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Thought Projectors 6

January 24, 2017

I realise that things have been quiet around here of late. This is partly a result of my having written quite a lot of stuff for other venues and partly a result of my feeling rather uncertain about where I will be taking my writing in future.

I have committed myself to a major project next year and am in the early stages of planning a major project of my own but I see both of those as acts of community-building rather than works of criticism in their own right. I still very much enjoy the work I do for both Interzone and FilmJuice but I think my approach to writing may be in the process of changing.

The problem is that every time I sit down to write about a film or a book, I am reminded of the fact that the greatest flowering of liberal cultural commentary in human history appears to have coincided with the West’s most substantial lurch to the political right since the 1930s. On dozens of websites and in dozens of books, great minds have spent literally years dissecting and re-dissecting the politics of popular culture and yet none of this ‘woke’ commentary came anywhere close to predicting (let alone preventing) the political upheavals of 2016.

I realise that I am not among the worst offenders here… I know that I haven’t devoted any time to the question of whether or not failing to root for inter-racial couples in superhero TV series makes you morally equivalent to members of the Ku Klux Klan. I know that I haven’t spent the last few years strutting about the place claiming to be doing ‘important work’ but it doesn’t take a genius to realise that a lot of what I do is unpicking political subtext and that unpicking political subtext has just been shown to be just as much of a distraction from making the world a better place as the reactionary fantasies that get brought under the critical hammer.

This being said, I  still think that there’s value in writing about culture because culture helps to shape our vision of the world and our vision of the world is what determines the worlds we try to create. I still believe that there’s real value in politically-engaged cultural criticism but I am currently struggling to determine what that value might conceivably be.

 

***

I don’t normally ‘do’ public expressions of grief but the world of criticism has managed to lose two of its greatest talents in disarmingly quick succession.

The new year began with news of the death of John Berger. No longer as visible as he once was, Berger’s book and TV series Ways of Seeing had a profound effect on how an entire generation approached the visual arts: Before Berger, art criticism was something done in stately homes and behind the locked doors of academia. After Berger, it was suddenly within the grasp of anyone with an interest in how our minds respond to images. Aside from being a critic and broadcaster, Berger was also a celebrated novelist and dramatist, as should be evident from his use of language in this sensational piece from 2011.

All week, my Twitter time-line has been consumed by expressions of admiration and sadness following the untimely death of Mark Fisher. Anyone who has read the criticism I have produced over the last five or so years will have noticed the profound influence that Fisher’s writing has had upon me and the way I see the world. Without Capitalist Realism, there would most certainly never have been a Future Interrupted and my writing would doubtless look very different to the way it does today.Seeing as he made his name at least partly as a blogger, there are literally dozens of pieces by Fisher that I could link to as an homage. This being said, I choose to link to his most controversial piece ‘Exiting the Vampire Castle‘.  There’s a lot in Vampire Castle that feels wrong… firstly, I think that his praise for Russell Brand has shown to be premature as Brand got on a political soap box in order to sell a book and secure a US chat show and then shut up about politics completely. Secondly, I think it is always going to look and feel wrong when a well-educated white dude goes in studs up not just upon minorities but upon an ideology that a lot of those historically marginalised people have been using to try to get themselves heard and their complaints recognised. This being said, I think that Vampire Castle is not only right in a lot of what it says about liberal identity-based politics, but that the article laid the foundations for a leftist critique of ‘woke’ liberalism that seems more relevant than ever given the collapse of Clinton’s presidential campaign. Even when he was wrong, Fisher tended to be right and the questions he asked will never cease to be important, thought-provoking and absolutely necessary to any viable form of 21st Century leftism.

They will both be missed.

***

Atari Teenage Riot‘s excellent video for “Revolution Action”if only because I was recently reminded of a point in the 1990s when every woman I met (and a sizeable chunk of men too) would gladly have severed one of their own limbs for a chance to spend the night with Alec Empire.

