Happy Hallowe’en

just thinking about how mr blobby debuted exactly two weeks after ghostwatch and it does feel like an evil spell occurred

Originally tweeted by Andrew Pope (@AndrewRPope) on November 14, 2020.

Blob Blob Blobby: Towards a New Blobjectivity

Toothless Critique:
Free Speech in the Vampire Castle

The Novara Media YouTube channel was inexplicably taken down the other day, before being quickly reinstated following an outpouring of support from both the left, right and centre. But in the aftermath, the conversation has become twisted, with a confluence of events and battlelines seemingly becoming entangled with one another, although inconsistently addressed.

The line taken in the episode of #TyskySour linked above was quite good, I thought. Ash Sarkar hypothesised that the strong support Novara received from British right-wing media pundits and personalities had more to do with the right’s free-speech absolutism than anything else. Those on the left would argue instead for a democratic and conditional set of free-speech laws, she suggested, which would include a properly regulated and independent press, in an effort to curtail the British tabloids’ habit of printing any old shit they can think up and reigning in the mainstream media’s sycophantic tendency towards “client journalism”. Presumably, this would include oversight over the conduct of organizations like YouTube as well (in an ideal world).

The first bit of spin thrown at this swirling drama, however, right on cue and still reeling from the imprint’s recent takeover, came from a few Zer0 Books readers and authors, who compared Novara’s situation to their own. “The Left narrative that the Right are straightforwardly insincere about … defending free speech probably needs revising”, argued The Popular Show, whilst Mike Watson predictably cried hypocrisy because he had “leftists trying to cancel my overtly left book and publisher while right wingers [stepped] up to save a left wing media channel.” “We need to be free of the radlib rad chic fraternity as much as we need [Lawrence Fox] to shutup”, he added. (No surprises they echo the sentiment of Spiked hack Brendan O’Neill, writing in the far-right Spectatorthe ties between Zer0 and Spiked are well documented at this point.)

But truly, this is not all about Zer0. They’ve probably had enough of a kicking this week. But these attempts to draw a false equivalence between censorship of content and critique of quality are everywhere. At the heart of this is a fight over truth, honesty and commitment, and Zer0 do nothing but muddy the waters. Many people have joked about purges, book pulpings or burnings this past week — clearly in jest — but this hyperbolic pitchfork-wielding is not about restricting the Zer0 crowd’s right to say and publish whatever they like. Doug Lain’s platform lives on, albeit rebranded. The issue is the quality of their context and their manipulative approach — the way they obscure the poor quality of their output by attaching it to the output of the team who used to run the press, which they had nothing to do with, or by insisting on their own left-wing credentials whilst aligning themselves with edgelords, “dirtbag” leftists and outright reactionaries. As such, people view the platform as fundamentally dishonest. Their clickbait approach and marketing-by-outrage tactics — which they manipulatively tied to the legacy of Mark Fisher in particular, because of their legal ownership of his first two books — ironically demonstrated one of the core principles of Capitalist Realism: all that was once great about Zer0 Books melted into their shitty PR.

But none of this is news anymore. If we retread familiar ground here, it is only to throw Zer0 into orbit with a few other emergent discourses. Because Novara’s inexplicable suspension is related to Zer0’s takeover — just not in the way they think.

After Novara reclaimed their channel, the debate was further complicated by Ash Sarker’s appearance on Unherd. There was outcry as many found the appearance completely misguided — myself included. On listening to the podcast, however, I found it pretty innocuous. I was even surprised when both Sarkar and the Unherd dude came to an agreement on a more regulated press. But that the conversation was broadly agreeable was also part of the problem. Like Zer0, some at Novara might argue that this appeal to anti-censorious solidarity spreads their message beyond their usual audience — many on the right thought that was commendable too — but it also serves to launder Unherd‘s output, the worst of which is generally on a par with that of a website like the hateful Spectator. The difficulty is that these things go both ways. The elevation of left-wing issues on a right-wing platform likewise tainted the left-wing discourse with distinctly right-wing talking points.

This was most apparent when many Novara affiliates came to Sarkar’s defense. Moya Lothian-Mclean, for instance, rolled out the familiar line about a censorious left, commenting: “I genuinely do think the Left are often too censorious in a way that will come back to bite us.” But her uncertainty over the matter was also relatable. “It’s horribly difficult b/c frankly, I do not often want to defend the right of people to have platforms to say things on that I disagree with. But that doesn’t mean I shouldn’t.”

This is a fair comment when the onus is placed on the overpowered platforms themselves, like YouTube, Facebook, etc. Appearing on Unherd deflected that point, however. As Dalia Gebrial added: “this moment calls less for solidarity with deplatformed right wingers, more for solidarity with other platform workers”. But far fewer people were talking about this after the issue became Unherd and not YouTube. As well-meaning and agreeable as the conversation was, it changed the focus of the discussion and moved it away from platform capitalism at large, focusing instead on a strange “both sides” rhetoric that could have been avoided.

Many might now be wondering if this is hypocritical. “Matt, weren’t you just recently defending AOC at the Met Gala?” But as was explored in a follow-up post on funko pops — it’s been a weird few weeks — these sorts of intervention matter when the message cannot be corrupted. We often assume that is the case simply by something making an appearance somewhere or appearing in a certain form, but this happens less often than we might expect. In this instance, however, the problem is precisely that the message ended up twisted. Whether it was intended or not, even by those coming from the left, more emphasis was put on the right’s concerns than where the left had initially started from, at least in my encounters with the various arguments, and that probably has something to do with a further point made by Hussein Kesvani:

I think what’s missing — what’s always missed in these attempts to show both sides against censorship etc — is that platforms have built-in biases and favourability toward particular kinds of content…

Sarkar’s appearance on Unherd suggests that both sides have it bad and are under threat. But this is frankly not true. There are real power dynamics at play here, and the conversation on Unherd highlighted some whilst obfuscating others.

Meanwhile, as all this was going on, the drama surrounding Kathleen Stock’s persistent intimidation of anyone who disagrees with her has continued apace. This was brought home more recently, as various academics on this side of philosophy Twitter still proclaimed that they #StandWithStock — with a few people I’ve spoken to being particularly sad about a recent tweet sent out by David John Roden (echoing his defence of Nina Power last year) — renouncing the “lynch mob” trying to depose her, when many have already done a great deal of work to demonstrate how this very painting of her opponents as a lynch mob is disingenuous. In fact, it is exemplary of how she uses her position and authority to manipulate the discussion against those who disagree with her. The mainstream media favours her position over that of her students, despite the fact that her conduct — TERFism aside — has been abhorrent for a lecturer. At this point, she is actively attacking and hoping to silence dissenting students, who aren’t calling for her to be sacked but simply to rise to the responsibilities of her position, ending her curation of an atmosphere of hostility and hate for trans people on and off campus. Instead, she doubles down on vacating those responsibilities at every opportunity in the name of fascist-adjacent essentialism.

Here is an issue of censorship where these power dynamics are obscured intentionally and viciously. Thankfully, there is great work being done on this issue and others like it. It often appears as harsh and forceful critique that clearly takes a toll on those who engage in it, but speaking truth to power — no matter how relative that power may be — is always worthwhile. Unfortunately, this is often foiled by useful idiots like Roden and others who further legitimise what constitutes abuse of power and position…

How did we forget this so quickly in joining forces with a right-wing press that infamously plays politics “on easy mode”? Are these situations, these battles, really so different? We might view the stakes as being higher in one regard than the other, but they are surely not disconnected. This is troubling, I think. We become inconsistent. When we focus in entirely on disagreement, we often obfuscate the uneven balance of power here, and to our detriment. But when we take in the full picture, defending someone like Stock or even Unherd on philosophical grounds is a false pretense, as she makes a mockery of standards of both academic research, reason and conduct. (If you haven’t read this essay by Grace Lavery on the whole affair, it is truly essential.)

Thankfully, things aren’t all bad. To highlight another example, if we really want to have a properly philosophical discussion about free speech, we needn’t look any further than the Belmarsh Tribunal — notably streamed by Novara Media — which I really think is the most significant collection of statements on the matter I’ve ever heard. As an event and livestream, it truly felt momentous to watch. But instead, we’re left talking about TERFs and the complicity of popular media channels with their political opponents… The significance of this moment feels diluted by a lack of rigour in other areas. Again, maybe the circumstances are different… But are they that different?

Here, with Julian Assange, the stakes could not be higher. (Talk of planned assassinations and bogus legal threats makes his case very dark very quickly.) So let’s go down to the gutter. What about critique that isn’t quite so forceful? What about just making fun of people? What about ridiculing those who abuse their power and privilege in generic ways?

Kathleen Stock’s behaviour has put someone else in mind recently, bringing certain things home. Her tactics of threatening defamation lawsuits against people without her level of influence and power reminds me explicitly of Luke Turner — famous to many for collaborating with Shia LaBeouf on some bad art; more infamous to others for turning himself into a meme a few years ago after indiscriminately blocking what felt like everyone within a certain number of disparate but interconnected Twitter circles. Turner has recently been championed by many on the left for deciding to wage war on Nina Power and DC Miller. But here is an example of someone generally abusive and manipulative going into battle with two people I have very little respect for. Power and Miller have decided to fight fire with fire — that is, fight a spurious lawsuit with a spurious lawsuit. To be frank, I think they all deserve each other in their circle jerk, and no one’s conduct somehow becomes righteous as a result.

