Disintensification-by-Canonisation:
Thoughts on the Fisher-Function

The five-year anniversary passed by strangely, and I found myself exhausted and infuriated by that same old comment, made every single year like clockwork, that Mark’s final act was easily explained by his penchant for ghosts and his depression.

It makes me want to log off every January. Instead, I ended up embroiled in another public spat, with someone who claimed to be a reader of us both but who couldn’t help but profligate stupidities. The general foul mood these encounters generated stuck with me over the week since and irritated me at intervals, like a rolled ankle for the soul.

That it is somehow fair game to comment on the reasons for anyone’s suicide publicly is one thing, but what makes it so much more nauseating is that Mark would have hated this Romantic melancholy more than anything. Maybe I was a bit touchy about it. After all, at the end of the day, is there not a shred of truth to these assertions? Sure there is. But the speculation is ultimately dis-intensifying, because it will never be and cannot be the whole story.

Mark wrote about this very process himself, some twenty years ago:

There are of course many fates worse than death, and one is being posthumously canonised as a ‘genius’ who is ‘too sensitive to live’ by the same class who made your life unliveable, the very intensity of your life serving as an alibi for the mediocrity and complacency of those who necrospectively pore over its minutiae. Stay inside, because if you let go and you end up like Van Gogh, Nietzsche, all the madmen … Such, of course, seemed to be the fate of Artaud, who wrote so corruscatingly about how this process of disintensification-by-canonisation was happening to Van Gogh and who must have had some intuition that the same reterritorialization project was already underway in his own case. It’s via the Deleuze-Guattari Gothic materialist machine that Artaud can be sprung from his assigned (captured) role as a (new) Romantic tragic genius to assuming his materialist-efficient function as a neuro/mancer — an electro-nerve sorcerer, an abstract engineer who left behind diagrams, plans and maps for escaping the meat. “Even if Artaud did not succeed for himself, it is certain that through him something has succeeded for us all”.

The increasingly dominant tendency to flatten the intensity of Mark’s work is two-fold in this regard. Is he being appropriated by Kapital, posthumously commodified, as the market latches onto the intensity and popularity of his work? Unfortunately, yes. But the solution isn’t to abandon him and let it all go. Better to keep spreading contrarian Fishers — there are plenty — who rebound and reject any stable, unified, whole, singular subject. He wrote essay after essay after essay trying to do exactly that whilst he was alive. It’s the whole point of his Janus-like approach to the writer’s life.

There were (and are) a multitude of Marks. That is why it is a difficult to present the curious with a coherent and fully-developed appraisal of his thought — something which is true enough in an online space. All of his posts and essays and musings could never constitute a single book, or even multiple books. He could never be captured by an all-encompassing corpus. There are too many posts, comments, essays, articles, theses. They overlap, echo each other, unravel in conversations increasingly lost to data death. Some will appear academically opaque to readers today; others will be pop-culturally basic and outdated. All are necessary for not only reaching out to different groups at different times but also for pushing those same groups out of their comfort zone. But beyond the contradictions, the stylistic flips, the divergent intentions and audiences, there is a thread running through that still deserves celebration and understanding.

We haven’t really seen it discussed publicly yet. The Fisher who has been celebrated in recent years is the Fisher who was exciting and accessible, who hoped to inspire his students or readers of the music press to enter a strange new world with him. And yet, whilst the Fisher-man’s lures have been celebrated, the net remains broadly misunderstood, resisting summarisation. Indeed, the disparity between pop lure and theoretical net has led to one often being discarded in favour of the other. I saw a comment recently about his use of the word “subjectivation” in Capitalist Realism, for instance — an alienating concept for the working man, surely? But is “capitalist realism” not a concept? The meaning of which has been learnt through proliferation? Any word can alienate; any word can inspire — the best ones do both, and Mark sprinkled his work with these liberally.

What was precisely so exciting — so provocative, stirring and radical — about Fisher’s thought was its unruliness and its refusal to stick in one category. With nothing to prove to anyone, he was as comfortable spit-balling about low culture, engaging publicly in a kind of blogosphere water-cooler talk about whatever was on the BBC last night, as he was philosophising in journals, producing high-density texts with a Burroughsian irreverence for the nomenclature and a deep appreciation for the power of the word-virus. Neither was a contradiction of, but rather essential to, the other.

