The Slow Cancellation of…
Sorry, What Were We Talking About?:
Some Concessions and Further Notes

Thanks to Matheus Calderon, who sent over the text for Noys’ lecture. Below is a more in-depth commentary on Noys’ talk, made up of a few concessions, notes and further confusion following my previous post.

With that previous post in mind, let’s turn to what Noys actually had to say. You can watch the talk back below.

In my previous post, I was mostly confused by Noys’ appeals to the present. This is clarified very early on. Drawing on various texts from queer theory, afrofuturism/afropessimism, and accelerationism, Noys writes:

In all cases, there are complex articulations of past, present, and future that could be discovered in these texts and in these contrasting lines of thought. They are also, obviously, turning to the future and the past to address the present. This complexity does not, I argue, invalidate the point that the orientation to past and future risks abandoning the present. The splitting between a past primal wounding that provides a negative rupture and a utopian future that sends its ‘tendrils’ into a destitute present, leave us living in the worst of all possible worlds… In these orientations, however, this absent present is addressed as a moment of stagnation, degeneration or decadence, what Badiou calls an ‘atonal world’ that lacks points of decision.

But this still ignores Alex Williams’ founding accelerationist argument where he explicitly affirms these same Badiouian points of decision, calling on us to address them.

I can nevertheless see what Noys is trying to do. He is attempting to intervene in a kind of Parmenidean paradox. To say things need to start moving suggests an impossible moment of prior stasis. Noys seems to be arguing that, in presenting the present as static, we trap ourselves in an impossible perspective that is fatally limited to the first-person. The point should be to get beyond the privileged positions we give ourselves as individuals — what Noys nicely conflates with “the bourgeois viewpoint” — which observes the world in its flux only in relation to our own stasis. For Parmenides’ partner Zeno, in particular, the opposite was also true: we cannot say the world is still, only because we ourselves are moving at speed. Either everything is moving or nothing is, and nothing, as a kind of radical stillness, is an impossibility. Instead, we should look to the bigger picture of what is happening around us.

This is how I am understanding Noys when he writes:

If we currently exist in a present emptiness, one half of the bourgeois viewpoint, the alternative offered is an original, or future, fullness. While these theoretical currents claim to transcend the antinomies of bourgeois thought, we may also be suspicious of such self-characterisations. Certainly, the antinomy between original fullness and present standstill does seem to remain resonant, even if these terms are reworked by the currents I have sketched.

But wasn’t this Lyotard’s point regarding the impossibility of an outside, later taken up by the accelerationists?

Putting Lyotard to one side, our references to the pre-Socratics are intentional here, since Noys mentions them repeatedly, albeit only in passing, noting Heidegger and Nietzsche’s turns to antiquity, which they acknowledge as that founding moment in philosophy. There we find a familiar discussion regarding the generative capacities of finitude and infinitude, which has particular bearing on how we are able to categorise difference, change, and the new.

I don’t want to expand on this history too much here, as I’m planning to write on this in far more detail for my upcoming talk at Ctrl Network. I’ll no doubt have to work some of Noys’ points into that lecture between now and then. For now, suffice it to say that what we find in the pre-Socratics are those first attempts to rigorously stamp out the obscurantism of Heraclitean riddles. For Heraclitus, the apparent truism that we cannot step into the same river twice is not just a philosophy of nature but a way of problematising epistemology as such. For him, all language is poetry, the meaning of which can change in every instance we encounter it. But this is only true from the limited perspective of the individual, so argued Parmenides and Zeno. Collectively, we can speak of things that are true for all of us. Indeed, that must be where we turn our attention. (Mathematics takes the cake here, and continues to.)

When Plato later banishes poets from the republic, in the name of his theory of forms, he does so to service this kind of truth. Poets are still great thinkers, and contribute much to culture and society, but he insists that we must be able to decide on the proper names for things — as Ideas or Forms — before we can begin to play with them. Otherwise, how would we have language? We need shared understanding. Without it, how would we be able to converse with one another? (This is of central importance to Plato. Conversation is the primary form that his dialectical philosophy takes, after all.) In the end, we can say there is difference, and naming difference is how we give form to the new, and even new ideas. It is the goal of philosophy to set that process to work and maintain its motion.

It is downstream from here, from this Platonic river of forms, that we find the great ocean of philosophy. The tension here is never quite resolved. Aristotle makes an attempt, and reigns supreme for centuries, but Plato soon returns to the fore, both positively and negatively. The battle over his contemporary relevance no doubt falls to that central dialectic of the mid-2000s blogosphere, between the anti-Platonism of Deleuze and and the Cantorian Platonism of Badiou.

Even prior to that moment, we might turn to Alfred North Whitehead, who was famous for having said that “the European philosophical tradition … consists of a series of footnotes to Plato.” But this was not to diminish the thousands of years of thought to have followed since Plato’s own, as if it is all derivative in a pejorative sense. It is instead to understand philosophy – and, indeed, thought itself – in a Platonic manner. Whitehead’s comment is, in this sense, reflexive: the form of Plato’s ideas – nothing less than a theory of ideas themselves – provided a structure from which all ideas since could emerge. He provides us with an Idea of philosophy, against which we can judge all other variants. We find ourselves connected across millennia. Plato sought truth and so do we. And yet, a fundamental tension remains.

If there is such a thing as truth – and we know that there is: two plus two will always equal four, for example – then how do we account for all that has changed in the meantime? If truths don’t change, how do we keep inventing new ones? Are we even “inventing” the new if truths are things that have always been true, but were previously unknown? If we “discover” the new, is it still really new? Or only new to us? This tension defines twentieth century philosophy, and underlies some of its central texts: Being and Time, Process and Reality, Difference and Repetition, Being and Event. (There are other examples still, albeit not of the same canonical stature, but Yuk Hui’s Recursivity and Contingency is another that comes to mind.)

Suddenly, our understanding of the new no longer seems so linear… Indeed, not even Plato can be held up as a central origin; his theory of forms was not wholly original in itself. Philosophical positions very similar to his were already circulating in other parts of the world at this time. Confucius, for instance – whose thought predates Plato’s by about a century – developed his own theory of forms. His “reification of names”, as it was called, is worth noting because it perhaps clarifies why Plato’s theory is so important to his Republic that he would ban all poets from the city in its name. Contrary to first impressions, Plato is not a joyless authoritarian but rather seeks to build a utopia based on the true order of things. He hopes to live, first and foremost, in accordance with nature and natural law – an attractive proposition, since to do so would negate all the pretensions of ideology. Similarly, Confucius suggests that all social disorder can be traced back to an inability to give things their proper names. The theory of forms, then, takes on a social dimension – to name each thing in its proper place, not just Plato’s tables but emotions and experiences as well, is to be able to articulate one’s self in accordance with nature. “When names are not rectified, what is said will not seem reasonable”, Confucius writes. “When what is said does not seem reasonable, nothing will get accomplished.”

The political dimension of the new now comes to the fore, and it is this sentiment that is explored consistently throughout the entirety of recorded history — not history understood as a linear progression but as a problematic always re-problematised in the present in which we encounter it.

It is from here we uncover the tension between idealism and materialism that Noys points to when he argues tangentially against a certain form of capitalist realism, which collapses capitalist ideology onto a Platonic understanding of the universe. This is to say that capitalism establishes itself as eternal, as always having been here, and it has now finally won out over the twentieth century’s alternatives. “The end of history”, though a point of critique for Fukuyama, is then picked up and affirmed by conservatives who herald their own victory. Truth has won out and its name is capitalism. For many, it is no doubt very easy to believe them, as they appeal to various habits of human relations — exchange, trading, etc. — that have always been with us and which, for them, constitute the seeds of our true capitalist nature. That is, until we put in the work to actually track capitalism’s development. Suddenly we see how forms and names can be manipulated. So we look for the origins of language — structuralism — before acknowledging that, yes, language does not lie inert and unchanging. It does change in every instance we encounter it — post-structuralism — but all the more reason to make note of those encounters and the differences between him, in the present. (Shout out Althusser.) So Noys writes:

These statements do not say all we have is the present, but rather we must account for this present through historical reconstruction, hence the Phenomenology of Spirit or Capital, while tracing the possibilities of the present as potentials to realise a future of self-determination and freedom. In each of these iterations of the phrase it is implied that we have to grasp the present conditions as the site of overcoming. My point, therefore, is a simple one: contemporary radical theoretical forms have embraced the future or the deep ontological past in a flight from the present. Images of stagnation and inertia remain to characterise the present of high capitalism in accents that are more Nietzschean than anything else.

From here Noys goes on to challenge this history, attacking the forgetting of Being in Heidegger. “Western metaphysics begins, with Socrates and Plato, to forget Being and Being leads a fugitive role in the history of that metaphysics”, Noys writes, summarising Heidegger’s position. “We need to return to before the rift, to the moment of the pre-Socratics,” Heidegger argues, if we are “to find a thinking of Being qua Being.”

