Over the past few weeks, at least on Twitter, I have been teasing the near-completion of my next book. It has been responsible for a general slowing of blogging activity as I have tried to write it more or less in isolation, sharing little of its development, occasionally posting unidentified offcuts or giving the occasional sneak peek to Patreons.
This has been a strange exercise. With Egress being written in public, with some material already in circulation as essays or blogposts by the time it was published, not to mention the fact I’ve been very open about my readings of Mark Fisher’s work for about 5 years now, the past 18 months or so have been a private puzzle regarding where to head next.
I signed a new contract with Repeater Books back in mid-2020, and so the prospect of a new book has been hanging over me for some time. And I must apologise to Tariq (and thank him for his understanding) in repeatedly changing my mind as to what I was going to send his way. Pitching a first idea, I set to work and wrote some 40,000 (somewhat shite) words on an altogether unrelated topic. Later, some 60,000 words of similar quality emerged on a promised book on the rise and fall of accelerationism. I spent a lot of time on this. The backbone was written quickly, under the encouragement of James Ellis, who invited me to teach one half of a two-part course on accelerationism he organised late last year (currently on sale). In refining this and adding copious amounts of information, the first three chapters are in a state that I’m really happy with. Then it stopped dead. I reached a Badiou-shaped impasse and a greater familiarity with his work is required before I can complete and further develop what is already a mammoth project.
Then, in spring of this year, surrounded by daffodils, another new book emerged all of its own. I sent a third and final email to Tariq informing him that I was changing direction yet again, sorry, and was grateful for his understanding. In fact, Tariq’s response was clarifying in itself. He rightly identified that I had likely started to write too early, only getting so far on each project because I clearly had more to research before anything could settle into its destined form. But with this proviso, he added a piece of advice that has resounded in my head ever since. To paraphrase: it is clear I have something to say, and each false start clearly shares a thread, so best to elucidate that thread first and return to the more involved projects I have later. Whatever it is I have been trying to say will emerge in one form or another if I let it, and the problem may have been that I have been trying to formalise this thread in books where it is not really appropriate.
With this in mind, I focussed in on what was really bugging me. Narcissus in Bloom is the result.
About two weeks ago, I introduced the book to a group of philosophy students at Newcastle University — shout out to Stephen Overy for the invitation. As I set about introducing myself, my work to date, and the general argument of the book, everything began to fall further into place.
I have not been shy, over the last two years, about the punishing reception of Egress. Many readers have thoroughly enjoyed the book, of course, but for a book that was ostensibly about community, I found the circumstances of watching it go out into the world in the midst of a pandemic really difficult. I had not anticipated its release to be so isolating. Still, as the world opens back up, I can feel those conversations starting again with gusto. (The Spanish edition is due for an official release in just a few days’ time.)
Those at Newcastle understood this tension intuitively. The undergrads have a module on Bataille, it seems, and so shared an interest in the acephelic one’s self-concern, his constant flirtation with the “I”, only to want to lop it off, watching and documenting its dissolution into the social conflicts of his era. It’s a modernist sentiment, if ever there was one, and Egress hoped to engage in a similar process — reading a lot of Bataille at the time, his writing resonated with the ego-death that occurred in the face of real death and the political upheaval of 2017-19. And though Fisher was no real fan of Bataille himself, he was, for me at least, the right vehicle at the right time to begin exploring a sentiment expressed by Fisher in Capitalist Realism — that the subject necessary to address the crises of the present, consistently desired but blocked in its emergence, is a collective subject.
But what is this collective subject? That’s been a question that’s stalked me for the last five years. Egress wondered aloud about a kind of species-consciousness, a sense of ourselves as understood from some planetary perspective, as well as the sort of negative solidarity that emerges from grief. But this sense of collective subjectivity remains abstract; a loose-fitting heuristic that gestures towards something supposedly required but too amorphous to really apply in any practical terms. The spectre of Jordan Peterson echoes irritatingly around my head — it’s “low-resolution thinking” to him, no doubt. But lockdown has nonetheless made the necessity of a collective subject all the more pressing, as those who reject its potential instead double-down on a disastrous sense of individual sovereignty at the expense of all else.
With this in mind, what irked me about the reception of Egress among some people was that it was taken to be a “self-indulgent” project. Of course, I can see why. There’s a fair amount of the first-person in there; it’s explicitly about my experiences and my friends’ experiences, and how we responded locally to a death that was nonetheless felt globally — and that was all intentional. But there was also a clear interest in that often false equivalence between the personal and the political. Mark’s work, at its best, really emphasises that. It takes work to transform one into the other, their relationship is not necessarily a given, and I wanted the book to almost be a diary of that working process. I didn’t know what this “collective subject” was, but I wanted to see what would emerge from continually gesturing towards it anyway. More specifically, I wanted to talk about a process where there was often a lot of tension between individual melancholic experience and a desire for social or collective joy and political action.
But still, this “self-indulgent” dismissal sat in my head, and after a few months, I started thinking about why this is such a common critique these days. So I started writing about narcissism.
Narcissism may well be the pathology of our given age, and we’re likely all afflicted to a certain degree, but as I set about picking apart the cultural history of this oppressive folk-pathology, I found it has been the crisis of many an age. Since the Renaissance, in fact, we have all struggled with the checks and balances of being individuals under capitalism (whether emergent or late) and a desire for more social cohesion. In fact, many artists of the Renaissance were explicitly concerned with this tension, embracing the independence that technologies like the printing press afforded them whilst, at the same time, mourning a former sense of collective identity that had previously defined each person’s relationship to a social mass.
Narcissus in Bloom attempts to sketch out a trajectory from this point. Rejecting Freud’s limited reading, which has been reduced further still by reactionary cultural commentators, I provide a wider view of the influence of Ovid’s Narcissus, making it more immediately relevant to our present moment by attaching it to a counter-history of the self-portrait (which first emerged about a century before Cartesianism and liberalism and first gave its image to the new individualised subject of Renaissance Europe). From there, the book talks about Albrecht Dürer, Caravaggio, Rembrandt, Hippolyte Bayard, Lee Friedlander, Derek Jarman, Paris Hilton, Britney Spears, Kim Kardashian; all via Gilles Deleuze, Judith Butler, Jodi Dean, Steven Bruhm, Michel Foucault, Hervé Guibert; and ends with a reassessment of the so-called “collective narcissism” of Black Lives Matter and other socially conscious movements disturbed by their own self-image. The aim is to show that the ubiquity of the self-portrait doesn’t reveal ourselves as these perfect unified success stories but rather exacerbates the fragmented nature of our selves. In the gaps in between our selfies, we find new subjects struggling to be born, and new worlds along with them. That’s what Ovid’s Narcissus tells us, and it is likely what our our “narcissism” is trying to tell us today.
Unfortunately, it’s a thesis I’ve found difficult to develop over the last year or so. In many ways, it’s a book that should write itself. My research goes back to stuff I wrote about as an undergraduate, or more recently in various journals, particularly a 2018 essay I wrote for ŠUM. But now working full time, I have less and less time to spend on independent projects. After a friend told me about the Bidston Observatory Artistic Research Centre, and with a week of holiday left to take from work, I decided I was going to hole myself up on the Wirral and continue this counter-history of narcissism appropriately, with seven days of solitary study.
I’ve just returned, and it was an incredibly productive week. I have two chapters left to finish and a conclusion left to write, and that’s it. I’m hoping I can complete those things in stolen moments between now and Christmas, but we shall see.
In the meantime, I’m reluctant to share much more about it. Working on the book will likely be the only writing I do for the foreseeable future, and so energies are going to be explicitly channelled elsewhere than the blog for some time. I want to finish it and avoid distractions. But I will still leave occasional updates here in the meantime, probably of a more photographic than writerly nature…
For now, enjoy these photographs from my week away, and if you need some time and space to work on some self-initiated project of your own, whether independently or as part of a group, I cannot recommend Bidston enough. The team there are awesome and there is nowhere quite like it in the UK. This is a space outside the neoliberalised “residency” circuit that defines most “artist” activity today. I think it is going to become vital for so many people once this Covid nightmare allows it to truly thrive.
All has been quiet for a little while, and as of this weekend, it seems the whole sorry saga is finally over. Though the former team have been getting confident online in the face of a stoic silence from the other side, earlier today Tariq Goddard published his first (and no doubt the final) word on the topic of Repeater’s buy-out of Zer0 Books. It sums up, succinctly and eloquently, why this remains a victory for Repeater in the face of a fatally online crowd of jokers.
Everything is back where it belongs. Here’s looking up to what comes next! And as of today, we’re already starting to see what that will be. Also announced today are upcoming projects from the Acid Horizon gang and the forthcoming Profane Illuminations podcast, who will both be involved in the new Zer0 Books YouTube channel.
Time is short, our enemies are legion, we are spoilt for causes worth fighting for: no one needs another internecine left-wing squabble, which is why I have shied from commenting in public about this one until I was hopeful it was over.
Seven years ago, me, Mark Fisher and the rest of the team that started Zero Books were forced out or resigned — the distinction is a fine one, but our decision to leave was not one we took willingly. It involved many of the things our readers consider important and care passionately about: workplace bullying, employers’ contempt for staff, editorial interference, the poor treatment of authors and, perversely, an animus against our project itself.
Zero Books started at a meeting at the New Piccadilly Cafe, since closed, in the spring of 2007. Oddly, I remember it being one of the last times I have felt physically nervous, God knows why, as those assembled were about as unlikely to erupt into violent disagreement as any I have sat across a table with and, indeed, all looked fairly nervous themselves as I cantered on without a script. Perhaps we all shared a presentiment that we were about to make (modest) publishing history. If we did, we were not able to do so quickly. The fact that it took two further years for our first books to come out was a pretty accurate reflection of our collective publishing experience, which aside from my having published three novels (but with no practice at the other end of the business), was negligible. The small group of enthusiasts that met that day were chosen by myself and Mark, believing the other writers would form part of a new publishing vanguard, an ambitious suggestion that I was happy to take his word for. As my original desire had been to get Mark into print (the editors I had shown his work to were completely non-plussed and generally dismissive of his writing), and the belief that there were other such lone voices out in the blog wilderness, I was ready to conclude that the job would now have to be done ourselves, treating our “summit” as an opportunity to get the kind of people who did not think they were authors, but who should be, into print.
In retrospect, I realise that the only publisher willing to back us, John Hunt Publishing, was at cross purposes with us from the start. In Zero they saw a cheap (in the early days we worked for free and later for never more than very low wages), relatively risk-free way of ground-testing their innovative publishing model: all author communication would run through an online database, minimum staff and no phone calls or emails, multiple titles with very little editing and low production costs and quality, little marketing or promotion — and all done at a budget. As our wanting to find and publish new authors, to better establish our emerging “hegemony”, was itself risky, only a relatively low-cost publisher was going to collaborate with us. Hence a strange alliance was formed and held, for a while, but our refusal to see these systems as the point of the exercise, simply a regrettable means, combined with JHP’s anger at our success despite our different approach (personal contact, events and friendship were always a big part of how we operated) meant that the tension was never less than sharp, ongoing and enduring. Sales helped, tipping the balance of power in our favour. Whereas at the outset our success had seemed unimaginable, by the time the first books were released it felt inevitable. Titles that might have been considered too marginal or plain weird to colonise the mainstream did just that, best epitomised by Mark’s Capitalist Realism and Eugene Thacker’s In the Dust of This Planet. One was a work of political analysis and the other a piece of godless nihilist theology. Both were written in a tenor, a voice that a readership that had been neglected, but that we were also in the act of creating, understood and connected to at once.
