September 28, 2009

Atwood response

Interesting response via email to the Atwood post by someone calling themselves The Guava Tree ("I hope my email address name doesn't throw you off and make you think I'm a religious hippie person", they say), highlighting some aspects of The Year Of The Flood which I underplayed:

    There is that spiritual Mother Earth aspect to the Greens--but there was also a spiritual Brotherhood of Man aspect to the Civil Rights struggle in the US. In both cases I could long for a secular alternative to the core of these struggles, but in the end it's still the right side to be on.
    I think Atwood in "The Year of the Flood" is trying to avoid the macho male-male jealousy narrative of Oryx and Crake, but there is the split that takes place in God's Gardeners between Adam One and Zeb. And Zeb, who actually survives unlike Adam One, seems to question the whole spiritual mumbo-jumbo by not being afraid of direct-action and violence. I think Adam One even dies as a result of his band, at the very end, staying too close together and bringing in infected outsiders.
    Earlier there's the comedic scene of the Gardeners selling their wares at the farmers market as the rich "Greens" and their children slum it while buying their organic produce--In this scene and the subplot about the guy illegally growing weed Atwood mocks both the Corp-dwellers' love of fresh produce, their brief vacations in nature by buying the right commodity, and also the other end of the Green movement, which are the hippies growing and becoming super rich off the ultimate organic commodity: marajuana.
    But you're right, Atwood doesn't include the type of green-feel-good multi-national corporation such as Starbucks or BP, that uses the arguments and rhetoric of the green movement to its own profit-making advantage. These corporations have to flank themselves in this way, though, because of the truth at the core of environmentalism--humans have destroyed much of the world in a wasteful way. Atwood, though, imagines a pre-9/11 world of the Genoa G-20 in which corporations have to acknowledge the "unelected and poorly-informed rabble", but a world of the post-9/11 Pittsburgh G-20 in which the rabble will be neutralized as quickly and lethally as possible. As the resistance becomes more invisible, the corporations no longer have to kid the masses that they are helping the world by purchasing a commodity. The inward-looking Gods Gardeners are response to a world in which direct-action has become more and more life-threatening and in which corporations no longer have a resistance to answer to: They will bring about the Flood because no one is checking the direction of their technological advance.
    I agree "year of the flood" is a bit of a let-down after the "zero-hour" beginning and ending of "oryx and crake" , but with the voice Snowman hears on his radio, the smoke he sees, you know he can't be alone.
    Oryx and Crake is the wish; Year of the Flood is the reality principle. they bang up against each other beautifully.
    If there's a new organizational model of the "Gods Gardeners" it is "live it, now." You may think that's mumbo jumbo when the potential for a real transformation is seemingly non-existent. But I am perplexed why many left-wing bloggers I read aren't aware of new organizational models that actually exist right now, especially for food. One can dream of utopia while living in a cold world, thinking of the lack of transformative capabilities that exist--or one can also activily participate right now in models that seek to emulate (even a little bit) what a better world would actually be like. It's not that doing so means that you believe in "Mother Earth", reek of patchouli oil and are ignorant of what a true transformation *for everyone* would actually be like and what that transformation would actually require-----it's more that if you don't act and don't create "new modes of organization and management" *right now* you'll feel like you'll life will have been wasted.
    I have not read "Cold World", so I don't know exactly, but I guess while that idea intrigues me, there's also something that's extremely unsettling about it to me. I know it's not your book, but it seems that the question with the Cold World is how to make the leap from that to an actuality, a working politics. Perhaps that's what I'm slowly attempting to wrestle with. When you start to act, politics can get very mushy and warm and uncomfortable in an ego-threatening way. Oryx and Crake is the cold world--perhaps Year of the Flood is Atwood's answer to that, why you react so strongly against it.
Posted by mark at 07:17 PM | TrackBack

September 26, 2009

Atwood's anti-capitalism

year of the flood.jpg

"Regressive it all is," Jameson remarks of the "God's gardeners" cult in Atwood's The Year Of The Flood, adding a provocative parenthesis: "it is always helpful to wonder what politics today could possibly be otherwise." The Year Of The Flood is disappointing in part because it has no alternatives to regression - the only way forward, it seems, is back to nature.

