Thinking About Writing, Writing About Thinking

I wanted to enter 2016 with a blank slate. On 28th December 2015, I wrote the following on my photo blog, before abandoning it forever — a blog onto which I had posted 642 times since June 2011:

New Year, New Blog

A lot has changed in the past two years and this blog, as much as it pains me to say it, is starting to feel redundant. It was never going to last forever, but a change of heart has gradually been gaining momentum.

In a week or so, this blog will become password protected. Friends and family are welcome to the password for reminiscing purposes, but a lot of these images will show up again in book and zine projects at some point. In fact, a lot of them have already.

I’ve blogged in some form for nearly half my life at this point. I’m not ready to give up on it entirely yet, but I need a clean break for a new approach and a new phase in life.

I linked to a new WordPress, hooked up to my “professional” photography website, and vowed to use it less as a diary and more like an online CV. I kept it up for six months before I killed that one too.

At that time, having graduated from my photography degree two years earlier, I felt — due to a certain amount of paranoia, no doubt — that my continuing practice of sharing everything I made online for all to see was being viewed quite cynically by peers and potential employers. It was, at best, immature; at worst, self-sabotaging.

One day I was complaining on Twitter about not getting paid for jobs or not being taken seriously and eventually the point was made that, if you don’t value your own work (by placing an explicit economic value upon it), then why should anyone else?

At that time, I was broke. That advice, though intended to be constructive, was devastating. I already felt worthless; that my output could be seen that way too was quite the blow.

It hadn’t bothered me before but then 2015 was an odd year; similar to 2020, in some ways. (This year is certainly drawing to a close with the same horizonlessness; a depressing sense of limbo.) I’d just been made redundant from my job due to Tory funding cuts, and suddenly couldn’t afford to pay rent. We had to move out almost immediately. I left Cardiff, moved back in with my parents in Hull, and I don’t think my self-esteem has ever been lower. I stopped blogging, attempting to take myself more seriously. I don’t think it made any difference to my income whatsoever. In fact, I soon realised that blogging was my way of working around the tactics that everyone else was engaged with that supposedly meant they were more serious about their chosen profession — schmoozing at exhibitions, brown-nosing, circle-jerk networking. I soon began to miss blogging quite desperately. I felt like I’d given up an outlet for no good reason, finding the implied alternative more repulsive than living in my overdraft.

When I graduated from my MA two years later, I started to blog again. “If you want to get good at photography, you’ve got to do it everyday” was the old mantra; I wasn’t taking so many pictures anymore but I wanted to write and I applied the same logic to a new endeavour. The blog was always a motivator for going out and sharing what I had seen or getting me out the house and experimenting in the studio or whatever else; xenogothic became a similar sort of motivator.

At that time, I was back working at a shitty arts administrator job. It didn’t require any schmoozing but I was often schmoozed at. I found it hard to make friends. It was just a job to me. Writing blog posts on my phone on my 90-minute commute and my lunch break was all I really cared about. Regardless of whether anyone read it or not, it was space to feed my experiments and thoughts as and when I had them; a space to hone a craft and express myself and feel connected to something bigger than my own life, precisely by putting my own life out there. It was also a way to put my thoughts into words and organise myself in relative isolation, having left the discursive community of academia.

Twitter was a big part of getting started. What I loved most about this “weird theory” corner of the Internet, almost immediately, was that this way of working was wholly supported and encouraged. Whereas previously I felt like 99% of my peers didn’t “get it”, blogging was seen as a basic principle out in para-academia. Writing for journals is whack; even more so if you don’t have an academic profile to maintain. If you want to be read, start a blog. If you want to build a new culture of public thought and discussion, start a blog. I didn’t need to be told twice.

Almost fifteen years on from when I first started putting the things I was creating online, the unthinkable has happened. I’ve started to make money off it — or at least off the profile I’ve acquired by doing it — and I’ve started to make money from the one outlet I didn’t think that much about: writing. I’d previously had multiple blogs for sharing lo-fi recordings of music I was making, I’d had one big blog for sharing pictures, and now it was writing — mode of expression #3 — that ended up actually gaining some traction. Traction was never the intention, of course, but I’d be lying if I said the recognition didn’t feel good, especially after having been told this obsession with blogging, which I’ve had for half my life, was a self-sabotaging waste of energy.

This attention has, of course, taken quite a bit of getting used to — getting recognised down the pub on multiple occasions last year was a particularly weird experience — and I’m sure it is obvious that this blog, and the person behind it, have been through a particularly awkward period of transition in recent months because of an increase in this kind of visibility.

The biggest change has come from the small fact that, in 2019, I got my act together and finished a book. It is a dense, intense and personal book that I have spent way too much time reflecting on since. And yet, ignoring the desire to do so is to go against the blogging sensibility that has come so naturally for so long. In fact, I feel I have to write about it; I have to occasionally write this kind of long look at my own navel, if only so that I might clear the blockage in my brain and get back to other things.

This has been more of a necessity of late because the experience of publishing a book has been nothing less than an existential shock — one I’ve continued to document as I would any other — but I am painfully aware that my natural response to such a shock flies in the face of the expectation that being a serious writer means writing seriously in silence. This is to say that there is a sort of silent pressure to leave this world behind; that persistently pointing out the drawn curtain that says “published” on it is very uncouth, but I didn’t write the book so I could graduate from WordPress. And yet, trying to retain my old blogging habits in the face of a new kind of “professional” existence where I try to get paid more frequently for what I do has meant that that same cognitive dissonance I struggled with in 2015 has raised its annoying contrarian head again.

How do you remain true to principles of open access whilst also trying to pay your rent, especially during a pandemic?

There has been a bit of drama in the discourse this past week that feels connected to this. Plenty of things have been said that people (myself included) aren’t proud of but I’m happy to say that bridges have been rebuilt and the flow of chatter has been restored to amicable levels of exchange and mutual support. Nevertheless, what has been said continues to reverberate in my mind. From the other side of the battle, it is clear that a certain amount of resentment and cynicism had built up over the last few weeks or months. Lines had been drawn, cliques established, and I have largely been oblivious to all of it.

After recently stumbling into Aly’s Discord server, for instance, having heard good things about the Sadie Plant reading group they have been conducting, I found myself caught up masochistically reading a few weeks’ worth of criticism of my online activities and feeling quite sad about it. Whilst I hold no grudges, and I’m grateful to be back on good terms with people who’s writing and thinking I have long respected, it was like stumbling into my worst nightmare. Assumptions were made and conclusions drawn — many of which were quite to the contrary of the kind of positions I have attempted to represent online.

Some criticism, of course, was quite on the money. I blog too much — although this is presumably to retain some dominant market presence — or too reflexively and too mundanely now that my book is out — as if I’ve said all I have to say and now I have little to contribute other than looking at my own navel. The sensible response is to brush all of this off as background grumblings, and that is partly how I interpreted these things, but there is a catch-22 here.

These sometimes unkind perceptions are interesting to me, in a more objective sense, because the feeling I was left with — damned if I do, damned if I don’t — is precisely the sort of neurotic concern that drove me to write so often and so reflexively long before the book even came out. It is this same tension, anticipated if not experienced directly, that I have long thought about since first being advised to blog less in 2015. The problem, now fully realised, is that, as I supposedly transition from “blogger” to “author”, my old way of writing and reflecting starts to feel less palatable. Just as the expectation, on writing a book that receives reviews, is to retain a stoic silence and rise above the discourse — “you’ll find your entire existence being given over to responding to each and every criticism”, as Tariq Goddard dutifully warned — I am left feeling alienated from the kind of discourse I first started blogging to engage with. I want to respond! I want to engage! I want to participate! But it turns out there is a big difference between sharing your thoughts as an anonymous blogger and sharing your thoughts as someone under various kinds of scrutiny. And it should be said that the distinction is purely external. I don’t feel any different now than as I did before my book hit the shelves.

It is a bit like aging — birthdays don’t feel like much of anything anymore but the fact I still feel 21 as I approach 30 doesn’t count for much. I certainly don’t look 21 and sometimes being treated like I’m 30 triggers a crisis. There is a similar disparity between being a “blogger” and an “author”. I feel like the former, but when some people treat you like the latter it fucks you up a bit. In fact, even typing out the latter makes me cringe deeply inside. I just want to write; I don’t want to have to think about what to call it.

We used to have this discussion in photography circles a lot — people would call themselves “artists” as if to signal that they have risen above the mundane existence of the jobbing photographer. But then, to call yourself a “photographer” would generally invite the question: “So you do weddings and stuff then?” There’s nothing wrong with weddings in principle — which is different to in practice; although lucrative, I’ve photographed weddings before and there’s probably nothing more stressful — having to then explain you’re an insufferable sod who actually makes photographic art feels like going round to tell your neighbours you’re a sex offender. What to label yourself can be a shameful truth.

Because of this kind of tension, these past four months I have felt torn. I have felt estranged from this new world that I have published my way into and I have felt just as estranged from the blogosphere that I have wanted, more than anything, to remain loyal to. I’ve tweeted less, tended to ignore timeline bait, muted replyguys ruthlessly, and generally found myself interacting with these platforms in very different ways whilst secretly pretending nothing has changed in me.

Whilst this transition could not be planned for in advance, it is a process I have been preparing myself for for a number of years now. For instance, I was well aware that Egress would do as much to inflate my own profile as it has done to complicate — productively (I hope) — Mark Fisher’s popular legacy. That in itself is a tension that is tough to navigate. Thankfully, as far as my published work on Mark Fisher goes, I have already made my peace with this process. Even back in 2017, as I have mentioned on a few occasions here — and even in Egress itself — I lost friends when the assumption was made that I was using Mark’s death as fodder for my dissertation. Later, this same assumption has echoed around Egress but on a larger scale, to the point that being “the Mark Fisher guy” has inevitably become something of a brand, making me look more like a gravedigger rather than someone working sensitively, as so many people do, with another’s legacy. This perception no doubt comes from the fact my mode of approach isn’t purely objective (read: academic), and is instead entangled with my personal experiences. The assumption is supposedly that I can’t have my cake and eat it — I can’t be both objective and subjective — but bridging this disconnect was precisely what made Mark’s writing so powerful to do many.

I cannot say I am as good at this style of writing as Fisher was, but the decision to apply a version of his own modus operandi to his own life was a very conscious one. After all, Mark and Kodwo had previously assigned Jane Gallop’s Anecdotal Theory as reading for their Aural & Visual Cultures course. I saw this in 2016 and read it before I even got to Goldsmiths and it’s impact on me has been quite profound. It spoke to my photographic interest in using diaristic images to comment on the world at large and it continues to speak to my intentions with Egress (and this blog more generally), which have always been attempts to produce a thought that must be read via this kind of supposedly contradictory category.

This kind of conscious decision is further complicated by the non-academic reasoning it is inevitably coupled with; my writing on and about Mark has always been an attempt to make a very personal trauma impersonally productive; a way to deal with grief. Having spent so much time with his output also makes him a frequent first-port-of-call within my theoretical armoury. I’ll likely never lose that. Suffice it to say, I am aware — of my flaws, my bad habits, the tensions within what I do. But if those things weren’t there, I’d probably have very little reason to write about anything. Articulating this kind of complexity is precisely why I write. Egress is inevitably an accumulative statement that explores this kind of process — if you’re still suspicious of it, you’re better off just reading it. It wears its difficulties very much on its sleeve. The questions you have going in will be answer in the book itself.

So, what is next? Lots of things, but these tensions have been replaced by new ones. Specifically, at the moment, I am trying to think more carefully about how I write. I’ve just completed a huge project in which I wrote through and was enveloped by mourning, and now I’m left wondering where to turn next. Writing about this experience as it unfolds is one way of working myself out of it. It might not be so interesting to read but, frankly, that’s not the reason for writing posts like this. The reason is to try and transparently negotiate a fidelity to principles that are important to me — open access, open thought — but it is clear that continuing to do this whilst also using what I do to pay the bills does shift the perception of what this kind of post is for. I suppose the assumption is made that it is to maintain a profile because to write it for no good reason at all would surely be detrimental to a burgeoning career, but the detriments of blogging having never been a concern. Blogging’s use in lubricating thought trumps any other benefit. But what about when my thinking is preoccupied with how to move forwards into this new existence? How do I continue on a path inaugurated by a book written out of love with a new set of opportunities that let me write for money? This clearly presents a whole new set of complications that I’ve barely had an opportunity to think about. What was always a problem I wished I had is now in my lap, and it’s a biter.

Frankly, I don’t have the luxury of not monetising what I do, so I am interested in maintaining a productive but also knowingly disruptive balance between being both a kind of online CV and a public notebook. In my head, it’s a kind of blogger’s horizontalism — for better and for worse. That is a difficult balance to strike, of course, but one which I find interesting to interrogate openly because I think it gets right to the heart of many of the pathologies we harbour about writing, creativity, intellectual work more generally, and the value of certain kinds of (art)work under capitalism.

It is because of this that, more recently, the writing on this blog has been more immediate and reflexive than usual. I write big long essays less and less frequently. This is mostly because the backlog of writing accumulated on this blog — 850,000+ words in just under three years, no less — requires some shifting through. Egress was something of a blockage that I needed to get out before I could properly address all the unrelated essays written here during its gestation. There are a few more books’ worth of ideas here that could do with polishing. As I work on this in the background, I’m still left wanting to maintain a self-reflexive habit of thought. This is necessarily more navel-gazing because what I am hard at work on is producing a text that is not about someone else but is more explicitly a work of my own; a book that stands on its own two feet. As a result, I find myself reading and writing a lot more about writing itself as a practice. Divorced from the trauma that gave rise to Egress, where the style of writing was perhaps self-explanatory, I feel I am left trying to rediscover who I am and what my interests are beyond being “the Mark Fisher guy”. Because I don’t want to remain known as “the Mark Fisher guy”. I would like to be known as someone who did some valuable work to rectify the public perception of a major thinker, but I would also like to exist (if I can) out from under that shadow, exploring my own tastes and interests that have persistently differed vastly from Mark’s own.

Lest we forget, of course, that Egress only came out four months ago; one week before the UK went into lockdown. To say this has been an odd time to try and reinvent myself, whilst remaining loyal to well-established principles and interests, is a huge understatement. In fact, this is what made reading a load of Discord criticism so oddly humbling; the cynicism on display was a cynicism I shared. The questions they asked — and, sometimes, quite brutally answered — were questions I have been trying to ask myself quite seriously in recent months: Why do I write? Why I write in this way? Why I write so much? It makes responding to such criticism a difficult task: How do you respond to critiques that you sympathise with so intensely?

The truest response is, unfortunately, quite mundane. Why am I so reflexive and self-involved? Because that’s the kind of writing I like to read. On a practical level, I often write in the first person because it grounds my thought and I find it easier to make sense of the writing of others when I can ground it in (or let it unground) my own experiences and my sense of self. (Surely this is made clear in Egress too, thanks to the overbearing presence of Bataille and Blanchot.) It’s a kind of modernist approach to writing that has never not been marmite — at its best, it is heralded as a powerful form of literary endeavour (think big names like Maggie Nelson, Karl Ove Knausgaard — everyone loves a brutally honest memoir); at its worst, it is decried as a writerly symptom of our postmodern narcissism. But the politics of these kinds of texts have been fascinating since their very origins, and they are modernist in precisely the sense that they came into their own in modernity.

I love reading biographic-memoirs. I’m not sure that’s a real genre but it should be; it’d make my book-buying less hit and miss. They’re the kinds of books about huge personalities written by huge personalities, or at least the myriad people who personally knew their subject. I love their complexity and their unruliness and their vitality. I love how the story of a life can be told through its very real impact on the life of another. They are the sorts of books that require a certain vigilance and, in due course, they may well be unwritten by another, but taking the accumulative shelf of biographic reflections together paints a far more vivid image of a life than a supposedly objective and singular account ever could.

In recent years, I’ve been trying to map out just want it is about this style of writing that I love. In 2018, for instance, I was persistently inspired by Virginia Woolf’s templex approach to writing, complicating how both memoir (women’s writing; not considered capital-L Literature) and biography (men’s writing; her father, Leslie Stephen, was a renowned biographer in his day) were seen in her time — this makes Orlando her magnum opus in this sense — a kind of fictionalised, gender-bending, time-travelling biography that is nonetheless based on a very real person, Vita Sackville-West, and her own relationship to her — but her writer’s diaries are often just as inspirational and vivid.

Since my Woolf obsession gave way towards the end of last year, I’ve been working my way through various biographies of D.H. Lawrence and Phillip Larkin — specifically those written by their contemporaries and associates — and, boy, is it a trip. Whilst Larkin’s shifting reputation (as a man if not a poet) has been a very recent literary spectacle (trashed by Andrew Motion in 1993, somewhat rehabilitated by James Booth in 2014), D.H. Lawrence’s reputation has been through so many twists and turns in the ninety years since his death that it is hard to know what to think about the man or his work at all.

At the moment, for instance, I am particularly fascinated by his often problematic way of dealing with his own lived experiences; as his most recent biographer, John Worthen, puts it, the fictional content of his works and the very personal emotions he is trying to express in his day-to-day life are always deeply entangled. This results in work after Nietzschean work by Lawrence in which “The individual is threatened by the very thing that he or she craves, and is likely to veer between a desire to lose him or herself in passion and a desperate longing for detachment.” (Yes, I am embarrassed that I relate to my blog like Lawrence related to women.) Worthen continues: “What [Lawrence] did was feel, which in this case meant write, his way into the problem. The writing enacted the problem, and offered some understanding of it.” This ‘problem’, more often than not, was a relationship.

Intriguingly, in the years after his death, Lawrence became the subject of many biographies by male contemporaries and rivals and, indeed, by the women he was intimate with who he used as inspiration for his stories. His works were often a kind of fictionalised autobiography in this sense, and those who knew Lawrence could see themselves quite clearly in his stories. Lawrence’s reading of their very selves was always poetic but often brutally honest. The veil of fiction was not enough to save the feelings of his muses. And so, when the tables were posthumously turned on Lawrence by those who knew him, his perspective in his own novels was rattled and ungrounded. But these biographies are not just interesting for this reason. They are fascinating because as much is learned about the authors themselves as about Lawrence, and what you end up with, rather than a cubist portrait of a man, is a map of a moment and the politics of its fraught relations. You end up, quite fittingly, with a very Lawrencean drama — art imitating life imitating art — where personal relations are complicated by the political concerns of the day.

My own attempt at navigating a recent personal-cultural history is hardly on a par with the great modernists but their relationship to the process of writing nonetheless resonates with my own. Their thoughts on the production of knowledge and understanding through fiction and non-fiction, for instance, echoes what I was always been drawn to about the Ccru; the Warwick crowd quite explicitly updated the modernists’ concerns to the tensions of postmodernity.

It is this process that I hope to explore with an increasing distance and scope as I move on with my writing life. However, whilst I began work on two books soon after Egress that mark quite a radical departure with my focus on Fisher and the blogosphere, I’ve nonetheless found that the project nearest to completion is a book about accelerationism, which I’ve sketched out 50,000 words for during lockdown.

