I am completely obsessed with Magic Oneohtrix Point Never at the moment. Daniel Lopatin’s synthesising of just about every lesson learned over the last ten years of his career has produced a deeply rewarding and evocative album. I have a lot to say about it.
As a prelude, I wanted to take a little trip down vague-memory lane.
Every time I hear the music of Oneohtrix Point Never, I’m transported back to 2011. No matter how much further Daniel Lopatin develops, explores and further mutates his own sound, my mind goes back to then. I can’t help it. It’s an embarrassing Pavlovian response. Memories are powerful things.
They are also untrustworthy. The first time I saw OPN live was at the Animal Collective-curated All Tomorrow’s Parties music festival in May 2011 — six months before the release of his breakout album Replica. Before thinking back to that time in 2020 and checking my dates, I was positive that Replica was the first record I heard; in retrospect, the earworms of Chuck Person’s Eccojams Vol. 1 must have already established OPN as a sonic presence. The track “Angel”, later re-released as part of the aptly-named Memory Vague A/V project, is a diffuse cultural touchstone in this regard. It samples my favourite Fleetwood Mac song, whilst also feeling like a refracted response to Bullion’s “Crazy Over You” that similarly captivated me in 2010. (It was my ringtone for ages — remember ringtones?)
Where Replica fits into this lineage is unclear. Perhaps it doesn’t really matter. Chronologically, it follows the Chuck Person project, and yet the Eccojams feel like a series of somewhat solid objects siphoned off the top of Replica‘s more primordial soup. These vague and templex memories are more seductive than the reality. The fine line between remembering and hallucinating disintegrates.
It doesn’t help matters that the period from 2010 to 2013, when the OPN project truly came into its own, are perhaps my most formative years. 2011, in particular, straddles my first and the start of my second year at university. Replica was a constant companion from that year onwards. It soundtracked so much of my mundane student existence — I remember listening to it on repeat whilst playing copious amounts of Skyrim — as well as a number of almost spiritual experiences that punctured the mundanity.
At All Tomorrow’s Parties, for instance, my housemates and I hung out with the photographer Jason Evans, a lecturer at our university who we idolised. On the night OPN was set to perform, we drank a lot of vodka and smoked a lot of weed at his chalet. (I think Dan Snaith from Caribou came by at some point?) (Also his neighbours were Alan and Mimi from Low.) In a thick haze, we wandered around the pavilion, laughing and playing games, in this weird twilight world of wide-eyed students drifting alongside their cultural heroes. Then we went to see OPN’s set.
On arriving at the venue, we were too far gone to stand for the entire set and listen. We lay down on the floor and let the sounds wash over us. Sara Rejaie took the three pictures below — many thanks to Sara for digging them out for me the other day; Jason and my housemate Michael are first, followed by our crowd neighbours as the lying-down trend caught on.
My memories of the set itself are patchy. All I remember is the intensity of the experience and being captivated by closed-eye visuals as the carpet ended up on the ceiling and the whole world stuttered to the sounds of “Andro”. It was transcendent.
A few months later, once Replica had been released and I had probably spent too much time in its company, OPN returned to the UK for a small tour. I caught the show at the Cube Cinema in Bristol. Sober this time, with no closed-eye visuals for entertainment, Nate Boyce’s backdrop was more than intense enough. The cinema felt like a perfect venue too, considering the composition work Lopatin would go on to do with the Safdie brothers, prefiguring this psychedelic transition from screen memories to real memories to real screens.
I remember the cinema felt like a pressure cooker. I was fidgety and found myself enthralled, if overwhelmed. When the show was over, I shot out into the night like a bottle rocket, navigating my way slowly back to Bristol’s bus station, to get the bus back to Wales. Barely out of the venue, I found myself caught up in the gravitation pull of a nearby housing estate, chasing a fox around in the night with my ostentatious camera flash illuminating the strangest of colours in this otherwise dark and wintery world.
I’ve gutted to have not seen OPN live since then — especially the MYRIAD tour, that passed through London whilst I was there but it sold out by the time I realised. Here’s hoping after coronatime is over we can get back to a venue sometime soon, not just for the sounds but the striking experiences that OPN seems to conjure in his orbit — Silver Surfer of the Trash Stratum.
10,000 words on OPN to follow…
In response to this tweet on the apparent inevitability of an independent Scotland, professional lib Ian Dunt came in with a wild take that I’m going to be thinking about for a while:
Brexit plus Johnson equals this. It is as simple as that.
It didn’t have to be this way, even with the Leave vote. They could have pursued a compromise position which respected the views of Scotland and NI. They did not.
Instead, only the most extreme and aggressive version of Brexit was tolerated and anyone who disagreed was branded an enemy of the people. So this is where we are.
When the referendum comes, as it inevitably will, many Tories will insist on how much they value Scotland. If that was true, the party would never have elected Boris Johnson to lead it.
None of this would have happened if it was still, at its heart, a conservative party. It is not. It is party representing a kind of Tory Maoism — capable of tearing things down but not building them. The Union is likely to be its next victim.
…Not least because I’ve spent most of this year pondering Alain Badiou’s version of this same take from 2007.
In an interview for lacan.com, Badiou argued:
Throughout the Marxist and Leninist revolutionary tradition of the 20th century, the prevailing idea was that destruction alone was capable of opening a new history, founding a new man and so on. Mao himself said: “No construction without destruction.” Our problem today is that the destructive part of negation is no longer, in and of itself, capable of producing the new.
What’s notable, I think, is that, for Dunt, Maoism has become confused with the general impotence of postmodernity. That is to say, it is the very idea of the new that is itself in crisis; the Maoist charge of creative destruction is now dashed against the terminal beach of late-capitalist stasis and the end of history.