It isn't the focus on religion per se that is the signature of this regression; rather, it is Atwood's retreat from the questions about religion that Oryx And Crake posed so intriguingly. One of the climactic moments of Oryx was the foundation of religious feeling amongst the lab-designed neo-noble savages, the Crakers. As per Totem and Taboo and Moses And Monotheism, the religion emerges as a consequence of the death of the Father figure. Ironies abound here: since the "Crakers" were made, not begotten, the "Father" is actually their creator-designer, the misanthropic wunderkind Crake - who had precisely designed them without the neurological configuration which he believes gives rise to religion. Crake is not so much an eliminative materialist as a materialist eliminativist: "Crake thought he'd done away with all that, eliminated what he called the G-spot in the brain. God is a cluster of neurons, he'd maintained. It had been a difficult problem, though: take out too much in the area and you got a zombie or a psychopath." If, at first sight, the emergence of religion amongst the Crakers appears to be a kind of miracle, in the end it is only a testament to the power of other (psychoanalytic and cultural) determining factors in addition to neurology.

Crake's experiments constitute a retort to the hoary old reactionary homily that utopia is alien to human nature. (For a recent version of this, see one of the antagonists in Zizek's latest book, the uber-capitalist realist Guy Sorman, with his claim that, "[w]hatever the truths uncovered by economic science, the free market is finally only the reflection of human nature, itself hardly perfectible.") If that's the case, Crake concludes with the pragmatism of the autist, we should change human nature: the means are now available. Crake is effect responds to Freud's argument in Civilization And Its Discontents that, even if property relations were made egalitarian, antagonism would continue to arise because of sexual competition. "Maybe Crake was right," Snowman reflects,

    "Under the old dispensation, sexual competition had been relentless and cruel: for every pair of happy lovers there was a dejected onlooker, the one excluded. Love was its own transparent bubble-dome you could see the two inside it, but you couldn't get in there yourself.

    That had been the milder form: the single man at the window, drinking himself into oblivion to the mournful strains of the tango. But such things could escalate into violence. Extreme emotions could be lethal. If I can't have you nobody will, and so forth. Death could set in.

So Crake replaces what Toby in The Year Of The Flood calls "romantic pain" with sedate animal courtship rituals. "Their sexuality was not a constant torment to them, not a cloud of turbulent hormones: they came into heat and regular intervals, as did most other mammals other than man." It would have been fascinating for Atwood to have given a fictional testing to Crake's claim to have eliminated hierarchy, hunger and racism amongst his genetic creations. There's also the problem of language. The Crakers are able to maintain their genetically-designed innocence, Atwood suggests, because they lack the past subjunctive tense. ("[T]he idea of the immortality of the soul ... was a consequence of grammar. And so was God, because as soon as there is a past tense, there has to be a past before the past until you get to I don't know, and that's what God is. It's what you don't know - the dark, the hidden, the underside of the visible, and all because we have grammar." But, this too, is fixable with a little genetic engineering: "[G]rammar would be impossible without the FoxP2 gene gene.")

Yet the loss of Crake - which is nothing less than an encounter with loss and negation itself - threatens to project the Crakers out of their animal-time into the wounded time of human abjection. But the Crakers recede from focus in The Year Of The Flood: a sign, perhaps, that Atwood has lost interest in them, or - maybe - that such creatures cannot elicit much interest from beings such as us. What looms to the fore in the narrative is the progressive-regressive religious form that a less pacific group of humans cleave to in the dying days of the world.

