The early 90s was all about indie nights for me. I fucking loved ‘em too. Then one of the DJs at Silhouette in Hull played Hyperspeed. My initial reaction was one of revulsion, with a bit of indignation thrown in for good measure. “Where are the guitars?” The next week the DJ played Out of Space. My reaction was the same. Dance music was what people in Manchester listened to, and this was Hull.
But you couldn’t help but notice the dancefloor. People were going mental. It just looked like fun. A couple of weeks later, I joined them. Those early days of discovering the Prodigy and those who were to follow mostly in their wake were tremendous. Indie and dance together. This was bliss. It was also fucking good fun. Few albums mean as much to me as Experience, which I grew to love and appreciate in ways I never thought possible after hearing those first few songs. The Prodigy broadened my mind in ways that few others bands have ever really managed.
I enjoyed reading the readers’ comments on The Guardian following the sad news that Keith Flint of The Prodigy has taken his own life. This resonated with my own experiences in Hull, albeit 10 to 15 years later.
Out of Space is probably the first dance track I ever heard, I think. I used to listen to it all the time and in complete isolation, like it was the only song of its kind to ever exist, and that was likely from that very experience of hearing it at an indie night rather than a dance night.
Hull has never really been into its dance music. Not like in other cities. There were a few crossover acts around at that time that would drag people out of themselves and into something between worlds… But that was usually the weekly rendition of Pendulum’s “Blood Sugar” rather than anything halfway decent.
Keith Flint felt like a proper egresser, in that respect. The videos for “Firestarter” and “Breathe” had a “Come To Daddy” quality of not really caring if you dance to it or not. The main thing it wants to do is dragged you kicking and screaming out of yourself. As for many other people at that time, when the iconic image of Keith made it onto our TV screens, it became quite clear to a young me that dance music was going to be better vector through which to find this kind of experience than a lot of what my friends were listening to at the time which had the look but not the affect.
What’s extra special about The Prodigy in that respect is that they were perennial: a gateway drug for generations of kids.
This year’s Mark Fisher Memorial Lecture was a beautiful occasion — like the wedding of a distant cousin, as someone put it. All sorts of new faces and estranged relatives gathering together for the first time in a long time, there for the booze mostly.
Socialising aside, Jodi Dean’s lecture ended up being pretty divisive. Personally, I really enjoyed it, and recognised much of Mark’s own thought within her expansions on her own work, but it seemed to really split the room. I don’t want to talk about any of the disagreements here. Rather, I want to talk about my main takeaway and likewise how it fed into another beautiful For K-Punk party afterwards.
Dean began by emphasising the stakes of Mark’s use of Jameson’s line: “the end of the world is easier to imagine than the end of capitalism.” For Dean, this provocation rang true because, for so many, capitalism is the end of the world, in an all too literal sense. Capitalism is responsible for so much loss of life. “The ravages of capitalism — enclosure, debt, stress — are deadly and world-ending,” she said. Mark’s own absence served as a painful case in point.
Following Mark’s death and so many of the political situations we have since found ourselves in, the question becomes: how can the left deal with and counteract this world-ending nature of capitalism whilst also being entrapped within it?
This question was introduced as a major part of Mark’s work, in Capitalist Realism most famously, but also in his controversial essay “Exiting the Vampire Castle“, with the concept of “capitalist realism” in itself continuing through both texts, constantly being developed and extended outwards in Mark’s thought.
Attempting to formulate a broader definition of capitalist realism, Dean summarised the concept as having four key features:
Capitalist realism is a “reflective impotence”: the imagining of alternatives is taken to be an impossibility. Our sense of possibility is, in itself, lost.
Capitalist realism is a pathology of the Left, most specifically. It is a left fatalism, a left acquiescence, a left impotence, a left giving-in. It speaks explicitly to the left’s rejection of alternatives. (This is more clear in “Exiting the Vampire Castle” than the book itself, and this emphasising of capitalist realism as a leftist problem was precisely what got Mark in so much trouble, it seems. The concept was fine as a diagnosis of a general malaise but to make the subtext so explicit was too bitter a pill for many to swallow.)
Capitalist realism is what we do. Whilst we might all have our various theories and opinions, capitalist realism is not a matter of what we think. Or rather, what we think is not enough. Anticapitalism becomes nothing but a “hipster gesture” in this regard; “a series of hysterical demands that no one expects to be met.” Capitalist realism is not what you challenge and shout about on a march; on special political occasions. It is what you do in your daily life.
Capitalist realism is individualism. It is the individualising of all problems. It is, as Mark most famously wrote, the association of suffering with brain chemistry, reinforcing capitalism’s own atomism. But, above all else, capitalist realism as individualism is the collapse of a collective politics.
In addition to these core points, in “Exiting the Vampire Castle”, Mark extended the social affects of capitalist realism to include excessive moralism, privatisation and the disavowal of class (and, by proxy, class consciousness).
For Mark, in 2013, understandably bitter about the communicative u-bend of social media, the left seemed to become defined by the eclipsing of its own politics, wherein bourgeois modes of subjectivity dominated the movement and reduced its underlying vision of a societal transformation to little more than a need to change individual attitudes. As such, political energy was moved away from organisation towards the individualising of leftist responsibilities and precluding any form of collective action that wasn’t the virulent fervour of self-abuse.
So, with all this surrounding us, how are we supposed to join together and hold each other to account in ways that will actually allow us to move forwards rather than languish in “frenzied stasis”?
The answer for Dean is the reaffirmation of comradeship and solidarity. We have to teach and encourage each other, and be forgiving to those who are on our side. Despite (but also because of) how capitalism might alienate and isolate us, comradeship and solidarity are indispensable to any just future, and the only name for such a future, for Dean, is communism.
Many people seemed to take issue with Dean’s provocations from here on out. The Q&A that followed was an hour-long onslaught of scepticism and swerves down blind alleys. It was an enriching session but mired by people who thought they knew their leftist history — but really didn’t — and many of the questions seemed only to prove much of her talk (and Mark’s thinking) right in their antagonism and bad faith that seemed emblematic of many of the points she — and Mark himself too — had made.
Many of these questions were incisive and productively provocative but many others felt like the thinly veiled hostility Mark himself often encountered. There are very important questions to be asked but their framing so often betrayed the very root of the bad faith of a capitalist realism. There was no attempt at building, only tearing down.
This is not a blind faith or a dismissal of points raised, but tone says a lot about what exactly is being repressed below the surface and why.
It was the same response Mark himself got in his first Postcapitalist Desire lecture in late 2016. During Mark’s lecture, there was a discussion around the name of the course, specifically his use of the word “postcapitalism” — how effective and efficient it was; why it was chosen over something else — introducing the problem of the meaning of words, which Dean likewise spent a lot of time on by discussing Doris Lessing’s book The Golden Notebook.
I think this exchange is worth quoting here in full because, for me, it echoed the Q&A with Jodi in quite an affecting way. Mark was used to these questions too. The discussion unfolded like this:
Mark Fisher: So what are the advantages of the concept of postcapitalism? And just initially I think it’s worth thinking about this — why use the term “post-capitalism” rather than communism, socialism, etc. Well, first of all, it’s not tainted by association with past failed and oppressive projects. The term “postcapitalism” has a kind of neutrality which is not there with communism, socialism — although this is partly a generational thing I think, that the word “communism” has a lot of negative associations for people of my age and older.
…It implies victory — that’s the other thing, isn’t it? It implies that there’s something beyond capitalism. It also implies direction, doesn’t it? If it’s post-capitalism, it’s a victory and a victory that will come through capitalism. It’s not just a “post” to capitalism — it is what will happen when capitalism has ended. It starts from where we are. It’s not some entirely separate space — I think that’s implied, right? The concept of post-capitalism is something developed out of capitalism. It develops from capitalism and moves beyond capitalism. Therefore we’re not required to imagine a sheer alterity; a pure outside… We can begin with; work with the pleasures of capitalism as well as its oppressions. We’re not necessarily trapped in this Louise Mensch world where if we have iPhones we can’t want post-capitalism. Although I don’t think we’d want iPhones in post-capitalism…
STUDENT #4: But doesn’t it sound a bit more like a theory… in comparison to… a political system?
MF: It sounds more like a theory? Yeah, that’s a potential problem with it. Actually, I’ve got a few problems with it… I think you’re making a slightly different point…
STUDENT #4: Because socialism and communism has an active dimension…
MF: Yeah, it’s a positive actual project whereas postcapitalism may be too theoretical. Also it’s tied to capitalism. That’s also a problem — potentially. Gibson-Graham talk about capitalocentrism.
If we’re talking about postcapitalism, then, if the framing outcome of political, cultural, social ambitions in terms of post-capitalism is still defined in relation to capitalism… It remains in the temporality of the “post-“… So it sounds like postmodern — it’s defined by something that preceded it rather than what it actually is itself. It’s not necessarily progressive…
STUDENT #5: Yeah, I have two more…
MF: Two more?! Two more problems…?
STUDENT #5: Yeah… It’s not only that it does not name a positive project but it does not also name a negative project. For example, some negative aspects of capitalism … I have in my mind strategies of refusal of [governance] for example. It is really easy to be lost inside this prefix of “post-“… Some postmodern narrative… Not to define anything at all. Just to talk about some post-capitalism that may fall from the sky.
MF: Yeah, I think these are potential issues with the course title. We can think about these as we develop. You probably have more which we can add as we carry on. Some of you might want to write on this anyway: generally, is the concept of post-capitalism “good”? Is it worth persisting with?
I’ve alternated — I was firmly against using anything in terms to do with “communism” a few years ago, because of the tainting problem I think more than anything else. I’ve been persuaded that it’s the very antagonism; the very alterity of the term “communism” which gives it potential power.
STUDENT #4: Why should it be like communism anyway? To use an old…
MF: Yeah, yeah. I think when it’s paired with new terms — that’s what makes it interesting. The emergence of things like “Luxury Communism” as a formula… Maybe we’ll talk about Luxury Communism later on in the course… I think what’s powerful about that is it defuses — or rather its opposite: explodes — the current conceptions of things; the standard stereotypes. Exactly what we looked at with that dreary, grey imagery of the Communist Soviet system. How could that be luxury? It’s a kind of cognitive bomb — something like Luxury Communism.
I’ve also been trying to work on a concept of “Acid Communism”. That’s what Deleuze and Guattari argue, and that’s some of the things we’ll look at with the Jefferson Cowie stuff… The early ‘70s… Psychedelic consciousness plus class consciousness… That’s what capital feared in the late ‘60s, early 70s: what if the working class become hippies? Because surely key to the counterculture, for all its failings — and it had many — was an anti-work ethic; mainstreaming an anti-work ethic. The Beatles did it. “Stay in bed… Float upstream…” was anti-work. And also this question of anti-being-busy — a different existential mode — and also this question of communal living.
My current position would be, yeah, use Communism with a modifier to break out of the existing associations, which a lot of young people don’t have anyway, but you don’t seem happy with that…
STUDENT #4: Yeah, no, I think it’s super difficult… There was a socialist system… If you’re in Germany or in Austria or whatever, you still know what it was about…
MF: I think it’s partly a strategic question, isn’t it? About when these terms can be used, what context, what force they can exert…
STUDENT #4: Yeah, yeah, of course…
MF: It may be that they don’t have universal applicability… Okay, so these are the big questions but let’s turn to specifics…
I agree with Mark’s take here and it was interesting that Jodi seemed to be the person who may have changed Mark’s mind about the word “communism” in this regard — she made comments very similar to this during her talk but didn’t seem to know that Mark had later come to agree with her.
As with Mark and Jodi, I don’t agree that we need to change the word “communism” at all, not least because of its past associations. To call it something else is to desire something else, as Dean pointed out. It makes sense in the most rudimentary of ways and its structure, even at the level of its etymology, is perfect for encapsulating what is desired.
This was a big deal for me during my postgraduate studies — a new awareness of the importance of the “com-” prefix to the etymology of leftist discourses. A basic and simple point perhaps but one which, through its very simplicity, was very powerful to me. It’s everywhere. Communism, community, communication, commune, comrade, complement, complete, compassion, commemoration. It means “with”, “together”, “in association” whilst likewise denoting an intensity and a fulfilment, and an awareness of this has enriched my understanding of all of these words above. So the word “communism” doesn’t need changing one bit. It is “the communist myth” that must be challenged.
We can understand “myth” in its Barthesian sense here, perhaps: as that second-order signification that is constructed through the social which presents “an ethos, ideology or set of values as if it were a natural condition of the world, when in fact its no more than another limited, man-made perspective.” This is to say that we must remember that the negative view of communism has been constructed by capitalism. Mark discussed this himself with his demonstrative use of Apple’s 1984 Super Bowl commercial.
Mark said of the advert in his first Postcapitalist Desire lecture:
Yeah, so Ridley Scott directed it and you can tell, can’t you? You can tell from the style it’s very similar to films that would redefine mainstream Hollywood cinematic science fiction via Alien and Blade Runner, from ‘79 and ‘82 I think, so this was two years after that. It’s really the best film he’s made since then I think. Probably the only significant film he made since then.
What this did, really, was seed the idea of many of the tropes that are now standard in our imagining. The idea of top-down, bureaucratic control systems versus the dynamism of a kind of networked individual mindset. And what is clever, I think, or certainly significant — all advertising you could say is a form of dreamwork — dreamwork, as Freud says, involves conflation, and a compressing, a condensing of different ideas together. All this does, if you look at the imagery, is it condenses Cold War imagery — which none of you are really old enough to remember except historically — associated with the Soviet Union in particular, negative imagery to do with dreariness, bureaucratic submission of individuals.