A few months ago, Turner threatened me with a lawsuit too, in which he catalogued every occasion over the last three years I have ever made reference to his mass blocking or have been involved in a conversation in which it was mentioned — six times in total… a truly relentless campaign… — which he claims is tantamount to defamation and harassment. The list of crimes is unhinged, to say the least, and includes such misdemeanors as calling him “cursed”, a “moron”, and “paranoid”, all in reference to his indiscriminate blocking and overpowered distaste for being well-known and recognized for it. (I don’t declare these things to be facts, they are clearly opinion, and so this case would hardly hold up in court — it is Turner using his vast wealth and resources to intimidate, pure and simple — a tactic legitimated by those who like it when he does it to people who are stupid enough to go toe-to-toe in court over it.)

I’m sure even mentioning this here will trigger his Google alert and lead to another email asking me to delete all tweets that reference him in any regard. He seems to want an injunction on piss-taking and critique. But I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t shaken by it. It was genuinely a very stressful email to receive and I have deeply resented being intimidated into silence by someone who is ultimately inconsequential to me. This isn’t about trans rights or anything of importance. It is a threat resulting from my gobby Twitter conduct, in reference to Turner’s infamy regarding his own conduct online. If he cares that much about it, I’ll happily never tweet about him again, but his methods for getting what he wants are disturbing to say the least.

This is where my head is at today. All of these recent discourses are intersecting and often contradicting one another. The irony is that I can sympathise with all of the above. It isn’t nice being talked about by people online, whether you’re a TERF or accidently turn yourself into a meme. It isn’t nice being ostracized and critiqued and argued against. I still find coming across discussions of my own work very jarring and stressful, even dehumanising at its worst, and the feeling of being shunned by groups of people you’ve never met because of the work you do can feel unjust. (That is clear enough when I end up making enemies by simply unfollowing people — if we haven’t met in real life, I’ve no reason to follow you unless I like your content, and if I’m not into it, then what’s the point? But people launch vendettas over these things.) None of this amounts to cancellation, and I’m certainly not going to file lawsuits against people who don’t like what I do and say as much publicly, thinking I’m not in the room. I’m hardly above reproach. Are we supposed to sue people into being friends with us? Isn’t it childish to even think that’s the issue here and not something more fundamental? Even if people have a go at you just to be cruel, I’m hardly left with a desire to forcefully shut it down. Against my own better judgement, I am often willing to debate it and I am quite happy to give as good as I get. Is it productive? Rarely. But I do think these wars of words tell us about our culture and how we think about ourselves.

I don’t think we’re very good at listening to the lesson being dropped at our feet. We seem to be incapable of considering these issues alongside one another for a start. The fact this is always reduced to “the left” having lessons to learn in terms of its conduct and civility is, in itself, a right-wing talking point. Frankly, I don’t think this is a case of right and left at all. This is about cultures of critique online and how they are sustained and allowed to function, both by big tech but also democratically — let’s not pretend the latter wouldn’t also be a big mess in this complex space. (Not because democracy is bad, but because the whole point of social media is that it runs on dissensus.)

I wrote all of this down whilst reflecting on the emerging discourses of the past few days, and it was at this point that people began invoking Mark Fisher’s infamous essay, “Exiting the Vampire Castle”. It’s become such a cliché at this point I’ve seen as many people invoke it sarcastically as I have sincerely today. But I also think it lingers for good reason. It’s core questions, so frequently misunderstood, remain unresolved — and jokes aside, they genuinely are key here.

(I wrote about it earlier this year, when tasked with introducing the essay to a Spanish speaking audience. If you want a more in depth argument about why people get that essay wrong, head there.)

To cut to the chase, the issue here is that too many people assume the solution to Fisher’s diagnosis is we all engage in toothless critique. How do you stop a vampire? You defang it, obviously… But I’ve seen enough vampire movies to know that’s not enough. A vampire without fangs is still a vampire — just an impotent one, often suckling at the neck of second-hand kills like a vulture rather than a predator. And our impotence is already the problem here.

As I wrote earlier this year:

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

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

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

In this context, Fisher’s polemics can be seen as an attempt to diagnose a new strain of leftist melancholy, which was manifest as impotent negativity online.

Again, let us emphasize the fact that this negativity is impotent. Negativity is not tautologically bad. It can be very effective if we wield it right.

This melancholy was by no means a new problem for the left. Wendy Brown – a great influence on Fisher – notes that Walter Benjamin was the first to diagnose this condition that so badly afflicted “the revolutionary hack” who internalises the failures of the past and transforms them into a political pathology. Benjamin’s diagnosis, she writes, represents “a refusal to come to terms with the particular character of the present”.

The Zer0 crowd, stuck in the meme wars of 2016, arguably epitomize this.

But the overarching point here is that these issues can be alleviated by raised consciousness. However, social media encourages them in us regardless of how we might like to act. These aren’t simply ideas we need to shrug off; they are the result of our material conditions (including how our lives are organised online). Skipping ahead slightly:

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

With this in mind, we should understand that the Vampire Castle is not a space, over there somewhere, where everyone we don’t like lives. The Vampire Castle is a structure, scaffolded by the platforms we occupy online. We are all capable of being vampires, trolls, gremlins, taking swipes and deflating energy and consciousness with our reflexive impotence. But the solution to that is not giving up on our principles or on a certain commitment to transforming the world. Resistance to its injustices is dependent on our convictions, not on dulled pleasantries. Mark knew that better than anyone. He could be the biggest cunt around. But it was effective. It is often effective. We need only look at some of the more forceful debates around free speech — Assange, Stock — to see how that is the case. These debates aren’t civil, but they can be forceful and rigorous in their arguments nonetheless. In fact, nothing hits and hurts more than a good point. I think we’d do well to remember this in our seemingly more trivial crises of conscience as well. The left, in particular, will lose everything if it loses its fangs.

Repeater Takes Over

Incredible news landed on Twitter last night, completely out of the blue:

Repeater Books, the team that started and ran Zer0 for its first seven years, have bought Zer0 Books.

The imprint will continue with all existing contracts honoured, but there will be a moratorium on commissioning until further notice.

The outpouring of joy from left-wing Twitter in the UK was palpable, and actually somewhat surprising. I haven’t seen that sort of ding-dong-the-witch-is-dead carnival atmosphere since Thatcher died. Who’d have thought that so many people would care about this news? But it felt like balance had been restored. That amazing back catalogue, including Mark Fisher’s best-selling books, are now back where they belong.

Of course, no one knows what this means yet — including many of those on the inside at Repeater Books, I’m sure — but it is clear that Tariq wants the word to spread, if only so some healing can begin.

I think most people were overjoyed about this news because Zer0 Books’ output of late has tarnished many memories for long-term fans of the imprint. I’ve hardly been shy about this myself in recent years. Though it is played off by many recent Zer0 authors as petty factionalism, rest assured I was mad about Zer0’s output long before I was a Repeater author. Zer0 was a huge influence on me when I was in my late teens and early 20s. In fact, David Stubbs’ Fear of Music was my first Zer0 book (even before Capitalist Realism) and I used it in my coursework for my Media Studies A Level.

I still have my battered Stubbs book along with a bunch of others from that golden era, including slim volumes by Mark Fisher, Evan Calder Williams, Dominic Fox, Owen Hatherley, Justin Barton, Eugene Thacker, Ben Woodard, and more. It is telling, actually, that the only post-2014 Zer0 books I own are by authors who later jumped to Repeater anyway, with the likes of Grafton Tanner being the first to come to mind who really carried that original Zer0 ideal forwards despite those who were now running it. But that small minority aside, even prior to gaining any sense of what went on behind the scenes, the drop in quality was immediate and the change in direction was stark. The idea that this might be rectified is incredibly exciting.

But it’s not just fans that are relieved — many of Zer0’s original authors are too. Agata Pyzik tweets:

The original publisher of Zero Books (ie also my first book Poor but Sexy) bought Zero back from rightwing edgelords! this is amazing news!

Whether Repeater saw the right-wing edgelords for what they were at the time is unclear, but they evidently despaired over the direction the parent company wanted the imprint to take. In a statement published at the time, Tariq was clear that the split was the result of “a long standing antagonism with the ownership of John Hunt Publishing, our parent company”, which included various “differences of opinion on how Zer0 Books should be run”. Rather than capitulate, they protested and resigned. Repeater then picked up from where it had left off by publishing the first and only book by the late Dawn Foster, whilst Zer0 embraced a newly grotesque and reactionary style that seemed like legacy media and outdated politics trying to wear the loose-fitting skin of Buzzfeed-esque clickbait in physical form.

In hindsight — and probably with some foresight, let’s be honest — Dawn’s book Lean Out couldn’t have been a better first book for Repeater to inaugurate itself with. The imprint was founded on a leaning out, whilst Doug Lain and co. chose to lean into the worst impulses of a reactionary American pseudo-left.

