I have long thought about Mark Fisher as a surrealist. In many ways, it’s an anachronism. Fisher clearly had more in common with surrealism’s later progeny, such as the Situationists, and his early blogging (with the Ccru and solo) was more explicitly related to the automatic and fragmentary writing Ballard and Burroughs. But in my view, his most famous concept, “capitalist realism”, nonetheless begs for a “capitalist surrealism” to also exist.
Fisher explored this, again, in more contemporary terms (relatively speaking at least). Phrases like “digital psychedelia” and “acid communism” are far more effective than “capitalist surrealism” for the ways they engage with recent leftist struggles and contemporary material conditions. But kinds of “capitalist surrealism” they remain.
This train of thought is undoubtedly a product of the Bataillean still in me. Bataille’s Sur Nietzsche was itself a play on surrealism — a movement that had denounced him — which he used to reassert some of the all-important prefix’s ambiguities, meaning not simply “beyond” or “outside of” reality but “above”, “over” and “in addition to” it. (Bataille’s original intention was, in this sense, to rethink Nietzsche’s “Übermensch” more explicitly as a “surhomme”: not as a “superman”, as it is often translated into English, but the more nuanced “overman”, retaining a kind of Promethean and liberatory understanding that moves against the more fascist readings of Nietzsche’s works.)
For Bataille, though a popular surrealist movement seemed to forget this tension, he saw himself as adhering to it more effectively. As surrealism fell out of favour in French intellectual circles in the post-war period, Bataille believed it was instead more necessary than ever. Indeed, whereas the horrors of the reality of war made surrealism appear like little more than a parlour game to some, Bataille believed that it was precisely in that moment, where “reality” appeared most oppressive and hard, that surrealism had to rise to the task it had set itself in more carefree times. As he wrote most forcefully: “in terms of mankind’s interrogation of itself, there is surrealism and nothing”.
We can see a similarly surrealist (albeit inverted) gesture in Mark Fisher’s Capitalist Realism; it is the negative of a more imaginative project to come (the unfinished Acid Communism). First, it was necessary that he identify the “realism” of contemporary political reality, to sketch out the present, before advancing a more positive alternative to it — indeed, to even argue that such alternatives already exist in the first place. As Fisher wrote on the k-punk blog: “Identifying the embedded, unreflective pessimism [that defines contemporary life and leftist thought] is an act of negativity which, I hope, can make some contribution to denaturalizing that pessimism (which, by its very nature, does not identify itself as such, and is covered over by a compulsory positivity which forbids negativity).”
This is no easy task. It was Marx’s task too, after all; a task that Marx never (technically) completed. Fisher, however, managed to produce an image of the present that was so lucid as to be contained in a mere 90 pages, in a book that is perhaps still best described as a pamphlet.
This is not to diminish Capitalist Realism, but rather to understand the power of its radical concision in the totalizing complexity of capitalist realism itself (cf. Lyotard) like the political pamphlets of old. This is also not to suggest that Fisher one-upped Marx, doing what he never could, but rather to suggest that he turned Marx’s textual commitments on their head (something only possible after Marx had done the necessary work). This is to say that, whereas Marx produced multiple volumes for Capital that were positioned as the background to the relative brevity of the Communist Manifesto, Fisher’s final and more positive project would likely have been much more grand in scope than his initial offering of negativity.
The problem, however, which we are left with now following Fisher’s death, is that this project never materialised, leading too many readers focus on Fisher’s negativity at the expense of his positivity — something that is again compounded by his suicide.
It is for this reason that I prefer to think of Fisher as a surrealist. The Surrealists are also (lazily) well-known for their negativity, but the work was done later to re-establish their positivity more explicitly, and that is something that remains to be done for Fisher’s work today.
I have written on this before, in a post published eighteen months ago (and later translated into Italian — so it presumably had some impact for an attentive few). There, I discuss Capitalist Realism alongside Ferdinand Alquié’s sadly out-of-print (in English) The Philosophy of Surrealism.
Earlier this week, I came across a recently translated review of Alquié’s book written by Gilles Deleuze, in which Deleuze summarises the stakes of Alquié’s project to make them even more explicit. With the above gloss and the previous post in mind, I wanted to add a few notes that further elucidate what is so interesting about surrealism, and what remains interesting about it today as we continue to wrestle with the pessimism of capitalist realism more generally.
What is first most striking about Deleuze’s review is his summation of Alquié’s method. Alquié’s book, he says, “is a true analysis”:
It not only distinguishes themes but orders of importance. Because errors may consist less of making texts say something they do not than of inverting the relative importance of themes, of presenting something as essential that is not, something that depends on something else.
In the case of Fisher’s work, including and going beyond Capitalist Realism, it is necessary to resituate, in the order of importance, Fisher’s own negativity. (This is hardly a new and innovative reading of his work, although it is certainly the one that I’ve become particularly well-known for advancing.)
Although this displacing of negativity is necessary for all of Fisher’s work, it is something that is particularly apparent in discussions of his second book, Ghosts of My Life, where many only see a man who is arrogantly self-assured that all music was better in his day. This is a reading that few who read seriously take seriously, not least because, once you pass the book’s introduction, Fisher explores contemporary popular culture consistently (contemporaneous, at least, to the time in which the book was written). Even an essay that seems to be ostensibly about the past, such as his essay on Jimmy Saville and the 1970s, is centred on David Peace’s Red Riding tetralogy (1999, 2000, 2001, 2002) and its 2009 TV adaptation.
In essence, the perceived grumpiness, the pessimism, the negativity, isn’t remotely the point. It is a question of what this negativity makes possible and how it might give rise to an alternative form of positivity — positivity in the sense of a Spinozist joy, which is radically distinct from positivity’s more compulsory and more neoliberal perversion — found most readily, I think, in the cheerily and uncannily depoliticised innocuity of polite early-morning TV news programmes. (As Fisher wrote on the Hyperstition blog: “The price of such ‘happiness’ — a state of cored-out, cheery Pod people affectlessness — is sacrifice of all autonomy” — something demonstrably apparent when presenters of supposedly apolitical programming on the BBC, for instance, attempt to pass any sort of comment on the state of the modern world; “positivity” and “impartiality” (or “complicity”) have long gone hand in hand, it seems.)
Of course, this isn’t to reduce Fisher’s work to joy entirely, as this obviously presents an image of his work that will be alien to any reader. But it is nonetheless to acknowledge its prime position in the order of importance. Joy is all, especially in those moments when it feels most absent. Other topics and affects may take textual precedence, but all are lower down the ladder than joy in Fisher’s consistently and adamantly Spinozist framework.
It is a framework that Alquié shares — having written on Spinoza himself and having supervised Deleuze’s dissertation of Spinoza’s work also — and Deleuze sees much the same joyful vision of surrealism in Alquié’s work as well. Providing a rollcall of surrealist interests that similarly resonate with Fisher’s own, Deleuze argues that Alquié shows how
the essential for the Surrealists is not pessimism, negation, anxiety, and revolt, which are nonetheless expressed in many of their works. It is no more a concern for expression, an esthetic preoccupation, or research into language, even though several Surrealists ended up in this research. The essential is not the esoterism, spiritualist initiation, or alchemy that seduced and attracted them either. Nor s it the mystique of the superman, as Carrogues desired. It is not Hegel’s dialectic nor Marxism and revolution, from which, however, they do not want to distinguish themselves. Finally, it is not the return or the exaggeration of German romanticism, which had a project that was very different than the Surrealist project.
The essential is instead “a certain theme of life: love, desire, or hope.”
The central theme of Fisher’s work is much the same, and we can break down Fisher’s sense of these terms (which are admittedly located far more implicitly in his work) along lines similar to those advanced by Deleuze via Alquié.
First, love. The Surrealists’ love is not a love beyond life but rather a love experienced in “all loved ones”, in all “figures and aspects of the world.” What is meant by this is perhaps a love of life, of which we are generally dissuaded from expressing in favour of more “rational” rhetoric. Relatedly, Fisher admonishes a view of cultural fanaticism that is made anathema to academic discourse, which transforms “research interests” into only our saddest passions. To truly appreciate something, then, we are told we must move beyond “the vicissitudes of fan-adoration [which] have no relationship to proper philosophical discussion”, just as we must also avoid “fan exasperation, the nihilation of the former idol, [which] is somehow juvenile.” He continues:
There’s a peculiar shame involved in admitting that one is a fan, perhaps because it involves being caught out in a fantasy-identification. “Maturity” insists that we remember with hostile distaste, gentle embarrassment or sympathetic condescension when we were first swept up by something — when, in the first flushes of devotion, we tried to copy the style, the tone; when, that is, we are drawn into the impossible quest of trying to become what the Other is […] to us.
But Fisher argues, on the contrary, that this “is the only kind of ‘love’ that has real philosophical implications, the passion capable of shaking us out of sensus communis.” A surrealist love, no less, which intervenes within and interrogates our desires.
Second: desire. This love that draws us into an impossible quest — a desire — to become what the Other is to us is the beginning of ethics. It is to look at another form of life — whether encapsulated by an idea, a program or an other — and then attempt to give rise to that which we love in them within ourselves. It is desire understood most radically, and explored most explicitly by Fisher in his final lectures.
Deleuze, who would also write so much on desire’s co-optation by capitalism, adds that “this desire is not primarily possessive … because this desire is more attentive, awaiting, and attention, it is at the same time hope…” [sic]
Third: hope. Hope is not simply fantasy-identification either, but rather the construction of other loving worlds from the passions found in this one. To have hope then is to have a “comprehension of signs, taste for encounters, objective and terrestrial, and openness to the marvelous.” Fisher retains this sense of hope in his own later writings, drawing on Deleuze and Spinoza explicitly, but also goes marvellously beyond it. It is a truly surrealist hope, then, which begins with hope (as well as fear) but also acts decisively upon them. As he writes on the k-punk blog:
“There’s no need to fear or hope, but only to look for new weapons,” Deleuze writes in “Postscript on Societies of Control”. He was no doubt thinking of Spinoza’s account of hope and fear in the Ethics. “There is no hope unmingled with fear, and no fear unmingled with hope,” Spinoza claimed. He defines hope and fear as follows:
Hope is a joy not constant, arising from the idea of something future or past about the issue of which we sometimes doubt.
Fear is a sorrow not constant, arising from the idea of something future or past about the issue of which we sometimes doubt.
Hope and fear are essentially interchangeable; they are passive affects, which arise from our incapacity to actually act. Like all superstitions, hope is something we call upon when we have nothing else. This is why Obama’s “politics of hope” ended up so deflating — not only because, inevitably, the Obama administration quickly became mired in capitalist realism, but also because the condition of hope is passivity. The Obama administration didn’t want to activate the population (except at election time).
We don’t need hope; what we need is confidence and the capacity to act. “Confidence,” Spinoza argues, “is a joy arising from the idea of a past or future object from which cause for doubting is removed.” Yet it is very difficult, even at the best of times, for subordinated groups to have confidence, because for them/us there are few if any “future objects from which cause for doubting is removed.”
It is for this reason that Deleuze’s conception of hope, as found in the work of Alquié, is further comingled with love and desire — terms likewise rescued from any sense of passivity.
Deleuze acknowledges this same passivity in philosophy and cultural criticism itself. “It is sometimes surprising that it is possible to write and yet show contempt for literature”, he adds. But this is hardly much of a surprise when we understand hope/fear as the ground upon which one acts and, in the case of philosophy and culture, begins to write or create, such that art — like that of the Surrealists — becomes an ungrounding of the givens of this world that elicits hope and fear in the first place.
“This attitude is based on beauty being first not an affair of aesthetics but an affair of life,” Deleuze continues, “because it speaks to desire before speaking in a work, because it responds first to an ethical and vital exigency.” This is why desire is so important here, as an affect produced by hope and fear in equal measure. Desire, Deleuze writes, thus “refuses the given, it does not recognise itself in any logically defined object, it expresses a fundamental spontaneity, it expresses itself by ‘de-realizing’.”
It is a function of desire we know well in our love lives. It is one thing to desire another, to fantasise about an encounter with another (be that at the base level of having sex or otherwise building some sort of life together), but it might take a wholly alien confidence to step beyond hope and fear and make your feelings known — that is, to act upon them.
For Deleuze, this kind of confidence is not possible through hope itself but rather through a reflection on hope. We may know what we desire, we may sense a desire reciprocated in a wanton form of signification, but it is only by reflecting on that hope that we come to formulate an image of the mad action necessary to actualise it.
Surrealism’s primary concern, then, for Alquié, is precisely this mad action, encapsulated in André Breton’s “evolution as a passage from hope to reflection on hope, to lucidity.” But what is all the more important for surrealism is that this confidence is, again, not driven by a possessive desire. It is not a question of seizing upon fantasy and forcing its acquiescence to life as it is already being lived.
Here too our love for another remains a useful analogy: we do not profess our adorations in order to imprison the other in our pre-existing reality, but rather to extend a hand so that a new world be constructed by the walking-together of two. It is to take your world and another’s world and produce a new world altogether different from either one.
In this sense, then, as Deleuze continues:
For Surrealism, it is not a question of synthesis, of reaching the unity of the real and the unreal: the point where the two are one, the Surreal or Being, is not something to be rediscovered but defined. And not defined as a beyond, as supernatural, but on the contrary as the principle of separation that makes the being of humans, as the principle of a passage that makes poetry, “means of passing at will” from the real to the unreal, from the unreal to the real, finally as the principle of a tension that makes ethics.
This is what makes desire “more than the thing [desired] but less than Being”. It is a future oriented towards, but a future that might still never necessarily arrive (at least not as we might have first imagined it). Desire only remains active, can only be perpetually acted upon, if it remains a site of contention and struggle. Desire must continue desiring. It must remain somehow surreal, such that the acquisition of what is desired does not give way to a complacency that is a state of realism.
Desire is a difficult thing to retain, however, in the present. Lyotard’s Libidinal Economy demonstrates how desire is itself weaponised by capitalism, such that we passively believe all desires can be actualised only within its bounds. But the trick capitalism plays upon us is that this grand encompassing of all wants within its nervous system denies our capacity to desire other systems in themselves. We desire only partially, losing the only thing that can be desired truly: other worlds.
Surrealism, then, Deleuze concludes, at least in Alquié’s eminently Spinozist formulation, is “a rationalism that refuses the system, but is enriched by the dual content of desire and signs, or if you prefer, psychoanalysis and poetry.” Fisher’s works are really no different; this is likewise the founding principle of his “psychedelic reason”. But still, we tend to see nothing in Fisher but his anxieties. We offset entirely the kinds of action they were able to inspire.
In some of the footage I’ve seen from a forthcoming documentary on Mark Fisher, Carl Neville argues that it was so necessary that someone disliked the present as much as Fisher did. This is the initial power of Fisher’s work for many. The slow cancellation of the future clearly made him fearful that the frenzied stasis of capitalist realism would continue in perpetuity. But Fisher would not have written a word if he was not also hopeful that things could be otherwise. Understanding this hope and fear as necessarily entwined, he reasoned forcefully that capitalism works hard to deflate all consciousness and confidence. It leaves us with nothing but passivity — the passive acceptance that there is no alternative. By identifying this given as negative, we can think again what it is about this world that we love, which may not present itself to us with any immediacy, and desire to live and love otherwise.
This is a problem that is made sadly metaphilosophical for Fisher. As ever, his suicide lingers over his writings. But Fisher’s depression was, in so many ways, a product of the system itself. He was contained by it, as we all are, and felt himself ultimately “good for nothing”, as if this world necessary refused any space in which someone like himself could exist. He personified alternatives in this regard and continues to. He carved out what space he could, particularly online, documenting his own attempts at actualising a post-capitalist asceticism. And yet, although he ultimately left this world, we cannot allow that darkly negative act to overshadow all of Fisher’s other actions prior.
I will end here on a note from Alquié’s Philosophy of Surrealism, in which he turns to his wonderfully ill-fated friend Joë Bousquet, who casts an image of studious isolation that resonates, for me at least, with my image of Mark Fisher the blogger, of k-punk:
His asceticism was not that of a hermit who had voluntarily forsaken the world, but of a lover whom the world had forsaken and who could find the world again only by preferring it to himself, searching only in the splendour of things for the essence of his sorrows… This is where Bousquet was like no one else. He was not of those who go from reflection to life and take for their drama that of their thoughts. He had rather find, with the aid of images and words, his lost life and avoid sterile revolt by preferring what he saw and what he said to what he was. So he was always consoling, not by the illusion of some promise, but by the truth of reconciliation.
A true surrealist, like Bousquet, if Fisher’s work still consoles us, consoles me, in spite of everything, this too is why.
It is hard to know what to say. It is hard to know whether one should say anything at all. Forget “doomscrolling”, genocide-scrolling is how I’ve spent most of the last few days, retweeting people on Twitter who are far more eloquent, far better informed, far more personally affected than I.
But what are tweets worth? All feels impotent.
I think about the public record, the ephemerality of Twitter. Will any of these tweets survive once Elon Musk finally drives that platform into the ground? I think about the general function of this blog as a diary, as a journal, as a public notebook, as a space to comment rapidly on current events. I think of a time in the near future, which is already so foreboding, in which I or anyone else may look back on this time and find silence.
Let it be said: this fear of silence is not out of self-concern, but out of a more abstract concern for the archive; not just my archive, but our archive. I want to do my part, even if this post is just a miniscule drop in the ocean of an archive to come. So, how to make an adequate record? That is impossible, no doubt. But to make a mark, any mark, no matter how small, is better than none at all.
Taking breaks from the horrors of Twitter, I turn to my bookshelf and begin to leaf through the fragmentary archive in my possession. I glance through Jean Genet’s Prisoner of Love, look up Deleuze’s condemnations of Israel as a colonial project, and read Adania Shibli’s Minor Detailwith new intent. It is Shibli’s book that affects me the most in the present context. (She was due to receive an award at the Frankfurt Book Fair; the ceremony was postponed.)
A woman becomes obsessed with a “minor detail” in the historical record — the rape and murder of a Palestinian woman in 1949. It is a “minor” incident when placed within the full frame of the Nakba, and yet all the more affecting in its singularity. To designate it as “minor” is doubly disturbing in this way. Minor as in insignificant? But insignificant how? Insignificant as in unimportant? Or insignificant when held up against a totality of atrocities? This is the tension of the archive.
I put everything way and get back to another job at hand. I am proofreading a book about science fiction. But even this becomes relevant, as scenes of subjection linger in the back of my mind. Deleuze’s famous comments in Cinema 2 make an appearance, which likewise resonate with an Israeli propaganda machine. Israel strengthens its claim on the past, whilst Palestinians hope for a liberated future. Deleuze writes of the importance of “story-telling”, of “fabulation”, in this regard. He writes that “story-telling is itself memory, and memory is invention of a people… Not the myth of a past people, but the [fabulations] of the people to come”; it is the people, the author adds, who “must be fabulated into existence, through processes of revolutionary struggle and transformation.”
Memory, for Deleuze, is so wonderfully nebulous, so evocative. Remembering is a creative act; Proust shows us it may even be the highest creative act there is. Unforgetting is revolutionary. But the media at present not only manufactures consent, it manufactures future memory as well. It seems to insist on what will be remembered: an oneiric authoritarianism; a Zionist realism.
Israel obliterates Gaza in the present whilst waging a infowar to thwart any Palestinian futurity. To read the archive as it is being written is to become anxious as uncertainties and speculations are prematurely concretised by a media complicit in a feared genocide to come. Complicit not only in its unwavering support of an apartheid regime, but complicit in the narratives it spins on Israel’s behalf. How do you erase people, after all? Not only through the destruction of bodies but also of memory, culture, thought.
I wonder if we will remember anything more than the conjecture of open conflict. Looking back on this historical record from an imagined future, will the headlines bellow back at us louder than any public dissent?
When people speak of the “Anthropocene”, the necessity of naming this new epoch as such, they often point to the fossil record. Future archaeologists, should any exist, will know us by the sedimented chicken bones. The unfathomable slaughter of little birds for consumption will be our legacy when all else has decayed. This fossil record is measurable, of course. There is physical evidence. What will the archive tell us? Will future historians dig beneath the genocidal headlines? How many voices will not be heard? But all the more reason to say something, to place your tiny brick in the wall of a narrative that must be actively constructed and fortified whilst Gaza is demolished indiscriminately.
Earlier today, following an announcement that they will stop Gaza from receiving water, food and electricity, Israel declares it will shut down Internet access for those who might still have some battery left on their devices. This is so they can stop the rest of the world from witnessing their war crimes in real time, one commentator suggests. Again, my thoughts turn to an archive to come.
This book being proofread also contains a notable reference to Saidiya Hartman’s method of “critical fabulation”. In the essay “Venus in Two Acts”, she writes of “straining against the limits of the archive to write a cultural history of the captive, and, at the same time, enacting the impossibility of representing the lives of the captives precisely through the process of narration.” Here Hartman is discussing the reconstruction — the critical fabulation — that is necessary when looking at historical records of the Transatlantic Slave Trade.
As in Shibli’s novel, Hartman hopes to reconstruct the life of a murdered girl, when all that she has at her disposal are horrifying records of her death. “It is a history of an unrecoverable past; it is a narrative of what might have been or could have been; it is a history written with and against the archive.” Her attempt “depends upon the legal records, surgeons’ journals, ledgers, ship manifests, and captains’ logs, and in this regard falters before the archive’s silence and reproduces its omissions.” She is aghast by “all the stories that we cannot know and that will never be recovered.”
In the present, the arguments made in the media centre on accusations of disregard for Israelis and Palestinians alike. Commentators tiptoe around the anxiety of drawing false equivalences, or any equivalences whatsoever. Mainstream pundits run in fear from context whilst Palestinians run from white phosphorus. They steer clear of privileging narratives and ultimately say nothing. Propaganda is repeated thoughtlessly. “Israel has the right to defend itself” is asserted so frequently to lose all signification, but is nonetheless called out online for what it is: a cowardly complicity in war crimes. The dissent grows louder in towns and cities across the world, as if everyone has come to the same realisation: without voices of dissent, it is clear that only one set of atrocities will be recorded and remembered.
