Spinoza and Kubrick: From the Exo-k-punk Archive

I feel like I should make clear that I don’t have anything to do with the k-punk Twitter bot. I think, given my predilection for Twitter bots (I’ve owned a few), some people assume it to be one of mine, but it’s not. It’s a very useful tool nonetheless, always digging up some choice pull-quotes from the k-punk archives that warrant revisiting. It is a top-notch k-punk aphorism generator.

The tweet above, for instance, led me back to a great post from around that time, in the late summer of 2004, when Mark was writing a lot about Kubrick and Spinoza. This eventually lead to his brilliant double-bill, “Psychedelic Reason” and “Psychedelic Fascism” — two of my all-time favourite k-punk posts, both very useful posts for anyone interested in where Acid Communism was coming from.

The post highlighted by the k-punk bot was posted a few weeks before those, however. It’s called “Emotional Engineering” and, at the end, Mark points to a few discussions previously had around Spinoza and Kubrick in online spaces, particularly on the AMK forum (or alt.movies.kubrick).

I last read this exchange around 2017, but I remember that the link looked a lot different back then… This is no doubt what happens when old ephemeral communications get caught up in the latest UX updates… But it made me quite aware that this little exchange might be lost to the ether sooner or later, and that would be a shame, because, as Mark says himself on the k-punk blog, “this thread contains one of my proudest moments ever — gaining praise from Gordon Stainforth, who edited The Shining.”

(Mark later posted this exchange on k-punk for himself, in 2005, but in a somewhat truncated and sanitised form, cutting out the chaff and the trolls. I personally think the original discussion is a much more entertaining read.)

There is also a fair amount of insight here into how Mark viewed the distance between Kubrick the person and Kubrick the body of work: an interesting cold rationalist approach that some people should pay heed to in considering the gap between Mark and Mark’s writings (recently mentioned, in a footnote, here).

So, below is the thread in question. I’ve tidied it up a bit and edited the format considerably to remove typos and account for abbreviations but also so that the conversation flows a bit more naturally rather than being stunted by the quote-replies embedded in quote-replies embedded in quote-replies. I’ve followed threads of discussion through to their end before they they jump back to consider another line of questioning. Hopefully it still makes sense and is easier to read than a direct copy-paste of the original formatting would be. Enjoy!

Oh, and on a final note: Mark is, of course, writing under his old Ccru alias here: Mark de Rozario.

Lord Bullingdon: I have always pointed out that

Kubrick’s work has a sense of detachment, of bloodlessness; he likes to take organic subjects and disassemble them as if they were mechanical. It’s not just that he wants to know what makes us tick; what’s compulsive is his conviction that we do all tick.

But people at AMK seem to disagree with this. Maybe they feel this is negative criticism, something against Kubrick as an artist and as a human being. But I think this observation reveals the core of Kubrick’s view of the world. This is what makes his movies original, daring and profound.

Dave Corcoran told me it’s absurd to call Kubrick’s work “slow and cold”. But I think his opinion is just a simple negation, he is not trying to see the whole truth.

I don’t think Kubrick’s movies cause a strong feeling of empathy for their characters. You are forced to look at them from an intellectual, vouyeristic point of view. What gives you the “emotional kick” is the power of the images, the beauty of the compositions, the music, and the ideas expressed (men’s rebirth as Gods in 2001, etc.). Of course, beauty and art can cause emotional responses on the viewer, but that is YOUR response to the aesthetics of what is shown. It is different to say that the emotions of the actors made you feel empathy for them.

I hope you’ll have the courage to agree with me. I’m sure most of you do, you just feel embarassed to say. Katharina won’t be angry, believe me.

Jacques Clousseu: Fuck off, you prick.

Dave C: Actually, L.B. I have the courage to disagree with you! You will note I’m not degenerating into any of this silly “troll” name-calling stuff — I just happen to believe that you are incorrect about this. I agree with all your comments about the power of the images, beauty of the compositions, music, and ideas expressed. I would also comment that Kubrick does not tend to put the viewer into the POV of the characters, or get them to spout tons of blatantly expository dialogue (the cheap ways of getting audience empathy).

BUT — he gets amazing performances from his actors, in terms of body language and facial expressions, which, at least for those of us who are tuned in to such things, speak volumes about the internal mental states of the characters. (How do you become empathic to someone in the real world? If you think it’s dependent on them explaining their situation verbally, then you haven’t actually succeeded in tuning in. Furthermore, cinema audiences treated to POV shots tend to put themselves into the protagonist’s situation, rather than achieving a real understanding of the character’s motivations and situation)

If you’re watching “Barry Lyndon” on a small TV set, you’re probably missing much of this. You’ve got to have seen Kubrick’s films cinematically, well-projected, in order to fully appreciate them.

I really wish that I could watch these films with you, and discuss them with you face-to-face.

Lars Ollson: No, you don’t.

Lord Bullingdon: It would be nice, sure. Which day?

Mark de Rozario: I absolutely do agree, LB.

I wonder why it is that ‘cold’ and ‘slow’  are automatically deemed to be negative.

