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.

Ideology Tumbles like a Statue: Notes on the Far Right, Žižek and Lukács

The hordes descending on UK cities to defend statues over the weekend have been laughable, even if their actions are telling.

As tweeted earlier, the argument that the Right have been peddling — that our nation’s old statues, installed by past generations, depicting slavers and the like, should stay up despite the current climate because they educate people — has been spectacularly undermined, as the statues’ defenders turn out to be the stupidest people around.

This all happened mere hours after Boris Johnson himself regurgitated the educational argument in an official statement.

He was immediately made to look like an idiot, as the All Lives Matter counter-protesters went on to attack police and damage property with far more wanton abandon than any of those people Johnson was denouncing.

Who are the “mindless thugs”, really? Those seeking to illuminate the more maligned periods of our history through focused civil action? Or a throng of galaxy-brained counter-protesters who have wrought more violence on the police than those actually campaigning for their abolition?

For all the calls to execute that kid who climbed the cenotaph last week, here we’ve got footage of someone pissing against a memorial to PC Keith Palmer.

Meanwhile, up the road, counter-protesters greet that same cenotaph with Nazi salutes — a cenotaph that had previously been “defaced” by little more than the presence of Black bodies in its vicinity.

Saturday was a fascist’s wet dream, as they got off on punching police and collectively pissing in the doorway of a branch of Boots.

It’s hard to make sense of such abject idiocy, but all we see here is the brainrot that occurs when you’re overcome by ideology. Of course the heinous crime of attacking statues — which are representative of ideology in the most implicit and pernicious fashion — has to be combated with a vibrant demonstration of the strength of ideological capture.

It makes no sense whatsoever from any viewpoint outside of this capture, but I hope it only helps to embolden those who’ve already been protesting these past few weeks, in affirming their distance from that strange mental enclosure.

The somnambulist action of these idiots reminded of this extended passage from Žižek’s The Sublime Object of Ideology, in which he digs below this sort of mindlessness, that hides its lack of logic under a thin veil of inconsistent principles (please excuse Žižek’s usual edgelording):

…for Lacan, the only point at which we approach this hard kernel of the Real is indeed the dream. When we awaken into reality after a dream, we usually say to ourselves ‘it was just a dream’, thereby blinding ourselves to the fact that in our everyday, wakening reality we are nothing but a consciousness of this dream. It was only in the dream that we approached the fantasy framework which determines our activity, our mode of acting in reality itself.

It is the same with the ideological dream, with the determination of ideology as a dreamlike construction hindering us from seeing the real state of things, reality as such. In vain do we try to break out of the ideological dream by ‘opening our eyes and trying to see reality as it is’, by throwing away the ideological spectacles: as the subjects of such a post-ideological, objective, sober look, free of so-called ideological prejudices, as the subjects of a look which views the facts as they are, we remain throughout ‘the consciousness of our ideological dream’. The only way to break the power of our ideological dream is to confront the Real of our desire which announces itself in this dream.

Let us examine anti-Semitism. It is not enough to say that we must liberate ourselves from so-called ‘anti-Semitic prejudices’ and learn to see Jews as they really are — in this way we will certainly remain victims of these so-called prejudices. We must confront ourselves with how the ideological figure of the ‘Jew’ is invested with our unconscious desire, with how we have constructed this figure to escape a certain deadlock of our desire.

Let us suppose, for example, that an objective look would confirm — why not? — that Jews really do financially exploit the rest of the population, that they do sometimes seduce our young daughters, that some of them do not wash regularly. Is it not clear that this has nothing to do with the real roots of our anti-Semitism? Here, we have only to remember the Lacanian proposition concerning the pathologically jealous husband: even if all the facts he quotes in support of his jealousy are true, even if his wife really is sleeping around with other men, this does not change one bit the fact that his jealousy is a pathological, paranoid construction.

Let us ask ourselves a simple question: in the Germany of the late 1930s, what would be the result of such a non-ideological, objective approach? Probably something like: ‘The Nazis are condemning the Jews too hastily, without proper argument, so let us take a cool, sober look and see if they are really guilty or not; let us see if there is some truth in the accusations against them.’ Is it really necessary to add that such an approach would merely confirm our so-called ‘unconscious prejudices’ with additional rationalizations? The proper answer to anti-Semitism is therefore not ‘Jews are really not like that’ but ‘the anti-Semitic idea ofJew has nothing to do with Jews; the ideological figure of a Jew is a way to stitch up the inconsistency of our own ideological system.’