Accelerationism remains a niche concern, no doubt, but it still shares this kind of acutely postmodern dilemma. We might put it like this: If Egress is a response to the fact that so many of our great writers and thinkers are collectively seen through are the very prisms they hoped to critique, and an attempt to stave off the impotence of reification that accumulates around a body of work after the death of the person who produced it, accelerationism is a movement that has similarly fallen victim to the kind of postmodern impotence it first hoped to shatter. Without a single authoritative representative, however, it is a project that stumbles on zombie-like, worn down by its ill-formed supporters and and critics alike. This is a legacy far more complex than Fisher’s, which can be rectified by better access to his most important texts and a more honest approach to the long but nonetheless singular trajectory of his thought. Accelerationism, on the contrary, cannot be rehabilitated with quite the same linear strategy.

Aly’s recent reading list demonstrated one such alternate approach, of course — doubling down on specific “alternatives” to excavate that which has been buried by a kind of patriarchal desire-path of canon-building. However, when I wrote about her reading list and how I thought it was a very productive shot across the bow of recent discourse, I did not realise it was, in part, a troll on the reading lists provided as part of the accelerationism course I had co-written with Meta Nomad. That the lists only featured one woman is, in hindsight, an embarrassing oversight. But I hope my blogpost also made clear that my intention was similar — I wanted to write a course that dispelled the drive to reactively reify accelerationism, whether from the left or the right, by focusing on a very particular moment; providing an intentionally limited perspective in order to provide a better understanding of how the discourse got into such a mess of retcons and canons, violent affirmations and paranoid disavowals. Because, ultimately, accelerationism was an attempt to break the leftist impotence surrounding Occupy, and no matter how we frame the philosophical lineage that informed its claims, we are no closer to answering that call. In fact, the citational politics that Aly so provocatively shone a light on revealed this quite explicitly. Few accelerationists’ priorities, no matter the school of thought they pledge allegiance to, have any bearing on actually changing our static present. When a mode of thought can become that detached from its original aims, to its own detriment, surely we need to ask ourselves how and why.

With this in mind, the most important questions concerning accelerationism today, as far as I am (personally) concerned, are: How to write about accelerationism in a way that can interrogate its twisted epistemic process without collapsing into it? Or how to write about accelerationism in a way that can interrogate its twisted epistemic process that forces the reader to engage with the twisted nature of their own perspective on the topic at hand?

If I might stick with DH Lawrence, as an example that is productively distanced from present concerns and social dynamics, he was acutely concerned with the social etiquette of a sexually repressed society in much the same way. He wrote obscenely only to draw attention to the pervasive social structures that impact not just sexual expression but subjectivity as such under capitalism. The English inability to talk about sex, for instance, led to an inability to have sex in any gratifying sense — something Lawrence felt frustrated by personally as well as socially (making him somewhat of a proto-incel, if we want to be particularly unkind) — but the English were hardly locked in idealised (that is, self-conscious) social relations and wholly out of touch with their bodies. Lawrence made the prescient connection, decades before it would become a countercultural trope, that bodily autonomy was as maligned in the bedroom as it was in the factory or colliery, and the beauty of Lawrence’s writing, for me, even at its most purple, is the way his obscenity thrusts itself through a sexual consciousness into class consciousness.

What is the accelerationist version of this? It is perhaps that our inability to actually talk about accelerationism without falling into inane discussions about how we’re supposed to talk about accelerationism demonstrates how utterly beholden we are by the impotence accelerationism first sought to critique. The dissipation of agency and the disarticulation of philosophy from politics were two postmodern tendencies that the first self-identifying accelerationists wanted to dismantle — that those are two things many accelerationists now celebrate unwittingly is beyond parody. However, whilst we can talk about this ingrown logic and point and laugh a pseuds until we’re blue in the face, accelerationism as a discourse is only worth continuing to pursue if we can engage with it in a way that penetrates through our respective cliques and into the broader impotence it is a mere byproduct of.

Still, deciding how best to do this — what analogies are useful, which references are provocative and productive enough — remains an open question. For instance, here I am talking about Fisher and accelerationism again using references that he would have surely been repulsed by. Is that useful for uncovering the subjective twists in Fisher’s thought? Or does it only muddy the waters?

For instance, Fisher really did not share my appreciation of DH Lawrence’s work — for much the same reason he disliked Bataille; the perversity of being someone writing publicly about Fisher who loves everything he hated continues. This is unsurprising, of course, for someone who frequently blogged so vitriolically about how they hated sex, but the writings of these two Notts men at least shared the same power of traversal between different forms of bodily subjugation. (I am thinking about Steve Finbow’s comment for 3am Magazine here, in which he describes Fisher as a kind of “radical Geoff Dyer infused with the complete works of H. P. Lovecraft rather than D. H. Lawrence”; I can think of no better description of a man who was so asexually sensual in his writing.)

This is what I like about Fisher’s work, however. Despite his fierce opinions, published on the k-punk blog, his hates seem to be as informative to his writing as his loves. Like the tension captured between the Arctic Monkeys and Burial, Fisher was very sensitive to the aesthetic packaging of shared sensations, trying to untangle symptoms from diagnoses. But he often seemed incapable of doing this with more canonised cultural artefacts, particularly literary figures. This isn’t to cast aspersions upon him, of course. What I like about many of these writers is that they are so internally contradictory, but immensely productive because of this, much like Fisher himself.

Reading Lawrence’s writing chronologically, for instance, with the added context of his lived experiences, we can chart his own shifting attempts to wrestle with the sensual alienation of the early twentieth century. It is in this sense that I think Lawrence and Fisher aren’t so different in their aims, whilst differing vastly in style. Rather than picking sides, I’m quite fascinated by what they share and why those differences exist in the context of the times in which they lived. This is to say that, whilst Fisher would see himself as a diagnostician and Lawrence as a writer riddled with the problems he sought to critique, Fisher was no doubt similarly complex in his own way. After all, Lawrence’s critical writings — on American literature and psychoanalysis, in particular — was so incredibly ahead of their time, but his writings with still symptomatic of the problems of his age. Fisher’s output is similar; accelerationism even more so.

Where do I fit into that kind of problematic? It is hardly my place to say. That kind of self-awareness is impossible, surely; if it is not, to attain it would no doubt drive me into an utterly unproductive nihilism. That is the last thing I want, and so continuing unsteadily on the path I am on is the only option. I have a lot of changes to synthesise and a lot of internal contradictions to weather but at least I’m moving forwards. Under such circumstances, shutting up is not an option.

Front Window #9: Antigone Beyond the City Walls (XG Beyond The M25)

Having successfully passed through our close encounter with the coronavirus many weeks ago — my girlfriend had it and recovered; I’m (presumably) asymptomatic — my girlfriend and I have wanted nothing more than to go outside.

We spent at least a month, perhaps it was six weeks, not going outside our front door. After our stress lessen, we didn’t leave the neighbourhood. When the mood swings started getting quite intense, we knew we had to do something.

The lack of direct sunlight had already had a noticeable impact on our mental and physical health but, after getting moved on by police during a recent walk to the park in southeast London, we felt we had to go elsewhere to get fresh air and not feel like we were compounding how own paranoia.

Throwing all prior caution to the wind, we decided to get in the car and leave the bounds of the M25. At first, we had a destination in mind — remote and strategically chosen as to be wholly without tourist attraction, and a little too out-of-reach for the casual dogwalker. However, on the way, we found a dirt track into woodland that we felt immediately drawn to.

It could have been a clichéd start to a horror movie. Thankfully it was very much the opposite — whatever the opposite of a horror movie might be…

What followed was a couple of hours wholly devoid of human contact in which we sat in a glade that may have been the largest empty open space I’ve seen in months, before we then spent a while following deer through the woods, later taking a moment to sit in a Matrix armchair that made me feel a bit like Morpheus in the desert (forest?) of the Real.

The Baudrillardian visual joke felt strangely apt — and Baudrillard, of course, loved a joke. But it was an odd one to laugh along with. With the nation’s superego seemingly bloated on antibiotics, as we continued our battery hen-like existence, subsisting on an ideological drip feed and waiting for the next opportunity to clap, this first walk through nature felt like an opportunity to move through the world unseen for the first time in months. We were spared the judgements of others. We were also spared our own desire to judge and twitch at the curtains, wondering who is doing the most to protect their fellow citizens.

In Simulacra & Simulation, Baudrillard gives fugitive form to the Real as follows, writing:

If once we were able to view the Borges fable in which the cartographers of the Empire
draw up a map so detailed that it ends up covering the territory exactly (the decline of the
Empire witnesses the fraying of this map, little by little, and its fall into ruins, though
some shreds are still discernible in the deserts — the metaphysical beauty of this ruined
abstraction testifying to a pride equal to the Empire and rotting like a carcass, returning
to the substance of the soil, a bit as the double ends by being confused with the real
through aging) — as the most beautiful allegory of simulation, this fable has now come full
circle for us, and possesses nothing but the discrete charm of second-order simulacra.

Today abstraction is no longer that of the map, the double, the mirror, or the concept.
Simulation is no longer that of a territory, a referential being, or a substance. It is the
generation by models of a real without origin or reality: a hyperreal. The territory no
longer precedes the map, nor does it survive it. It is nevertheless the map that precedes
the territory — precession of simulacra — that engenders the territory, and if one must
return to the fable, today it is the territory whose shreds slowly rot across the extent of
the map. It is the real, and not the map, whose vestiges persist here and there in the
deserts that are no longer those of the Empire, but ours. The desert of the real itself.

There is a 1:1 ideological cartography that is felt acutely at the minute, and its frayed edges are certainly becoming more pronounced. Mid-quarantine, for instance, during the worst of it, it felt like everyone was paranoia and, at the same time, no one was doing enough. The paradox was exhausting and infuriating, as you felt like the inadequate eye of the state, like everything else, had been outsourced to the neighbourhood watch. Is an intensely paranoid citizenry better than a police state? I suppose things weren’t quite that bad…

Right now, as we look out at our neighbours like scornful curtain-twitchers — our neighbours who have done nothing to social distance, even having a house party as soon as the Boris Johnson hinted at the possibility of a slackening of restrictions — the gulf between us also seems to be second-hand. Is this gulf between incompetence and paranoia ours or has it been passed down to us by successive governments who embody these ill-fitting affects absolutely?

It is hard to tell in the midst of it all but, as with Baudrillard’s original Borges-inspired analogy, the woods we found ourselves in were distinctly not those of the “Empire”; of the state. We felt apart from the swirling mess of ideological tension and suddenly found a new perspective to look back at the world from. From here, Baudrillard’s thesis only became more apt, as we considered the ways that coronavirus has presented us with a crisis of sign-value, where generations of semiotic worth are undermined to the point that PPE, video games and self-raising flour are the only hot commodities left. It is the cyberpunk future the Stepford Wives always wanted, and it is as ineffectively distributed as ever.

Not only had we slipped out of the maw but, with all of this going on, the eye of the state felt focused elsewhere. We were no longer looking at it; it was no longer looking at us. This was not the Derbyshire dales, stalked by police drone. This felt properly off grid.

As we walked through the woods, completely astounded, having almost forgotten what it was like to take a walk like this — which may sound melodramatic given how little time, in the grand scheme of things, had passed, but I think we have all been surprised by how intensely time can be compressed at present — we talked about where in the world we would have preferred to spend quarantine if we could have had the choice. This had been a common question, under present circumstances, but it was made all the more immanently psychedelic on our walk in the woods, as if to say it out loud would summon such a place behind the next bend.

Before we left the house, I’d seen a photo of Wittgenstein’s philosocabin on Twitter and so, when my girlfriend asked wistfully about where I’d like to be, it was the first place to come to mind.

I thought about Norway — and the towering trees around us helped manifest it — but I’m sorry to say I’ve never been. The closest we have gotten to Scandinavia is Denmark, where we’d spent some time north of Copenhagen, on the coast, not far from a village called Taarbæk.

The first time we went was in winter, having had the unexpected opportunity to go on holiday and stay in a small house on campus at DTU whilst a member of my partner’s family was working there. We went back a few times afterwards. I don’t think I’ve ever been anywhere more beautiful. It’s still my happy place. I’d give anything to be back there right now.

Walking through those woods in Surrey, as if walking through a dream of the more dense regions of the Jægersborg Dyrehave, there was a certain guilt hanging over our meandering. We knew that, up to now, we’d been more self-disciplined than most under quarantine, partly through necessity as an obviously infectious little unit, but to be outside that day was so far beyond the advice given by the state. And yet, we found ourselves more isolated than we had been in weeks. We felt disorientated, coming to terms with the fact that what felt like the right thing to do felt way beyond the state’s understanding of the public good.

This was compounded by the fact that living in London under lockdown had felt like an impossible task. Everyone lives on top of each other; London is already its own form of wet market, in a way, as we all jostle for position in these infernal stacks.

We passed three mounds of ant nests on our walk out and I had never felt more relieved to be outside the city limits. We were like two scavengers detached from the swarm and it felt, at times, like we might have died and gone to heaven. The blankets of bluebells certainly had a lot to do with that. We were the happiest we’d been in weeks, finally being able to, somewhat paradoxically, isolate ourselves away from our futile isolation.

From Denmark, my mind wandered to Kierkegaard’s Antigone. I’ve been thinking about her a lot these last few months, trying to chart a complex contained within a throwaway tweet, ricocheting from Hegel to Lacan to Nietzsche to Blanchot to Irigaray to Butler to Žižek and now to Kierkegaard.

Antigone, daughter of Oedipus, in Sophocles’ original play, is caught between family and state — or, we might say, similarly to us, personal responsibility and the law of the state. With her father dead, her brothers too, she and her sister Ismene find themselves bereft, adrift in a life that has brought little but grief and sorrow. They are cursed, thanks to their father’s misadventures, and seem to be struggling with the full emergence of a fate they always knew would come.

Then, to add a final insult to their myriad injuries: Creon, the king of Thebes, has decreed that the body of Antigone’s brother, Polynices, killed in battle, cannot be buried or mourned. “He’s to be left unwept, unburied,” Antigone reports to her sister, “a lovely treasure for birds that scan the field and feast to their heart’s content.” She knows the law, but she cannot stand it.

In this way, the play dramatises the classic tragic interplay between the state and one’s own conscience. Antigone cannot obey Creon’s decree. No matter her brother’s actions — he fought on the wrong side in a battle to overthrow Creon — she cannot leave him unmourned to rot in the sun. He is blood. His fate, to her, is unthinkable.

This conflict has been analysed by many. However, Kierkegaard’s intervention in the reception of Sophocles’ slippery heroine is particularly influential. He reimagines her in his own time but also preempting what she might become. This is to say that Kierkegaard’s is a modernist Antigone. No longer is she cast between her brother’s carcass and the laws of the state. Instead, the conflict occurs internally.

This view is one that, today — as I have perhaps already (inadvertently) demonstrated — comes all too easily. Kierkegaard charts, however, how a certain shift has occurred, between how Antigone appears to us today and how she appeared in her own time.

In ancient tragedy, Kierkegaard explains, the individual is not so much an independent “subject” as a moment of variation. If we take the structure of an ancient tragedy to be like a song, the chorus, quite literally, represents the chorus as we know it today — that moment of essential telos, that collective gesture, an “action and situation” that approaches “the substantiality of epic or the exaltation of lyric” — the chorus is, in a way, like a participatory part of the audience, the spectator dramatised. The individual character, however, is a verse — “the concentration of lyric” that cannot be absorbed by the chorus itself.

This sounds knotted and complex but it is, in a way, the same relationship between verse and chorus in song — one of difference and repetition but all, nonetheless, contained within a common structure, known and popularly understood. This is particularly true of Antigone. She is not so much a Great Individual, striking out on her own, but a sort of expressive driftwood, giving voice to two eternal currents that the audience knows: genealogy and law. It is a drama that explores two struggles felt by all. We might say all dramas do this through subtext but, in ancient Greece, tragedy, in a far more explicit sense than we are used to, prefigures the audience as spectators of their own collective unconscious.

Modern tragedy — and this is still true today — is not so epicly self-contained. It does not necessarily try and speak to a collective unconsciousness and its universal struggles but instead to an individual consciousness and its particular struggles. As Kierkegaard writes:

The [modern] tragic hero is subjectively reflected in himself, and this reflection hasn’t simply refracted him out of every immediate relation to state, race, and destiny, often it has refracted him even out of his own preceding life. What interests us is some certain definite moment of his life as his own deed. Because of this, the tragic element can be exhaustively represented in situation and words, there being nothing whatever left over of the immediate. Hence modern tragedy has no epic foreground, no epic heritage. The hero stands and falls entirely on his own deeds.

Kierkegaard notes that this is an understanding we have of the ancients thanks to Aristotle. Furthermore, he notes how Hegel aligns himself with Aristotle too, as he untangles self-consciousness from “spirit”. Kierkegaard’s insight, however, seems to be that, just as the tragic form itself has been transformed by modernity, so too must our conception of it keep apace. Hegel, it seems, for Kierkegaard at least, lags behind, relying on what the ancients can tell the moderns without fulling following through on the dialectic that results from our combined understanding of the ancient collective and the modern individual.

For Kierkegaard, then, Antigone becomes the essential figure who, reactivated in the present, reveals the full complexity of our tragic circumstances.

What in the Greek sense provides tragic interest is the fact that, in the brother’s unhappy death, in the sister’s collision with a single human circumstance, there is a re-echoing of Oedipus’s sorry fate; it is, one might say, the afterpains, the tragic destiny of Oedipus, ramifying in every branch of his family. This totality makes the spectator’s sorrow infinitely deep. It is not an individual that goes under, but a little world; the objective sorrow, set free, now strides forward with its own terrible consistency, like a force of nature, and Antigone’s sorry fate is like an echo of her father’s, an intensified sorrow. So when Antigone, in defiance of the king’s prohibition, resolves to bury her brother, we see in this not so much a free action on her part as a fateful necessity which visits the sins of the fathers on the children. There is indeed enough freedom here to make us love Antigone for her sisterly love, but in the necessity of fate there is also, as it were, a higher refrain enveloping not just the life of Oedipus, but all his family too.

So while the Greek Antigone lives a life free enough from care for us to imagine her life in its gradual unfolding as even being a happy one if this new fact had not emerged, our [modern] Antigone’s life is, on the contrary, essentially over. It is no stingy endowment I have given her, and as we say that an aptly spoken word is like apples of gold in pictures of silver, so here I have placed the fruit of sorrow in a cup of pain. Her dowry is not a vain splendour which moth and rust can corrupt, it is an eternal treasure. Thieves cannot break in and steal it; she herself will be too vigilant for that. Her life does not unfold like that of the Greek Antigone; it is not turned outward but inward. The scene is not external but internal, a scene of spirit.

What does any of this have to do with an escape to the country from Covid-19? Kierkegaard essentially sets the stage for all Antigones to come. I have wondered, ever since, if a new one might emerge from our present circumstances, defined by anti-lockdown protests and the need to work and the desire for secret escapes, complicating this vision of Antigone’s “criminal good” all the more.

In many analyses of Antigone’s fate, after Kierkegaard, more attention has been given to the limit that she represents, rather than any particularly emancipatory project. For Lacan, for instance, in his seminar on the ethics of psychoanalysis, Antigone becomes a kind of quintessential modern masochist. Kierkegaard sees the “guilt” that Antigone carries with her, in its very constitution, as being a sort of perversion of the destiny of Christ. She is her father’s daughter. As such, Antigone is subjected to a secret; an “inherited guilt”, like original sin, but it is a guilt that also defines her. She is even proud of it, and it is this further self-affirmation that leads her to commit her “good crime” which, nonetheless, leads to her demise.

