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

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

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

The intro on the website reads as follows:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Egos and Anti-Egos: Going South of the “I”

My recent post about desire in writings on accelerationism didn’t come from nowhere. It also didn’t explicitly come from Twitter. Addressing the Anarcho-Accelerationist’s hubris was simply a useful and polemic vehicle for that moment but it was also a post that I worried about, at first, in case it came across like I was throwing stones from a glass house.

I’ve written about this before — in fact, on multiple occasions. I am painfully aware of the centrality of my “ego” within my own writings. It’s a bad habit, more than anything, and something I agonise over a lot, often deciding to just throw caution to the wind and hit ‘publish’ regardless.

It’s also something I’m thinking about and wrestling with a lot at this particular moment. Not just as a background concern but as something that feels particularly scary within my life right now as I look down the barrel of an immanent shift in my public profile, which is occurring gradually, for the time being, as I go from a somewhat anonymous writer into someone who writes through a far more public face.

CTM Festival was the first instance of this that required some wrestling with but I have more public speaking engagements lined up as Egress comes out and I get on that weird and uncomfortable treadmill of promoting it and Mark’s work in the process.

This is obviously something I’ve been doing here for quite some time now but it nonetheless feels like 2020 is the year I really stick my neck out.

This has already been happening in my day-to-day life. At my current day job, for instance, everyone in the office knows I have written a book. In fact, the last time I was in the office, earlier this week, there was a copy of my book, visible to everyone, on my boss’s desk. She has even posted about it on their website and, yesterday, sent an email round to everyone about bulk buying a load of tickets to the ICA book launch next month.

I can’t deny that it feels really nice to be acknowledged like this and to feel like the publication of this book is something for multiple people to celebrate in, but it jars somewhat compared to where I was at with my “public profile” this time last year.

At my last job, where I worked for close to two years, from late 2017 to mid 2019, no one knew what I did in my spare time at all. I started this blog at almost exacting the same time I started that job and it was an explicit exercise in splitting my self in two as I re-entered the real world of work whilst trying to keep one foot in the strange temporalities of weird theory Twitter. Most days I showed up to work, did what I had to do, and then went home. I felt a bit like an alien there. It was quite a prestigious place to work and I often felt a sort of unconscious hostility from some people about my presence, simply because of the way I dressed and talked — that is, poorly, in both instances. I remember on my first day, I’d gone into my first meeting with management really confident with a load of ideas but then got quietly shut down. I hadn’t meant to put my foot in anyone’s way but rather wanted to make clear that I would be an active and involved member of the team. That didn’t seem to go down so well, but this wasn’t really a surprise. This has often been the case when working in the arts as some sort of glorified technician.

I wanted Velvet Buzzsaw recently — a film I really enjoyed, with its lampooning of the LA art world taking on an In The Mouth Of Madness quality — and I laughed a lot at the art gallery technician character, always hitting on the receptionists, saying things like, “I’m not just the muscle, you know. I have ideas. I’m an artist.” I’m not like that at all, but I understood the sentiment of wanting people to know that you’re not just a body to be put to work, even if I have personally ignored it and just got on with the job at hand without trying to change my co-worker’s assumptions to the contrary. Instead, I think I hid my other life — this life right here — out of embarrassment. I didn’t want to have to explain what I wrote about to anyone. I was quite happy just being a body, in that context. I’d anticipate the potential questions in the pub after work about what I did in my spare time with a preemptive mortification. Thankfully, those questions never really came, no doubt due to my generally secretive body language.

(I watched the Netflix documentary about the band Rush the other day, Rush: Beyond the Lighted Stage, and was amused to see Neil Peart also express a discomfort in relation to his role within the band. It’s nice to see that there are some people who make it big for whom this feeling never changes.)

At my new job, I’ve been a bit more forthcoming, mostly because I think keeping the blog an active secret from people I’m spending every day with isn’t all that healthy. I hate the thought of them going online to look and read it but it also feels like a better strategy to just be open about my life and not try and compartmentalise the different parts of it. Even though it still makes me really anxious, it feels better to weather the storm of visibility than alienate my co-workers through a lack of communication.

For a lot of the last year I’ve been trying to figure out where exactly this anxiety comes from. It’s not that I’m ashamed of what I think and write about, but there is nonetheless a question of how exactly I’m supposed to articulate all this; of explaining that talking about what I do here is something I find really difficult. Sometimes it erupts quite traumatically. I pride myself on a online reputation for being accessible — or at least more accessible than most — but when talking to family about politics and philosophy I think I have the opposite reputation entirely. (I became painfully aware of this over Christmas when it was me against the rest of the family in a conversation about politics which ended ugly in the early hours.) In that context, I feel like silence is taken to be judgemental — the result of a stoic but over-inflated ego. In truth, I’d rather just not talk about stuff because I don’t think I’m all that articulate in the moment and before the wrong sort of audience — that is, an audience not already laden with the particulars of Weird Theory Twitter head-scratching. (This is also to say, unfortunately, I am more comfortable speaking my mind when I know an audience has shared concerns, but maybe that’s natural.)

I’m very anxious about this at the moment as I’ve been offered the amazing opportunity of running a short three-week module at a London university — nowhere I’ve previously been affiliated with, before you start guessing; I’ll make an announcement in due course — talking about whatever I like to a group of undergraduate art students. The focus of the course is going to be about walking, as a sort of rudimentary but radical gesture — think the Situationists — and how I think having a certain relationship to the world is the most important foundation to any art practice. It’s not necessarily about the theory or the fashionable concepts but what you do with them in your daily life. (I think my interest in this comes from a teenage interest in jazz and learning to play the trumpet as a kid. I’m a terrible musician but I get the “improvisatory mindset”, if there’s such a thing. I’m just better at putting that mindset into practice with other mediums that aren’t necessarily known for having a culturally embedded discourse around a sense of improvisation — e.g. writing and photography.)

However, with a slight hint of irony, I’m also using this course as an opportunity to talk to these presently unknown students about modernism and Deleuze and Guattari. In fact, I’m in the pub right now, trying to think of a way to articulate what a “body without organs” is, as a sort of backwards introduction to a century of radical art — from Virginia Woolf to Lee Friedlander to Burial; from writing to visual art to music.

I suppose the general overview of the course is: How do you make art about your life and immediate environment without falling into that stereotype of just making art about yourself; how do you use your self as a conduit for saying something about the world around you.

Before heading out to the pub, I was updating my Discogs inventory and ended up putting on a bunch of records I forgot I owned. I was listening to Andrew Chalk, Meredith Monk, Cannonball Adderley, Max Roach… Music is the perfect way of expressing this sort of relationship to the world because sound — even the voice, at least in Meredith Monk’s case, with her disembodied, Artaudian vocalisations — is far more easily “de-individualised” and improvised with. What I find all the more fascinating about photography and writing in this regard is that the self is far more obviously their foundation. You are working explicitly with an “I”, be it a written voice or eye that is often, at least for the practitioner, hard to separate yourself from. (No surprises I’m going to be drawing on my essay about “de-individualisation” in visual art — “Points of View” — for one of the upcoming sessions.)

It probably says a lot about me that I’m procrastinating from writing this by writing something else for the blog, which — in a sort of roundabout way — is actually the perfect vehicle for articulating and letting go of all this chaff. I can get all this subjective hand-wringing out the way and figure out a way to articulate what I really want to convey later, devoid of myself.

This blog has been very good for this over the last couple of years and the irony is not lost on me that this blog is often so self-centred, because I think it gets it out my system. It becomes an abattoir for hanging up the chunks I flay off myself, allowing me to put the choicest cuts to better use elsewhere. (This is probably what this reply to my recent post was trying to get at, which I appreciate, but I don’t think that’s what goes on on the Anarcho-Accelerationist’s Twitter feed…)

I think about what Mark would have thought about this a lot. Not out of some morbid desire to emulate him but rather because his articulation of how he was able to write so much on his k-punk blog is something that I think about often.

I’ve quoted this multiple times here before but it always bears repeating:

Folks have asked me recently how I am able to write so much.

The answer is that it isn’t me who’s writing.

Modesty? Metaphor? Or (lol) post-structuralism?

No. A strictly technical description of how this body has been used as a meat puppet for channeling uttunul signal.

It’s only when the writing is bad that ‘I’ have produced it. When it’s good ‘I’ am just a space through which Lemuria speaks.

The writing is already assembled on the plane and all ‘I’ can do is bodge it by introducing subjectivist fuzz.

(It’s very telling, I think, that he was so prolific on his blog but his books were, by contrast, always very slim volumes.)

Posts that I labour over — like my recent post about CTM Festival, for example — are labours of love for me in the sense Mark talks about when he says they are things that he feels like he has explicitly written — which is to say, I am aware that this sort of post isn’t very good. They are pieces of writing that I don’t feel particularly proud of once they’re out in the world. I think there’s good stuff in them, for sure — otherwise I definitely wouldn’t post them — but I’m aware that the chaff weighs them down. It is as a result of this that I feel I am able to write and keep writing, and this is something that I’m pretty much okay with that. I don’t really care about writing shit occasionally. The better stuff always rises to the top and I am comfortable with the fact that what people often think is good is largely beyond my control.

My recent post about accelerationism, desire and the “anti-ego” is the perfect example of this. It took off, perhaps because it addressed something a lot of people were talking about on Twitter at that time, but it was, for the most part, a load of word vomit that I threw down on the page and then cut down to its main argument before then sending it out into the world. I wrote it in an hour before bed, then woke up to it doing numbers, and was surprised by that fact.

I tend to admire other people who do this a lot also, although I’m no less surprised when they self-deprecating articulate having a similar relationship to their work. I was reading an interview with Jim O’Rourke the other day, for instance, whose album from 2019, To Magnetize Money and Catch a Roving Eye, I’ve finally taken the plunge with. (I listened to it constantly whilst traveling to, from and around Berlin the other week. It’s an incredible album.)

Jim O’Rourke is someone who occupies various different scenes with ease. He can make the most pristine pop albums — Eureka and Halfway to a Threeway haven’t left the rotation of my regular listening for years and my girlfriend also likes when I play him in the car, particularly his amazing Ivor Cutler cover — but what I love most is that he can write albums like this and then also be a very comfortable improviser. However, his articulation of his relationship to his own work was really surprising to me.

Asked by Stereogum about his older albums and which albums of his — partly because he is so prolific — he wishes people had more of an appreciation for, he responds:

I don’t know directly, but I hear from folks that people still listen to ‘em. Eureka, I’ve got too much on the record about my feelings about Eureka, I’m happy when someone says they like Insignificance ’cause that one came up pretty well considering how quickly I made it. […] I’m waiting for people to like The Visitor. If there’s anything, that’s the one I’m hoping someday people will like because I worked really hard on that one. That’s the one I probably feel the most least uncomfortable about. That one got really close to what I wanted to do. And I learned to play trombone.