Does this not capture almost every media talking point from the last two weeks?

These thugs are tearing down these statues too hastily, casting judgement upon them too readily; we must debate and take a sober look at the pictorial legacy of the slave trade in our society.

In response, the Major of London’s office erects hoardings around the cenotaph and Winston Churchill. To protect them? Or to make them disappear, once again, in plain sight?

This is something that Mark Fisher used to say a lot, particularly within the context of capitalist realism. The first move of any hegemonic ideology is to deny its own existence. It is when ideology becomes indistinguishable from reality that ideology has won. How telling that, once the ideological statues of our city centres lose their cloak of invisibility, they must be covered up with actual cloaks. The result? An intensification of ideological demonstrations to counter the removal of ideology from plain sight — but the demonstrators as a mindless as the stone from which the statues are made.

That’s not just an insult aimed at their lack of intelligence. It encapsulates the very calcifying process of ideology. As Lukács argues in History & Class Consciousness: ideology — and, indeed, history itself, as the backbone of ideology — reifies and turns to stone the subjects most firmly in its grasp:

History is no longer an enigmatic flux to which men and things are subjected. It is no longer a thing to be explained by the intervention of transcendental powers or made meaningful by reference to transcendental values. History is, on the one hand, the product (albeit the unconscious one) of man’s own activity, on the other hand it is the succession of those processes in which the forms taken by this activity and the relations of man to himself (to nature, to other men) are overthrown. So that if … the categories describing the structure of a social system are not immediately historical, i.e. if the empirical succession of historical events does not suffice to explain the origins of a particular form of thought or existence, then it can be said that despite this, or better, because of it, any such conceptual system will describe in its totality a definite stage in the society as a whole.

“History” itself — the illusion of history — is precisely the dream from which these ahistorical thugs cannot wake.

[T]he nature of history is precisely that every definition degenerates into an illusion: history is the history of the unceasing overthrow of the objective forms that shape the life of man. It is therefore not possible to reach an understanding of particular forms by studying their successive appearances in an empirical and historical manner. This is not because they transcend history, though this is and must be the bourgeois view with its addiction to thinking about isolated ‘facts’ in isolated mental categories. The truth is rather that these particular forms are not immediately connected with each other either by their simultaneity or by their consecutiveness. What connects them is their place and function in the totality and by rejecting the idea of a ‘purely historical’ explanation the notion of history as a universal discipline is brought nearer.

The far-right understanding of history is a bourgeois fairy tale — it tells them of nothing more than their own success. (This is most tragic for a newly maligned stereotype of the white working class man, who identifies more with his oppressor: a gaslit subject whose Stockholm Syndrome has been goaded for years by the far-right populists of recent years.) After all, ask yourself: Why do so many politicians end up writing their own history books? (Lest we forget that Boris Johnson wrote his own biography of Churchill.) Lukács has the answers.

This is why the distinction between the tearing down of statues as history becoming itself and history being destroyed are important. History is only fixed if we are fixed. We become reified as our histories are reified. For Lukács:

Reification is, then, the necessary, immediate reality of every person living in capitalist society. It can be overcome only by constant and constantly renewed efforts to disrupt the reified structure of existence by concretely relating to the concretely manifested contradictions of the total development, by becoming conscious of the immanent meanings of these contradictions for the total development.

This is partly why this moment is so interesting and, indeed, why the Black Lives Matter protests are the closest we have come to any truly accelerationist action in decades.

We have seen the ideology of capitalist realism wane among the (broadly) working classes — that is, among those who work — but, since capitalists make all the decisions, little change has come about. This is the crisis of the negative, and it is a crisis felt most impotently by whites — they lack the “standpoint” (as Lukács would call it) of the truly oppressed. This is why change is occurring only following an attack on the statues that represent a truth still too hideous for an ideological hegemony to compute — that we built this nation on the backs of slaves.

“Nothing has ever denied of its contradictions” is a line uttered many times around this blog, and it is most often used to denounce a far-right accelerationism that thinks chaos alone can change the world. But we might look upon that statement a little more closely. Why is that the case, at least in their case? Because ideological systems of oppression generally tend to hide their contradictions. Far-right accelerationists thinking that, by committing acts of terror, they can help trigger a race war and set the contradictions lose demonstrates an ignorance as to their position in the social hierarchy.