It is telling, really. The announcement of the end of history felt like it was an opportunity for most conservative commentators to announce the death of historical materialism. After all, Walter Benjamin wrote that a Marxist view of history was essential to progress for the proletariat: “In every era the attempt must be made anew to wrest tradition away from a conformism that is about to overpower it.” And that attempt is routinely made by the historical materialist who
will constantly call in question every victory, past and present, of the rulers. As flowers tum toward the sun, by dint of a secret heliotropism the past strives to turn toward that sun which is rising in the sky of history. A historical materialist must be aware of this most inconspicuous of all transformations.
The collapse of the Soviet Union was seen by many as a world-historical cauterisation of that necessary awareness from the left; the end of history was the apparent end to Marxism as a viable opponent to the global bourgeoisie. So to call a challenge to the Westminster establishment coming from a broadly leftist and more progressive Scotland the result of “Tory Maoism” is quite the turn of events! And what does that make Scotland’s willingness to destroy the union?
It’s fascinating that this melancholic call from the left now finds itself regurgitated by the right. The twisted logic of it all is even pretty hilarious. It sounds more like the Pandora’s Box that was neoliberalism has started to rot even at its source.
Scotland’s flower is turning away from a neoliberal sun and the liberal sees it as one of Mao’s thousand flowers blooming anew. The truth is that the UK is finally reaping what it first sowed.
I’m not sure that’s the most succinct analogy for Dunt’s pretzel of an ideological position. Nevertheless, you love to see it.
This Saturday, I’ll be speaking alongside Tariq Goddard at an event on the legacy of Mark Fisher, organised as part of the Prima Vista literary festival in Tartu, Estonia.
We’ve been talking about this event for many months and had hoped to be there in person but the first, and now second, lockdown have scuppered all attempts to travel out there.
Nevertheless, I’m very happy this is still going ahead in some capacity. The event will be streamed via Facebook Live at 14.00 UTC on Saturday 14th November. You can visit the Facebook event page here for more info and read the festival’s introduction to the event below:
Mark Fisher (11 July 1968 – 13 January 2017), also known under his blogging alias k-punk, was a British writer, critic, cultural theorist, philosopher and teacher based in the Department of Visual Cultures at Goldsmiths, University of London. His books include Capitalist Realism: Is There No Alternative? (Zero Books 2009), The Weird and the Eerie (Repeater Books 2017) and Postcapitalist Desire: The Final Lectures (edited and with an introduction by Matt Colquhoun, Repeater Books 2020). He was also the co-founder of Zero Books, and later Repeater Books.
The online event at the Prima Vista literary festival in Tartu, Estonia assesses Mark Fisher’s legacy and ongoing significance. The talk is hosted by Tõnis Kahu, critic and lecturer at the University of Tallinn, Estonia, and features Tariq Goddard (author publisher at Repeater Books and formerly Zero Books) as well as Matt Colquhoun (author of Egress: On Mourning, Melancholy and Mark Fisher, Repeater Books 2020).
The talk is in English, streaming and recording online on 14 Nov at 4pm at the Utoopia bookshop site.
I am continuing to think about the disconnect between two of my own posts. Perhaps these posts together speak to the emotional rollercoaster that was this presidential election — even for someone who is only really invested at a cultural level.
The first post, on Frank Wilderson’s Afropessimism, describes the potentials to be found within dejection and a self-aware political nihilism. The second takes a moment to bask in the joy of Trump’s defeat regardless.
On Twitter, the tension between these two positions has been palpable. Protesters in Washington’s Black Lives Matter Plaza have already begun calling out those who have descended on their space of mourning, which they have occupied for sixty days, for one night of partying. “Where were you all”, they seem to say, “when we were here doing the hard work?”
I sense the same tension on my own timeline. There was a long comment left on yesterday’s post, claiming the democrats shouldn’t have won and all the reasons why… I think… It’s a ramble that I had a hard time making sense of, unfortunately.
I think the main issue here is that we are once again disarticulating the cultural response from the political reality. To speak of politics and joy seems uncontroversial, but the issue that lurks underneath here is that the left understands politics to be innately melancholic. Was the point missed yesterday when I wrote: “By all means retain your critical eye, but your hard nose helps no one, least of all the left”?
Left melancholia understands that politics is melancholy. If you’re not coming from a downtrodden place, it’s not politics proper. But the point to be made is that melancholy and joy are not polar opposites; they’re not conflicting modes of engagement. They are affects that are often entwined, and doing justice to both is always the best way forwards. Disavowing one in favour of the other does nothing. (And it is worth noting that that potential to undermine runs both ways.)
Consider that, whilst many of the critiques of the incumbent office are coming from black people, who see that nothing has changed and expect nothing to change, much of the joy seems to be coming from that same direction. Black culture has long been exemplary in this regard. Melancholy and joy exist side-by-side — uncomfortably, yes, but in a way that has often produced cultural and political change — and, if not change, at the very least a certain momentum, and a belief that cultural change can prefigure political change.
Some responses to this implicit suggestion on Twitter remained cynical. Steven Pinker doing a geriatric Charleston in celebration of Biden victory is a cringeworthy sight but why should that undermine a joyful response for anyone else?
It shouldn’t, but I understand the implicit suggestion: celebrations and positive affirmations can exemplify the dreamwork of capitalist realism in action. (This was something that came up in the reading group around Postcapitalist Desire run by Bristol Transformed.)
Top Cop Kamala Harris isn’t representative of any sort of progressive change. In fact, it’s why she did so poorly in her initial presidential run. Her law-and-order violence used against citizens in his district made her a non-starter for many, and yet now she’s being hailed as an identity politics slam-dunk — the first woman and the first woman of colour to hold the vice presidency.
How did we get from constantly ridiculing Harris as an inept politician and a useful idiot for the Democratic party’s reactionary tendencies to celebrating her most recent success? That’s not a rhetorical question but an important one. Pointing out that her presidential campaign was a mess demonstrates nothing more than you remember 2019. The questions are how has her reputation changed and why? In seeing how that public reception has turned on a dime, we can see the machinations of capitalist realism as they continue to operate.