Atwood has said that one inspiration for the creation of the eco-religion was "the death of her father and mother ... and the necessity to choose hymns for their funerals that would have been acceptable to them: both were scientists." It's easy to sneer at the difficulty that Atwood touches upon here, and the familiar problems of reconciling religion and science may ultimately be less intractable than the issue of symbolic deficit in contemporary secularism that she is pointing to. Atheism has yet to come up with rituals that can muster the symbolic weight of religion, and there are strong reasons to suspect that the failure is more than a contingent one. That's because Atheism typically construes the death of God in terms of a disavowal of the Symbolic (=big Other) itself. There's a close fit between this quintessentially postmodern disavowal - where official denial of the existence of the big Other is combined with a de facto observance of the symbolic at another level - and capitalist realism. As Althusser realised, the rituals of capitalist ideology function all the better for not being acknowledged as rituals at all. In place of the instransigent solemnity of the religious ritual, postmodern secularism presents us with either an eschewal of ritual altogether (no need for any kind ceremony), or "write- your-own-vows" personalisation, or a kind of ersatz humanist-kitsch, in which religious form is preserved even as belief in a supernatural God is denied. The problem is not a secular "lack of meaning", but almost the opposite: it is religious rituals' very meaninglessness, their lack of personal significance, which gives them much of their power. Partly, as Jameson suggests in his LRB piece on Year Of The Flood, the problem is time: any new "belief system" "demands a supplement in the form of deep time, ancient cultural custom, or revelation itself". Time precisely allows a ritual to become a custom, an empty form to which the individual is subjected - and, very far from being a disadvantage, this is what yields funeral rites much of their power to console.

Mourning and loss are not only at the origins of religion, but also, it goes without saying, at the root of much of its continuing appeal. One of the most contentious - and borderline acrimonious - discussions amongst students that I've seen for a while came up in a session on Philosophy of Religion that I taught earlier this year, which broached some of the issues I raised in this post on David Peace. What prompted the controversy was my contention that atheism has far more of a problem with evil and suffering than religion does - not least because of the suffering of those who are now dead. Ivan Karamazov's howl of anguish can be directed at the atheist architects of the radiant city as much as at God, since what can any revolutionary eschatology, no matter how glorious, do about the agonies of those who are long dead? No amount of secular good will cannot guarantee any correlation between virtue and happiness, as Kant argues in an incendiary passage of The Critique Of Teleological Judgment:

    Deceit, violence, and envy will be rife around [the righteous non-believer], even though he himself is benevolent. Moreover, as concerns the other righteous people, he meets: no matter how worthy of happiness they may be, nature, which pays no attention to that, will still subject them to all the evils of deprivation, disease, and untimely death, just like all the other animals on the earth. And they will stay subjected to these evils always, until one vast tomb engulfs them one and all (honest or not, that makes no difference here), and hurls them, who managed to believe that they were the final purpose of creation, back into the abyss of the purposeless chaos of matter from which they were taken.

Note also that Kant's argument here applies equally well to the neo-paganism of God's Gardeners as it does to "righteous non-believers", for Kant absolutely refuses the equation of nature with beneficience that the Gardeners preach. On the contrary, Kant argues, God is necessary to make good a nature characterised by amoral purposelessness. The true atheist must be able to look this "vast tomb", this "abyss of purposeless chaos", full in the face - whereas I suspect that most (of us) non-believers manage only to look away from it. But Kant's moral argument is less easily dismissed than it would appear, because it is far harder to eliminate belief in a providential structure of the universe than we first imagine - precisely because this kind of belief lurks far beneath anything that we would admit to accepting. (Watch an edition of Deal Or No Deal, though, and it's clear that many openly evince such a belief.) Perhaps it would indeed take a Crake's genetic tinkering to eradicate it.

The problem with The Year Of The Flood is that politics and religion become synonymous - and while there's every reason to be positive about politicised religion, there are deep problems with a politics which cannot shed the redemptive and messianic mantles of religious eschatology. It's striking how much that God's Gardener's resemble the Greens as abominated by Sorman, in a passage quoted in First As Tragedy, Then As Farce:

    No ordinary rioters, the Greens are the priests of a new religion that puts nature above humankind. The ecology movement is not a nice peace-and-love lobby but a revolutionary force. Like many a modernday religion, its designated evils are ostensibly decried on the basis of scientific knowledge: global warming, species extinction, loss of biodiversity, superweeds. In fact, all these threats are figments of the Green imagination. Greens borrow their vocabulary for science without availing themselves of its rationality. Their method is not new; Marx and Engels also pretended to root their world vision in the science of their time, Darwinism.

