A Twitter thread from the other day that had an unexpected response. I wanted to pin it here for posterity.
On BBC Woman’s Hour, former journalist Eleanor Bradford came out defiantly as a mother who had returned her adopted son to the care system, because he was a problem child and the family was struggling. But the whole way the conversation was framed, by Woman’s Hour and Bradford herself was deeply disappointing. (You can listen to the clip here.)
This is painful to listen to for lots of reasons, but primarily because it takes as a given that adopted kids should automatically be grateful for wherever they end up, as if a “better” life means anything to a kid who remains at the mercy of things beyond their control.
I’m adopted and my relationship with my adoptive mother was never anything but fraught. Constant feeling of not being who she wanted me to be, as this ideal child chosen rather than left up to chance. But whilst it wasn’t until my teens that I rebelled, kids are v self aware.
I briefly had a “sister” in my first years of primary school. She was under 4yo and her parents, who were v elderly, couldn’t cope. She came to live with us but hated it. Used to accuse me of hurting her, trashed her room, acts of protest you wouldn’t expect of a 4yo.
But kids know. The trauma of being given up, at any age, stays with a lot of people. I’m still dealing with it aged 30. The worst thing about our adoption systems is they’re seen as virtuous with v little understanding of what kids go through.
It’s an ill-fitting solution to a complex social problem, and this woman isn’t revealing more of its complexity. She’s revealing how many adoptive parents don’t know what they’re getting into. The kids you take in aren’t blank slates, nor are you as a parent devoid of hangups.
The further thing that really bugs me about this is her framing of her actions as somehow heroic, because she’s asserting her agency in a difficult situation, whereas others don’t or can’t cos safeguarding, etc.
My mum used to do this when we’d fall out, asserting her authority in front of school teachers, calling up to complain about me and stage interventions, with me having no leg to stand on as a minor. It fuelled resentment and solved nothing.
Because this is a powerplay that hits different to one between biological relatives. She’s lashing out, perhaps for similar reasons to those causing her kid to make trouble, re: grief and abandonment. Understandable, perhaps, but no less manipulative and uncomfortable.
(Humbled a lot of people who work in social care are responding to this. I have no expertise, only my own ruminated-on experiences. I’m glad they resonate.)
I’m planning on returning to “primal wound” stuff after I’ve wrapped on the current book project, as there’s lots more to be said there. I’ve toyed with the idea of making it a PhD project, even, but it also terrifies me how close to the bone a lot of this stuff is. Something better worked out in therapy than academia, no doubt…
And as much as I still like that Lapsus Lima article, the older I get, the less and less I like academic concision. I want to untangle all the knots and lay it out flat, because this is a topic seldom discussed. The most moving thing about the response to this has been all of the Twitter accounts we’ve shared or sent messages who are open advocates for adoptees’ voices. They are so rarely heard.
The Spanish translation of my book Egress has just been published by the wonderful people at Caja Negra Editora.
Their catalogue is amazing, and it is a real honour to be published alongside so many books that have had a really profound influence on me over the years. (Beyond the obvious Fisher collection, Derek Jarman’s Modern Nature, Kodwo Eshun’s More Brilliant than the Sun and David Toop’s Ocean of Sound are three books I’d insist anyone buy; it is company I am truly unworthy of.)
The book has been translated by Matheus Calderón Torres — which means we have a blood bond now, I think — and the rest of the team have done a wonderful job reproducing my photographs. There are even a couple of additional footnotes in this edition to add further context where necessary. The reception so far has been humbling from those who have read it — you can read Matheus’ original review here — and I am looking forward to talking to Spanish readers about it in more detail in the New Year.
For more information, to read the introduction, and to buy the book, head over on the Caja Negra website.
For months and months now, I have very slowly been making my way through Robert Musil’s monstrous and unfinished modernist masterpiece, The Man Without Qualities. This is, in part, because of a tenuous connection between the book and Hervé Guibert’s memoir, To the friend who did not save my life. There, Guibert controversially chronicles, at intervals, the final months of Michel Foucault’s life and the long shadow of his death.
Foucault is pseudonymised as a man called “Muzil”, but it didn’t take long for the book’s initial readers to connect the dots between this character’s biographical experiences and those of the philosophical giant. Still, I wondered: why Muzil? Perhaps this was a veiled refence to Robert Musil — his man without qualities certainly seems like a Foucauldian character; another man who sets about constructing these vast and detached observations of a rapidly changing world. Guibert writes that, towards the end, just as Muzil had “attacked the foundations of society’s collective assumptions regarding sex, he’d begun to undermine the structure of his own labyrinth.” So too does Musil in his own monument to intellectual and subjective transience in the modernist era.