When the end came, we were led (on) to believe we would be able to buy the imprint, but the ownership of John Hunt Publishing was able to do what we on the left thought impossible, which is to say beyond the pale: to bring in a replacement and so kill our hope of a sale. The marriage of convenience had shown itself to have run its course and JHP clearly felt that the money could flow even without the “project”, to which JHP had never really signed up. As the replacement did not care about the issues we did, the issues we thought people who read our books did, or at least could look the other way in his own marriage of convenience, relying on indulgent treatment on account of the back catalogue bequeathed them, the new publisher was able to opportunistically benefit from the brand, and pose an existential threat to our new project, Repeater Books. Faced with the irony of having to compete with our own back catalogue, Repeater moved to a more effective model (still flexible, but far fewer, and better produced and edited books). Meanwhile, with the Zero team moving over en masse to the new imprint, with the ever-valuable support of readers who knew our story and backed our project, as well as Zero’s cynical missteps, were of incalculable benefit in building our new imprint up from scratch.
One month ago, Repeater, as part of the sale of John Hunt Publishing to Etan Ilfeld, a founding member of Repeater Books, was reconnected with something we had never wanted to let get away: Zero Books. The weeks since the sale have been challenging in that the former publisher withheld Zero’s channels and began a campaign of demonstrable lies and cynical misinformation that has yet to stop. On the day he found out about the sale, he rebranded Zero’s Patreon and YouTube as his own. There had been no direct contact between him and the new ownership at the time and no discussions had taken place about his future with the company. Nevertheless, he falsely reported being fired, broke confidentiality and leaked news of the sale attempting to frame it as Watkins Media vs him.
This week, the last of the remaining assets were returned. Nothing looked like Zero when we started it, now everything, at least superficially, does. The window displays of Foyles are heaving with polemics bound in covers with garish colours, supposedly calling out power and privilege. But big publishers are still essentially conservative — even if they will now take chances on authors that independents have already broken, they still do not trust their instincts on discovering and spotting new talent. That means there still exists the same need for innovative publishing and publishers, as there was in 2007. How this will work for Zero and Repeater is an interesting question. An imprint with a successful backlist that supports a struggling frontlist (whose successes have come from interventions in the leftist civil-culture war, and a robust YouTube presence that has nonetheless failed to compliment sales), faithful to the corner-cutting model, has run its course, as it was not for nothing that the company was sold to us. And, while it is good to have our books back where they belong, we have decided to call a moratorium on new signings until we have consensus on a viable new direction. Until then, we will return to a team-based operation, not one that uses the imprint as a platform for individual self-aggrandisement, honouring all existing contracts, for authors we signed, and for those that we did not. I would also like to offer our thanks and gratitude to the readers and writers, often an interchangeable distinction, that have supported both imprints from their foundation to the present.
Earlier this year, I gave a talk fit for springtime on the history of the new.
The talk emerged from my research for a forthcoming book on accelerationism. In fact, as a work-in-progress, it is somewhat disjointed. I read out the drafts for two chapters that are, at present, tangentially related. (Making the bridge between them more stable and explicit is part of the work I’m still undertaking at present.)
The reason for reading out these two draft texts was that they responded to very recent discussions had online and around the blogosphere at that time. One was my back-and-forth with Matt Bluemink on anti-hauntology and the emergence of the new, and also my various blogposts emphasising Alain Badiou’s influence on the initial accelerationist blogosphere. As has also been discussed even more recently, accelerationism was never just about Nick Land and Gilles Deleuze; rather, I think the key point of tension comes from the continuities and discontinuities between Alain Badiou and Gilles Deleuze instead, specifically their differing positions regarding the emergence of the new.
The best introduction to this, for my money, remains Sam Gillespie’s The Mathematics of Novelty, but I think there is more work to be done to make this conversation more accessible to people interested in accelerationism in particular who perhaps don’t have much of an entry point beyond the memes.
As a way to introduce this conversation, my talk above goes back a bit further than Badiou and Deleuze. In fact, I attempt to lay out how their competing positions can be traced back to the pre-Socratics, showing that accelerationism’s political insistence on the new following the end of history taps into a philosophical debate going back millennia. But this history nonetheless begs the question of what are the current conditions of philosophy and politics and how do they impact these more generic debates about finitude and infinitude.
You can watch the talk above and read the announcement over on the CTRL Network website here and below. As it happens, the CTRL Network group are starting up again soon. They’re a brilliant community, based in Birmingham but open to all online. Go check them out! Thanks again to Josie Lilley-Byrne and Niall Gallen for the invitation and especially to Josie for editing the video above.
After a bloody long break we’re dusting off the recording from Matt Colquhoun’s fantastic guest lecture in the Spring. Though April feels like a lifetime ago, Matt’s musings on the history of the new seem just as fresh now as they did then.
Matt kindly agreed to speak for us as we concluded our Postcapitalist Desire winter reading group, giving us, as always, not and ending, but a jumping off point for further enquiry. Here’s how he described the lecture:
“How do we free ourselves from the tyranny of the “post-“? Jumping off from Fisher’s unfinished lecture series, which ends with post-structuralism’s moment of absolute negation, this lecture will return to the philosophy’s beginnings, tracing a wandering line of abstraction from Heraclitus to the Ccru, considering how “the new” has been thought and we might begin to think “the new” anew again.”
I’ve been reading a lot of Foucault recently, particularly The History of Sexuality volumes and their surrounding lectures. Guided by the helpful hand of Stuart Elden, I was reading his Foucault’s Last Decade on the train back from Newcastle last night and found myself immediately amused, the next day, to see grumbling about yet another right-wing use of Foucault’s thought for lazy and reductive purposes.
Our good friends over at Sp!ked, recently discussed, have today published an article by Patrick West on why hospitals are like prisons, just not in the way Foucault thought. West writes:
Foucault saw the tendencies to try to control, normalise and rationalise everything as ubiquitous in industrialised society. ‘The judges of normality are present everywhere. We are in the society of the teacher-judge, the doctor-judge, the educator-judge… [E]ach individual, wherever he may find himself, subjects to it his body, his gestures, his behaviour, his aptitudes, his achievements.’ Foucault asked: ‘Is it surprising that prisons resemble factories, schools, barracks, hospitals, which all resemble prisons?’
But is a patient really in the same predicament as a prisoner?
Good question. You’ll likely find the answers you’re looking for in Birth of the Clinic. Discipline and Punish, seemingly the sole focus of West’s understanding of Foucault, focuses explicitly on infrastructures of discipline and punishment, State apparatuses, etc. — that is, the organising processes of power that provide institutions and their representatives with certain kinds of authority. But it is disingenuous to use that to frame Foucault as some critic of judgement in general.
For starters, a major part of Foucault’s project is precisely discerning the different modes of operation of power and how these aren’t always instructive or interventionist. In a psychiatric context, he talks about how many early forms of psychiatry (and still many other forms today) are not necessarily predicated on medical intervention at all. “The observing gaze refrains from intervening: it is silent and gestureless. Observation leaves things as they are; there is nothing hidden to it in what is given”, he writes. The problem is when these observations can be instrumentalised in other contexts, with medical diagnoses, in particular, become juridico-political evidence rather than simply being used to construct a treatment plan. This is how psychiatric diagnoses are sometimes still used today, of course. A psychiatrist observes; it is more likely a judge who decides on prison time or an enforced hospitalisation for someone who has committed a crime but may have diminished responsibility — and never that is a very recent and notably humanising development in Foucault’s genealogy. Nevertheless, in that respect, the line between hospital and prison remains very fine. (Has West not seen One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest?)
It is worth noting that Foucault’s analysis is even more detailed than this, across his whole body of work. Particularly interesting in this context, I think, is his discussion of abnormality and monstrosity when regarding our understanding of sexuality and gender over the last few hundred years. Foucault notes that there is gradually a shift from just executing all intersex or otherwise gender-nonconforming people as satanists and “monstrosities of nature” to later enforcing people to dress one way or another (affirming one particular gender/sexual identity and expressing that within how they dress and who they have sex with — i.e., always the opposite sex) and therefore deeming them to be “monstrosities of behaviour” instead. This is important, because behaviour can be corrected… Nature, we’re led to believe, cannot.
The idea, of course, is that any tendency within society that hopes to change how people act is tyrannical. So TERFs decry the tyranny of pronouns — a “campaign” to change how we speak — whilst failing to acknowledge the centuries of bodily essentialism and “normalisation” they themselves are sorry sycophants for. By turning Foucault on his head, as West later acknowledges he is doing, we end up seeing Foucault deployed as some defender of libertarian infantilism, which reduces biopolitical agency to just doing and saying whatever you, as an individual, want to do. (A common line from Sp!ked, as discussed last time.) This position frames all discipline as tyrannical whilst completely ignoring the ideological discipline they are already exercising, in attempting to replicate the wanton unaccountability of power today.
That these things are complex, however, is ignored at the earliest opportunity. West instead goes on to say that “the power relations in hospitals are ambiguous.”
When a medic administers an injection or tablet, is she exerting her power over me, my space and my body? Or is the medic unwittingly doing my bidding, helping me to recover from an infirmity that was not her fault. Failure to do her duty here will result in her own very real discipline and punishment. As a patient, the medic is my servant. And as a citizen, the NHS worker is my employee.
To turn Foucault on his head, you could easily argue that it is the medical staff who are the slaves, rather than the masters, in the NHS Panopticon. Those in the blue and green uniforms, the masked and overworked, are expected to metaphorically slave all day for the needs and whims of those of us who lie around all day, doing nothing but eating, reading, sleeping or messing around on the internet.
In truth, it’s a power relationship that goes both ways. And it ultimately works to the benefit of both parties. Medics earn a living by making people better and saving lives. They gain a well-deserved feeling of actually doing good. In turn, we as patients hopefully recover and make our way back to normality.
I find this flattening out of Foucault’s argument, making it utterly impotent, very bizarre. Nothing is mentioned here, of course, about how Foucault repeatedly problematised our very idea of “normality” explicitly, showing how it always shifts in line with power more broadly. This leaves West to embrace as “normal” a perspective that is, in fact, completely ideological (in that it is aligned to our prevailing and still-dominant “capitalist realist” ideology.)
To unpack this a bit, I’d argue NHS doctors don’t really work for us at all. Though our taxes may pay their salaries, the NHS remains precariously subject to the whims of a corrupt Tory establishment that wants to privatise everything and siphon off the profits for themselves. This is because, Foucault himself tells us, socialised medicine is only really allowed to exist under some capitalist governments because they realised long ago that its better to actively play a part in maintaining your national workforce than leaving them to their own devices and losing labour and profit to easily remedied ailments (drawing a clear line between hospital and factory).
