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.
See you on Hallowe’en…
I spent far too much time the other day exploring the #TheCaretaker challenge on TikTok. It was a bewildering experience.
If you somehow haven’t heard, a YouTube video that showcases the entirety of Leyland Kirby’s six final instalments of the Caretaker project has become a kind of endurance test for zoomers, who “duet” their reactions over the six hours it takes to listen to it in its entirety, commenting on their experience of the dissolution of the self as they interact with and juxtapose previous iterations of their TikToked selves.
Confused? You are but a mirror image of their strife, boomer.
If there were ever an “I wish Mark Fisher were here” moment for 2020, I think this takes the biscuit.
In many ways, and with Mark in mind, the sudden popularity of Kirby’s project with a plugged-in generation under quarantine makes total sense. Having a better affinity with their elders’ experiences of dementia is one thing — and much has been made of the project’s consciousness-raising/razing function in that sense — but I think there’s a lot more to be said about how the Caretaker project as a whole reflects young people’s present experiences. In fact, it surely epitomises an earlier Caretaker project — the one that Mark wrote the liner notes for: Theoretically Pure Anterograde Amnesia, which takes its name from “a condition where it’s impossible to remember new events.”
There’s a certain irony that so many of these TikToks begin with a nihilist and despondent anterograde-amnesiac sentiment. “A six-hour endurance listening session? Well, I’ve not got anything better to do…” And with that, these kids spend a day tumbling down the rabbit hole, just to feel something, before it is back to 2020’s boring dystopia. They keep on TikToking, like nothing ever happened.
“Could it be said that we all now suffer from a form of theoretically pure anterograde amnesia?” This was Mark’s opening gambit on the liner notes to that release; later reproduced in his 2014 book Ghosts of My Life. What was a provocative and cynical statement back in 2006 seems far more applicable now.
As we look around our present landscape of mental trauma, this kind of cognitive scarring, whether retrograde or anterograde, seems pervasive. I have read numerous government reports this week, for instance, talking about “lost generations”.
On the one hand, retirees are dropping off into an isolated post-work abyss; on the other, young people are entering a mental health black hole all of their own. Both are not so much nostalgic for the past or abandoned to the future but stuck, as Fisher calls it, in “the impossibility of the present.”
Reading his words back, they serve as an uneasy warning to all of us as we try not to lose ourselves in the fog of lockdown routines.
The present — broken, desolated is constantly erasing itself, leaving few traces. Things catch your attention for a while but you do not remember them for very long…
The past cannot be forgotten, the present cannot be remembered.
Take care, it’s a desert out there.
My advance copies of Mark Fisher’s Postcapitalist Desire: The Final Lectures arrived in the post the other day. I’m not usually one for book fetishism but the finish on these is absolutely stunning. The photo nerd in me was genuinely blown away by how well the hardback holds the colours in Johnny Bull’s already iconic cover. Repeater Books have outdone themselves with this. It feels incredibly special and I cannot wait for you all to see it in the flesh.
If you want one, there is currently no pre-order but they will be out in January 2021, online and in bookshops. Keep your eye on the Repeater Books website here, where you can currently buy the eBook. (We’re also planning a bunch of online events around the launch so you’re unlikely to miss it once it’s out…)
Adam Harper has reviewed the new collection of Mark Fisher lectures, Postcapistalist Desire, for ArtReview. It’s a lovely text, emphasising the fact that it “was not just his writing that was celebrated after Fisher’s death but his teaching, too, by the lucky few who got to experience it.” It also includes a nod to one strand I expected to be taken more heretically, commenting on Mark’s accelerationism — perhaps even more controversial (and misunderstood) now than it was back in 2016:
Fisher wanted to pose challenging questions about the possibilities of moving beyond capitalism such as: ‘is there really a desire for something beyond capitalism?’ To what extent ‘is our desire for postcapitalism always-already captured and neutralised by capitalism itself’? And, rejecting the idea that a critique of capitalism necessitates a complete rejection of modern life and everything in it, ‘is it possible to retain some of the libidinal, technological infrastructure of capital and move beyond capital?’
Fisher senses that it might be, and so for him, postcapitalism is ‘a victory that will come through capitalism… something that developed out of capitalism. It develops from capitalism and moves beyond capitalism.’ As both Fisher and Colquhoun observe, this hotly debated position has come to be known as accelerationism, and for Colquhoun, Fisher was ‘attempting to describe to his students, from the ground up, a new praxis for a left-accelerationism.’ The question of what can be salvaged from the enemy in the fight against it has been one of the most urgent and controversial in left-wing thought for well over a century.
The review is short and sweet but it is a much-welcomed affirmation of this project. I am so relieved that its strengths shine out beyond its fragmentary and unfinished nature. As Harper concludes:
Postcapitalist Desire is thus very much the course it was originally intended to be: a primer on the topic, with Fisher’s curation and guidance as strident and insightful as ever, but by no means sidelining the exploratory, improvisatory and indeed democratic dimension of the teaching process — as Fisher puts it towards the end of the first lecture, ‘far too much of me talking today’. It was not just his writing that was celebrated after Fisher’s death but his teaching, too, by the lucky few who got to experience it. And with this book, the growing number of readers Fisher has accrued since his death, many of them beyond academia and the theoretical left, have an incisive yet personable (and frequently humourous) introduction to writers as canonical and formidable as Herbert Marcuse, György Lukács, and Jean-François Lyotard as well as lesser known names such as Ellen Willis, Nancy Hartsock and Jefferson Cowie, and key but complex concepts such as the death drive, ressentiment, standpoint epistemology, reification, and even capital and capitalism themselves.
In one of the book’s most densely informative lectures, ‘From Class Consciousness to Group Consciousness,’ Fisher discusses the political strategy of consciousness-raising, its history, and how it gives groups of the oppressed a clearer view of their common struggles. As he talks so relatably through the frustration and absurdity of life under contemporary capitalism with his students, this is precisely what Fisher was doing in the classroom of postcapitalist desire.
