Accessibility and Post-Punk:
Thoughts on the Difficulty of Pop Philosophy

As the new Zer0 Books YouTube channel has emerged from its rocky transition, it was interesting to see comments of genuine concern made by long-time viewers who want reassurances that the accessibility of the previous management’s output would still be a guiding principle.

On the one hand, it is disappointing to see this concern vocalised. This perception has come from the Lainers’ cynical disinformation campaign, as if the various corrections offered on their readings of certain figures, not least those they ventriloquise from beyond the grave, make their critics academic gatekeepers or trolls.

But on the other hand, this is a very fair comment and one that I know is actively heeded by Craig and others. In fact, I think accessibility is something that everyone in this part of the theorysphere cares about — not just an intellectual accessibility but supporting other forms of access as well.

This is what is most exciting about the new Zer0 YouTube channel being a space for a lot of like-minded folk to really pull together for the first time under the same umbrella. There has never been a sense of competition between anyone newly involved in Zer0 Books, just mutual respect and appreciation, and using that as a foundation for a new venture is really exciting to all of us, not least because it provides new opportunities to combine our networks and interests and lift others up, featuring voices of different backgrounds, genders and nationalities. (The idea to include Spanish language content or develop a Spanish language channel is particularly exciting to me, as there’s been a general desire to strengthen connections beyond the Anglosphere for a while, and the reception of Mark Fisher’s work in that part of the world in more recent years has opened up exciting opportunities to refresh the conversation around his legacy.) This will be a real improvement on the accessibility offered by the previous management, at least in this particular sense of the word.

But beyond that, it is certainly true that many of us have a tendency to get caught up in academic shorthand, if we’ve had the privilege of learning it. For me and others, I know the desire is always to translate certain forms of knowledge and critical thinking back into a more colloquial language. But what is colloquial for you may not be colloquial for another. It is difficult, if not impossible, to please everyone. (This is why I think our Buddies Without Organs podcast works well; it is fuelled by a desire to make difficult texts accessible without also dumbing them down, precisely by trying to make sense of them with and for each other — just as the memes have long demanded.)

This can be easier said than done, however, especially when terminology is invented precisely because things are not easily expressed in everyday language. And this is also a core function of philosophy, after all. This shorthand is often not simply “academic shorthand” but rather is constituted by concepts, which are the very building blocks of thought. Unfamiliar concepts are useful precisely because they require you to think differently about a topic that you might otherwise approach intuitively, and perhaps incorrectly. It is a question, then, of adequately introducing them — defining your terms — so that everyone knows what a tool is and how it is being used, even if some are more skilled at using these tools than others.

With this in mind, accessibility in theory soon collides with issues of functionality. For many of us newly involved at Zer0, there is a strong desire to retain the nitty-gritty of an argument or position and discuss it on its own terms, but how do you do that without making anyone else feel like they can’t participate? This is where accusations of elitism often come from, I think, but what use is a sense of “accessibility” if something is dumbed down to the point of inaccuracy and uselessness? In this sense, how do you make something accessible whilst retaining its disruptive purpose?

Mark Fisher implicitly pondered this point in Capitalist Realism when he wrote that

Some students want Nietzsche in the same way that they want a hamburger; they fail to grasp — and the logic of the consumer system encourages this misapprehension — that the indigestibility, the difficulty is Nietzsche.

The question that arises here, often ignored, is: how do you make the difficulty itself more accessible? It is grappling with the difficulty that precisely turns the world inside out, but that can be done collectively and with a supportive hand. Accessibility does not — and should not — mean an immediate acquisition but rather the collective and supportive understanding of an approach that you must make yourself. This is also easier said than done when the primary medium is audio or video, but watching and listening to “content” needn’t be passive; though it may not be active in and of itself, it can still be activating.

This is what Fisher wanted to do with Capitalist Realism, after all. The cliché is that he just said things are bad and resigned us to our fate, in a world always already co-opted by capital. But the opposite was true. His despair at the present was fuel for further action. He strove to open up cracks in the firmament by hacking away at the coal face of popular culture. It was for this reason that, if he repurposed certain words, phrases or signifiers, it was to conjure the weird out of the familiar, instead of flattening everything onto the totalizing familiarity and false consistency of capitalist realism itself.

This is the odd paradox of his thought. “There is no outside to capitalism”, spatially or temporally, but all the more reason why we must find new routes of escape and egress. Capitalism’s materialist infrastructure might be pervasive and all-encompassing, just as its reasoning seems to frame the entire mind as capitalist “common sense”, but the inefficacy of these systems is precisely what allows them to be ideologically undermined nonetheless. In challenging our intuitive understanding of the system — even of philosophy itself — we begin to put philosophy back to work. Echoing Gilles Deleuze and Sadie Plant, the sentiment is one of “flee, but whilst fleeing, pick up a weapon.”