This is also something I really admire about a lot of UK producers at the moment, particularly someone like AYA, whose infrequent Bandcamp releases, consisting of seemingly half-formed, throwaway ideas and club edits — often made with friends in mind, it seems, and (I want to emphasise) no less amazing despite their “demo” nature — demonstrate an active relationship to the scenes she is immersed in, and I think this is a product of a really interesting development following Bandcamp’s increasing popularity.

Kevin Drumm is another artist worth mentioning here too — given the prolific nature of his Bandcamp page, which I’m proud to say I subscribe to — and you should to. He feels like a new kind of musician for the twenty-first century, who has well and truly embraced a sort of blogger’s mentality within his music-making practice.

I wish more people did this. It feels like a throwback to a 2000s moment when some musicians used to have Blogspot platforms on which to share their demoes and ideas. Bradford Cox is a particularly memorable example.

The way he’d share his demoes on his blog was so inspiring to me as a teenager and I used to do much the same thing, sharing song ideas and covers of songs I recorded in my bedroom through a headset mic. A lot of people did this on MySpace in Hull at that time. Most of the bands I grew up with in that city started off in much the same way. Low Hummer, for instance, currently being treated as new kids on the block by the indie blogosphere, are led by Dan Mawer who I met fifteen years ago specifically through that kind of online prolificness. We all shared a love of lo-fi recordings and the ease with which we could create a scene for ourselves around our MySpace pages. We gigged a lot, locally, off the back of that relationship to blog technologies, and even ended up in the bedrooms of friends who had decent recording gear.

(Tentatively shared Bon Iver cover that I became quite well known for — locally at least — below…)

What I think is important about this now — this sort of “anti-ego” approach to sharing whatever comes into your head on a particular evening — is that it encapsulates, in its own way, the sort of popular modernist sensibility that Mark mourned so publicly.

I was reading Justin Barton’s Hidden Valleys earlier this evening — specifically with my forthcoming undergraduate course in mind — and Justin captures this sensibility really well I think (albeit through a somewhat cumbersome theoretical language). He writes on the book’s first pages, for instance, about the ways in which:

Modernist writers enact a lucid awarenesss of the body without organs, but the exact extent and nature of this dimension tends to be left open. Aspects of the oneirosphere of the human world can be suggested — as with Shakespeare’s inorganic beings having a contact with India that does not involve travel in any ordinary sense — but a modernist dreaming in invoking the body without organs lightly suggests its existence, but does not firmly map its extent or aspects.

Prior to this, he defines modernism as a kind of “eerie arcadianism”, which I interpret precisely to be a way of thinking about your own life and immediate environment through a sort of “anti-ego”; through making your self a conduit for outside forces; making yourself half-present. He writes that “the world of modernism is always transected by an anomalous dimension inhabited by forces that are both positive and negative, and can recurrently prove to be at a higher level of power than the forces of the ordinary world.”

I know for a fact that Justin shares my love of Virginia Woolf — the way in which she wrote so effortlessly without a face, and gave a language to these outside forces more explicitly and lucidly than anyone — and he mentions her book The Waves in this context, noting how two of the characters, Rhoda and Louis, “stand, gazing toward the fluidities of the anomalous dimension” — that is, toward the body without organs; towards the anti-ego that infiltrates a self and its communities.

Justin refers to this anomalous relationship to the world — that is, a relationship that reflects the anomalies it seeks — as a kind of “lucidity”. This relationship is capable of turning an “extraordinary lucidity and courage in the direction of the white wall” — Justin’s phrase for a quotidian form of the transcendental; “a kind of white wall which is pretending here to have nothing much beyond it” — “attempting to see what could be happening, given that there is nothing but ordinary reality, and given the insistent disturbing aspects of the human world.” It is a relationship with the Outside — and, we might note, as Mark put it, “to find ways out is to let the Outside in.”

It is a kind of anti-ego that, even if later articulately through an “I”, is capable of allowing itself to be a conduit for transgressive desires — transgressive in the sense that they permeate, as Justin writes, “across the fundamental religious (oneiric-metaphysical) dreaming and thought-systems of the social field in which [we] find ourselves”.

Here, Justin is discussing Barbara O’Brien’s incredible text Operators and Things — an odd biographical text written by O’Brien in the midst of a very real schizophrenic episode. (I’m not sure how readily available this text is — I read it when it was shared with me in 2017 via a Google Doc link, which felt very appropriately occulted.) However, there are still plenty of other examples of such tales in popular culture.

Whilst sorting through my Discogs inventory earlier, I watched the new Netflix film Horse Girl, starring and co-written by Alison Brie. Brie apparently drew on her own family’s history of mental illness for the story and it is incredibly well done, I think.

Brie plays a shy woman who works in an arts and crafts store and has a neurotic obsession with a horse she rode at a local stable as a child called Willow. The film follows her quotidian existence with a sort of mumblecore vibe until she starts to succumb to a schizophrenic episode that she finds meaning in because she is wholly aware of her mother and grandmother’s previous struggles with mental illness. (It is this same awareness of seemingly hereditary mental illness that Brie drew on for her co-writing credit.) She starts to believe that she is her grandmother’s clone and her nightly dreams of alien abduction, intensified by experiences of lost time and an unconscious penchant for sleep walking, lead her to believe her abductions are very much real experiences, particularly because these are experiences that her grandmother also spoke of. By the end, the film descends into a sort of waking-dream sequence in which we watch Brie’s character living out her delusions with disastrous consequences.

I was really impressed by this film, particularly because Netflix has been incessantly recommending I watch Girl, Interrupted recently — a film I have already seen multiple times and which I have long hated for its high-school-drama-meets-One-Flew-Over-The-Cuckoo’s-Nest plot which romanticises time spent on a women’s psychiatric ward full of big lunch-hall egos.

The difference between the two films, I think, is precisely this sense of “anti-ego”, which Girl, Interrupted infuriatingly lacks. Brie’s character knows, to an extent, that she is “crazy” and that her thoughts are delusional, but she is incapable of wresting herself from the grasp of her schizophrenia whilst she feels it affords her a palpable connection to her immediate family’s prior experiences. She does not feel that she is experiencing something unique and instead feels herself becoming part of an intensive continuum. In the end, she sheds her self entirely, believing that she is not a “clone” of her grandmother but that she is her grandmother, and this alien-familiarity manifests for her as an surreally believable lucidity. These are not anomalies from within her own mind that she is experiencing but rather an anomalous world that others are also plugged into.

The impetus behind Justin’s elucidations on modernism emerge from a similar place. The subtitle to his book — “Haunted by the Future” — resonates with Horse Girl’s dramatisations of a strange templexity in which Brie’s character feels she can perceive the future but also is the future for the alien-subject that is her anomalous and almost mythical grandmother. It resonates profoundly with the conclusion to Justin’s book — which I also use as a chapter epigraph in Egress — which reads:

To travel into the unknown is a sober-joyful process of gaining energy by overcoming self-importance, and by eradicating all forms of self-indulgence — and it is a development of the ability to have effective, creative comradeship-alliances with other human beings. It is a process of perceiving — and dreaming — a way toward wider spaces of existence.

Beyond the ongoing disaster of ordinary reality is the second sphere of action. You don’t get to be there on a sustained basis unless in some sense you are part of a group, and a group can only form (no plan is possible, only continuous improvisation) if you have learned to let yourself be swept away into the intent-currents of Love-and-Freedom that run through the world — intent-currents that take you South, into the Future.

This is a lovely point to end on, and I am fighting a temptation to end this post here also, but I can’t help but want to affirm the very difficulty of enacting this sentiment in day-to-day life.

Because it is so easier said than done, and it is also, frankly, a terrifying process. Justin’s invocation of “intent-currents that take you South” feels like an explicit reference to the horrifyingly liberatory journey that Kerans undertakes in JG Ballard’s The Drowned World, and this is hardly a “sober-joyful journey” into the intensities of community — unless you see lizard–brain people as constituting a kind of intentional community.

And in a way, that is a community of the anti-ego, quite explicitly, and whilst Ballard whilst emphasises the horror of it, the horror is nonetheless an important consideration, because that horror is the horror of giving into alien-familiar desires that take one out of one’s self.

I don’t think I know anyone who is really committed to this sort of communal, body-without-organs thinking who doesn’t find its innate sociality difficult to bear. Maybe that says something about it… Most optimistically, it is a concern for those who feel most stultified by their ego and by its inescapability. That’s certainly how I feel. The question becomes: How can this be enacted in a way that is just an exercise in positive affirmations?

I’m reminded of Simon O’Sullivan’s essay about this, which also features in Egress briefly, in which he articulates the importance of thinking Deleuzian communities precisely because, he says, friendships have never come easy. That essay is a feature because I feel that way too, and the tragic irony of these concerns is that simply having them — over-thinking them — is often an obstacle to enacting them.

A Body Without Options (Part 1)

Last week I binge-watched the new Netflix series, Cheer, about a life in the Navarro College cheer squad.

Following certain members of the team as they prepare for the Daytona national championships, each episode explores their struggles and hardships and the support and discipline that cheerleading provides them…

Yeah, it’s pretty by-the-numbers…

But it’s captivating watching them throw themselves — quite literally — into cheerleading, navigating the sport alongside their various neuroses, suffering frequent injuries but always getting back up again.

Here, cheerleading is presented as a sport of extremes and one that seems to be getting more extreme every year. More flips, more jumps, more complicated maneuvers, pushing against the capabilities of what a young body can do and heightening the trust required in your fellow team mates to create an immovable bond. And it is a young person’s sport. They talk repeatedly about how there is no competitive cheerleading above the college level. Once you’ve graduated, you’ve aged out.

It’s your one and only chance. It’s all or nothing, until you’re ~25, and then you’re out, and you watch, as a viewer, how the bodies of alumni are so different from those still actively competing. They’re all a lot stockier — just as strong, perhaps, but less nimble — and they are also a lot more settled. The visible weight of their bodies seems to reflect their social status as grounded and well-rounded individuals, in stark contrast to the flying teens required to throw themselves like strands of thread through the eye of a needle. The mat is a microcosm of their young lives in almost every sense.

As a result, college cheerleading becomes this extremophile militant finishing school, where you push yourself to your limits and (hopefully) win big before you take your sense of discipline and your relentless work ethic and your communal consciousness into the State and the Family and then live out the rest of your days.

I struggled with this side of things a bit and couldn’t help but start philosophizing.

Most recently I’ve been thinking a lot about philosophical explorations of embodiment and bodily relation, attempting to work my way through Deleuze’s book on Spinoza, Expressionism in Philosophy, in which he explores Spinoza’s (and also Leibniz’s) Anticartesianism in which “expression” becomes an category of existence that better encapsulates the entangled nature of human experience than cogito ergo sum.

