The Spectre of Acid Communism

There’s a nice interview out with Adam Curtis for Jacobin in which he briefly talks about ghosts, Mark Fisher, and his latest series I Can’t Get You Out of My Head:

I’d like to ask you about ghosts. There’s a story by M. R. James called “Oh, Whistle, and I’ll Come to You, My Lad” which you’re influenced by.

The inscription on the whistle that the protagonist of that story finds on the beach — “What is this that is coming?” — was actually going to be the title of this series. But it’s not a silly thing. M. R. James was writing those stories in the 1890s, which I would argue is a similar time to now. The British Empire was collapsing, and there was this feeling of fear and guilt, that something was coming back to haunt you. I would argue that America has had that same feeling since the end of the Vietnam War.

That’s a bit like what Mark Fisher wrote about — the ghosts of the past returning to blot out the future.

I knew Mark. We used to meet regularly in a café by Liverpool Street station and have long conversations about all this. We appeared on stage together in Berlin, I think. But going back to this idea about ghosts, I use characters like Jiang Qing because they had this idea that you could force the ghosts out of people’s heads to produce a new kind of society. But the vital thing they forgot is the ghosts inside their own heads.

It’s the same with the Brexit people, who are haunted by a fictitious, idealized vision of Britain’s past. Dominic Cummings [Boris Johnson’s former adviser, who is credited as the Brexit campaign mastermind] accessed it through nationalism, which is something liberals are very scared of.

Already tweeted, this is a point that bears repeating on the blog: “this idea that you could force the ghosts out of people’s heads to produce a new kind of society” is, I think, the most succinct encapsulation of what Mark was aiming for in Acid Communism. It’s perfect, not least because it demonstrates the continuity with his previous writings that is so often erased, but also affirms that psychedelic gesture of manifesting what is in the mind.

I’m not sure Curtis’s new series makes good on that, as explored previously, but you can guarantee I’ll end up referring back to this indirect definition in the future.

Winter Songs:
Christmas with Lindisfarne

My Dad used to always listen to Lindisfarne at Christmas. As a teenager from Sunderland, the band’s annual Christmas concerts at Newcastle City Hall were legendary and the central event of his holiday season. Since the first one (or, rather, three) in 1976, the band kept them up for over forty years. He told me we’d go to one together one day. (Although lead singer Alan Hull died in 1995, the band still does a hometown show every Christmas.) In the meantime, he’d regale me with stories about those boozy evenings as we careened along the M62 to Lindisfarne’s songs for all seasons.

Hull’s voice lingers in my ear to this day. A song like “Winter Song”, from Lindisfarne’s 1970 debut Nicely Out of Tune, is an exemplary Christmas number that encapsulates the band’s chilling delivery of stark political messages, albeit in pop form. But there’s something about the production on these songs, too, that has always held my ear — the way they flutter around the high end of the mix. Bass is present but only just, as if heard through the faint sonic fog of mandolin and vocal. The same sound can be found on “Lady Eleanor” or “Dingly Dell”. It haunts, but it also evokes the frost-bitten clarity of a brisk walk along the north-east coast, piercing sea mist blowing off the cobwebs of the working week. It is hardly surprising that a band named after a geographic location — the holy island of Lindisfarne — would so utterly embody its elemental wonder.

I’ve thought about Lindisfarne a lot in recent years, specifically after first reading Mark Fisher’s introduction to Acid Communism. His assertion that what the establishment feared most was the working class becoming hippies feels so possible when listening to early Lindisfarne, but in reality the band were processing a rapid retreat. Formed in 1969, their best albums instead soundtrack that initial half-decade after the summer of love when dreams were waning but problems remained unresolved.

1970’s Nicely Out of Tune, for instance, has a powerful yet light-hearted sense of defiance. A song like “Clear White Light” has a downright spiritual aura; an expression of belief in some overarching cause of great clarity to guide us on our way. Meanwhile, “We Can Swing Together” is like a proto-Pogues song, or something Linda and Richard Thompson might have written before they hit maturity — it boasts a somewhat naive lyricism, making it all the better to sing along to its story of hippies being persecuted without a care in the world, because all they need is their comradery. (Again, I can’t help but feel a certain Biblical spiritualism here, like disciples and spreaders of the Good News being sent down by the law — the weed-and-god complex like white-washed-up reactionary Rastafari.)

However, just a few years later, that care-free attitude is nowhere to be found. Instead, Lindisfarne’s back catalogue demonstrates an over-long commitment to certain political ideals at the very moment they were waning from the popular consciousness, capturing the precise moment that the consequences of their lackadaisical sensibilities hit them on the rebound.

Take Alan Hull’s 1973 debut solo album, Pipedream, as an example. It’s title, in many ways, says it all. It is a word caught between its own ambiguity, where psychedelia meets cynicism.