***

This Reddit AMA with the author Steph Swainston is really something else. Swainston is an author whose work I’ve never really gotten on with despite repeated attempts to read her work. This being said, I have enormous respect for her both as a thinker and as someone who is willing to publicly call people in genre publishing on their bullshit. This is all relevant to my history of the New Weird obviously but the AMA contains a genuinely extraordinary anecdote about the behaviour of China Mieville around the time when his first book was being released.

Mieville may be the author most closely associated with the term ‘New Weird’ but if you look back through the original TTA Press discussions you’ll find that he actually had very little to say that was coherent and/or useful. Conversely, Swainston articulated an approach to genre fiction that not only came to be viewed as ‘the New Weird’ but also rapidly became the new normal in terms of SFF attitudes to genre boundaries.

***

Despite being an unapologetic and entirely unironic fan of Babymetal’s first album, I think that for every £ they make, at least 25p should go to Dazzle Vision. This is “The Second” from their sixth album Shocking Loud Voice.

***

This recent piece about 4Chan, Pepe the Frog, and chaos magic is a thing of absolute beauty. Good criticism relates to reviews in much the same way as conspiracy theories relate to history… What I mean by this is that while reviews are about accurate description and honest evaluation, criticism is a more creative undertaking in which elements of particular cultural artefacts are combined with subjective reactions to other cultural artefacts to produce cultural artefacts with their own unique artistic identities. Only an idiot would confuse this piece by Paul Schrader about the films of Yasujiro Ozu with an evaluative description of their content… why would you want to go and do something stupid like confuse an epic Alex Jones rant with political analysis or Graham Hancock’s Fingerprints of the Gods with archaeology?

 

***

One of the most interesting aspects of hip hop is its willing to engage directly with sexuality. For example, while the Guns, Bitches, and Bling aesthetic of late-90s and 00s rap may invite us to view the culture as full of sexually-stunted men who want nothing more from life than to date a porn star, tunes like Big Brovas’ “Favourite Things” presented women not so much as sexual objects but as unattainable, quasi-motivational figures. Conversely, when the scene did acknowledge the existence of homosexuality, it was in the form of a terrifying Other that took the form of a tight-trousered and mirrorshaded LAPD who were constantly outwitted by the thrustic heterosexual masculinity of the protagonists.

However, (hip) hop over to the other side of the world and you’ll find that Pinoy rap has a very different set of ideas. Much like Big Brovas, Pinoy rappers often present women as unattainable creatures that force the protagonist into self-improvement. However, unlike American rappers who dream and work, Pinoy rappers have triangulated from their vision of women and concluded that they should date ladyboys instead. Cue the emergence of a sub-genre of Pinoy rap songs about straight guys having relationships with what we in the West would consider transwomen including “Gayuma” by Abra (which has over 41 Million views).

***

This recent piece by Mazin Saleem about Denis Villeneuve’s Arrival is precisely the kind of discursive and open-ended writing about science fiction that I really enjoy reading.However, as much as I love Mazin’s piece (and his occasionally-SFnal podcast) , I really struggled with the film itself…

While he may be about to be sucked into the gears of geek culture, Villeneuve is perhaps best known for his 20120 Oscar-nominated melodrama Incendies. Incendies is a proper melodrama in so far as it is built around a series of big emotional set-pieces. Like all melodramas, the film begins by introducing you to the characters and their worlds before taking you on a journey that serves no purpose other than to make you weep like an infected stab wound. If you want to know how melodramas work then take another look at Michel Gondry’s video for ‘Lucas with the Lid Off‘ and note that Gondry’s camera moves from one fixed viewpoint to another.

There are critics who argue that all genre cinema functions in this way and that the only real difference between genres is the emotional affect they deliver in their set-pieces. For example, while melodramas make you sad, horror makes you jump, porn makes you horny, and science fiction fills you with awe. Under this view, genre-blending is really only a question of shifting between emotional payloads meaning that a horror comedy moves you from big jokes to big scares while romantic science-fiction moves you from sensawunda to romantic dizziness and back again.