As mentioned last time, this is where we can turn instead to the importance of Whitehead, and of Steven Shaviro’s speculative injunction in the philosophy of the late 2000s (as well as his particular brand of accelerationism, which I find to be wholly commensurate with much of what is called “unconditional accelerationism” — or, as Shaviro might describe it, “accelerationism without criteria”.) “What if Whitehead, instead of Heidegger, had set the agenda for postmodern thought?”, he asks. The question of beginnings is once again central. Shaviro continues:

Where does one start in philosophy? Heidegger asks the question of Being: “Why is there something, rather than nothing?” But Whitehead is splendidly indifferent to this question. He asks, instead: “How is it that there is always something new?” Whitehead doesn’t see any point in returning to our ultimate beginnings. He is interested in creation rather than rectification, Becoming rather than Being, the New rather than the immemorially old.

Oddly, Noys does not follow this trajectory, which feels characteristically accelerationist to me, in being contrary to capitalism’s insistent that it is immemorially old. Indeed, there is plenty out there that explores and further clarifies Noys’ own position. Instead, he seems to be on the lookout for enemies. He turns to Nietzsche’s “philosophy for the future”, which is “scathing towards the ‘frivolous deification of the present’, and dismissive of ‘the barbaric turmoil known as “the present”‘.”

The non-linear development of thought presents itself again. Though it feels more natural to suggest Nietzsche’s futurism inverts Heidegger’s history, the opposite is true. But then what was Nietzsche reacting to? Isn’t Heidegger following that Enlightenment tendency, from Rousseau through to Freud and all the rest of it, of finding our primal scene? Nietzsche certainly emerges from this context as an anti-Enlightenment figure, in the way that he attempts to prefigure, as Noys puts it, “a past of hierarchical authority that throws a bridge to a future authoritarian rebirth of rank.” But both are accelerationists, apparently, in their own ways. Together they give form to the double-articulation that accelerationism, in Noys’ view, hopes to affirm: Nietzsche cloaks the left hand of a dark future whilst Heidegger shrouds the right in the truth of philosophy’s deep past, before it alienated itself from its true object.

Soon enough, Heidegger falls away, his role left unresolved. Noys instead warns against any form of left-Nietzscheanism that may seem tangentially resonant with much of Marxism. We must not confuse the two, he insists, even though Nietzsche’s elitism may seem to resonate with the vanguardism of Marxist-Leninism.

This is a fair observation, but from here I am lost. Noys turns to Mark Fisher, rather than the more obvious choice, Nick Land, to explore the fallacies of such a thinking. He makes Fisher out to be the central left-Nietzschean of our age. This is a reading immediately complicated by any consideration of Fisher’s far more prominent Spinozism (not to mention Nietzsche’s anti-Spinozism), but let us take Noys at his word here. In reference to Fisher’s critique of “the slow cancellation of the future” that he began his talk with, Noys writes:

The cultural diagnosis of Mark Fisher we cited, for example, is explicitly Nietzschean, and Fisher identifies with Nietzsche’s aristocratic critique of culture. While Fisher identifies capitalism as Nietzschean ‘slave morality’: resentful, levelling, opposed to innovation, identifying the working class with experimentation, the structure of aristocratic critique remains. The present remains a stagnant present. While this Nietzschean critique is often given a radical accent, or presented as a radical gesture, or even ‘the most radical gesture’, it comes at the cost of fundamentally losing the basis of a critical radicalism.

It is here that my inchoate critique reemerges.

What is this “critical radicalism” that Fisher was losing sight of? It was a “critical radicalism” that manifest itself as a “reflexive impotence”, recently discussed here. In previously citing Natasha Lennard’s article for Salon, I mentioned how what was being rejected at that time was the looming “celebrity vanguard” that many on the left feared the likes of Russell Brand and Owen Jones represented. This was a left whose “critical radicalism” amounted to nothing more than an impotent horizontalism; a radicalism that didn’t so much critique its pop-cultural figureheads as denounce any cultural representation whatsoever. It was a leftism that kept making appeals to an illusory outsideness, arguing that what we needed was a form of cultural representation that wasn’t produced under capitalism. Fisher’s point was that familiar Lyotardian one: there is no outside, the only way out is through.

Though he may reference Lyotard and Nietzsche in his critiques, this thought has next to no relation to the hysterical accelerationism Noys once took aim at in The Persistence of the Negative. This is Fisher’s “popular modernism”, which decries the impotence of a “critical radicalism” that no longer sees any role for popular culture in the creation of certain structures of feeling. It is an argument that has since been vindicated. When the left eventually dropped this pretension to an impossible purity, it discovered a resurgence of its ideas in the political imagination. In 2015 Jeremy Corbyn broke through, with the grassroots movement surrounding him making active use of capitalism’s cultural dynamics, producing memes and conflating Corbyn with designer fashion as part of an irreverent merchandising campaign — a clear example of what Fisher called “designer communism”.

Though defeated in parliament, this new leftist energy has persisted. The memetically intelligent and culturally attuned Northern Independence Party is showing how this kind of defiant cultural participation can actively produce new conversations and, one hopes, real change. It was this sort of role that Fisher saw in the likes of The Jam and, yes, Russell Brand. Though a controversial suggestion, then and now, even Brand acknowledged that things must be dire if it was up to someone like him to raise consciousness in the 21st century. Brand arguably rose to the top because there were few other representatives to rally around. (Now his influence seems to have diminished somewhat, but only because people have followed his lead and engaged with politics in a way that, at one time, only Brand dared to.)

Clearly, this wasn’t elitism. This was generating structures of feeling, and using popular individuals to awaken collective undercurrents — something that Noys’ “critical radicalism”, at that time, was quite allergic too. As Fisher writes in his 2014 essay “Going Overground”:

One of the problems with many of the horizontalist models of political action is that they assume that we already know what we think and feel, and we are simply prevented from expressing ourselves by oppressive power structures. Yet mass mediated art could name and focus feelings that were not only suppressed – by ‘internal’ as well as external censoring agencies – but which were inchoate, unformed, virtual. Mass mediation transformed, not merely ‘represented’ these affects; after they were named and brought into focus, the feelings ‘themselves’ were experienced differently.

In my jumble of thoughts provoked by his abstract, I suggested that Noys’ critique of Fisher was dependent on a misremembering of what form this “critical radicalism” took, which was either impotent horizontalism or neoliberal centrism. However, it doesn’t seem to me that Noys is so forgetful. Unfortunately, it seems worse than that. Noys seems to affirm the leftist melancholy of the late 2000s, as if we didn’t get to see the results of that moment’s great negativity. He recruits Mario Tronti to his cause, affirming Tronti’s argument “that working class passivity and lack of struggle could have effects on capitalism.” Drawing on Tronti’s analyis of the crash of 1929, Noys suggests that a

lack of struggles… robbed capitalists and capital of the ability and knowledge it gained from the struggle by workers. Without workers’ struggles no innovation and no development and no knowledge.

We could argue there is an air of “anti-praxis” here, taken from unconditional accelerationism, or even the horrorism of Nick Land’s “do nothing”. Either way, the same issue lingers over Noys’ talk. But the real implication is that this is nothing more than an echo of the dominant leftist position that emerged around the crash of 2008. No leaders, no programme — that is how we win.

But we didn’t win. Nothing happened. Austerity instead made everything worse. Noys’ position suddenly appears like more of a kakocracy than accelerationism ever was. It echoes the impotence that define an era, that Fisher and others put on blast, and which accelerationism was an ardent rejection of. Noys was always a critic of accelerationism, so perhaps this is unsurprising, but I’m sure many would not expect the rejection of accelerationism to be such a depressive rejection of praxis. Though Noys’ talk began by denouncing a Fisherian pessimism, he suddenly seems more pessimistic than Mark ever was.