“Being, knowing and acting are the three forms of expression”, Deleuze writes, and he traces the emergence of this thought in Spinoza’s God, nature. Being, knowing and acting are drawn out from a consciousness of God’s acting upon the world and so the act of creation and the very essence of our metaphysical emanation within the world unfolds us across the world in which we see God.

God, nature then becomes, for Spinoza, a positive feedback loop between ourselves and our consciousness of the world outside ourselves. Deleuze articulates the radicality of this position with far more clarity. He writes that expression

at once gives back to Nature its own specific depth and renders man capable of penetrating into this depth. It makes man commensurate with God, and puts him in possession of a new logic: makes him a spiritual automaton equal to a combinatorial world. Born of the traditions of emanation and creation it makes of these two enemies, questioning the transcendence of a One above Being along with the transcendence of a Being above his Creation.

This is Deleuze’s concept of univocity. What we can say of God and nature is always also applicable to humans or things. The body without organs is a univocal way of thinking things in their parallelism. A mind is a body is a world. The world is a body is a mind. However, whilst Deleuze notes how Leibniz and Spinoza both express this sentiment, he sides with Spinoza’s particular interpretation because, as he sees it, Leibniz introduces a finality to this process. Univocity, for him, as with Spinoza, is “an absolute rule” and so to predict its end and restrict it to a set of known categories is to predict an end to expression as such, as if it is possible that we will eventually say and do all things, as if the world and the human body and everything in between will not continuously reevaluate their limits as our understanding and our technics continue to develop. It is a positive feedback loop all the way down. As Deleuze describes it:

Expression in Nature is never a final symbolization, but always, and everywhere, a causal explication.

It is here that the enforced cut-off of cheerleading becomes a poignant problematic. In applying a sense of finitude to its own process, it restricts the embodied imagination of these athletes in an oddly ideological way, creating a false ceiling where they believe they have pushed beyond to the very limits of what a body can do in their present moment and this somehow makes the compromise of a settled life more important. This is your one path to the limit-experience of cheerleading and, from such heights, there is a single path back down again. To deviate from it is to sin. To stray from it is to let down your team. You retreat when we tell you too. Then, and only then, you must take all you have learned at the limits of embodied experience and apply it to a life lived within its means. Those means may seem infinitely extensive and far reaching on the mat with our fellow team mates but it cannot last forever and so, if you are to pass this extension on to your offspring, it is necessary that you learn how to step back and step down into the social traditions that have made this experience possible.

Cheerleading becomes a sacred experience, almost religious in its habitude. Sundays are for limit-experiences. Every other day you humble yourself against the glory of the superego. It becomes, at once, a control value and an accelerant for radical embodiment. The control value, however, always has the final say.

Maybe that’s fine. Maybe that’s a legitimate ethical position to take as an expressive being-in-the-world. Deleuze and Spinoza, however, would disagree. Such a thought process makes ethical the soul’s limiting of the body in the name of a higher cause, precisely what Spinoza was rebelling against. As Deleuze writes, explaining Spinoza’s Anticartesian “parallelism”, Spinoza’s thought “overturns the moral principle by which” the actions of the body are the passions of the mind. He continues, first quoting Spinoza directly:

“The order of actions and passions of our body is, by nature, at one with the order of actions and passions of the mind.” What is a passion in the mind is also a passion in the body, what is an action in the mind is also an action in the body. Parallelism thus excludes any eminence of the soul, any spiritual and moral finality, any transcendence of a God who might base one series on the other. And parallelism is in this respect practically opposed not only to the doctrine of real action, but to the theories of preestablished harmony and occasionalism also. We ask “Of what is a body capable? Of what affections, passive as well as active? How far does its power extend?” Thereby, and thereby only, can we know of what a soul is in itself capable, what is its power. Thereby we find a means of “comparing” the power of the soul with that of the body, and so find a means of assessing the power of the soul considered in itself.

To encourage this embodied exploration to such extremes in childhood only to curtail it at its peak starts to resemble a violence. Deleuze continues on this point:

Reason, strength and freedom are in Spinoza inseparable from a development, a formative process, a culture. Nobody is born free, nobody is born reasonable. And nobody can undergo for us the slow learning of what agrees with our nature, the slow effort of discovering our joys. Childhood, says Spinoza, is a state of impotence and slavery, a state of foolishness in which we depend in the highest degree on external causes, and in which we necessarily have more of sadness than of joy; we are never more cut off from our power of action. The first man, Adam, corresponds to the childhood of humanity. This is why Spinoza so forcefully opposes the Christian, and then rationalist, traditions which present Adam to us as reasonable, free and perfect before his fall. Rather should we imagine Adam as a child: sad, weak, enslaved, ignorant, left to chance encounters. “It must be admitted that it was not in the first man’s power to make a right use of reason, but that, like us, he was subject to passions.” That is to say: It is not sin that explains weakness, but our initial weakness that explains the myth of sin.

It is with this in mind that I found the most interesting member of the Navarro cheer team to be a young girl who had auditioned for Navarro college and got in based on her “potential”. She’d had a troubled upbringing and came from a working class background. She had an assault charge against her name and repeatedly throughout the series her past comes back to haunt her. Her prior passions always, at all times, threaten her position within the team whilst, at the same time, she resents the external obstacles that have made this such an achievement for her against the relative ease of the other cheerleaders, and these external causes never quite go away. First, she’s a victim of revenge porn. Then, at the end, she’s busted during a car stop for having — it is suggested — weed in her car.

Despite having a hugely successful year at Navarro, and even entering the history books, so they say, for being able to perform a certain combination of skills that no one else ever has, she’s booted off the team for the possession charge and returns home.

They downplay her post-Navarro experience but I couldn’t imagine the torture of it. At first, early on in the series, she’s openly hostile. She has imposter syndrome, all too aware of that fact that everyone has a chip on their shoulder due to some sort of hardship but, for the most part, all she sees is rich kids regardless. She overcomes that perception and ingratiates herself into the team but she never escapes the trailer park kid inside. “Don’t you want family; kids?” the coach asks at one point, and she says yes, and the whole experience is then reframed as an opportunity for her to escape her former self, transcend her class and settle.

The last we see of her, she’s back at home, no longer a cheerleader, dancing with friends at an EDM concert, covered in glitter. Despite the melancholy of her voiceover, she’s still living her life and continuing her relationship with her body and the world around her through movement and dance. The reject she is supposed to have, presumably, is that she is doing this whilst eschewing the rules and regulations of the middle class microcosm in which she had previously found herself.

I wanted to reach out to her and be like, “Hey, ignore all this bullshit, framing you as a disappointment and a failure. You’re still living it.” She’s still exploring her body through these extremes of experience. So what if she wants to get high and dance rather than throw herself into human pyramids? She may not be cruising towards cheerleader stardom but she’s still a body. Just because they are not channeled into this extremist pressure point shouldn’t mean she is somehow missing out. Better that she sustains that experience and this relationship to herself throughout her life, allowing it to persist rather than burn out. Her sidestepping from a given moral code is more preferable than accepting her destin as a middle-aged body without options.

To be continued…

Elliptical Orbit II

After yesterday’s afternoon Joy Division pilgrimage, we went back to a very foggy Macclesfield (pictured) that same evening to go and see Star Wars IX: The Rise of Skywalker.

It was fine. The screening was held in an independent cinema installed in an old church / town hall which had amazing picture quality but muddy sound. The plot of the film itself was a bit weak, suffering from that all too common ailment of blockbuster impatience — bad writing with bad editing to match — which relies too heavily on audience dreamwork to patch up plot lacuna. It makes for a thrill ride quickly forgotten, much like the second installation of this latest trilogy (and 75% of action-adventure movies these days since the rise of Michael Bay.)

I’m not here to pick apart plot holes though. This isn’t a review of any kind. I just found the film resonating — despite itself — with a lot of recent thoughts.

[Spoilers below]

So many bad Cultural Studies essays have been written about the original Star Wars trilogy aping on Oedipus Rex. Orphaned boy goes out seeking vengeance for the death of his parents but in the process almost kills his father and nearly fucks his sister. It’s not really that close to Sophocles’ character at all but it does have many heavy doses of classicist hubris.

The new trilogy, though, echoes Sophocles’ plays a bit closely and in interesting ways. Kylo Ren’s rebellion against his family in the first film, culminating in him murdering his father, seems to correlate somehow with Rey’s orphaned upbringing and her adventure being driven by her search for her true self. Together they are Oedipus split.

In film #2, Rey finds Luke Skywalker, the original Oedipus, isolated on a planet somewhere and learns about Jedi stuff from him. Rey is devoted to him but he’s weighed down by the fateful line his life has taken and struggles to overcome his resentment towards it. In the end, Rey not only learns from him but helps him to let go of his past. At peace, he dies, or becomes one with the force, or whatever, and she heads off to get back to doing her own thing. It is Oedipus at Colonus in space.

The final film, then, quickly and blatantly becomes Antigone. Rey, set free of the burdens of her own past and her duties towards her elders, affirms her displacement but also retains a dogged sense of loyalty despite this. Just as Antigone stays loyal to her brother’s corpse despite being sentenced to death for the principle, Rey nurtures a loyalty to Kylo Ren, the last Skywalker, despite his persistent attempts to kill her.

Rey’s loyalty simmers and grows because she increasingly sees in Ren his family lineage — his mother, Leia, and his uncle, Luke — the two “masters” who have trained her in the ways of the Jedi and the force — and, as a result, realises that some bonds are worth more than life, fate and the rule of law. Family — or a sense of collective belonging at least — remains central to her life and the driving force of the Resistance as a whole but gone are the shackles of a patriarchal tradition and duty. She follows love and desire wherever they lead her, even if that is into the jaws of what she fears most, navigating their complexities as and when they cross her path.

(And they cross her path on countless occasions. The set piece of Rey and Kylo fighting on the wreck of the Death Star amidst a violent ocean was a highlight due to its very strong symbolic-of-the-unconscious vibes, but it ultimately felt like the setting was underused. A rare attempt at subtly, perhaps, that didn’t really work out.)

This is affirmed most explicitly when it’s revealed that her family are the worst of them all — it is revealed she is a Palpatine, grand-daughter (somehow) of the Emperor who has pulled the strings throughout the entire Star Wars saga. She struggles with the knowledge of her own bloodline and experiences the same horror when faced with the truth that Luke did, but she is far more assured of her own place in the universe than her mentor when he learned of his father’s true identity. There is no question of her giving into a familial fate. She moves adeptly around others’ expectations of her to find a third way.

Here, she affirms her displacement. “Some things are stronger than blood,” someone tells her — something I couldn’t help but scribble down in my notebook with surprisingly clarity in the pitch dark of the cinema (pictured).

This could refer to any sort of sentimentality but, thankfully, it turns out that what is stronger than blood is her own will to power.