While I love melodrama as a genre, there is something rather peculiar about the idea of a cultural artefact that exists solely in order to make you cry. Indeed, Incendies is a technically brilliant melodrama but its power lies solely in its ability to make you cry as it tells you absolutely nothing about either the world or the humans that contain it. Like the sound stage filled with dancing mechanical legs and recreated tube carriages for the purposes of shooting the video for ‘Lucas with the Lid Off’ it is an imaginative space that contains no truth or substance beyond its ability to hit the mark and deliver the pay-off.

Arrival is very similar to Incendies in so far as you can feel the director inserting stuff into the film’s conceptual space purely in order to set up a later pay-off. For example, we get the kid dying from cancer because we need that pathos for the ending. However, outside of its ability to deliver pathos, the child’s death has no significance except to raise unwelcome and unanswerable questions about the protagonist’s relationship with her spouse.

My problem with Arrival is that while it all fits together very well, none of it means anything: The characters are empty shells, the politics are stereotypical nonsense, and the science is complete and utter guff. Technically-proficient storytelling is one thing but at what point does a story need to connect to the world? At what point does culture cease to press our buttons and start to encourage thought?

***

I have, for the last year or so, been taking photographs. First to actually learn how to work my camera properly, then to develop a sound technical understanding of how to produce good photos, and — more recently — in an effort to find an aesthetic I like.

Given that much of what I do is very top-down and cerebral, I decided to approach photography from the opposite direction and so ignore all of the theoretical and critical writings about photography. However, I have also been trying to engage with more photography if only to get an idea of what’s out there and so I have been thinking about the Tate’s display of Elton John’s massive collection of modernist photographs. Here’s a video in which he discusses his love of the form:

The problem with what the world of art criticism refers to as ‘modernist photography’ is that it seems to capture an almost completely different aesthetic to that captured by modernism in other art forms. In literary terms, modernist photography seems to span everything from Victorian realism all the way to surrealism as modernist photographs are just as likely to involve surrealist imagery as they do images of real-life cityscapes.

Confused, I had a look at this video and was left just as perplexed:

According this video, modernism is about form being determined (at least in part) by function, which means almost precisely nothing as all forms are determined by function as style is inevitably a reflection of the ideas and ideological assumptions that informed the creation of a particular piece.  This lead me to another video:

This gets closer to answering my questions. The video argues that modernism is about accepting the changes brought about by modernity and exploring what they mean. Thus, the black and white photos of the great depression are about capturing the economic consequences of unfettered capitalism while the more surreal compositions are about capturing — in more abstract terms — the impact of the world on the self, society, and our experiences of both.

 

***

This recent article by Ilana Gershon has a number of really interesting things to say not only about the workplace but also about how we conceive of ourselves under neoliberalism. However, while the article is full of lovely insights on a paragraph by paragraph basis, I felt that Gershon failed to connect the two strands of her attack on the neoliberal self and the increasing tendency for people to turn themselves into brands.

The first strand of her argument is that turning yourself into a brand does absolutely nothing for your employment prospects as employers tend to look for skills and flexibility rather than people who happen to have welded their identities to particular professional roles.

The second strand of her argument is that the move to turn people into brands appears to be spearheaded by an entire class of business gurus and employment consultants with books to sell and workshops to fill. Her treatment of this stuff is particularly brilliant.

Having read the article a couple of times, I’m frustrated by the fact that Gershon struggles to bring together the two strands of her argument despite the fact that the two strands unite at exactly the point she wants to make, namely that the neoliberal vision of self is shot through with logical inconsistencies and psychological impossibilities that make it both unsustainable and profoundly unhealthy.

For example, if employers don’t want to employ brands then surely the neoliberal self industry is nothing but snake oil and if that entire sector of the culture is snake oil then it is crying out to be analysed in terms of its own hypocrisy and artificiality. Do modern-day employees adopt the trappings of the neoliberal self for the same reason that medieval peasants performed ceremonies to cast out malevolent spirits? Is it superstition? Is it magical thinking?  Clearly, Gershon has stumbled into an important area of social critique.

16 Comments leave one →
  1. Gabriel permalink
    January 24, 2017 12:19 pm

    Always good to read your stuff, Jonathan.

