My old series of posts on True Norwegian Black Metal, “Cascading Adolescence”, recently got a little polish before being stitched together and translated into French. The final product has been published in issue #13 of Audimat, available here, alongside essays by Simon Reynolds, Dave Tompkins, Dan Dipiero, Fanny Quément, Catherine Guesde, and George Prochnik.
The intro for the essay on their website is very nice and made me blush. It captures the thrust of the essay beautifully — an essay about True Norwegian Black Metal that considers “the relationships that this scene maintains with adolescence, of which Colquhoun reveals the metaphysical significance: if we are to continue to cherish the experience of adolescence, and that although it always save it from itself, it is because immaturity is political and it is now a problem of cosmic scale.” (Also, the idea that my neurotic and excessive blogging makes me something of a Stakhanovite gave me a great laugh.) Read the intro in French and in full below:
Matt Colquhoun est un blogger britannique stakhanoviste, l’un des derniers à entretenir la flamme d’une scène d’auteurs qui nous fut chère. Il publie en ligne sous le nom de Xenogothic, en référence explicite à son modèle, feu Mark Fisher, qui est aussi le sujet de son premier ouvrage récemment paru, Egress. Ce texte adapté de son blog marque l’entrée tonitruante du Black Metal dans Audimat, à travers le retour sur quelques figures fondatrices du « True Norwegian Black Metal » et leurs émules. Bardé de références érudites, cet article indique sans doute l’un des rapports possibles à ce genre. Nul besoin d’être un spécialiste néanmoins pour être sensible aux relations que cette scène entretient avec l’adolescence, dont Colquhoun dégage la portée métaphysique : si nous devons continuer de chérir l’expérience de l’adolescence, et cela bien qu’il nous faille toujours la sauver d’elle-même, c’est parce que l’immaturité est politique et qu’elle est désormais un problème d’échelle cosmique.
If you’re just a filthy Anglo, you can read the original series of posts by following these links: Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4.
A really fucking excellent comment from Ed, responding to my earlier post on Fisher and Bataille, that fills in a bunch of gaps in my understanding of the context of the original anti-Bataille lecture Mark is commenting on. Ed draws the same conclusions but from a much broader historical perspective than I’m in possession of.
As ever, I’d hate for this to languish “below the line” — because who reads comments here apart from me? — so here it is in full for your pleasure:
I’ve thought about that bit about Ginzburg quite a bit in the past, and spent some time trying to track down his writings on Bataille. Almost came to the point of thinking that it was a sort of theory-fictional critique of Bataille using the actual figure of Ginzburg as an avatar (because Ginzburg’s scholarship elsewhere is top-notch, and his work on the witch’s sabbath is an important source in early CCRU materials like the ‘swollen footnotes’ to “Flatlines”). But eventually I found a reference to Ginzburg’s critique in Dennis Hollier’s “Absent Without Leave: French Literature Under the Threat of War” and in an essay by Susan Suleiman. The latter is particularly interesting because she draws a comparison between Ginzburg and Zeev Sternhell, who is pretty much the person who tried to cement a historical connection between the ‘counter-enlightenment’ and fascism. Sternhell and other scholars close to this camp use this dynamic to diagnose a host of individuals, even those opposed to fascism like Bataille, as being covertly fascist (Sorel too was made persona non grata from this camp). But this critique is rooted in a particular iteration of liberalism, one that holds the Enlightenment — particularly the line running through Kant and his French followers — as the source of liberalism, democracy, etc.
Sternhell’s critique has no time for the way that Adorno and Horkheimer problematize the Enlightenment, and basically dismisses them with a hand-wave saying that they are effectively characterizing the Kantian-French-liberal tradition. But Sternhell is missing the meat of the argument, that this trajectory does lead to liberal democracy, but also leads to this other thing, and that these currents are not counterposed but locked together into a continuum (which can easily be reconciled via a materialist analysis). And instead of doubling back to ‘make good’ on the Enlightenment’s promises, Adorno himself certainly seemed to want to find something beyond it (leading blackpilled Horkheimer to accuse him of having a ‘penchant for theology’)… hence negative dialectics, with its emphasis on differentiation, nonidentity, etc. It seems to me that Bataille was working towards a similar aim, also drawing up radical differentiation, nonidentity… like in his letters to Kojève, writing of something unable to be assimilated into synthesis — shades of Marcuse: “the outside… [is] the qualitative difference which overcomes the existing antitheses inside the antagonistic partial whole — and remains ‘leftover’.” And from there, to Lacan and his real, the incompleteness of the symbolic, the gap, denial of permanent, stable resolution — and thus to Fisher himself, with his great debt to Lacan! There’s a debate, earlier on in K-punk, where somebody raises Lacan’s relationship to Bataille in response to the condemnation of the latter, that Fisher dismisses… but like you point out above and in Egress, the limit experience is something pursued by both, and is refracted through influences that sync together in a common intellectual history (I would go as far as to draw comparisons between Fisher’s attempts circa 2004-05 to build a Lacanian-Spinozist theology based on the seething cosmic void — which I suspect Nick cribbed a bit from for his Gnon-theology — and Bataille’s own fascination with the negative tradition within Catholic theology).
I guess what I’m trying to say really just echoes what you are saying, lol: that Fisher’s own work can just as easily be read as being ‘counter-enlightenment’ as Bataille, even if he was more committed to a (very atyptical) rationalism far more that our weird Frenchmen. After all, how does he present the remaking of the world? Not simply in the rational remaking of the world, but in libidinal engineering, limit-experiences, strange references to shamanism and sorcery, gaps, ritual and myth… in other words, all the things one would find in the workings of the College de Sociologie!
Taken from Fisher’s review of a Carlo Ginzberg lecture from 2004, originally posted on the Hyperstition blog [currently down but available here], Bataille and the College of Sociology receive a bit of a damning appraisal. Mark writes:
Between Baudelaire and Foucault lie Bataille and the College de Sociologie, but implicit in Ginzburg’s narrative was a total debunking of any claims that Bataille’s advocacy of cruelty, sacrifice and the transgressive was in any way ‘radical’. On the contrary, and as should be clear by now, the College’s withdrawal from reason, its conception of the cosmos as a gigantic cruelty machine, is part of a well-established reactionary tradition.
Bataille emerged in Ginzburg’s story as a figure frighteningly close to Dostoyevsky’s Underground Man — a minor civil servant with fantasies that would be dangerous if they had any possibility of being enacted. Thankfully, they didn’t (‘Bataille was not a man of action,’ Ginzburg remarked, in a masterpiece of understatement). The story of Bataille’s ludicrous attempt to become a human sacrifice (he offered himself to three people, none of whom would kill him) is as comic as it is pathetic.
The connection between Bataille and fascism should by now be obvious: the same withdrawal from secularized modernity into a blood cult, the same ‘alphabet of unreason’ (Ballard). Naturally, it’s too quick, too crass, to say that Bataille was a fascist. But Ginzburg did more than enough to establish that it wasn’t for nothing that the Acephale group were accused of being ‘Surfascists’ (a name they themselves happily appropriated). The group had praised Hitler’s virile forthrightness and Bataille, Ginzburg said, had been bewitched by the phallic power of the Nazis. He sought, impossibly, tragically, to attain the ‘innocence of animals’, to sink into the porcine ignorance-bliss of a creature consciousness unburdened by intellect and reason.
I was aware of this post but never paid it much mind. I don’t know this Ginzberg but the appraisal of Bataille and the College offered up here is as batshit and reaching as an Elisabeth Förster-Nietzsche appraisal of Nietzsche. And yet, perhaps this post is more worthy of acknowledgement, particularly given the fact that my book on Mark draws on Bataille quite extensively.
A few weeks back, Dominic Fox pulled on a similar thread that no doubt had this old post at the end of it, believing that many of the references in Egress to those French inter-war crazies are “disorientatingly inapposite”. This was coupled with a few reported comments from Owen Hatherley that Mark thought Blanchot a snob and Bataille silly.
At the time, I didn’t see why those opinions should have any bearing on the references used by another. A book that stuck to Mark’s own references would hardly be that interesting a read, or a book that I’d feel comfortable calling mine. And so, the only real thing I took away from these bitchy comments was that I could have perhaps clarified where my tastes diverge — sometimes pointedly — from Mark’s own in my book. (My response at the time was that I didn’t see the need and anxiously that drawing lines around things would only interfere with — and potentially undermine — the project at hand.) But I think it’s also worth explaining why Mark’s view of these thinkers — if his views had indeed remained the same since 2004 (personally, I have my doubts about that) — was sadly mistaken.
