Hegemony of the Cliché: Pomophobia Revisited

This is something that emerged fleetingly from the Q&A following my lecture yesterday for the University of Birmingham’s Contemporary Theory Reading Group — which was fantastic by the way; I’ll post about it when the lecture recording goes live.

Hailey Maxwell asked a question about how I see myself and my project in relation to Fisher. I’ve obviously had a lot to say about this recently but it led to a coinage in the moment that Niall later suggested could be a decent alternative to capitalism realism: the “hegemony of the cliché”.

This emerged explicitly from my recent reflecting on Dan Barrow’s article about my book — particularly his affirmation of the fact that Egress reaches for a “Mark Fisher beyond the cliché”, something I deeply appreciated.

This was certainly my intent, quite explicitly in fact, but I have also recently expressed a tandem frustration regarding the suggestion that the presence of Bataille and Blanchot in my book is worthy of disavowal because Mark himself didn’t like them.

Writing beyond the cliché of Mark Fisher is one thing but what about the ways in which the text moves beyond the clichés of Bataille, Deleuze and others?

I’ve said all I have to say on that particularly thought-provoking article but there remains much to be said, I think, about the ways that many thinkers, of all stripes, are made impotent by the clichéd figures that are constructed around them as well.

I’ve written a few scattered things on this before but it is a difficult thing to articulate. For instance, there is a sense, particularly online, that everyone wants to Cliff Notes reading of a particular text rather than be supplied with the tools to excavate new readings for themselves.

There are many cases where these tools warrant further use. Nietzsche is always the first to come to mind as a figure whose legacy is still being debated. But also, how do we dismantle this desire for fast thought in a way that doesn’t just sound like obfuscation and gate-keeping?

When I think about this stuff, the death of the author, as famously described by Roland Barthes, always looms large, and I’m left wondering to what extent this has produced new (albeit oddly distanced) impositions upon how we think about texts?

Barthes’ argument that a text cannot have a single interpretation, grounded by its author’s intent, has led — perhaps inadvertently but nonetheless intractably — to the sort of postmodern relativism that Derrida has likewise been derided for contributing towards.

It is a slippage critiqued most powerfully by Mark Fisher himself and Robin Mackay in their conclusion to the Ccru era essay “Pomophobia”, in which they decry “the clogged digestive system” of the postmodern subject, “of the West’s Last Men”, which “expresses all too acutely the constipated Eurocontinence of these constricted bodies, themselves minor fascicular elements of a resonant system of transcendental miserabilism disseminated across all levels of culture.” (Suffice it to say that it is densely packed text and we’ll try untangled some of it in due course.) They continue:

The dreary textocratic dribblings of post-theory are merely the transcendental idealist counterpoint to the empirical realism of postmodern culture. Kurt Cobain embodied what theory disembodies, the raging stomach pains which plagued him finding their disintensified correlate in the chin-rubbing, brow-furrowing protocols of urbane academic anxiety. Smells like Hegelian Spirit.

By contrast, synthetic culture disorganises the docilising regimes of disciplinary body politics. Hip hop and jungle work on the body, not in the overlit luminotopological epistemoscapes of necrospective mummification, but in the dark zones where you don’t have a chance to think about what things would mean before they happen. Effects arrive before objects, scrambling the operating system of the automonitoring signifying apparatus.

The speed of jungle is important here. In racing passed apprehension as a flurry of unintentified sonic objects, it reaches down into the truth of speed itself as an intensity rather than as a commodified categorisation or USP — no one has ever said they like jungle for the speedy efficiency with which is delivers its constitutive parts to your eardrums. It raises the subject up, in a sense, to hitch a ride on the speed of the world around it, but subculturally speaking we can also consider its opposite.

Following the heydey of grunge, in which Cobain would ironically write hits critiquing the bulimia of the pop market, slowcore hit the scene. The band Low, in particular, made a name for themselves by, in their own words, playing as slow as possible in front of crowds who came for the next mindless angst-relieving thrashy grunge band. This wasn’t a rejection of speed as such but just a rejection of the markets expectation of it. Either you speed up even faster than expected (jungle) or you slow down — so long as you’re jamming the signal.

Here affect (or, more accurately, intensity) is still the name of the game but also we find ourselves confronted by what that intensity contains: the unadulterated “truth”, the Real. Cobain may have wrestled — alongside his stomach pains — with suggestions Nirvana had sold out but the band stayed true to itself even as it was dragged by the market into some kind of inauthenticity.

The distance between these two things — authenticity and truth — can seem superficial but authenticity is, again, firmly within the purview of the postmodern. Truth is perhaps that which is buried beneath the all too easily available. It is that which passes beneath the hegemony of the cliché — an all-powerful blanket of superficiality.

This is similar to what I think Fisher and Mackay are gesturing towards when they point, in their essay, to “samploid music and video games” that emerge “as the leading probe-heads of synthetic culture precisely because of their overt machinism, their asignifying functionality, their indifference to epistemological conundra brewed up in the depths of the strata.” (As far as video games are concerned, this is arguably no longer the case.)

It is a function that is demonstrated by the text itself. This is a gourmet word salad; a linguistic Impossible Burger, a billion dollar lab experiment made to imitate a Big Mac. This is to say that, although it has the cognitive effect of a rapid fire look through a thesaurus, hitting you with affective utterances that may appear pretension and superficial, the technical nomenclature also demands a slow reading in order to be understood, as each term used packs a punch that perforates the “epistemological conundra” of the (c)overtly familiar. This is not philosophy as sleek Ferrari but philosophy as backyard kit car, ready for a deconstruction derby. If it’s Derridean, it’s Derrida with a cattle pod up his arse.

It’s messy and it’s dirty. There’s no fetishing this. And that resistance to fetishisation is largely the point. As Fisher and Mackay continue:

What is dissolved in synthetic culture is not commodification per se, but commodity fetishism as it regulates the bourgeois object system, in which everything is assigned a proper place. Synthetic culture sheds no Benjaminite tears for the lost aura of objects in the age of mechanical reproduction, celebrating instead the way in which the subject-object dichotomy and its attendant pathos are reconfigured as machinic circuits in the age of cybernetic replication. “The transaesthetics of banality” plays upon the poignant, if bathetic, aura of found objects, but for abstract culture everything that’s ready made, or mass-marketed, is there to be dismantled and relocated into the unfamiliar architectures of the synthetic composition, the “uncanny adjacencies” of the hip hop or jungle track, where they have a machinic, rather than merely a citational, role to play: decomposable elements on a plane of consistency, not cut up fragments.

To the jaded eyes of the PoMophile, sampling can appear to be part of its own aesthetic of incongruent bricolage, yet another example of the crippling self-consciousness bedevilling a culture so exhausted it is fit only to sort through its own entrails. But, far from being imprisoned in the past, synthetic culture unlocks the machinic surplus value in the already actualized, stretching and warping time into nonorganically reprogrammed somatic circuits of inhuman speeds and slownesses.

A breath of fresh air, a little relation to the outside, that’s all schizoanalysis asks.

Sample culture precisely employs a kind of machinic thinking through which sounds are repurposed beyond the cliché; that is, behind their smooth reception in a culture that always wants to flog the convenient and familiar. (I’m reminded of rkss’ DJ Tools here.)

These reintensifications are possible (and necessary) with so much culture, not just with music. I’ve spoken about it in recent months in relation to DH Lawrence and Virginia Woolf but the truth is that I think it is possible with anyone. It is always worth looking beneath the philosophies you think you know and excavating explicitly those concepts and frameworks that jar with that abstract sense of market propriety. Getting down into how something feels always reveals untold connections to present affects. That which you think you know can always be updated to a present in which it finds itself resituated.

This is not to say you must suspend your judgement of things; rather it is to argue that you can find in almost anything an understanding that grates against the system in which we presently live. This is like the arguments that the removal of the statue of Edward Colston from Bristol isn’t an erasure of history but history happening. The “destructive” repurposing of a statue for protest is sample culture at its most potent. The affective release of the act is more powerful than any object, all too comfortable on its pedestal.

The final question of the Q&A, asked by Niall, was what exactly did Mark Fisher hate about cultural studies despite being somehow who, arguably, “did” cultural studies himself, and I think the answer lies in this very suggestion. When Barthes argued that no text should be limited by the immediate (material) context in which it was produced, he nonetheless set the stage for a kind of cultural studies that has made little attempt to feed back onto the immediate (still material) contexts of its readers. “What does / did it mean?” supercedes “How does it / could it change the world?” But as Marx (and, more explicitly, Stuart Hall) made clear, the former should always lead to the latter, otherwise cultural studies is doomed to impotence. It is doomed to support, rather than intrude upon, the hegemony of the cliché.

The Games Industry: Accelerationism and the Hauntological in Microcosm

I’m currently doing a load of research into accelerationism — when am I not — for a new thing. I’ve been digging far back into the blogosphere to try and accurately trace its development from its 2007 beginnings to the present, but without all the distracting retconning of various philosophers who have at one time or other expressed an accelerationist opinion. (I found a very early Benjamin Noys post where he offers a few examples of accelerationist positions and one was a quote from Roland Barthes so I’m left feeling like just about anyone could be a Noysian accelerationist at this point.)

What I’m currently intrigued by is how the accelerationist split first emerged. (Alex Williams’ (at least I think it’s his) old blog is proving to be fascinating reading right now — straight-up red-hot Landianism over there — no surprises he’s since deleted most of it.) In fact, its split is arguably its founding gesture — an appropriate Big Bang moment for the first blogosphere when the first atom split and birthed a whole network of weird social media enclaves that just keep splitting.