I wanted to enter 2016 with a blank slate. On 28th December 2015, I wrote the following on my photo blog, before abandoning it forever — a blog onto which I had posted 642 times since June 2011:
New Year, New Blog
A lot has changed in the past two years and this blog, as much as it pains me to say it, is starting to feel redundant. It was never going to last forever, but a change of heart has gradually been gaining momentum.
In a week or so, this blog will become password protected. Friends and family are welcome to the password for reminiscing purposes, but a lot of these images will show up again in book and zine projects at some point. In fact, a lot of them have already.
I’ve blogged in some form for nearly half my life at this point. I’m not ready to give up on it entirely yet, but I need a clean break for a new approach and a new phase in life.
I linked to a new WordPress, hooked up to my “professional” photography website, and vowed to use it less as a diary and more like an online CV. I kept it up for six months before I killed that one too.
At that time, having graduated from my photography degree two years earlier, I felt — due to a certain amount of paranoia, no doubt — that my continuing practice of sharing everything I made online for all to see was being viewed quite cynically by peers and potential employers. It was, at best, immature; at worst, self-sabotaging.
One day I was complaining on Twitter about not getting paid for jobs or not being taken seriously and eventually the point was made that, if you don’t value your own work (by placing an explicit economic value upon it), then why should anyone else?
At that time, I was broke. That advice, though intended to be constructive, was devastating. I already felt worthless; that my output could be seen that way too was quite the blow.
It hadn’t bothered me before but then 2015 was an odd year; similar to 2020, in some ways. (This year is certainly drawing to a close with the same horizonlessness; a depressing sense of limbo.) I’d just been made redundant from my job due to Tory funding cuts, and suddenly couldn’t afford to pay rent. We had to move out almost immediately. I left Cardiff, moved back in with my parents in Hull, and I don’t think my self-esteem has ever been lower. I stopped blogging, attempting to take myself more seriously. I don’t think it made any difference to my income whatsoever. In fact, I soon realised that blogging was my way of working around the tactics that everyone else was engaged with that supposedly meant they were more serious about their chosen profession — schmoozing at exhibitions, brown-nosing, circle-jerk networking. I soon began to miss blogging quite desperately. I felt like I’d given up an outlet for no good reason, finding the implied alternative more repulsive than living in my overdraft.
When I graduated from my MA two years later, I started to blog again. “If you want to get good at photography, you’ve got to do it everyday” was the old mantra; I wasn’t taking so many pictures anymore but I wanted to write and I applied the same logic to a new endeavour. The blog was always a motivator for going out and sharing what I had seen or getting me out the house and experimenting in the studio or whatever else; xenogothic became a similar sort of motivator.
At that time, I was back working at a shitty arts administrator job. It didn’t require any schmoozing but I was often schmoozed at. I found it hard to make friends. It was just a job to me. Writing blog posts on my phone on my 90-minute commute and my lunch break was all I really cared about. Regardless of whether anyone read it or not, it was space to feed my experiments and thoughts as and when I had them; a space to hone a craft and express myself and feel connected to something bigger than my own life, precisely by putting my own life out there. It was also a way to put my thoughts into words and organise myself in relative isolation, having left the discursive community of academia.
Twitter was a big part of getting started. What I loved most about this “weird theory” corner of the Internet, almost immediately, was that this way of working was wholly supported and encouraged. Whereas previously I felt like 99% of my peers didn’t “get it”, blogging was seen as a basic principle out in para-academia. Writing for journals is whack; even more so if you don’t have an academic profile to maintain. If you want to be read, start a blog. If you want to build a new culture of public thought and discussion, start a blog. I didn’t need to be told twice.
Almost fifteen years on from when I first started putting the things I was creating online, the unthinkable has happened. I’ve started to make money off it — or at least off the profile I’ve acquired by doing it — and I’ve started to make money from the one outlet I didn’t think that much about: writing. I’d previously had multiple blogs for sharing lo-fi recordings of music I was making, I’d had one big blog for sharing pictures, and now it was writing — mode of expression #3 — that ended up actually gaining some traction. Traction was never the intention, of course, but I’d be lying if I said the recognition didn’t feel good, especially after having been told this obsession with blogging, which I’ve had for half my life, was a self-sabotaging waste of energy.
This attention has, of course, taken quite a bit of getting used to — getting recognised down the pub on multiple occasions last year was a particularly weird experience — and I’m sure it is obvious that this blog, and the person behind it, have been through a particularly awkward period of transition in recent months because of an increase in this kind of visibility.
The biggest change has come from the small fact that, in 2019, I got my act together and finished a book. It is a dense, intense and personal book that I have spent way too much time reflecting on since. And yet, ignoring the desire to do so is to go against the blogging sensibility that has come so naturally for so long. In fact, I feel I have to write about it; I have to occasionally write this kind of long look at my own navel, if only so that I might clear the blockage in my brain and get back to other things.
This has been more of a necessity of late because the experience of publishing a book has been nothing less than an existential shock — one I’ve continued to document as I would any other — but I am painfully aware that my natural response to such a shock flies in the face of the expectation that being a serious writer means writing seriously in silence. This is to say that there is a sort of silent pressure to leave this world behind; that persistently pointing out the drawn curtain that says “published” on it is very uncouth, but I didn’t write the book so I could graduate from WordPress. And yet, trying to retain my old blogging habits in the face of a new kind of “professional” existence where I try to get paid more frequently for what I do has meant that that same cognitive dissonance I struggled with in 2015 has raised its annoying contrarian head again.
How do you remain true to principles of open access whilst also trying to pay your rent, especially during a pandemic?