For example, “Tfw no gf” is not a standpoint. The fury of incels and anons doesn’t hold much water because, in the grand scheme of things, no one is surprised when a white man mass-murderers a load of minorities. We’ve been watching that occur for centuries. That is the tactic that secured the system in which we live.

Because they fail to see this, they fail to see the system in its totality and so have no chance of changing it; they only see the superficial “immediacy” of their situation — with “immediacy” being Lukács’ term for that which is mistakenly and superficially given a privileged position within our self-consciousness because it is “given” to us most immediately in experience. (“Tfw no gf” becomes the perfect encapsulation of such a false standpoint since it precisely skewers that which the disenfranchised subject is immediately lacking: a girlfriend becomes the all-or-nothing focus over any more nuanced analysis of what Žižek called their “deadlock of desire”; you don’t hate your lack of a girlfriend, you hate your lack of a life under capitalism.)

Lukács, in his more explicit Hegelian-Marxism, makes a point in orbit of this that is useful for us if we hope to separate more clearly the contagious consciousness-raising of the Black Lives Matter movement from the contagious mindlessness of ideological thuggery. He writes that

the growing class consciousness that has been brought into being through the awareness of a common situation and common interests is by no means confined to the working class. The unique element in its situation is that its surpassing of immediacy represents an aspiration towards society in its totality regardless of whether this aspiration remains conscious or whether it remains unconscious for the moment. This is the reason why its logic does not permit it to remain stationary at a relatively higher stage of immediacy but forces it to persevere in an uninterrupted movement towards this totality, i.e. to persist in the dialectical process by which immediacies are constantly annulled and transcended. Marx recognised this aspect of proletarian class consciousness very early on. In his comments on the revolt of the Silesian weavers he lays emphasis on its “conscious and theoretical character.” He sees in the ‘Song of the Weavers’ a “bold battle cry which does not even mention the hearth, factory or district but in which the proletariat immediately proclaims its opposition to private property in a forceful, sharp, ruthless and violent manner.” Their action revealed their “superior nature” for “whereas every other movement turned initially only against the industrialist, the visible enemy, this one attacked also the hidden enemy, namely the banker.”

The Black Lives Matter movement, rising up (quite literally) from beneath the boot of white supremacist, capitalist and state oppression, sees the system for what it is in its totality. It attacks the statues in our streets because they are the unseen enemies of history’s persistent becoming. It, too, has a theoretical nature and a consciousness that, we hope, will persist. It punctures the crisis of the negative in this way, making for a moment of revolution that, whether explicitly or not, seems acutely Marxist in its nature.

The far-right, of course, attack whatever is in front of them — even if that’s the police that they are, supposedly, out in numbers to support. They are mired in immediacy and, in the process, they only illuminate the impotence of the very state they are attacking. They are the ying to Boris Johnson’s yang. BLM, on the other hand, is one step outside the circle and it is looking in, choosing targets wisely. That is how you accelerate a process — and that process is history.

The Crisis of the Negative: The Relativist Right Never Change

Two things inaugurated the blogosphere’s engagement with accelerationism: the financial crash of 2007/08 and Slavoj Žižek’s analysis of Zack Synder’s 2006 film, 300, for Lacanian Ink.

I discovered this the other day by doing a big deep dive and, whilst I’m saving a proper excavation of this moment for something else, I can’t stop thinking about it at the moment as all the usual suspects come out with their dumbest middling takes on the Black Lives Matter movement. They tend to look like this:

The furious facepalming going on in response to this is obviously justified but I’m just so bored of it at this point. The contrarianism is so tired but it’s also been dismissed so many times over the years. You’d think we’d have moved on. Unfortunately not.

Not that this is something unique to this account. There’s little difference between this shit and the stuff that about a dozen other accounts put out on Twitter. You know who they are. From where I am, they’ve all just morphed into some indistinguishable blob of Justin Murphy podcast alumni. I have most of them on mute.

What this has to do with the moment the accelerationist blogosphere was born is that, funnily enough, accelerationism basically came about in response to this sort of Žižek Edgelord Playbook. It was moronic then, almost fifteen years ago, and it’s moronic now, but the difference is that everyone seems to have forgotten the reason why.