If you look at the film, these grey drones trudge around being subjected to the ultimately top-down commands coming from the talking head, clearly referencing 1984 of Orwell. It conflates that imagery, that has long been associated with the Soviet bloc, with imagery to do with big computer corporations such as IBM which then dominated the computer world. Apple is positioning itself as an upstart; as colour intervening into this grey, dreary, bureaucratic world. Apple is new. It’s female, interestingly. It’s colour intervening in this grey world of bureaucratic monoliths where IBM becomes, in the advertising dreamwork, equated with the Soviet Union. This then is the new world that is about to break out of this monolithic, dreary, grey, boring control system. And that’s what happened!… In its own way. It was prophetic… It was more than prophetic — you could say it was hyperstitional — it helped to bring about the very thing which it was describing.
From my point of view, what I think is interesting about this then is the way in which it suggests there is a problem of desire in terms of capital. The thing about the Cold War imagery — what it’s suggesting is there is only desire for capitalism. The Communist world, like IBM, and the then dominant corporate capitalist world is boring and dreary, and that’s an objection to it! The new capitalist world won’t be like that. The new capitalist world will be about desire in a way that the Communist world won’t be.
Likewise, this Levi’s advert from the same year carries a very similar message:
It is capitalism that will give you what you want. Communism is the death of joy. Give in to desire. Give in to capitalism.
The myth of communism becomes, quite vividly, the result of a successful global PR job. To this day, these are the images we see when we think of communism.
This is not to downplay or dismiss the negative points and atrocities committed in communism’s name, of course, but it is to recognise their inflation relative to the constant diminishing of capitalism’s own (and notably perpetual rather than just past) horrors and violences.
Furthermore, the spectre of communism continues to haunt precisely because we know there is something beyond this world we’ve been given, these lives we lead, the desires we can have sated with a numbing ease. For Mark, the point became: “well, we don’t just desire these things that capitalism tells us too.” We have desires for other futures and other worlds — a future without wage-labour, without enslavement, without class struggle, etc. — and capitalism has failed to deliver on these desires. It may promise liberation through the exchange of capital but these features remain its very backbone.
This is a more complex point than first appearances suggest, however, because capitalism has monopolised desire. So what is it for us to desire capitalism’s own demise within a system that it ultimately controls?
Consciousness raising — which counters capitalism’s mechanisms of consciousness razing — is a decent place to start. So let’s see if we can’t rehabilitate the image that was taken from us. Understanding how and why this vision was taken from us is far more important than changing the word, as if the suggestion is that we need to appease the system which is so threatened by it. If we are to focus on semantics then it is better that we enrich the words we have rather than swap them out for new “blank” ones.
Such questions of meaning became even more central when Dean got to the very heart of her talk, and it is this I would like to focus on here. (There were problems with her talk. The main one for me was her reliance on a party political vision despite her acknowledgement the role of the state form in capitalism’s development and continued survival. It’s Anarcho-Communism for me please and that wasn’t on the table tonight — but it’s worth noting that it wasn’t for Mark either. Either way, I’m happy to shelve that criticism in order to focus on the more resonant positives, particularly the overall message which was wonderful and the perfect thought to carry forwards to our afterparty.)
Whilst discussing Doris Lessing’s The Golden Notebook, Dean fixated on the word “comrade” rather than “communism”. Here is a word that is nevertheless so heavily associated with communism and its party politics; a word so often ridiculed too. Today, it’s a word that brings to my mind Labour’s shadow chancellor John McDonnell, arguably the most high-profile figure in UK politics to regularly use the word in conversation and speeches, and all you need to do is google “John McDonnell comrade” to find a dozen instances where this is picked up on by journalists who mock him for it.
But here Dean paints an entirely different picture of this word that has become, like communism itself, little more than a hollow signifier for everything wrong with the left’s pasts and futures under a global capitalism that is supposedly here to stay. It has been tarnished for the image associated with it which has overtaken any general understanding of its basic meaning. Indeed, words have “lost their meaning”, as Lessing writes repeatedly throughout her novel.
Dean explained that comradeship is being on the same side. It’s having respect for those who are fighting for our same goals — even if we disagree with how they intend to get there. It is, perhaps most importantly, something you are called but not what you are. It is not a form of self-identification. As Dean also pointed out, to say “I am a comrade” makes no sense. Rather it is “we are comrades” in an intensive togetherness. Comrades are, in this way, the collective subject that Mark and so many others have long called for, and a rehabilitation of “comrade” as a word felt like a very interesting start on a journey towards raising consciousness around communism.
In this way, the word “comrade” becomes “the zero-level of communism” for Dean. Through a single word, it begins to change the relation of ourselves to ourselves and to each other. “When we have comrades, we are freed from the voluntarist responsibility to have, be and do everything,” Dean noted. This comradely solidarity, then, is the active combatting of neoliberal decapacitation. Even just knowing that you have comrades and have that sort of support can improve our wellbeing and ways of acting in the world.
This was what the For K-Punk nights were also for. Indeed, there was one point made by an audience member during the Q&A which Dean unfortunately scoffed at but I think it would have been a wonderful moment to end on. Someone said that “one thing that Mark did so beautifully was to describe forms of collectivity that did not express themselves politically” and this person asked what Dean herself thought about these other forms of collectivity. She responded by saying that she had no interest in any forms of expression that weren’t political but Mark certainly was.
The For K-Punk party that followed was a perfect encapsulation of this. No matter who has organised the party, there is a sense that everyone who attends ends up involved. There is no hierarchy, no VIP line, no guest list, no fee for entry. (Limited capacity may have put a downer on it for some and apologies to anyone who didn’t make it in. Our scope is very limited without much funding.) The occasion and the intent creates a club experience that I have never found anywhere else — an unparalleled experience of openness, solidarity and, yes, comradeship.
I only wish it was an experience had more regularly and perhaps one day that may well happen. Like communism itself, For K-Punk is a community that gives itself as a goal.
Following the Guardian’s call for an acid freudianism, we start the year proper with another woefully amnesiac call to revolutionary arms that betrays an insufficient engagement with the last 100 years of philosophical and political thought.
Over at Commune Mag, you can read “Life Finds a Way“, a manifesto for a Vitalist International. We’ve really got to stop cherry-picking vague concepts for political manifestos.
A number of others have already challenged the manifesto’s message on Twitter. What’s funny to me is that this sort of “radiant vitalism” just reminds me of John Carpenter’s The Thing, specifically that famous scene in which the crew test their blood for contamination from an alien vitalism:
The manifesto’s authors write:
Vitalism is radiant intuition. The coordination of the human body with bodies of thought, bodies of water, with bodies of buffalo charging at police, of life forms with art forms. This is our calling.
It is The Thing at worse (or maybe that’s at best). At best (or maybe that’s at worst), it’s little more than the vitalist equivalent of that Pepsi advert.
On a related note: here is an old post on vitalism and mechanism as they appear in Mark Fisher’s PhD thesis, Flatline Constructs.
The new joyful festive season Netflix movie Bird Box is quite the trip. Apparently it was a surprise hit amongst families on Christmas Day. I bet that was fun for people…
I’m just now settling down to watch it, as I get ready to leave the in-laws and try to swallow down the usual dread that comes from heading back down to London. Immediately I’m struck by its quasi-Lovecraftian set-up. It’s all too familiar. Not to mention unsubtle.
We meet Malorie, played by Sandra Bullock, a seemingly determined, stern, no-bullshit woman who is shepherding two kids through the American wilderness. They’re all blindfolded. Led to a river’s edge, they charter a rowing boat blind and begin the steep curve of their Kurtz-gradient into the unknown.
We’re soon given a flashback to five years earlier, before this strange non-apocalypse took hold. Malorie is painting in a studio. Her sister arrives and tells her to put on the TV.
The news media are reporting mass suicides all over the world but Malorie isn’t interested. She’s a painter, perpetually distracted by herself and her work. She’s also very pregnant but she’s choosing to ignore that fact also. Her sister drags her to an ultrasound check up and, as she leaves the hospital, she sees a woman smashing her head against a window, like a zoo animal experiencing captivity psychosis.
She doesn’t do anything. but then she is pregnant. She just leaves, jumping into a car, her sister sat in the front seat waiting for her outside. She tells her, the fear audible in her voice, to just drive.
The world very suddenly falls apart all around them. Malorie’s sister tells her that she’s going to stay with them until whatever this is blows over. “But I have nothing to wear!” Her sister chastises her. Malorie apologies — in times of crisis, she tends to focus on what’s not important to distract herself, she admits.
It’s one of many unsubtle glimpses into Malorie’s character and there is plenty more where that came from. Every insight into every character’s backstory in this film is like a scripted sledgehammer.
True to her own absentmindedness, Malorie only survives at first because she is distracted looking for something in the back seat of her sister’s car. As she reaches and fumbles around for whatever she is looking for, Malorie fails to see whatever her sister sees. Her sister’s eyes are where they should be, on the road, but now welling up and changing her in an instant from those of a concerned relative to a suicidal lemming, trying to plow the car into whatever is in front of her.
Eventually, she’s successful, rolling the car with them both inside it.
What does it mean to be mentally healthy in a world gone mad? Sirens are blaring, lights are flashing, and we have been whisked out of the territory of metaphor onto the hard ground of fact. The rise to power and election of Donald J. Trump is the sick recrimination of a society shriveled by anger and anxiety, and the response from deep within the psyche of the same society has been various degrees of panic, depression, and grief. Illinois suicide hotlines have been overwhelmed since the election, with calls up 200 percent, according to Chicago public health officials. A mental health asteroid has smashed into the carapace of a culture already calcified with anxiety and ambient dread. Major newsrooms are rumored to have hired in therapists so their journalists can continue to work. Everyone is wondering what this crisis will mean for their future, for their families, trying to work out how they’ll cope. Some coping strategies, however, are more dangerous than others.
When I wrote about this article previously, I wrote about the “territories of metaphor” that had led us up to this point — The Walking Dead and The OA in particular are two shows that have dealt with the “end of the world” as a huge psychological event. Now, two years later, here it is. No biopolitical (or necropolitical) metaphors here — not really. There’s external threat, sure, but it’s not seen by us. The lack of a tangible “monster” makes it all the more powerful and real here. Mental illness is a threat unto itself.
After her sister crashes her car with her inside, Malorie is taken in by Greg, a man whose house has become a shelter for a band of thrown-together survivors with whom we spend the majority of the rest of the film. They immediately start to speculate as to what it is they’re dealing with.
“This has a classical biowarfare signature,” says John Malkovich’s character, Douglas. “North Korea or Iran.” Except there’s nothing biological about it. It’s psychological all the way down. In tune with this, next there’s Charlie, a local supermarket worker. For him the threat is surely demons or spirits of the final judgement, taking on the form of your deepest fears or sadnesses.
Other people suggest other things as they try to make sense of what is happening to them. Eventually, the creatures are given form indirectly through the drawings of someone who can look at the creatures without wanting to kill themselves. The noumenal distress of others is given Cthulhic form in the very few representations we see of them — vague bulbous cephalopod heads with face tentacles too. We only see them secondhand. They are Lovecraftian horrors beyond perception. As such, since they remain unseen directly, for the viewer they are the beating heart of the film’s psychic infrastructure.
Internet theories have abound as to what these monster really are, of course, with clickbait explainer videos on YouTube, but who really cares? I watched a few and the joke seems to be on those people who spent so much time making 10-minute videos about folklore and parables about finding yourself. To focus on all that seems to be blindly following Malorie’s own logic: focusing on what’s ultimately unimportant to distract yourself from the very real horrors in front of you. And those concrete horrors are, just like in Lovecraft’s own stories, human detritus and the mentally ill…?
That’s the cold hard fact of this film. What is affecting the world is a pervasive mental health crisis: depressive mass hysteria. Even those who don’t kill themselves, resisting the urge to “look”, are soon afflicted by a neurotically individualist paranoia. Mental illness is both the outside threat and it’s also the film’s pervasive reality. Either you’re abjectly depressed or neurotically repressed. The middle ground is you already knew you were crazy.
This is made most clear later on in the film when, once cabin fever has more or less set in, the survivors let an Englishman into the house called Gary. He explains he’s been chased by the mentally ill from a local asylum for the criminally insane — eye roll — and seeks shelter so he can throw them off his trail. The insane don’t need blindfolds, he says, and what’s worse is that they want people to see. The truth of their socially unacceptable mental experiences has now been affirmed, making them even more of a threat to society. They are the Cthulhu Cult to the film’s demonic projections.
… But wait, hang on, let’s back track a minute — what’s the message here? If it looks like the world might be ending, keep your eyes down, don’t go outside, don’t look, what you don’t see can’t hurt you. But look at what exactly? These depression demons are like the Gatwick drones. Vivid figments, assuaged by a paranoid inattention.
This is like someone managed to make a good film out of a really terrible idea. Maybe I’m just being cynical but the message that’s driven home throughout the film seems very clear to me. Take Douglas, for instance. He is Greg’s neighbour and one of the first to reach his house once the crisis starts. In fact, he may have already been there when everything started. It transpires that, before everything happened, he was suing Greg. In one scene, Malorie asks him why.
“Because they want to tear down this part of their house and built some glass monstrosity. His husband’s an architect.”
“It’s his property. Why do you care what he builds?”
“Because I have to look at it.”
The dialogue we witness between Malorie and the other survivors is just as on-the-nose. Sight is made into a voluntaristic and moralising affliction. Yeah, Malorie is disconnected and cold but that’s what ultimately leads to her survival. The characters are defined by their desire not to look at what they judge to be wrong and then, with some twisted irony, this habit is what saves them. At the end of the world, ignorance is bliss, knowledge is death. This is taken so far that, at the film’s climax, when Malorie and the kids reach their safe haven, they discover it’s a former school for the blind. Yep, if you want to survive in this new world, your best bet is being medically blind. That should do it.