There has been a bit of drama in the discourse this past week that feels connected to this. Plenty of things have been said that people (myself included) aren’t proud of but I’m happy to say that bridges have been rebuilt and the flow of chatter has been restored to amicable levels of exchange and mutual support. Nevertheless, what has been said continues to reverberate in my mind. From the other side of the battle, it is clear that a certain amount of resentment and cynicism had built up over the last few weeks or months. Lines had been drawn, cliques established, and I have largely been oblivious to all of it.
After recently stumbling into Aly’s Discord server, for instance, having heard good things about the Sadie Plant reading group they have been conducting, I found myself caught up masochistically reading a few weeks’ worth of criticism of my online activities and feeling quite sad about it. Whilst I hold no grudges, and I’m grateful to be back on good terms with people who’s writing and thinking I have long respected, it was like stumbling into my worst nightmare. Assumptions were made and conclusions drawn — many of which were quite to the contrary of the kind of positions I have attempted to represent online.
Some criticism, of course, was quite on the money. I blog too much — although this is presumably to retain some dominant market presence — or too reflexively and too mundanely now that my book is out — as if I’ve said all I have to say and now I have little to contribute other than looking at my own navel. The sensible response is to brush all of this off as background grumblings, and that is partly how I interpreted these things, but there is a catch-22 here.
These sometimes unkind perceptions are interesting to me, in a more objective sense, because the feeling I was left with — damned if I do, damned if I don’t — is precisely the sort of neurotic concern that drove me to write so often and so reflexively long before the book even came out. It is this same tension, anticipated if not experienced directly, that I have long thought about since first being advised to blog less in 2015. The problem, now fully realised, is that, as I supposedly transition from “blogger” to “author”, my old way of writing and reflecting starts to feel less palatable. Just as the expectation, on writing a book that receives reviews, is to retain a stoic silence and rise above the discourse — “you’ll find your entire existence being given over to responding to each and every criticism”, as Tariq Goddard dutifully warned — I am left feeling alienated from the kind of discourse I first started blogging to engage with. I want to respond! I want to engage! I want to participate! But it turns out there is a big difference between sharing your thoughts as an anonymous blogger and sharing your thoughts as someone under various kinds of scrutiny. And it should be said that the distinction is purely external. I don’t feel any different now than as I did before my book hit the shelves.
It is a bit like aging — birthdays don’t feel like much of anything anymore but the fact I still feel 21 as I approach 30 doesn’t count for much. I certainly don’t look 21 and sometimes being treated like I’m 30 triggers a crisis. There is a similar disparity between being a “blogger” and an “author”. I feel like the former, but when some people treat you like the latter it fucks you up a bit. In fact, even typing out the latter makes me cringe deeply inside. I just want to write; I don’t want to have to think about what to call it.
We used to have this discussion in photography circles a lot — people would call themselves “artists” as if to signal that they have risen above the mundane existence of the jobbing photographer. But then, to call yourself a “photographer” would generally invite the question: “So you do weddings and stuff then?” There’s nothing wrong with weddings in principle — which is different to in practice; although lucrative, I’ve photographed weddings before and there’s probably nothing more stressful — having to then explain you’re an insufferable sod who actually makes photographic art feels like going round to tell your neighbours you’re a sex offender. What to label yourself can be a shameful truth.
Because of this kind of tension, these past four months I have felt torn. I have felt estranged from this new world that I have published my way into and I have felt just as estranged from the blogosphere that I have wanted, more than anything, to remain loyal to. I’ve tweeted less, tended to ignore timeline bait, muted replyguys ruthlessly, and generally found myself interacting with these platforms in very different ways whilst secretly pretending nothing has changed in me.
Whilst this transition could not be planned for in advance, it is a process I have been preparing myself for for a number of years now. For instance, I was well aware that Egress would do as much to inflate my own profile as it has done to complicate — productively (I hope) — Mark Fisher’s popular legacy. That in itself is a tension that is tough to navigate. Thankfully, as far as my published work on Mark Fisher goes, I have already made my peace with this process. Even back in 2017, as I have mentioned on a few occasions here — and even in Egress itself — I lost friends when the assumption was made that I was using Mark’s death as fodder for my dissertation. Later, this same assumption has echoed around Egress but on a larger scale, to the point that being “the Mark Fisher guy” has inevitably become something of a brand, making me look more like a gravedigger rather than someone working sensitively, as so many people do, with another’s legacy. This perception no doubt comes from the fact my mode of approach isn’t purely objective (read: academic), and is instead entangled with my personal experiences. The assumption is supposedly that I can’t have my cake and eat it — I can’t be both objective and subjective — but bridging this disconnect was precisely what made Mark’s writing so powerful to do many.
I cannot say I am as good at this style of writing as Fisher was, but the decision to apply a version of his own modus operandi to his own life was a very conscious one. After all, Mark and Kodwo had previously assigned Jane Gallop’s Anecdotal Theory as reading for their Aural & Visual Cultures course. I saw this in 2016 and read it before I even got to Goldsmiths and it’s impact on me has been quite profound. It spoke to my photographic interest in using diaristic images to comment on the world at large and it continues to speak to my intentions with Egress (and this blog more generally), which have always been attempts to produce a thought that must be read via this kind of supposedly contradictory category.
This kind of conscious decision is further complicated by the non-academic reasoning it is inevitably coupled with; my writing on and about Mark has always been an attempt to make a very personal trauma impersonally productive; a way to deal with grief. Having spent so much time with his output also makes him a frequent first-port-of-call within my theoretical armoury. I’ll likely never lose that. Suffice it to say, I am aware — of my flaws, my bad habits, the tensions within what I do. But if those things weren’t there, I’d probably have very little reason to write about anything. Articulating this kind of complexity is precisely why I write. Egress is inevitably an accumulative statement that explores this kind of process — if you’re still suspicious of it, you’re better off just reading it. It wears its difficulties very much on its sleeve. The questions you have going in will be answer in the book itself.