I’m sure everyone remembers 300 — for the memes if not for its actual storyline. (I don’t think I ever saw it, personally, but all those kicking memes are still ingrained in my mind like an inescapable pop song.) Since its release is 2006, most have tried to forget about it, however, despite its influence being hard to ignore. That’s because it is generally considered to be a precursor to a lot of alt right bullshit.

There’s a great article on this that was written a few years back for the AV Club, which argues:

This is a movie that makes a grand, mythic spectacle out of the whole defending-the-white-homeland trope, and if you look at the YouTube comments on any of the scenes [described] above, you will witness some serious human ugliness. It would be a pretty big stretch to blame 300 for Donald Trump or whatever, but the movie really did lionize the heroic white warriors fighting to repel the endless dark-skinned hordes — to, in the gravelly narrator’s words, “rescue a world from mysticism and tyranny.” (Oh no! Mysticism!) This sort of bullshit did help establish a world where Donald Trump could be elected president, and it deserves to be remembered for that. It’s an influential movie in all the wrong possible ways. It’s our Birth Of A Nation.

This was written in 2017 but of course 300 is a film that Slavoj Žižek once wrote a glowing appraisal of back in 2007.

In stereotypically Žižekian fashion, the Slovenian philosopher uses his article on 300 in Lacanian Ink to attempt to subvert the film’s fascistic overtones and instead affirm its narrative of militaristic and sacrificial discipline from the left.

Ignoring the film’s racialised antagonists, amongst other things, he disagrees with the ways the film has been “attacked as the worst kind of patriotic militarism with clear allusions to the recent tensions with Iran and events in Iraq”. Instead, Žižek argues that the film should “be thoroughly defended against these accusations.”

Žižek’s case is superficially contrarian. For starters, he points out that the film in fact tells the story of “a small and poor country (Greece) invaded by the army of a much larger state (Persia), at that point much more developed, and with a much more developed military technology”. The Spartans are clearly the underdogs and so, if we are to draw parallels between the film and the US’s then-recent interventions in the Middle East, surely the supposedly American — that is, white — heroes of the saga are instead representative of the Taliban?

This is most clear following the film’s climax. “When the last surviving group of the Spartans and their king Leonidas are killed by the thousands of arrows”, Žižek argues, “are they not in a way bombed to death by techno-soldiers operating sophisticated weapons from a safe distance, like today’s US soldiers who push the rocket buttons from the warships safely away in the Persian Gulf?”

Žižek does not go on to suggest that the film is an opportunity for consciousness-raising, however, as one might generously expect, through which the American movie-going public might potentially develop empathy for the Other. Instead, he argues that the film offers the left a chance to develop a revolutionary spirit through discipline and sacrifice. Quoting his friend and fellow philosopher Alain Badiou, he writes:

“We need a popular discipline. I would even say… that ‘those who have nothing have only their discipline.’ The poor, those with no financial or military means, those with no power — all they have is their discipline, their capacity to act together. This discipline is already a form of organization.” In today’s era of hedonist permissivity as the ruling ideology, the time is coming for the Left to (re)appropriate discipline and the spirit of sacrifice: there is nothing inherently “Fascist” about these values.

This controversial argument emerges from Badiou’s suggestion — in the same 2007 interview from which Žižek is quoting — that the left should make contact, once again, with the militancy of Marxist-Leninism, albeit in a form appropriate to the new challenges of the twenty-first century. Žižek’s suggestion that 300 is somehow representative of this move is unconvincing and no doubt purposefully antagonistic, but Badiou’s original argument is nonetheless an interesting one.

The left, he argues, seems allergic to effective organisation, precisely because it is the State that organises most effectively. In trying to negate the State — that is, embody everything that the State is not — the left are dooming themselves, relegating themselves to never becoming more than a weak, impotent, subservient and disorganised opposition to bourgeois oppression and state power.

It’s a familiar position. You might even think it’s not far from Terese’s shitpost above, but, unlike that tweet, there’s a little bit more to it.

Badiou grounds this problem of opposites, of mirroring the State in negative, within Marxism. “For Marx,” he argues, “the dialectical conception of negation defined the relation between philosophy and politics — what used to be called the problem of dialectical materialism.” Drawing on German idealism, Marx argued that Hegel’s philosophy of the dialectic — the idea that the comprehension of a unity between opposites, through logic and reason, leads to the production of new thought — must be applied to lived experience in the material world rather than just the life of the mind. When considering the constitution of a capitalist society, this means understanding the interrelations of the working and ruling classes, the proletariat and the bourgeoisie, so that the proletariat might rise up and escape the unjust conflicts that keep the system in motion. To do this, the proletariat must understand the positivity of their nonetheless negative position. This is to say that it is only in affirming the strengths of their negative existence — for instance, their greater numbers over a relatively small elite — that the proletariat can change the world.

