Keeping Up with Hauntology (Part 2)

An interesting comment from Padraig on the recent hauntology post:

Though it is worthwhile pointing out, I’m not so sure that the central issue here is just that of the class envy & resentment of the negatively disavowing, of the reductively class unconscious, but you are certainly right to draw attention once again to the hegemonic appeal of the revenant of patriarchy in a post-patriarchal culture (most Hollywood movies are fundamentally fantasies of patriarchal restoration, from all of Spielberg’s movies to Nolan films — even a film that Mark positively reviewed, Nolan’s Batman Begins, was a disturbingly reactionary fantasy of a return to an impossible patriarchal capitalism).

Rather, it is that the current fetishisation of holography (which has been around since the 1970s, just as 3D film has been around since the early 1950s) is another instance of Jameson’s cultural logic of late capitalism, of the obliteration of all sense of history, the fact that such holograms (even if they are a spectral trace of a departed relative) are now just vacuous ‘special effects’. Indeed, Mark wrote about this in a blog post when he was critiquing Jackson’s execrable, instantly forgettable remake of King Kong:

“In King Kong, FX have replaced history. Or rather, ‘history’ — now flattened out into a series of period signifiers — has itself become a kind of special effect. (Technology substitutes not only for history but for culture, too; in 2005, technological progress is the only faith that remains to us.) Even if the simulation were note-perfect accurate, History, in the Marxist sense of struggle, antagonism and contingency, would still be photoshopped out. The Depression is a stage-set, an inexplicable backdrop. This a museum without History, the Past as Experience, Theme Park…”

Put another way, back in the 19th century, during the very early years/decades of photography (when most people had yet to even see or snap a photograph), someone seeing ANY photo, much less a haunting photo as a ghostly trace of a departed relative, would have responded in a radically different way to a contemporary pomo subject.

I certainly see the point being made here but, then again, I’m not sure I agree with the overall argument, particularly regarding photography. Mark’s argument, too, has a ring of truth, but I think it underestimates just how bad things have always been with photographic technologies. Whether we are talking about the daguerreotype process or contemporary holography, the argument that “FX have replaced history” is applicable throughout.

Photography has always been a reactionary medium. As paradoxical as this statement seems, as a technological innovation it led to far more experimentation elsewhere (e.g., within painting) than it occasioned for itself. In fact, despite being a technological innovation in itself, aesthetic attitudes towards photography throughout the twentieth-century (and particularly in the west) have always been very conservative.

There’s a strange tension in photography in this regard. It is arguably an innately capitalist enterprise. It was not invented as an artistic medium or scientific instrument but as a way to make money. Whilst there were some initial inventors, tinkering with different chemical processes, who saw the merits of its aesthetic qualities, the name-checked inventors of the medium (most of whom were French) were essentially the winners of an arms race for government funding who pitched their competing processes as new businesses catching the wave of an emergent post-painting trend among the bourgeoisie.

From there on out, most technological innovations in the field were driven either by the military or advertising companies. (The latter is something I have long found particularly interested: aesthetically speaking, photography created for fashion or advertising has long been more aesthetically adventurous and experimental than self-described “artistic” photography — you just have to compare your average issue of Vogue to the portraits found in The Wire to see the bizarre disparity in that regard.)

Gradually, respect for photography as an artform has grown, but it was nonetheless — and largely remains — a creative industry that likes to clutch at its pearls. Colour photography, for instance, was for magazines and family albums — it was commercial; this is why black and white photography remained associated with “fine art photography” until around the 1970s (when William Eggleston came along) — and, even then, not without continued resistance. The snobbish bourgeois art crowd has always been precious about its classical and oddly painterly aesthetics.

It is worth noting that colour photography, despite being looked down upon, wasn’t widely accessible at that time. The recent rise of popular and affordable access to photographic equipment is relatively new. We forget, now that we all carry cameras in our pockets, how much of a specialist hobby it once was, and we also forget the issues of class attached to it.

Many have written on the revolution photography instigated within the realm of subjectivity — myself included. We might even argue that it was one of the central technological innovations that made neoliberalism possible. Photography, it has been said, allowed the middle class to properly look at themselves for the first time. It also established what Mark once called elsewhere “an implied bourgeois gaze” — beyond the few rags-to-riches stories, images of twentieth-century working-class life were voyeuristic visions curated by middle class photographers for the Sunday Times. Even when taken by working class lads who’d somehow gained access to a camera — here’s looking at you, Don McCullin — they were instruments of social mobility more than the social realism they were otherwise championed as being by the middle classes who predominantly viewed them.

In this sense, I agree with the quote from the k-punk blog, but I’d also want to draw attention to the following passage, in which Mark writes:

In his classic analysis, Jameson identified a waning of the historical sense as a defining characteristic of the postmodern. The ‘nostalgia mode’ is evident, not so much in films whose content is backward-looking, but whose form belongs to the past.

By form, Fisher is referring to genre tropes, but I’d argue this is innately true of photography as an artform as well. It is not only a postmodern medium but prefigures postmodernity as such.

This is to say that I think the argument that the waning of photography’s historical sense (and, by proxy, that of all the mediums it has given rise to) is not a recent development at all. Paradoxically, the history of photography itself shows us quite clearly that history became SFX at the moment of its creation, particularly in that history’s often limited scope — writing metahistory about the things we use to record history is something a lot ofacademics still struggle to navigate. (John Tagg’s The Burden of Representation is the classic text on this maybe, and it was only published in 1993.)

This paradox is epitomised by the strange lag that occurred between photography’s invention and our popular understanding of how photographic cameras function. For example — and with Fisher’s comment on history-as-theme-park in mind — we might consider the development of cinematography shortly after photography’s ascendency. The medium was primarily presented to the public at fairs for the most part; it was literally a sideshow attraction at travelling fairs and theme parks. Most famously, this included the Lumière brothers’ film L’Arrivée d’un train en gare de La Ciotat.

The film is often cited when discussing contemporary reactions to early photography because it supposedly caused great panic when it was screened before unsuspecting audiences. This story is, today, often disputed. Indeed, it seems a bit rich that nineteenth-century fairgoers would be that frightened by a moving image. If by anything, this terror was likely instigated by their failure to realise the images they were seeing were in the past rather than representative of the unfolding present.

Wikipedia notes (although without a citation) that Benjamin Bratton has speculated on this before, arguing that this terror was itself linked to technological expectations. When seeing a projection of a train, many would likely assume it was produced by a camera obscura — a well-established piece of technology at that time; handhelds camera obscuras were invented in the 1600s but there is documentation of the effect these cameras harness going back to the 4th century BC. If this were the case, of course, then the train arriving at the station would actually still have been approaching them. They were used to seeing projections and technologically produced images but it was the idea that these images could be retained, that the past could be recorded, that took some getting used to.

It was this realisation that led to photography being associated with mourning. Roland Barthes’ Camera Lucida, after all, is seemingly named after this same process of realisation. When he considers the famously unseen Winter Garden Photograph of his mother, his grief is manifest in the realisation that this is a moment past and not a projection. A camera lucida is what he wants; a photograph is what he has. It is the same terror, the same cognitive dissonance, echoing down the years — and this is precisely why innovations in holography are driven by our desire to resurrect the dead. As such, I don’t think our contemporary reactions to these images are all that different to the viewers of early photography — in fact, I think they are woefully predictable given how we have always approached and thought about this kind of mournful medium.

