If you want to understand the extent of the British popular Left’s ineptitude and amnesia, look no further than a recent article from Suzanne Moore for The Guardian about how the revolutionary we need right now is Freud, not Marx — never mind anyone more contemporaneous.
Thankfully, as many Twitterers and other commentators (but, notably, no one on the front line of media punditry) were quick to point out, the Left in the 20th century was basically defined by countless attempts at smelting together Marx and Freud — and to a much higher standard of rigour than Moore’s slow-news ejaculate has been able to muster.
Herbert Marcuse did it best and then just about everyone and their dog followed his lead — Deleuze and Guattari (most famously perhaps) in Capitalism & Schizophrenia, but they weren’t alone in that pursuit — they were building on the back of a few decades of philosophical exploration. This thread of FreudoMarxism is a thread that runs through the entirety of 20th century French thought.
What conjoins the two so effortlessly is their explorations of human desire and many found this connection very apparent but only a fool would rest on their now-canonical laurels as Moore does.
It’s not all wrong, exactly. Moore is correct when she writes that “Freud was able to look around at bourgeois society and say: what you think is rational is dependent on drives you are not fully in control of.” But is she capable of such perceptiveness herself? She notes popular movements of discontent — #MeToo; Brexit — but does she really do anything other than match up these moments with subsections from the Marx and Freud Wikipedia pages? No, she fails utterly to put her hedge clippings into motion, much like the rest of The Guardian‘s opinions panel.
But I wouldn’t care so much if all she was doing was click-baiting her poor Cliff Notes onto her international platform. What I take issue with when she says:
Emotions are at the base of this [discontentment], not simply class positions. Freud understood this…
“Change your mind and the world will follow.” Freud may have understood this but the conflation of his ideas with Marx is undoubtedly an attempt to rectify this blatantly incorrect misstep. As Marcuse and others understood, such unbalanced equations give way to nothing but chicken/egg paradoxes. What came first? The world and its imposing infrastructures, or your mind and its fallible nature which has been projected onto the world at large? Which shapes which the most? What do you have a better chance of changing? Oh, it’s your mind. Go on then, get to it.
This kind of logic is the reserve of the politically disconnected. It should go without saying that your class position and your emotional state are largely entwined. Marcuse understood this. Mark Fisher might have understood this better than anyone. “We must understand the fatalistic submission of the UK’s population to austerity as the consequence of a deliberately cultivated depression,” he wrote. In understanding Marx and Freud, both Mark and Marcuse and others knew that neither was always right but, taken together, a more useful analysis emerges. Freud understood the human mind, the nature of our desires; Marx understood capitalism and its shaping of our desires.
Marcuse’s FreudoMarxist system in his book Eros & Civilisation is an indictment of the affects of our capitalist culture in both of these areas. (For a more in-depth exploration of this, check out my “Egress” post.) The main point is this: Capitalism, in essence, runs on an internalised engine which drives production and promises “fulfilment” whilst ensuring its own survival-in-stasis. It curtails play, pleasure, satisfaction so as to keep the desiring-machines turning in perpetuity. But this indoctrination is not superficially ideological. It has afflicted us at the most fundamental of biological levels.
This is an infiltration which is extreme but not hopeless. It simply requires that we dig a little deeper in resisting capture. Such calls are quite commonplace. In Marcuse’s conjoining of Freud and Marx we find the seeds for a thousand slogans and political positions. The xenofeminist “If nature is unjust, change nature“, for example, is precisely a charge aimed at capitalism’s “biological foundation”.
Our desire is mutable. It is constantly being reshaped and in seizing the means of production in the 21st century we must likewise seize the means of desiring-production. We need a lot more than just Freud for that.
An Acid Freudianism is as blinkered as an Acid Corbynism. We can do better.
The new joyful festive season Netflix movie Bird Box is quite the trip. Apparently it was a surprise hit amongst families on Christmas Day. I bet that was fun for people…
I’m just now settling down to watch it, as I get ready to leave the in-laws and try to swallow down the usual dread that comes from heading back down to London. Immediately I’m struck by its quasi-Lovecraftian set-up. It’s all too familiar. Not to mention unsubtle.
We meet Malorie, played by Sandra Bullock, a seemingly determined, stern, no-bullshit woman who is shepherding two kids through the American wilderness. They’re all blindfolded. Led to a river’s edge, they charter a rowing boat blind and begin the steep curve of their Kurtz-gradient into the unknown.
We’re soon given a flashback to five years earlier, before this strange non-apocalypse took hold. Malorie is painting in a studio. Her sister arrives and tells her to put on the TV.
The news media are reporting mass suicides all over the world but Malorie isn’t interested. She’s a painter, perpetually distracted by herself and her work. She’s also very pregnant but she’s choosing to ignore that fact also. Her sister drags her to an ultrasound check up and, as she leaves the hospital, she sees a woman smashing her head against a window, like a zoo animal experiencing captivity psychosis.
She doesn’t do anything. but then she is pregnant. She just leaves, jumping into a car, her sister sat in the front seat waiting for her outside. She tells her, the fear audible in her voice, to just drive.
The world very suddenly falls apart all around them. Malorie’s sister tells her that she’s going to stay with them until whatever this is blows over. “But I have nothing to wear!” Her sister chastises her. Malorie apologies — in times of crisis, she tends to focus on what’s not important to distract herself, she admits.
It’s one of many unsubtle glimpses into Malorie’s character and there is plenty more where that came from. Every insight into every character’s backstory in this film is like a scripted sledgehammer.
True to her own absentmindedness, Malorie only survives at first because she is distracted looking for something in the back seat of her sister’s car. As she reaches and fumbles around for whatever she is looking for, Malorie fails to see whatever her sister sees. Her sister’s eyes are where they should be, on the road, but now welling up and changing her in an instant from those of a concerned relative to a suicidal lemming, trying to plow the car into whatever is in front of her.
Eventually, she’s successful, rolling the car with them both inside it.
What does it mean to be mentally healthy in a world gone mad? Sirens are blaring, lights are flashing, and we have been whisked out of the territory of metaphor onto the hard ground of fact. The rise to power and election of Donald J. Trump is the sick recrimination of a society shriveled by anger and anxiety, and the response from deep within the psyche of the same society has been various degrees of panic, depression, and grief. Illinois suicide hotlines have been overwhelmed since the election, with calls up 200 percent, according to Chicago public health officials. A mental health asteroid has smashed into the carapace of a culture already calcified with anxiety and ambient dread. Major newsrooms are rumored to have hired in therapists so their journalists can continue to work. Everyone is wondering what this crisis will mean for their future, for their families, trying to work out how they’ll cope. Some coping strategies, however, are more dangerous than others.
When I wrote about this article previously, I wrote about the “territories of metaphor” that had led us up to this point — The Walking Dead and The OA in particular are two shows that have dealt with the “end of the world” as a huge psychological event. Now, two years later, here it is. No biopolitical (or necropolitical) metaphors here — not really. There’s external threat, sure, but it’s not seen by us. The lack of a tangible “monster” makes it all the more powerful and real here. Mental illness is a threat unto itself.
After her sister crashes her car with her inside, Malorie is taken in by Greg, a man whose house has become a shelter for a band of thrown-together survivors with whom we spend the majority of the rest of the film. They immediately start to speculate as to what it is they’re dealing with.
“This has a classical biowarfare signature,” says John Malkovich’s character, Douglas. “North Korea or Iran.” Except there’s nothing biological about it. It’s psychological all the way down. In tune with this, next there’s Charlie, a local supermarket worker. For him the threat is surely demons or spirits of the final judgement, taking on the form of your deepest fears or sadnesses.