It is precisely Kubrick’s coldness and slowness that are missed in a contemporary culture that is so obsessively ‘warm’ and  ‘fast’; ingratiating, emotionally exploitative, relentlessly fidgety. Kubrick took us out of ourselves: not via the transports of ecstatic fervour, but through the icy contemplation of what drives and traps us, and the vision of a universe indifferent to our passions. To see the mechanical deathliness of the human world from the perspective of that indiffferent universe: that is what Kubrick offered us. A vision of God (which is also an approximation of God’s vision).

Kubrick returns — why deny it? — to an essentially religious sensibility, although his religion is “atheistic” in the same sense Spinoza’s was. For Spinoza, God = immanence, matter in itself, the gloriously dispassionate, desolated cosmos. Kubrick evokes the desubjectified affects of awe and dread, rather than the compulsory, socially-endorsed, ‘warm’ emotions of empathy / sympathy, as homage to a universe whose indifference entails not pessimism, but freedom: freedom from the miserable prisonhouse of the human.

Wordsmith: Beautiful! May I buy you a drink? 

Mark de Rozario: As long as it’s a cold one. 🙂

Gordon Stainforth: Brilliant comment, Mark, and I believe a very accurate summation of Kubrick.

Mark de Rozario: Thank you very much, Gordon.

Gordon Stainforth: I think the main characteristics of Hollywood style at the moment are: sentimentality, speed, and noise. (i.e puerile sentimentality, high speed cutting, and an excessively loud bang or explosion every few minutes). Example: Spielberg’s immensely disappointing Minority Report — where the audience, bombarded by technical wizardry, ends up having to watch people crying, with little idea or interest in what they are crying about.

Mark de Rozario: Couldn’t agree more. I guess what’s interesting about this is the tension between the quick-cutting and the sentimentality: the quick-cutting gives films a disocciated, schizophrenic quality (I’m thinking of Jameson’s observation that postmodern subjectivity is ‘schizophrenic’ in that it is unable to synthesize a coherent sense of time), which is so abstract that you would imagine it was evacuated of any emotion. I guess the sentimentality is what ‘glues together’ what would otherwise be a experience devoid of much connecting thread.

Gordon Stainforth: An even sharper point. I would only disagree that the sentimentality “glues together” the fragmented, schizophrenic form — I think it merely gives the appearance of gluing it together. It’s like icing covering a hollow, emotionally evacuated, incoherent interior.

Thornhill: “Miserable prisonhouse of the human”? Is that the bottom line with Kubrick? When you look into the mirror of his work, or hear the phrase, “What’ll it be?,” do you perceive only the human miserable?

Mark de Rozario: Not at all. I think Kubrick offers an alternative to the “human miserable”, precisely by offering a nonhuman perspective upon it. And this is in part because his films — whilst often about mirroring — are not themselves mirrors. They do allow us see ourselves, but from outside.

Thornhill: You seem to make a point, then undercut it.

Mark de Rozario: How so?

Thornhill: Kubrick’s films are, consciously, as much about his audiences as about the characters and subjects he presents.  To some degree, his work seems to me as a guided tour of darker humanity by a kind of cinematic Virgil, and for the benefit of his audience, Dante.  We look upon this world, often engorged with the dreaded and awful*, fury and blood, but, with nothing more than a touch, the heart of the film says, “This is what it is to be human. Maybe we can do no better….but, it is necessary to SEE!”.

Mark de Rozario: I’m not averse to this comparison, but how does it work? If Dante the author is also the audience in the Divine Comedy, who is the equivalent of this author-audience figure in Kubrick?

Thornhill: * or, maybe it should be spelled “awe-ful.”  What does awe have to do with religion, or a religious outlook?  Spiritual, yes, maybe, but what need for yolking awe to “religion”?  Sometimes ‘ugliness’ is deeply ‘beautiful’, and there can be awe, too.

Mark de Rozario: I prefer “religious” — in the qualified, atheistic sense I presented before — because I’m a materialist and do not want to be committed to the existence of some non-material substance such as “spirit”. I’m not particularly attached to the term, though. What I’m interested in is a cosmic perspective, beyond the human and its interests. (Interesting, BTW, that you chose to compare Kubrick to a religious text.) Yes, the ugly beautiful — isn’t that the sublime? What escapes our capacity to adequately represent it, what confounds our conceptual categories: there’s a lot of that in Kubrick, too.

Thornhill: I suppose this “debate” comes down to the difference between experiencing this “touch” as either cold, or as warm, and therein applying value, as it goes.

Mark de Rozario: Yes, I think there’s more than an element of this. One can either resist the familiar accusation that Kubrick is cold, or accept it and re-evaluate the meaning of “cold.” As is clear, I prefer to do the latter.

Thornhill: Most of the other “warms” are usually, and emotionally, cheap, ingratiating, and fraudulent, and return little more than a moment’s escapade. The surgeon Virgil has different business, though. The glinty cold steel implements in his case are there, necessarily, to “hurt” in order to heal.

Mark de Rozario: Are we “hurt” by Kubrick though? I agree with Lord Bullingdon; I have never cried at a Kubrick film. I have been “moved” — taken out of myself — but not in the emotional sense.