To me, Pipedream feels like an album-length sequel to the Beatles’ “A Day in the Life”. But this is not the meandering of a grey Englishman through purple haze; this is a purple Englishman on a comedown. It is an album of songs that are both fantastical and mundane, concerned and aloof, anxious and acquiescent. The songs alternate, ricocheting between echoes of a past life and the hard realities of a new one. It’s an album by an acid casualty still in touch with his political agency — one of the ’60s walking wounded.

Songs like “Money Game” and “Country Gentlemen’s Wife” have an air of the new pastoral. This is cheeky Chaucer folk with a sprinkling of the Lawrencian. Primitive daydreams of when money problems were simpler and a tad more feudal; when desires flowed less freely, making their unleashing all the more emancipatory. There’s something more powerful and primitive in seducing a country gentlemen’s wife, after all, than the amorphous apoliticism of a orgiastic bed-in.

However, this harking back to old power plays is underscored by a deep melancholy and contrarianism. “United States of Mind”, for instance, is a sort of stock rebuttal for when one’s reasoning is questioned. It is hard to tell, however, if this is defiance or denialism. “I’ll let it thunder, let it whistle / Let it blow like hell, I’m not really caring / And my state of mind needs no repairing.”

“Drug Song” takes a very different approach. It is the most profound song on this record for me, and a long-time favourite. It’s a mournful song about how those old pipedreams may have broken old habits only to implement new ones; a song about a freed mind that has only found new addictions. “I took a trip to find me a better self,” Hull sings, “But I only found I’d merely lost all common sense.”

As I listen to all of these songs and more, I can’t help but feel a certain affinity with Hull’s united states of mind. Although Lindisfarne have long been a Christmassy go-to — a seasonal favourite that has the blessed luck of not being torturously overplayed — they feel particularly resonant this year. Maybe it is just considering the 1970s for the first time with a new ear, after a year spent reconstructing the tensions with Fisher’s Acid Communism, but there’s something more here too, surely?

Like a long lost 1972, 2020 has felt innately psychedelic, as we’ve been swept up at the mercy of its time-dilation. And yet, whilst I still feel the glow of optimism in my belly, that the world won’t go back to how it did without a fight, after that summer of lockdown, I also feel like we are slipping deeper and deeper into a new era of incompetency.

There’s only one thing for it, but I don’t have Hull’s 1972 sense of frivolity, because 2020 has felt like 1969 to ’75 all rolled into one.

Kit Kat Communism:
XG on Mandatory Redistribution Party

Did you know Sean Morley and I went to school together? Did you know that we live in a society? Hope?

I had a lovely and somewhat feverish time catching up with Sean last week. We spoke about left melancholy and the future of the left on the Mandatory Redistribution Party podcast.

Listen above via Spotify. Alternatively, check out the podcast on Podbean or Acast. Follow them on Twitter and Patreon for all future episodes as well.

The Nightmare Before Socialism:
Mark Fisher Reading Group at Bristol Transformed

From October 30th to November 13th, the spooky folks at Bristol Transformed are organising a series of Goth Communism events that, frankly, couldn’t be any more up my street…

In 2020 every day is a horror. Join Bristol Transformed in a celebration of the dark and the macabre. But Goth Communism can show you the light in the abyss.

We’ll explore how leaning into the darkness can reveal a path forward for the movement.

You can keep tabs on the full lineup of events (with more to be announced) over on Facebook.

On Sunday 8th November at 14:00 GMT, I’ll be taking part in “Hauntology House”, a one-off reading group where we will look at the new Mark Fisher collection, Postcapitalist Desire, specifically the fourth lecture on “Union Power & Soul Power”.

You can book tickets for the event here and keep tabs on it on Facebook here. Every ticket comes with a free eBook of the collection so get involved! I’m very much looking forward to this — not least because it provides ample opportunity to talk about my two favourite if seemingly disparate interests: goth and disco.

You can read Bristol Transformed’s introduction to the session below:

In partnership with Repeater Books, we’ll be reading a new collection of lectures from the late Mark Fisher — Postcapitalist Desire: The Final Lectures. We will be joined in this discussion by Matt Colquhoun

Matt Colquhoun is the collection’s editor and author of Egress: On Mourning, Melancholy and Mark Fisher. He will be discussing a little bit about how the book came about before we dive into a discussion on the chapter titled: “Union Power & Soul Power”

People who register free for the event ahead of time using the link provided above will receive a free copy of the Ebook + a zoom link. The deadline to register is Friday 6th November and spaces are limited.

Postcapitalist Desire — Sneak Peek

My advance copies of Mark Fisher’s Postcapitalist Desire: The Final Lectures arrived in the post the other day. I’m not usually one for book fetishism but the finish on these is absolutely stunning. The photo nerd in me was genuinely blown away by how well the hardback holds the colours in Johnny Bull’s already iconic cover. Repeater Books have outdone themselves with this. It feels incredibly special and I cannot wait for you all to see it in the flesh.

