On his 2016 album The Life of Pablo, Kanye West included an acapella track called “I Love Kanye”. In some ways, it feels like the centrepiece of the album. It’s Kanye saying the quiet part loud, poking fun not so much at himself as the tabloid circus around him. Though the tabloids responded to the track predictably, chalking it up as another example of his egotism, the track/skit asks a far more complex question than that. Which came first: Kanye or the media?
The opening line, “I miss the old Kanye”, has followed him around for years. His first three albums – The College Dropout, Late Registration, Graduation – were an incredible suite that demonstrated a singular vision unmatched by anyone else in hip-hop at that time, fusing a classic 90s sound with the latest pop innovations. Exceptionally crafted, they are, in hindsight, somewhat representative of a staid twenty-first century culture that hadn’t quite found its own identity. But as West progressed as an artist, taking more risks and making more grandiose statements both publicly and musically, many came to miss this generation-straddling artist the whole family could enjoy. When Kanye ushered in a pop sound for the twenty-first century, music fans weren’t so much mourning the old Kanye as they were the stale ideals of a now-bygone era, which extended far beyond Kanye’s individual output alone.
But in fixating on Kanye as the Noughties superstar who lost his way, it became clear that West was never going to be in full control of his own narrative and reputation again. This one man came to represent the excesses and challenges of an entire pop cultural movement (somewhat like Michael Jackson before him, one could argue). It makes the very idea of an “old Kanye” even more suspect, established in hindsight, as if this “old Kanye” was ever some sort of unified and internally consistent figure. In truth, Kanye is an artist who has always worn multiple hats, and as his success has grown he has only adopted more of them. On “I Love Kanye”, he seems to acknowledge this. “See I invented Kanye, there wasn’t any Kanyes”, he syncopates, “And now I look and look around and there’s so many Kanyes”.
Interpreted by many as a jab at his imitators, this line feels like a moment of reflection on the Kanye kaleidoscope, which sees itself become a fractal as the media interprets and spins every move made in a dozen different ways. “I Love Kanye” was itself the subject of various tabloid articles, exaggerating its claims and missing the point, as if his declaration of self-love was at all unifying, rather than the song’s many Kanyes being distinct entities, as if “Kanye loves Kanye” is a postmodern recursion; Kanye loves Kanye loves Kanye, just as a rose is a rose is a rose. The Life of Pablo, on the whole, epitomises this same gesture. It is Kanye at his best and worst, his most wholesome and grotesque, his most erudite and adolescent. It is Kanye roleplaying the many men the media sees him as, and it’s a fascinating schizophrenic opus as a result.
And yet, for all the emphasis placed on Kanye’s contemporary complexity and plurality, it is worth remembering how renowned he was as a new kind of hip-hop star with an incredibly singular vision. That is no less true today than it was in the mid-2000s. What has changed is the perspective from which Kanye is looking outwards to the future. Though he leaves no path untaken, each Kanye – “old Kanye” and new Kanye – can seemingly be traced back to a single moment.
It is notable, for instance, that Kanye’s first three albums were spawned by his involvement in a near-fatal car accident. The near-mythical story of his debut single, “Through the Wire”, is common knowledge at this point, providing the foundation for a cohesive suite of records about a man seizing his own destiny. Having nearly lost his life, West no longer wanted to lurk in the background, producing for other artists. He wanted to show the world what an all-rounder he really was, and so he produced three albums that fully embody the vanguard of 2000s popular music. However, this trilogy was initially planned as a tetralogy. The final album of the suite, Good Ass Job, was shelved following the death of West’s mother, Donda.
It’s a fascinating story, reflecting the cruel dichotomy of loss. To almost lose oneself can be a galvanising moment, putting a fire in your belly, making you realise how precious life is and inspiring you to stride forwards and make something of yourself. It is unifying, as if the trauma of near-death consolidates a sense of self and solidifies its bounds, exuding a new sense of confidence and self-assuredness. We hear this kind of Hallmark story all the time. A near-death experience, whilst traumatic, can nonetheless transform your life for the better. But to lose another is a shattering experience. It has the opposite effect entirely, blurring the edges of being, leaving you with a feeling that you are now incomplete. Accounting for that loss as your own life continues can be hard. Even if we didn’t know someone particularly well, any new gap in our social fabric can change the texture of the world around us.
