Learning and Trauma:
The Sharp Object of Ideology

In a rare moment of insecurity, I deleted this post from last week in order to revise it. It felt undercooked and needed to simmer a bit more. Here it is again.

I had an email recently from someone asking about Fisher’s various uses of the concept of “ideology” throughout his works.

In Capitalist Realism, we have this understanding of ideology that is ostensibly Lacanian / Žižekian — after the end of history, once capitalism no longer has any real ideological opponents, ideology itself seems to disappear. With nothing to compare capitalism to, our critical faculties go blunt as we fail to properly interrogate our current system’s shortcomings. Soon enough, capitalist realism isn’t an ideological position but rather the absence of ideology itself. Fisher writes: “The role of capitalist ideology is not to make an explicit case for something in the way that propaganda does, but to conceal the fact that the operations of capital do not depend on any sort of subjectively assumed belief.” We’re post-ideological, Žižek argues, illustrating that now familiar fallacy, as if the fall of the Soviet Union was to ideology as the Obama administration was to race consciousness.

But then, in the Postcapitalist Desire lectures, Fisher talks about Lukács and reification. This isn’t ideology disappearing but ideology making its presence known as a kind of solidified position. It’s similar — ideology becomes “common sense” or a “general rule”. It makes the case for itself as common sense. It still doesn’t announce itself as ideology, of course. But it will assert itself through concepts like freedom, or through a kind of moral encouragement, sending you towards all your hopes and dreams. It is assigned to general principles parasitically in order to establish itself as a kind of symbiote. But why is that relevant to us now? Why does Fisher go back to Lukács? Post-ideological capitalism doesn’t have to announce that “there is no alternative”. There literally isn’t any.

The emailed question, then, was how are we supposed to reconcile the two conceptions of ideology when thinking about Fisher’s overall trajectory? I sat on this question for about a week, but on reflection, I don’t think it’s too hard. To borrow from Fisher’s own terminology, at least in The Weird the Eerie, perhaps we can say that Lukács sees ideology as a failure of absence whilst Žižek sees ideology as a failure of presence.

This movement from Žižek to Lukács mirrors our own trajectory over the last decade or so. 2009 Fisher uses the Žižekian critique of post-ideology because that is what’s required. Obama has just ushered in a post-race society and the financial crash has shown that we don’t actually have any political imagination left to generate alternatives through ideological friction. But in 2016, when Fisher is giving his final lectures, we have far greater ideological tension, with an ascendant far-right and an emboldened far-left.

Things are only more explicit five years on. Ideology shows its bare face, and so we see not the absence of ideology but its undeniable presence. We witness, in real time, that eerie transition from one to the other. We have ridden the wave of that phase shift over the last decade — maybe without realising it, in some ways. We’ve gone from a popular abstention from politics to the popularisation of standpoints more broadly. Though often a depressing time to be alive, we have seen increased solidarity with marginal communities. We’ve gone from Jeremy Corbyn being denounced as a terrorist for simply not slotting into the status quo to the normalisation of criticism of Israel and neoliberalism all around the world. We’ve clawed ideology back from the void, in a way, and moved from post-ideology to a new kind of explicitly ideological landscape. Lukács is more appropriate to this world than the Žižek of 2009. But that’s not to say that Lukács and Žižek are incompatible…

Whilst thinking about all this, I came across this somewhat recent essay from Benjamin Noys, which I found really interesting and resonant with this discussion. First of all, he talks about how Capitalist Realism is, at heart, a book for students — and Mark, in general, was a writer for students. Not just post-16 HE teenagers, as an explicit demographic, but all of us as students. Mark was an educator, which, for him, is the same as a consciousness-raiser, which is the same as a sort of ideological diagnostician.

Noys then talks about Fisher’s view of capitalist ideology more explicitly, relating it to his personal writings on depression and our collective mental health crises. Crises precipitate change because crises denaturalise systems in revolt, he argues, and this is true at the level of the individual and society more generally.

Noys writes:

In terms of mental health, the breakdown of capitalist realism is not only a social breakdown, but also a psychic breakdown that condenses the forms and processes of the continual series of breakdowns and crises that compose capitalism. While “Capitalist realism insists on treating mental health as if it were a natural fact, like weather (but, then again, weather is no longer a natural fact so much as a political-economic effect)”, the effect of crisis is to further estrange and de-naturalize capitalism, mental health, and, of course, the weather. Overlapping forms of breakdown strike at the very heart of the usual ideological mechanism, central to the analysis of Roland Barthes in Mythologies, of treating what is cultural as natural. Now, with the widespread recognition and reality of climate catastrophe, even nature is no longer natural.