After her conversation with Douglas, Malorie later talks to Charlie, the man with the theory about Boggart-like creatures in the sky. He’s writing a novel, of course, when not working the supermarket shop floor.
“It’s about the end of the world. My novel. But it’s not one of those kids’ stories where they’ve all got crossbows running around and they’re killing each other in survive or running around some giant maze. No, this story’s gonna be real.”
“Did you ever think it was gonna be anything like this?”
He doesn’t respond. The irony seems to be that no one knows what “real” is. Everyone’s knowledge of the world seemingly comes from the internet, which Malorie is silently cynical about on numerous occasions. Charlie’s conspiracy theories are 4chan fodder, and another character, also pregnant like Malorie, seems to get all her medical advice from the internet too. What’s the message here? Your truth is fake news, sucker, but the real truth will make you kill yourself… So… Gouge out your eyes maybe, I dunno… Shit’s hopeless.
Malorie and Douglas become unlikely friends around the mid-point of the film, bonding over their lack of self-awareness and cynicism. Douglas’ declaration of “making the end of the world great again” is certainly another unsubtle jab at the present, and it leads to a great eye-rolling amongst the house-bound group too, but ultimately they remain trapped between their realisms — the dual “realisms” of “I-know-best” individualism as found on both sides of the political divide. Judgement from all sides. That great modern affliction where “common sense” is reasoning unexamined from beyond the boundaries of your own belief system.
We should remember that all of this clunky exposition is peppered by flashes of the journey up river. Malorie sails blindfold for two days into the heart of darkness with the two children in her charge, but what kind of Kurtz-gradient is this? Is it inverted? Neutered? Is this not the logic of Penny’s mental health asteroid? The belief that the political singularity of Trump is the very edge of reason? Kurtz has been elected to the Oval Office through inattention. We’re not down river, we’ve been up river for decades. It’s time to strap on your blindfold and head back down now. This is Deliverance in reverse with added airborne depression. And to look at the reality of this situation is to depress yourself into self-annihilation, so now let’s head back to cold comfort with our fingers in our ears along the way.
To return to Penny’s article, she poignantly writes, in light of this film’s plot:
There are none so blind as those who won’t see — specifically, those who have been conditioned through generations of history lessons and Hollywood propaganda to be suspicious of authoritarian strongmen and yet still refuse to recognize an actual fascist when he struts into the White House with a Suicide Squad of goons. […] What was it actually like to be an ordinary German in 1933? What were people feeling, listening to the state wireless whine out the workings of the new world order? How many were pleased to see the blackshirts on their streets — and how many were simply keeping their heads down, telling themselves that they’d been through worse, that they should give the new guys a chance and see if they really meant what they said? How many tried to normalize the utterly unconscionable, because the alternative was despair?
When has “keeping your head down” and not looking outside been seen as a viable survival strategy in light of this mess from history? Nevertheless, we see it today. Penny continues:
So you tell yourself that you survived Bush and Blair. Surely you can survive this, too. If you keep your head down. If you give the new order a chance. If you don’t make any strong statements. If you trust the government not to run the train off the rails. There will be attempts to reason with the abuser. To make him less of an abuser, because it is in fact hard to accept yourself as a victim. In the face of a sea-change in the sociopolitical order, you shut yourself tight in your shell and seal yourself off against everything that disturbs you. This might be thought of as the clam before the storm. And this is how it happens. This is how the bad guys win.
Laurie Penny is rejecting bargaining here, of course. It’s the fucking title of the essay after all. She’s rejecting the mental gymnastics that avoid confrontation or attempt to reason with an abuser or even with death.
The message of this film, in light of a pervasive mental health crisis, is there is no reasoning with those who want you to open your eyes. It’s as if Penny herself, as she writes here, would be an enemy in a film like Bird Box. Don’t take advice from those who lived with depression before the fall, allow the blind to lead the blind!
The real freedom is the foster child we routinely abused along the way…?
The last post on this topic, whilst using ‘alienation’ in its title, didn’t really address alienation itself in much detail. This was an oversight — one rightly pointed out by @cyborg_nomade on Twitter when they asked the most obvious question — to me anyway — that I hadn’t really considered in the context of talking about social media: “why struggle against alienation?“
I think it’s worth taking better account of this question, for further clarity, and in the process I might figure out where exactly my previously expressed feelings are coming from…
The last post on Facebook alienation was, to my mind, an over-long mess and I was surprised by its positive reception. Whilst there was plenty of theory drawn on, it grew out of a very personal attempt to understand an innate desire to flee some platforms because of their ubiquity in different and (what I’d like to be) distinct parts of my life.
With any such attempt at an exit from a social media platform comes a damned-if-you-do-damned-if-you-don’t conundrum: Facebook-as-(literal)-work made me feel alienated, as did my opting out of it as a platform that most of my IRL friends use to communicate with one another…
Such a feeling is not, as suggested last time, the seed of a “Luddite moralism”. I’m not morally against the ubiquity of communications technologies — I use Twitter, Slack, WhatsApp and WordPress daily — constantly, even — and I get a lot out of those platforms. (Obviously.) I have also previously been very cynical of those people who remove themselves from all social media as a hamfisted way of indicating they have taken on a vague political stance and then get grumpy about other people not giving a shit about their self-imposed digital monasticism (that’s the dumbest way to do politics)… But I am sickened by Facebook’s particular ubiquity in both my social and working lives.
With social media becoming work — something which I’m not doing currently but have done on numerous occasions over the last 5/6 years — Facebook becomes like my friendly cyberboss. I remember some YouTube interview with Žižek in which he derides the rise of the Friendly Boss archetype in corporate office environments as a dissolving a boundary of resistance — no comment on where he actually ends up going with the analogies but I think he raises an interesting point when he says, in the first few seconds of the video:
Of course I have nothing against the fact that your boss treats you in a nice way and so on. The problem is if this not only covers up the actual relationship of power, it makes it even more impenetrable.
His point is, who do you rebel against as a worker when your boss is your mate? What happens to that structural demarcation of labour and power? He points out that it becomes impolite to rebel as your friend-boss takes any discontentment with work personally.
The joy of being a freelancer is that, working in very small teams, this is rarely a problem for me. My “bosses” are usually my mates first and that survives any working relationship. Previously, however, when working as a part of something much bigger, when I’ve had to run social media accounts, it is Facebook itself which ends up taking on the role of overarching corporate “Friend”. Push notifications become to-do lists. Facebook Messenger becomes a space for planning a night at the pub and providing customer service. The “Friendly Boss” becomes impersonalised to the point that it is detached infrastructure which nonetheless produces the same affects.
Wanting to rebel and distance myself from that becomes a snub to the friends who share that space with me unrelated to the work I’m paid for. The dynamics become so utterly impenetrable as to negatively effect my non-working life with friends who are not involved in this immediate labour structure whatsoever but nonetheless are through their immanent relationship to that platform in a social context. So, if I want to leave work at “the office”, that means disconnecting from the internet. That can be healthy but, in many other ways, that becomes a form of (quite literal) social alienation. I’m in no position to have a separate “work phone” and so the work becomes oppressively pervasive. These were the feeling behind my original post.
But what does any of that mean for a concept like “alienation“? Are we still talking about Hegelian-Marxist “alienation” here? Or are we simply talking about an regretful detachment from an idealised social “reality”? But wait a minute… What’s the difference? Is this instead just a partial alienation I’m trying to articulate and grumble about? Is it even alienation at all? How are you meant to critique anything from this position?…
“There’s Alienation And Then There’s Alienation…”
This problem was introduced in a short exchange between @cyborg_nomade and @omnicorrupt on Twitter, both in reply to my original post. Following @cyborg_nomade’s question about the implied necessity of struggling against alienation, @omnicorrupt writes:
Alienation is not so much something to be diagnosed as it is always a very real and practical pain in the backside. Indeed, we are always already struggling against it, and we don’t have much of a choice in the matter.
However, @cyborg_nomade argues that, in their experience, alienation is “rather enjoyable, but maybe I’m just a masochist.” @omnicorrupt responds:
There’s certainly alienation and then there’s alienation. But in the Hegelian-Marxist sense, it’s never a good thing. I compare it to a kind of social itch that you just can’t seem to scatch, a gnawing tension of distance and baseline misunderstanding.
My own sense of the word ‘alienation’ — in the specific context of Facebook — is perhaps best understood as something which has fallen between this Hegelian-Marxist sense and what @cyborg_nomade is implicitly referencing here: a cybernetic and Nietzschean ‘alienation’; a Landian ‘alientation’. On social media, these two positions become entwined and exacerbated at what feels like unprecedented levels.
Although inherently connected, these two forms of alienation articulate two very different positions — one articulates a discontentment, a detachment from our “nature” under capitalism; the other articulates a strategically advantageous pursuit of outsideness. Both are related to labour under capitalism but one takes a negative and the other a positive view of its manipulation of the human subject. Both are valid and both are necessary to grasp here before moving forwards…
Hegelian-Marxist alienation is perhaps best understood, today, in a very general sense. We can point to Lawrence Hinman who once suggested that “alienation” today is so broad a term as to refer to “any form of discontent that cannot be cured by aspirin” (which certainly sounds familiar) but, as cynical as that may sound, this generality perhaps marks the depths to which we’ve plummeted into the murky waters of alienation today, far below the surface of Marx’s much-referenced theory.
For Marx, alienation was that enforced distance from our “true” nature, our “species-essence”, our “species-being”, our Gattungswesen — a distance which comes from being reduced to a cog in the machine of a stratified capitalist society. Whilst a young Marx may have fallen, to some extent, for the “myth of the given” in this initial argument, suggesting that we have a base sense of what it is to be human and that capitalism distances us from this, the later Marx was clear to note that our “species-being” is malleable and constantly shaped and reshaped by social relations. Our humanity, our sense of ourselves, is, therefore, contingent, but capitalism’s oppressive influence on its constitution, stratifying the social relations that give form to the self, preserves and exacerbates this experience of rudimentary alienation the deeper we climb down into modernity.
Alienation, then, in this sense, becomes a distance internal to our “species-being” — between the Real and the Ideal; between the conditions we’re (socially) told to strive for and the actual conditions under which we (individually) live. The more historically recent imposition of individualism and the downplaying of the social causes of discontentment are perhaps the most obvious measures of this sense of alienation as it has spread throughout the socialised medias that we wade through on the daily.
However, it’s not all doom and gloom. For Herbert Marcuse, we might do well to remember, alienation is a bitter pill that nevertheless has to be swallowed. To find yourself alienated is an unpleasant realisation but, once consciousness of this ontological deficit has been sufficiently raised, it can become a useful one. Seen from this angle, alienation becomes a potential catalyst for social change. It remains negative but it becomes an opportunity at the same time.
Marcuse’s argument is still, essentially, a Marxist-Hegelian dialectical thinking. For example, for Marcuse, art was the best measurement of this form of alienation, but he was not naive — he did not fail to acknowledge art’s prized place on the walls of the bourgeoisie. Art could just as easily be a force for material domination as it could be a force for imaginative liberation. And so, in Marcuse’s dialectical view, these forces should be seen as developing in tandem with one another, each informing the other and growing with the other. It is the challenge of a positive alienation to overcome — and instigate actual social change beyond — capitalist capture.
But doesn’t that suggest they cancel each other out? Social change has certainly occurred at intervals but none so intensive as to escape the gravity of capitalism…
Genealogies of Capture
In subtle contrast to this emancipatory overcoming, Nick Land’s 1990s cybernetic sense of alienation takes its foundation from Nietzsche and his anti-Hegelianism; his rejection of Hegel the dialectician. Nietzsche saw this dialectical alienation as an auto-suicide machine. This certainly seemed true of Christianity, in his experience, with its own internal engine of alienation, which seemed to be undermining Christianity itself through its emphasis on the moral virtues of truth-telling which were undermining scripture in a modern and increasingly scientific world. As Nietzsche writes in the Genealogy of Morals:
The “salvation” of the human race (I mean, from “the Masters”) is well on course; everything is being made appreciably Jewish, Christian or plebeian (never mind the words!). The passage of this poison through the whole body of mankind seems unstoppable, even though its tempo and pace, from now on, might tend to be slower, softer, quieter, calmer — there is not hurry… With this in view, does the Church still have a necessary role, indeed, does it have a right to exist? Or could one do without it? Quaeritur. It seems that the Church rather slows down and blocks the passage of poison instead of accelerating it? Well, that might be what makes it useful… Certainly it is by now something crude and boorish, resistant to a more tender intelligence, to a truly modern taste. Should not the Church at least try to be more refined?… Nowadays it alienates, more than it seduces…
Nietzsche, whilst he may at first concede and credit Christianity with providing us with foundational allegories of liberation and collective overcoming, argues that the Church, as Christianity’s central institution, now restricts its own ecstatic flows for the sake of its own survival, becoming an institution of repression rather than expression.
(I find it bizarre and telling, in this day and age, as this virtuous truth-telling goes out the window in the era of Fake News, that people’s interest in the early Church’s political radical nature has grown as they look for a new basis for their politics in a world seemingly defined by irrationality. I don’t really get it — though I have also written on it.)
Here we see a familiar argument arising from Land’s more contemporaneous critiques of the Cathedral — on my mind after it came up on Twitter recently — in which an atheistic sur-Christian academic left media bourgeoisie (a map of which has been posted below, stolen from Xenosystems, demonstrating its apparatuses of capture) represents this same Nietzschean synthesis of the poison with its prey, so that those who see themselves as the most vocal opponents of the status quo actually end up internally policing debate and freezing the present antebellum of the Coming Revolution in perpetual stasis.
