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!

Surfascism and Surneoliberalism: Notes of Fisher, Bataille and Accelerationism

Another bit of cribbing from @k_punk_unlife that has raised some interesting questions for me this fine Sunday afternoon.

Taken from Fisher’s review of a Carlo Ginzberg lecture from 2004, originally posted on the Hyperstition blog [currently down but available here], Bataille and the College of Sociology receive a bit of a damning appraisal. Mark writes:

Between Baudelaire and Foucault lie Bataille and the College de Sociologie, but implicit in Ginzburg’s narrative was a total debunking of any claims that Bataille’s advocacy of cruelty, sacrifice and the transgressive was in any way ‘radical’. On the contrary, and as should be clear by now, the College’s withdrawal from reason, its conception of the cosmos as a gigantic cruelty machine, is part of a well-established reactionary tradition.

Bataille emerged in Ginzburg’s story as a figure frighteningly close to Dostoyevsky’s Underground Man — a minor civil servant with fantasies that would be dangerous if they had any possibility of being enacted. Thankfully, they didn’t (‘Bataille was not a man of action,’ Ginzburg remarked, in a masterpiece of understatement). The story of Bataille’s ludicrous attempt to become a human sacrifice (he offered himself to three people, none of whom would kill him) is as comic as it is pathetic.

The connection between Bataille and fascism should by now be obvious: the same withdrawal from secularized modernity into a blood cult, the same ‘alphabet of unreason’ (Ballard). Naturally, it’s too quick, too crass, to say that Bataille was a fascist. But Ginzburg did more than enough to establish that it wasn’t for nothing that the Acephale group were accused of being ‘Surfascists’ (a name they themselves happily appropriated). The group had praised Hitler’s virile forthrightness and Bataille, Ginzburg said, had been bewitched by the phallic power of the Nazis. He sought, impossibly, tragically, to attain the ‘innocence of animals’, to sink into the porcine ignorance-bliss of a creature consciousness unburdened by intellect and reason.

I was aware of this post but never paid it much mind. I don’t know this Ginzberg but the appraisal of Bataille and the College offered up here is as batshit and reaching as an Elisabeth Förster-Nietzsche appraisal of Nietzsche. And yet, perhaps this post is more worthy of acknowledgement, particularly given the fact that my book on Mark draws on Bataille quite extensively.

A few weeks back, Dominic Fox pulled on a similar thread that no doubt had this old post at the end of it, believing that many of the references in Egress to those French inter-war crazies are “disorientatingly inapposite”. This was coupled with a few reported comments from Owen Hatherley that Mark thought Blanchot a snob and Bataille silly.

At the time, I didn’t see why those opinions should have any bearing on the references used by another. A book that stuck to Mark’s own references would hardly be that interesting a read, or a book that I’d feel comfortable calling mine. And so, the only real thing I took away from these bitchy comments was that I could have perhaps clarified where my tastes diverge — sometimes pointedly — from Mark’s own in my book. (My response at the time was that I didn’t see the need and anxiously that drawing lines around things would only interfere with — and potentially undermine — the project at hand.) But I think it’s also worth explaining why Mark’s view of these thinkers — if his views had indeed remained the same since 2004 (personally, I have my doubts about that) — was sadly mistaken.

As far as I’m concerned, Mark’s appraisal of Bataille — at least at this time — is hypocritical and inaccurate — and all the more so in hindsight. Many of his (second-hand) critiques of the College above could just as easily be applied to the Ccru, for instance — and I’m sure some readers would nod along to that with glee. But what becomes apparent to me, very quickly, in reading Mark’s work, is that his critiques and his vigilance regarding the role of culture and aesthetics in constituting a political imaginary often come quite close to Bataille’s own.

On his visit to Portmeirion, for instance, Mark writes:

Like punk, Surrealism is dead as soon as it is reduce to an aesthetic style. It comes unlive again when it is instantiated as a delirial program (just as punk comes unlive when it is effectuated as an anti-authoritarian, acephalic contagion-network). Chtcheglov resists the aestheticization of Surrealism, and treats De Chirico’s paintings, for instance, not as particular aesthetic contrivances, but as architectural blueprints, ideals for living. Let’s not look at a De Chirico painting —- let’s live in one.

From the same post, Mark recalls a quip made by Iain Hamilton Grant:

Remember that Andre Breton thought that the British – with Edward Lear , Lewis Carroll and their ludic ilk – had little need of Surrealism, since they were already Surrealist. (Though it’s always worth bearing in mind, when thinking of Breton, Iain Hamilton Grant’s elegant put-down at Virtual Futures 94. Grant was incredulously pondering Jameson’s formulation, ‘Surrealism without the unconscious’. ‘What would that be? Breton I suppose…’ LOL)

This was Bataille’s critique of Breton also. Indeed, when Bataille embraced the “surfascist” insult applied to him — as Mark recounts with an air of horror — he did so because it situated him precisely where he wanted to be: above fascism whilst under occupation.

This was a far more preferable position than that of the Surrealists who had, as Bataille writes in his essay “The ‘Old Mole'”, “continued persistently to express their basic predilection for values above the ‘world of facts’ with such banal formulas as ‘revolt of the Spirit’, etc.” For Bataille — contrary to Ginzberg’s appraisal reported by Mark above — it was better to be “above” the mythological realm of the Third Reich than to be “above” reason.

Similarly, Bataille’s critique of the Surrealists also echoes Fisher’s critique of the hippies and the counterculture, who allowed their “revolutionary” aesthetics to disarticulate class struggle from any vaguely political gesture. Bataille again writes:

It is of course difficult to avoid a feeling of contempt for revolutionaries to whom the revolution is not, before all else, the decisive phrase of the class struggle. Nevertheless we are not concerned with ephemeral reactions, but with a verification of a general nature: any member of the bourgeoisie who has become conscious that his most vigorous and vital instincts, if he does not repress them, necessarily make him an enemy of his own class, is condemned, when he loses heart, to forge at once values situated ABOVE all those values, bourgeois or otherwise, conditioned by the order of real things.

As I argue in Egress, this critique finds its most pointed articulation in Bataille’s novel Blue of Noon, but the point of Bataille’s essay here (which, for what its worth, does not appear in my book) is precisely to psychoanalyse the bourgeois repressions that allow the Surrealists to embrace their superficial freedom. He writes:

With few exceptions, this is the pitiful psychology of bourgeois revolutionaries before the Marxist organisation of the class struggle. It leads to a representation of revolution as redemptive light rising above the world, above classes, the overflowing of spiritual elevation and Lamartinian bliss.

Here we find Bataille connecting Marx to a politics of below, preempting the Deleuzo-Guattarian “Geology of Morals” and its implicit relevance to a truly surrealist materialism, connecting the earth to the psyche and to class consciousness. Bataille continues, explaining his titular reference:

“Old Mole”, Marx’s resounding expression for the complete satisfaction of the revolutionary outburst of the masses, must be understood in relation to the notion of a geological uprising as expressed in the Communist Manifesto. Marx’s point of departure has nothing to do with the heavens, preferred station of the imperialist eagle as of Christian or revolutionary utopias. He begins in the bowels of the earth, as in the materialist bowels of proletarians.