It is for all of these reasons that I think the class antagonism baked within the hologram of Robert Kardashian is central. It is, once again, the rich who find a new technology providing them with an opportunity to see themselves in a new light. It echoes the popularity of spiritualism amongst the rich and famous in the nineteenth century, driven by fraudsters who’d figured out how to do double exposures. More broadly, our tendency to associate the lingering past with grand estates and the landed gentry is no coincidence. We’re less easily tricked now, apparently, but we are nonetheless possessed by those same desires, and it is these desires that will drive the market for holograms in future.

Echoing the development of photography in the first instance, I can personally imagine a time when this novelty and its popularity amongst an upper class drives a democratisation of access to and, later, the affordability of holographic relatives when the reproductive technology for producing such images catches up and it comes to mass market.

This isn’t to dispute the ways in which holograms do epitomise the cultural logic of late capitalism but, in this instance, these are not new desires hollowed out, but old desires better fulfilled. Put another way, they are bourgeois temporal anxieties — regarding the future as well as the past — made all the more enchanting and (im)material.

Holograms, then, are the endgame for a innately — at least within its proper social context — reactionary medium. They re-establish the class antagonism innate to mourning but also haunting. Ghost stories, after all, are often cynically described as expressions of our complicated feelings about real estate, and it is typically the upper classes, the property-owning classes, who find themselves and their grand mansions haunted, either by their own bloodlines or their curse-casting serfs.

The Kardashian dynasty invoking its own spirits is nothing new in this regard; the technology has just caught up with their desires — desires the rest of us will accumulate through the cultural trickledown, and I think it is pretty predictable where this trickle takes us.

“I Can’t Breathe”

There’s a sick sort of doubling occurring at the moment, exacerbating our global distress and malaise.

“I can’t breathe” once again becomes a way for protestors to identify with the deceased, but it now cuts through two forms of diminished life, whether that be citizens suffocated by police or by disease.

Our present (all too personal) problems, that have defined the last few weeks of lockdown — selfish, noisy neighbours, and the constant banging from a nearby building site; freelance precarity and mental health instability — feel so parochial right now. However, rather than the riots making Covid life feel less pressing, life becomes even more claustrophobic as we incessantly watch the constant streams and video clips shared by citizen journalists on the other side of the world. Our little flat, where we’ve been huddled for months now, feels even more detached from a society falling apart all around us. It is a distance that is almost comforting, but the comfort also nauseates.

Twitter doesn’t help. As both a place of online protest and the dissemination of political information, and as the one place that has retained some sense of normality since social distancing came into effect, there is a strange guilt that comes from using the platform to watch the world unravel and also to keep tweeting as usual.

On Friday night, a friend sends me a digital flyer sharing information about protests scheduled to take place in London over the weekend and I can’t think of anywhere I’d rather not be. That feeling is vindicated the following day when I see video footage of crowds in Trafalgar Square — a landmark I used to walk over on my way to work; a walk I did every other day for two years — and I feel sick just looking at that aerial throng navigating streets that used to be so familiar — before all this.

I haven’t been to central London since February.

The thought of being in a crowd for any reason at all at the moment is anxiety-inducing, but at what point does Covid-19 paranoia lead to state complicity? My timeline is split between friends still suffering from post-Covid complications and those on the front line in cities experiencing unrest.

I’m anticipating my monthly Patreon payment to come through next week. A modest amount and not my main source of income. Right now I’m thinking which organisations I can send it to. It feels like the right sort of gesture to make with this platform but, social media optics aside, it doesn’t feel like much.

What, if anything, can pierce through the strangely resonant disparities of police brutality and state incompetence?

The covered faces of rioters, whether by medical masks or skull bandanas, melt into a mire of anonymity, as the reality of the pandemic remains both ever-present and fades into the background. Talk of “outside agitators” speaks to both conspiratorial sociology and paranoid virology. The horror expressed at communal “self-harm”, encapsulated by damaged businesses, overrides any discussion the communal “self-harm” that comes from flouting social distancing advice. The state demonstrates an indifference regarding the escalation of either contagion — whether it is violence or disease that spreads, the state just adds fuel to every fire. Arguments from reactionary citizens that deplore the damage being done to local economies fail to land when those economies are already so anaemic.

What kind of world are we staying indoors to preserve? What kind of world are we burning down?

The burning of buildings feels like an ever more important symbolic act against this backdrop, and especially after so many months spent sheltering in place. Now more than ever we are like hermit crabs moving house, swapping the discarded and barnacled Coca-Cola can for something new. On an individual level, we spend every day daydreaming of a life outside the city, outside this overpriced shoebox flat, in some cheap two-up-two-down in a down-and-out seaside town that is, for better and for worse, detached from the drama. It has become more and more apparent that there was no shitter place to be than a city when a pandemic hits. On a collective level, we spend every day struggling to birth a new system, attacking one pillar of society that only makes the others hide behind militaries and demagogic threats. It has become more and more apparent that there was no shitter place to be than a city when the state hits.

It’s true that nothing has ever died by its contradictions but a consciousness of those contradictions has never been more readily within our grasp. Seeing the contradictions for what they are — the bookends of our frenzied stasis; the fault lines of capitalist realism — is the first step towards building new and desperately needed futures.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

For Kierkegaard,

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Welcome to the forest of the real.

S/he Dropped Her Body

RIP Genesis Breyer P-Orridge. The news just broke on Twitter — as it has a habit of doing these days — and it’s hard to know what to say.

There is so much I feel like I must thank Genesis Breyer P-Orridge for: An ability to affirm an amorphous sense of self; a dogged refusal to be what anyone wants you to be; an oppositional creativity as well as an ability to enter into the very depths of things. More than anything, however, on the most banal level, Genesis was responsible for illuminating the weirdness of my own backyard.

As a teenager, having previously internalised and buried the shame of a class position which was visibly usurped by a performative arrogance — my mother was a real-life Hyacinth Bucket and I was growing up to be her protégé — in a city known around the country as a shithole, it was discovering Genesis and Throbbing Gristle that made me think Hull was not such a bad place to be after all. There was poetry here, evidently, and not just the poetry of high society that my mother had a penchant for, but an otherwise evil poetry out to kill all language.

To see Genesis, breaking free of the social shackles I knew all too well, shackles that had won in that dead-end town, and then doing what s/he pleased, was the ultimate inspiration.* I’d already begun to learn about the radicals of the world, far beyond my shithole, but here was Genesis and s/he was ours. As the first domino to topple in my cultural consciousness, s/he led to a fascination with the “lives of the obscure”, as Virginia Woolf once put it, and, fittingly, Genesis increasingly felt like a real-life Orlando, seizing time and space for h/er own aims.

I feel I must add that I never met Genesis although I once had the opportunity. We were sat on opposite aisles of a train back to London from Hull in 2017, following the first weekend of the COUM Transmissions retrospective as part of the City of Culture celebrations.

It was an odd time to find myself in Genesis’s orbit. I’d spent the weekend socialising with Cosey Fanni Tutti that weekend instead, having first emailed her a few years previously, hoping to have a hand in organising the proceedings as a fresh-faced graduate, back in Hull, wanting to see my inspirations represented amongst what I feared would be a sanitised pseudo-corporate affair. When the events finally came around, it was clear that it would be anything but.**

Everyone awkwardly kept their distance from Genesis that weekend, however. Proof copies of Art Sex Music had started to make their way to the press and its revelations about Genesis’s prior behaviour were already being whispered on the winds, and most definitely backstage at that event.