Thornhill: This is also the job of fine satire, which is (at the deep heart’s core), a thing of warmth and decency, humility and profound caring.  This simple recognition is absent for many, and that absence, particularly with regard to Kubrick, is a great pity.

Mark de Rozario: Some satire can be as you described, but I should have thought that some (Swift, for example) can be pretty misanthropic. I used Spinoza as a comparison to Kubrick because Spinoza does very much what you suggest Virgil does, in the respect of offering detailed diagrams of the way human beings systematically trap, impede, and destroy themselves. “Why do human beings love what makes them miserable?” is the question Spinoza — in anticipation of Freud — relentlessly poses. For Spinoza, passions are correlated with passivity; freedom consists in leaving behind emotions, and achieving an attunement to a cosmos that is — in the best sense — pitiless. (“God is affected with no emotion of joy or sadness.”)

Padraig L Henry: While much of what you write here is extremely insightful about distanciation “within” the Kubrickean universe, are you not also, seemingly, making the same mistake so indefatigably parroted by Lord Bullingdon of conflating Kubrick’s aesthetic cinematic strategies with his own personal sensibilities, his own humanity?

Mark de Rozario: I sincerely hope not. Call me a post-structuralist, but I’m only interested in Kubrick the “author” insofar as “he” is manifested in the work. 🙂 I make no judgements whatsoever about Kubrick’s personal sensibilities or humanity. For “Kubrick”, read “Kubrick’s films.”

Padraig L Henry: Yes; unfortunately, the poster you were originally responding to, Lord Bullingdon, does make such judgments — all the time (that’s why there’s now an Lord Bullingdon FAQ, the link for which Steve O’ Keefe tirelessly keeps posting here), confusing his personal sensibilities (like so much of the media used to) with his cinematic ones.

Mark de Rozario: Well, when I initially said I “absolutely” agreed with Lord Bullingdon, I was overstating the case. I essentially agreed with his first paragraph: about Kubrick disassembling organic subjects. I certainly wouldn’t want to reinforce the — to me baseless — suggestion that Kubrick “himself” was “cold.” How could I possibly know? And in the best way, I’m not particularly interested.

I also do not support what seems to be Lord Bullingdon’s formalist and aestheticist take on Kubrick — while there are clearly elements of this in Kubrick, I think they are in the service of something more than the production of beauty for its own sake.

Gordon Stainforth: Mark, I think you are absolutely correct here, yet again! Stanley certainly believed that he as author / artist should only be judged by his work, and that it had little or nothing to do with his personal humanity. The irony, of course, is that he was a surprisingly warm man at a family / domestic / social level. (In my experience, almost like a different personality once we were outside the cutting room.)

Padraig L Henry: Yes, sure; so you do then subscribe to the auteur theory, as originally propounded by the Cahier du Cinema debates of the 1950s? He’s certainly “manifested” in the work, all the work, all right!

Mark de Rozario: Do I believe that there are recurrent semiotic traits, technical strategies, and thematic preoccupations which can be tracked across the films attributed to Kubrick; that those films can be treated as a plane of consistency? Yes. Do I believe that there is some transcendent figure “responsible” for those semiotic traits, strategies and preoccupations? No. The proper name “Kubrick” — so far as I am concerned — designates those traits, that set of affects, that “brand”; the private Stanley Kubrick, Kubrick the person or subject, shared a name with the brand, but they are not the same thing.

As you’ll see from the above, my use of the term “manifested” was incorrect, profoundly misleading. There is no pre-existent author who manifests “himself” in the work; rather, the work produces certain consistent effects which can be labelled with a proper name.

Padraig L Henry: Excellent distinction, and one that continues to remain richly complex, aided and abetted by the need for large dashings of Napoleon brandy in order to preserve and propagate the “Kubrick” auteur brand in the cinematic canon …

Mark de Rozario: 🙂 So does this mean you subscribe to the auteur theory? I’m never sure if what I said above means that I do or don’t.

Padraig L Henry: Why do you classify contemplation of human folly and what might redeem or transcend it as “icy”?

Mark de Rozario: Good point. I guess because of the association of passions with ‘heat’ — by icy here I simply mean ‘dispassionate’ (in the Spinozist sense).

Padraig L Henry: And, presumably, freedom from fatalistic conceptions of the human, and from the “miserable prisonhouse” of human indifference 🙂

But, again, you are invoking two apparently contradictory notions of “warm” above: one as ingratiating, emotionally exploitative, relentlessly fidgety i.e. the Hollywood mainstream; the other as denoting emotions of empathy / sympathy, however supposedly compulsory their social endorsement may be.

Mark de Rozario: Are they really contradictory, though? I agree there’s a less patently exploitative rendering of sympathy / empathy possible — but I wonder if this isn’t just a more sophisticated version of the same thing.

The question of empathy is a fascinating one, and calls to mind Worringer’s distinction between abstraction and empathy — empathy is the emotion correlated with ‘organic’ or representational art (which reflects the subject back to itself); abstract art, by contrast, is mechanical, devoid of a sense of empathy (confronting the subject with something irrevocably unassimilable). The two fuse in what he calls the Northern line — essentially, Gothic art culminating in the German expressionist tradition — in which there is “a requisition of our capacity for empathy (which is bound up with organic rhythm) for an abstract world which is alien to it.” I think there’s more than a hint of a continuation of this Northern Line in Kubrick.