If you want one, there is currently no pre-order but they will be out in January 2021, online and in bookshops. Keep your eye on the Repeater Books website here, where you can currently buy the eBook. (We’re also planning a bunch of online events around the launch so you’re unlikely to miss it once it’s out…)

A Postcapitalist Battle of the Sexes

One of the comments that came up persistently following Aly’s reading list — and even in a comment on my own post [since deleted] — is that reducing accelerationism to some battle of the sexes is reductive and lame.

I’m not sure what those people think they are defending in saying this. If I was to emphasise Alex Williams’ original communist inflection on accelerationism, would these same commentators decry the reduction of accelerationism to the class struggle?

On Twitter, @CmonNowGirl commented on my last post with a link to a recent essay of their own on “Gender Realism” — a really excellent bridging of the gap between Mark Fisher’s capitalist realism and an Irigarayian feminism. I’m really glad @CmonNowGirl brought this up, as it further grounds the importance of cyber/xenofeminism to accelerationism’s overall lineage.

Fisher wrote on feminism fairly often. In his own accelerationist writings, he addressed the melancholy of Ellen Willis, for instance, as a way to highlight second-wave feminism’s crisis of negation. He writes for eflux:

In her 1979 essay “The Family: Love It or Leave It,” the late music and cultural critic Ellen Willis noted that the counterculture’s desire to replace the family with a system of collective child-rearing would have entailed “a social and psychic revolution of almost inconceivable magnitude.” It’s very difficult, in our deflated times, to re-create the counterculture’s confidence that such a “social and psychic revolution” could not only happen, but was already in the process of unfolding. Like many of her generation, Willis’s life was shaped by first being swept up by these hopes, then seeing them gradually wither as the forces of reaction regained control of history. There’s probably no better account of the Sixties counterculture’s retreat from Promethean ambition into self-destruction, resignation, and pragmatism than Willis’s collection of essays Beginning To See The Light.

The upset commentator on my last post expressed concern that I, xenogothic, great reader of Mark Fisher, could be so easily caught up in Aly’s manufacturing of outrage that he would have surely had little time for. (It was a truly mind-numbing comment.) The truth is Mark was a huge supporter of accelerationism’s feminist foundations and using them to reinvigorate accelerationism’s wayward edgelording. He adds in his essay on Willis:

I want to situate accelerationism not as some heretical form of Marxism, but as an attempt to converge with, intensify, and politicize the most challenging and exploratory dimensions of popular culture. Willis’s desire for “a social and psychic revolution of almost inconceivable magnitude” and her “quarrel with the left” over desire and freedom can provide a different way into thinking what is at stake in this much misunderstood concept.

What @CmonNowGirl calls “gender realism” is precisely the sort of extension to his own thinking that Fisher applauded. In fact, “gender realism” resonates very nicely with what Helen Hester has called “domestic realism”. Hester’s essay on this was the required reading for the last session of Fisher’s Postcapitalist Desire course at Goldsmiths in 2017. We unfortunately don’t know what Fisher would have had to say on it but it is nonetheless mentioned over the course of the course — which you’ll be able to read for yourself next month in this new collection I’ve edited.

Mentioning Willis’s text — also required reading — in his introduction to the course, Fisher says:

And what I particularly like about this piece by Ellen Willis is how it raises the question of what we’ll look at later; of what Helen Hester calls “domestic realism”, which is a bit of a parallel to what I’ve called “capitalist realism” — i.e. the idea that domestic structures, the ways we organise our lives at home, are fixed and immutable, and we can’t imagine them being any different. In the Sixties, in the counterculture, people did try to live in a different way, did try to live in a more collective and communal way. It didn’t work out. It stalled. It failed. It went wrong. Interestingly, Willis’s argument is that part of the problem was impatience. People thought that we could overcome these structures very quickly. In fact, they are highly tenacious and will reassert themselves unless they are continually dismantled.

In the session on Willis’s text, which did go ahead before Fisher’s death, he expands on this — [emphasis in the quotation below is all mine]:

What the counterculture aimed at was the phrase that I picked up: “a social and psychic revolution of almost inconceivable magnitude”. We who came after the 1960s — even though I was born in the 1960s, although too late to comprehend it at that time — we who come after it find it hard to imagine a time when those ambitions seemed to be realistic. What’s being registered in this text by this time is the simultaneous and synchronised emergence of capitalist realism and domestic realism, and their co-implication: the idea that there’s no alternative to capitalism and there’s no alternative to the family either.

