A Million Chileans

The uprising taking place in Chile at the moment is really something. Not only in terms of the numbers of people demonstrating — “A Million Chileans” is the name of my new hardcore band, just FYI; our demo, “Piss Gauntlet”, will be up on Bandcamp soon — but also the slogans that are raising of people’s consciousness related to the centrality of Chile to the building of our current world system.

The video above draws attention to this by highlighting one of the protest slogans I’ve seen going around in recent weeks on Twitter: “Neoliberalism was born in Chile and it will die in Chile.”

As Pablo Navarrete explains for Double Down News, it wasn’t thirty pesos that brought the country’s cities to a standstill — referring to the increase in the cost of public transportation. That was “just a trigger”. The real impetus behind the protests is a nation that is done with “thirty years of neoliberal tyranny that they’ve been living through.”

Navarrete extends this period to forty-six years, aligning the infection of neoliberalism with the beginning of the Pinochet dictatorship that ruled from 1973 to 1990, and which left behind a neoliberal socio-economic model that has taken over the Western world.

This is another one of those moments for me where I wish Mark was still around to offer up his thought on his k-punk blog.

The seventh lecture of Mark’s “Postcapitalist Desire” postgraduate course at Goldsmiths — which he didn’t live to give — was meant to focus on Chile explicitly. Entitled “The Destruction of Democratic Socialism and the Origins of Neoliberalism: The Case of Chile”, he assigned the “States of Shock: The Bloody Birth of the Counterrevoluation” chapter from Naomi Klein’s The Shock Doctrine and “Cybernetics and Socialism” from Eden Medina’s Cybernetic Revolutionaries: Technology and Politics in Allende’s Chile.

Much has been made in the press about what the Pinochet regime, propped up by the US, brought to the world, but less has been said about what the US and Pinochet so violently overcame — the birth of a new 21st century cybersocialism.

For Mark, via Eden Medina’s book, this is what interested him — the close relationship between Chilean Socialism and the burgeoning technologies of cybernetics in the early 1970s. Stafford Beer, a British cyberneticist was a major influence on the Allende government in this regard, and had been invited personally to oversee the technological development of the new government’s overhaul of Chile’s sociopolitical infrastructure. Medina writes:

In July 1971, the British cybernetician Stafford Beer received an unexpected letter from Chile. Its contents would dramatically change Beer’s life. The writer was a young Chilean engineer named Fernando Flores, who was working for the government of newly elected Socialist president Salvador Allende. Flores wrote that he was familiar with Beer’s work in management cybernetics and was “now in a position from which it is possible to implement on a national scale — at which cybernetic thinking becomes a necessity — scientific views on management and organization.” Flores asked Beer for advice on how to apply cybernetics to the management of the nationalized sector of the Chilean economy, which was expanding quickly because of Allende’s aggressive nationalization policy.

Less than a year earlier, Allende and his leftist coalition, Popular Unity (UP), had secured the presidency and put Chile on a road toward socialist change. Allende’s victory resulted from the failure of previous Chilean governments to resolve such problems as economic dependency, economic inequality, and social inequality using less drastic means. His platform made the nationalization of major industries a top priority, an effort Allende later referred to as “the first step toward the making of structural changes.” The nationalization effort would not only transfer foreign-owned and privately owned industries to the Chilean people, it would “abolish the pillars propping up that minority that has always condemned our country to underdevelopment,” as Allende referred to the industrial monopolies controlled by a handful of Chilean families. The majority of parties in the UP coalition believed that by changing Chile’s economic base, they would subsequently be able to bring about institutional and ideological change within the nation’s established legal framework, a facet that set Chile’s path to socialism apart from that of other socialist nations, such as Cuba or the Soviet Union. Flores worked for the Chilean State Development Corporation, the agency responsible for leading the nationalization effort. Although Flores was only twenty-eight when he wrote Beer, he held the third-highest position in the development agency and a leadership role in the Chilean nationalization process.

Beer found the Chilean invitation irresistible. Flores was offering him a chance to apply his ideas on management on a national level and during a moment of political transformation. Beer decided he wanted to do more than simply offer advice, and his response to Flores was understandably enthusiastic. “Believe me, I would surrender any of my retainer contracts I now have for the chance of working on this,” Beer wrote. “That is because I believe your country is really going to do it.” Four months later, the cybernetician arrived in Chile to serve as a management consultant to the Chilean government.

This connection between a Chilean technologist working for a socialist government and a British consultant specializing in management cybernetics would lead to Project Cybersyn, an ambitious effort to create a computer system to manage the Chilean national economy in close to real time using technologies that, in most cases, were not cutting edge. Such a connection between British cybernetics and Chilean socialism was rather unusual, not only because of their geographical separation but also because they represented very specific strains of scientific or political thought. As I argue in this chapter, Beer and Flores joined forces in part because Beer and Popular Unity were exploring similar intellectual terrain in the different domains of science and politics.

Here we have the development of a project that neoliberal economists, under the tutelage of Milton Friedman, as Navarrete points out in the video above, would later seize upon after Allende’s death. This sort of management system was occupied and appropriated for a globalist capitalism and the rest is history.

But, somewhat ironically, or perhaps worryingly, considering the positions of some of Friedman’s descendents, is that this process of appropriating Allende’s innovations is not yet over. It is even more unfortunate that these ideas have been abandoned to those people who are picking over the bones of a group that were far more radical in the 1970s than they are today. In essence, what was intended by the Chilean socialists to be a state-management system that could adapt to the future has been transformed into a capitalist propensity to absorb dissent. Medina again:

The idea of control is commonly associated with domination. Beer offered a different definition: he defined control as self-regulation, or the ability of a system to adapt to internal and external changes and survive. This alternative approach to control resulted in multiple misunderstandings of Beer’s work, and he was repeatedly criticized for using computers to create top-down control systems that his detractors equated with authoritarianism and the loss of individual freedom. Such criticisms extended to the design of Project Cybersyn, but, as this book illustrates, they were to some extent ill-informed. To fully grasp how Beer approached the control problem requires a brief introduction to his cybernetic vocabulary.

Beer was primarily concerned with the study of “exceedingly complex systems,” or “systems so involved that they are indescribable in detail.” He contrasted exceedingly complex systems with simple but dynamic systems such as a window catch, which has few components and interconnections, and complex systems, which have a greater number of components and connections but can be described in considerable detail. Beer classified the operation of a computer or the laws of the visible universe as complex systems. Examples of exceedingly complex systems included the economy, the company, or the brain; such systems defied the limits of reductionist mathematical analysis. The behavior of exceedingly complex systems could not be predicted with perfect accuracy, but it could be studied probabilistically. You could have a good idea of what such a system might do, but you could never be one hundred percent certain.

In Beer’s opinion, traditional science did a good job of handling simple and complex systems but fell short in its ability to describe, let alone regulate, exceedingly complex systems. Cybernetics, Beer argued, could provide tools for understanding and controlling these exceedingly complex systems and help these systems adapt to problems yet unknown.

She continues later:

Beer’s ideas on management cybernetics resembled the Chilean approach to democratic socialism. First, Allende and Popular Unity, like Beer, wanted to make structural changes and wanted them to happen quickly. However, they needed to carry out these changes in a way that did not threaten the stability of existing democratic institutions. Second, Allende and his government, Popular Unity, did not want to impose these changes on the Chilean people from above. The government wanted change to occur within a democratic framework and in a way that preserved civil liberties and respected dissenting voices. Chilean democratic socialism, like management cybernetics, thus wanted to find a balance between centralized control and individual freedom. Third, the Chilean government needed to develop ways to manage the growing national economy, and industrial management constituted one of Beer’s core areas of expertise.

Considering the outline of Mark’s postgraduate course, the case of Chile was just the first in a trilogy of lectures that would set the scene for Mark’s contemporaneous considerations of accelerationism, xenofeminism and Prometheanism, and how each of these was informing his developing thought of an acid communism. It considers Chile as a major national antecedent of a left accelerationist project but unfortunately that is all we have now from him — a nod.

Medina’s book is brilliant though. It’s essential reading if you want to find out more about this.

I think it’s quite clear, from Medina’s descriptions there and here, how Chile was an antecedent to the sort of democratic socialist response to the observations of a thought like accelerationism, likewise concerned with the behaviour of “exceedingly complex systems”. (See Nick Land’s essay “Teleoplexy”.) But that is now something to get back to. It was a burgeoning movement snuffed out by a violent, capitalistic authoritarianism.