Most people should know by now that “Accelerationism” as a term related to political philosophy was coined by Noys but it was arguably Mark Fisher and Alex Williams who made it what it is. (And, credit where due, Steven Shaviro’s blog was arguably the blog where the initial discussion started.) I’ve mentioned this a few times on here and on Twitter but the initial developments came from  Noys writing his 2010 book The Persistence of the Negative in which he critiques Continental philosophy’s obsession with affirming a certain kind of negativity. Fisher, in deftly trollish fashion, then affirmed Noys’ negative critique. In hindsight, this may have been a mistake on Fisher’s part but, for better or for worse, the name stuck and everyone has been confusing Noys’ and Fisher’s versions ever since.

It seems to me — although I’m still untangling this — that Fisher did this to demonstrate that Noys’ position as being somehow above this entanglement of negations and affirmations was a fallacy. In late capitalist society, we affirm negations and negate affirmations every day. The problem is that this process is far from the vaguely similar process first described in Marx’s dialectical materialism. This is to say that, in the 21st century, the dialectic of capitalism’s positives and negatives has become wholly impotent. This was the discussion within the blogosphere. It was not simply about how all the Conties affirm the negative but about how the negative itself was and remains in crisis.

So why not just be positive? Fisher’s argument was that that is what capitalism wants. It wants positivity all day every day. In this sense, the negative takes on a new potency but it has lost its effective charge. The question was, how can the negative produce the new? Accelerationism, in Noys’ hands, as that byword for everything “bad” about capitalism was the perfect sandbox to try this out in. Can we affirm the negatives of capitalism to produce the new?

It wasn’t as simple as that though, because nothing ever is. Accelerationism was also picked up by the blogosphere because it had obvious implications for the various and already well-established discussions around hauntology.

The relationship between the two is quite interesting, I think, and it is also far more nuanced than the usual assumption of accelerationism is fast and hauntology is slow. As Fisher noted in one post, this is not a philosophy of mind-numbing tautologies where what is negative is bad because it is negative and what is positive is good because it is positive. In fact, what seems to really galvanise discussions around accelerationism is that it is seen as the positive cultural charge to hauntology’s negative charge. Taken together, each with their own internal positives and negatives, they describe a strange tension within the 21st century.

The full argument I have about this might get hashed out somewhere else in more detail but I thought of an illustrative example of this relation that is culturally still prevalent (if not more prevalent) over a decade later but which doesn’t fit into what I’m working on: the games industry.

Accelerationism, as hauntology’s hyperactive cousin, was seen by Fisher and others as an analysis of the ever-increasing speed of technological progression under capitalism and how this was affecting human cultural production and the production of subjectivity. These issues are all still pertinent today. In fact, they can arguably be seen most readily in the microcosm of the games industry.

There, technological hardware is being improved at an astounding rate, with new devices, consoles and ways to play appearing with an increased frequency, and yet it is also an industry currently infatuated with remakes of classic games.

Why is this?

In some ways, the reason is practical. The technological innovations far outpace cultural development so that those foundational cultural experiences become lost as the hardware improves. Because we have memories longer than the rapid cycle of a “console generation”, we don’t just desire the new all the time. Sometimes we want the comfort of something we know. So what do you do if you want to play your old games?

There are some obvious answers. People might still own their old consoles, for example, but playing them on modern TVs can be a nightmare. (I, for instance, still lug my N64 with me wherever I go but it is increasingly temperamental.) Do I need to keep time capsules of all my old home entertainment technology if I want to enjoy something? This level of fetishism is commonplace, with people preserving old setups like vinyl nerds, but it’s hardly practical. There are other workarounds and emulators, of course, but the industry itself seems like it is only just coming to appreciate its tandem responsibilities — not only pushing out new products to feed the desire for the new and improved but also its responsibility to archive and retain access to past experiences that are in danger of being left behind and lost to the casual player who doesn’t sideline as an amateur games historian.

The main reason why this is an important consideration is that it is arguably one not shared by any other medium. Although they do get remade with a depressing frequency, a film doesn’t need to be entirely remade to be enjoyed easily in the same way that a game does. For games, it is a question of accessibility as much as aesthetics. This is to say that it is not always just a money grab but a way to celebrate the existence of something technologically maligned and also remind aging gamers of their foundational gaming experiences that they might want to enjoy for a lot longer than the rapidity of technological development may allow. Still, speed is a factor here. We’re not talking about experiences from decades ago. One decade might be all it takes for the remake treatment to become feasible. This timescale might shrink in future if nothing changes.

Here’s the problem of capitalist speed and cultural drag in a nutshell. The quick fix of just remaking old titles and making them shiny again is one way to do it but it doesn’t always solve the practical problem.

There is a further side effect from this, however. I wonder, considering how precarious gaming culture is, with technological progression and cultural instability leading to what we have at present — a frenzied stasis — isn’t it also this precarity that has led to a largely reactionary culture within the gaming community? One that salivates over superficial progression (graphics!) whilst hating real change? Is this not the very same issue that we see everywhere in society, albeit on a micro scale? That is to say, isn’t it precisely this capitalist acceleration, independent of human culture, which only causes it to drag, that leads not to a frustrated capitalism but to an increasingly reactionary subjectivity? Isn’t the fact that gamers are often such sensitive small-c conservatives a result of a sort of cultural-subcultural negative feedback loop? Stasis becomes a demand left oddly unfulfilled because capitalism cannot help but speed ahead of the lifespan of our desires.

“Well done, Xeno”, I hear you say. “You’ve demonstrated an obvious point about late capitalism using a really annoying example.” But part of me also feels like, if gamers could see themselves as the microcosm of neoliberalism that they are, maybe they’d be less sensitive about incompetence in their industry and more sensitive about how that incompetence mirrors the wider world around them.

Biden is Bethesda, you guys. Will you think a bit more about politics now?

Ignore the Neurosis

Clarifying my thoughts about and my intentions with Egress is undoubtedly an unnecessary endeavour that reveals far more about my own neuroticism than it reveals about the book itself.

The present obsession with defending the presence of Bataille and Blanchot feels wholly ill advised and boarding on obsessive, and I’d take it all down if it wasn’t actually really useful for getting my own head straight.

Unfortunately, as of late, I have allowed the book to become wholly defined by its readers — for better and for worse. The death of the author has been embraced as an opportunity for needless self-flagellation and cringe over-protection but, worst of all, it has also allowed my own understanding of the book to be diminished and distorted in my own head. And that’s been quite a sad process — to forget or lose sight of why I cared so much to write something; to lose sight of that initial motor that made the thing worth pursuing. Without that, what is left behind isn’t pretty.

But in trying to keep sight of it I’m aware that I’ve become increasingly one-track minded. It’s not a good look and it feels pretty shite as well.

The problem is that, although Egress isn’t about me, it nonetheless feels like so much of me is in there, just under the surface, from my proudest memories to some of the memories I hate most about myself.

Anyone who knew me at Goldsmiths during the time described in the book will likely be able to confirm just how much of a fucking mess I was. I’d wager half the book was written drunk just so I could just get through it, which begs the question: why bother?

But who ever said writing was a healthy outlet?

When I write at the start that the book is as much a product of mourning and melancholy as it is about those two things, I don’t say that for effect. Frankly, publishing it has been a massive headfuck as echoes of depressions come around with every bit of shilling and press coverage and I’m sure it has showed. I’m far too close to it, even now, and, with the book coming out immediately prior to lockdown, it has been hard to find my distance. That distance is needed and desperately, or else I’ll continue to crowd the book and the discussion around it, killing it and the impact I hoped it would have.

I’m sure no one cares about any of this, of course. Suffice it to say that my oversensitivity is becoming deeply embarrassing with the slightest bit of hindsight but it’s a sign of something deeper than an author’s narcissism, so forgive me.

I’ll figure a way out of this headspace eventually. Unfortunately, the usual way I get out of headspaces is by writing about them…

First Step; Next Step. (I Was Moved.)

I’m still reeling from Dan Barrow’s article in Tribune, published online the other day — but in a good way. My previous post about it may have read slightly glibly — and I edited it multiple times after first publishing it to try and get the tone right — but in the process of thinking about the article, after my initial pointing to it, I realised that the balance I was seeking so desperately (and perhaps ill-advisedly) was one that could affirm the message of Dan’s article whilst also affirming the ways that my “perverse” references support that very gesture.

Is the latter affirmation even necessary though?

As much as I am (perhaps a little too) willing to defend my references and my own personal viewpoint in Egress at every opportunity, the article, along with the additional comments that Dan added on Twitter (embedded above), really encapsulated the impetus behind publishing the book in the first place — and it did so without them.

This made me reflect a bit on what the book was meant to do and what it means to me now, almost a year on from when I first (thought I had) finished it and sent it to Repeater Books.

This time last year, I’d been sat on the manuscript for Egress for almost eighteen months, not knowing what to do with it. I’d wanted to self-publish it but Robin Mackay politely stopped me, generously offering to edit it to make sure I got it right and didn’t just throw it into the world because I wanted rid of it, like an albatross around my neck. That was in December 2018. It took another year to achieve an outcome I was fully satisfied with.

Even in its final form, Egress is a book more full of questions than answers but, as the years slipped by, these questions became sharper and more refined. And yet, they were questions aimed at a Mark who jarred with this “other Mark” that people were now talking about in earnest online and in the press. The Mark I knew — and then later got to know even better through a complete immersion in his work — was decisively different from the one I saw rising up through various popular discourses.

