I’m really excited to be able to tell you all (officially) that my first book, Egress: On Mourning, Melancholy & Mark Fisher, is coming to bookshops near you on 10th March 2020, published by the wonderful folks at Repeater Books.
An exploration of the work and legacy of Mark Fisher, one of the most influential and incendiary writers of our generation.
Egress is the first book to consider the legacy and work of the writer, cultural critic and cult academic Mark Fisher.
Narrated in orbit of his death as experienced by a community of friends and students in 2017, it analyses Fisher’s philosophical trajectory, from his days as a PhD student at the University of Warwick to the development of his unfinished book on Acid Communism.
Taking the word “egress” as its starting point — a word used by Fisher in his book The Weird and the Eerie to describe an escape from present circumstances as experiences by the characters in countless examples of weird fiction — Egress consider the politics of death and community in a way that is indebted to Fisher’s own forms of cultural criticism, ruminating on personal experience in the hope of making it productively impersonal.
There’s more to it than that though.
Egress has been a labour of love lost for me over the last three years. It originally came into the world as an unruly MA dissertation, submitted to Goldsmiths, University of London, in September 2017.
The death of a lecturer might sound like an unusual choice for a dissertation topic, especially since it was written in the immediate aftermath of said death without any distance, but I wrote about Mark because I didn’t know how to write about anything else. Mark’s death had so absolutely dominated all social and academic experiences that year, and challenged the research I had been doing before his death (into Bataillean ethics and the politics of community) so absolutely, that there seemed like no other way to move forward than to grab my grief by its horns and write my way out of it.
As such, it was a very weird dissertation to write but the response to it was hugely gratifying. My academic supervisor and second marker — Ayesha Hameed and Irit Rogoff respectively — were the first to offer their feedback on it and they were more encouraging than I could have anticipated. Both suggested I should keep going with it and let it see the light of day outside the walls of the institution. It was already written with one foot outside those walls and so, with this tentative permission to keep pushing forwards, I thought I might as well take the leap. At first, that’s what this blog was for — an excuse to keep writing after there were no more academic hoops to jump through — but it quickly grew into something much more than a blog.
It has taken a further two years to get it right but now, six times the length it was in September 2017, and with a few more years thought and experience inserted into its initial ideas, the result is something I am immensely proud of.
However, if it was a weird dissertation, it also remains a weird book. As I’ve been warning family and friends who have no idea what I write about here on the blog, “it’s certainly not a light beach read.”
As I write in the book’s introduction, it is as much a product of grief and depression as it is about those two things and so it is a book that slips and slides between registers and references, between personal experience and collective thought, in a way that is both indebted to Mark’s work and the slippery practice of blogging through which he made his name and to which I’ve also dedicated much of my life. It also attempts to connect these practices and projects to the wider philosophies that Mark and his friends were so naturally in tune with. As such, I believe that this weirdness is its strength rather than its weakness.
Suffice it to say, this is not a by-the-numbers summary of Mark’s published works or a biography of the man himself. With Egress being the first work of “secondary criticism” about Mark’s work, I think that’s how it should be.
This is not an attempt to tie up the loose ends he left behind into a neat package. It is an attempt to give an account of his death, written through the experiences of those he left behind, and an attempt to show, through a philosophical rigour and a rhetorical accessibility (and a certain desperation), how the relevance of his work persists even though, at a glance, it may appear to have failed the man who penned it.
I’ve also got a page here where I’m collecting any endorsements and reviews which I’ll be updating periodically.
If you’re in the UK, you can preorder it from Blackwell’s, Foyles and Waterstones. If you’re in the US, it’s available from Barnes & Noble and Penguin and… I don’t know what shops you have over there, but it’s in lots of places. Check your nearest bookstore! It’s global! (Amazon has it too if you’re desperate.) It will also be available to order direct from Repeater here on March 10th.
I’m sorry to say you’ll be seeing a lot more of my face and hearing a lot more of my voice over the coming weeks. I’ve got a bunch of press stuff and events planned so keep an eye out for those. (There will be a book launch in central London on March 11th which I can’t wait to announce — save the date!)
Thanks to everyone for the support over the last few years and to those who have had a more direct hand in keeping me sane and afloat during this book’s gestation. I hope you feel it’s been a worthwhile endeavour.
Mark Leckey’s video work Fiorucci Made Me Hardcore is arguably the first hauntological artefact for the 21st century, produced in 1999 just as the death rattle of rave was becoming audible beyond its own community. However, less a work of pure nostalgia, it has remained within the popular consciousness as a hallucination of a past moment that might one day return.
Leckey has continued to adeptly explore this tension between hallucination and memory over the past two decades — with Simon Reynolds himself writing a number of texts responding to his work in various exhibition catalogues — and his recent exhibition at Tate Britain, O’ Magic Power of Bleakness, has demonstrated the continuing resonance of this power beautifully.
He also has a killer NTS show and so we’re really excited to have him come down and play some tunes for us.
Originally from São Paulo, Brazil, Tetine are Bruno Verner and Eliete Mejorado. Renowned for their explosive performances, they bulldoze their way across genres, bringing a hard baile funk edge to their post-punk sonic excursions.
Following the duo’s amazing b2b DJ set at our for k-punk fundraiser at the end of last year, we have invited them back to show us the other side of what they do.