Atwood makes a case for such a religion. (Clarifactory note: just to be 100% clear - I in no way endorse Sorman's views of the Greens. I just thought it was amusing that Atwood constructed an eco-cult which so closely fitted Sorman's stereotype.) In an exchange with Richard Dawkins on Newsnight review a couple of weeks ago, Atwood maintained that arguing against religion from the perspective of evolution makes little sense, because the persistence of religion itself suggests that it confers evolutionary benefit on humans. Given this, Atwood suggested, religion should be used as a tool for "progressive" struggles; and Adam One, the leader of God's Gardeners, is interesting only when he sounds like a Machiavelli or a Strauss, who uses religion to manipulate popular sentiment - the rest of the time his eco-piousness is made bearable only by virtue of Atwood's gentle satirical teasing (witness, for instance, the convolutions into which Gardener-doctrine is forced in its attempts to reconcile vegetarianism with both the carnivore-bias of the Bible and the "amoral chaos" of a nature red in tooth and claw). Initially, what appeals about the idea of God's Gardeners is the promise that Atwood will describe a new kind of political organisation. Yet the Gardeners' doctrine and structure turns out to be a disappointing ragbag of stale and drab No Logo-like anti-consumerist asceticism, primivist lore, natural remedies and self-defence that is as alluring as last week's patchouli oil. Ultimately, The Year Of The Flood feels like a symptom of the libidinal and symbolic impasses of so much so-called anti-capitalism. Atwood imagines the end of capitalism, but only after the end of the world. Oryx was like the first part of Wall-E; The Year Of The Flood is like the second part, where we find that the last survivor was nothing of the sort, and there were existing bands of human beings already wandering around, mysteriously just out of sight. (At least in Wall-E the surviving humans were offworld, whereas in Oryx, we are now asked to believe, they had somehow remained just outside Snowman's eyeline.) It has a retrospectively deflationary effect, subtracting most of the pathos and nobility from Snowman's plight, and converting what had seemed like a cyberpunk-Beckett tragicomedy into mere comedy. (Incidentally, perhaps the greatest "achievement" of The Year Of The Flood is that, by the end, it no longer feels like an Atwood novel at all. Instead, it's written in the kind of functional prose of a middling Stephen King novel, and populated by cyberpunk genre-standared hardass women, in a post-apocalyptic setting which is surprisingly lacking in vividness. The result is what Robert Macfarlane memorably calls a "dystoap-opera".)


The question that kept recurring when I was reading both Oryx And Crake and The Year Of The Flood was: why do these books not succeed in the way that The Handmaid's Tale did? If The Handmaid's Tale was an exemplary dystopia, it was because the novel made contact with the Imaginary-Real of neoconservatism. Gilead was 'Real' at the level of a neconservative desire that was operating in the Reaganite 80s; a virtual present that conditioned the actual present. Offred, the handmaids, the Marthas, the Wall - these names have the resonant consistency of a world. But Atwood does not have so assured a handle on neolliberalism as she did on neoconservatism. Atwood gives every appearance of underestimating the cheap poetry of brands, banal as it is; her corporate names are ugly and clunky, no doubt deliberately so - perhaps this is the way that she hears the absurd infantilisms of late capitalist semiotics. AnooYoo, HelthWyzer, Happicuppa, ReJoovenEssens, and - most ungainly of all - Sea(H)ear Candies: these practically caused me physical pain to read, and it is hard to conceive of any world in which these would be leading brands. Atwood's mistake is always the same - the names are unsightly plays on the function or service that the corporations offer, whereas capitalism's top brand names - Coca Cola, Google, Starbucks - have attained an asignifying abstraction, in which any reference to what the corporation does is merely vestigial. Capitalist semiotics echo capital's own tendency towards ever-increasing abstraction. (For the Imaginary-Real of neoliberalism, you'd be far better off reading Nick Land's 90s texts, shortly to be re-published.) Atwood's names for genetically-spliced animals - the pigoon, the spoat/gider, the liobam - are also examples of linguistic butchery; perhaps she was trying to provide a parallel in language for the denaturalising violence of genetic engineering. In any case, these linguistic monsters are unlikely to roam far beyond Atwood's texts (they certainly don't have anything like the dark sleekness and hyperstitional puissance of, say, Gibson's neologisms).


