Last night, as part of the new day job, I was at a talk given by Ed Fornieles at London’s Anise Gallery.
Giving an impressively cogent overview of his “post-internet” art works to date, I found an intriguing thread connecting two works in particular that I haven’t been able to stop thinking about overnight.
The first work was a “performance” — or “Facebook LARP” — called Dorm Daze for which Fornieles scraped the Facebook data of American college students to construct a community of fictitious characters before documenting their interactions together over a period of time and constructing a twisted coming-of-age drama out of the results.
The second, much more recent work, was Cel — a similarly intensive performance work that lasted 72 hours in which participants were invited to adopted hyper-aggressive patriarchal characters and archetypes drawn from personality profiles scraped from the likes of 4chan and Reddit. The participants would embody these personas completely for the duration of their time enclosed in a cell constructed in Fornieles’ studio.
With a rigorous system of subtle communication for the giving and acknowledging of consent, Fornieles described Cel as a sort of inversion of “second-wave feminist discourses”.
I asked Ed a question after the talk about the implications of what appears to be a form of unconsciousness raising — something I explored here previously in my posts on Westworld.
With the talk being organised as part of the School of Speculation‘s summer school public lecture programme and orbiting the school’s dedication to “critical design”, there was a sense in which the typical use of these social media platforms — or, indeed, real life spaces — were being used to explore the sorts of “defacialisation” that Mark Fisher would write about.
I wondered to what extend he saw these experiments and explorations of contemporary cruelty and community having an impact on not only how we think about the spaces we inhabit online but also how we might design new ones.
Fornieles has already explored these implications in other art works — particularly Babble and Truth Table for which he has designed such alternative systems of communication — but did not have an immediate answer to what was, admittedly, an enormous question.
So, those questions remains — what are the broader implications of using social media in this way and, even, designing social media platforms that actively undermine the performative Self-consolidation of the likes of Facebook? What is it to actively use technologically to deconstruct and perforate your own sense of self?
Fornieles’ work is, I think, the best attempt I’ve seen at answering these questions, and it gets terrifyingly close with providing us with answers that we might not yet be entirely ready for…
I haven’t written on patchwork in a while now but not because I’ve stopped thinking about it. It’s just less and less central to my research interests. I nonetheless believe that we must think through a fragmentary geopolitics and contend with new ways of organising that are beyond the tired format of the state. These things are increasingly necessary but there are other things that need fleshing out in the meantime. Central to this is the ethical implications of this kind of geopolitical newness and the rethinking of community required to make it functional.
This is particularly relevant to us today, I think, because this fragmentary nature of the world used to be the norm until very recently. Particularly in Europe, there were violent wars over forms of governance and state borders as recently as the 1990s. These wars were horrendous things but there is a sense — in many recalling the politics of 1930s Europe when attempting to think through our current sociocultural upheavals, as is particularly common when processing the recent rise in fascism across the globe — that our world is far less flexible than it was then, and I wonder why that is. Is it simply the threat of war alone that stops the redrawing of our maps? Or is there something else at play?
I don’t have the answers to these questions but they linger in the background of a lot of this previous patchwork writing, and my previous readings of political philosophers from the 1930s (in France in particular) likewise inform these questions. In my own mind, the questions I ask and put forward on this blog are largely the same questions that an unruly and outsider left — broadly speaking — was trying to deal with at that time. Mourning the mainstream left’s complicity and impotence, these questions of community and praxis were discussed fervently until they were further arrested and made banal in the face of the atrocities of World War II, and yet they later emerged again as the post-Soviet world began to settle into the form as we know it today. (In this sense, it feels telling to me that so many of those who call me out for a lack of Marxist rigour and fascist sympathies are so often American. These questions are far more immediate over here perhaps. America went another way. It doesn’t know the stakes or the history.)
Following the final decline of the Soviet communist project in the 1980s to 2000s, the conversation that would take place between Maurice Blanchot and Jean-Luc Nancy is the most interesting enunciation of these questions left behind so long ago, and it is their rethinking of “community” which stoked my own interest in patchwork thinking as a technologically viable geo-OS for instantiating the collective subjectivities we have long sought out but never found.
So, that being said, as political paranoia continues in its feverishness on the left, I’m left wanting to chart a few influences that are of great importance to my own approach to politics of community and friendship, of comradeship, which are somewhat ill-fitting when we consider the dominant political moralism of today — and necessarily so.
I’ve written on this previously here and here but I suppose I could summarise this more concisely as a form of communism, influenced explicitly by my three favourite troubadours of moral philosophy: Levinas, Bataille and Blanchot.
Jean-Luc Nancy would write on Blanchot and Bataille’s sense of community in particular as a kind of “community that gives itself as a goal” and this is where I see a communism emerging from. There is knotted and irrational sense of interpersonal relation which is increasingly alien to our capitalist world and it is an “unavowable” work which becomes more and more important to me as “communicative capitalism” takes a firmer hold of us. (I wrote a bit about this the other day.) Interestingly, the further away from this we move, the more necessarily I feel it becoming. What is described by Blanchot as an elusive relation at the very limits of human language and articulation becomes all the more recognisable as this unspoken connection is strained more and more.
It is a form of collective identification which is not essentialist — not defined by race, nation or tradition — and which is grounded by its own “will to power”. At the most personal level, this is something that resonates with me as an adopted child and which also grounds previous articulations of an “ethics of exit“. My family is hugely dysfunctional and advice given by others has so often been: “Well, why don’t you can choose your own family?” This is something so often said, in my experience, by those who either haven’t experienced the innate trauma of losing that kind of fundamental connection to other people — read: weekend hippies — or who tell it to themselves as a self-directed platitude, like a mantra you tell yourself to cover over that which hurts you most deeply.
When living in Hull as a teenager, this sort of community was ostensibly queer. Our friendship group was made up of gay and straight men, trans women and, for the most part, lesbians. We were a surprising collection of people from disparate socioeconomic backgrounds but we all shared — whether due to our sexualities or another kind of interpersonal trauma — the sense that we were all part of a nomadic tribe of the socially dispossessed. We felt — each to a different extent — like we had been ejected from those families that we were told we could wholly depend on and so we went out into the world to try and find our own.
It is this experience which grounds my politics, for better and for worse.
This lost connection is, in a word, a “genetic” relation but it is not scientific in this sense. I will always remember the day that I was given a picture of my birth mother aged 18 and the feeling of recognition that came with that. The sensation of seeing yourself in the face of another, is completely beyond expression for me. It opened up a door that I did not know could open. It wasn’t an immediate egress but a gradual one and what struck me about this experience was that so many people simply take this for granted, to the extent that perhaps they don’t even think about it, but for me it was so utterly alien. It was like drinking water for the first time as an adult.
It is precisely this innate sense of rupture and the neuroses which come with it, in striving for connection and friendship and a sense of familial intimacy far too readily, whilst likewise being somewhat private in fearing rejection, which places the ethical formulation of “community” giving itself as a goal so firmly in my mind. It is a life-long sensation given a radically resonant phrase. Suffice it to say, I feel like I am all too aware, in my day to day life, of the unruliness of our politics of belonging.
This is why I have always liked Maurice Blanchot’s writings, for his apparent synthesis of the ethical thinking of Levinas and Bataille as two seemingly disparate figures whose ontologies start at the limits of subjectivity. Traumas of death and illness and violence loom large as things to account for with the process of philosophy but, here, with these thinkers, they are made immanent to an everyday existence. The quotidian, for them, is as difficult to grasp in thought as the nature of death itself. Indeed, they are one and the same, and it is from this point that their ethics could be said to emerge — at the limit between subjects, between borders, between peoples, where connections exist and persevere but beyond the articulations and frameworks that the sociopolitical language of our neoliberal world typically allows.
This extended preamble is an attempt to lay the groundwork for what might be another series of posts where I collate my notes on the works of Maurice Blanchot and, in particular, Christophe Bident’s excellent critical biography I picked up the other week.
The reason for starting with a mention of patchwork is that, funnily enough, I went for dinner a few weeks ago with someone who knows Mencius Moldbug IRL and I was very surprised to hear them say the phrase: “Curtis is #YangGang now”…
The trajectory from neo-monarchist to UBI-supporting democratic socialist(?) might seem like an odd one but actually it’s somewhat analogous to Blanchot’s own trajectory… And, indeed, in placing myself as someone interested in post-Moldbuggian communities, I find myself thinking through his monarchism in much the same way as I think through Blanchot’s. It contains within it the seeds of a community that is far beyond itself and perhaps that is what has happened since. Monarchism emerges as a suitably paradoxical neo-reactionary politic in that it presents us with a radical subjectivity — a grounded subject-hood; a being-subject that is both radically literal and radically other to our present. However, faced with reality, this thought requires a shift, an adaptability — here a neoreactionary neocameralism loosens up, shaking off its rigid exterior, and leaving behind the striving for communality that lies buried at its centre.
Many of the biographical snippets that circulate about Blanchot’s early life tell a similar story. Levinas would describe his high levels of intelligence, perhaps somewhat tongue-in-cheek, as “aristocratic”. Blanchot loved French high culture, to the extent that his love of literature became a ground for his French nationalism.
It is no secret that, as a young man, Blanchot used to write for far-right publications, and yet Bident’s biography lays this out in ways that make clear the ideas which he would nonetheless carry with him from this point until his death. It is this sense of carrying a philosophy — an ontology — of belonging from the right to the left that I’m interested in exploring in more detail, especially considering our present paranoia which seems to repeatedly result in people moving in the other direction, pushed away by the moralism of a left which denounces any and all inconsistencies. Most of the reasons for this are, undoubtedly, related to the left’s presently flawed conceptions of community and comradeship but perhaps Blanchot’s own shift offers some inspiration on how to reverse the present trend and our collective politics with it.
What may be surprising for many, in reading a gloss of Blanchot’s intellectual trajectory is that, despite the sort of far-right rhetoric he would engage in for many years, he struck up a friendship with Emmanuel Levinas very early on.
When the pair met as students at the University of Strasbourg, Blanchot was already settled in his right-leaning views and it was only after he graduated that Blanchot would begin his career by editing and contributing to a wide-range of Parisian nationalist newspapers. However, his encounter with Levinas nonetheless opened a door which it would take him some years to step through into the beyond of his nationalism.
Bident summarises his trajectory as follows:
As a lead editor of the Journal des Débats and Aux Ècoutes, a writer of editorals specializing in foreign policy, someone with nationalist ideals, a staunch spiritualist, in the 1930s Maurice Blanchot seems to have had a single goal: restoring the glory of French culture, which in his eyes had grown corrupt, had perhaps even disappeared. He joined the young dissident milieaus of the Maurrassian far right, becoming one of its most prominent and influential members. Having initially been motivated by Catholic, traditionalist reasons directly related to his family upbringing, he adopted positions that were more and more radical, privileging antidemocratic, antiparliamentary, and anticapitalist rhetoric, occasionally of limitless violence, under the tutelage and influence of Thierry Maulnier. But he was also the friend of Emmanuel Levinas, and he lived in close relation to nationalist Jews like Paul Lévy. He shared their struggle against the resistable rise of Hitler, denouncing at a very early stage the first work camps, state totalitarianism, anti-intellectualism, warlike morality, and the mythology of organic community, all of which were prevailing across the Rhine. He quickly grasped Hitler’s threat to the Europe of nations, but his fervent anticommunism forced him to adopt strategically dubious and even — as he would later recognise — irresponsible positions in diplomatic and military terms. He sought out all ways of preserving peace and deplored the successive climb-downs by international organizations and national governments, inviting a humanity “always driven by the candid and boastful nobility of a better future” not to forget “the laws governing its difficult condition.” Over the Over the years, the increasing speed and pressure of events exploded the fragile cohesion of activism on the far right. This made Blanchot choose between the two groups that he frequented. He refused to spent further time in the company of certain anti-Semitic, fascist, radicalized, and protocollaborationist circles…
As Blanchot moved away from his nationalism, he nonetheless retained his love for that which was evoked by literature, that unground which brought him close to Levinas. Bident notes how Levinas recognised with admiration, despite their political differences, the way that Blanchot “carried out a ‘double gesture'” that would resonate with Levinas’ own approach to being if not politics. He embodied “a questioning carried out from within literary thought or writing, a place inaccessible to philosophy itself; and an absolute affirmation, a rallying cry for the necessity of philosophy, in a context in which it was threatened institutionally and epistemologically.”
There is perhaps a clear thread from this internal quest for outsideness to the sort of comradeship the two young thinkers were to strike up. Bident writes of their “immediate desire for friendship, in spite of and in place of political opinions (which is to say: the positions adopted regarding cultural belonging and the space it required, the community it made possible).” If Blanchot already contained this striving within him, Levinas is no doubt responsible for triggering his slow radicalisation since it is Levinas who “demands that ‘the transformation of convictions’ be thought of without any reference to compromise. Friendship alone can justify this absolute, can force us to glimpse the permanency that lies beyond change.”
This sense of friendship is no doubt unpopular today, at a time when the stakes are seen as too high to have patience for those we see as threatening our own existence. We might view Levinas the Jewish ethicist as a bit of an idiot, then, for being such close friends with Blanchot the occasional anti-Semite (caught up, in some of his later newspaper columns, with the overall feeling of the age). And yet, as Bident continues, it seems that Levinas already saw in his friend the potential for what was to come:
Levinas sets up a paradoxical portrait of a Blanchot who was already wholly self-present in 1926, while also being completely still to come. Everything was indeed there already: the aristocracy, the loftiness, the gaze, the demand, the excess and the excellence, the ability to surprise (via little-trod paths, surprises, paradoxes). Levinas describes a Blanchot ignorant of himself, learning about himself, who would learn to recognise his aristocracy in forms different from the — imaginary — ones he inherited. The Blanchot of 1926 was a Blanchot without oeuvre, but able to impress, elevate, agitate, be insubordinate: everything was already there, everything would find its ways, but slowly, with difficulty, erratically. This slowness would respond to the demand not to judge, not to judge immediately, to know how not to be satisfied with immediate judgment, and to know how to move beyond one’s everyday life, one’s automatic opinion, one’s agitated blindness, to move beyond these by way of an unending quest which, confronting the real (thanks to the demand of friendship and the hard work of writing), would also eventually come into being. This quest allows one to approach being by way of thought, by way of a harsh apprenticeship in the most sovereign worldviews and their endless assimilations. When this apprenticeship is complete, when these worldviews have been fully absorbed and invested with a decisive experience, they can finally be critiqued and filtered by a now indefatigable personal approach, strengthened by this long faux pas, more assured due to its past mistakes and in turn with the events of current History.
This patience, that investment in a friendship which seeks no return, would influence the pair’s philosophies in other ways. It seemed predicated on an eerie relation — this solidarity without similarity functioning as an eerie politic, as a failure of presence and a failure of absence. Bident writes:
The dialogue between the two friends is woven together by the fact that, in place of the assurance of Heidegger’s es gibt Levinas places the ubiquity of the there is and Blanchot hears the presence of the neuter. They would quote each other on this point, this “destiny of the void”, this “murmur of silence”; “something resembling what one hears when one puts an empty shell close to one’s ear, as if the emptiness were full, as if the silence were a noise.” As early as 1947, in From Existence to Existents, Levinas refers readers to the first pages of [Blanchot’s] Thomas the Obscure and their pure description of the there is: “the presence of absence, the night, the dissolution of the subject in the night, the horror of being, the return of being to the heart of every negative moment, the reality of unreality are admirably expressed there.”
This bridge between the two thinkers would eventually come to bear on Blanchot’s politics explicitly. At first, as a result, he saw little redeemable in Marxism. For him, the “revolution had to impose itself as the ‘sudden passage from the impossible to the necessary,’ breaking its way through and imposing it ‘inalienable and incoercible presence,’ even and especially if the revolution always appeared to be anything but possible and necessary…”
Bident writes of a Blanchot who condemned “the abandonment of revolution as a clear utopia”, condemned “Marxism for providing a counterimage of revolution”. For Blanchot, “revolution is the sustained refusal, in all its demands and excesses, of any form of spiritual disorder” but the reality of Stalinism arrested “the ‘sudden move from the impossible to the necessary’ [and] allowed refusal to be caught in the trap of its own condemnations.” A sentiment that is familiar again today.
It was precisely this impotent cycle of condemnations and inaction that led to Blanchot’s eventual withdrawal from politics — at least for a time, as the night of an encroaching war made the writing of columns an embarrassment.
Bident discusses the content and context of Blanchot’s last article for the journal Combat:
The article discusses dissidence, a weapon in the service of purity, but a double-edged sword. […] Perhaps Blanchot was a dissident among dissidents […] Perhaps he was already abandoning nationalism, having criticized the nation too much, and thus illustrating the law of dissidence that he had just formulated: “The true dissident nationalist is someone who foregoes the traditional formulae of nationalism, not in order to move toward internationalism, but in order to combat internationalism in all its forms, amongst which feature economics and the nation itself.” The latter two entities would later become the frequent object of his critiques. The anti-internationalist and antinationalist nationalist, the anticapitalist and anticommunist communist. Such were the types of dissident to whom Blanchot was appealing in December 1937. The factors that would establish the revolutionary demand for movement and for friendship in the 1960s could serve, at this stage, only as a way of thinking clearly about a personal dead end. This inertia was also the beginning of withdrawal, the crisis that would set his thinking to work.