I actually think that domestic realism is even more powerful than capitalist realism in today’s world. Even when I was at school, in the 1980s, there were fairly serious debates about alternatives to the family. I remember when I taught teenagers, a few years ago, you’d talk about alternatives to the family and they were just horrified by the very thought of it. And the full tragedy of that was, of course, that many of them had come from very difficult family backgrounds. So, they had an idealised idea of the family that didn’t fit with their experience of the family at all. And yet that very idealisation implied that they still held up the family as an idea. The countercultural mission to have done with the family really has almost entirely disappeared now as a widespread cultural phenomenon.

@CmonNowGirl’s essay, along with Helen Hester’s, covers a lot of the groundwork here, expounding upon why capitalist and gender and domestic realism are co-implicated and, most importantly, why so much has been done to obscure their relationship to one another.

An accelerationism that dismisses this as a superfluous “battle of the sexes” is precisely the outlook of someone who doesn’t know what accelerationism’s stakes are. It is, of course, not the only revolution that accelerationism first sought to instigate, but it is a major one. Without first revolutionising these relations, little else will be able to follow.

Freed From Desire

I had such a lovely evening yesterday. The wonderful Natasha Eves has moved just down the road from me and, after a few months of strange isolation in the big city, surrounded by people but talking to no one, a developing weekly habit of going round for dinner and drinks has been much welcomed.

Last night we ate enchiladas and talked about music for hours and hours. I was reminded of a brief obsession everyone had in 2017 with GALA’s “Free From Desire” — an anthem for Acid Communism if ever there was one, and particularly Fisher’s Lyotardian left-accelerationist version, where “breaking free from desire … doesn’t mean to withdraw from our capacity to desire but to let go of the distinction of what is the pleasure in desire and in suffering”; an trip beyond the pleasure principle.

This feels like an oddly prescient suggestion at present. As my social life slowly starts to recover, it is interesting to hear what people want to do next. No one I know seems to want to go back to the pre-lockdown lifestyles. People are taking up new habits and hobbies — some of which they never previously enjoyed; others that they enjoy but feel guilty about enjoying. I certainly feel strange, considering all I’ve written about community in recent years, being driven by a desire to go live a quiet life somewhere else.

In light of a life under lockdown in a densely populated city like London, I am aware this desire is driven by a slightly intensified misanthropic tendency. At the same time, I want to recalibrate my communities and find the joy in them again — rediscover community freed from desire.

Cold Rationalism and Psychedelic Consciousness: Mark Fisher’s Acid Reflux — XG at the University of Birmingham Contemporary Theory Reading Group

I’m really excited to have been invited to give a guest lecture as part of k-punk quarantined, a online workshop around the work of Mark Fisher organised by the University of Birmingham’s Contemporary Theory Reading Group.

I’m going to be talking about some of my more recent research around Mark’s final postgraduate module at Goldsmiths, building towards his Acid Communism, excavating a thread that can be traced back through ten years of his writing, revealing how Acid Communism might still be a project reconstructed using Mark’s various essays already out in the world on the likes of Spinoza, accelerationism, consciousness raising, psychoanalysis, Marxism and a bunch of other things. (It’ll also serve as a sneak peek at forthcoming book project I’ve been working on — and have recently finished — during quarantine, due out in September. More on that at a later date.)

The abstract for the lecture is below:

In the months before his death, in late 2016, Mark Fisher had returned to that most fundamental political question in the twenty-first century: “Do we really want what we say we want?” 

Beginning a new postgraduate module at Goldsmiths, University of London, entitled Postcapitalist Desire, Fisher explored the convoluted relationship between desire and capitalism, all the while wondering what new forms of desire we might still be able to excavate from this relation, whether from the past, our present, or the not-so-distant future.

From the emergence and failure of the counterculture in the 1970s to the continued development of his left-accelerationist line of thinking, this train of thought was tragically interrupted. Nevertheless, this course was an attempt to think through and enact one of Fisher’s more implicit overarching concerns: the raising of a new kind of consciousness. He also considered the cultural and political implications of doing so. 

For Fisher, this process of consciousness raising was always, fundamentally, psychedelic — just not in the way that we might think… This lecture will further excavate this trajectory, not only as it was articulated in the final months of Fisher’s life but also from within the depths of his written output, from the k-punk blog to The Weird and the Eerie.

If you want to get involved, you can register here via Eventbrite.

Further Notes on an Ethics of the Dialectic

I’m in research mode at the moment and going in deep on the relationship of psychoanalysis to philosophy. It’s been fruitful so far, although it has led me to read more closely a few thinkers who I’ve never previously paid too much attention to — specifically Lacan and Žižek.

I’d sort of skim-read Žižek‘s The Sublime Object of Ideology a few years ago and really enjoyed it but rereading his preface to the book tonight I found the notion of dialectical conversation — previously just waffled about to Kantbot — becoming more and more concrete.

