All day, whilst working from home, I thought I was hearing the aural tides of the latest protests against the tree-killing, gentrification-enabling, air-polluting Lewisham Council.
With the New Cross Road area being the most polluted in the city — and yet with the surrounding area becoming increasingly desirable year on year — the removal of trees and communal green spaces is a hotly contested issue for those living here. We need the oxygen production — and the shade — not a load of ugly yuppie new builds on every available patch of land.
Pushing back against this, Lewisham Council’s idea of getting past current issues of contention is to gentrify the fuck out of the area so they can rake in the taxes and maybe fix one problem with a worse one, making the area even more expensive and hostile to those currently struggling to live a life within its boundaries.
It wouldn’t be the firsttime things kicked off in Deptford and New Cross over all this but, much to my initial confusion and surprise, that’s not what was happening at all.
Heading outside to see these marathon protests who’d be hollering on and off for 10 hours, my girlfriend and I were surprised to discover a full film crew at the end of our road along with a few hundred extras dresses as old school bobbies.
We asked around. It turns out Steve McQueen was filming his new BBC anthology series, Small Axe. My guess is they were reenacting the Battle of Lewisham which began just a few hundred metres away.
As interesting as McQueen’s new project sounds, this felt like the most “London” experience I’ve ever had. A real neighbourhood struggling with air pollution, gentrification and social cleansing becomes backdrop for woke BBC drama.
Last year’s protests are this year’s reenactments.
If McQueen wants to give a platform to marginalised voices, he’d be better off coming back and shooting a documentary.
Several weeks later, after an evening of tequila sunrises, Scriabin sonatas, marijuana, and literary conversation, the three men leave for the desert at dawn. “We brought along a powerful elixir, a kind of philosopher’s stone Michael happened upon,” Wade tells his guest. “We thought you might enjoy a visionary quest in Death Valley.” […]
The trio’s destination, Zabriskie Point, was the very spot that had provided Michelangelo Antonioni with the setting and title of his 1970 hippie movie, which Pauline Kael panned as a “pathetic mess” in The New Yorker, assuming that the Italian was “baffled by America and it all got away from him.” If Antonioni was guilty of being an aging European intellectual belatedly drawn to the American counterculture’s image of youth in revolt, he wasn’t the only one. In November 1975, Foucault crossed paths with his colleagues Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari at Semiotext(e)’s “Schizo-Culture” conference at Columbia University, the latter two having journeyed across the Atlantic to see for themselves: They met Allen Ginsberg backstage at Bob Dylan’s Rolling Thunder Revue in Lowell, Massachusetts, Jack Kerouac’s hometown, before flying to California, where they visited Patti Smith in Berkeley, Lawrence Ferlinghetti in San Francisco, and Henry Miller in Big Sur. At almost the same time, Jean Baudrillard embarked from San Diego on a theoretical road trip he later chronicled in 1986’s America, in whose deserts, both ecological and semiotic, he found a hyperreal “microcosm of the West,” and at Disneyland, saw “a parody of the world of the imagination.” In Death Valley, Baudrillard writes, “everything human is artificial.”
It appears that Foucault drew different conclusions. Over several hours, he and his companions take in the Mojave vistas, drink chartreuse, listen to Stockhausen, and emit the aphoristic bits of pseudo-wisdom that hallucinogens are known for prompting: “Music is our theology,” “The sky has exploded and the stars are raining down upon me. I know this is not true, but it is the Truth.” At one point, there is an argument over whether the car doors should stay open or closed. With “tears streaming from his eyes,” Foucault declares, “Tonight I have achieved a fresh perspective on myself. I now understand my sexuality. It all seems to start with my sister. We must go home again.”
This exclamation in the desert is particularly interesting. Just as Mark noted in his Acid Communism intro, Foucault encounter with the Outside confirmed what he already knew and expressed in his previous philosophical excursions, allowing him to find the strange in the familiar.
Boris Johnson is prime minister of Great Britain and what shocks me most is my lack of shock. I have no troubled desire to pinch myself.
