Antonin Artaud – “On the Balinese Theatre” (1938) [Origins of Theory-Fiction #8]

Antonin Artaud. The Theatre and Its Double [Le Théâtre et son Double], tr. Victor Corti (Richmond: Alma Classics Ltd, 2013 [1938]).

One of the most influential texts on theatre in the twentieth century, Artaud’s The Theatre and Its Double decries the turn Western theatre had been taking for the best part of four centuries, namely, towards a kind of ornate “realism” (dialogue heavy, verbose characters with complex psychologies, etc.) of which Shakespeare and Racine are most directly to blame. The development of the European theatrical tradition had produced a kind of “shadowless culture” (7), in other words, a frivolity or a distraction, in danger ultimately of irrelevance in a burgeoning technological modernity. Artaud’s goal was to gesture towards what he called “total theatre” (61) that would pull away the more filigree aspects of modern productions (staging, décor, scripting and, above all perhaps, any reference to or reminder of the everyday) and reconsecrate theatre’s unique “essence”. As Artaud articulates in “Theatre and Cruelty”:

We want to make theatre a believable reality inflicting this kind of tangible laceration, contained in all true feeling, on the heart and senses. In the same way as our dreams react on us and reality reacts on our dreams, so we believe ourselves able to associate mental pictures with dreams, effective insofar as they are projected with the required violence. And the audience will believe in the illusion of theatre on condition they really take it for a dream, not for a servile imitation of reality. On condition it releases the magic freedom of daydreams, only recognizable when imprinted with terror and cruelty. [61]

In Balinese “theatre” (likely barong and other forms of costumed dance), Artaud was able to articulate the vital link between theatre’s essence and the metaphysical forms that Western theatre no longer seemed animated by. “There is something about a spectacle like Balinese theatre which does away with entertainment, that aspect of useless artificiality, an evening’s amusement so typical of our own theatre. Its productions are hewn out of matter itself right before our eyes, in real life itself” (43). Dancers are likened to “hieroglyphs”, capable of communicating “some dark prodigious reality”, in a “state prior to [written or spoken] language” (44). For Artaud, the masks, costumes, gestures, and dances of the Balinese performers overcome their materiality and reunite us with the concept of pure theatre. They are “metaphysicians of natural chaos […] before which we see ourselves as ghosts” (47).

The performers’ “flows” and “rippling joints” bring to mind Debussy’s encounter with the Javanese gamelan performers at the 1889 Paris Exposition, a grounded moment in the development of Western music. Debussy’s “liquid works” such as La mer and Reflets dans l’eau are said to be directly informed by this encounter.[1] These Javanese musicians, accompanied by bedaya dancers, brought to the Expo water-themed rites dredged up from another plane of existence, not unlike their Balinese counterparts. As David Toop describes in Ocean of Sound:

Psychologically, these Javanese myths, along with the music itself, suggest an emergence of dreams and unconscious desire into the tangible world of consensus reality, the feminine other dredged up into a domain of masculine logic and action. The compulsive, almost occult attraction of liquidity, the floating world, the ungraspable emergence of reflections, sunlight on ripples, waveforms, the abyssal darkness down (or up) there, was characteristic of fin de siècle Europe, just as it is now on a global scale.[2] [18]


Notes

[1] David Toop. Ocean of Sound: Aether Talk, Ambient Sound and Imaginary Worlds (London: Serpent’s Tail, 1995), p. 18.

[2] Ibid. Toop notes the influence on gamelan in contemporary music, notably Shoji Yamashiro score to Katushiro Ôtomo’s Akira, a “Carmina Burana for the electronic, post-linear, folk-digital age” (14). Dr Yamashiro’s liner notes to the 2017 release of Geinoh Yamashirogumi’s Akira Symphonic Suite describes a “hypersonic effect” produced by frequencies of above 40kHz (beyond the limit of human hearing). Though a contested phenomenon, it is easy to believe while listening to this and other forms of gamelan music that the audible tones connect to encounters beyond perception, in a manner similar to Artaud’s metaphysical “pure theatre”.


Origins of Theory-Fiction is a series of blog posts/short essays exploring some of the critical texts of the emerging question of the embedded and stacked relationships between text and concept, fiction and “reality”. The purpose of this series is to gesture towards a concrete, working definition of the term theory-fiction, without being prescriptive, reductive, or exhaustive. As well as identifying some of the foundational theoretical works and literary hybrids to which this label has been assigned, this series will also examine key individual works of image, sound, and writing that allow us to further understand this provocation, and to test the limits of its usefulness and applicability. The titles of each of these posts is not necessarily the title of the theory-fiction under discussion, but rather the provocation for thinking about the theory-fictive mode. There is also no significance to the numbering or order of their production: they can be read independently or in any order desired.

Burial – Tunes 2011 to 2019 review

Traditionally, the music of the future is always beatless. To be futuristic is to jettison rhythm. The beat is the ballast which prevents escape velocity, which stops music breaking beyond the event horizon. The music of the future is weightless, transcendent, neatly converging with online disembodiment. Holst’s Planet Suite […], Eno’s Apollo soundtrack, Vangelis’ Blade Runner soundtrack: all these are good records – but sonically speaking, they’re as futuristic as the Titanic, nothing but updated examples of an 18th C sublime.

Kodwo Eshun, More Brilliant Than the Sun

Hyperstition here concerns not the longing for a lost past or the wish for an impossible future, but the meticulous weaving of parts, enveloping the unknown in the present, gnawing at the futurities of the moment.

Luciana Parisi, “Automate Sex”

On Tunes 2011 to 2019, the self-explanatory compilation quietly released at the end of last year, Burial has arranged a two-and-a-half hour suite of music that, on listening, firmly puts to rest the lazy assertions that there hasn’t been any significant development since the two landmark albums in the 2000s decade (2006’s Burial and 2007’s Untrue). Listening to it for the first time a few weeks ago, on the cusp of the new decade, it has become apparent that the timing of this release couldn’t be more prescient.

For the people who have followed this project across these last nine years and previously, Burial’s DNA is our DNA. The central engagement found throughout all of Burial’s music is the historiographical potency of the records and culture of London dance music, and the futures these cultural artefacts imagine in relation to a futureless present. Put crudely, Burial soundtracks the present moment, and contextualises this moment along the axes of place and time. South London Buroughs, the first Burial EP from 2005, can be easily interpreted as an attempt to report on the dance music scene from a prior moment, one that is both recent and ambiguously lost to us through its fictioning. The title track completes a hidden triptych of celebratory London rave anthems, that began with Bodysnatch’s “Euphony (Just 4 U London)” and Scott Garcia’s “A London Thing” (surely two of the finest tracks ever produced). But the elation of “South London Buroughs” is muted considerably. The hallmarks of Burial’s sound technique – namely, that uniquely cold reverb and the surface noise of records digitally embedded into the mix – simulate a strange dislocation in time while remaining rooted to a specific place. Listening to the track gives one the sense that something between the historical real and the fictional retelling of the nights soundtracked by those previous records has fallen out. There are rhythmic similarities in “South London Buroughs” to the 2-step and garage of the late 90s and early 2000s that are clearly articulated (though Burial does hold their own amongst the most original beatmakers), but the textures of the record foretell a darker and more melancholic relationship to the scene following the passage of a few anxious years (how many? 5 years? 10?). This is a dominant reading of all of Burial’s work, perhaps solidified by the critical reception of Untrue, a breakup album with the future itself.

Following the end of 2019, it once again feels as though we’ve entered into an insomniac age, a timeless zone somewhere after the future. Or rather, that this timelessness has crept into us, has walked over the shadow of the present and denied it any further motion. The film Blade Runner has its place in the history of UK dance music, as one of the inspirations of the darker atmospherics of jungle which went on to claim the 90s (the Director’s Cut of Blade Runner was released to cinemas in 1992). The tonality of Vangelis’s electronic ambient score, and grandiose themes of the fragility of urban living under state persecution and the nature of the human condition when mediated through technology, are persistent influences, consciously or not, across all musics of this heritage. Many of us are so familiar with this film, set in a worn-down future Los Angeles, that “November 2019” has become (and perhaps still is) shorthand for a point in the imagination of where the future can be lived. Crossing that point in our own world has been predictably uncanny, and, with the recent general election signalling immiserating defeat for the left in the UK, with an indefinite timeline on recovery, no less symbolic than the death of the last known replicant. The power of Blade Runner’s version of urban modernity to come is actually how little has changed since the early Eighties: still massively unequal wealth distribution, still substrates of society bumping heads at ground level, still the failure of the pursuit of individualist liberation on top of Frank Lloyd Wright architecture. The opportunity for living in even modestly utopian modern spaces, the film seems to signal to us in hindsight, has been kicked into the long grass.

As with any artistic representation of the future’s cancellation, there needs to exist a prior moment of teleological optimism against which the present’s shell of light can be measured. The 2-step/UK garage template provides not merely a hope for a brighter tomorrow but an enjoyment of the present moment itself, historically demarcated in the titles and samples of its tracks. (I am thinking here of Groove Chronicles’ “Millenium Funk” and “99”, and their sequel in Ghost’s “Two Thousand”. The comparisons between the fin de siècle of the 90s/00s celebrated there and the current crossing over of the 10s/20s are irresistible.) Part of Burial’s digital mysticism has been to adapt and reconfigure a presentism, potentially stronger than any hauntological futurism. Both 2-step and Burial’s brand of (post-)dubstep describe presents; however, each of these presents is wildly different in tenor.

Part of the strategy critics have had to reconcile this difference is to label Burial’s music as relating not to the club itself, but the (non)places that bookend the night out, calling attention to track titles such as “Night Bus”, “Pirates”, and “In McDonalds”. On Tunes 2011 to 2019, this analysis holds up only to a certain point. Listened to sequentially, the front end plays dividends to a strain of pirate ambient music: tracks such as “Beachfires” and “Nightmarket” are beatless, reverb-heavy, and offer only traces of prior hidden moments of a nascent millennium (the tricksterish Skull Kid laughter from The Legend of Zelda: Majora’s Mask, briefly heard on “Young Death”, stands out in this regard). After 37 minutes of this come “Hiders” and “Come Down To Us”, the B-sides of the Rival Dealer EP, arriving like the dubs of an alien pop yet to be conceived. The extraterrestrial theme is carried through samples from, of all things, the deliriously awful Whitley Strieber film Communion, about the writer’s abduction by diminutive alien creatures. The album’s panorama is widened considerably by the 13-minute “Come Down To Us” in particular, but it’s nearly an hour in from the compilation’s beginning before anything resembling a 2-step beat materialises.

That arrives with the most recent track featured on the compilation, last year’s “Claustro”, and the similarly frenetic “Rival Dealer”. Neither waste much more time in letting drop an aggressive, now impatient libidinal energy that strikes at the heart of the present moment and threatens to smother it with emotional intensities. “Claustro” bursts forward, releasing a sinewy square wave bass and signature Burial woodblock. (Isn’t Burial’s woodblock the most deliciously expressive of any instrument? Cf. “Near Dark”, “NYC”.) This is the moment the record throws off careless immiseration and sleepless anxiety of the colonies and makes a break for future territories: fuck tears in the rain, the club needs us, war dubs at the ready. It’s irresistible but to regard this as truly socialist music: polysexual, polyglottal, immediate, and reparational. Closing out the first half, the 10 minute “Rival Dealer” rests on its heavy, overblown rave sirens and distorted bass, but as with “Claustro”, its vocal refrains do much of the heavy lifting. The listener is threatened with a powerful and vibrant passion that would presumably cancel out both parties’ experiential depressive realism, melting bodies together, heightening and re-activating the present: “I’m gonna love you more than anyone.”

Disc 2 of Tunes 2011 to 2019 collects the three earliest records, originally released from 2011-2, and so provides a bridge between the initial run of beat-driven records from South London Buroughs to Untrue and the later, beatless longform pieces. Both Kindred and Street Halo feel vintage now (especially having heard them both hundreds of times over the years), and present some of Burial’s most accomplished tracks, including the subaqueous postsoul techno of “Ashtray Wasp”. Meanwhile, “Rough Sleeper” and “Truant” each stitch together 3 or 4 little episodic vignettes – variously inflected with shades of dub, gospel, R’n’B, and post-punk – like cautiously joyous samplers for discovering and redrawing the nostos out of the shards of the frozen past. (In a similar vein, it’s a shame “Rodent” didn’t make the cut, as I imagine it to fit perfectly here.)

Set against the backdrop of a soulless and corporate-driven monocultural Britain, far beyond the promises of the new, the afterglows evoked and negotiated across the 17 tracks of Tunes 2011 to 2019 confirm Burial’s position as one of the great folk musicians of this generation. This music is documentarian, conjuring narratives of the lapsed present and functioning as an auditory manifesto on how to get the moment back. If there are musical solidarities here, they are with the groups and individuals who have also attempted to materialise time and place through sound in order to reopen spaces for critical intervention: Ewan MacColl, Steve Gurley, Shirley Collins, Source Direct. But the unique strength of Burial’s music, confirmed here, is the way it draws strength from its very vulnerabilities, managing to define a worldview that imagines a transcendence of race, gender, sexuality, and cultural divisions beyond the endurance of suffering. Wounded, tough, embittered yet resolute, it’s exactly the kind of music we need to reflect on the previous starved decade, moving into dark and uncertain times ahead.

Reality Capitalism, or, the Cultural Logic of the Upside Down

After human capital, social capital, cultural capital, and algorithmic capital, I would like to propose reality capital as another contemporary object of exchange. Reality capitalism describes the state in which competing visions of reality – or even realities in themselves – are produced, bought and sold on futures markets, displayed through the refractions of multiple Overton windows, and (seemingly) possessing no innate value by which one can be asserted definitively over another. Reality capitalism is both the product of and existential challenge to the 40+ year project of neoliberalism, and a description of the market ecologies of what I have elsewhere identified as theory-fiction: convergences between various forms of text and their environments that are capable of causing a crisis in the confident notion of a singular, objective, and universal “reality”.

