It’s my bloggerversary today. Two years since I thought “xenogothic” could be a good pseudonym to shitpost about philosophy behind. It’s been a wild ride so far.
I’ve started getting paid by people to write essays and I’ve got my first book coming out. I’ve gone from <10 people in my life knowing I had a blog for the first year of its existence to getting recognised by strangers down the local pub.
This isn’t really what I expected to happen when I started here but I’m not complaining. Thanks for all the support and all the hellthreads. Here’s to loads more years to come.
I’m crazy busy this week with a lot on my plate and I’m a little sad I don’t have the time to really celebrate this. It feels like something of a rebirthday so I’m strangely invested in it and I’m sad it’s snuck up on me. I had no idea it was on the horizon until yesterday.
I’m hoping that this Sunday will be a better day to kick back and take a few hours out to do another celebratory livestream. There’s a poll going round for people to decide on what it will be and it’s surprisingly close at the moment. Go vote. Chances are I’ll get some beers in and chat shit and maybe play some games. Time TBC.
The outrage on Twitter after Martin Scorsese declared that Marvel movies are not “cinema” has been predictably cringe but interesting nonetheless. It begs the question: “What is cinema?” Or maybe, “What was it?” Does anyone make “cinema” anymore?
On closer inspection, Scorsese’s comments seem quite innocuous:
I don’t see [Marvel movies]. I tried, you know? But that’s not cinema. Honestly, the closest I can think of them, as well made as they are, with actors doing the best they can under the circumstances, is theme parks. It isn’t the cinema of human beings trying to convey emotional, psychological experiences to another human being.
But there are still many people who loudly disagree. Indeed, his definition of Cinema is so vague that it is easily ridiculed but I’d like to unpack it all the same.
In the innumerable replies to articles about Scorsese’s statement that I saw online, discussions turned to the more generic issue of “What is art?” Anything anyone makes is art, said the many to the few — that’s the only valid democratic response. Examples were given along the lines of: “Whether someone paints pictures or makes big buildings or kooky spoon sculptures, it’s all art.” But I don’t think that’s true.
This great melting pot of cultural oneness does nothing but turn all art the colour of pathetic liberal beige and, many years ago, it was once my one-man shitpost mission to point this out at every opportunity. Even today, I’d love to see any posing of the question “What is art?” that isn’t wholly flaccid and inconsequential, whether it is uttered by keyboard critics or big art institutions on an embarrassingly banal public engagement kick. Submissions in my inbox!
Below are two instances I came across way back in 2013. One is from a fight I got into with the social media intern at London’s ICA when they did the whole “Ooo, but is it art though?” thing as a lazy and patronising way to stoke audience engagement, encouraging a criticality wholly without teeth. (I wiped my old Twitter account ages ago so my original tweets are lost to the ether but you get the idea.)
This irritation came from the fact that the ICA were not alone in this practice that was already tired and not in any way “new”.
I remember I was also living in Hull at that time, probably picking that fight with their poor social media intern on the same day I discovered that Hull’s Ferens Art Gallery had installed this inane monstrosity in their main gallery, reducing sociocultural engagement to the level of picking a local charity to donate to when you finishing your big boujie Waitrose shop.
Detached, banal and pointless.
My issue is that saying everything is art is as useful as saying nothing is art, and arguing the point doesn’t produce anything of critical value for anyone. Instead, if we want to take Scorsese seriously, or Marvel seriously for that matter, what constitutes art does not come down to a question of aesthetics or form or some vague notion of validity but down to a question of purpose.
This too is vague and so I want to make clear that this is not an attempt to tread that other tired floor that has already stalked literature for many decades. Scorsese’s comments are about 40 years too late to provoke a conversation about “high and low” cinema. The real question today is: When does “art” become nothing more than a “product”?
This is a question that has already been asked of Joker but it betrays a cynicism that sticks in its critics’ own collective maw.
If this is true of Joker or the MCU, isn’t it true of all films today?
This is a difficult question to ask because capital is so deeply entwined with all forms of production but this is already a question entangled up with how Scorsese’s comments have so far been discussed in the media. As the Metro put: “Martin Scorsese claims Marvel films are ‘not cinema’ — despite Avengers: Endgame becoming highest grossing film in history.” But what do either of those two statements have to do with each other? Everything or nothing at all?
