As ever on New Tenderness, we’re making another drastic sonic shift this month. Last month’s show was my set from the Itty Bitty No Titty Kitty on June 9th at the Lubber Fiend, and now we’re fast approaching August and so much has changed.
After a few solid months of dancing and listening to jungle, I am tired. My listening habits have slowed down accordingly, shifting from drum’n’bass and happy hardcore to moody slowcore, doom metal and midwestern emo.
Oddly enough, this shift was instigated by Jeff Buckley. Much to my own surprise, I heard his first and only album Grace in full for the first time very recently.
Listen below to a little ramble about Grace and Simone Weil, before 40 mins of various shades of emo and other things.
My new book, Narcissus in Bloom, will be published on August 8th, in less than two weeks’ time. There are two launch events scheduled.
The first will take place on August 9th at the Royal George in Deptford. I will be in conversation with Newcastle University’s Dr Michael Waugh in conjunction with an exhibition at the pub itself, featuring Autojektor‘s Roe Darling Archivesproject and two of my own photographs that are included in the book. (See poster above.) We’ll be open from 6pm for pints of Taddy and shots of peach schnapps.
The second event will take place two days later at the Lubber Fiend in Newcastle from 6pm on August 11th. I will once again be in conversation with Michael, before drinking pints of normal and dancing into the early hours.
Barbie is a lot of fun. It’s high-camp, daringly self-referential (and that’s saying something) social commentary with dance numbers and the most accurate joke about fascism you’ll find in a film in 2023.
But on sitting through the closing credits, as we are shown glimpses of all the varieties of Barbie referenced in the movie, from the classic to the discontinued, it is Billie Eilish’s “What Was I Made For?” that feels like the most moving moment of meta-commentary in the movie overall. “I don’t know how to feel”, she sings as the credits roll, and as my friends and I descended the surprising amount of stairs in Newcastle’s Tyneside Cinema, I didn’t either.
What was Barbie made for? It is a question that the movie as a whole attempts to answer, albeit with regards to the product rather than the movie in itself. But the latter question is hard to ignore.
The plot of Barbie is far from what I expected. Barbie finds herself malfunctioning. “Stereotypical Barbie” gains some new characteristics — specifically, cellulite and irrepressible thoughts of death. So she goes on a mission (with Ken reluctantly in tow) to close a portal across the gulf of space-time between Barbie Land and the real world.
Whilst Ken has his own adventure, ending up importing patriarchy back into the matriarchy of Barbie Land, Barbie’s journey is far more existential. At first horrified by our world, its topsy-turvy patriarchy and the complexities of being human, she comes to realise Barbie might not have solved feminism as she thought but nonetheless still represents an idea of female agency and empowerment, even if the history of that idea and its representation are as complicated as the human world she eventually decides to move to permanently.
All these twists and turns are hugely enjoyable. I laughed a lot, some of our group had a cry, and it was so overtly coded as a kind of trans odyssey across gender roles that the film’s parting joke — it is heavily implied that Barbie goes to get a vaginoplasty — was a fitting cherry on top rather than the sort of faux pas it might have been in any other context.
But for all the movie’s self-effacement — it even self-effaces that self-effacement at least twice — I wasn’t convinced the movie ultimately made sense as a vehicle for its own message (even if that message is precisely a questioning of the brand-message of Barbie). Maybe it was this pretzel-shaped jousting of its own reasons for existing that makes the film feel so strange. Barbie has an existential crisis, but maybe that crisis is more significantly Mattel’s. For all my enjoyment of the film, I couldn’t shake the feeling that this feel-good movie about the complexities of human nature bled uncomfortably with a corporation relaunching its own identity.
When the first trailer for Barbie was released some eighteen months ago, I wrote a short post that quoted from Mark Fisher’s PhD thesis, specifically the chapter “Capitalism as Toy Story”. In the end, the film echoes Toy Story more explicitly than I imagined it would. The plot is very similar, but rather than toys having existential crises over their relationships with their owners, Barbie’s feelings and “irrepressible thoughts of death” seep into her reality by osmosis from the disenfranchised mother who starts playing with her — that is, it is the owners that have existential crises in relation to their dolls.
This reversal is significant. Fisher’s commentary on Toy Story considers how the agency ascribed to toys not only makes us feel good to watch but is transformed into a specifically Baudrillardian kind of ecstasy when we can play with the actual toys for ourselves. Fisher writes: “Ecstasy — which has an ostensibly inverse but effectively indistinguishable state, dread — arises when the subject is jacked into late capitalism’s network of cybernetic communications.” Whereas Toy Story balances these inverse states sublimely (both in terms of its storytelling and huge commercial potential), after watching the Barbie movie I was left with a peculiar dread above all else. It drew so much attention to this entanglement of ecstasy and dread that it was dread that overall came to dominate.
Truly, I can think of nothing more bizarre than the film’s premise, such that the dizzying complexities of political signalling by corporate entities counter-intuitively come to feel innately and naturally human rather than conniving. When Barbie’s real-world owner reflects on the difficulties of womanhood, listing the contradictions of patriarchal expectation, what stuck out to me was the comment that women must be intelligent and self-aware but not too much so as not to come across as manipulative. It is an existential girlbossing epitomised, such that every comment made about modern womanhood could just as easily apply to corporations themselves. It is as if Mattel is likewise thinking the same things about itself as a kind of sovereign entity. (See also: the Taylor Swift documentary Miss Americana, which I happened to watch earlier this afternoon.)
This is where my discomfort lies, perhaps. When we say “the future is female”, to what extent does this also mean conflating womanhood with late-capitalism’s own modes of strained production? To what extent is this self-effacing critique of patriarchal capitalism also a making-female of capitalism itself? But for all its critiques of the modern world, capitalism itself is left untouched.
Fisher talks about Baudrilliard’s concept of hyperreality to consider the ways that capitalism blurs fiction and reality to sell its own dreamwork. But when capitalist realism is already so totalizing, when the fictions of capitalism are already so all-encompassing, what is there left to blur other than capitalism’s own waning ideals?
This is hypofiction. This is the contraction of capitalist space-time, rather than its technicolour expansion. It’s not nostalgia but hypochronia, in which old time pools under the surface of a disenfranchised generation not only old enough to remember the Old Days but mentally stuck there. Previous generations made this kind of film about specific “events” and eras — about the Swinging 60s, or the Roaring 20s, or even (perversely) about the chivalrous time of the two World Wars. Today, Gen X makes films not about the events it lived through, strictly speaking, but a more restrictive kind of capitalist event; it makes films about the things it used to buy.
For what purpose? It is hard to say. The obvious answer might be that these brands simply want to reinvigorate their IP. We have moved from product placements to product-protagonists, and so the self-mythologising function of capitalist dreamwork has fallen victim to its sense of signifying inflation too. Once upon a time, a Superbowl commercial would suffice; now you need a blockbuster. But still, the question is: why?
That previous post was scathing, aimed at bizarre forthcoming brand-movies like Air and Tetris, but Barbie — much to my surprise, for all its camp self-effacement — ultimately isn’t that dissimilar. Just beneath the daring meta-commentary on the brand’s flaws and complexities, which are supposed to lead us out to thinking about our own lives, I’m left feeling like it is Mattel the corporation that is ultimately humanised here. And I don’t know how I feel about that.
Perhaps that is because the line between Barbie Land and the real world, much as is the case in the movie, is blurred completely. But this identification with the emotive landscape of the movie is not so much the feeling of escape you expect from a film, which is then marketed to you outside of the cinema as a joyful continuation, but rather a certain sense of the uncanny that follows you out of the door.
In many respects, there is still a kind of continuation between dreamworld and real-world. I am now so much more aware, after having seen the film, of how its marketing echoes its message. “How does one acquire kenergy?” “How can I be more Barbie?” In Flatline Constructs, Fisher draws on the work of Sherry Turkle to explore how and why we imaginatively give agency to inanimate objects and how capitalism exploits that tendency, but in Barbie the overarching message seems to be that it is the toys that give agency to us. Barbie is flawed, Barbie is complicated, but so are we; Barbie is an idea, even a human ideal, and the surreality of such an ideal allows our imaginations to flourish so that we can build other, better worlds.
But at the same time, it does not necessarily feel like it is we, the consumers, who are being played with in this sense. We are still watching a corporation reflect on its own identity. Though the film tries to be a vehicle for questions of politicised existentialism applicable to all, these questions reflect back most profoundly on Mattel itself. And given all of the film’s marketing, it hardly feels like it has fully heard its own message.