Other people suggest other things as they try to make sense of what is happening to them. Eventually, the creatures are given form indirectly through the drawings of someone who can look at the creatures without wanting to kill themselves. The noumenal distress of others is given Cthulhic form in the very few representations we see of them — vague bulbous cephalopod heads with face tentacles too. We only see them secondhand. They are Lovecraftian horrors beyond perception. As such, since they remain unseen directly, for the viewer they are the beating heart of the film’s psychic infrastructure.
Internet theories have abound as to what these monster really are, of course, with clickbait explainer videos on YouTube, but who really cares? I watched a few and the joke seems to be on those people who spent so much time making 10-minute videos about folklore and parables about finding yourself. To focus on all that seems to be blindly following Malorie’s own logic: focusing on what’s ultimately unimportant to distract yourself from the very real horrors in front of you. And those concrete horrors are, just like in Lovecraft’s own stories, human detritus and the mentally ill…?
That’s the cold hard fact of this film. What is affecting the world is a pervasive mental health crisis: depressive mass hysteria. Even those who don’t kill themselves, resisting the urge to “look”, are soon afflicted by a neurotically individualist paranoia. Mental illness is both the outside threat and it’s also the film’s pervasive reality. Either you’re abjectly depressed or neurotically repressed. The middle ground is you already knew you were crazy.
This is made most clear later on in the film when, once cabin fever has more or less set in, the survivors let an Englishman into the house called Gary. He explains he’s been chased by the mentally ill from a local asylum for the criminally insane — eye roll — and seeks shelter so he can throw them off his trail. The insane don’t need blindfolds, he says, and what’s worse is that they want people to see. The truth of their socially unacceptable mental experiences has now been affirmed, making them even more of a threat to society. They are the Cthulhu Cult to the film’s demonic projections.
… But wait, hang on, let’s back track a minute — what’s the message here? If it looks like the world might be ending, keep your eyes down, don’t go outside, don’t look, what you don’t see can’t hurt you. But look at what exactly? These depression demons are like the Gatwick drones. Vivid figments, assuaged by a paranoid inattention.
This is like someone managed to make a good film out of a really terrible idea. Maybe I’m just being cynical but the message that’s driven home throughout the film seems very clear to me. Take Douglas, for instance. He is Greg’s neighbour and one of the first to reach his house once the crisis starts. In fact, he may have already been there when everything started. It transpires that, before everything happened, he was suing Greg. In one scene, Malorie asks him why.
“Because they want to tear down this part of their house and built some glass monstrosity. His husband’s an architect.”
“It’s his property. Why do you care what he builds?”
“Because I have to look at it.”
The dialogue we witness between Malorie and the other survivors is just as on-the-nose. Sight is made into a voluntaristic and moralising affliction. Yeah, Malorie is disconnected and cold but that’s what ultimately leads to her survival. The characters are defined by their desire not to look at what they judge to be wrong and then, with some twisted irony, this habit is what saves them. At the end of the world, ignorance is bliss, knowledge is death. This is taken so far that, at the film’s climax, when Malorie and the kids reach their safe haven, they discover it’s a former school for the blind. Yep, if you want to survive in this new world, your best bet is being medically blind. That should do it.
After her conversation with Douglas, Malorie later talks to Charlie, the man with the theory about Boggart-like creatures in the sky. He’s writing a novel, of course, when not working the supermarket shop floor.
“It’s about the end of the world. My novel. But it’s not one of those kids’ stories where they’ve all got crossbows running around and they’re killing each other in survive or running around some giant maze. No, this story’s gonna be real.”
“Did you ever think it was gonna be anything like this?”
He doesn’t respond. The irony seems to be that no one knows what “real” is. Everyone’s knowledge of the world seemingly comes from the internet, which Malorie is silently cynical about on numerous occasions. Charlie’s conspiracy theories are 4chan fodder, and another character, also pregnant like Malorie, seems to get all her medical advice from the internet too. What’s the message here? Your truth is fake news, sucker, but the real truth will make you kill yourself… So… Gouge out your eyes maybe, I dunno… Shit’s hopeless.
Malorie and Douglas become unlikely friends around the mid-point of the film, bonding over their lack of self-awareness and cynicism. Douglas’ declaration of “making the end of the world great again” is certainly another unsubtle jab at the present, and it leads to a great eye-rolling amongst the house-bound group too, but ultimately they remain trapped between their realisms — the dual “realisms” of “I-know-best” individualism as found on both sides of the political divide. Judgement from all sides. That great modern affliction where “common sense” is reasoning unexamined from beyond the boundaries of your own belief system.
We should remember that all of this clunky exposition is peppered by flashes of the journey up river. Malorie sails blindfold for two days into the heart of darkness with the two children in her charge, but what kind of Kurtz-gradient is this? Is it inverted? Neutered? Is this not the logic of Penny’s mental health asteroid? The belief that the political singularity of Trump is the very edge of reason? Kurtz has been elected to the Oval Office through inattention. We’re not down river, we’ve been up river for decades. It’s time to strap on your blindfold and head back down now. This is Deliverance in reverse with added airborne depression. And to look at the reality of this situation is to depress yourself into self-annihilation, so now let’s head back to cold comfort with our fingers in our ears along the way.
To return to Penny’s article, she poignantly writes, in light of this film’s plot:
There are none so blind as those who won’t see — specifically, those who have been conditioned through generations of history lessons and Hollywood propaganda to be suspicious of authoritarian strongmen and yet still refuse to recognize an actual fascist when he struts into the White House with a Suicide Squad of goons. […] What was it actually like to be an ordinary German in 1933? What were people feeling, listening to the state wireless whine out the workings of the new world order? How many were pleased to see the blackshirts on their streets — and how many were simply keeping their heads down, telling themselves that they’d been through worse, that they should give the new guys a chance and see if they really meant what they said? How many tried to normalize the utterly unconscionable, because the alternative was despair?
When has “keeping your head down” and not looking outside been seen as a viable survival strategy in light of this mess from history? Nevertheless, we see it today. Penny continues:
So you tell yourself that you survived Bush and Blair. Surely you can survive this, too. If you keep your head down. If you give the new order a chance. If you don’t make any strong statements. If you trust the government not to run the train off the rails. There will be attempts to reason with the abuser. To make him less of an abuser, because it is in fact hard to accept yourself as a victim. In the face of a sea-change in the sociopolitical order, you shut yourself tight in your shell and seal yourself off against everything that disturbs you. This might be thought of as the clam before the storm. And this is how it happens. This is how the bad guys win.
Laurie Penny is rejecting bargaining here, of course. It’s the fucking title of the essay after all. She’s rejecting the mental gymnastics that avoid confrontation or attempt to reason with an abuser or even with death.
The message of this film, in light of a pervasive mental health crisis, is there is no reasoning with those who want you to open your eyes. It’s as if Penny herself, as she writes here, would be an enemy in a film like Bird Box. Don’t take advice from those who lived with depression before the fall, allow the blind to lead the blind!
The real freedom is the foster child we routinely abused along the way…?
Hello. Welcome to my blog. Don’t like and subscribe. You’re just asking for a spamming.
I was thinking of leaving this until January 1st 2019 but then I realised why all your more successful content-providers will give you end-of-year lists now rather than at the actual end of the year: so you’ve got something to fill up the emptiness of Christmas.
