Political Ethics and Capitalist Moralism

Designer Communism is an interesting concept of Mark Fisher’s and undoubtedly a precursor to his Acid Communism. Explaining it in a lecture from 2016, however, he immediately comments on his own sense of being a fish out of water, presenting to an audience that is somewhat alien to his usual crowd. The first thing he is recorded as saying is: “I don’t know why I decided to talk about designer communism to a room that includes a lot of people who do actually know something about design.”

He goes on to note that, as far as he’s concerned, even as an outsider to the field, designers have a really important role to play in raising issues and, indeed, raising consciousness around issues of political importance.

We know this already, no doubt, but it seems obvious that Mark is tailoring these points to his audience. He points out that this term of his is an attempt to reclaim “designer socialism” — a somewhat out-dated phrase for a kind of bourgeois utopianism that lacks any (material) self-awareness. It was a term that particularly pointed at the design industry in the 1980s — perhaps even internally, as it is an industry that has often been seen as broadly politically conservative.

We might think this and that about so-called semiocapitalism, but who is there to take these ideas to the people who need to here them? Who inspires the designers to think critically about the world and their specific place within it? I suppose that was Mark’s intention.

I’ve written about all these issues as they appear in Mark’s late work before — in the most detail here. One of the centrally invigorating questions for Mark towards the end of his life was: in what ways can the mechanisms of capitalism itself — practically speaking — help us to reach its outside? This is a vague gesture deployed by accelerationists of all stripes but Mark wasn’t talking about DeleuzoGuattarian double articulation or accelerations of the process, at least not in this instance; he was talking about the ways in which the skills and knowledge of marketing companies, for example, can libidinally sell us the possibility of a new future. If you want to accelerate the process in a way that’s a bit more materially measurable, maybe get involved in design!

As Mark argues in the lecture, not doing this (at least not successfully) was where the left failed in the 1980s and, as he goes on to say, it is a point from which the left arguably never recovered. Capitalism made itself out to be the only path to the sexy future we have always been promised. The left’s concepts of the future, by comparison, were dreary. (Mark would cite adverts by Levi’s and Apple from 1984 as particularly egregious examples of this, borne out of Cold War anti-Soviet posturing but nonetheless with a clear subtext: “Capitalism is sexy and they don’t want you to have it.”)

This is a general argument of Mark’s that would become tragically prescient just months after his death when two designers from Bristol made and began selling parody Nike t-shirts, keeping the iconic “tick” but replacing the name of the brand itself with “Corbyn”. They were a huge success — even my girlfriend owns one — and they seemed to signal a new approach to raising public consciousness around socialist issues (even if somewhat adjacent to Corbyn’s particular personality cult).

This momentum — no pun intended — didn’t seem to amount to much, however. In fact, it crashed back in on itself all too predictably, with Corbyn’s initial failure to win a general election stoking the usual feelings of left melancholia. This also isn’t to say that t-shirts are going to start the revolution but it has shown that it is not just politicians who function as “libidinal technicians” — as Mark calls them in his related essay, “Digital Psychedelia” — but also PR companies and advertisers, and when they work together or at least have an awareness of one another and their roles in the wider system, interesting things can happen… Maybe…?

I’ve found myself thinking about this a lot recently because, for seven days in May, I was working at D&AD Festival.

D&AD is a somewhat corporate / start-up designer hub of industry talks and advice and they also have an awards ceremony where agencies from around the world submit their adverts and campaigns and typography and book design stuff and it’s all judged by industry experts across 14 categories which are then all shown in the exhibition that then becomes a big book afterwards.

It was a really great week and I worked with the best team who made a lot of hard work really fun and so I hope it goes without saying that the forthcoming critical view of some of the work has nothing to do with those people who worked so hard with me to make the festival happen, because what I want to talk about first is this concept of “Woke Capital”.

I’ve written about this before: the phrase “Woke Capital” is the product of an ostensibly right-wing cynicism regarding the ways in which capitalism now forces everyone to swallow typically left-wing political standpoints and put on a left-leaning face thanks to a totalitarian left-wing cultural tyranny. My own view of this term is that it’s nothing new. It’s “Rainbow Capitalism” viewed from the “other side” of the political divide. Capitalism has been absorbing “outsider”, “queer” and “minoritarian” politics for decades, much to the frustration of activists, and now the right is annoyed about it too because they now have to parrot politically correct viewpoints because not to do so is probably bad for business.