It’s difficult to know how to act when in a room with two people, one of whom has just accused the other of attempted murder in a memoir…

That coloured proceedings indelibly. Genesis’s performance that night — some meandering spoken word thing about memories — felt hollow and superficial. The knowledge coloured my understanding of who Genesis is and was also. This mystic and near-mythical figure re-emerged as precisely those same things, but diminished somehow — a life of tall tales and half-truths and of a hidden energy bubbling under the surface that obviously had a real dark side alongside the nonetheless transgressive productivity of its light.

There are questions that linger about Gen’s conduct over the years. The avant-garde’s Harvey Weinstein? Such a label would surely ring true in some corners if not others. It begs that we try tackle a whole host of questions that I’ve yet to see anyone take seriously. I understand the reticence but I hope it is not completely absent from the coming obituaries.

Genesis Breyer P-Orridge inspired generations of people who I love and admire, no doubt in the same way I was inspired. S/he inspired us to break free of our carnal births and make new ones, form new identities and existences that were psychically nomadic if not physically so. There must come a time, however — surely? — when we have to ask ourselves how much of our lives we’re able to keep running from.

There is only one response that rings true for me right now, so immediately after the news has broken:

Genesis has stopped running. S/he’s dropped her body. Her legacy will continue and no doubt continue to complicate itself as the years go on. Nevertheless, may s/he rest in peace. I’ll be thinking of h/er and h/er loved ones and also thinking of others, who I hope can find a different kind of peace now too.

* The most exciting thing about launching my first book at the ICA this past week has been solely down to its stature in my mind as the place where Throbbing Gristle first penetrated this country’s imagination, with their inaugural performance and exhibition, Prostitution, taking place there in 1973.

** I chronicled that occasion on this blog in a three-parter which you can read here, here, and here.

RIP Andrew Weatherall

It’s always surreal, when a well-known figure passes away, reading what the media focus on as their major achievements, if only because it might illuminated the parochialism of your own understanding of a person’s work.

I was sad to hear that Andrew Weatherall passed away yesterday but I never really knew that much about him. I knew him as a DJ and had heard a bunch of his mixes over the years but never looked any further into his discography to discover, for example, that he worked with Primal Scream and produced Screamadelica.

That’s also probably because I never really liked Screamadelica… That’s an album the boys at school liked who were also into Oasis and The Stone Roses… Not my crowd…

I did, however, like The Sabres of Paradise and Two Lone Swordsmen — two projects I also only just discovered he worked on; two projects I only just discovered were related.

I remember back in 2011 I was trying to recommend The Caretaker’s new album to someone who was an old raver and when they asked what the music was like I said: “haunted dancehall”.

They were all over it in a flash and it was only later, when they came back disgruntled, that I later realised what I really meant to say was “haunted ballroom”…

But we ended up having a good record listening sesh at their house and they put on Sabres of Paradise and I liked it a lot.

I particularly liked it with no context and no background. I liked the mystery of it. It felt oddly like a library record. On listening to it, I had no desire to find out any more and ruin the mystery.

It was around that same time — probably within a few months of that botched recommendation — that I picked up Two Lone Swordsmen’s Tiny Reminders from a record shop in Cardiff, also without having any idea what it was about. I only knew I liked its playfulness and odd familiarity, like someone had just heard a bunch of grooves and gone back to their bedroom to have a go at recreating what they’d heard only passively. It’s close to something you know but it has a certain naivety to it that is really enchanting, like if Jandek made dance music or something… Like if the Autechre boys never grew up…

Anyway, RIP Andrew Weatherall. Thanks for the mysteries.

Hell is Other People’s Cynicism: On Fans, Trolls, and a Purgatorial Mark Fisher

DIS magazine has a new video up on its website called “A New Face in Hell” — a 10-minute play written and performed by hip irreverent two-piece Slash, aka Emily Allen and Leah Hennessey.

Known for their penchant for ‘shipping figures from intellectual and cultural history and writing them into newly theatrical and homoerotic encounters, this new piece features — much to everyone’s surprise, no doubt — Mark Fisher and Mark E. Smith. (Shout-out to James Elsey from DMing me a link to it yesterday.)

The intro on the website reads as follows:

Welcome to hell. The late cultural theorist Mark Fisher, known to some as k-punk from his early blogging days, is giving a lecture on the “gentrification of contrapasso,” the Dantean term for a punishment resembling the sin itself. What could this flashy phrase possibly mean? Fisher is interested in those doomed to repetition until they realize their wrongdoing. See: Groundhog Day, Russian Doll. He hasn’t watched that show, but he doesn’t like what it’s doing to hell on Earth. What he does like is punk band The Fall, particularly their inimitably antisocial frontman Mark E. Smith. He drones on and on about Smith’s antiborgeious, radical inscrutability. Then, a certain kind of heaven. Smith appears before him. He got to heaven and he hated it. Soon he’ll learn to regret his reactionary choice, doomed to spend his afterlife as part of Fisher’s repeating his self-deluded sin.

It’s hard to know what to make of all this. To be honest, I only started writing this post to try and make sense of my own revulsion towards it.

On the one hand, I hate it… It embodies everything that Mark Fisher was not, transforming him into an incoherent existentialist Cultural Studies posho.

On the other hand, I love it… It perversely and reflexively skewers everything wrong with the posthumous image of Mark Fisher that his international fandoms have perpetuated and which have provided mountains of fuel for this blog’s vitriolic engine over the last few years.

With both of these responses waging war in my head, I’m left not knowing which way I should read this odd piece of internet theatre — and I can’t help but shake the feeling that that’s (somewhat paradoxically) the desired response: impotence.

What we are presented with is a shadow of the pomophobe-in-chief as seen through the eyes of a contemporary pomo schlock lampoon. “The cardinal features of PoMo — the arbitrary aesthetics, the simulated gestures, the boredom, the poignancy of the lost object — combine to produce a transcendental miserabilism — a deep sense not only that there is nothing to be done, but that nothing could ever have been done.” It is an ingrown parody, bent backwards so that Allen and Hennessy become Nietzsche’s Last Women — “They are clever and know everything that has ever happened: so there is no end to their mockery” — and yet still dramatise Mark as the bore that is Nietzsche’s Last Man.

It’s ironic, in more ways than one. In fact, it’s irony all the way down. Here the “dreary textocratic dribblings of post-theory” become theatre, letting the contemporary art world’s “transcendental idealist counterpoint to the empirical realism of postmodern culture” play out counter-intuitively on a blackened stage. These are words Mark wrote with Robin Mackay back in early 2000s, slamming Slash ahead of time, albeit with the very mode of hyper-compression they are ridiculing here as onanistic. It is a most cyclically cynical ouroboros.

Watching this, I’m left asking myself: What is self-awareness and what is a mimetic mirroring of Fisher’s contemporary reception? (Such is the eternal problem of postmodern media.) It feels like the only productive thing we can do here is to read it generously as both. (Kill them with kindness.)

This is to say that, understanding that our emotional horror as viewers comes from the fact that Slash allow Mark to embody everything he vocally hated, just as many other people online have since allowed him to do uncritically, our best approach to this odd piece of media is not to dismiss it outright but instead try and affirm it…

As horrific a task as this sounds, I think it is also potentially useful…

What this Slash video dramatises is a Mark that is now caught in the machine that he so frequently critiqued. To dramatise Mark was the word-salad ghost of a Derridean TedTalk in a Beckettian purgatory is precisely to insert Mark in the apparatuses of capture that he repeatedly poured scorn on. Perhaps that is precisely the repetition being viciously lampooned: no matter what he wrote and how many times he did so, Mark has still posthumously fallen victim to that which he lamented. (Again, it’s a hall of mirrors). After all, for all Mark’s writings, we’re still here. Perhaps, at our most cynical, we might say that it is appropriate for Mark the false messiah to end up in hell for failing to save us from our own capture. But this fictionalising of Mark’s ghost as a tragic false prophet feels less like a transgression to be attacked and more like an opportunity to make more visible the sort of “Mark Fisher Studies” discourse that I have repeatedly had problems with — even whilst others might see me as someone who helped inaugurate it.