To see the prize piled onto her a vice president-elect is to see the dreamwork of capitalist realism in action right before our eyes. It is to see the vulnerabilities and incompetencies of a Biden/Harris ticket wallpapered over in real time. Granted, there’s nothing to celebrate there.
And yet, whilst there is plenty to mourn regarding this election, there is still a lot to celebrate. I really liked Novara Media’s approach, for instance. Discussing the election to congress of Jamaal Bowman, Cori Bush and Marie Newman, Michael Walker captures the mood perfectly when he suggests:
Joe Biden has been elected president but, at 77, he’s not going to be the party’s future. At Novara, we’re hoping that role will fall to the progressive new generation in the democratic party and in congress. Figures like [Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez], Ilhan Omar, Rashida Tlaid… And when it comes to progressive congresspeople, there was some good new this Tuesday: at least three more progressive were elected. ‘The Squad’ is expanding.
We can celebrate the defeat of Trump and we can also celebrate the gains that a progressive left within the Democratic party has achieved. After all, AOC alone has done more to develop progressive conversations in the US than any leader of the Democratic party could have, and that was under Trump’s hair-trigger red fear. The squad might be able to achieve much more under Biden than Trump.
AOC’s statement, in particular, on the election and the future of the party are clear indicators that she isn’t going away, and suggests that a Democratic win might embolden her and the rest of the Squad further.
In that sense, celebrating a Democratic victory is not the same as celebrating a Biden victory. Nor is celebration in and of itself an act of escapism. Time and time again, I always come back to Terre Thaemlitz’ wise words about dance culture on Midtown 120 Blues — to quote off the top of my head: “House isn’t an escape from suffering, suffering is in here with us. Let’s keep sight of the things we’re trying to momentarily escape from.”
Having a party in Black Lives Matter Plaza needn’t be a process in forgetting the hard fight the BLM movement has fought. These spaces are multifunctional and the left should encourage a politics that can embody both, rather than immediately chastising those who are happy to no longer live under the fear that Trump’s presidency brought.
Because any leftist politics is impotent if it cannot reflect the human condition and appreciate the hope and the fear, the joy and the melancholy. It is possible — in fact I think it is beautiful — to dance and mourn simultaneously.
Every time an election happens, I’m left wanting to pen something rousing — win or lose — but it’s impossible. Mark Fisher said it all already.
“Democracy is joy”, he wrote in 2015 (quoting Carl Neville quoting Alexis Tsipras). He notably wrote that after the left, around Europe, had once again been defeated. Today, that statement feels more self-evident. Seeing the joy currently erupting across America over the fact that either Joe Biden has won and/or Donald Trump has been defeated makes that clear. At the risk of contradicting myself two days ago, Fisher’s words nonetheless bear repeating.
Is Biden the ideal candidate for the left? Hardly. But the schadenfreude of Trump losing is euphoric even from this side of the Atlantic.
Most seem pessimistic about the future regardless. At worst, a Biden presidency will reinstate the long shadow of the Obama years — a return to neoliberalism as usual — but 2020 isn’t like 2009-2017; nor is capitalism in 2020 anything like capitalism in 2008. Capitalism has been mutated by this pandemic and the world needs to respond to the changes made. Trump was never going to do that. Will Biden?
I’m hopeful that the next four years will at least be better than they could have been. Maybe it will turn out that this hope — I’m not euphoric enough to be confident — has been misplaced. But I am hopeful because, for the first time in a decade, the usual polarity of “evental politics” is inverted. For Fisher,
the narrative of evental politics since the late 1990s has been reliably repetitious. Euphoric outbursts of dissent are followed by depressive collapse. Eventalism is the manic flipside of the general depressive tendency in boring academic Marxism — in which an ostensible Leninism / Maoism (everything will change after the revolution!) obfuscates a de facto Adornianism (nothing could ever happen, everything is bad, so we might as well keep on taking the state’s pay cheques). The whole rehabilitation of the status of Philosophy itself in the past couple of decades — the reversal of the democratising move to Theory, and the colonisation of what is now called Theory by third-rate obscurantist “Philosophy” and curator-speak babble – is a sideshow, of course, but a symptomatic one. The sour comedy of academic philosophical Leninism and Maoism can now be seen as one of the last acts in a postmodern shadowplay — a pantomime in which we are condemned to the role of interactive audience, tweeting our responses onto the screen behind the main players, who carry on regardless.
In 2020 — the long 2020 — this euphoric outburst follows rather than prefigures our depressive collapse. That’s important, I think. The cynicism on Twitter regarding the side-lining of Theory following Biden’s victory is understandable but also unfortunate. This joyful moment isn’t a mirage to move on from so we can get to work; this joyful moment is where the work should begin, and with a new vitality.
By all means retain your critical eye, but your hard nose helps no one, least of all the left. Politics, like capitalism, is libidinal — for better and for worse. I wager many more people will be excited to get to work now than they would have been if Trump won another term. So, let’s make the best of it.
Fisher again: we shouldn’t get carried away but this moment is nonetheless significant. “If political change doesn’t happen through events alone, there are nevertheless moments which function as thresholds, opening up a new terrain of struggle, and allowing different collective emotions to propagate.” That was what we felt at Goldsmiths, in negative, after Mark’s death. I’m personally very thankful to have a reason to be cheerful for a change.
Hallowe’en felt like passing through a veil this year. October was spent getting settled in the new house and so it was not dominated by the usual month-long anticipation for Hallowe’en that it usually is.
November, however, feels suitably spooky this year. It’s ghosts and ghouls from here on out until Christmas tries to fill the world with light again — and, given how we’ve just entered another national lockdown, I don’t see Christmas lights fixing the atmosphere much.