It’s for this reason that he opened himself up to capture when he was alive, unafraid of co-option, excited by the prospect of his ideas being spread further throughout the system. It’s the sort of act you see often in monster movies, where some kamikaze soldier lets themselves be eaten by the heavily-armoured monster only to let some grenades off on their soft tissue from within.

So don’t mourn Mark’s digestion in the belly of the beast. It’s precisely where he wanted to be. “[S]chizoanalysis = pop philosophy = rhizomatics = stratoanalysis = pragmatics = micropolitics”, he insisted. But tis is worth noting not as some rousing eulogy but as a question of strategy. Those who complain about his co-option are the enemy, filling in the mournful other side of his disintensification. “Is nothing sacred?” No. Definitely not. Get over it. Push through. Lie in wait. He is indigestible. Relish the backlash that attacks the one-dimensional figure and re-intensify with other Marks who still populate cyberspace.

Mark died one death in January 2017, but doesn’t need to die another one every year afterwards.

Five Years

Five years today since we lost Mark.

I got an email recently from someone asking if they could translate whatever I had to say for the occasion. But I hadn’t actually planned to write anything. I wondered if I should; I decided against it.

We had an event planned, not to mark five years since Mark’s death but five years since the publication of The Weird and the Eerie. Something related to that might still happen, but the Omicron variant has thrown all our plans up in the air in recent weeks.

We’re also recording the first episode of The K Files tonight, as we start our deep dive into Mark’s lesser-known works for the Zer0 Books YouTube channel. It wasn’t planned to fall on this date. In fact, I only just realised it. But that feels like a nice way to acknowledge the occasion all the same — reading some of Mark’s work with friends.

I’ve also been thinking about hauntology again recently. Capitalist Realism was a shift away from the mid-2000s blogosphere and its preoccupation with hauntology. Why go back there in 2014? I’ve been commissioned to write an essay on some of Mark’s work from that period, which is due later this year, and this is the question I hope to answer. I’m writing it alongside someone else who knew him well and whom I greatly admire. We had a chat before Christmas, as I felt there was potential that we might cover similar ground, and I wanted to exchange notes. But what was acknowledged in the end was a shared anxiety. Perhaps there’s just not much that we, who have written so much, have left to say.

That’s nothing to mourn. Mechanical remembrance and repetitive anecdotes don’t help keep his thought alive. It turns the acknowledgement into a stagnant habit, which does not change despite the fact that the world does. Better to let January 13th just pass us by.

Robin usually sends me a text every Friday the 13th — a date which functions as the sort of diachronic anniversary of Mark’s passing, and I like that more for its elliptical movement forwards. It doesn’t fall on the same day every year. Sometimes it happens more than once a year. Those are the days I usually think of Mark.

The point is that he’s still missed and still admired and his work still has a function. I feel that immensely on every other day of the year.

Today is when the world usually feels like it stops. Better not to let it.

Everyday Authoritarianism

Moya Lothian-McLean has recently written an op-ed for the New York Times, exploring Boris Johnson’s increasingly authoritarian premiership. It has since rattled a bunch of conservative commentators, such as think tank stooge Robert Colvile:

Even by the @nytimes‘s standards, this is extraordinary. Basically accusing Johnson of being Putin/Erdogan, on the front page of its international edition.

There are many reasons to criticise Boris. But ‘effectively banning protest in England and Wales’? Seeking to ‘transcend the constraints of democracy’? What the hell are they smoking over there?

Originally tweeted by Robert Colvile (@rcolvile) on January 12, 2022.

I found the Twitter tantrums quite telling. Lothian-McLean is repeatedly accused of hyperbole and mistaken for a hysterical American who doesn’t know anything about the reality of life in England. In truth, she’s not saying anything that many left-wing commentators in this country haven’t been saying constantly over recent years, whether in newspapers or loudly at demonstrations demanding that we #KillTheBill. But the assumption by some that Lothian-McLean is an American who doesn’t know about a UK reality — that is, the assumption she’s an ill-informed outsider rather than someone currently living in the UK — sums up precisely what Boris’s authoritarian streak is leaning into.


On the one hand, Boris has always gotten away with a lot because we falsely think authoritarians can’t be bumbling incompetents. Trump disproved that, of course, and he also proved that Western demagogues can easily be friends with “foreign” leaders who have similar principles, from North Korea to Brazil and elsewhere.