Yes, all deaths are a tragedy, but why do the overwhelming number of Palestinian deaths, which will far outnumber those of Israelis, as they always have done, feel so diminished? Decades of violent rhetoric have already dehumanised an entire people long before this fateful moment — that much is clear. We have already forgotten the humanity of those living under apartheid, such that any mention of their historical circumstances, of the colonial oppression that has led to this violence, is an offense to mention.
So much else is suppressed with shocking ease. So much else must be re-remembered. One of the most eloquent voices of dissent I hear from the UK media belongs to James Schneider, who comments on the current situation on TalkTV. He is immediately admonished by one of the show’s presenters, Jeremy Kyle, whose previous daytime show was described as “human bear baiting” by a British judge in 2007. How is this man allowed anywhere near the present discussion? It is a sickness; a cultural amnesia.
I add my voice regardless. But what is to be recorded? What is to be recorded here? Only my own anxieties? At the very least, I want any readers to know that all of my thoughts are with them. I stand with you and wish I could hug so many of you. I wish I could offer more than “thoughts and prayers”. But what am I left with if I do not want to make a list of atrocities? I am bearing witness to horrors, but I do not wish to catalogue them. Someone must; many are. There are far better sources available for rally cries and analysis; I have shared many of them. But here?
Central to Hartman’s work is the tension of remembering, of recalling scenes of subjection from the historical record:
What are the kinds of stories to be told by those and about those who live in such an intimate relationship with death? Romances? Tragedies? Shrieks that find their way into speech and song? What are the protocols and limits that shape the narratives written as counterhistory, an aspiration that isn’t a prophylactic against the risks posed by reiterating violent speech and depicting again rituals of torture? How does one revisit the scene of subjection without replicating the grammar of violence? … Do the possibilities outweigh the dangers of looking (again)?
I wish I had other stories to tell. Like Deleuze’s catalogue of world cinema, I gather and read the tales of Palestinian life and resistance in my possession,
through trance or crisis, to constitute an assemblage which brings real parties together, in order to make them produce collective utterances as the préfiguration of the people who are missing (and, as Klee says, ’we can do no more’).
We can do no more.
In Deleuze’s text, this declaration seems so positive. But so many are missing; so much is missing. It does not feel like enough… I hope new voices will join the cause. I hope, in another future, for new stories too: stories of love, joy and return. I hope the archives to come record more than just destruction and exile. I hope to hear more of beauty again, from the river to the sea.
I’ve got a couple of events coming up over the next two months. Here’s a quick post with all the info and links to tickets, etc.:
First up, I’ll be chatting to Bill Cashmore at Housman’s in London on 27th October to celebrate the launch of her new book, We Hear Only Ourselves.
We are delighted to welcome Bill Cashmore to Housmans to celebrate the publication of her exciting new book We Hear Only Ourselves. As Étienne Balibar says, this book is a “beautiful breakthrough by enormously gifted young philosopher.” We Hear Only Ourselves is a study of utopia and its contradictions. If a future beyond capitalism cannot be imagined, what is the place of utopia today? The answer, Cashmore argues, lies beyond either idle speculation or merely hopeful optimism. We Hear Only Ourselves seeks a concept of utopia which is strengthened, not undermined, by its contradictions. From the dialectics of the Frankfurt School to the energetics of resistance in the writings of the Black Panthers, this book draws on a wide range of thought to offer a new concept of utopia, one adequate for our present moment.
Bill will be in conversation with Matt Colquhoun, followed by an open discussion.
Next, I’ll be joining a panel on the opening night of this year’s Radical Book Fair in Edinburgh, the theme of which is “Revolutionary Feeling”, at the Assembly Roxy on 9th November.
What do we really see when we look at each other and at ourselves? What narratives and assumed truths do we bring into any meeting with others, about beauty, relationships, agency and the society that shapes us all?
Who better to lead us into a weekend of exploring the personal and political than three generous, bold thinkers and authors whose work untangles what it means to see ourselves? Join Sumaiymah Manzoor-Khan, Matt Colquhoun and Nathalie Olah as they plunge the mirrors we all hold up to each other.
The panel will be chaired by Noor Hemani.
Tickets and further information can be found here.
Finally, on 23rd November, I’ll be doing a home event here in Newcastle for this year’s Books on Tyne festival. At the City Library, I’ll do a reading and host a Q&A.
It is about finding new ways of defining how we order and categorize our existence in relation to the world and deciding what sustains us in life, the ways to appropriately relate to ourselves, each other, and our environment. An “off-menu” menu where you can find a detour to the “ruined future” to leave behind the impossibility of thinking about a common future.
I’ll be taking part in a panel on the work of Mark Fisher in May 2024, exploring his increasingly international (albeit posthumous) reputation in the Spanish-speaking world.
In recent times, the British academic and cultural critic Mark Fisher (1968-2017) has gained prestige and popularity in the Spanish-speaking world. His work, which dialogues with that of contemporary writers, essayists, music critics and filmmakers, is now essential for thinking about our time, based on the analysis of the mass culture industry. By approaching this work from three readings – the British one with Matt Colquhoun, the Spanish one with Germán Cano and the Latin American one with Luciana Cadahia – we will try to continue Fisher’s efforts to understand what is happening (to us) and what are the possible ways of deviate from the “capitalist realism” in which we live, as well as its eventual future.
In my teenage bedroom, I had a PC in one corner, on which I listened to all of my music. Two speakers sat on either side of the monitor. The wiring was bad and, although both speakers worked, all music came through in mono. Certain songs that heavily used panning were always one-sided. I learnt to live with it.
Music filled my bedroom constantly. If I was awake, the computer was on and a growing collection of pirated MP3s played throughout the day. (Often, I left music playing throughout the night as well. Brian Eno’s Ambient series. The Tired Sounds of Stars of the Lid.) You could always hear the muffled sounds of my sonic universe wherever you were in the house. I must have been a noisy nightmare to live with. (I live alone now, but my friends and I will gather. There is always music playing.)
On the few occasions I turned my music off and left my teenage bedroom silent, a parallel universe was barely audible downstairs. My Dad had a very similar set-up. We were both Internet and music addicts. He sat in front of his computer smoking cigarillos whenever he was home from work. We rarely crossed paths, avoiding each other’s worlds. I didn’t rate his taste in music that highly, nor he mine. But whenever we were in the car together, we’d find common ground. The Beatles, Lindisfarne, Yes, Led Zeppelin’s Houses of the Holy. Sometimes he’d subject me to Clannad. Sometimes I’d subject him to Can and nu metal. Moments of compromise before we returned to our respective dens.
I was reminded of our oddly elliptical orbit of each other whilst sitting on my sofa, holding the twelve-inch cover of Oneohtrix Point Never’s new album, Again. The third speaker from the left — I’m sure we had those… I’m sure many other people will feel the same. Six generic objects made wonderfully iconic. I imagine what might be playing through them, how the sounds would comingle together. As the speakers are constricted, melted, their edges bleeding into each other, would the sounds they made do the same?
Again begins with this bleeding. New sounds are constructed from the mesh, as if the strands are pulled apart again, rewoven, remodulated, remanipulated. I think about how memory works, how neural pathways are retrodden, such that memories are always events reimagined. We return again and again to the past, but it is never the same.
Martin Faldbakken’s sculpture provokes an almost Proustian response in this regard, as I recall the limitations of those sonic worlds once inhabited, the constrictions we thought little about as we immersed ourselves in the sounds available to us. But it is like returning to a dream. I remember how it felt. The details are murky.
A description of Faldbakken’s practice from Simon Lee Gallery suggests that it “holds in perpetual tension the forces of proposition and cancellation, vandalism and erasure, aesthetic generosity and conceptual restraint, the possibility of language and its abstraction into illegibility.” I think about how the very act of remembering holds these same tensions in play. I think about the music my Dad and I proposed to each other when we disconnected from our ethernet tethers. The music we proposed for our shared listening, the tracks or albums we denied each other or asked the other to skip. The poor acoustic environments, the sounds always determined by the room or the car or the dodgy wiring. The anarchic generosity of the early Internet and the limited free time during the day we had to listen to new downloads, encouraging a compulsive bingeing of always too much music, the impossibility of absorbing it all meaningfully but the abundance of meaning all the same. The way that sharing music, successfully and unsuccessfully, was a way to communicate without actually talking to each other. My growing interest in dance music, which he hated, and my growing distain for his trad-folk predilections. The chaotic collisions of our total sound worlds. Talking drums talking past each other.
When I left home, I found a buoyant raft in the sound worlds of Oneohtrix Point Never. Lopatin has soundtracked many formative moments of my early adulthood (which I’ve reminisced about previously) and has continued to. His work also soundtracked many moments afterwards. Over a decade of sonic companionship, at this point. MOPN being a soundtrack for lockdown is only the most recent sonic attachment of profound personal significance. I could tell you about all the others, but I won’t. The details are unimportant and probably uninteresting, but this in itself is notable. No other discography triggers such erratic cascades of memory, a bittersweet thrill so internal that relaying it to another feels no better than sharing dream narratives on waking: punishing for the listener, as you scramble to articulate an affect knowable only to the unconscious; embarrassing, as you watch boredom creeping over the eyes and ears of the person who could never have been there. Communication is hard; significance is unstable and subjective. Profundity and mundanity are constantly in each other’s orbit.
For this reason alone, Matias Faldbakken is the perfect artist to adorn the cover of the new album. Just as our dreams drift from grand creativities to mundane anxieties, “the objects he adapts often veer between the iconic and the almost painfully generic.” The same can be said of Oneohtrix Point Never Again. There is nothing pejorative about this slip between the iconic and the generic, however. It is what makes the album feel so totalising. In fact, the album is at its most affecting when I allow it to become purely environmental. I hit play and let the record fill my flat as I sit down to write or get up to tidy or cook, my mind at work the whole time, travelling. Memories feel at their sharpest when they emerge amidst peripheral activities.
This weekend, two lightbulbs popped in my flat. The light in the bathroom and the light in my bedroom. It’s an annoying little inconvenience and I have yet to find the time to walk into town and buy new ones. But manoeuvring myself in the dark, I remember that fascinating quirk of human anatomy — we generally see better in the dark through our peripheral vision. I set my sights on a vague middle distance and navigate my way through tasks by paradoxically casting my attention on that which is barely looked at. I listen to Oneohtrix Point Never Again the same way, and continue to hear new details on every subsequent listen. I am repeatedly surprised by the shifting symphony, as particularly recognisable motifs appear when I least expect them, before then hearing a section I swear I’d yet to register, some two dozen listens in…
My mind wanders. The album is almost exactly an hour in length, but is over before I know it. I start to live in it. I hear other sounds bleed through. I think about other songs by other artists. I feel like my whole collection of music is on shuffle. But everything nonetheless coheres in spite of the chaos.
The album feels so wonderfully derivative when I listen to it in this way. Or, to bastardise the French like only Anglos know how, it is dérivative. Like Garden of Delete (most explicitly) before it, it is a wandering through sound worlds. But whereas the sonic palette on GoD was particular, OPNA feels like a walk through the neighbourhood, as sounds pan past your ears on the march forward, the whole world experienced through the Doppler effect. I think about the walk I take every few days between my flat and my local pub. headphones on for the duration, different playlists curated for different modes. OPNA suits them all, as if it travels and I only wander alongside. I wonder if the album might also be derivative in a more mathematical sense. Despite its evocation of so many other worlds, we know we are in Lopatin’s. He is the constant, the formula, as we gain a new sensitivity to the outputs that are conjured by shifting inputs. It is a soundtrack not only for but of life, of the in-between, of the wandering between old memories and new ones presently forming.
Talking over email in late 2020, Lopatin recommended Philip Brophy’s 100 Modern Soundtracks. I can’t find the book now; I have moved too many times since then. Things get lost. But Brophy’s website is a treasure trove of writing on the psychedelic construction of total sonic worlds — that is, sonic environments that are all-encompassing. Not just the music being played but every other sound that intrudes marvellously upon the intentional. The best example of this kind of psychedelic construction is undoubtedly a film soundtrack.
To say OPNA is cinematic verges too close to cliche, but it is that and so much more. “Imploding the perceived distance between score / environmental sound / dialogue track is a psychedelic act”, Lopatin writes in a pandemic email. Brophy goes even further on his website — just as Lopatin does now on OPNA — writing about the deeply pleasurable semioblitz of a modern cinema-going experience. Not only the total bombardment of surround sound but the sound of the audience laughing, hollering, crying, eating. Cinema is noisy, but also so much noisier than we realise. It always has been.
For the intelligentsia, early 20th century cinema was nothing but noise. The possessed patrons, the infernal machinery, the diabolical din of it all was everything the angels in the wings of theatre had strived to obliterate. The baseness of cinema would have been as attractive to theatre critics then as death metal mega-bill concerts would be the concert music critics of today. The noise of production and consumption is a hallmark of 20th century exchange, typifying industrialization as a cacophonic manifestation of the warping of time and speed that increased manufacture brought to bear on modernist economy. Audiovisual entertainment of the originating milieu was bound to be similarly ‘noisy’ through its hybridity, malleability, compaction and condensation of all traditional art forms. The modernist tropes of collage, fusion and rupture quite organically increased the aural and the sonic primarily through a ‘live multi-tracking’ of events and occurrences. Voice, sound effects, music, atmosphere, and a mix of controlled and unplanned circumstances fuelled equally post-vaudevillian and proto-cinematic monstrosities, creating audiovisual chimera whose sensational effects and spectacularized presentations embraced the essential quality of noise.
I think about the cinematization of everyday life. I imagine Lopatin in his Williamsburg studio, pushing tender buttons, a salvagepunk sculpting sonic worlds from everything around, making sonic sculptures in much the same way Faldbakken does.
Mark Fisher on OPN for The Wire:
By opposition to postmodern pastiche, in which any sign can be juxtaposed with any other in a friction-free space, salvagepunk retains the specificity of cultural objects, even as it bolts them together into new assemblages. That’s precisely because salvagepunk is dealing with objects rather than signs. While signs are interchangeable, objects have particular properties, textures and tendencies, and the art of salvage is about knowing which objects can be lashed together to form viable constructions.
Lopatin has always excelled at this, and with a decade of film scoring now under his belt, Oneohtrix Point Never Again feels like a fitting evocation of the Brophy blitz. It is a suite of music that feels so cohesive, and yet shifts like a walk through a city, a drive across a country. It is Steve Reich’s Different Trains, swapping the sound world of post-war railways for post-internet information superhighways. You hit play, travel on, walking a path as the scenery changes seamlessly. It reminds of a Mount Eerie song, much to my surprise. OPN listens to and adds his own soundtrack to “the ‘natural world’ / and whatever else it’s called / […] / Mountains and websites”. Lopatin tunes into it all. The lyrics of “World Outside” could not be more explicit about his:
the songbird sings to me the flowers speak so freely a wavelength in a sea it’s just my interpretation
i hear the power lines they tell me that i’ll be fiiine existence is clear as mud but isn’t the view so amazing?
world outside world outside world outside (calls me forth) world outside
It feels reductive to call Oneohtrix Point Never Again a post-pandemic album — a truism — but this ode to touching grass and the buzzing of power lines reminds me of Gary Snyder’s poems, which I took great comfort in during lockdown, feeling so cut off from a world that hadn’t strictly gone anywhere, ruminating on:
The vast wild the house, alone. The little house in the wild, the wild in the house. Both forgotten.
Both together, one big empty house.
I think about my Dad again, our disconnected worlds, both forgotten. The “liminality, ambiguity, unexpected tenderness” that defined our relationship as much as it defines Lopatin’s music. But also the worlds shared on long drives together, the distance between us now, those mute journeys that no longer happen, cast adrift by a decade of domestic disasters, and a longing for that now-lost dysfunction that was nonetheless ours. Lopatin’s music has always evoked these barely lit paths, recalling refrains that guide through memory’s haze.
If I empty my mind Do I scoop out my skull What gifts would I find Nothing’s inside Just a slug that provides A barely lit path From your house to mine.
At the same time, both together. One big echoing house, full of noise. The world outside.
“The goal isn’t to thrash against disconnection … but to somehow integrate it.”
As an short addendum to my recent posts on Mark Fisher and Russell Brand — here, here and here — I was reminded of this section from “Now Then, Now Then: Jimmy Savile and the ’70s on Trial”, a chapter in Fisher’s Ghosts of My Life:
By the end of 2012, the 70s was returning, no longer as some bittersweet nostalgia trip, but as a trauma. The phrase it’s like something out of David Peace has become something of a commonplace in the past few years. Strangely for fiction that is about the past, Peace’s work has actually gained in prophetic power since its publication. Peace wasn’t predicting the future – how could he be, when he was writing about the 70s and the 80s? – so much as he had fixated on those parts of the past which were about to resurface. The Fritzl case had echoes of the underground lair in which children are kept prisoner in the Red Riding novels. And everything that came to light about conspiracies amongst the English power elite – all the murk and tangle of Murdoch and Hillsborough – seemed to throw us back into Peace’s labyrinths of corruption and cover-up. Murdoch, Hillsborough, Savile… Pull on one thread and it all started to connect, and, wherever you looked, there was the same grim troika – police, politicians, media… Watching each other’s backs (partly for fear that they will be stabbed in their own back)… Having the goods on each other, the best kind of insurance policy, the ruling class model of solidarity…
After his death, Savile increasingly started to look like something Peace had dreamt up. We were drawn to a certain kind of fiction because consensual reality, the commonsense world that we like to think we live in, wasn’t adequate to a figure like Savile. At the same time, it became clear that the elements in Peace’s writing that previously seemed most melodramatically excessive were those which ended up rhyming with the new revelations. It’s as if melodramatic excess is built into the Real itself, and the sheer implausibility of corruption and abuse itself forms a kind of cloak for the abuser: surely this can’t be happening?
I think this chapter on Savile illuminates a lot of the tensions in Fisher’s appraisal of Brand and the concerns raised in private by others. It even tells us something about the mutative development of this Seventies sensibility in the Noughties and in the present. This “grim troika” is complicated by a contemporary (social) media landscape that muddies our senses of resistance and complicitly. Police, politicians, media remain in cynical cahoots. But the democratisation of our media landscape now implicates us all in this messy flow of information. Less Murdoch, Hillsborough, Savile; more Blair, the banks, Brand… The revenant qualities of those powerful figures who still appear to some, in spite of their abject failures, to be too big to fail…
In 2023, the Noughties have returned. From the return of Y2K fashion trends to the left’s sometimes directionless militancy post-2008, the aesthetic pleasures of that era bring with them echoes of 00s political horrors. And as in Fisher’s twenty-first century perspective on the Seventies, we can see how the more “melodramatic” affects of that time have likewise revealed themselves to contain more truth than many cared to admit (until recently). Russell Brand in particular may have appeared to be a horror invented. But with dandy mask removed, the real villain lies waiting underneath. Whereas Fisher may have regrettably argued that accusations of sexism against Brand should not override his usefulness as a political commentator, it now seems like the “most melodramatically excessive [critiques] were those which ended up rhyming with the new revelations.”
The conclusion to this chapter from Ghosts of My Life is also very telling. Fisher writes:
At the time when Savile was abusing, the victims were faced, not with Jimmy Savile the monster, Jimmy Savile the prolific abuser of children, but with Jimmy Savile OBE – Sir Jimmy Savile – Jimmy Savile, Knight Commander of the Pontifical Equestrian Order of Saint Gregory the Great. When we ask how Savile got away with it all, we must remember this. Naturally, fear played a part in keeping Savile’s victims quiet. Who’s going to believe your word against the word of a television entertainer, someone who has raised millions for charity? But we also need to take seriously the way that power can warp the experience of reality itself. Abuse by the powerful induces a cognitive dissonance in the vulnerable – this can’t possibly be happening. What has happened can be pieced together only in retrospect. The powerful trade on the idea that abuse and corruption used to happen, but not any more. Abuse and cover–up can be admitted, but only on condition that they are confined to the past. That was then, things are different now…
It seems that Fisher was ignorant, in 2013, of the ways that so much was still the same. He failed to see the signs of abuse and cover-up in the present that nonetheless coloured his view of the past. But as ever, we piece together what happened only in retrospect.
Retrospection redoubles disappointment, not least because Fisher understood this structural injustice acutely; he wrote about his own experiences of sexual abuse at the hands of a trusted authority figure with a bruising candour. (Somewhat relatedly, he was also present at Hillsborough). It was an experience that viciously complicated Fisher’s own relationship to sex (both personally and politically), and his further writings on the matter walk a complicated tightrope between what we might now refer to as sex-positive and sex-negative thought. Each post also has a tendency to contradict every other, such that it is clearly a topic he never found some final resolution for within his life and thinking — an uncertainty that is frequently uncomfortable, but in a manner that is also surely understandable, given the ways that a personal trauma can send us cascading between violent rejection and over-simplified affirmation of our own experiences as we struggle to make sense of them.
I am left wondering about Fisher’s sense of Brand’s sex appeal and how it affected the reception of his political speech (especially for Fisher himself). In “Exiting the Vampire Castle”, he praised the reappearance of a communist rhetoric that was “something cool, sexy and proletarian”. (Irrespective of his sexism, Brand was nonetheless repeatedly voted to be “The Sexiest Man Alive” on a number of occasions by tabloid media.) But this is something that, again, Fisher complicated for himself in his later acid-communist writings, which moved beyond a communist pleasure principle.
