A Painted Blockage:
Satoshi Kizawa on Postcapitalist Desire

The Japanese translation of Mark Fisher’s Postcapitalist Desire lectures has been out for a while now — and it’s just over two years since the book came out in English (no idea where that time has gone) — but I only recently came across this review by Satoshi Kizawa for Sayusha.

I wanted to share its opening paragraphs. Though a Google translation, which is always lacking, it reads beautifully:

It is painted with a sense of blockage.

Like being strangled with floss, the situation gradually deteriorated. It’s as if everything was decided from the beginning and that it’s impossible to change things.

The post-Fordist restructuring of labor that began in the late 1970s replaced fixed, permanent jobs with increasingly fluid and unstable non-regular employment. Workers, freed from the shackles of Fordism’s factories, are now left in the desert.

Indeed, in the era of neoliberalism, individual choices may indeed have increased. Now, you are free, choose what you like from this variety of options. But we cannot choose not to choose any option, nor can we choose to create new options. The individual is thus trapped in a prison of forced choice.

This sense of helplessness and despair is reflected in the zeitgeist. For example, the slang “parent gacha” can be considered one of them. Children cannot choose their parents, everything is determined from the beginning by family environment and genes. In this deterministic view of fate, of course, “society” does not exist. Life and class are fixed by family environment and genes, and there is no point in changing society if there is no possibility of lifelong change. Even if there is a parent gacha, there is no social gacha. If the parent gacha is a concept that can be established by assuming a family with better circumstances than oneself, it would not be surprising if the concept of a social gacha does not hold in a situation where it is impossible to envision a better society. But let’s not forget to dream…

Weaponised Words in the Culture War:
The Return of Dis-Identity Politics?

There is a certain trend in identity politics that seems more concerned with protecting intellectual property rights than, say, marginalised communities articulating shared interests and organising together in the pursuit of justice.

And honestly, it belongs in the bin.

Originally tweeted by Ash Sarkar (@AyoCaesar) on February 16, 2023.

Ash Sarkar’s recent tweets — arguing against possessive critiques of queer protestors using the phrase “Say Her Name”, in response to the murder of Brianna Ghey — have caused a perhaps not unsurprising amount of vitriol. Since the phrase was first chanted to refer to often-overlooked black, female victims of police violence, then the suggestion seems to go that any broader usage only obscures other, more “original” (and still ongoing) struggles. But to insist upon the singular use of a word or phrase, in Sarkar’s view, only undermines our capacity for solidarity.

I’m sympathetic to this view, particularly in light of yesterday’s post on the necessity of extending sympathies beyond what we might otherwise feel are “natural” in-groups. But that is not to say that the negative appropriation of terms from certain struggles is not a problem. In fact, that black communities feel this especially is perfectly valid, given the extent to which the word “woke”, most famously — formerly an explicitly black rallying cry for consciousness raising that exploded into popular culture in the mid-2010s — has since become nothing more than a pejorative term, tainted by its now seemingly exclusive use by those on the right.

There are a number of contradictions at work here that must nonetheless be accounted for. Indeed, the fact that “woke” was precisely a tool for raising collective consciousness, which has since been used to dismiss an almost formless demographic of “progressives”, shows how intersectional struggles are often undermined by a vocal establishment. The fruitful coagulation of struggles is reduced to the amorphous blob put to work by moral panics, but the take away from such a tendency cannot be that we should defer from building bridges between movements altogether.

To turn again to my own bugbear — which remains a controversial topic that so many rightly baulk at — this is the same process that has made “accelerationism” a word no longer used by those on the left who coined and shaped it. But there are far more seemingly innocuous and more generic examples that we can also turn to.

I opened by recent post on accelerationism with a quotation from Alain Badiou’s 1998 book Ethics: “It is a difficult task, for the philosopher, to pull names away from a usage that prostitutes them.” Here Badiou is of course talking about ethics itself. As the book’s introduction begins:

Certain scholarly words, after long confinement in dictionaries and in academic prose, have the good fortune, or the misfortune … of sudden exposure to the bright light of day … The word ethics … has today taken centre stage.

Ethics concerns, in Greek, the search for a good ‘way of being’, for a wise course of action. On this account, ethics is part of philosophy, that part which organizes practical existence around representation of the Good.


The contemporary ‘return to ethics’ uses the word in an obviously fuzzy way… In fact, ethics designates today a principle that governs how we relate to ‘what is going on’, a vague way of regulating our commentary on historical situations (the ethics of human rights), ‘social’ situations (the ethics of being-together), media situations (the ethics of communication), and so on.

This norm of commentaries and opinions is backed up by official institutions, and carries its own authority: we now have ‘national ethical commissions’, nominated by the State. Every profession questions itself about its ‘ethics’. We even deploy military expeditions in the name of ‘the ethics of human rights’.

Suffice it to say that ethics, as the philosophical foundation for any theory of “good” action, has gradually been reduced to yet another liberal buzzword that limits action to a narrow ideological plane. But we can hardly eject ethics altogether from any sense of political action. And whilst Alain Badiou may feel like a philosopher at some remove from the direct political actions of today, this distance also illuminates how frequent and common the problem of poltiical misappropriation is.

When Sarkar renounces a narrow possession of a phrase like “Say Her Name”, she is surely arguing something similar, albeit from the other side. Though a controversial argument to make, it is worth noting how even the most well-meaning of critiques can simply exacerbate this problem of appropriation, in a way that similarly negates our linguistic capacity for solidarity and intersectionality. Indeed, the solution to the establishment’s tendency to make politicised words and slogans generic and impotent must not negate their initial function, which is bringing people together and rallying them around various struggles.

Somewhat ironically, the problem cascades within the argument that has engulfed Sarkar’s critique, due to the way she denounces this possessive tendency as an example of “identity politics”, which some argue is yet another term that has been made meaningless by an overly broad application. Consider the following exchange:

it really is of no benefit to liberation or anti-oppression politics overall to join in discourses against pejorative floating signifiers like “identity politics” or “wokeness”. There are ways to describe the phenomena you’re talking about without bolstering this discourse.

Originally tweeted by michael richmond (@Sisyphusa) on February 16, 2023.

But this is about identity politics, which has become totally unmoored from its collective and anticapitalist origins and become individualised and anti-solidaristic. I’m not using it as a pejorative, it’s a descriptor of the politics.

Originally tweeted by Ash Sarkar (@AyoCaesar) on February 16, 2023.

identity politics has no settled meaning in the way you’re using it. it has origins, and it has decades of backlash that his evacuated the term of meaning. if you’re criticising representation politics or narrowed, liberal interpretations of past struggles then do that.

otherwise all you’re doing is adding to the constant chatter against something that doesn’t really exist. struggles have emerged from different identity positions for centuries before 1977, these dismissals or simplistic catchphrases can’t account for that

Originally tweeted by michael richmond (@Sisyphusa) on February 16, 2023.

The suggestion here, then, seems to be that although “identity politics” has a radical origin, it is too far removed from it to be of use any longer, and so we should resist any (even well-meaning) appropriation that has the potential to further muddy other signifiers.

But to me, these arguments only end up mirroring each other. In the end, all that is solid melts into air, and it is true that we are left linguistically destitute as a result. Our capacity to articulate our unfreedom is attacked incessantly. But then what is the solution? Not to worry or hope for the best, but pick up new weapons, as Deleuze would argue. But this process of picking-up also necessitates a process of putting-down.