So, what is next? Lots of things, but these tensions have been replaced by new ones. Specifically, at the moment, I am trying to think more carefully about how I write. I’ve just completed a huge project in which I wrote through and was enveloped by mourning, and now I’m left wondering where to turn next. Writing about this experience as it unfolds is one way of working myself out of it. It might not be so interesting to read but, frankly, that’s not the reason for writing posts like this. The reason is to try and transparently negotiate a fidelity to principles that are important to me — open access, open thought — but it is clear that continuing to do this whilst also using what I do to pay the bills does shift the perception of what this kind of post is for. I suppose the assumption is made that it is to maintain a profile because to write it for no good reason at all would surely be detrimental to a burgeoning career, but the detriments of blogging having never been a concern. Blogging’s use in lubricating thought trumps any other benefit. But what about when my thinking is preoccupied with how to move forwards into this new existence? How do I continue on a path inaugurated by a book written out of love with a new set of opportunities that let me write for money? This clearly presents a whole new set of complications that I’ve barely had an opportunity to think about. What was always a problem I wished I had is now in my lap, and it’s a biter.
Frankly, I don’t have the luxury of not monetising what I do, so I am interested in maintaining a productive but also knowingly disruptive balance between xenogothic.com being both a kind of online CV and a public notebook. In my head, it’s a kind of blogger’s horizontalism — for better and for worse. That is a difficult balance to strike, of course, but one which I find interesting to interrogate openly because I think it gets right to the heart of many of the pathologies we harbour about writing, creativity, intellectual work more generally, and the value of certain kinds of (art)work under capitalism.
It is because of this that, more recently, the writing on this blog has been more immediate and reflexive than usual. I write big long essays less and less frequently. This is mostly because the backlog of writing accumulated on this blog — 850,000+ words in just under three years, no less — requires some shifting through. Egress was something of a blockage that I needed to get out before I could properly address all the unrelated essays written here during its gestation. There are a few more books’ worth of ideas here that could do with polishing. As I work on this in the background, I’m still left wanting to maintain a self-reflexive habit of thought. This is necessarily more navel-gazing because what I am hard at work on is producing a text that is not about someone else but is more explicitly a work of my own; a book that stands on its own two feet. As a result, I find myself reading and writing a lot more about writing itself as a practice. Divorced from the trauma that gave rise to Egress, where the style of writing was perhaps self-explanatory, I feel I am left trying to rediscover who I am and what my interests are beyond being “the Mark Fisher guy”. Because I don’t want to remain known as “the Mark Fisher guy”. I would like to be known as someone who did some valuable work to rectify the public perception of a major thinker, but I would also like to exist (if I can) out from under that shadow, exploring my own tastes and interests that have persistently differed vastly from Mark’s own.
Lest we forget, of course, that Egress only came out four months ago; one week before the UK went into lockdown. To say this has been an odd time to try and reinvent myself, whilst remaining loyal to well-established principles and interests, is a huge understatement. In fact, this is what made reading a load of Discord criticism so oddly humbling; the cynicism on display was a cynicism I shared. The questions they asked — and, sometimes, quite brutally answered — were questions I have been trying to ask myself quite seriously in recent months: Why do I write? Why I write in this way? Why I write so much? It makes responding to such criticism a difficult task: How do you respond to critiques that you sympathise with so intensely?
The truest response is, unfortunately, quite mundane. Why am I so reflexive and self-involved? Because that’s the kind of writing I like to read. On a practical level, I often write in the first person because it grounds my thought and I find it easier to make sense of the writing of others when I can ground it in (or let it unground) my own experiences and my sense of self. (Surely this is made clear in Egress too, thanks to the overbearing presence of Bataille and Blanchot.) It’s a kind of modernist approach to writing that has never not been marmite — at its best, it is heralded as a powerful form of literary endeavour (think big names like Maggie Nelson, Karl Ove Knausgaard — everyone loves a brutally honest memoir); at its worst, it is decried as a writerly symptom of our postmodern narcissism. But the politics of these kinds of texts have been fascinating since their very origins, and they are modernist in precisely the sense that they came into their own in modernity.
I love reading biographic-memoirs. I’m not sure that’s a real genre but it should be; it’d make my book-buying less hit and miss. They’re the kinds of books about huge personalities written by huge personalities, or at least the myriad people who personally knew their subject. I love their complexity and their unruliness and their vitality. I love how the story of a life can be told through its very real impact on the life of another. They are the sorts of books that require a certain vigilance and, in due course, they may well be unwritten by another, but taking the accumulative shelf of biographic reflections together paints a far more vivid image of a life than a supposedly objective and singular account ever could.
In recent years, I’ve been trying to map out just want it is about this style of writing that I love. In 2018, for instance, I was persistently inspired by Virginia Woolf’s templex approach to writing, complicating how both memoir (women’s writing; not considered capital-L Literature) and biography (men’s writing; her father, Leslie Stephen, was a renowned biographer in his day) were seen in her time — this makes Orlando her magnum opus in this sense — a kind of fictionalised, gender-bending, time-travelling biography that is nonetheless based on a very real person, Vita Sackville-West, and her own relationship to her — but her writer’s diaries are often just as inspirational and vivid.
Since my Woolf obsession gave way towards the end of last year, I’ve been working my way through various biographies of D.H. Lawrence and Phillip Larkin — specifically those written by their contemporaries and associates — and, boy, is it a trip. Whilst Larkin’s shifting reputation (as a man if not a poet) has been a very recent literary spectacle (trashed by Andrew Motion in 1993, somewhat rehabilitated by James Booth in 2014), D.H. Lawrence’s reputation has been through so many twists and turns in the ninety years since his death that it is hard to know what to think about the man or his work at all.
At the moment, for instance, I am particularly fascinated by his often problematic way of dealing with his own lived experiences; as his most recent biographer, John Worthen, puts it, the fictional content of his works and the very personal emotions he is trying to express in his day-to-day life are always deeply entangled. This results in work after Nietzschean work by Lawrence in which “The individual is threatened by the very thing that he or she craves, and is likely to veer between a desire to lose him or herself in passion and a desperate longing for detachment.” (Yes, I am embarrassed that I relate to my blog like Lawrence related to women.) Worthen continues: “What [Lawrence] did was feel, which in this case meant write, his way into the problem. The writing enacted the problem, and offered some understanding of it.” This ‘problem’, more often than not, was a relationship.