This has produced a kind of cognitive dissonance in our understanding of authoritarianism. After all, ever since Hitler’s rise to power, the stereotype of an authoritarian in the Anglophone world has been an angry man speaking a foreign language. That angry man is also likely to be an isolated egotist who isn’t interested in alliances so much as world domination for their particular world view.

We forget, of course, that this describes England very well, from the age of empire onwards. And yet, even as the British Empire dwindled, the full ascendency of global capitalism at the end of the twentieth century has occasioned a domination of another sort (with America primarily at the helm). It was once the case that authoritarians were seen as isolated egotists, for instance, but with capitalism everywhere, authoritarians have a lot more to agree upon. Contrary to our prejudice, not all authoritarians make demands outside of or on the fringes of capitalism. Colvile tellingly nods to Putin and Erdogan, for example, as two authoritarians from Middle Eastern or former Soviet countries, supposedly on the fringes of capitalism, but the point is precisely that a localised authoritarianism that is resistant to a global hegemony is a dwindling concern and says nothing of the global hegemony itself, which asserts the dominance of an unchanging capitalist realism.

This is why we saw Trump, the most isolated authoritarian egotist in living memory, nonetheless making strange friends around the world, who recognized that his authoritarianism was compatible with their own. Even as they engaged in petty posturing and dick measuring, trading off their zany individual personalities, their political programmes were almost indistinguishable nonetheless.

I’ve written about this once before. That many of our most authoritarian leaders are zany caricatures of themselves doesn’t amount to a contradiction. “Zaniness is the only aesthetic category in our contemporary repertoire explicitly about this politically ambiguous intersection of cultural and occupational performance, acting and service, playing and labouring”, according to Sianne Ngai. Zaniness is a tool for transforming political ideals into personal quirks, giving us individual jokers to laugh at, thereby excusing systemic fuck-ups as individual incompetency rather than providing us with opportunities to skewer the system at large, which they are often acting as the chief representatives of.

Boris Johnson is a case in point. People ask how this joke of a man is so resilient. How does he survive crisis after crisis? How is this big of an idiot such a bullet-proof politician? Because he perfectly represents the status quo. It is why many on the centre-left prefer Keir Starmer. He too is clearly incompetent, but in being more representative of a failing order — as a former lawyer and knight of the realm, no less — he is more resilient in our current system.

Others are more easily challenged and fallible precisely because they represent alternatives.

This is where our present authoritarianism has come from. Authoritarianism’s very purpose is to enforce a particular status quo and actively reduce alternatives to it, and both in their zaniness and in their policies, this reflects the position of our current government in the UK to a tee. Many continue to mourn the failure of Jeremy Corbyn in this regard, but his downfall was like that of a canary in a coal mine. The entire system — not just the demarcated political opposition — came out in force to smother his chances and the changes he represented. It was in response to Corbyn that England’s turned up the heat on its authoritarian simmer. Though Corbyn is now all but absent from public life, this heat hasn’t dissipated. It is on high alert, ready to snuff out any future alternative that might arise in his place.

And so, although Colvile and others might find accusations of authoritarianism incredulous, can they deny that what they believe in, above all else, is the conservation of their own supremacy and their own right to rule, which has been more under threat this past decade than at any other time over the last fifty years? Since the financial crash, the gloves have started to come off. Their final victory was less final than they first thought. A creeping authoritarianism is all they have left to quell the steadily rising tide of widespread dissent. To deny that, to dismiss it as hyperbole, only shows what side you’re on.

2022 Slug

2022 has started sluggishly. After a Bank Holiday weekend spent out on the moors, I started to feel pretty rotten as the return to work was imminent. A week later, I’m only just recovering and emerging from my sick bed. I thought it was a nasty cold, which I was struggling to fight off on account of it being my first cold since late 2019… Now I’m not sure if it was the Omicron variant of coronavirus or not… I tested myself repeatedly and each test was negative, but I’ve since discovered all my symptoms were basically the same as Omicron, which does not present the same way as the initial coronavirus and its first few variants did. I’m inclined to trust the tests, and it was on the basis of these tests that my partner hasn’t self-isolated with me. But I’m nonetheless left with a deep dread and uncertainty that I’m not sure I’ve felt since this crisis first started.

