30 years ago today, history ended as Mikhail Gorbachev brought an official end to the Soviet Union.
Meanwhile, in Hull, I was born, and just like that, history started again. You’re welcome.
Originally tweeted by Matt Colquhoun (@xenogothic) on December 26, 2021.
Capitalist Realism and the Eviction of Culture: Notes from Ljubljana
I’d like to thank everyone who came out to Nova pošta last Thursday evening to my lecture on Mark Fisher’s Capitalist Realism, recently translated into Slovenian by Pika Golob and Nina Hlebec and edited by Gregor Moder. Maska, who have published the translation, are currently holding a reading group around the book as part of their fall seminar programme. (You can find more information about that here.)
I have wanted to visit Ljubljana for a few years now. I first became aware of the city’s scene after being invited to write for ŠUM#9 back in 2018. (An important essay for me, which I’m currently turning into a book.) Since then, I’ve also written texts for Radio Študent and, most recently, the Plaza Protocol project.
I had the absolute best time in Ljubljana, even though my stay was incredibly brief. In fact, it was briefer than was already anticipated. I had hoped to travel overnight, arrive at my hotel mid-afternoon, have a nap and then present and drink beer. In the end, my journey went something like this: I arrived at Manchester airport at 12am, since no trains ran early enough to catch my 6am flight and I didn’t want to drag my girlfriend out of bed at 3am to drop me off; I flew to Paris, but my flight was delayed in the air; having landed at Charles de Gaulle, I had to change terminals, and arrived ten minutes after my gate had closed for my connecting flight; from there, I panicked.
The first thing the Air France receptionist said was that the next flight wasn’t until the next day. I could have cried, honestly. I had been preparing for this lecture for weeks. In the end, they figured out a work-around that meant I could still get to Ljubljana by the evening. My only option was to wait in Paris for 4 hours, fly to Zurich, then from Zurich to Ljubljana, arriving at 18.50, ten minutes before my lecture was scheduled to start. It was either that or heading home. Thankfully, Maska delayed the start of the lecture by one hour. After landing, we headed straight to the venue, where I had a double espresso and a shower and jumped on stage a little dazed and with my hair still wet.
(All photos were taken by Amadeja Smrekar.)
Update: You can now watch the talk here.
I am a nervous traveller as it is, so I did not manage to sleep through any of this, but in the end, everything went relatively smoothly. I’d like to thank Aleš Mendiževec and Alja Lobnik for their amazing hospitality. I’d also like to thank everyone who attended, not only for being there but also for understanding that I was more than a little scatterbrained after twenty hours on the road. Thanks, too, to those who stayed to hang out afterwards and drink beer and Monster. Despite my journey, I still didn’t make it to my hotel until 2am, but this was very much by choice. You were all wonderful company and I only wish I could have stayed longer. If we met and spoke together, feel free to reach out by email or on social media. It would be great to stay connected.
Unfortunately, given my battered and bruised mental state, I was not wholly satisfied with the way my lecture went. I struggle to function mentally on such little sleep, and so, whilst my lecture was recorded, the idea of sharing my coffee-shot pauses and meandering train of over-tired thought makes me feel quite embarrassed. Though I think I expressed the core of my argument, and the discussions had afterwards were fruitful, I regret that I wasn’t able to perform to a certain standard as I would have liked, especially given all the effort of flying me out there.
What I’d like to do is share some of my talk below, folding in a few further reflections and additional points raised during my official Q&A with Aleš and the more informal conversations had with those in attendance afterwards. I hope the updated text is a testament to all that I learned and all that I found so interesting in finally getting to experience a snapshot of Ljubljana’s vibrant intellectual and cultural scene.
Until next time…
Is there (Still) No Alternative?
Capitalist Realism is, in essence, a book about stasis – not just as some naturally occurring point of equilibrium, where moving objects come to rest, but as a political choice and as an orchestrated illusion. Capitalism’s ideological consistency depends on its appearing to be the former when it is really the latter. That capitalism is realistic means that capitalism is common-sense, natural, and its reasons for existing are pre-established. Presented with the problem of how to organise a society, we’re told that capitalism just works, because it is, for better or worse, perfectly attuned to human nature. And yet, whilst capitalism makes the case for its own stability, it sacrifices the idea that improvements can still be made. In this sense, stasis becomes a byword for peace, but our current system affords little questioning of the kind of peace we have come to accept. In fact, it actively smothers any opportunity to think differently.
What we’re talking about here is ideology. But what’s interesting about “ideology” is that it is not a very stable concept; it has a complicated history, and its meaning has shifted repeatedly over the centuries. Ironically, considering how it is used today, “ideology” was first a liberal concept, coined after the French revolution by Antoine Destutt de Tracy to describe liberalism’s rational commitment to a “science of ideas”, which described a loaded framework quite similar to what we might now call the “marketplace of ideas” — a framework within which ideas can be debated and challenged without the underlying capitalist foundation itself coming under fire.
That we live in a “marketplace of ideas” today is part of the problem at hand. How can we hope to think outside of capitalism’s free market dynamics if any understanding of thought itself is restricted to those same dynamics? This critique of ideology is not new either, however. It wasn’t long before the word “ideology” became an insult used ironically to dismiss liberals who were high on their own reasoning in the late 18th century, and in the 19th century, Karl Marx appropriated it explicitly to refer to a narrative or set of ideas used by the bourgeoisie within a capitalist society to legitimise their own dominance.
Over the course of the 20th century, our understanding of “ideology” became more generalised and was given many more definitions along these lines, but it was always used to refer to liberalism’s hegemonic dominance with capitalist societies. Then, at some point, the concept was generalised even further. It has since become an insult detached from its initial critique, which is used to insult anyone with an identifiable set of political convictions. If the word is ever used by the mainstream media today, for example, it is often by newsreaders talking about the latest terrorist attack, where we’re told that some violent individual adheres to an extremist or far right or Islamist ideology. In these instances, to say something is ideological feels like another way of saying something is “pathological”. Ideology is detached from any social critique and repurposed by neoliberalism to mean any set of militant ideals whatsoever. But in transforming ideology into a kind of mental illness, something that is relevant to us all becomes something to deny outright. Liberalism, which coined the term to refer to itself, now defines as ideological anything that exists outside of its bounds. That “ideology” is used so ideologically cancels something out, and in the process, ideology seems to disappear altogether.
It was this disappearance of “ideology” as such that Fisher was interested in when he wrote Capitalist Realism. We might argue that his aim is to deconstruct capitalist ideology whilst, at the same, reconstructing political consciousness. In other words, his aim was not to deconstruct only to expand the void of centrist impotency, but produce a new critique through the reconstruction of our socio-cultural and political agency.
This is notable today because Fisher’s goal runs contrary to what most critics of critics of ideology now believe. He is not simply destroying the old worldview but actively trying to construct a new one, based on the material circumstances of the present. More often than not, leftists thinkers are denounced for doing the opposite. Jordan Peterson comes to mind as the most recent shill to denounce this kind of approach — primarily because Aleš had some funny stories about Peterson’s bizarre appraisal of Ljubljana’s “brutal(ist)” Soviet architecture (read: generic tower blocks) when he came to visit. He is the perfect example of an ideological critic (rather than critic of ideology) whose entire project depends on obscuring his political commitments behind superficial appeals to common sense and rationality, all while attacking the left as being wholly irrational in its war on facts.
In his best-selling book 12 Rules for Life, for example, Peterson equates postmodernism with “the long arm of Marx”, using it as a catch-all term for the dishonest persistence of leftist thought after its successive humiliations during the twentieth century. (In this sense, he is the quintessential capitalist realist.) Leftists display a contemptable arrogance in daring to parrot their theories down the years following the unearthing of Stalin’s gulags, he writes. Beneath the thin veneer of progressivism, what he calls “postmodern neomarxism” is a truly “nihilistic and destructive” philosophy that ignores history and the very processes of organisation that we now use to understand our world. In this sense, postmodern neomarxism “puts the act of categorization itself in doubt”, he continues. “It negates the idea that distinctions might be drawn between things for any reasons other than that of raw power.” Though a generic statement, seemingly applicable to the difference between apples and oranges, this comment can only really refer to social categories like class, race, etc. That these categorisations were created by market capitalism is irrelevant to Peterson. That they structure our reality is the primary reason they must not be trifled with. As such, the ongoing spread of leftism’s patho/ideology leads to the very seams of reality coming apart, which only exacerbates societal misfunction. But really all Peterson is complaining about is that leftists do not engage in the marketplace of ideas as they should, exchanging ideas with reason and civility within a pre-established framework that is less scientific than it is purely ideological.
This is tellingly what Slavoj Žižek is best known for writing about in his masterpiece, The Sublime Object of Ideology:
the social effectivity of the exchange process is a kind of reality which is possible only on condition that the individuals partaking in it are not aware of its proper logic; that is, a kind of reality whose very ontological consistency implies a certain non-knowledge of its participants — if we come to ‘know too much’, to pierce the true functioning of social reality, this reality would dissolve itself.
This is similarly the philosophical foundation of Fisher’s text. But rather than stop at the moment reality caves in on itself, Capitalist Realism describes the forms of life that lurks behind its false consistency, ready to be taken up and explored, if only we had the confidence to seize them.
Prior to my arrival in Ljubljana, Aleš and I discussed how best to approach and introduce Capitalist Realism in an explicitly Slovenian context. To talk about ideology here is to risk contributing to the flogging of a dead horse. Generally speaking, Aleš suggested that a Ljubljana audience was likely to be more familiar with Fisher’s theoretical reference points. As the home of Žižek and Mladen Dolar, the implicit influence of post-Lacanian psychoanalysis on Fisher’s mid-2000s thought is probably more apparent in Ljubljana than it would be to an English-speaking audience; the same may be true of the influence of Alain Badiou and Fredric Jameson. Though most of these figures are quoted in Fisher’s text — Žižek and Jameson in particular — an in-depth knowledge of their work is by no means necessary to understand it, but in extending Fisher’s work today, it is more common that academics will further engage with this background and make explicit what Fisher uses only implicitly.
With all this in mind, I decided to take a more counter-intuitive approach to Fisher’s text. If the philosophical background is more readily available, what is less discussed outside of the UK is surely the particular UK context Fisher was writing in and about. Indeed, Capitalist Realism is, more often than not, heralded as one of the great critical texts of the 2008 financial crash. Whilst this may be true for a global readership, in the UK the book has more often been read as a critique of the New Labour years in particular. The financial crash was the event that once again raised questions the Labour Party had buried a decade earlier.
These questions are important, but in uncovering their roots, former prime minister Tony Blair’s impact on UK politics in the 1990s is overlooked (internationally at least) in favour of Margaret Thatcher’s. This is understandable, since Capitalist Realism‘s subtitle explicitly turns Thatcher’s infamous slogan, “There is no alternative”, into a question. But Thatcher’s emphatic insistence that there is no alternative was in defiant response to many who claimed otherwise. She certainly oversaw the establishment of neoliberalism as a political norm in this country, but her time in office is also renowned for resistance and discontent. (Lest we forget the frequent rioting and the fact she was nearly assassinated in the Brighton bombing of 1984 by the IRA.) The banal horror of the New Labour years was that the very contentiousness of this slogan seemed to dissipate. Blair had no comparable resistance.
In this sense, Fisher’s reframing of this old Thatcherite slogan as a question does what the Labour party could not (or refused to do). Labour were the alternative, democratically speaking, but in the grand scheme of things, their differences were negligible. Following the fall of the Soviet Union, it seemed that, if communist and socialist ideals were dead abroad, there was no need to stay true to them at home either. And so, in amending Clause Four of the Labour Party’s constitution, Blair reneged on the party’s socialist principles and laid the foundations for two decades of centrist political dominance. He continued the Thatcherite advance of free market economics, whilst occasionally making a few reforms here and there. Though we can acknowledge that Blair’s Labour made some improvements to the lives of working people in Britain, these were capitalist reforms rather than steps towards socialist abolition. This only served to further entrenched the politics of neoliberalism and further concretised its ideological hegemony.
Fisher, a decade later, asks the question Blair ultimately refused to. Capitalist Realism was written at a time when Blairism was finally be coming to an end, and when capitalism’s (but also neoliberal centrism’s) ideological consistency was being called into question and a new era of protest and critique seemed to be on the horizon. At that time, it was anyone’s guess which way things would go, but by 2010 it was clear that, whilst the world had been changed by the financial crash, the ideology of capitalism held firm (or at least firm enough, in the popular imagination, that change was left off the agenda.) In 2010, the Conservative party re-entered Downing Street, in a coalition with the cowardly Liberal Democrats; it has remained there every since. As the politics of austerity spread around Europe, the same response was repeated ad nauseum: there is still no alternative. But this moment was significant in the UK — with the trebling of student tuition fees coming into force in 2012, the political consciousness of young people was energised in a way that Fisher had tried to encourage just a few years earlier. (I have written about this once before.)
The political landscape further changed for the better (and better late than never) when Jeremy Corbyn became leader of the opposition in the mid-2010s, encouraging a return (and update) of Labour’s erased socialist principles, but the brain rot of capitalist realism is still apparent today.
Over the decade since Capitalist Realism was published, we have been told repeatedly that we are living in times of unprecedented political antagonism and polarisation, but this polarisation is instead the rebirth of politics as such. The lie that we are all in the middle now — that we are all middle-class, centrist, reasonable and sensible liberals — has been demolished and political struggle (class struggle, even) is back on the agenda, but we still struggle to see our present circumstances beyond the lens of capitalist realism. Still, things are not as they once were. It is clear a new language and a new framework that reflects the realities of the twenty-first century is actively being developed and struggling to emerge. “Capitalist realism”, as one entry among a whole dictionary of Fisherian neologisms — including “business ontology”, “reflexive impotence” and “market Stalinism” — was a vital early contribution to this process of expanding the critique of ideology and making it wholly contemporary.
This is the UK context of Capitalist Realism. But explaining this to an audience in Slovenia, I wondered out loud how interesting this context was to the majority of attendees. It is a story about the end of history, yes — the end of an era where things “happened”; the stifling of events in favour of a totalising narrative — but these processes, and the flashpoints of change and potential that occur within them, are much more legible in other contexts. In fact, Slovenia is the perfect example. Whereas, in the UK, these changes were framed as relatively minor and progressive, following a path set out by our already well-established capitalist past, Slovenia’s transition out of its socialist period makes its attempts to conform to EU standards of capitalist neoliberalism far more explicit and politically legible. Whilst Tony Blair was rewriting the Labour Party’s constitution, Slovenia was rewriting its national constitution. The decisions made by our respective Nineties governments appear ideologically similar, but in Slovenia the stakes were clearly much higher and there was room for transitional and autonomous forms of resistance to keep existing, rather than be smothered under a tsunami of neoliberal reformism.
Consider Ljubljana’s protests of 2012-2013, for example. Whereas the rest of the world was protesting against a global capitalist totality — although Occupy was, by that time, starting to wane, with local interventions struggling to find purchase — Slovenia held its own government’s feet to the fire, criticising not just the totality but the presently corrupt formation that this relatively new parliament had settled into. In the UK today, accusations of parliamentary corruption are becoming more frequent, but they are always dismissed out of hand as hysterical hyperbole. Individuals shirk responsibility and rely on the consistency of the system behind them, as if this is how things have always been done. But with Slovenia’s government only a few decades old, there was less of an expansive ideological foundation to fall back on. This new political reality was the alternative to decades of socialist governance, but this meant that another way of doing things was still present in living memory. Though many may not have desired a return to the socialist period, that didn’t mean that this new capitalist reality was the last democratic decision they ever wanted to make. On the contrary, Slovenia remembers how to go about making change and bringing alternatives to the fore.
But Slovenian politics at that time seemed to follow a rhetorical process similar to that of governments elsewhere. Just as Britain rejected its socialist principles, in seeing its own (relatively) socialist principles fail to win elections, Blairism failed to understand that not all collectivist politics are essentially socialist. The communist or socialist policies of a given moment may explicitly appeal to certain ideals, but these ideals can hardly be contained by formal political principles when they in fact predate Marxism by centuries.
