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Thought Projectors 9

June 22, 2017

These pieces generally take a while to come together because I capture stuff as I discover it and then re-read it prior to sharing the link. This post involved more stuff captured than any previous link post but most of them were outdated and wrong by the time I got round to re-reading them.

The night of the general election, I went to see Stewart Lee performing in Tunbridge Wells. I visit Tunbridge Wells fairly regularly but it’s a town I absolutely loathe… I loathe the fact that I always wind up being followed around department stores, I loathe the fact that it is surrounded by an enormous building site, and I loathe the fact that it is effectively nothing but street upon street of terrible over-priced shops. I hate Tunbridge Wells but I’m glad I was there on the night of the election as loads of people walked out around the time the exit polls were released to the public. Walking out of the performance, I heard a teenager enthusiastically chanting ‘They’ve fucked it! They’ve fucked it!’ but this was Tunbridge Wells… he could easily have been a Tory. Or, even worse… a Blairite.

We drove home through a thunderstorm and I refrained from looking at the exit poll until we got home. I didn’t want to hope as I didn’t want to be disappointed. I even waited for my wife to wake up in the morning before checking the actual results.

The reason I wound up binning so many captured pieces is that British politics seems to be undergoing a genuine sea-change. As in the late-1970s, the old order can no longer sustain itself and its servants have been too slow in updating the settlement. Just as Hilary Clinton found when she tried to get people excited about ‘woke’ neoliberalism, the wealthy and powerful have taken too much too fast and now a fresh settlement must be drafted lest the chaos and unpredictability consume us all.

For the last year or so, many people have been assuming that xeno-nationalist politicians from the hard right would be drafting this settlement but Trump appears to be governing like a typical Republican and the general election saw Theresa May’s mandate disintegrate before her very eyes. The left was not in a position to move when the banks fell in 2007 but that is no longer true.

Every day seems to heap defeat and humiliation on the right. The charred and still-smoking ruins of Grenfell house are like something out of a novel; a metaphorical representation of the evils of austerity wrapped in incontrovertible evidence that the private sector simply cannot be trusted to care for the people of this country. The years of privatisation, outsourcing, neglect, and abandonment must now come to an end.

And a propos absolutely none of this, here are some of the photos I’ve taken since the last one of these…

 

Skull

 

 

 

 

 

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This recent piece by David Beer appears in the first issue of a magazine called New Socialist. If you look back over the history of the Labour party you’ll find that magazines have often served as rallying points for different groups and factions operating inside the party. Aside from allowing geographically dislocated groups to ‘find’ each other and communicate, these magazines also provide a platform on which ostensibly like-minded people can explore ideas and work through contentious issues in depth. Obviously, social media now makes meeting and communicating with like-minded people a lot easier but magazines allow the group-formation process to move beyond personalities and towards the elaboration of a shared political subjectivity. While New Socialist doesn’t explicitly present itself in these terms, I would argue that the magazine is an attempt to provide the resurgent UK left with a bit more intellectual heft.

The articles are all pretty good and I look forward to watching the magazine grow; the editors are clearly trying to steer a path between the glib pronouncements of Op-Ed columnists and the kind of jargon-dense theoretical analyses that academically-trained leftists use to talk to each other (and only each other). The result is a series of articles that are serious and thoughtful but also pleasingly accessible. The low-rent columnist in me thinks they could all probably be a bit tighter and a bit punchier (particularly at the level of the conclusion) but I understand the desire to speak in a more measured tone.

I’ve singled out the David Beer piece as I really like the idea that the pro-Corbyn left are like ill-dressed detectives shambling into the country clubs of the political class and pointing out the flaws in their consensus reality. Beer is absolutely correct that Corbyn’s success has put a massive crack in the post-Brexit understanding of Britain as a country drunk on its own cruelty and ready to indulge in yet another wave of bureaucratically-accelerated racism. Corbyn did well not only by suggesting that Britain *could* be a nicer place to live, but also by suggesting that we could all be kinder and better people. Backed both by the right-wing media and a liberal media in full existential crisis, May has spent the last two years telling the British people that they are brutal, selfish, racist pieces of shit and while many people continue to respond to this ugly moral carte blanche, Corbyn challenged it and the people welcomed the alternative.

