Dreams of the Liminal

Last night I dreamt I was in rural Wales, in the very south-west of the country. I had a lot of bags with me, my mum and ex-girlfriend with me, and for someone reason a bass guitar that had once belonged to someone famous. The back room of the guitar shop where the bass was for sale became our base of operations, and we were doing our best to figure out how to get back to Newcastle.

Information was scarce. We could plot a journey, buy a ticket, but the main problem was that we didn’t know where exactly we were setting off from. There were towns that I’d clearly made up — with names like Anwich and Alnwick (which does exist but not in Wales) and Aber-something, all stereotypically Welsh and provincial — but alongside our positioning in space, time was also a complete unknown, alhough it was most certainly the evening and getting later, as trains became few and far between as we dillydallied.

In the end, I sent my mother and ex on their way, having sorted them out ahead of time but finding myself falling at the last hurdle. I had a plan but needed to return the guitar and get some things left at the shop. On my return, I realised I’d actually left my luggage at the station, which I’d travelled quite some way away from. I didn’t want to go back there because my plan was to depart for Newcastle from somewhere else, but now I had to. My thoughts turned to where I’d sleep. I resigned myself to sleeping on the floor of the station I’d just left and waiting in purgatory until the morning.

I woke up before any of this liminal travel situation was resolved and was left wondering what it all meant. It was a somewhat banal stress dream considering the reality of the day before, which I had spent in Newcastle’s Royal Victoria Infirmary having an acute mental health crisis.

For the most part, when my mental health isn’t great, it manifests as an anxious guilt and shame. The main somatic symptom is an anvil on my chest. My solar plexus is transformed into a black hole from which no emotion can escape. I’d felt like that for a few days, apropos of nothing but some incongruously triggered adoption trauma and attachment anxiety. Then, in preparing myself for my weekly therapy session, the big black balloon burst. Whatever was being held in that emotional abcess seeped out all over my body as a nervous and self-destructive energy.

A friend came over, whose kindness I will never, ever forget, but the feeling would not go away. In the end, it felt like A&E was the best place to be — on the one hand, as the best place to preempt any sort of self-injury, but on the other, as a way to get in touch with a crisis team and make myself known to any community support systems that might be in place.

It was a very surreal experience, but I think it was also ultimately a positive one. Still, it was my first time in A&E without any clear physical ailment to be seen to. To confess you have shown up to an overcrowded and stretched hospital for your own safety is deeply embarrassing, but thankfully the team there were endlessly understanding and even appreciative. What had felt like an extreme course of action as I paced around my living room was eventually confirmed as the right thing to do.

It also turns out that six hours in an NHS waiting room is a good way to distract yourself. By the time I’d been both physically and mentally accessed, I mostly felt numb, calm, exhausted. But the relief on the long walk home was also comforting. I felt utterly depleted with nothing left to feel. The only sensation left was that I’d survived something. I’d ridden the wave and come out the other side relatively unscathed.

My arrival in Newcastle has felt somewhat jumbled. Outward appearances have largely been social, joyful, drunk, euphoric. It was meant to be a fresh start; it has been a fresh start. But there is an inevitable amount of baggage I have brought with me, which has been left unpacked, for the most part, as I go about making friends here.

With friends made, I have felt the inevitable creep of other lives returning, knocking at the door, ready to make themselves at home again as I fall into a new sense of stability. My train dream, though banal, felt appropriate. In my unconscious rush to return to the present, I am struggling to negotiate what parts of my old lives to bring with me, mentally at least. Perhaps the dream of picking and choosing is itself a fallacy. It’s all coming with, whether I like it or not. Pretending otherwise has not been particularly clever. It has caught up with me.

At the time, I must acknowledge that I invited it in. I have wanted to take some time to process, reflect, transform myself by actively thinking about and processing the recent (and not so recent) past. The next six months are intended to be a liminal space, a transitory space for my mental health, where I hope I can find a more concrete sense of stability than the flux of the social. But in consciously beginning that process, I underestimated just how hard things would hit me.