Of course this is all demonstrated with little subtlety or grace. In the final scene, after burying Luke and Leia’s lightsabers on Tatooine, she reveals her own lightsaber, built herself, has a yellow “blade” — the third colour of the primary trinity, relative to the blue and red lightsabers that have defined the saga’s colour code of good and evil — but what I found most touching was that the final dialogue of the film had Rey — who has so far been known as “just Rey” — affirming a new identity, introducing herself to a passerby as Rey Skywalker.

After all that I’ve been writing about lately, around the anxieties of post-adoption experience and its impact on subjectivity, I couldn’t help but do a little air punch at this affirmation of a name that is not her own by birth. To choose a name is still a surreal taboo for many in society, even now. It was nice to see.

For all its faults — and the saga has had so many — it was nice to see it end with its own Antigone. Through all the melodrama and clunky set pieces, it ended with a popular-modernist affirmation of what I think is the best but most difficult position to take regarding family dramas:

Anti-Oedipus but Pro-Antigone

Truth and Coldness: Intensity, Christmas and ‘Love Actually’

On Saturday I was at the Showroom, attending a listening session and discussion around Justin Barton’s work with Mark Fisher.

After an afternoon of listening to both On Vanishing Land and LondonUnderLondon, Justin talked about the connections between the two pieces before bringing in Dalia Neis and Pete Wiseman, who had contributed to one of the pieces, to discuss its inception, development and unpack some of what is packed inside these two relatively concise audio works.

Justin spoke a lot about “intensity”, as explored through L.P. Hartley’s The Go-Between, Ballard’s The Drowned World and Joan Lindsay’s Picnic at Hanging Rock. In each, heat becomes an intensifier, partly to blame for the strange events that affect each of the characters.

In The Go-Between, the heat is made synonymous with the affair that is the novel’s central focus. Unfolding over a summer in 1900, once the summer fades, so do the feelings involved. Hartley writes:

In the heat the senses, the mind, the heart, the body, all told a different tale. One felt another person, one was another person.

The same can be said of Ballard’s The Drowned World, in which the heat of Earth, devastated by global warming, resurrects an impersonal and reptilian mode within the Earth’s surviving inhabitants. Many are driven south, towards the Earth’s now-uninhabitable equator, drawn to the zone of intensity with little regard for their own well-being.

In Picnic at Hanging Rock, too, the disappeared women of Lindsay’s book disappear in the midday sun, also in 1900, as if passing directly through a heat shimmer into another reality, into what Jusin called a “desubjectified intensity”.

I found myself thinking about the other side of this on the way home: the intensity of “coldness”. Walking from the pub to Marylebone station to catch the 453 back to New Cross, I met a man named Damien. His phone had died in the cold, as had mine, and he wanted to know if he was in the right place. The bus stop had been displaced by 100m due to road works and was now a “temporary stop”, not so easy to see in the dark.

We got to chatting — an unusual experience on London transport. We joked about our phones, the Christmas anxiety of being pickpocketed in the throngs of central London at Christmas time and how this spoils the experience of walking through the city at this time of year.

He’d come into London on his motorbike, he said, but had decided to walk to Marylebone and now had acute lower back ache. He asked what I’d been up to, I said that, funnily enough, I’d been to a talk about walking through London — not a lie but a smoothing out of the truth — and he said, “You’ll never guess what I’ve been doing.”

He was right. I couldn’t and probably would never have. He told me he’d just met up with the love of his life so that he could tell her that… well… that he loves her. They’d been together all too briefly twenty years ago, when they were kids, in their teens, and he described the intensity of their relationship in terms familiar to anyone who has had a teenager love affair. Naive, awkward, but more intense in feeling than anything you might imagine at that time in your life.

He said that he’d had problems with drink and drugs, developing into full-blown alcoholism — thankfully he was now five years sober — and this was to blame for the relationship going south. As a result, as far as he was concerned, the relationship felt unfinished. They had kept in touch over the decades but only loosely and he described how, whenever he saw her in the flesh, every few years or so, he was overcome by emotion. On the one hand, it was “an intense sexual attraction”; on the other, it was a cyclonic feeling of nerves and calm, “butterflies” and serenity. He couldn’t ignore it any longer and had decided to tell her how he still felt.

The trouble was that she was now married, with “four or five” children. She had a beautiful family, he said, and her husband seemed like a really nice guy. He wasn’t a homewrecker and had no intentions of trying to take any of that from her, but still he felt like he was going insane and had to tell her the truth of his feelings towards her.

Hearing this story out of context, I might have thought: “Just keep it in your pants and let her live her life,” but Damien was so deeply torn over the situation. He seemed wholly and painfully self-aware. He told me his story in a flurry of emotions and histories and apologized repeatedly for just talking his mouth off, but then he followed this up, perceptively, with the observation that if he stopped talking to think, he was afraid he’d implode over what he’d just done. He wondered aloud: Was he being selfish? Was telling her the right thing to do? He was certain the feeling was mutual but circumstances were so obviously out of alignment that he was terrified at the consequences of what he truth would do to them both. He said all he wanted was closure. If that meant an affair or a firm rejection of his tentative advances, he didn’t care. He just wanted to take their “unfinished business” and finish it — one way or another.

He asked me what I thought about his dilemma. Not in terms of advice but just how it made me feel. I was honest with him and said, whilst I couldn’t relate to his predicament, although I do remember the mind-altering (and, in some ways, life-defining) intensity of that kind of late teenage romance, I actually found his story quite beautiful. For all its messiness and ethical dubiousness, it felt like a Christmas story…

We laughed and then, a few minutes later, I remembered why it made me feel this way. I asked him if he’d seen the film Love Actually. He said he hadn’t. I explained that his story was oddly similar to one of the film’s subplots, wherein Andrew Lincoln struggles with the fact that he is in love with his best friend’s new wife, Keira Knightley.

Keeping her at a cold distance, feigning dislike towards her so as to keep her at arm’s length from himself, it is eventually revealed, when Knightley watches her wedding movie, shot by Lincoln, that he doesn’t hate her but is absolutely in love with her.

He doesn’t handle it well and throws her out of his house but, in a much parodied scene — most recently in this general election campaign, by both Boris Johnson and Rosena Allin-Khan — he later turns up at her doorstep to declare his love for her, without agenda or expectation, but simply following the belief that “at Christmas, you tell the truth.”

I didn’t provide Damien with quite such a detailed exegesis but laughed about it to myself all the same.

At one point, somewhat bizarrely, our discussion turned to intensity.

First, we returned to the fact that he’d walked from Oxford Circus to Marylebone — by no means a short walk — before discussing what he should do now. He said he wanted to go home and have a nice, hot bath, soaking his lumbar region which was now giving him a considerably amount of discomfort. He was surprised by how much discomfort he felt. “I’m a pretty fit guy,” he said, “for 34”, and it was unusual for him to feel such pain after what was hardly a strenuous physical activity.

It was from here that we began to discuss this sort of embodied response to thought. He offered up the idea that this back pain was a stress response. The uncertainty and discomfort he was feeling emotionally was pooling there, at the base of his spine. However, on the flip side, a long walk through the cold was probably the best thing he could have done to prepare himself for the meeting ahead.

He started talking about Nikola Tesla. He was a heating engineer by trade and so had both a professional and personal fascination with electrical systems. He said that he loved Tesla’s writing and his theories of electrical conduction, so ahead of their time. He started talking about Wardenclyffe Tower and Tesla’s experiments with wireless electrical transmission. I sort of knew what he was getting at, reaching for a somewhat familiar language through which he could talk about the connectivity of body and mind, body and world; the necessity of the bodily movement and expression in thinking about and processing new experiences. He was trying to talk about the transmission of unseen energies, in a way that was rational if nonetheless bemused and all to human. He talked about this explicitly and he seemed to have something of an epiphany in the process.

As I continued on my journey without him, I thought that it was no doubt the cold itself that had something to do with his latest intensity of feeling and the need to address it. It wasn’t heat that was pushing him towards a new engagement with his thoughts and emotions but the cold, itself driving a necessity for movement and the generation of an internal heat. It didn’t encourage an escape from present circumstances, as in the fictions discussed by Justin, but a new immanence; a new working-through of the truth of his existence.

Is this the underlying force that connects all the stories within Love Actually? An inward intensity for generating heat during the seasonal cold?

He got off at Oxford Circus to retrieve his bike and we said our goodbyes, riven with an oddly Deleuzian Christmas spirit.

Update #1: Robin has some advice for Damien over on Twitter:

guy needs to cultivate his capacity for disparation, to plateau on the intensity, collapse of a dilated virtuality into actualisation could only be a disappointment. (And yet…)

“There’s no fate but what we make for ourselves”: Notes on ‘Terminator: Dark Fate’

I went to see Terminator: Dark Fate this evening and have thoughts.

TL;DR: I thought it was really interesting. As an action blockbuster, I enjoyed it, but as the latest offering in a franchise so tied up with theoretical readings, it raises a lot of questions — questions that both strengthen the film as entertainment and undermine it as politicised media.

I don’t think there’s a way to say why I think this exactly without spoiling just about all of it so come back later if you’ve got plans to check it out.


“There’s no fate but what we make for ourselves” is one of the most famous lines from the Terminator franchise but it’s also the least effective and discussed. It’s meant to be a hopeful motto for most of the franchise’s characters but it betrays a weird templexity that is as integral to the franchise’s continuing existence as to that of the universe in which it takes place.

Individual fate may be fluid but repeatedly it falls foul of a much bigger plan.

This is driven home in Dark Fate in a scene where the saviour-from-the-future character, Grace, explains that Sarah Connor may have stopped Skynet from taking over but humans ended up building something else instead: Legion — yet another rogue AI that has its Oedipal and military-industrial complexes murderously entangled, threatening the entire human race after it decides to hunt it for sport. This is not just history repeating itself but the future too.

But there’s still hope. Dani, this film’s “John Connor”, future leader of the resistance — or “militia” (because she’s Mexican I guess?) — is keen to point out that we made these things so we can take them down.

It’s a hopeful line that is uttered within minutes of the iconic “there’s no fate but what we make for ourselves” and it left me feeling pretty jarred. A Terminator-dominated world is not our fate because our fate is what we make for ourselves… But it seems our fate is also to keep making rogue AI…?

Individual survival supposedly trumps any sense of collective responsibility. It has never been this franchise’s strongest message.

Terminator: Dark Fate at first feels like it has taken heavy notes from the reboot of the Star Wars franchise. The first 20 minutes or so of this film felt like they were just going to remake T2 but for today. In many respects, that is precisely what the filmmakers have done here, and it is what makes and breaks this film for me.

Initially, the updated settings and politics feel incredibly timely for a time-warped franchise such as this. The most interesting example for me is perhaps that Sarah Connor’s insane asylum sequence is changed up for a Texan detention centre for illegals who’ve crossed the US-Mexican border.