But the principal failing of The Year Of The Flood's anti-capitalism consists in its inability to grasp the way in which capitalism has absorbed the organic and the green. Some of the strongest passages in First As Tragedy, Then As Farce keep reiterating this message. (One of my favourite lines in the book: "Who really believes that half-rotten and overpriced 'organic' apples are really healthier than the non-organic varieties?") Needless to say, while any credible leftism must make ecological issues central it is a mistake to seek out an "authentic" organicism beyond capitalism's simulated-organic. (Another of my favourite lines in First As Tragedy ...: "if there is one good thing about capitalism, it is that, precisely, mother earth now no longer exists.") Organicism is the problem, and it's not some eco-spirituality that will save the human environment (if it can be saved) but new modes of organisation and management.

Posted by mark at 04:44 PM | TrackBack

September 20, 2009

The ghost train of modernism

The militant modernist is of course right to resist any equation of techno-modernity with Nazism. Nazi time, with its mixture of the ultra-archaic and the technologically cutting edge, was in effect an anticipative taste of the postmodern, not any sort of logical conclusion of modernism. The temporality of Kraftwerk, meanwhile, was never one of simple future-orientation. The trans-Europe Express sounds like a steam train, and Kraftwerk's records are suffused with nostalgia for a future that never came to be. One of the many interesting things about Kraftwerk is the way that this what-if conjecture, this ghost train of German modernism, became the actual (Afrogermanic) future of music.

Incidentally, for comments and gloss on the concept of the communicational sublime that I auditioned in my review of the Kraftwerk reissues in the current issue of The Wire, see Antagonist. I don't know how much mileage there is in the idea of the communicational sublime, but there's certainly material in Kittler and McLuhan which would feed into any elaboration of it.

Listening to Trans-Europe Express over and over, I was reminded of two American travellers in the Europe of the 1970s, not the Iggy Pop namechecked by Kraftwerk themselves, but Tom Ripley and Jason Bourne. Bourne and Ripley - who has such grotesquely comic adventures aboard a train in Ripley's Game - are strange echoes of one another, lost in the communicational landscape of Europe Endless. "Rendezvous on Champs-Elysees ... Leave Paris in the morning on T.E.E. ... In Vienna we sit in a late-night cafe ..." The transport system of Europe is the backdrop for Ripley and Bourne's existentialist travails, which have opposite aims. Ripley deliberately uses the piazzas and street cafes of old Europe to bury his old self and forge a new one; Bourne, an amnesiac thrown into the black water , stalks through the banks and salons of Zurich and Paris for clues to who he is. In Ludlum's novel, "the Bourne identity" is part of a complex plot against Carlos the Jackal - a kind of proto-cyberpunk sim-persona that must disassemble itself. As I argue in Capitalist Realism, though, when Bourne returns in the Matt Damon films, it is as an avatar of post-Fordist plasticity: the identity that emerges from the constructed Bourne shell has no more depth than the Bourne-simulation itself.

Posted by mark at 06:35 PM | TrackBack

How the Other Half Doesn't Live


    1: Woman sawn apart in a wooden crate, wearing a bathing suit, smiling, a trick done with mirrors, I read it in a comic book: only with me there had been an accident and I came apart. The other half, the one locked away, was the only one that could live; I was the wrong half, detached, terminal. I was nothing but a head, or no, something minor like a thumb; numb.
    2: Pleasure and pain are side by side they said but most of the brain is neutral: nerveless, like fat. I rehearsed emotions, naming them: joy, peace, guilt, release, love and hate, react, relate; what to feel was like what to wear, you watched the others and memorized it. But the only thing there was the fear I wasn't alive: a negative, the difference between the shadow of a pin an what it's like when you stick it in your arm, in school caged in the desk I used to do that, with pen-nibs and compass points too, instruments of knowledge, English and Geometry; they've discovered rats prefer any sensation to none. The insides of my arms were stippled with tiny wounds, like an addict's. They slipped the needle into the arm and I was falling down, it was like sinking from one level of darkness to a deeper, deepest; when I rose up through the anesthetic, pale green and then daylight, I could remember nothing.
    3: I didn't feel awful; I realized I didn't feel much of anything. I hadn't for a long time. Perhaps I'd been like that all my life, just as some babies are born deaf or without a sense of touch; but if that was true I wouldn't have noticed the absence. At some point my neck must have closed over, pond freezing or a wound, shutting me into a head; since then, everything has been glancing off me, it was like being in a vase, or the village where I could see them but not hear them because I didn't understand what was being said. Bottles distort for the observers too: frogs in the jam jar stretched wide, to those watching I must have looked grotesque.