In researching Slovenia’s response to this same observation, I came across an interview with Vesna V. Godina, who summarises the context of the early 2010s protests as follows:
[T]his is a textbook example of the lack of any sense of what is acceptable for Slovenians in politics. We have a political elite that, in the name of ideology, opposed everything that the old political elite did. By doing so, it made it impossible for it to adopt those practices and behaviors that were, however, functional and socially productive in the previous system, not only for the people, but above all for the political elite. That you listen to people, that you take them into account, that they have channels of co-decision, that decisions, if at all possible, are made not by overvoting, but by consensus, and so on — these characteristics were not acceptable to the new political elite because they were socialist in their eyes. Which is not true. The story of collectivism as a socialist pattern is wrong. These patterns are pre-socialist, they come from the Slovene village community, from the tradition of direct democracy at village assemblies, where every villager had the right and even the duty to participate in decision-making. The principle of the permanent participation of all in decision-making comes from the village community, not from socialism.
The mistakes made by the new Slovenia’s parliament echoed those made by the British government during the same period. Not only was the Labour Party rejecting its internal socialist principles, but it was continuing to wage war on a rave culture that likewise encapsulated this sort of village excess, the carnivalesque, the pre-socialist expression of communal joy.
In this sense, what is even more striking about Godina’s argument is that it resembles so much of what Fisher explored over the course of his career. In his eclectic writings on the counter-culture, on post-punk, on the death of rave, etc., Fisher has always attempted to give new form to what is otherwise “unpresentable” — to quote Jean-François Lyotard — within the lingua franca of global capital. But what is spoken about in Slovenia with clarity and historical significance struggled to find purchase in the UK at that time. Though Capitalist Realism would grow into its clear global relevance, it is nonetheless true that Fisher wrote his book for a nation where these changes had passed most people by, and where other forms of politics had been successfully eradicated from the political imagination — especially among a new generation of the young (my generation, born in the late 80s and early 90s). In Slovenia, this was clearly not the case. Is it any wonder, then, that Fisher was so inspired by Žižek and his writings on ideology? In some ways, one could provocatively argue that Slovenia had more influence on Capitalist Realism than the book has had on Slovenia up to now.
Still, this is not to suggest that Slovenia does not need a book like Capitalist Realism. Rather, I am left curious as to what its new availability might contribute to a wider understanding of Fisher’s work and our enduring political problems in the 2020s. This is true of all recent Fisher translations. Prior to the event in Ljubljana, I’ve only spoken about Mark’s work outside of the UK once before, in Germany, where his biggest international fanbase has always been located. But since his death, many more translations have been produced. (I feel like I have inadvertently begun to collect them. At the launch of my book Egress in 2017, Tariq Goddard handed me the Korean translation of The Weird and the Eerie; more recently, I have contributed an introduction to the Spanish translation of the third K-Punk volume; and I have returned home from Slovenian with a copy of Kapitalistični Realizem, with editor Gregor leaving a lovely message of solidarity on the inside cover.) Opportunities for international solidarity are proliferating as his work finds new audiences around the world.
However, as wonderful as it is to share this passion for Mark’s work internationally, it is also quite funny to me. Mark is so often discussed — even dismissed by his critics — as a quintessentially British (and therefore parochial) writer. That he would be increasingly popular outside of this context, where lots of the material he draws on isn’t necessarily that widely available, is as surprising as it is a pleasant “fuck you” to those cynics who think his outlook is restrictive. (In fairness, a lot of Mark’s favourite cultural artefacts are just as difficult to obtain in the UK today.) But that’s not to say Fisher isn’t often parochial. I have always thought that his parochialism was one of his strengths. He had an exceptional ability to make the personal truly political. With this in mind, I think what people recognise in Mark’s work, which they may interpret as an Anglocentrism, is instead a commitment to making personal experience collectively relatable. He explores British culture because it’s what he knows, but in focusing on his own backyard, he also encourages each of us to further explore our own differences and particular experiences. This is not so that we might further champion ourselves as unique individuals, but in order to build what is truly needed but is, in fact, discouraged by capitalism more broadly, which is a solidarity without similarity. This makes him a champion of Situationist principles, we might argue. His work has always been psychogeographic in this sense, careening between the local and the global.
This is the productive tension that I think is still active within Capitalist Realism, even a decade later. I have already expressed elsewhere that I hope the translation of his work into Spanish will allow us to newly affirm and strengthen the intellectual bridges between our theorists, artists and political activists. I hope the same will be true of his appearance in Slovenian. With this in mind, the more interesting question for me isn’t so much how Capitalist Realism can inspire a new generation of Slovenians, but how explicitly Slovenian perspectives can be newly incorporated into our understanding of capitalist realism as a global crisis.
From here, it was my intention to segue into a discussion of Fisher’s cultural interests (and disinterests). I think that Mark’s key strength as a writer is that he uses British culture — particularly its music; surely one of the country’s most important exports — as a bridge between these local and global contexts. Focusing on culture in the 1990s especially helps us understand how certain political changes came to be accepted so easily. The entire problem of British centrism cannot simply be laid at the feet of Tony Blair, for example; the deeper problem was one of a tangential pop-cultural complicity.
That Fisher was deeply critical of popular culture at this time and in the 2000s was not a sign that he thought pop poisons young people’s minds, as if he was some old man yelling at clouds – which is nonetheless how he is sometimes portrayed. On the contrary, Fisher despaired that popular culture had apparently lost its connection to the underground. What he called a “popular modernism” had been vanquished; the underground’s impact on the overground was negligible. This isn’t to say that radical culture and politics disappeared, but it certainly didn’t occupy the same place in our popular consciousness as it had done when figures like John Lennon, for example, were driving a popular anti-war movement through pop music. Fisher preferred figures from his youth like Ian Curtis, Mark Stewart, Paul Weller, of course, but he would turn to the counterculture later in life nonetheless. Nevertheless, his best essay on this question — and on post-punk’s connection to popular culture — is undoubtedly “Going Overground”, an earlier version of which was published on his k-punk blog, with a refined version appearing in Post-Punk Then and Now.
This disconnection between underground and overground was epitomised by a Nineties establishment’s continuing war on rave culture. There was little popular resistance to this. Dance music still entered the charts, of course, and David Bowie famously tried to make pop music that was in tune with the jungle and drum’n’bass scene at that time; international figures like Björk also famously drew on that scene as well, but all ultimately failed to channel that energy in a way that connected with a broader cultural moment. The underground failed to dominate and shape the overground as it once had done. Instead, the pop positioning that working class artists had once fought for was taken as a given and made utterly apolitical.
For many, both at home and abroad, that Nineties era was pop-culturally defined by the rivalry between two British bands: Blur and Oasis. In many respects, these two bands were perfectly named: Oasis – referring to a fertile spot in a desert – embraced the illusion of prosperity that the void of New Labour centrism championed (often despite itself), whilst Blur – referring to something that cannot be seen clearly – spoke to the disorientating lack of distinction between different political realities under capitalism at the end of the twentieth century. But this is not to suggest that one band stood for complicity and the other critique – both were as impotent as each other, with their rivalry being reduced to music magazine fodder with no material stakes whatsoever outside of their own bank accounts. If anything, the dynamic was backwards. Epitomising England’s internal north-south divide, Oasis, as a working-class northern band, were somehow far more reactionary than Blur, a middle-class London band. With both sides being cheered on my politicians looking for some cultural credibility, the whole charade demonstrated how the entire landscape of political disagreement and cultural potential had been flattened, gathered up into the new apolitical centre, and made impotent. Whilst there was resistance to the application of this framework, at least outside of popular culture, it seemed impossible to argue for alternatives from within.
The shadow of this Nineties moment was long. Though dance music cultures continued to develop, albeit with strikingly less impact than they had once had on the overground – too afflicted by grief following the death of rave, according to some – popular culture in the 2000s was just terrible. With the Blur/Oasis war over, Fisher instead rallied against the Arctic Monkeys, who continued this newly impotence tradition to great commercial success. A similar cultural situation was unfolding in the US too, particularly following 9/11, when most experimental music sought a return to innocence, feeling a distinct nostalgia for the nation’s 19th century naivety and 20th century adolescence. In the UK, however, Blairite postmodernism led to a kind of cultural dementia, where society wasn’t so much driven by a traumatised nostalgia but seemed to forget what year it was altogether. The impact this had on politics was clear and depressing.
It was this failure of the cultural imagination that gave birth to Fisher’s writing on the idea that “the end of the world is easier to imagine than the end of capitalism” — a line he borrows from Fredric Jameson but then ultimately makes his own. The argument, succinctly put, is that our political imagination is now so misshapen by capitalist ideology that it is easier to imagine the end of life itself than it is to imagine other ways of living. Or, alternatively, the end of the world is the only way we can imagine doing things differently. Postcapitalism, then, is inherently postapocalyptic. Whether due to climate catastrophe or a zombie apocalypse, the end of capitalism is only imaginable alongside the destruction of state apparatuses and the advanced management systems that organise our daily lives today.
This places capitalist realism at the heart of what Jean-Francois Lyotard once called “the postmodern condition”, which again is an appeal to kind of stasis. Postmodernism, he argued, is the settling of modernism’s frenzy into a relatively stable configuration; “not modernism at its end but in the nascent state, and this state is constant.” This is to say that, under postmodernism, there are differences, there are alternatives, there are arguments for other worlds, but the problem is that these alternatives and arguments are themselves static. They are reified and fixed, like chess pieces with specific characteristics and moves, caught in an infinite stalemate. Things may violently vibrate, and some pieces might fall, but nothing ever really moves forwards. It is all captured within the marketplace of ideas. As Alain Badiou once argued, we are capable of destroying the old but incapable of generating the new. Caught in this state, the game doesn’t end. Postmodernism, then, is not a response to a contentious present, but the suspension of present contentions altogether.
For Lyotard, the implications of this are not simply cultural or political but broadly epistemological. In a postmodern world, any newly discovered form of knowledge or expression is immediately subordinated to a totalizing ideological “truth”. This is an unfortunate side-effect of society’s computerisation, he argues. Just as any new programme loaded onto a computer for the first time must nonetheless be rendered in a format that is legible to the operating system at large, so any new perspective on our world must be legible to a pre-existing hegemonic framework – even forms of knowledge that are principally opposed to that framework altogether. Postmodern critique was an attempt to break this framework. It was a kind of battle cry, signalling “a war on totality” that demands we bear witness, as previously mentioned, to “the unpresentable”.
This, too, is an argument that Fisher would update for the twenty-first century. Following Capitalist Realism, in books like Ghosts of my Life and The Weird and the Eerie, he repeatedly points to things which do not fit – either remnants of the twentieth century believed to be vanquished that nonetheless stagger on, or wholly new ideas or cultural artefacts that disturb, frighten or cause displeasure, simply because they do not fit into the rigid framework of capitalist stasis.
This argument finds its place in Capitalist Realism too. Fisher argues that whilst capitalism is everywhere, not everything is capitalist. As he later emphasised in Postcapitalist Desire, just because capitalism is fuelled by our desires does not mean that everything we desire is necessarily capitalist in nature. It is with great difficulty that we excavate these things from their capitalist encasement. But in attempting to do so regardless, we demand of ourselves a new conception of the world that is not impossibly non-capitalist but seductively post-capitalist. As Marx himself argued, we should not forsake wealth as such, but attempt to transform wealth beyond the bounds of capital’s value-structure. There is a wealth beyond capitalism. Once we learn to acknowledge that capitalism, in its present stasis, is not capable of providing us with the world we desire, then the future will truly return to us.
This was, in part, the importance of Fisher’s pop theoretical interventions. So many of those who dismiss him as unoriginal or basic miss the point that, before his book was published, these conversations seemed almost completely absent from popular culture. Fisher opened up a new door so that these older arguments could once again find contemporary relevance and also be given new forms in which to be expressed. However, Fisher’s own publication timeline does not help with this.
Whereas many assume that the thesis of Capitalist Realism is developed in Ghosts of my Life and The Weird and the Eerie, much of this material predates Capitalist Realism on Fisher’s k-punk blog, where his hauntological thought can be explicitly dated to 2004-2006. Though he remained interested in the spectres of the twentieth century that continue to linger over the twenty-first, Capitalist Realism was written at a time when Fisher was coming round to Alex Williams’ accelerationist critique of hauntology, which insists we do not start from our mourning of the past but with our present fury.
More contentiously, accelerationism argues that we do not start from our memory of past politics but for the truth of contemporary capitalism. Though often mistaken for capitalist complicity, this was similarly Jameson’s utopian argument, in which he argues that our desire does not conform to a capitalist pattern but extends capitalism into something beyond itself. It is in this sense that he argues in Postmodernism that
new political art (if it is indeed possible at all) will have to hold to the truth of postmodernism, that is to say, to its fundamental object — the world space of multinational capital — at the same time at which it achieves a breakthrough to some as yet unimaginable new mode of representing this last, in which we may again begin to grasp our positioning as individual and collective subjects and regain a capacity to act and struggle which is at present neutralized by our spatial as well as our social confusion.
Fisher intended for his own work to function as political art in this way. Though he may be more readily understood as a cultural critic rather than an artist in his own right, his mixes, radio shows and audio-essays reveal a man who was deeply committed to the idea that music and film (as well as their discussion) could give form to new worlds. Under the influence of Stuart Hall and Sadie Plant, he believed that cultural studies could itself be a form of cultural production. This point had never been more important than in the 2000s, when that once symbiotic relationship between postmodern culture and politics was awaiting a new Gramscian figure to challenge a waning hegemony. (For more on this, see my introduction to K-Punk, Vol. 3 and, to a lesser extent, yesterday’s post on the 2021 Met Gala.)
Flirting with the idea of seizing the mantle for himself — I’m told that Mark always wanted to be a pop star — he drew on the work of Jameson, Badiou, and Žižek in particular, but also on lessons learned from his time as a member of the Cybernetic Culture Research Unit. As a PhD student at the University of Warwick in the late Nineties and early 2000s, Fisher had contributed to a wealth of feverish texts that seemed to be written in collaboration with some sort of artificial intelligence. Constructing their own demonic mythology of forces, giving occulted new names to Spinozist entities of transcendental causality in the twenty-first century, the Ccru depicted a world in which the centrist dissolution of all difference was itself an apocalyptic moment. The birth of the internet was also the rebirth of history, and it was from this newly global platform that vibrant new mutant subjectivities might one day emerge.
Though he moved on from this stylised writing when penning Capitalist Realism, the output of the Ccru was still relevant to Fisher’s claim that “the end of the world is easier to imagine than the end of capitalism”. This phrase was taken from an article that Fredric Jameson wrote for the New Left Review in 2004 called “Future City”. The essay is primarily about the writing of Dutch architect Rem Koolhas. Jameson is struck by Koolhas’s use of a cyberpunk writing style, which he employs to describe postmodern architecture in a postmodern textual fever dream entitled “Junkspace”. [I am indebted to Nic Clear, who presented on Jameson and Koolhas in his exploration of Fisher’s first book at the conference “Capitalist Realism: 10 Years On”, held at the University of Huddersfield in February 2020.]
The essay could easily be a lost document unearthed from the Ccru’s archive. Whereas the Warwick cyberpunks wrote of the tyrannies of “meatspace”, Koolhas argues that the proliferation of “junkspace” in the contemporary urban environment similarly announces the victory of a “fuzzy empire of blur, [which] fuses high and low, public and private, straight and bent, bloated and starved to offer a seamless patchwork of the permanently disjointed.” For Jameson, though it seems to celebrate the most dystopic aspects of the cultural present, this kind of distasteful affirmationism might be the only form of cultural protest left. After all, it is the affirmation of an ending — indeed, the end of History as such. But to announce such an ending is, in itself, an act of historicization. In affirming these promiscuous contemporary stylings, borrowing from the entirely of history, as nonetheless being of a type and of a time, we compartmentalise them, giving them an inside and an outside, a beginning and an ending. We give them a sense of movement. It is, as Badiou once said, to promote “historicity without history”. (For more on Badiou’s reading of history, this article by Matthew McManus is worthwhile.) Indeed, if we are to speak of history at all, it is the end of History with a Capital H. Down with History, long live the new age of historicity — of events over narratives, of adaptive strategy over timeless ideology.
Discussing our sense that the end of the world is easier to imagine than the end of capitalism, Jameson affirms the end of world history in sense, as defined by capitalist forces. He writes:
I think it would be better to characterize all this in terms of History, a History that we cannot imagine except as ending, and whose future seems to be nothing but a monotonous repetition of what is already here. The problem is then how to locate radical difference; how to jumpstart the sense of history so that it begins again to transmit feeble signals of time, of otherness, of change, of Utopia. The problem to be solved is that of breaking out of the windless present of the postmodern back into real historical time, and a history made by human beings. I think this writing [– that is, the cyberpunk stylings of Koolhas and, by extension, the Ccru –] is a way of doing that or at least of trying to. Its science-fictionality derives from the secret method of this genre: which in the absence of a future focuses on a single baleful tendency, one that it expands and expands until the tendency itself becomes apocalyptic and explodes the world in which we are trapped into innumerable shards and atoms. The dystopian appearance is thus only the sharp edge inserted into the seamless Moebius strip of late capitalism, the punctum or perceptual obsession that sees one thread, any thread, through to its predictable end.
