Cruella

We watched Cruella the other night. A bizarre movie experience, it was rife with anachronism. But in such a way that felt quintessentially cinematic and postmodern.

For starters, the film is set in London. Nothing unusual about that in itself, but with the majority of the outdoor scenes shot in Piccadilly, I couldn’t help but take note of where things were in real life, having spent a couple of years working a day job in the area. It’s not a obstacle to enjoying anything. I quite enjoy the location spotting, peeking behind the illusionary veil of cinematic space, as you notice just how compressed space becomes between scenes. Locations that are miles apart are made to look adjacent. It’s a common occurrence. But I’ve never noticed a film do this quite so nonchalantly with time as well before.

The original book on which the film is based came out in 1956. At times, you’d think the film was set in that moment. But then we have cultural references and nods to fashion trends that suggest the Summer of Love is on the way. Hippie is shown to be hot on the the heels of 50s fashion, before overshooting its mark and colliding straight into glam and punk simultaneously. Cultural movements are flattened, as if whole decades of innovation took place within a single season of high fashion rivalry.

The anachronism only becomes more pronounced in car chase scenes where no effort had been made to remove modern digital signage from certain roads. Space and time are simultaneously churned up and soon enough the entire twentieth century seems to pass in a blink of Walt Disney’s eye. I found it dizzying. In true Disney style, about 40 years and 4 square miles of London are squashed into a single context.

Can any fashion historians out there watch it for me and properly break it down? I feel like this weird unwarranted anti-heroine origin story might just be 2021 postmodernism’s Rosetta Stone…

Under the Blood Moon

On Friday night, shortly after midnight, a man collapsed outside our house. We thought he was a casualty of the Bank Holiday reveries — and may well have been — but his fall was severe. He was unconscious and struggling to breath. We called 999. It was a busy night and a Community First Responder arrived first. He’d barely been there a minute before he was barking “arrest, arrest” into his radio. The man’s heart had stopped. We took turns giving him CPR. Never have I wished for proper medical training more in my life.

Once the paramedics arrived, we were left standing in the street, the only witnesses, directing traffic as they tried to resuscitate him. After an hour of roadside treatment, he was taken off to hospital, stable but very unwell, and we sat with ourselves for a while with little hope of sleep.

Over Castle Hill, on the other side of town, the lunar omen was rising high.

The next day, we rode the strangely euphoric high into police interviews and visiting friends. Then the bottom fell off the world. It was like an adrenaline hangover. Concern for the man and his family — always present, of course — was suddenly heightened to a previously unimaginable degree. A desire to have known what to do, rather than wait around anxiously for someone better informed, made us feel useless. The distance created by shock wore off and the reality of giving a stranger CPR barefoot in the middle of the street outside our home produced a feeling of whiplash.

The police came round to take statements from us and preserve the scene. His condition had not improved and so, if the worst happened and he didn’t make it, there would need to be an investigation. There was a lingering suspicion of third-party involvement. We hadn’t really seen anything happen, only the aftermath. Although it seemed very unlikely anyone else was there to do this to him, it remained unclear how a drunken fall could do quite so much damage.

That evening I joined the waiting list to become a Community First Responder with the West Yorkshire Ambulance Service.

Zionist Realism:
Is There No Alternative?

A reader of the blog recently expressed concerns around the use of or allusions to antisemitic tropes in recent posts (1, 2) on the current crisis in Palestine-Israel. I appreciate the tension within these posts and, though I feel my previous posts have been clear, I want to try and be clearer still, if only to assuage concerns and exercise more care in articulating my position on all this.

Nothing I have written is intended to be antisemitic, nor does it advocate antisemitism as a response to Palestinian oppression. The point consistently explored across my two recent posts is that addressing the issue of Palestine-Israel as an issue of capitalism is not only a way to avoid antisemitic tropes, but is also essential for articulating the broader stakes of this crisis and the wider impact that any effective responses to it could have. The antisemitic response (which we have seen made by a minority) is surely to address this crisis from the opposite side — placing capitalism in a broader Jewish framework, which is so deeply wrong and only helps obfuscate the networks of oppression we are all captured within.

But this is precisely what a lot of Jewish liberals do in the UK, who see critiques of capitalism applied to Jewish contexts and say, “Those are just tropes”. And this is understandable, of course — to an extent. Talk about capitalist greed in the context of a Jewish state should be a red flag for anyone. But that is precisely why we must separate capitalism from any notions of Jewishness, and indeed highlight how the state of Israel is not protecting the rights of its citizens, who occupy a special category, but instead oppresses people inside and outside of its borders according to an all-too-familiar liberal-capitalist playbook. This is very easily done when we consider that these liberal principles are shared more broadly by non-Jewish conservatives and reactionaries. As was Fred Moten’s point, previously quoted:

I believe that the nation-state of Israel is itself an artefact of antisemitism. If we thought about Israel and Zionism not just as a form of racism that results in the displacement of Palestinians, but if we also think about them as artefacts of the historic displacement of Jews from Europe, in the same way that we might think of, let’s say, Sierra Leone or Liberia as artefacts of racist displacement… [T]he reason I’m saying this is just to make sure that you know that there’s a possible argument against the formulation that criticism of Israel is antisemitic, when we know that Donald Trump is a stark supporter, and people like Pat Robinson in the United States are stark supporters, that ought to help us to the fact that you can be deeply antisemitic and still support the state of Israel. These things go together. They’re not antithetical to one another.

Though it seems paradoxical, it is nonetheless observable. Liberal Zionists far more firmly equate Jewishness and capitalism than the vast majority of those who are in open solidarity with Palestine, and who imagine another world and another way of organising ourselves as a species. There are alternatives to those models of organisation handed down to us by the liberal architects of our current system. Though it may be a difficult pill to swallow, the fact that security for the Jewish people supposedly depends on a military-industrial project, arms trading, land ownership, and the reification of national sovereignty is a liberal lie. Of course, these things do provide comfort. That the Jewish people know they have a home in Israel is, I’m sure, a precious thing and source of relief after generations of oppression and displacement. But that doesn’t mean the model chosen to provide such comfort is a just one. As Moten said, we do not have to “so presumptuously imagine that the Earth can be reduced to something so paltry and so viciously understood as what we usually call ‘home’.”

Let’s take another example: the idea of the family. Though we all have ideal visions of what a family is and the form that it takes, who amongst us has actually experienced or is in possession of that ideal? I imagine very few of us. Still, we strive for it, and in striving for it we strive for a better world and a home for ourselves within that world. But maybe the problem isn’t with our inability to achieve this ideal but the ideal itself. When we consider the broader network of bourgeois institutions that the family is a part of, we find that it is, like the state and the factory, set up in a very particular way to maintain certain mechanisms for the intergenerational transference of wealth and power. (Again, though I recognise this understanding of “control” may sound like a Jewish trope, this is nonetheless undeniably true of capitalism and patriarchy in general.) As such, it is not an ideal for all, but for a select few who have the means to properly embody it. Those of us without such means are left on the outside, disenfranchised and dejected that we cannot match these expectations and that there’s little we can do about it because there is no alternative.

But, again, there are alternatives. This is why the previous post was titled “Zionist Realism”. Other Israels were and are possible, as are other Palestines. But when the current government in Israel violently imposes upon the region its “right to exist [in a very specific form]”, it refuses to consider any alternative that is not beholden to a violent settler-colonial and fundamentally liberal model. Israel is far from alone in this regard. It has simply followed suit, embracing the model laid out for it by the rest of the world’s liberal nations. But that is precisely why it functions so well as an example to the rest of us. Though Israel is seen and held up as having a unique approach to statecraft in the twenty-first century, it is not unique in the slightest. It simply demonstrates an intensification of the norms we are all used to around the world. Though it is the Jewish state, it is otherwise one node within the wider liberal-capitalist matrix. What is useful about its intensified nature, however, is that it also exacerbates the cracks and flaws in our broader system. Israel is not unique — it acts like any liberal nation would (and, indeed, does) act. And so a rejection of Israel on principle is not antisemitic but fundamentally anti-capitalist.

