Repeater Books x The Neon Hospice — Hallowe’en Special

This Hallowe’en, Repeater Books are teaming up with the Neon Hospice to bring you almost 12 hours of live-streamed spooky goodness. There will be live sets and mixes from — as well as conversations with — Leila Taylor, Kemper Norton, English Heretic, and Claire Cronin, and more!

I’m going to be presenting an introduction to the eerie, considering how Mark Fisher’s final book The Weird and the Eerie relates to his capitalist critiques, before we broadcast a rarely-heard “eerie mix” by k-punk himself.

You don’t want to miss this! Follow Repeater and the Neon Hospice on Twitter to stay up to date and also keep an eye on the stream’s website here.

See you on Hallowe’en…

The Will to Deform: The Promethean Gift of Proletarian Prosthetics

This essay was originally published in Insufficient Armour, a collection of essays published in January 2020 by Nero in collaboration with Giorgio Di Salvo’s streetwear company United Standard.

After seeing that Simon Sellars published his story from the collection last week, I thought I’d do the same. I previously posted a video intro to the essay, made over Christmas 2019 with no equipment. You can now read the full thing below. It’s a fleshed-out vision of what I feel constitutes this blog’s namesake: “the xenogothic.”

01. Ontologies of Body Horror

The Gothic is not an aesthetic genre but a prosthetic sensibility. It is a mode of addition, extension and attachment, and one that has taken on many different forms.

To use the word “prosthetic” in such a general way, and in a sense that seems purely adjective, demands some immediate clarification. It is a word that brings to mind “prostheses”: objects and technologies that allow a body to exceed its own limits, as well as the history of their development, from the most rudimentary “hook hands” to state-of-the-art bionic limbs, from ear trumpets to neural-control interface technologies. To call the Gothic a prosthetic sensibility is not to appropriate this understanding but to emphasise the ways in which the Gothic embodies it most absolutely.

The body has always been and remains the Gothic’s primary terrain of interrogation. From the literary body-horror of Frankenstein and Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde to the make-up and extravagant fashions of late-twentieth-century Goth, at every turn of our civilisation’s cultural development the Gothic has seized upon the prostheses of any given age, extending their relevance beyond the fields of medical science and standardised aesthetics. It is a cultural sensibility that understands by extending the body we also extend our collective conception of what a body can do. To extend one body is to extend the potential of them all.

The “prosthetic”, then, is not simply a medical adjective but an ontological one. This is a framing that has garnered considerable attention in recent decades, and can be found everywhere from sports science to science fiction. It has also been central to modern philosophy. Gilles Deleuze, for instance, commenting on the writings of Baruch de Spinoza, most famously decried our post-Cartesian fixation on the mind at the expense of the body, writing “we speak of consciousness, mind, soul, of the power of the soul over the body; we chatter away about these things, but do not even know what bodies can do.”[1]

Deleuze’s interest in the body was directly influenced by the medical knowledge of his day and, more specifically, his first-hand experiences of certain medical procedures. Like Spinoza before him, Deleuze suffered greatly from respiratory issues, undergoing a thoracoplasty in 1968, and later taking his own life in 1995 having reached a limit with his continuously diminishing quality of life. However, whilst his poor health may have been physically restrictive, he also found it to be philosophically liberating and was repeatedly drawn to philosophers who suffered like he did. For example, throughout his works, he would echo the philosophies of Friedrich Nietzsche, Georges Bataille and Antonin Artaud — thinkers who were also plagued by ill-health throughout their lives, both physically and mentally, but who were nonetheless fascinated by the direct impact of bodily suffering on cognitive potential. It must also be said that, for Deleuze, as with these influences, explorations of the body’s limitations were not in themselves limited to its particular anatomy but also included the limitations put upon the body by the state and by hegemonic understandings of the body more generally.

Nietzsche is perhaps the most famous explorer of such a worldview. He wrote at length on society’s deliberate limiting of human potential and championed those who would “tunnel and mine” their way through the strata of daily life, giving a specifically proletarian and industrial agency to the denizens of Plato’s cave, driven by the belief that, as a result of their toil, they will eventually overcome their circumstances — or, as Nietzsche put it, acquire their “own daybreak.”[2] The innately unreasonable nature — that is to say, the madness — of such a pursuit was also championed by Nietzsche who, foreshadowing the thalassic geopsychology of Sándor Ferenczi, saw insanity as something “in voice and bearing as uncanny and incalculable as the demonic moods of the weather and the sea and therefore worthy of a similar awe and observation.”[3] This is to say that, for Nietzsche, madness was not simply a deviation from an otherwise “natural” reason, but rather a powerful undertow of human cognitive activity. To ignore and suppress it, at a societal level, would be the same as ignoring the grandeur of the climate or the sea and its impact on our own shores.

Bataille, heavily influenced by Nietzsche — and sharing with him a traumatic experience with familial mental illness in childhood — also wrote many philosophical tracts on the human anatomy and its “deviations”, writing that “mankind cannot remain indifferent to its monsters” and exclude human anatomical abnormality from any philosophical ontology due to some prejudiced adherence to “the constitution of the perfect type”.[4] He explored the disgust evoked by even the most fundamental and “normal” of human body parts and appendages, describing the mouth, for instance, as “the orifice of profound physical impulses”.[5] Elsewhere, and more famously, he describes the big toe as “the most human part of the human body” and yet deplores its reputation for “the most nauseating filthiness”, believing that man’s “secret horror of his foot is one of the explanations for the tendency to conceal its length and form as much as possible”, describing women’s high heels as an attempt to “distract from the foot’s low and flat character.”[6] He sees the lowly reputation of the human foot, as well as its sexual fetishisation, as an embarrassing measure of how fundamental bodily restriction is to an apparent human civility.

Antonin Artaud’s plays and writings expressed many similar concerns as the writings of Nietzsche and Bataille and he was a particular influence on Deleuze, providing him with one of his least understood concepts: the “body without organs”. As Joshua Ramey explains, writing on the esotericism of Deleuze’s philosophy, Artaud believed that the “decadence and debilitation of twentieth-century Western culture were … linked directly … to the technoscientific apparatus — military, industrial, nutritional, and hygienic — continuously marshaled in the name of God and order to stultify the human body.”[7]

Artaud’s works — his writings, radio plays, and performances — constituted for him a “theatre of cruelty” that was designed to disturb and terrify his audiences but also the stultified human subject as such: “to shock and shatter its organs, and to force the body to react otherwise than in accordance with the habitual limits of sense and sensibility.”[8] Artaud’s theatre of cruelty was, in this sense, a Gothic assault on the sensibilities of his time. Along with the paintings of Francis Bacon, it was to Deleuze as the Dionysian music of Richard Wagner was (initially) to Nietzsche; as the lingchi photographs were to Bataille. Each describes and brings forth “a subtle body accessible at the extremes of experience — in suffering, delirium, synesthesia, and ecstatic states.”[9]

Here we might proclaim Deleuze, Nietzsche, Bataille and Artaud to be Gothic philosophers par excellence. Each has explored the wonder and horror provoked by the unknown capabilities of our own bodies and, as we have already suggested, this is more than familiar territory for the Gothic in its own right. By deploying the evolving signs and signifiers at the edge of what we know and understand about ourselves and the world around us, the Gothic is a prosthetic mode that has consistently extended its own reach, out beyond the horizon of human knowledge and into the weird, the eerie, the grotesque. Whether extending the limits of a body beyond reason, beyond nature, beyond society’s aesthetic standards or, most fundamentally, beyond life itself, the Gothic provides forms with which our imaginations run amok, and it is this tendency that has allowed the Gothic to proliferate through cultures around the world for almost a millennium.

Now one of the oldest and most persistent artistic movements in human history, in being constituted by a virulent unlife we might assume that the Gothic will never truly died. However, this sensibility within the Gothic that pushes towards its own outside is presently under threat and at the constant mercy of capitalist commodification — a process that has already found some success in rendering the Gothic culturally inert.

The Gothic’s contemporary influence is nonetheless pervasive. Indeed, the Gothic is, in some respects, more popular than ever. However, whilst the emergence of the twenty-first century “mall goth” may signify a new Gothic dominance, for many it sounds the death knell of a movement finally thwarted by capitalism’s apparatuses of capture, making the Gothic into a type that has become synonymous with a largely out-dated and aesthetically conservative subculture.