Because it wasn’t remotely what I was looking for, it took me completely by surprise when The Man Without Qualities began talking about accelerationism, and explicitly as well… That is, not as some German futurist prototype or some vaguely thematic antecedent, but a book that uses the term “accelerationism” explicitly, long before I’d ever seen (or heard anyone else argue) it being used.
Benjamin Noys has previously attributed his unconscious poaching of the word “accelerationism” to Roger Zelazny’s 1967 book Lord of Light, for instance, as a sort of late modernist document watered down with New Age sentiments. But here is Musil using the term some 37 years earlier. And what is most notable about it is that his brief entanglement with this phrase, which appears only once, resonates profoundly with that early Ccru sentiment, calling for “a new human race”, a new spirit for a newly technical age, a lyricism “allied to the most intense dramatism of life”; a new kind of human subject that can withstand “the ultimate speeding up of experience based on the biomechanics learned in sports training and the circus acrobat’s precision of movement!”
Funnily enough, this brings my own stance on accelerationism full circle… Here I was, looking for some allusions to Stoicism at the heart of modernism, powered on by some vague reference made in one philosopher’s anonymization, looking, at the same time, for a way to connect this all back to Deleuze. And then here is a mention of “accelerationism” in the midst of it all, unexpectedly chiming with old attempts to re-emphasise “the missing subject” at its heart, drawing on Deleuze’s flattening of the subject contrary to bourgeois individualism, which places a drag on our development rather than encouraging it.
And now here the two meet… Is this passage, from this dense and meandering book, the true source code, lost for all these years?
ONE MUST MOVE WITH THE TIMES
Dr. phil. Arnheim had received a scheduled visit from two top executives of his firm and had held a long conference with them; in the morning, all the papers and calculations still lay in disorder in his sitting room, for his secretary to deal with. Arnheim had decisions to make before his firm’s emissaries left by the afternoon train, and he always enjoyed this sort of situation for the pleasurable tension it never failed to arouse. In ten years’ time, he reflected, technology will have reached the point when our firm will have its own business planes, and I shall be able to direct my team long distance during a summer vacation in the Himalayas. As he had reached his decisions overnight and had only to go over them and confirm them in the light of day, he was at the moment free. He had ordered his breakfast sent up and was relaxing with his first cigar of the day, mulling over last night’s gathering at Diotima’s, which he had been obliged to leave rather early.
This time, it had been a most entertaining party, with a large number of the guests under thirty, few over thirty-five, almost still bohemians but already beginning to be famous and noticed in the newspapers: not only native talents but visitors from all over the world attracted by word that in Kakania a lady who moved in the highest circles was blazing a trail for the spirit to penetrate the world. It was, at times, like finding oneself in a literary café, and Arnheim had to smile at the thought of Diotima looking almost intimidated under her own roof; but it had been quite stimulating on the whole and in any case an extraordinary experiment, he felt. His friend Diotima, disappointed with the fruitless meetings of the very eminent, had made a determined effort to give the Parallel Campaign an infusion of the latest trends in thought and had made good use of Arnheim’s contacts for the purpose. He merely shook his head when he remembered the conversations he had been obliged to listen to, crazy enough, in his opinion, but one must give way to youth, he told himself; to simply reject them puts one in an impossible position. So he felt as it were seriously amused by the whole thing, which had been a bit much all at once.
They had said to hell with . . . what was it, now? Oh yes, experience. That personal sensory experience the earthy warmth and immediacy of which the Impressionists had apostrophized fifteen years earlier, as though it were some miraculous flower. Flabby and mindless, was their verdict on Impressionism now. They wanted sensuality curbed and a spiritual synthesis.
Now, synthesis probably meant the opposite of skepticism, psychology, scientific study, and analysis, all the literary tendencies of their fathers’ generation.
So far as could be gathered, theirs was not so much a philosophical stance as, rather, the craving of young bones and muscles to move freely, to leap and dance, unhampered by criticism. When they felt like it they would not hesitate to consign synthesis to the devil too, along with analysis and all reflection. Then they maintained that the mind needed the sap of immediate experience to make it grow. Usually it was members of some other group who took this position, of course, but sometimes in the heat of argument it could turn out to be the same people.
What fine slogans they came up with! They called for the intellectual temperament. And lightning thought, ready to leap at the world’s throat! Cosmic man’s sharply honed brain! And what else had he heard?
A new human race, restyled on the basis of an American world plan for production by mechanized power.
Lyricism allied to the most intense dramatism of life.