The key sentiment that I take from Jameson’s text here, is this “single baleful tendency [that] expands and expands”. This is key to a lot of Jameson’s work. His utopianism is never a sort of breaking through to a transcendental outside, but rather points of intensity expanding like a shockwave and enveloping all that is around them. This is important to note because, too often, a desire for the new gets stuck down the cul-de-sac of an absolute new. Some people think that, if the idea that is going to save the world isn’t completely never-heard-before brand-spanking new, it’s not going to work. But really, we should think more closely about those moments when an idea gets a little bit bigger or more intense or a tendency accelerates or gets louder, moving into a new area of possibility.
If this was Fisher’s implicit argument in 2009, on the topic of a postcapitalist thought that he would continue to develop for the rest of his life, it is no less relevant to 2021, especially in the UK.
Days before I flew out to Ljubljana, there was a predictable outcry from the nation’s TERFs after Judith Butler was interviewed in the US edition of the Guardian newspaper. At the time of writing, three paragraphs from the interview have been removed in which Butler rightly points out that anti-trans activists frequently align themselves with the far right, despite paying lip service to feminism’s apparently innately left-wing ideals. But the problem, perhaps, is that many contemporary feminists have ultimately failed to remain contemporaneous, to remain modern, to expand their social injunctions in line with the expanding field of the social around them.
Butler highlights this explicitly in her opening remarks. The interviewer, Jules Gleeson, says: “It’s been 31 years since the release of Gender Trouble. What were you aiming to achieve with the book?” Butler responds:
It was meant to be a critique of heterosexual assumptions within feminism, but it turned out to be more about gender categories. For instance, what it means to be a woman does not remain the same from decade to decade. The category of woman can and does change, and we need it to be that way. Politically, securing greater freedoms for women requires that we rethink the category of “women” to include those new possibilities. The historical meaning of gender can change as its norms are re-enacted, refused or recreated.
So we should not be surprised or opposed when the category of women expands to include trans women. And since we are also in the business of imagining alternate futures of masculinity, we should be prepared and even joyous to see what trans men are doing with the category of “men”.
What Butler is challenging here, if you ask me, is a stubborn form of gender realism. And her definition of resistance to this realism is really useful. The same can apply to capitalist realism, wherein categories of class, labour and value similarly change decade to decade. Indeed, it is imperative to capitalism realism to essentialise and maintain a false stability of conceptions of the world and of the self. It is with this in mind that I think the key point of Butler’s, which bears repeating, is that, “Politically, securing greater freedoms … requires that we rethink [all political categories] to include those new possibilities.” But as we can also see, new essentialisms and reductive categories emerge or are emboldened to smother those new potentials in turn. What I especially like about Butler’s conception of TERF resistance is that her idea of the future isn’t simply speculative — albeit not in the popular sense of that word that we’ve come know. Speculation often sounds too much like guess work, like uncertain predictions without grounding, but in speaking to expansive categories that are able to incorporate new possibilities, she appeals to the speculative as a process, like that found in the philosophy of Alfred Whitehead.
Whitehead has this great lecture, in his book Process & Reality, where he distinguishes between facts and forms. We think of facts as things that are true and which simply don’t change, but the forms we use to present facts actually change all the time, and must. That’s what Fisher was especially good at — providing new forms for the facts that capitalist realism struggles to present. When people see Capitalist Realism as a basic book or an unoriginal book, especially ten years on from its initial release — something common among jaded young people who’ve read a little Marx or some Adorno — they take for granted Fisher’s ability to present familiar arguments in wholly new terms that could only take such forms in his present. But we’re not living in Fisher’s present any longer. It is still with a great sadness that I remember he’s no longer with us. But we continue to appeal to our present without him.
On the plane over to Ljubljana, I was reading Arthur Rimbaud’s A Season in Hell. (I’ve been quite interested in his life and work recently.) One of his closing ripostes to the reader is affirmed by Fisher better than anyone:
One must be absolutely modern.
The scene in Ljubljana is enthralling and deeply exciting to me, if only because it understands this sentiment well. In fact, I’d argue it manages to be absolutely modern in a way that London (and the UK more generally) often struggles with.
Though it is nonetheless immersed in its own history, as all capital cities surely are, I’ve never felt more in tune with the rhythms of the present (at least since this pandemic started) than when driving back from and to Ljubljana’s Brnik airport, awestruck by the Julian Alps, nodding along to the Slovenian trap being played on Radio Študent.
Since leaving London this time last year, I’ve tried repeatedly (but not always successfully) to embrace my new natural surroundings in West Yorkshire and spend as much time in them as possible. Every time I’m out for a walk, I think about W.H. Auden’s anti-industrial (if also anti-accelerationist) volley from “Bucolics II”:
This great society is going smash;
They cannot fool us with how fast they go.
How much they cost each other and the gods.
A culture is no better than its woods.
In West Yorkshire, the impact of the industrial revolution is still readily apparent. In the Calder valley especially, still peppered with the ruins of old mills and chimneys, there are woods of stunted trees. The heavy smog of the industrial era created twisted branches and witches’ covens, as if nature is no longer reaching up but reaching out, horizontally, skulking underneath polluted clouds, looking to throttle whoever is suffocating the land. If a culture is no better than its woods, then England’s is clearly stunted too. There are signs of recovery, in music especially, but on the whole our cultural industries struggle to thrive under the mire of capitalist realism.
Maybe I’m a little cynical. I’m not well-travelled. Holidays for me as a kid meant driving back and forth to our closest continental neighbour, France, every year. Suffice it to say, I am easily impressed, but I have never seen trees or mountains as tall as those in Slovenia last week. Slovenia may be a tiny country, only slightly bigger than Yorkshire, but it felt so much more expansive in its goals and ideals than our repressed little island.
I think Aleš was surprised by just how impressed I was as he showed me around the Metelkova area surrounding Maska’s offices. Alja mentioned how, after the Slovene Spring, the new nations’ cultural industries were a real frontier, occupying old socialist military infrastructure and refusing to give it back, providing the capital’s rich intellectual and artistic scene an array of spaces in which to produce culture and critique. Some cultural NGOs still occupy these buildings relatively rent-free, including Maska itself. Compared to the near-impossibility of acquiring and retaining cultural space here in the UK, it seemed like a paradise, but it is a paradise still under threat.
Maska’s newest journal issue, kindly gifted to me on arrival, is entitled “Eviction of Culture”. Pia Brezavšček and Rok Bozovičar explain the organisation’s current crisis in their editorial introduction:
After nearly 24 years of being based at Metelkova 6, Maska Institute received a letter from the Ministry of Culture asking it to provide signed consent to move out. The same letter was sent to seventeen other civil-society and cultural non-governmental organisations working in the spaces of former military barracks, which separates the Autonomous Zone Metelkova from the museum square and facilities belonging to the administration of the Ministry of Culture. Some of these organisations have been using the building since 1994, when it became the property of the Ministry of Culture as a space intended for housing independent and alternative cultural and civil-society initiatives. As a whole, they constitute the largest independent production house in Slovenia, which is why the real reason for ordering this eviction is not that the building is dilapidated, even though it quite evidently is. Instead, the obstinate attempt to throw out M6 is primarily a symbol of the ruling political option’s attitude towards spaces of critical thought and art, a segment of hard-earned places of freedom which are being erased for no other reason than resentment.
Capitalist realism is alive and well in crises like these. Though we think of it as a situation, or an era, it remains an active process whereby ways of being, living, and doing are perpetually restricted to bureaucratic forms. But when you give an inch to bureaucracy, bureaucracy takes a mile. I mentioned repeatedly to Aleš that spaces like Metelkova simply don’t exist in the UK anymore. Though their offices reminded me distinctly of Cardiff’s Chapter Arts centre, which occupied an old school building in the Welsh capital — school / barracks, same difference — such spaces are utterly commercialised today by necessity. Either culture is evicted, or it invites capitalist realism in. For many in government, there remains no alternative.
But still, the scene in Ljubljana is vibrant and expansive, in some ways that put a city like London (never mind elsewhere in the UK) to shame. it is inspiring to see them still fight for principles that many UK arts organisations lost long ago. That there are new collectives emerging who cannot be met on old battle lines is also intriguing. I look forward to returning to Ljubljana in the future and understanding better how their cultural spheres operate and work together. There is much to be learned from them.
It’s been a long time since I’ve really thought about 9/11, but it still doesn’t feel like it was twenty years ago. That’s a very strange feeling — not only because it makes me feel old but also because 9/11 wasn’t a day but a decade (or maybe longer).
I initially had no desire, as the anniversary approached, to watch any of the dozen new documentaries that seem to have been produced to commemorate it. For a day remembered so vividly by all — even as a nine-year-old, as I was at the time, it left a massive impact on my teens and I remember consuming almost all media about that day over the years that followed — it felt like it was finally starting to fade from view. Those images have become less ubiquitous. Though the impact is still felt, it is more sublated than searing on the surface.
But on September 8th, I gave in. I put on the Netflix documentary series Turning Point. The first 15 minutes or so gather together the clearest footage to emerge of both planes hitting the towers over the two decades since. This footage had become just unfamiliar enough that it shocked me again, and I suddenly remembered that feeling of seeing it for the first time, on the TV on a Tuesday afternoon after school in 2002. It’s made this 20-year anniversary feel oddly profound. I’m really thinking a lot about that day again, in a way I haven’t for many, many years.
Anyway, as a result, I’ve also been thinking about that event’s implicit impact on music again — underdeveloped thesis I’ve mentioned a few times: 00s freak folk and the resurgent popularity of musical “naivety” was indie America’s traumatised return to innocence / adolescence.
For a long time, William Basinski felt like the artist of the 9/11 era. The strange mythology surrounding the Disintegration Tapes was known by friends who weren’t even into music. But today the Caretaker feels much more well-known for his deteriorating sound than Basinski does.
Though a certain style of music is hardly a stable point of connection between these two artists who seem to have very different theoretical conceptions of their practices, I do wonder if one naturally follows from the other.
The pre-9/11 world Basinski seems to mourn is measurable in material ways, just like his tape loops themselves. But the “forgetting” or normalising of 9/11 — its gradual fading from view at the rear mirror of our collective consciousness — is much harder to quantify. But such is the feeling of listening to a Caretaker album.
There’s more to say on this, but maybe another time. Since today is the anniversary, I’ll just leave this here:
Basinski: disintegration of the actual
Caretaker: disintegration of the virtual
Originally tweeted by Matt Colquhoun (@xenogothic) on August 30, 2021.
CW: I want to talk about gender, specifically my gender and my feelings around it. I want to try and put into words a feeling that I’ve long denounced and tried to hide, but that feeling doesn’t really have a name for me. Not yet. I suspect it never will. My life has been defined, from without as much as from within, by a sense of indeterminacy. It’s never comfortably fit any label applied to it from the outside, and I’ve been denied any opportunity to define things on my own terms. I’ve tried to counter both of these things in all sorts of way. From now on, I’d like to affirm it.
I’m not sure what the best way to do that is. For now, I’d just like to tell you a story. Let it be known that this story features explicit references to sex, abuse, sexual abuse, eating disorders, body dysmorphia, mental ill-health, and various other things. Accordingly, this might not be a story that everyone wants to read or enjoys reading, and that’s okay.
When I was a teenager, I faced daily homophobic abuse. Beginning at the end of primary school and continuing until my second year at university, not a day went by without incident. It was at its worst during secondary school. I’d get tripped up and punched in the stomach by passing assailants as I walked between classes. Left to wheeze on the floor, kids laughed at me, like I got what I deserved. I had rocks thrown at me, and was once sent home with a concussion after being clipped hard by a projectile at the base of my skull. Cars driven by older kids used to play chicken with me, swerving at the last moment, as I walked home from school along country roads. One time a big group of kids congregated outside my house and threw snowballs at my window, just to intimidate me as I sat in my room, which I rarely left. As I got older, it only got worse. Some of the boys used to shove their hands down my pants, trying to feel me up and penetrate me in the middle of woodworking class, or jab through my trousers with cold soldering irons, just to see if I “liked” it. Most days someone called me a “faggot”.
I would try and tell my parents I didn’t know why these things kept happening to me, on the days I came home and could not hide my feelings, but even they’d started asking if I was gay. My mum would make statements out of the blue like, “it’d be okay if you were gay, you know”. Once she said this in earshot of my dad, who said he’d kick me out the house if it were true. I confronted him about this years later and he claimed he was joking. It didn’t feel like it at that time, but I could sense the shame in his voice, knowing he had said the worst thing he could have said. I love my dad very much, and forgave him for this long ago, but it is nonetheless part of a pattern of responses and interjections that I sadly became all too used to. My sexuality was a source of speculation for my family and friends as much as it was for people I couldn’t have cared less about.
What was most baffling to me was that I had never actually questioned my sexuality. In fact, I’d had a pretty healthy string of girlfriends — certainly more than most boys my age. I was a confident explorer of my own desires, for a time. When I look back on my childhood and my teenage years, I feel like I was always “seeing” someone. But it didn’t matter. It was like everyone else saw something in me that I didn’t see, like I had a sign stuck on my back that I wasn’t aware of that said “future gay”. It warped my brain. Shame took over, and I began to wonder if everyone knew something I didn’t.
It wasn’t because I was somehow weak and easy to pick on. Though perhaps seen as “effeminate” against the social standards of the time, I was otherwise tall, broad-shouldered, and stocky. On multiple occasions, I was scouted by rugby coaches who didn’t know any better, seeing me as a potential hooker based on nothing more than my square frame. Unfortunately, there was nothing I hated more than rugby. I actually loved to figure skate — something I’ve written about previously. I didn’t tell many people about this, of course. I knew it wouldn’t help me. But it didn’t matter anyway. I was deemed too big for that sport by the girls I used to train with. I was made to feel so unwelcome that I dropped out just before I mastered my toe loop jumps.
If I’d put my mind to it, I could have probably played rugby and enjoyed it. It wasn’t the game I hated but the people I had to play it with. I hated team sports in general, precisely because they brought out the most pathetic displays of masculinity in my peers. It wasn’t long before the irony dawned on me. For someone who supposedly “liked” men, I couldn’t have wanted anything less to do with them. I had no drive to compete with them, which seemed to be all they really cared about. It was probably my utter rejection of their values that made me gay in their eyes. But that hatred pooled with my own adolescent hormones all the same. The rugby scouts planted an idea in my head. I began to wonder if learning to throw my weight around might help my cause.
I starting taking Judo classes, and I hated them too, but I got more confidence about fighting off the abuse. Soon enough, if someone came at me, I started giving back as good as I got. I punched a kid in the face who, unprovoked, tried to pour a drink over me on the bus. I hit him so hard that I nearly broke my hand. I hit someone else on the bus with my boot bag who made fun of my voice, studs clapping the top of his head. He didn’t see it coming and the outburst was effective. Admittedly, these were not techniques taught to me by my sensei. Regardless, fighting didn’t solve anything. The bully I punched back had multiple older and much bigger brothers who could come to his defense. I learnt the hard way that, just because they started it, it didn’t meant I could finish it. I quit Judo, succumbing to the knowledge that there was always someone else to kick me back down.
Over time, I became further alienated from people. I just wanted to be left alone. I struggled to make new friends or really connect with anyone, always feeling slightly on the outside of whatever was going on. I was depressed and looking for an outlet. Ironically, all the abuse had been counterproductive. It did more to make me experiment sexually than any desire I felt on my own accord. I didn’t know how I felt anymore. I’d been told who I was for so long, I just accepted it, passively. I’d been shoved in the closet so many times, I just decided to make myself at home there. I let myself be led by older and more openly curious boys. I didn’t like any of it, and found the feeling of adolescent stubble on my face distinctly nauseating, but I felt so alienated from myself that I couldn’t say for certain what I wanted anymore. I grew anxious about any expression of sexuality whatsoever. In the end, I even found heterosexual expressions of intimacy difficult. I repressed everything. No matter who I was with, I felt paranoid. I was constantly second-guessing my own feelings, as well as others’ feelings about me.