This direction has horrified many, not least those who first founded Zer0, who have felt like their work has been dragged through the mud of an American culture war. But whilst both imprints seem to have been amicably getting on with their own projects ever since, there have clearly been struggles behind the scenes to settle things with regards to where ownership of those original titles lies. As Repeater co-founder Alex Niven suggested on Twitter, this buy-out signals the end of “a mad 7-yr struggle” that now sees “things … heading in the right direction”.

Update: Alex has shared a longer statement from 2018 that is much clearer on all of this:

As Alex adds on Twitter: “To be clear, the people running Zero 2014-2021 knew about all of this, because we told them & asked for their solidarity (they ignored us)”.

This ignorance has been pervasive, and varies from willful to dishonest. That is clear enough now, as some of Zer0’s defenders and former employees — who seem committed either to hiding the schism or have been kept in the dark about it all together — think this is some sort of conglomerate takeover, snobbish coup d’état or an act of factional anti-leftist treachery. I have seen tweets from others who have contracts or have previously published books with Zer0 who (staggeringly) weren’t aware of the rift at all. (Others have already floated conspiracy theories that this is a QAnon attack or some deep state act of censorship, which tells you all you need to know about Zer0’s present readership.) Mike Watson, ever the hack, has compared it to the corporate espionage of oil magnates and arms dealers, even instrumentalising Mark Fisher’s memory to suggest he wouldn’t like all this infighting. It’s disgusting, but precisely what we’ve come to expect from Zer0 under their stewardship.

Alex’s statement above sets the record straight. What this is is a victory for principled publishing. Repeater formed when the original Zer0 team refused to be whipped by their parent company, already predicting the reactionary and editorially sloppy turn ahead. But seven years later, that difficult decision to split has worked out in their favour.

The scabs are out. For the first time in a long time, the future of Zer0 Books looks bright.

(Funko) Pop Modernism?

Another Mark Fisher meme, another reason to reaffirm his insistence that we “go overground”.

This was all discussed in the aftermath of the Met Gala, but this time there is an explicit focus on capitalist paradoxes — see original tweet replies — so let’s just hammer this point home.

Expanding on an earlier tweet, what is worth emphasising is that the copypasta Wiki critique (or at least how it is deployed) gets the whole thing backwards. If capitalism hijacks anti-capitalist sentiment for its own ends, it does this through the dilution of “revolutionary” sentiment. This is quite literal (and Mark talks about this explicitly in his Postcapitalist Desire lectures). The Wiki summary refers to a sentiment like, This new washing machine will “revolutionise” your kitchen. The UK even has a chain of vodka bars called Revolution. This ubiquity defangs revolutionary sentiment so that it isn’t a complete overturning of the status quo but just the light touch innovation of the latest mod con or alcohol delivery system.

Something like Squid Game — and, yes, slogan dresses — does the opposite. It is not capitalism advancing itself through the appropriation of anti-capitalist sentiment but anti-capitalist sentiment advancing itself through the appropriation of capitalism. And Mark was all about that.

Here’s what he said:

Paradox is also opportunity — someone, I don’t recall who, said that paradoxes are emissaries from another world where things work differently. If popular modernism’s attempts to resolve the paradox of political commitment and consumer pleasure now seem hopelessly naive, that’s more a testament to the disavowed depressive conditions of our current moment than a dispassionate assessment of the possibilities. In our world, so it would seem, popular culture’s embrace of consumerism leads ineluctably to the decomposition of class consciousness and the arrival of capitalist realism. In another world — the world that Stuart Hall tried to theorise, and to instigate — consumer desire and class consciousness could not only be reconciled, but would actually require one another.

Does a Squid Game Funko Pop change the polarity of the paradox once again? Arguably. But I think it is more significant that merchandise for a show cannot decontextualise the underlying message. Squid Game is not a promiscuous floating signifier like the word “revolution”. All this does is normalise the critique being made, and though it might lose its punch, that is surely what we want? That’s how Overton Windows move. The real danger here is that it is dismissed and stupid memes are used for nothing other than affirming our depressive fatalism.

All this is to say, yes, Squid Game Funko Pops are a weird — and Mark had plenty to say about “the weird”. But the fact the paradox is so obvious is more interesting than the mere fact the paradox exists. That it’s particularly egregious is telling. The combination does not compute, and we can expect to see more things that don’t compute as time goes on. We should try and increase our receptivity to them rather than denouncing them straight out the gate. Dismissing Squid Game as just another coopted piece of media is arguably what the system at large wants.

Because the mask is slipping.

Interiority (After Sebald)

The portrait of Sebald that emerges from the pages between is not that of a unique individuality, but a romantic caricature of what Sontag called the ‘artist as exemplary sufferer’, a kind of secular saint driven almost to madness, in this case by the weight of history.

I thoroughly enjoyed this review of Carole Angier’s biography of W.G. Sebald, Speak, Silence, written by Ryan Ruby for the New Left Review. It is scathing, in parts, about Angier and Sebald both, but it is intriguing to me that, on Twitter, Ruby has clarified his love of Sebald nonetheless. He writes: “As for my fellow Sebald stans, I remain one of you, but I had an ulterior motive for tweeting this out a few days ago”, pointing to a Nietzsche quote posted on his birthday: “A very popular error: having the courage of one’s convictions; rather it is a matter of having the courage for an attack on one’s convictions!!!”

I can relate to this sentiment, especially in the context of Sebald. I can’t think of a book I’ve read more time than Rings of Saturn, but I had my own reckoning with him a few years back, whilst finishing my book Egress on the Suffolk coast (where Sebald’s book is set). This was, in part, because I had always wanted to retrace Sebald’s footsteps, but I was there with Mark Fisher in mind — and Mark also wrote and made work about that stretch of coast, On Vanishing Land most famously.

It was strange to experience that landscape with Mark Fisher’s internalised voice in my ears and Sebald’s photographic sensibilities before my eyes. These two hugely dominant influences on my writing went to war over that long weekend. Though one might expect Fisher to like Sebald — if only by dint of the Caretaker’s involvement in the documentary Patience (After Sebald) — Mark seemed to find Sebald’s vision of his adopted home offensive and one day dreamt of “producing a pulp modernist riposte to Sebald’s mittel-brow text.”

Having been there and walked the walk for myself, it is not difficult to see why. Sebald comes across like a prejudiced curmudgeon and a classist old man rather than a wandering Romantic on Suffolk shores today. His interiority, which he welcomes you so seductively to inhabit, becomes a myopic lens through which to view the cultural ghosts of Suffolk proper. (The same is true of M.R. James as well, of course, whose fear of agricultural Suffolk seems flecked by his toff’s perspective from civilised King’s College, Cambridge, but he is arguably at more of a distance from us — his haunted Suffolk does not exist today and is all the more potent for that, having been eroded by the sea, but Sebald’s is still recognisably post-industrial and modern.)

I was reminded of this strange literary tug-of-war, experienced internally back in 2019, because it is what Ruby navigates so deftly in this piece, and which Angier seems to struggle with. Indeed, he notes, for Angier,

‘The sense of another time that pervades his books—through the dated, formal language, the ancient guidebooks, the Renaissance paintings—is no accident, but crucial to their power.’ ‘Realism and modernity’, she goes on to say, are ‘dangerous’ for his ‘particular art’. She praises Sebald for resisting the impulse to ‘introduce modern life’ into his writing, by cutting a reference to a Virgin Atlantic T-Shirt from an early draft of The Rings of Saturn—a rather careless observation about a book whose narrator describes people as ‘shopping in order to survive’, watches a bbc documentary on a tv in a run-down motel, eats French fries at an Amsterdam McDonalds, refers to gas stations and shopping malls, drinks a can of Cherry Coke, reports a complaint about Brussels’s agricultural policy, visits an abandoned Cold War defence installation, compares the Dome of the Rock to the newly built Sizewell nuclear reactor, and looks on with dismay as an excavator clears away a forest felled by a hurricane.

It is precisely the shadow of the contemporary that disturbs Sebald’s Romantic surface, in ways that are clearly ironic and often humorous but also occasionally reactionary — and ignoring this does the work a disservice. “Contemporary literary and political events are rarely allowed to impinge upon Angier’s account of his life,” Ruby continues, “though a full picture of the external world is just as important to understanding a writer as a portrayal of his inner life.”

This whole final section of the essay is a joy and maybe one of the best things I’ve ever read about Sebald to date. I’m left wanting to reproduce it here with little abridgement and annotate it… On this point of external events informing an inner life, Ruby continues:

The Eichmann Trial and the Frankfurt Auschwitz hearings are mentioned, but their broader impact on German culture goes undescribed. May 68 is deployed proleptically in a discussion of the intellectual climate of the University of Freiburg, as a signifier of the ‘flow of history’ toward the ‘new reform spirit’ Sebald and his circle of friends are said to have embodied, but when les évenements take place, Sebald is on vacation in Yugoslavia and we hear nothing further of them. … The two historical episodes dealt with at greatest length—the 1970s oil crisis and Thatcherite neoliberalism—are important, as we will see, but along with Britain’s accession to the European Union, Angier treats them only with regard to their effects on teaching conditions at UEA. Of decolonization, the Troubles in Northern Ireland, the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, the Cold War: nothing. Even within the confines of her interpretation of Sebald primarily as a writer of the Holocaust and the firebombing of German cities, potentially relevant events such as the German Autumn, the 1980s Historikerstreit, the development of Erinnerungskultur, the reunification of Germany, the genocide in Rwanda and the NATO bombing campaigns in the former Yugoslavia are passed over in silence.