And so, considering the writings either side of the Vampire Castle essay, we can also see how Fisher might have otherwise seen the danger in Brand’s sex appeal. Jimmy Savile was a predator who, as Mark writes, “came to dominate popular culture without inspiring much affection”; he was such an intensely repulsive figure. The same cannot be said for Brand, who seems like a looming symbol of “indie sleaze” — the handsome predator, à la Ted Bundy. Without “melodramatically” equating serial rape with serial murder, the cognitive dissonance of pleasurable nonetheless appearances allows predators to get away with a lot more in plain sight.
So why “sexy”? Fisher, after all, previously had a scathing view of sexual power. He once wrote:
By creating the imaginary element that is “sex,” the deployment of sexuality established one of its most essential internal operating principles: the desire for sex – the desire to have it, to have access to it, to discover it, to liberate it, to articulate in it discourse, to formulate it in truth. It constituted “sex” itself as something desirable. And it is this desirability of sex that attaches each one of us to the injunction to know it, to reveal its law and its power; it is this desirability that makes us think we are affirming the rights of our sex against all power, when in fact we are fastened to the deployment of sexuality that has lifted up from deep within us a sort of mirage in which we see ourselves reflected – the dark shimmer of sex.
[…] It is the agency of sex that we must break away from, if we aim – through a tactical reversal of the various mechanisms of sexuality – [to] counter the grips of power with the claims of bodies, pleasures and knowledges, in their multiplicity and their possibility of resistance.
This, again, is another piece of writing from Fisher that makes “Exiting the Vampire Castle” not a stand-alone point of certainty, but a product of a long-term intellectual and affective flux. And this is something that Fisher was fascinated by too, in a meta-philosophical fashion: “The genius of Foucault”, he once wrote on k-punk, “is that he reveals the arbitrariness of our fixations, the randomness of our valuations of what is Important.”
But to comment on this arbitrariness and randomness is not to suggest our fixations are themselves unfixed from power — that other topic Foucault wrote on at great length. As Fisher writes in Ghost of my Life: “we also need to take seriously the way that power can warp the experience of reality itself.” And sex itself, as he wrote in the aforementioned blogpost, is about power too:
For heterosexual men, sex, even when it is casual, even when they are disgusted by or indifferent to the woman they are fucking, is never trivial since (1) it involves us giving free reign to the evil death-pleasure virus within us (which is always a draining experience, almost total takeover of yr body by idiot monkeymatic reproducer machinery) and (2) the dominant biopolitical regime insists that sex is the truth of what we are.
Brand’s sexual power was double-edged. He used and abused it — and continues to. The Vampire Castle essay tacitly affirms this power by ignoring — uncharacteristically so, for Fisher at least — its dark shimmer of his sex appeal that others were already aware of. Perhaps this is because Fisher hoped to divorce Brand’s sex appeal (and his sexism) from the truth of his political critique. (Something which has borne more unfortunate fruit; even now, amidst his manipulative and conspiratorial webcasts, the foundation of Brand’s critiques remain lucidly anti-capitalist, whilst he also uses this to advance other crank positions, like a modern-day Strasserite, tying anti-capitalism to an ambiguous anti-wokeness rather than a more pointed anti-Semitism.)
This is a line within Fisher’s thought that I cannot straighten out. His writing on sex retains all the errancy of post-traumatic experience (although this also tellingly vanishes in the mid-2010s, around the time Fisher became a father). But this chaotic ambiguity is also something that makes me wonder about how Fisher would respond to present developments in sexual and gendered politics. Much of Fisher’s mid-2000s writings on sex are in open dialogue with the “Infinite Thought” blog (run by Nina Power), but whereas many use this to predict Fisher’s fate as a contemporary crank commentator (were he still alive), what is implicitly advanced is not so much a rejection of sexuality as such, but rather a rejection of a claustrophobic heteronormativity. In a way that reads as somewhat closeted, to somehow who has worked through (and is continuing to work through) their own complicated relationship with sexuality and gender, Fisher’s traumatised writings were so frequently queered by his references.
In the same post quoted above, Fisher draws both on “Foucault’s practical search for what he called the ‘desexualization of pleasure’”, which “takes male-male encounters as its model”, and on Irigaray’s erotics of “female auto-affection”.
On Foucault, he writes:
The San Francisco bath-houses presented Foucault with physical encounters that were Spinozistic-machinic engagements with bodies, in no way organic or personal, ‘You meet men there who are as you are to them: nothing but a body with which combinations and productions of pleasure are possible. You cease to be imprisoned in your own face, in your own past, in your own identity.’
Then, he turns to Irigaray:
Much more than men, always tragically disabled by having the body with organ, women have the potential for a radically desexualized ecstasy, an unlocalized erotics in which the whole body is an erogenous zone (‘women have sex organs more or less everywhere’). Tellingly, Foucault could only find this through drugs. Whereas (male) climax inevitably localizes pleasure, Foucault observed, ‘things like yellow pills or cocaine allow you to explode and diffuse it throughout the body.’ Perhaps it is only through drugs, dancing and music that we men can get a taste of what it is like not to be dominated by an aggressively localizing libidinal apparatus.
And Fisher, of course, at this time, had a deep suspicion of drugs. But his acid-communist turn makes me wonder about a more explicitly queer turn yet to come. This is not to glibly speculate about Fisher’s personal relationships whatsoever, but simply to acknowledge that, in many ways, his writings are already queered through his frequent questioning of heteronormative sexual politics. His relationship with Russell Brand is difficult to make sense of in light of this. What did Fisher see in Brand’s sexual explicitness that he found “queer” rather than “dangerous”?
I have no real answers to these questions. I leave them open, only to further (and hopefully productively) complicate a legacy all too quickly concretised by others. It may make Fisher’s backing of Brand all the more perplexing, and we can only imagine what kind of intellectual development was to come, but to reiterate the conclusion to my New Statesman article, there is much of interest to salvage from the most explicitly unresolved aspects of Fisher’s thought and writing.
At the risk of perpetuating Vampire Castle discourse, but in the spirit of blog dialogue, a recent response to my New Statesman essay can be found here. It concludes:
Fisher’s celebration of Brand was, writes Colquhoun, due to his life-long fascination with “people who, at one time or another […] bridged the gap between the mainstream and the underground”  and believed in the revolutionary potential of a (chaotic and often comic) popular modernism, that someone such as Brand seems to personify.
So far, so good: Colquhoun hasn’t said anything that I find problematic, although, if I’m being completely honest, the claim that Fisher moved on in order to construct a far more positive project is one that makes me slightly concerned.
But the following paragraph from Colquhoun really rankles, however:
“Then and now, the inclusion of Brand in Fisher’s argument stains it overall. The allegations now facing Brand, who was already mistrusted by many for his sexual politics […] are all the more damning and serious. For some, they also vindicate the ire first directed at Fisher over a decade ago. But whereas Brand is accused of very real crimes, Fisher was only guilty of an intellectual misstep – one that he would spend the next few years trying to remedy.” 
That, I think, is an outrageous statement and I’m almost certain that Fisher would not approve of the language of moral pollution; as if the very mention of Brand’s name is tainting.
And what, pray, would Fisher think of the claim that unproven allegations are damning? Or the idea of vindication – a term also drawn from a moral vocabulary? Or that he was guilty of an intellectual misstep – as if a philosopher should always walk carefully along a well-beaten and carefully sign-posted path.
I don’t doubt that Colquhoun’s motives in writing their piece for the New Statesman were well-intentioned and honourable. But I really don’t think Fisher needs to have anyone apologise on his behalf, or attempt to justify his work.
And to be reminded once more of the claim made by some of Fisher’s online supporters that his “defiant support of Brand, against advice to the contrary, was a product of mental ill-health” , is, I think, shameful.
If he has a grave, then I fear that poor Mark Fisher will be turning in it …
Personally, I really hate the overwrought defences of “Exiting the Vampire Castle”, just as much as I find those who think its cause to excommunicate Fisher (even perpetually in death) to be ridiculous in their own ways. Both sides of any Vampire Castle discourse think their reading vindicates their worldviews, which only seem to function on social media and quickly become ridiculous when exposed to the open air. To speak to the people who knew Mark, nothing is so clear cut, and disagreements in life lead to mixed feelings in light of his death.
Personally, I think Fisher is a far more interesting thinker than either polarising response to the Vampire Castle allows us to consider, not least because his essays, written at different times and stages of life, inevitably contradict one another. If any readers are struggling to comprehend the possibility he changed his mind (or at least his tack) after, I recommend not wading into everything written on the k-punk blog over the decade-plus before it…
It is always so surprising to me that people think it wrong of me to highlight the ways that Mark contradicted (both before and after) that essay they hold so dear. What is it, exactly, that you’re holding onto? It is so telling to hear the rancour that follows any suggestion that Fisher let go of something that some people, ten years later, still cannot let go of themselves…
This blogpost in response to my article falls within that white-knuckled clatter and much of it makes me roll my eyes. But a couple brief points regardless:
For starters, I take on board the point made about moralising language. (In an email sharing the blogpost, the point was redoubled: “on occasion you seem to rely on the same moralistic language of judgement that Fisher (like Nietzsche and Deleuze) abhorred.”) It is certainly firm, which might make certain people uncomfortable(?!), but better that than rely on the overused generalisation “problematic” to signal dissatisfaction with the world.
And anyway, I don’t know about you, but I think sexism and rape are moral issues. I think it’s perfectly legitimate to talk about sexists and rapists in moralistic terms. Brand, like many (alleged) serial abusers in entertainment, will now cast a stain over many things for many people, including the Vampire Castle essay. I think that’s valid. I just don’t think Mark is deserving of the same absolute condemnation. But that’s not to say we can’t critique him…
What’s more, the suggestion this moralistic language should be sanitised in favour of a kind of moral ambiguity is, for someone who supposedly admires the Vampire Castle essay, a shade away from a strange “political correctness” and something else that Mark wrote about far more often than Twitter politics: apolitical pomo nihilism, which believes as falsely in the illusion of suspending all “judgement” as it does the suspending of all “meaning” — straw arguments for people who’ve only read the Cliff Notes Nietzsche. The point, in both instances, of course, for Deleuze and Nietzsche, is to be done with the “judgement of God” so that we might make our own way. But as the Vampire Castle essay makes clear is that this can be a very messy business. What Fisher misapprehended in writing it, I think, is a point he later came to explore with more nuance: a new ethics is necessary for a new world to come. Consciousness must be raised. What was being raised at that time, which Fisher did not appreciate, was a consciousness of patriarchal politics on the popular left.
Women’s knowledge is so often demonised in this regard. What we call “gossip” is simply knowledge exchange. That Fisher was so invested in raising political consciousness whilst berating an emerging feminist movement online was a major misstep. He still didn’t necessarily agree with online activist tactics — I certainly think a lot of them are terrible too — but he later found a way to more meaningfully join the conversation rather than pour scorn on it from the outside. Though no one can say how Mark would respond to Brand’s allegations in the present, it is certainly much more clear now that Brand’s personal and political conduct are anathema to the left today, even if this appeared more ambiguous to some, like Mark, back then. Brand may have been an exciting spokesperson for the left once, but he was always a creep and now he’s both a crank and a publicly accused rapist.
But the point of the New Statesman essay is that, for some people, Brand was already a stain. It is those people who feel vindicated. Whether you agree(d) with that or not, people feeling like they’ve been proven right or wrong is a legitimate feeling. This image of Fisher that some people have, as someone who’d supposedly dislike that feeling of rightness or wrongness, is very strange. Mark was more than happy to denounce, often vehemently, the things and people he didn’t like.
On that note, what concern is provoked by the claim that Fisher went on to develop a more positive project, I do not know. Of course, Mark was a big fan of being negative. But the whole problem of the Vampire Castle essay is its contradictory internal logic: condemnation for me, not for thee. What you call moralism, I call critique, etc., etc. As far as I’m concerned these days, if “grey vampires” are those that obstruct projects, and Mark once acknowledged that “I invariably find myself pincered between the troll and Grey Vampire positions”, then “Exiting the Vampire Castle” is but a tragic document of a pincering. It’s a total trap, made all the more sharp and biting ten years on. The Vampire Castle is a vague mirage on the social media horizon; what cannot be escaped today is the essay “Exiting the Vampire Castle” itself.
That is the travesty of its impact on Mark’s reputation after his death. One grumpy essay blocks him inside two caricatures — anti-feminist or cancel-culture warrior. Both appear moronic when taking into account his whole life and work. That doesn’t make Fisher perfect or beyond critique — no one is — but like so many other brilliant thinkers at our disposal, with complicated lives filled with successes and failures, we can still use and reflect upon his work anyway. That is to say, we can use his work by thinking with and through it. It’s a task that requires a philosophical ethics — not simply a thoughtful ethics but an ethics of thought; a guiding principle that shines a light but doesn’t necessarily lead the way. That’s the difference between ethics and morals, for me. That’s the difference between enlightenment and being blinded.
The author of the essay above, however, like so many other readers of the Vampire Castle essay, seems to have a narrow and contradictory sense of what “morality” is, blurring the lines between critique and condemnation.
There’s no condemning of Fisher in my essay, any more than I am condemned in their response. Their language might not be “moralistic”, but the critique itself is all the more lacklustre for its ambiguities. We’re all very much allowed to ponder and comment upon the things people get right and the things people get wrong — making that into a moralism is easily done but very stupid. The whole point of my New Statesman essay is that Brand’s illegal wrongdoing has nothing to do with Mark himself, who may not have made any strictly moral error, but certainly humiliated a personal ethics he was otherwise invested in and later redoubled. His anger in 2013 was unhelpful to the causes he cared about and he soon came to realise that.
Caring for causes and having a politics generally involves having an ethics. What’s so frustrating about many of those who answer the call of “Exiting the Vampire Castle” blindly is that they so often betray themselves as having no real sense of what that means.
What follows is an attempt to get out of a writer’s block that has lingered in the drafts because it very much worked but now seems a little redundant as a result. Nonetheless, some things to get out of my head and on the screen…
[Annie Ernaux is] not afraid of the word “truth.” As she proclaims in A Woman’s Story, she will seek “the truth about my mother, a truth that can be conveyed only by words.” But: “I would like to remain a cut below literature.”
Below literature. What form should this writing take? A formless form: a text that mutates and proliferates but also lops off its own limbs. The works slam into and displace one another, skitter across their boundaries or seize uncharted territory, drilling repeatedly into certain eras while leaving others unexposed, such that the power of this corpus — its philosophical intensity and moving execution — only fully strikes you once you’re four or five books deep. That’s not to say that a given volume won’t be affecting on its own. Aesthetic pleasure glints at the jagged angles of the fragment.
I started writing differently when we left London, and reading differently too. The pandemic had already encouraged the writing of a diary amidst the general confusion. I started reading the diaries of others — Kafka, Nin, Woolf. I have kept writing regularly in vignettes, fragments, and blocks ever since.
Post-pandemic writing of all kinds goes in search of lost time. It is hard to remember how that time was spent, because memories of a time before were all we had to focus on. Broken thoughts from a broken time. But there is something effusive in the fragments and between them.
My mental health dips and I struggle both to sleep and to get out of bed for two or three weeks. I want to write to pass the time but every time I sit down at my desk, I feel my bed pulling me back. Anxiety reigns and I feel fearful of the far future. Thinking is suddenly hard. I lock myself down unnecessarily and wish I could articulate something, anything, to get my brain moving again, so that the body might follow.
Eventually, the blockage starts to give way.
Blocks are a good way of tackling writers’ block. Every time I have the urge to write but have nothing immediately clear to say, I sit down and start typing and see what happens. A fragment here and a fragment there. That the blocks don’t yet cohere matters little. Something forms in the in-between.
Oftentimes, the writing is repetitive. I write about writing and not writing here too regularly. But communicating the experience of writers’ block remains one way to get past it. I commune with blankness and soon find myself filling the void with noise. Eventually, the noise takes shape.
I hear a refrain.
Deleuze and Guattari, “1837: Of the Refrain”:
I. A child in the dark, gripped by fear, comforts himself by singing under his breath. He walks and halts to his song. Lost, he takes shelter, or orients himself with his little song as best he can. The song is like a rough sketch of a calming and stabilizing, calm and stable, center in the heart of chaos. Perhaps the child skips as he sings, hastens or slows his pace. But the song itself is already a skip: it jumps from chaos to the beginnings of order in chaos and is in danger of breaking apart at any moment. There is always sonority in Ariadne’s thread. Or the song of Orpheus.
II. Now we are at home. But home does not preexist: it was necessary to draw a circle around that uncertain and fragile center, to organize a limited space. Many, very diverse, components have a part in this, landmarks and marks of all kinds… The forces of chaos are kept outside as much as possible, and the interior space protects the germinal forces of a task to fulfill or a deed to do…
III. Finally, one opens the circle a crack, opens it all the way, lets someone in, calls someone, or else goes out oneself, launches forth. One opens the circle not on the side where the old forces of chaos press against it but in another region, one created by the circle itself. As though the circle tended on its own to open onto a future, as a function of the working forces it shelters. This time, it is in order to join with the forces of the future, cosmic forces. One launches forth, hazards an improvisation. But to improvise is to join with the World, or meld with it. One ventures from home on the thread of a tune.
(Mark Fisher always hated “Of the Refrain”. Strange… The chapter seems fundamentally Spinozist to me. As Mark writes: “On one side, the refrain is a territorial marker, the tracing of an interiority; on the other, it opens out into the cosmos.” But in 2004, he also called it “Hegelian-humanist-improv-high culture-Radio 3 tedium-mongering of the worst kind”; later, he says it is “dripping with the worst type of Nietzscheanism in its vision of a cosmos efflorescing with creative innovation.” Personally, I’m not entirely sure where the frustration comes from. It is one of many points of disagreement, the other being a poor (no doubt post-Landian) distain for Bataille. It’s one of those topics I wish he’d written on in more depth, if only to clarify the contradictions… Mark always seemed to hate most emphatically the things that seemed most appropriate to him on paper. A sentiment I can nonetheless relate to. Criticism comes quick when regarding those things that one feels one should love the most.)
I return to critiques of the family-form.
September is here, and a somewhat formal return to university life looms after a summer spent working in my local pub. The new book is out too and now I need to buckle down for the second year of my PhD.
I keep coming back to Kafka and his place within Deleuze and Guattari’s philosophy. “No one is better than Kafka at differentiating the two axes of the assemblage and the making them function together”, they write in A Thousand Plateaus. Kafka is the first k-punk. “K., the K.-function, designates the line of flight or deterritorialization that carries away all of the assemblages but also undergoes all kinds of reterritorializings and redundancies – redundancies of childhood, village-lite [life?], love, bureaucracy, etc.”
By January, I need to have written a book chapter that should hopefully be published in a collection of essays on performance and schizoanalysis. I’m reading Kafka’s diaries again, specifically a new and complete translation. I’m thinking a lot about blocks.
My thesis is looking at Deleuze and Guattari’s “orphan-philosophy” — a loose-termed approach that has been discussed by some but which mostly needs constructing on my part. Orphans figure in their philosophy infrequently but significantly, becoming an elusive figuration for, a vague symbolisation of, the anti-Oedipal nomad. It intrigues me because Oedipus was himself symbolically orphaned, first and foremost. Freud forgets this. Do Deleuze and Guattari? I’d argue their anti-Oedipus remains an Oedipus, albeit untethered from (Freud) the father. Oedipus regained in the negation. A new Oedipus, who still wanders erratically but whose fate is not so predetermined.
There are a few choice passages here and there that signal the orphan’s importance, but Deleuze and Guattari’s work never hangs on the orphan’s ragged coattails for long. They turn and move on quickly. The Orphan appears to be, for them, an always-already orphaned concept.
One such passage is in the Kafka book. They write the following:
To be sure, children don’t live as our adult memories would have us believe, nor as their own memories, which are almost simultaneous with their actions, would have them believe. Memory yells “Father! Mother!” but the childhood block is elsewhere, in the highest intensities that the child constructs with his sisters, his pals, his projects and his toys, and all the nonparental figures through which he deterritorializes his parents every chance he gets. Ah, childhood sexuality — it’s certainly not Freud who gives us the best sense of what that is. The child does not cease reterritorializing everything back onto his parents (the photo); he has his own lowered intensities. But in his activity, as in his passions, he is simultaneously the most deterritorialized and most deterritorializing figure — the Orphan.
It is a passage difficult to make sense of out of context, but what it gestures towards is the truth of an experience I find so tantalizing and feel a great nostalgia for — a gesture of unforgetting one’s displacements.
My favourite childhood memories are those spent in games, imaginatively traversing a local milieu.
I often think about how open-world video-games were once such a novelty because they replicated this childhood experience of viewing the local neighbourhood as a map to be traversed in a million different ways. I think back to playing video-games like Spyro the Dragon, Metal Gear Solid, Super Mario 64, Ocarina of Time and Goldeneye, using the maps of certain levels to construct entirely new and wholly imagined role-playing games. (There may be a significance to James Bond being an orphan; to Solid Snake also being an elusive (adult) ward of the state; to Spyro rescuing dragon-children from egg-snatchers; to Link, the doubly lost boy who does not fit into his community of lost boys.)
The worlds of Spyro stick in my mind — the worlds you wander that are full of archways that give way to levels proper. The levels were always secondary in their linearity, guiding you towards a given goal. I’d dash around the worlds that contained various levels for hours, no task or goal assigned, just imagining a whole new game within the engine. Sandbox games grew out of this pleasure, I am sure… The world reimagined as a truly smooth space.
Running around our local neighbourhood in the summer felt like that. It was easy to imagine the suburban layout or even the school yard as an entirely other world, where no space was off limits. Even as an older teenage, we’d get high and hop fences, cutting our way across the neighbourhood along trajectories that were ours alone. Sometimes we’d play “knock on ginger”, as we called it — otherwise known as “ding dong dash” or “knock-a-door-run”. Provoke an engagement; disappear as fast as possible. Suburban poltergeists affirming an adolescent unlife. No one else would think to take the routes out that we did.
