The portrait of Sebald that emerges from the pages between is not that of a unique individuality, but a romantic caricature of what Sontag called the ‘artist as exemplary sufferer’, a kind of secular saint driven almost to madness, in this case by the weight of history.
I thoroughly enjoyed this review of Carole Angier’s biography of W.G. Sebald, Speak, Silence, written by Ryan Ruby for the New Left Review. It is scathing, in parts, about Angier and Sebald both, but it is intriguing to me that, on Twitter, Ruby has clarified his love of Sebald nonetheless. He writes: “As for my fellow Sebald stans, I remain one of you, but I had an ulterior motive for tweeting this out a few days ago”, pointing to a Nietzsche quote posted on his birthday: “A very popular error: having the courage of one’s convictions; rather it is a matter of having the courage for an attack on one’s convictions!!!”
I can relate to this sentiment, especially in the context of Sebald. I can’t think of a book I’ve read more time than Rings of Saturn, but I had my own reckoning with him a few years back, whilst finishing my book Egress on the Suffolk coast (where Sebald’s book is set). This was, in part, because I had always wanted to retrace Sebald’s footsteps, but I was there with Mark Fisher in mind — and Mark also wrote and made work about that stretch of coast, On Vanishing Land most famously.
It was strange to experience that landscape with Mark Fisher’s internalised voice in my ears and Sebald’s photographic sensibilities before my eyes. These two hugely dominant influences on my writing went to war over that long weekend. Though one might expect Fisher to like Sebald — if only by dint of the Caretaker’s involvement in the documentary Patience (After Sebald) — Mark seemed to find Sebald’s vision of his adopted home offensive and one day dreamt of “producing a pulp modernist riposte to Sebald’s mittel-brow text.”
Having been there and walked the walk for myself, it is not difficult to see why. Sebald comes across like a prejudiced curmudgeon and a classist old man rather than a wandering Romantic on Suffolk shores today. His interiority, which he welcomes you so seductively to inhabit, becomes a myopic lens through which to view the cultural ghosts of Suffolk proper. (The same is true of M.R. James as well, of course, whose fear of agricultural Suffolk seems flecked by his toff’s perspective from civilised King’s College, Cambridge, but he is arguably at more of a distance from us — his haunted Suffolk does not exist today and is all the more potent for that, having been eroded by the sea, but Sebald’s is still recognisably post-industrial and modern.)
I was reminded of this strange literary tug-of-war, experienced internally back in 2019, because it is what Ruby navigates so deftly in this piece, and which Angier seems to struggle with. Indeed, he notes, for Angier,
‘The sense of another time that pervades his books—through the dated, formal language, the ancient guidebooks, the Renaissance paintings—is no accident, but crucial to their power.’ ‘Realism and modernity’, she goes on to say, are ‘dangerous’ for his ‘particular art’. She praises Sebald for resisting the impulse to ‘introduce modern life’ into his writing, by cutting a reference to a Virgin Atlantic T-Shirt from an early draft of The Rings of Saturn—a rather careless observation about a book whose narrator describes people as ‘shopping in order to survive’, watches a bbc documentary on a tv in a run-down motel, eats French fries at an Amsterdam McDonalds, refers to gas stations and shopping malls, drinks a can of Cherry Coke, reports a complaint about Brussels’s agricultural policy, visits an abandoned Cold War defence installation, compares the Dome of the Rock to the newly built Sizewell nuclear reactor, and looks on with dismay as an excavator clears away a forest felled by a hurricane.
It is precisely the shadow of the contemporary that disturbs Sebald’s Romantic surface, in ways that are clearly ironic and often humorous but also occasionally reactionary — and ignoring this does the work a disservice. “Contemporary literary and political events are rarely allowed to impinge upon Angier’s account of his life,” Ruby continues, “though a full picture of the external world is just as important to understanding a writer as a portrayal of his inner life.”
This whole final section of the essay is a joy and maybe one of the best things I’ve ever read about Sebald to date. I’m left wanting to reproduce it here with little abridgement and annotate it… On this point of external events informing an inner life, Ruby continues:
The Eichmann Trial and the Frankfurt Auschwitz hearings are mentioned, but their broader impact on German culture goes undescribed. May 68 is deployed proleptically in a discussion of the intellectual climate of the University of Freiburg, as a signifier of the ‘flow of history’ toward the ‘new reform spirit’ Sebald and his circle of friends are said to have embodied, but when les évenements take place, Sebald is on vacation in Yugoslavia and we hear nothing further of them. … The two historical episodes dealt with at greatest length—the 1970s oil crisis and Thatcherite neoliberalism—are important, as we will see, but along with Britain’s accession to the European Union, Angier treats them only with regard to their effects on teaching conditions at UEA. Of decolonization, the Troubles in Northern Ireland, the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, the Cold War: nothing. Even within the confines of her interpretation of Sebald primarily as a writer of the Holocaust and the firebombing of German cities, potentially relevant events such as the German Autumn, the 1980s Historikerstreit, the development of Erinnerungskultur, the reunification of Germany, the genocide in Rwanda and the NATO bombing campaigns in the former Yugoslavia are passed over in silence.
Nor does Angier attribute any significance to the fact that Sebald’s four major books were published between 1990 and 2001; in other words, that his literary career coincides almost perfectly with the ‘Long Nineties’, the so-called End of History. Far from being the anachronism Sontag and Angier make him out to be, he is one of the period’s most representative writers. Neither the signature features of his influential prose style—the ‘metaphysics of coincidence’ and the melancholy tone—nor the reception of his work in the Anglosphere can be accounted for without reference to it. The ‘End of History’ is taken, of course, from the title of Francis Fukuyama’s National Interest essay, published in summer 1989 … right around the time Sebald was putting the finishing touches to The Emigrants. Among boosters and detractors alike, the phrase has proven to be a remarkably durable label for capturing the distinctive mentality of the period, especially in the West. But just as the End of History did not mean the end of historical events, the fulfilment or collapse—they amount to the same thing—of Enlightenment-era grand narratives of political, moral, economic and scientific progress did not mean the end of attempts to create meta-narratives to make sense of them. Like so much else in the period, these narratives, which had functioned as collective myths to legitimate and orient the ways of life on both sides of the Iron Curtain, were simply privatized. It was now the task of each individual to locate whatever patterns could be found in the chaotic proliferation of information and recorded events, and impose a necessarily artificial coherence on them.
What I find interesting about this observation is that it peels Sebald out of the “Holocaust Studies” pigeonhole quite explicitly. Indeed, this task left to the individual, in locating “whatever patterns could be found in the chaotic proliferation of information and recorded events”, is arguably the real task drilled into us by the Enlightenment itself and, even more notably, German art history since then.
I’ve been writing on Albrecht Dürer recently and reading Erwin Panofsky’s biography of him. The biography’s introduction is fascinating in that, despite the fact it prefaces a loving and almost surgically detailed analysis of Dürer’s life, art and historical context, it is initially scathing about German art history as a whole. But in skewering what may sound to us like the very flaws of postmodernism, it reveals just what makes German cultural history so interesting and, in this wider Sebaldian context, what it must be like for a man so utterly German who nonetheless feels adrift in Continental Europe — not simply because he is a post-war German writer but perhaps because he is a German writer full stop.
Echoing the anachronistic smorgasbord of Sebald’s melancholically psychedelic prose, Panofsky writes:
The evolution of high and post-medieval art in Western Europe might be compared to a great fugue in which the leading theme was taken up, with variations, by the different countries. The Gothic style was created in France; the Renaissance and Baroque originated in Italy and were perfected in cooperation with the Netherlands; Rococo and nineteenth century Impressionism are French; and eighteenth century Classicism and
Romanticism are basically English.
In this great fugue the voice of Germany is missing. She has never brought forth one of the universally accepted styles the names of which serve as headings for the chapters of the History of Art. German psychology is marked by a curious dichotomy clearly reflected in Luther’s doctrine of “Christian Liberty,” as well as in Kant’s distinction between an “intelligible character” which is free even in a state of material slavery and an “empirical character” which is predetermined even in a state of material freedom. The Germans, so easily regimented in political and military life, were prone to extreme subjectivity and individualism in religion, in metaphysical thought and, above all, in art. “I have to take into consideration,” Dürer says, “the German mentality. Whosoever wants to build something insists on employing a new pattern the like of which has never been seen before.”
Owing to this individualism German art was never able to achieve that standardization, or harmonious synthesis of conflicting elements, which is the prerequisite of universally recognized styles. But thanks to this very same quality Germany exerted an international influence by producing specific iconographical types and isolated works of art which were accepted and imitated, not as specimens of a collective style but as personal “inventions.”
Just as Dürer is so fascinating, as both the first man of the Renaissance but also the last man of the Middle Ages, a transitory figure straddling the euphoria and melancholy of another end of history, Sebald seems similar, so fixated on the self and its metaphysical existence but also melancholic like the listless, angelic humour in Dürer’s Melencolia I. He has come to epitomise a quintessentially German mode of interiority, which is now all of ours owing to the nation’s subtly pervasive influence. (It is recognisable here in the UK at least…) And, as Ruby notes, this is how Sebald is both so easy to love and easy to criticise — on the one hand, we cannot deny the literary brilliance of his representation of the self, but at a distance from him we can now more easily recognise the political myopia that emerges from it.
Ruby takes this tension and uses it to place Sebald right at the heart of the Long Nineties. On this Sebaldian sense of the end of history, Ruby continues:
In practice, of course, Fukuyama’s view that liberal democracy was ‘the final form of human government’ meant three things. First, the integration of the German Democratic Republic into the soziale Marktwirtschaft of the Federal Republic of Germany. Second, the accession of other Eastern Bloc countries into the European Union, which, rather than the American model, was taken by Fukuyama to be the paradigm case. And third, the unrestrained application to the Russian Federation of the kinds of economic ‘shock therapy’ that had already been applied, for example, to Mexico and Argentina, and which, in turn, had been pioneered by Paul Volcker during the Carter and Reagan administrations, and by Margaret Thatcher during her eleven years as prime minister of the UK.
For those unfamiliar with this idea of the Long Nineties and the amount of political philosophy packed into it — it is an extreme form of short-hand once you start digging into its roots — I’d recommend this article by Lars Bang Larsen for Frieze, which expands on Ruby’s contextualisation here and situates it within a wider philosophical discussion. But what it most intriguing about Ruby’s use of it here is the way he moves from the previous idea of the task facing the postmodern individual and shows how paradoxically it remains at the heart of our idea of the social. Indeed, what Sebald almost seems to prefigure, in his identity-melting sojourn across European history, is a psychogeographic clickhole — he embodies a peculiar tension within processes of individuation that are today synonymous with social media.
But Sebald died in 2001, of course. His exploration of these things is a little more old school. But you’d think, in that sense, we’d be a little more awake to its exacerbation in our lives today. Ruby is, but Angier seemingly isn’t. He explains:
Echoing Thatcher’s famous pronouncement, Angier writes that Sebald’s work ‘is not about society at all, which is why it contains no dialogue.’ The second half of this sentence is true only in the most technical of senses. In Sebald, speech is not interchange presented in quotation marks, as in a typical realist novel, but one of the more common scenarios in his fictions is the narrator listening to people tell long stories in the vein of Conrad, which he conveys with the narrative tagging of Bernhard. The first part of Angier’s sentence is simply false. Sebald’s books discuss, among other things, labour, punishment, psychiatry, the built environment, transportation, tourism, media, scholarship and war, none of which could be thinkable without the social as such.