Intriguingly, in the years after his death, Lawrence became the subject of many biographies by male contemporaries and rivals and, indeed, by the women he was intimate with who he used as inspiration for his stories. His works were often a kind of fictionalised autobiography in this sense, and those who knew Lawrence could see themselves quite clearly in his stories. Lawrence’s reading of their very selves was always poetic but often brutally honest. The veil of fiction was not enough to save the feelings of his muses. And so, when the tables were posthumously turned on Lawrence by those who knew him, his perspective in his own novels was rattled and ungrounded. But these biographies are not just interesting for this reason. They are fascinating because as much is learned about the authors themselves as about Lawrence, and what you end up with, rather than a cubist portrait of a man, is a map of a moment and the politics of its fraught relations. You end up, quite fittingly, with a very Lawrencean drama — art imitating life imitating art — where personal relations are complicated by the political concerns of the day.
My own attempt at navigating a recent personal-cultural history is hardly on a par with the great modernists but their relationship to the process of writing nonetheless resonates with my own. Their thoughts on the production of knowledge and understanding through fiction and non-fiction, for instance, echoes what I was always been drawn to about the Ccru; the Warwick crowd quite explicitly updated the modernists’ concerns to the tensions of postmodernity.
It is this process that I hope to explore with an increasing distance and scope as I move on with my writing life. However, whilst I began work on two books soon after Egress that mark quite a radical departure with my focus on Fisher and the blogosphere, I’ve nonetheless found that the project nearest to completion is a book about accelerationism, which I’ve sketched out 50,000 words for during lockdown.
Accelerationism remains a niche concern, no doubt, but it still shares this kind of acutely postmodern dilemma. We might put it like this: If Egress is a response to the fact that so many of our great writers and thinkers are collectively seen through are the very prisms they hoped to critique, and an attempt to stave off the impotence of reification that accumulates around a body of work after the death of the person who produced it, accelerationism is a movement that has similarly fallen victim to the kind of postmodern impotence it first hoped to shatter. Without a single authoritative representative, however, it is a project that stumbles on zombie-like, worn down by its ill-formed supporters and and critics alike. This is a legacy far more complex than Fisher’s, which can be rectified by better access to his most important texts and a more honest approach to the long but nonetheless singular trajectory of his thought. Accelerationism, on the contrary, cannot be rehabilitated with quite the same linear strategy.
Aly’s recent reading list demonstrated one such alternate approach, of course — doubling down on specific “alternatives” to excavate that which has been buried by a kind of patriarchal desire-path of canon-building. However, when I wrote about her reading list and how I thought it was a very productive shot across the bow of recent discourse, I did not realise it was, in part, a troll on the reading lists provided as part of the accelerationism course I had co-written with Meta Nomad. That the lists only featured one woman is, in hindsight, an embarrassing oversight. But I hope my blogpost also made clear that my intention was similar — I wanted to write a course that dispelled the drive to reactively reify accelerationism, whether from the left or the right, by focusing on a very particular moment; providing an intentionally limited perspective in order to provide a better understanding of how the discourse got into such a mess of retcons and canons, violent affirmations and paranoid disavowals. Because, ultimately, accelerationism was an attempt to break the leftist impotence surrounding Occupy, and no matter how we frame the philosophical lineage that informed its claims, we are no closer to answering that call. In fact, the citational politics that Aly so provocatively shone a light on revealed this quite explicitly. Few accelerationists’ priorities, no matter the school of thought they pledge allegiance to, have any bearing on actually changing our static present. When a mode of thought can become that detached from its original aims, to its own detriment, surely we need to ask ourselves how and why.
With this in mind, the most important questions concerning accelerationism today, as far as I am (personally) concerned, are: How to write about accelerationism in a way that can interrogate its twisted epistemic process without collapsing into it? Or how to write about accelerationism in a way that can interrogate its twisted epistemic process that forces the reader to engage with the twisted nature of their own perspective on the topic at hand?
If I might stick with DH Lawrence, as an example that is productively distanced from present concerns and social dynamics, he was acutely concerned with the social etiquette of a sexually repressed society in much the same way. He wrote obscenely only to draw attention to the pervasive social structures that impact not just sexual expression but subjectivity as such under capitalism. The English inability to talk about sex, for instance, led to an inability to have sex in any gratifying sense — something Lawrence felt frustrated by personally as well as socially (making him somewhat of a proto-incel, if we want to be particularly unkind) — but the English were hardly locked in idealised (that is, self-conscious) social relations and wholly out of touch with their bodies. Lawrence made the prescient connection, decades before it would become a countercultural trope, that bodily autonomy was as maligned in the bedroom as it was in the factory or colliery, and the beauty of Lawrence’s writing, for me, even at its most purple, is the way his obscenity thrusts itself through a sexual consciousness into class consciousness.
What is the accelerationist version of this? It is perhaps that our inability to actually talk about accelerationism without falling into inane discussions about how we’re supposed to talk about accelerationism demonstrates how utterly beholden we are by the impotence accelerationism first sought to critique. The dissipation of agency and the disarticulation of philosophy from politics were two postmodern tendencies that the first self-identifying accelerationists wanted to dismantle — that those are two things many accelerationists now celebrate unwittingly is beyond parody. However, whilst we can talk about this ingrown logic and point and laugh a pseuds until we’re blue in the face, accelerationism as a discourse is only worth continuing to pursue if we can engage with it in a way that penetrates through our respective cliques and into the broader impotence it is a mere byproduct of.