02. The Xenogothic

For the purposes of this essay, in order to keep the Gothic’s present circumstances firmly in our sights, we shall give its prosthetic sensibility a new name, in order to more clearly focus on a specific process at work within the Gothic itself that remains incompatible with the forces of capitalism that have sought to neutralise it. We shall call it the “xenogothic”.

The xenogothic is a term we might use to define a future Gothic form always already contained within the Gothic itself. It is a name not for a Gothic telos but for a “witch’s flight”. It is a term for the Gothic’s escape from itself and the limits placed upon it from outside. It is a form of movement, according to Gilles Deleuze, “that never ceases to change direction, that is broken, split, diverted, turned in on itself, coiled up, or even extended beyond its natural limits.”[10]

Despite the presently conservative nature of a popular Gothic aesthetic, there are still pockets of xenogothic innovation to be found throughout our contemporary subcultures. As has been the case for much of the late-twentieth-century’s dance music and rave scenes, capitalism has repeatedly failed to wholly remove their fugitive power — a power fundamentally incompatible with the structures that close in around it. This Gothic fugitivity has been maligned for some time, and at least since the final decades of the twentieth century when, extending a post-punk commitment to always “rip it up and start again”, the Gothic found itself falling from favour.

“Rip it up and start again” is a phrase borrowed from Simon Reynolds, and the title of his 2005 survey of the post-punk landscape between the years 1978 and 1984. It is a title that, for him, encapsulates the attitude of a smorgasbord of bands “who dedicated themselves to fulfilling punk’s uncompleted musical revolution”[11] by smashing “the boundaries that keep [art] sealed off from everyday life”, adhering to a militant “ethos of perpetual change”. [12]

Writing on Goth specifically, Reynolds highlights the subgenre’s initial inversion of the Gothic forms of yesteryear. He explains:

The original Gothic movement in literature had been anti-modernist. It represented the return of the repressed: all the medieval superstitions and primordial longings allegedly banished by the Industrial Revolution, all those shadowy regions of the soul supposedly illuminated by the Enlightenment. It was only when the dark, satanic mills appeared that ruined abbeys came to be considered picturesque and alluring. Goth was based on the idea that the most profound emotions you’ll ever feel are the same ones felt by people thousands of years ago: the fundamental, eternal experiences of love, death, despair, awe and dread.[13]

This Gothic continuum, despite its penchant for Romantic decadence, began to resonate with the politics of class struggle that were explored far more explicitly by the punks who proceeded them. Reynolds continues: “Goths enjoyed the energy of Oi! and anarcho-punk gigs, but ultimately didn’t really care for either option: lumpen Oi! wallowed in its own oppression, they felt, whilst anarcho-punk seemed dourly didactic and sexless.”[14] Reynolds goes on to explain that Goth’s post-punk credentials were instead found in its desire to redefine punk as an “inversion of values and deviance from norms”, with the movement proposing “a flight from the crushing ordinariness of everyday English life, into a common wildness of ritual and ceremony, magic and mystery.”[15]

Here Goth foreshadowed the return of a Bakhtinian carnivalesque that would explode back into the public imagination with the dawn of rave culture. And yet, once rave reigned supreme, Goth itself seemed to relax into an uncharacteristic complacency. The initial working class despair, and the sonic embodiment of social decay, epitomised (at first) by the likes of Joy Division, The Fall, Throbbing Gristle, and Bauhaus, gradually lost their edge, arguably reflecting the rise of neoliberalism across Western society in post-punk’s aftermath. Class struggle was replaced by a soft existentialism, reduced it to a type that is now marketable across commodity forms. Here the Gothic becomes a darkened prosthesis for capitalism itself — a control value for the release of a tension that capitalism itself creates; of disenfranchisement, depression and hopelessness.

However, all is not lost. Even from the depths of capitalist co-option, there are Goths who continue to glide along the edge of a shifting human frontier, quietly exploring our ontological and aesthetic limits. We might consider the recent work of Gazelle Twin, for instance, the current queen of British Goth, who, on her 2014 song ‘Belly of the Beast’, sings menacingly: “I’ll beat them all at their at own game / Bite the hands and the fingers that feed.”[16] She snarls these words over the infernal bleep-bleeping of supermarket self-service checkouts, bringing a violently Gothic sensibility to the banality of contemporary capitalist consumerism. It is a revolutionary anthem for the unassuming “mall goth” of the twenty-first century and epitomises a xenogothic tendency that may be far less visible today but which has still never truly died.

03. What was the Gothic?

In order to better account for the xenogothic as it exists today, it may help us to ascertain what the Gothic was, prior to its capture by authoritative and, more specifically, market forces. It is only from here that we might better account for the potentials of its prosthetic sensibility in the present. However, such an exercise comes with its own challenges, and these challenges are by no means new.

Beginning his 1911 study of form in Gothic art and architecture, Wilhelm Worringer writes that the “earnest endeavour of the historian to reconstruct the spirit of the past from the materials at his disposal [in the present] is at best an experiment, conducted with unsuitable means.”[17] This is no less true today, over a century later.

Worringer may have been speaking generally of the historian’s eternal dilemma — navigating the impact on one’s own work of an innate contemporary bias — but the Gothic, in particular, with its architectural beginnings, its literary peak, and its sonic finale, presents the cultural historian today with a shape-shifting, disconnected and amorphous “movement” that may be easy to recognise but is, in fact, harder than ever to define.

As a collection of disparate movements and mediums, brought together restlessly under a single banner, this problem at the heart of the Gothic today may seem like an exemplary postmodern affliction in which genre is dissolved within itself, but such an experience has been central to the Gothic since it first emerged as a popular mode of architectural expression in twelfth-century France. This is because the problematic that the Gothic first attempts to contend with is, fundamentally, a problem of time. It is an expression and affirmation of our own fallibility as the inevitably blinkered subjects of a given moment — be that the Age of Enlightenment or capitalist modernity. Indeed, as far as Worringer is concerned, it seems that historiography itself is the ultimate Gothic pastime. After all, the Gothic as a cultural movement, in all of its forms, has always been a creative exploration of the past’s influence on the future from the knowingly flawed perspective of the present.

Describing this same essence more recently in his 2014 book on the genre’s literary and visual aesthetics, Fred Botting writes that the Gothic — contrary to Reynolds’ description of Goth, we might note — is “more than a flight from nostalgic retrospection or an escape from the dullness of a present without chivalry, magic or adventure.”[18] Instead, it is a movement that “remains sensitive to other times and places and thus retains traces of instability where further disorientations, ambivalence and dislocations can arise.”[19] It is from this same position that Worringer begins his seemingly paradoxical evaluation of an historical Gothic.

The solution to this, for him, is to note how the “true” essence of the Gothic is its “will to form”[20] — that is, a will to speculatively give form to the presently formless. For instance, we may note, as Worringer does, that the Gothic’s initial instantiation as an architectural form was an attempt to grapple with the so-called Dark Ages, during which time the style came to dominate the façades of churches in medieval France before spreading throughout the rest of the European continent. For many, this style may have accurately given form to the beliefs of the time, representing another unseen world where dark forces fought for dominance over civilisation’s God-fearing congregations, kept at bay by imagined gargoyles and a community’s liturgical faith. However, as the style was transformed into a popular collection of motifs, the Gothic was later widely dismissed by many for its cheap horror and reactionary affection for darker times. The French playwright and poet Molière, for instance, famously derided France’s “besotted taste of Gothic monuments” in his 1669 poem ‘La Gloire du Val-de-Grâce’, echoing the fashionable opinions of his time, claiming these Gothic façades depicted little more than “odious monsters of ignorant centuries” from which “the torrents of barbarity spewed forth.”[21]

With its initial popularity waning over the centuries following its initial explosion across Europe, many nonetheless continued to find Gothic architecture and, later, Gothic art to be illustrative of a new darkness found at the limits of an emerging Age of Enlightenment; the Age of Reason. Indeed, a recognition of the power of this unknowable darkness is closely tied to one of the founding principles of Enlightenment thought, as found in the philosophy of Immanuel Kant, for whom humanity is forever trapped by its own experience; by its own contemporaneity. As Worringer writes of his own historiographic task, echoing Kant, “the exponent of historical knowledge remains our own Ego with its temporal limitations and restrictions.”[22] This is to say that the persistent darkness of the Dark Ages was not assuaged by a new institutionalised reason, nor has it been assuaged today by the domination of capitalism. Gothic darkness remains an important symbolic void, constituting knowledge’s own event-horizon.