Below, I intend to draw out a number of elements and themes that could said to be representative or symptomatic of reality capitalism: a menagerie of theoretical concepts, memes, noteworthy recent events, strands of political or media analysis, and other assorted debris that either have or could find themselves the topics of recent conversations, and perhaps those to come leading into the new decade (though where the circus will travel has yet to be decided – looking forward to the following words’ obsolescence ten years from now). Of course, big concepts require more than flavour text in order to prove their merits. This is something I have not aimed at here, as my thinking regarding this line of inquiry is still wholly in its infancy. No conclusions at this stage either. Neither am I looking to equivocate any of the subjects below, only to suggest possible affiliations in the current climate, from a certain point of view and held together by a certain discontinuous dream logic, and to keep options open as to where this nascent direction in my recent thought might develop next.

As André 3000 once said, “It’s just my interpretation of the situation”…

*

We’re particularly interested in deep experts on TV and digital. We are also interested in people who have worked in movies or on advertising campaigns. There are also some very interesting possibilities in the intersection of technology and story telling – if you’ve done something weird, this may be the place for you. […]

We need some true wild cards, artists, people who never went to university and fought their way out of an appalling hell hole, weirdos from William Gibson novels[…]

Dominic Cummings, “‘Two hands are a lot’”[1]

The name populism has been associated with the emergence of a renewed political “far right” across the globe. Populism denotes a number of interrelated phenomena which congealed around some of the major political upheavals (and for many, upsets) of the 2010s. Chief in status among these was the 2016 US presidential election, which saw Donald Trump into the White House, but also similarly controversial appointments of hard-right figures in senior governmental roles, including Matteo Salvini (deputy prime minister of Italy from 2018-19) and Jair Bolsonaro (Brazilian president, 2019-); as well as the referendum on the UK’s membership in the EU (“Brexit”: 2016). The scale of popular support for the sentiments which fueled each of these events – typically characterised by appeals to “forgotten” communities (e.g. the “white working class”), systemic failure of the “elite” establishment class (parliamentary politics, education, the media), fierce national solidarity, redoubled anti-immigration rhetoric, and, above all, promises of re-enfranchisement – would have been regarded by many as inconceivable only a few years prior to their happening. Yet they now feel bitterly comfortable and commonplace, and difficult to prize apart from a more “innocent” time. Regardless of political orientation, what the democratic subject now finds easiest to register is a betrayal of trust, and a familiarity of being lied to (even if the lies and liars aren’t universally agreed upon). There are general understandings of imminent climate disaster, Russian collusion, social media manipulation and hacking of metadata, of potential economic chaos; but for many individuals, who have accrued generations of precarious living, instability, and (perceived) neglect, the responses have been apathetic and desensitised at best, and denialist and auto-destructive at worst.

The post-truth era refers to this thoroughly miserablist social climate, where the traditional lines between truth and falsity are increasingly, sometimes glibly, being breached. Perhaps this era could be understood primarily in terms of a displacement of affect. That is to say, while critics of postmodernism such as Fredric Jameson were content to describe a reduction in overall feeling for the individual, an experience symptomatic of neoliberal economic and social policies[2] (the world becoming more and more like a simulation of reality, or for Jean Baudrillard, “hyperreality”[3]), it is more widely believed today that these feelings (experienced as fear and resentment) were instead pooled, ready for extraction by nightmarish data science apparatuses and redistributed into the electoral machine. As soon as power is seized by these ill-understood data firms, and the targeted puppet-financier-CEO is installed, it is seemingly impossible to use judicial means to intercept or reverse these processes. After all, those who would have the means to delegitimise these populist seizures of sovereignty by (ostensibly) outsider mavericks (“men of the people”, reality TV stars) are themselves (by default) the establishment, and therefore de facto enemies of free expression and “ordinary people”. And so exclamations of “fake news!” and “no collusion!” become the de jure means of reinforcing the Manichean narrative of the establishment versus the commons, the deferral (and equivocating) of conspiracy with conspiracy theory.

Contradicting narratives proliferate the media landscape, and therefore the public at large is more divisive, more factional than ever. Narrative has now become the primary method of interpreting society, politics, and, more widely, “reality”. One could regard this everyday aestheticisation as a textualisation, in which physical and social sciences, once assured of their solidity and perennial status as tools of validation, are betrayed by a loss of the singular real itself. In other words, what was once taken to be generally valuable, applicable to all relevant contexts within “normal proceedings” (anything from voter polling to climate stats to philosophical rationalism and empiricism) now has to face stepping down from a position of total authority or legitimacy, now useful in some realities but not others. There appears to be no going back to a time of realist unity, a time of normal proceedings, as some might want: we find ourselves now flitting in and out of pluralised, weird and polytendrilled realities; another side of the board, the Upside Down.

I play to people’s fantasies. People may not always think big themselves, but they can still get very excited by those who do. That’s why a little hyperbole never hurts. People want to believe something is the biggest and the greatest and the most spectacular.

I call it truthful hyperbole. It’s an innocent form of exaggeration – and a very effective form of promotion.

Donald J. Trump, Trump: The Art of the Deal[4]

Political and cultural commentators sometimes like to point with a sense of bewilderment at the 2016 Superbowl halftime show, in which the wardrobe and choreography of Beyoncé’s performance owed much to the stylings of the Black Panthers, and contrast this with the election of Trump later that same year. Supposedly, this demonstrates a clear division between American culture and politics. It would perhaps be better to say that there is a misalignment between the hegemonies, or dominant ideologies, of mainstream culture and national electoral politics in this example. In any case, Trump and Beyoncé are unusual dialectical axioms for American history: clearly, given his often dismal personal approval ratings, Trump does not “represent” the entirety of American political views any more than Beyoncé’s performance “represents” the pinnacle of American culture at that particular moment. (And any film fan will tell you, the Oscars are a poor measure of the best films released in any given year.) It’s not as though we ought to expect a significant overlap between fans of the Superbowl concert and voters who anointed Trump at the ballot. The Republican nominee’s victory in 2016, as is now well documented, came about through crucial concentrated voting in key states, in which exposure via a combined mainstream and social media played a significant part. Similarly, platforms like Spotify and YouTube often hold the share of responsibility when it comes to algorithmically sorting and distributing today’s and tomorrow’s pop kings and queens. With the advanced techno-logic of viral marketing and the buzz generated by meme magic, there is no longer a pronounced need to cross the streams to achieve the conditions of success. The apparent contradiction, therefore, between the success of the Superbowl performance and Trump’s victory, lies not in the divergence between the discrete registers of American culture and politics, but in the failure of two very different trending topics, or profiles of famous positionalities perpendicular to the plane of the “real world”, to calibrate signals compatible with one another. And, furthermore, the contingency of such a need for them to do so.

Markets are won by taking control rather than by establishing a discipline, by fixing rates rather than by reducing costs, by transforming products rather than by specializing production. […] Marketing is now the instrument of social control and produces the arrogant breed who are our masters.

Gilles Deleuze, “Postscript on Control Societies”[5]

We are now preoccupied with a cultural logic that is simultaneously a product of neoliberalism and a threat to its very origins. The neoliberal project is, analysed through various post-Gramscian lenses, a liberation of human potentials through the deregulation of economic markets from state control,[6] an apparatus of free-market auto-correction or “self-contradictory form of regulation-in-denial”,[7] or an attempt to control and repurpose the state in an effort to “create and sustain markets at all costs”.[8] What the theorists who define neoliberalism thusly share is an understanding of the project’s very inconsistency, and aptitude in evading concretised meaning. Although neoliberalism describes a unity of varying strands of economic theory that were purposefully composed in the 1920s and 1930s, the principles of such a project, while never making themselves explicit, underwent frequent mutation until their first mainstream applications in the late 1970s, and indeed continued to adapt past this initial moment of implementation throughout the late 20th and early 21st centuries.[9] Neoliberalism has proven to be simultaneously deliberate and obscure, heterogeneous in its scope and reach and unified in its political and theoretical direction – and this mutability has been central to its effectiveness and long-term success.

It is in retrospect that we have come to see neoliberalism as a universal, default, and “natural” ideology and approach to economies and societies. These qualities were not always invoked in regards to the relationship between states and markets, and when they were first drafted faced immense hostility from mainstream Keynesian economic theorists and post-Depression governments. Why would more volatility, and increases in margins for profit losses – and even seemingly unusual social attributes such as the widespread construction of subjectivity as competitive and driven to self-improvement, and the dissolution of the public/private divide – be encouraged? More pertinently, how did these ideas manage to become taken for granted as the sensible (perhaps even the only viable) order of things in hindsight?

None other than Milton Friedman has an answer. Somewhat (in)famously, Friedman described the project of neoliberalism as one that opportunistically seizes a crisis and exploits it for its own gain: “Only a crisis – actual or perceived – produces real change. When that crisis occurs, the actions that are taken depend on the ideas that are lying around. That, I believe, is our basic function: to develop alternatives to existing policies, to keep them alive and available until the politically impossible becomes the politically inevitable.”[10] This “actual or perceived” is more significant than it may initially appear, as – with the Ccru’s term “hyperstition”,[11] or Žižek’s classic conception of ideology[12] – the fostering of political inevitabilities does not require mass consensus or even awareness in order for these narratives to take hold as natural and ahistorical. Indeed, it may be beneficial for the origins of such narratives to remain hidden whenever possible.

For any way of thought to become dominant, a conceptual apparatus has to be advanced that appeals to our intuitions and instincts, to our values and our desires, as well as to the possibilities inherent in the social world we inhabit. If successful, this conceptual apparatus becomes so embedded in common sense as to be taken for granted and not open to question.

David Harvey, A Brief History of Neoliberalism[13]

And so in the 1970s, after repeated shocks to existing economic policy in the forms of oil crises, rising stagflation, and the expansion of credit, neoliberalism appeared poised as a half-century theoretical project that could be viably implemented to pick up the pieces and engineer credible solutions to the problems that beset the United States and Britain. This effort was aided considerably by the protean admixture neoliberalism had become by this point, reaching out and lying low in government institutions, universities, public think tanks, and the media.[14] In its most recent iterations, according to Nick Srnicek and Alex Williams, it “has become parasitical on everyday experience,” its version of reality cocooning the dominant collective worldview by weaving through “the normative fabric of everyday life itself.”[15] But this is not simply an external imposition: neoliberalism also succeeded by building “on the very real desires of the population”,[16] becoming inextricable with notions of personal freedom and sentiments of anti-institutionalism. In conclusion, we can see the project of neoliberalism as not only an exercise in producing a desired reality out of the meshing of private desires and orchestrated ideological projections, but as a model for a kind of deranged logic that privileges the acts of producing realities out of the materials of the given “real world”, quantified through and distributed according to abstract (fictional) capital: events, people, energy, food, air, and water.

[T]he existence of a ‘futures’ market makes it abundantly clear that time itself is now for sale as a commodity.

Mark Fisher, “SF Capital”[17]

Let us not forget that the alien, vampiric, and demonstrable elements of Marx’s critique of capital tend to linger as some of its most credible and resonant. Mark Fisher’s concept of SF capital directly opposes Marx the humanist with “Marx the remorseless abstract cartographer of abstract hypercapital.” Humanist Marx posits capital-as-fiction as a quantification of use value, ready to be exchanged as such. But, for Fisher, use value itself is just as alienated as abstract capital, being that it is positioned along a time axis that ensures its transcendent inaccessibility. Use value’s “retrospeculative fiction” places it impossibly past the horizon of the future, and is unmoored from an imaginary past (of real exchange and real value). Capital itself is speculative, arriving from this futural point (often travelling from a fraction of a second into the future, as in high-frequency trading). What late capitalism trades on, therefore, is not an abstracted form of use value (given its unachievable status), but time itself: “time and money implex into each other.”[18]

The digital language of control is made up of codes indicating whether access to some information should be allowed or denied. We’re no longer dealing with a duality of mass and individual. Individuals become “dividuals,” and masses become samples, data, markets, or “banks.”

Gilles Deleuze, “Postscript on Control Societies”[19]

According to Luciana Parisi, the notion of algorithmic capitalism follows on from the “technocapitalist phase of real subsumption”, in which the “logic of digital automation has entered the spheres of affects and feelings, linguistic competences, modes of cooperation, forms of knowledge, as well as manifestations of desire.”[20] The digital technologies which increasingly exhibit modes of governance over our lives has transformed the “social brain” into a “machine ecology of algorithmic agents”, in a manner directly indebted to the neoliberal apparatuses of data gathering and quantification of affects and value(s). What emerges is a new form of governmentality, which has “given way to a diffused financialization of potentialities through which aesthetic life is constantly quantified and turned into predictable scenarios.”[21]

Alex Williams agrees with Fisher that capitalism is unique amongst all forms of social organisation in that it exists purely as a dehumanising vector, with no regard for human essentialism. According to this diagnosis, capital is at its purest when it is highly virtualised, and abstracted from the sticky world of human relations. Writing at the end of 2008, Williams saw in the financial crisis an opportunity for developing a new social science of xenoeconomics, that could reconceive the dominant economic mode as a “vast inhuman form, a genuinely alien life form […] of which we know all-too-little.”[22] The call being solicited here is for a new, “radically inhuman subjectivation” – the “unbound” Promethean – who would utilise market and state apparatuses to radically corrupt these macropolitical aggregates from within. This line of thinking later became the basis for the political philosophy of “left” accelerationism.[23]

What we used to call cyberpunk is a convergence: a crossover point not only for fiction and theory, but for everything that either doesn’t know its place or is in the process of escaping it. Whatever is emerging where authority is getting lost and middle men are being made redundant.