For Kierkegaard,

Such is our Antigone. Proud of her secret, proud that she has been chosen to save in so remarkable a manner the honour and esteem of the house of Oedipus… She consecrates her life to sorrow over her father’s destiny, over her own.

Antigone, then, is like “a victim in search of a torturer and who needs to educate, persuade and conclude an alliance with the torturer in order to realise the strangest of schemes.” This is no longer Kierkegaard but how Deleuze describes the masochist, and so too does Lacan describe the masochist as that person who desires “to reduce himself to this nothing that is the good, to this thing that is treated like an object, to this slave whom one trades back and forth and whom one shares.” For Lacan, this is Antigone absolutely, but he also aligns this masochism with those dionysian Freudian drives: of the feminine, of death and of the mother. It is here that Lacan defines his ouroborosic death drive — Antigone’s desire for death becomes a desire to return to the womb, from whence, especially in her family, so many complications sprang forth.

In reducing herself to such an object, as the archetypical feminine, she suspends herself, as Lacan says, “between two deaths” — a death at the hands of the state and a death by her own hands. It is suicide by cop, Theban style. And yet, Lacan argues that Antigone has no other choice. She is not only caught between two deaths for herself but her brother’s two deaths also — as far as the state is concerned, he is a dead criminal; for Antigone, he is a dead brother nonetheless, no matter his crimes; and, not only a brother but a surrogate son, following the death of her mother. Therefore, her tie to her brother is only intensified by the tragedy of her life thus far. How does one resolve this conundrum? By suspending all language, and only entering into action from this outside. Beyond the relations that define each relationship to her brother, to cast a body out and let it be ravaged by dogs remains an abhorrence against nature.


Because [Polynices] is abandoned to the dogs and the birds and will end his appearance on earth in impurity, with his scattered limbs an offence to heaven and earth, it can be seen that Antigone’s position represents the radical limit that affirms the unique value of his being without reference to any content, to whatever good or evil Polynices may have done, or to whatever he may be subjected to.

The unique value involved is essentially that of language. Outside of language it is inconceivable, and the being of him who has lived cannot be detached from all he bears with him in the nature of good and evil, of destiny, of consequences for others, or of feelings for himself. That purity, that separation of being from the characteristics of the historical drama he has lived through, is precisely the limit or the ex nihilo to which Antigone is attached. It is nothing more than the break that the very presence of language inaugurates in the life of man.

This reading of a Lacanian feminine that comes with its innate mode of slippage is later taken up by Irigaray, who affirms it absolutely. She inaugurates, in Speculum of the Other Woman, somewhat echoing Lacan from fifteen years before, a radically feminine subject.

For her, it is up to a (truly) modern Antigone to produce the synthesis between herself and Creon that Hegel neglected. She must not resign herself to her individual tragic fate — a suicide outside language — but spread her innate rupture amongst the citizens of the state. She should refuse “to be that unconscious ground that nourishes nature” so that womanhood can “demand the right to pleasure, to jouissance, even to effective action, thus betraying her universal destiny.” She should affirm the link between the death drive and motherhood, as Lacan sees it — Antigone’s desire for death is similarly a desire to return to the womb. She inaugurates, for Irigaray, a newly matriarchal mutation of “kinship.” I interpret this, somewhat jaggedly, as a mantra that women should not be nothing but breed nothings.

For Judith Butler, however, Irigaray’s position is something of a misstep. To universalise Antigone, in the particularity of her experience, is to drag her back from her limit and sanitise the unsharable facts of her existence. This is to say that Irigaray’s affirmation is all well and good, but Antigone’s is hardly a demonstration of a woman’s radical autonomy. The tragedy is precisely that this is what she lacks. Even in her rebellion, she remains trapped within father’s fate.

In trying to affirm Antigone, then, Irigaray tries to force an agency into Antigone’s life that is not there. As Butler asks, in her book Antigone’s Claim, in light of Irigaray’s reading, “can Antigone herself be made into a representative for a certain kind of feminist politics, if Antigone’s own representational function is itself in crisis?”

Butler’s (proto-xenofeminist) conclusion is as follows, perhaps (and finally) bringing back to mind the strange paradox in which we find ourselves at present:

Prohibited from action, she nevertheless acts, and her act is hardly a simple assimilation to an existing norm. And in acting, as one who has no right to act, she upsets the vocabulary of kinship that is a precondition for the human, implicitly raising the question for us of what those preconditions really must be. … If kinship is the precondition of the human, then Antigone is the occasion for a new field of the human, achieved through political catachresis, the one that happens when the less than human speaks as human, when gender is displaced, and kinship founders on its own founding laws. She acts, she speaks, she becomes one for whom the speech act is a fatal crime, but this fatality exceeds her life and enters the discourse of intelligibility as its own promising fatality, the social form of its aberrant, unprecedented future.

When Butler speaks of the “less than human [who] speaks as human”, she is explicitly referencing Giorgio Agamben’s homo sacer — an “accursed man”; a walking paradox who can be killed with impunity but not sacrificed. Agamben’s homo sacer is something of a zombified existence but it is quite telling here, I think, in our present context. (And yes, I know that invoking Agamben is dangerous territory to wander into in the context of Covid-19.) Thankfully, Žižek is on hand to provide an Antigone most appropriate to now, with both Agamben and Butler in mind.

First summarising Butler’s critique of Lacan, he writes in the introduction to his own retelling of Antigone: “Lacan’s very radicality (the notion that Antigone locates herself in the suicidal outside of the symbolic order) reasserts this order, the order of the established kinship relations, silently assuming that the ultimate alternative is the one between the symbolic Law of (fixed patriarchal) kinship relations and its suicidal ecstatic transgression.”

Might we think, instead, then, of a modern Antigone who does herself justice? Apart from the interpretations that have inadvertently dragged her back from the limit in which she exists? Žižek reposes these questions, arguing that

Antigone speaks for all the subversive ‘pathological’ claims which crave to be admitted into the public sphere; however, to identify what she stands for in this reading with homo sacer misses the basic thrust of Agamben’s analysis. There is no place in Agamben for the ‘democratic’ project of ‘renegotiating’ the limit which separates full citizens from homo sacer by gradually allowing their voices to be heard; his point is, rather, that, in today’s ‘post-politics’, the very democratic public space is a mask concealing the fact that, ultimately, we are all homo sacer.

This was perhaps, in part, Agamben’s argument when he, somewhat misguidedly, applied his own political theories to the present pandemic. As Joseph Owen writes for Verso:

Agamben claims that coronavirus … is an epidemic conjured up by the Italian authorities and exacerbated by the national media. For him, the virus functions as an insidious form of mass panic and misdirection, as an excuse to extend prohibitive emergency measures over a mostly willing and anodyne population.

For anyone vaguely acquainted with Agamben’s work, his response won’t come as much of a surprise. His view is that citizens accept the bare minimum of existence to live under almost permanent restrictions of liberty. Governments treat every event as a pretext for the suspension of normal laws. Citizens adapt to the new reality: they defer to the exception, and so it becomes the rule. In doing so, some vital element of human life is suppressed or undone.

Agamben’s position was not exactly a popular one… Many saw it as hysteric a response as he was accusing the national media of, bordering on the conspiratorial and also suspending any individual or community’s capacity to act. As insightful as it may have been, it nonetheless felt blinkered and reductive. However, perhaps the complexity of Antigone’s fate is a better context from which to consider his point, as we find ourselves all homo sacer, suspended between two deaths.

This is the terror I think we felt acutely when on our walk — damned if we did, damned if we didn’t. To do as we were told felt like resigning ourselves to potential death due to the incompetence of the state and — unfortunately (but also by extension) — some of our neighbours. To go out for a walk was perhaps to demonstrate our own incompetence when confronted with this sense of entrapment.

Žižek captures this paradox well in his adaptation of Sophocles’ play. The closing remarks of the chorus seem to get closer to the point than Agamben’s hysteria:

Old wisdom has it right — we can’t escape
the clutches of our fate. But what this wisdom
ignores is that we also can’t escape the burden
of our own responsibility. We cannot use our fate
as an excuse to do what pleases us.
The parents of Antigone’s father
knew in advance his fate and tried to avoid it,
but their very measures to achieve this noble end
helped the fate to realize itself. The bitter lesson
of Oedipus’s story was that a man who has no choice
since evil is his fate, is no less fully guilty
for his disgusting deeds. But what Antigone’s sad story
taught is that if we miraculously return in time
to change the course of the events that brought about
the present cataclysm, the new outcome
might even surpass the old one in horror and distress.

It is up to you to choose at your own risk and peril.
There is no one to help you here, you are alone.
When we’re alone, when nothing happens, all of a sudden
we’re hit by the murmur of life, and at that moment
wise men know how to suspend the chaos and decide.

I think our decision, in the grand scheme of things, was just such a criminal good. At least we weren’t going to march on Hyde Park, insisting on displaying our own incompetence readily in front of an incompetent state and media. We were proud of our secret, but a secret it remained. The terror of this decision, however, and the terror of Antigone’s tale is that in following the (technically) lawful good of the state, we might all become killers. The guilt of imperialism embodies this most explicitly, but what about when death occurs on such a scale at home? There is a strange paradox in affirming that possibility so that one might actually be less of a risk.

The absurdity of this predicament is captured brilliantly in Jacqueline Rose’s recent essay “Pointing the Finger” — an essay on Camus’s The Plague in the time of Covid-19. Camus’s tale is itself a kind of retelling of the stakes of Antigone’s. This is most apparent when Rose writes of how the character Grand, for instance,

point[s] the finger at the modern state, which forbids violence to its citizens, not becuase, as Freud puts it, ‘it desires to abolish it, but because it desires to monopolise it, like salt and tobacco.’ For Tarrou, the responsibility of the citizen for his own violence is not diminished by such fraudulence but intensified, since it confronts him with what the state enacts in his name. The plague will continue to crawl out of the woodwork — out of bedrooms, cellars, trunks, handkerchiefs and old papers — as long as human subjects do not question the cruelty and injustice of their social arrangements. We are all accountable for the ills of the world.

It is here that we find ourselves confronted with the Real, in the Lacanian sense as much as the Baudrillardian sense with which we began. Lacan, in his seminar on ethics, which concludes with Antigone, states that “the moral law, the moral command, the presence of the moral agency in our activity, insofar as it is structured by the symbolic, is that through which the real is actualised — the real as such, the weight of the real.”

This was no less apparent on our woodland walk, in which we felt the full weight of the real at its most sublime; at its most beautiful and terrifying. We entered a world in which spring was still unfolding, unperturbed by pandemic, but in which the greenery only amplified the human detritus scattered throughout the forest. This was a world simultaneously without virus and without us. More than anything, though, to escape the bounds of the city allowed us to truly confront our own moral agency, unmediated by the absolute takeover that social media and emails and news feeds had enacted upon our lives — for better or for worse.

Welcome to the forest of the real.

“Art in Isolation” and “Eerie Architecture” — XG for Anise Gallery

As the exhibitions at Anise Gallery have come to a halt during the coronavirus pandemic, I’ve been working on a bi-monthly column for the gallery’s blog to reflect on the role of art in these strange times and also consider the work of some of our artists from within this new context.

The two first posts have gone live. Check them out below.

You can read the introductory post, “Art in Isolation”, here…

Anise Gallery, like so many other galleries and cultural institutions, has found itself rethinking its plans for the future during the Coronavirus outbreak. Our exhibition programme for the next six months has, unsurprisingly, been disrupted, but it might also allow us to reflect on why we do some of the things we do.

…And the latest post, “Eerie Architecture”, here.

For centuries, even millennia, ruins such as these have served as fuel for the imagination. Today, however, and increasingly so, they unnerve us, being as much a warning of a possible future as they are a sign of what has gone before. Our awareness of our own precarity on the lands on which we walk provides us with a thrill that is perverse but universal. To stumble across an environment that betrays the signs of a former use is to stumble across a simulation of the world without us. It is to both be a ghost and to walk among them; to be a presence within absence.

Front Window #5: Once More, With Feeling…

Friday 3 April 2020

I was interviewed about my book again today. I’d planned to head to this magazine’s offices in Central London to record a podcast but Covid-19 scuppered that almost as soon as we’d organised it. We had a chat over Skype instead and it was really lovely.

Towards the end we were talking about how the stakes of community described in my book have once again changed shape under the current crisis. In Egress, these shifts and changes are documented in real time and, although the book feels like a time capsule now, in my mind, these stakes nonetheless continue to keep shifting and changing every day.

At the end of our conversation, I half-rehearsed an argument in an essay I’ve just finished on D.H. Lawrence and how there’s this sense in his final works — Lady Chatterley’s Lover and Apocalypse — of a kind of individual-collectivity emerging; a kind of new, diagonal relation that escapes both the enforced and restrictive collectivity of the proletariat versus the aristocratic individuality of the bourgeoisie.

It’s what Bataille calls “the community of lovers”. (I’m still so shocked Bataille never wrote on Lawrence — to my knowledge?)

I’m feeling the presence of this Bataillean community quite explicitly under quarantine. With my girlfriend ill, I’ve found myself relating to her in this subtly different way, now that our relationship is devoid of the workaday pressures of wage labour that keep us in a kind of orbit around each other. There’s a new syzygy emerging at the moment instead, of a kind that is typically obstructed.

The distinct pleasure of this relation was thrown into relief when a notification popped up on my phone announcing the death of Bill Withers. I was grateful, in a strange sort of way, that the announcement was not appended by that now-familiar adage: “due to complications caused by Covid-19.”

Bill featured on a lot of the old mixtapes I used to make for my girlfriend when we first met. I ended up listening to all my old favourites when I heard the news.

The drum break that opens Kissing My Love, followed by that wah-wah guitar, is maybe the most perfect Withers number for me — where the instrumentation is as seductive as his voice is.

And then there’s the way he commands the audience at Carnegie Hall on his live album. You can feel him palpably in the air: how the crowd hangs off his every word and how he seems to seduce them with every anecdote. By the time he’s ready to sing another song, they’re in the palm of his hand, and it’s not like he even needs to butter them up. It is electrifying and it is sexy as fuck.

But it’s not sexy in this sort of one-dimensional way. It’s sensual. It has a sort of embodied power. It really gets inside you, but not just in the cliched sense that it “gets in your soul”. Turn that baritone up loud enough and it even makes your organs vibrate.

I was thinking about Withers’ music like this when I put it on because I’ve spent much of the last week copyediting a book that’s coming out soon on Repeater. It’s not my place to say anything about it — it’s called You’re History: keep an eye out for it in the coming months because you should absolutely buy it — but reading it really resonated with this listening session.

It’s a book about women in pop music — some of the biggest and most ubiquitous names in pop, in fact — but it deals with their music in a way that focuses on how it feels rather than merely what it’s saying. The book considers the ways that some of the biggest (and even most derided) pop songs have jarring word plays and seem to linguistically express themselves in a way that looks moronic when seen written down. But that’s the fault of how critical faculties, not the songs themselves. These songs are overlooked because we are obsessed with a style of music journalism that is bizarrely obsessed with lyricism over musicality. Instead, You’re History is a book that explores not what words mean but how sounds feel — particularly the sounds of words or, more abstractly, vocalisations — and how the music itself functions, sensually, beyond the rigid hermeneutics of our present era.

It’s the sort of sonic analysis that makes the videos on Genius‘ YouTube channel all too easy to ridicule. Their video on The Backpack Kid’s “Flossin'”, for instance, is comical and absurd because its lyrical content is analysed despite their supposedly abject emptiness but, as becomes clear, what makes the song a hit is its embodied quality — its not a poem set to music but a functional accompaniment to a dance move. In that sense, it’s the dance move that is the hit rather than the song — and this is how the Backpack Kid unabashedly frames the song himself when describing how it came to exist.

So, understood from this position — from the perspective of the song’s intended function — it is Genius that looks utterly one-dimensional and lacking rather than the song itself. It’s blinkers are used to comic effect but it’s still blinkered, reflecting the priorities of an industry at large and the priorities it wrongly impresses upon the listening public.

The book considers plenty of songs that are far, far less contentious than this — the above is more useful for demonstrating Genius‘s own straitjacket than anything else — but they are songs that are nonetheless ubiquitous and supposedly lyrically vapid or absurd. (There’s an in depth analysis of Tom Tom Club’s Wordy Rappinghood, for instance, which is just sublime and had me reaching for my copy of Deleuze’s Logic of Sense — the author indirectly articulates that book’s savouring of irrationality in a way that had me grinning from ear to ear.)

At one point, in order to further bolster why the book is written in this way, the author quotes an essay by Mike Powell for Pitchfork on the value of this kind of music criticism. (Not that the book needs to defend itself but appearing, as it does, some way into the book, the quotation serves to drive home just how invigorating and how largely absent this kind of writing is from the canon of music writing.) Powell writes:

Ultimately the way we talk about music doesn’t come down to prescribed terms, but associations, poetics, and the way language has the potential to open music up rather than shut it down. I remember a friend once telling me that a song sounded like braids to her, as in hair. This wasn’t just an unusual thing to say about music, but an observation that tapped into this particular song’s dense, overlapping rhythmic structure without deferring to words like “syncopation” or “staccato.” A few more riffs on the braid metaphor and you’d have what I’d call an insight: A statement that takes something you thought you already understood and makes you see it in a new way.

So little criticism does this. Not just music criticism but criticism of all kinds. It’s the drudgery of what now passes for “Cultural Studies”. Insightful writing should, instead, be a mode of cultural production in its own right, in the sense that it affects you directly rather than simply ordering and describing a cultural artefact based on standardised opinions and technical understandings.

This is precisely what I meant in my recent interview with Music Journalism Insider, when making a comment that a few people have picked up on on Twitter:

Writing biologies instead of biographies of music was meant to be a sly condensation of an argument made in my Quietus essay — “we can understand the difference between hauntology and hauntography as being similar to the difference between biology and biography — one orders and describes the events of a life after the fact; the other is a study of life as it is lived, and all the mechanisms and relations that make it possible” — and this forthcoming book from Repeater has given me an example to point to now that I only wish I’d had at my disposal a few months ago.

All of these seemingly disparate threads come back together for me, forming a braid of their own, when reading D.H. Lawrence under corona quarantine. The function of his writing and the unbound eroticism therein is precisely an attempt to unearth the radical insights of feeling and sensuality in this way — what he refers to explicitly as “tenderness”.

Lacking the textural properties of music, Lawrence uses sex to pull all our focus into how desire feels, but it is simply a means to an end. His writing just as often asks us to think about how relationships feel — both romantic and familial — or how the structures under which we live feel. Desire is not only projected onto an object of desire but is embodied — desire and its lack constitute a tethering, and it is the tethering that Lawrence holds firmly in his grasp. When thinking about the subject-object relation, it is the hyphen that Lawrence stimulates.

