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”.
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.
I had a mental health assessment yesterday — I’m fine; I’m just looking for support on the NHS that isn’t CBT — and it was sort of disappointing.
I’ve written quite openly about my mental health escapades before but it has been a while. I gave an account of my bad run-ins with mental health professionals in Egress — from a shockingly inept school councillor to being patronised by GPs and having two pretty useless rounds of talking therapy — and I blogged about my triple chronotherapy when dealing with a really bad depression early last year.
The triple chronotherapy thing was a miracle cure, for those who are curious. It dragged me out of a depression within days rather than the usual 2-4 weeks it takes when changing medications (if you’re lucky). The problem, however, was that the woman running the trial was so anal about documentation and results that her persistent attempts to call me and do questionnaires ended up making my anxiety worse. Despite considering myself a massive advocate for what is currently an experimental treatment for depression and insomnia, I dropped out of the trial because the anxiety brought on by her phone calls was too much.
Classic NHS catch-22 — the treatment was great; I found the doctors and mental health professionals themselves hard to trust and deal with.
This is my eternal dilemma. On the whole, I function. I find medication works well for me when it comes to balancing out my moods, but my life is unfortunately still defined by a tendency to engage in constant low-level self-destructive tendencies. It makes me feel like a ticking time bomb. Depressions come and go, but each fall is always that much worse than the last one. It is increasingly clear to me that I have a lot of bad coping mechanisms and I need to start unlearning them so the next fall is easier to pick myself up from, not harder. But I’m yet to find a doctor or therapist who doesn’t just make things worse for me.
Nevertheless, I’m trying again.
Over the past few weeks, as I embark on this latest attempt at self-improvement, I’ve been having phone interviews, chats with my GP and various psychiatrists, and today I had a face-to-face meeting to get feedback and hear the local mental health team’s first round of recommendations regarding how I might move forwards. It was positive, on the whole, but also pretty gutting.
I was told I wasn’t eligible for the kind of path I hoped to go down because I’m not acting out self-destructively everyday. What they mean by this, of course, is that I’m not enough of an immediate threat to myself, which is true and fair enough, but I had wanted to emphasise the fact that, although I’m engaged in more of a war of attrition with myself, it’s a war nonetheless, and it’s not going to end well. It affects my life daily and impacts my capacity to hold down jobs and friendships. As far as I’m concerned, I might as well be the sort of self-destructive person they’re looking for. I just lack spectacle. But still, it was not enough.
Why am I telling you this? What has really struck me about yesterday — as I’ve been sat at home, melting in this heat wave, ruminating on what was discussed and trying to recover emotionally from making myself very vulnerable in front of a complete stranger — is that I felt like I’d just come back from a bad job interview.
I cannot shake the feeling that maybe if I’d cried or maybe if I’d played up to how I actually feel a bit more I might have been treated another way. And that makes me feel really weird. As I reflect on what I could have done differently, I start to feel really nauseous. Because I don’t think I’m capable of doing that — of playing the part. Part of the problem is that I’m a kind of high-functioning addict with regards to my own coping mechanisms. I can do what I need to do to get by and push on with my day. Which is to say, I’m good at hiding it. And that’s the problem. Hiding it is wearing me down more than my actual distress is. And so the problem feeds back on itself, affecting not just my mental but my physical health.
I felt this even whilst I sat in the grey office room, unable to do anything about the situation.
Sitting across from someone I don’t know, trying to make a good first impression, being personable and patient, isn’t getting me the help that I think I need. I’m left reeling, running through this inverted assessment back over and over in my head. How could I have sabotaged myself more? Maybe I should have dressed worse… Or maybe I should have said something different in response to that question… Maybe I should have spoken less… Or maybe spoken more… Spoken faster or spoken slower… In effect, I’m left wondering how I can fake my way to a truer representation of myself. How can I turn up the artifice to trick myself into revealing the real me?
Just like in a job interview, assessing the person in front of me and their generic questions, I am trying to figure out what it is they want to hear, in the hope I might get the job (the treatment) I need to live a life.
It is a slippery slope, undoubtedly. I know a few people in my life who have gone too far the other way. So used to being patronised or not taken seriously, they turn the melodrama up the 11. More often than not, it makes the cynicism worse. My mother suffered from this. By the time she was taken seriously, it was too late. She went off the deep end and never recovered. I’ve seen up close that melodrama gets you nowhere.
That traumatic memory has pushed me the other way. I have a tendency to play things down, my girlfriend tells me. One of the side effects of a northerner’s stiff upper lip, which protrudes into every lane of my life except blogging. What a sorry situation.
Regardless, it is clear that high functionality doesn’t get you very far either. What I’m doing to get through the day seems less important than the fact I am still getting through the day. But for how long? Something is going to give. The whole point of doing these interviews is so that I can avoid the levee that breaks being me. It’s only a matter of time.
This feeling is what I hate about how mental health is dealt with in this country — the bureaucracy of it, the overbearing sense of professionalisation. These tendencies are wholly necessary on an institutional level, of course — or so they’d have us believe. When it comes to actually working in a field like mental health, with vulnerable and potentially unstable people, you need the straight-laced backbone of the institutional and its code of ethics to set the tone and certain boundaries. But must these sensibilities really leak out all over the patients themselves? Your professional sense of self creates a mirror, and now I am trying to see myself as a professional invalid.
What was most surreal was that, when I arrived at the assessment centre, I was sat in the waiting room with two women. We ignored each other, for the most part, until the two women started talking to each other. They knew each other already. It turned out they were both there for actual job interviews. It seemed they were moving around as NHS departments restructured themselves during lockdown and had previously met in their official capacities before the world was turned on its head. They were both in the running for a position at this particular assessment centre and were there to interview for a new role.
A wall went up in that moment of realisation. I felt like a patient or a punter who’d come in through the front door and accidentally sat in the staff room. I felt like I was somewhere I shouldn’t be — behind the curtain.
My experience is going to be very different to yours, I thought to myself, feeling my size and dress and demeanor crumble. Perhaps, in the end, it wasn’t. Although I wasn’t a patient, of course. I was a “client”. Every time I was referred to this way in abstract — “we find our clients respond to…”; “we try to provide our clients with…” — I felt distanced from the real reason I was actually there, and not in a good way. Yes, you’re providing a service, but I’m not about to tell you about it later on Yelp.
Nevermind. I guess the interview didn’t quite work out how I wanted but they said they were going to keep me in mind for another position. I didn’t work out on this occasion but keep your fingers crossed I get the next one.
Having successfully passed through our close encounter with the coronavirus many weeks ago — my girlfriend had it and recovered; I’m (presumably) asymptomatic — my girlfriend and I have wanted nothing more than to go outside.
We spent at least a month, perhaps it was six weeks, not going outside our front door. After our stress lessen, we didn’t leave the neighbourhood. When the mood swings started getting quite intense, we knew we had to do something.
The lack of direct sunlight had already had a noticeable impact on our mental and physical health but, after getting moved on by police during a recent walk to the park in southeast London, we felt we had to go elsewhere to get fresh air and not feel like we were compounding how own paranoia.
Throwing all prior caution to the wind, we decided to get in the car and leave the bounds of the M25. At first, we had a destination in mind — remote and strategically chosen as to be wholly without tourist attraction, and a little too out-of-reach for the casual dogwalker. However, on the way, we found a dirt track into woodland that we felt immediately drawn to.
It could have been a clichéd start to a horror movie. Thankfully it was very much the opposite — whatever the opposite of a horror movie might be…
What followed was a couple of hours wholly devoid of human contact in which we sat in a glade that may have been the largest empty open space I’ve seen in months, before we then spent a while following deer through the woods, later taking a moment to sit in a Matrix armchair that made me feel a bit like Morpheus in the desert (forest?) of the Real.
The Baudrillardian visual joke felt strangely apt — and Baudrillard, of course, loved a joke. But it was an odd one to laugh along with. With the nation’s superego seemingly bloated on antibiotics, as we continued our battery hen-like existence, subsisting on an ideological drip feed and waiting for the next opportunity to clap, this first walk through nature felt like an opportunity to move through the world unseen for the first time in months. We were spared the judgements of others. We were also spared our own desire to judge and twitch at the curtains, wondering who is doing the most to protect their fellow citizens.
In Simulacra & Simulation, Baudrillard gives fugitive form to the Real as follows, writing:
If once we were able to view the Borges fable in which the cartographers of the Empire draw up a map so detailed that it ends up covering the territory exactly (the decline of the Empire witnesses the fraying of this map, little by little, and its fall into ruins, though some shreds are still discernible in the deserts — the metaphysical beauty of this ruined abstraction testifying to a pride equal to the Empire and rotting like a carcass, returning to the substance of the soil, a bit as the double ends by being confused with the real through aging) — as the most beautiful allegory of simulation, this fable has now come full circle for us, and possesses nothing but the discrete charm of second-order simulacra.
Today abstraction is no longer that of the map, the double, the mirror, or the concept. Simulation is no longer that of a territory, a referential being, or a substance. It is the generation by models of a real without origin or reality: a hyperreal. The territory no longer precedes the map, nor does it survive it. It is nevertheless the map that precedes the territory — precession of simulacra — that engenders the territory, and if one must return to the fable, today it is the territory whose shreds slowly rot across the extent of the map. It is the real, and not the map, whose vestiges persist here and there in the deserts that are no longer those of the Empire, but ours. The desert of the real itself.
There is a 1:1 ideological cartography that is felt acutely at the minute, and its frayed edges are certainly becoming more pronounced. Mid-quarantine, for instance, during the worst of it, it felt like everyone was paranoia and, at the same time, no one was doing enough. The paradox was exhausting and infuriating, as you felt like the inadequate eye of the state, like everything else, had been outsourced to the neighbourhood watch. Is an intensely paranoid citizenry better than a police state? I suppose things weren’t quite that bad…
Right now, as we look out at our neighbours like scornful curtain-twitchers — our neighbours who have done nothing to social distance, even having a house party as soon as the Boris Johnson hinted at the possibility of a slackening of restrictions — the gulf between us also seems to be second-hand. Is this gulf between incompetence and paranoia ours or has it been passed down to us by successive governments who embody these ill-fitting affects absolutely?
It is hard to tell in the midst of it all but, as with Baudrillard’s original Borges-inspired analogy, the woods we found ourselves in were distinctly not those of the “Empire”; of the state. We felt apart from the swirling mess of ideological tension and suddenly found a new perspective to look back at the world from. From here, Baudrillard’s thesis only became more apt, as we considered the ways that coronavirus has presented us with a crisis of sign-value, where generations of semiotic worth are undermined to the point that PPE, video games and self-raising flour are the only hot commodities left. It is the cyberpunk future the Stepford Wives always wanted, and it is as ineffectively distributed as ever.
As we walked through the woods, completely astounded, having almost forgotten what it was like to take a walk like this — which may sound melodramatic given how little time, in the grand scheme of things, had passed, but I think we have all been surprised by how intensely time can be compressed at present — we talked about where in the world we would have preferred to spend quarantine if we could have had the choice. This had been a common question, under present circumstances, but it was made all the more immanently psychedelic on our walk in the woods, as if to say it out loud would summon such a place behind the next bend.
Before we left the house, I’d seen a photo of Wittgenstein’s philosocabin on Twitter and so, when my girlfriend asked wistfully about where I’d like to be, it was the first place to come to mind.
I thought about Norway — and the towering trees around us helped manifest it — but I’m sorry to say I’ve never been. The closest we have gotten to Scandinavia is Denmark, where we’d spent some time north of Copenhagen, on the coast, not far from a village called Taarbæk.
The first time we went was in winter, having had the unexpected opportunity to go on holiday and stay in a small house on campus at DTU whilst a member of my partner’s family was working there. We went back a few times afterwards. I don’t think I’ve ever been anywhere more beautiful. It’s still my happy place. I’d give anything to be back there right now.
Walking through those woods in Surrey, as if walking through a dream of the more dense regions of the Jægersborg Dyrehave, there was a certain guilt hanging over our meandering. We knew that, up to now, we’d been more self-disciplined than most under quarantine, partly through necessity as an obviously infectious little unit, but to be outside that day was so far beyond the advice given by the state. And yet, we found ourselves more isolated than we had been in weeks. We felt disorientated, coming to terms with the fact that what felt like the right thing to do felt way beyond the state’s understanding of the public good.
This was compounded by the fact that living in London under lockdown had felt like an impossible task. Everyone lives on top of each other; London is already its own form of wet market, in a way, as we all jostle for position in these infernal stacks.
We passed three mounds of ant nests on our walk out and I had never felt more relieved to be outside the city limits. We were like two scavengers detached from the swarm and it felt, at times, like we might have died and gone to heaven. The blankets of bluebells certainly had a lot to do with that. We were the happiest we’d been in weeks, finally being able to, somewhat paradoxically, isolate ourselves away from our futile isolation.
From Denmark, my mind wandered to Kierkegaard’s Antigone. I’ve been thinking about her a lot these last few months, trying to chart a complex contained within a throwaway tweet, ricocheting from Hegel to Lacan to Nietzsche to Blanchot to Irigaray to Butler to Žižek and now to Kierkegaard.
Antigone, daughter of Oedipus, in Sophocles’ original play, is caught between family and state — or, we might say, similarly to us, personal responsibility and the law of the state. With her father dead, her brothers too, she and her sister Ismene find themselves bereft, adrift in a life that has brought little but grief and sorrow. They are cursed, thanks to their father’s misadventures, and seem to be struggling with the full emergence of a fate they always knew would come.
Then, to add a final insult to their myriad injuries: Creon, the king of Thebes, has decreed that the body of Antigone’s brother, Polynices, killed in battle, cannot be buried or mourned. “He’s to be left unwept, unburied,” Antigone reports to her sister, “a lovely treasure for birds that scan the field and feast to their heart’s content.” She knows the law, but she cannot stand it.
In this way, the play dramatises the classic tragic interplay between the state and one’s own conscience. Antigone cannot obey Creon’s decree. No matter her brother’s actions — he fought on the wrong side in a battle to overthrow Creon — she cannot leave him unmourned to rot in the sun. He is blood. His fate, to her, is unthinkable.
This conflict has been analysed by many. However, Kierkegaard’s intervention in the reception of Sophocles’ slippery heroine is particularly influential. He reimagines her in his own time but also preempting what she might become. This is to say that Kierkegaard’s is a modernist Antigone. No longer is she cast between her brother’s carcass and the laws of the state. Instead, the conflict occurs internally.
This view is one that, today — as I have perhaps already (inadvertently) demonstrated — comes all too easily. Kierkegaard charts, however, how a certain shift has occurred, between how Antigone appears to us today and how she appeared in her own time.
In ancient tragedy, Kierkegaard explains, the individual is not so much an independent “subject” as a moment of variation. If we take the structure of an ancient tragedy to be like a song, the chorus, quite literally, represents the chorus as we know it today — that moment of essential telos, that collective gesture, an “action and situation” that approaches “the substantiality of epic or the exaltation of lyric” — the chorus is, in a way, like a participatory part of the audience, the spectator dramatised. The individual character, however, is a verse — “the concentration of lyric” that cannot be absorbed by the chorus itself.
This sounds knotted and complex but it is, in a way, the same relationship between verse and chorus in song — one of difference and repetition but all, nonetheless, contained within a common structure, known and popularly understood. This is particularly true of Antigone. She is not so much a Great Individual, striking out on her own, but a sort of expressive driftwood, giving voice to two eternal currents that the audience knows: genealogy and law. It is a drama that explores two struggles felt by all. We might say all dramas do this through subtext but, in ancient Greece, tragedy, in a far more explicit sense than we are used to, prefigures the audience as spectators of their own collective unconscious.
Modern tragedy — and this is still true today — is not so epicly self-contained. It does not necessarily try and speak to a collective unconsciousness and its universal struggles but instead to an individual consciousness and its particular struggles. As Kierkegaard writes:
The [modern] tragic hero is subjectively reflected in himself, and this reflection hasn’t simply refracted him out of every immediate relation to state, race, and destiny, often it has refracted him even out of his own preceding life. What interests us is some certain definite moment of his life as his own deed. Because of this, the tragic element can be exhaustively represented in situation and words, there being nothing whatever left over of the immediate. Hence modern tragedy has no epic foreground, no epic heritage. The hero stands and falls entirely on his own deeds.
Kierkegaard notes that this is an understanding we have of the ancients thanks to Aristotle. Furthermore, he notes how Hegel aligns himself with Aristotle too, as he untangles self-consciousness from “spirit”. Kierkegaard’s insight, however, seems to be that, just as the tragic form itself has been transformed by modernity, so too must our conception of it keep apace. Hegel, it seems, for Kierkegaard at least, lags behind, relying on what the ancients can tell the moderns without fulling following through on the dialectic that results from our combined understanding of the ancient collective and the modern individual.