Well, fear not, if all you’ve got planned for the next week is to drink and eat yourself into a coma, here are my blog highlights which you can upload to your brain whilst the brussel sproat and brandy blockage dissolves from your cerebellum.
… But first things first: a moment of grateful reflection preceded by some WordPress dashboard statistics.
The stats that WordPress collates behind the scenes really blow my mind and — whilst this is in part something of a not-so-humble brag, it’s also an opportunity to sit down and look back on the past 12 months with some self-reflective incredulity. I don’t know how I’ve done any of this. This is the most productive year of my entire life maybe.
The more time I spend looking at what I’ve accomplished, the more necessary a post like this feels at the end of the year, not just to summarise what I’ve been up to but to actually give people a chance to catch up. And I mean that genuinely — many of you have told me of your Xenogothic deep dives. I am aware of the fact that I post more frequently than any sane person would be willing to read and keep up with.
If you don’t believe me, here are the numbers.
At the time of writing, with just over a week left of 2018, this is my 205th post of the year. On average, each post I write has an average of 1,427 words and so, in total, this year I’ve written 291,178 words. And I’ve somehow managed to juggle a bunch of day jobs and a functional relationship whilst doing so.
It should go without saying that it’s been a challenge — all the more reason to buy me a seasonal coffee if you’re in the giving mood! — but also I love maintaining this blog. A lot. Maybe too much. It has been a lifeline for me as I am routinely threatened by monotony and other IRL drama. My mental health has been the biggest worry for me this year. It has been the worst I’ve ever known it but the blog has existed despite that. It’s been my go-to distraction when things get tough and the joy I get from meeting and chatting to readers has been the absolute best thing about this year.
So of course I have no intention of stopping in 2019 and I’d like things to get even bigger and better. I haven’t had the money or the luck to continue with my bigger projects as much as I would like — in fact, shout out to December, the piece of shit month where almost every major electronic device I own has decided to start its death throes on me — but I have other (less labour-intensive) plans too.
For instance, I’d like to go back and revisit a few of these more concise and connected bursts of posts — most of which are collated in this post — and maybe polish them up and turn them into zines. I also really want/need to finish my book too — “Egress“. I’m having a hard time resisting the temptation to work a load of blog stuff into what was already a concise and finished thing. The more I add, the more it unravels. At this point, I just want it out there, but I need to take an proper leave of absence from all my day job stop to have the headspace to finish it I think.
On a somewhat related note, if you like anything that you see here and want to commission me for anything, do let me know. I’m not a very good pitcher of ideas. I’d rather spend the time just posting something up here than spend the time working on a pitch for something, but the few essays I have been commissioned to write this year have been some of my best work — “Acid Communism“; “Points of View“; “Wyrd Sisters”.
So yeah, hit me up as ever at firstname.lastname@example.org for anything. I’m always up to chat.
Thank you again for being here and taking the time to write what I churn out and here’s to meeting and getting into Twitter debates with more of you in 2019.
For now though, here’s a recap on some of the topics that have occupied by time the most in 2018.
The death of Mark Fisher remains a major trauma for me and almost everyone I know.
Mark’s influence feels like it is becoming more and more diffuse as the year has progressed, although he is still mentioned in almost every other post.
He remains frequently on my mind, two years on, and that is largely due to so many of the things I do in meatspace being to do with his memory.
These posts are largely about Mark’s work, his legacy and mental health as a general topic.
I don’t think anyone expected patchwork to become such a sweeping obsession for so many across Twitter and the blogosphere this year.
Whilst many had discussed and blogged about it as a topic before, things went into overdrive after I published my post “State Decay” at the end of February.
Much of what I’ve written here I have probably changed by mind about in some way or another and my focus has repeatedly changed as the year has gone on. I still think patchwork thinking has a lot to teach us about the world and where we’re going and, for me, it could look like a communist project of fragmentation and desiring-production which sees patchwork fundamentally as a challenge to that which is — specifically the nation-state and its infrastructure as the biggest obstacle to almost any project of social justice.
This shift has been gradual but persistent and hopefully this list will make for an interesting record of a developing thought for those who want to go deep with its twists and turns.
The idea is that, in 2019, I’ll try and write all of this up into a coherent, flowing book project but I’ll need to be strategic about funding the writing period for that if it’s to actually be any good.
My main essay on Acid Communism was published over at Krisis back in July. It very much remains a topic of interest but these are the few essays to try tackle communism in the 21st century directly.
Hopefully there will be much more on this in the new year. So much more needs to be done to counter the Jeremy Gilbert school of Acid Corbynism, which remains the most unfortunate and reductive project to emerge from Fisher’s unfinished book.
I went through an unexpected Wild West phase earlier this year and became a bit obsessed with American literature and history. This phase ebbed after a couple of months but will no doubt be a patchwork offshoot when that project comes to fruition. Here’s the tangent in tact.
Music writing is how I got into all of this philosophy stuff but I’m not as confident about doing it myself these days for whatever reason. I’d like to work on this. (Again, let me write for you! I can do a decent review!)
These are the few forays into writing about music I’ve done this year and I want to give a huge shoutout to those people who read what I’d written about them and responded so positively, particularly Unseen World, rkss and Lee Gamble (UIQ represent), and Holly Herndon.
My first love was photography. It’s what I studied before going all philosophical. I hardly ever write about it anymore but I did publish an essay about self-portraits in SUM which had been percolating in various forms on my laptop for almost 4 years. I resurrected a few other old bits of writing about photography on the blog as well.
The other week, at the final Acid Communism reading group session of the year — a reading group I’ve written about on the blog once or twice or thrice — we had our Christmas social. Rather than talk about a text, we drank beers and ate snacks and screened and discussed a film instead: Paul Wright’s psychedelic folk horror film essay Arcadia.
I hadn’t seen the film before but it had been mentioned a bunch of times by people in the sessions. It was introduced by Laura Grace Ford and Nina Power, who had already seen it half a dozen times between them, as a film that visualises so much of what Mark Fisher’s later work was talking about and I couldn’t quite believe how true that was.
We began our reading group a few months ago with Mark’s essay “Baroque Sunbursts” — undoubtedly one of his best — in which he discusses this ongoing thread of folk frivolity that extends outwards from the (now heavily romanticised) rituals of paganism and pre-modern communities — the influence of which has nonetheless survived the shift from feudalism into late 20th century capitalism — as a sort of diffuse signifier for a proletarian libidinal economy that capitalism has long tried to subdue and seems to have only gotten close to squashing in the last thirty years or so.
This frivolity continues today, too, to some extent, but what is worth noting, for Mark — and presumably filmmaker Paul Wright too — is that this disappearance is due to the targeted legislation of neoliberal government after neoliberal government, from Margaret Thatcher onwards (if not before). All have sought to subdue a desire for collective joy. Today, with even inner city rave culture under threat, as night clubs and common spaces disappear from our city centres never mind our depopulated countrysides, we seem to be the furthest from these desires and their psychogeographic groundings than ever before.
With all this in mind, what we’re presented with in Arcadia is a weird and eerie acid communist trip ’round the British isles, exploring folk traditions, folk horrors and the unbound energy which has long connected the peoples of these isles to our wildest places. Archive footage of nudists and Morris dancers and maypoles and the Cooper’s Hill Cheese-Rolling race and the Padstow ‘Obby ‘Oss festival were mixed and contrasted with the footage of kids huffing glue on bombed-out estates, the last ravers and fox hunts, each representing a top-down imposition on the spaces that working class communities have long called their homes — whether due to austerity, the bureaucratisation of culture or bourgeoisie expressions of spatial dominance; the free use of space combined subtly with its most violent impositions.