If the convoluted nature of Land’s Cathedralic flows is too labyrinthine to wrap your head around, let me put it another way, hopefully less susceptible to cooption by the boneheadedly conspiratorial: the internal dynamics of alienation, understood through a Hegelian-Marxist dialectical reasoning, common to modern bourgeois/proletarian society, do not produce a revolutionary synthesis of emancipatory drives but, rather, the political mundanity of an enclosed Middle Class.
The most famous pursuant of this argument — although now seemingly overlooked — was probably Jean-Paul Sartre in his Critique of Dialectical Reason, inaugurating France’s anti-Hegelianism. For Sartre, alienation goes all the way down. Dialectics become fractal relations without satisfactory resolution. Alienation is itself alienated. To save Marxism from being broken down into absolute meaninglessness its recent history must be much better accounted for. And, to his credit, Sartre seems to do a half-decent of that. (His monster two-volume (and ultimately unfinished) work is too huge to dwell on here but maybe I’ll come back to it another time once I’ve had a chance to absorb more of it.)
Sartre’s position is, in many respects, a founding moment for the philosophies to come over the next few decades in France. It was a position explored by Deleuze, too, in Anti-Oedipus most famously, but also solo in Nietzsche and Philosophy in which he writes:
The speculative motor of the dialectic is contradiction and its resolution. But its practical motor is alienation and the suppression of alienation, alienation and reappropriation. Here the dialectic reveals its true nature; an art of quibbling beyond all others, an art of disputing properties and changing proprietors, an art of ressentiment.
This position that would come to influence so much structuralism and post-structuralism can be found very much in tact in Nietzsche himself. Again in the Genealogy of Morals, he writes:
The beginning of the slaves’ revolt in morality occurs when ressentiment itself turns creative and gives birth to values: the ressentiment of those beings who, denied the proper response of action, compensate for it only with imaginary revenge. Whereas all noble morality grows out of a triumphant saying ‘yes’ to itself, slave morality says ‘no’ on principle to everything that is ‘outside’, ‘other’, ‘non-self’: and this ‘no’ is its creative deed.
What we have here, emerging from mid-century French theory’s revitalised libido, are the beginnings of a failed rejection of an ouroborosic and totalised Academic Marx — as was also discussed on this blog recently — a Marxism that is the victim of its own success, much like the Church. The no of this Marxism is creative in that many of its most vocal and successful critics become associated, by their own material circumstances, with the bourgeoisie, to the extent that the enemy is always Other even when, on paper, it looks like yourself. (And that cognitive dissonance takes some creativity to smooth out for oneself.) And so, as Nietzsche warns us, and as many post-structuralists paradoxically hoped to demonstrate, we might credit Marx himself with providing us with a vision of proletarian revolution but we mustn’t let Academic Marxism slow us down for the sake of its own preservation. (Here we have a definition of “Cultural Marxism” that may actually hold some water, beyond the very weak variety espoused by Jordan Peterson.) (Again, Sartre’s Critique is incredibly relevant here but I’ll save unpacking that for another time.)
It is through this lineage that we become aware of the great void between the impenetrable and totalising Marxism of the academic ‘no’, still espoused by some Twitter gobshites, and the desire-drunk ‘yes’ of an “atlas of libidinal cartography” which Jean-Francois Lyotard would later argue we must now engage with: not a totalised canonical “image” of Marx, but the impossible “total” of a man and his desires. As Sartre would say, “This is not really a totalisation, or even a totality; it is rather a changing indefinite dispersal of reciprocities.” It is desire; always seeking more connections.
It was Lyotard who called most emphatically and deliriously for this desirous Marx — indeed, a “desire called Marx” — to take precedence, contrasting the theoretically drudgery of the proto-Cathedralese of much political philosophy and social science. It is likewise such a Marxism that may have emerged from Mark Fisher’s Acid Communism — and Mark sure lovedthe perversity of Lyotard’s Libidinal Economy… (I’ll never forget how that passage, to be found via the hyperlink, quoted on K-Punk without much comment, was read out with palpable glee by Mark in the first lecture of his Postcapitalist Desire seminar in late 2016.)
Lyotard, echoing Nietzsche’s genealogy of Judeo-Christian morality, argues that academics love the perpetuity, the limbo, of the problem of capitalism:
What happens when the person assigned to the prosecution is as fascinated by the accused as he is scandalised by him? It comes about that the prosecutor sets himself to finding a hundred thousand good reasons to prolong the study of the file, that the enquiry becomes meticulous, always more meticulous, that the lawyer submerged in the British Museum in the microscopic analysis of the aberrations of capital is no longer able to detach himself from it, that the organic unity, that this swarming of perverse fluxes that is supposed to produce (dialectically), never stops moving away, escaping him, being put off, and that the submission of petitions is kept waiting interminably. What was happening then throughout the thousands of manuscript papers? The unification of Marx’s body, which requires that the polymorphous perversity of capital be put to death for the benefit of the fulfilment of the desire for genital love, is not possible. The prosecutor is unable to deduce the birth of a new and beautiful (in)organic body (similar to that of recapitalise forms) which would be child-socialism, from the pornography of capitalism. If there is a body of capital, this body is sterile, it engenders nothing: it exceeds the capacity of theoretical discourse as unification.
Lyotard’s screed is not a rejection of academic rigour, as such. He simply demands we consider the question that became to central to Fisher’s final, unfinished project: “Do we want what we say we want?” To answer that question, we need to take a wider view of the present situation, beyond the cultural production of academia. Lyotard asks, without mincing words: “what was Marx the prosecutor’s left hand doing whilst he was writing Capital?”
Whilst the right hand writes copious amounts on the nature of the commodity, exchange value and the alienation of labour as measurable aspects of modernity, Lyotard essentially asks us to imagine that the left hand of Marx wanking copious amount of cum uselessly into the carpet — and we mustn’t let both acts be reduced to wasteful expenditures.
And so, Lyotard conjures up a Bataillean Marxism, a general economy of Marxist expenditure beyond the restricted economy of his own three-volume study. Lyotard is essentially asking us: How do we fuse the triumphant rigour of the political intellect with the desire-drunk libido of revolution without relegating both to impotence? How do we elevate the desiring “lows” of the left hand to the intellectual “heights” of the right? How do we infuse cum with Capital (and vice versa?)
One such answer has been persistently repressed. Academics have always known it and they have also long sought to suppress it at all costs. We find it articulated most excessively in Georges Bataille’s Blue of Noon — discussed on the blog this time last year — in which the character of the philosophy teacher, Melou, during a notably Oedipal ménage à trois dialogue, is stricken by the contradiction of his politics and social position on the eve of a coming revolution:
Straining his brow in folds, he declared, ‘Should we wrap ourselves in silence? Should we, on the contrary, bestow our help on the workers as they make their last stand, thereby dooming ourselves to an inescapable and fruitless death?’
And so returns the auto-suicide machine, not as pathetic horror, but as revolutionary necessity. The establishment of the middle class is one thing, subsuming class strata into a homogenous Stepford blob, but how do we now accelerate the process and satisfy the thirst for our own annihilation? Is this truly necessary? Is there no other way?…
It is here that Nick Land emerges in the 1990s and early 2000s as a renegade academic who attempts to fuse both sides of the onanistic coin in the newly virulent concoction for the contemporary moment of a burgeoning technosphere, all the while relishing the annihilation of his own academic career.
Land’s only published monograph, whilst an academic at the University of Warwick, remains the best book on Bataille there is and the best book of literary philosophy I’ve ever read. In this book, The Thirst of Annihilation, he charts a course from Nietzsche’s anti-Hegelianism to Bataille’s own recoiling from the suicidal mechanisms of capitalist society, both during and after the official Defeat of Fascism during the Second World War, and this same desirous and libidinal searching has defined his writing — for better and for worse — ever since.
In 1992, Land writes that, for Bataille,
Capital is a headless lurch into the abyss, an acephalic catastrophe. What Bataille recoils from at this moment is not the claustrophobic managerial profanity of capital, but its psychotic flow into ruin.
But, for the late 90s Land, at the turn of the century, the dawn of the new millennium, it seems that we needn’t worry about the forgotten left hand of Marx for too much longer. In the 21st century, it is all too easy to imagine a tab-choked browser populated by pages from the Marxists Internet Archive and the latest offerings from Pornhub. Is this the new home of our revolutionary libidinous subject?
You have been dumped into a heterogeneous patchwork of criminal experiments converging upon decapitated social formations. This is where base materialism intersects cyberpunk, FUCK TOMORROW scrawled on the walls
We might understand ‘alienation’, then, in Land’s cybernetic sense, to be a short-circuiting of the Hegelian-Marxist dialectic, as predicted by the most delirious of the post-structuralists. The resulting synthesis is not an overcoming but a bottoming-out of the social strata — but that does not mean that it is libidinally unproductive. Cybernetics immanentizes the Real and the Ideal in alienation’s catastrophic motor and being the ejected excrement of the system becomes a viable option. The internet becomes a nomad’s land for digital squatters. It doesn’t matter how you exit. Just exit. The results of this so far, however, have been utterly dire.
We might ask ourselves: Does the art of ressentiment itself become the creation of an entirely new subject? I think we can answer this affirmatively but this “new” needn’t be inherently attractive because of its newness. The middle class becomes, in this sense, a New People in a negative sense, produced by the class antagonisms internal to capitalism, closed off from their Outside. This is an argument implicit to some readings of the middle class’s struggle under the weight of their increasing irrelevance and so, perhaps, it is from here that we will discover the prophetic people-to-come replaced by a people-to-die. Ballardian suburban detritus.
If the middle classes sounds like an unlikely central node around which we are to entangle this argument, we might look to other identities instead — identities that continue to allow access to their outside. As ever, G/ACC comes to mind, providing a much refined challenge to the dialectical of sex, through the pressure-cooked intensifications of gender binarisation and “trans” politics. As Nyx writes:
It is the logic of gender to subsume the Outside into a binarist framework that de-legitimizes the Outside. The feminine is treated as a lack because it resists the phallogocentric tendency towards the order and preservation of humanist equilibrium. It isn’t conducive towards the projects of patriarchy, so it is worthless to it, is given the status of a second-class citizen in the gender binary. It is a double-articulation where the productive potential of the feminine is captured in the service of patriarchy, and so, to accelerate gender is to emancipate the object from its subject, and production from subjects and objects. The Outside which has become identified with the feminine by the very structures of identification it fights against makes its exit from humanism and patriarchy in this feminine form. The feminine becomes untethered from the reproductive logic of humanism; the female is no longer in the service of the male as a machine to produce the future, to produce offspring to inherit the spoils of production, but rather the future produces itself faster than human beings are capable of.
Here, human (re)production is seen as a dialectical machine, echoing the writings of Shulamith Firestone, in which a dialectical relationship between imagination and science continually produces an unknown. This is, for Firestone, culture — culture as “the sum of, and the dynamic between, the two modes through which the mind attempts to transcend the limitations and contingencies of reality.”
The overarching technological point is this: You can shape the new world with code. Computer code. Genetic code. Social code. As modernity accelerates, each becomes as malleable as the other. This is likewise the pro-alienation argument to be associated with The Xenofeminist Manifesto:
XF seizes alienation as an impetus to generate new worlds. We are all alienated — but have we ever been otherwise? It is through, and not despite, our alienated condition that we can free ourselves from the muck of immediacy. Freedom is not a given — and it’s certainly not given by anything ‘natural’. The construction of freedom involves not less but more alienation; alienation is the labour of freedom’s construction. Nothing should be accepted as fixed, permanent, or ‘given’ — neither material conditions nor social forms. XF mutates, navigates and probes every horizon. Anyone who’s been deemed ‘unnatural’ in the face of reigning biological norms, anyone who’s experienced injustices wrought in the name of natural order, will realize that the glorification of ‘nature’ has nothing to offer us — the queer and trans among us, the differently-abled, as well as those who have suffered discrimination due to pregnancy or duties connected to child-rearing. XF is vehemently anti-naturalist. Essentialist naturalism reeks of theology — the sooner it is exorcised, the better.
Here, as with Land’s delirious writings, ‘alienation’ becomes a Marcusian horror story in which the “monstrous” are reimagined as the people-to-come. Frankenstein’s monster, inevitably produced by capitalism’s churning up of dead labour, is alienated by its creator and, sooner or later, this monstrosity will have its revolutionary revenge….
“Wait a minute, where am I?…”
Okay, but what the fuck does any of this have to do with social media?
The best place to start, in light of this messy introduction, and in light of @cyborb_nomade’s initial pro-alienation comment, is perhaps with Land’s essay “Making It With Death”, in which he addresses ‘alienation’ explicitly as that word associated with the modern “becoming-zombie at the limit of the modern worker”:
The processes of de-skilling, or ever accelerated re-skilling, the substitution of craft by abstract labour, and the increasing interexchangability of human activity with technological processes, all accompanied by the dissolution of identity, loss of attachment, and narcotization of affective life, are condemned on the basis of a moral critique. A reawakening of the political is envisaged, aimed at the restoration of a lost human integrity. Modern existence is understood as profoundly deadened by the real submission of humane values to an impersonal productivity, which is itself comprehended as the expression of dead or petrified labour exerting a vampiric power on the living.
For Land, “death”, conceptually understood as the limit of the subject, is the moment of revolution under capitalism: “The limit of capital is the point at which transcendent identity snaps.”