This, to me, feels like an instance of throwing the baby out with the bathwater. In light of Noys’ full critique, I am willing to admit that Fisher’s theoretical allegiances may have been a bit confused. Nietzsche’s aristocratic radicalism is certainly less popular in the present, and Fisher may have been conflating his Nietzschean analysis with a sort of Marxist-Leninism, as Noys seems to suggest. (Although there is clearly more of an emphasis on the latter here, compared to some of Nietzsche’s more loyal twentieth-century adherents, who Fisher was explicitly not a fan of — Bataille and DH Lawrence come to mind, even though I’d argue they both lie on the pop-mod spectrum in that they encouraged the emergence of specifically psychosexual structures of feeling in their own times.) Regardless, the point of the previous post remains intact. Noys’ appeals to a “critical radicalism” are misplaced. What counted for critical radicalism at the time Fisher was writing was a leftist melancholy that refused to engage with the present, which Noys nonetheless seems to interpret as the only viable response to a present defined by “weakness and disorientation”. Surely this is more indicative of the self-fulfilling prophecies of “reflexive impotence” than Fisher’s “slow cancellations of the future”? As Fisher remarked of the reflexively impotent:

They know things are bad, but more than that, they know they can’t do anything about it. But that ‘knowledge’, that reflexivity, is not a passive observation of an already existing state of affairs. It is a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Denouncing left-Nietzscheanism might sound good now, in the aftermath of Losurdo’s newly translated critique, but what this amounts to, placed back into the historical context under consideration, is a defense of a period when the left was arguably least capable of engaging with the present as a site of struggle. Tronti’s argument that an end to class struggle may presage an end to capitalism, rather than vice versa, may have once seemed attractive in its contrarianism, but not now. His analysis of the post-crash world after 1929 hardly seems resonant with our post-crash world since 2008. That is, in part, because class struggle had already been eliminated — at least semantically. The beginning of the twentieth-century was defined not just by the ultimate ascendency of global capitalism, but also by the defaulting of an entire country to the middle class — that generic class position used to deny the very existence of class as a struggle. In the late 90s, the British centre-left declared that we are all middle class now, and suddenly everything was meant to be fine. But capitalism kept churning regardless.

Yes, capitalism may generate struggles that we allow to persist in our resistance against them, but I’d argue that is because our resistance has not been strong enough. Any argument that suggests the left should once again weaken its own position is an awful one, and one that is wholly out of touch with the actual struggles of the present.

The Slow Cancellation of…
Sorry, What Were We Talking About?

I was sorry to miss this recent talk from Benjamin Noys. I only heard about it after the fact. Here’s the abstract:

In the face of what Franco ‘Bifo’ Berardi and Mark Fisher have called ‘the slow cancellation of the future’ contemporary theory has often responded by stressing the utopian possibilities of ‘inventing the future’ or turning to a fundamental past ontological rift or wounding. The crisis of the future, I wish to suggest, is in fact a crisis of the imagination of the present. In contrast to the invention of the future, or the turn to the past, I argue we need to de-invent the future and return to the present as a fraught and fragmentary site of struggle.

You shouldn’t judge a talk by its abstract alone, obviously. They can be such hastily written things. But I do have a lot of questions…

I tweeted about this the other day and it seems that my suspicions were somewhat confirmed by others who attended. This makes me feel like it might be worth airing these questions in a more lucid form than a few bewildered tweets, not only because Noys’ approach seems bizarre to me, but because it seems indicative of what’s gone wrong with the accelerationist blogosphere over the last few years. It suggests that many have been struck by a certain amnesia.

I’m mostly curious to know how Noys’ argument actually differs from Fisher’s. After all, Fisher was better attuned to the time-signature of the present than anyone.

Though Noys apparently took aim at Fisher’s Nietzschean pessimism in this talk, Fisher’s critiques from Capitalist Realism onwards — and his notion of “reflexive impotence” in particular — were a diagnosis of a new strand of left melancholia, emerging from the Long Nineties and flaring up around the Occupy movement — a task explicitly grounded in the present. As Wendy Brown writes of this strange pathology:

“Left melancholia” is [Walter] Benjamin’s unambivalent epithet for the revolutionary hack who is, finally, not serious about political change, who is more attached to a particular political analysis or ideal — even to the failure of that ideal — than to seizing possibilities for radical change in the present. In the context of Benjamin’s enigmatic insistence on the political value of a dialectical historical grasp of the time of the Now, Left melancholia represents not only a refusal to come to terms with the particular character of the present, that is, a failure to understand history in terms other than “empty time” or “progress.” It signifies as well a certain narcissism with regard to one’s past political attachments and identity that exceeds any contemporary investment in political mobilization, alliance, or transformation.

Mark referenced this essay a few times, including in his final lectures. But the left’s reluctance or inability to deal with the present was something he critiqued constantly. (It was also his argument in “Exiting the Vampire Castle”, where he swaps the death rattle of New Labour for Twitter’s tendency to call visible socialists “sell-outs” in 2013.)

This makes Noys’ argument sound particularly weak, even self-defeating. To talk of left-Nietzscheanism ends up sounding more like an indirect flex that he’s read Losurdo and nothing more. I can’t think of any other reason why someone might think critiques of left-Nietzscheanism and the mid-2000s pessimism of Mark Fisher have any bearing whatsoever on our present moment.

What’s worse is the other side of Noys’ critique is similarly misrepresented here. Alex Williams and Nick Srnicek’s Inventing the Future wasn’t detached from the present either. It was a speculative politics, yes, but speculation begins in the present; it intervenes in the present. That was Williams’ original argument when he first made moves against the blogosphere’s hauntological trend, insisting that we sod all that “good postmodernism” rubbish and actually interrogate “in our current time… those regions which appear, from the in-situational point of view, to be marginal, and properly undecideable.”

What is that if not a demarcation of the present as a “fraught and fragmentary site of struggle”?

It’s as if the first blogosphere never happened; as if Mark Fisher, Alex Williams and Steven Shaviro never wrote all they did about the contingencies of now. To make matters worse, Noys was there for all this. It was Williams’ denouncement of hauntology, and his insistence on the present as a site of struggle, that Noys first (perjoratively) named “accelerationism”. But accelerationism, for the likes of Williams and Fisher, was always, fundamentally, concerned with “the new”, how it appears or fails to appear, how new forms of political subjectivity can be “invented” or “discovered” after the end of history; after capitalism’s claim to have won out overall. It is in this way that accelerationism begins from the present and moves outwards, as all speculative philosophies do. Indeed, Alfred North Whitehead, so central to the accelerationist writings of Steven Shaviro, argues that speculative philosophy is essentially a meeting point for temporalised logics: “Whenever we attempt to express the matter of immediate experience, we find that its understanding leads us beyond itself, to its contemporaries, to its past, to its future, and to the universals in terms of which its definitiveness is exhibited.”

Maybe Noys addressed all this in his talk… Maybe he’s just forgotten all of his previous entanglements… But if that is the case, then the present is being misused as a rug, under which we can conveniently forget the past once witnessed and the future once promised. Noys’ talk doesn’t sound like an argument for the “present” but a “presenteeism”. It is showing up and achieving nothing.

We might note that forgetting is also a central tool of capitalism realism. Fisher always suggested that “the slow cancellation of the future” took place in memory, first and foremost. The future is cancelled as old visions are reified as novelties of the past. Representations are decoupled from transhistorical gestures towards emancipation. Structures of feeling are diminished, abstracted, made distant. The present becomes a postmodern soup where only the past is eternally and destructively present.

There’s a reason why the final albums of arch-hauntologist The Caretaker attempted to sonically document an experience of dementia or, as on his earlier works, retrograde amnesia. Capitalism’s drive to make us forget is a demented infringement upon our cognitive potentials in the present.

Fisher’s Acid Communism, again, hoped to intervene in this demented space. As if channeling the psychedelic drawn-from-memory still lives of Ivan Seal, he found a productive tension in the cognitive dichotomy of remembering and hallucinating — two closely related processes that both take place in the present. This gives form to that long-considered tension between hauntology and accelerationism. The dialectic between them attempts to illuminate capitalist dreamwork and allow us to regain some agency in the here and now. This isn’t a new tension. It was central throughout the first blogosphere, dramatised in the imagined dialogues between Deleuze and Badiou.

With all of this in mind, it seems strange that Noys would offer up, as a critical intervention, a summary of his opponents’ positions from over decade ago. It makes it seem less like a timely critique than a symptom of what Fisher and others were describing way back when… For Noys to demonstrate this as part of a series of talks called “Theory in Crisis” only makes things stranger. It starts to feel more demonstrative than diagnostic… How can we take someone’s claim to the present seriously when they themselves seem so far removed from it?

But again, it’s just an abstract. I’ll happily eat my words if a recording appears, but I have a strong feeling I won’t have to…

Update: Noys talk is now online — a follow-up here.

The End of History 2:
Stagnant Boogaloo (Synder Cut)

Last month I wrote about the strange reception Capitalist Realism gets in the present, especially when readers see how scathing Mark was about his students. But those who take umbrage at this are, in my experience, either too young to remember 2009 or suffer from Noughties Amnesia.

Noughties Amnesia is real. Not only is it real, but it is also prevalent. I feel like I have only recently begun to wrestle with my own amnesia, focussing hard on the specific cultural products of that era and the specific Noughties conditions that gave rise to them. In so doing, I’ve realised just how reluctant others are to consider the cultural influence of 2002-2009 on our present.