If there has been a complicating of this tension, it is for good reason. Today we try to actualise informed consent or negotiate the difficult and often violent procedures we endure for the sake of our health without infringing on anyone’s human rights. In fact, there are now many instances where medical practice doesn’t conform to the prejudices of the State and doesn’t simply make their lives easier as owners of the means of production. As such, understanding the doctor-patient relationship as two individuals in some sort of competition is tellingly reductive. The idea that each has something to gain says nothing of real interest or value, other than it places this understanding within the normalised framework of a business transaction, obfuscating the actual relations in play.
And so, once we’ve applied a bit of reason to this argument, contrary to what West thinks, the power relations aren’t ambiguous at all. They are complex, yes, but not ambiguous. Any ambiguity comes from his own willful ignorance.
By way of an analogy, if I’m looking at a picture and it appears blurry or pixelated, it is because it is lacking detail. Some information has been removed or flattened out. Points of intersection and contrast become a potentially misleading gradient. Such is West’s problem. If all appears ambiguous in his framework, it’s because his framework is capitalist — or, more accurately, neoliberal, because the reduction of every relationship of exchange to that of customer and service provider is neoliberalism through and through. It is an approach that has already hollowed out our hospitals, our universities, our government, everything, precisely because it obfuscates the actual power relations in play. No wonder those in power like doing it. Compare West’s suggestion that doctors are the slaves to patient’s whims with those comments made by corrupt MPs currently arguing that they are the hard-done-by slaves to their customer-constituents. They hide their corruption in plain sight by blurring the picture we are presented with and turning those on their heads.
It is embarrassing to witness someone defending this sort of thing, even if only indirectly, because Foucault is explicitly not your friend in this regard. You can’t “easily argue” anything along these lines when you actually consider the driving force of his whole body of work. In fact, this makes West’s usage of Foucault in this context very ironic.
All the finer details aside, what I always find amusing about right-wing appropriations of Foucault is that their sense of discipline (never mind of Foucault more generally) is always the first thing to be reduced and flattened out. Foucault produced a genealogy of societal discipline and power in order to critique it, of course, but he was certainly under no illusion that, in order to do that work, it was necessary he activate those same disciplinary sensibilities in himself. He almost goes beyond discipline, beyond the expectations of society at large, beyond the apparent givens and things it takes for granted, and describes — through discipline — discipline’s own development.
To consider the full breadth of Foucault’s output, then — his books, his case studies, his lectures and seminars, his collaborations, etc. — is to find a great deal of rigorous self-critique and adaptation. And though he may have problematised the “judge”, he did not suspend his own judgement. Rather, he used the disciplinary structure of society against itself. We see no such commitment from the Tory ministers who continue to cite him, denouncing him as the man responsible for our current world order. But perhaps there is actually some truth to that claim. Foucault and others like him have been very successful. I reckon the success of his critique, trickling down into wider socio-cultural contexts, has led those in power to embrace their own incompetence. When they make Foucault out to be this great spectral enemy of truth who actually holds all of the power in our contemporary universities, what they seem to be saying is: We’re not disciplining you, we can’t even discipline ourselves, but you all said discipline was bad anyway, so stop trying to discipline us by being feminazis when we’re actually doing what you Foucauldians wanted. But as if this were a sort of Judo counter-throw, they use the weight of their opponents critique against them, in a carefully orchestrated power move, making the judgement seem excessive against their own lack of any judgement whatsoever. It is cunning but far from clever. All it demonstrates is how few of those with power, with platforms, with soap boxes bother to actually do the work required to use the tools at their disposal.
To read Foucault’s critiques of discipline is nonetheless to see a positive use of discipline in action. He believed firmly in the work and the discipline required to do it right. Those who puppeteer him in our media landscape clearly do not.
In a recent article for Cosmonaut — praised as the most balanced take on the Zer0 Books debacle (but only by those who were affiliated with Zer0 Books) — a lot of time is spent playing whataboutery regarding who has or hasn’t published certain people affiliated with Sp!ked Online. It’s very petty. In my own response to the essay from the other day, I mostly chose to ignore it, focusing on its baseless analysis of Mark Fisher’s trajectory instead, but that’s not to say that their other case doesn’t warrant addressing. It does. Just not on their terms.
The former Zer0 set has repeatedly argued that the reactionary tailism of the Doug Lain years did not begin with them. Although Zer0 did publish Frank Furedi, the reactionary co-founder of Sp!ked‘s initial form, the RCP, as well as regular contributors like Philip Cunliffe, other authors like Angela Nagle have only really contributed a couple of times, maybe even just once. Their relationship is tenuous at best, the essay seems to argue — and anyway, Zer0 2.0 inherited the relationship from Zer0 1.0. James Heartfield, for instance, was published by both — first with Zer0, then with Repeater in 2017, but notably back to Zer0 in 2019 when he joined the Brexit Party… But what does any of this achieve? Focusing on Sp!ked authors does nothing, they continue, but draw attention away from the fact that “the vast majority of [their authors] are unambiguously socialist if not Marxist.”
What sounds reasonable is, of course, a manipulation of the facts at hand. They reduce this contention down to the classic leftist hysteria of guilt-by-association. (The worst instance of this comes from the Zer0 crowd, of course, who go so far as to insist the name Zer0 Books is a reference to Nick Land, as if Land had the monopoly on a number that wasn’t — then and now — far more closely associated, philosophically at least, with Sadie Plant and Alain Badiou.) But if that were the main thrust here, of course there would be no leg to stand on. Never mind Repeater, I’d have no leg to stand on, considering the various company I’ve regrettably made appearances with in the past. But whereas relationships come and go, and I’m not sure I have any bridges left to burn, Zer0’s conduct has remained constant, flirting with “cancellation” at every turn and then getting really upset when the left cheers their downfall.
It is for this reason that I think many of the Zer0 set has (probably willfully) misunderstood the nature of the complaints here. It is not simply that they published some questionable authors, but rather that their entire modus operandi is still largely consistent with that of Sp!ked Online itself. This isn’t buried in the Cosmonaut article but embraced, as discussed last time. They insist upon the validity of reading Mark Fisher as a “cancel culture” critic, using this to put forth the argument that we must reconnect with the neoliberal spectre of a reactionary working class, despite Fisher’s multitude of both pre- and post-Vampire Castle writings to the contrary. But how much this retains fidelity to Mark Fisher himself also obfuscates their fidelity to a website like Sp!ked Online as a whole. Though their actual connections may be murky and, yes, straddle two closely related publishing platforms, the fact remains that Zer0’s project and Sp!ked‘s project are essentially the same. Whereas Repeater has repeatedly distanced itself (in private if not in public) from many who cross the line into culture war punditry, Zer0 has never done any such thing, instead embracing and continuing to pick up Repeater’s left-overs. As such, it’s not a question of who has the purest run of good leftist publications but a question of how Zer0 has responded to the conditions of the present and how it retains fidelity to the left at large. (The charge: increasingly poorly.)
This post isn’t an opportunity to just kick up the dust again but rather to point out a certain talk that I think will clarify this particular corner of the (UK’s) left-wing media for many orbiters who are confused about this whole thing. It is, admittedly, far from clear cut.
Sp!ked‘s role in the UK media landscape today cannot be overstated. The organisation’s history, and its general comportment in recent years, has allowed it to curry a lot of favour with the current Tory government and its media representatives, to the point they have previously been a soap box for some of its cabinet members and with some of its contributors moving into notable positions within the UK’s various right-wing parties. But this history is far from straight forward. Like Zer0 itself, Sp!ked arguably began life as a far-left organisation — at least in name. Later pivoting to the right, it has used its vague left-wing signifiers and aging credentials to court further favour and influence where it doesn’t warrant any.
Though I think of Adam from the Acid Horizon podcast as the most knowledge person on this tattered history, this morning the above video appeared on my Twitter feed which lays it out for anyone else who might feel like they don’t have the full story.
It is a panel of three speakers from the recent Historical Materialism conference, which took place online, and from around the 41:00 minute mark onwards, Evan Smith unpacks the peculiar history of the RCP, its journal Living Marxism, and how it later became Sp!ked Online. “In the last twenty years, Sp!ked has become an increasingly vocal and visible actor in Britain’s culture wars”, he explains, “combining libertarianism and populism with a penchant for contrarianism.” It all sounds very familiar…
And yet, this comportment that we might now think is symptomatic of a general shitposting contingent has actually made significant inroads in UK politics. Smith cites a 2020 article by Andy Beckett for the Guardian, titled “Why Boris Johnson’s Tories fell for a tiny sect of libertarian provocateurs”, which focuses on the RCP and Sp!ked‘s history explicitly. Beckett’s summary of the RCP is straightforward and succint:
The RCP was a tiny British party, founded in the 70s, officially disbanded in the late 90s. Despite its name, most of its stances were not communist or revolutionary but contrarian: it supported free speech for racists, and nuclear power; it attacked environmentalism and the NHS. Its most consistent impulse was to invoke an idealised working class, and claim it was actually being harmed by the supposed elites of the liberal left.
Smith argues, citing a few other leftist historians, that things aren’t quite that cut and dry. There are, of course, “continuities, discontinuities and contradictions” between the shifting outlets, just as there are between Repeater and Zer0 themselves, but Beckett’s summary certainly emphasises the parts of an RCP MO that have been carried over and emboldened by the Sp!ked contingent.
This final “consistent impulse” in particular, of invoking an idealised working class under attack from the elite liberal left, is, of course, an impulse shared by those at Zer0 2.0. In fact, it has been a line they have fallen back on persistently since the takeover, arguing that, not only has this idealised working class now lost out on a publishing outlet, but it is just another tale of “elites of the liberal left” shutting down a dissenting project.
What has led many in the UK in particular to despise Zer0 is that they recognise this sentiment as one shared by many of the current Tory government. Beckett’s article asks a number of questions in relation to this. “Journalists have periodically probed the methods and motives of the ex-RCP network”, he writes. “Much less attention has been paid to why the Tory party and press have become so keen on them.” The same is true of many far-right political figures in the UK, who also have a soft spot for Zer0 as an apparently left-wing publisher. Despite this lack of attention, Beckett argues that the answer is quite simple: the current Tory government and its representatives in the media “love to publish people from supposedly leftwing backgrounds who bash the left, and who use what seems like neutral logic to arrive at essentially rightwing conclusions. Both were RCP skills.” The same clearly applies to Zer0 2.0 as well.
This is the frontline of the culture war, but we must remember it is a war that the Tories started and attempt to wage largely on their own, pushing buttons and defining the media agenda, precisely to humiliate an erudite left that seems to have developed a position on everything but is instead only called upon to debate hot-button issues on the right’s myopic terms.
That Zer0 wants to frame their takeover as an interpersonal spat between two publishers obfuscates their larger function in much the same way. But this isn’t just a question of publishing drama, it’s a question of leftist strategy. I’m certainly of the opinion that how the left presents itself and circulates its arguments is vastly important. Whereas those sycophantic to power reduce this to a culture war battle over specific and supposedly contentious issues — trans rights most frequently and disappointingly — the broader point here is that leftist media can change hearts and minds, and it takes a certain discipline and clarity of message to do so. Mark Fisher was a clear case in point, and his “Vampire Castle” was a further (if largely ineffective) defense of this sentiment, as I’ve explored here.