Padraig L Henry: The latter “notion” of “warm”, though largely absent from a film like 2001 (the film upon which much of your conception of Kubrick’s cinematic world rests), actually becomes central to such later work as Barry Lyndon and Eyes Wide Shut.

Mark de Rozario: Good point. 2001 is the film which most obviously fits the description of the Kubrick oeuvre I gave; not so much, I think, because of its absence of sympathy / empathy in it, but because of its awestruck vision of the cosmos, which isn’t quite so evident in any of his other films, before or after.

Padraig L Henry: Are we getting “warm” yet?

Mark de Rozario: Let’s hope not. 🙂

Padraig L Henry: In that sense, we could say that Barry Lyndon is, in part, an awestruck vision of the earthly past 🙂

Mark de Rozario: Yes, absolutely; and I don’t think we need to oppose earthly to cosmic.

I think we must distinguish the depiction of emotion in a film from the emotion it stimulates in the audience — and from a film’s emotional ethic (the kind of emotion a film, implicitly or explicitly, recommends, privileges or endorses). In “Hollywood”, the first two tend to collapse into each other, and the emotional ethic is usually an invitation to wallow in a drippy sentimentality. With Kubrick, there is a clear distinction between the emotions his films depict and the reaction the audience has: the distanciation-effect you talked of before, which not only happens within the films, but between what the film is showing and how the audience responds to it. All of Kubrick’s films depict passions, but none of them is “passionate”: they are about emotions, not “emotional.” This is as true of Eyes Wide Shut and Barry Lyndon (and The Shining, for that matter) as it is of 2001. Barry Lyndon, Eyes Wide Shut and The Shining all anatomize human emotional folly; all three are about problematics of empathy / sympathy; but it’s not clear that they make us feel sympathetic or empathic. It’s not clear, for instance, that we identify with Dr Bill or Barry.

The fascination lies in the ambiguity of Kubrick’s emotional ethic: what does “he” want us to feel? This isn’t clear, to say the least, since, thankfully, the films refuse to corral us into a simple response. Evidently, that’s why some choose to read the films as cold (in the “normal”, “bad” sense), pessimistic, or disdainful and misanthropic: I prefer to read them as attempts to simulate the dispassionate perspective of the Spinozist “God” — a perspective which, because it feels “neither joy nor sadness”, can liberate us from our own “joys and sadnesses.”

Gordon Stainforth: I think we are actually getting very warm here! — in that this Spinozistic analysis of Kubrick’s view of the cosmos is, I believe, about as close as we’re going to get to his true position (IMHO). A very, very useful reading, Mark.

Wordsmith: Mark, the more I read this, the more I like it. Kudos to you for encapsulating the idea so well. Spinoza and Kubrick truly go hand in hand. And there’s no better film in his canon than 2001 in evoking release from the prisonhouse you mention. Thank you so very much.

Padraig L Henry: The Spinoza connection you make is interesting. There is also the Brecht (he too was considered “cold” and “clinical”) connection, however, as it was Brecht who first experimented with notions of distanciation, with arresting any subjective emotional identification between characters and audience (much of what Spectator Theory now deals with), and this is especially so in A Clockwork Orange (there have been many past threads at AMK discussing all of this).

Mark de Rozario: OK, I’ll try and track those down ……

Padraig L Henry: Kubrick’s dispassionate aesthetic frequently manifested itself via the meticulousness of shot composition and the omniscience of his camera movements (from anxious steadicam to slow, grand zoom-outs), which served to draw our attention to the very form of the film itself. 

Mark de Rozario: Yes, but not so much in that post-Brechtian alienation-effect way that’s become so hackneyed in self-referential postmodernity. Although there’s a distance, Kubrick’s films are always involving, hypnotic; it’s just that their involvement doesn’t go by way of an identification with a character.

Padraig L Henry: Absolutely, and, indeed, even those very occasional, more “hackneyed” self-references in his films (2001 soundtrack album in A Clockwork Orange, Sellers’ Spartacus in Lolita, CRM/Serum in A Clockwork Orange, Ludovico in Barry Lyndon, ape costumes in Eyes Wide Shut, etc) are usually discrete and multi-layered…

Mark de Rozario: It’s partly because those are such unobtrusive signatures, such tiny brush strokes in compositions that are so vast; they are not the sole point of the exercise, as is the case in self-regarding, self-congratulatory PoMo —

Padraig L Henry: …No, “distance” in Kubrick’s cinema revolves around, is routed in, considering — respecting — the audience as the self-reasoning, interpretive arrow rather than, as in most movies, the objectified target of the film-maker’s rhetoric …

Mark de Rozario: Yeh — and doesn’t that bring in another sense of cold / cool — McLuhan’s? Kubrick’s films are cool media because they treat the audience as participants. That accounts for the apparent paradox of why Kubrick’s films are simultaneously so demanding and so involving; ‘we’ are the missing piece.