They will also already be familiar faces to many around New Cross, with Bruno currently co-teaching Mark’s former “Popular Modernism” module on the BA Fine Art and History of Art course at Goldsmiths. We couldn’t think of any other duo better to help us think Mark’s work as a dancefloor this year.
Chooc Ly Tan is an artist, DJ and lecturer who recently launched the club night Décalé at DIY Space for London in the summer of 2019.
“Décalé” means “being displaced in space and time” and this is a vibe that epitomises life in this strange city more now than ever before, as a space where temporalities and spaces jostle for position.
“When dusk arises, agitated spirits awake…”, she writes, describing the night as a platform where “nocturnal creatures, loud existential insurgents, and disobedient children” can “encounter experimental, collapsing and flawless sounds/visuals — a night for collective experience” where together “we will re-write reality for an alternate tomorrow.”
Echoing the sentiment at the heart of for k-punk over the last few years, she is evidently a fellow traveller of the highest order and we can’t wait to hear what she brings to the occasion.
Following on from Reynolds’ 90s essays on the hardcore continuum — “No narrative, no destination: Ardkore is an intransitive acceleration, an intensity without object.” — rkss reveals rave’s new form in the 21st century to be laid out across a plane of consistency where underground and pop culture, snd and Ultrabeat, become an altogether new blob — and it still slaps.
This isn’t meant to be a surprise, however. This is not a crass postmodernism for avant-pop. You will find no trace of Evian Christ’s thousand layers of irony or Lorenzo Senni’s avant-garde rehabilitations here. This is popular modernism as Mark always hoped to see it.
I first met Jennifer Walton at the launch of Most Dismal Swamp in Dalston last year. Connecting through mutual friends, Jen was evidently a fellow traveller from the first time I saw her perform. Since then, she has toured extensively with Kero Kero Bonito and recently released White Nurse on Mutualism.
An EP openly inspired by the Xenofeminist Manifesto, White Nurse is a work of power electronics that eschews the genre’s previous predilection for fascist imagery, transforming its wider aesthetic into a necessarily and properly prosthetic mode — a 21st century slab of throbbing bass gristle that escapes essentialisation and ask how both the politics of music and our bodies can continue to make themselves new.
Fittingly, you never know what to expect from a Walton set, other than a visceral collective and embodied joy. Don’t miss it.
Yesterday’s post triggered the first hellthread of 2020. Did you miss it? Do you wish you had?
It was a hellthread dripping with irony. Last year was dominated by too many posts written here declaring that “speed up capitalism until it breaks itself” is not and never has been the accelerationist argument. (Some good came out of doggedly defending this position, so I won’t be too harsh on myself.) Similarly, yesterday’s hellthread emerged from a small group arguing that what I was pointing to as a potential antecedent to the thinking of the 2010s Dark Enlightenment absolutely was not no way get the hell out of here.
The adamance of their position was really quite telling. As was suggested yesterday, the kneejerk tendency to reject any and all things that were not born of and are not exclusive to your ideas is something best left in 2019… It is not a good look.
Rather than undermining their arguments, however, my main intention was to point out the irony that this earlier use of the phrase goes some way to articulating a contemporary rightist pathology. (@ne0agent1c was really upset that this and proceeded to do a lot of Banepoasting.)
To trace the genealogy of accelerationism is thus fraught with problems. On the most superficial level, accelerationism has existed for about a decade. At its unspoken core, it is impossibly ancient. Different focuses will yield wildly divergent results.
We might say the same of the Dark Enlightenment — which is already adjacent to accelerationism, of course. Vince continues:
It is hard to avoid the conclusion that it is best not to think of accelerationism, in the first instance, as a set of ideas at all. Land has described what he terms ‘libidinal materialism’ as more a ‘jangling of the nerves’ than a set of doctrines. Accelerationism is not identical with libidinal materialism, but the same observation seems abundantly to apply to it. With the appropriate historical sensibility, modulations of accelerationism soon well up in widely divergent contexts, all over the world, advancing along the storm-front of industrial capitalism. It emerges as a sensation of the acceleration characteristic of modernity itself, expressed in different ways by Marx, Hirato, Baudrillard, and plenty others. The drive to posit this expression in specifically philosophical form is perhaps peculiarly influenced by Western tradition. The sensation itself is not.
Again, the same can be said for the Dark Enlightenment, although, at present, it has done very well for itself in keeping its ideas cloistered within an in-group — one of the benefits of being a sub-ideology within a broader movement. It seems evident now that it has taken its inoculation against historiographic complexity for granted.
Ironically, this wasn’t even my agenda yesterday. I’ve just been reading a lot of Freud lately and the phrase “Dark Enlightenment” kept coming up again and again. At some point I stopped chuckling to myself about it and decided to take this coincidence all too seriously. Call it an exercise in “coincidence intensification” if you want.
It seems that intensification was not well weathered.
Towards the end of the hellthread, Uri jumped in with a few tweets that were sympathetic to the opposition — and understandably so: he’s better versed in that part of the Landian blogosphere than anyone else I know. He pointed out that I wasn’t addressing any of the specific details found within Land’s essay — although I don’t see why I’d need to — or the work of others and, also, I forgot the Great Humiliator who is of the most importance to the contemporary Dark Enlightenment movement — Darwin.
