is not a reciprocal ownership but a tandem and impersonal being. Not “my” Heathcliff or “my” Catherine, not “our” relationship, but a tandem becoming that cannot, by its very nature, be possessive. It is, as Deleuze would write in his final essay, a kind of pure immanence. Not “his” life or “my” life but a life. This, too, is how we should constitute our communities, Deleuze writes in his essay on Melville:
A brother, a sister, all the more true for no longer being “his” or “hers”, since all “property”, all “proprietorship”, has disappeared. A burning passion deeper than love, since it no longer has either substance or qualities, but traces a zone of indiscernibility in which it passes through all intensities in every direction…
How is this community realized? How can the biggest problem be resolved? But is it not already resolved, by itself, precisely because it is not a personal problem, but a historical, geographical, or political one? It is not an individual or particular affair, but a collective one, the affair of a people, or rather, of all people.
Deleuze makes a compelling argument in favour of this becoming-community in the context of a young America, not yet reterritorialised by European flows. But there is a tension that lingers in his mention of Emily Brontë…
Over the weekend I read Anne Carson for the first time. Glass and God. I was struck by her narration of a trip to see her mother at home on the Yorkshire moors.
She lives on a moor in the north. She lives alone. Spring opens like a blade there. I travel all day on trains and bring a lot of books —
some for my mother, some for me including The Collected Works Of Emily Brontë. This is my favourite author.
Also my main fear, which I mean to confront. Whenever I visit my mother I feel I am turning into Emily Brontë,
my lonely life around me like a moor, my ungainly body stumping over the mud flats with a look of transformation that dies when I come in the kitchen door. What meat is it, Emily, we need?
The great Gothic gestures made within Brontë’s writings, her poems especially, come from this isolated existence. Spring opens [her] like a blade there. Spring, the collective transformation of a world in harmony, only exacerbates one’s alienation from humanity at large. Ben Lerner, in his magnificent essay The Hatred of Poetry, excavates this gesture from the very heart of all poetry, which is nothing less than “the impulse to launch the experience of an individual into a timeless communal existence” — or perhaps to launch our humanity into the inhumanity of nature at large. Of course, the poem is, in this regard, unfit for purpose. Still, it constitutes a “noble failure”.
In this light, Carson’s fear of becoming Emily Brontë is translated into a more general fear of becoming a poet — a fear Lerner articulates well (and which I found resonated a little too closely with my own feelings about becoming a “photographer”) when he talks about the strange dance that occurs when poets and non-poets meet:
If you are an adult foolish enough to tell another adult that you are (still!) a poet, they will often describe for you their calling away from poetry: I wrote it in high school; I dabbled in college. Almost never do they write it now. They will tell you they have a niece or nephew who writes poetry. These familiar encounters … have a tone that is difficult to describe. There is embarrassment for the poet — couldn’t you get a real job and put your childish ways behind you? — but there is also embarrassment on the part of the non-poet, because having to acknowledge one’s total alienation from poetry chafes against the early association of poem and self…
For Lerner, the ubiquitous adage “You’re a poet and you didn’t even know it”, which we might association with children, demonstrates how fundamental poetry is to us. Though we commonly denounce and despise it, we talk about poetry as a kind of universal potential in us all, which makes poetry simultaneously attractive and pretentious. This is laid bear when a “professional” poet comes into contact with the amateur or non-poet:
The awkward and even tense exchange between a poet and non-poet … is a little interpersonal breach that reveals how inextricable ‘poetry’ is from our imagination of social life. Whatever we think of particular poems, ‘poetry’ is a word for the meeting place of the private and the public, the internal and the external: My capacity to express myself poetically and to comprehend such expressions is a fundamental qualification for social recognition. If I have no interest in poetry, or if I feel repelled by actual poems, either I am failing the social or the social is failing me.
In the BBC documentary about poet Ted Hughes, Stronger Than Death, there is a constant wrestling of private lives with public reputations.