However, what Land predicts here, years before Facebook was even invented, has only half come true. Affective life has been narcotised, attachment has been lost, but identity has been far from dissolved — it has been reified in a way that Sartre, even Marx himself, perhaps warned us about. (Sartre: “Marx clearly indicated that he distinguished human relations from their reification or, in general, from their alienation within a particular social system.”) And so, it is human relations — communication itself — that has been alienated through the fascistic reification of the subject. Communicative capitalism dissolved the distinction between human relations and their reification, resulting in a further — and deeply traumatic — reification of the subject.
Despite the warnings given to us, such a result has been a long time coming. As Land writes in his essay “Circuitries”, continuing this line of thought, and addressing this point explicitly, he takes aim at our hypocritical understanding of the way that capitalism reifies the human subject — the history of philosophy has done this just as successfully!:
Traditional schemas which oppose technics to nature, to literate culture, or to social relations, are all dominated by a phobic resistance to the sidelining of human intelligence by the coming techno sapiens. Thus one sees the decaying Hegelian socialist heritage clinging with increasing desperation to the theological sentimentalities of praxis, reification, alienation, ethics, autonomy, and other such mythemes of human creative sovereignty. A Cartesian howl is raised: people are being treated as things. Rather than as … soul, spirit, the subject of history, Dasein? For how long will this infantilism be protracted?
This Landian alienation acknowledges that both social and individual subjection are internally alientating under capital and philosophy itself is not outside of this. The burgeoning technosphere, accelerating faster than humans can socially think about it, may be just what we need to break out of the cycle. It is this outside that must be reached rather than the internalised outside that is produced only imaginatively through ressentiment.
What is most disappointing, and what Land recently pointed to as being responsible for his own philopolitical disillusionment, is that the very opposite has happened. In his interview with Justin Murphy, Justin first asks Nick:
…if you could kind of mentally go back to the 1990s, when you’re theorizing all these kinds of radical ideas at the beginning. What was the first crack in that tendency for you? Like what gave, exactly? Was there a particular realization or insight or problem or anomaly in your viewpoint in the 90s that kind of cracked and made you see that all of these radical emancipatory ideas are not going to work…?
To which Nick responds:
These things come in waves. Wave motion is crucial to this. There was an extremely exciting wave that was ridden by the Ccru in the early to mid-1990s. You know, the internet basically arrived in those years, there were all kinds of things going on culturally and technologically and economically that were extremely exciting and that just carried this accelerationist current and made it extremely, immediately plausible and convincing to people. Outrageous perhaps, but definitely convincing. It was followed — and I wouldn’t want to put specific dates on this, really — but I think there was an epoch of deep disillusionment. I’d call it the Facebook era, and obviously, for anyone who’s coming in any way out of Deleuze and Guattari, for something called “Facebook” to be the dominant representative of cyberspace is just almost, you know, a comically horrible thing to happen! [Laughs]
I just really responded to this with such utter, prolonged disgust that a certain deep, sedimentary layer of profound grumpiness — from a personal point of view — was added to this. But I don’t think it’s just a personal thing. I think that accelerationism just went into massive eclipse …
In wanting to explore this a bit further, I found an essay by Daniel Tutt on “faciality” in Deleuze & Guattari that summarises the stakes of their concerns very well:
The face is an imperial machine, depending on certain social formations for its creation and its deployment. Enveloping language and destroying semiotic systems, the face announces signifiers that language (re)produces. This “imperialism of the face” is one designed to crush all other semiotic systems.
Faces are dependent upon “abstract machines” attaching to body parts, clothes, and objects –- facializing them all in a whirl of overcoding. The face overcodes the subject, which is why the face functions as the “black hole of subjectivity” for D & G, as the material traumatic thing -– as the Lacanian real, what they call the “wall of the signifier.”
[…] What they advocate for is a move away from the imperial imposition of the face and the abstract machine’s imposition of faciality by noticing how the imperial face cannot handle polyvocality or rhizomatic traits. It’s the schizophrenic that is the model for de-facialization. “Schizos lose their sense of the face, of landscape and of language and its dominant significations all the time” (Pg. 188 A Thousand Plateaus)
Facebook, then, becomes this absolute but also multiplicitous alienation through the totalising but nonetheless superficial signifier of its opposite. How often have we said, when feeling adrift, that it is nice to see a “friendly face”? Facebook, in its imposition of the “friendly face” as “friendly boss”, has only helped the desire for defacialisation dwindle and die.
However, things are not all so bleak. Twitter has been a liberating experience for me in allowing me to get out of my face again and blockchain technology likewise becomes a potential form of organisation that is faceless in its trustlessness and hiddenness — something Land is now actively exploring in his Cryptocurrent book, being serialised over at Urban Future. He likewise expresses his hope in his interview with Justin:
I think we’ve come out into an absolutely incandescent, new phase of technological and economic possibility driven by this fundamental dynamic vector of the internet. The basic socio-historical conditions right now are every bit as exciting as anything that was around in the 1990s. Totally.
This is likewise an optimism expressed by @cyborg_nomade in the original Twitter conversation:
to become torn from the social is to begin to dissolve personhood (faciality), so that what’s seething underneath can come to the fore. what Facebook did was connect everyone back together, and strengthen attribution, so that all the usual human shit surfaced again. 
anonymous communication is the most amazing tool to being alone (which, as someone who values solitude, is truly something hard to come by — people are everywhere) 
Real and Id(eal)
To recap: Communicative capitalism processes and immanentises the Real and the Ideal. The id of the individual is hijacked by the Facebook superego and the ego which emerges in between is reduced to a data-product. Being honest about this becomes a strangely radical act — from the perspective of popular media — but what is most apparent is that so many people who work online and have somehow monetised their faciality in order to make the most of the opportunities of the present moment, and later rebel against this, seldom have the linguistic armoury to actually articulate what they’re going through.
And that’s not their fault — that’s the result of the enclosed systems they are embedded within which demolish any sense of a critical Outside.
So, what do I mean by alienation under communicative capitalism? I mean that alienation is itself alienated — and so muchmore than when Sartre first said so. Faciality becomes an imposition, threatening (and even enacting) a digitally-mediated body dysmorphia. This isn’t a productive alienation towards a new subjectivity: it’s a Lovecraftian alienation within the prison of interiority, breaking the individual down into their own recursive void rather than the social sphere at large.
So is the question now really, “How do we alienate this alienated alienation?” If it’s really alienation all the way down and, as many Hegelian-Marxists and Nietzscheans alike may have argued, if we should want overcome or bottom-out of this process, it seems like we’re in for a shock as the prison of interiority continues in all directions much further than we anticipated. (Well, for most of us…)
Yes, the blockchain certainly feels like a very interesting development in this area and we shall have to see if it can be implemented in enough areas to break the cycle but, that aside, I don’t know what we’re supposed to do. Has the damage already been done?
Personally, I’ve grown up on social media, in many respects, although I do remember the days of pre-internet computers. One thing I’ve been depressed to discuss with my friends over the years is how many suffer from bouts of depersonalisation. I’ve regularly suffered from this myself since at least my late teens — it’s the main reason I never got into psychedelics and never got along with weed; I’ve never needed drugs to detach from my Self.
Depersonalisation has always, for me, been the result of an anxiety attack, mentally squashed from presenting itself outwardly / physically, and instead bottoming-out into a Sunken Place, much like in the film Get Out. A feeling of regressing backwards into your own skull, looking in the mirror and not recognising the face that looks back. It’s a dangerous numbness that so often precedes instances of self-harm and I’ve always wondered how much of a coincidence the pervasiveness of these experiences amongst people that I knew growing up was related to the rise of MySpace and Facebook.
That’s not a politically advantageous alienation. That’s mental illness. That’s the individualising mechanism of the social suicide machine.
Get Out‘s faciality is particularly racialised, of course, and this alienation of self is no doubt Marcusian in its racial structuring but also its cultural productivity. What the rest of us feel is something new in its pervasiveness, something in between these two critiques — the Hegelian-Marxist and the Nietzschean. This new experience is certainly attached to this same lineage of capitalist subjection but now we lack the habit of critiquing it to the extent that so many others once did.
That’s the alienation I’m talking about and I think it needs continually addressing because, so far, no theories of emancipation have managed to crack it. We remain stuck in the thinking of the post-structuralists whilst technological subjection threatens such theories with redundancy before we’ve managed to internalise them.
Things have only gotten worse and worse — socially, at least, even if, as individuals, we might be able to find some solace…
This blog has always been a half-hearted attempt at tackling this sense of alienation on a very personal level, even if it has not been vocalised rigorously as such. Speaking as “Xenogothic”, the social alienation that this blog and my Twitter account has afforded me over the past uear has hugely enjoyable, but the internet presents many more forms of alienation besides this which, perhaps as a result of the joy, have become harder to bear.
I’ve thought about this more and more recently as I struggle to keep up the mystique. Xenogothic was meant to be an attempt at escaping this Facebook faciality — or so I said in my very first post — and for the first 8-10 months it was very successful in this regard. Less than 5 people who were friends with me IRL knew it was me. Thta’s no longer the case. Mostly by choice.
I love writing and I increasingly want to do more of it — I’m never, ever satisfied; the itch is never scratched — so if there’s a fine line along which I’m able to walk and maintain this as a semi-anonymous space whilst be open to other opportunities for personal growth, I want to make that happen. This stuff is important to me, to the extent I want it to define me but a “me” that is separate from the data cow of the social media face farm, and I think that’s fine. But, as I try to figure out just where that line is, I’m all too aware of the minefield I’m walking through.
I love YouTube, for instance, and I watch more PewDiePie than I’m comfortable to admit. I used to think about being a YouTuber years ago but I’m terrible in front of a camera. PewDiePie is likewise terrible in front of a camera but it hasn’t stopped him becoming a one-man media empire (at least, not quite yet) and his journey has been fascinating to me.
Here is a guy who seemed to fall into a weird, undercoded faciality that he has maintained — very, very successfully (financially speaking) — for almost a decade. However, I only started watching his videos a year or two back when he was in the midst of rebelling against this increasingly consolidated sense of online-self, when the more he started to work with big companies and institutions — Disney, most notoriously — he began to wrestle more and more openly with his experiences of alienation. His self-destructive behaviour — which has resulted in a whole bunch of controversies and is certainly not defensible — has felt like the indirect fallout from this. He is the perfect example of someone who is painfully aware of the system they have become entrapped by but who can’t play by the rules and also can’t really articulate his experiences in a way that might help himself. (And has also looked to the likes of Jordan Peterson and Ben Shapiro in his quest to rebel against it.)
Take this video as a case in point, which discusses issues of emotional labour (explored here recently) and marks the start of an easily trackable swerve away from the YouTube hegemony and towards critics on the right of politics:
Just as Woke Capital is a bad rebrand of leftist theory for new alienated, the left needs to get louder about the ways in which it can combat this. Mark Fisher wrote plenty on it but those essays never reached the amount of people they should have. (I’m thinking about “Touchscreen Capture” here specifically.)
To end on a lighter note:
Personally speaking, the name Xenogothic, as I’ve repeatedly said, was borne out of a feeling that I’m not a very good Goth, of not wearing the right face, of not acting or looking the right way. I wanted an identity that wasn’t beholden to any kind of reductive aesthetic.
This desire is, I think, inherently related to that same sense of alienation and self-hatred that comes from being expected to play some sort of game — generally a careerist one — and one which I was concerned might end up being the death of me. I just wanted to make stuff without it having to be considered as some sort of CV. I wanted to express myself without everything having to be presented as a product or another rung on the ladder of a social-mediated illusion of a career.
I did a postgrad degree not because I wanted a better job or better pay but because I just wanted to learn to write and think better and I wasn’t getting that from anywhere in my life at the time. And, thankfully, I think that’s precisely what I got out of it. And I can’t think of a better thing to have done with that weird year back in academia than channel it into a deliriously productive blog whilst I go back to the kind of job I was doing after I finished my photography degree. It’s just the latest attempt at getting out of the face I’m aware I’m supposed to wear and, so far, it’s been incredibly successful.
This blog feels more like me than anything else I’ve ever done or continue to do with my life, and at the same time it barely feels representative of me, or the me that has so far existed online on social media.
The desire for this, I now realise, has been bubbling for a long time. I came across this old series of photographs in the midst of writing this post that I was putting together sporadically between 2012-2016. I would take double exposures of my environment and my face, one after the other, capturing two sides of a moment where identity dissolves into something else through the photographic process. Plants always worked best for this and, serendipitously, these photographs predated any real understanding of Deleuze & Guattari’s rhizomatics.
I never quite had a name for the project and I never quite managed to make enough good ones to make a series out of it. But I’m glad I didn’t. They weren’t meant to be about me. They were meant as anti-portraits. They were photographs about the way photography itself is so tied to my thoughts but which, due to its very nature, is always detached from any originally phenomenological grounding. Subject and object dissolve into one another, and something else is born.
I realised today that this is what they were always about. They were precisely about this desire for porosity; for indeterminacy; for facial flow. This desire to get out of your face(book) again.
I’m surprised that I’ve never seen either the left or right Accelerationists talk about One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. I’ll be disregarding the film adaptation, which, though it has some high-grade acting, misses the entire point of the novel due to consequence of its medium making the acts of McMurphy the dram, rather than the commentary of Bromden. The interior perspective of Chief Bromden is, frankly the uniquely interesting part of the book; the rest is just an uncouth prison drama. I’m inclined to think that a better way to think about OFOTCN is that it’s a story from the perspective of Bromden, as he is only able to contextualize the triumph of pseudo-capitalism in America as something equivalent to a unfriendly artificial intelligence of the paperclip maximizer variety. He terms this process as “the Combine.”