On the day, we went on a walk around Huddersfield, in the orbit of Lockwood Cemetery. Between the cemetery, the disused Meltham railway and the witchy woods around them, it was a pretty spectacular afternoon.
I have a few Hallowe’en-themed posts in the oven still. It’ll feel a bit weird posting them in November or December but it can’t be helped. I’m feeling post-Hallowe’en more than pre-Hallowe’en this year.
If, in medieval theology, purgatory was a transitional state, in which souls are purified on their way to heaven, then what the modern era has invented is the purgatorial as a mode in its own right. Is this not the mode of Beckett’s universe — a universe in which compulsion and waiting never end, a universe without any possibility of climax, resolution or transformation, a universe that is closed, but which will never finally run down into a state of total entropic dissolution?
Yesterday I wrote about how we all have questions regarding the future of the revolution, but these are the wrong questions to ask. We have to start, as Deleuze implored us, from the middle — and that immediately presents us with an interesting challenge. What are we currently in the middle of?
This might feel like the wrong question to ask on election day. Elections are so often advertised as stopgaps or bookends — as the beginning or end of something. But the feeling that shrouds this long and uneventful election cycle is that, either way, we are in for more of the same — either more of the same of the last four years, or more of the same of the eight years before that. As such, we should watch attentively, and wait to ask our questions tomorrow.
But tomorrow is here and there’s a problem: still nothing has changed.
Last night I fell asleep to the BBC’s coverage of the election, with Andrew Neil and Katty Kay droning on in my singular earphone, with my other ear firmly against the pillow, willing at least half my brain to sleep.
The following morning I woke up to their voices again. My immediate thought was how nothing had changed in their demeanours or appearances. Andrew Neil, in particular, I thought would look more haggard than usual but he remained unmoved, like a bitter waxwork.
At 8.30am, Neil announced that he and his co-host would soon be going off the air. There was an audible frustration in Neil’s voice as he harked back to a few hours earlier, right around the time I fell asleep, when the first votes were counted and came in. Plenty more votes had been counted since then but there was no satisfaction to be gleaned from the changes to the board. Because, in reality, nothing had changed. The colouring-in of the parts of the map were cosmetic markers of a repetition of four years ago. The occasional swing state swung but the election dragged on, like the rest of the world, in its frenetic stasis.
We live, as Mark Fisher wrote, in a purgatorial pseudo-present.
Perhaps the feeling most characteristic of our current moment is a mixture of boredom and compulsion. We are bored even as we are fascinated, and the limitless distraction allows us to evade confronting the actual finitude of time available to us as mortal beings — even as death is closing in on us.
We are bored by this endless coverage but watch it anyway.
Still, Deleuze’s argument stands. It is this pseudo-present, this middle, that we need to push off from. From endless lockdowns to endless elections, now is the best time to shake off our libidinal attachments to the familiar, to divest ourselves from that which has now pooled and gone stagnant.
If yesterday’s post remains relevant, it is to forge a path that separates the action needed from Trump’s primary tactic. Even in declaring an early victory like some arrogant despot, the intention is always to keep his supporters in a state of constant agitation and excitement, but theirs is “a stationary voyage”, as Deleuze might call it. They scream about change whilst standing still, and that’s what Trump wants. With him, there is always something to get riled up about. Even as nothing happens and nothing changes, the illusory of propulsive action is a powerful one.
What shocked me most last night was how deeply pathological this sentiment is, not least amongst apparently educated conservative voters. Capitalist realism was present and accounted for in every one of the BBC’s vox pops.
The most shocking example, to me, came during an interview with two black Republicans in North Carolina, a man and a woman. The woman, when asked what the most pressing issue of this election was for her, replied:
I feel like what is most important is that, in America, period, our liberties and our freedoms are being threatened by a socialist agenda… I believe Donald Trump is the person who will keep [the success of that agenda] from happening.
The reporter then asked, “What do you worry about most about a socialist agenda, in the way you understand it?” She replied:
With socialism, it actually — to me — it takes away incentive to be productive. Socialism is a form of income and wealth redistribution… I feel like that has hurt, in particular, the black community a lot. Welfare is a form of socialism — which doesn’t mean there shouldn’t be forms of social safety net; I believe in that — but the way our system, I believe, is set up, it de-incentivises production, and one way that has happened in the black community is that it has taken fathers out of the homes, and then we have a lot of fatherlessness. So when you de-incentivise productivity, being accountable, it really does hurt the family and … the community at large.
I found this logic to be strange, not least because the opposite argument surely makes more sense? Surely it is the institution of the family that de-incentivises productivity among wayward fathers? When a family unit is established, beyond entering into a kind of social bond, there are societal pressures to then materially provide for your family, and a lot of pride and shame revolves around an individual’s capacity to do that. If fathers are fleeing, maybe it is because they can’t handle the pressure? In that respect, there’s an argument to be made that socialism is for the children. Take away that pressure and maybe more families would stay together…
I thought about this interview a lot more the following morning, however. Shortly after I got out of bed, once the BBC’s rolling overnight coverage ended, there was a knock on the door. A book delivery. (Bad, XG! Stop buying books!) It was Frank B. Wilderson III‘s Afropessimism. I had ordered it after the book came up during the last XG reading group session.
Wilderson’s pessimism combines clinical depression with the black radical tradition. Theory is interwoven with memoir — my kind of book! — and the memoir sections, in particular, are rife with darkly humorous postmodern paradoxes. One vignette reveals Wilderson in the year 2000, for instance, the year he suffered a nervous breakdown, pealing himself off the floor in order to open up his medicine cabinet. “There they were, selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors and chlordiazepoxide, my two best friends in orange-brown bottles.” Unexpectedly, he flushes them down the toilet and heads out the door — just in time too; he was late for his Lacan seminar.