For Mark, rave was most important here: the last great British folk tradition rooted as much in a libidinal relationship to landscape as it was to soundscape, echoing the extant fairground energy of our countries’ various Celtic and Gaelic ancestors, channelling a Bataillean relationship to our energetic excesses which resist the gravity of capital.
Here’s Bataille on the festival:
For the sake of a real community, of a social fact that is given as a thing – of a common operation in view of a future time – the festival is limited: it is itself integrated as a link in the concatenation of useful works. As drunkenness, chaos, sexual orgy, that which it tends to be, it drowns everything in immanence in a sense; it then even exceeds the limits of the hybrid world of spirits, but its ritual movements slip into the world of immanence only through the mediation of spirits. To the spirits borne by the festival, to whom the sacrifice is offered, and to whose intimacy the victims are restored, an operative power is attributed in the same was it is attributed to things. In the end the festival itseld is viewed as an operation and its effectiveness is not questioned.
What Bataille is channelling here is not so occulted as we might expect, although this occulting is incredibly important for its affect on the imagination.
Contrary to this framing, in our group discussion after our screening, many were more explicit in their readings. Much was said about how this film addresses, quite frankly, many of the questions around land, blood and soil that the left are today so squeamish about going near. But these are conversations which must be reclaimed.
British blood and soil has nothing to do with the National Socialist blut und boden. This is no rejection of nomadism but its celebration. Nevertheless, a reclaiming of nomadic cultures — from travellers to ravers — must also account for a negative national history.
As the film announces on a title card, for us it is a case of “blood in the soil”. The worked land of the British isles has been a constant site of class war and labour for centuries. This isn’t a romanticised peasantry championed by the state — it’s an acknowledge of the customs and practices that have attempted to exist outside the state’s grasp for centuries.
Unfortunately, we are more used to seeing examples of these desires being smothered than of their successful expression, from the witch trials of the 17th century to the Battle of Orgreave to the ever-persistent tradition of fox-hunting in which horse-mounted class enemies violently lay claim to still somewhat feudal territories. (I was struck by Nina’s framing of many countryside parishes as still being feudal, with many Tory MPs, until very recently, if not still to this day, still acting as major landlords in their constituencies.)
In light of this, many a Guardian columnist has sought the rekindling of this relationship to our wildernesses through a sort of romanticised primitivism but in charting and recognising our histories we mustn’t claw for an illusionary past. Rewilding is nothing if it’s devoid of a tandem cultural consciousness raising that is built around collective activity on the commons. We don’t need our spaces “rewilding” but “reweirding“.
These libidinous spatial attractions are essential for us to realign ourselves with again and anew.
As ever, it’s worth turning to Mark himself, who writes in “Baroque Sunbursts”:
Rave’s ecstatic festivals revived the use of time and land which the bourgeoisie had forbidden and sought to bury. Yet, for all that it recalled those older festive rhythms, rave was evidently not some archaic revival. It was a spectre of post-capitalism more than of pre-capitalism. Rave culture grew out of the synthesis of new drugs, technology and music culture. MDMA and Akai-based electronic psychedelia generated a consciousness which saw no reason to accept that boring work was inevitable. The same technology that facilitated the waste and futility of capitalist domination could be used to eliminate drudgery, to give people a standard of living much greater than that of pre-capitalist peasantry, while freeing up even more time for leisure than those peasants could enjoy. As such rave culture was in tune with those unconscious drives, which as Marcuse put it, could not accept the ‘temporal dismemberment of pleasure… its distribution in small separate doses’. Why should rave ever end? Why should there be any miserable Monday mornings for anyone?
Raves also recalled the interstitial spaces — between commerce and festival — that provoked anxiety among the early bourgeoisie. In the seventeenth and eighteenth century, as it struggled to impose its hegemony, the bourgeoise was very much exercised by the problematic status of the fair. It was the illegitimate ‘contamination’ of ‘pure’ commerce by carnival excess and collective festivity which troubled bourgeois writers and ideologues. The problem which they faced, however, was that commercial activity was always-already tainted with festive elements. There was no ‘pure’ commerce, free from collective energy. Such a commercial sphere would have to be produced, and this involved the subduing and ideological incorporation of the ‘marketplace’ as much as it entailed the domestication of the fair. As Peter Stallybrass and Allon White pointed out in The Politics and Poetics of Transgression, ‘the fair, like the marketplace, is neither pure nor outside. The fair is at the crossroads, situated in the intersection of economic and cultural forces, goods and travellers, commodities and commerce’.
The concept of ‘the economy’ as we now understand it had to be invented, and this required the stabilisation of the unsettling and unsettled figure of the fair. ‘As the bourgeoisie laboured to produce the economic as a separate domain, partitioned off from its intimate and manifold interconnectedness with the festive calendar, so they laboured conceptually to re-form the fair as either a rational, commercial, trading event or as a popular pleasure-ground.’ Such a division was necessary in order that the bourgeoisie could make a clean and definitive distinction between morally improving toil and decadent leisure — the refusal of ‘the temporal dismemberment of pleasure’. Hence, ‘although the bourgeois classes were frequently frightened by the threat of political subversion and moral license, they were perhaps more scandalised by the deep conceptual confusion by the fair’s mixing of work and pleasure, trade and play.’ The fair always carried traces of ‘the spectre of the world which could be free’, threatening to rob commerce of the association with toil and capital accumulation that the bourgeoisie was trying to impose. That is why ‘the carnival, the circus, the gypsy, the lumpenproletariat, play a symbolic role in bourgeois culture out of all proportion to their actual social importance.’
The carnival, the gypsy and the lumpenproletariat evoked forms of life — and forms of commerce — which were incompatible with the solitary labour of the lonely bourgeoise subject and the world it projected. That is why they could not be tolerated. If other forms of life were possible then- contrary to one of Mrs Thatcher’s most famous formulations — there were alternatives, after all.
I’m rewatching Desperate Housewives at the moment.
It was a show that I used to love when it was on the TV, without irony — at least up until the fifth season. I didn’t see any of the episodes after that…
At its best, the show felt like a successor to Twin Peaks in its exacerbation of soap opera tropes and its satirically surreal depiction of suburban “mundanity” (constantly ruptured by murder, adultery and natural disasters), and Kyle MacLachlan’s eventual appearance on the show only made this influence more apparent.
Twin Peaks was the first show that my girlfriend and I binge-watched together — yes, that is a memorable factoid about our lives together and it is a sign of the times — and so I knew she’d like this as well. We’re currently up to season two and she’s obsessed.
I told Robin about this the other day and he mentioned that Mark was also a fan. Lo and behold, there’s an awesome K-Punk post where the most pathologically anal resident of Wisteria Lane, Bree van de Kamp, gets a mention — albeit only in passing.
The Family, Valued
In the post “Family Values“, Mark indirectly reframes the TV show as a series of fables about the paradoxes of ideology, writing first:
In contemporary Britain, the ‘working mother’ is the figure around which many bio-political configurations are organized. The ‘working mother’ gives a new spin to the old Hegelian formula, according to which ‘woman is the eternal irony of the community’. The idea was that women’s labour (in every sense) was essential to the reproduction of the polis, but that women remained outside the community proper, double agents, never fully assimilable into civil society.
This is certainly true of Desperate Housewives, with the women at the heart of the show giving structure to, as well as repeatedly threatening to destroy, their suburban way of life. Indeed, the majority of the show’s gags revolve around this ‘double agent’ scenario, through which the women give shape to their community through the upkeep of their outward images which they can barely keep together for five minutes. The show’s tragicomic fixation is the women’s desperation to adhere to a model home Stepford Wife image whilst revealing themselves — to each other’s constant shock and discomfort — to be all too human.