The purpose of the book, Žižek reflects, was to explore how the two supposedly discredited theories of “psychoanalysis and Hegelian dialectics may simultaneously redeem themselves, shedding their own skins and emerging in a new shape.” The use of this for Žižek seems to be that both Hegelian dialectics and (Lacanian) psychoanalysis share a process of simplification. (Just as the dialectic reduces a thing to its “unary feature”, Lacan draws the same process out from Freudian psychoanalysis.) Žižek explains:

The dialectical approach is usually perceived as trying to locate the phenomenon-to-be-analysed in the totality to which it belongs, to bring to light the wealth of its links to other things, and thus to break the spell of fetishizing abstraction: from a dialectical perspective, one should see not just the thing in front of oneself, but this thing as it is embedded in all the wealth of its concrete historical context. […] Hegel’s formulation is here very precise: the reduction of the signifying ‘unary feature’ contracts actuality to possibility, in the precise Platonic sense in which the notion (idea) of a thing always has a deontological dimension to it, designating what the thing should become in order to be fully what it is.

I liked this, and thought about it in relation to many things. Accelerationism came to mind first.

Reduced to its “unary feature”, Accelerationism becomes, for many, a desire to “go fast.” This is certainly the “kind of epitomisation by means of which the multitude of properties is reduced to a single dominant characteristic” that Žižek describes, but it also rejects its embedded position within contemporary thought more generally. The question, then, for many of us, becomes: “How do we continue to work in this area of thought whilst simultaneously rectifying this popular understanding?”; “How do we shift the narrative from an inaccurate certainty to a more accurate potentiality?” Because potentiality is the concern, in every guise that Accelerationism takes, isn’t it? Accelerationism, no matter which qualifier it carries with it, asks: “What is the potential that arises out of a subjugated capitalist subject?” The Accelerationist formation of Žižek‘s question, more specifically — “What must the subject of capitalism (be that human or otherwise) become in order to be fully what it is?” — also contains appropriately Promethean overtones.

I also thought about this sense of the dialectic is relation to D.H. Lawrence and some of those others modernist figures previously discussed with Kantbot. You would think that a writer, long dead, is only who they are (or were) and has no more becoming to do, but that does not seem to be the case for Lawrence, whose works, to my mind, often in spite of themselves, have a fascinating resonance in our contemporary moment. The question then becomes: “What does Lawrence have to become in order to be fully what he is today?”

It is this process that I was describing with that transgressive holy trinity — Nietzsche, Bataille, Land. Each successive work on the latter’s thought seems to do this absolutely. Each is dragged into a present that updates them for now whilst nonetheless staying true to their defining trajectory.

In the comments of my previous post, an argument broke out about this between myself and Dominic Fox. Dominic seemed to interpret this function — which I linked to Blanchot’s “infinite conversation” — as some sort of suspension of judgement — something which wasn’t in the spirit of Mark Fisher’s often barbed judgements on music, ideas, or people at all. Rejecting this apparent lack of judgement, Dominic argued: “I don’t think it’s illegitimate to pick and choose from among the different manifestations of Mark as a thinker and a person.” It is possible to “accept and recognise the whole inconsistent bundle without affirming everything in it simultaneously.”

I remain bemused as to how this ended up being the reading gleaned from the previous post but I doubt any progress is possible in that regard. More to the point, I have no interest in trudging up the particulars — it didn’t seem to really go anywhere — but the above, as explained last time (or so I thought), is what I have sought to do with Mark‘s writing. And that’s explicitly involved judgements of various kinds. Is it wrong to hold the door open a crack, on the off chance my judgement changes?

It is only in this sense that I defer making a final judgement about him or others. If this is emphasised, on occasion, it is because it is already clear that, in some ways, our collective imagination has already selected the parts of Mark’s thinking that will be carried forwards. Often, these parts are little more than glib understandings, in the sense that any popular understanding of a person is always ill-fitting and inaccurate, even when dressed up in a fluency with their own terms and concepts. They’re broad strokes, because that’s all the average person has any interest in. But they are nonetheless informed by certain dominant voices.

There is a responsibility that comes with determining these strokes, I think, and people should be more careful about the strokes they’re adding to the picture. Similarly, I think observers should be more vigilant as to what motivates a final picture — particularly one still being posthumously constructed — taking on certain contours.

A few examples:

Is Acid Corbynism really representative of what Mark Fisher’s thought? Or is it an abomination? Is it a self-serving attempt to grab hold of a developing narrative? Or is it just a half-baked populist philosophy, innocuously hollowed out of the ways in which Mark’s Acid Communism was to be vital?

Was Mark really someone who undermined his own politics of group consciousness by being grumpy online? Or was his coldness to the thought of some interlocutors commensurate with his vague desire to abolish the individual? Are either of those questions even relevant? Or is it all just a few disgruntled former friends getting a final dig in?