The memories of Pinochet evidently still haunt the region but we might wonder how, as in the UK and elsewhere, we might return to the potentials of that era. Not nostalgically but in terms of a digital psychedelia, imagining new avenues for what was not allowed to be. Capitalism has allowed the technological innovations brought about in Chile to proliferate globally but with neoliberalism installed as an operating system. Here’s hoping Chile can achieve a reboot.

The Haunted Hallucinations of Frank Ocean

The real opposite of nostalgia is psychedelic, the reverse of remembering is hallucinating…

This line, from Leslie Fiedler’s 1968 book The Return of the Vanishing American, is on my mind constantly at the moment. I’ve been trying to process it and explain — for my own confused self — how and why Fiedler’s dichotomy is nowhere near as clear cut these days. I’m coming back to it again and again in my blog drafts.

Fiedler is talking about nostalgia and hallucination in relation to the New Western or “Acid Western”. For America, the Wild West has always been a genre-space for thinking about itself and its values but, in the 1960s and ’70s, when America seemed to be undergoing a major transformation in consciousness, the standards of the Western did too. They weren’t rememberings of a fictional past anymore but hallucinations of a still-shifting frontier.

It’s hard to see this same process today but I’m certain it’s still out there. We can think about the hauntological musics of Burial, Lee Gamble, The Caretaker and others, with their distinctly oneiric qualities, which aren’t just false memories of music’s past or visions of its degradation in the present but dreams of an emergent new.

I think we have to be more attuned to these dynamics, clouded in the fog of a melancholic present. We might even start with pop that has been through this fog and has produced some very interesting results.

I thought about this when seeing that Frank Ocean’s 2016 album Blonde had topped Pitchfork‘s recent Best Albums of the 2010s list.

For Doreen St. Félix, who reviews the album for the list, Ocean captures “the whiplash experience of being young” in the United States today. The album’s “slight touches of distortion … call attention to impermanence, the trap of artifice, and, distantly, death.” But it’s not melancholic or nostalgic about moments past. She continues that, for Ocean, perhaps “the whole point of existence is that a dark musing on morality can — and should — be interrupted by soft flesh, a sticky plant, a designer shirt.”

What St. Félix taps into here, I think, is the missed meaning of a track like “Nikes”, most explicitly — a song about a grief for the future.

More often than not — at least according to Genius — “Nikes” is interpreted as a critique of materialism but I don’t see it that way. It’s about our pervasive hunger for the new. New sneakers. New art. New talent. But artists are not as disposal as merchandise. Or, at least, they shouldn’t be. Nevertheless, it’s a desire built — materialistically — into the culture, but it’s a culture in which the youth is also dying. The roll call of RIPs is contrasted, later, by the declaration that: “We gon’ see the future first / Living so the last night feels like a past life.”

It’s a theme that continues on my favourite track from the album, “Nights”. A line like “Did you call me from a séance? / You are from my past life” slides into talk of quaaludes, new beginnings and cheap marijuana vacations. Hauntings and hallucinations slide past each other and confuse present perspectives.

It’s gothic, almost by definition. As we, in the present, shift into a new temporality, both past and future are disturbed. Frank Ocean, on Blonde, seems disorientated by the whole thing, even whilst assured of his necessary direction.

The entire album is underpinned by this melancholic psychedelia and this “whiplash experience” that I think defines contemporary culture at large — I might write about my personal favourite example of this from the last decade at a later date — but I also think it’s so frequently misunderstood.

There’s an excellent example of how it is misunderstood to be found elsewhere on Pitchfork today, in an article about Ocean’s attempt to open up a queer-conscious club night in New York.

Prior examples of cultural whiplash — related to the building of a future whilst you watch it die around you — are evidently not lost on Frank Ocean and so, to me, if any megastar was to open up a club night for a queer cause, he’s it. But he was also bound to ruffle some feathers — these things always do.

Jesse Dorris’s review of the night for Pitchfork seems conflicted about this and it is a review that I think is suffering from whiplash itself. He introduces the night as follows:

Imagine if in 1985, instead of acknowledging the existence of AIDS for the first time, President Reagan had announced the discovery of the preventative drug PrEP. Imagine if, as a result of taking it, many of the greatest artists of the late 20th century had lived to see the new millennium. […]

A press release announced that the events would pay “homage to what could have been of the 1980s NYC club scene if the drug … had been invented in that era.” […] Would Ocean’s party be an orgy … where PrEP was sold at the bar instead of vodka sodas, on the dancefloor instead of MDMA? Would he perform, surrounded by survivors of the plague years? Would there be merch?

The answer to all this was no. The reality was, he asked some people to play some music in the basement of the Knockdown Center, a snazzy Queens venue-compound just north of Bushwick. If you had to ask how to get a ticket, you weren’t getting one.

After reviewing a night that — albeit exclusive — sounds like an amazing time, with appearances from Ocean himself and UK queen of jungle Sherelle, Dorris pulls back. French duo Justice headlining the night seems to undo everything that came before them. He continues:

Today, responding to suspicion of the motives and funding for the PrEP+ party, Ocean posted on Tumblr, criticizing the pricing and lack of awareness of the drug. “I’m an artist, it’s core to my job to imagine realities that don’t necessarily exist and it’s a joy to,” he wrote. But hundreds of thousands of visionary queers and weirdo prodigies and casual romancers and hunks and femmes and dykes and people trapped in the closet and those who could never even fit inside one didn’t die just so we could stand at an exclusive party and listen to straight people play Buffalo Springfield. The living, and the dead, deserve better.

Whatever you think of Justice, I don’t get the negativity here. I can’t think of a better person to represent the future of queer DJ culture than Sherelle who has blown up here since her Boiler Room set from earlier in the year went viral. Seeing her invited to the US by someone like Ocean provokes a distinct sense of pride in what this country has been doing recently. And, of course, Ocean himself being present as perhaps the biggest openly queer person in hip hop doesn’t hurt.

Surely, for the most part, this is better than what the 1980s had in terms of representation, collective consciousness and hope? Let’s not forget that nights at the Loft were often exclusive and, shy of raising the dead, at least Ocean put a sexual crisis at the night’s heart rather than replicate the Madonna zones that DJ Sprinkles once called “the decontextualized, reified, corporatized, liberalized, neutralized, asexualized, re-genderized pop reflection of this dance floor’s reality!”

Perhaps Ocean’s night wasn’t a complete rebuttal of that old critique but, with that kind of dancefloor in mind, Pitchfork seems like a pretty fragile-looking glass house from which to throw stones about not doing subcultures justice (no pun intended).

But this post isn’t some Frank Ocean defence that no one asked for. I wasn’t there and it’s not like I even knew about this party until the backlash, but Ocean’s own defence does seem to encapsulate the problematics of our present moment perfectly. We need artists “to imagine realities that don’t necessarily exist” and find the joy in process.

We are trapped in a moment of psychedelic nostalgia where politics in particular is determined by a cooked-up nostalgia for a time that never was. On Blonde, Ocean instead mourned lost futures and he did so beautifully, but not every hallucination of a lost future has to be so haunted, does it? Ocean’s night may not wholly live up to the contentious political standards of the present but also it seems that, in this specific case, it was incapable of living up to the expectations of an non-existent past also. And I find that an odd thing to be mad about.

A night about the past that celebrates the present and future is precisely the sort of approach we need, and it certainly sounds better than Dorris’s opening predictions. PrEP orgy with “plague survivors” and merch sounds like a late capitalist horror show. That’s the worst to be expected, surely? How can anyone be disappointed by “he asked some people to play some music”? Collective joy in the orbit of a drug like PrEP seems like as good a night as any.

What’s ironic about this, of course, is that Ocean seems to be attempting an escape from the deadlock of the decade that Pitchfork thinks he has defined. I reckon it’d be better for all of us and the decade ahead if they’d just let him.

Acid Monasticism: Holly Herndon at the Barbican

Where to start with a night like last night at the Barbican?

“This is totally normal” was Aya’s comment as she made her way onto the stage to begin proceedings for a night that could not have been more perfectly ill-fitting for the Barbican’s main hall. For anyone who had any inkling of what they were in for, “normal” got checked in at the cloak room downstairs. This was going to be something else.

Anyone who has seen Aya perform before will be familiar with her open commentary on her performances. She treats the DJ booth like an MC treats their trestle table down your local pub’s queer karaoke night — and I must emphasise that this is a very welcome addition to any occasion.