Forgetting Darwin was an oversight on my part but he still fits into the argument being posited. Darwinism, in its various modes, is so often deployed by figures on the right to embolden and affirm natural selection as “the survival of the fittest”. (“The rich are rich because they’re the best of us.”) But Darwinism as natural selection is, of course, far more chaotic and it was this that the Dark Enlightenment sought to introduce into this conservative conversations. (As Uri put it: “A lot of the Dark Enlightenment is ‘there’s too little death.'”) However, for the Dark Enlightenment, this survival-of-the-fittest process is not fuelled by capitalist ambition (alone) but by drives that are far more occulted. The links proposed in yesterday’s post speak precisely to this shared interest in what is occulted in our knowledge of ourselves. The Freudian death drive is individualistic but nonetheless scales up to society as a whole. We might argue that Darwinism calls this same tendency something like “cosmic entropy”.
Uri, eventually seeing what I was getting at, started to join the dots and brought up a few posts from Outside In that demonstrate this in interesting ways. One particularly segment that I found interesting was the following from Land’s post “On Chaos”:
The question Outside in would pose to NRx is not ‘how can we suppress chaos?’ but rather ‘how can we learn to tolerate chaos at a far higher intensity?’
This is an ethical response — in its wilful collectivity — that I absolutely agree with. It is possible for a leftist reassessment of the Dark Enlightenment’s sentiments to reach the same conclusion. Indeed, it is absolutely necessary that the left does so. It is undeniably true that the left at present is woefully ill-equipped to tolerate chaos at its present levels of intensity, never mind any future ones.
This is the U/Acc position. “Make yourself worthy of the things that happen to you.” Or, as Land puts it here: “Entropy is toxic, but entropy production is roughly synonymous with intelligence.” The left is not entropically productive. It all too often attempts to suture the egresses in its hard-won worldview rather than prising open the gaps to introduce the new — that is, the new it consistently says it wants. (It has been making more of a go of it recently, admittedly, but cannot withstand the push-back.)
This “new” is obviously not the same “new” that the online Dark Enlightenment was aiming for but the goals are fickle and irrelevant. I’m interested in the ways that what is being responded to, in each instance, is largely the same. Call it Thanatos, Dionysus, the Gothic, anima and animus, Gnon… There is an occulted side to the Enlightenment — then and now — and all sides still resist taking it into account within their politics. The right may affirm it but affirmation and tolerance are not the same as a resistance to or the control of its flows. Land knows this. Few of his acolytes seem to. The Dark Enlightenment, as a political movement, is still susceptible to the occulted side of the machine within which it attempts to act. And that is something that any one who puts themselves in opposition to the right should take heed of. It might present you with an opportunity.
Nyx demonstrated the stakes here most succinctly when she tweeted:
If right-DE is failing to compete in the ideological marketplace, it should be a cause for assessing its apparent lack of fitness. If it isn’t failing and Xeno is just writing a post speculating on the genealogy of DE, you have nothing to fear.
@ne0agent1c and co.’s fury was all too suggestive of which scenario is currently unfolding…
Although today it is synonymous with a smattering of Alt-Right edgelords, like so many words and symbols deployed by the far-right, the history of the “Dark Enlightenment” runs far deeper than its recent bastardisations suggest.
The original “Dark Enlightenment” was arguably begun by the post-Kantians, before going mainstream with Freud’s popularisation of the concept of the Unconscious. It is a phrase that has been used frequently (at least recently) to point to the ways in which Freud inaugurated the latest in a line of Great Humiliations of the human race that fundamentally changed how we see ourselves. Following Copernicus’ hard-to-swallow truth that we are not at the centre of the universe and James Hutton’s revelation that the Earth’s crust contains evidence of a geological time that dwarves our short existence, Freud took us down a further peg by letting us know that we are at the mercy of our own minds. We do not control our thoughts, they control us and, as it turns out, we are very easily manipulated.
A quick Google is all it takes to find evidence of Freud’s relevance to the original Dark Enlightenment in this regard. Take, for instance, this old review of two fantastic books on Freud in The Guardian that describes him
as a thinker of the dark enlightenment, “a deeper, conflicted, disconsolate, and even tragic yet still emancipatory tradition within the broader movement of the enlightenment”. Freud understood the forces of the counter-enlightenment, the pull of the irrational, the sway of belief, and integrated all this into his vision.
Elsewhere, Élisabeth Roudinesco has also described Freud as an explicit thinker of the Dark Enlightenment “who, while he believed firmly in reason and human progress, was at the same time — by a dialectical twist that was fundamental to his thinking — critical of the delusions of progress and reason.”
Roudinesco explicitly roots her use of the term in Adorno, who spoke of this darkness repeatedly, alongside Horkheimer, in Dialectic of Enlightenment. They describe a darkness that is the antithesis of enlightenment — but only in the sense that it is nonetheless a part of the Enlightenment process, which is to say it remains present in the resulting synthesis of reason and unreason that the Enlightenment as an amorphous movement produced.
As Roudinesco explains, Adorno and Horkheimer refer to a “dark enlightenment” in order to critique “the excesses that derive from a belief in happiness and progress which nonetheless does not repudiate the spirit of the Enlightenment.” It is a darkness inherent to the Enlightenment because, metaphorically speaking, there must be light for there to be dark and dark for there to be light. This isn’t some Star Wars moralist bullshit, however — it is a feedback loop that we are too often blind to in our pretensions.