Rather than follow Fisher on the road down various kinds of corrective and strategic organising, challenging the prevailing idealised view of the working class both in and outside of the UK media sphere, Zer0 has largely fought to stir up reactionary sentiment instead, emboldening that fictional conception of the working class, assisting those on the right who rely on this image to champion their own illusory relevance.
Here’s Zer0 2.0 editorial board member Ashley Frawley as a case in point. By doing precisely what she claims to reject, objectifying the working class as a idea somehow beyond politics, as if working class people can’t be, in themselves and through their own agency, “left-wing”, he gives in to the Tory ideal of a fictionalized and reductive “white working class” that is without any natural political home.
They also do this by rejecting solidarity with other groups, just as the RCP once did, and by instrumentalising Fisher and his “acid communism” to reconstruct a kind of “acid RCP”. Sp!ked Online are appropriately named in that regard. They hope to put something in the water, calling it “left-wing” but only really contributing to the general mindlessness of our contemporary Tory-controlled media landscape, all the while affirming an anemic form of “free speech” and contrarianism in a manner that Fisher would have surely identified as “psychedelic fascism”:
Psychedelic Fascism legitimates and propagates a radically unSpinozist notion of being free: i.e. give free reign to your Inner Child = yr Inner Fascist.
Spinoza rightly says that children are in a state of abjection because, unable to repress their passively-generated and self-damaging impulses, they confuse being free with ‘doing as [and saying whatever] you please’.
Ask yrself this: who or what is it that cannot or will not explain what it is doing or why it is doing it?
There are myriad answers to that question today, but it is no coincidence that the old Zer0 crew and the Tory party have been two particularly prominent examples since the advent of the Trump era.
Update [16/11/21]: Incredible to see from such a huge Twitter account that I’ve never actually interacted with…:
For what it’s worth, Terence is one of my favourite bloggers and if we want to talk about writers who have continued to stay true to the old blogger’s sentiment, even continuing to find new and exciting ways to use blogs productively for philosophical research and debate, I can think of no person more deserving of credit than him.
Terence has added to this discussion over a series of threads and responses that add further context and a number of interesting provocations regarding the nature of the blogosphere going forwards:
I am appalled that the re-writing of intellectual history and of Continental Philosophy blogging history that is now accompanying it. The idea that Deleuze-ism was the default position is simply false. 
The default position was “post-Deleuze”, in the sense of having already learned from Deleuze and gone “beyond”. This was Harman’s position and that of the tiny circle of mutual admiration and lobbying that clustered around his blog style. 
Deleuze’s idea that philosophy is creation of concepts means creation of problems. Philosophers create far more problems than they solve. Being “Deleuzian” would mean creating even more problems within Deleuze’s problematic legacy, not systems and studies. 
Deleuze constantly re-problematised his own concepts, and his last book with Guattari, WHAT IS PHILOSOPHY?, is a mess. It contains a huge number of references to the “infinite” and the “absolute”, but leaves them in a problematic state. 
Those who think like Deleuze turn all his solutions into problems. This gives not Deleuze studies or aggressive narcissistic blogging but Badiou, Laruelle, Stiegler, Latour thinkers who think in their own name by problematising and estranging. 
Badiou and Zizek are the continuation of Deleuze’s gestures of thought, and the academy is still trailing behind. 
Later he writes:
I think that @gregeganSF WANG’S CARPETS plus the @SFFAudiodiscussion shows the convergence of accelerationism and correlationism – its epistemological shadow driving it and that it can never overcome. This is @BrunoLatourAIME‘s notion of the “META” 
Tying this idea in with an earlier discussion @xenogothic of the genealogy of the Continental Philosophy blogosphere. The active, aggressive post-CCRU crowd were busy creating their own correlationist bubble, a quasi-solipsistic sub-meta-verse. 
The performative contradiction: all this “schizo” creativity is in danger of reinforcing “digital autism” (analysed by @babette_babich). This converges with Franco Berardi’s analysis of the ongoing passage from the second unconscious (schizo) to the third unconscious (autist). 
Later still, Terence discusses Arthur C. Clarke’s “The Star”, in a discussion of the priest-protagonist that resonates with Mark Fisher’s disappointment with the blogosphere too, I think — he often invoked a Deleuzian image of the priest in his critiques of what this space was becoming — later connecting back to Simon’s post and my own:
The story works as expressing the subjective drama of the Jesuit when faced with a crucial objection to his beliefs. He believes in the literal truth and historical accuracy of the Christian narrative and in the theological conception of God as all-loving. 
“The Star” dramatises the familiar problem of evil and suffering and the failure of theodicy by transposing it onto the cosmic scale, thus making it difficult to explain away by references to God’s transcendent wisdom and his Divine Plan. 
A dogmatic believer could have reacted by deciding that the date of Christ’s birth had been miscalculated or that the Bible story is all symbolic, and implies no real birth or historical dating. 
Viewed statically the story presents us with the possible nihilistic collapse of his faith if our Jesuit hero once allows himself to view his religious belief system scientifically and integrates his observations as constituting an insurmountable refuting instance. 
Viewed dynamically (as there is an unfinished aspect to this tale) we can see the astronomer-priest as deeply moved by the religiousness of this alien people, and so perhaps as capable of moving on to some sort of secular spirituality that would not be in conflict with science 
I think the story works even better when viewed in this dynamic perspective. He is bringing back Bad News for the Vatican, but Good News for Mankind – the love of God is refuted, but the love of Life (even under desperate circumstances — cf. the aliens) is confirmed. 
The priest-protagonist is confronted with the refutation or negation of his faith, but I think that this is not the final word. There is also an underlying Clarkean affirmation, as figured in the life-affirming testament of the alien civilisation. 
Expressed in the terms of Laruelle’s A BIOGRAPHY OF ORDINARY MAN the priest-protagonist is unable to attain the reconciliation of theoretical rigour and human truth. This book of Laruelle’s corresponds to the static reading as it has no room for individuation. 
Laruelle’s TETRALOGOS is entirely based on individuation and on the parallel between philosophy and science fiction. This corresponds to the dynamic reading, and allows us to see THE STAR as an incomplete fragment of the voyage more fully expressed in 2001 A Space Odyssey. 
Still meditating on the dialogue between @xenogothic and @SimonObirek on the intellectual genealogy and conceptual infra-structure of the Continental Philosophy blogosphere and its progressive succumbing to entropic decline due to its social and intellectual closure. 
This decline will continue unless new anti-entropic resources can be found and absorbed, or else a wider anti-entropic research programme can include, absorb, transform and give new life to this sub-programme. 
I was surprised to see the combining of science fiction and philosophy treated as the mark of academia mainstreaming the originality of the (post-)CCRU syntheses. This combination is far older. 
I consider myself a latecomer, but my own syntheses long precede the “greats” of CCRU (self-)fame. I first knowingly read SF when I was 8 or 9 years old (in 1962 or 1963) and philosophy when I was 11 or 12 (1965 or 1966) and from then on they were firmly linked in my mind. 
This led to many problems in academia as my arguments were often rejected as irrelevant, off-topic, appealing to mere logical possibility but nothing real, incoherent etc. That sort of synthesis was not pursued or encouraged in the early seventies. 
I am a “latecomer” as the synthesis of sf and philosophy was there from the beginning. @JeanCletMartin in his LOGIQUE DE LA SCIENCE-FICTION traces the underlying conceptual logic of SF back to Hegel. 
So the post-CCRU crowd are even more belated late-comers than I and the many others that lived and thought within the Philo-SF meta-programme. 
When I first read Nick Land I found his verbose style unbearable and his dumbed-down “Bataillo-Deleuzian” thinking even more so. Gregory Sadler @philosopher70 has some useful analyses here. 
So I think that the CCRU’s interlocutor to come is a time-traveling future Zizek once his Hegel has eaten up all his Lacan (a still ongoing and unbearably SLOW process) — as expressed in the film TENET. 
Much to chew on here, and I may come back to Terence’s comments in a later post. Let this do as a space to gathered his interjections for now, so as not to lose them to the Twitter tide.
It seems various anonymised authors from Zer0 2.0 have come out in defense of the imprint’s conduct in an essay for Cosmonaut magazine. It’s weird of Cosmonaut to even think this warrants elevating to that platform, honestly, but it is clear they’ve taken Zer0’s own approach to editorial oversight — it’s hard to get through a piece that references you at length but never bothers to check if it is spelling your name correctly…
It’s a lame piece, all in all, that indulges wholeheartedly in both-sides rhetoric. “Yeah, Zer0 fucked up, but Repeater fucked up too!” There’s no denying plenty of others have made mistakes. (I’ve already been regretting entertaining this same whataboutery with Doug Lain directly on Twitter last week.) But the point has never been about who has clocked up the most faux pas, and that the ex-Zer0 bunch have twisted this into point-scoring whataboutery is telling.
The thing to celebrate here was the end of Lain’s soap box and the subpar projects he used his position to buoy. His conduct was been so consistently and persistently embarrassing — intellectually and aesthetically — that he has dragged the entire imprint into disrepute and its “Golden Era” along with it. From the horrendously baity cover of The Memeing of Mark Fisherto using trans people’s pain to shill books, this year alone it has been embarrassment after embarrassment. Those are the things people really hate; the finer details are just the results of his general comportment. It is his edgelord comportment and that of his lackies has always been the thing that turned off so many former Zer0 Books readers. He transformed Zer0 into a content farm for culture war nonsense and it was nauseating to watch, putting forward an utterly hollow idea of leftist solidarity that didn’t extend beyond their Discord.
But it is interesting that the ex-Zer0 crowd have at least taken my earlier advice on board. After continuing to show just how embarrassing they are in their shit-slinging, they’ve decided to put a suit on and are now trying to look respectable in a magazine about “revolutionary strategy”…
The main takeaway from this article, following the whataboutery, is that they finally decide to wear their opinions on their sleeves. They finally address their obsession with Mark Fisher’s “Exiting the Vampire Castle” — an essay they hold up at the expense of anything else he wrote. It begins:
A few days after his initial post celebrating Zer0’s buyout, he [– that’s me –] published a follow-up piece. In it, he argues that Mark Fisher’s “Exiting the Vampire Castle” should not be read as a condemnation “of ‘identity politics’ and ‘cancel culture’” avant la lettre (a reading characteristic of the Zer0 2.0 set). Rather its message is a more pedestrian one: that the left’s “Twitter miserabilism” is symptomatic of its impotency, which favors internal disparagement over the construction of any kind of “common project.”
To characterise this as “pedestrian” is quite hilarious, when there is nothing more lazy and vague than a “culture war” reading of that essay, boiling it down to “idpol and cancel culture bad”. (I’ll have more even more evidence as to why that’s bullshit in a few weeks, as I’ve been transcribing a lecture Fisher gave on Irigaray in 2014 that clearly shows how his apparent “anti-idpol” sentiment is rather an anti-essentialism — when discussing identity, he is fully on the side of non-binary assessments of gender and goes right back to Plato to explore how contemporary debates of anti-essentialism are well-founded, despite what most TERFs say. But of course, there’s already plenty of other (and less specific) evidence for this out there, proffered by those who knew him best.)
We’re not particularly interested in dissecting Colquho[u]n’s reading of Fisher, which seems to us somewhat implausible (as well as somewhat unflattering, in so far as it partially defangs Fisher’s critique of dominant left-liberal positions).