In his article for Tribune, Dan encapsulates this same sense of morbid consensus when he writes about Jeremy Gilbert’s bastardisation of Acid Communism (which this blog has doggedly been trying to publicly dismantle since it was inaugurated in late 2017) and the more insidious flattening of “capitalist realism” into a one-dimensional notion. Dan writes:

The careless re-reading of what was already a fragmented, idiosyncratic set of interventions reduces capitalist realism to a mindset issue or a miasma of “identity politics” to be combated by the necromantic revival of the mid-century workers’ movement. This rhetorical habit is only a few degrees worse than the tic of citing Fisher that substitutes for political analysis in the music press.

What this looked like in practice was the incessant presentation of a Mark who was only good at articulating popular opinion rather than making incisions across it; a Mark caught within capitalist realism rather than striving to reach the outside of it.

I was discussing another aspect of this yesterday with Matheus Calderón: considering the nuances contained within Mark’s writings on hauntology, it is nauseating that Mark himself is reduced to some spectre for the popular left. This has led to Mark becoming entombed in a caricature of his own work, to the extent, in some cases, that his work can no longer be effectively put to use.

Part of the frustration that comes from the scattered reception of my book thus far comes from the fact that this mythical straw Mark — who is combatted implicitly, for the most part, in Egress, since most of the book was written before the strawman was fully established — looms too large to be undone by my book alone. A few reviews have battered the book, unable to accept how the book challenges their misconceptions. From the other side, however, a few other people, who knew Mark and his work far better than most, have since questioned the Mark that I have presented in Egress and elsewhere also, but I think it sort of comes with the territory that my book about this fragmented and idiosyncratic writer had to make knowing incisions into Mark’s thought as well as my own fragmented and idiosyncratic experiences.

Doing this, however, has led to the development of a certain amount of oversensitivity — if that wasn’t already very apparent — but that’s been a lesson learned the hard way: don’t wear your scabs on your sleeve if you can’t handle other people picking at them.

This sensitivity is complex. In part, it comes from trying to persistently fight for the unsettled and complex Mark that most have barely read but have nonetheless tried to exorcise and ignore; it also comes from the continuing experience of navigating a strange set of feelings and emotions that are still quite raw and have even been renewed in the face of the new level of public scrutiny that comes with being published.

Today, each of these modes of inquiry and criticism is distinct from the other, in my mind at least, even if my responses to them still often share a defensive register or a defiant tone. (I am too used to fighting what has long felt like a one-man war and I have perhaps become a little jaded after three and a half years of trying to swim upstream.) However, this complicated response on my part no doubt comes, above all else, from the traumatic reality of Goldsmiths in late 2017 when, after the academic year was over, I lost friends over my comments, written and verbal, about Mark’s works.

These were friends who disagreed with their sanitised vision of Mark being challenged. Not that it was even my intention to be challenging. I didn’t understand, at that time, why my position was controversial. I simply spoke up for a Mark properly read and failed to comprehend what all the fuss was about since I had the receipts to back up my interpretations. This is not to suggest I was sociopathically defiant, although I’m sure some would prefer to see me that way. In fact, I ended the year like everyone else — battered, bruised, and on the brink.

The process of receiving reviews of my book is oddly triggering, reminding me of that dark time, and making the process far less enjoyable than I had hoped and anticipated.

However, at the risk of banging on too much about my own use of Bataille and Blanchot in the book, it was precisely in pursuing and coming to terms with the fallout of this fraught gesture that Bataille was acutely and persistently relevant to me and my project. The way he attempted to write his way out of the political impotence of wartime, for instance, in his Summa Atheologica, was a key touchstone for me as 2016 came to a close and 2017 opened with the tandem events of Mark’s suicide and Trump’s election. The way he wrote towards an ethics of fraught communication was also a much firmer ground to start from than that offered by Mark in “Exiting the Vampire Castle” and elsewhere.

All this is to say that what I wanted to do with Egress was write my way out of (left) melancholy in much the same way that Bataille did. (When Dan notes that “Egress remains, despite its best efforts, trapped in the same ‘left melancholia’ as its Labourist and social democratic counterparts”, there is surely no question that this is the case, as I write explicitly about trying to grasp left melancholy effectively from within it, at the precise moment it was complicated by grief of another — albeit related — sort.)

It is also worth noting that Bataille and Blanchot were first put to use (that is, put to use together) in the text as I attempted to explore and navigate this complex and often grotesque gesture of scab-picking in order to get to a “truth” about where we were at, collectively and politically. Long before Egress was even conceived as a book, it was an essay that extended my own research into the ethical and largely posthumous relationship between Bataille and Blanchot, through which I was exploring how their strange conversations with their predecessors and contemporaries influenced much of the thought around the political relevance of communism in the philosophical circles of France up to the 1980s. (Again, all of this is explained in the text.)

(Additional sidenote: the influence of this French communist debate on more recent thought is most explicit in the work of another of Mark’s key influences: Slavoj Žižek — but a discussion on this was cut from Egress as it only threatened to derail what is already a lively and meandering text.)

Since it was a continuation of a thought that preceded Mark’s death, Mark’s thoughts on Bataille and Blanchot were not a consideration. I was already immersed in them before Mark died and so I simply put them to use without much thought regarding Mark’s opinions on either of them. In this sense, as well as defending their genealogical relevance within Mark’s thought (despite his own superficial dismissals of them), Bataille and Blanchot were most important, for me, in thinking through Mark’s death. They were invaluable as I attempted to write about death without falling into certain rhetorical traps; as I attempted face up to such traps honestly in my fraught attempts to navigate them in real time.

To write this here is to affirm, once again, that Egress was the product of a very specific time and process — a time and process that no doubt any future book on Fisher will have no reason to deal with. To write a less idiosyncratic book about Mark would have required a lot more distance than I had available to me. So why not just wait? Because that lack of distance was important — indeed, it was the very motor of the writing — and I think this motor remains important in our present moment of coronavirus and Black Lives Matter protests. That sort of distance is a luxury we did not have and many still do not have, and so I was happy, at the time, to sacrifice certain things to preserve that immanence to a moment and its affects.

It no doubt sounds childish to say “I meant to do that” to every criticism that appears for my book but, the truth is, for the most part, I did. Egress is a flawed book but it was unavoidably so if it was to be the book I wanted it to be, so I tried to affirm its flaws regardless, just as the flawed books of Bataille and Blanchot affirmed their own limits and the limits of writing so that they might get up close to these linguistic barriers that stop us from speaking to the unspeakable. This proto-Derridean noodling was no doubt a part of what Mark disliked about their works but, confronted by death — and by Mark’s death in particular — the stakes of this thinking reemerged in a way that was far more explicitly Lacanian (and the influence of Lacan on Mark’s thought is far more blatant).

This is the most frustrating thing about reading critiques that point out flaws I’m aware of, and which I feel make the book what it is. Egress is precisely the book I set out to write — warts and all. I would change plenty of things now, from a new and ever-shifting vantage point, but the idea was to stay true to the moment in which it was written — particularly that first year that followed Mark’s death. Bataille and Blanchot, as I make clear, were central to that moment for me. They were my background if not Mark’s.

However, this subjectivism doesn’t simply arrest time and contain the book, protecting it from criticism. Writing about how useful Bataille and Blanchot were in 2017 says little about their persistent relevance today. Maybe, from the vantage point of 2020, their inclusion really is perverse. On reflection, however, I still think not — but in a potentially productive way rather than a purely defensive one.

If my image of Mark appears to be as “a philosopher of abstract community”, as Dan describes it, this was not how it felt at the time, in the intensity of the moment in which those ideas were deployed. This is to say that, whilst Blanchot and Bataille’s writings certainly seem to float about on some ethereal plane of abstract theory, the experience from within which Egress was written was so powerful because it felt like that ethereality was — for a time — made palpable and material. Our consciousness was changing through experiences that were distinct from the sort that Mark himself had called for. His calls for joy were intensified absolutely but only because we were so depressively mired in their opposite.

Other thinkers were necessary to consider this complication that was, at the time, traumatically unresolved. I reached for the two closest to hand in my theoretical armoury. They are less close now, for whatever that is worth, although their influence still persists. But, strangely, considering the process of writing the book for the perspective of now, almost a year after it was completed, they might remain even more relevant in hindsight.

For instance, I recant, early on in Egress, the story of Bataille’s retort to Sartre’s scathing review of his 1943 book Inner Experience, in which Bataille oddly praises Sartre for cutting him down and opening him up so publicly, as Sartre accuses Bataille of speaking to some mystical realm beyond the material reality of political communication. But Bataille affirms Sartre capacity to do this — perhaps valiantly, perhaps pathetically — precisely because he is the outsider that Bataille himself calls forth. Humorously, in his response, Bataille imagines some weird ritual of ballroom potlatch, with himself and Sartre entangled in a dance; for Bataille, even if Sartre hated his book, he is nonetheless complicit in the very mode of communication he sought to describe, that erupts violently from deep within and from far without.

I was writing about this at the time to draw parallels (in a roundabout sort of way) between how our experiences of grief did not always intersect at Goldsmiths in 2017, and how that experience of communal critique and political patience was as informative as it was traumatic. Nevertheless, it was as hard to affirm then as it is now. But when I think about Egress now — when I can bear to — and it truly does feel like it was written a lifetime ago — I struggle against the still-unanswered questions of how effective our actions were in that moment. Perhaps we were all simply caught up in the idea of community whilst nonetheless butting our heads up against the thick glass of our abject individualisms. (Such were the questions Jean-Luc Nancy asked of Bataille’s work, later rebutted by Blanchot.) This would certainly explain the eventual fallout that resulted, with most of the group that organised the Fisher-Function sessions at Goldsmiths lashing outwards and retreating towards; traumatised.