    Your intro, or feelings closely akin, are why I left academia (Cultural Studies). Every year, it seems like a better decision, for all of the reasons you mention, and it my own particular case, because our current formulation of U.S. identity politics (which cannot entirely be blamed on race-class-gender studies dominating portions of our university system, but the latter certainly did not help) seems more and more to be antithetical to political power and progressive social change. We have people in the U.S. screaming that Trump’s ascendancy is due to racism (he is a racist and supported by racists, but there exist a significant population who voted for Obama twice and then Trump) and sexism (ditto); these were reasonably hypotheses, but instead of reformulating them, either due to new information and the fact that these charges did not useful politically, the centre-left in the U.S. only seems interested in doubling-down. Righteous in a doomed world is seen as more valuable than political power and positive change. What we need is an intellectual attempt to rescue positive action on race, class, and gender from the morass that has grown up around it, and I see few, if any, attempting that. It makes my desire to read another analysis about how Anya from Buffy is an attempt to incorporate a libertarian critique within Buffy’s inherent left-liberalism hard to stomach.

    (I’d probably read that paper, but I’d feel awfully about it.)

    And I hope the stuff about China isn’t true, although I have absolutely no reason to doubt Swainston, aside from the fact that China has treated me well in our interactions. The world is shitty enough without people I nominally like turning out to be asshats.

    ‘The gears of geek culture’. Sigh.

    Like

  2. bowneps permalink
    January 24, 2017 3:39 pm

    What bugs me about cultural commentary is that it seems to treat cultural artifacts as vehicles for propaganda. In particular, it tends to treat cultural artifacts *that the masses enjoy* as vehicles for propaganda, whose content should be rigorously policed by critics, while giving a free pass to cultural artifacts that only the elite are presumed to consume. Thus you see every Marvel universe movie interrogated for diversity and sensitivity, while ‘Lightning Rods’ and ‘Sellout’ are treated respectfully as works of incisive satire.

    I think it is not a coincidence that the boom in this kind of commentary is coincident with a feeling on the part of the masses that they are being managed rather than respected. I’m not saying that they read or react to this commentary, but that the commentary itself is one aspect of the fact that the masses really *aren’t* respected, even (or especially) by the liberals who like to think that they have the masses’ good in mind.

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  3. January 24, 2017 4:55 pm

    Hi Gabriel :-)

    I think there’s a danger of history repeating itself as the traditional left developed all of these amazing lenses through which to analyse society, invited the people who designed the lenses to take up academic positions and effectively rendered themselves culturally redundant by severing all ties between the development of leftist thought and the working classes in whose interests those sensibilities were supposedly developed.

    I can definitely imagine a future in which a generation of talented non-white, non-straight, and neuro a-typical academics develop these amazing conceptual tools that allow you to analyse society in terms of intersecting lines of oppression only for those tools to be locked away in an academic silo where only people wealthy enough to attend graduate school get to engage with them.

    The seeds of that movement is already evident in the willingness to argue that inequality in terms of race, gender, sexuality etc has no relation to economic inequality. Once you make that intellectual concession and the cultural space starts becoming about people from historically oppressed groups taking up positions in existing hierarchies (the social contract offered by Clinton and the Democratic establishment) then identity politics will cease to be either useful or accessible.

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  4. January 24, 2017 5:05 pm

    Hi Bowneps :-)

    I must admit that I am growing increasingly frustrated with the legions of passionate, insightful, and talented women who seem to spend all of their time writing about terrible works of popular culture.

    I think the problem here is that while I think it’s worth subjecting super-hero films to critical analysis, surely the point of such analysis is to discover whether or not these films are worth watching? If Iron Man is fascistic corporatist nonsense then why watch or write about Iron Man 2 let alone the dozens of films that surround the franchise?

    If critical analysis matters so little that ‘this film is fascistic garbage’ can’t even convince the critic not to watch these kinds of films then how can that mode of analysis ever hope to have an impact on anyone?

