A Further Fragment on Unconditional Accelerationism: What is Anti-Praxis?

It is clear that the concept of anti-praxis within unconditional accelerationism remains woefully misunderstood. Regularly confused with Nick Land’s brand of horrorism — “Do nothing” — many still believe that “anti-praxis” is some pretentious way of expressing the same sentiment. I doubt even the most insufferable of accelerationists would think such a position warranted a term so pretentiously over-specific to describe something as basic as inactivity.

My own attempt to rectify this, by emphasising Deleuze’s call to “make yourself worthy of the process” in a previous post from 2018, had caught on more than I was aware but, given that old post’s fragmentary nature, it is a clear that it hasn’t done a great deal to unmuddy the waters.

Recently discussing this in a Discord server, I thought I’d turn back to this old post and attach some more recent research to it, in order to (finally) articulate with some more clarity just how this Deleuzian adage works in practice (if not in praxis).

What we call an instinct and what we call an institution essentially designate procedures of satisfaction. On the one hand, an organism reacts instinctively to external stimuli, extracting from the external world the elements which will satisfy its tendencies and needs; these elements comprise worlds that are specific to different animals. On the other hand, the subject institutes an original world between its tendencies and the external milieu, developing artificial means of satisfaction. […] There is no doubt that tendencies find satisfaction in the institution: sexuality finds it in marriage, and avarice in property. The example of an institution like the State … does not have a tendency to which it corresponds. But it is clear that such institutions are secondary: they already presuppose institutionalized behaviors, recalling a derived utility that is properly social. In the end, this utility locates the principle from which it is derived in the relation of tendencies to the social. The institution is always given as an organized system of means.

— Gilles Deleuze, “Instincts and Institutions”

What we talk about “praxis”, in the context of unconditional accelerationism, it is a term perhaps best understood as designating an institutionalised practice. We might call anti-praxis, then, a kind of de-institutionalised practice.

A critique of institutions was always baked into the meaning of the “unconditional” in unconditional accelerationism (u/acc), as far as I’m aware. The splintering of accelerationism into left and right variants in the mid-2010s had, at that point, done nothing but put different coloured carts before the same horse. Institutionalising accelerationism was a mistake; this philosophy was always an attempt to untangle and critique the institutions that passed themselves off as the rightful home for certain instincts under capitalist realism, whether they be political institutions or — as later became a focus for many — even ontological categories like (clock) time. To feed accelerationism back into the institutions it sought to short-circuit only short-circuited accelerationism itself.

It is a point that always bears repeating: accelerationism was first of all a call to rethink the political landscape of the late 2000s, already defined by leftist melancholy, now-familiar parliamentarian deadlocks and a woeful “democratic” impotence. This was most true following the financial crash, when it was clear that those in power, no matter their political affiliation, would have bailed out the bankers no matter what; it remains true following the last two US presidential elections — or, I should say, the previous one and the current one — where the choice, to many on the left, has been one of backing the lesser of two evils.

Because of this, any attempt to shoehorn accelerationism back into our increasingly inadequate political demarcations is a confused step backwards that ignores the questions this mode of thought initially posed — specifically, what defines the political “left” and “right” following the (supposed) ultimate victory of capitalism? This isn’t to say that accelerationism is wholly incompatible with a left- or right-wing politics, but folding it into our present understandings of either wing is to ignore the critiques at its heart. Perhaps the most pressing critique can be framed as the following question: With many of the arguments central to the left’s existence apparently cast into the trash fire of history by capitalism’s final hegemonic ascendancy, then what is left for the left to do? What is required of us to update our understanding of capitalism — arguably, Marxism itself — so that it can account for and reflect the complexities of our postmodern moment? Whilst the accelerationist response has been derailed for many years, u/acc was an attempt to reassert it. In attempting to hook our understanding up to old measures of progress and comprehension, we ignore the extent to which subjectivity has already been changed. The response to this from u/acc sounds simple enough but, in reality, it is anything but. It is a response that might go something like this:

Institutionally speaking, political thought is in the gutter. We might do well to trust our instincts.

This no doubt sounds naive. For one, we do not live in 2008 anymore and there are plenty of interesting political thinkers involved at the party political level. Whilst we may despair at the state of political bureaucracy in the twenty-first century, do we really need to eject bureaucracy outright as a way to get things done? Is the answer really something so vague and empty as “follow your little leftist hearts”? The point is, rather, to consider how our desires are vetoed from the very start by the institutions of capitalist realism. This was a difficult task in 2008; it remains one in 2020.

For example, whilst we might think confidently that the impotence of Occupy is far behind us at the level of popular leftist thought, just last week on Twitter Extinction Rebellion — as spokespeople for what they (rightfully) call the most important sociopolitical issue of our times — tweeted this:

David Graeber — who it has just been announced passed away on the day I am writing this (RIP) — put it best:

Clearly, as far as mass movements go — and that is the scale we all want to be organising at, surely? — the left still has a lot of work to do regarding not just how it acts but how it thinks and responds to current events. In this sense, capitalist realism is alive and well, even at the top of our most celebrated and presently iconic activist movements. For the accelerationists of the late 2000s, there was a similar frustration.

Extinction Rebellion’s tweet, at its worst, represents a kind of capitalist apologism. The point of a statement like “socialism or extinction”, for anyone who knows their anti-capitalist / Marxist history / theory, is surely to say “postcapitalism or bust”. Sure, we can argue about the finer points of whether socialism (as an ideological institution) is the best successor to capitalism but, generically speaking, it’s long been the stepping stone towards something other than this mess. The issue, of course, is that this mess has been pulling harder and harder away from the left and towards what Mark Fisher called a “frenzied stasis” for a number of decades now. For many, this is a bad sign because capitalism has clearly passed its best. Whilst its continued dominance will allow those it benefits to continue lining their pockets, for the rest of us — and, indeed, for the planet — the persistence of business as usual, and the forestalling of progress whereby capitalism is not allowed to morph into something else (as it seems to be yearning to do — for better or worse) isn’t going to work out well for anybody.

Following the financial crash, it was clear that this issue wasn’t simply down to a totalitarian bourgeoisie enforcing capitalism upon us. It was an issue of ideology. The planet, in essence, is beholden to capitalism through a kind of Stockholm Syndrome. Whilst our instincts show us to be a species in peril, pacing back and forth like zoo animals, we are institutionally blinded to any sort of alternative, instead relishing our own oppression and loving our habitual consumption of the shit of capital. That doesn’t mean we’re not having fun but it raises questions about what we might be straining to become, and what the impact of the stunting of our growth by panicking capitalists might be.

This isn’t necessarily a nod to some sort of posthuman utopia. Even at a more mundane level of society as it is now, we know the relation between instinct and institution can change quite radically over the course of a lifetime. Consider Deleuze’s examples quoted above. How might we think the unfurling of human sexual desire out of the institution of marriage? I’d have to agree with the Bible bashers on that one — marriage ain’t what it used to be, and thank goodness. Various forms of sexual relation have flourished over the last century but we still find other ideals through which to institute our own satisfaction — through the family, for instance — which seem less likely to crumble under a collective willpower. It raises interesting questions though. Considering how complex the social development of sexual relations has been over the last few centuries, how might we consider the constant flux of capitalism in the same way? (Mark Fisher made much the same point in an essay for eflux, notably about accelerationism as well.) Indeed, when we look at the history of sexuality — a relevant example, no doubt, considering the centrality of desire to both love and money — can we find a set of praxes here to emulate?

Not really… Surely, the lesson to be learned is that we must follow our instincts and allow our institutions to adapt accordingly. Indeed, that we must preserve some room for adaptation. Capitalism may adapt along with us, but it might also “adapt” into something else in the process. We should also be prepared for the realisation that we do not want exactly what we say we want, and that the best way to satisfy our needs and desires may not look how we imagine it to in our minds.

Deleuze takes up this problem explicitly in his essay on “Instincts and Institutions”. He writes:

The problem common to instinct and to institution is still this: how does the synthesis of tendencies and the object that satisfies them come about? Indeed, the water that I drink does not resemble at all the hydrates my organism lacks. The more perfect an instinct is in its domain, the more it belongs to the species, and the more it seems to constitute an original, irreducible power of synthesis.

We might argue that the implicit point being made here, following Herbert Marcuse, is that, whilst capitalism implores us to see it through a series of biological foundations, these are but institutions it has attempted to subsume into the deepest levels of the organism.

Deleuze continues:

But the more perfectible instinct is, and thus imperfect, the more it is subjected to variation, to indecision, and the more it allows itself to be reduced to the mere play of internal individual factors and exterior circumstances — the more it gives way to intelligence. However, if we take this line of argument to its limit, how could such a synthesis, offering to a tendency a suitable object, be intelligent when such a synthesis, to be realized, implies a period of time too long for the individual to live, and experiments which it would not survive?

We are forced back on the idea that intelligence is something more social than individual, and that intelligence finds in the social its intermediate milieu, the third term that makes intelligence possible. What does the social mean with respect to tendencies? It means integrating circumstances into a system of anticipation, and internal factors into a system that regulates their appearance, thus replacing the species.

Understood in relation to some sort of utopia, we might see this intelligence as a relation to come, yet to be fully realised. We might also understand it as already being here, with the age of social media inaugurating capitalism’s ultimate integration of technological circumstances with the anticipation of its continued survival. Somewhat ironically, with regards to the climate crisis, we lack this level of social intelligence. Capitalism has the monopoly on smart.

This is where the accelerationist version of “what is to be done?” enters into consideration. The classic version of this question is one that U/Acc blogs have often poked fun at — largely because the handwringing of the twenty-first left, at its most melancholic, is symptomatic of its constant looking for something to do, to the extent that it starts to resemble a widow trying to keep themselves busy — but it is a question that persists regardless.

Considering the circumstances described above, however, another set of questions emerge to complicate this Leninist call to action.

