“An unprecedented aestheticisation of everyday life”: Acid Communism

k-punk, the new collection of the late Mark Fisher’s blog posts, interviews, and unpublished writings, arrived at my doorstep last Thursday. It’s a big beast, at over 700 pages, and I’m looking forward to reacquainting myself with many of these brilliant insights (and catching up with those I previously missed) over the coming weeks. Seeing his work collected in this way brings a stark and much-needed reminder of Fisher’s singularity and diversity, the force of his personality and acerbic wit (an overused phrase, I know), and his unwillingness to conform to academic expectations, or just about any mode of theoretical or cultural critique besides his own.

But for many, the publication of k-punk last week was most anticipated for being the first opportunity we would have to read the unfinished introduction to Acid Communism.[1] This book was to be, it was suggested, the basis for a political project that would reignite the countercultural revolutionary potential of the Sixties’ psychedelic cultures within today’s jaded and disenfranchised left; a sort of constructive counterpart to the wildly dystopian (and wildly successful) Capitalist Realism. The 2009 book suggested a lot of things, among them the idea that capitalist hegemony, as a political expansion of postmodernity’s usurpation of grand narratives, presents cultural history as an array of aesthetic developments, with no real potential for social change, to be viewed at through the cynical lens of irony and never at face value.[2] Modernism, as the belief in the unyielding progress of the highest elements of Western culture, and that which was at one time rejected by the polydirectional differentiations of postmodernism, returns under capitalist realism as “a frozen aesthetic style”: defanged and subsumed to the relativism of culture’s market economy, where it can function as a puppet for “the formatting and shaping of desires, aspirations and hopes” of consumers. Instead of mutually exclusive methodologies for interpreting and subverting the dominant culture, words such as “modernism”, “postmodernism”, “alternative”, and “independent” are recapitulated under capitalism as things to wear, or to decorate the house with. Fisher’s famous evocation of Kurt Cobain is the example most cited in relation to this aspect of capitalist realism: “Cobain knew that he was just another piece of spectacle, that nothing runs better on MTV than a protest against MTV; knew that his every move was a cliché scripted in advance, knew that even realizing it is a cliché.”[3]

In response, Fisher tells us at the end of the book, we must reclaim the territory which has been overrun by neoliberalist depressive realism: that of the imagination, and of desire. This involves the creation of genuine alternative perspectives to the dominant beliefs (that Capital is ubiquitous and unassailable; that any challenge to this reality is dangerous dreaming). One suggestion touted is to revisit the point at which neoliberalism took hold of desire, to enable a remobilisation of this desire towards more universal, democratic-socialist means:

If neoliberalism triumphed by incorporating the desires of the post 68 working class, a new left could begin by building on the desires which neoliberalism has generated but which it has been unable to satisfy.[4]

In this sense, Acid Communism seems to continue where Capitalist Realism left off. If the Sixties, with all its revolutionary countercultures and utopian political ambitions, has become merely a “frozen aesthetic style”, why does it feel so alive next to the brutalist Thatcherite greyness we seem stuck in to this day?

In recent years, the Sixties have come to seem at once like a deep past so exotic and distant that we cannot imagine living in it, and a moment more vivid than now – a time when people really lived, when things really happened. Yet the decade haunts not because of some unrecoverable and unrepeatable confluence of factors, but because the potentials it materialised and begun to democratise – the prospect of a life freed from drudgery – has to be continually suppressed.[5]

The episodic past, Fisher says in the new book, is not presupposed by any objective reality, but instead “has to be continually narrated,” as much to keep the more subversive narratives out of the cultural possibility and memory as to reaffirm the singular viability of the capitalist one. The project of acid communism therefore proposes a return to the site of the established narrative of the Sixties in order to reactivate those suppressed potentialities: the confluences of working-class consciousness, post-work ideologies, and the perception-altering capabilities of psychedelia which, we are reminded, were universally expected to shape the political landscape to come during the height of the counterculture.[6]