I was reminded of Marcuse’s comments on these issues in his book One Dimensional Man. For him — speaking of literature instead of cinema but in a way that is nonetheless still relevant for us here — literature is defined for him by an “estrangement-effect” — an internal principle of alienation that refutes and “refuses” to comply with normative and populist aesthetics so as to conjure up another world. He writes:
The “estrangement-effect” is not superimposed on literature. It is rather literature’s own answer to the threat of total behaviorism — the attempt to rescue the rationality of the negative. In this attempt, the great “conservative” of literature joins forces with the radical activist. […] They speak of that which, though absent, haunts the established universe of discourse and behavior as its most tabooed possibility — neither heaven nor hell, neither good nor evil but simply “le bonheur.” Thus the poetic language speaks of that which is of this world, which is visible, tangible, audible in man and nature — and of that which is not seen, not touched, not heard.
It is in this sense that “the truly avant-garde works of literature communicate the break with communication.” He continues: “With Rimbaud, and then with dadaism and surrealism, literature rejects the very structure of discourse which, throughout the history of culture, has linked artistic and ordinary language.”
It’s an interesting way of framing the matter because, turning to Scorsese’s comment that Avengers: Endgame doesn’t really communicate on a human level, this concluding chapter of the latest saga from the MCU becomes avant-garde cinema par excellence.
It is also interesting for this to come full circle in this way. After all, for all of Marcuse’s insightfulness, he too was terrified of pop as that genre tailor-made for capitalism’s inherent expansionism. Marcuse warns explicitly of capitalism’s tentacular spread and its “efforts to recapture the Great Refusal”, leading to avant-garde artists suffering “the fate of being absorbed by what they refute. “
Mark Fisher writes about Marcuse’s Great Refusal in his introduction to Acid Communism, noting instead how Marcuse’s mourning over “the popularisation of the avant-garde” was not borne of “anxieties that the democratisation of culture would corrupt the purity of art, but because the absorption of art into the administered spaces of capitalist commerce would gloss over its incompatibility with capitalist culture.” And Mark mourned this often and explicitly, albeit extending Marcuse’s critiques, repeatedly calling for the return of a “popular modernism”, defined for him by an experimentation that crosses boundaries of high and low, where punks who can’t play their instruments enter into the same space as jazz masters who want to push beyond the modes of expression they know so well. Mark mourned the loss of this kind of cultural horseshoe theory, where there was a gap between these two points of high and low where things could still escape into the radically new. The question of whether something is or isn’t art, is or isn’t music, is or isn’t cinema, seeks nothing more than to close this gap and trap us all within an ultimate discourse. To ask that question is to try to reel things back in rather than allow them to flow outwards.
This is what Scorsese fails to grasp but also, in his own self-defensive pretension, he embarrassingly ignores his own complicity in this same cycle. (And who isn’t complicit?) Not only does the latest Joker movie heavily ape Scorsese’s own film, Taxi Driver, but Scorsese’s last film to garner widespread attention was The Wolf of Wall Street — his award-winning account of capitalist decadence and financial crime that paints as punk the very value system he is now decrying. At the time, it seemed like Scorsese’s intention was to capture the alienating immoral and decadent spirit of the heyday of early market capitalist excess, making something new out of the finished spectacle, but he failed because he was already so wrapped up in the mechanisms he was trying to refute. His latest comments do nothing to assuage this. It only demonstrates how out of touch he is — not with “cinema” or “Hollywood” per se but with his own place within its past and present.
The Wolf of Wall Street is a fitting last hurrah for Scorsese in this regard. We might ask ourselves if the film alienates in that way that great cinema, following Marcuse, perhaps should? Scorsese and the film’s star Leonardo DiCaprio may have argued that it was “punk rock” but no one seemed capable of swallowing that suggestion without gagging. My memory is that Scorsese even faced off accusations of romanticising the excess he depicted.
Michael Laurence has written an interesting essay on The Wolf of Wall Street and the uneasy complicity of any anti-capitalist ethics. One passage in particular, which begins with a Mark Fisher quotation, sticks out here:
“So long as we believe (in our hearts) that capitalism is bad, we are free to continue to participate in capitalist exchange.” Yet we do not even need to go that far for ideology to work. We do not need to disavow capitalism as a totality. All we really need to do is believe that the excesses of capitalism are bad, that the few predators at the top of the food chain are evil, that the cold corporate monsters ought to be put behind bars, that the big banks are the real problem, and that greed is not good, so that we can continue to participate in a much more humane, morally acceptable, and less greedy capitalism. Of course, no such thing exists. Even more, the belief that it does exist effectively works to preclude from consciousness the existing structural violence of capitalism: that ever-present and largely invisible violence which proceeds by structuring fields of possible being and experience while discharging modes of being and thinking that cannot be absorbed into its circuitry.