Adorno and Horkheimer present this argument in quite stark terms in their book’s introduction, almost ridiculing the “dutiful child of modern civilisation” who is “possessed by a fear of departing from the facts which, in the very act of perception, the dominant conventions of science, commerce, and politics — cliché-like — have already moulded; his anxiety is none other than the fear of social deviation.”
It is here that Freud returns to relevance as the Great Detective of an Unconscious that fascinated him for its seemingly contradictory processes. With this in mind, Adorno and Horkheimer are essentially describing a new superego born of the Enlightenment and they point with an impotent fury at the world around them, enslaved to an id that we do not see. They continue:
The same conventions [of social propriety and moral anxiety] define the notion of linguistic and conceptual clarity which the art, literature and philosophy of the present have to satisfy. Since that notion declares any negative treatment of the facts or of the dominant forms of thought to be obscurantist formalism or — preferably — alien, and therefore taboo, it condemns the spirit to increasing darkness. It is characteristic of the sickness that even the best-intentioned reformer who uses an impoverished and debased language to recommend renewal, by his adoption of the insidious mode of categorization and the bad philosophy it conceals, strengthens the very power of the established order he is trying to break.
Sidenote: this “adoption of insidious … categorization and the bad philosophy it conceals” is a better way of articulating the central charge of this recent post.
It is also the crux of Adorno and Horkheimer’s assessment of fascism and Nazism, later discussed at length in the book.
What they present as a sociopolitical dialectic may be more recognisable today as a positive feedback loop, taking into account the full complexity of the issues with which they are wrestling. They theorise that the Nazis, in their embrace of the latest technologies of the day — and, indeed, their fuelling of their own technological progression for the sake of the war effort — end up perpetuating the very barbarism they wish to keep out of their promised Reich and its pure Aryan race. This is to say that, in their efforts towards the fascistic purity of the Enlightenment project for the German people in the 20th century, they exacerbate within themselves the dark qualities that they otherwise see all around them in the non-German Other.
It is interesting that this same perception of the political disasters of the early 20th century finds itself at the heart of Nick Land’s late-20th century thought as well. In his essay, “Making It With Death”, for instance, he foreshadows his present tendency to present philosophical arguments in their most politically outrageous forms whilst also echoing Adorno and Horkheimer’s critique of post-Enlightenment fascism. He writes:
Trying not to be a Nazi approximates one to Nazism far more radically than any irresponsible impatience in destratification. Nazism might even be characterised as the pure politics of effort; the absolute domination of the collective super-ego in its annihilating rigour. Nothing could be more politically disastrous than the launching of a moral case against Nazism: Nazism is morality itself, heir to Europe’s respectible history: that of witch-burnings, inquisitions, and pogroms. To want to be in the right is the common substratum of morality and genocidal reaction; the same desire for repression — organized in terms of the disapproving gaze of the father — that Anti-Oedipus analyzes with such power. Who could imagine Nazism without daddy? And who could imagine daddy being pre-figured in the energetic unconscious?
Land’s later series of blogposts known for re-popularising the phrase “The Dark Enlightenment” have gone some way towards extending this argument into our unruly present. However, in many ways, the above passage has not aged well, at a time when Neo-Nazism is legitimately on the rise and the Alt-Right largely embraces its association with that most despised of political philosophies because, as they often imply, the prevailing moralism of the left has somehow reduced the political stakes of Nazism to provocative cosplay. (Seemingly to Land’s glee, through which he sees to somehow laugh at and with the right simultaneously — plenty of us do this from the left I suppose.)
Here the Dark Enlightenment is reduced to something else all together. Land’s online acolytes seem to try and invert this logic by siding (even half-heartedly) with Nazism in order to therefore be wrong. This is apparently a logical way of sidestepping the moralist left’s fascistic desire to always be right. We see the left’s political melancholia face off against the right’s political sadomasochism in a way that may start off as play but soon becomes real as it finds itself on a vector towards the outside of an overbearing sociopolitical hegemony, reaching the outside of present moralities far more quickly and radically than the modern left could ever wish to.
And yet, Adorno and Horkheimer’s Dark Enlightenment nonetheless resonates profoundly with Land’s own. What the former describe in their text is not unlike what the latter has termed a “neoreactionary” position that affirms a social tendency towards a kind of “highly-advanced drastic regression” — that is, as previously described, society’s tendency towards unleashing its own barbarism through its commitment to its own progression. Land, initially, recognised the ways in which this tendency cannot be thwarted through wishful thinking alone and even notes that it has its benefits for resisting the worst mechanisms of political cooption. However, today, rather than these technologies being unleashed in the explicit aid of the war effort, they are unleashed in favour of capitalism above all else.
Land’s work, at its most controversial, is an affirmation of this position on the very edge of the present. Capitalism itself is here representative of what Freud called the “primary process”. To borrow from the Encyclopedia Brittanica (for convenience):
Freud argued that there are two fundamental forms of thought: primary and secondary process. Primary process thought is governed by the pleasure principle, whereby id-driven instinctual desires seek fulfilment without consideration of the constraints of the external world. Magical thinking — the belief that wishes can impose their own order on the material world — is a form of primary process thought. Secondary process, in contrast, is a more advanced development, resulting from the emergence of the ego, which provides rational assessments under the direction of the reality principle that allow for adaptive responses to the environment. Freud used this model of individual development to explain the stages of cultural development proposed by anthropologists. That is, Freud posited that the development of the individual — from the id impulses and magical thought of childhood to the ego constraints and rationality of adulthood — mirrored the development of human cultures from magical-religious to rational-scientific.