In a small space like a bar or club, this makes perfect sense. Aya creates an atmosphere that is immediately communal. She is effortlessly entertaining. She runs the show but all whilst letting us in on what she’s doing. In the Barbican, I was anxious to see how this would translate. Her approach is familiar but also challenges whatever space she is performing in. Even the Barbican? Even the Barbican. It’s like when Wolfgang Tillmans won the Turner Prize — I’m not sure why this is the reference that comes to mind but it’s early in the morning and, to be honest, Aya has left a thousand things flying around my skull overnight. She turns a DJ set into a tombola of affects. It’s surreal to see life documented in this way, so frankly and so irreverently in spaces of high cultural capital, and it calls into question what is normal and what is radical, challenging perceptions of what can take place in bedrooms and clubs and concert halls, turning all spaces and their temporalities on their heads.

There was an interview I remember reading with Mark Fell once where he commented on why he wore a flat cap and backpack whilst doing a Boiler Room night: to give the impression to all the loitering cool kids behind him that this dog walker couldn’t stay long, sorry, but thanks. It’s a brand of Northern irreverence that always goes down well with me but is too often absent from our main cultural spaces. The first season of Ru Paul’s Drag Race UK comes to mind, critiqued repeatedly for sanitising a UK drag scene that is a lot edgier than the BBC and Ru Paul’s American formatting is capable of representing. Aya’s style of performance is like this. Brazenly endearing. Cheeky and caring. Criminally underrepresented. As such, she insists on making an impression. It is a way of performing that pulls people in, making you feel welcome, in on the joke, and part of an intimate experience.

It is a testament to Aya’s chops that this sort of approach carries over into a space as large as the Barbican’s main hall.

At first, walking out onto the stage, the self-deprecation started almost immediately, as she took her position on stage behind a heavily stickered laptop, calling out to the sound guy about a dodgy RCA cable, wryly commenting “it’s all part of the show, folks — I’ll buy you a drink after if you help me out”. There was an anxiety underpinning the whole affair and at first I wondered how she would win over this unusually (for her) seated crowd. But Aya brought us into her sphere soon enough.

Interestingly, despite the insane size of the venue, her performance that evening felt even more intimate than usual.

Previously, Aya’s sets have always felt self-reflective and in-the-moment, commenting on her performance as she goes, praising and deriding herself with a self-criticality that, rather than undermining what she does, only helps to suspend her audience’s sense of judgement and open themselves up to the new. This was all the more necessary on Wednesday as her set took an even deeper look into her process — of music making and being, of gender and artistic transition — than any previous performance of hers that I’ve seen.

She is a singular artist who nonetheless wants to share herself openly. There is no cloistered and protective reflex regarding her own scenic novelty. She makes the gaps in dance music’s mainstream more apparent by filling them entirely and it makes her openness on stage breathtaking. At first presenting herself as if picking tracks and A/V works from a sonic scrapbook before laying herself completely bare before an audience already in the palm of her hand as her folded skin and ball sack streams past on the enormous projection screen behind her, reciting poems, lip-syncing to Lady Sovereign edits and with a Pulp Fiction-sampling skit about “deconstructed club” thrown in for good measure.

Later, the word “unseen” dominates the screen and her vocal track. It’s hard to know what this is referring to — is there anything left unseen? It doesn’t feel like it. But, in truth, there always is. As Aya scrapes off her makeup, which has contorted her face into a Gazelle Twin-esque goblin visage, inner experience is loud in its absence. Aya has brought us together in her stand-offish vulnerability but there is so much left unsaid. In a space this large, that is obvious. She may have been successful in reducing the size of the hall, bringing us in close, but in the end we’re left all the more aware of the distance between ourselves, and left with the challenge to sustain the intimacy she has demonstrated to us once its all over.

It’s an inspired strategy. As she walks off stage and the hall returns to its normal size, the desire to remain down Aya’s rabbit hole is palpable. (An analogy that feels unavoidably sexual in the context of this performance but that’s fine.) She ends by reciting a poem on gender dysphoria and bathroom politics and the alienating inner experience of our split selves but after 40 minutes of collective joy the distance between inner and collective experience seems marginal. She leaves open a space of infinite possibilities.

As the supporting act, Aya set the stage perfectly for what is to come.

In watching Holly Herndon and her ensemble walk across the stage after an interval — during which I saw so many familiar faces and friends: it truly felt like everyone in that theatre already knew each other — Aya still reverberating in my ears, I was reminded of Pepper Labeija in Paris is Burning describing the house scene in the 1980s, explaining how a house is like a family for people who don’t have families. A different sort of family. Not a nuclear family but a grouping of “people in a mutual bond.”

Aya’s shape-throwing and on-stage sensibilities are only a short distance from this much-adored subculture but the Herndon ensemble were a welcome contrast to Aya’s solitary performance. What she left open was occupied by this group of seven who embody those nascent possibilities so absolutely — on and off stage.

And yet, watching the Herndon ensemble almost feels voyeuristic. It is immediately clear that on stage is not a band but a family and we’ve all gathered to watch them hang out.

Soon enough, though, they welcome us into the fold as well. Watching Mat Dryhurst in particular, dressed in all black, in stark contrast to the rest of the ensemble’s “technofishwife cyber-Amish electroecclesiastical Hildegardian Mad Max babushkacore” (as Sarah Shin magnificently put it), he stands out, visibly ecstatic to be there and documenting everything like a proud Dad, lurking in the background, vaping and photographing and grinning ear to ear. You immediately feel like you are watching something special — for us and for them.

Colin Self is also a stand out presence within the group, their physical affection for the rest of the ensemble leaking out from the stage.

Sharing a cuddle with different members of the group during the intervals between full ensemble performances is so touching to see. Between songs, where each singer seemingly has their mark, they are quick to dismantle the structured professionalism of a well-rehearsed performance.

And it is well-rehearsed. They demonstrate a collective voice like no other. Each of the voices on stage is a powerhouse in their own right but it is frequently difficult to distinguish what sounds are coming from which person, and which are coming from or being processed by the laptops behind them. They are one and they are many.

Later, when members of London Sacred Harp choir are revealed to be scattered around the audience to take part in one choral piece, the desire to just hug the person next to me became quite hard to ignore. (I resisted.)

Later Holly asks if we will all join Colin in a “call and response” exercise — or “Colin response”, as they put it — so that Herndon’s AI baby Spawn can make an aural map of the audience. She doesn’t have to ask us twice. Everyone around me sings and it is beautiful. I don’t hear a single bum note in the house. Spawn may absorb our voices to map us but we have already absorbed the group on stage and are ready to sing back to them with relish.

It is a show full of details and set pieces. There is a temptation to comment on them all in turn, but it is the overall feeling with which the show left its audience that feels the most important and most difficult thing to define.

After the show, my friend Col Self — her shared name with Colin was an immediate topic of conversation — who I had not seen properly for almost a year, saw me from across the Barbican’s foyer space and launched immediately into a hug. It was the most obvious greeting after an experience such as that.

We went for drinks afterwards in a bar down the road and our conversation turned to magic, “the poetics of the occult”, ritual, the power of radical anti-capitalist unreason in the 21st century, and talk of projects and collaborations abound from there. There was a sense that everyone was deeply inspired by what they’d seen: to hang out, create and be together.

I was reminded of an old essay I wrote for school back in late 2016, “Monastic Vampirism” — an attempt to explore the gothic potentials found within monastic practices, drawing on Giorgio Agamben’s research that suggests early monasteries, before being subsumed into the Catholic Church as a globe-trotting institution, were proto-communist before their forced democratisation.

Herndon’s ensemble does not chime with the gothic image painted previously but they nonetheless seem to be drawing on a rich history of communal ways of life. This sort of thing is often spoken about in the past tense, as a by-gone and extinct way of being, practised only by neofeudalist hippies or anarcho-primitivists, but the ensemble are evidently aiming for something very different to the ways of old.

Leslie Fielder once argues that psychedelia — rather than being a bright, vibrant, tripped-out aesthetic — is instead the opposite of nostalgia. In our present moment, capitalist realism has reduced all alternative ways of life to nostalgic dreams of simpler times but the radicality of the Herndon ensemble’s presentation is that their way of living is adamantly future-oriented. Its nods to past forms feel like nods to the choral ensembles that Herndon has long been fascinated by, a reference to history that is not allowed to languish in the past. Song is inherently communal. Too often the hierarchy of performer and audience makes us forget this. But this is not a reminder — it’s a dream of future versions of ourselves that sing to love and heal.

As our conversation in the pub continued on, Col would insist she wasn’t high, despite her sudden enthusiasm for life, but the show itself was intoxicating. It is an acid monasticism, hallucinating new ways of communal existence, beyond the realms of capitalist normality, that can adapt to the technologies of the present and future.

Before heading home our conversation turned to Extinction Rebellion and the question of why this movement has caught on and changed the conversation but Occupy did not, despite its hype.