Scorsese seems to encapsulate this entirely. He knows capitalism is bad and he even made a film about how bad it once got but it is a pious punch that fails to land when we consider it cost $100million to make and became Scorsese’s highest grossing film ever, raking in almost $400million worldwide at the box office. This isn’t just a cheap shot to call Scorsese a sell-out, however. What is more important is our consideration that he was once associated with the Hollywood Brat Pack — Brian De Palma, Francis Ford Coppola, George Lucas and Steven Spielberg — who arguably gave us the cinematic world of pop blockbusters he is now decrying. Scorsese isn’t a sell-out. He’s a Dr. Frankenstein denying his own bastard paternity.
To return to the question I initially wanted to ask, “What was cinema?”, considering all of the above, I should take the opportunity to nod to that book which is making me consider everything in the past tense at the moment: Leslie Fiedler’s What Was Literature?
Fiedler’s book is great because it is not a cynical dismissal of a time gone by but rather a consideration of how we ended up in this mess of static capitalist hauntography and how he, as a self-described “crypto-pop critic”, has inadvertently helped bring it all about by trying to erase elitism from the field of criticism that he inadvertently fell into, by way of his own subversive acts of criticisms later becoming pop cultural reference points in their own right.
He too was subsumed within the system he had initially set out to refuse.
As he wrestles with how this all happened, he finds the obvious common denominator: money.
money, (the one fiction of universal currency) is the only, and indeed always remains the most reliable token that one has in fact touched, moved, shared one’s most private fantasies with the faceless, nameless “you” to whom the writer’s all-too-familiar “I” longs to be joined in mutual pleasure. “I stop somewhere waiting for you” is a sentence not just from Walt Whitman’s but from every writer’s love letter to the world. It is only when the first royalty check arrives in the mail (an answer as palpable as a poem) that the writer begins to suspect that the “you” he has invented in his lonely chamber, in order to begin writing at all, is real, and that therefore his “I” (not the “I” to which like everyone else he is born, but that fictive “I” which he, in order to be a writer, must create simultaneously with the “you”) is somehow real too.
But this means, as all writers know, though most of us (including me) find it hard to confess, that literature, the literary work, remains incomplete until it has passed from the desk to the marketplace; which is to say, until it has been packaged, huckstered, hyped and sold. Moreover, writers themselves (as they are also aware) are reluctant virgins, crying to the world, “Love me! Love me!” until, as the revealing phrase of the trade has it, they have “sold their first piece.”
It is money that exists as the great fuel for the engine of cultural paradox and the sort of elitist cultural cannibalism that Scorsese demonstrates here anew but unchanged.
This cultural warfare may seem at first glance a struggle of the poor against the rich, the failed against the successful. But the situation is more complex than this, since, in terms of culture rather than economics, art novelists and their audience, “fit thought few,” constitute a privileged, educationally advantaged minority, while popular novelists and their mass readership remain a despised lumpen majority, whose cultural insecurity is further shaken when their kids learn in school to question their taste.
Through turns of autobiography and critical self-reflection, considerations of banned books and banned comics, Fiedler very gradually builds towards the necessity of his title’s past tense, which denotes a settling of cultural conflicts by way of the academy. Literature turned from a present concern to a past one as soon as the latest slue of new works have been adopted by curriculums. Literature, then, like an ouroboros, is defined by that which is taught as such — which is to say, literature is determined by literary studies. What is taught is what is literature is what is taught. Nothing is new until it is past.
Within that closed definitional circle, we perform the rituals by which we cast out unworthy pretenders to our ranks and induct true initiates, guardians of the “standards” by which all song and story are presumably to be judged.
Fiedler made this claim decades ago but still we are yet to learn from it and Scorcese’s comments demonstrate this all too depressingly, but so do the actions of those pop lovers now attempting to begin academic careers, raising discussions of the popular to the s. What is cinema is what is taught on film studies courses is what is cinema. Very soon the same will true of “graphic novels” and video games. It’s already starting to happen. And these courses for the new pulp media already seem as lifeless as their earlier High Art counterparts. Cultural critique ignores its own potential for cultural production and renders itself hardened but impotent. (It would be interesting to consider to what extent this is likewise true of an academic study of “politics” today.)