Mark Fisher, “Writing Machines”[24]

The term Overton window has steadily increased in usage within media analysis over the last few years, to the point of household familiarity. This term defines the space of public acceptance for news stories and political policies: ideas that fall within public expectation may be received as sensible or rational, whereas unfamiliar or previously discredited suggestions may (or even deserve to) be treated with cynicism, scorn, absurdity, or abject terror. What is important to users of the concept is that the Overton window displays a naturalism without itself being natural: its framing is constructed, according to principles that are historical, economic, and ideological. It is something that exists independently of received opinion, and yet can be influenced heavily by those in the media, government, and academia to suit particular interests and delegitimise alternatives. As Srnicek and Williams note, the neoliberal project did not require active assent in order to materialise in its many forms, and that by using the framework of the Overton window, a “sequence of neoliberal administrations throughout the world, in conjunction with a network of think tanks and a largely right-leaning media, have been able to transform the range of possible options to exclude even the most moderate of socialist measures.”[25]

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To look at an unusually blatant example of Overton window logics in full effect, we can look back, if we can bear to be reminded, to the tabloid press’s deracinating strategies on display during last year’s general election campaign. One image of many doing the rounds in certain social media circles shows a side-by-side of two headlines published on the Daily Express news site. One was dated shortly before the announcement of the election and outlined the Labour party’s plans to increase the minimum wage to £10 per hour: “Labour’s minimum wage plan could cost you YOUR job and send unemployment soaring”.[26] The other, published following chancellor Sajid Javid’s speech at the Conservative party conference, only a few weeks after the Labour headline, presented a minimum wage boost to £10.50 per hour in much more ameliorative terms: “Boris Johnson’s plan to raise wages across the country receives huge boost from expert”.[27]

Not only does this example highlight clear editorial bias, to the point of shameless self-contradiction and an insult to the intelligence of the Express’s readership, there is a clear subtext here about how rationality can be produced and maintained over time and throughout an extended, relentlessly pro-establishment media landscape. The Tories’ policy is presented as an expression of universal common sense; its recourse to an “expert” selectively pushed up to the banner. By contrast, the language of the headline (and article) of the Labour story is unabashedly emotive, designed to target unconscious fears by suggesting that an (even more) moderate wage increase poses a vertiginous threat to national stability. There is also a reinforcement of the Manichean logic of the media (steadily increasing in the West for decades now), that there is an almost chaotic undercurrent to all non-authorised political narratives (outside of the approved right-centrism and social conservatism by and large traded on by major print and broadcast media alike) – similar messages can spell out very different things; the weighting of belief is crucial.

But most fascinating about this example is that it appears to give an inverse economic value to the width of the Overton window: the space wherein reality is framed and the “unreal” excluded comes at a cost to minimum wage British employees of -50p.

[W]e live in a mythological era, where it is difficult to distinguish between myths and reality – like for the ancient Greeks – politics is not based on political knowledge, but on the myths promoted by the mass media.

Gleb Pavlovsky[28]

Whether the Overton window is employed or not, this placement of trust that the public is expected to participate in acts of faith when presented with policy pledges (especially when abstracted from historical political spectrums in this manner) is clearly something weak and contingent, and constitutive of forms of narration that are liable to co-option, distortion, and gamification from outside bodies and interest groups. As Reza Negarestani has suggested, dominant narratives are vulnerable to taking dark and chaotic turns when assumed to be hegemonic and unshifting: the undercurrents of subplots beyond the human dynamics of anticipation – what Negarestani calls Hidden Writing – are eternally poised to blister out from the surface plot.[29] The most high-profile events of the 21st century so far seem to affirm this hypothesis: Wahhabist atemporality interjecting the present under the guise of modern “terror”, the future’s cancellation through the breakdown of infinite-degree virtual capitalism (and subsequent redrafting of the globally dominant financial fiction), the screaming of the Earth…

Add to this list of examples the well-documented activities of the Kremlin-linked Internet Research Agency (IRA), which from at least 2013 employed hundreds of people (upwards of 400, according to one estimate) to spread misinformation across Russia and internationally, through sites such as Twitter, Facebook, LiveJournal, VKontakte, and the comments sections of several media outlets (CNN, BBC, The Huffington Post, Politico, Fox News…).[30] IRA workers were known to have used multiple accounts to spread pro-Kremlin propaganda on a massive scale, on issues including the Ukrainian Euromaidan revolution of 2014 and the presidency of Vladimir Putin. Multiple sources indicate that the IRA was funded in large part by the restauranteur Evgeny Prigozhin, known as “the Kremlin’s chef” for his role in hosting important meetings between Kremlin officials, as well as his campaigns against members of the opposition.[31] The IRA were later identified in relation to the network of social media campaigns used to agitate the 2016 U.S. presidential election.[32]

Robert Mueller’s indictment of 16th February 2018 brought into focus an operation known as the Translator project. Under the direction of Igor Osadchy, Translator “aimed to change the ratio” between pro- and anti-Russian online content, by defending the Kremlin across social media, and sponsorship deals with the perceptibly apolitical online zones of fashion, fitness, and spiritual guidance blogs.[33] These moves strongly echo Putin’s recurrent public opinion of the internet as a “CIA project”, and follow the protests regarding accusations of fraud in 2011’s Parliamentary election and Putin’s reinauguration in 2012 in particular as a concerted effort to restrict open public discourse on the “Runet” (Russian internet).[34]

When it comes to foreign affairs, the cadre of troll farms that the IRA are said to be constitutive play by a different set of rules, engendering not ideological unity but chaotic dissent. This is evidenced by the microtargeting of their political ads, hashtags, and promotions for events such as organised street protests. For example, the IRA are believed to have organised both pro-Trump and anti-Trump rallies in New York on the same day, and engineer support for causes such as Black Lives Matter while using targeted ads to stoke racial tensions among those susceptible to those views.[35] The methods of Russia’s newer propaganda outlets closely resemble those of the Kremlin’s “political technologists” a few years earlier, as well as top Putin aide Vladislav Surkov’s translation of experimental theatre practices over to the political stage.[36] The combined effect of Russia’s misinformation agents and machines has been to undermine the dominant structures of (Westernised) reality, and there could be no better place than the online world to control and shape desires, fears, and beliefs. As New York Times journalist Adrian Chen noted in 2015: “Russia’s information war might be thought of as the biggest trolling operation in history, and its target is nothing less than the utility of the Internet as a democratic space.”[37]

“When I use a word,” Humpty Dumpty said in rather a scornful tone, “it means just what I choose it to mean – neither more nor less.”

“The question is,” said Alice, “whether you can make words mean so many different things.”

“The question is,” said Humpty Dumpty, “which is to be master – that’s all.”

Lewis Carroll, Through the Looking-Glass.[38]

Much of the information regarding the IRA’s activities were leaked by a collective known as the Anonymous International (not to be confused with the masked hacktivist supergroup Anonymous). Their activities are numerous, and are said to include the publication of hundreds of private emails of both Russian officials and IRA associates.[39] Allegedly co-founded by “black PR” expert Vladimir Anikeyev and another individual, “Alexander”,[40] Anonymous International claimed that their operation resembled an online gamer clan, whose members were paid in cash or bitcoins for their services.[41] With a multitude of rumours to this day as to their origin (their possible connection to the upper echelons of the Russian government a persistent source of debate), the group appears steeped in the fictional: the name of their blog – Shaltai Boltai (Humpty Dumpty) – and pseudonyms of their members invite a comparison with the works of Lewis Carroll.[42] In a series of interviews conducted between 2014-5, Anonymous International spokespeople consistently described their aim as “trying to change reality”.[43]

Anonymous International, and others who leak data in the name of freedom of information, see their roles as much the same as those who wield state power: as gatekeepers of alternate realities, of new fictional environments, to make publicly available the materials from which individual and collective stories are written. While the relationship between states and the internet has shifted from the authoritarian to the memetic (comical, inspirational, attention-mediating), such caches of leaked data, from the most utopian viewpoints, also give the public the means to “see like a state”,[44] through the uncovering of the hidden structures by which the fabric of prescribed reality is cut.

As ending on this note would risk seeming celebratory or a desertion of foresight, I’ll instead put forward a different cop out, by invoking the “what is to be done” question. This is perhaps at least a good way of articulating one of the aims of the work I’ve already done, and will continue to animate my research both in the near and distant futures. Do we accept the terms of reality capitalism we already find ourselves negotiating? Do we work with or against the tide of fictional processes, eke out spaces for renewed commitments to rational thought or seize the memes of production? Do we ground and singularise the real as it once appeared to us, or look for opportunities in its entropic expansion and multiplication? Perhaps the only certainties are the need to recognise, to adapt, and to commit to the realisations of the future fictions that suit our needs best. This is the beginnings of a turbulent strategy, whatever ends it wishes to serve, but with measured applications of cunning we may be able to acquire the realities we want and need, outside of the market dynamics through which they are currently being offered to us.

*

Notes

[1] Dominic Cummings. “‘Two hands are a lot’ – we’re hiring data scientists, project managers, policy experts, assorted weirdos…”, Dominic Cummings’s Blog (2nd January 2020), available online at https://dominiccummings.com/2020/01/02/two-hands-are-a-lot-were-hiring-data-scientists-project-managers-policy-experts-assorted-weirdos/.

[2] Fredric Jameson. Postmodernism, or, The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism (Durham: Duke University Press, 1991).

[3] Jean Baudrillard. Symbolic Exchange and Death [L’échange symbolique et la mort], revised edition, tr. by Iain Hamilton Grant (London: SAGE Publications, 2017 [1976]).

[4] Donald J. Trump & Toby Schwartz. Trump: The Art of the Deal (New York: Ballantine Books, 1987), p. 58. Co-/ghostwriter Tony Schwartz has since publicly disowned Art of the Deal, appealing to its publishers in a tweet for them to reclassify it as fiction. Tony Schwartz, Twitter post (8th May 2019), available online at https://twitter.com/tonyschwartz/status/1126233571696492544.

[5] Gilles Deleuze. “Postscript on Control Societies” (1992) [1990], in Negotiations, 1972-1990 [Pourparlers, 1972-1990], tr. by Martin Joughin (New York: Columbia University Press, 1995), pp. 177-82 (p. 181).

[6] David Harvey. A Brief History of Neoliberalism (Oxford/New York: Oxford University Press, 2005), p. 2.

[7] Jamie Peck. Constructions of Neoliberal Reason (Oxford/New York: Oxford University Press, 2010), p. xiii.

[8] Nick Srnicek & Alex Williams. Inventing the Future: Postcapitalism and a World Without Work (London/New York: Verso, 2015), p. 53.

[9] ““Finding neoliberalism” is therefore not about locating some essential center from which all else flows; it is about following flows, backflows, and undercurrents across and between these ideational, ideological, and institutional moments, over time and between places.” Peck, p. xiii.

[10] Milton Friedman. “Preface, 1982”, in Capitalism and Freedom: Fortieth Anniversary Edition (Chicago/London: The University of Chicago Press: 2002 [1962 & 1982]), pp. xi-xiv (p. xiv).

We may also recall the famous anecdote about Friedman’s most ardent devotee, Margaret Thatcher. During a policy meeting in her time as sitting British prime minister, Thatcher is reported to have slammed down onto the table a copy of Friedrich Hayek’s Constitution of Liberty, telling her ministers “This is what we believe.” Peck, p. xv.

[11] Ccru. Writings 1997-2003 (Falmouth: Urbanomic/Time Spiral Press, 2017 [2015]). Cf. this volume, “Origins of the Cthulhu Club” (pp. 59-64); “Appendix 1: Ccru Glossary” (pp. 357-70).

[12] “[I]deology is not simply a ‘false consciousness’ [à la Marxism], 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’.” Slavoj Žižek. The Sublime Object of Ideology (London/New York: Verso, 2008 [1989]), pp. 15-6 (emphasis in original).

[13] Harvey, p. 5.

[14] In the UK, the proponents of what became known as the “New Right” emerged symbiotically with the Thatcher government, enabling one another to enact their vision on the national scale. Right-wing academics used column space in The Times, the Sunday Telegraph, the Sun, and the Daily Mail – as well as the Roger Scruton-edited Salisbury Review quarterly – as platforms for broader social ideologies, including anti-immigration politics. Cf. Maya Goodfellow. “Hostile Environment”, Verso (4th November 2019), available online at https://www.versobooks.com/blogs/4461-hostile-environment?fbclid=IwAR1dczI8Dtkr7NusdoWgJPv7S5nDsMAG8sb6dtSp5BTmQdcV1-ypj2A24x4.

[15] Srnicek & Williams, p. 65.

[16] Ibid., p. 64.

[17] Mark Fisher. “SF Capital” (2001), available online at https://web.archive.org/web/20050417013207/http://cinestatic.com/trans-mat/Fisher/sfcapital.htm.

[18] Ibid.

[19] Deleuze, p. 180.

[20] Luciana Parisi. “Instrumental Reason, Algorithmic Capitalism, and the Incomputable”, in Matteo Pasquinelli (ed.), Alleys of Your Mind: Augmented Intelligence and Its Traumas (Lüneburg: Meson Press, 2015), pp. 125-37 (p. 127).

[21] Ibid.

[22] Alex Williams. “Xenoeconomics and Capital Unbound.” Splintering Bone Ashes (19th October 2008), available online at https://web.archive.org/web/20100805021724/http:/splinteringboneashes.blogspot.com/2008/10/xenoeconomics-and-capital-unbound.html.