As far as I’m concerned, Mark’s appraisal of Bataille — at least at this time — is hypocritical and inaccurate — and all the more so in hindsight. Many of his (second-hand) critiques of the College above could just as easily be applied to the Ccru, for instance — and I’m sure some readers would nod along to that with glee. But what becomes apparent to me, very quickly, in reading Mark’s work, is that his critiques and his vigilance regarding the role of culture and aesthetics in constituting a political imaginary often come quite close to Bataille’s own.
Like punk, Surrealism is dead as soon as it is reduce to an aesthetic style. It comes unlive again when it is instantiated as a delirial program (just as punk comes unlive when it is effectuated as an anti-authoritarian, acephalic contagion-network). Chtcheglov resists the aestheticization of Surrealism, and treats De Chirico’s paintings, for instance, not as particular aesthetic contrivances, but as architectural blueprints, ideals for living. Let’s not look at a De Chirico painting —- let’s live in one.
From the same post, Mark recalls a quip made by Iain Hamilton Grant:
Remember that Andre Breton thought that the British – with Edward Lear , Lewis Carroll and their ludic ilk – had little need of Surrealism, since they were already Surrealist. (Though it’s always worth bearing in mind, when thinking of Breton, Iain Hamilton Grant’s elegant put-down at Virtual Futures 94. Grant was incredulously pondering Jameson’s formulation, ‘Surrealism without the unconscious’. ‘What would that be? Breton I suppose…’ LOL)
This was Bataille’s critique of Breton also. Indeed, when Bataille embraced the “surfascist” insult applied to him — as Mark recounts with an air of horror — he did so because it situated him precisely where he wanted to be: above fascism whilst under occupation.
This was a far more preferable position than that of the Surrealists who had, as Bataille writes in his essay “The ‘Old Mole'”, “continued persistently to express their basic predilection for values above the ‘world of facts’ with such banal formulas as ‘revolt of the Spirit’, etc.” For Bataille — contrary to Ginzberg’s appraisal reported by Mark above — it was better to be “above” the mythological realm of the Third Reich than to be “above” reason.
Similarly, Bataille’s critique of the Surrealists also echoes Fisher’s critique of the hippies and the counterculture, who allowed their “revolutionary” aesthetics to disarticulate class struggle from any vaguely political gesture. Bataille again writes:
It is of course difficult to avoid a feeling of contempt for revolutionaries to whom the revolution is not, before all else, the decisive phrase of the class struggle. Nevertheless we are not concerned with ephemeral reactions, but with a verification of a general nature: any member of the bourgeoisie who has become conscious that his most vigorous and vital instincts, if he does not repress them, necessarily make him an enemy of his own class, is condemned, when he loses heart, to forge at once values situated ABOVE all those values, bourgeois or otherwise, conditioned by the order of real things.
As I argue in Egress, this critique finds its most pointed articulation in Bataille’s novel Blue of Noon, but the point of Bataille’s essay here (which, for what its worth, does not appear in my book) is precisely to psychoanalyse the bourgeois repressions that allow the Surrealists to embrace their superficial freedom. He writes:
With few exceptions, this is the pitiful psychology of bourgeois revolutionaries before the Marxist organisation of the class struggle. It leads to a representation of revolution as redemptive light rising above the world, above classes, the overflowing of spiritual elevation and Lamartinian bliss.
Here we find Bataille connecting Marx to a politics of below, preempting the Deleuzo-Guattarian “Geology of Morals” and its implicit relevance to a truly surrealist materialism, connecting the earth to the psyche and to class consciousness. Bataille continues, explaining his titular reference:
“Old Mole”, Marx’s resounding expression for the complete satisfaction of the revolutionary outburst of the masses, must be understood in relation to the notion of a geological uprising as expressed in the Communist Manifesto. Marx’s point of departure has nothing to do with the heavens, preferred station of the imperialist eagle as of Christian or revolutionary utopias. He begins in the bowels of the earth, as in the materialist bowels of proletarians.
There is a double-articulation here, of course, just as there is in Deleuze and Guattari’s version. To say that the proletariat must “wallow in the mud” is nonetheless to affirm the hierarchy of capitalism. This is arguably an attempt here to make the plane of revolution more horizontal, just as Nietzsche’s thought (through Zarathustra most explicitly) takes on a quasi-religious form when taking the view from the summit — viewing the world from above, on mountaintops that are, nonetheless, instances of ground raised up through tectonic movement. Embodying a sort of atheistic Buddha or the proto-communist Franciscan monks, Zarathustra’s appeal, then, is to a “highest poverty”.
The real problem with Surrealism, then, just as Grant reportedly quipped, is that it rises high only to forget about the low — it ascends beyond any real engagement with the Unconscious, for instance, or similarly dwells in the Unconscious without making contact with the political realm of action. For Bataille, in this same sense, Surrealism finds itself as little more than a “servile idealism” that rests impotently on nothing more than a “will to poetic agitation”. As above, so below — or don’t bother.
The Surrealists, obviously, did not like this attack and it created a vicious rift between Bataille and Breton that would persist all through the war. Taking this ‘Old Mole’ article — and perhaps Bataille’s other text, “The Psychological Structure of Fascism” — into account, they proceed to denounce Bataille was a surfascist, as if to say he is a hypocrite in taking a stand and looking down upon them. Again, Bataille would no doubt argue that this was his Nietzschean perspective — he cast judgement upon them from his “view from the summit” and was capable of doing so without abandoning the politics of below.
Stuart Kendall, in his translator’s introduction to Bataille’s On Nietzsche, has a particularly illuminating passage on the emergence of the insult that Bataille embraced. He writes:
The precise origin and intended meaning of the term “surfascism” remain in dispute. Henri Dubief attributes it to Jean Dautry as wordplay modeled on “Surrealism”. Pierre Andler has also claimed responsibility for it, and we encouter the term in a note on fascism he wrote in April 1936: “Just as fascism is only a definitive surmarxism, a Marxism put back on its feet, similarly the power that will reduce it can only be a surfascism. Fascism does not refer to itself as surmarxism, since it is called fascism. Similarly, surfascism will not refer to itself as surfascism. It is not forbidden to seek the name that surfacism will bear tomorrow.” Henri Pasoureau, for his part, claimed in a letter to scholar Marina Galletti that “the word surfascism had been invented by the Surrealists. It can designate both a surpassed fascism (positive) or an exacerbated fascism (negative).” As a charge leveled against [Bataille’s counter-surrealist group] Counter Attack by the Surrealist group, the term is clearly intended negatively, as an assertion that Bataille and his other collaborators — including Georges Ambrosino and Pierre Klossowski, among others — were “more fascist than the fascists.” There was more than a little truth to the accusation, and intentionally so. In a letter to Pierre Kaan written in February 1934, during the planning stages of Counter Attack, Bataille had said explicitly: “I have no doubt as to the level on which we must place ourselves: it can only be that of fascism itself, which is to say on the mythological level.”
The accusation of surfascism, in the very thick of his militancy against fascism, seems to have been just the provocation that would push Bataille not only to manifest his Nietzscheanism overtly but also to give it a central place in his political program moving forward. As he wrote to Roger Caillois weeks before the war began: “My insistence on claiming Nietzsche for myself alone indicates the direction I’m going.” The nature and continuity of this concern is my point here. Despite the chaos of the era and the apparent chaos of the texts, from the accusation of sur-fascism in 1936 to the writing of Sur Nietzche in 1944, Bataille’s thought betrays a profound, though not seamless, continuity. […]
Bataille’s Promethean push, in both Acéphale and On Nietzsche, would be to steal some fire from the Nazis — to steal Nietzsche back from them by demonstrating that he was neither bourgeois nor nationalist nor an anti-Semite.
It was with this understanding of Bataille’s trajectory in mind, having studied it for much of 2017, that I remember first making my case that Bataille was less antithetical to Mark than Mark himself may have at one time believed. I first said this in a reading group on Mark’s “Acid Communism” at Somerset House in London in 2018. It was Dan Taylor, at that time, who similarly brought up Bataille in orbit of some of Mark’s later works and, erring on the side of caution, I seem to remember that Dan invoked Bataille as a thinker that Mark would not have had a lot of time for. I remember interjecting and saying something along the lines of: whilst that may have been true, I think Bataille has more bearing on Mark’s work, particularly later on, than he may have been aware of.