Consider, for example, how people who suffer from PTSD often experience feelings of “specialness” — not arrogance but an alienating uniqueness, as if they are not like other people, they’re outcasts, no one understands them, and it can get to the point where sufferers feel like they have a nonhuman subjectivity. Depersonalisation is precisely a breakdown where you no longer feel “natural”. Have we not experienced a kind of political PTSD in recent years, where traumas of all kinds — from pandemics and financial breakdowns to cultural crises and bizarre elections — have led to the very denaturalisation of the system at large? That seems to be Noys’ argument.

This kind of experience can make people feel really hopeless and listless, but there are ways that we can learn to channel our experiences into positive change. We can get better. But it can be a really daunting and even re-traumatising process. That’s something I wanted to explore in Egress — how to continue down the path of “education”, both academic and political, when that education is ruptured by a trauma. The response isn’t to divert off into a kind of mandated social therapy. This is what education is itself for — education, consciousness raising, libidinal engineering. The best kind of education is often the very rupturing of education itself and the biggest challenge is persisting with this kind of process, even when it gets really tough.

This is the same argument I’ve been trying to make for years, against “acid communism” as this kind of reheated hippie positivity. The breakdown of capitalist realism isn’t going to be a pleasurable experience by default. It can feel good to have the wool pulled off your eyes, and watch reality warp as a result, but the fetishisation of psychedelic experience ignores the fact it is not for everyone. It undermines the real movement, ultimately, by reducing it to a singular sort of aesthetic experience rather than a psychedelic unveiling to be experienced by all.

It’s the problem of Plato’s cave, in many ways. Some people are attracted to the bright colours and flashing lights, but others are more comfortable in the dark. That is the problem of our present moment and of political education more generally. In a polarised society, we see ideology like a colour phasing in and out of space. It’s a spectre, struggling to materialise — beautiful to some, terrifying to others. Because convincing people to deconstruct their ideologies, those “naturalised” perspectives on a familiar reality is a very difficult task to sustain. Indeed, it can be a traumatic experience. If we don’t retain an awareness of that, we might as well say goodbye to long-term goals.

K. Daniel Cho has a really fascinating book on this called Psychopedagogy. One of the central obstacles in learning and educating oneself about history, capitalism and our place within both, is that the reality revealed can be really unpleasant. We’ve seen what happens when that process gets to work. We see bizarre attacks made by the misinformed against so-called “critical race theory”, arguing it’s nothing but a guilt machine for white people, and guilt gets us nowhere. But where does that guilt come from? If you feel guilty, you might find your education to be traumatic. That not only puts “students” off learning, it also makes the burden of being an educator a little too much to bear. These are common talking points today, particularly on subjects like race. But Cho’s response to this is entirely in line, I think, with Fisher’s weird and eerie approach to education, which is not afraid to disparage or critique or disturb on its Platonic quest towards truth on the outside of an ideologically-instantiated “common sense” . Cho writes:

If critical pedagogy wants students to become more aware of the problems of racism, sexism, classism, and other forms of oppression, then it must allow for the repetition of those relations within the controlled space of the classroom. As these forms of oppression are rooted in authoritarian relations, repeating them in the classroom will inevitably involve transferring authoritarian positions — the Patriarch, the Bourgeoisie, the Colonizer, the Bigot — onto the person of the teacher insofar as the teacher occupies the position of the “subject supposed to know.” Acting as the recipient of the patient’s various transferences is not a comfortable task, which is why Freud describes the transference as the most arduous of all the analyst’s responsibilities. But it is the best way to learn the traumatic knowledge of the unconscious. In this way, taking on this transference can be seen as an ethical decision, as Lacan says the “status of the unconscious . . . is ethical”. One must make an ethical decision to become the subject of the transference in order to achieve the ends of social justice. Critical pedagogy must follow Freud in saying: “Whatever it is, I must go there”.

