Why I am Not Your Friend: orbistertius and the Frontier

I mentioned a while ago that I’d been trawling back through Mark Fisher’s k-punk work, thanks to the excellent new volume recently published by Repeater.[1] While there are many subjects worthy of discussion to be found there, one of the things the volume has brought to light for me is a sense of how intrinsically different Fisher’s style and ambitions as a blogger and writer, as well as the blogging scene itself, were compared to the situation I find myself in here and now. Both Simon Reynolds’s foreword and Darren Ambrose’s editor’s introduction make reference to the impact of k-punk’s emergence in the mid-00s as a simultaneous revival of prior forms of cultural discourse[2] and a spearheading of a network of “fugitive” dissenting voices within the emergent blogger platforms of Web 2.0 that in many ways were a symptom of the neoliberalist cultural erasure Fisher’s writing frequently decried. What I like to think of as the frontier days of online countercultural writing have all but disappeared now (Fisher’s obvious departure is one sign of this; the constant endnote references in the k-punk book to Nina Power’s Infinite Thought blog being “no longer online” is but another), and it’s difficult to imagine an earlier time for which the right brew of dissatisfaction (with the established media channels of television, publishing, and journalism) and newly-arrived technological means (the DIY-democracy of free blogspace) could result in the synthesis of original channels of meaningful discourse. Both elements persist to this day of course: nothing could be more clichéd (or handled with suspicion) right now than claims that “mainstream media” no longer has relevance to people’s lives, or that (vacuous, obviously repackaged) tech options for self-expression (Instagram, Twitter, et al) are now the media forms most representative of public interests. But the relation between the two is now too far out of joint: the novelty of being able to unify others towards fermenting new goals has now worn off, and in its place lie dissension, scepticism, alienation, introspection, myopia, and fear.

There is a further problem with the current situation. Not to make him sound old (at least not for its own sake), but Fisher’s accounts of the changes to institutions like the BBC[3] mark him out as belonging to a mindset different the one I am forced to confront (as a man who would now be in his fifties, compared to my twenties). As part of a generation who bore witness to the restructuring of economic, political, and cultural power (and perhaps also the underlying tractability of it all), Fisher saw an intrinsic value to such institutions that was worth preserving or reinstating. More importantly, he had the belief that political and cultural reform was possible, given the cultivation of the right modes of collectivity and solidarity. Behind his railings against the undesiring visitors of his blog, and their facile contributions via the comments section,[4] is a reinforcement of the Kollective. “Only comments deemed to be positive by the Kollective will be left up. The purpose of the site is to build the Kollective, so comments by those intrinsically hostile to the notion of collectivity or those hostile to the k-punk project per se will be deleted as soon as possible, so as not to waste the energy of the collective on distracting, egocratic nonsense.”[5]

I don’t necessarily disagree with Fisher’s collectivist ideals here; my gut feeling is that he is probably right. I only wish to note that I am part of a generation for which politics and culture exist as, and have always appeared to be, pre-fucked. There can be no recollection of a “time before”; or, at least, a time before that isn’t mediated through a neutralised, elongated, and corporatised present. On the surface, it seems all but hopeless to propose that things could ever improve. Now, I don’t really believe in appearances, and can’t speak for how conditions may change in the future that could result in fresh political or cultural alliances and perspectives. If we are to fight for such changes, we ought to consider our (ongoing) present as a time of reckoning, for which action has to be immediate (and this is true in all sorts of other ways, as we are well aware – if the economy doesn’t eventually swallow us, it will only mean that the planet has gotten there first). “There is no more urgent task on this hell planet than the production of rational collectivities.”[6] Yes, this is true, but we first need to decide what forms these collectivities might take, and the roles each component within them.

I bring all of this up because I have never really stated here before the reasons why I started orbistertius – not my first blog, but certainly the most important one to me at present. For something that I place such value in, my relationship to the format could be described as ambivalent at best. I am not an avid reader of blogs; I rarely leave comments on other people’s work or check in on their latest posts. Furthermore (and I’ve mentioned this before) I have a fairly low online presence: no Twitter, no Reddit account, only a largely dawdling Facebook page I’ve had for years and only really keep out of habit. Yes, I feel that this has held back the possibilities for engagement and growth for the site and my work more generally, and often I am made aware of interesting discussions long after they have played out. Why is this? I have maintained orbis for three years now (although nearly one of those was a hiatus), and while I get the occasional boost in traffic it’s nothing like I imagine it could have the potential to be. Partly, personal reasons play a factor. I’m reluctant to self-promote, to become a “brand”, perhaps even to shoulder the burden of success (when I get ahead of myself, of course). But I think it runs deeper than psychology or principles.

Like (I expect) many of my readers, I have had experience of being an academic as well as a more “popular” kind of writer. Clearly many of my posts have carried the stench of the rarefied stylistic conventions peculiar to academia (I’ve studied literature as well as philosophy), and in the year since graduating have continued to write papers for conferences and articles for journals. For Fisher, k-punk served as a clean break from academic expectations and haughtiness, but in my case I have never tried to specifically extricate the two, nor develop an “appropriate” register for blogging. Such changes are happening now, that much is obvious to me, and partly this is because I do not desire to return to being a student anytime soon (the traumas of a PhD would seem to outweigh the benefits). These changes have been mostly unintentional. However, a little like Fisher (though perhaps not in this respect), and as boorish and irrelevant academic culture reveals itself to be at times, I maintain that there are certain advantages to keeping up the likes of clear citations and endnotes. I do not wish to distance myself from the (paid for) privileges granted to me by university education, but rather use them to progress to something else, something unavailable from either paradigm on its own. For this I conclude I need the academy as much as I need critical distance from it, and I will probably continue to retune my stance in relation to my work with conferences, journals, and affiliates.