This is to say that this Mark, no matter how perverse, is a contemporary reality. It is Mark captured in what he himself called “the purgatory of the pseudo-present”, in which his theoretical and cultural contributions to the 21st century are captured in “Beckett’s universe — a universe in which compulsion and waiting never end, a universe without any possibility of climax, resolution or transformation, a universe that is closed, but which will never finally run down into a state of total entropic dissolution”. The tragedy of our contemporary moment, of course, in which Mark’s legacy is now itself embroiled, is that this is as true of a Labour Party conference as it is of anything else. (Heck, we for k-punk organisers have been on the receiving end of such cynicism ourselves recently.)

I am nonetheless tempted to affirm this depiction of Mark. Not for its inaccuracy but because dramatising Mark in this way and in this context goes someway towards fuelling the kinds of virulent cultural production he admired.

Don’t feed the trolls — use them as manure for your own culturally productive capabilities. Do not attack others’ misgivings in order to shut them down but rather in order to extend the reach of a thought beyond them. The passivity of agreeing to disagree is not an option.

This is to say that refuting one person’s perception of a cultural figure in good faith need not be an egotistical attempt to demoralise but rather an attempt to extend one person’s thought beyond the cul-de-sacs of posthumous capture — that’s certainly been my intention in being a frequently Fisherian gobshite — and here Slash have provided us with the perfect effigy with which to do this.

I think it was this sentiment that Mark was channeling also when he once wrote: “Betrayal is just as important a cultural engine as fidelity; hate is just as important as love.”

This quotation comes from one of Mark’s better-known posts about the cultural productivity of fandoms and we might note that this is an arena that the Slash project is also very familiar with. As an article on the pair in Vogue notes: “What they understand intuitively, and what makes Slash so spot-on, is the thrill and stickiness of niche knowledge.”

In this sense, considering what Slash are going for, it is an accurate encapsulation of Mark as a figure as seen through his stereotypical theorybro fan base — particularly of the New York PolPhil / Cultural Studies department variety. The problem with this sort of fanbase for Mark’s work, however, is that it often seems to exorcise the vitriol and cultural productivity that he saw as essential to any sort of engagement with intellectual or cultural works. Academia’s greatest — and most frequently committed — crime has been its dissolution of the positive feedback loop between cultural and intellectual production, with Cultural Studies, most ironically, rendering it wholly negative. (Not to shit on CS too much — Mark’s misgivings in this department might apply far more readily to much of the NYC theory contingent’s socialite miserablism these days, as we’ll see in a moment.) This remains the case even — and especially — when academics form their own kinds of “fandom.”

Here we can see how the landscape has changed over the last ten years — that is, how the relationship between academia and cultural production has shifted. For instance, take these comments that Mark made, again in his k-punk post about fandoms, regarding academia and trolls:

Trolls pride themselves on not being fans, on not having the investments shared by those occupying whatever space they are trolling. Trolls are not limited to cyberspace, although, evidently, zones of cyberspace — comments boxes and discussion boards — are particularly congenial for them. And of course the elementary Troll gesture is the disavowal of cyberspace itself. In a typical gesture of flailing impotence that nevertheless has effects — of energy-drain and demoralisation — the Troll spends a great deal of time on the web saying how debased, how unsophisticated, the web is — by contrast, we have to conclude, with the superb work routinely being turned out by ‘professionals’ in the media and the academy.

Here, writing in 2009, Mark is obviously emphasising how academics — in the name of the rational rigour of objectivity no doubt — tend to eschew the fan label entirely. However, I don’t think this is the case anymore. At least not in all circles. Cultural Studies itself seems to have wholly embraced and absorbed the desiring-production behind pop cultural wikis and encyclopedias. However, in the process, it has made pop cultural passion as impotent as the academy’s former virulent cynicism.

You can see this for yourself. Just look at the lineup for a Cultural Studies conference on any sort of genre (or — as is, notably, just as common these days — sub-genre) fiction. Perusing Gothic Studies sites, for instance, I’ve seen many a paper advertised on fanfic as cultural production that makes Mark’s comments above feeling wholly misplaced. The issue is not fanfic itself, however, but rather its capture by the engine that it was once made to feel so absolutely alienated from. However, with cultural passion now finding itself within the academy itself, the tables have resolutely been turned, so that it is now culture that trolls academic sycophancy in favour of a hipster’s hard-nosed irreverence.

As such, what Slash‘s video demonstrates is a caricature of Mark as seen through this newly established prism, but what is fitting is that his continuing comments on trolls more generally still ring true. He writes:

In many ways, the academic qua academic is the Troll par excellence. Postgraduate study has a propensity to breeds trolls; in the worst cases, the mode of nitpicking critique (and autocritique) required by academic training turns people into permanent trolls, trolls who troll themselves, who transform their inability to commit to any position into a virtue, a sign of their maturity (opposed, in their minds, to the allegedly infantile attachments of The Fan). But there is nothing more adolescent — in the worst way — than this posture of alleged detachment, this sneer from nowhere. For what it disavows is its own investments; an investment in always being at the edge of projects it can neither commit to nor entirely sever itself from — the worst kind of libidinal configuration, an appalling trap, an existential toxicity which ensures debilitation for all who come into contact with it (if only that in terms of time and energy wasted — the Troll above all wants to waste time, its libido involves a banal sadism, the dull malice of snatching people’s toys away from them).

Here we find it is the artist qua artist who trolls exquisitely, with their sort bred like rabbits on MFA courses around the world.

Here Slash emerges from behind their 5000 spirits; the layers of the irony onion. The desired effect of this video is no doubt to make writing a post like this feel like a nauseating process. Nevertheless, the mask slips. The fan has become the troll. A whole scenius finds itself with its pants down, revealed starkly within a box of its own making.

The response should be to map this out further. Extend outwards beyond the edges of an impotent art world autocritique.

Shoot to kill. They’re fish in a barrel.

Much love to Leah and Emily for taking this declaration of war in such good faith over on Instagram. I was really humbled by their response and feel very excited and fired up by the fact that this post resonated with them. Thanks for reaching out!

XG on the Wyrd Signal Podcast

I had the best time hanging out with Lucy and Sean the other week to record an episode of their Wyrd Signal podcast.

It was recorded in Lucy’s amazing flat on a swelteringly hot August Sunday but it was an appropriately Bacchanalian affair with copious amounts of wine, berries and cigarettes.

As you can see from the timestamp above, we talked for hours about the sprawling mythos of Hannibal Lecter, serial killing in general and the strange relationships we have to these things through culture and queerness.

Give it a listen and go and support Sean and Lucy’s excellent podcast over on Patreon.

An Abstract “You”

Recent thoughts on the perpetual “I” of such much of my writing, experienced as “the inside as a folding of the outside”, are ricocheting (once again) off Phil Elverum.

I really like what he has to say here in an interview for The Atlantic about addressing an abstract “you” of his album Now Only alongside an abstracted “I”.

Spencer Kornhaber: The first lines on Now Only are, “I sing to you / I sing to you, Geneviève.” They seem to imply that you’re not singing to the wider world. Why was it important to start there?

Phil Elverum: Maybe it’s because I noticed all these songs have a “you” in them. And then I started thinking about who that is, and how she doesn’t exist — or does she? That big mystery is the thesis of the record, the question I’m poking at.