Barbie is a multiplicity. There are many Barbies who are all Barbie. Barbie is a doctor, a lawyer; Barbie is president. But my favourite Barbie of the movie was Accelerationist Barbie.
“Patriarchy contains the seeds of its own destruction,” Stereotypical Barbie says as she plots to destroy Ken’s newly imported political reality. But it is also significant that Barbie ends up destroying herself, becoming Barbara Handler in the film’s final scene.
Is she still Barbie?
Barbie, as an idea, has no ending — or so we are told. Only humans die; our ideas do not. But is that strictly true? Are our ideas not just as vulnerable? Is that not the entire underlying anxiety of the film, fuelled by Mattel’s existential crisis in a changing world? Is this not a film that grapples explicitly with the perceived redundancy of a corporate entity? Does it not reflect the anxieties of all other corporate entities, many of which are also cashing in on the post-ironic postmodern relaunch of the product-protagonist blockbuster?
The anxiety left unexplored is that the wider world, rather than just the anxious subjects who inhabit it, is also choosing new ideas of self. These are not simply post-patriarchal anxieties but post-capitalist ones. It is seemingly in wanting to resolve this anxiety that Mattel got this film made, but if audiences are left not knowing how to feel, perhaps it because the resolve never really arrives, just an uncertainty that plagues capitalism far more poignantly than its humanoid avatars. If human life is complex and fraught with change, that is true of all things. The message left to make us feel better about ourselves is hardly successful at convincing us that Barbie-capitalism itself knows what it is doing, and humanising its products is no sure way to prolong its dominance.
All feels contingent. Barbie is not forever. Barbie is a stop-gap on the way to the new.
A response from Tutt following the recent Twitter drama, with a few references to my last post. Here’s a few brief points reflecting on what Tutt says there.
I identify as non-binary. Non-binary people are trans. I’m out at work and school and in all parts of my life. I’ve been living my life as an out non-binary person for over a year. Maybe Twitter hasn’t caught up yet, but I’ve questioned my gender online for years. Suffice it to say, I’d rather not be referred to as “he”.
I don’t have any issue with Tutt’s inclusion in the book, as if he too should be no-platformed. I simply disagree that seeking inclusion, even as a critic, has any benefit to anyone being defended by said critiques. I think any critical assessment of our political landscape must include actions as well as words. Call it a theory-spheric version of boycott-disinvestment-sanctions strategy. I like that the modern left is more principled and militant in this way.
When Tutt says: “As I look out on the splits and divisions on the left today, I see a left which is not driven by the same righteous liberal superego that I used to champion”, I hear echoes of all the things that those people he is critiquing used to say. It actually helps explain his inclusion and further confirms why he’s not really a worthy critic of those he shares pages with. It’s an amorphous grumpiness they all share.
There are more ironies here, adding to those discussed last time. Despite Tutt’s concluding swipe at leftist ressentiment, surely that word best applies to the trotting out of this vague conception of the “left” that just ain’t what it used to be? It’s giving old punk, disillusioned Gen Xer. It’s:
I realize that Nina is not seen as a fascist and her book on What Do Men Want was accepted by Penguin Random House after a thorough review of her actions. This is not to defend Power, but it is to say that to simply no-platform her may not deliver the results that are sought given that she is now a mainstream voice. As such, why not engage her at this level, especially given that there seems to be an inverse relation between the insistence on no-platforming and the growth of her exposure on rightwing channels?
Personally, I think gender essentialism is pretty legitimately fascist in its vying for populist support of the eradication of undesirables based on the supremacy of the gender binary, but maybe that’s just me.
I also don’t see how being published by PRH is any measure of legitimacy. Lest we forget Jordan Peterson is also a mainstream voice, whose last book was protested internally at PRH. But yes, I suppose this makes them both mainstream nonetheless. Still, would anyone besides Zizek consider actually engaging with Peterson on his “level”? Of course not. Because just as no-platforming them might arguably help their cause, you don’t have to look far to find videos of people engaging with them being packaged into YouTube clips showing how Peterson OWNS the woke snowflakes.
The suggestion that there is an “inverse relation between the insistence on no-platforming and the growth of [Power’s] exposure on rightwing channels” is pretty flimsy in this regard. These anti-woke pundits love to generate moral panics around their “threatened” free speech. It’s precisely what gets them these big platforms. (Kathleen Stock has mastered this playbook, and Power obviously admires her, as per her most recent book.) To suggest we should platform and engage with these bigots because no-platforming is actually what they want is a kind of gross reverse psychology I don’t think holds up to much scrutiny when you look at the overall makeup of the media-industrial complex they exploit. And so maybe you’re just damned if you do and damned if you don’t. But if you want to go the lesser of two evils route, I’d rather they rely on a pity party of fellow cranks than deign to take them seriously.
Of course, like all things, strategies like no-platforming can be misused and abused. Tutt shares a story of a non-white colleague having a class cancelled for including Freud on a syllabus. But that’s obviously stupid… I also think it’s an irrelevant, inapposite and somewhat infantilising comparison within the context of this debate. The critique comes from sharing platforms with people who actively spout hate and whip up culture-war bullshit in the present. It bears no resemblance to the example given.
Not platforming someone is not the same as refusing to critique them. It’s refusing to share a platform or space of debate that might benefit the person being critiqued.
I think critique can be expressed more impactfully in how you act and show solidarity, not simply in essays. Sharing platforms can give people and projects an undue legitimacy. It can allow for flimsy arguments of “balance” when the agenda is set by untrustworthy parties from the start.
It is telling that those like Power hate being critiqued in this manner, rather than in some livestreamed debate-club setting or in a journal. They don’t like being critiqued off home turf, outside some well-defined marketplace where their ideas can interact with others in faux legitimacy. They don’t like critiques that sit outside spaces they can control and influence.
This makes Tutt’s idea of a “post-critique” left bizarre to me. He has blatantly misunderstood when he says:
The idea pointed to here is that critique matters for nothing when you are dealing with transphobes like Power.
That is obviously not true. If I believed or wanted to encourage that, I wouldn’t have published my own critiques of Power on this blog or on Twitter. I wouldn’t have written this post or the last one. I think Tutt understands this on some level. He has said on Twitter that he knows I don’t wish him ill (and I don’t); I am simply voicing my own critique.
Critique is hard — hard to write, hard to receive. It can be upsetting. I may feel strongly and I may sound grumpy, but it’s not my intention to just be mean. I know what it’s like. I dish it out, I can also take it. Surely that’s a prerequisite for hashing these things out so publicly on Twitter and on blogs?
Mike Watson weighed in on this, of course, asking Tutt about his mental health after all of this. (A valid question, since no one enjoys a pile-on.) But Watson seems to think there’s no regard for that kind of thing here from me, as if the intention is to cause upset alone. (In fact, these questions around what constitutes “critique” are starting to feel very familiar.) In fact, questions of mental health are central. The overarching point here is that engaging with TERFs for whatever reason is damaging to trans people. To see TERFs legitimised in these ways is upsetting to see. I don’t want to see these people engaged with. I’d rather they shrink into the irrelevance they deserve.
That is not“post-critique”. That is very much a straightforward critique of the situation and the conduct of some of those involved. If they think this isn’t critique but something else, maybe that’s because what is being critiqued, in part, is their own sphere and terms of debate. It’s not a debate that should be facilitated. Meeting them at their level and on their terms is something I see little value in. That’s not post-critique but rather a far more encompassing one that sees how a certain toothless platform-sharing “critique” isn’t critical enough.
(What was it that Baudrillard once said? Enough of the “critical”, where’s the “fatal”? Is that the post-critical? Guilty as charged there, maybe. I don’t want to critique TERF ideology, I want to kill it dead.)
I do not think that the enforcement of guilt here goes to untangle a sense of moralism at work in Xeno’s analysis of this situation. I should embrace my guilt for doing so head on, i.e., I should embrace the superegoic logic of the left as it is instead of actively critique the left while remaining true to my principles.
A lazy and false equivalence here. “Guilt” is easily seized upon, since the denunciation of Twitter critiques as “guilt by association” was used by both Tutt and Theory Underground to diminish the stakes of sharing platforms with TERFs. I suggested, if only for the sake of punning, that the flippant dismissal of these critiques misunderstands and minimises the real harm done by associating with — that is, again, sharing a platform with — TERFs and other reactionaries.
Do I think Tutt is or should feel guilty? No. Framing things this way only attempts to defang a critique without addressing its primary concerns. These aren’t moral concerns but intellectual and political ones. You might even say ethical ones.
