Mark Fisher opens his 2014 book Ghosts of My Life with a line from Drake’s “Tuscan Leather”, the opening track from his 2013 album Nothing Was the Same.
“Lately I’ve been feelin’ like Guy Pearce in Memento.”
The track itself is an atemporal collage, as Drake heads back to the future. Heavily treated vocals gather together in reverse, as the beat staggers forwards for six minutes. That’s an eternity as far as rap albums go. This is no introductory skit or three-minute tone-setter but a six minute song that doesn’t bolt out of the gate but slithers, side-winding into earshot.
Much of what is mentioned in the song’s lyrics reappears over the course of the rest of the album. Track titles are spoken as lines of verse. But there are also nods to drama from Drake’s personal life, and references to past album sales and industry records. It even acknowledges itself as an intro. But it doesn’t feel like one. It feels like a closer; like a return. It’s a “previously on” introduction to a brand new season, just in case you missed what happened last time. As a result, that sample-reversing beat starts to feel like a mutant coda, not an opening salvo. All the while, the track builds and builds, with the beat gathering momentum, or at least taking up more space. After each verse, it seems more fleshed out, becoming thicker and more present, but still, the backwards main ingredient swerves around the drum pattern, which is propulsive and undeniably forward-facing. The two temporal directions box each other, ducking and diving, mirroring each other. There’s this strange sense that, although this is the intro, it is one half of a rhyming palindrome.
“How much time is this nigga spendin’ on the intro? Lately I’ve been feelin’ like Guy Pearce in Memento.”
Does this sounds familiar? Maybe not yet. It is as if Drake knows the importance of an intro, of a first line. Forget the singles and the hooks. It’s those first few seconds of the album that are going to stick in your brain, no matter how amorphous they are. He knows it’s that first reversed sample that will act like a Proustian trigger for now and from now on. This is a future classic, Drake seems to say, and you’re gonna long for that moment when you first heard this, so let’s savour it for a while. Six minutes, to be exact.
“How much time is this nigga spendin’ on the intro?”
How much time is it gonna take for you to never forget this moment? The song takes its name from a perfume by Tom Ford. Smell is the scent that binds itself most firmly to memory, of course, and this is one decadent bottle of future nostalgia. If the coding of longevity into new content is now a music industry staple, Drake pioneered it for the streaming era. Like turning up to a job interview in your best threads when there are so many candidates to choose from, it’s less about a good first impression and more about ensuring you’re remembered. Drake knows that. He’s maybe even a little insecure about it. He seems to mourn the false construction of an event. So many of his songs are hedonistic laments. Yeah, this party might be “unforgettable”, but I’m barely present enough to enjoy it and commit it to memory. “Party hauntology”, Fisher called it. So many of music’s name-checked substances help us to forget. This is an album that wants to remember and be remembered.
But perhaps “Tuscan Leather” is also a comment on the process of writing itself? In what way does Drake feel like Guy Pearce, exactly? Does he suffer from short-term memory loss, or is it more that he recognises how the very process of writing an album / a book / a life is about inscribing fragments, clues, waypoints for yourself, as if there’s a future self trying to be born, leaving breadcrumbs for you, secret messages that you have to put together, just as Drake is doing for the listener over the course of his six-minute preamble. We might argue that’s how so many of the biggest names in music make albums these days. Look at Kanye, seizing every moment, picking up tracks and samples and people, all of whom he brings together like raw materials. Every encounter — sonic or otherwise — becomes a potential piece of the puzzle. Things aren’t planned from the start — this is a process, unfolding in real time, and you’re about to hear the outcome. Maybe that’s why “Tuscan Leather” feels like an outro in reverse. Though introducing the project to the listener, it was probably the last thing recorded, just as the introduction of a book is so often the last thing written. It’s a survey, letting the newcomer know what to expect, as you sign off and let it go.
Jean-Francois Lyotard once wrote that producing “a book means only one thing: that you’re fed up with this approach, this horizon, this tone, these readings.” (Fisher certainly seemed done with hauntology after the publication of Ghosts.) A book is a culmination of fragmentary thoughts, undertaken in search of some unknown thing. “There was a horizon sketched, uncertain.” Sometimes, those fragments see the light of day — they are inchoate attempts to prefigure something that has not yet fully emerged. “Nevertheless, you collect all of those attempts and you publish them as a book.” You write a book, you make an album, you direct a film — “you do it to get it over with.”
The final section of Maurice Blanchot’s The Infinite Conversation is titled “The Absence of the Book”. It is an investigation into “the neutral, the fragmentary”. He begins with an end — Arthur Rimbaud’s “final” work.
Having scandalised much of the literary world as an anarchistic poet who broke all the rules, and much more besides, Rimbaud famously had an affair with Paul Verlaine. Verlaine was a drunk and an abuser, but a poet that Rimbaud admired, and they travelled to London together to immerse themselves in culture, in each other, and in their shared compulsion to write. But the two writers were seemingly only attached to each other because their spirals of destruction exerted a similar gravitational pull. Like two black holes caught in each other’s orbit, the affair ended with Verlaine taking pot shots at Rimbaud with his revolver. Following Verlaine’s arrest, they went their separate ways forever and, to the shock of the literary world, Rimbaud, the archetypical enfant terrible, never wrote another thing.
This sordid emotional cataclysm surely goes some way toward explaining Rimbaud’s desire for a new life: it’s hard not to feel that, perhaps for the first time, he realized that deranging his and other people’s senses could have serious and irreversible consequences.
But for Blanchot, this is not a retreat but an owning up to the life one has lived, or perhaps a way to at least forget that his has ended — “for one who wishes to bury his memory and his gifts, it is still literature that offers itself as ground and as forgetting.” Writers write their own stories and can rewrite their own histories. Inscriptions, poems, scars — they’re not memories but signifiers preloaded. How does an injury and a trauma become a battle scar? You renarrate it. Guy Pearce is trapped in the templexity that results. He awakes each day, remembering nothing, covered in inscriptions, which he sets about deciphering. He feels like he is at the beginning, but the end is already a foregone conclusion. He’s already written the book. Now he’s simply rereading what he’s written.
Though we like to think that Rimbaud never wrote another thing. He was more like Guy Pearce in Memento than we might like to think. Verlaine was his Joe Pantoliano. Perhaps he saw, in Verlaine, an archetype — the great Symbolist was a trigger-happy poet, a manipulator, an opportunist. Though he implored his fellow writers to “Keep away from the murderous Sharp Saying, Cruel Wit, and Impure Laugh”, he loaded his gun with worse things than that. Rimbaud, in response, turned Verlaine’s bullet-poetry on himself. (Camus described his abstention from poetry as a kind of “spiritual suicide”.)
But he did not die, he simply stopped becoming. That is not to say his work was forsaken or he set about renouncing his past life. He simply never wrote anything new. As Blanchot notes, even when Rimbaud was not writing, he took an interest in what he had written; “going back over the paths he has traced, he keeps them open as a possibility of communication with his friends.” After the publication of A Season in Hell, his “final” work, Rimbaud sought to publish his Illuminations — a compilation of sorts, written prior to his fallout with Verlaine, but reconsidered and reworked for years afterwards. These were his inscriptions, written in the midst of a trauma and later deciphered to find the essence of a life lived within. Some critics dismiss them as a failure, but in his own work he found the shadows of a mystery he wanted most to solve. He tried to excavate this errant and anarchic self, a mature voice trying to distill the fire of adolescence without snuffing it out. Did he succeed? Even after the Illuminations were posthumously published, they were seen as incomplete. Soon, the mythic temporality of the poems themselves were called into question. How can we say they were written “before” A Season in Hell if the work was not done on them until long afterwards (and, even then, was arguably never finished)? Blanchot argues that,
Even if written afterward, the prose poems belong to a time that is “anterior,” the time particular to art that the one who writes would have done with: “No more words” — a prophetic being, seeking by every means a future and seeking it on the basis of the end already come.
Though he stopped writing, Rimbaud was newly immersed in the art of literature. Not the writing of experience and poetry as a gesture on the cusp of the present itself, but the organisation of the past as a future yet to come. This was the shape of poetry after the end; beyond the fin de siècle.
Blogs are not written with books in mind. If books were in mind, we would not blog. But there comes a time when the material collated, accumulated, stored, suggests to oneself that there are threads to be entangled and rope to be made. The question is, when do you stop blogging? When do you say no more words and set about the thankless and withering task of drawing a line under the past in order to produce a future already written? When does one announce that one is no longer speaking and thinking and instead becoming the true master of words already said?
