Badiou’s Platonic Exit:
Egress Turns One

After first watching this film at the start of lockdown — and finding little of value in it, if I’m being honest — I returned to it a few weeks ago, having actually read a fair bit of Badiou now, and found the whole thing much more resonant.

It’s a tricky sort of documentary. As an introduction to the man himself — at least for the uninitiated, as I was on my first watch — it probably appears to be ninety minutes of some coughing Frenchman talking about nothing much of any particular depth or interest. But I can appreciate it a bit more now for the seeds it plants along the way.

Each sequence feels like an introduction to one of Badiou’s primary concerns, introduced in the most basic terms possible — sometimes to their own detriment. (Asking “What is a woman?” remains a questionable look, even if — or maybe especially if — it’s part of your Lacanian routine.) However, discovering how those concerns unravel and complexify over the course of his work is quite a thrilling undertaking — at least for me, still in the depths of things.

Documentary reappraisals aside, I wanted to share, briefly, a quotation taken from early on in the film, where Badiou talks about Plato’s allegory of the cave. I liked this a lot.

The cave of Plato. You know the famous cave of Plato? Take the cave as the metaphor of the world in its normal, oppressive, obscure situation. So, the world as it is. The world where there exists oppression, division, rich and poor, and so on. What Plato explains is that you can find an exit.

The exit is something that you find by chance, practically always. Revolt, new invention, love encounter. Unpredictable, unpredictable. And what Plato says is that, progressively, the idea is the discovery of a new meaning of the world. You see something of the truth of the world, which was invisible when we were in the cave. And from outside the cave you understand that you were in the cave. When you are in the cave, you don’t know that you are in the cave. And Plato describes magnificently, you see the trees, you see the sky, and finally you see the sun. And the sun is the metaphor of the idea. That is, it’s the idea of what is the true nature of the cave, what is the true nature of the world.

And Plato, at this moment, said, what you must do with all that, with the idea. We must return to the cave. You must return to the cave. To do what? To organise the exit. At first, you have had the chance to find the exit, and your duty is to return to the cave to organise the exit of all people of the cave. Not for some aristocratic minority of the cave but for the great masses of the cave.

And this movement is politics.

As I continue to battle with my book Egress, which turns one today — as I continue to think about what it was for, what it meant to me then, what it means to me now, what it contains and what it lacks — Badiou’s comments on that eureka moment and that moment of political action and commitment — that exit from the cave and the necessary return to it — feels like a nice sentiment to internalise and newly affirm.

Egress was, of course, meant to be an egress. I had hopes, this time last year, that it would become a capstone to a few years’ worth of work; a way to commemorate what was, for me, an extraordinary amount of movement sideways. It was a chance to duck out, on a personal level, and pass the story on. I thought I was done, and due a moment to settle into whatever came next. Mark’s death had completely redirected the course of my life at that point, and given a traumatic foundation to a whole new set of commitments that I have so far spent over four years very consciously trying to weather and stay true to. I thought what I had to look forward to was a chance to stop working; a chance to take a break. It turned out it was far too late for that. The egress wasn’t to come; it had already occurred.

Suffice it to say, I wasn’t the same person after Mark died. When I try and list all the ways in which that is true, the list never ends. As melodramatic as it sounds, I feel there is no better way to put it: Mark’s death was apocalyptic. It was a great unveiling. A world ended and another one emerged in its place. Such was the tension at the heart of Egress — the desire to go back and somehow stop it from happening; the knowledge that so much good had come out of that moment all the same.

So many people, over the years, have cynically tied Mark’s depression to his political commitments, as if he was no longer here because he stopped believing another world was possible. Like Rothko, from that moment on people looked at his work and saw nothing but a suicide, conveniently ignoring all the colour and humour that had been there from the start. This was especially true for the rest of us at Goldsmiths. Once the dust had settled, after we’d stopped kicking it up in our grief-stricken abandon, at ill-advised raves and in moments of collective catharsis, we realised Mark’s death didn’t foreclose a world but made another one possible. It showed us, in all the grief and horror, that the facts of our lives are so malleable, and we could treat each other with the same care and compassion we did every day after Mark died, if we let ourselves.

Egress was an attempt to share that initial experience and the thoughts it provoked. It felt important to do so, especially because my experience was not singular. We all felt like the course of our lives had been redirected, and in a very literal sense. With my photographer’s instinct still intact, I wanted to document every minute of it, for better or for worse.

But when I was out of the cave — out of the university, out of the social environment that had initially defined that experience — I almost fell all the way out, irreparably, flying towards the sun, towards the idea, getting burnt up in the arrogance and stupidity of an absolute exit. I wanted out, and I thought I could write my way there. But a return was always necessary. In private, I made attempts to patch-up strained friendships. I built back relationships that had been worn down by the years of erratic mental health. I went back to that community of like-minded people that the book eventually became a tribute to — gently and over time, as I set about finishing a text I had started anxiously but found hard to abandon — watching as the book and the For k-punk nights and all the rest of it grew far beyond in its initial configuration…

Looking back on it now — all the fraught conversations and bad decisions — it makes me think an inevitable return to the cave ain’t such a bad fate after all.

I started putting together Postcapitalist Desire just a few weeks after Egress came out. At that time it was clear that some of the reviewers of Egress just didn’t seem to get it. Perhaps because it felt like a capstone to a story that hadn’t been properly told yet. Postcapitalist Desire wasn’t intended as an addendum to Egress. Even if it was, it doesn’t work as one. But what I didn’t expect was that it would become something of a prelude. People who were nowhere near Goldsmiths have since gained a sense of what Mark was building towards and the despair some of us felt when we understood it would never be realised. Egress is the story of what came next, at least for those of us present. That is, at least, what people tell me. For me, the journey is reversed. Postcapitalist Desire was a return, not a prelude. It was the political act to Egress‘s exit. Putting that book together completed the journey that Egress began, when the first words were written for it, back in 2017. It hasn’t undermined Egress for me. It has only made me treasure that exit all the more. There would have been no return to make without it.