Technicism—a spirit worthy of the machine age.
Blériot—one of them had cried out—was at that very moment soaring over the English Channel at thirty-five miles an hour! If we could write this “Thirty-five Mile” poem we would be able to chuck all the rest of our moth-eaten literature into the garbage!
What was needed was accelerationism, the ultimate speeding up of experience based on the biomechanics learned in sports training and the circus acrobat’s precision of movement!
Photogenic rejuvenation, by means of film . . .
Someone pointed out that a man was a mysterious innerspace, who should be helped to find his place in the cosmos by means of the cone, the sphere, the cylinder, and the cube. Whereupon an opposing voice made itself heard, to the effect that the individualistic view of art underlying that statement was on its way out and that a future humanity must be given a new sense of habitation by means of communal housing and settlements. While an individualistic faction and a socialistic one were forming along these lines, a third one began by voicing the opinion that only religious artists were truly social-minded. At this point a group of New Architects was heard from, claiming leadership on the grounds that religion was at the heart of architecture, besides which it promoted love of one’s country and stability, attachment to the soil. The religious faction, reinforced by the geometric one, averred that art was not a peripheral but a central concern, a fulfillment of cosmic laws; but as the discussion went on, the religionists lost the cubists to the architects, whom they joined in insisting that man’s relation to the cosmos was, after all, best expressed through spatial forms that gave validity and character to the individual element. The statement was made that one had to project oneself deep into the human soul and give it a fixed three-dimensional form. Then an angry voice dramatically asked all and sundry what they really thought: What was more important, ten thousand starving human beings or a work of art? Since almost all of them were artists of one kind or another, they did in fact believe that art alone could heal the soul of man; they had merely been unable to agree on the nature of this healing process, or on what claims for it should be put to the Parallel Campaign. But now the original social group came to the fore again, led by fresh voices: the question whether a work of art was more important than the misery of ten thousand people raised the question whether ten thousand works of art could make up for the misery of a single human being. Some rather robust artists proposed that artists should take themselves less seriously, become less narcissistic. Let the artist go hungry and develop some social concern! they demanded. Life was the greatest and the only work of art, someone said. A voice boomed out that it was not art but hunger that brought people together! A mediating voice reminded everyone that the best antidote to the overestimation of the self in art was a thorough grounding in craftsmanship. After this offer of a compromise, someone made use of the pause, born of fatigue and mutual revulsion, to ask serenely whether anyone present really supposed that anything at all could be done before the contact between man and space had even been defined? This became the signal for technologists, accelerationists, and the rest to take the floor again, and the debate flowed on, this way and that, for a good while longer. Eventually an accord was struck, however, because everyone wanted to go home, but not without reaching some kind of conclusion, so they all fell in with a statement to the general effect that while the present time was full of expectation, impatient, wayward, and miserable, the messiah for whom it was hoping and waiting was not yet in sight.
Arnheim reflected for a moment.
He had been the center of a circle throughout all this; whenever those on the outer fringe who could not hear or make themselves heard slipped away, others immediately took their place; he had clearly become the center of this gathering too, even when this was not always apparent during the somewhat unmannerly debate. After all, he had for a long time been well up on the subjects discussed. He knew all about the cube and its applications; he had built garden housing for his employees; he knew machines, what made them work, their tempo; he spoke effectively on gaining insight into the self; he had money invested in the burgeoning film industry. Reconstructing the drift of the discussion, he realized besides that it had by no means gone as smoothly as his memory had represented it. Such discussions move in odd ways, as though the contending parties had been assembled blindfolded in a polyhedron, each armed with a stick and ordered to go straight ahead. A confused and wearisome spectacle devoid of logic. But isn’t this an image of the way things generally go in life? Here, too, control is gained not by the restraints and dictates of logic, which at most function like a police force, but only by the untamed dynamic forces of the mind. Such were Arnheim’s reflections as he remembered the attention that had been paid to him, and he decided that the new style in thinking could be likened to the process of free association, when the conscious mind relaxed its controls, all undeniably very stimulating.
He made an exception and lit a second cigar, though he did not normally give in to such sensual self-indulgence. And even as he was still holding up the match and needed to contract his facial muscles to suck in the first smoke, he could not help smiling as he thought of the little General, who had started a conversation with him at the party the night before. Since the Arnheims owned a cannon and armorplate works and were prepared to turn out vast quantities of munitions, if it came to that, Arnheim was ready to listen when the slightly funny but likable General (who sounded quite different from a Prussian general, far more unbuttoned in his speech but also, one might say, more expressive of an ancient culture—though, one would have to say, a declining culture) turned to him confidentially and—with such a sigh, downright philosophic!—commented on the discussion going on around them, which at least in part, one had to admit, was radically pacifist in tone.