Still, deciding how best to do this — what analogies are useful, which references are provocative and productive enough — remains an open question. For instance, here I am talking about Fisher and accelerationism again using references that he would have surely been repulsed by. Is that useful for uncovering the subjective twists in Fisher’s thought? Or does it only muddy the waters?
For instance, Fisher really did not share my appreciation of DH Lawrence’s work — for much the same reason he disliked Bataille; the perversity of being someone writing publicly about Fisher who loves everything he hated continues. This is unsurprising, of course, for someone who frequently blogged so vitriolically about how they hated sex, but the writings of these two Notts men at least shared the same power of traversal between different forms of bodily subjugation. (I am thinking about Steve Finbow’s comment for 3am Magazine here, in which he describes Fisher as a kind of “radical Geoff Dyer infused with the complete works of H. P. Lovecraft rather than D. H. Lawrence”; I can think of no better description of a man who was so asexually sensual in his writing.)
This is what I like about Fisher’s work, however. Despite his fierce opinions, published on the k-punk blog, his hates seem to be as informative to his writing as his loves. Like the tension captured between the Arctic Monkeys and Burial, Fisher was very sensitive to the aesthetic packaging of shared sensations, trying to untangle symptoms from diagnoses. But he often seemed incapable of doing this with more canonised cultural artefacts, particularly literary figures. This isn’t to cast aspersions upon him, of course. What I like about many of these writers is that they are so internally contradictory, but immensely productive because of this, much like Fisher himself.
Reading Lawrence’s writing chronologically, for instance, with the added context of his lived experiences, we can chart his own shifting attempts to wrestle with the sensual alienation of the early twentieth century. It is in this sense that I think Lawrence and Fisher aren’t so different in their aims, whilst differing vastly in style. Rather than picking sides, I’m quite fascinated by what they share and why those differences exist in the context of the times in which they lived. This is to say that, whilst Fisher would see himself as a diagnostician and Lawrence as a writer riddled with the problems he sought to critique, Fisher was no doubt similarly complex in his own way. After all, Lawrence’s critical writings — on American literature and psychoanalysis, in particular — was so incredibly ahead of their time, but his writings with still symptomatic of the problems of his age. Fisher’s output is similar; accelerationism even more so.
Where do I fit into that kind of problematic? It is hardly my place to say. That kind of self-awareness is impossible, surely; if it is not, to attain it would no doubt drive me into an utterly unproductive nihilism. That is the last thing I want, and so continuing unsteadily on the path I am on is the only option. I have a lot of changes to synthesise and a lot of internal contradictions to weather but at least I’m moving forwards. Under such circumstances, shutting up is not an option.
In the UK over the last few weeks there has been an outcry over the decision to use “an algorithm” to decide the exam results of students whose school year was disrupted by Covid-19. (There are few things more insidious in the 21st century than a nondescript algorithm.) Whereas previously, in extenuating circumstances, a student’s “predicted grades” have been used when an exam or a course cannot be completed, this year, for reasons unknown, predictions are being sidestepped in favour of algorithmically-generated grades based on mock exam results and who knows what else. This led to horrifying levels of students having their results downgraded and left many already-alienated teenagers in coronavirus purgatory even less certain about their futures.
Thankfully, after a week of protests and outcry, the Department of Education and the examinations body Ofqual reversed their decision and allowed students’ grades to be based on teacher assessment rather than the insidious algorithm. The whole debacle has left a foul taste in the mouth, nonetheless. This country’s class dynamics were writ large in the fallout but the media has done all it can to ignore them — probably because the media is populated by people who never had to worry about how they were to be perceived as they entered the adult world of work.
That’s the main thing that stinks about media coverage of GCSE and A Level results day. We see the same narrative every year but fuck up the prospects of half the nation’s teenagers and it turns out that patronising discourse goes into overdrive.
As far as the media and the government are concerned, exam results are seen as a kind of lubricant to social mobility. It is an understanding that is deeply embedded in society itself — a kind of “academic realism”, if we might butcher Fisher’s concept some more. This is to suggest that, for the majority of parents and their children, there is no alternative to the university track. It is stifling but a norm reinforced from all sides. This is because, if you do good in your exams, at no matter what stage of your education, you’ll supposedly be better off. Points mean prizes.
That is far from the case, of course. (If things has changed at all in recent years, it is because the government’s trebling of tuition fees has made university less of a given to many of the poorest and least financially stable among us. This doesn’t mean there are alternatives, however; this just means that option no longer exists for those who need it most.) It seems to me like the truth is often inverted here. As far as I can tell, good results don’t necessarily make life easier for those with the decks stacked against them but bad results can make it a whole lot harder.
It reminded me of my own experience as a soon-to-be college student, not long after receiving my GCSE results. Even back in 2008, I found myself on the wrong end of an algorithm and required human intervention before being algorithmically denied my A Level prospects.
My GCSE results were truly a mixed bag. I had at least one of every single grade from A* to E. I was oddly proud of this at the time; I used to joke about my “full house”. The main thing was that I did well in the subjects that I cared about — A* in art, A in English Literature; I also miraculously scraped a B in maths despite being predicted much lower — and then everything from there on out wasn’t of much interest.
I didn’t think it mattered much, and I wasn’t particularly fussed because, frankly, I hated school. Having had the first proper onset of a depression that has stalked most of my adulthood, my priorities were more on my mental health than my exam results. The future wasn’t much of a consideration; I was, at that time, more focused on just getting through the week. And anyway, I got the grades I needed to do the A Levels I wanted (English Literature, Media Studies, Photography) so I didn’t think the rest of it really mattered.
It turns out it did, at least once the algorithm got involved.
On the first day of college, I had to have a meeting with the head. There was a lot of confusion about my results. I was clearly capable in the subjects I wanted to do but, because of the way my results were weighted, I’d come out with an average grade of a C/D, and the algorithm only cared about averages. I was technically on the borderline and a cause for concern and probably shouldn’t have been allowed to progress to the college at all if my grades in the subjects I wanted to do weren’t so strong. The problem, however, was that I had nonetheless been flagged up by the system and, under the auspices of the school’s algorithmic bureaucracy, I was supposed to have a few extra caveats added to my education.