Is there any real communal momentum left over from Fisher’s life? Or is a book like Egress just wishful thinking? Is there a political project to be affirmed despite Mark’s death? Or is it the shadow of an ideal kept buoyant by lingering grief?

It is inevitably true, to whatever extent, that in each instance, each person in question requires Mark to become something specific and — in the sense of his still-yet-to-be-established “unary feature” — new, so that they might process who he was or might have been. In that sense, mourning is integral to each example above, and the fraught nature of mourning is what keeps the truth from being uttered and the hardest questions from being asked.

I know how I feel about these questions, personally. Regardless, the fact is that time will tell, and I hope that, later down the line, these questions get replaced by new ones. The point is not to suspend judgement but, in most cases, to affirm the potentiality still left in a body of work and the associations that become attached to it. I’m sure the Acid Corbynistas take refuge in the fact that, regardless of its fidelity to what Mark was working on, it is a positive project. I feel the same way about my book — a book which makes that very process explicit. For me, the heart of the Fisher-Function — “a need to ensure this is a moment when the force [Mark] brought into our world is redoubled rather than depleted” — when translated into these new terms, becomes: “What needs to be added to Mark’s legacy so that it is able to become what it fully is?”

There were other comments made in orbit of this previous argument. Apparently, Mark thought Blanchot was boring and that Bataille was silly. That’s okay. In that sense, the line between his thought and mine is clear. More to the point, it makes the detachment and assertion of a positive project more explicit, in that it makes additions. This is the gesture that I feel stays loyal to Mark’s thought, even if the references themselves do not.

All this is to say that, despite what some of his former interlocutors might like to think, Mark persistently transformed the arguably hypocritical and vampiric qualities of his negative critiques into a series of positive projects. He remained wedded to his thoughts, in sickness and in health, which is to say that the consistency of his arguments is impressive even if the tone was variable and sometimes problematic. There is nonetheless something to be affirmed here.

The initial barbed assault might have been an inadvisable approach — a scorched-earth strategy, as it were — but Mark always reemerged later with the same critique made positive. The unfortunate thing was that many remained more concerned with the previous mess or bridge burnt than the eventual strength of the end result. (Another aspect of this deontological tendency, perhaps, that is hard for some to stomach or acknowledge.) Everyone has read “Exiting the Vampire Castle”, for instance, but who has read “No Romance Without Finance” and made the connection? Both are concerned with a project of group consciousness raising that rejects and supersedes an identity politics corrupted by neoliberalism’s mandatory individualism, but only the negative critique is remembered whilst the positive project is left to the margins.

This isn’t just true of Mark. Mark, as ever, is simply the most readily available reference point. I’ll move on from him at some point, I’m sure, but not from this central gesture. That is the main way in which Mark continues to inspire me, despite the persistent announcements of his interpersonal flaws, supposedly to the contrary. He always came to realise, within his own writing, what needed to be added or transposed so that the potential of his argument could become what it fully was in actuality. Sometimes, the end result fell on deaf ears. But the stakes of an infinite conversation, as far as I am concerned, rest in the continuation of that project, especially when the other person has dropped it — through choice or through death.

This is what I find most palpable and poetic in Blanchot’s project (whether Mark liked it or not): in the persistent plurality of our voices, tomorrow is always what is at stake. That remains true whether you, personally, have a tomorrow or not.

Is that a deferral of judgement to another day? Or are judgements instead being made that keep the horizon in sight?

Notes on Dialectical Modernism

Before having this really excellent conversation with Kantbot on his podcast the other day, he had told me in advance that he really want to talk about dialectical materialism in relation to the book. My initial response was one of terror — I thought, fuck, that’s interesting, but I am not sure I am remotely capable of getting deep with that on the fly… So, about an hour before we started talking, I wrote my initial rambling response down in a txt file.

I thought this would end up being a small part of our conversation but, in reality, it ended up being the persistent crux that we kept coming back to, and it articulates a function of Egress that no one else has yet got close to articulating — myself included — so I’m really grateful to Kantbot for having me on his podcast and asking such pertinent questions.

Suffice it to say that we covered a lot of what is below in our conversation so, if you want the fleshed-out and less garbled version, go listen to Kantbot’s podcast. But I’m still quite glad to have gotten this down in writing, so take this as some notes or a podcast teaser, if you want.

Dialectics, as far as I can tell, is popularly understood as a process of simplification whereby contradictions or tensions find a moment of equilibrium and then we move onto the next thing.

That’s incorrect, obviously, but that’s what I hear when people talk about Marxian dialectics.