Praxis is, of course, not just the other side of the political coin from theory; it is also an accepted mode of action — instituted by the Party, for instance, in a Marxist-Leninist sense. It is action backed up by theory. But when the party as a political entity has fallen into such disrepute, what remains of praxis today? How are we supposed to talk about rectifying our institutions when they are in such a dire state of disrepair? Without top-down recommendations, do these forms of political action default to popular opinion? What is popular opinion when social intelligence is rotten with capitalist realism? Is horizontalism an effective alternative? Many would argue that simply negating our institutions doesn’t solve anything but is affirming them anything more than masochism at this point? What is to be done about the question of what is to be done?

I’m persistently playing devil’s advocate in asking these questions but, for what it’s worth, I think Jodi Dean’s writings on a new sense of the “party” are very illuminating. We need to rethink a lot of what we take for granted. This is not to abandon all that came before but nor is deferring to some sort of theoretical canon going to solve anything. Marx is still useful and so are many other theorists. But this does not solve our problem — the problem of a new thought and politics that can respond to our present crisis in negation.

Ultimately, this is the point at which accelerationism enters the fray. It was a mode of thought explicitly concerned with the failure of praxis in 2008 and the left’s inability to think of alternatives — alternative futures (theoretical ideals), on the one hand, and alternative forms of action on the other. Anti-praxis becomes relevant here as a way to think praxis and the crisis of negation together, whilst also acting against the institutions that would typically define these terms. It is also, arguably, a way of playing the so-called “long game.” Whilst praxis, particularly at present, means giving yourself over to the weather-vane of contemporary (party) politics, anti-praxis becomes a way of halting our inane flailing and looking beyond to another form of action altogether. Again, this isn’t necessarily a rejection of party politics, but it is an attempt to think at a different scale. It is a form of action that looks to the bigger picture, beyond the localism of party politics and personal grievance and instead towards an almost cosmic perspective — a perspective all the rage in the era of the “Anthropocene”, but one which most humanities departments are ill-equipped to actually respond to. (Mark Fisher’s joke that he wanted to set up a ‘Centre for the Inhumanities’ comes to mind here.) It is a way of taking the personal (which capitalism loves to amplify) and making it impersonal.

This is not to denounce institutional critique either, of course, which is a very important and productive praxis in specific contexts, but it is rather to try and consider how this differs and relates to spheres outside our workplaces or local modes of political organising. What kind of thought speaks to a scale beyond that? What kind of thought speaks to capitalism as a whole? Not to alternatives within capitalism, but postcapitalist discourses? Is such a thought even possible anymore? What does it look like now and what might it look like in the future?

Vincent Garton’s anti-praxis takes this kind of perspective broadly in its sights and, whilst his position sounds woefully nihilistic (in the worse sense of that word), it also speaks to a new kind of freedom that emerges from feeling our size amidst capitalism’s great totality — a kind of productive nihilism that may emerge following the realisation that, whilst our local actions make us feel good, they are unimportant before the “colossal horror” of the capitalist system at large. As he writes on his old blog:

On its very terms, human agency has already been elevated to become the guide and measure of the world, and this, conceptually, is intolerable. It is precisely against this view that accelerationism defines itself as ‘antihuman(ist)’, and against the fundamental question of praxis that it offers ‘antipraxis’. This can hardly mean ‘Do nothing’, of course: that would mean not just to return to the fundamental question of praxis, but to offer perhaps the most numbly tedious answer of all. The unconditional accelerationist, instead, referring to the colossal horrors presented to the human agent all the way from the processes of capital accumulation and social complexification to the underlying structure, or seeming absence of structure, of reality itself, points to the basic unimportance of unidirectional human agency. We ‘hurl defiance to the stars’, but in their silence — when we see them at all — the stars return only crushing contempt. To the question ‘What is to be done?’, then, she can legitimately answer only, ‘Do what thou wilt’ — and ‘Let go.’

Personally, I have reason to differ with Garton’s old position somewhat. Whilst it resonates with more positions than many are willing to generously conceded — a more hubristic brand of environmentalism, for one — his argument here is an explicit reaction against the so-called “managerialism” of Srnicek and Williams; the impotence of their “left-accelerationism”, which arguably turns its back on their initially revolutionary proposals once the opportunity of institutional influence asserts itself. Their Inventing the Future certainly seems to be something of a retreat (at least on Williams’ part) from the initially inhumanist provocations described as “accelerationist” by Benjamin Noys. (For those unaware, in a now-deleted blogpost, it was Williams who first asked perhaps the foundational accelerationist questions that Garton expands upon here, specifically: “What is capital-in-itself?” and “What is capital-for-itself?”)

If I have reason for quibbling the hostility against Srnicek and Williams, it is because this seems to be a narrative that has long been spun in their absence. I’m personally quite interested in talking to either/or about how they view their old writings and political actions since, and whether they felt they necessarily climbed down from prior provocations or whether it was the runaway train of glib accelerationist thought that has betrayed their positions since.

What has been of great interest to me in recent months is my personal realisation that the ground from which accelerationism first emerged (prior to the apparent climb-down of Inventing the Future) still retains a shade of anti-praxis. Alex Williams’ writings in particular — although his deletion of his blog suggests he no longer agrees with his former self — is a long-neglected starting point for accelerationist thought. It is with him, not Land, that accelerationism proper should look to for its foundation. This is to say that accelerationism wasn’t just a continuation of Landian thought but an attempt to complicate its implications with the circumstances of a new decade that veered considerably from where Land himself had predicted it would go. Unconditional accelerationism, in this sense, is not just Landian accelerationism before all the factionalism; I think it makes a lot more sense when seen as an extension of Williams’ “post-Landianism” — his articulation of Land’s machinic desires alongside a critique of Badiou’s post-Marxist-Leninism and aligned with Brassier’s unbound nihilism.

It is the (negative) influence of Badiou especially that makes the question of what is to be done so central for the early accelerationists. But I don’t want to talk about Williams’ old blog here. Instead, I think the best person to turn to to understand this foundation is probably Steven Shaviro.

Shaviro’s books on accelerationism are certainly worth reading but I also find — as is often the case with too many of those initial forays into post-blog publishing (Noys’ book on accelerationism for Zero is similar) — that they lose some contextual foundation in being removed from the blogosphere. This is to say that, in an oddly backwards process, the books are often more reductive than the blogs.

For instance, the questions first asked by the “accelerationists” in 2008 seem to emerge almost from nowhere but Shaviro’s blog does well to ground their answers within the original crises of the financial crash and an already frequently critiqued impotence in philosophy (discussed and dissected by the likes of Zizek and Badiou). Whilst there is a great deal of value in mapping out how these questions are related to previous countercultural movements, it is nonetheless true that this original galvanising moment, which articulates the acute relevance of accelerationism to the twenty-first century, has long been overlooked, and it is with Shaviro, moreso than anyone else, who was seemingly asking all of the right questions at that moment.

What I find particularly interesting about this, having spent a great deal of time blog-spelunking in recent months, is that I think Shaviro’s position still contains a great deal of mileage, and even describes an approach to the financial crash in 2008 that seems wholly resonant with the U/Acc blogosphere of 2016-18. Before we explore Shaviro’s foundation, however, it is necessary to provide a sort of caveat.

Shaviro’s position — when we come to it — may sound more humanist than some accelerationists are used to, but what is worthy of note, I think, is that this position is not incompatible with an inhumanist view of capital that has come to dominate — indeed, a view that many accelerationists have since fetishized and reified into a kind of edgy idiocy, before which they are left agog, mouths agape, before their new techo(g)nomic deity. In this sense, despite first appearances, Shaviro’s position resonates nicely with Ray Brassier’s “post-Landian” nihilism, which acknowledges the scientific truth about our existence — that we live in an indifferent universe — and, perhaps, a tandem economic truth as well — we live in an indifferent economy. Acknowledging this indifference is not an argument for inactivity either; it is an acknowledgement that frees us to consider possibilities we may have never considered before, subsumed, as we are and have long been, under the God-fearing auspices of an apparently God-given universe — the theological equivalent of capitalist realism.

It is important to linger over the full implications of capital’s indifference to us and why this is another foundational accelerationist position. Its critics denounce accelerationism through this suggestion as nothing more than a reheated catastrophism, but accelerationism is instead the observation that capitalism itself is catastrophist — to conflate this obversation with what humans should do is to misunderstand how capitalism functions and how we relate to it (at least according to Deleuze and Guattari — arguably the last wholesale critique of capitalism to still matter since Marx). As Brassier writes:

Integrated global capitalism is constitutively dysfunctional: it works by breaking down. It is fuelled by the random undecidabilities, excessive inconsistencies, aleatory interruptions, which it continuously reappropriates, axiomatizing empirical contingency. It turns catastrophe into a resource, ruin into opportunity, harnessing the uncomputable.

Capitalism, then, is a confounding foe precisely because of its algorithmic indifference to human activity. Indeed, to place it under human condition is a fallacy. We do not control it; if anything, it controls us. However, again, this is not to assign capitalism with some sort of benevolent agency. We are simply caught up in its currents and flows.

Most notably, this is to acknowledge that not even the capitalists have control over capital. They accumulate it and hoard it but they are not in control of the system itself. Economists are, as Mark Fisher has remarked, little more than weather forecasters. In his Postcapitalist Desire lectures, he explains:

From the point of view of capital, then — capital is certainly an ideological construction, but it’s less ideological than you are — the human bourgeoisie are just a means of its being produced. The big Hegelian story, in this respect, is of human potentiality, of human production being split off… The products of human activity are being split off from the humans who produced them, and coming back as a quasi-autonomous force. It might sound complicated, but it’s fairly simple, isn’t it? What is the economy if not that? […] Nobody — including and especially capitalists — can will the financial crisis of 2008 away, and yet, absent human beings from the picture, there is no financial crisis. It is entirely an affair of human consciousness, the economy, in that sense, and yet humans have no power to effect it. It’s like weather — the economy is like weather. There are people who can be experts in what the weather is going to be and profit from it, but they can’t change the weather. Not on a fundamental level. This is part of what’s being pointed to: it’s fundamental.