When we look back on music from this time, 9/11 casts a long shadow. When I look back on music I liked during that decade, for instance, there feels like a clear “hauntological” line drawn in the sand around 2002 — the year of The Disintegration Loops, Geogaddi, House Arrest. Before then, we had Kid A, Drukqs, The Glow Pt. 2, CLOUDDEAD, Verpertine, Confield, Voodoo, Deltron 3030. We still had a future. Then, in 2003 and 2004, we saw the first Animal Collective albums, Joanna Newsom arrived on the scene, and so did Kanye with “Through the Wire”. Lightning Bolt released Wonderful Rainbow. Neopsychedelia and freak folk emerge as a sort of resilient flipside to an otherwise dark new era. By mid-decade, we’re achieved optimal balance — Liars’ Drum’s Not Dead rubs shoulders with Scott Walker’s The Drift and the first Burial record. Kode9 and the Spaceape made what I think is the defining album of that era, Memories of the Future, whilst Joanna Newsom, Beck, LCD Soundsystem and Animal Collective continued to go from strength to post-hippie strength.

Maybe there’s little insight in pointing out that there were both happy and sad albums released over the course of that decade, but there is something specific to the Noughties about these developments. There is a certain resonance between these various sonic extremes that paint the decade as a way of coming to terms with some pretty difficult stuff. 9/11, yes, but also a lot more than that — the death of rave, the end of the counterculture, a pop-modernist sensibility wrestling with a growing sense of the “post-“. If we want to understand where we’re at now, or at least where we’ve just been in the 2010s, surely these are the cultural products we need to be turning to and thinking about more deeply.

But what I’ve noticed very recently is that we’re not that keen on doing that. We tend to skip over the Noughties altogether as a misstep, instead reaching for far-flung examples from the twentieth century in order to speak to the present.

This was something that I noticed pop up in response to my recent tweet about Zack Synder’s 300 and his more recent extended “cuts”. 300 is a film I’ve thought a lot about recently. I think it was responsible for triggering some of the initial questions that would grow into the accelerationist blogosphere. In particular, there is Steven Shaviro’s critique of Žižek’s reading of the film (which first appeared in Lacanian Ink and then, later, in his book In Defense of Lost Causes). Žižek defends the film as a nod to a kind of Marxist-Leninist militancy that isn’t just fantastical propaganda for the right but could be utilised by the left. He draws on Badiou to give his argument a foundation. “We need a popular disciple”, Badiou says, and he would later be vindicated when Occupy failed to organise properly and change the world. Shaviro takes up this question and relates it to various post-Ccru problematics, regarding affirmation and negativity in relation to contemporary politics, and relates this to “the new” and the question of “what is to be done?” Alex Williams and Benjamin Noys soon put an even finer point on these questions.

To my mind, then, 300 is so utterly of its time. It raised some very specific questions about the moment it was released. It also had considerable cultural influence — it gave rise to one of the first memes; it was heralded as a huge technical achievement given how it was made; it was the peak of Hollywood’s (retrospectively reactionary) Frank Miller fever. It is a 2000s movie if ever there was one.

And yet, when tweeting about how Snyder’s influence has continued into the present — in which he’s still making very reactionary superhero movies but from the newly fetishised position of an editorial auteur — his 2000s example was repeatedly deferred. Two challenges over 300‘s influence came from the 1970s and the 1990s respectively. “What is new about 300?” someone suggested. “What about Dirty Harry?” “What about Fight Club?” suggested someone else. 300 is just another example in a long line of reactionary Hollywood blockbusters. There’s nothing special about it. In fact, you could argue that Dirty Harry is a better precursor to our current reactionary moment than 300 is.

I appreciate this argument but I disagree. There is always something special about it. The issue here — again, much like in last month’s conversations around “anti-hauntology” — is that our failure to consider what has changed is part of the problem. Yes, 300 and Dirty Harry are two reactionary movies, but Dirty Harry, released in 1971, is far closer in time to Nixon’s 1972 election victory than Trump’s. Nixon and Trump obviously share many similarities — we might even say Trump is little more than a Nixon reboot — but in leaping over 300 to reach for Dirty Harry as a reference, we also leap over any potential analysis of what has changed between now and then. Though they might have appeared in orbit of two similar presidencies, Dirty Harry and 300 couldn’t be more different as far as films go. And that’s interesting to me. It should not be a question of how this line of reaction has continued but rather how it has come to be repeated. If we want to be good little Deleuzians here — and I think many readers of this blog do — surely we must remain attentive to what is different and what is a repetition? When we reach mindlessly into our more culturally accepted histories, we remove the possibility of such an analysis.

That is, in part, why I’m being such a stickler for recent history at the moment. It is on this shorter timeline, where the 21st century is considered on its own terms rather than on the terms of the 20th century, that I think real cultural analysis can be extracted. All the more reason to consider the start of Synder’s career to its current developments. Have the politics of his film’s changed much? I don’t think so. He continues to produce postmodern Homeric epics. But whereas, as Žižek points out, 300 is a claustrophobic little movie — “shot in a warehouse in Montreal, with the entire background and many persons and objects digitally constructed … the artificial (digital) nature of the background creates a claustrophobic atmosphere, as if the story does not take place in ‘real’ reality with its endless open horizons, but in a ‘closed world,’ a kind of relief-world of closed space” — his more recent and more expansive films suggest a very different world is emerging.

This is to say that the fact Synder has kept his politics but now produces four-hour epics with largely the same digital process echoes an ideological development that far outstretches Nixon’s short-lived second term. It suggests a further reboot, where the end of neoliberalism’s capacity to innovate starts to resemble its beginnings — like a new Star Wars movie, attempting to hit all the same notes as the first Seventies outing, albeit with all the contemporary aesthetic preferences. But the fact it is a reboot is unimportant. It is far more pressing that we consider what has changed — that is, what is it that is different, which can be smuggled into the status quo with ease, precisely because it is attached to something already familiar — and, in the process, make it more legible. As such, our current feelings of stagnation might feel like the perpetual current of the Long Nineties but I don’t think that is the case. We only see continuity when we ourselves stand still. But there is change and we should pay more attenion to it.

The End of History 2: Stagnant Boogalo (Synder Cut) might have all the hallmarks of the first stagnation but, if we’re not careful, we’ll find this one to be far longer and more oppressive in its dominance.

Remember the Noughties. That’s where the real lessons lie. That’s where all the best lines of flight lie buried.

The Magic of Relics

Novelty does not necessarily belong to the new. Not anymore. Novus, as the word’s etymological root, means “new” quite explicitly, but it also means “original” or “unusual”. The newness of novelty is not absolute.

Increasingly, we might define a novelty as that which has either escaped or is newly present within the typical order of things. As the new stagnates in its postmodern crisis, we find that novelty is as applicable to the tired cliché as it is to a bold new mode of expression.

As a result, Arthur C. Clarke’s assertion that “any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic” begins to lose its potency. Now it is more often the case that any sufficiently redundant technology is indistinguishable from magic also. Our most mundane analogue mediums are transformed by the passage of time into weird objects – not nostalgic objects but objects utterly decontextualised.

Old objects acquire a new power. They become relics, in the true sense of the world – the spiritually potent yet abandoned remains of old ideals.

Occasionally, this process provides older generations with an opportunity to laugh at their youngers, who are oblivious to the cultural power captured within these relics. There are countless videos online, for instance, in which we see parents give their children a VHS tape or a Walkman or something similar and ask them to guess how it worked. What is always captivating about these videos is that, whilst the children’s guesses as to what a given object is for may be way off the mark, their logic is often sound; they are simply approaching a past object from the perspective of an unfolding present.

“A VHS tape is for watching movies”, someone might say, offering up a clue. “Well, where’s the screen?” the child asks in response, curiously turning this opaque rectangle over and over in their hands.

We might interpret this hypothetical child’s attempt at reasoning to be a fine use of their imagination but, as François Bonnet has argued, “Contrary to popular belief, children do not have excessive imaginations.” In fact, when confronted by new sensations and experiences, “a child rapidly runs up against the limit of his imagination, then finds himself before the most radical, the most terrifying unknown.” This is most evident when a child hears something go bump in the night but, when confronted with the cultural artefacts of a previous generation, the situation is more complex. We don’t see terror but curiosity; the terror is instead projected onto them from anxious adults that corral around.

Consider the video above. The children’s innocent reactions to this strange object – a Walkman – are perfectly understandable; the incredulous adults betray a potent anxiety that lingers behind their smiles. After all, these children may not know how a Walkman works but they remain “digital natives”, always-already at home with technologies that baffle their elders.

One of the adults shares a telling anecdote in this regard, adding that his daughter recently went on his laptop and started jabbing at the screen, thinking it was touch-sensitive. “She is too used to her tablet”, he laughs, shaking his head with an obligatory and knowingly-clichéd “kids these days!

But this clip was first uploaded online six years ago. At the time of writing, the screen of the laptop I am writing on is touch-sensitive.

Can we go so far as to argue that the contemporary intuitions of children predict the future? To watch them mocked, no matter how gently, is to see the joke backfire. A child’s lack of imagination with regards to the past comes full circle as adults find themselves just as incapable of imagining the possibilities of the present. In this sense, Bonnet’s description of a child’s terror and uncertainty when faced with a “new” aesthetic experience is just as applicable to the adults themselves, who are today routinely confronted with rapidly accelerating technological experiences that they can barely keep up with.