So that’s how my 2022 is going so far. It has been dreadful — quite literally. Now I’m back to work, after a delayed start, and I’m already feeling exhausted by it. That seems to be the case for a lot of people. Christmas should have been a nice break, a pause, but now everyone I know feels ready for another one, as so many people spent most of the holidays being sick. But 2021 to-do lists have returned with the expectation we’re all well rested, and it does not feel good. One result of this, for the blog at least, is that it has led to a crisis of direction, and I’m thinking I might let the blog continue to slow down for the time being until I figure out what this space is for.

I say this every six months or so, of course, and acknowledging it publicly is often all it takes to shake off the cobwebs, but it feels more interesting to acknowledge right now, if only because a lot of people are talking about the direction of blogging in general.

I wrote something about all this in November, at least in light of some unfair appraisals of the old blogosphere. But the more pressing question is: how does blogging sit in relation to all else that is going on online, with the rise of newsletters and event-blogs and web3? Jay sent me a few links earlier this week on this, featuring a few other people’s 2021 roundups, and it seems there’s a lot of self-reflection in the air.

Venkatesh Rao had a lot of interesting things to say about web3 in his end of year round-up, for instance. I remember feeling quite excited about that last year, if only because the dream of being able to afford to blog full-time never quite goes away. It’s never about the money, but a lack of money nonetheless affects the amount of time I have to spend on this space. In fact, I’d wager a general time-poverty has led to a more fragmentary social media landscape and blogosphere. (Forget Johann Hari’s latest screed on our dwindling attention spans; a lot of us are just overworked and underpaid.) Rao writes on this increasingly fragmentary future:

We are in a liminal passage with blogging, where the medium has no message.

[…] It feels like the entire blogosphere (what’s left of it) took the year off to figure out a new identity — if one is even possible — in a world overrun by email newsletters, Twitter threads, weird notebook-gardens on static sites or public notebook apps, and the latest challenger: NFT-fied essays.

All those new media seem to have clear ideas of what they are, or what they want to be when they grow up. But this aging medium doesn’t. And while I have a presence in all those younger media, they don’t yet feel substantial enough to serve as main acts, the way blogging has for so long.

Perhaps there is no main-act medium in the future. Perhaps we are witnessing the birth of a glorious new polycentric media landscape, where the blogosphere will be eaten not by any one successor, but by a collection of media within which blogs will merely be a sort of First Uncle to the rest. The medium through which you say embarrassing things at Thanksgiving, with all the other media cringing. Maybe, just as every unix shell command turned into a unicorn tech company, every kind of once-blog-like content will now be its own medium. Listicles became Twitter, photoblogs became Instagram, and so on.

The entire blogosphere is going through perhaps its most significant existential crisis since the invention of blogging 22 years ago. […] Ironically, every couple of years through that period, there has been a round of discussion on “the death of blogging,” but now that it seems to be actually happening, there isn’t an active conversation around it.

If this is the end, it’s a whimper rather than a bang.

I’m not sure it is the end. Blogs still serve a function that these other mediums do not, at least when used as intended. Matt Web is a little more clear cut in his thoughts on this, echoing Rao but with less uncertainty in his tone. He writes:

I recommend blogging whenever I talk to people with interesting ideas, which is frequently. Start by writing down what you know, I say, in public. Writing things down (a) gives you stepping stones for thought so you can move past your ideas and reach for bigger ones; and (b) fizzes out brand new ideas because the shearing between a thought in your head and your thought in words makes a kind of generative static electricity.

That is something I couldn’t agree with more. Not every blogpost on xenogothic is a hit with mY aUdIeNcE, explicitly worth your time, pushing tHe DiScOuRse dramatically forwards. But every post indicates the movement of some sort of thought for me personally. It clears space for other things or rejuvenates some line of inquiry. That’s why Rao’s observation that blogging has often been preoccupied with its own demise isn’t that surprising. Every time this death is openly acknowledged, blogging acquires a new lease of life. That’s what happens on an individual level, if you ever take the time to paradoxically narrate your own writer’s block (it helps!), and collectively, as a whole community wonders aloud about its own direction.

Are other mediums as capable of doing that? Or resuscitating themselves? Probably, but the very function of blogging makes it easier. As Webb continues:

With email newsletters you can get obsessed with “audience” and making each edition “worth” hitting your readers’ inboxes… but with blogging you can let the idea lead. There’s just enough open air to keep you honest. Only do write regularly, otherwise each post becomes an event.