I’d love to see them give it a go, at least. That would be hilarious.
Rather we’re more interested in why Colquho[u]n feels compelled to elevate Fisher’s writing to holy writ, declaring that the authors of Zer0 2.0 lacked the prodigious insight required to understand him.
And there it is — the prevailing intellectual dishonesty of the ex-Zer0 set. Though they hold the “Vampire Castle” essay aloft, as one of their founding inspirational documents, it is I — who simply says “read another essay” (like this one or this one, or my own distillation of the “Vampire Castle” essay, exploring its place in Fisher’s wider thought and its actual left-historical context) — who is the blinkered Fisherian priest… My argument is precisely that “Exiting the Vampire Castle” not be held up as the last gospel of Mark Fisher. He had so much more to say, and a great deal of it wholly complicates their lazy reading. That’s not treating it as gospel — that’s saying, let’s have an actual conversation about this popular figure that’s based on research and critical thinking rather than culture war bias.
Basically, I’m just trying to do some actual intellectual work here, rather than running with a poor reading of a single text and (ironically) building a whole identity off the back of it. I certainly don’t think the ex-Zer0 crew are somehow incapable of understanding Fisher. I’m simply saying that, if you really want to, you should probably read some more of what he had to say…
In one sense, of course, his rationale is obvious. Fisher’s work, and “Vampire Castle” in particular, are referenced favorably in several Zer0 2.0 works—Nagle’s Kill All Normies, but also Michael Brooks’ Against the Web and Ben Burgis’ Canceling Comedians While the World Burns (and this list is surely non-exhaustive). This ongoing fidelity to Fisher…
Referencing one essay, the same essay, every time is an “ongoing fidelity” now apparently…
…threatens to undermine the image of Repeater the rightful heirs of his work—and by extension, the rightful proprietors of Zer0. It must therefore be shown that they did not read it properly—that they are, as Colquho[u]n tells us time and time again, vulgarizers who sullied a storied tradition.
I don’t think they have vulgarized a storied tradition. There is no tradition. The full scope of Fisher’s work is underappreciated and needs to be actively constructed, because his three brief books (plus the “Vampire Castle”, I guess) don’t tell the full story. That’s my consistent point. Thankfully, I think my work to rectify that has been broadly successful and well-received. Even critiques of it has insisted the work is at least necessary, with Dan Barrow rightly arguing that “Few contemporary thinkers have needed more defence from their greatest admirers.” The ex-Zer0 2.0 crowd have remained on my radar throughout as a group of admirers in that very regard, who actively retard the development of his work’s reception, encasing Fisher in a 2013 amber, which they themselves can only read through their static Trump-era “culture war” lens.
But please, if “it must therefore be shown”, let’s get to the showing…
Of course, this reckoning never actually arrives….
In pursuing this thesis, Colquho[u]n predictably sets aside the possibility that the positions staked out by Zer0 2.0 might be consistent with Fisher’s work. In a recent online lecture for the University of London, Benjamin Noys—a longtime acquaintance of Fisher’s, and former Zer0 author—took a different stance. Fisher’s work, according to Noys, was beholden to an explicitly Nietzschean paradigm. This paradigm had elitist implications, and in Noys’ view diminished his ability to adequately navigate political conflicts. “Vampire Castle,” which casts the working-class as a sort of Ubermensch above petty moral concern, is a product of this ideological drift. Noys understood why Fisher thought the way he did: something unsurprising since, as—he points out—he comes from a similar class background as Fisher. Ultimately though Fisher’s inversion of Nietzsche—in which liberal-capitalist moralism (the “Vampire Castle”) appears as “something,” in Fisher’s words, “worse than Christianity”—isn’t up to the task of providing a nuanced and dialectical analysis of late capitalist society.
A pretty garbled summary of Noys’ argument here, and I’m also not sure how this actually helps their case? Are they arguing that Noys concurs with their reading so it’s acceptable, actually — even if Noys’ reading of Fisher in that lecture insists he is wholly ill-equipped to contend with the circumstances of the present? (That’s certainly true of the Zer0 set.)
Of course, I’m saying that having written on Noys’ essay previously. I’m familiar with it. Based on their summary above, I’d be surprised if it was clear to anyone else what Noys actually had to say.
The funny thing is that Noys’ argument in that lecture is as specious as their own. I’ve already addressed it before. Initially, I jumped the gun, going off his advertised abstract, which was very much question-begging. Later having the opportunity to read the full text, I offered up a number of concessions, but my hasty assumptions ultimately rang true. Noys’ critique reads like a product of Losurdo-fever but doesn’t actually track with the development of Fisher’s thought at all.
Ultimately, all the ex-Zer0 crowd have done here is cherry-pick someone they think of as close to Fisher and who they think is on their side, but they don’t do any of the intellectual work to bring the two together outside of butchering Noys’ already ill-conceived assessment of a position they hold, which he also thinks is bullshit…?
If you want a full engagement with Noy’s argument, follow the links above. To be brief, Noys’ suggestion seems to be that Fisher falls prey to Nietzsche’s own “aristocratic” thinking, looking down on those he deems insufficiently [insert bugbear here]. Clearly, Fisher wasn’t against a good ol’ online feud and telling people he thought were shit that they were shit. But does having “standards” amount to elitism now?
In certain spheres of thought, there’s a case to be made for this. What underlines our standards can be very telling. Who we choose to date, for instance, can reveal us to be ableist or racist or classist, etc. Our standards can reveal how we relate to and internalise positions of power. The right, of course — who generally find this line of thinking pathetic — nonetheless love to invert it. It is surprising — but also not remotely surprising — that ex-Zer0 would try a similar tactic. Like the right, they only exercise this critique of elitism when it comes to arguments about academic standards and intellectual rigour, precisely because the deployment of these standards might humiliate their bigotry and position them as useful idiots for cultural war reactionaries. Pointing out poor quality of arguments, misguided readings, lazy tactics and general idiocy — all with citations and receipts — is to wield the oppressive hammer of academia! Or maybe it’s just a way of critiquing “leftists” who hide behind reactionary talking points…
Ex-Zer0 continues to embolden their calls of anti-elitism by internalising their status as eternal underdogs, simply because people think the standard of what they have produced is poor and emboldens reactionary sentiments. They take this quite pathetic position and use it to advance another Nietzsche concept: ressentiment. “If everyone is mad at us, we must be doing something right!” they believe, which never translates into the more accurate “everyone is mad at us because our persistent shitting of our own pants makes us very difficult to be around.” In response, they advance a position similar to that put forward by our most impotent of cultural commentators, whose truly “defanged” critiques boil down to “we just want to talk and everyone to be nice to us in perpetuity.”
This is something notably trotted out by TERF apologists. I tweeted something about this the other day, in response to Kathleen Stock’s predictable “I was cancelled” tour of the British media. Lorraine Kelly, whilst commendably denouncing Stock’s transphobia, nonetheless ended their conversation by saying, “isn’t it nice to just chat and debate the validity of trans people’s experiences?” She makes it clear she thinks Stock is wrong, but then detaches her bigotry from any sort of material contexts. It’s all fair game in the marketplace of ideas!
Ultimately, this rejection of any kind of political militancy or harsh judgement by certain debate bros is just what happens when you succumb to end-of-history brain. To defend this in a magazine purported to be about “revolutionary strategy” is beyond laughable.
Having said next to nothing, really, about Noys’ critique, other than shooting themselves in the foot by identifying with what Noys’ (mistakenly) thinks Fisher gets wrong, they continue as vaguely as they began:
The point here—as is perhaps obvious—is not that Zer0 2.0 are the rightful heirs of Fisher’s legacy and that Repeater are not. Rather it’s that the two presses pursued differing political agendas in the wake of 2014, and that these manifested in different readings of Fisher.
A very selective reading versus one that also considers everything he wrote after the Vampire Castle…
Colquho[u]n describes the period of 2008-14 as a “golden era” for Zer0. We’re inclined to agree: under the expert editorial guidance of Goddard and Fisher, Zer0 moved from strength to strength in this period, helping popularize both object-oriented ontology as well as lay the groundwork for what would subsequently be referred to as “Accelerationism” or “Prometheanism” Just as importantly, it helped solidify a new style muscular social-democratic politics in the UK—take Russell Brand’s lauding of Mark Fisher, or the way Nick Srnicek and co. connected the dots between Capitalist Realism and Corbynism. Yet once this political agenda came to fruition, with the elevation of both Corbyn and Sanders, nascent left populism had to resolve the conundrum of how to yoke together the left’s professional-managerial base with the views of a working-class they sought to reconnect with. From a cultural standpoint, this required punchy and thoughtful polemics that would help expand the left beyond its existing demographic. Thoroughly ensconced in the UK intellectual circuit, Repeater published many standout books in this time: philosophical texts like Steven Shaviro’s Discognition, or cultural retrospectives like Post-Punk: Then and Now (as well as, funnily enough, a book by Spiked contributor James Heartfield). What they did not do was repeat the success of Capitalist Realism for an enlarged left readership. With Fisher’s passing in 2017, Repeater’s drift into a hazier and more abstruse—not to mention more left-liberal—cultural space seemed all but assured (something quite apparent now as they bring to market books about the spiritual nature of sex work, or whatever).
This dig at Liara Roux’s book at the end tells you all you need to know. “Repeater have betrayed their attempts to expand the working class! As an aside, fuck that book written by a sex worker about what it is like to be a sex worker, who cares about that…” Way to continue to pass comments on things you can’t be bothered to read, I guess, and divest yourself from even more solidarity with another marginalised group… TERFs and SWERFs unite!
It’s all very predictable. Ex-Zer0 2.0’s idea of the working class is a received one, handed down over decades by the ruling class. It is notably one of the topics Fisher turns to most throughout his final Postcapitalist Desire lectures. He doesn’t demand we appeal to some vague spectre of a lost generation of leftists, turned off by pronouns. Instead, he considers how this image was constructed by the ruling class to obstruct solidarity between hippies and workers. Ex-Zer0 ignore all of this. “We must appeal to and win over the reactionary working class!” they insist, but this is why their reading of Fisher has to stop after 2013. Fisher asked serious questions about why we desire our own subjection, but he went to great lengths to dismantle it, overcoming ressentiment and building solidarity without similarity. The lack of similarity ex-Zer0 hold dear is a lack of political similarity, making every principle they might hold — and, indeed, that Mark Fisher actually held — moot and inconsequential.
From here on out, they go back to talking about how hard done by they are, following the buyout. People lost jobs! But they’ve still got their Patreons, and that seemed to be more important to them anyway.
Ex-Zer0 contributed nothing to working class solidarity over the course of its lifetime. That’s not to say all their books were shit during that period, but their public face was most certainly a laughing stock across the international left. Some good books came out despite that and despite their lack of editorial standards and edgelordy aesthetics — a miracle, really. The only thing they seemed to actually put any effort into was their culture war podcasts and Twitter marketing strategies, and those more than speak for themselves.
Their loss is not the left’s loss. My assessment remains as it ever was: good riddance.