We’d hang out at the local skate park, where we were very much allowed to be, and local busybodies would still call the police on us, presuming illegality, underage drinking or some other form of mischief. (Eventually, a twenty-foot fence was erected around the park, to be unlocked by the local council — after a while, they stopped unlocking it.)
The mischief only emerged when the police did. Nothing to apologise for, we’d run away anyway, initiating a chase, giving ourselves an excuse to take routes outwards that we knew they wouldn’t follow, laughing, not all the way home but into other peripheral zones, waiting until it was safe to return to the skate park in fleeting clusters, ready to disperse again at a moment’s notice.
(Grand Theft Auto made this all too easy, because you can get away with so much more in that fantastical environment than you’d ever be able to in real life. For all the moral panics around the games encouraging actual criminality, the opportunity to roleplay as adults running from virtual cops took many of us off the streets. Kids love those games because they think they gain so much, but I wonder what kind of relationship to the real world is lost in the digital enclosure. The hollow freedom of a digital Wild West diminished an actual capacity for sprinting refusal in our own spaces.)
“Where are the parents?” is the charged question asked by those who demonise a nation’s youth for its playful loitering. They’re somewhere, elsewhere. It is not parental neglect that leads children to run astray. Out of bounds, every child relishes their temporary parentlessness, their symbolic orphanhood. It is the eternal allure of Harry Potters, Mowglis, Jane Eyres, Antigones. Orphans all.
Deleuze writes in “What Children Say”:
Children never stop talking about what they are doing or trying to do: exploring milieus, by means of dynamic trajectories, and drawing up maps of them. The maps of these trajectories are essential to psychic activity. Little Hans wants to leave his family’s apartment to spend the night at the little girl’s downstairs and return in the morning — the apartment building as milieu. Or again: he wants to leave the building and go to the restaurant to meet with the little rich girl, passing by the horses at the warehouse — the street as milieu. Even Freud deems the intervention of a map to be necessary.
As usual, however, Freud refers everything back to the father-mother: oddly enough, he sees the demand to explore the building as a desire to sleep with the mother. It is as if parents had primary places or functions that exist independently of milieus. But a milieu is made up of qualities, substances, powers, and events: the street, for example, with its materials (paving stones), its noises (the cries of merchants), its animals (harnessed horses) or its dramas (a horse slips, a horse falls down, a horse is beaten…). The trajectory merges not only with the subjectivity of those who travel through a milieu, but also with the subjectivity of the milieu itself, insofar as it is reflected in those who travel through it. The map expresses the identity of the journey and what one travels through. It merges with its object, when the object itself is movement.
(It is hard not to think of Deleuze’s writings on cinema and the movement-image; a milieu of coming-of-age tales for persons and people; Hollywood Westerns; Les quatre cents coups.)
Parents are themselves a milieu that children travel through: they pass through its qualities and powers and make a map of them. They take on a personal and parental form only as the representatives of one milieu within another. But it is wrong to think that children are limited before all else to their parents, and only had access to milieus afterward, by extention or derivation. The father and mother are not the coordinates of everything that is invested by the unconscious. There is never a moment when children are not already plunged into an actual milieu in which they are moving about, and in which the parents as persons simply play the roles of openers or closers of doors, guardians of thresholds, connectors and disconnectors of zones.
What I wouldn’t give to move through the world as I did when I was younger, when the real world felt mostly unknowable and arbitrary, when imagination could be superimposed on infrastructure with ease, such that it bent to your will, parental authority be damned.
I remember once absconding from class in Year 3 or Year 4, telling my teacher I needed the bathroom, and instead spending half an hour roaming the empty corridors of my school, imagining myself as a young Ratkin, seeing not only the vast corridors that dwarfed my small frame, but also the pipes and gullies hidden from view. I felt invisible and all-seeing. All felt traversable. Mapping out the world in my head, only to find new ways to transgress its boundaries.
There was nothing more exciting than an imaginary extension within of the playground outside. There was no sense of having total control over one’s environment, but shedding control absolutely. At lunch time, we would spend the hour exploring the peripheries of the fenced quadrant, forging secret passageways under the bushes and trees that lined its edges, burrowing warrens for play, constructing personal fortitudes against any watchful eye, scurrying every which way in the time allotted. Nothing was more thrilling than the thought of cutting our way across the entire world like that, dissolving compartments and blurring zones. Every site became an fantastical place of play, especially those sites that weren’t.
I often watch videos uploaded by a vibrant parkour community on YouTube. Storror. Dom Tomato. Team Phat. It has been strange to watch the gradual professionalisation of a Red Bull-sponsored urban amateur gymnastics, against a community of crane-climbers who have been thwarted by the enforcing of online terms and conditions. No ad revenue for criminality. Parkour nonetheless walks along an authorial and authoritarian tightrope, skirting the very edges of all territories.
I often wonder what the Situationists would make of them.
I also recently rewatched the first few seasons of Community. The episodes that stand out are tellingly the adventures constructed in small spaces, which remap the territory: the episode where the student dorms are converted into a giant blanket fort; the episodes where the entire school is transformed into a paintball arena. Hierarchies of authority are collapsed, the whole world is transformed. That is what children say.
This PhD project is, in some senses, a funded attempt at self-therapization; a knowing self-application of schizoanalysis. Narcissus in Bloom was a book written fragmentarily that gave me an implicit permission to live otherwise; “One or Several Mothers” — as it is tentatively called — is a grand extension of an essay written some years ago (I won’t recount the particulars). The intention feels much the same. I map out an argument as much for myself as for anyone else. In fact, perhaps more for myself than anyone else, eventually letting go of it in the meek hope that someone else might find it as useful to read as it was to write it.
After the impersonal tone of Narcissus, a return to the autoethnographic. The great frustration of my life remains the lingering impact, as I gradually approach middle age, of my earliest immemorable experiences. Adoption trauma produces constant challenges to emotional regulation. I feel detached from the concept of family, a symbolic orphan, a stray. Family never fit as it was supposed to. The childhood block, malformed, is never quite resolved — it must be continually re-narrated.
There is as much joy in the affirmative realisation as there is discomfort in the difficulties it nonetheless produces. The re-narration of the childhood block affirms and depresses in equal measure, sending me cascading across an internal milieu at the slightest provocation. I am yet to get a handle on things. I hope to graduate, and graduate onto yet another way of living.
To be an orphan, symbolically or otherwise, is a subject position celebrated, desired; fascinating to cultures the world over. It is to be Peter Pan — to be lost (relatively speaking). Like Robin Williams in the film Hook, who forgets that he is Peter Pan. He is not a child, he asserts, making his own childhood inaccessible to him. In truth, he is Peter Pan, always was and always will be. He must return and once again leave Never Never Land, the land of double negation: childhood has already ended, but then must end again to be recuperated.
We must retain an understanding of the plasticity of our own subjectivity. We must unforget our child-like malleability. This is not to affirm the cliches of childhood, affirming a learned helplessness or an arrested development; rather, it is to understand the never-ending necessity of our capacity to constantly remap territories, entering and exiting milieus, forging new self-worlds.
What is the first thing we do when we feel lost, after all? Like a child lost in the woods, we begin to construct a mental map. It is to retune yourself to the landscape around you, to melodise its significances, intuiting resonances with a self unmoored. An emotional untethering feels no different, but it doesn’t help that the ground is constantly shifting.
J. M. Barrie, Peter and Wendy:
I don’t know whether you have ever seen a map of a person’s mind. Doctors sometimes draw maps of other parts of you, and your own map can become intensely interesting, but catch them trying to draw a map of a child’s mind, which is not only confused, but keeps going round all the time. There are zigzag lines on it, just like your temperature on a card, and these are probably roads in the island; for the Neverland is always more or less an island, with astonishing splashes of colour here and there, and coral reefs and rakish-looking craft in the offing, and savages and lonely lairs, and gnomes who are mostly tailors, and caves through which a river runs, and princes with six elder brothers, and a hut fast going to decay, and one very small old lady with a hooked nose. It would be an easy map if that were all; but there is also first day at school, religion, fathers, the round pond, needlework, murders, hangings, verbs that take the dative, chocolate pudding day, getting into braces, say ninety-nine, three-pence for pulling out your tooth yourself, and so on; and either these are part of the island or they are another map showing through, and it is all rather confusing, especially as nothing will stand still.
To be an orphan, symbolically or otherwise, signifies a kind of freedom, but one that — in spite of its ubiquitous cultural celebration — brings with it a constant sense of detachment. What troubles me most is the lack of any material safety net. Take a wrong turn, there is no turning back, no returning home. It is a subject position culturally celebrated, then, but socially unsupported. The danger of such a freedom thus carries with it a higher risk of falling out of society completely.
How to affirm an orphan-philosophy against all social stigma? How to cope with the alienation that comes from constant flight with no stable place to call home? How to wrestle with a freedom so many have fantasised about, which nonetheless rattles with a lack that should contain all the things that so many take for granted?
How to re-narrate childhood as an adult that allows a trauma to be a gift rather than a burden? How to defiantly reshape the childhood block? (Peter and Wendy; Anti-Oedipus and Pro-Antigone.)
In my opinion, you can make every note work with every chord. It’s not really [that] a note is supposed to be there and a note is not supposed to be there. It’s not like right or wrong. It’s more: “There are strong decisions and there are weak decisions”, specifically with motion — like, motion of notes.
Collier plays a note that is usefully notated for us on the screen: Fmaj9/11/Ab.
“You might say, ‘That’s a bit weird. I’m not quite sure I understand what that sound is.’ But then, if I went…” He plays Dbmaj9/13. “And then all those notes make sense.” The memory of the previous chord’s discordance is resolved in relation to the chord that follows.
The amazing thing about horizontal composition rather than vertical composition is that you can validate every note. So I don’t think there’s such a thing as ‘This note is wrong and this note is right’… So rather than say, ‘I won’t put that in my textbook of sounds’, I think, ‘Well, how can I justify that as a sound.’ … And that opens up your improvisational language a lot as well…
Rather than say, ‘This note is good and this note is bad’, it’s more, ‘This note hasn’t found its consequence yet’ or ‘This note is in the wrong context’. And that’s how you can move things forward. But I don’t think you should ever reject a note from a chord before trying all of the possible solutions to that chord.
Collier feels like a good example here, particularly in the context of Fisher’s previously noted distain for Deleuze and Guattari’s refrain. (Fisher constantly wrestled with an uncomfortable dissonance between verticality and horizontality in aesthetics and politics.)
Collier’s near-ubiquity on YouTube and his hippie earnestness will put many off him, I am sure. (His Takeaway Show in Paris was recently an earworm for me, I must admit.) But it is hard to deny the truth of what he says and the beauty of its demonstration.
It is an intuitive philosophy of music that resonates with a philosophy of life more generally – the improvisatory nature of life lived, its (social) composition… We act, we do things, and may often find that those actions do not find their own consequence either, or that we cannot yet justify them — it is always hard to fully account for one’s “mistakes” — or that a sense of alienation in a given social circle – in a family, even – is simply a bad context for us to be understood within.
The schizoanalytic approach is like this. Rather than tethering everything to the Freudian family – to mommy-daddy-me – to a major scale of social living, composing life vertically (hierarchically), we can compose hroizontally, through movement, through refrains, through milieus.
Of course, that doesn’t mean that anyone else necessarily has to like the decisions you make. It requires a certain defiance, which takes a confidence that is not always forthcoming. How to assert oneself within a confluence of relations that do not always flow in one’s favour?
This musical example feels apt not only for a life of conscious agency but also an experience of unconscious trauma. Trauma is a wrong note, free-floating within a refrain, without resolution. In an otherwise harmonious melody of movement through life, trauma clangs. Its persistence can irritate, unnerve, and even make one anxious. One wrong note can throw off the whole rhythm of a movement. If the wrong note cannot be erased, it is necessary to change the movement itself. We must ask ourselves how best to integrate the note into a wider symphony.
Here the symphonic analogy loses its footing. Life is not lived like a symphony is played — or shouldn’t be. Rather, it is a mode of composition that occurs before the orchestra plays a note. Improvisation is, in this sense, a living composition. Indeed, it is a composition that comes before orchestration.
This can be a difficult thing to achieve when the composition itself cannot simply be begun again – that is, when a composition is being actively played. How to integrate a wrong note when the movement itself cannot start over? Improvisation takes practice.
Guattari, in The Anti-Oedipus Papers, is emphatic on this. He routinely deploys images of the theatre to critique the psychoanalytic “art” of interpretation. The psychoanalyst believes they must “orchestrate oedipal representation.” The analysand must find their role, their instrument, their part within an already existing orchestration. Against such strictures, Guattari argues that psychoanalysis must be freed from its own staging: “the whole thing is fabricated in the oedipal theater, the decor is fake. This abyssal psychology doesn’t go deeper than the orchestra pit!”
Kafka, too, is suspicious of a theatrical bureaucracy. On 18th February 1922, he jots a note down in his diary. A brief sketch for a story, perhaps, undeveloped beyond this point, about a theatre director who exerts an omnipresent sense of control over his company; a theatre director, he writes,
who must create everything himself from the ground up, even the actors he must first beget. A visitor is not admitted, the director is busy with important theater work. What is it? He is changing the diapers of a future actor.
In Anti-Oedipus, Deleuze and Guattari make use of a similar analogy:
The unconscious ceases to be what it is – a factory, a workshop – to become a theater, a scene and its staging. And not even an avant-garde theater, such as existed in Freud’s day (Wedekind), but the classical theater, the classical order of representation. The psychoanalyst becomes a director for a private theater, rather than the engineer or mechanic who sets up units of production, and grapples with collective agents of production and antiproduction. [Emphasis added.]
The task of schizoanalysis is to suspend the final staging and return to the moment of composition, to elucidate the construct of life as a perpetually unfinished work of art; a work of art that is not constructed linearly, as it may be perceived or performed, but fragmentarily, as we return to the blocks that give it structure: adapting them, removing them, writing new ones…
This can feel like an impossible task to undertake — but perhaps that is necessarily so.
Jacqueline Rose, The Case of Peter Pan, or, The Impossibility of Children’s Fiction:
Childhood is not an object, any more than the unconscious, although this is often how they are both understood. The idea that childhood is something separate which can be scrutinised and assessed is the other side of the illusion which makes of childhood something which we have simply ceased to be.
[…] the question of the unconscious — its constant pull against our seeming identity (the unconscious is not the site of some irrational truth, its truth is merely this repeated slippage); the question of childhood — its threat to the idea that we have neatly picked up and resolved everything that came before on the way to where we are now. The issue of childhood sexuality is subordinate to these two questions. For it is relatively easy to acknowledge in the child a sexuality different from our own, if we can see this sexuality as something which is simply grown out of (rather like a set of clothes). In fact, Freud uncovered in the sexual life of children the same perverse sexuality that analysis revealed in the symptoms of his patients and which was expressed indirectly in their dreams. By stating that this perverse sexuality was in fact quite normal to the extent that it could be located in the sexual life of the child, and by insisting, furthermore, that it was only spoken in the form of a symptom because it was a form of sexuality which had to be so totally repressed elsewhere, Freud effected a break in our conception of both sexuality and childhood from which we do not seem to have recovered. The neurotic simply bears witness to the effects of what is always at some level an impossible task — the task of cohering the fragmented, component and perverse sexuality of the child. The fact that Freud used a myth to describe how this ordering is meant to take place (the myth of Oedipus) should alert us to the fictional nature of this process, which is at best precarious, and never complete.
Deleuze and Guattari talk about the childhood block as a period of time that is not compartmentalised and left behind as we enter adulthood, as a point of origin, but rather as an object that is continually re-narrated, repurposed, re-sculpted — not through direct access, but through the work of a living composition. Together, they turn to Kafka in order to elucidate the block-function.
Kafka, particularly in his diaries, employs a “broken form of writing”, they note; a “mode of expression through fragments.” They turn to Kafka’s short story “The Great Wall of China” as a meta-narrative that may illuminate his own writing process. The story begins:
The Great Wall of China was finished at its northernmost location. The construction work moved up from the south-east and south-west and joined at this point. The system of building in sections was also followed on a small scale within the two great armies of workers, the eastern and western. It was carried out in the following manner: groups of about twenty workers were formed, each of which had to take on a section of the wall, about five hundred metres. A neighbouring group then built a wall of similar length to meet it. But afterwards, when the sections were fully joined, construction was not continued on any further at the end of this thousand-metre section. Instead the groups of workers were shipped off again to build the wall in completely different regions. Naturally, with this method many large gaps arose, which were filled in only gradually and slowly, many of them not until after it had already been reported that the building of the wall was complete. In fact, there are said to be gaps which have never been built in at all, although that’s merely an assertion which probably belongs among the many legends which have arisen about the structure and which, for individual people at least, are impossible to prove with their own eyes and according to their own standards, because the structure is so immense.
Why build the wall in this manner? Why not start at one end and build continuously across? Why leave gaps?
The reason gestured toward comes from an overall understanding of the scale of the undertaking. To complete the wall could take generations. To proceed continually and linearly would perhaps lead to the erection of a strange structure, the most evolved parts of which only occur at the final end.
To approach this wall, we see the linear progression of skill and knowledge over time, such that invading nomads need only approach the earliest and more primitive end of the wall and assail it. (In Deleuze and Guattari’s analogy, we can understand childhood as a constant vulnerability.) But to break the wall into sections, constructed as a patchwork, would hide the earliest developments amongst a non-linear milieu; “thus, the essential prerequisites for the work were the most careful construction, the use of the architectural wisdom of all known ages and peoples, and an enduring sense of personal responsibility in the builders.”
Significantly, since the completion of the wall was a task that far exceeded a single lifetime, workers could instead look forward to the moments when sections of wall were conjoined. Events come together, ignoring any totalizing sense of final completion. It keeps a Sisyphean madness at bay.
Writing is like this. Blogging is like this. It does not proceed linearly. Fragments and blocks are constructed; small victories are attained. Occasionally, fragments conjoin; resonate with one another like a chord progression. Posts and stray thoughts give rise to essays, which give rise to books, which give rise to bodies of work. But forever and always, everything is already grasped in the fragments.
Life is like this. The self is like this. It does not proceed linearly. Events and experiences are traversed; small ruptures are sutured. Occasionally, events conjoin; resonate with one another like a chord progression. Hours and days give rise to months and years, which give rise to decades, which gives rise to a history that must itself be written. But forever and always, everything is already grasped in events.
Dating is a struggle at present. The thought of it brings me down. Best not to think about it at all. But the desire to connect up existences feels fundamentally human. The social animal finds untold pleasures in wandering into other lives. But, for me, the childhood block always gets in the way. I have yet to find a way to integrate it satisfactorily. (A “block” can be as much a frustrating imposition as it is an opportunity to imprint a design.)
The Freudian conception of family relates all significant others back to limited blocks, to mothers and fathers, as if our relation to each is a model for the gendered Other. Parental blocks are copied, reproduced, often disastrously. (Is your partner like your mother? Like your father?) But without any functional model to work with, instead feeling the absence of one and/or the other, there is a blank slate.
The blankness is no less terrifying. Others chalk it up to “abandonment issues”. Not quite. No mommy-daddy-me, just the blankness of me alone.
Grief is the earliest emotion experienced by a developing consciousness. Solitude is foundational. Solitude is so often silent.
Silence and solitude are to be escaped through a refrain, but sometimes a jailbreak is attempted for the wrong reasons. To return to silence a failure is to return to an already broken home, to the great quietude of one’s own disordered thoughts. You are left simply (or not so simply at all) with a sensitivity to loss of all kinds.
André Green, in “The Dead Mother”, gives a psychoanalytic account of a child who experiences a mother’s post-natal depression. (Anecdotally, people who, as children, experienced this kind of parental rupture share many issues in common with adopted or orphaned children, at least in my experience.) The sudden silence of mourning abounds infinite.
“If one had to choose a single characteristic to differentiate between present-day analyses and analyses as one imagines them to have been in the past,” Green writes, “it would surely be found among the problems of mourning.”
The dead mother is not a mother who is really dead, but rather
an imago which has been constituted in the child’s mind … brutally transforming a living object, which was a source of vitality for the child, into a distant figure, toneless, practically inanimate, deeply impregnating the cathexes of certain patients we have in analysis, and weighing on the destiny of their object-libidinal and narcissistic future. Thus, the dead mother, contrary to what one might think, is a mother who remains alive but who is, so to speak, psychically dead in the eyes of the young child in her care.
Green goes on to argue, in light of this, that the dead mother cannot be explained by Freudian lack — that is, by the Freudian penchant for castration. This is too patriarchal. He notes how, in psychoanalysis, “we never hear of the dead mother from a structural point of view.” Instead, Freud “specifically fixes castration anxiety and repression as a centre, in relation to which he places other types of anxiety and different varieties of repression, whether they come before or after, which is proof of the structural and genetic character of Freudian thought.” Green believes, however, that in restricting psychoanalysis to a patriarchal structure in this way, “one is doing violence as much to experience as to theory to save the unity and generalization of a concept.”
Castration is, of course, a very real form of violence in this way. It denotes a bloody act of severance, a mutilating loss exerted upon the body. To this omnipresent Freudian violence, Green adds a further anxiety that is no longer strictly tied to castration but rather to a less spectacular loss, since when we are “referring to the concept of the loss of the breast, or of object-loss, and even of threats relative to the loss of the superego and its protection, and in a general manner, to all threats of abandonment, the context is never bloody.” Castration, then, for Green, is a “‘red’ anxiety”, whereas the dead mother “bears the colours of mourning: black or white.” In other words, it denotes a “blankness” rather than a messy severance, the results of which nonetheless correspond to “one of the components of primary repression: massive decathexis, both radical and temporary, which leaves traces in the unconscious in the form of ‘psychical holes’.”
