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.


Leave a Reply