[23] Ibid. To quote Williams further at length:

Part of what is at stake here is the thinking of capitalism outside of alienation. For if we are to follow Badiou’s stab at an unmitigated inhumanism, a total leap beyond the suffering animal model of godless democratic-materialist bio-linguistic humanism, as surely we must, then a theory of value cannot be predicated upon this original suffering, the voodoo process of soul-theft at the core of the alienation of labour in the commodity form. To build a model of capitalism from a new theory of value is necessary if we are to evade the traps of both democratic materialist commensically corrupt liberalism, and the post modern end of history. The “blind acephalous polymorph” that is capital must be embraced, but not from the point of view of some naïve enthusiasm or sentiment of hope that markets can deliver utopia. Instead, as the way out of the binaries of a leftism which is utterly and irretrievably moribund, and a neo-liberal economics which is ideologically bankrupt, we must bend both together in the face of an inhuman and indefatigable capitalism, to think how we might inculcate a new form of radically inhuman subjectivation. This entails the retrieval of the communist project for a new man, AND the liberation of the neo-liberal quest for a capitalism unbound, from both its subterranean dependence upon the state and the skeletal humanist discursive a priori which animates its ideological forms.

The work of Ray Brassier has been influential on Williams’s development of a “Promethean” subjectivity. Cf. Ray Brassier, “Nihil Unbound: Remarks on Subtractive Ontology and Thinking Capitalism”, in Peter Hallward (ed.), Think Again: Alain Badiou and the Future of Philosophy (London: Continuum, 2004), pp. 50-8; “Prometheanism and Real Abstraction”, in Robin Mackay, Luke Pendrell, & James Trafford (eds.), Speculative Aesthetics (Falmouth: Urbanomic, 2014), pp. 73-7.

[24] Mark Fisher. “Writing Machines”, V2_Lab for the Unstable Media (c. 1998-9), available online at https://v2.nl/archive/articles/writing-machines.

[25] Srnicek & Williams, p. 135.

[26] Paul Withers. “Labour’s minimum wage plan could cost you YOUR job and send unemployment soaring”, Express (28th September 2019), available online at https://www.express.co.uk/news/politics/1183556/labour-party-general-election-policy-jeremy-corbyn-prime-minister-minimum-wage.

[27] Laura O’Callaghan. “Boris Johnson’s plan to raise wages across the country receives huge boost from expert”, Express (4th November 2019), available online at https://www.express.co.uk/news/politics/1199992/boris-johnson-conservative-party-general-election-minimum-wage-raise-sajid-javid.

[28] Gleb Pavlovsky, in Andrew Wilson, ““Political technology”: why is it alive and flourishing in the former USSR?”, openDemocracy (17th June 2011), available online at https://www.opendemocracy.net/en/odr/political-technology-why-is-it-alive-and-flourishing-in-former-ussr/.

[29] Reza Negarestani. Cyclonopedia: complicity with anonymous materials, (Melbourne: re.press, 2008), pp. 60-1.

[30] Cf. Max Seddon, “Documents Show How Russia’s Troll Army Hit America”, BuzzFeed News (2nd June 2014), available online at https://www.buzzfeednews.com/article/maxseddon/documents-show-how-russias-troll-army-hit-america; Adrian Chen, “The Agency”, The New York Times (2nd June 2015), available online at https://www.nytimes.com/2015/06/07/magazine/the-agency.html.

[31] Ibid.

[32] Alexander Panetta. “‘The Translator Project’: Mueller charges 13 Russians, details election conspiracy”, Canada’s National Observer (16th February 2018), available online at https://www.nationalobserver.com/2018/02/16/news/translator-project-mueller-charges-13-russians-details-election-conspiracy.

[33] Ibid.

[34] Seddon; Chen.

[35] Maya Kosoff. “How Russia Secretly Orchestrated Dozens of U.S. Protests”, Vanity Fair (30th October 2017), available online at https://www.vanityfair.com/news/2017/10/how-russia-secretly-orchestrated-dozens-of-us-protests.

[36] Wilson; Adam Curtis (dir.), HyperNormalization (BBC: 2016).

[37] Chen.

[38] Lewis Carroll, Through the Looking-Glass, and What Alice Found There (London: Macmillan Children’s Books, 2015 [1871], p. 111.

[39] Seddon; Chen; Daniil Turovsky, “‘A man who’s seen society’s black underbelly’ Meduza meets ‘Anonymous International’”, Meduza (2nd February 2015), available online at https://meduza.io/en/feature/2015/02/02/a-man-who-s-seen-society-s-black-underbelly.

[40] Shaun Walker. “Russian hacking group’s ‘last member at liberty’ comes out of the shadows”, The Guardian (9th February 2017), available online at https://www.theguardian.com/world/2017/feb/09/russian-hacking-groups-last-member-at-liberty-comes-out-of-the-shadows.

[41] Turovsky.

[42] Ibid.

[43] Seddon; Turovsky.

[44] Cf. James C. Scott, Seeing Like a State: How Certain Schemes to Improve the Human Condition Have Failed (New Haven/London: Yale University Press); Benjamin H. Bratton, The Stack: On Software and Sovereignty (Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 2015).

But… The Future Refused to Change: Unedited Facebook Posts, December 2019

Saturday, 7th December, 10:30

Even if you’re not out canvasing this weekend, now is a critical time to be talking to family, friends, neighbours, etc., about their concerns and intentions for Thursday’s crucial election. ESPECIALLY in Midlands seats, which are at real risk of turning blue for the first time in generations. The ruling elite expect to feast on our inertia, lack of self-esteem, and indifference. Let us do them no pleasure.

Unity across every divide. Let not a single one of us be left behind. Only through honest and compassionate discussion can we reach out to the people we love, and let them know they haven’t been forgotten. Reassure them that is a party for all of us in this day and age, and remind them of the name of this party. #VoteLabour

Monday, 9th December, 14:50

With NHS staff and funding at critically low levels, and the very palpable threat of widescale nationalisation around the corner, Thursday’s election is a vital opportunity to steer Britain onto a different path. For 2 years the government held secret trade talks with the US, and at no point did they take the NHS out of their negotiations! The massive drive towards deregulation, plus influx of private contracts since the 80s (as part of a program of “stealth privatisation”), combined with American demand for “total market access” to UK pharmaceutcal markets, demonstrate the depths to which the Tories are willing to sacrifice our public services in pursuing their agendas. Don’t give them the mandate.

Our doctors, nurses, medical students and staff are able to protect us at our most vulnerable. We need to do the same for our NHS, before it is too late. #VoteLabour

Tuesday, 10th December, 12:02

Conservatives want you to think this is a Leave vs Remain war, a culture war. It benefits them to hide from you what this is and has always been: an economic war, a war between those without opportunity and those who take opportunity away. Love and unity are our strongest weapons.

When all other parties are locked into the false promises of 2016, of 52 vs 48, only Labour dares to keep it 100. #VoteLabour

Wednesday, 11th December, 18:12

Tomorrow we have the chance for a fairer, more productive and stronger economy. By raising corporation tax on the monopolies and protecting 95% of people from income tax hikes, Labour will be the biggest ally to businesses on the local and national level, creating a diverse market and reigning in corruption. By protecting and strengthening workers’ rights, and offering a genuine living wage of £10 per hour, Labour will undo years of austerity that has left our communities in poverty, homelessness, unemployment, in food banks and in hospital corridors. By putting wealth back into our hands and away from the millionaires, we will all be able to invest in our communities and local businesses, and create a future that will attract investors from all over the world.

The steady hand on the economy is Labour’s. #VoteLabour

Thursday, 12th December, 09:13

Whose future is this? And for how much longer will we be expected to suffer?

Today gives us hope, hope for our ailing democracy, to put an end to the misinformation and lies, for the complacency of a ruling class which treats us with contempt and will stop at nothing to drive us apart for their own ends. But we have the strength to resist, to fight to make the future possible once again. Don’t allow anyone to make you feel that you can’t make a difference, to speak on your behalf when they come for our wages, our rights, and our public services, use our taxes to fund murderous overseas campaigns, make an excuse of poverty, homelessness and death, to excuse the wealthy multinationals and private landlords from paying a fair share and footing us with the expenses. Let the Conservatives know that we won’t stand for this a day longer.

I appreciate skepticism, disbelief that the future can ever change, and the seemingly impossible feeling that it’s possible to trust anything politicians promise ever again. But it is vital we use the electoral tools at our current disposal to enable these things to change. As a famous conservative author once said, what use is the laughing face of irony against the steel grimace of death? Or, we could say, what use is our skepticism if we can’t use it to reach a progressive conclusion? There is a world of difference between the two major parties today, just as, despite what the papers and broadcasters would like you to believe, there is a world of difference between the Blairite shambles the Labour party was a few years ago and the people-led, reinvigorated Labour party of today. Look how far we’ve come on the expectations of so little, and look how short the distance is from here to the polling station at 10pm tonight.

It’s not every day that we’re able to invent the future.

Thursday, 12th December, 15:53

“The long, dark night at the end of history has to be grasped as an enormous opportunity. […] From a situation in which nothing can happen, suddenly anything is possible again.” – Mark Fisher

Friday, 13th December, 16:57

However yesterday’s result turned out, this was going to be the beginning of the fight of our lives. The greatest of respect has to be reserved for the people who rejected the dominant narratives, who saw poverty, failing schools and hospitals, food banks, rampant xenophobia, far-right resurgence, and the stoking of hatred on an increasingly unihabitable earth and firmly denied the necessity of such things. Thank you to all of you. Your time and votes are never in vain. History is a long, dark night, and we are firmly on the right side of it. The strength of the Labour movement must absolutely remain united. The vultures are already circling.

We must reflect, mourn, and be angry, but be unafraid to continue the fight. At 7pm lat night, a few hours before the polls closed, I was talking to a homeless man in the rain and freezing cold, telling me there was no space left for him in the local shelter. His story has not come to an end, and so neither can the future we wish to live in be turned away. Votes for women, the NHS, the end of South African apartheid, and declaring a climate emergency all ran counter to the interests of the ruling elites, yet the people stood unafraid and insisted that they become reality. We must be prepared to do the same as we have done before. We have begun something unique in all of Western politics, that was unimaginable only five years ago. As long as there are workers and nonworkers who remain at the long, thin wedge of society, our compassion and ability to resist the politics of inequality must continue to be unbound.

Always, for the many, not the few.

Friday, 13th December, 17:04

Writing as Work

It’s often been said (not least on this blog) that for many of us, work plays a central role in our lives. Sometimes there is a close relationship between the words “work” and “livelihood”. The idea of engaging in work in order to live is quite common but disarmingly complex. According to the physical laws of motion, any conversion of energy into a productive force can be defined as work. In classical liberalism, political economy, and Marxism, work is loosely defined as some sort of production, although this idea is now formalised as wage labour: the exchange of productive human activity with a monetary dividend – i.e. employment. What then happens to these conceptions of work when we project back onto them the idea of livelihood, of working to live? How do we define work when production is no longer needed as a formal element (because its often only the least fortunate of us that are today engaged in the most dangerous practices we think of as production)? And where does the idea of production go without work? I’d like to draw from my own acts of production in the form of writing, and other experiences of different forms of waged and unwaged work, to offer a few considerations.

At this present moment, my time is split between the long-term ambitions of writing – which I think of as something like a kind of production as a way of life, if not a “livelihood” as such – and the more immediate concerns of precarious living – the pressing need for waged work, consistent streams of revenue, psychological and social groundings, and so on. The difficulty for me, and for many others that I know are struggling to find footing at the edge of capitalism, is to chart a journey that works for both ideas of work-as-survival and work-as-desiring-production (because no one would choose this without believing in the promise of fulfiling a deeply-held desire). The blog provides me with no income; I’ve never been paid for any piece of published work; and I’m not naïve to expect that to suddenly change. Therefore, I can’t expect to combine these two ideas of work, and anticipate writing as a self-sufficient means of livelihood. To negotiate between different types of work takes a huge strain on the time I have, and the frustration and disappointment that results from compromising either is tough to endure. These feelings arise from the nasty balancing act that causes me to be less successful in either of these areas of work than if I were to fully commit to one or the other; further behind than I’d like to be, always engaged in catching up.

You’ll notice that in the last paragraph I did in fact refer to writing as work: an opinion that is not shared by everyone. For several members of my family, I do not work, plain and simple. Writing doesn’t count, and is never discussed or encouraged, because it doesn’t produce an income. Likewise, job searching is not work, unless I returned to the job centre and claimed unemployment benefits, in which case the 35 hours a week of looking for work, training courses and the like that are conditional to receive said benefits would count, as they do for the Department of Work and Pensions. According to this logic, only activity associated with financial reward qualifies as work: it’s what you get out, not what you put in, that counts. Living with this inscrutable, thoroughly pessimistic assuredness, especially coming from my “elders and betters”, continues to be nauseating. But it also underlines the paradox I’m trying to tease out. Taken at face value, this argument states that the only value of work that really matters is as an act of survival, and survival is money. Without a pay packet, work is not work but a waste of time. But you shouldn’t go around saying those things – you’ll never get a job that way.

It took me a good while to find a way through this pessimism. Academia certainly helped, not only for the change in scenery, but also in assuring me that I wasn’t mad, that it’s not hopelessly delusional to expect more from life than submitting to fear and immunising oneself against homelessness and starvation. When I came to one tutor, expressing how hard I was finding it to hold down a part-time job at the same time as full-time education, they told me in unequivocal terms to quit the job the moment I no longer needed the money. (They later said to me that they might have been a tad reckless in suggesting this.) The attitudes I encountered at university couldn’t be more different to those I was used to at home: while not homogenous, and not all pretending to have reached an absolute position on the matter, most were of the opinion that it would be absurd not to consider writing as the primary form of work I was engaging in. As one friend said: “most of us are too afraid to write anything.”

For me, it is important to assert the following deductive logic: work as production, writing as production, and therefore writing as work. This is a defensive gesture for sure. No one else but me needs to think about my writing in this way. But doing so allows me that enclave, that place of sanctity to keep it together against the whirlwind of discouraging opinion, to keep going.