There are still many more ways out, with Mark’s work or without it. I still feel the weight of Mark’s work, although the work and its proliferation makes it lighter. I don’t want to live under the shadow of Mark’s life, death and work forever, but having committed to picking up a project that was not my own in its origin, it is difficult to know how best to set it down again. I keep trying, but it keeps leading to new avenues and new encounters. And so it should. Mark’s gone and he is still so sorely missed, but I think we’ve resisted the impulse to mummify his legacy. I look forward to seeing what comes of it next.

Until then…

Happy birthday, Egress.

The Unspeakably Familiar

Summer, 2006

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.

Summer, 2020

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…

Thinking About Writing, Writing About Thinking

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

New Year, New Blog

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Egress — Coming Soon from Caja Negra

Matheus Calderón‘s Spanish translation of my old blogpost “The Capitalist Realism of ‘Capitalist Realism Is Ending'” has been published on the Caja Negra blog to coincide with the publication of volume two of the K-Punk anthology into Spanish.

There’s also a little announcement tucked away in an image caption:

Egress… Futura publicación de Caja Negra Editora.

I’ve been very excited about this. It is always an honour to be translated and especially in such great company. Caja Negra not only has the coolest name — Spanish for “black box”, tracking those lines of flight — but also an amazing roster.

Matheus has also been wonderful to chat to over recent months and I am really humbled that he would undertake this project. Go check out his work!

I hope to have more information for Spanish readers soon. Watch this space.

Egress in EntropyMag

James Baxter has written a really thoughtful review of my book Egress for Entropy magazine.

I really enjoyed reading this one and I’m grateful to see someone find the benefits in the book’s slippery meanderings. It is true that they might make the book more challenging than readers of Fisher might be used to, but such was (and is) the nature of our reality. Many thanks to James for penning it.

Here’s an extract below. You can read it in full here.

For Colquhoun, himself a prolific blogger, the domains of engaged politics and culture are mutually reinforcing. Describing the ‘worldview’ of his blogging activities at XenogothicColquhoun writes of his preferred aesthetic as bringing to mind ‘the signs and signifiers at the edge of what we know and understand about the world around us—the weird, the eerie, the grotesque.’ Explicitly echoing Fisher’s own fascination for the ‘weird’ (his final publication, 2017’s The Weird and the Eerie would advance a reformulated understanding of Freud’s theory of ‘The Uncanny’), Colquhoun’s project similarly presses forward to the eerie threshold separating imaginative and disciplinary worlds.

And yet, while Fisher and Colquhoun share many of the same theoretical concerns, references to Egress as the first major work of legacy-building will be problematic for some. For those seeking an accessible entry-point into Fisher’s philosophical project, the complexity of Colquhoun’s study may prove off-putting. Like the conceptual ‘egress’ at the heart of the study, the reality of the matter is altogether more elusive: with the text departing from the set conventions of academic hagiography or philosophical monograph.

Although, if we are of the mind to adjust to its novel structure, the book promises many rewards — sliding between registers, both an outlet for his intellectual response to Fisher, while also serving as a diaristic account of collective mourning. Beginning as a postgraduate dissertation conducted during the writer’s time at Goldsmiths London (Fisher would spend the last years of his life as a member of the Visual Cultures Department of the University), Colquhoun openly expresses admiration for Fisher as an educator; elsewhere, he offers stories concerning his own mental health experiences and the insufficiency of state provision (a subject about which Fisher wrote acutely and passionately). All the while, the inclusion of Colquhoun’s own photographs, provide these passages with a driving sense of autobiographical momentum.

As Colquhoun states, Egress ‘is as much a product of the processes of grief and depression, mourning and melancholy as it is about these subjects.’ Writing in the wake of Fisher’s death, the book blankly acknowledges the difficulties of its own conception — with Colquhoun distant from the more intimate association of Fisher’s closest friends and colleagues. Consequently, there are moments in which Fisher’s presence seems to disappear altogether, with Colquhoun’s theoretical impulses stretching in all directions: absorbing Richard Gilman-Opalsky, Donna Haraway, Jean Luc Nancy, Stefano Harney and Fred Moten, among many others.

If something of Fisher’s confident lucidity is sacrificed as a result, to stop here would be to do injustice to Colquhoun’s more ambitious aims. Carrying forward what Colquhoun describes in Chapter 1 as the ‘Fisher Function’ (taken from Robin Mackay’s eulogy for Fisher held on Goldsmiths campus), Egress sets forth as an engaged attempt at applied Fisherean theory. Extending the horizon of Fisher’s ‘acid communism,’ Colquhoun has little time for academic biography, instead reaching for new case studies to re-channel the brand of eerie Utopianism and ‘digital psychedelia’ that would capture the imagination of Fisher’s unfinished writings.

XG on Acid Horizon

I had a really great time chatting to Craig, Matt and Will of the Acid Horizon podcast last week. We talked about my recent book Egress, a new editorial project coming out on Repeater Books soon, and a lot of stuff in between.

Thanks a lot to Acid Horizon for having me. You can check out an hour of our conversation above — you can also listen on Soundcloud and on Apple — but we spoke for much longer than that…

For the rest, sign up to the Acid Horizon Patreon here.

Ignore the Neurosis

Clarifying my thoughts about and my intentions with Egress is undoubtedly an unnecessary endeavour that reveals far more about my own neuroticism than it reveals about the book itself.