Identity politics is still relevant here. This confluence of arguments — some of which are clearly in favour of identity politics — nonetheless get to the heart of what is wrong with a reductive sense of “identity politics” in the first instance. Indeed, the tension here — of contending with infected signifiers — applies as much ontologically, in a broader sense, as it does to language in particular. It is all a question of the politics of recognition, and this is something that notably applies to both black victims of police violence and transgender people in equal measure, as people, as well as the language we use to describe ourselves or our politics.

Both groups long for a kind of authentic recognition in order to throw off stereotypes. I am not this, I am that. Such a movement is necessitated by the painful awareness that to be recognised as a member of a marginalised group can be as affirming as it can be fatal. Brianna Ghey remains a potent example. Following the horrifying news of her murder, a paradox is constructed through media outlets that refuse to recognise her as a transgender teenager, whilst at the same time it is being widely speculated that it was precisely being recognised as such that led to her being murdered in the first place.

With my biases perpetually on the table, I think this cleft is best described by Mark Fisher in an old k-punk post, where he argues against identity politics in favour of a “dis-identity politics” instead. Mark suggests that what this kind of paradox of recognition

brings out with real clarity is the opposition between liberal identity politics and proletarian dis-identity politics. Identity politics seeks respect and recognition from the master class; dis-identity politics seeks the dissolution of the [classificatory] apparatus itself.

Here again, we can dismiss Mark’s use of the phrase “identity politics”, if we so choose, since he seems to adhere to a reductive understanding rather than an original radical usage. But “dis-identity politics” then becomes a modified version of the same concept that arguably emphasises what exactly has been lost.

It remains necessary that we keep Brianna Ghey in mind here, as although the use of “Say Her Name” is seen as appropriative, in the unjust swing of attentions that defines cultural war narratives the current moral panic around trans rights nonetheless provides us with an opportunity to reassert problems that remain relevant to marginalised groups in general — the central contention here being that in-group solidarity opens itself up to misappropriation when it is couched in a static understanding of dissident modes of being.

As Fisher writes elsewhere: “Identity politics is not politics at all, since it precisely negates the political as such by re-construing political positions in ethnic terms, subsuming ‘ought’ under ‘is’.” The suggestion here seems to be that, as a black or trans person, to stick with present examples, I ought to be able to live my life beyond the limited bounds of identitarian stereotypes without being subjected to prejudicial treatment. But to define my sense of being through static identitarian categories — not the ought of action but the is of stasis — instead makes such categories susceptible to further appropriation down the line.

Such a process is visible in all marginalised communities. A particularly obvious example might be the appearance of police at Pride events. Fixed categories of identity are not fortified but made all the more impotent for their lack of movement. What is thus insisted upon, to resist any police presence at Pride, is a kind of fugitivity. To render LGBTQ+ identities as stable makes it easier to slot them into a broader sense of an established political order.

Fisher gets to the heart of things again when he adds:

The denial of the gap between identity and identification … is a presupposition of identity politics … The message of the Identity Police, after all, is that you should be who you are.

A sentiment that perhaps applies to trans individuals far more explicitly than any other marginalised group — which is not to say that other groups are not affected by this same message, but it is nonetheless the crux of a contemporary trans rights moral panic

But nothing is so simple, and we can easily counter this assertion with a more generous view of identity politics that does insist on this kind of fugitivity. As Fisher writes in another post, responding to critiques of his position, referring himself back to black struggles explicitly:

There is a sense in which certain types of identity politics are already dis-identifying in what you ‘are’ – or what you experience yourself as – [such that identity is framed as being] no longer a natural given. You re-encounter yourself now as a member of a group embedded in a contingent social antagonism … I can perfectly well see that the identitarian move is a step – perhaps an indispensable one in some cases – towards dis-identifying universalism (Malcolm X remains an exemplary case of someone for whom separatism functioned in this way).

Here we can return to the problem at hand. But notions of black separatism, on full display in the replies to Sarkar’s tweet, likewise seem to be somewhat removed from Malcolm X’s intentions. His form of separatism affirmed an ardent black nationalism, after all, through which African Americans were encouraged to return to Africa to create a new state. This suggestion is qualitatively different from the linguistic separatism of the arguments made on Twitter. Is this, then, not a further dilution of a political programme?

But such dilutions hardly matter in the broad scheme of things. To focus on the shifting nature of expression — to denounce it even — just becomes another way of making certain movements static. The key is in the name. Any movement worth its salt must always keep moving, adapting and responding to power relations in the present, and the sharing of slogans and a sense of solidarity founded through and against intersecting oppressions is a core part of this. We should criticise those in power who appropriate language in order to make it impotent, of course, but the building out of solidarity between marginalised groups is hardly an appropriation of the same order. In fact, this is precisely what appropriations by the powerful hope to undermine. We are failing ourselves and each other when we do this work for them.

If You Lived Here, You’d Be Hume By Now

The housing market in Newcastle is fucked at the moment. Affordable rental properties are few and far between. Regrettably, I found a new place to live just over a week ago, but was nervous about taking the first thing I saw, particularly since it was a little overpriced and in desperate need of a new kitchen, with the current one covered in rust and looking generally unsafe. “But I can see beyond the grime,” I told myself, “I can make it my own,” before putting in a rental offer that was soon accepted. Then my dream flat came on the market and I pulled out.

That felt like the right decision at the time. Now I’ve been waiting almost two weeks to view the place and time is running out. I headed over early this morning to finally take a look, but on arrival I received a call from the letting agent to say they could not get in touch with the current tenant and so were going to have to cancel all viewings, with the intention of rearranging them next week.

This means cutting things very close to the bone. If I do eventually get to see the place, it will be just a few days before I have to move out of where I am currently living. If it doesn’t work out, I’ll have to put my life into storage and sofa-surf until I can figure things out. I do not want to hang all my hopes on a single property, of course, but there just isn’t anything else currently available. Options are painfully limited.

This is my worst nightmare. In the midst of my breakdown last year, part of what I found so triggering was the sense that I no longer have anything to fall back on, other than the charity of friends. Though I am still in touch with my Dad, I no longer have a place to stay in my childhood home, and going back there would be all the worse for my mental health even if it was possible. I called him this morning regardless, looking for a sympathetic ear so I wasn’t just running over my lack of options incessantly as I wandered around the Ouseburn, working myself up into an emotional state, but his confirmation of my situation didn’t end up helping matters. He only told me what I already knew: there was nothing he could do.

So here I am, sitting outside a café, with a bag of books, my nerves and my tobacco for company, turning as ever to the one thing that grounds me: the blog.

As the manuscript for my next book is being proofread, I’ve managed to get back into my PhD research recently. This too has a tendency to make me feel worse, if undertaken on a bad day, as I focus on what the philosophies of Deleuze and Guattari might offer to a material politics of familial displacement. All the more adamant to take some comfort from my reading, however, I look to extract something in the here and now that might be useful.

I spent most of yesterday reading Deleuze’s book on Hume, Empiricism and Subjectivity, which has proven to be a good starting point in this regard, not least for the latent Spinozism that Deleuze finds in Hume’s thought. He explains how there is a paradox innate to Hume’s empiricism and rationalism, which Hume himself acknowledges; he frames reason itself as an affect, beyond our more colloquial understanding of reason as a sort of objective rationality that serves the application of logic beyond all (sad) passions. It is through the application of reason that we solve problems, after all. But in being framed as a way to take us out of our immediate experiences, so that we might see our problems as if from a bird’s-eye view, this understanding of reason tells us far less about the surpassing of certain emotional states than it tells us about a more elusive problem at hand: reason is not the adjudication of objects outside of the mind but a process that takes places within the mind itself. The application of reason is not to take a seat looking out on some unbiased view from nowhere — a nowhere that, logic dictates, must necessarily lie outside of reason itself also.