Corbyn’s success is not just good news for Britain, it is also good news for the rest of the world as it shows that social democratic parties can find new voters by moving to the left. Let us speak no more of the Left being unelectable, only of how to hasten the demise of a hard right that is already (in Trump and May) proving both unstable and incapable.

 

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This fairly recent piece by Michael Hann caught my attention with its background rather than its foreground. The foreground of the article is about how Poptimism has become just as corrupt and ideologically suspect as the so-called Rockism it once decried. The background of the article is about how cultures manufacture prestige.

What Hann does in this piece is look beyond the surface politics of cultural advocacy to how tastes and subjectivities are shaped by the forces of cultural production. In particular, he argues that despite its (laudable) desire to celebrate the kind of work that was overlooked by critics because it was associated with genres and traditions that critics tend to ignore, Poptimism wound up cheerleading not only established artists but artists producing the kind of work that is almost never ignored simply by virtue of the size of the PR spend that tends to accompany its release. Hann alludes to the nature of contemporary cultural commentary and the fact that nobody wants to be a cultural killjoy, but I think the issue goes a lot deeper than he suggests…

There’s a lovely moment in Cameron Crowe’s Almost Famous when the Lester Bangs character reminds the film’s protagonist that critics exist at the sufferance of cultural elites. They may appreciate your work, they may treat you like an equal, but at the end of the day critics operate in a sphere where the rules are set by other people. Even before they gain access to the reserves of money, fame, and popularity that cultural elites require, critics are forced to offer those elites something they want.

Today, the bargain most critics choose to strike is that of serving as a cheerleader… They write about why commercially successful art is more than just a product and in return they get not only to slipstream the PR spend and be on the ‘right side’ of expensively-engineered popular perceptions, they also get access to the cool people and the reserves of capital they control. The reason that Poptimism wound up cheerleading popular artists and why newspaper film critics feel obliged to write gushing 5-star reviews of terrible Summer blockbusters is that today’s cultural elites are more controlling and less permissive than those of the recent past. During the French and American New Waves, cultural elites not only saw themselves as artists but saw themselves as artists who should be able to withstand a certain amount of critical scrutiny. They didn’t need to tolerate empowered critics but they did because they liked what that tolerance said about them. They believed that they benefited from a broader conversation.

One problem with this type of social contract is that it’s very difficult to change the terms. There are literally dozens of great writers wasting their lives writing about terrible films and TV but they can’t change the subject or change their terms of engagement without endangering their position in the social order created by cultural elites. I’ve written about this issue before but one reason why criticism moved out of the public sphere and into the semi-private sphere of academia is that the terms offered by academic institutions were often considerably better than those offered by cultural elites. As neoliberalism has bloomed and capital has become ever-more demanding, the pressure exerted on cultural elites translates into pressure brought to bear on those functioning below them… You can see it in music, you can see it in film, you can see it in games writing and you can see it in science fiction: They require us to be on their side and heavens protect those who choose not to be.

 

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This recent piece by Freddie De Boer asks some really interesting questions about the emergence of political subjectivities and what purpose those political subjectivities might serve.

De Boer is a really fascinating figure… He started writing overly leftist blog posts at a time when there were very few unapologetic leftists in American political culture. It’s easy to forget how much American politics has changes in recent years; think back to the Bush regime and how little the opposition to Bush had to offer except a series of jokes about red necks. It’s not that the Daily Show suddenly became shit, it’s that its criticism has always been pandering, simplistic, and toothless bullshit. Given the tone of the debate surrounding not only the War on Terror but also Obama’s decision to continue fighting it, it is not surprising that De Boer’s ability to produce 2 or 3 thoughtful, eloquent, and brave essays every week have earned him not only a lot of name recognition but also a sizeable audience. However, despite cutting a very recognisable figure on the American left, De Boer remains something of a controversial figure.