Mark’s writings on rave and the fête, for instance, or on Lyotard and accelerationism, betray Bataille as a silent collaborator, who influenced many of those thinkers that Mark was more prepared to take seriously. I think this is especially true after the advent of Accelerationism. Noys’ critique that many post-’68 philosophers were fetishising a philosophical negativity, for instance, was roundly flipped by Mark in his essay “Terminator versus Avatar” in a positively Bataillean fashion. The essay begins:
In the introduction to his 1993 translation of Lyotard’s Libidinal Economy, Iain Hamilton Grant refers to a certain ‘maturity of contemporary wisdom.’ According to this ‘maturity’, Grant observes, Economie Libidinale was ‘a minor and short-lived explosion of a somewhat naive anti-philosophical expressionism, an aestheticizing trend hung over from a renewed interest in Nietzsche prevalent in the late 1960s’. Grant groups Lyotard’s book with three others: Deleuze and Guattari’s Anti-Oedipus, Luce Irigaray’s Speculum of the OtherWoman and Baudrillard’s Symbolic Exchange and Death. ‘Libidinal Economy has in general drawn little critical response,’ Grant continues, ‘save losing Lyotard many Marxist friends. Indeed, with a few exceptions it is now only Lyotard himself who occasionally refers to the book, to pour new scorn on it, calling it his “evil book, the book that everyone writing and thinking is tempted to do”.’ This remained the case until Ben Noys’ Persistence of the Negative, in which Noys positions Libidinal Economy and Anti-Oedipus as part of what he calls an ‘accelerationist’ moment.
He continues, a little later on:
Of the 70s texts that Grant mentions in his round-up, Libidinal Economy was in some respects the most crucial link with 90s UK cyber-theory. It isn’t just the content, but the intemperate tone of Libidinal Economy that is significant. Here we might recall Žižek’s remakrs on Nietzsche: at the level of content, Nietzsche’s philosophy is now eminently assimilable, but it is the style, the invective, of which we cannot imagine a contemporary equivalent, at least not one that is solemnly debated in the academy. Both Iain Grant and Ben Noys follow Lyotard himself in describing Libidinal Economy as a work of affirmation, but, rather like Nietzsche’s texts, Libidinal Economy habitually defers its affirmation, engaging for much of the text in a series of (ostensibly parenthetical) hatreds. While Anti-Oedipus remains in many ways a text of the late 60s, Libidinal Economy anticipates the punk 70s, and draws upon the 60s that punk retrospectively projects. Not far beneath Lyotard’s ‘desire-drunk yet’ lies the No of hatred, anger and frustration: no satisfaction, no fun, no future. These are the resources of negativity that I believe the left must make contact with again. But it’s now necessary to reverse the Deleuze-Guattari / Libidinal Economy emphasis on politics as a means to greater libidinal intensification: rather, it’s a question of instrumentalising libido for political purposes.
It is my view that, if anyone exists at the heart of this endeavour, this project that Mark would carry forwards into his Acid Communism — and, as a soon-to-be-released project will demonstrate, accelerationism and its discourses were the most important influence on Mark’s emerging thought on Acid Communism — it is Bataille.
It is Bataille who exists at the heart of Lyotard’s reading of Marx and it is Bataille’s attacks of the fascist caricature of Nietzsche and on Surrealism that foreshadow Mark’s own accelerationist manoeuvres and capitalist-realist critiques — whether Mark liked him or not. In fact, it is Mark, in many respects, who I see carrying forward the original Landian mode of accelerationism, perhaps even more so than Reza’s Cyclonopedia, into new productive territories — precisely because he interrogates this mode rather than just LARPing it. It is sur-Landian to Reza’s fan fiction.
This is to say that, just as the Ccru has found itself derided for its appeals to a “macho neoliberalism” or a “Deleuzo-Thatcherism”, this negative appraisal is sidestepped by Mark and made positive, just as Bataille affirmed the positive reading of the surfascist insult for his own purposes.
In Fisher’s hands, accelerationism becomes a surneoliberalism proper, taking a view from the summit and reaffirming the importance of class struggle that the Ccru may have, at times, abstracted a little too much. His psychedelic reason collides with Bataille’s own project of a materialist surrealism that rejects the bourgeois impotence of a purely artistic movement. It was similarly Mark’s call for a “democracy of joy” that echoes the fury of Bataille’s own ethical call for a “practice of joy in the face of death”, as a rejection of neoliberalism’s Pod-person affectless cheeriness; its happiness at the expense of autonomy. It is also Bataille’s strange habit of joustin with his own agnosticism that foreshadows Mark’s own Spinozist call for a kind of atheistic religion.
Others might pour scorn on my own uses of Bataille (and Blanchot) in orbit of a Mark who publicly denounced them, but a decent familiarity with either thinker surely reveals that these lines were previously drawn in haste — by Mark especially. We needn’t do the same and remain in ignorance, especially at a time of great political confusion that echoes the time of the College of Sociology. The left once again finds itself maligned by a kind of mythological propaganda from the right, and whilst the College may not have been successful, and its forms may no longer resonate with society today, their militantly antifascist aims certainly do — and their surfascism especially.
Update #1: Ed Berger’s comment on this post — below, and given a post of its own here — is an essential addition to the above. I’d implore you to read it.
Sterling’s blog has been an interesting vector for weirder goings-on in cyberspace and, in his farewell post, he talks about how that was always his intention. (We were chuffed back in 2018 when Bruce posted about Vast Abrupt, for instance.) Bruce writes:
When I first started the “Beyond the Beyond” blog, I was a monthly WIRED columnist and a contributing editor. Wired magazine wanted to explore the newfangled medium of weblogs, and asked me to give that a try. I was doing plenty of Internet research to support my monthly Wired column, so I was nothing loath. I figured I would simply stick my research notes online. How hard could that be?
That wouldn’t cost me much more effort than the duty of writing my column — or so I imagined. Maybe readers would derive some benefit from seeing some odd, tangential stuff that couldn’t fit within a magazine’s paper limits. The stuff that was — you know — less mainstream acceptable, more sci-fi-ish, more far-out and beyond-ish — more Sterlingian.
Simon writes that a lot of Sterling’s reflections on the use of blogging chime with his own feelings: “the value of unpaid labour: writing as freeform fun, as mental calisthenics, as intellectual hygiene… the blog as public notepad, a testing space or site for the construction of thought-probes.” (It makes blogging feel like a natural outlet for Robin’s brand of pop philosophy discussed a few weeks back — but then, of course it does.)
But blogging is also very messy, of course. There are plenty of weeks where I feel like I’m just posting inconsistent shite. It can be a challenge, sometimes, to accept those weeks as being just as much a part of the process, as the good stuff, the “popular” stuff — the swings from consistency and inconsistency, half-thoughts and full thoughts — and so it is great to see others, who have blogged for so long and published so much that I admire, relating to their blogs in much the way. As Simon writes:
One of the problems with having a blog (or blogs multiple) is that you start thinking bloggy — everything becomes potential “material”, something that could be turned into a riff with only a smidgeon of effort, given the lax standards of the format and the tolerance of the readership. The incontinence you see (not here these days, but still on the other blogs) is a fraction of the stuff that I have in bulging folders of scrawled notes… and there is more that never even reached paper at all.
(Perhaps this level of mind-churn was always going on — and getting emitted in letters and later in emails — both of which tend to go copious — or in conversations in pubs and elsewhere. I don’t know. But there’s something about the itch caused by having a blog outlet that is generative, for good and for bad).
This is similarly echoed by Bruce over at Wired, who embraces the public notebook approach, even when it is at its most casual and self-serving, affirming that it really is a useful exercise, despite the occasionally sloppy optics:
The blog never trolled for any viral hits, or tried to please any patrons. Also, I never got paid anything for my blogging, which was probably the key to the blog’s longevity. This blog persisted with such ease, because there was so much that I didn’t have to do.
I keep a lot of paper notebooks in my writerly practice. I’m not a diarist, but I’ve been known to write long screeds for an audience of one, meaning myself. That unpaid, unseen writing work has been some critically important writing for me — although I commonly destroy it. You don’t have creative power over words unless you can delete them.
It’s the writerly act of organizing and assembling inchoate thought that seems to helps me. That’s what I did with this blog; if I blogged something for “Beyond the Beyond,” then I had tightened it, I had brightened it. I had summarized it in some medium outside my own head. Posting on the blog was a form of psychic relief, a stream of consciousness that had moved from my eyes to my fingertips; by blogging, I removed things from the fog of vague interest and I oriented them toward possible creative use.
It’s a genuine relief to read both of these reflections, particularly right now.
For what it’s worth, my current feeling — particularly as I try and tentatively turn a few bits of recent book-writing into blog-writing, and worry about potentially undermining some distant final product in the process — is that the blog is nonetheless still an essential tool. Without it, as I’ve found in recent weeks, the whole project quickly gets constipated and backed up in places. Not throwing down some stray thought, in the very moment I have it — articulating something no matter how brief and broken off from a wider context — often means it falls out of my head. Collecting things in some Word document somewhere just doesn’t do the trick. It’s becomes part of some piecemeal swamp. Making something at least bloggable, even if it means taking ten minutes to polish a thought rather than just scribbling it off hand and immediately filing it away, makes the thought stick better. As overused as the analogy is, every blogpost is a seed planted. To write it down is to stick it in the ground and see if it sprouts anything later. As Bruce puts it so perfect, and as Simon quotes for his post’s title: you tighten it and brighten it.