The present obsession with defending the presence of Bataille and Blanchot feels wholly ill advised and boarding on obsessive, and I’d take it all down if it wasn’t actually really useful for getting my own head straight.

Unfortunately, as of late, I have allowed the book to become wholly defined by its readers — for better and for worse. The death of the author has been embraced as an opportunity for needless self-flagellation and cringe over-protection but, worst of all, it has also allowed my own understanding of the book to be diminished and distorted in my own head. And that’s been quite a sad process — to forget or lose sight of why I cared so much to write something; to lose sight of that initial motor that made the thing worth pursuing. Without that, what is left behind isn’t pretty.

But in trying to keep sight of it I’m aware that I’ve become increasingly one-track minded. It’s not a good look and it feels pretty shite as well.

The problem is that, although Egress isn’t about me, it nonetheless feels like so much of me is in there, just under the surface, from my proudest memories to some of the memories I hate most about myself.

Anyone who knew me at Goldsmiths during the time described in the book will likely be able to confirm just how much of a fucking mess I was. I’d wager half the book was written drunk just so I could just get through it, which begs the question: why bother?

But who ever said writing was a healthy outlet?

When I write at the start that the book is as much a product of mourning and melancholy as it is about those two things, I don’t say that for effect. Frankly, publishing it has been a massive headfuck as echoes of depressions come around with every bit of shilling and press coverage and I’m sure it has showed. I’m far too close to it, even now, and, with the book coming out immediately prior to lockdown, it has been hard to find my distance. That distance is needed and desperately, or else I’ll continue to crowd the book and the discussion around it, killing it and the impact I hoped it would have.

I’m sure no one cares about any of this, of course. Suffice it to say that my oversensitivity is becoming deeply embarrassing with the slightest bit of hindsight but it’s a sign of something deeper than an author’s narcissism, so forgive me.

I’ll figure a way out of this headspace eventually. Unfortunately, the usual way I get out of headspaces is by writing about them…

First Step; Next Step. (I Was Moved.)

I’m still reeling from Dan Barrow’s article in Tribune, published online the other day — but in a good way. My previous post about it may have read slightly glibly — and I edited it multiple times after first publishing it to try and get the tone right — but in the process of thinking about the article, after my initial pointing to it, I realised that the balance I was seeking so desperately (and perhaps ill-advisedly) was one that could affirm the message of Dan’s article whilst also affirming the ways that my “perverse” references support that very gesture.

Is the latter affirmation even necessary though?

As much as I am (perhaps a little too) willing to defend my references and my own personal viewpoint in Egress at every opportunity, the article, along with the additional comments that Dan added on Twitter (embedded above), really encapsulated the impetus behind publishing the book in the first place — and it did so without them.

This made me reflect a bit on what the book was meant to do and what it means to me now, almost a year on from when I first (thought I had) finished it and sent it to Repeater Books.

This time last year, I’d been sat on the manuscript for Egress for almost eighteen months, not knowing what to do with it. I’d wanted to self-publish it but Robin Mackay politely stopped me, generously offering to edit it to make sure I got it right and didn’t just throw it into the world because I wanted rid of it, like an albatross around my neck. That was in December 2018. It took another year to achieve an outcome I was fully satisfied with.

Even in its final form, Egress is a book more full of questions than answers but, as the years slipped by, these questions became sharper and more refined. And yet, they were questions aimed at a Mark who jarred with this “other Mark” that people were now talking about in earnest online and in the press. The Mark I knew — and then later got to know even better through a complete immersion in his work — was decisively different from the one I saw rising up through various popular discourses.

In his article for Tribune, Dan encapsulates this same sense of morbid consensus when he writes about Jeremy Gilbert’s bastardisation of Acid Communism (which this blog has doggedly been trying to publicly dismantle since it was inaugurated in late 2017) and the more insidious flattening of “capitalist realism” into a one-dimensional notion. Dan writes:

The careless re-reading of what was already a fragmented, idiosyncratic set of interventions reduces capitalist realism to a mindset issue or a miasma of “identity politics” to be combated by the necromantic revival of the mid-century workers’ movement. This rhetorical habit is only a few degrees worse than the tic of citing Fisher that substitutes for political analysis in the music press.

What this looked like in practice was the incessant presentation of a Mark who was only good at articulating popular opinion rather than making incisions across it; a Mark caught within capitalist realism rather than striving to reach the outside of it.

I was discussing another aspect of this yesterday with Matheus Calderón: considering the nuances contained within Mark’s writings on hauntology, it is nauseating that Mark himself is reduced to some spectre for the popular left. This has led to Mark becoming entombed in a caricature of his own work, to the extent, in some cases, that his work can no longer be effectively put to use.

Part of the frustration that comes from the scattered reception of my book thus far comes from the fact that this mythical straw Mark — who is combatted implicitly, for the most part, in Egress, since most of the book was written before the strawman was fully established — looms too large to be undone by my book alone. A few reviews have battered the book, unable to accept how the book challenges their misconceptions. From the other side, however, a few other people, who knew Mark and his work far better than most, have since questioned the Mark that I have presented in Egress and elsewhere also, but I think it sort of comes with the territory that my book about this fragmented and idiosyncratic writer had to make knowing incisions into Mark’s thought as well as my own fragmented and idiosyncratic experiences.

Doing this, however, has led to the development of a certain amount of oversensitivity — if that wasn’t already very apparent — but that’s been a lesson learned the hard way: don’t wear your scabs on your sleeve if you can’t handle other people picking at them.

This sensitivity is complex. In part, it comes from trying to persistently fight for the unsettled and complex Mark that most have barely read but have nonetheless tried to exorcise and ignore; it also comes from the continuing experience of navigating a strange set of feelings and emotions that are still quite raw and have even been renewed in the face of the new level of public scrutiny that comes with being published.