But the Oedipus complex still predominates. Green only gets so far in his unbloodying of Freudian violence. The massive withdrawal is itself withdrawn from view. Deference to Freud retained.
The cliches of Freudian psychoanalysis are made redundant. “Tell me about your mother.” A tacit acknowledgement, but the cliche obscures how spectral mothers are within Freudian psychoanalysis. And what of the mother’s spectrality for the displaced child? “Tell me about your mother.” Okay. But who is that, exactly?
Adoption trauma is compounded by losses of other kinds. My adoptive mother is dead to me, her own mental illness leading to physical violence that has never been acknowledged by her or anyone else present; my birth mother absent so long no meaningful relationship has been sustained. One or several dead mothers…
The lack must be contextualised but the negative space that surrounds the trauma does not look the same from all perspectives. Symptomatology is itself a theater adopted by the patient-understudy who has come to learn someone else’s lines.
In Êtes-vous fous?, René Crevel presents us with the first anti-Oedipus: Vagualame, later identified as Crevel himself. I make moves to translate a scene.
Vagualame describes a total withdrawal of himself from any relation with his parents. As a child, he loved the bear and little locomotive he took to bed with him alone, far more than he loved mommy or daddy. Crevel hates his mother, in fact, “since the woman who bore me, now dead, was too unconcerned in her lifetime with charming her son for any sensuality to arise from her. As a sniffling baby, from the age of ten months I preferred her maid, a certain Lucie, who perfumed herself with carnation.”
His resentment is palpable, and he views his mother’s disinterest through the repressions of class. “For a French bourgeois, a mother is a piece of furniture”, he writes. There is an air of misogyny to his disdain, but he perhaps despises a kind of bourgeois self-objectification that his mother represents. His mother is an ornate decoration, a symbol of bourgeois glamour. Sensuality is unbecoming, but like a Madame Bovary, Vagualame suggests a depressive-narcissistic relish to her sensual inertia.
Aged twenty-six, he moves to process his feelings. He takes himself to a psychoanalyst, but is immediately resistant to the whole process. The analyst asks him about an older woman — three years his senior — whom he has been seeing. Perhaps already sensing that the analyst is angling for a relation to the narrator’s mother, Crevel responds to the analyst’s questions with misleading non sequiturs.
“The woman you visited was older than you. First point. Did you feel any emotion in her presence? And how intense?”
“A newborn bat, fallen from I don’t know where, had crashed to the floor of the terrace where we were standing. As an adult, a bat doesn’t seem very exciting to me. But as a newborn, with poor, limp, cold, purple, raw flesh, and especially this one, its wings torn off, its neck broken, its chest marmalade…”
“Very good, very good. Which animal do you hate most of all?”
“Le morpion“, he says. Public lice. Crabs. (“Jeu de morpion” is the French term for “noughts and crosses” or “tic-tac-toe” – a game of blocks and blocking, of forging and denying trajectories.)
The analyst takes these images on board, his enthusiasm suggesting these responses are more telling than the straight answers one might otherwise expect. The Unconscious is a challenge; the analyst welcomes its strange images, even when offered up cynically. Unperturbed, he moves back towards questions about Crevel’s family. He had an elder brother, deceased, and still has two younger sisters, whom he claims he always liked the best.
The analyst doesn’t believe him. He should clearly prefer the sibling who is older; a (dead) surrogate father figure, perhaps.
“[Y]ou must be mistaken, sir. Or rather, you dare not speak your mind. The phenomenon of resistance. A phenomenon well known to psychoanalysts. One last question, please. Are you afraid of going blind?”
“More than anything else in the world.”
The diagnosis is clear, before analysis has even really begun:
It’s all very simple to explain. We find ourselves in the presence of a banal, classic Oedipus complex. You have visited an older woman, the mother. Without the slightest compassion for the bat-child who killed himself by falling out of the nest, poor thing, instead of feeling sorry for her, you only felt disgust, disgust and disgustment, and you hate the harmless crabs, but, by definition, parasites, therefore symbols of those smaller than you, of those to be born and whose childhood dreaded that they would come and take away from you what you considered to be your maternal affection. Are you shaking your head? You won’t admit it, and would like to deceive others as you deceive yourself — unconsciously, admittedly, when you claim to have preferred and still prefer the sisters who are your siblings to the elder brother. But let’s begin the analysis. I’ll take a pencil and paper, and sit behind you. Then, according to the method you’re all familiar with, you speak, enunciate, without any control whatsoever, whatever comes into your head. One second, please. Forget about me. I’m listening.
Vagualame keeps resisting, already having sense the Oedipus complex hanging over him from a mile off. He rejects the entire premise of this blinkered analysis:
It’s no use, Doctor. I’ve never had to say anything, even the most composed things, to anyone who wasn’t within my field of vision. The subconscious is no little ostrich girl. A presence would, perhaps, snatch its secret from it. An ambush, never. Would you happily walk down a deserted, unfamous street at night if you were sure that, behind the picket fence in the wasteland, invisible scoundrels were lurking? While most men indulge in thoughts of suicide, very few actually go through with it, but no one allows themselves to be murdered. So, Doctor, I avoid the dead ends where, with a knife to my throat, I’d have to spill my guts. After all, why shouldn’t we be frank? I know that I’m dealing with, and that I’m afflicted not with the classic Oedipus complex, but with the anti-Oedipus simplex. Deep down, deep in the heart, between the paves of the backyard, not even enough soil for the weed of obsession. That’s why I don’t know how to pass the time. I never wanted my mother. I only lifted the skirts of a kitchen girl in the country when I was four. But woe betide the man who didn’t want to sleep with his mother. Those who suffer from the Oedipus complex are not the sick ones, since they make up almost the entire population. On the contrary, as a poor, isolated man suffering from anti-Oedipus simplex, I could, paraphrasing Saint Theresa, shout to all the echoes that I suffer for not suffering.
But, is it the phenomenon of resistances […] I lied, not about my brothers and sisters, but about crabs, because frankly speaking, I adore these delightful little creatures. If I don’t have a little hello to take to them, in their bushes of hair, all night long I dream that their underground nephews, the termites, right in this solitary body that no voluptuousness has made invulnerable, are going to dig their gallery, along the legs, the trunk, the arms, the neck. And I collapse, almost an island of dust, on the colorless ocean of sheets.
You can still go for your phallic symbol, but as everything becomes confused as it spreads, pantheism, for example, ultimately becoming one with atheism, so the pansexual interpretation of creates puts them all in the same bag, a puerile, tight-fitting, ballskin uniform that crushes the man’s sex, while the woman’s is sewn in tiny stitches from the very thread that holds the pieces of the costume together. At the end of the day, this material appears as unerotic, as unerogetic, as unerophilic, and certainly less subtle in vein and grain than the marble from which the Third Republic sprang the statues in its squares.
Now, Doctor, I ask you, the revolutionary spirit, the liberating force of a science that you claim to serve, but which, in reality, you do serve, into what vile dumpling will your hands, one of which is laziness and the other imbecility, turn it? And why is it that a dwarf pretends to seize the very high word, believing himself to be greater than it?
The attack on psychoanalysis angers the devotee in the room — understandably, since it comes from one who has proffered himself before it nonetheless. The analyst interrupts: “a science is only as good as its practitioner. So if you’re blaming my way of doing things, go ahead and do without psychoanalysis. Get stuck in your complexes until the day…”
The analysand has no time for this defensive manoeuvre. The rant continues, encapsulating Deleuze and Guattari’s anger at psychiatry in a more venomous bluster of surreality than even they could muster.
What? Threats? But if I did have complexes, they would be too precious for me to accept ever being empty of them. The most dignified men don’t have to feed their inferior brothers with their confessions, their marrow. And what would you do, psychoanalyst, with everything you’ve taken from me? You must be bursting at the seams with all the mediocre secrets extorted from your clients. Thief, like all the others who don’t know what to do with what they’ve taken, it’s always the same flea market, the same fencing in the shadow of the temple, from where Jesus drove out the merchants. But the first step was to raze to the ground the temple itself, the palace of torment that masochistic humanity took centuries and centuries to build. We didn’t know dynamite, you would say, in Nazareth’s time. Nice excuse. The truth, men, the truth, us, the truth, me, the truth is that there’s not enough phosphorus, not enough red anger in the blood of our hearts. Hands too short (here, I’ll give you five phalluses twice over, psychoanalyst), my hands that I’d have liked to be palms of light, their ten fingers, their double-blistered anemia hasn’t even tried to tear the papier-mâché of the false ramparts that encircle me. I live caged, like my little comrades, a captive and too often proud victim of the bluffing individualism that pits creatures against each other for the vain joy of psychologists, worldly novelists and the multiform species of gossip and gossip-lovers. Salvation is nowhere, will be nowhere, as long as it is believed to be for some and not for all. The old scholar from Vienna, who showed mankind the naked silhouettes that the complicated draperies of the ancestral and vain phantoms had disguised, for the most disastrous confusion, his admirable words will only be of effective value the day when the crowd, the mob, the scoundrel, as you call it, after having dispossessed the snobs and the eccentric theories of the conservative rationalists who mock audacity, this crowd, this mob. For even knowledge comes at the price of blood, and whoever wants to acquire it must, after denouncing myths such as education for all and a thousand others of the same flavour, put out of action those who, having dispensed false benefits, only wanted to appear to be teaching in order to better conceal the most essential of liberating hypotheses.
So don’t swaddle children in false humility, or be surprised when, as adults, they wish to return to their mother’s womb, to forget a world where everything is forced upon them.
Guattari writes repeatedly of a patient in his care at La Borde, initialised as “R.A.” He is a difficult patient to integrate into the clinic’s radical non-hierarchical functioning:
R.A.’s general attitude was one where he was somewhat “cut off” from everyone else: systematic opposition to everything going on at the clinic (going down to the dining room, participating in activities, meetings, evening events, etc.); stereotypical responses that were always more or less aggressive (such as: “what?,” “hunh? ,” “I can’t hear anything,” “I don’t feel anything,” “I don’t want to,” ‘I’m dead,” “This place made me like this,” etc.) and that regularly interrupted anything anyone said to him as soon as the first words were spoken.
Things were not always like this. Guattari notes how, at one time, “there were several young, emotionally disturbed patients in the clinic who ‘adopted’ him and brought him along for different activities that we had been unable to get him to accept before.” But this does not last. R.A. had a tendency to run away. Most days, he seemed totally detached from reality.
R.A. was a writer, it is suggested, once upon a time. However, at that time, “he practically hadn’t written or read anything for years.” Guattari and Dr. Oury suggest R.A. copy out a book by another. Rather than write his own words, they suggest he start by rewriting a work produced by someone else.
The book was not selected by chance. It was The Castle by Kafka. Dr. Oury and I had noticed the similarities between R.A. and Kafka, from psychopathological and religious points of view as much as his external appearance, at least to the extent that we could judge from a photograph.
The exercise works. R.A. begins to write again. He keeps a journal. He makes reference to an entry from Kafka’s own diaries from 6th December 1910. (No such entry can be found in the recently published complete edition of Kafka’s diaries, translated by Ross Benjamin, at least under the date given by R.A. Perhaps the line between Kafka and R.A. has blurred for R.A. himself.)
Kafka, December 6, 1910
“I will never leave this journal. Here I must be resolute, because I can only be like that here.”
When I was a baby is an origin.
I am a bastard, I would have liked to write on smooth paper with no folds. I just went to the bathroom, it is worse than rot. I am worse than dead. I no longer have any natural senses. I am never hungry, never thirsty, never want anything, be it physical or moral, and I am more attached to the physical because I have lost all of my organic functions (breathing, digestion, sight, hearing, etc.) like I did before, a little. & I write this, I have no awareness of what I am writing, but a kind of silent word (I think of Felix when saying that); it makes me have attitudes, that is all. And I cannot believe that I will get out of it. What I am afraid of is sucking my thumb and walking like when I was little.
The journal is replete with childhood memories, relations to others, and night terrors of a mother’s “poisoned breast”:
Dream on insulin of the poisoned breast. I don’t know if I suckled it. Associated with Bernadette, whom I saw without seeing her. My brother knows how to deal with girls; it is the same thing for me as the poisoned breast of my mother. In the end, I am too much with my mother whom I never had (cloud). I did not have a father. At the henhouse committee, I had an unpleasant impression: “It is as if they were talking about me when they said that hens lay eggs” (to analyze well, I think). Complete immobility (nervous, corporal and sensitive). Everything, according to me, comes from the poisoned breast of my mother, and I am certain not to heal from it one day.
The excerpts from the diary end with no clear resolution. There is no sense of whether R.A. found himself healed or not. Maybe the end of the diary, of writing, is evidence enough.
Deleuze and Guattari eschew any sense of object-loss, tethered in Kleinian analysis to the mother’s breast withdrawn. For them, neither womb nor breast are landmarks of a primal home. They reimagine the Freudian breast, in fact. The breast is but a ball with a nipple-plug — and we all have nipples. The breast, as a connective passage in their machinic unconscious, is detached from but hardly lost absolutely. It has a great many roles. We can invent and assign as many as we choose.
For philosophers Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari, desire produces perpetually new objects. Unlike Freud and Freudian scholars, who consider desire as lacking and trace the desired object back to the mother-child relationship, Deleuze and Guattari argue: “the real object can be produced only by an external causality and external mechanisms; nonetheless this knowledge does not prevent us from believing in the intrinsic power of desire that creates its own object — if only in an unreal, hallucinatory, or delirious form.”
The childhood block (like the breast itself, perhaps) is a katamari; a kind of sculptural conglomeration (not necessarily formless, nor strictly representational) that is reoriented towards, retained, reshaped, remodelled, remapped, reconstituted throughout the course of the life it rolls through. A pebble in a pocket that is gathered together with other objects, one part of an assemblage, vibrating with the ever-present potential of its recontextualization.
The object is not lost, though it may be obscured by the dust it gathers. It is reformed constantly in the complexity of its relations.
We are constantly building new homes with the blocks of self and life.
I think about the sculptures of Barbara Hepworth — her iterations of “Mother and Child”.
In 1934, mother and child are conjoined in a flow. Two figures seem to shapeshift before us, distinct, free-floating, and yet constructed from a single piece of alabaster. Each borders on formlessness, the familial relation retained only through a sense of the diminutive.
Then, that same year, another iteration, this time cleft (à la bastard). The relation is nonetheless more obvious. A delicate nestling is made possible. The relation is visibly strengthened in its separation. The object-child, in its distinction, conveys more affectively a sense of maternal desire. The possibility of rearrangement, of placing the child elsewhere, at a distance, makes the bond appear closer. The objects produce desire in their very relation; desire does not produce the objects themselves.
Hepworth’s is a childhood block most explicitly. We project ourselves onto it, imagine the new ways the block can be narrated, repositioned, reshaped. But the separation of mother and child need not be understood as a loss. We could approach the object-child without having seen the object-mother upon which it once sat. We may nonetheless imagine the object’s journey, not only apart from the mother-object but from the limestone sedimentation it was first retrieved from, as raw matter.
We may return to Deleuze, who imagines how
sculpture ceases to be monumental in order to become hodological: it is not enough to say that it is a landscape and that it lays out a place or territory. What it lays out are paths — it is itself a voyage. A sculpture follows the paths that give it an outside; it works only with nonclosed curves that divide up and traverse the organic body and has no other memory than that of the material…
The object-mother and object-child, though signifying a relation in Hepworth’s titling, are still only rocks; their existence as hyper-objects is thinkable as soon as we pull back to loose veil of representation.
Deleuze then mentions the work of Carmen Perrin, whose sculptures often repurpose industrial materials to produce entirely new forms. These forms may echo an industrial past but also so much more. They become bodies that remain industrial, constructed with an engineer’s or an architect’s precision, that nonetheless open outwards onto a whole new set of aesthetic relations. Alien objects appear before us that beg the questions, “How were you made?” “How did you get here?” These questions are notably distinct from the more paranoid question of “Where did you come from?” “Where were these materials gathered?” A building site, perhaps? A scrap yard? A factory? The origin tells us nothing on its own. We instead try to map out a trajectory for the blocks before us,
not in order to assign an origin to them but to make their displacement something visible… [I]t is characteristic of this new sculpture to assume a position on external trajectories, but this position depends primarily on paths internal to the work itself; the external path is a creation that does not exist before the work, and depends on its internal relations. One circles around a sculpture, and the viewing axes that belong to it make us grasp the body, sometimes along its entire length, sometimes in an astonishing foreshortening, sometimes in two or more diverging directions: its position in the surrounding space is strictly dependent on these internal trajectories. It is as if the real path were intertwined with virtual paths that give it new courses and trajectories.
Perrin herself, though she grew up in Switzerland, was born in Bolivia. Every gallerist’s biography makes reference to these distant origins, perhaps missing her displacement altogether. “Carmen Perrin was born in La Paz” tells us nothing. That she grew up in Switzerland, that she is other to the milieu around her, is more to the point. Not “Where is she from?”, but “How has she moved?” and “How is she moving?”
Luce Irigaray, Speculum of the Other Woman:
And, but, what of the “first matter“? What is this unknowable entity that has an existence in itself? Something that eludes the question “what is?” (tode ti). Might this not be the body of the mother, and the process of becoming flesh within the mother? Of becoming physis always already constituted as the hypokeimenon that defines the substance of man? Might it not be this bodiliness shared with the mother, which as yet has no movement of its own, has to divide up time or space, has in point of fact no way of measuring the container or the surrounding world or the content or the relations among all these? It cannot be shaped in any distinct mold. Fusion, confusion, transfusion of matter, of body-matter, in which even the elementary would escape any static characterization. In which same and other would have to find their meaning.
The mother matters; the child is matter made. At what point does the child come to matter for itself?
Perrin: a wandering woman reshaping matter. Perrin hysterical? Pre-psychoanalytic definitions of hysteria are predicated on a wandering womb. Julia Borossa summarises the old view, long dismissed for its biologically essentialising and heteronormative misogyny: “The womb is an animal which longs to generate children. When it remains barren too long after puberty, it is distressed and sorely disturbed brings the sufferer into the extremist anguish and provokes all manner of diseases besides.”
Freud reframes hysteria, moves from a wandering womb to a wandering mind — particularly a mind that wanders far from its parents, just as Oedipus wandered far from those individuals he falsely believed to be his family, before wandering again blind, after the truth of his incestuous relation is revealed to him. Hysteria is reframed not as a wandering womb, but a womb repressed. The wandering mind represses all origins. But why must wandering far from home be a problem?
Irigaray understands Plato’s cave as a hystera. Having left the cave, the movement of politics is predicated on an enlightened return. What if you don’t? Or what if it is only a memory of the cave that is returned to, rather than the environment itself? Then again, who remembers their time in the womb? What kind of return is possible for an experience outside of memory? What kind of return is possible when we are confronted by the trauma of enlightenment?
Crevel is a hysteric too, although perhaps we might see him more as a pervert. These, again, are Freudian terms. Rejecting the Freudian enclosure of mommy-daddy-me, he affirms himself as a post-Freudian bisexual flâneur, wandering through Paris and through all desires, crossing all lines.
But for Freud, all wandering takes place in the Unconscious. Crevel instead wanders consciously. This is his perversion. Sexuality is not repressed and left behind on the journey, as in hysteria, but is carried alongside, knowingly. The pervert assumes total egoic control over the preferences of the id. But this is the pervert’s illusion. The ego affirms what it can, but it only ever affirms in part, offsetting all the more that which remains repressed.
In this way, Žižek might understand Crevel’s “passionate (dis)attachment” as a hubristic rejection of the Unconscious. As he writes in The Ticklish Subject, “those who … advocate the subversive potential of perversions are sooner or later led to the denial of the Freudian Unconscious”. But this seems to suggest an impossible relation to the unconscious itself. Does Crevel deny the unconscious? No. It is precisely what he affirms, only denying its legibility to another. If, following Rose, we understand our relation to childhood to be like our relation to the unconscious, Crevel simply denies its easy interpretation, not only to himself but to the analyst who claims to possess a one-size-fits-all Rosetta Stone.
The problem with this kind of passionate (dis)attachment, for someone like Žižek, is that our affirming of new passions – or perhaps old passions that are made newly visible, or passions that we claim are otherwise – is that we presume radicality only to let more damaging affects in through the back door, through the Unconscious itself, which is supposedly being denied. He draws on cyberspace as an effective example:
On a more general level, it is interesting to note how, when one describes new phenomena, one as a rule overlooks their predominant hysterical functioning and prefers the allegedly more ‘radical’ perverse or psychotic functioning. Say, in the case of cyberspace, we are bombarded with interpretations which emphasize how cyberspace opens up the possibility of polymorphous perverse playing with and permanent reshaping of one’s symbolic identity, or how it involves a regression to the psychotic incestuous immersion into the Screen as the maternal Thing that swallows us, depriving us of the capacity of symbolic distance and reflection. It can, however, be argued that the most common reaction of all of us when we are confronted with cyberspace is still that of hysterical perplexity, of permanent questioning: ‘How do I stand with respect to this anonymous Other? What does it want from me? What game is it playing with me?’…
The dramas of the Ccru come to mind here; the Landian hysteric who wanders far in the name of radicality only to succumb to violent reaction. This introduces Žižek’s first pointed critique of Deleuze:
… is not Deleuze’s critique of ‘Oedipal’ psychoanalysis an exemplary case of the perverse rejection of hysteria?
Surely the opposite? Deleuze loves nothing more than a meander. What is rejected is the predetermination of Oedipus’s journey. No fate!