“There’s such a thing as the right idea at the wrong time”, said @body_drift, who I was also so happy to see. And that’s certainly true. The immanent threat of the climate emergency is hard to ignore but beyond its strong nostalgic undercurrent of hippie organising there is a sense that we are going through a shift in consciousness that is incredibly timely.

We talked about Ballard’s Drowned World and Kerans’ feeling that he’s not showing the early signs of mental illness but of a cognitive transformation for a new world around him. For him, however, this is brought on by an already irreversible climate disaster. For us, it feels different. The threat is making us prepare ourselves for something new, ahead of time.

This is to say that protesting within the bounds of the system in order to change it is one thing but the work of Holly Herndon and her crew seems to represent something else — something outside the headline-grabbing but nonetheless necessary organising; something that is in tune with the same affects that are fuelling XR’s movement but channelling them into alternative forms of life. This is to say that they represent a kind of mutual bond that is beyond street protest, that is more immediately domestic and attainable, that is already in reach and necessary to replicate. It skewers what Mark Fisher called capitalism’s “mandatory individualism” as one of the major mental obstacles to the futures we desire and it gives us a glimpse of a future that it is hard not to want once it has been demonstrated before us. It’s the sort of life-affirming performance that makes you want to hold all your friends and loved ones at once.

Beyond the songs and the spectacle, that is what I am left with after seeing this tour. The harmony of collective experience, nature and technology in productive harmony. Not just on stage but as a challenge for us afterwards. This tour is something to carry with you. The performance itself feels like only half the story.

Everybody in the Place: On Jeremy Deller and Rave Rhizomaticisms

He’s lost control of the nightclub. There’s been a coup.

There’s been a lot of talk online about Jeremy Deller’s new Acid House documentary, aired on the BBC last week. I finally got round to watching it after seeing David Stubbs‘ glowing praise on Twitter — high praise too from a legendary music writer whose recent Mars By 1980 is an excellent history of electronic music as a whole.

I’m left feeling giddy after watching it. It sent me on this weird trip down memory lane, thinking about all the chance cultural encounters had when I was growing up, their age and younger. If Jeremy Deller had shown up in my classroom to talk about rave culture in this way, it would have been like throwing gasoline on these teenage temperaments. I wouldn’t be surprised if some of those kids pop up on the forefront of something a few years down the line. It makes a strong case for this sort of arts education being introduced into mainstream curricula — although I won’t hold my breath for state education to get state-critical. That’s the sort of thing you only get — and even then, only if you’re lucky — once you get to art school.

“Everybody in the Place: an Incomplete History of Britain 1984-1992” is as brilliant as everyone is saying it is but there’s an obvious change here in how Deller is presenting his particular brand of cultural history. I’ve been to Deller’s exhibitions and seen his other films. This isn’t like those. This isn’t just an hour of expertly curated archival material made with the art world in mind. Here, the sort of psychedelic rave documentary (no less brilliant) pioneered by the likes of Mark Leckey, is being given a much-needed deconstruction.

Leckey’s Fiorucci Made Me Hardcore remains the blueprint for so many films about underground British culture. It is a time capsule that nonetheless contains within it a certain timelessness, due to the way in which the “subjectivist fuzz” of a particular time and place gets dissolved in its own euphoria. It’s the sort of approach to cultural work that we can still see echoes of today in, for example, Paul Wright’s recent film Arcadia.

Here, however, Deller’s documentary is presented through a very different structure. We begin — and remain throughout — in a typical London classroom. (And the London centricity is important here.) Deller is, essentially, giving a lecture to teenagers who look to me like GCSE students — 15-16 years old — about the rise and politics of Acid House and there is a subtly about the presentation here that I found really affecting.

I can’t claim that this “typical” classroom is anything like mine was. London, in general, is so much more radically diverse than the rest of the country. I went to a school just outside of Hull where I could count the non-white students in my year group on one hand. Casual racism and the associated “banter” were commonplace. The old adage that kids always pick up on difference was writ large then. It felt like if you were into or wanted to find diverse cultural experiences, the last place you’d look would be in the people around you.

Coming of age during the retromania of mid-00s Northern indie bands, my “Northern Soul” moment was disarticulated from any local club scene — despite every kid having a shoulder bag swearing allegiance to a scene that no longer existed for us. I’ve never really enjoyed the tracks that epitomise that subculture– the standards of the scene have always represented a sort of exoticised aesthetic conversatism to me: we like this because it’s so different but we only like this very particular kind of different — but I do understand the delirious confluence of sentiments found in dancing to Motown on amphetamines down the local conservative club.

I remember seeing an advert on the TV for the 2004 compilation Superbad when I was 14 and being haunted by the earworm of WAR’s “Low Rider” for weeks, as a track that is explicitly grounded in another culture, but which also strangely made sense jaunting around country roads at the mouth of the Humber estuary as you escape the city and hit the ocean wall.

“Take a little trip, and see” is a message to carry with you anywhere — no matter what kind of trip you’re after. I asked for that compilation for Christmas that year, much to the bemusement of my parents, and it blew my prog-dominated world wide open.

That was a gateway into a whole new way of existing for me. It was a gateway into a libidinality and form of expression that was wholly other to my own and, whilst it’d be disingenuous to deny a certain sense of exoticism in discovering the history of Black music whilst living my white British life, it ignited an autodidactic obsession in tracing the lines between the local culture I knew and that which seemed so radically culturally different.

Black music quickly became associated with the rhizomaticism of online cultures for me. The first hip hop track I ever heard was A Tribe Called Quest’s “Excursions”, selected as the opening tune of a mix CD I got sent from the US after taking part in a mixtape swap organised on a forum I used to post on.

If the title of the track didn’t already capture that “take a little trip and see” mentality, the lyrics disappear down a rabbit hole of references, genres, names, etc. It’s intoxicating if you’re already a hip hop head — imagine hearing it for the first time as a 15 year old white kid from Yorkshire.

What I like about it is that it captures the very autodidactic essence of adolescence whilst doubling down on the cartography of the band’s eclectic but loyal approach to sampling and culture with a four-minute extended verse flow that starts with the jazz-hiphop lineage in the first verse:…

Back in the days when I was a teenager
Before I had status and before I had a pager
You could find the Abstract listenin’ to hip-hop
My pops used to say, it reminded him of Bebop
I said, “Well, Daddy, don’t you know that things go in cycles?
Way that Bobby Brown is just amping like Michael”

… and then ends beyond the sleeve notes with:

What you gotta do is know the Tribe is in the sphere
The Abstract Poet, prominent like Shakespeare
(Or Edgar Allan Poe, or Langston Hughes, or…)

I mention all this because Deller has built an entire career on making these sorts of connections between cultural moments and there is always a sense that whiteness or white Britishness is the underlying thing being probed here. I’ve always particularly enjoyed his work connecting Acid House to mining bands, having enjoyed both a good rave and once playing lead cornet in a brass band when I was the same age as these kids.

Even this existence would be probed by strange outside forces: I remember taking a lesson from my trumpet teacher in his garage out towards Howden in East Yorkshire where he had a hoard of jazz memorabilia and a collection of battered VHS tapes that were on the verge of technological redundancy. He put one on of a live performance by Rahsaan Roland Kirk which felt like watching Top of the Pops beamed in from another dimension but every time you saw him outside the comfort of his own studio it’d be playing standards at the school BBQ.

This is to say there is a strange frequency to these encounters. They’re alien and mind-blowing but happened so often its strange now to remember I once thought they were so disparate. You feel enclosed in your own immediate community at that age but things only appear that way because the State has done it damndest to compartmentalise forms of expression along economic, racial and geographic lines. Some people never escape them.

This is reflected in the documentary. It’s interesting that, beyond the music, many of the Asian students on screen seem more curious about the miners’ strike and its relationship to a music they might be more familiar with through their friends and relatives. If I’m talking about my own experiences here, it’s because I had never thought before about the extent to which these perspectives mirror each other, precisely in the sense that they gaze back at each other over an apparent line of state-sanctioned difference.

They talk about the miners’ strike in the same way I’ve heard kids talk about the Troubles in Northern Ireland: everyone knows it was significant but today no one can make sense of the arguments for or against. Deller does it for them and all in the context of the rave scene as this underground web that connects London to Glasgow to Birmingham to Stoke-on-Trent to some unnamed field in Wales; how the scene spread outwards from the neighbourhoods these kids know today and into the outsideness of the Home Counties, tapping into a broader and more material sense of disenfranchisement felt nationwide.