For Kierkegaard, then, Antigone becomes the essential figure who, reactivated in the present, reveals the full complexity of our tragic circumstances.
What in the Greek sense provides tragic interest is the fact that, in the brother’s unhappy death, in the sister’s collision with a single human circumstance, there is a re-echoing of Oedipus’s sorry fate; it is, one might say, the afterpains, the tragic destiny of Oedipus, ramifying in every branch of his family. This totality makes the spectator’s sorrow infinitely deep. It is not an individual that goes under, but a little world; the objective sorrow, set free, now strides forward with its own terrible consistency, like a force of nature, and Antigone’s sorry fate is like an echo of her father’s, an intensified sorrow. So when Antigone, in defiance of the king’s prohibition, resolves to bury her brother, we see in this not so much a free action on her part as a fateful necessity which visits the sins of the fathers on the children. There is indeed enough freedom here to make us love Antigone for her sisterly love, but in the necessity of fate there is also, as it were, a higher refrain enveloping not just the life of Oedipus, but all his family too.
So while the Greek Antigone lives a life free enough from care for us to imagine her life in its gradual unfolding as even being a happy one if this new fact had not emerged, our [modern] Antigone’s life is, on the contrary, essentially over. It is no stingy endowment I have given her, and as we say that an aptly spoken word is like apples of gold in pictures of silver, so here I have placed the fruit of sorrow in a cup of pain. Her dowry is not a vain splendour which moth and rust can corrupt, it is an eternal treasure. Thieves cannot break in and steal it; she herself will be too vigilant for that. Her life does not unfold like that of the Greek Antigone; it is not turned outward but inward. The scene is not external but internal, a scene of spirit.
What does any of this have to do with an escape to the country from Covid-19? Kierkegaard essentially sets the stage for all Antigones to come. I have wondered, ever since, if a new one might emerge from our present circumstances, defined by anti-lockdown protests and the need to work and the desire for secret escapes, complicating this vision of Antigone’s “criminal good” all the more.
In many analyses of Antigone’s fate, after Kierkegaard, more attention has been given to the limit that she represents, rather than any particularly emancipatory project. For Lacan, for instance, in his seminar on the ethics of psychoanalysis, Antigone becomes a kind of quintessential modern masochist. Kierkegaard sees the “guilt” that Antigone carries with her, in its very constitution, as being a sort of perversion of the destiny of Christ. She is her father’s daughter. As such, Antigone is subjected to a secret; an “inherited guilt”, like original sin, but it is a guilt that also defines her. She is even proud of it, and it is this further self-affirmation that leads her to commit her “good crime” which, nonetheless, leads to her demise.
Such is our Antigone. Proud of her secret, proud that she has been chosen to save in so remarkable a manner the honour and esteem of the house of Oedipus… She consecrates her life to sorrow over her father’s destiny, over her own.
Antigone, then, is like “a victim in search of a torturer and who needs to educate, persuade and conclude an alliance with the torturer in order to realise the strangest of schemes.” This is no longer Kierkegaard but how Deleuze describes the masochist, and so too does Lacan describe the masochist as that person who desires “to reduce himself to this nothing that is the good, to this thing that is treated like an object, to this slave whom one trades back and forth and whom one shares.” For Lacan, this is Antigone absolutely, but he also aligns this masochism with those dionysian Freudian drives: of the feminine, of death and of the mother. It is here that Lacan defines his ouroborosic death drive — Antigone’s desire for death becomes a desire to return to the womb, from whence, especially in her family, so many complications sprang forth.
In reducing herself to such an object, as the archetypical feminine, she suspends herself, as Lacan says, “between two deaths” — a death at the hands of the state and a death by her own hands. It is suicide by cop, Theban style. And yet, Lacan argues that Antigone has no other choice. She is not only caught between two deaths for herself but her brother’s two deaths also — as far as the state is concerned, he is a dead criminal; for Antigone, he is a dead brother nonetheless, no matter his crimes; and, not only a brother but a surrogate son, following the death of her mother. Therefore, her tie to her brother is only intensified by the tragedy of her life thus far. How does one resolve this conundrum? By suspending all language, and only entering into action from this outside. Beyond the relations that define each relationship to her brother, to cast a body out and let it be ravaged by dogs remains an abhorrence against nature.
Because [Polynices] is abandoned to the dogs and the birds and will end his appearance on earth in impurity, with his scattered limbs an offence to heaven and earth, it can be seen that Antigone’s position represents the radical limit that affirms the unique value of his being without reference to any content, to whatever good or evil Polynices may have done, or to whatever he may be subjected to.
The unique value involved is essentially that of language. Outside of language it is inconceivable, and the being of him who has lived cannot be detached from all he bears with him in the nature of good and evil, of destiny, of consequences for others, or of feelings for himself. That purity, that separation of being from the characteristics of the historical drama he has lived through, is precisely the limit or the ex nihilo to which Antigone is attached. It is nothing more than the break that the very presence of language inaugurates in the life of man.
This reading of a Lacanian feminine that comes with its innate mode of slippage is later taken up by Irigaray, who affirms it absolutely. She inaugurates, in Speculum of the Other Woman, somewhat echoing Lacan from fifteen years before, a radically feminine subject.
For her, it is up to a (truly) modern Antigone to produce the synthesis between herself and Creon that Hegel neglected. She must not resign herself to her individual tragic fate — a suicide outside language — but spread her innate rupture amongst the citizens of the state. She should refuse “to be that unconscious ground that nourishes nature” so that womanhood can “demand the right to pleasure, to jouissance, even to effective action, thus betraying her universal destiny.” She should affirm the link between the death drive and motherhood, as Lacan sees it — Antigone’s desire for death is similarly a desire to return to the womb. She inaugurates, for Irigaray, a newly matriarchal mutation of “kinship.” I interpret this, somewhat jaggedly, as a mantra that women should not be nothing but breed nothings.
For Judith Butler, however, Irigaray’s position is something of a misstep. To universalise Antigone, in the particularity of her experience, is to drag her back from her limit and sanitise the unsharable facts of her existence. This is to say that Irigaray’s affirmation is all well and good, but Antigone’s is hardly a demonstration of a woman’s radical autonomy. The tragedy is precisely that this is what she lacks. Even in her rebellion, she remains trapped within father’s fate.
In trying to affirm Antigone, then, Irigaray tries to force an agency into Antigone’s life that is not there. As Butler asks, in her book Antigone’s Claim, in light of Irigaray’s reading, “can Antigone herself be made into a representative for a certain kind of feminist politics, if Antigone’s own representational function is itself in crisis?”
Butler’s (proto-xenofeminist) conclusion is as follows, perhaps (and finally) bringing back to mind the strange paradox in which we find ourselves at present:
Prohibited from action, she nevertheless acts, and her act is hardly a simple assimilation to an existing norm. And in acting, as one who has no right to act, she upsets the vocabulary of kinship that is a precondition for the human, implicitly raising the question for us of what those preconditions really must be. … If kinship is the precondition of the human, then Antigone is the occasion for a new field of the human, achieved through political catachresis, the one that happens when the less than human speaks as human, when gender is displaced, and kinship founders on its own founding laws. She acts, she speaks, she becomes one for whom the speech act is a fatal crime, but this fatality exceeds her life and enters the discourse of intelligibility as its own promising fatality, the social form of its aberrant, unprecedented future.
When Butler speaks of the “less than human [who] speaks as human”, she is explicitly referencing Giorgio Agamben’s homo sacer — an “accursed man”; a walking paradox who can be killed with impunity but not sacrificed. Agamben’s homo sacer is something of a zombified existence but it is quite telling here, I think, in our present context. (And yes, I know that invoking Agamben is dangerous territory to wander into in the context of Covid-19.) Thankfully, Žižek is on hand to provide an Antigone most appropriate to now, with both Agamben and Butler in mind.
First summarising Butler’s critique of Lacan, he writes in the introduction to his own retelling of Antigone: “Lacan’s very radicality (the notion that Antigone locates herself in the suicidal outside of the symbolic order) reasserts this order, the order of the established kinship relations, silently assuming that the ultimate alternative is the one between the symbolic Law of (fixed patriarchal) kinship relations and its suicidal ecstatic transgression.”
Might we think, instead, then, of a modern Antigone who does herself justice? Apart from the interpretations that have inadvertently dragged her back from the limit in which she exists? Žižek reposes these questions, arguing that
Antigone speaks for all the subversive ‘pathological’ claims which crave to be admitted into the public sphere; however, to identify what she stands for in this reading with homo sacer misses the basic thrust of Agamben’s analysis. There is no place in Agamben for the ‘democratic’ project of ‘renegotiating’ the limit which separates full citizens from homo sacer by gradually allowing their voices to be heard; his point is, rather, that, in today’s ‘post-politics’, the very democratic public space is a mask concealing the fact that, ultimately, we are all homo sacer.
This was perhaps, in part, Agamben’s argument when he, somewhat misguidedly, applied his own political theories to the present pandemic. As Joseph Owen writes for Verso:
Agamben claims that coronavirus … is an epidemic conjured up by the Italian authorities and exacerbated by the national media. For him, the virus functions as an insidious form of mass panic and misdirection, as an excuse to extend prohibitive emergency measures over a mostly willing and anodyne population.
For anyone vaguely acquainted with Agamben’s work, his response won’t come as much of a surprise. His view is that citizens accept the bare minimum of existence to live under almost permanent restrictions of liberty. Governments treat every event as a pretext for the suspension of normal laws. Citizens adapt to the new reality: they defer to the exception, and so it becomes the rule. In doing so, some vital element of human life is suppressed or undone.
Agamben’s position was not exactly a popular one… Many saw it as hysteric a response as he was accusing the national media of, bordering on the conspiratorial and also suspending any individual or community’s capacity to act. As insightful as it may have been, it nonetheless felt blinkered and reductive. However, perhaps the complexity of Antigone’s fate is a better context from which to consider his point, as we find ourselves all homo sacer, suspended between two deaths.
This is the terror I think we felt acutely when on our walk — damned if we did, damned if we didn’t. To do as we were told felt like resigning ourselves to potential death due to the incompetence of the state and — unfortunately (but also by extension) — some of our neighbours. To go out for a walk was perhaps to demonstrate our own incompetence when confronted with this sense of entrapment.
Žižek captures this paradox well in his adaptation of Sophocles’ play. The closing remarks of the chorus seem to get closer to the point than Agamben’s hysteria:
Old wisdom has it right — we can’t escape the clutches of our fate. But what this wisdom ignores is that we also can’t escape the burden of our own responsibility. We cannot use our fate as an excuse to do what pleases us. The parents of Antigone’s father knew in advance his fate and tried to avoid it, but their very measures to achieve this noble end helped the fate to realize itself. The bitter lesson of Oedipus’s story was that a man who has no choice since evil is his fate, is no less fully guilty for his disgusting deeds. But what Antigone’s sad story taught is that if we miraculously return in time to change the course of the events that brought about the present cataclysm, the new outcome might even surpass the old one in horror and distress.
[…] It is up to you to choose at your own risk and peril. There is no one to help you here, you are alone. When we’re alone, when nothing happens, all of a sudden we’re hit by the murmur of life, and at that moment wise men know how to suspend the chaos and decide.
I think our decision, in the grand scheme of things, was just such a criminal good. At least we weren’t going to march on Hyde Park, insisting on displaying our own incompetence readily in front of an incompetent state and media. We were proud of our secret, but a secret it remained. The terror of this decision, however, and the terror of Antigone’s tale is that in following the (technically) lawful good of the state, we might all become killers. The guilt of imperialism embodies this most explicitly, but what about when death occurs on such a scale at home? There is a strange paradox in affirming that possibility so that one might actually be less of a risk.
The absurdity of this predicament is captured brilliantly in Jacqueline Rose’s recent essay “Pointing the Finger” — an essay on Camus’s The Plague in the time of Covid-19. Camus’s tale is itself a kind of retelling of the stakes of Antigone’s. This is most apparent when Rose writes of how the character Grand, for instance,
point[s] the finger at the modern state, which forbids violence to its citizens, not becuase, as Freud puts it, ‘it desires to abolish it, but because it desires to monopolise it, like salt and tobacco.’ For Tarrou, the responsibility of the citizen for his own violence is not diminished by such fraudulence but intensified, since it confronts him with what the state enacts in his name. The plague will continue to crawl out of the woodwork — out of bedrooms, cellars, trunks, handkerchiefs and old papers — as long as human subjects do not question the cruelty and injustice of their social arrangements. We are all accountable for the ills of the world.
It is here that we find ourselves confronted with the Real, in the Lacanian sense as much as the Baudrillardian sense with which we began. Lacan, in his seminar on ethics, which concludes with Antigone, states that “the moral law, the moral command, the presence of the moral agency in our activity, insofar as it is structured by the symbolic, is that through which the real is actualised — the real as such, the weight of the real.”
This was no less apparent on our woodland walk, in which we felt the full weight of the real at its most sublime; at its most beautiful and terrifying. We entered a world in which spring was still unfolding, unperturbed by pandemic, but in which the greenery only amplified the human detritus scattered throughout the forest. This was a world simultaneously without virus and without us. More than anything, though, to escape the bounds of the city allowed us to truly confront our own moral agency, unmediated by the absolute takeover that social media and emails and news feeds had enacted upon our lives — for better or for worse.
My recent post about desire in writings on accelerationism didn’t come from nowhere. It also didn’t explicitly come from Twitter. Addressing the Anarcho-Accelerationist’s hubris was simply a useful and polemic vehicle for that moment but it was also a post that I worried about, at first, in case it came across like I was throwing stones from a glass house.
I’ve written about this before — in fact, on multiple occasions. I am painfully aware of the centrality of my “ego” within my own writings. It’s a bad habit, more than anything, and something I agonise over a lot, often deciding to just throw caution to the wind and hit ‘publish’ regardless.
It’s also something I’m thinking about and wrestling with a lot at this particular moment. Not just as a background concern but as something that feels particularly scary within my life right now as I look down the barrel of an immanent shift in my public profile, which is occurring gradually, for the time being, as I go from a somewhat anonymous writer into someone who writes through a far more public face.
CTM Festival was the first instance of this that required some wrestling with but I have more public speaking engagements lined up as Egress comes out and I get on that weird and uncomfortable treadmill of promoting it and Mark’s work in the process.
This is obviously something I’ve been doing here for quite some time now but it nonetheless feels like 2020 is the year I really stick my neck out.
This has already been happening in my day-to-day life. At my current day job, for instance, everyone in the office knows I have written a book. In fact, the last time I was in the office, earlier this week, there was a copy of my book, visible to everyone, on my boss’s desk. She has even posted about it on their website and, yesterday, sent an email round to everyone about bulk buying a load of tickets to the ICA book launch next month.
I can’t deny that it feels really nice to be acknowledged like this and to feel like the publication of this book is something for multiple people to celebrate in, but it jars somewhat compared to where I was at with my “public profile” this time last year.
At my last job, where I worked for close to two years, from late 2017 to mid 2019, no one knew what I did in my spare time at all. I started this blog at almost exacting the same time I started that job and it was an explicit exercise in splitting my self in two as I re-entered the real world of work whilst trying to keep one foot in the strange temporalities of weird theory Twitter. Most days I showed up to work, did what I had to do, and then went home. I felt a bit like an alien there. It was quite a prestigious place to work and I often felt a sort of unconscious hostility from some people about my presence, simply because of the way I dressed and talked — that is, poorly, in both instances. I remember on my first day, I’d gone into my first meeting with management really confident with a load of ideas but then got quietly shut down. I hadn’t meant to put my foot in anyone’s way but rather wanted to make clear that I would be an active and involved member of the team. That didn’t seem to go down so well, but this wasn’t really a surprise. This has often been the case when working in the arts as some sort of glorified technician.
I wanted Velvet Buzzsaw recently — a film I really enjoyed, with its lampooning of the LA art world taking on an In The Mouth Of Madness quality — and I laughed a lot at the art gallery technician character, always hitting on the receptionists, saying things like, “I’m not just the muscle, you know. I have ideas. I’m an artist.” I’m not like that at all, but I understood the sentiment of wanting people to know that you’re not just a body to be put to work, even if I have personally ignored it and just got on with the job at hand without trying to change my co-worker’s assumptions to the contrary. Instead, I think I hid my other life — this life right here — out of embarrassment. I didn’t want to have to explain what I wrote about to anyone. I was quite happy just being a body, in that context. I’d anticipate the potential questions in the pub after work about what I did in my spare time with a preemptive mortification. Thankfully, those questions never really came, no doubt due to my generally secretive body language.
(I watched the Netflix documentary about the band Rush the other day, Rush: Beyond the Lighted Stage, and was amused to see Neil Peart also express a discomfort in relation to his role within the band. It’s nice to see that there are some people who make it big for whom this feeling never changes.)