The broader issue, however, is that many Jewish conservatives, particularly in the UK media, attempt to undermine this position, precisely by affirming antisemitic tropes. They essentialise Jewishness, tying it explicitly to neoliberal capitalism and its understandings of self and sovereignty. Stephen Pollard, editor of the Jewish Chronicle, for instance, is particularly unabashed in his false equivalences between liberal politics and the Jewish faith, as is Luke Akehurst on the right of the Labour Party. Tellingly, any criticism of their political ilk is dressed-up as an antisemitic dog-whistle. The immediate assumption is that “you lot” means “Jews” rather than “liberals”. I don’t know whether this occlusion of politics under the guise of faith is intentional or not, but it speaks volumes that this is how they view themselves. And this sort of conflation is, in itself, a backbone within liberal ideology, as previously discussed. As previously discussed, liberalism defines itself a priori as “reasonable” and “sensible”, based on “common sense” notions of home and belonging, but in practice these understandings of what is “common” only extend to their ideological peers.

This is abhorrent — all the more so for the ways it hides under a veil of innocuousness. That so many British liberals hold up their Jewishness as a shield against anti-capitalist critique feels more antisemitic than an acknowledgement of the Jewish people’s broader political history, which obviously extends far beyond Israel’s occupation of Palestine. This has been a central point of contention within British politics for years now, with attacks on the Labour Party so often conflating the left’s anti-capitalism with hostility towards Jewish identity as such, but only anti-Semites would conflate the two. They can and should be divorced from one another.

This is why I previously said that Israel needs its claim over Jewishness to function, but the Jewish people do not need Israel. Though it may feel nice to have a home, that very feeling, that very desire, is informed by so much more than a history of persecution. The reality is that this sense of home is part and parcel of liberal-capitalist geopolitics, and it has wrought misery upon Jewish and non-Jewish lives alike for centuries.

Zionist Realism:
What If We Had a Strike for Palestine and Everyone Came?

Thanks again to Islam al-Khatib, who has become such an important person on my timeline for all that she shares on this current crisis in Palestine. It is, once again, to her that I must defer.

Islam has been posting a lot recently about a general strike in support of Palestine, taking place for many tomorrow. It reminded me of that excellent k-punk post on Live 8 — the sycophantic spectacle from what feels like another universe where some people really thought world leaders would stop the madness if we enjoyed ourselves enough.

In the post’s title Mark wonders, what if we held a protest and everyone came? He was fascinated by the idea of a “general strike”, but also the ways that such an idea had been hollowed out by neoliberalism’s “libidinal fallacies”. 2005’s Live 8 concert was the perfect example. That it was so pleasurable for post-90s neolib brain — a sanitised rave showcase of new century mediocrity — made it doomed to fail from the start. This was not because revolution cannot be built on collective joy, but when that joy is aimed directly at capturing the attention of the very libidinal system it was supposed to denounce, like the hippies at their most inane, what is produced is little more than a cheery passivity. The revolution will not be televised. The revolution is not be born out of cultural sycophancy. Live 8 undid much of the work done by cultural figures in the 1970s, who made the youth of the day “intensely suspicious both of ‘happiness’ as an emotional state and of those who proffer it as a libidinal-political goal.” That Live 8’s stint in Philadelphia was opened by the Kaiser Chiefs singing “I Predict a Riot” — less a song about revolution than the Otley Run — says it all. Happiness was back on the menu, and it was less a warm gun than a warm pissed-in bed after a big leery sesh.

Still, the idea of a general strike for Palestine really resonates with this post, if only because Palestine reannounces the stake that Live 8 forgot. It is also interesting because the idea of what a successful strike might look like can be paradoxically intoxicating, and because it works as a provocative thought experiment elucidating the abstract obstacles that have so far stopped Palestine receiving justice and stopped Israel from ending its apartheid. Viewed through this libidinal framework, blind faith in Israel and the impunity is enjoys is detached from Zionist ideology, the Jewish faith and the nation-state’s “right to exist”. Instead, Israel starts to embody capitalist realism at its most fundamental. But this is also part of the problem with addressing Israel’s crimes against humanity and our belief that world leaders will solve it all with sanctions and resolutions. Such was the problem with Live 8. When we ask our world leaders to intervene and put a stop to Israel’s atrocities, just as we plead with them to end inequality or climate change once and for all, we are effectively asking them to intervene in the very ideological structure of capitalism itself. In that regard, the problem is bigger than them, and so it starts to necessarily implicate us.

Mark writes:

What is being disavowed in the abjection of evil and ignorance onto fantasmatic Others is our own complicity in planetary networks of oppression. What needs to be kept in mind is BOTH that capitalism is a hyper-abstract impersonal structure AND that it would be nothing without our co-operation. As I will never tire of insisting, the most Gothic description of Capital is also the most literal. Capital is an abstract parasite, an insatiable vampire and zombie-maker; but the living flesh it converts into dead labour is ours, and the zombies it makes are us. Determinists of both a neo-liberal and anti-humanist bent … merely echo teleo-Marxism at its most eschatological when they insist that … the meat (or human) components of the Capital machine are of no consequence since the total triumph of Capital is historically Inevitable.

Recently, I tried to write a bit about the ways in which modern Zionism and liberalism are so entwined for so many, albeit seemingly obliviously, and that seems clear when we consider Israel not as an outlier but as the most egregious example of settler-colonialism in the modern world. Israel is built on teleo-Zionism, transforming the world’s oldest religion into an all too linear postmodern disaster. Indeed, its linearity is an illusion. It knows not how ingrown it has become, implicated in the very forces of oppression it was founded against. This is so often reduced to equivalences between Israeli and Nazi persecution but such a comparison is offensively reductive. The point is that both are products of the same overarching network of oppression: capitalism. It is a system, like the state of Israel itself, that is, as Mark points out, driven by a grotesque determinism that has fuelled settler-colonialism around the world for centuries.

With thanks to Alexander Boyd, this is a point made by Gilles Deleuze (previously discussed) in his 1982 analysis of the situation, published in the collection Two Regimes of Madness, under the title “The Indians of Palestine”:

There are indeed two distinct movements in capitalism. In the first, a people is maintained on its land and made to work, exploited to accumulate a surplus. This is what we usually mean by “colony.” But in the second, a territory is emptied of its people. Capitalism thus makes a giant leap in a single bound, even if that means importing workers and manual labour. The history of Zionism, the history of Israel, and the history of the United States have all gone that route: how does one create a vacuum, how does one empty out a territory?

It seems that the best way is to transform that territory into a vacuum, at least in the mind of the people colonising it, is to first transform it into an objet petit a — a libidinal signifier for the imaginary to gorge itself on. This is to say that the idea of Israel is, ultimately, unattainable — and necessarily so. A virgin land for the Jewish people to prosper within is a libidinal fallacy and impossible to achieve, because there will always be a world already there. There will always be something left to empty out. Such is the issue for the Palestinian people. They are an inconvenience in the face of their otherwise pure and righteous project. Faith in that project, that dream, is powerful, precisely because it is libidinal. This is why Americans brought God within them to the new world. In much the same way that America found itself (and continues to find itself) exempt from calling its actions atrocities because they were carried out in (supposedly) good “faith”, so Israel is powerful because its determinism is based on faith also. But there are multiple forms of faith entangled in its mechanisms, as is the case within capitalism as a whole. As such, it is more the case that capitalism needs faith to function, rather than we need faith in the system in order to function for ourselves. The same is as true for Israel and its people as it is for capitalism and the people it exploits — if only they could see it.

Mark again:

The question of what Capital wants from us requires answers at a number of levels: economic, psychoanalytic, and perhaps most pressingly, theological. In any case, it is clear that, for the moment at least, Capital cannot get along without us. It remains the case, however, that we can get along without it. The parasite needs its ‘mere conscious linkages’ but we do not need the parasite. In addition to anything else, to ignore the crucial functioning of the meat in the machine is poor cybernetics. The denial of human agency is an SF fantasy, albeit one that is everywhere realising itself.

But to reclaim that agency means first of all accepting our insertion at the level of desire in the remorseless meat-grinder of Capital. Capital is not something imposed upon us by Bush; it is we who are hooked on the ‘garbage in honey’s sack’, unable to kick the habit of returning to the Big Jesus Trashcan for another hit of feel-good junk.