Furthermore, the distance inaugurated by Egress becoming “A Book” probably has something to do with this ethereality reemerging for some readers. The communities described in the book certainly aren’t what they used to be, but it also lacks the immediacy of the blog and of a moment passed. But perhaps the conversation around the book, rather than the broken communities it describes, particularly at its most critical, is a positive way to restore this lost weight. That’s certainly part of my desire in remaining vocal about the book after the fact. That the publication of the book should inaugurate my silence and my stepping backwards from a conversation I’ve hoped to inaugurate is a “professional” expectation I am continuing to struggle with navigating, particularly because, even in my silence, I remain firmly in the firing line.

Take, for example, my own capacity to weather criticisms of a book that still feels so personal and how this process of weathering, in its very difficulty, calls the book itself (and myself) into question again. It is worth remembering, under the hubbub of professionalised reviews and comment pieces, that the stakes haven’t changed in this regard, and Dan’s essay gets at this notion very effectively. Indeed, the desire to build something off the back of such encounters rather than just pat backs or tear chunks off each other abstractly is something that Dan’s article has reminded me of, now that the dust has settled.

It’s a great article because, above the particulars of what he did or didn’t like about Egress, the central gesture of the book is nonetheless extended further still. Whether I agree with his criticisms or not, I can’t help but admire that and be grateful for it. (I was moved.)

The initial gesture of extension inaugurated in Egress was one that I hoped (perhaps naively and pretentiously) would be akin to Deleuze’s philosophical sodomy: his writing of bastard books divorced from their subject matter that are nonetheless monstrous products of a loyalty to his subject’s thought. (In this sense, I’m happy to embrace the “perversity” of Egress.)

The problem with Deleuze doing this, however, is that he often made it very difficult to follow suit, so that the conversation he inaugurated was largely one-sided (or explicitly caught between himself and Guattari, as well as being somewhat resistant to additions from others). So, instead of Deleuze, it was the relationship that Blanchot had to Bataille’s work that was most inspiring to me in this regard, and the way that Blanchot used Bataille posthumously in The Unavowable Community especially — the way he takes Bataille’s unruly and controversial thought and puts it to work in a conversation that builds towards an explicitly communist project.

This was an example of a gesture of friendship that I wanted to embrace for myself, at its most melancholy and earnest as well as its most defiant and combative. It is frustrating that, for some, this key gesture — which is quite explicit, I think — is lost to memories of Mark’s poor appraisals of two thinkers who dramatised the problems of the left in their time in much the same way Mark did for himself, and through the same odd confluence of occultural communities and Marxist materialism.

This was also part of what was so frustrating about the review in The Wire, which deployed such a piss-poor interpretation of Mark’s work, and that initial PopMatters review, which suggested my book was one in which “Mark Fisher’s insights are often obscured”. In truth, the latter reviewer’s advice for an alternative book on Fisher — one that might “begin with Fisher’s interest in radical politics and then show how this manifested itself in his writings on musical forms such as post-punk and electronica and on the weird fiction of H.P. Lovecraft, Nigel Kneale, and others” — painted such an abysmally basic picture of Fisher as to be worthy of far more ridicule than I dared give it at the time.

I didn’t want to write or publish a book like that. I wanted to add to Mark’s thought by entangling it with my own lived experiences and interests rather than just describing his thought and being done with it. I wanted to produce an -ology rather than an -ography. But this desire shouldn’t be stored away just because the book has come out and been “finalised”. These lingering questions and fault lines, partly forgotten in the fervour of the last few months, were affirmed during the writing process precisely to inaugurate, as Dan comments, “a first step” in truly reading Mark’s work for all it has to offer.

Egress is an attempt to open a door and I embarrassingly let it infuriate me every time a review or online comment responds by shutting that door in my face. With this in mind, sticking my head up above the parapet as The Mark Fisher Defender was not the desired result of this book-writing process, but it has been a hard mantel to resist. As Dan wrote in Tribune: “Few contemporary thinkers have needed more defence from their greatest admirers.” It has become abundantly clear that even just starting this sort of conversation is an uphill battle, however. Some of the reviews have demonstrated this profoundly, whether “professional” or “casual”. Many readers have reacted incredibly positively, of course, but the negative reviews resonate in my mind all the more when they fail to account for the clichéd Fisher they are putting to work in their appraisals of a book that wants to tear that false image down. This is to say that they are criticising the book for not being something I purposefully wanted to avoid. In stark contrast to this, Dan Barrow’s article for Tribune might be the first review, positive or negative, to see the door opened and, regardless of the shape of it, take a further step through it.

In this sense, Dan’s article is also the first to truly skewer this tension and critique it productively. As kneejerkingly defensive as I can be about a book still so new and dear to my heart, it’s worth remembering — note to self — that, when done right, even a negative review can build towards the Mark I had in mind. And that’s not to say that Dan’s article is even all that negative. It is clear to me that, even through its skewering of certain faults, it is a piece wholly supportive of the gesture the book attempts to inaugurate. This is a really important thing for me to realise right now and a part of the article I would like friends and the not-so-friendly alike to recognise in equal measure: that the gesture at its heart can still remain in tact, despite the particulars of how it is presented. For me personally, staying true to this gesture over my own hard-fought version of it is perhaps the new challenge; the next step.

Dan is absolutely right that we are only at the beginning of interpreting Mark’s thought and it would make Egress a futile endeavour if things just stopped here. It it because of this that I heartily welcome the next book to take on Fisher’s thought and I hope, whatever sort of book it is, it makes my book show its age. That agedness, inevitable due to how situated it is in a time and place, will be a sign, I hope, of how things have changed; how far we have come; how much the world has progressed. That’s what the Fisher-Function was all about, after all. As Robin said in Mark’s memorial:

Many of us naturally feel a need to ensure this is a moment when the force [Mark] brought into our world is redoubled rather than depleted. And to do so, to continue his work and our own, we have to try to understand his life, and the consequences of his death, at once horrifying and awakening, as a part of the Fisher-Function. And I don’t simply mean the intellectual contributions that we can appreciate, extend, take forward into the future; I also mean what we need to learn in terms of looking after ourselves and each other, right now.

The Fisher-Function is, in this sense, that thing, that function, which exceeds Mark — it is his excess — and it is precisely this excess that Bataille wrote back so consistently. The excess of “incandescent joy” that makes beings insufficient. The insufficiency I write about in Egress ,in this regard, is not just a sign of what we lack — a collective subjectivity — but also an acknowledgement that we cannot sufficiently contain all that we are — nor can the fascist state, which was Bataille’s extended argument in the Summa Atheologica, and nor can capitalism, which was Mark’s argument in his essay “Baroque Sunbursts” most explicitly (an image, borrowed from Jameson — first used by Mark on k-punk here — that is explicitly Bataillean in its grotesquely ocular explosiveness, in which he speaks of “a diseased eyeball in which disturbing flashes of light are perceived or like those baroque sunbursts in which rays from another world suddenly break into this one”).

It is this same excess that Dan channels in his article also. He concludes:

It’s precisely the excess, the “Red Plenty” of a boundless flow of “the collective capacity to produce, care and enjoy”, that could pour through the everyday life of a reclaimed modernity, that Fisher identifies in the confluence of acid communism. Labour’s recent difficulty in galvanising support for an electoral program of state-sponsored joy, riding on new enthusiasm infused into an old organising model, suggests the distance of 21st century socialists from the necessary radical implications of their own project, which Mark Fisher struggled more than anyone else to clarify.

Egress‘s central and most foundational flaw was that it too could not contain the excess that it sought to describe. It had to emerge wounded. As much as some might deny it, I would argue that Bataille and Blanchot remain key to any effective understanding of this excess and how it wounds us and what we are to do with that wounding. Few struggled to clarify this more than they did — except, perhaps, Mark.

“Mark Fisher Beyond the Cliché”: Dan Barrow on ‘Egress’ for Tribune Magazine

An excellent write-up on Mark Fisher and my book Egress in the latest issue of Tribune magazine: “Mark Fisher Beyond the Cliché”, penned by Dan Barrow.

It’s great to see a swift appraisal of Mark’s writings that contends with his bizarre posthumous reputation. Barrow writes:

On the margins of academia and “Very Old Media”, [Fisher’s] work was informed by a training in ultra-libertarian cybertheory, as a co-founder of the Cybernetic Culture Research Unit, and a tradition of music journalism that the British press itself had marginalised. When the diagnostic nous of his first book, Capitalist Realism, made it a surprise hit, it also became “the unofficial manifesto for the leftist resurgence of 2011”, in Alex Niven’s words, a wave of energetic, broadly humanist socialist agitation, newly engaged with institutional politics. The last substantial work Fisher himself published before his death in January 2017 was a think tank paper, co-authored with soft left political theorist Jeremy Gilbert. We might ask: what happened?