But what is capitalism? Capitalism, then, would be this system whereby this alienation — to use that term — of human capacities is taken to its absolute limit. It’s a monstrously, prodigiously productive system, yet it’s also one which seems to — and does — exploit and oppress the majority of the population, and which even the minority have limited capacity to alter.

In the heat-fucked nihilism of Brassierese, that sounds like this:

If capitalism is the name for that curiously pathological social formation in which ‘everything that is bound testifies that it is unbound in its being, that the reign of the multiple is the groundless ground of what is presented, without exception’, it is because it liquidates everything substantial through the law of universal exchangeability, simultaneously exposing and staving off the inconsistent void underlying every consistent presentation through apparatuses of ‘statist’ regularization. ‘Capital’ names what Deleuze and Guattari call the monstrous ‘Thing’, the cancerous, anti-social anomaly, the catastrophic overevent through which the inconsistent void underlying every consistent presentation becomes unbound and the ontological fabric from which every social bond is woven is exposed as constitutively empty.

For Fisher and Brassier both, understanding capitalism in this way does not abjure our capacity to act. This is not declaring “the economy works in mysterious ways” and then being done with it; this is not deferring to theoretical thoughts and economic prayers. And yet, acknowledging this truth — that much of the universe (and the economy) swirls in a chaos beyond our own disinterestedness — does allow us to dismiss certain modes of action outright. Boiled down to its essence, we can regain our understanding of a foundational striving that flows underneath the ideological chaos of bourgeois posturing. We can retain a fidelity to this indifference and to the revolutionary principles that persist underneath the compartmentalising of neoliberal party politics.

For Shaviro, this is what it means to “make yourself worthy of the process” (although he doesn’t use this phrase himself); to retain a fidelity to human action in the face of fanged noumena. To return to Deleuze on instincts and institutions, this means that our relationship to capitalism becomes similar to the current relation between animals and humans. As Deleuze writes:

In the end, the problem of instinct and institutions will be grasped most acutely … when the demands of men come to bear on the animal by integrating it into institutions (totemism and domestication), when the urgent needs of the animal encounters the human, either fleeing or attacking us, or patiently waiting for nourishment and protection.

Isn’t this how we find ourselves acting before capitalism? Can nothing more be done?

Whilst capital might begin selecting for vegan options on the menu in response to our own shifting attitudes, that doesn’t mean capitalism itself is showing any less of a thirst for human flesh. For Deleuze, perhaps the issue is that we can seldom differentiate between demanding a seat at the table and demanding a place on the plate. (Perhaps an analogy a little too close to home given the UK’s recent “Eat Out to Help Out” scheme and the second lockdown expected to follow it.) In light of this, we must implore each other to think differently and beyond the institutions that cannot and will not ever satisfy our needs, and which are arguably set up to use us to fuel something else. This is to say that institutions are power stations run on instinct, but we’ve got a problem when they start to look like slaughterhouses for new ways of being.

Before I tied myself up in even more awkward analogies, we should turn to Shaviro, who translates this problem into more general terms (whilst still drawing on Deleuze’s theory of the institution). Indeed, he writes on this at length. The resulting essay is, I think, one of the best blogposts to emerge from the proto-accelerationist blogosphere, expressing a sentiment that many of the first accelerationists would pick up on and run with. Here, he skewers the impotence of an overly humanist Marxism which attempts to transform Marx into Christ, building up a church through which to defer to the human body of the messenger rather than the inhuman forces he channelled and described. It is this post that I would like to end on. I’m still digesting much of this but, as far as I am concerned, this is the thought that later gives rise, through a complex process of osmosis and distillation, to u/acc’s anti-praxis. (I hope to write on this more soon.)

Drawing back the skin of “what is to be done?” to get to the problem of the subject that is doing the “doing”, Shaviro writes:

… there is a good reason why recent Marxist theory is so concerned with the problem of the subject. It is a way of raising the question of agency. What is to be done? How might capitalism be altered or abolished? It’s hard to give credence any longer to the old-fashioned Marxist narrative, according to which the “negation of the negation,” or the “expropriation of the expropriators,” would inevitably take place, sooner or later. Neither the worldwide economic collapse of the 1930s, nor the uprisings and radical confrontations of the 1960s, led to anything like the “final conflict” of which generations of revolutionaries dreamed. Today we are no longer able to believe that the capitalist order is fated to collapse from its own contradictions. It is true that these contradictions lead to turmoil, and to misery for many. Yet the overall process of capital accumulation is not necessarily harmed by these convulsions. If Capital could speak, it might well say, in the manner of Nietzsche’s Overman, that “whatever does not kill me, makes me stronger.” The genius of capitalism lies in its ability to turn to its own account whatever destabilizes it, and whatever is raised against it. In the absence of that old militant optimism, we are left with the sinking feeling that nothing works, that nothing we can do will make any difference. This sense of paralysis is precisely the flip side of our “empowerment” as consumers. The more brutal the neoliberal “reforms” of the last thirty years have been, and the more they have taken away from us, the more they have forced upon us the conviction that there is No Alternative.

This crushing demoralization is itself a testimony to Marx’s prescience. How else but with a sense of utter helplessness could we respond to a world in which Marx’s insights into the tendencies and structures of capitalism have been so powerfully verified? From primitive accumulation to capital accumulation, from globalization to technological innovation, from exploitation in sweatshops to the delirium of ungrounded financial circulation: all the processes that Marx analyzed and theorized in the three volumes of Capital are far more prevalent today, and operate on a far more massive scale, than was ever the case in Marx’s own time. By the late 1990s, all this had become so evident that Marx’s analytical acumen was admired, and even celebrated, on Wall Street. As the business journalist John Cassidy wrote in a widely-noticed and frequently-cited article in The New Yorker (1997): Marx “wrote riveting passages about globalization, inequality, political corruption, monopolization, technical progress, the decline of high culture, and the enervating nature of modern existence — issues that economists are now confronting anew. . . Marx predicted most of [globalization’s] ramifications a hundred and fifty years ago. . . [Marx’s] books will be worth reading as long as capitalism endures.”

From this point of view, the problem with Marx’s analysis is that it is just too successful. His account of the inner logic of capitalism is so insightful, so powerful, and so all-embracing, that it seems to offer no point of escape. The more we see the world in the grim terms of capital logic, the less we are able to imagine things ever being different. Marx dissected the inner workings of capitalism for the purpose of finding a way to overthrow it; but the very success of his analysis makes capitalism seem like a fatality. For the power of capital pervades all aspects of human life, and subsumes all impulses and all actions. Its contingent origins notwithstanding, capitalism consumes everything, digests whatever it encounters, transforms the most alien customs and ways of life into more of itself. “Markets will seep like gas through any boundary that gives them the slightest opening” (Dibbell 2006, 43). Adorno’s gloomy vision of a totally administered and thoroughly commodified society is merely a rational assessment of what it means to live in a world of ubiquitous, unregulated financial flows. For that matter, what is Althusser’s Spinozism, his view of history as a “process without a subject,” but a contemplation of the social world sub specie aeternitatis, and thereby a kind of fatalism, presenting capitalism as an ineluctable structure of interlinked overdeterminations whose necessity we must learn to dispassionately accept?

From here, we shift gear, and find accelerationism’s forebears in two of the most widely-cited Marxists of the twentieth-century, as if denouncing accelerationism today is prostrating the sacrificial lamb before a normative politics that does not truck with any of the political analyses of the previous century but is incapable of registering why and what should replace them. It is a sentiment most wittily captured by Zizek in The Ticklish Subject: “A spectre is haunting Western academia, the spectre of the Cartesian subject.” (A haunting that, according to Shaviro, Zizek has arguably since lost sight of.) Shaviro continues:

All this explains why cultural Marxism turns away from Marx’s own “economism” and back to the subject. It seeks after some voluntary principle: some instance that is not just passively determined, that is capable of willing and effecting change, and that escapes being caught up in the redundancy of capitalist circulation. By rehabilitating agency, and by foregrounding particular practices of resistance, cultural Marxism hopes to find some sort of potential for overcoming capitalism. This reinvention of the subjective element takes many forms. At one extreme, there is Zizek’s hyper-voluntarism, his fantasy of enforcing a rupture with capitalism, and imposing communism, by dint of a sheer, wilful imposition of “ruthless terror.” At the other extreme, Adorno’s ultra-pessimism, his hopelessness about all possibilities for action, is really an alibi for a retreat into the remnants of a shattered interiority: a subjectivity that remains pure and uncontaminated by capitalism precisely to the extent that it is impotent, and defined entirely by the extremity of its negations. Despite their differences, both of these positions can be defined by their invocation of the spirit of the negative. Adorno’s and Zizek’s negations alike work to clear out a space for the cultivation of a subjectivity that supposedly would not be entirely determined by, and would not entirely subordinated to, capital. For my part, I cannot see anything creative, or pragmatically productive, in such proposals. Neither Zizek’s manic voluntarism nor Adorno’s melancholia is anything more than a dramatic, and self-dramatizing, gesture. That is to say, in spite of themselves they both restore subjectivity in the form of a spectacle that is, precisely, a negotiable commodity. In the world of aesthetic capitalism, critical negativity is little more than a consoling and compensatory fiction.

On the other hand, it is hard to say that those variants of cultural Marxism that present agency and subjectivity affirmatively, and without recourse to negation, do much better. J. K. Gibson-Graham tell us that the Marxist image of capitalism as a closed, voracious, and totalizing system is an error. They offer us the cheerful sense that a plethora of inventive, non-capitalist economic and social practices [that] already exist in the world today. This means that we have already, without quite realizing it, reached “the end of capitalism (as we know it).” Indeed, Gibson-Graham come perilously close to saying that the only thing keeping capitalism alive today is the inveterate prejudice on the part of Marxists that it really exists. Apparently, if we were just a bit more optimistic, we could simply think all the oppression away.