As a political project, Israel needs Jews to function, but the Jewish people do not “need” Israel. To equate the two is to embody that Lockean liberal mantra of “I own therefore I am”. Ownership feels good. Possession is nice. We all like owning things. But to own land, and to define yourself through that ownership, is the very basis of capitalist accumulation. Israel is, then, little more than capitalism at its most parasitic, and the parasite is on steroids. This only complicates things further, but it shows in rapid irreal time how capital can escalate its own war machinery.

It is no coincidence that Israel, as a militarised state, has science-fictional defenses. It’s utterly intensive embodiment of capitalist forces has allowed it to steam ahead as a military power in the region — with a little (read: a lot of) help from its Western allies. Of course, just like the war machine of Deleuze and Guattari, Israel’s primary purpose is not to wage war, but to evade persecution. Israel holds firmly onto that narrative, despite the fact its war machine has been utterly captured — a point previously made by @_diagnosticism_. As such, Israel is not a line of flight but a new sedentary power that brutalises others by forcing them to flee like it once did. It forces the Palestinian people to act. It forces them either to fight or towards flight. It forces them to face up to their own agency (or lack thereof) because their lives depend on it. But flee they must, and so must we flee in solidarity, if only so that Israel might follow suit.

To ask the Israeli people to flee from their own narrative, to unplug themselves from the outwardly oppressive network of feel-good mythologizing that defines their very existence, is obviously counter-intuitive. But it is essential if they are to rescue themselves from becoming that which they say they have fled for millennia.

Withdrawal from the Capital Matrix entails an unplugging that will seem painful to nervous systems commensurated to the Reality-Pleasure Principle. Partly it means giving up the reassuring comforter of the Bad Father Figure and facing the fact that the G8 leaders are not capable of legislating away all planetary misery, but are ‘old men at the crossroads’, Capital’s meat puppets not its masters. There is a sense in which it simply is the case that the political elite are our servants; the miserable service they provide from us is to launder our libidos, to obligingly re-present for us our disavowed desires as if they had nothing to do with us.

The point has been made more than once that this conflict is well-timed for Netanyahu, occurring on the eve of an election he was projected to do very badly in. Nothing wins elections like a quick, genocidal libido-laundering.

If anyone is in charge in Kapital it is Oedipus Rex, i.e. us. (‘I yam the King!’ as Cave caterwauled on ‘Junkyard’. Yes: the junkie as monarch, that’s capitalist sovereignty.) The political ‘reality’ that Bush and the others will no doubt blame their failure to act upon is not just an ideological smokescreen. It is the reality constituted by the desires of that selfsame Live 8 crowd who, when push comes to shove, will not pay extra taxes, will not give up cheap flights or car use, will not make a stand against inequity and stupidity at work if it means compromising their interests and those of their famileeeee and yet who expect global crises to be magically solved by 8 stooges in a room.

A general strike leads by example. Don’t plead with leaders for change whilst servicing the state-us quo, either through apolitical commerce or polite passivity. But don’t do it for the sake of self-satisfying moral purity either. Boycott and abandon and strike not because it feels good but because it feels bad and is fraught and is complex. Unplug from the libidinal (liberal) fallacy that makes complicity easy for everyone. That is what is required of Israel. The Jewish people, so often bouyed and battered without a home, must surely be elated to have a state of their own, that gives them a new sense of ground in an uprooted history. But just as Fred Moten challenged the inherent violence of what we call “home”, so must Israel reckon with the broader implications of its domesticity. It feels good to have a home, but that enjoyment excuses what so many others experience as terror and violence. And so, to insist that the state of Israel unplugs from its own ultranationalist sugar high is to insist it unplugs from the wider ideological system their success as a nation-state serves — the system Mark called “capitalist realism”.

“You first”, it sneers.

Alright then. For Palestine.

A Deleuzian View of Palestine (Contra Israel)

What is happening in and around Gaza at the moment — both on- and offline — is horrifying. In our contemporary media age, there is a sense that social media is on a constant gaslighting mission. Establishment journalism drags out the same old noncommittal and evasive reporting, talking about tensions from all sides, whereas citizen journalism has, for weeks now, been documenting Israel’s ever-withering patience with the Palestinian people as they don’t comply with passive or active attempts at eviction and displacement. In fact, for those watching closely enough, it is clear how Israeli passive aggression builds and develops into active aggression, but it is the response of the Palestinians who are to blame for the conversion, of course. Were this a relationship between two people, it would be a classic example of an abusive relationship. Instead, it is two “nation-states”, each contentiously defined, and an apparent case of his bombs versus her bombs.

On Instagram earlier today, an old 2014 conversation involving Fred Moten was doing the rounds, in which he speaks magnificently on this very contentiousness. Asked about the specificity of Palestine and broader conversations about settler-colonialism happening globally, Moten begins by saying that there must be a place for a wider definition of settler-colonialism than the all too historic definition we are used to. Though we focus on the relationship between Europe and the rest of the world, for instance, the relationship between Israel and Palestine shows that this foundation can sometimes frustrate our capacity to identify settler-colonial projects in our contemporary moment.

Moten’s comment is long, but I’d like to transcribe it here anyway, before moving onto a more specific issue that I’d like to draw out of the current situation — that is, the relationship of Deleuze and Guattari to the present situation. This is largely inspired by Islam Al-Khatib‘s efforts to engage weird theory Twitter in the current situation online, as well as amplifying Palestinian voices in exile and on the ground. If certain sections of the Anglosphere have been slow to engage, it is no doubt because we are, by and large, quite parochial. But perhaps there is also an anxiety lurking around the fact that Deleuze and Guattari, in particular, are infamously beloved by the Israeli regime.

First, Moten. Talking about his decision to endorse the academic and cultural boycott of Israel, he says:

What I wanted to do was a couple of things: first, to recognise that the conditions of what people call “modernity” or “global modernity”… the conditions that make that up are settler-colonialism… And I think we can talk about settler-colonialism in ways that are broader than the normal ways that we usually think of them as a set of violent and brutal relations between Europe and the rest of the world…

Cedric Robinson pointed this out emphatically and in brilliant ways early on: that settler colonialism is also an intra-European affair. And it’s important to understand that. It’s important to understand this historical relationship between settler-colonialism and the enclosure of the commons, which is part of the origins of what we now call or know or understand as capitalism.

But if we understand that settler-colonialism, that the transatlantic slave trade, and that the emergence of a set of philosophical formulations that essentially provide for us a modern conception of self that has as its basis a kind of possessive, heteronormative, patriarchal individuation… That’s what it is to be a self, on the most fundamental level… If you ask anybody in the philosophy department, they’ll tell you that that’s true! And they won’t be joking… That these constitute the basis of our modernity… But for most of the people who live in the world — actually for everybody who lives in the world, although most of the people who live in the world are able to both recognise and say this — that modernity is a social and ecological disaster that we now… attempt to survive.

And if we take that up, then part of what’s at stake is that we recognise that feminist and queer interventions against heteronormative patriarchy; that black interventions against the theory and practice of slavery, which is ongoing; that indigenous interventions against settler-colonialism constitute the general — both practical and intellectual — basis for not only our attempts to survive but… to save the earth.

Moten continues, but it is worth pausing here for a moment, if only to nerd out on some of the specifics here… Not that anyone has asked this philosophy department, but this development of the self does indeed follow a trajectory of possessive individuation. However, not only is it ostensibly “modern” — we can date it to just before the start of the Enlightenment — it is also explicitly liberal.

I find this fascinating if only because we have retconned this particular sense of self back before the beginnings of philosophy itself. The Delphic motto “know thyself”, for instance, is one of the oldest and most enduring sentiments of Western philosophy, and understood as a pre-Socratic conception of self. Used repeatedly by Plato in particular, it nonetheless served as a cultural touchstone long before even he first put it on the page. Back then, however, to “know thyself” typically meant to know one’s place in the general order of things – a fact that could be as hidden within the machinations of society just as the unconscious was much later understood to be hidden within the machinations of the mind. Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex, for instance, may be one of the earliest explorations of self-knowledge and its discovery in Western culture, but Oedipus’ true self is only uncovered when he truly understands his relations to those around him. It is not a question of who he is as an individual. At the beginning of the play, he could not be more sure of this — it is arguably his downfall. But the secret to be uncovered is, instead, who his mother and father are and his relation to them. It is Oedipus’s true place in the social order that has been obscured from him.