When Deller begins to talk about this relationship to the countryside and to the historic libidinality of rural areas — again, in line with Wright’s Arcadia and Mark Fisher’s excellent essay “Baroque Sunbursts” — he discusses with one student this two-way alterity of how, today, the countryside is an alien place to inner city youth and, likewise, inner city youth are alien to rural areas. Deller’s aim, it seems, is to bridge this gap — and others — for a new generation.

Watching “Everybody in the Place”, where Deller is getting teenagers to read quotations from Karl Marx, Derrick May and Juan Atkins, list famous clubs from around the country, and letting them play with synths and samplers, regrounds these discrepancies in precisely the place they should be and indeed are explored, albeit indirectly. Teaching a classroom full of kids about rave culture feels, at first, like a radical gesture but quickly the novelty wears off and we see a group of kids beginning to understand the relevance of an underground scene to their more standardised education. It’s his way of saying, here’s how what they teach you in school connects to what they don’t.

In this sense, there is an unspoken affinity between these arguably by-gone cultures and the cultures these kids are no doubt immersed in when they go home at night. The anger and virality of drill music, so often in the news like rave was, the latest teenage moral panic on London’s streets, starts to appear like an explicitly 21st century form of stunted libidinal expression, caught in the bottleneck of inner city pressure.

This is arguably why rave culture did so well for itself. It was a culture that had a geographic outside to escape into, and Deller is not the first to claim that a reconnection with such Outsides is necessary if we’re to tap into these potentials again.

The importance of this for our sense of national and international identity is huge, and the key to this documentary’s approach, I think, is that it sidesteps the heady melting-pot euphoria of most rave documentaries. Deller, at one point, asks who in the class identifies as British and is met by complete silence. And so he goes on to challenge the unruliness of identity that has always haunted these lands — the folk traditions that might now be fatally associated with whiteness in their minds but which were just as antagonistic to the English state at large as rave and the subcultures of today.

Because of this approach, Deller succeeds in not fetishising the importance of a trans-Atlantic Blackness to cultural trends. He sidesteps the sort of wide-eyed wonder and hackneyed admiration that someone like me no doubt continues to fall into when talking about Black musics. It holds white and Black both up and says, “Look at the crazy shit all these people were doing and look how important it is to everything we love today.” Look how important Kraftwerk was to Detroit techno and look how important Detroit and its industries was to them. Look at how important Northern class politics is to 21st century inner city pressure… The difference is that the latter is generally framed negatively. All we hear about is how the white North has lost out to the racially diverse urban centres and London in particular. But London isn’t a happy place either and there’s a reciprocal relationship to be rebuilt here.

Deller’s tactic has long been to rebuild these relationships through the mapping of cultural rhizomes, and there are plenty of others we could still explore. After watching this documentary I’m left wondering: What’s the six degrees of separation between voguing and morris dancing? But the more important question is: what does the making of that kind of connection do to how we think about ourselves and how we encounter each other?

I’m reminded of the White Pube’s current essay on diversity and representation. They cite Riz Ahmed’s lovely speech to Parliament a few years back but then add an all important caveat:

The issue with us, as ~diverse~ publics, seeking representation as a singular end goal, is that it is fundamentally a liberal position. That is: it does not seek to overhaul, change, disrupt or dismantle. Rather to preserve; to move within the current structures that exist, that it recognises as broken, exploitative and oppressive, and expects to have a minority of that already excluded minority succeed within these busted frameworks. It does not look to change for all, only for a few. In forcing an excluded minority to funnel through the existing structures around us, this system ensures an assimilation into the cultural values that created the existing structures, and precludes those unwilling to buy into this assimilationist narrative from succeeding within it. In short; it believes in exceptionalism. The institution ensures its survival at all costs by absorbing the critique that hits it, bc it can point to a few success stories that have conformed to its requirements. This drive for representation within that system runs off of a politic of lack, and in that lack, it opens the door to neoliberal ideologies; of creating new markets to exploit and harvest for value. In our quest for representation and visibility through existing structures and channels, we will see ourselves consumed as a sellable commodity ourselves.

This is the resonant heart of Deller’s movie for me and likewise various politics explored on this blog. Dellers’ incomplete history of Britain is knowingly selective but it shows how cultural praxes of disruption are available to everybody in the place. The politics of Black musics and stereotypically white mining communities share a common — notably Marxist — grounding of seizing the means of production, whether that be national infrastructure or making tunes in your bedroom, each having the potential to influence people around the country and, indeed, the world, and explicitly without the exceptionalism required for your own continual state-sanctioned existence.

These “worlds” speak to each other more than we are encouraged to recognise and it demonstrates the innate flaws of this liberal position when talking about rave and mining in the same breath in a modern day classroom can look like a radical act. In reality, all Deller is doing is showing how two events that happened in spatiotemporal proximity to one another are related. It’s the sort of thing these GCSE students would be asked to write about in a History exam. The flaw of British education is we don’t do this for ourselves unless we’re talking about how we won the war.

Deller disrupts the “old” but nonetheless still contemporaneous order of things by reconstructing (through historicization) tandem lost potentials which remain buried in the future. I hope it’s these kids that go and dig it up.

Foucault in the Desert of the Real

Several weeks later, after an evening of tequila sunrises, Scriabin sonatas, marijuana, and literary conversation, the three men leave for the desert at dawn. “We brought along a powerful elixir, a kind of philosopher’s stone Michael happened upon,” Wade tells his guest. “We thought you might enjoy a visionary quest in Death Valley.” […]

The trio’s destination, Zabriskie Point, was the very spot that had provided Michelangelo Antonioni with the setting and title of his 1970 hippie movie, which Pauline Kael panned as a “pathetic mess” in The New Yorker, assuming that the Italian was “baffled by America and it all got away from him.” If Antonioni was guilty of being an aging European intellectual belatedly drawn to the American counterculture’s image of youth in revolt, he wasn’t the only one. In November 1975, Foucault crossed paths with his colleagues Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari at Semiotext(e)’s “Schizo-Culture” conference at Columbia University, the latter two having journeyed across the Atlantic to see for themselves: They met Allen Ginsberg backstage at Bob Dylan’s Rolling Thunder Revue in Lowell, Massachusetts, Jack Kerouac’s hometown, before flying to California, where they visited Patti Smith in Berkeley, Lawrence Ferlinghetti in San Francisco, and Henry Miller in Big Sur. At almost the same time, Jean Baudrillard embarked from San Diego on a theoretical road trip he later chronicled in 1986’s America, in whose deserts, both ecological and semiotic, he found a hyperreal “microcosm of the West,” and at Disneyland, saw “a parody of the world of the imagination.” In Death Valley, Baudrillard writes, “everything human is artificial.”

It appears that Foucault drew different conclusions. Over several hours, he and his companions take in the Mojave vistas, drink chartreuse, listen to Stockhausen, and emit the aphoristic bits of pseudo-wisdom that hallucinogens are known for prompting: “Music is our theology,” “The sky has exploded and the stars are raining down upon me. I know this is not true, but it is the Truth.” At one point, there is an argument over whether the car doors should stay open or closed. With “tears streaming from his eyes,” Foucault declares, “Tonight I have achieved a fresh perspective on myself. I now understand my sexuality. It all seems to start with my sister. We must go home again.”

I enjoyed this article in The Baffler on Foucault’s near-mythic excursion in Death Valley.

This exclamation in the desert is particularly interesting. Just as Mark noted in his Acid Communism intro, Foucault encounter with the Outside confirmed what he already knew and expressed in his previous philosophical excursions, allowing him to find the strange in the familiar.

We must all go back home again.

AGI: Artificial Governing Intelligence

Aaron Bastani’s long-awaited and oft-parodied Fully Automated Luxury Communism manifesto is finally out and, to celebrate the occasion, Novara Media has done its own long-form interview with their own founder to go over the book’s general insights and implications.

It’s an interesting chat that covers most of the current leftist hot topics but one question towards the end was pretty surprising to me in that it reminded me of Landian accelerationism…

Throughout the conversation, Bastani and James talk about markets on multiple occasions — how you can abolish capitalism without abolishing martkets; market socialism; and a few seemingly adjacent topics like how Universal Basic Services could be an alternative to (and prerequisite of) Universal Basic Income — and this all seems to come to a head at around 1:14:50 with a chat bar question: “Will artificial intelligence replace government?”

Bastani responds:

Paul Mason puts it really well in his present book, right? We’ve deferred for 35 years to this thing called “The Market”.

“Can we do this thing?” No, the Market says we can’t. “Why?” Well, the Market says we can’t.

How is that any different to a machine?

You’re saying, this protocol, this set of rules, which is solidified in this institution says no. That’s no different, fundamentally, to machine control because it’s taking agency away from human beings; it’s depoliticising the political.