The journey into and out of this place is an interesting one and it reminded me of a lecture I went to a few months ago given by Daniel Rourke in which he gave the best analysis of T2 that I’ve ever heard. (I’m hoping one day that Daniel will publish this take for himself. I also hope he won’t mind me summarising it.)

Daniel’s focus is on Sarah Connor — “mother of the future, goddess, warrior”. She’s a “walking temporal disruption” trying to protect her son whose father was a man from the future sent back to protect her.

For Daniel, this makes her more cyborg than the Terminator. She is galvanised by her “temporal hybridity” and whilst the society in which she exists attempts to close in around her, deeming her to be insane because of her apocalyptic visions, she is nonetheless able to use the “rigidity of her own surroundings to her advantage.”

Daniel showed us her asylum escape sequence, describing her movement through the institutional space as an example of détournement — for the way that she uses the asylum against itself — but also as an act of “aphercotropism“. The latter is a term used to describe the routing around of obstacles by plants. Unable to access sunlight, plants will push through, in and around whatever lies in front of them.

Drawing up a diagram of the strategies and tactics deployed by each character in T2, Daniel explained that Sarah Connor is the “most aphercotropic being” of them all. She is “at one” with the system in which she’s contained. The Terminators, obviously, aren’t. The T-100 smashes through doors and walls like a bulldozer whilst the T-1000 just slides right through everything as if it was’t there. Without the brute force or liquidity of the Terminators in her midst, Sarah nonetheless comes out on top because she is able to adapt best to her environment without having to just destroy everything or be completely devoid of an identity like the T-1000 that mimics but is otherwise formless.

I liked this because — in DeleuzoGuattarian terms — it situated the T-100 as a striated being, the T-1000 as a smooth being, and Sarah Connor as a cyberfeminist patchwork nomad.

What is interesting about this reading in relation to Terminator: Dark Fate is that it completely falls apart. That’s not a comment on Rourke’s reading of T2 but rather a comment on the times in which we live.

In Dark Fate, Sarah Connor is back but she’s also a bit of a has-been. She’s no longer hunted and she’s no longer the most aphercotropic being in the girl gang. In fact, it’s hard to rank any of the characters in this present movie as being aphercotropic at all.

Sarah Connor hunts Terminators now. She gets sent mysterious texts, goes to the coordinates contained within and despatches Terminators as soon as they arrive. She’s not the mother of the future anymore. She’s basically a looper — a contract killer killing any remnant of the future the moment it reaches back into the past. The irony of her future-past existence is that she’s now totally behind on the present, keeping her phone in empty crisp packets because she thinks the foil lining will block tracking signals.

And yet Sarah is also the first to chide Grace, an augmented human sent back to protect Dani. Sarah notes that, yeah, she might be as fast and as strong as a Terminator with her cool future techno-skeleton, but she doesn’t know anything about the past she’s been sent back to. She has no idea how it all works.

Dani, although she is this film’s “John”, is in fact a lot more like the very first Terminator film’s Sarah. She might be destined to lead humanity to its salvation against Legion but she’s not that woman yet. She’s got a very long way to go. She’s a woman of the present but she’s clueless about the past and future forces no converging around her.

All of this is compounded by the ease with which the new Terminator is able to move through our contemporary world. Our contemporary surveillance state, in particular, means that this rogue AI has no trouble finding its prey anywhere. Every camera is an eye for it to spy through, whether that be CCTV, military drone or smart phone camera. It reminded me of that dark technology that Batman has been secretly developing in one of the Chris Nolan films — the technology that uses phone signals to listen in on calls and render 3D environments from phone data alone. In Terminator: Dark Fate, it feels like phone data is irrelevant. It’s the obvious technology to fear if you want to remain off grid but it quickly becomes apparent that, today, being “off-grid” is an outdated fantasy. Nowhere is out of sight of present day surveillance infrastructures.

The state’s role in this is made explicit. Just as the original T-1000 found itself easily overcoming obstacles by impersonating a police officer for most of the film’s duration, the new model built by Legion impersonates a border patrol officer and army personnel. It hacks networks way above the pay grade of T2‘s motorcycle cop and, as a result, it is never far behind the women’s trail, no matter whether they’re traipsing through the desert or laying low in a city. They are accessible.

One of the most interesting and troubling things, for me, about Terminator: Dark Fate is that if any character in this new film is aphercotropic it’s Arnold Schwarzenegger’s, but not in a good way.

In his lecture, Daniel explained that he sees the Terminator itself as a feminist figuration for its capacity to highlight the very power dynamics that it moves through, specifically between a machinic and masculine dualism, and that is an aspect of Schwarzenegger’s character that is put into overdrive in this film.

Having eventually killed John Connor in 1998, a year after the events of T2 — depicted in an opening flashback that, it must be said, is fucking incredible in its realism: I wouldn’t have known it was CGI if I wasn’t well aware that those characters on screen were impossibly from 22 years ago — we later learn that the T-100 developed a “consciousness” (or, more accurately, a conscience) all of its own, later settling down and becoming a family man.

I found this back story very hard to swallow. Whereas T2‘s T-100 had been completely reprogrammed in the future and then sent back to the past to protect John Connor, this T-100 was successful in its mission but, a few years later, found itself a family and then felt guilt? The film’s internal reasoning was that, somewhat like Frankenstein’s monster, in an attempt to give itself purpose in its new existence as a seemingly immortal machine that has completed its one and only mission, unable to return to the time it came from, the T-100 sets out on a new mission to make amends and… It succeeds?

I call bullshit on that as a narrative device personally but, politically, and with Daniel’s reading in mind, it does weirdly make sense that this all-female reboot would reconfigure the machinic masculinity of the previous films into a responsible don’t-mess-with-Texas caring survivalist family man who plays Platonic husband and father figure for a lost mother and son who have escaped domestic abuse.

In relation to T2, this still makes no sense whatsoever to me but, being charitable, I suppose it nonetheless contains echoes of the original John Connor’s attempts to humanise the monster in his midst in the original film.

Just as all the comic relief in T2 came from Schwarzenegger’s robotic father figure vibe and his cold delivery of teenage slang, Terminator: Dark Fate gives his character the future existence that we might have imagined for the T-100 that sacrificed itself at the end of T2.

It’s ham-fisted and awkward but it did eventually win me over, betraying my inner bleeding heart liberal. My more critical head, however, did recongise Arnie’s new T-100 was a cybergothic embodiment of what Leslie Fieder called a “Higher Masculine Sentimentality” — a weird cross-pollination of white man and savage Native that American literature has been producing for centuries. T2 kept its HMS fast and loose. Here, it is woefully consolidated. It will resonate with many, as a result, but I’m left asking myself: “At what cost?”

This is partly why this film both benefits and is dragged down by its timeliness for me. I do not see much of the internal politics of this film ageing well in this regard. This isn’t a comment on the all-female cast. In fact, that development makes perfect sense. Dani isn’t the “mother of the future”. She is the future. It updates T2 with the “future is female” promise of today and of cyberfeminism more generally and it would be weird if it went any other way. But its internal crisis of masculinity echoes the embarrassing shifting mythologies that men hold onto in our own reality. The fact that the film can write three kick-ass female characters but completely fails to give its only leading man a believable backstory is telling of the present moment. I doubt many will mourn this failure but it bothers me if only for the fact that it did affect the film as a whole for me.

This disappointment with convoluted internal politics is not uncommon to a lot of recent sci-fi. For example, whilst the film initially holds off on revealing the fact that it isn’t Dani’s womb that the rogue AI is threatened by, it reminded me of all that I didn’t like about the recent Blade Runner sequel.

That film’s fall back on a harking after domesticity and familial lineage over considerations of the impact of a replicant’s xenogenesis felt really wrong to me. If there are two paths that could be taken following the original Blade Runner, that, for me, was the wrong one.

Terminator: Dark Fate thankfully takes a far more interesting path but still struggles to deal with xenogenesis in a way that doesn’t quickly fall back on the trad politics of the nuclear family.

On a more positive note, it is inspired that the film’s main chase takes place across the US-Mexican border and involves far more nefarious apparatuses of the state than its predecessors. None of these plot devices feel heavy handed — there is no woke message screaming at you in the face — but, again, with Daniel’s lecture in mind, its narrative arch is telling. Almost a quarter of a century after the first film hit cinemas, it is striking how much more difficult it is for these characters to move around. They fall victim to just about every example of state infrastructure they pass through, slowing them down whilst these same systems allow the Terminator to speed up.

This isn’t something that the film makes a big deal of, but I do wonder why that is. In fact, one of the other heavy-handed moments in Terminator: Dark Fate contrasts this observation in an odd way.

When Dani is first introduced, turning up for work at a Mexico City car manufacturer with her brother, she discovers her brother’s station has been replaced overnight by a new robotic arm on the production line. She complains to her manager, protesting about the precedent this sets for the rest of her colleagues who, she says defiantly, will not be reduced to “keeping stations warm until the machines come along.” It’s the sort of working class technophobia that has been a staple of Hollywood sci-fi for decades and it felt very much out of date here.

This is exacerbated by the extent to which the Legion Terminator is able to exploit the apparatus of the state. Humanity creating a slipstream for murderous AI is not a drama that plays out very well anymore on the factory floor. It is the state’s adoption of technologies that is far more worrying. It worried me that the film’s Fordist fury betrayed a complete ignorance of this far more pressing and insidious issue, despite it occupying these spaces for the majority of its story.

I would be remiss not to mention k-punk’s writings on the Terminator franchise here, particularly in relation to this weirdly outdated technophobia at the start of the film.

Writing on Terminator: Salvation on his blog, Mark comments: “Capitalist realism keeps attention on the ephemeral plenitude of wealth and social status, containing the nullity of ecological catastrophe as an anamorphic blot at the edge of vision.” In Terminator: Dark Fate, it is state surveillance over ecological catastrophe that capitalist realism keeps as a blot. The Fordist technophobia getting an on-screen protest whilst no comment is passed on the nature of their detention at the hands of the US border patrol feels like a weird act of misdirection that is never rectified with the same explicitness.

It doesn’t have to be, of course — subtlety is good — but Dark Fate eschews its subtlety in some very telling places and these are typically places that only reveal the limits of the filmmaker’s own vision of the world in which their story takes place.

In his most famous Accelerationist essay, Mark would use the Terminator as the best analogy for Nick Land’s (1990s) view of capitalism:

Deleuze-Guattari’s concept of capitalism as the virtual unnameable Thing that haunts all previous formations pulp-welded to the time-bending of the Terminator films: “what appears to humanity as the history of capitalism is an invasion from the future by an artificial intelligent space that must assemble itself entirely from its enemy’s resources,” as [Land’s essay] “Machinic Desire” has it. Capital as megadeath-drive as Terminator: that which “can’t be bargained with, can’t be reasoned with, doesn’t show pity or remorse or fear and it absolutely will not stop, ever”.