There’s an irony that emerges here in the fact that dialectics seems like a particularly complicated concept. You’ve got your Marxian and your Hegelian and your Nietzschean dialectics and there doesn’t seem to be a dialectic for these dialectics, at least not in the sense that most people seem to use the term dialectics…

In a Hegelian sense, we don’t seem to see a whole lot of proper synthesis going on, just a populist tendency towards compartmentalisation and misattribution and just a general mess of incoherency. In reality, synthesis is an ever-complicating process, not one of tidying up contradictions.

Modernism, as I see it, is the sort of cultural impact of this kind of theory emerging — which is to say, in brief, that Marxism leads to modernism. (And, lest we forget, that Mark Fisher was a persistent advocate, following Fredric Jameson, for the return of a “popular modernism”.)

Take someone like Virginia Woolf, who I’ve been obsessed with for much of the past year. I find a novel like Mrs Dalloway a really interesting exploration of dialectical materialism in this regard. Plot summary: Mrs Dalloway, the wife of the fictional Prime Minister Dalloway, is throwing a party and goes out to buy flowers, and then there’s Septimus Smith, a war veteran out for a walk who is thinking about killing himself, and these two characters loom large in a story also filled with all kinds of voices and violences.

Does the existence of Mrs Dalloway and Septimus Smith resolve itself into a utopia finally sprouting within the city of London? No. Because nothing has ever died of its contradictions. Septimus is committed to an asylum and kills himself, and when Mrs Dalloway happens (through sheer chaotic coincidence) to hear about his death she comes to admire his act and chooses to affirm the life of this man she’s never met.

But originally, Woolf hadn’t intended to include Septimus in the book at all, and it was Mrs Dalloway who was going to off herself at her party. So Woolf comparmentalises two mental states but, in doing so, and by giving them the superficial appearance of opposites, what she really does is make these two minds echo back at each other, like two mirrors facing each other. They don’t cancel each other out, they multiply each other to infinity and make you feel like you’re on the edge of some Lovecraftian hellscape of abject interiority unfolding into outside.

That’s what I like about Woolf. Her novel The Waves does this even more explicitly. She skirts the edges of some sort of high society classic bourgeois novelist — and she is, in one sense, precisely that — but there’s this horror that perforates through the pages that betrays her fascination with the darkest regions of the mind. (It’s not a coincidence, after all, that Hogarth Press, which first published all her novels, was also the publisher to originally publish the complete works of Sigmund Freud in English translation.)

This is also what I’ve also been loving about D.H. Lawrence recently. His novels explore this really explicitly too and in a way that is less stylistically transgressive but is really transgressive in its content. He’s like the British Bataille, with all the particular neuroses that would entail.

And this is relevant, for me, because its like this popular dialectics just diminishes the great stature of these projects. The complexity of their very selves, Woolf and Lawrence’s, is reduced by some compartmentalisation of their transgressive natures. These implicitly emancipatory literary projects are shorn of their limbs and either they’re thrown on the trash pile for not always affirming the “right” kind of emancipation, or they’re otherwise stripped of their vitality and talked about in truly lifeless terms.

The particular insights of D.H. Lawrence get absolutely shredded by fickle culture studies departments, for instance, and a revolutionary anti-capitalist novel that sexually embodies a process of dialectical materialism like Lady Chatterley’s Lover becomes nothing more than “the Fifty Shades of Grey of its day”.

If you’re not really into your literary modernism, think of Nietzsche instead. He was the most famous victim of this kind of moronic thinking. His absolute unconditional attempt to emancipate himself from the very foundations of Western civilisation — Christian morality most famously — led to him being called just about everything under the sun during his lifetime and afterwards, and it took about a century of hard persistent work by all sorts of people to rescue his thought from a second-hand impotence.

The great irony of this is that this probably fits into a kind of Nietzschean dialectics… His dialectic being rhetorical, a kind of conversation, and there is a thread of this in my book that is very implicit but comes from the frequent references to Blanchot.

Blanchot’s book The Infinite Conversation contains a sort of proto-ethics of psychoanalysis — in being pre-Lacanian at least — where he writes on the process of transference that Freud talks about. Psychoanalysis thinks of itself as a kind of rhetorical dialectic — you know, if you talk stuff out with another person, then this very act of conversation will settle your neuroses, but transference, in which the analyst becomes a sort of screen onto which emotions are projected, calls bullshit on this. And Freud, as far as Blanchot is concerned, didn’t seem to understand the real implcations of this. So the true task of psychonanalysis is a practice is both accounting for and resolving this process of transference, infinitely. What is the analyst, in themselves? What are your projections? What are your projections in themselves? Mapping this out is all part of the work but, of course, the work never ends and it shifts as life shifts and experience shifts and continues.

If you want to see this process today, philosophically, you can read three books. Nietzsche’s The Gay Science, Bataille’s On Nietzsche, and Nick Land’s Thirst for Annihilation. This is a radical conversation that spans generations, where Nietzsche, following the insights of German Idealism, has conversations with himself, leaves his self behind and also takes his self to its absolute limit, and then, decades later, Bataille enters this conversation with Nietzsche and tries to take himself to his absolute limit, and then, a few decades later still, Land enters this conversation with Bataille and tries to take himself to his absolute limit.