However, for Badiou, this conception of the negative in relation to political praxis is no longer sufficient. He explains:

Just as the party, which was once the victorious form of insurrection, is today outdated, so too is the dialectical theory of negation. It can no longer articulate a living link between philosophy and politics. In trying to clarify the political situation, we also need to search for a new formulation of the problem of critique and negation. I think that it is necessary, above all in the field of political action, to surpass the concept of a negation taken solely in its destructive and properly negative aspect. Contrary to Hegel, for whom the negation of the negation produces a new affirmation, I think we must assert that today negativity, properly speaking, does not create anything new. It destroys the old, of course, but does not give rise to a new creation.

It is Badiou’s interjection here, suggested indirectly through the garish cultural expositions of Slavoj Žižek, that sent up a flare over the blogosphere of the late 2000s. Badiou, unfortunately, seemed to be correct; the then-recent protest movements, particularly Occupy, which had emerged following the financial crash certainly seemed largely inept for the task at hand.

Steven Shaviro, who (amazingly) continues to run the blog The Pinocchio Theory, was the first to pass comment on Žižek’s article. Shaviro suggests that, rather than extending Badiou’s argument, he only manages to epitomise it absolutely. Although he may believe that he is firmly on the side of a rationalist Marxist-Hegelianism, through which “the free subject of Reason can only emerge through a ruthless self-discipline”, Shaviro instead argues that Žižek’s “contrarianism is just a sort of idiotic macho one-upmanship (as in: I can be even more outrageous and anti-commonsensical than anybody else), of the same sort that is routinely practiced by right-wing political economists … or evolutionary theorists like the guys … who wrote about how rape was an adaptive strategy.”

In other words, this is precisely the sort of negativity that Badiou was denouncing. Žižek isn’t producing new thought or action through his contrarianism; instead, he only entrenches the mire of postmodern impotence displayed routinely by the relativist right. As Shaviro damningly declares, Žižek “totally depends upon the well-meaning, right-thinking liberal ideology that he sets out to frustrate and contradict at every turn. His own ideas remain parasitic upon those of the postmodern, multicultural consensus that he claims to upset.”

It is nonetheless intriguing, considering the vast amount of material Žižek has produced throughout his career that attempts to skewer this kind of ideological trap, that he would find himself so complicit in that which he claims to despise. Shaviro concludes with a similar bemusement, noting how his “theories are little more than yet another demonstration, or symptom, of the situation that he himself has pointed to: the fact that, in the current climate, we find it difficult to imagine any alternative to capitalism; that in fact we find it easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism. Žižek’s thought itself is one more demonstration of our current blockage of imagination.”

Nevertheless, thanks to Žižek’s utter embodiment of the issue at hand, Badiou’s initial question somehow manages to penetrate the postmodern fuzz. We are indeed in the thrall of a “crisis of the negative”, as he calls it. “Our problem today is that the destructive part of negation is no longer, in and of itself, capable of producing the new.” It is from here that accelerationism was born.

The post-Ccru crowd took this charge very seriously and, for all their missteps and wrong turns, they consistently produced school after school of thought that — even if only for a time — revitalised a para-academic domain of philosophy and politics and, in some cases, made genuine in-roads into the hallow halls they’d previously hoped to escape from. They were all the more capable of doing this, I believe, because they kept this crisis of the negative in mind. They knew what impotence looked like and did their best to escape it whenever it started to take hold.

The Twitter gobshites have no such aspirations, obviously — although they’ll continue to trade on their PhDs if they’ve got them — and no such capabilities. There’s no desire to actually effect anything on display here. It’s the sort of post-European bourgeois ineptitude that defines so many East Coast edgelords. All soft hands and plush chaise longues and drinking problems, but they’re far more bovine than Madame Bovary.

The impotence of this sort of post-right thinking demonstrates the extent to which they missed out on the lesson from Occupy. They’ve slipped back into — or, even more likely, never left — the right-wing need to say dumb shit loudly for likes, emboldened by the system they claim themselves to be free radicals within.