What’s interesting about this shift, with the right leading the charge on criticising this tendency within contemporary capitalism — at least in our little corner of the internet — is that it seems to suggest the left is less concerned about capitalism performing the wholesale appropriation of a lot of these issues. In many ways, I suppose there isn’t much to complain out. It’s all about normalising conversations and concepts and political positions, right? If a car advert helps to normalise anti-racism, is the fact it’s ultimately selling something worth worrying about?

At this year’s festival, the best examples of this work being done — and I’m selecting the least contentious topics here — were projects related to mental health and inclusivity. (Two of my favourites from the product design category below.) In giving tours, it felt very easy to structure explorations of the space around dominant political issues that could be threaded throughout the categories and consider how the industry has responded to this and that issue that has loomed large in the public consciousness. (The other most prominent topics addressed in advertising campaigns, perhaps unsurprisingly, were climate change and school shootings / gun violence.)

On the one hand, the role advertising agencies can play here — particularly in supporting charities and not-for-profits — is really important. However, there is evidently a fine line between this successful so-called “brand activism” and the shameless appropriation of liberal politics.

Unsurprisingly, McDonalds’ was one of the most cringe-worthy examples here. The print version of their “More In Common” campaign was horrendous. Whilst the video goes for a “different walks of life” vibe, the juxtaposed photographs of their print campaign were split incredibly unsubtly along racial lines, taking the “if you think about it, we’re all from Africa, really” approach to identity politics but shifting it subtly to “if you think about it, we’ve all eaten at McDonalds, at some point”. Truly, this will heal the nation.

Elsewhere we have adverts for Staedtler and Stabilo highlighter pens which chose to “highlight” lost women of history (that was a good one) and also “highlight” genocide (that one was nice looking but actually pretty fucked up — bit weird to aestheticise atrocity in order to sell pens.)

It’s very easy to be cynical about all this and none of it is new but questions arose for me when considering the wider talks and workshops that took place in orbit of these examples of “Woke Capital”. It seemed to me that the ways in which designers were approaching these issues were, on the whole, pretty innocuous but this wokeness-as-business-strategy vibe was particularly pernicious when it came to discussions of neoliberal professionalism. There were so many talks about the individualisation of branding — the “brand” of the individual over the company — which leads to an internalisation and reduction of the broader processes that these wider campaigns demonstrate. The main issue I have with this is that we see a feedback loop emerge where bad attempts at ethics are subsumed into a blanket and innately capitalist moralism.

This is interesting, I think, because it’s not just an issue in the design industry. It’s rampant on the left as a whole. There is a sense in which it is not just leftism that has infiltrated the public image of capitalism but capitalism which has infiltrated the public image of leftism — that is to say, it’s logics and norms.

This is such a common error around these “weird theory” parts too and something I’ve wanted to address for a long time. It amazes me how often people will throw around accusations of unethical praxis or a lack of ethics altogether. It’s been a frequent accusation thrown at me too but I’m not sure what it’s based on. I spent a large portion of my MA writing on and studying various systems of ethics and yet how often how I’ve heard those words thrown at me based on… I don’t even know. (FYI: I had written these words prior to Crane’s latest tantrum in which he threw this accusation out before deleting his account again — he is of course a case in point.) In my experience, it is often people who accuse others of having no ethics that lack an ethics of their own.

What’s worth is that this is something intrinsic to these issues of capitalist design and optics. “Ethical” advertising is a very powerful but also dangerous thing, and I think we can perhaps lay the blame for the left’s innately capitalistic moralism squarely at the hypothetical feet of Woke Capital’s negative feedback loop. Because, to be absolutely clear, moralism is not an ethics. Not as far as I’m concerned anyway.

My understanding of ethics comes from a course I did at Goldsmiths as a student which really shaped my thinking. I’d wanted to do the course because I was sick to death of the lack of conversation around ethics in documentary photography exhibitions that I was spending a lot of time around as part of my day job. I found so much of the world I was working in to be completely abhorrent but didn’t know how to articulate why, so a course of ethics and the art world sounded like an interesting course to take.

Going through my old notes, we understood ethics to be “the process of defining, systematizing, defending, and/or recommending concepts of right and wrong to an individual or society at large.” But within this very broad dictionary definition we find there are three primary branches of thought which take very different approaches to this overall task — meta-ethics, normative ethics, applied ethics, etc., etc.

My own personal interest ended up being anethics — best explored by Paul Mann in his amazing book Masocriticism and with its antecedents in the thought of the likes of Nietzsche, Bataille, Blanchot and others.