In fact, that is what is quite so wonderful about Sebald. That Angier seems to suggest that his books are too immersed in history to be modern, this very contradiction of individuation through social processes is a very old problem indeed. In fact, returning to Dürer, he problematised and made use of the printing press in precisely this way: as a new social technology that democratised art and literature, it was nonetheless responsible for spreading the new liberal-Protestant ideal of the Individual. And this is the focus of my research around Dürer at the moment. Though his experience was not ours, his infatuation with and anxiety around new social technologies like the printing press, for the way they paradoxically both embolden and dissolve the individual, echoes our modern era and the rise of the internet in lots of ways.
But again, this is a contextual similarity more than anything else. We are at the tale end of whatever Dürer was experiencing. As Ruby writes:
It is not that there is ‘no society’ in Sebald, but rather that Sebald was writing at a time and a place—neoliberal Britain—in which all non-economic social bonds were being subordinated to the interests of capital accumulation. … Sebald consistently registers the effects of social atomization, resource depletion, financialization and the loss of revenue from brutally maintained colonial trade markets on the infrastructures, ecologies and peoples on both sides of the North Sea. This lugubrious socio-economic landscape stands in stark contrast to the best-of-all-possible-worlds portrait of the ‘New Economy’ and ‘Pax Americana’ painted by Third Way centrists and the Anglo-American culture industry.
Above all else, the key to Sebald’s prose “is décadence, a prose style fit for a second fin de siècle.” Following Dürer, it might even seem like we’ve lived through 500 years of endings, with moments of prosperity, scattered in between, amounting to nothing more than the volcanic tantrums of humanity’s dying star. As the Doomsday Clock ticks ever closer to twelve o’clock, the likes of Sebald feel like the last-last men of civilisation. Ruby concurs, here explicitly echoing the sort of position that Mark Fisher epitomised as well (but also decisively moved away from in the 2010s):
Sebald’s narrators are representatives of the species that Fukuyama calls, after Nietzsche, in the much less discussed final section of his book, the ‘last man’. Fukuyama worried that the ‘widespread peace and prosperity’ secured by the triumph of liberal-democratic capitalism would seem profoundly dissatisfying to the people now tasked with upholding it in perpetuity. True, Fukuyama’s main concern was that ‘man’s’ instinctive thymos—his drive for recognition through subjugation—could be projected out of boredom onto liberal democracy itself, in the form of rightwing backsliding. Although this prognosis might seem to apply better to writers like Houellebecq, Handke and Limonov than to Sebald, Sebald’s characters are no less dissatisfied with life under liberal-democratic capitalism; they have either experienced the horrors of German history directly or internalized its lessons too well to flirt with ethno-nationalism. Their dissatisfactions are introjected and express themselves as a perpetual mourning for the possibilities that have been foreclosed by history.
Yet even in the nineties, to say nothing of the first two decades of the twenty-first century, Fukuyamian peace and prosperity proved to be more notional than real; the foremost dissatisfaction with liberal-democratic capitalism was that the disappearance of a left alternative also meant the absence of any mechanisms for actually achieving these goals. ‘The future is in the past’, a 22-year-old Sebald had scrawled on the final page of his journal before embarking on his life as a university teacher in England. This was the sentiment that would animate the books he began to write a quarter-century later, the books whose remarkable success provides the rationale for the publication of an English-language biography. By the time he came to write them, however, the proposition had acquired an unfortunate corollary: the future is no longer in the future. Sebald’s characters may dissent from the materialism of the consumers and the day traders; they may notice the imperial continuities between the old liberalism and the new; but they share at least one assumption with them: there is no alternative. When ‘confronted with traces of destruction, reaching far back into the past’, the narrator of The Rings of Saturn feels ‘paralyzing horror’, rather than motivating indignation. The destruction, as he can plainly see, is ongoing, but he fatalistically watches and waits for the world around him to dissolve ‘into water, sand and thin air’ just as surely as the settlements of Dunwich had done some seven centuries prior, rather than do anything to stop it. What places Sebald’s characters among the last men is that, where they might choose the political, they choose the elegiac instead. For Sebald, too, it proved easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism and that, every bit as much as the traumatic burden of the past, is a source of his melancholy. In this he was—and remains—the Spirit of the Age.
Sebald is the new bannerman, I think, for what Marx once called the German ideology. He is revered because no one articulates our strange interiority better. He carries forward that German individualism, that padded cell, and makes striking artworks from strips of the graffitied walls around him, pulling together not just a patchwork post-war interiority but an uncomfortable post-Enlightenment sense of self, spanning hundreds of years. Our wound is not so recent, he informs us. But where figures like Mark Fisher remain essential, and where challenges like Ruby’s seemingly remain few and far between, is in realising that Sebald’s detailed maps of our insides are blueprints to tinker with and exceed, rather than places to get comfortable. The end is nigh only if we choose to stop and watch the world crumble with them.
There’s a thread going round today where someone explains why NFTs are a scam. Frankly, I don’t know a thing about NFTs, but I do know a thing or two about capitalism, it’s development and recent attempts to intervene in how it functions — as well as how capitalist ideology afflicts even those who might declare themselves anti-capitalist. In that regard, I do find the hysteria around NFTs quite telling.
What is striking to me is that NFTs and their markets are constantly framed as devious and evil things, but then people just describe about how physical art markets work. What is made to sound like an investigative “gotcha” is just people describing how current injustices and corruption are continuing in a new space. But the point of getting critically involved in this space is surely to stop normal capitalism from replicating itself digitally, as it has tried to do (often impractically and clumsily) for the past two decades.
This suggestion, in itself, is often ridiculed, as if NFTs are any sort of step on the road to capitalist abolition. Maybe that’s true. But at the very least they offer us an opportunity to redress our present value systems, which greatly disadvantage people who make digital content. That is where NFTs are most interesting and essential, and why the purity politics of those who should know better feels like nothing more than a reactionary desire to masochistically preserve the drudgery they know and otherwise constantly complain about.
This was initially just going to be a tweet, but in trying to break down this person’s argument, just for the sake of my own understanding of their position, it became too longwinded.
Lets finally talk about how NFTs are a giant scam. (1/) 🧵
First let’s talk about what the NFT market actually is. Unlike buying bonds, equities, real estate, or actual art you’re not buying something with any tangible existence, rights or utility. You’re buying an expensive entry in someone else’s database. (2/)
There is one comparable market to NFTs: The Star Naming Market.
Back in the 90s some entrepreneurs found you could convince the public to buy “rights” to name yet-unnamed stars after their loved ones by selling entries in an unofficial register. (3/)
You’d buy the “rights” to a name the star and they’d send you a piece of paper claiming that you were now the owner of said star. Nothing was actually done in this transaction, you simply paid someone to update a register about a ball of plasma millions of light years away. (4/)
Thing with star registries is they’re not unique and don’t actually convey ownership. The entire grift is in convincing other people that it has meaning. The value of naming is a star is precisely how much bullshit your loved one is willing to buy in this enterprise (5/)
First things first, I’m not sure how this is comparable to selling an NFT. The only way I can understand this as an example is that it indirectly affirms the apparent intangibility or immateriality of the token itself. But the problem with that, surely, is that it ignores the agency of the person who made the NFT.
Whatever you think of them, an NFT isn’t a star… Someone made it. This isn’t “buying a pet rock”. This isn’t paying money for something someone just found on the ground “as a grift”. Though people might assume an NFT has no actual value as an object — presumably because it’s digital or has previously circulated for free — it’s still something someone made, designed, coded, etc., often without remuneration. That doesn’t mean it innately has value in a social or cultural sense — your kid’s art you’ve stuck on the fridge probably isn’t going to revolutionise contemporary art either, but that doesn’t mean to say the parent who pays to get it framed has been hoodwinked by their grifting offspring. It turns out that most (sub)cultures are born and grown thanks to people assigning value and meaning to things that society at large doesn’t have much of an interest in. In this sense, this whole argument feels really disingenuous to me. All it does is highlight our poor and lazy thinking about the value of abstractions, ideas and other things created in a digital space.
You need only swap out the example to see why. For instance, “giving money to be added to some abstract database so I can access some digital content like a chump” could just as easily describe buying an album on Bandcamp. When you pay £7.99 for that album, how do you think the site knows to retain your access to it, as well as opening up a channel for you to download the files at your leisure? Probably by putting you on some sort of register.
Later on they argue:
NFTs impart no legal ownership, give no rights to the artwork, are non-unique, and provide nothing of intrinsic value except the sign value of owning bragging rights to announce to other crypto bros about a shared collective delusion about database entries. (12/)
Literally how do you think the digital music industry has been run for the past decade? Why do you think people place such importance on gigs and vinyl records? If only it was because they valued the cultural experience. You chat to teenagers with disposable income and ticket stubs and vinyl records tend to signify bragging rights that your crumby MP3s or Spotify playlists just don’t have.
That’s not to shame people who like material things or physical mementos of experiences. But this critique does demonstrate a very one-dimensional view of why people buy things, and how little people value digital content more generally.
To bring this a little closer to home: within the blogosphere, I feel like the idea of blog merch or “crit drip”, etc., started out as a joke, as an ironic side hustle, but as is the reality for so many creatives, it is also an acknowledgement that people just don’t value digital stuff, and if you don’t want to lessen the experience of interacting with your stuff by making it wholly dependent on a specific paywalled platform or making sure it is riddled with ads, creating some sort of additional physical merchandise is the only way you’re going to see some sort of return on your work.
(Of course, people’s opinions on this are also extreme, as if you shouldn’t make art for money, but personally, I’d love to be able to live off the blog if that were possible — not for greed, but so I could afford to spend even more time on it.)
That’s the irony of a site like the Quietus joining in the NFT hysteria:
Just waiting for the pro-NFT lobby to come back with a retort that manages to be both ultra-patronising and incomprehensible while managing to avoid answering any of the fundamental charges. And the “forest burning” aspect. *looks at watch*
Maybe I’m just part of a pro-NFT lobby too — although I wouldn’t say so — but for someone interested in music and its surrounding culture, this just sounds pigheaded to me (especially considering the Quietus routinely does fundraising drives because, as is universally the experience, writing online doesn’t pay).
But what if it did? What if you didn’t have to rely on physical merchandise or the pittance of ad revenue to secure some sort of income? What if people didn’t only assign value to physical objects but saw online content, which they arguably spend more time engaging with these days, as being just as valuable?
This is especially important for music since an increasing number of people are becoming cynical about vinyl fetishism, with production turn-arounds hemorrhaging the industry and being a major pollutant as well. Most NFTs — at least the ones that grab headlines — are probably the digital equivalent of the million-dollar Wu Tang Clan album, but that stunt surely epitomises a wider cultural fetishism around boxsets and limited editions. NFTs needn’t be represented by the most extravagant splurgings on the market. We needn’t frame them as “Most Expensive Discogs Sales for October”, as we do the other physical cultural clutter we pass around and exploit demand for. But we do, because we get off on denouncing examples of our own desires and value structures taken to extremes by those who possess extreme wealth.
We would do well to remember that these things are not representative of culture at large, where money is exchanged for digital art and files every day but somehow remains unsustainable. Thinking like that is how we ended up with our physical art markets (and value systems more generally) being in such a mess as it is.