Continuing his description of the effects of the Gothic as an art-historical genre on the temporal subject, Botting writes: “In seeing one time and its values cross into another, both periods are disturbed.”[23] The human subject and its ego remain caught in a chaotic middle. However, for the last two decades, much has been written on our present era’s “stuckness” — the hauntological affects of late capitalist ontology. It is a truly postmodern affliction otherwise epitomised by Francis Fukuyama’s declaration that we have reached the “end of history”, a time during which the “future is always experienced as a haunting: as a virtuality that already impinges on the present, conditioning expectations and motivating cultural production.”[24] This is to say that the start of the twenty-first century has been defined by the failure of our own speculative imaginations; our once wildly psychedelic tendency to construct new futures for ourselves. The implications of this situation for the Gothic are particularly unusual. It suggests an abject normalisation of the Gothic mode, used to structure human existence rather than propel it forwards into the unknown. As a result, we might ask ourselves today: Does the Gothic still disturb us as it once did? Has the Gothic not become a victim of its own “will to form”, losing its transgressive essence as it is historicised and consolidated into a recognisable aesthetic mode?

It is here that the Gothic has once again — albeit subtly — shifted its focus. Whereas Gothic expressions of a fear of a post-human subject were once a reaction against rampant technological progress, the speed of which seemed to outpace the intellectual development of post-Enlightenment reason — as dramatized, for instance, in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein — today, rather than a fear of what we might soon become, it is a fear of our own ontological capture that seems to terrorise the modern Gothic subject. It is our limitations, our susceptibility to control, our prejudices, our addictions and a blind reason that stalks the Gothic subject. Barbarity does not emerge from a deep past but from right here, from the persistent system of capitalism itself. As such, we find that the rapid consolidation of the present into a seemingly final human form has turned the Gothic on its head.

For the contemporary capitalist subject, according to the hauntologists of the early twenty-first century, there is no moving forward. We are passed our best, and if capitalism can achieve anything in the present it is a return to an immediate past, a time of mythical decadence. This hauntological thinking has, thankfully, undone itself, begging the return of a Gothic questioning and a probing of the gulf between the capitalist “truth” of market stability — be that of market economics, market democracy or any other subsection of a neoliberal system that seeks to maintain its own status quo — and the actuality of capitalism’s perpetual unrest.

Today, in response to this, it seems that a new Gothic is emerging once again. Beyond its eventual European capture, occultural movements around the world now ask themselves: Is this all that we are? Is this really the moment we should choose to arrest ourselves, in our self-destructive mediocrity? The current prevalence of the questioning of our own standing is a symptom of both a dormant Gothicism and a maligned progressivism. It is the perpetual simmering of the xenogothic and it is precisely our infinite questioning that pushes us forwards. But forwards into what?

04. Promethean Prosthetics

To recognise the necessity of our own questioning is to recognise our innate will to form, but a will to form must be infinite in its potential adaptations. It is not a will to be formed but an unending process of creation and becoming. Perhaps this is why, as Leila Taylor writes, “fashion plays such a vital role” in the Gothic — “Victorian goths have their mourning drag, the Vampire goths their custom fangs, Rock-a-Billy goths their Bettie Page bangs”.[25] The rapidity of fashion, with its decadent associations and short shelf life, makes it fertile ground for cultural innovation. However, as Taylor warns, this makes it all too “easy to dismiss goth purely as style or an affectation.”[26] Whilst this may appear to be true at a glance, the importance of fashion to Goth instead expresses something entirely to the contrary.

Goth fashion places the body itself as the most potent terrain onto which the Gothic can extend itself. From the classic anachronism of Victorian mourning attire to Instagram’s recent obsession with “health goth” sportswear, fashion is the vector through which the Gothic must continue its own experimental formulation, appreciating but always exceeding its prior developments that, when taken together, present us with an art-historical cyclonopedia of tropes and motifs that all tumble towards the voided mass of the Gothic’s centre of gravity: the ruination of the contemporary subject itself.

Prosthetics are most generally understood as addendums to this damaged subject, a body incomplete. To wear a prosthetic limb is to wear an object that returns functionality to a lost or damaged corporeality — but what of a corporeality-to-come? Prosthetics may also be extensions of an otherwise intact body (potentially challenging Bataille’s appraisal of heels). The cybergothic is heavily associated with this sort of extension — an extension that augments a body woefully insufficient before an ever-expanding social reality, whether capitalist or otherwise, and often involves the installation of digital and cybernetic augmentations, which is to say new connections. In this sense, we might view the stultified body of late capitalism to be breaking boundaries in multiple senses. Not only does it extend the capabilities of the individual subject but also extends that subject itself into a newly collective formulation.

Here the Gothic includes an innately Marxist undercurrent, haunted by the spectre of communism or, we might say, a collective subject beyond the limits of that presently imaginable to the individualised capitalist subject. This is a Gothic worldview arguably introduced by Karl Marx himself, who writes repeatedly of spectres and vampires in his seminal critique of political economy. We may even wonder if the collective subject called for in The Communist Manifesto is not a positive view of the terror that populated the Gothic fictions of Marx’s era. Whereas the bourgeois writers of the day feared the disenfranchised masses and the unreason of the peasantry, Marx sought to cultivate a new proletarian solidarity that might truly frighten the ruling classes. Here the Gothic represents the Promethean gift of proletarian prosthetics.

This kind of unruly and amorphous subjectivity was central to Gothic literature at that time, as Kelly Hurley explains, describing the importance of the body to Gothic literature of the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries:

In place of a human body stable and integral (at least, liable to no worse than the ravages of time and disease), the fin-de-siècle Gothic offers the spectacle of a body metamorphic and undifferentiated; in place of the possibility of human transcendence, the prospect of an existence circumscribed within the realities of gross corporeality; in place of a unitary and securely bounded human subjectivity, one that is both fragmented and permeable.[27]

The emphasis placed upon this permeable subject has changed repeatedly over the decades. Today, it is more likely to refer to the ruptured homogeneity of capitalist individualism. We are all individuals. In similar terms, discussing the state of the Gothic a century later, the cult writer Mark Fisher noted how this subjective shift was epitomised by Siouxsie Sioux and her band, the Banshees — a central influence on the tribalism of Goth makeup and dress. In particular, he writes about the Banshees’ track “Painted Bird” from their 1982 album A Kiss in the Dreamhouse — a song based on Jerzy Kosiński’s 1965 novel of the same name — noting how, contrary to the individualist existentialism of a twentieth-century Gothic, it is a song “about the triumph of collective joy over persecuted, isolated, individuated subjectivity”.

Fisher explains how the song takes its name from an encounter the book’s unnamed young protagonist has with a bird-catcher whilst wandering through war-torn villages and towns during the Second World War. Painting the bird with vibrant colours, he throws it back to join its flock. However, no longer recognising the bird as one of their own, the birds attack and kill it. Fisher notes how, unlike the bird — symbolic of Jewish persecution by the Nazis — “Siouxsie’s Goths are not painted by another’s hand; they are ‘painted birds by their own design’.”[28]

For Siouxsie Sioux, as well as Mark Fisher, this apparent paradox of Goth belonging — a hypocritical collective that goes against a herd mentality whilst all looking the same — is still a shot fired across the bow of neoliberalism’s mandatory individualism. Other forms of collectivity are possible! The point is not to be wholly individualist but simply different from a prescribed type. The violence that Goths often wreak upon their bodies is exemplary of this. Fisher writes: “Goth is in many ways an attempt to make good this symbolic deficit in postmodern culture: dressing up as re-ritualization, a recovery of the surface of the body as the site for scarification and decoration (which is to say, a rejection of the idea that the body is merely the container or envelope for interiority).”[29] If body modification is a step too far, the extreme fashion of the Gothic is an ample alternative. “Clothing recovers its cybernetic and symbolic role as a hyperbolic supplement to the body, as what which destroys the illusion of organic unity and proportion.”[30] Here we find Worringer’s Gothic line inverted. The twenty-first century Gothic is not only a will to form but also a will to deform.

To return to the prosthetic ontologies with which we started, it is in this way that the Gothic is the true drive behind Deleuze and Artaud’s call for a “body without organs”. Though it is a phrase that may conjure up images of evisceration, it is also a demand for a body beyond organisation; a body which is defined by the sensation of its own experience and is therefore able to define itself through the intensity of its being rather than through an essentialist adherence to an anatomical type.