Who is the “other” Tutt is expressing solidarity for? In his essays, it’s trans people. In the context of this journal of promiscuous thinkers who all think the left is too mean, it seems Tutt has more solidarity with his fellow contributors in practice. As such, I simply think his way of approaching this is unethical because, as I said previously, it does little to actually demonstrate the solidarity he’s claiming.
Where are the lines being drawn between critique and post-critique, ethics and moralism? It seems to be one thing when Tutt does it, another when I disagree with his approach. It’s all blurry and all a little too convenient. It’s all woefully liberal.
The restoration of this chummy status quo could be predicted between the 2017 and 2019 elections, when Britain’s liberal centre put a premium on friendly disagreement. This insufferably smug Observer article about “cross-party pals” from the Labour right and Tory left, who set aside their clearly surmountable ideological differences to be mates, summed up this tendency perfectly: an attempt to present themselves as reasonable and fair, in contrast to anyone who suggested the architects of austerity might be disliked for their actions, let alone held accountable for them. Those people, it was implied, should let the “grown-ups” get on with governing.
This is what the mainstream looks like at the moment. “Theory Underground” does feel like the underground equivalent. Couched in different terms, there’s a patronising sense of letting the grown-ups debate the issues, because they’re important, with little accountability for how they’re all perpetuating a hostile environment (whether intentionally or not).
It’s a Twitter drama that feels very familiar at this point. History has once again repeated itself. A new publication has been advertised that features many of the usual suspects that make up a “post-left” (or — let’s face it — current “neoreactionary”) milieu, along with a few “critics”, and it has had philosophy Twitter indulge in a collective cringe that has been very entertaining to watch. But that does not make its implications any less serious.
The main defense here is predictable and lacks the self-awareness to realise that it is a defense already known. Indeed, it’s the predictable defense that I see as a compounding of the overarching problem.
The book features various reactionaries broadly associated with Sublation and Spiked and Platypus — weird mutations of the Revolutionary Communist Party of Britain, which has been discussed at length in recent years for their peculiar and confusing trajectory from Trotskyist outgroup to a cabal of reactionary libertarian media pundits and right-wing British MPs, etc. (see Evan Smith’s excellent interview on Politics Theory Other from last year for more on this). But it is the essays by Nina Power and Tutt that have become the blurry focal point here, partly due to Tutt’s own blog defense of his interactions with Power in the past.
Power’s profile as a reactionary pundit has grown considerably in recent years. Very few on the left would entertain the opportunity to appear on a platform with her. But this is all apparently overblown and presumptive. Nina may be a TERF and reactionary public intellectual, but Daniel critiques her, so all is well. The Theory Underground crew have simply facilitated a space where that “debate” can happen — and that’s important, they insist on their livestream. But this ultimately demonstrates a hollow solidarity with others.
The contradictions at work in the defense are galling, and they are writ large in Tutt’s essay, which he seems to think will absolve him of any critique.
In the essay, which he supposedly expands on in the book, Tutt explains his broader interest in debating and conversing with Power. But he also explains how, after interviewing her, he chose not to upload the interview out of solidarity with the trans community. (This was apparently meant to be hosted on the Zer0 Books website, according to Theory Underground, so presumably this was a while ago, as Zer0/Repeater has had no interest in Power for a long time; if this was more recently, I doubt the decision to not host the interview was Tutt’s alone… No one at Zer0 has any interest in hosting anyone who is associated with or has time for the amorphous Compact/Sublation/Platypus/Spiked crew.)
Nina Power and I discussed several things about Compact and psychoanalytic and theoretical topics. Nina has been engaged in an ongoing polemic with the trans community and she is critical of what she and others call “gender ideology.” I do not share Nina’s views on the trans community and gender ideology, and I was asked by members of the trans community to not post my interview with Power as they believe in no-platforming for transphobes. I agreed to not post my interview with Power for two reasons: the first is out of solidarity with the trans community at a time in which they are facing real persecution.
The second reason is that I simply do not know the extent of Nina’s views on the trans community, and I am not knowledgeable enough to determine whether Power has in fact crossed the line in ways that have promoted intense reaction towards the trans community. I take persecution of minority communities seriously and have a long-standing commitment to addressing Islamophobia. While I see many parallels between Islamophobia and the trans movement today, I also see how the dynamic is being used by the right to shut down and to confuse people across the political spectrum. The persecution of minorities needs to be rejected by the left as a universal principle. I take this as a fundamental position.
It is clear from this, I think, that Tutt’s engagement with Power and Compact Magazine, which she edits, is not at all malicious. But it is certainly ignorant, and acknowledging this ignorance does not make it any better. It only further compounds the problem. (A similar defence of ignorance can be found in the Theory Underground livestream: “the cover is just a draft”, “we didn’t think that deeply about it” — maybe you should have. It’s a generally unedifying hour of spite.)
Nina Power is a TERF. It’s not ambiguous at this point. It may have been a few years ago, when these accusations were based on others’ personal experiences — Power admitted to me in person back in 2018/19, when we were acquaintances frequently in pubs together, that this stemmed from calling Shon Faye a “man” amongst a group of mutual friends, and she seemed to enjoy (for a time) the maneuverability and plausible deniability afforded her by this “hearsay” — but her views have since been confirmed by much of her more recent and public written output.
If Tutt really wanted to engage with Power critically, and come to know about her views on the trans community, he’d only have to read her essays and her most recent book. You’d think he would do this of his own accord, given his intentions. Despite claiming ignorance, Tutt’s overarching defense seems to be that we nonetheless need to take these post-left positions seriously if we are to understand our contemporary moment. He positions himself as a personable interlocutor who wants to know his enemy. But this becomes a very ironic position to take when considered within the context that Tutt provides for his readers.
The essay begins with a short commentary on an essay about the left by Leszek Kołakowski, in which Kołakowski argues, according to Tutt,
that in times of disarray and defeat the left must fight to define itself at the level of ideas, or it otherwise risks compromising its core commitments. In times of defeat, the left gets bogged down by the weight of conservative and liberal distortions.
I struggle to see how this does not apply most aptly to those featured in the Theory Underground project and various others in the LM network of Platypus/Spiked/Sublation, etc. They are utterly bogged down by culture-war distortions, and debating those things amongst themselves in ugly publications like this advances no project for anyone. And therein lies the entire (and you’d think blatant) problem with any engagement with these post-left reactionaries.
It also makes Tutt’s Kołakowski-infused sense of what defines (or should define) the contemporary left very suspect and question-begging. Indeed, I disagree that the left is in any sort of ideological crisis. Though it may feel depressingly cut off from party-political power, its positions on trans rights, Palestinian rights, workers’ rights, the climate emergency, etc., has never felt clearer and more forcefully expressed. The left’s ideas are robust. The commentary, then, muddies otherwise clear waters. Those contributing to that commentary mistake a lack of power for a lack of purpose, or think that failing to “win the debate” has anything to do with a vibrant and still growing political consciousness. The debate is rigged; our communication networks are controlled and stifling. But the ideas are fine, even if they are hard to actualise outside any seizure of the means of social production. But rather than understanding this, the critiques of others are misunderstood and dismissed.
Relatedly, many suggested that the names featured in the publication were not “Underground Theory”, but this is has nothing to do with the fact they are “big names” in certain circles. Some of these individuals are overexposed commentators who write for the national presses of a few countries to fuel a populist culture war. They’re the reactionary mainstream.
This misunderstanding also leads to the editors at Theory Underground to predictably denounce the Twitter left’s tendency to assign “guilt by association”, but the issue at hand here is that, by engaging with these people, the compromises Tutt himself warns us against are made from the start! That is the issue. Not guilt by association, as if this were some tangential and unfounded critique, but the real guilt of association. Association of any kind with these people serves only to legitimise a space for debate and undermine a contemporary militancy, which is itself a form of violence, regardless of whether someone engages with it critically or not. (Again, Evan Smith’s work on the history of no-platforming, particularly on university campuses, is very much worth engaging with.)
The point should not need repeating: trans lives are not up for debate. It is the framing of trans people’s existence as a culture-war topic that causes so much pain. Irrespective of whether one is “gender critical” or expresses solidarity with the trans community, a distinct lack of care and self-reflection is made clear when people on “the left”, where Tutt aligns himself, themselves get “bogged down by the weight of conservative and liberal distortions.” Whether intentionally or not, these distortions are legitimised through ignorance and undue attention. Though Tutt may declare solidarity with minority communities to be a “fundamental principle”, it is a hollow principle if its only defense is an affirmation of one’s own ignorance. True solidarity would be learning what these people’s views are, as well as the rejections voiced by others, followed by a rejection of them on one’s own terms. This also necessitates the rejection of their terms of debate, not providing an illusory “objective” space to air their distortions with impunity.