For their part, Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri are by no means so obstinately cheerful. Nonetheless, I am a bit taken aback by their insistence that globalized, affective capitalism has already established, not only the “objective conditions” for communism, but also the “subjective conditions” as well. The latter come in the form of the multitude as a universal, creative, and spontaneously collective class, ready to step in and take control of a world that has already been prepared for them. This is really a twenty-first century update of the messianic side of Marx’s vision: “The centralization of the means of production and the socialization of labor reach a point at which they become incompatible with their capitalist integument. This integument is burst asunder. The knell of capitalist private property sounds. The expropriators are expropriated.” Thus we have come full circle, back to the position that we initially rejected: one according to which the restoration of agency is not needed, for the internal dynamics of capitalism themselves lead inexorably to its ultimate abolition.

These are the crises in negation that feel wholly unsuited to the present. Enter accelerationism, which takes these blockages as dead ends and looks for a third way. What is most striking to me, however, in reading Shaviro’s appraisal, is that accelerationist discourse today, through its own impotence and amnesia, has fallen back on these same coordinates.

This new thought, that was seen to be a new vector, beyond the Adorno’s and Zizek’s and Negri’s and Gibson-Graham’s, falls back on variations of their own positions. When we speak of anti-praxis we speak of a series of negations, of anti-affirmations, where wishful thinking and self-assurance becomes the foundation for any kind of praxis. Psychologically speaking, hope — and even confidence — is a powerful thing. But this should not give way to misplaced faith in an otherwise indifferent process. It is a process we should make ourselves worthy of, in the sense that it isn’t going to make itself worthy of us.

There are serious theoretical questions buried here, in what otherwise still sounds like an all too subjectivist handwringing, but once we get past this, then we can really start getting down to business…

Thinking About Writing, Writing About Thinking

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.

Under Examination

In the UK over the last few weeks there has been an outcry over the decision to use “an algorithm” to decide the exam results of students whose school year was disrupted by Covid-19. (There are few things more insidious in the 21st century than a nondescript algorithm.) Whereas previously, in extenuating circumstances, a student’s “predicted grades” have been used when an exam or a course cannot be completed, this year, for reasons unknown, predictions are being sidestepped in favour of algorithmically-generated grades based on mock exam results and who knows what else. This led to horrifying levels of students having their results downgraded and left many already-alienated teenagers in coronavirus purgatory even less certain about their futures.

Thankfully, after a week of protests and outcry, the Department of Education and the examinations body Ofqual reversed their decision and allowed students’ grades to be based on teacher assessment rather than the insidious algorithm. The whole debacle has left a foul taste in the mouth, nonetheless. This country’s class dynamics were writ large in the fallout but the media has done all it can to ignore them — probably because the media is populated by people who never had to worry about how they were to be perceived as they entered the adult world of work.

That’s the main thing that stinks about media coverage of GCSE and A Level results day. We see the same narrative every year but fuck up the prospects of half the nation’s teenagers and it turns out that patronising discourse goes into overdrive.

As far as the media and the government are concerned, exam results are seen as a kind of lubricant to social mobility. It is an understanding that is deeply embedded in society itself — a kind of “academic realism”, if we might butcher Fisher’s concept some more. This is to suggest that, for the majority of parents and their children, there is no alternative to the university track. It is stifling but a norm reinforced from all sides. This is because, if you do good in your exams, at no matter what stage of your education, you’ll supposedly be better off. Points mean prizes.

That is far from the case, of course. (If things has changed at all in recent years, it is because the government’s trebling of tuition fees has made university less of a given to many of the poorest and least financially stable among us. This doesn’t mean there are alternatives, however; this just means that option no longer exists for those who need it most.) It seems to me like the truth is often inverted here. As far as I can tell, good results don’t necessarily make life easier for those with the decks stacked against them but bad results can make it a whole lot harder.

It reminded me of my own experience as a soon-to-be college student, not long after receiving my GCSE results. Even back in 2008, I found myself on the wrong end of an algorithm and required human intervention before being algorithmically denied my A Level prospects.

My GCSE results were truly a mixed bag. I had at least one of every single grade from A* to E. I was oddly proud of this at the time; I used to joke about my “full house”. The main thing was that I did well in the subjects that I cared about — A* in art, A in English Literature; I also miraculously scraped a B in maths despite being predicted much lower — and then everything from there on out wasn’t of much interest.

I didn’t think it mattered much, and I wasn’t particularly fussed because, frankly, I hated school. Having had the first proper onset of a depression that has stalked most of my adulthood, my priorities were more on my mental health than my exam results. The future wasn’t much of a consideration; I was, at that time, more focused on just getting through the week. And anyway, I got the grades I needed to do the A Levels I wanted (English Literature, Media Studies, Photography) so I didn’t think the rest of it really mattered.

It turns out it did, at least once the algorithm got involved.

On the first day of college, I had to have a meeting with the head. There was a lot of confusion about my results. I was clearly capable in the subjects I wanted to do but, because of the way my results were weighted, I’d come out with an average grade of a C/D, and the algorithm only cared about averages. I was technically on the borderline and a cause for concern and probably shouldn’t have been allowed to progress to the college at all if my grades in the subjects I wanted to do weren’t so strong. The problem, however, was that I had nonetheless been flagged up by the system and, under the auspices of the school’s algorithmic bureaucracy, I was supposed to have a few extra caveats added to my education.

Thankfully, there were humans on the other end to interpret the results. The teachers were also quick to realise that I was very capable, but my mental health issues at that time meant that putting me in an exam hall was a real gamble. I couldn’t work under pressure at all, generally freezing up in most exam scenarios. (The video from Novara Media below hits home regarding how important exam coaching is to good results; I still struggle with that kind of pressure today, but thankfully it is very rare that I’ll need to do an exam ever again.) The reality was that any exam could go great or it could be a complete car crash — which is exactly how my English Literature A Level went: I got an E on the first attempt and then got full marks and an A* on the resit. (Sadly, my coursework averaged it out to a B in the end.)

All of this is to say the obvious: I was a very inconsistent teenager, but is there a characteristic more applicable to the adolescent psyche than “inconsistency”? In fact, for most people, I don’t think that ever really goes away. Perhaps one of the most important things you can learn to do as you grow older is how to curate your own results better — this blog is certainly a testament to how much I struggle with that — but allowing this to be dictated by an algorithm is another matter. As Sonia Sodha recently put it, writing the obvious for the Guardian — and, of course, we live in a moment where the obvious often needs to be said:

We take it as given that dropping a couple of grades in a one-off exam should amount to the be-all and end-all in determining which university you go to. Have a good exam day, and you could be attending the university of your dreams; have a bad day and the anxious cycle of clearing starts. All this is predicated on the crazy idea that we need to avoid AAA students studying with ABB students, BBC students studying with BCD students at all costs or … what?

Rankings allow illusions of meritocracy and simple choices to prevail — obviously we should go for the AAA student over the ABB one — when the reality is they may be covering up a choice that is more random and arbitrary than we may like to think.

I have often thought about how my GCSEs and A Levels constituted something of a near miss in this regard. On paper, it was unlikely I’d ever amount to anything and this was probably why my decision to study photography was initially encouraraged — a low-stakes art degree. I agreed with the teachers for the most part. I had very low self-esteem and I was already deeply cynical about the whole education process anyway. I didn’t respond well to how things were taught, I didn’t see much future for myself in higher education, and even floated the idea of doing an photographic apprenticeship instead. Fortunately and unfortunately, my mum responded hysterically to this suggestion — I was going to be the first person in the family to go to university whether I liked it or not.

The irony was that I really did like it. The kind of study that I experienced as a photography student — self-directed but discursive — flipped a switch in my head. For the first time in my entire school career, from primary school (where I’d been placed in a special ed group for reasons unknown to me) through to college, I found myself actually flourishing in an educational institution. I didn’t feel that crushing futility that I was just wasting my time until the bell went and I could go home and do what I wanted to do.

I loved my arts education for that reason. It was a form of education that I really responded to and it allowed me to find my own way into the sorts of subjects that I’d previously been dissuaded from doing based on my exam results. I think about how I could have just as easily gone on to do philosophy or English literature at undergraduate level but would have found no way to translate my approach to learning into a form of examination that counted for anything at that level. I feel like a very lucky late bloomer.

I say all this not to offer up yet another patronising example of a happy ending thanks to the system. I feel like I found my feet late and very much despite this country’s educational infrastructure and bureaucracy.

A discursive space still has to be established for raising consciousness as to why these things happen, however. What they don’t teach you at school, and what you can only ever learn the hard way, is that that sense of being under examination never really goes away. I have found that my inability to respond to standardised testing and high pressure examinations has followed me persistently, for instance. Even though I have purposefully pursued qualifications since college that do not require an exam, I still find myself having to bend different systems to my will in order to find other ways to demonstrate my capabilities to those who have the power to make decisions about my life — even in medical exams. Twelve years on from my GCSE results, I might have a Masters degree and a book out, but the pressure felt to prove my worth or my ability against the inconsistent record of my inconsistent life is suffocating.

The reality, as this exams debacle proves, is that the stakes are too high for the majority of children and young adults, especially those who cannot afford to keep a clean record. It only takes a bad day or, even worse, alternative brain wiring an an incompatible form of learning, to make you feel good for nothing for the rest of your twenties, if not longer. I’m reminded of Fisher’s essay “Good For Nothing” here, of course. The illusion of meritocracy that has been shattered by this deferral to an algorithm may have just politicised a generation in much the same way the trebling of tuition fees did. It demonstrates how an incompetent elite falls back on tactics of low-level subjugation at every level of society, epitomising the structure of feeling that Mark was speaking to when he wrote the following:

For some time now, one of the most successful tactics of the ruling class has been responsibilisation. Each individual member of the subordinate class is encouraged into feeling that their poverty, lack of opportunities, or unemployment, is their fault and their fault alone. Individuals will blame themselves rather than social structures, which in any case they have been induced into believing do not really exist (they are just excuses, called upon by the weak). What Smail calls ‘magical voluntarism’ — the belief that it is within every individual’s power to make themselves whatever they want to be — is the dominant ideology and unofficial religion of contemporary capitalist society, pushed by reality TV ‘experts’ and business gurus as much as by politicians. Magical voluntarism is both an effect and a cause of the currently historically low level of class consciousness. It is the flipside of depression — whose underlying conviction is that we are all uniquely responsible for our own misery and therefore deserve it. A particularly vicious double bind is imposed on the long-term unemployed in the UK now: a population that has all its life been sent the message that it is good for nothing is simultaneously told that it can do anything it wants to do.