On this occasion, the return to blogging was not enough to weather the overflow of thoughts. I knew it was a bad omen.

Sex and Subjective Instability

If it was not already obvious, I have started re-reading Deleuze and Guattari’s Anti-Oedipus in the run-up to my PhD, which I’m starting in October. Given my topic is the figure of the orphan in psychoanalysis and philosophy, I am taking Anti-Oedipus as my starting point, and whilst the PhD will no doubt be a relatively straight-laced research project, I already know I want to transform it afterwards into something more personal. The entire impetus behind this project, after all, is a kind of therapeutic function. (Whether that’s a terrible idea or not — and I suspect it might be, as far as my mental health is concerned — we’ll soon find out.)

Yesterday, I wrote about Deleuze and Guattari’s re-conception of desire in the book’s opening chapter on “The Desiring-Machines”, and could not help but begin to apply it to a lot of what I’m trying to work through at the moment, in therapy and life more generally. I have felt an unfortunate tendency to lean into a certain new conception of myself. On the one hand, this is positive and brings so much of their book directly to the fore, as I feel myself actively affirming “the nuptial celebration of a new alliance, a new birth, a radiant ecstasy, as though the eroticism of the machine liberated other unlimited forces.” But against this arises the unfortunate desire to compound and concretise that new sense of self all too readily. A “non-fascist life” is a surprisingly difficult think to live.

In having a series of intensive talks and hangouts with a new friend, and indeed, a particularly fast and flourishing friendship, we were discussing the runaway desire of a “rush to understand” — to understand what certain relations (and relationships) mean or represent; to sketch, far too quickly, the product of a particular aspect of social production, newly entered into; a rush to know, to like, to love. It’s euphoric, but with that comes a strange tendency to get to the end of something, to curtail the flux of getting comfortable with someone new. But an anxiety arises from this too, one which Deleuze and Guattari hold tangentially in their sights. In their abstracted terms, they talk about desire as a “set of passive syntheses that engineer partial objects, flows, and bodies, and that function as units of production.” The ultimate end of this process, however, despite the rush to understand, is surely unconscious. “The real is the end product, the result of the passive syntheses of desire as autoproduction of the unconscious.” When desire makes itself an object to be held and overtly described, it becomes inert, trapping, detrimental to other processes. The anxiety of social production, then, comes from the desire to know the unknowable — that is, the unknowable as the real, beyond all idealistic anticipations and conceptions. I feel I understand this intuitively, at least right now — I am tired all the time, struck by an awareness that what I feel so intensely during the day can only really be resolved through the unconscious machinations of sleep. But letting go of a certain “active” (that is, conscious) production is hard. The desire to produce a concrete and conscious knowledge becomes elusive and self-defeating.

The rush of social production is at its height when opening oneself utterly to the other. But this can also be an intensely unhealthy and even exploitative position to find oneself in. The feeling of being a subject in excitable flux comes up against its own desires to give form to an “object” (person, relation, event) before oneself. (Photography be damned.) As I do my best to steer clear of this, it becomes all the more apparent in other people. There are men — and it is often men — in my social circle who struggle with a certain social indeterminacy and hope to pin everything down. But here again, Deleuze and Guattari confirm what seems so elusive to the self caught up in the fraught vulnerability of social relations. To project what we desire onto others, thought of as social objects, is a kind of violence — whether explicitly or implicitly. In truth, as they write, it is “the subject that is missing in desire,” rather than any external object, or rather it is “desire that lacks a fixed subject; there is no fixed subject unless there is repression… Hence the product is something removed or deducted from the process of producing: between the act of producing and the product, something becomes detached, thus giving the vagabond, nomad subject a residuum.” A recent conversation about bad sex comes to mind, where the self, in trying to determinately affirm its own participation in intercourse, occludes the other in a detached fantasy, and as a result all tenderness is lost.