Lenin describes tailism in What Is to Be Done? as the tendency of some activists to drag (like a tail) behind the most progressive elements of the working-class movement, by reflecting in their politics only the most reactionary views of the masses. This is a mistake, because, firstly, it underestimates the political and revolutionary potential of the working class, and secondly, communists must be the revolutionary vanguard of the struggle, not lagging behind it as reactionaries within the movement.
The tendency of tailism can be observed in the dismissive and confrontational attitudes some on the left take to matters of social importance—women’s struggles, LGBT+ issues, racism, etc.—that are adjacent to class struggle. We have surely all heard it said countless times that certain issues are “a distraction from class struggle,” or “not of any concern to the working class.” It surely does not need pointing out that the working class comprises people of all gender backgrounds, sexual orientations, races, and ethnicities, and these struggles are of direct and immediate concern to them and their lives. In fact these struggles are inextricably linked to class struggle and should always be regarded as such.
As communists, we assert that the primary contradiction that shapes and defines the world is that of class struggle: between the bourgeoisie and the working class. However, it does not follow from this that our work or our analysis must disregard all other contradictions and struggles as irrelevant. Quite the contrary: we must seek to unite struggles against all forms of exploitation in the revolutionary fight for communism. This is the very nature of class struggle.
Update #2: The persistent misspelling of my name seems to implicate — who else? — Mike Watson as the author here, although he denies it. It certainly reads around about his level of reading comprehension.
Also, contrary to what I said in the close of this post, apparently they don’t have their Patreons, because they were relying on those to pay Zer0 freelancers. Because of this, what constitutes Zer0’s assets in the buy-out are now in contention. This just sounds like dodgy dealings — or at least a very dumb accounting arrangement — on Doug’s part… My guess is he was attempting to counter a deficit that was no doubt the result of him driving Zer0 into the ground, both as an intellectual venture and as a business.
The first part of Simon’s post is broadly concerned with what many used to sarcastically call “Deleuze Studies”. That the joke no longer really lands is a sign of the times. It used to be said with tongue firmly in cheek, as if nothing as unruly as Deleuzian philosophy could be subsumed within some academic cottage industry… But here we are. Now the mantle of “Deleuze Studies” has been taken up with an unfortunate sincerity.
Simon seems to share in the disappointment. “The trajectory of the blogosphere and, more broadly, para-academia must be viewed under the light of Deleuze’s status within academia”, he argues. This is correct, in some ways, but is the suggestion here that the popularity of the blogosphere had something to do with it? That the popularity of Deleuze online helped him take over offline? I don’t see that personally. Deleuze’s influence within the academy has certainly trickled outside of it, but when Simon argues this is an important point “because the thinkers engaged in this practice [of blogging?] all emerge from the same ecosystem of thought”, that’s not my experience of the blogosphere at all.
In fact, as the post he’s responding to hopes to emphasise, that the original blogosphere was all Deleuzians is a bit of a misnomer. He was central, of course, but many of those in discussion with one another were less interested in further his influence in isolation. They were broadly engaged with what was once called “Post-Continental Philosophy”.
If I’m following Simon here, I think what he’s describing is applicable to the current Twittersphere — let’s be clear: there is no real blogosphere left to speak of — which has been influenced by a generation of grad students learning about Deleuze at school. But the original blogosphere seemingly had a far more diverse education than that. It’s not that they all emerged from the same ecosystem, as he suggests, but were attempting to populate a new platform with thinkers who properly responded to the times.
In an interview conducted by Christopher Haworth, Robin Mackay discusses the postgraduate modules undertaken by those who were at Warwick in the 1990s (and many of Warwick’s graduates went on to be major figures in the first blogosphere, of course). He explains:
There were two good courses, one was called Recent Continental Philosophy, at that time taught by Keith Ansell-Pearson, and the other one was Current French Philosophy. And, you know, the very idea of there being ‘recent’ or ‘current philosophy’ seemed exciting and somewhat unexpected, even though it was not really that recent, it was post-Heideggerian and then post-’68 thinkers, in CFP mostly Deleuze and Guattari — but certainly, those were the exciting courses to be on.
I asked Robin about this a few months ago, prior to writing the post Simon is responding to, and he confirmed my suspicions. They weren’t just reading Deleuze and Guattari, but also Badiou, Laruelle and Michel Henry.
At that time, people were less interested in picking a philosophical team and then defending it to the death. They were interested in philosophical buggery, marrying positions between philosophers who supposedly disagreed, finding points of intersection and tension and cracking them open. That this was arguably a central gesture within Deleuze’s thought did not make him somehow immune to it in practice. A desire to complicate his reception especially was central to many of the blogosphere’s better-known interlocutors. This was true enough for Mark Fisher himself, who wrote in 2005: “The most productive area of conceptual discordance is that between Badiou and Deleuze-Guattari.”
Meanwhile, that the rest of academic philosophy soon fell under the spell of one figure in particular was ridiculed back then as it is by Simon now. Fisher again was frequently critical of it — I’m sure others were too, of course, but Fisher’s remains the most easily navigable record of the discourse. (He even seemed to actively avoid teaching Deleuze and Guattari directly in his classes.) Back in 2004, he described the rising damp of academic “Deleuze Studies” as follows:
The whole academic lockdown on D/G proceeds programmatically:
Install ‘Deleuzianism’ as a research project. Typical focus: Difference and Repetition, the most boring book Deleuze ever wrote. (Interesting that Freud says that fetishists fixate on the final object they see before confronting the ‘horror’ of the vagina. The Philosophical establishment is similar with D and R, the last moment you could pretend what Deleuze was doing was academic philosophy.) Object: turn Deleuze’s work into ‘respectable’ philosophy. Systematically sideline not only Guattari (i.e. refer to Capitalism and Schizophrenia as by ‘Deleuze’) but more importantly downgrade the whole concept of collective authorship.
It’s all OK provided you don’t take it seriously i.e. provided you don’t really ask ‘how do you make yourself a body without organs?’ When they say ‘sorcery’ they’re being metaphorical, right?
Irony: the one thing you are not allowed to do in the academy is talk about practices of intensification, still less – hah! – engage in them. Of course, what you are endlessly required to do is deconstruct your own position, worry about the politics of taste, develop negotiated readings.
Suffice it to say, the original blogosphere didn’t contribute to this; it sought to resist it. If my own writing on this blog over the past year or so is fixated on historicising that era, it is to emphasise what has changed and what we have lost, because I’d love to see a return to that kind of cross-pollination. (See my post on Badiou/acc or, indeed, the post Simon is responding to, which is ostensibly about Badiou rather than Deleuze, making his response somewhat disjointed.)
It’s not just about what Deleuze can offer us, but the challenges within recent Continental philosophy that are still unresolved today. That the blogosphere failed to persist in this manner is, I think, a comment on the academy’s penetration into the blogosphere, not the other way round. The thrust of influence still largely goes one way. This is important to note because the tandem withering of the blogosphere and the rise of Deleuze Studies was not an example of cause and effect but a kind of dovetailing that echoes broader trends within the humanities today.
On this topic, then, I think it is fair to say that Simon and I agree.
From here, I get confused. Simon seems to suggest that this “Deleuze Studies” approach has long been a pervasive tendency within the blogosphere — as shown above, it hasn’t — and since Deleuze is no longer a challenge or a surprise but a part of the furniture, Simon asks: “What heresies, unorthodoxies and challenges to the status quo has occurred as a result of the blogosphere?” Though he seems to think the answer is none, he nonetheless catalogues a fair few examples himself.
Popularising chimerical political projects and experimental prose styles, exploring collective authorship on the web, welcoming a form of fiery debate that the academy would surely deem uncouth, raising awareness of certain debates that were (at that point) only happening in the academy, materially reconnecting philosophy with its cultural ground… Simon devalues these activities because they’re not new to him — come on, just because you take it for granted, doesn’t mean it wasn’t an innovation at one time — but he also devalues these things further by comparing them disingenuously to things that academia already does. To say collective authorship or discussion online, for instance, is no different to putting together a journal is very silly when we actually consider the modes of production that are deployed to produce either one. (At that level, to say they both include multiple people who have written things is surely a non-statement boiling things down to their lowest common denominator?)
On the contrary, the blogosphere was genuinely a kind of avant-garde at that time. It defined popular conversation whilst appearing to be anything but popular. I still remember when “hauntology” became an inescapable music industry buzzword in the late-00s / early-10s. A few bloggers did that. Their grafting of Derrida’s hauntological political philosophy onto Noughties dance music culture was inspired. It dragged conversations about the end of history and cultural innovation out of the academy and into the music press, and shaped a decade or more of cultural thinking. That there was later a backlash against it was welcomed too. It inaugurated a new thrust towards the future that many provocatively suggested had lapsed.
But Simon seems to think that this trajectory from philosophy to culture doesn’t count for much. What really matters is an influence that proceeds the other way round:
Did blogging, then, truly update philosophy? I’d argue that it did nothing for philosophical thinking itself, but it did shift the surrounding circumstances of such a thinking.
There is a pessimism here that I’ve challenged repeatedly over the years, which relates to what concerned the first blogosphere explicitly — the emergence of the new. Deleuze versus Badiou; hauntology versus accelerationism — these were two sides debating the same thing, with the nerdiest heretics seeking a recombinant approach to Badiou’s creation ex nihilo. I think it is telling and incredibly ironic that, in our own complaints about our current stuckness or lack of innovation, we completely ignore the innovations and challenges that resulted from that initial debate 15 years ago and just retread old ground, albeit without any of the ferocity or rigour that the old blogosphere gave the same issue. (See Alex Williams’ denouncement of hauntology or his inaugural post on xenoeconomics, which the accelerationist blogosphere grew out of.)
If that weren’t enough, we’ve already had this exact same debate a few months ago, after Matt Bluemink’s excellent “anti-hauntology” post, which led to a really productive back and forth in which I personally focused in on the ouroboric hunt for “new forms of the new”. In that discussion, I think we did well to outline the sort of catch-22 thinking we’re often caught within, which always projects its concerns outwards but doesn’t consider the fact that the real issue comes from within, that we don’t actually understand how the new emerges at all at the level of pop cultural discussion, to the point that we often denounce it or ignore it completely when it appears right in front of us. That is to say, that we don’t see innovation or newness says more about our own aptitude for perception beyond the ideology of “the end of history” rather than say anything of value about the actual conditions we live under.
Soon afterwards, inspired by this exchange, I presented “a brief history of the new” to the Ctrl Network — the lecture still hasn’t been uploaded yet, but I’m assured it will be one day — which showed how this question of what’s new and what’s just a recombination of the past is one of the oldest in the history of philosophy. There are conflicting ideas about this going back to the pre-Socratics, discussing finitude and infinitude, and Deleuze and Badiou clashed on the same topic as well. (See the excellent introduction to Sam Gillespie’s The Mathematics of Novelty.)
Admittedly, there’s a lot more links than direct exposition above, and Simon seemed to want to hear some direct examples from me. But, to be honest, if I’m reluctant, it’s because it’s already out there. I just don’t want to needlessly retread too much ground here.
If Simon complains that the most popular blogposts are summaries and curated lists of links, this is precisely why. People can’t keep up most of the time — understandably in my case… I don’t space things out much — but poor reasoning nonetheless emerges from lazy engagement. It’s all out there and pretty easy to access. We don’t have to make assumptions based on over a decade of lazy readings.