For Blanchot, “the affirmation of the end is anticipatory and prematurely announces a new hour”. The book is just such an announcement, but never on time. It is too much in time to ever be on it. It is the “speech of the turning where, in a vertiginous manner, time turns”. By comparison to the finality of the book, poetry is quantum, dead and alive, zombified, reified but not inert, the corpse of speech lying in wait for a mouth that might reanimate it, beckon it forwards. A poetry reading is a séance. “I was creating … the ghosts of future nocturnal luxury”, Rimbaud writes. Was he a genius? Only in stopping. That way the spirit, the genie, was not exorcised.
But books, too, are never over. That is why no one should ever write too many of them. “One book overlays another, one life another — a palimpsest where what is below and what is above change according to the measure taken, each in turn constituting what is still the unique original.” All books revolve around a centre, for Blanchot — “the needle, the point of secret pain that … harries with haste without pause.” Books are interruptions in writings; the recorded minutes of an infinite conversation. Poetry is writing interrupted before it can ever truly begin. Poetry is an intro, always arrested, before the laborious process of literature takes over. It is pure essence, bottled; a fine perfume, condensing on glass.
What are blogs? Nothing so romantic and ethereal, but they still capture that thrust, that life force from which writing emerges and which is hard to stop. Maybe if poetry is perfume, a blog is a sneeze.
ICYMI, the latest episode of Buddies Without Organs is now live wherever you get your podcasts. Listen via YouTube above — where some of you have been leaving the nicest comments, it really means the world to us — or head over the Buddies website here for more places to listen and to read the show notes.
Yesterday’s post was written, somewhat tangentially, with the cover for Mike Watson’s The Memeing of Mark Fisher in mind. I’d already been thinking about Deleuze’s approach to history and its relationship to present appraisals of Mark Fisher and the Ccru the day before the Zer0 tweet went live. The book cover and its literal dramatisation of a weird Oedipus complex, with a kid whose Dad is Adorno looking at Mark Fisher memes, dovetailed with the sentiment I was already exploring. Beyond that, it wasn’t really a direct comment on it. But there was some debate about it on Twitter afterwards…
Tweeted out by the Zer0 Books Twitter account yesterday, the cover seemed to be everywhere by the evening, and for many people it crossed a line. I was particularly surprised that many people affiliated with Repeater Books, who would usually keep their criticisms private (in my experience), suddenly began tweeting about it disparagingly. Always the gobshite, I didn’t really think twice about adding my own two cents on Twitter…
Everyone talking about it negatively apparently had egg on their face, however, because the cover is ironic and didn’t your mum ever tell you not to judge a book by its cover? But the problem is perhaps that the cover is indicative of Zer0’s general output of phoned-in culture war provocations, filtered through their Frankfurt daddies. It unfortunately epitomised everything that a lot of people really hate about the present version of Zer0 Books.
Later that evening, someone shared the book online. I had a quick read-through and, thankfully, it is far from as provocative as the cover itself. It is tempered and thoughtful and engages with different meme trends, wondering how they express certain structures of feeling and relate to different philosophical concepts and movements. Though I still think the previous post is applicable to how it anachronistically treats its historical antecedents, the book hardly seems like the disaster the cover suggests it is.
So why choose that cover? Why pick something that is going to be such an obstacle for many people to get past? Isn’t that Fisher’s problem with aestheticised politics in the first place? Zer0 obviously runs on the belief that all press is good press these days, and so some of their fans saw the cover as doing its job, but that’s hardly applicable to Fisher’s own interest in online culture and parody. Why embody the absolute worst of what you’re intending to talk about in order to entice people into your argument? Have we learned nothing from accelerationism?
The go-to example for memetic politics I always think of is the bootleg Jeremy Corbyn Nike tick t-shirt from the 2017 UK general election. That tongue-in-cheek combination of designer clothing and socialist politics was exactly what Fisher meant by “designer communism”. It hijacked an already existing symbol, synonymous with desire and a certain kind of streetwear luxury, and somehow made a old socialist like Corbyn sexy by association. The lesson learned was a simple one — if you can’t sell a t-shirt, you’re not going to be able to sell the revolution. That’s the counter-intuitive provocation of Fisher’s postcapitalist desire.
Zer0’s various attempts to go viral in a similar way falter. Their intentions are suspect. Instead of grassroots organising and political consciousness, it’s all culture war bullshit and debate bro strategies. And because it doesn’t really have a material basis or a popular culture to attach itself to (beyond the one it attempts to create for itself), it always looks self-serving.
That sums up my problem with Zer0 Books and its various attempts to sell books to a market of memers more generally. Watson distances himself from this (unconvincingly), but that’s alright. For the sake of not judging the book by its cover, perhaps it is better to consider the publisher-wide problem people seem to think the book cover is somehow indicative of.
For all the attention Zer0’s various authors give to internet culture, memes and the political potential of the right aesthetic messaging, imploring the left to learn to meme and engage with contemporary culture… The reality is that most don’t need a lesson. They’re way better at it and smarter about it than Zer0 themselves are. They don’t need meme culture to be translated into Frankfurter talking points. Many are already making their own culture that is tapped into now. Maybe there’s a way of using that to make older works of political philosophy more accessible? But most attempts to turn Frankfurters into memes come across as anachronistic and weird. They’re ugly and didactic, having very little aesthetic merit whatsoever — not even ironically. It feels like meme politics as folk politics.
When I think about Mark Fisher memes — or at least memes he’d appreciate — nothing like a stock image with some fat text on it ever comes to mind, and ironic misunderstandings of his own concepts don’t seem to achieve anything, other than sending new readers down useless labyrinths of poor thinking. If there was a meme he’d like today, I reckon it’d be the one doing the rounds right now during the Euros, combining politics and football, as he liked to do. Every good performance is currently blamed on the England team’s embrace of Marxism. It’s a meme I’ve even seen right-wing pundits make. It’s hyperstitous, recognising the popular interest in football and a general desire the nation has (more or less) for its team to do well, and it ties that to criticism the team has got for taking the knee and infecting politics with “Marxism”. But as a prematch ritual, it looks like the Marxist gesture is working!
As a meme, it’s organic, it plants a humorously fitting seed regarding Marxist determinism for those in the know, but it’s utterly grounded in the present, and helps further normalise the message the team are hoping to send themselves. It might not have a pictorial format with text over image, but it is a joke, part of the fun of which is the way it is being widely shared and popularised. It’s a meme by any measure that uses something like Twitter to respond to an event (both literally and philosophically speaking), spreading a message about material conditions and politics in football.
(If you want a more dynamic and sustained masterclass in memeing yourself into the national conversation, without sacrificing on substance, you can also consider the UK’s Northern Independence Party.)
But whatever this video is above, and whatever that book cover represents, is something else entirely…
(The quote chosen in this video feels deeply ironic too, it must be said: “The less the culture industry has to promise, the less it can offer a meaningful explanation of life, and the emptier is the ideology it disseminates.” Welcome to meme world.)
Not being a fan of terrible meme cultures may make me elitist to some — I’m used to that accusation from members of the deeply cursed Mark Fisher Memes for Hauntological Teens group on Facebook — but the point is surely that aesthetics and cultural production really matter. The memes and the culture war videos and the book cover are misjudged, in much the same way a lot of Extinction Rebellion happenings are misjudged, for example — they irritate their target audience and the people they’re out to convince of their cause. The fact it’s much lower hanging fruit than XR only makes it worse. It stinks of a kind of detached hippiedom, which tunes out to the point it doesn’t realise how out of touch it is.
That was precisely the problem with psychedelic culture that Fisher first denounced. It prided itself on its detachment from the zeitgeist, in a lot of ways. It ignored material conditions and saw tuning out as a virtue. In some respects, it is, but meme tutorials feel like an instance of tuning so far out you can’t convince anyone but the already converted of what you’re talking about. It’s representative of leftist problems rather than a solution. It’s a problem of practice that preaches contemporaneity from within but already feels outdated from without. And that’s a shame, because there’s nothing really wrong with the theories being discussed and applied in themselves. But those theories are being turned into practices that rarely function as intended. So the practices undermine the application of the theory. To have something undermined entirely by its presentation, when presentation is also so much of the wider focus — it’s bewildering.
As @snowdriftmoon argued in a video response: if you make your literal book cover into a joke, don’t be surprised when people assume your work is a joke also.