After a while, it became a case of “if you can’t beat them, join them”.
When I was 16 or 17, I fell in love with my best friend. On the day I intended to ask her out, she told me she was gay and had started seeing someone. I was heartbroken but we stayed very close. This led to a whole new adventure for me. The secret friendship group she’d slowly been gathering around her became my secret friendship group too.
I was quickly introduced to Hull’s “gay scene”, my first memory of which was a night at Fuel, the main LGBT club in town. I went with my best friend and her new girlfriend, with a few others in tow. I didn’t know anyone yet and, at one point, I ended up on my own, hovering by the entrance to the bathrooms. The girls had gone in together, and later admitted they ended up having sex in there for a while. I stood waiting for them, not knowing what to do with myself, feeling a new kind of alienation. It was truly the worst time I ever had third-wheeling. But it wasn’t long before a group of queens gathered around me, towering in their platform boots and killer heels, all wearing the most magnificent drag. Larger than life, but immediately warm and friendly, they asked if I was okay, what my name was, what I was doing there. They asked if I was gay, straight, or bi. I reluctantly said I was straight, half-expecting them to leave when I made my confession, like I was an imposter who wasn’t worth their time. They didn’t care. They welcomed me into their fold for the night. I felt at home immediately. I’ve never felt more at home anywhere in my life.
I think we all felt like this, as young teens getting to know the Hull scene. We felt like bohemians on the edge of the world. With the Humber Bridge looming over town, we affirmed our city as the “San Francisco of the North”. Sod Manchester. Sod Canal Street. Theirs was a west coast arrogance to our east coast autonomy. Here was an “unfenced existence: facing the sun, untalkative, out of reach.” In typical Hull fashion, we saw ourselves as a movement unto ourselves. This, in turn, gave us a sense of confidence and defiance that positively affected everyone who was part of our group. We felt otherworldly, like we saw a bigger picture, if only because our limited numbers meant we were far more likely to befriend kids from other schools, or hang out with folk much older than we were. Whilst everyone else stayed in their school-day bubbles, we embraced the fact that there was a world waiting for us beyond the school gates that was far more accepting of who we happened to be. Eventually, this attitude permeated the atmosphere within school as well. As people became more out and proud, our diverse friendship group cross-pollinated with the groups we kept up at school. People gradually became more tolerant, and it was a really beautiful time in my life.
But the boys were still the same confused bunch. They continued to bully. What’s funny, actually, is that the nature of the bullying changed. Those same young men started acting more jealous than disparaging, fundamentally misunderstanding what it meant to have a close-knit group of girlfriends who were all gay. They were cynical but also oddly intimidated, as if they assumed I somehow had a front row seat to all of the sex these mysterious women were having, and they wanted nothing more than to be in my shoes. It was a classic teenage boy-fantasy that could not have been further from the truth. We all found it hilarious, and even played up to it, sharing photographs of everyone kissing each other on social media. In truth, I was content in friendships where desire was off the table. These gay women were in on the joke, and I felt safe there. There was trust, precisely because there was no teenage “will they, won’t they”. No judgement. No pressure.
This suited me more than the boys’ obsession with chasing tail. Behind the racy pictures taken in gay bars on a Saturday afternoon, the thought of sex still stressed me out. For a time, I even struggled to hold a girl’s hand with any sincerity. I felt pathetic, and I blamed those boys for it. They had triggered an abject repression in me, at the exact moment I finally felt free to do anything.
Admittedly, as I got older, things could occasionally get complicated. I came out of my shell but in an increasingly confusing environment. I had a couple of relationships with gay women that were experimental for the both of us, and they always ended in complicated tears. But I think whenever any intimacy did arise, it was because there was a shared sense of gender identity that resonated between us, rather than any sexual desire. I felt at home among these women who were far more comfortable identifying as femme or butch or something in between. But it was only the lesbians in my friendship group who understood that their own sense of femininity was a spectrum. I never gained any sense of this from the men I knew. Gay or straight, none of them were quite so understanding of different gender identities. (In fact, my experiences with gay men were as negative as those with straight men. The majority I met at that time, who still saw me as an unknown or indeterminate sexual quandary, were quite predatory. It was just one more reason to stay away from men altogether.)
I lost that friendship group when I went to university. It was oddly traumatic. I suddenly felt detached from these roots that I’d put down. I still seemed to gravitate towards lesbians — it is a running joke at this point that I always end up befriending gay women — but I never again felt immersed in a scene. In fact, my first girlfriend at university was a twin, whose sister came with her to study on the same course. Her sister was also gay, and had met her girlfriend at university as well. We all embarked on our first sexual relationships together and hung out all the time. In truth, the relationship was terrible and was never going to last. When it ended, I remember feeling like I missed my friendship with her sister more than our relationship. She was the last connection I felt I had to a transitory home. After that, I never felt like a member of a scene again. I felt more like a tourist.
I felt myself falling out of that sense of belonging in other ways too. Though the assumption that I was gay haunted me throughout my time at university, it started to dissipate as my body changed and I reached the end of puberty. Specifically, by the time I was 22, I was capable of growing facial hair. On the day it felt full enough to be an official “beard”, rather than a collection of prickly smudges, I noticed something happen. The abuse stopped. I rarely heard the word “faggot” anymore. I rarely heard second-hand whispers about my personal life.
It was around this time that I started a relationship that has continued to this day. There’s certainly nothing like a decade-long relationship with a woman to socially cement a newly perceived heterosexuality. But relationships had never stopped the rumours before. It was always a case of “yeah, he’s just not accepted himself yet”. But what’s more, the abuse even stopped from strangers and passersby. The assumptions and the constant prying from people I didn’t know ceased so abruptly that it left me dazed. To be honest, I liked it. I leaned into it. I put on weight and I started wearing more black. I embraced my inner goth for the first time to try and look more “masculine” and scary. Whereas the emo and scene kids I knew growing up were among those most comfortable with “non-binary gender identities” (though we didn’t possess that sort of language yet), goth felt harder and less flexible. It was to have one foot in with the scene kids but one foot in something else. The reason for this was simple: I didn’t want to invite discussion; for the first time in my life, I wanted to intimidate.
This makes me laugh, in hindsight. I was suddenly deemed to have reached a certain recognisable standard of masculinity and all I’d done, in my eyes, was let myself go. The state of men…
For a few years, this was all fine by me. It was nice to have a break from it all. It was nice to “pass”. But I didn’t feel like myself. My weight began to yoyo, and I began a struggle with bulimia, feeling torn about a body image that was increasingly “masculine” and all the more alien to me as a result. I grew my hair out but, even at my skinniest, I just looked like Jon Snow. A visible northern masculinity, which encased an increasingly invisible femininity, became an albatross around my neck. Outwardly, I displayed a certain pride in it as my mental health nonetheless deteriorated.
Things came full circle when I moved to London, aged 26. I was suddenly treated with another kind of suspicion. I started to naturally make friends with queer people from all sorts of backgrounds, but I found they were cynical about me in a way I wasn’t used to. My friends were, for the most part, younger than I was. They were experimenting in a way I wanted to but had a way of thinking and speaking about their own experiences that I’d never really acquired, and my attempts to do so were perhaps seen as appropriative rather than attempts to update my capacity for self-expression. With many having lived in London for some time already, they had been initiated into its queer spaces and they were understandably protective over them. I expected to be there for just one year, and so didn’t make too much of an effort to put down roots. (When I left London, four years later, I regretted this deeply.)
Although I never really spoke about my sexual preferences or my internal feelings in public, now that I at least looked the part — whatever that means — I felt even more distant from a certain sense of community that I’d once taken for granted. The assumption that I was questioning or undecided went away, and with that went a part of myself I didn’t realise I was quite so attached to. I understood why, of course, and so I didn’t push back against it. Still, I felt shunned. Despite spending the entirety of my formative teenage years feeling at home in queer spaces, I began to feel like another kind of outsider. The mask I’d put on, the outfit I’d chosen, the depression I’d embraced, all in a subconscious attempt to shield myself from further abuse, made me look like the sort of person I’d once have run a mile from. It came as no surprise that queer friends now looked on me with suspicion. Whereas I’d once been a mystery to straight friends, I had become a mystery to queer friends also. Caught in the middle, my body dysmorphia intensified.
I felt I had been turned into a social weathervane, all too eager to please, facing whichever way the assuming winds blew me. When I wasn’t straight enough, I found a home in queer spaces, but once I was no longer deemed queer enough, I accepted my fate as another kind of outcast. It has made me incredibly unhappy, all because I never considered the possibility to staking a claim — that is, until I felt like I had lost any claim to stake. I realised that my identity had been a concern for other people for so long that I’d relinquished all ownership of it. When the ball was suddenly in my court, I just looked at it, puzzled. I didn’t know what I was supposed to do with it. I arrived in London feeling like a blank slate, but rather than chalk up a sense of who I wanted to be, I fell into a mould constructed for me by others. I became whatever people thought I was, until I had no sense of myself anymore.
Over the years since, I’ve begun to understand that, if I want to affirm those experiences in my life, I need to start talking about them. My silence and my sense of detachment constitute a self-fulfilling prophecy. If I don’t shape those experiences into statements about myself and my experiences, claiming that subculture as my own, as the place where I once felt most at home and where I once felt like I belonged, then of course I will have no place within them. But given the assumptions made about me in the present, I started to feel like this would be too little too late. I have been an ally, a defender of queer subjectivities — vocally so on this blog over the years — but nothing more. I have stayed abreast of conversations around queer culture and politics, watching as the conversation changes around me, denying myself the opportunity to participate, seeing myself as a victim, lost to another time before the language of the present made affirmation and self-acceptance so wonderfully possible. As such, I have persistently denied myself a voice in the now.
More recently, I’ve started wondering: Do things have to stay this way?
I must admit that a major catalyst for finishing this post/statement/story, which has been percolating in my drafts for some years in various forms, has been reading Adam Zmith’s forthcoming book Deep Sniff for Repeater Books. A magnificent history of queer futurities, constructed around those shapeshifting substances, the alkyl nitrites, Zmith’s recurring use of the term QUILTBAG, which I’d never heard before, brought up all kinds of emotions and memories for me.
Having consumed all sort of queer culture over the years, I’d always found echoes of my own experiences in these many representations of queer life but I had never read something that I felt carved out a place for me. Zmith’s book changed that, with the simple fact that he included those who are “questioning” in his queer taxonomy. “Questioning” was once a cage I felt forced into, then later forced out of. Though a source of trauma, it still felt like a home, and my relationship to that questioning self has never been resolved, nor has it had the opportunity to resolve itself. To be indirectly given permission to reaffirm my identity as “questioning”, of my gender if not my sexuality, has made Zmith’s book the most affirmative thing I’ve read in years. I saw a lot of myself in it, if not as a gay man, then at least as a once proud member of the QUILTBAG.
That being said, things are hardly any less complex than they once were when I was a teenager. Whilst vocabularies have changed and confidence has grown, who can claim ownership of certain words remains a hugely contentious topic. Alex V Green’s recent essay for The Outline on the word “queer”, for instance, is both a comforting read and an encapsulation of all the anxieties I have about publishing this essay.
Green begins with a summary of the 90s discourse around the word “normal” — “who that category contains, who it excludes, and the kind of coercive mechanisms that make such a category possible.” I remember feeling the legacy of these discussions in the 2000s; it is far easier to position yourself outside of something like “normality” than it is to position yourself inside of something else. The choice had already been made for me that I was not “normal”, but now the discussion has been inverted. I reckon I’m still as “not-normal” as I’ve ever been, but does that make me “queer”?
Truth be told, I feel no more comfortable with labels now than I did when I was a teenager. I’ve abstained from making any claims one way or another because I have never felt ready to say, definitively, what I am. But maybe I don’t have to decide before carving out a space for myself. Maybe this long-held feeling of in-betweenness is valid in itself. I did once experiment with this in private. Around 2014, I began identifying as “queer” or “genderqueer” — at least to my girlfriend. I had read John Stoltenberg’s book Refusing to be a Man, which she had acquired from a charity shop or maybe from a friend, and on completing it I like it had given form, for the first time, to some sort of deep truth newly legible to me. I remember that, after reading it, I tried to explain how revelatory it had been for me. I told her I had always felt “genderqueer”, or that I was at least “politically genderqueer”, whatever that means. I think this was my way of saying, please, don’t worry, I love you, please stop worrying about whether what everyone used to say is going to come true one day, I love you and I’m not going to leave you, but that doesn’t mean there can’t be a space for queerness in my life and in my politics.
I first spoke to my partner about this when she was invited to write an essay for a blog many years ago, about when she first came to self-identify as a feminist, at a time when it was an oddly taboo word in popular discourses. (Seriously, it blows my mind how much has changed, in terms of our popular political language, in the first few decades of this strange century.) We talked about it and wrote up our stories together — with hers being the only one to be submitted, of course. So that she could more comfortably share an intimate journey with the world at large, we first exchanged intimate experiences with each other at home. It felt like a bonding moment, sharing our own perspectives on something that was important to us both, albeit for different reasons, bouncing off each other’s experiences so that we could better clarify our own.
I wrote about how my sense of feminism wasn’t taught to me by women in any generic sense. I didn’t feel like the sort of cliched man whose life had been shaped by strong women; the only female role model I had was my mother and we didn’t get on at all. My feminism was, instead, always queer and trans, informed by my peers, whose politics and personalities aligned far better with who I felt I was. Not as a “woman” in a patriarchal world, but as something else in another kind of space. This is to say that the feminism I grew up on wasn’t about making it in a man’s world, as was the proto-girlboss vibe of the 1990s and 2000s. It was about being cast out from under the masculine order of things, and finding power in that outsideness. It wasn’t striving against patriarchy so much as it was recognising and affirming that you were already part of another world that was constituted by a different set of relations and where a different set of rules applied. In hindsight, I don’t think I was anywhere near this articulate in talking to my partner. I’m not even sure I’m being that articulate now. But she understood the point, which was that I felt a queer feminism had fundamentally given form to my identity. It clarified something in how I felt about myself. That’s why I felt comfortable calling myself a feminist.
The problem, perhaps, is that I never said that out loud to anyone else. I’ve tried to have this conversation before, but it feels like one of the hardest things for me to do. In private, I still squirm when invited to talk about the politics of sex and gender and about my own personal experiences. Nevertheless, I have often made passionate defenses of queer experience on this blog, against rampant TERF dogma or the mutant liberalism of certain posthuman philosophies, whilst at the same time trying to avoid sending out any signals that I might have a personal investment in the debate. But I want that to change. I want to be able to talk more openly about the kind of person I am, the kind of experiences I’ve had, and how they’ve shaped who I am today.
An important question remains: how?
This post, in itself, is a terrifying thing to write. It feels like an intrusion on a vocabulary that others have a far more convincing claim to, as well as an invitation for derision from certain corners of the blogosphere that I have gradually been trying to extricate myself from. But Green’s essay once again explores how “queer” is an innately political term in the present, and less something for a card-carrying contingent to police in others, as if replicating the kind of boundary policing that once defined our exclusion from a heteronormative society. They write, for instance, how the apparent tension between spaces that are “gay” and spaces that are “queer:
In November, a (now-deleted) tweet demanding “More queer bars, less gay bars” invaded my timeline. The framing felt strange: gay and queer are, functionally, synonyms. But I knew what the tweet meant in drawing that seemingly arbitrary distinction … It immediately reminded me of an i-D article from August, which proudly proclaimed “the gay bar is dead,” pinning its cause of death on the rise of “the queer space.”
Queer spaces, Green explains, are “spaces of intentionality and community, where people felt the freedom to come together, away from the stigmatizing and normative gaze of straight, cisgender, white, and male society.” It is a definition of queer that resonates profoundly with my own, that I have clung onto in private for so many years, not knowing whether it was an appropriate way in which to use it. As Green continues, in queer spaces “people experimented with aesthetics, music, experiences, and connections that made them feel at home. On the street, they were outsiders; once through the doors, they were part of a community.”
I have missed this terribly under lockdown. Recently reading Paul B. Preciado’s book An Apartment on Uranus has only made this harder. The isolation of quarantine has no doubt enforced the queer space as an imagined idyll in my imagination. But what about a queer home? If I have a queer inner life, it is hardly replicated in the objects outside of myself, never mind in my own dress sense or mannerisms. An apartment on Uranus sounds like a blissful place to be by comparison. I wonder, increasingly, what it might be like to construct one; to have some sense of agency over my own four walls. But a sense of agency over my “self” is a more pressing starting point, and that is, in some ways, what this blog is for.