I imagine my use of the word “impunity” will be rejected here, of course, but how can Tutt deem himself a worthy critic to engage with the post-left if he knows he’s not knowledgeable enough to address the grievances of those he is supposedly in solidarity with? It starts to smell like the passive facilitation of a kind of “both-sides” rhetorical injunction that is itself a pallid (centrist-)”liberal” distortion. But never has a dialogue between opposing “sides” been less needed.
That is precisely the problem that defines all misguided attempts to engage with the post-left in my mind. Though many such critics may feign solidarity with a broader leftist movement, their preoccupation with these topics does nothing to advance its cause. Failing to engage with these distortions in the rigorous manner required amounts to nothing more than shadow-boxing about material conditions not experienced by those speaking on a given community’s behalf.
The same is true of those who mistakenly believe it is in the interest of the broader movement to facilitate debate between these people. It’s not. For example, I see no shred of possibility that, in buying the Theory Underground publication and reading its dissenting essays and debates, I or my friends will be made to feel any safer walking down the street. That is all that matters, not hashing out the particulars in some friction-free “marketplace of ideas”.
No-platforming is necessary, then, because the debate-club atmosphere of so much theory content online can seep out into a broader social atmosphere, and all that results in is people feeling more empowered to question the minoritarian forms of life around them, in ways that are malicious rather than simply ignorant.
I imagine that those who debate these issues — who generally seem to have no skin in the game — do not know what it is like to experience this; to have yourself viewed through distortions that present queer people in general as perverts and a threat to children (and, by proxy, the generalised spectre of “traditional family values”). It is devastating.
None of this is to suggest that discussions cannot be had in any sense, however. Yesterday, I was talking to a trans friend about this down the pub — it is often the case that trans people debate their own validity amongst themselves, with a real solidarity, as self-acceptance is a difficult thing to acquire in a time like the hostile present, and solidarity is established through our own self-questioning.
There is a certain guilt that sometimes emerges from this when you come to rely on your own bubble. We extract ourselves, as much as possible, from cishet spaces and encounters that often seek to invalidate our own experiences in various ways. Truly, there is nothing more courageous and fraught than defiantly being yourself, flying in the face of all other people’s distorted presumptions, but it is nonetheless exhausting, whether you “pass” or not. And so you come to rely on real solidarity as a life force, quite literally, as everyone knows suicide rates amongst the gender-nonconforming are horribly high.
But a little voice persists at the back of our minds. It’s not good to restrict yourself to your own social bubble, or so we’re told by various forms of media. We must engage with those on the outside. We must win the argument. But we don’t want to spend our lives arguing their validity; we simply want to live them. The intrusions made into our spaces by others do not make us feel safe, and that is all anyone wants — to feel safe in the life you want to live.
I’m reminded of the “bathroom” issue here. The predictable response to this may be that TERFs want the same kind of safety. They want to feel safe in “their” bathrooms. But they do feel safe. They feel emboldened to single out those who may benefit even slightly from this otherwise inconsequential removal of a bathroom binary.
The local pub I work in has adopted gender-neutral bathrooms over the past year. It’s nice. It inconveniences no-one. It makes more cubicles available to those who need or feel more comfortable in them. There have been no issues of assault or sexual harassment in any of them. But we have had to remove TERF graffiti and “business cards” for “gender critical” organising groups. The only people actively threatened in these spaces are trans people, and they are threatened by those who feel empowered to carve their unfounded critiques into the woodwork of a space that is not theirs — and in more ways than one, for we trans people who tend the bar.
The conduct of someone like Tutt, though seemingly well-meaning, does nothing to assist with this persecution. It only amplifies the external voices of those who deny your right to exist. Trans people hear enough of that already.
Now, of course, I’ve no idea of the content of the Theory Underground book. It may have nothing to do with reactionary “gender critical” ideologies at all (although it seems to be a shared point of interest amongst many of those involved, to put it mildly). But we know who these people are, we know the harm they cause, and any engagement with them that advances their own profile as reactionary pundits harms all of those you claim solidarity with on the left. It is not going to be the case that someone with aberrant views of trans people is going to be really insightful on some other topic related to leftist politics. Everything intersects.
No-platforming is further necessary, then, because if you truly care about the minority communities that feel oppressed by a broader social “reality”, you would do more to elevate those who bring them joy and help facilitate self-acceptance, not those who see debating their very existence as an intellectual parlour game.
I believe that is true not only of the trans community but the left in general. “The left is utopian because it does not compromise with the conservative position that insists on preserving existing exploitative aspects of the social order”, as Tutt himself writes, but the post-left’s illusory space of polite debate is precisely an exploitative aspect of that social order in itself. To enter into their terms of debate with politeness and civility, in spite of the fact they would deny the lived experiences of minority people, be they trans people or the working class or some other intersection of identities, is built on cruel compromises fundamentally. This makes Tutt look like a hypocrite of the highest order, but his assessment of his own comportment appears too distorted for him to realise this.
My aunt Liz passed away yesterday. I’d known she was unwell for some time, but it still came as a shock, as everyone thought she was on the road to recovery. Having had some seemingly successful rounds of chemotherapy over the last year, she was apparently out walking the dog just two weeks ago. Then we had a fall at home and her decline was rapid.
My Dad was going to come up and stay with me next week so we could both go to see her, but a phone call on Wednesday from his Mam suggested we shouldn’t leave it that long. Thursday afternoon, we went to see her at Sunderland Royal and I think her condition shocked us both. Dad kept it together, as he always does, but his resolve left me all the more haunted. It is a stoicism that runs in the family and it’s something I try to actively not be good at. It feels better to feel, even if it never comes as easily as you’d like it to.
Liz was in a lot of pain and they were waiting to move her to a hospice in Ryhope. The family’s stoicism was self-reflective then. My cousin and my Nana both made the same comment: it felt strange to wait patiently for someone else to die before your own loved one could have a more comfortable voyage-out of their own. She was finally moved on Friday evening, but passed a few hours later in the early hours of the morning.
I got the call I was dreading whilst at work yesterday, after Nana rang my Dad who then rang me. I haven’t known what to do with myself since. I’ve mostly been watching TV and drinking beer in bed, taking phone calls and trying to numb the numbness. A bad coping strategy, but one that at least feels acceptable for a day or two. I’d spent the two days since we’d seen her in the hospital trying to distract myself in other ways, but something about the joy of seeing friends with the lingering awareness that a phone call was due felt worse. I’d forget about everything, then feel a sharp guilt when back at home or, as happened on Friday, when in company. Something about life and death comingling, or simply life going on regardless. As it should, of course, but it feels wrong every time.
I had no inclination to write any of this down but I’ve tried to force myself anyway. The more natural(?) impulse to repress felt like the wrong way to carry on. Better to write down what wasn’t said, to acknowledge the feelings somehow, to make some testament to how much she was loved, to add a notch somewhere that marks the occasion before time unfurls as it always does.
There’s a real uncertainty that lingers about doing this. The privacy to feel un-publicly. But I hate it. Give me the release of wailing in the town square over a British “keep calm and carry on” coldness. But still, a product of these isles worries about the whole thing being unedifying.
There’s also a self-consciousness that comes from trying to feel my way through things as someone who has already written a whole book about mourning and melancholy. But the problem is that grief always hits like it’s the first time.
My grandparents seem to feel differently. Sitting in their living room, as they field phone calls from other relatives, Nana says to my cousin, who left the hospital after we did, that “it’s sad but it’s also life.” She’s right, of course, and no doubt that matter-of-factness is necessary at their age, when you’ve already lost so many friends and family members. But I struggle to understand it. Maybe there’s nothing to understand. Maybe it’s just the reassurances of a wise old woman to her grandchild. She’ll grieve in her own way. I just wish I knew how to respond to it, to feel let into it, and to feel it together.
Dad’s side of the family have always seemed close. He moved away from Sunderland with my Mam in the late Eighties, then they adopted me, and both those facts have always left me feeling like I have one foot in and one foot out of their inner circle.
A more protective approach to grief has never helped matters. The only family funeral I’ve ever been to was my uncle Tim’s — my Mam’s brother — when he died from cancer in my late teens. We’ve lost plenty of others: uncle George, uncle Tom, my Mam’s Dad during Covid. With the exception of my grandad, who seemingly had no funeral due to Covid restrictions, I was always too young, they said. But the sudden absences with no farewell ritual have only ever left me raw, echoing the adoption trauma that the body remembers on the mind’s behalf.