There is a double-articulation here, of course, just as there is in Deleuze and Guattari’s version. To say that the proletariat must “wallow in the mud” is nonetheless to affirm the hierarchy of capitalism. This is arguably an attempt here to make the plane of revolution more horizontal, just as Nietzsche’s thought (through Zarathustra most explicitly) takes on a quasi-religious form when taking the view from the summit — viewing the world from above, on mountaintops that are, nonetheless, instances of ground raised up through tectonic movement. Embodying a sort of atheistic Buddha or the proto-communist Franciscan monks, Zarathustra’s appeal, then, is to a “highest poverty”.

The real problem with Surrealism, then, just as Grant reportedly quipped, is that it rises high only to forget about the low — it ascends beyond any real engagement with the Unconscious, for instance, or similarly dwells in the Unconscious without making contact with the political realm of action. For Bataille, in this same sense, Surrealism finds itself as little more than a “servile idealism” that rests impotently on nothing more than a “will to poetic agitation”. As above, so below — or don’t bother.

The Surrealists, obviously, did not like this attack and it created a vicious rift between Bataille and Breton that would persist all through the war. Taking this ‘Old Mole’ article — and perhaps Bataille’s other text, “The Psychological Structure of Fascism” — into account, they proceed to denounce Bataille was a surfascist, as if to say he is a hypocrite in taking a stand and looking down upon them. Again, Bataille would no doubt argue that this was his Nietzschean perspective — he cast judgement upon them from his “view from the summit” and was capable of doing so without abandoning the politics of below.

Stuart Kendall, in his translator’s introduction to Bataille’s On Nietzsche, has a particularly illuminating passage on the emergence of the insult that Bataille embraced. He writes:

The precise origin and intended meaning of the term “surfascism” remain in dispute. Henri Dubief attributes it to Jean Dautry as wordplay modeled on “Surrealism”. Pierre Andler has also claimed responsibility for it, and we encouter the term in a note on fascism he wrote in April 1936: “Just as fascism is only a definitive surmarxism, a Marxism put back on its feet, similarly the power that will reduce it can only be a surfascism. Fascism does not refer to itself as surmarxism, since it is called fascism. Similarly, surfascism will not refer to itself as surfascism. It is not forbidden to seek the name that surfacism will bear tomorrow.” Henri Pasoureau, for his part, claimed in a letter to scholar Marina Galletti that “the word surfascism had been invented by the Surrealists. It can designate both a surpassed fascism (positive) or an exacerbated fascism (negative).” As a charge leveled against [Bataille’s counter-surrealist group] Counter Attack by the Surrealist group, the term is clearly intended negatively, as an assertion that Bataille and his other collaborators — including Georges Ambrosino and Pierre Klossowski, among others — were “more fascist than the fascists.” There was more than a little truth to the accusation, and intentionally so. In a letter to Pierre Kaan written in February 1934, during the planning stages of Counter Attack, Bataille had said explicitly: “I have no doubt as to the level on which we must place ourselves: it can only be that of fascism itself, which is to say on the mythological level.”


The accusation of surfascism, in the very thick of his militancy against fascism, seems to have been just the provocation that would push Bataille not only to manifest his Nietzscheanism overtly but also to give it a central place in his political program moving forward. As he wrote to Roger Caillois weeks before the war began: “My insistence on claiming Nietzsche for myself alone indicates the direction I’m going.” The nature and continuity of this concern is my point here. Despite the chaos of the era and the apparent chaos of the texts, from the accusation of sur-fascism in 1936 to the writing of Sur Nietzche in 1944, Bataille’s thought betrays a profound, though not seamless, continuity. […]

Bataille’s Promethean push, in both Acéphale and On Nietzsche, would be to steal some fire from the Nazis — to steal Nietzsche back from them by demonstrating that he was neither bourgeois nor nationalist nor an anti-Semite.

It was with this understanding of Bataille’s trajectory in mind, having studied it for much of 2017, that I remember first making my case that Bataille was less antithetical to Mark than Mark himself may have at one time believed. I first said this in a reading group on Mark’s “Acid Communism” at Somerset House in London in 2018. It was Dan Taylor, at that time, who similarly brought up Bataille in orbit of some of Mark’s later works and, erring on the side of caution, I seem to remember that Dan invoked Bataille as a thinker that Mark would not have had a lot of time for. I remember interjecting and saying something along the lines of: whilst that may have been true, I think Bataille has more bearing on Mark’s work, particularly later on, than he may have been aware of.

Mark’s writings on rave and the fête, for instance, or on Lyotard and accelerationism, betray Bataille as a silent collaborator, who influenced many of those thinkers that Mark was more prepared to take seriously. I think this is especially true after the advent of Accelerationism. Noys’ critique that many post-’68 philosophers were fetishising a philosophical negativity, for instance, was roundly flipped by Mark in his essay “Terminator versus Avatar” in a positively Bataillean fashion. The essay begins:

In the introduction to his 1993 translation of Lyotard’s Libidinal Economy, Iain Hamilton Grant refers to a certain ‘maturity of contemporary wisdom.’ According to this ‘maturity’, Grant observes, Economie Libidinale was ‘a minor and short-lived explosion of a somewhat naive anti-philosophical expressionism, an aestheticizing trend hung over from a renewed interest in Nietzsche prevalent in the late 1960s’. Grant groups Lyotard’s book with three others: Deleuze and Guattari’s Anti-Oedipus, Luce Irigaray’s Speculum of the Other Woman and Baudrillard’s Symbolic Exchange and Death. ‘Libidinal Economy has in general drawn little critical response,’ Grant continues, ‘save losing Lyotard many Marxist friends. Indeed, with a few exceptions it is now only Lyotard himself who occasionally refers to the book, to pour new scorn on it, calling it his “evil book, the book that everyone writing and thinking is tempted to do”.’ This remained the case until Ben Noys’ Persistence of the Negative, in which Noys positions Libidinal Economy and Anti-Oedipus as part of what he calls an ‘accelerationist’ moment.

He continues, a little later on:

Of the 70s texts that Grant mentions in his round-up, Libidinal Economy was in some respects the most crucial link with 90s UK cyber-theory. It isn’t just the content, but the intemperate tone of Libidinal Economy that is significant. Here we might recall Žižek’s remakrs on Nietzsche: at the level of content, Nietzsche’s philosophy is now eminently assimilable, but it is the style, the invective, of which we cannot imagine a contemporary equivalent, at least not one that is solemnly debated in the academy. Both Iain Grant and Ben Noys follow Lyotard himself in describing Libidinal Economy as a work of affirmation, but, rather like Nietzsche’s texts, Libidinal Economy habitually defers its affirmation, engaging for much of the text in a series of (ostensibly parenthetical) hatreds. While Anti-Oedipus remains in many ways a text of the late 60s, Libidinal Economy anticipates the punk 70s, and draws upon the 60s that punk retrospectively projects. Not far beneath Lyotard’s ‘desire-drunk yet’ lies the No of hatred, anger and frustration: no satisfaction, no fun, no future. These are the resources of negativity that I believe the left must make contact with again. But it’s now necessary to reverse the Deleuze-Guattari / Libidinal Economy emphasis on politics as a means to greater libidinal intensification: rather, it’s a question of instrumentalising libido for political purposes.