It is here that we might hear echoes of patchwork writings from around the blogosphere but present positions have far more in common with the later Blanchot. My personal favourite patchwork post, “Lover’s Flight“, features this version of his thought heavily. It is not simply an anti-internationalist and antinationalist nationalism or an anticapitalist and anticommunist communism — as if there were anything simple as those positions. It instead speaks to something far more fundamental which state apparatuses cannot capture.
Nonetheless, the persistent fear and accusation amongst so many interlocutors seems to be that this is indicative of a swing in the wrong direction — from left to right — or that an attempt to salvage a new leftism from rightist grounds is a naive and futile gesture.
It’s not. As far as I am concerned, and which Blanchot’s intellectual history (which we’ll return to) demonstrates so clearly, post-war Europe demanded an engagement with a variety of questions and demands that we later dropped, related to how a collective subjectivity could be rethought in a way that wasn’t simply dictated by the winners: the capitalist states that made up the Allied forces. Moldbug’s NRx thinking may have invigorated this far-right thought for a new era but to take it to its own conclusions, just as Blanchot did, is to find oneself in a radical leftism that is as alien to our world today as it was then — and that is its strength.
Too many point to the 1930s today as an antecedent to our present moment in order to inflame sensationalist readings of our culture wars, but few pick up those ethical questions again here anew. This blog has consistently attempted to do this and will continue to. Pointing to ideological complexities and impurities does nothing if we cannot carry these observations forward to new ground, beyond the questions that were formulated and carried with great difficulty throughout the decades that we continuously reference but with an ignorance to the aims that so many carried with them, buried under the neoliberalism of our present moment, which infects the thought of our radicals — on both sides of the political divide — more frequently than they themselves are ready to admit.
I’m five minutes in and already this seems like something beamed in from an alternate universe. Did this crowd just cheer “doctoral degrees” and then, specifically, “psychoanalysis”?
This big arena debate world where people cheer academic qualifications like wrestling belts is obviously Peterson’s world. And it’s really off-putting. He sits in his chair looking expectant and deep in thought, occasionally letting slip a brief acknowledgment of the surreality of the situation. Zizek, on the other hand, looks bewildered. When his introduction is concluded, he simply shrugs and does a brief facepalm.
Peterson, by contrast, barely flinches. He’s obviously used to this… And that’s the weirdest thing of all.
I’m not really sure what I’m in for here as I sit down to watch this. I’ve heard interesting things about this debate from those who have already watched it — apparently it’s not a complete waste of time — and so I have been tempted to give it a go for myself…
But I’m already aware of the kind of discussion I’m hoping for — and unlikely to get — and this anticipation is probably going to inform my viewing for better or worse…
So, first things first, I feel like I should declare my biases.
I like Zizek (generally speaking). He’s the sort of cantankerous sniffling voice I’m happy to have in the public sphere. I have a soft spot for him, in a way, because, perhaps like many other people my age, he was the first contemporary “Public Intellectual” that I paid any attention to; the first living philosopher I remember hearing and reading about.
However, that’s not to say I know his work all that well. The only book of his I’ve read with any seriousness is his first: The Sublime Object of Ideology — which is still a good read — but the majority of the rest of his written work is unknown to me. (Those films of his are, at the very least, entertaining.) I have, however, read a lot of his earlier articles and writings on communism, but I’ll come back to those shortly.
My understanding of Peterson’s general project is even more limited. I haven’t read his book. All I’ve seen are a few lectures and some click-bait “Peterson destroys…” YouTube appearances. That being said, I’ve found very little to admire or relate to in what I have heard him say. (I’ve previously critiqued one of his UK television appearances here.) But he’s nonetheless on my radar as a cultural figure and I have found his discussions around masculinity to be interesting, if only because of what he leaves out.
I want to briefly talk about Peterson’s views on masculinity because they seem integral to his overall position and you can see much of the same logic that is applied to this topic leaking out into his other opinions. For instance, on at least one occasion, he’s compared the modern “femininsation” of men to the Nietzschean death of God. It’s an apt comparison in some respects — although I’d take it more positively than he seems to do. His argument seems to be that men have lost their purpose, their drive, their grounding, like peasants without God, or a state without its sense of nationhood — the latter being a particularly important similarity, I think, when considering his popularity amongst hypermasculine nationalists. Point being: men are lost without their own inflated (and gendered) senses of self. Peterson is here to give it back to you. It’s not a bad project in and of itself, but he’s pretty terrible at it. His success despite this perhaps says more about the depths of the crisis that we’re willing to accept him as a savior.
What Peterson decries as taking the place of traditional gendered duties and positions within society is what he regularly defines as “contemporary nihilism”. This nihilism is, of course, a huge freedom to many others who have felt traumatically constricted by societal expectations and in contemporary philosophy more generally we have seen the emergence of a new nihilism which explores the outsider epistemologies of occultism with as much rigour as scientific rationalism — you could say it was precisely this crossover that gave the world Reza Negarestani — and so Peterson’s nihilism is, in itself, a very limited concept.
Ray Brassier’s old nihilism, for instance, is a nihilism that grounds itself on the “meaninglessness” of rational truth, which is to say, nihilism is an attempt to decloak oneself of the stories and “realisms” which we allow to structure (but also inevitably limit) our realities. Truth and meaning are not the same thing and so a life of facts and rationality is far closer to nihilism than the popular conception of the term allows. By contrast, despite warning of its dangers when it applies to something he doesn’t believe in, Peterson seems to champion the adoption of ideologies in order to give your life meaning. It is in this sense that he’s often positioned by some as fascist (or at least fascist-adjacent).
Masculinity, for Peterson, appears to be just such an ideology in being held up as an Idea that gives gendered subjects purpose and a sense of duty. But what is odd about this is how much Peterson otherwise critiques ideology. Because, for Peterson, it seems ideologies are only ever collective. Individualism, in particular, is not an ideology…
… And that’s ridiculous. As Zizek writes himself:
[I]deology is not simply a ‘false consciousness’, an illusory representation of reality, it is rather this reality itself which is already to be conceived as ‘ideological’ — ‘ideological’ is a social reality whose very existence implies the non-knowledge of its participants as to its essence — that is, the social effectivity, the very reproduction of which implies that the individuals ‘do not know what they are doing’. ‘Ideological’ is not the false consciousness of a (social) being but this being itself in so far as it is supported by a false consciousness.
He defines ideology as Marx does (at least implicitly): “they do not know it, but they are doing it“. Such is Peterson’s argument — don’t pay attention to any of that stuff which supposedly defines (or fails to define) your existence, just get on with it; tidy your room. (His insistence on personal cleanliness is, I’ve always felt, near identical to an army induction into self-presentation, and if that isn’t the ultimate immersion in ideology then I don’t know what is.)
Today, despite Peterson’s attempts to rehabilitate it, we see that the particular ideology of patriarchal individualism has been in crisis and so the left embraces the ideological crisis of masculinity, understood as a by-product of a broader crisis of patriarchal capitalism, in order to encourage the emergence of a new consciousness; the emergence of something altogether different. This is not to try and destroy men as such — well, okay, that depends who you ask… — but rather the ideology of Masculinity. In response to this general vibe, Peterson’s blinkered response to this is to try and save patriarchal capitalism by focussing on the individual and selling them an anti-feminist magical voluntarism.
What Peterson doesn’t get is that the argument is not that this crisis of manhood is a result of capitalism’s “failure”, per se — which is presumably why Peterson wants to defend its honour — but rather that this crisis is a direct result of capitalism’s own internal development and indifference.
(It would also be interesting to see what other takes people have on this, actually: “the feminisation of men” — a marxist feminazi psyop or a by-product of free market automation reducing the need for big strong physical labourers? You’d think Peterson, for all his citing of anthropological evidence, would be more on board with the latter, but he’s not… Responses on a postcard!)
The relevance of modern masculinity, and its crisis, to this particular debate is that masculinity is, more often than not, framed as an ideology in being not just a gender but a gender identity. To be a Man, in the sense that Peterson describes, is — sociopolitically and, that is, ideologically speaking — not that different from being a Communist. It is a declaration that says something about your view of the world and how people should expect you to act within it; indeed, how you should expect yourself to act within it. In this way, his is an individualised ethics — and that is how many contemporary men’s groups, for better or for worse, present themselves on both the left and the right, in defining masculinity as an ethics first and foremost — whilst communism instead strives for a collective and communal viewpoint, a “collective subjectivity”, a collectivised ethics, far broader than Peterson’s consideration of (but of course not ignorant to) these kinds of identity markers.
I want to keep this in mind going forwards because I think Peterson’s framing of masculinity actually gives us a good entry point for talking about communism (and his particular framing of communism) and this may help us understand just how flawed and limiting his conceptions of both these things are.
As I mentioned in passing, over the last few years I’ve started to read more and more of Zizek’s earlier work — particularly his articles on communism and, specifically, “the Idea of Communism“. When writing my Master’s dissertation back in 2017, reading a lot about Maurice Blanchot and his Bataillean conception of “community”, the Idea of communism emerged as a central framework through which the questions Blanchot (and others) raised have been continued into the present, and Zizek — as a writer and an editor — at one time contributed a fair amount to this discourse.
I’ve written a lot about the “Idea of communism” before on this blog, albeit under various different guises — the Idea of communism as an event horizon; as a “community which gives itself as a goal”; as a sort of ethical praxis in and of itself, a sort of politico-philosophical First Principle, rather than a solidified (statist) political ideal — it’s under the surface of a lot of my patchwork stuff.
To be clear, what I mean by the “Idea” of communism here is perhaps something akin to the Platonic Idea. To quote Plato himself, writing about his own philosophy:
There is no treatise of mine about these things, nor ever will be. For it cannot be talked about like other subjects of learning, but out-of much communion about this matter, and from living together, suddenly, like a light kindled from a leaping fire, it gets into the soul, and from there on nourishes itself.
The Idea, in this sense, is a sort of ephemeral thing, an event in a process of becoming. It is fuel for discourse and politics but is not, in itself, either of these two things. It’s something else unique to philosophy.
To many this may sound like the beginning of some wishy-washy apolitical intro to communism, but the intention here is to emphasise — what Deleuze & Guattari, in What Is Philosophy?, call — “the Concept” of communism. (This is, arguably, also the intention of U/Acc, in giving philosophical priority to the Concept of Acceleration over its conditioned political vagaries which leave the concept in the corner to their detriment — i.e. the rejection of a state-accelerationism on the same terms as a state-communism, with both being as sensical as the other despite how the latter is so often understood.)
The Concept, in this sense, is a provocation, an invention. To pin it down, to attack it or defend it, is to condition it and use it — which is fine in most circumstances — but there is always something that comes first which we mustn’t lose sight of in the process putting concepts to use. We must be “critical” — just as Peterson describes his preferred mode of thought, which we’ll discuss in a minute — by which I mean that we must not lose sight of the process of engineering which produces the concept when we put it to use. That is the purpose of the Idea or the Concept: that which philosophy always hopes to produce: the simultaneous product of and originator of thinking. (I’m writing on this in relation to accelerationism for somewhere else at the moment so I won’t go into this too much further or else I’ll start plagiarising myself.)
The Idea of communism, then, becomes this original seed which existed before the horrors of state-communism and continues to exist after them. It is a communism produced communally, lidibinally; a kind of communist consciousness; an outsideness; a view to that which isn’t. It is, in this first instance, the Idea of the future, of the new, of what is to come, held in the minds of those affected by it at the expense of that which is. When Kodwo Eshun called himself a “concept-engineer”, this is no doubt what he was positioning himself in favour of, and against the “great inertia engine”, the “moronizer”, the “futureshock absorber.” That’s what the Communist Manifesto calls for too. It’s a provocation, a call to revolution, not just of politics and economics but, more fundamentally, of thought and thinking.
Masculinity — reconfigured as a concept — (and femininity too, for that matter) can be thought of in much the same way, as a becoming, which may signify certain horrors, past and present, but as a future may instead be something which gives itself as a goal. And there is every chance that that goal might be unrecognisable to our current sense of the cloistered Ideal.
Like it or not, the best word we have for this process, related to gender anyway, is queering.
Everything else is cage.
Anyway, I’m rambling…
What does any of this have to do with anything? Well, it has everything to do with Peterson’s opening statement.
The Idea of communism is seemingly an alien concept to him. The very Idea of philosophy seems alien to him, for that matter. He’s a man of blinkered systems and boundaries and “truths”, and to such an extent that “truth” ends up undermining his own arguments. His pursuit of an absolute logic — so common to many North American conservative pundits; “facts don’t care about your feelings” — only makes the holes in his reasoning more apparent. Encapsulated in a wall of logic that he has built around himself, he starts to undermine his own apparent superiority by being incapable of giving himself the room to breath and produce thought. He’s like a real life Vulcan, his ironic flaw being the bemusement which erupts from his consideration of the adaptability of those illogical and mentally vulnerable humans (read: leftists).
What makes this difficult for some to see, however, seems to be the effort Peterson puts into superficially privileging the opposite within his own work. Early on in his opening statement, for instance, he says:
It doesn’t seem to me that either Marx or Engels grappled with one fundamental — with this particular fundamental truth — which is that almost all ideas are wrong … It doesn’t matter if they’re your ideas or something else’s ideas — they’re probably wrong. And, even if they strike you with the course of brilliance, your job is to assume that, first of all, they’re probably wrong and then to assault them with everything you have in your arsenal and see if they can survive.
Such is philosophy — and, on that note, I’m reminded of a particular passage from Deleuze and Guattari’s What Is Philosophy? where they write that the Greeks distrusted the Idea, the Concept, “so much, and subjected it to such harsh treatment, that the concept was more like the ironical soliloquy bird that surveyed the battlefield of destroyed rival opinions (the drunken guests at the banquet).”
And yet, for Deleuze and Guattari, the Concept doesn’t seek truth. It might emerge from certain judgments and appraisals, from thought, but truth is not its end. If truth were the goal for Marx and Engels, it might be called the Truth Manifesto. But it’s not. It is called the Communist manifesto because communism is its goal — a politics of multiplicitous and unruly communality.
Here we see the first glimpse of Peterson’s own nihilism — again, despite his apparent rejection of that -ism and its affects on thought. We might ask ourselves: What is it to introduce your position with a statement as vacuous as “almost all ideas are wrong”? Deleuze and Guattari, again, do a far better job of articulating the stakes of this suggestion which, again, seem totally lost of Peterson:
A concept always has the truth that falls to it as a function of the conditions of its creation. […] Of course, new concepts must relate to our problems, to our history, and, above all, to our becomings. But what does it mean for a concept to be of our time, or of any time? Concepts are not eternal, but does this mean they are temporal? What is the philosophical form of the problems of a particular time? If one concept is “better” than an earlier one, it is because it makes us aware of new variations and unknown resonances, it carries out unforeseen cuttings-out, it bring forth an Event that surveys us. But did the earlier concept not do this already? If one can still be a Platonist, Cartesian, or Kantian today, it is because one is justified in thinking that their concepts can be reactivated in our problems and inspire those concepts that need to be created. What is the best way to follow the great philosophers? Is it to repeat what they said or to do what they did, that is, create concepts for problems that necessarily change?
From this we can say that the prevalence and continued existence of “Marxists” and Marxism is that the problems Marx (and Engels, of course) pointed to remain relevant today because we remain under the problematic system of capitalism. Many further concepts have been added to the arsenal but the original ground remains unresolved. Capitalism — as another -ism — endures for the same reasons. We have yet to settle the problem of capitalism as a response to the end of feudalism and instead treat the conceptual framework of capital as eternal rather than temporal, a being rather than a becoming.
Now, the Idea or Concept of communism can perhaps be summarised in similar terms. Communism is the name of a becoming-to-come, a postcapitalism. Peterson, instead, in wanting to rehabilitate what we already have, doesn’t get this. But still he continues to use the language of someone who does whilst nonetheless remaining trapped in his own circular argument.
For example, again in his opening statement, he calls Marx and Engels “typical” — as opposed to “critical” — thinkers because they accept things (that is, the problems of capitalism) as they are, as given and self-evident (to capitalism), and don’t think about their own thinking, which is to say that they also present their critiques to their readers as if they were self-evident. Peterson says no — these problems are inherent to nature, not capitalism. But in shifting the goal posts rather than engaging with the text directly he portrays himself as guilty of what he decries in them.
In doing this, Peterson sidesteps the entire point of the Marxist project, particularly as it is framed in the Manifesto: a project which attempts to systematise a deep understanding of capitalism (as in Marx’s Capital) and then critique the material reality of capitalism, provoking action against it (as in the Manifesto). If anything, Peterson might have come out of this better if he’d read anything but the manifesto. Instead, he misses the entire point, failing to get under the skin of Marxism because he fails to acknowledge its attempts to get under the skin of capitalist realism and reveal to us the ways in which that which is, that which we see and accept as the nature of reality, is instead a contingency. In this sense, “all ideas (capitalism tells you) are wrong” could be the brainlet summary of the Manifesto in itself, and in this sense, if it is an ideology, it is one which defines itself by what it escapes.
It is here that the circle of Peterson’s argument completes itself before its even really begun. What is it to critique critical thinking in this way? What is it to critique critique through naturalised tradition? Does this make Peterson a critical-critical thinker? Or is he instead just a critical-typical thinker? Either way, his is a position that eats itself. Peterson, however, seems good at supplying the gall to ignore your own inability to take your own medicine.