Mark’s overarching point, in line with this, is that “‘family values’, once a matter of stated political doctrine, have now receded from the realm of political contestation to become naturalized.” This is to say that the idealised politics of the Family have, in many ways, been domesticated in themselves. Political football has become domesticated ideology. No longer is this a matter to be fought over on the ballot paper but, rather, it is a biopolitical given. “The personal is political” is no longer a slogan for feminist consciousness raising but rather an insidious imposition enforced from within, calcifying rather than liberating us from the Oedipal dynamics of a virulently familial voluntarism.
… attaining ‘good’ human status involves us FIRST OF ALL being committed to our families. But this naturalizing and prioritising of familial obligations, far from being a self-evident ethical Good, in fact means the end of the ethical as such. Ethics and Justice were founded upon the suspension of immediate tribal and animal interests. As Alenka Zupancic has tirelessly insisted, Kant’s ethical system, for instance, maintains that the only Ethical acts are those which are undertaken with indifference to one’s own (‘pathological’) interests. … Obedience to the Moral Law (the empty form of Duty) — particularly in the context of the contemporary bio-political regime — far from producing dumb social compliance, makes people into anti-social ‘inhuman’ ‘monsters’.
In Desperate Housewives … Bree van de Kamp faces the same ‘temptation of the Ethical’ in that she has to choose between Justice and loyalty to her son (should she protect him from punishment for his drunk-driving knocking down of Gabrielle’s mother-in-law?) To NOT protect him, she is told, would indeed make her a ‘monster’.
But things are not so simple as this. The becoming-ideology of Family Values is precisely a win for indifference. The issue is that the suspension of immediate tribal and animal interests occurs through a superficial positioning we might now refer to, all too cynically, as “virtue signalling”.
What is important, however, is that this suspension and the performing of its opposite are entirely unconscious procedures. Bree van de Kamp is the perfect example. It does not seem to be a question of “family values” for her at all. Superficially and performatively, perhaps, but her ultimate drive is far more selfish than she is inclined to let on — even to herself.
In Bree’s case, it should be noted that it is her son who calls her a monster for threatening to do what is “just”. He fills her with doubt about familial loyalty only to save his own skin. But even so, it later becomes clear that Bree doesn’t really care about this divide between justice and loyalty for any meaningful moral reason. For Bree, the ultimate goal is always to keep up appearances and it is precisely the further mistakes that her family members make which makes this crystal clear to us.
Bree’s son is also only the second horse of her personal apocalypse. He is soon revealed to be both a homosexual and a sociopath — the former is, notably, perceived as being far more dangerous to her conservative sensibilities — and so he is (repeatedly) sent away to military school as he continues to grow into a sort of We Need To Talk About Kevin exacerbated reflection of all of her own neuroses, passed on and allowed to evolve over the course of her son’s resentful psychological development.
Additionally, her husband Rex is unfaithful and then dies from complications following a heart attack he suffered whilst seeing a dominatrix. Bree was too prudish to satisfy him sexually but this is not a humiliation for her in and of itself. The neighbourhood learning of his adulterous betrayal and death affect her social standing the most. These are his two main crimes — his failures to keep a secret and stay alive.
On top of this, her daughter is sexually active outside of wedlock and she is far more open about her sexual appetite than anyone else in the family (all of whom are, in some way, closeted). Her mother-in-law then turns up later as a self-absorbed, over-emotional narcissist who comes to stay after Rex has died and makes everything about her, wielding her social power through emotional openness rather than repression — which Bree finds incredibly rude.
Later, her boyfriend George is revealed to the viewer to be as murderous and horny a sociopath as Bree’s son is, but his strength is that he is very good at hiding it under an anal retentiveness that rivals even Bree’s own. They eventually become engaged — again, because Bree doesn’t want to appear rude — but, when George becomes frighteningly possessive and unable to keep his cool in public, she breaks it off. In fact, she drives him to an outburst, knowing that only the very public collapse of his well-to-do exterior will give her a satisfactory reason for breaking off the engagement.
In every circumstance, despite the private acts which presage the public outbursts being morally reprehensible in and of themselves, Bree is willing to forgive all so long as any misdemeanour is handled with discretion. Once the upkeep of this discretion breaks down, she is more than happy to throw even her own family under the bus if they embarrass her publicly. Justice and loyalty are, therefore, irrelevant concepts for Bree van de Kamp. They are simply the window dressing for an outwardly facing conservative ideology — the ethics of illusionary traditions and expectation being a natural fit (literally — in that they are worn like a designer garment) for her self-imposed fascistic existence.
To reveal the true politics that run underneath Bree’s personal life is, for her, the ultimate insult. It is to undress her in public and reveal the shame of her imperfections, whether that be her own actions or the guilt of her associations. All of these characters — Rex, George, Andrew, et al. — are guilty of this offence and are sacrificed accordingly, with Bree refusing to allow them to rupture the imaginary wholes that constitute Bree’s militantly constructed reality.
Bree has no family values — she is an island. No one can get in the way of her individualised self even though they may largely constitute those external structures which she holds so dear on principle. For Bree all that matters is the preservation of her own interiority — which is itself an illusion of her interiority.
Do You Believe In The Subconscious?
In the episode my girlfriend and I watched the other evening, something really interesting happened, which revealed just how deeply these ideological repressions go.
In the sixth episode of season two, perhaps the best episode of the show so far — “I Wish I Could Forget You” — Bree finally decides to consummate her relationship with George — at George’s (at first) subtle insistence, just a few weeks following her husband’s death, who died at George’s hand, of course, unbeknownst to Bree.
Unfortunately for George, Bree is still very much hung up on her husband’s memory — or perhaps, to be more exact, the memory of her once-perfect nuclear family of which her husband was a central part — and this is as much a surprise to her as it is to George.
In season one, following her husband’s infidelity, Bree began to date George because she wanted to hurt her husband as much as he had hurt her. However, despite this, Bree was never been able to be physically unfaithful. Bree was happy to make her husband jealous in private, but public infidelity was out of the question. She couldn’t seek revenge at the expense of her own image.
Following Rex’s death at the end of season one, the police become suspicious that his demise may not have been entirely “natural”, believing he may have been some foul play. (And there was — jealous of Rex, local pharmacist George had been supplying him with the wrong medication whilst he is recovering from his heart attack so he could have Bree all to himself.)
Informed of the police’s suspicions, Bree suggests she take a lie detector test as a quick way of absolving herself. However, things don’t go according to plan. The police believe that it was George who probably poisoned Rex but Bree encouraged him to do it. She tells the truth that she did not kill her husband but, when asked if she has feelings for George Williams, she is apparently not so honest.
She answers “no” but this raises a big red flag. The detectives feel vindicated in their hunch at a motive but Bree is caught completely off guard. She feels that she has been alerted to feeling she didn’t even know she had. (George is later called in to take the lie detector too but he tricks the machine and the detectives into believing he is innocent; his well-concealed sociopathy allowing him to remain totally calm and with a steady heart rate when asked outright if he poisoned Rex van de Kamp.)
This reveal that Bree may not know herself as well as she thinks she does catches up with her in season two when, finally allowing herself to be seduced by George, she immediately breaks out in hives.
It is not immediately apparent to Bree why this has happened to her. She assumes it’s George’s cologne but she soon realises there is, in fact, no material explanation for her sudden outbreak of itchiness.
