June 12, 2009

Fans, vampires, trolls, Masters


One of the many fascinating things about Alex's properly punk provocation is the immuno-response it has induced (and, ladies and gentlemen, if punk means anything it is this kind of divisive unsettling of good sense; choose your sides - and it's not a matter of agreeing with the content, it's whether you can cope with the intemperance and the impatience of the style, whether, in the end, when faced with this kind of thing, you will take refuge from the scouring challenges of theoretical abstraction in guffawing Guardianista commonsense or scholarly piety).

This must be the work of disappointed fans, we are told. The implication here is double: the vicissitudes of fan-adoration have no relationship to proper philosophical discussion, and fan exasperation, the nihilation of the former idol, is somehow juvenile.

It's always other people who are 'fans': our own attachments, we like to pretend (to ourselves; others are unlikely to be convinced) have been arrived at by a properly judicious process and are not at all excessive. There's a peculiar shame involved in admitting that one is a fan, perhaps because it involves being caught out in a fantasy-identification. 'Maturity' insists that we remember with hostile distaste, gentle embarrassment or sympathetic condescenscion when we were first swept up by something - when, in the first flushes of devotion, we tried to copy the style, the tone; when, that is, we are drawn into the impossible quest of trying to become what the Other is it to us. This is the only kind of 'love' that has real philosophical implications, the passion capable of shaking us out of sensus communis. Smirking postmodernity images the fan as the sad geekish Trekkie, pathetically, fetishistically invested in what - all good sense knows - is embarrassing trivia. But this lofty, purportedly olympian perspective is nothing but the view of the Last Man. Which isn't to make the fatuous relativist claim that devotees of Badiou are the same as Trekkies; it is to make the point that Graham has been tirelessly reiterating - that the critique from nowhere is nothing but trolling. Trolls pride themselves on not being fans, on not having the investments shared by those occupying whatever space they are trolling. Trolls are not limited to cyberspace, although, evidently, zones of cyberspace - comments boxes and discussion boards - are particularly congenial for them. And of course the elementary Troll gesture is the disavowal of cyberspace itself. In a typical gesture of flailing impotence that nevertheless has effects - of energy-drain and demoralisation - the Troll spends a great deal of time on the web saying how debased, how unsophisticated, the web is - by contrast, we have to conclude, with the superb work routinely being turned out by 'professionals' in the media and the academy.

In many ways, the academic qua academic is the Troll par excellence. Postgraduate study has a propensity to breeds trolls; in the worst cases, the mode of nitpicking critique (and autocritique) required by academic training turns people into permanent trolls, trolls who troll themselves, who transform their inability to commit to any position into a virtue, a sign of their maturity (opposed, in their minds, to the allegedly infantile attachments of The Fan). But there is nothing more adolescent - in the worst way - than this posture of alleged detachment, this sneer from nowhere. For what it disavows is its own investments; an investment in always being at the edge of projects it can neither commit to nor entirely sever itself from - the worst kind of libidinal configuration, an appalling trap, an existential toxicity which ensures debilitation for all who come into contact with it (if only that in terms of time and energy wasted - the Troll above all wants to waste time, its libido involves a banal sadism, the dull malice of snatching people's toys away from them).

Related to Trolls, and in some ways even more dangerous, are what Scanshifts and I call Grey Vampires: Grey Vampires are creatures who disguise their moth-greyness in iridescent brightness, all the colours of attractive sociability. Like moths, they are drawn by the light of energetic commitment, but unable to themselves commit. Unlike the Toll, the Grey Vampire's mode is not aggressive, at least not actively so; the Grey Vampire is a moth-like only on the inside. On the outside, they are bright, humorous, positive - everyone likes them. But they are possessed by a a deep, implacable sadness. They feed on the energy of those who are devoted, but they cannot devote themselves to anything.

The dominant modes of subjectivity at the end of history/ web 2.0 are those of the Troll and the Grey Vampire, the two faces of the Last Man. This isn't to say that most people are not fans; they are, but many work hard to conceal this about themselves, for it makes them vulnerable to attacks from Trolls or Grey Vampires, or the Trolls or Grey Vampires in themselves. They are subordinated to The Fear and its demand that we be irreverent, that we constitute ourselves as ironically self-deflating subjects (I'm the sort of person who....). The postmodern academic, complicit with the system that immiserates them, reflexively impotent, is required to oscilate between being Troll and Grey Vampire, between hyper-critical scholarliness and convivial sociality, kept locked into the system by just the right level of prestige and self-loathing. That's why most of the interesting work done in institutions is achieved by people who have infiltrated the academy after periods of (intellectual and subjective) destitution.