Padraig L Henry: For instance, the steadicam shots in The Shining appear to create an un-seen character in the film. Such shots, somewhat like the numerous slow zoom-outs in his other films (Barry Lyndon and Full Metal Jacket particularly), are — in the post-Lacanian sense — “unsutured” point of view shots. The camera moves much as we would expect a typical POV shot to move, only we never obtain the suturing reverse shot, revealing through whose eyes we are “meant” to be observing. In The Shining, Kubrick denies us such a point of identification. Though nothing much happens during those shots following Danny on his tricycle around the labyrinth that is the Overlook hotel, they are still deeply disturbing, because we know that somebody is observing — film grammar tells us so, but we are left in the cold, the expected observer is never revealed to us. Consequently, it is Kubrick’s camera and we the spectators who haunt the Overlook, dispassionately omniscient, but seemingly anxious and confused: we don’t know who we are …

Wordsmith: Kubrick’s asymmetrical suture is unnerving indeed. (Sidebar: There’s something similar in Chaplain’s City Lights. At the end, when the blind girl is given her sight, we only see the Tramp smiling at her affectionately; we don’t see a reaction shot of her smiling in reply, or the happy couple walking off into the sunset.) Kubrick perpetually hides the camera, and we, the spectators, are as transparent as ghosts.

Mark de Rozario: [in response to Padraig] What a fantastically evocative and wonderfully written paragraph … The Overlook is not occupied by ghosts; it is itself the ghost-Entity, that which haunts. This point, too, is thoroughly Spinozistic; since Spinoza thought that anything capable of affects (of affecting and being affected) is an Entity, regardless of whether it was ostensibly “natural” or “artificial”.

It should be clear that the plane of immanence, the plane of Nature that distributes affects, does not make any distinction at all between things that might be called natural, and things that might be called artificial. Artifice is fully a part of Nature, since each thing, on the immanent plane of Nature, is defined by the arrangements of motions and affects into which it enters….” [Deleuze on Spinoza]

All of which points to Kubrick’s hypernaturalism: a diagonalization of the naturalism / supernaturalism dichotomy, marked by the persistent privileging of Environment over human subjectivity….

Padraig L Henry: More ice, anyone?

Mark de Rozario: Always.

Wordsmith: Naw. My cup runneth over.

Padraig L Henry: Actually, on a different note, you also mentioned Frederic Jameson and his idea of the splintered nature of postmodern subjectivity in a previous post; his other notion of “postmodern hyperspace” might also be seen to  apply to Kubrick’s conception of The Overlook in The Shining. Jameson argues (in “Postmodernism and Consumer Society,” from The Cultural Turn [1998]) that the physical spaces within the postmodern world have “finally succeeded in transcending the capacities of the individual human body to locate itself, to organise its immediate surroundings perceptually, and to map cognitively its position in a mappable external world.” Jameson may be speaking of contemporary architecture (the original of the post-mod species), but his observations might equally apply to the overwhelming conceptual spaces of  The Overlook and its mazes — and, indeed, to those other, newer spaces generated by numerous more recent films, such as The Matrix, The Truman Show, eXistenz, Mullholland Drive, etc. This is all now a bit ironic, given Jameson’s earlier unflattering review of The Shining.

Mark de Rozario: Well, Jameson’s remarks are based on a hotel 🙂 I’d like to hear you say more on this. “Postmodernism and Consumer Society” is one of the essays I’ve come back to time and again over the years, but oddly I’ve always glossed over the mention of “hyperspace”. In what ways do you think The Shining and the more recent films generate hyperspace? (I ask this partly because, having read the Jameson passage again, I find the concept tantalisingly unclear, but intriguingly suggestive.) Certainly, the Overlook always reminds me of Gibson’s brilliant description of cyberspace: “a collective hallucination.”

One interesting aspect about The Overlook of course is that it exemplifies another of Jameson’s theses: the spatialization of time. There’s a wonderful line in King’s novel about the Overlook’s “corridors extending in time as well as space.” For isn’t, ultimately, The Shining a film about time travel?

Padraig L Henry: Where to start! Hyperreality?

Well, let’s start with the general malaise often regarded as the central feature of postmodernism, what Featherstone terms “the fragmentation and overproduction of culture – the key-feature of consumer culture”. As Jameson says, “in postmodern culture, ‘culture’ itself has become a product in its own right; the market has become a substitute for itself and fully as much a commodity as any of the items it includes within itself”. In the “cultural logics of late capitalism,” Jameson’s code-phrase for postmodernity, what is commodified is not simply the image, which has acquired the central role in contemporary culture, but lived experience itself. As Guy Debord diagnoses in The Society of the Spectacle, “everything that was lived directly has moved away into a representation”. Baudrillard, as Friedberg notes, also talks about “the same phenomenon-representation of the thing replacing the thing — and extends it into a mise-en-abīme of the ‘hyperreal,’ where signs refer only to signs. Hyperreality is not just an inverted relation of sign and signifier, but one of receding reference, a deterrence operation in the signifying chain”. Ah! Now we’re getting somewhere [in the Overlook hyperspace labyrinth].