Dating advice from Deleuze and Guattari? There may be nothing more insufferable to draw from this book; nothing more pathetically “theory bro”. But it is intriguing to feel the stakes of their project in that most intimate and vulnerable of social relations, where a recently acquired and relatively nomadic embrace of post-Covid, newly single sociality struggles against a desire for concentration and privation, which does begin to feel immediately like the repression of a broader tendency to know, like and love a web of people and neighbours. It is the curtailing of a psychic reality into a negatively familiar and restricted form, which is not negative in and of itself, but only in the ways it can deny you a far more liberatory reality if you let it. “As Marx notes, what exists in fact is not lack, but passion, as a ‘natural and sensuous object.'” To be passionate about people needn’t be curtailed and applied to limited circumstances. Indeed, it mustn’t be. We do not need those kinds of relationship, but rather desire them as the distillation of our passion. Distillation needn’t be a form of restriction. Let your cup runeth over.

Relationships and the Real:
Thoughts on Desiring-Production as Social Production

… the real object that desire lacks is related to an extrinsic natural or social production, whereas desire intrinsically produces an imaginary object that functions as a double of reality, as though there were a “dreamed-of object behind every real object,” or a mental production behind all real productions.

One of the first tasks that Deleuze and Guattari set themselves in Anti-Oedipus is to flesh out the psychoanalytic conception of desire. At “the very lowest level of interpretation”, they argue, desire is constituted by a lack. Production is set opposite acquisition. We produce as a means towards a consumptive end. This seems intuitive. I want something, I work towards its acquisition, producing the circumstances of its emergence; the object is produced, I acquire it, I am content. That is, until I come to realise I lack something else. But this “until”, this “and then” or “and so”, complicates the linear development and dialectic actualisation of desire and its object. Though production and consumption may appear to be a straight line, the straight line, they note elsewhere, is its own kind of pernicious labyrinth. Set against the ultimately enclosed complexity of a hedge maze, it can be far harder to say where a straight line begins and ends.

This “conjunctive synthesis”, in itself, constitutes the “production of consumption”. Under capitalism, we become all too aware that desire is never truly and fully resolved. There is always more to desire, because production and consumption, in this context, are not a straight-forward dialectical process. As Deleuze and Guattari write, within the conjunctive relationship between production and consumption, where the product cannot be fully separated from the process of its own production, “the pure ‘thisness’ of the object produced is carried over into a new act of producing.” What is desired and acquired is never simply left to one side but produces new potentials of multiplicity, arrangement and rearrangement, bricolage. This producing-product is, as a result, “multiple and at the same time limited”, constituted by “the ability to rearrange fragments continually in new and different patterns and configurations”. To find oneself in a milieu overrides the possibility of understanding that 1+1=2. We find ourselves before the straight-line labyrinth of 1+1+1+1+1+1… Postmodernism, as the cultural logic of late capitalism, makes an embarrassment of this otherwise open-ended desiring-production, where what is combined is not simply the “1” as a single unit of something or other, but a 1 that is always the same 1, if only represented superficially through different typefaces. (The unending productive consumption of Marvel movies, etc.)

For a subject in the midst of social relations, either form of conjunctive synthesis can be a difficult thing to withstand. It is for good reason that Deleuze and Guattari model their seemingly positive alternative on the schizophrenic, who may be far more attuned to the materialist machinations of the world at large, beyond capitalism’s restricted purview, but who nonetheless struggles and suffers to belong within the same purview of a hegemonic social order. But it is not an experience unavailable to us in the here and now. “The satisfaction the handyman experiences when he plugs something into an electric socket or diverts streams of water”, Deleuze and Guattari suggest, by way of a notably commonplace example, “can scarcely be explained in terms of ‘playing mommy and daddy'”.