At my new job, I’ve been a bit more forthcoming, mostly because I think keeping the blog an active secret from people I’m spending every day with isn’t all that healthy. I hate the thought of them going online to look and read it but it also feels like a better strategy to just be open about my life and not try and compartmentalise the different parts of it. Even though it still makes me really anxious, it feels better to weather the storm of visibility than alienate my co-workers through a lack of communication.
For a lot of the last year I’ve been trying to figure out where exactly this anxiety comes from. It’s not that I’m ashamed of what I think and write about, but there is nonetheless a question of how exactly I’m supposed to articulate all this; of explaining that talking about what I do here is something I find really difficult. Sometimes it erupts quite traumatically. I pride myself on a online reputation for being accessible — or at least more accessible than most — but when talking to family about politics and philosophy I think I have the opposite reputation entirely. (I became painfully aware of this over Christmas when it was me against the rest of the family in a conversation about politics which ended ugly in the early hours.) In that context, I feel like silence is taken to be judgemental — the result of a stoic but over-inflated ego. In truth, I’d rather just not talk about stuff because I don’t think I’m all that articulate in the moment and before the wrong sort of audience — that is, an audience not already laden with the particulars of Weird Theory Twitter head-scratching. (This is also to say, unfortunately, I am more comfortable speaking my mind when I know an audience has shared concerns, but maybe that’s natural.)
I’m very anxious about this at the moment as I’ve been offered the amazing opportunity of running a short three-week module at a London university — nowhere I’ve previously been affiliated with, before you start guessing; I’ll make an announcement in due course — talking about whatever I like to a group of undergraduate art students. The focus of the course is going to be about walking, as a sort of rudimentary but radical gesture — think the Situationists — and how I think having a certain relationship to the world is the most important foundation to any art practice. It’s not necessarily about the theory or the fashionable concepts but what you do with them in your daily life. (I think my interest in this comes from a teenage interest in jazz and learning to play the trumpet as a kid. I’m a terrible musician but I get the “improvisatory mindset”, if there’s such a thing. I’m just better at putting that mindset into practice with other mediums that aren’t necessarily known for having a culturally embedded discourse around a sense of improvisation — e.g. writing and photography.)
However, with a slight hint of irony, I’m also using this course as an opportunity to talk to these presently unknown students about modernism and Deleuze and Guattari. In fact, I’m in the pub right now, trying to think of a way to articulate what a “body without organs” is, as a sort of backwards introduction to a century of radical art — from Virginia Woolf to Lee Friedlander to Burial; from writing to visual art to music.
I suppose the general overview of the course is: How do you make art about your life and immediate environment without falling into that stereotype of just making art about yourself; how do you use your self as a conduit for saying something about the world around you.
Before heading out to the pub, I was updating my Discogs inventory and ended up putting on a bunch of records I forgot I owned. I was listening to Andrew Chalk, Meredith Monk, Cannonball Adderley, Max Roach… Music is the perfect way of expressing this sort of relationship to the world because sound — even the voice, at least in Meredith Monk’s case, with her disembodied, Artaudian vocalisations — is far more easily “de-individualised” and improvised with. What I find all the more fascinating about photography and writing in this regard is that the self is far more obviously their foundation. You are working explicitly with an “I”, be it a written voice or eye that is often, at least for the practitioner, hard to separate yourself from. (No surprises I’m going to be drawing on my essay about “de-individualisation” in visual art — “Points of View” — for one of the upcoming sessions.)
It probably says a lot about me that I’m procrastinating from writing this by writing something else for the blog, which — in a sort of roundabout way — is actually the perfect vehicle for articulating and letting go of all this chaff. I can get all this subjective hand-wringing out the way and figure out a way to articulate what I really want to convey later, devoid of myself.
This blog has been very good for this over the last couple of years and the irony is not lost on me that this blog is often so self-centred, because I think it gets it out my system. It becomes an abattoir for hanging up the chunks I flay off myself, allowing me to put the choicest cuts to better use elsewhere. (This is probably what this reply to my recent post was trying to get at, which I appreciate, but I don’t think that’s what goes on on the Anarcho-Accelerationist’s Twitter feed…)
I think about what Mark would have thought about this a lot. Not out of some morbid desire to emulate him but rather because his articulation of how he was able to write so much on his k-punk blog is something that I think about often.
I’ve quoted this multiple times here before but it always bears repeating:
Folks have asked me recently how I am able to write so much.
The answer is that it isn’t me who’s writing.
Modesty? Metaphor? Or (lol) post-structuralism?
No. A strictly technical description of how this body has been used as a meat puppet for channeling uttunul signal.
It’s only when the writing is bad that ‘I’ have produced it. When it’s good ‘I’ am just a space through which Lemuria speaks.
The writing is already assembled on the plane and all ‘I’ can do is bodge it by introducing subjectivist fuzz.
(It’s very telling, I think, that he was so prolific on his blog but his books were, by contrast, always very slim volumes.)
Posts that I labour over — like my recent post about CTM Festival, for example — are labours of love for me in the sense Mark talks about when he says they are things that he feels like he has explicitly written — which is to say, I am aware that this sort of post isn’t very good. They are pieces of writing that I don’t feel particularly proud of once they’re out in the world. I think there’s good stuff in them, for sure — otherwise I definitely wouldn’t post them — but I’m aware that the chaff weighs them down. It is as a result of this that I feel I am able to write and keep writing, and this is something that I’m pretty much okay with that. I don’t really care about writing shit occasionally. The better stuff always rises to the top and I am comfortable with the fact that what people often think is good is largely beyond my control.
My recent post about accelerationism, desire and the “anti-ego” is the perfect example of this. It took off, perhaps because it addressed something a lot of people were talking about on Twitter at that time, but it was, for the most part, a load of word vomit that I threw down on the page and then cut down to its main argument before then sending it out into the world. I wrote it in an hour before bed, then woke up to it doing numbers, and was surprised by that fact.
I tend to admire other people who do this a lot also, although I’m no less surprised when they self-deprecating articulate having a similar relationship to their work. I was reading an interview with Jim O’Rourke the other day, for instance, whose album from 2019, To Magnetize Money and Catch a Roving Eye, I’ve finally taken the plunge with. (I listened to it constantly whilst traveling to, from and around Berlin the other week. It’s an incredible album.)
Jim O’Rourke is someone who occupies various different scenes with ease. He can make the most pristine pop albums — Eureka and Halfway to a Threeway haven’t left the rotation of my regular listening for years and my girlfriend also likes when I play him in the car, particularly his amazing Ivor Cutler cover — but what I love most is that he can write albums like this and then also be a very comfortable improviser. However, his articulation of his relationship to his own work was really surprising to me.
Asked by Stereogum about his older albums and which albums of his — partly because he is so prolific — he wishes people had more of an appreciation for, he responds:
I don’t know directly, but I hear from folks that people still listen to ‘em. Eureka, I’ve got too much on the record about my feelings about Eureka, I’m happy when someone says they like Insignificance ’cause that one came up pretty well considering how quickly I made it. […] I’m waiting for people to like The Visitor. If there’s anything, that’s the one I’m hoping someday people will like because I worked really hard on that one. That’s the one I probably feel the most least uncomfortable about. That one got really close to what I wanted to do. And I learned to play trombone.
This is also something I really admire about a lot of UK producers at the moment, particularly someone like AYA, whose infrequentBandcamp releases, consisting of seemingly half-formed, throwaway ideas and club edits — often made with friends in mind, it seems, and (I want to emphasise) no less amazing despite their “demo” nature — demonstrate an active relationship to the scenes she is immersed in, and I think this is a product of a really interesting development following Bandcamp’s increasing popularity.
Kevin Drumm is another artist worth mentioning here too — given the prolific nature of his Bandcamp page, which I’m proud to say I subscribe to — and you should to. He feels like a new kind of musician for the twenty-first century, who has well and truly embraced a sort of blogger’s mentality within his music-making practice.
I wish more people did this. It feels like a throwback to a 2000s moment when some musicians used to have Blogspot platforms on which to share their demoes and ideas. Bradford Cox is a particularly memorable example.
The way he’d share his demoes on his blog was so inspiring to me as a teenager and I used to do much the same thing, sharing song ideas and covers of songs I recorded in my bedroom through a headset mic. A lot of people did this on MySpace in Hull at that time. Most of the bands I grew up with in that city started off in much the same way. Low Hummer, for instance, currently being treated as new kids on the block by the indie blogosphere, are led by Dan Mawer who I met fifteen years ago specifically through that kind of online prolificness. We all shared a love of lo-fi recordings and the ease with which we could create a scene for ourselves around our MySpace pages. We gigged a lot, locally, off the back of that relationship to blog technologies, and even ended up in the bedrooms of friends who had decent recording gear.
(Tentatively shared Bon Iver cover that I became quite well known for — locally at least — below…)
What I think is important about this now — this sort of “anti-ego” approach to sharing whatever comes into your head on a particular evening — is that it encapsulates, in its own way, the sort of popular modernist sensibility that Mark mourned so publicly.
I was reading Justin Barton’s Hidden Valleys earlier this evening — specifically with my forthcoming undergraduate course in mind — and Justin captures this sensibility really well I think (albeit through a somewhat cumbersome theoretical language). He writes on the book’s first pages, for instance, about the ways in which:
Modernist writers enact a lucid awarenesss of the body without organs, but the exact extent and nature of this dimension tends to be left open. Aspects of the oneirosphere of the human world can be suggested — as with Shakespeare’s inorganic beings having a contact with India that does not involve travel in any ordinary sense — but a modernist dreaming in invoking the body without organs lightly suggests its existence, but does not firmly map its extent or aspects.
Prior to this, he defines modernism as a kind of “eerie arcadianism”, which I interpret precisely to be a way of thinking about your own life and immediate environment through a sort of “anti-ego”; through making your self a conduit for outside forces; making yourself half-present. He writes that “the world of modernism is always transected by an anomalous dimension inhabited by forces that are both positive and negative, and can recurrently prove to be at a higher level of power than the forces of the ordinary world.”
I know for a fact that Justin shares my love of Virginia Woolf — the way in which she wrote so effortlessly without a face, and gave a language to these outside forces more explicitly and lucidly than anyone — and he mentions her book The Waves in this context, noting how two of the characters, Rhoda and Louis, “stand, gazing toward the fluidities of the anomalous dimension” — that is, toward the body without organs; towards the anti-ego that infiltrates a self and its communities.
Justin refers to this anomalous relationship to the world — that is, a relationship that reflects the anomalies it seeks — as a kind of “lucidity”. This relationship is capable of turning an “extraordinary lucidity and courage in the direction of the white wall” — Justin’s phrase for a quotidian form of the transcendental; “a kind of white wall which is pretending here to have nothing much beyond it” — “attempting to see what could be happening, given that there is nothing but ordinary reality, and given the insistent disturbing aspects of the human world.” It is a relationship with the Outside — and, we might note, as Mark put it, “to find ways out is to let the Outside in.”
It is a kind of anti-ego that, even if later articulately through an “I”, is capable of allowing itself to be a conduit for transgressive desires — transgressive in the sense that they permeate, as Justin writes, “across the fundamental religious (oneiric-metaphysical) dreaming and thought-systems of the social field in which [we] find ourselves”.
Here, Justin is discussing Barbara O’Brien’s incredible text Operators and Things — an odd biographical text written by O’Brien in the midst of a very real schizophrenic episode. (I’m not sure how readily available this text is — I read it when it was shared with me in 2017 via a Google Doc link, which felt very appropriately occulted.) However, there are still plenty of other examples of such tales in popular culture.
Whilst sorting through my Discogs inventory earlier, I watched the new Netflix film Horse Girl, starring and co-written by Alison Brie. Brie apparently drew on her own family’s history of mental illness for the story and it is incredibly well done, I think.
Brie plays a shy woman who works in an arts and crafts store and has a neurotic obsession with a horse she rode at a local stable as a child called Willow. The film follows her quotidian existence with a sort of mumblecore vibe until she starts to succumb to a schizophrenic episode that she finds meaning in because she is wholly aware of her mother and grandmother’s previous struggles with mental illness. (It is this same awareness of seemingly hereditary mental illness that Brie drew on for her co-writing credit.) She starts to believe that she is her grandmother’s clone and her nightly dreams of alien abduction, intensified by experiences of lost time and an unconscious penchant for sleep walking, lead her to believe her abductions are very much real experiences, particularly because these are experiences that her grandmother also spoke of. By the end, the film descends into a sort of waking-dream sequence in which we watch Brie’s character living out her delusions with disastrous consequences.
I was really impressed by this film, particularly because Netflix has been incessantly recommending I watch Girl, Interrupted recently — a film I have already seen multiple times and which I have long hated for its high-school-drama-meets-One-Flew-Over-The-Cuckoo’s-Nest plot which romanticises time spent on a women’s psychiatric ward full of big lunch-hall egos.
The difference between the two films, I think, is precisely this sense of “anti-ego”, which Girl, Interrupted infuriatingly lacks. Brie’s character knows, to an extent, that she is “crazy” and that her thoughts are delusional, but she is incapable of wresting herself from the grasp of her schizophrenia whilst she feels it affords her a palpable connection to her immediate family’s prior experiences. She does not feel that she is experiencing something unique and instead feels herself becoming part of an intensive continuum. In the end, she sheds her self entirely, believing that she is not a “clone” of her grandmother but that she is her grandmother, and this alien-familiarity manifests for her as an surreally believable lucidity. These are not anomalies from within her own mind that she is experiencing but rather an anomalous world that others are also plugged into.
The impetus behind Justin’s elucidations on modernism emerge from a similar place. The subtitle to his book — “Haunted by the Future” — resonates with Horse Girl’s dramatisations of a strange templexity in which Brie’s character feels she can perceive the future but also is the future for the alien-subject that is her anomalous and almost mythical grandmother. It resonates profoundly with the conclusion to Justin’s book — which I also use as a chapter epigraph in Egress — which reads:
To travel into the unknown is a sober-joyful process of gaining energy by overcoming self-importance, and by eradicating all forms of self-indulgence — and it is a development of the ability to have effective, creative comradeship-alliances with other human beings. It is a process of perceiving — and dreaming — a way toward wider spaces of existence.
Beyond the ongoing disaster of ordinary reality is the second sphere of action. You don’t get to be there on a sustained basis unless in some sense you are part of a group, and a group can only form (no plan is possible, only continuous improvisation) if you have learned to let yourself be swept away into the intent-currents of Love-and-Freedom that run through the world — intent-currents that take you South, into the Future.
This is a lovely point to end on, and I am fighting a temptation to end this post here also, but I can’t help but want to affirm the very difficulty of enacting this sentiment in day-to-day life.
Because it is so easier said than done, and it is also, frankly, a terrifying process. Justin’s invocation of “intent-currents that take you South” feels like an explicit reference to the horrifyingly liberatory journey that Kerans undertakes in JG Ballard’s The Drowned World, and this is hardly a “sober-joyful journey” into the intensities of community — unless you see lizard–brain people as constituting a kind of intentional community.
And in a way, that is a community of the anti-ego, quite explicitly, and whilst Ballard whilst emphasises the horror of it, the horror is nonetheless an important consideration, because that horror is the horror of giving into alien-familiar desires that take one out of one’s self.
I don’t think I know anyone who is really committed to this sort of communal, body-without-organs thinking who doesn’t find its innate sociality difficult to bear. Maybe that says something about it… Most optimistically, it is a concern for those who feel most stultified by their ego and by its inescapability. That’s certainly how I feel. The question becomes: How can this be enacted in a way that is just an exercise in positive affirmations?
I’m reminded of Simon O’Sullivan’s essay about this, which also features in Egress briefly, in which he articulates the importance of thinking Deleuzian communities precisely because, he says, friendships have never come easy. That essay is a feature because I feel that way too, and the tragic irony of these concerns is that simply having them — over-thinking them — is often an obstacle to enacting them.
A little known fact about me that I always enjoy dropping on unsuspecting new friends is that, for a few years, from the end of primary school to the start of secondary school, I was a passionate figure skater.
Today, at a broad 6″2′, I do not cut a figure of glacial elegance in the slightest. However, before puberty, I was small enough that it somewhat made sense. But I was nonetheless the tallest kid in a small school and always broad shouldered. Looking like a wannabe ice hockey player who got lost, I loved it all the same, even if my body type wasn’t the typical figure skater look.
Living in Hull at the time, famous for its two rugby teams, to be a stocky kid was to be coached for a local rugby team. I was even scouted once at school, invited to try out for Hull Ionians junior team simply because of how I was built. The sensation that I had a body that was desirable — in a sort of utilitarian sense, I mean — was disorientating because, on the inside, I didn’t feel like the tank I was seen as on the outside.
I tried rugby all the same but I didn’t like it. The other boys there were too annoying. It was the same with football. Passion for the game was expressed through anger and aggression. If you weren’t being a cunt, you weren’t playing properly. They seemed to think I didn’t understand it. I didn’t think they understood “it” either.