A part in this process of the commodification of the sign and the derealization of the real has been played by media technologies, especially electronics, as Vivian Sobchack points out:

The postmodern and electronic “instant” … constitutes a form of absolute presence (one abstracted from the continuity that gives meaning to the system past / present / future) and changes the nature of the space it occupies. Without the temporal emphases of historical consciousness and personal history, space becomes abstract, ungrounded, flat — a site for play and display rather than an invested situation in which action “counts” rather than computes. Such a superficial space can no longer hold the spectator / user’s interest, but has to stimulate it constantly in the same way a video game does. Its flatness — a function of its lack of temporal thickness and bodily investment — has to attract spectator interest at the surface. …In an important sense, electronic space disembodies.

Oh yes, hyperspace here we come: “All dull and no work makes Jack a play-boy” etc, etc, etc.

Mark de Rozario: I’m not sure that simulation is form of representation for Baudrillard. Signs do not represent reality: they actively engineer it. Whereas a representation just stands in for an object, a simulation does its work. Postmodern capital (the ultimate sign without a referent) would be the classic example.

I guess I was interested in 2 things which haven’t really come out yet: (1) the extent to which The Shining is hyperspatial / hyperreal / postmodern — because in many ways it strikes me as very modern/ist; and (2) the specific meaning of hyperspace (as opposed to hyperreal and all the other key postmodern terms).

I think (2) has come out a little in the Sobchack quote, though for me Jameson’s account of hyperspace — wandering around the Bonaventure hotel and encountering that dizzying flatness in which it is “quite impossible to get your bearings” — resembles my experience of walking around shopping malls rather than playing computer games:

To return to (1) for a moment: the Overlook labyrinth isn’t the endlessly receding PoMo maze of signs referring to other signs — is it? It might be worth referring here to Brian McHale’s typology of modernist and postmodernist fiction. For McHale, modernism is organised around an epistemological problematic — is what is being described real or not? Postmodernism, meanwhile, is organised around an ontological problematic — what is reality, and what is the reality of this text? Metafictive strategies which self-consciously question the reality (or otherwise) of the text are exemplary of the Postmodern, according to McHale. For me, The Shining belongs very firmly in the first category: witness the animated debate on AMK about whether it The Shining resolves into the marvellous etc, a classic epistemological concern.

BTW is Jameson’s essay on The Shining online anywhere?

Padraig L Henry: Not that I know of, but hypertext has been known, on occasion, to have some strange ways of rendering itself hyperreal.

Mark de Rozario: Incidentally, since you mention Mulholland Drive: I was interested in some of the recent comparisons of Mulholland Drive with Eyes Wide Shut on AMK. I only saw Mulholland Drive recently — I lost patience with Lynch after the empty conceit of Lost Highway — and felt there were strong connections with Eyes Wide Shut. In both cases, I’ve been dissatisfied with what appears to be the standard interpretive line — the “it is all Bill / Diane’s dream” reading — which for me never even gets close to the entrancing power of either film — or to what is at stake in dreaming for that matter —

Padraig L Henry: Yes, whole lives are at stake, for that matter …

The Year in Review: A 2019 Xenogothic Rolodex

It’s that time of year again — time to summarise the year’s posts so you can find them more easily over on the archive page.

It is also the time to reflect a bit.

I’ve posted almost 300 times this year — almost 100 more blogposts than last year — and I’ve clocked up another quarter of a million words — although slightly less than last year. Engagement has been insane too. Views have doubled on last year, from 45,000 to 90,000 over the last twelve months.

That’s all very nice to see and I am hugely grateful for the continuing support. This blog has only existed for a little over 26 months but the line on the engagement graph is downright accelerationist. It is steep and very humbling.

From my own perspective, it’s been a bit of a weird year this year. I think I’ve posted so much because I was insecure about the productivity of the year before but, now we’re at the end of 2019, it may have been a year of quantity over quality.

That’s okay though. I’ve been working super hard behind the scenes and what quality has been missing from the blog will hopefully be made up for by my first book, Egress, which is due imminently. (I’m told there might even be a few available at the Mark Fisher Memorial Lecture this year, in just a couple weeks time.)

And that’s weird. Although I’d announced Egress in October 2018 — or rather, it was announced for me after I’d put it up on my website and Justin Murphy caught wind of it — as a self-publishing project, which I just felt done with and felt like putting out myself as print-on-demand, I was really grateful to Robin Mackay for telling me to hold my horses and make sure it’s as good as it can be before I let it out of my grasp.

And I think I’ve done that. I was working on it right up to the wire — to the extent that I’m a bit embarrassed about the galley proofs doing the press rounds as we speak because I know it is a lesser version of the text than the final one, even if that is in ways that only I’ll notice — and it has been through a complete transformation over the four months since I submitted it to Repeater and then had to hand over the final proof to be printed. It doubled in length and I learnt an insane amount about myself and my bad writing tics and also that, when the pressure is on, I can do some of my absolute best work. Looking back, it blows my mind how I’d struggled with that book for so long and then as soon as it was in the hands of Repeater I saw every flaw I’d missed previously and turned it into another book entirely. (That’s why I blog so much — much better at finding the flaws in my own thinking when I know it is on display.)