Rao comments on this as well, expanding a little more on the NFT-fied essay. In principle, it sounds like an interesting development towards sustainability. But the problem is that blogs, if we recognise them as often gargantuan archives of free information, ideas and discussion, don’t really lend themselves to the one-off essay every few months. Increasingly, of course, people do use blogs that way, but I agree with Rao, below, in that this way of working is fundamentally “unbloggy”. He writes:

Web3 does have its own native long form already — the NFTified essay, with mirror.xyz as the main current locus of action. The NFTfied essay is a natural outgrowth of a certain kind of laboriously wrought (in some cases overwrought) and produced (often overproduced) essay that became popular in the last few years.

These tend to “drop” like music singles by major artists. Publication as a notable micro-media event rather than routinely scheduled media flow. Very unbloggy.

I’ve been uncomfortable with this mode of essaying since I first spotted it. Most of my writing is improvised in a single session the day it is published, and it is barely wrought or produced at all. Much of it is also too lightweight to “drop” at all in Earth’s media gravity field. At best it can sort of float down like a feather.

I couldn’t relate to that more.

So, not exactly likely to turn into a native medium for me. I don’t think I can ever produce such a high-stakes essay.

But that said, it’s early days yet. There is a lot of richness to Web3 technology, and it’s going to support more than one mode of publishing.

In that spirit, what’s next for 2022? How to start the year off with a bang? Maybe it’s not worth trying yet. It seems best to watch closely and see how things develop. I have no qualms with migrating this whole archive to a new place, if it makes sense for me and the whole blogging ideal. But I also feel like I have a few very unbloggy years ahead.

I’ve been thinking a lot about what I want to get out of this year, both online and out of life more generally. I’m anticipating, even hoping, things will be quieter around here. I think 2022 is going to be an important transition year, as I enter my 30s and effectively restart my life a bit, and as blogging takes a moment to continue thinking about its own raison d’être. I think that’s true of me as well. Without going into the details too much, the end of last year and the start of this one have been quite painful. Everything that has been stable for the last decade is about to change. Admittedly this amounts to, like, one central relationship and its surrounding entanglements, which do matter to me a great deal, all coming to an amicable, even exciting, but ultimately terrifying end. The prospect of new adventures is on the horizon, but it means saying goodbye to a lot of what I’ve known for the last ten years. This is a hard thing to acknowledge. It has meant the end of 2021 has been defined by a strange grief, as if knowing a present way of life is terminal and doesn’t have long left in it. Processing this ahead of time, rather than adapting by necessity in the moment, has led to a strange kind of mental distancing taking place, even though nothing has yet changed. But it’s about to…

Right now, there are a few more pressing matters. I still have my next book to finish, and whilst I thought I’d be able to have a first draft done by the end of last year — always with the wishful thinking; remember when I announced Egress was done 18 months before it finally hit the shelves? — it is going to take me a couple more months yet. This has less to do with the amount of work that still needs to be done on it, and more to do with the time I have available to spend on it… I took a week off work back in November to break its back, and am confident the first half is now complete. The second half could do with another week in the mind-oven, however… But I’m not sure I have the time to take another week off to finish it until at least the spring… I also have two commissions on the go right now — one short, the other long — and I desperately need to spend some time on those when I’m not doing my proofreading / copyediting day job. The longer commission is really cool, actually. It has a March deadline and I’ve already got the main scaffolding in place in my excitement over Christmas. But I’m not allowed to talk about it yet, so watch this space for more on that.

There’s also a lot of other life stuff going on. Another deadline on the horizon is for PhD funding applications. The various projects I’ve stuck pins in over the last year or two are all pretty major and require the sort of dedication and research time I just don’t have access to anymore, as financial pressures have accumulated over the last four years I’ve been running this blog, mostly whilst working freelance or part-time.

Though I’ve resisted it for a long time, a return to academia now feels like the only avenue left available if I really want a few more years trying out the writing life. To that end, I’m hoping to turn one of my various shelved book projects into a research project — the long-term going being to jump through its various hoops and then hopefully transform whatever I produce into something more readable for a general audience a few years down the line.