This experience is palpable in Kanye’s work. The shift is immediate and drastic. Good Ass Job was shelved and instead West turned on a dime, going in a new direction of pop as frigid electro. But the “autotuned lament” of 808s & Heartbreak conjured a desolate landscape that oddly never got too personal. Whereas “Through the Wire” was rooted so deeply in personal injury and recovery as to ground West’s whole mythology, here Kanye raps about a sort of generic heartbreak, the alienation of fame and the dehumanising nature of celebrity. Mark Fisher famously argued that the album (along with Drake’s Take Care) represented a shift in the pop cultural consciousness — the secret sadness of the twenty-first century:
No longer motivated by hip hop’s drive to conspicuously consume — they long ago acquired anything they could have wanted — Drake and West instead dissolutely cycle through easily available pleasures, feeling a combination of frustration, anger and self-disgust, aware that something is missing but unsure exactly what it is.
But it seems, in hindsight, that West was absolutely certain of what was missing — he just didn’t know how to address the elephant in the room on record. What was missing was his mother. What was missing was Donda.
Perhaps as a result of Kanye’s own omission, this event is hardly acknowledged in most appraisals of Kanye’s post-808s output. The personal issues where kept out of the spotlight, for the most part. And perhaps necessarily so. Pop is generic, after all, and in the best sense of the word. It is a unifying and relatable genre, giving form to universal feelings and experiences, even helping new universals to emerge. Of course, an album about a generalised discontent, even when filtered through the glamour of pop stardom, is catnip to someone like Mark Fisher, but what we also find on 808s is Kanye’s dissatisfaction with the idea of a finished product. Loss ungrounds, and whilst autotuned alienation might gesture towards Kanye’s personal grief and the resulting sense of detachment, it begins to feels like the album just isn’t enough to convey his lived experience, which lurks outside the harsh light of pop cultural scrutiny.
Despite following such a deeply affecting experience, the album doesn’t have a “Through the Wire” from which to launch itself. But what it does have is its closer — the distinctly un-autotuned, unpolished, unclear, stream-of-consciousness live track about materialism, authenticity, hopes and the American dream: “Pinocchio Story”.
A staple of live sets over the years, often stretching to ten minutes in length or longer, the track is a precursor to the infamous “Kanye rants” of more recent live shows. Although they have been ridiculed in the press for years, held up as evidence of Kanye’s gradual unravelling, they are a testament to West’s belief in the power of a shared moment. The ungrounding experience of loss cannot be fully expressed anywhere else. A studio practice is one thing, but when performing live West resists the idea of music as a time capsule or a sort of unchanging standard. (Something which is contrary to a lot of hip-hop, we might note, as a genre that has often struggled to transition from studio to stage in a way more traditional genres can.) It’s as if he believes that, if people want to hear the hits, they can go put on their favourite Kanye CD at home, but if they want to spend a few hours in his company, that’s what they’re going to get, warts and all.
The result is jarring and often highlights West’s peculiar existence. As he works to let life in, expressing the vulnerable and multifaceted nature of human life, particularly at its maximalist extremes, he is nonetheless reduced to a media caricature, to the point that we are all too aware that the frigidity of 808s & Heartbreak is now permanent. No matter how much he tries, curating and surfing his own chaos, trying to bring life back into view, and embodying the bipolarity he has affirmed so publicly in recent years, there is little separation between public and private life left. It is all fodder for the flattening process of the media machine, curating its unassailable counter-image of Kanye the clown, alienating Kanye from us and even from himself. (This is something exacerbate through his relationship with Kim Kardashian, as West’s relationship to the show Keeping Up With The Kardashians has often been uncertain and a little frosty, despite his own reputation for overblown media outbursts.)
(As an aside, the platforming of recently cancelled persons on and around West’s most recent album — Marilyn Manson, Chris Brown, DaBaby — also reveals a man open to accepting people into his life who might otherwise be best known for their crimes and mistakes. Though I have no interest in defending his association with some quite awful people, I can understand the logic of befriending fellow media villains, whose humanity is reduced in a way that Kanye might unfortunately relate to — “the enemy of my enemy is my friends”, etc. It is a process we often see these days, where those who end up cancelled are more likely to give bad people the benefit of the doubt, newly appreciative of how complex situations can be reduced to untruths that nonetheless come to define a person. When this leads to the complete suspension of a person’s critical faculties, they soon end up in even more trouble.)
Intriguingly, West has nonetheless continued to lean into this chaotic way of life. Tabloid fodder it may often be, fueling the rumour mill surrounding the private lives of celebrities, but West also seems to have more control by living life in public. Though album roll outs and schedules are deemed chaotic and “crazy”, as if Kanye is doing it all wrong, it is surely obvious that frustrating the system is the point? The quality of Kanye’s music has hardly been diminished, and “old Kanye” demonstrated how capable West is of conforming to the classic ideal of the album. Instead, he insists on confounding, surprising, and challenging. The beauty is in the process, in the happenings, in the experimentation and play. No media or record label can take that away. He allows them to skim some cream off the top every now and then, but he insists on confounding the process and drawing attention to its limitations. We do ourselves and Kanye a disservice when we think those limitations are his own.