I don’t have anything to say to the wider world right now, and when I do it doesn’t feel great. It doesn’t feel great to be too meta or self-referential. There are parts on the record where I am talking about the absurdity of the bigger picture of my life, about playing these songs in public. But that’s not the core of what I’m trying to get at with this body of work. It’s more of an internal thing.

Kornhaber: Those moments do stick out. Like when you’re talking about singing your “death songs to a bunch of young people on drugs” at a music festival where Skrillex is playing. Was that as absurd an experience as it sounds?

Elverum: Oh, of course. It even feels absurd to be writing or singing a song at all — in the context of actual death, being alive feels absurd. So the Skrillex moment just becomes a joke. Not a bad joke. It is good to be alive. The universe is chaotic and meaningless, and it’s good to laugh about it. That’s my stance on life, actually. Some people go through life grinding their teeth, suffering and banging their head against the wall. I’m glad that’s not the reaction that occurs in me.

Kornhaber: What did you learn from the reception of the last album?

Elverum: It was actually pretty reaffirming. I lived with Geneviève for 13 years, and before meeting her I used to be pretty open and write songs about whatever specific turmoil I was going through. But when I met her, I felt like, “No, this is different, this is too special to share with the world.” I couldn’t sing about it. We lived in this bubble of privacy. And we were very careful.

When she died, for whatever reason, that bubble popped. And I felt compelled to open up totally to the world again. It was scary to make that leap. Before playing the songs for anyone, I had literal nightmares where I’d be on stage and then somebody would come up on stage and punch me. Because they just didn’t want to hear these songs, because it was too scary for them or something.

The opposite has been the case. People are relating in a way that is so open and human. So the thing I learned from the album was that everyone is much kinder and more mature than I expected. It’s easy to have a bleak view of humanity and people’s intelligence and compassion, but opening up about this stuff improved my feeling about being alive.

Cascading Adolescence (Part 1): Adolescent Outsideness

In the introduction to his book England’s Hidden Reverse, David Keenan considers the sense in which England’s “esoteric underground” — of which “the formation of Throbbing Gristle in 1975 [was] year zero”[1],[2] and which was exemplified by the bands Coil[3], Current 93[4] and Nurse with Wound[5] — by predating punk — was the first genre to take up the inherently adolescent energy of “classic” rock ‘n’ roll, following its 1960s “Golden Age”.

Keenan’s sense of adolescence is broad. For him, it is a word that should not refer solely to a disparaged naivety or immaturity. Instead, it should be seen as an integral part of human cultural experience — and an experience which does not simply “end” with an escape into your 20s and the settling of unruly pubescent hormones.

Perhaps surprisingly, Keenan’s conception of adolescence stretches as far back as 40,000 years ago. He cites R. Dale Guthrie’s 2005 book The Nature of Palaeolithic Art to describe an adolescent cultural production that transcends not just our modern sense of the “teenager” — which arguably refers to little more than a socioeconomic demographic[6] — but even beyond our historic sense of civilisational belonging.

In his book, Guthrie, an anthropologist, puts forward the thesis that Palaeolithic adolescents were as obsessed with sex and violence as our modern-day teenage tearaways. He argues that the cave art from this era that survives around the world — depicting hunts and battles as well as the occasional disproportionate phallus — was most likely drawn by adolescent males; pubescent teens passing through the very same evolutionary hormone-fuelled phase-shift defined by a reckless exploration of the world and a preoccupation with its darker corners that we are all already familiar with.[7] For Guthrie and Keenan, then, the suggestion seems to be that these caves served the same function as the graffitied bus shelters, underpasses and bathrooms of our contemporaneous shadow-lurking youth.

Having exploded this sense of adolescence, Keenan — taking a view that is less explicitly masculine and anthropological — goes on to compare prehistoric art to the burgeoning noise and industrial music genres of the 1970s and ‘80s, specifically the music of Whitehouse — that notorious project captained by musician William Bennett — which he describes as a xenorock that rolls beyond the limits of the genre’s eventual social acceptance following the various social panics it originally provoked in the public imagination from the 1950s onwards.

Keenan writes:

Whitehouse, formed by William Bennet in 1980, … effectively birth[ed] noise music—or ‘power electronics’ as Bennett dubbed it—as a genre while making consistent and inexplicable use of extreme imagery, naming albums after concentration camps, like 1981’s Buchenwald, dedicating albums to notorious serial killers, as on 1983’s Dedicated To Peter Kürten Sadist And Mass Slayer, and using self-consciously atrocious track titles like ‘Tit Pulp’, ‘Shitfun’ and ‘I’m Comin’ Up Your Ass.’

So far, so very adolescent, right? But we need to be very careful when we use a term like ‘adolescent’ in a disparaging way. What do we mean?

Rock ‘n’ roll is an adolescent art form. It derives most of its energy from adolescence. If we’re going to damn music for being adolescent we’re going to have to write off all of the best rock ‘n’ roll, all of the music that we love. But as an adolescent art form the kind of grotesque, violent, hyper-sexualised imagery that Whitehouse dealt in can never be far from the surface.[8]

From here, Keenan contrasts Whitehouse to the way in which, for example, Elvis first shocked the world, infamously filmed only from the waist up on the Ed Sullivan Show so as not to offend or over-excite those tuning in; later, he notes how the Sex Pistols caused great offence with their caricatured Nazism and cartoonish hyperviolence on puerile songs like “Belsen Was A Gas”, but Keenan also notes that both these artists are now widely accepted cultural institutions and so “rock ‘n’ roll can also be seen as a safety valve, in a sense, a way of containing these inchoate powers, which is how Throbbing Gristle saw it, as a system of control.”[9]

Positioning themselves in opposition to this kind of cultural production and assimilation, noise and industrial musics don’t romanticise or aestheticise their subject matter but try to traumatically reflect the darkest corners of reality as they actually exist. They don’t want to function as an affective dam for libidinal desires but as a virulent amplifier. Keenan writes:

Noise and Industrial music function as the night time to pop music’s day. Where pop music exists as a soundtrack to nine-to-five work and consumption, noise provides the cover of night that facilitates transgressive activities, liberating suppressed personas and jamming the wavelengths that consensual reality broadcasts on. Crime calls for night; noise is no longer music as entertainment.[10]

Today, this disconnection between noise and pop — both broadly defined — persists. Noise musics, however, are still routinely derided and attacked for their aesthetic promiscuity. Pop is today broadly progressive if nonetheless somewhat innocuous. Black music’s continued dominance of the pop charts, increasingly comfortable with its own politicisation, has brought the politics of a minoritarian existence and experience into everyday life. Beyoncé’s tribute to black politics past and present at Superbowl 50 in 2016, for instance, ungrounds the suggestion that pop cannot facilitate transgression for some. However, whilst it might rupture everyday political discussion, it remains the soundtrack to work and consumption. Noise, in occupying the night, finds itself more readily associated with another kind of transgression, one which does not occur in plain sight, and which, perhaps due to pop’s own grasp of progressivism, is easily associated with a darker side of politics also.