Later philosophical conceptions of the self differed from this considerably, instead arguing that the self is not so easily reconstructed from our social relations. Though it is influenced by those around us, it is essentially our understanding of those characteristics that are innate to us alone. The self is what is left of us when we strip back everything else that is otherwise shared. For philosophers and political theorists in the Middle Ages, the difference between the individual self and a collective identity was an important distinction to make.

It was Rene Descartes, writing in the 1630s, who first insisted upon this distinction between “self” and “subject” for philosophy. In his influential Discourse on Method, an autobiographical treatise on the very nature of thought and reason, Descartes hoped to provide a new methodology for separating truth from falsehood. To do this, he stripped back everything that, he believed, could not be trusted. Approaching reality with a radical doubt, he began to pretend “that everything that had ever entered my mind was no more true than the illusions of my dreams.” This included information gathered by the senses and just about everything else that came into the mind from the outside world. When all of this was discounted, Descartes was left with one thing – that is, the “thing” that thinks. “I noticed that, during the time I wanted thus to think that everything was false, it was necessary that I, who thought thus, be something.” I think, therefore I am was his resulting declaration, and with that he established the self “as the first principle of the philosophy I was seeking.”

This foundation was soon extended into other areas of thought as well. The politics of liberalism were also formalised at this time, for example, and similarly built on a new conception of individual liberty and rights – the self as a first principle for politics also. A few decades after the publication of Discourse on Method, in his Essay Concerning Human Understanding, John Locke echoes Descartes’ philosophical position, writing that the “Self is that conscious thinking thing … which is sensible, or conscious of pleasure and pain, capable of happiness or misery, and so is concerned for itself, as far as that consciousness extends.” This Cartesian foundation nonetheless responds to certain political ideals. It turns out that, for Locke, this consciousness can extend quite far indeed, depending on your social status. As a result, though much of his work pays lip service to universal freedoms, this was not always true in practice.

Locke argues that the word person – his supposedly “forensic term” for the self – “belongs only to intelligent agents capable of a law, and happiness and misery.” A person, then, echoing Descartes, is a form of consciousness that can reason with itself; that can reflexively ascertain itself as conscious. But, in Locke’s hands, this is not quite the same sentiment as “I think, therefore I am.” It positions the self as a reflexive being that thinks in accordance with reason. Rather than the reflexive self being a foundation upon which reason can take place, the cart is put before the horse. The self doesn’t just reason – it is fundamentally reasonable. Some of Locke’s resulting conclusions are relatively innocuous. Under his criteria, an animal is not a person, for example, because animals do not have laws like humans do. But neither, in Locke’s view, are supposedly uncivilised persons, whose rights do not warrant the same respect as more “reasonable” societies. This sentiment was particularly disastrous given Locke’s political influence over the colonisation of North America. In this context, Descartes’ “I think, therefore I am” was soon extended into the realm of governance and property rights, making “I own, therefore I am” a more accurate founding doctrine for the politics of classical liberalism – and, a few centuries later, neoliberal capitalism as well.

It is this foundation that Moten takes firmly in his sights when he continues that a new relationship is needed with the Earth that is not liberal in a Lockean sense:

To not so presumptuously imagine that the Earth can be reduced to something so paltry and so viciously understood as what we usually call “home”. This is part of the reason why the queer and the feminist critique is so important. It’s a critique of a general problematic notion of domesticity. Often the methods that we use to claim the Earth as ours involve fences, borders, [and] this manifests itself on a private level from household to household, but it can also manifest itself at a national level, and at the level of a nation-state. And it’s not an accident that settler-colonial states take it upon themselves to imagine themselves to be the living embodiment of the legitimacy of the nation-state as a social and political form.

For me, there’s two reasons to be in solidarity with the people of Palestine. One is because they’re human beings and they’re being treated with absolute brutality. But the other is that there’s a specific resistance to Israel as a nation-state. And for my money, to be perfectly clear about this, I believe that the nation-state of Israel is itself an artefact of antisemitism. If we thought about Israel and Zionism not just as a form of racism that results in the displacement of Palestinians, but if we also think about them as artefacts of the historic displacement of Jews from Europe, in the same way that we might think of, let’s say, Sierra Leone or Liberia as artefacts of racist displacement… If we think about it that way — and the reason I’m saying this is just to make sure that you know that there’s a possible argument against the formulation that criticism of Israel is antisemitic, when we know that Donald Trump is a stark supporter, and people like Pat Robinson in the United States are stark supporters, that ought to help us to the fact that you can be deeply antisemitic and still support the state of Israel. These things go together. They’re not antithetical to one another.

The same is, of course, true of politicians here in the UK. With antisemitism and critiques of Israel becoming a political football in this country, for all the genuine examples of antisemitism, it is more often the case that Jeremy Corbyn constitutes a very specific form of existential threat for the liberal-left in this country — he didn’t threaten the right of Jews to exist but the right of liberals of all stripes and backgrounds to define their existence through ownership.

Moten continues:

So it becomes important for us to be able to suggest that resistance to the state of Israel is also resistance to the idea of the legitimacy of the nation-state. It’s not an accident that… when the defence of Israel manifests itself as the defence of its right to exist — this is important — it’s a defense not just of Israel’s right to exist but the nation-state as a political form’s right to exist. And nation-states don’t have rights. What they’re supposed to be are mechanisms to protect the rights of the people who live in them, and that has almost never been the case. To the extent that they do protect the rights of the people who live within them, it’s at the expense of the people who don’t…

It’s a fantastic speech from Moten, and one worth listening to in full, but the reason why I want to highlight this here, as a very recent philosophical and political argument for solidarity with the state of Palestine — and it is, of course, depressing that such an argument is necessary, but here we are — because it chimes with the radical politics at the heart of the work of Deleuze and Guattari, which have so often been abused by Israel itself.

This is an infamous fact now. I’m sure most are aware of it. Various high-ranking officials in the Israeli Defense League have, over the decades, drawn explicitly on the radical philosophies of Deleuze and Guattari and their influences, such as Gregory Bateson, Georges Bataille and the Situationists more broadly. As Deleuze and Guattari, in particular, have grown in popularity over the decades, becoming ubiquitous names within your average humanities school and in online autodidactic circles as well, this fact has often been used by some idiots as a “gotcha”. As unfounded as the suggestion that post-structuralists as CIA or IDF plants may be, this is not a critique to simply brush off. It is important to attend to it, and many have.

Eyal Weizman’s contributions are most noteworthy here. He has written on D+G’s popularity within the IDF for both Metamute and Radical Philosophy — and a number of other places, I’m sure, but these are the most readily accessible. Talking to a former IDF Brigadier-General called “Naveh” in an interview hosted by Radical Philosophy, the main takeaway is that the state of Israel deploys the various insights of post-structuralist philosophy and avant-garde European art practices in order to think like a guerrilla. They understand that, whilst guerrilla tactics can deterritorialise and perforate the supposedly solid boundaries of self and nation-state, the zone of indetermination around contentious spaces becomes a kind of no man’s land. Blurring the boundaries of the self and the state doesn’t just send these forms into a sort of fight-or-flight mode, as if their very existence were under threat, but also creates a space that these forms can expand into. To be threatened is to have the opportunity to expand yourself, like various animals will inflate their stature when scared. With nation-states, the problem is that they often stay like that, in these states of expanding awareness. And so it helps Israel to constantly provoke and brutalise and bully the Palestinian people. If the Palestinians are compliant, they just do as they wish and expand their state. If the Palestinian people resist, they create a zone of indeterminate threat that Israel can more openly and forcibly seize under the guise of self-defense. Guerrilla tactics, then, create a kind of political leeway, both spatially and rhetorically, that allows for certain ideas and forms of action to expand.

