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.


[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.)