The distance always makes me feel like it’s not really my place to feel anything, like whatever feelings I have are inappropriate. (Grief and queerness blend together too well sometimes.) I never feel close enough for my grief to be warranted, even when it comes to family. But I think grief can often feel like that — or at least I hope I’m not alone in it. You always feel like you could have known someone better, like there’s always someone closer, like there’s always someone with more stories to tell or a bigger gap in their lives to mourn. But you feel how you feel regardless.
I imagine that grief is so irreal because no one really knows how to enter into it. Death is that peculiar thing, so intensely natural to feel abjectly unnatural. The “Real” is real but always inaccessible, after all.
Death’s little disappearances in the fabric of your own reality can leave a sense of having no claim to your own experiences. But all the more reason why I always have this compulsion to sketch the absences and make something more solid from the unclaimable.
I lay a claim: I loved my auntie Liz. I wish I’d known her better. I think she might have felt the same way about me. She invited me to stay with her last Christmas, but back in December I was too unwell (both physically and mentally) to go anywhere — and adoption status always looms largest at Christmas anyway. I couldn’t help my health, but I am left with a deep regret over my indecision, before a month-long chest infection made that decision for me. I had offers to stay with friends too, and leaned towards those for a time, but ultimately felt like I didn’t belong anywhere.
Why? Grief. It always comes back to grief. The patchwork of absences makes it hard to draw your own map of belonging.
Dad kissed Liz on the cheek when we left the hospital. I didn’t. I have a creeping suspicion that she was too drained from the pain and morphine to even know entirely who I was. But of course she did. She must have done.
We didn’t talk much. I talked to her son and her husband, simply “shooting the breeze”, cracking jokes and catching up, like nothing was different, like we were catching up at any other family gathering, like we were at a wedding reception rather than sat around a deathbed.
Liz’s work colleagues came by too whilst we were there. She said all the same platitudes we did. “You’ll come back?” Liz asked through tears, and they said “Yes” through their own. She clearly missed her friends more than anyone else. Family is one thing, but I can’t imagine how that prevaricating around the validity of your own grief can feel from the other side. We were family, we didn’t have to adhere to normal visiting hours at that point, faced with the inevitable. What about everyone else Liz loved? They were heartbroken and I think I weirdly felt how they did, deferring my own feelings for the sake of those who no doubt felt “more”. But what are we left with? Our own confusion and the cruelty of our own politeness.
I didn’t know what was expected of me in that moment or what was appropriate so I did nothing. I said nothing. Only “we’ll see you next week.” Now we won’t.
I was interviewed for the film back in spring 2022 and have been eagerly anticipating the final edit for a while. But enough time has passed that I also forgot a lot of what was discussed. The interview itself lasted for a couple of hours, and with a dozen or so other contributors being interviewed, it was clear that only a small amount of what was said by we talking heads would make the cut. This led to — if I’m completely honest — a certain anxiety. How would all that was discussed be represented in the edit?
This anxiety was unwarranted. I came away very impressed. Having spent a lot of time on this blog trying to summarise, explore, extend and — most notably — write primers for the twisted and wind-battered umbrella term that is “accelerationism”, I’m aware of how difficult it can be to summarise. For a one-hour art film / documentary, Accelerate or Die! does a very good job.
The film starts by giving us a lay of the land. What the fuck is up with capitalism? What is this peculiar sensation that bamboozles us daily, where an end-of-history stasis collides with the intensifying speed and complexity of (post)modern life? Are we hurtling forwards or not? If the former, into what? Extinction, apocalypse, the utter redefinition of humanity and nature as we “know” them?
Much to my surprise, the film doesn’t stay within the confines of that trouble; it moves onto what the various strands of accelerationism actually have to say about our present crisis. (A strange point to have to make, but most articles trying to offer an overview of accelerationism generally don’t do this, or at least provide a reductive and question-begging one-liner that clarifies nothing.) And so, Jake’s film moves methodically from “left accelerationism” to “far right accelerationism” into “xenofeminism” and “unconditional accelerationism”, giving a fair hearing to both (with r/acc rightly discussed very disparagingly).
It was particularly interesting to hear u/acc discussed on the big screen. Accelerationism in general is something that some people know about, to varying degrees, but the discussions of the u/acc blogosphere, which I was a part of between 2016-19, are often reduced to a footnote, if they’re mentioned at all, and so it was fascinating for u/acc to be the final chapter here, described generously by Jake was /acc’s “most radical” form.
Admittedly, u/acc also comes across as particularly nihilistic here — with no mention of Ray Brassier’s key understanding of nihilism as a “speculative opportunity” — and I imagine that the film won’t win over too many hearts and minds to the u/acc cause, but for me, it did an excellent job of reintroducing the implications of a certain kind of speculative realist thought regardless (even if only implicitly).
The film ends on a note from Maya about Georges Bataille’s general versus restricted economy. Though environmentalism often frames the climate crisis and its implications for the future of humanity is very humanist terms, it is a worthy critique, I think, to address how parochial even these well-meaning conversations can be in the broader context of how we are now able to think about the universe we inhabit just a small corner of.
Bataille’s argument, in The Accursed Share, is that the earth isn’t a closed, homeostatic system wherein the excesses of expenditure are an acutely bad human habit to be removed, as if the world would regulate itself without our input. Indeed, the fate of the planet as a whole is tied to our closest solar neighbour.
Since the very existence of life on this planet is obviously dependent on the star we live in orbit of, which is itself a giant incinerator of finite energy and gaseous resources, our sense of constant expenditure is arguably innately solar (and therefore inhuman) in nature. As such, the more we learn about the universe, the more aware we must necessarily be of how our anthropocentrism is so often misguided.
There is plenty we must do to address the imminent problems we face, related to the ravages of capitalism, of course, but as Jake said in the Q&A that followed the screening, we restrict our fight for a very near and proximate future — the world of our children and grandchildren — only looking 100 or so years into the future of life on this planet. Again, we do so necessarily, but we also cannot then bracket off the epistemological challenges of our epoch, in which we are increasingly aware of a deep time that humiliates a more humanist parochialism. Modern philosophy has demonstrated repeatedly how inhuman the processes that drive us are, and accelerationism always tries to keep that knowledge in sight.
The film rightly frames this as a kind of anti-praxis — Pete Wolfendale is quoted pointedly as saying that accelerationism insists we “buckle up and enjoy the ride” — but my own writings on u/acc nonetheless insist on a certain Deleuzean angle to this notion, such that we must nonetheless “make ourselves worthy of the things that happen to us.” We might not be in the driver’s seat, but we can (and must) respond to the directions capitalism takes us in by thinking about what it is we might become in the midst of its intensifying processes.
U/acc was explored by Jake as a theory that necessarily attends to this rift — although rather than belittling our more human concerns, I’d argue we need not cosmism over environmentalism, but the dehumanising perspectives of both; a paradox, perhaps, but an important one to wrestle with. Our responsibilities — to ourselves and the world around us — are thus twofold: we must address imminent problems of social justice; and we must attune ourselves to the more protracted but also more radical changes that lie beyond this century, with regards to the ultimate ungrounding of (our) humanity.
We do not know what we could be, and so accelerationism — or so I believe these days — must think the other side of these crises as much as it must attune itself to the speed with which they are approaching. (The film also makes a very good point of this in the discussions around “xenofeminism”, it must be said, even if ending on a more nihilistic note.) As Alex Williams wrote in 2008: “what is necessary is to think the in-itself of capitalism outside of any correlation to the human.” That, to me, encapsulates the core of a speculative realist politics.
There is always more to be said on this speculative realist angle. SR is often sidestepped as the true source of an accelerationist politics (debatable, I know, but it’s the hill I’ll die on.) The film leaves a few breadcrumbs that lead there; Alex Williams is another notable talking head in the film. But that’s a question that would need another film entirely to do justice. (Sequel?)
The other talking heads are worth mentioning here too. Alongside myself, you’ll find Alex Williams, Pete Wolfendale, Patricia McCormack, Maya B Kronic, Amy Ireland, Will Davies, Jeanette Winterson, Will Self, Anab Jain, Jon Ardern, Beth Singler, Isabel Millar, and Tim Crosland. It’s a fantastic lineup. The production crew were so impressed with the quality of the interviews that they intend to make a website for the film that hosts a lot of this additional material, including full interviews and transcripts. They will fascinating to watch/read.