This is the entire problem with Peterson’s argument going forwards too, which might be summarised as: “Marx and Engels say that this is self-evident within capitalism and must be challenged — I say, actually it is self-evident within nature and nature is sacrosanct so back off.” Peterson’s form of “critique” is simply to take pre-existing critiques of our sociopolitical world and place them within a broader (supposedly) scientific context and, in the process, turn his own critical thinking back into (by his own definition) a typical thinking. He’s literally bending backwards over his own arguments.
Take, for instance, his analysis of the first “axiom” of the Communist Manifesto — his summary of Marxist historical materialism being that the very engine of history is economic class struggle. Peterson flippantly throws out the relevance of economics and says, sure, class struggle exists, hierarchies exist, but they exist in nature too so why are we so upset about them and put all the blame on economics?
In framing it this way, he seemingly misses the main point that our hierarchies are not “natural” — they are instantiated by capitalism as an economic system. To say that hierarchies have always existed ignores the sense in which economics defines class. It is to ignore the very nature of our hierarchies, in the present epoch, as economic — that is, how economics forms them — which we can interpret as not just being about how much your earn but also how much you are worth, connecting slavery to wage-slavery and encompassing the fallouts of both. Contrary to this, Peterson’s is the sort of argument that takes scientific observations of the natural kingdom and then uses them to reconstruct a sort of secular Divine Right of Kings. It is a gateway to a racist and eugenic thinking.
It is from this flawed analysis that Peterson goes on to make the point that went viral in the aftermath of the debate. He says:
it is finally the case that human hierarchies are not fundamentally predicated on power and I would say that biological / anthropological data on that is crystal clear. You don’t rise to a position of authority that’s reliable in a human society primarily by exploiting other people. It’s a very unstable means of obtaining power.
This clip has done the rounds online already, as it gets a very audible laugh from the crowd, and rightly so. It’s perhaps the most moronic comment anyone could make — but it is also a comment that can be split into a right half and a wrong half, further demonstrating Peterson’s circular reasoning.
People do rise to positions of authority through exploitation — that is true not just of capitalism but the feudalism that birthed it and it is also, arguably, true of the animal kingdom too (depending on how you define exploitation — the exploitation of behaviours, habits, circumstances?) — but it is also right to say that this is an unstable means of obtaining power. Rather than that instability meaning people don’t do it, it leads to the sort of resentment and protest that Peterson dismisses as unfounded. His entire logic system starts to fall into place. Reading the Communist Manifesto at aged 18 and presumably reading it with all the nuance of an 18 year old, Peterson has embarked on a career of self-fulfilling criticism based on the logical fallacies of a teenager.
From this point, it is very hard to take anything else he says seriously. What follows is a long, meandering and confused rant that ends with the basic point: “Actually, relatively speaking, the poor are richer now than they once were… As are the rich…” Thank you, Dr. Peterson. Truly insightful.
I’m left wanting to bail out at this point. I feel like I’ve wasted 40 minutes of my life but I try and stick it out for Zizek’s opening statement at least.
From the outset, it is far more interesting. Taking on the three topics of the debate’s title — Communism, Happiness, Capitalism — he considers the ways in which “Happiness” is not such a simple and virtuous goal for us to give ourselves, especially under a system like capitalism which does all it can to grab the steering wheel of our desires. (It’s an argument I’ve made myself before when writing about Mark Fisher’s Acid Communism — a communism that is “beyond the pleasure principle”.) Zizek says:
I agree that human life or freedom and dignity does not consist just in searching for happiness — no matter how much we spiritualise it — or in the effort to actualise our inner potentials. We have to find some meaningful cause beyond the mere struggle for pleasurable survival.
Zizek’s statement from here is actually quite brilliant, and subtle. He eschews any temptation to echo Peterson’s polemic book report and instead implicitly skewers everything wrong with Peterson’s own body of work and, indeed, the entire situation of their meeting under the cover of the debate’s own title. It’s very cunning.
For instance, he says a few minutes later:
Once traditional authority loses its substantial power it is not possible to return to it. All such returns are, today, a post-modern fake. Does Donald Trump stand for traditional values? No. His conservatism is a post-modern performance; a gigantic ego trip.
Whilst Zizek takes firm aim at Trump, Peterson lingers on the edge of his seat. You wonder how much he knows that he is also in Zizek’s sights. Whilst Peterson through criticisms at a 170-year-old target that just don’t stick, Zizek DESTROYS his opponent in a philosophical proxy war.
If Trump is, according to Zizek, the ultimate postmodernist president, Peterson appears, by proxy, to be the most successful postmodernist public intellectual — the attack-dog of YouTube conservatism, the spewer of the very postmodernism he declares his enemy through his snake-oil salesman act of Making Men Great Again as a neo-traditional ideology.
Zizek powers through point after point from here and everything starts to blur into one. It’s not easy to follow without the post-stream benefit of stopping and starting, but there is substance here — substance, I am nonetheless told by the better informed, that Zizek has already repeated again and again through his most recent books and public appearances. There is nothing new here, but it is in part worth listening to just to see Peterson’s face. He is out of his depth. And it shows.
Whereas Peterson’s history lesson is under-informed, Zizek’s history lesson, encapsulating the 20th / 21st century development of hegemonic ideologies, ends simply with a door through which Peterson blindly walks, being the capstone to Zizek’s own argument simply by being himself. Little else needs to be said. The undertone of Zizek’s argument seems to be: “You want postmodernism? You’ve just seen a masterclass… And wasn’t it shit!” It’s very entertaining.
But honestly, I’m burnt out. It’s hard to adjust to Zizek’s rapid-fire drive-by of our contemporary moment after Peterson’s lacklustre ahistorical ramble. Maybe I’ll come back and watch the follow-up back and forth at a later date… But I doubt I’ll want to blog about this any further.
UPDATE:This, from Quillette of all places, is spot on:
The debate about whether there’s a straight line from Marx to Stalin is an important one, especially given the revival of interest in socialism in the contemporary West. Everyone should want the key participants in that debate to be as well informed as possible. Marxists should want to sharpen their minds by having to confront the best versions of anti-Marxist arguments, while anti-Marxists should want a champion for their position who knows Marx’s writings inside and out. Unfortunately, as he’s shown on many occasions, Jordan Peterson doesn’t fit this bill.
The project of the [Seasteading Institute] however is not so much about a wish to live independently on the sea, as a desire to reach certain political objectives which could have a societal effect beyond the seastead. The Seasteaders’ project also contains an unwillingness to accept the unifying temporal forces encoded within democratic neoliberalism, and an attempt to create multiplicities and temporal folds that are hyperstitional in nature. The project exists within a wider continuum stretching back through industrialised Capitalism that incorporates both microscopic forms of life and the Geo-tectonic landscape. This relationship can be traced through a Capitalist subculture with its origins in the European Romantic tradition through to the present moment of Silicon Valley Transhumanist Libertarianism.
This essay by Daniel Sean Kelly might be the best thing I’ve ever read on seasteading — and it’s only part one of six.
Part speculativefiction, part overview. This is highly recommended!
@Outsideness has shared an article that argues for the breaking up of the Catholic Church. The author, one David M. Simon, writes:
Splitting the Catholic Church into several or many separate churches is the best way to sharply reduce church sex crime, corruption, and cover-ups. The separate churches would compete with each other for members and clergy in the same way that non-Catholic churches do. The competition would produce more transparency and better practices that would minimize church crime and corruption. Some of the separate Catholic churches would be scandal-free; others would not. But as with non-Catholic churches, both worshippers and clergy would vote with their feet, move to better-run churches, and thereby impose competitive discipline, financial and otherwise, on poorly run churches.
It’s a Moldbuggian argument which goes off piste from there, however, arguing that the second-best way to tackled sex crime in the Catholic Church is to end the requirement of celibacy. “Prohibitions don’t prevent activities. They produce black markets and crime.” Celibacy, of course, applies specifically to adults, presumably. Prohibitions on child sex abuse would surely remain without the requirement of celibacy… Big danger of slipping into weird territory here, mate. We’ll come back to this bizarre point in a minute…
The article continues:
Splitting up the Catholic Church would require the pope and the top levels of the Church’s hierarchy to cede much of their power, but separate Catholic churches could adhere to the same theological doctrines, celebrate the same Mass, and continue their educational and charitable good work. They also could theologically diverge and form different denominations, as Anglicans, Lutherans, Methodists, Baptists, and other Protestant denominations have.
The breakup of the Catholic Church could be accomplished in a variety of ways. A “big bang” approach would declare each parish, diocese, or archdiocese an independent church entity and allow the new independent entities to organize into associations, remain standalone churches, or further subdivide. Another approach would call for conventions of Catholics in each nation to organize their churches. Like non-Catholic churches, the resulting separate Catholic churches could end up organized in a myriad of ways. The Orthodox Church has 22 self-governing churches with the same or very similar theology and worship. Protestant churches range from those with a single building to the worldwide Anglican Communion.
Splitting up the Catholic Church, however it is done, would increase competition, produce more transparency and better practices, and accomplish what the existing Catholic Church has proven it cannot: sharply reduce church crime and corruption.
The Catholic Church is not too big to fail. It’s time to break it up.
I admire the sentiment and the transparency. It’s unintentionally humorous, however. I’m interested in it though, not as a Catholic but because this is something I’ve written about before, in what is effectively my first essay written on the topics that have come to define this blog: “Monastic Vampirism“.
I don’t stand by it all but my initial interest in monasticism, the Catholic Church and Agamben was that I wondered whether monasticism itself could constitute a form of exit? In my reading of Giorgio Agamben’s The Highest Poverty I found a Franciscan monasticism that was proto-anarchist in nature, advocating radical self-discipline over any hierarchical prohibition, use over ownership, and I ended up comparing these outside-oriented communities to the clinic at La Borde made famous by Felix Guattari.
I won’t recount the whole thing, although I’d warn any first-time readers that it does wander around in places (to a fault), but the question remains interesting for me: does the form-of-life encouraged by Franciscan monasticism reveal just where the modern church has — and continues — to go wrong?
Land himself, I assume, remains against monasticism on principle — with the relevant passages where he writes against its practice quoted in the old post also — but is that still the case? Even when thought of as a form of exit from law and the state, and church preemptively?
The church absorbed the monasteries precisely because it did not trust them to function beyond its power and control. For it to fragment now, as Simon suggests, then, does not go far enough. Fragmenting the law does not stop it being the law. Simon seems to argue for something beyond prohibition without considering just how much these forms of competition would undoubtedly require it to remain. He is nonetheless right to suggest that prohibition does nothing to desire — it might even encourage it — but how is that an ethical argument for the prevention of pedophilic sex abuse? It doesn’t work, precisely because it is a form-of-life that is required. The Church has to reinvent its infrastructure even more radically than proposed here to reacquire that.
To return to the “Patchwork is Not a Model” debate, discussed in Part 3, I came to understand that my initial mistake was in associating the word “model” with a blanket reductivism rather than seeing modelling more generally as a distinct methodology that could be of use to our discussions.
My complaint, in line with the discussion had in Part 4, was that the word had become meaningless in this most generic of uses, because the system it was being deployed in orbit of was purposefully under-defined. And yet, as Reza went on to demonstrate, its usage in scientific fields is far more useful than the vague way it was deployed by passing Twitter interlocutors. Reza writes:
Yes, the word “model” is often used in quite general terms. For me, a “model” is an essentially theoretical entity with a definitive structure, description and scope constraints.
In a way, when I say “model”, I absolutely mean the science of modelling, and [particularly] modelling in science and engineering where the concept of “model” is a systematic and explicitly formulated idealization of an interpreted structure of either an actual phenomenon (target system) or another model.
In the latter case, models are more like hypotheticals or counterfactuals which we can use to talk about possibilities which might not be found in nature. Like, for example, three sex biology or Arthur Eddington‘s idea of the model as what can possibly expand the scope of what is considered to be the actual.
I think what you are describing [with patchwork] is more like big toy models where the main theoretical assumptions are suspended in favour of tinkering and hypothetical manipulations (thought experiments).
This, again, provided a further opening through which to discuss patchwork with Reza on his own terms. Patchwork is less an attempt at imposing a system but rather a provocative remodelling for tinkering with and manipulating that which is — or, put another way, confronting with the building blocks that constitute what is contemporaneously seen as essential and not contingent; as “given”.
To reconsider our “territories” on these terms and to use this configuration as a basis for geopolitical reorganisation has the potential (I believe) to be hugely productive in a modern world where state consolidation as a process is faltering everywhere we look and the revision and rejection of the historic results of imperialism and colonialism are increasingly commonplace in politics both on the left and the right.
This rejection of centuries of state consolidation has generally been championed around these parts as a symptom of a wider process of entropic fragmentation where those who have ruled over us continue to lose their grip. As traumatic as such a process may be, it is one that we must stay attentive and vigilant to, and particularly to the ways in which it shapes our senses of ourselves.
As Reza put it, we must strive for a better understanding of “how changes in our self-conception necessarily lead to the transformation of our collective modes of acting”. This has already happened for the worse, with the growth of neoliberalism dismantling our collective politics.
Here, the enunciation of a shared project that I hoped was on our horizon began to feel ever closer.
For me, this interest in the relationship between self-conception and collective modes of acting comes from Mark Fisher’s declaration in Capitalist Realism that the “required subject is a collective subject” — and the more I read of Intelligence & Spirit, the more I begin to see Reza’s conception of “intelligence” to be one way of formulating such a required “subject” far beyond the limits of that term as it is typically understood.
I’ve written on other conceptions of “collective subjectivity” frequently on this blog, particularly in orbit of the discussions of communism that can be found in the works of Georges Bataille and Maurice Blanchot. These are, perhaps, my relative areas of “expertise” but, in their shared poeticism, these thinkers remain difficult to map onto a thinking such as Reza’s. (At least his current thinking — his Bataillean earlier texts remain a treat in this regard and a further conversation on this would be more enlightening as to how much he sees being carried forwards.)
What is particularly curious about Reza’s trajectory in this regard is that he has turned to those philosophers that many of his most infamous influences openly derided. Bataille famously wrote about Hegel on a number of occasions and even believed that his philosophy would “recommence and undo Hegel’s Phenomenology“. His distaste is perhaps an inherited bias of his time, however — his direct knowledge of Hegel’s philosophy is regularly contested.
Reza’s work, however, rather than doing away with one in favour of the other, seems to draw insight from both. Take, for example, that great philosophical watershed moment: the death of God. Towards the end of Intelligence & Spirit, Reza describes this event in terms that seem equally Bataillean (that is, sur-Nietzschean) and Hegelian:
There is an oft-repeated objection that all that enlightened humanism accomplished was to overthrow God only to replace it with humans. But … this is not a matter of exchanging one tyrant for another, but of taking the first step in an ongoing struggle to unseat the conditions of servitude. The singularity of geistig intelligence lies in its plastic and protean form — that is, its ability to recognise itself both as that which currently is and that which it currently is not. It is by orienting itself towards that which it is not … that the human acquires the capacity to see beyond its temporal image of itself and the world, and thus becomes capable of reassembling itself from nowhere and nowhere through the ramifying objective — an exploratory purpose — inconceivable even by God’s intellectual intuition.
We undoubtedly have a general conception of what we are not — our answers to such a question define so much of our popular culture — but do we even understand who we are? Especially today? There’s something almost Deleuzian here in this description of the “singularity of geistig intelligence” and the reality of our present situation, of inconsistency and confusion, reminds me of Deleuze reading of Alice in Wonderland.
‘Who are you?’ said the Caterpillar.
This was not an encouraging opening for a conversation. Alice replied, rather shyly, ‘I — I hardly know, sir, just at present — at least I know who I was when I got up this morning, but I think I must have changed several times since then.’
In Lewis Carroll’s story, Alice’s journey into Wonderland completely dissolves her sense of who she is. She knows she began her day as Alice but the events of the day play with her head to such an extent that she wonders if she might now instead be someone else that she knows. She changes her size so much that she forgets what her body is actually supposed to look like, but what seems to confuse her most is that she doesn’t know things like she used to. She recites poems but they come out wrong. She can’t remember facts that she did before. She wonders if she might now be a school friend instead of herself. She becomes utterly adrift in her own multiplicity.
For Deleuze, in The Logic of Sense, Alice’s predicament — her disorienting experience of his own multiplicity, contrasted to her prior identity as “Alice” which she woke up with that morning — is emblematic of a Platonic dualism: two conflicting dimensions — “that of limited thing and measured things, of fixed qualities” and “a pure becoming without measure, a veritable becoming-mad, which never rests” — which together govern our sense of reality.
Again, we return to the issue of modelling. “Pure becoming,” says Deleuze, “contests both model and copy at once”. It contests the fixed identity of “Alice” as fixed representation of self and likewise the paradoxically multiplicitous nature of being-singular.
The paradox of “infinite identity”, as Deleuze calls it, is important here. But what is most clear in Reza’s work is that — if we attempt to insert Alice into Intelligence & Spirit for a moment — she, as a child, is largely disconnected from a geistig intelligence. In some ways, her story comes to resemble the pure becoming of a geistig intelligence after the death of God — she is a child anew orphaned by a Holy Father.