I was drawn to this subject again after coming across an excerpt from Richard Seymour’s new book The Twittering Machine published by The Guardian. Reminding us that, though our interactions with social media, most of us are writers now – less distinct than ever from casualised journalists and authors – someone or something is profiting from this perpetual motion of text production. We find ourselves being treated as gambling or drug addicts: “users” who know ourselves to be the ones being used by abstract machinery, feeding “the machinery of writers, writing and the feedback loop they inhabit” for the “hit” of likes and shares, temporary vainglories.[1] Writing may now be at its most democratic – and it’s most pernicious, which is even more reason to take it seriously as a discipline. The Twittering Machine is expert at abstractifying us, streamlining our lives into “a single visual flow, a set of soluble challenges”, helping us to understand who we are and what we ought to be doing.[2] Precisely then, I would say, why we should be helping ourselves and others to seize the means (memes?) of writing’s production, to reabstractify and restructure our lives towards progressive ends, open-sourcing our futures to share in the profits of writing-as-work.

Compare my earlier argument with sentiments made by (why not?) Mark Fisher, and his grievance against the phrase “contributing to society”, so prevalent in mainstream British discourse and elsewhere:

Like many people I know, I spent my twenties drifting between postgraduate courses and unemployment, encountering many pointless and demoralising “helping you back to work” initiatives along the way. There wasn’t much difference between what I was doing then and what I do now. But now I’m fairly confident that I “make a contribution”; then I wasn’t.[3]

There’s a clear identitarian need here, for both of us. If it is no longer clear in the age of mass casualisation what work is anymore, who’s to say what work is not? In fact, one could argue, writing fulfils the mandate of work as production better than most other kinds of activity today. Furthermore, I dare anyone to challenge the social value of writing, while at the same time defending the “contributions” made by those in service industry jobs, the likely soon-to-be-victims of full automation. It’s not healthy or fair for anyone in my position not to expect to be tired at the end of the working day, or to feel guilty about the lost opportunity for income. The idea of writing as work (and is it really so farfetched?) is about recognition, legitimacy, and security against the agents of a grotesque form of social conscience that it’s expected we all co-opt, one which states that you’re only as commendable as the depths you’re willing to sink in a scrabble for wages, and to believe in or practice anything else is the most vulgar form of sacrilege.

But isn’t being this defensive problematic? Doesn’t it merely serve to legitimise the idea of a concrete discrepancy between work and non-work? Should we not be moving in the opposite direction, towards an abolition of the value of work altogether? And yes, I agree in principle. The erosion of telos – of purpose-driven narratives in all areas of society, including the value of work – is one of many valuable opportunities that it’s imperative we grasp with both hands. As the work economy shrinks, and many of us not knowing how best to use the time we have, we really need to look closely at how we can make substantial, lasting changes to our lives and the lives of others, especially when not being granted reliable capital.

I spoke earlier this year at a “Precarity and Precariousness” event, giving a paper on Kathi Weeks’s book The Problem With Work (a version of this essay). One person replied to it by using a Right to Be Lazy kind of argument – if there is no moral imperative to earning a crust, if we’re in a better position than ever to engineer better modes of survival and adaptation alongside a loosening of the grip waged labour and its narcotic ethical imperatives have over us, then we need to assert our freedom to sleep, to spend time with family, to learn, to masturbate, etc. I responded to this with a reluctant yes. I could see that a return to personal autonomy is what this person meant, which is not really objectionable. But I think the original value of Weeks’s analysis tends further in the direction of what I’ve been describing here as production: to take precarious living itself as a template, to convert loss of earnings into a sustainable position from which to fight back against this very same trend. And to be clear about what it is we’re fighting for: sustainable life, not the macho ideal of honest work.

Yet there are other attitudes to mine on the subject of unrecognised working activity. I was pleasantly surprised reading Anna Tsing’s The Mushroom at the End of the World recently to read about precarious workers of a very different kind – the matsutake pickers of “Open Ticket”,[4] in the forests of Oregon – unified in their opinion of picking as decidedly not work. Here’s an excerpt:

Picking is also not labor [for mushroom foragers] – or even “work.” Sai, a Lao picker, explained that “work” means obeying your boss, doing what he tells you to. In contrast, matsutake picking is “searching.” It is looking for your fortune, not doing your job. […] No pickers I met imagined the money they gained from matsutake as a return on their labor. Even Nai Tong’s time babysitting was more akin to work than mushroom picking.

Tom, a white field agent who had spent years as a picker, was particularly clear about rejecting labor. He had been an employee of a big timber company, but one day put his equipment in his locker, walked out the door, and never looked back. […] Tom tells me how liberals have ruined American society; men no longer know how to be men. The best answer is to reject what liberals think of as “standard employment.”[5]

Without wishing to sound too evangelical or patronising, I confess to finding myself moved by the bravery – intentional or instinctual – these pickers show in so freely demonstrating the needlessness of their livelihood-making activity being categorised as any kind of “work” – even shuddering at the thought. Instead, Tsing links this activity to a shared notion of freedom generated by a shared sense of “mushroom fever”. This freedom, she argues, is the true object of exchange in the “pericapitalist”[6] economy of mushroom foraging. “Sometimes, indeed, it seemed to me that the really important exchange was the freedom, with the mushroom-and-money trophies as extensions – proofs, as it were – of the performance.”[7] Compared with notions of freedom spoken of by economists or libertarians, the mushroomers’ freedom “is irregular and outside rationalization; it is performative, communally varied, and effervescent.”[8] It is rather like the ghosts emerging from the shadows produced by the overhanging edges of capitalism, the cultural memory of postwar Japan, of Lao and Mien struggles, of shrinking, shrieking forests. A freedom that is simultaneously without and within these penumbral psychogeographies and power relations, a “negotiation of ghosts on a haunted landscape; it does not exorcise the haunting but works to survive and negotiate it with flair.”[9]

This description of the context-specific (economic, psychological) precipices inhabited by these modes of precarious living allows us to return to some more general points on which to conclude. In many cases, it seems, those engaged in productive activity (whatever you want to call it) often find themselves in a strange relation to the hegemonic forces from which to negotiate a sustainable way of life. For myself and postwork analysts and advocates, this has the tendency to generate a reactionary, defensive response – the need to abolish, to claw back, to protect the existing rights of the most vulnerable – as well as (even at odds with) advocating a progressive, transformative agenda – which the Open Ticket pickers embody and enact. Being optimistic (but certainly open to interpretation!) is to treat my own gesture – that of writing as work – as exemplifying this two-way movement, holding onto the signifiers of work (i.e. the name) while debasing the signification (the implied sociohistoric value).

I can’t go on, I’ll go on. The irony of course is that even commenting on the value an ethics of work – let alone actively seeking to contribute towards a politics of post-scarcity – takes up a lot of time and energy which we are hoping to release from old mythology and legislature. Which is probably why so few go very far down this path – it’s pretty counterintuitive and unheroic. I for one am tired, not so much of the lack of recognition, but the protestations of outright denial that I have any right to be. It turns what ought to be vitalistic and energising into even more hard work. Writing is work.

Notes

[1] Richard Seymour. “The machine always wins: what drives our addiction to social media”, The Guardian (23rd August 2019), available online at https://www.theguardian.com/technology/2019/aug/23/social-media-addiction-gambling.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Mark Fisher. “Contributing to Society”, k-punk (4th August 2010), available online at https://k-punk.org/contributing-to-society/.

[4] A fictional name used to protect the identities of pickers operating outside of the law.

[5] Anna Lowenhaupt Tsing. The Mushroom at the End of the World: On the Possibility of Life in Capitalist Ruins (Princeton/Oxford: Princeton University Press, 2015).

[6] Meaning “simultaneously inside and outside capitalism”. Ibid., p. 63.

[7] Ibid., p. 75.

[8] Ibid., p. 76.

[9] Ibid.

Featured image credits: Detail from Paul Klee. Die Zwitscher-Maschine (63.8 cm x 48.1 cm, 1922). Source: Wikimedia Commons.

One Hour Photo (2002) [Origins of Theory-Fiction #7]

Mark Romanek (dir.). One Hour Photo (Killer Films/John Wells production for Fox Searchlight Pictures/Catch 23 Entertainment: 2002).

Sy “The Photo Guy” Parrish (Robin Williams) works in the photo development studio and kiosk located at the back of the local SavMart store. His otherwise solitary life is dedicated to the underappreciated art of developing prints for casual shoppers and regulars alike. Through his work, Sy becomes a minor figure in the lives of his customers. Likewise, Sy becomes invested in the subjects of these prints: he comes to know them in a very particular way, through the moments thought to be the most important or happy by the photographers. As Sy himself is aware, “no one ever takes a photograph of something they want to forget.”

Conventional narrative cinema is at a disadvantage compared to experimental or documentary film, when it comes to enacting or producing a theory or original engagements with thought. Often, what the film industry takes to be its most cerebral legacies (at its most supposedly laudable, the tired gods Inception and The Matrix) are composed, in essence, as empty vessels, carriers of “philosophy stuff” that imply hasty readings of existentialism and pop science. Rarely do films, mainstream or otherwise, ask us to confront media themselves, to approach the questions of representation and performativity via the processes of capturing images with cameras. One Hour Photo is not a theory-fiction about film, but it does depict textual becomings (or becoming-textualities) through the medium of photography. In this narrative, Sy Parrish is both a conscious and considered author-theorist and a willing participant. Over the course of the film, the stories Sy crafts through the prints he receives gradually become inextricable from his own. In a sense, he lives entirely through the carefully-selected memories of others, like a reverse hyperstition: “element of real culture that makes itself effective.” Or, to take another pop culture example, like the subject of The Cure’s “Pictures of You”: “I’ve been living so long with my pictures of you/That I almost believed that the pictures were all I could feel.”

Let’s trace Sy’s world-building fiction as it unfolds over the course of the film to explore this idea in depth. Early on, we are introduced to the family that becomes Sy’s object of desire, the neatly-arranged Oedipal triad of father Will, mother Nina, and son Jake Yorkin. The Yorkins have been regular customers for years: Sy commments that he’s watched 9-year-old Jake grow up through photos of birthdays, that he “feels like Uncle Sy”; deliberately letting slip his desire to enter and disrupt the equilibrium of the family unit. When, at the beginning of the film, Nina and Jake arrive at Sy’s kiosk (the absent father is another recurrent theme), and Sy notices that the last shot on their latest reel hasn’t been used, he uses the opportunity to take a picture of himself. This is a critical act of self-portraiture, as it marks the moment where Sy is able to cast himself into the family household, in a continuum of images, happy memories for the photo album, coffee table or refrigerator. As no one but Sy is aware, he possesses extra prints of all of the Yorkins’ photos, in a striking collage on the wall of his apartment; the same images existing in two places at once, Sy’s unattainable desire is to assimilate the two sets of prints into one.

As well as the more obvious limits to social acceptability (the unmistakably Walmart-esque non-place that is the setting for much of the film illustrates the corporate code of conduct repeatedly), there’s an economic barrier to the fulfilment of this desire too. The Yorkins’ light and spacious minimalist house (more like a suburban mansion, paid for by Will’s profession as the director of a design company) sharply contrasts Sy’s out-of-town, dingy flat. This is especially apparent during a fantasy sequence in which Sy breaks into that house, and sees that self-portrait on the fridge door alongside the (very) familiar snaps of the family. The differences between the two households are clear to Sy: the Yorkins’ lives are abundant, joyful, idyllic, and literally picturesque; his life, on the other hand, is lonely, cold, and a perpetual economic and emotional struggle. Where the Yorkins are extrovert and public, willing to perform their fantasy of a perfect life to the eye of the camera, Sy is an introvert, a scavenger for images that would imbue his life with significance.

Yet as carefree as the Yorkins’ photographic story appears, it fails to illustrate the family’s much more turbulent domestic situation. At the core of this is husband-father Will’s “neglect”, the source of which is revealed to Sy to be his affair with another woman, Maya Burson. Sy is wounded by this discovery, to an almost personal degree. These two people, Will and Maya, stand to jeopardise the photo-narrative he has invested so much into, and so the remainder of the film sees him planning and enacting his revenge on them both. Perhaps here we can sense a degree of self-loathing in this reaction: their desires not especially different, Maya is merely a more successful interloper than Sy, so it seems Sy is weighed down by a refusal to face his own hypocrisy. Instead, he assumes control of a narrative he takes to be his (and in a sense, he is right), to cut off the flows of desire that have disturbed the harmony he needed to believe in.

At the centre of One Hour Photo are the photos themselves; it is a story about static images, told through moving images. At the time of the film’s release, digital photography was set to replace film photography, rendering Sy’s lab work antiquarian for the general consumer. If the twentieth century was dominated by the presence of photographic images, the beginning of the twenty-first has put this process into hyperacceleration, with the infusion of the digital photo, all-in-one portable devices (mobile smartphones), Wi-Fi and 4/5G, and image-centric social media platforms (Instagram, Facebook). It may not even be possible at this stage to measure the full impact of these technologies on social behaviour, but it ought to be evident that this revolution of images gifts all of us photo producer-consumers a great source of power. This power of the image (some might say glamour) produces in us a cocktail of thoughts and emotions which is often overbearing for individual human users, and can (and indeed does) manifest in sociopathic expressions: shame, terror, self-harm, suicide. We are (implicitly or not) keenly aware that without online presence, especially for the otherwise isolated, we risk not existing at all, and our photographic identity is a key component in this. We are all encouraged to shape our own photographic narratives, driven by an almost cultish sentiment of keeping alive. Sy’s observation – that we don’t have photos of things and times we want to forget – is more resonant now than ever: the surgical tools granted to us ensure that the deletion of an image no longer leaves behind even a physical residue.