Dysphoria screams quietly out of Margaret Atwood's Surfacing. In some respects, Surfacing, published in 1972, could be seen as registering the bitter awakening after the militant euphoria of the Sixties, Atwood's famously cold prose freezing over the Sixties' heated loins, and drawing, from the semi-desolation of the Canadian bush, a new Cold World landscape as alluring and forbidding as any in literature. A conservative reading suggests itself - what surfaces here, it might seem, are the consequences that Sixties permissiveness imagined it had dispensed with. The repressed - which in this sense would mean the agencies of repression themselves - returns in the spectral form of the unnamed narrator's aborted child, encountered in a dark lake space where excrement and jellyfish-like foetal scrapings float, the abjected and the aborted commingling in a sewer of the Symbolic. Far from enabling her to 'regain' some 'wholeness', the reintegration of this lost object destroys the fragile collage of screen memories and fantasies the narrator's unconscious has artfully constructed, projecting her from the frozen poise of dysphoria into schizophrenia - which, in the conservative reading, would constitute a proper punishment for her licentiousness.

There's a great deal at stake in resisting this conservative reading, and I think it takes us to the heart of what is so valuable in the concept of a militant dysphoria. Certainly, Surfacing savagely deflates the pretentions of the counterculture, which Atwood's narrator remorselessly eliminates, exposing a libertarian-misogynistic "Americanism" underneath. "I could see into him, he was an imposter, a pastiche, layers of political handbills, pages from magazines, affiches, verbs and nouns glued on to him and shredding away, the original surface littered with fragments and tatters. ... Second-hand American was spreading over him in patches, like mange or lichen." In his recent LRB review of Atwood's The Year Of The Flood Jameson admiringly cites one of the anti-American fulmination which punctuate Surfacing. Yet it should be remembered that Atwood cooly ironises the anti-Americanism of her characters by having the swaggering boors that they had imagined to be American turn out to be fellow Canadians - Canadians who had themselves thought that the narrator's group were Americans. Everyone - it appears - is Americanised now, none more so than these hip(pie) longhairs spouting anti-American rhetoric.

If Surfacing rejects the facile gestures of an exhausted, narcissistic counterculture, there is no question of its endorsing the (apparently) safe and settled world which the counterculture repudiated. That world of supposedly organic solidity - her parents' world, where people have children who grow like flowers in their back garden, the narrator imagines - is gone, Atwood's narrator notes, with an edge of witstfulness that nevertheless stops somewhat short of nostalgic longing. What remains is not any politics rooted in an actual lifeworld, but a politics of the Cold World. The question that Surfacing poses, and leaves hanging, is how to mobilise dysphoria rather than treat it as a pathology that requires cure - either by successful reintegration into the Symbolic/ civilization or by some purifying journey out beyond the Symbolic into a pre-linguisitic Nature. How, in other words, is it possible to keep faith with, rather than remedy, the narrator's affective dyslexia?