But there’s also more to it than that. It’s symptomatic of a strange lag that they don’t seem to be aware of. This isn’t cutting edge cyber-praxis reaching out to zoomers on their own turf; this is meme warfare stuck in the left’s Twitter paroxysm of five years ago. Rhett made this point first and I think it’s a really pertinent one: Zer0 Books “are stuck in 2016’s trenches and they are just refusing to get out. I’m starting to believe that they are the first, real rear-garde of Trump nostalgia.” (Prat made a similar point as well.) It is a cultural approach that feels like it was built in response to an emergent alt right that had just broken into the mainstream by appropriating Pepe. But even if we were still living in that moment, clunky quotes on a stock image backdrop aren’t going to compete with that. It’s aesthetically minded but, ultimately, it’s aesthetically impotent. As such, it’s not memetic in any functional sense. These “memes” don’t spread in any positive sense. They’re always a backdrop to something else — book covers, YouTube videos… They’re captured within the publishing industrial-complex and are rarely seen outside their own context.
The Memeing of Mark Fisher likely doesn’t deserve the disdain and cynicism it has received over the last day or so, but the sheer amount of vitriol its central Mark Fisher meme has received from interested parties surely says something about how those responsible for it are able to navigate the very issues they are concerned about. And what it says isn’t good.
Our pervasive tendency to anachronistically historicize all recent contributions to intellectual discourse, showing how they were prefigured rather than what new observations they bring to the table, is itself a product of capitalist realism.
That there are resonances between ideas, irrespective of the time and place of their emergence, is important for us to consider – not only so that we can appreciate a diversity beyond the Western canon (although that is never a bad thing), but because it prefigures the problems that faced the twentieth century’s Marxist-Hegelian view of history.
Understanding that idealism and materialism were not conflicting theories but two parts of a wider feedback loop, the idea of the linear development of history came repeatedly under fire. For Gilles Deleuze, history did not unfold neatly one way or another. History – real history – cannot be sorted like the genealogy of a family tree: a repetitious series of pairings unfolding in an evolutionary line. Anyone who has investigated their own genealogy will know this. The more information you add, the more extended family you include, the more our relations spread outwards in an amorphous cloud of names and faces. Our records only go back so far, but there is no final ancestor to which we can ultimately attribute our existence. Our social histories and the history of ideas functions in much the same way for Deleuze. To constantly assign predecessors and antecedents, losing track of the particular temperament of the present, is to fall head first into philosophy’s own Oedipus complex. In truth, our canonical sense of intellectual progression is nothing more than a convenient framing device. But this is not to say that history isn’t evolutionary, rather we require a new way of understanding how history unfolds.
Deleuze argues that history is rhizomatic, with a central point of origin impossible to ascertain. Though we can follow certain lines through history, they do not simply pass “from one point to another”, he writes, but pass “between points, ceaselessly bifurcating and diverging, like one of [Jackson] Pollock’s lines.” To trace the line of development of a certain idea, then, is not to find a linear development but a multiplicity, capable of existing in multiple times and places at once, and referred to by many different names.
“Multiplicities are made up of becomings without history, of individuation without subject (the way in which a river, a climate, an event, a day, an hour of the day, is individualized)”, Deleuze continues. Channelling Heraclitus, for whom one cannot step into the same river twice, Deleuze argues that this very idea — the concept of becoming — is immediately undone once we individualise the river in question. The River Thames, for instance, remains the River Thames whether I paddle along its silted shores on a cold Thursday in January or a hot Monday in June. In naming everything individually, though life assumes a certain order as a result, the flowing multiplicity of the river and its relations is buried under certain signifiers. Its true nature is rendered as an abstraction, and the abstraction is discarded as useless and imprecise. But what is discarded is reality in all of its psychedelic complexity, and we do ourselves a disservice when we reject complexity out of hand.
To note the reductive nature of categorisation – of individualising the River Thames as the River Thames – is not to genericise the river as such, however. For Deleuze, “the abstract does not explain, but must itself be explained”. It forces us to offer up a more comprehensive explanation of the river’s becoming, its changing states, the ways it is impacted by the things around it, without relying on the one-dimensional shorthand of proper nouns and possessive understandings. Drawing on Whitehead, and echoing his often misused comment about footnotes to Plato, Deleuze insists that the aim of philosophy “is not to rediscover the eternal or the universal, but to find the conditions under which something new is produced.” When we historicise and point to this prefigurement of that, we focus entirely on what has been rather than on what has newly been created. And so, to stick with our example, by unpacking the individualised River Thames, which has cut through the heart of London for eternity, we suddenly unlock a perspective of the river underneath and the different things it has meant to different people – not the universal concept of the Thames but the plurality of a river’s history.
To take another example, we might consider the Ship of Theseus – one of the oldest thought experiments in Western philosophy. The ancient historian Plutarch penned the first recorded version of the tale, in which he explains how Theseus’s ship has been preserved over so many years. The people of Athens, he writes, “took away the old planks as they decayed, putting in new and stronger timber in their places, insomuch that this ship became a standing example among the philosophers, for the logical question of things that grow; one side holding that the ship remained the same, and the other contending that it was not the same.” If every part on Theseus’s ship is changed over the course of a long and treacherous voyage, is it still the same ship? That is the question, or so we’re told. But Deleuze reveals the fallacy at the heart of this experiment. The point should be that the ship is, of course, still a ship. To debate whether it is still Theseus’s ship, since all the parts of the ship he originally owned have been replaced, covers over the ingenuity of his crew, who have found so many creative solutions to keep Theseus afloat. Whether Theseus recognises it possessively as his ship is short-sighted. If anything, the ship is now even more representative of the crew, of the multiplicity of persons who have sailed on board.
This not only describes Deleuze’s approach to history but philosophy itself. In his infamous “Letter to a Harsh Critic”, he explains that he belongs “to a generation … that was more or less bludgeoned to death with the history of philosophy”, which is nothing more than “philosophy’s own version of the Oedipus complex: ‘You can’t seriously consider what you yourself think until you’ve read this and that, and that on this, and this on that.’” (This remains a familiar sentiment today, of course.) Resentful of the overbearing weight of history, used as a straitjacket rather than productively, Deleuze engages with the history of philosophy through “a kind of buggery”, he explains, “taking an author from behind and giving him a child that would be his own offspring, yet monstrous.”
This, in turn, was the Ccru’s relationship to Deleuze and Guattari. But it is a relationship that we struggle to maintain with many of the Ccru’s former associates today. It is, notably, what killed accelerationism too. Accelerationism became a meme, and in the process, lost its motor — a militant insistence on the production of the new. As Vincent Garton wrote on this very topic: “Unleashing ideas — intercepting signals — demands a different approach.” We should know our history and we can work with it to produce new ideas, just as Deleuze did, but historicism quickly becomes a blunt instrument if used incorrectly. As Vince adds: “In the course of the history of ideas, reshaping and novelty have always trumped antiquarian precision.”
It is telling that most “memeings” of contemporary figures forget this. Memes of concepts encase events. They don’t unleash ideas but reify them. They turn a free-floating concept into a flat signifier. When created to services the desires of a new generation of philosophy-curious young readers, they abuse novelty by putting it in service of antiquarian precision (and even then, precision is often lacking). We and they deserve better…
Can you tell this is a subtweet that got out of control?
The UK’s response to the coronavirus pandemic has been mismanaged from day one – not least because “day one” was marked much later than it should have been. It has led many in the media to biopsy Johnson’s character and his suitability for the job, just as they had done when he was foreign secretary and, prior to that, mayor of London. What they found came as no surprise. As with Trump during his presidency, the media loves to boil Johnson’s character flaws down to his narcissism. Columnist John Crace, writing for the Guardian last year, went so far as to describe Johnson as a “narcissists’ narcissist”, because he thinks he can do whatever he pleases both at home and in government. Crace’s colleague Nick Cohen used his own column in the same newspaper to report that even Johnson’s fellow Conservatives talk about him “with a venom few socialists can match”, describing him as “a pathetically insecure narcissist who turns on you if you don’t feed his craving for applause.” More articles followed suit on other news websites and political blogs. Collating them all, a notable pattern emerges – armchair diagnoses of narcissism are an acutely liberal pastime.
Though it is easy to be cynical about the rhetorical habits of liberal pundits, this is not to deny the veracity of their observations – at least to an extent. Johnson certainly has a maladjusted and overinflated ego, but he is hardly the sole narcissist in government or even in the media. As the pandemic has entered its second year, more and more information regarding the government’s misconduct throughout the early stages of the pandemic has come to light, just as more and more journalists have been accused of a dangerous sycophancy in facilitating their political games. It is now for members of the political and media classes to be subject to accusations of “playing politics” – that is, not simply doing their jobs as politicians and journalists, serving the general public, but making political and/or journalistic decisions based on what best serves their own interests.