Today, each of these modes of inquiry and criticism is distinct from the other, in my mind at least, even if my responses to them still often share a defensive register or a defiant tone. (I am too used to fighting what has long felt like a one-man war and I have perhaps become a little jaded after three and a half years of trying to swim upstream.) However, this complicated response on my part no doubt comes, above all else, from the traumatic reality of Goldsmiths in late 2017 when, after the academic year was over, I lost friends over my comments, written and verbal, about Mark’s works.

These were friends who disagreed with their sanitised vision of Mark being challenged. Not that it was even my intention to be challenging. I didn’t understand, at that time, why my position was controversial. I simply spoke up for a Mark properly read and failed to comprehend what all the fuss was about since I had the receipts to back up my interpretations. This is not to suggest I was sociopathically defiant, although I’m sure some would prefer to see me that way. In fact, I ended the year like everyone else — battered, bruised, and on the brink.

The process of receiving reviews of my book is oddly triggering, reminding me of that dark time, and making the process far less enjoyable than I had hoped and anticipated.

However, at the risk of banging on too much about my own use of Bataille and Blanchot in the book, it was precisely in pursuing and coming to terms with the fallout of this fraught gesture that Bataille was acutely and persistently relevant to me and my project. The way he attempted to write his way out of the political impotence of wartime, for instance, in his Summa Atheologica, was a key touchstone for me as 2016 came to a close and 2017 opened with the tandem events of Mark’s suicide and Trump’s election. The way he wrote towards an ethics of fraught communication was also a much firmer ground to start from than that offered by Mark in “Exiting the Vampire Castle” and elsewhere.

All this is to say that what I wanted to do with Egress was write my way out of (left) melancholy in much the same way that Bataille did. (When Dan notes that “Egress remains, despite its best efforts, trapped in the same ‘left melancholia’ as its Labourist and social democratic counterparts”, there is surely no question that this is the case, as I write explicitly about trying to grasp left melancholy effectively from within it, at the precise moment it was complicated by grief of another — albeit related — sort.)

It is also worth noting that Bataille and Blanchot were first put to use (that is, put to use together) in the text as I attempted to explore and navigate this complex and often grotesque gesture of scab-picking in order to get to a “truth” about where we were at, collectively and politically. Long before Egress was even conceived as a book, it was an essay that extended my own research into the ethical and largely posthumous relationship between Bataille and Blanchot, through which I was exploring how their strange conversations with their predecessors and contemporaries influenced much of the thought around the political relevance of communism in the philosophical circles of France up to the 1980s. (Again, all of this is explained in the text.)

(Additional sidenote: the influence of this French communist debate on more recent thought is most explicit in the work of another of Mark’s key influences: Slavoj Žižek — but a discussion on this was cut from Egress as it only threatened to derail what is already a lively and meandering text.)

Since it was a continuation of a thought that preceded Mark’s death, Mark’s thoughts on Bataille and Blanchot were not a consideration. I was already immersed in them before Mark died and so I simply put them to use without much thought regarding Mark’s opinions on either of them. In this sense, as well as defending their genealogical relevance within Mark’s thought (despite his own superficial dismissals of them), Bataille and Blanchot were most important, for me, in thinking through Mark’s death. They were invaluable as I attempted to write about death without falling into certain rhetorical traps; as I attempted face up to such traps honestly in my fraught attempts to navigate them in real time.

To write this here is to affirm, once again, that Egress was the product of a very specific time and process — a time and process that no doubt any future book on Fisher will have no reason to deal with. To write a less idiosyncratic book about Mark would have required a lot more distance than I had available to me. So why not just wait? Because that lack of distance was important — indeed, it was the very motor of the writing — and I think this motor remains important in our present moment of coronavirus and Black Lives Matter protests. That sort of distance is a luxury we did not have and many still do not have, and so I was happy, at the time, to sacrifice certain things to preserve that immanence to a moment and its affects.

It no doubt sounds childish to say “I meant to do that” to every criticism that appears for my book but, the truth is, for the most part, I did. Egress is a flawed book but it was unavoidably so if it was to be the book I wanted it to be, so I tried to affirm its flaws regardless, just as the flawed books of Bataille and Blanchot affirmed their own limits and the limits of writing so that they might get up close to these linguistic barriers that stop us from speaking to the unspeakable. This proto-Derridean noodling was no doubt a part of what Mark disliked about their works but, confronted by death — and by Mark’s death in particular — the stakes of this thinking reemerged in a way that was far more explicitly Lacanian (and the influence of Lacan on Mark’s thought is far more blatant).

This is the most frustrating thing about reading critiques that point out flaws I’m aware of, and which I feel make the book what it is. Egress is precisely the book I set out to write — warts and all. I would change plenty of things now, from a new and ever-shifting vantage point, but the idea was to stay true to the moment in which it was written — particularly that first year that followed Mark’s death. Bataille and Blanchot, as I make clear, were central to that moment for me. They were my background if not Mark’s.

However, this subjectivism doesn’t simply arrest time and contain the book, protecting it from criticism. Writing about how useful Bataille and Blanchot were in 2017 says little about their persistent relevance today. Maybe, from the vantage point of 2020, their inclusion really is perverse. On reflection, however, I still think not — but in a potentially productive way rather than a purely defensive one.

If my image of Mark appears to be as “a philosopher of abstract community”, as Dan describes it, this was not how it felt at the time, in the intensity of the moment in which those ideas were deployed. This is to say that, whilst Blanchot and Bataille’s writings certainly seem to float about on some ethereal plane of abstract theory, the experience from within which Egress was written was so powerful because it felt like that ethereality was — for a time — made palpable and material. Our consciousness was changing through experiences that were distinct from the sort that Mark himself had called for. His calls for joy were intensified absolutely but only because we were so depressively mired in their opposite.