The establishment of this kind of consciousness begins on (and is exacerbated by) successive results days every year. The establishment, however, has accidentally revealed its hand. It has revealed the structure often kept hidden behind their insistence on magical voluntarism. The media and even your average Twitter user has followed suit, revealing just how deep-rooted this structure goes, and how mundane it believes its deflation of young people’s worth is. The truth is that this kind of malignant bureaucracy, tilted in the favour of the children of elites, has been getting away with this sort of bullshit for decades.

The Philosophy and Politics of Accelerationism — Course Promo

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

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

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


A Note on the Abuse of Esotericism

I’m still receiving messages about the drama surrounding two of my recent posts (here and here). A few DMs just didn’t get what all the fuss was about. One email said it was all wishy-washy vagueness without any real point or critique made and therefore it was bad philosophy.

It is clear that, as much as the original argument is over, plenty of people are still pushing for further clarification. I’ll simply say this:

If those blogposts were confusing to you, I don’t know what more I can say. My initial reason for writing the first one was that I found great irony in the invocation of a “principle of charity” from someone who has exhausted that principle in a lot of people I know. As such, there appears to be a gulf between the person and the work. The problem is that, given the liminal nature of the gulf, all critique falls back onto anecdotes that would be inappropriate to repeat. I acknowledged this whilst still trying to engage at the level of philosophical discourse. It was a position doomed to failure. It was never going to convince anyone who wasn’t already aware of the particulars.

Because of this, I do understand the outrage expressed from some corners who would prefer to protect the accused’s plausible deniability against the nonexistence of hard evidence. I also understand how these posts may seem like an unnecessary assault on a person. In a somewhat related conversation the other day, someone said to me: “There’s a line I dimly remember from Herman Hesse about how it’s a kind of unforgivable assault on someone to try to pull the mask off their face…” I’ve been thinking about this a lot. I wonder if the question of whether or not to pull off another’s mask in this day and age, and on the internet in particular, is the defining gesture of cancel culture. To be cancelled is to have a self-constructed image torn down absolutely. For some, it looks like doxxing; for others, it’s just calling time on their bullshit.

In another conversation, someone else was recently explaining the alt-right’s Straussian tendencies to me. This brought to mind Strauss’s explorations of esotericism in philosophy — the use of esoteric writing (knowing contradictions, elusive complexity, impenetrable prose) to retain philosophy’s distance from politics so that the two do not corrupt one another. This sounds all well and good until we consider who has relied upon such a principle the most over the last decade.

The disarticulation of philosophy from politics today is most often sought by those who wish to obfuscate the material consequences of their words. I’d argue esoteric writing is impossible today because of this. Many still engage in it — and it has been telling that many of those best known for doing so have signalled their support for those who’ve supposedly been cancelled — but esoteric writing does not exist today in a space outside of the mainstream. It is the mainstream. Nothing defines our “post-truth” moment more damningly than the co-option of esoteric writing or speech by neoconservatism.

In this conversation, this charge of esoteric edgelording was place firmly at the feet of Bronze Age Pervert — an unambiguous example if ever there was one. But I see it reflected in the writings and interests of Nina Power and DC Miller also. (When DC rejects labels like “fascist” and “neo-nazi”, for instance, and instead describes himself as a “surrealist”, this is why.)

Many on (or adjacent to) the alt-right live on this foggy plain of plausible deniability. To still call it “esotericism” is a misnomer, of course; it is little more than dog-whistle philosophy. This is why the insistence upon a “principle of charity” was offensive to me — because that is precisely what an alt-right MO depends upon to function. It requires a pliable audience to manipulate and convince of their virtue against the unthinking leftist pitchfork-wielders. But are those who denounce them really just reactionary philistines? Or do they see through the fog? I certainly feel like a fog has been lifted. It’s like Trump screaming fake news to cheering crowds of blind admirers. Many might see it for what it is but plenty don’t. Why do so many people trust a liar’s accusations that others are lying?

If you think that’s what I’m doing too, congrats, you have entered the hall of mirrors. But I do have reasons to question the narrative. The reasons for sharing this now are, for Nina, no doubt careerism or virtue signalling for likes. I have little interest in either. This isn’t a tell-all book written about the ineptitude of a regime; “once wrote a blogpost denouncing Nina Power” isn’t going to boost my CV. Nevertheless, the response is the same. Anyone who opposes a muddying of the waters of thought in paranoia is seen as being against their right to rational dissent and walking blindly into agreement with the hoard. I think these are little more than delusions of grandeur. I shared a public warning to compliment the many private ones I’ve received. It wasn’t fully packaged as a scorching philosophical critique or a outright trashing of another person because it was never my intention to construct such things. Indeed, to do so would be impossible. My point is simple — don’t trust them or the narratives they peddle. If that isn’t detailed enough for you, it’s because it’s Twitter. To get down and dirty in the particulars is an ugly process that will lead to mud getting on far more people than those directly concerned. As such, I’m limiting by disavowal to an expression of resentment; I resent the game being played.

Is this going to have any real impact beyond upsetting someone who assumed I was a friend? I doubt it. I’ve skirted the edges of cancellation for far too long myself for anyone to take me as a moral authority on anything. Furthermore, I doubt my little blog is going to have any impact whatsoever on the standing of an opinion piece published in a national newspaper. (Whilst some may disingenuously quibble about bullying, given the size of the platforms in question this is unmistakably an instance of punching up.) If I want to “cancel” anything, in the sense provided by Nina on Twitter — “late 14c., ‘cross out with lines, draw lines across (something written) so as to deface'” — it is my own previous defences of her reputation. That is all. I would happily cross out those words of support.

This act may be meaningless to many and cruel to some but it feels important and right to me. It has become clear that, for a blog that contains so many writings written in emphatic support of trans people in general and my trans friends more specifically, the lack of a retraction has been unfortunate as Nina’s TERFy tendencies have become less and less ambiguous.

The article about JK Rowling felt like as good an opportunity as any to kill two birds with one stone and make my own position clear after a few elusive years of my own: fuck TERFs; fuck manipulative appeals to ethics.

Fidelity to Truth and the Suspension of Politics from Philosophy

Below is a conversation had on Twitter following my previous post, “Cancel Culture and the Betrayal of Truth”, that I think is worthy pinning here for posterity as it was an opportunity to clarify some things.

The underlying (and perhaps implicit) point of the previous post was that the disarticulation of philosophy from politics doesn’t help anyone, but it is often now seen as the “rationalist” and “realist” position to take. This is a poor foundation to build on, in my experience. In fact, it’s the very tension discussed by Badiou in his Ethics.

There are many interesting passages to draw upon but the quotation to follow seems like the most obviously relevant to me. Badiou writes:

When Nietzsche proposes to ‘break the history of the world in two’ by exploding Christian nihilism and generalizing the great Dionysian ‘yes’ to Life; or when certain Red Guards of the Chinese Revolution proclaim, in 1967, the complete suppression of self-interest, they are indeed inspired by a vision of a situation in which all interest has disappeared, and in which opinions have been replaced by the truth to which Nietzsche and the Red Guards are committed. The great nineteenth-century positivists likewise imagined that the statements of science were going to replace opinions and beliefs about all things. And the German Romantics worshipped a universe entirely transfixed by an absolutized poetics.

But Nietzsche went mad. The Red Guards, after inflicting immense harm, were imprisoned or shot, or betrayed by their own fidelity. Our century has been the graveyard of positivist ideas of progress. And the Romantics, already prone to suicide, were to see their ‘literary absolute’ engender monsters in the form of ‘aestheticized politics’.

For every truth presumes, in fact, in the composition of the subject it induces, the preservation of ‘some-one’, the always two-sided activity of the human animal caught up in truth. Even ethical ‘consistency’, as we have seen, is only the disinterested engagement, in fidelity, of a perseverance whose origin is interest — such that every attempt to impose the total power of a truth ruins that truth’s very foundation.

At its most obnoxious, this is epitomised by a “facts don’t care about your feelings” approach to life, which in turn is mistaken for a “realism”, when in fact it simply defers judgement on certain topics in favour of throwing everything into the marketplace of ideas. At its most benign, it’s a kind of liberal complicity in bad philosophy. There is nothing rational or reasonable in allowing yourself to be a useful idiot for over-egged truths.

I’ve been guilty of this myself on occasion (and I’ve been accused of it on a few more occasions than that). I’d argue suspending judgement until you’re in full possession of the facts is a normal thing to do, so long as you’re actively trying to expand your own consciousness of the issue at hand. However, to remain afloat in this space by persistently placing an over-emphasis on philosophical debate does have a tendency to leave the political out in the cold, sometimes with embarrassing consequences. This was also part of my point in the previous post. Reducing the so-called “principle of charity” to respecting any and all points of view is a hollow conception of an ethics if ever there was one.

This is where we can end up when we take as a given the logical fallacy that politics is the realm of subjective experience (and therefore bad) and philosophy the realm of pure reason (and therefore good). At best, this betrays a very poor understanding of modern philosophy; at worst, it’s a complicity in the various disarticulations wrought upon political thought under neoliberalism. It is in this way that we betray the truth.

Badiou’s thought is slippery in this regard. In his most accessible mode, it is all too easy to read it and see oneself as the carrier of his truthful torch. He writes, for instance, of breaking free from the tyranny of opinion and dedicating oneself to truth:

Opinion tells me (and therefore I tell myself, for I am never outside opinions) that my fidelity [to truth] may well be terror exerted against myself, and that the fidelity to which I am faithful looks very much like — too much like — this or that certified Evil. It is always a possibility, since the formal characteristics of this Evil (as simulacrum) are exactly those of a truth.