I’m particularly enchanted by Mellors’ sensual frustrations in Lady Chatterley’s Lover, for instance. In a scene that almost feels comic — it’s the sort of moment of internal tension usually only sated by an angry-dance montage in the movies — Lawrence attempts to describe Mellors’ politically erotic experience of being overcome by a sort of thwarted sexual energy. He’s not horny, exactly — it’s like he feels claustrophobic in his own skin, but he is only made aware of his own interiority in this way because of his capture of capitalist forces. Lawrence writes:

Driven by desire, and by dead of the malevolent Thing outside, he made his round in the wood, slowly, softly. He loved the darkness and folded himself into it. It fitted the turgidity of his desire which, in spite of all, was like a riches: the stirring restlessness of his penis, the stirring fire of his loins! Oh, if only there were other men to be with, to fight that sparkling-electric Thing outside there, to preserve the tenderness of life, the tenderness of women, and the natural riches of desire. If only there were men to fight side by side with! But the men were all outside there, glorifying in the Thing, triumphing or being trodden down in the rush of mechanised greed or of greedy mechanism.

Mellors doesn’t just want to fuck — he wants to fuck up capitalism!

This is how most of Twitter seems to feel right now. Two kinds of tweet jostle for position — “Bring down capitalism!”; “I just want to fuck!”

For Lawrence, these two sentiments aren’t so distinct from one another. This was the function of his writing — a celebration of fucking in all its guises, from sex and violence to revolution and destruction. No dichotomies, no dialectics — just an ever-complicating web of desires.

That’s what I’m really aware of right now under quarantine. The tether between myself and my girlfriend but also the newly strained nature of the tether between myself and everyone else. It’s not one-dimensionally sexual but a sensual complexity. The overbearing cloud of illness drives this home even more. Every hour or so, I pop my head round the bedroom door and ask my girlfriend, “How are you feeling?” I find myself asking this of other people too. Not just “how are you” but how do you feel under the present circumstances — and what is being felt, in every single instance, is the new tension of this tether; the embodied connection between self and other.

It is a tether strummed by other forces the rest of the time but, with those forces abated for the time being, other sensations are emerging. I feel like a spider on a web in a sheltered alcove, each strand connected to someone else in my midst. The slightest breeze will overwhelmingly disturb my present existence. Without such a breeze, however, other tremors are felt even more intensely — tremors from other possible worlds.

On Accelerationism, Cathedralism, and the Art World

The curse of other people’s poor research strikes again.

I had one of those weird Twitter moments the other day, when I discovered, seemingly by chance, that someone I’d never heard of had blocked me.

And that’s fine. I’m sure there are many more people out there who would rather not see my blog rambles pop up in their wider social networks. But that doesn’t mean that when you find yourself blocked by someone you don’t know, you don’t poke around a bit and try to figure out why…

This is what happened to me earlier this week when I found myself unable to view half of a conversation about accelerationism that popped up on my timeline. It was Dominic Fox whose responses I could see, popping up to defend some random person’s sweeping generalisations about accelerationism, it seemed, but I couldn’t actually see who he was responding to.

When I went to try and see Dominic’s responses in context, I discovered the block, and I discovered a whole lot more besides too.

With this happening in a conversation about accelerationism, I shouldn’t have been all that surprised by what I found next, but it was the circles this other person ran in that amused me so much. It was someone called Lulu Nunn, tweeting about the rise of accelerationism and denouncing anyone “in the art world” who followed Nick Land on Twitter because he is the inspiration behind alt-right mass shootings and wants to start a race war, don’t you know.

I didn’t know who Lulu Nunn was, of course, but a cursory Google revealed that she is the Communications Manager for the Cherie Blair Foundation for Women. The complete lack of self-awareness that must allow someone to hurl repeated rocks from that glass house is surely on another level! Only someone who works for a charity named after the wife of a Blue Labour war criminal could have the tenacity to criticise other people’s choice in Twitter follows.

What’s illuminating about this isn’t the fact that someone on Twitter is a hypocrite, however. That isn’t shocking in the slightest. It’s rather that it is symptomatic of something more insidious that lingers just below the surface…

It was Rob Myers, doing a bit of detective work of his own, who uncovered where this latest denouncement had originally emerged from: yet another conflation of philosophical accelerationism with 4chan accelerationism. (If you’d like to refresh your memory, here’s an account of the last time something like this kicked up a Twitter fuss — they’re emerging every six months now, like clockwork.)

It’s an article for Palatten, a Swedish art magazine, penned by Dorian Batycka who asks the question: “Is Accelerationism a Gateway Aesthetic to Fascism?”

Coming from the art world, this article predictably goes back to the defining moment of 2017 art world paranoia — the shutdown of the LD50 gallery — and attempts to describe the present emergence of “taboo” art and the artists behind it who keep questionable company. (There is no more to be said on LD50 on this blog, although, in many ways, having read this old post back to myself for the first time in a long time, what is to follow here is an inadvertent kind of sequel, developing and deepening that old argument for now.)

Right from the off, there’s a really weird dichotomy emerging here — an unnamed progressive side of art (conflating “progressive” in the arbitrary sense of pushing forwards into the new with an indeterminate but supposedly predetermined “correct” direction, whatever that is) and the dark side of “taboo”. As Batycka writes, “the paradox of the internet is that while it has given marginalized voices a space in which to secure access to speech and community, disobedience and nonconformity, it has also given platform to taboo ideas, fascist and far-right literature and memes, cannibalizing extremist views into a cornucopia of half-truths and anti-establishment conspiracy theories.”

Is this really a paradox? Or is this just how all forms of media are used in the real world? I can’t think of any technology that hasn’t been used to both liberate and oppress… (Have you read the history of the printing press? It’s a riot!)

Unfortunately, this seemingly innocuous point demonstrates a popular leftist fallacy of assuming something has gone wrong when technology isn’t being used exclusively in your favour. It’s a shadow of the sort of malignant techno-utopianism that led to Trump — and, yes, that’s right, it is techno-utopianism that the article later goes on to critique, through the deployment of a bunch of half-truths — now that’s a paradox — but we’re getting ahead of ourselves here…

There’s a more important question we need to ask first: How are we separating “disobedience and nonconformity” from “taboo” here? Taboo is a fitting word to use, in many respects. It is an all-too-Freudian Freudian slip. As Freud once wrote:

Taboo restrictions are distinct from religious or moral prohibitions. They are not based upon any divine ordinance, but may be said to impose themselves on their own account. They differ from moral prohibitions in that they fall into no system that declares quite generally that certain abstinences must be observed and gives reasons for that necessity. Taboo prohibitions have no grounds and are of unknown origin. Though they are unintelligible to us, to those who are dominated by them they are taken as a matter of course.

How fitting that the latest critique of accelerationism — that, as someone astutely put it, belongs to the “read Vox once” school of critique — should invoke taboo in such a way that epitomises the shadowboxing of “denouncing something I don’t understand.”

Philosophical accelerationism is, in many ways, a school of thought that purposefully rejects the pop-left’s penchant for secular-Protestantism and moralism in this regard, engaging critically with the “taboo” in this original sense and how it continues to define our worldview under capitalism, and so it makes total sense that this be lumped in with the “Outside” category of Batycka’s diffuse worldview.

There is a great many ironies here. For example — and, believe me, there are many to choose from — the mode of critique being generically deployed here without any self-awareness is also the one Nick Land first skewers in Fanged Noumena with his essay “Kant, Capital, and the Prohibition of Incest.”

To turn to Robin Mackay’s summary for the sake of brevity, in this essay Land maps out

the capitalist need to keep the proletariat at a distance while actively compelling it into the labour market […] Land sees in capitalism a suspension, a compromise: at the same time as it liberates a frustrated tendency towards synthesis […] it reinstates ‘a priori’ control by sequestering kinship from this general tendency and containing it within familialism and the nation-state.

Translation: capitalism cannot help producing its own enemies; to counteract this, it compartmentalises disruptive “deterritorialising” tendencies into instances of stasis but such pressure cookers eventually go off and with explosive consequences for life and thought.

As Robin continues, Land explains how “Kant’s thinking of synthesis” — the generalised relationship between self and other — is of particular use to us here because it “symptomatizes modernity, formally distilling its predicament, the ‘profound but uneasy relation’ in which European modernity seeks to stabilise and codify a relation (with its proletarian or third-world ‘material’) whose instability or difference is the very source of its perpetual expansion.” (It’s a argument made, drawing similarly on an analogous Orientalism, in this recent article from The Philosophical Salon on academic philosophy.)

This is a tension encapsulated — by Lévi-Strauss in an epigraph to Land’s essay — by the incest taboo. Lévi-Strauss observes that “incest proper … even combines in some countries with its direct opposite, inter-racial sexual relations.” For Land, in his reading of Kant and the patrilineal development of capitalism’s logics of continual growth, this reflexive problematic of incest being equated with exogamy defines the contradictions of capitalist modernity in the form of the “taboo”. Reproductively speaking, facing inwards is to die, but facing outwards must be done with violence and suspicion. In an imperial and capitalistic sense, “an enlightenment society wants both to learn and to legislate for all time, to open itself to the other and to consolidate itself from within, to expand indefinitely whilst reproducing itself as the same.”

This is precisely the contradictory logic of capitalist modernity being deployed in this anti-accelerationist essay, where the “progressive nature” of the art world is tied arbitrarily to a superficial faith in its righteousness whilst a different “progressive” form — a just as arbitrary misreading of accelerationism — is taken up as the enemy and given a show trial to reassure others just how powerfully and self-assuredly we are progressing in the right direction.

It’s performative bullshit, in which cheap shots are taken at an xenomorphic scapegoat to cover over the incestuous logic that rots the art world from within.

It is also a bullshit compounded by the only passage in the article that actually engages with accelerationism.

In essence, what Batycka thinks accelerationism is is a kind of “techno-futurism”:

… a slick blending of cyber-utopian thinking [with] an impulse to think that humanity’s problems will magically be solved through technology, science and engineering. Indissoluble from deliberately nihilistic meltdowns, technological determinism has exacerbated the vertiginous speeds of capitalism gone amock. [sic]

There’s a strange conflation going on here that we haven’t seen for a few years — not since Jon Cruddas MP wrote this weird thing for the New Statesmen, demonstrating all the flustered, fear-mongered hand-waving that many have come to associate with the UK centre-left. It ironically conflates a STEM progressivism with Blade Runner’s neo-fascist aesthetics of futurity but without paying any heed to the documented benefits of the former (which we can surely recognise without falling into STEM supremacy) and the baked-in Oedipal critique of the latter.

It is, basically, an outdated art world critique of “left-accelerationism” — a vague offshoot of accelerationism that was both born from and died with Srnicek and Williams’ Inventing the Future. This was because no-one interested in accelerationism beyond that point picked up the torch they fashioned and so it eventually went out.

Nevertheless, ever since, we have seen these same critiques make appearances in various magazines and news websites where this wildly divergent and fragmented intellectual history is consolidated into some popular Thing — a truly monstrous amalgamation of the few scraps of thought that some have managed to pick up on, producing something that maybe looks like a sick dog or human or an alien from certain angles if you don’t know what you’re looking at, but to everyone who has actually kept abreast of these things, they just see a mutated mess.

Case in point: in his article, Batycka half-truthfully says that accelerationism was born out of the Ccru at the University of Warwick in the 1990s — so far so good — which “began looking at how global varieties of technology and capitalism should be sped up and intensified, if only to ensure their (and our) demise. According to Land, in order to move past the disastrous effects of capitalist accumulation, we must instead accelerate past it towards its own eventual destruction.”

It’s worth noting that this “According to Land,…” sentence comes with a footnote, but the footnote isn’t actually quoting anything Nick Land has written — just Andy Beckett’s write-up on accelerationism for the Guardian. This article has a lot to answer for and is deceptively authoritative because, whilst Beckett has obviously interviewed a bunch of people who were there and brought accelerationism to the light for the mainstream — specifically Robin Mackay — the understanding of accelerationism that Beckett attributes to them is a misreading that this “fringe philosophy” has been trying to shed almost since its conception.

Because accelerationism isn’t about making things worse, and because Land — or anyone else for that matter — has fundamentally never argued for this. To quote Pete Wolfendale again: Nick Land “likes capitalism. He wants to accelerate it, but not because it will collapse under the weight of its own contradictions.”

However, what Land arguably does believe will collapse under the weight of its own contradictions, at least in a political effective sense, is “the Cathedral” — a concept borrowed from Mencius Moldbug to describe what Land calls “the truly dominant instance of the democratic polity”; an otherwise broadly leftist (or generically “progressivist”) hegemony populated by people who are, “despite their avowed secularism and faux egalitarianism, in effect a theocratic priestly class” (as Moldbug once wrote). (There’s an argument to be made that Mark Fisher called this same tactless cabal the Vampire Castle.)

Whether anyone likes the term or whoever coined it is largely irrelevant at this point. The Cathedral is a term that carries a certain valence by describing the conditions of contemporary politics far more astutely than anyone on the left has thus far been capable of, precisely because it views popular leftism from outside itself.

Whilst Land has his own further nuanced definitions of what exactly the Cathedral is, to my mind the Cathedral remains a useful term because it skewers a kind of political religiosity that broadly affects the popular left in particular, beyond the infamous ties that bind the Church with the far-right in the mind of your average leftist. More specifically, it points to a brand of progressivism that adheres to a downright Protestant logic of always being without political sin based on nothing more than the fact you have an unshakeable faith in the leftist cause. (This is why there is much anxiety that comes from critiquing the left from within — to betray a lack of faith is to betray the left most fundamentally.)

It should go without saying — you’d hope — that using this term does not, by default, place one on the right. Personally, I recognise my politics as being far to the left but that doesn’t mean I’m not repulsed by the pop-left’s “universal priesthood of believers” that is constituted by a highly recognisable cross-section of the media commentariat. It is, in essence, a continuation of the “Christ to the bourgeoisie” argument of the twentieth century. Just as Fukuyama’s “end of history” reveals itself to be wishful thinking, not to mention premature, the left’s self-assurance that we live in a world after the “death of God” finds itself disturbed by an acknowledgement of the absorption of religiosity into secular politics.

If anything — and Mark Fisher acknowledged this repeatedly and explicitly — this is why Nick Land needs to be read. Reading someone does not constitute agreeing with them, but reading Land (beyond his tweets, at least) does confront you with some of the most incisive critiques of leftism that are in present circulation.

It is interesting to note here that Land’s suggested praxis when facing down the Cathedral is: “Do nothing.” Such is his horrorist approach. “Rather than resisting the desperation of the progressive ideal by terrorizing its enemies, [the horrorist task] directs itself to the culmination of progressive despair in the abandonment of reality compensation.” My reading of this is that Land believes the left will die by its own melancholy; by its own impotent and internal logics. It’s melancholic state is its true form — the rest of the time it is exercising a kind of “reality compensation”. That is an argument that has certainly been vindicated — to an extent at least — considering the last five years of leftist political failures, and has been an internal critique of the left since Walter Benjamin if not before, but Land goes further than this. Once the world is revealed to be as truly unforgiving as it is, and elusive to human control, he seems to argue, the left will drink the Kool-aid and end its own despair by giving up the ghost of Marx once and for all.

Horrorism, then, is the rightist anti-praxis of “accelerationism” proper, understood as an analysis of this very sensation and the noumenal mechanisms that show just how out of our control things are. (Might we say that this is where Z/Acc comes in?)

The leftist anti-praxis, as I see it, doubles down on the Deleuzianism of accelerationism and advocates an ethics of “making oneself worthy of the process.” Both viewpoints makes value-judgements and recommend responses, but neither does that ahead of an attentive vigilance regarding the shape-shifting and accelerative nature of the system itself.

It is only by becoming attuned to this system and how it impacts us that we can even begin to answer the question “What is to be done?” Therefore, the argument from the left is that we must respond better, and less reactively. So far, the left is abjectly failing to do this and the fallacies and poor research that pepper Batycka’s text — along with just about every other popular reading of accelerationism — demonstrate this fact abysmally, as their paranoia remains focused on shadow-boxing and straw man arguments that they don’t even realise they’re making.

All of this is important because Batycka’s critique essentially doubles down on the worst aspects of Cathedralism in this regard. It reminds me of my Mum’s old aesthetic squeamishness regarding the music I liked from childhood. Playing anything that was not recognisably melodic or classically “musical” often resulted in a request to turn it off because she didn’t like anything “satanic” being played in the house. (This from a woman who was in no sense a practising Christian or adherent to any other kind of religious belief.)

(Notably, I remember a particularly mind-boggling instance of this resulting from me playing DJ Shadow’s remix of “The Gloaming” by Radiohead a bit too loud. Is this music “taboo” by Batycka’s logics of aesthetic darkness? Or is critiquing George W. Bush through dance music too complex a notion to compute?)

The words “taboo” and also “contrarian” take on much the same tone here in Batycka’s article. They are words used to lump together aesthetics that do not adhere to the doctrines of the-right-kind-of-leftism and more explicitly “alt-right artworks”.

Even then, how these aesthetics are to be defined is not made clear. It is seemingly a dismissal of any of the more specific offshoots of postmodernism — as the cultural logic of late capitalism — but the issue is that there is no separation made between aesthetic practices and investigations of form, and political beliefs and practices of resistance.

Plenty of the “post-Internet art” referenced here, for instance — including that which appeared at the notorious LD50 Gallery show — is just superficial and bad. Do we need to lump that in with any art that attempts to investigate or reflect on the present aesthetic chaos in which we live? Is the argument here really that we have a moral imperative only to imagine nice, simplistic worlds rather than reflect the chaos of the world in which we live, just in case someone thinks we might be glorifying our contemporary dystopia? That’s certainly how it comes across. Beyond the positive affirmations, all you’re left with is an ahistorical and apolitical view of art that is all finger-pointing spectacle and no substance.

What is even worse is that this article is far more guilty of entrenching the homogenisation it tries to stand against. Towards the end, Batycka writes:

we must continue to develop proportionally well-honed critiques of the alt-right, taboo and contrarian aesthetics that use satire and irony to cycle through dangerous ideas. In such politically uncertain and chaotic times, the sense of impatience many people feel today can make neoreactionary ideas like accelerationism seem romantic.

But what does any of this mean? References to neoreactionary politics — a broad church that, rudimentarily summarised, explores the contradictory pulsion of using technological innovations to entrench conservatism (techno-capitalists for monarchy), i.e. capitalism being used to produce the mechanisms the nation-state (rather than vice versa) — completely lose all meaning when deployed in a veritable word salad that even the Ccru would send back to the kitchen. This isn’t a “proportionally well-honed critique”, unless what is “proportional” about it is the fact it is as dumb as the tracts produced by the alt-right themselves.

This is why I personally find myself tearing my hair out over articles that bodge their reading of accelerationism. They are merely perpetuating the “impatience” they say they reject, because nothing epitomises that impatience more in the media than the replication and homogenisation of useless critiques and inaccurate summaries.

This is the lesson that no one wants to hear. It is your own perpetuation of “accelerationism is making thing worse” that has inspired these mass shooters, far more than anything written by Nick Land. To those of us who are familiar with Land’s work, we know that these monsters haven’t read him. We know that you haven’t either. What is abundantly clear, however, is that these monsters have read you. They are defining themselves through their enemy’s shoddy Cliff Notes rather than any engagement with those you deem to be the enemy. It is articles like this that short-circuit the discourse, imposing an incestuous logic of creating that which it says it already opposes. As such, it is the likes of Batycka who don’t realise that they have blood on their hands.

The line repeated again and again here on this blog and elsewhere is that the accelerationist shooters and 4chan edgelords are precisely the subjects that accelerationism first sets out to critique: those subjects who respond to the accelerating nature of their environments by doubling down on populist rhetoric and racism. These are the life rafts too readily available to too many in a failing world, who jump at the conspiracy theories rather than actually engaging their critical faculties.