This experience of acknowledging what one is and what one is not likewise seems to echo Bataille’s evaluation of the death of God and its affect on a social self-knowledge in The Accursed Share. He writes:
The same God that preserved unity in its unshakable self-identity — which is no longer identical to itself and is now changeable — had to disperse the human race the same way that it had once held it together. The same way that it was the cause of its own unity in its identity, it is now the cause of its fragmentation in its multiplicity.
What I read in common here is this paradox of an “infinite identity”. Now that God — the holy One and All — has perished, we see ourselves in his image. As Reza says, this does not mean that we are God but rather that we see this nature once jettisoned into the divine as being an inherent part of ourselves and, most important, our sense of ourselves as selves.
There is a lot more to be said here regarding the relationship between Bataille and Hegel’s thought — another thread that is far too extensive for right now and which I’d like to pick up another time. (I’m currently reading Rodolphe Gasché’s book Georges Bataille: Phenomenology & Phantasmatology which explores their relationship in great detail.) First, though, we might interrogate the problems that Reza raises with a project of absolute fragmentation. There remains a disconnect between fragmentations of self and state.
Nick Land reemerges here as a notable inspiration and foundation when considering the (previous) influence of Bataille on Reza’s work. And, in orbit of the patchwork debate, much emphasis has been put on the role of fragmentation in Nick’s thinking in this regard. (That is, fragmentation seen — as Land puts it — as “a selective sorting process that mobilizes the Outside.”) However, Reza responded with an explicitly Hegelian challenge to previous articulations of such a process:
There was a discussion with Robin [had privately in NYC] that the patchwork toy model shouldn’t be all about fragmentation (ie. bringing out differences). We don’t know the scope of these particularities and differences yet.
Integration or unification is also important because not only can it actually re-orient some of these differences but, more significantly, it can shed light on new differences hitherto hidden from the perspective of current particularities. So, to me, patchwork should be bimodal — meaning going through fragmentation, integration, more fragmentation, more integration. But then isn’t this a kind of Hegelian account of the process of concretization which is, of course, tainted by Hegel’s less interesting and wholesome theological commitments?
In my opinion, what we need is an account of the process of concretization, plus all of its methodological richness, yet minus all the junk about the whig progressivist account of history, teleology and inflated political prescriptions.
Another issue in my mind, [regarding] the political mobilization of patchwork, is [how effective can it be]? In other words, such experimentations are still done within the current world climate. But, as long as the world climate is like it is, any form of experimentation can be parasitic on the current world logic and end up being yet another fundamentally failed experimentation in the vein of communization theory.
To that extent, I genuinely don’t know whether it is possible to perform such experimentations as long as we are living in this world paradigm.
I confessed an ignorance here — I may know my Bataille but not so much my Hegel — but, whilst at first I skirm under the suggestion, it makes sense, and this has long been the elephant in the room in which many of us have been discussing patchwork.
Of course, I would argue the UK presents an interesting potential case study for this, but such is the problem with the current Brexit vote (for many on both the left and the right, despite the nature of the populist debate around the issue): Should we stay and remain a part of a well-established world paradigm, continuing to try and shape it from within? Or should we leave on the off-chance that we might somehow be able to challenge this paradigm and forge it anew for ourselves? Both options remain a pipe dream to the vast majority.
Considering this persistent vision of a dystopian utopia (potentially) beyond the confines of our presently self-destructive neoliberalism, this dialectical process that Reza put forward is certainly much more attractive a methodology to carry forwards, at the interscalar level of state-subject, when you remove Hegel’s penchant for a nationalising teleology. But I remain somewhat skeptical — such is the current global mindset regarding any potential future outside.
Nevertheless, Reza went on to clarify:
The point of a so-called speculative dialectics is […] you begin with a set of very abstract universalities (like, we are all humans), then you fragment it, then you begin to determine what the fault lines are, then you integrate these fragmentations on a higher level, then you arrive at new differences and so on. However, the problem with Hegel as I see it is that this process seems to be already determined by a finality (historical telos).
This is the crux of a next stage in patchwork thinking, and geopolitical thinking more generally, I think — at least my own as I have been trying to apply it to the UK.
A major part of my research over the last year has been concerned with just such a problem and a central text for thinking this through has been Tom Nairn’s rich and dense book The Break-Up of Britain, as well as his essay “The Twilight of the British State“, both of which are ostensibly for the dissolution of the United Kingdom and also for a project of European integration. It seems to precisely argue for what Reza is suggesting here: a two-fold process of fragmentation-integration that may help forge a new way forwards.
Now, this book was written in the 1970s, before the EU as we know it today had fully consolidated itself into a neoliberal institution, but in trying to see how Nairn’s argument of fragmentation and integration works, I see a vision of another and very different Europe to the one we have today, which is notably devoid of the mythical finality of homogenous equilibrium and where the differences that emerge through processes of free market and international entropy are not dealt with so appallingly as they have been in the decades since it was written.
Part of the challenge of reading the text today is trying to imagine the Europe that Nairn has in mind considering the Europe that we have. As such, much patchwork thinking goes much further backwards, rejecting our once-fragmented-but-now-consolidated wholes that we have, ie. Europe and the United States. It is Ancient Greece or Renaissance Italy that are instead taken as historical case studies. Reza picked up on this himself, writing:
I think the prototype of this patchwork model in the way we are talking about it is not the contemporary Europe. Cyrus the Second, for the first time, managed to integrate a massive amount of land under precisely a similar paradigm. The central government only played the role of a soft referee and protectorate only when it was absolutely necessary.
Cyrus and the Persian empire are very interesting examples to invoke here, especially considering the history of the Greco-Persian War, which offers a counter often left unmentioned when the Greek city-states are invoked as patchwork antecedents. (Another potential tangent, which will be left unexplored, presents itself here.)
Reza goes on to note that these apparent antecedents were largely founded “on cultural and religious discontinuities.” He makes this point to counter my suggestion, explored in numerous posts on this blog, that a future patchwork Britain will likely flourish along the lines of class conflict. He continued:
There is a long tradition of patchwork systems in history. However, the majority of these patchworks are not based on any sort of class conflict and almost none of them see the patchwork system as a scientific-political enterprise that should be taken seriously in its own terms. To them, patchwork is only a utilitarian means for an optimal state-governance.
This is, in part, a rebuttal to my English parochialism — class conflict being the fault line that, historically, binds us as a discordant nation. This remains very much the heart of an English neuroticism but I have likewise been interested in the ways this neuroticism has been exported to the rest of the world, shapeshifting as it goes.
Class conflict is often discussed, in innumerable Marxist studies, as the heart of the industrialised nation-state and England is likewise taken to be the “grandfather” of the modern nation-state as we know it today — for better and for worse, depending on where your politics lie. It feels fitting to me, then, that England (and the UK more generally) should be the first to experiment with its form in a way that will — I believe — actually improve relations amongst different peoples rather than embolden a UK historical project of divide and conquer.
Fragment the UK along the lines of historical class conflict, integrate a new social consciousness, rinse and repeat, etc. (for as long as it is productive).
This is where my interest in the Gothic comes to the fore, as an aesthetic movement largely enacted along the lines of cultural and religious differences which holds class unconsciousness and class antagonisms at its heart. Such is the plot of Wuthering Heights, for instance, or a dozen other Gothic novels. Class appears as the bedrock for all that floats above it in the toy model structure of the Gothic subject.
Reza went on to acknowledge science fiction as playing a similar role:
I see sci-fi as another form of this convergent ramification. For example, Robert Heinlein in America, whose works are picked up by both the left and the new right, even though Heinlein’s work is distinctly libertarian in nature, and in many ways anti-right and anti-left. For example, see [Heinlein’s short story] The Man Who Sold The Moon — it’s like communism’s vision of cosmism put into motion by rabid capitalist — even Ponzi scheme-like — methods.
I wondered if this tendency was something explored more explicitly in Kristen Alvanson’s work. Together, Kristen and Reza have collaborated on numerous occasions, most infamously perhaps in Cyclonopedia wherein Kristen makes an appearance as the discoverer of the book’s manuscript in its Lovecraftian introductory chapter.
Her own book, XYZT, forthcoming on Urbanomic, seems to dramatise much of this conversation, albeit how it may play out between the US and Iran rather than between the UK’s internally fragmented subjects. It is summarised on the Urbanomic website as follows:
‘We’ve been told that there’s no difference between us and them.’ On this premise the protagonists of XYZT contrive a device capable of shuttling volunteers back and forth between the US and Iran, hidden from the watchful eyes of immigration police and state bureaucracies. Each volunteer will have a single opportunity to be received by a local host and to have a brief authentic experience of what it means to live as “them” before being transported back home.
Set against the backdrop of escalating hostilities between Iran and the US, and based on her experiences living in Iran at the end of the first decade of 2000s, Kristen Alvanson’s XYZT builds on the idea of a ‘dialogue between civilizations’ only to demonstrate the potentially outlandish ramifications that might follow from such a seemingly innocuous idea. An audacious cross-genre experiment, a firsthand memoir of what it means to see what ‘they’ see, and a science-fictional, non-standard engagement with anthropology, XYZT reveals fissures and cracks in what the media calls reality, but which in fact is liable to take on all the unpredictable features of a contemporary fairy tale.
I’d love to hear how Kristen herself would respond to some of these questions — another post for another time? — but this is what Reza himself had to say:
Kristen’s work is a kind of weird debunking of this whole idea of Dialogue or Communication as some sort of vector for universal harmony.
Even though I consider myself a universalist, the Habermasian paradigm of rational dialogue is not going to work. The same thing can be said about Brandom but at least he has a far better grasp of reason and universality.
I think both of these two figures really confound the universality of reason which is abstract with concrete universality or collectivity. The former never warrants the latter. Concrete collectivity requires something more — new techniques, new understandings of complexity, particularities of the human experience, etc.
However, with that said, I think reason is an absolutely necessary component (even though it’s not sufficient). We just don’t know what these differences are. To actually do the hard work is to conceptualize about these differences, to make them known and highlighted. And to conceptualize these differences we have to take the idea of reason seriously, to study and renegotiate it so that we don’t get trapped in metaphysical and speculative flights of fancy re: the concept of reason and/or difference.
Habermas and Brandom remain totally alien to me at present as well — I am continuing, very slowly, in my attempts to rectify this persistent unfamiliarity with many of Reza’s references — as Robin often jokes, you chat to Reza and you don’t come away with an answer but a reading list. However, this was still very interesting to me as this misguided reliance on “Communication” as the bringer of peace has largely been my starting point as well. (See, for instance, “Egress” or my series on COUM Transmissions.) This is not to say that communication cannot help matters of disagreement but rather it is as much a tool of warfare and harm as it is peace and harmony.
I have been heavily influenced by Bataille’s writings on communication and community in this regard — which regular readers may be well aware of already — particularly his writings on communication as something inherent to human experience which is based on a “principle of insufficiency” — a conception that would feed into his Literature & Evil period.
In the second chapter of On Nietzsche, for instance, Bataille writes:
[Human beings] must “communicate” (as much with indefinite existence as among themselves): the absence of “communication” (the egoist folded back on himself) is obviously the most condemnable. But “communication” cannot take place without wounding or defiling the beings, is itself guilty. The good, in whatever way one envisions it, is the good of beings, but in wanting to attain it, we must ourselves question — in the night, through evil — the very beings in relation to which we want it.
A fundamental principle is expressed as follows:
“Communication” cannot take place between one full and intact being and another: it wants beings who question being in themselves, who place their being at the limit of death, of nothingness.
Bataille’s limit here is not necessarily indicative of a nihilism. His “nothingness” is perhaps proto-Sartrean in being a symbol for “the transcendence of being” in itself, in its illusionary wholeness. This nothingness is, then, as palpable as existence itself — an immanent outside that being strikes in negative and which supports the very structures of being in itself.
To communicate, then, is to seek to transcend oneself, interacting with the other, with an otherness, that may possibly kill us. It is to put oneself at risk — in whatever sense we may want to understand such a risk, whether that be a risk to life or a risk to ego. We open ourselves up to the challenge of another(‘s) existence.
This is not to rest too much on Bataille’s violent melodrama — no matter how much I enjoy it — but to see in his work the acknowledgement that communication can be very difficult and fraught whilst it is nonetheless necessary and worth striving for. Communication is, in this sense, a necessaryevil — and this brings us back to the discussion around “education” with which I opened this series properly.
I feel like, underneath his melodramatic prose, Bataille is also a thinker of this “hard work” that Reza is talking about, and it is this hard work that, in my mind, is associated explicitly with any striving for a future communism — a topic which would be drawn out more explicitly in the Bataille-inspired writings of Maurice Blanchot and Jean-Luc Nancy.
There seems to be a sense in which Reza is using these “analytic” voices — if we might preserve the distinction just for a little longer, for a momentary clarity — that are largely unpopular in the circles in which his reputation has grown out from, but he nonetheless seems to be wrestling with a problem that is as Bataillean as it is, say, Carnapian — albeit having done away with the stylistics of the former’s kind of thinking. It is an investigation, perhaps, of the ways that the irrational productively intrudes on reason in reason’s insufficiency. We might even understand “reason” to be that which helps us “deal with” the irrational, the unconscious, the unruly flows of the earth.
For Bataille, throughout his writings, and those associated with the College of Sociology in particular, it seems like this irrationality is something that must necessarily be held aloft in tandem with reason if we are to strive for a new form of collective subject that sees the present (reductive) sense of being cast into the void.
This is the most striking thread that I will leave unexplored here and I intend to pick this up elsewhere at another time. Far more research and argumentation is required on my part to better construct a linkage here, between the Bataillean undercurrents of past and present Reza, but I’ve held your attention on this point for long enough for the time being.
In the next post — and the final post of this rambling and mixed-up series — we will end with a discussion during which came the moment where I found myself agreeing with Reza wholeheartedly: our discussion on the nature (and future) of Communism.
In my previous post, I tried to avoid getting too bogged down in people’s various problems with Jodi Dean’s edition of the Mark Fisher Memorial Lecture at Goldsmiths last Friday. Not to diminish what those criticisms are and/or were, but rather because I think her overarching point was a really great one, even if the finer details were — inevitably — contentious.
But that’s not to say there can be no place for a broader discussion, as if this blog only deals in polite platitudes. So I wanted to separate this off into a different post.
Helpfully, the occasion of a comment received on “Comrades” which addresses some of the problems with that lecture and those that linger as a hangover, for some, from the reaction to Mark’s very controversial exit from political Twitter in 2013, provides a good basis to build on, setting out some criticisms and problems with those criticisms in themselves. The anon commenter “Sx” writes:
as someone who’s been deeply touched by mark’s writings and thought, i have to say i was really disapointed in jodi’s lecture.
it wasn’t that i didn’t want her to talk about ‘Exiting The Vampire Castle’ (although i do think it’s a piece of work that i’d happily see forgotten) but that rather than explore and complicate that space of tension between those on two opposing sides of the debate, jodi seamed to re-entrench a position that has (further) alienated so many people — this idea that people who are invested in so-called ‘identity’ politics (has she not heard of intersectionality which no, is not the same as liberalism) need to step in line and fight for some wider cause as though disparate groups of people have not and are not still, working together against different forms (both institutional/structural and personal) of abuse, oppression, whatever you want to call it.
and then to talk about Labour as the most progressive party in europe i mean it sounded more like something out of ‘Acid Corbynism’ than the potentialities i felt Mark was developing and opening in his ‘Acid Communism’ introduction.
I don’t want to re-hash some of the critiques of ‘Exiting The Vampire Castle’ but I will say that there were some really thoughtful responses written to that piece and I think that a whole bunch of people have been writing about, discussing, working through some of the ways in which a toxic environment on the left has splintered our ability to work together, find common cause, find accountability but also kindness in the ways we work through interpersonal conflict etc.
I think it’s really telling that (and here I risk being labeled an identitarian) so many of those who reacted negatively to Mark’s article were those people (queer and trans folk, POC etc) who have been alienated from party politics and yes, Communist organizing (at least in this country). I think Jodi didn’t help herself when during the Q&A, she dismissed one person’s (a woman of colour) question for being uninformed of black radical organizing in the US rather than opening up a space to acknowledge and discuss the reasons why so many people feel disconnected and disappointed with ‘radical politics’.
To me, it sounds very similar to this alt-right/Peterson discourse of liberal snowflakes obsessed with identity politics. I dare say that what Jodi Dean and Mark Fisher do share with many on the alt right is that they are white, heterosexual and involved (largely) in the academy. As I say, Mark’s work continues to deeply effect me but I don’t think ‘The Vampire Castle’ was anywhere near his best. There’s more I could talk about visa vi Jodi’s talk and the Q&A (I think it’s dangerous to imply that those critical of her or of ‘The Vampire Castle’ are simply occupying or embodying this very thing that is wrong the left rather than actually listening to people) but i’ll leave it at that for now. oh and i super enjoy your blog x
[whoops, didn’t mean to write (largely) involved in the academy as a shared trait with the alt right. also, wrong *with* the left typo erk]
First of all, I’d say thank you for your comment! I disagree with some points but I’m with you on others. I want to try and address each of them in turn.
The easiest one to address is the claim that Jodi said Labour was the most progressive party in Europe. She didn’t. She said it was the strongest or the most powerful, something like that. I can’t remember her exact words but I thought it was obvious she was referencing the fact that it is the leftist party with the largest membership in the EU. It has (or has had) a similar rise to international fame as Syriza before it and that’s a very interesting phenomenon whether it ends up counting for anything in the long run or not.