As such, it is not only Scorsese who is at fault here, deeming the MCU to be insufficient when placed before a canonical capital-c Cinema. The defenders of the MCU are just as clueless, showing how the MCU is inspired by or dealing with the same issues as the tragedies and dramas of antiquity. They place their works within the same standards, inflating what they have to hand to fill in the gaps. Rather than levelling the playing field, they try to raise themselves to the same standard, only diluting what they once had. Nobody wins. Pop cultural studies appear hollow whilst high art studies appear bitter. Communication falters. Nothing new emerges.
Fiedler had already witnessed this happening way back when, skewering Scorsese and the standards of contemporary cultural studies departments from beyond the grave, noting how
in recent years [there have been] attempts by academic critics of cinema (they do not like to say “movies”) to kidnap that vulgar form for classroom analysis, even to “teach” how to read it properly. But such cinéastes merely repeat — in a kind of unwitting parody — the old errors of literary criticism: on the one hand, losing sight, in the midst of jargonizing about “montage”, “tracking shots” and “auteur theory,” of the fact that movies tell stories and embody myths, and on the other, making untenable distinctions between “box-office trash” and “art films,” which turn out to be more often than not “experimental” and “non-narrative.”
To stop myself typing out the entirely of Fiedler’s book, I will stop here and simply defer to his partial part-one conclusion.
His is not an attempt to forestall judgement or kill criticism, which he writes is a drive as old and powerful and human as the stories and songs that brought it into existence, but rather to build a new criticism that eschews the hierarchical judgements of capitalist competition. It is to do away with the pre-judgements of prejudice, category and elitism.
Once we have made ekstasis rather than instruction and delight our chief evaluative criterion, we will be well on our way to abandoning all formalist, elitist, methodological criticism, and will have started to invent an eclectic, amateur, neo-Romantic, populist one that will be enable us to read what was once popular literature not as popular but as literature, even as it enables us to read what was once High Literature not as high but as literature. By the same token, we will find ourselves speaking less of theme and purport, structure and texture, signified and signifier, metaphor and metonymy, and more of myth, fable, archetype, fantasy, magic and wonder. Even more important, we will be speaking for ourselves, as ourselves, rather than ex cathedra in the name of some “tradition.”
The key to this — under-acknowledged in his own conclusions — is the acknowledgement that all that is solid melts into air. Accepting this allows us to critique culture without ignoring its biggest driver: capital. It allows us to view these pointless battles between high and low as nothing more than echoes of capitalism’s internal dynamics of class struggle. To sidestep this, wholly aware of its impotence, is to imagine a criticism that can assist in the building towards something new.
Criticism can build worlds as well as the fictions it considers, if used correctly.
This has already been happening. This was the strength of the early cultural blogosphere and remains its strength today, alebit in a few instances. It would be a shame to lose sight of that. We had a good thing going. And there are still potentials yet unreached.
I’m exhausted today. I think the last few weeks have caught up with me and I’m feeling early symptoms of burn-out. Thankfully, this week, life is expected to get somewhat back to normal. I’ll have two days off work for life admin and blogging, meaning I’ll finally get to tackle the drafts languishing unfinished that I’ve been desperate to give some attention to this past week.
I’d thought about spending this Sunday doing that as well but instead we elected to get out of London for a few hours and once again venture out for a Sunday stroll around Knole. We’ve been there a fewtimes now, and every time we do the same thing — walk through the winding valley, looking out for deer, before I have a quick look around the bookshop and we head back.
I’d never bought anything in there before but my interest in Virginia Woolf has been growing more and more in recent weeks as I make my way through her short stories, The Waves and, most recently, Mrs Dalloway. So, I decided to pick up Hermione Lee’s Woolf biography and, despite its intimidating size, it’s already proven to be a really insightful and inspiring read.
The very first chapter begins with an almost self-reflexive look at the form of ‘biography’ and Woolf’s own diaristic thoughts on autobiography. I thought I’d copy out one whole page in full because it’s made me feel vindicated in how I write about myself on this blog and how I choose to use it more generally as a public notebook and diary. Woolf is (unsurprisingly) infinitely more eloquent in talking about the same problems as I recently wrestled with in my post on being fated to a problem, and I love how Lee explores Woolf’s ‘writing self’ and her ‘myself’ as these strangely entangled but distinct ontological modes.