Anethics is a sort of meta-meta-ethics that interrogates the innate limitations to ethics as a systematised “moral philosophy”. We can point to Nietzsche’s call for an unconditional ethics in The Gay Science as an example which may resonate around these parts. He writes: “Long live physics! And even more so that which compels us to turn to physics, — our honesty!” Being in itself is ethical for Nietzsche in this sense — or rather, it is an ethical question — and whilst this appears impotently broad as a consideration it brings into play things of an ethical nature which fall outside the realm of moral philosophy’s rationalism.

Love, for instance, is a slippery example. We can identify and critique “bad” parents or partners but what is it to determine an otherwise supposedly innate protectiveness of parenthood to a code of ethics? Ethics, in this sense, can be understood as a straight jacket even with the best of intentions, and so anethics is a properly ethical praxis and way of being which does not allow itself to become rigid, which does not settle for “being” ethical but exists as a “becoming” ethical through the consistent interrogation of all ethics and that which falls outside of them.

My lecturer when I was studying ethics was Jean-Paul Martinon and this was broadly his own understanding, in particular ethics understood as a futurity. His lectures still remain central to a lot of my own thought on this. His functional definition of ethics for our class was “the other comes first” and so the question for us to carry forwards in our studies was “how can I make sure the other comes first, i.e. before me?” However, in considering the Other, we immediately fell upon a number of problematics which we approached via Levinas (which I found heavily resonating with my already well-established interest in Bataille and would later fuel my love of Blanchot.)

Whilst the “other” is a phrase considered to be outdated and uncomfortable for many, that doesn’t make the problematics of the Other just disappear. Ontologically, the Other is always central because you can never get rid of the Other, because I cannot die in your place. You die alone, I cannot die for you. There is an inherent Otherness to being, then, which is irreplaceable, unalienable and unrelated to issues of identity and identity politics. In this sense, for J-P, the word “Other” was necessarily replaceable with the idea of the future.

For our class, the Other was defined as “the destitute for whom I can do all and to whom I owe all”, quoting Levinas in his book, Ethics and Infinity. Here, the word “Destitute” does not refer to the poor or those who have nothing. It is not an economic term. Levinas is therefore radical in his terming of “for whom I owe all”. Destitution does not necessitate an indebtedness but rather it indicates someone for whom I owe all without an exchange; without the necessity of a return. Levinas is asking his reader to consider who the “destitute” is in their world. Returning to “love”, the strongest example of the destitute is the child — the child who always comes first.

This is only one approach but also ended up being the one I liked the best. We looked at Aristotle’s Ethics of the pursuit of happiness, of flourishing, living without excess or extremes, fine tuning your being through processes of habituation, a project seeking the transcendence of desire and pleasure.

If this sounds somewhat monastic, that is perhaps because this is the ethical backbone of Western philosophy. It was likewise Foucault’s starting point in his genealogy of ethics, his histories of sexuality, beginning with the Greeks before considering how Christianity would shape this aesthetic transcendence to be a restraint of the flesh and later, in modernity, becoming the regulation of bodies by the state. In Foucault’s argument, like Nietzsche’s own moral genealogy, there is a view to uncovering this ground again — removing the unethical ethics of state power and its grasp on our interiority and once again pursue a legitimately “aesthetic” life which cares and adapts and develops and is free.

We’ve seen many attempts at this. Heidegger talks of being-as-care in Being & Time. Spinoza is a particularly important instance too, interrogating the theocracy of his time when many were considering the discrepancies between Greek moral philosophy and the then-dominant ethical thinking of Christianity and Judaism, controversially taking the theism out of monotheism and instead building a monism. Kant’s attempt to define a moral law of pure reason would go against Spinoza with his Categorical Imperative but here we find various paradoxes of representation when trying to encapsulate that which resists wholesale rationalisation.

Now, an ethics which I personally try to live by — and which I like precisely because it is so difficult in our present moment — is that developed by Maurice Blanchot. I wrote about this for Alienist and it is something that I’m now researching a lot more again for the first time since I finished my Masters. I’m not in agreement with many of the other texts that appear in Alienist 5 for what it is worth but all the more reason why I am happy to be in there. There is a sense in which our conversations are suffering and it is this intrusion of capitalism into our ethics that seems to be ruining opportunities for the production of genuinely radical political practice that escape the present moment of “frenzied stasis”, as Mark used to call it.