And there’s the rub. The irony is that people seem to really misunderstand where digital market innovations come from. You can complain about digital markets all you want, but what they are replicating are the systems you’re already implicated in. It’s as if the denouncement of NFTs represents some sort of commitment to conspicuous consumption for some people, but if that’s an illusion IRL you can rest assured it’s an illusion online as well. I wonder how many of those people who are militantly anti-NFT are vegan, for example. People can, of course, pick their battles, but it does make me wonder why this garners so much attention at the expense of other more harmful things that are more pervasive and could be more readily boycotted, rather than simply denouncing something that most people don’t actually have any involvement in anyway. I bet most of y’all don’t even buy an album on Bandcamp when the website prompts you to.
The truth is, if you think you can denounce NFTs on Twitter and consider your soul saved, I’m sorry to say that the behaviours you’re highlighting haven’t emerged from thin air. They reflect how markets already run. And so denouncing NFTs for how they resemble already existing structures is only to indulge in your own self-fulfilling prophecy. The reason why some people and artists are interested in them is because they offer up an opportunity to do things differently, diversifying the market behaviours of artists and patrons in a way that arguably hasn’t been possible since the invention of the printing press upturned patronage and artists’ living standards in the Middle Ages.
This is particularly important when we actually rub two brain cells together and consider the impact of this on the climate crisis. Okay, the production of NFTs may not be super efficient right now. Chances are, as with most new technologies, they’ll get less expensive to make and run as time goes on. But considering how much of a mess the production (and reproduction) of physical culture already is, it is likely far more viable to make digital art carbon neutral (or even carbon negative) than it is the production of vinyl records or mass-produced band tees.
I’m reminded here of xin’s Melts Into Love EP, for instance, which was “released as a ‘biodigital’ LP — meaning the music is released digitally, but with a living consequence woven in. All proceeds from sales will be donated to Eden Reforestation Projects, with each purchase of the LP funding the planting of at least 40 trees.” Wouldn’t it be interesting if we re-evaluated our sense of worth in the digital space and put some of the earning towards funding the rehabilitation of our natural environment? Sure, blockchain technology might be polluting, but I bet we’d be damaging the planet much less if we focused on developing improvements to the digital Bandcamp model and got all the centrist dads to chill the fuck out over vinyl records. At least an NFT isn’t accompanied by a load of plastic waste and industry burn-out.
Already, in this regard, there is a community of artists online who are really pushing the boat out as far as challenging our complacent cultural value system goes. But, returning to the Twitter thread, the idea that other people getting involved is all part of the problem with this seductive pyramid scheme is question-begging.
In addition to the ‘International Star Registry’ several other ‘registrar chains’ popped up claiming to offer the same service. NameAStar, StarNamingGifts, Star Name Registry etc. All claiming to offer the same service with an equally alleged authoritative registrar. (6/)
NFTs are the evolution of this grift in a more convoluted form. Instead of allegedly buying a star, you’re allegedly buying a JPEG from an artist. Except you’re not buying the image, you’re buying a digitally signed URL to the image. (7/)
Again, sorry, but how is this different to being a photographer and selling prints of your work? (Or buying land / a house? I mean, it’s different from private property in the sense that the purchasing of a cultural artefact like an NFT needn’t be used to exploit the labour of another — you can’t rent an NFT (yet) — but as Rhea Myers repeatedly points out, we handle title deeds and symbolic agreements all the time — in fact, that’s arguably what paper money already is. But photography seems a better example here…) Every print proper comes with a signed certificate and some unnecessary commitment to artificial scarcity to drive the price up — that is, increase its value, and culturally speaking, this value doesn’t have to be monetary alone. Scarcity can also influence behaviours; the rarer something is, the more careful people are about preserving it, for instance — an important point to make culturally, since the apparent abundance of the internet actually makes it very poorly archived, with many early cybercultures already lost to data death. But by simply replicating our thinking about physical objects in a digital space — both actively and critically — all we’re really doing here is describing already existing art markets.
That doesn’t make these behaviours okay. The familiar ways that some NFT markets operate is something to be challenged, as if there’s a Robinson Crusoe fallacy at work — we have arrived in a new land and set about rebuilding the world we’ve just come from, rather than affirming the new potentials on offer to us here, which we probably can’t see because confirmation bias. In fact, the really stupid thing is when we recreate old conditions in a new space and then pretend like they’re at all new and special. This is what this thread does with NFTs, making it even more disingenuous.
If we’re not honest about where people are getting their ideas from — already existing and material socioeconomic conditions — choosing to make up some weirdly inappropriate allegories about stars instead, we only further fulfill our own doom-laden prophecy. Because developments run both ways. In reshaping the landscape of patronage and cultural value, by precisely exiting art markets and coming up with a new model, the whole landscape of contemporary art could change for the better, if we actually use our critical faculties and resist our bone-headed tendency to reactively denounce things based on hearsay or inaccurate second-hand information.
In this person’s comparison, for example, shaping the development of NFTs as a way of revolutionizing the star-buying market dangerously downplays the significance of these new technologies. The logic is twisted. “Here’s why you should be angry about NFTs — they perfectly replicate a market that everyone knows is dumb and purely symbolic, and therefore doesn’t really gives a shit about.” So why should I be angry? Just so you can have some clicks? Bad faith reactionary posting is very web 2.0. But that’s not to say I have problem with someone being critical of NFTs and digital currencies — I have no skin in the game whatsoever. It’s just, if we’re supposed to be concerned about these things, and we want to convince people to be vigilant of them, the last thing I’d compare them to would be something as innocuous as “adopting a dolphin”.
Such is the flaw of the familiar Quietus tweet, and most of the engagement with the thread: if we’re meant to tackle the charges made, the charges here amount to a cold-caller stealing your granny’s pension through some capitalist gimmick. It’s not something anyone who is technologically astute should worry about, whilst at the same time also apparently being an absolute scourge on society. That whole framing is bogus, if you ask me, not because it’s critical but because it’s a terrible critique. It’s a bad argument, no matter what is being argued against. Personally, I think these things warrant better thinking than that — especially from people (and platforms) that we otherwise hold up as our chief critical voices. (Stick to the music reviews, I guess, Quietus?)
Because what this does is literally transform something with very real material implications into yelling at stars/clouds. Either we should be concerned and intervene, or we are embracing the performative denouncement of something that we don’t think is very important. And what’s the point of that other than stifling technological progress? Personally, I hope things change online sooner rather than later. There is a huge imbalance in how much time we spend online and how much we value what is produced here. And that’s not an inequality invented by NFTs.
That’s not to say we shouldn’t listen to the concerns of anyone who isn’t directly involved, but it does make we wonder why they think we should care so much about this one supposedly inflated and unimportant issue at the expense of general financial inequality and injustice. “Magical voluntarism” is no response to capitalist inequality, because generally speaking there is no way for people to intervene, but there are people active online who are showing artists how to enter this space and play around in and shape it. Surely that, above everything else, is worthy of note?
There’s not much else to say beyond this. Once the foundation of the argument has been revealed to be flawed, and painfully rooted in, whilst simultaneously somehow ignorant of — as if it were pure ideology — the machinations of already existing markets, then the rest of the charges made collapse along with it. We see the familiar machinations of shitty market dynamics reframed as digitised sensationalism, which doesn’t help anyone. They continue:
Except now instead of buying your digital star with dollars there’s a second leg to the scam. You have to purchase the star by exchanging your dollars for some weird token whose value fluctuates on some secondary market. (8/)
Breaking: digital currency embroiled in “money is made-up and structurally unbalanced” controversy.
And listing digital stars on the register is a pay-to-play game that requires you to purchase these weird tokens at whatever the available exchange price is, thus creating synthetic demand for the token and driving the price up. Which is convenient for those who own token. (9/)
Again, this is a very paranoid way of describing how the world already works. You go to some countries, you’ll find US dollars are more valuable within certain markets than a country’s actual currency. But again, that doesn’t make it right. The idea of critical engagement here is surely that there is an opportunity to do things differently. Of course, digital currency spaces are going to perfectly replicate markets IRL if these technologies are left to bros from the City looking for something to do with their extra cash. (And let me tell you, having recently dome some proofing and editing work for some big corporate bank’s internal policy documents — such is the impure existence of someone who can’t make a living off their digital cultural production — investing in crypto is already as normal as investing in anything else in these places.)
But when we treat what is normal for the upper economic class — indeed, their bread and butter — as some sort of new magic trick for the rest of us, we neglect how democratizing these things can potentially be. Take this further point:
The core of the NFT grift is outsourcing the marketing for this artificially scar[c]e registrar to artists who are forced to pay large sums of money upfront to list URLs to their artwork in the hopes of recovering their lost costs. (10/)
Artists are like hamsters in a wheel that powers a giant casino for crypto bros to gamble on these signed URLs in the hopes that they can flip their purchase around to greater and greater fools for a profit. (11/)
Again, damned if you do, damned if you don’t. This is already how things work offline. This is why I gave up on photography — it was a pay-to-win endeavor, and I couldn’t afford the cost of entry. It’s the same in the art world more generally. Those who succeed in the market can generally already afford to take part. Even if this person recognised how they’re just re-describing a wheel turned into a JPEG, online spaces perfectly replicating offline dynamics isn’t actually the given a lot of these useful idiots think it is. In fact, that’s why digital cultures are struggling — they don’t work like physical cultures do.
That is why there is a problem with my own responses here, and this further problematises the critic’s very foundation. That a response from someone as rudimentarily informed as myself falls back on, “But how is this different to what we have?” also frustrates the argument. It’s an uninteresting and toothless response to an uninteresting and toothless accusation. It’s the problem with not knowing, more broadly, how these things work.
That’s precisely why these innovations are interesting to me, even as someone who is broadly technophobic. Digital artists and writers and musicians, et al., are struggling because there is no one-size-fits-all approach to artistic patronage and funding. Digital currencies offer up new avenues for patronage, not so we can all get loaded investing in digital Damien Hirsts but so that we can better finance the production of our own culture. Because making stuff online definitely costs money, even if it doesn’t often bring much of a return.
But because this person clearly can’t differentiate between what is new about NFTs and what is a continuation of meatspace inequalities, the responses to their critique are immediately limited to retorts of “you’re not saying anything that specifically applies to NFTs here, you’re just describing capitalism”. So the questions themselves need to change — what is new about NFTs? What new challenges do they bring that aren’t simply the further digitalisation of capitalism as we already know it? What is it about these technologies that actually escape our understanding of how the world currently works (not counting the average critic’s general ignorance of the world more generally)?
Those are questions that critics and adherents alike need to ask themselves. Until they do, their arguments have about as much value as they perceive the average NFT to have.
Update: Great thread from Mat Dryhurst here on this same series of tweets:
Ok so as clearly as I can make it, the star registry analogy doesn’t work because in the case of an NFT you are talking about agreements between an artist who owns the rights to something and a collector. Nobody owns the rights to sell the star.
it is quite obviously different to have a public registry of agreements between verified artists and their collector base, and a registry of selling ownership to something you don’t have the rights to (i.e a star)
Ownership with NFTs is unintuitive, as what is being transferred is a title to own and resell that artwork on web 3. An artist could indeed sell that same work to someone else, but nobody does, because that would be nuking your trust and any future market for your work.
We don’t fully own a lot of things we pay for. Digital music files being one example. You can’t go and resell those later. You can do so with an NFT, which is why they are priced higher.