Contrary to this, Keenan argues that the music of Whitehouse is far less (politically if not aesthetically) offensive — or should be — than the likes of Godspeed You! Black Emperor, for instance, whose song “Mladić”, from their 2012 album, ‘Allelujah! Don’t Bend! Ascend!, he highlights as a cinematic and even romantic track, supposedly about (or—as Whitehouse might describe it—“dedicated to”) the Bosnian Serb war criminal Ratko Mladić.[11]

Keenan claims that the sublimity of their neoclassical, post-rock sound can be far more easily interpreted as a romanticisation of the man in question, in being somewhat neo-Wagnerian perhaps. The track throws together an often atonal mix of folkloric melodies, raucous guitars and walls of feedback — it is certainly “noisy” if not quite “noise” — but in doing so it seems to capture the spirit and energy of a war-mongering nationalism in its melodic delirium. For Keenan, this is far more problematic than the slabs of noise that constitute Whitehouse’s stylistically provocative discography. However, Keenan notes that the intention of Godspeed You! Black Emperor’s aesthetic onslaught is never questioned due to their extramusical clarifications in interviews and elsewhere as being self-described “left-liberals”.

The unrelenting noise of Whitehouse stands in firm opposition to such a response. There is no attempt at aestheticising the chosen subject matter. If anything, for a project like Whitehouse, talk is cheap. Instead, Bennett’s project attempts to hold a mirror up to the worst of human society and re-present it as it actually appears to us — that is, abhorrently. We can consider the project, in stark contrast to the likes of Godspeed You! Black Emperor, as an attempt to grapple with that which is beyond words, beyond classical understandings of form and expression.

Whitehouse, in being named after the infamous moral campaigner Mary Whitehouse[12], can be seen as an inversion of Mary’s own raison d’etre, attacking the news cycles and mundane ideologies that do far more to normalise the worst acts we humans are capable of by confronting the listener with that which is so hard to comprehend about the human condition rather than censoring it. To transduce this into the normality of “classical” music — in the broadest sense of the term; “music” that is easily appreciable as such — is, then, for noise musicians, a dangerous game.

In this sense, the music of Whitehouse can be aligned with Georges Bataille’s concept of l’informe, or formlessness. In contrast Godspeed You! Black Emperor’s neo-Wagnerian overcoming of the folkloric, Whitehouse demonstrates an approach “that serves to bring things down in the world.”[13] As Bataille would write, at his most cosmically pessimistic:

What [formlessness] designates has no rights in any sense and gets itself squashed everywhere, like a spider or an earthworm. In fact, for academic men to be happy, the universe would have to take shape. All of philosophy has no other goal: it is a matter of giving a frock coat to what is, a mathematical frock coat. On the other hand, affirming that the universe resembles nothing and is only formless amounts to saying that the universe is something like a spider or spit.[14]

Despite framing the reality of human depravity and its abject meaninglessness in these non-terms, it is bizarre to Keenan that it is instead the likes of Whitehouse and not Godspeed You! Black Emperor who must emphatically defend their artistic practice against accusations of fascistic sympathies.[15] Because, ultimately, as Keenan writes, “there is no poetry here.”[16] And that’s the point. There is no poetry in genocide or serial murder and so this music is offered up as a way to begin to process the darkest crevices of the human condition through a consciously paradoxical process. How to create a sound in the world’s image? It’s “true” image? How to attend to these travesties in a way that does not hide from the reproductive reality of their implications? It asks the question: to what extent are we willing—or even able—to withstand that which mirrors the worst side of ourselves in all of its abject difficulty?

The elephant in the room here, of course, is that much of the anxiety surrounding these movements in the present emerges from the fact that there are various creators of extreme musics who do attempt to glorify and embolden an “extreme” — in the sense of a violent, aggressive and propulsively right-wing — politics.

Death In June are the most notorious group of this kind, perhaps. Beginning in similar post-punk and industrial territory when they formed in the 1980s, and once self-described far-leftists, members of the group later found themselves influenced by the ideologies of National Bolshevism and Strasserism, both ideologies which implicitly inject far-left structuralist critiques with far-right sentiments. Strasserism, in particular, is best known as a call for a brand of Nazism which is birthed from proletarian revolution; a sort of faux-Marxism which conflates critiques of capitalism with the economic conspiracies of antisemitism.

These ideological turns are regularly denounced, and rightly so, but far too often the argument is to denounce the very grounds from which they emerge. As Keenan suggests, to denounce adolescence absolutely is surely misguided. What is necessary, instead, is that we critique our inevitably conditioned approaches to such topics. For instance, are we to treat adolescence as the demonstrative ground for all creative activity and existence? Of course not. Adolescence is a process, a becoming; a period of development, of chance. It is, biologically and creatively speaking, a generative vector for the production of the new. (And it is not the only one either.) To denounce it outright is as impossible as an apparent commitment to — which is to say, an ideological packaging of — its processes.

This series will consider a confluence of such generative but likewise controversial vectors, with adolescence chief among them — but also “death”, “nature” and “mythology” — which emerge as integral gears of the adolescent process. These topics, like adolescence, can appear dangerous when isolated, but they are not antithetical to positive and generative processes in and of themselves. To demonstrate this we will consider a particularly “bad” example of an “adolescent” music scene, which — whilst initially intensely generative — collapsed in on itself, caught in a spiral of murderous intent all of its own making: True Norwegian Black Metal.

To be continued…

[1] David Keenan, England’s Hidden Reverse (London: Strange Attractor Press, 2016), viii

[2] Formed by Genesis P-Orridge, Cosey Fanni Tutti, Chris Carter and Peter Christopherson in 1975, Throbbing Gristle were known for their prolific and subversive activities, straddling a fine line between rock band and performance art, the main impetus of which was to always confound their audience’s expectations, no matter what. They are best known for their albums The Second Annual Report (1977) and 20 Jazz Funk Greats (1979), and are widely recognised as the progenitors of so-called “Industrial music”, named after their independent record label Industrial Records.

[3] Formed by John Balance in 1982 and later joined by Throbbing Gristle’s Peter Christopherson, Coil would push against the edges of post-punk and post-industrial music, dragging an already esoteric sound further into its outer limits. They are best known for their albums Horse Rotorvator (1986) and Love’s Secret Domain (1991), with the latter incorporating the contemporaneous sounds of Acid House with the industrial music on which they cut their teeth.

[4] Formed by David Tibet in 1982, Current 93 likewise took Industrial music in new directions, exacerbating the occultism that was of interest to late Throbbing Gristle and incorporating folk influences into their sound.

[5] Nurse With Wound is a project heralded by Stephen Stapleton and formed in 1978. They are arguably the most disturbing of the three groups that Keenan considers in England’s Hidden Reverse, having subsequently had a major influence on noise, drone and demonstrating a mastery of the aural uncanny.

[6] It is worth noting, in light of Keenan’s references, that the “teenager” is a very modern concept. Indeed, there is an argument to be made that the teenager was a concept “invented” by marketing companies in the 1940s, when young people in the throws of adolescence were identified to be an lucrative economic demographic. See, for example, Dwight MacDonald, “Inventing the American Teen-Ager”, The New Yorker, 29 November 1958: <;

[7] See: R. Dale Guthrie, The Nature of Paleolithic Art (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2005)

[8] David Keenan, England’s Hidden Reverse, viii

[9] Ibid., ix

[10] Ibid., vii

[11] Sentenced to life in prison in 2017, Mladić (also known as the “Butcher of Bosnia”) was convicted of genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity at an international criminal tribunal which investigated atrocities committed during the Yugoslav Wars, largely ethnic wars of independence held throughout the 1990s which led to the breaking up of the state of Yugoslavia into six separate nations: Slovenia, Croatia, North Macedonia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Kosovo, and Montenegro.