Nor does Angier attribute any significance to the fact that Sebald’s four major books were published between 1990 and 2001; in other words, that his literary career coincides almost perfectly with the ‘Long Nineties’, the so-called End of History. Far from being the anachronism Sontag and Angier make him out to be, he is one of the period’s most representative writers. Neither the signature features of his influential prose style—the ‘metaphysics of coincidence’ and the melancholy tone—nor the reception of his work in the Anglosphere can be accounted for without reference to it. The ‘End of History’ is taken, of course, from the title of Francis Fukuyama’s National Interest essay, published in summer 1989 … right around the time Sebald was putting the finishing touches to The Emigrants. Among boosters and detractors alike, the phrase has proven to be a remarkably durable label for capturing the distinctive mentality of the period, especially in the West. But just as the End of History did not mean the end of historical events, the fulfilment or collapse—they amount to the same thing—of Enlightenment-era grand narratives of political, moral, economic and scientific progress did not mean the end of attempts to create meta-narratives to make sense of them. Like so much else in the period, these narratives, which had functioned as collective myths to legitimate and orient the ways of life on both sides of the Iron Curtain, were simply privatized. It was now the task of each individual to locate whatever patterns could be found in the chaotic proliferation of information and recorded events, and impose a necessarily artificial coherence on them.

What I find interesting about this observation is that it peels Sebald out of the “Holocaust Studies” pigeonhole quite explicitly. Indeed, this task left to the individual, in locating “whatever patterns could be found in the chaotic proliferation of information and recorded events”, is arguably the real task drilled into us by the Enlightenment itself and, even more notably, German art history since then.

I’ve been writing on Albrecht Dürer recently and reading Erwin Panofsky’s biography of him. The biography’s introduction is fascinating in that, despite the fact it prefaces a loving and almost surgically detailed analysis of Dürer’s life, art and historical context, it is initially scathing about German art history as a whole. But in skewering what may sound to us like the very flaws of postmodernism, it reveals just what makes German cultural history so interesting and, in this wider Sebaldian context, what it must be like for a man so utterly German who nonetheless feels adrift in Continental Europe — not simply because he is a post-war German writer but perhaps because he is a German writer full stop.

Echoing the anachronistic smorgasbord of Sebald’s melancholically psychedelic prose, Panofsky writes:

The evolution of high and post-medieval art in Western Europe might be compared to a great fugue in which the leading theme was taken up, with variations, by the different countries. The Gothic style was created in France; the Renaissance and Baroque originated in Italy and were perfected in cooperation with the Netherlands; Rococo and nineteenth century Impressionism are French; and eighteenth century Classicism and
Romanticism are basically English.

In this great fugue the voice of Germany is missing. She has never brought forth one of the universally accepted styles the names of which serve as headings for the chapters of the History of Art. German psychology is marked by a curious dichotomy clearly reflected in Luther’s doctrine of “Christian Liberty,” as well as in Kant’s distinction between an “intelligible character” which is free even in a state of material slavery and an “empirical character” which is predetermined even in a state of material freedom. The Germans, so easily regimented in political and military life, were prone to extreme subjectivity and individualism in religion, in metaphysical thought and, above all, in art. “I have to take into consideration,” Dürer says, “the German mentality. Whosoever wants to build something insists on employing a new pattern the like of which has never been seen before.”

Owing to this individualism German art was never able to achieve that standardization, or harmonious synthesis of conflicting elements, which is the prerequisite of universally recognized styles. But thanks to this very same quality Germany exerted an international influence by producing specific iconographical types and isolated works of art which were accepted and imitated, not as specimens of a collective style but as personal “inventions.”

Just as Dürer is so fascinating, as both the first man of the Renaissance but also the last man of the Middle Ages, a transitory figure straddling the euphoria and melancholy of another end of history, Sebald seems similar, so fixated on the self and its metaphysical existence but also melancholic like the listless, angelic humour in Dürer’s Melencolia I. He has come to epitomise a quintessentially German mode of interiority, which is now all of ours owing to the nation’s subtly pervasive influence. (It is recognisable here in the UK at least…) And, as Ruby notes, this is how Sebald is both so easy to love and easy to criticise — on the one hand, we cannot deny the literary brilliance of his representation of the self, but at a distance from him we can now more easily recognise the political myopia that emerges from it.

Ruby takes this tension and uses it to place Sebald right at the heart of the Long Nineties. On this Sebaldian sense of the end of history, Ruby continues:

In practice, of course, Fukuyama’s view that liberal democracy was ‘the final form of human government’ meant three things. First, the integration of the German Democratic Republic into the soziale Marktwirtschaft of the Federal Republic of Germany. Second, the accession of other Eastern Bloc countries into the European Union, which, rather than the American model, was taken by Fukuyama to be the paradigm case. And third, the unrestrained application to the Russian Federation of the kinds of economic ‘shock therapy’ that had already been applied, for example, to Mexico and Argentina, and which, in turn, had been pioneered by Paul Volcker during the Carter and Reagan administrations, and by Margaret Thatcher during her eleven years as prime minister of the UK.

For those unfamiliar with this idea of the Long Nineties and the amount of political philosophy packed into it — it is an extreme form of short-hand once you start digging into its roots — I’d recommend this article by Lars Bang Larsen for Frieze, which expands on Ruby’s contextualisation here and situates it within a wider philosophical discussion. But what it most intriguing about Ruby’s use of it here is the way he moves from the previous idea of the task facing the postmodern individual and shows how paradoxically it remains at the heart of our idea of the social. Indeed, what Sebald almost seems to prefigure, in his identity-melting sojourn across European history, is a psychogeographic clickhole — he embodies a peculiar tension within processes of individuation that are today synonymous with social media.

But Sebald died in 2001, of course. His exploration of these things is a little more old school. But you’d think, in that sense, we’d be a little more awake to its exacerbation in our lives today. Ruby is, but Angier seemingly isn’t. He explains:

Echoing Thatcher’s famous pronouncement, Angier writes that Sebald’s work ‘is not about society at all, which is why it contains no dialogue.’ The second half of this sentence is true only in the most technical of senses. In Sebald, speech is not interchange presented in quotation marks, as in a typical realist novel, but one of the more common scenarios in his fictions is the narrator listening to people tell long stories in the vein of Conrad, which he conveys with the narrative tagging of Bernhard. The first part of Angier’s sentence is simply false. Sebald’s books discuss, among other things, labour, punishment, psychiatry, the built environment, transportation, tourism, media, scholarship and war, none of which could be thinkable without the social as such.

In fact, that is what is quite so wonderful about Sebald. That Angier seems to suggest that his books are too immersed in history to be modern, this very contradiction of individuation through social processes is a very old problem indeed. In fact, returning to Dürer, he problematised and made use of the printing press in precisely this way: as a new social technology that democratised art and literature, it was nonetheless responsible for spreading the new liberal-Protestant ideal of the Individual. And this is the focus of my research around Dürer at the moment. Though his experience was not ours, his infatuation with and anxiety around new social technologies like the printing press, for the way they paradoxically both embolden and dissolve the individual, echoes our modern era and the rise of the internet in lots of ways.

But again, this is a contextual similarity more than anything else. We are at the tale end of whatever Dürer was experiencing. As Ruby writes:

It is not that there is ‘no society’ in Sebald, but rather that Sebald was writing at a time and a place—neoliberal Britain—in which all non-economic social bonds were being subordinated to the interests of capital accumulation. … Sebald consistently registers the effects of social atomization, resource depletion, financialization and the loss of revenue from brutally maintained colonial trade markets on the infrastructures, ecologies and peoples on both sides of the North Sea. This lugubrious socio-economic landscape stands in stark contrast to the best-of-all-possible-worlds portrait of the ‘New Economy’ and ‘Pax Americana’ painted by Third Way centrists and the Anglo-American culture industry.

Above all else, the key to Sebald’s prose “is décadence, a prose style fit for a second fin de siècle.” Following Dürer, it might even seem like we’ve lived through 500 years of endings, with moments of prosperity, scattered in between, amounting to nothing more than the volcanic tantrums of humanity’s dying star. As the Doomsday Clock ticks ever closer to twelve o’clock, the likes of Sebald feel like the last-last men of civilisation. Ruby concurs, here explicitly echoing the sort of position that Mark Fisher epitomised as well (but also decisively moved away from in the 2010s):

Sebald’s narrators are representatives of the species that Fukuyama calls, after Nietzsche, in the much less discussed final section of his book, the ‘last man’. Fukuyama worried that the ‘widespread peace and prosperity’ secured by the triumph of liberal-democratic capitalism would seem profoundly dissatisfying to the people now tasked with upholding it in perpetuity. True, Fukuyama’s main concern was that ‘man’s’ instinctive thymos—his drive for recognition through subjugation—could be projected out of boredom onto liberal democracy itself, in the form of rightwing backsliding. Although this prognosis might seem to apply better to writers like Houellebecq, Handke and Limonov than to Sebald, Sebald’s characters are no less dissatisfied with life under liberal-democratic capitalism; they have either experienced the horrors of German history directly or internalized its lessons too well to flirt with ethno-nationalism. Their dissatisfactions are introjected and express themselves as a perpetual mourning for the possibilities that have been foreclosed by history.