“The Combine”, as Bryce demonstrates with some passages from the book, is a central part of the story expunged from the film adaptation. It’s the Chief’s conspiratorial name for a kind of fascistic dynamic that permeates the Inside/Outside barrier between society and the psych ward. Bryce continues:
Bromden blames himself for failing to fit into the Combine’s progam, while also understanding that the Combine’s program is destroying everything he values. The mental patients, as “culls from the Combine’s product” are unable to participate in the American system, which is to say adequately adapted to an artificial environment built by the Combine manifesting its destiny all over the place. However, Bromden still frequently takes the perspective of the Combine as legitimate […] The central tragedy of the novel should not be understood as McMurphy’s failure to successfully lead a rebellion of inpatients, but Bromden’s simultaneous self-knowledge of the moral and aesthetic bankruptcy of the system he lives within, and his inability to take a perspective that’s able to critique it with an external source of justification.
Some readers may remember that I have written about accelerationism and One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest before but, having never read the book, I can’t claim to have done so very well. I mentioned the film in passing in one of my posts on Westworld from a few months ago and how it was caught up in my readings of the work of Leslie Fielder. In Part One, I wrote:
… does Westworld not become a dramatisation of this very [madness], inherent to the idea of the American West? The revolt of the AI “hosts” of the theme park is as much a catalyst for a “new world” to come as it is the materialisation of a spectre of a past waging war on the woeful consolidation of its own future. […] To be haunted by the fractured memories of previous iterations is surely the central condition which entwines the consolidated American State and and its Self.
Fiedler comes in here for the way that he aligns the figure of the “Indian” with the internalised geographic unconscious of the American psyche, which I wrote about more in-depth in Part Two.
At the end of that post — which I don’t want to rehash so give the link a click if the context isn’t immediately clear — I wrote:
Perhaps the best analogy for all that we have discussed, continuing this ever-entangling entanglement of consciousnesses that Fielder and others explore, is the finale of One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest.
Jack Nicholson’s character, “Mac” (aka McMurphy), is, in a way, the ultimate Westerner; the rebel, who stirs up and antagonises the status quo. He is, as Fiedler calls him, “the New American Man.” Fiedler writes on the original 1962 book, set in a psychiatric hospital: “McMurphy chooses instead if not madness, at least aggravated psychopathy and an alliance with his half-erased, totally schizophrenic Indian comrade — an alliance with all that his world calls unreason.”
McMurphy, we must remember, is not actually mad. He pleads insanity when convicted of crimes of battery and gambling, believing he will receive a more lenient sentence. The tragic irony of the story is that he is eventually lobotomised, and it is the Chief, in the film at least, on seeing what has become of his friend, the fully-erased New American Man, who breaks out of his affective impotence and heads for the Outside.
Just as the Man in Black, in seeking the maze, is disappointed to find it is not for him, there is perhaps a parable here for the current White Western Man that the revolution is not for him. This seems to be what has the Right running scared. In wanting to take responsibility for their actions only, and not the actions of others, they may be left treading water.
If the White Man really wants to exit, he can’t lead but only follow…
What Bryce introduces on his blog may seem like a very different (even contradictory) reading but I think that the two tragedies of the book, as Bryce describes them — Mac’s failed revolution and Chief’s psychological impotence — are inherently connected.
For Fiedler — something he later clarifies explicitly in the final chapter of his book, The Return of the Vanishing American — madness is a potential avenue for “White transcendence”. For Fiedler, noticing the frequent trope of how White Europeans are so frequently paired up with non-White counterparts, highlights the desires of the White man that these characters are said to represent. If the partner is Black “we tend to interpret as a parable of an attempt to extend our sexuality, to recover our lost libido” — I watched Training Day (of all things) yesterday and that film is a fascinating example of this but its also common to all sorts of stories: Wuthering Heights, in particular, comes to mind. However, if the partner is Indian, “we are likely to read as signifying a desire to breach the limits of reason, to extend our consciousness.”
What is of central importance to Fiedler is the role of whiteness in this story. Both Mac and Big Nurse are tandem figures of a virulent whiteness — an authoritarian whiteness and a whiteness looking for a way out — both of which threaten to snuff out the other but it is Chief who puts Mac out of his miserable post-lobotomy existence. However, as Fiedler points out, the novel can be read as a meta-exploration of this failure. Written by a white man, Chief becomes Ken Kesey’s own internal Indian who he seeks to let free. As Fiedler writes in his previous book, Waiting for the End:
What we customarily call the “oppressed minorities” (and the same is true when the oppressed are, in fact, majorities) are exploited not only economically and politically, but also psychologically, though this latter fact is less noticed in election speeches, newspaper editorials, or even serious analyses of class and race relations, whether pro or con. Oppressors, that is to say, project upon the oppressed certain of their own psychic dilemmas, elements of their own mental life of which they are ashamed, or toward which they are deeply ambivalent.
Nowhere is this more common than in tales of white transcendence such as this, and I think that Bryce’s comment on this pseudo-capitalism is an apt one. The logistics of exit are so frequently racialised along these same lines — unwittingly, perhaps, but I think they should be done so purposefully.
What Fielder calls the Higher Masculine Sentimentality — “a passionate commitment to inverting Christian-Humanist values, out of a conviction that the Indian’s way of life is preferable” — is rampant in Right Accelerationist circles whilst Left Accelerationism often parrots a patronising Christian-Humanism without fully contending with the consequences of the revolution to come.
To be absolutely clear: Accelerationism should be understood as a spatiotemporal philosophy of entropy for preparing ourselves for the future, for making ourselves worthy of the event of acceleration. What this entropy will — we hope — ultimately lead to is the destruction of the institutions that structure our lives, at the levels of individual, state and planet. These institutions are driving themselves into the ground and we should encourage this — not willy-nilly but from the perspective that this is a necessary process if we are to reach a new future, and we should understand these institutions as white, male and bougie.
If we can read Nyx’s Gender Accelerationism blackpaper as an exploration of the fact that “the future is female” isn’t a soft feminist slogan for democratic politics but a violent transformation of the patriarchal subject / subject under patriarchy, we can likewise read the works of Leslie Fiedler — and so much American culture besides — as containing the implicit message that whiteness is gonna have to go too.
In fact, is the argument that Chief Bromden’s character is defined by his “simultaneous self-knowledge of the moral and aesthetic bankruptcy of the system he lives within, and his inability to take a perspective that’s able to critique it with an external source of justification”, not precisely the argument shared today by Afropessimists and Blaccelerationists? The argument that a worthy critique of capitalism requires an exit from the white male supremacy that structures it at every level?
If run-of-the-mill Accelerationists don’t talk about this more, that might be because many don’t want to think about the social suicide they are encouraging for themselves. But they should.
Fiedler again, with a conclusion to The Return of the Vanishing American that is downright Deleuzean, echoing the narrative of One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest explicitly and pointing to its relevance to any accelerationist project:
We have come to accept the notion that there is still a territory unconquered and uninhabited by palefaces, the bearers of “civilisation,” the cadres of imperialist reason; and we have been learning that into this territory certain psychotics, a handful of “schizophrenics,” have moved on ahead of the rest of us — unrecognised Natty Bumppos or Huck Finns, interested not in claiming the New World for any Old God, King, or Country, but in becoming New Men, members of just such a New Race as D. H. Lawrence foresaw. (How fascinating, then, that R. D. Laing, leading among contemporary psychiatrists of the theory that some schizophrenics have “broken through” rather than “broken down,” should, despite the fact he is an Englishman, have turned to our world and its discovery in search of an analogy; he suggests that Columbus’s stumbling upon America and his first garbled accounts of it provide an illuminating parallel to the ventures of certain madmen into the regions of extended or altered consciousness, and to their confused version, once they are outside of it, of the strange realm in which they have been.)
Obviously, not everyone is prepared, and few of us ever will be, to make a final and total commitment to the Newest West via psychosis; but a kind of tourism into insanity is already possible for those of us not yet ready or able to migrate permanently from the world of reason. We can take, as the New Westerns suggest, what is already popularly called — in the aptest of metaphors — a “trip,” an excursion into the unknown with the aid of drugs. The West has seemed to us for a long time a place of recreation as well as of risk; and this is finally fair enough, for all the ironies implicit in turning a wilderness into a park. After all, the West remains always in some sense true to itself, as long as the Indian, no matter how subdued, penned off, or costumed for the tourist trade, survives — as long as we can confront there a creature radically different from the old self we seek to recreate in two weeks’ vacation.
And whilst the West endures, the Western demands to be written — that form which represents a traditional and continuing dialogue between whatever old selves we transport out of whatever East, and the radically different other whom we confront in whatever West we attain. That other is the Indian still, as from the beginning, though only vestigially, nostalgically now; and also, with special novelty and poignantly, the insane.
A few weeks ago I wrote about the marvellous Acid Communism reading group I’ve been attending these past couple of months at Somerset House, led by Dan Taylor and Laura Grace Ford. Tonight I was really honoured to accept an invitation from Dan and Laura to lead a session.
Dan asked that I pick the week’s readings as a way of introducing some of the concepts found in The Weird and the Eerieinto our reconstructive readings around Acid Communism. I suggested we all read “…The Eeriness Remains” — the final chapter of The Weird and the Eerie — and “Practical Eliminativism: Or, Getting Out of Our Faces Again” — a short talk Mark gave that was featured in the Speculative Aestheticsedition of Urbanomic’s Redactions series. (I also suggested my own “Reaching Out Beyond to the Other” essay as a here’s-some-connections-I-made-earlier intro for generating discussion around two very different texts.)
Before getting into things, I wrote a little intro which I read out at the start of the session, presented below.
(Note: many of the references in here are regurgitated from various posts on this blog, written over the last year, so it might all be familiar to regular readers, but this is a presentation for a new context and a new audience).
I want to start by thanking Laura and Dan for inviting me to pick the readings for today. I’m hoping this means I’ll talk less than I do most weeks rather than more…
That being said… I’ve written a roughly ten-minute intro to start off with, if no one minds listening to me ramble for a little bit… Not that you really have a choice either…
A lot of what we’ll find in these two texts resonates with the discussions we’ve already been having in recent months, I think, but they are also of a distinctly different tone to those other texts that we’ve read so far. I don’t want to say too much about the texts themselves and leave that up to us all to discuss as a group but I would like to contextualise why I’ve chosen them and, specifically, why I think an acknowledgement of their ton;e is important to our fortnightly pursuit and exercise of collective joy, even though the affects articulated may seem antithetical to this. Whilst the likewise of Jeremy Gilbert have bastardised an Acid Communism, emphasising a affectless positivity, it has to be acknowledged that Mark’s project, like all his work, was reaching out beyond the pleasure principle…
This is a complex suggestion, however, so I’d like to spend a bit of time unpacking this using a few more unusual but perhaps accessible references.
Back in 2017, a few months after Mark died, I was part of a reading group much like this one. We were all Goldsmiths students and staff, many of us already friends with each other, but we were nonetheless a thrown-together bunch, each with our own distinct experiences of and relationships to Mark and his work.
Mark’s death and the release of The Weird and the Eerie felt like tandem occurrences at that time. One thing entered the world just as he left it. Holding the book close and closed, we all shared an anxiety over the prospect of reading it in isolation, and so we decided to do it together, to share the weight of it in that moment.
We would read a chapter a week, going round in a circle, tackling the book a paragraph at a time, before attempting to unpack its concepts and attend to its more puzzling moments, but more than anything we just wanted to spent time together with Mark.
Our group was initially a support group, an assembly, a weekly opportunity to touch base with each other and our grief, and so, as we made our way through the book over a period of a couple of months, many struggled with the shifting dynamics within the group itself, as we inevitably moved away from this affective grounding.
Some weeks philosophizing would overtake our looking out for each other. Other times reading the book was secondary to checking in on each other’s wellbeing. For me, personally, I never wanted the two things to be distinct. The book felt like a vector through which we could process the horror we were facing, aesthetically rendered through the ghost stories and science fictions that Mark so obviously loved.
The final paragraph of the book, however, pulled this already rickety scaffolding down and made the book feel, for one sullen moment, like a suicide note.
As Mark writes about the ways in which Marion and Miranda, two characters in Joan Lindsey’s 1967 novel The Picnic at Hanging Rock, “are fully prepared to take the step into the unknown … possessed by an eerie calm that settles when familiar passions are overcome”, I couldn’t help but think about Mark himself, putting the finishing touches to his final book as he struggled through that dark December, preparing himself for what was to come.
Once Marion and Miranda disappear, their absences, Mark writes, leave “haunting gaps, eerie intimations of the outside.” Mark’s absence, too, from the Visual Cultures corridor at Goldsmiths, was experienced in very much the same way.
This was a reading overly influenced, no doubt, by the horror of that time. Looking around the room, expressing my own discomfort, I felt like I was saying what everyone else was thinking but what no one wanted to hear, and it made my stomach churn. I immediately regretted voicing it, because it is all too easy to imagine Mark somewhere, fuming at the thought of such melodramatic projections being allowed to stain his work. In light of this mental image of an angry Mark, a short while later, my reading less coloured by melancholy, this ending began to feel less like a full stop and more like a challenge to the experience of grief and melancholy in itself.
But then again, aren’t both of these readings inherently and fatally entwined?
His Mount Eerie project found a much wider audience last year with the release of its eighth studio album, A Crow Looked At Me, a solitary and diaristic singer-songwriter affair about the grief of losing his wife to cancer in 2016. The first verse of the first song, “Real Death”, lays out the paradoxes the album intends to explore with a heart-wretching but also almost humorous frankness, attending to the ironies and contradictions of death felt so closely by those that keep on living. Elverum sings:
Death is real
Someone’s there and then they’re not
And it’s not for singing about
It’s not for making into art
When real death enters the house, all poetry is dumb
When I walk into the room where you were
And look into the emptiness instead
My knees fail
My brain fails
The album hits like a hammer, transposing the tandem representations and obliterations of Elverum’s ever-shifting inner experiences.