This is why blogging is so important for me personally. It is an opportunity to capture a first thought, no matter how fleeting and under-developed. In my experience, over the last three years that I’ve been word-blogging — as opposed to the ten years before that I spent strictly photo-blogging — this is always worth it in the long run. It was worth it with photography too. It helped to hone an eye and a taste for form that felt like my own. But with photography, there felt like there was little room for development beyond that. The gulf between blog and book felt so big. With writing, after about a year or so at least, that doesn’t feel like the case.
I think this is because blog posts of all kinds end up capturing some kernel of something, and taking the time to formulate it in some form, because of the blog’s public nature, often proves very fruitful later. So, in the spirit of Simon’s nod to Ivor Cutler — “I believe in blogs”— I ended up putting on that Ginsberg-inspired Arhtur Russell record: First Thought, Best Thought.
Beyond this, Bruce’s final post is really worth reading in full. I’m quite fascinated by this strange, perhaps counterintuitive picture he paints of himself as a kind of Batman-blogger:
My blog often had the sensibility of some midnight rookie patrolman with a flashlight, poking a night-stick into trash-heaps, watching rats and raccoons scatter. Cops know where the trouble is; they have to stay with the trouble; it’s their duty.
My blog was often darkly suspicious in tone, and keen to look for undersides and downsides. In retrospect, I can see that my blog promoted the blogger’s personal anxieties. Often, he wasn’t “informing the readers” so much as chasing half-seen wolves from his own doorstep. This wary, edgy view of life got a little monotonous sometimes, in the way that endless suspicion commonly does.
In public, cops are full of stoic dignity. But I’m not a cop, for I’ve never been a servant of the public peace and safety. My gift from the police was a lasting, burdensome awareness of dark motives, vulnerabilities and attack surfaces. That’s wisdom, but it costs an eye to get it.
This magpie ragpicking that I did within this blog, it was never scholarship; it wouldn’t make the readers morally better people; it was sometimes funny, but often just arcane, an autodidactic effort by some eccentric guy teaching himself things probably better not known by anyone. So I wouldn’t call the blog a “success,” yet it was still a success. As the late Mark E Smith used so say, back in the heyday of punk, “you don’t have to be weird to be weird; you don’t have to be strange to be strange.” That’s good advice; if you want to become original, you should keep an eye out for whatever you don’t-have-to.
There’s also some interesting advice for the present cyberspelunker, and a nice farewell as he enters blog — if not internet — retirement:
If I was a young person, and starting over today, I would not experiment with a weblog supported by a West Coast US technology magazine. Instead, I would try something more youthful in spirit, less conventional, more beyond-the-beyond. This blog was an experiment when I started it, but in modern conditions, it’s technically archaic; I’ve got a blog here that’s old enough to vote.
So I might well have gone on blogging here indefinitely, through dint of mature habit, but I can recognize that fate has handed me a get-out-of-jail-free card. The post-Internet may even be a different Monopoly board-game. So I will accept the situation graciously, and with a sense of contentment.
With all that, wonderfully said: ‘bye “Beyond the Beyond”. Thanks for the posts.
At the moment, I keep thinking — no doubt needlessly — about how a book about adoption, written by yours truly, could be perceived in the wider world. I have this anxiety, as I sink my teeth into it, that the end product might be appear, superficially at least, like a book that has been written with a very specific reader in mind — an adopted reader. In truth, I want to write a book about adoption that will be of interest to anyone.
I am left with a strange desire to start the book with a quick “hold on a minute…”. Something like: “If you have happened upon this book and assumed, at first glance, it was not written with you in mind, I would implore you to think again…”
The central premise of the book is that adoption is not an overtly specific topic, of interest only to those who identify with the central experience it implies. The adopted child is, instead, a quintessential subject, albeit one neglected for its apparent specificity despite the ubiquity of its cultural appearances.
Think about it. How many of your favourite characters in three millennia’s worth of cultural artefacts centre around orphans, adoptees, or fostered kids, all adrift from their roots?
There are hundreds of them.
There’s Moses, Oedipus, Hercules, Aladdin, Peter Pan, Oliver Twist, Pip from Great Expectations — probably a dozen Dickens characters, come to think of it — Harry Potter, Superman, Batman, Spider-Man, Worf from Star Trek, Eleven from Stranger Things, Tracey Beaker, the kid from Goodnight Mister Tom, Star-Lord from Guardians of the Galaxy, Jon Snow in Game of Thrones, the young King Arthur with his sword in the stone, that devil child from The Omen, the baby in Rosemary’s Baby, Pinocchio, Mowgli, Tarzan — being raised by animals is very relatable for many adoptees so, yes, it still counts… Which reminds me: Harry from Harry and the Hendersons, E.T. the Extraterrestrial,…
It doesn’t matter how aware of this phenomenon you think you are, there are always new names to add to such a list. Why? Because the adoption story is one of our greatest myths — that is, in a classic sense: the adoption story is one of our defining cultural narratives, foundational to society. And adoption does indeed define us, culturally speaking, albeit often in negative.
The recurring stories of how families are torn apart and individuals ripped from their roots tells us a great deal about how much value we place upon our families and our histories, but they also tell us how important it is for us to overcome these things and find our own paths.
To put it bluntly, adoption stories are universal. From the Bible and the tragedies of Ancient Greece via the legacies of slavery and the kindertransport to superheroes, wizards, and stranded aliens, adoption is everywhere. And yet, despite the ubiquity of this sort of story, which houses universal struggles of self-discovery and Self formation, the diffuse pain of an adoptee is perhaps the most singular and misunderstood form of pain culturally available to us.
For instance, I have always struggled to express the grief I felt growing up of not knowing anyone who looked like me, who had a face like mine, to anyone who took for granted a family resemblance — that is, the vast majority of people. Conversely, I have found it just as difficult to express the surreality of seeing and recognising myself in the face of another for the first time, as an adult, rapidly accelerating through a phase of cognitive development otherwise skipped.
Nevertheless, I am grateful to have experienced both of these things. Not many adoptees can say the same. Many want to and may even have the opportunity to do so but they do not know how to approach the situation. And so many, like me, will begin to consult the relevant literature.
It is my hope that the book I’m working on will be beneficial and of interest to both kinds of reader. However, to write a book about adoption, as a reader of books about adoption, feels a bit like being conscripted into an eternal war; an unending battle to be heard. As you slot the latest motherly memoir back on the shelf beside you, before you sit down to write your own, you begin your inevitable mantra: This is my adoption book. There are many like it, but this one is mine…
Countless books have written over the last century or so that contend with this strange confluence of singular experiences — what I’ve referred to elsewhere, borrowing from Nancy Newton Verrier, as “the primal wound” — easing the adoptee into their own journey of self-discovery, untangling the knotted subjectivity they have been lumped with, deeply flawed as a result of their familial displacement, but doing all they can to make themselves feel whole — either again, or perhaps for the first time.
On my own journey, and in preparing to write my next book, I have been reading a lot of them. It is a veritable cottage industry. So much reading has not made me a cynic… yet. Every journey described and committed to the page is moving, in its own way. There is no doubt about that. Nevertheless, as with self-help books of any kind, they all end up giving more or less the same advice.
The sad truth is, once you’ve read one adoption book, you’ve read them all. The details might all be different but the general thrust never really changes. We still gobble them up though, whether we are adopted or not. There will forever be a market for stories of abandonment and reconciliation, search and discovery. Nevertheless, one can start to feel like many of these recounted experiences are akin to having your fortune told — in order to have a high success rate, the author must generalise without generalising.
It is my hope that my book to be something a little different. It will be less a book for the adoptee adrift and more of a book about the gulf between the universal and the particular, the social and the individual. It is, as its working title suggests — One or Several Mothers: Adoption and Subjectivity — a book about adoption and its relation to subjectivity… This are terms I feel I will need to define and clarify as I proceed — I don’t want to alienate anyone at the first hurdle… For now though, at least as I try to find a way to work through this project, in part, on the blog, it may be useful to begin with certain questions — questions I considered when first sitting down to write the first few chapers:
Can a book about adoption reveal a philosophy, an ethics, lingering in plain sight, in popular view, that has not yet been fully understood? Can it grasp at an understanding of subjectivity, legible to both adoptee and non-adoptee, that enriches the picture of human existence for all rather than just the affected few? Can it do so whilst avoiding the narrative cliches, getting down into the reality of an adopted existence without losing its worth for the general reader?