It wasn’t that I was bad a football or rugby, either. In fact, when it came to football, I was a natural. It was my attitude that was apparently incompatible — but, I thought, for all the right reasons. I did win a football trophy once, for instance. “Best Team Player.” I remember everyone snickering about it because it was seen as a booby prize for taking part but not really achieving anything in terms of points scored. I took pride in it nonetheless. It felt like the award for being the least insufferable. The “Congrats, you’re not an arsehole” trophy.
Because — sometimes to a fault — socially speaking, anyway — I wasn’t competitive in sport and I wasn’t aggressive in my playing style either (no matter the sport I was playing). I had an almost pathological indifference to winning and losing and was made to feel like an alien for it. You’d maybe assume that this was a fairly innocuous affliction. If I won something, I got on with my day. But if I lost, a lack of emotion would usually make another person’s gloating feel cheap. I was always very aware of how another kid’s capacity to celebrate was relative. They could only feel good if they knew someone else felt bad. If I didn’t feel bad, they couldn’t feel good, and they would hold me in violent contempt over it. They were little sociopaths. I had little time for it.
The most important thing for me when it came to physical activity was that I liked moving and having a relationship with my body and neither of those things was dependent on anyone else. They weren’t even dependent on sport. They were the most basic, fundamental boxes to tick, and yet I was always surprised how often the actions of others would get in the way of this. I liked moving all the time, building dens, climbing trees, scurrying through self-made rabbit warrens through the edges of the school playing field or the neighbour’s overgrown gardens. With the pressure put on to provide a structured outlet for this normal childhood hyperactivity, figure skating — but I suppose it could just as easily have been dance or something else — became the ultimate outlet. It wasn’t about competition with other people or even with myself. It was just expressive and that’s what I liked about it. I didn’t even care if it looked good to anyone else. I cared that it felt good and I liked the space moving around on the ice gave me in my mind. It was mentally meditative and physically thrilling all at once.
I flourished here and so, within the space of about a year, I progressed up the skill levels at the local ice rink until I was good enough to join a class where they taught the big tricks. The spins and pirouettes. There was no emphasis on gendered roles here so I wasn’t partnering up with the girls to play support to their feminine finesse — we were all in it together — but when I reached a skill level where I was in the same class as a girl from my school, who had no idea up until that point that I skated, things fell apart.
I’ll never forget the welcome she gave me through gritted teeth. “What are you doing here?” There was a chance she was bitter… We used to live on the same street for a short time but she was such a prima donna that I once told her I didn’t want to play with her anymore. I told her to go home — in a very young, naive but brutally honest fashion — because she was taking the fun out of playing outside by being so horrible to everyone all the time. I couldn’t help but feel like that interaction from a few years previously had left its mark on her, however, and, to an extent, I didn’t blame her, so when she had the opportunity to get her own back, she jumped at it. I had entered her domain and, just as I’d rejected her from my own back garden, she was never going to let me feel a part of this new group. She pushed me out but, devoid of any fighting spirit, I just left and moved onto the next thing. She was still the bully I didn’t like from before but, now on her turf, there was no winning the argument.
All was not lost. I saw Saturday Night Fever for the first time not long afterwards and soon wanted to be John Travolta. I got really into funk, soul and disco, and swapped the ice rink for the local sports hall, spinning around to Curtis Mayfield every Saturday at a local roller disco. (This was the late 1990s / early 2000s — I promise — and not 1974.)
I also tried tennis for a while afterwards, and I got really good at that. It gave me what felt like superhuman hand-eye coordination, which I loved. It also felt like it was more about cardio than anything else, taking the explicit pressure off my legs that had started to struggle under the constant strain they were put under with all my skating, but again, I had no interest in subjecting myself to the skewed personality traits of peers with pushy parents and that was what came to define these experiences. In fact, I had no time for parents at all — theirs or my own.
My Dad, in his youth, had been a talented swimmer who competed at an international level and really encouraged a relationship with the water in me but I walked away from it because I wasn’t interested in being coached by him. He was tough and not very nice and I didn’t like that side of him — something which I think broke his heart a bit but it just wasn’t in my personality to respond well to barking about a need to beat other people or myself in races. Going backwards and forwards fast felt like the most boring kind of swimming there was. (I liked and was best at diving — hardly a surprise.)
I was developing a physical relationship with myself that was devoid of goals. I progressed naturally — as anyone will do if they practice anything — but was otherwise allergic to any external force encouraging a competitive nature. I didn’t care about what anyone else was doing. I just wanted to express myself. Today, swimming still makes me really stressed. I love the water but not getting in it. I would prefer not to.
It was all irrelevant within a few years. Puberty hit soon enough and I remember being so aware of the changes to my body. I gained a lot of “puppy fat” and also had a quite catastrophic growth spurt which was coupled with horrific growing pains in my legs — pain so intense I’d get fevers and hallucinate. (I still remember these hallucinations vividly — Lovecraftian entities at my window and objects flying around my room — these were as informative to a relationship with my mind as the waking pain was to my relationship with my body.) I remember thinking that my sporting days were over when I had a roller disco birthday party one year but I couldn’t skate for the agony. At the hospital the next day, I had x-rays and the doctors discovered that my awkward growth spurt meant my bones were growing at different rates, with my knee joints rubbing against my knee caps and shaving off bits of bone that were getting lodged in my knee cartilage. My ankles went through something similar and any time we did track at school I was guaranteed to roll over on them but there was nothing to do but ride it out with pain killers.
I’ve had problems with my knees ever since. The pain gets really bad in winter when the cold hits. I’m very aware that the general wear and tear of an active life never made me stronger but only brought about more pain, giving me the knees of someone probably twice my age. The number of activities that I’d be able to comfortably partake in — physically and emotionally — dwindled. It was around this time I became interested in photography as an activity that I have always felt is as much about the mind as it is the body. Photography was about exploration, walking, navigating your environment, thinking through sight and movement and responding to encounters. It was also quite solitary but, even with other people around, it wasn’t meant to be competitive. It was about bouncing off each other’s bodies and movements and even including each other in your compositions. It was casually and naturally collective.
This sensibility won out in the end and I went to do an undergraduate degree in photography. I think back to that moment of decision in my life now a lot and wondered if it would have made more sense to do English Literature or Philosophy… I discovered my love of writing whilst studying photography but I think the physical nature of the course was essential. Spending out days physically exploring the world around us and moving and constructing things was what gave the written component such life. The same is true today. How much of my writing is inflected with diaristic elements? Hopefully the above goes some way towards explaining why.
I think about this trajectory from exercise to art quite often and it always makes me laugh when the usual insults and dismissals about inactivity are uttered around these parts, as if writing all the time means sitting on your arse… I mean, it does, but it comes after a great deal of activity. If I can’t relate something to a lived experience, it doesn’t have the same power for me when I’m writing it down. Nevertheless, I can’t count the number of times an intense and over-long blogpost has received the response: “Jeez, dude. Go outside.” In my head, I usually think: “I’ve just come from there… That’s why I’m writing…” It’s all expression.
There are also comments made online about my weight from time to time and I won’t claim that they don’t sting. The few pictures that I have posted online over the last few years no doubt give away the fact that I’m a big guy. I’m tall and broad and, sometimes, quite rotund. My weight fluctuates constantly but my overall size never really does. How much padding I’m carrying around ebbs and flows but I still take up a far amount of space in the world regardless.
These weight fluctuations respond to my mood. I’ve struggled with eating disorders since my early 20s, going through cycles of bingeing and purging when I’m trying to ignore some internal crisis or barely eating at all when my heart is on my sleeve. (The best shape I’ve ever been in was in 2017, for instance, the year after Mark died.) And what I find interesting about this, which I’ve realised during my own self-reflection, is that this is as much an extension of that once proud relationship to my body as any form of exercise. It’s an attempt to physically flush out emotion and distress or keep it outside of myself when the social situation is set up to encourage that. People talk about going for a run or jogging and this making them feel better and encourage it if you have depression as if this relationship with your body will keep the mind at bay. But this dualist understanding of mental ill-health is dangerously ill-informed. I’m fairly certain I’ve told this story before but I remember once, living at home and having been in bed for a week, sometime around 2015, my Dad knocked on my bedroom door and said to me, frustrated but also somewhat compassionately, like the swimming coach of my childhood, that lying in bed for so long might be one of the worst things you can do to your body, and I didn’t know how to explain that that was more gratifying than energising. It is the mind acting upon the body — more often for the worse rather than for the better — but it is a working upon the body nonetheless.
I still wish I had that drive though — that drive to be physically active in a way that was communal and supportive. Having had nothing but negative experiences, it’s something I feel I have an almost pathological aversion to, bringing to mind nothing other than bullies and snide comments and a painful sense of indifference to the entire enterprise. And it hurts sometimes, because it’s not as if I don’t want those experiences. Exercising on my own only makes me feel lonely.
Then you haven’t heard about when I was an aspiring runner, getting into local tournaments. 
I always thought I had a future and my friends were always cheering me. Until the jurors told me, no you are ahead of everyone else because you missed three rounds of coming back to the starting point! That was it, I became a philosopher. 
I mentioned how this sort of trauma reminded me of what Joshua Ramey says about philosophy and “initiatory ordeals” — and this is something I remember talking to Robin about in relation to the Ccru on a few occasions.
How this connects to the above personal history, at least within my mind, is that my relationship to my body — even in its most woeful state — has been something hard won through its own fateful collapse, through the personal experience of having weak knees and the social experience of its competitive rejection, but rather than trigger a theorycel isolation I have simply moved onto other activities through which I can continue to explore this relationship.*
Yesterday I wrote about how you can see this same drive to connect with your body even through physical and mental hardships as having a place within Deleuze’s concept of univocity. Ramey goes on to connect Deleuze’s univocity to the Hermetic tradition instead, in which, he writes:
materiality and spirituality are profoundly united, and that life itself is a process of theandric regeneration in which the nature of the divine is both discovered and produced in an unfolding of personal and cosmic, evolutionary and historical time: “As above, so below.” In short, hermetic thought identifies the very process of natural life with a manifestation of encosmic divinity. In this tradition, there is no clear distinction between the rational and the spiritual; philosophical speculation is viewed as an attempt to explicate transcendental structures common to natural and spiritual realms.
Put another way, this is a similarly why philosophy and psychoanalysis are just natural bedfellows — because both, at their core, are about the excavation of trauma. Whereas psychoanalysis focuses explicitly on the individual, philosophy focuses on the collective — even civilisation itself. (This is why, to an extent, I think “Dark Enlightenments” are inevitable expressions of the death drives within our collective unconsciousness.) It was the Ccru, most effectively, who conjoined mental and cosmic trauma together for the dawning of the 21st century, throwing God out of the equation and replacing Him with capitalism, and the work that has continued since then has extended this “as above, so below” approach to thinking the world in ways that, I think, are incredibly useful for carving out a path ahead.
Reza went on to argue, however: “When you become a philosopher, it always comes with this realization that you became a philosopher because most probably you sucked at every other human endeavor.”
Reza was probably being a bit facetious but it’s an interesting stereotype all the same. (The number of people who liked and retweeted that comment speaks volumes.) That isn’t true in my case. Or many other people’s cases that I know. In fact, there are so many philosophers who harbour secret talents that they could perhaps take on professionally were they not fated to a problem. In fact, I was reminded, in that instant, of talking to Thomas Moynihan about his book Spinal Catastrophism and his bemusement at people constantly being surprised by the fact that he drew all the illustrations in the book himself. I remember we only half-laughed at my response to his bemusement: “You’re not supposed to be good at more than one thing.”
There is certainly a relatable truth to the fact that many of us philosophy types feel “good for nothing” in our daily lives, but that is more a fact of not fitting into productive flows rather than not being good at other activities. Jokes aside, it is important for me personally to recognise — in myself — that I have other ways of navigating this world. Philosophy is not a vehicle but a map, or even a cartography for plotting where I’ve been. The “vehicles” I jump in to explore the world are photography, roller skates, music, writing. It is essential to recognise that philosophy is a thread that runs through these things but it not a vehicle in itself because, as Thomas Murphy later explained, brutally, in response to Reza’s comment:
Every theorycel has such an origin story. Just imagining theorising about something rather than simply doing that something. Risible. 
The theory/praxis distinction is also just theory, mere metaphysical silliness employing binary symbolic oppositions. Repetitive language tricks to make up for failures in virtuosity in other spheres. Tragic really. 
To think of philosophy — or any activity for that matter — as a last resort is surely to surrender the Leibnizian body to its own finitude. (Again, this was discussed yesterday.) To be a theorycel is also, in its own way, to be a body without options.
* As an aside, Deleuze’s comments on learning to swim in Difference & Repetition come to mind here:
The movement of the swimmer does not resemble that of the wave, in particular, the movements of the swimming instructor which we reproduce on the sand bear no relation to the movements of the wave, which we learn to deal with only by grasping the former in practice as signs. … We learn nothing from those who say: ‘Do as I do’. Our only teachers are those who tell us to ‘do with me’, and are able to emit signs to be developed in heterogeneity rather than propose gestures for us to reproduce. In other words, there is no ideo-motivity, only sensory-motivity. When a body combines some of its own distinctive points with those of a wave, it espouses the principle of a repetition which is no longer that of the Same, but involves the Other – involves difference, from one wave and one gesture to another, and carries that difference through the repetitive space thereby constituted. To learn is indeed to constitute this space of an encounter with signs, in which the distinctive points renew themselves in each other, and repetition takes shape while disguising itself.
It is precisely this expression of a “sensory-motivity” over an “ideo-motivity” that I found myself always championing whilst watching Cheer.
Last week I binge-watched the new Netflix series, Cheer, about a life in the Navarro College cheer squad.
Following certain members of the team as they prepare for the Daytona national championships, each episode explores their struggles and hardships and the support and discipline that cheerleading provides them…
Yeah, it’s pretty by-the-numbers…
But it’s captivating watching them throw themselves — quite literally — into cheerleading, navigating the sport alongside their various neuroses, suffering frequent injuries but always getting back up again.
Here, cheerleading is presented as a sport of extremes and one that seems to be getting more extreme every year. More flips, more jumps, more complicated maneuvers, pushing against the capabilities of what a young body can do and heightening the trust required in your fellow team mates to create an immovable bond. And it is a young person’s sport. They talk repeatedly about how there is no competitive cheerleading above the college level. Once you’ve graduated, you’ve aged out.
It’s your one and only chance. It’s all or nothing, until you’re ~25, and then you’re out, and you watch, as a viewer, how the bodies of alumni are so different from those still actively competing. They’re all a lot stockier — just as strong, perhaps, but less nimble — and they are also a lot more settled. The visible weight of their bodies seems to reflect their social status as grounded and well-rounded individuals, in stark contrast to the flying teens required to throw themselves like strands of thread through the eye of a needle. The mat is a microcosm of their young lives in almost every sense.
As a result, college cheerleading becomes this extremophile militant finishing school, where you push yourself to your limits and (hopefully) win big before you take your sense of discipline and your relentless work ethic and your communal consciousness into the State and the Family and then live out the rest of your days.
I struggled with this side of things a bit and couldn’t help but start philosophizing.
Most recently I’ve been thinking a lot about philosophical explorations of embodiment and bodily relation, attempting to work my way through Deleuze’s book on Spinoza, Expressionism in Philosophy, in which he explores Spinoza’s (and also Leibniz’s) Anticartesianism in which “expression” becomes an category of existence that better encapsulates the entangled nature of human experience than cogito ergo sum.
“Being, knowing and acting are the three forms of expression”, Deleuze writes, and he traces the emergence of this thought in Spinoza’s God, nature. Being, knowing and acting are drawn out from a consciousness of God’s acting upon the world and so the act of creation and the very essence of our metaphysical emanation within the world unfolds us across the world in which we see God.
God, nature then becomes, for Spinoza, a positive feedback loop between ourselves and our consciousness of the world outside ourselves. Deleuze articulates the radicality of this position with far more clarity. He writes that expression
at once gives back to Nature its own specific depth and renders man capable of penetrating into this depth. It makes man commensurate with God, and puts him in possession of a new logic: makes him a spiritual automaton equal to a combinatorial world. Born of the traditions of emanation and creation it makes of these two enemies, questioning the transcendence of a One above Being along with the transcendence of a Being above his Creation.
This is Deleuze’s concept of univocity. What we can say of God and nature is always also applicable to humans or things. The body without organs is a univocal way of thinking things in their parallelism. A mind is a body is a world. The world is a body is a mind. However, whilst Deleuze notes how Leibniz and Spinoza both express this sentiment, he sides with Spinoza’s particular interpretation because, as he sees it, Leibniz introduces a finality to this process. Univocity, for him, as with Spinoza, is “an absolute rule” and so to predict its end and restrict it to a set of known categories is to predict an end to expression as such, as if it is possible that we will eventually say and do all things, as if the world and the human body and everything in between will not continuously reevaluate their limits as our understanding and our technics continue to develop. It is a positive feedback loop all the way down. As Deleuze describes it:
Expression in Nature is never a final symbolization, but always, and everywhere, a causal explication.