With the ethics of Bataille-Levinas-Blanchot being so fixated on the necessity of communication to being, Jodi Dean’s writings on “communicative capitalism” become the central challenge for this ethics today — and again, I’ve written on this a lot before too. There is a sense in which Foucault’s genealogical and ethical project can be extended today to include this infiltration by capitalism into channels of communication. We move from the regulation of bodies to the regulation of thought and whilst this is, in many respects, a positive process whereby we are encouraged to account for and put the other first, it is nonetheless a regulation.

If this blog has an ethical project — and I think it does — it is this. How do we account for our ethics in ways that do not consolidate around the whims of capital? To what extent can we really put the other first, in their futurity, from within this system? How do we raise up an ethics of comradeship and friendship within a socioeconomic infrastructure that is so often antithetical to this?

Each person who throws accusations of a lack of ethics should particularly take more responsibility for this within themselves.

When a different ethics is seen as a lack of ethics, which in itself is only ever a moralism, we see the subtle end result of capitalist realism on our own interiority. There is no alternative ethics other than that which is absorbed by our brands. In this sense, the end game of Woke Capital is perhaps already in sight, demonstrated by the miserable Academic Marxists of Twitter who infect their own gospel with the moralism of the system they proclaim to stand against.

But that’s not to say I have all the answers. The complicity is pervasive and I remain haunted by the spectre of the slacker as perhaps the best anethical response to our age of communicative capitalism.

There is much more to say here and I’ll see when I can get round to saying it. Jumping off my Alienist essay, I’m thinking this might become something of a series.

Friendship: XG in “Alienist 5”

As each term or concept is passed around from group to group, rising to the surface of public discourse by virtue of this promiscuity, we watch with horror as each word tumbles into meaninglessness, where one group’s gospel is another’s shameful misuse. This is a situation we are used to seeing, of course, in various different contexts, but to see it as a central trap from which contemporary politics cannot seem to wrest itself is depressing to many. Indeed, defining contemporaneity in itself as the temporally progressive shoreline of a universalised thinking, we find ourselves in a moment of traumatic untimeliness through which discourses and the concepts that fuel them become fatally entwined in a mutually destructive death-spiral, both seemingly incapable of affecting the other to the degree that we have long been told is necessary, each diluting the structural analyses of the other in the popular imagination. Consensus becomes both weapon and shield for all sides who proclaim possession of the majority’s support whilst ultimately finding it impotent as various positions go to war with one another over minor differences of opinion. We watch helplessly as Overton Windows overlap, creating a disorientating and kaleidoscopic politics.

So, what is to be done? How do we deal with words — with concepts — when their innate lack of consensual meaning is abused with such regularity? How do we stand by the words and concepts we deploy in our conversations, resisting their cooption, whilst retaining their potential for the production of the new? How do we remain true to our broader identifications with the left or the right when both umbrellas are so full of holes?

I have a new essay in the 5th edition of Alienist Magazine on the topic of “Resistance and Experiment”.

This essay was a tough one to write — physically and intellectually — much of it was penned during a fever — so many thanks to the editors with their patience and also for publishing the whole thing. (It’s quite long — I blame fever-reading the brief for ignoring the words “short-ish statement”. Note to self: Don’t say yes to things when your brain is mush — although I am particularly proud of how this came out.)

It’s a product of a renewal of my Blanchot obsession, attempting to make sense of the philosophical conception of “friendship” as found in his work but also the work of Deleuze and Guattari, Bataille and Nietzsche; and it’s an attempt to make their collective conception of the term less alien to our contemporary politics.

I will undoubtedly expand on this on the blog later. It’s a knotted topic and one which I hope is read as challenging thought on all sides of politics rather than being read as an alignment with one side or another (although there is a palpable communist bias.)

Unfortunately, this issue contains explicitly transphobic content which I do not stand beside at all. I did not know who I’d be sharing the issue with prior to publishing but that’s not to say I regret submitting this text. In fact, I think this is the only text I would have been comfortable submitting even if I had known before hand. This concept of “friendship” is not one that I think anyone is very good at embodying in the present — whether on the left or the right; myself included — but whilst the left’s problems are largely self-evident, this issue does well to demonstrate the ways in which the right fails to do this as well.

Friendship, in this sense, is something I’m rethinking with a new vigour at the moment, trying to make sense of how it might be beneficial to our present moment.

You can find the issue on Alienist‘s website here and download the PDF here. (I’m at the back, pages 161–173.)

Haunted by the Slacker

It’s hard to remember a time when scrolling through Instagram was anything but a thoroughly exhausting experience.