Other thinkers were necessary to consider this complication that was, at the time, traumatically unresolved. I reached for the two closest to hand in my theoretical armoury. They are less close now, for whatever that is worth, although their influence still persists. But, strangely, considering the process of writing the book for the perspective of now, almost a year after it was completed, they might remain even more relevant in hindsight.

For instance, I recant, early on in Egress, the story of Bataille’s retort to Sartre’s scathing review of his 1943 book Inner Experience, in which Bataille oddly praises Sartre for cutting him down and opening him up so publicly, as Sartre accuses Bataille of speaking to some mystical realm beyond the material reality of political communication. But Bataille affirms Sartre capacity to do this — perhaps valiantly, perhaps pathetically — precisely because he is the outsider that Bataille himself calls forth. Humorously, in his response, Bataille imagines some weird ritual of ballroom potlatch, with himself and Sartre entangled in a dance; for Bataille, even if Sartre hated his book, he is nonetheless complicit in the very mode of communication he sought to describe, that erupts violently from deep within and from far without.

I was writing about this at the time to draw parallels (in a roundabout sort of way) between how our experiences of grief did not always intersect at Goldsmiths in 2017, and how that experience of communal critique and political patience was as informative as it was traumatic. Nevertheless, it was as hard to affirm then as it is now. But when I think about Egress now — when I can bear to — and it truly does feel like it was written a lifetime ago — I struggle against the still-unanswered questions of how effective our actions were in that moment. Perhaps we were all simply caught up in the idea of community whilst nonetheless butting our heads up against the thick glass of our abject individualisms. (Such were the questions Jean-Luc Nancy asked of Bataille’s work, later rebutted by Blanchot.) This would certainly explain the eventual fallout that resulted, with most of the group that organised the Fisher-Function sessions at Goldsmiths lashing outwards and retreating towards; traumatised.

Furthermore, the distance inaugurated by Egress becoming “A Book” probably has something to do with this ethereality reemerging for some readers. The communities described in the book certainly aren’t what they used to be, but it also lacks the immediacy of the blog and of a moment passed. But perhaps the conversation around the book, rather than the broken communities it describes, particularly at its most critical, is a positive way to restore this lost weight. That’s certainly part of my desire in remaining vocal about the book after the fact. That the publication of the book should inaugurate my silence and my stepping backwards from a conversation I’ve hoped to inaugurate is a “professional” expectation I am continuing to struggle with navigating, particularly because, even in my silence, I remain firmly in the firing line.

Take, for example, my own capacity to weather criticisms of a book that still feels so personal and how this process of weathering, in its very difficulty, calls the book itself (and myself) into question again. It is worth remembering, under the hubbub of professionalised reviews and comment pieces, that the stakes haven’t changed in this regard, and Dan’s essay gets at this notion very effectively. Indeed, the desire to build something off the back of such encounters rather than just pat backs or tear chunks off each other abstractly is something that Dan’s article has reminded me of, now that the dust has settled.

It’s a great article because, above the particulars of what he did or didn’t like about Egress, the central gesture of the book is nonetheless extended further still. Whether I agree with his criticisms or not, I can’t help but admire that and be grateful for it. (I was moved.)

The initial gesture of extension inaugurated in Egress was one that I hoped (perhaps naively and pretentiously) would be akin to Deleuze’s philosophical sodomy: his writing of bastard books divorced from their subject matter that are nonetheless monstrous products of a loyalty to his subject’s thought. (In this sense, I’m happy to embrace the “perversity” of Egress.)

The problem with Deleuze doing this, however, is that he often made it very difficult to follow suit, so that the conversation he inaugurated was largely one-sided (or explicitly caught between himself and Guattari, as well as being somewhat resistant to additions from others). So, instead of Deleuze, it was the relationship that Blanchot had to Bataille’s work that was most inspiring to me in this regard, and the way that Blanchot used Bataille posthumously in The Unavowable Community especially — the way he takes Bataille’s unruly and controversial thought and puts it to work in a conversation that builds towards an explicitly communist project.

This was an example of a gesture of friendship that I wanted to embrace for myself, at its most melancholy and earnest as well as its most defiant and combative. It is frustrating that, for some, this key gesture — which is quite explicit, I think — is lost to memories of Mark’s poor appraisals of two thinkers who dramatised the problems of the left in their time in much the same way Mark did for himself, and through the same odd confluence of occultural communities and Marxist materialism.

This was also part of what was so frustrating about the review in The Wire, which deployed such a piss-poor interpretation of Mark’s work, and that initial PopMatters review, which suggested my book was one in which “Mark Fisher’s insights are often obscured”. In truth, the latter reviewer’s advice for an alternative book on Fisher — one that might “begin with Fisher’s interest in radical politics and then show how this manifested itself in his writings on musical forms such as post-punk and electronica and on the weird fiction of H.P. Lovecraft, Nigel Kneale, and others” — painted such an abysmally basic picture of Fisher as to be worthy of far more ridicule than I dared give it at the time.

I didn’t want to write or publish a book like that. I wanted to add to Mark’s thought by entangling it with my own lived experiences and interests rather than just describing his thought and being done with it. I wanted to produce an -ology rather than an -ography. But this desire shouldn’t be stored away just because the book has come out and been “finalised”. These lingering questions and fault lines, partly forgotten in the fervour of the last few months, were affirmed during the writing process precisely to inaugurate, as Dan comments, “a first step” in truly reading Mark’s work for all it has to offer.