Of course, the biggest obstacle here is often finding a way in, and it’s very easy to provide a roadmap rather than just regurgitate various past arguments. This is another point missed. That the blogosphere has dwindled has less to do with those who actively attempt to keep it afloat and more to do with other people’s standards of engagement. Those sharing lists are often just trying to bring everyone up to speed, but even then it is a slow and dispiriting process.
With that in mind, I think it is wrong to blame the blogosphere — a veritable treasure trove of philosophical thinking — for its own demise when the trajectory of communicative capitalism more generally has drastically shortened attention spans. Having to curate lists and provide histories is a result of intensifying TikTok brain. Wasn’t it Fisher in Capitalist Realism who declared people want an understanding of Nietzsche as quickly as they want access to a hamburger? Now people want access to Fisher himself as quickly as they want access to a meme. It’s a Russian Doll of idiocy. Things are worse, in some ways, not better.
This is all to do with the conditions within which thought is produced, which Simon basically glosses over. But it is important that we unpack this point further. Because philosophy is hard. There’s no getting around that. But how do you encourage people to even start the journey of unravelling it and sticking with it? How do you do that without slipping into the sort of gatekeeping associated with the academy, where most people who can afford to read and think about this stuff often don’t have to worry about other things? Most of this blog was written whilst working part-time in London for less than the living wage. But I wouldn’t complain too much about it, because that was by choice. The older I get, however, the less I’m able to just slum it without putting pressure on others, my partner in particular. Philosophy gets harder as drudgery increases. But that’s precisely why I’m an advocate for the blogosphere. Because I struggle to think properly about philosophical questions when I’ve got a 9-to-5, having a blog gives me a reason to put in the extra hours. Like an amateur musician coming home from his day job and spending all evening practicing his instrument, the blog is a space to practice writing when academia isn’t there to coddle you. Social media, too, gives me people to talk to about these ideas. (I generally don’t talk about philosophy offline because I don’t have people in my life who are interested in it like I am.) Though it isn’t a paradise, when I think about what I’d be able to achieve without it, I feel better being in than being out; being online instead of off.
When we consider that people have different living circumstances, that directly impact how they are able to think and what they are able to think about, we have to be careful about demarcating certain activities or styles as having more value than others. The question is always: to whom? Though he broadly seems to be on the side of the blogosphere, that Simon argues blogging “is not a place for original thinking but rather for the proliferation of what is already out there, what is already published in journals or initially explored in books”, he seems to be replicating an academic bias.
This is the crux of it. That Simon argues the blogosphere has transformed “from subversion to pop philosophy” is something most of those initially subversive bloggers would themselves vehemently reject. Pop philosophy is subversion. The lines drawn between the original and the pale imitation are often snide and prejudiced. If we want to have this conversation properly, we first need to recognize what it actually is — not a cynical question of “value,” but a meta-philosophical discussion about “real” philosophy and its simulacra in our complex world of broken ideological mirrors.
Let’s focus in on one point in particular:
What does it mean if, as Simon suggests, the blogosphere “did nothing for philosophical thinking itself, but … did shift the surrounding circumstances of such a thinking”? Well, what is philosophical thinking in itself if not some enclosed ideal held aloft by the academy? Where does this philosophical thinking take place exactly? Where is it deemed to be acceptable and proper? What is “real” philosophy beyond a canonical stylistic approach? Despite opening his blogpost with a dismissal of the academy and its polite publishing arm, neutralizing certain kinds of errant thought, I can’t think of anything else that might count as “philosophical thinking itself” other than that ordained “official” by the academy.
As for changing the circumstances surrounding thought, isn’t that as good as changing philosophy itself? “Philosophers have hitherto only interpreted the world in various ways; the point is to change it” — that was Marx’s line, and it fits with his materialist worldview. Thought doesn’t change our circumstances nearly as often as circumstances change our thought. In fact, for many over the past few decades, changing the surroundings has broadly been the point. (See Badiou and Althusser on the “conditions” necessary for philosophy’s emergence throughout the ages.) It’s not a question of how the blogosphere fits into a deterministic trajectory of philosophy proper, but how it changed philosophy’s direction. (It’s dialectics, baby!)
Still, there is an important issue to consider here. To what extend has the blogosphere been through a process of marketisation? (If we ask this question, we must affirm that the academy has arguably gone through a more intensive version of this same process — at least in the Anglosphere). Simon argues:
Philosophy continues to be a mixture and expansion of previous philosophers, but is now starting to resemble marketing in its practices because it is centred so heavily around individuals. Matt criticises Harman for being self-serving, a criticism Brassier levels against him as well in the postscript to Pete Wolfendale’s Object-Oriented Philosophy: The Noumenon’s New Clothes, but Harman is really just doing what all bloggers are doing:…
Hard disagree on that point…
…fostering a certain philosophical style, a brand, a conceptual apparatus, which now comes with a domain you get to name and a colour palette you get to choose. But in a way, this mechanic was built into philosophy prior to the blogosphere. Sometimes, the only things separating two thinkers are mere semantics, minor conceptual differences, and different approaches which still end up with the same results, and this is where stylistic variations are key to understanding these particular oppositions. This has always been a question about branding even if this concept has only recently been invoked in philosophy.
I find the idea that Harman represents the true spirit of blogging nauseating considering he turned so many off it as a platform and practice. But the less said about Harman, the better. What is important to consider is the collapsing of terms here. Isn’t Harman just being a philosopher in developing a style and conceptual apparatus? What is it about any of these things that is exclusive to blogging, besides the point that Harman happens to have a blog? If anything, the intense emphasis on marketing yourself as a font of public engagement, which Harman loves, is the sort of thing that the academy loves about blogging. Like many academics who run blogs, his no doubt benefits his academic position rather than existing somehow outside of any relation to it.
I’m very aware of this at the moment as I’ve been applying for PhDs (against all better judgement) and the repeated invitations to add my blog or social media profiles to my applications as a way to prove I have a certain public standing is very disconcerting. The amount of followers you have on Twitter can be measured against your academic publishing record these days. (Makes sense for some, but I die inside when I think about some administrator actually engaging with the content.)
But again, that’s not blogging’s fault. That’s part of academia’s attempt to capitalize on everything that might appear outside of its bounds, in accordance with the socioeconomic system at large. With that in mind, I’d also disagree that linguistic differences don’t matter a great deal in discussing the finer points of certain philosopher’s bodies of work… Let’s not devalue conceptual engineering through pomo relativism, otherwise we’re really for the shitter. (This is not the first time that Simon employs the talking points of the parasitic neoliberalising forces he’s supposed to be denouncing here.)
All that being said, I do agree with Simon’s characterisation — attributed to Harman — of what makes blogging great:
He champions a view of blogging where he likens it to the hurried discussions of the bar or the pub. It’s a place to loosely sketch out new ideas and try them out for a wider audience and a place to receive hopefully informed feedback and responses. This would require a rejuvenation of the blogging practice and the more experienced practitioners might lend new ones a helping hand.
The blogosphere has never lost this. Twitter also carries that same sense of hurried discussion. But the point about the pub is that these discussions aren’t carried out individually in public — as is the alienating nature of social media — but properly together in a social setting. The pub is the space where you get to drunkenly talk over the blowhard object-oriented philosopher. (Harman is a tenured academic who notably blocks anyone who dissents against him in a heartbeat.) It carries within it a function of collective enunciation that the individualizing tendencies of the academy cannot capture. (That these tendencies have been brought to heel online in general is an issue that far exceeds the bounds of academic Twitter, of course. Nor is it a new phenomenon — we can literally trace it back to the invention of the printing press…)
For these reasons, I also find the cynicism here — and elsewhere in this section — a bit rich. I’ve describe the blogosphere in these terms myself on many occasions, and very much use my blog in the same way at Simon describes. They always were and tend to remain public notebooks for a lot of people. (I don’t buy into the idea of using your blog to just upload the stuff that didn’t pass peer review or some journal’s submission guidelines.) Forsaking that, they’re really not hard things to curate. All it requires is a diminished filter, which most people don’t have, perhaps because the academy teaches you to be more precious about your thought as a commodity. Harman isn’t a one-man barricade in the face of this; he represents academia’s appropriation of the platform.
So what are we to do about it? To be clear, this isn’t me drawing a convenient line around the blogosphere in an attempt to preserve its purity, but rather talk properly about the conflicting relations that now entangle it to the structures it was once proudly an antagonisation of. We needn’t denounce the blogosphere in light of this, just as we needn’t denounce anything that exists within our capitalist totality. (There is no outside.)
I’ve written about all of this before as well. What is key here, which Simon sort of trips over as his post develops, is the ancient tension here between philosophy and sophistry — an ultimately romantic distinction, in this day and age, which smells like a neoliberal work ethic, and which means either doing philosophy as a passion or doing it whilst getting paid.
What is necessary for philosophy’s survival is that we do both. If people are now trying to make a living off their various forms of intellectual-cultural production wholly outside of the academy, I don’t understand how that is anything but a good thing (unless you’re precious about the sanctity of the academy, which Simon began his post arguing against). Because, for too long now, philosophy has been the preserve of those who, for some reason or another, don’t have to work or who have been ingratiated into the academy at a young age.
In other words, monetising non-academic philosophy doesn’t denigrate philosophy as such, it denigrates the supremacy of the academy.
It’s also worth emphasising the way that non-academicians are finding ways to do philosophy outside of the academy do not reflect the same processes of marketisation that the humanities more generally have gone through. In fact, they are distinct in an integral way. As I tweeted around the time that previously linked post was written, the humanities embarrasses itself when it “insists on always making the case for its existence under capitalism by announcing its contributions to GDP and uses at a managerial level”. Ultimately, this “isn’t a humanities worth fighting for. If that’s the base line, the battle has long been lost.”
Many who resist this explicitly go the other way, relishing the irony. Crit Drip comes to mind, as a jokey but also brilliantly designed clothing brand that supports the really great community that Acid Horizon have built up — it is frequently hilarious and often lampoons the relationship between philosophy and pop culture impeccably; Craig’s re-imaginings of philosophical classics as pulp fiction are a brilliant example of this.
If we really want to have a struggle session over these accusations of complicity with capitalist forces, without devolving to snobbery, I think it is necessary that we treat the question of philosophy and sophistry with the appropriate rigour philosophy demands of it.
Matthew McLennan is excellent on this in his book on Badiou and Lyotard’s debate on the same topic. His introduction summarises the stakes of their debate today most succinctly. I have come back to this repeatedly, and I’m sure I’ve shared it on the blog or on Twitter more than once. Here is the opening section in full, with a few choice annotations:
Now, as ever, the question of philosophy’s definition is intimately bound to that of its survival.
Without pre-deciding the issue, let us assume for now the kind of broad definition of philosophy proffered in undergraduate courses: philosophy is an activity of higher-order questioning, a search after truth. Thus construed, in the present conjuncture philosophy is threatened on two fronts. It is in fact subject to a double bind: if unable to plead its utility, philosophy is existentially threatened; pleading its utility, it is threatened no less.