Where once the social network was basically lunch and sunsets, it’s now a parade of strategically-crafted life updates, career achievements, and public vows to spend less time online (usually made by people who earn money from social media)—all framed with the carefully selected language of a press release. Everyone is striving, so very hard.

And great for them, I guess. But sometimes one might pine for a less aspirational time, when the cool kids were smoking weed, eating junk food, and… you know, just chillin’.

Finding it hard to stop thinking about Rosie Spinks’ essay on neoliberal professionalism and her hope for the return of the archetypal Slacker: “The Age of the Influencer has Peaked. It’s Time for the Slacker to Rise Again.

It’s something that haunts me quite a bit. I’m all too aware that this blog seems to exist more and more on a precipice between that thing I do for fun and for its own sake to scratch an itch and that thing which seems to offer a better chance at self-sustainability than any of the “real jobs” in my life.

Then again, I’m also all too aware that this is an issue exacerbated by a London existence which is rapidly approaching a peak of its own. I miss living in Hull, to some extent. It was very easy to be a slacker in that city, existing on next to no money at all. The feeling that living the dream is only achievable via geographic and economic disconnection is very real — and, to be honest, quite attractive.

My girlfriend and I keep daydreaming about moving out to Cornwall and living out our lives exploring its weird crevices and beaches. There aren’t really any jobs out there, however, and we’re told it can be an isolating place out of season. The former is an obvious issue but the latter sounds just fine. A new attempt to turn on, tune in and drop out.

Spinks continues:

Is it even possible to truly be a slacker anymore?

The neoliberal economic conditions that gave rise to the influencer — and all those side hustles and personal brands — simultaneously have made it harder to attain a normal middle class existence. Even if your goals are of the modest, slacker variety — an hourly wage job, a roof over your head, junk food to eat, and TV to watch — that’s all a hell of a lot harder to come by these days. 

“Thinking about Reality Bites, I feel like they were relatively privileged, but they were sort of lazing around and they could sort of consist on hardly any money at all,” Scott said. “It’s really impossible to live an urban life on very little money.”

But perhaps that realization will lead some to divest from the belief that hard work and self-optimization will lead us to some capitalist promised land. The neoliberal ideal has reached its peak and, well, it’s not as though we’ve solved income inequality with all our hard work. Quite the opposite. As Storr writes of our culture’s failed promise: “It wants us to buy the fiction that the self is open, free, nothing but pure, bright possibility … This seduces us into accepting the cultural lie that says we can do anything we set our minds to … This false idea is of immense value to our neoliberal economy.” 

Today, the evidence of that myth’s failure to deliver is all around us. 

The Blind Woman II

Some readers may remember a story told on the blog towards the end of last year about a “blind woman” who infrequently patrols the street outside my window. Every now and then, mostly during the summer months, she would appear in the middle of the night, cane in hand, walking right in the middle of the road asking for money.

Having only witnessed this from the window and being repeatedly woken up by her aimless shouting, I told myself if I ever bumped into her I’d confront her about her obvious scam. She’s not blind. No blind person would put themselves in such obvious danger, repeatedly, and always on the same street, violently refusing help offered that isn’t monetary.

Well, tonight, returning from a very late work-shift at 2am, I turn the corner onto my road only to find this woman with a cane walking right in the middle of the road and blocking cars from getting past. I don’t even think about it. I don’t say hello or are you alright, I open with a slightly aggressive where-do-you-live?

She turns around in the direction of my voice and it is immediately apparent that she is very legitimately blind. I’m surprised and immediately disarmed. She says, oh hello dahling, I’m trying to get to the roundabout down the road? Before I know what’s happening, she’s on the pavement, linking my arm and we’re on our way.

We chat about glaucoma and cataracts. She has diabetes and that’s why she’s blind. She’s been blind for about 5 years. I tell her my mum had cataracts. She tells me she stubbed her toe last night and the nail fell off and her mum put a bandage over it. I tell her about my old housemate who did that to his thumb. She tells me about doing something else to her foot when she was a kid which means that she lost half a toe. I say that must have been so painful but I don’t pay attention to what she’s done to herself. I’m thinking that I’m tall and she’s not and she’s keeping pace with me without any problems. I’m not sure I believe anything she’s saying.

Immediately I’m looking for holes in her story. Something isn’t right. I’ve seen passersby link her by the arm from our road on multiple occasions and they’ve gone in different directions each time. Once she went off in the direction we’re walking now only to appear on the street again about an hour later. I’m suspicious.