These questions sketch the outline of a book I longed for when consuming so much adoption literature — a book I could pass onto a friend or family member that didn’t advertise itself as helping the other understand me and any potentially abnormal behaviours and insecurities — which may sound strange but this is a unique selling point for many books on the adoptive experience (useful for you and your despairing friends and family) — but also reveal something to the other that might allow them to better understand themselves. After all, if we are all reading books and watching movies about adoptees all the time, why aren’t adoptees truly reaching outwards rather than inwards? Sharing their perspective rather than asking people to sympathise with theirs? Asking questions of everyone rather than those “just like us”?
These are the questions the book sets out to answer, but this is not to say that it is a book without precedence.
One of the central writers on adoption to feature throughout this book, both explicitly and implicitly, is Betty Jean Lifton. Born in 1926, Lifton wrote many books on a wide range of topics before her death in 2010. Perhaps best known for her children’s books and her writings on adoption, she also wrote a handful of books — some in collaboration with her husband, the psychiatrist Robert Jay Lifton — on the traumatic legacy of the bombing of Hiroshima on its residents, as well as a biography of Janusz Korczak — the children’s author, pediatrician, and orphanage director from Warsaw who heroically stayed with and died with the children in his charge when they were sent by the Nazis to the Treblinka extermination camp. He chose this fate, despite being repeatedly offered a chance to escape it by members of Warsaw’s Jewish police under Nazi occupation.
Lifton is perhaps the writer on adoption whom I admire most. She did not simply dedicate her life to a niche cause but rather a confluence of interconnected human traumas, from the uncommon to the hyper-specific, exploring the primal wounds and inherited guilt that are not only found diffusely in the adoption records of a hundred governments but in the unspoken intergenerational traumas that connect survivors of atomic bombings to survivors of the Holocaust, and the descendants of slaves to transracial adoptees. None of these experiences is equivalent to the other, of course, just as no adoption story is the same as any other, but the impact of each of these experiences creates a fragile web of relations that do not just define a minority of individuals but instead the very process of modernity in which we find ourselves captured. It is Lifton, then, perhaps more than any author, who has come closest to bridging the gap between the silent trauma of adoption and the intergenerational traumas that haunt the twentieth century.
It is this gesture, this investigative kernel, that I want my book’s subtitle to refer to, and the philosophical nature of this question similarly warrants some unpacking.
Whilst “adoption” is a word that does not require much explanation, it should be affirmed here that I want use it in its most literal sense. The “adoption” of the book’s title, then, does not only refer to the legal process of taking a child born of another as your own, but a more general process of choosing and being chosen. Children can often find themselves, in this sense, being adopted by individuals, couples, communities, and states. To be adopted is for choices to be made, on your behalf, by another body that exceeds the traditional given “rights” of biological parenthood. But it also refers to the secondary process of adoption that may occur later in life. This is to suggest that to be adopted is to have more choice than most over what one “adopts”. The adopted child, in this sense, may find themselves with one or several families, one or several homes, one or several histories. What makes a person who they are has never been subject to more contingencies.
It is the relations that connect these contingencies that make up an adoptee’s subjectivity, but this subjectivity is by no means unique. It may, nonetheless, provide us with a foundational “subjectivity” to first consider, becoming the revolving door through which any and all persons may find insights of their own. “Subjectivity”, then, more so than adoption, becomes a promiscuous word that requires some further definition.
The “subject” to which “subjectivity” refers can point to many things. In its original sense, we might think of how a person is a subject in a royal court; how kings and queens refer to their having “loyal subjects”. To be a subject, in this sense, is to be subjected; to be under the control of another; to be a citizen of nation, and to be subject to that nation’s laws.
“Subjectivity” might also be understood as the particularity of one’s own existence. We might talk about beauty as being subjective when we say it is in the eye of the beholder. We might also refer to the particular categories of identity into which one fits. Your subjectivity, in this sense, can be a sense of self, constructed both internally and externally — a sense of self that is produced by one’s own psychological development and the influence of outside (often social and structural) forces.
Here, two forms of subjectivity begin to overlap, which is to say that subjectivity is formed by that which we are subjected to: your sense of self is constructed through your implicit sense of gender, nationality, race, class, where you live, when you live, your job, your social responsibilities, etc., etc. In this sense, “subjectivity” is a concept as relevant to law and politics as it is to psychology, anthropology and philosophy.
When we think of an adoptee, is there an extent to which we can say that their present subjectivity — a sort of collective subjectivity, if such a thing can be said to exist — is damaged? Or, alternatively, stuck in a process of capture or change? Furthermore, considering how obsessed we are culturally with stories of adoption and displacement, might we say that this damaged subjectivity is a quintessential form of subjectivity that can be extended outwards to others? Whilst these questions may be specific, the extent to which our subjectivity is “damaged” or “stuck” has troubled much of modern philosophy and it is to this diffuse sense of rupture that I believe a closer consideration of the adoptive experience can provide insight.
Take, for instance, Theodor Adorno’s most celebrated work, Minima Moralia. Written during and in the years that immediately followed the Second World War, the German philosopher considered, from the vantage point of that great international trauma, the extent to which a modern subjectivity constitutes what he calls a “damaged life”, making any attempt to consider subjectivity an impossibility.
“Our perspective on life has passed into an ideology which conceals the fact that there is life no longer,” he writes damningly. For him, it is capitalism that is to blame. Life is no longer worth living “in-itself”, because it must be torturously lived “for-itself” — one way of saying that, under capitalism, we must live to survive rather than live just to live.
It is for this reason that Adorno argues, from the very beginning, that “considerations which start from the subject remain false to the same extent that life has become appearance.” Life is an illusion, in other words, in which our preoccupation with production and consumption has covered over the fact that modernity is a process aimed towards “the dissolution of the subject, without yet giving rise to a new one,” and so “individual experience necessarily bases itself on the old subject, now historically condemned, which is still for-itself, but no longer in-itself.” He continues:
The subject still feels sure of its autonomy, but the nullity demonstrated to subjects by the concentration camp is already overtaking the form of subjectivity itself. Subjective reflection, even if critically altered to itself, has something sentimental and anachronistic about it: something of a lament over the course of the world, a lament to be rejected not for its good faith, but because the lamenting subject threatens to become arrested in its condition and so to fulfil in its turn the law of the world’s course. Fidelity to one’s own state of consciousness and experience is forever in temptation of lapsing into infidelity, by denying the insight that transcends the individual and calls his substance by its name.
Here, Adorno is already attempting to come to terms with that scar across the modern subject — the Holocaust, as an aberration on the German, Jewish, and global psyche. It is a paragraph that seems entangled in a strange temporality. He is asking: who are we, after such an event? Who are the Germans? Who are the Jews? Who are we all that we could let something like this happen on our collective watch? Perhaps more worryingly, who were we before this event? And what aspects of our fated subjectivities led us to this point? When we become nostalgic for the good ol’ days, for traditional values, for a grounding that existed before ‘all this’, are we at risk of only longing for those seemingly innocuous things that nevertheless led to that. Such questions define the latter half of the twentieth century and every successive crisis only serves to further expose the fact that we are still without a categorical answer to any of them.
There will be plenty of opportunities to explore other figures than Adorno, who have also asked variations on questions such as these, but it is here perhaps, with him, that this central kernel finds its most concise expression. No matter the particular pressures of one’s existence, it is perhaps this challenge to subjectivity that we all feel to some extent in the here and now — the sense that our senses of self are based on certain “truths” that are now out-of-date. And yet, despite possessing a diffuse knowledge of this expiration, we remain trapped in a moment of subjective stasis, where the nature of life under capitalism, and the pressures of its particular brand of conformity, suspends whatever might be straining to come next.
The most visible example of such a stunted shift may be in relation to gender. Since the sexual liberations of the counterculture, in the 1960s and 1970s, we have seen the oppressive norms of gendered existence shift and slacken. Women’s social roles have, in many ways, been transformed — although, in some ways, not nearly enough. Men’s social roles have seen a reciprocal change but one which has, in many ways, led to a so-called “crisis of masculinity.” This is not to suggest that men are the victims of women’s liberation, although this is, of course, the argument voiced from many more reactionary quarters; the issue is, instead, that the social transformation of gender has been suspended for too long. The pieces were thrown up in the air but failed to land in any newly legible configuration, instead finding themselves trapped and suspended in a web of capitalist relations. As a result, our gendered subjectivities, progressing with nowhere to go, have instead become ingrown.
Another example of such a shift can also be found, explicitly, in the experiences of adopted children. At a time when the feminist clamour for social change through the abolition of the family has once again arisen with public discourse — with the reemergence of arguments dating back to the Seventies that reproductive labour should be transformed through new social relations and the latest technological advances — the question that is seldom asked, from this adoptee’s perspective, is what changes to the modern subject might these progressions produce?