Fisher refers to acid communism’s time-travelling project as “an unprecedented aestheticisation of everyday life.”[7] The sense of time impressed onto us under neoliberalism is that of the work schedule, which pervades into every aspect of our public and private lives. But the emergent culture of the Sixties presented alternative conceptions of time, which by the end of the decade were finding their way into the mainstream through groundbreaking film, poetry, theatre, and music (facilitated by the availability of democratic new technologies: radio and television). We hear, for example, in the languid sprawls and deep pools of the Kinks’ “Sunny Afternoon”, the Beatles’ “I’m Only Sleeping”, and the Small Faces’ “Lazy Sunday”,

worlds beyond work, where drudgery’s dreary repetitiveness gave way to drifting explorations of strange terrains. Listened to now, these tracks describe the very conditions necessary for their own production, which is to say, access to a certain mode of time, time which allows a deep absorption.[8]

Fisher roots the “dropping out” encouraged by bohemia firmly in terms of class struggle and visibility; specifically, the refusal of work suggested by “I’m Only Sleeping” et al, as a simultaneous “refusal to submit to a bourgeois gaze which measured life in terms of success in business.”[9] Here was a working class attuned to the instability of the world to come, who were more likely to look to “heroes” such as the Beatles than accept the mediocrity of a life of drudgery or the assertations of a crumbling bourgeoisie. “Everybody seems to think I’m lazy./I don’t mind, I think they’re crazy./Running everywhere at such a speed,/til they find, there’s no need.” Psychedelic culture enabled a stretching-out of time, and with it, an opening-out of space. Both movements are necessary for the mobilisation of a working-class counter-hegemony; the one to come would have been “unimaginably stranger than anything Marxist-Leninism had projected.”[10] The resultant hallucino-political space-time might have resembled the “Psychedelic Shack” sung about by the Temptations in December 1969 (a poignantly symbolic moment). Far from a hazy, impossible dream, the psychedelic shack

feels like an actual social space, one you can imagine really existing. You are as likely to come upon a crank or a huckster as a poet or musician here, and who knows if today’s crank might turn out to be tomorrow’s genius? It is also an egalitarian and democratic space, and a certain affect presides over everything. There is multiplicity, but little sign of resentment or malice. It is a space for fellowship, for meeting and talking as much for having your mind blown. If “there’s no such thing as time” – because the lighting suspends the distinction between day and night; because drugs affect time-perception – then you are not prey to the urgencies which make so much of workaday life a drudge. There is no limit to how long conversations can last, and no telling where encounters might lead. You are free to leave your street identity behind, you can transform yourself according to your desires, according to desires which you didn’t know you had.[11]

It would be naïve to think that a turn to aesthetics would be sufficient in constituting a new political project, much less in unseating an already firmly-entrenched one. But Fisher’s analysis of our current situation is most successful as an emphasis on the ideological struggles faced by the left: its aimlessness, its infighting, its lack of ambition. Besides the neoliberalist agenda itself, he identifies two archetypes from the traditional left which in the Sixties and Seventies managed to finally cause the counterculture’s dream to end: the moderate, “complacent” social democrat, and what he calls the Harsh Leninist Superego – a sort of militant extremist who demanded nothing less than total commitment from their comrades.[12] The combined effect of these figures was a complete dismantling of the aesthetic dimension of the political left, which in turn meant there was no ideological response to the dizzying promises of free market economics (besides, of course, the affectless cool and terminal suspicion of postmodernism). And so, the reason why the Sixties stands out as the last age of revolutionary ferment is because the counterculture’s promotion of “active dreaming”, and rejection of established social orders, constitute the last attempt of the revolting working-classes to gain any mainstream traction and measure of success.

Although we may never know the full scope of what Acid Communism was to be, it is clear from the unfinished introduction that Fisher wished to reintegrate the aesthetic into contemporary leftist politics. This project would have called for new modes of time, and the construction of intellectual public spaces, as the figurative They Live glasses for seeing through and beyond the illusory totalism of capitalist realism. Most likely, also, we would have seen how later cultural developments might be evoked as a continuation of some of the revolutionary themes of Sixties counterculture. Fisher draws parallels between the sonic experiments of Temptations’ producer Norman Whitfield and those of Jamaican dub pioneer Lee “Scratch” Perry, and later figures such as Larry Levan, in their mutual unfolding of a temporal “deep immersion” (a combined effort which resulted in the birth of “the [later] psychedelic genres such as house, techno and jungle”).[13] In all of these musical genres, their BPMs, their clubs and communities, we can find optimistic tendencies which often surpass the apathetic imaginings of the political left. It is possible that, were these worlds able to find ways of reinforcing one another, they may together communicate a widening of our cultural and political horizons. From this, the left might be able to reconfigure desire according to a revitalised aesthetic imaginary, and we may begin to see what a future beyond the ruins of capitalist realism could resemble in actuality.