It is her psychiatrist (and former marriage counsellor), Dr. Goldfine, who illuminates another possibility for her. Their scene together plays out as follows:
Dr. Goldfine: So the hives occurred right after you kissed George.
Bree: Yes. It was the strangest thing… And so inconvenient. To be honest, I think we were about to make love for the first time.
Dr. Goldfine: Bree, have you considered the idea that your subconscious mind was trying to sabotage your evening with George?
Bree: Actually, I have not considered that, because that’s… idiotic!
Dr. Goldfine: You don’t think that being with George made you feel a bit guilty?
Bree: Why should I feel guilty?
Dr. Goldfine: Perhaps you felt you were about to commit adultery?
Bree: Dr. Goldfine, Rex is dead. You can’t cheat on a corpse.
Dr. Goldfine: Well, maybe that’s not how you really feel deep down.
Bree: Oh, so you think I’m crazy?
Dr. Goldfine: You say you got a case of hives for no reason. I think there is a reason and it’s probably a psychosomatic one.
Bree: You can think whatever you want but, to be honest, I don’t believe in the subconscious.
Dr. Goldfine: Every time you’ve said “Rex” in this session, you’ve stroked the place where your wedding ring used to be. Why did you do that?
The fact that Bree declares she doesn’t even believe in the subconscious is the perfect encapsulation of her ideology in this episode, especially when we see her subconscious pointed out to her immediately afterwards. This reveal obviously seems to offend her — a shot of her disgruntled expression ends this short scene.
Bree’s self-imposed fascistic voluntarism is so intense that it allows her to believe that she has control of absolutely every part of her life, both internally and externally, to the extent that the suggestion she might not be fully in control of her actions and emotions is as inconvenient to her politics as, say, the science of climate change. Despite the expertise of a better informed third party, the suggestion seems to be that Bree is aware of the concept of subconsciousness but it’s probably just a conspiracy concocted by communists to curtail our individual freedoms!
This tells us something very interesting about Bree’s character and the show itself as a whole.
Bree is the only character within the Desperate Housewives universe, at this stage, to be given a concrete political belief system. It is revealed in an episode introduction during season one that Bree votes Republican. She is a woman who loves her country and the second amendment. (Exercising her right to bear arms is more enjoyable than sex for Bree, it often seems.) And yet, for Bree, this self-declared “ideology”, embodied in her every conscious decision and action, is merely an illusion covering up her true belief system.
Here, we might do well to turn to Slavoj Žižek and his critique of “ideology”. Defining the term in his book The Sublime Object of Ideology, he writes:
The most elementary definition of ideology is probably the well-known phrase from Marx’s Capital: ‘sie wissen das nicht, aber sie tun es’ — ‘they do not know it, but they are doing it’. The very concept of ideology implies a kind of basic, constitutive naïveté: the misrecognition of its own presuppositions, of its own effective conditions, a distance, a divergence between so-called social reality and our distorted representation, our false consciousness of it. That is why such a ‘naive consciousness’ can be submitted to a critical-ideological procedure. The aim of this procedure is to lead the naive ideological consciousness to a point at which it can recognize its own effective conditions, the social reality that it is distorting, and through this very act dissolve itself. In the more sophisticated versions of the critics of ideology — that developed by the Frankfurt School, for example — it is not just a question of seeing things (that is, social reality) as they ‘really are’, of throwing away the distorting spectacles of ideology; the main point is to see how the reality itself cannot reproduce itself without this so called ideological mystification. The mask is not simply hiding the real state ofthings; the ideological distortion is written into its very essence.
Regular readers of the blog will be familiar with this argument already. It’s a central part of Herbert Marcuse’s Freudian analyses of an affluent society and, likewise, Mark Fisher’s calls for the raising of consciousness. Communism, Mark once argued, could not be voted it — it was dependent on a wholesale shift in the collective consciousness. A “communist realism” to counter “capitalist realism“. It was dependent on an extra-political ideological shift. Whilst this may sound impossible and utopian to us today, it’s not unheard of. What were “punk” or “rave” if not pop-cultural shifts in the collective subconscious? They may not have been widespread enough to affect elections but they changed something in us, at least for a time…
What is key here is that they you can’t just vote in the ideology you want to see in the world. In fact, ideology is precisely that which you don’t see. It is that which you don’t know you’re doing — or, in some cases, it’s that which you know you’re doing but you do anyway. It is that which you do every day without conscious critique. It’s how you’ve learnt act in the world unknown to yourself.
It is, as was previously explored, both the affective residue of our own unconscious and the unconsciousness of capital itself. Ideology, then, is precisely the intersection where “our agency is indistinguishable from capital’s own”.
More than this, to critique an ideology hurts. It is not the act of political smugness that so many take for consciousness raising and social critique today. The arguments levelled at the left by the right that left-wingers just hate themselves — “white men’s self-hatred is just pathetic political masochism”, etc. — so often misses the point that the root of such attempts at incisive action are precisely the critiquing of one’s own ideologies as a subject under the sociopolitical hegemony of white supremacist capitalist patriarchy. You are the inevitable embodiment of that which you wish to rid the world of. As such, this form of critique is often reduced to magical voluntarism and political masochism but let’s not pretend like the right isn’t recursively demonstrating its own naivety and lack of self-awareness in its outright ridicule of any such an attempt at self-flagellation under capitalist realism, no matter how productive or impotently superficial that flagellation is.
Žižek, discussing this very point, later writes of this recursive ideological subject as a glitch in the system. The perfect ideological subject is one who is invisible to themselves:
We find, then, the paradox of a being which can reproduce itself only in so far as it is misrecognized and overlooked: the moment we see it ‘as it really is’, this being dissolves itself into nothingness or, more precisely, it changes into another kind of reality. That is why we must avoid the simple metaphors of demasking, of throwing away the veils which are supposed to hide the naked reality. We can see why Lacan, in his seminar on The Ethics of Psychoanalysis, distances himself from the liberating gesture of saying finally that ‘the emperor has no clothes’. The point is, as Lacan puts it, that the emperor is naked only beneath his clothes, so if there is an unmasking gesture of psychoanalysis, it is closer to Alphonse Allais’s well-known joke, quoted by Lacan: somebody points at a woman and utters a horrified cry, ‘Look at her, what a shame, under her clothes, she is totally naked’.
But all this is already well known: it is the classic concept of ideology as ‘false consciousness’, misrecognition of the social reality which is part of this reality itself. Our question is: Does this concept of ideology as a naive consciousness still apply to today’s world? Is it still operating today?
Answering this question for himself, Žižek later writes that ideology and ‘false consciousness’ are a false equivalence:
… ideology is not simply a ‘false consciousness’, an illusory representation of reality, it is rather this reality itself which is already to be conceived as ‘ideological’ — ‘ideological’ is a social reality whose very existence implies the non-knowledge of its participants as to its essence — that is, the social effectivity, the very reproduction of which implies that the individuals ‘do not know what they are doing. ‘Ideological’ is not the ‘false consciousness’ of a social being but this being itself in so far as it is supported by ‘false consciousness’. Thus we have finally reached the dimension of the symptom, because one of its possible definitions would also be ‘a formation whose very consistency implies a certain non-knowledge on the part of the subject’: the subject can ‘enjoy his symptom’ only in so far as its logic escapes him — the measure of the success of its interpretation is precisely its dissolution.