This is the “rule of continually producing production”. The institutional bounds of the reproductive family disrupt this process through orbital sets of relation. The nuclear family, after all, is a configuration that revolves around a given nucleus: the 1+1=2. Other individuals or grouped relations can form bonds and relationships with the reproductive 2, but it is always the 1+1=2 that constitutes an ideological core around which all else revolves. As we move through a heteronormative world, what becomes apparent is the way that this drive to pair up becomes detrimental to a wider social order. Given our current discursive climate, it is necessary to say that this is not some overwrought argument in favour of polyamory. Each to their own, of course, but on a more general level, it is necessary to remain vigilant before the institutional pressure exerted by the family and its inchoate forms of prefiguration, in which the restrictive relationship of the 1+1=2 tends more towards privation rather than further socialisation, not only of a given romantic pairing but the individual as such, constituted by an innate potential for so many more kinds of synthesis.

As I continue to settle into Newcastle, I feel a strange pull towards a sense of belonging I’ve seldom gotten on well with. Finding myself embedded in a whole new set of social relations, at first the joy experienced was euphoric. A new friend made every day; an ever-expanding support network of emotionally available people. But as the period of adjustment begins to settle into a particular configuration, leaning into certain relationships becomes an anxious relation. Validation and comfort is sought in specific places and the ability to self-soothe and feel ground as an individual begins to wane. We call it FOMO, but it goes much deeper — the fear of missing out on what, exactly? Not just fun, but connection. The more friends I have the opportunity to see, the lonelier I find myself feeling when they’re not around.

In the pub the other day, people were talking about the pop-psychological traits of being first or second born. “What about you, Matt? Do you have any brothers or sisters?” “I’m a lone adoptee”, I reply without thinking. “It’s a special category.” An only child without the same antisocial tendencies. In truth, I’m exceptionally social. There’s nothing I enjoy more. But it covers over a secret sadness; a more foundational sense of disconnection. The metaphor routinely returned to is that of a stray dog — perhaps too trusting, despite abuse and discomfort, where a social desiring-production is inexhaustible in being born of lack, but which finds itself colliding with a certain vulnerability that desiring-production necessitates, a certain will-to-rupture. I find myself leaning into and hoping to produce a sense of sociality that those with bigger and/or more stable families may take wholly for granted, leaning all too readily into the production of a certain restrictive social relation that has never actually felt safe to me.

For me at least, the source of this anxiety is familiar, if long since overcome. I feel like a teenager again, all too aware of the insufficiency of a given familial relation, actively seeking new ones. That this sense of social productive, actively engaged with, might resolve into a singular product is a scary thing. The end of social production, the pressure of which is felt and affirmed all around me, is both intensely desired and feared. It is a double-edged sword. Vulnerability, it seems, is endearing, even attractive. A queer friendship seems to navigate this desire with ease. But the shadow of adoption is long and dark. I feel on the outside at all times, even as I am beckoned inwards. An emotional intelligence is sought out as a nice thing to be around. But the vulnerability that this requires, the deprivatisation of desire as a form of social production, eventually starts to feel self-destructive.

Perhaps this is the reason I have felt a desire to write publicly today for the first time in weeks. Even though I take little real comfort from the parasociality of blogging these days. I also started smoking again — properly, at least. No longer simply a social stimulant or writing aid, a treat interrupted by long stints of abstinence, the tiny addictive machine of a writer’s nicotine dependency becomes a stable moment of reprieve where the mind can focus on an oral fixation, as the hands roll cigarette after cigarette and every feeling expunged returns to the body with each intake of cancerous breath. Blogging has long felt like having a cigarette in this regard, whether I am smoking through it or not: the acquisition of a brief moment of composure amid the tumult of the social, a way to write out a feeling and affirm a brief moment of grounding, that performatively travels far out into the world but which is nonetheless produced in the discomfort of intellectual isolation.

For my sins, I am smoking a lot right now, if only because I feel I need lots of these moments to sit and unwind. Against the social euphoria of new connections is the deep-seated and somewhat irrational desire for stable consummation, which is nonetheless distrusted. That smoking is a (somewhat) socially accepted form of self-harm is not to be disregarded here. I’m reminded of James Wilt’s forthcoming book, Drinking Up The Revolution. Our social lubricants, considered within their full materialist context, do us so much harm, despite the fact we (on the left especially) so often fetishise them for the other worlds they provide us glimpses of. Our complicity is deep-rooted; our utopias woefully contained within broader fascistic processes. This is more readily addressed when considering the productive consumption of alcohol. What about the social production that surrounds and runs implicitly through it?