This was Fisher’s approach to pop culture, and it was always active, never passive. As he wrote in response to accusations that Capitalist Realism was a pessimistic book:

For me, it isn’t pessimistic, but it is negative. The pessimism is already embedded in everyday life – it is what Zizek would call the “spontaneous unreflective ideology” of our times. Identifying the embedded, unreflective pessimism is an act of negativity which, I hope, can make some contribution to denaturalizing that pessimism (which, by its very nature, does not identify itself as such, and is covered over by a compulsory positivity which forbids negativity). Far from nothing ever changing, something already has changed, massively… The terrain – the crashed present, littered with the ideological rubble of failed projects – is there to be fought over.

The difficulty comes from what we should do next, and identifying the right things to fight over is part of that.

This is arguably resonant with the fraught and disgruntled nature of the Repeater-Zer0 takeover. (Isn’t everything at the moment…) Doug Lain’s approach to Zer0, which was politically promiscuous, contrarian and fuelled itself on courting outrage, has been held up as a punk attitude in the face of Repeater’s more respectable (and therefore apparently “corporate”) appearance. But it often confused and flattened its negativity onto a pessimism mistakenly attributed to Fisher himself as a core part of their marketable back catalogue.

Repeater has always rejected this and despised it, long in private if only recently in public, because it runs contrary to their entire project. In fact, it stinks of an outdated Gen X attitude that has never done anything other than exacerbate its own impotence. But this is precisely an approach that Repeater (and, indeed, Zero in its initial phase) always challenged — a tired edgelord culture.

The issue with an edgelord’s approach to cultural production is that it always falls in on itself. The unavoidable paradox of punk is that it must either move forwards or self-destruct. Moving forwards is selling out; staying true to punk means affirming your own stasis. That was the importance of Fisher’s personal (and Repeater’s broader) post-punk approach — making good on the opportunities that punk’s refusal made possible, rather than languishing in a perpetual tantrum of nihilistic refusal and the persistent affirmation of your own incompetence. (And this is something that is as common on the right as it is on the more “dirtbag” side of the left today — another telling difference between UK and US lefts, where vulgarity retains an air of cool for a certain quadrant of the latter but is generally associated with grifting centrists like the MP Jess Phillips in the UK.)

Rather than just another dig at the old management, this is important to note because it is central to questions of accessibility, as well as how we can better contend with the difficulty of the present, and perhaps illuminates how many Lain loyalists have so far understood his own “accessible” approach.

Punk was “accessible” because anyone could do it. It thrived on an anti-intellectualism, an anti-aesthetic nature, a DIY sensibility, a “scorched earth” approach to all questions of value and beauty that were passed down by a supposed cultural elite. But this refusal is also founded on a sense of affirmative impotence, which was quickly seen as unsustainable by many punks and led to many jumping ship just before it went mainstream — see John Lydon’s pivot from Sex Pistols to Public Image Ltd by the time Never Mind the Bollocks was in the shops.

It’s also the tension between Amyl and Mad in Derek Jarman’s Jubilee. Mad wants to burn everything to the ground; Amyl is instead more concerned with transformation and rebirth from the ashes of their great refusal. Mad is happy just to light the fire, but it is Amyl who dances the ballet in the flames. This was the core tension and contradiction of punk — the tandem desire to both destroy culture and contribute to it. But it was punk’s inability to settle this tension that led to its demise. Those who survived and went on to do interesting things no doubt found themselves relating to Amyl, who finds that it is precisely in tearing down the cultural hierarchy and ripping up the history books that she is able to salvage what she wants from the past to actively produce a new and more interesting present. Whereas Mad would rip it up and throw it all away, languishing in the ruins, Amyl rips it up and starts again. It is through this attitude that she finds herself able, as a punk, to dance the ballet. It makes it newly accessible to her, having been ripped from the toffs’ cloistering hands. Ballet becomes subversive because of the context in which it is being practiced and the kind of person practising it. (Mad, of course, thinks Amyl is a loser regardless.)

After the apparent “end of history”, it was only Mad’s mantras that seemed to survive. The contrarian pyromaniac with an unformed political consciousness, that may despair generically at a political landscape but ultimately does nothing about it pleases no one but herself. It doesn’t matter what I do, so I’ll just do what I want. Whereas Amyl says “make your desires reality”, Mad embraces ressentiment and hangs onto the fact that the present reality rejects her desires. She finds superiority in her inferiority complex. As Amyl dances, she’s off throwing rocks through the windows still in tact among the ruins, a vague display of “power” with no consequence and no imaginative sense of salvage or reclamation.