This is why the IDF uses Deleuze and Guattari. At the level of rhetoric, their conceptual engineering expands the mind of the Israel war machine. It allows it to conceive of itself in new ways, but from above rather than, as Deleuze and Guattari may have intended it, from below. On this, Weizman writes:

Theory may obviously create new sensibilities and may help to explain and further develop ideas that emerged independently within separate fields of knowledge. In terms of discourse, war, if it is not a total war of annihilation, is always a discourse between enemiesEvery military action is meant to communicate something to the enemy, to demonstrate, to threaten, to signal. Talk of swarming, targeted killings, and smart destruction may thus help the military communicate to its enemies that it uses only a part of its full capacities for destruction. In this respect a swarming operation is presented as a warning that ʻnext time we would indeed save ourselves many casualtiesʼ by being brutal without restraint – as was done in Jenin. Raids can thus be projected as a ʻlesser evilʼ, a more moderate alternative to the full devastating capacity that the military possesses, and will unleash if the enemy increases the acceptable level of violence or breaches some unwritten rule. In military operational theory it is essential that the military never uses its full destructive capacity and always keeps the ability to increase the level of atrocity. Without this relative ʻrestraintʼ, fear and thus threat are meaningless.

And this notion of rhetorical and spatial expansion — indeed, the “schizophrenic” relations between the two, where these specific theories are not disparate but can easily be traversed, as if to “cover it all with a pair of strides” — is directly related to Moten’s argument. Though his leaps and bounds between self and state, and their (often competing) ideas of home, may seem like flights of fancy to some, these are the very same tactics that the state of Israel is using to bolster its own sense of sovereignty and self. Weizman again brings Moten’s point about home to bear on the very notion of “homeland” and “homeland security”:

The domestic wall is conceptualized as a border, the home as enemy territory, and property intrusion as armed invasion. ʻHomeland Securityʼ (or what could now be dubbed ʻHome Securityʼ) is thus placed outside of democratic control. The military analysts exult at the possibilities offered by Deleuze and Guattari, Tschumi, and so on, because this inner domain – the subversive micro-sovereignty of privacy – now represents a potential extension of their power and sovereignty into places into which it was not previously extended. As such the invasion of the ʻhomeʼ – of intimate space, the space of subjectivity – has become yet another ʻlast frontierʼ.

It is quite obvious how this pans out, both spectacularly and innocuously. We’ve seen it repeatedly in recent weeks as Palestinians are ejected from Sheikh Jarrah, with complicit Israelis telling people “this is my home now”, and insisting that the Palestinians move. It allows them to relinquish responsibility, as citizens insist they are only doing what the state tells them, whilst at the same time believing that this interpersonal extension is their legal right, with racial displacement being framed innocuously as a change in rental agreement.

I saw a video recently of this very thing happening. A Palestinian family was pleading with an Israeli man not to take their home. He defiantly said it is not his choice, and what does it matter anyway? It’s not about him, as an individual, but the state. If he defied the government and said, “I don’t want to move in here”, they’d just send someone else in his place. He says this very explicitly, “If it wasn’t me, it would just be someone else.” Here a citizen utilises this same rhetoric of restraint. Here again, rhetoric and action, theory and practice, collide. The implicit suggestion seems to be, at least it will be lived in. As has happened over successive evenings since, the state of Israel has no qualms about demolishing homes instead. The dark side of his argument is, “either an Israeli lives here, or no one lives here”. We can easily extend the ideological viewpoint of this isolated citizen to the generalised view of the nation-state of Israel and its approach to the region as a whole.

There are clear echoes of Moten’s speech in Weizman’s analysis, specifically the argument that a critique of Israel is not limited to a critique of the actions of the nation-state but must extend into a critique of the very idea of home, of the “general problematic notion of domesticity“. But what’s more, the broader parallels with US politics are striking. Indeed, to think about Israel-Palestine in the same way as many philosophers have thought about America — well, except Locke… — could be useful.

When we studied the “Arab-Israeli Conflict” at school in History, the general message that I got from that class was that it was an impossible situation. We should strive for a two-state solution — that’s all we can do. But this solves nothing, because these two nation-states will always be entwined. Like conjoined twins, though they may be made one body, there would be risks, disadvantages and restrictions on what each can do. Such was the case with America and its peoples, itself a chimerical state of indigenous, colonial and stolen communities. Each has made a very unique sort of “home” within its bounds. And, of course, all continue in their fraught existence alongside each other ever since the states were founded.

America’s fraught stasis is, at base, the true legacy of liberalism. But the American dream, in itself, had so many more potentials, which Deleuze wrote on at length. If we cannot go back and undo the damage done, the least we can do is aspire to those first dreams — held by those who arrived in America for all angles, and even those who arrived in Israel-Palestine in the mid-twentieth century. Though we are talking about geopolitics here, it is something we have often explored through our own relationship with the natural world, which we also struggle to live in harmony with — and, indeed, resistance to settler-colonialism is essential to any theorisation of the climate emergency.

Walt Whitman knew this, or so Deleuze argues:

The relations between sounds or bird songs, which Whitman describes in marvellous ways, are made up of counterpoints and responses, constantly renewed and invented. Nature is not a form, but rather the process of establishing relations… Nature is inseparable from processes of companionship and conviviality, which are not pre-existent givens but are elaborated between heterogeneous living beings in such a way that they create a tissue of shifting relations, in which the melody of one part intervenes as a motif in the melody of another… Relations of counterpoint must be invented everywhere, and are the very condition of evolution.

It is through this sort of writing on the schizophrenic America, alive long before Ken Kesey documented its mid-century twists and turns, that the transcendentalists and the black radical tradition find points of resonance across space and time. Whitman and Thoreau writing on the rhythms nature begins to sound like Amiri Baraka or Val Wilmer (or, indeed, Moten himself) writing on the polyphony of jazz — and both have the same revolutionary political inflections. It is this persistent undercurrent that brings Deleuze to declare that “The society of comrades is the revolutionary American dream — a dream to which Whitman made a powerful contribution, and which was disappointed and betrayed long before the dream of the Soviet society.” So too for Melville — in his essay on Bartleby the Scrivener, Deleuze frames America not as

a puzzle, whose pieces when fitted together would constitute a whole, but rather a wall of loose, uncemented stones, where every element has a value in itself but also in relation to others: isolated and floating relations, islands and straits, immobile points and sinuous lines — for Truth always has “jagged edges.”

This America — Deleuze’s patchwork America — is a flight from liberalism, which moves

against the European morality of salvation and charity, a morality of life in which the soul is filled only by taking to the road, with no other aim, open to all contacts, never trying to save other souls, turning away from those that produce an overly authoritarian or groaning sound, forming even fleeting and unresolved chords and accords with its equals, with freedom as its sole accomplishment, always ready to free itself so as to complete itself.

America was, instead, built on brotherhood, and “brotherhood is a matter for original souls”. Original in that they are souls who origin is themselves, not some dream of origin to be totally imposed. As such, Deleuze continues, brotherhood and its relations begin “only with the death of the father or God.” A new Earth must be built by orphaned peoples, who shake off their Oedipal curses, and do not going looking for some sacred beginning.

The resulting anarchic society is not without its faults or risks. Something must always fill the void. For Deleuze, such a space “requires a new community, whose members are capable of trust or ‘confidence’, that is, of a belief in themselves, in the world, and in becoming.” Israel, in its foundation, though it too may have fled the violence of liberal Europe and its (arguably inevitable) turn to fascism, failed to imagine this kind of new community. It was not built on a kind of “becoming-Jew”, in beginning a new way of life within a new set of relations, but fell into a kind of Robinson Crusoe fallacy — out in the desert, failing to see the lives already being lived there, they saw tabula rasa, and set about rebuilding the world they already knew: one of violence, fascistic sovereignty and racial displacement. There are dangers within “a ‘society without fathers'”, Deleuze concedes, “but the only real danger is the return of the father.” The birth of Israel had potential, as a flight from European failure, which only returns to dreams of a father- or motherland. The Palestinian people feel the brunt of this return. “The birth of a nation, the restoration of the nation-state”: it is against this backdrop, Deleuze writes, that “the monstrous fathers come galloping back in, while the sons without fathers start dying off again.”

Israel may appropriate the strategies of radical politics, but it perpetually betrays their foundation. They should read less of Deleuze’s smooth and striated geophilosophy and instead understand it in context, perhaps by reading his writing on America and its culture, which demonstrate how America, Israel’s strongest ally, nonetheless lost its way.