No Familiar

3rd May 2022

When do you know you feel safe? When do you know to trust that feeling of being safe?

I still feel so all over the place, but it’s stupid because everything is so good. I feel safe and held but I don’t know whether to trust that feeling fully or not. Ian asked an interesting question: When was the last time I felt safe? […] I have previously chosen familiarity over safety, because it felt like home, and home also never felt safe.

[…] I’m doing a lot of things differently now. I feel like I have thrown off the familiar. I need to make sure I keep doing that. Don’t let anything go staid. Don’t let that dysfunctional sense of home creep back in. Define a new one.

Mark Fisher’s Ghosts of my Life:
Zer0 Classics Edition

The first in a new series of Zer0 Classics have been announced: a new edition of Mark Fisher’s Ghosts of my Life. I was invited to write a new introduction and Simon Reynolds has contributed an afterword.

As a little precis to my introduction, I’ve done my best to chronicle the development of one of the book’s central concepts: hauntology. I chart its emergence through the blogosphere, the initial backlash in the early 2010s, its jousting with accelerationism, and finally consider why the book was eventually published and struck such a chord, despite the fact many considered hauntology to be over by the time Ghosts was published in 2014. I hope it adds some considerable context to a book that far exceeded its blogospheric moment and why it continues to resonate today.

No word on a release date as yet, but watch this space.

Spring News

A big week this week. The first complete draft of my next book, Narcissus in Bloom, was sent off to Repeater Books, so we can start the editing process in a couple of months. I also had confirmation that my PhD in Philosophy at Newcastle University will be funded by the Northern Bridge Consortium Doctoral Training Partnership. I’ll be starting research on the figure of the orphan in philosophy, starting with the role of the “orphan-unconsicous” in Deleuze and Guattari’s Anti-Oedipus. It’s a project I’ve had in mind for a few years now, following on from an essay I wrote for Lapsus Lima in 2019 — current working title Anti-Oedipus, Pro-Antigone.

Between now and starting my PhD in October, I’m going to keep taking something of a break from the blog. There’ll be photos, but having written intensely and almost daily for five years, it feels like the perfect time to recharge and reorient myself for what’s to come. More soon.

Inventory of Synthetic Cognition

Chimeras: Inventory of Synthetic Cognition, a collection of essays edited by Ilan Manouach & Anna Engelhardt, is finally up for pre-order at bruil.info. It features an essay from me on “Artificial Dementia” and so, so much more. From essays to visual contributions, this feels like one beastly publication. (Full list of contributors TBC.)

For those interested, the PDF version of this book will be open-access, and it will also be available in bookshops towards the end of year. There’ll be more information to follow on the Onassis Publications website, or you can read the short blurb below:

This volume attempts to disassemble and reformulate what one might understand as AI by taking apart both notions of ‘artificiality’ and ‘intelligence’ and seeing what new meaning they produce when recombined. We summon the trickster of the natural order, chimera, both a mythical creature and a genetic phenomenon. Drawing upon chimerism allows us to broaden ‘artificial intelligence’ into ‘synthetic cognition’?—an approach that highlights the duality of ‘artificial’ and ‘authentic’, amplifies non-human methods of cognition and anticipates modes of symbiosis.

With this aim, the editors, Ilan Manouach and Anna Engelhardt, assembled an inventory in which one can find contributions from scholars and artists with interspecies, disability, monstrous, feminist, and decolonial approaches, as well as thinkers and technologists engaged in a broader field of AI. By questioning fabricated norms that constitute and maintain notions of ‘artificial’ and ‘intelligence’, this inventory acts as a toolbox one can use to merge these terms into a novel chimera.