So, in a sense, that’s already here — certainly in the cutting-edge of the neoliberal countries.

It’s a very familiar insight, albeit one we’re more used to hearing expressed from certain quarters with palpable glee…

What Bastani is describing is the cybernegativity of market circuitries, contrary to Land’s open embrace of the cyberpositive. What Bastani speaks to is perhaps closer to the porcine circuits of the market democracies described by Gilles Chatalet — and we might note that cybernegativity seems to be an enemy common to all three.

Bastani is against machine control in this context, presumably so long as it is grounded on this current deference to neoliberal market economies and, most importantly, their inequalities. Automation, then, must be retooled as a socialist form of machine control wherein it is we who control the machines rather than the machines that control us. It is this that then leads to a supposedly communist automation.

This makes sense for the means of production but, since communism is fundamentally anti-statist, requiring a different sort of political organisation altogether, the question of whether or not government is something even capable of being automated does pose an interesting problem — as is the suggestion that it already is automated. Still the question of how we shift our relationship to each other as well as our labour power lingers and, to me, it seems like a pretty big hole.

Does this mean we need to unautomate governance and unautomate communication alongside this more general push towards automated labour and intelligence?

It’s maybe best to end on this, from Bastani’s own New York Times article, further promoting the book with a Paul Masonic “radical optimism”:

So we have to go beyond capitalism. Many will find this suggestion unwholesome. To them, the claim that capitalism will or should end is like saying a triangle doesn’t have three sides or that the law of gravity no longer applies while an apple falls from a tree. But for a better world, where everyone has the means to a good life on a habitable planet, it is an imperative.

We can see the contours of something new, a society as distinct from our own as that of the 20th century from feudalism, or urban civilization from the life of the hunter-gatherer. It builds on technologies whose development has been accelerating for decades and that only now are set to undermine the key features of what we had previously taken for granted as the natural order of things.

To grasp it, however, will require a new politics. One where technological change serves people, not profit. Where the pursuit of tangible policies — rapid decarbonization, full automation and socialized care — are preferred to present fantasies. This politics, which is utopian in horizon and everyday in application, has a name: Fully Automated Luxury Communism.

Sounds good, doesn’t it?

I guess!

But so far the platitudes don’t seem to be doing much for how people connect. And that’s not Bastani’s fault. Overcoming the cybernegative automation already present within our lives takes something else…

It makes me wonder how much Bastani’s “luxury” is compatible with a Nietzchean “decadence”… But that’s a post for another time…

Political Ethics and Capitalist Moralism

Designer Communism is an interesting concept of Mark Fisher’s and undoubtedly a precursor to his Acid Communism. Explaining it in a lecture from 2016, however, he immediately comments on his own sense of being a fish out of water, presenting to an audience that is somewhat alien to his usual crowd. The first thing he is recorded as saying is: “I don’t know why I decided to talk about designer communism to a room that includes a lot of people who do actually know something about design.”

He goes on to note that, as far as he’s concerned, even as an outsider to the field, designers have a really important role to play in raising issues and, indeed, raising consciousness around issues of political importance.

We know this already, no doubt, but it seems obvious that Mark is tailoring these points to his audience. He points out that this term of his is an attempt to reclaim “designer socialism” — a somewhat out-dated phrase for a kind of bourgeois utopianism that lacks any (material) self-awareness. It was a term that particularly pointed at the design industry in the 1980s — perhaps even internally, as it is an industry that has often been seen as broadly politically conservative.

We might think this and that about so-called semiocapitalism, but who is there to take these ideas to the people who need to here them? Who inspires the designers to think critically about the world and their specific place within it? I suppose that was Mark’s intention.

I’ve written about all these issues as they appear in Mark’s late work before — in the most detail here. One of the centrally invigorating questions for Mark towards the end of his life was: in what ways can the mechanisms of capitalism itself — practically speaking — help us to reach its outside? This is a vague gesture deployed by accelerationists of all stripes but Mark wasn’t talking about DeleuzoGuattarian double articulation or accelerations of the process, at least not in this instance; he was talking about the ways in which the skills and knowledge of marketing companies, for example, can libidinally sell us the possibility of a new future. If you want to accelerate the process in a way that’s a bit more materially measurable, maybe get involved in design!

As Mark argues in the lecture, not doing this (at least not successfully) was where the left failed in the 1980s and, as he goes on to say, it is a point from which the left arguably never recovered. Capitalism made itself out to be the only path to the sexy future we have always been promised. The left’s concepts of the future, by comparison, were dreary. (Mark would cite adverts by Levi’s and Apple from 1984 as particularly egregious examples of this, borne out of Cold War anti-Soviet posturing but nonetheless with a clear subtext: “Capitalism is sexy and they don’t want you to have it.”)

This is a general argument of Mark’s that would become tragically prescient just months after his death when two designers from Bristol made and began selling parody Nike t-shirts, keeping the iconic “tick” but replacing the name of the brand itself with “Corbyn”. They were a huge success — even my girlfriend owns one — and they seemed to signal a new approach to raising public consciousness around socialist issues (even if somewhat adjacent to Corbyn’s particular personality cult).

This momentum — no pun intended — didn’t seem to amount to much, however. In fact, it crashed back in on itself all too predictably, with Corbyn’s initial failure to win a general election stoking the usual feelings of left melancholia. This also isn’t to say that t-shirts are going to start the revolution but it has shown that it is not just politicians who function as “libidinal technicians” — as Mark calls them in his related essay, “Digital Psychedelia” — but also PR companies and advertisers, and when they work together or at least have an awareness of one another and their roles in the wider system, interesting things can happen… Maybe…?

I’ve found myself thinking about this a lot recently because, for seven days in May, I was working at D&AD Festival.

D&AD is a somewhat corporate / start-up designer hub of industry talks and advice and they also have an awards ceremony where agencies from around the world submit their adverts and campaigns and typography and book design stuff and it’s all judged by industry experts across 14 categories which are then all shown in the exhibition that then becomes a big book afterwards.

It was a really great week and I worked with the best team who made a lot of hard work really fun and so I hope it goes without saying that the forthcoming critical view of some of the work has nothing to do with those people who worked so hard with me to make the festival happen, because what I want to talk about first is this concept of “Woke Capital”.

I’ve written about this before: the phrase “Woke Capital” is the product of an ostensibly right-wing cynicism regarding the ways in which capitalism now forces everyone to swallow typically left-wing political standpoints and put on a left-leaning face thanks to a totalitarian left-wing cultural tyranny. My own view of this term is that it’s nothing new. It’s “Rainbow Capitalism” viewed from the “other side” of the political divide. Capitalism has been absorbing “outsider”, “queer” and “minoritarian” politics for decades, much to the frustration of activists, and now the right is annoyed about it too because they now have to parrot politically correct viewpoints because not to do so is probably bad for business.

What’s interesting about this shift, with the right leading the charge on criticising this tendency within contemporary capitalism — at least in our little corner of the internet — is that it seems to suggest the left is less concerned about capitalism performing the wholesale appropriation of a lot of these issues. In many ways, I suppose there isn’t much to complain out. It’s all about normalising conversations and concepts and political positions, right? If a car advert helps to normalise anti-racism, is the fact it’s ultimately selling something worth worrying about?

At this year’s festival, the best examples of this work being done — and I’m selecting the least contentious topics here — were projects related to mental health and inclusivity. (Two of my favourites from the product design category below.) In giving tours, it felt very easy to structure explorations of the space around dominant political issues that could be threaded throughout the categories and consider how the industry has responded to this and that issue that has loomed large in the public consciousness. (The other most prominent topics addressed in advertising campaigns, perhaps unsurprisingly, were climate change and school shootings / gun violence.)

On the one hand, the role advertising agencies can play here — particularly in supporting charities and not-for-profits — is really important. However, there is evidently a fine line between this successful so-called “brand activism” and the shameless appropriation of liberal politics.

Unsurprisingly, McDonalds’ was one of the most cringe-worthy examples here. The print version of their “More In Common” campaign was horrendous. Whilst the video goes for a “different walks of life” vibe, the juxtaposed photographs of their print campaign were split incredibly unsubtly along racial lines, taking the “if you think about it, we’re all from Africa, really” approach to identity politics but shifting it subtly to “if you think about it, we’ve all eaten at McDonalds, at some point”. Truly, this will heal the nation.

Elsewhere we have adverts for Staedtler and Stabilo highlighter pens which chose to “highlight” lost women of history (that was a good one) and also “highlight” genocide (that one was nice looking but actually pretty fucked up — bit weird to aestheticise atrocity in order to sell pens.)