The question is partly prompted by the odd silence around the 10th anniversary last year of Capitalist Realism, and the publication this March of the first monograph on Fisher’s work, Egress – On Mourning, Melancholia and Mark Fisher, by Matt Colquhoun, a former student of his at Goldsmiths. While Capitalist Realism the book still does stellar business, “capitalist realism” the concept is in abeyance. One social catastrophe after another, we’re told, proves that “capitalist realism is finished”. But the very inheritors and popularisers of the concept they claim to have overcome still act as if “it is easier to imagine the end of the world than it is to imagine the end of capitalism”, their horizons of social change constrained to a very narrow conception of the collective and the political. The resources that Fisher’s work offer to an emergent 21st century socialism have to be extracted from the sanitisation of a complex, rebarbative, tactical and often difficult writer and its conversion into an intellectual commodity. Few contemporary thinkers have needed more defence from their greatest admirers.

I share these frustrations, having written on “the capitalist realism of ‘capitalist realism is ending'” just last month. In light of all this, it is nice to see Egress described as “a much-needed corrective.”

Barrow still has his criticisms, however; some that are now quite familiar:

However, in Colquhoun’s hands Fisher becomes a philosopher of abstract community. The “emergent figure of a collective subject… a strange and external agency from without which seems borne of love and an interpersonal familiarity found within” he draws from his writings, read through the work of Maurice Blanchot and Georges Bataille, remains purely prefigurative of a future communism.

To reach for these two figures in particular whilst ignoring major influences like Stuart Hall is a mark of the book’s perversity: Fisher disdained Bataille, whom he associated with “the solitary urinal of male subjectivity”, and gave Abi Titmuss more column inches than Blanchot.

These are the figures present because they resonate most with Fisher’s overall trajectory, in my view, whether he liked them or not — which is to say that, in the context of the history of ideas, they are relevant to Fisher’s thought regardless. Beyond the clichés of their own work — clichés Mark was also guilty of repeating — Bataille and Blanchot shared projects very similar to Fisher’s — albeit as part of a more explicitly French tradition, which Mark (and many of my own readers) may not like stylistically. Beneath that, however, they have more in common than not. But I’ve been through all this already, as I’ve addressed this critique on the blog in a couple of places over the last week — here, here and (less directly) here.

Nevertheless, I’m grateful Barrow still grasps the core of the book beyond this. He adds: “But Colquhoun quite rightly identifies at the heart of Fisher’s political theories an ‘egress’ from the reality of ‘mandatory individualism’ that capitalist realism sets as the parameters of subjectivity.”

This same argument is championed in a conclusion that I found to be a rousing distillation of how I too think Fisher’s thought deserves to be viewed at the level of pop-left politics in our present moment:

In Egress’s best chapter, Colquhoun points out that the [“Acid Communism”] essay’s apparently exotic aspects can in fact be traced far back in Fisher’s thought. In many early writings he associates “psychedelic reason” with the imperative of philosopher Baruch Spinoza to dissolve the “Human OS” of individual subjectivity. Following Spinoza and his later interpreters Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari, he sees the task of thought as the production of “joyous affect”, opposed to the depressive individualism he would later associate with capitalist realism. This “cold rationalist” pursuit of states of depersonalisation fed into his many artistic fascinations adjacent to the psychedelic, such as rave, the writings of William Burroughs and JG Ballard, the bleak, foggy sonics of The Caretaker, and jungle, described by his Goldsmiths colleague Kodwo Eshun as a “rhythmic psychedelia”.

This cyberpunk interpretation of philosophy of mind drew not only, as Colquhoun notes, on the theoretical resources of the CCRU, but updated Marxist theories of ideology in dialogue with poststructuralist theories of the subject. Capitalist realism preforms subjects and canalises their desires – or “reterritorialises” them, in Deleuze and Guattari’s terminology – into the self-reinforcing structures of “interpassive” leisure (the iPhone and the anxiety-inducing infinity of social media scrolling became Fisher’s prime examples). Michel Foucault, intriguingly, occupies a pivotal place in the “acid communism” essay, alongside libertarian Marxist Herbert Marcuse. Fisher focuses on “limit-experiences” in Foucault’s work, moments in which perspective shifts and “[t]he conditions which made experience possible could now be encountered, transformed and escaped”. Foucault associated these limit-experiences with hallucinogens, but they also informed his critical theories of regimes of individuality and knowledge as historically contingent arrangements of power. For Fisher radical politics becomes the functioning of just such a perspective-shift, infused with a “laughter from the outside”. 

This is a quite different vision from the reception of acid communism among much of the Corbynite left, which has portrayed it as the revival of, in Jeremy Gilbert’s words, “a psychedelic socialist structure of feeling” and sought to infuse political culture with an orientation towards “collective joy”. On the contrary, as Colquhoun rightly insists, the experience of contact with the Outside can be traumatic in its very liberation. It lies, in Freud’s phrase, “beyond the pleasure principle”. For Fisher these currents converged in the notion of “consciousness-raising”. A key political practice of second-wave feminism, the term took on other resonances from psychedelia and anti-psychiatry. In Fisher’s reading, it forms a conduit between subjectivity and organisational form, between the cell-forms of political groupings and the universality of a community of desire. Acid communism thus makes concrete the wager of capitalist realism for the 21st century left: not only that the stakes of altering subjectivity are political, but that any politics that truly contests neoliberal “reality programming” will involve collectively restructuring subjectivity. 

This notion of politics as a psychedelic contact with the Outside represents an intensification and capture of what Fisher, via Land and Deleuze/Guattari, saw as modernity’s potential for “destratification”. In a remarkable late text on ‘Post-Capitalist Desire’, Fisher asks whether the challenge of Land’s vision of capital as an overwhelming libidinal system can’t be seen as the basis for a socialist “counterlibido, not simply an anti-libidinal dampening”. The nervous boredom, deflated misery, anhedonic consumption and archaic hierarchies that regulate capitalist realism aren’t necessary: “can’t we conceive of consumer capitalism’s culture of ready meals, fast food outlets, anonymous hotels and disintegrating family life as dim pre-echo of precisely the social field imagined by early Soviet planners.” It’s precisely the excess, the “Red Plenty” of a boundless flow of “the collective capacity to produce, care and enjoy”, that could pour through the everyday life of a reclaimed modernity, that Fisher identifies in the confluence of acid communism. Labour’s recent difficulty in galvanising support for an electoral program of state-sponsored joy, riding on new enthusiasm infused into an old organising model, suggests the distance of 21st century socialists from the necessary radical implications of their own project, which Mark Fisher struggled more than anyone else to clarify.

Update #1: A few further comments from Dan Barrow on Twitter that I think are worth adding here:

I knew Mark for a number of years & owe him & his work an incalculable debt, & feel much of his reception — particularly since his death — presents serious problems, that are really the problems of the left in general [1]

we’re really only at the very beginning of interpreting him & if there’s resources to be found in an integrated understanding of his work I hope this piece helps nudge people in the right direction [2]

whatever criticisms I might have of Colquhoun’s book I think it’s a very constructive first step & will hopefully make the right people mad online [3]

I should be clear that, as much as I am willing to defend my references and my own personal viewpoint, this was precisely the drive behind publishing Egress in the first place.

I’d been sat on the manuscript for almost eighteen months, not knowing what to do with it, before submitting it to Repeater Books, and it was the posthumous Mark I had seen emerge during that time in limbo that made me feel like I had to be put it out now or never.

There’s plenty of soul-searching and melancholia in the book — unavoidably, given the context in which it was written — but I am very grateful to Barrow for drawing out the sharp end of it here. It is a sharp end that is all the easier to articulate in hindsight but, as Barrow says, the problems it cuts through — messily in my own book — are precisely the problems of the left.

It is not lost on me that those problems may also appear in the book itself. That was sort of the point. Egress is a document of a process of emerging out of them.

Almost a year on from when the manuscript was originally finished, I’m already painfully aware that I’d approach certain topics differently and I still have much left to say on Mark’s work, but it’s a snapshot of a moment and, if anything, I’ll be happy if it ages badly.

Update #2: An extended and further reflection on this article has been written and posted here.

“I Can’t Breathe”

There’s a sick sort of doubling occurring at the moment, exacerbating our global distress and malaise.

“I can’t breathe” once again becomes a way for protestors to identify with the deceased, but it now cuts through two forms of diminished life, whether that be citizens suffocated by police or by disease.

Our present (all too personal) problems, that have defined the last few weeks of lockdown — selfish, noisy neighbours, and the constant banging from a nearby building site; freelance precarity and mental health instability — feel so parochial right now. However, rather than the riots making Covid life feel less pressing, life becomes even more claustrophobic as we incessantly watch the constant streams and video clips shared by citizen journalists on the other side of the world. Our little flat, where we’ve been huddled for months now, feels even more detached from a society falling apart all around us. It is a distance that is almost comforting, but the comfort also nauseates.

Twitter doesn’t help. As both a place of online protest and the dissemination of political information, and as the one place that has retained some sense of normality since social distancing came into effect, there is a strange guilt that comes from using the platform to watch the world unravel and also to keep tweeting as usual.

On Friday night, a friend sends me a digital flyer sharing information about protests scheduled to take place in London over the weekend and I can’t think of anywhere I’d rather not be. That feeling is vindicated the following day when I see video footage of crowds in Trafalgar Square — a landmark I used to walk over on my way to work; a walk I did every other day for two years — and I feel sick just looking at that aerial throng navigating streets that used to be so familiar — before all this.

I haven’t been to central London since February.

The thought of being in a crowd for any reason at all at the moment is anxiety-inducing, but at what point does Covid-19 paranoia lead to state complicity? My timeline is split between friends still suffering from post-Covid complications and those on the front line in cities experiencing unrest.