I watched the documentary somewhat astounded. Though most of its details are hotly contested, I was embarrassed to admit to myself that, in a recent conversation with a friend, I had noted that all I knew about Hughes was that he was horrible to his wife, Sylvia Plath. They had mentioned him with some enthusiasm, which I inadvertently pissed on. (I meant my lack of any positive knowledge to be an admission of ignorance rather than a dismissal; I fear it came off as both.)
But the documentary revealed just how wrong I was. Whilst Hughes may have had a cruel streak, the message from family and friends presented by the documentary is that, no, Hughes did not kill Plath, her depression did. Though he was flawed, perhaps even deeply so — he was a serial adulterer — he loved her and respected her far more than those who have come to her defence over the decades since.
This is not to suggest that the couples’ personal life was not complex and dark, but their entwined lives and legacies seem to function like poems in themselves. In particular, Hughes’ relationship with his wife — that many have described as being like Heathcliff and Catherine’s in its ferocity and their tandem flirtations with the non- and inhuman — is surely unfathomable to anyone outside of it. But that has not stopped a damaging spiral of gossip based on half-truths and assumptions. Though hardly a model relationship for anyone to implement, there are nonetheless interesting social questions to be asked of their coming-together.
Chief among these are questions of ownership. Some accuse Hughes of having an inappropriate amount of control over his dead wife’s estates; others argue he simply wanted her to receive the recognition she did not have in life, precisely because she had lived under his shadow. Some suggested he did this only to rake in the royalties, but her children report that the money went entirely to them and he saw none of it. His relationship to his wife seems to become most problematic after her death, as if, just like with Heathcliff and Catherine, it was the moment that their collective becoming was arrested that questions of ownership forced their way back into view. Who “owns” the life of Sylvia Plath in death? Nobody owned it when she was alive, least of all Hughes and Plath themselves. In life, a life is revolutionary; in death, a life does not rot but is reified. (Quite the opposite of what Deleuze advocated, it must be said.)
The Hughes documentary goes on to explore how, for the American feminists of the late 60s and 70s, Plath became a martyr. Her feminist poems against the fascism of marriage are interpreted as a subtextual confession that Hughes was to blame for her demise. (Should we read into the fact that Hughes himself assembled the poems for publication?) But there is a further interpretation that she saw the social institution of marriage as unfit for purpose. It boxes up becoming, cages the animal, and gives it something to kick against — or else married couples kick against each other.
Hughes was far from a model husband, but then society failed for decades in its appraisal of husband and wife. Again, their lives becomes poems in themselves — noble failures. Together, they may have failed the social, but the social failed them in turn.
The testimony of Hughes and Plath’s daughter Frieda is most damning in this regard. Discussing the way that her parents’ relationship was seized upon by well-meaning feminists in the USA, Frieda Hughes explains:
I was appauled that something that happened in 1963 could be carried forward and… what an easy way out for somebody to think, yes, we’re right, we’ve got the real story, we know what really happened, and we are going to punish this complete stranger for something we weren’t around to witness, we know nothing about, but we’re the ones with the answers.
For outsiders — because that’s what they are: outsiders — to make judgements that affect somebody in their life, for all of their life, is a sort of horrible form of theft. It’s an abuse.
But the tension of ownership re-emerges here again, of course. To hear the testimonies of family and friends, who explain that everything that happened was a tragedy, but their tragedy, and one abused by outside parties for other ends, is stark. Though Hughes may remain unlikeable in many respects, his relationship to his wife, both in life and in death, seems quintessentially Brontean. But such is the paradox of the social. This is not the personal colliding with the political, in a dialectic that produces the new, but everything, in all of its complexity, being melted down onto the one-dimensional plane of the social — the schizophrenia of capitalism cast in negative, where everything is connected and simplified in its relations.
It is a telling tale in our present era of social media. Hughes did not comment on the accusations against him, or attempt to refute them, although he later published the collection Birthday Letters, which explored in harrowing detail the extent to which his wife’s love and death so profoundly haunted him. In a world currently obsessed by the causes and affects of so-called “cancel culture”, his private responses are both fascinating and heart-breaking.