Egress is an attempt to open a door and I embarrassingly let it infuriate me every time a review or online comment responds by shutting that door in my face. With this in mind, sticking my head up above the parapet as The Mark Fisher Defender was not the desired result of this book-writing process, but it has been a hard mantel to resist. As Dan wrote in Tribune: “Few contemporary thinkers have needed more defence from their greatest admirers.” It has become abundantly clear that even just starting this sort of conversation is an uphill battle, however. Some of the reviews have demonstrated this profoundly, whether “professional” or “casual”. Many readers have reacted incredibly positively, of course, but the negative reviews resonate in my mind all the more when they fail to account for the clichéd Fisher they are putting to work in their appraisals of a book that wants to tear that false image down. This is to say that they are criticising the book for not being something I purposefully wanted to avoid. In stark contrast to this, Dan Barrow’s article for Tribune might be the first review, positive or negative, to see the door opened and, regardless of the shape of it, take a further step through it.

In this sense, Dan’s article is also the first to truly skewer this tension and critique it productively. As kneejerkingly defensive as I can be about a book still so new and dear to my heart, it’s worth remembering — note to self — that, when done right, even a negative review can build towards the Mark I had in mind. And that’s not to say that Dan’s article is even all that negative. It is clear to me that, even through its skewering of certain faults, it is a piece wholly supportive of the gesture the book attempts to inaugurate. This is a really important thing for me to realise right now and a part of the article I would like friends and the not-so-friendly alike to recognise in equal measure: that the gesture at its heart can still remain in tact, despite the particulars of how it is presented. For me personally, staying true to this gesture over my own hard-fought version of it is perhaps the new challenge; the next step.

Dan is absolutely right that we are only at the beginning of interpreting Mark’s thought and it would make Egress a futile endeavour if things just stopped here. It it because of this that I heartily welcome the next book to take on Fisher’s thought and I hope, whatever sort of book it is, it makes my book show its age. That agedness, inevitable due to how situated it is in a time and place, will be a sign, I hope, of how things have changed; how far we have come; how much the world has progressed. That’s what the Fisher-Function was all about, after all. As Robin said in Mark’s memorial:

Many of us naturally feel a need to ensure this is a moment when the force [Mark] brought into our world is redoubled rather than depleted. And to do so, to continue his work and our own, we have to try to understand his life, and the consequences of his death, at once horrifying and awakening, as a part of the Fisher-Function. And I don’t simply mean the intellectual contributions that we can appreciate, extend, take forward into the future; I also mean what we need to learn in terms of looking after ourselves and each other, right now.

The Fisher-Function is, in this sense, that thing, that function, which exceeds Mark — it is his excess — and it is precisely this excess that Bataille wrote back so consistently. The excess of “incandescent joy” that makes beings insufficient. The insufficiency I write about in Egress ,in this regard, is not just a sign of what we lack — a collective subjectivity — but also an acknowledgement that we cannot sufficiently contain all that we are — nor can the fascist state, which was Bataille’s extended argument in the Summa Atheologica, and nor can capitalism, which was Mark’s argument in his essay “Baroque Sunbursts” most explicitly (an image, borrowed from Jameson — first used by Mark on k-punk here — that is explicitly Bataillean in its grotesquely ocular explosiveness, in which he speaks of “a diseased eyeball in which disturbing flashes of light are perceived or like those baroque sunbursts in which rays from another world suddenly break into this one”).

It is this same excess that Dan channels in his article also. He concludes:

It’s precisely the excess, the “Red Plenty” of a boundless flow of “the collective capacity to produce, care and enjoy”, that could pour through the everyday life of a reclaimed modernity, that Fisher identifies in the confluence of acid communism. Labour’s recent difficulty in galvanising support for an electoral program of state-sponsored joy, riding on new enthusiasm infused into an old organising model, suggests the distance of 21st century socialists from the necessary radical implications of their own project, which Mark Fisher struggled more than anyone else to clarify.

Egress‘s central and most foundational flaw was that it too could not contain the excess that it sought to describe. It had to emerge wounded. As much as some might deny it, I would argue that Bataille and Blanchot remain key to any effective understanding of this excess and how it wounds us and what we are to do with that wounding. Few struggled to clarify this more than they did — except, perhaps, Mark.

“Mark Fisher Beyond the Cliché”: Dan Barrow on ‘Egress’ for Tribune Magazine

An excellent write-up on Mark Fisher and my book Egress in the latest issue of Tribune magazine: “Mark Fisher Beyond the Cliché”, penned by Dan Barrow.

It’s great to see a swift appraisal of Mark’s writings that contends with his bizarre posthumous reputation. Barrow writes:

On the margins of academia and “Very Old Media”, [Fisher’s] work was informed by a training in ultra-libertarian cybertheory, as a co-founder of the Cybernetic Culture Research Unit, and a tradition of music journalism that the British press itself had marginalised. When the diagnostic nous of his first book, Capitalist Realism, made it a surprise hit, it also became “the unofficial manifesto for the leftist resurgence of 2011”, in Alex Niven’s words, a wave of energetic, broadly humanist socialist agitation, newly engaged with institutional politics. The last substantial work Fisher himself published before his death in January 2017 was a think tank paper, co-authored with soft left political theorist Jeremy Gilbert. We might ask: what happened?


The question is partly prompted by the odd silence around the 10th anniversary last year of Capitalist Realism, and the publication this March of the first monograph on Fisher’s work, Egress – On Mourning, Melancholia and Mark Fisher, by Matt Colquhoun, a former student of his at Goldsmiths. While Capitalist Realism the book still does stellar business, “capitalist realism” the concept is in abeyance. One social catastrophe after another, we’re told, proves that “capitalist realism is finished”. But the very inheritors and popularisers of the concept they claim to have overcome still act as if “it is easier to imagine the end of the world than it is to imagine the end of capitalism”, their horizons of social change constrained to a very narrow conception of the collective and the political. The resources that Fisher’s work offer to an emergent 21st century socialism have to be extracted from the sanitisation of a complex, rebarbative, tactical and often difficult writer and its conversion into an intellectual commodity. Few contemporary thinkers have needed more defence from their greatest admirers.