I’m anticipating my monthly Patreon payment to come through next week. A modest amount and not my main source of income. Right now I’m thinking which organisations I can send it to. It feels like the right sort of gesture to make with this platform but, social media optics aside, it doesn’t feel like much.

What, if anything, can pierce through the strangely resonant disparities of police brutality and state incompetence?

The covered faces of rioters, whether by medical masks or skull bandanas, melt into a mire of anonymity, as the reality of the pandemic remains both ever-present and fades into the background. Talk of “outside agitators” speaks to both conspiratorial sociology and paranoid virology. The horror expressed at communal “self-harm”, encapsulated by damaged businesses, overrides any discussion the communal “self-harm” that comes from flouting social distancing advice. The state demonstrates an indifference regarding the escalation of either contagion — whether it is violence or disease that spreads, the state just adds fuel to every fire. Arguments from reactionary citizens that deplore the damage being done to local economies fail to land when those economies are already so anaemic.

What kind of world are we staying indoors to preserve? What kind of world are we burning down?

The burning of buildings feels like an ever more important symbolic act against this backdrop, and especially after so many months spent sheltering in place. Now more than ever we are like hermit crabs moving house, swapping the discarded and barnacled Coca-Cola can for something new. On an individual level, we spend every day daydreaming of a life outside the city, outside this overpriced shoebox flat, in some cheap two-up-two-down in a down-and-out seaside town that is, for better and for worse, detached from the drama. It has become more and more apparent that there was no shitter place to be than a city when a pandemic hits. On a collective level, we spend every day struggling to birth a new system, attacking one pillar of society that only makes the others hide behind militaries and demagogic threats. It has become more and more apparent that there was no shitter place to be than a city when the state hits.

It’s true that nothing has ever died by its contradictions but a consciousness of those contradictions has never been more readily within our grasp. Seeing the contradictions for what they are — the bookends of our frenzied stasis; the fault lines of capitalist realism — is the first step towards building new and desperately needed futures.

More Theology of the Seething Cosmic Void: Notes on Scaling from Spinoza to Negarestani

As part of the XG Discord reading group, we’ve been reading (and reading around) Reza Negarestani’s Cyclonopedia.

In week one, we talked about how the text is written, its since-removed online origins, and its chaotic references, contradictions, and plot holes, all of which allows the text itself to germinate and pollinate like Nerium Oleander — that strange and toxic plant seemingly without origin, spotted by Kristen Alvanson in the back of a taxi on her way to meet S.

Cyclonopedia is, in this sense, a “bad book” that demands not only to be read but also researched. In trying to figure out what it’s trying to do, it entraps you, and sees how much cognitive noise you have the capacity to filter.

In week two, we connected this to the chapter “A Good Meal”, talking about Reza’s sense of affordance: the way the book suspends an excessive faith in anthropocentric agency that has the capacity to “reach” the outside and instead emphasises, in quite an explicitly Lovecraftian manner, how the outside opens us — it all depends on how much of it you can afford.

We extrapolated outwards from this, and the inter-scalar manoeuvres Reza makes from subjective to cosmic perspectives, to Bataille’s theory of general economy and, similarly, to Nick Land’s essay “Sore Losers”, which might be the most cyclonopedic text published in the 2010s, echoing the various discussions between Nick and Reza on Islamic exotericism that went into Reza’s first book.

For week three — in a discussion held on Friday afternoon over Discord (that was sadly not recorded for Patreon, hence this spirited post trying to gloss all that we discussed) — we decided to jump from Cyclonopedia to Spinoza’s Ethics, exploring to what extent this cosmic perspective — which allows Reza (and us) to view a general economy of the 21st century, entwining capitalism and Islamism in an apocalyptic death spiral — is made possible by the sort of cold rationalism put forth by Baruch Spinoza.

Part of this desire comes from my attempts (undertaken without much success) to articulate what connects Cyclonopedia to Intelligence & Spirit. Something does, I think but something slippery — and it is something similar to that thread that connects Fisher, no matter how inadvertently, to Bataille — as also discussed by Ed Berger recently: the sense through which the noumenal nature of our desires requires that any rationalism come packaged with a certain occultism. This kernel, when fully explored, may constitute, as Ed magnificently put it, “a Lacanian-Spinozist theology … of the seething cosmic void.”

What follows is a brief and idiosyncratic attempt to sketch out this trajectory before it falls out of my head. Please excuse the speed with which I am about to traverse it…

In Spinoza’s pondering of the nature of God, as well as in his challenge to Descartes, he argues that the central fallacy that undermines human reasoning, particularly when it is applied to God, is that we too often try to think of God in the same sense that we think of ourselves. The truth is that we, in fact, cannot.

This is, in part, because it is a logical fallacy to imbue what Spinoza calls “God-or-nature” — the two are inseparable in his philosophy — with any sort of anthropomorphised principle or purpose. Nature does not adhere to rules and rationalisations like we do. It is fundamentally indifferent.

And yet, once we understand this, the ways in which we have historically thought of God nonetheless reveal something about ourselves. That is to say, in thinking rationally about God-or-nature, by detaching ourselves (to the best of our ability) from our socialised sentimentalities, we are able to separate what is “true” of God-or-nature, and what is “true” only of ourselves. As Spinoza writes:

The reason therefore or cause why God or nature acts and why he exists is one and the same. It follows that since he does not exist for the sake of a purpose, he does not act for the sake of a purpose either; but as he has no principle or purpose in existing, so he has no principle or purpose in acting. And the so-called final cause is nothing but a human appetite itself, considered as a principle or primary cause of a thing. For example, when we say that habitation was the final cause of this or that house, we are surely saying simply that human beings had an appetite to build a house because they imagined the advantages of a home. Therefore habitation, insofar as it is considered a final cause, is nothing but this particular appetite, which is in truth an efficient cause that is considered as a first cause because people are commonly ignorant of the causes of their own appetites. For, as I have said, they are certainly conscious of their actions and their appetites, but are ignorant of the causes which determine them to want something.

Here we find clear evidence for Fisher’s claim that Spinoza inaugurated psychoanalysis three hundred years ahead of schedule. Because, in assigning to God-or-nature a certain all-knowing “perfection”, all we are doing is projecting an unknown quality or lack, which is ours and ours alone, onto a noumenal God we cannot know.

This will be obvious to anyone who has ever asked a religious person a seemingly unanswerable question. Take, for instance, that old classic: “Why does God allow people to suffer?” With no answer available, the religious defer to God’s all-knowing benevolence. He definitely has a reason — we just don’t know it yet — it’s all just a part of Gods plan and you gotta have faith, blah blah blah. But isn’t it more likely that God-or-nature is just indifferent? And this does not mean delectably cruel, as Hannibal Lecter might have it; it simply means that God, insofar as God is nature, is naturally indifferent and exists outside our realm of rationalisations.

Whilst Spinoza writes “God or nature”, it is arguably best to just assume Spinoza is talking about nature as the world-in-itself here. Spinoza’s confluence seems to ask his reader: “We would not ask such questions of intent of nature so why should we of God?” For instance, we do not ask why God allows tigers to kill cuter, smaller animals, because the fallacy of a tiger’s indifference to the aesthetic qualities of an animal or the moral qualities of not killing do not compute in that context. This does not mean the tiger is evil. It is simply outside our realm of understanding. (I’m reminded here, perhaps tellingly, of Bataille’s famous remark that a “sexual act is what the tiger is in space.”)

It is important to clarify this because Spinoza’s indifference is not an argument for a kind of universal relativism but rather a “neutral monism”. It is not a suspension of moral judgement but rather a suspension of the judgement of God (as Deleuze, via Artaud, famously put it). The fundamental exercise of rationality is, then, for Spinoza, simply being able to distinguish between the two. As Spinoza writes:

As concerns good and bad: they too indicate nothing positive in things, considered, that is, in themselves. They are simply ways of thinking or notions which we form by comparing things with each other. For one and the same thing can be at the same time both good and bad, and even indifferent. For example, music is good for a melancholy person, but bad for a person in mourning, and to a deaf person it is neither good nor bad. But even though this is the case, we have to retain these words. Because we desire to form an idea of a human being as an exemplar of human nature to which we may look, it will be useful for us to retain these same words in the sense I mentioned. In what follows therefore I will mean by good anything that we certainly know to be a means for us to approach ever closer to the exemplar of human nature that we set for ourselves; and by bad that which we certainly know hinders us from relating to that same exemplar.

What is key here, I think, is that, in writing his Ethics, Spinoza’s main argument is that we must strive for a mastery of the passions — that is, of our emotions and desires; of our emotional responses and actions that are rooted in our desires. To do this, we must know our passions and their objects, and we must recognise that this desire for mastery is a human endeavour alone. To insert the indifference of God-or-nature into this is to distinguish between what is a (or is informed by) human judgement and what emerges the Real — and the possibilities that result from this process of differentiation are, for many, radical and infinite.

This is to say that, whilst Spinoza’s rationalism, on the surface, seems quite explicit and obvious in its claims, it nevertheless leads philosophy to some of its strangest places. To extrapolate this distinction outwards is to distinguish body from organs (Deleuze), moralism from monotheism (Nietzsche), capitalism from realism (Fisher), science from ideology (too many people to count), and all of the above and then some (Negarestani). It is to affirm the ways in which we (as well as God-or-nature) exist and persist irrespective of our categorisations of our (or its) being.