In the first place, philosophy as pure pursuit of truth is widely considered impractical or useless, and its claims to the intrinsic value of its labours tend to fall on deaf ears. But this is nothing new; Thales, traditionally considered to have been the first Western philosopher, was already subject to the ridicule of the Thracian maid when he fell in a well while gazing at the stars. More interesting is the fact that philosophy also and increasingly flirts with absorption into the very discourse of economic efficiency that undermines it. It finds a place at the table by pleading its utility, as training for the flexible, lateral thinking often said to be essential to economic and professional success.
(The most interesting philosophers online and in the blogosphere don’t do anything like that… Others have fallen into that same trap, however. See Justin Murphy and Nina Power and the recently christened reactionary academy for the cancelled, Austin University — these are the types of people who claim to be subversive whilst constantly appealing to and attempting to imitate apparatuses of state power.)
Philosophy may also be tapped for its therapeutic value, to the effect that the wisdom of the great philosophers alongside yoga and other techniques helps to cultivate the contentment, health and productivity of economic contributors. Moreover, the philosopher increasingly finds a role in practical ethics training, an explosive growth field by which she contributes not only to genuine ethical deliberation, but to the alibis of institutions and the individuals who populate them.
This economic operationalization of philosophy is of course part of a global trend with much wider implications. Where the economic winners in a globalized post-Fordist system see flexibility, dynamism and opportunity, the vast majority of Earth’s labourers — adjunct philosophy faculty included — see precariousness, pressure, displacement and the permanent threat of obsolescence. Frequently, formally educated labourers must retrain midstream to stay swimming, and the increasingly irrational demands on one’s time and one’s spatial locations push many to top up their credentials with night classes and online certification. Less and less frequently one locates the philosopher in the comfort of the ivory tower, pursuing pure research. It is increasingly common to find her on the adjunct treadmill, or at the intersection of diverse digital applied humanities courses in programmes targeting non-philosophical professionals.
(Or, having escaped that mess, the blogosphere!)
To this extent the philosopher becomes more than ever a facilitator who helps others — the real producers, the real drivers of the economy, it is said — to think differently; to look at alternative points of view; to cultivate intuition, understood as an openness to unthought-of solutions to practical impasses (and it goes without saying that such solutions are — at least on paper — to be ethically sensitive if not ethically sound).
In sum, philosophy — where tolerated — is increasingly tapped for its productive potential rather than its millennia-old and, arguably, essential link to truths. In a general way, this poses with a new urgency the question of philosophy’s survival. But it also raises a more focused question: whether or not present conditions, by insisting on economic efficiency, encourage philosophy to distance itself from the standard, broad definition and even, perhaps, to slide into sophistry.
Why sophistry? Compare Socrates to Protagoras. It is widely known that Socrates took no money for his philosophical craft, and that ultimately he martyred himself for the truth. Though arguably he was Socrates’s intellectual equal, the craft of Protagoras was linked in perhaps an essential way to economic and political survival and flourishing. In Plato’s Protagoras (1992a) — tendentious though we may assume it to be — the character Protagoras pulls shy of the anti-democratic conclusions to which he is pushed by Socrates’s rigorous questioning. He thereby demonstrates a political savvy placing him squarely and ably in the realm of doxa, mere opinion. He is no partisan of truth, but seeks above all to cause effects with language, and this with a view to human flourishing.
(In this regard, the proto-blogospheric activities of the Ccru were proudly sophist, enacting a Burroughsian magick that sought to engender cultural affects through the poetic intensification of para-academic jargon — and it clearly worked, and continues to work, on many. But truth was still never far away — this kind of sophisticated cultural activity was put to work precisely to break the veneer of capitalist realism. If we think of Plato’s allegory of the cave, rather than haranguing those in chains about the blinding enlightenment that awaited them outside, the Ccru entered the cave and constructed shadow puppets of their own, revealing not an ultimate ideological truth but the very malleability of our surroundings — which arguably amounts to the same process of enlightenment anyway: different means, same end.)
Certainly, high-quality philosophical work in the Socratic/Platonic tradition of fidelity to truth continues to be produced internationally. But the existence of a hungry, desperate intellectual underclass — the army of adjunct faculty and the reserve army of underemployed and unemployed philosophy graduates seeking a toehold in the academy — favours the unmooring of philosophical technē from this fidelity.
Since philosophy is tied to money through the university, it is at any rate fair to question whether or not this tends to corrupt it at the pedagogical level.
(Hmmm, okay, also increasingly the blogosphere…)
Adjunct philosophical under-labourers are more competitive to the extent that they can balance the demands of challenging, even titillating their millennial students, with the demands of telling the latter what they want to hear. To be safe, one usually assumes a basically liberal-democratic framework for discussion, in which thought experiments are brought out to show instinctively liberal-democratic students the minute inflections of applied liberal-democratic thought. One challenges, but only mildly; acts the benevolent eccentric, the clown even, the fondly remembered philosophy professor, within this familiar space.
(Again, it is intriguing that Simon brings Harman into the discussion as the arch-blogger retaining a certain spirit today. This above paragraph reflects how many felt about his development, and it was precisely his success within the blogosphere, utilising these same tactics, that put many people, like Ray “The Butcher of Beirut” Brassier — certainly not known for mild challenges — most infamously off his instrumentalization and capture of recent and dischordant philosophical innovations. (The comment about the blogosphere as an “orgy of stupidity” loved by “impressionable grad students” was a dig at the husk Harman had transformed speculative realism into.)
On a cynical reading, one does so to gain favourable student evaluations by which to secure one’s incumbency, and with which to pad one’s portfolio in pursuit of increasingly rarer tenure-track positions. The razor-thin difference between Socrates and Protagoras has perhaps never been so important, since it is precisely by Protagorean political instinct and flattery, not through fidelity to truth, that the professional philosopher increasingly wins and keeps her place at the table.
The question of philosophy’s survival, then, is tied up with its potential slide into sophistry, broadly construed as the politically astute practice of creating effects with language for a fee.
(This idea of doing it for a fee is still very much outside the remit of the blogosphere, I think. For better and for worse, our contemporary patronage model doesn’t reward the creation of effects, nor does it constitute a salary. It is a mark of appreciation for what you do, like tipping your server, and as someone who has tried but generally struggled to get some remuneration for their work online, the problem is perhaps that the money people give me doesn’t influence my behaviour or content very much at all. This online precarity is, of course, just another thing the academy has appropriated. Whereas I think many people expect the money they give to provide access and more professional, paywalled content, I have always been clear that it just helps me continue to do what people like. This is unlike, say, the Justin Murphys of the world, who seem to have explicitly exported academic ways of working into an online space, even continuing to trade off academic qualifications and experience to ensure would-be buyers that he and his cronies know what they’re doing…)
But this poses anew the ancient question of whether the definitions of philosophy and sophistry here assumed are sound, and to what extent the line between the two can or should be drawn in any rigorous way. Indeed, not all thinkers in the ballpark of philosophical practice agree that sophistry should be quarantined from philosophy; Hegel notably assimilated sophistry to the history of philosophy and Heidegger, far from defending philosophy against sophistry, charged sophistry rather with provoking the fall of Greek thought into philosophy. In a more contemporary vein, Keith Crome has drawn attention to the crucial distinction between sophos, sophistēs and philosophos, roughly wisdom, sophistry and love of wisdom. His indispensable Lyotard and Greek Thought: Sophistry is a promising reflection on the possibility of a positive definition of sophistical intelligence, as distinct from both pre-Socratic sophos and Platonic–Aristotelian philosophos (Crome 2004). And not only the rich written corpus, but also the very career trajectory of Barbara Cassin, troubles any neat distinction between the craft of the philosopher and that of the sophist (Cassin 2014). The standard definition of philosophy is, in other words, question-begging according to some scholars on the grounds that it degrades, implicitly or otherwise, sophistical intelligence either by assimilating it to a stop on the road to philosophy, or to the status of a lesser rival. Is the story of sophistry parasitical upon that of philosophy? Is sophistry essentially autonomous? Or is the distinction between the two insufficiently nuanced to begin with?
These are questions we could do with asking ourselves. Unfortunately, I think Simon buys into the tendency to degrade and hierarchise which is already, in itself, a tired old trope of idealist academicians. Still, there’s a worthwhile question here — is the blogosphere of today just sophistry?
I still think it’s a cynical assessment. Academic careers are hard to come by, and most who pursue them anyway do it for love not money. Academia, in general, takes advantage of that. It is a deeply exploitative career path, as McLennard suggests (albeit without revealing the full horror of the adjunct treadmill). Against the behemoth of academia, many fighting for job security, academic freedom and non-exploitative working conditions are facing an uphill battle. It puts someone on the outside, like myself, completely off a career in teaching.
That’s not to say the solution is that everyone just goes online, teaches or writes independently with no salary to speak of, martyring themselves for “truth”. This just sounds like blogging with a Protestant work ethic. The blogosphere still has its problems and there are a lot of still-viable critiques we could do with discussing. (Jodi Dean’s book Blog Theoryis particularly prophetic and relevant to contemporary circumstances, for instance, though it’s a decade old and few today seem to have read it.) But relative to the academy, the blogosphere and its ever-changing nature feels more malleable.
New approaches are emerging all the time and I’m anticipating a shift myself in the near future, as I plan my exit from WordPress to a platform that is more independent, decentralised, and can offer opportunities to share knowledge in a way that allows me to make a living and build communities. People deserve to get paid for what they do, both inside and outside of the academy, and we’d do well to further highlight the value of what people do outside rather than call it into question.
P(r)opping Up Philosophy
In the final section of his post, Simon begins working with his own definition of “pop philosophy”, which I interpret as just another way of talking about “sophistry”. I have little to add here beyond what has been posed above. But I think a kind of “pop (or pulp) philosophy” has already been theorised by Robin Mackay, which responds to McLennard’s philosophistry problematic well.
In principle, philosophy is a popular practice, given that both its problems and the materials it uses to interrogate them are available to any modern human mind. But it’s also a two-thousand-year-old discipline with its own highly technical language, which for much of its history has been the preserve of idle aristocrats and, following a brief respite during the fleeting historical episode of the welfare state, now looks well on the way to becoming, once again, an esoteric specialism accessible only to the privileged few.
Drawing on my experience as an editor and publisher, and especially the publication over ten years of the journal Collapse and its reception by non-specialist audiences, I want to examine various models for what a modern pop — or pulp — philosophy could be, asking how one can possibly maintain the careful and rigorous cultivation demanded by philosophy within the boisterous jungle of memetics, marketing, and cultural production. Pop is not just popularity, and can’t be measured in audience numbers. It’s an aesthetic, social, and political question that involves thinking through the relation between form and content, integrity and generosity, democratic ideals and cognitive probity, commerce and commitment.
The blogosphere as a whole, then and now, struggles with this balance, but let’s not pretend there aren’t plenty of us out here who keep this stuff explicitly in mind. Robin is a case in point. His lecture is the perfect response to all of the above.
For any students and staff at Newcastle University, I’ll be giving a talk on November 17th at 14.00 in the Lindisfarne room. Narcissus in Bloom will be a presentation of new research, presenting a condensed version of the argument from my next book, due sometime next year or the year after.
It’ll be about selfies, ego death, art history, overcoming individuation, gender identity, Covid-19 and other things. There’ll also be refreshments!