On new album DONDA, it feels like Kanye has come full circle. Whereas his pop career started with a defining event, so his latest album finally deals with the event that has lingered for so long in the background, displacing Kanye himself in favour of a higher power, the god-mother. For example, whereas “I Love Kanye” played with the numbing repetition of Kanye’s name as near-mononym, exacerbating the absurdity of affirming an alienated and reductive self, new album DONDA‘s opening track simply repeats West’s mother’s name, transcending the mundanity of overexposure. Whereas the name “Kanye” might be nothing more than a tabloid abstraction to us now, the name “Donda” clearly holds, for West at least, a kind of magickal power. His mother’s name becomes an incantation, and is repeated enough times as to become pure air and texture (whilst nonetheless reminiscent of a Desiigner ad lib; Donda, Donda, Donda…) The pluralism of Kanyes is offset by the infinity of her name’s life-giving power. Donda becomes God in her transcendence, and West’s gospel turn affirms the importance of family and shared experience that her death brought home for him.
But this is no simple story of grief and transcendence. The album proceeds by flirting with the ever-present dichotomy that has encompassed West’s music for almost 15 years. We grieve those who die but find the very idea of transcendence from suffering is culturally encased in dying itself. The feedback loop is harrowing and energising. The dichotomy of the alienated pop hit, of dancing at a distance, first presented on 808s, is carried forwards if not in form than in content, and Kanye finally feels able to use his mother — that is, the particular rather than the pop universal — as a vehicle for addressing this complexity. But this leads Kanye back to the universal in a far more powerful and affecting way. Donda, then, is held up as a godhead — not as a superegoic presence but a sort of energy that has transcended material form. Her spirit becomes diffuse, no longer personal but collective; from ghost to Weltgeist.
Faced with this contradiction of form and content, West’s narcissism, that the tabloids so love to ridicule, starts to resemble that of Ovid’s Narcissus proper — not the modern interpretation of pathological vanity, but the feedback loop of object/subject that Narcissus is horrified by. To love oneself is at once to see and be seen, to see the object of one’s love and be aware that the subject who loves cannot acquire it. Narcissus commits suicide in Ovid’s telling, as the feedback loop necessitates not self-preservation but self-overcoming.
It is a notion I am particularly interested in at present — the philosophical affirmation of narcissism. Jacques Derrida, for instance, once claimed that, “without a movement of narcissistic reappropriation, the relation to the other would be absolutely destroyed, it would be destroyed in advance.” Recalling Freud’s comment “that another person’s narcissism has a great attraction for those who have renounced part of their own narcissism and are in search of object-love”, Derrida insists that the “relation to the other … must trace a movement of reappropriation in the image of oneself for love to be possible”. It is a love that we hear about more often than such philosophical language might suggest. It is to entangle yourself in another and see that they “bring out the best in you”, that you might love yourself more when you love them.
It is a love we count as rare when directed towards other people, but one made as natural as breathing in the love of one’s children or family. It is an unconditional love, which does not simply mean “I will love you no matter what you do”, but, as Deleuze writes, “to love without being loved, because love implicates the seizure of these possible worlds in the beloved, worlds that expel me as much as they draw me in”. Again, this is something we intuit in our love of our children. For Freud, the “charm of a child lies in a great extent in his narcissism, his self-contentment and inaccessibility, just as does the charm of certain animals which seem not to concern themselves about us, such as cats and the large beasts of prey.” It is a love for those who possess a “narcissistic consistency with which they manage to keep away from their ego anything that might diminish it.” So too for Deleuze, who notes that this kind of love also implores us “to stop loving, because the emptying of the worlds, the explication of the beloved, lead the self that loves to its death.”
This complex set of relations is epitomised by Kanye and his relationship with his mother. Kanye himself attempts to construct a narcissistic consistency, that protects him from those in the media that would do him harm, who only criticise his narcissism in turn. But in being infantilised as a narcissist, Kanye turns to his mother, who becomes an affective vehicle for ideas and emotions that far exceed the mother-son relationship. Instead, that relationship, and the experiences that Kanye associated with it, is expanded to an almost cosmological level in being combined with his faith. The grieving mother-son relationship is transcended until his grief is entangled with nature and the relationship between winter and spring.