As Deleuze writes, “for reason to experience a problem, in its own domain, there must be a domain that escapes reason, putting it initially into question.” The poverty of a popular rationalism tends to obscure this situation, since it instead “expects ideas to stand for something which cannot be constituted within experience”. Facts don’t care about your feelings is the oft-repeated adage of contemporary reactionaries, but the point for Deleuze (and Hume) is that facts are necessarily felt nonetheless.

Indeed, Deleuze insists that we should understand reason itself “as a kind of feeling”, which is felt most potently when habitual thinking does not suffice. The result of a poorer understanding of reason, however, lends itself to the constitution of a false kind of “realism” – as in “capitalist realism” – and Deleuze draws on a sentence from Hume’s Treatise on Human Nature that may have a familiar ring to us: “’Tis not contrary to Reason to prefer the destruction of the whole world to the scratching of my finger”; it is not contrary to reason to imagine the end of the world instead of the end of capitalism.

It is for this reason that reason itself must be reasoned with, if we are to develop an ethics that properly responds to any given situation. As Deleuze continues:

Reason … does not determine practice: it is practically or technically insufficient. Undoubtedly, reason influences practice, to the extent that it informs us of the existence of a thing, as the proper object of a passion, or to the extent that it reveals a connection between causes and effects as means of satisfaction. But we cannot say that reason produces an action, that passion contradicts it, or even that reason thwarts a passion… Reason can always be brought to bear, but it is brought to bear on a preexisting world and presupposes an antecedent ethics and an order of ends.

The proper application of reason, in this sense, is the problematization of reasons readily given to us – and it is particularly intriguing to me that Deleuze turns to the problem of family to explore this.

Deleuze explains that sympathy is the ground on which any ethics is formulated, as it is sympathy that makes us “take hold of something and live in it, because it is useful or agreeable to the Other or to persons in general”. But we find another paradox here, not dissimilar to the paradox of reason:

[Sympathy] opens up for us a moral space and generality, but the space has no extension, nor does the generality have a quantity. In fact, in order to be moral, sympathy must extend into the future and must not be limited to the present moment. It must be a double sympathy, that is, a correspondence of impressions multiplied by the desire for the pleasure of the Other and by an aversion for her or his pain.

There is perhaps no better example of such a sympathy in action than the family. But the problem of the family, as a social institution, is that it exacerbates only “a limited generosity”, in that we tend to extend our sympathies only into a partial locality. “We condemn the parents who prefer strangers to their own children.” Sympathy, then, is less an extensive affect than it is an obstacle to be overcome, particularly when we find that things like “family, friendship, and neighborliness” — as “the natural determinants of sympathy” — are used to smother and restrict our sympathies rather than encourage their unlimited expression.

Consider, for example, how families are indeed natural to us. “What we find in nature, without exception, are families”, Deleuze writes. But we take from this natural inclination to family life only “a set of limitations” that confine us to a set of general rules or social norms, rather than “understanding society as a positive system of invented endeavors” – and human beings are, of course, a fundamentally “inventive species”.

Our natural inclination towards family, then, must be understood only as a starting point for more expansive forms of kinship:

The problem of society, in this sense, is not a problem of limitation, but rather a problem of integration. To integrate sympathies is to make sympathy transcend its contradiction and natural partiality. Such an integration implies a positive moral world, and is brought about by the positive invention of such a world… The problem is how to extend sympathies.

Capitalist society is hardly unaware of this, but it constitutes itself through a negative schematisation of sympathies in response. We generate a set of general rules that we believe are best placed to satisfy our natural inclinations. We institutionalise our sympathies and encase them in zones of satisfaction that apply in general but not to all. We invent institutions only to restrict our broader inventive capacities. “Thus, anything positive is taken away from the social, and instead the social is saddled with negativity, limitation, and alienation.” For Deleuze, “the problem must be reversed.” It is instead “outside of the social [that we find] the negative, the lack, or the need.” The social itself “is profoundly creative, inventive, and positive.”

In affirming this reversal, we are more capable of re-activating our inventive and imaginative capabilities, precisely through the application of reason. It is when we come up against institutions that claim to satisfy our drives, but which ultimately fail to fulfil their own promises, that we must turn to the (social) production of alternatives:

In marriage, sexuality is satisfied; in property, greed. The institution, being the model of actions, is a designed system of possible satisfaction. The problem is that this does not license us to conclude that the institution is explained by the drive. The institution is a system of means, according to Hume, but these means are oblique and indirect; they do not satisfy the drive without also constraining it at the same time. Take, for example one form of marriage, or one system of property. Why this system and this form? A thousand others, which we find in other times and places, are possible.

Ultimately, then, reason is no salve against the running wild of our imaginations, particularly in those moments of desperation when life comes to a sudden halt, overrun by contingencies. Just as “a deserted but fertile soil leads us to think about the happiness of its possible inhabitants”, reason is nothing if it is not imaginative and speculative.

This is something worth remembering as I stew in the nausea produced by so many current uncertainties. Though it feels trite to apply Deleuze and Hume’s very broad rumination on human nature to something as myopic as flat-hunting, there is nonetheless a general affect in play that has been produced by this particular set of circumstances. I needn’t prefer the end of the world to a minor setback in my living situation. Though I may still feel stressed, depressed, panicked and worried about the immediate future, it should be affirmed that these feelings are not the irrational products of a mind running away with itself — I’m not catastrophising (yet) — but reason’s affects at work.

With all this in mind, I feel calmed. I stop myself from thinking, “maybe I could have done more, maybe I have made poor decisions, maybe I have taken unnecessary risks,” and instead affirm the fact that I have, on the contrary, done all that is within my power. I have reasoned with and imagined a new life worth living, combining my desire with the options available. Though it is easy to feel disheartened when the capacity to reason runs up against the injustices of a preexisting system that frustrates it, the necessity of finding solace in the social allows for sympathies to extend. I make plans to reach out to others, and know I can be held for a time, even as the wider system makes momentarily falling out of its bounds a general inconvenience. But it’s in those spaces, nonetheless, that new worlds start to form.

Flashes of Light, Echoes of Drumbeats

In response to Clíodhna Timoney’s exhibition Flashes of Light … Rosa Abbott has written a text reflecting on various urban and rural geographies, electrification, and the liberatory potential of rave culture. It takes the form of a series of letters to the late writer Mark Fisher, whose text ‘Baroque Sunbursts’ was a reference point for Timoney‘s exhibition.

Thanks to Kasia for sharing this. I’m sorry to have missed Timoney’s recent exhibition, but this studio visit video is great. She talks at length about the kinds of weird and eerie encounters that I know so many of us have been struck by as well, whether in Mark’s work or elsewhere, as we wander together passed the lacunae of capitalist realism and through the gaps found in between its methods of enclosure.

Abbott’s letters are wonderfully evocative of this too; you can read them here.


There was a wonderful series of events organised in Newcastle recently: a Trans_Formation residency, during which I. JORDAN came to town to host and facilitate various things aimed at trans and non-binary artists in the north east.

Having only a vaguely held dream of DJing around the city, I didn’t attend many of the events in question, if only because they didn’t feel that relevant to me. But I did go to an event hosted by the Lubber Fiend, for which JORDAN was in conversation with TAAHLIAH.

