I really wasn’t going to bother. I bashed this out on my lunch break today, but then Owen said it best…
I don’t really give a fuck about this but I absolutely 100% know the actual living Mark Fisher would have fucking loved someone wearing a swanky dress with a social democratic slogan painted on it — in fact he’d have written a long and faintly horny post about how great it was
I don’t want to pull rank on this issue usually but on this point I’m sorry but you really don’t know who you’re talking about here
the post would have been called ULTRA-LIBIDINAL SOCDEM GLAM KONTINUUM, it would have been both great and embarassing, and none of you would have read it
There is this sort of posthumous flattening of Mark Fisher Thought into, precisely, transcendental miserabilism — everything is always already recuperated! tout ce qui bouge est un subterfuge! — which turns him into a maudlin saint of our permanent defeat
You don’t have to spend all that long in the k-punk archives before it becomes vividly apparent how much he Really Liked certain things, at least as much as (and very much because) he Really Hated certain other things
But there’s still so much going on here, I actually think it is quite interesting… And it is an excuse to share what I think is one of Fisher’s most heretical posts. So here it is anyway…
As photos from the red carpet at the Met Gala spooled out over social media — shout out to Lil Nas X, who somehow embodied both a Mecha NRx queen and the superego, ego and id — Enrico tagged me in a meme of a meme of a meme: a picture of AOC’s “Tax the rich” dress, overlaid by a cursed Mark Fisher Wikipedia smackdown, which has been overlaid again with some soyfaced gesticulating. This final version is the one that gets it. This Wikipedia screenshot couldn’t be less applicable to AOC’s gesture. But how to navigate this tension not just in Mark’s thought but in political consciousness more generally?
I’ve been thinking about this stuff a lot this year, ever since writing the intro for Caja Negra’s edition of K-Punk, Vol. 3. Most of the receipts backing up Owen’s comment can be found in there. TL;DR: The early 2010s were a battle ground over pop-cultural representations of anti-capitalism. On the whole, no one wanted to see it. Public figures advancing leftist political agendas, if they existed at all, were hounded as sell-outs. If you had a public platform and were using it to critique capitalism — which is surely what had given you a public platform in the first place — then you were a hypocrite.
Of course, that’s nonsense. In my view, it is all a result of a hardening of the line between politics and culture. To borrow an example used in the essay linked above, that Kanye ran for president is more an indictment of our logic of political engagement than it is an indication of the size of Kanye’s ego. He was one of the most outspoken artists of his generation, who used his platform to raise awareness around civil rights issues in a way that few had done for a generation. But he was repeatedly told to leave the politics out of it because he’s not a politician, so he strove to become a politician as well as everything else he is. All Kanye has tried to do is navigate our tendency to compartmentalise the social, cultural and political, and if his attempts to do that are confused and ham-fisted, it says more about the fragmented landscape we’ve created than anything else.
Following the Met Gala, we see that you’re damned if you do and damned if you don’t:
Im sorry but that AOC stunt is so cringe. You are a serving politician not a celebrity
This is surely the fallacy of modern celebrity. (Aren’t all publicly recognizable politicians, by definition, also celebrities?) Anyone who is publicly known is too corrupted to be of any use. It doesn’t matter what you’re known for or even the degree to which you can claim celebrity status. You’re held up as a leader, but you can’t lead. You’re held up as an influencer, but can’t be seen to influence. The paradox is surely obvious?! The better known someone is, the more it is expected that they remove themselves from the public sphere. It is what Fisher’s called a “neo-anarchist” framework, which might be militantly anti-individual but in failing to be anti-individualist, it forgets to insert some collectivist perspective into the mix. We denounce the different parts without ever remembering to affirm the whole. It is in this sense that pointing at political gestures within the cultural sphere and shouting “complicit!” only exacerbates our own impotence.
Personally, I think we all become poorer when we dismiss the impact of political sentiments expressed in popular culture. That was Fisher’s feeling too. When writing on the popularity of The Jam, he makes the point that it “mattered that they were popular … because it wasn’t only you and fellow initiates who heard the music; the (big) Other heard it too.”
What we witnessed with punk and postpunk – or more broadly, with the whole efflorescence of popular modernism since the 50s – was an ‘affective contagion’, to use a term discussed in Frederic Jameson’s enthralling new book The Antinomies of Realism. One of the problems with many of the horizontalist models of political action is that they assume that we already know what we think and feel, and we are simply prevented from expressing ourselves by oppressive power structures. Yet mass mediated art could name and focus feelings that were not only suppressed – by ‘internal’ as well as external censoring agencies – but which were inchoate, unformed, virtual. Mass mediation transformed, not merely ‘represented’ these affects; after they were named and brought into focus, the feelings ‘themselves’ were experienced differently.