It is my view that, if anyone exists at the heart of this endeavour, this project that Mark would carry forwards into his Acid Communism — and, as a soon-to-be-released project will demonstrate, accelerationism and its discourses were the most important influence on Mark’s emerging thought on Acid Communism — it is Bataille.

It is Bataille who exists at the heart of Lyotard’s reading of Marx and it is Bataille’s attacks of the fascist caricature of Nietzsche and on Surrealism that foreshadow Mark’s own accelerationist manoeuvres and capitalist-realist critiques — whether Mark liked him or not. In fact, it is Mark, in many respects, who I see carrying forward the original Landian mode of accelerationism, perhaps even more so than Reza’s Cyclonopedia, into new productive territories — precisely because he interrogates this mode rather than just LARPing it. It is sur-Landian to Reza’s fan fiction.

This is to say that, just as the Ccru has found itself derided for its appeals to a “macho neoliberalism” or a “Deleuzo-Thatcherism”, this negative appraisal is sidestepped by Mark and made positive, just as Bataille affirmed the positive reading of the surfascist insult for his own purposes.

In Fisher’s hands, accelerationism becomes a surneoliberalism proper, taking a view from the summit and reaffirming the importance of class struggle that the Ccru may have, at times, abstracted a little too much. His psychedelic reason collides with Bataille’s own project of a materialist surrealism that rejects the bourgeois impotence of a purely artistic movement. It was similarly Mark’s call for a “democracy of joy” that echoes the fury of Bataille’s own ethical call for a “practice of joy in the face of death”, as a rejection of neoliberalism’s Pod-person affectless cheeriness; its happiness at the expense of autonomy. It is also Bataille’s strange habit of joustin with his own agnosticism that foreshadows Mark’s own Spinozist call for a kind of atheistic religion.

Others might pour scorn on my own uses of Bataille (and Blanchot) in orbit of a Mark who publicly denounced them, but a decent familiarity with either thinker surely reveals that these lines were previously drawn in haste — by Mark especially. We needn’t do the same and remain in ignorance, especially at a time of great political confusion that echoes the time of the College of Sociology. The left once again finds itself maligned by a kind of mythological propaganda from the right, and whilst the College may not have been successful, and its forms may no longer resonate with society today, their militantly antifascist aims certainly do — and their surfascism especially.

Update #1: Ed Berger’s comment on this post — below, and given a post of its own here — is an essential addition to the above. I’d implore you to read it.

Egress and the Vampire Castle: A Letter to The Wire Magazine

To whom it may concern,

Please find below a response to a review published in your most recent issue (May 2020, issue 435), considering two books on the work of Mark Fisher. Considering the inaccuracies and mischaracterisations present in this review, I would appreciate its inclusion in the letters page of your next issue.

– – –

Your review of my book Egress: On Mourning, Melancholy and Mark Fisher and Macon Holt’s Pop Music and Hip Ennui was not a review of two books but an excuse to attack a seven-year-old essay, perpetrating the kind of careless mischaracterisations of Mark Fisher’s thinking last found in the online comments boxes that helped drive him from social media.

The main concern of this “review” was Fisher’s 2013 essay “Exiting the Vampire Castle” — an essay all the more relevant to our present moment considering the recent political defeats of the left — misrepresented by your reviewer as a “wholesale dismissal of feminism and critical race studies”, a discredited and ungrounded reading that exemplifies the sort of cliched sloganeering Mark sought to critique. His essay (not my book) was an (undeniably controversial) attempt to decry the weaponisation of Twitter to deflate consciousness and discourse on the left, attacking those who would seek to derail the left through self-aggrandising personal grievances and self-righteous grandstanding. The target here was not women or minorities, but the ways in which any mode of political thinking is put to use in bad faith, creating a negative feedback loop of micropolitical battles that waste time, energy and resources. In particular, he found the communicative-capitalist function of Twitter undermined the principles being espoused by those on the “left”, who use it to signal their virtue for likes and retweets rather than progressive ends.

Mark’s sense of a movement — and movement-building — is what my book Egress seeks to engage with. Your reviewer is entitled to make a judgement on how successfully I do that, but it is disingenuous to ignore the evidence within the book that clearly undermines the argument being espoused in the review, simply to make reductive digs at Fisher’s legacy. My hope is that the book is a testament to the continuing power of Mark’s work that emerged profoundly after his death, specifically forms of collective organising that continue to influence London’s political, academic and club scenes today. The events documented depict a continuation, on our part, of the force Mark brought into the world, rendering the final judgement of the review — that “the sort of solidarity Fisher spent his life dreaming toward … couldn’t [be realised] alone” — as wildly unkind as it is hopelessly incorrect. 

Mark Fisher was decisively not alone. The real tragedy is that he did not always see that. Friendships came and went as friendships do but those in the immediate vicinity of both his life and death can still attest to the power of movement-building he brought to an ambitious cross-section of industries and pursuits. To tarnish his legacy in a magazine of The Wire’s standing is inexplicable. Those who disliked him in life may not think Mark deserves much better, but the communities that he built and expanded most certainly do.

Matt Colquhoun

The above letter was sent to the editorial team at The Wire magazine a few weeks ago. I’m grateful to The Wire for including it in the following issue (issue 436, June 2020) on their letters page. I am also grateful to have had Repeater Books’ full support and encouragement in writing it.

To provide a little bit more context to a letter kept intentionally short so as to make it printable, the need to address this review emerged from an ongoing frustration with the impact of some misguided comments that conflate the fraught nature of some of Mark’s interpersonal relationships with the validity of his ideas. At their worst, these comments share the same ring of snarky cynicism that Mark hated in Louise Mensch’s infamous critiques of the Occupy movement, as if to say Mark’s writings on communicative capitalism and communism could not be taken so seriously because he fell out with people online. They also restrict Mark’s thought to a moment that he had moved on from by transforming his negative critiques of the “Vampire Castle”, and the landscapes of communicative capitalism more generally, into a series of positive and productive grassroots projects.

These two modes were persistent and I personally do not think that Mark’s desire to build communities IRL was undermined by the occasional coldness of his writing, online or in print. [1] In fact, it was the explicit combination of these two modes that I believe was emerging into a new and vital synthesis through his Acid Communism writings.

Take, for example, “No Romance Without Finance”. In this essay, written for the political organisation Plan C, Mark wrote far less polemically about his view that consciousness raising (as an explicitly feminist practice) could be expanded within our present moment to include any and all minority positions, all whilst avoiding the disarticulation of class and the deflation of what he called “group consciousness” that has affected left-wing discourses since at least the 1970s. The argument, at its core, remains true to “Exiting the Vampire Castle” but Mark has changed tact. And yet, he no doubt remained aware that construction sometimes requires a bit of demolition.

The review in The Wire unfortunately failed to take any of this additional work into account, remaining stuck in 2013. Suffice it to say that Mark’s thought was far more expansive, inclusive and sensitive than this review makes it out to be, and I have the receipts to prove it, with many of them appearing in my book.