    In truth, a lot of people are trapped writing about this kind of shit because a) there’s an audience, b) writing critically about hateful shit serves as moral justification for the decision to continue watching hateful shit. I think the Marvel films have proved that critical analysis is its own form of moral fantasy as it allows people to surrender their taste to the whims of marketing and maintain the illusion that they’re ‘woke’ individuals.

    If Sherlock is sexist, then watch Elementary instead. If Elementary is politically unpalatable then watch the first couple of seasons of Southland. If that’s too reactionary then seek out any one of the politically progressive series and films that have been produced by industries that aren’t Hollywood. I think we’ve reached the point where watching regressive shit even to engage with it critically is part of the problem. The great flowering of woke cultural commentary has done nothing to prevent the shift to the right in global politics.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. January 24, 2017 9:25 pm

    I’m in full agreement with you that my faith in cultural commentary to do anything has largely fallen by the wayside. In the twitter age it seems a wonder that I haven’t come across a crude portmanteau of ‘criticism’ and ‘entertainment,’ because it seems the lens of fandom is the best way to view the lion’s share of this stuff; you get to feel warm and fuzzy as a writer confirms your prejudices (and whatever they are, you can probably find someone in this oversaturated market writing about any product you wish). The stans, meanwhile, take the twitter and cause/react to a furore that’s the same as every one before it. And the slouching beast of the internet right is more effective because they came up through trolling, so never take any of this nonsense as seriously as their opponents. But how do you build leftist cultural hegemony when everyone is simultaneously trained to detest and resent anyone working in on art?

    Thanks for the music, btw, I actually check these for MVs as often as anything else.

    Like

  6. Gabriel permalink
    January 24, 2017 10:55 pm

    I think ‘aware consumption’ is a reasonable skill to incorporate into one’s life; I want to be able to read Lovecraft, or Tolkien, or Decameron’s Boccaccio, or Parcival, without reflexively internalizing any of the politics. There are things that nourish me there that make the effort to eat around the poison worthwhile.

    The problem, it seems to me, is:

    A) That the ‘extruded geek product’ slopped onto people’s plates is of such poor quality that people are not being nourished. There’s not much there besides the poison.

    B) It may turn out that the inherent politics of the media one consumes (or of the language one uses, etc) just doesn’t matter. Or maybe it matters but it’s a political dead-end. Or maybe it matters, once you deal with lynchings and rape-enabling and a living wage and segregated schools and cycles of poverty and…

    On being introduced to Gramsci as an undergrad, I remember clearly thinking, ‘Dr. M-, what would Gramsci think of you right now? What would he think of your life’s work, and the work of your fellow professors?’ I wondered for a long time if that question mattered. At the moment, I think it does.

    Like

  7. January 25, 2017 10:23 am

    “The best lack all conviction, while the worst
    Are full of passionate intensity.”
    (T.S. Eliot)

    Like

  8. bowneps permalink
    January 25, 2017 2:15 pm

    CW2046, should we be trying to build a leftist cultural hegemony? I find the concept of cultural hegemony inherently suspect, and have not been impressed with those circles in which there appears to be a leftist one.

    Jonathan McCalmont, I agree almost entirely!

    But wasn’t the debate about whether to watch commercial entertainment settled when Cultural Studies began, on the premise that whatever people choose to consume is worth studying and elite arts are snooty and irrelevant? And I have to say, I agree with that. If half the country loves Iron Man, then Iron Man is more relevant than a lot of what I prefer to read.

    The problem is, as you point out, that cultural critics want to have the enjoyment of non-challenging entertainment AND be counted among the intellectual elites. So they end up with a toxic and alienating sludge of ‘I’m watching this better than you are, and enjoying it in a more conscious way – and while I’m at it, I shall now comment on your political failings, you unreflective consumer.’

    *That’s* the current leftist cultural hegemony, and it is not attractive.

    Like

  9. Gabriel permalink
    January 25, 2017 3:11 pm

    We already had a ‘slouching beast’ up top, A.R., which you probably caught consciously or subconsciously. ‘The Waste Land’ seems to be the topic of discussion regardless.