But this only supports the plight of the narcissistic and cancelled if they choose to suspend politics, or equate politics with opinion. (Badiou explicitly decries such a manoeuvre.)

This is very easily done today. In most instances it is true that politics and opinion go hand in hand. But striving for a better world is not a matter of opinion. The pill-popping habits of conservatives — where it’s the red pill, black pill, etc. on the menu — consistently confuse the stakes. They see tradition as truth and progress as opinion, but opinion is only a factor in how we get there — there is truth in the forward-facing direction of travel.

To betray this truth is to emphasise the twists and turns at the expense of the trajectory. (See: communism is bust because the Soviet Union failed; the left is dead because I got cancelled.) As Badiou continues:

This explains why former revolutionaries are obliged to declare that they used to be lost in error and madness, why a former lover no longer understands why he loved that woman, why a tired scientist comes to misunderstand, and to frustrate through bureaucratic routine, the very development of his own science. Since the process of truth is an immanent break, you can ‘leave’ it … only by breaking with this break which has seized you. And this breaking of a break has continuity as its motif. Continuity of the situation and continuity of opinions: all that came before, under the names of ‘politics’ or ‘love’, was an illusion at best, a simulacrum at worst.

So it is that the defeat of the ethic of a truth, at the undecidable point of a crisis, presents itself as betrayal.

And this is an Evil from which there is no return; betrayal is the second name, after simulacrum, of the Evil made possible by a truth.

The left struggles to retain fidelity to its own truths — that’s blatantly apparent. But the response from some quarters that goes on to denounce the movement as a whole surely characterises the break above, and without the breaking of the break that a Badiouian ethics suggests must follow.

There was a good thread about this the other day that demonstrates how those on the wrong side of the tracks can nonetheless use this fraught and difficult process to retain a fidelity to a truth. In this sense, some cancellations are an attempt to firmly kick a political football into someone else’s court…

…Too many respond to this by picking up the football and just taking it home with them. They manipulate the way in which they fail to live up to the demands of an event and instead position themselves as taking an apolitical high road in the lofty realm of philosophical discourse. TERFs do this very well but, as Badiou writes: “Fidelity to a simulacrum, unlike fidelity to an event, regulates its break with the situation not by the universality of the void, but by the closed particularity of an abstract set.” He gives nationalist and ethnic examples — “(the ‘Germans’ or the ‘Aryans’)” — we can easily include other ones.

TERFs and racists — or, frankly, anyone who works (knowingly or unknowingly) against the emancipation of others — who find themselves browbeaten by the court of public opinion, tend to run deeper into a darkened politics. Online, philosophy often becomes a safe haven in this regard, where thought is free and travels far and wide. Some cancelled thinkers embrace their newfound “freedom”. They become magpies, decorating their nests in spectacular and exotic materials, only to protect a rotten and paranoid egg at its centre. Power and others create much confusion in this regard, but in ways that are already well-documented. The cognitive dissonance of a Nietzschean will to power combined with a fidelity to political simulacrum is arguably the defining crisis of our modern moment. In Nina Power’s narcissism, the pun is hard to ignore. Her’s is a will-to-Power — a self-interest disguised as what Badiou calls “disinterested-interest”. It is the perfect encapsulation of the disarticulation of philosophy from politics at its most abstract. Power, in particular, increasingly appears to be the ultimate caricature of this kind of postmodern position — the gnostic TERF.

It is with all this in mind that my reading of an article about having a “principle of charity” by someone who has exhausted that principle in others felt like a summary of everything wrong with this moment, specifically in this corner of the internet, that likes to pride itself on a higher level of discourse but often fails to penetrate through the higher level of abstraction that comes with that. This was not intended to be an overwrought exercise in shit-slinging. In fact, I tried to leave out anything that could be misconstrued as gossip. (The very point of mentioning Nancy Hartsock’s feminist standpoint theory previously was to provide a philosophical example of a political epistemology built on a notion of “strong objectivity” provided by lived experience, without necessarily going into the details.) But if we’re talking about ethics — distinct from leftist moralism — we are nonetheless invoking our own behaviour. And it is worth acknowledging the fact that, as philosophers, we can woefully fail to live up to the principles we fill our essays with. If we’re talking about being on the side of truth, but cannot acknowledge that fact, then how truthful are we being? There is a lesson to be learned from a philosopher who has written extensively on Badiou but cannot separate her fidelity to political simulacrum and her fidelity to the event of her own cancellation. I think it is an important one.

This is similarly the most powerful lesson of Bataille’s ethics, but despite her more recent interest in his gnonsticism, Power wholly lacks any of the hubris of Bataillean insufficiency. The truth of the matter is that someone like Nina Power is wholly dependent on the principle of charity to retain support — that’s why she’s in favour of it. But plenty of people who retained that principle for themselves — for over a year after she was first cancelled, in my case — have found it exhausted by repeated evidence of what that principle is being put in service of. It turns out, by declaring you have nothing but a humble interest in ideas, you can get away with a lot of bullshit.

I was vocally supportive of Nina last year. As time has gone on, I’ve found that Linda Stupart was right. I still think the left still has its problems — of course it does — but acknowledging that fact doesn’t necessitate blind support for someone who has long since betrayed their own truths.

Anyway, hopefully these various points are made clearer by the conversation below. This conversation was between David John Roden (henceforth DJR) and myself (XG).

DJR: I don’t see how we exercise the principle of charity AND pathologize an interlocutor as a ‘bourgeois white ….’ clinging on to victimhood. The [principle of charity] requires, at the very least, that we construe our opponents as reasonable, if not right. [1]

XG: Being “bourgeois” and “white” aren’t pathologies, they’re categories of material condition. Construing an opponent as “reasonable” depends on their ability to be reasoned with, and when those conditions obscure the facts of others’ lives, that capacity for reason is diminished. [1]

Material conditions can, of course, produce pathologies; just as science can produce ideology in the wrong hands. But being able to identify that difference is a key threshold for rational discourse in my view and most TERF discourse falls well below that threshold. [2]

DJR: I think you’re confusing being reasonable with being right. Sure, TERF discourse often makes dubious use of scientific claims — I’ve been on the receiving end of venom from Gender Critical Feminists for arguing this … [1]

However, your piece simply assumes wrongness on the part of the other. It doesn’t engage with them. You don’t analyze the effects of material conditions, you pretty much reduce your opponent to vessels for those conditions. Talk of the POC just becomes hypocritical in this light. [2]

XG: This is the slippery slope into moral relativism I’m talking about. If being reasonable is the capacity to exercise sound judgement, I think I can reasonably ascertain when someone’s judgement is unsound based on the facts at hand. [1]

DJR: I think you underestimate the difficulty of arbitrating claims about complex often metaphysical claims (about sexual difference, for example). Most people I know are confused about this stuff. It’s also not relativist to hold that beliefs can be rational but false. It’s realist. [1]

XG: I don’t underestimate it at all. I’m precisely in favour of those discussions, and I’m aware that those issues are philosophical[ly] contentious. What I reject [is] the use of philosophical ambiguity as a cheap cover for political conservatism. [1]

DJR: Right. So then why not interpret your opponents in the most charitable light to refute them with a reasoned argument? The POC, as I always tell my students, is the best way to nix the opposition. Assuming that your opponents are benighted dupes of ideology gets you nowhere. [1]

XG: Because this exact same argument [of philosophical contentiousness] can be used to affirm radical gender experimentation and biohacking, but in this instance, it’s not. It’s being used to defend the right of a rich white women to say trans women aren’t women. [1]

You’re just continuing to bastardise an ethical standpoint in favour of vague relativism and apologism. As I insinuate in the post, that’s not what ethics is. And no one should understand that better than an apparent reader of Badiou. [2]

DJR: As stated, the distinction between justification and truth isn’t relativist, it’s key to a minimal realism. And it’s because I think the reasons stack up against TERF claims that I think something like a principle of charity is potentially useful here. [1]

XG: Realism is a double-edged sword, as you well know. You err on the side of defending “gender realism” here. I’ll take my realism with a second-order drive towards the Promethean, thanks, rather than wasting time defending a TERF’s right to clutch her pearls. [1]

DJR: C’mon! The fact that gender realists are realists doesn’t mean that all realists are gender realists. Being realist just means that we assume that reality can be structured independently of our beliefs about it, that truth can outrun verification, etc. [1]

XG: Yes, I know that. And that’s why I think your understanding of realism is hollow. It’s nothing but a moral relativism supported by a passive nihilism. [1] …You can have a realism that errs towards a Promethean understanding of gender (or w/e). By suspending politics from the equation, you obscure the fact that is a choice, making your realism resemble a realism in the negative sense rather than the positive. [2]

DJR: Now, having pathologized your opponents, you traduce me, which is a low move I think. I’ve consistently defended trans and non-binary people and opposed gender critical readings — and received some abuse for it. I’m arguing for an ethics of discussion not the substantive issue. [1]

XG: I’m not pathologising you in the slightest. You’re the one talking about contentious understanding[s] of gender, etc. [2] I suppose [what] I’m gesturing towards [is] a distinction between a speculative realism or, say, capitalist realism. [You] might claim to support trans and non-binary people but every instance in which “realism” has been invoked here tends towards the latter rather than the former. [3]

I know what you’re arguing for and I’m saying your ethics is hollow if you’re using it to defend a TERF’s right to be wrong. That right isn’t [even] under threat. But you’re invoking it to take an apparent high road which requires you to superficially suspend politics from philosophy. [2]

Update: This conversation flared up again and then later lost momentum (again). Nina entered the fray herself both on Twitter and in private emails. The principle of charity has remained a sticking point and, predictably, lead to an trollish Catch-22, where it seems clear that if I exit the conversation and shut it down, I’m the one against discourse. The emails, in particular, are textbook sea-lioning. It is precisely the ease with which such a principle of charity is abused in this sense that I take issue with and it was this sort of tactic that I saw as the manipulative underbelly of an apparent appeal towards ethics. Nothing said or discussed so far has dissuaded me from that opinion.