Whilst a potential liberation from gendered oppression is to be welcomed absolutely, the question nonetheless remains worthy of inquiry. Adoptees are, in essence, the living test subjects of such an endeavour. We are often bastards — the displaced products of “alternative” social relations; we are children born of (often inadvertent) surrogate parents; we are subjects that have slipped between the familial structures that foreground those of society more generally. And yet, the primal trauma that defines our lives arguably becomes fuel for neuroses throughout our adult lives precisely because, as Adorno proposes, there is still no subject-to-come for us to embrace. Instead, the adopted child acutely feels their slippage from the biopolitical structure of the mother-son relation and broader family structure.
As ever, a new subject is required. This is not to suspend revolution over some impossible horizon, however. We may find, in our consideration of adoptees, that this subjectivity already exists. What is needed, no less of a drastic task, is for the world to finally change to accommodate it.
Having successfully passed through our close encounter with the coronavirus many weeks ago — my girlfriend had it and recovered; I’m (presumably) asymptomatic — my girlfriend and I have wanted nothing more than to go outside.
We spent at least a month, perhaps it was six weeks, not going outside our front door. After our stress lessen, we didn’t leave the neighbourhood. When the mood swings started getting quite intense, we knew we had to do something.
The lack of direct sunlight had already had a noticeable impact on our mental and physical health but, after getting moved on by police during a recent walk to the park in southeast London, we felt we had to go elsewhere to get fresh air and not feel like we were compounding how own paranoia.
Throwing all prior caution to the wind, we decided to get in the car and leave the bounds of the M25. At first, we had a destination in mind — remote and strategically chosen as to be wholly without tourist attraction, and a little too out-of-reach for the casual dogwalker. However, on the way, we found a dirt track into woodland that we felt immediately drawn to.
It could have been a clichéd start to a horror movie. Thankfully it was very much the opposite — whatever the opposite of a horror movie might be…
What followed was a couple of hours wholly devoid of human contact in which we sat in a glade that may have been the largest empty open space I’ve seen in months, before we then spent a while following deer through the woods, later taking a moment to sit in a Matrix armchair that made me feel a bit like Morpheus in the desert (forest?) of the Real.
The Baudrillardian visual joke felt strangely apt — and Baudrillard, of course, loved a joke. But it was an odd one to laugh along with. With the nation’s superego seemingly bloated on antibiotics, as we continued our battery hen-like existence, subsisting on an ideological drip feed and waiting for the next opportunity to clap, this first walk through nature felt like an opportunity to move through the world unseen for the first time in months. We were spared the judgements of others. We were also spared our own desire to judge and twitch at the curtains, wondering who is doing the most to protect their fellow citizens.
In Simulacra & Simulation, Baudrillard gives fugitive form to the Real as follows, writing:
If once we were able to view the Borges fable in which the cartographers of the Empire draw up a map so detailed that it ends up covering the territory exactly (the decline of the Empire witnesses the fraying of this map, little by little, and its fall into ruins, though some shreds are still discernible in the deserts — the metaphysical beauty of this ruined abstraction testifying to a pride equal to the Empire and rotting like a carcass, returning to the substance of the soil, a bit as the double ends by being confused with the real through aging) — as the most beautiful allegory of simulation, this fable has now come full circle for us, and possesses nothing but the discrete charm of second-order simulacra.
Today abstraction is no longer that of the map, the double, the mirror, or the concept. Simulation is no longer that of a territory, a referential being, or a substance. It is the generation by models of a real without origin or reality: a hyperreal. The territory no longer precedes the map, nor does it survive it. It is nevertheless the map that precedes the territory — precession of simulacra — that engenders the territory, and if one must return to the fable, today it is the territory whose shreds slowly rot across the extent of the map. It is the real, and not the map, whose vestiges persist here and there in the deserts that are no longer those of the Empire, but ours. The desert of the real itself.
There is a 1:1 ideological cartography that is felt acutely at the minute, and its frayed edges are certainly becoming more pronounced. Mid-quarantine, for instance, during the worst of it, it felt like everyone was paranoia and, at the same time, no one was doing enough. The paradox was exhausting and infuriating, as you felt like the inadequate eye of the state, like everything else, had been outsourced to the neighbourhood watch. Is an intensely paranoid citizenry better than a police state? I suppose things weren’t quite that bad…
Right now, as we look out at our neighbours like scornful curtain-twitchers — our neighbours who have done nothing to social distance, even having a house party as soon as the Boris Johnson hinted at the possibility of a slackening of restrictions — the gulf between us also seems to be second-hand. Is this gulf between incompetence and paranoia ours or has it been passed down to us by successive governments who embody these ill-fitting affects absolutely?
It is hard to tell in the midst of it all but, as with Baudrillard’s original Borges-inspired analogy, the woods we found ourselves in were distinctly not those of the “Empire”; of the state. We felt apart from the swirling mess of ideological tension and suddenly found a new perspective to look back at the world from. From here, Baudrillard’s thesis only became more apt, as we considered the ways that coronavirus has presented us with a crisis of sign-value, where generations of semiotic worth are undermined to the point that PPE, video games and self-raising flour are the only hot commodities left. It is the cyberpunk future the Stepford Wives always wanted, and it is as ineffectively distributed as ever.
As we walked through the woods, completely astounded, having almost forgotten what it was like to take a walk like this — which may sound melodramatic given how little time, in the grand scheme of things, had passed, but I think we have all been surprised by how intensely time can be compressed at present — we talked about where in the world we would have preferred to spend quarantine if we could have had the choice. This had been a common question, under present circumstances, but it was made all the more immanently psychedelic on our walk in the woods, as if to say it out loud would summon such a place behind the next bend.
Before we left the house, I’d seen a photo of Wittgenstein’s philosocabin on Twitter and so, when my girlfriend asked wistfully about where I’d like to be, it was the first place to come to mind.
I thought about Norway — and the towering trees around us helped manifest it — but I’m sorry to say I’ve never been. The closest we have gotten to Scandinavia is Denmark, where we’d spent some time north of Copenhagen, on the coast, not far from a village called Taarbæk.
The first time we went was in winter, having had the unexpected opportunity to go on holiday and stay in a small house on campus at DTU whilst a member of my partner’s family was working there. We went back a few times afterwards. I don’t think I’ve ever been anywhere more beautiful. It’s still my happy place. I’d give anything to be back there right now.
Walking through those woods in Surrey, as if walking through a dream of the more dense regions of the Jægersborg Dyrehave, there was a certain guilt hanging over our meandering. We knew that, up to now, we’d been more self-disciplined than most under quarantine, partly through necessity as an obviously infectious little unit, but to be outside that day was so far beyond the advice given by the state. And yet, we found ourselves more isolated than we had been in weeks. We felt disorientated, coming to terms with the fact that what felt like the right thing to do felt way beyond the state’s understanding of the public good.
This was compounded by the fact that living in London under lockdown had felt like an impossible task. Everyone lives on top of each other; London is already its own form of wet market, in a way, as we all jostle for position in these infernal stacks.
We passed three mounds of ant nests on our walk out and I had never felt more relieved to be outside the city limits. We were like two scavengers detached from the swarm and it felt, at times, like we might have died and gone to heaven. The blankets of bluebells certainly had a lot to do with that. We were the happiest we’d been in weeks, finally being able to, somewhat paradoxically, isolate ourselves away from our futile isolation.
From Denmark, my mind wandered to Kierkegaard’s Antigone. I’ve been thinking about her a lot these last few months, trying to chart a complex contained within a throwaway tweet, ricocheting from Hegel to Lacan to Nietzsche to Blanchot to Irigaray to Butler to Žižek and now to Kierkegaard.
Antigone, daughter of Oedipus, in Sophocles’ original play, is caught between family and state — or, we might say, similarly to us, personal responsibility and the law of the state. With her father dead, her brothers too, she and her sister Ismene find themselves bereft, adrift in a life that has brought little but grief and sorrow. They are cursed, thanks to their father’s misadventures, and seem to be struggling with the full emergence of a fate they always knew would come.
Then, to add a final insult to their myriad injuries: Creon, the king of Thebes, has decreed that the body of Antigone’s brother, Polynices, killed in battle, cannot be buried or mourned. “He’s to be left unwept, unburied,” Antigone reports to her sister, “a lovely treasure for birds that scan the field and feast to their heart’s content.” She knows the law, but she cannot stand it.
In this way, the play dramatises the classic tragic interplay between the state and one’s own conscience. Antigone cannot obey Creon’s decree. No matter her brother’s actions — he fought on the wrong side in a battle to overthrow Creon — she cannot leave him unmourned to rot in the sun. He is blood. His fate, to her, is unthinkable.
This conflict has been analysed by many. However, Kierkegaard’s intervention in the reception of Sophocles’ slippery heroine is particularly influential. He reimagines her in his own time but also preempting what she might become. This is to say that Kierkegaard’s is a modernist Antigone. No longer is she cast between her brother’s carcass and the laws of the state. Instead, the conflict occurs internally.