I’ve written about Woolf briefly for an upcoming essay to be published in a journal / collection thing but I think there’s something more long-form brewing too. We’ll see how I get on with the rest of Lee’s mammoth biography…
Virginia Woolf was an autobiographer who never published an autobiography; she was an egotist who loathed egotism. It’s one of the words she most often uses, whether she is writing about herself or other people. Many of the letters she writes contain apologies — not always entirely sincere — for their egotism. And yet, ‘How I interest myself!’ she will say, happily, to herself. She is always trying to work out what happens to that ‘myself’ — the ‘damned egotistical self’ — when it is alone, when it is with other people, when it is contented, excited, anxious, ill, when it is asleep or eating or walking, when it is writing. ‘Sydney comes & I’m Virginia; when I write I’m merely a sensibility. Sometimes I like being Virginia, but only when I’m scattered & various & gregarious.’ ‘I meet somebody who says “you’re this or that”, and I don’t want to be anything when I’m writing.’
What does ‘not being anything’ mean? Perhaps it is being more concentrated, less externalised: ‘I thought, driving through Richmond last night, something very profound about the synthesis of my being: how only writing composes it: how nothing makes a whole unless I am writing; now I have forgotten what seemed so profound.’
She knows that the process of trying to explain the relation between ‘myself’ and the writing self risks being just self-absorbed, rather than profound. But she must take herself seriously: she is like a singer attending to the state of her vocal cords. ‘Myself’, for the writing self, is both material and instrument. Not for nothing did Freud, on the only occasion when they met, in 1939, give her a narcissus.
Egotism is often the subject of the diary. She is much concerned with how she writes it, and what it’s for. And its uses vary: it is a ‘barometer’ of her feelings, a storehouse of memories, a record of events and encounters, a practice-ground for writing, a commentary on work in progress, and a sedative for agitation, anger, or apprehension. In the mid-1920s, she has a self-conscious debate with herself about whether it is a diary of facts, or a diary of ‘the soul’. (At the same time she is working out how much the ‘damned egotistical self’ should get into her fiction.) She seems to have promised herself that the diary would be about ‘life’ rather than ‘the soul’ — perhaps as a way of keeping ‘egotism’ under control: ‘Did I not banish the soul when I began? What happens is, as usual, that I’m going to write about the soul, & life breaks in.’ Later she will ‘cancel that vow against soul description’: she wants to describe ‘the violent moods of my soul’. But then, ‘How describe them?’ It is difficult to ‘write directly about the soul. Looked at, it vanishes.’
Boris Johnson’s reputation as our Poundshop Trump feels like it has been set in stone these past few days, with the argument around MPs’ use of “inflammatory language” dominating the news over the last week following Johnson’s foiled attempt to prorogue parliament.
Johnson has called accusations that he continues to stir up the far-right with his language of traitors and surrender as “humbug” and many others on the right of parliament have gone a step further to call the left “hypocrites” who also use “extreme” language when calling Conservative MPs fascists or whatever else.
Such responses contain clear echoes of Trump’s comments following the Charlottesville protests in 2017 about there being bad people “on both sides”, despite the right being the only ones to have clocked up a body count.
This is true of the UK as well. I don’t see Conservative MPs expressing any sort of fear for their lives. No Conservative MPs have been killed. No right-wing pundits have been assaulted — and let’s not compare getting milkshaked whilst on never-ending propaganda tours, purposefully spreading certain kinds of rhetoric on the streets, to getting kicked and punched on a night out with friends.
The disparity here isn’t just one of political disagreement, though. It feels like it is explicitly grounded in our country’s class politics.
I’ve been wrestling with how to talk about these sorts of arguments recently as I revisit my recent essay on friendship, which will appear in adapted form in my forthcoming book, Egress. I’m left feeling a similar way about it as I did my old essay on the right-wing bastardisation of accelerationism — discussed here.
Any anxiety I have around that essay is its potential for being misread as some sort of centrist clap back decrying the outright rejection of certain discourses. The last thing it was meant to express was an impartiality against hate speech, for instance — all the more relevant right now as another argument about political language also unfurls itself across the UK press, with many talking about how the BBC’s policy of impartiality should contend with reporting racism. It is clear that there are some topics to which an “impartial” response is always an apologist one.