NFTs have found a way to avoid wholesale scarcity by emphasising some elements of scarcity. If artists traded copyright to a few ppl (see Wu Tang/Shkreli) you run the risk of limiting access. NFTs are happy for everyone to access the art, and trade the title to it. It’s clever.
the stuff about NFTs being a means to onboard people to crypto is true, but not in the way the OP intended. A great amount of the value of Ethereum is based on the bet that immutable digital ownership on decentralised registries is a big deal, and NFTs are a foundational element
I believe this is also a big deal, although I can see tradeoffs in adopting these approaches. The pitfalls however are not “it’s all a scam” or “it’s destroying the planet”. With love, these are unsophisticated arguments that prey on poor understanding. click, RT, click.
The forest burning stuff regarding NFTs is, for the purposes of brevity, largely made up. There is no marginal energy cost to minting an NFT on Ethereum.
Engraving and shipping individual oil discs around the world is still an accepted standard in music.
The truth is that there is no simple way to explain the complicated blockchain energy scenario without someone wanting to get into a very long conversation about hash rate, energy mix and the relative merits of how to secure decentralised networks, and if we need them at all
but if you don’t have time or stomach for that long conversation, my earnest suggestion is to not take the bait into believing NFTs are boiling the ocean for a lark. It is not a moral act to pass moralising judgment on something you do not understand. Quite the opposite.
to set terms of engagement, I will not respond to any comment that posts articles with made up figures about NFT energy costs (they are completely made up), and will only respond to people being civil and displaying curiosity. No tribe war nonsense pls.
Over the last week, much of the UK’s left-wing media has been decrying Kier Starmer’s current campaign of public hypocrisy. The list of contradictions feels never ending at this point. If Starmer has previously announced his support for something in public over the course of the last two years, chances are he’s ridden back over it over the last two weeks.
This has occurred against the more ambient backdrop of an escalating internal war against the party’s left — both “far” and “soft” — where those often denounced as Stalinists for their democratic-socialist principles are ironically subjected to threats of ejection and paranoid investigations for invented offences or even the mildest critiques of the leadership. It is an assault on party democracy that feels like far more of a threat to the country than anything Jeremy Corbyn ever proposed, but for those loyal to Starmer, this is all immaterial. Keir can do no wrong, and nothing is off-limits in their concerted effort to resurrect the spectre of Blairism that so many people hoped the Corbyn era had finally put to bed.
But it is in their firm belief in his leadership that many of Starmer’s supporters legitimise their actions by pointing to the near-religious fervour of the Corbyn era. That is to say, they legitimise their unprecedented actions and assaults on the party by pointing to their own hysterical appraisals of the previous leadership. That the left denounces Starmer’s attacks on party democracy, for instance, is seen as hypocritical because Corbyn was a Marxist and Marxism is authoritarian communism and nothing else. (Never mind the fact that the previous leadership hoped to further democratise the party and put more power in the hands of its members.)
The same twists of logic, where the Labour right excuses its own behaviour by placing itself on a par with their strawman versions of the previous leadership’s principles, can be seen in their uncritical support of Starmer more generally. When Starmer’s critics say “the British political centre is the world’s shittest cult, in awe of a grey man with no vision for the future”, for example, his supporters only hear the word “cult” and respond, “I know you are but what am I?” They respond by holding up a mirror and deflecting all accusations of hypocrisy back to the left.  
Whilst encasing themselves in a hall of mirrors may be good for the odd zinger on Twitter, in the long run it is only going to further limit their chances of electoral success. As they continually point outwards, blaming the Tory’s inexplicable lead in the polls on left-wing sabotage, “I know you are but what am I?” is further chiselled out as their own epigraph. Because no one really knowing “what they are” is precisely the problem, and deflecting criticism onto those outside their ranks only serves to over-define the apparent wolf at the door, which is so unbelievably powerful, omniscient and conniving. But, in the end, their abstract enemy melts into thin air, whilst the question of “…what am I?” continues to echo around the hollow heart of their agenda.
For a reflective centrism, every deflection only shines a further light on their opponents, whilst further blackening the void of their own politics.
 That Starmer’s hypocrisy has caused the biggest outcry in the media after the party conference, does unfortunately remind me of this bit by the late Norm Macdonald. (“I don’t think [the hypocrisy] is the worst part…”)
 As an aside, let’s consider how cultish the Corbynistas really were. If the Corbyn era was cultish, it was undoubtedly because Corbyn provided the foundation to a long-subdued millenarian sentiment in British politics. If this moment had echoes of an evangelical Christianity, with supporters crowding around a leader they hoped to take them to the promised land, that may simply come with the territory. After all, what other area of public life has retained its commitment to individual lives — if not a world — transformed than the transcendental drudgery of British Anglicanism? (The jokes about Jeremy Corbyn and Jesus Christ sharing a pair of initials certainly didn’t help matters.) But personally, I am more tolerant of quasi-religious appeals to radical rebirth and transformation than I am a suburbanite’s commitment to bourgeois, political Protestantism. (This is more pronounced in the US, of course, but let’s not pretend the same sentiment behind being a “good Christian” isn’t echoed in the bourgeoisie’s appeals to everyone constituting a “good citizenry”.) And anyway, as many a drunken atheist will announce to their bored family over Christmas dinner, if a cult is just the collective veneration of an individual or object, all world religions are cults, just really big ones. But not all cults are alike. Not all religions and their sects share the same principles. If cults are the way of the world today — truly, in what corners of modern life is collective veneration not a common occurrence — better a progressive and hopeful one than a reactionary cult committed to preserving a repressive status quo.
Regardless, I think what scares the Labour right the most is that Corbyn really is the past. If he’s still invoked, it tends to be in solidarity, as a member of a community rather than its leader. Indeed, whilst many still decry his treatment at the hands of the party since it withdrew the whip and he became an independent MP, few are still hanging their hopes on one man and his former shadow cabinet. The right wishes the left’s power was dependent on Corbyn’s participation in public political life. On the contrary, though they have chopped off the apparent head of the Corbynista brigade, the movement continues to fight for its principles, almost as if it was always about socialist politics, with individual personalities just a means to an end.
Liara Roux’s new book Whore of New York is being published by Repeater Books very soon. In orbit of the release, Liara is having a few conversations over on her Instagram. Last week, she spoke to Adam Zmith, author of the amazing Deep Sniff, and tomorrow we’re going to have a chat too! Tune in!
(In case you didn’t know, I’m on Instagram too, over here.)
Update: If you missed it, you can now watch it back here.
I’d like to thank everyone who came out to Nova pošta last Thursday evening to my lecture on Mark Fisher’s Capitalist Realism, recently translated into Slovenian by Pika Golob and Nina Hlebec and edited by Gregor Moder. Maska, who have published the translation, are currently holding a reading group around the book as part of their fall seminar programme. (You can find more information about that here.)
I have wanted to visit Ljubljana for a few years now. I first became aware of the city’s scene after being invited to write for ŠUM#9 back in 2018. (An important essay for me, which I’m currently turning into a book.) Since then, I’ve also written texts for Radio Študent and, most recently, the Plaza Protocol project.
I had the absolute best time in Ljubljana, even though my stay was incredibly brief. In fact, it was briefer than was already anticipated. I had hoped to travel overnight, arrive at my hotel mid-afternoon, have a nap and then present and drink beer. In the end, my journey went something like this: I arrived at Manchester airport at 12am, since no trains ran early enough to catch my 6am flight and I didn’t want to drag my girlfriend out of bed at 3am to drop me off; I flew to Paris, but my flight was delayed in the air; having landed at Charles de Gaulle, I had to change terminals, and arrived ten minutes after my gate had closed for my connecting flight; from there, I panicked.
The first thing the Air France receptionist said was that the next flight wasn’t until the next day. I could have cried, honestly. I had been preparing for this lecture for weeks. In the end, they figured out a work-around that meant I could still get to Ljubljana by the evening. My only option was to wait in Paris for 4 hours, fly to Zurich, then from Zurich to Ljubljana, arriving at 18.50, ten minutes before my lecture was scheduled to start. It was either that or heading home. Thankfully, Maska delayed the start of the lecture by one hour. After landing, we headed straight to the venue, where I had a double espresso and a shower and jumped on stage a little dazed and with my hair still wet.
(All photos were taken by Amadeja Smrekar.)
Update: You can now watch the talk here.
I am a nervous traveller as it is, so I did not manage to sleep through any of this, but in the end, everything went relatively smoothly. I’d like to thank Aleš Mendiževec and Alja Lobnik for their amazing hospitality. I’d also like to thank everyone who attended, not only for being there but also for understanding that I was more than a little scatterbrained after twenty hours on the road. Thanks, too, to those who stayed to hang out afterwards and drink beer and Monster. Despite my journey, I still didn’t make it to my hotel until 2am, but this was very much by choice. You were all wonderful company and I only wish I could have stayed longer. If we met and spoke together, feel free to reach out by email or on social media. It would be great to stay connected.
Unfortunately, given my battered and bruised mental state, I was not wholly satisfied with the way my lecture went. I struggle to function mentally on such little sleep, and so, whilst my lecture was recorded, the idea of sharing my coffee-shot pauses and meandering train of over-tired thought makes me feel quite embarrassed. Though I think I expressed the core of my argument, and the discussions had afterwards were fruitful, I regret that I wasn’t able to perform to a certain standard as I would have liked, especially given all the effort of flying me out there.
What I’d like to do is share some of my talk below, folding in a few further reflections and additional points raised during my official Q&A with Aleš and the more informal conversations had with those in attendance afterwards. I hope the updated text is a testament to all that I learned and all that I found so interesting in finally getting to experience a snapshot of Ljubljana’s vibrant intellectual and cultural scene.
Until next time…
Is there (Still) No Alternative?
Capitalist Realism is, in essence, a book about stasis – not just as some naturally occurring point of equilibrium, where moving objects come to rest, but as a political choice and as an orchestrated illusion. Capitalism’s ideological consistency depends on its appearing to be the former when it is really the latter. That capitalism is realistic means that capitalism is common-sense, natural, and its reasons for existing are pre-established. Presented with the problem of how to organise a society, we’re told that capitalism just works, because it is, for better or worse, perfectly attuned to human nature. And yet, whilst capitalism makes the case for its own stability, it sacrifices the idea that improvements can still be made. In this sense, stasis becomes a byword for peace, but our current system affords little questioning of the kind of peace we have come to accept. In fact, it actively smothers any opportunity to think differently.
What we’re talking about here is ideology. But what’s interesting about “ideology” is that it is not a very stable concept; it has a complicated history, and its meaning has shifted repeatedly over the centuries. Ironically, considering how it is used today, “ideology” was first a liberal concept, coined after the French revolution by Antoine Destutt de Tracy to describe liberalism’s rational commitment to a “science of ideas”, which described a loaded framework quite similar to what we might now call the “marketplace of ideas” — a framework within which ideas can be debated and challenged without the underlying capitalist foundation itself coming under fire.
That we live in a “marketplace of ideas” today is part of the problem at hand. How can we hope to think outside of capitalism’s free market dynamics if any understanding of thought itself is restricted to those same dynamics? This critique of ideology is not new either, however. It wasn’t long before the word “ideology” became an insult used ironically to dismiss liberals who were high on their own reasoning in the late 18th century, and in the 19th century, Karl Marx appropriated it explicitly to refer to a narrative or set of ideas used by the bourgeoisie within a capitalist society to legitimise their own dominance.