    Like

  10. January 25, 2017 7:39 pm

    Gabriel — I think you’re right to dig into the question of how the culture we consume interacts with the politics we hold and then (even further) to the actions we take. I think that a lot of geek product has a vaguely leftist or liberal aftertaste and it’s very easy to assume that consuming stuff with that aftertaste vs other kinds of aftertaste make you more progressive. I think that’s not only false but also dangerous as it’s an easy stopping point… You hear of centrist Syrian rebels locking women in cages then you go and see Ghostbusters because fuck the misogynist haters and you stop there rather than reading a book about that part of the world or contributing to a charity that makes a difference to the lives of women.

    Not everyone can be an activist but watching woke popular culture is not a bit like being an activist, it’s the same as doing nothing.

    Like

  11. January 25, 2017 7:43 pm

    Chris — Thanks… I’ve enjoyed plumbing the depths of my musical tastes. I used to take music quite seriously back in the day and this has been an opportunity to update my tastes :-)

    I think Kermode’s ‘Wittertainment’ may be the neologism you’re reaching for…

    The discourse is not just stunted and futile, it’s now being actively manipulated. Every time a new blockbuster comes out, there’s talk of misogynists disapproving and this anger at a nebulous, invisible, gendered other is moving peopke to to and see really shitty films.

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  12. January 25, 2017 7:51 pm

    Bowneps — I think I’d prefer a leftist cultural hegemony if only because a leftist worldview has more pleasing limits. The neoliberal tells us that sometimes war is inevitable and that we cannot afford to look after the poor, the leftist worldview tells us that not looking after the poor is uninaginably cruel.

    I share your concern about those circles though… I’ve seen some very disappointing behaviour in leftist circles and while Marx tells us the emergence of class consciousness will resolve those problems, I am conflicted on the question of whether human nature can actually get us to the point of said consciousness emerging. Hence my describing my politics as anarchistic by nature and socialist by principle — my instincts tell me nothing good can come of states and large social hierarchies but I can’t imagine a more effective and humane way of running a society.

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  13. CW2046 permalink
    January 25, 2017 10:50 pm

    Yes, even as I wrote ‘leftist’ I admit I felt a little conflicted, because it does sound rather puritan. But neither are other choices like liberal or progressive full of positive associations. Settle perhaps on a rather wooly, Kantian I-know-it-when-I-see-it ‘decent/Good.’

    As Jonathan says, however, discourse is so muddied and deliberately misdirected that I doubt its efficacy as anything but a marketing tool. Consciously or not, it seems as if many people are simply re-enacting the postures of politics while the grinding machinery of History kicks back into gear after its all-too-brief ‘respite.’

    Not to mention that all these easy but meaningless victories have left people unable or unwilling to deal with increasingly harsh reality. Who really understands Syria? Who really attempts to? Better to pick a nice slogan and treat headlines as one-act plays, because you’re damned if you try to construct a narrative of how we ended up here.

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  14. January 26, 2017 9:06 am

    It wasn’t until this post that it clicked for me that Fisher was the Vampire Castle fellow; I didn’t think I had read much of him but it seems I did. Honestly, while I understand the impulse to be cautiously deferential to identity essentialists—their strategy, after all, predicated on instilling doubt and self-criticism (of the form “maybe from this formerly unexamined privilege of mine there really is a perspective of theirs to which I should defer”), good things to have, but also exploitable—ultimately it behooves us to be forthright to ourselves about our discomforts with their intellectual laziness. Not as an academic game of grading their rhetoric, but to acknowledge that this laziness does real harm: in creating an atmosphere of ‘woke’ complacency, in undermining the credibility of those who shrug and run with it, in abandoning the case against identity-determinism to extremists with no empathetic inclination whatsoever to doubt themselves, in dividing the rest of us.