The aspects of “friendship” as a concept that I find interesting, in this context, and specifically related to its deficiency on the left, ties into these problems quite closely. How is it that internal accusations of fascism break apart subsections of the left with ease whilst the right can let similar accusations roll off their backs without a second thought? With a “Bah, humbug”?
Community is the most important underlying concept here, and this is something I’ve found presented with clarity when researching the political trajectory of Maurice Blanchot, whose turn from the neo-monarchist right to the communist left I would put down to his acknowledgement, in the 1930s, that right-wing communities are closed and reactive whilst the political left’s historical writings on community have always been — and, I think, should again be — turned towards a speculative people-to-come rather than a doubling-down on pre-establishment categories of identity (a sort of “taking sides” which Bataille refers to explicitly, in his Unfinished System of Nonknowledge, as a preoccupation with the past — side with the future rather than identities that fly passed and appear only in the rearview mirror, which is to say, in more paradoxical terms: side with becoming.)
The implicit issue with this is that right-wing (or perhaps, more broadly, neoliberal) conceptions of community poison left-wing attempts to come together, with community only understood in economic terms of competition and work-space politics rather than in other non-capitalist terms.
To explain what I mean by this, I was hoping to find a tweet I saw this morning that has now unfortunately been lost to the site’s constant flow of updates. It spoke about this problematic in relation to another hot political topic in the UK this week: the Labour Party’s plans to abolish private schools.
The gist of the tweet was summarising a study that argued something along the lines of: private schools produce a certain kind of ideological resilience in their alumni due to the intensity of their in-crowd understanding of themselves. My reading of this was that the frequent arrogance of the privately educated is such that it razes such opportunities for consciousness raising for the less privileged. Those on the inside see nothing but benefits. Those on the outside have to deal with the delusions of grandeur that the rich and mediocre are constantly in possession of. The rich have confidence whereas the dispossessed, arguably by definition, do not.
It is this banding together — this sense of community — that the rich and the right acquire with ease. The challenge is for the left to be able to construct a similar sense of itself, foritself, without adhering to their example.
As another tweet — first seen yesterday — made clear, any rejection of that in-crowd sensibility is often smacked down with classist hostility.
Aspiration in the UK means aspiration to be upper class rather than an aspiration for any other form of solidarity.
This is to say that social mobility in this country is only understood vertically, and even then only when it goes upwards. There’s no such thing as a horizontal class mobility — whatever that means. We might define it as a movement across working sectors or communities or living conditions through which solidarity is retained for others as people move around.
It is in this sense that the leftist in-fighting that still haunts us is acutely pathological, in the sense that it is a mindset installed at a young age due to our immersion in an uneven educational system, which produces what Mark called the “bourgeois-liberal perversion” of classically leftist politics of consciousness raising.
This is to say that any politics of community is implicitly defined by the culture of those born at the top. We learn lessons of consciousness from the privileged who, in turn, work hard to deflate any consciousness that is not their own. And these tactics are evidently more economic than they are explicitly political.
I liked a quote about this from an interview with Chris Morris I read on my commute this morning: “It’s a sort of privileged position [occupied by white liberals] whereby your conscience is allowed to operate in a particular way, without fracturing your worldview. Then they go and have a bracing latte.”
This is something true of the middle classes on either side of the divide, and in my view, in the UK at least, it is the middle and upper classes who continue to define the debate — and the Brexit debate most specifically, which is the source of this week’s political tangents, we should remember (but, of course, how could anyone forget…)
Here my dejection over Brexit emerges again. I voted Remain, personally, although I’m also a Eurosceptic. (The sort of Eurosceptic who likes Jeremy Corbyn and thinks his supposedly under-defined position on Brexit is just fine.)
As far as I am concerned — and this is a line I’ve trotted out on this blog many times before — Brexit is a war between neoliberalism at home and neoliberalism abroad. But I suppose things are actually a bit more complicated than that, at least when considering the situation at home. Perhaps its not quite neoliberalism as we know it that we’re fighting over. The Conservative political establishment — specifically that lot who are richer than everyone else but somehow think they’re not part of the establishment at all, in a similar sense to Trump and of whom Johnson is the de facto leader — are in fact members of an older order compared to much of modern Britain. It is an older order that sees itself as maligned due to the deep, archaic roots of its conservatism and who view the neoliberal cabal of contemporary European leaders as their mortal enemy. (Is this N(ice)Rx? Or something else? I’m not sure.) To me, all it looks like is a war between new and old money — that is, the new money of Europe of post-Berlin Wall neoliberalism versus the old money of England’s landed gentry.