Keeping Up with Hauntology (Part 2)

An interesting comment from Padraig on the recent hauntology post:

Though it is worthwhile pointing out, I’m not so sure that the central issue here is just that of the class envy & resentment of the negatively disavowing, of the reductively class unconscious, but you are certainly right to draw attention once again to the hegemonic appeal of the revenant of patriarchy in a post-patriarchal culture (most Hollywood movies are fundamentally fantasies of patriarchal restoration, from all of Spielberg’s movies to Nolan films — even a film that Mark positively reviewed, Nolan’s Batman Begins, was a disturbingly reactionary fantasy of a return to an impossible patriarchal capitalism).

Rather, it is that the current fetishisation of holography (which has been around since the 1970s, just as 3D film has been around since the early 1950s) is another instance of Jameson’s cultural logic of late capitalism, of the obliteration of all sense of history, the fact that such holograms (even if they are a spectral trace of a departed relative) are now just vacuous ‘special effects’. Indeed, Mark wrote about this in a blog post when he was critiquing Jackson’s execrable, instantly forgettable remake of King Kong:

“In King Kong, FX have replaced history. Or rather, ‘history’ — now flattened out into a series of period signifiers — has itself become a kind of special effect. (Technology substitutes not only for history but for culture, too; in 2005, technological progress is the only faith that remains to us.) Even if the simulation were note-perfect accurate, History, in the Marxist sense of struggle, antagonism and contingency, would still be photoshopped out. The Depression is a stage-set, an inexplicable backdrop. This a museum without History, the Past as Experience, Theme Park…”

Put another way, back in the 19th century, during the very early years/decades of photography (when most people had yet to even see or snap a photograph), someone seeing ANY photo, much less a haunting photo as a ghostly trace of a departed relative, would have responded in a radically different way to a contemporary pomo subject.

I certainly see the point being made here but, then again, I’m not sure I agree with the overall argument, particularly regarding photography. Mark’s argument, too, has a ring of truth, but I think it underestimates just how bad things have always been with photographic technologies. Whether we are talking about the daguerreotype process or contemporary holography, the argument that “FX have replaced history” is applicable throughout.

Photography has always been a reactionary medium. As paradoxical as this statement seems, as a technological innovation it led to far more experimentation elsewhere (e.g., within painting) than it occasioned for itself. In fact, despite being a technological innovation in itself, aesthetic attitudes towards photography throughout the twentieth-century (and particularly in the west) have always been very conservative.

There’s a strange tension in photography in this regard. It is arguably an innately capitalist enterprise. It was not invented as an artistic medium or scientific instrument but as a way to make money. Whilst there were some initial inventors, tinkering with different chemical processes, who saw the merits of its aesthetic qualities, the name-checked inventors of the medium (most of whom were French) were essentially the winners of an arms race for government funding who pitched their competing processes as new businesses catching the wave of an emergent post-painting trend among the bourgeoisie.

From there on out, most technological innovations in the field were driven either by the military or advertising companies. (The latter is something I have long found particularly interested: aesthetically speaking, photography created for fashion or advertising has long been more aesthetically adventurous and experimental than self-described “artistic” photography — you just have to compare your average issue of Vogue to the portraits found in The Wire to see the bizarre disparity in that regard.)

Gradually, respect for photography as an artform has grown, but it was nonetheless — and largely remains — a creative industry that likes to clutch at its pearls. Colour photography, for instance, was for magazines and family albums — it was commercial; this is why black and white photography remained associated with “fine art photography” until around the 1970s (when William Eggleston came along) — and, even then, not without continued resistance. The snobbish bourgeois art crowd has always been precious about its classical and oddly painterly aesthetics.

It is worth noting that colour photography, despite being looked down upon, wasn’t widely accessible at that time. The recent rise of popular and affordable access to photographic equipment is relatively new. We forget, now that we all carry cameras in our pockets, how much of a specialist hobby it once was, and we also forget the issues of class attached to it.

Many have written on the revolution photography instigated within the realm of subjectivity — myself included. We might even argue that it was one of the central technological innovations that made neoliberalism possible. Photography, it has been said, allowed the middle class to properly look at themselves for the first time. It also established what Mark once called elsewhere “an implied bourgeois gaze” — beyond the few rags-to-riches stories, images of twentieth-century working-class life were voyeuristic visions curated by middle class photographers for the Sunday Times. Even when taken by working class lads who’d somehow gained access to a camera — here’s looking at you, Don McCullin — they were instruments of social mobility more than the social realism they were otherwise championed as being by the middle classes who predominantly viewed them.

In this sense, I agree with the quote from the k-punk blog, but I’d also want to draw attention to the following passage, in which Mark writes:

In his classic analysis, Jameson identified a waning of the historical sense as a defining characteristic of the postmodern. The ‘nostalgia mode’ is evident, not so much in films whose content is backward-looking, but whose form belongs to the past.

By form, Fisher is referring to genre tropes, but I’d argue this is innately true of photography as an artform as well. It is not only a postmodern medium but prefigures postmodernity as such.

This is to say that I think the argument that the waning of photography’s historical sense (and, by proxy, that of all the mediums it has given rise to) is not a recent development at all. Paradoxically, the history of photography itself shows us quite clearly that history became SFX at the moment of its creation, particularly in that history’s often limited scope — writing metahistory about the things we use to record history is something a lot ofacademics still struggle to navigate. (John Tagg’s The Burden of Representation is the classic text on this maybe, and it was only published in 1993.)

This paradox is epitomised by the strange lag that occurred between photography’s invention and our popular understanding of how photographic cameras function. For example — and with Fisher’s comment on history-as-theme-park in mind — we might consider the development of cinematography shortly after photography’s ascendency. The medium was primarily presented to the public at fairs for the most part; it was literally a sideshow attraction at travelling fairs and theme parks. Most famously, this included the Lumière brothers’ film L’Arrivée d’un train en gare de La Ciotat.

The film is often cited when discussing contemporary reactions to early photography because it supposedly caused great panic when it was screened before unsuspecting audiences. This story is, today, often disputed. Indeed, it seems a bit rich that nineteenth-century fairgoers would be that frightened by a moving image. If by anything, this terror was likely instigated by their failure to realise the images they were seeing were in the past rather than representative of the unfolding present.

Wikipedia notes (although without a citation) that Benjamin Bratton has speculated on this before, arguing that this terror was itself linked to technological expectations. When seeing a projection of a train, many would likely assume it was produced by a camera obscura — a well-established piece of technology at that time; handhelds camera obscuras were invented in the 1600s but there is documentation of the effect these cameras harness going back to the 4th century BC. If this were the case, of course, then the train arriving at the station would actually still have been approaching them. They were used to seeing projections and technologically produced images but it was the idea that these images could be retained, that the past could be recorded, that took some getting used to.

It was this realisation that led to photography being associated with mourning. Roland Barthes’ Camera Lucida, after all, is seemingly named after this same process of realisation. When he considers the famously unseen Winter Garden Photograph of his mother, his grief is manifest in the realisation that this is a moment past and not a projection. A camera lucida is what he wants; a photograph is what he has. It is the same terror, the same cognitive dissonance, echoing down the years — and this is precisely why innovations in holography are driven by our desire to resurrect the dead. As such, I don’t think our contemporary reactions to these images are all that different to the viewers of early photography — in fact, I think they are woefully predictable given how we have always approached and thought about this kind of mournful medium.

It is for all of these reasons that I think the class antagonism baked within the hologram of Robert Kardashian is central. It is, once again, the rich who find a new technology providing them with an opportunity to see themselves in a new light. It echoes the popularity of spiritualism amongst the rich and famous in the nineteenth century, driven by fraudsters who’d figured out how to do double exposures. More broadly, our tendency to associate the lingering past with grand estates and the landed gentry is no coincidence. We’re less easily tricked now, apparently, but we are nonetheless possessed by those same desires, and it is these desires that will drive the market for holograms in future.

Echoing the development of photography in the first instance, I can personally imagine a time when this novelty and its popularity amongst an upper class drives a democratisation of access to and, later, the affordability of holographic relatives when the reproductive technology for producing such images catches up and it comes to mass market.

This isn’t to dispute the ways in which holograms do epitomise the cultural logic of late capitalism but, in this instance, these are not new desires hollowed out, but old desires better fulfilled. Put another way, they are bourgeois temporal anxieties — regarding the future as well as the past — made all the more enchanting and (im)material.

Holograms, then, are the endgame for a innately — at least within its proper social context — reactionary medium. They re-establish the class antagonism innate to mourning but also haunting. Ghost stories, after all, are often cynically described as expressions of our complicated feelings about real estate, and it is typically the upper classes, the property-owning classes, who find themselves and their grand mansions haunted, either by their own bloodlines or their curse-casting serfs.