So I will admit it: I am a fan, and this holds for my philosophical, as much as my cultural, investments. The two are in any case interchangeable - there is a philosophy implicit in any cultural product worth its salt (as Dominic, Alex and Reza demonstrate with their method-analyses of Black Metal, whose fanaticism make it the black mirror reverse of the overground kingdom of Trolls and Grey Vampires. And the anti-social dysphoria of Black Metal - being no-one - has far more to offer any 21st century Marxism than the moralising homilies of clubbable, pubbish socialism.)

There is a strong relationship between the Fan and the critic. The best critics do not pretend to offer value-neutal judgements from nowhere - as Nietzsche, Marx, Freud and Lacan have shown in their different ways, no such place exists , although the fantasy position of something like Analytic Philosophy is to pretend that it does. Again, this is not a relativist or anti-realist point - any sophisticated realist position has to deal with the fact that we can't step over own own shadow (but, as Graham and Levi insist, rightly in my view, a commitment to realism does not entail any human access to the real; in fact, it is more likely to mean the opposite).

Even at its most debased, there is a systematicity to Fan devotion, and it is this systematicity which the good sense of Web 2.0 'irreverence' always recoils from and mocks. Imagine believing something, it's so vulgar, tasteless, embarrassing... This 'systematicity' looks 'silly' considered from the armchair of the Last Man - but so is any reality system - including that of anglo saxon nominalism - viewed from outside (isn't this one of the abiding lessons of Foucault, the point of his famous invocation of Borges's taxonomy at the start of The Order Of Things?) And of course there is no more 'silly' system than Badiou's, an ultra-intricate chain of entailments and exclusions which only the super-dedicated professional or the monastic devotee can have the time and energy to explore. But the new and the sublime is just as likely to initially seem 'silly' as it is incomprehensible or distressing (cf Jungle, which was snootily dismissed as 'silly' by IDMers.)

Really, the 'Badiou backlash' started with Ray's memorable exasperation at the Middlesex Being And Event non-event, when, at the end, he asked if Badiou's system is anything more than a elaborate folly. It was a bracing intervention after a day of soporific solemnity. If the vice of Deleuzianism was the encouragement it gave horrible slew of New Age vitalisms, nu-language anti-thinking artspeak (no need to be coherent, just be creative) and happy-clappy pro-capitalist positivity, one of the most regrettable effects of Badiou's pre-eminece has been to restore the prestige of philosophical priest-scholar po-facedness - I take Levi's point that much of the appeal of Zizek for certain Cult Studs types is that he legitimates talking about TV programmes and films, but the appeal of Badiou for another kind of academic is that they don't have to discuss television or media, and can reassure themselves that talking about bourgeois kitsch in art galleries, museums and university departments is the proper pursuit of the Philosopher; that's why the Paul Bowman critique had a certain point.

There's a certain disingenuousness in Badiou-devotees complaining of slaying the Master, when, in the UK world at least, so much of the impetus behind the move to Badiou came from disappointed and/ or defecting Deleuzians. As one of Graham's correspondents rightly observes, it is hard to see Badiou - both in terms of the sociology of his reception and the status of his philosophical project - except as the anti-Deleuze. Anti-Deleuzianism was certainly necessary in this dismal decade; and Badiou played a part in waking me from my Deleuzian slumber, but - and here's a confession no proper philosopher should make - Zizek played more of a part. I've been a Zizek fan, but I only ever admired (aspects of) Badiou.

Betrayal is just as important a cultural engine as fidelity; hate is just as important as love. But only the fan can betray, only the lover can hate. That's why betrayal and hate are as alien to the Troll as they are to the Grey Vampires.

The problem with Badiou and Zizek is not any totalitarianism, but the fact that their politics are postmodern simulations played out for an academic gallery: 'comedy Maoism' and 'comedy Stalinism', as Alex has put it. Their immense value this decade was to de-naturalise capitalist realism, and to expose the complicity of pomo sophistry and deconstructive indecision in the neoliberal reality picture, but both remain victims of the Old Left vice of looking backwards. This is far more true of Badiou than of Zizek, who will engage with neurophilosophy and genetic engineering. One of the strange things about Badiou is the curious retrospective temporality of his literally post-modernist philosophy - this is what it was to be a militant, this is what it was to fall in love... well, yes, but, now what? What's rousing about The Meaning Of Sarkozy is precisely the call to start again from nothing. We need to take him at his word here. Badiou has led us through the desert of the hyperreal, but the promised land turns out to be a scorched earth where the raddled old communist ideas, terms and histories cannot take root. Time for the last of the 68 fathers to be ushered offstage. Time for speculative realism to come to the centre. And I'll return to this in the long-promised eliminativist Marxist post.

Posted by mark at June 12, 2009 08:32 PM | TrackBack