[12] Mary Whitehouse a social conservative and reactionary who was famous throughout the UK over a number of decades for her “moral campaigns” waged against the mainstream media and popular culture due to what she saw as the endemic promotion of bad language, sex and violence during the 1960s to the 1980s. She was known as an opponent of progressive politics in all its forms during her life time, particularly regarding issues of sexual liberation and gay rights. Although widely mocked in the media, she is said to have greatly influenced the premiereship of Margaret Thatcher and a number of censory laws introduced during her tenure, perhaps most notoriously the Video Recordings Act of 1984, legislation brought in to tackle a moral panic orchestrated by Whitehouse regarding so-called ‘video nasties’—a phrase it is said that she coined herself. Many famous and critically acclaimed films were cut or outright banned in the UK in cinemas or on home video due to this legislation, including The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Rosemary’s Baby, Dawn of the Dead, Friday the 13th and Suspiria. Many of these films did not see an “uncut” video or DVD release until the late 1990s or early 2000s.

[13] Georges Bataille, “Formless” in Visions of Excess: Selected Writings, 1927-1939, ed. Allan Stoekl (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1985), 31

[14] Ibid.

[15] See: William Bennett, “Personal Statement”, William Bennet (blog), 19 March 2013:

[16] David Keenan, England’s Hidden Reverse, xiii

God Disembowels Himself: Further Notes on Accelerationism & Patchwork

If this post appears somewhat fragmented, that is because I’ve built it out of some stuff that got discarded whilst I was working on my #WYRDPATCHWORKSHOP talk a few weeks back. I’d recommend giving that a read first for some broader context but it’s not essential.

Patchwork, in the work of Nick Land in particular, is seen as a geopolitical desire that is, explicitly, strapped onto the branch of contemporary political philosophy known as Accelerationism. For Land, it seems, “accelerating the process” patchwise, in a way that is socioeconomically affective, relates to cutting out the middleman when it comes to capitalism’s influence.

Rather than having governments hire corporations, just accept that governments can’t keep up with the new techonomic world and, instead, let’s have a do-over.

This is a major generalisation, of course, and it is one which favours a particularly dystopian vision of the world from the left. However, whilst many see Land’s arguments as being associated with the “sovereign corporations” of Mencius Moldbug, hard to favour in light of contemporary inequality and the rampant ineffectuality of privatisation, there are also arguments to be made for a patchwork that could likewise resemble a fragmentary socialism where the “nationalisation” of industry is not just the further consolidation of state power. It could be seen less as the absorption of all business into the state and instead the absorption of the state by local business. This too is a generalisation — I’m trying to be brief — but suffice it to say that the overarching point of patchwork is that, regardless of where your politics lie, what comes under fire is the modern state form as the most formidable barrier to new political imaginaries.

This observation might sound all well and good but, predictably, patchwork ends up coming up against many of the same problems that accelerationism has in recent years. To enforce any particular left or right variant is sort of antithetical to what patchwork as a mode of thought is trying to attune itself to. This is not to simply hold up multiplicity as an end unto itself but rather to better account for the ground from which various contemporary tendencies move outwards from.

I recently published a primer on this intention as it is found in the discourse around unconditional accelerationism. Unconditional accelerationism, in contrast to a left or right accelerationism (and a dozen other variations of this philosophy that proliferate online) attempts to describe a process which unfolds beyond the realm of politics. This is not to ignore politics but rather to acknowledge that politics itself is expressed from within an overarching process from which it is not, in itself, distinct. We could even say that politics is dependent on this process — to quote a recent Ed Berger tweet: “the conditioned is dependent on the unconditional“.

As far as I am concerned, patchwork thinking is the real-world political arm of this analysis. It says: Here is the tendency that we see unfolding across decades, even centuries — that is, the unruly spread of capitalist nationhood, symptomatic of an attempt to quieten a certain ‘jangling of nerves’ — and here are a series of speculative geopolitical predictions which we see as worthy of encouragement if we want to effectuate real change from within the midst of this process rather than be mindless slaves to its affectations.

This makes patchwork a sort of antistatecraft. Just like capitalism, the territorialisation of the state, in its restlessness, opens doors for us which reveal new ways of geopolitical organisation, and patchwork attempts to provide a way of thinking them which are beyond the conditioned imaginary of the modern state form. It is an attempt to chart the unruly development of the state form itself to reveal its contingency as just one of a plurality of possible forms of interrelation between peoples and peoples-to-come. It is to follow the innate line of flight of the “state-form” we know in order to produce other kinds of state.

I sort of discussed this during my first #WYRDPATCHWORKSHOP talk, when I talked about how the Wyrd Sisters in Shakespeare’s Macbeth offer us an example of an occulted, minoritarian outsideness, but one that is also strangely fatalistic. The fatalistic nature of this example has continue to be a issue in my mind and so the question lingers: when we talk about processes of deterritorialisation — innate entropic death drives within systems which pull towards their own demise — to what extent does this betray a deterministic approach to capitalism or geopolitics — that is, a sense of inevitability, or fatalism.

I wrote the U/Acc primer in part to try and address this problem as it is found in accelerationism. I was frustrated that accelerationism was being frequently reduced to the belief that we need to somehow speed up capitalism’s downfall no matter the cost — as if we have any real say in the matter — but I was also frustrated by a tendency to equate this determinism with a straight-up delusional religiosity which is betrayed by an interest in sci-fi or weird fiction; or narrative, fiction and myth more generally.

For me, the implicit reason for enjoying this approach is to suggest that we can read something like H.P. Lovecraft’s Call of Cthulhu, for example, and rather than just do the Cultural Studies thing of saying what the text is doing in the most boring way possible, we can instead try to tap into the power of that story and replicate the power of that mythos for our present moment, by putting into the very process of cultural production an occulted thinking that these sorts of stories bring to light at the limits of our conditioned realities. So, we shouldn’t just analyse culture in this way but actively try to produce it in its own outsider image.

Despite this, for some, this approach is reduced to such dumb dismissals as “Accelerationism is a sci-fi Cthulhu Cult that believes a giant dead octopus at the bottom of the ocean controls the world’s economy and doesn’t care about real-world affects and risks”…

And yet, in contrast to accelerationism, patchwork has never quite had to deal with this kind of critique, at least not to the same extent, perhaps because we’re a lot more familiar with thinking about the state in this way. Thomas Hobbes, for example, way back in 1651, wrote Leviathan, in which the state is presented to us in abstract, evoking the spectacle of a great whale, a kraken, a sea monster, albeit one cast in a positive light. Leviathan — used to give an image to a strong, undivided government — is, for Hobbes, despite the innate horror of the image, something to strive for.

Vincent Garton, on the Urbanomic website in 2017, wrote a marvellous essay — and a key patchwork text — in which he critiques Hobbes’ use of this image and calls, instead, for the formulation of “an Anti-Leviathan” — Leviathan Rots. Vince writes that what we need is “an enthusiasm that will be absolute, not relative, comfortable in its disjuncture, a theoretical orientation that is not dependent on a praxis of repetition of hegemony, but is open and expectant towards the processes that are ripping up the Leviathan — divesting it of its oceanic pretences, and drowning it in the expansive flux of the deep, green sea….”

Vince is a very interesting character within all of this, and a key contributor to these ideas. Between 2016 and 2017, he had a persistent online presence and was known for being a prolific and authoritative blogger on the topic of “unconditional accelerationism”. Then, at some point, he disappeared.

Vince’s last blog post, at this time, published on his Cyclonograph blog in July 2017, discussed the potential excavation of the antecedents of accelerationism — accelerationism, he writes, is, on “the most superficial level”, only about a decade old but it is also, at “its unspoken core … impossibly ancient.” This is because, he continues, accelerationism is “more a ‘jangling of the nerves’ than a set of doctrines”. It can be traced back through many paths and many cultures. Acceleration is, he says, a “sensation”, perhaps described most frequently by those in the West but it is nonetheless felt around the world. To reduce this tendency to any singular canonical trajectory is to reductively construct a bad genealogy. To relativise it is a mistake. Just as he calls for in Leviathan Rots, we need an “Absolute” approach to accelerationism — an unconditional approach.