I share these frustrations, having written on “the capitalist realism of ‘capitalist realism is ending'” just last month. In light of all this, it is nice to see Egress described as “a much-needed corrective.”

Barrow still has his criticisms, however; some that are now quite familiar:

However, in Colquhoun’s hands Fisher becomes a philosopher of abstract community. The “emergent figure of a collective subject… a strange and external agency from without which seems borne of love and an interpersonal familiarity found within” he draws from his writings, read through the work of Maurice Blanchot and Georges Bataille, remains purely prefigurative of a future communism.

To reach for these two figures in particular whilst ignoring major influences like Stuart Hall is a mark of the book’s perversity: Fisher disdained Bataille, whom he associated with “the solitary urinal of male subjectivity”, and gave Abi Titmuss more column inches than Blanchot.

These are the figures present because they resonate most with Fisher’s overall trajectory, in my view, whether he liked them or not — which is to say that, in the context of the history of ideas, they are relevant to Fisher’s thought regardless. Beyond the clichés of their own work — clichés Mark was also guilty of repeating — Bataille and Blanchot shared projects very similar to Fisher’s — albeit as part of a more explicitly French tradition, which Mark (and many of my own readers) may not like stylistically. Beneath that, however, they have more in common than not. But I’ve been through all this already, as I’ve addressed this critique on the blog in a couple of places over the last week — here, here and (less directly) here.

Nevertheless, I’m grateful Barrow still grasps the core of the book beyond this. He adds: “But Colquhoun quite rightly identifies at the heart of Fisher’s political theories an ‘egress’ from the reality of ‘mandatory individualism’ that capitalist realism sets as the parameters of subjectivity.”

This same argument is championed in a conclusion that I found to be a rousing distillation of how I too think Fisher’s thought deserves to be viewed at the level of pop-left politics in our present moment:

In Egress’s best chapter, Colquhoun points out that the [“Acid Communism”] essay’s apparently exotic aspects can in fact be traced far back in Fisher’s thought. In many early writings he associates “psychedelic reason” with the imperative of philosopher Baruch Spinoza to dissolve the “Human OS” of individual subjectivity. Following Spinoza and his later interpreters Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari, he sees the task of thought as the production of “joyous affect”, opposed to the depressive individualism he would later associate with capitalist realism. This “cold rationalist” pursuit of states of depersonalisation fed into his many artistic fascinations adjacent to the psychedelic, such as rave, the writings of William Burroughs and JG Ballard, the bleak, foggy sonics of The Caretaker, and jungle, described by his Goldsmiths colleague Kodwo Eshun as a “rhythmic psychedelia”.

This cyberpunk interpretation of philosophy of mind drew not only, as Colquhoun notes, on the theoretical resources of the CCRU, but updated Marxist theories of ideology in dialogue with poststructuralist theories of the subject. Capitalist realism preforms subjects and canalises their desires – or “reterritorialises” them, in Deleuze and Guattari’s terminology – into the self-reinforcing structures of “interpassive” leisure (the iPhone and the anxiety-inducing infinity of social media scrolling became Fisher’s prime examples). Michel Foucault, intriguingly, occupies a pivotal place in the “acid communism” essay, alongside libertarian Marxist Herbert Marcuse. Fisher focuses on “limit-experiences” in Foucault’s work, moments in which perspective shifts and “[t]he conditions which made experience possible could now be encountered, transformed and escaped”. Foucault associated these limit-experiences with hallucinogens, but they also informed his critical theories of regimes of individuality and knowledge as historically contingent arrangements of power. For Fisher radical politics becomes the functioning of just such a perspective-shift, infused with a “laughter from the outside”. 

This is a quite different vision from the reception of acid communism among much of the Corbynite left, which has portrayed it as the revival of, in Jeremy Gilbert’s words, “a psychedelic socialist structure of feeling” and sought to infuse political culture with an orientation towards “collective joy”. On the contrary, as Colquhoun rightly insists, the experience of contact with the Outside can be traumatic in its very liberation. It lies, in Freud’s phrase, “beyond the pleasure principle”. For Fisher these currents converged in the notion of “consciousness-raising”. A key political practice of second-wave feminism, the term took on other resonances from psychedelia and anti-psychiatry. In Fisher’s reading, it forms a conduit between subjectivity and organisational form, between the cell-forms of political groupings and the universality of a community of desire. Acid communism thus makes concrete the wager of capitalist realism for the 21st century left: not only that the stakes of altering subjectivity are political, but that any politics that truly contests neoliberal “reality programming” will involve collectively restructuring subjectivity. 

This notion of politics as a psychedelic contact with the Outside represents an intensification and capture of what Fisher, via Land and Deleuze/Guattari, saw as modernity’s potential for “destratification”. In a remarkable late text on ‘Post-Capitalist Desire’, Fisher asks whether the challenge of Land’s vision of capital as an overwhelming libidinal system can’t be seen as the basis for a socialist “counterlibido, not simply an anti-libidinal dampening”. The nervous boredom, deflated misery, anhedonic consumption and archaic hierarchies that regulate capitalist realism aren’t necessary: “can’t we conceive of consumer capitalism’s culture of ready meals, fast food outlets, anonymous hotels and disintegrating family life as dim pre-echo of precisely the social field imagined by early Soviet planners.” It’s precisely the excess, the “Red Plenty” of a boundless flow of “the collective capacity to produce, care and enjoy”, that could pour through the everyday life of a reclaimed modernity, that Fisher identifies in the confluence of acid communism. Labour’s recent difficulty in galvanising support for an electoral program of state-sponsored joy, riding on new enthusiasm infused into an old organising model, suggests the distance of 21st century socialists from the necessary radical implications of their own project, which Mark Fisher struggled more than anyone else to clarify.