Accelerationism, in this part of the world, is — and I genuinely believe this — a salve to that. So many times I have been referred back to imageboard threads where my explanatory post, “A U/Acc Primer”, has been shared by anons to coax the edgelords down from their hysteria and maybe get them to engage critically with their surroundings and interrogate their alienated place within the world, all through a mix of canonical philosophy and contemporary thought. To some, that is a crime against humanity in itself, but I think it’s better than what we’re used to.

This is why the left’s present purity politics is so asinine. Whatever you want to call it — identity politics, cancel culture, etc. — the overarching issue here — not always but often — is that reactive denouncements and Twitter blockings are often fuelled by a mistaken sense of who is right and who is wrong. Is the Nick Land follower worse than the Blairite charity worker? Either every argument against complicity is important or none of them are.

The fear-mongering of art world paranoia is a further demonstration of this. LD50 wasn’t scary because it demonstrated how some people in our midst have bad politics. Most people who run art galleries have bad politics. Most people who run art galleries have money and people with money tend to have bad politics. The egregiousness of Lucia Diego’s Trump apologism was just an easy target — an example of the postmodernist edgelording that the Ccru and its successors effectively dramatised and critiqued. Having an awareness of the way these people want to attract your ire and attention is certainly worthy while but a moralising scattershot approach gets you nowhere.

Nor does focusing all of your attention on a generalised boogieman you don’t understand. In the case of accelerationism at least, this does nothing but demonstrate the impotency of art world criticism at large and Batycka’s article perfectly demonstrates the flaws of its logic. It is, in effect, a deployment of an institutionalised thinking undermined by laziness and false consciousness, that is part of a system far more corrupt in how it is organised than in the ideas it dares to interrogate or explore.

This isn’t a case of whataboutery but rather demonstrates how poor internal critiques are mirrored by poor external critiques. The fact is that both the interrogations and explorations of such ideas and the articles that denounce them are as superficial as each other. This negative feedback loop does nothing to remedy the situation. In fact, it is the situation, and not all of us who want nothing to do with it are de facto fascists, particularly when we do so much work to skewer these bastard logics in pursuit of a properly anti-capitalist communism.

Anti-capitalism isn’t just a hatred of wage labour. It’s a protest against the logics that inhabit and undermine the political actions that must be enacted within its spaces. If accelerationism, in its original philosophical mode, is a gateway to anything, it is to an apprehension of just how deep these logics go and the speed with which they adapt to the frenzied stasis of our present world order.

This apprehension is necessary because it demonstrates how nothing will ever collapse under the weight of its own contradictions — neither capitalism nor its parasitic growth that we call “the art world”.

Same Virus, New Zombies: Towards a New Hauntology

Following yesterday’s brief summary of some of the papers given at the Capitalist Realism: 10 Years On conference, one of the more persistent discussions surrounding Mark’s writings was on hauntology — and it was a discussion that irked me more and more as the weekend went on.

As is unsurprising these days, numerous people had problems with Mark’s arguments regarding our cultural stagnation. This ended up featuring quite heavily in my keynote and I’m planning to condense and redevelop this argument for elsewhere so I won’t rehash it here but, essentially, it drives me mad how common poor readings of this part of Mark’s thought are, particularly regarding the assumption that Mark just thought everything new was shit.

Of course he didn’t. He could see the future coming but what frustrated him, I think, was how unevenly distributed it was, with the experimental and the mainstream no longer sharing the same spaces as they once did.

Mark hated the Arctic Monkeys, for instance.

He saw their repetitive cultural pastiche as nothing more than a by-the-numbers product of pop cultural nostalgia, hauntographically ordering and describing late-twentieth century cultural signifiers on album after album. (Something which has not abated one bit over the last fifteen years.)

What Mark loved, however, was the hauntology of the Caretaker’s new modernism.

One should not be equated with the other. It’s like arguments surrounding accelerationism all over again. People are far too quick to flatten the distinction between acceleration itself and the subject affected by acceleration. What accelerationism does is observe the former and critique the latter.

Similarly, critics of hauntology flatten the distinction between repetition itself and the subject affected by repetition. Again, hauntology observes the former and critiques the latter.

This is to say that the Arctic Monkeys replicate uncritically a homogenising cultural mode at the end of history, seemingly without irony. They are repetition incarnate. The Caretaker, on the other hand, explicitly interrogates the impact of this very tendency on the contemporary subject, producing new sonic worlds in the process. Therefore, hauntology proper should be seen less as a description of the repetitive semiology of capitalist modernity and more as a study of postmodern capitalism’s innately repetitive nature and its effect on us as subjects.

Interestingly, however, the main critics of Mark’s hauntological thinking in this regard were a group of Huddersfield PhD candidates who would later perform together as a free improvisation group. There is so much experimentation going on today, they would argue, implicitly referencing activity on a campus known for its radical music department, and they couldn’t understand why Mark would ignore these other practices and potentials. (I’d argue he didn’t but, again, the distinctions within his work are flattened.)

The excitement and freedom they felt running through their musical practices made them openly annoyed at Mark, as if his critiques did nothing but shut down these potentials by demoralising his students. This was far from his intention, of course, but this was nonetheless how they felt reading Capitalist Realism for the first time ten years on.

Although I was vocal in my disagreement, I was also newly aware of my own over-familiarity with Mark. I could no longer imagine reading him for the first time without the baggage I carry around, so it was very interesting to hear the first thoughts of a PhD cohort otherwise unfamiliar with his life and trajectory. For example, most surprisingly, Capitalist Realism was interpreted as an indictment of political disengaged students, at least when compared with “their forebears in the 1960s and 1970s”.

I don’t interpret this as Mark being critical of individuals, however. He loved his students. They weren’t in his crosshairs. It was the system that encourage their disengagement that he took issue with. Mark made clear elsewhere — although I can’t remember where right now but it was in some interview — that Capitalist Realism was his attempt to change this and engage directly with and excite his A Level students. After all, he writes, through personal experience:

In Britain, Further Education colleges used to be places which students, often from working class backgrounds, were drawn to if they wanted an alternative to more formal state educational institutions. Ever since Further Education colleges were removed from local authority control in the early 1990s, they have become subject both to ‘market’ pressures and to government-imposed targets.

Here Mark is referring to the slow decline of the polytechnic — institutions known (and derided) for catering to vocational interests that fuelled radical experimentation. (Leeds University, for instance, is particularly famous for being a post-punk hot bed.) However, in 2009, at least in my experience, these reports of political disengagement ring true. The most politically active kid at my college was a smarmy cunt who became well-known as one of the youngest ever local Labour councillors but fell out of the public eye as soon as the anti-Blairite wave rose through the ranks. (He was a particularly slimy example.)

The politicisation of British students post-Millennium didn’t seem to happen until immediately after Capitalist Realism was published, which is partly why I think it had the surprise success that it did. It emerged at a time when Mark’s intended audience was suddenly very keen to listen.

The London riots and the protests around student fees in 2010 and 2011, for example, lit a literal fire under a whole generation who are, today, actively shaping cultural discourse. In 2009, however, that just did not exist. Owen Jones’ Chavs didn’t come out until 2011 — the book that single-handedly shone a light on the class consciousness of a generation who had not realised the ferocity of their own (often internalised) classism — but, as someone speaking to the future, he also appeared very lonely within the nation’s consciousness of radically left-wing political commentators at that time. Again, he was a breath of fresh air and this, too, is largely why his book started doing so well.

What is more sad, however, is that it is likely that Mark was going to continue to surf the edge of popular discourse but, since his death, his works have been criticised for posthumously falling behind. Further criticisms popped up infrequently, for instance, regarding Capitalst Realism‘s anglocentrism and its lack of diverse references. Pedro Alvarez — whose paper of Latin American protest music was great — derided Mark’s lack of engagement with the rise of neoliberalism in Latin America. It was sad to hear this criticism laid at his feet as Mark was intending to teach this topic specifically before his death. (One week of his “Post-Capitalist Desire” seminar at Goldsmiths, to take place in 2017, was to consider the “cybernetic socialism” of Chile’s Allende government, long before the West finally began paying attention during the riots of 2019.) Similarly, he derided the way that Mark’s references to Spinoza felt “second hand”, although Mark wrote repeatedly of his time at Warwick where he “spent over a year poring over The Ethics in a reading group.”

Others had issues with Capitalist Realism‘s political incorrectness — Mark’s impersonalisation of dyslexia under capitalism being seen as some affront to contemporary discourses around neurodiversity, for instance — but, no matter the concern, each complaint felt like a criticism made out of time and out of context and revealed, to me at least, the lasting impact of the very formalisation of state educational institutions that Mark was talking about in his first published book. As such, it felt like middle-class hand-wringing in response to a book that did not live up to an academic rigour that Mark ignored explicitly because he saw it as an acute barrier to student consciousness raising.

It should go without saying that criticisms of Mark’s work are, of course, welcomed and allowed, and I’ve heard some great critiques in recent years that have made me wonder what he might have said in response to them. Reading Mark’s writings, even posthumously, is to quickly learn that he was — as Dom put it last month — “a touchy sod.” I said something similar in my paper on Sunday in response to suggestions on the first day that Mark is a frustrating thinker. He absolutely is — and I wouldn’t have him any other way, personally. He’s a writer who remains wholly human in my mind, as a result. As much as we must resist “an emerging hagiography of Saint Mark”, we should also resist attempts to posthumously problematise him, at least if the reason for doing so is to subject him to the ever-increasing pressures of the dull academic landscape he stood in firm opposition to.

It is in this sense that I struggled with the perception of his books as excitingly accessible but academically flawed documents, embarrassing today for their lack of foresight about the academic trends of 2020, and yet repeatedly it felt like his conference critics had not given his work the attention they wished he had paid to their own particular bugbears. Mark’s claims of cultural stagnation are easily quashed, someone said, if you get online and have “a little curiosity” to push you into new zones. The same could be said of approaches to Mark’s own works. The books are easily accessible and digestible — as was the intention — but the meat was often found on his blog, purposefully disconnected from academia’s self-referential circuits of citation.

I don’t say these things to shit on anyone’s research after the fact — I, too, am merely a touchy sod — but one presentation in particular has stuck in my craw and has made me think a lot, over the days since, about what precisely Mark’s work was trying to critique and how those who disagreed with this at the Capitalist Realism conference were also, I’d argue, those most guilty of enacting it.

On the second day, Henry McPherson presented an interesting paper on the relationship between practices of mindfulness and improvisation. Reflecting on his own practice as an improviser, Henry considered how the corporate spirituality of McMindfulness is evidently well meaning but limited and captured. However, he argued that radical potentials are nonetheless still present within some of the less popular “presence practices”.

(After the conference, I was welcomed home to London by a galley of Matthew Ingram’s forthcoming book Retreat: How The Counterculture Invented Wellness which, interestingly, seems to draw a firm line between these two trends rather than attempt hold them in contradistinction with one another.)

However, I unfortunately found it a difficult paper to make head or tail of. Whilst the argument was incredibly clear, thoroughly referenced and carefully articulated, it felt like it was so polished that the medium immediately began to drastically undermine the message. A gesture of interrupting his own introduction by dragging a violin against the wall of the lecture hall was left subsumed by citations and reduced to precisely that — a gesture. All I could think throughout was: “What is it to present such a straight-jacketed academic paper about something as liberating as free improvisation?” It felt like mindfulness’s capture by a corporate spiritualism — a practice advertised as a paltry moment of internal freedom within the drudgery of the work day — was mirrored by a demonstration of improvisation’s capture by an academic affectlessness and propriety, providing a momentary creative outlet that nonetheless had to be justified by the REF-scoring expectations of the institution at large.

No offence to Henry, of course, who was a great contributor to proceedings throughout the weekend. As with Mark, the fault does not lie with him but rather the sort of institution that can disengage itself from the modes of critique it produces. (I had every intention of asking him about the relationship between his research and his practice but, unfortunately, we ran out of time.)

I also want to affirm that the free improvisation performance that followed the conference — intentionally and hilariously inserting a sort of bureaucratic anti-production into its set-up, where audience members were encourage to offer “performance reviews” mid-performance — was a welcome addition to the schedule, in much the same way that we have always emphasised the schism of a club night to follow the Mark Fisher Memorial Lectures, offering up the dance as an equally powerful way of articulating Mark’s beliefs and ideas beyond the propriety of the lecture theatre.

This is because Mark, too, was an “improvisor”. What is blogging, at its best, if not a rejection of academia’s “business ontology”; a kind of public writing performance through which success and failure are both potentials, equally embraced? Where writing is done for its own sake rather than to bolster your rating on or, again, to boost your REF score?

These free improvisors may have found Mark’s academic and musical references dated and oddly basic for someone supposedly on the cusp of cultural thinking, but what they tragically missed from Mark’s thinking was the way in which it offers those seeking new ways of living and thinking a practical tool kit through which to think differently. It doesn’t give you free improvisation on the one hand and academic propriety on the other. It is free action all the way down. It is getting our of your head through your head; getting out of the world through the world.

We might note here that, in mourning the separation of the mainstream and the experimental, Mark’s hauntological critiques apply as much to the stagnation of the avant-garde as they do to the stagnation of pop culture.

I’m reminded here of that Jerry Saltz article that left the art world shook back in 2014: “Zombies on the Walls: Why Does So Much New Abstraction Look the Same?” The title more or less says it all. Is the same not true of an avant-garde musical tradition? Saltz writes:

Galleries everywhere are awash in these brand-name reductivist canvases, all more or less handsome, harmless, supposedly metacritical, and just “new” or “dangerous”-looking enough not to violate anyone’s sense of what “new” or “dangerous” really is, all of it impersonal, mimicking a set of preapproved influences… It feels “cerebral” and looks hip… Replete with self-conscious comments on art, recycling, sustainability, appropriation, processes of abstraction, or nature, all this painting employs a similar vocabulary… This is supposed to tell us, “See, I know I’m a painting — and I’m not glitzy like something from Takashi Murakami and Jeff Koons.” Much of this product is just painters playing scales, doing finger exercises, without the wit or the rapport that makes music. Instead, it’s visual Muzak, blending in.

Saltz mention of music here stings a bit. Similarly, gestures of free improvisation do not go far enough in an academic institution, less so when draped superficially in the latest moral-academic trends. In fact, it was particularly telling that the other musics mentioned during the conference that had far more political resonance were Latin American protest songs or even something like Squarepusher’s “MIDI sans Frontières”. (The latter was mentioned alongside Aphex Twin’s face-mapping in an excellent presentation by Adrien Ordonneau who discused the relationship between embodied protest and so-called “IDM” which has surely shaked off its “armchair listening” reputation by now!). These protest songs are, effectively, pop songs. But more than that, they were musics that draw in the world outside only to push it — critically — back out again.

This is something emphasised again and again and again by someone like David Toop, who notably gave the keynote at the CeReNem “Ambient @ 40” conference last year (available to read here):

Toop, as an improvisor, appreciates the outsideness of sound, understood culturally and phenomenologically. His paper presented at Huddersfield asks a number of pertinent questions about music’s capture within capitalist infrastructures that resonate here, in ways that the Huddersfield students seemed reluctant to accept and engage with. He writes, for instance:

Last year Pitchfork magazine asked me to write an introductory essay for an ambient top one-hundred they were about to unleash. I declined and when I saw the hundred choices felt glad I had. A lot of it was genre ambient, industry ambient if you like, very little to do with the softening expansions of boundaries I was proposing in Ocean of Sound in 1995 and nothing to do with the field of possibilities that existed when I recorded for Brian Eno’s Obscure label in 1975. […] So the question now is what ambient means at this point in time. Is it ossified, cut off from change, eternally fixed as journalists’ shorthand for any droning, slow, dreamy, drifting, barely changing, consonant electronic music? Does it supply a perennial refuge for temporarily forgetting the precarity, hysteria and threat of current conditions or can it be a vehicle for engaging with those same conditions?

Regarding the last question in particular, following the Capitalist Realism conference, I am more readily inclined to agree with the former. The free improvisors engaged in a self-aware performance, for sure, in which capitalist work ethics were referents in the performance’s structure but the playing itself was hard to interpret as anything other than “a perennial refuge”. It was less critical and more panto. Their improvisation was less an attack on expectations and more of a welcome break for the academic brain.

Later still, Toop’s comments on ambient skewer the context improvisation was placed in here. Replace “ambient” with “improvisation” and the effect is the same:

So ambient was instrumentalised — it was conceived as a functional asset to well-being, an optimisation or facilitation of a thoughtful, tranquil approach to life — and given the fractious, stressful nature of most airports, any calming instrument is welcome. The music’s potential for this role is unsurprising. Ambient formed its own specialised branch, off-shooting sometimes in a reactive way, sometimes more benevolently, from a family tree that included yoga, relaxation and meditation tapes, Muzak, easy listening, background and library music and records of bird song aimed at ornithologists, the ultimate use-value lineage.

Of course, Toop knows that this is highly resonant. He adds: “The same criticism, if it is a criticism, of instrumentalisation and self-optimisation could be levelled at other genres, maybe all genres of music.”

Any highlighting of these tensions within the Capitalist Realism conference is not intended to be any comment on the skills of the performers at the conference, who were really excellent — they demonstrated collectivised attentiveness that is necessary for any good instance of free improvisation — but simply playing the space of the institution did nothing to assuage their complicity in its politically restrictive flows.

This is the lesson for cultural practitioners still to be found within Mark’s writings. Your radical practices, particularly when practiced within the bounds of the academic institution, wilt far quicker than you might think they do. But this isn’t meant to be a bleak demoralisation — a further penchant for which was also repeatedly laid at Mark’s feet. (Shout out to Nic Clear for affirming, in the final panel discussion, that Mark often made him laugh — really laugh.) This is precisely why popular modernism was so interesting for Mark, particularly when seen from within the field of academia. It takes far less effort for pop to weird itself. (A point made poignantly by John Harries, Rose Dagul & Joe Newman over Skype, in a presentation that was, very intriguing, improvisational in nature, with the structure of the paper given over to a dice throw, with a member of the trio reading a passage depending on the number assigned to it.) A contemporary post-classical avant-garde has a lot more work to do, and that work just doesn’t look like a sound use of Chicago style referencing.

This is part of hauntology’s observations about the treacle through which contemporary culture must pull itself. It is a danger that continues to stalk all cultural production even today. When Simon Reynolds described a contemporary conceptronica — with admiration we might note, but no one likes being neologismed — powerfully channelling the same sorts of cultural protest that defined post-punk, he did so as if to raise a certain awareness around experimental music’s next phase of capture that hangs like the sword of Damocles precisely in this REF-supporting mode:

The agit-prop sector within conceptual electronica is woke music, in all senses. “Using cacophony and unusual sonics, I reject the passive experience of listening, and try to use sounds that are active to wake the listener up and to bring them into the moment,” [Chino] Amobi has said. This rhetoric recalls the post-punk band This Heat, whose song “Sleep” agitated against consumerism and entertainment as mass sedation. In conceptronica and post-punk alike, there’s a similar interest in demystification and seeing through the blizzard of lies: When Lee Gamble uses the late theorist Mark Fisher’s term “semioblitz” — the desire-triggering, anxiety-inciting bombardment of today’s infoculture — I’m reminded of Gang of Four’s 1979 song “Natural’s Not In It” and its line about advertising as “coercion of the senses.”