I watched so many people leave
I see ’em change by the season, that’s mama’s sеasonin’
But within the confided space on the album, as each of these relations is necessarily collapsed onto each other, DONDA tells a contradictory story of joyful capture and melancholic transcendence. Take, for example. Jay Z’s verse on opening track proper, “Jail”. Sticking with Kanye as Narcissus, we find Jay rapping the words: “Made in the image of God, that’s a selfie.” But West’s God almost feels Spinozist. God does not resemble an individual being but the multiplicity of nature as event. So what is human life when framed through this multiplicity? Kanye hardly gets philosophical, but the affective power of the music is all encompassing. How else are we to interpret a song that is so excited about jailtime?
But this expression is itself doubled. The absurdity of desiring your own capture reflects our hype around any given Kanye album. But Kanye’s cynicism pushes through our expectations. He knows that what the world really cares about is Kanye contained. Forget the events, the happenings, the parties — we want Kanye captured by playlists, by paparazzi photos, by reviews, by Genius annotations. Kanye himself is uninterested, and ventriloquises his refusal through Jay Z’s verse:
You are not in control of my thesis
You already know what I think ’bout think pieces
Before you ask, he already told you who he think he is
Don’t try to jail my thoughts and think pre-cents
I can’t be controlled with programs and presets
This refusal unfolds beyond all bounds. This is not a punk refusal — a “no” contained within the format of a three-minute bop. Nor is it a post-punk refusal — a high-concept “no” nonetheless contained within the longer format of the album. Kanye refuses to be contained by either.
Since the tantalising release of the lo-fi “Pinocchio’s Story”, West has found a permanent vehicle for this live refusal in the form of his Sunday Service Choir. But we might note that the accompanying album, Jesus is King, supposedly representative of his many years of activity with the group, might be the most underwhelming album in his whole discography. Whereas videos of the live shows are maximalist and effervescent, his 2019 album feels rushed and fragmentary, with most tracks barely passing the three-minute mark. In many ways, the record was astounding in its disappointment. How could something as grand and universally acclaimed as the Sunday Service Choir find itself represented by something generally regarded as “flawed”? Then again, how could it be any other way? Kanye makes it clear for us on the track “Closed on Sunday”: No more livin’ for the culture, we nobody’s slave.
I’m reminded of David Grubbs’ book Records Ruin the Landscape, in which he draws on the militancy of John Cage and
argues that, following Cage, new genres in experimental and avant-garde music in the 1960s were particularly ill suited to be represented in the form of a recording. These activities include indeterminate music, long-duration minimalism, text scores, happenings, live electronic music, free jazz, and free improvisation. How could these proudly evanescent performance practices have been adequately represented on an LP?
The spirit of a black radical tradition simmers through West’s chaotic album release cycles in this way. As a case in point, DONDA has received mostly middling and lukewarm reviews. They’re nonetheless agreeable reviews. Over the course of almost two hours, there are as many moments of brilliance as there are moments of mundane filler. But the real album experience has been in the listening shows that presaged its release, with not only shifting track lists but shifting features and production and samples. The album felt alive in those livestreams, in its becoming, and, in announcing the DONDA stem player, Kayne seems to want that experience to carry on long after the shows have ended. Clearly, the real release, for Kanye, is the unveiling of the process.
Is this just a long-winded defense of a bad album? Maybe. But the excitement of Kanye’s work ever since The Life of Pablo has been his view that all albums are poor representations of the process of living and becoming and simply being free. It makes DONDA a perfectly flawed album for the times. As the music industry (or any cultural industry for that matter) and the media machine surrounding it is increasingly derided as suffocating, unfit for purpose, outright exploitative and rigged to benefit CEOs over artists, Kanye seems to have embraced the fact that a bad culture produces bad albums. He will no longer be a slave to contracts or formats. DONDA, in this sense, is nothing more than tourist tat; a souvenir from the main event. But the main event is life and death, joy and grief, and the multiplicity of ways of being. And inside of the event, everything is transformed.
Kanye, too, has been transformed, and he seems to want to transform us along with him. Though the album can hardly be reduced to a kind of industry process, it nonetheless asks, if we struggle to judge or compartmentalise the result, perhaps the problem is with our outdated critical framework? This is not to collapse all music into a broader cultural relativism, in which all art is subjective and immune to critical appraisal and interpretation, but to ask us to reorient our expectations. We live in a product-driven world, where albums and streams are the be-all-and-end-all, and we assume the royalties accumulated allow most artists to make keep on making. But the process is backwards. When we fetishize the product but devalue the work, we end up with an unsustainable system. We know this — it is applicable to all corners of capitalism and consumerism — but Kanye demonstrates how the creative process can itself be entertaining, life-affirming, and free from drudgery, if we give ourselves over to it. (He also demonstrates how lucrative it is, supposedly generating millions of dollars from the hype cycle alone.)