The conversation was fascinating, not least for the ways that both artists candidly discussed the pressures and stresses of transitioning in public, passed the initial starting point of a career. How to navigate a wider public’s tendency to misgender you? How do deal with photographic representations that may catch you at a certain point in your becoming that you know you will later rather forget?

I found a lot of this particularly relevant to my own circumstances of late. (For example, JORDAN suggested that the best way to get out of a face that is in the process of changing is to simply hide it; something more readily accepted amongst music producers but which isn’t generally possible in the land of publishing — due to convention, it seems, more than anything else.) But it also made me reflect on the ways of my experience diverges or otherwise finds itself widening holes that others might otherwise hope to cover over.

Over the last week or so, I have entertained the idea of using another name: Mattie. It’s actually not a new name for me. It is how all my friends used to refer to me when I was at school. The question of why an “-ie” rather than a “-y” was occasionally asked, since it is more closely associated with more feminine names — Mattie being a more common shortening of Matilda, for instance, rather than of Matthew. I didn’t really think about it, although things could be a lot different now if I had done; as a sixteen year old, it was no doubt clear to all that I liked the more feminine association, but I never gave myself the permission needed to affirm that fact any further beyond an affectionate nickname.

When I later dropped “Mattie”, on arriving at university, I think the intention was also to do away with a name that sounded somewhat immature. The addition of an extra vowel sound to the otherwise more formal “Matt” seemed like something it was necessary to discard in favour of something shorter, sweeter and more professional. And it is regrettably along this same line of thinking that I find myself feeling uneasy about re-adopting this new name now. I’m not sure I would like the name “Mattie” to appear on the covers of books or articles. But I know I would like my friends to refer to me by this name from now on regardless.

Maybe it doesn’t matter. Maybe “Mattie” is a fine name to adorn any sort of publication. But then there is also, of course, the matter of consistency. It is useful to have a “professional” name that is less a sign of identity than a consistent marker for categorisation — a name that is explicitly given an “author function”, in Foucault’s sense, which necessary transcends the identity of the person writing. Maybe “Matt” has already acquired an author-function that I can leave by the wayside, as I go about a life not lived in print.

But there is a further irony here, which relates more explicitly to the problems explored by JORDAN and TAAHLIAH: although my work to date falls under one authorial signifier or another (“Matt Colquhoun”; “xenogothic”), this same work is expressly concerned with the problems of a subjective indeterminacy.

Xenogothic was adopted as a blogonym in order to affirm a slippery subcultural identity — that of being a goth — which was only ever proximally relevant to my broader interests. (I like disco too much, I often felt, to be a goth proper.)

Initially, I wrote about this kind of slippage as it related to another. My first book, Egress, explored the ways that the author-function of Mark Fisher (the “Fisher function”) came to be dissolved into a formless communal orientation that others were capable of (and, indeed, felt they needed to) take up for themselves.

My next book, Narcissus in Bloom, deals with a similar movement in an entirely new context, asking how the medium of photography functions as both an inventory of subjective determinacy and indeterminacy, through its various social, aesthetic and administrative uses and abuses, as well as their inherent limitations.

Is it significant that all of these explorations are gathered under a single name? Does it matter that this name may not, for much longer, cohere with the person I otherwise am to those who know and love me? Does an inchoate body of work that cannot help but narrate its own inconsistencies and instabilities really require formal designation outside the mechanisms of marketing and the publishing industry?

Who knows. Time will tell. But these are the questions that I feel preoccupied with as of late. Maybe I’ll just end up writing another book about them.

New Tenderness 009

I was listening back to Kodwo Eshun’s Mark Fisher Memorial Lecture one night back in January, not long after getting back from Dublin, and it made me miss the atmosphere at Goldsmiths back in the 2017.

Though it was marred by tragedy, following the death of Mark Fisher, the prevailing legacy of that time was — for me at least — a deep immersion in another world: a world of defiant black modernism and ever-accelerating breaks, both sonic and political. (Everyone was reading Fred Moten, of course.)

Following the uncanniversary of Mark’s death on January 13th, I set about collecting together a bunch of tracks, old and new, that evoked that time in my mind — classic dubstep, footwork, silly edits and jarring breaks — all of which come together with distinct but overlapping time signatures: the accelerations and decelerations of the present.

The result is this month’s Slack’s mix. It’s pretty sharp, angular, rough around the edges. All hard cuts and finger jabs. But putting it together was cathartic. It embodies, for me at least, a mournful fury that is unabated six years on.

So much still resonates with that brief and rickety conjuncture. Reflecting on it every year, it makes me want to hurl myself over the present and into the future, coagulating with winter blues and spring desires. In many ways, 2017 feels a lot like 2022. Both years were awful, in so many ways, but I can’t help but look back on their spring and summer with heartfelt wonder. And that’s always down to friends and music and dancing.

Where does spring hide its joy? In sound.


Kodwo Eshun — Mark Fisher Memorial Lecture, 2017
Kali Malone, Stephen O’Malley & Lucy Railton — Does Spring Hide Its Joy v2.1
Pat Benjamin — January 11
Stray — Pushed
Roscoe Mitchell — Bells for the South Side
DJ Hank — Lift Gate
DJ Rashad & DJ Spinn — Brighter Dayz
DJ Rashad — Drums Please
Zebra Katz — Ima Read ft. Njena Reddd Foxxx (Slick Shoota Remix)
EQ Why — Jukelicious
Itoa — Oh No ft. なかむらみなみ (extended mix)
Flore — Primary Material
El-B — Buck & Bury
Burial — Rough Sleeper
Burial — Untitled
Burial — Homeless
Blawan — Potchla Vee
Horsepower Productions — When You Hold Me (Version)

A Note on Speed

As I continue to tidy up my notes on accelerationism, finishing the follow-up to this post from January, a note on speed from Deleuze:

[Speed] doesn’t mean to be the first to finish… Nor does it mean always changing… Speed is to be caught in a becoming that is not a development or an evolution.

The “gotta go fast” version of accelerationism, bastardised by fascists and reactionaries, is mistaken in its attempts at an “accelerated” transformation of the social order. Speed, for the accelerationist, instead refers to more explicitly minor positions that are — or must be — fugitive.

Speed here is not related to a race from A to B, but the sort of speed that is prized in fights and battles of a more literal kind — in boxing, in the martial arts. It is to use speed to dodge and weave. To dance with and out-maneuver your opponent.

To be fast, to be speedy, is to flow along and across and through “an abstract and broken line, a zigzag that slips ‘between’.”

Neoreactionary Postmodernism

Over the past month, I’ve been working on a k-punk-related commission [TBA] that has once again sent me back into the depths of the blogosphere, specifically the various conversations that were happening in orbit of the “Weird Realism” conference that Mark Fisher organised(?) at Goldsmiths in April 2007.

In particular, there is a reflection on the conference from late 2007, entitled “Weird/ Psychoanalysis”, that has occupied my thoughts more than any other during this time — a response to a post written by Andy Sharp over on the English Heretic blog.

At that moment in time, Mark was exploring and repeatedly making the case for a “weird psychoanalysis”, affirming the radical potentials that lie within psychoanalysis’s capacity to denaturalise our sense of who we are. But such an orientation is not a given for or innate to psychoanalysis, of course; it is a complex arena of thought that has often been pulled in multiple directions.

As Mark argues: “What is reactionary about psychoanalysis is intricately tied up with what is most radical about it” — the suggestion being that Freud’s exploration of the innately weird nature of the unconscious not only problematises our desires, it also (and perhaps unintentionally) problematises the institutions that attempt to control our desires as well. (This is the reason why, Mark adds, Deleuze and Guattari’s Anti-Oedipus and Alain Badiou’s The Century “can both be right when they, respectively, attack Freud for his familialism and celebrate psychoanalysis for its denaturalization of the family structure.”)