The Kardashian dynasty invoking its own spirits is nothing new in this regard; the technology has just caught up with their desires — desires the rest of us will accumulate through the cultural trickledown, and I think it is pretty predictable where this trickle takes us.

No Transformation — Hennessey

Friend of the blog and real person Leah Hennessey has an EP out this week. We’ve been engaged in a fragmentary back-and-forth ever since I lightly declared war on her project Slash back in February, following which we found ourselves torn in two and then stitched together across cyberspace. She’s been an excellent pen pal.

Earlier this week, Leah sent over the press release for her band’s first self-titled EP Hennessey, out September 11th (yesterday!) from Velvet Elk Records. I didn’t need any more of an excuse to write about her more recent activities. The EP’s first two earworms and the band’s accompanying livestreams have frequently soundtracked our flat during lockdown. To see the project fully realised is a joy.

What I remember most from that blogpost shot across the bow of the great ship Slash back in February was my somewhat barbed comment that Leah and her collaborator Emily Allen resembled “‘Nietzsche’s Last Women’ — ‘They are clever and know everything that has ever happened: so there is no end to their mockery'”. Leah posted this on her Instagram and added that she and Emily had never felt so seen. However, seven months later, it is clear Leah has fully embraced this gothic position at the end of history — and so she should. Frankly, it is a thrill to have written this as a critique only to now witness Hennessey owning it so magnificently. There is perhaps no better sign of the times.

I have been thinking about this repeatedly whilst listening over and over again to the EP’s truly inspired cover of The Waterboys’ “We Will Not Be Lovers”. A song from 1998 that is already a surreal and anachronistic “post-trad” folk number, Hennessey’s version swaps around eras and sends the song back a decade (whilst at the same time updating its sound?). It is a dizzying whirlpool of cultural reference points that results in a sound that feels weirdly adrift and out of time. And yet, what is revealed underneath is Hennessey’s own rootedness in our time-warped present.

This has arguably long been the function of a cover song — a way to emphasise one’s own standpoint through the words of another. Despite the words not being her own, it is Leah who shines through here absolutely. No transformation necessary.

This is a sentiment Leah gives voice to in the press release and throughout the rest of the EP, including on new single, aptly titled “No Transformation”, which she says

is a kind of hymn to acceptance. I’m starting by saying I’m too this or too that, repeating these criticisms I have of myself like a mantra, but instead of comforting myself by saying those things aren’t true or by trying to become someone else I’m realizing that I can only evolve or even be happy if I start from exactly where I am. I’ve spent so much of my life tearing myself apart in the hopes that I’ll rise from my own ashes and this is me breaking that cycle.

I can relate. In fact, I imagine many of us can after this weird year. We’re told so often that we are stuck and we are a pastiche generation, languishing at the end of history. For Hennessey, however, there is something extra smuggled underneath a song that we might otherwise assume is the epitome of a millennial harking for better times. This isn’t just “New Wave cosplay”, as she sings on “Let’s Pretend (It’s the ’80s)”; this is a moment to “remember what our parents forgot.” In so doing, we might break the present cycle.

Check out the band’s website here and find the debut EP over at Velvet Elk Records and in all the usual places.

The Philosophy and Politics of Accelerationism — Course Promo

Meta-Nomad very generously asked me to collaborate with him on a course about accelerationism six weeks ago. He suggested that he’d cover the philosophy of accelerationism and I could cover the politics of accelerationism. I thought this was a really interesting idea. The result is a load of content that we’re going to be releasing this Friday (24th July 2020) via his Teachable page.

I don’t want to give away too much — we’ll be sharing more info later in the week, including course outlines and costs — but we have recorded the above chat which begins a particular conversation that we hope this course will go on to further develop.

A promotional video for the second Hermitix course called The Philosophy and Politics of Accelerationism, a collaboration with Matt Colquhoun ( The course will be a paid course consisting of 10 lectures and transcripts, with optional seminars and one-on-ones. James Ellis (Meta-Nomad) will cover the philosophical aspects of Accelerationism and Matt Colquhoun will cover the political aspects.


The Rotten Western (Part 2)

Spoilers for The Last of Us Part 2 from the very start. You have been warned.

← Part One

After the shock of Joel’s horrific death subsides, Ellie and Dina plan their trip to Seattle, where they hope to avenge Joel by hunting down the members of the Washington Liberation Front who are responsible for his demise. What Joel did to deserve such a death is, for the moment, unclear. “Joel pissed off a lot of people,” Ellie admits.

Before heading out, they visit Joel’s house to take on final look at the life they knew — a briefly sheltered life; a brief life with Joel. Inside what we find is not so much a house as a museum piece. It is unclear how long Joel has been gone — days; maybe a week or two? — but already his home feels like a living memorial. However, this home is very different to the homes we’ve so far seen Joel inhabit… For starters, the Old West nostalgia in Joel’s Jackson house is surprising. Whilst, at first glance, it seems to suit an idealised version of the man we’ve come to know, as I lingered amongst its decorations and detritus I also found it jarring with reality.

It was a moment that took me back to the start of the first game. As Ellie staggers around Joel’s now-vacant house, grief-stricken, I wanted to replay the first game’s prologue, in which Joel’s daughter Sarah staggers around their home half-asleep looking for her father.

Sarah and Joel’s house is recognisably modern. It’s messy too; the banal neglect — no doubt the product of an entwined teenage laziness and single-parent fatigue — is pervasive. It is also strangely haunted by a violence to come, in which we can already predict the surreality of a house in ruins, its present lived-in state foreshadowing an inevitable, soon-to-be looted state-to-come. But the house is lived in, at least. Joel’s house in Jackson feels like it has been laid out all too neatly, like it will be the future home of a Joel waxwork. It is sterile, and haunted by an unpredictable past rather than an all too predictable future.

We could argue that, post-outbreak, the entire world is haunted by the past in this way but the eeriness of much of The Last of Us‘s environments comes from the fact that these pasts are forgotten. As recognisable as the suburbs and cityscapes are to us as players, we become accustomed to seeing them as ancient ruins — that is, we see them through the eyes of the game’s protagonists. The difference between the two is, perhaps, one of grief. Whilst we might grieve the sight of a burned down house in our present, as the sight of it invades our capacity for empathy uninvited, we do not grieve the remnants of ancient civilsations.

The tension between the past, present and future in this regard has been the defining enviro-temporal tension of the Gothic for centuries, but this only makes the design of Joel’s house more surreal. It slips somewhere between the two — between the Gothic and the grief-stricken. It’s preservation jars with a narrative wherein life so often ends without legacy.

Most interesting to me, in this regard, are the paintings on the walls of Joel’s two houses. In the first game, Sarah’s room is peppered with posters for bands and films, for instance. As you head into the corridor and, eventually, to her father’s bedroom — it’s the middle of the night and he is, conspicuously, not at home — you see that the walls are decorated with various family photographs and natural vistas.

Much has been said about the snowy landscape “easter eggs” above Joel’s bed and set as his phone’s background, both foreshadowing an environment later on in the game where you first get to play as Ellie, but beyond this it is intriguing to see the majesty of nature devoid of any presence of the human.

On another wall in Joel’s room, for instance, there is a painting of horses running free. It is that stereotypical image of American natural beauty but it also foreshadows the stampede of infected and uninfected that the player is about to be caught up in. Elsewhere, there are pictures of ducks about to take flight, similarly evoking a natural tranquillity whilst also being a sight you might expect to see on the end of a gun. Humans are nonetheless absent in all instances.

In this sense, the decorations are more reminiscent of a dentist’s waiting room or my grandma’s house rather than a modern family home. It inadvertently emphasises some of the critiques of the first game — the player is left feeling more like an observer than an actual participant in the world around them — but, in The Last of Us Part 2, this changes; there are many figures in the landscapes that adorn Joel’s walls, as if the decoration now reflects the forced changes in play style. Actions have consequences. This is no longer (just) about an indifferent nature in-itself. This is a game with a Promethean edge, imploring the player to interrupt the world, even when the odds are not in their favour.

In the game’s next act, this point is made clear almost immediately. Whilst this is true within the context of the game’s new mechanics most explicitly, it is also evidenced by Ellie and Dina’s interactions with their environment. Take, for instance, the musical encounter that has already proved to be iconic in representing the game’s intensified emphasis on player agency and character development.

As Ellie and Dina trawl through downtown Seattle, they chance upon a music shop. Vinyl records fill the bins ready to be flicked through but, perhaps to our surprise, they are not some by-gone novelty for the pair; in Jackson, it is shown that they have the capacity to listen to music from the old world and they also watch old DVDs. Instead, confronted with this snapshot of an old way of life, Ellie wonders if there are people out there in the world somewhere who are making new movies. She writes new songs, she says, as well as listening to old ones, so surely there are people out there lucky enough to have the resources and know-how to make new movies too.