But you can also sense some of the same problems that afflicted post-punk four decades ago, especially in its later years, when it reached an impasse. With conceptronica, there can be a feeling, at times, of being lectured. There’s the perennial doubt about the efficacy of preaching to the converted. That in turn points to a disquieting discrepancy between the anti-elitist left politics and the material realities of conceptronica as both a cultural economy and a demographic — the fact that it is so entwined with and dependent on higher education and arts institutions.

Is it possible that Mark was guilty of this himself? It may have had a part in encouraging it but he always retained one foot outside, in his immediate environment. That should not be the basis for critique if all we are going to do is do the academy’s work for it.

We’ve seen the problems with this on this blog already very recently with Slash, the Last Women of History. I didn’t think I’d see the same thing again so soon. But then, why not? It’s endemic and requires a vigilance from all of us — but especially those of us attending conferences about radicality we wish to see in the world. If you’re going to hurl critiques from such a platform, aim them firmly at the glass house that surrounds you. Anything less than this doomed to impotence.

“No Identities, Only Desires”: Thoughts from CTM Festival

… either we are obsessed primarily by what desire, by what burning passion suggests to us; or we can with reason hope for a better future.

Georges Bataille, The Tears of Eros

My thirty-six hours in Berlin for CTM Festival were a beautiful blur.

On February 1st, after arriving back in the UK, I slept for 14 hours, from midnight to mid-afternoon. That, in a way, says it all. Swept up by a week of nervous adrenaline, a half-day shutdown was necessary, more for mind than for body.

After waking up at 5.45am on the morning of January 30th, following a week of restlessness, and heading to the airport, I felt like I was constantly moving and thinking until all of a sudden I was in Berghain for the first time and it felt like I might be about to see 5am roll around again — a thought that made me feel a bit sick, if I’m honest.

(I haven’t voluntarily been up that long in years, and the last time I partied like that abroad, the day before a flight, I was sixteen, having spent a week in Rome, and I found myself hungover and dropped off at the wrong airport. My parents ended up having to phone up an obscure Italian relative, there was a case of mistaken identity involving Edward Norton, and I ended up costing my parents a load of money that they didn’t have. That memory haunts me even now, over a decade later. I am now a very anxious traveler.)

As a result, I ducked out of the party at Berghain early, wanting to get home (to the hotel and to the UK) with all my faculties in tact and my funds in order. (I did almost get dropped off at the wrong airport again. If the taxi driver hadn’t checked who I was flying with I would have been up shit creek again.) This meant I missed Sherelle’s set at Panorama Bar, which I think I’m going to regret for a very long time…

…but my overall experience of CTM was wonderful regardless.

Before I tell you all about it and pour out all my thoughts and feels, scribbled frantically into a notebook at Berlin’s Schönefeld airport on the afternoon of January 31st, I want to share my gratitude to Terence Sharpe for inviting me in the first place; to CTM Festival for being so incredibly well organised, considering the scope of their operation; to Dhanveer Singh Brar for hanging out and asking the most pertinent questions on his panel, and for being a Berghain buddy (I don’t think anyone was more excited about AYA playing DJ Hype’s Remarc remix than he was); and I particularly want to thank Lisa Blanning and Steven Warwick for being such excellent fellow panelists and for being so welcoming to this unknown blog entity entering an unfamiliar offline world for what felt like the first time. Much of what is to follow below would not have been experienced were it not for Lisa in particular, letting me tag along on her evening adventure. It was the best snapshot of the city that someone so new to it could have asked for.

At the risk of being overly earnest, to speak on a panel at a music festival like CTM — and in another country to boot — felt like a really big deal for me. To do so had been on my bucket list for the next few years ahead and so it was a very nice shock to be able to tick it off in January already. However, I had never done anything like it before and so my suffuse anxiety surrounding this whole thing — although entirely self-perpetuating and irrational — was exhausting. I don’t think I slept properly for the whole week in the lead up to it and still did not relax until I was back in my own bed. Thankfully, Terence selected the perfect people to be involved in his two panel discussions, all of whom mitigated this feeling effortlessly. Not that they would have known they were doing this but I’m grateful all the same. They made it an absolute pleasure to be there.

The question that dominated CTM Festival for me was as follows:

To what extent can we resist the capture of ourselves and our cultural artifacts in our contemporary late-capitalist moment?

This was a question that permeated both of the panels organised and moderated by Terence Sharpe that day. Whereas the second talk, with Dane Sutherland and Dhanveer Singh Brar, asked this question explicitly, the first panel — with myself, Steven Warwick and Lisa Blanning — instead began with questions of egress and escape, starting with the assumption that we are already captured and looking for suggestions regarding how best to remedy that situation. In particular, we were looking for remedies ready to be excavated from the work of the late Mark Fisher.

(Both panels were filmed and should be up online in a couple of months so I don’t want to rehash their contents here in too much detail.)

Framed in this way, it is possible to think of the panels as being presented somewhat back to front, but in many ways this order helped to exacerbate the entangled nature of the conversations themselves. To ask questions of our seemingly perpetual capture and egress is to ask questions of chickens and eggs. As a result, how we resist and how we escape are questions to be asked simultaneously, particularly for those who produce art objects and sustain cultures in the present moment.

To unpack this preliminary question a little, we need to define what exactly we are at risk of being captured by. The short answer is “capital”, most abstractly and succinctly. Less succinctly, we might say we are captured by the confluence of affects and circumstances that constitute the economic cycle of the general formula of capital, as described by Karl Marx — a cycle, we should note, that is constantly mutating.

(Marx’ famous formula of M-C-M’, used to describe the positive feedback loop that exists between money and commodities, and which structures our economic systems, echoes this chicken-egg situation well.)

But again, what does any of that mean? How is any of that useful to us, culturally speaking? How is that useful to anyone not thinking about the world and their place within it in explicit economic terms?

When we say our cultural artifacts are captured by capital, the basic implication is perhaps that our desire, our drive to create — an activity which we might think we engage in for reasons that justify themselves — is reduced to what this activity can do for the market or otherwise for financial gain.

“Making things” is perhaps too vague a phrase to have much resonance here but this is essentially what we mean. The act of “making things” has been captured by capitalism’s cycles of production and commodification. (This is how Dhanveer and Dane defined the general activity behind the production of our cultural artifacts in their panel discussion.) Thought of in this way, it is undoubtedly obvious to all that the act of “making things” has been captured, in the broadest sense, by the systemic preferences of a capitalist system. Therefore, it requires an exit.

Dane noted that Suhail Malik’s work is important here and I’d recommend checking it out too if you want to sink your teeth deeper into these questions of capture and escape in a contemporary art context. Suffice it to say that the means of cultural production are far more slippery than capitalists would like us to think they are. As Suhail notes, “contemporary art as a field of activity … includes artworks but also common places, idiolects, received ideas, judgments, justifications, social and administrative quasi-structures, power operations, and so on.” The means of art’s production are incredibly diverse — far more diverse than the art market would like us to acknowledge. As such, it is important for us to affirm that cultural production — referring, as Suhail emphasises, as much to the immaterial production of culture as it does to the most visible means of its material production — is something that both predates capitalism and will also seemingly exceed it.

However, there are plenty examples of the prevailing system attempting to implicitly convince us otherwise. For example, we might note that, in an inspired instance of retconning, the Wikipedia article for capital argues that “in a fundamental sense a stone or an arrow is capital for a hunter-gatherer who can use it as a hunting instrument”. Here we see a seemingly innocuous attempt to apply the logic of capitalist realism to the furthest reaches of human civilization, as if to suggest uncontacted tribes or even our prehistoric ancestors are still embryologically capitalist. (There’s a good argument to be had here but it’s one for another time.)

However, this contestable Wikipedia example proves a point about capitalism’s intentions: Anything produced in order to fulfill some sort of desire becomes proto-capital ready for capture. The question then becomes: Does the seizure of the means of production — whatever they are and whatever they are for — eclipse the very drive we have to make and use things in the first place?

Georges Bataille, in his final 1961 work The Tears of Eros, asked this question explicitly, attempting to locate the cultural trajectory of erotic desire within visual art, from cave paintings to the artistic transgressions of the seventeenth to twentieth centuries (from the Marquis de Sade to Francis Bacon).

Erotic desire — eroticism — cannot simply be understood as a sexual drive. For Bataille, it is rather a term for desire’s gratifying essence, whatever form that desire takes. It is also the generic prism through which Bataille investigates this very question of capture — the sense in which human sexual desire persistently ruptures its utilitarian form as sexual reproductive activity. Humanity’s obsession with sexual intercourse is, then, he writes, “a psychological quest independent of the natural goal.” Extrapolated outwards from its sexual context, “culture” emerges as another name for this psychological quest, which Bataille makes distinct from “nature”. (NB: Bataille writes at length on the role of eroticism in instigating our transition from “nature to culture” in this regard in his 1957 work Eroticism.)

The horror of philosophy in the twentieth century, for Bataille, is a new understanding of the way in which these erotic (cultural) excesses are continuously funneled into dead ends by the prevailing system that limits our understandings of nature, with the truest egresses from capitalist capture existing at extremes that most people today would dare not venture near, whether they be snuff films or religious ecstasy. He also notes, tellingly, that whilst the most transgressive cultural extravagances have previously been associated with those who have access to the highest echelons of society — no less true today in an era culturally defined by the Jimmy Saville’s, Bing Crosby’s, Harvey Weinstein’s, and Jeffery Epstein’s of the world — referred to by Bataille in Eroticism via de Sade’s trope of the sovereign man — is, in The Tears of Eros, a tendency transposed onto the working man instead.

For Bataille, the key to our escape from capitalist capture comes from the system’s propensity, in the twentieth century, to convert all individuals into working individuals. Even the aristocrat today must work to survive. Landed gentry give themselves over to the tourist trade and operate museums dedicated to their own ancestries. With all other avenues increasingly closed off, it is through work alone that productive transgression today lies.

The trangressions of industrial music emerge here as particularly telling examples — works that affirm the subjective mutations of capitalism, creating beings who slip entropically through the mesh of capitalist alienation. Throbbing Gristle, for instance, chanting for discipline over regulated beats, still shocks today as we watch Genesis P-Orridge dissolve into their own militant mantra, expressing a virulence through a workaday eroticism taken to its limits.

(Cosey Fanni Tutti’s radical approach to sex work as a means to a wholly new transgressive and nomadic end is perhaps an even more powerful example, although — and perhaps because of the fact that — it is not so visibly witnessed online.)

Elsewhere, we can note how the TG track “What A Day” has much the same impact on a wider culture. The deranged repetition of a thoughtless adage, typically uttered with a sigh as someone sinks into a sofa at the end of a dull day, becomes overwrought with a sexually disordered energy. It is like the “All work and no play” of The Shining‘s Jack Torrence — workaday monotony as a vector for insanity and psychic egress.

By contrast, those who own the means of production become impotent relics of a time gone by, fated to redundancy by their inbred capture in outdated socioeconomic norms. As Bataille writes in The Tears of Eros, echoing this sentiment:

It was the slave, in any case, and not the warrior, who by means of work changed the world; and it is the slave, in the end, who is changed in his essence by work. Work changed him to the extent that he became the only authentic creator of the wealth of civilisation; in particular, intelligence and knowledge are the fruits of the labor to which the slave was constrained, working in the first place in response to the master. It is in this way, we should point out, that work engendered man. Those who do not work, who are dominated by the shame of work — the rich aristocrat of the ancien régime or those with private means today — are mere relics.

With this in mind, it is unsurprising that we find ourselves perpetually confronted by a plethora of dystopian fictions that encourage the worker, the slave, the robota, to fear themselves and their own desires. Throbbing Gristle turned this tendency on its head, reflecting the world’s desires back through a cracked mirror, but, more often than not, expressions of our shared alienation are nonetheless oppressed by those we seek to rattle. This tendency is confirmed by Bataille in his prescient observation that “the transgression does not deny the taboo but transcends it and completes it.

Enter the innate templexity of accelerationism, all too often reduced to the argument that we must affirm capitalism in order to transcend and complete it, missing the real point — which was Bataille’s point also in Eroticism — that what should be affirmed is our desire’s persistent capacity to mutate the self that produces it; what must be affirmed are the escape routes that capitalism inadvertently creates, through its processes of libidinal engineering, but must always later obstruct; what must be attuned to is the very process of subjective mutation rather than any mindless outburst that results from the process itself. (Again, for old time’s sake, the point here is that white supremacist “Accelerationsts” are precisely the subjects accelerationism originally sought to critique, who violently reject the self’s and society’s transformations rather than attempting to radically go with the flow. Their rage at their impotence is the point of entry, not exit.)

In this sense, the end of the world being easier to imagine than the end of capitalism, as Mark Fisher put it, is both symptomatic of our present stuckness but also provides us with a cartography of the ultimate transgression under capitalism — the taboo of capitalism itself; of systemic wage-labour; of capitalism’s own unreason: the dark side of capitalist coercion and manipulation. The last taboo, injected directly into ear drums by Throbbing Gristle, is the completion of capitalist resentment into the cultural equivalent of going postal on the aesthetic forms capitalism prefers. Capitalism turns the universe itself into a commodity. We must instead affirm the universe’s formlessness.

We might think also — to offer up an example mentioned by Steven Warwick on our post-dinner walk through Berlin’s streets — of the music of Whitehouse, transcending and completing the taboo of Mary Whitehouse herself. What is more censorious than noise music? A mess of aural pixelation packaged in provocative names and associations? You know what is missing. There is little left to the imagination but the blockage is apparent nonetheless. As such, the mind is forced to give form to the formless.

Bataille skewers this conservative logic impeccably, foreshadowing what Mark Fisher would later refer to as “capitalist realism”, arguing that what must be affirmed is a surcapitalist irrealism, nonetheless produced by capitalism itself — the dark matter left over by the captured means of production. As he writes in one of Eroticism‘s most riling calls-to-arms,

Nowadays everyone has to take responsibility for his actions and obey the law of reason in everything. Leftovers from the past do persist but only the anti-social underworld preserves a quantity of energy that does not go into work.


If we follow the dictates of reason we try to acquire all kinds of goods, we work in order to increase the sum of our possessions or of our knowledge, we use all means to get richer and to possess more. Our status in the social order is based on this sort of behavior. But when the fever of sex seizes us we behave in the opposite way. We recklessly draw on our strength and sometimes in the violence of passion we squander considerable resources to no real purpose. Pleasure is so close to ruinous waste that we refer to the moment of climax as a “little death”. Consequently anything that suggests erotic excess always implies disorder. Nakedness wrecks the decency conferred by our clothes. But once we have ventured along the path of sensuous disorder it takes a good deal to satisfy us. Destruction and betrayal will sometimes go hand in hand with the rising tide of genetic excess. Besides nudity there is the strangeness of half-clothed bodies; what garments there are serve to emphasize the disorder of the body and show it to be all the more naked, all the more disordered. Brutality and murder are further steps in the same direction. Similarly prostitution, coarse language and everything to do with eroticism and infamy play their part in turning the world of sensual pleasure into one of ruin and degradation. Our only real pleasure is to squander our resources to no purpose, just as if a wound were bleeding away inside us; we always want to be sure of the uselessness or the ruinousness of our extravagance. We want to feel as remote from the world where thrift is the rule as we can. As remote as we can: — that is hardly strong enough; we want a world turned upside down and inside out. The truth of eroticism is treason.

Bataille’s affirmation of nakedness here, with its sense of a broad societal body horror, chimes with a fear of interiority that was also discussed briefly on our panel.

In an email exchange before our discussion took place, I’d mentioned to Steven that I had been in attendance for his presentation at the ICA in late 2016, during which he explored his collaborative project with Nora Khan, Fear Indexing the X-Files — an exploration of some of The X Files’ early terrors that are, in hindsight, incredibly telling of the sort of fears gripping America in the 1990s and 2000s.

The episode, “Gender Bender”, for example, from season one — its title gives away its concerns somewhat — follows a murderous shape-shifting entity capable of changing gender at will to aid in their desire to do crimes.

There is an obvious interpretation here — The X Files is transphobic — but also, if we might tentatively be more generous to what is, at best, a tone-deaf exploration of the issue, we might argue that this is simply a reflection of The X Files‘ central conceit — it is less a show about aliens and more a show about alienation.

The alienation central to the show is the fear of the interiority, both of the self and of the (Big) Other. I am not what I seem. People are not what they seem. Government is not what it seems. As uncomfortable as the plot of “Gender Bender” is to us today, it nonetheless demonstrates a show attempting to tackle questions questions of otherness and America’s intensifying fear of interiority, whether its own or that of others. (There are episodes, just as uncomfortable today, that tackle just about every taboo subject going. This article from Vulture lists the worst ones, critically but also unproductively, presumably so you can easily cancel your Gen X relative’s problematic fav.)

This conspiratorial mindset suits the American imagination like a duck to water, but it also echoes Bataille’s comments about De Sade and the sovereign man. For example, in Eroticism he writes:

Moral isolation means that all the brakes are off; it shows what spending can really mean. The man who admits the value of other people necessarily imposes limits upon himself. Respect for others hinders him and prevents him from measuring the fullest extent of the only aspiration he has that does not bow to his desire to increase his moral and material resources. Blindness due to respect for others happens every day; in the ordinary way we make do with rapid incursions into the world of sexual truths and then openly give them the lie the rest of the time. Solidarity with everybody else prevents a man from having the sovereign attitude. The respect of man for man leads to a cycle of servitude that allows only for minor moments of disorder and finally ends the respect that their attitude is based on since we are denying the sovereign moment to man in general.

(The X Files is a show that struggles to couple together the moral isolation of its central characters. I could rant for hours about how Mulder and Scully’s little archipelago of belief — and have written done so once before.)

Here, a number of paradoxes emerge. Today, the default response is surely to reject Bataille’s call to sovereignty, echoing, to our ears, a capitalistic individualism, but moral servitude and collectivity are not mutually exclusive mindsets.

It turns out that Berlin — and Berghain in particular — is the perfect place to explore these tensions today…

I’ve long been fascinated by Berlin, Berghain and the city’s relationship to the cultural artifacts and spaces it produces. (My first attempt at a music press pitch was a flawed and somewhat naive investigation of the music industry’s relationship to photography, in which I discussed Berghain’s notorious relationship to the medium explicitly.)

Berghain is a very particular kind of institution that attempts to protect its sovereignty through a Bataillean hostility to all perceived outsiders — who, in practice, could be just about anyone. There are critiques of this sort of approach to be made, one of which makes an appearance in my book Egress via a reading of Julia Bell’s essay “Really Techno” and Foucault’s ethics of queer becoming against identitarian reification — quoted below.

In her essay, Bell quotes Jack Halberstam who quotes Foucault and, following this trail of references I find “Friendship as a Way of Life”, an interview with Foucault in which he

critiques dominant forms of queer collectivity which harden and become militantly — even reactively — defensive as they try to keep the ever-rising tide of capitalist forces at bay. Whilst such a stance is perfectly understandable, all things considered, to close off passageways to the Outside is nonetheless always to consolidate oneself into a type, paradoxically making a community easier prey for capitalism’s blobjective tenacity and cultural appropriation of otherwise incompatible ways of life. As Foucault explains, the goals “is not to discover in oneself the truth of one’s sex but, rather, to use one’s sexuality henceforth to arrive at a multiplicity of relationships.”