The fact that, in Dark Fate, Capital-as-Terminator did stop and became a stoic boomer is damningly continuous with this Landian vision and, similarly, it doesn’t make for good watching.

Most troubling of all is the way in which Dark Fate feels like a perfected instantiation of all that made Terminator: Genisys, for Mark Fisher at least, such a shitshow. (I think I skipped that film altogether.)

Reviewing the film for Sight & Sound, Mark writes:

Terminator 2’s already irritating combination of cutesy smart alecry (“Hasta la vista, baby”) and apocalyptic foreboding laid out the formula for the 1990s postmodern thriller in the way that the Bond films did for the thrillers of the 60s. The form was a kind of have-your-cake-and-eat-it mix of send-up and portentous melodrama (Linda Hamilton’s performance was so OTT that you wanted to say, “Chill out, it’s just a nuclear apocalypse”).

I wonder if he wouldn’t find Hamilton’s performance here similarly cringe. Her hard-nosed persona does frequently miss the mark in Dark Fate and feel painfully exaggerated.

Getting to the meat of his analysis, Mark continues:

The presiding metaphysic here — a vision of total plasticity, in which nothing is final, everything can be redone — is, like everything else in this film, completely familiar. If the Terminator in the first film — a musclebound humanoid with metallic-robotic skeleton – was an image of work and technology in the Fordist era, then the T1000 gave us our first taste of the forms of capital and labour which were then emerging. No doubt, the T100’s protean capacity to adopt any form whatsoever initially seemed exciting — reflecting the promises of a new digital technologies, and of an unleashed capitalism, recently freed up from conflict with the Soviet empire.

But by 2015 that excitement has long since flatlined. As with so much contemporary culture, Terminator Genisys feels simultaneously self-satisfied and desperate, frenzied and boring. It is at one and the same time a desecration and plundering of the series’ past that is also pathetically reverential towards it. […]

[A] film whose reality is this plastic, this recomposable, is simply impossible to care about on any level. As such, Terminator Genisys becomes a kind of dumb, unintentional parable about restructuring in late capitalism. Since anything can and will change soon, why bother to care about what is happening now? The whole film feels like a monument to pointless hard work. We’re left somewhat stupefied and perturbed by the vast amount of digital labour that has gone into something that is almost completely devoid of interest, and which it certainly feels like very hard work to watch.

Terminator: Dark Fate thankfully avoids this pratfall. Its explicit grounding within a very contemporary geopolitical battleground gives it real stakes and an undercurrent that is ripe for real-world consideration.

Sometimes it is confused about what exactly it wants to say but thankfully it leaves more than enough space for the viewer to consider the film on their own terms. However, Mark’s critique of this franchise’s previous outing still lingers.

It might successfully generate interest by hanging itself on the Trumpian geopolitics of contemporary America but is this film capable of telling us any more beyond that? Its spirals of templexity still drag it down.

There is no fate but what we make for ourselves and so far, according to the film’s own internal logics, that fate is more of the same. The Terminator in Dark Fate is no longer a idol to fill with Landian analyses of our collective technomic death drive but of the frenzied stasis of Fisher’s capitalist realism.

If this film cannot connect the dots between the T-100’s fallback on trad life to the futility of its own catchphrase that betrays a self-perpetuating capitalism, paradoxically fuelled by a fear of a future-present, hopefully its audiences can.

In The Tall Grass

I enjoyed the new Netflix horror film In the Tall Grass, watched in chunks over the last week, despite all its flaws.

I live for Netflix in October. And other streaming services too. Horror content is inbound. Might need to renew my Shudder subscription just for this month too.

[Spoilers ahead, obviously.]

In the Tall Grass is part Triangle, part Children of the Corn, with a heavy dose of megalithic astrohorror. The main thing I liked about it was the film’s villain, Ross, played by Patrick Wilson, a real estate agent who gets possessed by dark powers emanating from a megalith in the middle of a field of grass from which the cast cannot escape.

He reminded me of an old post I did about The Haunting of Hill House, and a since-deleted tweet by someone who said that all horror movies, at their core, are about real estate — or, more accurately, the commodified estate of the Real.

It’s an interesting twist on the old racially insensitive trope of the American landscape and its native occupants having their revenge on those who build on their burial grounds. The film’s templexity undoes this, describing a force far older than any of us, but makes capitalist property rights a kind of insidious infection that rises out from the ground beneath our feet.

Is this the latent horror of the first agricultural revolution?

There are subtle hints towards this throughout the film, such as Ross warning his son against running into the grass because it’s “private property”, but everything comes to ahead in orbit of Becky, a pregnant woman caught between her weedy but overbearing brother who seems to have incestuous desires for her, her handsome but unreliable rock star ex who is allergic to responsibility but eventually realises he might want to start a family after all, the creepy young Tobin for whom she becomes a surrogate mother, and her own pregnant body that is working violently against her.

Becky struggles to assert her own autonomy against her social situation and nature itself — be that her own individual autonomy or the autonomy of the world as it exists around her, each always already plugged into the other.

Of course, in the end, the film bails on its own intriguing grassy entanglement. Escaping from the field through a tunnel that leads to a church, Future Tobin stops Past Becky and her brother from entering the field in the first. This strange encounter with the child seems to make her realise that she shouldn’t give up her baby, but her ex — the father? — is still somehow trapped dead within the field where he first went to try and save her.

He becomes the ultimate victim — a victim of his own social elusiveness. Becky, on the other hand, is saved. She does the right thing — reaffirming her property rights, making her claim to the estate of the Real…

What was Cinema?

The outrage on Twitter after Martin Scorsese declared that Marvel movies are not “cinema” has been predictably cringe but interesting nonetheless. It begs the question: “What is cinema?” Or maybe, “What was it?” Does anyone make “cinema” anymore?

On closer inspection, Scorsese’s comments seem quite innocuous:

I don’t see [Marvel movies]. I tried, you know? But that’s not cinema. Honestly, the closest I can think of them, as well made as they are, with actors doing the best they can under the circumstances, is theme parks. It isn’t the cinema of human beings trying to convey emotional, psychological experiences to another human being.

But there are still many people who loudly disagree. Indeed, his definition of Cinema is so vague that it is easily ridiculed but I’d like to unpack it all the same.

In the innumerable replies to articles about Scorsese’s statement that I saw online, discussions turned to the more generic issue of “What is art?” Anything anyone makes is art, said the many to the few — that’s the only valid democratic response. Examples were given along the lines of: “Whether someone paints pictures or makes big buildings or kooky spoon sculptures, it’s all art.” But I don’t think that’s true.

This great melting pot of cultural oneness does nothing but turn all art the colour of pathetic liberal beige and, many years ago, it was once my one-man shitpost mission to point this out at every opportunity. Even today, I’d love to see any posing of the question “What is art?” that isn’t wholly flaccid and inconsequential, whether it is uttered by keyboard critics or big art institutions on an embarrassingly banal public engagement kick. Submissions in my inbox!

Below are two instances I came across way back in 2013. One is from a fight I got into with the social media intern at London’s ICA when they did the whole “Ooo, but is it art though?” thing as a lazy and patronising way to stoke audience engagement, encouraging a criticality wholly without teeth. (I wiped my old Twitter account ages ago so my original tweets are lost to the ether but you get the idea.)

This irritation came from the fact that the ICA were not alone in this practice that was already tired and not in any way “new”.

I remember I was also living in Hull at that time, probably picking that fight with their poor social media intern on the same day I discovered that Hull’s Ferens Art Gallery had installed this inane monstrosity in their main gallery, reducing sociocultural engagement to the level of picking a local charity to donate to when you finishing your big boujie Waitrose shop.

Detached, banal and pointless.

My issue is that saying everything is art is as useful as saying nothing is art, and arguing the point doesn’t produce anything of critical value for anyone. Instead, if we want to take Scorsese seriously, or Marvel seriously for that matter, what constitutes art does not come down to a question of aesthetics or form or some vague notion of validity but down to a question of purpose.

This too is vague and so I want to make clear that this is not an attempt to tread that other tired floor that has already stalked literature for many decades. Scorsese’s comments are about 40 years too late to provoke a conversation about “high and low” cinema. The real question today is: When does “art” become nothing more than a “product”?

This is a question that has already been asked of Joker but it betrays a cynicism that sticks in its critics’ own collective maw.

If this is true of Joker or the MCU, isn’t it true of all films today?

This is a difficult question to ask because capital is so deeply entwined with all forms of production but this is already a question entangled up with how Scorsese’s comments have so far been discussed in the media. As the Metro put: “Martin Scorsese claims Marvel films are ‘not cinema’ — despite Avengers: Endgame becoming highest grossing film in history.” But what do either of those two statements have to do with each other? Everything or nothing at all?

I was reminded of Marcuse’s comments on these issues in his book One Dimensional Man. For him — speaking of literature instead of cinema but in a way that is nonetheless still relevant for us here — literature is defined for him by an “estrangement-effect” — an internal principle of alienation that refutes and “refuses” to comply with normative and populist aesthetics so as to conjure up another world. He writes:

The “estrangement-effect” is not superimposed on literature. It is rather literature’s own answer to the threat of total behaviorism — the attempt to rescue the rationality of the negative. In this attempt, the great “conservative” of literature joins forces with the radical activist. […] They speak of that which, though absent, haunts the established universe of discourse and behavior as its most tabooed possibility — neither heaven nor hell, neither good nor evil but simply “le bonheur.” Thus the poetic language speaks of that which is of this world, which is visible, tangible, audible in man and nature — and of that which is not seen, not touched, not heard.

It is in this sense that “the truly avant-garde works of literature communicate the break with communication.” He continues: “With Rimbaud, and then with dadaism and surrealism, literature rejects the very structure of discourse which, throughout the history of culture, has linked artistic and ordinary language.”

It’s an interesting way of framing the matter because, turning to Scorsese’s comment that Avengers: Endgame doesn’t really communicate on a human level, this concluding chapter of the latest saga from the MCU becomes avant-garde cinema par excellence.

It is also interesting for this to come full circle in this way. After all, for all of Marcuse’s insightfulness, he too was terrified of pop as that genre tailor-made for capitalism’s inherent expansionism. Marcuse warns explicitly of capitalism’s tentacular spread and its “efforts to recapture the Great Refusal”, leading to avant-garde artists suffering “the fate of being absorbed by what they refute. “

Mark Fisher writes about Marcuse’s Great Refusal in his introduction to Acid Communism, noting instead how Marcuse’s mourning over “the popularisation of the avant-garde” was not borne of “anxieties that the democratisation of culture would corrupt the purity of art, but because the absorption of art into the administered spaces of capitalist commerce would gloss over its incompatibility with capitalist culture.” And Mark mourned this often and explicitly, albeit extending Marcuse’s critiques, repeatedly calling for the return of a “popular modernism”, defined for him by an experimentation that crosses boundaries of high and low, where punks who can’t play their instruments enter into the same space as jazz masters who want to push beyond the modes of expression they know so well. Mark mourned the loss of this kind of cultural horseshoe theory, where there was a gap between these two points of high and low where things could still escape into the radically new. The question of whether something is or isn’t art, is or isn’t music, is or isn’t cinema, seeks nothing more than to close this gap and trap us all within an ultimate discourse. To ask that question is to try to reel things back in rather than allow them to flow outwards.