It is here that the enforced cut-off of cheerleading becomes a poignant problematic. In applying a sense of finitude to its own process, it restricts the embodied imagination of these athletes in an oddly ideological way, creating a false ceiling where they believe they have pushed beyond to the very limits of what a body can do in their present moment and this somehow makes the compromise of a settled life more important. This is your one path to the limit-experience of cheerleading and, from such heights, there is a single path back down again. To deviate from it is to sin. To stray from it is to let down your team. You retreat when we tell you too. Then, and only then, you must take all you have learned at the limits of embodied experience and apply it to a life lived within its means. Those means may seem infinitely extensive and far reaching on the mat with our fellow team mates but it cannot last forever and so, if you are to pass this extension on to your offspring, it is necessary that you learn how to step back and step down into the social traditions that have made this experience possible.
Cheerleading becomes a sacred experience, almost religious in its habitude. Sundays are for limit-experiences. Every other day you humble yourself against the glory of the superego. It becomes, at once, a control value and an accelerant for radical embodiment. The control value, however, always has the final say.
Maybe that’s fine. Maybe that’s a legitimate ethical position to take as an expressive being-in-the-world. Deleuze and Spinoza, however, would disagree. Such a thought process makes ethical the soul’s limiting of the body in the name of a higher cause, precisely what Spinoza was rebelling against. As Deleuze writes, explaining Spinoza’s Anticartesian “parallelism”, Spinoza’s thought “overturns the moral principle by which” the actions of the body are the passions of the mind. He continues, first quoting Spinoza directly:
“The order of actions and passions of our body is, by nature, at one with the order of actions and passions of the mind.” What is a passion in the mind is also a passion in the body, what is an action in the mind is also an action in the body. Parallelism thus excludes any eminence of the soul, any spiritual and moral finality, any transcendence of a God who might base one series on the other. And parallelism is in this respect practically opposed not only to the doctrine of real action, but to the theories of preestablished harmony and occasionalism also. We ask “Of what is a body capable? Of what affections, passive as well as active? How far does its power extend?” Thereby, and thereby only, can we know of what a soul is in itself capable, what is its power. Thereby we find a means of “comparing” the power of the soul with that of the body, and so find a means of assessing the power of the soul considered in itself.
To encourage this embodied exploration to such extremes in childhood only to curtail it at its peak starts to resemble a violence. Deleuze continues on this point:
Reason, strength and freedom are in Spinoza inseparable from a development, a formative process, a culture. Nobody is born free, nobody is born reasonable. And nobody can undergo for us the slow learning of what agrees with our nature, the slow effort of discovering our joys. Childhood, says Spinoza, is a state of impotence and slavery, a state of foolishness in which we depend in the highest degree on external causes, and in which we necessarily have more of sadness than of joy; we are never more cut off from our power of action. The first man, Adam, corresponds to the childhood of humanity. This is why Spinoza so forcefully opposes the Christian, and then rationalist, traditions which present Adam to us as reasonable, free and perfect before his fall. Rather should we imagine Adam as a child: sad, weak, enslaved, ignorant, left to chance encounters. “It must be admitted that it was not in the first man’s power to make a right use of reason, but that, like us, he was subject to passions.” That is to say: It is not sin that explains weakness, but our initial weakness that explains the myth of sin.
It is with this in mind that I found the most interesting member of the Navarro cheer team to be a young girl who had auditioned for Navarro college and got in based on her “potential”. She’d had a troubled upbringing and came from a working class background. She had an assault charge against her name and repeatedly throughout the series her past comes back to haunt her. Her prior passions always, at all times, threaten her position within the team whilst, at the same time, she resents the external obstacles that have made this such an achievement for her against the relative ease of the other cheerleaders, and these external causes never quite go away. First, she’s a victim of revenge porn. Then, at the end, she’s busted during a car stop for having — it is suggested — weed in her car.
Despite having a hugely successful year at Navarro, and even entering the history books, so they say, for being able to perform a certain combination of skills that no one else ever has, she’s booted off the team for the possession charge and returns home.
They downplay her post-Navarro experience but I couldn’t imagine the torture of it. At first, early on in the series, she’s openly hostile. She has imposter syndrome, all too aware of that fact that everyone has a chip on their shoulder due to some sort of hardship but, for the most part, all she sees is rich kids regardless. She overcomes that perception and ingratiates herself into the team but she never escapes the trailer park kid inside. “Don’t you want family; kids?” the coach asks at one point, and she says yes, and the whole experience is then reframed as an opportunity for her to escape her former self, transcend her class and settle.
The last we see of her, she’s back at home, no longer a cheerleader, dancing with friends at an EDM concert, covered in glitter. Despite the melancholy of her voiceover, she’s still living her life and continuing her relationship with her body and the world around her through movement and dance. The reject she is supposed to have, presumably, is that she is doing this whilst eschewing the rules and regulations of the middle class microcosm in which she had previously found herself.
I wanted to reach out to her and be like, “Hey, ignore all this bullshit, framing you as a disappointment and a failure. You’re still living it.” She’s still exploring her body through these extremes of experience. So what if she wants to get high and dance rather than throw herself into human pyramids? She may not be cruising towards cheerleader stardom but she’s still a body. Just because they are not channeled into this extremist pressure point shouldn’t mean she is somehow missing out. Better that she sustains that experience and this relationship to herself throughout her life, allowing it to persist rather than burn out. Her sidestepping from a given moral code is more preferable than accepting her destin as a middle-aged body without options.
It’s my birthday today. I am 28 years old. I have completed my twenty-eighth trip around the sun.
Every year, as my birthday approaches, I feel a chill inside that grows and intensifies. Mental functioning becomes erratic and unpredictable. I retreat inwards and want to isolate myself. I feel like Kerans sailing south on solar winds.
The cold brings with it another kind of intensity. Not the jungle intensity of heat, of Heart of Darkness but the glacial intensity of cold, of The Thing. Perhaps this is what seasonal affective disorder is. I like the cold, though. The only issue is coping with my birthday.
Even as a kid, with little knowledge of what the day meant, it was a day I wanted to hide away. Performing happiness for the sake of making family feel good about it, letting them know I was having a good time, only made it worse. This hasn’t gone away as I’ve gotten older. The impetus put on family at Christmas and the dysfunctional and fractured nature of my own only makes me want to hide away more.
I haven’t tried to hide away from anything this year. Over the past few weeks, and the last few days in the lead up to Christmas especially, I have slowly been chipping away at a new book project on adoption and subjectivity — and finding it very therapeutic, I might add — but it seems like there is no shield against once again passing through the primal wound.
Birthdays are when this primal wound truly opens up, as if my emotions are at the mercy of some internal calendar that slips back into a default state of mourning, on that day when the trauma was first experienced. It happens every year like clockwork.
The sad thing is that I quite like Christmas, if only because it is the one holiday I can switch off completely from the outside world, but a tumultuous inner experience rises up to meet the new calm on the 26th nonetheless.
This year, like every year, I’ve felt distant and distracted. It’s strange because I did the annual trip to see my birth and adoptive mothers the other day and found it, for the first time since it became a tradition, to be a really lovely and calming occasion. Nothing went awry. In fact, it went so well and ended in such high spirits that I thought I had altogether dodged the usual seasonal depression to follows it. That night, however, I found that I wasn’t myself and I haven’t quite gotten back to myself since.
The book project is about affirming these sorts of negatively libidinal experiences; affirming the sense of displacement that comes from the adoptive experience and using it to step off one map and onto another. But there’s no circumventing birthdays and the intensity of the occasion pummels any thinking — not matter how wishful or wilful — back into where it came from, levelling everything to the level of the unconscious. It disturbs. There are forces at play that have other ideas and I feel myself bending to their will no matter my own.
Every other day of the year I have some Deleuze and some Nietzsche in my back pocket for moments like this, when fate feels cruel. However, today, there is no hope for me. There’s nothing to do but ride it out and wait for a natural emergence from the other side of the sun, using January as a springboard into the new year.
So, how do you do that? How do you stay afloat through such a feeling?
With a goth birthday excursion, of course.
This afternoon we drove to Macclesfield on the pretense of checking out some of the Boxing Day sales. I had a browse around a bookshop and bought Deborah Curtis’ biography of her late husband and his band Joy Division before swinging by their old house at 77 Barton Street.
It’s still used and lived in today so it’s not really much of a pilgrimage spot, especially at Christmas time. It felt a little bit intrusive to be taking photos of the street so I didn’t hang about. I was greeted almost immediately by a very friendly cat though.
Later, we went to Macclesfield cemetary where “love will tear us apart” is carved onto Curtis’ memorial stone.
There’s a song that encapsulates a cold intensity that seems to define Curtis’ legacy but it is not the only one. He was consistent; fated to a problem. Deborah’s biography already bears the title “Touching from a Distance”, taken from the lyrics of the song “Transmission” — a title that encapsulates a certain kind of paradox — a cold intimacy. The lyrics in the back of the edition I picked up list countless others that speak to this coldness as well.
What I find most affecting, however, is how incessantly Curtis writes of love as a mixture of hot and cold. “Heart and soul, one will burn.” They pivot from one to another. The best way to affirm the mixed feelings of this time of year is evidently to listen to Joy Division, latching onto those recordings of Curtis’ own elliptical orbit.
I’ve been struggling recently with a new awareness of the counter-intuitive nature of this blog’s openness — a trait that I’m aware Xenogothic has become somewhat known for and which is often mentioned when I meet readers — which begins to feel less cathartic and more reckless the bigger this platform grows.
The advised response to this feeling is, undoubtedly, to retreat. The bigger something like this becomes, the less advisable it is to use it as an emotive soap box. But this “open” approach is so important to why I do what I do here that I have developed a tendency to just grin (or often scowl) through an emergent anxiety regarding what I am required to lose in letting this space grow perpetually. If not exactly “sell out”, there is great potential to “lose out” in other senses.
These anxieties triggered something of a bloggers’ block recently… Admittedly no one would ever notice my blogger’s blocks if I didn’t mention them on here but I feel them intensely even if they’re nonetheless short-lived and without much public consequence. They are minor mental health crises for me. I go into existential meltdown when I don’t have something to think about at all hours of the day. It’s an existential restlessness; a loss of contentment that attempts to remedy itself by forcing out half-baked content.
In response to this feeling, I decided to do what I always do when I find myself in this sort of bind and revisit an old emotional brain-fart, lingering in my drafts, often thousands of words long, where I just let whatever’s inside fall out onto my keyboard and see if I can’t exorcise some of the bad feelings that I’ve accumulated.
Prior to the moment in which you’re reading this post in particular, this was precisely that draft, started sometime towards the end of 2018.
The question that has been haunting me for sometime is: what am I running away from? And why do I run towards the shade cast by some monolithic “I” when it is precisely the “I” that I feel like I’m losing touch with and even wanting to escape from, in the long-term…
What follows is a bloated post about the apparent narcissism of blogging and an obsessive (and no doubt related) questioning of the reasons for this particular blog’s existence…
Following on from an old post about why I blog and what I think it’s all about — which was prompted by a really lovely comment that I should do well to remember in times of exhaustion over Twitter’s persistent miserablism — I nonetheless started this companion post alongside it at the end of last year which was prompted by a comment that was much less positive.
Back in March I received a very grumpy comment on the final post of my “Patchwork Epistemologies” series from some disgruntled reader who had presumably just read all 15,000 words of it and was left aggressively dissatisfied. (Fair enough — that’s how I felt after writing it as well.)
This dissatisfied commenter wrote:
This really speaks much less to Reza and his thinking as much as it reveals your own pitiful need to speak of yourself; vain attempts at speaking out and connecting yourself to figures of status or import. A sad yet typical example of such blogophile existence.
So goes the old adage: it’s always the negative comments that stay in your mind far longer than the positives ones. (And it did stick around for a while but I’d forgotten all about it before revisiting this draft… An occupational hazard as a blogging masochist with an ocean of unpublished drafts…)
However, this didn’t feel like much of a shot across my bow at that time because I’m now well accustomed to blogospheric ankle-biting and, for what it’s worth, I really don’t like that series much either… I was done with it by Part Four and only powered through it out of a sense of duty and commitment to the series. (God forbid I leave anything unfinished, even if the final product suffers as a result.)
So why return to this comment at all? All this time later?
On reflection, I probably should have left my email exchange with Reza as a private conversation but, after getting Reza’s blessing and encouragement to transpose it to Xenogothic and feeling that my attempts to find a way into Intelligence & Spirit might be interesting to others too (even if they failed), I felt like I had a duty to deliver on it.
But on even further reflection, I don’t think it was an introduction to Intelligence & Spirit that I was looking for… Not really… It was something else… The mistake was not realising that before advertising it as something it wasn’t.
Nevertheless, I got what I was originally — and unconsciously — looking for, and it is this that this comment now speaks to, albeit inversely. This commenter was mistaken in thinking I wanted an excuse to speak for myself. It was rather an attempt to lose myself (productively) before the Rupture of Reza…
What this disgruntled comment failed to consider, no doubt because the anon was a few months late to the original party, was that this series — in the context of broader Twitter conversations — was borne explicitly out of the way in which Reza’s arrival on Twitter really fucked things up for a while last year — for better and for worse.
His debates with Thomas Murphy, in particular, were some of the most intense threads I remember reading online for some time — now lost to the ether after Reza deleted his Twitter account. There is no better way to trigger an intense bout of impostor syndrome than watching two incredibly smart people slog it out as you watch on, mouth agape, with no real idea what either side is talking about.
As such, I fell into a bit of a crisis around that time as a result. I couldn’t think or read or get a handle on anything. I felt totally ungrounded and dumb. I think this was because I’d already been questioning everything at the time (and my mental health wasn’t that great either). I had one of those moments where everything seemed up in the air and all ideas and convictions needed to either be regrounded or discarded — a process that is, more often than not, private and quietly distressing.
(To be clear: I think this is a good thing to go through, and this experience is no doubt common to many, scaring many people off as well as encouraging others to throw themselves further down the rabbit hole. Suffice it to say, whether good or bad, the experience is always — at least initially — very disorientating.)
I felt linguistically deficient, incapable of reading tweets never mind books, and this was even more frustrating amidst the new intensities that had emerged out of a Reza-triggered interest in Sellars and Carnap — two figures I had never previously read before in a field that I was wholly unfamiliar with.
This moment was undoubtedly a catalyst for some broader insecurities that were undoubtedly felt by many others also. @GoodBoyMachine put it best (and most humorously) when they tweeted:
Reza came in and disrupted the discourse, forcing it out of stagnation, new territories have been drawn, a force of difference preventing the repetition of the same. Now he leaves us, perhaps to return once a new order has been established so he may dismantle it once again???
But, taking this tweet far more seriously than was perhaps intended, we might ask ourselves if “The Discourse” really was disrupted by a barrage of new ideas? Was it not, instead, that the terms of habitual online engagement were infiltrated by a language and a mode of thinking that was alien to most who hang around in these parts? Wasn’t it more precisely the struggle to fold Reza into the communicative logics of Twitter?
This is, I suspect, something that Reza himself got off on — at least for a time. He seems to love being a cat amongst pigeons, shaking up thoughts and complacencies by dragging people in and out of disparate zones of comfort and intellectual distress.
This is, arguably, a reputation that Cyclonopedia and Intelligence & Spiritnow share, at least amongst a diffusely “Weird” Twittersphere. (He’s not alone in having this affect on a conversation, of course, even around these parts, but it was very clear that this was his immediate impact on the timeline.)
This was a particularly confusing experience for me personally. I’d studied Cyclonopedia as a postgraduate student in a class that was dedicated to its contrarian twists and turns. As such, I felt like I knew Reza’s work and then immediately found out that I really did not. I knew one of a multiplicity of Reza’s — and this Reza is not much like the others.
This was emphasised, at that time, by the work I was doing at Urbanomic on both Intelligence & Spirit and Reza’s forthcoming collection Abducting the Outside. Reading through the entire trajectory of Reza’s thought, with all of its offshoots, is an intoxicating experience.
Beyond these multiplicities, however, as I saw it, Reza had once been (generally speaking) “one of us” — part of a weird online philosophical milieu that grew out of the Ccru and into the accelerationist blogosphere of the late-00s and early-10s. Many people have since diverged from this point into countless new territories but that foundational online interest in weird philosophies and politics is at least somewhat similar and familiar to both generations of the blogosphere.
We here today are the generation that followed and, even though there is plenty of overlap, I find the discontinuities and new depths explored by the current crowd really interesting to consider in light of what has come before us because the relationship between one and the other isn’t always as clear cut as some attempts at online historicising might suggest.
Are the differences a product of our sociopolitical moment? Is there something else at stake entirely today?