I never thought any of these epiphanies would come out of 2019. And it is weird to be writing this now knowing that no one has any idea what I’m talking about and won’t until the end of Q1 of 2020. I’ve been ready to wash my hands of this project since September and now as we enter January the press machine gets into gear. So weird, writer’s templexity.

Putting all the time spent booking to one side, the year takes on a very different shape. January started with a massive mental block, emerging out of a long conversation had at the end of 2018 with Reza Negarestani. I attempted to turn this conversation into a blog series called “Patchwork Epistemologies”. It wasn’t very good but I have no regrets. Sometimes you just have to clear the brain pipes with a six-part excursion through your own mediocrity before you can move onto the next thing.

Then, of course, it was the second anniversary of Mark’s death which always dominates the start of the year.

After January, things sort of faded into a grey area. I don’t remember writing a lot of what came next. In my head, I didn’t do anything for months but I must have just gone into auto-pilot. There were some really big posts that came out of this — the U/Acc primer being the most influential it seems — but also a lot of micro-blogging glorified-tweet type stuff which feels worthwhile in the moment but doesn’t hold up to much in hindsight. (I’ve left most of that out of here.)

From February onward, I fell into a really deep depression — one of the worst I can remember having since at least 2015. It was a weird brain chemistry thing, in part. I did a load of drugs at a party and then never recovered from the comedown. In fact, I just kept sliding down further and further into perhaps the bleakest mental state I’ve ever known.

Whilst everything fell apart in 2017, after Mark’s death, emotions from around that time were worn on my sleeve for the most part. I felt like quite a public mental health mess. It wasn’t any secret that I wasn’t coping very well because it was all anyone was talking about anyway. I was a mess and so was everyone else. Such was the atmosphere around Goldsmiths then. However, no longer in that zone, working a day job and having responsibilities beyond studying meant I fell back into the default position of hiding my feelings rather than letting them all hang out. And it was suffocating. Quite literally. I fell into a really dark place because even confessing my struggles to my partner on the daily didn’t make the pain go away and there was a point where I didn’t think I could take it anymore. All I remember is that every day was defined by a pathological guilt and I would sit in the office trying to smile through the very physical sensation of having a lump of lead in my chest.

Then I spent a night in Bedlam, starting an experimental course of triple chronotherapy and doubling by antidepressant dosage, and that shunted my brain out of the pit it was in. And I was almost euphoric after that. It was such a relief to not feel like death. I’d forgotten what “wellness” felt like.

Once I was out the other end, I set my heart on finishing Egress. Again, I don’t remember keeping up with the blog much during that time but I evidently posted some stuff. I “finished” the book in July and sent it off to Repeater and I was amazed by their quick response. But it wasn’t without caveats. As soon as I sent it to Tariq Goddard, all the faults in it became glaringly obvious and it was in July and August that it doubled in size from a modest 45,000 word document to 90,000. Then, after a stressful few months of editing and finding all the spelling mistakes and reinforcing the philosophical arguments, it is now due out on 10th March 2020.

I am really, really proud of it and I am so relieved to have washed my hands of it now. It is a load off my heart and my head.

I’m expecting that 2020 will be defined by this book. As much as it is an opportunity for myself to get some closure and move on from Mark’s thought to some other projects, the irony is that, in orbit of the release date, I’m sure I’ll end up writing about Mark more than ever. I just hope I can find a way to do so that doesn’t emboldened the Mark Fisher cottage industry. (I already have a few essays and op-eds lined up as well as a few lectures and launch events and podcasts.)

Just when I thought I was out, they pull me back in…

But I’ve also already started on book #2. Over the first six months of this year, I struggled to write an essay called The Primal Wound which was featured on lapsuslima.com. I’d been invited to contribute to the website in December 2018 and had the idea almost immediately but really struggled to get it out of my head and onto the page. I really laboured over it. When it came out, it felt really special and the response was amazing but I’ve since realised that I am not finished with it. It was very compacted and functioned as a snapshot within a process that dominates a lot of my thought-life. That’s good, to some, but despite how much the post-Ccru crowd love compression, it’s not really how I roll and so I feel like there’s another book in there for sure. At the time of writing, I’m 25,000 words into it and I hope to finish a draft of it by the end of 2020.

I don’t intend it to be as long as Egress. It’s going to be a lot more concise and with much shorter chapters. More than anything, I’m in love with this project already because I know it’s going to be a mental sanctuary over the year ahead. It is a project so totally unrelated to everything else I’ll be preoccupied with promoting.

Other highlights of this year include our various trips to Cornwall and Suffolk, the xenofeminist hellthreads, writing about gigs I’ve loved, getting back into photography and having more of that on the blog, and a few other post series: “Cascading Adolescence” and “Frontier Psychiatry”, both of which were kind of aborted but I’m not done with them. (A polished version of “Cascading Adolescence” may be getting translated into French in the new year, seeing itself properly published, and “Frontier Psychiatry” could be another book project but it might be something I edit rather than write wholly on my own. [My previous Wild West posts turned into a major chapter in Egress so I have sort of scratched that itch for now — which is also why that series died before it got off the ground: energy went elsewhere.] I also already know of one other person who caught the Wild West bug… If you want to write something about frontier politics and psychoanalysis, drop me a line.)