We reach the roundabout and I try to make my move and get back home, asking where her friend is whilst we’re out in the open. She says, wait, and then says to her phone, Call Terry. I look down, her phone is indeed Calling Terry. A man’s name. I’m nervous.

She asks if we can keep walking down to the fire station and to the pub opposite. He’ll meet us there, she says.

I agree. I know the area so I’m not too nervous about walking her along a busy road. Even at 2.30AM there is plenty of traffic.

Terry is on his way. We reach the fire station and cross over the road. She asks how far ahead the pub is. I say it’s about 100 metres. She says when we get to the pub, there’s a little alleyway down the side and if we could go down there that’d be great. I say okay as I put my key between my knuckles and get ready for Terry. Nothing about going down an alleyway at 2.30AM sounds very sensible. I’m certain I’m going to get jumped and mugged.

The thought was already in my head. Leaving work at 1am in Shoreditch I’m given a route to the station by the security guard, who tells me all about how he doesn’t mind watching empty buildings and doing night shifts in this part of town, so long as he’s not doing clubs anymore because he’s sick of putting on knife-proof vests and in Russia he used to carry a gun and be a bodyguard but for sad rich men who would buy art without knowing the meaning behind it, he said, perhaps appealing to our obviously soft and art-loving nature. Anyway, he said to avoid this-and-that road because they’re a bit “robby”.

So I’m already getting “robby” vibes from the pub alleyway and as we approach it the blind woman starts commenting on my arms. Oh, very big, aren’t they? All that heavy lifting you do at work? Yeah maybe, I say, laughing it off, all too aware that she’s probably trying to disarm me further and make me feel more comfortable, not knowing that everything she does or says is achieving the exact opposite.

Next she says her jacket is open. If you look you can probably see right through my nightie, she says. I laugh, eyes forward. Wouldn’t it be funny if I got done for indecent exposure in my pyjamas and dressing gown. I laugh again as we walk past the pub. There’s men drinking at the bar still, having a cosy little lock-in.

We turn the corner. I feel sick. A man is walking towards us and he looks very respectable. Light brown leather jacket with a light blue shirt. He’s bald. I think he looks like Craig Charles. I’m thinking how much further down here we need to go.

The man is looking right at us. Right at me.

You Terry?


Fanks dahling, have a good night, the blind woman says, as she’s passed seamlessly like a baton from one arm to the other.

And that’s it. I’m walking home.

Something isn’t right. It was too weird. It wasn’t normal. But I’m home free. I’m alive. I call my girlfriend who is on her way home from a night out. I’m in shock. I tell her the story and she can’t stop laughing but then she says, is that it?

Is that it?! I actually thought I was going to die! And I was too repressed and English to voice my horror at any point along the encroaching Kurtz-gradient!

Last time I said I was at least 80% sure that this was a scam. Tonight, I think I need to eat my words and bring that down to about 40%.

Unground: Fragment on U/ACC

Let’s not get it twisted: in focusing our attention on a “ground” from which our politics emerge, this is not to suggest that it is a ground we can capable of knowing.

After all, the unknowability of such a ground is what has led to the construction of the various illusions we are presently dealing with. But it is better to wrestle with this unknowability than the scaffolding we build around it.

To decide on this structure and come to some kind of false concensus is — politically speaking at least — far too arrogant. It is a fascism — a microfascism as Deleuze and Guattari would call it.

What is instead necessary is that we retreat to the ungrounded so that we might do better at climbing over our present complacencies, because the work is never over. 

Myth Addiction: Reflections on a Lost Fanaticism

Hast thou, Black Smoke,
Perform’d to point the tempest that I bade thee?

I’m watching LOST again…

I remember I was 14 when that show first aired and I quickly became obsessed with it, pouring inanely over ham-fisted symbolism with other fans online.

Over the course of the show’s original run, in constantly demanding itself to be “read”, with all its symbols and clues and red herrings, I ended up learning a lot of media vocabulary from LOST that I didn’t previously possess. I remember it was how I first learned about the concept of “deus ex machina“, for example — the title of the first season’s nineteenth episode, which I became particularly obsessed with.

No matter which way it went, I was totally wrapped up in what the show’s writers were trying to do, surfing a very thin line between shattering the fourth wall and their viewer’s suspension of disbelief along with it. I was totally taken in by it; by the narrative risk-taking; the WTF! twists and turns.