Mark quickly pivots away from psychoanalysis, however, to consider the broader tensions found within modernism in general at this time. We are all no doubt aware by now that modernism was as much a home to a radical progressivism as it was to more fascistic tendencies — and for Mark, as well as many others in the mid-2000s, no writer demonstrated this more acutely than H.P. Lovecraft.

Lovecraft’s fictions — in implicitly responding to the discoveries of Freud’s “dark enlightenment” — lay bare the contradictions of modernism and psychoanalysis some time before Lacan would popularise such a reading (albeit through Poe) in his seminars. Indeed, it is also the case that what is most reactionary about Lovecraft’s tales is innately tied up with what makes them so radical. This is because, as Mark writes, although “Lovecraft’s ‘reactionary modernism’ was constitutively unable to abject the avant garde,” which he racialised and made abhorrent, his tales nonetheless became “fatally infected with it, implicated in it.”

Mark is here reiterating an argument later excised from The Weird and the Eerie, but which I tried to make more explicitly in my book Egress: “what if the best deployment of Lovecraft was not a reversal of his texts’ libidinal polarity, such that the slimy and mulitiplicitous is embraced rather than reviled… What if, instead, it was Lovecraft’s horror of the body and the chaotic that contained the most political potential in the current [conjuncture]?”

As I was thinking about this earlier today, I remembered that the Twitter account Zero H.P. Lovecraft exists… It’s been a long time since I thought about that account — I was blocked by him years ago — but I remember when it first emerged, it captivated much of the blogosphere. The first story that ZHPL published — I forget its title — was praised almost universally: a weird tale in the Lovecraftian tradition that nonetheless updated Lovecraft’s anxieties to the present day. More than mere fan-fiction or pastiche, however, the story was hailed as a deeply original and also uncanny continuation of the Lovecraftian mode, exciting a blogosphere still tentatively enthralled by the philosophy of Nick Land.

But just as Land’s brain worms have since grown to Shai-Hulud-like proportions since 2017, so is the ZHPL Twitter account a monstrous cesspit of racism and misogyny. You won’t find many admitting to being enthralled by his writing now (at least on the left-wing of the blogosphere)… Suffice it to say, as effective and affective as their fictions once were on first reading, it is not a part of the internet I miss from the other side of the block.

Still, in thinking once again about the rise of the alt-right and its Landian penchant for Lovecraftian fictions, I wonder what exactly it is that these accounts present us with today? It is clearly not a “reactionary modernism” any longer. Is it, perhaps, a “reactionary postmodernism”?

This formulation is question-begging. Is postmodernism not innately reactionary? I don’t think so, actually. Following Jameson, my understanding of postmodernism — as “the cultural logic of late capitalism” — is that it represents an oddly frictionless space. Whereas modernism was propelled by its tensions and contradictions, postmodernism’s equivalents are wholly affectless; it is a space where things co-exist without any meaningful tension whatsoever. It is arguably incapable of being reactionary in any truly meaningful sense.

But maybe there is something in Fisher’s assessment of a “reactionary modernism” that is clarifying today regardless. Perhaps we only require a further modifier: theirs is a neoreactionary postmodernism. This phrase already feels familiar enough, but how exactly do its internal contradictions function?

Whereas Lovecraft seemingly abhorred the avant-garde, whilst nonetheless being infected with its affective vectors, we can note how many of the formerly “alt-right” crowd instead declare themselves to be the avant-garde du jour. This self-assessment is useful, and in light of Fisher’s sense of a Lovecraftian modernism, quite ironic. But there is no tension to this irony. Neoreactionary tantrums and racist epithets, though offensive, nonetheless appear to have a diminished charge.

The current moral panic around Hogwarts Legacy may be a useful example. As a terminally online subsection of the left impotently prevaricates over whether it is morally right to play the game — as much as I have love for trans allies and activists online, many would benefit as much from logging off as their terminally online TERF counterparts some days, lest they meet a similar fate (see: keffals) — many on the right end up affirming the consumption of a AAA video game, attached to perhaps the most profitable and popular media franchise in the world, as some sort of political radical act. (“If you boycott, I am going to mindlessly consume so hard!”)

This kind of response is only a stone’s throw from how the ZHPL’s and Dime Square socialites of today act in response to the strands of progressivism they disagree with. Indeed, they end up inverting the reactionary tendencies of yore quite explicitly.

This crowd does not abhor the avant-garde but instead make attempts to abject the “normies” that swarm beneath them. But much like Lovecraft himself, they cannot separate themselves from the caricatures they drape over the rest of us. Indeed, they are in fact constitutively unable to abject the normie, instead being fatally infected with and implicated in the trad. Many affirm this, of course, but it humiliates any claim to the avant-garde that might otherwise be affirmed in the same breath.

Again, what makes this crowd so radical is likewise what makes them so reactionary. As the dregs of a late-2010s edgelord culture of alt-right (or post-left) trolls, they can rightly claim to have contributed to the wholesale denaturalisation of a complacent political order. Nothing will be the same post-Trump. But in staying there, sticking their feet in 2017 and its moment of upheaval, they let history pass them by. The new horrors they find in our modern world are only the unintended consequences of their own actions. Far more has been denaturalised than the liberal consensus alone. It is for this reason that their horror at the new bodies and chaos of the present — the unsettling of so many of the traditional values they still hold dear — is where many find the most political potential in our current conjuncture.

Post-Graduate Desires:
XG at NCAD, Dublin

I had a really great time in Dublin recently, after I was invited by Kasia Boyle to speak at the National College of Art and Design. The talk took place on 25th January, during the NCADSU’s Artist & Designer Development Week, and when it came to preparing for it, I was torn between trying to give some genuine “professional” advice or just talking about my disenfranchised vow of poverty. (And I’m only half-joking…)

I decided to read a reworked draft of a preface I wrote for my next book, Narcissus in Bloom, which ultimately ended up on the cutting room floor. I chose it primarily because it was an attempt to tell a story about how and why I went from being a “photographer” to a “writer”.

I think the talk went really well. People were wonderfully responsive. It was recorded, along with the Q&A, and that might appear at some point. (If it does, I’ll add it below.) But for now, I thought I’d share a version of the text I read aloud, because I doubt I’m going to do anything else with it.

(As a sidenote, I’ve left out my own introduction and the few things I had to say about what I’ve done so far with my life and the books so far published, so if this feels like jumping in the deep end, that’s because I have only included the text read out after we’d all gotten suitably acquainted. Also, I have some slight delayed embarrassment at how rambling it is, but talks always are a bit, when you read them back…)

Thanks to Luje Pendleberry at the SU for all the assistance and everyone who either came to the talk, just for pints afterwards or both. I really had the loveliest time with you all and hope I’ll be back again at some point.

Around fifteen years ago, if I told you about my dreams and desires, if I told you what I wanted to be, I’d have told you I wanted to be a photographer.

I was already, at that time, someone who photographs, and so, as a teenager with an undeniable photographic compulsion, I thought the best course of action was to go to art school.

In October 2010, I left my home in East Yorkshire to do a Bachelor’s degree in Photographic Art at the University of Wales, Newport. But on arrival, I found it difficult to fit in (at least with anyone apart from my two flatmates at the time, who were otherwise kindred spirits; it often felt like us against the world).