For Deleuze, it was the twentieth century expressionist painter Francis Bacon who depicted this body without organs most viscerally. For Bacon, the human form was often rendered as amorphous liquid meat — a horrifying image, perhaps, but a phrase that connects the reality of the human body to its anatomical objectivity. Bacon captures externally the experience of becoming-body and it is this that Deleuze defines as the essence of a Gothic art which “dismantles organic representation” by adhering instead to “a realism of deformation, as opposed to the idealism of transformation.” [31] It is “the manner in which the body exceeds the organism or makes it fall apart.”[32]

This is how the Gothic pulls our contemporary understanding of the aesthetic — which, according to Terry Eagleton, was “born as a discourse of the body”[33] — into new arenas: by generating its own prostheses. The Gothic, then, is always one step ahead, even of itself. Whereas many artistic movements and fashions have come and gone over the last thousand years, now contained within historical periods or momentary aesthetic trends by historians and critics alike, the Gothic has instead undergone nine centuries of extension and reinvention, always mutating the last form to define it in the popular imagination.

There is still a Promethean fire that burns within the Gothic to this day: an outsideness that eschews a commodification by capitalist forces and continues to speak to a prosthetic sensibility that considers capitalism’s ruination of the modern subject and finds ways out of it from within. We must embrace anew this ruination of the modern subject and its insufficient armour against a capitalistic idealism of social transformation. To find ways out is always to let the outside in. Only then will we be in a position to discover what our bodies can really do.

Continue reading “The Will to Deform: The Promethean Gift of Proletarian Prosthetics”

A Gothic Line, Broken: Fragment on Worringer, Deleuze, Fisher

Here’s an off-cut from an unpublished essay trying to tie accelerationism to an explicitly Gothic sensibility. It may not make much sense out of context but isn’t a Gothic line a line that interrupts itself?

I’m thinking a lot at the moment about how both the Gothic — or Goth more specifically — shares with accelerationism a consideration of the ungrounding of the subject of modernity. There is a line here — a Gothic (flat)line — that connects Wilhelm Worringer to Gilles Deleuze to Mark Fisher, who together diagram an intensity that has struggled to survive a politically nefarious reductivism.

Accelerationism is Gothic but it likewise suffers from a Dr. Frankenstein problem — far too often is the diagnostician mistaken for the monster running amok.

Is it any surprise that, in our own contemporary moment, that the Gothic — or that which is, at the very least, recognisable as such – is aesthetically maligned, confused and impotent? Today — and online most explicitly — cyberspace is the natural pasture for our newly xenogothic considerations after all — the Gothic finds its unhome in the constellation of thoughts known as accelerationism.

Nick Srnicek, speaking at an event held at the Artworkers’ Guild in London in 2013, would describe “two ideas of accelerationism” which broadly hold true today — although many more particular subsets of this grouping of theories have since proliferated. He speaks to an “epistemic acceleration, which involves broadening knowledge and synthesising all the different fields” — that is, fields of understanding — “and political accelerationism, which essentially is the use of certain technologies and social capabilities.” For both formulations of this widely misunderstood theoretical umbrella, Worringer’s understanding of the Gothic’s “will to form” remains prescient. We may even extend Worringer’s conception of the Gothic in our present moment to include a will to deform.

In 2019, another and increasingly more dominant understanding of accelerationism emerged within the popular imagination — an extremist and (alt)right-wing accelerationism that looks upon the “truth” of a supposedly maligned white Western subjectivity and attempts to exacerbate chaos in order to strengthen anew the consolidatory tendencies of a patriarchal and white supremacist late capitalism. This accelerationism represents a fight for the preservation of a dwindling subjectivity instead of an embrace of difference and change; of post-historical becoming. The present malignance of accelerationism is commensurate with a maligning of the Gothic — a Gothic that struggles to retain its speculative nature under the weight of both the future and the past: a past that is, for all intents and purposes, seen as complete and closed and a future that we increasingly fear will not involve our species.

And yet, as Mark Fisher writes, in indirect response to Srnicek’s paper, it is this moment of historical and speculative dissensus that warrants a new Gothic explicitly. For Fisher, death and the end of experience, “not just individual death but hyper-death, and not just the unexperienceable but the evaporation of the very possibility of experience, via extinction or whatever … has consequences for this question of aesthetics.” This question is precisely that already explored by Worringer in his study of the Gothic. Just as the architects of Worringer’s immediate past were concerned with their own experiences of a world emerging from a complex past into an unknown future, we too today require a newly speculative aesthetics. This is to say, quoting Worringer, that “if we dismantle to its very foundations the marvelously delicate fabric of the unbroken chain of transmitted characters, we are left with a creature who confronts the outer world as helplessly and incoherently as a dumbfounded animal, a creature who only receives shifting and unreliable perceptual images of the phenomenal world, and who will only by slow stages of progressive and consolidated experience remodel such perceptions into conceptual images, using these as guides for finding his way, step by step as it were, in the chaos of the phenomenal world.”

Mall Goth: A Chemically Castrated Romance

I’m putting the finishing touches on an essay this week that, surreally, I won’t be publishing in English.

Last month I received a really exciting commission to write an essay to be translated directly into Italian and I’m excited about it because it has given me an opportunity to have a dry run at an introduction to my second book which I’m already thinking about and working on.

I’m thinking it’s going to be some short tract on accelerationism, the Gothic and modernist literature but I’m not entirely convinced that all the different strands I have mapped out will hang together as well as I hope they will…

Anyway, it’s opportunities like this that allow me to go deep into topics in a way that makes for good book chapter trials down the line, so I’m hugely grateful.

I won’t give too much away in terms of what this new essay is about — more information on that in the New Year most likely — but, for the most part, I’m dedicating it to the current state of the Gothic and, more importantly, I’m expanding on what I think the “xenogothic” is.

I already have a short explanation on my ‘About’ page but it has so far felt really good to expand on that definition with some receipts and references.

The “xenogothic”, for me, is an involuted term for the Gothic’s own internally propulsive outsideness. It is what Deleuze called “a witch’s flight” and what Wilhelm Worringer called the Gothic’s “will to form”. It’s that unique momentum that has allowed the Gothic to subvert all the forms that have previously defined it whilst still retaining a sense of aesthetic continuation. It is that drive that has allowed the Gothic to survive for almost a millennium whilst all other artistic movements and trends have found themselves tied up and closed, reified into recognisable types.

This is not to say that the Gothic isn’t under threat from capitalist co-option, of course, and we’ve already seen this happen over the last thirty or so years. So, in the essay, I explore how the Gothic has been reduced to a commodity form whereas previously it has represented a proletarian fugitivity from capitalist control whilst excavating a subterranean xenogothic that still — albeit slowly — moves the Gothic forwards.

I pay particular attention to how, on the surface, Goth, as a music genre, seems to have been the Gothic’s last hurrah. The translation of a Gothic sensibility into the sonic opened the door for its commodification and, unfortunately, it seems like the 2000s “mall goth” moment was its final form and death knell.

Thankfully, despite this, there are still plenty of examples of a resilient xenogothic tendency to be found in our contemporary subcultures that treats the capitalist subject with a fresh contempt — Gazelle Twin’s “Belly of the Beast” is probably my favourite — but I’m nonetheless spending a lot of time at the moment trying to figure out what went wrong and this is partly what I’m using this new essay as a vehicle for.

This morning, I found myself embroiled in writing a ridiculously long footnote after having something of an epiphany but it feels like too much of a tangent even for footnote status. Instead of binning it, I thought I’d chop it up and distill it here instead for future reference. This might even turn into a short series of posts where I share my cut-offs from this essay for posterity.

Danny Baker has this Twitter bugbear that I really enjoy where he decries the resurgent popularity of Freddie Mercury and Queen as a musical entity that, for him, acted as lighter fluid for punk’s explosive emergence on the UK’s cultural stage.

He has posted a lot of tweets about this over the years:

It seems to be an opinion that has been getting him in hot water for almost a decade online — Queen are a national treasure apparently — but I don’t see how anyone can disagree with him. The band’s post-prog embrace of decisively uncool monarchist and bourgeois sensibilities is something I have always felt a violent revulsion towards and, the fervent reappraisal of Mercury’s own identitarian Venn diagram aside, I have never understood their elevation to pop darlings — something which has only gotten worse over the years with the beatification of Mercury’s legacy in film and on stage.