I don’t even know how it is possible to measure “progressivity”.
Speaking to your comment more broadly, however, Dean’s style and references and whatever else aside, I do think that she did well to (re)affirm the foundations that we’ve long had at our disposal but which have been diminished by mechanisms of capitalist capture — a task similar to that taken on by Mark in the development of his Acid Communism project — so I really don’t understand the complaint that she didn’t attempt to open up a space to acknowledge certain problems.
Dean spoke precisely of the kind of entrepreneurial politics which has defined much of leftist discourse since the 1990s, especially since the diminishing of a class consciousness that has been very explicit over the last ten to fifteen years.
Intersectionality, in this regard, is a useful concept but it has notably not assisted in alleviating or raising a common consciousness. We can point to pop cultural examples but within the academy and grad student lefty circles all it seems to have done is emboldened a new atomism (as individualism). I agree that “intersectionality” is not (neo)liberalism in theory but it is often deployed as (neo)liberalism in practice and that is largely because of the main undercurrent of Mark’s text and Jodi’s talk: the lack of a decent class politics.
I should say at this point that I’m not that aware of any good critiques of “Exiting the Vampire Castle” that talk about this. (The most vocal critics were the ones who gloated about Mark’s suicide in the aftermath of his death, of course, and who were largely devoid of any reputable class politics prior to that anyway. I’d be happy to be sent some others though.) The only critiques that I’ve read have completely missed the point about class consciousness being the basis for an anticapitalist politics (which has been ejected rather than positioned horizontality beside other struggles as intersectionality claims to do). So I think, broadly speaking, the critique at the heart of the article remains an important one to consider: these identitarian politics are precisely the result of — rather than a reaction to — capitalist realism, since they eject the central capitalist critique for the sake of vague ungrounded balloons of experience that bounce off each other without consequence.
That is not an outright dismissal of “identity politics” as such but they certainly aren’t put to productive use very often anymore. I think it’s good to take a political stance on your own sense of self and how you fit within a wider world — this is a large part of the (feminist) process of consciousness raising that Mark so frequently advocated for — but the frequency with which such thinking slips into egotism and navel-gazing is regretful. No one talks about that as a perpetual risk — the reduction of a minoritarian politics down to a minority of one. That’s not the case for everyone, of course, but that is frequently how these movements are presented and it is along these lines that things so often fall apart in leftist circles in my experience. I’d be happy to be proven wrong on that though.
I think this kind of reaction is inherently linked to the original reaction to “Exiting the Vampire Castle”. It has always seemed to me like everyone who read Capitalist Realism with glee, thinking they were above its criticisms, had to suddenly confront the fact that maybe they were contributing to it as well. And the timeline here is important. Mark developed and wrote Capitalist Realism in the mid 2000s and eventually published it in 2009, before all the UK political drama of 2010, a moment of impotence from which so many of these “identity politics” discussions developed outwards from and which likewise echoed a very rapid shift in who was going to university and why.
I think the failure of those early 2010s experiences showed that this “reflective impotence” went far deeper and, whilst somewhat overly embittered, I think “Exiting the Vampire Castle” expresses a disappointment and frustration held by many other leftists — a disappointment in the fact that class politics, once a common ground on which to build political projects, has fallen by the wayside and the years that followed the publication of Capitalist Realism really didn’t help alleviate that issue.
Owen Jones addressed this himself just two years after Mark published Capitalist Realism with his book Chavs and I remember reading that book very clearly, allowing it to blow a small hole open in my own (class) consciousness and change how I saw myself amongst my peers during my second year at university. If I ever parroted its arguments, however, I’d be laughed at.
That’s an experience that has persisted for many years — continuing today even — and which Mark points out himself when he notes how rough a time Jones has had — and continues to have — despite being “the person most responsible for raising class consciousness in the UK in the last few years”. Owen Jones’ book was (and still is) marvellous but whilst it seemed to single-handedly force the word “chav” to fall into disrepute amongst the middle classes, it didn’t seem to change people’s behaviours more generally. In fact, the primary goal that Jones said he had (in the updated preface for a later edition) was left largely unscathed. He writes that
the book wasn’t simply about the word [“chav”]. It aimed to challenge the myth that ‘we’re all middle class now’: that most of the old working class had been ‘aspirational’ and joined ‘Middle Britain’ (whatever that was), leaving behind a feckless, problematic rump. This was often racialized and described as the ‘white working class’. ‘Chavs’ was the term — encompassing a whole range of pejorative connotations — that best summed up this caricature.”
But in tackling the caricature, it seemed to only allow the middle classes to absorb the chav image as somehow respectable and cool now. And that’s a “class drag” fashion trend that Goldsmiths remains renowned for — which leads us to the elephant in the room that Jodi was perhaps completely unaware of:
It’s been said — by some who are within the Visual Cultures department at Goldsmiths, I might add — that the “VC” of “Vampire Castle” echoing the “VC” of the “Visual Cultures” department is not a coincidence.
It is partly this subtext within the original essay that led to a schism that has never closed within Goldsmiths itself but it is a schism that still needs addressing despite its sensitivity: for all its self-declared progressivisms, Goldsmiths’ class politics are severely lacking, whether that is in terms of management, lecturers or students. Because of this elephant in the room, the likes of Mark Fisher — working class intellectuals who write unfetishistically about their experiences, particularly how they continue to affect their working lives as lecturers — have been removed one by one from academia. (It has likewise been suggested that “Exiting the Vampire Castle” may had something to do with Mark not getting the promotion that left him so gutted in 2016.) As someone put it in a conversation had just last night, what Mark represented was a third path between “the dichotomy of Adornian academic miserablism and Goldsmiths identitarianism” and this is what is so striking about his absence from Goldsmiths today. There remain only a few who continue to carry that torch.
What’s most apparent are the continued casualties. I know of someone who was signed off sick with depression after being attacked and harassed for daring to talk about a UK-specific working class experience in a public lecture programme last year. This rang so true with one of Mark’s primary warnings in his essay:
The danger in attacking the Vampires’ Castle is that it can look as if — and it will do everything it can to reinforce this thought — that one is also attacking the struggles against racism, sexism, heterosexism. But, far from being the only legitimate expression of such struggles, the Vampires’ Castle is best understood as a bourgeois-liberal perversion and appropriation of the energy of these movements. The Vampires’ Castle was born the moment when the struggle not to be defined by identitarian categories became the quest to have ‘identities’ recognised by a bourgeois big Other.
Likewise amongst students, to be from a working class background — particularly at a postgraduate level — is a rarity.
During the strikes of 2018, there was a strong and vocal group of undergrad students who were evidently devoid of any sense of solidarity with workers and that seems to be because working class people remain a minority within that institution.
I know from my own experience that I was regularly the only person from such a background in most of my classes and it had a major impact on many discussions had — the worst being when reading Mark’s text “Good For Nothing” in the aftermath of his death and having that text dismissed by one lecturer due to the fact that, apparently, “rich people get sad too”. To be the only student to object to that erasure of class consciousness, mere days after his death, became just one more way in which Mark’s apparently best-forgotten essay continued to resonate with daily experiences.
Yeah, maybe Mark was a white cishet man but Mark was a very valuable voice precisely for his working class background and his understanding and articulation of that experience. He didn’t suffer fools gladly and he could sniff out that “bourgeois-liberal perversion and appropriation” of historic struggles very quickly. In fact, I think most can who are from such backgrounds, because the comradeship in the working class cities that I grew up in — which crossed gendered and racialised lines effortlessly because we all shared a broader socioeconomic struggle — is a world away from what I’ve discovered to be the norm here in London, and particularly in a place like Goldsmiths.
I do appreciate your point that many of those who took issue with Mark’s post were POC or queer, of course, but this chimes in with a further elephant in the room. Many people from such demographics that I know, who are additionally working class, have had no problem with Mark’s essay. Those I know who have don’t seem to share in the experience that the article is so focussed on. And so the acknowledgement that certain minoritarian political positions can nonetheless remain bourgeois in this century is an important one to emphasise here, which Jodi likewise did in her lecture. Identity politics, deployed by these people, too often lead to inverted “struggle sessions” where the working class is routinely humiliated by the bourgeoisie who has discovered their place on some great Venn diagram of suffering and chosen to misuse and abuse it, undermining the very politics they claim to represent through their blind self-interest.
None of these other identities are magically allied with class struggles and being told that is not a bad thing. It is, unfortunately, very necessary. To liken this to a Jordan Peterson “get over it, snowflakes” is incredibly ignorant. That isn’t remotely the message being expressed (quite clearly, I think), which is: stop conveniently “dis-articulating” class experiences from your newfound academy-shaped subjectivity. Mark says this himself explicitly, even addressing your concerns about his own identitarian position(s):
The privilege I certainly enjoy as a white male consists in part in my not being aware of my ethnicity and my gender, and it is a sobering and revelatory experience to occasionally be made aware of these blind-spots. But, rather than seeking a world in which everyone achieves freedom from identitarian classification, the Vampires’ Castle seeks to corral people back into identi-camps, where they are forever defined in the terms set by dominant power, crippled by self-consciousness and isolated by a logic of solipsism which insists that we cannot understand one another unless we belong to the same identity group.
[…] The task, as ever, remains the articulation of class, gender and race — but the founding move of the Vampires’ Castle is the dis-articulation of class from other categories.
Being made aware of our blindspots is a major part of any consciousness raising exercise, and it can likewise be a traumatic one. Goldsmiths — and many who orbit it — could do well to recognise their own class blindspots, because they are as gaping to everyone else as my own white privilege was, for example, before I moved to south east London. However, the suggestion seems to be that doing this is a violence in itself and any discussion that bourgeois minoritarians might have further unruptured blind spots is taken with the utmost offence.
Further to this point about listening to people, it becomes strange that so many of the more patronising and cynical questions asked last Friday were asked by people who evidently hadn’t read Mark or even listened to Jodi’s talk. Some questions were truly bizarre and pointless. This was the worst result of Mark’s original essay, which seemed to largely demonstrate that everyone was apparently guilty of the same thing and complained about not being listened to. It was Spiderman meme territory.
To your point about her dismissal of a black woman’s point: that point was factually incorrect. I may need to listen back to the recording but the question seemed to be “Why haven’t POC been involved in these movements?” And the answer given was: “But they have?” Maybe Dean was in a defensive flow by that point in the evening but she did well to address a lot of other historical inaccuracies that were fired at her as critiques from the crowd. (I only know about that Black communist history myself because a friend of mine wrote her dissertation on the Harlem Renaissance and Communist Russia’s financial and cultural support the various movements that grew out of that moment in the Black Radical Tradition.) Are you suggesting the question-asker would have known this if she wasn’t so disillusioned by party politics? I don’t see why that should be placed at Jodi’s feet.
(This is likewise similar to the question asked about rehabilitating rapists in communist parties — a disingenuous question asked by someone I don’t know but how was nonetheless accompanying one of the most insufferable bourgeois arseholes to regularly grace Goldsmiths’ events, who regularly thinks people are mysogynistic or racist simply because they think she’s a posh arsehole. It was a deeply unfair and antagonistic question which it would be impossible to do justice in such a forum. Dean nonetheless dodged it, as best she could, deciding to briefly address another historical example of Communist party forgiveness in the USA, but I’m not sure how she could come out of such a question unscathed. What struck me was that whilst many progressives might look to a prison system like Norway’s, for instance, with envy and admiration, the suggestion that we might take that approach socially rather than just allowing it to be implemented as part of state infrastructure, is seen as an abomination and makes Dean some kind of rape apologist. So let’s be clear: the audience that night was infrequently a fucking piece of work — if nonetheless very stereotypically Goldsmithsy.)
I still don’t understand the critique that she didn’t open up this space for discussing and addressing why people are disillusioned with radical politics. She did for me, in her talk and over the course of a marathon Q&A session the likes of which I’ve never seen or otherwise wilfully sat through. Discussing precisely the ways that neoliberal and bourgeois subjectivities have imperceptibly overwritten the foundations of our common politics is addressing the question of why so many are disillusioned. The only thing I wish she’d highlighted more was how complicit Goldsmiths itself is within that. That was noticeably missing but then how was she to know?
It’s worth emphasising further still that this was likewise to be the project of Acid Communism. Mark wanted to trace this problem of the dominance of bourgeois subjectivities back to the 1970s when governments all over the world felt threatened by the construction of various intersectional movements and discourses — “What if the working class became hippies?” being one of Mark’s central questions. And this surprised a lot of people because Mark hated hippies. Like many punks and postpunks, perhaps he saw their anti-work ethic as the somewhat attainable dream of a lackadaisical bourgeois class who had just rediscovered nature. And that’s still true today — hippie kids in class drag appropriating the knowledges of other cultures to liven up their otherwise normie and comfortable existences — but Mark decided to put his cynicism to one side and ask: “Well, what if this had gone differently and these various sides had been able to build something new together?”
This questions aren’t dissimilar to those asked in “Exiting the Vampire Castle”, they’re simply less offensive, perhaps, when jettisoned back to their 20th century roots. But answering those questions and following Mark’s own trajectory tells us a lot about the politics we currently have and it shouldn’t be controversial to say they’re not all that good or pretty.
That’s not to say they haven’t improved more recently, but from what? Pre-Corbyn, leftist politics had almost become a luxury that those they were intended to help could not afford. Corbyn is interesting because he has signalled a sea change. Before Corbyn, the only leftist party many people had time for was the Green Party, and they were rife with posh cunts.
You’re right that people are fighting against other forms of abuse and injustice in other areas, and that’s great, but to suggest that that is somehow separate from class struggle is odd to me. Nevertheless, that’s how so many see it, and — personally — I think that’s dumb.
To end on a more positive and agreeable note, I will add that I do agree with you on the issues of party politics. That has often turned me off too and it’s not something I get about Mark or Jodi’s positions. I feel like this is a point that could have done with a lot more exploration, and it is a topic I’ve discussed in relation to Jodi’s work on this blog before, but none of the insight discussed here was present in her talk. Mark was obviously involved in party politics and that’s also how he met the likes of Jeremy Gilbert and Plan C. Those who he worked with have generally turned me off in this regard. Lots of egotism which I’m surprised Mark managed to stomach. But I get the impression that maybe Mark thought it was better to be on the inside pissing out than on the outside pissing in, until he realised that those on the inside somehow saw themselves as outsiders pissing in anyway, regardless of their material conditions.
Also, I’m glad you enjoy the blog and I do hope this doesn’t change that.
Thanks for reading.
Update: On the final point about party politics, Ed Berger adds in the comments below:
With regards to the very last point on Mark’s engagement with the party, both theoretical and in practice — knowing that he was engaging with Autonomist thought during the period he was developing acid communism (and given his rejection of bureaucracy, so often associated with the party-form itself), is it possible that his relation to the party can be viewed through those lenses? In pieces like Negri’s ‘Capitalist Domination and Working Class Sabotage’, the party gets mutated, detached from bureaucracy and the state, pushed back into the ferment of working class organization and exists, at times, as that which is attacked by the working class out of necessity. He speaks of the party as “dead labour”, the “negation of the refusal of work”, whose historical legacy “looms over us like a nightmare.” But there’s a different party he perceives the outline of, one that makes possible the refusal of work and is subordinated to the process of proletarian self-valorization, as opposed to the reversal that the historical form has carried out.
This has been a couple of months in the making, working on some photographs and designs for some Xenogothic merchandise.
There are lots of t-shirts along with posters, stickers, phone cases and beach towels… I know! Beach towels!
There are more things to come. I’ve actually been informed it might be good to spread things out and not just slap a logo on things because I think it’s really funny to have a beach towel and a phone case for a blog.
To celebrate the launch, here’s a 20% off discount code that will be valid for one week: XENO20
You can take a look at what is on offer here. Feedback and piss-taking welcomed.
This year’s Mark Fisher Memorial Lecture was a beautiful occasion — like the wedding of a distant cousin, as someone put it. All sorts of new faces and estranged relatives gathering together for the first time in a long time, there for the booze mostly.
Socialising aside, Jodi Dean’s lecture ended up being pretty divisive. Personally, I really enjoyed it, and recognised much of Mark’s own thought within her expansions on her own work, but it seemed to really split the room. I don’t want to talk about any of the disagreements here. Rather, I want to talk about my main takeaway and likewise how it fed into another beautiful For K-Punk party afterwards.
Dean began by emphasising the stakes of Mark’s use of Jameson’s line: “the end of the world is easier to imagine than the end of capitalism.” For Dean, this provocation rang true because, for so many, capitalism is the end of the world, in an all too literal sense. Capitalism is responsible for so much loss of life. “The ravages of capitalism — enclosure, debt, stress — are deadly and world-ending,” she said. Mark’s own absence served as a painful case in point.
Following Mark’s death and so many of the political situations we have since found ourselves in, the question becomes: how can the left deal with and counteract this world-ending nature of capitalism whilst also being entrapped within it?
This question was introduced as a major part of Mark’s work, in Capitalist Realism most famously, but also in his controversial essay “Exiting the Vampire Castle“, with the concept of “capitalist realism” in itself continuing through both texts, constantly being developed and extended outwards in Mark’s thought.
Attempting to formulate a broader definition of capitalist realism, Dean summarised the concept as having four key features:
Capitalist realism is a “reflective impotence”: the imagining of alternatives is taken to be an impossibility. Our sense of possibility is, in itself, lost.