Of course, Terese and her sort don’t openly define themselves by what they reject, but they are nonetheless parasites that feed upon the sensitivity of popular opinion. It looks all the more pathetic in this moment, as an emboldened left is fucking shit up and making changes in a way that previous protest movements couldn’t force through. The fact that that is as true over here in the UK as it is in the US is astounding — we never get anything done!

Disavowing this kind of rubbish is worthwhile, but it is best to remember the above as well, I think. This Žižekian playbook is dusty, but its also demonstrative of the kind of thinking those with genuine nous have been ridiculing for a long, long time. And we’re in a moment where the left is showing signs of shirking off the gravitational pull of an impotent black hole they gleefully lurk on the edges of.

Break loose.

Hegemony of the Cliché: Pomophobia Revisited

This is something that emerged fleetingly from the Q&A following my lecture yesterday for the University of Birmingham’s Contemporary Theory Reading Group — which was fantastic by the way; I’ll post about it when the lecture recording goes live.

Hailey Maxwell asked a question about how I see myself and my project in relation to Fisher. I’ve obviously had a lot to say about this recently but it led to a coinage in the moment that Niall later suggested could be a decent alternative to capitalism realism: the “hegemony of the cliché”.

This emerged explicitly from my recent reflecting on Dan Barrow’s article about my book — particularly his affirmation of the fact that Egress reaches for a “Mark Fisher beyond the cliché”, something I deeply appreciated.

This was certainly my intent, quite explicitly in fact, but I have also recently expressed a tandem frustration regarding the suggestion that the presence of Bataille and Blanchot in my book is worthy of disavowal because Mark himself didn’t like them.

Writing beyond the cliché of Mark Fisher is one thing but what about the ways in which the text moves beyond the clichés of Bataille, Deleuze and others?

I’ve said all I have to say on that particularly thought-provoking article but there remains much to be said, I think, about the ways that many thinkers, of all stripes, are made impotent by the clichéd figures that are constructed around them as well.

I’ve written a few scattered things on this before but it is a difficult thing to articulate. For instance, there is a sense, particularly online, that everyone wants to Cliff Notes reading of a particular text rather than be supplied with the tools to excavate new readings for themselves.

There are many cases where these tools warrant further use. Nietzsche is always the first to come to mind as a figure whose legacy is still being debated. But also, how do we dismantle this desire for fast thought in a way that doesn’t just sound like obfuscation and gate-keeping?

When I think about this stuff, the death of the author, as famously described by Roland Barthes, always looms large, and I’m left wondering to what extent this has produced new (albeit oddly distanced) impositions upon how we think about texts?

Barthes’ argument that a text cannot have a single interpretation, grounded by its author’s intent, has led — perhaps inadvertently but nonetheless intractably — to the sort of postmodern relativism that Derrida has likewise been derided for contributing towards.

It is a slippage critiqued most powerfully by Mark Fisher himself and Robin Mackay in their conclusion to the Ccru era essay “Pomophobia”, in which they decry “the clogged digestive system” of the postmodern subject, “of the West’s Last Men”, which “expresses all too acutely the constipated Eurocontinence of these constricted bodies, themselves minor fascicular elements of a resonant system of transcendental miserabilism disseminated across all levels of culture.” (Suffice it to say that it is densely packed text and we’ll try untangled some of it in due course.) They continue:

The dreary textocratic dribblings of post-theory are merely the transcendental idealist counterpoint to the empirical realism of postmodern culture. Kurt Cobain embodied what theory disembodies, the raging stomach pains which plagued him finding their disintensified correlate in the chin-rubbing, brow-furrowing protocols of urbane academic anxiety. Smells like Hegelian Spirit.

By contrast, synthetic culture disorganises the docilising regimes of disciplinary body politics. Hip hop and jungle work on the body, not in the overlit luminotopological epistemoscapes of necrospective mummification, but in the dark zones where you don’t have a chance to think about what things would mean before they happen. Effects arrive before objects, scrambling the operating system of the automonitoring signifying apparatus.

The speed of jungle is important here. In racing passed apprehension as a flurry of unintentified sonic objects, it reaches down into the truth of speed itself as an intensity rather than as a commodified categorisation or USP — no one has ever said they like jungle for the speedy efficiency with which is delivers its constitutive parts to your eardrums. It raises the subject up, in a sense, to hitch a ride on the speed of the world around it, but subculturally speaking we can also consider its opposite.