What’s more, I have always associated them with Goth’s more recent death rattle.

When I was growing up, as I’m sure was the case for most people my age, “Bohemian Rhapsody” was somehow still this giant classic rock anthem, thirty years after its initial release, cryogenically frozen in a cloud of embarrassingly pop-American decontextualisation, where everyone loved to recreate that scene from Wayne’s World for some reason, treating it as a genuine headbanger instead of some bloated slab of embarrassing bourgeois pomp. (More on America’s tone-deafness regarding class and cultural production tomorrow.)

In the mid-2000s, this revulsion came to a very surprising head for me when the corpse of Freddie Mercury was reanimated by Gerard Way and his emo megaband My Chemical Romance. Their 2006 “concept album” The Black Parade was this weird self-aggrandisement of emo that sought to elevate the genre’s stature by tying it to some woeful prior standard of sonic experimentation and high culture — specifically, late prog, glam and the “rock opera”.

The influence of Queen was particularly explicit, with the biggest nod towards their idols being their echoing of Mercury’s sexy camp marching band schtick.

Maybe this says more about the state of the cultural landscape in 2006 more than anything else but somehow the record found itself receiving considerable critical acclaim as some sort of post-hardcore innovation. At school, the hype around it pissed me off more than anything. As far as goth was concerned, it was the year of Liars’ Drum’s Not Dead and Scott Walker’s The Drift, but fat chance that was going to compete with the mid-2000s frenetic cultural stasis. (I was very bitter about it — for some reason, all these years later, I still sort of am…)

In hindsight, I think I have an better idea as to way. My Chemical Romance and The Black Parade have long been a bugbear of my own, akin to Baker’s Queen obsession.

It was precisely Gerard Way’s blatant aping of Queen’s stage aristocracy and faux-military pomp that made me despair at the emo kids in my midst as a teenager. Most of them were my friends but I didn’t understand where they were coming from. This wasn’t innovative. It was mind-numbingly nostalgic for a moment in musical history that I thought Goth was supposed to be against. Their cross-pollination of Goth decadence with their love of Freddie Mercury and Queen felt like a monstrous betrayal of all that Goth originally stood for and against.

It still does.

Their importance to the “mall goth” moment of the 2000s is surely, in hindsight, unsurprising. I only wish they’d stayed dead. We certainly don’t need them right now.

The Diagrammatic — The Witch’s Flight

It’s not like me to use this space to repost other content wholesale but I’ve been thinking about this post I found on an old Warwick University blog all week.

“To think is always to follow the witch’s flight” is one of Deleuze and Guattari’s most evocative phrases, nestled within a chapter of What is Philosophy?, but it is a line that so many people have come back to again and again.

As with most things — sorry Guattari — there is a line here — itself a witch’s flight — that can be traced back through Deleuze’s philosophy. It’s something he writes about at length in his book on the painter Francis Bacon, The Logic of Sensation, but here he refers to it — via Wilhelm Worringer — as the “Gothic line”. (A line Mark Fisher would later take up and modify to become his “Gothic flatline”.)

It’s a meandering line within Deleuze’s own thought but is, more often than not, demonstrated rather than unpacked with any rigour but this old blog post from 2006 does a great job of tying it to Deleuze’s sense of the “diagrammatic”. It’s a really nice essay and short too, so here it is in its entirety:

In chapter 3 of What is Philosophy? Deleuze & Guattari talk of the three necessary elements of philosophy, a kind of trinity consisting of:

‘…the prephilosophical plane it must lay out (immanence), the persona or personae it must invent and bring to life (insistence), and the philosophical concepts it must create (consistency). Laying out, inventing, and creating constitute the philosophical trinity – diagrammatic, personalistic,and intensive features.’ (What is Philosophy?, pp. 76–7)

The initial ‘diagrammatic’ function within philosophy (the elaboration of a prephilosophical plane of immanence) necessary for the subsequent creation of concepts has clear resonance with Deleuze’s understanding of Francis Bacon’s creative practice in The Logic of Sensation, and offers a clear example of the type of creative pedagogy provided by art to our understanding of the practice of philosophy. Both involve taking what Deleuze & Guatarri term ‘a witches’ flight’. Deleuze asks in what does the initial pre-figurative act of painting consist for Bacon? For Bacon the initial act of painting is defined by the making of random marks; cleaning, sweeping, brushing or wiping the canvas which serve to clear out locales or zones on the canvas; and the throwing of paint from various angles and at various speeds. Such acts presuppose the existence of figurative givens on the canvas (clichés), and it is precisely such givens that are to be removed, by being cleaned, brushed, swept or wiped, or else covered over, by the act of painting. In the interviews with David Sylvester this is what Bacon called a ‘graph’ or a ‘diagram’. The ‘diagram’ is to be understood as the pre-figural preparation of the canvas (the initial acts of painting) – the series of shades, colours, scratches and layers of material set down prior to the actual delineation of the Figure. In Bacon this process consists of a series of haphazard lines, coloured spots and pitched paint. Such a physical rather than a visual act of painting lays out a ground that is in contradiction with the pre-planned figure. This is an automatic or random ground that threatens to engulf the act of figuration it prepares for. Deleuze claims that the ‘diagram’ is a kind of physical catastrophe that underlies the subsequent production of figuration in painting:

‘It is as if, in the midst of the figurative and probabilistic givens, a catastrophe overcame the canvas.’ (Deleuze, The Logic of Sensation, p. 80)

According to Deleuze the ‘diagram’ in painting allows the emergence of another possible world. The marks associated with the ‘diagram’ are irrational, involuntary, accidental, free, random. They are non-representative, non-illustrative, non-narrative. They are no longer either significant or signifiers, they are, Deleuze claims, ‘a-signifying traits’. Such (almost blind) manual marks attest to the intrusion of another world into the visual world of figuration. To a degree, they remove the painting from the optical organisation that reigns over it, rendering it always already figurative. The painter’s hand intervenes in order to disrupt its own dependence and deconstruct the sovereign optical organisation. Here one can no longer see anything, as if one was in a catastrophe or chaos. The ‘diagram’ serves to disrupt a certain pre-existing ‘sense’ and allow for the emergence of an entirely new ‘sense’. The operation or function of the ‘diagram’ is, according to Bacon, to be ‘suggestive’ of a new ‘sense’. Because such marks are destined to provide the Figure it is essential that they break with the conventional codes of figuration as such. Thus, such marks are not sufficient in themselves to break with figuration, but must provide a function of utility. They mark out certain ‘possibilities of fact’, but do not of themselves yet constitute a ‘fact’ (the pictorial ‘fact’). In order to be configured into a ‘fact’, i.e. in order to evolve into a Figure, they must be re-injected into the visual whole, but it is precisely through the action of these marks that the visual whole ceases to be a purely optical organisation:

‘It will give the eye another power, as well as an object that will no longer be figurative.’ (Deleuze, The Logic of Sensation, p. 81)

The ‘diagram’ evinced within Bacon’s work is indeed a type of chaos, a catastrophe, but it is also a germ of order of rhythm. It is thus a violent chaos in relation to the figurative givens, but it is also germ of rhythm in relation to the new order of the painting, a new and emergent sense. As Bacon says, it ‘unlocks areas of sensation’. Deleuze argues that the entire significance of Bacon’s ‘diagrammatic path’ is the recognition that the ‘diagram’ must not eat away at the entire painting, it must remain limited in space and time, it must remain operative, functional and controlled. The violent methods associated with the ‘diagrammatic’ must not be given free reign, and the necessary catastrophe must not submerge the whole. The ‘diagram’ is a possibility of ‘fact’ – it is not the ‘Fact’ itself. Thus not all the figurative givens have to disappear; a new figuration, that of the Figure, should emerge from the ‘diagram’ and render the bloc of sensation clear and precise. The ‘diagrammatic’ thus begins the act of painting, it lays out the prepictorial plane of immanence, and it is precisely this creative practice bound up with diagrammatic elaboration which is to be understood to form one of the three fundamental elements of philosophy, albeit a non-philosophical one:

‘Precisely because the plane of immanence is prephilosophical and does not immediately take effect with concepts, it implies a sort of groping experimentation and its layout resorts to measures that are not very respectable , rational, or reasonable. These measures belong to the order of dreams, of pathological processes , esosteric experiences, drunkenness, and excess…To think is always to follow the witch’s flight.’ (What is Philosophy?, p. 41)

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.