Capitalist realism is a pathology of the Left, most specifically. It is a left fatalism, a left acquiescence, a left impotence, a left giving-in. It speaks explicitly to the left’s rejection of alternatives. (This is more clear in “Exiting the Vampire Castle” than the book itself, and this emphasising of capitalist realism as a leftist problem was precisely what got Mark in so much trouble, it seems. The concept was fine as a diagnosis of a general malaise but to make the subtext so explicit was too bitter a pill for many to swallow.)
Capitalist realism is what we do. Whilst we might all have our various theories and opinions, capitalist realism is not a matter of what we think. Or rather, what we think is not enough. Anticapitalism becomes nothing but a “hipster gesture” in this regard; “a series of hysterical demands that no one expects to be met.” Capitalist realism is not what you challenge and shout about on a march; on special political occasions. It is what you do in your daily life.
Capitalist realism is individualism. It is the individualising of all problems. It is, as Mark most famously wrote, the association of suffering with brain chemistry, reinforcing capitalism’s own atomism. But, above all else, capitalist realism as individualism is the collapse of a collective politics.
In addition to these core points, in “Exiting the Vampire Castle”, Mark extended the social affects of capitalist realism to include excessive moralism, privatisation and the disavowal of class (and, by proxy, class consciousness).
For Mark, in 2013, understandably bitter about the communicative u-bend of social media, the left seemed to become defined by the eclipsing of its own politics, wherein bourgeois modes of subjectivity dominated the movement and reduced its underlying vision of a societal transformation to little more than a need to change individual attitudes. As such, political energy was moved away from organisation towards the individualising of leftist responsibilities and precluding any form of collective action that wasn’t the virulent fervour of self-abuse.
So, with all this surrounding us, how are we supposed to join together and hold each other to account in ways that will actually allow us to move forwards rather than languish in “frenzied stasis”?
The answer for Dean is the reaffirmation of comradeship and solidarity. We have to teach and encourage each other, and be forgiving to those who are on our side. Despite (but also because of) how capitalism might alienate and isolate us, comradeship and solidarity are indispensable to any just future, and the only name for such a future, for Dean, is communism.
Many people seemed to take issue with Dean’s provocations from here on out. The Q&A that followed was an hour-long onslaught of scepticism and swerves down blind alleys. It was an enriching session but mired by people who thought they knew their leftist history — but really didn’t — and many of the questions seemed only to prove much of her talk (and Mark’s thinking) right in their antagonism and bad faith that seemed emblematic of many of the points she — and Mark himself too — had made.
Many of these questions were incisive and productively provocative but many others felt like the thinly veiled hostility Mark himself often encountered. There are very important questions to be asked but their framing so often betrayed the very root of the bad faith of a capitalist realism. There was no attempt at building, only tearing down.
This is not a blind faith or a dismissal of points raised, but tone says a lot about what exactly is being repressed below the surface and why.
It was the same response Mark himself got in his first Postcapitalist Desire lecture in late 2016. During Mark’s lecture, there was a discussion around the name of the course, specifically his use of the word “postcapitalism” — how effective and efficient it was; why it was chosen over something else — introducing the problem of the meaning of words, which Dean likewise spent a lot of time on by discussing Doris Lessing’s book The Golden Notebook.
I think this exchange is worth quoting here in full because, for me, it echoed the Q&A with Jodi in quite an affecting way. Mark was used to these questions too. The discussion unfolded like this:
Mark Fisher: So what are the advantages of the concept of postcapitalism? And just initially I think it’s worth thinking about this — why use the term “post-capitalism” rather than communism, socialism, etc. Well, first of all, it’s not tainted by association with past failed and oppressive projects. The term “postcapitalism” has a kind of neutrality which is not there with communism, socialism — although this is partly a generational thing I think, that the word “communism” has a lot of negative associations for people of my age and older.
…It implies victory — that’s the other thing, isn’t it? It implies that there’s something beyond capitalism. It also implies direction, doesn’t it? If it’s post-capitalism, it’s a victory and a victory that will come through capitalism. It’s not just a “post” to capitalism — it is what will happen when capitalism has ended. It starts from where we are. It’s not some entirely separate space — I think that’s implied, right? The concept of post-capitalism is something developed out of capitalism. It develops from capitalism and moves beyond capitalism. Therefore we’re not required to imagine a sheer alterity; a pure outside… We can begin with; work with the pleasures of capitalism as well as its oppressions. We’re not necessarily trapped in this Louise Mensch world where if we have iPhones we can’t want post-capitalism. Although I don’t think we’d want iPhones in post-capitalism…
STUDENT #4: But doesn’t it sound a bit more like a theory… in comparison to… a political system?
MF: It sounds more like a theory? Yeah, that’s a potential problem with it. Actually, I’ve got a few problems with it… I think you’re making a slightly different point…
STUDENT #4: Because socialism and communism has an active dimension…
MF: Yeah, it’s a positive actual project whereas postcapitalism may be too theoretical. Also it’s tied to capitalism. That’s also a problem — potentially. Gibson-Graham talk about capitalocentrism.
If we’re talking about postcapitalism, then, if the framing outcome of political, cultural, social ambitions in terms of post-capitalism is still defined in relation to capitalism… It remains in the temporality of the “post-“… So it sounds like postmodern — it’s defined by something that preceded it rather than what it actually is itself. It’s not necessarily progressive…
STUDENT #5: Yeah, I have two more…
MF: Two more?! Two more problems…?
STUDENT #5: Yeah… It’s not only that it does not name a positive project but it does not also name a negative project. For example, some negative aspects of capitalism … I have in my mind strategies of refusal of [governance] for example. It is really easy to be lost inside this prefix of “post-“… Some postmodern narrative… Not to define anything at all. Just to talk about some post-capitalism that may fall from the sky.
MF: Yeah, I think these are potential issues with the course title. We can think about these as we develop. You probably have more which we can add as we carry on. Some of you might want to write on this anyway: generally, is the concept of post-capitalism “good”? Is it worth persisting with?
I’ve alternated — I was firmly against using anything in terms to do with “communism” a few years ago, because of the tainting problem I think more than anything else. I’ve been persuaded that it’s the very antagonism; the very alterity of the term “communism” which gives it potential power.
STUDENT #4: Why should it be like communism anyway? To use an old…
MF: Yeah, yeah. I think when it’s paired with new terms — that’s what makes it interesting. The emergence of things like “Luxury Communism” as a formula… Maybe we’ll talk about Luxury Communism later on in the course… I think what’s powerful about that is it defuses — or rather its opposite: explodes — the current conceptions of things; the standard stereotypes. Exactly what we looked at with that dreary, grey imagery of the Communist Soviet system. How could that be luxury? It’s a kind of cognitive bomb — something like Luxury Communism.
I’ve also been trying to work on a concept of “Acid Communism”. That’s what Deleuze and Guattari argue, and that’s some of the things we’ll look at with the Jefferson Cowie stuff… The early ‘70s… Psychedelic consciousness plus class consciousness… That’s what capital feared in the late ‘60s, early 70s: what if the working class become hippies? Because surely key to the counterculture, for all its failings — and it had many — was an anti-work ethic; mainstreaming an anti-work ethic. The Beatles did it. “Stay in bed… Float upstream…” was anti-work. And also this question of anti-being-busy — a different existential mode — and also this question of communal living.
My current position would be, yeah, use Communism with a modifier to break out of the existing associations, which a lot of young people don’t have anyway, but you don’t seem happy with that…
STUDENT #4: Yeah, no, I think it’s super difficult… There was a socialist system… If you’re in Germany or in Austria or whatever, you still know what it was about…
MF: I think it’s partly a strategic question, isn’t it? About when these terms can be used, what context, what force they can exert…
STUDENT #4: Yeah, yeah, of course…
MF: It may be that they don’t have universal applicability… Okay, so these are the big questions but let’s turn to specifics…
I agree with Mark’s take here and it was interesting that Jodi seemed to be the person who may have changed Mark’s mind about the word “communism” in this regard — she made comments very similar to this during her talk but didn’t seem to know that Mark had later come to agree with her.
As with Mark and Jodi, I don’t agree that we need to change the word “communism” at all, not least because of its past associations. To call it something else is to desire something else, as Dean pointed out. It makes sense in the most rudimentary of ways and its structure, even at the level of its etymology, is perfect for encapsulating what is desired.
This was a big deal for me during my postgraduate studies — a new awareness of the importance of the “com-” prefix to the etymology of leftist discourses. A basic and simple point perhaps but one which, through its very simplicity, was very powerful to me. It’s everywhere. Communism, community, communication, commune, comrade, complement, complete, compassion, commemoration. It means “with”, “together”, “in association” whilst likewise denoting an intensity and a fulfilment, and an awareness of this has enriched my understanding of all of these words above. So the word “communism” doesn’t need changing one bit. It is “the communist myth” that must be challenged.
We can understand “myth” in its Barthesian sense here, perhaps: as that second-order signification that is constructed through the social which presents “an ethos, ideology or set of values as if it were a natural condition of the world, when in fact its no more than another limited, man-made perspective.” This is to say that we must remember that the negative view of communism has been constructed by capitalism. Mark discussed this himself with his demonstrative use of Apple’s 1984 Super Bowl commercial.
Mark said of the advert in his first Postcapitalist Desire lecture:
Yeah, so Ridley Scott directed it and you can tell, can’t you? You can tell from the style it’s very similar to films that would redefine mainstream Hollywood cinematic science fiction via Alien and Blade Runner, from ‘79 and ‘82 I think, so this was two years after that. It’s really the best film he’s made since then I think. Probably the only significant film he made since then.
What this did, really, was seed the idea of many of the tropes that are now standard in our imagining. The idea of top-down, bureaucratic control systems versus the dynamism of a kind of networked individual mindset. And what is clever, I think, or certainly significant — all advertising you could say is a form of dreamwork — dreamwork, as Freud says, involves conflation, and a compressing, a condensing of different ideas together. All this does, if you look at the imagery, is it condenses Cold War imagery — which none of you are really old enough to remember except historically — associated with the Soviet Union in particular, negative imagery to do with dreariness, bureaucratic submission of individuals.
If you look at the film, these grey drones trudge around being subjected to the ultimately top-down commands coming from the talking head, clearly referencing 1984 of Orwell. It conflates that imagery, that has long been associated with the Soviet bloc, with imagery to do with big computer corporations such as IBM which then dominated the computer world. Apple is positioning itself as an upstart; as colour intervening into this grey, dreary, bureaucratic world. Apple is new. It’s female, interestingly. It’s colour intervening in this grey world of bureaucratic monoliths where IBM becomes, in the advertising dreamwork, equated with the Soviet Union. This then is the new world that is about to break out of this monolithic, dreary, grey, boring control system. And that’s what happened!… In its own way. It was prophetic… It was more than prophetic — you could say it was hyperstitional — it helped to bring about the very thing which it was describing.
From my point of view, what I think is interesting about this then is the way in which it suggests there is a problem of desire in terms of capital. The thing about the Cold War imagery — what it’s suggesting is there is only desire for capitalism. The Communist world, like IBM, and the then dominant corporate capitalist world is boring and dreary, and that’s an objection to it! The new capitalist world won’t be like that. The new capitalist world will be about desire in a way that the Communist world won’t be.
Likewise, this Levi’s advert from the same year carries a very similar message:
It is capitalism that will give you what you want. Communism is the death of joy. Give in to desire. Give in to capitalism.
The myth of communism becomes, quite vividly, the result of a successful global PR job. To this day, these are the images we see when we think of communism.
This is not to downplay or dismiss the negative points and atrocities committed in communism’s name, of course, but it is to recognise their inflation relative to the constant diminishing of capitalism’s own (and notably perpetual rather than just past) horrors and violences.
Furthermore, the spectre of communism continues to haunt precisely because we know there is something beyond this world we’ve been given, these lives we lead, the desires we can have sated with a numbing ease. For Mark, the point became: “well, we don’t just desire these things that capitalism tells us too.” We have desires for other futures and other worlds — a future without wage-labour, without enslavement, without class struggle, etc. — and capitalism has failed to deliver on these desires. It may promise liberation through the exchange of capital but these features remain its very backbone.
This is a more complex point than first appearances suggest, however, because capitalism has monopolised desire. So what is it for us to desire capitalism’s own demise within a system that it ultimately controls?
Consciousness raising — which counters capitalism’s mechanisms of consciousness razing — is a decent place to start. So let’s see if we can’t rehabilitate the image that was taken from us. Understanding how and why this vision was taken from us is far more important than changing the word, as if the suggestion is that we need to appease the system which is so threatened by it. If we are to focus on semantics then it is better that we enrich the words we have rather than swap them out for new “blank” ones.
Such questions of meaning became even more central when Dean got to the very heart of her talk, and it is this I would like to focus on here. (There were problems with her talk. The main one for me was her reliance on a party political vision despite her acknowledgement the role of the state form in capitalism’s development and continued survival. It’s Anarcho-Communism for me please and that wasn’t on the table tonight — but it’s worth noting that it wasn’t for Mark either. Either way, I’m happy to shelve that criticism in order to focus on the more resonant positives, particularly the overall message which was wonderful and the perfect thought to carry forwards to our afterparty.)
Whilst discussing Doris Lessing’s The Golden Notebook, Dean fixated on the word “comrade” rather than “communism”. Here is a word that is nevertheless so heavily associated with communism and its party politics; a word so often ridiculed too. Today, it’s a word that brings to my mind Labour’s shadow chancellor John McDonnell, arguably the most high-profile figure in UK politics to regularly use the word in conversation and speeches, and all you need to do is google “John McDonnell comrade” to find a dozen instances where this is picked up on by journalists who mock him for it.
But here Dean paints an entirely different picture of this word that has become, like communism itself, little more than a hollow signifier for everything wrong with the left’s pasts and futures under a global capitalism that is supposedly here to stay. It has been tarnished for the image associated with it which has overtaken any general understanding of its basic meaning. Indeed, words have “lost their meaning”, as Lessing writes repeatedly throughout her novel.
Dean explained that comradeship is being on the same side. It’s having respect for those who are fighting for our same goals — even if we disagree with how they intend to get there. It is, perhaps most importantly, something you are called but not what you are. It is not a form of self-identification. As Dean also pointed out, to say “I am a comrade” makes no sense. Rather it is “we are comrades” in an intensive togetherness. Comrades are, in this way, the collective subject that Mark and so many others have long called for, and a rehabilitation of “comrade” as a word felt like a very interesting start on a journey towards raising consciousness around communism.
In this way, the word “comrade” becomes “the zero-level of communism” for Dean. Through a single word, it begins to change the relation of ourselves to ourselves and to each other. “When we have comrades, we are freed from the voluntarist responsibility to have, be and do everything,” Dean noted. This comradely solidarity, then, is the active combatting of neoliberal decapacitation. Even just knowing that you have comrades and have that sort of support can improve our wellbeing and ways of acting in the world.
This was what the For K-Punk nights were also for. Indeed, there was one point made by an audience member during the Q&A which Dean unfortunately scoffed at but I think it would have been a wonderful moment to end on. Someone said that “one thing that Mark did so beautifully was to describe forms of collectivity that did not express themselves politically” and this person asked what Dean herself thought about these other forms of collectivity. She responded by saying that she had no interest in any forms of expression that weren’t political but Mark certainly was.
The For K-Punk party that followed was a perfect encapsulation of this. No matter who has organised the party, there is a sense that everyone who attends ends up involved. There is no hierarchy, no VIP line, no guest list, no fee for entry. (Limited capacity may have put a downer on it for some and apologies to anyone who didn’t make it in. Our scope is very limited without much funding.) The occasion and the intent creates a club experience that I have never found anywhere else — an unparalleled experience of openness, solidarity and, yes, comradeship.
I only wish it was an experience had more regularly and perhaps one day that may well happen. Like communism itself, For K-Punk is a community that gives itself as a goal.
The last post on this topic, whilst using ‘alienation’ in its title, didn’t really address alienation itself in much detail. This was an oversight — one rightly pointed out by @cyborg_nomade on Twitter when they asked the most obvious question — to me anyway — that I hadn’t really considered in the context of talking about social media: “why struggle against alienation?“
I think it’s worth taking better account of this question, for further clarity, and in the process I might figure out where exactly my previously expressed feelings are coming from…
The last post on Facebook alienation was, to my mind, an over-long mess and I was surprised by its positive reception. Whilst there was plenty of theory drawn on, it grew out of a very personal attempt to understand an innate desire to flee some platforms because of their ubiquity in different and (what I’d like to be) distinct parts of my life.
With any such attempt at an exit from a social media platform comes a damned-if-you-do-damned-if-you-don’t conundrum: Facebook-as-(literal)-work made me feel alienated, as did my opting out of it as a platform that most of my IRL friends use to communicate with one another…
Such a feeling is not, as suggested last time, the seed of a “Luddite moralism”. I’m not morally against the ubiquity of communications technologies — I use Twitter, Slack, WhatsApp and WordPress daily — constantly, even — and I get a lot out of those platforms. (Obviously.) I have also previously been very cynical of those people who remove themselves from all social media as a hamfisted way of indicating they have taken on a vague political stance and then get grumpy about other people not giving a shit about their self-imposed digital monasticism (that’s the dumbest way to do politics)… But I am sickened by Facebook’s particular ubiquity in both my social and working lives.