 

Notes

[1] Mark Fisher, “Acid Communism (Unfinished Introduction)”, in k-punk: The Collected and Unpublished Writings of Mark Fisher (2004-2016), ed. Darren Ambrose (London: Repeater Books, 2018), pp. 753-70.

[2] Mark Fisher, Capitalist Realism: Is There No Alternative? (Winchester, UK/Washington, USA: Zero Books, 2009), pp. 4-5, 8-9.

[3] Ibid., pp. 9-10 (p. 9).

[4] Ibid, pp. 77-81 (p. 79).

[5] “Acid Communism”, pp. 755-6.

[6] Ibid., pp. 756-8.

[7] Ibid., p. 758.

[8] Ibid., pp. 759-60 (p. 760: emphasis added).

[9] Ibid.

[10] Ibid., pp. 762-3 (p. 763).

[11] Ibid.

[12] Ibid., p. 762.

[13] Ibid., p. 767.

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Response to Gregory Marks’s “A Theory-Fiction Reading List”

I don’t use Twitter, and so I sometimes miss out on conversations about subjects that interest me. It was only recently, when I was reading Simon Sellars’s interview with Robert Barry for The Quietus,[1] that I came across a reference to a list of notable works and influences of theory-fiction that “attracted a lot of attention” over the summer. Its author, the PhD student Gregory Marks, compiled suggestions from theory-fiction enthusiasts into a four-page bibliography that begins with Lucretius’s De rerum natura and ends with Sellars’s new book Applied Ballardianism: Memoir from a Parallel Universe. That version of the list can be read in full here.[2]

Marks later in the thread gives his definition of theory-fiction broadly as

a theoretical text which blurs the lines between theory and fiction by drawing attention to its artifice. I’ve played loose with the definition to include auto-theory and works of experimental or philosophical fiction important to the development of the genre.

He then lists his general criteria for inclusion as the following:

  1. Communicates theory through fictive devices — not philosophical fiction, but fictive philosophy.
  2. Practices theory outside the confines of the “high” academic style.
  3. Occupies the growing intersection between reality, fiction, theory, and fantasy.
  4. I want to read it.

Now, with my understanding of theory-fiction, as built up through multiple engagements with the term, I find both the above criteria and many of the inclusions on the list difficult to fully support. This is a thorny subject, and due to my time being preoccupied with other factors in my life lately, I haven’t managed to respond before now. But a few days ago, Marks posted a slightly revised version of the list on his blog The Wasted World.[3] A key development with this new list is the introduction of sub-categories, making it much easier to navigate, but more importantly, to critique and engage with. I’m therefore going to spell out my concerns, firstly with the above criteria, and secondly with each of the sub-categories, with a view to clarifying my position on what does and doesn’t constitute theory-fiction. Clearly the list is more suggestive than exhaustive, and I’m therefore aware that this may amount to an exercise in extreme pedantry on my part. But it’s never been a consideration of mine that theory-fiction ever needed a canon, and the prospect that this list may be misconstrued as authoritative has prompted me to fashion an (admittedly subjective and equally illegitimate) appendix to the exercise. This is not designed to be an attack on Marks or the list itself, but a rejoinder or alternative perspective to a subject I feel strongly about and wish to engage with on slightly different terms. I’m also not planning on fully redefining theory-fiction here and now, but instead indicate a more nuanced position over a series of blog posts currently in the pipeline.

***

Firstly, let’s return to the criteria above. #4 can be dismissed entirely, as one person’s interest in a particular text clearly does not a theory-fiction make. I also wish to eliminate #2. Theory-fiction may be seen, and I’m disinclined to contend, as a stylistic engagement, and many certified examples of theory-fiction texts do indeed deliberately eschew “academic” formalisms in favour of more poststructuralist or sf-inspired attempts at original expression,[4] but theory-fiction does not appear to be bound to this implied basic opposition between “high” and “low” stylistics. The fact that many of the entries precede the establishment of what is now considered the academic style somewhat discredits this criterion, as does a closer look at some of the more recent examples. “Barker Speaks: The Ccru Interview with Professor D C Barker”,[5] for instance, employs academic style to full effect (an interview for an ostensibly academic journal, complete with a list of publications that lead to a dead end when Googled), and yet is for me perhaps the paradigm for all published theory-fiction of the last twenty years (perhaps though this is a topic of discussion for one of those upcoming blog posts). It’s not its opposition to academic style that makes “Barker Speaks” theory-fiction, but its decidedly extra-academic content and lines of inquiry.