We’re a ways off from that reality yet. At the end of the day, records are still ruining the landscape.
I am immensely excited to be flying to Ljubljana soon to give a lecture as part of the Maska Institute‘s 2021/22 Contemporary Performing Arts Seminar. In part a celebration of Mark Fisher’s Capitalist Realism, recently translated into Slovenian, I’ll be talking a bit about Mark’s legacy and what more can be said about Fisher’s debut 12 years on.
Taking place on 9th September 2021 at the New Post Office, this will be the first in a series of lectures organized by the Maska Institute, with future speakers including Lea Kuhar, Ana Reberc, Muanis Sinanović, Nina Hlebec, Jaša Bužinel, Robert Bobnič, Vesna Pobežin Roš, Varja Hrvatin, Maša Radi Buh and Jakob Ribič. There will also be a reading group for the book held alongside these sessions.
This is the first in-person event I’ll be attending since the pandemic began, so I am very much looking forward to it, and I’m also excited to meet the Ljubljana crew, who have done so much brilliant stuff in recent years. It’ll be nice to chat over a beer rather than over email.
The allure of Mark Fisher’s social-critical theory may be found in his rare virtue of being crystal clear about what bothers him and what attracts him, of exposing in a completely honest theoretical way what he himself sees as the problem: capitalist realism, or the question: ‘Is there no alternative?’ The issue is not a new one, but it is raised in a new and honest way. Depressive hedonism, corporatism of desire, love of bureaucracy, reflexive impotence, fluid present and historical amnesia… so many symptoms or reasons why we cannot even raise the question of an alternative to capitalism. The autumn part of the Seminar will ask this question again and again, revolving around Fisher’s issue and confronting it in different ways, trying to find traces of an alternative.
The fall semester will start in September with a lecture by Matt Colquhoun. Matt Colquhoun edited Mark Fisher’s posthumously published book Postcapitalist Desire: The Final Lectures of Mark Fisher and in 2020 published his own book Egress: On Mourning, Melancholy and Mark Fisher; he is also the author of the blog xenogothic, and writes on various topics such as photography, contemporary popular music, accelerationism, counterculture, etc.
For the Seminar he will give a lecture on Fisher’s theoretical development from his first book Capitalist Realism, a translation of which was recently published by the Maska Institute, to his last, unpublished and unfinished essay Acid Communism, which was to serve as a preface to his new book, as well as on the theoretical nuances, digressions, and unrealised possibilities that Fisher’s work left us with. The lecture will be followed by a discussion with the author about why Fisher is so relevant today, what makes him a special thinker, what social critical theory meant to him and why he did it differently, and in what way – what precisely is the charm of Mark Fisher.
I’m sad to hear that Jean-Luc Nancy has passed away.
I spent a few years immersed in his book, The Inoperative Community, and the rethinking of communism that emerged from without. It is not a book I particularly liked or agreed with — finding its reading of Bataille, in particular, to be lacking — but I was fascinated by the responses it generated. Blanchot’s The Unavowable Community and Agamben’s The Coming Community were such hugely influential books on me as I tried to piece together what exactly I found so disagreeable. And yet, whilst I might take their side in opposition to Nancy’s own, I carry a muted respect for his provocations.
Sometimes there’s nothing more valuable than a sparing partner, whether that is someone you can actively engage in open disagreement with or someone you can install in your own head as a devil’s advocate. Nancy was like that to a lot of my thinking when I was writing Egress — a role Badiou is fulfilling these days. The importance of that cannot be overstated.
But what is just as fascinating about Nancy’s career is how doggedly he affixed himself to certain conversations and debates. Although The Inoperative Community may be more famous these days for the responses it generated, Nancy’s own response, years later, in The Disavowed Community, is a beautiful riposte to the decades he and his interlocutors spent mutually flaying each other’s philosophical selves. The coda to the work feels like a fitting epigraph, affirming the disagreements and discussions that defined much of his work. To memorialize a person with reference to the often critical work of others is not to diminish Nancy’s contributions, in this sense; rather the philosophical relations are his contribution, and perhaps his most important one.
Concluding The Disavowed Community — his book-length response to Blanchot’s The Unavowable Community, which was, in turn, a response to Nancy’s earlier Inoperative Community — Nancy writes of the idea of continuing a philosophical conversation with someone like Blanchot, then deceased, who has seemingly lost the ability to reply:
Blanchot underscores how much the self that speaks also denounces in the end the illusion of its own consistence, in other words, the fact that the self “cannot affirm itself alone.” This affirmation can be understood in several ways. One can reinforce the (transcendental, existential) antecedence of relation over all isolation (individuation, subjectivation). But Blanchot adds a tone here that he himself designates as “sarcasm” — there is derision in the avowal of the “self”‘s illusory character. Why this sarcasm? Why this dark humor if not out of sorrowful regret [déploration]? After all, the inexorable disappearance of “self” is indeed lamented. However, this disappearance only makes one pole of speech disappear, while speech continues to circulate between other poles, of disappeared “selves” taken up again, revived, listened to again, repeated.