The image One Hour Photo forces us to confront is that of Robin Williams, whose widely-publicised suicide in 2014 consecrates the actor’s visage as a Yorick-like memento mori. It’s too easy to grant hindsight the agency for subsequent interpretations of Williams and his work, of which much of the best has often been able to suggest a melancholic aspect. Georg Rockall-Schmidt says that while many remember Williams’s talent for being funny, he remembers more sharply Williams’s talent for being sad, and I think this comment is very astute. Regardless of this ability during life, the impact of Williams’s death surely does affect the watching of One Hour Photo. The film does more than portray a dead film star; our cultural memory coerces us into seeing a dying one. If Sy’s narrative is one of pornographic voyeurism (however platonic in its expression), that is at times uncomfortably close to our own photographic lives, then the position of One Hour Photo in the narrative of Robin Williams invites a voyeurism of a different kind: proto-snuff. And as Paul B. Preciado notes, “the notion of snuff is opposed to the dramatic or simulated and mimetic quality of all representation.” As bodily and somatic theory-fiction, snuff “affirms the performative power of representation to modify reality, or a desire for the real to exist in and by representation.” The danse macabre of Williams on screen is fully actualised in his portrayal of the desperately lonely Sy Parrish, speaking to the daily whirlwind of images we produce and consume, the legitimacy they promise but which we can never possess or embody, the dualistic celebrity/nobody of our spectral subjectivity. Sy’s thanatropic desire for the illustrious, elusive real is ours too: a mortification that is already under way.

Origins of Theory-Fiction is a series of blog posts/short essays exploring some of the critical texts of the emerging question of the embedded and stacked relationships between text and concept, fiction and “reality”. The purpose of this series is to gesture towards a concrete, working definition of the term theory-fiction, without being prescriptive, reductive, or exhaustive. As well as identifying some of the foundational theoretical works and literary hybrids to which this label has been assigned, this series will also examine key individual works of image, sound, and writing that allow us to further understand this provocation, and to test the limits of its usefulness and applicability. The titles of each of these posts is not necessarily the title of the theory-fiction under discussion, but rather the provocation for thinking about the theory-fictive mode. There is also no significance to the numbering or order of their production: they can be read independently or in any order desired.

Aphex Twin – Richard D. James Album (1996) [Origins of Theory-Fiction #6]

Aphex Twin. Richard D. James Album (1996: Warp Records).

When I was a teenager, I suddenly developed skin allergies which still persist in a milder form to this day. I therefore needed 2 or 3 prescribed medications (nowadays down to 1) to deal with these sudden reactions, and found that I couldn’t use heavily perfumed products – including most common soaps – without causing irritations to my fair skin. I decided, following medical advice, to replace as many hygiene products as possible with milder, alternatives, with fewer potentially harmful ingredients, but this meant going through a period of experimentation, with not every result being kind or favourable. I’d opted for a new moisturiser – it had an image of a globe on the bottle and boasted quite loudly of its “natural ingredients” – which, after a couple of days had completely dried out the skin on my face, making it wrinkled, broken, and hideous. I had just discovered the music of Aphex Twin, and found a strange caveat to my experience: that I could now look in the mirror and see a ghoulish visage not unlike that on the cover of the Richard D. James Album.

My first exposure to this record probably came in the form of (Salad Fingers creator) David Firth’s wonderful unofficial video for “4”. I can say with reasonable confidence that this track, with a handful of others, had an effect on me that felt like nothing less than a reprogramming of my brain. In the last “Origins of Theory-Fiction”, I considered DJ Screw and his legacy as a paradigm of musical breakthrough made through slowness, and much of the Richard D. James Album and other AFX releases during this time (Girl/Boy EPCome to Daddy, Windowlicker, and Drukqs) take the opposite direction with results that are no less startling. James presents compositions with elements pitched at different yet complimentary speeds, but what immediately grabs the attention are his breakneck and hyper-detailed drums, producing ever-mutating rhythms, patterns, and textures. Strings, bass, and other electronic elements layer over these drums, contrasting them sharply with their laconic paces. These latter features have a more immediate beauty, but on repeated listens fall back slightly in order to accentuate a more complex and substantial sublimity provided by the percussion. These are drums capable of endless variation and interpretation, which strive to capture what art rarely manages to process: the speed of life. Or rather, a life, which connects to many.

In a career defined by unpredicted slippages and left turns, AFX’s Richard D. James Album stands as a remarkable piece of self-portraiture (might we say autotheory?). Or perhaps not, as James has always been interpreted through a haze of rumours: one exists that he had a stillborn older brother, also named Richard, and so the album could also be an obituary to a lost “twin”. (See also the cover of Girl/Boy EP.)  It’s an achingly nostalgic 33 minutes at any rate, even as it has one foot firmly in the present-future. James had left his native Cornwall for London in the early 1990s, and much of the panoramic and liberating sentiment one might expect comes across in moments of his debut album, Selected Ambient Works 85-92. But this feeling dampens somewhat on the releases following this, and a darker introspection creeps in, taking over completely on the feverish, synesthesia-induced Selected Ambient Works Volume IIRichard D. James, by comparison, feels like an exorcism, a driving out of demonic influences through reconfiguring these self-representations, like the head sculptures of Franz Xaver Messerschmidt.

Which brings us full circle to that face again. A grotesque contortion with a deep gaze and plastered, immobile smile, made by James himself using early photo editing software. The associations we could derive are many: kinships with the mythical figures of Cornwall’s past (coastal giants, witches, pirates, and other cliffside dwellers), and the vulnerable figures of the immediate past of techno-modernity (the weakling children and Oompa-Loompas evoked through the record’s tracklisting). Ultimately, what James provides is a self-assertion, a key to determining the nature of what is being presented that doesn’t resort to prescription. A starting point which, through its apparent transparency, reveals an inscrutable enigma. A method of fixing an image of a cross-section of the forever-alien web of life. Richard.

Origins of Theory-Fiction is a series of blog posts/short essays exploring some of the critical texts of the emerging question of the embedded and stacked relationships between text and concept, fiction and “reality”. The purpose of this series is to gesture towards a concrete, working definition of the term theory-fiction, without being prescriptive, reductive, or exhaustive. As well as identifying some of the foundational theoretical works and literary hybrids to which this label has been assigned, this series will also examine key individual works of image, sound, and writing that allow us to further understand this provocation, and to test the limits of its usefulness and applicability. The titles of each of these posts is not necessarily the title of the theory-fiction under discussion, but rather the provocation for thinking about the theory-fictive mode. There is also no significance to the numbering or order of their production: they can be read independently or in any order desired.

Baby Voice, Deterritorialization, Masculinity

[O]nly through their encounter in a place, and their conjunction in a space that takes time, do decoded flows constitute a desire – a desire that, instead of just dreaming or lacking it, actually produces a desiring-machine that is at the same time social and technical. (Deleuze & Guattari, Anti-Oedipus)

Last month, Genius uploaded a video titled “A Linguist Breaks Down Playboi Carti’s Baby Voice”, in reference to a popular vocal technique used by the rapper in a string of recent hits. Highlights include guest appearances on Solange’s “Almeda” and Tyler, the Creator’s “EARFQUAKE”, as well as Carti’s own “Flatbed Freestyle” from last year’s Die Lit album. (Complex also have a more detailed timeline here.) For a musical genre where the performer’s voice is their main tool of distinction, innovation is not uncommon – nor, for that matter, is novelty, especially in saturated, memetic, and personality-driven times such as these. But the baby voice has perhaps caught the imagination more than anything in the genre in recent memory, and has spun off into a meme culture or order of signs all of its own (Cartinese).

In the video, Dr. Sharese King (University of Chicago) identifies one or two components of the baby voice: the reduction of consonant clusters and the adoption of different personas. These aren’t Carti’s unique innovations, however. The baby voice, as a “semiotic resource”, is a fully realised example of a new kind of toughness or aggression, based on a confidence in pulling away from obvious and overused signifiers. King: “If I’m a tough rapper, I’m not using a deep voice anymore to do it. I’m gonna use this kind of voice – this baby voice, it totally redefines the landscape for what hip hop looks like”.

In some ways that aren’t immediately obvious, rap in 2019 is in an even more aggressive place than 10 years ago. The cartoonish exuberance of a hit like Waka Flocka Flame’s “Hard In Da Paint” has somewhat fallen away in favour of a mellower, less pronounced, and melodic style of cloud rap reflective of an ever more interconnected digital age. I say “somewhat”, because it’s interesting to note what has changed, and what has stayed the same. Atlanta-born trap has for some time become the dominant rap style – productions that are all bass and hi-hat trills – and also has influenced mainstream pop in a big way. But the subjectivities enshrouded by these musical elements has been allowed to mutate. The progression, and even the name “baby voice” are inspired moves, because although they appear to deviate from the heaviest features of an overtly masculine culture, where they re-emerge is not exactly “feminine” either. Socially speaking, babies are largely gender neutral – they’re not thought of as men or women in most contexts, but unformed social entities that will accumulate and enact gender signifiers as part of their growing up. In “reverting” to a baby voice, Carti performs a bloom or Body without Organs kind of a move – returning to a primal state, opening up the virtual channels to enable the culture to reactualise itself in more creative, original, and unseen ways.

Of course, this implies that the baby voice doesn’t, in fact, really challenge the misogynist narratives and patriarchal flexes weighing down the genre in any substantial way. The innovation is therefore largely aesthetic, not political, which is probably what insatiable rap fans are really after in the first place. It feels as though the baby voice has been coming for some time, and at least in the instances we’ve heard it so far, is able to provide something that some fans have been craving. And the baby voice itself expresses this desire for the new: the feeding of desiring machines by production machines, the cybernetics of control, profit, connection through social media and celebrity/meme culture, alienation, fear of erasure.

Does this mean that Carti’s recent tracks, features, and leaks will form the basis of a new turning point in rap? Hard to say, but it’s important to note that these artistic decisions aren’t happening in a vacuum. Following distinctive trailblazers in both the mainstream and the underground (particularly Lil Wayne, Soulja Boy, Lil B, and especially Young Thug – note all the diminutive signifiers), the last few years have seen the breakout success of similarly creative rap vocalists (Lil Yachty, Lil Uzi Vert, XXXTentacion) and producers (Metro Boomin, Pi’erre Bourne, and far too many others to name). Each occupy their own interesting distances from the all-too-entrenched paradigm: the DMX/50 Cent figure – tough as nails, raised on the streets, dedicated to the thug life. The new wave aren’t< the polar opposite to this, but are distinguished by a more introspective sound and subject matter. Rap sometimes has a little brother syndrome when comparing itself to older, traditionally better received genres – especially rock. So maybe, as others sometimes say, this is rap’s emo phase. Occasionally this music carries the “sadboys” tag, named after the crew of Swedish rapper Yung Lean. I want to cover this in more detail in a later post, as there are clearly a lot more factors feeding this trend. But I will end on saying that I think two tracks stand above the others as nascent sadboy/emo rap anthems, these being Lil Uzi Vert’s “XO Tour Llif3” and the leaked “Pissy Pamper / Kid Cudi”, a Young Nudy track featuring Playboi Carti giving one of the best baby voice choruses heard yet.

Featured image credits: Complex.

Reversibility and Intimacy in and Beyond the Master’s House

I presented an abridged version of this paper as part of The Reverse Side: Guattari, Deleuze and Institutional Thought, a series of events which ran from 8th-10th July 2019 at Royal Holloway, University of London. In part a response to the concurrent, much larger International Deleuze and Guattari Conference 2019, The Reverse Side sought “to examine the institutional politics of contemporary academia and to explore the positive alternatives to university life suggested by the work of Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari.” Huge thanks go to Edward Thornton for allowing me to participate in such a diverse and stimulating gathering; the usual whetstones who were helpful in consolidating my initial thoughts; and all the other speakers and attendees – each attest to the appetite for critical intervention into the stagnant, asphyxiating forms of contemporary academic conferencing, and the worthiness of the continued search for alternative paradigms.

This paper is an excuse for me to ask questions, so let me start with an obvious one: What are we doing here? The template of this academic conference, as well as many others we will each attend over the course of our careers, is familiar. It is predictable, and for some even comfortable. But regardless of whether this is your first conference or your hundredth, I want to know: Is this the best use of our time? What, ultimately, can we agree on to have realistically gained as a result of our gathering? Are we helped by the conference’s informality, its provision of soapboxes from which we can each share our research endeavours in the safety of similar minds and sympathetic ears? Do we develop relationships with these sympathetic characters that go beyond our formal exposures, or do we simply accept that these presentations of different bodies of knowledge and thinking can only be the end of a process to which we as spectators provide no real function in developing? Do we learn much at all by doing any of this; and more cynically, do we even care if we do or not?

It seems that whenever we go through the processes of organising, scheduling, and delivering these kinds of events we are borrowing from inherited modes and behaviours, and not developing from the ground up the most optimal and effective forms of collective education. That is to say, while there may be in some instances the opportunity to experiment with styles and materials – the use of visuals, electronic resources, performative elements – the free space which engenders these divergences is itself extremely restrictive. We might here elect two possible barriers, although there are more, as time and interactivity. By time I’m not referring to the idea that a conference takes place on a scheduled date, or that it lasts for a predetermined length of one or two days, or a week, or whatever. Instead, I’m suggesting that the conference produces various modes of time, which themselves bring about certain behaviours and expectations. We have time for speakers, which resembles classroom time (or an ideal classroom time at any rate): the audience is silent, attentive, respectful of the speaker’s use of their platform. Then we have time for questions and answers, panels and so on. Then there is corridor time, in the breaks, which – with its lack of discernible boundaries – is oftentimes an even more oppressive nest of social interactions and conducts. We turn sheepishly to the strangers we’ve found ourselves marooned with – the people we think of as our peers, though it’s not likely we’ll see them much beyond these moments – and resign ourselves to exchanging our thoughts on what was listened to just a few minutes ago. Or else we try to convey our enthusiasm of our current research topic through a rehearsed monologue. (Usually the two subjects in combination.) What is advertised as a break is far from an excuse to diffuse or take stock of the thoughts and emotions of the last couple of hours, and instead gels the sessions together into six-, eight-, or ten-hour marathons, potentially for multiple days at a time. I understand that I’m making the next break even more difficult for us to endure by drawing so much attention to it: I hope that instead of staring into our phones for twenty minutes we can find common ground for understanding the problematic nature of our mutual encounter.