The General, as the only military officer present, obviously felt a little out of place and bemoaned the fickleness of public opinion, because some comments on the sanctity of human life had just met with general approbation.
“I don’t understand these people,” were the words with which he turned to Arnheim, seeking enlightenment from a man of internationally recognized intellect. “I simply don’t see why these new men in all their ignorance keep talking about generals drenched in blood! I think I understand quite well the older men who usually come here, even though they’re rather unmilitary in their outlook as well. When, for instance, that famous poet—what’s his name?—that tall older gentleman with the paunch, who’s supposed to have written those verses about the Greek gods, the stars, and our timeless emotions: our hostess told me he’s a real poet in an age that turns out nothing but intellectuals . . . well, as I was saying, I haven’t read any of his works, but I’m sure I’d understand him, if it’s true that he’s noted mainly for not wasting his time on petty stuff, because that’s what we in the army call a strategist. A sergeant—if I may resort to such a humble example—must of course concern himself with the welfare of every single man in his company; the strategist, on the other hand, deals with at least a thousand men at a time and must be prepared to sacrifice ten such units at once if a higher purpose demands it. I see no logic in calling this sort of thing a blood-drenched general in one case and a sense of timeless values in the other! I wish you’d help me understand this if you can.”
Arnheim’s peculiar position in this city and its society had stung him into a certain, otherwise carefully watched, impulse to mockery. He knew whom the little military gentleman meant, though he did not let on; besides, it didn’t matter, since he himself could have mentioned several other varieties of such eminences who had unmistakably made a poor showing this evening.
Glumly thinking it over, Arnheim held back the smoke of his cigar between parted lips. His own situation in this circle had also been none too easy. Despite all his prominence, he had overheard quite a number of nasty remarks that could have been aimed at him personally, and what they condemned was often nothing less than what he had loved in his youth, just as these young men now cherished the pet ideas of their own generation. It was a strange feeling, almost spooky, to find himself revered by young men who, almost in the same breath, savagely ridiculed a past in which he had a secret share of his own; it gave him a sense of his own elasticity, adaptability, and enterprising spirit—almost, one might say, the reckless daring of a well-hidden bad conscience. He swiftly pondered what it was that differentiated him from this younger generation. These young men were at odds with one another on every single point at issue; all they unambiguously had in common was their joint assault on objectivity, intellectual responsibility, and the balanced personality.
There was one thing in particular that enabled Arnheim to take a kind of spiteful joy in this situation. The overestimation of certain of his contemporaries, in whom the personal element was especially conspicuous, had always irked him. To name names, even in his thoughts, was a self-indulgence that so distinguished an opponent as himself would never permit, of course, but he knew exactly whom he meant. “A sober and modest young fellow, lusting for illustrious delights,” to quote Heine, whom Arnheim secretly cherished, and whom he recruited for the occasion. “One is bound to extol his aims and his dedication to his craft as a poet . . . his bitter toil, the indescribable doggedness, the grim exertions with which he shapes his verses. . . . The muses do not smile upon him, but he holds the genius of the language in his hand . . . the terrifying discipline to which he must subject himself, he calls a great deed in words.” Arnheim had an excellent memory and could recite pages by heart. He let his thoughts wander. He marveled at Heine, who, in attacking a man of his own time, had anticipated phenomena that had only now come fully into their own, and it inspired him to emulate this achievement as he now turned his thoughts to the second representative of the great German idealistic outlook, the General’s poet. This was now, after the lean, the fat intellectual kine. This poet’s portentous idealism corresponded to those big deep brass instruments in the orchestra that resemble upended locomotive boilers and produce an unwieldy grunting and rumbling. With a single note they muffle a thousand possibilities. They huff and puff out huge bales of timeless emotions. Anyone capable of trumpeting poetry on such a scale—Arnheim thought, not without bitterness—is nowadays rated by us as a poet, as compared with a mere literary man. Then why not rate him as a general as well? Such people after all live on the best of terms with death and constantly need several thousand dead to make them enjoy their brief moment of life with dignity.
But just then someone had made the point that even the General’s dog, howling at the moon some rose-scented night, might if challenged defend himself by saying: “So what, it’s the moon, isn’t it? I am expressing the timeless emotions of my race!” quite like one of those gentlemen so famous for doing the very same. The dog might even add that his emotion was unquestionably a powerful experience, his expression richly moving, and yet so simple that his public could understand him perfectly, and as for his ideas playing second fiddle to his feelings, that was entirely in keeping with prevailing standards and had never yet been regarded as a drawback in literature.