For transparency, I should also add that Emily Pothast, the reviewer in question, did later email me a virtual olive branch, having seen my originally disappointed tweets about this review, explaining that she did in fact enjoy reading Egress and that she was surprised to read that the review had been interpreted so negatively. It may well have been the case, as she claimed, that the tone I perceived was the opposite of the one intended, which was a tone of great sensitivity. If this was absent, it was because of the brevity demanded by the medium rather than any ill feeling. She also explained that the final judgement (also mentioned in the letter above) was meant to be a positive comment rather than a scathing judgement on Mark’s legacy. I have struggled to see how this could be the case, however, considering the overarching nature of the claims made. Whilst individual comments, the conclusion in particular, could be interpreted differently in isolation, taking the review in its entirety and viewing each comment in the context of its neighbouring judgements makes Pothast’s claims border on gaslighting. As such, this was an unfortunate exchange that I would much prefer to put to bed.

Regardless, my feelings about the review remain the same: this piece was either badly researched, badly written, or both — and I am certainly aware that, sometimes, things just turn out like this despite our best intentions. It is because of this that my frustration was not directed at Pothast herself but at the editorial team at The Wire. This is what editorial teams are for and The Wire‘s editors had a duty of care to consider how unkind this piece appeared to be, not to me but to Mark and his legacy. It is because of this that the letter was addressed to them rather than Pothast herself.

[1] I’m reminded of Mark’s discussions around the implicit Spinozism of Stanley Kubrick here. He once argued he is “only interested in Kubrick the ‘author’ insofar as ‘he’ is manifested in the work.” Adding that he makes “no judgements whatsoever about Kubrick’s personal sensibilities or humanity. For ‘Kubrick’, read ‘Kubrick’s films.’” Whilst I have recently been chastised for misrepresenting Mark’s thought myself, and apparently suspending judgement of his person (or other people even) in favour of holding onto some grief-stricken and indeterminate “other Mark”, I feel like the balancing act being defended here remains true to Mark’s own project, in which his care and generosity offline is distinct from his online camouflage, just as Kubrick’s apparent interpersonal warmth was distanced from the cold rationalism of his filmmaking style. I think Mark aspired to much the same thing, albeit through the new medium of the blogosphere (and his other writings more generally). (This is a similar disparity I am described as having myself and I’m fine with that.) Just as he describes Kubrick, I believe Fisher also “evokes the desubjectified affects of awe and dread, rather than the compulsory, socially-endorsed, ‘warm’ emotions of empathy / sympathy, as homage to a universe whose indifference entails not pessimism, but freedom: freedom from the miserable prisonhouse of the human.”

“Solidarity Without Similarity”: ‘Egress’ on Review 31

Niall Gallen has reviewed Egress over on Review 31. It’s a genuine thrill to read someone write about your work who really gets what you’re trying to do. Huge thanks to Niall for taking the time and writing something so thorough.

Check it out here and read a passage below that — following a few weeks of quite grumpy onlineness — made me punch the air like the grump at the end of The Breakfast Club.

One way of considering Egress is as outsider literature. Colquhoun is following Fisher’s example here, taking inspiration from his K-Punk blog, much of which forms the posthumous collection K-Punk (2018, Repeater Books). Much like Fisher before him, Colquhoun blogs prolifically, using the pseudonym Xenogothic. Egress feels like a continuation of this project, while also having the coherence demanded by a book-length work of secondary criticism, that is, if you’ve already bought into Fisher’s viewpoint. Egress isn’t an explicit criticism of Fisher’s ideas. Rather, it is an exploration of his theoretical concepts and a continuation of their application: an attempt to move beyond the seeming inevitability of a future under capitalism. This is where the word ‘egress’ takes significance beyond the book’s title.

First used by Fisher in his final book, The Weird and the Eerie (2016), to describe ‘latent acts of exit that were central to the weird fictions he wrote about,’ egress becomes both a method for Colquhoun to overcome a personal and depressive grief, and an attempt to continue Fisher’s pursuit of a radical anti-capitalist collectivity. It is only natural then for Egress to be as politico-philosophical as it is personal and psychological: the latter, usually tied to the individual, folds into the impersonality and collectivity of the former (and vice versa), each a latent outside contained in the inside of the other. Colquhoun’s aim is to make this latent outsideness manifest, to simultaneously disrupt the apparent coherence of both the ‘individual capitalist subject’ and the political collectivity that knowingly or unknowingly supports it.

Further Notes on an Ethics of the Dialectic

I’m in research mode at the moment and going in deep on the relationship of psychoanalysis to philosophy. It’s been fruitful so far, although it has led me to read more closely a few thinkers who I’ve never previously paid too much attention to — specifically Lacan and Žižek.

I’d sort of skim-read Žižek‘s The Sublime Object of Ideology a few years ago and really enjoyed it but rereading his preface to the book tonight I found the notion of dialectical conversation — previously just waffled about to Kantbot — becoming more and more concrete.

The purpose of the book, Žižek reflects, was to explore how the two supposedly discredited theories of “psychoanalysis and Hegelian dialectics may simultaneously redeem themselves, shedding their own skins and emerging in a new shape.” The use of this for Žižek seems to be that both Hegelian dialectics and (Lacanian) psychoanalysis share a process of simplification. (Just as the dialectic reduces a thing to its “unary feature”, Lacan draws the same process out from Freudian psychoanalysis.) Žižek explains:

The dialectical approach is usually perceived as trying to locate the phenomenon-to-be-analysed in the totality to which it belongs, to bring to light the wealth of its links to other things, and thus to break the spell of fetishizing abstraction: from a dialectical perspective, one should see not just the thing in front of oneself, but this thing as it is embedded in all the wealth of its concrete historical context. […] Hegel’s formulation is here very precise: the reduction of the signifying ‘unary feature’ contracts actuality to possibility, in the precise Platonic sense in which the notion (idea) of a thing always has a deontological dimension to it, designating what the thing should become in order to be fully what it is.

I liked this, and thought about it in relation to many things. Accelerationism came to mind first.

Reduced to its “unary feature”, Accelerationism becomes, for many, a desire to “go fast.” This is certainly the “kind of epitomisation by means of which the multitude of properties is reduced to a single dominant characteristic” that Žižek describes, but it also rejects its embedded position within contemporary thought more generally. The question, then, for many of us, becomes: “How do we continue to work in this area of thought whilst simultaneously rectifying this popular understanding?”; “How do we shift the narrative from an inaccurate certainty to a more accurate potentiality?” Because potentiality is the concern, in every guise that Accelerationism takes, isn’t it? Accelerationism, no matter which qualifier it carries with it, asks: “What is the potential that arises out of a subjugated capitalist subject?” The Accelerationist formation of Žižek‘s question, more specifically — “What must the subject of capitalism (be that human or otherwise) become in order to be fully what it is?” — also contains appropriately Promethean overtones.

I also thought about this sense of the dialectic is relation to D.H. Lawrence and some of those others modernist figures previously discussed with Kantbot. You would think that a writer, long dead, is only who they are (or were) and has no more becoming to do, but that does not seem to be the case for Lawrence, whose works, to my mind, often in spite of themselves, have a fascinating resonance in our contemporary moment. The question then becomes: “What does Lawrence have to become in order to be fully what he is today?”