Although I felt like an active and even precocious member of the student body, my intentions always felt somehow contrary to others’ aspirations and standards. Though many arrived in Wales to study photography in order to become professional photographers, I eventually felt desperate to retain a certain amateurism — or, at the very least, a certain sense of naïve wonder with regards to the process that I loved. It’s as if I didn’t want to lose something in learning too much about photography. I didn’t want to make work that I thought was boring or predictable.

I eventually tried to affirm this through an understanding of photography as a kind of improvisatory practice. More than anything, I wanted to take photographs of musical performances that somehow reflected sound in their silence. Photography felt like an unlikely accomplice in exploring the sonic world in this way, but I found the images I wanted to make didn’t fit into how the medium was otherwise understood and utilised.

Instead, I found every music magazine to have a painfully conservative attitude towards its use of visual media, even when the music they were discussing was often the complete opposite! And it’s not like any of my images were wildly avant-garde. More often than not, they were playful or taken from the more explicit position of a punter — not unobscured and taken from the pit, but in the middle of the crowd, rocked by a broader atmosphere. I also liked photographs that were nearly overrun by colour and lights, as if sound itself had taken on a synaesthetic intensity when allowed to rattle a negative.

It was all seen as too amateurish, but these repeated dismissals betrayed, to my mind at least, a clear disconnection between the kinds of approaches to music that were respected and praised, and a disregard for comparable approaches to the visual arts within the same pages.

But perhaps the reasons for my lack of professional success were already obvious: though I made a few connections simply by being a gobshite who talked about how boring everything looked all the time on Twitter, the process was still too risky to be commercially viable. I was enthralled by photography’s innate relationship to chance, but that’s not to say anyone else wanted to be. They wanted results, not to fund a play date. But I never relented.

Eventually, I realised that perhaps the results weren’t even that important to me, and maybe that was the problem. I loved the process. I loved producing more than I loved the product. I liked looking at things and having the camera reveal, sometimes seemingly of its own accord, various other ways of seeing. I loved the moment of creation far more than the moment captured, sensing the discrepancies between the two and finding something uncanny in between. A gap was opened up between the individual and the social, and that’s where I fell and played.

Photography began to feel like a contradictory venture towards egolessness in this regard, which was nonetheless always grounded on its first-person perspective. My own inputs, my own presence, felt secondary. It was less a habit of documenting things as they happened and more about attuning myself to the world and its rhythms, accepting somewhat stoically the ways that photographers are at the mercy of light and contingency above all else. These risks can be accounted for, of course, but it felt far more exciting to leave as much room for chance as possible.

If I had any success with this approach whilst I was at university, I think it was due to the sympathies of the academic staff, who appreciated a love of the process above all else. One of my lecturers at the time, a wonderful photographer by the name of Magali Nougarède, later said this turned my photographs, and the ways I presented them, into a kind of poetry — a comment which resonated with me deeply, although it took many years for me to put my finger on why.

Like the modernist poets who gathered around the principles of “imagism”, what I liked about photography was the “images” themselves, having as much appreciation for the naïve photography of chicken shops and family albums as I did for the canonical photographers we learnt about in class. My own photographic series were often mundane in the same way, easily mistaken for a catalogue of errors. But I thought of them as enormous pictograms, telling strange tales of modern life. I thought of them as self-contained abstractions that nonetheless whispered to each other (and to us) in some cryptic language that was intuitively understood but which we couldn’t transpose into written language when any attempt was made to do so. Something mischievous was always lost in (and to) the process – it was this absence I was always left chasing.

I did eventually find a few photographers who shared an affinity with this sensibility, with one of my favourites being Hervé Guibert, whose book Ghost Image tells stories of all about the images he couldn’t, wouldn’t or failed to take. But whereas Guibert found solace in writing, at that time I actually resented the written word for its apparent inefficacy.

I felt there was always so much pressure to explain – to fix – the meaning of the images I presented to my lecturers and peers. It wasn’t that writing was somehow inferior to photography, but rather that one could never be fully resolved into or be concretised by the other. (Just like the impossible relationship between sound and vision was precisely what made it so enthralling — the gap in between was where so much beauty came to rest.) In the end, I simply refused to explain myself through writing. I rejected the necessity of the written word to scaffold another mode of expression. I resented the supremacy of an often-ridiculed “International Art English” that attempted to be philosophical and jargon-heavy but was always more than a little pretentious, with the meanings of many words used irrespective of a clear understanding of them (something so-called “professionals” did more egregiously than students, in my later experience as an exhibitions coordinator). In this sense, so much art theory began to feel like a kind of mask that undid the function of these images in themselves, and for that reason I wanted nothing to do with it.

Acting against this demand for linguistic contextualisation, I instead coupled images with other images, or with mixtapes and CDs containing songs or instrumental pieces of music that I felt resonated better with what was on display than my own still-adolescent waffle. (This is what I did at my undergraduate degree show, appropriating the lyrics to the Supremes’ song, “Automatically Sunshine”, when I couldn’t get away with a complete absence of displayed text…) Thankfully, I found the sentiment appreciated, somewhat, at art school. But once back out in the real world, outside the comforting space of education, it was never enough. The pressure to explain yourself, with words, was overwhelming.

After a time, I wondered if the problem was within myself. Perhaps the main thing holding me back was that I just wasn’t a very articulate writer. Since none of us are able to fully extricate ourselves from the demands of language, I began to feel like maybe writing was a worthy challenge, not as an accompaniment to art and photography but as a process unto itself. Soon enough, my developing love for writing soon came to rival my original love of photography, with the two mediums in constant conversation but never fully intruding on the other’s means of expression — again, much like sound and vision.

Fast forward a few years and I have perhaps leant too far the other way. With no further aspirations to “be” — that is, to work as — a professional photographer, I have found myself writing all the time instead. I still make photographs, often using them in books and blogposts, which no doubt makes them appear as if they have been demoted to textual illustrations, but to my mind they always fill the essential role of portals leading the reader outside the text.

I’ve since aspired to the sort of photographic writing mastered by a someone like W.G. Sebald, not so much stylistically but rather attempting to echo his apparent intent; his illustrated works, like The Rings of Saturn, could have all their text removed and still function as fascinating visual journeys. I wanted my first book, Egress, to be like that, laden with photographs taken during the time in which the book was written, implicitly reflecting two types of responsive process. But this decision was never addressed in the book itself. Indeed, by that time, I wrote about photography so rarely, I felt out of touch with it, like a once-close friend I now only ever exchanged pleasantries with.

It was for this reason, when I began writing by second book, Narcissus in Bloom, in spring 2021, I had the explicit intention of returning to photography, whilst leaving myself wholly out of my analyses of it. Having already written a book that dealt with my own experiences, hoping to make the personal impersonal, I set about trying to invert this way of working, making the impersonal personal again.

There was an exciting irony in turning to narcissism — the book’s underlying topic — in order to do this, whilst leaving myself wholly out of the narrative. But when an initial draft of this book was later submitted, the feedback from my editors was ironic. “Put more of yourself in the text” was the advice given. But in many ways, I felt I was already there in abundance. I’d just avoided saying “I”. I had hoped to obscure my personal concerns, but then the distance I desired was surely only illusory, with the desire not to appear in my own text revealed to be a narcissistic concern nonetheless.

Newly aware of this contradiction and the inescapability of one’s own subjective position, I found a new appreciation for what it is that conjoins writing and photography, albeit often discussed in negative terms. Indeed, the strangeness of writing and photography’s fraught relationship to the self and its environment often leads to a certain cynicism, as if any professional aspirations attached to these mediums are innately pretentious because we are all capable of engaging with them in one way or another on our own terms.