Though Deleuze may write of the literary, his clinical diagnosis fits the symptoms of twenty-first century setler-colonialism. Palestine, in particular, gives a violently literal form to his otherwise literary allegories. A nation of fatherless sons and motherless daughters, it is primed for revolutionary renewal and its struggle is all of our struggles. Solidarity with Palestine is to strive for a new way of life on earth, on which a home is not a foundation for humanity, as Locke would have it, but rather a space that humanity must itself build together in solidarity.

“My house in your house, and your house is mine.”

Nine

News has been going around various networks that Ashle V aka Nine aka @OuvreLeChien68 passed away over the weekend.

She was active in mine and a bunch of people’s Discord servers, and she contributed so much to those spaces. I’d go so far as to say that she was instrumental in helping me set up my space, offering advice on technical issues and generally being very gracious and generous with her time — a fact made all the more humbling considering she was on the other side of the world, living in Australia. Since then, it has been clear she offered this sort of support to a lot of other people too.

I’ve got a few videos somewhere, of her hanging out in my first attempt at an online reading group. I won’t share them, but I watched one back today, all about the numogram. She would often attend these reading groups in what was, for her, the middle of the night, even staying around after everyone else had left to chat and catch up. She was very open about her struggles, but demonstrated a quiet strength in the face of them. In fact, I often found her to be surprisingly nonchalant about her own resilience, as she told tales of joining people in their darkest places if only so she was better placed to lift them up. I worry that may have been her downfall in the end.

I don’t know much about her broader situation or her personal life, such is the case with too many friendships maintained online, but she spoke on occasion about her Dad, who I gathered is a writer and/or editor. My thoughts have been with him today. He seemed to inspire her autodidactic sensibilities, and she inspired similar sensibilities in others as well. Though we often didn’t agree on politics, she had a better sense of solidarity than most, and genuinely cared about the wellbeing of others, whether she agreed with them or not. My thoughts are with everyone she built up a relationship with online.

Nine was just 19 years old. I didn’t know that until I heard she had passed away. She was well read beyond her years, and had a better grasp on the numogram than most people who are so occulturally inclined. I will miss her in my server and on the timeline.

How to Gener8 a Movement

Along with The Apprentice, there’s no better show than Dragon’s Den for tracking developments in a sort of pop-corporate thinking, and discovering just how innocuous presentations of our boring dystopia can be.

No doubt aware of my masochistic viewing habits, the YouTube algorithm threw this clip from Dragon’s Den at me this morning. The pitch is for a company called Gener8 that claims to act as a dam for all your personal data. In “private” mode, they will block all cookies from being attached to your system. But in “earn” mode, they’ll allow you to sell your own data in exchange for vouchers and coupons, etc.

The “dragons” are agog at the pitch and there’s a brief bidding battle for the investment. Having just held the latest XG reading group last night, it wasn’t hard to see why.

We’re still reading Jodi Dean’s book Blog Theory and, in the third chapter, she plots, with depressing prescience, the drive towards personalisation-as-participation in cyberspace, with the ways social media allows us to supposedly personalise our entire experience previously being the main attraction. Facebook and MySpace — perhaps less so Twitter, in that it can be (seemingly) more anon, but also even more atomising — further embolden capitalist individualism as we stake out independent spaces in cyberspace and deny ourselves a sense of community online. (A Facebook or Whatsapp group, or a group DM, though useful for organising, do not constitute solidarity alone.)

Gener8 shows just how bad things have gotten. The issue of digital privacy is dire. GDPR compliance has made us more aware of how companies use our data and interact with us, but it hasn’t helped us do anything more about it. Because companies don’t want to relinquish control of our data. They’ve built an entire economy on top of their presumptive access to it. All they can do now is feign relinquishment, and make us feel like we have a bit more agency, perhaps by — can you believe it? — giving us something back. But Gener8 seems to give you crumbs in exchange for a little bit of your own agency. All the while, it further makes the collective theft of data mining into an individual issue.

Dean’s feelings around identity control in the early 2010s are apt, if quaint (in hindsight). But her analysis of social media’s more innocuous pasts are all the more pressing today. Drawing on the work of Cayley Sorochan, for example, she considers how passive agency is the name of the game when it comes to our social media infrastructures:

Countering enthusiastic appropriations of flash mobs as new instances of demographic engagement, Sorochan presents them as instances of the “fetishizing of pure participation removed from any meaningful political project.” She concludes, “Hopes that flash mobs might represent a future form of political organisation reflect a desire for a politics of convenience where getting together with others is easy and does not involve conflict, commitment and struggle.” In the circuits of communicative capitalism, convenience trumps commitment.

Whereas Dean is talking about follower culture and friend lists, it is clear today that communicative capitalism has put a price tag on this sense of convenience, and does it all so you get to “opt in”. Faced with a suave tech-Jesus, the “dragons” see an open goal. Earning £5-£25 a month as a individual sounds like nice pocket money just for turning on a data mining app, but we know our data is worth so much more. It’s being given pocket change to have someone follow you wherever you go. Gener8 dude is “taking back control” with a messianic hairdo, but the control is an illusion. Nevertheless, it allows communicative capitalism to suture a rupture in its own fabric. Whereas we gain a pittance, capital has even more access to our selves, further defining us as online individuals. The corporate sentiment of “We’re listening” is coated in an empathetic gloss, diluting its de facto sinister nature.

The tension at work here is related to how precious we are about our individuality, but also the ways that our data is stuck in a marketing blender. Uncomfortable with being reduced to “just a number”, we’re given a more active and affirming role in our own exploitation, which only serves to make the data collected only complete. “Improvements” to the system only make our experience of its worse.

Dean’s analysis is, again, on the money. “We have been produced as subjects unlikely to coalesce, subjects resistant to solidarity and suspicious of collectivity”, she writes. “Central to this production is the cultivation and feeding of a sense of unique and special individuality.” On social media, this occurs simply by participating. “Participation becomes indistinguishable from personalization, the continued cultivation of one’s person.” But what we construct is an “imaginary identity”. Distinct from the “symbolic identity” that is, in Lacanian terms, our “ideal-I”, our ego, the imaginary “cyber-I” is instead constituted by corporations, based on decontextualised and depoliticised language scraped from our browser histories and message logs, and is therefore doomed to be anemic and reductive, making even our own “individuality” a shrivelled husk, never mind our collective solidarity.

Dean writes:

Expressed in psychoanalytic terms, symbolic identity is increasingly meaningless in the society of control. What we are instead are imaginary identities sustained by excess jouissance, by an injunction to enjoy. More specifically, symbolic identity involves the subject’s identification with an ego ideal, a perspective before whom the subject sees himself and his actions. Imaginary identification refers to the image that the subject adopts of himself. Symbolic identification, we might say, establishes the setting that determines which images appear and how it is that some are more compelling or attractive to us than others. Imaginary identification refers only to my self-image.

The best thing we can do, but perhaps the most difficult, is opt out — and I mean opt all the way out.

Once upon a time, the argument was to intensify cyberspace’s inhumanism. That is to say, rather than welcome attempts to humanise and subjectivise our online experiences, we should make more space for the inhuman. As Mark Fisher wrote in “Spinoza, K-Punk, Neuropunk”:

According to Spinoza, to be free is to act according to reason. To act according to reason is to act according to your own interests. Finally, however, we have to recognize that, on Spinoza’s account, the best interests of the human species coincide with becoming-inhuman.

Social media only proves this point, and with ratcheting horror as the years slip by.

We can now see why becoming inhuman is in the best interests of humanity. The human organism is set up to produce misery. What we like may be damaging for us. What feels good may poison us.

Once upon a time, the blogipelago was a salve to this…

What has begun to emerge on the most destratifying elements of the blogosphere is a depersonalising, desubjectifying network producing more joyful encounters in a positive feedback process in which mammal-reptilian conflict defaults are disabled.

… But no longer. Now they only serve to accelerate a disempathetic feedback loop. The “8” in Gener8 mocks us — an ouroboros generating nothing but more of the same.