I also loved how much of the film centred on Amy and Maya specifically. As the two people most responsible for midwifing, shaping and disseminating this thought over the years — whether in their own work or in their passionate support of the work of others — it is a film that really gives them their due.
Overall, it is an excellent overview of one of the most complex and misunderstood political philosophies of the twenty-first century, and if the film manages to get a wider release, I think it will become the go-to primer for accelerationism as a whole. So many have tried to produce similar introductions, to varying degrees of success and complexity, but as an entry-level /acc primer, I can’t think of anyone doing a better job. Whether well-versed or unfamiliar, it is more than worth seeing.
How you can see it is still yet to be determined. There was word at the screening that the film has been sold for broadcast in the US, but not yet in the UK. Watch this space for more info over the coming months.
The shuttering of Twitter’s API and the mind-numbing prevalence of bullshit ads on that platform has basically killed any interest I have in posting on there for the moment. I’ve cashed in a Bluesky invite, joined Threads, all that ship-jumping, but much to my own surprise, I am spending way more time over on Instagram right now, which feels like a far more interesting(?) place to share not only links to writing and notes but images and video. For better or worse, I’ve really leaned into it as a novel “new” outlet for exercising my unending capacity to earnestly overshare… I don’t feel like I’m alone in that.
Maybe this is a sign of how awful a lot of other platforms have become. Instagram hasn’t suddenly changed, but maybe the bar is just that low right now. Musk has a lot to answer for, but maybe it also has something to do with the pandemic making people a bit more sentimental when it comes to sharing their personal lives. Less of the ironic detachment of Twitter, more of an extension of your IRL communities. Maybe Instagram is now just Facebook for millennials.
Whatever this phase-shift might be symptomatic of, over the last couple of years the Xenogothic Instagram page has generally been more reserved; I’ve used it primarily as a space for sharing more artful photographs of life being lived. But as tends to happen to me every few years or so, it is now becoming a space for nostalgically sharing a lot of my archive and other fleeting activities, particularly on the disappearing 24-hour stories.
The hard drive that sits connected to my Wi-Fi router, digitally sagging with almost everything I’ve produced since the mid-2000s, is a real treasure trove — to me, if no-one else — of previous lives and ideas and projects that never developed into anything but still linger on in embryonic forms. No one ever saw any merit in the vast majority of it, and plenty of it is embarrassing to me now too. (Call it “juvenilia”.) But taken as an unruly whole, it shows the tread along the path that led to here. Things could have gone very differently. At times, that was even the conscious intention. But here we are, nonetheless.
I think, in many ways, what fascinates me about the terabytes of material hoarded over the last fifteen years or so is that it highlights the contingencies of life in a wonderful way. My frequent (and present) nostalgia isn’t a wistful look back on things I miss (or missed), so much as it is a way of reckoning with the vast differences and surprising similarities visible between these people I have been and the person I am now.
In thinking about this recently and trying to justify my nostalgia to myself, as I shut off the cringe meter and inundate Instagram followers with dozens of clips from memory lane or late-night living-room experiments, I’ve returned to Grafton Tanner’s recent book, The Hours Have Lost Their Clock.
In the conclusion, Grafton discusses the tragic death of his sister-in-law and her husband during Hurricane Zeta in 2020, as well as the nostalgic grief that overtook him and others in the aftermath. He identifies and elucidates a tension that is central to so much of his work, but here emerges with a new immediacy and emotive weight:
If you had told me to stop feeling nostalgic, I wouldn’t have known how. I couldn’t just suck it up and deal with the loss. We wanted nothing to do with the future, and why should we? What good is a future without them? Of course, we’ll go on. We have to go on. But the nostalgia will follow us, soothing and aching in equal measure, for years to come. It is already so bound up with my feelings of grief and sorrow that there’s no way I can just excise it. And this is crucial to remember.
[…] Nostalgia is an unavoidable reaction to the traumas of the modern world. We don’t need some reality check to awaken us from the emotion. What we need is a livable world, one that supports real people when crises happen and that doesn’t exacerbate them through selfishness, greed, and the thirst for power. Over the next century, plenty of people are going to experience loss — loss of loved ones, their homes, their way of life — and they’re going to feel nostalgic, too.
Here the political significance of nostalgia is writ large. The contingencies of an unfolding present are writ large also. The ruptures of a receding past highlight the choices to be made in the future. A freak weather event like a more-extreme-than-usual hurricane season might be dealt with stoically by some, for instance, but as we hurtle towards climate catastrophe, we are also made aware that there are things we can do — things that we must do — to ensure that these sorts of events do not get more frequent, or at least plan to support our currently existing communities when they do. Our nostalgia, then, can reorient us towards new futures.
Grafton expands on this by quoting Mark Fisher:
“The past has to be continually re-narrated, and the political point of reactionary narratives is to suppress the potentials which still await, ready to be re-awakened, in older moments.” Nostalgia, too, can be a re-awakening. It has the emotional power to conjure up the potentials of the past that are constantly being paved over by capital. The past is a kind of battleground, where the fight over memory is waged. One of our nostalgic goals should be to return to the front and listen to the ghosts who roam the graying battlefield where the smoke still hangs in the air. To open the radical potentials of the past from those cruel enough to suppress them is “less an act of remembering than of unforgetting,” as Fisher wrote.
A reappraisal of nostalgia in this light is, of course, not so “straight”-forward for all bodies. Grafton expands his discussion further in this regard and quotes Alison Kafer, who discusses a “[c]ompulsory nostalgia [that] is driven by the ‘cultural expectation’ that one must yearn for a ‘before’ version of oneself in order to be ‘permitted to exist as part of a desired present or a desirable future'”, noting how disabled people are often encouraged to “yearn for a nondisabled self, imagined or not, [which] splits them into before and after selves, when they really occupy ‘both the before and the after at once.'”
Queer time is also related to this, of course: time that is “bent, odd, not ‘straight time’, which flows in a linear direction through past, present, and future”, as Grafton writes. “Straight time is ‘foundational to the production of normalcy.'”
People are supposed to follow certain paths, meet certain goals in a specific order, and clearly demarcate past from present from future. You go to school, get a job, marry, bear and raise children, retire, and die. Queer cultures, on the other hand, have long lived according to “strange temporalities,” as Jack Halberstam has argued.
These are queer times. Time feels very much out of joint — a queer experience indeed, as is feeling nostalgia. A Union soldier in the Civil War, choking up with nostalgia when Union bands would play “Home, Sweet Home,” said it best: “I don’t like to hear it for it makes me feel queer.” Union armies ultimately banned its performance. There would be no queer feelings, no falling out of straight time, but only an order from the top brass to march straight forward into the blazing, deafening cannonade of the future.
It is this sense of time in particular that has me preoccupied at the moment — very specifically, in fact. The musical example is perfect: a sonic queering of the atemporal self.
My two (recent and not-so-recent) posts on wrestling with a convoluted and repressed gender identity — 2021’s “Bad Queer” and 2023’s “Better Queer?” — are laden with regret at not discovering (or allowing myself to accept) the self that I am until the age of 31. But a growing acceptance of this disjuncture has been surprisingly musical in nature, which feels like a marked shift from a prior nostalgia that has been predominantly underlined by my own grief.
There have been both positive and fruitful aspects of this experience, alongside the more anguished parts. When initially coming out last year, for example, I essentially regressed to being 18 again for a few months. Though it did not last long, looking back I can see a sort of post-traumatic return to the last time I felt somewhat content and secure in my own existence. This is a sad realisation, on the one hand, as who in their right mind would yearn for the chaos of late adolescence (and in my right mind I clearly wasn’t). But on the other hand, it is notable because I suddenly found myself able to start again from where I’d previously left off, all those years ago.
Hull Pride, 2010.
Though failing to self-identify as anything in particular for the entirety of my twenties, I had nonetheless been most at home in a solid community of queers from 2007 to 2010 (ages ~16 to ~19). Then, when I left home for university, having my first experience of a social blank slate, I went through a sort of self-reinvention that wasn’t particularly edifying; I think I lost more than I gained that year, experimenting and trying to be something I wasn’t. (The universal freshers’ wobble.) But now, in 2023, I feel like I am once again living in a community like the one I have missed for so long.
The nostalgia that has gripped me at present, then, feels a lot like the sort of unforgetting that Grafton and Fisher describe. After a minor blip, I no longer feel like I am reaching for 18 again, but rather rediscovering the potentials that lay around me at that time, which were left un(der)explored.