Update #1: A few further comments from Dan Barrow on Twitter that I think are worth adding here:

I knew Mark for a number of years & owe him & his work an incalculable debt, & feel much of his reception — particularly since his death — presents serious problems, that are really the problems of the left in general [1]

we’re really only at the very beginning of interpreting him & if there’s resources to be found in an integrated understanding of his work I hope this piece helps nudge people in the right direction [2]

whatever criticisms I might have of Colquhoun’s book I think it’s a very constructive first step & will hopefully make the right people mad online [3]

I should be clear that, as much as I am willing to defend my references and my own personal viewpoint, this was precisely the drive behind publishing Egress in the first place.

I’d been sat on the manuscript for almost eighteen months, not knowing what to do with it, before submitting it to Repeater Books, and it was the posthumous Mark I had seen emerge during that time in limbo that made me feel like I had to be put it out now or never.

There’s plenty of soul-searching and melancholia in the book — unavoidably, given the context in which it was written — but I am very grateful to Barrow for drawing out the sharp end of it here. It is a sharp end that is all the easier to articulate in hindsight but, as Barrow says, the problems it cuts through — messily in my own book — are precisely the problems of the left.

It is not lost on me that those problems may also appear in the book itself. That was sort of the point. Egress is a document of a process of emerging out of them.

Almost a year on from when the manuscript was originally finished, I’m already painfully aware that I’d approach certain topics differently and I still have much left to say on Mark’s work, but it’s a snapshot of a moment and, if anything, I’ll be happy if it ages badly.

Update #2: An extended and further reflection on this article has been written and posted here.

A Lacanian-Spinozist Theology of the Seething Cosmic Void: Ed Berger on Fisher and Bataille

A really fucking excellent comment from Ed, responding to my earlier post on Fisher and Bataille, that fills in a bunch of gaps in my understanding of the context of the original anti-Bataille lecture Mark is commenting on. Ed draws the same conclusions but from a much broader historical perspective than I’m in possession of.

As ever, I’d hate for this to languish “below the line” — because who reads comments here apart from me? — so here it is in full for your pleasure:

I’ve thought about that bit about Ginzburg quite a bit in the past, and spent some time trying to track down his writings on Bataille. Almost came to the point of thinking that it was a sort of theory-fictional critique of Bataille using the actual figure of Ginzburg as an avatar (because Ginzburg’s scholarship elsewhere is top-notch, and his work on the witch’s sabbath is an important source in early CCRU materials like the ‘swollen footnotes’ to “Flatlines”). But eventually I found a reference to Ginzburg’s critique in Dennis Hollier’s “Absent Without Leave: French Literature Under the Threat of War” and in an essay by Susan Suleiman. The latter is particularly interesting because she draws a comparison between Ginzburg and Zeev Sternhell, who is pretty much the person who tried to cement a historical connection between the ‘counter-enlightenment’ and fascism. Sternhell and other scholars close to this camp use this dynamic to diagnose a host of individuals, even those opposed to fascism like Bataille, as being covertly fascist (Sorel too was made persona non grata from this camp). But this critique is rooted in a particular iteration of liberalism, one that holds the Enlightenment — particularly the line running through Kant and his French followers — as the source of liberalism, democracy, etc.

Sternhell’s critique has no time for the way that Adorno and Horkheimer problematize the Enlightenment, and basically dismisses them with a hand-wave saying that they are effectively characterizing the Kantian-French-liberal tradition. But Sternhell is missing the meat of the argument, that this trajectory does lead to liberal democracy, but also leads to this other thing, and that these currents are not counterposed but locked together into a continuum (which can easily be reconciled via a materialist analysis). And instead of doubling back to ‘make good’ on the Enlightenment’s promises, Adorno himself certainly seemed to want to find something beyond it (leading blackpilled Horkheimer to accuse him of having a ‘penchant for theology’)… hence negative dialectics, with its emphasis on differentiation, nonidentity, etc. It seems to me that Bataille was working towards a similar aim, also drawing up radical differentiation, nonidentity… like in his letters to Kojève, writing of something unable to be assimilated into synthesis — shades of Marcuse: “the outside… [is] the qualitative difference which overcomes the existing antitheses inside the antagonistic partial whole — and remains ‘leftover’.” And from there, to Lacan and his real, the incompleteness of the symbolic, the gap, denial of permanent, stable resolution — and thus to Fisher himself, with his great debt to Lacan! There’s a debate, earlier on in K-punk, where somebody raises Lacan’s relationship to Bataille in response to the condemnation of the latter, that Fisher dismisses… but like you point out above and in Egress, the limit experience is something pursued by both, and is refracted through influences that sync together in a common intellectual history (I would go as far as to draw comparisons between Fisher’s attempts circa 2004-05 to build a Lacanian-Spinozist theology based on the seething cosmic void — which I suspect Nick cribbed a bit from for his Gnon-theology — and Bataille’s own fascination with the negative tradition within Catholic theology).

I guess what I’m trying to say really just echoes what you are saying, lol: that Fisher’s own work can just as easily be read as being ‘counter-enlightenment’ as Bataille, even if he was more committed to a (very atyptical) rationalism far more that our weird Frenchmen. After all, how does he present the remaking of the world? Not simply in the rational remaking of the world, but in libidinal engineering, limit-experiences, strange references to shamanism and sorcery, gaps, ritual and myth… in other words, all the things one would find in the workings of the College de Sociologie!