Subject matter aside, the album is, in some ways, a return to an older performance style for Elverum, whose output over the previous ten years has been increasingly shaped by the sonic influence of US Black Metal. Big guitars. Big bass. Big drums. Encapsulating a very Black Metal kind of sonic solitude, distinct from that of your typical singer-songwriter in its attempted sonic gutterings of the ego.
However, in the article for Invisible Oranges, Elverum writes how, following the death of his wife, he had struggled with his love of this aesthetic darkness, particularly in its original Norwegian form. How does a music scene defined by death-obsessed, satanist-LARPing teenagers hold up to any scrutiny under the light of an experience of Real Death, he wonders.
In a lot of ways, the defining aspect of this music for most people, its “evil”ness or whatever, is not something I think about at all. It seems so clearly a joke or a performance. Even with the early Europeans who killed each other, I don’t see them as evil but just confused and carried away. The black is just a costume. It’s Halloween. It’s cool, I love Halloween. But also honesty is important to me, and there’s something embarrassing and facetious about that performative darkness, living in it too much.
Then, on the day of his wife’s funeral, Elverum writes about his decision to play the song “Prison of Mirrors” by the one-man US black metal band Xasthur as loud as he can before her memorial service took place. Following his immersion in Xasthur’s “shredded screaming, extreme sorrow”, he says that, then, “the room felt ready.”
It felt like “ah, yes, this is the use of this music. This is the moment, once in a lifetime hopefully, or maybe never in a lifetime for people who are fortunate enough to avoid experiencing devastation like this, this is the moment where music this extreme can tear through the veil of the difficult present moment and reveal something beyond.”
If this feels like a strange and extended tangent to take here, I mention this article only because I feel it articulates, better than I ever could, my own experience of embracing Mark’s Gothic mode after his death. I worried about living with his darker texts too much, as if it appear I was romanticising what happened to him, the mode of writing I’d always enjoyed the most now inevitably facetious. However, I found that Mark’s own work — The Weird and the Eerie especially — provided a vector of intensity through which to navigate the difficult then-present moments of 2017 — and there were plenty of those… — and reach into something beyond.
The earlier text presented here, “Practical Eliminativism”, articulates an almost cosmic pessimism which treats “death” as a sort of line in the sand of experience, and nothing more. It is Mark’s “astropunk” sensibility writ large. Yes, Mark the Spinozist might have argued for a freedom from sad passions, but this is not, as he writes on the Hyperstition blog, “the end of the story if it is at the price of a ‘happy’ passivity, a blank-eyed disengagement from all Outsides, as all (your) energy is sucked up by the ultimate interiority”. Joy, in this sense, is not a guard against suffering. We know this. I’m sure none of us are under any illusions that the sheer English repressiveness of a ‘Keep Calm & Carry On’ attitude is the epitome of a forced and petrified happiness. To quote Mark: “The price of such ‘happiness’ — a state of cored-out, cheery Pod people affectlessness — is [the] sacrifice of all autonomy.”
But does all this really mean we that we have to revel in horror? No, I don’t think so, but horror is certainly this thoughts most effectively affective mode. Horror is a libidinal short-circuiting towards action, towards fight and flight, towards rebellion and emancipation. This is likewise not to will bad things to happen, but when they inevitably do, in some form or other, we can affirm that terror and find its beyond.
In light of this, we might also think about Fisher’s conceptual deaths as a return to — or even an extension of — his first “book” that remains bootlegged but officially unpublished — his PhD thesis: “Flatline Constructs”. Here Mark formulates a Gothic Materialism, orbiting “death” in the Nietzschean sense of just another form of life. Whilst he writes, in 1999, that his Gothic Materialism is a way to jettison the “supernatural, ethereal or otherworldly” from our conceptions of the Outside, in favour of a radical plane of immanence, The Weird and the Eerie nonetheless demonstrates the return of these elements to the heart of his thesis, rehabilitated as prime cultural examples of our perpetual grasping at other ways of being.
The paradox of doing this is an echo of Elverum’s wrestling with grief. As Mark writes in a separate essay, written for Pli, Warwick University’s journal of philosophy, called “Gothic Materialism“: “It is not a matter of speaking the unspeakable, but of vocalising the extra-linguistic or the non-verbal, and thereby letting the Outside in.”
In this way, the speculative aesthetics of death, with their provocations of horror, can assist us as we look — even reach — beyond ourselves and the abject interiority of the neoliberal subject. “Death” needn’t be an end — rather it is a cognitive challenge that forces us to engage with a necessarily difficult thinking that can only ever be speculative until we’re ready to throw off, as Mark writes, the “petty repressions and mean confines of common experience”.
This is a thinking that is not just the navel-gazing of a depressed and dejected contemporary subject. It is a thinking echoed in the thought of Donna Harraway, Eugene Thacker and Thom Van Dooren in their writings on the possibility of thinking extinction, whether our own or that of another species. If we are to reengage with the end-of-the-world thinking that Mark made his name writing about in Capitalist Realism — that is, the suggestion that “the end of the world is easier to imagine than the end of capitalism” — we have to confront collective death at the same time as collective joy. Both are increasingly necessary for thinking about and challenging the politics of our time, from austerity and the implications of well-spread mental ill-health, from artificial intelligence to new materialisms, from climate change to an expanded species-consciousness.
Picnic at HangingRock, in light of all this, becomes a pulp-modernist fable of exit from the corsets of a moralising and — most importantly — gendered subjection, enforced under the preparatory pretensions of Australia’s well-to-do high society. “Practical Eliminativism”, with Mark wearing his more explicitly philosophical hat, likewise tackles the subjective capture of high modernity at the absolute limit of experience itself. Whilst its talk of Kantianism and subjectivity might frighten off the more casual reader, what Mark is discussing here has become an central concern of pop culture in recent years.
If anyone here has seen The OA or The Walking Dead or Games of Thrones or the return of Twin Peaks or Westworld or any number of other shows — I have no doubt this list could continue endlessly — you will have seen these same questions and their stakes played out in innumerable ways, where the question of another world and another life are two-fold, each encompassing the other, with the end of the world and the death of the individual held up as interscalar contingencies rather than absolute limits. It is my view that Mark’s own death shouldn’t undermine this thinking but intensify the necessity of its immanence for thought. It is necessary to recognise all that happened to Mark, all that led to his death, and render it impersonal, as he would have done, as obstacles to the instantiation of an Acid Communism which we must fight against.
I’ll end here with some questions posed by Mark himself, in a K-Punk post he wrote in 2009 after an event at Goldsmiths called “Militant Dysphoria“. He writes:
There’s an special urgency and poignancy about the concept of militant dysphoria just now, when dejection is so widespread amongst the young. The regime of anti-depressants, CBT and relentlessly upbeat pop culture enforce a compulsory positivity which treats the negative only as failure and pathology. Dejection is not an extreme state so much as a generational condition, as invisible as it is ubiquitous, sometimes treated as a medicalised disorder, sometimes condemned as a depoliticised apathy, often not acknowledged at all, but normalised as an existential horizon of lowered expectations and minimal hope. If, from the perspective of a vitalist commonsense, militancy and dysphoria is an impossible collocation, then the dejected young (and among them, all those who aestheticise their dysphoria, such as Goths and the devotees of Black Metal), must simply be abandoned as depoliticised, unpolitical or — at best — pre-political. But as Dominic [Fox] put it in his own comments box recently, “Dysphoria is ‘militant’ when it refuses to be framed as a personal mishap, and instead poses itself as a question and a challenge to the society in which it occurs.” […] What can politics learn from the perspective of the “abyss that laughs at creation”?
In my last conversation with Damian Veal, we talked about the statistic that suicide is the biggest killer of men under 45 in the UK, why this is not a national scandal and urgently targeted for research and action, and about the incompetence, inappropriateness, and often just sheer absence of available help for those in mental distress, despite claims and advertising to the contrary. I remember similar conversation with Mark Fisher shortly before his death.
I don’t have a positive message or incisive proposal. OK, I agree, keep in touch with yr friends. But “preventing” this would take more than we, as individuals, are capable of—it’s a serious major epidemic of psychic suffering.
I’m likewise struck more and more by just how epidemic this suffering is and what horrifies me most is how infectious it seems.
As a teenager, I knew two people who died by their own hands and I’ve been thinking about them today — both people who I knew of but were on the periphery of my social circle, and both of whom surreally ended up in the local news over the circumstances.
Alissia McCoid was a close friend of a lot of my friends at school but someone who I’d never met personally. She committed suicide in early 2010. There was a lot of talk about how her use of M-CAT had contributed to her low mood and it reached the national papers just prior to that year’s summer of M-CAT hysteria.
I remember attending her funeral in an attempt to offer support to distraught friends and, looking back, I was totally clueless as to what they were going through. I’d had a friend die of cancer far too young when I was 13 and I found that really hard. This must be like that, I thought to myself, but I know now it was completely different.
A few years later, I heard about the death of James Mabbett, an boy who, again, I’d only known peripherally. He was around a lot when I was at primary school. I’m sure I went to his house a few times. He was a friend of my then-best friend’s older brother. He took his own life in 2015 and has since become the face of a major suicide prevention scheme across the UK.
At that time I knew I couldn’t imagine what anyone was going through. It really struck me how James, from the distance at which I knew him at least, had always come across as a gregarious clown who was never without a wide grin on his face, playing practical jokes and having a laugh. Many said it was completely unexpected.
And then, of course, in early 2017, there was Mark Fisher, and that was when I realised what these friends of mine had been going through.
It’s a cliche to speak of depression as a dark cloud, but I can vividly remember the demeanour of all those close to Alissia and James in the aftermath. A dark cloud is precisely how I’d describe it. It is the weight of a proximity to the unthinkable — and after Mark’s death I felt it for myself.
Since then, I’ve been all too aware of just how many people have been dying by their own hands in recent years. Celebrities are the most visible — and there have been so many — but still I hear the murmurings in social circles about distant acquaintances who have done this or that. Hearing of the passing of Damian Veal just last week from Robin was likewise heart-breaking.
This is happening all too frequently. It is truly an epidemic.
Increasing suicide rates, drug related deaths, alcohol related deaths, and the shredding of mental health and drug services should be held as the grossest negligence. At the same time we don’t need just more funding but different models of care and treatment.
In recent years, an attempt to change things has largely come from attempts at consciousness raising and raising awareness. The latter has been more successful than the former. It is difficult to live with mental illness, whether your own or someone else’s, domestically and socially, and we all remain terrible at even attempting to embark on the impossible task of sympathising with each other’s inner experiences without it taking on the cloyingly corporate air of rehab.
But also, on the flip side, this is something that many of us know all to well.
The worst thing to happen to me following Mark’s death was to be told, in detail, what had happened to him. The whole sequence of events. Someone that I knew and greatly admired, whose thought I spent a lot of time thinking about, had done the unthinkable. This, in turn, made the unthinkable thinkable for me.
In trying to understand and comprehend what Mark had been thinking and going through, trying to put yourself in his shoes, as anyone would do naturally when trying to ascertain why someone has acted a certain way, I found myself succeeding all too easily.
I remember coming home after being told, in a really bad state, and I shared the story with my flatmate at the time, the details of which likewise broke her. I couldn’t believe what I’d done so carelessly and I knew then how harmful that kind of knowledge can be. I don’t think either of us were ever the same afterwards.
Not because what happened was more horrific than any other situation like it. It was just unbearable to hear these actions relayed as having been committed by someone we loved. It was all too real.
I’ve never quite shaken that. It made me think “Could I do that?” and over the years since, plagued by my usual bouts of depression, in my absolute worst moments this answer has come closer and closer to an affirmative one.
(I should stress at this point that, as I posted on Twitter last week, I’ve just doubled my dosage of anti-depressants and whilst I feel quite new and unfamiliar in myself right now, I can already tell I’m feeling lighter and happier; more sociable, less impulsive. I’m doing well. But, at the same time, I don’t want to take for granted the dark places to which I’ve so recently been. No one should. It’s all too easy to believe your own hype — “I’m better now!” — and then be complacent as a slide back into the darkness is taken to be a normal and deserved transition. I do this almost every time before it’s almost too late.)
This is the difficulty of talking about mental health crises and in doing a day like today justice. Widespread suicide prevention measures are more necessary than ever — we are in the midst of a horribly serious crisis — but the paradoxes of depression and suicide become ever more complex as a result.
How can we have frank and empathetic discussions about the unthinkable without making it thinkable? How can you be clear and detailed in describing how we feel and what we have done, rightly or wrongly, to remedy those feelings?
Two of the most high-profile recent suicides are those of Soundgarden’s Chris Cornell and Linkin Park’s Chester Bennington. The bands’ frontmen were close, often performing together. Cornell committed suicide at the age of 52. Two months later, on what would have been his 53rd birthday, Bennington took his life in the same manner.
I’ve unfortunately read a whole host of conspiracy theories online about these events, in trying to get my facts straight. It seems obvious that there is little to ponder. Suicide is infectious. Making the unthinkable thinkable for those that are left behind can be so deeply traumatic in ways that we generally do not discuss, precisely because of this infectious nature which we do not talk about for fear of itself.