This leads me on to the second of these possible barriers, which I’ve chosen to call interactivity. As much as we would like to think that the conference represents a coming together of like-minded people with similar research interests and experience, we do not escape the fact that, in the majority of cases, what is actually being presented is a loose collection of strictly separate responses to a proposed theme or question. It is typical behaviour for both speaking and non-speaking participants not to interact with speakers prior to the event, and so the talk given is largely a solo venture which emerges in its most nascent form. While it may be true that the paper will benefit from the collective wisdom once exposed and brought subject to questioning, it is more likely that, should the speaker choose to develop the ideas they have presented further, they will return to these ideas as individuals once again, making a few amendments based on group feedback here and there, but nearly always as the sole tillers of their field. It’s undeniable that academia more generally has a problem with the “myth of the individual”, which asserts itself through exclusive, highly competitive behaviour and rhetoric; and ultimately the conference does little to challenge this.

Before going any further, it is imperative to ask: What is academia, how is it being defined here? From the conversations I’ve had with various academics and non-academics, there appear to be two broad definitions we could consider. The first one – the one I usually tend towards, admittedly, although it’s far from adequate on its own – refers to the institution itself: the academy and related infrastructure. From this, it follows that one is an academic if they belong in some way to the right kind of institution; the obverse to this would be to suggest that a person not currently attached to the academy is not, at that moment, an academic. Of course, this dichotomy breaks down somewhat when we consider all those exceptions and anomalies to this quite stringent rule: graduates, visiting lecturers, retired and emeritus professors, dropouts. These exceptions surmount a large enough challenge to the rule’s dominance as to require bolstering through alternative conceptions of academia. And so we move on.

The second definition to which the people I’ve spoken to gravitate is towards a kind of interpellation as an academic subject, akin to a quality or internalised state that said subject carries about with them forever like a halo – once an academic, always an academic. I take issue with this for a couple of reasons. One, what is the significance of being able to tout oneself as a member of the club? This idea of academic immanence (if you like) entirely fails to provide a sense of value vis-a-vis the label; the belief that it’s better to find oneself inside the proverbial tent remains unchecked without further levels of qualification. Two, in many legal, economic, and social contexts, the thought that one is respected as an academic beyond university life is clearly a huge fallacy. It’s blindingly obvious, for example, that non-students can’t apply for a student loan, or council tax exemption; they may not even be entitled to the same discounts as academics when it comes to conference registration. The ease of access to information when it comes to such events may also be beyond reach, given that they are frequently advertised within particular closed networks and social circles which the non-academic might not be aware of or find easy to enter. Now, there might be an economic argument when it comes to conference promotion, but there is also undoubtedly a cultural one. As a non-academic, I invariably manage to astound at least one person as to my being at an event which is, implicitly, probably not meant for me. A confession, perhaps, that the value of academic conferencing is minimal to none when it comes to those beyond institutional investment?

I don’t say these things to imply that it’s infinitely more difficult to cut it as a non-academic. I don’t believe that for a moment; academics have their own sets of unique challenges to negotiate, they take on huge levels of responsibility for the most meagre reparations, all without the safety nets traditionally granted to workers in other sectors. These are all factors I do not have to face, yet I am acutely aware of them; they form a large part of the reasoning by which I ultimately decided against continued postgraduate study. I have nothing but respect and admiration for anyone who is capable of managing these intense struggles. All I’m wishing to achieve with my critique at this stage is the identification of an important difference that currently exists between these discrete groups – the academic and the non-academic or post-academic: a difference which neither of the definitions we have to hand are singularly capable of recognising.

Perhaps we could attempt to map these two ideas onto the macro/micropolitical dynamic found in A Thousand Plateaus. We are told by Deleuze and Guattari that “everything is political, but every politics is simultaneously a macropolitics and a micropolitics.[1] Whether it is appropriate to adopt the lens of one or the other is not a question of scale, furthermore, but of context, or “the nature of the system of reference envisioned.”[2] To grasp the politics of academia would therefore require an understanding of its structural forms – the university, the conference, the organisation of bodies, and so on – as well as the covert management of codes, relationships, and behaviours characteristic of the present, experiential level of subjectivity: the vaunted molar-molecular dialectic. One of Deleuze and Guattari’s most penetrating political contributions is their documentation of the role of desire within these structural aggregates: the question underpinning Anti-OedipusHow did the masses under fascism come to desire their own servitude? – can begin to be unpicked through an understanding of the nature of these flows of desire in themselves.

Without wishing to draw an unfair and ill-conceived equivalence between fascism and the kinds of desires that coalesce into the academic conference, we are still left with the task of critiquing these desires as they are formed on the micropolitical level. If we want to rethink the scale of possibilities for collective education and production, we need to be asking ourselves the following kinds of questions: Whose desire is responsible for the event I am participating in? How (and why) am I identified with (perhaps self-identified with) these large-scale aggregates of desire? And how can our desires – both individual and collective – help to push the envelope of possibilities to come? I don’t suppose that there are many of us who think that the purpose of the conference is to fulfill particular quotas, or to boost the profile of the university, which is what we are doing, and wouldn’t be a problem if it served us as educators and students to do so. While I don’t think conferences are prescriptive (in that they don’t carry about with them overt aims, besides responding to a particular problem or theme), I do propose that there are further important questions to consider regarding their effectiveness in terms of learning, and as sites of coalitional production. These ambitions seem to me to be assumed inheritances from former ideals, internaliised and propagated in the name of making both macro- and micropolitical gains: macro on behalf of the institutions, the funding bodies, the archaic forms in themselves; and micro on the level of individual desires – desires for security, progression, recognition, and so forth. So I would ask, therefore, if we are to continue with academic conferences, which of these desires are legitimate, and is the conference the optimal form for achieving them?

This brings me onto a word I’ve recently been thinking about, prompted by discussions with friends across long distances, and that word is “intimacy”, something which seems underdeveloped in philosophy. In the context of collaborative research and political solidarity, I take intimacy to be a becoming-multiple with other bodies, and an opening-outwards into deindividuated cohabitation below or beyond representation by the apparatus. Therefore, intimacy might be defined not as a relationship based on proximity to other ideas and beings – though there’s nothing to prevent it from including these – rather, as the navigation of systemic barriers, with the possible aim to abolish them where they arise. Now, academia is precisely full of these barriers – economic factors, limits to behavioural codes, assessment, solitary working patterns – which is why not every close relationship in academic environments can be classified as intimate. The relationship between student and supervisor, for example, is clearly based on a dynamic of power: one is expected to perform duties for the other, in order to further themselves in some way. And this of course can and often does lead to all kinds of exploitative behaviours.

Here in the UK, we are constantly met with reports and allegations of sexual misconduct within campus and conference environments. Some of you may have seen last month an article written for HuffPost UK titled “The Female Academics Fighting To Make Higher Education A Safe Space For Women”. This is just one of the most recent public documents acknowledging the massive structural problems of the academic community in regards to sexual misconduct, and of course, and as the last few years have made explicit, these problems aren’t limited to academia. But it’s of utmost importance that in proposing a politics of intimacy that we’re not in fact tacitly making these occurrences a lot more probable; that would of course be a disaster. I’d like to read a quote from that previously mentioned article; specifically, a comment made by Dr Emma Chapman of the 1752 Group, a cross-institutional organisation which works to end sexual misconduct in higher education:

“People seem to think that because academia is supposed to be full of very intelligent people that they’re intelligent enough not to harass people and actually that’s not true at all. What academia is full of is power imbalances and those power imbalances are exploited all the time in every form.

“You’ve got all of these little steps and at each stage that person is basically in charge of your career.[3]

Here, I would argue, in favour of my own definition of intimacy, that these power imbalances precisely are the obstacles of delimiting power – or what Deleuze and Guattari call power centers[4] – which keep their participants frozen in potentially dangerous configurations. Therefore, I wish to underline that these examples would not be cases of intimacy as I am trying to understand it. I know I say this as someone who is statistically unlikely to ever experience sexual harassment at first hand, which is why I’m trying to be so careful in my approach here. But it is important to acknowledge these very real dangers right from the outset, as precisely the antithesis of my proposal. I know that if I were not to do so, someone else in this room would.

To pull away from this slightly, I want to clarify at this point that I don’t mean to think of professional working relationships as necessarily toxic in all instances, or without value, but only at this stage to discount them from this line of research. I do of course recognise the importance of robust, goal-oriented communications between peers along routes of currently normative professional practice, but wish to critique the macropolitical functions of such interactions. How can we begin to develop enclaves of resistance if we are content to reproduce a production-line model of research methodology, based on the re-practicing of well-worn and predictable codes of postgraduate collaboration?

One might argue that we don’t necessarily want to do this at all, given the precarious balance of this current model. Maybe for some individuals and instances, this model works just fine, as it enables them to develop their chosen project in relative safety. But the range of such viable projects in philosophy, and across higher education, is diminishing, and the opportunities for research of both original content and method are directly at risk from this kind of bunker mentality. It is hard to imagine the next Anti-Oedipus might be produced along such lines of encroachment, and without both systemic reform and strong alternatives to current academic paradigms this surely puts the future of the whole discipline at risk.

So, let’s return to intimacy, and as I’ve said before, there doesn’t appear to be a huge quantity of relevant philosophical research, but I’m very keen to hear of anything valuable that we could use to further develop this conversation. I’ll talk briefly about two explorations – one ancient, and one modern – highlight what’s good about them and where I feel they fall short of what I’m trying to get across. Let’s first go to Aristotle, as it seems many seem to do when they’re looking to explain the value of personal relationships; specifically, his account of friendship in Book VIII of the Nicomachean Ethics. For Aristotle there are three main categories of friendship, which form a hierarchy: in order, these are what he calls friendships of utility, of pleasure, and of goodness, the best of all. For this last kind, the object of goodness embodied is the friend themselves, and only happens as the result of “a certain resemblance” between the two parties.[5] Furthermore, it must be mutual. Aristotle admits that this is rare, as it requires “time and familiarity”;[6] and so the next best kind for him is a friendship based on pleasure, between people who enjoy the same things. But it is the friendship of utility, the least valuable for Aristotle, which may most resemble a functional version of an ideal working relationship. The reason Aristotle regards the friendship “for the commercially minded”[7] as inferior is because it is the most contingent, and exists only for as long as there is a common goal over which the two parties can work together. Yet this may be sufficient for our needs, potentially allowing us to band in a multitude of configurations without requiring us to give up our differences.

This is one possible basis for a new intimate praxis. Another, more recent source to consider is the work of Lauren Berlant, and here I am thinking about her introduction to a special issue of the journal Critical Inquiry called “Intimacy”, published in 1998.[8] Berlant makes several provocative contributions to this discussion. For her, intimacy “poses a question of scale that links the instability of individual lives to the trajectories of the collective.” [9] Furthermore it “builds worlds; it creates spaces and usurps places meant for other kinds of relation.”[10] Intimacy is therefore a very dangerous thing for Berlant: a chaotic, ambivalent thing that through its very promises to stabilise individuals within the contexts it newly creates can leave them unprepared for unforeseen difficulties and struggles that result from the relationship itself. Unlike my own, utopian version of intimacy, which would function beyond the level of institution, Berlant’s is inseparable from institutional trappings, and even necessitates the emergence of new institutions. She writes: “In its instantiation as desire, it destabilizes the very things that institutions of intimacy are created to stabilize”.[11] While there is some acknowledgment that it could go beyond this, reconfigured as “much more mobile processes of attachment”, intimacy is often more of a problem than a solution, rarely making sense of things: “a relation associated with tacit fantasies, tacit rules, and tacit obligation to remain unproblematic.”[12]

Berlant makes another, highly useful contribution to the discussion around intimacy by correlating the term with its verb: to intimate, she reminds us “is to communicate with the sparest of signs and gestures”.[13] Intimation clearly involves demarcating something, and this minimalism of enunciation is where the ambiguity begins: mutual understanding or confusion? Still, there are advantages to this sparsity, namely the qualities of adaptability, maximalisation of difference, and potential for experimentation, as already alluded to. So, the question now becomes: Can we, as kindred academics and non-academics, and despite our many valuable differences, intimate across and beyond the institutional barriers of time, money, individualist myths, and so on, and produce original working relationships, practices, and thought? Or are the looming dangers – predatory behaviour, lack of structure, the snowblindness of competing desires running wild – inevitabilities of all intimate groups, that – as much as we would like it to be the case – cannot be easily removed from our ideal conceptions of them?

Of course, I am going to argue that it could be possible to design intimate groups and behaviours that would be able to minimize these risks, while at the same time promoting the need to be vigilant of insurgent dangers. Where I feel it is important to depart from Aristotle’s utility friendships and the institutional ideas around intimacy developed by Berlant is in acknowledging that the kinds of relations they are describing are simultaneously too broad in their scope and too targeted in their generalisations. That is to say, what they each indicate are preoccupations with qualities that are irrelevant to our needs as cognitive workers – including intimacy as existing primarily between two people, largely friendly or sexual in nature – while at the same time attempting to extend from these central preoccupations into other, very different kinds of relationship – for example, between the individual and the state, or the analyst and the group. To adopt a concept of intimacy that could be used for collective production requires us to be selective, to build from the ground up taking only the most essential points from which to make our departure.