The depth of the controversies surrounding De Boer only really became apparent to me when his website unexpectedly went down. This website contained dozens of insightful and well-circulated pieces but when the site went down and all its contents were lost, nobody seemed to raise much of a fuss. No cries of sympathy, no crowd-funding initiatives. Just nothingness where a prominent commentator’s voice was once heard.

The problem seems to be that while de Boer has never said anything overtly terrible, he is treated as though he has. His disregard for social considerations and his willingness to not only take pot shots at the left (something that the mainstream media are busy doing anyway) but also to name names while doing so. As a result, De Boer is viewed as the kind of person who could say something horrible at any time and so people take an instinctive step back from everything he says. A fascinating insight into his thinking emerged in an interview he gave a number of months ago: De Boer talks about how he was an anti-War activist until his group decided to embrace horizontalism. Convinced that horizontalism was a waste of time and annoyed that his significant contributions to the group would effectively be treated as equal to those of someone who just turns up to meetings, De Boer opposed horizontalism and systematically voted it down to the point where the group effectively wound up No-Homering him. De Boer clearly sees this as evidence of the kind of absurdities that horizontalism brings about but it’s actually an indictment of his ability to function within (let alone lead) groups.

As someone who is both intellectually isolated and incredibly reluctant to surrender my intellectual agency, I have a lot of sympathy for De Boer but I think the pain of his isolation is starting to pull him in some rather peculiar directions.

The essay I link to above is an excellent example of the kinds of critique that De Boer has been producing but I think this slightly earlier piece makes the psychological subtext a little bit clearer. De Boer looks at a vibrant, unapologetic and ever-expanding online leftist culture and worries about putting those political energies to good use. What is the point of a leftist culture if said culture does not translate into real political action? As he puts it “The basic idea of the dialectic, literally the central theoretical practice of the left for 150 years, has disappeared. It’s all exhausting and stupid and people are not nearly as clever as they think they are.”

My problem with De Boer’s critique is that politics never spring fully formed from the head of Zeus… before we work out where we stand on various issues, we develop not only a basic sense of right-and-wrong but also an attraction for certain deep narratives. This attraction matters because even though our arguments might be rational, they cannot help but be informed by a set of pre-theoretical and pre-political intuitions about how the world ought to function. The memes, in-jokes, and dress codes of online leftism operate at this cognitive level… they form a social space where people can let their guards down and not only express themselves freely but also allow themselves to be influenced by the people around them. This is the place where subjectivities are born and it is at this level that De Boer is being unconsciously excluded.

He’s right to say that people should be judged primarily by their actual politics but the thing is that the political subjectivity stuff is how people actually live their politics. It’s the shop floor… It’s the barricade… It’s the journey from Kronstadt…De Boer is from a family of leftist activists and his political subjectivity was probably in place long before the rise of social media but not everyone comes from that kind of hot house political environment.

Sure, some people are just going to bitch and gossip… Sure, some people are just going to sit on their arses and talk shit… But some of them won’t. Some of them will get properly engaged and start organising but without an online social context to help develop that pre-political subjectivity, how are they going to be politicised? How are they going to be radicalised? Remove subjectivities and social dynamics from politics and you’re left with nothing but a graduate seminar.

 

 

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This recent piece by Will Wiles uses architecture as a basis for comparing the work of H.P. Lovecraft with the work of J.G. Ballard. Wiles is always excellent when writing about spaces and places and I really enjoyed this attempt to tie the work of the respective authors to what happened to be fashionable in architecture and design during their lifetimes.

What strikes me about this comparison is that while Ballard writes of an emergent present, Lovecraft invariably writes of a horrifying past. When I think of Lovecraft and architecture, I don’t think of Red Hook rat-nests but of the abandoned cities from At the Mountains of Madness… places whose sheer scale stands as incontrovertible proof of an alien intelligence at work. I think it was S.T. Joshi who describes Mountains as a work that effectively transforms the Cthulhu mythos from a fantastical form of horror to something more science-fictional and it’s easy to see why. In fact, if I had to think of another work like Mountains I would not think of a horror story but of Rendezvous with Rama by Arthur C. Clarke.