Here we might argue that Berghain, in its utter hostility to just about everyone, is holding onto an outdated mode of transgressive relation — sadism in precisely the sense that Bataille describes it above, where moral servitude to the other is eschewed in favour of the radical sovereignty of the individual — and yet it also produces another kind of relation, one through which solidarity emerges counter-intuitively, through a sense of a shared alienation.

These are the Bataillean ethics of community that I’ve written on and around for a few years now. Jean-Luc Nancy critiqued such an ethics as being “inoperative” or “unworkable” but Blanchot shot back that the community is instead “unavowable”. A community without work that is at work nonetheless. (All of this is in Egress so excuse my brevity.)

This is, arguably, Foucault’s point also, and he affirms that the popularity of sadomasochism in gay scenes around the world has helped alleviate the problems of what would otherwise emerge from a lack of power relations. The assumption made by many is that the minoritarian politics of a maligned social group lends itself to a hegemony of relation, where everyone is perceived to be of the same social class, and such an equality of dispossession may lend itself to the proliferation of anarchic relations that are liberating but impotent in that they lack any sort of leverage over those that are oppressing them.

Here we can extend some of Foucault’s observations to the contrary. He writes, for instance, that “the important question here, it seems to me, is not whether a culture without restraints is possible or even desirable but whether the system of constraints in which a society functions leaves individuals the liberty to transform the system.” Here the importance of S&M and, we might argue, Berghain’s notorious mean-spiritedness emerges. Foucault continues:

S&M is not a relationship between he (or she) who suffers and he (or she) who inflicts suffering, but between the master and the one whom he exercises mastery. What interests the practitioners of S&M is that the relationship is at the same time regulated and open. It resembles a chess game in the sense one can win and the other lose. The master can lose in the S&M game if he finds he is unable to respond to the needs and trials of his victim. Conversely, the servant can lose if he fails to meet or can’t stand meeting the challenge thrown at him by the master. This mixture of rules and openness has the effect of intensifying sexual relations by introducing a perpetual novelty, a perpetual tension and a perpetual uncertainty, which the simple consummation of the act lacks.

When I entered Berghain, I found myself on the receiving end of a bouncer’s ire almost immediately. A woman on the door had little patience for me not immediately clarifying that I don’t speak German when asked to turn out my pockets. “You need to tell me if you don’t understand me if we’re to have any hope of communicating,” she said, fiercely impatient, making me feel meek. However, she then proceeded to communicate through hand gestures, slapping her hand down on a table to signal that she wanted to search my bag — something I did not cotton onto until she barked “your bag!” at me a second or two later. Communication was hardly something she cared about, regardless of her initial protest.

As she rummaged through my stuff, chucking my copy of Lady Chatterley’s Lover to one side and placing a sticker over my phone’s camera lens, as is their custom, I felt like I was watching this Foucauldian power relation in action.

I’m reading Lady Chatterley’s Lover at the moment as I’m intending to teach a class on it later this month and so I have been carrying it with me everywhere. I find I am only able to take it out of my bag at opportune moments, however, with its cover being quite provocative and its reputation preceding it, but I am thoroughly enjoying it. It is, in a way, like my own portal Berghain. The sex, for which it is infamous, feels largely unimportant — an embodied expression of the sociopolitical musings that surround it. This is to say that the book — like the club — is, in essence, a story about — the club: an embodiment of — the potential of erotic desire — sexual desire, most explicitly, but also an eroticism in Bataille’s more general sense — to radically transform sociopolitical relations.

Seeing the book get thrown around inside my tote bag, I, at first, felt my travel anxiety bubbling up inside of me. I do have an unfortunate tendency to become tongue-tied and mute when faced with a language barrier. Writing is one thing. In most other situations, I find speaking and conversing a challenge — and that’s in my mother tongue! When not channeling my energy into a piece of writing, I feel wholly entrapped within my own body, bashing against the edges of a self that struggles to settle into social expectations of how it should be used. Suffice it to say, I am a bumbling Englishman through and through. I was left, as D.H. Lawrence might put it: “frayed”.

Frayed! It was as if the very material you were made of was cheap stuff, and was fraying out of nothing.

As the bouncer patted down my person, I was tense, awaiting another blow to my ego, some comment passed about turning up to the club with a tote bag full of junk. (I had arrived in Berlin and spent three minutes in my hotel room before setting off on a thirty minute walk to the Drei Schwestern restaurant in Kunstquartier Bethanian to meet my fellow panelists. I had packed with the rest of the day in mind rather than packing light for my hot and sweaty Berghain excursion.) However, once the encounter with the bouncer was over, feeling a little battered by her short shrift, I trailed behind Lisa into the venue and found instead that I felt quite good about it. I had withstood her fury and made it inside. Being told off felt pretty good… She wasn’t just a bouncer high on her own power. It felt like there was a game involved. On a regular night, I reckon I would have been too meek to make it inside — and I did feel a bit self-conscious once reports made their way to us that they had closed the side entrance we had used to skip the queue and flash our festival “PARTICIPANT” passes, soon after we passed through it — but it felt like I had weathered this relation despite my individual misgivings.

During our panel, we had discussed this sort of relation implicitly. Terence, at one point, quoted Mark’s controversial essay “Exiting the Vampire Castle” in which he writes that “it is imperative to reject identitarianism, and to recognise that there are no identities, only desires, interests and identifications.” This quotation resonated with me throughout the rest of the day and night.

Identitarianism, understood from the right, is a catch-all term for nationalism, white supremacy and other types of identity-fortification. From the left, however, it is seen as the darker side of “identity politics”, through which an attempt to fortify minoritarian struggles leads to minority communities becoming far too susceptible to an unconscious appeal to the authority of the Big Other — typically the state and its standards of relation.

This is a slippery argument. To take the example of “trans rights”, the desire is to emphasise the point that “trans rights are human rights” — humanising trans people in the face of what is often dehumanising discrimination. However, on the flip side, having trans experiences recognised by law and by the state also requires a compartmentalising of what these experiences can involve. Whilst trans rights are necessary to fight for, we must be vigilant that the defense of trans desires and interests do not become a Trojan horse for foreclosing these very desires and interests, adapting them so that they appear more palatable to the state.

An alternative example of this is perhaps “lean in” feminism. The fight to establish gender equality in business has simply led to an entrenchment of an explicitly capitalist view of feminist politics, in which privileged white women may find themselves having greater access to boardrooms but class and race divisions are, more broadly, left in tact and even further entrenched. This is perhaps the most explicit example of an identitarian politics being furthered in one sector whilst the broader desires and interests that fuel this position are left untouched by critique. What is left in tact, then, are institutionalized desires and interests, emboldened by supposedly progressive identity politics.

Foucault spoke about a similar challenge to relations in “Friendship as a Way of Life” but also found reason to retain hope that our desires will still perforate this kind of institutionalized relation. At one point he says:

… you can see how, in the military for example, love between men can develop and assert itself in circumstances where only dead habits and rules were supposed to prevail. And it is possible that changes in established routines will occur on a much broader scale as gays learn to express their feelings for one another in more various ways and develop new lifestyles not resembling those which have been institutionalized.

Berghain, despite its reputation for a very singular and unforgiving way of operating, retains this sense of hope also — but its position as an institution in its own right must also be kept in mind.

Although my experience with the bouncer was exactly what I might have expected from my first time in this space, once I had made my way inside this hallowed hollow, my experience shifted and became defined by the absence of any displays of its typical forms of interrelation.

Stood by the bar, with the sounds of Nene H and Ensemble Basiani emanating through the doorway from the main stage, Dhanveer was the first to inform me of just how different the space was compared to the last time he had been here. Berghain was devoid that night, he said, of the “smell of life” — the smell of bodies; of sweat and cum. He also mentioned a noticeable lack of cock-grabbing when trying to make your way through the crowd from bar to bathroom.

This absence — whilst commented upon to accentuate our distance, in that moment, from an “authentic” Berghain experience — whatever that is — was powerful nonetheless for the alternative relations it allowed to flourish.

These alternatives were epitomised by the first performance of the evening from Lyra Pramuk, who described her music as the result of her previous attempts to make her own techno — techno inspired by the sort of music she was used to hearing on her trips to Berghain. However, at some point, in the midst of her own soundscapes, she decided to strip all of the techno out. The result sounds something like a Gregorian whale song. Her voice, layered to create incredibly dynamic and thalassic soundscapes, is reduced to its most primal function. No lyrics, no drums, all affect.

I said to Lisa — who also happens to be Lyra’s booking agent — shortly after her performance, how these otherworldly vocalisations reminded me of the affectations Arthur Russell added to his vocals in between lines of lyrics, as if, even though there was no lyrical content to be expressed at that specific moment in the composition, the vocal cords kept moving; as if his vocal cords were bowed in much the same way as his cello — continuously, with interjections inserted to coax a sense of rhythm from the formless.

With this in mind, to say Lyra does to techno what Russell did to disco is a very tempting but nonetheless ill-fitting comparison. Each performance style is so utterly singular. Nevertheless, in that space, in Berghain, with its cavernous height and mysterious holes and pipes jutting out around and above the audience, I couldn’t help but feel like I was listening to World of Echo in an echo chamber. Identity, reverberating and ricocheting of the walls of the self, melts into pure desire. The bodies around us may have lacked the erotic throng to be expected from a Berghain dancefloor, but desire was still present, presented in a wholly new way for a new kind of audience.

The importance of performing her music in this space seemed in no way diminished for Lyra despite this change in circumstances. CTM simply became a prism for new refractions.

After some time spent chatting with new friends at the bar downstairs, we made our way up to Panorama Bar at midnight to see AYA.

I’m not sure what else I can say about AYA and the power she exudes from the booth. Since playing one of our for k-punk nights, I have seen her perform in the Barbican and now Berghain. On each occasion I have been repeatedly struck by her style of MCing. In every instance I’ve heard it, it cuts through the bullshit of a particular space. Her Northern twang has always evoked, for me at least, a paradox of self-deprecating vulnerability and bloodymindedness, channeling a Manchester drag night whilst at the same time encapsulating the sort of colloquial brass neck heard down the working men’s club.

Dhanveer, however, leaning into my ear, placed her in the context of a Chicago house MC. I found this really interesting. I was suddenly aware of my own understanding of an AYA performance coming from my own background and, as is the case with all her performances, the plethora of associations on offer shift depending on the venue and the audience within. Here, again, it seems there is no AYA identity, only AYA’s desires. What felt like a skewering of British class dynamics and high cultural expectations in the main hall of the Barbican felt instead like a challenge to Berlin’s sociocultural hard-nosed seriousness. Had the performance changed? Not really, but everything around it had, and that exacerbated AYA’s singularity. As such, the context of Berlin and Berghain triggered a particular constellation of thoughts and reflections.

Steven, talking about his favourite club night over dinner earlier in the evening, at Berlin’s Cocktail D’Amour, suggested that playing disco in Berlin in 2020 was a far more political gesture at the present moment than puritanical techno. This declaration was orbited by conversations with and comments by others, reflecting on instances where people have witnessed DJs being told, “You don’t play x type of music here” in Berghain. (Theo Parrish and Kode9 were two names mentioned who had been accosted in the booth in this way and responded by doubling down on their perceived transgressions.) There was no possibility of such a thing happening at CTM, however. AYA’s set of jungle classics and leftfield club edits — a thumping ode to Basement Jaxx’s “Where’s Your Head At” frankly had me cackling — seemed like a huge hit with all of those present.

But this reception also begs the question: Why? And at what cost?

This is the strange paradox of a place like Berlin. I don’t pose these questions as some omniscient outsider, looking for an excuse to shove in critiques where they aren’t wanted or even necessary. Rather, it seems to me that these are the questions that some of the city’s venues — Berghain most infamously — constantly ask of themselves.

This was struck in stark relief by an industry showcase Lisa and I caught the tail end of before we made our way to Berghain that evening.

After dinner, we walked to some sort of haute couture shop, down the road from — I was told — Tresor, that seemed to only sell sunglasses but which had been transformed into a makeshift venue for a Nyege Nyege Tapes showcase. When we arrived, we were greeted by a percussive set — in terms of both sound palette and DJing style — from DJ Diaki.

It was an electric set of jagged polyrhythmic percussiveness. I briefly met Errorsmith — who I was too shy to tell I admired a great deal — and his presence helped me to connect a bunch of dots, suddenly making this intercontinental scene make sense to me in this strange space. I was reminded of what I wrote about rkss’ DJ Tools back in 2018. Here was a sharp demonstration of pushing a familiar sonic palette out beyond its limits. This is not a demonstration of “less is more” but of doing more with less.

But still, the venue jarred. Lisa drew our attention to the disparity first — artists from a scene of relative poverty performing within a shrine to decadence. This disparity, once recognised, was hard to ignore. Furthermore, the displays that surrounded the shelves, constructed from welded-together spectacle frames, provided an uncomfortable visual association with the detritus of human lives still on display at Auschwitz, further compounding this sense of an apocalyptic decadence shot through by a carnivalesque mania from the Outside.

These two displays existed side by side with an odd productivity, however. The juxtaposition was not one happened upon threw insensitivity but felt like a surrealist amalgamation of scene detritus. It was a terminal beach for Berlin hedonism, brought to bear on itself.

This productivity was retained on our walk to Berghain, through industrial estates, as Lisa offered up a fly-by guided tour of the area. “Tresor is over there… Berghain over here…”, she said, as we passed bars and flats and home improvement warehouses. These places were not hidden, as they often seem to be in London, tucked away out of sight and out of earshot. They dominated, exploding through their surroundings with a confidence that is hard to ignore in this city. Berlin’s underground erupts.

To have so much cultural activity occurring in such close proximity made London’s nightlife feel all the more oppressed in that moment. (And I say all of this as someone who feels largely out of touch with the ins and outs of a community that I only slip into occasionally — so what do I know.)

Perhaps this is just a case of different rates of development. Whereas Britain’s modernist moment occurred between the First and Second World Wars, with every successive collective outburst of creative renewal seemingly responding to a new sense of lost futures. We won the war, we love to remind ourselves, but every creative challenge to the status quo that has emerged since has been interpreted as an attempt to undermine a post-war identitarian sovereignty. (Except Britpop, obviously.)

As a result, Britain’s persistent cultural melancholy is underlined by what Dhanveer referred to as “a post-colonial melancholy” — something that Mark had a blindspot for, he argued convincingly. By contrast, Germany’s cultural shifts poignantly occurred after the wars. It is of little surprise, with the benefit of hindsight, that so many saw Berlin as a new hotspot for popular modernism during the Cold War.

With nothing left to hold onto after that momentous global event, the country’s cultural teething processes have been defined by successive egresses from a state-imposed sense of self. Post-war, post-wall, it is a city defined by a continuum of desires, persisting in the face of geopolitical wranglings. The result is a scene that feels strange and untimely. But it is nonetheless as under threat from a globalised capitalism as anywhere else. The strange poignancy of CTM Festival is that it is a festival on a precipice, potentially being both a blessing and a curse — a vector for experimental and commodification in equal measure.

All of this might be the naive observations of a small-island mentality, commenting on what is obvious to everyone but me. And yet, if there is something I am left wanting to affirm as I get back into my English routine, is that there must be new ways of making these desires — that are undoubtedly shared — transgress borders.

It was hard to ignore the fact that I flew home on Brexit day, coming back to the news of celebrations in Parliament Square, whilst roaming through airport security surrounded by cautious travelers wearing face masks, hoping to avoid the coronavirus. There are plenty of things in this world that do not care for borders — viral infections and desires are only two of them. Both are dangerous but both can also be liberating — explored through one of the world’s most famous gay scenes, it is hard not to think of both going hand in hand. In this context, capital is the virus, piggybacking on desires. We must develop ways to avoid one devastating the free movement of the other.

Chant Down Babylon: Notes from the 3rd Annual Mark Fisher Memorial Lecture

Everyone who played at for k-punk 2020 was incredible. The energy was so high and the sound so good and the crowd so up for it. I don’t think there is any combination of words that can do it all justice.

Mark Leckey alone, as the first act of the night, played everything from Meredith Monk-esque vocalisations through to Throbbing Gristle and a gabba explosion. It felt like such an eclectic hour but it also like a microcosm of the sonics to come, shifting from Tetine’s mutant tropical funk-punk through to Jennifer Walton’s hyperplastic edit fest.

“Write about this!” was Natasha’s challenge towards the end of the night, as if to say “I bet you can’t”, and she was right.

But then, have I ever? A run down of the Mark Fisher Memorial Lecture is a given and it is inevitably the lecture alone that gives context to the amorphous love-in that is to follow. This year’s presenter, Simon Reynolds, was no exception. Simon sparked off so many thoughts that were both discussed and danced through in the Goldsmiths SU shortly afterwards.

The theme of the lecture was pop’s ability to instigate political change but, as Simon himself conceded, that’s hardly a question to which anyone can give a quantifiable answer. However, that’s not to say there aren’t dozens of very explicit examples of pop music instigating a political consciousness raising.

In the unfinished introduction to Acid Communism, of course, Mark revisited the pop of the 1960s and ‘70s and the explicit political messages contained within many of the hits of the day; the usurping of capitalist realism that lay in the verses and choruses of tracks from the era that still reverberate down the years.

Simon discussed Sly and the Family Stone at length in this regard, as perhaps the most tumultuous and infamous example of Black protestant funk finding itself under the weight of militant politics and mind-altering drugs. He adeptly plotted their trajectory from “Sesame Street to revolution” — from the music-by-numbers breakdown of “Dance to the Music” to the “broken and dispirited” sociopolitical rock-and-a-hard-place of There’s a Riot Going On…

(No conceivable shade cast upon Sly and the Family Stone but if you like your “Sesame Street to revolution” funk bands without the browbeaten dejection and hard drug abuse, then might I point you towards one of my favourites: the intriguingly named Stark Reality.)

Rather than simply echoing Mark’s reference points, Simon demonstrated his passion for YouTube archaeology by sharing his own selection of clips and videos. It was surprisingly thrilling, like watching a blissblog post unfold live before your eyes.

Whereas Mark loved the Temptations’ “Psychedelic Shack”, Simon drew attention to the Easybeats’ “Friday On My Mind”. I liked his analysis of the song’s penultimate verse a lot, noting how the lyrics might contain a powerful anti-capitalist sentiment but, at the same time, there’s a deferral of revolution to another day, perfectly encapsulating the strange tension Mark was fascinated by in the counterculture in his final years:

Do the five day grind once more
I know of nothin’ else that bugs me
More than workin’ for the rich man
Hey! I’ll change that scene one day
Today I might be mad, tomorrow I’ll be glad
‘Cause I’ll have Friday on my mind

Whereas Mark talked about The Beatles’ “I’m Only Sleeping”, Simon focused on John Lennon’s “Nutopian International Anthem”. He also drew attention to an interview Lennon gave in Red Mole magazine — a surprisingly erudite and impressive conversation that counters Lennon’s reputation today.

(My impression has always been that Lennon was just a blundering artist without any real critical faculties, too alienated by his unimaginable stardom to create the timeless tracks that populate Paul’s solo outings, for example. It’s quite nice to be proved wrong and find a man deeply concerned with the class politics of his own position and an engagement with the here and now.)