The overlap between private and public communication only muddies the waters even further here so I would like to include my final email below, even if some of it is devoid of context, as a way of drawing a line under the whole thing and retaining a firm grip on what I find so disagreeable — the way a principle of charity can slip into a deferral of responsibility; the deferring of thinking to asking questions:


My intention isn’t to punish you. You said before I should have the decency to say to you and to the world what I think. I’ve done that. Just because you don’t like what I think, doesn’t make it a punishment. By that same logic, you’re punishing trans people by saying things you know upset them. This might not mean “denying their existence” — a charge I’ve never mentioned against you or Rowling — but it certainly affects existence, in precisely the ways you describe [by blogposts affecting yours]. That doesn’t [mean] no one should talk about anything, of course. Far from it. But you can’t have your cake and eat it.

I’m certainly not enjoying any of this. Hellthreads make me nauseous with anxiety, frankly, so am I also just punishing myself? Maybe. I just don’t intend to sit on the side lines for the sake of my own comfort anymore. Communication is fraught. Bataille said it was “evil”. The consequences are pervasive. It’s precisely this that I don’t think you can avoid simply because you do it with politeness. The way in which you say something is irrelevant. Nothing is without consequences. 

I’ve often found your positions to be ambiguous and given you the benefit of the doubt as a result. They’ve become increasingly less ambiguous over time and the recent article made it clear. It’s TERFs sticking up for TERFs. The same as it ever was. As such, your commitments feel confused and hypocritical to me, and from my perspective you’re complicit in the very things you say you stand against. You’re welcome to think the same of me after this, if you like. That’s fine. 

The focus here, for me, has always been on the disarticulation of politics from philosophy. If you think the way I did this was too personal, that’s fine too. I apologise. But it was precisely you that I disagreed with. Roden entering the conversation abstracted that somewhat and made it into a more interesting discussion but the stakes didn’t change. I disagreed with it as much from him as from you. Nevertheless, the to-ing and fro-ing between scales — between overarching principles and the interpersonal consequences of standing by them — only obfuscates those consequences and leads to a self-pitying back and forth that I have no interest in. This is what I find disingenuous. The privilege given to open discussion, especially when it has passed the point of productivity, serves only to suspend action until we reach the impotence of agreeing to disagree. It might not have reached that point for you yet but I’m certainly over it. I’ve said all that I have to say.

Nina denies any desire to hurt trans people. I’m sure many would argue that her intent has not stopped it from happening, in part due to the ethics she proscribes to the rest of us.

A few others continued to debate the issue after this fact, attempting to retain space for an open debate about the philosophical and even biological differences in the material experiences of cis women and trans women. Only a bigoted view point can demand that space and not see how it already exists. Trans women and cis women have different experiences and that is precisely why they are named as such. They may be different in kind but they are still both women. Anything less than that — or anything that apologises for anything less than that — is TERF dogma.

Cancel Culture and the Betrayal of Truth

Cancel culture is back but, of course, it never really went away. And yet, the recent flurry of controversies surrounding a new narrative no one can get enough of — JK Rowling and the Succession of Statements — makes it feel like the debate around its existence has resurfaced in the popular media with a vengeance.

I have complicated feelings around cancel culture, personally — partly because it is often so scatterbrained in its approach, precisely because it is not the magically unified movement it is often made out to be by its opponents.

This tweet, however, broadly hits the nail on the head:

But this is not to ignore cancel culture’s more interpersonal instances of emergence, where it tends towards the encouragement of a lot of leftist infighting. I’ve spoken before about this — about how I found myself on the receiving end of an attempted cancelling in 2017, and how it really sent me west, pushing me into some dark corners of the political imaginary that I’m happy to have later crawled out of. However, I’ve also witnessed numerous other people go through the wringer of leftist paranoia in this way — a paranoia mistaken for a militant sense of justice — and many of them have unfortunately not recovered.

The issue for me is that “cancellation” is, in its everyday usage, bad praxis. It rarely looks like how it is described above. In less public instances, it often pushes those accused of a leftist infidelity further into the arms of an apparent enemy. It also seems to me like it often resembles a kind of mutually-assured mental destruction. No one who comes out of an instance of cancellation, whether sent or received, does so undamaged. So whilst holding public figures to account is important, cancelling is a terror if it is used as a blunt instrument.

This is to say that I think there is a huge difference between punching up at those who have long gotten a free pass on over-inflated platforms and those who have been on the receiving end of a paranoid “prison politics”. Those who perceived themselves as being victims of a successful or attempted cancellation nonetheless often confuse which side of the divide they are on.

This tendency is epitomised, I think, by Nina Power’s recent article on JK Rowling for the Telegraph. To talk about “a principle of charity” in this regard is laughable for multiple reasons.

Rowling is in a position where she is far too used to a rhetorical charity. It is arguably what makes people of such cultural acclaim stop thinking once they get to a certain level of success and forget that they are human and when they open their mouths what comes out can be dogshit. As such, Rowling epitomises a petite bourgeois white feminism that clings tightly onto experiences of suffering, despite the extent to which her present circumstances have changed.

Take, for example, all of the times that Rowling has spoken about her experiences of depression and anxiety, single parenthood and the struggles of getting published, or her most recent claim that she too could have been trans maybe in another life — she does sometimes publish under a male pseudonym, after all, and that’s basically the same thing. In the spirit of the principle of charity, however, it remains true that Rowling has been through some tough times — and these are experiences that shouldn’t be diminished.

Everyone is broadly in agreement about this. When the Sun opportunistically ran an interview with her ex-husband, who she left amidst accusations of domestic violence, many of those critical of her TERF tendencies were among the first to rally behind her and criticise the Sun. But that alone does not legitimate her other positions. In fact, she seems to be incapable of empathising with those who find her articles and carelessly tweeting to be as upsetting as the Sun’s article about her. Nina Power also fails to grasp the limits of her own argument in this regard.

It is clear that, in that moment, Rowling’s husband was approached through the principle of charity and given a far bigger platform to not apologise for his behaviour on than he warranted. It was also an interview displayed with more prominence than it needed. It was seen by thousands and this was damaging, not just to Rowling but also those who share in her experiences. Evidently, there are instances where a principle of charity is inappropriate.

I’ve been thinking about Nancy Hartsock’s feminist standpoint theory a lot recently, in light of this, after transcribing a Mark Fisher lecture which discusses it. The central point here is one against the moral relativism of this sort of argument, whereby everyone is entitled to their own point of view, but it is also true that some points of view are nonetheless better (and better informed) than others. Applying this to class struggle, Hartsock uses the figure of the cleaner as an analogy — specifically someone who cleans toilets for a living. This person is, as far as society is concerned, at the bottom of the social ladder. They do a job few want to do. However, in cleaning utilities they also understand better than anyone how those utilities are used. Whilst, for a bourgeois establishment, this kind of labour is increasingly abstracted — it just gets done whilst those who do it remain invisible — the person at the bottom sees all. They see the machinations of the capitalist system above them and, if encouraged to break the illusion of immediacy, can have a far better understanding of capitalism in its totality than a bourgeois class that is wrapped up in the ignorance of abstraction.

In the world of twenty-first century gender politics, we are discovering new depths to this upturned pyramid of privilege. There is certainly, in some corners, a race to the bottom, but people’s analyses of the world around them more often than not speak for themselves. However, it goes without saying that trans people have always been on a lower rung of the ladder than cis men and women. This is most apparent when we consider the arguments that trans people are suddenly everywhere. They’re not suddenly everywhere but rather are no longer so socially invisible. They have also been afforded greater freedoms by social progress and now their perspectives on the illusions of gender (given in immediacy) are being heard. It is also clear to many that women like JK Rowling, no matter how contrary this may seem to their personal experiences, have been listened to at the expense of other demographics long enough. Their struggles are real, but their perspectives are nowhere near as omniscient as they like to insist. When push comes to shove, this becomes very much apparent. (See: “Central Park Karen”.)

Of course, no one likes to have their worldview challenged in this way. No one likes to hear the suggestion that their view of reality, no matter how “rational” in the parochial context of their own experiences, is off the mark. This often isn’t the start of some dialectical process, however. The likes of JK Rowling — Alan Sugar is also one of the first to come to mind — more often than not retain a firm grip on their time lower down the social hierarchy in order to further abstract their own success as the expense of others. What they end up expressing, as a result, is a kind of cognitive dissonance, whereby their understanding of oppression is acutely blinkered because it is solely defined by their own experiences. It is clear, in this sense, that social mobility does not provide better informed perspectives. The world you left behind is lost in the haze of abstraction.

The irony of Nina Power’s article on all of this is that she has fallen into this very trap, although her mobility has been more horizontal than vertical. Much of her most recent work bemuses many people but I think it makes perfect sense in the context of her combined experiences of state persecution and leftist persecution. The combination of the two blurs the boundaries rather than providing a better view of the whole. It is sad, more than anything. What is dangerous about this, however, is how her own reasoning is draped in the pretensions of a flawed philosophy. This is not simply a case of one person slipping from left to right. For a philosopher of her standing, it is far more embarrassing than that. After all, surely there is no fate more shameful for a Badiou scholar than to end up defending moral relativism in the Telegraph.

I am all for the principle of charity and the left could certainly do with internalising one, but it requires a version of this principle that is far more robust than Nina Power’s. After all, sometimes charity is little more than an attempt to launder an ethics, and obscure the extent to which, as Badiou might put it, we have betrayed a truth.

Update: There was considerable fallout from this post. You can read about that here.

Palestinian Lives Matter

Rebecca Long-Bailey was fired today for retweeting an interview with Maxine Peake in the Independent in which Peake claims the Israeli police taught American police the restraint techniques that have been killing unarmed black men and women throughout the US.

Clearly this is the result of a Labour Party hair trigger on the issue — warranted after the last few years of chaos — but how inaccurate is the claim really?