The concept of ‘false consciousness’, for Žižek, externalises ideology. In his eventual documentary film adaptation of his most celebrated book, The Pervert’s Guide to Ideology — an unfortunate cultural studies reduction of the central thesis — he nonetheless makes this same argument in a much clearer way through his analysis of the film They Live!, noting how the film’s pessimism is encapsulated in the functionality of its mysterious consciousness-razing sunglasses. Žižek says:
According to our common sense, we think that ideology is something blurring, confusing our straight view. Ideology should be glasses which distort our view, and the critique of ideology should be the opposite: you take off the glasses so that you can finally see the way things really are. … The pessimism of the film They Live! is well justified. This precisely is the ultimate illusion. Ideology is not simply imposed on ourselves. Ideology is our spontaneous relationship to our social world and how we perceive its meaning and so on and so on. We, in a way, enjoy our ideology
This subtle reorientation reverses the voluntarism of the “common sense” argument. Simply taking the sunglasses off your face to free yourself gives you all the necessary agency to decode your own ideologies. The fact that you need to put the sunglasses on, however, renders ideology deeply pathological. And so ideology becomes a useful concept for Žižek because it adequately encapsulates the extent to which we are captured by our surrounding; by eerie agentic capital.
Even if you become aware of your ‘false consciousness’, good luck exiting the structure in which you find yourself based on that knowledge alone.
It’s also worth noting that the concept of ‘false consciousness’ used here by Žižek is typically aimed at the sentiments of a captured proletarian psyche or a petite bourgeousie. This is not Bree van de Kamp. Bree is pure bouj. She is not being restricted from acting out her own true will by the expectations of the upper classes — she is the upper class! She believes that is what she is, doing at all times, emblematic of her individual freedom. She can shoot a gun — she’s her own woman! But still she is a victim of her own subconscious. This intrusive, unconscious phantasy is the only thing capable of permeating the fantasy of her reality.
As Žižek continues later:
When Lacan says that the last support of what we call ‘reality’ is a fantasy, this is definitely not to be understood in the sense of ‘life is just a dream’, ‘what we call reality is just an illusion’, and so forth. We find such a theme in many science-fiction stories: reality as a generalized dream or illusion. The story is usually told from the perspective of a hero who gradually makes the horrifying discovery that all the people around him are not really human beings but some kind of automatons, robots, who only look and act like real human beings; the final point of these stories is of course the hero’s discovery that he himself is also such an automaton and not a real human being. Such a generalized illusion is impossible: we find the same paradox in a well-known drawing by Escher of two hands drawing each other.
The Lacanian thesis is, on the contrary, that there is always a hard kernel, a leftover which persists and cannot be reduced to a universal play of illusory mirroring. The difference between Lacan and ‘naive realism’ is that for Lacan, the only point at which we approach this hard kernel of the Real is indeed the dream. When we awaken into reality after a dream, we usually say to ourselves ‘it was just a dream’, thereby blinding ourselves to the fact that in our everyday, wakening reality we are nothing but a consciousness of this dream. It was only in the dream that we approached the fantasy framework which determines our activity, our mode of acting in reality itself.
It is the same with the ideological dream, with the determination of ideology as a dreamlike construction hindering us from seeing the real state of things, reality as such. In vain do we try to break out of the ideological dream by ‘opening our eyes and trying to see reality as it is’, by throwing away the ideological spectacles: as the subjects of such a post-ideological, objective, sober look, free of so-called ideological prejudices, as the subjects of a look which views the facts as they are, we remain throughout ‘the consciousness of our ideological dream’. The only way to break the power of our ideological dream is to confront the Real of our desire which announces itself in this dream.
Bree encapsulates this absolutely. She is wholly incapable of confronting the Real of her desires. She doesn’t even know what her desires are. She has chosen to believe in political desires so intensely that she has forgotten who she really is. (This is likewise Rex’s complaint during their initial marriage counselling sessions: she wasn’t always like this — to which Bree responds with an apparent amnesia.)
The threat of the Real is obvious, and it is a threat experienced by all the residents of Wisteria Lane. Their apparent commitment to their families is precisely their ideological desire which they routinely fail to fulfil to their own satisfaction. The Real of their desire that they daren’t confront is the rampant individualism through which they put themselves before everyone they profess to love and care about.
But this is not to gender the Real in any sense. It is simply around the matriarchal family structures that the borromean knot of the Real in Desperate Housewives reveals itself. What is left to roam outside of these events, wholly uncommented upon but nonetheless present, is very telling.
Domesticated Market Stalinism
Lynette Scavo is, in many ways, Bree’s complementary opposite. She’s a former powerhouse business woman who gave it all up to be a housewife after she became pregnant with twins (having another son and then a daughter in quick succession afterwards). Perhaps unsurprisingly, Lynette is resentful of her new domestic existence, constantly battered and buffeted by the wills of her children rather than being out there in the office smashing deals and ruling the roost. That world was easy for Lynette. The world of motherhood is not.
In season one, Lynette has a nervous breakdown. Intimidated by her neighbours — Bree especially — she ends up addicted to Adderall, initially acquired to treat her twin’s apparent ADHD. However, following one frank conversation with a particularly impressive mother, she discovers Adderrall to be the secret ingredient behind many a supermom’s domestic productivity. It quickly becomes a problem for her.
In admitting to her failure and addiction, confronting the Real of her desire to be a good mother and the transgressive lengths she’ll go to to fulfil that desire, Lynette makes the other women confess to their own realities also, resulting in one of the season’s most affecting scenes:
Once she recovers from this low point, Lynette decides to make some changes, becoming more vocal in expressing to her husband Tom that she needs more support around the house. However, when Tom is offered a promotion and selfishly decides to take it, she purposefully sabotages his chances. When he eventually finds out what she has done, he gives her something of an ultimatum and demands they swap gender rolls so that he becomes a stay-at-home Dad and she goes back to work, because her resentment is starting to threaten their marriage.
Unfortunately for Lynette, she finds herself working for woman who is “childless by choice” and deeply resents working mothers being given any sort of special treatment in the workplace to accommodate for their duties at home. It’s the one recurring scenario in the series which I find cuts close to the bone. The liberties that Lynette’s boss takes are almost too much sometimes; too evil, and Lynette’s willingness to roll over and do as she’s told is difficult to watch, having been introduced in the first season as one of the most wilful and independent of the female protagonists — more so even than Bree, who is less wilful and more the prisoner of her own expectations.
This frankly torturous inability to find a work/life balance becomes her character’s central subplot in this second season and, in this very same episode in which Bree discovers her own subconscious, Lynette’s dilemma is poignantly expressed entirely through commodities — encapsulating the other side of the affects of eerie agentic capital.
Told to lead a marketing pitch at work, her co-workers ridicule Lynette’s old, worn and often food-stained business suits, imploring her to find something new to wear for an upcoming corporate pitch. Their ridicule hits home, to such an extent that Lynette decides to treat herself. Her husband is appalled when he later finds her at home with $3000 worth of suits laid out on the bed. He gets her to return them all, pointing out how the money would be better spent on their children’s futures. She sees reason and returns them — bar one $900 suit which she wears for her board meeting, all the while keeping the tags on it so that she might return it later. (Unfortunately, she’s discovered. Her boss rips off the tags, humiliating her in front of the clients.)
We can return to Žižek here again. What Lynette demonstrates, imposed upon her by her colleagues, is an extreme form of commodity fetishism, which Žižek — via Marx — describes as a key vehicle for the spread of capitalist ideologies.