It is this process that I was describing with that transgressive holy trinity — Nietzsche, Bataille, Land. Each successive work on the latter’s thought seems to do this absolutely. Each is dragged into a present that updates them for now whilst nonetheless staying true to their defining trajectory.

In the comments of my previous post, an argument broke out about this between myself and Dominic Fox. Dominic seemed to interpret this function — which I linked to Blanchot’s “infinite conversation” — as some sort of suspension of judgement — something which wasn’t in the spirit of Mark Fisher’s often barbed judgements on music, ideas, or people at all. Rejecting this apparent lack of judgement, Dominic argued: “I don’t think it’s illegitimate to pick and choose from among the different manifestations of Mark as a thinker and a person.” It is possible to “accept and recognise the whole inconsistent bundle without affirming everything in it simultaneously.”

I remain bemused as to how this ended up being the reading gleaned from the previous post but I doubt any progress is possible in that regard. More to the point, I have no interest in trudging up the particulars — it didn’t seem to really go anywhere — but the above, as explained last time (or so I thought), is what I have sought to do with Mark‘s writing. And that’s explicitly involved judgements of various kinds. Is it wrong to hold the door open a crack, on the off chance my judgement changes?

It is only in this sense that I defer making a final judgement about him or others. If this is emphasised, on occasion, it is because it is already clear that, in some ways, our collective imagination has already selected the parts of Mark’s thinking that will be carried forwards. Often, these parts are little more than glib understandings, in the sense that any popular understanding of a person is always ill-fitting and inaccurate, even when dressed up in a fluency with their own terms and concepts. They’re broad strokes, because that’s all the average person has any interest in. But they are nonetheless informed by certain dominant voices.

There is a responsibility that comes with determining these strokes, I think, and people should be more careful about the strokes they’re adding to the picture. Similarly, I think observers should be more vigilant as to what motivates a final picture — particularly one still being posthumously constructed — taking on certain contours.

A few examples:

Is Acid Corbynism really representative of what Mark Fisher’s thought? Or is it an abomination? Is it a self-serving attempt to grab hold of a developing narrative? Or is it just a half-baked populist philosophy, innocuously hollowed out of the ways in which Mark’s Acid Communism was to be vital?

Was Mark really someone who undermined his own politics of group consciousness by being grumpy online? Or was his coldness to the thought of some interlocutors commensurate with his vague desire to abolish the individual? Are either of those questions even relevant? Or is it all just a few disgruntled former friends getting a final dig in?

Is there any real communal momentum left over from Fisher’s life? Or is a book like Egress just wishful thinking? Is there a political project to be affirmed despite Mark’s death? Or is it the shadow of an ideal kept buoyant by lingering grief?

It is inevitably true, to whatever extent, that in each instance, each person in question requires Mark to become something specific and — in the sense of his still-yet-to-be-established “unary feature” — new, so that they might process who he was or might have been. In that sense, mourning is integral to each example above, and the fraught nature of mourning is what keeps the truth from being uttered and the hardest questions from being asked.

I know how I feel about these questions, personally. Regardless, the fact is that time will tell, and I hope that, later down the line, these questions get replaced by new ones. The point is not to suspend judgement but, in most cases, to affirm the potentiality still left in a body of work and the associations that become attached to it. I’m sure the Acid Corbynistas take refuge in the fact that, regardless of its fidelity to what Mark was working on, it is a positive project. I feel the same way about my book — a book which makes that very process explicit. For me, the heart of the Fisher-Function — “a need to ensure this is a moment when the force [Mark] brought into our world is redoubled rather than depleted” — when translated into these new terms, becomes: “What needs to be added to Mark’s legacy so that it is able to become what it fully is?”

There were other comments made in orbit of this previous argument. Apparently, Mark thought Blanchot was boring and that Bataille was silly. That’s okay. In that sense, the line between his thought and mine is clear. More to the point, it makes the detachment and assertion of a positive project more explicit, in that it makes additions. This is the gesture that I feel stays loyal to Mark’s thought, even if the references themselves do not.

All this is to say that, despite what some of his former interlocutors might like to think, Mark persistently transformed the arguably hypocritical and vampiric qualities of his negative critiques into a series of positive projects. He remained wedded to his thoughts, in sickness and in health, which is to say that the consistency of his arguments is impressive even if the tone was variable and sometimes problematic. There is nonetheless something to be affirmed here.

The initial barbed assault might have been an inadvisable approach — a scorched-earth strategy, as it were — but Mark always reemerged later with the same critique made positive. The unfortunate thing was that many remained more concerned with the previous mess or bridge burnt than the eventual strength of the end result. (Another aspect of this deontological tendency, perhaps, that is hard for some to stomach or acknowledge.) Everyone has read “Exiting the Vampire Castle”, for instance, but who has read “No Romance Without Finance” and made the connection? Both are concerned with a project of group consciousness raising that rejects and supersedes an identity politics corrupted by neoliberalism’s mandatory individualism, but only the negative critique is remembered whilst the positive project is left to the margins.

This isn’t just true of Mark. Mark, as ever, is simply the most readily available reference point. I’ll move on from him at some point, I’m sure, but not from this central gesture. That is the main way in which Mark continues to inspire me, despite the persistent announcements of his interpersonal flaws, supposedly to the contrary. He always came to realise, within his own writing, what needed to be added or transposed so that the potential of his argument could become what it fully was in actuality. Sometimes, the end result fell on deaf ears. But the stakes of an infinite conversation, as far as I am concerned, rest in the continuation of that project, especially when the other person has dropped it — through choice or through death.

This is what I find most palpable and poetic in Blanchot’s project (whether Mark liked it or not): in the persistent plurality of our voices, tomorrow is always what is at stake. That remains true whether you, personally, have a tomorrow or not.

Is that a deferral of judgement to another day? Or are judgements instead being made that keep the horizon in sight?

Notes on Dialectical Modernism

Before having this really excellent conversation with Kantbot on his podcast the other day, he had told me in advance that he really want to talk about dialectical materialism in relation to the book. My initial response was one of terror — I thought, fuck, that’s interesting, but I am not sure I am remotely capable of getting deep with that on the fly… So, about an hour before we started talking, I wrote my initial rambling response down in a txt file.

I thought this would end up being a small part of our conversation but, in reality, it ended up being the persistent crux that we kept coming back to, and it articulates a function of Egress that no one else has yet got close to articulating — myself included — so I’m really grateful to Kantbot for having me on his podcast and asking such pertinent questions.

Suffice it to say that we covered a lot of what is below in our conversation so, if you want the fleshed-out and less garbled version, go listen to Kantbot’s podcast. But I’m still quite glad to have gotten this down in writing, so take this as some notes or a podcast teaser, if you want.

Dialectics, as far as I can tell, is popularly understood as a process of simplification whereby contradictions or tensions find a moment of equilibrium and then we move onto the next thing.

That’s incorrect, obviously, but that’s what I hear when people talk about Marxian dialectics.