Yet even in the nineties, to say nothing of the first two decades of the twenty-first century, Fukuyamian peace and prosperity proved to be more notional than real; the foremost dissatisfaction with liberal-democratic capitalism was that the disappearance of a left alternative also meant the absence of any mechanisms for actually achieving these goals. ‘The future is in the past’, a 22-year-old Sebald had scrawled on the final page of his journal before embarking on his life as a university teacher in England. This was the sentiment that would animate the books he began to write a quarter-century later, the books whose remarkable success provides the rationale for the publication of an English-language biography. By the time he came to write them, however, the proposition had acquired an unfortunate corollary: the future is no longer in the future. Sebald’s characters may dissent from the materialism of the consumers and the day traders; they may notice the imperial continuities between the old liberalism and the new; but they share at least one assumption with them: there is no alternative. When ‘confronted with traces of destruction, reaching far back into the past’, the narrator of The Rings of Saturn feels ‘paralyzing horror’, rather than motivating indignation. The destruction, as he can plainly see, is ongoing, but he fatalistically watches and waits for the world around him to dissolve ‘into water, sand and thin air’ just as surely as the settlements of Dunwich had done some seven centuries prior, rather than do anything to stop it. What places Sebald’s characters among the last men is that, where they might choose the political, they choose the elegiac instead. For Sebald, too, it proved easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism and that, every bit as much as the traumatic burden of the past, is a source of his melancholy. In this he was—and remains—the Spirit of the Age.

Sebald is the new bannerman, I think, for what Marx once called the German ideology. He is revered because no one articulates our strange interiority better. He carries forward that German individualism, that padded cell, and makes striking artworks from strips of the graffitied walls around him, pulling together not just a patchwork post-war interiority but an uncomfortable post-Enlightenment sense of self, spanning hundreds of years. Our wound is not so recent, he informs us. But where figures like Mark Fisher remain essential, and where challenges like Ruby’s seemingly remain few and far between, is in realising that Sebald’s detailed maps of our insides are blueprints to tinker with and exceed, rather than places to get comfortable. The end is nigh only if we choose to stop and watch the world crumble with them.

Are NFTs Frigid Stars?

Update 25/10/2021: This post has proven very popular and I have followed much of the discussion around it on Twitter with interest. Returning to it a few weeks later, I’ve decided to update and polish it, fleshing out some of the arguments, with a few of the comments and debates in mind.

There’s a thread going round today where someone explains why NFTs are a scam. Frankly, I don’t know a thing about NFTs — although nor does anyone else, it seems, and that hardly stops most people from laying down some steaming takes — but I do know a thing or two about capitalism, it’s development and recent attempts to intervene in how it functions, as well as how capitalist ideology afflicts even those who might declare themselves anti-capitalist. In that regard, I do find the hysteria around NFTs quite telling.

What is striking to me is that NFTs and their markets are constantly framed as devious and evil things, but then people just describe how physical art markets work. What is made to sound like an investigative “gotcha” is just people describing how current injustices and corruption are continuing in a new space. But the point of getting critically involved in this space is surely to stop normal capitalism from replicating itself digitally, as it has tried to do (often impractically and clumsily) for the past two decades.

This suggestion, in itself, is often ridiculed — of course NFTs aren’t some step on the road to capitalist abolition! Maybe that’s true. But at the very least they offer us an opportunity to redress our present value systems, which greatly disadvantage people who make digital content and culture, and which I believe are important in changing how we address future cultural crises.

This is the choice we have given ourselves at present, and I think it is a fallacy — either we embrace anti-capitalism, which we take to mean monk-like poverty outside of any sort of market, or we participate in capitalism and sell-out, raking in the profits of our labours. But this is a false choice, because neither of these things is possible or achievable. There is no “outside” to capitalism anywhere, except in some uncontacted Amazonian tribes, and even then it is infringing upon their space. There is also very little chance that your cultural production will transform you into some sort of capitalist. Online especially, people often assume that social or cultural capital equates to actual capital — as someone relatively well-known online at this point, who is often denounced for running some sort of grift, I can tell you that if I walked away from my day job tomorrow, the total annual income from my various online projects would last me about two months in terms of covering my living costs alone. Cultural production online does not pay.

This is a problem, and it has been a problem for decades. We have completely separated our sense of cultural value from our sense of economic value, thinking that means we’re being good anti-capitalists, when actually all we are doing is limiting our capacity to produce more cultural interventions within a capitalist hegemony. Whereas culture was once a space for important interventions in capitalist space, the very devaluing of digital culture (from music streaming to journalism and beyond) has lessened that impact considerably. We are more at the mercy of capitalist forces, not less, because we are less independent in our cultural production.

Will NFTs solve this crisis? Not on their own, but their associated systems and technologies clearly offer opportunities to redress that balance. That is where discussions around NFTs is most interesting and essential, I think, and though I may not feel capable of talking about the finer technical points of how they work, I am interested in any forward-thinking approach that challenges the utterly broken infrastructure on which we base our digital cultures. When I encounter cynics, all I really see are people who don’t care about redressing that balance or are happy to continue with the shit situation we already have. To put it bluntly, the purity politics of those who should know better feels like nothing more than a reactionary desire to masochistically preserve the drudgery they know and otherwise constantly complain about.

To talk about all this, at first I was just going to write a series of tweets, breaking down this “star registry scam” person’s argument, just for the sake of my own understanding of their position, but it became too longwinded.

Here’s an annotated version of the viral thread instead:

Lets finally talk about how NFTs are a giant scam. (1/) 🧵

First let’s talk about what the NFT market actually is. Unlike buying bonds, equities, real estate, or actual art you’re not buying something with any tangible existence, rights or utility. You’re buying an expensive entry in someone else’s database. (2/)

There is one comparable market to NFTs: The Star Naming Market.

Back in the 90s some entrepreneurs found you could convince the public to buy “rights” to name yet-unnamed stars after their loved ones by selling entries in an unofficial register. (3/)

You’d buy the “rights” to a name the star and they’d send you a piece of paper claiming that you were now the owner of said star. Nothing was actually done in this transaction, you simply paid someone to update a register about a ball of plasma millions of light years away. (4/)

Thing with star registries is they’re not unique and don’t actually convey ownership. The entire grift is in convincing other people that it has meaning. The value of naming is a star is precisely how much bullshit your loved one is willing to buy in this enterprise (5/)

First things first, I’m not sure how this is comparable to selling an NFT at all. The only way I can understand this as an example is that it indirectly affirms the apparent intangibility or immateriality of the token itself. But the problem with that, surely, is that it ignores the agency of the person who made the NFT.

Whatever you think of them, an NFT isn’t a star… Someone made it. This isn’t “buying a pet rock”. This isn’t paying money for something someone just found on the ground “as a grift”. Though people might assume an NFT has no actual value as an object — presumably because it’s digital or has previously circulated for free — it’s still something someone made, designed, coded, etc., often without remuneration. It is a cultural artefact that we have utterly alienated from its source. That source needn’t be an individual, of course — it could be a group or a website or something else — and an NFT is one way of reconnecting that digital object to the person who created it, contrary to capitalism’s mechanisms of alienation. In that sense, it is the opposite of a star registry, plain and simple.

That doesn’t mean that an NFT innately has value in a social or cultural sense, of course. But this idea that we have to be convinced of something’s meaning and that is bad — as if beauty or value should be immediate recognisable and innate — is a very strange way of thinking about culture of any kind. You just end up sounding like someone’s dad whose paid however much it costs to get into the Louvre these days and thinks it is all some scam. Who’s to say anything has meaning, you know? I am very intelligent! But this is the argument that people make. They despair that something supposedly so worthless or unimportant could be worth so much (money or otherwise) to someone else. (Again, welcome to the art world.) And yet, despite how most people frame these transactions, many NFTs sales I’ve witnessed happen within specific communities, where their value is determined by a passionate inner circle. They’re not weird overpriced Banksys bought by rich people with no taste. They’re produced and bought by specific communities that care about this stuff. Most of it isn’t for me, personally, I’ll admit, but who cares? I’m glad they make someone happy and I’m glad there is a culture of collecting and supporting artists online that isn’t based on the flawed and patronizing charity model we’ve taken as a given.

That’s not to say NFT marketplaces are perfect havens from art markets more generally. The biggest problem is that these things replicate what is already bogus elsewhere. So why don’t people take more of a stand against these tendencies offline? Maybe because they know that this small minority of uber-rich painting swappers are not the be-all-and-end-all of our cultural spaces. The same is true online.