    In particular, I’ve noticed that among those who are sceptical of the new identity politics, on either side of the left/liberal divide we see one camp accusing the other of harbouring the enemy. From the left you have Fisher (or deBoer, whose rhetoric I often recognise in yours on matters like Clintonian meritocracy, though I don’t know if he’s a conscious influence) excoriating it as a bourgeois liberal excess reluctant to talk about class; but surely the pejorative use of ‘liberal’ here means something other than a real commitment to cosmopolitanism and individual dignity, because from a principled liberalism, the identitarian faction expresses the worst collectivist, individual-erasing impulses of the left (the pejorative ‘left’), in denial of personal agency, always fixated on temporary and contingent distributions of power rather than pursuing the stable justice of a universal compact.

    Perhaps this is just a result of how unaccustomed the Americans are to thinking of ‘left’ and ‘liberal’ as distinct, given their status as a crumbling partnership of convenience (and how the American political language has a way of invading everything on the Internet), but it certainly seems to me that nobody wants to take responsibility for a politics of identity that has proven to be very potent at weaponising empathy and impotent at anything else. Given how the left would rather disown it as liberal and liberals would rather disown it as the left—we’re all true Scotsmen together—I’m of the mind that the identitarian stance doesn’t hail from a consistent principle at all; not of economic justice on egalitarian terms and certainly not of a general humanism. It’s something else entirely, a surface anger not followed to its conclusions, and I wouldn’t trust its adherents to govern any differently than the populist right.

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  15. January 26, 2017 9:57 am

    Nicholas —

    I only really discovered DeBoer a little while ago but it’s reasonable to see similarities between his sensibility and mine as I think we come from a very similar place. I certainly see a lot of myself in the way that DeBoer has fallen through academia and come out empty-handed and his willingness to turn his guns on his ‘own’ team regardless of the social consequences either to himself or the people around him.

    I think a motif in the DeBoer/Fisher scepticism about identity politics is that people who are from historically marginalised groups but have wealthy parents have used IDP to elbow their way to the front of institutions that perpetuate inequality. These people are then reluctant to speak about class because while their ethnic, sexual, etc characteristics may count against them, their social class doesn’t. It follows from this that you wind up with people from historically marginalised groups rehabilitating questionable institutions with their presence and thus abandoning non-wealthy people from historically marginalised to the depredations of these same institutions.

    I think the emerging divide between left and liberal is about how we learn from the experience of marginalised groups. Liberals say we need to listen and institutions can be regirmed by including more people from marginalised groups. Leftists argue that if we do actually listen we hear that these institutions cannot be reformed by inclusion, they can only be systenatically dismantled. Those are two very different sensibilities and I think that the Fisher/DeBoer camp are right in saying that liberals are the people who have got in through the doors of corrupt institutions and so are invested in their perpetuation.

    My ambivalence is on the question of whether it follows that because institutions can’t be reformed by IDP-based tinkering, they are structures that are inherrently flawed and unjust. Fisher was an optimist who thought that good institutions and solidarity could do good, DeBoer has a similar view about the importance of principled leadership but I am unsure. I agree with thd critiques, I’m not sure about the step forward.

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  16. Gabriel permalink
    January 27, 2017 12:42 am

    The ‘aftertaste’ you mention, Jonathan, is the ‘feeling of righteousness’ I alluded to in my first response. Everyone seems to want to be a berserker at Ragnarok, or a Spartan at Thermopylae, or, umm, a Garou fighting the Wyrm (literally the geekiest example I could think of). I suspect this is connected the to the U.K./U.S. existing in a time of declining empire. We’ve lost control, and mere anarchy is loosed upon in the world.

    (It’s probably important to note that they don’t really want to be berserkers at Ragnarok, they want the brief feeling of being akin to them in spirit while watching The Winter Soldier. Then they’d like to box that feeling up and put it away for a while, so that it doesn’t contaminate the rest of their lives.)

    Given that ideological consumption is literally the only place for the political in many people’s lives, it grows to be vastly more important in the mind than it is in reality, and battles over this bit of pop-culture minutiae or that grow into titanic struggles of the gravest import rather than five minutes of earnest talk over a bong or a beer. And titanic battles beget leaders, soldiers, factions, etc. As you say, weaponized empathy.

    Needless to say, it’s not healthy, especially in a political population that’s supposed to be concerned with making real, effective, material change in people’s lives.

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