Anyway, enjoy the highlights below and here’s to what is shaping up to be the most exciting year yet for xenogothic. Big terrifying things are happening. It’s great that all the energy put into this blog — that might have been seen as energy squandered by so many of the more traditionally academic types I know — is starting to pay off. If only so I don’t feel like I haven’t been completely wasting my time procrastinating on it eternally.

Here’s to 2020 being the year my procrastination helps me pay the bills?

Continue reading “The Year in Review: A 2019 Xenogothic Rolodex”

RIP Rashad

I’ve got a poster at home somewhere that I treasure more than any other gig memento ever. It’s the Sunday line-up for Reds, a venue at Butlins, from the Caribou-curated All Tomorrow’s Parties music festival. Sunday 11th December 2011.

It was a ridiculous day all round. First on stage, mid-afternoon, was Pharaoh Sanders. That set was a dream come true. A little while later, Omar Souleyman played and I danced more than I’d danced for anything in years. Immediately after him, Factory Floor played, my favourite band at the time, and they sent me into a trance. I dipped in and out of a few places, catching glimpses of Silver Apples, Connan Mockasin, Sun Ra Arkestra, Four Tet, Theo Parrish. You were spoilt for choice. It was hard to sit still.

The only set I was able to see in full was the Caribou Vibration Ensemble. I’d made a video a few weeks earlier that was used as a backdrop to their closing set and there was no way I was going to miss a second of that. I was elated, manic, after their set was over, no one really knew what to do with ourselves. There were a few DJs still playing here and there and we decided to see the weekend through to the very end rather than just go to bed. So, following a small crowd of people who were evidently still up for it at 2am, we went back to Reds.

We had no idea what we were listening but we danced anyway. We danced a lot. We danced really hard — at least in bursts. My friend Sara took this picture of me and my friend Michael during one such outbreak — I’m the one with my arse out. As embarrassed as I would be of this picture under normal circumstances, I love it. We all lived together at the time and so once we got home we had it printed out and stuck to the wall. It captured a reprieve, a sudden burst of joyous energy, that we never wanted to forget.

Only later did I learn we’d been dancing to DJ Spinn and DJ Rashad. We didn’t know what footwork was but, by the looks of things, we got the idea.

Double Cup came out two years later, after I’d moved back home from Wales, feeling utterly isolated in Hull. I spent hours and hours and hours aimlessly driving around to that album. During the first few months of 2014, I don’t think I listened to anything else. I have videos from that time taken in my car and every single one of them has Rashad on in the background.

And then he was gone.

I’m not sure if there is anyone else out there who has made such an enormous impact on music that, in many ways, is still yet to be felt to its full extent.

RIP Rashad. 5 years out.

Tenby, 2010

Walks along the beach at night this week have got me reminiscing.

Back in late 2010, during my first year at university, I went away with two friends on a weekend trip to Tenby. I spent a lot of it stoned…

Wales was caught in the midst of dubstep fever and if it didn’t have bass it wasn’t worth talking about. On the radio on the way over we listened to this late night Radio 1 show of “bass, jack and house”. I can’t remember who the DJ was or anything else about it. I just remember her insistence that her show was the home of “bass, jack and house” and that those genre signifiers seemed totally empty and meaningless. But I do remember they played Christian Martin’s track “Ghosts” and it was in my head all weekend and for much of the year afterwards.

During the day, we’d walk the beach and one of the few things I remember is sparking up in a cave. That same evening we went to the pub. The rugby was on but I can’t remember who was playing. Sick of the crowd and the noise, I went out for a cigarette and soon found myself down on the beach with the tide out. You couldn’t see a thing.

I had a film camera and a tripod with me and so, after half-burying to tripod in the sand to stabilise it, I decided to take a self-portrait. A few weeks later, in the cavernous darkrooms, I couldn’t believe it came out. I joked it would be my debut album cover. Instead it became my “logo” for the next six years. I had it on business cards and everything.

Beacons Festival (2012-2014)

As I continue to trawl my old blog archives for projects and old portfolio stuff I still like, here’s some photos taken over three years between 2012 and 2014 when I went to Beacons Festival, outside Skipton in North Yorkshire with some old school friends.

Not far from where I was living in Hull at the time, it became our annual summer adventure. I’d take an old film camera with me each time and shoot roll after roll of film. The atmosphere was great and it was the nicest festival to document.

I took pictures just for fun the first two years but they ended up getting around a bit. In 2014 I was invited to be the official photographer for the festival with a load of my pictures being used in adverts all over the country. The compensation for this was near-criminal in hindsight and I think they might have chosen my stuff because they thought it would be a bargain so, unfortunately, fuck them but, ya’know, big career moment! They also found their way onto The Quietus in 2013 and 2014.

Here’s some of my favourite pictures from those three years in the Yorkshire Dales.

Bonus round: Here’s just a few places where the pictures ended up (mostly in and around Leeds.)