Land’s position largely echoes this connection that Freud explored between the unconscious of the individual subject and the development of human cultures as a whole. More often than not, his writings are grounded on an affirmation of the very existence of this interscalar process, and it is this that has become associated with accelerationism — a philosophy grounded upon observations of technological progress and how this process affects the human subject over and within time.
The left / right political wings of accelerationism reduce this overarching observation to their own biased modes of “magical thinking”, confusing primary and secondary processes and placing a superego in the slot of the machine where the id usually lives, all whilst forgetting the central observation of the process’s existence whilst also trying to embodied and privilege a certain trajectory of the positive feedback loop over another. It’s all very confused.
Ironically, this tendency to arrogantly ignore the humiliation that accelerationism hopes to articulate — we are fuel for an impersonal economic machine that controls us far more effectively than we control it; or as Land put it: “Can what is playing you make it to level two?” — is itself symptomatic of the process. These responses only serve to legitimise the original psychogeological observations of capitalism’s affects on political reasoning.
Considering left-accelerationism as a particular example of how not to respond to this humiliation: the largely dead sub-movement was initially constituted by an affirmation of the antithetical aspects of capitalism that it cannot help but produce for itself, within its positive feedback loop. (There’s potential to confuse metaphors here — hence “antithetical aspects” rather than “antithesis” — but positive feedback loop is preferable over a dialectic framework because it emphasises the complex nature of the system rather than reducing it to any vague Hegelianism, which is part of the problem with both left and right responses.) Unfortunately, this was later reduced to a popular delusion that the affirmation of this side of the process will help influence the form of a later version of the system itself somehow… It won’t. Acknowledging there are contradictions is not the same as thinking something can die from them — as the early self-defined accelerationists of the 2010s hoped to make clear, nothing has ever died by its contradictions.
Accelerationism obviously raises many questions — and any ridiculing of the left and right varieties does not deny us the opportunity (in my view) of approaching accelerationism with some sort of anethics in mind — but these questions should not distract us from accelerationism’s addition to the Dark Enlightenment (understood in its original sense).
Accelerationism collapses all three previous Great Humiliations onto the 21st century and its dominant economic system. Yes: We live in an indifferent universe wherein we are subject to the whims of nature and its (our) Unconscious that is riven with traumas of a geological nature. Following the work of the Ccru, capitalism emerges as an interscalar vehicle that explicitly connects each humiliation to the others, entangling the human Unconscious with a planetary Unconscious, once again making impersonal the flows that govern us, both within and without us. Capitalism is how we presently understand and have systematised and essentialised this process but it is simply the part of the process that we are most familiar with. (Note: it is only a sub-process within what Bataille called the “general economy”.)
Here we come back to a previous articulation of a more generalised feedback loop. If it is true that “facts do not care about your feelings”, it is equally true that “feelings don’t care about your facts”. (We discussed this last time.) Each is entangled with the other. This is, in part, I think, what Adorno and Horkheimer are attempting to point out. Facts and feelings constitute a dialectic of reason — facts are emboldened by structures of reason as much as reason emboldens the social legitimacy of feelings.
What Adorno and Horkheimer seek to do, as so many did in the 20th century following the end of the Second World War, is illuminate not the “darkness” of this equation, per se, but the blind spots within our own theories of progress and justice that we associate with our heightened view of ourselves. They argue for this not to plunge ourselves into a state of moral or political indeterminacy but so as to make us aware of the flaws in ourselves so nothing like the Holocaust and Germany’s rampant nationalism can ever take place again.
The hardest lesson to come from this was that the German people were not unique in their susceptibility to fascism. It is within us all, this “banality of evil”, as Hannah Arendt called it. This was the Dark Enlightenment at the heart of the 20th century — the hard pill to be swallowed if we are to truly accept that there are still things within ourselves that we do not understand and that science has not sufficiently illuminated. In some instances, it is necessary for us to realise that science has even been a vector for channeling our worse impulses. We must be vigilant about what we deem to be “progressive” and what arms of knowledge we think will lead us there.
The right’s embracement of this moral vigilance (framed immorally) is predictably manipulative, and their persistent affirmation of science’s harsh view of nature as more terrifying and unforgiving than our humanisms can compute sets the left on edge and exacerbates its oppositional moralism. By monopolising this view of the universe, the right leave the left to embrace their own ignorance. Instead, the left should embrace the dark enlightenment for itself and recognise the ways in which the right are pushing the left towards a political dark ages.
As ever, the tools for defeating the mindnumbing confusion of the right are to be found in the concepts they attempt to claim absolute possession of. They are no less at the mercy of these humiliations than we are, and they mustn’t be allow to forget it.
Tiziano Cancelli’s new book How to Accelerate: Introduzione All’Accelerazionismo is out now on Tlon and today Nero have published an excerpt from the book about U/Acc, featuring some quotations from my old blog posts — particularly my fragment on the event of U/Acc, a short post that still means a great deal to me and which I’m really happy to see recognised here — before going into the classic U/Acc posts written by Vincent Garton and Ed Berger that were so influential to so many of us in the first instance.