There has been a big cloud of trepidation trailing Johnson’s bizarre rise to power in recent weeks. On the one hand, many have been anxious that Johnson is walking into the most complex problems of national and international relations since the Second World War. On the other hand, many have been anxious that Johnson is the most complex problem for national and international relations since the Second World War.
The fact is that — as with Trump across the Atlantic — Boris is just one more 21st century political paradox, both symptom and product of his time; a 21st century politician incapable of addressing any 21st century problems… Because he is one…
The ins and outs of Johnson’s well-documented incompetence have been incessantly autopsied in recent days. Most interesting to me was James Butler’s article for The New York Times in which he declared that Johnson’s “premiership could bring about the end of Britain itself.”
This seems less like a doomsday prediction and more like a commiserating nod to the inevitable — and it is a statement that has since been echoed frequently across the mainstream media in this country — I noticed half a dozen BBC correspondents echoing this line without even a grimace the other day — but it would be wrong to give Johnson all the credit.
After a ship has already hit an iceberg, it would be silly to declare a change in captain as responsible for any worsening of fortune.
Johnson, in this somewhat tired analogy, feels like little more than a bit of light relief. Many of the Conservative Party members who voted Johnson into the top job seem to agree that we’re sinking but, rather than do anything about it, like readying the lifeboats, they’ve instead resigned themselves to their fate and seem to think that at least the new captain has a slightly more entertaining bedside manner than his predecessors and critics.
It’s Trump without any expectation that he’ll make the country great again… Which is sort of refreshing?
Butler, in The New York Times, writes in detail about the national situation that Johnson is now tasked with “fixing”:
The state of the United Kingdom, a constitutional compact founded in 1922 and stretching back, in one form or another, for centuries, is severely strained. Though Brexit is primarily driven by English passions, two of the four territories in the Union — Northern Ireland and Scotland — voted to remain. Both present immediate problems for Mr. Johnson — and for the future of Britain.
In Scotland, rancor at the sense that the country’s vote counted for little and subsequent repeated bouts of parliamentary chaos have led to renewed calls for a second independence ballot. Nicola Sturgeon, the first minister, insists Scotland will hold one if Brexit takes place. One of the most adroit politicians in Britain, Ms. Sturgeon knows that despite widespread misgivings about Brexit, the majority needed for independence does not currently exist. But recent polling suggests a Johnson government might tilt the scales in her favor. An independent Scotland may be conjured out of the chicanery of Mr. Johnson’s rule.
In Northern Ireland, Mr. Johnson is beholden to the Democratic Unionist Party, a hard-line Northern Irish Protestant party on which he will depend for a majority in Parliament. That severely curtails his room for maneuver as he attempts, one way or the other, to take Britain out of the European Union. The D.U.P. will not countenance separation from the rest of the United Kingdom — hence why the so-called backstop, effectively an insurance plan to avoid a hard border between Northern Ireland and its southern neighbor, fatally scuttled Theresa May’s thrice-rejected deal. It is hard to see how Mr. Johnson can extricate himself from this problem, whose protraction may have a decisive effect on the country’s internal politics. Calls for a United Ireland, encouraged by demographic change and the waning of unionist sentiment, appear to be gathering more support.
The threat of the break-up of Britain has been a spectre many have sought to ignore since at least the 1970s… Indeed, since the EU itself became a seemingly intractable part of our international lives. Following Butler’s diagnosis, the patchwork predictions more or less write themselves. Johnson was an utterly hopeless bull-in-a-china-shop Foreign Secretary who left many a diplomatic headache in his wake. Undoubtedly his tenure in the UK’s highest office will likewise end with a few more fractures in the porcelain constitutions of many a modern nation-state.
With all of this doom-and-gloom floating around, it makes a post about Johnson’s “election” — if you can call it that — seem a bit superfluous. There’s little more to be said that hasn’t already been written down in countless op-eds around the world. And no one would be surprised to hear that Xenogothic is quite excited about the prospect of the UK’s consolidated power finally being broken down and better distributed. Heck, it feels like patchwork Britain is about to go mainstream!