Over the course of the 20th century, our understanding of “ideology” became more generalised and was given many more definitions along these lines, but it was always used to refer to liberalism’s hegemonic dominance with capitalist societies. Then, at some point, the concept was generalised even further. It has since become an insult detached from its initial critique, which is used to insult anyone with an identifiable set of political convictions. If the word is ever used by the mainstream media today, for example, it is often by newsreaders talking about the latest terrorist attack, where we’re told that some violent individual adheres to an extremist or far right or Islamist ideology. In these instances, to say something is ideological feels like another way of saying something is “pathological”. Ideology is detached from any social critique and repurposed by neoliberalism to mean any set of militant ideals whatsoever. But in transforming ideology into a kind of mental illness, something that is relevant to us all becomes something to deny outright. Liberalism, which coined the term to refer to itself, now defines as ideological anything that exists outside of its bounds. That “ideology” is used so ideologically cancels something out, and in the process, ideology seems to disappear altogether.
It was this disappearance of “ideology” as such that Fisher was interested in when he wrote Capitalist Realism. We might argue that his aim is to deconstruct capitalist ideology whilst, at the same, reconstructing political consciousness. In other words, his aim was not to deconstruct only to expand the void of centrist impotency, but produce a new critique through the reconstruction of our socio-cultural and political agency.
This is notable today because Fisher’s goal runs contrary to what most critics of critics of ideology now believe. He is not simply destroying the old worldview but actively trying to construct a new one, based on the material circumstances of the present. More often than not, leftists thinkers are denounced for doing the opposite. Jordan Peterson comes to mind as the most recent shill to denounce this kind of approach — primarily because Aleš had some funny stories about Peterson’s bizarre appraisal of Ljubljana’s “brutal(ist)” Soviet architecture (read: generic tower blocks) when he came to visit. He is the perfect example of an ideological critic (rather than critic of ideology) whose entire project depends on obscuring his political commitments behind superficial appeals to common sense and rationality, all while attacking the left as being wholly irrational in its war on facts.
In his best-selling book 12 Rules for Life, for example, Peterson equates postmodernism with “the long arm of Marx”, using it as a catch-all term for the dishonest persistence of leftist thought after its successive humiliations during the twentieth century. (In this sense, he is the quintessential capitalist realist.) Leftists display a contemptable arrogance in daring to parrot their theories down the years following the unearthing of Stalin’s gulags, he writes. Beneath the thin veneer of progressivism, what he calls “postmodern neomarxism” is a truly “nihilistic and destructive” philosophy that ignores history and the very processes of organisation that we now use to understand our world. In this sense, postmodern neomarxism “puts the act of categorization itself in doubt”, he continues. “It negates the idea that distinctions might be drawn between things for any reasons other than that of raw power.” Though a generic statement, seemingly applicable to the difference between apples and oranges, this comment can only really refer to social categories like class, race, etc. That these categorisations were created by market capitalism is irrelevant to Peterson. That they structure our reality is the primary reason they must not be trifled with. As such, the ongoing spread of leftism’s patho/ideology leads to the very seams of reality coming apart, which only exacerbates societal misfunction. But really all Peterson is complaining about is that leftists do not engage in the marketplace of ideas as they should, exchanging ideas with reason and civility within a pre-established framework that is less scientific than it is purely ideological.
This is tellingly what Slavoj Žižek is best known for writing about in his masterpiece, The Sublime Object of Ideology:
the social effectivity of the exchange process is a kind of reality which is possible only on condition that the individuals partaking in it are not aware of its proper logic; that is, a kind of reality whose very ontological consistency implies a certain non-knowledge of its participants — if we come to ‘know too much’, to pierce the true functioning of social reality, this reality would dissolve itself.
This is similarly the philosophical foundation of Fisher’s text. But rather than stop at the moment reality caves in on itself, Capitalist Realism describes the forms of life that lurks behind its false consistency, ready to be taken up and explored, if only we had the confidence to seize them.
Prior to my arrival in Ljubljana, Aleš and I discussed how best to approach and introduce Capitalist Realism in an explicitly Slovenian context. To talk about ideology here is to risk contributing to the flogging of a dead horse. Generally speaking, Aleš suggested that a Ljubljana audience was likely to be more familiar with Fisher’s theoretical reference points. As the home of Žižek and Mladen Dolar, the implicit influence of post-Lacanian psychoanalysis on Fisher’s mid-2000s thought is probably more apparent in Ljubljana than it would be to an English-speaking audience; the same may be true of the influence of Alain Badiou and Fredric Jameson. Though most of these figures are quoted in Fisher’s text — Žižek and Jameson in particular — an in-depth knowledge of their work is by no means necessary to understand it, but in extending Fisher’s work today, it is more common that academics will further engage with this background and make explicit what Fisher uses only implicitly.
With all this in mind, I decided to take a more counter-intuitive approach to Fisher’s text. If the philosophical background is more readily available, what is less discussed outside of the UK is surely the particular UK context Fisher was writing in and about. Indeed, Capitalist Realism is, more often than not, heralded as one of the great critical texts of the 2008 financial crash. Whilst this may be true for a global readership, in the UK the book has more often been read as a critique of the New Labour years in particular. The financial crash was the event that once again raised questions the Labour Party had buried a decade earlier.
These questions are important, but in uncovering their roots, former prime minister Tony Blair’s impact on UK politics in the 1990s is overlooked (internationally at least) in favour of Margaret Thatcher’s. This is understandable, since Capitalist Realism‘s subtitle explicitly turns Thatcher’s infamous slogan, “There is no alternative”, into a question. But Thatcher’s emphatic insistence that there is no alternative was in defiant response to many who claimed otherwise. She certainly oversaw the establishment of neoliberalism as a political norm in this country, but her time in office is also renowned for resistance and discontent. (Lest we forget the frequent rioting and the fact she was nearly assassinated in the Brighton bombing of 1984 by the IRA.) The banal horror of the New Labour years was that the very contentiousness of this slogan seemed to dissipate. Blair had no comparable resistance.
In this sense, Fisher’s reframing of this old Thatcherite slogan as a question does what the Labour party could not (or refused to do). Labour were the alternative, democratically speaking, but in the grand scheme of things, their differences were negligible. Following the fall of the Soviet Union, it seemed that, if communist and socialist ideals were dead abroad, there was no need to stay true to them at home either. And so, in amending Clause Four of the Labour Party’s constitution, Blair reneged on the party’s socialist principles and laid the foundations for two decades of centrist political dominance. He continued the Thatcherite advance of free market economics, whilst occasionally making a few reforms here and there. Though we can acknowledge that Blair’s Labour made some improvements to the lives of working people in Britain, these were capitalist reforms rather than steps towards socialist abolition. This only served to further entrenched the politics of neoliberalism and further concretised its ideological hegemony.
Fisher, a decade later, asks the question Blair ultimately refused to. Capitalist Realism was written at a time when Blairism was finally be coming to an end, and when capitalism’s (but also neoliberal centrism’s) ideological consistency was being called into question and a new era of protest and critique seemed to be on the horizon. At that time, it was anyone’s guess which way things would go, but by 2010 it was clear that, whilst the world had been changed by the financial crash, the ideology of capitalism held firm (or at least firm enough, in the popular imagination, that change was left off the agenda.) In 2010, the Conservative party re-entered Downing Street, in a coalition with the cowardly Liberal Democrats; it has remained there every since. As the politics of austerity spread around Europe, the same response was repeated ad nauseum: there is still no alternative. But this moment was significant in the UK — with the trebling of student tuition fees coming into force in 2012, the political consciousness of young people was energised in a way that Fisher had tried to encourage just a few years earlier. (I have written about this once before.)
The political landscape further changed for the better (and better late than never) when Jeremy Corbyn became leader of the opposition in the mid-2010s, encouraging a return (and update) of Labour’s erased socialist principles, but the brain rot of capitalist realism is still apparent today.
Over the decade since Capitalist Realism was published, we have been told repeatedly that we are living in times of unprecedented political antagonism and polarisation, but this polarisation is instead the rebirth of politics as such. The lie that we are all in the middle now — that we are all middle-class, centrist, reasonable and sensible liberals — has been demolished and political struggle (class struggle, even) is back on the agenda, but we still struggle to see our present circumstances beyond the lens of capitalist realism. Still, things are not as they once were. It is clear a new language and a new framework that reflects the realities of the twenty-first century is actively being developed and struggling to emerge. “Capitalist realism”, as one entry among a whole dictionary of Fisherian neologisms — including “business ontology”, “reflexive impotence” and “market Stalinism” — was a vital early contribution to this process of expanding the critique of ideology and making it wholly contemporary.
This is the UK context of Capitalist Realism. But explaining this to an audience in Slovenia, I wondered out loud how interesting this context was to the majority of attendees. It is a story about the end of history, yes — the end of an era where things “happened”; the stifling of events in favour of a totalising narrative — but these processes, and the flashpoints of change and potential that occur within them, are much more legible in other contexts. In fact, Slovenia is the perfect example. Whereas, in the UK, these changes were framed as relatively minor and progressive, following a path set out by our already well-established capitalist past, Slovenia’s transition out of its socialist period makes its attempts to conform to EU standards of capitalist neoliberalism far more explicit and politically legible. Whilst Tony Blair was rewriting the Labour Party’s constitution, Slovenia was rewriting its national constitution. The decisions made by our respective Nineties governments appear ideologically similar, but in Slovenia the stakes were clearly much higher and there was room for transitional and autonomous forms of resistance to keep existing, rather than be smothered under a tsunami of neoliberal reformism.
Consider Ljubljana’s protests of 2012-2013, for example. Whereas the rest of the world was protesting against a global capitalist totality — although Occupy was, by that time, starting to wane, with local interventions struggling to find purchase — Slovenia held its own government’s feet to the fire, criticising not just the totality but the presently corrupt formation that this relatively new parliament had settled into. In the UK today, accusations of parliamentary corruption are becoming more frequent, but they are always dismissed out of hand as hysterical hyperbole. Individuals shirk responsibility and rely on the consistency of the system behind them, as if this is how things have always been done. But with Slovenia’s government only a few decades old, there was less of an expansive ideological foundation to fall back on. This new political reality was the alternative to decades of socialist governance, but this meant that another way of doing things was still present in living memory. Though many may not have desired a return to the socialist period, that didn’t mean that this new capitalist reality was the last democratic decision they ever wanted to make. On the contrary, Slovenia remembers how to go about making change and bringing alternatives to the fore.
But Slovenian politics at that time seemed to follow a rhetorical process similar to that of governments elsewhere. Just as Britain rejected its socialist principles, in seeing its own (relatively) socialist principles fail to win elections, Blairism failed to understand that not all collectivist politics are essentially socialist. The communist or socialist policies of a given moment may explicitly appeal to certain ideals, but these ideals can hardly be contained by formal political principles when they in fact predate Marxism by centuries.
In researching Slovenia’s response to this same observation, I came across an interview with Vesna V. Godina, who summarises the context of the early 2010s protests as follows:
[T]his is a textbook example of the lack of any sense of what is acceptable for Slovenians in politics. We have a political elite that, in the name of ideology, opposed everything that the old political elite did. By doing so, it made it impossible for it to adopt those practices and behaviors that were, however, functional and socially productive in the previous system, not only for the people, but above all for the political elite. That you listen to people, that you take them into account, that they have channels of co-decision, that decisions, if at all possible, are made not by overvoting, but by consensus, and so on — these characteristics were not acceptable to the new political elite because they were socialist in their eyes. Which is not true. The story of collectivism as a socialist pattern is wrong. These patterns are pre-socialist, they come from the Slovene village community, from the tradition of direct democracy at village assemblies, where every villager had the right and even the duty to participate in decision-making. The principle of the permanent participation of all in decision-making comes from the village community, not from socialism.