As decisive a gesture this may have been for Wilderson — a dark affirmation “to make madness my refuge; to face the fact that my death makes the world a decent place to live; to embrace my abjection and antagonism that made me Humanity’s foil” — his embrace is not so much a nihilistic deferral to a social-death drive but a jouissance regarding his own racialised purgatory.
The mention of Lacan is telling. Lacan, in his later years, emerged as a purgatorial theorist par excellence, seeing the 20th century as a “concentration-camp universe”. Frantz Fanon similarly paints a picture of the universe as one giant plantation, and is arguably a bigger influence on Wilderson, but what Wilderson retains from the late Lacan is important; he retains his perversion.
His Sadeian vision of black life inverts the queen of inversion, Juliette. It is in this sense that Wilderson advocates for a kind of black masochism. But, socially understood, masochism is not simply sadism’s opposite. Masochism derives from sadism; is sadism internalised. It is a default libidinal position under capitalism but to know it is to see the world differently.
Masochism, then, is a madness but one acquired through the full comprehension of one’s limits. Inspired by the philosophy of Spinoza, Lacan argues that “a madman is someone who has such an appropriate idea of madness that he sees it not as fact but rather as a truth man carries within him as a limit on his freedom.” For Lacan, Spinoza and Freud were fellow travellers in this regard. As Elizabeth Roudinesco writes, summarising Lacan’s Freudian-Spinozist position, “the only thing one can be guilty of, in the context of psychoanalysis, is ‘giving up on one’s desire.’ In other words, the Freudian ethic is a Spinozan ethic, tending to see the truth of being in the deployment of desire.” From one perspective, we can see this as an acquiescence — to give up on one’s desire for emancipation, for instance. But this is only the lost desire that we fear — the true desire to be given up is our desire to be dominated and enslaved.
Inspired by the Frankfurt school, Lacan wrote on this inversion by conjoining the writings of Immanuel Kant and the Marquis de Sade. For Lacan, de Sade completes Kant’s critique of practical reason and prepares the categorical imperative to become a proto-capitalist performance principle. The categorical imperative, taken to extremes, then, is a torturous work ethic; as Deleuze similarly argued in Coldness and Cruelty, it is the tandem imposition of a sadistic superego and a masochist ego.
Wilderson seems to take a Lacanian approach to blackness. What appears, at first, to be a giving-up on the dream of emancipation is accompanied by a giving-up on the dream of incentivisation as well. His afropessimism is a reimagining of the black subject of postmodernity as a subject caught in a purgatory between the two, a catch-22, with each side of the divide ideologically driven (shoved, whipped, forced) forwards by the unimaginable weight of white expectation.
Wilderson quotes Saidiya Hartman, invoking the Sadeian homo sacer of contemporary blackness:
The slave is the object or the ground that makes possible the existence of the bourgeois subject and, by negation or contradistinction, defines liberty, citizenship, and the enclosures of the social body.
To run the risk of overstepping the lines of my own experience, and contributing to that white expectation — something I might pessimistically declare is unavoidable — reading Wilderson and Wilderson on Hartman, I feel haunted by that black Trump supporter. Her purgatory, which she is voting to sustain, is not just the expression of an internalised slave narrative but a subjective position far less distinct and all the rage. She occupies the middle — the middle-class — the position of the house-slave — both slave to productivity and the bourgeois subject; capitalist sadist and black masochist. She speaks about her own community as the member of a managerial class rather than as a would-be emancipator.
Reading Wilderson, it feels like, despite his interest in the black radical tradition, in Marxism and psychoanalysis, he perversely identifies with that black voter. He sees himself, in writing his theories, as yet another member of the managerial, telling black people what to do; instructing them and employing them with certain political tasks. Clearly, there is no redemption — not for Wilderson, as he talks candidly about his bourgeois academic existence or his marriage to a white woman; or for anyone else who finds themselves sharing a bed (literally or metaphorically) with those who would otherwise deny the value of their existence.
Afropessimism, then, is a structure of feeling, with emphasis placed on the feeling. But the structure itself is perhaps an afropurgatory. There is no liberation from production — be that capitalist production or the production of one’s own liberation. There is only limbo — and limbo, we might remember, is only the first circle of hell, but even these circles have steps. They are dreams within dreams. The last twenty-four hours have felt like a week; for black people waiting in line at polling booths, I imagine the wait is immeasurably longer.
But again, this pessimism needn’t be apathetic. If anything, it is a Lacanian-Spinozist nihilism, embracing the madness of postmodernity so as to better grasp its bounds. Only by knowing, with a violent intimacy, the limits of the present can we break through it. After all, purgatory, in its inaction, often seems infinite. It is the oppressive nature of that illusion that implores us to sit down and wait to die. But to make a home there and map it out is another approach altogether. A difficult and depressing one, but perhaps the most important. As Deleuze said, we focus too much on “the future of the revolution”, all the while obfuscating our revolutionary-becoming. We pontificate about where we want to be without understanding where we are. Wilderson, in his pessimism and his depression, seems to grasp this better than anyone.
A warning to the curious: to read him on election day might be the ultimate mark of masochism, but perhaps that’s what is needed…
This post initially began its life as a sequel to “TERF Tactics” — just when you thought the cringe quota had been reached for online idiocy, there was plenty more to despair over. However, as I found myself up late in a compulsive writing mood, and as I watched the clock tick past midnight, I realised it was suddenly the eve of the US election. There were suddenly bigger fish to fry than Twitter TERFs.
Nevertheless, it’s fair enough to wonder how we got here. Perhaps it all went down as the culture warriors say it did — we’ve offended ourselves into impotence; we’ve lost our minds to disinformation and Protestant moralism. There’s certainly some truth in that, but it says nothing of how the right similarly lost its mind. “It’s political correctness gone mad” has been a right-wing talking point for decades at this point. It doesn’t explain the very particular form of paranoia that has afflicted the right over the last five or so years. You can’t blame the left for everything.