Beyond all that though, what made Tuesday 23rd July most interesting was that it coincided with a listening party for the official release of Mark Fisher and Justin Barton’s On Vanishing Land, held at the Castle Cinema in Homerton, north London.
Having got the start time wrong and arriving far too early, I had the opportunity for a quick catch-up with Steve Goodman before the event began. He was quick to highlight the sad irony of it all — an already very familiar feeling at this point whenever there’s an event that Mark should be at but isn’t; should be writing about but can’t.
But On Vanishing Land was the perfect consolation prize, in many ways, not only as an eerie memorial to Mark’s strange relationship with this weird isle but also for its resonance with a disturbingly precarious vision of the United Kingdom that Johnson’s premiership was now exacerbating.
In particular, the audio-essay’s frequent echoes of M.R. James’ ghost story Oh, Whistle and I’ll Come To You, My Lad! became almost humorous to me. A story about an eccentric old establishment don unearthing a dog-whistle on a ruinous Suffolk beach and being haunted by the eerie entity it summons?
M.R. James’ conservatism was well-explored by Mark, particularly in The Weird and the Eerie. As much as he enjoyed his stories, he was always keen to note how afraid of the outside James was — contrary to another Fisher favourite, Joan Lindsey’s Picnic at Hanging Rock.
Mark would write James’ various “warnings to the curious” declare the outside to be a perilous place where the deep past is waiting for any opportunity to enact its revenge on the present.
Justin’s ethereal tones, which dominate On Vanishing Land, nonetheless betray a Jamesian anxiety. Looking out on the “nerve ganglion of capitalism” that unfurls into sea from the port at Felixstowe, the wandering pair sense that something out there that seems to have “gotten away with something.”
However, we should remember that “terrors are not all there is to the outside,” as Mark would also write in The Weird and the Eerie.
What has gotten away with something is, undoubtedly, capitalism itself — but that suggests that what haunts is related to what capitalism has failed to fully overcome. This was important, no doubt, to Mark because the terror felt by James, read today, is immediately engulfed by class conflict.
Similar in tone to Lovecraft’s racism, the horrors that emanate from James’ outsides feel feudal and nomadic — destratified curses unleashed by coastal erosion lie in wait, hoping to attach themselves parasitically to the well-to-do of modern society.
As such, so many of James’ stories reveal Cambridge toffs — like James himself — so rooted in the nation’s intellectual and political establishment — to be little more than fragile men of the bourgeoisie. It is a surprise that they ever make it outside their dorms without keeling over in fright.
By contrast, the English coastline becomes the relative wilderness that embodies lost worlds and incursions from the outside. The fishing industries of England’s coastal settlements become synonymous with bold travellers of the unknown, hard for James’ academic brain to fully compute.
(This is an accurate sentiment for many on the UK’s harsh east coast. Growing up in Hull, I was always fascinated by the perverse pride taken in a brutal industry that claimed countless lives. Like the miners elsewhere in Yorkshire, the tension of a community grounded in treacherous and terrifying labour creates a very special kind of subjectivity. This is something beautifully explored by Justin Barton in his 2015 book Hidden Valleys.)
This is not to say that James’ anxiety is singular and unexpected. In fact, it is an open acknowledgement of a shared Jamesian terror that gives On Vanishing Land such an air of a distinctly working class bravery before the shrouded face of unknown pasts and futures — each, notably, as ruinous as each other in the Suffolk mind.
Caught in between the two, a subtext emerges that perforates the eerie soundscape of On Vanishing Land which declares that we should not wait for our ghost ships to come in but rather row out and meet them.
This is likewise a sentiment worth holding onto this week as Boris Johnson drags a weight of uncertainty onto the nation-state’s future. It is a sentiment perhaps best expressed in Justin’s conclusion to his 2015 book, Hidden Valleys:
To travel into the unknown is a sober-joyful process of gaining energy by overcoming self-importance, and by eradicating all forms of self-indulgence — and it is a development of the ability to have effective, creative comradeship-alliances with other human beings. It is a process of perceiving — and dreaming — a way toward wider spaces of existence.