The mistakes made by the new Slovenia’s parliament echoed those made by the British government during the same period. Not only was the Labour Party rejecting its internal socialist principles, but it was continuing to wage war on a rave culture that likewise encapsulated this sort of village excess, the carnivalesque, the pre-socialist expression of communal joy.
In this sense, what is even more striking about Godina’s argument is that it resembles so much of what Fisher explored over the course of his career. In his eclectic writings on the counter-culture, on post-punk, on the death of rave, etc., Fisher has always attempted to give new form to what is otherwise “unpresentable” — to quote Jean-François Lyotard — within the lingua franca of global capital. But what is spoken about in Slovenia with clarity and historical significance struggled to find purchase in the UK at that time. Though Capitalist Realism would grow into its clear global relevance, it is nonetheless true that Fisher wrote his book for a nation where these changes had passed most people by, and where other forms of politics had been successfully eradicated from the political imagination — especially among a new generation of the young (my generation, born in the late 80s and early 90s). In Slovenia, this was clearly not the case. Is it any wonder, then, that Fisher was so inspired by Žižek and his writings on ideology? In some ways, one could provocatively argue that Slovenia had more influence on Capitalist Realism than the book has had on Slovenia up to now.
Still, this is not to suggest that Slovenia does not need a book like Capitalist Realism. Rather, I am left curious as to what its new availability might contribute to a wider understanding of Fisher’s work and our enduring political problems in the 2020s. This is true of all recent Fisher translations. Prior to the event in Ljubljana, I’ve only spoken about Mark’s work outside of the UK once before, in Germany, where his biggest international fanbase has always been located. But since his death, many more translations have been produced. (I feel like I have inadvertently begun to collect them. At the launch of my book Egress in 2017, Tariq Goddard handed me the Korean translation of The Weird and the Eerie; more recently, I have contributed an introduction to the Spanish translation of the third K-Punk volume; and I have returned home from Slovenian with a copy of Kapitalistični Realizem, with editor Gregor leaving a lovely message of solidarity on the inside cover.) Opportunities for international solidarity are proliferating as his work finds new audiences around the world.
However, as wonderful as it is to share this passion for Mark’s work internationally, it is also quite funny to me. Mark is so often discussed — even dismissed by his critics — as a quintessentially British (and therefore parochial) writer. That he would be increasingly popular outside of this context, where lots of the material he draws on isn’t necessarily that widely available, is as surprising as it is a pleasant “fuck you” to those cynics who think his outlook is restrictive. (In fairness, a lot of Mark’s favourite cultural artefacts are just as difficult to obtain in the UK today.) But that’s not to say Fisher isn’t often parochial. I have always thought that his parochialism was one of his strengths. He had an exceptional ability to make the personal truly political. With this in mind, I think what people recognise in Mark’s work, which they may interpret as an Anglocentrism, is instead a commitment to making personal experience collectively relatable. He explores British culture because it’s what he knows, but in focusing on his own backyard, he also encourages each of us to further explore our own differences and particular experiences. This is not so that we might further champion ourselves as unique individuals, but in order to build what is truly needed but is, in fact, discouraged by capitalism more broadly, which is a solidarity without similarity. This makes him a champion of Situationist principles, we might argue. His work has always been psychogeographic in this sense, careening between the local and the global.
This is the productive tension that I think is still active within Capitalist Realism, even a decade later. I have already expressed elsewhere that I hope the translation of his work into Spanish will allow us to newly affirm and strengthen the intellectual bridges between our theorists, artists and political activists. I hope the same will be true of his appearance in Slovenian. With this in mind, the more interesting question for me isn’t so much how Capitalist Realism can inspire a new generation of Slovenians, but how explicitly Slovenian perspectives can be newly incorporated into our understanding of capitalist realism as a global crisis.
From here, it was my intention to segue into a discussion of Fisher’s cultural interests (and disinterests). I think that Mark’s key strength as a writer is that he uses British culture — particularly its music; surely one of the country’s most important exports — as a bridge between these local and global contexts. Focusing on culture in the 1990s especially helps us understand how certain political changes came to be accepted so easily. The entire problem of British centrism cannot simply be laid at the feet of Tony Blair, for example; the deeper problem was one of a tangential pop-cultural complicity.
That Fisher was deeply critical of popular culture at this time and in the 2000s was not a sign that he thought pop poisons young people’s minds, as if he was some old man yelling at clouds – which is nonetheless how he is sometimes portrayed. On the contrary, Fisher despaired that popular culture had apparently lost its connection to the underground. What he called a “popular modernism” had been vanquished; the underground’s impact on the overground was negligible. This isn’t to say that radical culture and politics disappeared, but it certainly didn’t occupy the same place in our popular consciousness as it had done when figures like John Lennon, for example, were driving a popular anti-war movement through pop music. Fisher preferred figures from his youth like Ian Curtis, Mark Stewart, Paul Weller, of course, but he would turn to the counterculture later in life nonetheless. Nevertheless, his best essay on this question — and on post-punk’s connection to popular culture — is undoubtedly “Going Overground”, an earlier version of which was published on his k-punk blog, with a refined version appearing in Post-Punk Then and Now.
This disconnection between underground and overground was epitomised by a Nineties establishment’s continuing war on rave culture. There was little popular resistance to this. Dance music still entered the charts, of course, and David Bowie famously tried to make pop music that was in tune with the jungle and drum’n’bass scene at that time; international figures like Björk also famously drew on that scene as well, but all ultimately failed to channel that energy in a way that connected with a broader cultural moment. The underground failed to dominate and shape the overground as it once had done. Instead, the pop positioning that working class artists had once fought for was taken as a given and made utterly apolitical.
For many, both at home and abroad, that Nineties era was pop-culturally defined by the rivalry between two British bands: Blur and Oasis. In many respects, these two bands were perfectly named: Oasis – referring to a fertile spot in a desert – embraced the illusion of prosperity that the void of New Labour centrism championed (often despite itself), whilst Blur – referring to something that cannot be seen clearly – spoke to the disorientating lack of distinction between different political realities under capitalism at the end of the twentieth century. But this is not to suggest that one band stood for complicity and the other critique – both were as impotent as each other, with their rivalry being reduced to music magazine fodder with no material stakes whatsoever outside of their own bank accounts. If anything, the dynamic was backwards. Epitomising England’s internal north-south divide, Oasis, as a working-class northern band, were somehow far more reactionary than Blur, a middle-class London band. With both sides being cheered on my politicians looking for some cultural credibility, the whole charade demonstrated how the entire landscape of political disagreement and cultural potential had been flattened, gathered up into the new apolitical centre, and made impotent. Whilst there was resistance to the application of this framework, at least outside of popular culture, it seemed impossible to argue for alternatives from within.
The shadow of this Nineties moment was long. Though dance music cultures continued to develop, albeit with strikingly less impact than they had once had on the overground – too afflicted by grief following the death of rave, according to some – popular culture in the 2000s was just terrible. With the Blur/Oasis war over, Fisher instead rallied against the Arctic Monkeys, who continued this newly impotence tradition to great commercial success. A similar cultural situation was unfolding in the US too, particularly following 9/11, when most experimental music sought a return to innocence, feeling a distinct nostalgia for the nation’s 19th century naivety and 20th century adolescence. In the UK, however, Blairite postmodernism led to a kind of cultural dementia, where society wasn’t so much driven by a traumatised nostalgia but seemed to forget what year it was altogether. The impact this had on politics was clear and depressing.
It was this failure of the cultural imagination that gave birth to Fisher’s writing on the idea that “the end of the world is easier to imagine than the end of capitalism” — a line he borrows from Fredric Jameson but then ultimately makes his own. The argument, succinctly put, is that our political imagination is now so misshapen by capitalist ideology that it is easier to imagine the end of life itself than it is to imagine other ways of living. Or, alternatively, the end of the world is the only way we can imagine doing things differently. Postcapitalism, then, is inherently postapocalyptic. Whether due to climate catastrophe or a zombie apocalypse, the end of capitalism is only imaginable alongside the destruction of state apparatuses and the advanced management systems that organise our daily lives today.
This places capitalist realism at the heart of what Jean-Francois Lyotard once called “the postmodern condition”, which again is an appeal to kind of stasis. Postmodernism, he argued, is the settling of modernism’s frenzy into a relatively stable configuration; “not modernism at its end but in the nascent state, and this state is constant.” This is to say that, under postmodernism, there are differences, there are alternatives, there are arguments for other worlds, but the problem is that these alternatives and arguments are themselves static. They are reified and fixed, like chess pieces with specific characteristics and moves, caught in an infinite stalemate. Things may violently vibrate, and some pieces might fall, but nothing ever really moves forwards. It is all captured within the marketplace of ideas. As Alain Badiou once argued, we are capable of destroying the old but incapable of generating the new. Caught in this state, the game doesn’t end. Postmodernism, then, is not a response to a contentious present, but the suspension of present contentions altogether.
For Lyotard, the implications of this are not simply cultural or political but broadly epistemological. In a postmodern world, any newly discovered form of knowledge or expression is immediately subordinated to a totalizing ideological “truth”. This is an unfortunate side-effect of society’s computerisation, he argues. Just as any new programme loaded onto a computer for the first time must nonetheless be rendered in a format that is legible to the operating system at large, so any new perspective on our world must be legible to a pre-existing hegemonic framework – even forms of knowledge that are principally opposed to that framework altogether. Postmodern critique was an attempt to break this framework. It was a kind of battle cry, signalling “a war on totality” that demands we bear witness, as previously mentioned, to “the unpresentable”.
This, too, is an argument that Fisher would update for the twenty-first century. Following Capitalist Realism, in books like Ghosts of my Life and The Weird and the Eerie, he repeatedly points to things which do not fit – either remnants of the twentieth century believed to be vanquished that nonetheless stagger on, or wholly new ideas or cultural artefacts that disturb, frighten or cause displeasure, simply because they do not fit into the rigid framework of capitalist stasis.
This argument finds its place in Capitalist Realism too. Fisher argues that whilst capitalism is everywhere, not everything is capitalist. As he later emphasised in Postcapitalist Desire, just because capitalism is fuelled by our desires does not mean that everything we desire is necessarily capitalist in nature. It is with great difficulty that we excavate these things from their capitalist encasement. But in attempting to do so regardless, we demand of ourselves a new conception of the world that is not impossibly non-capitalist but seductively post-capitalist. As Marx himself argued, we should not forsake wealth as such, but attempt to transform wealth beyond the bounds of capital’s value-structure. There is a wealth beyond capitalism. Once we learn to acknowledge that capitalism, in its present stasis, is not capable of providing us with the world we desire, then the future will truly return to us.
This was, in part, the importance of Fisher’s pop theoretical interventions. So many of those who dismiss him as unoriginal or basic miss the point that, before his book was published, these conversations seemed almost completely absent from popular culture. Fisher opened up a new door so that these older arguments could once again find contemporary relevance and also be given new forms in which to be expressed. However, Fisher’s own publication timeline does not help with this.
Whereas many assume that the thesis of Capitalist Realism is developed in Ghosts of my Life and The Weird and the Eerie, much of this material predates Capitalist Realism on Fisher’s k-punk blog, where his hauntological thought can be explicitly dated to 2004-2006. Though he remained interested in the spectres of the twentieth century that continue to linger over the twenty-first, Capitalist Realism was written at a time when Fisher was coming round to Alex Williams’ accelerationist critique of hauntology, which insists we do not start from our mourning of the past but with our present fury.