The questions I later emailed to Reza, in the midst of a long and meandering self-introduction, went something like this:
Are we starting from the same place? Are we going in
the same direction (albeit on different paths)? Where have the divergences
occurred? Is it possible for us to discuss these differences productively? What
foundations can we lay in order to make some sort of newly productive
Because that’s the ideal, right? Even if you don’t agree with someone, there is often a way to nonetheless build a dialogue and a friendship between two disparate points.
Not wanting to perpetuate the specific sort of bad-faith sniping that defines many a Twitter encounter — which I know I nonetheless have a paranoid tendency to internalise, assuming every anon wants their own clout-farming “gotcha” moment (and I’m sure many others feel this way too) — I wanted to affirm a desire to pursue a friendship with Reza which explicitly came out of a different conversation he had recently had in orbit of the publication of Intelligence & Spiritwith Robin in NYC — and likewise from working on Abducting the Outside — in which he framed his current intellectual project as an attempt at “understanding how changes in our self-conception necessarily lead to the transformation of our collective modes of acting”.
This (admittedly broad) description of his contemporary project felt like a good way to describe the principles of this blog too — again: generally speaking — with my own patchwork posts emphasising this point repeatedly and the very name “xenogothic” emerging from a desire to reinvigorate the subjective ruptures so closely associated with the literary gothic into a newness beyond the tired conversative aesthetics associated with the genre more broadly.
This is to say, there is an attempt to speak to a new self-conception that I see emerging somewhere between our consolidated understanding of the individualised subject and other burgeoning (post-)national identities — a far more chimerical “idpol” which perpetually ruptures an apparent striving amongst most leftists for a new (or even “newly old”; post-Trumpian) age of consensus. Reza’s project echoes these concerns, albeit presently more concerned with the technological development of AI and how this impacts philosophies of mind.
Hearing and transcribing the conversation between Reza and Robin for the Urbanomic website renewed a confidence in my gut that the distance between what Reza and others were interested in was not as vast as the temperature of the heated Twitter debates may have, at first, suggested.
More than anything, it was clear that Reza’s new book — notably only his second following 2008’s uncategorizable Cyclonopedia — presented him with an opportunity to have a public-facing do-over. In clear opposition to his once clandestine (and notably Landian) online persona, Reza was newly open to talking to anyone and everyone, countering his previous — and undoubtedly geopolitically enforced — mystery, embracing the pedagogic side of para-academia and wanting to offer advice to anyone, regardless of their background and academic clout.
This, again, is a principle I really admire in him.
However, I won’t say much more on this. This was a topic discussed in my previous series and I don’t have the energy to rehash it here any further. This is really not that post.
I suppose what I’m really trying to say with all of this is that any perceived vanity I demonstrate on this blog is an acknowledgement that any consideration of your own position, whatever that may be — and particularly in this (perhaps woefully) blogospheric context — has to start with some sort of confession and some broader context, and it is precisely this act that opens oneself out to others. Indeed, it’s the driving force behind my forthcoming book Egress. As narcissistic as it might seem when done badly, it’s a wholly ethical consideration and an attempt at a tandem grounding and ungrounding of human relations.
(Justin Murphy has found great success pursuing a “very online” version of this, we might note, albeit by embracing an antagonistically Catholic confessional position that brings in the clicks like nothing else, but I feel like Justin’s apparently “radical honesty” tell us far more by way of what it omits rather than what he chooses to dramatically overshare.)
My confession, if I have one, is no doubt common to many: despite my apparent follower clout, being on Twitter regularly makes me feel dumb as fuck. And, frankly, I’m okay with that and I’m okay with admitting it.
It is with this in mind that the rest of that disgruntled old comment becomes interesting — and even amusing — to me. I’m not mad about it. (Honest.) Its accusatory tone suggests that my perpetual focus on myself is some sort of blind-spot, like I don’t realise I’m talking about myself all the time on this blog.
I am aware I am. I know I am. I, I, I, I.
In fact, I notice in more casual messages to friends that “I” is often wholly erased from my vocabulary, so aware am I of every time I hit the “I” key on a keyboard. Sentences rarely start with subjects and, IRL, I have a distinctly paranoid aversion to talking about myself. It’s a level of vulnerability that, paradoxically, I’m only able to do online. Perhaps because, to my mind, this blog is just a journal or notebook. I tend to try and ignore the fact it’s accessible to and actively read by thousands.
Suffice it to say, I think about every instance of “I”. That’s, in part, what this space is for — for me, anyway. But, despite appearances, it’s not my entire life. This blog is just one outlet amongst many. It’s an unusually polished box in the corner of my room where I chuck all the thoughts that don’t come out of my mouth. (My girlfriend will likewise attest to the fact I’m actually very quiet in person and awful at small talk.) The blog is where “I” is let loose; where what Mark Fisher called “subjectivist fuzz” is allowed to run wild, precisely because it is being powered by something else from elsewhere.
Mark couldn’t have been more correct in describing the experience of blogging as follows, in one of my all-time favourite K-Punk posts, and it is an answer I think of everytime I get asked the question of how I write so much:
The answer is that it isn’t me who’s writing.
Modesty? Metaphor? Or (lol) post-structuralism?
No. A strictly technical description of how this body has been used as a meat puppet for channeling uttunul signal.
It’s only when the writing is bad that ‘I’ have produced it. When it’s good ‘I’ am just a space through which Lemuria speaks.
The writing is already assembled on the plane and all ‘I’ can do is bodge it by introducing subjectivist fuzz.
As mystical as this sounds it is nevertheless wholly true: I’d feel much better about “Blob Blob Blobby” being the second-most popular post on this blog if it hadn’t been written in its entirety on a one-hour lunch break. Whenever I read it back to myself, I find it very difficult to put myself back in the shoes I was wearing when I wrote it. It truly feels like something channelled from elsewhere. (The meme-response: “Did Mr. Blobby write this?” is probably more accurate than you might think.) By contrast, I always end up trying to signal boost my old post “Lover’s Flight” because it’s not only a personal favourite but because I slaved over it. But the things you slave over never do the same sorts of numbers… People can tell when you’re being taken for a ride by something else within you and it is intoxicating to read. (It’s what I look for in all the writing I read for fun.)
Anyway, the plane on which this writing is assembled is likewise the plane through which I try to pass all of my readings. Specifically, I often consciously pass texts through my everyday experiences on the off-chance they slide across that plane where they can be picked up and absorbed by that something-else and that’s always a valuable starting point for me. But this type of reading always begins from a woefully parochial position. Reading anything — well, most things — the question is always: What are the stakes in this? And what are the stakes for me reading it? What does it mean for my worldview; for the way I comport myself to the world around me? This is only ever a starting point because that “me”, that “I”, might not be the same by the time I’ve finished reading whatever it is I’m reading. It’s always an attempt to chart the slippage that occurs when consuming something outside yourself.
In fact, as I’ve written recently, I really like philosophy that starts with and then attempts to obliterate the “I” in this way. It’s something in common with the art I like also. I recognise how ephemeral that “I” is; how fragile and transitory. The “I” is a writerly obelisk that has a tendency to dominate but, the more you look at it, the thinner it appears, constituting a succession of snakes-and-ladders detours throughout any text. It’s the “I, I, I, I, I, I” of Kathy Acker; the “I” of Bataille; the selfishness of a selfie. It’s not a grounding but an ungrounding, and this was especially true of getting to know Reza and his work, and the work of everyone else who orbits these parts. (More on that later.)
Not to compare situations in the slightest but I did really related to how Nina Power addressed this question of who “Nina Power” the online writer is and what her aims are — a question she asked of herself in a blog post that addressed all her recent — albeit perpetually unfolding — life drama. (No further comment on that drama on this blog — there’s plenty of that elsewhere and, the more words accumulated about that, the more anxious I think everyone gets.)
Nina asks, wondering why she’s even bothering to write a
response to her critics in the first place:
Is writing this now just a sort of perversely enjoyable thing to do, to get things clear in my mind, or to divert myself because I have other things to do as always, as everybody does, and maybe I am trying to soothe myself, because writing, and not sleep, and not anything else, unfortunately for me, and also unfortunately for my readers, ha ha, is what works the best?
Reading this for the first time, I felt like clipping it and sticking it permanently to my blog’s header as some sort of warning — because writing does work best, for better but also, more often, for worse. (And it seems to work best for those who want to take Nina to task also — feeling like they themselves are called into question by bearing witness to perceived sociopolitical shifts.) But whereas they seem to want to account for themselves within a contemporaneously progressive milieu, Nina’s response was admirable for its honesty in wanting to account for herself to herself. And what else are blogs for? Agree with her or not — and there are some instances where I’m know we disagree — I admire the self-awareness and the working through of that self-awareness in public. (As suspect as the somewhat selective — and therefore untrustworthy — “radical honesty” that Justin Murphy has spoken to is, I still admire Nina’s previous posts on this topic for the blatant intellectual — and, more broadly, ontological — questions she attempts to tackle.)
Writing is likewise how I process stuff and it always has been. This blog is almost two years old but I have had at least one blog or another on the go since at least 2004. I was a geocities baby at first and a prolific MySpace blogger after that. I have about two dozen blogspots (thankfully) lurking in password-protected obscurity, as successive online masks have become redundant. The timeline is quite astounding to me when I think about it. I’ve never not had a blog at any time over the last 15 years. That’s just under half of my life at this point. Maybe that is just a symptom of being a narcissistic millennial but — what can I say? — I love blogs and it’s even occasionally been my day job to run them. (In fact, I’ve just set up a new one at my new day job as a communications manager for an art gallery… I can’t help myself…)
What is weird about blogging at the moment, however, is that
this sort of tension only comes from having accrued a certain amount of
followers. I do still write like I’m talking to myself — because, in a
lot of ways, I am — and that’s fine
when you’re a little blog with only accidental views. (“It’s a diary. Who
cares?” I try to assure myself.) Nowadays, however, having inadvertently
swelled to some 3500 followers across various platforms, I feel like my tone is
starting to feel weird to some, as if I should take better account of my
audience and the diminished size of my “I” in that context. But that only makes
the “I” more interesting…
…Somewhere down the line of thinking about all this and writing this mammoth exercise in depressive navel-gazing, and trying to account for and challenge it, I heard that Nic Roeg died — yes, this draft is really quite old — and this weird disorientated spiral of insufficiency went all the way back down to ground zero; to the first extended piece of writing I was ever happy with.
I ended up thinking about the last decade of my life, how the hell I even ended up here, and I decided to read my undergraduate dissertation again…
Nic Roeg directed a few films that have been hugely important to me at various stages of my life so far. The first was The Witches, which I have such vivid memories of watching as a kid although having no knowledge of him as a director. (The scene where the witches take off their disguises legit gave me nightmares for years.) Then there’s The Man Who Fell To Earth, which is iconic, of course, but it was Don’t Look Now that sank its teeth into me furthest.
I watched Don’t Look Now about a dozen times in 2013 and the opening scene even more frequently. It was the inspiration for my undergraduate dissertation on anxiety and photography — a truncated 2015 edit of which I put on the blog a while back — and, after hearing about Roeg’s death, I couldn’t help but read it again for myself.
Despite always pitching the essay as being about “anxiety” and “photography”, today I know it was about so much more than that. It was my first fumbling attempt to articulate something below the surface that had repeatedly gotten in the way of my attempts to make photography. There was an “anxiety” present, for sure, but about what? I discussed it abstractly in terms of a Lacanian “lack”, as so many photography theorists had already done, but this isn’t satisfactory anymore.
Today, I know that this essay was about all of those things that I continue to write about on the blog. (“The Primal Wound” is a better and more mature account of it, I think.) Most of these things are likewise encapsulated in Roeg’s film — based on a short story by Daphne Du Maurier, no less, who I have been obsessed with for a lot of this past year, particularly her book The House on the Strand.
Ruminating on this anew, I think I can summarise what it is I perpetually write about here and elsewhere as follows:
Loss and mourning, and the speculative ways we might deal with these affects that might actually be productive — how can the intensive affects of grief survive the cold rationalism of so much philosophy, and vice versa? (As much as I believed this to be a recent concern, following Mark’s death, my previous writing on photography makes it clear this was not the case. I’ve always struggled through grief with philosophy, turning to the latter to process the form, and finding myself somewhere in between.)
“Me”, or “I” — the “I” of photography and of writing and their immanent obliterations through their violent sublimation when presented in an “image” or a “text”; the tandem formation and collapse of the subject through appearances — which is to say, the burden of (re)presentations. (See my essay “Points of View” for a specifically photographic exploration of this.)
The “cybergothic”, in the broadest and most generous and internally perforated sense of the term — how the traumatically new is so often understood and processed through our understandings of the ruptures of a radical “before” (deep time, the dead, the redundant, etc.).
Fate, choice, agency; the pathologies of a nascent para-phenomenology.
…I could go on but these are the main four. If I’ve written about it on this blog, chances are there is shades of it in that undergraduate essay.
When I finished reading my dissertation again, recognising
the naive and tentative explorations of these topics, which I explored, in my
mind, as just “anxiety” and “photography”, not really
understanding either, despite the relative depth of my research, I was newly
aware that what interested me was the way that these two things were, in
essence, “symptoms” of something deeper. And this something has
stayed with me ever since. I don’t write about anything else, when I really
think about it.
And I thought about this for weeks, particularly when Reza appeared on Twitter and in my inbox, eventually tweeting about it, and the tweets I wrote got a response that I really wasn’t expecting. It turns out this bizarre sensation was very relatable (but of course it is!).
Every time I reread my undergrad dissertation I am shocked to find all the antecedents to what I continue to write about in there, 5 years later, but also I remember that, at the time, I had no idea what I was talking about. 
It makes me feel really weird to think that everything I continue to discover is stuff I intuitively knew already on some level from cultural interests but didn’t think could be articulated with words. 
After I finished reading my old dissertation, I found myself remembering that “Fresh-Faced Graduate” head space that immediately followed its completion, openly excited and quietly depressed in late 2013, traumatised and thrilled by everything in equal measure, so similar to the feeling I have right now: that pregnant lull when — after going a few rounds with Education and a certain mode of expression — you look up for a moment and realise just how much you have left to learn beyond what has now become, inevitably, a kind of “comfort zone”.
But here the paradox emerges. Yes, it is all well and good to expand your horizons and find new modes of thinking beyond the ones you know. But does the subject matter itself ever really change? Is this, to put it another way, an templex process of becoming what you’ve always already been? How to account for the realisation that what has been arrived at in the end was always already there in the beginning? I later tweeted:
I also just remembered in one of our first lectures as [undergraduate] students, a lecturer told us (re art practice) “you’re only gonna have one idea in your life which you’ll approach from a dozen different angles”. This is true in my experience so far in writing too. And it’s annoying af. 
Don’t Look Now remains a horrifying example of this sensation: the traumatic collisions within its narrative between academic research and a para-ontological searching; the myth that the careerist buoyancy of an academic life can falsely calm the sea of a life being lived. As Donald Sutherland discovers to his horror in Roeg’s adaptation, the traumas you keep in your back pocket fall out when you least expect them to, always after we’ve forgotten they are there. Academic research becomes a surrogate process for something else and, in Don’t Look Now, these lines of enquiry are constantly blurred.
On closer inspection, the editing in Don’t Look Now — and, as a result, the experience of watching the movie itself — begins to reflect the experience of thinking-in-itself for me. The dead-ends and unnatural rhythms, the internal narrative loops, the Eternal Return of the same that actively encourages repeated viewings (an externalised memorial reminiscence) in order to sketch out its fated loops — does the opening sequence not contain within itself the entire plot of the movie, retold at a different scale? Each, so closely related, is nonetheless discombobulating and anxiety-inducing in their own unique ways, only making sense after the fact.
Having revisited this essay, this film, and still wanting to reground myself, still wanting to find the base of my fated problems once again, in the face of recent Twitter ruptures, I decided to see just how far back these concerns go.
And. at the risk of deeply embarrassing myself, I wanted to share my findings with you…
When my undergraduate photography class was told we would inevitably be “fated for a problem”, I was just 19 years old at that time and it was a pretty depressing prospect. We had our whole lives ahead of us! Surely we couldn’t be fated so soon? But it was true. In fact, it was already true. Even the work I had done. aged 15 to 18, as a GCSE and A Level art student, was about these same issues, wrestling with constructions and deconstructions of the self.
Digging back through some of the more embarrassing corners
of my photographic archive, I see the same problems visually — but also
terribly — represented, coming into view completely devoid of nuance. Raw and
Aged 16, I was obsessed with building rudimentary masks for my friends, putting tape onto their faces to make a canvas and collaging or drawing onto it. (It was all very Tumblr 2005.) I would document the construction of the masks and, then, I’d also document the — often painful — process of pulling it off. (Below: my old school friend Callum, taking one for the team.) (Obviously, they also made good GIFs but GIFs were not as readily accepted “art objects” back then as they are now.)