The queer-political implications of this are perhaps obvious, but something that has truly caught me by surprise, and which seems a lot lower-stakes than the political implications of nostalgia discussed above, is a resurgent interest in making music.
In 2008, my Dad bought me a guitar for my birthday. For a few years, I had been making a racket in my room on a child’s-size acoustic guitar that was acquired from a charity shop. It sounded terrible, and the more I played it, the worse it got. The body of the guitar had no pick guard and so, after years of thrashing at its flimsy body, the wood directly below the soundhole had been chipped away and started to warp the sounds it made.
No doubt fed up with this racket but wanting to encourage my musical interests, my Dad took me to a guitar shop in town and let me pick one out for my birthday. Much to his surprise, as I strummed a few chords on different kinds of guitar, I fixated on a large twelve-string acoustic. This was certainly not what he had in mind when buying me my first guitar proper, but I was so clearly obsessed with the polyphonic sounds it made that, a few days later, he agreed I could have it.
That guitar went everywhere with me for years. Unfortunately, it later suffered some pretty serious structural damage when I moved to Huddersfield in late 2020, and it later ended up at the local incinerator. I cried a lot when I dumped it unceremoniously into the giant skip there, but so much work needed doing to it, I imagined it would cost more to repair than to replace. I’d also hardly played it in recent years anyway. Having taken it around the city of Hull committedly during the late 2000s playing cover songs in dive bars and coffee shops and DIY venues on the open-mic circuit, when I moved to Wales for university, picking it up to play became an increasingly distant pastime. Eventually, this beautiful instrument became little more than an ornament, propped up in various rooms and never played. In hindsight, I think the guitar felt like a detached limb in the end, which once connected me to a community I was no longer in touch with.
My ex-girlfriend, aware of how much the loss of my twelve-string pained me (despite my neglect of it), later bought me another guitar before we broke up. This was a standard six-string, entry-level guitar, black-finished wood. Acoustic goth. It was a deeply touching gesture, but it was neglected too, nonetheless — until this past month. Now living alone in a flat in Newcastle, in a building that is thankfully well soundproofed, I picked it up again and tried to teach myself the song “Last Goodbye” by Jeff Buckley.
The song choice was unconsciously significant. I just loved the song for what it was at first, but soon found a deep catharsis coming from my playing of it, as the lyrics resonated with the rapid farewell I’d experienced eighteen months previously, saying goodbye to the woman I loved and who had bought me the guitar not that long ago.
It unlocked something in me. Feeling like I’d very much lost any capacity to sing and play from lack of practice, I surprised myself. I thought I sounded pretty good. Over the days that followed, I started recording snippets of the songs I was reacquainting myself and uploading them to my Instagram stories.
Instagram story. Playing along to Jeff Buckley’s “Last Goodbye”. 27 June 2023.
Having not shared anything of this nature online for over a decade, I went back into my archive to see if there was any other evidence of an old life lived, now being reclaimed. At first, I found nothing. I’d broken a hard drive in 2011, during my second year at university, and so had always assumed that a lot of my adolescent digital footprint had been lost. But it turned out that all of my old bedroom recordings had ended up tucked away with the terabytes of other people’s music, which I’d taken much better care of.
The vast majority of these tracks are far too embarrassing to share. Bad songs, bad covers, bad recordings. The earliest recordings, dating back to 2007, played on that sad charity-shop guitar, feature a horrendously nasal singing voice that is totally unlistenable. But things start to improve over time. Vocal control moves down to the diaphragm, the harmonies of the twelve-string come to the fore, there is an occasional and unfortunate American twang to some of the songs sung, but a sound is nonetheless starting to settle. I was fascinated to hear even the minutest progressions.
The best recording from this time, and one notable for its content too, is a cover of “Doggy”, the (retroactively assigned) Animal Collective song from their beautiful early album Campfire Songs, originally released before they’d settled on the group moniker. My version is much more stripped-back, played on that charity-shop guitar, making it even more naive-sounding than the original. But I quite like the sparseness of it.
That’s not to say I think it is “good”. It has none of the atmosphere of the original, wherefrom its magic unfurls; the living quality of the album, recorded in one take on a porch in Maryland in the winter of 2001, is entirely singular and feels almost unrepeatable. But my version still retains something similar, to my ear at least: it sounds like my old room, which I barely left, and the dulled sound of my strumming and singing took me back immediately to sitting cross-legged on the floor, a rudimentary Noughties video-call headset and microphone clamped precariously onto my knee.
Though lacking the pleasurably swampy atmosphere of a backyard locked-groove, where a mournful song about a dead dog is given a new half-life, as if it was taken a psychedelic adaptation of Stephen King’s Pet Cemetery, my version travels in the other direction, becoming a jaggedly static and utterly dead thing. But it is an apt soundtrack for anxieties of another kind; a different, more adolescent and less supernatural kind of interzone.
Cover of “Doggy” by Animal Collective. 13 January 2009.
If I am being even slightly generous toward my own lo-fi sensibilities, it is because the naivety of all these songs was very much intentional. As has been the case throughout my life, I have always had a punk pick-up-and-play attitude to all creative endeavours, refusing to consciously learn any sort of technique, instead figuring things out through an unabashed process of public trial and error, perpetually resting upon something fleetingly mine that is allowed to shift how it pleases. There is a sense of “you have to start somewhere”, and so this beginning feels enchanting for that reason. No sense of pretension, just creation. A few initial marks made on a blank canvas. Utterly childlike, free of worry or care.
I remember thinking about this a lot, when I’d occasionally get embarrassed about my pride in things making things that I didn’t think anyone would consider good. But it felt like a real achievement for me to make something regardless. I felt anxious enough already in daily life, telling myself I couldn’t or shouldn’t do something, overthinking the implications of everything. The time spent making things was instead a time of thinking very little, of just seeing what emerges without the self getting in the way. I had ambitions and I had a desire to improve on my own terms, but I also didn’t want to be the kind of person who simply told others they were doing things and then never show their hand. I wanted to share every attempt at anything.
In my eyes, all of my favourite artists did the same thing. They seemed to conjure up other worlds in their bedrooms with whatever was immediately to hand, and my recordings — there are over a hundred of them — are my initial, fiercely underdeveloped attempts to do the same. The experiments of others were more considered than my own — that seems undoubtedly true — but regardless of the fact I was nowhere near to being on par, that drive to share experiments all the time, as if this precious time of juvenile experimentation never had to end, remains so important to me. No sense of professionalism, but a dogged desire to retain the sense of creative abandon; “lines of flight”; “life-experimentation.” (I’d like to think this blog stands as a testament to that teenage mindset still today.)
If my intention was to rise to the productivity and freedom of my favourite artists, the songs chosen for these early recordings are perplexing. They are so often twee and innocent, even terribly saccharine. They hardly reflect what I was listening to at the time. But what I remember thinking and affirming back then was that they were simply the songs I knew I could play. They didn’t reflect my overarching music taste at all, but they maybe reflected my autodidactic approach and lack of ability; the songs were all accessibly folksy, singable and playable, like the nursery rhymes often taught to students just picking up an instrument for the first time.
The songs do, intriguingly, get more technically complex after a few years have passed, as do my attempts at making multitrack recordings. One that sticks out is an original song called “Be Mine”. The lyrics are awful: it’s a cringe-inducing song of adolescent yearning. It slips out of tune occasionally too, but hearing the outro’s vocal harmonies fourteen years later gives me a sort of Proustian thrill. I remembered how utterly proud of it I was, not so much as a good piece of songwriting, but at least as a bedroom recording that somehow sounded “big” and emotive, despite being made with nothing more than an old headset mic and a free download of Audacity.
Excerpt from demo for “Be Mine”. 19 August 2009.
Hearing it again opened up a door long thought closed. I was potentially on the verge of doing some more interesting things in that moment. I could have taken this surprisingly big sound into some interesting new places. I could have kept working at it, written more original material, really played with multitracking in the DAW, continued exploring the kinds of lo-fi recordings that I loved from others.
(It feels significant that 2008, when many of these initial recordings were made, was also the year that both Bon Iver’s For Emma, Forever Ago and Grouper’s Dragging a Dead Deer Up a Hillwere released. I was an early fanatic about both projects, acquiring them and heading to empty gigs played by both artists before both albums garnered more widespread release and significant popularity. Suffice it to say, this hipster sense of discovering some sort of treasure earlier than most amplified its impact on me in each instance, and if I had any idea how to achieve it, I’d have probably tried making music that was sonically somewhere in between the two.)