As a first step, this post feels enormous, but there is so much more that I would like to do. What does that “more” look like? I’m not sure yet. Despite how it may sound, I don’t think of this post as a “coming out”. I feel like who I am is obvious to those who know me, even if that’s limited to “Matt’s a bit camp”. To others, this might seem out of the blue. It feels a little out of the blue for me too. Why have I let this conversation lie still for so many years? Why have I never said anything out loud before now? I think because I knew how it would look, in our cynical age, for a big burly beardy man in a long-term heterosexual relationship to stake a claim on queerness without also being into leather or makeup or otherwise signalling outwardly how I feel internally. But the more long-term truth is that I’ve long been denied any opportunity for self-acceptance and self-expression. It has to start somewhere, and that is surely in knowing how to talk about yourself.
Knowing my audience, I anticipate some of my more casual and annoying readers will decry this post as an indulgent slip into identity politics. It is with them in mind that I will be abstaining from making any public changes to my pronouns anytime soon. I am not yet prepared to weather the social media cynicism that often brings from certain quarters. But there is a lesson for those people here too. For all the slips into “I”, this is not intended to solely be a discussion of the politics of identity as a form of individual affirmation. Self-acceptance is the desired by-product, yes, the personal significance of this post is overwritten, in my mind, by a far more forceful expression of solidarity, which I used to have and have since been denied, precisely because of who I appear to be. As such, it is the negative, individualising side of identity politics that I has been forced upon me for too long — an enforced individualism, wherein one must represent one thing only, held apart from both an internal multiplicity and indeterminacy, and an external solidarity. The impact of this on my personal life has been as sexual as it has been political. No longer. I am who I am, but who I am is one of you.
Even as I write this, old habits die hard. I’m left feeling deferential. I am one of you… if you’ll have me, is how I am left wanting to end that sentence. I’m queer now, if it pleases thee. Call me genderqueer now, if you like? Such is the tension within any self-declaration of solidarity. But why is self-declaration important? Because I don’t think most people realise how suffocating their assumptions can be. It takes a great deal of courage to correct them. That is a courage I have always lacked. I have never taken the opportunity to define myself because it has always been denied me, and I have always smothered the desire to speak up for myself for fear of failing to meet other people’s expectations of who or what I should be. But from now on I’d like to feel able to talk about myself in terms that feel appropriate to me rather than anyone else. I’m fed up of pandering to those who would attack my own attempts at self-acceptance.
It’s taken me a long time to realise this, and just as long to write it all down, but I have been inspired by so many lovely trans and non-binary people I’ve met over the years, who have shown a strength of will and self-knowledge that I have always been slightly jealous of, and who have perhaps sensed a certain affinity already. I know some have claimed me, tongue in cheek, as an “honorary tran” and I’ve had some difficult and confused conversations with some of you about this before already. Thank you for your patience. I feel like you, more than anyone else, will understand. For those that don’t, I don’t know how else to express it. I don’t know how to insist upon my inner experience. I’ve had a hard enough time in my life making the case for this with depression, which remains an enigma to those closest to me, who don’t understand the inner workings of a mind that habitually recoils from life, family and friendships, preferring instead to quietly self-destruct. But this doesn’t feel like an illness or being broken. It feels like breaking a set of restrictions that have negatively impacted my life for as long as I can remember. It is an expression of what makes me happy rather than an expression of my capacity for misery. Understanding the latter has taken precedence for a long time. I’d like to make space for the other side of the coin.
So I think it is about time that I make a claim; that I affirm my experiences and where I’ve come from and what I’ve learned about the world and about myself in the process. I want to affirm my upbringing as an early enigma, used as a punching bag even by those kids who would later come out as gay or trans themselves. I want to show some love and appreciate to that kid who was already disenfranchised and afraid when it became acceptable for others to express themselves in other ways. I want to accept that effeminate child and the awkward teenager he became and the strange lopsided man he turned into. I want to call him queer now, and step back into his shoes. I’ve spent too long out of them.
Ever the worrier, images of eye rolls and scoffs intrude as I continue to write what feels like a truth. But the other truth is this: it is a lot harder for men to stake a claim on a kind of queer gender without breaking other aesthetic conventions. That is true even within gay communities themselves, where a kind of homomasculinity reinforces patriarchy in microcosm. But I think, for me personally, I have to start somewhere. I have previously made no claim to queerness because I didn’t think anyone else would think I was queer enough to qualify. But the conversation was limited. The terrain was one-dimensional. Debates around my queerness, always instigated by others, had always been with regards to my sexuality. That remains a complicated and private topic for me, no doubt because it is an aspect of my personality I’ve long been denied any ownership of. But the real issue has always been gender. I knew in myself that the disconnect was between my gender and my sexuality, but I didn’t have the vocabulary or the opportunity to explore that in a way that I was comfortable with. So I locked it all away. I recoiled from the idea of wearing my heart on my sleeve. I no longer felt comfortable expressing myself outwardly. I wore nothing but black in an attempt to at least make my voided sense of self look chic. Thank god I started writing. These days it’s all I have. I think now’s about time I wrote this down and said it publicly, to finally try and perforate the divide between who I am within and who I am socially and sexually — two worlds that have long been kept firmly apart, with deeply damaging results.
The strange thing is that, in writing all of this down, I thought I’d feel different. It is telling that I don’t. Saying this out loud means the world though. It feels defiant. It feels like claiming ownership over a part of my life that has always belonged to other people. In fact, lots of my life feels like it belongs to other people. Such is life as an adoptee — feeling like a patchwork person with two names. Knowing I am Matt Colquhoun to many but, to another group of people, I am Lewis D—-, is enough to mess with your head as it is, and maybe that’s part of this strange feeling too. But surely, in the realm of heteronormative family dynamics, adoption constitutes a queer relation in its own way. Regardless, it nonetheless remains true that all the conflicts in my life until my twenties were oddly gendered. I think I’d like to acknowledge myself as oddly gendered now too, thanks.
I don’t know what that looks like yet. I don’t know if it looks like anything. This isn’t a post to declare a change of name or of pronouns or anything else (although I may start signalling “he/they” when the opportunity arises). This is a post written to tell a story that I’ve often been made to feel ashamed of, by straight friends and queer friends alike, all because I don’t look the part. The problem is that I’ve never looked the part, no matter what that part is. The name of this blog, of course, was just another joke about not looking the part. As a teenager, I used to use the pseudonym “pseudochild” online — an expression of this same sentiment, I think, cloaked under a collection of other mid-pubescent changes. (The unintended resonance this pseudonym has with “xenogothic” is something I have thought about often.) But these names are as much a claim of identity as they are an attempt to circumvent it altogether. Because even if I don’t look the part, I feel the part and always have. Embracing a feeling over an outward appearance was a founding gesture of a newly authentic life online, and affirming being a bad goth has been life-affirming more broadly too. I think it’s about time I finally embrace being a bad queer as well.
Richard Humble (1925-2021)
My grandpa, Richard Humble, passed away from Covid yesterday. He was 96.
Grandpa to me, Dad to my Mum, and Dick to everyone else, he had recently been struggling with ill health. Having had his first Covid vaccination about a month ago, he went into hospital for a check-up. Whilst there, he caught Covid and had to be isolated on the ward for two weeks with no visitors. The family were expecting him to come home soon. There’d been no news from the hospital and no suggestion that his condition was worsening. Yesterday was my gran’s 91st birthday and, in wanting to speak to her husband on the occasion, she called the hospital. They set about arranging a call back, only for the hospital to break the news that he had passed away just an hour before.
We’re all heartbroken. At the age of 96, and with his health deteriorating for some time, the news was hardly a shock. But the circumstances are so deeply saddening. There is nothing worse than knowing that someone you loved died alone.
I’ve been thinking about him pretty constantly since I heard the news — as is to be expected, I suppose. I’m already sad that I’ll most likely be unable to go to the funeral, given quarantine restrictions. Instead, I wanted to write some memories down and share them.
I know others who have experienced something like this over the last year — the loss of someone loved that is made to feel so distant and abstract during this pandemic. But hearing their stories and their memories has been lovely. I suddenly understand the sentiment — affirming the individual, all the while acknowledging the horror of yet another Covid statistic. This is not to say that he was special — although he was to us, of course — but rather to acknowledge the strange process of magnification that takes place when a particular tragedy feels infinitely bigger as soon as you consider the many thousands of families who have felt this way as well over the last twelve months.
This pandemic produces very particular cruelties, and they are cruelties I wouldn’t wish on anybody, but they remain abjectly shared nonetheless.
I loved my grandpa. He was one of the gentlest men I’ve ever known. Soft-spoken, he was a keen gardener who loved Georges Simenon and his tales of Jules Maigret. When my parents moved from Sunderland to Hull, he and his wife followed them, living nearby in the town of Beverley from around the time I was born. My mother’s younger sister lived with them too and, when she married, she managed to move in across the road. It felt like a little family commune, and one that I spent innumerable weekends and summer holidays in, getting up to mischief with all the other local kids on the street.
The photo above was taken in their back garden in Beverley in 2010. In my first year at university, whilst studying photography, we did a module called “The Family Album”, which was an interesting opportunity to explore older photographic techniques, the politics of family and genealogy, and also investigate our own pasts. Already aware that both sides of the family had archives of old photographs, I did photoshoots with both sets of grandparents and explored some of the stories within. Though my Dad’s side of the family are more disciplined photographers, with extensive and well-organised archives, my Mam’s family had just a quaint little shoebox that was nonetheless filled with some incredible images. They had old Polaroids, cartes de visite, and even a small daguerreotype of some unknown gentlemen. Exploring this shoebox and it’s barely-bound photo albums was an opportunity I relished, not least because I was able to interview my grandparents about their lives and their sense of their own family’s history.
My Grandpa’s family, in particular, had always interested me. Ostensibly middle class, he came from a long line of merchants and ship’s captains who had travelled the world, albeit often beset by tragedy. As such, their shoebox was full of photographs of family members in South America and India, some in quite extravagant regalia. But the family’s circumstances remained true to their name, at least amongst the men. (Humble women are often less than humble in nature, with my mother and grandmother — lovingly — reminiscent of Hyacinth Bucket, if you ask me.) Various setbacks here and there kept fortune at bay, and there was talk of a seafaring curse passed down the generations.
The Humble name, for instance, can be traced back to Captain Humble of the SS Forefarshire. It is a ship that haunts. I am never not surprised when I stumble across it, whether on plaques at Hull Marina and in the form of models at the Greenwich Maritime Museum in London. The ship is famous because, in September 1838, Captain Humble and his steamship set sail from Hull, heading for Dundee with 61 passengers and various cargo. Ignoring issues with the ship’s boiler during the voyage, Humble pressed on until the ship got into trouble and struck one of the Farne Islands, off the coast of Sunderland. The distressed ship was spotted by Grace Darling and her father, and their rescue attempt made Darling a national celebrity in her time. Captain Humble, however, went down with the ship. Of the 61 passengers and various crew, only nine people survived. He was survived by his children but the family faced ruin. Humble was deemed “culpably negligent” in an inquiry into the cause of the wreck.
The story of the Forefarshire fascinated me as a kid, and gave me a strange sense of pride. We learned about Grace Darling in primary school, as part of the local history curriculum, and I remember how no-one ever believed me when I said I was related to the doomed ship’s captain. In hindsight, it does sound perfectly like a small child’s fib. But it was true, and I would repeatedly make my Grandpa tell the tale.
Dick had swapped ships for planes. He was a navigator in the RAF during the Second World War, an experience he never really talked about. In fact, like many northern men, he didn’t talk about himself very much at all. But he had a lot of pride, and my main memories of him will be those things he was most proud of.
He had maintained all of his own teeth well into his eighties, for instance, until a fall from his bicycle knocked them all out. As tragic as this was for him, it was in character. He was very proud of how active he was, often only learning about the new limits of his aging body the hard way. On another occasion, I remember hearing he had gone to hospital to be checked out after he had tried to jump over a bollard in Beverley town centre, in an attempt to make someone laugh, only to injure himself in that most delicate of areas… Even after he gave up parkour in his sixties, he remained an active man. He was proud to still be driving and cycling and walking into town, and his body only started to rebel completely once he reached his nineties. It was for this reason that he was in hospital. His legs were packing in.
When not running around, he was also a keen writer, although of what I do not know of. He was an avid reader too. He had a little study, where he kept a typewriter, and I used to love sitting on his lap tapping aimlessly at the keys. He also had a little garden shed, which he kept immaculate, where he would read and keep the few tools necessary to maintain his minimal flower beds. A quiet man, and a simple man, and a man that everyone loved for his gentle company. I’m sorry that we couldn’t share that company at the end, when it would have mattered to us most.
The Unspeakably Familiar
The mail order package was sturdy and wrapped in custom parcel tape, with my name and address both writ large in india ink. For god’s sake what’s the shipping you’ve paid on that, my dad asked with a groan of disapproval, noticing the customs form attached and the multitude of stamps. In silent denial, I chose not to answer. It was certainly more than any sixteen-year-old could responsibly account for.
I slipped the package from his hands, still looking at the tape, water activated and alpine-themed. It too was adorned with a distinctive penmanship — more india ink. No more than an inch and a half thick, I was mesmerised by the unmistakable silhouettes of Douglas firs that lined its edges like a kanji forest. I said thanks and thanked the postman in turn, who was peering curiously around the door, waiting for a telling-off that never came. My dad absentmindedly closed the door behind him and in the postman’s face, forgetting his existence, his disgruntled eyes trained only on me. Tucking the package under my arm, I dashed upstairs to my room furtively before any further questions could be asked.
With my back to the door, grasping the new arrival tightly against my chest with one arm, I used the other to turn on my dad’s old hi-fi. I had inherited it — read: rescued it from abandonment in the loft — along with his record collection. It was positioned precariously behind the door — a terrible place for a record player, but there was no other space for it in my tiny room. It also functioned of a useful adolescent barrier — when there was music playing, you did not enter. My dad, respecting the sensitivity of a vinyl record, and all too aware that the records I played were once his own, seldom crossed the threshold.
Unfortunately, this inheritance, rather than sating a childhood desire to constantly listen to the Beatles, had instead inaugurated a bad habit: spending any and all money I had on records of my own. Taking a pair of dulled scissors from a crammed desk-tidy, I opened my new aquisition with glee, already knowing what was inside. If the customs forms were not enough, it was the parcel tape that had given it away. It was No Flashlight, an album by Phil Elverum, released the previous year under his (relatively) new moniker Mount Eerie.
Fifteen songs on a slab of pure white vinyl, the twelve-inch record was housed in a folded sleeve that, when unfurled, measured sixty by forty-two inches. Some said it was the largest album cover ever produced. On one side was a large drawing of Phil himself in the yawn of nature, made with heavy washes and expressive flourishes of yet more india ink. On the other side, a kind of exploded notebook, divided into half a dozen or so columns. Focusing on the notes, I laid the cover out flat on the floor of my bedroom as the needle dropped on “I Know No One”. This “giant explanation poster”, as it was called, covered all of the available floor space and it stayed there for the next six weeks of summer in 2006.
“Knowing no one will understand these songs / I try to sing them clearer”, Elverum sings. “I have tried to repeatedly explain / In complicated songs / But tonight we will find out / I know no one / And no one knows me”. As Elverum’s recordings filled the air over the following weeks, I poured over the lyrics and annotations and photographs and copious other notes that now carpeted the floor of my bedroom, attempting to prove him wrong. And yet, the closer I looked, the more aware I was that I could never know Elverum. In fact, I began to wonder to what extent Elverum could even know himself. The void turned reflexive. I don’t know myself either, I thought, with an adolescent profundity.
It soon became clear that this was not so much an album as a work of philosophy, although it was simultaneously an object that shirked all allusions to such grandeur. At the very least, “No Flashlight”, as an album title and as a mantra, articulated a worldview. It was a worldview that I felt was shared.
“Actually walking in the dark without a flashlight requires more sensitivity than we usually use”, Elverum writes in the liner notes of the song that gives the album its name. It is an album dedicated to the hairs that stand on the back of your neck as heightened animalistic senses take over in the dead of night — walking out into the night, “forgetting” your flashlight, and striding forth regardless, wide-eyed and afraid and thrilled to be there.