This self-interest has frequently made headlines, particularly recently, when Keir Starmer sought to question Tory MPs’ personal conduct and the motives behind certain governmental decisions, highlighting them as evidence of “the return of Tory sleaze” – a catchphrase that was popular for about a week but ultimately failed to “cut through” to the general public.
Starmer’s Labour Party made a great deal of fuss about messaging that could “cut through” the noise and stick in the minds of the public in this way, seemingly oblivious to the media’s overall bias in favour of establishment interests. In truth, contemporary liberals no doubt feel like they are caught between a rock and a hard place. They are reliant on the press whilst being aware that the press has no interest in their success. Rather than challenge this status quo, most politicians attempt to half-heartedly appease the media, mirroring its hostile lack of political imagination. But the Labour Party’s attempts to adapt to a hostile media have been blatant and have only affected ratings negatively. As a result, no matter how incompetent Johnson was made to look, Starmer slumped in the polls to levels worse than the supposedly unelectable Jeremy Corbyn. Those much further to the left argued that, yes, whilst Johnson bumbled through life making terribly poor decisions, at least decisions were made. Starmer avoided making any decisions whatsoever. As journalist Moya Lothian McLean argued, in a now-infamous article entitled “Keir Starmer is a Wet Wipe”, Starmer “does not lead proactively; he reacts, passively.”
Does this not make Starmer a “narcissist” too? Not a reckless and self-aggrandising narcissist like Boris, of course, but a narcissist who lurks at the more depressive end of the spectrum. So concerned is he for his own position and likeability, and especially concerned about how he is perceived, Starmer experiences a depleted ego as he walls himself “off against the unrealistic claims of an archaic grandiose self”, as Heinz Kohut writes in his classic text of narcissistic personality disorders, describing how a narcissist often responds to psychoanalysis. The “archaic grandiose self” nicely describes your typical Tory, but Starmer also walled himself off “against the intense hunger for a powerful external supplier of self-esteem”, which we might argue, in this instance, refers to pollsters and the wider electorate. But for columnists like Crace and Cohen, this makes Starmer’s lack of popularity a good thing, actually – at least for him personally. It means he is devoid of harmful narcissistic personality traits like a desire for success or any political ambition whatsoever.
Facetious jibes aside, we see once again how accusations of narcissism are seldom effective, becoming ever blunter the more frequently they are used. Particularly when thrown around by the media, such armchair diagnoses restrict our understanding of political leaders to their mediated personality traits, distancing us from an opportunity for material – rather than flawed psychological – analysis.
Consider how the American psychologist Mary J. Trump writes about the media’s understanding of her uncle in her best-selling exposé on the then-president and his upbringing. She explains how, throughout Trump’s presidency, she witnessed “countless pundits, armchair psychologists, and journalists [repeatedly] missing the mark, using phrases such as ‘malignant narcissism’ and ‘narcissistic personality disorder’ in an attempt to make sense of Donald’s often bizarre and self-defeating behavior”. The same can be said of the British media’s analyses of Boris Johnson. But the intention here is not to suggest that such labelling is inaccurate. “I have no problem calling Donald a narcissist”, she continues – “he meets all nine criteria as outlined in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5) – but the label gets us only so far.” This is not only because Trump’s observable pathologies are, in her opinion, “so complex and his behaviors so often inexplicable that coming up with an accurate and comprehensive diagnosis would require a full battery of psychological and neuropsychological tests that he’ll never sit for.” More to the point, it is precisely because he is a member of a social elite that such generic pathologizing is useless. It reduces Trump’s – and, by extension, Johnson’s – decision-making and egotism to circumstantial gossip, which utilises psychological nomenclature to sound intelligent but which is ultimately devoid of any actual substance. We need only consider how other psychologists hedge their bets when discussing the psychological make-up of world leaders.
In the Independent, Chantal Gautier writes that, “aS a PsYcHoLoGisT” — emphasis added — “I look at Boris Johnson and worry for Britain.” Gautier explains that she works in the field of “business psychology”, and introduces “trait theory” as a way that business psychologists understand what makes a good leader. It is a theory essentially concerned with subjective characteristics and perceptions of personality. Gautier argues, for instance, that “the key to successful leadership is grounded in integrity.” But what is “integrity” exactly? And how are we supposed to measure it clinically, outside the court of public opinion? It is not long before “trait theory” appears to be focus group fodder rather than a genuine diagnostic tool. In fact, it shares many issues with theories of personality in general. On the one hand, it seems like Gautier is steering away from making any wild claims but diagnosing public figures with psychological disorders in public newspapers — even if they are shit — doesn’t look good. On the other hand, I’m unconvinced this thin veil of professionalism is actually covering over any measure of actual substance.
It is worthy of note that many psychologists today are increasingly unlikely to diagnose patients with personality disorders – be they “narcissistic”, “paranoid”, “schizoid”, “borderline”, “obsessive compulsive”, etc. The mental health charity Mind explains on its website that such disorders are controversial because they are difficult to understand, often generate stigma and, most importantly of all, they don’t take social context into account. “People are complicated. There are many social factors that can affect our capacity to cope, to relate to others and to respond to stress”, the charity explains. These factors include childhood trauma, experiences of poverty and deprivation, as well as experiences of discrimination or abuse. But it is not only socially negative contexts that we need to take into account.
Mary Trump’s appraisal of her uncle explores Trump’s upbringing almost exclusively. Not only does she steer away from personality disorders as a result, she also suggests that Donald (and Boris) can’t really be considered using the diagnostic tools we use to understand other people within everyday society. Because Trump and Johnson have never lived in everyday society. Whilst he was still in office, Mary argued that “we can’t evaluate [Trump’s] day-to-day functioning because he is, in the West Wing, essentially institutionalized.” But this is nothing new. Just as the UK collectively suffers under “the curse of the public schoolboy” (as Douglas Murphy puts it in Nincompoopolis), with our leaders often raised in the privileged enclaves that are private boarding schools, so America suffers under the curse of the dynastic prodigal sons of business magnates. Shielded from real life by extreme wealth, “Donald has been institutionalized for most of his adult life”, Mary argues, and “so there is no way to know how he would thrive, or even survive, on his own in the real world.” A question re-emerges: is this kind of posh zoochosis we call “narcissism” just a way to pointlessly pathologize the otherwise familiar over-confidence of the ruling classes? And in attempting to understand the personality traits of our leaders psychologically, do we not deny ourselves the opportunity to see the personal – and, indeed, the psychological – as political?
When the personal and the political do come into contact in the mainstream media, it is often to highlight their disconnection. Returning to John Crace, for instance, in reference to Johnson’s often poor rhetorical performances in the House of Commons, he quips that, whilst “Boris can dump wives, mistresses, ministers and friends … he just can’t get rid of Keir Starmer.” Though his narcissism might get him what he wants at home, it isn’t necessary met without resistance in office. Crace argues that, for “the first time in his life, Johnson has come up against an immovable object.” His political life differs significantly from his personal life. But again, the analysis is meaningless, because Starmer hasn’t been able to dump Boris either. Their face-offs at weekly sessions of Prime Minister’s Questions (PMQs) are institutionally orchestrated. They’re not battles to the death where one side can oust the other from political life. Instead, the narcissist’s narcissist has spent the pandemic locked into a protracted stalemate with the liberal’s liberal, and it is telling that most commentators cannot see the reciprocity between the two. Indeed, just as Narcissus himself is captivated by his own image, these two leaders, jousting across the dispatch box in the House of Commons, constitute a narcissistic relation in themselves. They represent two parties tormented by the mirror image of themselves, but rather than transform they embrace their impotence in all its perfect, immovable harmony.
But there is plenty of friction here, as demonstrated by Matt Hancock’s mess of a personal and political life this past week, when it was revealed he was having an affair with a senior aide, Gina Colangelo. Hancock resigned as a result. Although texts from Boris Johnson to Dominic Cummings, calling Hancock “totally fucking useless” were leaked just a few weeks prior, Johnson feigned disappointment in Hancock’s decision, suggesting that his political conduct and his personal conduct are wholly unrelated and he should not feel the need to resign over gaffs related to the latter — never mind the thousands of death causes by “gaffs” related to the former. Whilst the rest of the country asks questions about corruption, whether Colangelo was given preferential treatment (professionally speaking…), and whether this was another example of government minister giving contracts to friends and booty calls (just as Johnson had done with Jennifer Arcuri).