The basic reality is that most (sub)cultures are born and grown thanks to people assigning value and meaning to things that society at large doesn’t have much of an interest in. That’s true of any kind of collectible and, yes, admittedly, capital itself. If you think $600,000 for a JPEG is unreal, wait until you hear what some people pay for stamps! But NFTs do something very different. They challenge this notion of ownership that we take for granted and they take out the age-old risk of counterfeiting. This is digital art with a built-in certificate of authenticity, and whilst you can say, “big wup, who cares?” you don’t have to watch too many episodes of Pawn Stars before you find out that providence is everything.

Why is that important? Why should anyone care? I’ll tell you why I care. As someone who has spent half of their life making things online for no money whatsoever, this technology and the thinking surrounding it is beckoning forth a future where people are finally paid for the work they do that is often explicitly outside the value structures of an already anemic popular culture. It is for that reason that this whole argument around stars and scams feels really disingenuous to me. It stinks of the sort of attitudes and assumptions and broken thinking about culture that NFTs are precisely a response to. As such, all it does is highlight our poor and lazy thinking about the value of abstractions, ideas and other things created in digital space.

This is also why it was interesting that the most infamous NFTs have been memes. People who made images like the Nyan Cat, for instance, which have become universally familiar symbols within online culture, are finally getting a slice of the pie. A lot of people hate this on principle, because the web wasn’t about that sort of financial gain to the begin with, but the point is that it is now and though we might hate it — I know I do — I’d still rather not be exploited by it. So much of what we put online — culture, images, personal information — is completely without provable origin, free-floating and uploaded to platforms that can attempt to claim some sort of ownership of it simply for being the host. But when people go off claiming that it’s stupid because you can right-flick-save-as, the point is less that the average person can do that without consequence, but that corporations and capitalists can do that without consequences already as well.

Point being, there is a power dynamic in how online culture operates, and that most people aren’t even aware of it doesn’t mean it goes away. Though we like to think of the internet as this great flattening of cultural hierarchies, the truth is that your gleeful right-clicking is also done by others in a far more exploitative way.

Consider the “you wouldn’t download a car” anti-piracy campaigns of our youth — of course you’d download a car if you could. But the funny thing about those ads is that it’s just big corporations getting upset about a slice being taken out of their profits. What about those who barely have any profits to begin with? Who corporations already reference and steal from with impunity because they don’t already have capital on their side? This has had an enormous impact on DIY or smaller cultures over the decades and it is those cultures that I care about and see using these technologies in interesting ways, and it’s those cultures that I’m glad to see reaping the benefits of this. That’s my own personal policy. When some fucked-up academic publishing house wants to charge £80 for a book made for libraries and basically no one else, you know I’m just gonna go on Lib.Gen and download it. But when a smaller press or recrod label puts something out, I’d like to support it as much as I can.

To give an anecdotal example of how this sort of broken cultural attitude plays out: I have a lot of friends who managed to build photography careers off the back of their Flickr and Tumblr profiles back in the 2000s. Maisie Cousins is perhaps the most famous person to emerge from that generation, and at that time my partner knew a lot of people who ran in her online circles. (My partner explicitly grew up with and contribute to that scene online.) These were generally teenage girls who had real talent and their work would often be downloaded and spread about around the internet on different blogs. Sometimes that could be annoying, because their work wasn’t always posted with credit and there were instances of outright plagiarism, but it was all fairly light-hearted because it was teenage girls ripping off teenage girls. No one really expected to get paid for any of it, it was just about credit where due. But later, things got really complicated. Big fashion brands like Forever 21 and Urban Outfitters became notorious for right-click-save-as-ing the work of young women and printing them on their t-shirts. It happened all the time, and as a photographer myself, though I wasn’t part of those circles, it was so deeply disenfranchising how devalued your work can be. Exploitation, even within cultural industries, was and remains rife. But the point was more than people who could pay for it were exploiting the unspoken rules of online culture and making money off the back of teenagers just trying to express themselves.

Today, we are caught in the catch-22 that resulted from this kind of cultural disconnection. I’m reminded, for example, of Urbanomic, which was in hot water recently because Robin put out a request for ad hoc interning that unfortunately wasn’t paid, but was instead work in exchange for books and a reference. And that can be hard for some people to hear. I understand why. Unpaid interns are rightly a scourge in a lot of industries, and I certainly wouldn’t do it somewhere that I knew could afford to pay me. But as someone who has seen how much blood, sweat and tears Robin puts into Urbanomic, where the return certainly doesn’t reflect just how much Robin puts into it, and as someone who has also seen the gloating people do online about pirating his material, there is a sense that our culture often reaps what is sows. “How dare you ask for free labour!” immediately loses its impact when people online frequently ask for free books online. But that’s not to say it’s the fault of readers. It just shows where we are. We’re left with a culture where no one can afford to hire anyone and no one can afford to buy anything, and we think it’ll just sort itself out if we’re principled enough.

Now, I say all this and often get quite angry about it not in spite of but because I believe in principles of free access. I have generally been told throughout my online life that I am devaluing my own work because I don’t put it behind paywalls. But I’m happy to provoke and contribute to conversations free of charge and I actually find a lot of the platforms available for remuneration really off-putting. I have a Patreon, for instance, which brings in a modest amount that generally covers my web hosting costs and other infrastructural stuff. I’d love it if more people would voluntarily subscribe and become Patreons, but the general assumption is you get something there that you can’t get for free and very few people go in for it as a way of supporting the material you are already consuming. I could move all my stuff to patreon, of course, but also Patreon is so ugly ? I kinda hate the idea of hiding myself away on such an aesthetically unappealing platform. It doesn’t feel good. But why is that the only viable solution? Why isn’t it possible to be paid for something that isn’t cushioned in fetishised principles of private ownership? Isn’t it actually pretty cool to have both? An image or piece of work that anyone can see but one (or a limited number of people) can actually own? Why is the only viable solution we have for funding online culture completely closing off access to it and paywalling your entire output? I hate that much more, personally. What I find interesting about NFTs is that it opens up a new paradigm for engaging with and sustaining online culture and the people who contribute to it beyond the damned-if-you-do-damned-if-you-don’t culture we have presently.

The viral thread — remember that? — continues:

NFTs impart no legal ownership, give no rights to the artwork, are non-unique, and provide nothing of intrinsic value except the sign value of owning bragging rights to announce to other crypto bros about a shared collective delusion about database entries. (12/)

Literally how do you think the digital music industry has been run for the past decade? Why do you think people place such importance on gigs and vinyl records? If only it was because they valued the cultural experience. You chat to teenagers with disposable income and ticket stubs and vinyl records tend to signify bragging rights that your crumby MP3s or Spotify playlists just don’t have. Fetishism around physical objects in the music industry is a nightmare — and I say that as someone who spent all his disposable income (and even money I needed for rent) on records growing up, and as someone who is now trying to unburden himself with a overloaded Discogs store.

That’s not to shame people who like material things or physical mementos of experiences. I’m one of them. But this critique does demonstrate a very one-dimensional view of why people buy things, and how little people value digital content more generally.

To bring this a little closer to home: within the blogosphere, I feel like the idea of blog merch or “crit drip”, etc., started out as a joke, as an ironic side hustle. I used to find the idea of a blog having merch hilarious, and made some stuff for that reason alone — I wanted to do Xenogothic beach towels. But as is the reality for so many artists online, it is also an acknowledgement that people just don’t value digital stuff, and if you don’t want to lessen the experience of interacting with your stuff by making it wholly dependent on a specific paywalled platform or making sure it is riddled with ads, creating some sort of additional physical merchandise is the only way you’re going to see some sort of return on your work.

(Of course, people’s opinions on this are also extreme, as if you shouldn’t make art for money, but personally, I’d love to be able to live off the blog if that were possible — not for greed, but so I could afford to spend even more time on it.)

That’s the irony of a site like the Quietus joining in the NFT hysteria:

Just waiting for the pro-NFT lobby to come back with a retort that manages to be both ultra-patronising and incomprehensible while managing to avoid answering any of the fundamental charges. And the “forest burning” aspect. *looks at watch*

Originally tweeted by The Quietus (@theQuietus) on October 7, 2021.

Maybe I’m just part of a pro-NFT lobby too — although I wouldn’t say so — but for someone interested in music and the blogosphere and their surrounding cultures, this just sounds pigheaded to me (especially considering the Quietus has repeatedly done fundraising drives because, as is universally the experience, writing online doesn’t pay).

But what if it did? What if you didn’t have to rely on physical merchandise or the pittance of ad revenue to secure some sort of income? What if people didn’t only assign value to physical objects but saw online content — which they arguably spend more time engaging with these days anyway — as being just as valuable?

This is especially important for music since an increasing number of people are becoming cynical about vinyl fetishism, with production turn-arounds hemorrhaging the industry and being a major pollutant as well (an argument that is massively overblown). Most NFTs — at least the ones that grab headlines — are probably the digital equivalent of the million-dollar Wu Tang Clan album, but that stunt surely epitomizes a wider cultural fetishism around boxsets and limited editions. NFTs needn’t be represented by the most extravagant splurgings on the market. We needn’t frame them as “Most Expensive Discogs Sales for October”, as we do the other physical cultural clutter we pass around and exploit demand for. But we do, because we get off on denouncing examples of our own desires and value structures taken to extremes by those who possess extreme wealth.