It’s a great essay on where U/Acc has gone and gotten to and it also does really well to land some well-earned punches on the “hi-tech retroprogressivism” of L/Acc and the “reactionary sewer” of R/Acc.
Go check it out and, if you can speak Italian, go get the book. As ever, I’m left frustrated by my English monolingualism in the face of the Italian weird theory contingent’s amazing contributions to the discourse.
(2020: the year I download Duolingo in an attempt to inaugurate myself into the Gruppo di Nun?)
There’s a lot going on over the next couple of months but this is the first big event of 2020 — our third annual Mark Fisher Memorial Lecture after-party.
If this is new to you, check out past blog write-ups here and here. The night will follow Simon Reynolds’ lecture, taking people on campus at the Goldsmiths’ Students Union on Friday 17th January from 22.00 to 04.00.
The lineup is yet to be announced but we are very excited about it this year. It’s gonna be an eclectic mix of post-punk bands and cutting edge DJs, with some shots fired in between them…
At the end of last year, Harry Potter author J.K. Rowling caused another TERF storm on Twitter after she weighed in on Maya Forstater losing her case of unlawful dismissal against her former employer.
Forstater, who had an unfortunate tendency to tweet TERFy stuff about biological essentialism, ended up losing her job at an international thinktank for being too online. Rather than taking a chance to reflect, she decided to sue them and use it as a PR opportunity for the sort of hard time “gender critical” feminists like her have when trying to speak their superior minds about their superior bodies.
The case predictably brought all of the UK’s TERFs out of their holes like the slimy eels they are and led to them doing the usual conservative thing which is turn the conversation into a weird freedom of speech issue when it’s really about something else.
J.K. Rowling jumping on the band wagon only served to throw a can of gasoline on what was effectively at that point just a few candles for a self-determined martyr. The case exploded but, most frustratingly, it exploded in terms that were set by the TERFs themselves, making the discussion surrounding the case all the more toxic.
Despite the outcome of the trial, the public conversation around it was reduced to Forstater’s (losing) argument with no mention of the judge’s actual ruling which, frankly, was excellent.
Forstater has been supported by Index on Censorship. Its chief executive, Jodie Ginsberg, has said previously: “From what I have read of [Forstater’s] writing, I cannot see that Maya has done anything wrong other than express an opinion that many feminists share — that there should be a public and open debate about the distinction between sex and gender.”
But in a 26-page judgment released on Wednesday, [Judge] Tayler dismissed her claim. “I conclude from … the totality of evidence, that [Forstater] is absolutist in her view of sex and it is a core component of her belief that she will refer to a person by the sex she considered appropriate even if it violates their dignity and/or creates an intimidating, hostile, degrading, humiliating or offensive environment. The approach is not worthy of respect in a democratic society.”
What I found particularly interesting about this was that Forstater was arguing that her right to deny trans people the dignity of being addressed how they would like to be addressed constituted a “philosophical belief” and should therefore be “protected” under law, when the truth of the matter, as the judge demonstrated, was that Forstater’s belief in her own right to speak over others constitutes an explicitly anti-democratic approach to the debate she says she wants to have.
Forstater illuminated a pervasive problem we see across politics at the moment, which is that poor arguments are emboldened by being self-described as the product of intellectual pursuits.
It is the political equivalent of saying “I think, therefore I am intelligent.”
The Cartesian callback here is not made unknowingly. It is an explicit bastardisation of a philosophical position because it takes an approach that is meant to be rational and logical but eschews any semblance of Cartesian doubt in its own constitution. As a result, there’s nothing recognisably philosophical about her view at all. If there is, her allusions to ways of thinking about the body and the mind are still inherently out of date.
The primary tension of Forstater’s position comes from the fact that she does not believe her belief to be a belief at all. Confused? So is she. As far as Forstater is concerned, when it really matters, these are not opinions but scientific facts. Sex is real. Which is to say, her opinions about sex are real and if she thinks them then they must be true.
If she were truly attempting to be philosophical in her position, chances are she would be much more humble about the origins and fallibility of her own reasoning, which is not just absolutist but ugly and arrogant. Instead, in each articulation of her right to determine another person’s expression of self, she confuses philosophy, politics and science in an unclear blob of emboldened beliefs that don’t really latch onto anything except an essentially fascistic view of the body. She essentialises and repeats a Cartesian dualism, just as Rowling does, that says you can dress and think however you like, but that’s your mind. And your mind is not your body.
It’s basically the most boring version of that oft trotted out conservative declaration that reality is more terrifying and unjust than you can imagine and cannot be softened by your humanistic appeals to ethics. As Ben Shapiro infamously puts it with his dumb catchphrase, “facts don’t care about your feelings.”
But this sort of gender essentialism misses so much out from our collective experiences — and not just our experiences of gender but our experiences of being human. The real reality is that the unruliness of the human body (including its brain) terrifies TERFs and so they clutch at their sex pearls. What if, instead, science itself is woefully insufficient in describing the experience of life and consciousness in this regard — and surely that is obvious? More often than not, it is loaded “facts” that are used to prop up political points about what it means to be a valid human being and science is invoked in a way that lops off any feeling in ways that are actually deeply hypocritical and paradoxical. They think they’re channelling Vulcan logic but instead appear blinkered and repressed. (And I say this in a pop science sense, which has seen a rise in attempts to re-legitimise race science as well in recent years — not looking to incur the wrath of any neorats here… Although they’re often guilty of this too, in far more innocuous ways.)