The documentary presents a reading of a private letter by Hughes, in which he writes:
Having to suffer watching that freestyle street theatre, presented and accepted and discussed as the final truth about our lives, and having to realize over the years that no mistake can be corrected, no fantasy or lie can be extinguished, and that any attempt to correct the record only gives a weirder energy to the lies. Having the monkey world of all this play upon one’s nerves for twenty-five years induces a stupor of horror. It finely affects your judgement of mankind.
I imagine his fatigue may resonate with anyone who has experienced the oppressive gaze of the public eye, the incessant drone of the social, but still the social is what so many writers and poets strive for. It remains the plane of immanence upon which we hope to dissolve ourselves. But rather than melting into it, we find it has been replaced by a bed of nails. The social is what we desire, but the social continues to let us down. When such disappointment is coupled with a penchant for self-destruction, the worst can happen. The social suffers most under the shadow of suicide. We can rebound and disappear into the “I”, or else float on the surface of reified relations, insoluble and sad.
We seem less capable of thinking fluid relations than ever before, as if our problems are new and the solutions unknowable. But poetry has often expressed profoundly what is now a mundane postmodern existentialism. We need only return to Emily Brontë for a truly Gothic vision of that.
But the hearts that once adored me Have long forgot their vow And the friends that mustered round me Have all forsaken now
‘Twas in a dream revealed to me But not a dream of sleep A dream of watchful agony Of grief that would not weep
Another of Bustamante’s favoured subjects took him to the western edge of the city. There, at a narrow point in the estuary, the Humber Bridge would soon link the north and south banks. His photos often show the half-built bridge and in the foreground, the people who gathered each weekend to watch the vast concrete and steel structure take shape above the dark waters and shifting sandbanks. Plans for a bridge over the estuary had been drawn up in the 1930s and revised in the 50s, but it was not until 1966 that that they finally got the go-ahead, when Harold Wilson directed Transport Minister Barbara Castle to raise the needed funds. Labour’s fear that it might lose the 1966 Hull North by-election, which it needed to hold to maintain a parliamentary majority of just one seat, appears to have played a significant role in the timing of the announcement. In any case, as a towering symbol of 60s social democracy, the Bridge seemed a fitting counterpart to the new tower blocks across the city and the new Royal Infirmary and College buildings.
By the time the Bridge eventually opened in 1981, Margaret Thatcher was two years into her first term as Prime Minister and the neoliberal project trialled by force in Chile was rapidly reshaping life in Britain. Thatcher’s enthusiasm for transferring public services into private hands was matched by her disdain for the kinds of municipal power and ambition that had shaped and reshaped Hull. As Sarah Jaffe recently wrote, the neoliberal restructuring of state and economy also entailed an attempt to destroy the very notion of solidarity, largely by offering those with little wealth or power ‘…the pleasures of cruelty, the negative solidarity of seeing others made even worse off than themselves by cuts to the welfare state’.
In his foreword to Kingston upon Hull 1970s, Bustamante writes of how, while he wandered the streets of Hull, he could see the ground being cleared for this new world, a world in which: ‘…people were forced to exchange their freedoms and sense of civic identity for cheap goods and a more affluent social setting, to which they only had non-member rights.’
The photo above, of a half-built Humber Bridge, has etched itself into my brain since I first read this last week. It reminds me, as so many photos of the foreshore do, of that Larkin poem, which describes the strange nihilism of Hull’s gaze, turned towards the estuary and the North Sea, ignoring the rest of the UK over its shoulder:
Here is unfenced existence: Facing the sun, untalkative, out of reach.
The construction of the Humber Bridge — I didn’t know its political context before reading this — refutes that slightly, but it is funny to me that people still gather there today, just like this.
I’ve spent countless hours sat under it, gazing outwards. I think I’ve only crossed it three times in my life…
On a related note, looking for blogged photos of the Humber, I rediscovered this old post of assorted Humber Bridge memories…