More contentiously, accelerationism argues that we do not start from our memory of past politics but for the truth of contemporary capitalism. Though often mistaken for capitalist complicity, this was similarly Jameson’s utopian argument, in which he argues that our desire does not conform to a capitalist pattern but extends capitalism into something beyond itself. It is in this sense that he argues in Postmodernism that
new political art (if it is indeed possible at all) will have to hold to the truth of postmodernism, that is to say, to its fundamental object — the world space of multinational capital — at the same time at which it achieves a breakthrough to some as yet unimaginable new mode of representing this last, in which we may again begin to grasp our positioning as individual and collective subjects and regain a capacity to act and struggle which is at present neutralized by our spatial as well as our social confusion.
Fisher intended for his own work to function as political art in this way. Though he may be more readily understood as a cultural critic rather than an artist in his own right, his mixes, radio shows and audio-essays reveal a man who was deeply committed to the idea that music and film (as well as their discussion) could give form to new worlds. Under the influence of Stuart Hall and Sadie Plant, he believed that cultural studies could itself be a form of cultural production. This point had never been more important than in the 2000s, when that once symbiotic relationship between postmodern culture and politics was awaiting a new Gramscian figure to challenge a waning hegemony. (For more on this, see my introduction to K-Punk, Vol. 3 and, to a lesser extent, yesterday’s post on the 2021 Met Gala.)
Flirting with the idea of seizing the mantle for himself — I’m told that Mark always wanted to be a pop star — he drew on the work of Jameson, Badiou, and Žižek in particular, but also on lessons learned from his time as a member of the Cybernetic Culture Research Unit. As a PhD student at the University of Warwick in the late Nineties and early 2000s, Fisher had contributed to a wealth of feverish texts that seemed to be written in collaboration with some sort of artificial intelligence. Constructing their own demonic mythology of forces, giving occulted new names to Spinozist entities of transcendental causality in the twenty-first century, the Ccru depicted a world in which the centrist dissolution of all difference was itself an apocalyptic moment. The birth of the internet was also the rebirth of history, and it was from this newly global platform that vibrant new mutant subjectivities might one day emerge.
Though he moved on from this stylised writing when penning Capitalist Realism, the output of the Ccru was still relevant to Fisher’s claim that “the end of the world is easier to imagine than the end of capitalism”. This phrase was taken from an article that Fredric Jameson wrote for the New Left Review in 2004 called “Future City”. The essay is primarily about the writing of Dutch architect Rem Koolhas. Jameson is struck by Koolhas’s use of a cyberpunk writing style, which he employs to describe postmodern architecture in a postmodern textual fever dream entitled “Junkspace”. [I am indebted to Nic Clear, who presented on Jameson and Koolhas in his exploration of Fisher’s first book at the conference “Capitalist Realism: 10 Years On”, held at the University of Huddersfield in February 2020.]
The essay could easily be a lost document unearthed from the Ccru’s archive. Whereas the Warwick cyberpunks wrote of the tyrannies of “meatspace”, Koolhas argues that the proliferation of “junkspace” in the contemporary urban environment similarly announces the victory of a “fuzzy empire of blur, [which] fuses high and low, public and private, straight and bent, bloated and starved to offer a seamless patchwork of the permanently disjointed.” For Jameson, though it seems to celebrate the most dystopic aspects of the cultural present, this kind of distasteful affirmationism might be the only form of cultural protest left. After all, it is the affirmation of an ending — indeed, the end of History as such. But to announce such an ending is, in itself, an act of historicization. In affirming these promiscuous contemporary stylings, borrowing from the entirely of history, as nonetheless being of a type and of a time, we compartmentalise them, giving them an inside and an outside, a beginning and an ending. We give them a sense of movement. It is, as Badiou once said, to promote “historicity without history”. (For more on Badiou’s reading of history, this article by Matthew McManus is worthwhile.) Indeed, if we are to speak of history at all, it is the end of History with a Capital H. Down with History, long live the new age of historicity — of events over narratives, of adaptive strategy over timeless ideology.
Discussing our sense that the end of the world is easier to imagine than the end of capitalism, Jameson affirms the end of world history in sense, as defined by capitalist forces. He writes:
I think it would be better to characterize all this in terms of History, a History that we cannot imagine except as ending, and whose future seems to be nothing but a monotonous repetition of what is already here. The problem is then how to locate radical difference; how to jumpstart the sense of history so that it begins again to transmit feeble signals of time, of otherness, of change, of Utopia. The problem to be solved is that of breaking out of the windless present of the postmodern back into real historical time, and a history made by human beings. I think this writing [– that is, the cyberpunk stylings of Koolhas and, by extension, the Ccru –] is a way of doing that or at least of trying to. Its science-fictionality derives from the secret method of this genre: which in the absence of a future focuses on a single baleful tendency, one that it expands and expands until the tendency itself becomes apocalyptic and explodes the world in which we are trapped into innumerable shards and atoms. The dystopian appearance is thus only the sharp edge inserted into the seamless Moebius strip of late capitalism, the punctum or perceptual obsession that sees one thread, any thread, through to its predictable end.
The key sentiment that I take from Jameson’s text here, is this “single baleful tendency [that] expands and expands”. This is key to a lot of Jameson’s work. His utopianism is never a sort of breaking through to a transcendental outside, but rather points of intensity expanding like a shockwave and enveloping all that is around them. This is important to note because, too often, a desire for the new gets stuck down the cul-de-sac of an absolute new. Some people think that, if the idea that is going to save the world isn’t completely never-heard-before brand-spanking new, it’s not going to work. But really, we should think more closely about those moments when an idea gets a little bit bigger or more intense or a tendency accelerates or gets louder, moving into a new area of possibility.
If this was Fisher’s implicit argument in 2009, on the topic of a postcapitalist thought that he would continue to develop for the rest of his life, it is no less relevant to 2021, especially in the UK.
Days before I flew out to Ljubljana, there was a predictable outcry from the nation’s TERFs after Judith Butler was interviewed in the US edition of the Guardian newspaper. At the time of writing, three paragraphs from the interview have been removed in which Butler rightly points out that anti-trans activists frequently align themselves with the far right, despite paying lip service to feminism’s apparently innately left-wing ideals. But the problem, perhaps, is that many contemporary feminists have ultimately failed to remain contemporaneous, to remain modern, to expand their social injunctions in line with the expanding field of the social around them.
Butler highlights this explicitly in her opening remarks. The interviewer, Jules Gleeson, says: “It’s been 31 years since the release of Gender Trouble. What were you aiming to achieve with the book?” Butler responds:
It was meant to be a critique of heterosexual assumptions within feminism, but it turned out to be more about gender categories. For instance, what it means to be a woman does not remain the same from decade to decade. The category of woman can and does change, and we need it to be that way. Politically, securing greater freedoms for women requires that we rethink the category of “women” to include those new possibilities. The historical meaning of gender can change as its norms are re-enacted, refused or recreated.
So we should not be surprised or opposed when the category of women expands to include trans women. And since we are also in the business of imagining alternate futures of masculinity, we should be prepared and even joyous to see what trans men are doing with the category of “men”.
What Butler is challenging here, if you ask me, is a stubborn form of gender realism. And her definition of resistance to this realism is really useful. The same can apply to capitalist realism, wherein categories of class, labour and value similarly change decade to decade. Indeed, it is imperative to capitalism realism to essentialise and maintain a false stability of conceptions of the world and of the self. It is with this in mind that I think the key point of Butler’s, which bears repeating, is that, “Politically, securing greater freedoms … requires that we rethink [all political categories] to include those new possibilities.” But as we can also see, new essentialisms and reductive categories emerge or are emboldened to smother those new potentials in turn. What I especially like about Butler’s conception of TERF resistance is that her idea of the future isn’t simply speculative — albeit not in the popular sense of that word that we’ve come know. Speculation often sounds too much like guess work, like uncertain predictions without grounding, but in speaking to expansive categories that are able to incorporate new possibilities, she appeals to the speculative as a process, like that found in the philosophy of Alfred Whitehead.
Whitehead has this great lecture, in his book Process & Reality, where he distinguishes between facts and forms. We think of facts as things that are true and which simply don’t change, but the forms we use to present facts actually change all the time, and must. That’s what Fisher was especially good at — providing new forms for the facts that capitalist realism struggles to present. When people see Capitalist Realism as a basic book or an unoriginal book, especially ten years on from its initial release — something common among jaded young people who’ve read a little Marx or some Adorno — they take for granted Fisher’s ability to present familiar arguments in wholly new terms that could only take such forms in his present. But we’re not living in Fisher’s present any longer. It is still with a great sadness that I remember he’s no longer with us. But we continue to appeal to our present without him.
On the plane over to Ljubljana, I was reading Arthur Rimbaud’s A Season in Hell. (I’ve been quite interested in his life and work recently.) One of his closing ripostes to the reader is affirmed by Fisher better than anyone:
One must be absolutely modern.
The scene in Ljubljana is enthralling and deeply exciting to me, if only because it understands this sentiment well. In fact, I’d argue it manages to be absolutely modern in a way that London (and the UK more generally) often struggles with.
Though it is nonetheless immersed in its own history, as all capital cities surely are, I’ve never felt more in tune with the rhythms of the present (at least since this pandemic started) than when driving back from and to Ljubljana’s Brnik airport, awestruck by the Julian Alps, nodding along to the Slovenian trap being played on Radio Študent.
Since leaving London this time last year, I’ve tried repeatedly (but not always successfully) to embrace my new natural surroundings in West Yorkshire and spend as much time in them as possible. Every time I’m out for a walk, I think about W.H. Auden’s anti-industrial (if also anti-accelerationist) volley from “Bucolics II”:
This great society is going smash;
They cannot fool us with how fast they go.
How much they cost each other and the gods.
A culture is no better than its woods.
In West Yorkshire, the impact of the industrial revolution is still readily apparent. In the Calder valley especially, still peppered with the ruins of old mills and chimneys, there are woods of stunted trees. The heavy smog of the industrial era created twisted branches and witches’ covens, as if nature is no longer reaching up but reaching out, horizontally, skulking underneath polluted clouds, looking to throttle whoever is suffocating the land. If a culture is no better than its woods, then England’s is clearly stunted too. There are signs of recovery, in music especially, but on the whole our cultural industries struggle to thrive under the mire of capitalist realism.
Maybe I’m a little cynical. I’m not well-travelled. Holidays for me as a kid meant driving back and forth to our closest continental neighbour, France, every year. Suffice it to say, I am easily impressed, but I have never seen trees or mountains as tall as those in Slovenia last week. Slovenia may be a tiny country, only slightly bigger than Yorkshire, but it felt so much more expansive in its goals and ideals than our repressed little island.
I think Aleš was surprised by just how impressed I was as he showed me around the Metelkova area surrounding Maska’s offices. Alja mentioned how, after the Slovene Spring, the new nations’ cultural industries were a real frontier, occupying old socialist military infrastructure and refusing to give it back, providing the capital’s rich intellectual and artistic scene an array of spaces in which to produce culture and critique. Some cultural NGOs still occupy these buildings relatively rent-free, including Maska itself. Compared to the near-impossibility of acquiring and retaining cultural space here in the UK, it seemed like a paradise, but it is a paradise still under threat.