With social media becoming work — something which I’m not doing currently but have done on numerous occasions over the last 5/6 years — Facebook becomes like my friendly cyberboss. I remember some YouTube interview with Žižek in which he derides the rise of the Friendly Boss archetype in corporate office environments as a dissolving a boundary of resistance — no comment on where he actually ends up going with the analogies but I think he raises an interesting point when he says, in the first few seconds of the video:
Of course I have nothing against the fact that your boss treats you in a nice way and so on. The problem is if this not only covers up the actual relationship of power, it makes it even more impenetrable.
His point is, who do you rebel against as a worker when your boss is your mate? What happens to that structural demarcation of labour and power? He points out that it becomes impolite to rebel as your friend-boss takes any discontentment with work personally.
The joy of being a freelancer is that, working in very small teams, this is rarely a problem for me. My “bosses” are usually my mates first and that survives any working relationship. Previously, however, when working as a part of something much bigger, when I’ve had to run social media accounts, it is Facebook itself which ends up taking on the role of overarching corporate “Friend”. Push notifications become to-do lists. Facebook Messenger becomes a space for planning a night at the pub and providing customer service. The “Friendly Boss” becomes impersonalised to the point that it is detached infrastructure which nonetheless produces the same affects.
Wanting to rebel and distance myself from that becomes a snub to the friends who share that space with me unrelated to the work I’m paid for. The dynamics become so utterly impenetrable as to negatively effect my non-working life with friends who are not involved in this immediate labour structure whatsoever but nonetheless are through their immanent relationship to that platform in a social context. So, if I want to leave work at “the office”, that means disconnecting from the internet. That can be healthy but, in many other ways, that becomes a form of (quite literal) social alienation. I’m in no position to have a separate “work phone” and so the work becomes oppressively pervasive. These were the feeling behind my original post.
But what does any of that mean for a concept like “alienation“? Are we still talking about Hegelian-Marxist “alienation” here? Or are we simply talking about an regretful detachment from an idealised social “reality”? But wait a minute… What’s the difference? Is this instead just a partial alienation I’m trying to articulate and grumble about? Is it even alienation at all? How are you meant to critique anything from this position?…
“There’s Alienation And Then There’s Alienation…”
This problem was introduced in a short exchange between @cyborg_nomade and @omnicorrupt on Twitter, both in reply to my original post. Following @cyborg_nomade’s question about the implied necessity of struggling against alienation, @omnicorrupt writes:
Alienation is not so much something to be diagnosed as it is always a very real and practical pain in the backside. Indeed, we are always already struggling against it, and we don’t have much of a choice in the matter.
However, @cyborg_nomade argues that, in their experience, alienation is “rather enjoyable, but maybe I’m just a masochist.” @omnicorrupt responds:
There’s certainly alienation and then there’s alienation. But in the Hegelian-Marxist sense, it’s never a good thing. I compare it to a kind of social itch that you just can’t seem to scatch, a gnawing tension of distance and baseline misunderstanding.
My own sense of the word ‘alienation’ — in the specific context of Facebook — is perhaps best understood as something which has fallen between this Hegelian-Marxist sense and what @cyborg_nomade is implicitly referencing here: a cybernetic and Nietzschean ‘alienation’; a Landian ‘alientation’. On social media, these two positions become entwined and exacerbated at what feels like unprecedented levels.
Although inherently connected, these two forms of alienation articulate two very different positions — one articulates a discontentment, a detachment from our “nature” under capitalism; the other articulates a strategically advantageous pursuit of outsideness. Both are related to labour under capitalism but one takes a negative and the other a positive view of its manipulation of the human subject. Both are valid and both are necessary to grasp here before moving forwards…
Hegelian-Marxist alienation is perhaps best understood, today, in a very general sense. We can point to Lawrence Hinman who once suggested that “alienation” today is so broad a term as to refer to “any form of discontent that cannot be cured by aspirin” (which certainly sounds familiar) but, as cynical as that may sound, this generality perhaps marks the depths to which we’ve plummeted into the murky waters of alienation today, far below the surface of Marx’s much-referenced theory.
For Marx, alienation was that enforced distance from our “true” nature, our “species-essence”, our “species-being”, our Gattungswesen — a distance which comes from being reduced to a cog in the machine of a stratified capitalist society. Whilst a young Marx may have fallen, to some extent, for the “myth of the given” in this initial argument, suggesting that we have a base sense of what it is to be human and that capitalism distances us from this, the later Marx was clear to note that our “species-being” is malleable and constantly shaped and reshaped by social relations. Our humanity, our sense of ourselves, is, therefore, contingent, but capitalism’s oppressive influence on its constitution, stratifying the social relations that give form to the self, preserves and exacerbates this experience of rudimentary alienation the deeper we climb down into modernity.
Alienation, then, in this sense, becomes a distance internal to our “species-being” — between the Real and the Ideal; between the conditions we’re (socially) told to strive for and the actual conditions under which we (individually) live. The more historically recent imposition of individualism and the downplaying of the social causes of discontentment are perhaps the most obvious measures of this sense of alienation as it has spread throughout the socialised medias that we wade through on the daily.
However, it’s not all doom and gloom. For Herbert Marcuse, we might do well to remember, alienation is a bitter pill that nevertheless has to be swallowed. To find yourself alienated is an unpleasant realisation but, once consciousness of this ontological deficit has been sufficiently raised, it can become a useful one. Seen from this angle, alienation becomes a potential catalyst for social change. It remains negative but it becomes an opportunity at the same time.
Marcuse’s argument is still, essentially, a Marxist-Hegelian dialectical thinking. For example, for Marcuse, art was the best measurement of this form of alienation, but he was not naive — he did not fail to acknowledge art’s prized place on the walls of the bourgeoisie. Art could just as easily be a force for material domination as it could be a force for imaginative liberation. And so, in Marcuse’s dialectical view, these forces should be seen as developing in tandem with one another, each informing the other and growing with the other. It is the challenge of a positive alienation to overcome — and instigate actual social change beyond — capitalist capture.
But doesn’t that suggest they cancel each other out? Social change has certainly occurred at intervals but none so intensive as to escape the gravity of capitalism…
Genealogies of Capture
In subtle contrast to this emancipatory overcoming, Nick Land’s 1990s cybernetic sense of alienation takes its foundation from Nietzsche and his anti-Hegelianism; his rejection of Hegel the dialectician. Nietzsche saw this dialectical alienation as an auto-suicide machine. This certainly seemed true of Christianity, in his experience, with its own internal engine of alienation, which seemed to be undermining Christianity itself through its emphasis on the moral virtues of truth-telling which were undermining scripture in a modern and increasingly scientific world. As Nietzsche writes in the Genealogy of Morals:
The “salvation” of the human race (I mean, from “the Masters”) is well on course; everything is being made appreciably Jewish, Christian or plebeian (never mind the words!). The passage of this poison through the whole body of mankind seems unstoppable, even though its tempo and pace, from now on, might tend to be slower, softer, quieter, calmer — there is not hurry… With this in view, does the Church still have a necessary role, indeed, does it have a right to exist? Or could one do without it? Quaeritur. It seems that the Church rather slows down and blocks the passage of poison instead of accelerating it? Well, that might be what makes it useful… Certainly it is by now something crude and boorish, resistant to a more tender intelligence, to a truly modern taste. Should not the Church at least try to be more refined?… Nowadays it alienates, more than it seduces…
Nietzsche, whilst he may at first concede and credit Christianity with providing us with foundational allegories of liberation and collective overcoming, argues that the Church, as Christianity’s central institution, now restricts its own ecstatic flows for the sake of its own survival, becoming an institution of repression rather than expression.
(I find it bizarre and telling, in this day and age, as this virtuous truth-telling goes out the window in the era of Fake News, that people’s interest in the early Church’s political radical nature has grown as they look for a new basis for their politics in a world seemingly defined by irrationality. I don’t really get it — though I have also written on it.)
Here we see a familiar argument arising from Land’s more contemporaneous critiques of the Cathedral — on my mind after it came up on Twitter recently — in which an atheistic sur-Christian academic left media bourgeoisie (a map of which has been posted below, stolen from Xenosystems, demonstrating its apparatuses of capture) represents this same Nietzschean synthesis of the poison with its prey, so that those who see themselves as the most vocal opponents of the status quo actually end up internally policing debate and freezing the present antebellum of the Coming Revolution in perpetual stasis.
If the convoluted nature of Land’s Cathedralic flows is too labyrinthine to wrap your head around, let me put it another way, hopefully less susceptible to cooption by the boneheadedly conspiratorial: the internal dynamics of alienation, understood through a Hegelian-Marxist dialectical reasoning, common to modern bourgeois/proletarian society, do not produce a revolutionary synthesis of emancipatory drives but, rather, the political mundanity of an enclosed Middle Class.
The most famous pursuant of this argument — although now seemingly overlooked — was probably Jean-Paul Sartre in his Critique of Dialectical Reason, inaugurating France’s anti-Hegelianism. For Sartre, alienation goes all the way down. Dialectics become fractal relations without satisfactory resolution. Alienation is itself alienated. To save Marxism from being broken down into absolute meaninglessness its recent history must be much better accounted for. And, to his credit, Sartre seems to do a half-decent of that. (His monster two-volume (and ultimately unfinished) work is too huge to dwell on here but maybe I’ll come back to it another time once I’ve had a chance to absorb more of it.)
Sartre’s position is, in many respects, a founding moment for the philosophies to come over the next few decades in France. It was a position explored by Deleuze, too, in Anti-Oedipus most famously, but also solo in Nietzsche and Philosophy in which he writes:
The speculative motor of the dialectic is contradiction and its resolution. But its practical motor is alienation and the suppression of alienation, alienation and reappropriation. Here the dialectic reveals its true nature; an art of quibbling beyond all others, an art of disputing properties and changing proprietors, an art of ressentiment.
This position that would come to influence so much structuralism and post-structuralism can be found very much in tact in Nietzsche himself. Again in the Genealogy of Morals, he writes:
The beginning of the slaves’ revolt in morality occurs when ressentiment itself turns creative and gives birth to values: the ressentiment of those beings who, denied the proper response of action, compensate for it only with imaginary revenge. Whereas all noble morality grows out of a triumphant saying ‘yes’ to itself, slave morality says ‘no’ on principle to everything that is ‘outside’, ‘other’, ‘non-self’: and this ‘no’ is its creative deed.
What we have here, emerging from mid-century French theory’s revitalised libido, are the beginnings of a failed rejection of an ouroborosic and totalised Academic Marx — as was also discussed on this blog recently — a Marxism that is the victim of its own success, much like the Church. The no of this Marxism is creative in that many of its most vocal and successful critics become associated, by their own material circumstances, with the bourgeoisie, to the extent that the enemy is always Other even when, on paper, it looks like yourself. (And that cognitive dissonance takes some creativity to smooth out for oneself.) And so, as Nietzsche warns us, and as many post-structuralists paradoxically hoped to demonstrate, we might credit Marx himself with providing us with a vision of proletarian revolution but we mustn’t let Academic Marxism slow us down for the sake of its own preservation. (Here we have a definition of “Cultural Marxism” that may actually hold some water, beyond the very weak variety espoused by Jordan Peterson.) (Again, Sartre’s Critique is incredibly relevant here but I’ll save unpacking that for another time.)
It is through this lineage that we become aware of the great void between the impenetrable and totalising Marxism of the academic ‘no’, still espoused by some Twitter gobshites, and the desire-drunk ‘yes’ of an “atlas of libidinal cartography” which Jean-Francois Lyotard would later argue we must now engage with: not a totalised canonical “image” of Marx, but the impossible “total” of a man and his desires. As Sartre would say, “This is not really a totalisation, or even a totality; it is rather a changing indefinite dispersal of reciprocities.” It is desire; always seeking more connections.
It was Lyotard who called most emphatically and deliriously for this desirous Marx — indeed, a “desire called Marx” — to take precedence, contrasting the theoretically drudgery of the proto-Cathedralese of much political philosophy and social science. It is likewise such a Marxism that may have emerged from Mark Fisher’s Acid Communism — and Mark sure lovedthe perversity of Lyotard’s Libidinal Economy… (I’ll never forget how that passage, to be found via the hyperlink, quoted on K-Punk without much comment, was read out with palpable glee by Mark in the first lecture of his Postcapitalist Desire seminar in late 2016.)
Lyotard, echoing Nietzsche’s genealogy of Judeo-Christian morality, argues that academics love the perpetuity, the limbo, of the problem of capitalism:
What happens when the person assigned to the prosecution is as fascinated by the accused as he is scandalised by him? It comes about that the prosecutor sets himself to finding a hundred thousand good reasons to prolong the study of the file, that the enquiry becomes meticulous, always more meticulous, that the lawyer submerged in the British Museum in the microscopic analysis of the aberrations of capital is no longer able to detach himself from it, that the organic unity, that this swarming of perverse fluxes that is supposed to produce (dialectically), never stops moving away, escaping him, being put off, and that the submission of petitions is kept waiting interminably. What was happening then throughout the thousands of manuscript papers? The unification of Marx’s body, which requires that the polymorphous perversity of capital be put to death for the benefit of the fulfilment of the desire for genital love, is not possible. The prosecutor is unable to deduce the birth of a new and beautiful (in)organic body (similar to that of recapitalise forms) which would be child-socialism, from the pornography of capitalism. If there is a body of capital, this body is sterile, it engenders nothing: it exceeds the capacity of theoretical discourse as unification.
Lyotard’s screed is not a rejection of academic rigour, as such. He simply demands we consider the question that became to central to Fisher’s final, unfinished project: “Do we want what we say we want?” To answer that question, we need to take a wider view of the present situation, beyond the cultural production of academia. Lyotard asks, without mincing words: “what was Marx the prosecutor’s left hand doing whilst he was writing Capital?”
Whilst the right hand writes copious amounts on the nature of the commodity, exchange value and the alienation of labour as measurable aspects of modernity, Lyotard essentially asks us to imagine that the left hand of Marx wanking copious amount of cum uselessly into the carpet — and we mustn’t let both acts be reduced to wasteful expenditures.
And so, Lyotard conjures up a Bataillean Marxism, a general economy of Marxist expenditure beyond the restricted economy of his own three-volume study. Lyotard is essentially asking us: How do we fuse the triumphant rigour of the political intellect with the desire-drunk libido of revolution without relegating both to impotence? How do we elevate the desiring “lows” of the left hand to the intellectual “heights” of the right? How do we infuse cum with Capital (and vice versa?)
One such answer has been persistently repressed. Academics have always known it and they have also long sought to suppress it at all costs. We find it articulated most excessively in Georges Bataille’s Blue of Noon — discussed on the blog this time last year — in which the character of the philosophy teacher, Melou, during a notably Oedipal ménage à trois dialogue, is stricken by the contradiction of his politics and social position on the eve of a coming revolution:
Straining his brow in folds, he declared, ‘Should we wrap ourselves in silence? Should we, on the contrary, bestow our help on the workers as they make their last stand, thereby dooming ourselves to an inescapable and fruitless death?’
And so returns the auto-suicide machine, not as pathetic horror, but as revolutionary necessity. The establishment of the middle class is one thing, subsuming class strata into a homogenous Stepford blob, but how do we now accelerate the process and satisfy the thirst for our own annihilation? Is this truly necessary? Is there no other way?…
It is here that Nick Land emerges in the 1990s and early 2000s as a renegade academic who attempts to fuse both sides of the onanistic coin in the newly virulent concoction for the contemporary moment of a burgeoning technosphere, all the while relishing the annihilation of his own academic career.
Land’s only published monograph, whilst an academic at the University of Warwick, remains the best book on Bataille there is and the best book of literary philosophy I’ve ever read. In this book, The Thirst of Annihilation, he charts a course from Nietzsche’s anti-Hegelianism to Bataille’s own recoiling from the suicidal mechanisms of capitalist society, both during and after the official Defeat of Fascism during the Second World War, and this same desirous and libidinal searching has defined his writing — for better and for worse — ever since.
In 1992, Land writes that, for Bataille,
Capital is a headless lurch into the abyss, an acephalic catastrophe. What Bataille recoils from at this moment is not the claustrophobic managerial profanity of capital, but its psychotic flow into ruin.
But, for the late 90s Land, at the turn of the century, the dawn of the new millennium, it seems that we needn’t worry about the forgotten left hand of Marx for too much longer. In the 21st century, it is all too easy to imagine a tab-choked browser populated by pages from the Marxists Internet Archive and the latest offerings from Pornhub. Is this the new home of our revolutionary libidinous subject?
You have been dumped into a heterogeneous patchwork of criminal experiments converging upon decapitated social formations. This is where base materialism intersects cyberpunk, FUCK TOMORROW scrawled on the walls
We might understand ‘alienation’, then, in Land’s cybernetic sense, to be a short-circuiting of the Hegelian-Marxist dialectic, as predicted by the most delirious of the post-structuralists. The resulting synthesis is not an overcoming but a bottoming-out of the social strata — but that does not mean that it is libidinally unproductive. Cybernetics immanentizes the Real and the Ideal in alienation’s catastrophic motor and being the ejected excrement of the system becomes a viable option. The internet becomes a nomad’s land for digital squatters. It doesn’t matter how you exit. Just exit. The results of this so far, however, have been utterly dire.