The same is true of our little corner of philosophy Internet. For all the talk of reason and rationality, and an endemic over-confidence in our own wisdom, we have seen ourselves just as afflicted by madness as the rest of the world. Despite all the signalling to the contrary, we remain a microcosm of the mainstream. But I think I have a provocative suggestion as to why…
Things have gotten too French around here.
It’s an occupational hazard, really. Everyone spends so much time reading the French, we’re bound to start thinking like them. This may be true philosophically, but it is true at a more mundane political level as well. As much as President Macron and his near-identical neoliberal predecessors — Hollande, Sarkozy, Chirac — seem like a world away from the post-structuralists that hold a special place in our collective heart, the critiques made by the post-structuralists of France’s deeply reactionary political history echo down the years.
I’ve been left wondering: perhaps we should pay more attention to how this situation has developed in an explicitly French context? We constantly turn to the French for advice on how to get out of this mess but seldom consider their writings within the long context of their own national history — that is, beyond their momentary successes. We take these observations ungrounded and throw them against our own walls of reaction to see what sticks. In truth, our generation is only just coming to terms with what many of the post-structuralists felt themselves at war against. We are only just emerging from the long amnesia that the dawn of neoliberalism instigated in the collective imagination.
This is to note that, despite how the rest of the world may see it, France has never been a bastion of freedom and revolt. Accumulatively, its reigns of terror far outnumber and outlast its revolutionary flourishes. The freedom with which it expresses itself and its (particularly pornographic) desires says little about how politically progressive it is as a nation. The French themselves have wrestled with this false narrative for decades; it feels like the US is only just beginning to have a similar conversation.
Our response to France’s exported failures shouldn’t be cynicism, however. There remains plenty to learn from those French writers who distrusted their own nation’s moral character. Deleuze especially preferred the cultural output of Anglo-Americans to that of his own countrymen, precisely because he believed Anglo-Americans were more vigilant to their own reterritorialising tendencies than the French.
Deleuze’s vigilance against such tendencies is arguably the defining concern of his output. From his 1953 essay “Desert Islands” to 1993’s Essays Critical and Clinical, he consistently stalked and attacked our collective tendency to Robinson-Crusoe ourselves — to sail out to new territories to indulge our discontent, only to rebuild the world we left behind on new ground.
I find this argument from Deleuze to be resonant. More than anything, it reminds me of the conservative declaration that they are the new punks and radicals. It is they who now lead the resistance against the leftist’s fascistic cultural hegemony.
It is a declaration that is often ridiculed but I have yet to see an argument that deconstructs where it comes from. Indeed, in some ways I think it lingers and troubles the leftist imaginary. After all, plenty of our old heroes have revealed themselves to be sad reactionaries in their old age. Punk and post-punk might remain models to turn to for inspiration but what are we supposed to do with the knowledge that those who first inspired us have now undermined their own lines of flight? How are we supposed to respond when those figures who remain our key cultural touchstones, in our age of retrospection and pastiche, now agree with those they initially came out in opposition to? And how are we supposed to combat their insistence that, in continuing to piss people off, they’re clearly on the same path they were on previously? I haven’t changed — it’s the world that’s changed! they cry. And, in this instance, that is apparently a virtue.
What Deleuze attempts to uncover in his essay “On the Superiority of Anglo-American Literature”, from Dialogues II, are the contradictions found within our understanding of “lines of flight” and the exact ways that old punks become new fascists. It is clear, then as now, that we can’t just embark on a new voyage and then become complacent about our bearing. Soon enough, we will Robinson Crusoe ourselves and fatally undermine the principles we set sail with.
It is worth turning directly to the text here. It is Deleuze at his most inspiring and effervescent. He begins:
To leave, to escape, is to trace a line. The highest aim of literature, according to Lawrence, is “To leave, to leave, to escape … to cross the horizon, enter into another life … It is thus that Melville finds himself in the middle of the Pacific. He has really crossed the line of the horizon.” The line of flight is a deterritorialization. The French do not understand this very well. Obviously, they flee like everyone else, but they think that fleeing means making an exit from the world, mysticism or art, or else that it is something rather sloppy because we avoid our commitments and responsibilities. But to flee is not to renounce action: nothing is more active than a flight. It is the opposite of the imaginary. It is also to put to flight — not necessarily others, but to put something to flight, to put a system to flight as one bursts a tube.
I find in Deleuze a subtle swipe at those writers who retain, like the rest of his nation, a reputation for transgression. Even before he mentions him by name, I can’t help but read a critique of Bataille into this. But it is Blanchot, perhaps, who best understood Deleuze’s sentiment. His trajectory, from French nationalist to communist, seems to epitomise the struggles and contradictions of French intellectual thought over the course of the twentieth century — warts and all. And Blanchot loved Bataille, of course, but because he knew that Bataille’s writing, at its most successful, was always in crisis. Bataille, at his best, wrote questioningly.
Deleuze takes a less sympathetic view of Bataille at this point. “Georges Bataille is a very French author”, he writes.
He made the little secret the essence of literature, with a mother within, a priest beneath, an eye above. It is impossible to overemphasize the harm that the phantasm has done to writing (it has even invaded the cinema) in sustaining the signifier, and the interpretation of one by the other, of one with the other. “The world of phantasms is a world of the past”, a theatre of resentment and guilt. You see many people today one after another proclaiming “Long live castration, for it is the home, the Origin and the End of desire!” What is in the middle is forgotten. New races of priests are always being invented for the dirty little secret, which has no other object than to get itself recognized, to put us back into a very black hole, to bounce us off the very white wall.