Though it may seem like a somewhat naive question, Ellie’s reasons for asking it are quite convincing. In a world so disconnected from itself, you can never account for how good or how bad other parts of the world might have it, and you also can’t account for what kind of cultural artefacts might remain a part of their social fabric. This is to say that, in its abject primitivism, the Fermi paradox is made wholly terrestrial.

As I play through the game, I find myself thinking about this a lot. Joel’s nostalgic nature isn’t something I want to criticise. In fact, it is all too relatable. In his role as father figure, he wants to inspire Ellie with his knowledge and expertise, showing her things about the old world that she can take with her into the new. Whilst Ellie’s excitement and curiosity in this regard is endlessly endearing, Joel’s own melancholy never quite fades into the background. And it is an understandable melancholy too. If I was able to watch old films or listen to old records depicting a world catastrophically destroyed by a zombifying pathogen, I think the cognitive dissonance would soon start to take its toll. For the younger characters in The Last of Us Part 2, however, this disconnect is taken to be a given. They don’t focus much on what has been lost but always push forwards, considering what they can do next. They seem inspired by the old world but only because it shows them the kind of cultural production possible in the new one they hope to build.

Joel’s is less focused on the future. Whilst this might seem like a cynical appraisal of his character, one look around his house makes it quite clear that, if Joel Miller had a film camera in post-apocalyptia, he’d be making Westerns. Whereas Ellie’s inner songbook contains the works of A-Ha and Pearl Jam; Joel’s starts to feel like a world of reactionary American primitivism — what Leslie Fielder once termed a “higher masculine sentimentality” — where a rugged music like the blues might suddenly makes an ahistoric comeback. After all, there are cowboys everywhere. Joel has even taken up carving them ornately into wood. But this romantic figure of man and horse — seemingly representative of a fraught if nonetheless very human relationship with nature — is far more reminiscent of the life Joel has acquired for himself after the apocalypse rather than being representative of anything that came before it.

In many ways, this is precisely the function of the Western in popular culture — a way of laundering the present through the romanticism of the past. As Sam Peckinpah, director of The Wild Bunch (among other Westerns), once said: “The Western is the universal frame within which it’s possible to comment on today.” However, in a game like The Last of Us Part 2, this sort of process is most commonly inverted — we launder the present through the horror of the future. As such, it is strange to see the Western’s original polarity contained with the game in miniature; it renders it strangely cyclonic, with overlapping feedback loops, giving rise to a kind of temporal horseshoe of cowboy metaphysics that immediately renders time out of joint.

This strange templexity is only made more apparent by the abundant references and archetypes taken directly from many a classic Wester. For example, walking around dead Joel’s house, I found myself thinking about his previous adventures and general misanthropy — at least in the first game. As I try to picture him as some archetypal cowboy, he starts to resemble Uncle Ethan in Henry Ford’s The Searchers — the coldhearted horse-riding rifleman.

The Joel we met in the first game — before Ellie eventually thawed him out — was similarly violent and cold, traversing the plains of former downtown financial districts, overshadowed by wrecked skyscrapers not unlike the geological towers of Monument Valley. However, this hardly seems like an existence Joel would want to romanticise after the fact, in the way he has done in Jackson.

But even in a film as revered as The Searchers, the cowboy’s life is deeply disturbing. Ethan the anti-hero, played by John Wayne, isn’t just cold; he’s a horrible and vindictive racist — surely even by the standards of 1956 (and this is apparent from the opening scene). The horror that often greets his actions, painted on the faces of his dysfunctional and god-fearing posse, is tellingly triggered most often by the strange disregard Ethan has for the living and the dead. He mutilates corpses out of spite, for instance; he also has no sympathy for the Indians, allowing them no respite so that they might deal with their dead and wounded after a shootout. This disturbs his fellow travellers even more than the racialised threat of the Red Man. (These attitudes are less scandalous when expressed following a zombie apocalypse, when the Indians are substituted by undead hoards, but we might note that this only normalises Joel’s familiar contempt as dead.)

Despite all of this, The Searchers, in the popular imagination at least, continues to be upheld as this classic and deeply romanticised representation of the Old West. It is as if the sheer majesty of its location quite literally overshadows the deeds depicted on screen.

Joel seems to romanticise his own life in much the same way. The majesty of the classic Western becomes a way for him to look beyond the violence of his life and revel in nature. It is an understandable compartmentalisation, considering the plant-horror of the cordyceptic pathogen, but still, the extent to which his house starts to feel like a Searchers shrine, with its paintings of gun-toting cowboys in Monument Valley, seems oddly out of place.

Why does Joel retain such a firm grasp on the Old West? Is this just Joel romanticising his own trauma in order to better deal with it? Is this him compartmentalising a life he never knew in the form of old genre tropes many of those younger than him may have never seen? Is a fall back into the Texan stereotype really all it takes to scrub the horror of his life away?

Perhaps this mournful dissonance is unescapable for Joel. After all, he seems to recognise, implicitly, that he lives in a new Rotten West, but the only way he can find hope for himself is by going backwards. Ellie and Dina, retaining a very different (post-)cultural foundation, find the West taking on a very different form — theirs is a postmodern Western, no doubt, but it is far more hauntological in that sense; that is, it is a kind of “good PoMo”, as Alex Williams once put it, compared to Joel’s “bad” form of reactionary pastiche.

I think this is because, whilst Joel has a world to mourn, it is a world that decisively dies with him. Most of what Ellie and Dina know of life is violent political factionalism and the equally violently indifference of nature. Whilst this might resemble the Wild West absolutely, they don’t seem to know that. It’s not an echo of the past for them; just the present that they know. As such, they’re still mournful, but their alienation seems to come from the fact that they don’t actually know what it is they’re supposed to be mourning. They live a hauntological existence precisely because they are mourning their own stuckness.

I’d argue that this position echoes my own (revitalised) version of hauntology quite acutely, but Alex Williams’ old critique is still worth bearing in mind. For Williams, hauntology is always representative of “a cowardly move, lusting after utopias that never were, or which are now unreachable, a retreat into childhood/youth, just as trapped in the endless re-iterative mechanistics of the postmodern as the lowest form of retroism, merely in a hyper-self-aware form.” Because of this, hauntology “cedes too much ground to what it attempts to oppose, because of an a priori assumption: that there is nothing else (at this moment in time at least), that nothing else is possible, and as such we [must] make the best of this (and that the best we can do is to hint at the possible which remains forever out of reach — with all the pseudo-messianic dimensions this involves).”

What we see in Joel’s house is precisely a “making the best of it”. The scenes represented on his walls are representations of the life he already lives, but exorcised of all horror and instead jettisoned to a few hundred years in the past. This temporal displacement is precisely an aesthetic instantiation of the a priori Williams is talking about. There is nothing else at this moment in time at least; ergo, all that is really possible is to return to a past moment, and a past moment that Joel himself has not experienced. It is a theoretical past rather than an observed one; the very definition of the Western as an ideological a priori.

So, what of the girls? Williams’ nod to Badiou in his conclusion is a factor I think most people interested in hauntology and accelerationism have forgotten. For Williams, Badiou’s “analysis of the emergence of the new” — recently discussed — “would entail a more strategic examination of precisely where the pop-musical evental sites and historical situations exist within our current time: those regions which appear, from the in-situational point of view, to be marginal, and properly undecideable.”

This is perhaps where Ellie and Dina lie. Whereas Joel, no matter how loveable, inhabits the reactionary misanthropy of a classic Western like The Searchers, Ellie and Dina personify a more revolutionary kind of homesteader, given the fact that they do not see themselves as some sort of iteration of the past. They respond with vengeance but because they are determined to pass through their new world of grief and transform it into a world where the same thing cannot happen again.

It is an intriguing form of the categorical imperative. They act upon the world in such a way as to punish those who live amongst them and think they can act with impunity. But they do so without much consideration for the now-normalised zombie apocalypse. This is, in itself, an intriguing gulf also present in many a genre film. The characters in any Western exist on a knife edge, where the indifference of the desert and the indifference of their fellow human beings produce quite distinct (but also oddly entangled) responses. In the Rotten Western, this already fine line becomes impossibly blurred. Nature and society are no longer false dialectical opposites, as they have been since the Enlightenment — or, perhaps, it is precisely that, but the falseness of this relation now takes precedent, transforming nature/society into a kind of corpse bride, with each mirroring the other and with each causing the other to rot.

It is a gross (but also nihilistic and realist) bastardisation of the relationship that dominates Joel’s house. Whereas he sees the best in this entanglement, represented by the image of a cowboy and his bucking broncho, in a cyclonic relationship that surfs the tension between natural rebellion and societal respect, the flatline construct of body alive and body dead is perhaps a far more honest appraisal of their new reality.

The figure of the survivor on horseback is an apparition; the reality is two humans, survivor and undead, in a never-ending tussle.