When H.P. Lovecraft said: “The most merciful thing in the world, I think, is the inability of the human mind to correlate all its contents.” I felt that.
Suffice it to say, as far as I’m concerned, the hard reality of subjectivity isn’t that facts don’t care about your feelings but rather that feelings that don’t care about your facts. The maelstrom of consciousness has yet to be unravelled by biology or statistics or any other science. This is not to say the humanities are much better but at least they’re more likely to be honest about it when deployed in pop culture Overton Windowing.
However, you’re very unlikely to hear anything like that on social media, in a neoliberal age where, even on the left, the weathervane of pop scientific discourse is made out to be the last line of defence for and against biological bigotry. For example, it is often at this point that many well-meaning biologists weigh in on hellthreads to counteract TERF science with some lefty science of their own.
J.K. Rowling’s tweet remains a key reference. For instance, Twitter user @eugenegu responded to Rowling with a viral tweet of their own, saying that “it is both a scientific and medical fact that intersex individuals do exist and gender is not as binary as mainstream society is set to believe.” Many other tweets basically followed this line and, whilst I’d like to think it is very much correct, that doesn’t mean I think it should be wheeled out as an absolutist response to a TERFy absolutism.
This sort of scientific validation might be well-meaning but, more often than not, it just sounds gross. Who has ever felt validated and felt better about their lived experienced by the knowledge that intersex people have been observed in a bio lab? It feels like the product of a confused biological determinism for the 21st century.
Not that I have any clue either way. I’m not trans but I do often think and write about experiences of slipping through societal expectations of what is right and proper when it comes to class and gender, and this is often a topic that can get me in hot water.
Because I hate essentialism. I hate it from the right and I hate it from the left. Whilst it’s somewhat expected from the former, I am more likely to take the latter to task over it because the conservative right are more or less defined by a tendency to absolutise everything in their path — essentialising subjects, cultures, and the past in general, all to service and give an illusory ground to their political imaginary. Political imaginaries are fine but when the left starts pearl-clutching around issues of subjectivity as well, no matter what progressive cause it is supposedly in aid of, I just don’t think it is a good look.
Is this a long-winded way of saying “idpol sucks”? Maybe… Probably… But that’s not to say that the politics of subjectivity are not incredibly important for understanding ourselves and each other — it’s the abstraction of this into modes of subjectification that explicitly appeal to contemporaneous authorities of individualism that needs to go.
With this view of idpol in mind, what I find interesting about the judge’s ruling in the Forstater case in this regard is that it could apply just as easily to “cancel culture” and the creation of intimidating and hostile environments for people who do not fit into an essentialist view of politics.
This is not an arbitrary accusation or one that I want to see used to defend slippery manipulative edgelording, but the fact remains that when you spend a lot of time with your head above the parapet of social media discourse, it’s never long before you end up getting called a “crypto-this” or a “crypto-that”, or just straight out shut down for apparently being 100% some kind of political subject. Half of my own grumpy posts on this blog come from a deep-felt frustration at having a position essentialised and reduced to finer and finer points that supposedly define my entire way of being and thought. (They never do but everyone loves summing people up in that way.)
Contrapoints’ latest video is really good on this and, whilst her personal receipts constitute something of an endurance test to sit through, she breaks down this problem of essentialism not being a problem of opinion but of flawed logic in a very convincing way within the video’s first 15 minutes, demonstrating perfectly how the knee-jerk reaction of cancelling is emboldened by fundamentally bad ethical logic dressed up as radically militant political reasoning.
The basic argument, as I see it, is one of suspending judgement. Any philosophical reasoning — and this is something noticeably shared by everyone I personally admire — is understood as a form of becoming, in that people take time with their reasoning and their decisions and leave themselves open to correction and changes of opinion, constantly thinking and adapting thoughts and not settling on some essentialised project. More than that, they refused to be defined by a single utterance. (Resisting the sanitising of Mark Fisher’s thought in this regard is one of the main projects of this blog, for instance.)
This is not to say these people cowardly resist taking a position one way or another. If the history of philosophy is going to tell you anything it is that change is constant and nothing under the sun will avoid the test of time. It is often philosophy’s task to do much of the tearing up of sociopolitical norms. The hardest thing in the world, I think, is carrying that knowledge with you whilst constantly repeating the modernist mantra of “make it new.” To do this openly, wearing your doubt on your sleeve, and always working to update your opinions is not just philosophizing 101 but cultural production 101, and the primary thing I mourn within contemporary leftist politics is an inability — both from within and enforced from outside — to do these two things in tandem whilst the right gets away with it with much more ease because, at least in this country, sociopolitical experimentation is traditionally the exclusive hobby of the upper classes who don’t need to work to feed themselves. (See, for example, Dominic Cummings’ most recent blog post.)
Instead of trying to “make it new”, keeping ahead of oppressive forces and forging new forms of life, the latest phase of cancel culture — of the vampire’s castle — is defined by a desire to simply keep up with the micro-political trends of the herd, typically established by accident, through the mechanisms of the cancel machine itself, here understood as a sort of internalised and secularised Christian moralism, buoyed by fake news rather than research. Later in her video, Contrapoints basically explains how and why this is bullshit and challenges people’s assumptions that they have all the facts, whilst describing the ways in which this behaviour snowballs into a vigilantism that does a disservice to actual forms of social justice.