If all of this seems like a confusing mess, with no-one entirely sure how to talk about it, perhaps it is because our attempts to connect or disconnect the personal and the political are wholly outdated. That once-ubiquitous phrase, “the personal is political”, started its life as an empowering mantra for raising feminist consciousness in the 1960s and 1970s, connecting personal experience to broader social structures. It allowed a generation of liberated women to drag the hidden politics of domesticity, for example, into the public arena of patriarchy. Since then, however, the phrase has become an albatross around the neck of modern subjectivity. We have realised that, if the personal is political, then the political is also personal. This may seem like an obvious tautology, but for all the attention we give to the impact of personal experience on contemporary politics, we often fail to appreciate how new forms of personal expression and influence often open up new strategies for electioneering to influence how we see our personal lives in turn. This is a dynamic felt increasingly by all, with social media acting as the kernel around which this personal-political feedback loop franticly revolves, but in the media it is typically made visible through the weathervane fortunes of our political class.
Johnson’s bizarre but nonetheless continuous success in our contemporary political landscape epitomises this. He is not an outlier, whose personal life intrudes upon politics, to be put in place by sensible liberals who are all politics without personality. The ugly truth is that Johnson’s broad appeal, which inexplicably emerges unscathed from his innumerable gaffes, defines our shift away from the dialectic of the personal-political, which has since been transformed into something altogether one-dimensional: the “social”.
This “social” understanding comes very easy to our political class, because whether feminists had to fight for their personal experiences to be taken seriously in the political sphere, the political class has never known any different. Your colleagues in government are likely to be part of a wider social circle you have known your entire life. And so, whilst “the personal is political” works as a way for normal people to understand the complex nature of your everyday experiences, it actually works to simplify and obscure the relationships that come naturally to the establishment. This is how Donald Trump, who was a part of establishment social circles for his entire life, could create a false barrier between himself and “career politicians”, by exacerbating an otherwise negligible gap between his personal life and his political life. What’s more, media and the entertainment industry have been prepping us to respond to this kind of dynamic for decades.
As Jodi Dean writes in his 2010 book Blog Theory:
Radio brought leaders’ voices directly into people’s homes, integrating leaders into their intimate spaces. Broadcast television likewise occupied a domestic space as it addressed its audience as personal members of a nation, perhaps imagined like a family (respected newscaster Walter Cronkite was affectionately referred to as “Uncle Walt”).
Despite the social nature of establishment relations, with any hard division between the personal-political being an illusion, some of our most beloved television shows have programmed us to see an entertaining gap between the two, embracing the awkward collision between the personal and the political as a loveable and humanising occupational hazard. To demonstrate this, we need only examine Johnson’s trademark “zaniness”, epitomised by his inability to adapt to whatever government role he finds himself in – be that mayor of London, foreign secretary, or prime minister. The purposes of this are not simply to better understand Boris Johnson, but a culture of narcissism that keeps electing him to high office.
Rather than prefiguring his inevitable demise, Johnson’s zany mannerisms are arguably his most aesthetically attractive (and quintessentially conservative) qualities. Writing in 2012, long before Trump and Johnson rose to such unfathomable prominence, cultural theorist Sianne Ngai argues that “zaniness” is one of the defining aesthetic categories of our postmodern age. She charts its emergence from the 1950s, following capitalism’s desire for its workers to not only possess certain demonstrable skills but certain demonstrable character traits as well. (Hi again, “trait theory”.) This requirement is intuitively understood today. Our success is not only dependent on how good we are at a job, but also how we present ourselves while doing that job. Beyond our generic constitution as shiny happy people, we should be infinitely adaptable, ready to seize every day and meet every challenge capitalism throws at us head-on. The emergence of this kind of post-war work ethic was perfectly suited to Great Britain’s repressive tendencies – the pop-cultural ubiquity of the Blitz mantra, “Keep calm and carry on”, printed on infinite mounds of tourist tat, reminds Londoners of this daily. However, Ngai notes that, as our cultural understanding of this new capitalist ideal emerged, we began to admire the fool more openly – that is, we began to admire those who, try as they might, cannot conform to this image of capitalism’s ideal subject. Instead, both on film and the emergent medium of television, the work ethic “encouraged by the postwar service economy [made] the very concept of ‘character’ seem comically rigid”, inviting people to laugh “at characters incapable of adjusting to new roles and social situations quickly”.
To demonstrate this, Ngai draws on Lucy Ricardo, Lucille Ball’s character in the classic American sitcom I Love Lucy, which pioneered the genre and dominated US living rooms throughout its original run in the 1950s. In the show, Lucy is a housewife to Ricky Ricardo, a singer and bandleader. Desperate to make it in showbiz like her husband, the show comically dramatizes the impossible demands placed on Lucy as a new woman in a new era. In her attempts to shake off the rigid performativity and expectations of a housewife, she bounces between various service jobs as she chases her dream, climbing to the top of the new working world now open to her, acquiring enough capital to comfortably take her shot at stardom. But as Lucy juggles various versions of herself, taking on various odd jobs, she finds the roles she is required to play are far more demanding and ridiculous than those she was previously used to. As Ngai notes, “each of Lucy’s temporary occupations requires her to put on a costume and act like someone else, as if to suggest a new instability in the postindustrial United States”. In losing the singular performative shackle of the “housewife”, she moves onto spinning various sociocultural and/or occupational plates. But these plates are essentially identical. The skills she needs to make it in showbiz are precisely those she needs to manage her domestic responsibilities, and so she cannot achieve one dream without improving in the role she wishes to leave behind. The result is a comic catch-22 that made I Love Lucy the televisual phenomenon of its generation.
Though seventy years have passed since it first aired, I Love Lucy remains relatable in this regard, and its enduring popularity with American audiences attests to this. But we might also consider how the sitcoms of our present era have further developed this zany archetype, with many examples revolving around the plate-spinning of our political class more specifically. Consider Parks & Recreation, or Armando Iannucci’s trans-Atlantic political sitcoms The Thick of It and Veep. Somewhat predictably, given their American context, both Veep and Parks & Rec follow the I Love Lucy model, revolving around women who are trying to have it all in a “new” world that is reluctant to relinquish all that it promises. But rather than playing with the tension between domesticity and showbiz, these shows more explicitly explore the relationship between the personal and the political.
Veep stars Julia Louis-Dreyfus as Selina Meyer, Vice President of the United States. Well-meaning and passionate, Meyer wants to have a positive impact on the nation more than anything, but her ambitions often come second to the daily bureaucracy of high-level government. Parks & Rec stars Amy Poehler as Leslie Knope, the Deputy Director of a Parks and Recreation Department based in the fictional city of Pawnee, Indiana. She, too, is well-meaning and passionate, and struggles to rise above the myopia of local government bureaucracy. She idolises – both sincerely and to comedic excess – pioneering liberal women like Hillary Clinton, Madeleine Albright, Condoleezza Rice and Nancy Pelosi. As she daydreams of writing nationally significant legislation, she is interrupted by zoning codes and the anti-social behaviour of local adolescents.
Despite these obstacles, both are successful and ambitious women (over)reaching for a dream – the same dream, funnily enough, of being President of the United States. One of them is certainly closer to that goal than the other, but both are quintessentially zany, according to Ngai’s definition, in that they flail their way through the conflicting responsibilities often associated with the personal and the political. Though they have risen high above the small-town diner or the factory line, these zany characters nonetheless remain trapped in this dichotomy’s affective paradox, often failing at one job as they daydream about another, just like Lucy Ricardo. They work tirelessly to maintain themselves as stable and reliable “characters” or “personalities”, as their public-facing or otherwise demeaning jobs demand, but both nonetheless reveal themselves, time and again, through their zaniness, to be all too human.
“Zaniness is the only aesthetic category in our contemporary repertoire explicitly about this politically ambiguous intersection of cultural and occupational performance, acting and service, playing and labouring”, Ngai writes. As Poehler and Louis-Dreyfus demonstrate with aplomb, zaniness also has a “stressed-out, even desperate quality that immediately sets it apart from its more lighthearted comedic cousins, the goofy or silly.” (It’s telling, too, that it remains feminine-coded in almost all instances.) As such, it is an aesthetic category that is perfectly at home in twenty-first century political spaces, as “an aesthetic of action pushed to strenuous and even precarious extremes.” With the stakes of contemporary politics being so high – or, as in Parks & Rec’s local government setting, often hilariously low – the political sitcom is a pressure cooker for the zany archetype. There is surely no job more stressful, strenuous or precarious, and we love to watch as those who “selflessly” answer an apparent call of duty, choosing to serve in public office for the betterment of all, have their unavoidable selves revealed to them as constant companions and trip-hazards. This makes the characters that Louis-Dreyfus and Poehler play both relatable and loveable. They embody the ideal work ethic of late capitalism whilst revealing, with both relief and schadenfreude, that maintaining such a work ethic is humanly impossible. It is precisely their wrestling with the familiar impossibilities of neoliberal expectation that humanises them.