There was little thought behind this practice. It was just fun to do. In fact, this series in particular was made on a lunch break, hanging out in the art rooms, a strange mixture of emo kids and enthusiasts who hadn’t yet discovered smoking behind the bike sheds and so truly had nothing better to do.
At some point, over the next year, I moved onto self-portraits, and I remember, somewhat bitterly, my grades for these experiments were atrocious (but I think rightly so). I wasn’t interested in the process of constructing my own identity, as was very common fodder for teenage art projects, but rather how my identity was, in that moment, actively being constructed from the outside, endearingly but also traumatically, by friends and family and even teachers. (If I’d been capable of articulating this, the work might have had a better reception.)
The final project took the form of a series of photographic Magritte studies. (Below, a poor inversion of his painting Attempting the Impossible.) (Part of me wants to die embedding this here now but it remains illustrative of a nonetheless important moment in my own naive experiences.) I got a C. I didn’t understand why at the time — I thought I was being clever — but technically the photos were pretty terrible. I got a lot better later on, if nonetheless stubbornly retaining an intuitive approach to that medium over the sluggest professionalism of technical mastery.
At its heart, this first photograph — made without Photoshop and instead with a flawed understanding of what is “good” lighting in my childhood bedroom — remains an honest document of an on-going project and — beyond that — ontological experience.
The girl in the photograph, my best friend at that time, was complicit in this process more than we were both aware. I had asked her out on a date two years previously and she agreed. We ate desserts down in the local pub and I became the first person, in that instance, that she came out to. My feelings were not wholly assuaged — nor were hers, she later confessed — and we were nonetheless entangled for the rest of our time at school. I loved her and, in her own way, she loved me, but rather than form a romantic relationship, we each became that person for the other onto which we hashed out the selves that we would soon become and — for a few years at least — settle on. Her availability as a “model” was convenient but my late teenage self was truly defined by her in a way that I was undoubtedly unconsciously aware of.
Unfortunately but also unavoidably, for everyone involved, all of the images were laced with a sort of underdeveloped sexuality, which was, on the one hand, the function of my surrealist source material, but also reflected my own teenage self, at sea with itself. I can only imagine what my grade might have been if I’d had the self-awareness to articulate what exactly it was I was exploring but the process was ultimately more important than any of that. (Evidently — the lack of encouragement did not dissuade me from continuing to explore these ideas.) They may have been presented as quasi-art-historical studies but, for me, it was “honest” work, reflecting (albeit through a unconscious and jilted romanticism) the confused pretensions of a sixteen year old heterosexual boy, embedded in a community that was predominantly queer despite myself.
Already, this early on, there was a void opening up. Photography wasn’t enough. Painting might have been better but I was too ham-fisted to be any good at that. With hands made — so I was told — for rugby rather than painting, my sportsman’s genes were utterly wasted on me. I was starting to understand and come to terms with the fact that both the boyhood activities I took part in reluctantly and the visual mediums I loved weren’t capable of expressing what I wanted to say without falling into an ostentatious soft-focus romanticism or weak aesthetic horrorism.
But it was too late.
Later, doubling down on an undergraduate photography degree that I felt committed to as a outlet for both self-expression and career aspirations, when I found myself at its limit, moving onto the “next thing” — in late 2013, that was “Sound Studies” — I was already in too deep to pull myself out and try again.
I became a better photographer as a result of this course but I still overcame its limits. I studied photograpy but felt constantly at war with it. Whilst my peers were splashing about happily in its constraints, I felt like all I wanted to affirm was its insufficiency.
Writing, always already open to its own insufficiency, became the better medium for cutting through the self whilst photography — at its limits — became a way to explore a mutant objectivity.
What was so strange about rediscovering these photographic antecedents to an “I”-obliterating interest in philosophy, in light of (semi-)recent Twitter events, was that, whilst Reza had triggered this most recent abyssal feeling, he had also helped alleviate the previous one.
I did a course on Cyclonopedia when I was a postgrad — 15 weeks of “decelerated reading” heralded by Kodwo Eshun — which was a sort of trial-by-fire introduction to the mutant post-CCRU view of 20th century philosophy and 21st century geopolitics.
It was an exhaustive picking apart of that book’s stubborn and contradictory nature that likewise doubled up as an intensive exercise in critical and vigilant thinking. It was just what I needed to kick myself out of an engagement with philosophy that had already begun to tire of the dick-measuring of academia. It was an academic consideration of para-academia — an academic exercise in autobiospy — and it was the foundation I needed to create and embrace this space for myself anew. It was a text alien enough to drag me out of my naivety and into this new world where I had to think about these problems of thought impersonally.
Everything had been read through my own life prior to that — attempts to think through and process the latest trauma — and here was a book that dissolved the self of its author(ity) straight away in its introduction — in being penned by Kristen Alvanson.
When Reza’s unruly voice emerged, it tried to drown you in its subsequent pages. You had to lose yourself in it, and to do that with others — in the midst of our grief for Mark no less — was both incredibly informative and frustrating in equal measure. What I acquired from that book was a patience and a vigilance, an approach to thinking creatively and collectively through a book that was written in such a way as to make impossible any “secondary literature” appeal to understanding it. In this way, it was undeniably Landian in nature, but also pushed so far beyond this into something frighteningly new.
Whilst Reza has since renounced the Landian thinking of Cyclonopedia (not to mention Land himself) the affective nature of this writing still remains in tact in so much of his work. It also remains just a frustrating and challenging.
To explain exactly what I mean by this, it is worth quoting Reza’s renouncement of Land in our email exchange. He wrote to me:
Land’s way has been quite detrimental to thinking and philosophizing. His thinking requires too much commitment to settled ideas and determinations. This is not essentially a bad thing, but I have seen throughout [the] years that this form of thinking ultimately becomes stifling and prevents one from branching out to new territories and adopt[ing] new methods.
I find it quite oppressive that his fixated hatred for some philosophers (eg, Hegel and Plato) makes one […] dismiss these philosophers and not actually engage with their thoughts without prior biases which can be way too strong. In that sense, yes, I see my new work as a ‘reaction’ to my former more Landian way of thinking. But reaction is not always Oedipal and/or reactionary, it can actually lead to further experimentations with the self and a more expansive reflection on one’s past and possible futures.
My response to Reza was that, in my own experience, Land remains a figure who represents an expanded and active thinking outside the rote learning of a highly-competitive and routinely stifling academia. Whilst his own biases may be readily apparent, for some immersed in the academic canon, Fanged Noumena — although for me it was his Thirst for Annihilation that shook the not-yet-settled dust off me in my first semester as a postgrad — constitutes an enticing open door to elsewhere.
The detriment of Land’s thinking, which is painfully apparent in the current accelerosphere, is when it is treated as a foundation rather than its own “reaction” to something else. Such is the fascination with his “neo-reactionary” thought for so many. Whilst many adopt various (mis)understandings of his oeuvre as an (appropriately imperial) “emperor’s new clothes”, it’s untapped relevance is to be found in the time-spiral it constitutes within an otherwise linear canon of philosophical thought. Something that, I’d argue, Reza himself has attempted to constitute for a certain type of contemporary thinker — although obviously with far less political controversy. Evidently, building bridges towards the complexities of analytic philosophy is far more forgiving a task than building bridges to the reactionary thinkers of the 20th and 21st centuries.
This is to emphasise that this does not mean “stopping” with Land — that was what brought about the somewhat inevitable downfall of R/Acc: Land was held up as a prophet and, as a result, his critical scalpel was irreparably dulled by his adoption into a canon of contemporary rightist thought. Nevertheless, Reza’s reaction is surely — unavoidably — Oedipal but that’s not to deny the ways in which this has been productive for him. Kill your idols, and all that.
Or, better yet, don’t adopt idols to begin with. Recognise that your fellow travellers are that and that alone. The best readers of Land — or at least those who have survived his influence and can wonderfully tell the tale — share this in common, I think: they do not rest on their Landian laurels and instead carry that critical irreverence forwards, past that which has been supposedly “settled” into new areas, and use it to attack other ways — and perhaps, as many would argue, more important ways — of thinking. (As Mark Fisher used to say, in this regard: “He was our Nietzsche.”)
In this way, to me, as I start, once again, to digest it, I start to view Intelligence & Spirit as a book that continues to discuss the problems that Reza once explored through the post-Ccru aesthetics of a Land-infused Bataillean geohorror — Fisherian gothic materialisms most specifically, taken to sur-Bataillean extremes (Reza’s essay “The Corpse Bride” remains the most memorably grotesque piece of post-Landian philosophy I’ve ever read) — and which he has since moved explicitly beyond into the evermore post-inhumanist realms of computer science and AGI.
However, as Gregory Marks has explored in a fantastic essay, any posthumanity — specifically the post- of an anthroparochialism that has long needed to be overcome for the establishment of a collective subject; perhaps even an AGI — is inherently related to the gothic: “Where once only humans were recognised as agents or as the vessels of spirit, now the whole material world is given the dubious honour of inheriting this humanist baggage.”
Reza may be keen to articulate a split within his own thought, but this is the controversial lineage that Land today represents — albeit often lost under his contrarian political manoeuvring — the thought of Bataille and, even before him, Nietzsche and de Sade.
In light of this, we may start to uncover traces of Gothic Reza throughout Intelligence & Spirit — albeit in its depths. His philosophy of intelligence explicitly takes on some of the problems first put forward in the nihilorationalist writings of Ray Brassier, Mark Fisher’s Gothic Materialism and Nick Land’s own belligerent philosophy of intelligence, updating them for the technical realities of our present moment and (perhaps) near-future, with an attention to the philosophy of science and computer science that has been a common concern for a number of Ccru affiliates — Brassier and Luciana Parisi most notably, to my mind. In taking this view of Reza’s work — an admittedly reductionist view, for argument’s sake — we can see that, whilst his theoretical arsenal has shifted away from Land and Bataille, towards Carnap and Sellars, the project remains the same, albeit far more technically refined.
As I write this, I hear Thomas Murphy in the back of my mind, calling out those sycophantic appeals to Reza’s authority after he arrived like a new moon — (but really: “That’s no moon!”) — in our Twitter orbits, and rightly ridiculing them. It’s not for his “thought”, in any woefully contained sense, that I admire Reza becayse I can barely profess to understand it at present, only feeling in possession of a general overview. Rather, what I like about and relate to in Reza’s work is the way that he’s taken what he already knows and then attempts to use it against himself. In Cyclonopedia, he took his Iranian heritage and made a cosmic horror out of it. In Intelligence & Spirit he takes his engineering background and uses it like slice layers off our collective prefrontal cortex. We can likewise argue that each of these actions casts templexed shadows over their other.
Whilst Reza might profess to be on the side of “The (Platonic) Good”, that does not mean that his work must cease to be fundamentally wounding to our manifest image. This is a project I can relate to. Constructing masks for yourself with the sole intention of ripping them off when they’re done. Whether people agree with his conclusions or not, this is at least a starting point that many of us can recognise and relate to.
But enough about Reza. I was trying to talk, as I so often do, about myself…
I the Filthy Beggar
As a photography student, the most (in)formative experiences were the most bitter ones.
I always hated the documentary projects, lauded as Proper Photography, burying what is little more than a journalist’s entangled instincts for self-serving impropriety under layers of uncritical romanticism and a sense of a greater good — prying into other people’s lives, flying off to war zones on mummy and daddy’s money to get the scoop for the sake of a grade — and just fucking stop giving disposable cameras to homeless people, will you? Jesus. (A condensed and perhaps hard to untangle nod to these experiences is all that can be achieved without wandering into another woeful tangent on what I hated most about my time as a photography student.)
I always swore by an adage I’d heard from the psychogeographer Osi Rhys Osmond one time: you should know your own backyard, your own square mile, like the back of your hand before you even consider moving onto the next one. This doesn’t necessarily translate to philosophy, but I nonetheless believe that you should write about what you know.
(This was a telling utterance by Osi — link to his appearance on BBC’s The Culture Show here, embedding is disabled — a Welsh artist whose village I did an artist’s residency in back in 2015. Those of us selected were anticipating meeting Osi and working with him on our ideas. He lost his battle to cancer before that could happen and, instead, on our first day in Llansteffan, we respectfully stood outside the church whilst friends and family attended his funeral, so that we might get to hear some words about the man we could no longer meet. It coloured that trip with certain eeriness — failures of presence and absence — that, as we’ve seen, I was already well attuned to. It was yet another instance of fate catching up with a fated problem and it was an incredibly moving and influential experience for all of us.)
When I was an undergrad at a Welsh university, this adage was, at first, taken all too literally. I only made projects about myself and my friends, but soon I learned how to traverse the fine line between a blinkered parochialism and finding the alien on my own doorstep. And it is this affinity that I felt most palpably in reading Land’s early work.
He writes, in a previously trademark intoxicated fashion, in the introduction to Thirst for Annihilation:
… it is remarkable how degraded a discourse can become when it is marked by the obsessive reiteration of the abstract ego, mixing arrogance with pallid humility. The chronic whine that results — something akin to a degenerated reverberation from Dostoyevsky’s underground man — is the insistence of a humanity that has become an unbearable indignity. ‘I’ am alone, as the tasteless exhibition of an endogenous torment, as the betrayal of communication, as a festering wound, in which the monadic knitting of the flesh loses itself in a mess of pus and scabs, etc. etc. . . . (You yawn of course, but I continue.)
Such is the perpetual tension. I hate “I” and yet I persist nauseatingly in talking about it… Fated to a problem, at war with my own shadow…
The shadow this monstrous post has cast over my drafts has been substantial in this regard. Posting it is less an attempt to embrace it but rather exorcise it. It has been a meandering series of encounters with old ghosts and if it is as unsatisfactory as the series of posts that occasioned its existence, perhaps I’m not yet ready to account for the accusations that were held against it… But I’m trying…
I think often, today, about how my photographic work at university was, in my final years at least, colourful and vibrant. The darker tones of a gothic sensibility were resolutely repressed and put away for a while. Instead, I liked to photograph the weird, the ironic, the mismatched forms that aesthetically define our postmodernity, where consumer culture tries to recycle itself but still cannot fully account for its own image. (It too is fated to this same hall-of-funhouse-mirrors problem.) It’s a common encounter wherever we look. The photography used in your local takeaway is often the best example. Food never looks realistic when photographed. It never looks appetising. Who hasn’t experienced the disappointment of ordering a Big Mac and receiving some squalid imitation of the succulent beef burger that is advertised? Such is photography; all photography. Such is writing; all writing. Such is “I”‘; mine or yours.
Yesterday’s post — an introduction I wrote for the XG Discord to the “Image of Thought” chapter of Deleuze’s Difference & Repetition — received a comment from Joseph Ratliff, the answer to which became far too long to leave below the comment line. I hope Joseph doesn’t mind me responding to him a bit more publicly.
Joseph asked whether we can say that Deleuze gives a certain “agency” to thought as a way to remove “the organs” of human thinking.
The short answer, I think, is “no” but this is also one of my favourite questions around Deleuze’s thought so I thought instead of something that I’d give a long answer, connecting the infamously misunderstood concept of the “body without organs” to a transcendental materialism that places Deleuze at the end of a controversial philosophical lineage most readily associated with the likes of Nietzsche and Bataille.
Nietzsche was a particularly interesting materialist for Deleuze because it was he who set the groundwork for affirming not only the freedom afforded by materialism but also its restrictions.
Much has been made of this part of Nietzsche’s thought but it is particularly interesting to consider from a biographical perspective.
Sue Prideaux’s recent Nietzsche biography I Am Dynamite!is exceptional on this. She begins, very early on, with a brief account of the life of Nietzsche’s father, his career as a pastor and his various health troubles, particularly in relation to the rest of his family.
Friedrich Nietzsche was famously a very sickly man but he was also from a very sickly family, on both his mother’s and his father’s side. His genes undoubtedly doomed him from the start.
Each member of the Nietzsche family going back generations seemed to be affected by disorders both mental and physical, and Nietzsche’s father was no exception. He is worth focussing on in particular for the affect bearing witness to his father’s demise probably had on the young philosopher.
Prideaux describes Karl Ludwig Nietzsche as a pastor who was “both pious and patriotic” but also as a man who “was not free from the nervous disorders that affected his mother and half-sisters.”