We might ask ourselves: Does the art of ressentiment itself become the creation of an entirely new subject? I think we can answer this affirmatively but this “new” needn’t be inherently attractive because of its newness. The middle class becomes, in this sense, a New People in a negative sense, produced by the class antagonisms internal to capitalism, closed off from their Outside. This is an argument implicit to some readings of the middle class’s struggle under the weight of their increasing irrelevance and so, perhaps, it is from here that we will discover the prophetic people-to-come replaced by a people-to-die. Ballardian suburban detritus.
If the middle classes sounds like an unlikely central node around which we are to entangle this argument, we might look to other identities instead — identities that continue to allow access to their outside. As ever, G/ACC comes to mind, providing a much refined challenge to the dialectical of sex, through the pressure-cooked intensifications of gender binarisation and “trans” politics. As Nyx writes:
It is the logic of gender to subsume the Outside into a binarist framework that de-legitimizes the Outside. The feminine is treated as a lack because it resists the phallogocentric tendency towards the order and preservation of humanist equilibrium. It isn’t conducive towards the projects of patriarchy, so it is worthless to it, is given the status of a second-class citizen in the gender binary. It is a double-articulation where the productive potential of the feminine is captured in the service of patriarchy, and so, to accelerate gender is to emancipate the object from its subject, and production from subjects and objects. The Outside which has become identified with the feminine by the very structures of identification it fights against makes its exit from humanism and patriarchy in this feminine form. The feminine becomes untethered from the reproductive logic of humanism; the female is no longer in the service of the male as a machine to produce the future, to produce offspring to inherit the spoils of production, but rather the future produces itself faster than human beings are capable of.
Here, human (re)production is seen as a dialectical machine, echoing the writings of Shulamith Firestone, in which a dialectical relationship between imagination and science continually produces an unknown. This is, for Firestone, culture — culture as “the sum of, and the dynamic between, the two modes through which the mind attempts to transcend the limitations and contingencies of reality.”
The overarching technological point is this: You can shape the new world with code. Computer code. Genetic code. Social code. As modernity accelerates, each becomes as malleable as the other. This is likewise the pro-alienation argument to be associated with The Xenofeminist Manifesto:
XF seizes alienation as an impetus to generate new worlds. We are all alienated — but have we ever been otherwise? It is through, and not despite, our alienated condition that we can free ourselves from the muck of immediacy. Freedom is not a given — and it’s certainly not given by anything ‘natural’. The construction of freedom involves not less but more alienation; alienation is the labour of freedom’s construction. Nothing should be accepted as fixed, permanent, or ‘given’ — neither material conditions nor social forms. XF mutates, navigates and probes every horizon. Anyone who’s been deemed ‘unnatural’ in the face of reigning biological norms, anyone who’s experienced injustices wrought in the name of natural order, will realize that the glorification of ‘nature’ has nothing to offer us — the queer and trans among us, the differently-abled, as well as those who have suffered discrimination due to pregnancy or duties connected to child-rearing. XF is vehemently anti-naturalist. Essentialist naturalism reeks of theology — the sooner it is exorcised, the better.
Here, as with Land’s delirious writings, ‘alienation’ becomes a Marcusian horror story in which the “monstrous” are reimagined as the people-to-come. Frankenstein’s monster, inevitably produced by capitalism’s churning up of dead labour, is alienated by its creator and, sooner or later, this monstrosity will have its revolutionary revenge….
“Wait a minute, where am I?…”
Okay, but what the fuck does any of this have to do with social media?
The best place to start, in light of this messy introduction, and in light of @cyborb_nomade’s initial pro-alienation comment, is perhaps with Land’s essay “Making It With Death”, in which he addresses ‘alienation’ explicitly as that word associated with the modern “becoming-zombie at the limit of the modern worker”:
The processes of de-skilling, or ever accelerated re-skilling, the substitution of craft by abstract labour, and the increasing interexchangability of human activity with technological processes, all accompanied by the dissolution of identity, loss of attachment, and narcotization of affective life, are condemned on the basis of a moral critique. A reawakening of the political is envisaged, aimed at the restoration of a lost human integrity. Modern existence is understood as profoundly deadened by the real submission of humane values to an impersonal productivity, which is itself comprehended as the expression of dead or petrified labour exerting a vampiric power on the living.
For Land, “death”, conceptually understood as the limit of the subject, is the moment of revolution under capitalism: “The limit of capital is the point at which transcendent identity snaps.”
However, what Land predicts here, years before Facebook was even invented, has only half come true. Affective life has been narcotised, attachment has been lost, but identity has been far from dissolved — it has been reified in a way that Sartre, even Marx himself, perhaps warned us about. (Sartre: “Marx clearly indicated that he distinguished human relations from their reification or, in general, from their alienation within a particular social system.”) And so, it is human relations — communication itself — that has been alienated through the fascistic reification of the subject. Communicative capitalism dissolved the distinction between human relations and their reification, resulting in a further — and deeply traumatic — reification of the subject.
Despite the warnings given to us, such a result has been a long time coming. As Land writes in his essay “Circuitries”, continuing this line of thought, and addressing this point explicitly, he takes aim at our hypocritical understanding of the way that capitalism reifies the human subject — the history of philosophy has done this just as successfully!:
Traditional schemas which oppose technics to nature, to literate culture, or to social relations, are all dominated by a phobic resistance to the sidelining of human intelligence by the coming techno sapiens. Thus one sees the decaying Hegelian socialist heritage clinging with increasing desperation to the theological sentimentalities of praxis, reification, alienation, ethics, autonomy, and other such mythemes of human creative sovereignty. A Cartesian howl is raised: people are being treated as things. Rather than as … soul, spirit, the subject of history, Dasein? For how long will this infantilism be protracted?
This Landian alienation acknowledges that both social and individual subjection are internally alientating under capital and philosophy itself is not outside of this. The burgeoning technosphere, accelerating faster than humans can socially think about it, may be just what we need to break out of the cycle. It is this outside that must be reached rather than the internalised outside that is produced only imaginatively through ressentiment.
What is most disappointing, and what Land recently pointed to as being responsible for his own philopolitical disillusionment, is that the very opposite has happened. In his interview with Justin Murphy, Justin first asks Nick:
…if you could kind of mentally go back to the 1990s, when you’re theorizing all these kinds of radical ideas at the beginning. What was the first crack in that tendency for you? Like what gave, exactly? Was there a particular realization or insight or problem or anomaly in your viewpoint in the 90s that kind of cracked and made you see that all of these radical emancipatory ideas are not going to work…?
To which Nick responds:
These things come in waves. Wave motion is crucial to this. There was an extremely exciting wave that was ridden by the Ccru in the early to mid-1990s. You know, the internet basically arrived in those years, there were all kinds of things going on culturally and technologically and economically that were extremely exciting and that just carried this accelerationist current and made it extremely, immediately plausible and convincing to people. Outrageous perhaps, but definitely convincing. It was followed — and I wouldn’t want to put specific dates on this, really — but I think there was an epoch of deep disillusionment. I’d call it the Facebook era, and obviously, for anyone who’s coming in any way out of Deleuze and Guattari, for something called “Facebook” to be the dominant representative of cyberspace is just almost, you know, a comically horrible thing to happen! [Laughs]
I just really responded to this with such utter, prolonged disgust that a certain deep, sedimentary layer of profound grumpiness — from a personal point of view — was added to this. But I don’t think it’s just a personal thing. I think that accelerationism just went into massive eclipse …
In wanting to explore this a bit further, I found an essay by Daniel Tutt on “faciality” in Deleuze & Guattari that summarises the stakes of their concerns very well:
The face is an imperial machine, depending on certain social formations for its creation and its deployment. Enveloping language and destroying semiotic systems, the face announces signifiers that language (re)produces. This “imperialism of the face” is one designed to crush all other semiotic systems.
Faces are dependent upon “abstract machines” attaching to body parts, clothes, and objects –- facializing them all in a whirl of overcoding. The face overcodes the subject, which is why the face functions as the “black hole of subjectivity” for D & G, as the material traumatic thing -– as the Lacanian real, what they call the “wall of the signifier.”
[…] What they advocate for is a move away from the imperial imposition of the face and the abstract machine’s imposition of faciality by noticing how the imperial face cannot handle polyvocality or rhizomatic traits. It’s the schizophrenic that is the model for de-facialization. “Schizos lose their sense of the face, of landscape and of language and its dominant significations all the time” (Pg. 188 A Thousand Plateaus)
Facebook, then, becomes this absolute but also multiplicitous alienation through the totalising but nonetheless superficial signifier of its opposite. How often have we said, when feeling adrift, that it is nice to see a “friendly face”? Facebook, in its imposition of the “friendly face” as “friendly boss”, has only helped the desire for defacialisation dwindle and die.
However, things are not all so bleak. Twitter has been a liberating experience for me in allowing me to get out of my face again and blockchain technology likewise becomes a potential form of organisation that is faceless in its trustlessness and hiddenness — something Land is now actively exploring in his Cryptocurrent book, being serialised over at Urban Future. He likewise expresses his hope in his interview with Justin:
I think we’ve come out into an absolutely incandescent, new phase of technological and economic possibility driven by this fundamental dynamic vector of the internet. The basic socio-historical conditions right now are every bit as exciting as anything that was around in the 1990s. Totally.
This is likewise an optimism expressed by @cyborg_nomade in the original Twitter conversation:
to become torn from the social is to begin to dissolve personhood (faciality), so that what’s seething underneath can come to the fore. what Facebook did was connect everyone back together, and strengthen attribution, so that all the usual human shit surfaced again. 
anonymous communication is the most amazing tool to being alone (which, as someone who values solitude, is truly something hard to come by — people are everywhere) 
Real and Id(eal)
To recap: Communicative capitalism processes and immanentises the Real and the Ideal. The id of the individual is hijacked by the Facebook superego and the ego which emerges in between is reduced to a data-product. Being honest about this becomes a strangely radical act — from the perspective of popular media — but what is most apparent is that so many people who work online and have somehow monetised their faciality in order to make the most of the opportunities of the present moment, and later rebel against this, seldom have the linguistic armoury to actually articulate what they’re going through.
And that’s not their fault — that’s the result of the enclosed systems they are embedded within which demolish any sense of a critical Outside.
So, what do I mean by alienation under communicative capitalism? I mean that alienation is itself alienated — and so muchmore than when Sartre first said so. Faciality becomes an imposition, threatening (and even enacting) a digitally-mediated body dysmorphia. This isn’t a productive alienation towards a new subjectivity: it’s a Lovecraftian alienation within the prison of interiority, breaking the individual down into their own recursive void rather than the social sphere at large.
So is the question now really, “How do we alienate this alienated alienation?” If it’s really alienation all the way down and, as many Hegelian-Marxists and Nietzscheans alike may have argued, if we should want overcome or bottom-out of this process, it seems like we’re in for a shock as the prison of interiority continues in all directions much further than we anticipated. (Well, for most of us…)
Yes, the blockchain certainly feels like a very interesting development in this area and we shall have to see if it can be implemented in enough areas to break the cycle but, that aside, I don’t know what we’re supposed to do. Has the damage already been done?
Personally, I’ve grown up on social media, in many respects, although I do remember the days of pre-internet computers. One thing I’ve been depressed to discuss with my friends over the years is how many suffer from bouts of depersonalisation. I’ve regularly suffered from this myself since at least my late teens — it’s the main reason I never got into psychedelics and never got along with weed; I’ve never needed drugs to detach from my Self.
Depersonalisation has always, for me, been the result of an anxiety attack, mentally squashed from presenting itself outwardly / physically, and instead bottoming-out into a Sunken Place, much like in the film Get Out. A feeling of regressing backwards into your own skull, looking in the mirror and not recognising the face that looks back. It’s a dangerous numbness that so often precedes instances of self-harm and I’ve always wondered how much of a coincidence the pervasiveness of these experiences amongst people that I knew growing up was related to the rise of MySpace and Facebook.
That’s not a politically advantageous alienation. That’s mental illness. That’s the individualising mechanism of the social suicide machine.
Get Out‘s faciality is particularly racialised, of course, and this alienation of self is no doubt Marcusian in its racial structuring but also its cultural productivity. What the rest of us feel is something new in its pervasiveness, something in between these two critiques — the Hegelian-Marxist and the Nietzschean. This new experience is certainly attached to this same lineage of capitalist subjection but now we lack the habit of critiquing it to the extent that so many others once did.
That’s the alienation I’m talking about and I think it needs continually addressing because, so far, no theories of emancipation have managed to crack it. We remain stuck in the thinking of the post-structuralists whilst technological subjection threatens such theories with redundancy before we’ve managed to internalise them.
Things have only gotten worse and worse — socially, at least, even if, as individuals, we might be able to find some solace…
This blog has always been a half-hearted attempt at tackling this sense of alienation on a very personal level, even if it has not been vocalised rigorously as such. Speaking as “Xenogothic”, the social alienation that this blog and my Twitter account has afforded me over the past uear has hugely enjoyable, but the internet presents many more forms of alienation besides this which, perhaps as a result of the joy, have become harder to bear.
I’ve thought about this more and more recently as I struggle to keep up the mystique. Xenogothic was meant to be an attempt at escaping this Facebook faciality — or so I said in my very first post — and for the first 8-10 months it was very successful in this regard. Less than 5 people who were friends with me IRL knew it was me. Thta’s no longer the case. Mostly by choice.
I love writing and I increasingly want to do more of it — I’m never, ever satisfied; the itch is never scratched — so if there’s a fine line along which I’m able to walk and maintain this as a semi-anonymous space whilst be open to other opportunities for personal growth, I want to make that happen. This stuff is important to me, to the extent I want it to define me but a “me” that is separate from the data cow of the social media face farm, and I think that’s fine. But, as I try to figure out just where that line is, I’m all too aware of the minefield I’m walking through.
I love YouTube, for instance, and I watch more PewDiePie than I’m comfortable to admit. I used to think about being a YouTuber years ago but I’m terrible in front of a camera. PewDiePie is likewise terrible in front of a camera but it hasn’t stopped him becoming a one-man media empire (at least, not quite yet) and his journey has been fascinating to me.
Here is a guy who seemed to fall into a weird, undercoded faciality that he has maintained — very, very successfully (financially speaking) — for almost a decade. However, I only started watching his videos a year or two back when he was in the midst of rebelling against this increasingly consolidated sense of online-self, when the more he started to work with big companies and institutions — Disney, most notoriously — he began to wrestle more and more openly with his experiences of alienation. His self-destructive behaviour — which has resulted in a whole bunch of controversies and is certainly not defensible — has felt like the indirect fallout from this. He is the perfect example of someone who is painfully aware of the system they have become entrapped by but who can’t play by the rules and also can’t really articulate his experiences in a way that might help himself. (And has also looked to the likes of Jordan Peterson and Ben Shapiro in his quest to rebel against it.)
Take this video as a case in point, which discusses issues of emotional labour (explored here recently) and marks the start of an easily trackable swerve away from the YouTube hegemony and towards critics on the right of politics:
Just as Woke Capital is a bad rebrand of leftist theory for new alienated, the left needs to get louder about the ways in which it can combat this. Mark Fisher wrote plenty on it but those essays never reached the amount of people they should have. (I’m thinking about “Touchscreen Capture” here specifically.)
To end on a lighter note:
Personally speaking, the name Xenogothic, as I’ve repeatedly said, was borne out of a feeling that I’m not a very good Goth, of not wearing the right face, of not acting or looking the right way. I wanted an identity that wasn’t beholden to any kind of reductive aesthetic.
This desire is, I think, inherently related to that same sense of alienation and self-hatred that comes from being expected to play some sort of game — generally a careerist one — and one which I was concerned might end up being the death of me. I just wanted to make stuff without it having to be considered as some sort of CV. I wanted to express myself without everything having to be presented as a product or another rung on the ladder of a social-mediated illusion of a career.
I did a postgrad degree not because I wanted a better job or better pay but because I just wanted to learn to write and think better and I wasn’t getting that from anywhere in my life at the time. And, thankfully, I think that’s precisely what I got out of it. And I can’t think of a better thing to have done with that weird year back in academia than channel it into a deliriously productive blog whilst I go back to the kind of job I was doing after I finished my photography degree. It’s just the latest attempt at getting out of the face I’m aware I’m supposed to wear and, so far, it’s been incredibly successful.
This blog feels more like me than anything else I’ve ever done or continue to do with my life, and at the same time it barely feels representative of me, or the me that has so far existed online on social media.
The desire for this, I now realise, has been bubbling for a long time. I came across this old series of photographs in the midst of writing this post that I was putting together sporadically between 2012-2016. I would take double exposures of my environment and my face, one after the other, capturing two sides of a moment where identity dissolves into something else through the photographic process. Plants always worked best for this and, serendipitously, these photographs predated any real understanding of Deleuze & Guattari’s rhizomatics.
I never quite had a name for the project and I never quite managed to make enough good ones to make a series out of it. But I’m glad I didn’t. They weren’t meant to be about me. They were meant as anti-portraits. They were photographs about the way photography itself is so tied to my thoughts but which, due to its very nature, is always detached from any originally phenomenological grounding. Subject and object dissolve into one another, and something else is born.
I realised today that this is what they were always about. They were precisely about this desire for porosity; for indeterminacy; for facial flow. This desire to get out of your face(book) again.