Žižek nonetheless continues:
Against the hysterical subject who maintains an ambiguous attitude towards symbolic authority (like the psychoanalyst who acknowledges the pathological consequences of ‘repression’, but none the less claims that ‘repression’ is the condition of cultural progress, since outside symbolic authority there is only the psychotic void), the pervert bravely goes to the limit in undermining the very foundations of symbolic authority and fully endorsing the multiple productivity of pre-symbolic libidinal flux … for Lacan, of course, this ‘anti-Oedipal’ radicalization of psychoanalysis is the very model of the trap to be avoided at any cost: the model of false subversive radicalization that fits the existing power constellation perfectly. In other words, for Lacan, the philosopher’s ‘radicality’, his fearless questioning of all presuppositions, is the model of the false transgressive radicality.
Is the issue here not instead that Deleuze and Guattari questioned Lacan himself? “Lacan was an event in my life”, Guattari once said in an interview. “Deleuze never took Lacan seriously at all, but for me, that was very important. It’s true I’ve gone through a whole process of clarification, which didn’t occur quickly, and I haven’t finally measured, date I say it, the superficial character of Lacan.” But Guattari frames Lacan’s thought, if not through hysteria, at least a kind of manic paranoia. Deleuze wandered through a philosophical milieu picking up whatever weapons he pleased, following no-one — so Guattari says — whereas Lacan approached Freud the master with a conspiratorial plotting, making Borromean knots from his Freudian yarn-work. Guattari continues:
There is a Freudian creativity that is much closer to theater, to myth, to the dream, and which has little to do with this structuralist, systemic, mathematizing … this mathemic thought of Lacan … It’s a meta-meta-meta-theorization; they speak about textual exegesis in the nth degree … So all that is ridiculous.
In Žižek’s text from 1999, we see the seeds of an anti-trans rhetoric advanced by him and many other Lacanians in the present. This “model of false subversive radicalization that fits the existing power constellation perfectly” echoes arguments that a contemporary identity-politics is simply the advancement of capitalist individualism taken to its (il)logical conclusion, as if the self and its representation were now as minutely customisable as a social-media profile. (Again, the unconscious is, if not denied, at least ignored.)
Žižek sees this imagined radical transgression, then, as a feedback loop. Transgression is only possible through true immersion and mastery of one’s own subjugation, such that those who proclaim freedom from social machinations are in fact those most immersed within them, who must then necessary repress their own adherence to material oppression through a pervert’s affirmation of its imagined possibilities. The problem with this, for Žižek, is that no escape is truly made; rather, the fantasy of escape becomes a powerful perverted mechanism of repression itself. Echoing the denunciations of idpol and a self-identifying approach to gender that proliferate in the present, he writes: “not only does confessional self-probing unearth new forms of sexuality — the confessional activity itself becomes sexualized, gives rise to a satisfaction of its own: ‘The repressive law is not external to the libido that it represses, but the repressive law represses to the extent that repression becomes a libidinal activity.’” He uses the example of politically correct language. To call someone “mentally challenged” rather than “retarded” does not somehow remove the sin of insulting judgement, but rather adds a pleasurable (and more patronising) dimension to the repression of one’s capacity for enunciation. “Mentally challenged” and “retarded” still mean the same thing, and the softening of the blow does nothing to upend the dynamics of power that legitimate our commentary on and misguided analysis of the Other. It only makes whoever is commenting feel better — even good — about their judgement. Or so argues Žižek.
The same argument can easily be used (and often is, implicitly) in contemporary denunciations of pronouns. To adopt alternate pronouns for someone, which differ from those assigned at birth, is simply a repression of one’s inadequacies dressed up as political radicality. To enforce their usage on others is to control language in a way that mirrors the oppression supposedly being rejected.
Žižek’s argument, expressed in the neat lucidity of psychoanalytic theory, which implicitly professes that it has an answer for everything, is disastrously convincing. It promotes a violent self-questioning and triggers a depressive uncertainty in me that lasts for days. Reflecting on my decision last year to start living outwardly as non-binary, perpetually considering how best to represent oneself in ways that affirm an experience that is equal parts subjective and social, I am nonetheless left wondering if this decision were simply a perverse rejection of hysteria, a displacement affirmed such that “untruth” is renarrated as truth.
Then again, what does it matter? Though the decision is relatively recent, it allows the re-narration of past experiences in a more positive manner. The events of a life find a newly harmonious consequence. A psychoanalytic “modelisation of subjectivity” as a poor fit. (A rejection of the Freudian Unconscious, or the Unconscious retained with Freud denied?) There is a cruel irony to the fact that a contemporary denouncement of affirming one’s difference is nonetheless a telling denial of prior alienation. (It is an argument that carries even more gravitas when we consider the interjections of black study, affirming an otherness enforced from without to find new ways of living within and beyond the prevailing injustices of the present.)
Those that now loudly deny self-affirmation are precisely those who questioned a childhood conformity. The claim that “You’re not man enough” is internalised, made sense of in a new way, but then, this is cruelly denied after the fact. “You might now believe what we told you previously, but the truth is that you will never be any but a man.” Gender is wielded as a double-edged sword; to be non-binary is only to affirm the catch-22, the cutting both ways of the blade, which is itself denied by those who have so violently forged it. In this sense, it is not so much self-identification that is denied, since that has never been entertained in the past, but self-determination. Žižek and others highlight the paradoxical liberalism of libertarianism: your liberty has limits. The determinism of psychoanalysis, the determinism of the Oedipal myth – that one can never escape one’s own fate – does not offer clarity but makes action itself impossible. A psychoanalytic “realism”.
I want to deconstruct an image, a self-image, if only in order to get closer to the truth. A questioning of gender, from within and from without, returns as a truth that cannot be denied. Improvisation and composition are not anathema to one another; to compose in real time requires a responsiveness to one’s musical memories. You know all the notes, all the chords; how do you choose to order them from moment to moment?
There is a certain shame that comes from identifying oneself as non-binary only now, at what feels like the late of the day. But this re-narration of one’s experiences is not simply useful for one’s own sense of self; it clarifies a life for those who live it with you. Kitty says something along these lines as I prevaricate over decisions made and to be made. “You always were non-binary, that is clear now.” A friend who has known me for six years reorders their sense of who I have been. It is not so much that a self-identification changes who I am, but rather that it clarifies who I have always been. I make more sense now, to myself and others. A relation and the affections that constitute it are strengthened in the acknowledgement. There was a reason we have long related to each other in this way, because even prior to an open acknowledgement, there is an intuitive sense of experiences shared.
The trans experience becomes one of constructing a new self-image but also one of undoing the image that came before. But this is not to paper over past discrepancies but reorder them in a process of sense-making. It is a process of negotiating one’s memories, as a child would, such that, as Deleuze writes, your memories “are almost simultaneous with [your] actions”. This simultaneity might be understood as a flattening of the image of thought, thus undoing the image in its reconstruction.
I look over my shoulder, turning away from the bay window within which I am writing, to consider The Open Window, Matisse’s painting of the port of Collioure that hangs over my record player and rows of vinyl. I stop writing these fragments for a few days as something in the Žižekian critique leads me to abject despair. Michael suggests I do something else. If the inclination to write is still so forceful, why not simply write about something else? Take a break from the rabbit holes of PhD research; find another milieu.
Collioure returns to mind every time. I have been to the town on three different occasions, between 2008 and 2019, and the inspirations gathered there have yet to be processed. Strangely, it is a place I associate with so many things ending; each visit has been a prelude to some major shift in my social milieu – disconnection from my parents; the end of a long-term relationship – but it also constitutes the unstable centre of a whole new milieu of its own. It is a point of entry, to my mind at least, for a sporadic investigation into an occulted Occitania – a region of nomads, Troubadours; a site of inspiration and becoming for Joe Bousquet, Gilles Deleuze, Matisse, Piccasio, Braque, Simone Weil, Lawrence Durrell… and myself.
Collioure is the town in which Matisse found himself a wild beast. It is a place for the total reimagination of Form.
Éric Alliez & Jean-Claude Bonne write on Fauvism’s oft-misunderstood trajectory: “The very principle of Fauvism was the destruction of Form – hence its explosion of figurative space, its ‘anti-visual’ character, its absence of stylistic unity, its ‘schizophrenic’ tendency… the destruction of form, along with a refusal of the received alternative between Modernism and Tradition.” It is a notable precursor to cubism, and yet poignantly distinct from that movement’s tendencies (pioneered, it is said, not far away in the nearby town of Ceret, which I likewise visited on a number of occasions on teenage family holidays).
Alliez and Bonne refute a claim put forward by Clement Greenberg that Matisse was “precubist in essence if not by inflection”, since both movements produced, in Greenberg’s terms, an “altogether flat abstract art.” But what is missed in this spatial assessment is Fauvism’s far different relation to temporality. Cubism is, instead, a kind of spatial omnipresence – all perspectives on an object are viewed simultaneously, yes, but only space is flattened for the Fauves; time, instead, unfurls in another way. They write that “what Fauvism opens up is a new idea … of the temporality of art and of temporality in art … a becoming that produces nothing but itself, displays nothing but itself, in the events that it materialises via intensive construction”, thus producing “a ‘bloc of sensations’ completely disidentified with form” (with bloc being a notable term here again). Cubism, in this way, presents us with an perspective on the object depicted as a Monument; Fauvism is instead more hodological. The flatness of Matisse’s imagery, in this sense, produces a new cartography-art. Whereas cubism flattens all movement into a formal abstraction-as-noise, Fauvism retains the opportunity to look at an image over time. It does not enmesh all perspectives but flattens the moving focus of vision and, at the same time, retains it. “What Fauvism did was open up painting from the inside to the Outside, to the multiplicity of forces and to their multiplication, in an unprecedented conjunction with the arts.” In this way, “Matisse will have been the first to have grasped that a becoming-life of art could only be achieved through a true becoming-other of painting.” He composes the image in time, such that this time retained for the viewer – whereas cubism alienates our perspective in noise. Both ambiguate form, but Matisse does not lose the movement of his looking.
At school, I remember first studying the cubists. We would attempt to reconstruct their way of working by drawing that most famous object so often depicted: a guitar. With a rudimentary still life constructed in the centre of the room, we would rotate around it, layering perspectives, attempting to encapsulate the entire object in a spatial field. But here the guitar is always a centre of the activity. It is revolved around, notably unplayed and, in our renderings, turned into something unplayable. Matisse’s paintings do not wholly alienate the objects before us. He retains a certain signification, but flattens (or otherwise generalises) the relations possible. Alliez and Bonne consider Interior with Aubergines as a prime example.
The still life in the centre of the room appears as such. We can identify the vegetables, the other decorations that surround it, but these objects are rendered no differently than their surroundings. The view from the window appears no different to the assemblage more thoughtfully arranged. Another view, through a doorway where another arrangement of objects can be seen, does not appear in the background but rather alongside what might otherwise be the focus of our attentions. It is a style of painting that “touches on the problematic of decoration” in this way. Decoration is not such much background as it is everything. The very arrangement of life is as decorative as an object or the wallpaper or the very layout of home and the world beyond it. In thus being “subjected to differential relations of intensity” in our engagement with the image, Matisse forestalls “any kind of centred organic or hierarchical composition”. He produces a “truly radioactive decorativity”, such that even a “still” life reverberates with aesthetic potentiality that is “both turbulent (kinetic energy) and continuous (potential energy)”.
These early paintings are only Matisse’s initial experiments; Alliez and Bonne soon move onto consider how Matisse began to consider “how to integrate the ‘human’ into the decorative” in this way (as in one of the most famous subjects of his paintings, The Dance). These later paintings are not so different, however. One brings a stillness to movement, makes of dance something decorative, whilst the early paintings turn decoration itself into a dance. Relations of intensity remain the subject at hand. “The Matissean sign”, in this sense, as Alliez and Bonne write elsewhere, is “construction (on the basis) of forces that it expresses and which affect it (affectio) as the immanent cause of its intensity”, something they see most forcefully at work in Matisse’s late collage, The Snail.
It is a collage that may abstract a snail’s form, but it nonetheless retains some sense of how a snail’s shell is itself constructed. Snails, like all molluscs, “secrete layers of calcium carbonate, which crystallize and harden.” Though the concentric circles that make snails so identifiable appear like decorative spirals, they can be thought of as blocks that are made to cohere in an active construction. This growth, like the movement of snails themselves, is slow and often imperceptible, but there is movement here nonetheless. Indeed, in making the snail an assemblage of blocks, as Matisse’s earlier paintings blocked out inhabited spaces, the snail immediately becomes more animated. Like all of Matisse’s blocks, “[t]hey have an entirely relative value as sign-forms only is so far as they designate a habitat – first and foremost the environment of the painter [or the mollusc] – as a site for the expression of a decoration not meant to showcase or celebrate it by aestheticizing it – to adorn it, according to the traditional idea of the decorative – but to vivify it by animating it with incessantly renewed rhythms, in an unbridled constructivism.”
Life is like this. Writing is like this. No end in sight for each, as yet. Matisse-thought continues, nestled amongst the radioactive decorations of a body and life re-created and re-curated.
Far too many words written for a period of apparent writers’ block. Still, now once more, milieu remapped, there’s nothing more to say. For now.
In writing a short article for the New Statesmanthe other day, the short word count left me feeling a little anxious. It was hardly an opportunity to go into the weeds, but nonetheless an chance to point to some of Mark Fisher’s essays that I find useful right now, rather than an essay like “Exiting the Vampire Castle”, which I do not.
As a result, however, a lot was left unsaid, and after some people asked me to expand on that article, I thought I’d knit something together that makes the point far more explicit.
That Mark Fisher was brought into any kind of discussion around Russell Brand and the accusations of rape and sexual harassment leveled against him is bizarre to me. Yes, Fisher and Brand were mutual supporters of each other’s work, once upon a time, but their trajectories couldn’t have differed more over the years that followed the publication of “Exiting the Vampire Castle” — making it all the stranger that Mark backed Brand so enthusiastically.
We can put this down to a certain egotism of Fisher’s part. He always wanted to be a pop star, and Brand seemed to encapsulate the sort of public figure that Fisher wanted to see: charming and disarming, articulate and intelligent, but also working class and (by Fisher’s measure at least) camp and queer — something he makes clear in the Vampire Castle essay. Blinded by his own enthusiasms and the general distain he had for “indie sleaze” in other contexts, Fisher seemed to see Brand more as the kind of glampunk figure he’d aways been enamoured by. To discover that his admiration was reciprocated must have been nice.
Two things that struck me on Twitter, in response to all this, were the ways that this admiration flew in the face of advice from Fisher’s friends, such that he published the article anyway. As people discussed the “open secret” of Brand’s conduct, those arguing about Fisher explained that many of his friends had tried to persuade him to back someone else, precisely because Brand’s sexually aggressive stand-up and generally sexist language were red flags. Fisher failed to appreciate these echoes of #MeToo as the beginnings of the new solidarity he was claiming was needed.
(Others suggest Mark was very unwell and manic at this time, perhaps also contributing to things — but this is the kind of reductive speculation doesn’t sit right with me, even if there’s some truth to it; Mark’s work is reduced to his mental health as a shortcut too often, ignoring a lot of his work he did to counter his own depressive tendencies rather than be read as he intended.)
Whatever excuses might be made, “Exiting the Vampire Castle” was still published and all hell broke loose. Although the essay is now upheld as an early argument against “cancel culture”, his most vocal decriers accused Fisher of being anti-feminist because “cancel culture” is but a generalised dismissal of #MeToo’s refusal to stay silent. This was the most significant charge laid down at Fisher’s feet, but rather than try to perpetually defend the Vampire Castle essay today, I think it is worth noting how he responded to these critiques and later went on to (re)affirm feminist thought with a great deal of enthusiasm, never discussing Brand again publicly post-2013 (to my knowledge).
That’s the general argument of the New Statesman piece, but below I want to add a commentary on a couple of Fisher’s essays that I mention there to really draw out the resonances. As one particularly strange idiot argued on Twitter over the weekend, Fisher never explicitly — that is, publicly — renounced the Vampire Castle essay. But the work that followed salvaged the critique of “left melancholia” at its heart and softened the polemic, adapting it to a present moment in popular feminist thought.
Other crank accusations were along the lines of calling me a Fisher-revisionist and an intellectual fraud who is hiding the truth — ridiculous comments that notably echo Brand’s own statement on the charges against him. If I am a revisionist, it is in the sense that the popular perception of Fisher’s work remains bogus and reductive. “Exiting the Vampire Castle” is seen by many to be the last significant thing Fisher did before his death, undoubtedly because he didn’t do much promote what came next on Twitter, which he’d abandoned. But no one who is familiar with the work I’ve done on Fisher’s thought will be surprised to hear that I think what he produced between 2014 and 2016 is some of his most interesting and important work. He began writing with much more care, nuance and optimism on problems that remain essential for the left to address today, and which are notably anathema to the kinds of people who hail him for the Vampire Castle essay alone.
On Twitter I’ve said that this amounts to an about-turn from the Vampire Castle essay, but of course there are moments of continuation. The most significant of these remains his critique of “left melancholia”, but while the Vampire Castle essay was read as a suggestion that this was a problem of contemporary feminism, he was later much more clear in articulating that “left melancholia” is instead a problem most significantly addressed by contemporary feminism.
It is this turn that I want to elucidate below.
In “No Romance Without Finance”, written for Plan C in 2015, Fisher returns to the positive (if buried) thrust of “Exiting the Vampire Castle” — its call for new types of solidarity — and positions this not as a task that moves against feminism but which emerges from feminism most explicitly.
He draws on Nancy Hartsock’s theory of “standpoint epistemology”, for instance, which he would likewise discuss with his students in his final lectures a year later. There, he explains that standpoint epistemology is
highly important because it’s a really explosive theory, which breaks with a lot of the key dualisms which still operate in what we still have to call “postmodern thought”, where you either have objective truth — which is defined in some naive way — or you have relativism: nothing is really true; nothing is true at all. So you have po-faced Anglo-Saxon empiricists, saying things are what they are, roast beef, that sort of thing — or you have, in the other stereotype, Continentalists who have to complicate everything and say that nothing is fixed or stable and you can’t assign determinate meaning to anything… Standpoint epistemology really breaks with both of those positions. It’s saying, there are different points of view, but some are better than others.
The standpoint is different from a point of view, we should say, first of all. And this relates, straight away, to this complicated question of consciousness. I think most of you are somewhat familiar with Marx. One of Marx’s key emphases is on the primacy of the material — something that Nancy Hartsock talks about. The primacy of the material over the idea. The primacy, in other words, of practice over mental conceptions. Sometimes that primacy is viewed as more than a primacy but actually as causal. The material causes mental conceptions. That’s complicated on lots of levels — complicated and controversial within the history of Marxism: how we think of this relation between mental conceptions and, more broadly, culture and materiality. The material doesn’t only mean physical things; it also means practice.
With that emphasis on the primacy of the practice and the material, it might seem that consciousness lies on the side of the idea. Consciousness surely must be a mental conception, must be an idea, and Marx thought the materialist revolution was to bang things on the head, and put matter and praxis first, and ideas second. But what is meant by consciousness, in this sense? What is meant by class consciousness? It is not the same as ordinary phenomenological consciousness.
[…] The standpoint is not a point of view.
We can all have points of view. And we all do have them. They’re already there. But a standpoint has to be constructed by practice. And the easy way to see this, I think, is by the concept of consciousness raising. This was, in a way, what Nancy Hartsock was trying to codify in her theory of standpoint epistemology: the practice of consciousness raising.
This is one of the most significant changes in Fisher’s thought. Softening his “(dis)identity politics” and disdain for hippies, standpoint epistemology becomes a kind of foundational theory for his reaffirmed psychedelia. He makes this crystal clear in “No Romance Without Finance” when he writes:
To have one’s consciousness raised is not merely to become aware of facts of which one was previously ignorant: it is instead to have one’s whole relationship to the world shifted. The consciousness in question is not a consciousness of an already-existing state of affairs. Rather, consciousness-raising is productive. It creates … a new subject – a we that is both the agent of struggle and what is struggled for. At the same time, consciousness-raising intervenes in the ‘object,’ the world itself, which is now no longer apprehended as some static opacity, the nature of which is already decided, but as something that can be transformed. This transformation requires knowledge; it will not come about through spontaneity, voluntarism, the experiencing of ruptural events, or by virtue of marginality alone.
The feminist standpoint, in Hartsock’s theory, thus rests on women’s knowledge of patriarchy, which is more all-encompassing than men’s knowledge of patriarchy, precisely because women are most explicitly on the receiving end of its injustices. In his lecture on Hartsock and Lukacs, he continues:
I think there’s a good example in the Nancy Hartsock piece about cleaning the toilet. In that scenario, the men, who are walking around with their highfalutin ideas about X, Y, and Z, they’re completely ignorant of the reality of cleaning the toilet and what that means, which is a kind of metonym for all immersion in materiality, or anything that operates as the basis for sociality as such — that is, the social reproduction of humans.
In a way, you could say that access to the lowest level of the materiality of things gives you the potential to have more knowledge of the totality — to come back to that. Because you’re in the totality. The dominant group will just float by and not really notice you that much — that’s part of the reason they themselves don’t see the totality.
In this example, someone who cleans a public toilet (or a toilet in a workplace, etc.) will have a greater awareness of the way the space is treated socially. It is something that anyone who has had a cleaning job will appreciate. Though we might wander into bathrooms and use them without thinking, with a certain abandon or disregard — something all the more likely in pub or club toilets — the person who cleans the toilets when the day is done will be (literally) elbow deep in the material reality of what is, for most people, an almost liminal space.
In being most explicitly subjugated by that space — at the bottom of the ladder, so to speak — you have a much clearer view of the structures at work above you. It is a subjective position, by definition, but it has a far more encompassing perspective by virtue of its subjugation in material reality. Subjugated persons are far more away of the boot on their neck than the boot-wearer, who might not perceive what exactly it is they have stepped on — to put it another way.