Who would dare write an On Land today? It seems like an impossible task, and is easy to become alarmist over because Nietzsche, Bataille and Land are so scary. But there is a very real ethics on display here, where we take the complexities of a person to their limit and set ourselves beside ourselves and fully enter into another mind, finding the projections we bring to the table in our contemporaneity, and extending this original project beyond the limits that were imaginable to its originator. It’s a sort of project I am fascinated by and whoever will be capable of continuing this conversation will be of a wholly different species to the kind of intellectual we know today…

Now, what I’ve done with Egress isn’t quite such a leap forward into the outside of contemporary philosophy, but, if I might be so bold, it is nevertheless my On Fisher — or, Sur Fisher, to get really pretentious about it. It is an attempt to take the complexities of Mark’s thinking on community, pop culture, capitalism and communism to their limit within a certain timeframe, which is the aftermath of his death. That limit is a limit already contained within this thought itself, but Mark’s death gave us the opportunity to exceed them.

A death is one of those moments — if not the only true moment — where a person’s thought really starts to come apart from within. Without a self to maintain the boundaries, all sorts of things start flying out of it. And what we see emerging on the left, when faced with Mark’s posthumously rendered thought in particular, is either an attempt to cancel Mark outright or instead just a sheering off of his work’s unattractive bits. Either Mark doesn’t deserve any attention whatsoever because he wrote an essay like “Exiting the Vampire Castle” or we shouldn’t talk about that essay and just focus on the nice bits about party political organising.

Mark was so much more than either of those things. And this isn’t just because Mark was some great and complex thinker but because he was human. This kind of complexity is present within everyone. But today we live in a culture that rejects this absolutely, on the most mundane level which, I think, is the most damaging. Like, most will reject an argument like this with alarmist examples like the fact someone can be a member of the communist party and they can also be an abuser. That’s a alarmist contradiction of a certain type and one that must be cut out without a second thought. Of course I agree that abusers and bullies are really bad, and I have no interest in affirming their existence, and I’d be quite content bullying them out of the things I hold dear, but today we find people can be excommunicated for having far less troublesome contradictory thoughts than these. You can find yourself socially shadowbanned for simply not following The Narrative, and the people who will deplore this kind of whingeing the most are, of course, those involve in the sorts of institutions that maintain the narrative, whatever it may be.

I’ve felt this myself, in a sort of ambient way, in a few of the reviews that the book has had so far. The “biggest” reviews, as it were — the ones most likely to be seen by the most people — have failed to really articulate what it is they don’t like about the book. No one can really say why. They settle on the fact my writing is occasionally cliched or clumsy or maybe a little bit too academic or they just attack a wholly reductive version of Mark instead. Neither kind of review — one that dislikes Mark or my writing — seems to address what the real problem is, but what I see under the surface of these reviews is a discontent with the fact that this book about Mark Fisher, which is so thoroughly evidenced with instances from his life and his work, does not fit the still-emerging popular narrative of who Mark was.

And so I find it really interesting that Kantbot would ask about dialectical materialism in relation to the book on his podcast, given the podcast’s dedication to “bad thought” or “wrong thought”. Bad and wrong thought is the only thought I care about, but not in the correct sense of what is “bad”. The frustration I feel with my blog at the minute is that I spend all of my time explaining how the “good” thinking about Mark or Land or Accelerationism is all incredibly dumb and inexplicable. And I end up getting incredibly angry about it — it’s becoming a real neurosis for me at the minute. The consensus is wrong and so I feel like I’ve become stuck in a self-righteous hobby of fuelling a furious dissensus about the complexity of these people’s lives — a complexity that has so much left to teach us if we take the time to deal with it on its own terms rather than in search of some Cliff Notes summary of what x meant when they said y. This isn’t an attempt to devolve all political philosophy into a Derridean indeterminacy but rather an attempt to affirm the chaos within these poor compartmentalisations so that the free radicals that result allow them to interconnect. It is to engage in a dialectical materialism proper. It’s not a cave allegory in which I want everyone to see the light of nature’s complexity but the opposite.

This is something that Virginia Woolf said about her own characters. She wondered how she could

dig out beautiful caves behind my characters; I think that gives exactly what I want; humanity, humour, depth. The idea is that the caves shall connect, and each comes to daylight at the present moment.

That’s the only ethical approach worth pursuing in the present for me. As far as I’m concerned, everything else tends towards bullshit. I want to engage in an infinite conversation with Mark or Blanchot or whoever, or not at all.

Saying that, I know we’re on a time limit so I’ll happily grant you a concise conversation that is listenable just this once…