There’s an irony that emerges here in the fact that dialectics seems like a particularly complicated concept. You’ve got your Marxian and your Hegelian and your Nietzschean dialectics and there doesn’t seem to be a dialectic for these dialectics, at least not in the sense that most people seem to use the term dialectics…

In a Hegelian sense, we don’t seem to see a whole lot of proper synthesis going on, just a populist tendency towards compartmentalisation and misattribution and just a general mess of incoherency. In reality, synthesis is an ever-complicating process, not one of tidying up contradictions.

Modernism, as I see it, is the sort of cultural impact of this kind of theory emerging — which is to say, in brief, that Marxism leads to modernism. (And, lest we forget, that Mark Fisher was a persistent advocate, following Fredric Jameson, for the return of a “popular modernism”.)

Take someone like Virginia Woolf, who I’ve been obsessed with for much of the past year. I find a novel like Mrs Dalloway a really interesting exploration of dialectical materialism in this regard. Plot summary: Mrs Dalloway, the wife of the fictional Prime Minister Dalloway, is throwing a party and goes out to buy flowers, and then there’s Septimus Smith, a war veteran out for a walk who is thinking about killing himself, and these two characters loom large in a story also filled with all kinds of voices and violences.

Does the existence of Mrs Dalloway and Septimus Smith resolve itself into a utopia finally sprouting within the city of London? No. Because nothing has ever died of its contradictions. Septimus is committed to an asylum and kills himself, and when Mrs Dalloway happens (through sheer chaotic coincidence) to hear about his death she comes to admire his act and chooses to affirm the life of this man she’s never met.

But originally, Woolf hadn’t intended to include Septimus in the book at all, and it was Mrs Dalloway who was going to off herself at her party. So Woolf comparmentalises two mental states but, in doing so, and by giving them the superficial appearance of opposites, what she really does is make these two minds echo back at each other, like two mirrors facing each other. They don’t cancel each other out, they multiply each other to infinity and make you feel like you’re on the edge of some Lovecraftian hellscape of abject interiority unfolding into outside.

That’s what I like about Woolf. Her novel The Waves does this even more explicitly. She skirts the edges of some sort of high society classic bourgeois novelist — and she is, in one sense, precisely that — but there’s this horror that perforates through the pages that betrays her fascination with the darkest regions of the mind. (It’s not a coincidence, after all, that Hogarth Press, which first published all her novels, was also the publisher to originally publish the complete works of Sigmund Freud in English translation.)

This is also what I’ve also been loving about D.H. Lawrence recently. His novels explore this really explicitly too and in a way that is less stylistically transgressive but is really transgressive in its content. He’s like the British Bataille, with all the particular neuroses that would entail.

And this is relevant, for me, because its like this popular dialectics just diminishes the great stature of these projects. The complexity of their very selves, Woolf and Lawrence’s, is reduced by some compartmentalisation of their transgressive natures. These implicitly emancipatory literary projects are shorn of their limbs and either they’re thrown on the trash pile for not always affirming the “right” kind of emancipation, or they’re otherwise stripped of their vitality and talked about in truly lifeless terms.

The particular insights of D.H. Lawrence get absolutely shredded by fickle culture studies departments, for instance, and a revolutionary anti-capitalist novel that sexually embodies a process of dialectical materialism like Lady Chatterley’s Lover becomes nothing more than “the Fifty Shades of Grey of its day”.

If you’re not really into your literary modernism, think of Nietzsche instead. He was the most famous victim of this kind of moronic thinking. His absolute unconditional attempt to emancipate himself from the very foundations of Western civilisation — Christian morality most famously — led to him being called just about everything under the sun during his lifetime and afterwards, and it took about a century of hard persistent work by all sorts of people to rescue his thought from a second-hand impotence.

The great irony of this is that this probably fits into a kind of Nietzschean dialectics… His dialectic being rhetorical, a kind of conversation, and there is a thread of this in my book that is very implicit but comes from the frequent references to Blanchot.

Blanchot’s book The Infinite Conversation contains a sort of proto-ethics of psychoanalysis — in being pre-Lacanian at least — where he writes on the process of transference that Freud talks about. Psychoanalysis thinks of itself as a kind of rhetorical dialectic — you know, if you talk stuff out with another person, then this very act of conversation will settle your neuroses, but transference, in which the analyst becomes a sort of screen onto which emotions are projected, calls bullshit on this. And Freud, as far as Blanchot is concerned, didn’t seem to understand the real implcations of this. So the true task of psychonanalysis is a practice is both accounting for and resolving this process of transference, infinitely. What is the analyst, in themselves? What are your projections? What are your projections in themselves? Mapping this out is all part of the work but, of course, the work never ends and it shifts as life shifts and experience shifts and continues.

If you want to see this process today, philosophically, you can read three books. Nietzsche’s The Gay Science, Bataille’s On Nietzsche, and Nick Land’s Thirst for Annihilation. This is a radical conversation that spans generations, where Nietzsche, following the insights of German Idealism, has conversations with himself, leaves his self behind and also takes his self to its absolute limit, and then, decades later, Bataille enters this conversation with Nietzsche and tries to take himself to his absolute limit, and then, a few decades later still, Land enters this conversation with Bataille and tries to take himself to his absolute limit.

Who would dare write an On Land today? It seems like an impossible task, and is easy to become alarmist over because Nietzsche, Bataille and Land are so scary. But there is a very real ethics on display here, where we take the complexities of a person to their limit and set ourselves beside ourselves and fully enter into another mind, finding the projections we bring to the table in our contemporaneity, and extending this original project beyond the limits that were imaginable to its originator. It’s a sort of project I am fascinated by and whoever will be capable of continuing this conversation will be of a wholly different species to the kind of intellectual we know today…

Now, what I’ve done with Egress isn’t quite such a leap forward into the outside of contemporary philosophy, but, if I might be so bold, it is nevertheless my On Fisher — or, Sur Fisher, to get really pretentious about it. It is an attempt to take the complexities of Mark’s thinking on community, pop culture, capitalism and communism to their limit within a certain timeframe, which is the aftermath of his death. That limit is a limit already contained within this thought itself, but Mark’s death gave us the opportunity to exceed them.

A death is one of those moments — if not the only true moment — where a person’s thought really starts to come apart from within. Without a self to maintain the boundaries, all sorts of things start flying out of it. And what we see emerging on the left, when faced with Mark’s posthumously rendered thought in particular, is either an attempt to cancel Mark outright or instead just a sheering off of his work’s unattractive bits. Either Mark doesn’t deserve any attention whatsoever because he wrote an essay like “Exiting the Vampire Castle” or we shouldn’t talk about that essay and just focus on the nice bits about party political organising.

Mark was so much more than either of those things. And this isn’t just because Mark was some great and complex thinker but because he was human. This kind of complexity is present within everyone. But today we live in a culture that rejects this absolutely, on the most mundane level which, I think, is the most damaging. Like, most will reject an argument like this with alarmist examples like the fact someone can be a member of the communist party and they can also be an abuser. That’s a alarmist contradiction of a certain type and one that must be cut out without a second thought. Of course I agree that abusers and bullies are really bad, and I have no interest in affirming their existence, and I’d be quite content bullying them out of the things I hold dear, but today we find people can be excommunicated for having far less troublesome contradictory thoughts than these. You can find yourself socially shadowbanned for simply not following The Narrative, and the people who will deplore this kind of whingeing the most are, of course, those involve in the sorts of institutions that maintain the narrative, whatever it may be.