This can easily be a miserable position to be in. Our sense of our personal subjugation can make us angry and less than hospitable to those we perceive as enforcing that same subjugation. But this is where practice becomes essential — that is, where questions of strategy must be addressed. After all, to draw attention to subjugation can be seen as hostile or narcissistic — a false flag I address at length in my new book — since we might make others uncomfortable in drawing attention to otherwise invisibilised power dynamics and our specific position within them. We might not give a shit about that, of course, and actually see a politics of politeness as just another way of keeping us in our place (see Sara Ahmed’s work on the “feminist killjoy”). But in drawing attention to these imbalances, we can also share a knowledge that comes from below and build a sense of political consciousness.
Things are not so simple, of course. It can be a difficult thing to raise consciousness. Plato’s allegory of the cave makes the point that enlightenment — indeed, exposing oneself to the light — can be a difficult experience; we often remain most comfortable in our own ignorance. But as Badiou later argued, convincing others to “see the light” is, at the end of the day, that most fundamental of initiatory political acts.
In the context of the Vampire Castle essay, two forms of enlightenment seemingly face off against each other. A contradiction emerges where those trying to raise awareness of Brand’s predatory nature nonetheless have a tendency to renounce his broader leftist (at that time, at least) politics. This is something evidenced by some of the old clips that have gone viral following the allegations.
Last night on Twitter, both “Sean Lock” and “Katherine Ryan” were trending — Ryan, because she supposedly once called him a predator repeatedly whilst filming a television show with him in the UK, to such an extent that the show was derailed and wasn’t aired (at least that’s what I gleam from the story going viral); Lock, because he was once particularly scathing about Brand on “8 Out of 10 Cats”. We can commend them both for calling him out, but Lock (much like Ryan in other instances where she gets explicitly political) nonetheless advances a terrible politics in the same breath, which is either patently neoliberal or a kind of awkward white-feminism.
The majority of the two-minute clip of Lock going viral online, for instance, says nothing about Brand’s sexual politics (beyond Lock saying he’d hate his daughter to bring someone like him home — a “feminism” still couched in patriarchy) and is instead a denouncement of the kind of comments that popularised him with those far left of centre in the first place. To watch the clip now and see someone outing a predator is to ignore the meat of the statement: dull comments that are anti-Occupy and against any questioning of the current political paradigm, which is what angered Fisher so much in the first place.
This is the rock-and-hard-place that Fisher wrote the Vampire Castle essay within. Those who read it as a denouncement of complaints against Brand’s sexual politics miss the broader lack of political imagination that couched those complaints at the same time. We see the same thing happening now, just as implicitly. The more nuanced response is perhaps that both those things can be true at the same time. We can denounce Brand’s predation of women at the same time as acknowledging the positive impact of his Paxman interview. We can denounce Brand as an predatory individual without also denouncing the emergent collective politics he was significant in popularising within the mainstream.
Ten years on, this obviously feels like a moot point. Brand is far less isolated as a dissenting anti-capitalist voice, and he has since turned this dissent into a self-serving set of conspiracy theories at the same time. Indeed, the most disastrous thing about Brand and others like him is a reactionary streak that has emboldened a new twenty-first-century Strasserism. We do not need an anti-capitalist workers’ movement that is underwritten by anti-Semitism or anti-trans rhetoric or anti-vaccine conspiracy theories. We do not need Russell Brand.
I think Fisher may have cottoned on to this in later years. And what is all the more significant is that he no longer saw the #MeToo movement as somehow in competition with his wider aims. Indeed, raising awareness about patriarchy (through the crimes of high-profile individuals who abuse their power) is not distinct from raising awareness about capitalism — they are one and the same.
But since we still cannot wait for a new political consciousness to emerge outside of capitalism, we nonetheless need figures who publicly raise consciousness. The anxiety that comes from this is that being in the public eye seems to be a good way to drive people to reaction. (I certainly had a wobble after Mark’s death, when speaking publicly also opened me up to a great deal of vitriol — something I’ve been reminded of in writing the New Statesman article and receiving horrible messages that do nothing other than seed misanthropy.)
This is something that a lot of the figures Fisher backed had in common. Kanye West is the most obvious. His output in the 2000s and 2010s was exceptional and deeply politicising. Claiming George Bush didn’t care about black people was iconic; Yeezus remains a pop-modernist masterpiece. But to what extent did Kanye’s contact with the mainstream contribute to his mental illness, which has seen him become isolated and taken under the wing of the new right? It is something that happens all too frequently, but this doesn’t mean that we should give up on disseminating our politics in the mainstream altogether. We need a strengthened underground that is more aware of the risks and challenges and can support people who enter the mainstream to remain advocates rather than become alienated. This doesn’t mean parking our criticality but exercising it with more care and coordination.
As Joana Ramiro put it on Twitter the other day, #MeToo remains a consciousness-raising movement in this regard, despite the ways it has been demonised since and turned into a generalised form of “cancel culture”:
The #MeToo movement is pivotal not as an opportunity to “cancel” or name and shame abusers (as needed as that might be), but as a chance for every one of us to examine our and our peers’ behaviours, to analyse how society taught us to process, normalise and often dismiss abuse
It seems Mark misunderstood this in 2013. He wrote a whole article about purveyors of guilt and shame and saw these affects as undermining any kind of consciousness-raising process altogether. But he changed his tune. He examined his own behaviour and instead leaned into feminist theories of consciousness raising more explicitly. But he also found a more nuanced way to challenge a “hardening of the self” that he saw at work in a growing generational anger.
His “No Romance Without Finance” essay remains a telling example. He opens with a discussion of Jennifer M Silva’s book, Coming Up Short: Working-Class Adulthood in an Age of Uncertainty:
Over and over again, Silva finds her young subjects exhibiting a ‘hardened’ self – a form of subjectivity that prides itself on its independence from others. For Silva, this hardened subject is the consequence of this generation being abandoned, institutionally and existentially. In an environment dominated by unrelenting competition and insecurity, it is neither possible to trust others nor to project any sort of long-term future. Naturally, these two problems feed into one another, in one of the many vicious spirals which neoliberal culture has specialised in innovating. The inability to imagine a secure future makes it very difficult to engage in any sort of long-term commitment. Rather than seeing a partner as someone who might share the stresses imposed by a harshly competitive social field, many of the working class individuals to whom Silva spoke instead saw relationships as an additional source of stress. In particular, many of the heterosexual women she interviewed regarded relationships with men as too risky a proposition. In conditions where they could not depend on much outside themselves, the independence they were forced to develop was both a culturally-validated achievement and a hard-won survival strategy which they were reluctant to relinquish.
This is the nuance that the Vampire Castle essay ran roughshod over. Womens’ anger at the normalisation of sexual abuse is obviously valid, but social media nonetheless channels this anger through a hardened online subjectivity that simply replicates neoliberal affectations. There is a danger, then, particularly on social media and the platforms of “communicative capitalism”, that a critique of the present can nonetheless be influenced by neoliberalism’s “mandatory individualism” at the same time. As such, the problem with affects like anger is that they can lead to the further entrenchment of “left melancholia”, and so retaining both our criticality alongside our political hope and agency becomes a delicate balancing act — one that Fisher began to approach from another angle (arguably that of his initial critics).
None of this is to suggest, however, that we should repress our anger. It must rather be seen as a starting point rather than an end in itself. This is something Fisher gets at far more lucidly in “No Romance Without Finance”:
Reading Silva’s descriptions of women wary of giving up their independence to men they perceive as feckless wasters, I was reminded of two R&B hits from 1999: ‘No Scrubs’ by TLC and ‘Bills Bills Bills’ by Destiny’s Child. Both these songs see financially independent women upbraiding (presumably unemployed) men for their shiftlessness. It is easy to attack such tracks for their seeming peddling of neoliberal ideology. Yet I think it far more productive to hear these songs in the same way that we attend to the accounts in Silva’s book. These are examples of consciousness deflated, which have important lessons to communicate to anyone seeking to dismantle capitalist realism.
The next paragraph is particularly notable. “It is still often assumed that politics is somehow ‘inside’ cultural products, irrespective of their context and their use”, Fisher begins — something he may have been guilty of himself in his enthusiasm for Russell Brand. What matters, however, is how we use and respond to these cultural products — something, again, that Fisher didn’t do very well in 2013. He continues:
Sometimes, agit-prop style culture can of course be politically transformative. But even the most reactionary cultural expression can contribute to a transformative project if it is sensitively attended to.
Again, a sensitivity that was missing from the Vampire Castle essay.
It is possible to see the work of the late Stuart Hall in this light: as an attempt to bring to leftist politics the messages that culture was trying to impart to it. If this project was something of a tragic failure, it was a consequence, not of the shortcomings in Hall’s approach, but of the intransigence of the old left, its deafness to the desires and anxieties being expressed in culture. Ever since Hall fell under the spell of Miles Davis in the 1950s, he dreamed of somehow commensurating the libidinal modernity he encountered in popular music with the progressive political project of the organized left. Yet the authoritarian left was unable to tune into this ambition, allowing itself to be outflanked by a new right which soon claimed modernization for itself, and consigned the left to the past.
This is a passage that contemporary defenders of the Vampire Castle essay should consider at length. Many of those who praise Fisher for his anti-“cancel culture” essay are precisely those Gen X members of the old left who hate just about everything in contemporary pop-culture. And Fisher, too, was susceptible to an old-left intransigence.
And although the “authoritarian left” mentioned above are generally thought of as those who are accused of propagating nothing but guilt, this is a charge that applies to many other people as well. Authoritativeness takes many forms. The popular left in general, today at least, seems to have been outflanked by the modern right with devastating effect, but I am certain that Fisher would view those who have joined the new right — like Russell Brand and Nina Power and particularly those writers for Spiked, Unherd, etc. — as having responded far more disastrously. The right has certainly claimed modernization for itself, but joining them rank and file is not the way to claim it back!
From here, Fisher goes on to discuss Ellen Willis, who he would return to time and again over the last few years of his life. I think Willis can be seen as someone that Fisher felt a lot of kinship with. Both were cultural commentators with a firm interest in the raising of political consciousness, but who nonetheless found themselves at an impasse, caught between the old left and the new, such that both were as mournful of the old left’s failures as they were enthralled by present and future potentials of new movements, thus feeling the disparities between them all the more forcefully.
Fisher, in “No Romance Without Finance”:
In her 1979 essay, ‘The Family: Love It Or Leave It,’ Willis observed that the counterculture’s desire to replace the family with a system of collective child-rearing would have entailed “a social and psychic revolution of almost inconceivable magnitude”. It’s very difficult, in our deflated times, to re-create the counterculture’s confidence that such a ‘social and psychic revolution’ could not only happen, but was already in the process of unfolding. Like many of her generation, Willis’s life was shaped by first being swept up by these hopes, then seeing them gradually wither as the forces of reaction regained control of history.
Fisher’s life and work was shaped in much the same way, and it is for that reason that I think his work can also still be viewed with the same enthusiasm as he views Willis’s own.
There’s probably no better account of the Sixties’ counterculture’s retreat from Promethean ambition into self-destruction, resignation and pragmatism than Willis’s collection of essays Beginning To See The Light. As Willis makes clear in her introduction to the collection, she frequently found herself at odds with what she experienced as the authoritarianism and the statism of mainstream socialism. While the music that she listened to spoke of freedom, socialism seemed to be about centralization and state control. The counterculture’s politics were anti-capitalist, Willis argues, but this did not entail a straightforward rejection of everything produced in the capitalist field. Certainly, pleasure and individualism were important to what Willis characterises as her “quarrel with the left,” yet the desire to do away with the family could not be construed in these terms alone; it was inevitably also a matter of new and unprecedented forms of collective (but non-statist) organisation. Willis’s “polemic against standard leftist notions about advanced capitalism” rejected as at best only half-true the ideas “that the consumer economy makes us slave to commodities, that the function of the mass media is to manipulate our fantasies, so we will equate fulfilment with buying the system’s commodities.” Culture – and music culture in particular – was a terrain of struggle rather than a dominion of capital. The relationship between aesthetic forms and politics was unstable and inchoate – culture didn’t just ‘express’ already-existing political positions, it also anticipated a politics-to-come (which was also, too often, a politics that never actually arrived).
Here we find Fisher continuing to wrestle with the ways he found himself at odds with certain parts of the left, but he allows his optimism to win out. He does not just shadowbox with the things he dislikes but turns to Willis to consider how he might contribute to the present, precisely by writing about his own experiences and memories of prior moments. If what he struggled with was a seeming break in the left’s momentum, he nonetheless acknowledged that new (feminist) movements were building this momentum once again:
It is beginning to look as if, instead of being the end of history, capitalist realism was a thirty-year hiatus. The processes that began in the Sixties can now be resumed. Consciousness is being raised again.
“Exiting the Vampire Castle”, in the midst of this positivity, begins to feel like a grumpy outlier. There are other essays that advance this same position, including one of my favourite Fisher essays, written for e-flux a few months before the publication of the Vampire Castle essay itself. Fisher’s major fault at this time is, for me at least, little more than an all-too-human instability and inconsistency, echoing the cultural landscape he found himself in. He gives in to his pessimism at times, even fatally so at the end of his life, but prior to that moment, he always found ways to transform that pessimism into a more productive negativity.
This site of struggle within Fisher’s own thought was as personal as it was political, and he acknowledged this too later, in “Good for Nothing”, an essay on his experiences of depression that takes aim not at the vampires corralling around him on social media but the vampires that lived within, attacking that “sneering ‘inner’ voice” that “is the internalised expression of actual social forces”.
Against accusations of “anti-feminism”, Mark sought to show how his critiques were inherently feminist in nature, but the biggest misstep of his final years was seeing critiques of Brand and critiques of capitalism as wholly disarticulated. There were (and continue to be) moments where the argument is unclear — within Fisher’s writing and the writing of those who called him out (and continue to) — but unfortunately, I think the overarching point is missed by his supporters and critics alike.
On the one hand, Mark was wrong to ignore those who saw Brand as a less than helpful spokesperson; on the other hand, those who write him off entirely for that one essay alone also fail to see the good he did on either side of it. “Exiting the Vampire Castle”, in the context of Fisher’s broader consciousness-raising project, was a failure, in the sense that it has been used as further evidence of his own pessimism and alienated countless people who may have otherwise been interested in what he had to say. But the underlying critique nonetheless presents us with an integral problem to be solved by feminist and anti-capitalist discourses in equal measure. We can and should continue to build on the left’s prior interventions, especially those that failed. With that in mind, I think I put it best in the conclusion to the New Statesman article:
None of this erases the harm the 2013 essay did to Fisher’s reputation, but his later writings clearly attempted to integrate the critiques he received into his work more broadly. This distinguishes Fisher from Brand profoundly. Rather than viewing his denunciation as a conspiracy or leaning into his own anger and pessimism, Fisher changed to keep pace with a politics-to-come. He was far from assured that his own work would stand the test of time – since the power of his blogging lay in the persistent attention he paid the present – but he also believed in the recuperation and salvage of radical politics from movements that otherwise failed. He sought to salvage the potentials from his personal failures also.
I’ve written a short essay for New Statesman today, which attempts to address the return of Mark Fisher’s “Exiting the Vampire Castle” to Twitter discourse, in light of the damning allegations made against Russell Brand.
I try to offer a balanced reading of Mark’s essay, the problems with it (mainly Brand’s inclusion), whilst pointing readers to essays he wrote in 2014 and 2015, which I think show a great deal of contrition on his part as he addressed his own mental health more candidly and began writing about contemporary feminism far more emphatically.
Unlike Russell Brand, who has responded to these very serious allegations with more conspiracy theories, doubling down on a reactionary rhetoric all too common amongst an “anti-woke” red-brown commentariat, Mark Fisher listened to his critics. He logged off, reflected and found a new clarity with regards to his vision of a post-capitalist, post-patriarchal, post-work future. He looked anew at the past and the present and hoped to salvage a far more positive political project, not only from the wreckage of a twentieth-century left, but from the mistakes he had made in recent years as well.
You can read the essay here. (It is paywalled, unless you sign up for three free articles a month. If that’s not your bag but you’re very interested, I can email it to you.)
This essay was originally published on lapsuslima.com in 2019. I am now extending it into a PhD project. Hoping to revisit it recently, I noticed the original page had gone down, so I thought I’d post it here for posterity and for my own reference.
The map has started tearing along its creases due to overuse When in reality it never needed folds — “Smells Like Content”, The Books 
When I was 25 years old, I met my biological mother for the first time.
Our meeting was casual but secretive, taking place in a retail park coffee shop on the edge of a city in the north of England where, as it had turned out, we both still lived. An unspoken anxiety surrounded our reunion. Neither of us wanted to be seen by anyone we knew. Not out of shame at our situation—although this may have unconsciously been a factor—but rather out of a desire for privacy as we sought answers to a lifetime’s worth of questions, specifically the most basic question of all: “Who’s this?”
The meeting had not been arranged through official channels. Following two years of therapy and some fraught detective work on my part through which I had finally located my biological mother, my girlfriend agreed to reach out to her sister—my aunt—on Facebook, acting as a buffer in case my mother did not want to meet. Thankfully, she did, but it was here that all third-party mediation ended. The desire to meet was mutual, after all, and we were both adults, so we chose to ignore the professional—and, to my mind, overpriced—advice of the local council.  Nevertheless, it felt like what we were doing was dangerous.
I think we were both surprised to discover that it all felt very natural. There were tears, of course, and plenty of small talk too, but we spent most of the hour we had to ourselves happily absorbing each other’s company.
It was clear that we both wanted to get to know each other as people rather than make up for lost time. We were strangers. The recounting of our life-stories would not change that. That was just superficial information. We wanted to know each other’s mannerisms, habits, tics, gaits, tastes, and thought processes. We wanted to witness each other be. It became an experience that was largely internal, establishing an unavowable connection between us. Far more was exchanged than said.
I joked later that this hour together had felt more like an intense first date than a reunion but this was far closer to the truth than I felt ready to admit at that time. In the weeks that followed, I experienced an attraction to her that was disturbingly familiar, albeit in a context that was new to me. I felt an intense pull, a crush even, and I wanted to spend all of my time with her. It was an interpersonal desire that I had only ever experienced romantically but here it was felt with an unprecedented intensity.
This is what I imagined having a child was like, except I was the child—a 25-year-old child, feeling that hormonal and genealogical attachment, that love and warmth, for the very first time. I couldn’t make sense of it at first. It made me painfully aware of the childhood experiences I hadn’t had.
Did I feel I had missed out on these experiences? I don’t think so. How could I have? I was just newly aware of the gap, the displacement at the heart of my existence.
The reductive constellation of “mommy-daddy-me” that constitutes the standard Freudian model of the Oedipus complex is, for the adopted child, ungrounded by an earlier formation: that of the mother-child-mother.
Here, two mothers—one adoptive, one biological—attempt to share a post-natal relation and, as a result, create a moment of displacement wherein the child passes between two disparate points. A moment of egress presents itself as the genealogical container of the nuclear family opens outwards and finds itself distorted, unravelled by the introduction of an outsider. What is made possible by this unravelling? What—if anything—escapes?
This urtraumatic experience is the focus of Nancy Newton Verrier’s The Primal Wound—a book recommended to me by a friend shortly after this first encounter between lost mother and child. My meeting with this book was almost as affecting as the other. It is part psychological case study, part self-help book, shifting between different tones—at once academic and psychiatric, but also mystical and anecdotal.  It is a strange book about an even stranger experience. Regardless, I have found that The Primal Wound describes my own experiences as an adopted child with frightening accuracy, as well as—most interestingly—echoing the philosophies I have gravitated towards throughout my adult life.
Verrier describes the “primal wound” in terms of a postnatal separation that ruptures the bond between mother and child experienced in utero, going on to highlight “the resultant experience of abandonment and loss [that is] indelibly imprinted upon the unconscious minds” of adopted children—including the often-unacknowledged affects this event has on a person in later life.  However, this urtrauma is not simply the rupture of a single genealogical relation between one person and another. It is exacerbated by the introduction of a third: the adoptive parent.
As such, the traumatic assemblage of mother-child-mother takes in three grieving figures who find themselves in orbital syzygy: the biological mother who grieves a child given up; the child who grieves a mother unknown; and the adoptive parent who grieves their own limitations. Together, they produce a living trauma that runs contrary to the Freudian understanding of it as a fault lodged in the memory of an individuated and stratified psyche. As a result, the adoptive triad constitutes a problem for Freudian psychoanalysis.
This is not to suggest that the adopted child somehow sidesteps Freud’s Oedipus complex. (To quote the Lacanian psychoanalyst Juan-David Nasio: “No child escapes Oedipus!”)  In fact, it is an issue that predates psychoanalysis itself but that is also already entangled with its unruly origins. The experiences of the mother-child-mother embody this preceding relation and, as such, confront psychoanalysis with its own process of development—indeed, with its own mirror stage.
In post-Freudian psychoanalytic theory, the mirror stage is an apperceptive process, first described by Jacques Lacan, through which an infant starts to observe themselves from outside themselves, thus beginning the broader process of psychological individuation that Freud first sought to describe. This process begins early in a child’s life—at around 6 to 18 months—preceding the Oedipus process that Freud observed as occurring around the age of 4.  It is, in some respects, literal—a child becomes capable of recognising themselves in a mirror—but also symbolic—in that a child becomes capable of recognising those around them as distinct Others. We can perhaps argue, in relation to this, that Lacan, as a central figure within the continued development of psychoanalysis as a discipline during the twentieth century, occasioned the beginning of psychoanalysis’s own mirror stage; in part considering psychoanalysis as an institution from outside of itself and further developing its potential implications for the world at large.