Cascading Adolescence (Part 4): Towards a Rebirth of Black Metal Mythologies

← Part Three

In his essay “The Light That Illuminates Itself, The Dark That Soils Itself: Blackened Notes From Schelling’s Underground”, Steven Shakespeare quotes an interview with US Black Metal band Wolves In The Throne Room who address their relationship to the explosive globalisation of the Black Metal movement and its origins in the controversies of True Norwegian Black Metal.

The band say that, as far as they are concerned, “the driving impulse of [Black Metal] is more about deep ecology than anything else”, an “eco-psychology”; the “deep woe inside black metal is about fear — that we can never return to the mythic, pastoral world that we crave on a deep subconscious level.” Distancing themselves from their predecessors, however, they explain:

Our music, then, is not “true” Black Metal for we have moved beyond this fantasy of nihilistic apocalypse; beyond our own misery and failure. Our music is balanced in that we temper the blind rage of Black Metal with the transcendent truths of the universe that reveals themselves with age and experience. Our relationship with the natural world is a healing force in our lives.

What is this if not the repudiation of a prior adolescence? Wolves in the Throne Room present themselves as the elders to True Norwegian Black Metal’s youth, but are they really so distant?

Wondering whether this new position taken by the Wolves is “a betrayal of roots, or a new baptism of the earth”, Shakespeare attempts to excavate the darker side of German Idealism, specifically through the thought of F. W. J. Schelling.

Schelling’s overarching project can perhaps be summarised in the same terms as the Wolves define their break with the Black Metal canon. He would likewise consider humanity’s “deep subconscious” affinity with nature — indeed, for Schelling, what must be unearthed is something more akin to a “natural” (that is, a planetary; an eco-logical) unconscious.

Whereas his predecessor, Immanuel Kant, in his famous three Critiques, would consider the ways in which nature is, for us, noumenal — unknowable in-itself to us, as selves conditioned by the prison of our own inescapable experience — Schelling (and other German Idealists of his generation) would instead consider the ways in which we ourselves are nonetheless a part of this nature that we cannot know. As the German Idealist scholar Frederick Beiser writes: “What Kant claimed reason could not know — the absolute or unconditioned — Schelling wrote volumes about.”

Whilst the outside — the world outside ourselves as subjects — may be unknowable beyond the conditions of subjective experience, we can nonetheless think of ourselves as nature thinking itself, in the Spinozist sense of naturas naturans, rather than being anthropocentrically and traumatically separated from our surroundings.

With all this in mind, we can perhaps see this “third wave” of Black Metal — epitomised by the North American bands, of which Wolves in the Throne Room are an seminal example — as a similar sort of development in our understanding of our relationship to nature. Whereas True Norwegian Black Metal privileged (or at least paid lip service to) a horrified Kantian “truth” of existence, in violent opposition to the illusory theologies of church (and, by association, state), Wolves in the Throne Room represent a Schellingian shift to a more productive and positive relationship to the world around us.

Shakespeare, in his essay, demonstrates this through quotations from Schelling’s works Ages of the World and Philosophical Investigations into the Essence of Human Freedom. He writes that, for Schelling, “creation ‘begins with a dissonance’.” His argument, similar to Spinoza’s, is that God and nature are inseparable and, if we are created in God-comma-nature’s image, it is in the sense that we too are beings of the natural world, despite our delusions of grandeur to the contrary. However, as Shakespeare emphasises, we are “a long way from nature worship” here: “If we are dealing with a religion here, it is more like a contamination, in which spirit goes to ground.” Our existence is not defined by its relation to its outside but, rather, the ways in which the Outside is already within us. Shakespeare continues:

For Schelling, behind God lies a primordial ground, an unconditioned absolute. From this ground, an unconscious arises. It is a will to know itself as absolute. The unconditioned is “the will that wills nothing.”

For Shakespeare, however, the central question of Black Metal becomes: “What does the absolute sound like?” And he responds by evoking the “buzzsaw guitar, the all too audible crudity of the production process” of the genre; Black Metal’s “aural friction, a scoured glass of sound.”

But something is missing here…

Shakespeare ends, more or less, on an open question: Do these staples of the Black Metal sound “enable us to hear nature differently, breaking the spell of reflection which seeks to bind everything in its proper place?”

Not for me. I’m left thinking not about Black Metal ecologies but the likes of Chris Watson, specifically his recordings of glaciers. Are these recordings of displacement not closer to the sound of of nature’s own Will? A sound more Black Metal than Black Metal itself could ever produce?

This is to forget that our all too human musicians are, in themselves, nature’s dissonance.

What seems to be missing is a story

We should acknowledge that Shakespeare’s whistle-stop tour through Schelling’s Naturphilosophy — no doubt restricted by the presentation format for which the essay was originally intended — is inevitably truncated. He is absolutely correct in aligning the Wolves with Schelling’s positive philosophy of nature, but I only wish more could have been said on their relationship to mythology — the topic that Schelling would explore in great detail later in his life.

As previously explored and argued in this series, rather than distancing ourselves from the mythologies of adolescence, we can instead see our more recent cultural developments as the continuation of this process, previously blocked by a wayward egotism that Wolves in the Throne Room themselves nonetheless hold onto in their proclamation of occasioning a break from what has come before — just as Euronymous did, in his own way.

Towards the end of his life, Schelling would give a series of lectures on the nature of mythology. He would note how mythology, for the Greeks, was understood in “the broadest sense [as] the whole of their own particular tales, legends and stories, which in general go beyond historical time.” In Schelling’s sense, mythology is a form of understanding the world and our place within it in a way that “consists of occurrences and events that belong to an entirely different order of things”. Mythology, then — as a “system” and “history of the gods” — is born of “a type of alienation” that is, perhaps, inherent to the history of epistemology. Schelling notes that, “according to its origin, mythology indeed loses itself in a time into which no historical tidings reach.” It is the untimely cultural product of the questions that philosophy has long asked itself: who are we and how do we know?

Wolves In The Throne Room, in asserting that they have left the adolescence of True Norwegian Black Metal behind them, and having likewise given up on its mythologies — instead opting for the safe and scientific (eco-logical) understanding of nature — attempt to turn away from the originally adolescent form of alienation that exists at the genre’s heart whether they like it or not.

However, theirs is not a rejection of alienation in its entirety, theirs is rather a favouring of alienation through rationality in contrast to the alienation of inexperience. Both nevertheless crash upon the shore of the encounter with the unknown and unknowable. In this way, rationality and inexperience function as the mouth and tail of Black Metal’s ouroboros: adolescent non-knowledge and the aged understanding of our lost wisdoms.

The problem that presents itself here for me, as a listener, is that this somewhat arrogant assuredness and understanding of lost wisdoms is something shared by the scene’s more reactionary elements.

However, if we choose to be more generous to this group, we might also acknowledgement that a “lost wisdom” can likewise be understood as a sense of a wisdom from “before” that has been lost to modernity. This is to say, it is the “wisdom” of adolescence rediscovered by way of its absence from our experience of modernity.

This is, for Schelling, the atemporal birth place of poetry — or, rather, poesy — and it is a form of thought that moves diagonally through the naive rationality of the Wolves’ self-proclaimed ascension above their predecessors.

Schelling posits an analogy:

If a series of true events was told to us in a detailed and understandable lecture, then it will occur to none of us to ask what this story means. Its meaning is simply that the narrated events are real ones. We presuppose in him who tells it to us an intention to inform us; we listen to him with the intention of being informed. For us, his story undoubtedly has a doctrinal meaning. In the question of how I am to take this — that is, what is mythology supposed to be, or what does mythology mean? — it is thence already recumbent that the questioner feels himself incapable of seeing truth, actual events, in the mythological stories as well as in the mythological representations themselves because what is historical is here inseparable from the content. But if they are not to be taken as truth, then as what? The natural antithesis of truth, however, is poesy.

Poesy is, for Schelling, antithetical to truth by its innately multiplicitous nature. Truth is singular; monolithic. Poesy is, on the contrary, dissonant.

As Shakespeare would write in his text, ruminating on the lyrics of “Rain” by Fauna:

There is a multiplication of shadows and the earth writhes. There is no rest in this nature, no Eden. […] The purity which is envisaged by the song is not that of transparency to truth, to spirit, to the face of the other. This face is empty. […] Nature punctures skin, it is an opening, a folding of shadow. Becoming animal, we look for birth beyond the human. […] Nature breaks us. Its blackness, the blackness of earth, corrodes the solidity of existence from within. […] I have become the open seam, the wound that cannot be filled, where the heart was, where the ‘I’ reigned, there is a void.