We would do well to remember that these things are not representative of culture at large, where money is exchanged for digital art and files every day but somehow remains unsustainable. Thinking like that is how we ended up with our physical art markets (and value systems more generally) being in such a mess as it is.

And there’s the rub. The irony is that people seem to really misunderstand where digital market innovations come from. You can complain about digital markets all you want, but what they are replicating are the systems you’re already implicated in. It’s as if the denouncement of NFTs represents some sort of commitment to conspicuous consumption for some people, but if that’s an illusion IRL you can rest assured it’s an illusion online as well. I wonder how many of those people who are militantly anti-NFT are vegan, for example. People can, of course, pick their battles, but it does make me wonder why this garners so much attention at the expense of other more harmful things that are more pervasive and could be more readily boycotted, rather than simply denouncing something that most people don’t actually have any involvement in anyway. I bet most of y’all don’t even buy an album on Bandcamp when the website prompts you to.

The truth is, if you think you can denounce NFTs on Twitter and consider your soul saved, I’m sorry to say that the behaviours you’re highlighting haven’t emerged from thin air. They reflect how markets already run. And so denouncing NFTs for how they resemble already existing structures is only to indulge in your own self-fulfilling prophecy. The reason why some people and artists are interested in them is because they offer up an opportunity to do things differently, diversifying the market behaviours of artists and patrons in a way that arguably hasn’t been possible since the invention of the printing press upturned patronage and artists’ living standards in the Middle Ages.

This is particularly important when we actually rub two brain cells together and consider the impact of this on the climate crisis. Okay, the production of NFTs may not be super efficient right now. Chances are, as with most new technologies, they’ll get less expensive to make and run as time goes on. But considering how much of a mess the production (and reproduction) of physical culture already is, it is likely far more viable to make digital art carbon neutral (or even carbon negative) than it is the production of vinyl records or mass-produced band tees.

I’m reminded here of xin’s Melts Into Love EP, for instance, which was “released as a ‘biodigital’ LP — meaning the music is released digitally, but with a living consequence woven in. All proceeds from sales will be donated to Eden Reforestation Projects, with each purchase of the LP funding the planting of at least 40 trees.” Wouldn’t it be interesting if we re-evaluated our sense of worth in the digital space and put some of the earning towards funding the rehabilitation of our natural environment? Sure, blockchain technology might be polluting, but I bet we’d be damaging the planet much less if we focused on developing improvements to the digital Bandcamp model and got all the centrist dads to chill the fuck out over vinyl records. At least an NFT isn’t accompanied by a load of plastic waste and industry burn-out.

Already, in this regard, there is a community of artists online who are really pushing the boat out as far as challenging our complacent cultural value system goes. But, returning to the Twitter thread, the idea that other people getting involved is all part of the problem with this seductive pyramid scheme is question-begging.

In addition to the ‘International Star Registry’ several other ‘registrar chains’ popped up claiming to offer the same service. NameAStar, StarNamingGifts, Star Name Registry etc. All claiming to offer the same service with an equally alleged authoritative registrar. (6/)

NFTs are the evolution of this grift in a more convoluted form. Instead of allegedly buying a star, you’re allegedly buying a JPEG from an artist. Except you’re not buying the image, you’re buying a digitally signed URL to the image. (7/)

Again, sorry, but how is this different to being a photographer and selling prints of your work? (Or buying land / a house? I mean, it’s different from private property in the sense that the purchasing of a cultural artefact like an NFT needn’t be used to exploit the labour of another — you can’t rent an NFT (yet) — but as Rhea Myers repeatedly points out, we handle title deeds and symbolic agreements all the time — in fact, that’s arguably what paper money already is. But photography seems a better example here…) Every print proper comes with a signed certificate and some unnecessary commitment to artificial scarcity to drive the price up — that is, increase its value, and culturally speaking, this value doesn’t have to be monetary alone. Scarcity can also influence behaviours; the rarer something is, the more careful people are about preserving it, for instance — an important point to make culturally, since the apparent abundance of the internet actually makes it very poorly archived, with many early cybercultures already lost to data death. But by simply replicating our thinking about physical objects in a digital space — both actively and critically — all we’re really doing here is describing already existing art markets.

That doesn’t make these behaviours okay. The familiar ways that some NFT markets operate is something to be challenged, as if there’s a Robinson Crusoe fallacy at work — we have arrived in a new land and set about rebuilding the world we’ve just come from, rather than affirming the new potentials on offer to us here, which we probably can’t see because confirmation bias. In fact, the really stupid thing is when we recreate old conditions in a new space and then pretend like they’re at all new and special. This is what this thread does with NFTs, making it even more disingenuous.

If we’re not honest about where people are getting their ideas from — already existing and material socioeconomic conditions — choosing to make up some weirdly inappropriate allegories about stars instead, we only further fulfill our own doom-laden prophecy. Because developments run both ways. In reshaping the landscape of patronage and cultural value, by precisely exiting art markets and coming up with a new model, the whole landscape of contemporary art could change for the better, if we actually use our critical faculties and resist our bone-headed tendency to reactively denounce things based on hearsay or inaccurate second-hand information.

In this person’s comparison, for example, shaping the development of NFTs as a way of revolutionizing the star-buying market dangerously downplays the significance of these new technologies. The logic is twisted. “Here’s why you should be angry about NFTs — they perfectly replicate a market that everyone knows is dumb and purely symbolic, and therefore doesn’t really gives a shit about.” So why should I be angry? Just so you can have some clicks? Bad faith reactionary posting is very web 2.0. But that’s not to say I have problem with someone being critical of NFTs and digital currencies — I have no skin in the game whatsoever. It’s just, if we’re supposed to be concerned about these things, and we want to convince people to be vigilant of them, the last thing I’d compare them to would be something as innocuous as “adopting a dolphin”.

Such is the flaw of the familiar Quietus tweet, and most of the engagement with the thread: if we’re meant to tackle the charges made, the charges here amount to a cold-caller stealing your granny’s pension through some capitalist gimmick. It’s not something anyone who is technologically astute should worry about, whilst at the same time also apparently being an absolute scourge on society. That whole framing is bogus, if you ask me, not because it’s critical but because it’s a terrible critique. It’s a bad argument, no matter what is being argued against. Personally, I think these things warrant better thinking than that — especially from people (and platforms) that we otherwise hold up as our chief critical voices. (Stick to the music reviews, I guess, Quietus?)

Because what this does is literally transform something with very real material implications into yelling at stars/clouds. Either we should be concerned and intervene, or we are embracing the performative denouncement of something that we don’t think is very important. And what’s the point of that other than stifling technological progress? Personally, I hope things change online sooner rather than later. There is a huge imbalance in how much time we spend online and how much we value what is produced here. And that’s not an inequality invented by NFTs.

That’s not to say we shouldn’t listen to the concerns of anyone who isn’t directly involved, but it does make we wonder why they think we should care so much about this one supposedly inflated and unimportant issue at the expense of general financial inequality and injustice. “Magical voluntarism” is no response to capitalist inequality, because generally speaking there is no way for people to intervene, but there are people active online who are showing artists how to enter this space and play around in and shape it. Surely that, above everything else, is worthy of note?

There’s not much else to say beyond this. Once the foundation of the argument has been revealed to be flawed, and painfully rooted in, whilst simultaneously somehow ignorant of — as if it were pure ideology — the machinations of already existing markets, then the rest of the charges made collapse along with it. We see the familiar machinations of shitty market dynamics reframed as digitised sensationalism, which doesn’t help anyone. They continue:

Except now instead of buying your digital star with dollars there’s a second leg to the scam. You have to purchase the star by exchanging your dollars for some weird token whose value fluctuates on some secondary market. (8/)

Breaking: digital currency embroiled in “money is made-up and structurally unbalanced” controversy.

And listing digital stars on the register is a pay-to-play game that requires you to purchase these weird tokens at whatever the available exchange price is, thus creating synthetic demand for the token and driving the price up. Which is convenient for those who own token. (9/)

Again, this is a very paranoid way of describing how the world already works. You go to some countries, you’ll find US dollars are more valuable within certain markets than a country’s actual currency. But again, that doesn’t make it right. The idea of critical engagement here is surely that there is an opportunity to do things differently. Of course, digital currency spaces are going to perfectly replicate markets IRL if these technologies are left to bros from the City looking for something to do with their extra cash. (And let me tell you, having recently dome some proofing and editing work for some big corporate bank’s internal policy documents — such is the impure existence of someone who can’t make a living off their digital cultural production — investing in crypto is already as normal as investing in anything else in these places.)