We might say that accelerationism, then, is a philosophy which attempts to describe the unruly nature(s) of the politics we see erupting out of modernity and treat them accordingly, rejecting the consolidatory tendency of the state form and its striving for a total(itarian)ising theory which is innately false, only choosing to acknowledge a select number of the inputs that give it its form — that is, ejecting that which betrays the system of nation-state or capitalism as insufficient. As such, Vince writes, ending his previous blog on something of a cliffhanger: “When it is written, then, the intellectual history and genealogy of accelerationism must look beyond the contingencies of its present expressions.”

A year later, in July 2018, Vince returned, with a new blog, Cyclonograph II, and a seemingly new focus. His first piece of writing published around this time was an essay for the online magazine Jacobite entitled “Catholicism and the Gravity of Horror“, detailing his Catholicism and the horror integral to such a religious position, which many seemed to read, on the one hand, as a retraction of past political dalliances, or, on the other, as a conflation of Accelerationism with Catholicism itself. (Not a manoeuvre attractive to many tech-savvy secularists.)

But what Vince is describing here is the way in which the Church have followed the lead of the State in consolidating itself into an authoritative institution despite the ways in which its “ground” suggests an antithetical approach. He is putting forward a Catholicism which looks beyond the contingencies of its present expressions. He writes:

The Church today, mystical body of Christ that it remains, is not the ideal Church. Across its history it has been all too easy to founder, driven to despair by its mysteries or — far more common today — losing sight of them entirely, falling into a simplistic world of smooth and total immanence and giving up the commission of self-surrender. The theologian walks a precipice, and must take care neither to collapse, like Luther, into the oppressive darkness of a fallen world, nor to dissolve in the false light of an insipid liberalism that averts its gaze because it has forgotten how to fear.

What I find here, in connecting Vince’s past and present blogs, is a favouring, perhaps, of one particular “jangling of the nerves” — an unconditional one — and, as such, a jangling which, again, looks beyond contingent expressions, leading him to acknowledge the ways in which “modern philosophy, particularly aesthetic philosophy, driven for centuries with all its enlightened instincts away from religion, comes at its edge once more and continually into contact with theology.”

This is because what transcendental philosophies — and even transcendental politics — share with modern religion is a (somewhat performative) attempt to commune with that which is outside themselves. It considers its conditions of existence, establishing an outside of which it can say nothing. This has been the effect of Kantian philosophy on the world as we know it. What we find in Kant is precisely an attempt to give thought its conditions; to sketch out its edges, the areas beyond which thought itself cannot go. We find this within most popular conceptions of accelerationism too, placing conditions on politics in order to adequately describe their limits. As such, whether we call this radical Outside “Nature” or “God” or “the thing-in-itself” or the “Other” or “Cthulhu”, what we find is the acknowledgement of a process which is beyond ourselves but of which we can say nothing in particular. So, for Kant, everything we experience is conditioned by perception. We cannot speak to the world as it would be without us. We cannot even speak of ourselves understood outside of perception and it is from here that we find the limit of Lovecraftian horror and Catholic reasoning.

But the story does not end there. To finish the story with our terror before the unthinkable and unimaginable is, arguably, to accept impotence, failing to consider the thought that has emerged after this.

This is something I’m researching at the moment — the development and critique of Kantian thought to be found amongst the Post-Kantian German Idealists. Friedrich Wilhelm Joseph von Schelling, in particular, emerges as an important figure who attempts to address the recursive nature of Kant’s position. Yes, we can say nothing of the “Outside”, but at the same time we must acknowledge that we ourselves are a product of it. Just as Judeo-Christian theology insists that we have been made in God’s image, we find a Post-Kantian thought which finds that whilst “Nature” may be inaccessible to us “in itself”, we also are nature-in-itself, and so thought becomes a way in which nature thinks itself. As Iain Hamilton Grant writes in his book Philosophies of Nature After Schelling:

… the grounds of the finitude of transcendental reflection are not simply logical, as Hegel will present it, but rather physical, and concern the relation between productivity and product. The transcendental is productive in the pursuit of conditions, but, having established such conditions as conditions, mere product when it accordingly determines a thought as thus conditions. There is an energetic cost, in other words, to thought about thought.

Now, I won’t pretend have any authoritative grasp on this as yet — this is an ongoing area of research for me, and new terrain to boot — but as I understand it, this manoeuvre in naturephilosophy is an attempt to rebuild the subject, in particular, as the product of a productive natural history by reversing through the strata of the subject to find its unconditioned core; its “nature”. But, if thought is nature thinking itself, then what is the ground of nature? And what is the ground of that ground? What is nature understood unconditionally? This is something which is likewise developed by Deleuze and Guattari, and whilst their Kantian thinking is often explored by philosophers, the influence of naturephilosophy on their ideas seems to be a lot less prevalent around these blogospheric parts, but there are some who have explored this in great depth. I know that Ben Woodard is soon to publish a book on Schelling, for instance; Thomas Murphy is incredibly knowledgeable about this period in the history of philosophy; and, last but certainly not least, there is also Thomas Moynihan’s forthcoming book Spinal Catastrophism (recently announced and out in September) which pursues these ideas with an explicitly post-CCRU bent.

It is via the CCRU that we can see the retention of a predilection for Gothic horror in naturephilosophy. In considering Schelling’s interjection of the human subject as nature which thinks itself, I’m reminded of the opening scene from Begotten, for instance, where we see God disembowel himself. Such is deterritorialisation, and the ultimate horrific impact of a Nature which performs persistent biopsies on itself. As such, there is a sense that, in hoping to understand Nature, we have to delve inside ourselves as we already are and so the energetic cost that is spent is nature itself; is us.

But, of course, in the film, out of the bowels of God emerges Mother Nature. Nature begets nature begets nature, each time in a new and appropriately unholy form.

And so, as Iain Hamilton Grant continues, in a chapter of his book which is notably titled “‘What thinks in me is what is outside of me'”:

It is in consequence of the derivative nature of the product with respect to productivity that Schelling’s transcendentalism begins with the assertion ‘nature IS a priori‘, but immediately raises the problem of how a nature can be thus a priori and, at the same time, ‘unconditioned’. Accordingly, Schelling completely reinvents a transcendental philosophy that must reverse through the series of conditions until it discovers either the ‘unconditioned is nature’ that ‘cannot be any thing‘, or that nature is unconditional.

This seemingly proto-structuralist account of nature is likewise taken up and taken to its extremes by Deleuze and Guattari in their call for a geology of morals. Their question, “Who does the earth think it is?”, might be qualified with a small addition: “Who does the earth think it is unconditionally?”

What becomes critical here, and which I’ll hopefully explore more in future, is the way in which, as already suggested, this geological approach to nature likewise produces new natures. By digging down, new matter is brought to the surface.

As Grant writes at the start of his book, introducing Schelling and his naturephilosophy:

Philosophy does not, according to Schelling, consist in a redescription of otherwise available phenomena, but launches ‘thought-operations’ in the ‘medium of the universal and the impersonal’. It is ‘not [a] demonstrative, but [a] generative‘ process through which productive nature itself acts on, or produces, itself: ‘to philosophise about nature means to create nature’.

We might do well to think of accelerationism and patchwork in much the same way.