This view is one that, today — as I have perhaps already (inadvertently) demonstrated — comes all too easily. Kierkegaard charts, however, how a certain shift has occurred, between how Antigone appears to us today and how she appeared in her own time.
In ancient tragedy, Kierkegaard explains, the individual is not so much an independent “subject” as a moment of variation. If we take the structure of an ancient tragedy to be like a song, the chorus, quite literally, represents the chorus as we know it today — that moment of essential telos, that collective gesture, an “action and situation” that approaches “the substantiality of epic or the exaltation of lyric” — the chorus is, in a way, like a participatory part of the audience, the spectator dramatised. The individual character, however, is a verse — “the concentration of lyric” that cannot be absorbed by the chorus itself.
This sounds knotted and complex but it is, in a way, the same relationship between verse and chorus in song — one of difference and repetition but all, nonetheless, contained within a common structure, known and popularly understood. This is particularly true of Antigone. She is not so much a Great Individual, striking out on her own, but a sort of expressive driftwood, giving voice to two eternal currents that the audience knows: genealogy and law. It is a drama that explores two struggles felt by all. We might say all dramas do this through subtext but, in ancient Greece, tragedy, in a far more explicit sense than we are used to, prefigures the audience as spectators of their own collective unconscious.
Modern tragedy — and this is still true today — is not so epicly self-contained. It does not necessarily try and speak to a collective unconsciousness and its universal struggles but instead to an individual consciousness and its particular struggles. As Kierkegaard writes:
The [modern] tragic hero is subjectively reflected in himself, and this reflection hasn’t simply refracted him out of every immediate relation to state, race, and destiny, often it has refracted him even out of his own preceding life. What interests us is some certain definite moment of his life as his own deed. Because of this, the tragic element can be exhaustively represented in situation and words, there being nothing whatever left over of the immediate. Hence modern tragedy has no epic foreground, no epic heritage. The hero stands and falls entirely on his own deeds.
Kierkegaard notes that this is an understanding we have of the ancients thanks to Aristotle. Furthermore, he notes how Hegel aligns himself with Aristotle too, as he untangles self-consciousness from “spirit”. Kierkegaard’s insight, however, seems to be that, just as the tragic form itself has been transformed by modernity, so too must our conception of it keep apace. Hegel, it seems, for Kierkegaard at least, lags behind, relying on what the ancients can tell the moderns without fulling following through on the dialectic that results from our combined understanding of the ancient collective and the modern individual.
For Kierkegaard, then, Antigone becomes the essential figure who, reactivated in the present, reveals the full complexity of our tragic circumstances.
What in the Greek sense provides tragic interest is the fact that, in the brother’s unhappy death, in the sister’s collision with a single human circumstance, there is a re-echoing of Oedipus’s sorry fate; it is, one might say, the afterpains, the tragic destiny of Oedipus, ramifying in every branch of his family. This totality makes the spectator’s sorrow infinitely deep. It is not an individual that goes under, but a little world; the objective sorrow, set free, now strides forward with its own terrible consistency, like a force of nature, and Antigone’s sorry fate is like an echo of her father’s, an intensified sorrow. So when Antigone, in defiance of the king’s prohibition, resolves to bury her brother, we see in this not so much a free action on her part as a fateful necessity which visits the sins of the fathers on the children. There is indeed enough freedom here to make us love Antigone for her sisterly love, but in the necessity of fate there is also, as it were, a higher refrain enveloping not just the life of Oedipus, but all his family too.
So while the Greek Antigone lives a life free enough from care for us to imagine her life in its gradual unfolding as even being a happy one if this new fact had not emerged, our [modern] Antigone’s life is, on the contrary, essentially over. It is no stingy endowment I have given her, and as we say that an aptly spoken word is like apples of gold in pictures of silver, so here I have placed the fruit of sorrow in a cup of pain. Her dowry is not a vain splendour which moth and rust can corrupt, it is an eternal treasure. Thieves cannot break in and steal it; she herself will be too vigilant for that. Her life does not unfold like that of the Greek Antigone; it is not turned outward but inward. The scene is not external but internal, a scene of spirit.
What does any of this have to do with an escape to the country from Covid-19? Kierkegaard essentially sets the stage for all Antigones to come. I have wondered, ever since, if a new one might emerge from our present circumstances, defined by anti-lockdown protests and the need to work and the desire for secret escapes, complicating this vision of Antigone’s “criminal good” all the more.
In many analyses of Antigone’s fate, after Kierkegaard, more attention has been given to the limit that she represents, rather than any particularly emancipatory project. For Lacan, for instance, in his seminar on the ethics of psychoanalysis, Antigone becomes a kind of quintessential modern masochist. Kierkegaard sees the “guilt” that Antigone carries with her, in its very constitution, as being a sort of perversion of the destiny of Christ. She is her father’s daughter. As such, Antigone is subjected to a secret; an “inherited guilt”, like original sin, but it is a guilt that also defines her. She is even proud of it, and it is this further self-affirmation that leads her to commit her “good crime” which, nonetheless, leads to her demise.
Such is our Antigone. Proud of her secret, proud that she has been chosen to save in so remarkable a manner the honour and esteem of the house of Oedipus… She consecrates her life to sorrow over her father’s destiny, over her own.
Antigone, then, is like “a victim in search of a torturer and who needs to educate, persuade and conclude an alliance with the torturer in order to realise the strangest of schemes.” This is no longer Kierkegaard but how Deleuze describes the masochist, and so too does Lacan describe the masochist as that person who desires “to reduce himself to this nothing that is the good, to this thing that is treated like an object, to this slave whom one trades back and forth and whom one shares.” For Lacan, this is Antigone absolutely, but he also aligns this masochism with those dionysian Freudian drives: of the feminine, of death and of the mother. It is here that Lacan defines his ouroborosic death drive — Antigone’s desire for death becomes a desire to return to the womb, from whence, especially in her family, so many complications sprang forth.
In reducing herself to such an object, as the archetypical feminine, she suspends herself, as Lacan says, “between two deaths” — a death at the hands of the state and a death by her own hands. It is suicide by cop, Theban style. And yet, Lacan argues that Antigone has no other choice. She is not only caught between two deaths for herself but her brother’s two deaths also — as far as the state is concerned, he is a dead criminal; for Antigone, he is a dead brother nonetheless, no matter his crimes; and, not only a brother but a surrogate son, following the death of her mother. Therefore, her tie to her brother is only intensified by the tragedy of her life thus far. How does one resolve this conundrum? By suspending all language, and only entering into action from this outside. Beyond the relations that define each relationship to her brother, to cast a body out and let it be ravaged by dogs remains an abhorrence against nature.
Because [Polynices] is abandoned to the dogs and the birds and will end his appearance on earth in impurity, with his scattered limbs an offence to heaven and earth, it can be seen that Antigone’s position represents the radical limit that affirms the unique value of his being without reference to any content, to whatever good or evil Polynices may have done, or to whatever he may be subjected to.
The unique value involved is essentially that of language. Outside of language it is inconceivable, and the being of him who has lived cannot be detached from all he bears with him in the nature of good and evil, of destiny, of consequences for others, or of feelings for himself. That purity, that separation of being from the characteristics of the historical drama he has lived through, is precisely the limit or the ex nihilo to which Antigone is attached. It is nothing more than the break that the very presence of language inaugurates in the life of man.
This reading of a Lacanian feminine that comes with its innate mode of slippage is later taken up by Irigaray, who affirms it absolutely. She inaugurates, in Speculum of the Other Woman, somewhat echoing Lacan from fifteen years before, a radically feminine subject.
For her, it is up to a (truly) modern Antigone to produce the synthesis between herself and Creon that Hegel neglected. She must not resign herself to her individual tragic fate — a suicide outside language — but spread her innate rupture amongst the citizens of the state. She should refuse “to be that unconscious ground that nourishes nature” so that womanhood can “demand the right to pleasure, to jouissance, even to effective action, thus betraying her universal destiny.” She should affirm the link between the death drive and motherhood, as Lacan sees it — Antigone’s desire for death is similarly a desire to return to the womb. She inaugurates, for Irigaray, a newly matriarchal mutation of “kinship.” I interpret this, somewhat jaggedly, as a mantra that women should not be nothing but breed nothings.
For Judith Butler, however, Irigaray’s position is something of a misstep. To universalise Antigone, in the particularity of her experience, is to drag her back from her limit and sanitise the unsharable facts of her existence. This is to say that Irigaray’s affirmation is all well and good, but Antigone’s is hardly a demonstration of a woman’s radical autonomy. The tragedy is precisely that this is what she lacks. Even in her rebellion, she remains trapped within father’s fate.