Sadly, “Be Mine” was also where my experiments peaked. I left home to go to university two months later and never sang in public or recorded music ever again. I’m not entirely sure why. Living with other people for the first time, I was certainly far too self-conscious to again spend hours thrashing out the same song in my room, driving everyone else insane. (My parents were, of course, fair game when living at home.) My mental health was also bad in my first year at university, and I was there to focus on photography anyway, presuming I was only allowed one real string to my bow. (As mentioned above, I certainly felt like I lost more aspects of my self that year than I gained.) These were likely all factors in never again picking up my guitar with any real intent.
A lot changed then, you could say, but a lot also stayed the same. These recordings were all uploaded to old blogs I had. Indeed, at that time, the blogosphere in general felt truly interdisciplinary. Attempts at writing one day, photographs another, some lo-fi bedroom EP made in a few hours the next. It’s how so many people approached this relatively new frontier online. Everything was decentralised, and at the same time so much more centralised than it is now. Whereas these days you write on Substack or WordPress, upload demoes or more polished releases to Soundcloud or Bandcamp, post pictures on Instagram, market it all with other miscellaneously subjective detritus on Twitter; in the 2000s, you’d find everything on Blogpost or MySpace (or on some independently hosted server, if you were more savvy).
It was, of course, around this time that I became an avid k-punk blog reader, but the blog archipelago was populated by far more than just writers at that time. Bradford Cox, for instance, of the band Deerhunter, used to regularly update the world about his various activities on a Blogpost page (now shuttered and open to “invited readers only”). There, you could hear demoes of forthcoming Deerhunter releases, but also much more frank and vulnerable demoes and experiments related to Cox’s other projects, such as the solo venture Atlas Sound and Lotus Plaza, featuring fellow Deerhunter bandmate Lockett Pundt.
Cox would post artwork alongside Mediafire links and occasionally some text about whatever he was releasing. Sometimes this was hardly necessary, as the stream-of-consciousness releases told you everything you needed to know. 2007’s unassuming “Weekend EP”, for instance, consists of three tracks, all orbiting around 10 minutes in length. The titles are as follows: “Friday Night We Took Acid and Laid on Matt’s Bedroom Floor Staring at His Ceiling Fan While His Parents Watched TV Downstairs”; “Saturday Night We Went Swimming And There Was a Light in the Water”; “Sunday Evening We Relaxed in our Rooms and Called Each Other on the Phone”. The songs themselves are a mixture of ambient sound-baths and a droning chopped-and-screwed vocal affair, with the latter laden with barely decipherable lyrics that provide only snippets of description and affect. Regardless, it sounds like a really nice weekend.
There was often a frank confessional element to these releases too. The songs that haunt the most, and which were the first to come to mind on this nostalgia trip, were the songs “Screaming in the Face of Death” and “Children’s Hospital (Screaming in the Face of Death #2)”. The latter, in particular, is a deeply affecting sonic journey into the sounds and silences of a children’s ward, where Cox spent time due to complications from Marfan syndrome. The song is a molasses fever dream; a teenage interzone of pain and trauma. It woozes as if overmedicated, but Cox begs timidly for relief; the other side of a medicalised delirium.
It was an approach I deeply admired, and I soon began following Cox’s blog obsessively, alongside k-punk. Their combined influence was so strong that, when I left school with some GSCEs and a striking lack of concern about how I’d survive and what I’d do for work, I told myself I’d just blog forever. (And here we still are, thankfully now a little more responsible when it comes to financing my own existence.)
My own blogs, from 2007 to the present, have long felt like a pastiche of the two, with the primary focus (for many, many years) being my own photography, but little “virtual seven-inches” (as Cox called them) were also frequent uploads once upon a time. It is a love of this kind of blogging that I have never really lost, even if so many of the blogs I used to read have themselves waned or fallen out of algorithmic fashion, and it is here that the sense of blogger’s continuum is most pronounced.
Indeed, it is strange to think that, in so many ways, my approach to the documented life hasn’t changed one bit. The impulse is the same, as are the methods deployed to satisfy it — thankfully, I’ve become a bit more articulate with age. In amongst my own archive of bedroom recordings, for example, there are even some early attempts at “podcasting”. These are even more embarrassing than the songs, and so I won’t share them in full. To do so would also feel slightly unethical, as it shocked me even now how utterly candid my friends and I were about the mischief we got up to, sharing stories of acquiring alcohol underage, doing drugs and openly regaling each other with stories of our various queer-sexual encounters.
But as noted recently, typing up debriefs of nights on the town is still something my friends know me for, even if the current approach is far more reflective and grounded in a philosophical-political interest in culture and community. Back then, we just wanted to see how close the narratives of our entangled lives could get to an episode of Skins. (They got uncomfortably close on multiple occasions.)
Excerpt from blog reading. 11 August 2010.
In fairness, the story told in this full recording is still a good one, but we were just too toxically adolescent to really appreciate the implications of our actions beyond their shock value. It’s all group sex, police visits, and me falling through a garage roof at some point. There is no real reflection on what we were running from, struggling with, as a predominantly queer group of reckless kids chasing death under the guise of unclean fun.
This reading was also recorded before another night to come, and so it is tellingly interrupted by the chirping interference of incoming text messages, as we reflect on last year’s party whilst figuring out meeting points, booze and drugs for the next one. There’s a recklessness to it all that is more than a little pathetic, but it nonetheless led me to develop and hone a habit of documenting everything that happens to me, which has surely served me well — in terms of personal growth, most importantly; only later coming to really appreciate Deleuze’s adage that we make ourselves of the things that happen to us. As such, just as the musical experiments gradually became more complex and experimental, so did a more thoughtful and nuanced approach to the morning after became more integral to weathering the chaos of fading youth and the approaching oppressiveness of adult life. The tensions couldn’t be numbed or ignored forever.
(I’ve mentioned this at some point before, but this notably all took place during the rise to notoriety of — the then legal high — M-CAT. Someone in our extended circle of friends later died by suicide after a weekend bender at Hull’s The Welly Club; different members of our friendship group eventually calmed down or went further into debauchery after that. Half of us escaping to university helped us put that time behind us. There is little real nostalgia retained for that time as a result, and so the laughing and joking about our lack of self-concern feels particularly morbid and mawkish, overcompensating for a real darkness at the core of our friendship group. Still, it was a significant time nonetheless.)
I hope that this reminiscing and reflection goes some way to clarifying my complicated feelings about a present return to teenage potentials. There is no escaping the fact I am in my thirties now, and I have no desire to regress to a time of abject idiocy. But it is nonetheless life-affirming to recall the more creative potentials felt at that time and how they resonate with those in the present. The last year or so has been equally defined by the fraught choice between being whoever I want to be and choosing not to be at all, such was the striking dichotomy that lingered under the surface of those experimental years of adolescent queerness as well.
Depression is kept more successfully at bay these days, having seen off a recent period of low mood more quickly than I’ve ever managed before, and it is always a reminder of the most obvious thing that helps: I’m a blogger. It’s what I do. When times are tough, if I give myself over to this thing I maintain in public, I feel immediately accountable to myself and to others, and so my life and mood falls into line. Writing and creating helps me regulate. The blog is thus this wonderful depository for shards of self; a surrogate for an adolescent bedroom. I may have no idea who I am in the great outdoors, but I know who I am when I’m here. And most importantly, irrespective of what anyone else thinks, I like who I am when I’m here too. There are many hard lessons being learned as I once again discover (or perhaps discover for the very first time) how to appreciate my own company.
A better indication of where my head is at is no doubt the recent “Better Queer?” post. I’m no longer daunted by the questions I need to answer. I just want to move through the world and affirm myself again, properly. That does not necessarily mean picking up where I left off, but perhaps tuning myself back into all the other things I hoped to do before.
A certain manic excitement has arisen from this sense of unforgetting and reclaiming. After spending the last year buying a lot of clothes, finding ways to experiment and feel newly comfortable in my own skin, I’ve more recently put some of the money made from a few months of overworking myself into buying a new microphone, learning the ins and outs of a new DAW, and I also bought a banjo…? As I rebuild confidence playing all the old songs I knew so well, I’d like to get back to recording some of my own. I’d like to quickly move on from these indie renditions of yore and get weird with it. And I’d very much like to take readers along for the ride.
So, watch this space…
Instagram story. Cover of “Place to Be” by Nick Drake. 28 June 2023.
Instagram story. Cover of “Been Smoking Too Long” by Robin Frederick. 28 June 2023.
Instagram story. Cover of “A Good Man is Hard to Find” by Sufjan Stevens. 28 June 2023.