I knew what that was like. That was my favourite pastime. Stranded in suburbia, the outskirts of town were nonetheless within walking distance. Within five minutes, I was in fields, stumbling over refuse from the local quarry or skirting the edges of the M62. Within twenty minutes, I was on the banks of the River Humber, looking out at oil refineries and their UFO burn-offs as their chimneys faded into the black of the night. Elverum’s musings provided a lens through which to curate the circumstances of an eerie shuddering and see this otherwise mundane environment differently.
Vixen’s screams and the pitch black of night were abstractions hard to grasp back then. I really believed that something was lurking out there in the post-industrial wilderness, along the old railroads and quarry tracks. There was (something), as Elverum puts it, that “sings above the house”. But this was not simply a romancing of the night; in fact, the lesson Elverum made most clear was that we should get out of the romance. His was a kind of blackened psychedelia, finding the weirdness of real fear — an amygdalic realism — relishing the tricks the mind plays on itself and enjoying them like a magic show put on by the psyche.
No Flashlight, then, is an album about unbelief. It is an album of paradoxical perspectives. It is, as Elverum sings, about knowing the night from the perspective of the day; knowing the mountains from the perspective of the town; knowing a map of the land and the land in itself; seeing the moon reflected in a puddle of water and seeing the actual moon. It is speaking to that experience that fades away as soon as it is uttered or illuminated and being enchanted precisely with the impermanence of permeability and the enjoyment of unreason from a rational perspective. It is about the impossibility of no abstraction, of things in themselves, of nature and no nature. It is an album that straddles the strange relations and momentums and desires that entangle the world and the singer, and give form to the song of the world and the world in song. It is an album that revels in these contradictions and the confusion that follows them. It is a nest. It is one musician’s attempt to gather together enough references and sensations and coordinates to create a world inside this one. When passed through, this world changes how we might inhabit its nested neighbours.
That resonanted with me deeply. I, too, wanted to find another world inside this one.
I thought I might start my new life up north by writing a poem every day. I’d never done that before — write a poem — at least not seriously. In fact, previously, I might have told you, quite definitively, that I hate poetry. Not all poetry but certainly what passes for poetry these days – the sort of comment made by someone who doesn’t know what they’re talking about but is at least somewhat aware of the fact that they don’t like how the kids are doing it.
That’s how I felt as a teenager, most certainly. An old girlfriend took me to a poetry night once, and then a few years spent around universities meant that I heard plenty more student offerings. I hated (and still do hate) the over-affected drawl of your average “slam” poem. The spoken word feels like it has been reduced to a cheap rollercoaster and I find myself struck more by a poem’s rhythm than its meaning. That’s all well and good if you’re listening to R&B but, as the same rhythm unfolds again and again in the mouth of poet after poet, I can think of nothing more irritating than that pretentious vocal tic, whereby the emphasising of irregular syllables into the perpetual echo of the same syncopated utterance constructs a rickety scaffolding suggestive of meaning where there often isn’t much of anything. Just a half-witty coinage and a mode of reading that wouldn’t be amiss on a night with your local amateur dramatics society.
I have evidently thought long and hard about why I don’t like poetry…
But then, one day in lockdown, newly intrigued by the modernists of the early twentieth century, I read some T.S. Eliot aloud to myself on a whim, having thought I might give this poetry thing another go. I was transported. I had previously heard it said that poetry is written to be read aloud but I thought that was a general rule, not one to be taken on so personally. Hearing that beautiful composition reverberate through my own bones in the solitude of a coronavirus quarantine was a revelation. I decided I liked poetry then and I wanted to read more of it.
Writing poetry is, of course, another matter.
If I have any sort of reputation as a writer, it is for quantity over quality. Writing (or rather, blogging), for me, is a method of organising thoughts as they fall out of my head. It is a compulsion. It is far from some considered exercise in self-control. This is to say that it is not a matter of great contemplation and reflection – that’s called “editing”. Writing (and blogging most of all) is, instead, a torrent you later sift for gold. Who said “write drunk, edit sober”? I have been guilty of following that adage a little too closely in the past. Two pints deep is a sweet spot for productivity but when you write as much and as often as I do, that rule starts to impact your waistline before you know it.
Poetry, then — what for? Brevity is an interesting notion at present; condensation and economy – the careful management of resources. It would be an interesting challenge to be careful with my words for once; to try and say more with less. My problem, if I have one, is that I am often neurotically chasing long-winded truths. Writing comes easy because so does extrapolation, joining the dots, unfolding an argument, rambling, ranting, following the twists and turns of a thought and building a labyrinth of independent and borrowed knowledges, then providing the Ariadnean thread out of my own maze. I’ve long been aware that this is an unpopular way of working in fields adjacent to Continental philosophy and, particularly, the Ccru — where philosophy and poetry are often silent bedfellows — but this confession is not necessarily an admission of didacticism either. It is a habit picked up from Elverum, who would make the world’s biggest album cover to avoid the travesty of miscomprehension. In this way, it was Elverum who taught me that clarity can dazzle and confound just like opacity can, if done well.
Elverum has reneged on this tendency to over-explain, however. No amount of writing has allowed him to shrug off the suggestion made constantly in the music press that he sings about nature (rather than “no nature”). Embracing the futility of explanation, he has come into his own as a poet as much as he is a songwriter.
I don’t think that’s me though… To attempt poetry, and to try and become disciplined within its constraints, is an unnatural thought. It would, however, be a healthy exercise in letting go of this compulsion — to over-share and over-write. Or perhaps it would be a healthy way of diverting the aphoristic energy usually expended on Twitter.
It is surely no secret at this point that I’m struggling at the moment with the internet. Complaining a little too often about the succession of creeps I have encountered on social media in recent weeks, my friend Natasha recommended Juliet Jacques’ Trans: A Memoir. True enough, I found the way her relationship with social media develops over the course of the book to be so relatable. At first, she writes about how “social media keeps me sane, providing contact with friends, family and well-wishers at any time, saving dozens of energy-sapping conversations.” She reflects on the initial joys of Twitter too: “finding new books, films, art and writers, doing years’ worth of ‘networking’ in six months, making friends in London and feeling part of so many conversations, even sensing that old power structures were being challenged by those traditionally excluded.”
Later, however, she reflects on the fallout of the “trans wars” and the Guardian‘s now well-established propensity to suck when it comes to trans rights and representation. With the column that served as the basis for her book having been published there, the feeling of having to pick a side as an old friend and colleague outs themselves as a bigot is perhaps more of a conundrum than it would have been otherwise. She is almost too exhausted to take much of a stand. Instead, she just left Twitter.
“I’d thought my exhaustion and exasperation with Twitter would fade, and that I’d regain enthusiasm for the connections it offered”, she writes. “I didn’t: having confessed so much … I had nothing more to give.” Eventually, finding herself looking at her phone and “disdainfully going through the cavalcade of people’s actions and opinions, it suddenly felt like a radical gesture to just watch the films I’d rented and not broadcast about them.” In the end, she concludes: “Withdrawing from social media, especially Twitter with its bitter arguments, has helped. I think it’s terrible for writing.”
Reading this was just what I needed. It was reassuring, as I really do feel much the same way. I have a lot left to say and plenty to share but I think I am done with sharing myself, at least in the ways that Twitter — and, indeed, London — demands. Maybe poetry could be the right kind of hobby after all. An exercise in doing something for myself. (If I do start experimenting with poems, I don’t intend to share any. Can you imagine the horror?)
Whatever I end up doing, I know I want to do something different; that makes me act differently. The idea of some new project like a notebook of personal poems excites me because, in my mind, the first of October — when we will hopefully be settled in Brontë country — designates a line in the sand that I am preparing myself to leap far over. I’m not really sure what new life awaits on the other side but I’d like it to be different to whatever this London life has been. I’ve lived here for four years at this point and my life is completely unrecognisable to what it was before I got here. In 2016, I had no direction and no future and no prospects. I wasn’t even writing. I’d barely read any philosophy, at least not with any seriousness. I have been transformed, but into what? And by what? The hours and hours spent tapping away now feel like hours and hours spent holding onto the debris from some wreckage. I’d like to let go of it. I’d like leaving this city to be the beginning of some new relation. Less wreckage, more driftwood.
I think part of the renewed interest in poetry and lifestyle shifts may come from my persistent thinking about Phil Elverum’s latest project — his return to the Microphones in 2020 and his long reflection on what it means to release an album under that name again now. It has dragged me back to my own teenage years and the strange but shared realisation that, despite everything being so very particular and different now, I’m still interested in the same things I was when I first heard Mount Eerie. This is perhaps the knock-on effect of musical nostalgia — Elverum’s consideration of his trajectory as a band has made me consider my own trajectory as a listener, and the experiences that he has often soundtracked at various intervals.
I do distinctly remember a time when I went off his music entirely — I wasn’t much of a fan of Wind’s Poem or Ocean Roar but considered Clear Moon to be the best thing he’d done. Still, I cooled on him a lot for some unknown reason. It was a time when I found myself reacting against all my old ’00s idols. Regretfully, I sold a few of my rarer records by him, only to reconnect with his music again a few years later when Sauna heralded a really magnificent return to form. Everything that followed Sauna felt like music from a different (and no less brilliant) entity. It is interesting to see that “other” Elverum, pre-greif, is now returning tentatively to the fore.
Considering all these twists and turns of his life, his career, the time of the Microphones is another country. It is strange to think, in retrospect, that his most notable studio albums under that moniker cover only four years of output — from 1999 to 2003. I’m sure, like most, whilst the mythology of Elverum’s music from that time casts a long shadow, I never knew him before he was Mount Eerie. And so, in listening to The Microphones in 2020, I find myself thinking about that moment of transition. Because that is, after all, what The Microphones in 2020 seems to point to. It is not just an album about the Microphones but why Elverum is now Mount Eerie and if he still should be. In this sense, it is a nostalgic project that also begs the question of what comes next. It is clear that something has got to give. With the Mount Eerie project becoming so subsumed in a grief that he’s already discussed a gradual slide out of, what is it for the “Mount Eerie” project to now be so closely associated in the critical imagination with that moment of personal trauma? What is in a name anyway? Does his art warrant another name change now that so much seems different? Is The Microphones in 2020 not a kind of self-reassurance that, no matter what changes, the line of flight remains the same? From the vantage point of this strange templexity, does the work he’s produced since 2017 really constitute that much of a shift from what came before, despite how life-changing that year was circumstantially?
I’ve been thinking about this kind of transition a lot as we prepare to exit London. I’m left wanting to completely reorient my relationship to the world in response. Over the last few months, every day that goes by seems to be defined by the further entrenchment of a path inaugurated only as an attempt to leave it.
I wrote Egress as an exploration of and as a product of grief; I called it Egress because I hoped writing it and publishing it — and therefore relinquishing ownership of it — might allow me to let it all go. (This has happened but not without an unanticipated amount of difficulty.) That I began writing the book the same year Elverum released A Crow Looked At Me is a coincidence but one which I cherished after first hearing that release. Getting Postcapitalist Desire out into the world this month is a step into different and perhaps more positive territory, where I can emphasise a more impersonal relationship to the work rather than to the man. A further project I’ve been working on in lockdown remains related to Fisher only tangentially, moving out even further to consider more of the blogosphere as a whole. It feels like the beginning of my own Powers of Ten, produced bookwise. A slow process just begun but, on a personal level, perhaps a sensible one. There’s no rush, I tell myself. I mustn’t rush. After Egress came out, I felt like I might get the bends.
Watching and listening to how Elverum has undertaken his own shift in this regard has been an inspiring lead to follow — not only in coming to terms with the uncomfortable realisation that a horrible event can crystallise a thought you have long been preoccupied by, but also that there is a way back to a previously impersonal perspective, no longer behold to the details of a particular life or death.
Isn’t that the meaning of the Mount Eerie name, after all? An impersonal vector through which Phil Elverum the man can feel his size?
Although Elverum claims no one has asked what “Mount Eerie” means, the frequent deference he pays to Gary Synder in the liner notes to that first album suggests he has been trying to tell people for some time. Synder remains an interesting vantage point from which to view Elverum’s project in 2020 also.
Gary Synder’s first book on poems, for instance, featured a number of tributes to and translations of Han-shan, the Chinese poet from the T’ang dynasty known in English as “Cold Mountain”. As Synder explains, when Han-shan “talks about Cold Mountain he means himself, his home, his state of mind.”
Once at Cold Mountain, troubles cease —
No more tangled, hung-up mind.
I idly scribble poems on the rock cliff,
Taking whatever comes, like a drifting boat.
It’s a beautiful sentiment and one I’m left wanting to emphasise for myself, although I’m not sure I could get away with rebranding as “River Humber”. Still, the return back north feels like a chance to reconnect to old lives and loves lost over the last few years. The basic change in circumstance of having less of a stark divide between the woods and the city feels profound enough, but not as a way to “get back to nature”. In normalising its presence in our lives once again, I’m looking forward to getting out of its romance.
Elverum remains a guide, in this regard. More recently, he has begun referencing Joanne Kyger in his songs and on his record covers — a hugely accomplished poet in her own right who was, nonetheless, for a brief time in the 1960s, Gary Synder’s wife. (She passed away in 2017 also.) Returning to the sentiment of his old track “Log in the Waves”, on his 2018 album Lost Wisdom Pt. 2, Elverum sings again of “Enduring the Waves”, capturing an honest and uncomfortable sentiment that has haunted this goth blogger for much of the last decade. He sings, accompanied by Julie Doiron:
When I was younger and didn’t know
I used to walk around basically begging the sky
For some calamity to challenge my foundation
When I was young
So imagine what it was like to watch up close a loved one die
And then look into the pit
I lived on the edge of it
And had to stay there
Joanne Kyger said:
We fight incredibly through a hideous mish mash of inheritance
Forgiving for deeper stamina
That we go on
The world always goes on
Breaking us with its changes
Until our form, exhausted, runs true
We might read in this the birth of a new self for Elverum, taking all that has happened to him and finally running true, but is this not the same sentiment that was always behind the “Mount Eerie” name? Is this not Elverum returning to his own “Cold Mountain”? A mountain he has never left? Walking back in the front door to find himself all together, in one big empty house?
The coronavirus pandemic casts a long shadow over these vague suggestions of an egress from grief, and the fact that we are moving into a very high risk area (after London has somehow bizarrely avoided a second wave), complicates things further still.
I’ve been thinking a lot about the collective grief of our present moment — a grief that can barely be dealt with. The sentiment behind Egress lingers even though the specifics of that moment feel like a lifetime ago. I keep wondering if there are echoes of the interwar period here — as if those from a previous generation might recognise that big black cloud that hovers over us now, after a loss of life so large we cannot process it and so we shuffled on, sometimes breaking habits and often looking for new scenery, contrary to a nationalist sentiment from the government that insists somewhat pathetically on a return to business as usual.
In the 1920s, it is worth noting that the trauma of the war didn’t lead to a mass return to the countryside, as is being reported as happening now. The interwar years were instead defined by many people moving to the cities. This is perhaps because, prior to the Blitz, England’s cities were not yet sites of trauma. It was the countryside, instead, that was tainted. It’s peace had been disturbed, mutated by memories of battlefields and the bodies upon them, as if every English plain now contained the ghosts of the Somme. In his book The Lark Ascending, Richard King comments on the literary impact of this shift in the national consciousness. He quotes from Siegfried Sassoon’s anonymously written novel Memoirs of a Fox-Hunting Man, for instance, writing how:
George Sherston, the narrator and titular fox-hunter, recalls riding before the war when ‘The air was Elysian with early summer and the shadows of steep white clouds were chasing over the orchards and meadows; sunlight sparkled on green hedgerows that had been drenched by early morning showers … For it was my own countryside, and I loved it with an intimate feeling, though all its associations were crude and incoherent. I cannot think of it now without a sense of heartache, as if it contained something which I have never quite been able to discover.’ The ‘something’, which George was unable to discover, lay buried within the landscape of his memory. Sassoon’s use of the word ‘discover’, rather than recover or rediscover is notable; it suggests a source of impenetrable emotional energy made all the more overwhelming by his inability to locate it, an inability he is carrying as if it were a wound from the battlefield.
As we, along with many other friends, choose to vacate the city, I wonder if the inverse is taking place. Now it is the city that feels tainted but this needn’t be a reactionary about face. The same line of flight might apply…
I’ve been thinking about this line of flight whilst reading D.H. Lawrence’s 1922 novel Aaron’s Rod, but I’ll save those musings for another post…
To be continued…
Hastings Road Trip #2
As the summers get hotter, I swear London loses a little bit more of its collective mind. August is the month things happen. People snap or let loose. Year on year, this is the month we end up having weird encounters with weird people. The consequences are sometimes shocking but never not entertaining.