Looking back, as disappointing and frustrating as it was, the overall end of the series fell in line with this and all that they had explored over the preceding years. The writers retired the cast from the staged purgatory on which they had marooned them. It was only disappointing in that it had not been as surprising as every episode that had preceded it. But that is still a flaw, of course, even if a somewhat forgivable one (all these years later). The writers had written themselves into a hole with no way to tie up all those mysteries. To do so was not necessarily required but there must have been another way to provide closure…?

Maybe there wasn’t. The series had invested far too much time in its own mythology by that point, moving further and further outwards from its starting point. The finale could only ever feel like whiplash, a violent retraction, rendering everything prior to it meaningless, and it did so all too predictably.

On various occasions, from the first season onwards, various characters had posited the idea that maybe they’re all already dead. When it turned out they were right, there was no satisfaction in the confirmation. It was all too obvious a conclusion for a series that had tried so hard to be anything but.

So, along with the rest of the world, I asked myself that same question back in 2010: was it worth the one-time fanaticism? Like so many other examples of intensely adolescent obsession, my love of LOST later gave way to a cynicism in my own previously blind faith, but given the tropes that the series’ scripts had so explicitly played with, it feels now, in hindsight, like it was more informative for my own development than I’ve previously given it credit for. Not least because the season ran for almost the entirely of my teenage years.

I feel like, if you spend long enough as a teenager looking for meaning in culture where there isn’t any — and that’s certainly a hazard when getting lost in LOST forums (or any other kind of TV, film or music forum for that matter) — there’s a chance you end up giving yourself a crash course in Cultural Studies in the process. That’s what LOST‘s first season did for me. That fanaticism was deeply educational.

Even now, having started to rewatch this show and, admittedly, given up on it again halfway through the second season, I have to give it credit where due.

I’m reminded of that K-Punk post: “Fans, Vampires, Trolls, Masters“, in which Mark writes:

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 condescenscion 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. This is the only kind of ‘love’ that has real philosophical implications, the passion capable of shaking us out of sensus communis. Smirking postmodernity images the fan as the sad geekish Trekkie, pathetically, fetishistically invested in what — all good sense knows — is embarrassing trivia. But this lofty, purportedly olympian perspective is nothing but the view of the Last Man. Which isn’t to make the fatuous relativist claim that devotees of Badiou are the same as Trekkies; it is to make the point that Graham has been tirelessly reiterating — that the critique from nowhere is nothing but trolling.

I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately, not least since Twitter trolling reached its peak the other month. But also because what is particularly interesting about being a one-time fan of LOST, blessed with the gift of hindsight, is noticing how the show wants to create fans — and not just fans but fanatics — through a strangely recursive narrative mechanism whereby the show is, in itself, a challenge to the Nietzschean Last Man, the person of complacency and comfort, of “common sense”.

That person will not survive, marooned on a desert island, snatched from “civilisation”. And certainly not on an island that is plagued by such supernatural goings-on. The island requires a fanaticism. It requires the suspension of disbelief so that the mind can adapt productively to the demands — physical and supernatural — of this new environment.

In this way, it is a show that is all about fanaticism, mania, myth and belief. It is not the only show that considers these themes, of course, but it is notable for the ways in which it encourages these themes to leak out from its edges. How funny that a show effectively about obsession would itself be such an obsession of the zeitgeist.

If there’s one thing I remember vividly about watching LOST at the time of its original broadcast it is the feeling of being quite literally addicted to its internal mythology. I couldn’t get enough of its symbolism and various themes and allusions but I had not previously considered the extent to which this was a contagion spread by the show’s characters themselves.

To clarify what I mean by this, it might be interesting to first consider The X-Files.

The X-Files is infamous — at least in this house — for its persistent tendency to leave individual episodes unresolved. All you are often left with, as a viewer, is a choice: Are you a Mulder or a Scully? Do you believe in what you’ve just seen, embracing the internal mythology of the show on its own merits? Or do you insist on their being a lasting proof to give the show any weight at all — a lasting proof that, even for the characters themselves, is routinely snatched away or denied? Do you, like Mulder, want to believe? Or do you, like Scully, crave the hard evidence that never comes? (These “roles”, of course, become deeply embedded in the other and the character’s later copulation only cements this.)

(t’s a running joke of mine that my girlfriend and I resemble Mulder and Scully in ourselves, with my deep and all too forgiving love of the show, even at its worst, and her view that the show’s ambiguous endings are far too irritating to persevere with.)