This is precisely the Schellingian swamp, rendered in gothic form, from which mythology emerges. He would discuss mythology via its explicit relation to humanity’s own multiplication. The very act of multiplication, the repetitive introduction of difference into the human socius, produces a multiplicity of stories and perspectives. However, for Schelling, it is not a people which produces a mythology but a mythology that produces a people and True Norwegian Black Metal is a scene that was most certainly produced by its own mythology.

Indeed, mythology, in this way, is integral to adolescence. It is not just the stories that we tell ourselves but the stories which come to define us as we move maniacally into the imperceptible zone of adulthood. However, the interesting case of True Norwegian Black Metal demonstrates how a desire to establish and embody a mythology may just swallow us whole.

This is the tragedy of the True Norwegian Black Metal scene. It was immortalised upon a naive belief that those young men had in controlling their own story. It was already written for them and they were destroyed in their attempts to control its flows, just as we find ourselves threatened by the arrogance of our attempts to control the world around us.

The ecological thought of Wolves in the Throne Room had already been predicted as this series’ end point by one particularly perceptive reader. In the comments section of Part One, Dominic Fox sent a link to another interview with the Wolves in which they say:

Norwegian black metal is completely unbalanced -– that is why it is so compelling and powerful. It is the sound of utter torment, believing to one’s core that that winter will never end, that spring will never come. It is really music that can only be made by bitter and rage-filled teenagers. It is powerful and important to have these kinds of feelings of deep misanthropy and misery while one comes of age, because our age is sick. I don’t think, for instance, that a 35-year old man could make a record as great and pure as Filosofem. Black Metal is about destruction, destroying your belief system — it is a cleansing fire that opens up new possibilities for thought and feeling. In many ways, it is a first step, not the alpha and omega.

But, again, I beg to differ. The core of Norwegian black metal, to me, seems to be a nauseous unknowing; a Kierkegaardian “sickness unto death” that Shakespeare would describe as the “constant exposure of the wounded nature of selfhood, a self established by an other power not in its grasp.” As we’ve established, this other power is undoubtedly nature and the exposure of our own naivety before it is surely an ontological adolescence.

Things to not end here, however. All is not lost for the genre of Black Metal. As Dominic would add to this brilliantly in his comment on Part One:

For [Wolves in the Throne Room], this adolescence is something to be got beyond, rather than loitered in. But loitering is the characteristic adolescent mode of abiding: infesting a space, overstaying your welcome. An adolescent is always-already an “overgrown adolescent”, someone who should already have started to know better.

Commenting more specifically on those bands discussed in Part One, Dominic continues:

Whitehouse strike me as very overgrown-adolescent in just that sense. Whereas [Death in June] strike me as creepy old men hanging around the carpark where the youths gather to drink cider and smoke, whose sunwheel denim patches are supposed to make them look cool and edgy but who are generally shunned as nonces except by a few sad cases who can’t resist the attention.

Wolves in the Throne Room are, thankfully, far closer to Whitehouse in their mastery of dissonance, but still there is an uncertainty of position that seems amiss within their earlier summaries of their ecological position. Mourning the apparent loss of our connection to Nature is a slippery slope to towards a reactionary thinking. Instead, in keeping Black Metal focussed on the future of our planet and our place within it, we might say that the horror of Black Metal today is precisely a horror at the innate adolescence of our species, which has perhaps overstayed its welcome within a global ecosystem that can no longer afford us.

The role of mythology within this — of which Black Metal is an exemplary part — is not to embrace the easy nihilism of such knowledge but to account for it so that we might productively handle the consequences which will, undoubtedly, require a species-wide ego-death and the refutation of capitalist arrogance.

Indeed, if our age is as sick as Wolves in the Throne Room declare, it is perhaps because of an absence of myth and Black Metal may hold the keys to reigniting the void — even that which is within itself. The waves of adolescence that give Black Metal such persistent buoyancy are its ruinous grace. As Georges Bataille once wrote:

The myths which, in the white and incongruous void of absence, exist innocently and shatter are no longer myth, and their duration is such as to expose their precariousness. At least in one sense the pale transparency of possibility is perfect: myths, whether they be lasting or fugitive, vanish like rivers in the sea in the absence of myth which is their lament and their truth. […]

“Night is also the sun”, and the abscence of myth is also a myth: the coldest, the purest, the only true myth.

Mark Fisher & Justin Barton, “On Vanishing Land”

There have been murmurings about this for a while now and it’s finally here: Mark Fisher and Justin Barton’s On Vanishing Land is getting an official release next month on the new Hyberdub sub-label, Flatlines.

It’s really great that this is finally coming out. Previously, much like londonunderlondon, the audio-essay has only been played infrequently in public in order to encourage the practice of collective listening. In that context, I think I’ve heard it half a dozen times since Mark’s death in January 2017 — Corsica Studios and the one we organised for The Fisher-Function being particularly memorable — and I’ve played a clip of Mark reading out a passage from J.G. Ballard’s The Drowned World at two of the For K-Punk nights since then. All this is to say that I’ve come to associate it more with Mark’s legacy than anything else.

Hearing his voice is always a strange experience these days but for some reason that’s especially true in a club…

This is worth mentioning because I think On Vanishing Land performs the psychedelic collectivity Mark wanted to encourage with his work far more than any other posthumous document of his activities and, in being a sort of collaborative audio-collage, it retains so many of the important links to Mark’s communal thinking that the post-humous lionisation of his work has inevitably diminished. (Both in terms of its content and, now, in being put out by Steve Goodman.)

Justin has spoken about this forthcoming release on a couple of occasions, in private and in public, and each time he has noted just how fitting this release is. Unlike it’s counterpart, londonunderlondon, originally made for radio, OVL was constructed in two distinct parts and so the vinyl treatment actually makes sense. We might even say this was how it was always intended to be experienced… So long as each spin occasions a drowned world listening party.

This is not to be missed.

You can preorder the record, out July 26th, on vinyl and digitally from Bandcamp and the Hyperdub website. Read the press release below:

Hyperdub launch new sub-label, Flatlines, for the vinyl and digital release of On Vanishing Land, an audio-essay by Justin Barton and the late Mark Fisher. OVL evokes a walk along the Suffolk coastline in 2006, from Felixstowe container port (“a nerve ganglion of capitalism”) to the Anglo-Saxon burial ground at Sutton Hoo. A walk under immense skies, through zones of deep time and within sunlit, liminal terrains, into the eerie. 

Everywhere there are charged atmospheres, shadowy incursions, enigmatic departures. A derelict radar base, coastal heathland, drifting thistledown, towers of overgrown shipping containers – music haunted by wider levels of reality, narrations about rarely visited zones and potentials, voices of dreams and stories. Newly composed tracks by John Foxx, Gazelle Twin, Baron Mordant, Raime, Pete Wiseman, Farmers of Vega, Skjolbrot, Eerie Anglia, Ekoplekz and Dolly Dolly; and, alongside these, views toward M.R. James’s Oh Whistle and I’ll Come to You My Lad (1904), Joan Lindsay’s Picnic at Hanging Rock (1967), and Brian Eno’s On Land (1982). Beyond the surface of the day something becomes visible, a way forward, an escape-path from capitalist reality. On Vanishing Land is about following the lines of terrains and dreams. It is about a micropolitics of escape, of disappearance. A micropolitics of waking the faculties. 

“It is April, but it feels like summer. They turn left onto the seafront […]” 

On Vanishing Land was initially part of an exhibition commissioned by The Otolith Collective and The Showroom in London, and after londonunderlondon (2005) it was the second audio-work collaboration by Justin Barton and Mark Fisher. The LP cover features photos taken by Mark Fisher and a short essay by Justin Barton. 

Justin Barton on the Xenogothic

RevisitingOutsights” today — that brilliant conversation between Mark Fisher, Justin Barton and Robin Mackay published in When Site Lost The Plot.

I really like these comments from Barton below, encapsulating the very feeling which this blog was built on.

In a sense, there is no word for the other side of the eerie, this dispassionate positive side of the eerie is precisely what’s been edited out of the world. […] I think it’s really important to get this right, it’s fundamental to see that with M.R. James, the problem is that you have something which is an expression of the birth of Gothic horror in the modern world. And the modern world loves gothic, it loves horror, but it absolutely has a shutdown on the opposite dimension of the eerie, because that’s the way out.