It’s very easy to be cynical about all this and none of it is new but questions arose for me when considering the wider talks and workshops that took place in orbit of these examples of “Woke Capital”. It seemed to me that the ways in which designers were approaching these issues were, on the whole, pretty innocuous but this wokeness-as-business-strategy vibe was particularly pernicious when it came to discussions of neoliberal professionalism. There were so many talks about the individualisation of branding — the “brand” of the individual over the company — which leads to an internalisation and reduction of the broader processes that these wider campaigns demonstrate. The main issue I have with this is that we see a feedback loop emerge where bad attempts at ethics are subsumed into a blanket and innately capitalist moralism.

This is interesting, I think, because it’s not just an issue in the design industry. It’s rampant on the left as a whole. There is a sense in which it is not just leftism that has infiltrated the public image of capitalism but capitalism which has infiltrated the public image of leftism — that is to say, it’s logics and norms.

This is such a common error around these “weird theory” parts too and something I’ve wanted to address for a long time. It amazes me how often people will throw around accusations of unethical praxis or a lack of ethics altogether. It’s been a frequent accusation thrown at me too but I’m not sure what it’s based on. I spent a large portion of my MA writing on and studying various systems of ethics and yet how often how I’ve heard those words thrown at me based on… I don’t even know. (FYI: I had written these words prior to Crane’s latest tantrum in which he threw this accusation out before deleting his account again — he is of course a case in point.) In my experience, it is often people who accuse others of having no ethics that lack an ethics of their own.

What’s worth is that this is something intrinsic to these issues of capitalist design and optics. “Ethical” advertising is a very powerful but also dangerous thing, and I think we can perhaps lay the blame for the left’s innately capitalistic moralism squarely at the hypothetical feet of Woke Capital’s negative feedback loop. Because, to be absolutely clear, moralism is not an ethics. Not as far as I’m concerned anyway.

My understanding of ethics comes from a course I did at Goldsmiths as a student which really shaped my thinking. I’d wanted to do the course because I was sick to death of the lack of conversation around ethics in documentary photography exhibitions that I was spending a lot of time around as part of my day job. I found so much of the world I was working in to be completely abhorrent but didn’t know how to articulate why, so a course of ethics and the art world sounded like an interesting course to take.

Going through my old notes, we understood ethics to be “the process of defining, systematizing, defending, and/or recommending concepts of right and wrong to an individual or society at large.” But within this very broad dictionary definition we find there are three primary branches of thought which take very different approaches to this overall task — meta-ethics, normative ethics, applied ethics, etc., etc.

My own personal interest ended up being anethics — best explored by Paul Mann in his amazing book Masocriticism and with its antecedents in the thought of the likes of Nietzsche, Bataille, Blanchot and others.

Anethics is a sort of meta-meta-ethics that interrogates the innate limitations to ethics as a systematised “moral philosophy”. We can point to Nietzsche’s call for an unconditional ethics in The Gay Science as an example which may resonate around these parts. He writes: “Long live physics! And even more so that which compels us to turn to physics, — our honesty!” Being in itself is ethical for Nietzsche in this sense — or rather, it is an ethical question — and whilst this appears impotently broad as a consideration it brings into play things of an ethical nature which fall outside the realm of moral philosophy’s rationalism.

Love, for instance, is a slippery example. We can identify and critique “bad” parents or partners but what is it to determine an otherwise supposedly innate protectiveness of parenthood to a code of ethics? Ethics, in this sense, can be understood as a straight jacket even with the best of intentions, and so anethics is a properly ethical praxis and way of being which does not allow itself to become rigid, which does not settle for “being” ethical but exists as a “becoming” ethical through the consistent interrogation of all ethics and that which falls outside of them.

My lecturer when I was studying ethics was Jean-Paul Martinon and this was broadly his own understanding, in particular ethics understood as a futurity. His lectures still remain central to a lot of my own thought on this. His functional definition of ethics for our class was “the other comes first” and so the question for us to carry forwards in our studies was “how can I make sure the other comes first, i.e. before me?” However, in considering the Other, we immediately fell upon a number of problematics which we approached via Levinas (which I found heavily resonating with my already well-established interest in Bataille and would later fuel my love of Blanchot.)

Whilst the “other” is a phrase considered to be outdated and uncomfortable for many, that doesn’t make the problematics of the Other just disappear. Ontologically, the Other is always central because you can never get rid of the Other, because I cannot die in your place. You die alone, I cannot die for you. There is an inherent Otherness to being, then, which is irreplaceable, unalienable and unrelated to issues of identity and identity politics. In this sense, for J-P, the word “Other” was necessarily replaceable with the idea of the future.

For our class, the Other was defined as “the destitute for whom I can do all and to whom I owe all”, quoting Levinas in his book, Ethics and Infinity. Here, the word “Destitute” does not refer to the poor or those who have nothing. It is not an economic term. Levinas is therefore radical in his terming of “for whom I owe all”. Destitution does not necessitate an indebtedness but rather it indicates someone for whom I owe all without an exchange; without the necessity of a return. Levinas is asking his reader to consider who the “destitute” is in their world. Returning to “love”, the strongest example of the destitute is the child — the child who always comes first.

This is only one approach but also ended up being the one I liked the best. We looked at Aristotle’s Ethics of the pursuit of happiness, of flourishing, living without excess or extremes, fine tuning your being through processes of habituation, a project seeking the transcendence of desire and pleasure.

If this sounds somewhat monastic, that is perhaps because this is the ethical backbone of Western philosophy. It was likewise Foucault’s starting point in his genealogy of ethics, his histories of sexuality, beginning with the Greeks before considering how Christianity would shape this aesthetic transcendence to be a restraint of the flesh and later, in modernity, becoming the regulation of bodies by the state. In Foucault’s argument, like Nietzsche’s own moral genealogy, there is a view to uncovering this ground again — removing the unethical ethics of state power and its grasp on our interiority and once again pursue a legitimately “aesthetic” life which cares and adapts and develops and is free.

We’ve seen many attempts at this. Heidegger talks of being-as-care in Being & Time. Spinoza is a particularly important instance too, interrogating the theocracy of his time when many were considering the discrepancies between Greek moral philosophy and the then-dominant ethical thinking of Christianity and Judaism, controversially taking the theism out of monotheism and instead building a monism. Kant’s attempt to define a moral law of pure reason would go against Spinoza with his Categorical Imperative but here we find various paradoxes of representation when trying to encapsulate that which resists wholesale rationalisation.

Now, an ethics which I personally try to live by — and which I like precisely because it is so difficult in our present moment — is that developed by Maurice Blanchot. I wrote about this for Alienist and it is something that I’m now researching a lot more again for the first time since I finished my Masters. I’m not in agreement with many of the other texts that appear in Alienist 5 for what it is worth but all the more reason why I am happy to be in there. There is a sense in which our conversations are suffering and it is this intrusion of capitalism into our ethics that seems to be ruining opportunities for the production of genuinely radical political practice that escape the present moment of “frenzied stasis”, as Mark used to call it.

With the ethics of Bataille-Levinas-Blanchot being so fixated on the necessity of communication to being, Jodi Dean’s writings on “communicative capitalism” become the central challenge for this ethics today — and again, I’ve written on this a lot before too. There is a sense in which Foucault’s genealogical and ethical project can be extended today to include this infiltration by capitalism into channels of communication. We move from the regulation of bodies to the regulation of thought and whilst this is, in many respects, a positive process whereby we are encouraged to account for and put the other first, it is nonetheless a regulation.

If this blog has an ethical project — and I think it does — it is this. How do we account for our ethics in ways that do not consolidate around the whims of capital? To what extent can we really put the other first, in their futurity, from within this system? How do we raise up an ethics of comradeship and friendship within a socioeconomic infrastructure that is so often antithetical to this?

Each person who throws accusations of a lack of ethics should particularly take more responsibility for this within themselves.

When a different ethics is seen as a lack of ethics, which in itself is only ever a moralism, we see the subtle end result of capitalist realism on our own interiority. There is no alternative ethics other than that which is absorbed by our brands. In this sense, the end game of Woke Capital is perhaps already in sight, demonstrated by the miserable Academic Marxists of Twitter who infect their own gospel with the moralism of the system they proclaim to stand against.

But that’s not to say I have all the answers. The complicity is pervasive and I remain haunted by the spectre of the slacker as perhaps the best anethical response to our age of communicative capitalism.

There is much more to say here and I’ll see when I can get round to saying it. Jumping off my Alienist essay, I’m thinking this might become something of a series.