We understand that other mediums, like painting and drawing, require a high level of skill and dedication in order to master them, but writing and photography are perhaps two skills that are a part of everyone’s wheelhouse. And yet, I think it is for this reason that I love writing and photography the most. Each medium produces an innate tension between the individual and the social world in which we are embedded. Though we can argue this is true of art in general, it is arguably writing and photography that draw our attention to this contradiction above all others.

In his 2018 book, The Hatred of Poetry, Ben Lerner attempts to describe “the noble failure at the heart of every great poem: the impulse to launch the experience of the individual into a timeless communal existence.” He writes that, “Since language is the stuff of the social and poetry the expression in language of our irreducible individuality, our personhood is tied up with our poethood.” But this is not some grand unveiling of poetry’s hidden truth; it is rather something that we all understand intuitively.

Explaining further what he means by this sense of a poetic intuitiveness, Lerner tells a story from his school days, when he was first introduced to poetry’s apparent universalism by one of his teachers:

“You’re a poet and you don’t even know it,” Mr. X used to tell us in second grade; he would utter this irritating little refrain whenever we said something that happened to rhyme. I think the jokey cliché betrays a real belief about the universality of poetry: Some kids take piano lessons, some kids study tap dance, but you don’t say every kid is a pianist or dancer. You’re a poet, however, whether or not you know it, because to be part of a linguistic community — to be hailed as a “you” at all — is to be endowed with poetic capacity.

To my mind, if we are in possession of any equivalent visual language, any equivalent visual community, it is surely that inaugurated by the ever-increasing ubiquity of photography.

This was definitely how I felt after writing my first book. Following the death of Mark Fisher in early 2017, writing and photography became more firm companions for me and for one another in this regard. Photography captured what was left of a particular moment as it was lived, but the writing was an attempt to capture what was otherwise made absent; what could not be photographed.

With Egress being a book ostensibly about community, whilst the writing process itself was isolated and isolating, the photographs soon felt essential to the project, in that they gave my own sense of community a more impersonal image, as if my perspective was transformed into a view from nowhere, hovering above everything, producing portals that welcomed the reader into a space and time that they may have otherwise not been privy to. Though the writing could not escape itself, I hoped the reader would feel more a part of the community described, entered into through photography.

When later reflecting on all that I wrote and photographed during that period, I felt my intentions were always akin to Lerner’s own poetic drive, fuelling that leap from the individual into the social. My personal experiences were, ultimately, all I could speak to, but I nonetheless wanted to dissolve them into a sense of community that didn’t privilege my own perspective but rather used it as a foundation for a broader sense of political solidarity. I think that is the overall intent of all my work to date.

The reality of Egress’s reception, however — that is, more specifically, the context of its appearing — undid this process in ways I could not have imagined or prepared myself for.

The book was published barely a week before the UK locked down in response to the coronavirus pandemic, and so the book’s release could not have been more poorly timed. Although the book was reviewed favourably, on the whole, you cannot please everyone, and as I excitedly read every review that emerged, I later developed a depressively narcissistic self-concern in the midst of lockdown, with the few criticisms that were made of the book taken all too personally. Some readings felt oddly ungenerous or simply stupid, and feeling so deeply attached to what was a very vulnerable first project, I felt irrationally driven to respond to everyone, as these minor incursions were made within an already unsettled sense of self — something further compounded by the pandemic itself.

I can summarise the painful irony like this, perhaps: my name had entered the public sphere just as my body felt so disastrously removed from it. I was so nauseated by the disconnection that I didn’t know how or why I’d never write about myself in public again.

So, where to turn? Over the years that followed, I became increasingly aware that photography and I had unfinished business to attend to. For that reason, my next book attempts to tackle what I inadvertently left behind all those years ago, as a naïve photography student who thought writing about your work was distinctly uncool. I now understood that I only ever wanted to escape the sense of self I was necessarily entangled with, and so it is a book that reflects on photography as an contradictory medium, like writing itself, which is both painfully attached to but also strangely always escapes the author who produces it.

But of course, trying to explain this to anyone at the time felt pretentious and overwrought. “It’s not that deep”, I assumed the response would be from all quarters, but it felt that deep to me. Something opened up in me that was equal parts wound and portal, but again, I could not articulate it for myself — at least until Ben Lerner’s book on poetry came along and brought everything into focus.

Lerner notes how this same contradiction, found in the relationship between the individual and the social, can often reassert itself when you are invited to talk about your own work, in whatever context. He notes, for instance, how this is most apparent when one is forced to identity oneself as a professional poet (or, indeed, a photographer) to strangers who are probably not poets or photographers themselves. He writes:

The awkward and even tense exchange between a poet and non-poet — they often happen on an airplane or some other contemporary non-place — is a little interpersonal breach that reveals how inextricable “poetry” is from our imagination of social life.

The photographic equivalent of this will be familiar to anyone who has been asked “the wedding question” – “oh, you’re a photographer, so do you shoot weddings and stuff?” is something everyone is guaranteed to be asked at some point by a new acquaintance and a taxi driver. The shame that results comes, on the one hand, from a general awareness of the important social function of weddings. It is actually quite nice to have a job associated with what many will refer to as the best day of their lives. But at the same time, very few photographers I know actually like shooting weddings, precisely because of the inordinate amount of pressure they put on you and the fact it is also, despite this, a pretty thankless job. This is no doubt related to a general awareness of the job’s apparent redundancy, as it has long been in vogue to give every wedding guest a disposable camera, or otherwise let them use their phones to capture their own experiences of the day. We’re all photographers these days anyway, so why would you ever pay someone else a load of money to be one for you?

The same tension is found in poetry, Lerner argues. To discuss it as your “profession” is always an uncomfortable exchange. But why is it uncomfortable exactly? Lerner suggests the following:

Whatever we think of poems, “poetry” is a word for the meeting place of the private and the public, the internal and the external: My capacity to express myself poetically and to comprehend such expressions is a fundamental qualification for social recognition. If I have no interest in poetry or if I feel repelled by actual poems, either I am failing the social or the social is failing me. I don’t mean that Mr. X or anyone else thinks in these terms, or that these assumptions about poetry are present for everyone, let alone in the same degree, or that this is the only or best way of thinking about poetry, but I am convinced that the embarrassment, or suspicion, or anger that is often palpable in such meetings derives from this sense of poetry’s tremendous social stakes (combined with a sense of its tremendous social marginalisation).

The same, again, is true of photography.

As potential early career artists of all types, you might feel this applies to your own practices as well, whether you use photography or not. You’re here studying at the National College of Art and Design, I presume, because you all believe in the importance of art’s social function, and yet in having to legitimise yourself and your life-choices to others – friends, strangers, family members – you may feel discouraged by the ways that art’s apparent social marginalisation undermines your own interest in it.

Everyone knows the arts are underfunded. Everyone knows someone in their life who feels that art just isn’t for them. But rather than feel discouraged by this kind of encounter, I think it is essential to affirm that being a “professional communicator” of any sort — poet, photographer, writer, artist, whatever — who engages with some form of expression that is, at base, seen by many as universal, is to feel this tension between the individual and the social and to embrace the chance encounters these same tensions are revealed to us.

Having thought about this for many years, I’m left wondering, what if we were affirm the insufficiency of our universalised modes of communication and the presumptions that emerge from our less-than-universal dedication to them? What is made possible by our awareness of this hatred of art, this discomfort when faced with the contingencies of any encounter with art, where its success or failure depends on how it falls within and is discovered at the intersection of two vast and formless hermeneutic concepts: the individual and the social?