Within the last month we’ve seen two police hard stops in the neighbourhood and this week there was a huge party that got shut down on the block. Ten police cars showed up. And a dog. I feel like we’re living in an episode of Cops.
The pictures above were taken at 3am. For all the excitement, I am very tired today. Interestingly, no one else in the neighbourhood really seemed to care. I’ll never not be surprised by how indifferent Londoners are to events outside their houses. I am, unfortunately, a perennial curtain-twitcher. I like to watch the drama.
And don’t tell me things don’t look that little bit more spectacular with Canary Wharf looming over the horizon. As ominous as that skyline is, I quite like it. At its most dysfunctional, Deptford can get quite Ballardian — worlds layered on top of worlds. I’m going to miss it when we move to Brontë country in a few weeks. Just a little bit.
This is me savouring our last nights, before I disappear completely up some idealised literary imaginary.
Thinking About Writing, Writing About Thinking
I wanted to enter 2016 with a blank slate. On 28th December 2015, I wrote the following on my photo blog, before abandoning it forever — a blog onto which I had posted 642 times since June 2011:
New Year, New Blog
A lot has changed in the past two years and this blog, as much as it pains me to say it, is starting to feel redundant. It was never going to last forever, but a change of heart has gradually been gaining momentum.
In a week or so, this blog will become password protected. Friends and family are welcome to the password for reminiscing purposes, but a lot of these images will show up again in book and zine projects at some point. In fact, a lot of them have already.
I’ve blogged in some form for nearly half my life at this point. I’m not ready to give up on it entirely yet, but I need a clean break for a new approach and a new phase in life.
I linked to a new WordPress, hooked up to my “professional” photography website, and vowed to use it less as a diary and more like an online CV. I kept it up for six months before I killed that one too.
At that time, having graduated from my photography degree two years earlier, I felt — due to a certain amount of paranoia, no doubt — that my continuing practice of sharing everything I made online for all to see was being viewed quite cynically by peers and potential employers. It was, at best, immature; at worst, self-sabotaging.
One day I was complaining on Twitter about not getting paid for jobs or not being taken seriously and eventually the point was made that, if you don’t value your own work (by placing an explicit economic value upon it), then why should anyone else?
At that time, I was broke. That advice, though intended to be constructive, was devastating. I already felt worthless; that my output could be seen that way too was quite the blow.
It hadn’t bothered me before but then 2015 was an odd year; similar to 2020, in some ways. (This year is certainly drawing to a close with the same horizonlessness; a depressing sense of limbo.) I’d just been made redundant from my job due to Tory funding cuts, and suddenly couldn’t afford to pay rent. We had to move out almost immediately. I left Cardiff, moved back in with my parents in Hull, and I don’t think my self-esteem has ever been lower. I stopped blogging, attempting to take myself more seriously. I don’t think it made any difference to my income whatsoever. In fact, I soon realised that blogging was my way of working around the tactics that everyone else was engaged with that supposedly meant they were more serious about their chosen profession — schmoozing at exhibitions, brown-nosing, circle-jerk networking. I soon began to miss blogging quite desperately. I felt like I’d given up an outlet for no good reason, finding the implied alternative more repulsive than living in my overdraft.
When I graduated from my MA two years later, I started to blog again. “If you want to get good at photography, you’ve got to do it everyday” was the old mantra; I wasn’t taking so many pictures anymore but I wanted to write and I applied the same logic to a new endeavour. The blog was always a motivator for going out and sharing what I had seen or getting me out the house and experimenting in the studio or whatever else; xenogothic became a similar sort of motivator.
At that time, I was back working at a shitty arts administrator job. It didn’t require any schmoozing but I was often schmoozed at. I found it hard to make friends. It was just a job to me. Writing blog posts on my phone on my 90-minute commute and my lunch break was all I really cared about. Regardless of whether anyone read it or not, it was space to feed my experiments and thoughts as and when I had them; a space to hone a craft and express myself and feel connected to something bigger than my own life, precisely by putting my own life out there. It was also a way to put my thoughts into words and organise myself in relative isolation, having left the discursive community of academia.
Twitter was a big part of getting started. What I loved most about this “weird theory” corner of the Internet, almost immediately, was that this way of working was wholly supported and encouraged. Whereas previously I felt like 99% of my peers didn’t “get it”, blogging was seen as a basic principle out in para-academia. Writing for journals is whack; even more so if you don’t have an academic profile to maintain. If you want to be read, start a blog. If you want to build a new culture of public thought and discussion, start a blog. I didn’t need to be told twice.
Almost fifteen years on from when I first started putting the things I was creating online, the unthinkable has happened. I’ve started to make money off it — or at least off the profile I’ve acquired by doing it — and I’ve started to make money from the one outlet I didn’t think that much about: writing. I’d previously had multiple blogs for sharing lo-fi recordings of music I was making, I’d had one big blog for sharing pictures, and now it was writing — mode of expression #3 — that ended up actually gaining some traction. Traction was never the intention, of course, but I’d be lying if I said the recognition didn’t feel good, especially after having been told this obsession with blogging, which I’ve had for half my life, was a self-sabotaging waste of energy.
This attention has, of course, taken quite a bit of getting used to — getting recognised down the pub on multiple occasions last year was a particularly weird experience — and I’m sure it is obvious that this blog, and the person behind it, have been through a particularly awkward period of transition in recent months because of an increase in this kind of visibility.
The biggest change has come from the small fact that, in 2019, I got my act together and finished a book. It is a dense, intense and personal book that I have spent way too much time reflecting on since. And yet, ignoring the desire to do so is to go against the blogging sensibility that has come so naturally for so long. In fact, I feel I have to write about it; I have to occasionally write this kind of long look at my own navel, if only so that I might clear the blockage in my brain and get back to other things.
This has been more of a necessity of late because the experience of publishing a book has been nothing less than an existential shock — one I’ve continued to document as I would any other — but I am painfully aware that my natural response to such a shock flies in the face of the expectation that being a serious writer means writing seriously in silence. This is to say that there is a sort of silent pressure to leave this world behind; that persistently pointing out the drawn curtain that says “published” on it is very uncouth, but I didn’t write the book so I could graduate from WordPress. And yet, trying to retain my old blogging habits in the face of a new kind of “professional” existence where I try to get paid more frequently for what I do has meant that that same cognitive dissonance I struggled with in 2015 has raised its annoying contrarian head again.
How do you remain true to principles of open access whilst also trying to pay your rent, especially during a pandemic?
There has been a bit of drama in the discourse this past week that feels connected to this. Plenty of things have been said that people (myself included) aren’t proud of but I’m happy to say that bridges have been rebuilt and the flow of chatter has been restored to amicable levels of exchange and mutual support. Nevertheless, what has been said continues to reverberate in my mind. From the other side of the battle, it is clear that a certain amount of resentment and cynicism had built up over the last few weeks or months. Lines had been drawn, cliques established, and I have largely been oblivious to all of it.
After recently stumbling into Aly’s Discord server, for instance, having heard good things about the Sadie Plant reading group they have been conducting, I found myself caught up masochistically reading a few weeks’ worth of criticism of my online activities and feeling quite sad about it. Whilst I hold no grudges, and I’m grateful to be back on good terms with people who’s writing and thinking I have long respected, it was like stumbling into my worst nightmare. Assumptions were made and conclusions drawn — many of which were quite to the contrary of the kind of positions I have attempted to represent online.
Some criticism, of course, was quite on the money. I blog too much — although this is presumably to retain some dominant market presence — or too reflexively and too mundanely now that my book is out — as if I’ve said all I have to say and now I have little to contribute other than looking at my own navel. The sensible response is to brush all of this off as background grumblings, and that is partly how I interpreted these things, but there is a catch-22 here.
These sometimes unkind perceptions are interesting to me, in a more objective sense, because the feeling I was left with — damned if I do, damned if I don’t — is precisely the sort of neurotic concern that drove me to write so often and so reflexively long before the book even came out. It is this same tension, anticipated if not experienced directly, that I have long thought about since first being advised to blog less in 2015. The problem, now fully realised, is that, as I supposedly transition from “blogger” to “author”, my old way of writing and reflecting starts to feel less palatable. Just as the expectation, on writing a book that receives reviews, is to retain a stoic silence and rise above the discourse — “you’ll find your entire existence being given over to responding to each and every criticism”, as Tariq Goddard dutifully warned — I am left feeling alienated from the kind of discourse I first started blogging to engage with. I want to respond! I want to engage! I want to participate! But it turns out there is a big difference between sharing your thoughts as an anonymous blogger and sharing your thoughts as someone under various kinds of scrutiny. And it should be said that the distinction is purely external. I don’t feel any different now than as I did before my book hit the shelves.
It is a bit like aging — birthdays don’t feel like much of anything anymore but the fact I still feel 21 as I approach 30 doesn’t count for much. I certainly don’t look 21 and sometimes being treated like I’m 30 triggers a crisis. There is a similar disparity between being a “blogger” and an “author”. I feel like the former, but when some people treat you like the latter it fucks you up a bit. In fact, even typing out the latter makes me cringe deeply inside. I just want to write; I don’t want to have to think about what to call it.
We used to have this discussion in photography circles a lot — people would call themselves “artists” as if to signal that they have risen above the mundane existence of the jobbing photographer. But then, to call yourself a “photographer” would generally invite the question: “So you do weddings and stuff then?” There’s nothing wrong with weddings in principle — which is different to in practice; although lucrative, I’ve photographed weddings before and there’s probably nothing more stressful — having to then explain you’re an insufferable sod who actually makes photographic art feels like going round to tell your neighbours you’re a sex offender. What to label yourself can be a shameful truth.
Because of this kind of tension, these past four months I have felt torn. I have felt estranged from this new world that I have published my way into and I have felt just as estranged from the blogosphere that I have wanted, more than anything, to remain loyal to. I’ve tweeted less, tended to ignore timeline bait, muted replyguys ruthlessly, and generally found myself interacting with these platforms in very different ways whilst secretly pretending nothing has changed in me.
Whilst this transition could not be planned for in advance, it is a process I have been preparing myself for for a number of years now. For instance, I was well aware that Egress would do as much to inflate my own profile as it has done to complicate — productively (I hope) — Mark Fisher’s popular legacy. That in itself is a tension that is tough to navigate. Thankfully, as far as my published work on Mark Fisher goes, I have already made my peace with this process. Even back in 2017, as I have mentioned on a few occasions here — and even in Egress itself — I lost friends when the assumption was made that I was using Mark’s death as fodder for my dissertation. Later, this same assumption has echoed around Egress but on a larger scale, to the point that being “the Mark Fisher guy” has inevitably become something of a brand, making me look more like a gravedigger rather than someone working sensitively, as so many people do, with another’s legacy. This perception no doubt comes from the fact my mode of approach isn’t purely objective (read: academic), and is instead entangled with my personal experiences. The assumption is supposedly that I can’t have my cake and eat it — I can’t be both objective and subjective — but bridging this disconnect was precisely what made Mark’s writing so powerful to do many.
I cannot say I am as good at this style of writing as Fisher was, but the decision to apply a version of his own modus operandi to his own life was a very conscious one. After all, Mark and Kodwo had previously assigned Jane Gallop’s Anecdotal Theory as reading for their Aural & Visual Cultures course. I saw this in 2016 and read it before I even got to Goldsmiths and it’s impact on me has been quite profound. It spoke to my photographic interest in using diaristic images to comment on the world at large and it continues to speak to my intentions with Egress (and this blog more generally), which have always been attempts to produce a thought that must be read via this kind of supposedly contradictory category.
This kind of conscious decision is further complicated by the non-academic reasoning it is inevitably coupled with; my writing on and about Mark has always been an attempt to make a very personal trauma impersonally productive; a way to deal with grief. Having spent so much time with his output also makes him a frequent first-port-of-call within my theoretical armoury. I’ll likely never lose that. Suffice it to say, I am aware — of my flaws, my bad habits, the tensions within what I do. But if those things weren’t there, I’d probably have very little reason to write about anything. Articulating this kind of complexity is precisely why I write. Egress is inevitably an accumulative statement that explores this kind of process — if you’re still suspicious of it, you’re better off just reading it. It wears its difficulties very much on its sleeve. The questions you have going in will be answer in the book itself.
So, what is next? Lots of things, but these tensions have been replaced by new ones. Specifically, at the moment, I am trying to think more carefully about how I write. I’ve just completed a huge project in which I wrote through and was enveloped by mourning, and now I’m left wondering where to turn next. Writing about this experience as it unfolds is one way of working myself out of it. It might not be so interesting to read but, frankly, that’s not the reason for writing posts like this. The reason is to try and transparently negotiate a fidelity to principles that are important to me — open access, open thought — but it is clear that continuing to do this whilst also using what I do to pay the bills does shift the perception of what this kind of post is for. I suppose the assumption is made that it is to maintain a profile because to write it for no good reason at all would surely be detrimental to a burgeoning career, but the detriments of blogging having never been a concern. Blogging’s use in lubricating thought trumps any other benefit. But what about when my thinking is preoccupied with how to move forwards into this new existence? How do I continue on a path inaugurated by a book written out of love with a new set of opportunities that let me write for money? This clearly presents a whole new set of complications that I’ve barely had an opportunity to think about. What was always a problem I wished I had is now in my lap, and it’s a biter.
Frankly, I don’t have the luxury of not monetising what I do, so I am interested in maintaining a productive but also knowingly disruptive balance between xenogothic.com being both a kind of online CV and a public notebook. In my head, it’s a kind of blogger’s horizontalism — for better and for worse. That is a difficult balance to strike, of course, but one which I find interesting to interrogate openly because I think it gets right to the heart of many of the pathologies we harbour about writing, creativity, intellectual work more generally, and the value of certain kinds of (art)work under capitalism.
It is because of this that, more recently, the writing on this blog has been more immediate and reflexive than usual. I write big long essays less and less frequently. This is mostly because the backlog of writing accumulated on this blog — 850,000+ words in just under three years, no less — requires some shifting through. Egress was something of a blockage that I needed to get out before I could properly address all the unrelated essays written here during its gestation. There are a few more books’ worth of ideas here that could do with polishing. As I work on this in the background, I’m still left wanting to maintain a self-reflexive habit of thought. This is necessarily more navel-gazing because what I am hard at work on is producing a text that is not about someone else but is more explicitly a work of my own; a book that stands on its own two feet. As a result, I find myself reading and writing a lot more about writing itself as a practice. Divorced from the trauma that gave rise to Egress, where the style of writing was perhaps self-explanatory, I feel I am left trying to rediscover who I am and what my interests are beyond being “the Mark Fisher guy”. Because I don’t want to remain known as “the Mark Fisher guy”. I would like to be known as someone who did some valuable work to rectify the public perception of a major thinker, but I would also like to exist (if I can) out from under that shadow, exploring my own tastes and interests that have persistently differed vastly from Mark’s own.
Lest we forget, of course, that Egress only came out four months ago; one week before the UK went into lockdown. To say this has been an odd time to try and reinvent myself, whilst remaining loyal to well-established principles and interests, is a huge understatement. In fact, this is what made reading a load of Discord criticism so oddly humbling; the cynicism on display was a cynicism I shared. The questions they asked — and, sometimes, quite brutally answered — were questions I have been trying to ask myself quite seriously in recent months: Why do I write? Why I write in this way? Why I write so much? It makes responding to such criticism a difficult task: How do you respond to critiques that you sympathise with so intensely?
The truest response is, unfortunately, quite mundane. Why am I so reflexive and self-involved? Because that’s the kind of writing I like to read. On a practical level, I often write in the first person because it grounds my thought and I find it easier to make sense of the writing of others when I can ground it in (or let it unground) my own experiences and my sense of self. (Surely this is made clear in Egress too, thanks to the overbearing presence of Bataille and Blanchot.) It’s a kind of modernist approach to writing that has never not been marmite — at its best, it is heralded as a powerful form of literary endeavour (think big names like Maggie Nelson, Karl Ove Knausgaard — everyone loves a brutally honest memoir); at its worst, it is decried as a writerly symptom of our postmodern narcissism. But the politics of these kinds of texts have been fascinating since their very origins, and they are modernist in precisely the sense that they came into their own in modernity.