Maska’s newest journal issue, kindly gifted to me on arrival, is entitled “Eviction of Culture”. Pia Brezavšček and Rok Bozovičar explain the organisation’s current crisis in their editorial introduction:
After nearly 24 years of being based at Metelkova 6, Maska Institute received a letter from the Ministry of Culture asking it to provide signed consent to move out. The same letter was sent to seventeen other civil-society and cultural non-governmental organisations working in the spaces of former military barracks, which separates the Autonomous Zone Metelkova from the museum square and facilities belonging to the administration of the Ministry of Culture. Some of these organisations have been using the building since 1994, when it became the property of the Ministry of Culture as a space intended for housing independent and alternative cultural and civil-society initiatives. As a whole, they constitute the largest independent production house in Slovenia, which is why the real reason for ordering this eviction is not that the building is dilapidated, even though it quite evidently is. Instead, the obstinate attempt to throw out M6 is primarily a symbol of the ruling political option’s attitude towards spaces of critical thought and art, a segment of hard-earned places of freedom which are being erased for no other reason than resentment.
Capitalist realism is alive and well in crises like these. Though we think of it as a situation, or an era, it remains an active process whereby ways of being, living, and doing are perpetually restricted to bureaucratic forms. But when you give an inch to bureaucracy, bureaucracy takes a mile. I mentioned repeatedly to Aleš that spaces like Metelkova simply don’t exist in the UK anymore. Though their offices reminded me distinctly of Cardiff’s Chapter Arts centre, which occupied an old school building in the Welsh capital — school / barracks, same difference — such spaces are utterly commercialised today by necessity. Either culture is evicted, or it invites capitalist realism in. For many in government, there remains no alternative.
But still, the scene in Ljubljana is vibrant and expansive, in some ways that put a city like London (never mind elsewhere in the UK) to shame. it is inspiring to see them still fight for principles that many UK arts organisations lost long ago. That there are new collectives emerging who cannot be met on old battle lines is also intriguing. I look forward to returning to Ljubljana in the future and understanding better how their cultural spheres operate and work together. There is much to be learned from them.
I really wasn’t going to bother. I bashed this out on my lunch break today, but then Owen said it best…
I don’t really give a fuck about this but I absolutely 100% know the actual living Mark Fisher would have fucking loved someone wearing a swanky dress with a social democratic slogan painted on it — in fact he’d have written a long and faintly horny post about how great it was
I don’t want to pull rank on this issue usually but on this point I’m sorry but you really don’t know who you’re talking about here
the post would have been called ULTRA-LIBIDINAL SOCDEM GLAM KONTINUUM, it would have been both great and embarassing, and none of you would have read it
There is this sort of posthumous flattening of Mark Fisher Thought into, precisely, transcendental miserabilism — everything is always already recuperated! tout ce qui bouge est un subterfuge! — which turns him into a maudlin saint of our permanent defeat
You don’t have to spend all that long in the k-punk archives before it becomes vividly apparent how much he Really Liked certain things, at least as much as (and very much because) he Really Hated certain other things
But there’s still so much going on here, I actually think it is quite interesting… And it is an excuse to share what I think is one of Fisher’s most heretical posts. So here it is anyway…
As photos from the red carpet at the Met Gala spooled out over social media — shout out to Lil Nas X, who somehow embodied both a Mecha NRx queen and the superego, ego and id — Enrico tagged me in a meme of a meme of a meme: a picture of AOC’s “Tax the rich” dress, overlaid by a cursed Mark Fisher Wikipedia smackdown, which has been overlaid again with some soyfaced gesticulating. This final version is the one that gets it. This Wikipedia screenshot couldn’t be less applicable to AOC’s gesture. But how to navigate this tension not just in Mark’s thought but in political consciousness more generally?
I’ve been thinking about this stuff a lot this year, ever since writing the intro for Caja Negra’s edition of K-Punk, Vol. 3. Most of the receipts backing up Owen’s comment can be found in there. TL;DR: The early 2010s were a battle ground over pop-cultural representations of anti-capitalism. On the whole, no one wanted to see it. Public figures advancing leftist political agendas, if they existed at all, were hounded as sell-outs. If you had a public platform and were using it to critique capitalism — which is surely what had given you a public platform in the first place — then you were a hypocrite.
Of course, that’s nonsense. In my view, it is all a result of a hardening of the line between politics and culture. To borrow an example used in the essay linked above, that Kanye ran for president is more an indictment of our logic of political engagement than it is an indication of the size of Kanye’s ego. He was one of the most outspoken artists of his generation, who used his platform to raise awareness around civil rights issues in a way that few had done for a generation. But he was repeatedly told to leave the politics out of it because he’s not a politician, so he strove to become a politician as well as everything else he is. All Kanye has tried to do is navigate our tendency to compartmentalise the social, cultural and political, and if his attempts to do that are confused and ham-fisted, it says more about the fragmented landscape we’ve created than anything else.
Following the Met Gala, we see that you’re damned if you do and damned if you don’t:
Im sorry but that AOC stunt is so cringe. You are a serving politician not a celebrity
This is surely the fallacy of modern celebrity. (Aren’t all publicly recognizable politicians, by definition, also celebrities?) Anyone who is publicly known is too corrupted to be of any use. It doesn’t matter what you’re known for or even the degree to which you can claim celebrity status. You’re held up as a leader, but you can’t lead. You’re held up as an influencer, but can’t be seen to influence. The paradox is surely obvious?! The better known someone is, the more it is expected that they remove themselves from the public sphere. It is what Fisher’s called a “neo-anarchist” framework, which might be militantly anti-individual but in failing to be anti-individualist, it forgets to insert some collectivist perspective into the mix. We denounce the different parts without ever remembering to affirm the whole. It is in this sense that pointing at political gestures within the cultural sphere and shouting “complicit!” only exacerbates our own impotence.
Personally, I think we all become poorer when we dismiss the impact of political sentiments expressed in popular culture. That was Fisher’s feeling too. When writing on the popularity of The Jam, he makes the point that it “mattered that they were popular … because it wasn’t only you and fellow initiates who heard the music; the (big) Other heard it too.”
What we witnessed with punk and postpunk – or more broadly, with the whole efflorescence of popular modernism since the 50s – was an ‘affective contagion’, to use a term discussed in Frederic Jameson’s enthralling new book The Antinomies of Realism. One of the problems with many of the horizontalist models of political action is that they assume that we already know what we think and feel, and we are simply prevented from expressing ourselves by oppressive power structures. Yet mass mediated art could name and focus feelings that were not only suppressed – by ‘internal’ as well as external censoring agencies – but which were inchoate, unformed, virtual. Mass mediation transformed, not merely ‘represented’ these affects; after they were named and brought into focus, the feelings ‘themselves’ were experienced differently.
This is what some people probably take away from Owen and Dom’s tweets above. But Mark was so much more contrarian than most might assume even from reading those. Because we might accept this and then say, well, yeah, okay, that’s cool, but is the Met Gala really the right vehicle here? But on that point, Fisher becomes an even worse person to use to denounce a dress at the Met Gala. (Just had one of those moments, writing that, where you realise just how mind-numbing the things that trigger the discourse are, but onwards we go…) It’s not just that he’d likely love every part of AOC’s dress stunt — the performativity, the artificiality, the bloodyminded insistence to (properly) insert politics into that venue (unlike Delavigne’s lacklustre effort) — it’s that he’d also affirm the glamour of the whole occasion.
Part of the founding principle of k-punk, after all, was a glam-punk synthesis. Being punk isn’t about being crusty and appealing to some sort of false working-class authenticity. That’s a hangover from hippie’s war on sensuality, reborn in the heroin chic of the impotent Nineties. Mark instead affirmed Nietzsche’s aristocratic thinking (to an extent), obliterating all appeals to authenticity. He understood the strangely aspirational drive you acquire in growing up poor. It’s not to say you want to become posh, but you certainly want a life of leisure. Who wouldn’t? So you emulate the value structure held above you and contaminate it with your own sensibilities. It’s A Clockwork Orange or Lady Chatterley’s Lover — yes, yes, he hated Lawrence, but I don’t care. There’s something transgressive and cool in the corrupting of aristocracy with your own desires. There is no pride in being “authentically” working class. That’s just affirming your own suffering, hardship and drudgery, surely? You don’t want to find community in drudgery but community in joy. Consider this post, which I imagine will be deeply controversial to a post-Losurdo Nietzschean community. For Mark, post-punk, and glam in particular,
rectified the genetic fallacy that haunted Nietzsche’s thinking. While there’s no doubt that Nietzsche’s analysis of the deadening effects of slave-moralising ‘egalitarian’ levelling in Beyond Good and Evil and The Genealogy of Morals identified the sick mind virus that had western culture locked into life-hating disintensification-unto-death, his paeans to slave-owning aristocratic culture made the mistake of thinking that nobility could be guaranteed by social background.
Nobility is precisely a question of values; i.e. an ethical stance, that is to say, a way of behaving. As such, it is available to anyone with the will and desire to acquire it — even, presumably, the bourgeoisie, although their whole socialization teaches them to resist and loathe it. More than anyone, Nietzsche understood that, the European bourgeoisie’s deep hostility to ‘the notion of superiority’ concealed a viciously resentful psychopathology.
If Nietzschean atheology says: we must become god, bourgeois secularism says: No-one may be greater than me — not even God.
Everyone knows that there has always been a deep affinity between the working class and the aristocracy. Fundamentally aspirational, working class culture is foreign to the levelling impulse of bourgeois culture — and of course this can be politically ambivalent, since if aspiration is about the pursuit of status and authority, it will confirm and vindicate the bourgeois world. It is only if the desire to escape inspires taking a line of flight towards the proletarian collective body and Nu-earth that it is politically positive.
We might dismiss AOC for even being at the Met Gala in the first place, but how does that final line of Fisher’s peon to glam not epitomize her gesture? She enters the bourgeois arena, but she also surpasses it by reaching into politics proper. That’s not to say the Met Gala is the perfect platform. But unlike some, I don’t think that “Tax the rich” and “Peg the patriarchy” (as was the original phrase on Delavigne’s outfit, pre-memeification) are somehow equivalent statements. AOC’s gesture only makes Delavigne’s look more vacant to me. One is a sort of “etsy agitprop”, the other — no matter how succinct — is still a policy. She’s bringing her political commitments to the party. She’s using her cultural popularity to advance knowledge of her political agenda. This isn’t a vague appeal to pegging in a stab vest (which, as a collection of signifiers, seems internally contradictory to me…) “Tax the rich”, on the contrary, is an unambiguous statement worn at an event synonymous with the rich and famous. Unlike Delavigne’s fatally ambiguous satire, AOC’s message and audience are clear. This isn’t the equivalent of rocking up in a Che Guevara t-shirt, mass produced and made utterly meaningless; a signifier that has no objective and extractable content.
I don’t think Althusser would be a fan of the Met Gala, but on this point, I’m reminded of his summary of Marx’s The Poverty of Philosophy, in which he says that Marx
attached extreme importance to political consciousness: not to the simple subjective consciousness that produce rebellious or embittered subjects, but to the objective consciousness (or ‘theory’) that can attain knowledge of the objective conditions of social life, exploitation and struggle. Slogans about ‘raising the consciousness’ of political activists and endowing them with ‘true class-consciousness’ derive from this terminological tradition.
This is the distinction I see at work in these gestures. One appeals to subjective rebellion, the other to objective social conditions (and a policy that could mitigate them). One works as consciousness raising where the other fails. Delavigne says, “if you don’t understand it, you’re going to have to google it.” No such ambiguity surrounds AOC’s gesture. If we respond as embittered subjects anyway, I’m not sure that’s on her at this point.