He would shut himself up in his study for hours, refusing to eat, drink or talk. More alarmingly, he was given to mysterious attacks, when his speech would abruptly cease mid-sentence and he would stare into space. […] The mysterious paroxysms were diagnosed as ‘softening of the brain’ and for months he was prey to prostration, agonising headaches and fits of vomiting, his eyesight deteriorating drastically into semi-blindness. […] Karl Ludwig’s sufferings grew worse, he lost the power of speech, and finally his eyesight deteriorated into total blindness. On 30 July 1849, he died, aged only thirty-five. […]
The cause of Pastor Nietzsche’s decline into death has been extensively investigated. Whether the pastor died insane is a question of considerable importance to posterity because Nietzsche himself suffered from symptoms similar to his father’s, before he suddenly and dramatically went mad in 1888, when he was forty-four years old, remaining insane until his death in 1900. The considerable literature on the subject continues but the first book, Über das Pathologische bei Nietzsche, was published in 1902, just two years after Nietzsche’s death. Its author, Dr Paul Julius Möbius, was a distinguished pioneering neurologist who had been specialising in hereditary nervous diseases from the 1870s onwards. Möbius was named by Freud as one of the fathers of psychotherapy and, importantly, he worked directly from Pastor Nietzsche’s post-mortem report which revealed Gehirnerweichung, softening of the brain, a term commonly used in the nineteenth century for a variety of degenerative brain diseases.
The modern interpretation includes general degeneration, a brain tumour, tuberculoma of the brain or even slow bleeding into the brain caused by some head injury. Unlike his father, no post-mortem was performed on Nietzsche and so it was impossible for Möbius or any later investigators to produce anything like a post-mortem comparison of the two brains, but Möbius, looking wider, revealed a tendency to mental problems on the maternal side of the family. One uncle committed suicide, apparently preferring death to being shut up in the Irrenhaus, the lunatic asylum. On the paternal side, a number of Nietzsche’s grandmother Erdmuthe’s siblings were described as ‘mentally abnormal’. One committed suicide and two others developed some sort of mental illness, one requiring psychiatric care.
This information is important not only because it fundamentally refutes one of the most persistent myths about Nietzsche’s life — that he went mad following the contraction of sexually-transmitted syphilis — although he may have had a habit for visiting brothels, it wasn’t the death of him — but it also gives further context to much of Nietzsche’s philosophy, specifically his materialism and infatuation with the concept of fate.
Prideaux gives a thorough account of this also. She notes how Nietzsche was influenced in tandem by the thought of Spinoza but also the scientific advances of his time. She writes that Nietzsche “read Robert Mayer’s Mechanics of Heat, Boscovich’s theory of non-material atoms, and Force and Matter (1855) by the materialist medical doctor Ludwig Büchner, whose bestselling book spread the gospel that ‘researches and discoveries of modern times can no longer allow us to doubt that man, with all he has and possesses, be it mental or corporeal, is a natural product like all other organic beings’.” Nietzsche also read F. A. Lange’s History of Materialism which, she writes, “asserted that man was only a special case of universal physiology, and thought was only a special chain in the physical processes of life.”
Prideaux continues by noting the explicit instances that the newly materialist thought of the day was influencing Nietzsche’s philosophy. The philosopher was very open about this, writing in his autobiography, Ecce Homo, that he was
in thrall to a burning and exclusive fascination with physiology, medicine and natural science. This is what he set out to explore in [his 1881 book] Daybreak: the idea that man is merely a bodily organism whose spiritual, moral and religious beliefs and values can be explained by the physiological and medical. Greater interest at that time was growing in the idea that man might control the future by controlling his own evolutionary development through diet. It is an attitude famously summed up by the philosopher and anthropologist Feuerbach, who had died only a few years earlier: ‘If you want to improve the people, give them better food instead of declamations against sin. Man is what he eats.’
The broader importance of this for Nietzsche’s thought is that he would not only become fascinated by the potentials of materialist “self-overcoming” but also the necessity of a certain amor fati. Man may be what he eats, but Nietzsche would also stress the importance of “becoming what you are, once you know what that is.” And the importance of this for Nietzsche was undoubtedly fuelled by the trauma of not only his father’s and broader family’s sickly demises but also his own perpetual sickliness.
Once we understand the innate sense in which Nietzsche lived with and amongst a knowledge of his own pain, suffering and mortality, we understand the importance of his thought for himself — the importance of not only affirming your limitations but also overcoming them in whatever way you can. For Nietzsche, that was perhaps more philosophical than physical.
It is here that we can see the initial tensions in Deleuze’s “image of thought”. For Nietzsche, this was changing quite fundamentally in his time. Thought was taking on a newly populist and anti-Cartesian bent in that the observations that thought was influenced by (subjectively if not quite bodily) “outside” forces were being given form within scientific understanding.
But rather than this freeing up thought — although it seemed to for Nietzsche — it was rather the beginnings of a new dogmatic image of thought that we still know well today.
We should likewise note, at this point, that this experience of familial sickness and ill-health was one shared by Nietzsche’s greatest philosophical friend, Georges Bataille. In fact, Stuart Kendall’s brilliant biography of Bataille tellingly begins from this point. He starts the first chapter by writing:
In 1913, when Georges Bataille was about fifteen, his father went mad. Joseph-Aristide Bataille’s syphilis was simply running its course. Contracted long ago, perhaps before he had abandoned his medical studies, certainly before he moved the family from Billom, in the volcanic Puy-du-Dôme, where Georges was born in 1897, to Reims where they now lived. Joseph-Aristide had been blind since before Georges’ birth and paralysed for more than a decade. The unhappy conclusion of the disease was inevitable.
Confined to a chair, coursed by tabes, Joseph-Aristide lurched in agony. Decades later, Georges would remember his father’s ‘sunken eyes, his hungry bird’s long nose, his screams of pain, soundless peals of laughter’. And he would remember the degradation of the old man, despite his own attempts to help.
Kendall proceeds by quoting from Bataille’s first pseudonymous novel (as Lord Auch), The Story of the Eye, drawing on what seem to be some of its most autobiographical elements. Bataille writes:
What upset me more was seeing my father shit a great number of times… It was very hard for him to get out of bed (I would help him) and settle on a chamber pot, in his nightshirt and, usually, a cotton nightcap (he had a pointed grey beard, ill kempt, a large eagle nose, and immense hollow eyes staring into space). At times, the ‘lightning sharp pains’ would make him howl like a beast, sticking out his bent leg, which he futilely hugged in his arms.
We can imagine the boy aiding the invalid in his agonies. As a youth, Georges loved his father, but as an adult, he found his love unnatural: most young boys loved their mothers, he thought in terms testifying to his recent psychoanalysis. But Georges loved his father, at least early on, even in his father’s degradation.
There are, however, various other allusions throughout Bataille’s writings that seem to suggest his father may have been abusive to him. However, all of these allusions, Kendall notes, are too shrouded in the cloak of fiction for us to draw any real conclusions. What is self-evident is that Bataille’s relationship with his father was deep, fraught and complicated, painting a far more difficult and violently honest picture of the terms of living with an invalid parent than Nietzsche ever did, but nonetheless vicariously illuminating the experiences of both philosophers.
For both thinkers, the experience of seeing parental men of God fall into madness must have been traumatically informative.
Kendall continues with an anecdote that firmly grounds Georges Bataille’s entire life and philosophy — his founding ordeal. This was during the spring of 1913 when Bataille’s father “lost his mind.” Kendall writes:
Georges’ older brother Martial had already moved out of the family home, so Marie-Antoinette bataille, Georges’ mother, sent him to fetch a doctor. He returned quickly. The doctor undoubtedly did what little he could for the raving patient, but Georges’ father was beyond help. When the physician stepped into the next room, Joseph-Aristide shouted after him, ‘Doctor, let me know when you’re done fucking my wife!’
The inexplicable statement seared the son. Years later Georges wrote: ‘For me, that utterance, which in a split second annihilated the demoralizing effects of a strict upbringing, left me with something like a steady obligation, unconscious and unwilled: the necessity of finding an equivalent to that sentence in any situation I happen to be in.’ The statement carries the contagious taint of Bataille’s entire thought and style: it contrasts a split second and a steady and lasting obligation; an unconscious, unwilled or chance event and a necessity and, most importantly, it functions by means of extreme reversals of logic and perspective (what is demoralizing about a strict upbringing?). Everything follows from here.
Joseph-Aristide’s mad accusation ripped the mask off Georges’ youth, off propriety, off his parents’ and doctor’s faces; the respected, beloved faces of order and authority. The odious utterance opened a world of infinite freedom. Forever after, Bataille’s obligation, his necessity, would be to find an equivalent of that phrase in every situation throughout his life: not only in every story and erotic encounter but in every action, every experience, every word, every thought. That which previously has been held on high would be brought low, that which was low would be raised on high. This slippage would characterize every experience. He would submit all of life to a similar trespass, debasement and inversion: an endless irregularity, ceaseless turning and overturning; an endless repetition of the rule of lawlessness.
This is recognisably the very foundation of Bataille’s “base materialism” and here we can see the tension of Nietzsche’s own work struck in even more explicit relief. Becoming what you are, and knowing what that is, as Nietzsche put it, becomes for Bataille an encounter with (and indeed, the very embodiment of) an all too human horror.
This horror, however, is a “truth” — and to affirm it is a challenge necessary for us to undertake, precisely because it ruptures the moralism and restrictions of a wider society. We attend to so many beliefs about the body and what it can do but also what it should and shouldn’t do, and we will find that, despite society’s taboos, are bodies will do things irrespective of the morals of the day. The affirmation of this truth is, however, more nuanced than first appearances suggest.
Bataille’s father’s outburst was no doubt offensive to all present in the moment but, in attending to its root cause as a symptom of his neurological afflictions, we may ask ourselves how we can — materially speaking — “judge” it. It undoubtedly disturbed the young Bataille to no end and yet Bataille’s affirmation of this disturbance is not the same as the act of forgiving an immoral act by deferring to the material reality of his father’s existence as a kind of base-authority.
For Bataille, the task is to affirm the horror of human materiality without such deference. He would write that the challenge becomes not “submitting oneself … to whatever is more elevated, to whatever can give a borrowed authority to the being that I am, and to the reason that arms this being.”
Here Bataille retains the subversion of Nietzsche’s original thinking in the face of a materialist progressivism. Whereas, for Nietzsche, the benefits of a materialist thinking were somewhat naive and sought simply to alleviate a persistent suffering with walks in the mountains and baths in Europe’s spas, in the 20th century the bodily materialism of “you are what you eat” or “what you do” began to carry with it a sort of dietary moralism.
You are what you eat… So eat better! You are what you do… So exercise more! The insistence that you should treat your body like a temple could not be a clearer indictment of the continuation of the religious moralism that Nietzsche despised taking on a new life in the materialism he openly embraced.
Bataille knew of this, however, refusing to give to the matter of which materialism is concerned “the value of a superior principle (which this servile reason would be only too happy to establish itself above itself, in order to speak like an authorised functionary.)” Instead, Bataile would speak of “base matter” as “external and foreign to ideal human aspirations, [refusing] to allow itself to be reduced to the great ontological machines resulting from these aspirations.”
This is likewise the “raving mad” charge at the heart of Antonin Artaud’s vision of a humanity that has “had done with the judgements of God.” For Artaud, as for Bataille, scientific materialism has done nothing but imbue the insights of already well-established spiritualities and gnosticisms with the false authority of an apparently objective “scientific reason”.
Artaud would proclaim, without mincing words, that modern scientists
have reinvented microbes in order to impose a new idea of god. They have found a new way to bring out god and to capture him in his microbic noxiousness.
And so, Artaud sought to liberate humanity entirely from the patronising cruelty of scientific reason, writing:
I have found a way to put an end to this ape once and for all and that although nobody believes in god any more everybody believes more and more in man. So it is man whom we must now make up our minds to emasculate [by] placing him again, for the last time, on the autopsy table to remake his anatomy. […] Man is sick because he is badly constructed. We must make up our minds to strip him bare in order to scrape off that animalcule that itches him mortally, god, and with god his organs.
It is in this sense, following Nietzsche and Bataille, that Deleuze would further affirm Artaud’s provocation, declaring, in the face of decades of scientific truth and progress, that we still do not know what a body can do.
Joshua Ramey, in his book The Hermetic Deleuze, begins with a wonderfully concise explanation of this point. He writes:
The decadence and debilitation of twentieth-century Western culture were, for Artaud, linked directly […] to the technoscientific apparatus — military, industrial, nutritional, and hygienic — continuously marshalled in the name of God and order to stultify the human body. Artaud’s theatre of cruelty was designed to disturb this docile creature, to shock and shatter its organs, and to force the body to react otherwise than in accordance with the habitual limits of sense and sensibility. As he wrote, “you have made him a body without organs, / then you will have delivered him from all his automatic reactions / and restored to him his true freedom.” For Artaud, humanity possessed a “body without organs,” a subtle body accessible at the extremes of experience — in suffering, delirium, synesthesia, and ecstatic states.
[…] Extending Artaud’s vision of a renewed sensibility into his own unique vision of thought, Deleuze argues that immanent thought, at the limit of cognitive capacity, discovers as-yet-unrealized potentials of the mind, and the body. That is to say, what connects Deleuze to Artaud is the conviction that what matters for life, and for thought, is an encounter with imperceptible forces in sensations, affections, and conceptions, and that these forces truly generate the mind, challenging the coordination of the faculties by rending the self from its habits.
To return to Joseph’s original question, we should be careful to note that this is not Deleuze’s way of conceptualising an independently agentic thought. Nothing about the processes at play here can be discussed in those terms. In fact, “agency” here becomes the sort of deference to authority that Bataille would routinely denounce. For him, speaking in appropriately scatological terms, this would be like applying agency to a turd when you find yourself needing to go to the bathroom for a bowel movement. The challenge to thought is recognising this movement for what it is, precisely devoid of agency and reason. (Because what is the attribution of “agency” but a way to give something a reason to exist.) (Again, this is something discussed last time — the tandem base-horror and affirmation of acknowledging that “the Queen poops too.”)
From here, we might note that Deleuze’s affinity with this thought was likewise an affirmation of his own fate as another sickly philosopher.
Like Nietzsche, Bataille and Artaud before him, Deleuze’s life was wracked by pain and suffering. Having undergone a thoraxoplasty and having one of his lungs in the late 1960s — in the midst of those months when he was meant to defend Difference & Repetition as his doctoral thesis, we might add — Deleuze was plauged by ill health and weakness for the rest of his life.
We may also note here the sorry fact that Deleuze committed suicide — a significant biographic event which is so often under-considered, perhaps because it cannot (or rather, should not) be thought in terms we are accustomed to when we hear that someone has taken their own life.
There is no evidence that Deleuze was depressed or mentally ill. He was just as physically ill as he always had been and, as an elderly man, aged 70, the mortal barrel that he had long been staring down was getting closer to him by the day.
Rather than allowing his body to have the final say, Deleuze chose to end his life on his own terms. In this sense, his death can be seen as the drastic affirmation of a man who chose no longer to live with the sickly body he had been lumbered with.
Without wanting to romanticise his death, Deleuze’s suicide nonetheless presents us with a fitting example of where a thought such as this libidinal materialism can lead us. Finn Janning would go so far as to call Deleuze’s suicide a “happy death” for the way it encapsulates the power of the Will to exceed the body in which it is contained.
Cybergothic posthumanisms aside, Deleuze pushed up against the edge of what his body could do, finding it at war with his Self and so he chose instead to undertake a spectacularly counter-intuitive attack on his woefully organ-anchored body. Janning writes:
A life worth living is a life that has the power to actualize its will to will. In relation to this definition, a happy death might be seen as the equivalent hereof, i.e. when a life no longer has this will, or simply accept that it no longer can act as becoming worthy of what happens. Such acknowledgement is the closest one can get to the Greek dictum: Know yourself by knowing your position, because such acknowledgement is fully knowing your place in time, knowing what is possible and what is not possible. — Acknowledging your limits in order to justify certain beliefs as being true, for instance, committing suicide as the only positive activity. Thus, let me stress: Know your location or position in life is not knowing your position in relation to pre-defined external categories or systems, like career-pattern, but a life’s position. The unique position of a life within the different forces of life, such a position emerges when encounters are dealt with: either in an active and positive way, or in a reactive and pessimistic way.
Deleuze didn’t kill himself because life was absurd or meaningless — as it obviously is for many who commit suicide. He didn’t kill himself due to a sudden emotional shock, e.g. loss of a child, divorce, et cetera — as it also happens to many. No, he committed suicide because his life had already ended. If life is an offspring of our will to do something, to create and such will can’t actualize itself, then you are not just dying, but already dead. In that sense he became equal of the event. He died with the event
It is from here that the “transcendental materialism” of Nietzsche and Bataille finds its next step in the thought of Deleuze and, later, Nick Land.
Land’s “libidinal materialism” is precisely another form(lessness) for this bodily overcoming, refusing to adhere to the tyranny of human anatomy and the sacredness applied to this flawed all-consuming and shit-producing machine which we insist on saying has been constructed in God’s image.
This all too easily opens out onto a cyberpunk landscape but contending with the abject realities of our present is far more prescient before we drift off into escapist fantasy.
Here Nyx’s gender accelerationism and its call to become a “body without sex organs” can be held up as a brilliant example of the contemporary political stakes of such a thinking.