What alternatives do I propose, beyond the academy and the frontier? What forms of collectivity do I practice? So far, I have felt more comfortable with extended, essayistic posts on a semi-regular basis. I like to choose my subjects carefully, and resist commenting on every political turn, book or film currently doing the rounds at that time. With the blogosphere more fragmented and phantasmatic than ever, communal focus on an idea or artefact can be unifying, but it can also produce a lot of noise and heat, and I’m not certain adding my opinion to the mix is the most valuable use of my time and space. I mostly work alone, but have sometimes sought out specific individuals for collaboration and feedback, such as Nomad Colossus and Gregory Marks. Collectivity is nothing if not a binding of individualisms, and the success of collectives is dependent upon the appeals being made to disparate peoples and their circumstances (or else you are left with the worst traits of populism).

Starting this year, I intend to reinvent orbis somewhat. For one thing, I have in mind a series of blog posts, “Origins of Theory-Fiction”, which will be reflections on texts mostly from the 80s and 90s that have directly influenced the development and understanding of this becoming-popular idea. In addition, there will be all sorts of detours into other areas not directly related to theory-fiction, but will take as their starting points things that I’ve read, seen, heard, played, or talked about with other people. Posts will be shorter and more frequent (I hope – this is still the most challenging task for me), but will stop short of regressing into unsubstantiated comment or reaction. Interesting things are worth handling with rigour and discipline, and addressing to a high standard. I hope to generate new readers, and give the ones I have reasons to want to keep coming back, even if ideas of governing a Kollective seem grandiose. I feel that developing consistent themes through series would go some way towards achieving this.

But make no mistake, I’m not doing this for the sake of popularity, or to gain friends, or to write confessional. Comments are open, but I do not wish to get to know you (unless you come equipped with a serious offer for collaboration, which I am very happy to consider). The moment in which orbis becomes about me or you becomes the point in which it becomes emptied of value, and no longer worth doing. In this sense, the blog is no different from what I had originally intended: an ongoing negotiation of the nature of collectivity, for which orbis is a nodal point, one proposition among many for negating the present and inventing the future…

Your friendship is not required for this. “But I do like you – to put an end to the gossip.”[7]

Notes

[1] Mark Fisher, k-punk: The Collected and Unpublished Writings of Mark Fisher (2004-2016), ed. Darren Ambrose (London: Repeater Books, 2018). All references henceforth will be in relation to material found within this text, unless explicitly stated otherwise.

[2] Represented notably by “the old UK weekly music press” of NME and Melody Maker, which Fisher and Reynolds both grew up on and later contributed towards, and even featured in.

[3] Fisher stood fast for a kind of “dogmatism” or “paternalism” to mainstream British culture that had been all but erased by the new century, as what he saw as a deliberate restructuring of the ideology within broadcasting. This involved a favouring of attacks against “cultural elitism” and iterations of “giving people what they want” (i.e. reality TV and its methods of “identifying with” “ordinary” subjects), which in itself distracted from the consolidation of a new economic elite. From “Precarity and Paternalism”, pp. 199-203: “It’s worth reminding ourselves of the peculiar logic that neoliberalism has successfully imposed. Treating people as if they were intelligent is, we have been led to believe, “elitist”, whereas treating them as if they are stupid is “democratic”. It should go without saying that the assault on cultural elitism has gone alongside the aggressive restoration of a material elite.” (p. 200) In response, Fisher looked back to the most visionary programming of the “long Seventies” (beginning at some point in the Sixties and ending “circa 1982”), such as early Dr Who, Quatermass, and the works of Dennis Potter as televisual works that were not afraid to be inscrutable, that actively challenged viewers to re-evaluate their critical positions because (in the words of Adam Curtis, paraphrasing the sentiments of the broadsheet media of the time) “it was good for them”.

[4] From “They Can Be Different in the Future Too: Interviewed by Rowan Wilson for Ready Steady Book (2010)”, pp. 627-36: “One of the most significant new developments [to blogging] was the introduction of comments; a largely unfortunate change in my view. In the early days of blogs, if you wanted to respond to a post, you had to reply on your own blog, and if you didn’t have a blog, you had to create one. Comments tend to reduce things to banal sociality, with all its many drawbacks.” (p. 628)

[5] “New Comments Policy”, pp. 701-2 (p. 701).

[6] “Comments Policy (Latest)”, pp. 703-4 (p. 703).

[7] Gilles Deleuze, “Letter to a Harsh Critic”, in Negotiations [Pourparlers], trans. Martin Joughin (New York: Columbia University Press, 1995 [Paris: Les Éditions de Miniut, 1990]), pp. 3-12 (p. 12). This response to “the twenty-four-year old gay activist Michel Cressole” remains one of my favourite unguarded works by Deleuze, and the quoted comment caps off a particularly scabrous put-down. I could have ended this post with a remarkably similar line from the Smiths’ “What Difference Does It Make?”: “But I’m still fond of you.” The song begins with an even more unguarded “All men have secrets and here is mine/So let it be known.” I hope this post has not come across as quite so confessional!

Featured image credits: screenshot from the television series The Inbetweeners, created by Damon Beesley & Iain Morris (Bwark Productions/Young Films, 2008-10).

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