But I have mixed feelings about that process. Over the last few years, I’ve worked hard to get away from a lot of my more academic tendencies, picked up as a postgraduate five years ago. I think I’ve been quite successful. Narcissus in Bloom is relatively free of citations, for instance, in a way that Egress was not. In fact, the whole attraction of working on that book in particular, at the expense of the few others I have percolating on my desktop, is that it is building on ideas I’ve held onto and developed since I was an undergraduate, if not before. (One chapter pulls together a bunch of my art-historical interests — and even a few actual notes — going back to my school days in around 2008, which is quite weird, now that I think about it…) So this next book has written itself without too much further reading being necessary. That is not the case for anything else I’d like to work on, however, even with the blog functioning as a place to store and put out fleeting snippets of research and stray thoughts.

But the thought of going back into academia for a stint, in order to facilitate this, nonetheless makes me nervous. I have spent a lot of time learning more about the English language and its rules recently, for instance, having transformed myself into a grammar nerd over the last 18 months, in part as I decided to retrain as a proofreader at the start of the pandemic so I could work remotely. (Ten years experience as an arts administrator working front of house in art galleries made for a bleak CV when all those places shutdown for a year…) This has helped immensely with crafting a more formal writerly voice that differs from my blog tone but is still (if not even more) readable and non-academic, and I hope a PhD doesn’t undo that. Nevertheless, it feels like the only way available right now to properly start something new, to reclaim the time to read and digest and write properly, without going full grift and erecting paywalls and going back to the full-time freelance life.

It is also for all of these reasons that I am wondering about the purpose of this space going forwards. I’m also very aware that, at the moment, I’ve been posting a lot of photography and writing a lot about online drama. The latter is not really what I want this space to be used for, although it has long had a place and sometimes needs must. But using the blog as a space to respond rather than generate ideas has become increasingly normal these past six months, simply because I have so much less time and energy than when I first started this blog and my main writing project hasn’t needed workshopping.

So there’s lots to think about and consider and work on as the year progresses, and I’m not sure if any of this is really appropriate to discuss on this public platform going forwards. I’ll have to figure that out. Every time I say this, of course, it flicks a switch and beckons a new period of productivity, because blogs are nothing if not cunning receptacles for writerly detritus, alleviating writer’s block as soon as you moan about it, but the problem is that I really do need to channel that energy elsewhere if I’m to stay afloat this year.

At the very least, I’d like to increase the amount of photo posts I do here. At the end of last year, I was worried about my photos smothering my writing, but that led to a hefty 2021 backlog, and in hindsight, I wish I’d just embraced the smothering. Going forwards, I think I will. I’m still yet to write about the time spent in the Roussillon in September last year, when I spent a lot of time thinking about images and writing and the work of Claude Simon, so hopefully I’ll have that out in a few weeks or months. I’d like to explore how the photos I take can become their own writing prompts. As Matt Webb rightly said, it’s best to let the ideas lead the way. No use being precious about where those ideas come from or what form they take.

Vile Venerations, Past and Present:
Thoughts on Blair and Colston

The news that the “Colston 4” were acquitted this week was received with joy by almost all. Perhaps not quite as much joy as the initial dumping of Colston’s statue into the River Avon, which provoked an ecstasy that would be hard to replicate, but that their act was legitimated in a court of law was a welcome and heartening surprise nonetheless.

We all know it is rare for courts of law to follow the path of social justice, which is so often based on a critique of the punitive arm of the establishment that the courts themselves represent. The acquittal of the Colston 4 bucked that trend. For that same reason, it was no surprise whatsoever that some of the right’s prized idiots immediately questioned the jury, making pathetic attempts to stoke a moral panic about the precedent that their judgment may set for Britain in 2022. (Obvious answer: none.)

The fact that Jake Skuse, Rhian Graham, Milo Ponsford, and Sage Willoughby were found not guilty of criminal damage was an utterly dangerous denial of reality, various right-wing pundits argued. But no one, not even the defendents themselves, claimed that no damage had been done. The suggestion here was that not all damage is physical and not all physical damage is criminal. As such, the statue staying put on its perch did more damage to the city and people of Bristol than its unsanctioned removal ever could. A jury, presumably made up of fellow Bristolians, understandably agreed that even the tacit veneration of Colston’s legacy in the 21st century was an ongoing insult to the people of Bristol.

This legacy was best and most starkly summarised by Zarah Sultana MP on Twitter, shortly after the trial verdict was announced:

Edward Colston was responsible for violently transporting 84,000 Africans to the Caribbean. They were chained, beaten and raped, with 19,000 dying en route.