Arnheim, discomfited by this echoing of his thoughts, again held back the cigar smoke between lips that for a moment remained half open, as a token barrier between himself and his surroundings. He had praised some of these especially pure poets on every occasion, because it was the thing to do, and had sometimes even supported them with cash, though in fact, as he now realized, he could not stand them and their inflated verses. “These heraldic figures who can’t even support themselves,” he thought, “really belong in a game preserve, together with the last of the bison and eagles.” And since, as this evening had proved, it was not in keeping with the times to support them, Arnheim’s reflections ended not without some profit for himself.
I mentioned this to Ed Berger last night, who noted that the accelerationist grounding described here — “a new human race, restyled on the basis of an American world plan for production by mechanized power”; “lyricism allied to the most intense dramatism of life”; technicism as “a spirit worthy of the machine age” — sounds very much like the grounding for the Soviet “new man”, which Ed has written about here.
Over the past few weeks, at least on Twitter, I have been teasing the near-completion of my next book. It has been responsible for a general slowing of blogging activity as I have tried to write it more or less in isolation, sharing little of its development, occasionally posting unidentified offcuts or giving the occasional sneak peek to Patreons.
This has been a strange exercise. With Egress being written in public, with some material already in circulation as essays or blogposts by the time it was published, not to mention the fact I’ve been very open about my readings of Mark Fisher’s work for about 5 years now, the past 18 months or so have been a private puzzle regarding where to head next.
I signed a new contract with Repeater Books back in mid-2020, and so the prospect of a new book has been hanging over me for some time. And I must apologise to Tariq (and thank him for his understanding) in repeatedly changing my mind as to what I was going to send his way. Pitching a first idea, I set to work and wrote some 40,000 (somewhat shite) words on an altogether unrelated topic. Later, some 60,000 words of similar quality emerged on a promised book on the rise and fall of accelerationism. I spent a lot of time on this. The backbone was written quickly, under the encouragement of James Ellis, who invited me to teach one half of a two-part course on accelerationism he organised late last year (currently on sale). In refining this and adding copious amounts of information, the first three chapters are in a state that I’m really happy with. Then it stopped dead. I reached a Badiou-shaped impasse and a greater familiarity with his work is required before I can complete and further develop what is already a mammoth project.
Then, in spring of this year, surrounded by daffodils, another new book emerged all of its own. I sent a third and final email to Tariq informing him that I was changing direction yet again, sorry, and was grateful for his understanding. In fact, Tariq’s response was clarifying in itself. He rightly identified that I had likely started to write too early, only getting so far on each project because I clearly had more to research before anything could settle into its destined form. But with this proviso, he added a piece of advice that has resounded in my head ever since. To paraphrase: it is clear I have something to say, and each false start clearly shares a thread, so best to elucidate that thread first and return to the more involved projects I have later. Whatever it is I have been trying to say will emerge in one form or another if I let it, and the problem may have been that I have been trying to formalise this thread in books where it is not really appropriate.
With this in mind, I focussed in on what was really bugging me. Narcissus in Bloom is the result.
About two weeks ago, I introduced the book to a group of philosophy students at Newcastle University — shout out to Stephen Overy for the invitation. As I set about introducing myself, my work to date, and the general argument of the book, everything began to fall further into place.
I have not been shy, over the last two years, about the punishing reception of Egress. Many readers have thoroughly enjoyed the book, of course, but for a book that was ostensibly about community, I found the circumstances of watching it go out into the world in the midst of a pandemic really difficult. I had not anticipated its release to be so isolating. Still, as the world opens back up, I can feel those conversations starting again with gusto. (The Spanish edition is due for an official release in just a few days’ time.)
Those at Newcastle understood this tension intuitively. The undergrads have a module on Bataille, it seems, and so shared an interest in the acephelic one’s self-concern, his constant flirtation with the “I”, only to want to lop it off, watching and documenting its dissolution into the social conflicts of his era. It’s a modernist sentiment, if ever there was one, and Egress hoped to engage in a similar process — reading a lot of Bataille at the time, his writing resonated with the ego-death that occurred in the face of real death and the political upheaval of 2017-19. And though Fisher was no real fan of Bataille himself, he was, for me at least, the right vehicle at the right time to begin exploring a sentiment expressed by Fisher in Capitalist Realism — that the subject necessary to address the crises of the present, consistently desired but blocked in its emergence, is a collective subject.