That leaves us with #1 and #3. Let’s start with #3. Although broadly agreeable and somewhat difficult to counter, there nevertheless seems to be something a little nonspecific about “the intersection between reality, fiction, theory, and fantasy” that could probably benefit from a fleshing out. Is fake news theory-fiction? What about Socratic dialogues? It’s clear that Marks is trying to lower the price of admission into the canon, but it remains confusing as to how far exactly to take the murky zones between fiction and reality, theory and fantasy as sufficient qualifiers. Yet this is not itself an issue when paired with #1, the communication of “theory through fictive devices”. All in all the strongest qualifier, this criterion does well to prioritise “fictive philosophy” over “philosophical fiction”. It explains why, for example (and despite my personal reservations), Samuel Butler’s Erewhon makes the list, but, say, Jean-Paul Sartre’s Nausea does not. The latter has a philosophical content, of course, but it does not do philosophy; its content does not constitute a theoretical exercise in itself. There is therefore a connection in theory-fiction between form and content: form must be contingent with the theoretical task undertaken by its writers, and not chosen purely for aesthetic reasons.

***

From this general conclusion, we can begin to scrutinise some of the sub-categories which Marks has divided his theory-fiction canon into. Please note that within each of these there are exceptional and ambiguous inclusions that are difficult to disassociate from the category headings (not all of them are listed below). This may perhaps lead one to suggest that it is the categories themselves, and not the individual books that are questionable (as ever, it is both that must bear scrutiny). In addition, naturally, I am not familiar with every text listed, and therefore my ignorance is bound to play a part in shaping my critique and any counter-critique that might be conceived (which I welcome). The list has at least provided me with a plenitude of good suggestions for future reading material, and so has succeeded in that respect.

First off, we can discredit “sci-phi” as little more than a list of influential sf, the form of which does not itself produce new theoretical orientations (discuss). The tripartite “theoretical fiction” categories, which identify in turn “fiction”, self-writing (this is where Applied Ballardianism has been placed), and poetry/drama as theory, also fall at this hurdle. We do not see in Beckett’s The Unnamable, for example, the novel as a theory, as much as a vessel for ideas surrounding the nature of the novel itself. If we are being generous, we might suggest The Unnamable as a case of form identifying new possibilities for itself, but in this case is this not what art does, not theory? As I understand it, theory denotes rendering aspects of the world legible and sensible (order out of chaos) – even if, through theory-fiction, they take a somewhat mystified and convoluted route – and it is not immediately apparent that these texts do that.[6]

Returning to the basic question, Is this text in itself theory, or is theory merely something it provides?, it becomes doubtful whether to admit poetic theory, or “theory which foregrounds its artifice”: although (as gestured already) not inaccurate to describe theory-fiction as stylistic invention, there is in actuality a greater emphasis on what that style does to advance its theory. There are again, however, some ambiguous inclusions: Baudrillard’s The Ecstasy of Communication is placed here, which, according to Jason de Boer’s reasoning, must qualify as one of the first attempts towards the development of theory-fiction.[7] I would also asterisk Blanchot’s The Writing of Disaster, Derrida’s The Post Card, Flusser and Bec’s Vampyroteuthis Infernalis and Claudia Rankine’s Citizen: An American Lyric for further consideration,[8] whilst recovering certain valuable sections of Deleuze and Guattari’s A Thousand Plateaus. Poetic theory’s prose counterpart, narrative theory, is similar. This time it is the likes of Walter Benjamin’s One-Way Street, Michel Serres’s Biogea, and Anna Lowenhaupt Tsing’s The Mushroom at the End of the World that perhaps make it out the least unharmed. Identifying two of those three as being published in the last decade shows an emerging pattern.