Fortunately, and this is where I think we can be hopeful, we are in a very good position to do so, as we have the academy, and all the resources this affords us. Most notably the people, and the combined research and experience of both typical and atypical interactions. It has become quite fashionable in recent years – especially by certain groups within the political left – to say that the master’s tools can never hope to dismantle the master’s house. But this is not at all a universal slogan that can be conveniently carted out, irrespective of the very particular context in which it was formulated and sought to address. It does us no service at all to suppose that we are unable to use the tools at hand to begin to reform the institutions we populate to work for us better. I took inspiration for this talk by an interview with the artificial intelligence and computation theorist Lucca Fraser where she was asked this question. This was her response:

Yes. Both literally and figuratively yes. That’s what tools are – they’ve got uses that go beyond their master’s intentions. And they’ve got weaknesses that can be exploited to make them do things they weren’t intended to do. Which is basically what hacking means. This doesn’t mean we shouldn’t invent new tools. The more the better. But yes, absolutely, the master’s tools can dismantle the master’s house. How could they not?[14]

It seems that, for Fraser, it is possible and indeed necessary to start with the tools available at our disposal if we are to take on the challenges brought about by the institutions we inhabit, and which decide for us the limits of our behaviour and the power we have to respond. Part of my own recent work has been to analyse the roles and jurisdictions of traditional nation states in the face of emergent monolithic platform sovereignties, informed by the work of Benjamin Bratton. I feel compelled to include here Bratton’s ideas around reversible design<, which he describes at length in his book The Stack, using the example of the camp and the bunker, following Agamben and in turn Carl Schmitt. The bunker (which is designed to protect its quarry from the outside) and the detention camp (which is used to prevent its inhabitants from leaving) “share the same material profile. […] The line may be drawn on the ground as clear as clear can be, but the quality of the space that it draws—what is inside and what is outside, and who or what governs either side—is always in question”.[15] The same walls provide a dual function, keeping the detainees safe from infiltrators at the same time as denying them the legal right to free movement.

Perhaps our thinking is too limited, then, if we are to conceive of the academy as only a kind of master’s house, and ourselves as the saboteurs primed to tear it down, brick by brick, using our collective might and strategic alliances. This is not to fall on the side of “reform from within” either – and it is probably too soon to draw such a line. And again, we might add, we don’t need to be complacent in assuming that academia’s current provisions are sufficient to get the task done. But it is to say that, as well as being the master’s house, academia might also be for us the master’s tools, the tools we need in our attempts to think beyond its present, transient limitations. The alien, the intimate, the church, the steeple, the people, the classes, the masses: if we can exploit the reversible qualities of these designed and spontaneous things, this might be an achievable and promising place to start.

I’ll finish speaking in a moment or two, but I want to return briefly to micropolitics, and how rethinking intimacy and reversible design can help us to overcome what we might call, following Bratton again, a “crisis of ongoingness”[16] within our academic subjectivities. By borrowing this expression, I mean to refocus our attentions on the politics of the here and now; something which, debatably, falls through the cracks when looking at macro- and micropolitics as an all-encompassing binary. Part of the problem, of course, in trying to come up with any strategic deployment of micropolitics is that, with sufficient traction, it can quickly morph into a new macropolitics that doesn’t necessarily pose fewer problems than the one it is trying to usurp. Or otherwise, it remains too local, too unorganised, and therefore too ineffective at delivering non-defensive counter-strategies. This is difficult, but we ought to acknowledge that sometimes we will need abstraction, and at other times we will need concreteness. We might be able to look at, for example, how one particular university or department allocates funding, or the ways in which entrenched divisions of time and people affect the research being produced – and not to discourage that, but this is a problem bigger than any of us, it’s systemic, and treating it as unapproachable while catering for the small and manageable isn’t going to make it any less so.

We need more strategic deployments, hyperspecific (not hyperlocal) interventions, to be able to take on a task at hand without getting lost in more aggrandising utopias or, at the other end, scalable enclaves. We need both the quick fixes and the bigger pictures, and negotiation between these extremes is really the nature of these challenges. In short, an adaptable, improvisational form of communication between levels, which is what I hope my idea of temporary, malleable intimate assemblages suggests. Following her responses to this question of scale, I am liable to follow Helen Hester’s example in looking for an intermediary mesopolitics, that would in her words, operate “between atomized, hyper-local interventions at the level of, for example, individual embodiment (micropolitics), on the one hand, and big-picture, speculative projects premised on the wholesale overthrowal of power at the level of the state or beyond (macropolitics), on the other.”[17]

There’s a synergy here between the mesopolitical and the intimate. Both involve interacting with the Other in a big way – that which extends beyond the bodily or the individual. They’re also both elusive things that escape being talked about, resting largely on the level of experience; experiences which can’t be fully abstracted, nor handily contained or summed up. Lastly, in their most useful forms, they are processual, capable of cycling through distinct stages, making adjustments along the way. Such indeterminate and speculative tactics do not make themselves easy for us to imagine or mobilise, and fraught with potential dangers, yet if we can put them to some sort of working order may provide us with solutions hitherto unrealised.

Postscript on the Master’s House and Decontextualisation

It has been pointed out, rightly, that my criticism of the decontextualisation of Audre Lorde’s statement, “the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house”,[18] and my subsequent repurposing is itself an erasure of context, and does not restore the quotation’s original meaning. Which amounts to an admittedly strange methodology. My formal response would be that I found Lucca Fraser’s interview answer to be a compelling antidote to the near-endless sloganeering which, especially since 2011, has unconsciously sought to enlist these words within the service of a catch-all defeatism: an illustration of any failed uprising or fulfilment of demands. Fraser’s perspective is of the reversible design of such words; words being some of the most versatile tools we have, and for which it is paramount that we use responsibly. I would argue that my and (I assume) Fraser’s position is not one of (re-)legitimacy, but of positive deviance and maximal utility. There is nothing righteous or restorative being implied here: our uses are no “better” than those that have come before. My objections are not aimed at decontextualisation itself, but this decontextualisation, that would lock these words into a suffocating repetition and suppress their beauty and usefulness. Nor are my objections directed towards any kind of moral floundering: “the master’s house” can illustrate a great many things, but I propose that we can think about and use these words more creatively, and perhaps should.

Notes

[1] Gilles Deleuze & Félix Guattari, A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism & Schizophrenia [Capitalisme et schizophrénie: Mille plateaux], trans. Brian Massumi (Minneapolis/London: University of Minnesota Press, 1987 [1980]), p. 213.

[2] Ibid., p. 217.

[3] Emma Chapman, in Sarah Nelson, “The Female Academics Fighting To Make Higher Education A Safe Space For Women”, HuffPost UK (8th June 2019), available online at https://www.huffingtonpost.co.uk/entry/the-female-academics-fighting-to-make-higher-education-a-safe-space-for-women_uk_5ce7a016e4b0cce67c888dbd?utm_hp_ref=uk-news.

[4] Deleuze & Guattari, p. 224.

[5] Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics, trans. W. D. Ross. In The Complete Works of Aristotle, Volume 2, ed. Jonathan Barnes (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1984), §3.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid., §6.

[8] Lauren Berlant, “Intimacy: A Special Issue”, Critical Inquiry 24, no. 2 (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1998), pp. 281-88, available online at http://www.jstor.org/stable/1344169.

[9] Ibid., p. 283.

[10] Ibid., p. 282.

[11] Ibid., p. 286.

[12] Ibid., pp. 284, 287.

[13] Ibid., p. 281.

[14] Lucca Fraser. “Xenofeminism and New Tactics for the Left”, interviewed by Merray Gerges for Canadian Art (6th February 2017), available online at https://canadianart.ca/interviews/xenofeminism/.

[15] Benjamin H. Bratton, The Stack: On Software and Sovereignty (Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press: 2015), p. 23.

[16] Ibid., p. 304: “The crisis of ongoingness may […] demand that options may have that once seemed fantastic are now imperative, and what is most normal now is also the most unlikely path forward.”

[17] Helen Hester. Xenofeminism (Cambridge/Medford, MA: Polity Press, 2018), p. 114. “In the abstract,” says Hester, “[the mesopolitical] can perhaps be characterized by a handful of rather broad principles – capacity building and outward-looking praxis; an appreciation of the transversality of oppression; solidarity with the emancipatory self-directed organizing of others; and a willingness to engage with ‘rhizomatic connections among […] resistances and insubordinations’.” (The last quotation is taken from Antonella Corsani.)

[18] Audre Lorde, “The Master’s Tools Will Never Dismantle the Master’s House” [1979], in Sister Outsider: Essays and Speeches (New York: Ten Speed Press, 2007 [1984]), pp. 110-113. “Those of us who stand outside the circle of this society’s definition of acceptable women; those of us who have been forged in the crucibles of difference – those of us who are poor, who are lesbians, who are Black, who are older – know that survival is not an academic skill. It is learning how to stand alone, unpopular and sometimes reviled, and how to make common cause with those others identified as outside the structures in order to define them strengths. For the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house. They may allow us temporarily to beat him at his own game, but they will never enable us to bring about genuine change. And this fact is only threatening to those women who still define the master’s house as their only source of support.” (Emphases in original.)

Neon Genesis Irangelion: XYZT by Kristen Alvanson review

Kristen Alvanson. XYZT (Falmouth: Urbanomic, 2019).

I already knew that Iran was separated off from the world. Most Americans don’t go there – I’m not sure who does go there. And of course, I hadn’t really believed that it would work.

But as soon as the bracelet tightens, I know what will happen. It all comes back to me as if it’s a distant memory – not my own, but more like a scene that’s been waiting for me to step into it. (p. 301)

The second publication to come from Urbanomic’s K-Pulp imprint, Kristen Alvanson’s XYZT is a novelistic account of a series of bilateral cultural exchanges between the USA and Iran. Compositionally, it’s similar to something like (appropriately) Ballard’s The Atrocity Exhibition, a series of vignettes detailing the displacement of figures (volunteer test subjects) from one locale to the other. The text has an autobiographical element to it: Alvanson, an American, has spent several years in Iran, and no doubt has accumulated a number of anecdotes both first and second hand concerning social and geographical dislocations along this particular line. Subjects of the experimental XYZT programme are given just three hours in which to make contact with their “hosts”, waiting for them on the other side – and the results vary from the mundane to the utterly fantastical. There are straightforward plots, which go according to plan, and others which, due to “interference”, splinter off at strange tangents, and no two experiences are similar. In this sense, the bundle offered up by XYZT functions as a microcosm of an embodied reality for everyday Iranian-American encounters, like an animation developed from many unique cels. Yet it is a reality, or rather several overlapping structures of the real, that is narrated through an oneiric, alien haze; the specific dynamics of each chapter producing a combined methodology for interrogating the variegated conceptions of worldly composition – the literary equivalent of a nest of vipers or a rat king.

I’ll try not to reveal the specifics of each of XYZT’s entanglements (needless to say, it’s a vertiginous and innovative archipelago, disabling overworn faculties of prediction), but I will instead disclose a few of its more overt influences and points of reference. Firstly, Stewart Gardiner is right to identify David Cronenberg’s eXistenZ as a touchstone, as anyone who has seen the film will no doubt pick up on from the book’s very first encounter; but more prominently in both texts’ usage of transportation devices, and their resultant questionings of the nature of their perceived destinations. (XYZT = exist = eXistenZ?) The weird fiction of H.P. Lovecraft also pervades an especially memorable chapter (specifically, his “Dreams in the Witch House”). Thirdly, we may consider Ambroise Paré’s sixteenth century anti-taxological work of cryptozoology, Des monstres et des prodiges (On Monsters and Marvels, or Monsters and Prodigies), as a recurrent template for inhuman and nonhuman modes of filiation. (See also Alvanson’s diagrammatic “Arbor Deformia”, in Collapse IV, from several years earlier.) Finally, a fleeting reference to the Miguel Abreu Gallery may suggest further visual cues as to the design of XYZT’s transcultural and transmaterial schemas. Each of these influences become analytics in the book for comprehending the vague and shadowy mechanics of the XYZT programme. Whether its architects – two MIT students – are fully aware of these mechanics themselves is questionable, and the thought that other beings and eras were or are more cognizant of non-Euclidian spatial dynamics, temporal and spatial dislocation, or the hyperstitional effects of lucid dreaming, presents a trove of tantalising and unresolvable possibilities.

XYZT also provides a cogent object-oriented ontology, or inorganic demonology, with its inclusion of the device known as “the black box”, a hard drive acquired by the protagonist containing untold mysteries and secret potentials. Initially identified by its “presence […], emanating waves of anticipative anxiety” (p. 91), the black box becomes for Estella a compact set of portals that, once opened, enable all new modes of plot composition and worldly navigation. “Composition, line, structure, time. Even though she could barely articulate to herself what she was trying to achieve, the entire fabric of the box now seemed to be coming loose, as if a knot had been undone somewhere.” (p. 123) XYZT’s black box is reminiscent of similar technologies found in avant-garde horror cinema (notably Clive Barker’s Hellraiser and David Lynch’s Mulholland Drive), as well as the Cross of Akht detailed in Negarestani’s Cyclonopedia. And all provide their host plots with the transversal capacities for Hidden Writing, the flowing undercurrents of subplots which threaten to unground the structural integrity of the cathedral-like dominant narrative. As we are told directly: “Plot doesn’t matter.” And as the tetratological taxonomy of the Arbor Deformia “must include all monsters and all deformities” (p. 181), every one of XYZT’s contingencies on offer – Jinns, deavs, pirates, witches, Vice Cities – offer specific cultural myths that must jostle for their inclusion in the book’s patchwork project. Of course, it is impossible to fully document every reality glimpsed through the prism of the book – and everything not included belongs to an “outside”: a remainder locale between the folds of the real. In a possible metanarratological turn, some of the book’s characters acknowledge this, and the tensions this outside plays on their origami-construct world: “however much control there is, the outside calls to us too, and it causes disturbances, fevers…”. (p. 309)

There are plenty of uncovered areas for fruitful analysis (the ongoing relevance of escalators?), but as already stated, I will avoid exposing all of XYZT’s treasures. The book reads as an intimate and loving series of memories, flickers of episodic encounters, and possible worlds. It may be self-deprecatingly described as an “airport novel”, but its greatest strengths lie exactly in its awareness, legibility, and lack of pretension. Importantly, Alvanson’s book suggests to us a parallel universe where such literary qualities are not incompatible with thoughtful and challenging non- or extra-literary diversions, and this is not to be underappreciated.