But what is this collective subject? That’s been a question that’s stalked me for the last five years. Egress wondered aloud about a kind of species-consciousness, a sense of ourselves as understood from some planetary perspective, as well as the sort of negative solidarity that emerges from grief. But this sense of collective subjectivity remains abstract; a loose-fitting heuristic that gestures towards something supposedly required but too amorphous to really apply in any practical terms. The spectre of Jordan Peterson echoes irritatingly around my head — it’s “low-resolution thinking” to him, no doubt. But lockdown has nonetheless made the necessity of a collective subject all the more pressing, as those who reject its potential instead double-down on a disastrous sense of individual sovereignty at the expense of all else.
With this in mind, what irked me about the reception of Egress among some people was that it was taken to be a “self-indulgent” project. Of course, I can see why. There’s a fair amount of the first-person in there; it’s explicitly about my experiences and my friends’ experiences, and how we responded locally to a death that was nonetheless felt globally — and that was all intentional. But there was also a clear interest in that often false equivalence between the personal and the political. Mark’s work, at its best, really emphasises that. It takes work to transform one into the other, their relationship is not necessarily a given, and I wanted the book to almost be a diary of that working process. I didn’t know what this “collective subject” was, but I wanted to see what would emerge from continually gesturing towards it anyway. More specifically, I wanted to talk about a process where there was often a lot of tension between individual melancholic experience and a desire for social or collective joy and political action.
But still, this “self-indulgent” dismissal sat in my head, and after a few months, I started thinking about why this is such a common critique these days. So I started writing about narcissism.
Narcissism may well be the pathology of our given age, and we’re likely all afflicted to a certain degree, but as I set about picking apart the cultural history of this oppressive folk-pathology, I found it has been the crisis of many an age. Since the Renaissance, in fact, we have all struggled with the checks and balances of being individuals under capitalism (whether emergent or late) and a desire for more social cohesion. In fact, many artists of the Renaissance were explicitly concerned with this tension, embracing the independence that technologies like the printing press afforded them whilst, at the same time, mourning a former sense of collective identity that had previously defined each person’s relationship to a social mass.
Narcissus in Bloom attempts to sketch out a trajectory from this point. Rejecting Freud’s limited reading, which has been reduced further still by reactionary cultural commentators, I provide a wider view of the influence of Ovid’s Narcissus, making it more immediately relevant to our present moment by attaching it to a counter-history of the self-portrait (which first emerged about a century before Cartesianism and liberalism and first gave its image to the new individualised subject of Renaissance Europe). From there, the book talks about Albrecht Dürer, Caravaggio, Rembrandt, Hippolyte Bayard, Lee Friedlander, Derek Jarman, Paris Hilton, Britney Spears, Kim Kardashian; all via Gilles Deleuze, Judith Butler, Jodi Dean, Steven Bruhm, Michel Foucault, Hervé Guibert; and ends with a reassessment of the so-called “collective narcissism” of Black Lives Matter and other socially conscious movements disturbed by their own self-image. The aim is to show that the ubiquity of the self-portrait doesn’t reveal ourselves as these perfect unified success stories but rather exacerbates the fragmented nature of our selves. In the gaps in between our selfies, we find new subjects struggling to be born, and new worlds along with them. That’s what Ovid’s Narcissus tells us, and it is likely what our our “narcissism” is trying to tell us today.
Unfortunately, it’s a thesis I’ve found difficult to develop over the last year or so. In many ways, it’s a book that should write itself. My research goes back to stuff I wrote about as an undergraduate, or more recently in various journals, particularly a 2018 essay I wrote for ŠUM. But now working full time, I have less and less time to spend on independent projects. After a friend told me about the Bidston Observatory Artistic Research Centre, and with a week of holiday left to take from work, I decided I was going to hole myself up on the Wirral and continue this counter-history of narcissism appropriately, with seven days of solitary study.
I’ve just returned, and it was an incredibly productive week. I have two chapters left to finish and a conclusion left to write, and that’s it. I’m hoping I can complete those things in stolen moments between now and Christmas, but we shall see.
In the meantime, I’m reluctant to share much more about it. Working on the book will likely be the only writing I do for the foreseeable future, and so energies are going to be explicitly channelled elsewhere than the blog for some time. I want to finish it and avoid distractions. But I will still leave occasional updates here in the meantime, probably of a more photographic than writerly nature…
For now, enjoy these photographs from my week away, and if you need some time and space to work on some self-initiated project of your own, whether independently or as part of a group, I cannot recommend Bidston enough. The team there are awesome and there is nowhere quite like it in the UK. This is a space outside the neoliberalised “residency” circuit that defines most “artist” activity today. I think it is going to become vital for so many people once this Covid nightmare allows it to truly thrive.