Basically, gothic horror just in the end plays into Christian — or Judaic or Islamic — entrapment metaphysics, with its violence of transcendent maleness. Because in the end it just frightens the hell out of people, points out that horrific things happen if you open yourself up in the direction of the unknown, and people are likely, in the end, having just frolicked around as critique-freaks in the zone of the gothic, to go precisely nowhere, and to have played into the hands of people who say, yes, there’s something out there other than the material world, and be afraid, be very afraid — if you genuinely open yourself up to the unknown, you’re going to go to hell to be roasted by M.R. James’s demons. Which means it’s the last great attempt to defend Christianity — M.R. James was a Christian, he read his stories out at Christmas! In Cambridge, a bastion of traditional Christian values.

So that incredible attempt by the religious system to defend itself by scaring people, which in fact goes on all the way through the twentieth century and is still going on as strong as ever, and which is gothic horror, has got to be fended off. Because the opposite direction is what’s been edited out. It’s really important to see that. Unless you get to the thought of an intent towards absolute deterritorialization — dispassionate movement towards absolute intensification, absolute freedom — you haven’t seen what’s at stake in all of this. And the gothic keeps you staring in completely the wrong direction, keeps you staring in the direction of the old Christian myth system.

Capital as Noun, Capital as Entity

Heard joke once:

Entity goes to doctor. Says it’s depressed. Says life seems harsh and cruel. Says it feels all alone in a threatening world where what lies ahead is vague and uncertain.

Doctor says, “Treatment is simple. Great economic system Capitalism is in town tonight. Go and see it. That should pick you up.”

Entity bursts into tears. Says, “But doctor…I am Capitalism.”

It’s been a while since we’ve had a blog post chronicling a Twitter hellthread but this was a good one.

After S.C. Hickman tweeted (and I retweeted) a quote from Mark Fisher’s The Weird and the Eerie in which he writes that capital “is at every level an eerie entity: conjured out of nothing, capital nevertheless exerts more influence than any allegedly substantial entity”, an all too familiar argument started.

@brightabyss weighed in:

Gigantic yawn. Reification turned subconscious glorification does absolutely nothing for an ontography of power and influence. [1]

Skipping over the Twitter vitriol, I argued that “Fisher, throughout that whole book, is implicitly pointing to the ways in which the human subject’s struggle with Marxist reification can be seen as emerging through cultural production”, but this isn’t what has got Michael’s goat. It’s that age-old annoyance over people saying capital is a thing. He says later:

Capital is not an entity. Capital exists as a relation between valuating agents & normative systems of distinction. Reifying those systems & relations is poor ontology. [1]

Many around the Twittersphere may be aware of @brightabyss and his frequent dismissal of a tendency some people apparently have to give too much agency to capitalism. This is a pet peeve shared by many others also. Making capital a “thing” — a concrete, reified object — or, worse still, a subject with its own agency — is a misstep brought about by too much exposure to Lovecraftian sci-fi and a tendency towards the theological.

I’ll skip ahead to a tweet that seems to encapsulate the overall argument:

The word entity denotes a thing. A fucking noun. Calling it eery is just like calling it a hyperobject. But should Capital be considered a noun? I don’t thing so. It’s more of a power relation instantiated by other systems. Real nouns. [1]

Now, I don’t want to recount the argument that took place around all of this in too much details, because it’s not that interesting. @brightabyss’s analysis has always been really lacking in this area as far as I’m concerned and it seems to come from a misunderstanding of what “entity” means, specifically in this context, as an explicit product of Fisher’s Spinozism. This article is a really good summary of this in Spinoza’s thought I think, which quotes Spinoza as saying, in describing his use of the word ‘entity’: “I think it is such a thing, its essence contains existence, or its nature can only be imagined as being.”

Admittedly, this may not be the clearest definition but it is worth pointing to as the implicit context from which Fisher is getting his sense of “entity”.

Capital itself is already a noun of course and even this basic function of language is something that BA has a problem with as well, arguing that Marx’s use of the definitive article, in naming his book Das Kapital, is

where this shit show of a (cognitive) reification party started. Karl started a tendency that had plagued Marxists for decades and truly fucked our ability to create arguments for the augmentation of the function of monetary exchange. [1]

At this point, in wanders @enkiv2 with the clearest exploration of this point, its history and its increasing relevance throughout the process of technological development that I’ve seen on Twitter — and that’s saying something considering just how many times this has been debated — so I felt like it was worth saving here for posterity:

Capital makes sense as a noun, in a marxist context: it’s a system (in the cybernetics sense), and therefore amplifies certain behaviors while damping others by its own internal logic. [1]

Marx, performing arguably the first thoroughly systematic analysis of economics decades before the terminology around cybernetics was invented, needed to take advantage of anthropomorphism to get his point across & avoid individual-centered analysis. [2]

An anthropomorphic view is lossier than a cybernetic one, but it’s way better than an individualistic view (where systemic bias contrary to individual desire is literally unthinkable). [3]

[…] If you come to Marx with a cybernetic POV it becomes a better model for the social-economic complex.

Some Marxists get misled by the absence of typical cybernetic terminology & lean into an anthropomorphism that isn’t justified. [4]

How many marxists do this these days, though? Not so many, because of the popularization of systems thinking. Folks are used to thinking through feedback loops these days, so it becomes more clear that Marx isn’t portraying Capital as an animal but as a self-regulating machine. [5]

Ed Berger also makes a good point on this in the thread too, pointing out:

It’s self-regulating because human social life is structured via the law of value and its reproduction. The analysis of reification presupposes this, not the other way around (material -> consciousness, not the idealist movement consciousness -> material) [1]

“…this fetishism of the world of commodities arises from the peculiar social character of the labour which produces them”. [2]

@enkiv2 continues:

It’s a machine made of people. Like any large-scale persistent system, it contains error-correcting logic to render irrelevant whatever components do not correctly follow its mode of operation. (That is what defines its mode of operation: what direction deviations are pushed.) [1]

“The function of a system is what it does”

The anthropomorphic error is to assume design. Really, even the capitalist class is a victim of capitalism — simply a more comfortable victim. Capital organizes itself because it is a stable spot in possibility space. [2]

Now, sure: capital is not a physical object. It’s a social construct. That makes it no more real than money (something else we refer to as a noun & do a lot of math to understand), or government (something we anthropomorphize all the time). [3]

To bring this full circle:

Something every social construct has in common is that, because its rules are enforced by people instead of physics, how things seem has more influence on behavior than how they are. This means rapid thrashing as illusions appear & disappear. [4]

In other words, social constructs are eldritch (in the sense of ‘pertaining to elves’: all money has the characteristic of faery gold, disappearing suddenly as some representation of value elsewhere in the system changes). [5]

I haven’t read Fischer’s essay here so I’m not sure if this is the same as what he means by eerie, but from that quote it sure sounds like there’s overlap. [6]

I think this is absolutely true and there is considerable overlap. Capital is eerie for Fisher in the sense that it is not “real” (as @enkiv2 describes) but you can see its effects everywhere — it is a “failure of absence” and a “failure of presence”. In seeing those effects but not seeing its “form”, just like in the case of Fisher’s exemplary “eerie cry”, we have a tendency to imagine its “vocalic” — or perhaps, more accurately, in this case, “affective” — body which may only exist in the imagination but nonetheless assists us in thinking this process of “operative abstraction” (to borrow from Ed again) as it unfolds around us.

This thread continued on at length from this point and went in various directions that I ultimately lost track of so I’d rather not excavate those. It’s far too knotted. It was a good chat though if you want to explore it for yourself.

For more of Spinoza’s relevance to The Weird and the Eerie I’d recommend this old post of mine called “Weird Immanence“.

Update: @cyberpyre rightly adds:

I think the Deleuzian concept of virtuality clears most of this up; Capital is not an actual entity, but by means of material (non-virtual) relations, a space of difference is created which produces actuality. [1]

“[…] a nonnumcrical multiplicity […] plunges into another dimension, which is no longer spatial and is purely temporal: lt moves from the virtual to its actualization, it actualizes itself by creating lines of differentiation that correspond to its differences in kind.” [2]

There’s lots of different ways of saying it. The point is that people so rarely get it, it’s great to have an accessible breakdown.