What makes Rama so special is that, unlike many works of science-fiction that were published at the time, Clarke viewed the hollowed-out space city as something that was fundamentally incomprehensible. We never know what happened to the original creators of the object, nor what purpose it served. Dozens of scientists crawl over its internal landscape and marvel at the peculiarities of its design and yet the story ends with the object passing out of Earth space and retreating into the dark beyond the Sun. Its secrets no more accessible than when the object first arrived. Clarke presents Rama as an object that defeats both science and the human imagination and our collective failure to unravel its secrets is distinctly disturbing. A lot of SF peddles the idea that the universe is both comprehensible and controllable but Rendezvous with Rama pointedly denies us that comforting conclusion.

The relationship with Ballard is more indirect. From the Crash-era onwards, Ballard’s writing played with the idea that humanity recreates itself through pathology. For example, we build motorways in order to satisfy our need to get around and the satisfaction of this need takes over and re-defines our spaces to the point where we begin the develop secondary pathologies linking sexual desire to motorised vehicles. Once as utility, then as fetish, finally as self-destructive compulsion. This idea also features in High Rise when a tower block is built using a set of assumptions about class only for these assumptions to be accelerated and mutated by the act of embedding those ideas in steel and concrete. First as reflection, then as perversion, finally as self-destruction.

It is interesting to imagine a pre-history to the works of Clarke and Lovecraft where their respective alien civilisations began to make the same mistakes as those diagnosed by Ballard. What psycho-pathologies are embedded in the colon-like structure of the cities hidden beneath the mountains of madness? Which fetishes drove Clarke’s aliens to build and abandon a vast cityscape and ecosystem that would automatically put-itself to sleep and wake itself up whenever it passed between stars? Which fears and obsessions are embedded in those alien landscapes and why do they disturb us so?

 

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This recent piece by Jim Wolfreys makes a number of really interesting points about French history and the rise of the hard right since the financial crisis of 2008. It’s quite a long piece and covers quite a lot of ground but it really says a lot about both the May and Trump premierships.

French political history is endlessly fascinating to me, not least because all of the Big Currents in Western political thought have played themselves out on the surface of French politics. What this means in practice is that you can look at a particular contemporary political formation and effectively trace its origins all the way back to the medieval period. For example, as Wolfreys suggests, the FN served as a skunkworks for the far right and their attempts to find a political formation that would make fascism seem appealing to contemporary voters. In fact, the FN have been so successful in this role that they wound up radicalising the parties of the mainstream right in much the same way as UKIP radicalised the British conservative party.

Before the ‘woke’ FN of the last French election with its female leader, technocratic pretensions, and legitimate concern for French values like secularism, there was an FN that served as the unchecked Id of the French right; A right that refused to apologise for contemporary racism, past colonialism, or collaboration with the Nazis. Before that, were remnants of the a Vichy regime that emerged from a political formation that was nationalistic, Ultra-Catholic and openly anti-Semitic. Go back further and you can trace the Catholic Ultra-ism all the way back to the St. Bartholomew’s day massacre and the French wars of religion. These political formations never really die… they just change shape in order to repackage themselves for easier consumption.

Another really interesting aspect of the article is the way that Wolfreys ties the rise of the French right to the attempt to roll-back popular awareness of France’s political history. Not just the on-going racism of the French state or even France’s colonialism, but France’s active collaboration with Nazi Germany including sending French Jews to German death camps.

This really struck home for me as while the 1960s saw French intellectuals and artists working very hard to force their countrymen to accept the horrific legacy of the French state, no comparable current has ever existed in Britain. To put it bluntly, the British state has more bodies on it than smallpox… The British Empire brutalised the world and the person that adorns our £5 note not only gassed the Kurdish people and allowed Millions to die in India, he also sent the Black and Tans to brutalise their fellow British citizens. As the frequent attempts to smear Jeremy Corbyn have made clear, most British people are alienated from their own history… they don’t even understand the context of the Good Friday accords and why so much blood was spilled on British soil.