This is what some people probably take away from Owen and Dom’s tweets above. But Mark was so much more contrarian than most might assume even from reading those. Because we might accept this and then say, well, yeah, okay, that’s cool, but is the Met Gala really the right vehicle here? But on that point, Fisher becomes an even worse person to use to denounce a dress at the Met Gala. (Just had one of those moments, writing that, where you realise just how mind-numbing the things that trigger the discourse are, but onwards we go…) It’s not just that he’d likely love every part of AOC’s dress stunt — the performativity, the artificiality, the bloodyminded insistence to (properly) insert politics into that venue (unlike Delavigne’s lacklustre effort) — it’s that he’d also affirm the glamour of the whole occasion.
Part of the founding principle of k-punk, after all, was a glam-punk synthesis. Being punk isn’t about being crusty and appealing to some sort of false working-class authenticity. That’s a hangover from hippie’s war on sensuality, reborn in the heroin chic of the impotent Nineties. Mark instead affirmed Nietzsche’s aristocratic thinking (to an extent), obliterating all appeals to authenticity. He understood the strangely aspirational drive you acquire in growing up poor. It’s not to say you want to become posh, but you certainly want a life of leisure. Who wouldn’t? So you emulate the value structure held above you and contaminate it with your own sensibilities. It’s A Clockwork Orange or Lady Chatterley’s Lover — yes, yes, he hated Lawrence, but I don’t care. There’s something transgressive and cool in the corrupting of aristocracy with your own desires. There is no pride in being “authentically” working class. That’s just affirming your own suffering, hardship and drudgery, surely? You don’t want to find community in drudgery but community in joy. Consider this post, which I imagine will be deeply controversial to a post-Losurdo Nietzschean community. For Mark, post-punk, and glam in particular,
rectified the genetic fallacy that haunted Nietzsche’s thinking. While there’s no doubt that Nietzsche’s analysis of the deadening effects of slave-moralising ‘egalitarian’ levelling in Beyond Good and Evil and The Genealogy of Morals identified the sick mind virus that had western culture locked into life-hating disintensification-unto-death, his paeans to slave-owning aristocratic culture made the mistake of thinking that nobility could be guaranteed by social background.
Nobility is precisely a question of values; i.e. an ethical stance, that is to say, a way of behaving. As such, it is available to anyone with the will and desire to acquire it — even, presumably, the bourgeoisie, although their whole socialization teaches them to resist and loathe it. More than anyone, Nietzsche understood that, the European bourgeoisie’s deep hostility to ‘the notion of superiority’ concealed a viciously resentful psychopathology.
If Nietzschean atheology says: we must become god, bourgeois secularism says: No-one may be greater than me — not even God.
Everyone knows that there has always been a deep affinity between the working class and the aristocracy. Fundamentally aspirational, working class culture is foreign to the levelling impulse of bourgeois culture — and of course this can be politically ambivalent, since if aspiration is about the pursuit of status and authority, it will confirm and vindicate the bourgeois world. It is only if the desire to escape inspires taking a line of flight towards the proletarian collective body and Nu-earth that it is politically positive.
We might dismiss AOC for even being at the Met Gala in the first place, but how does that final line of Fisher’s peon to glam not epitomize her gesture? She enters the bourgeois arena, but she also surpasses it by reaching into politics proper. That’s not to say the Met Gala is the perfect platform. But unlike some, I don’t think that “Tax the rich” and “Peg the patriarchy” (as was the original phrase on Delavigne’s outfit, pre-memeification) are somehow equivalent statements. AOC’s gesture only makes Delavigne’s look more vacant to me. One is a sort of “etsy agitprop”, the other — no matter how succinct — is still a policy. She’s bringing her political commitments to the party. She’s using her cultural popularity to advance knowledge of her political agenda. This isn’t a vague appeal to pegging in a stab vest (which, as a collection of signifiers, seems internally contradictory to me…) “Tax the rich”, on the contrary, is an unambiguous statement worn at an event synonymous with the rich and famous. Unlike Delavigne’s fatally ambiguous satire, AOC’s message and audience are clear. This isn’t the equivalent of rocking up in a Che Guevara t-shirt, mass produced and made utterly meaningless; a signifier that has no objective and extractable content.
I don’t think Althusser would be a fan of the Met Gala, but on this point, I’m reminded of his summary of Marx’s The Poverty of Philosophy, in which he says that Marx
attached extreme importance to political consciousness: not to the simple subjective consciousness that produce rebellious or embittered subjects, but to the objective consciousness (or ‘theory’) that can attain knowledge of the objective conditions of social life, exploitation and struggle. Slogans about ‘raising the consciousness’ of political activists and endowing them with ‘true class-consciousness’ derive from this terminological tradition.
This is the distinction I see at work in these gestures. One appeals to subjective rebellion, the other to objective social conditions (and a policy that could mitigate them). One works as consciousness raising where the other fails. Delavigne says, “if you don’t understand it, you’re going to have to google it.” No such ambiguity surrounds AOC’s gesture. If we respond as embittered subjects anyway, I’m not sure that’s on her at this point.