However, in the UK, a very different approach to the zany takes precedence. Contrary to the loveable nature of their American cousins, the cast of The Thick of It are notably denied any humanising dimension. Whereas as Knope weathers all manner of public humiliations with a strained smile as she strives to live up to her political ideals, The Thick of It reveals that the personal and the political are much harder to keep apart in contemporary Britain. Indeed, our attempts to do so are partly why our political class appears so grey and dull. But this is not to say that politicians should do more to humanise themselves, revealing more about their personal lives. The pantomime of political discourse in the UK revolves around the fact politicians are damned if they do and damned if they don’t.
The Thick of It embraces this political theatre of cruelty. With a quintessentially dark British humour, there is no relatable respite in Iannucci’s Westminster sitcom. It is, instead, pure schadenfreude. Perhaps this is because Britain is more rigidly divided along class lines. The aspirational trajectory that defines the “American Dream”, which drives the I Love Lucy model of zaniness, is not part of our British sensibility — although so much of our media and social expectations are becoming increasingly Americanised. (When did Love Island become a 90-minute advertisement for cosmetic dentistry and American gob-ceramics?) On the contrary, British citizens seldom rise above their station, or experience class mobility as an alienating trauma if they do. Nevertheless, The Thick of It’s cast are no less zany because of their establishment credentials. As Ngai notes, they still give form to what Herbert Marcuse calls the “euphoria of unhappiness”, even if it is only the viewer who experiences the euphoric part of the equation.
In his highly influential 1964 book One-Dimensional Man, Marcuse argues that a “comfortable, smooth, reasonable, democratic unfreedom prevails in advanced industrial civilization”. This unfreedom represents capitalism’s inability (or, more accurately, reluctance) to provide us with “freedom from want” – what Marcuse calls “the concrete substance of all freedom”. But why is capitalism reluctant to make us truly free from desire? Capitalist society and its globalised trade networks would surely be capable of providing everyone with everything they might possibly need by now. Doesn’t that sound positively utopian? Ours is a world of almost unfathomable abundance. But without want, without lack, we are freed from desire as capitalism’s driving force. As Karl Marx first argued, in allowing us to grasp the dangling carrot of desire, capitalism begins to generate the conditions its own demise. The carrot must be graspable, therefore, but it must always be immediately replaced with something shinier and more attractive. Caught on this treadmill, our economic system nonetheless faces a productive conundrum of its own making.
For Marcuse, the potentials of grasping the carrot once and for all are hard to ignore. “If the individual were no longer compelled to prove himself on the market, as a free economic subject”, he argues, then freedom of enterprise – the freedom of private businesses to operate for profit – would surely disappear. This is an unambiguously positive turn of events. It would be “one of the greatest achievements of civilisation”, he argues – nothing less than the dawning of a post-work society. The potentials of such a transformation are enormous, releasing “individual energy into a yet uncharted realm of freedom beyond necessity.” What’s more, the “very structure of human existence would be altered; the individual would be liberated from the work world’s imposing upon him alien needs and alien possibilities.” But it is precisely through the imposition of these alien needs and possibilities that capitalism, in advanced industrial societies, retains overall control of its subjects. In generating artificial wants, and at the same time sating those wants itself, the system feigns generosity, all the while implementing an artificial scarcity of choice. It is in this way, Marcuse argues, that capitalism is “totalitarian”. The system may not have a single all-powerful ruler, but it is nonetheless ruled by “a specific system of production and distribution”; a false plurality of newspapers and political parties all parroting the same line: there is no alternative. As a result, a central political figurehead is replaced by an ideological apparatus that “precludes the emergence of an effective opposition against the whole.”
Still, these desires for other worlds and alternatives make themselves known to us, Marcuse argues, through our pervasive discontent. No matter how much we buy or consume, we are never truly satisfied. There is always something more to acquire and achieve. This is not a product of humanity’s innate industriousness. It is instead a sign that we are simply deferring the real problems in the world. We satisfy our individual desires as the social world around us does not change. Nevertheless, we take pleasure in our stagnant ability to strive.
As Marcuse puts it, the satisfaction of certain alien needs – “to relax, to have fun, to behave and consume in accordance with the advertisements, to love and hate what others love and hate” – only constitutes relief from the capitalist drudgery that we are otherwise required to undertake in order to acquire those means in the first place. This is not to say that relaxation and fun are unworthy goals but false ones, because the means of relaxation and having fun are sold to us by the very system that undermines them in the first place. Capitalism, then, is a socioeconomic feedback loop – a system that promises to provide relief from the pain and suffering it causes. Still, there is no denying that capitalist relief is relief nonetheless. But the result, Marcuse writes, “is euphoria in unhappiness.” The satisfaction we experience is not our satisfaction but the satisfaction of the system itself. The freedom we experience is not ours but the guiding hand of a controlling society.
This situation has morphed and twisted itself over the decades, but the overall social structure remains in tact. After all, this euphoria is often shared. To “love and hate what other love and hate” is to affirm our social connection to others and our similarities. “The personal is political” turned this sense of comradery on its head, as loves and hates were not defined by the system but by the people themselves, raising consciousness around their material conditions, contra ideological projections of the system at large. As a result, the guiding hand was revealed and slapped away, even if only momentarily. But today, our politicians still follow this model and embrace it. They make themselves relatable through their incompetence. As we watch zany characters like Johnson and Trump, we see figures who are struggling through the mire of contemporary society just as they are. This is why Conservatives love a culture war. “Woke” politics is defanged and painted as yet more liberal bureaucracy, yet more pitfalls for the average person to struggle to navigate. Social justice movements call for more freedom — freedom from “toil and fear”, as Marcuse puts it — but neoliberal governments decry the expansion of freedom as the expansion of rules and regulations.
This is the paradox lurking in our understanding of what constitutes “free choice”. Marcuse was already aware of it, of course. He writes:
The criterion for free choice can never be an absolute one, but neither is it entirely relative. Free election of masters does not abolish the masters or the slaves. Free choice among a wide variety of goods and services does not signify freedom if these goods and services sustain social controls over a life of toil and fear — that is, if they sustain alienation. And the spontaneous reproduction of superimposed needs by the individual does not establish autonomy; it only testifies to the efficacy of the controls.
The Conservatives are aware of this too. What is produced is a double-edged sword that works constantly in their favour, precisely because liberals cannot oppose it at its core. On the contrary, they buy into it. Their “biting” satire and criticism only helps to normalise it. Shows like The Thick of It help with this too, further normalising the idea that our politicians are just like us. They get their kicks where they can and eek pleasure out of an unjust world. Their world — their bubble — is obviously shit. Who’d be a politicians these days? All the more reason why we shouldn’t slut-shame Matt Hancock for any personal dalliances. (The argument that we shouldn’t project our sexual prudishness onto public figures is a very Twitter-level take, it must be said.) Because who hasn’t had an office romance? Who hasn’t done something they shouldn’t at the Christmas party? Who hasn’t had a bit of a mental breakdown under the weight of a piece-of-shit day job? We’re all navigating this stupid world, and so being a bit more forgiving when our politicians cock up allows us to be more forgiving of ourselves. Better that, of course, than actually change it.
That is what is required. But Starmer’s Labour doesn’t get it. They fail to appreciate the extent to which our present understanding of the personal and the political is not inconvenient for Conservative politicians, despite them feigning ignorance and acting all embarrassment when the two things touch. This state of affairs suits them, precisely because they know, at a societal level, it also suits the electorate.
If I might end on one more example of a lib commentator missing this point completely, consider this essay from Paul Mason, published on the New Statesman website at the start of the 2019 general election. He begins:
The French novelist Édouard Louis once wrote that “for the ruling class, in general, politics is a question of aesthetics: a way of seeing themselves, of seeing the world, of constructing a personality. For us it was life or death.” Nothing better illustrates this than the chaos and self-obsession that has characterised the opening days of the Conservative election campaign.
He’s not wrong, of course. But he fails to consider just how much of a stranglehold aesthetics has on society at large. As a result, all his essay boils down to is yet another commentator impotently decrying the Conservative government as a tribe of narcissists. It obfuscates the fact that, yes, whilst government incompetence does have a very real and horrific impact on our lives — the personal is political — it ignores how the entertainment factor of these fuck-ups only helps keep us in line.