Grotesquely, a statue was put up to honour him in Bristol, but today in court those who toppled it were rightly cleared.

Originally tweeted by Zarah Sultana MP (@zarahsultana) on January 5, 2022.

It was a legacy that had long clouded the city centre like a foul smell, particularly around the hall that, until recently, bore his name. As I mentioned online last year, even as a Cardiff resident, when I’d travel to Bristol for gigs as a student, some inside Colston Hall, I remember being handed flyers and asked to sign petitions about the name and the statue, and that was almost a decade before the latter was pulled down. Hatred of Colston was present long before then too, I’m told. The damage caused by the continued veneration of someone who brought unimaginable horror, above all, to the African peoples trafficked into the slave trade was clear to all.

In light of this, for those who decried the tearing down of Colston’s statue, it is unclear what their exact objections were then or are now. They seem to reject the tearing down of statues without due process or according to the whims of a particular political ideology — as if his continued presence in the city wasn’t a sign of their own; ideology is always most present where its influence is most vehemently denied — but I struggle to understand how anyone can think the veneration of slave traders is something that needs to be passed by a committee, or that really needs commemorating with a grand statue (even with some critical small print later attached). Such a position skirts close to defending the slave trade, and that is precisely how most of the poorly argued objections to his removal in the aftermath of the trial have come across.

Others seem to suggest that tearing down statues is rewriting history, but the point is instead that history has already been rewritten. In Colston’s case, no amount of philanthropy in the 1600s should wash away those historical crimes against humanity in the present. If anything, the fact this man has been dead some four hundred years makes his continued veneration all the more inexplicable, whilst only emphasising how integral money from the slave trade was and remains to the fabric of our country. That’s not something to celebrate; it is something to mourn, especially when you consider that many of the ancestors of former slaves still live in Bristol today.

If any statue is warranted, it is one to the victims, not depicting a man who once oversaw their violent enslavement.


Of course, we’ve heard all these arguments before. These debates were all had last year, and the right’s disagreements with Colston’s destruction are even more uninteresting today than they were at the time. But what is most notable about this judgement, to my mind at least, coming as it did on January 5th, is its proximity to the announcement of the New Year’s honours list.

This is worth mentioning in the present context, I think, because the issue of Colston’s crimes abroad, and how they are to be perceived relative to his philanthropy and influence closer to home, resonates profoundly with many other venerated establishment figures in our contemporary moment — not least Tony Blair, who received a knighthood earlier in the week.

Today it seems ridiculously short-sighted to publicly celebrate a slave trader just because he gave all his heirless wealth to the city of Bristol. But the same week a jury collectively acknowledged this, we have seen countless figures talk up Tony Blair’s SureStart centres and election victories in an attempt to offset the fact his illegal war killed an estimated 1,000,000 Iraqis overseas.

The conversation has changed with regards to our past, but the establishment is continuing along the same path it has been on for centuries, making the same mistakes time and time again. They may not venerate people with statues anymore, but they venerate villains all the same. We might argue this is some sort of improvement, but our representations of power and influence have only become more diffuse. If anything, statues give people something to target; a public site in which to act and enact change. Where are the sites of resistance against the Colston’s of today? Their venerations are less ostentatious, but this only makes them harder to resist.

A society that is slowly coming to terms with those whom it has venerated in the past must just as forcefully reckon with those it continues to venerate in the present. One way of doing that might be in seeing how these habits of veneration remain consistent across the centuries. We’re lauding the same old villains, who feign generosity at home and commit atrocities abroad. Yes, each of their crimes are arguably of their respective times, if you want to split that hair, but I think they are nonetheless comparable. Sir Tony’s knighthood is a Colston for the 21st century. But it will take more cunning to tear him down.

Contrary to those who have argued that the removal of Colston’s statue was a revision of history, including our current prime minister, we can say that Colston’s downfall was the correction of a historical mistake. That statue should never have been erected in the first place and its removal constituted an overdue acknowledgement of our establishment’s past crimes against humanity. As such, tearing it down was a valiant act, full of joy, addressing a long-standing wrong. But the same mistakes are still being made today, in other forms but nonetheless in our names. If the force unleashed on Colston’s effigy shows us anything, it’s that we don’t need to wait four hundred years to address that fact. It only takes an instant.