Reacquiring Zero Books – A Statement.
All has been quiet for a little while, and as of this weekend, it seems the whole sorry saga is finally over. Though the former team have been getting confident online in the face of a stoic silence from the other side, earlier today Tariq Goddard published his first (and no doubt the final) word on the topic of Repeater’s buy-out of Zer0 Books. It sums up, succinctly and eloquently, why this remains a victory for Repeater in the face of a fatally online crowd of jokers.
Everything is back where it belongs. Here’s looking up to what comes next! And as of today, we’re already starting to see what that will be. Also announced today are upcoming projects from the Acid Horizon gang and the forthcoming Profane Illuminations podcast, who will both be involved in the new Zer0 Books YouTube channel.
Read the full text below, and over on the Repeater Books blog here.
Time is short, our enemies are legion, we are spoilt for causes worth fighting for: no one needs another internecine left-wing squabble, which is why I have shied from commenting in public about this one until I was hopeful it was over.
Seven years ago, me, Mark Fisher and the rest of the team that started Zero Books were forced out or resigned — the distinction is a fine one, but our decision to leave was not one we took willingly. It involved many of the things our readers consider important and care passionately about: workplace bullying, employers’ contempt for staff, editorial interference, the poor treatment of authors and, perversely, an animus against our project itself.
Zero Books started at a meeting at the New Piccadilly Cafe, since closed, in the spring of 2007. Oddly, I remember it being one of the last times I have felt physically nervous, God knows why, as those assembled were about as unlikely to erupt into violent disagreement as any I have sat across a table with and, indeed, all looked fairly nervous themselves as I cantered on without a script. Perhaps we all shared a presentiment that we were about to make (modest) publishing history. If we did, we were not able to do so quickly. The fact that it took two further years for our first books to come out was a pretty accurate reflection of our collective publishing experience, which aside from my having published three novels (but with no practice at the other end of the business), was negligible. The small group of enthusiasts that met that day were chosen by myself and Mark, believing the other writers would form part of a new publishing vanguard, an ambitious suggestion that I was happy to take his word for. As my original desire had been to get Mark into print (the editors I had shown his work to were completely non-plussed and generally dismissive of his writing), and the belief that there were other such lone voices out in the blog wilderness, I was ready to conclude that the job would now have to be done ourselves, treating our “summit” as an opportunity to get the kind of people who did not think they were authors, but who should be, into print.
In retrospect, I realise that the only publisher willing to back us, John Hunt Publishing, was at cross purposes with us from the start. In Zero they saw a cheap (in the early days we worked for free and later for never more than very low wages), relatively risk-free way of ground-testing their innovative publishing model: all author communication would run through an online database, minimum staff and no phone calls or emails, multiple titles with very little editing and low production costs and quality, little marketing or promotion — and all done at a budget. As our wanting to find and publish new authors, to better establish our emerging “hegemony”, was itself risky, only a relatively low-cost publisher was going to collaborate with us. Hence a strange alliance was formed and held, for a while, but our refusal to see these systems as the point of the exercise, simply a regrettable means, combined with JHP’s anger at our success despite our different approach (personal contact, events and friendship were always a big part of how we operated) meant that the tension was never less than sharp, ongoing and enduring. Sales helped, tipping the balance of power in our favour. Whereas at the outset our success had seemed unimaginable, by the time the first books were released it felt inevitable. Titles that might have been considered too marginal or plain weird to colonise the mainstream did just that, best epitomised by Mark’s Capitalist Realism and Eugene Thacker’s In the Dust of This Planet. One was a work of political analysis and the other a piece of godless nihilist theology. Both were written in a tenor, a voice that a readership that had been neglected, but that we were also in the act of creating, understood and connected to at once.
When the end came, we were led (on) to believe we would be able to buy the imprint, but the ownership of John Hunt Publishing was able to do what we on the left thought impossible, which is to say beyond the pale: to bring in a replacement and so kill our hope of a sale. The marriage of convenience had shown itself to have run its course and JHP clearly felt that the money could flow even without the “project”, to which JHP had never really signed up. As the replacement did not care about the issues we did, the issues we thought people who read our books did, or at least could look the other way in his own marriage of convenience, relying on indulgent treatment on account of the back catalogue bequeathed them, the new publisher was able to opportunistically benefit from the brand, and pose an existential threat to our new project, Repeater Books. Faced with the irony of having to compete with our own back catalogue, Repeater moved to a more effective model (still flexible, but far fewer, and better produced and edited books). Meanwhile, with the Zero team moving over en masse to the new imprint, with the ever-valuable support of readers who knew our story and backed our project, as well as Zero’s cynical missteps, were of incalculable benefit in building our new imprint up from scratch.