Following the heydey of grunge, in which Cobain would ironically write hits critiquing the bulimia of the pop market, slowcore hit the scene. The band Low, in particular, made a name for themselves by, in their own words, playing as slow as possible in front of crowds who came for the next mindless angst-relieving thrashy grunge band. This wasn’t a rejection of speed as such but just a rejection of the markets expectation of it. Either you speed up even faster than expected (jungle) or you slow down — so long as you’re jamming the signal.

Here affect (or, more accurately, intensity) is still the name of the game but also we find ourselves confronted by what that intensity contains: the unadulterated “truth”, the Real. Cobain may have wrestled — alongside his stomach pains — with suggestions Nirvana had sold out but the band stayed true to itself even as it was dragged by the market into some kind of inauthenticity.

The distance between these two things — authenticity and truth — can seem superficial but authenticity is, again, firmly within the purview of the postmodern. Truth is perhaps that which is buried beneath the all too easily available. It is that which passes beneath the hegemony of the cliché — an all-powerful blanket of superficiality.

This is similar to what I think Fisher and Mackay are gesturing towards when they point, in their essay, to “samploid music and video games” that emerge “as the leading probe-heads of synthetic culture precisely because of their overt machinism, their asignifying functionality, their indifference to epistemological conundra brewed up in the depths of the strata.” (As far as video games are concerned, this is arguably no longer the case.)

It is a function that is demonstrated by the text itself. This is a gourmet word salad; a linguistic Impossible Burger, a billion dollar lab experiment made to imitate a Big Mac. This is to say that, although it has the cognitive effect of a rapid fire look through a thesaurus, hitting you with affective utterances that may appear pretension and superficial, the technical nomenclature also demands a slow reading in order to be understood, as each term used packs a punch that perforates the “epistemological conundra” of the (c)overtly familiar. This is not philosophy as sleek Ferrari but philosophy as backyard kit car, ready for a deconstruction derby. If it’s Derridean, it’s Derrida with a cattle pod up his arse.

It’s messy and it’s dirty. There’s no fetishing this. And that resistance to fetishisation is largely the point. As Fisher and Mackay continue:

What is dissolved in synthetic culture is not commodification per se, but commodity fetishism as it regulates the bourgeois object system, in which everything is assigned a proper place. Synthetic culture sheds no Benjaminite tears for the lost aura of objects in the age of mechanical reproduction, celebrating instead the way in which the subject-object dichotomy and its attendant pathos are reconfigured as machinic circuits in the age of cybernetic replication. “The transaesthetics of banality” plays upon the poignant, if bathetic, aura of found objects, but for abstract culture everything that’s ready made, or mass-marketed, is there to be dismantled and relocated into the unfamiliar architectures of the synthetic composition, the “uncanny adjacencies” of the hip hop or jungle track, where they have a machinic, rather than merely a citational, role to play: decomposable elements on a plane of consistency, not cut up fragments.

To the jaded eyes of the PoMophile, sampling can appear to be part of its own aesthetic of incongruent bricolage, yet another example of the crippling self-consciousness bedevilling a culture so exhausted it is fit only to sort through its own entrails. But, far from being imprisoned in the past, synthetic culture unlocks the machinic surplus value in the already actualized, stretching and warping time into nonorganically reprogrammed somatic circuits of inhuman speeds and slownesses.

A breath of fresh air, a little relation to the outside, that’s all schizoanalysis asks.

Sample culture precisely employs a kind of machinic thinking through which sounds are repurposed beyond the cliché; that is, behind their smooth reception in a culture that always wants to flog the convenient and familiar. (I’m reminded of rkss’ DJ Tools here.)

These reintensifications are possible (and necessary) with so much culture, not just with music. I’ve spoken about it in recent months in relation to DH Lawrence and Virginia Woolf but the truth is that I think it is possible with anyone. It is always worth looking beneath the philosophies you think you know and excavating explicitly those concepts and frameworks that jar with that abstract sense of market propriety. Getting down into how something feels always reveals untold connections to present affects. That which you think you know can always be updated to a present in which it finds itself resituated.

This is not to say you must suspend your judgement of things; rather it is to argue that you can find in almost anything an understanding that grates against the system in which we presently live. This is like the arguments that the removal of the statue of Edward Colston from Bristol isn’t an erasure of history but history happening. The “destructive” repurposing of a statue for protest is sample culture at its most potent. The affective release of the act is more powerful than any object, all too comfortable on its pedestal.