But when we treat what is normal for the upper economic class — indeed, their bread and butter — as some sort of new magic trick for the rest of us, we neglect how democratizing these things can potentially be. Take this further point:

The core of the NFT grift is outsourcing the marketing for this artificially scar[c]e registrar to artists who are forced to pay large sums of money upfront to list URLs to their artwork in the hopes of recovering their lost costs. (10/)

Artists are like hamsters in a wheel that powers a giant casino for crypto bros to gamble on these signed URLs in the hopes that they can flip their purchase around to greater and greater fools for a profit. (11/)

Again, damned if you do, damned if you don’t. This is already how things work offline. This is why I gave up on photography — it was a pay-to-win endeavor, and I couldn’t afford the cost of entry. It’s the same in the art world more generally. Those who succeed in the market can generally already afford to take part. Even if this person recognised how they’re just re-describing a wheel turned into a JPEG, online spaces perfectly replicating offline dynamics isn’t actually the given a lot of these useful idiots think it is. In fact, that’s why digital cultures are struggling — they don’t work like physical cultures do.

That is why there is a problem with my own responses here, and this further problematises the critic’s very foundation. That a response from someone as rudimentarily informed as myself falls back on, “But how is this different to what we have?” also frustrates the argument. It’s an uninteresting and toothless response to an uninteresting and toothless accusation. It’s the problem with not knowing, more broadly, how these things work.

That’s precisely why these innovations are interesting to me, even as someone who is broadly technophobic. Digital artists and writers and musicians, et al., are struggling because there is no one-size-fits-all approach to artistic patronage and funding. Digital currencies offer up new avenues for patronage, not so we can all get loaded investing in digital Damien Hirsts but so that we can better finance the production of our own culture. Because making stuff online definitely costs money, even if it doesn’t often bring much of a return.

But because this person clearly can’t differentiate between what is new about NFTs and what is a continuation of meatspace inequalities, the responses to their critique are immediately limited to retorts of “you’re not saying anything that specifically applies to NFTs here, you’re just describing capitalism”. So the questions themselves need to change — what is new about NFTs? What new challenges do they bring that aren’t simply the further digitalisation of capitalism as we already know it? What is it about these technologies that actually escape our understanding of how the world currently works (not counting the average critic’s general ignorance of the world more generally)?

Those are questions that critics and adherents alike need to ask themselves. Until they do, their arguments have about as much value as they perceive the average NFT to have.

Update: Great thread from Mat Dryhurst here on this same series of tweets:

Ok so as clearly as I can make it, the star registry analogy doesn’t work because in the case of an NFT you are talking about agreements between an artist who owns the rights to something and a collector. Nobody owns the rights to sell the star.

it is quite obviously different to have a public registry of agreements between verified artists and their collector base, and a registry of selling ownership to something you don’t have the rights to (i.e a star)

Ownership with NFTs is unintuitive, as what is being transferred is a title to own and resell that artwork on web 3. An artist could indeed sell that same work to someone else, but nobody does, because that would be nuking your trust and any future market for your work.

We don’t fully own a lot of things we pay for. Digital music files being one example. You can’t go and resell those later. You can do so with an NFT, which is why they are priced higher.

NFTs have found a way to avoid wholesale scarcity by emphasising some elements of scarcity. If artists traded copyright to a few ppl (see Wu Tang/Shkreli) you run the risk of limiting access. NFTs are happy for everyone to access the art, and trade the title to it. It’s clever.

the stuff about NFTs being a means to onboard people to crypto is true, but not in the way the OP intended. A great amount of the value of Ethereum is based on the bet that immutable digital ownership on decentralised registries is a big deal, and NFTs are a foundational element

I believe this is also a big deal, although I can see tradeoffs in adopting these approaches. The pitfalls however are not “it’s all a scam” or “it’s destroying the planet”. With love, these are unsophisticated arguments that prey on poor understanding. click, RT, click.

The forest burning stuff regarding NFTs is, for the purposes of brevity, largely made up. There is no marginal energy cost to minting an NFT on Ethereum.

Engraving and shipping individual oil discs around the world is still an accepted standard in music.

The truth is that there is no simple way to explain the complicated blockchain energy scenario without someone wanting to get into a very long conversation about hash rate, energy mix and the relative merits of how to secure decentralised networks, and if we need them at all

but if you don’t have time or stomach for that long conversation, my earnest suggestion is to not take the bait into believing NFTs are boiling the ocean for a lark. It is not a moral act to pass moralising judgment on something you do not understand. Quite the opposite.

to set terms of engagement, I will not respond to any comment that posts articles with made up figures about NFT energy costs (they are completely made up), and will only respond to people being civil and displaying curiosity. No tribe war nonsense pls.

Originally tweeted by Mat Dryhurst (@matdryhurst) on October 7, 2021.

Reflective Centrism

Over the last week, much of the UK’s left-wing media has been decrying Kier Starmer’s current campaign of public hypocrisy. The list of contradictions feels never ending at this point. If Starmer has previously announced his support for something in public over the course of the last two years, chances are he’s ridden back over it over the last two weeks.

This has occurred against the more ambient backdrop of an escalating internal war against the party’s left — both “far” and “soft” — where those often denounced as Stalinists for their democratic-socialist principles are ironically subjected to threats of ejection and paranoid investigations for invented offences or even the mildest critiques of the leadership. It is an assault on party democracy that feels like far more of a threat to the country than anything Jeremy Corbyn ever proposed, but for those loyal to Starmer, this is all immaterial. Keir can do no wrong, and nothing is off-limits in their concerted effort to resurrect the spectre of Blairism that so many people hoped the Corbyn era had finally put to bed.

But it is in their firm belief in his leadership that many of Starmer’s supporters legitimise their actions by pointing to the near-religious fervour of the Corbyn era. That is to say, they legitimise their unprecedented actions and assaults on the party by pointing to their own hysterical appraisals of the previous leadership. That the left denounces Starmer’s attacks on party democracy, for instance, is seen as hypocritical because Corbyn was a Marxist and Marxism is authoritarian communism and nothing else. (Never mind the fact that the previous leadership hoped to further democratise the party and put more power in the hands of its members.)

The same twists of logic, where the Labour right excuses its own behaviour by placing itself on a par with their strawman versions of the previous leadership’s principles, can be seen in their uncritical support of Starmer more generally. When Starmer’s critics say “the British political centre is the world’s shittest cult, in awe of a grey man with no vision for the future”, for example, his supporters only hear the word “cult” and respond, “I know you are but what am I?” They respond by holding up a mirror and deflecting all accusations of hypocrisy back to the left. [1] [2]

Whilst encasing themselves in a hall of mirrors may be good for the odd zinger on Twitter, in the long run it is only going to further limit their chances of electoral success. As they continually point outwards, blaming the Tory’s inexplicable lead in the polls on left-wing sabotage, “I know you are but what am I?” is further chiselled out as their own epigraph. Because no one really knowing “what they are” is precisely the problem, and deflecting criticism onto those outside their ranks only serves to over-define the apparent wolf at the door, which is so unbelievably powerful, omniscient and conniving. But, in the end, their abstract enemy melts into thin air, whilst the question of “…what am I?” continues to echo around the hollow heart of their agenda.

For a reflective centrism, every deflection only shines a further light on their opponents, whilst further blackening the void of their own politics.

[1] That Starmer’s hypocrisy has caused the biggest outcry in the media after the party conference, does unfortunately remind me of this bit by the late Norm Macdonald. (“I don’t think [the hypocrisy] is the worst part…”)

[2] As an aside, let’s consider how cultish the Corbynistas really were. If the Corbyn era was cultish, it was undoubtedly because Corbyn provided the foundation to a long-subdued millenarian sentiment in British politics. If this moment had echoes of an evangelical Christianity, with supporters crowding around a leader they hoped to take them to the promised land, that may simply come with the territory. After all, what other area of public life has retained its commitment to individual lives — if not a world — transformed than the transcendental drudgery of British Anglicanism? (The jokes about Jeremy Corbyn and Jesus Christ sharing a pair of initials certainly didn’t help matters.) But personally, I am more tolerant of quasi-religious appeals to radical rebirth and transformation than I am a suburbanite’s commitment to bourgeois, political Protestantism. (This is more pronounced in the US, of course, but let’s not pretend the same sentiment behind being a “good Christian” isn’t echoed in the bourgeoisie’s appeals to everyone constituting a “good citizenry”.) And anyway, as many a drunken atheist will announce to their bored family over Christmas dinner, if a cult is just the collective veneration of an individual or object, all world religions are cults, just really big ones. But not all cults are alike. Not all religions and their sects share the same principles. If cults are the way of the world today — truly, in what corners of modern life is collective veneration not a common occurrence — better a progressive and hopeful one than a reactionary cult committed to preserving a repressive status quo.

Regardless, I think what scares the Labour right the most is that Corbyn really is the past. If he’s still invoked, it tends to be in solidarity, as a member of a community rather than its leader. Indeed, whilst many still decry his treatment at the hands of the party since it withdrew the whip and he became an independent MP, few are still hanging their hopes on one man and his former shadow cabinet. The right wishes the left’s power was dependent on Corbyn’s participation in public political life. On the contrary, though they have chopped off the apparent head of the Corbynista brigade, the movement continues to fight for its principles, almost as if it was always about socialist politics, with individual personalities just a means to an end.