I feel like The X-Files‘ central and convoluted relationship between Catholic scientist Scully and secular conspiracy theorist Mulder was clearly echoed in the bubbling antagonism that develops over the initial seasons of LOST between the hero-doctor and struggling realist Jack Shepherd and the mystic survivalist and dangerous optimist John Locke.

(I remember reading once that the writers, who named various characters after Enlightenment philosophers and scientists — Locke, Hume, Rousseau, Bakunin, Faraday, Burke, Carlyle — said the characters had nothing in common with their namesakes and, indeed, it’s a headache to try to map one onto the other, but I’d still be interested to see someone try.)

With LOST, the affect on the viewer is largely the same as that experienced watching The X-Files, albeit split across so many different characters it becomes infinitely more schizophrenic. Jack and Locke are simply the most obvious focal point, particularly towards the end of season one where the antagonism building between them comes to a head as they squabble over preparing for the arrival of the mysterious “Others”, with Jack wanting to get ready for a fight and protect the other survivors whilst Locke wants to jump headlong into the unknown and follow his curiosity even in the face of imminent danger by climbing down the hatch that has been his obsession for half of the season.

What is most obvious about the development of their characters at this point is that Locke, having been the first to experience the power of the island, is the person most prepared to adapt his sense of reality — indeed, he craves it. Having previously been disabled from the waist down, Locke awakes after the first episode’s plane crash now able to walk, and if that’s just the beginning of his journey then perhaps it’s no wonder he’s keen to see what else is in store for him.

In stark contrast, Dr. Jack, despite going through various bewildering and disturbing experiences, is wholly resistant to adapting his worldview. Interestingly, in the first episode of season two, there are flashbacks — central to each episode which detail the backstory of each member of the ensemble cast — which follow Jack as he comes to terms with his own lack of a bedside manner. He’s too “realistic”, to the extent that he might be negatively affecting his patient’s recovery. He’s allergic to giving out hope, especially false hope, but when he decides to change his ways, having been criticised for his depressing demeanour, choosing to give hope to one patient in particular, he wrestles with his conscience, worrying he’s made a promise he can’t keep. He later corrects himself, giving the patient his honest prognosis, but the hope he gave her has already worked a miracle. This hopeless patient with a spinal injury Jack knows he can’t fix nonetheless wiggles her toes post-surgery, whilst Jack is in the process of telling her she’ll never walk again.

It’s layered on pretty thick but beyond its all too obvious significance there is a deeper story being told here, I think.

Jack is unlike everyone else marooned on the island in this respect, or at least he thinks he is. Everyone else is, to an extent, struggling with instances of self-belief, whether positively or negatively. Claire does not think she can be a mother whilst the reality of her present existence as a heavily-pregnant beached woman confronts her, on a daily basis, that she eventually will be. Michael, too, is struggling to be the father he always wanted to be but which previous circumstances kept him from embracing. Sawyer is struggling with the way he has literally become the con man he dedicated his life to finding and killing, and Charlie is struggling with his tandem addiction to heroin and his own rock star image. Self wars with self-image.

Charlie is a particularly unsubtle example of this dilemma. His backstory shows him to be a religious man who is led astray by the success of his band, Driveshaft, which he is in with his brother and in which he is bassist and chief songwriter. Concerned about his brother’s spiralling lifestyle choices and burgeoning heroin addiction, rather than walking away, as he’d insisted they do if things get too intense, Charlie likewise becomes an addict and struggles far more with his new tendency to self-medicate than his brother, who eventually breaks free of the drugs to start a family.

Once on the island, the other survivors help Charlie overcome his addiction, renewing his self-belief in his own will and self-discipline. However, when a smuggler’s plane is discovered containing dozens of statues of the Virgin Mary, all filled with heroin, Charlie’s new resolved is tested.

It is perhaps the most unsubtle visual metaphor to be found in this first season but it tells us something interesting about the series as a whole:

What all of these characters share is an addiction to their cloistered sense of themselves. They are, to an extent, addicted to their own belief systems, and what the island requires is that they let go of their epistemic baggage. It turns out — and it’s a good lesson to be learned — that this is far easier said than done.


A few weekends ago we drove over to Knole. Deer are, like, my favourite animal and apparently they had loads of them. We discovered in the process that Knole was also a home / romantic getaway for everyone’s favourite literary lesbians: Virginia Woolf and Vita Sackville-West.

It was a short visit. We got caught right underneath a thunder storm and all the deer shat themselves and stampeded so we went home. Cool place though.