I’ve felt this myself, in a sort of ambient way, in a few of the reviews that the book has had so far. The “biggest” reviews, as it were — the ones most likely to be seen by the most people — have failed to really articulate what it is they don’t like about the book. No one can really say why. They settle on the fact my writing is occasionally cliched or clumsy or maybe a little bit too academic or they just attack a wholly reductive version of Mark instead. Neither kind of review — one that dislikes Mark or my writing — seems to address what the real problem is, but what I see under the surface of these reviews is a discontent with the fact that this book about Mark Fisher, which is so thoroughly evidenced with instances from his life and his work, does not fit the still-emerging popular narrative of who Mark was.

And so I find it really interesting that Kantbot would ask about dialectical materialism in relation to the book on his podcast, given the podcast’s dedication to “bad thought” or “wrong thought”. Bad and wrong thought is the only thought I care about, but not in the correct sense of what is “bad”. The frustration I feel with my blog at the minute is that I spend all of my time explaining how the “good” thinking about Mark or Land or Accelerationism is all incredibly dumb and inexplicable. And I end up getting incredibly angry about it — it’s becoming a real neurosis for me at the minute. The consensus is wrong and so I feel like I’ve become stuck in a self-righteous hobby of fuelling a furious dissensus about the complexity of these people’s lives — a complexity that has so much left to teach us if we take the time to deal with it on its own terms rather than in search of some Cliff Notes summary of what x meant when they said y. This isn’t an attempt to devolve all political philosophy into a Derridean indeterminacy but rather an attempt to affirm the chaos within these poor compartmentalisations so that the free radicals that result allow them to interconnect. It is to engage in a dialectical materialism proper. It’s not a cave allegory in which I want everyone to see the light of nature’s complexity but the opposite.

This is something that Virginia Woolf said about her own characters. She wondered how she could

dig out beautiful caves behind my characters; I think that gives exactly what I want; humanity, humour, depth. The idea is that the caves shall connect, and each comes to daylight at the present moment.

That’s the only ethical approach worth pursuing in the present for me. As far as I’m concerned, everything else tends towards bullshit. I want to engage in an infinite conversation with Mark or Blanchot or whoever, or not at all.

Saying that, I know we’re on a time limit so I’ll happily grant you a concise conversation that is listenable just this once…

Front Window #8: Wonderlust

Whilst I’m aware that commenting on every comment made about Egress is going to start looking pretty myopic and self-involved soon enough — if it doesn’t already — I’ve nonetheless been really intrigued by some of the more consistent comments made about it as it has settled into people’s hands and been read by strangers, particularly those who have deemed its idiosyncrasies to be flaws rather than purposeful features of the text.

Frankly, it’s hard not to use a public notebook to think about these things, even if such things aren’t typically made public, but that’s what blogging is after all — socially sanctioned over-sharing. (I’m still holding back, nonetheless: the pressure to not stick one’s head above the parapet after having pUbLiShEd A bOoK is real. Every thought had and written down feels like the crossing of some great line of professionalism but let’s not pretend like this blog has been a routine exercise in doing anything other than this so far — so suck it up.)

I want to write about these things because it has so far been a hugely constructive experience. As I work on a new manuscript that feels vastly different in terms of its style and presentation, I am very much aware that the new things I’m working on appear, to me, like a reaction to what has been said so far about this now-finished three-year project.

Most interesting to me are the blatant stylistic habits I’ve picked up from my own influences that perhaps go unacknowledged or read like bad form despite the intention very much being to present my ideas in a certain way.

For instance, similar to comments made about the book’s unfolding of Fisher’s folds, many readers have been correct in pointing out that it is a “meandering” affair; a “restless and shifting” read. In some instances, this reads like a compliment; in others, a criticism. To each their own, of course, but I’d like to affirm that the book is intentionally presented this way.

Although Mark Fisher wasn’t a fan of W.G. Sebald — something I finally understood for myself last year after travelling to Lowestoft for the first time (whilst making the final edits to the Egress manuscript no less) — I have personally always loved the style of The Rings of Saturn, as a mediation on both inner and external experience, creating a meandering sort of auto-fiction that is somewhere between the two.

That’s what it is for me: auto-fiction. To call it “psychogeographic” feels reductive and cliche considering its scope. It is a label that only helps to flatten its contours. It is about as “psychogeographic” as Proust is, but there is far more going on in these works besides a wandering through landscapes real and imaginative. It is in this sense, however, that Sebald has a lot to answer for. He was certainly guilty of flattening the contours of the landscapes on which he walked, reducing them to a shadow of his melancholic mind, but the journey he takes through history is nonetheless inspired. Often, just for fun, I will read that book’s first chapter. I won’t bother to follow the book through to its end unless I’m really in the mood. Sometimes I just want to get a quick hit of that labyrinthian wanderlust through the life of the mind-body. It is genuinely addictive; a sort of purely distilled escapism for the European misanthrope.

This is a kind of auto-fictive writing very much in vogue at the moment, which is partly the reason why I feel quite vigilant about it now. When talking about my book with Guy at Tank Magazine, for example, I mentioned the influence of Maggie Nelson’s The Argonauts on Egress. I’d read that book two or three times in 2017 alone and the way she navigates lived experience and philosophy inspired just about everyone else who picked it up during that same time period. Of course, having read something so acclaimed does not warrant the same thing for my book, but it is interesting that the more personal parts of Egress feel far more accepted and palatable to people in The Argonauts‘ aftermath. The Argonauts made such an impact — for better or for worse — because it expanded the possibilities of life-writing for a new generation, and it no doubt quickly became a cliche when mentioned within writer’s classes now as a result.

Perhaps a nod to The Rings of Saturn is a more productive nod to make but it is also a book that has had a very similar impact on a certain generation of reader, to the point that Sebald Studies is now a somewhat dry and uncritical cottage industry surrounding a book too universally acclaimed for its own good. Indeed, to the extent it tends to replicate a classist unconscious within the mind of many a Guardian columnist to this day: a fact obvious, I think, to anyone who travels to the Suffolk coast unblinkered by a love of Sebald.

This was the flaw at the heart of Patience After Sebald — a documentary a little too high on its own supply. It is a project that is (in a sense more literal than most) hauntographic rather than hauntological. Sebald is great for the ways in which he inhabits the latter; those who make work about him reduce themselves to the former. (If you don’t know what I’m talking about, I wrote about this fine line here.)

As a result of all this, it is also the case that Sebaldian writing becomes defined by the landscapes through which Sebald walked rather the critical approach to European history he brought along with him. His narration in this regard — in The Rings of Saturn and in Austerlitz — is utterly addictive and compelling but I don’t think I can bring myself to read another melancholic ramble about the coast or a Macfarlanesque burrowing through the English overgrowth by anyone else who lacks the same navigational prowess. Thankfully, there are others who have not fallen victim to their own legacies. Iain Sinclair still resonates, thankfully, and is inimitable precisely because his trajectory is often so weird and wonderful rather than amounting to little more than a wistful pop-anthropology.