Lynette believes that this fancy new suit will make her better at her job. It will make her a better person. She will command a room better. It will make her more attractive and likeable to her colleagues and clients. This is far more important to her than the suit in and of itself, and so the “meaning” of the suit legitimises the $900 expense for a pitch that is probably worth far less to her in terms of her actual wages. This is because the value of the suit as a commodity is somewhat secondary to the role it plays in her social relations. As Marx famously writes in the first chapter of Capital:
A commodity is therefore a mysterious thing, simply because in it the social character of men’s labour appears to them as an objective character stamped upon the product of that labour; because the relation of the producers to the sum total of their own labour is presented to them as a social relation, existing not between themselves, but between the products of their labour.
Žižek, in turn, writes, clarifying the role of the fetishised commodity in capitalist social relations:
In feudalism … relations between people are mystified, mediated through a web of ideological beliefs and superstitions. … In capitalism the subjects are emancipated, perceiving themselves as free from medieval religious superstitions, when they deal with one another they do so as rational utilitarians, guided only by their selfish interests. The point of Marx’s analysis, however, is that the things (commodities) themselves believe in their place, instead of the subjects: it is as if all their beliefs, superstitions and metaphysical mystifications, supposedly surmounted by the rational, utilitarian personality, are embodied in the ‘social relations between things’. They no longer believe, but the things themselves believe for them.
For Bree, her beliefs and superstitions are abjectly internalised and made pathological, her striving for perfection totalising her character (whereas Lynette’s purchase is an extension of her social desires), Bree effectively objectifies herself into a walking-talking “commodity” whose motherly labours allow her to accumulate social capital on Wisteria Lane.
Lynette’s commodity fetishism, however, remains somewhat removed from herself. By keeping the tags on she undermines her social capital accumulation as if revealing to her peers that she hasn’t fully given herself over to the commodity and what it represents. And therein is the key.
What is most interesting and most telling about this scene, however, is not the suit in itself but the product that Lynette has been tasked to sell.
In a sort of ultimate and obscene irony, what is being sold to her clients through the signified value of her suit is a collection of fetishised and exoticised images of communism.
These placards aren’t actually acknowledged in the scene itself — at all — but, as we can very clearly see, Lynette is pitching a product called Kamarov Vodka, advertised with images of Stalin himself no less. Their campaign promises to introduce “a new world leader” into the vodka market, complete with hammer and sickle and the encircled-A of anarchism…?
The meaning of the signs themselves seems to be totally irrelevant, throwing red herrings into midst. For the longest time I tried to unpick the significance of this product in the broader context of the episode but I just couldn’t’ make sense of it and yet, when we consider the episode as a whole, we might see things gradually slot into place.
I think what we have here, represented so succinctly in a single scene, is the entire ideological lesson of Desperate Housewives, encapsulating one of Mark’s greatest concepts from his book Capitalist Realism: “Market Stalinism”:
The idealized market was supposed to deliver ‘friction free’ exchanges, in which the desires of consumers would be met directly, without the need for intervention or mediation by regulatory agencies. Yet the drive to assess the performance of workers and to measure forms of labor which, by their nature, are resistant to quantification, has inevitably required additional layers of management and bureaucracy. What we have is not a direct comparison of workers’ performance or output, but a comparison between the audited representation of that performance and output. Inevitably, a short-circuiting occurs, and work becomes geared towards the generation and massaging of representations rather than to the official goals of the work itself. … This reversal of priorities is one of the hallmarks of a system which can be characterized without hyperbole as ‘market Stalinism’. What late capitalism repeats from Stalinism is just this valuing of symbols of achievement over actual achievement.
It would be a mistake to regard this market Stalinism as some deviation from the ‘true spirit’ of capitalism. On the contrary, it would be better to say that an essential dimension of Stalinism was inhibited by its association with a social project like socialism and can only emerge in a late capitalist culture in which images acquire an autonomous force. The way value is generated on the stock exchange depends of course less on what a company ‘really does’, and more on perceptions of, and beliefs about, its (future) performance. In capitalism, that is to say, all that is solid melts into PR, and late capitalism is defined at least as much by this ubiquitous tendency towards PR-production as it is by the imposition of market mechanisms.
We have not simply seen the sublimation of “Family Values” into ideology. It is rather that “Market Stalinism” has replaced family values as such. The family, expected to function like a micropolitical corporate entity, encapsulates a form of PR-production at the most intimate and private levels of society. Social media too — as we’ve recently explored — has only served to atomise this process further, down to the level of the individual, wherein your online faciality (in particular) is indistinguishable from a shop front.
The final shot of Lynette’s boardroom pitch couldn’t be less subtle on this point.
We had a big Urbanomic night out on Wednesday, as Robin and I popped down to Corsica Studios to be subsumed by zero.
It was a bitterly cold December night. The kind of night where your nostrils frost on contact with the outside. Haribo on the bus kept sleep at bay and then the bass and swelling crowd did the very good job of that afterwards.
In New Cross, we’d spent a few hours talking about “redness”‘; about Reza’s Sellarsianism and the myth of the given; the pink ice cube; “perceptual taking” and Deleuzian intensity…
We didn’t arrive at many answers for any of our questions but it was more than fitting to find ourselves immersed in red such a short time later.
I didn’t know what to expect from the night, but then again I never do. That’s the joy of Ø. Mala’s reputation preceded him but Dis Fig and Intentionally Cold were a mystery to me.
Dis Fig is a haze to me now. I remember hearing a cut from Flowdan’s 2014 Serious Business EP and not a lot else. This was a strange track to hear. The last time I’d heard it was cutting through the Cornish countryside in Robin’s car a few months earlier. It was strange to hear it again, once again in his company. I remember nothing else. I felt buffeted around by that wall-cracking Corsica bass and the bitter wind outside. Chatting, nodding, drinking. Not taking much in but just bathing in the red.
Intentionally Cold was certainly that. Robin referred to their set as “headbanging constipationalism” and “jouissance in frustration”. I was hard to disagree with the self-confessed “old junglist”, whether for better or for worse.
The entire set was a wall of tight loops, no air to breathe, the desiring-lyricism of SZA and Kendrick curtailed into the most pointed of vocal loops — I don’t give a fuck, I don’t give a fuck, I don’t give a fuck, I don’t give a fuck, I don’t give a fuck, I don’t give a fuck, I don’t give a fuck, I don’t give a fuck, I don’t give a fuck, I don’t give a fuck, I don’t give a fuck, I don’t give a fuck, I don’t give a fuck, I don’t give a fuck, I don’t give a fuck, I don’t give a fuck, I don’t give a fuck, I don’t give a fuck, I don’t give a fuck, I don’t give a fuck, I don’t give a fuck, I don’t give a fuck, I don’t give a fuck, I don’t give a fuck, I don’t give a fuck, I don’t give a fuck — expressions of free spirit violently smothered. It certainly captured something of the present moment in its sadomasochism.
The contrast that followed was stark. Mala‘s set was full of air; full of emptiness. Flashes in the darkness, like a lighthouse clearing the air after a storm.
Admittedly, I don’t get out that much. The last time I heard a set like this was probably 2011, before dubstep went white. (Never mind techno, Make Dubstep Black Again.) It took me back to dubstep nights in sticky Welsh basements but even those didn’t have the dynamic range of Mala’s set, making the silence as heavy as the bone-rattling bass in itself.
The contrast between “then” and “now”, “old” and “young” — jeez, we’re talking about just 10 years here but the temporal shift felt massive — and their intensive conversation really caught me off guard. I ended up on the night bus home, slightly nauseous, thinking about what has really changed.
Zoom out. Not a lot. Different intensities. Still red.