Thankfully, there were humans on the other end to interpret the results. The teachers were also quick to realise that I was very capable, but my mental health issues at that time meant that putting me in an exam hall was a real gamble. I couldn’t work under pressure at all, generally freezing up in most exam scenarios. (The video from Novara Media below hits home regarding how important exam coaching is to good results; I still struggle with that kind of pressure today, but thankfully it is very rare that I’ll need to do an exam ever again.) The reality was that any exam could go great or it could be a complete car crash — which is exactly how my English Literature A Level went: I got an E on the first attempt and then got full marks and an A* on the resit. (Sadly, my coursework averaged it out to a B in the end.)
All of this is to say the obvious: I was a very inconsistent teenager, but is there a characteristic more applicable to the adolescent psyche than “inconsistency”? In fact, for most people, I don’t think that ever really goes away. Perhaps one of the most important things you can learn to do as you grow older is how to curate your own results better — this blog is certainly a testament to how much I struggle with that — but allowing this to be dictated by an algorithm is another matter. As Sonia Sodha recently put it, writing the obvious for the Guardian — and, of course, we live in a moment where the obvious often needs to be said:
We take it as given that dropping a couple of grades in a one-off exam should amount to the be-all and end-all in determining which university you go to. Have a good exam day, and you could be attending the university of your dreams; have a bad day and the anxious cycle of clearing starts. All this is predicated on the crazy idea that we need to avoid AAA students studying with ABB students, BBC students studying with BCD students at all costs or … what?
Rankings allow illusions of meritocracy and simple choices to prevail — obviously we should go for the AAA student over the ABB one — when the reality is they may be covering up a choice that is more random and arbitrary than we may like to think.
I have often thought about how my GCSEs and A Levels constituted something of a near miss in this regard. On paper, it was unlikely I’d ever amount to anything and this was probably why my decision to study photography was initially encouraraged — a low-stakes art degree. I agreed with the teachers for the most part. I had very low self-esteem and I was already deeply cynical about the whole education process anyway. I didn’t respond well to how things were taught, I didn’t see much future for myself in higher education, and even floated the idea of doing an photographic apprenticeship instead. Fortunately and unfortunately, my mum responded hysterically to this suggestion — I was going to be the first person in the family to go to university whether I liked it or not.
The irony was that I really did like it. The kind of study that I experienced as a photography student — self-directed but discursive — flipped a switch in my head. For the first time in my entire school career, from primary school (where I’d been placed in a special ed group for reasons unknown to me) through to college, I found myself actually flourishing in an educational institution. I didn’t feel that crushing futility that I was just wasting my time until the bell went and I could go home and do what I wanted to do.
I loved my arts education for that reason. It was a form of education that I really responded to and it allowed me to find my own way into the sorts of subjects that I’d previously been dissuaded from doing based on my exam results. I think about how I could have just as easily gone on to do philosophy or English literature at undergraduate level but would have found no way to translate my approach to learning into a form of examination that counted for anything at that level. I feel like a very lucky late bloomer.
I say all this not to offer up yet another patronising example of a happy ending thanks to the system. I feel like I found my feet late and very much despite this country’s educational infrastructure and bureaucracy.
A discursive space still has to be established for raising consciousness as to why these things happen, however. What they don’t teach you at school, and what you can only ever learn the hard way, is that that sense of being under examination never really goes away. I have found that my inability to respond to standardised testing and high pressure examinations has followed me persistently, for instance. Even though I have purposefully pursued qualifications since college that do not require an exam, I still find myself having to bend different systems to my will in order to find other ways to demonstrate my capabilities to those who have the power to make decisions about my life — even in medical exams. Twelve years on from my GCSE results, I might have a Masters degree and a book out, but the pressure felt to prove my worth or my ability against the inconsistent record of my inconsistent life is suffocating.
The reality, as this exams debacle proves, is that the stakes are too high for the majority of children and young adults, especially those who cannot afford to keep a clean record. It only takes a bad day or, even worse, alternative brain wiring an an incompatible form of learning, to make you feel good for nothing for the rest of your twenties, if not longer. I’m reminded of Fisher’s essay “Good For Nothing” here, of course. The illusion of meritocracy that has been shattered by this deferral to an algorithm may have just politicised a generation in much the same way the trebling of tuition fees did. It demonstrates how an incompetent elite falls back on tactics of low-level subjugation at every level of society, epitomising the structure of feeling that Mark was speaking to when he wrote the following:
For some time now, one of the most successful tactics of the ruling class has been responsibilisation. Each individual member of the subordinate class is encouraged into feeling that their poverty, lack of opportunities, or unemployment, is their fault and their fault alone. Individuals will blame themselves rather than social structures, which in any case they have been induced into believing do not really exist (they are just excuses, called upon by the weak). What Smail calls ‘magical voluntarism’ — the belief that it is within every individual’s power to make themselves whatever they want to be — is the dominant ideology and unofficial religion of contemporary capitalist society, pushed by reality TV ‘experts’ and business gurus as much as by politicians. Magical voluntarism is both an effect and a cause of the currently historically low level of class consciousness. It is the flipside of depression — whose underlying conviction is that we are all uniquely responsible for our own misery and therefore deserve it. A particularly vicious double bind is imposed on the long-term unemployed in the UK now: a population that has all its life been sent the message that it is good for nothing is simultaneously told that it can do anything it wants to do.
The establishment of this kind of consciousness begins on (and is exacerbated by) successive results days every year. The establishment, however, has accidentally revealed its hand. It has revealed the structure often kept hidden behind their insistence on magical voluntarism. The media and even your average Twitter user has followed suit, revealing just how deep-rooted this structure goes, and how mundane it believes its deflation of young people’s worth is. The truth is that this kind of malignant bureaucracy, tilted in the favour of the children of elites, has been getting away with this sort of bullshit for decades.