The “dirty little secret” is a notion Deleuze despises. Secrets are, in many ways, exceptional things to have, but only when held collectively. To laud a personal secret — through guilt and shame — is an travesty. The paradox of much French literature — like Bataille’s own pornogrpahic novels — is he voices his personal secrets so loudly. Deleuze has little time for such masturbatory pearl-clutching. He writes:
Lawrence condemned the craze for “the dirty little secret”, which he saw as running through all French literature. The characters and the authors always have a little secret, on which the craze for interpretation feeds. Something must always remind us of something else, make us think of something else. We remember Oedipus’ dirty little secret, not the Oedipus of Colonus, on his line of flight, who has become imperceptible, identical to the great living secret. The great secret is when you no longer have anything to hide, and thus when no one can grasp you. A secret everywhere, no more to be said. Since the ‘signifier’ has been invented, things have not fallen into place. Instead of language being interpreted by us, it has set about interpreting us, and interpreting itself. Signifiance and interpretosis are the two diseases of the earth, the pair of despot and priest.
It surprises me little that, while I continue to admire Bataille’s Summa Atheologica — his middle period, where he attempts to come to terms with his own self under the pressure of a Nazi occupation, and struggles under the weight of his own secrets to the point of rupture, indeed describes his own bouncing of the white walls of reaction around him with a self-aware terror like a monkey in a cage of invading fascism, through which his dirty little secrets manifest themselves in the whole national unconscious — Deleuze’s Bataille reeks of Nina Power’s reactionary ilk, who have their thinly-veiled secrets revealed all the time, and surely enjoy being seen, only to feign victimhood and proclaim all critique to be fake news.
It is this trap, where transgression meets reaction, that Deleuze describes with an astounding acuity here. Indeed, whilst the superiority of Anglo-American literature may today be a disputed declaration, this is only because America — as it is always wont to do — has replicated the European “dirty little secret” but bigger and more ostentatiously than we could ever have imagined possible. The Frenchest novel of America postmodernity, in this sense, is Bret Easton Ellis’s American Psycho — but now the American psycho is president. And rather than the secret finding itself everywhere — and it is everywhere — Trump attempts to hide it at every opportunity. Trump reveals himself, in this sense, to be an incredibly “French” leader, and the prescience of Deleuze’s critique, even in its literary nature, feels uncanny when read today.
The question remains: how do punks become fascists? Or, as Deleuze puts it: “What is it which tells us that, on a line of flight, we will not rediscover everything we were fleeing?” He continues:
In fleeing the eternal mother-father, will we not rediscover all the Oedipal structures on the line of flight? In fleeing fascism, we rediscover fascist coagulations on the line of flight. In fleeing everything, how can we avoid reconstituting both our country of origin and our formations of power, our intoxicants, our psychoanalyses and our mummies and daddies? How can one avoid the line of flight’s becoming identical with a pure and simple movement of self-destruction?
Deleuze does not have much in way of simple answers to his own questions — of course he doesn’t — but he does believe that the answer lies in assemblages. “The minimum real unit is not the word, the idea, the concept or the signifier”, he writes, “but the assemblage”. It is the assemblage where secrets proliferate. They only hide in the other units. This is because an assemblage “is always collective, which brings into play within us and outside us populations, multiplicities, territories, becomings, affects, events.”
Assemblages, in this sense, are frontiers. A frontier is where populations, multiplicities, territories and becomings all meet. (It makes perfect sense, then, that Trump would focus so much attention on building walls — pouring as much concrete on the frontier as he can, both literally and ideologically.)
We need frontiers — all of us, and America more than anyone. Because we need assemblages. We need to understand ourselves as assemblages — as people and as nations. This is not only essential because we are bleeding-heart lefties but because thought itself requires it, otherwise it will atrophy. Deleuze again:
There are many neurotics and lunatics in the world who do not let go of us until they have managed to reduce us to their state, pass us their poison, hysterics, narcissists, their contagion is insidious. There are many doctors and scholars who offer us a sanitized scientific observation, who are also true lunatics, paranoiacs.
We might argue that this describes the worst of all of us — all sides of the political divide — in our present moment. But, in my bias, I know who is worse. I know who attacks assemblages at every opportunity. It is not the left. But the left struggles to articulate assemblages under the ideological flood of neoliberal individualism. As Deleuze writes: “One must resist both of the traps, the one which offers us the mirror of contamination and identifications, and the one which points out to us the observation of the understanding.” The right likes to observe, in this regard, and trap us in its image, but we trap ourselves in mirrors of identification; in identity politics.
This is why Mark Fisher called for a new “group consciousness”. He did not agree with the right’s cynicism around self-identification. He just wanted to the left to move away from such limited understandings of itself. He did not want the left to be subsumed under the business ontologies of demographic charts and focus groups. He believed, as Deleuze did, that we “can only assemble among assemblages.”
We only have sympathy to struggle and to write, Lawrence used to say. But sympathy is something to be reckoned with, it is a bodily struggle, hating what threatens and infects life, loving where it proliferates (no posterity or lineage, but a proliferation…).
We can hate what denounces our assemblages — our multiplicites — but we must also continue to proliferate and build. A left that does one but not the other is doomed to sail about in circles. Such is the bitter pill to be swallowed this election night. Biden knows that being not-Trump is a strong platform to stand on, but relying on the sentimentality of being an Obama-years-throwback is not. Trump already won on a ticket of returning America to the Reagan years and ended up surpassing them. Biden cannot rely on a left version of MAGA, which looks back but not as far. If Biden depresses it is because, at best, he offers the opportunity to pretend the last four years never happened. But the world needs more than that. The world needs a new vector. It needs a new line of flight.
To end on this note would feel too much like a hollow affirmation. This is not enough. It is necessary, again, that we consider just what Deleuze hoped to flee from. Without that kind of rigor, we have little hope of establishing what always sounds nice on paper.