But I think there remains much to be said for a kind of literary journey like that — one that wanders through an author’s thoughts like a landscape, replicating and capturing the contours and non sequiturs of a developing line of flight with the flair and subtle objectivity of a cartographer and diarist. This is a rare skill, and one I can only hope to acquire as I keep writing and learning to write.

Not to downplay my own abilities but, whenever I find myself taking too sharp a critical scalpel to my own output, I have to remind myself that I have only been writing with any seriousness for the past three years. Prior attempts to be published and sustain a writing blog alongside a photography blog — between the years 2014 and 2016, quite explicitly — amounted to nought, but even then I was aware of the pratfalls that were interchangeable between the medium I was trained in — photography — and the new one I was trying on for size.

We used to agonise, as photography students, over our own influences and we would openly ridicule those posh enough to be able to afford to travel to the great photographic cities of the world. The irony of photographic travel, of course — and one later acknowledged by the guilty parties — is that when you are a trained photographer who goes to a city over-photographed like New York, Paris, London, or Tokyo, you find yourself inadvertently recreating the images etched into your art historical unconscious. It becomes increasingly difficult to be original; to meander in your own way without falling into the rhythms and footsteps of those who have come before you.

It is an interesting condition, I think, and one far more recognisable when rendered photographically. We like to meander, but only in ways that are already recognisable to us. When that is the case, how much are we really meandering?

(This was in around 2012 and much of this agonising was no doubt informed by the critical trends of the day around photography and memory, for which Sebald himself was an indirect catalyst — I still own copies of Searching for Sebald or Daniel Blaufuk’s Terezín somewhere, both of which I bought around that time…)

It’s something I find myself ruminating one far more frequently at the moment, having not left the square mile surrounding our flat for over a month. I am left with an itch to see more of this city than present circumstances allow, wanting to finally visit certain neighbourhoods precisely because they won’t be swollen with the usual traffic and crowds. In this sense, I am finding myself drawn back to the symbolic London of our collective imagination, rereading Mrs Dalloway again or, much closer to home, Joseph Conrad’s The Secret Agent or Iain Sinclair’s London Overground.

Robin sent me his copy of Sinclair’s book a few months back when doing a clear out and I am incredibly grateful for it right now. As I sit in bed, facing out the front window, typing this post out, the empty corona carriages of London’s overground trains pass cleanly along the top edge of my laptop screen, still heading for New Cross station, despite the great diminution in demand for public transport. It helps to imagine Sinclair, tucked in the corner with his notebook, even under these circumstances.

If I can’t leave, I’m glad to have the wanderlust of others — as much an intellectual wonderlust as a physical one — to help me stretch my mind-legs.

If Egress is a meandering book of its own, its because it too hopes to initiate this wanderlust in the mind of the reader: to make egress as possible through reading it as reflecting on it later.

Although the subject matter will change drastically, I don’t think I’m going to relinquish this intention any time soon. I can only hope I get better at it.

Dialectical Modernism: XG for the Pseudodoxology Podcast Network

On Saturday afternoon I had what might be the most productive conversation yet about my book Egress with the inimitable Kantbot.

There was so much we could have kept talking about and maybe we’ll chat again sometime for your pleasure. First, we laid the groundwork of what my book is about and then — as Kantbot has put it out in the episode’s tags — we dove into “Accelerationism, Capitalist Realism, Dialectic Materialism, Flying Nightmare Skulls, Grandpa Munster, Hauntology, LSD, Matrix 2 Rave Scene, Mrs Dalloway was Hegelian, Nick Land”.

For me, the core of this episode emerged about two hours before our conversation began when Kantbot DMed me with: “And also want to get your thoughts about dialectical materialism”.

This totally sent my mind spinning as I hadn’t considered this in the context of the book at all but it got right to the very core of what I think I’d implicitly wanted to do with it and also went a long way towards helping me articulating what I’m doing next — far more explicitly, at least — with my current work-in-progress One Or Several Mothers — currently a purposefully disjointed book of two halves: one on psychoanalysis and the other on literary modernism.

(I ended up writing a blogpost immediately before our conversation, trying to make my initial thoughts somewhat coherent before jumping into things, which I might post in a few days time as a little something extra.)

So, personally speaking, this conversation was amazing and I am very grateful to Kantbot for having me on the podcast and for being such an excellent host. I look forward to talking more soon!

You can listen to the episode here.

Support Kantbot’s podcast on Patreon to hear more of his excellent conversations in future and, of course, buy my book!

(NB: Coronavirus lockdowns are throttling distribution channels at the moment so physical copies of Egress are becoming quite rare commodities. It is probably most readily available from Amazon right now but, if you’d rather not give Bezos your money, best to hold out as they will become more readily available soon. For now, you can either check the ebook on Repeater’s website or buy me Kofi or something if you want to support the blog directly during these weird quarantine days.)

Tank Magazine: XG Interviewed

How can the experience of death become an occasion to imagine new ways of living together? In this episode of the TANK Podcast, Guy Mackinnon-Little speaks to Matt Colquhoun about his new book Egress: On Mourning, Melancholy and Mark Fisher, which narrates the collective mourning of Fisher’s death while using this experience as the basis for a new politics of community and post-capitalist desire.

It was a pleasure to chat to Guy Mackinnon-Little from Tank Magazine about Egress the other week.

The chat we had is excellent and I’m very grateful to him for cutting through to the very heart of the book in such little time. We talk about writing personally about the impersonal / impersonally about the personal, philosophies of community, the weird and the eerie in acid communism, and how this is all the more pertinent under our present circumstances. (Speaking of which, please blame desocialised coronabrain for my occasional ramble.)

You can listen to the podcast here.

Music Journalism Insider: XG Interviewed

For those that don’t know, Todd Burns runs an excellent newsletter called Music Journalism Insider. It’s an amazing resource for music journalists and music journalism fans alike.

I’ve been a subscriber for a few weeks / months now — what even is time right now anyway? — so I was honoured when Todd popped into my inbox asking if I’d like to be interviewed for the newsletter.

As of yesterday, the interview is now live. You can read the full thing here — it’ll be live for two weeks and then go behind the paywall — and the rest of the newsletter here.

I talk a bit about how I got to this point in my life, trying to be a photographer for a bit and why I stopped. I talk about how that connects to my new book Egress and about the context from which the book emerged. Elsewhere in the newsletter, I recommend some stuff I’ve been reading and listening to recently and I also offer up a tip for would-be music writers (which is probably a bit rich coming from me because I’d hardly describe myself as a music writer — I’m a writer who likes music and other people’s writing about music — but I hope it’s of interest nonetheless.)

If music journalism is your passion — whether you love reading about the latest stuff or you want to get involved or you’re already involved but want to feel connected to a wider community — I really recommend signing up for the full version of Todd’s newsletter. It is a weekly inbox highlight for me and a truly formidable one-man magazine — the sort of thing this blog tries to be and which is, frankly, a dying breed.