I had a really great time chatting to Craig, Matt and Will of the Acid Horizon podcast last week. We talked about my recent book Egress, a new editorial project coming out on Repeater Books soon, and a lot of stuff in between.
For the rest, sign up to the Acid Horizon Patreon here.
A really fucking excellent comment from Ed, responding to my earlier post on Fisher and Bataille, that fills in a bunch of gaps in my understanding of the context of the original anti-Bataille lecture Mark is commenting on. Ed draws the same conclusions but from a much broader historical perspective than I’m in possession of.
As ever, I’d hate for this to languish “below the line” — because who reads comments here apart from me? — so here it is in full for your pleasure:
I’ve thought about that bit about Ginzburg quite a bit in the past, and spent some time trying to track down his writings on Bataille. Almost came to the point of thinking that it was a sort of theory-fictional critique of Bataille using the actual figure of Ginzburg as an avatar (because Ginzburg’s scholarship elsewhere is top-notch, and his work on the witch’s sabbath is an important source in early CCRU materials like the ‘swollen footnotes’ to “Flatlines”). But eventually I found a reference to Ginzburg’s critique in Dennis Hollier’s “Absent Without Leave: French Literature Under the Threat of War” and in an essay by Susan Suleiman. The latter is particularly interesting because she draws a comparison between Ginzburg and Zeev Sternhell, who is pretty much the person who tried to cement a historical connection between the ‘counter-enlightenment’ and fascism. Sternhell and other scholars close to this camp use this dynamic to diagnose a host of individuals, even those opposed to fascism like Bataille, as being covertly fascist (Sorel too was made persona non grata from this camp). But this critique is rooted in a particular iteration of liberalism, one that holds the Enlightenment — particularly the line running through Kant and his French followers — as the source of liberalism, democracy, etc.
Sternhell’s critique has no time for the way that Adorno and Horkheimer problematize the Enlightenment, and basically dismisses them with a hand-wave saying that they are effectively characterizing the Kantian-French-liberal tradition. But Sternhell is missing the meat of the argument, that this trajectory does lead to liberal democracy, but also leads to this other thing, and that these currents are not counterposed but locked together into a continuum (which can easily be reconciled via a materialist analysis). And instead of doubling back to ‘make good’ on the Enlightenment’s promises, Adorno himself certainly seemed to want to find something beyond it (leading blackpilled Horkheimer to accuse him of having a ‘penchant for theology’)… hence negative dialectics, with its emphasis on differentiation, nonidentity, etc. It seems to me that Bataille was working towards a similar aim, also drawing up radical differentiation, nonidentity… like in his letters to Kojève, writing of something unable to be assimilated into synthesis — shades of Marcuse: “the outside… [is] the qualitative difference which overcomes the existing antitheses inside the antagonistic partial whole — and remains ‘leftover’.” And from there, to Lacan and his real, the incompleteness of the symbolic, the gap, denial of permanent, stable resolution — and thus to Fisher himself, with his great debt to Lacan! There’s a debate, earlier on in K-punk, where somebody raises Lacan’s relationship to Bataille in response to the condemnation of the latter, that Fisher dismisses… but like you point out above and in Egress, the limit experience is something pursued by both, and is refracted through influences that sync together in a common intellectual history (I would go as far as to draw comparisons between Fisher’s attempts circa 2004-05 to build a Lacanian-Spinozist theology based on the seething cosmic void — which I suspect Nick cribbed a bit from for his Gnon-theology — and Bataille’s own fascination with the negative tradition within Catholic theology).
I guess what I’m trying to say really just echoes what you are saying, lol: that Fisher’s own work can just as easily be read as being ‘counter-enlightenment’ as Bataille, even if he was more committed to a (very atyptical) rationalism far more that our weird Frenchmen. After all, how does he present the remaking of the world? Not simply in the rational remaking of the world, but in libidinal engineering, limit-experiences, strange references to shamanism and sorcery, gaps, ritual and myth… in other words, all the things one would find in the workings of the College de Sociologie!
I’m really excited to have been invited to give a guest lecture as part of k-punk quarantined, a online workshop around the work of Mark Fisher organised by the University of Birmingham’s Contemporary Theory Reading Group.
I’m going to be talking about some of my more recent research around Mark’s final postgraduate module at Goldsmiths, building towards his Acid Communism, excavating a thread that can be traced back through ten years of his writing, revealing how Acid Communism might still be a project reconstructed using Mark’s various essays already out in the world on the likes of Spinoza, accelerationism, consciousness raising, psychoanalysis, Marxism and a bunch of other things. (It’ll also serve as a sneak peek at forthcoming book project I’ve been working on — and have recently finished — during quarantine, due out in September. More on that at a later date.)
The abstract for the lecture is below:
In the months before his death, in late 2016, Mark Fisher had returned to that most fundamental political question in the twenty-first century: “Do we really want what we say we want?”
Beginning a new postgraduate module at Goldsmiths, University of London, entitled Postcapitalist Desire, Fisher explored the convoluted relationship between desire and capitalism, all the while wondering what new forms of desire we might still be able to excavate from this relation, whether from the past, our present, or the not-so-distant future.
From the emergence and failure of the counterculture in the 1970s to the continued development of his left-accelerationist line of thinking, this train of thought was tragically interrupted. Nevertheless, this course was an attempt to think through and enact one of Fisher’s more implicit overarching concerns: the raising of a new kind of consciousness. He also considered the cultural and political implications of doing so.
For Fisher, this process of consciousness raising was always, fundamentally, psychedelic — just not in the way that we might think… This lecture will further excavate this trajectory, not only as it was articulated in the final months of Fisher’s life but also from within the depths of his written output, from the k-punk blog to The Weird and the Eerie.
If you want to get involved, you can register here via Eventbrite.