For Spinoza, this insight seems to emerge from his understanding that God-or-nature does not have the same idealised sense of itself as we do, nor does it attempt to shape and filter its own desires based on, for instance, laws or morals. Instead, “to love God” (in Spinoza’s terms, at least) is to become attuned to the distinctive ways in which our passions are products of nature or human judgement. This is not to say that we should therefore suspend our senses of good and bad — or else we suspend ethics — but we must nonetheless reflect on these judgements in light of our understanding of and knowledge of an indifferent God-or-nature that does not share them — that is, we must be able to separate what is “true” from that which just seems ideologically apparent.

It is in this way that we might ultimately find true human freedom — Spinoza’s ultimate goal — which is both a freedom from the passions and, in a way, freedom from ourselves; from our own categorisations of ourselves that limit and dilute the human Real.

Whilst this kind of rationalism is often grounded in the discourses of science, there is a sense — at least at the level of popular science — that science increasingly choses to erase this Spinozistic distinction. I was watching the film Contact recently, for example, famously based on a novel by Carl Sagan.

Here is a movie in which science finds itself hopelessly entangled with ideology — both from within and without. I couldn’t help but wince, for instance, when a Christian extremist suicide-bombs the alien portal generator that humanity has built because he believes that scientists don’t deserve to talk to God, and in sweeps capitalism to save the day — one of the benefits of money and statecraft, the movie argues, is that you can build secret backups for when the zealots shut you down. This is to say that, in myriad ways (many of them hilariously unsubtle), this movie is often incapable of separating the “rationality” of science from the “rationality” of capitalist realism, often despite itself.

Lest we forget that Fisher references Spinoza repeatedly in Capitalist Realism, making precisely this point when he writes:

Spinoza has immense resources for analysing the affective regime of late capitalism, the videodrome-control apparatus described by Burroughs, Philip K. Dick and David Cronenberg in which agency is dissolved in a phantasmagoric haze of psychic and physical intoxicants. Like Burroughs, Spinoza shows that, far from being an aberrant condition, addiction is the standard state for human beings, who are habitually enslaved into reactive and repetitive behaviours by frozen images (of themselves and the world). Freedom, Spinoza shows, is something that can be achieved only when we can apprehend the real causes of our actions, when we can set aside the ‘sad passions’ that intoxicate and entrance us.

(Slavoj Žižek’s The Ticklish Subject is a book I’ve been dipping in and out of recently that goes into this in way more depth, exploring, for example, the Cartesian subject as the spectre that continues to haunt Western academia and the entanglement of science and ideology in late capitalism — suffice it to say that these are all issues within philosophy that go far beyond Spinoza but we’ll be sticking with him for brevity.)

For many of those involved with and adjacent to the Ccru, the perspective from which this freedom is achieved must involve certain inter-scalar manoeuvres that we most often find deployed by weird fiction and some speculative philosophies. What the Ccru do so surreally and effectively, then, is dramatise the stakes of a thought stretched between two perspectives — the all-too-human and the unthinkably cosmic — affirming the gulf between them and the ways that our often flawed knowledge of one can nevertheless tell us a great deal about the other.

What often results from this, in practice, is a strange entangling between science and the occult. But that’s not really rational and Spinozist, is it? After all, Spinoza’s central critique of Descartes is that the latter rests far too much on the unknowable qualities of the “pineal gland” — a gland that is, for Descartes, little more than an anatomic screen onto which he projects his unknowns.

For Descartes, the pineal gland is a kind of God-gland, and Spinoza doesn’t buy it. “Surely I cannot properly express my bewilderment”, he writes, “that a philosopher who had stated firmly that he deduced nothing except from self-evident principles, and affirmed nothing except what he perceived clearly and distinctly, and who had so often rebuked the scholastics because they attempted to explain obscure matters by means of occult qualities, should take up a hypothesis that is more occult than any occult quality.”

There is a kernel of something here, however, which Spinoza wishes to grasp and hold aloft triumphantly. Descartes at least had the right idea when grounding his observations of a certain “animal spirit” in an actual part of our anatomy. This is to say that, rather than the pineal gland being some organ of indeterminate intention, as Descartes has it, it is simply a part of the brain that retains some sort of indifferent function from God-or-nature.

In light of this, Spinozism is a philosophy that seems to resemble Bataille’s Gnosticism, which, “in its psychological process, is not so different from present-day materialism, I mean a materialism not implying an ontology, not implying that matter is the thing-in-itself.” Bataille continues:

For it is a question above all of not submitting oneself, and with oneself one’s reason, to whatever is more elevated, to whatever can give a borrowed authority to the being that I am, and to the reason that arms this being. This being and its reason can in fact only submit to what is lower, to what can never serve in any case to ape a given authority.

Here, Bataille does not affirm our impulses as the will of God but affirms their emergence of Cyclonopedia‘s oily materialism, its “blobjectivity”, reemerges for us. In submitting himself to what is below, Reza submits himself to oil, the thick life blood of the Middle East, and this submission is powered quite explicitly by Reza’s initial infection with the thought of Nick Land.

Land, in his book on Bataille, The Thirst for Annihilation, makes infrequent references to Spinoza but he nonetheless appears like a key antecedent, at least in his establishment of a certain Counter-Enlightenment tendency that is later picked up by far more explicitly transgressive thinker. Similarly, Land himself argues that, “beneath the shadow of the cross”, Spinoza’s “neutral monism” foreshadows the limits of Kantianism first dramatised by the Marquis de Sade, going so far as to write that “Spinoza and Sade occasionally reach a comparable pitch of anegoic coldness” (although never getting quite as cold as Nietzsche).

What is most important in Bataille, it seems — a manoeuvre he takes up from Nietzsche and his “view from the summit” (previously discussed) — and, arguably, also from Freud — is that he inaugurates a practice of scaling that becomes key to Deleuze and Guattari and also to the Ccru. This scaling is the scaling — the “inter-scalar manoeuvres” — previously discussed, where the Unconscious and geological strata find themselves entwined, where subject and planet come into a counter-intuitive relation. It is arguably Spinoza’s rationalism that makes this possible but it is Bataille who takes it to extremes. As Land writes:

Scaling is the positive superfluidity of God inherent to matter, but its gradations of relative transcedence must be commensurated with an impersonal nature exhausting the real: genealogically rather than metaphysically explored. The labyrinth is the unconscious of God, or the repressed of monotheism. The illusion of ego in general requires that it remain unthought. What God really was is something incompatible with antyhing ‘being’ at all. Real composition is not extrinsically created nature, but if this is a Spinozism, it is one in which substance itself is sacrificed to the scales.

This process of scaling remains central to a lot of post-Ccru thought and I think the best book to affirm this practice in recent years — this link between scales but also between occultism and scientific knowledge, via philosophy and psychoanalysis — is undoubtedly Thomas Moynihan’s Spinal Catastrophism. His frequent references to Sandor Ferenczi, in particular, are fascinating. After all, it was Ferenczi most explicitly — that is, more explicitly even than Freud — who connected the chaos of the passions to the earth’s own thalassic nature.

A particular passage that comes to mind is Moynihan’s discussion of Ferenczi’s 1916 essay “On the Ontogenesis of the Interest in Money”, in which he argues that our

drive-to-accumulate [comes] from the sublimation, corollary with uptight posture, of the infant’s desire to play with its own faeces (a desire which Freud, of course, saw as itself a recapitulation of quadruped forms of life and libidinal olfactions). In spinal erection, we repress our anal desire for our own ‘faecal property’, which duly becomes deflected into the drive to accumulate money’s ‘filthy lucre’…

Moynihan is a master of scalable rationalism, dragging scientific understanding to the heights and depths and farthest reaches of the thinkable. What emerges here is a kind of Ferenczian scaling that echoes Cyclonopedia magnificently, retaining the linguistic limit-experience whilst losing the ferocious libido. More specifically, it is a scaling that connects the occultism of an alchemical understanding to the biological reality of intestinal expenditure and psychological repression — a form of psychoanalytic investigation, informed by geophilosophy, that brings to mind that fabled mythological process of alchemy that connects us, through the transformation of matter, to God.

I’m thinking here, specifically, of that scene in Jodorowsky’s The Holy Mountain, in which the thief, on his journey to reach God on the titular summit, meets an alchemist who turns his shit into gold — a process that resembles a kind of alchemical-scientific feedback loop, where the thief is sat within a man-made system of glass organs that digest him and his faeces, the fumes triggering an abjectly psychedelic experience, symbolically connecting his biological systems to a system outside of himself: a kind of fractal alchemy of expenditure and accumulation.

Moynihan connects this allusion to turning shit into gold to Bataille explicitly. He continues:

In this way even capital itself is derived from Ferenczi’s ‘biogenetic ground principle’ of ‘phylogenetic’ repetitiousness. To reach this conclusion, the Hungarian rallied the argument that ‘capitalism’ is ‘not purely practical and utilitarian, but libidinous and irrational.’

That an entire economic system is neither ‘utile’ nor ‘practical’ is, perhaps, a strange notion at first sight. Yet Ferenczi was writing in the midst of the first of the two world wars. Decades later, just after the Second World War, it was Georges Bataille … who noticed that these global conflicts represented ‘the greatest orgies of wealth — and of human beings — that history has recorded’, and that, whilst they may well ‘coincide with an appreciable rise in the general standard of living’, such an upswell in our quality of life represents — like the wars — just another way of expending surplus energy. Bataille was masterful in his sustained revelation of the fact that the capitalist global system is, in Ferenczi’s terms, ‘utterly libidinous and irrational’. For, when any system has an inevitable point of total exhaustion (and our globe is, in the longest term, just such a system), every single process that will ever have taken place within said system becomes utterly indistinct from a route towards that terminal point: thus, what may locally be called ‘means’ or ‘utilities’ are all alike revealed so many avenues through which the wanton and squandrous ‘end’ announces and hastens its arrival.