Considering Sophocles’ fifth-century Theban play Oedipus Rex—the inspiration for Freud’s theory—in light of this development, we should note that this myth does not simply describe the events of an incestuous rivalry and copulation. It also tells of how the events of Oedipus’ life are foretold prior to his birth in a prophecy, leading to his own abandonment by his biological parents, who feared said prophecy’s fulfilment. The trauma of this abandonment leads Oedipus to become a detective unearthing the secrets of his own genealogy; an interpreter of his foretold destiny. It is only after he has inadvertently wedded his mother and had children by her that, vowing to find the man who killed Laius, his predecessor and—unbeknownst to him—his father, he meets the blind prophet Tiresias who proclaims, to Oedipus’ initial disbelief and denial, that he has fulfilled the prophecy that first occasioned his abandonment, with Tiresias declaring: “you yourself are the murderer you seek.” 
Refusing to believe what he’s been told, Oedipus sets out on a quest to discover the truth for himself—a labyrinthine truth that, at its centre, reveals to him his own Self and results in the fallen king plucking out his own eyes, horrified by his once metaphoric blindness. This is to suggest that Oedipus’ experiences mirror not only the psychosexual birth of the Self and the Unconscious as Freud would describe them, but also the birth of psychoanalysis itself. It is here that the figure of the mother-child-mother highlights some of Freud’s blind spots.
Freud may have imagined himself as the Great Detective of the Unconscious but, for the adopted child, the traumatic experience described in Oedipus Rex is far more immanent and distressing. The adopted child, as Oedipus so tragically demonstrates, runs the risk of becoming both the analyst and the analysand of a fragmented I, embodying the very fissure in the familial form that the psychoanalytic couple seek to heal.
With this in mind, Nancy Newton Verrier notes how the adopted child’s primal loss entails that a splintering of psychosexual fluidity—which every child must at some point undergo—must be experienced and dealt with prematurely. At first, she emphasises the importance of a mother’s postnatal presence for her child, writing:
The nature of the relationship between mother and child is characterised, not by subject and object, but by a kind of fluidity of being, of mother/child/world transcending both time and space. The mother provides a container for the child’s developing ego, just as she had previously provided the container for his developing physical body. 
This is not to fetishize the importance of biological relation,  but rather to consider the reality of an interrupted development and its causal acceleration of an otherwise natural separation process, following the start of adoption proceedings  —potentially leading, Verrier warns, to a malformed sense of self.
She goes on to describe the onset of a “premature ego development” whereby a child’s ego develops far earlier than normal and leads to a neurotic demand for self-sufficiency underpinned by a distrust of their primary caregivers, and a perpetual abandonment anxiety which persists into later life as the adoptee struggles to form lasting relationships with others. She also describes a kind of super-egoic hyperdevelopment through which this perpetual anxiety of future loss and recurring abandonment produces people-pleasing and overly coöperative adoptees. She summarises:
This wound, occurring before an infant has begun to separate its own identity from that of its mother, may result in a feeling that part of oneself has disappeared, leaving the infant with a feeling of incompleteness or lack of wholeness. That incompleteness is often experienced, not in the genealogical sense of being cut off from one’s roots, but in a felt sense of bodily incompleteness. 
The tragedy of Oedipus Rex is that this unconscious desire for wholeness leads unwittingly to an incestuous reconnection, through which the feedback loop of desiring-production is constituted negatively rather than positively. This is to say that, in making himself “whole” and learning the truth of this hard-won wholeness, Oedipus forecloses his own existence and sets in motion a series of tragic events that will continue to impact his children long after his death. He seems to recognise, with terror, his own capture in a genetic from which there appears to be no escape and so, in seeking to remedy his own incompleteness, he damns his family for a generation.
Faced with this tale of inevitable trauma at the heart of existence, the alternative for the adopted child is, perhaps, to do what Oedipus himself could not: to affirm our own displacement rather than attempt to fix it; to continue to be Oedipus, albeit another Oedipus, in contradistinction to the Oedipalising form of psychoanalysis—that dogmatic form that Oedipus has been consolidated into. The task is, then, to “become who you are”, as Nietzsche might say; to become, in his own near analogy, the anti-Christ when faced with the moralising and limiting dogmas of an institutionalised Christianity —and what is Christianity itself if not a retelling of the Oedipus myth: a child, separated from his father, who dies for a supra-genealogical truth and finds his wholeness only in death, setting in motion a moralising desire for the same amongst his flock? As with Nietzsche’s anti-Christian subject, we must likewise vow to become anti-Oedipal when faced with the mental enclosure of the psychoanalyst’s cot.
This is the task undertaken by Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari in their seminal 1972 work, Anti-Oedipus. Further problematizing Freud’s Oedipus complex, they argue that, if no child escapes Oedipus, then all figures in this complex network of interpersonal relations become potential starting points for a Freudian detective work. Rather than this plurality opening out onto an opportunity for healing, though, they argue that Freud reproduces the Oedipal error of foreclosure by trapping all relations within the locality of a familial—that is, institutional—structure. At no point does Freud affirm, as they think he should, the movement of this relation; its “plurality of centres”.
In light of this, Freud’s often parodied “tell me about your mother” becomes, for Deleuze and Guattari, an exercise in asking an egg about a chicken, exacerbating the negative feedback loop of the Oedipal complex that the excessive force of desire perpetually exceeds.  Desire is, of course, the fuel that powers the event of psychosexual becoming which Freud is attempting to describe, though it is an error, as far as Deleuze and Guattari are concerned, for him to try and contain it. For instance, one of the ways in which Freud attempts to confine this excess of desire to the restrictive mechanisms of psychoanalysis is through the concept of “transference”, plugging the desirous rupture of a primal wound with himself and producing the ephemeral figure of mother-child-analyst, pushed through the bottleneck of the therapeutic process, wherein the analyst adopts the position of the Other within the analysand’s own consciousness, leading—so says Freud—to the analysand’s application of external experiences and emotions to the locality of the therapeutic experience.  Such is the risk the analyst adopts by positioning him or herself as a surrogate.
As Maurice Blanchot writes in his 1974 work, The Infinite Conversation, in theorising the process of transference Freud may have sought “the proof that what occurs between the two persons who are brought together involves either obscure forces or the relations of influence that have always been attributed to the magic of the passions.”  Instead, this experience becomes “one of a fundamental insufficiency” whereby each attempt to account for the whole of a patient’s experiences only exacerbates the lack contained within. Blanchot continues, through the telling analogy of childbirth: “To be born is, after having had everything, suddenly to lack everything, and first of all being, inasmuch as the infant exists neither as an organized, self-contained body or as a world.” As such, it is “always around lack, and through the exigency of this lack, that a presentiment of the infant’s history, of what he will be, is formed.” 
In an attempt to reintroduce this excess that psychoanalysis so often excludes back into its own processes, Deleuze and Guattari highlight Freud’s therapeutic practice of free association—one strategy he uses to attempt to guard against the negative effects of therapeutic transference—but, again, “rather than opening onto polyvocal connections,” Deleuze and Guattari note that Freud still only succeeds in confining psychoanalysis “to a univocal impasse.” 
This polyvocality, which remains both desired and required, is an important consideration for Deleuze and Guattari. Echoing Blanchot, they would argue that the “magic of the passions”—the drive; the Will that constitutes desire—damages all attempts to account for it, and so desire itself—and the amorphous forms through which it flows—must be radically rethought. To do this, the pair would argue for a newly cartographic conception of psychoanalysis—a schizoanalysis—in opposition to the excavations of layered strata preferred by Freudian psychic archaeology. Deleuze would instead speak of maps, superimposed on top of each other “in such a way that each map finds itself modified in the following map, rather than finding its origin in the preceding one: from one map to the next, it is not a matter of searching for an origin, but of evaluating displacements.” 
Here we might observe that, in being born-displaced, the adopted child underlines a difference produced from within the socially “given” presuppositions of genealogical repetition, and so we might reimagine parents, as Deleuze does, as “a milieu that children travel through”, passing over their “qualities and powers [in order to] make a map of them.”  This reorientation means that “the unconscious no longer deals with persons and objects, but with trajectories and becomings; it is no longer an unconscious of commemoration but one of mobilization, an unconscious whose objects take flight rather than remaining buried in the ground.”  Deleuze continues:
The father and mother are not the coordinates of everything that is invested by the unconscious. There is never a moment when children are not already plunged into an actual milieu in which they are moving about, and in which the parents as persons play the roles of openers or closers of doors, guardians of thresholds, connectors or disconnectors of zones. The parents always occupy a position in a world that is not derived from them. 
The most profound aspect of my post-adoption experience came a few years prior to our first meeting.
Shortly after my 18th birthday, my adoptive mother gave me what looked like a battered family album. Sky-blue with a faded gold trim, the book was overflowing with photographs but also letters, mementos and documents, all gathered together around the time of my adoption.
The photographs documented my first few weeks alive, in the company of a rotating roster of social workers and foster families; and, later, the post-adoption bonding of new parents with their child.
The documents were official photocopies of procedural interviews, including an incomplete family history. Loosely collected papers, already faded and falling apart, these documents were later lost over the course of various house moves. Today, I only remember certain details and oddities contained within: maternal grandfather dead in his forties, brain aneurysm; mother too young, wants to stay in school, become a hairdresser; father unknown, mother tight-lipped. It is official procedure that the father is informed of the decision the mother is making, if only so that adoption services can be made aware of any hereditary medical issues that father and child might share. Regardless, she would not comment on his identity. The few identifying responses she does provide are related to his interests and hobbies, but even these are comically vague. He wears jeans, goes to the pub with her friends, and works in an abattoir.
The letters were written by my adoptive mother: an attempt at writing the story of us. All scribbles, erasures and false starts, they were included all the same. Perhaps she had forgotten they were even there. Piecing together the narrative, I found a futile attempt to explain middle-aged infertility and teenage pregnancy to a child far too young to understand but nonetheless expressed in the condensed and simplified tone of a children’s book. “Matthew’s mummy and daddy could not have children of their own.” Taken together, the whole was at once beautifully endearing and unspeakably tragic.
Tucked away at the back of this strange collection of documents was a stiff, brown envelope. Inside: a professional studio portrait of a young woman, eighteen years old, as I was when I received it. Holding it for the first time, I felt nothing. It’s your mother, I was told. “Huh—so that’s her.” I carried it around with me all the same, oddly attached to it. Everyone I would subsequently show it to would see the likeness immediately. Some cried at the sight of it. I didn’t understand what all the fuss was about. They all pointed to her “T-Zone”—her nose, eyes, eyebrows, and forehead. It’s yours, they would say and, after a while, I saw it too. It’s mine.
Whether in the flesh or in photographic form, each meeting with my biological mother was defined, for me, by the same sensation: an encounter with the same. Never before in my life had I experienced that kind of recognition. Never before had I seen another human being and found my face in theirs.
I would later meet the extended family. Watching her son, not yet ten years old, I saw myself at his age—a figure from my own childhood photos made flesh. I would catch my maternal grandmother looking at me with a haunted look of love. She would tell me that I was the spit of her late husband. Her sister saw a nephew with the same curly hair as she has, a trait that my mother was spared—and, again and again, that same T-Zone. As I look at them, even today, I still don’t know what I see. I see the same, but through our differences—acquired through a space and time we did not share.
I think about my adoptive mother, now a reclusive schizophrenic, following a breakdown some years ago, who knows nothing about any of this; who I’m sure would be supportive but heartbroken if she knew and was still in good health; who would be happy for my gain, even though it might remind her of her original loss. I’m not sure how she’d react now. It’s hard to predict how she’ll react to anything.
The mirrored parental figures within the mother-child-mother constitute a “revolving door” through which the adopted child passes, extending and problematizing a traumatised space-time between them.
I’m reminded here, perhaps surprisingly, of Kerans, the protagonist in J.G. Ballard’s 1962 novel, The Drowned World, who is all too aware of the difference between the world he once knew—through cultural memory if not immediate experience—and the world as it is now, as he passes over its newly amorphous and anonymous surface.
Drowned, the floodwaters of a planet in the throes of its own heat-death have covered over the world as it once was. Kerans wonders, early on, if he is in—or rather, on top of—London. It is hard to tell. Iconic skylines, protruding from the depths, are all he has to surmise his location. They are less landmarks and geographic signifiers, more anonymous protuberances, like faded obelisks in a graveyard commemorating events now forgotten by memory. The maps of the old world are irrelevant and so Kerans exists in perpetual displacement.
The exploratory unit of which Kerans is a part attempts to navigate this new world; to understand it. Adrift—both literally and psychologically—a strange madness has begun to affect various crew members. Kerans is reminded, in observing the “growing isolation and self-containment” that this madness incurs, “of the slackening metabolism and biological withdrawal of all animal forms about to undergo a major metamorphosis.” 
It seems that while, on Kerans’ Earth, both cartography and psychology face imminent redundancy, this psychogeographic displacement has nonetheless opened up previously unknown avenues of mental and spatial travel. Ballard writes: “Sometimes he wondered what zone of transit he himself was entering, sure that his own withdrawal was symptomatic not of a dormant schizophrenia, but of a careful preparation for a radically new environment, with its own internal landscape and logic, where old categories of thought would merely be an encumbrance.” 
In Anti–Oedipus, published a decade after The Drowned World, Deleuze and Guattari position their own hypothetical schizoid, a displaced Kerans-like subject, at a similar intersection between the death of the old and the birth of the new. They write:
The schizo knows how to leave: he has made a departure into something as simple as being born or dying. But at the same time his journey is strangely stationary, in place. He does not speak of another world, he is not from another world: even when he is displacing himself in space, his is a journey in intensity, around the desiring-machine that is erected here and remains here. For here is the desert propagated by our world, and also the new earth, and the machine that hums, around which the schizos revolve, planets for a new sun. These men of desire—or do they not yet exist?—are like [Nietzsche’s] Zarathustra. They know incredible sufferings, vertigos, and sicknesses. They have their specters. They must reinvent each gesture. But such a man produces himself as a free man, irresponsible, solitary, and joyous, finally able to say and do something simple in his own name, without asking permission; a desire lacking nothing, a flex that overcomes barriers and codes, a name that no longer designates any ego whatsoever. He has simply ceased being afraid of becoming mad. He experiences and lives himself as the sublime sickness that will no longer affect him. Here, what is, what would a psychiatrist be worth? 
Anti-Oedipus, like The Drowned World before it, demands a new cartography for this new earth, but perhaps it is an earth like the one Kerans already inhabits. He, too, wonders what a psychiatrist is worth in these new environs, and what use is a geologist on a world that is nothing but ocean; nothing but change; a world of new depths which cannot be dug; a world of trajectories without destinations?
We still talk sometimes. I am bad at emails. We live six hours apart but I try to call her on her birthday and she calls me on mine.
I’m unsure how much our reunion has changed me, if at all. I withdraw from it, no longer frequently in touch with either adoptive or biological family. I, too, feel adrift.
Previously, perhaps trying to compensate for something, I took a great deal of interest in the genealogical history of my adoptive parents, particularly on my father’s side. His mother, like so many grandparents these days, treats her own genealogy as a hobby.
Both sets of adoptive grandparents have shoeboxes full of photographs going back generations. My mother’s parents have in their possession a small and undoubtedly rare daguerreotype portraying some now-unknown relative that I have long been fascinated by. With a keen interest in photography, shared with my adoptive father and his mother, I relish every opportunity to see his own genealogy in photographic form; to rummage through the appropriately disorganised documentation of his milieu.
A year after our first encounter, I meet my biological mother once again, in another somewhat anonymous location—a pub just off the motorway, close to a city to which nobody present has any connection. It is less a destination than a waypoint. This time, I travel to see her with my girlfriend, and my mother arrives with the rest of her biological family in tow.
My maternal grandmother brings her own shoebox with her, containing photographs of persons to whom I have no social connection. I see the face of my maternal grandfather for the first time. We do indeed look alike: same hair, same build. Once again, I’m surprised to find that this experience means less to me than looking through my adoptive family’s photographs, which depict persons with whom I have no genetic relationship. I understand their significance to my own life better. I understand the role of these unrelatives as the openers and closers of doors; as the guardians of thresholds.
Looking upon this newly disparate collection of images, I appreciate that I already have a map of my own existence, but here I am, presented with an alternative one; a map that could have been. We eat, drink and then part ways. They travel back east and we travel back west. I continue to travel further onwards, always somewhere between the two, forever becoming what I am—a displaced third.
I would like to thank Max Castle, Tobias Ewe and Robin Mackay for their feedback, comments and conversation throughout this essay’s gestation.
 The Books. Lost & Safe. Köln: Tomlab, 2005, track 4.
 Having contacted a charity that dealt with reunions between adopted children and their biological relatives, working closely with but independently of the local council authority, I was informed the entire process of reconciliation would cost me around £700 to cover administrative fees and the cost of therapy before, during and after our first few meetings. Whilst appreciating the caution and professional risk evaluation on offer, I nonetheless took great offence at learning I could not afford to get to know my own mother.
 There are numerous occasions throughout the book where Verrier defers to recurring anecdotes that appear within her case studies and speak to an experience wholly other to the psychiatric discipline she is otherwise adhering to. She refers to these stories as the “mystic aspect” of the adoptive experience, noting how many adoptees speak of “meaningful coincidences” when they are reunited with their relatives—that is, things held in common between them despite a lack of the social contact that one might assume is necessary for the transference of such information. She likens these experiences to the Jungian concept of “synchronicity”. In my own experience, I discovered that my biological mother and I both shared a fantasy of packing up our bags and moving out to the American Midwest to become storm-chasers—the synchronicity of this fantasy between us was both unsettling and hilarious in its specificity. Verrier, Nancy Newton. The Primal Wound: Understanding the Adopted Child. London: CoramBAAF Adoption and Fostering Agency, 2009.
 “The adoptive parents, who have been waiting for a baby and who feel ready to love and nurture him, come into the picture at a disadvantage. In fact there are four areas of concern about which they may not have been made aware: 1) the mother has not had the benefit of the 40-week preparation period of gestation, 2) neither parent may have been alerted to the fact that their baby has suffered a trauma upon having been separated from his biological mother, 3) most adoptive parents have not dealt with their own feelings about their own losses, including the loss of fertility, and 4) those who already have biological children may not have adequately explored their reasons for wanting to adopt or the impact this will have on their family life.” Ibid., 43-44.
 “This legend [of Oedipus] concerns all children, whether they live in a traditional family, with a single parent, in a family composed of previously divorced parents, whether they grow up with homosexual parents, or whether they are abandoned, orphans, or wards of the state. No child escapes Oedipus! Why? Because no four-year-old child, boy or girl, escapes the flood of erotic drives that surges through them, and because no adult in his or her immediate surroundings can avoid being the target of these drives and of having to resist [endiguer] them.” Nasio, Juan-David. Oedipus: The Most Crucial Concept in Psychoanalysis (trans. David Pettigrew and Francois Raffoul.) Albany: State University of New York Press, 2010, xix.
 See: Lacan, Jacques. “The Mirror Stage as Formative of the I Function”. In Écrits (trans. Bruce Fink.) London: W. W. Norton & Company, 2006.
 Sophocles. The Theban Plays: Oedipus the King, Oedipus at Colonus, Antigone (trans., eds. Ruth Fainlight and Robert J. Littman.) Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press, 2009, 16.
 It should be acknowledged that Verrier does articulate a concern around the politicisation of the act of surrogacy. She is not overtly critical of this process but recognises that, like the process of adoption itself, it is an insufficient solution to a very complex social problem. In many cases, however, it is the only solution we have. Her issue with surrogacy is, then, that we do not always consider the inadvertent affects and traumas to which her book is dedicated, and that these must be considered anew if we are to fully embrace a politics of expansive and communal care that works for all. We must take care—in seeking the abolition of the family—not to throw out the baby (quite literally) with the bathwater.
 This separation is an event common to all children, and it is this process that Juan-David Nasio points to when he declares that no child escapes Oedipus. With this in mind, we might note that the Oedipal complex is only one phase within a broader process of psychological individuation.
 See: Nietzsche, Friedrich. “The Anti-Christ”. In The Anti-Christ, Ecce Homo, Twilight of the Idols and Other Writings (trans. Judith Norman, ed. Aaron Ridley.) Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2011.
 Discussion of this “movement” is taken up again in the pair’s second collaborative work, A Thousand Plateaus. They argue that the innate nomadism of such a movement is anti-institutional in allowing itself moments of escape from standardised and, in the case of psychoanalysis, arguably reductive, limiting and inadvertently oppressive models. Deleuze, Gilles and Félix Guattari. A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia (trans. Brian Massumi). Minneapolis/London: University of Minnesota Press, 1987.
 “Which comes first, the chicken or the egg—but also the father and the mother, or the child? Psychoanalysis acts as if it were the child (the father is sick only from his own childhood), but at the same time is forced to postulate a parental pre-existence (the child is sick only in relation to a father and a mother). … Oedipus itself would be nothing without the identifications of the parents with the children…” Deleuze, Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari. Anti-Oedipus (trans. Robert Hurley and Mark Seem.) London/New York: Bloomsbury Academic, 2013, 313.
 Blanchot, Maurice. The Infinite Conversation (trans. Susan Hanson.) Minneapolis/London: University of Minnesota Press, 1993, 231. Emphasis added. Here, it is worth noting that Blanchot is emphasising that a child’s very being must be (re)established following its separation from the mother postpartum, beginning the process of becoming that Deleuze and Guattari would later make central to their own philosophy.
 Deleuze, Gilles. “What Children Say”. In Essays Critical and Clinical (trans. Michael A. Greco). London/New York: Verso Books, 1998, 61-62. Guattari would write elsewhere, using a rather more abstruse analogy, that this ontology of difference shared between them is an attempt to “construct a science in which dishcloths and napkins would be mixed up, along with other things that are more different still, in which dishcloths and napkins could no longer even be encompassed under the general rubric of linen.” Guattari, Félix. Schizoanalytic Cartographies (trans. Andrew Goffey.) London/New York: Bloomsbury Academic, 2013, 18.