The only remaining category to explore is “cybernetic theory fiction”, or “theory as cultural hype”. In their entirety, these texts undoubtedly make up the core of theory-fiction discussions we are now beginning to see. Many of them are even self-defined as such. The back cover of Arthur Kroker’s Spasm contains the earliest mention of the term I have so far found.[9] Mark Fisher’s influential dissertation Flatline Constructs: Gothic Materialism and Cybernetic Theory-Fiction was completed in 1999 and remains online to this day (thanks Exmilitary).[10] The extent to which theory-fiction may function as marketing hype is another interesting facet of the whole concept we must return to another time…

Notes

[1] Simon Sellars, “One Small Node of Reality: Applied Ballardianism”, interviewed by Robert Barry for The Quietus (15th September 2018), available online at http://thequietus.com/articles/25293-applied-ballardianism-simon-sellars-interview.

[2] Gregory Marks, et al., “A Theory-Fiction Reading List”, Twitter (12th July 2018), available online at https://twitter.com/thewastedworld/status/1017427669338607616.

[3] Gregory Marks, “A Theory-Fiction Reading List”, The Wasted World (3rd November 2018), available online at https://thewastedworld.wordpress.com/2018/11/03/a-theory-fiction-reading-list/.

[4] Applied Ballardianism may be the newest archetype of this idea of theory-fiction as xeno-academic theoretical exercise. Sellars developed the book out of a PhD thesis, eventually junking its original form because of a growing dissatisfaction with academia more generally. The finished form of the text is that of a fictionalised memoir of an “insane alterative version” of the writer living in a universe parallel to this one. See “One Small Node of Reality” (note 1 above).

[5] In both CCRU, Writings 1997-2003 (e-book: Time Spiral Press, 2015) and Nick Land, Fanged Noumena: Collected Writings 1987-2007, eds. Robin Mackay & Ray Brassier (Falmouth/New York: Urbanomic/Sequence Press, 2011), pp. 493-505. Both are listed by Marks under “Cybernetic Theory-Fiction”. For reasons repeated throughout this essay, neither collection can be considered in their entirety as theory-fiction, but the CCRU’s/Land’s total output most definitely qualify as influential to its development and reception.

[6] Aside from the aforementioned Applied Ballardianism, there are two more inclusions in the otherwise discreditable “self-writing as theory” category that can probably, in my opinion, be salvaged. Virginie Despentes’s King Kong Theory and Paul B. Preciado’s Testo Junkie both caused me to reconsider what I thought it was that theory-fiction could be said to be or do, being that (as far as I am able to verify) they are both very directly truthful accounts that nonetheless seem to simultaneously provide new theoretical scope for their respective subject matters (and the self-writing form seems to aid in this) and somehow bend the limits of the (pre-established, obviously inadequate notions of the) possible around the narratives they present. Theory-fiction? Probably yes. Possibly something else altogether.

[7] Jason DeBoer, “Fierce Language: The Fatal “Theory-Fiction” of Jean Baudrillard”, in The Absinthe Literary Journal (Spring 2000, available online at https://web.archive.org/web/20110707075611/http://www.absintheliteraryreview.com/archives/fierce4.htm). DeBoer writes of Baudrillard:

Theory, as a series of signs of equal value, is rendered impotent to affect or interact with the real. It is always productive and never destructive, although what it is capable of producing is merely more signs. Baudrillard realizes this, and this futility, once realized, he cannot ignore. Theory must return to the critical, productive enterprise, where it resumes its reproduction, or it must take its own futility as its object and become “fatal”. By abandoning meaning and becoming fascinated with itself, fatal theory must ultimately cease to be theory as such, eventually turning to more literary or fictive strategies. […] A theory self-aware of its own impossibility to transcend signs must forget the real and try to disappear into its own empty form.

In fact, a more interesting reading of poetic theory would be as the foregrounding of the implied artifice of theory itself, and perhaps de Boer’s reading works in this context.

[8] With the former two texts, it’s difficult to ascertain whether their theoretical content really benefits from their forms; whereas with the latter two, one might question to what extent these are “theoretical” texts at all.

[9] Arthur Kroker, Spasm: Virtual Reality, Android Music and Electric Flesh (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1993). The back cover promises “[a] theory-fiction about the crash world of virtual reality[…]”. Kroker is probably best known as the co-editor of the online journal Ctheory.

[10] Mark Fisher, Flatline Constructs: Gothic Materialism and Cybernetic Theory-Fiction (1999), available online at https://web.archive.org/web/2008032501_3155/http://www.cinestatic.com/trans-mat/Fisher/FCcontents.htm. Republished in 2018 by Exmilitary Press.

Thanks to Gregory Marks for consultation and clarification on an earlier draft of this post.