Mason goes on to argue that politics, “for Johnson and the entire clan surrounding him, has become a form of showing off. And like all narcissists, they cannot abide an accurate reflection.” In fact, the strange truth is that they can. Not only do they abide it, they curate it — Boris Johnson especially. His zany incompetence is his primary selling point, against an opposition that is all politics without personality. Though we might despise it in principle, commentators like Mason rarely address the fact that even these damningly accurate reflections are also aesthetically instantiated. Their zany exploits help us feel better about ourselves. Their failures serve a purpose — keeping us drunk on the euphoria of unhappiness, the one thing the working class and the political class apparently share.
In physical theories of dynamical systems there is the notion of “attractors” in the space of possible configurations of the system (the system’s ‘phase space’), where these attractors aren’t due to some external teleological force but just due to mathematical consequences of the system’s own internal dynamics. These sorts of attractors could exist in far more complex systems than the ones analyzed in physics; for example, in biology there are lots of examples of convergent evolution, where species living in similar ecological niches evolve similar forms or behaviors independently. So to me it seems premature to make any strong judgments about the degree of contingency vs. necessity in social formations, or to rule out hypotheses like Marx’s that assume a fair amount of determinism when one looks at sufficiently broad types of historical changes. Steven Jay Gould mused about “replaying life’s tape” with some small alterations starting from the evolutionary distant past, and wondering how different such a replay would turn out — we could ask similar questions about human history, and since we can’t actually do such an experiment, we can’t be justified in putting any great confidence in whether such replays would be broadly similar as Marx and Engels assumed, or would show more contingency as implied by Althusser’s ideas.
Even if the ultimate truth is that there is a large amount of necessity in certain historical changes, including possible future ones that take us beyond capitalism, we can’t know in advance what trends and potentialities in the present will be most important in bringing about such changes, so we can’t rely on any pre-given formulas for how best to accelerate them. Something similar would be true for any creative intelligence trying to solve a problem whose solution it doesn’t yet know, even an AI whose internal workings are ultimately completely deterministic. I haven’t read Intelligence & Spirit yet but I think this lack of relying on fixed formulas of understanding, the need for intuitive groping at potentials that are sensed but not yet fully named or understood, could be one way of reading the Negarestani quotes in the post — someone correct me if this reading is incompatible with other things he says in the book.
I’d like to drag this out from the comment section and leave it open to discussion if anyone has anything they’d like to add. I fear much of this may go beyond my areas of expertise, but I am curious to hear others’ thoughts — particularly Reza’s, if you read this, my dude!
It is well known that the total book is as much Leibniz’s dream as it is Mallarmé‘s, even though they never stop working in fragments. Our error is in believing that they did not succeed in their wishes: they made this unique Book perfectly, the book of monads, in letters and little circumstantial pieces that could sustain as many dispersions as combinations. The monad is the book or the reading room.
— Gilles Deleuze, The Fold
When we consider the Repeater Books’ k-punk collection, it is surely as an impossible project. I do not envy Darren Ambrose the task of putting it together. What texts to choose? What to leave out? Though it is a shelf-buckling book of considerable proportion, it does not (and could not) include everything. A different editor would no doubt produce a different book every time. But that’s not reason enough to say a project should not have been undertaken. It is a valuable document of disagreeably alive and precarious thought, which poetically reflects the present in being so.
But the vast amount of work Mark produced still presents us with a problem — one that is no less impossible to manage, even after the anthology’s successful publication. In fact, surely Darren had to embrace the project’s impossibility in the editorial process? Could we not argue that, in quite literally “book-ending” Mark’s life, with its tombstone-like appearance, it creates a capstone on which others might build? That is partly why people dislike it — a capstone is not a continuation but an end. But given the fact it ends with an unpublished draft, it is, paradoxically, an elliptical capstone. And better that than some formally completist project.
Like the rest of Fisher’s work, the k-punk anthology wavers uncomfortably between forms and contexts. Gathering everything together would not solve this. It would make up thousands upon thousands of pages, volumes upon volumes of books. But maybe that would be an admirable testament to Fisher’s productivity? To see it all printed out would give us a visceral sense of the work of a life, and illustrate bittersweetly how much more he could have said had he continued to live for a “full” lifetime. But isn’t that also a strange and somewhat morbid way of thinking about it? And aren’t we ignoring the biases Fisher otherwise set about challenging when we measure his work by the width of a spine? The internet wasn’t made for printing off, after all. It was a new way of doing things and entombing that new way in an old format breaks something. It betrays the original medium and stops us from appreciating blogged texts in their proper context, which are so often more ephemeral and fleeting, and more reflective of our present for being so.
Urbanomic recently published an English translation of an excellent essay by Enrico Monacelli and Massimo Filippi that precisely argues this point, whilst at the time entangling itself in the complexities of feeling the collection elicits. It is a critical text that, as Enrico put it originally on Twitter, provocatively argues the k-punk volume should not exist. But it is not a critique made lightly. It is a critique that respects the work, whilst at the same time carving out a space for vital if uncomfortable questions relevant to the entirety of Fisher’s corpus. A paradox emerges as a result, which the essay navigates deftly, asking questions that too many denounce thoughtlessly, barely unfolding the true content of Fisher’s body of work.
(As Deleuze might put it: “We do not even know what a body [of work] is capable of… We do not even know of what affections [it is] capable, nor the extent of [its] power.”)
Consider Fisher’s (or, more recently, Repeater’s) less reasonable critics. They do not just denounce the k-punk anthology but all archival work that hopes to develop and prolong Fisher’s legacy — my own work included. The general critique argues something along the lines of, “Can we wait for him to be in the ground a bit longer before dredging up and profiting off the ephemera?” (The assumption that profits are made for those who do the work never ceases to entertain.) But I am left wondering, is there any part of Fisher’s work that isn’t ephemeral? Capitalist Realism could not be shorter if it tried; The Weird and the Eerie feels like it is over in an instant. Ephemerality is not a simple case of length, of course, but Capitalist Realism, in particular, is only a few millimeters off being a pamphlet — and intentionally so. Ghosts of My Life is more substantial but also more openly addresses its status as a collection of polished blogposts and articles, acting as a capstone Fisher put together himself, underwriting a period of “hauntological” blogging he would move on from whilst, at the same time, becoming best known for it. (If I might offer up a confession, it is the book of Fisher’s that I’ve spent the least amount of time with, because I was a k-punk reader before its release and so always saw it as a compilation.) Still, we forget, deferring to this collection’s relative transparency, that drafts from Capitalist Realism and The Weird and the Eerie are still available for us to read on k-punk.org. Each book, then, in turn, functions as a more digestible summary of an already public thinking.
In that sense, how different is k-punk from what came before it? From what Mark curated for himself? But I still think Enrico and Massimo are right. The context lost when Mark’s work is gathered and shaped into a book is peculiar and awkward, but something else is lost more broadly as well when philosophers and other writers “graduate” from online media or independent spaces only to take up columns or book deals in more traditional publishing zones. This is not to say that successful writers should not have nice things — and I think the role of Repeater Books, in particular, as a space to celebrate new and often online voices, is valuable and always aware of the changing critical landscape — but we do lose something as a result of this kind of transition. But what exactly? A certain philosophical spirit, maybe, that is gestured towards with this post’s opening quotation. We lose the monadic (and nomadic) relations writing is otherwise entangled in. We may gain a book but we lose the reading room.
This is not to suggest that blogs and books can’t work in harmony, of course. What is a “reading room” if not precisely a space for books and the transitions between them? I have no problem with Fisher putting out more polished arguments in physical form, even if I’ve read them before in another context. I can also appreciate, simply on a practical level, how, when time is precious, firing off a quick blogpost is a useful way to generate drafts you can come back to later, eventually stitching together a patchwork for further refinement. (Although this process of refinement is looked down upon by a surprising number of readers, in my experience at least, who want books to be made up of material not thought about publicly — as if bloggers aren’t time-poor enough already that they have to maintain two places to think simultaneously.)
That being said, as I’m working on numerous projects right now, I’m actually keeping most of them to myself, but it is a harder task because of this. I find holding a full manuscript more or less in your head, carrying it around all day as you spend too much time daydreaming and falling into habits of mental editing and resequencing, starts to feel like a full-time job. (And I already have one of those.) Tragically, at least for me, plenty of ideas and thoughts fall out, eventually lost forever. A blog is not just a pin board though, but a proving ground. To blog something makes it easier to remain in touch with that element otherwise too easily lost when you disappear up inside your own over-ambitious book plans — that is, the poetry of the social.