Friendship: XG in “Alienist 5”

As each term or concept is passed around from group to group, rising to the surface of public discourse by virtue of this promiscuity, we watch with horror as each word tumbles into meaninglessness, where one group’s gospel is another’s shameful misuse. This is a situation we are used to seeing, of course, in various different contexts, but to see it as a central trap from which contemporary politics cannot seem to wrest itself is depressing to many. Indeed, defining contemporaneity in itself as the temporally progressive shoreline of a universalised thinking, we find ourselves in a moment of traumatic untimeliness through which discourses and the concepts that fuel them become fatally entwined in a mutually destructive death-spiral, both seemingly incapable of affecting the other to the degree that we have long been told is necessary, each diluting the structural analyses of the other in the popular imagination. Consensus becomes both weapon and shield for all sides who proclaim possession of the majority’s support whilst ultimately finding it impotent as various positions go to war with one another over minor differences of opinion. We watch helplessly as Overton Windows overlap, creating a disorientating and kaleidoscopic politics.

So, what is to be done? How do we deal with words — with concepts — when their innate lack of consensual meaning is abused with such regularity? How do we stand by the words and concepts we deploy in our conversations, resisting their cooption, whilst retaining their potential for the production of the new? How do we remain true to our broader identifications with the left or the right when both umbrellas are so full of holes?

I have a new essay in the 5th edition of Alienist Magazine on the topic of “Resistance and Experiment”.

This essay was a tough one to write — physically and intellectually — much of it was penned during a fever — so many thanks to the editors with their patience and also for publishing the whole thing. (It’s quite long — I blame fever-reading the brief for ignoring the words “short-ish statement”. Note to self: Don’t say yes to things when your brain is mush — although I am particularly proud of how this came out.)

It’s a product of a renewal of my Blanchot obsession, attempting to make sense of the philosophical conception of “friendship” as found in his work but also the work of Deleuze and Guattari, Bataille and Nietzsche; and it’s an attempt to make their collective conception of the term less alien to our contemporary politics.

I will undoubtedly expand on this on the blog later. It’s a knotted topic and one which I hope is read as challenging thought on all sides of politics rather than being read as an alignment with one side or another (although there is a palpable communist bias.)

Unfortunately, this issue contains explicitly transphobic content which I do not stand beside at all. I did not know who I’d be sharing the issue with prior to publishing but that’s not to say I regret submitting this text. In fact, I think this is the only text I would have been comfortable submitting even if I had known before hand. This concept of “friendship” is not one that I think anyone is very good at embodying in the present — whether on the left or the right; myself included — but whilst the left’s problems are largely self-evident, this issue does well to demonstrate the ways in which the right fails to do this as well.

Friendship, in this sense, is something I’m rethinking with a new vigour at the moment, trying to make sense of how it might be beneficial to our present moment.

You can find the issue on Alienist‘s website here and download the PDF here. (I’m at the back, pages 161–173.)

Zero Books and Acid Communism

I was informed this morning by a lovely Facebook follower that my essay on Acid Communism, written for Krisis Journal last year, gets a shout-out in the latest Zero Books video: “Acid Communism, Philip K Dick, and the New Culture.”

This was a surprise, not least because my conversation with this person had been about how little I personally got out of the previous Zero video on Acid Communism. It seems the disinterest is somewhat reciprocated though. Mr. Douglas Lain does not seem to agree with my conclusions.

To quote Lain’s citation in full:

In an article for the journal Krisis, a writer named Matt Colquhoun wrote that Acid Communism is a project for seeking the outside of sociopolitical hegemony, and that such a questing after an exit from this society is likely to disrupt normal life in ways that Fisher thought would be “inherently disturbing“, but Fisher also argued that such “terrors are not all there is to the outside”. I would argue that there is no outside to this current global society. That is, even if we take heroic doses of psychedelics, we’ll still trip and hallucinate within the logic of the present.

I’ve said this before but I think this applies very well to this notion of Acid Communism. Our goal should not be to wake up from the nightmare we’re in but to dream differently.

I’ve written so much about Acid Communism here that I’m reluctant to repeat myself but I think this question of there being no outside is a common misunderstanding of what is at stake in Mark’s late thought. After all, Fisher himself said that “the inside is a folding of the outside” and it’s the sort of understanding that goes back to the German Idealists, rendered anew in the pulp world of weird fiction.

The absence of this from Lain’s understanding feels like the result of his particular obsession with Hegel. A dash of Schelling, a bit more Marx and a dollop of Spinoza and Lain might find that the objections he’s making are already preempted in Fisher’s own writings — and long before the Acid Communism project even properly started to take shape.

On this issue of the outside, I’d point to this old post of mine: “Notes on the Communist Horizon as an Immanent Outside.”

Regarding Fisher’s own writings, I’d point towards two key proto-Acid Communist posts that appeared on the k-punk blog back in 2004: “Psychedelic Reason” and “Psychedelic Fascism“. Taken together they completely undermine Lain’s fixation on psychedelics — another Jeremy Gilbert hangover that wasn’t Mark’s bag.

The trap that Lain has fallen into — and run away with for two long YouTube videos (eek!) — echoes Gilbert’s own microfascist reduction of the Acid Communism agenda in not knowing where Gilbert ends and Mark begins (which Gilbert doesn’t seem to know either).

The point about microfascism is an important one. It’s something which feels pretty common at the moment too in our various circles. Gilbert and Zero Books are only perpetuating the kind of thought I think Mark was trying to resist.

For example, in his video Lain tells a rambling stoner story about being “high as a kite” in a friend’s car and explaining that politics should be about giving people the power to rearrange their realities. Sounds like Fisher’s overarching political project, huh? Whilst Lain acknowledges this, it is apparently the sort of idea that people are only capable of believing in if they’re “sufficiently stoned”.

It’s a twisted argument which ends up unwittingly using Fisher to poke holes in himself, conflating his arguments around the constitution of psychedelic reason and psychedelic fascism into a flat blob, and this is based on little more than Lain’s own anecdote of having a Fisherian thought whilst stoned. It ends up echoing the sort of critique of experimental music being music for and/or made by people on drugs, delegitimising the creativity and aesthetic explorations of another based on nothing more than your own woefully cloistered imagination.

Further to this, Lain’s reading of PKD is very bizarre and also tellingly selective. I’d point again to another k-punk post: “Ubik as petit objet a“, which offers a reading of Dick’s work in relation to fictioning as consciousness raising which seems wholly contrary to Lain’s own.

As readers of this blog may already be aware, it’s my opinion that The Weird and the Eerie is integral to any understanding of Mark’s Acid Communism project. I’ve written on this in an exploratory way here and here.

We can also look to the lectures he gave before his death (and the lectures anticipated going forwards) to get a sense of what Acid Communism (The Book) was going to contain. (Whilst I’ve heard of various plans for different chapters that aren’t represented here, it does seem to be very close to the general trajectory that the book itself would take.)

All this stuff is readily accessible and available online. It’s the sort of thing we can start exploring easily with nothing more than a Google search. It’s that fact that makes Gilbert’s readings of Acid Communism so frustrating to me. They are so easily refutable but no one seems bothered about seeing what Mark himself had to say. We deserve — and Mark deserves — far better engagement than that offered by Jeremy Gilbert’s ego. And Zero Books, in extending that line, really isn’t helping.

A Sad & Lonely Constellation

I’m going to be beamed into Caffè Letterario Macao in Milan on Friday to do a short presentation on AI, communism, dogs and mythology for A Sad & Lonely Constellation: Navigating the Antinomies of Technological Hope, a conference which “attempts to navigate through the thick swarm of hopes surrounding the body of Artificial Intelligence as it accelerates towards us.”

It will also explore the “hope for the deflation of politics into techne; the desire to attenuate the anxiety of hermeneutics through a mechanised literature freed from the debilitating excesses of subjectivity; the aspiration for novel sapient artificial entities which, by demanding and asking for reasons, can go beyond ‘thinking’ by association.”

I’ll also be taking part in a panel discussion with top boffins Chiara Di Leone, David Roden and Michael Eby called “Concrete Politics and A Swarm of Technological Hopes”.

The lineup for the rest of the day is awesome with plenty of familiar faces, such as Ben Woodard, Anna Longo, Enrico Monacelli, and others all also announced as taking part.

For more information, check the Facebook event here. You can also give them a like and a follow on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram — and, not forgetting their post-conference festivities: if you’re local to Milan, you can head to the after party at Bar Doria.

The event is free and all are welcome. The talks will also be live-streamed by the New Centre for Research and Practice. Please check ASALC’s Facebook page and the ‘discussion’ section of this event for the weblinks of the broadcast.