One month ago, Repeater, as part of the sale of John Hunt Publishing to Etan Ilfeld, a founding member of Repeater Books, was reconnected with something we had never wanted to let get away: Zero Books. The weeks since the sale have been challenging in that the former publisher withheld Zero’s channels and began a campaign of demonstrable lies and cynical misinformation that has yet to stop. On the day he found out about the sale, he rebranded Zero’s Patreon and YouTube as his own. There had been no direct contact between him and the new ownership at the time and no discussions had taken place about his future with the company. Nevertheless, he falsely reported being fired, broke confidentiality and leaked news of the sale attempting to frame it as Watkins Media vs him.
This week, the last of the remaining assets were returned. Nothing looked like Zero when we started it, now everything, at least superficially, does. The window displays of Foyles are heaving with polemics bound in covers with garish colours, supposedly calling out power and privilege. But big publishers are still essentially conservative — even if they will now take chances on authors that independents have already broken, they still do not trust their instincts on discovering and spotting new talent. That means there still exists the same need for innovative publishing and publishers, as there was in 2007. How this will work for Zero and Repeater is an interesting question. An imprint with a successful backlist that supports a struggling frontlist (whose successes have come from interventions in the leftist civil-culture war, and a robust YouTube presence that has nonetheless failed to compliment sales), faithful to the corner-cutting model, has run its course, as it was not for nothing that the company was sold to us. And, while it is good to have our books back where they belong, we have decided to call a moratorium on new signings until we have consensus on a viable new direction. Until then, we will return to a team-based operation, not one that uses the imprint as a platform for individual self-aggrandisement, honouring all existing contracts, for authors we signed, and for those that we did not. I would also like to offer our thanks and gratitude to the readers and writers, often an interchangeable distinction, that have supported both imprints from their foundation to the present.
Tariq Goddard, November 2021
Earlier this year, I gave a talk fit for springtime on the history of the new.
The talk emerged from my research for a forthcoming book on accelerationism. In fact, as a work-in-progress, it is somewhat disjointed. I read out the drafts for two chapters that are, at present, tangentially related. (Making the bridge between them more stable and explicit is part of the work I’m still undertaking at present.)
The reason for reading out these two draft texts was that they responded to very recent discussions had online and around the blogosphere at that time. One was my back-and-forth with Matt Bluemink on anti-hauntology and the emergence of the new, and also my various blogposts emphasising Alain Badiou’s influence on the initial accelerationist blogosphere. As has also been discussed even more recently, accelerationism was never just about Nick Land and Gilles Deleuze; rather, I think the key point of tension comes from the continuities and discontinuities between Alain Badiou and Gilles Deleuze instead, specifically their differing positions regarding the emergence of the new.
The best introduction to this, for my money, remains Sam Gillespie’s The Mathematics of Novelty, but I think there is more work to be done to make this conversation more accessible to people interested in accelerationism in particular who perhaps don’t have much of an entry point beyond the memes.
As a way to introduce this conversation, my talk above goes back a bit further than Badiou and Deleuze. In fact, I attempt to lay out how their competing positions can be traced back to the pre-Socratics, showing that accelerationism’s political insistence on the new following the end of history taps into a philosophical debate going back millennia. But this history nonetheless begs the question of what are the current conditions of philosophy and politics and how do they impact these more generic debates about finitude and infinitude.
You can watch the talk above and read the announcement over on the CTRL Network website here and below. As it happens, the CTRL Network group are starting up again soon. They’re a brilliant community, based in Birmingham but open to all online. Go check them out! Thanks again to Josie Lilley-Byrne and Niall Gallen for the invitation and especially to Josie for editing the video above.
After a bloody long break we’re dusting off the recording from Matt Colquhoun’s fantastic guest lecture in the Spring. Though April feels like a lifetime ago, Matt’s musings on the history of the new seem just as fresh now as they did then.
Matt kindly agreed to speak for us as we concluded our Postcapitalist Desire winter reading group, giving us, as always, not and ending, but a jumping off point for further enquiry. Here’s how he described the lecture:
“How do we free ourselves from the tyranny of the “post-“? Jumping off from Fisher’s unfinished lecture series, which ends with post-structuralism’s moment of absolute negation, this lecture will return to the philosophy’s beginnings, tracing a wandering line of abstraction from Heraclitus to the Ccru, considering how “the new” has been thought and we might begin to think “the new” anew again.”
We hope you enjoy watching.