I am continuing to think about Ben Lerner’s recently discussed book The Hatred of Poetry at the moment, in which he writes that the gesture at the heart of all poetry is “the impulse to launch the experience of an individual into a timeless communal existence”. (Again, a prime concern of Egress and, I imagine, everything I do going forwards.) I am interested in it because I think you could go through Lerner’s book and replace every instance of the word “poetry” with the word “photography” and you’d have the book I wish I’d gotten round to writing about the latter medium. But I also think the same is true of blogging as well. This certainly explains the particular tone of Fisher’s work. It is not “poetic” in a stylistic sense — his post-Ccru work generally stirs clear of abstractions and instead works to clarify and demystify ideological apparatuses. But I find the k-punk sentiment reflects Lerner’s poetic impulse regardless (“making the personal impersonal”, etc.) — indeed, it is a central strand of any popular modernism.
I think this poeticism is precisely what gets lost when Fisher’s work is taken off his blog, whether by Fisher himself or others. A process of transfiguration takes place when blog becomes book. This might just be practical for many — a kind of formalization takes place — but for Fisher some of the lifeblood is drained also. This is what Enrico and Massimo point to when they write how the anthology creates “a certain discomfort” as we “re-read these ‘live’ interventions within the bounds of a book that, volens nolens, reterritorializes the deterritorializing flows of Fisher’s diffractions.” (Again, for the sake of argument, this was my experience of reading Ghosts of My Life also.)
Speaking of the second volume of the Italian translation of k-punk, which is titled Screens, Dreams and Spectres, they write:
All the pieces that make up Screens, Dreams and Spectres and, more generally, the entirety of K-Punk, were conceived of as interventions on a blog, interventions loosed without precautions — like screenless dreams — into the magmatic flow of the web. They were bullets aimed at the present in fieri, moved by the desire to be quick and compact, to hit the flesh of the collective imagination right where it hurts most. In short, they were interventions designed to be fragile, contingent, and lethal creatures.
They were, in their own way, poems.
(I often think this is what is meant be the phrase “literary criticism” as well, which is hardly restricted to critiques of literature. It also means critique that has “literary merit” or, preferably, critique that struggles with the existential questions of culture just as much as the culture under consideration does. I think the latter certainly describes Fisher’s MO — cultural critique as cultural production.)
Enrico and Massimo continue:
We cannot, therefore, fail to notice the pungent smell of incense that spread from this premature embalming. Perhaps this anthology is the expression of an excess of zealous tact toward writings that continue to claim their right to die together with what they criticised or celebrated.
We are aware, however, that the extraction of these writings from a blog that could disappear at any moment is an operation not without merit. In other words, we would not want to lose forever the chance to read, for example, Fisher’s lightning-fast and illuminating diagnostic reports…
It is particularly telling, I think, that this torn critique — infrequently verbalised in hushed tones by British readers — has emerged loudly and proudly from outside of the Anglosphere. How are non-English(-speaking) readers (or, more accurately, non-domiciles of this tiny fascist island) expected to understand the context of these blogposts? For those reading them in their own tongue, perhaps for the first time, out of their blogospheric context, the distance between blog and (translated) book must be all the more pronounced. But this, again, was always already true. We might consider that, even whilst Fisher was alive, Americans often seemed to be the worst readers of his work, if only because they often didn’t grasp its very British idiosyncrasies and class concerns. This is true on the most banal level. So many k-punk posts come to mind that are, in essence, running commentaries on late-night screenings of obscure movies or shows on under-watched British TV channels.
His essays were undeniably parochial, for better or worse. They were grounded in his cultural experiences. Though he speaks to global(ised) issues and problems, his reference points are nonetheless often restricted to those things that he most enjoyed or at least understood intimately — a point as applicable to 1970s British TV as it is to the lived experience of depression. It is part of his charm for some, his uselessness for others. Personally, I think it is what was so compelling about his work. It so often highlighted, in its very bones, the tensions of postmodern subjectivity, torn between the local and the global, the personal and the political, whilst at the same time articulating how our burgeoning sense of “the social” conflates all of these things together. The travesty, as described by Herbert Marcuse, is that our understanding of the social is, instead, so utterly one-dimensional. “Social media” is a sort of flat signifier for our contemporary hellscape, for instance, but the social we should be striving for is a kind of consciously complex local-global-personal-political framework that embraces its own four-dimensional character.
The weird thing that has happened to Fisher himself is that many English readers have tried to subsume him into their one-dimensional world. But as his work enters translation, we begin to see the negative work of dumb Anglos undone. Because, as is the pop-mod sentiment, they have to put a bit more work in. They do not take for granted the mundane backdrop of British life.
Consider, for instance, how Fisher is currently finding a brand new audience in the Spanish-speaking world. (Something I thought about quite a lot earlier this year when writing this previously shared essay.) How many Fisher fans in Buenos Aires will have seen (or will be able to see) Channel 4’s Benefits Street and understand the particular context of that show beyond Fisher’s descriptions of it? I’d wager very few. It doesn’t really matter, of course, because the argument works without it, and the problems documented are hardly exclusively “British”, but something is lost nonetheless. There is something broader and more ephemeral that cannot be translated — that sense of immediacy, of a conversation around the coffee machine or in the pub the day after. But it is from the friction this distance creates that creative thinking emerges, and it is in this way that Fisher’s otherwise parochial concerns contribute to the real movement.
I hope this doesn’t sound patronizing. I think this is the real work to be done. Fisher may not have made it easy, restricting his talking points to those things that were within his own experience, but finding the connections and strands outwards is part of the task left to those who find his work engaging and resonant, even if the experiences or cultural examples are relatively obscure and foreign. It demands that the social aspects of his work be upheld, and I think that Enrico and Massimo’s essay is a perfect example of that kind of gesture. It is a gesture of grief also. What separates the k-punk anthology from Ghosts of My Life is Fisher was still around after its compilation to continue the conversation. There is a sense now that the books are all we have. No blog, no social.
My own interest in that kind of work is rooted in the thinking of Maurice Blanchot. My book Egress dealt with this explicitly (and even “perversely”, according to one reviewer), but I think Enrico and Massimo have articulated something and unlocked a further layer to this conversation. After reading this essay, I immediately revisited Blanchot’s book The Infinite Conversation and what I found inside, bursting forth with new clarity, was a sort of theorising of fragmentary writing that spoke to blogging and the blogosphere in a way I had never previously appreciated.
It left me wanting to do a close reading of The Infinite Conversation, or at least the book’s final section, with all of this in mind, interpreting its arguments through a blogospheric lens. I’d hoped to do this in a single post, but already this preamble is long enough. I’d also quite like to take my time with it and unfold it over the coming weeks. I don’t have a lot of time at the moment and I haven’t done a “series” of posts in over a year, so it feels like a nice exercise. As I continue to work on other things, this will be a series on blogging as a way of resisting the one-dimensionality of social media. Placing that forthcoming gesture in its proper context, before leaping into it, feels like a worthwhile endeavor.
A few weeks ago, Sean, Lucy and I were invited by Tom K. Kemp to play After the Maestro, a prototype TTRPG he has been developing “set within an ‘anthropomorphised anatomy’.”
Players adopt the roles of groups of microbial and cellular workers during the aftermath of a successful labour emancipation within the inner body, where the ‘Maestro’, or centralised vital force of the body, has been removed. Each session of the game generates a new narrative of anatomical and social re-organisation, complicating and estranging common body-politic metaphors into a tale of emancipatory body-horror.
We each chose a different organ or organism to role-play and navigate through a body in crisis. Sean, in true Bataillean fashion, plays the Pineal Gland; Lucy plays Toxiplasma-gondii; Tom plays the heart; and I bring the tone down by playing as Spermatazoa. But in each instance we learned a great deal about what these particular parts of the body do, and what they could do if emancipated from predetermined roles.
You can listen to episode one above, and episode two below.
Recorded at Rupert Residency, LT, I was joined by Matt Colquhoun aka Xenogothic, and Lucy and Sean of the horror philosophy podcast Wyrd Signal and Deleuze and Guattari podcast Buddies Without Organs. Over these 2 episodes, Matt, Lucy and Sean and myself use the game to tell a semi-improvised story incorporating biological fact, phenomenology, political analogy and ‘the body without organs’. How might toxiplasmosis parasites articulate their desires? What responsibility does spermatazoa have to its origin body? What lies beneath the ruins of a stopped heart?