The Games Industry: Accelerationism and the Hauntological in Microcosm

I’m currently doing a load of research into accelerationism — when am I not — for a new thing. I’ve been digging far back into the blogosphere to try and accurately trace its development from its 2007 beginnings to the present, but without all the distracting retconning of various philosophers who have at one time or other expressed an accelerationist opinion. (I found a very early Benjamin Noys post where he offers a few examples of accelerationist positions and one was a quote from Roland Barthes so I’m left feeling like just about anyone could be a Noysian accelerationist at this point.)

What I’m currently intrigued by is how the accelerationist split first emerged. (Alex Williams’ (at least I think it’s his) old blog is proving to be fascinating reading right now — straight-up red-hot Landianism over there — no surprises he’s since deleted most of it.) In fact, its split is arguably its founding gesture — an appropriate Big Bang moment for the first blogosphere when the first atom split and birthed a whole network of weird social media enclaves that just keep splitting.

Most people should know by now that “Accelerationism” as a term related to political philosophy was coined by Noys but it was arguably Mark Fisher and Alex Williams who made it what it is. (And, credit where due, Steven Shaviro’s blog was arguably the blog where the initial discussion started.) I’ve mentioned this a few times on here and on Twitter but the initial developments came from  Noys writing his 2010 book The Persistence of the Negative in which he critiques Continental philosophy’s obsession with affirming a certain kind of negativity. Fisher, in deftly trollish fashion, then affirmed Noys’ negative critique. In hindsight, this may have been a mistake on Fisher’s part but, for better or for worse, the name stuck and everyone has been confusing Noys’ and Fisher’s versions ever since.

It seems to me — although I’m still untangling this — that Fisher did this to demonstrate that Noys’ position as being somehow above this entanglement of negations and affirmations was a fallacy. In late capitalist society, we affirm negations and negate affirmations every day. The problem is that this process is far from the vaguely similar process first described in Marx’s dialectical materialism. This is to say that, in the 21st century, the dialectic of capitalism’s positives and negatives has become wholly impotent. This was the discussion within the blogosphere. It was not simply about how all the Conties affirm the negative but about how the negative itself was and remains in crisis.

So why not just be positive? Fisher’s argument was that that is what capitalism wants. It wants positivity all day every day. In this sense, the negative takes on a new potency but it has lost its effective charge. The question was, how can the negative produce the new? Accelerationism, in Noys’ hands, as that byword for everything “bad” about capitalism was the perfect sandbox to try this out in. Can we affirm the negatives of capitalism to produce the new?

It wasn’t as simple as that though, because nothing ever is. Accelerationism was also picked up by the blogosphere because it had obvious implications for the various and already well-established discussions around hauntology.

The relationship between the two is quite interesting, I think, and it is also far more nuanced than the usual assumption of accelerationism is fast and hauntology is slow. As Fisher noted in one post, this is not a philosophy of mind-numbing tautologies where what is negative is bad because it is negative and what is positive is good because it is positive. In fact, what seems to really galvanise discussions around accelerationism is that it is seen as the positive cultural charge to hauntology’s negative charge. Taken together, each with their own internal positives and negatives, they describe a strange tension within the 21st century.

The full argument I have about this might get hashed out somewhere else in more detail but I thought of an illustrative example of this relation that is culturally still prevalent (if not more prevalent) over a decade later but which doesn’t fit into what I’m working on: the games industry.

Accelerationism, as hauntology’s hyperactive cousin, was seen by Fisher and others as an analysis of the ever-increasing speed of technological progression under capitalism and how this was affecting human cultural production and the production of subjectivity. These issues are all still pertinent today. In fact, they can arguably be seen most readily in the microcosm of the games industry.

There, technological hardware is being improved at an astounding rate, with new devices, consoles and ways to play appearing with an increased frequency, and yet it is also an industry currently infatuated with remakes of classic games.

Why is this?

In some ways, the reason is practical. The technological innovations far outpace cultural development so that those foundational cultural experiences become lost as the hardware improves. Because we have memories longer than the rapid cycle of a “console generation”, we don’t just desire the new all the time. Sometimes we want the comfort of something we know. So what do you do if you want to play your old games?

There are some obvious answers. People might still own their old consoles, for example, but playing them on modern TVs can be a nightmare. (I, for instance, still lug my N64 with me wherever I go but it is increasingly temperamental.) Do I need to keep time capsules of all my old home entertainment technology if I want to enjoy something? This level of fetishism is commonplace, with people preserving old setups like vinyl nerds, but it’s hardly practical. There are other workarounds and emulators, of course, but the industry itself seems like it is only just coming to appreciate its tandem responsibilities — not only pushing out new products to feed the desire for the new and improved but also its responsibility to archive and retain access to past experiences that are in danger of being left behind and lost to the casual player who doesn’t sideline as an amateur games historian.

The main reason why this is an important consideration is that it is arguably one not shared by any other medium. Although they do get remade with a depressing frequency, a film doesn’t need to be entirely remade to be enjoyed easily in the same way that a game does. For games, it is a question of accessibility as much as aesthetics. This is to say that it is not always just a money grab but a way to celebrate the existence of something technologically maligned and also remind aging gamers of their foundational gaming experiences that they might want to enjoy for a lot longer than the rapidity of technological development may allow. Still, speed is a factor here. We’re not talking about experiences from decades ago. One decade might be all it takes for the remake treatment to become feasible. This timescale might shrink in future if nothing changes.

Here’s the problem of capitalist speed and cultural drag in a nutshell. The quick fix of just remaking old titles and making them shiny again is one way to do it but it doesn’t always solve the practical problem.

There is a further side effect from this, however. I wonder, considering how precarious gaming culture is, with technological progression and cultural instability leading to what we have at present — a frenzied stasis — isn’t it also this precarity that has led to a largely reactionary culture within the gaming community? One that salivates over superficial progression (graphics!) whilst hating real change? Is this not the very same issue that we see everywhere in society, albeit on a micro scale? That is to say, isn’t it precisely this capitalist acceleration, independent of human culture, which only causes it to drag, that leads not to a frustrated capitalism but to an increasingly reactionary subjectivity? Isn’t the fact that gamers are often such sensitive small-c conservatives a result of a sort of cultural-subcultural negative feedback loop? Stasis becomes a demand left oddly unfulfilled because capitalism cannot help but speed ahead of the lifespan of our desires.

“Well done, Xeno”, I hear you say. “You’ve demonstrated an obvious point about late capitalism using a really annoying example.” But part of me also feels like, if gamers could see themselves as the microcosm of neoliberalism that they are, maybe they’d be less sensitive about incompetence in their industry and more sensitive about how that incompetence mirrors the wider world around them.

Biden is Bethesda, you guys. Will you think a bit more about politics now?

You Are Not A Postmodernist

A nice little post here from the Velcro City Tourist Board, following on from my previous post on why most people who call themselves “accelerationists” are kinda missing the point. Paul Raven writes:

The point being: for the most part, though with some notable exceptions, postmodernist thinkers were not advocating for a doctrine of postmodernity so much as they were attempting to describe the contours of a new cultural condition that had been assigned that (unfortunate and contentious) moniker. As such, I’m tempted to see accelerationism as Colquhoun sees it — which, I concede, may not be a universal conception of that term — as being a condition rather than a creed, in the same sense that postmodernity was a condition rather than a creed; in both cases, the conditionality may suggest certain stances in response, but that’s a very different thing to waving a flag that says “postmodernity, yay!”

Interestingly, my original thought emerged from a post I started working on around the same time that was going to argue this exact same point. Unfortunately, I ran out of energy to complete it but the gist was: “Why are so many people on YouTube obsessed with defending postmodernism?”

The draft consisted of a single paragraph I had intended to build out:

It seems like, in a bizarre twist of fate, postmodernism has become a defendable position simply because Jordan Peterson equates it with “cultural Marxism” and whatever else the left is apparently plotting, but just because Peterson thinks its dangerous and bad doesn’t unfortunately make it good.

Lots of Breadtubers are guilty of this binary thinking and their audiences tend not to know any better to pick up on it. Nevertheless, reactively taking on Peterson’s idiocy only ends up extending it into our own discourses. It’s depressing to see.

This is an opportune moment to share Mark and Robin’s old Ccru essay on pomophobia, and from there on out the trajectory is clear. Postmodernism is absolutely a condition rather than a creed. Mark would further distil this point into his later writings on hauntology. Accelerationism was what came next.

I have an account of this trajectory written up in the first chapter of Egress. The connection between Mark’s hauntological and accelerationist writings is explicit, precisely because they are complimentary modes of writing that attempt to deal with the conflicting temporalities contained within what we used to call “postmodernity”. Keeping those modes distinct is not simply pseudo-academic pedantry on my part but an attempt to halt the trajectory I feel myself more and more explicitly fighting against — the flattening and homogenising of all critical faculties. Too many continue to do pomo’s job for it unwittingly. That’s even more depressing than Peterson’s reactionary critics.