When I wrote my first book, Egress, I was obsessed by this insufficiency and its social stakes, albeit as found in the individual and collective processing of grief rather than the production of a particular artform. But grief is an interesting counter-example to art, perhaps, in that it too is not actually an emotion easily shared. Though we will all sadly experience it at some point in our lives, we can find grief straining our social relations, as we come to understand the oft-repeated truism that not everyone grieves in the same way. Greif, as a universal reaction to loss, comes to mirror the sorts of social tensions that we feel in response to universalised acts of creation. It encompasses all the gaps in expression and meaning that keep thought, politics, philosophy and art moving forwards. This is what we are all engaged in: bridging the gaps between worlds that are revealed to us.

This is the point that I want to affirm in front of you today, because ultimately my preoccupation with loss and creation, sound and vision, memory and imagination, even questions of political economy, which infiltrate all of my thinking about art and philosophy, are integral to older questions I used to fret over all the time as an art student and, later, art graduate.

Many of you may be thinking about where to go from here, what to do when you graduate, how to deal with the tandem expectations of emboldening your own sense of individuality, as people and as artists, whilst at the same time fostering a sense of community, which comes so naturally whilst at university but is not always easily sustained on its outside.

This final point might be the disconnection that troubles you most. That was certainly the case for me. You end up asking yourself: what is it that gets in the way? It might be obvious: it is work; it is structural forces of oppression and servitude; it is the workaday mechanisms of capitalism. But it is also what produces this cleft, felt in encounters between poets and non-poets, artists and non-artists. This gap cannot be overcome overnight, but there is plenty we can do to make that gap productive.

To do that, we need only remember that, at the most fundamental level, and as Romantic as it may sound, all art is surely nothing more than a form of individual expression that hopes to connect and resonate with, as well as inspire, other people in the world around you. But the necessity of making plans for your own professional development can nonetheless lead to this foundation fading away into the background. So it is worthwhile reminding yourself of these awkward encounters and what they signify whenever you can.

Again, I might as well take myself as an example: you could all understand everything I’ve said so far, in its gaps and disconnections, as a long and rambling attempt to contextualise my own anxiety in speaking to you today. I am painfully aware that I don’t know any of you, nor your interests and artistic practices. If I had a better sense of these things, this talk would have probably been very different, as I would attempt to tailor my own experiences to each of your own. This is surely impossible in the time allotted, but I also don’t think describing and sketching the contours of the void between us is a useless exercise. I hope something amorphous and interesting might nonetheless emerge between us.

This is something I think about all the time, especially in the context of the arts university as an institution. When I was a student, particularly a first-year, lectures were often odd abstractions that seldom resonated with my own understanding of life and the world. Someone would speak for an hour, and their capacity to inspire you would generally be hit and miss, but then everything always seemed to come together when I’d go with my classmates to the pub afterwards.

It was only there that we’d collectively discuss what we’d heard and then reconstruct the poem uttered before us, adding together and contrasting each of our perspectives — and I do think there is a kind of poetry to be found in this simple act of making sense of the things that happen to you. It is the sort of work enacted by what Stefano Harney and Fred Moten call the “undercommons”. This was a term I only learnt whilst studying for my Master’s degree, but it resonated with what I loved most about my time at university, and what I always missed when on its outside.

For that reason, it is the development of a sensitivity to various undercommons that feels like the foundation of my own art practice or writing practice or whatever you want to call it. It is what makes it a defiantly responsive and improvisatory practice. Every step of the way, all I’ve done throughout my own “career” is to find the best way to respond to whatever life throws at me and my friends, retaining something of the affective experiences (particularly the joy) that was often cut off from more “professional” modes of (re)presentation, instead working directly with those events as a way to make work that I found life-affirming but also political.

It’s something I’m exploring even more explicitly at the moment, as a PhD student in the philosophy department at Newcastle University, moving ever further away from an initial arts education. But there is a sentiment often shared by the philosopher Gilles Deleuze that I come back to repeatedly, which weaves a thread from my photographic art degree through to my doctorate in philosophy, and through all the spaces in between.

In his book The Logic of Sense, Deleuze insists that “we must make ourselves worthy of the things that happen to us.” I think that’s a good sentiment to live one’s life by, but also a good sentiment to use in the making of art. And if that sounds like a mundane point to emphasise, perhaps that is inevitable. It is not something that rests on the shoulders of professional artists alone, just as we’re all poets even if we do not know it. I think that’s all art is, at the end of the day. It is a sort of responsive relationship to the world as its changes around us — one that loses all efficacy when restricted to hip social circles or market contexts. Art functions best as a portal through which individuals and their differences meet and commune under the compartmentalised enclosures of everyday life.

Though something of a poeticism, and therefore hardly a concrete piece of advice to give you as students — who must necessarily, from time to time, demonstrate your own capacity for professionalism — I say this only to insist that you do not lose sight of the events, the loves and hates, the circumstances that have brought you here. And this is an important thing to affirm, because for me at least, it isn’t the tax returns and the funding applications and the residency pitches that are scary about the world outside of the university — which are often the focus on Artist and Designer Development Weeks (amongst other things, of course) — it’s the ways that community becomes far harder to sustain.

Again, we can ask ourselves why this is so. The answer is, again, mundane. Work gets in the way. Time starts to feel in short supply, as does your energy. We live in a world where the pursuit of art and culture is one that travels upstream, against the current, against a restrictive sense of social expectations. But the innately political lessons of an arts education are all the more important here. In understanding the value of these things, we arts students, past, present and future, are primed to fight for their sustainability. And, as grand as it may sound, this is something directly related to changing our present world order.

After Mark Fisher passed in 2017, a quotation from Capitalist Realism was stencilled on a wall by the library at Goldsmiths by some of my friends. The quotation reads:

Emancipatory politics must always destroy the appearance of a ‘natural order’, must reveal what is presented as necessary and inevitable to be a mere contingency, just as it must make what was previously deemed to be impossible seem attainable.

Mark’s main point of focus in all of his writing was, really, capitalism. It’s a global system that we are seemingly incapable of imagining any alternative to, and we’re actively by that same system that it represent the best of all possible worlds. But the reality of late capitalism, Mark often argued, isn’t peace and free time, efficiency and convenience; it’s sad robots and broken self-service checkouts and, yes, for some of you, professional development weeks at neoliberalised arts institutions.

But what’s interesting is, when we start paying attention to how insufficient these things actually are when it comes to the fulfilment of our desires — beyond any reductive sense of professionalism, but within all those moments of failure and embarrassment, those weird and eerie instances where capitalism is revealed to be a system full of holes — we come to understand that those holes aren’t things we lack but portals and windows, revealing other possible worlds.

What if you didn’t need special training to manage the transition from art school to the real world, for instance? What if life and work could always be like this? Always creative, always with enough time to pursue your interests and express yourself? Always with an infrastructure of creative conversation and communal support? It’s ultimately up to us to not only drag these worlds out but also actively create them. Indeed, to imagine other worlds is a bit like trying to combine writing and photography, or indeed, photographs with other photographs, texts with other texts. Each can be qualitatively different to its other, so that these examples do not neatly overlap, but it is in the gaps left in between them that we find new forms of expression, new forms of self and new forms of world.

That is what art school teaches many of us, but we needn’t limit this kind of creativity to the material production of art alone. In fact, if art is to be sustainable beyond these walls for years to come, we must not accept the outside world’s limits on it, or on our time, at all.