Beyond the ongoing disaster of ordinary reality is the second sphere of action.
On Vanishing Land arrived in the post yesterday and it’s a beautiful thing. Justin’s short essay in the gatefold is great. Go get it.
Shout out to the YouTube channel Dank Audio Stash that has decided to turn all of my blog posts on Westworld into text-to-speech audio-essay things. I know a lot of people like this stuff and I’m all for people doing things like this if it makes working through blog series more fun and accessible.
It’s a really nice thing to see and does warm my heart a bit. It feels a little bit like being translated or something and I appreciate the time taken by DAS to make and upload these. (Evidently a sensitive fellow if I’m being humbled by text-to-speech.)
Below you’ll find Mark’s essay on Westworld — also text-to-speeched — and then my four-parter from last year that jumped off from Mark’s essay and my love for the season so far. I also still like this series a lot and I recently did a major rework of a large chunk of the series, transforming it into a chapter for my forthcoming Egress book. (More on that soon.)
If you’d like to hear more essays in this format, Justin Murphy gifted me something similar at the start of this year: a Xenogothic “audio reader” of sorts. You can check that out here.
It’s quite spooky, now thinking about that final scene and its sentiment, that Hauer would end up dying in the year that Blade Runner was set.
Anyway, I thought Frozen Reeds idea was an excellent one so I thought I’d pinch it wholesale and add a couple more of my own favourite Batty-sampling tunes here too.
There are so many to choose from, it’s a bit ridiculous. I’m surprised the Blade Runner soundtrack isn’t as synonymous with jungle as the amen break is. Maybe it is if you talk to the right ‘heads. Or Zomby.
RIP Rutger. It’s not an easy thing to meet your maker.
Sometimes, when skirting the edges of hellthreads on Twitter, I wonder about the hyperactivity and extreme online-ness of some of our better known para-academics and marginal online activists.
You know the type — the sort best known for having a commie (read: edgelord) podcast and a twitter account littered with aggressively bad takes that take no prisoners.
I feel like the irony that no one ever mentions is that all these overly aggressive young Marxists aren’t that way because they really care about the class struggle — despite what they might say, over and over and over again. Instead, it seems to me that they’ve been made that way by spending too long under the Damoclean sword of the US academia job market.
One of my guiltiest pleasures as a postgraduate student in London was witnessing many an evil-eyed (not-so-)young American go through something of a culture shock upon landing in the more relaxed environs of a UK university.
With course fees so much cheaper here than there — which is really saying something… WTF, America? — many initially arrive with a few years of college under their belt and immediately go hard in class trying to carve out a space for themselves; making themselves known and seen.
Every year, without fail, someone would cause a scene by doing this and there would always be a moment where everyone else in the room, from all over the rest of world, would look over at them with a face that said: “Jeez… Chill out, dude. Let’s get to know each other before we start measuring dicks. Who you trying to impress?”
Loitering around the halls of Goldsmiths long past my own graduation — gotta keep feeding the @_geopoetics bot somehow… — I’ve seen a few years worth of students go through this, with there always being one or two students who end up dropping or changing modules after having had a silent sand thrown on their aggressive approach to studenteering, disappearing as soon as they realise that they’ve come on too strong too soon.
And they are almost always North Americans…
For the first year or two of seeing this sort of thing happen repeatedly, I always wondered what was so specific about Americans that made the transition from US to UK academia so jarring for them.
I eventually asked someone about it — a lecturer originally from the US themselves — what is it was about this brand of American student that makes them so counterproductively intense during the first week of term?
Without a second’s thought, they replied: “It’s the academic job market.”
In the US, the job market for academics is so cut throat, they said, that being an asshole becomes an essential aspect of any (even half-hearted) careerism.
Adding insult to injury, this careerism is intensified by a person’s lack of awareness regarding the way it undermines the collective pedagogic practices they otherwise pay lip service to. Thankfully, it’s the sort of attitude that suffocates when no one is willing to give oxygen to it.
I wish I could say the same about its prevalence on Twitter…
Just say no to the Camile Paglia brand of self-undermining capitalistic radicalism.