Rightly or wrongly, people tend to look to their country for an idea of who they are and who they are supposed to be. The failure to confront the myth of British empire is not just a cultural failure but a political failure as the myth of British blamelessness makes people less hesitant to be selfish, brutal, and cruel. No wonder that one of the first things Theresa May’s government did after Brexit was rattle their sabres at the Spanish government over Gibraltar. These deep myths matter and the myths of Britishness desperately need to change.

 

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11 Comments leave one →
  1. June 23, 2017 7:28 pm

    I was linked here by freddie de boer. Your writing and analysis is really fantastic, I look forward to reading more of it.

    Like

  2. June 23, 2017 7:30 pm

    Thanks man… I really appreciate it :-)

    Like

  3. June 26, 2017 4:15 pm

    I like Stewart Lee — this is one of my favorite routines:

    Like

  4. June 26, 2017 9:26 pm

    Did a bit of a double take (as I often find myself doing recently) due to the positive political notes at the top of the article. Sometimes I feel like one of the major problems with the left is that while it can be terrible at taking criticism, it’s equally pish at celebrating minor victories without pouring scorn on them. I think that you’re right to champion magazines as cultural drivers here; longer form writing is essential to leaving behind the point-scoring mentality of social media in order to learn, grow and build consensus. A robust – and accessible – left media is an essential project in Britain, for precisely the reasons you mention in the Hann piece. It doesn’t appear as if the charade of tolerance is appreciated by modern Tories [sic?!], what with rants about reporters needing to be ‘more patriotic’ in their reporting of Brexit, et al.

    Anyway, some cool music on the list as usual, appreciated.

    Like

  5. June 28, 2017 11:48 am

    Thanks for another interesting piece–which in this case introduced me to a number of items and writers previously unfamiliar to me.

    This is, I think, the first time that one of your “Thought Projectors” pieces has been given over so completely to discussion of this kind. Is it indicative of a change in the course of your writing here at Ruthless Culture?

    Like

  6. June 28, 2017 11:53 am

    Chris — The left does have a tendency to pull the old football manager’s trick of saying ‘We shouldn’t celebrate this cup win too much… Plenty of games left to play’ and you can see why given how often minor victories lead to massive reactions and humiliating defeats but — for the first time since 2007 — the right seems on the back foot and we’re in a position to actually make real progress. I’ve surprised myself by being hopeful :-)

    Like

  7. June 28, 2017 11:57 am

    Hi Nader — I don’t know… It certainly reflects where my thinking has been recently. I’m reluctant to start churning out political pieces because I’m not sure I can cope with the heat that type of discussion tends to generate but I am thinking of making a few changes… I don’t get to write about films that often anymore and I think writing about SF is increasimgly becoming more trouble than it’s worth so we will have to see

    Like

  8. Hilary Held permalink
    June 28, 2017 10:03 pm

    Everything you write interests me greatly, and I was especially fascinated, and gratified, by your analysis of the weird “de Boer cringe.” I’ve always liked his work, both the political stuff and the critiques of pop culture; I thought his voice was original and important, so I was somewhat surprised by how the far left and the “mainstream Left) (the Lawyers,Guns and Money coterie, etc.) have cast him aside. Your post was a great help in understanding why this is. And while you clearly have more important things to do, you ought to check out his post about living in NYC and absorbing the cultural attitudes there. It’s mildly disturbing that he’s getting cozy with “insider” culture but still doesn’t understand why politics can’t be “pure.” Anyway, thanks for thinking!

    Like

  9. June 29, 2017 7:18 am

    Thanks HH :-)

    Like

  10. November 14, 2017 4:50 pm

    So glad I found your blog, which happened while looking for intelligent reviews of Au hasard, Balthazar. From a humble, Corbyn-supporting student looking for ways to support good culture in wet (but not politically) west Wales.

    Like

  11. November 14, 2017 6:12 pm

    Thank you :-) Best wishes from East Sussex!

    Like

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