The offending paragraph reads as following:

“I don’t know how we escape that cycle that’s indoctrinated into us all,” continues the 45-year-old. “Well, we get rid of it when we get rid of capitalism as far as I’m concerned. That’s what it’s all about. The establishment has got to go. We’ve got to change it.” Born in Bolton to a lorry driver father and care worker mother, Peake is strident and expressive; if religion wasn’t anathema to her, she’d be perfect in the pulpit. “Systemic racism is a global issue,” she adds. “The tactics used by the police in America, kneeling on George Floyd’s neck, that was learnt from seminars with Israeli secret services.” (A spokesperson for the Israeli police has denied this, stating that “there is no tactic or protocol that calls to put pressure on the neck or airway”.)

It’s a thorny claim. Is it inflammatory? Clearly. But does that amount to antisemitism or just anti-Zionist hyperbole? The Israeli police may deny that they have recommended the use of that particular tactic, but they don’t deny that the US have trained with them, and so Peake’s overarching point — that systemic racism is a global issue — remains perfectly in tact.

In this regard, Amnesty International supports Peake’s claim. In an article on US forces training with their Israeli equivalents, they report:

The Department of Justice report cited Baltimore police for using aggressive tactics that “escalate encounters and stifle public cooperation.” This leads, the report said, to use of unreasonable force during interactions for minor infractions, such as quality of life matters.  Furthermore, the report details how an overall lack of training leads to excessive force being used against those with mental health issues, juveniles and people who present “little or no threat against others,” such as those already restrained.

For years, Amnesty International has found Israeli military, security and police forces responsible for the same behavior.

Most tellingly, however, is this article on US-Israeli cooperation when training law enforcement from the Jewish Virtual Library, which reports that these exercises began in earnest following 9/11:

In January 2003, thirty-three senior U.S. law enforcement officials — from Washington, Chicago, Kansas City, Boston and Philadelphia — traveled to Israel to attend a meeting on “Law Enforcement in the Era of Global Terror.” The workshops helped build skills in identifying terrorist cells, enlisting public support for the fight against terrorism and coping with the aftermath of a terrorist attack.

“We went to the country that’s been dealing with the issue for 30 years,” Boston Police Commissioner Paul F. Evans said. “The police are the front line in the battle against terrorism. We were there to learn from them — their response, their efforts to deter it. They touched all the bases.”

“I think it’s invaluable,” said Washington, DC Police Chief Charles Ramsey about the instruction he received in Israel. “They have so much more experience in dealing with this than we do in the United States.”

What exactly is the terrorism that Chief Ramsey is referring to here? Palestinian resistance against Israeli occupation? There are Palestinian groups that have absolutely committed terrorist offences under international law, but the Israeli forces are hardly capable of discerning who is a Palestinian terrorist and who is just a Palestinian. Their shameful record on human rights abuses makes that abundantly clear. It is evidently Israel’s position to fight terrorism with terrorism.

This is exactly what we’ve seen in the US in recent months, in which the police fight those protesting against police brutality by turning their brutality up to 11. It should not be controversial to suggest that the USA treats its black citizens the same way that Israel treats the Palestinians. As far as they are concerned, both are the enemy within.

Kier Starmer’s response to a claim like Peake’s — intimated indirectly via Rebecca Long-Bailey — should not be to blow the anti-Semitism whistle on a rival but to get down on his stupid knee again and make a change.

If black lives matter, Palestinian lives matter too.

Are We The Baddies?

Black Lives Matter sends identity politics into a feeding frenzy but it only ends up chomping on itself. The argument here from Matthew Goodwin is simple: a collective sense of self is detrimental to an individual sense of self.

But that’s precisely the argument being Black Lives Matter, isn’t it? Capitalism’s tyranny of the individual has, for too long, ruled over the subjugated collective.

This is only problematic if you think individual subjectivity has supremacy over group consciousness, and that is already the default position of society at large. Strangely, Goodwin is exactly right about idpol — and this is why Black Lives Matter belongs distinctly to something other. It is the “White Lives Matter” crowd who drag it down into the muck of identity politics (read: “individual identity politics”). Because of this, Goodwin betrays a lack of critical reflection regarding this core aspect of the meaning of Black Lives Matter — the correct response to which is an ejection of capitalism’s constant stoking of competition.

Black Lives Matter is distinctly non-competitive. It demands an answer to a simple question: “Don’t we matter?” The collective nature of the retort is hard-baked into their standpoint due to the oppression faced. Individuals murdered at the hands of the police are not murdered for their individuality but because they are seen as “Black people”, i.e. a member of an ethnic group. Part of the oppression of Black lives is that this collective perspective is enforced — the foundation for any instance of profiling. The raising of Black group consciousness is, then, wholly necessary if Black lives are to combat the extent to which society declares “you are the bad ones.”

The irony of “White Lives Matter” is that this statement, in turn, responds defiantly to the implicit message of Black Lives Matter, betraying their blinkered perspective through such a hopelessly myopic misunderstanding of the stakes involved.

This is to say that “Black Lives Matter” declares we are not the bad ones. Proponents of “White Lives Matter”, who betray their racism by demonstrating they can only think in dualisms, are implicitly declaring: well, neither are we! And whitey doth protest too much, methinks, because this response does not emerge defiantly from an oppressed consciousness; it emerges from a consciousness not used to thinking of itself any differently.

Insert Mitchell and Webb meme:

Rather than skulls on hats, the attacks on our nations’ statues illustrate another part of the problem of capitalism. We may not march forth under an explicit banner of death but we do march uncritically under the tyranny of the individual — and many of these individuals have committed crimes against humanity; against the human collective.

All lives don’t matter if Black lives don’t matter — this is the message of BLM rendered most succinctly. But, beyond this, it is also true that all lives don’t matter so long as we retain our flawed devotion to individuals. This is the hypocrisy of London’s Parliament Square. There is an implicit sense that the statue of Winston Churchill, architect of the Bengal famine, is offset by his stone neighbour: Mahatma Ghandi. But in both instances, the championing of the individual covers over the facts: that Churchill killed millions whilst Ghandi fought for millions. But in each instance the deeper point is missed. We champion leaders, not lives, and this is implicitly a capitalist perspective. We champion business leaders, not workers. We declare that, on the few occasions when workers rise through the ranks to be leaders, this is evidence that we care about the mass. But we don’t. We care about individuals.

This is why names like George Floyd float to the top. But Floyd has not been championed because he is exceptional but because he represents a statistic. In fact, it is as an individual that he is denounced. He wasn’t a leader in his community. He wasn’t a figure to rally behind. So why should we rally behind him? But the denouncing of Floyd’s individual character only further highlights the extent to which they miss the point. George Floyd, in the moment of his death, was not George Floyd, he was a Black man. And it is Black lives that matter.

Taking the Knee: Black Lives Matter, Subjugation and Sovereignty

Dominic Raab came under fire today for saying he doesn’t understand the gesture of “taking the knee” as a form of protest, saying it is “a symbol of subjugation and subordination” from Game of Thrones and, other than when he proposed to his wife, he’ll only be caught doing it before the queen.

The fury at Raab supposedly comes from his complete misunderstanding of the act’s context — its origin in Colin Kapernick’s bizarrely controversial habit of kneeling during the US national anthem before football games. For a government official to not possess what is general knowledge for anyone who has watched these protests unfold over the last few years is quite shocking. If anyone should be paying attention to the growing protest movements in other countries, surely it is the UK’s foreign secretary?

But is Raab wrong beyond that?

After all, “taking the knee” is a sign of subjugation, in much the same way “hands up, don’t shoot” is — it is a symbolic relinquishing of personal sovereignty; a gesture to remind cops of their power and responsibility, and a plea that they don’t abuse it. This is surely the same symbolic meaning behind kneeling before a monarch? When the queen lowers that sword onto your shoulders to knight you, it is as much a sign of mutual trust as it is of deference. In our present moment, however, it is a gesture that only serves to highlight how little mutual trust there is.

Neomi Bennett’s case, also in the news today, demonstrates precisely why this kind of protest is necessary. A widely respected nurse, who had even been honoured by the queen for her services to nursing, she was arrested for obstruction because she didn’t trust the police officers who had pulled her over; police officers who were as bemused by her fear as she was of their lack of probable cause. Why does her lack of trust in police give them reason to arrest her, whilst their lack of trust in a black woman sat in her car is no grounds for disciplinary action? Who is supposed to be serving who here?

This is precisely why the sight of Keir Starmer or the police taking the knee alongside protesters often looks hollow. These government officials and police use it as a vague reminder to protesting citizens that police officers and politicians, in their turn, are citizens too. But this is little more than an illusion, made possible by the thin veil of what constitutes parliamentary democracy in the twenty-first century. Because they still hold the sword. A police officer should only take the knee after resigning. Until then, it makes as much sense as kneeling before the queen so that she can kneel back. Taking the knee is an all too temporary gesture if, when you stand up again, you’re still wielding the sword of the state.

In this sense, the reference to Game of Thrones is oddly fitting. When characters talk about taking the knee to show deference to their rulers, it is a sign of necessary surrender. But there is a palpable difference in the show between taking the knee for an unofficial leader, who vows to fight for the subjugated, and taking the knee before a tyrant. (The cognitive dissonance of police officers comes from their mistaken belief that they are the former when their behaviour points more towards the latter.)

Surely this is why Kapernick combines his kneeling with a fist raised aloft, as a sign of unity and solidarity, much like Tommie Smith and John Carlos before him. There’s an almost Nietzschean-Bataillean foundation to this gesture, as a seemingly paradoxical gesture of subjugated power. In this sense, the power of the movement rests of its foundation in profound loss, in loss of life, and the power of taking the knee comes from doing so before police who are a probable threat to your life. Beyond its present usage, Kapernick taking the knee placed an inconvenient truth centre-stage within American life — whilst they sing about the land of the free, he represents the home of the brave, daring to remind the world that, in America, black lives are subjugated lives.

But this very suspension of being had given rise to a movement more sovereign than any that has come before it.