To consider the France from which Deleuze’s own thought was fleeing, for example, we can unfortunately see that it hasn’t changed all that much. In fact, it is clear that it has only gotten worse, and Deleuze’s beloved America has begun to suffer the same fate.
We can turn to Alain Badiou for some insight into how France has seen itself over the decades since. In the English language introduction to his 2007 book The Meaning of Sarkozy, for example, he begins by reminding Anglo readers of France’s history on the very first page. “Many of my friends abroad still have an image of France drawn from the most glorious episodes of our political and intellectual history”, he writes. “Each time I have to remind them that France is a deeply conservative country, which responds to the revolutionary episodes in its history with long sequences of black reaction, and that those who have come to power in these painful sequences have never lacked the support of numerous and well-established intellectual cliques.”
To read Badiou in 2007 from the perspective of 2020 is to read a man still vigilant against the reactionary tides. To read Badiou now, however, is to read a man who has seemingly doubled down on his own Frenchness, as the nation finds itself utterly humiliated by the geopolitical complexities of postmodernity in a way that even he can’t seem to compute. Once again, we must begin the hard process of reckoning with a thought that has fallen into disrepute.
But what does it mean to lose one’s reputation? The cancelled should know but, ironically, they don’t. One’s repute is, by definition, the general opinion held about one’s person, and it is never fixed. It comes from the Middle English reputare — meaning, to “think over”. A reputation is always a becoming. To lose one’s reputation, then, is always to stop. It is to put down roots, to become stuck in one’s ways.
Deleuze, then, on the reputation of France:
The French are too human, too historical, too concerned with the future and the past. They spend their time in in-depth analysis. They do not know how to become, they think in terms of historical past and future. Even with the revolution, they think about a “future of the revolution” rather than a revolutionary-becoming. They do not know how to trace lines, to follow a channel. They do not know how to pierce or plane down the wall. They are too fond of roots, trees, the survey, the points of arborescence, the properties. Look at structuralism: it is a system of points and positions, which operates by cuts which are supposedly significant instead of proceeding by thrusts and crackings. It warps the lines of flight instead of following them and tracing them and extending them in a social field.
The French often treat us English folk with a deep cynicism. We tell ourselves it is because, oh so ironically, English that has become the lingua franca. The French, understandably, hate this. And yet, whilst this may be true, it is the French political imagination that now occupies the West’s collective consciousness. French modernity is our politica franca.
This was readily apparent back in 2016, not long after the US first elected Trump to the White House, when France was still enclosed within a mournful pit of despair following the various terror attacks it suffered over the two years prior. Two essays on the Urbanomic website from Nick Land and Mark Fisher remain an interesting time-capsule of where we were at, before the hysteria of the culture wars extinguished any compelling narrative regarding how we got there.
Land writes, with a characteristic hint of glee as he casts his eye over the chaos:
To be French is to understand — with peculiar lucidity — what it is to have been defeated by modernity. The world’s first modern nation, enthralled beyond all others by the call of the universal, has been cropped back to a nexus of untaken paths, over the course of two centuries.
Mark Fisher, in less gloating terms, makes a similar point but in his own way, focusing less on kicking the French whilst they’re down and more on the cybergothic outside they have folded within themselves.
“ISIS holds up a mirror to twenty-first-century capitalist nihilism”, he says,
a boring nihilism: an existential poverty that accompanies the material poverty into which capital plunges so many. A tiny minority escape material poverty, but only capital’s most devoted addicts can evade existential poverty.
Both these arguments take on a sick prescience on 3rd November 2020. Last night the news was not dominated by US election chatter but rolling coverage of a terrorist attack in the Austrian capital of Vienna. Nevertheless, terroristic unrest on the streets of another European capital might prefigure all too closely the anticipated unrest to follow the US election — a double articulation of the same boring nihilism.
To look upon the US election with all of the above in mind, we see little to be hopeful about. The future of the revolution looks bleak, no matter which way you spin it. But what of our revolutionary-becoming? I’m not sure I even know how to begin to answer… It is a question never really asked.
What is to be done? Tonight and, more importantly, tomorrow? Will a Biden win signal the end of this period of “black reaction”? I doubt it. Then what do we need to do to make it so? That’s the question we ask tomorrow.
Elections are stopgaps. That’s all. We can use this moment to gage how deep the rot goes. It is our opportunity not to end or begin a new era but see ourselves in the middle of things. Only then, after the fact, can we ask how to end this black reaction, and kickstart our revolutionary-becoming. And, to do that, perhaps we need to ask ourselves what exactly we want to become. We need not judge ourselves based on what we currently are, but we must insist on the image we construct being so utterly different to where we are now.
Deleuze once more with feeling:
A line is traced, the stronger for being abstract, if it is quite restrained, without figures. Writing is made of motor agitation and inertia: Kleist. It is true that one writes only for illiterates, for those who do not read or at least for those who will not read you. One writes always for animals, like Hofmannsthal who used to say that he felt a rat in his throat, and this used to show its teeth, “nuptials or participation against nature”, symbiosis, involution. Only the animal in man is addressed. This does not mean writing about one’s dog, one’s cat, one’s horse or one’s favourite animal. It does not mean making animals speak. It means writing as a rat traces a line, or as it twists its tail, as a bird sends out a sound, as a cat moves or else sleeps heavily. Animal-becoming, on condition that the animal, rat, horse, bird or cat, itself becomes something else, bloc, line, sound, colour of sand — an abstract line. For everything which changes passes along that line: assemblage . Being a sea-louse, which sometimes leaps up and sees the whole beach, sometimes remains hidden, its nose against a single grain of sand. Do you know which animal you are in the process of becoming and in particular what it is becoming in you, Lovecraft’s Thing or Entity, the nameless, “the intellectual beast”, all the less intellectual for writing with its wooden clogs, with its dead eye, its antennae and mandibles, its absence of face, a whole mob inside you in pursuit of what, a witch’s wind?