The so-called [soi-disant] dead and living form the eternal return of sense. Blanchot knows this. In “The Song of the Sirens,” he writes: “Not the event of the encounter become present, but the opening of this infinite movement that is the encounter itself.” And yet when he attempts to think the encounter and the people together, the infinite movement becomes movement of the instant dissociation of a community that must only scarcely give space to the encounter, the mythical image of which is the impossibility for a man to reunite with the gift of a woman.
What appears to be a peculiar non sequitur nonetheless echoes Blanchot’s preoccupation with the “community of lovers”, whose relation is outside the standardized couplings of our various legal partnerships. Lovers are keepers of a secret intimacy, which cannot be touched by law. But Blanchot’s misstep, for Nancy, seems to be his fixation on transcendence and transgression. A community of lovers is soon defined by what it escapes — a problem haunting communism itself, which is the real elephant in the room throughout their discussion. So too is a death defined by the life it ends. But for Nancy, this metaphysical transcendence is illusory. A dead person does not become all that which escapes their life, but a sort of essence, always already present, which exceeds and persists and continues in spite of what those left behind now lack.
What is most heartening about Nancy’s engagement with his critics is the way he folds his argument back on the argument shared. Blanchot may have passed by the time Nancy writes his final response, but there is strength here rather than cowardice. That he still feels capable of engaging in discourse with his friend is powerful. Indeed, to talk to him, even in disagreement, is to affirm the eternal return of a relation beyond its physical or legal parameters. It substitutes Blanchot’s philosophy of transcendence for a immanent relation, which may be intensified by death but nonetheless signifies a continuation. It is this that Nancy excavates from Blanchot’s conception of love, which Nancy casts back upon Blanchot himself, as a sparing partner he seems to have a great deal of affection for, even if the intimacy of the exercise is more or less hidden from view. Blanchot calls this the unavowable; Nancy warns we must not mistake the unavowable for a complacent disavowal that we ourselves enable. He continues:
Everything happens as if, with the illusion and/or impossibility of love, a “self” is given that ought to be the subject of love and is unable to be so, since love exceeds all possible presence to both the other and the self, and must diminish or sublimate itself in its own infinity. But the infinite — and it is precisely this that distances me from Blanchot — does not simply consist in escape [fuite] and vanishing. It is all this in a much more present and concrete [actuelle] manner — in the efficacy of relation, proximity, contact. This efficacy certainly does not have the character of a presence to one’s self or to you, or to those whom one attributes an intimacy — at least as long as one represents presence and intimacy as substantive modes of being. But these representations always stem [relèvent] from fairly heavy. In truth, with the density and sufficiency that the most classical metaphysics supposes, substances themselves consist as well in what is based on nothing, being under everything. In this “underneath”, these substances float above the void, creating comings and goings, encounters and compearances [comparutions].
Nancy unearths the undercommons as an excess that does not escape but rather can never be contained. That is what remains. That is his remainder. Long may we keep conversing with it.
Celebrating the launch of Kit Mackintosh’s new book, Neon Screams, Repeater Radio had a big weekend takeover. As part of the proceedings, Natasha Eves and I spoke to Adam, Matt and Will of the Acid Horizon podcast about our For k-punk nights, celebrating Mark Fisher, evading neoliberalism, theory and praxis, thinking and dancing.
Anna Gaca, writing for Pitchfork, has mixed feelings about Lorde’s new record, Solar Power.
I don’t envy her the task of putting those feelings down on the Internet; I’m sure she’s had to log off for a week until Lorde’s fans calm down about her going the album a 6.8. Her review is interesting though. She perfectly sums up how I feel about this album too, but what she dislikes, I think I like most of all.
Comparing Lorde’s new effort to her previously jagged and angular album, Melodrama, Gaca writes that,
while Melodrama purportedly unfolded within the confines of a house party, the concept came so naturally you didn’t have to think about it; it just felt like you were there. Solar Power tries to be bigger and smaller at the same time, spanning scenes of domestic bliss and apocalyptic flight without the conceptual architecture to unite them.
Trying for everything makes it all sound a little incoherent.
Personally, I think there’s something quite remarkable in this attempt to bridge scales and experiences without taking a conceptual run-up. For an album implicitly concerned about the climate crisis, surely this makes sense. How do we address the issues facing us without abstraction? How do we connect the domestic and the cosmic?