This is what Scorsese fails to grasp but also, in his own self-defensive pretension, he embarrassingly ignores his own complicity in this same cycle. (And who isn’t complicit?) Not only does the latest Joker movie heavily ape Scorsese’s own film, Taxi Driver, but Scorsese’s last film to garner widespread attention was The Wolf of Wall Street — his award-winning account of capitalist decadence and financial crime that paints as punk the very value system he is now decrying. At the time, it seemed like Scorsese’s intention was to capture the alienating immoral and decadent spirit of the heyday of early market capitalist excess, making something new out of the finished spectacle, but he failed because he was already so wrapped up in the mechanisms he was trying to refute. His latest comments do nothing to assuage this. It only demonstrates how out of touch he is — not with “cinema” or “Hollywood” per se but with his own place within its past and present.

The Wolf of Wall Street is a fitting last hurrah for Scorsese in this regard. We might ask ourselves if the film alienates in that way that great cinema, following Marcuse, perhaps should? Scorsese and the film’s star Leonardo DiCaprio may have argued that it was “punk rock” but no one seemed capable of swallowing that suggestion without gagging. My memory is that Scorsese even faced off accusations of romanticising the excess he depicted.

Michael Laurence has written an interesting essay on The Wolf of Wall Street and the uneasy complicity of any anti-capitalist ethics. One passage in particular, which begins with a Mark Fisher quotation, sticks out here:

“So long as we believe (in our hearts) that capitalism is bad, we are free to continue to participate in capitalist exchange.” Yet we do not even need to go that far for ideology to work. We do not need to disavow capitalism as a totality. All we really need to do is believe that the excesses of capitalism are bad, that the few predators at the top of the food chain are evil, that the cold corporate monsters ought to be put behind bars, that the big banks are the real problem, and that greed is not good, so that we can continue to participate in a much more humane, morally acceptable, and less greedy capitalism. Of course, no such thing exists. Even more, the belief that it does exist effectively works to preclude from consciousness the existing structural violence of capitalism: that ever-present and largely invisible violence which proceeds by structuring fields of possible being and experience while discharging modes of being and thinking that cannot be absorbed into its circuitry.

Scorsese seems to encapsulate this entirely. He knows capitalism is bad and he even made a film about how bad it once got but it is a pious punch that fails to land when we consider it cost $100million to make and became Scorsese’s highest grossing film ever, raking in almost $400million worldwide at the box office. This isn’t just a cheap shot to call Scorsese a sell-out, however. What is more important is our consideration that he was once associated with the Hollywood Brat Pack — Brian De Palma, Francis Ford Coppola, George Lucas and Steven Spielberg — who arguably gave us the cinematic world of pop blockbusters he is now decrying. Scorsese isn’t a sell-out. He’s a Dr. Frankenstein denying his own bastard paternity.

To return to the question I initially wanted to ask, “What was cinema?”, considering all of the above, I should take the opportunity to nod to that book which is making me consider everything in the past tense at the moment: Leslie Fiedler’s What Was Literature?

Fiedler’s book is great because it is not a cynical dismissal of a time gone by but rather a consideration of how we ended up in this mess of static capitalist hauntography and how he, as a self-described “crypto-pop critic”, has inadvertently helped bring it all about by trying to erase elitism from the field of criticism that he inadvertently fell into, by way of his own subversive acts of criticisms later becoming pop cultural reference points in their own right.

He too was subsumed within the system he had initially set out to refuse.

As he wrestles with how this all happened, he finds the obvious common denominator: money.

He writes:

money, (the one fiction of universal currency) is the only, and indeed always remains the most reliable token that one has in fact touched, moved, shared one’s most private fantasies with the faceless, nameless “you” to whom the writer’s all-too-familiar “I” longs to be joined in mutual pleasure. “I stop somewhere waiting for you” is a sentence not just from Walt Whitman’s but from every writer’s love letter to the world. It is only when the first royalty check arrives in the mail (an answer as palpable as a poem) that the writer begins to suspect that the “you” he has invented in his lonely chamber, in order to begin writing at all, is real, and that therefore his “I” (not the “I” to which like everyone else he is born, but that fictive “I” which he, in order to be a writer, must create simultaneously with the “you”) is somehow real too.

But this means, as all writers know, though most of us (including me) find it hard to confess, that literature, the literary work, remains incomplete until it has passed from the desk to the marketplace; which is to say, until it has been packaged, huckstered, hyped and sold. Moreover, writers themselves (as they are also aware) are reluctant virgins, crying to the world, “Love me! Love me!” until, as the revealing phrase of the trade has it, they have “sold their first piece.”

It is money that exists as the great fuel for the engine of cultural paradox and the sort of elitist cultural cannibalism that Scorsese demonstrates here anew but unchanged.

This cultural warfare may seem at first glance a struggle of the poor against the rich, the failed against the successful. But the situation is more complex than this, since, in terms of culture rather than economics, art novelists and their audience, “fit thought few,” constitute a privileged, educationally advantaged minority, while popular novelists and their mass readership remain a despised lumpen majority, whose cultural insecurity is further shaken when their kids learn in school to question their taste.

Through turns of autobiography and critical self-reflection, considerations of banned books and banned comics, Fiedler very gradually builds towards the necessity of his title’s past tense, which denotes a settling of cultural conflicts by way of the academy. Literature turned from a present concern to a past one as soon as the latest slue of new works have been adopted by curriculums. Literature, then, like an ouroboros, is defined by that which is taught as such — which is to say, literature is determined by literary studies. What is taught is what is literature is what is taught. Nothing is new until it is past.

Within that closed definitional circle, we perform the rituals by which we cast out unworthy pretenders to our ranks and induct true initiates, guardians of the “standards” by which all song and story are presumably to be judged.

Fiedler made this claim decades ago but still we are yet to learn from it and Scorcese’s comments demonstrate this all too depressingly, but so do the actions of those pop lovers now attempting to begin academic careers, raising discussions of the popular to the s. What is cinema is what is taught on film studies courses is what is cinema. Very soon the same will true of “graphic novels” and video games. It’s already starting to happen. And these courses for the new pulp media already seem as lifeless as their earlier High Art counterparts. Cultural critique ignores its own potential for cultural production and renders itself hardened but impotent. (It would be interesting to consider to what extent this is likewise true of an academic study of “politics” today.)

As such, it is not only Scorsese who is at fault here, deeming the MCU to be insufficient when placed before a canonical capital-c Cinema. The defenders of the MCU are just as clueless, showing how the MCU is inspired by or dealing with the same issues as the tragedies and dramas of antiquity. They place their works within the same standards, inflating what they have to hand to fill in the gaps. Rather than levelling the playing field, they try to raise themselves to the same standard, only diluting what they once had. Nobody wins. Pop cultural studies appear hollow whilst high art studies appear bitter. Communication falters. Nothing new emerges.

Fiedler had already witnessed this happening way back when, skewering Scorsese and the standards of contemporary cultural studies departments from beyond the grave, noting how

in recent years [there have been] attempts by academic critics of cinema (they do not like to say “movies”) to kidnap that vulgar form for classroom analysis, even to “teach” how to read it properly. But such cinéastes merely repeat — in a kind of unwitting parody — the old errors of literary criticism: on the one hand, losing sight, in the midst of jargonizing about “montage”, “tracking shots” and “auteur theory,” of the fact that movies tell stories and embody myths, and on the other, making untenable distinctions between “box-office trash” and “art films,” which turn out to be more often than not “experimental” and “non-narrative.”

To stop myself typing out the entirely of Fiedler’s book, I will stop here and simply defer to his partial part-one conclusion.

His is not an attempt to forestall judgement or kill criticism, which he writes is a drive as old and powerful and human as the stories and songs that brought it into existence, but rather to build a new criticism that eschews the hierarchical judgements of capitalist competition. It is to do away with the pre-judgements of prejudice, category and elitism.

Once we have made ekstasis rather than instruction and delight our chief evaluative criterion, we will be well on our way to abandoning all formalist, elitist, methodological criticism, and will have started to invent an eclectic, amateur, neo-Romantic, populist one that will be enable us to read what was once popular literature not as popular but as literature, even as it enables us to read what was once High Literature not as high but as literature. By the same token, we will find ourselves speaking less of theme and purport, structure and texture, signified and signifier, metaphor and metonymy, and more of myth, fable, archetype, fantasy, magic and wonder. Even more important, we will be speaking for ourselves, as ourselves, rather than ex cathedra in the name of some “tradition.”

The key to this — under-acknowledged in his own conclusions — is the acknowledgement that all that is solid melts into air. Accepting this allows us to critique culture without ignoring its biggest driver: capital. It allows us to view these pointless battles between high and low as nothing more than echoes of capitalism’s internal dynamics of class struggle. To sidestep this, wholly aware of its impotence, is to imagine a criticism that can assist in the building towards something new.

Criticism can build worlds as well as the fictions it considers, if used correctly.

This has already been happening. This was the strength of the early cultural blogosphere and remains its strength today, alebit in a few instances. It would be a shame to lose sight of that. We had a good thing going. And there are still potentials yet unreached.

XG on the Wyrd Signal Podcast

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

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

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

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

Everybody in the Place: On Jeremy Deller and Rave Rhizomaticisms

He’s lost control of the nightclub. There’s been a coup.

There’s been a lot of talk online about Jeremy Deller’s new Acid House documentary, aired on the BBC last week. I finally got round to watching it after seeing David Stubbs‘ glowing praise on Twitter — high praise too from a legendary music writer whose recent Mars By 1980 is an excellent history of electronic music as a whole.

I’m left feeling giddy after watching it. It sent me on this weird trip down memory lane, thinking about all the chance cultural encounters had when I was growing up, their age and younger. If Jeremy Deller had shown up in my classroom to talk about rave culture in this way, it would have been like throwing gasoline on these teenage temperaments. I wouldn’t be surprised if some of those kids pop up on the forefront of something a few years down the line. It makes a strong case for this sort of arts education being introduced into mainstream curricula — although I won’t hold my breath for state education to get state-critical. That’s the sort of thing you only get — and even then, only if you’re lucky — once you get to art school.