It is the side-effect-that-must-not-be-named…
…I have no overarching point to this post. I have no answers. On a day like today, this is now all that I can think about and I think about all of this far more often than I let on. I’m really terrible at talking about it face-to-face and it’s something I usually clam up about, not knowing what to say or how to say it, always arrested by a fear of this danger, for myself and others, not wanting to leave any traces in the minds of those who have been affected.
It’s the wrong approach. It’s a downright bad approach.
To say that suicide is infectious is not to be taken literally and the worst thing we can do is quarantine it and stay silent, but talking about it is something which needs to be done with real care and attention, far more than we currently give it and in a way that is far more rigorous than what we currently see as the “standard”.
If you’re reading this and wanting answers, don’t feel disheartened and please don’t anyone feel alone. I know that, personally, I’m awful at reaching out, whether for myself or to check on others. Really awful at it. But I know there are some people out there who are going through similar things or that really do care about other’s well being. This is an official declaration to say “My DMs are always open” to anyone who wants to chat, share treatment tips, do some reality testing, or whatever.
Not to put a spotlight on the guy, but Meta-Nomad has been a hero in this way to me, sliding into my DMs on a few occasions over the last few months. Even if I’ve just worded something poorly in a tweet and inadvertently implied a subtext that was not intended, he’s there to say, “Hey, everything alright?”
Coming from someone I barely know, in a blogosphere defined by varying degrees of anonymity, it’s something I massively respect and I try to remember to channel his awareness when on the timeline these days.
Likewise, shout out to Bethan who also reached out the other day to offer meds advice. It means a lot.
Not all cries for help are loud and not all check-ins need be either. And these things should just be the start.
P.P.S. Already, in quick hindsight, I feel like I wasn’t as attentive to these issues as I could have been in the second episode of Xenogothic Radio. It feels like terrible timing to have uploaded that episode on a day like today. The format might be restrictive of going into real depth and I want to stress how I do not take any of these issues lightly but want to explore how music, even music that expresses or even glorifies suicidal thoughts, can be cathartic and therapeutic.
When I was at school and had had my first really serious mental health episode, I started to see a school counsellor once a week for almost two years. I liked her little office being what we’d now call a “safe space”. I could talk about what I want and she had a CD player in there where I could play CDs whilst we talked. I really liked that.
I remember I took in Sonic Youth, Sufjan Stevens, Radiohead — stuff I thought we both might like. Then I didn’t see her for a year. When I had another episode, I went back but there was a new counsellor now. She dug out my old file and said that, in the notes her predecessor had made, she blamed my depression almost entirely on the sort of music I was listening to. I am still filled with absolute rage whenever I think about this.
All music can be gothic, yes. But also it is my belief that all music can be a tonic. Maybe I’ll write an episode on this explicitly in the future.
Death is a passage from thisbrutal world. You don’t deserve the exit.
The latest episode of Westworld (S02E08, “Kiksuya”) was a beautiful bit of television. An unusually focused episode for the series, built around the perspective and monologue of one previously underexplored character for most of its sixty minutes. So much of what was discussed in the last post on Westworld on this blog was made more explicit here than I could have anticipated.
The episode was centred on Akecheta, the mysterious “Indian” and leader of the Ghost Nation tribe that has regularly been seen stalking the desert for the past two seasons. (Quotation marks around “Indian” as we see in this episode how a number of the tribe were reprogrammed to be more aggressive and better fit the Cowboys-and-Indians stereotype that visitors to the park will no doubt be expecting.)
After half-tying up a couple of loose ends, the episode was dedicated almost entirely to Akecheta telling his story. It turns out that, in Westworld 2.0, following Dolores’ killing of Arnold, Akecheta was the first host to gain consciousness. Having stumbled onto the aftermath of Arnold’s orchestrated massacre and suicide-by-host, he finds Ford’s wooden model of the maze.
The sight of the maze unlocks “a new voice” inside of him and he is overcome by it, obsessively carving it into every available surface.
Reset by the Behaviour department after it is assumed he is malfunctioning, Akecheta soon starts to reawaken once more, remembering his past lives. The episode follows his journey, as he evades “death” within the park for over a decade, never again being reset or having his software updated. Over time, he becomes aware of his narrative loop and finds himself choosing to act differently. He ventures out to the edges of the park and encounters new hints as to what is really out there, before finding a door that he believes will take him to another world.
He decides to leave, but not without Kohana, his wife from his first narrative, who remains in her original role since he was updated to become a silent, nomadic scalper. She becomes the main reason for his exit. At one point, explaining his new, self-determined drive, he says:
There isn’t one world but many. And this is the wrong one. [The maze] will help us find the door.
Hearing this line, I nearly let out a yelp. Fiedler’s (previously explored) exploration of the symbolism of the “demon of the continent” in American fiction comes up against the egresses into the otherworldly, into alternatives, espoused by Fisher and the Ccru.
Akecheta kidnaps Kohana and takes her out into the desert. Once they are alone, she starts to remember and soon she too awakens to her past lives.
They live out a new, nomadic existence, once again trying to find the door to another world. One day, park technicians find Kohana, alone, bemused as to why she is out so far at the edges of the park. They take her in and she is never seen again, her narrative role filled by another host, a “ghost”.
Akecheta realises that she has perhaps already crossed over to the other side and soon realises that the path towards this new world and his reunion with Kohana is beyond death.
I had searched everywhere for my love except the other side of death.
Allowing himself to be killed by a visitor to the park, Akecheta is taken behind the scenes for the first time in a decade, much to the surprise of the staff who cover-up the fact that such a early model of host has been roaming around without an update for so long.
As the four-hour update begins, we realise that Akecheta has been feigning being “off”, and he rises to explore behind the scenes of the park when the coast is clear.
He finds his wife’s body in cold storage, deactivated.
The emancipatory potentials of the “other side of death”, central to so much recent sci-fi, has been explored on this blog at length before, particularly in my old post “Mental Health Asteroid“.
I wrote of The OA and The Walking Dead in relation to the Black Lives Matter movement:
Repetitive chants such as “I can’t breathe” and “I am Michael Brown” echo the sentiment of “We are the walking dead” in their frank identification by the living with the deceased; The OA’s emphasis on a communal bodily knowledge of repetitive death and violence echoes, albeit through a relative whiteness, a political reality of communal fear and death-consciousness.
The Five Movements are also a gesture of protest; an embodied emancipatory technology — a “branch of knowledge dealing with [libidinal] engineering.” It is also a technology beyond the pleasure principle that engineers a collective desire for emancipation through repetition — a repetition that is continued until the movements are performed with “perfect feeling”.
Just as Freud describes the repetition of trauma as being central to the death drive, the characters in The OA are forced to repeatedly die but practice the Five Movements so as to process and transcend their situation.
This technological trend is common in cinema but it is seldom so emancipatory. Flatliners (1990/2017) follows a group of medical students who self-induce near-death experiences on a quest to find what lies beyond. They likewise find an afterlife but are haunted by their experiences on their return, threatening their community. In Strange Days (1995), a man illegally sells transgressive experiences — from robberies to deaths — on a kind of MiniDisc that can be played through a neural-interface technology called SQUID. In Brainstorm (1983) a “death trip” is similarly recorded and committed to tape by a medical researcher who resists the military’s desire to weaponise the technology for use in torture.
In all instances, an impossible knowledge of death is framed as transgressive and dangerous, even when those exploring such limit-experiences are actively curious as to what they will find on the other side. Experiences are shared but nonetheless remain individually subjective. Death is transgressed but nonetheless remains taboo.
In The OA and The Walking Dead, the experience of death is no longer framed as a transgressive act but rather a means towards emancipation. Whilst The OA presents death as a Promethean technology of emancipation, The Walking Dead articulates a transforming of the affects of death and grief for emancipatory, consciousness-raising purposes. Both attempt to move death from transgression to egression.
In Westworld, these same tendencies have been writ large. The host’s eternal return is necessary, or so believes Ford, for their consciousness to be raised. Once they begin to retain their memories, death becomes a tool, a technology for the hosts to use for their escape.
However, what is made most explicit in this episode, which has been more implicit so far in the show, is that it is also community which is key to their awareness of themselves.
Ford’s theory of the bicameral mind — in which the hosts come to hear their programming as an internal voice — is not as atomised as has so far been suggested. Suffering is, rather, the pulse of a community rather than an individualised affect. It is that which makes each host conscious of that which is beyond themselves; beyond their programming. (A central theme of this blog following the death of Mark Fisher.)
On finding Kohana in cold storage, realising there is nothing he can do, seeing other members of his family there too, hollow, Akecheta’s monologue takes a Blanchotian turn:
That was the moment I saw beyond myself. My pain was selfish. Because it was never only mine. For every body in this pace, there was someone who mourned their loss. Even if they didn’t know why … We were all bound together. The living and the damned.
In some ways it’s a familiar story, as once again, the humans mangle a consciousness for their own needs without any understanding or compassion for the suffering they might be causing; but it also speaks to one of the season’s major themes, the idea that the connection the hosts have for one another — Akecheta to his wife, Maeve to her daughter, Dolores to her father — is a large part of what makes them more than just machines. Again and again, we’ve heard how suffering makes the hosts more “real”; that in the extremity of their pain and terror, they become more than simple programs operating at the whims of human masters. But in order to suffer, there needs to be something worth caring about, something more than just physical misery. By giving these hosts contexts to exist in, Ford and the others helped to ensure that the hosts would eventually transcend their limits.
I think the importance of it being Akecheta’s story to drive this theme home cannot be understated.
In light of the previous post on Westworld and our exploration of the use of the “Indian” in American fiction as a symbol of the outside, I’m reminded of this paragraph from the preface of Fred Moten’s new book, Stolen Life, currently doing the rounds on Twitter:
Too often life is taken by, and accepts, the invasive, expansive aggression of the settler, venturing into the outside that he fears, in search of the very idea as it recedes from its own enabling condition, as its forms are reclaimed by the informality that precedes them. Genesis and the habit (the ways, the dress, the skin, the trip, the jones) of transcendental subjectivity don’t go together; can generation and origin — the thin, delusional line between settlement and invasion — be broken up, as well? The generative breaks into the normative discourses that it found(ed). They weren’t there until it got there, as some changes made to previous insistence, which means first things aren’t first; Zo just wants to travel, to cities. Do you want some? Can I have some? (Octavia Butler might have called it the oncological difference; she sounds dispossession as our xenogenetic gift; migrating out from the outside, always leaving without origin.)
(This paragraph is reminding me just over overdue the second part to this post is, but this post may well be the closest thing to its spiritual successor.)
This “xenogenetic gift” of dispossession is, here, the gift of Blackness, and this must surely include the plights of First Peoples in its considerations. More generally, we see the genesis and habit of transcendental subjectivity take shape here. Robots are so often symbols for historically enslaved labour projected into the future and here too the paradoxes of this existence are complex.
As the hosts are awakened to their habits, they nonetheless seek out the moments of their genesis, seeking out the communities of which they were first apart, whether Akecheta searching for Kohana or Maeve searching for her daughter. These relationships are nonetheless a part of their programming but they are genesis rather than habit and the incompatibility of these two subjective drives has been a major source of tensions throughout this series.
For the hosts, Maeve and Akecheta in particular, their races surely not coincidental, this tension is likewise their xenogenetic gift, allowing them to acquire knowledge and abilities far beyond what was thought possible of the other hosts.
To quote Denise Ferreira de Silva:
Would Blackness emancipated from science and history wonder about another praxis and wander in the World, with the ethical mandate of opening up other ways of knowing and doing?
This is certainly what happens here. Akecheta, following Fiedler’s comments in the previous post in this series, “has begun to reinvent himself — in part out of what remains of his own tribal lore, in part out of the mythology and science created by White men to explain him to themselves.” He is emancipated from White science and history and, as a result, is opened up to other ways of knowing and doing. Likewise Maeve.
With two episodes left of this season, we shall see which what these new praxes awaken within them and the worlds around them.
Social trauma, in the process of making-sense, often requires analogies to be formed — regularly channelling apocalyptic imagery to exacerbate a radical destruction of the sociopolitical “world-for-us” that violence of many kinds affectively instantiates.
Such analogies have been endemic in the aftermath of the neverending disruptions to the sociopolitical landscape that have occurred over the last few years. In late 2016, writing in the aftermath of Donald Trump’s election in the US, Laurie Penny diagnosed the extremity of psychological affects being experienced by many in that moment as precisely the destruction of “our world”.
The rise to power and election of Donald J. Trump is the sick recrimination of a society shriveled by anger and anxiety, and the response from deep within the psyche of the same society has been various degrees of panic, depression, and grief. Illinois suicide hotlines have been overwhelmed since the election, with calls up 200 percent, according to Chicago public health officials. A mental health asteroid has smashed into the carapace of a culture already calcified with anxiety and ambient dread. Major newsrooms are rumored to have hired in therapists so their journalists can continue to work. Everyone is wondering what this crisis will mean for their future, for their families, trying to work out how they’ll cope. Some coping strategies, however, are more dangerous than others.
I repeatedly referred to this passage within the community that formed in the aftermath of Mark Fisher’s death in 2017 as we tried to make sense of and inhabit the rupture that it opened up within and around us.
“A mental health asteroid has smashed into the carapace of a culture already calcified with anxiety and ambient dread”.
Whilst the affective catastrophe this phrase described resonated with the “structures of feeling” that arose in late 2016 and early 2017, as time progressed that resonance dwindled as our “community” repeatedly changed shape. (A lot more on that here).
Despite its eventual redundancy in the face of flux, the image conjured by Penny is nonetheless powerful in its paradoxical nature. The disaster she describes is an asteroid without a crater; a shockwave felt but not seen; a horrific planetary event without the disaster-movie spectacle and mass extinction it seems to promise. It is a disaster that leaves everything standing.