Lorde’s approach is intriguingly hands-off. “Now if you’re looking for a savior, well that’s not me … Let’s hope the sun will show us the path”, she sings on the first track, before the second song — lead single “Solar Power” — basically contradicts it. But then, this is no doubt the dichotomy of being a megastar within the global pop machine and also just some twenty-something Kiwi. There’s a contradictory sense that, whilst she’s not gonna be saving anyone, she’s in the sort of globetrotting position of influence to change something… Right?
It gives a new perspective to her album cover, which has reminded me of something for weeks now, and I’ve only just realised that it’s the cover I drew for a recent episode of the Buddies Without Organs podcast, where we discussed Deleuze and Guattari’s attempt to do much the same thing — to go for a walk like a schizophrenic; like Georg Buchner’s character, Lenz, who tries to cover the world in a few strides.
Everything seemed so small, so near, so wet, he would have liked to set the earth down behind an oven, he could not grasp why it took so much time to clamber down a slope, to reach a distant point; he was convinced he could cover it all with a pair of strides.
If Solar Power is incoherent, it is surely because Lorde’s own life is. Can’t relate? Who can? How many of us can take on the world in so few strides? To be famous is surely to be professionally schizophrenic — to have one’s domestic existence amplified and scrutinized on a global scale. But it seems that, in unplugging herself from the pop machine in-between projects, there’s a possibility that Lorde’s desire for a normal life in a world that’s not heat-fucked, and her desire to affirm that parochial existence on a global stage, might produce some sort of structure of feeling. Maybe the same is true of its opposite — that a global rallying cry for new leaders and new desires might preserve the parochial existence she treasures more than anything.
Weirdly enough, it’s a familiar sentiment. Though every media plug talks about her absence from social media, she’s got the intensive relationship between on- and offline, home life and world wide web, down to a tee. It’s as if the stakes are bigger for her. The shift is more dizzying because it’s not as simple as logging on and logging off. To send a tweet is like entering orbit, surfing the waves of some global market that wants to consume her utterly.
I wonder if that’s why Lorde is so drawn to the sun. In that classic Bataillean sense, she’s somewhat aware of her accursed share of the pop market. Every album cycle, she dominates the music industry’s nonetheless restricted economy. Then, after making some millions, she goes home, and basks in the intensity of a more general solar economy, which she seems to experience with a similar intensity.
There is a lingering sense that this album is an experiment in dissolving the distinction between the two, only to become more like Lenz. Deleuze and Guattari write the following of his relationship to the world:
Lenz has projected himself back to a time before the man-nature dichotomy, before all the co-ordinates based on this fundamental dichotomy have been laid down. He does not live nature as nature, but as a process of production. There is no such thing as either man or nature now, only a process that produces the one within the other and couples the machines together. Producing-machines, desiring-machines everywhere, schizophrenic machines, all of species life: the self and the non-self, outside and inside, no longer have any meaning whatsoever.
Lorde’s album seems to interrogate these same connections — in her own way (obviously). She finds herself plugged into the process(es) of production, which are currently — disastrously — out of sync. To combine them again might help us save the world — letting the sun lead the way. At the same time, Lorde seems to want to explicate herself from part of it somehow, but it’s surely too late for that. She’s a little bit hooked on the glitz and the glam; the pop star’s libidinal economy. Who can blame her? But there’s a growing sense that her ability to unplug and engage with nature is a pop star’s prerogative too. And that, at least, is something we can all be encouraged to reconnect with.
We might never be royals, but we can all bask in the sun.
Previously on XG’s love of Lorde…
I’m still bouncing back and forth between projects at the moment, struggling to find my footing. This week, having fallen off one horse, I decided to go back to a book I’m working on about narcissism and photography. The general thesis is, for all our moral panicking about an endemic “culture of narcissism”, our historical understanding of this most infamous complexes has frequently been positive and constructive.
We’ve seen this understanding struggling to emerge over the last few years, on both the left and the right. That Trump supporters think diagnoses of narcissism are useless is probably to be expected, but that the left engages in habits of armchair diagnosis is left broadly unacknowledged. As Jia Tolentino recently wrote, in a review of one of the few other books on narcissism that questions our general obsession with the term, “in pathologizing narcissism, we have forgotten how perilous it is to constantly diagnose other people.” There is a real danger in throwing the term narcissism around so narcissistically, as if the person diagnosing is somehow on the moral high ground; it is “the danger of any particular world view that requires, for the sake of consistency, its owner to believe that she is good.”