When I hear right-wing populists declare themselves the representatives of the people and the working classes most specifically, all I hear is a call back to that old relationship — the fantasy of a productive feudalism where this country’s rich had more control over the livelihoods of their poorer publics. “Remember the good ol’ days”, I hear, “when you paid us rent and we kept you somewhat fed.” When the Conservatives demand we “take back control”, that’s the sort of control I imagine — the return to an imagined stability where economies were more closed off and local and were not over-affected by outside forces. (Patchwork is a similar position, but again, one split between a striving from a new feudalism and the other for a postcapitalism.)
By contrast, much of the neoliberal pro-Remain left is beholden to a new stasis, of a decisively capitalist Europe where alternatives are nonetheless viciously squashed and struggling nations are left to languish on the outside until they submit to their restrictions. (Personally, I won’t forget Greece anytime soon.)
When we talk about inflammatory language, and political feuds, I think that’s something we should remember — the affection that Johnson and Rees-Mogg and others no doubt unconsciously feel towards feudal relations. This is what so many of our private schools represent and even our political system as a whole — parliament is still full of landlords, after all.
Johnson’s language is inflammatory and dismissive but precisely because of this. I can’t help but feel like if the Labour Party were better attuned to and vocal about the historic forces that our present crisis represents the reemergence of, they might have a better chance of changing minds, but it feels like the whole system is too entrenched in its own outdated sense of itself to even comprehend the nature of its most recent changes.
If there’s a new philosophical sense of friendship to be build, it has a lot to contend with — not only the capitalist present but the feudalist baggage that we continue to carry with us. (“Capitalism is the failed escape from feudalism”, as Mark Fisher said.) And there is a sense in which this is a national consciousness unshared by anywhere else in the West — at least in my experience, no one in the US or the rest of Europe seems to understand the depths that the roots of our national class consciousness reach as a country — which only makes the uphill climb that much steeper.
We have to become more aware of this for ourselves because no other country is in any position to help us.
September has been a weird month and it is getting weirder.
I’m still preoccupied with Egress and so the blog will remain on the back burner for a little while longer. Whilst it is “finished”, it’s had a few rounds of editing to go through, during which I’ve discovered a whole smorgasbord of writer’s tics I didn’t know that I had. Mixed-up tenses, overuse of the word “likewise”, overuse of the word “would”, sparse use of commas… I could, unfortunately, go on and on and on.
Let me take this opportunity to apologise to my readers here who have undoubtedly had to plough their way through much worse.
When it comes to blogging, I am far from a perfectionist but I’ve discovered a side to myself that I didn’t know I had throughout this finishing process. It is a side that is neurotic and obsessive and isolationist. I’ve been very aware of just how anti-social I’ve been, but I’ve been incapable of dragging myself away from it.
I’m only glad I’m not a total prima donna control freak, inflicting the fallout from my own ego on anyone around me, but internally the struggle has been real. I’ve been chastising myself and having crises of confidence on just about every other page. As proud as I am of it, it’s hard not to hate something you’ve spent so much time with.
Thankfully, just before sending the manuscript back, I had come to terms with the fact that if I add anything else to it at all now, I’ll ruin it. The book is done. I need to focus on tidying it up rather than tweaking or adding to it any further.
In the midst of all this literary pedantry, I started a new project at work, somewhat outside of my primary job description, which I can’t talk or post about, but which has had me driving back and forth along the M4 at ungodly hours over the last two weeks, working from sunrise to sunset.
It’s a photography project that has taken me from barren fields to neglected suburbs, occasionally navigating dog patrols and security fencing. I went into Eton College and even inadvertently trespassed on the Crown Estate. We’ve got security clearance but you wouldn’t think it on sight. I don’t think, I’m the face of things, I look like someone who should ever be given security clearance for anything. Good thing they haven’t found the blog.
Suffice it to say, getting guns pointed at us has been a regular expectation. It’s been stressful.
In the process, I’ve discovered a part of the country I never knew existed before, where obnoxious wealth and latent power are more visible than I had ever previously thought possible.
Windsor, in particular, is very weird. The geographic closeness between social housing and fairytale wealth was worse there than in the London boroughs of Kensington and Chelsea. And that’s saying something.