This, too, brings us back to Negarestani. In Cyclonopedia, Reza famously presents oil as a sort of plane of consistency, or the form(lessness) of “blobjectivity”, where these various affects and processes similarly become “utterly indistinct”.

For Reza, oil is a kind of solar excrement that we hoard, even go to war over, all because it allows us to expend more energy. In burning fossil fuels — that is, in burning the latent energy retained in spent forms of life — that are seized from the war-torn Middle East, we similarly hasten the arrival of an Islamic apocalypticism.

To understand this, and to understand all the entangled processes that constitute the oily Islamism of the desert, is precisely Negarestani’s attempt to unearth an occultism that is necessary for us to engage with if we are to truly understand the Real. Islam is not simply capitalism’s Outside, in this sense, but rather its opposite. Considered from a cosmic perspective, capitalism and Islamism start to resemble the ying to the other’s yang, and yet all of this becomes indistinct when ground down into desert sand.

The way that Reza describes the desert is worth paying close attention to here, particularly when seen as part of the hypercodex previously discussed. In Cyclonopedia‘s glossary, he writes:

The Xerodrome (or the dry-singularity of the Earth) as both the all-erasing monopoly of the monotheistic God and the Tellurian Omega or the plane of base-participation with the cosmic pandemonium (Dust, Sun and the Tellurian Insider). Desert signifies a militant horizontality or a treacherous plane of consistency — in a Deleuze-Guattarian sense — between monotheistic apocalypticism and Tellurian Insurgency against the Sun (god). As a dry-singularity, desert is usually linked to unheard-of wet elements and thus brings about the possibility of revolutionary but anomalous (and perhaps weird) cosmogenesis or world-building processes.

Once again, the density of Reza’s prose reflects the very processes he is describing. The plane of consistency becomes a plane of indifference where god and oil and dust and sun become indistinguishable. To try to rationally — that is, for Parsani, archaeologically — understand it, we must approach the desert from a cosmically wide perspective and accept that, in digging beneath the indifferent sand where all processes become immanent, we are also digging beneath our own skin. [1]

Furthermore, with this in mind, we shouldn’t understand this text as being obscurantist in a wholly negative sense. It instead constitutes a sort of xenopoetics, invoking a Lacanian Real that escapes all language. What is being discussed is that which slips between the spaces like sand in an hourglass. The “true” nature of what we are left with is hard to parse but it is in this sense that Cyclonopedia establishes itself as a kind of excremental product of Negarestani’s philosophical process.

Here we find our understanding of Cyclonopedia as a “bad” book taken to new depths. It is not just “bad” but “shit” — a shit book where rational understandings of the desert, oil, geopolitics, Islamism, Zoroastrianism, geology, geophilosophy, psychoanalysis, and untold other specialisms, find themselves excreted as a noxiously consistent language-turd. In beginning our task of figuring out what Reza cognitively “ate” is to become complicit in the very processes of economical and intellectual accumulation that connect philosophy to capitalism and capitalism to our repressed animalistic desires to play with our own poop.

It is arguably this process of disentanglement that Reza later seeks to externalise. To follow Moynihan, it is as if, in now rejecting his first foray into libidinal philosophy, Reza now recognises the “immaturity” of his thought and desires, in his neorationalist mode, to stand upright.

There is a chapter in Intelligence & Spirit that I think speaks to this explicitly. In “This I, or We or It, the Thing, Which Speaks (Objectivity and Thought)”, Reza uses an extended analogy of a child (or “CHILD (Concept Having Intelligence of Low Degree)” to describe a form of cognition that is underdeveloped –much like this post, perhaps. I can’t help but wondered if this process of cognitive distancing that Intelligence & Spirit inaugurates — where an AGI becomes an independent subject to be reared, and that is itself not yet upright — is precisely a form of (psycho-)Analytic philosophy that attempts to determine the constitution of our own SHIT (Subjective Holism Infected by the Tellurian) without getting its hands dirty.

[1] Side note: in our conversation on Friday, Bob spoke about Reza’s passages on the film Begotten, in which God disembowels itself, and we connected this autobiopsy to the horror of a Spinozist geophilosophy — something I’ve written about previously — that does not take the surgeon’s distancing of seeing only the organs of another but instead looking upon the reality of the body of the self and cuts anyway. This is a good analogy, perhaps, for what Reza calls Parsani’s “leper creativity” — the freedom from human bondage that results from a literal shedding of flesh: a catastrophic becoming-desert, or becoming-dust.

Front Window #10: Storm Chasing in Surrey

Following the previous week‘s very successful walk through the woods in Surrey, we headed out that way again for another secluded couple of hours in nature.

The day had been shifting back and forth between bright heat and dark showers. It was another strangely psychedelic day in the deserted countryside, walking along the very edge of an enormous storm, navigating an edge of rain like existing in some weather-exclusion zone in an unending sound studio, whilst not pushing our luck by spending too much time under trees during the lightning.

The bluebells were still beautiful and I made some duck friends on the way. Then the sun came out again and it was uncomfortably hot so we went home.

Fragment on Riotous Subjects and Riotous Objects

As Minneapolis burns, I spent a bit of time thinking about this tweet from Nick Land today:

Suspending the actual rhetorical purpose of this classic @Outsideness shitpost, on the face of it, ‘protestors or rioters’ seemed like a flawed formula to me. Because what even is protesting anymore? A “protest” — at least of the large-scale variety — and especially in the UK — hasn’t brought about social change from below on any occasion this side of the millennium.

I began to think about a third category. Might it be better to ask ourselves: what differentiates a demonstration from a protest and a protest from a riot?

The last “protest” I went on, for instance — an anti-Brexit protest — was distinctly little more than a demonstration. I found myself acutely embarrassed to be there. It was clear that the anti-Brexit “protests” weren’t actually protesting much of anything. They were simply demonstrating that an opposition existed by publicly performing democratic disappointment.

A protest, by contrast, enacts and embodies its opposition and makes it known through blockages to infrastructure. Extinction Rebellion protest effectively by shutting down large portions of London (or other major cities). In getting their message across that “time is running out”, they attack time itself. They delay and postpone and slow down. They temporally disrupt the comings and goings of (the) capital. And yet, whilst protests disrupt, at the level of the state, what do they change?

Riots are protests that attack space. They don’t just block space to slow time but attack it outright. They disturb capital. They treat property how the state treats bodies. They are retaliations.

The sense with which conservative commentators disapprove of rioters for having a lack of decorum only shows how distanced they are from actual material existence, but there is more to it than left and right. From this perspective, Land’s “protester / rioter” binary echoes a sort of “subject / object” binary.

The right, whenever there is a riot going on, cannot help but demonstrate the grotesque reality of what happens when business ontology — “the ideology that any social or cultural structure must exist as a business” — collides with an object-oriented ontology — the philosophical insistence that anything must exist as an object (giving particular resonance to Pete Wolfendale’s speculative dystopia: “It is this that reveals the age of objects for a new dark age.”)

Black bodies and businesses face off to insist on which mode of destruction is a more horrifying spectacle, and the answer that comes back from capitalist realism only fuels more hatred from below. An orientation towards objects over subjects, every time the levy breaks, only enables the state to claim criminal damage when it goes against them and collateral when it does not.

Les débordements adolescents du True Norwegian Black Metal: XG in Audimat

My old series of posts on True Norwegian Black Metal, “Cascading Adolescence”, recently got a little polish before being stitched together and translated into French. The final product has been published in issue #13 of Audimat, available here, alongside essays by Simon Reynolds, Dave Tompkins, Dan Dipiero, Fanny Quément, Catherine Guesde, and George Prochnik.

The intro for the essay on their website is very nice and made me blush. It captures the thrust of the essay beautifully — an essay about True Norwegian Black Metal that considers “the relationships that this scene maintains with adolescence, of which Colquhoun reveals the metaphysical significance: if we are to continue to cherish the experience of adolescence, and that although it always save it from itself, it is because immaturity is political and it is now a problem of cosmic scale.” (Also, the idea that my neurotic and excessive blogging makes me something of a Stakhanovite gave me a great laugh.) Read the intro in French and in full below:

Matt Colquhoun est un blogger britannique stakhanoviste, l’un des derniers à entretenir la flamme d’une scène d’auteurs qui nous fut chère. Il publie en ligne sous le nom de Xenogothic, en référence explicite à son modèle, feu Mark Fisher, qui est aussi le sujet de son premier ouvrage récemment paru, Egress. Ce texte adapté de son blog marque l’entrée tonitruante du Black Metal dans Audimat, à travers le retour sur quelques figures fondatrices du « True Norwegian Black Metal » et leurs émules. Bardé de références érudites, cet article indique sans doute l’un des rapports possibles à ce genre. Nul besoin d’être un spécialiste néanmoins pour être sensible aux relations que cette scène entretient avec l’adolescence, dont Colquhoun dégage la portée métaphysique : si nous devons continuer de chérir l’expérience de l’adolescence, et cela bien qu’il nous faille toujours la sauver d’elle-même, c’est parce que l’immaturité est politique et qu’elle est désormais un problème d’échelle cosmique.

If you’re just a filthy Anglo, you can read the original series of posts by following these links: Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4.