Though others have questioned this tendency, many accounts remain ahistorical and reductive, struggling to shift off the full weight of our contemporary preoccupation with this personality disorder. Although I’m primarily exploring how this is can be fixed through an art-historical reading — essential since contemporary folk-psychological understandings are tied to photography — I have been intrigued to discover that a number of philosophers have tentatively made this same argument over the course of the twentieth century, often in passing and in comments that seem to be generally overlooked. They offer breadcrumbs that allow us to reconstruct not just a misused clinical narcissism but a critical one.
Jacques Derrida, for instance, argued there is not one narcissism, but many, claiming that, “without a movement of narcissistic reappropriation, the relation to the other would be absolutely destroyed, it would be destroyed in advance.” Recalling Freud’s comment “that another person’s narcissism has a great attraction for those who have renounced part of their own narcissism and are in search of object-love”, Derrida insists that the “relation to the other … must trace a movement of reappropriation in the image of oneself for love to be possible”.
It sounds like a twisted logic, but it is a form of narcissism many of us experience every day. Still, its history is complex… For Freud, this form of narcissism was essentially misogynistic — he uses the example of men, devoid of self-awareness, who love narcissistic women because it gives them something to chase. It is the narcissism of the hunt. But for Derrida, this same understanding needn’t be used so restrictively and with such a moralistic overtone. This kind of narcissistic love is, in fact, very useful, even natural. It entangles you in another. It is to fall in love with a certain reflection of yourself in another’s eyes. Just as certain people hunt lions, as if it is a form of game recognizing game in the natural world, in our own social relations we frequently talk about how to love someone “brings out the best in you”. It is to acknowledge that you might love yourself more when you are with them. But this is no straight-forward self-centeredness. Just as Ovid’s Narcissus tears himself apart, both in love with himself and tormented by the inaccessibility of himself, it is a kind of narcissism that often leads to ego-death rather than becoming a red flag for a poor understanding of sociopathy.
Most tellingly, it is a form of love made as natural as breathing when we have children. (We can, of course, love others in this way, and the point is perhaps that we should, by no longer restricting this understanding of love to our immediate family.) The love you have for a child is an unconditional love, for instance, which does not simply mean “I will love you no matter what you do”, but, as Deleuze writes in Proust & Signs, it is “to love without being loved, because love implicates the seizure of these possible worlds in the beloved, worlds that expel me as much as they draw me in”. Again, this is something we intuit in our love of our children. For Freud, the “charm of a child lies in a great extent in his narcissism, his self-contentment and inaccessibility, just as does the charm of certain animals which seem not to concern themselves about us, such as cats and the large beasts of prey.” It is a love for those who possess a “narcissistic consistency with which they manage to keep away from their ego anything that might diminish it.” So too for Deleuze, who notes that this kind of love also implores us “to stop loving, because the emptying of the worlds, the explication of the beloved, lead the self that loves to its death.”
This form of narcissism makes more sense in our present moment when we consider the reasons why a derogatory “narcissism” is as applicable to Donald Trump as it is to the Black Lives Matter movement. Our limited understanding and fear of narcissism is, in fact, nothing more than the doubling down on narcissism itself. Neoliberalism is built on ideological positions of idealism and individualism, and so the fact that conservative commentators see narcissism as a symptom of decline is an example of a cultural hegemony reaping what it has sown. But whereas Trump is “narcissistic” in a manner broadly encouraged by society, especially among elites, the Black Lives Matter movement is a project for encouraging black communites to love without being loved, to love each other, vouch and protect each other, when the world at large has no love for black interests in turn. Often denounced as a kind of “collective narcissism”, Black Lives Matter is narcissistic in the only way that matters — an understanding that has been eradicated from our social understanding of the term in favour of a moral panic about taking too many selfies.
Perhaps the best way of understanding this split is through the words etymological root: narce. Though a promiscuous prefix, it most notably gives us the word “narcotic”, which reflects its usage as a cure for everything from cancers to earache in the ancient world, as well as a sense of intoxication. But this sense of narce does not and has never existed in a “narcissistic” vacuum of “psychedelic fascism”, but provides us with new grounds for “psychedelic reason”, as well as social change and adaptation. Just as Ovid’s Narcissus went through a metamorphosis, transforming himself violently from man to flower, representing nature’s self-overcoming, narcissism in many psychoanalytic contexts is not being trapped within neoliberalism’s enclosure of the self but finding a way out through the self. Our negative understanding of narcissism both moralizes against, whilst keeping us encased within, the former; the latter, though it is demanded and struggled for constantly, is avoided. This is not amnesia but ideology. Narcissism is restricted as a way to interpret the world, cleft of its capacity to change it.