Third Actors:
XG at the rA/Upture_2 conference,
OFF-Biennálé Budapest

Next month I’ll be taking part in the rA/Upture_2 conference, organised as part of the OFF-Biennálé in Budapest, Hungary. I’m going to be talking a bit about postmodernism’s deflation of political agency and how projects like accelerationism and speculative realism hope to intervene in the depressed space this creates.

After brief talks from myself, Ulrike Gerhardt and Julia Hartmann, we’ll have a panel discussion.

You can view the entire conference programme here and the Facebook event here. You can also visit the main OFF-Biennálé website here. Everything will be streamed on the OFF-Biennálé YouTube channel.

Find the abstract to our cluster of talks below, and see you there!


When we think of binaries it is we who embody a third observer, distanced enough to divide between sides. To embrace this conjuncture of dia_logistics we introduce the notion of a third actor. The third actors confuse the binary sense of co_existance, it re-situates the monologues hidden behind dialogues by responding or reorganising the manners of communication. How can we use this figure to untangle the trinity of past, present, future then?

Is the past allied with the present forming a retrotopia against the future? Or is it a bond between future and present against the past utopia?

Perhaps the past bonds with the future against the present as a dystopia. How can we intervene in these binary chronological orders?

Encounters with Photography and Community:
Alumni Talk at the University of South Wales

Many thanks to the staff and students at the University of South Wales in Cardiff who invited me to take part in their photography alumni symposium at the end of February 2021. Below is the talk I gave on the day, talking about my work and reflecting on my various sidesteps since then, and what led me to go from wanting to be a photographer to becoming a writer.

I wasn’t going to share this at first — hence posting it now in April — but this was such a brilliant day and talking to the students inspired me a great deal. It led to me migrating all of my old photo blogs onto the xenogothic.com URL — which you can peruse from the archive — as well as reigniting my interest in photography and rediscovering its persistent relevance to my more philosophical concerns.

I was going to rewrite this talk, making it more general, folding in a few of my subsequent reflections, but the post has been clogging up my drafts for months now. As it is, it’s a talk of two parts: a brief self-introduction, explaining who I am and what I’ve done over the years; and a reflection on how photography and my arts education is nonetheless integral to my divergent non-photographic trajectory. Rather than try and cleave it all apart, I think it’s best to share this as it is and leave you with a “watch this space”.

Linked throughout are a few relevant blogposts from the archive. Enjoy those if you fancy a bit of blog spelunking.

More photography talk and reflections soon!



Hi. My name is Matt Colquhoun. I graduated from USW in 2013, and I’m really excited to be here today. It’s been an interesting 8 years since I left USW, and over a decade since I first showed up on campus. Counting those years made me feel incredibly old; it probably makes your lecturers feel a lot older.

I should probably start by giving you a brief rundown of what I’ve done since then: I started my graduate life with 18 months of unemployment but ended up as the exhibitions officer at Ffotogallery in Cardiff. I later worked as exhibitions coordinator at BAFTA and Anise Gallery in London. I’ve worked as a music photographer, mostly shooting festivals and bands. The last big project I worked on was William Doyle’s 2019 album Your Wilderness Revisited, which I shot the album art for.

I went back to uni in 2016 and did a Master’s degree at Goldsmiths in Contemporary Art Theory, mostly because I wanted to become a better writer and scratch an itch I had to study philosophy. I spent three years after that writing a book about my time in London called Egress, which was about a lecturer at Goldsmiths, Mark Fisher, who unfortunately passed away whilst I was a student there.

Mark wrote a lot about culture and politics and philosophy and their intersection, and he generally explored how we might escape this world of capitalist drudgery, breaking out of this obsession we have with our own past and into the futures we’ve long been promised, carrying forwards this modernist, post-punk attitude to always rip things up and start again. But Mark unfortunately died by suicide and so, in some ways, Mark’s own death called a lot of his own work into question. So Egress was basically a document of a collective grieving process, dealing with big questions around politics and depression. The rest of that year in London was horrible for all sorts of reasons — Trump had just been elected but, closer to home, we had terrorist attacks and Grenfell and an awful general election. But the book was more about how my friends and I managed to channel the joy in Mark’s work despite all that was going on around us, and despite what happened to him. It was about how that process of affirmation in the face of such negativity became this really life-affirming collective project that has continued ever since. That book came out in March last year. And just last month*, I published a second book called Postcapitalist Desire, which is an edited collection of Mark’s final lectures, and which was, as of yesterday*, Amazon’s #1 bestseller in socialism. Make of that contradiction what you will…

I’m basically more of a writer now rather than a photographer or an exhibitions person, and that is largely down to the pandemic. I lost my London arts job because the gallery I worked at closed, I moved to Huddersfield, and now I write full-time because it is the one thing I can do from home. I should say I also do a lot of talks and lectures and podcasts and things, which is my excuse for having this massive microphone. But this shift from photography to writing has actually been really fruitful for me. I put Postcapitalist Desire together during the first few months of lockdown. And I’ve taken on a lot of other editorial work related to fiction, philosophy and politics. But I’ve still got a foot quite firmly in the art world. Before Christmas, I worked with Turner Prize winner Mark Leckey, and most recently I co-curated a sort of online club night at the ICA in London at the end of January.

Now, I’m by no means raking it in, but I am always busy, and I think part of that comes from this attitude towards community that I write about in Egress, but which first became really important to me at USW. The relationships that were forged between peers and lecturers have continued now for over a decade. And those were some weird times back then too. We didn’t have a pandemic but there were a lot of changes happening, not only internally within USW but also nationally, like with the trebling of student tuition fees. A lot of my first year at uni was spent on buses to London to go and protest. And what came out of all of that was a firm interest in how we’re able to collectively respond to arduous circumstances, and that’s sort of what I want to talk a bit about today, and hopefully also later in the breakout session, with those of you who choose to join me.

If I was to describe my own art practice or writing practice or whatever, it would as a responsive practice. Every step of the way, I’ve tried to find the best way to respond to whatever life throws at me and my friends, and actually work with those events quite directly as a way to make work that I find life-affirming but also political. And I think that’s what photography demands of us anyway – that sort of responsive relationship to the world as its changes around us.

But the thing I want to emphasise is that that’s an attitude that goes far beyond photography. It’s exactly the same drive behind most of the writing I do. So what you learn now can be put to work in so many ways, and be fertile ground for collaborations and opportunities that you could only dream of, if you know how to use it…

When I showed up at USW, I don’t think I had any real idea what I wanted to do with my life. Photography, for me, was just a way of engaging with the world. I know it will sound really cliché, but I was just fascinated by the way that holding a camera makes you engage with the world completely differently, and notice things that you wouldn’t otherwise notice. I found that to be quite a visceral experience and all I wanted to share was that joy when you encounter something new or a bit weird that doesn’t quite fit in with our expectations of how the world is supposed to work or look. It made for some interesting projects. I was quite aimless, but I was also committed to that aimlessness.

Case in point, when I was in your position, working towards a final-year project, I was throwing together all of these strange images and documents of peculiar experiences and encounters, a lot of stuff that I was just coming across by chance. For my degree show, back in 2013, I put together this loose, disparate installation of photographs, objects, books, music, embracing this random collection of things I liked but also trying to use them to dissolve that gap between looking at the world and looking at photographs in a white cube. I wanted to make looking at photographs as much of a multi-sensory experience as taking them was. It didn’t really have a strict narrative form — it couldn’t be read from left to right — but I didn’t really care. I just wanted to try and reveal this other world, that was all colour and possibility and strange coincidences and collisions, whilst otherwise being a pretty poor and depressed student in grey and rainy south Wales.

I didn’t want to make a project that just documented someone else’s misery. I didn’t want to make photographs to sell anything. I didn’t just want to illustrate someone else’s view of the world that I’d found in a book. I wanted to have fun. But I was very serious about having fun. I wanted to celebrate and affirm my own joy, especially because I found that joy to be in quite short supply. And I remember [senior lecturers] Peter and Matt being very nice about it and I did really well as far as grades are concerned. But I remember feeling like I had failed to convince anyone else at USW that I was serious about what I was doing. From the outside it probably looked a bit too irreverent and unserious. But I was actually pretty militant about what I was doing. It was real discipline of affirmation. It was a commitment to another way of doing things that didn’t actually exist yet or wasn’t valued in any real way. And I think not being able to articulate that very well was partly why I became a writer. I wanted to have another way than just photography to express those feelings, that were very deep feelings to me, but often looked superficial. And I feel vindicated, in a lot of ways, because although I often feel like I’m a thousand miles away from doing photography, I can draw a straight line from that amorphous body of work to the work I’ve become known for working on in more recent years.