Whereas Mark wrote about the Jam’s strangely modernist social realism, Simon spoke of the paradoxical fun of the Sex Pistols’ cover of the Stooges’ “No Fun”. A libidinal delibidinisation.

I really liked what Simon had to say about punk’s embrace of a wholly nihilistic place in society, knowingly embodying the corrupt adage of “children are the problem” rather than the ’60s whimsical “children are the future”. (Kudos where due to Greta Thunberg for simultaneously channeling both positions and upsetting all the boomers.)

The paradox at the heart of the Jam was also particularly interesting to me. (It came up again over dinner last night.) Speaking of the Jam and the likes of, say, Joy Division, Simon made the distinction between post-punk and new wave as being a distinction between modernism and realism. Whereas Ian Curtis was heralded as defining the sound of Manchester in that moment of late-70s / early 80s transition, the music itself was also hugely dystopian and otherworldly — it was the sound of another Manchester, a future Manchester but also a present Manchester, lurking in the depths of the post-industrial unconscious. It was a sonic modernism as new and radical as its previous aesthetic instantiations in literature, painting and architecture. By contrast, Simon explained, “Paul Weller sought to escape his situation by describing it.” The new wave bands like him took the kitchen-sink social realism of a previous era and made it pop — “describing things too humdrum to enter pop previously”, as Simon put it. Mark’s great intervention in this blogosphere debate was to encourage a cross pollination of the two.

(Later I mourned how this surely blatant and powerful precursor to the political and cultural tensions explored around Speculative Realism blogosphere could today be reduced to Graham Harman wondering about whether his dog is a Great Old One or about the politically impotent ontologising of material science.)

Moving swiftly up the decades, Simon went on to speak about jungle and the calls to arms sampled from reggae and its various sub-genres, repurposed for a new generation and giving rise to so many resonant attempts to chant down Babylon. (Soundbite of the night for me: “‘Babylon’ is a far more powerful word than ‘neoliberalism’.”)

But then we came to grime and the problem of modern day hip-hop.

A notion that came out of the Q&A I found quite haunting was the suggestion that hip hop, as the most important and innovative popular music genre of the last few decades, by constantly bringing the new to the ears of the masses, is also, at least in its lyrical content, an integral vehicle for upholding the illusionary status of capitalist realism.

(Mark’s intervention was to write surprisingly glowing endorsements of Drake in Ghosts of my Life, drawing attention to “the secret sadness of the 21st century” that undermines the aspirational politics of capitalism’s emphasis on individual — rather than collective — advancement.)

Grime doesn’t do this to the same extent. Or does it? Grime, in the first instance, for Simon, seemed to be wholly devoid of any political consciousness. As grime has found its feet, this has changed noticeably. It is a genre that echoes many of the tensions of inner city black experience in the UK but still, beyond the political endorsements and lyrics of someone as outspoken as Stormzy, can we still say that grime is a political genre?

It’s a trick question. The answer is “of course” but that doesn’t meant you can quantify it. Grime, like hiphop, is innately political simply given its nature “as a social force” and as an “aesthetic vanguard” — that was Simon’s argument — and this was the sentiment carried over into for k-punk 2020 for me on Friday night.

Is what we’ve done political? Not really; not on the whole; not explicitly in terms of its overall content… But as a social force, I think so, absolutely.

We’ve been doing this for three years now and so there is a sense of tradition setting in, but in the most beautiful way.

I realised that there are a number of friendships I now cherish dearly that were born on these nights. People I adore and who now feel like a major part of my social life were met in or around the Mark Fisher Memorial Lectures in 2018 and 2019. Others I only ever seem to see at for k-punk nights. They are part of its fabric simply as repeat attendees who choose to come up and say hello.

At the first for k-punk night, for instance, I met some of Cave Twitter in person for the first time. The second year I met Lucy and over the year since we’ve been for drinks and to gigs and I joined her and her partner-in-crime Sean to record an episode of their Wyrd Signal podcast. This year we had members of Gruppo Di Nun staying with us, and it felt extra special to have the memorial lecture feel like a truly international event. (They were not the only ones, I later heard, to fly over to the UK for the occasion.)

Each year has not only been an opportunity to engage with people on the dancefloor but it has also been an opportunity to invite people who have otherwise emerged as fellow travellers to join us in our remembrance. Whether someone knew Mark or not is somewhat irrelevant. If they understand the importance of what they and others around them do as a social force, then they’re in. This year’s lineup was, I think, the perfect testament to that sentiment. (Not bad for another year organised with no actual knowledge of the content of the lecture.)

A huge thank you to everyone who came and danced with us and who came to the lecture. An enormous thank you to Mark Leckey, Bruno Verner, Eliete Mejorado, Chooc Ly Tan, Robin Buckley and Jennifer Walton for playing for us and making it such an incredible night. Thank you to everyone who made the effort to travel and who came to the fundraiser last year and who bought my book in the lobby afterwards and everyone who said hello.

The other thing to be said about Friday night is the strange wealth of emotions floating around. As each year goes by, and as we travel further and further from the initial event of Mark’s death, the more bizarre the emotional landscape becomes. I found myself overwhelmed by sadness and joy in equal measure on the dance floor that night. Not all at once but the pendulum swing was sharp and rapid; the root obvious but also indeterminate.

I missed Mark. I was also just exhausted. I am grateful to everyone — performers and attendees — for so skilfully blasting away all fatigue and melancholy and creating a night that was so seamless and enchanting I went home feeling lighter than air.

A Body Without Options (Part 1)

Last week I binge-watched the new Netflix series, Cheer, about a life in the Navarro College cheer squad.

Following certain members of the team as they prepare for the Daytona national championships, each episode explores their struggles and hardships and the support and discipline that cheerleading provides them…

Yeah, it’s pretty by-the-numbers…

But it’s captivating watching them throw themselves — quite literally — into cheerleading, navigating the sport alongside their various neuroses, suffering frequent injuries but always getting back up again.

Here, cheerleading is presented as a sport of extremes and one that seems to be getting more extreme every year. More flips, more jumps, more complicated maneuvers, pushing against the capabilities of what a young body can do and heightening the trust required in your fellow team mates to create an immovable bond. And it is a young person’s sport. They talk repeatedly about how there is no competitive cheerleading above the college level. Once you’ve graduated, you’ve aged out.

It’s your one and only chance. It’s all or nothing, until you’re ~25, and then you’re out, and you watch, as a viewer, how the bodies of alumni are so different from those still actively competing. They’re all a lot stockier — just as strong, perhaps, but less nimble — and they are also a lot more settled. The visible weight of their bodies seems to reflect their social status as grounded and well-rounded individuals, in stark contrast to the flying teens required to throw themselves like strands of thread through the eye of a needle. The mat is a microcosm of their young lives in almost every sense.

As a result, college cheerleading becomes this extremophile militant finishing school, where you push yourself to your limits and (hopefully) win big before you take your sense of discipline and your relentless work ethic and your communal consciousness into the State and the Family and then live out the rest of your days.

I struggled with this side of things a bit and couldn’t help but start philosophizing.

Most recently I’ve been thinking a lot about philosophical explorations of embodiment and bodily relation, attempting to work my way through Deleuze’s book on Spinoza, Expressionism in Philosophy, in which he explores Spinoza’s (and also Leibniz’s) Anticartesianism in which “expression” becomes an category of existence that better encapsulates the entangled nature of human experience than cogito ergo sum.

“Being, knowing and acting are the three forms of expression”, Deleuze writes, and he traces the emergence of this thought in Spinoza’s God, nature. Being, knowing and acting are drawn out from a consciousness of God’s acting upon the world and so the act of creation and the very essence of our metaphysical emanation within the world unfolds us across the world in which we see God.

God, nature then becomes, for Spinoza, a positive feedback loop between ourselves and our consciousness of the world outside ourselves. Deleuze articulates the radicality of this position with far more clarity. He writes that expression

at once gives back to Nature its own specific depth and renders man capable of penetrating into this depth. It makes man commensurate with God, and puts him in possession of a new logic: makes him a spiritual automaton equal to a combinatorial world. Born of the traditions of emanation and creation it makes of these two enemies, questioning the transcendence of a One above Being along with the transcendence of a Being above his Creation.

This is Deleuze’s concept of univocity. What we can say of God and nature is always also applicable to humans or things. The body without organs is a univocal way of thinking things in their parallelism. A mind is a body is a world. The world is a body is a mind. However, whilst Deleuze notes how Leibniz and Spinoza both express this sentiment, he sides with Spinoza’s particular interpretation because, as he sees it, Leibniz introduces a finality to this process. Univocity, for him, as with Spinoza, is “an absolute rule” and so to predict its end and restrict it to a set of known categories is to predict an end to expression as such, as if it is possible that we will eventually say and do all things, as if the world and the human body and everything in between will not continuously reevaluate their limits as our understanding and our technics continue to develop. It is a positive feedback loop all the way down. As Deleuze describes it:

Expression in Nature is never a final symbolization, but always, and everywhere, a causal explication.

It is here that the enforced cut-off of cheerleading becomes a poignant problematic. In applying a sense of finitude to its own process, it restricts the embodied imagination of these athletes in an oddly ideological way, creating a false ceiling where they believe they have pushed beyond to the very limits of what a body can do in their present moment and this somehow makes the compromise of a settled life more important. This is your one path to the limit-experience of cheerleading and, from such heights, there is a single path back down again. To deviate from it is to sin. To stray from it is to let down your team. You retreat when we tell you too. Then, and only then, you must take all you have learned at the limits of embodied experience and apply it to a life lived within its means. Those means may seem infinitely extensive and far reaching on the mat with our fellow team mates but it cannot last forever and so, if you are to pass this extension on to your offspring, it is necessary that you learn how to step back and step down into the social traditions that have made this experience possible.

Cheerleading becomes a sacred experience, almost religious in its habitude. Sundays are for limit-experiences. Every other day you humble yourself against the glory of the superego. It becomes, at once, a control value and an accelerant for radical embodiment. The control value, however, always has the final say.

Maybe that’s fine. Maybe that’s a legitimate ethical position to take as an expressive being-in-the-world. Deleuze and Spinoza, however, would disagree. Such a thought process makes ethical the soul’s limiting of the body in the name of a higher cause, precisely what Spinoza was rebelling against. As Deleuze writes, explaining Spinoza’s Anticartesian “parallelism”, Spinoza’s thought “overturns the moral principle by which” the actions of the body are the passions of the mind. He continues, first quoting Spinoza directly:

“The order of actions and passions of our body is, by nature, at one with the order of actions and passions of the mind.” What is a passion in the mind is also a passion in the body, what is an action in the mind is also an action in the body. Parallelism thus excludes any eminence of the soul, any spiritual and moral finality, any transcendence of a God who might base one series on the other. And parallelism is in this respect practically opposed not only to the doctrine of real action, but to the theories of preestablished harmony and occasionalism also. We ask “Of what is a body capable? Of what affections, passive as well as active? How far does its power extend?” Thereby, and thereby only, can we know of what a soul is in itself capable, what is its power. Thereby we find a means of “comparing” the power of the soul with that of the body, and so find a means of assessing the power of the soul considered in itself.

To encourage this embodied exploration to such extremes in childhood only to curtail it at its peak starts to resemble a violence. Deleuze continues on this point:

Reason, strength and freedom are in Spinoza inseparable from a development, a formative process, a culture. Nobody is born free, nobody is born reasonable. And nobody can undergo for us the slow learning of what agrees with our nature, the slow effort of discovering our joys. Childhood, says Spinoza, is a state of impotence and slavery, a state of foolishness in which we depend in the highest degree on external causes, and in which we necessarily have more of sadness than of joy; we are never more cut off from our power of action. The first man, Adam, corresponds to the childhood of humanity. This is why Spinoza so forcefully opposes the Christian, and then rationalist, traditions which present Adam to us as reasonable, free and perfect before his fall. Rather should we imagine Adam as a child: sad, weak, enslaved, ignorant, left to chance encounters. “It must be admitted that it was not in the first man’s power to make a right use of reason, but that, like us, he was subject to passions.” That is to say: It is not sin that explains weakness, but our initial weakness that explains the myth of sin.

It is with this in mind that I found the most interesting member of the Navarro cheer team to be a young girl who had auditioned for Navarro college and got in based on her “potential”. She’d had a troubled upbringing and came from a working class background. She had an assault charge against her name and repeatedly throughout the series her past comes back to haunt her. Her prior passions always, at all times, threaten her position within the team whilst, at the same time, she resents the external obstacles that have made this such an achievement for her against the relative ease of the other cheerleaders, and these external causes never quite go away. First, she’s a victim of revenge porn. Then, at the end, she’s busted during a car stop for having — it is suggested — weed in her car.

Despite having a hugely successful year at Navarro, and even entering the history books, so they say, for being able to perform a certain combination of skills that no one else ever has, she’s booted off the team for the possession charge and returns home.

They downplay her post-Navarro experience but I couldn’t imagine the torture of it. At first, early on in the series, she’s openly hostile. She has imposter syndrome, all too aware of that fact that everyone has a chip on their shoulder due to some sort of hardship but, for the most part, all she sees is rich kids regardless. She overcomes that perception and ingratiates herself into the team but she never escapes the trailer park kid inside. “Don’t you want family; kids?” the coach asks at one point, and she says yes, and the whole experience is then reframed as an opportunity for her to escape her former self, transcend her class and settle.

The last we see of her, she’s back at home, no longer a cheerleader, dancing with friends at an EDM concert, covered in glitter. Despite the melancholy of her voiceover, she’s still living her life and continuing her relationship with her body and the world around her through movement and dance. The reject she is supposed to have, presumably, is that she is doing this whilst eschewing the rules and regulations of the middle class microcosm in which she had previously found herself.

I wanted to reach out to her and be like, “Hey, ignore all this bullshit, framing you as a disappointment and a failure. You’re still living it.” She’s still exploring her body through these extremes of experience. So what if she wants to get high and dance rather than throw herself into human pyramids? She may not be cruising towards cheerleader stardom but she’s still a body. Just because they are not channeled into this extremist pressure point shouldn’t mean she is somehow missing out. Better that she sustains that experience and this relationship to herself throughout her life, allowing it to persist rather than burn out. Her sidestepping from a given moral code is more preferable than accepting her destin as a middle-aged body without options.

To be continued…

A New Jerusalem: Laura Grace Ford on William Blake

It seems that Laura Grace Ford will always find an opportunity for a dérive, even when she’s standing still.

Last night, on 28th November 2019 — William Blake’s 262nd birthday — Laura discussed the poet and painter’s work in an explorative and wonderfully meandering talk to coincide with Tate Britain’s current exhibition and a conference focusing on Blake’s artistic legacy and body of work.

Laura described Blake as “spectral force”, exceedingly relevant to the city of London today. She focused, at first, on his poem written about the city, noting how, in its original graphic form, it takes on a “sociogeographic” sensibility — not psychogeographic, all too concerned with the affects of a landscape on the individual, but sociogeographic in the sense that Blake’s poems fold and unfold the city’s “psychic infrastructure”, in much the same way that Laura hopes to do with her own walking practice.

The influence of Mark Fisher on Laura’s thinking last night was palpable and beautifully put to use in a way that did not simply reference his writings but put his ideas to use and take them on a walk elsewhere. I was struck by her descriptions of a weird London, where “the edge of the city is folded in” constituting a “liminal centre”.

For Laura, Blake foreshadows many of the diagnoses that Fisher made his name articulating. He foresaw “our contemporary psychic binding” so effectively that to read his poetry is to feel like he is still writing for a “people-to-come” — not us but a people still beyond on a postcapitalist horizon.

In light of this, Laura noted how Blake’s most famous poem, Jerusalem, the anthem for a million Women’s Institute meetings around the country, is not some ode to the Christian daydreams of suburban mundanity but a call for the sacred. Jerusalem, in Blake’s poem, is a city-to-come, a city to be built among “dark Satanic mills”. His Jerusalem is an emptied Christian signifier for a newly collective city experience, a city of the sacred.

The sacred here is undoubtedly the Bataillean kind — his term for that ecstatic experience that explodes outwards from the everyday. The sacred, however, is not an individualised experience. It always occurs, for Bataille, through the collective. This understanding transforms Jerusalem, as Laura explained, “into a commons.” She described how Blake “was violently against the Enlightenment concept of the individual” and so Jerusalem becomes Blake’s term for “an England of collective joy”, accessible through the deployment of his “early capitalist counter-sorcery”.

Laura went on to invoke Mark Fisher’s essay “Baroque Sunbursts”, and particularly its endlessly evocative conclusion:

‘From time to time’, writes Fredric Jameson in Valences of the Dialectic, ‘like a diseased eyeball in which disturbing flashes of light are perceived or like those baroque sunbursts in which rays of from another world suddenly break into this one, we are reminded that Utopia exists and that other systems, other spaces are still possible.’ This psychedelic imagery seems especially apposite for the ‘energy flash’ of rave, which now seems like a memory bleeding through from a mind that is not ours. In fact, the memories come from ourselves as we once were: a group consciousness that waits in the virtual future not only in the actual past. So it is perhaps better to see the other possibilities that these baroque sunbursts illuminate not as some distant Utopia, but as a carnival that is achingly proximate, a spectre haunting even — especially — the most miserably de-socialised spaces.

For Laura, in line with this, rave is Jerusalem, as are the impositions of Extinction Rebellion that pry open the psychocapitalist infrastructure of this city and others like it.

I was intrigued by these references and the renewed importance of collectivity to Laura’s practice in this context and wondered how these elements could come together anew.

Describing walking through London “as an experience of sensory derangement”, she emphasised the importance of walking to her own creative practices and the practices of others — most psychedelically noting De Quincy’s London as an opioid labyrinth. But drugs are not an escape from the binds of the city. (Mark knew that well.) It is having the right to roam that is most central to an expansion of collective consciousness. She described how walking, for Blake in particular, seemed to be “a prerequisite for visions”. Mind and body must be able to share in that exercise of exploration.

I started to think about the Kinder mass trespass and the mass trespasses of rave across the Home Counties, propelled by the gravitational slingshot newly provided by the M25 Orbital. Extinction Rebellion’s more recent trespasses have, instead, repeatedly provoked controversy. Trespassing is for hopping country fences and occupying sites of natural beauty to make them accessible for all. Extinction Rebellion are fighting for the same thing but to walk through the city to fight for it has ruffled many feathers.

I tried to ask a question about this during the Q&A but garbled it. Laura was gracious enough to try and respond to my half-baked musing anyway. I suppose I was left wondering: To what extent are communal walking practices — collective aphertopic dérives — still possible? Is a mass dérive still a mass dérive if it has to be sanctioned by permit? Is trespassing still a viable political act? The die-ins and sit-ins of recent decades have certainly helped raise awareness of issues but I wonder if the necessity of staying still, even feigning death, is a sign of the times.

The squats have gone. Westminster protests seem ineffective. Laura’s call for the collective — itself chiming with a chorus of other voices who have recently placed the possibility of the communal above all else — is all the more necessary now because the movements through which we are able to enact it have been been stultified without us knowing. We must make room again for Blake’s people-to-come, referred to by Laura via Deleuze and Guattari. Perhaps we also need a new kind of unlawful “assemblage”, again in a Deleuzian sense — not a non-sanctioned gathering but an ontological grounding of fluidity, exchangeability and multiplicity — the very sort of collective becoming that the infrastructure of the city itself has been constructed to arrest.