I love reading biographic-memoirs. I’m not sure that’s a real genre but it should be; it’d make my book-buying less hit and miss. They’re the kinds of books about huge personalities written by huge personalities, or at least the myriad people who personally knew their subject. I love their complexity and their unruliness and their vitality. I love how the story of a life can be told through its very real impact on the life of another. They are the sorts of books that require a certain vigilance and, in due course, they may well be unwritten by another, but taking the accumulative shelf of biographic reflections together paints a far more vivid image of a life than a supposedly objective and singular account ever could.
In recent years, I’ve been trying to map out just want it is about this style of writing that I love. In 2018, for instance, I was persistently inspired by Virginia Woolf’s templex approach to writing, complicating how both memoir (women’s writing; not considered capital-L Literature) and biography (men’s writing; her father, Leslie Stephen, was a renowned biographer in his day) were seen in her time — this makes Orlando her magnum opus in this sense — a kind of fictionalised, gender-bending, time-travelling biography that is nonetheless based on a very real person, Vita Sackville-West, and her own relationship to her — but her writer’s diaries are often just as inspirational and vivid.
Since my Woolf obsession gave way towards the end of last year, I’ve been working my way through various biographies of D.H. Lawrence and Phillip Larkin — specifically those written by their contemporaries and associates — and, boy, is it a trip. Whilst Larkin’s shifting reputation (as a man if not a poet) has been a very recent literary spectacle (trashed by Andrew Motion in 1993, somewhat rehabilitated by James Booth in 2014), D.H. Lawrence’s reputation has been through so many twists and turns in the ninety years since his death that it is hard to know what to think about the man or his work at all.
At the moment, for instance, I am particularly fascinated by his often problematic way of dealing with his own lived experiences; as his most recent biographer, John Worthen, puts it, the fictional content of his works and the very personal emotions he is trying to express in his day-to-day life are always deeply entangled. This results in work after Nietzschean work by Lawrence in which “The individual is threatened by the very thing that he or she craves, and is likely to veer between a desire to lose him or herself in passion and a desperate longing for detachment.” (Yes, I am embarrassed that I relate to my blog like Lawrence related to women.) Worthen continues: “What [Lawrence] did was feel, which in this case meant write, his way into the problem. The writing enacted the problem, and offered some understanding of it.” This ‘problem’, more often than not, was a relationship.
Intriguingly, in the years after his death, Lawrence became the subject of many biographies by male contemporaries and rivals and, indeed, by the women he was intimate with who he used as inspiration for his stories. His works were often a kind of fictionalised autobiography in this sense, and those who knew Lawrence could see themselves quite clearly in his stories. Lawrence’s reading of their very selves was always poetic but often brutally honest. The veil of fiction was not enough to save the feelings of his muses. And so, when the tables were posthumously turned on Lawrence by those who knew him, his perspective in his own novels was rattled and ungrounded. But these biographies are not just interesting for this reason. They are fascinating because as much is learned about the authors themselves as about Lawrence, and what you end up with, rather than a cubist portrait of a man, is a map of a moment and the politics of its fraught relations. You end up, quite fittingly, with a very Lawrencean drama — art imitating life imitating art — where personal relations are complicated by the political concerns of the day.
My own attempt at navigating a recent personal-cultural history is hardly on a par with the great modernists but their relationship to the process of writing nonetheless resonates with my own. Their thoughts on the production of knowledge and understanding through fiction and non-fiction, for instance, echoes what I was always been drawn to about the Ccru; the Warwick crowd quite explicitly updated the modernists’ concerns to the tensions of postmodernity.
It is this process that I hope to explore with an increasing distance and scope as I move on with my writing life. However, whilst I began work on two books soon after Egress that mark quite a radical departure with my focus on Fisher and the blogosphere, I’ve nonetheless found that the project nearest to completion is a book about accelerationism, which I’ve sketched out 50,000 words for during lockdown.
Accelerationism remains a niche concern, no doubt, but it still shares this kind of acutely postmodern dilemma. We might put it like this: If Egress is a response to the fact that so many of our great writers and thinkers are collectively seen through are the very prisms they hoped to critique, and an attempt to stave off the impotence of reification that accumulates around a body of work after the death of the person who produced it, accelerationism is a movement that has similarly fallen victim to the kind of postmodern impotence it first hoped to shatter. Without a single authoritative representative, however, it is a project that stumbles on zombie-like, worn down by its ill-formed supporters and and critics alike. This is a legacy far more complex than Fisher’s, which can be rectified by better access to his most important texts and a more honest approach to the long but nonetheless singular trajectory of his thought. Accelerationism, on the contrary, cannot be rehabilitated with quite the same linear strategy.
Aly’s recent reading list demonstrated one such alternate approach, of course — doubling down on specific “alternatives” to excavate that which has been buried by a kind of patriarchal desire-path of canon-building. However, when I wrote about her reading list and how I thought it was a very productive shot across the bow of recent discourse, I did not realise it was, in part, a troll on the reading lists provided as part of the accelerationism course I had co-written with Meta Nomad. That the lists only featured one woman is, in hindsight, an embarrassing oversight. But I hope my blogpost also made clear that my intention was similar — I wanted to write a course that dispelled the drive to reactively reify accelerationism, whether from the left or the right, by focusing on a very particular moment; providing an intentionally limited perspective in order to provide a better understanding of how the discourse got into such a mess of retcons and canons, violent affirmations and paranoid disavowals. Because, ultimately, accelerationism was an attempt to break the leftist impotence surrounding Occupy, and no matter how we frame the philosophical lineage that informed its claims, we are no closer to answering that call. In fact, the citational politics that Aly so provocatively shone a light on revealed this quite explicitly. Few accelerationists’ priorities, no matter the school of thought they pledge allegiance to, have any bearing on actually changing our static present. When a mode of thought can become that detached from its original aims, to its own detriment, surely we need to ask ourselves how and why.
With this in mind, the most important questions concerning accelerationism today, as far as I am (personally) concerned, are: How to write about accelerationism in a way that can interrogate its twisted epistemic process without collapsing into it? Or how to write about accelerationism in a way that can interrogate its twisted epistemic process that forces the reader to engage with the twisted nature of their own perspective on the topic at hand?
If I might stick with DH Lawrence, as an example that is productively distanced from present concerns and social dynamics, he was acutely concerned with the social etiquette of a sexually repressed society in much the same way. He wrote obscenely only to draw attention to the pervasive social structures that impact not just sexual expression but subjectivity as such under capitalism. The English inability to talk about sex, for instance, led to an inability to have sex in any gratifying sense — something Lawrence felt frustrated by personally as well as socially (making him somewhat of a proto-incel, if we want to be particularly unkind) — but the English were hardly locked in idealised (that is, self-conscious) social relations and wholly out of touch with their bodies. Lawrence made the prescient connection, decades before it would become a countercultural trope, that bodily autonomy was as maligned in the bedroom as it was in the factory or colliery, and the beauty of Lawrence’s writing, for me, even at its most purple, is the way his obscenity thrusts itself through a sexual consciousness into class consciousness.
What is the accelerationist version of this? It is perhaps that our inability to actually talk about accelerationism without falling into inane discussions about how we’re supposed to talk about accelerationism demonstrates how utterly beholden we are by the impotence accelerationism first sought to critique. The dissipation of agency and the disarticulation of philosophy from politics were two postmodern tendencies that the first self-identifying accelerationists wanted to dismantle — that those are two things many accelerationists now celebrate unwittingly is beyond parody. However, whilst we can talk about this ingrown logic and point and laugh a pseuds until we’re blue in the face, accelerationism as a discourse is only worth continuing to pursue if we can engage with it in a way that penetrates through our respective cliques and into the broader impotence it is a mere byproduct of.
Still, deciding how best to do this — what analogies are useful, which references are provocative and productive enough — remains an open question. For instance, here I am talking about Fisher and accelerationism again using references that he would have surely been repulsed by. Is that useful for uncovering the subjective twists in Fisher’s thought? Or does it only muddy the waters?
For instance, Fisher really did not share my appreciation of DH Lawrence’s work — for much the same reason he disliked Bataille; the perversity of being someone writing publicly about Fisher who loves everything he hated continues. This is unsurprising, of course, for someone who frequently blogged so vitriolically about how they hated sex, but the writings of these two Notts men at least shared the same power of traversal between different forms of bodily subjugation. (I am thinking about Steve Finbow’s comment for 3am Magazine here, in which he describes Fisher as a kind of “radical Geoff Dyer infused with the complete works of H. P. Lovecraft rather than D. H. Lawrence”; I can think of no better description of a man who was so asexually sensual in his writing.)
This is what I like about Fisher’s work, however. Despite his fierce opinions, published on the k-punk blog, his hates seem to be as informative to his writing as his loves. Like the tension captured between the Arctic Monkeys and Burial, Fisher was very sensitive to the aesthetic packaging of shared sensations, trying to untangle symptoms from diagnoses. But he often seemed incapable of doing this with more canonised cultural artefacts, particularly literary figures. This isn’t to cast aspersions upon him, of course. What I like about many of these writers is that they are so internally contradictory, but immensely productive because of this, much like Fisher himself.
Reading Lawrence’s writing chronologically, for instance, with the added context of his lived experiences, we can chart his own shifting attempts to wrestle with the sensual alienation of the early twentieth century. It is in this sense that I think Lawrence and Fisher aren’t so different in their aims, whilst differing vastly in style. Rather than picking sides, I’m quite fascinated by what they share and why those differences exist in the context of the times in which they lived. This is to say that, whilst Fisher would see himself as a diagnostician and Lawrence as a writer riddled with the problems he sought to critique, Fisher was no doubt similarly complex in his own way. After all, Lawrence’s critical writings — on American literature and psychoanalysis, in particular — was so incredibly ahead of their time, but his writings with still symptomatic of the problems of his age. Fisher’s output is similar; accelerationism even more so.
Where do I fit into that kind of problematic? It is hardly my place to say. That kind of self-awareness is impossible, surely; if it is not, to attain it would no doubt drive me into an utterly unproductive nihilism. That is the last thing I want, and so continuing unsteadily on the path I am on is the only option. I have a lot of changes to synthesise and a lot of internal contradictions to weather but at least I’m moving forwards. Under such circumstances, shutting up is not an option.
I had a mental health assessment yesterday — I’m fine; I’m just looking for support on the NHS that isn’t CBT — and it was sort of disappointing.
I’ve written quite openly about my mental health escapades before but it has been a while. I gave an account of my bad run-ins with mental health professionals in Egress — from a shockingly inept school councillor to being patronised by GPs and having two pretty useless rounds of talking therapy — and I blogged about my triple chronotherapy when dealing with a really bad depression early last year.
The triple chronotherapy thing was a miracle cure, for those who are curious. It dragged me out of a depression within days rather than the usual 2-4 weeks it takes when changing medications (if you’re lucky). The problem, however, was that the woman running the trial was so anal about documentation and results that her persistent attempts to call me and do questionnaires ended up making my anxiety worse. Despite considering myself a massive advocate for what is currently an experimental treatment for depression and insomnia, I dropped out of the trial because the anxiety brought on by her phone calls was too much.
Classic NHS catch-22 — the treatment was great; I found the doctors and mental health professionals themselves hard to trust and deal with.
This is my eternal dilemma. On the whole, I function. I find medication works well for me when it comes to balancing out my moods, but my life is unfortunately still defined by a tendency to engage in constant low-level self-destructive tendencies. It makes me feel like a ticking time bomb. Depressions come and go, but each fall is always that much worse than the last one. It is increasingly clear to me that I have a lot of bad coping mechanisms and I need to start unlearning them so the next fall is easier to pick myself up from, not harder. But I’m yet to find a doctor or therapist who doesn’t just make things worse for me.
Nevertheless, I’m trying again.
Over the past few weeks, as I embark on this latest attempt at self-improvement, I’ve been having phone interviews, chats with my GP and various psychiatrists, and today I had a face-to-face meeting to get feedback and hear the local mental health team’s first round of recommendations regarding how I might move forwards. It was positive, on the whole, but also pretty gutting.
I was told I wasn’t eligible for the kind of path I hoped to go down because I’m not acting out self-destructively everyday. What they mean by this, of course, is that I’m not enough of an immediate threat to myself, which is true and fair enough, but I had wanted to emphasise the fact that, although I’m engaged in more of a war of attrition with myself, it’s a war nonetheless, and it’s not going to end well. It affects my life daily and impacts my capacity to hold down jobs and friendships. As far as I’m concerned, I might as well be the sort of self-destructive person they’re looking for. I just lack spectacle. But still, it was not enough.
Why am I telling you this? What has really struck me about yesterday — as I’ve been sat at home, melting in this heat wave, ruminating on what was discussed and trying to recover emotionally from making myself very vulnerable in front of a complete stranger — is that I felt like I’d just come back from a bad job interview.
I cannot shake the feeling that maybe if I’d cried or maybe if I’d played up to how I actually feel a bit more I might have been treated another way. And that makes me feel really weird. As I reflect on what I could have done differently, I start to feel really nauseous. Because I don’t think I’m capable of doing that — of playing the part. Part of the problem is that I’m a kind of high-functioning addict with regards to my own coping mechanisms. I can do what I need to do to get by and push on with my day. Which is to say, I’m good at hiding it. And that’s the problem. Hiding it is wearing me down more than my actual distress is. And so the problem feeds back on itself, affecting not just my mental but my physical health.
I felt this even whilst I sat in the grey office room, unable to do anything about the situation.
Sitting across from someone I don’t know, trying to make a good first impression, being personable and patient, isn’t getting me the help that I think I need. I’m left reeling, running through this inverted assessment back over and over in my head. How could I have sabotaged myself more? Maybe I should have dressed worse… Or maybe I should have said something different in response to that question… Maybe I should have spoken less… Or maybe spoken more… Spoken faster or spoken slower… In effect, I’m left wondering how I can fake my way to a truer representation of myself. How can I turn up the artifice to trick myself into revealing the real me?
Just like in a job interview, assessing the person in front of me and their generic questions, I am trying to figure out what it is they want to hear, in the hope I might get the job (the treatment) I need to live a life.
It is a slippery slope, undoubtedly. I know a few people in my life who have gone too far the other way. So used to being patronised or not taken seriously, they turn the melodrama up the 11. More often than not, it makes the cynicism worse. My mother suffered from this. By the time she was taken seriously, it was too late. She went off the deep end and never recovered. I’ve seen up close that melodrama gets you nowhere.
That traumatic memory has pushed me the other way. I have a tendency to play things down, my girlfriend tells me. One of the side effects of a northerner’s stiff upper lip, which protrudes into every lane of my life except blogging. What a sorry situation.
Regardless, it is clear that high functionality doesn’t get you very far either. What I’m doing to get through the day seems less important than the fact I am still getting through the day. But for how long? Something is going to give. The whole point of doing these interviews is so that I can avoid the levee that breaks being me. It’s only a matter of time.
This feeling is what I hate about how mental health is dealt with in this country — the bureaucracy of it, the overbearing sense of professionalisation. These tendencies are wholly necessary on an institutional level, of course — or so they’d have us believe. When it comes to actually working in a field like mental health, with vulnerable and potentially unstable people, you need the straight-laced backbone of the institutional and its code of ethics to set the tone and certain boundaries. But must these sensibilities really leak out all over the patients themselves? Your professional sense of self creates a mirror, and now I am trying to see myself as a professional invalid.
What was most surreal was that, when I arrived at the assessment centre, I was sat in the waiting room with two women. We ignored each other, for the most part, until the two women started talking to each other. They knew each other already. It turned out they were both there for actual job interviews. It seemed they were moving around as NHS departments restructured themselves during lockdown and had previously met in their official capacities before the world was turned on its head. They were both in the running for a position at this particular assessment centre and were there to interview for a new role.
A wall went up in that moment of realisation. I felt like a patient or a punter who’d come in through the front door and accidentally sat in the staff room. I felt like I was somewhere I shouldn’t be — behind the curtain.
My experience is going to be very different to yours, I thought to myself, feeling my size and dress and demeanor crumble. Perhaps, in the end, it wasn’t. Although I wasn’t a patient, of course. I was a “client”. Every time I was referred to this way in abstract — “we find our clients respond to…”; “we try to provide our clients with…” — I felt distanced from the real reason I was actually there, and not in a good way. Yes, you’re providing a service, but I’m not about to tell you about it later on Yelp.
Nevermind. I guess the interview didn’t quite work out how I wanted but they said they were going to keep me in mind for another position. I didn’t work out on this occasion but keep your fingers crossed I get the next one.