Most of that more recent work is related to the writing of Mark Fisher, who, as I say, was a lecturer at Goldsmiths when I was there in 2016, and who sadly passed away whilst I was still a student in January 2017. About a week after Mark died, he had a book come out called The Weird and the Eerie. It’s this really short book about ghost stories and horror films, H.P. Lovecraft and the Chronicles of Narnia, as well as weird 1970s BBC TV shows, and what Mark’s arguing in that book is that just about every good horror story or fantasy story is built on an encounter with something that is weird or eerie. The weird, he says, is something that doesn’t belong; something new that doesn’t really fit in its place. The eerie is instead a sort of failed absence, or even a failed presence. There’s nothing where there should be something or there’s something where there should be nothing. You can probably think of a million horror films with that sort of encounter in, like a weird object appearing out of nowhere, or someone completely disappearing without a trace. I always think about that bit in The Matrix where Neo sees the same cat cross a door twice and goes, “Woah, déjà vu”, and everyone freaks out, and Trinity says that déjà vu is usually a sign that “they” have changed something. It’s the sort of encounter, or lack thereof, that suggests things aren’t quite as they seem. That there’s maybe another world somewhere, lurking beneath the surface of this one, and it very occasionally makes itself known to us, but only if we’re sharp enough to notice.

What was important to point out for Mark was that these experiences aren’t limited to horror films. And they aren’t necessarily all scary either. The weird and the eerie can make us laugh. But they’re also feelings that can have a political significance as well.

This is a quote of Mark’s that my friends ended up stencilling to the wall by the library at Goldsmiths, in which he says that “Emancipatory politics must always destroy the appearance of a ‘natural order’, must reveal what is presented as necessary and inevitable to be a mere contingency, just as it must make what was previously deemed to be impossible seem attainable.”

Mark’s main point of focus in all of his writing was, really, capitalism. It’s a global system that we are seemingly incapable of imagining any alternative to, and we’re actively told that this capitalist world is the best of all possible worlds, but the reality of late capitalism is sad robots and broken self-service checkouts, and it’s various kinds of infrastructure that fall apart when faced with the slightest inconvenience. And what’s interesting is, when we start paying attention to those moments of failure and embarrassment, those weird and eerie instances where capitalism is revealed to be a system full of holes, rather than this effective and convenient world-order, is that those holes reveal that other worlds are possible, and it’s up to us to not only drag them out but also actively create them. And so, in hindsight, when I look back at a lot of my silly pictures of weird shop fronts and bad road signs and ridiculous design choices, that’s what I spent all of my time photographing as a student. A sort of postmodern psychedelia. Moments and encounters when the world didn’t look like it was supposed to, but finding joy and possibility in that rather than dejection.

And over the years since, whilst having those kinds of encounters alone, walking around town, is very easy, the best way to make those encounters have a broader impact is to share them. To take that picture and send it a friend and engage in this kind of dialogue about the way things are and the way things could be. This is something we did in our second year – this was an open exhibition my housemate Sara Rejaie put on, across all the photography courses, and even some of the other art ones, I think. She asked anyone who wanted to, to send in a single A4 picture, and then she curated them in a big art space, seeing the various resonances and the similarities and differences that emerged. And it was wonderful thing to do, because it immediately put everyone in dialogue with one another. If I might be so bold, I’d say that this was a practice of consciousness raising.

Consciousness raising is a group political practice that was pioneered by the feminist movement in the 1960s and ‘70s. Women would basically get together and talk about their experiences. One women might say, my husband’s shit and I hate the fact I do all the housework and my life is so dull, and another woman would say, hey, my husband’s shit and I hate the fact that I do all the house and my life is so dull as well. And when this group of people realises that their personal problems aren’t personal but are shared, then suddenly we’re having a very different conversation. Not about our own individual circumstances but actually about broader structural issues, like patriarchy or white supremacy or classism, all of which fall under that general heading of capitalism.

What’s amazing about consciousness raising is that you can do it anywhere. I’d argue that the crits you have, for instance — discussing each other’s work and interests and approaches to things, even if in an academic setting — provide a similar sort of opportunity. I imagine when you all come together, if they’re anything like the crits we used to have, you’ve all got your individual projects, and the most mortifying thing in the world is when you realise that someone else might have a project that’s a bit similar to yours. But that’s not an opportunity to get competitive; that’s a chance for collaboration. And that’s something that gets a lot easier once you’re outside these walls, when all your peers aren’t working in the same medium or even in the arts at all.

And I think that’s probably the best thing you can affirm once you’re out in the world. Not your differences but the things that you share. And that can be quite a difficult thing to do. I was quite nervous about talking to you all today, as photography students, about my life that has moved me further and further away from photography. And you might think, what’s this guy who writes books about politics got to say to us about making it in art world or the fashion world or in journalism. But the funny thing is that when I talk to academics and philosophers for the first time about what they do, they always look at me slightly weird because I’ve had this other life where I wasn’t formally engaged with a more traditional academic discipline that they’ve basically spent their whole lives focussed on. They see me as a photographer who has someone overstepped his bounds. And when I talk to photographers these days, they see me as a photographer who’s lost his way. But I have found that engagement with other worlds gives me an edge that they don’t have. They can look at the world as philosophers or photographers. I can look at the world as a philosopher and as a photographer. And it’s precisely that mixed background that has got me talking to artists and fashion designers and journalists day in, day out. As well as mathematicians and physicists and city planners and political activists and musicians. And I’m not just talking to them because I want to document what they do. We’re talking because we’re all documenting our thoughts and ideas together, in our own ways, and then pooling the results.

Regarding the Pain of Royals

Following the funeral of Prince Philip yesterday, Caroline Davis suggested for the Guardian that

When future historians come to retell the story of the pandemic, the image of the Queen sitting alone, masked and in mourning, will surely rank among the most poignant.

I’m not so sure…

Whilst Prince Philip’s coffin was being loaded onto the back of his custom Land Rover, I was enjoying the sunshine, reading and pottering around the allotment. I recently picked up a new edition of Susan Sontag’s Regarding the Pain of Others for a project I’m working on and sat reading its opening pages, just as the news outlets began reiterating, over and over again, how tragic it was going to be to see the Queen sitting alone.

In those opening pages, Sontag reads Virginia Woolf’s Three Guineas, and her observations could not have felt more appropriate.

Woolf, asked by a man how “we” might stop war, challenges the assumed solidarity of this “we”. Men and women do not think about war in the same way, she argues. But when we look at photographs of the pain of others, of victims of war and violence, we all react the same. We all recoil and share that response, which rises up in us and leads us to make that same naive wish: “never again”.

But Sontag isn’t having it. As rousing as Woolf’s essay is, as a tandem work of pacifism and feminism, she doesn’t agree that everyone views photographs in the same way. In fact, that is a dangerous suggestion. The romantic notion that we all recoil synchronously from horror too often causes more harm than good. Because there’s nothing like a horrifying photograph to manufacture consent and enable more war, more atrocities, more injustice. So writes Sontag:

And photographs of the victims of war are themselves a species of rhetoric. They reiterate. They simplify. They agitate. They create the illusion of consensus.

War was not waged in Windsor in memory of Prince Philip, even if the military presence may have given that impression. There was no violence or horror on display, but we were treated, once again, to rolling coverage of royal pain. Columnists and commentators all emphasised how the Queen is now relatable, suffering like we all have; how Princes Harry and William were seen together for the first time in ages, newly bonded in their grief. The death of Philip brought the royal family together, and the rest of the nation along with it.

It didn’t. It won’t. The Queen will be in pain, and I do feel sorry for her. I feel sorry for anyone who has lost a loved on in this pandemic, whether from the coronavirus or otherwise. But no amount of royal pain is going to float the royalist illusion of a national consensus.