Mad’s approach was already for the scrapheap then, in 1978, and it’s hardly of any use to us now. Many of the old edgelords have realised this. The ones that haven’t had this realisation have inevitably become reactionaries, stuck refusing an old world that doesn’t even exist any longer… But there are some from that generation (and the post-punks who came after it) who still bring hope and a renewed confidence today.

Consider, for example, Steve Albini, who posted a series of tweets addressing accusations of his being an edgelord a few months ago. Reflecting on the culture of bloodyminded refusal of the ’80s and ’90s that he helped to define as a musician and as a producer of many seminal albums, he wrote:

For myself and many of my peers, we miscalculated. We thought the major battles over equality and inclusiveness had been won, and society would eventually express that, so we were not harming anything with contrarianism, shock, sarcasm or irony. [1]

If anything, we were trying to underscore the banality, the everyday nonchalance toward our common history with the atrocious, all while laboring under the tacit mistaken notion that things were getting better. [2]

I’m overdue for a conversation about my role in inspiring “edgelord” shit. Believe me, I’ve met my share of punishers at gigs and I sympathize with anybody who isn’t me but still had to suffer them. [3]

This sense of no future that Albini once spoke to, through the nihilistic fury of a number like Big Black’s “Kerosene”, isn’t a call to arms in any sense. It is instead an attempt to rattle a culture through contrarianism and fury. And it might piss off your parents, but beyond that, what does it do? Of course, it doesn’t have to do anything. I’m quite happy that Steve Albini is not Billy Bragg. It’s still possible to enjoy that music and vibe to it — and I very much do. But it is also better to acknowledge its limitations than think our contrarianism serves any real purpose beyond pissing in the cultural wind — especially when it isn’t properly in tune with the present.

What Albini rages against in 1986 does not exist now, and he seems to recognise that, even suggesting that his refusal back then was nothing more than a young man yelling at clouds. But what does exist is the spectre of that refusal and its imagined cultural power, perpetuated by capital, which keeps us stuck, still responding to the problems of the past, which we may have only just given form to. We can enjoy the gesture, the fury, and find it affecting us in the present, but over time it has lost any sense of an active negativity. It doesn’t speak to or offer a critique of now. And Albini seems to acknowledge that — his refusal suited a moment, but it is no foundation for a political position, especially today.

Still, we can understand how this attitude continues to resonate in this weird online philosophy scene, which has long entertained edgelords and contrarians — and, in many ways, continues to. This is especially true among a younger crowd that is coming to Nietzsche or Bataille or Land for the first time, believing the transgression is the point, who feel emboldened by it and further ejected from pop culture and its normative values. But even these thinkers were refusing to their present. The ways they did so are informative and interesting, but recycling their tactics for now achieves nothing. More often than not, their second-hand pessimism helps no one and only feeds into the ideologies of ressentiment that often orbit the alt-right (even when supposedly emerging from the left).

We might return to Albini on this point. Michael Azerrad, in the seminal Our Band Could Be Your Life, notes how Albini’s “punk” attitude was rooted in a kind of (left-)melancholic masochism:

His confrontational aspects … were the preemptive instincts of someone who’s been routinely picked on. Choosing the reason you get your ass kicked is a way of exercising at least some control over the situation. It harks back not just to the earliest inklings of punk rock, but to the origin of the term “punk” itself, which referred to someone at the bottom of the jailhouse pecking order who realized that self-abasement was his only means of survival.

This is perhaps how people like myself miscalculated also. The glee with which Lain’s downfall was observed only played into their self-defined (and self-deprecating) punk status. But Repeater was fed up of how, in their self-abasement, Zer0 was abasing others too, not least Mark Fisher who had a very different relationship to the world, which may have included Mad’s pyromaniac refusal — as was true of all post-punks — but complimented it with Amyl’s generative gestures far more often.

The new Zer0 channel is all set to retain and improve upon a sense of philosophical and cultural accessibility in this sense. It will not make itself accessible by appealing to a child-like desire to be difficult, as a one-dimensional personality trait, but by affirming the difficulty that already surrounds us. And I think, culturally, we’re ready for that. We know that real social problems, like climate change most pressingly, require real work and real changes if they are to be sufficiently addressed. It is a difficult problem with difficult solutions. And our preparedness for that is reflected in popular culture more broadly.

I’ve written about this once before. Popular culture embraces difficulty and studious Ness today, perhaps more than it ever has done before — how else would you explain the popularity of things like speedrunning or the Dark Souls franchise? Even a cultural space like video gaming, once synonymous with slackers, has built various communities on the foundation of getting good at very difficult games. People like a challenge — a real challenge, rather than a superficial and aesthetic one. Why not give it to them? Why not make that more accessible, the very difficulty of philosophy, rather than the superficial idea of a poorly thought-out provocation? I think the new team behind Zer0 are more than capable of making good on that.

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