“Everybody in the Place: an Incomplete History of Britain 1984-1992” is as brilliant as everyone is saying it is but there’s an obvious change here in how Deller is presenting his particular brand of cultural history. I’ve been to Deller’s exhibitions and seen his other films. This isn’t like those. This isn’t just an hour of expertly curated archival material made with the art world in mind. Here, the sort of psychedelic rave documentary (no less brilliant) pioneered by the likes of Mark Leckey, is being given a much-needed deconstruction.

Leckey’s Fiorucci Made Me Hardcore remains the blueprint for so many films about underground British culture. It is a time capsule that nonetheless contains within it a certain timelessness, due to the way in which the “subjectivist fuzz” of a particular time and place gets dissolved in its own euphoria. It’s the sort of approach to cultural work that we can still see echoes of today in, for example, Paul Wright’s recent film Arcadia.

Here, however, Deller’s documentary is presented through a very different structure. We begin — and remain throughout — in a typical London classroom. (And the London centricity is important here.) Deller is, essentially, giving a lecture to teenagers who look to me like GCSE students — 15-16 years old — about the rise and politics of Acid House and there is a subtly about the presentation here that I found really affecting.

I can’t claim that this “typical” classroom is anything like mine was. London, in general, is so much more radically diverse than the rest of the country. I went to a school just outside of Hull where I could count the non-white students in my year group on one hand. Casual racism and the associated “banter” were commonplace. The old adage that kids always pick up on difference was writ large then. It felt like if you were into or wanted to find diverse cultural experiences, the last place you’d look would be in the people around you.

Coming of age during the retromania of mid-00s Northern indie bands, my “Northern Soul” moment was disarticulated from any local club scene — despite every kid having a shoulder bag swearing allegiance to a scene that no longer existed for us. I’ve never really enjoyed the tracks that epitomise that subculture– the standards of the scene have always represented a sort of exoticised aesthetic conversatism to me: we like this because it’s so different but we only like this very particular kind of different — but I do understand the delirious confluence of sentiments found in dancing to Motown on amphetamines down the local conservative club.

I remember seeing an advert on the TV for the 2004 compilation Superbad when I was 14 and being haunted by the earworm of WAR’s “Low Rider” for weeks, as a track that is explicitly grounded in another culture, but which also strangely made sense jaunting around country roads at the mouth of the Humber estuary as you escape the city and hit the ocean wall.

“Take a little trip, and see” is a message to carry with you anywhere — no matter what kind of trip you’re after. I asked for that compilation for Christmas that year, much to the bemusement of my parents, and it blew my prog-dominated world wide open.

That was a gateway into a whole new way of existing for me. It was a gateway into a libidinality and form of expression that was wholly other to my own and, whilst it’d be disingenuous to deny a certain sense of exoticism in discovering the history of Black music whilst living my white British life, it ignited an autodidactic obsession in tracing the lines between the local culture I knew and that which seemed so radically culturally different.

Black music quickly became associated with the rhizomaticism of online cultures for me. The first hip hop track I ever heard was A Tribe Called Quest’s “Excursions”, selected as the opening tune of a mix CD I got sent from the US after taking part in a mixtape swap organised on a forum I used to post on.

If the title of the track didn’t already capture that “take a little trip and see” mentality, the lyrics disappear down a rabbit hole of references, genres, names, etc. It’s intoxicating if you’re already a hip hop head — imagine hearing it for the first time as a 15 year old white kid from Yorkshire.

What I like about it is that it captures the very autodidactic essence of adolescence whilst doubling down on the cartography of the band’s eclectic but loyal approach to sampling and culture with a four-minute extended verse flow that starts with the jazz-hiphop lineage in the first verse:…

Back in the days when I was a teenager
Before I had status and before I had a pager
You could find the Abstract listenin’ to hip-hop
My pops used to say, it reminded him of Bebop
I said, “Well, Daddy, don’t you know that things go in cycles?
Way that Bobby Brown is just amping like Michael”

… and then ends beyond the sleeve notes with:

What you gotta do is know the Tribe is in the sphere
The Abstract Poet, prominent like Shakespeare
(Or Edgar Allan Poe, or Langston Hughes, or…)

I mention all this because Deller has built an entire career on making these sorts of connections between cultural moments and there is always a sense that whiteness or white Britishness is the underlying thing being probed here. I’ve always particularly enjoyed his work connecting Acid House to mining bands, having enjoyed both a good rave and once playing lead cornet in a brass band when I was the same age as these kids.

Even this existence would be probed by strange outside forces: I remember taking a lesson from my trumpet teacher in his garage out towards Howden in East Yorkshire where he had a hoard of jazz memorabilia and a collection of battered VHS tapes that were on the verge of technological redundancy. He put one on of a live performance by Rahsaan Roland Kirk which felt like watching Top of the Pops beamed in from another dimension but every time you saw him outside the comfort of his own studio it’d be playing standards at the school BBQ.

This is to say there is a strange frequency to these encounters. They’re alien and mind-blowing but happened so often its strange now to remember I once thought they were so disparate. You feel enclosed in your own immediate community at that age but things only appear that way because the State has done it damndest to compartmentalise forms of expression along economic, racial and geographic lines. Some people never escape them.

This is reflected in the documentary. It’s interesting that, beyond the music, many of the Asian students on screen seem more curious about the miners’ strike and its relationship to a music they might be more familiar with through their friends and relatives. If I’m talking about my own experiences here, it’s because I had never thought before about the extent to which these perspectives mirror each other, precisely in the sense that they gaze back at each other over an apparent line of state-sanctioned difference.

They talk about the miners’ strike in the same way I’ve heard kids talk about the Troubles in Northern Ireland: everyone knows it was significant but today no one can make sense of the arguments for or against. Deller does it for them and all in the context of the rave scene as this underground web that connects London to Glasgow to Birmingham to Stoke-on-Trent to some unnamed field in Wales; how the scene spread outwards from the neighbourhoods these kids know today and into the outsideness of the Home Counties, tapping into a broader and more material sense of disenfranchisement felt nationwide.

When Deller begins to talk about this relationship to the countryside and to the historic libidinality of rural areas — again, in line with Wright’s Arcadia and Mark Fisher’s excellent essay “Baroque Sunbursts” — he discusses with one student this two-way alterity of how, today, the countryside is an alien place to inner city youth and, likewise, inner city youth are alien to rural areas. Deller’s aim, it seems, is to bridge this gap — and others — for a new generation.

Watching “Everybody in the Place”, where Deller is getting teenagers to read quotations from Karl Marx, Derrick May and Juan Atkins, list famous clubs from around the country, and letting them play with synths and samplers, regrounds these discrepancies in precisely the place they should be and indeed are explored, albeit indirectly. Teaching a classroom full of kids about rave culture feels, at first, like a radical gesture but quickly the novelty wears off and we see a group of kids beginning to understand the relevance of an underground scene to their more standardised education. It’s his way of saying, here’s how what they teach you in school connects to what they don’t.

In this sense, there is an unspoken affinity between these arguably by-gone cultures and the cultures these kids are no doubt immersed in when they go home at night. The anger and virality of drill music, so often in the news like rave was, the latest teenage moral panic on London’s streets, starts to appear like an explicitly 21st century form of stunted libidinal expression, caught in the bottleneck of inner city pressure.

This is arguably why rave culture did so well for itself. It was a culture that had a geographic outside to escape into, and Deller is not the first to claim that a reconnection with such Outsides is necessary if we’re to tap into these potentials again.

The importance of this for our sense of national and international identity is huge, and the key to this documentary’s approach, I think, is that it sidesteps the heady melting-pot euphoria of most rave documentaries. Deller, at one point, asks who in the class identifies as British and is met by complete silence. And so he goes on to challenge the unruliness of identity that has always haunted these lands — the folk traditions that might now be fatally associated with whiteness in their minds but which were just as antagonistic to the English state at large as rave and the subcultures of today.

Because of this approach, Deller succeeds in not fetishising the importance of a trans-Atlantic Blackness to cultural trends. He sidesteps the sort of wide-eyed wonder and hackneyed admiration that someone like me no doubt continues to fall into when talking about Black musics. It holds white and Black both up and says, “Look at the crazy shit all these people were doing and look how important it is to everything we love today.” Look how important Kraftwerk was to Detroit techno and look how important Detroit and its industries was to them. Look at how important Northern class politics is to 21st century inner city pressure… The difference is that the latter is generally framed negatively. All we hear about is how the white North has lost out to the racially diverse urban centres and London in particular. But London isn’t a happy place either and there’s a reciprocal relationship to be rebuilt here.

Deller’s tactic has long been to rebuild these relationships through the mapping of cultural rhizomes, and there are plenty of others we could still explore. After watching this documentary I’m left wondering: What’s the six degrees of separation between voguing and morris dancing? But the more important question is: what does the making of that kind of connection do to how we think about ourselves and how we encounter each other?

I’m reminded of the White Pube’s current essay on diversity and representation. They cite Riz Ahmed’s lovely speech to Parliament a few years back but then add an all important caveat:

The issue with us, as ~diverse~ publics, seeking representation as a singular end goal, is that it is fundamentally a liberal position. That is: it does not seek to overhaul, change, disrupt or dismantle. Rather to preserve; to move within the current structures that exist, that it recognises as broken, exploitative and oppressive, and expects to have a minority of that already excluded minority succeed within these busted frameworks. It does not look to change for all, only for a few. In forcing an excluded minority to funnel through the existing structures around us, this system ensures an assimilation into the cultural values that created the existing structures, and precludes those unwilling to buy into this assimilationist narrative from succeeding within it. In short; it believes in exceptionalism. The institution ensures its survival at all costs by absorbing the critique that hits it, bc it can point to a few success stories that have conformed to its requirements. This drive for representation within that system runs off of a politic of lack, and in that lack, it opens the door to neoliberal ideologies; of creating new markets to exploit and harvest for value. In our quest for representation and visibility through existing structures and channels, we will see ourselves consumed as a sellable commodity ourselves.

This is the resonant heart of Deller’s movie for me and likewise various politics explored on this blog. Dellers’ incomplete history of Britain is knowingly selective but it shows how cultural praxes of disruption are available to everybody in the place. The politics of Black musics and stereotypically white mining communities share a common — notably Marxist — grounding of seizing the means of production, whether that be national infrastructure or making tunes in your bedroom, each having the potential to influence people around the country and, indeed, the world, and explicitly without the exceptionalism required for your own continual state-sanctioned existence.

These “worlds” speak to each other more than we are encouraged to recognise and it demonstrates the innate flaws of this liberal position when talking about rave and mining in the same breath in a modern day classroom can look like a radical act. In reality, all Deller is doing is showing how two events that happened in spatiotemporal proximity to one another are related. It’s the sort of thing these GCSE students would be asked to write about in a History exam. The flaw of British education is we don’t do this for ourselves unless we’re talking about how we won the war.

Deller disrupts the “old” but nonetheless still contemporaneous order of things by reconstructing (through historicization) tandem lost potentials which remain buried in the future. I hope it’s these kids that go and dig it up.