Observatory Crest:
On Narcissus in Bloom

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.

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