On top of all that, the frequency of government-sponsored “Get ready for Brexit” billboards, peppered along the route, have only helped to unnerve me further. They’re ominously banal PSAs.
I feel like our boring dystopia is about to enter level 2 of Boring and Dystopian.
Burnt out from working so many hours and trying to sign off book edits when I get home, I didn’t get the chance to fully appreciate a quick return to Suffolk that we did last weekend. I spent most of it working, even sitting with a borrowed laptop right on the beach at Dunwich.
My brother-in-law and his girlfriend came back from a long trip and so we took them to our temporary Suffolk hideaway to show them the walks we did on our previous escape.
I discovered I no longer fear spiders, for whatever reason. They were out in force as the summer starts to ebb away and I found myself feeling quite affectionate towards them. We walked through the marshes tickling their webs hello.
We also spent a rainy day in Southwold, where I went to find George Orwell’s former family home.
In the local bookshop, where I’d previously picked up Lucy Ellman’s Ducks, Newburyport when we were last here, I heard someone inquire to the owner about his presence.
“Some people are still alive who remember him walking around the town,” she said. “Although they knew him as Eric then.”
In a window on the ground floor there is a sticker that says you can rent it as a holiday home if you so wish. Perhaps because I still had Brexit on the brain, I felt like there was something banally Orwellian about that too, with the price no doubt hiked up because of its providence, serving the town’s transient seaside tourism.
There is little else of note in Southwold besides a big brewery. But no matter, escape Brexit in the house that birthed 1984 and drink yourself into oblivion.
Down by the sea, I passed the Sailers’ Reading Room, W.G. Sebald’s favourite haunt in The Rings of Saturn — an alcohol-free zone for fishermen to pass the time in, and a good place for him to write up his notes.
Apparently it is full of seafaring records and scraps of history, recalling many events out at sea that have been witnessed from the Southwold promenade.
Unfortunately it was closed when we walked by.
On Saturday night, we took a more Ballardian excursion, lighting a fire on which we failed to roast smores, instead lying on our backs on the pitch black beach at Sizewell, staring up at the stars, the nuclear power station pulsating behind us.
I drove us home a while afterwards to Kode9 and the Spaceape — back on heavy rotation as my go-to night-driving soundtrack at the moment — and it felt very special.
I got this ad on YouTube on Monday and have not been able to stop thinking about it since.
In this cutesy little animated advertisement, Samsung explain that whilst everyone in the 1960s was suckered in by Space Race hype, they were more interested in the terrestrial struggles of everyday people. And they’re still on that emancipatory quest today!
Remember that old Apple advert that Mark Fisher wrote about? The “1984” Super Bowl one? This feels like the wet fart contemporary equivalent of that — woke capitalism meets communicative capitalism on a starry-eyed nostalgia trip.
Whereas Apple declared “we’re the bright colourful female future of post-Soviet freedom”, Samsung says “we’re the American (but really Korean) historical materialists liberating the working class for over 50 years with technological household amenities.” It’s hard to know which message is more ambitious and unnervingly misleading…
Because it’s a lie, right? It’s an attempt to construct this new reality — through the waking Freudian “dreamwork” of PR — that Samsung cares about people’s lives. The future doesn’t belong “to those who explore and challenge earlier than others.” If Samsung is to be a shining example of late-twentieth-century success, it’s tagline should be: “The future belongs to those who buy-in earlier than others.” After all, that’s how they survived the start of the iPhone years — by being Apple’s main supplier of microchips, no doubt buoyed by years of horrific Heart-of-Darkness cobalt mining adventures.
The advert is obviously an incredibly selective and audacious retcon and, when I struggled to find the video online at first, I just assumed they’d decided to bottle it because it’s too cringe. No such luck.
Samsung are here demonstrating their commitment to wha Mark Fisher called “communicative capitalist realism”, spinning yarns of woke familiarity and innovation so that they can float above reality in their capitalist dreamworld:
Communicative capitalist realism acts as if the collectivisation of desire and resources had already happened. In actuality, the imperatives of communicative capitalism obstruct the possibility of communication, by using actually existing cyberspace to reinforce current modes of subjectivity, desocialisation, and drudgery.
It’s not unusual, by any means, but I think this is the most on-the-nose example of this new brand of capitalist realism that I’ve ever seen.