In trying to affirm Antigone, then, Irigaray tries to force an agency into Antigone’s life that is not there. As Butler asks, in her book Antigone’s Claim, in light of Irigaray’s reading, “can Antigone herself be made into a representative for a certain kind of feminist politics, if Antigone’s own representational function is itself in crisis?”
Butler’s (proto-xenofeminist) conclusion is as follows, perhaps (and finally) bringing back to mind the strange paradox in which we find ourselves at present:
Prohibited from action, she nevertheless acts, and her act is hardly a simple assimilation to an existing norm. And in acting, as one who has no right to act, she upsets the vocabulary of kinship that is a precondition for the human, implicitly raising the question for us of what those preconditions really must be. … If kinship is the precondition of the human, then Antigone is the occasion for a new field of the human, achieved through political catachresis, the one that happens when the less than human speaks as human, when gender is displaced, and kinship founders on its own founding laws. She acts, she speaks, she becomes one for whom the speech act is a fatal crime, but this fatality exceeds her life and enters the discourse of intelligibility as its own promising fatality, the social form of its aberrant, unprecedented future.
When Butler speaks of the “less than human [who] speaks as human”, she is explicitly referencing Giorgio Agamben’s homo sacer — an “accursed man”; a walking paradox who can be killed with impunity but not sacrificed. Agamben’s homo sacer is something of a zombified existence but it is quite telling here, I think, in our present context. (And yes, I know that invoking Agamben is dangerous territory to wander into in the context of Covid-19.) Thankfully, Žižek is on hand to provide an Antigone most appropriate to now, with both Agamben and Butler in mind.
First summarising Butler’s critique of Lacan, he writes in the introduction to his own retelling of Antigone: “Lacan’s very radicality (the notion that Antigone locates herself in the suicidal outside of the symbolic order) reasserts this order, the order of the established kinship relations, silently assuming that the ultimate alternative is the one between the symbolic Law of (fixed patriarchal) kinship relations and its suicidal ecstatic transgression.”
Might we think, instead, then, of a modern Antigone who does herself justice? Apart from the interpretations that have inadvertently dragged her back from the limit in which she exists? Žižek reposes these questions, arguing that
Antigone speaks for all the subversive ‘pathological’ claims which crave to be admitted into the public sphere; however, to identify what she stands for in this reading with homo sacer misses the basic thrust of Agamben’s analysis. There is no place in Agamben for the ‘democratic’ project of ‘renegotiating’ the limit which separates full citizens from homo sacer by gradually allowing their voices to be heard; his point is, rather, that, in today’s ‘post-politics’, the very democratic public space is a mask concealing the fact that, ultimately, we are all homo sacer.
This was perhaps, in part, Agamben’s argument when he, somewhat misguidedly, applied his own political theories to the present pandemic. As Joseph Owen writes for Verso:
Agamben claims that coronavirus … is an epidemic conjured up by the Italian authorities and exacerbated by the national media. For him, the virus functions as an insidious form of mass panic and misdirection, as an excuse to extend prohibitive emergency measures over a mostly willing and anodyne population.
For anyone vaguely acquainted with Agamben’s work, his response won’t come as much of a surprise. His view is that citizens accept the bare minimum of existence to live under almost permanent restrictions of liberty. Governments treat every event as a pretext for the suspension of normal laws. Citizens adapt to the new reality: they defer to the exception, and so it becomes the rule. In doing so, some vital element of human life is suppressed or undone.
Agamben’s position was not exactly a popular one… Many saw it as hysteric a response as he was accusing the national media of, bordering on the conspiratorial and also suspending any individual or community’s capacity to act. As insightful as it may have been, it nonetheless felt blinkered and reductive. However, perhaps the complexity of Antigone’s fate is a better context from which to consider his point, as we find ourselves all homo sacer, suspended between two deaths.
This is the terror I think we felt acutely when on our walk — damned if we did, damned if we didn’t. To do as we were told felt like resigning ourselves to potential death due to the incompetence of the state and — unfortunately (but also by extension) — some of our neighbours. To go out for a walk was perhaps to demonstrate our own incompetence when confronted with this sense of entrapment.
Žižek captures this paradox well in his adaptation of Sophocles’ play. The closing remarks of the chorus seem to get closer to the point than Agamben’s hysteria:
Old wisdom has it right — we can’t escape the clutches of our fate. But what this wisdom ignores is that we also can’t escape the burden of our own responsibility. We cannot use our fate as an excuse to do what pleases us. The parents of Antigone’s father knew in advance his fate and tried to avoid it, but their very measures to achieve this noble end helped the fate to realize itself. The bitter lesson of Oedipus’s story was that a man who has no choice since evil is his fate, is no less fully guilty for his disgusting deeds. But what Antigone’s sad story taught is that if we miraculously return in time to change the course of the events that brought about the present cataclysm, the new outcome might even surpass the old one in horror and distress.
[…] It is up to you to choose at your own risk and peril. There is no one to help you here, you are alone. When we’re alone, when nothing happens, all of a sudden we’re hit by the murmur of life, and at that moment wise men know how to suspend the chaos and decide.
I think our decision, in the grand scheme of things, was just such a criminal good. At least we weren’t going to march on Hyde Park, insisting on displaying our own incompetence readily in front of an incompetent state and media. We were proud of our secret, but a secret it remained. The terror of this decision, however, and the terror of Antigone’s tale is that in following the (technically) lawful good of the state, we might all become killers. The guilt of imperialism embodies this most explicitly, but what about when death occurs on such a scale at home? There is a strange paradox in affirming that possibility so that one might actually be less of a risk.
The absurdity of this predicament is captured brilliantly in Jacqueline Rose’s recent essay “Pointing the Finger” — an essay on Camus’s The Plague in the time of Covid-19. Camus’s tale is itself a kind of retelling of the stakes of Antigone’s. This is most apparent when Rose writes of how the character Grand, for instance,
point[s] the finger at the modern state, which forbids violence to its citizens, not becuase, as Freud puts it, ‘it desires to abolish it, but because it desires to monopolise it, like salt and tobacco.’ For Tarrou, the responsibility of the citizen for his own violence is not diminished by such fraudulence but intensified, since it confronts him with what the state enacts in his name. The plague will continue to crawl out of the woodwork — out of bedrooms, cellars, trunks, handkerchiefs and old papers — as long as human subjects do not question the cruelty and injustice of their social arrangements. We are all accountable for the ills of the world.
It is here that we find ourselves confronted with the Real, in the Lacanian sense as much as the Baudrillardian sense with which we began. Lacan, in his seminar on ethics, which concludes with Antigone, states that “the moral law, the moral command, the presence of the moral agency in our activity, insofar as it is structured by the symbolic, is that through which the real is actualised — the real as such, the weight of the real.”
This was no less apparent on our woodland walk, in which we felt the full weight of the real at its most sublime; at its most beautiful and terrifying. We entered a world in which spring was still unfolding, unperturbed by pandemic, but in which the greenery only amplified the human detritus scattered throughout the forest. This was a world simultaneously without virus and without us. More than anything, though, to escape the bounds of the city allowed us to truly confront our own moral agency, unmediated by the absolute takeover that social media and emails and news feeds had enacted upon our lives — for better or for worse.
I’m really excited to have been invited to give a guest lecture as part of k-punk quarantined, a online workshop around the work of Mark Fisher organised by the University of Birmingham’s Contemporary Theory Reading Group.
I’m going to be talking about some of my more recent research around Mark’s final postgraduate module at Goldsmiths, building towards his Acid Communism, excavating a thread that can be traced back through ten years of his writing, revealing how Acid Communism might still be a project reconstructed using Mark’s various essays already out in the world on the likes of Spinoza, accelerationism, consciousness raising, psychoanalysis, Marxism and a bunch of other things. (It’ll also serve as a sneak peek at forthcoming book project I’ve been working on — and have recently finished — during quarantine, due out in September. More on that at a later date.)
The abstract for the lecture is below:
In the months before his death, in late 2016, Mark Fisher had returned to that most fundamental political question in the twenty-first century: “Do we really want what we say we want?”
Beginning a new postgraduate module at Goldsmiths, University of London, entitled Postcapitalist Desire, Fisher explored the convoluted relationship between desire and capitalism, all the while wondering what new forms of desire we might still be able to excavate from this relation, whether from the past, our present, or the not-so-distant future.
From the emergence and failure of the counterculture in the 1970s to the continued development of his left-accelerationist line of thinking, this train of thought was tragically interrupted. Nevertheless, this course was an attempt to think through and enact one of Fisher’s more implicit overarching concerns: the raising of a new kind of consciousness. He also considered the cultural and political implications of doing so.
For Fisher, this process of consciousness raising was always, fundamentally, psychedelic — just not in the way that we might think… This lecture will further excavate this trajectory, not only as it was articulated in the final months of Fisher’s life but also from within the depths of his written output, from the k-punk blog to The Weird and the Eerie.