The final question of the Q&A, asked by Niall, was what exactly did Mark Fisher hate about cultural studies despite being somehow who, arguably, “did” cultural studies himself, and I think the answer lies in this very suggestion. When Barthes argued that no text should be limited by the immediate (material) context in which it was produced, he nonetheless set the stage for a kind of cultural studies that has made little attempt to feed back onto the immediate (still material) contexts of its readers. “What does / did it mean?” supercedes “How does it / could it change the world?” But as Marx (and, more explicitly, Stuart Hall) made clear, the former should always lead to the latter, otherwise cultural studies is doomed to impotence. It is doomed to support, rather than intrude upon, the hegemony of the cliché.

“I Can’t Breathe”

There’s a sick sort of doubling occurring at the moment, exacerbating our global distress and malaise.

“I can’t breathe” once again becomes a way for protestors to identify with the deceased, but it now cuts through two forms of diminished life, whether that be citizens suffocated by police or by disease.

Our present (all too personal) problems, that have defined the last few weeks of lockdown — selfish, noisy neighbours, and the constant banging from a nearby building site; freelance precarity and mental health instability — feel so parochial right now. However, rather than the riots making Covid life feel less pressing, life becomes even more claustrophobic as we incessantly watch the constant streams and video clips shared by citizen journalists on the other side of the world. Our little flat, where we’ve been huddled for months now, feels even more detached from a society falling apart all around us. It is a distance that is almost comforting, but the comfort also nauseates.

Twitter doesn’t help. As both a place of online protest and the dissemination of political information, and as the one place that has retained some sense of normality since social distancing came into effect, there is a strange guilt that comes from using the platform to watch the world unravel and also to keep tweeting as usual.

On Friday night, a friend sends me a digital flyer sharing information about protests scheduled to take place in London over the weekend and I can’t think of anywhere I’d rather not be. That feeling is vindicated the following day when I see video footage of crowds in Trafalgar Square — a landmark I used to walk over on my way to work; a walk I did every other day for two years — and I feel sick just looking at that aerial throng navigating streets that used to be so familiar — before all this.

I haven’t been to central London since February.

The thought of being in a crowd for any reason at all at the moment is anxiety-inducing, but at what point does Covid-19 paranoia lead to state complicity? My timeline is split between friends still suffering from post-Covid complications and those on the front line in cities experiencing unrest.

I’m anticipating my monthly Patreon payment to come through next week. A modest amount and not my main source of income. Right now I’m thinking which organisations I can send it to. It feels like the right sort of gesture to make with this platform but, social media optics aside, it doesn’t feel like much.

What, if anything, can pierce through the strangely resonant disparities of police brutality and state incompetence?

The covered faces of rioters, whether by medical masks or skull bandanas, melt into a mire of anonymity, as the reality of the pandemic remains both ever-present and fades into the background. Talk of “outside agitators” speaks to both conspiratorial sociology and paranoid virology. The horror expressed at communal “self-harm”, encapsulated by damaged businesses, overrides any discussion the communal “self-harm” that comes from flouting social distancing advice. The state demonstrates an indifference regarding the escalation of either contagion — whether it is violence or disease that spreads, the state just adds fuel to every fire. Arguments from reactionary citizens that deplore the damage being done to local economies fail to land when those economies are already so anaemic.

What kind of world are we staying indoors to preserve? What kind of world are we burning down?

The burning of buildings feels like an ever more important symbolic act against this backdrop, and especially after so many months spent sheltering in place. Now more than ever we are like hermit crabs moving house, swapping the discarded and barnacled Coca-Cola can for something new. On an individual level, we spend every day daydreaming of a life outside the city, outside this overpriced shoebox flat, in some cheap two-up-two-down in a down-and-out seaside town that is, for better and for worse, detached from the drama. It has become more and more apparent that there was no shitter place to be than a city when a pandemic hits. On a collective level, we spend every day struggling to birth a new system, attacking one pillar of society that only makes the others hide behind militaries and demagogic threats. It has become more and more apparent that there was no shitter place to be than a city when the state hits.

It’s true that nothing has ever died by its contradictions but a consciousness of those contradictions has never been more readily within our grasp. Seeing the contradictions for what they are — the bookends of our frenzied stasis; the fault lines of capitalist realism — is the first step towards building new and desperately needed futures.