Fisher’s intuitive understanding of this is what made him such an excellent teacher. I always found him to be intimidatingly approachable in this regard, because as much as he was, in many of our minds, a guru and a deeply intelligent man, he was open about his own insecurities and the gaps in his knowledge. He was always, in the best way, a kind of student-teacher, shifting from the “subject supposed to know” to someone just as affected by the world as the rest of us, and it is the minor position of the student that allows one to be constantly open to outsides and new perspectives. Cho again:

Confronted with contradictions, the social investigator should make no attempt to rationalize them away and should instead conceive of them as integral features of the system itself. The negative space left by the refusal to assimilate one’s self to the system (i.e., identify with it) opens up the possibility for one to become the subject of traumatic knowledge. We might call this void the psychoanalytic or Lacanian subject or the proletariat subject with equal accuracy. But, perhaps, most apropos would be to call it simply this: the student.

When reactionaries grow concerned about the tendency of university students to radically change their political positions, or simply gain a political consciousness, this isn’t because they’re all overrun with communists looking to corrupt the youth. It’s because education — a proper education — always illuminates ideology. To become active within the world, aware of its structures and its ideological construction, is always to be a student. (This is surely part of the reason why neoliberalism tries to separate and create antagonism between students and workers, despite the economic and philosophical overlap between the two.)

Noys makes a similar point. He interrogates the friction in Fisher’s writing, which is at once the product of an educator’s desire to educate and a student’s desire to educate themselves. (I think this is true of all blogged writings, personally — the best ones, at least. Blogging is both an attempt to teach oneself how to say what one thinks, as well as articulate what you think in order to inform others around you — it is both personal and social.) For Fisher, the role of his books, blogs and lectures alike is to initiate “a process of the education of desire to both free us from capitalist realism and to develop a non-capitalist life.” Noys writes: “I am reminded of Fredric Jameson’s contention that our problem ‘lies in trying to figure out what we really want in the first place.'” (Fisher’s version of that same question is: “Do we want what we say he want?”) Noys continues:

Utopias are negative lessons, finally, that teach us the limits of our imagination in the face of the addictive culture of capitalism. It is only, Jameson insists, once the utopia has impoverished us, undertaken an act of “world reduction,” that we can undertake a “desiring to desire, a learning to desire, the invention of the desire called Utopia in the first place.”

This is the kind of ideological process we have undergone over the last decade or so. We have transition from a post-ideological society, where capitalism has won, becoming near-utopian in all the things it provides and the freedoms it facilitates. But towards the end of the 2000s, it felt — for my generation at least — like this utopia we were told about all the time had truly impoverished us and made us lacking. It was then, with perfect timing, that Fisher helped a lot of us see the light, and a new process of education began. But again, for me at least, having followed the k-punk blog, read Fisher’s books, and then applied to Goldsmiths, it was eventually clear that he was not some messiah but a student-teacher who led humbly by example.

Noys writes:

It is also important to consider Marx’s third thesis on Feuerbach, which suggests “it is essential to educate the educator,” and that: “The coincidence of the changing of circumstances and of human activity or self-changing can be conceived and rationally understood only as revolutionary practice.” If Fisher is writing largely outside of this context, as are we all, then we still have to consider this problem of education and self-education. The various attempts made at educational forms “outside” neo-liberal capitalist forms are often equivocal, even reproducing those forms in the dream of the “private”. Perhaps the closest we have to such experiments arise in the “teach-ins” or “outs” that have arisen in various struggles against privatizing education. These, however, remain temporary and are limited in addressing questions of self-reproduction in the context outside the wage. There is no simple solution to the problem and the difficulty of even sketching such forms speaks to our moment.

It is this project of education that remains before us and is left implied as the true substance of which “capitalist realism” is the truncated and mutilated form. To make good on this project we would need to articulate the weird “outside” with the eerie spaces of “absence,” of the fractures and dialectical tensions of capitalism with its empty appearance. This is the difficult bridge to be forged that is marked in the joining and divide of The Weird and the Eerie. Whether the acid or psychedelic would have been the sufficient mediator remains a question, and one which any continuation of Fisher’s project would have to suggest. I would argue, however, that any such project of education needs to abandon the conceptualization of inside and outside for a more dialectical grasping of the “interior” limits of capitalism and the articulation of those “limits” and their possibilities with that “interior.” This is where Fisher’s project requires urgent re-thinking.

I’d like to think his Postcapitalist Desire lectures clarify this last point, at least in part.

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