The reason she gives for this is brilliant but subtle and comes to a head within the video’s last 20 or so minutes, where I interpret the argument, tentatively and somewhat nervously offered up, to be as follows:
Your McCarthyism boils down to fighting any perceived gender essentialism with a bullying political essentialism.
Anyone who has had any sort of brush with cancellation will recognise this equation immediately, I’m sure. Of course, on its own, this doesn’t amount to much and I’m painfully aware — and feel quite sorry for Contrapoints in this regard especially — that, when you’ve been misrepresented by idiots online, sometimes the only thing it feels like you can do is construct a robust defence full of receipts even if no one has asked for it and you know the result will get you ridiculed and most won’t read about it anyway.
It is typically at this point, when you’ve done all you can in terms of trying to course-correct the trajectory of a public conversation, that the question stops being one of politics or belief but purely philosophical and, more specifically, ethical. However, here again the sheer poverty of that declaration, in the mouths of people like Maya Forstater, becomes abjectly depressing.
Ethics, today, isn’t really in vogue. It’s also confused with lots of other political trends. Being in possession of an “ethics” or an ethical response to a certain topic or agenda is not the same as having a political hair-trigger. It is also not the same thing as having an essentialised and immoveable response to a certain kind of question. It is also not a praxis of McCarthyite moralism.
Ethics, as far as I am concerned, is about communication.
My favourite ethicist is Georges Bataille — the man who declared that all human communication is violent and “evil” for the way that, at its most affecting, it ungrounds the self and the other. He wasn’t interested in the nausea of Sartrean individualism or the Christian hangover of a political moralism à la Simone Weil. He sought the affirmation of communal experiences that dramatically removed the self from the everyday and thrust it into the maelstrom of being-with other people. At its most virulent, this is why it is the “community of lovers” that is the pinnacle of his ethical system, wherein the everyday is ruptured by a radical commitment to the other, as shared by two.
None of this is to say that the answer to inter-leftist bullying is that we all form a giant polycule — although Bataille did spend plenty of time in orgies, it seems, but in order to lose himself, not bureaucratise asymmetrical relationships through domesticity — but it does demand a level of patience and compassion that is alien to most people in their daily lives. (I have an old essay series on Bataille’s ethics here if you’re keen to learn more — there’s also a lot about it in Egress.) It is a compassion that is not just reserved for the political conformers in your day-to-day encounters with the world — those inside the in-crowd of political respectibility — but also the mad lot who might be falling apart at the seams and be saying dumb shit. It’s to embrace everyone as comrade and not use that word as an excuse for gatekeeping. (Recent example of that issue here.)
I recently saw something, for instance, that said “political correctness” is a byword for compassion and the right just can’t seem to understand that, but the left has nonetheless internalised that same discrepancy, where the enforcement of political correctness is often wholly dispassionate and negatively affects many people who it is supposed to protect.
Contrapoints almost stumbles onto this point in her latest video, addressing one particular drama around having Buck Angel contribute to one of her videos. She refers to an Instagram post he made in which he somewhat dismisses the outrage of the trans community, directed at himself, because he knows that all trans people are in pain and he does not take their projection of this pain onto him personally.
Contrapoints reads this generously and I am inclined to as well. The point being made, it seems, is that people who find themselves ill-fitting within sociocultural infrastructures go through huge amount of internal distress and trans people are perhaps our most visible marginal group of late who talk about this openly as a community. And yet, online, these debates that are occurring at the very edge of our sociocultural Overton Window too often substitute actual compassion for border control, gatekeeping and delegitimising — even, and (paradoxically) sometimes especially, when those are the supposed targets of the mob’s rule. (An excellent text on this, I think, is Foucault’s Friendship as a Way of Life.)
Untangling these political interrelations is messy, and I’m aware the above summary probably sounds like it is lacking in the very generosity to calls for, so I don’t want to try and unpack that any further. This is undoubtedly the reason why Contrapoints’ latest video is one hour and forty minutes in length. Unpacking stuff like this is hard but she does a better job of it than I am right now. Instead, I want to shift gear to what I see as the only ethical response to these sorts of issues that is similarly Bataillean in its affections (at least in my reading of it):
The basic ethical perspective of xenofeminism, as I understand it, is that we must be radically anti-essentialist on all fronts. It is only in this way that we will find the porosity through which we can let in new forms of life that both left and right, with equally misplaced suspicion and fear, would rather subject to humiliating lab tests before deeming them worthy of existence.
Killing the fascist in your head is one thing, but kill the scientist in your head as well. Don’t categorise — just go with the mutation. Don’t fall back on objective understandings of nature to back up your politics, no matter what they are. Change your mind. Change your body. If nature is unjust, change nature.
Update #1: “Kill the scientist in your head” is a glib and inaccurate turn of phrase, as pointed out by Dominic in the comments below. Don’t do that. Do kill the tendency to deploy science in a way that plays into a subservient and reductive politics though. “Kill the scientist” in the same sense of making yourself a “body without organs” — don’t literally eviscerate yourself; do away with the bureaucratic understanding of anatomy that limits what we think our bodies can do. Don’t reject the cold rationalism of science; do reject the scientific superego as arbiter of a “realist” biological understanding.