Surfacing belongs to the same moment as Baudrillard's Symbolic Exchange And Death, Lyotard's Libidinal Economy, Irigaray's Speculum: Of The Other Woman - and Deleuze and Guattari's Anti-Oedipus. Though it is A Thousand Plateaus that Surfacing most obviously prefigures - yet what separates Surfacing's "terrifying Deleuzian devenir-animal" (Jameson) from Deleuze and Guattari is precisely Atwood's refusal of affirmation(ism). At her moment of schizophrenic break-rapture, the narrator certainly sounds like a good Deleuzean: "they think I should be filled with death, I should be in mourning. But nothing has died, everything is alive, everything is waiting to become alive", but this febrile delirium is more in tune with Ben Woodard's "dark vitalism" than Deleuze, and what flows and stalks in the body-without-organs zone of animal- and water-becomings is something like Ben's sinister "creep of life". "I hear breathing, witheld, observant, not in the house but all around it." The place beyond the mortifications of the Symbolic is not only the space of an obscene, non-lingustic "life" but also where everything deadened and dead goes, once it has been expelled from civilization. "This is where I threw the dead things..." Beyond the living death of the Symbolic is the kingdom of the dead. "It was below me, drifting towards me from the furthest level where there was no life, a dark oval trailing limbs. It was blurred but it had eyes, they were open, it was something I knew about, a dead thing, it was dead."


Surfacing can be situated as part of another fin-de-Sixties/ early 70s moment: the post-psychedelic oceanic. Atwood's lake, viscous with blood and other bodily fluids, has something in common with the "bitches brew" that Miles plunges into in 69, emerging, catatonic, only six years later; it approaches the deep sea terrains John Martyn sounds out on Solid Air and One World. "Pale green, then darkness, layer after layer, deeper than before, seabottom: the water seemed to have thickened, in it pinprick lights flicked and darted, red and blue, yellow and white, and I saw that they were fish, the chasm-dwellers, fins lined with phosphorescent sparks, teeth neon. It was wonderful that I was down so far..." But these spaces of dissolved identity are not approached from the angle of a now tortured, now lulled male on a vacation from the Symbolic, but from the perspective of someone who was never fully integrated into the Symbolic in the first place.

Surfacing, like the later Oryx And Crake, is a kind of rewriting of Civilisation And Its Discontents - the text with which all that early 70s theory had to wrestle, and reckon. Just as at the end of Oryx And Crake, Surfacing concludes with a moment of suspension, with the narrator, like Oryx's Snowman, poised between the schizophrenic space beyond the Symbolic and some return to civilisation - is this suspension not the proper place of the dysphoric militant? Perhaps what is most prescient about Surfacing is its acceptance that civilization/the big Other/ language cannot in the end be overcome and overwhelmed by means of libido, madness, mysticism or whatever other weapons the militant euphorics had thrown against it - yet, despite all this, Surfacing does not recommend an acquiescence to the reality principle. "For us, it's necessary, the intercession of words," the narrator concedes - but who is this "us"? It seems at first to encompass only the narrator and the lover with which she may be about to be reconciled. Then we might be tempted to read the "us" as humanity in general, and the novel would be ending with a fairly cheap reconciliation between civilisation and one who was discontented with it. Yet it's more interesting to think of the "us" as indicating those, like the narrator, who do not properly belong to humanity at all - what kind of language, what kind of civilisation, would these discontents make?

    He calls for me again, balancing on the dock which is neither land nor water, hands on his hips, head thrown back and eyes scanning. His voice is annoyed: he won't wait much longer. But right now he waits.

    The lake is quiet, the trees surround me, asking and giving nothing.

Posted by mark at 05:40 PM | TrackBack

September 12, 2009

Anti-organic anti-capitalism

capitalism is crisis.jpg

So it is ... and that's why crises pose no kind of threat to it...

I'm in no position to comment directly on Climate Camp, since I haven't visited it. For a far more informed perspective than I could give, take a look at this post by Alex of
Je Est Un Autre, which I've meant to link to for some time now. But what troubles me - what, in fact, provokes a repulsion and hostility in me - is captured very well by the the opposition that Owen sets up - or rather observes as having already been set up - in his excellent post. What Owen saw in Blackheath - the nauseating candyfloss pleasure of the funfair on one side, the earnest agrarianism of Climate Camp on the other - recalls the structuring opposition in the novels of Ursula Le Guin. Most famously in The Dispossessed but also in City Of Illusions and The Word For World Is Forest, Le Guin opposes an artificial, toxic and consumer city (in all of these words become practically synonymous for Le Guin) with a "natural", organic, anarchist settlement, a kind of mitigated - or to use Le Guin's own term "ambiguous" - utopia, in which privation, asceticism and the dangers or hierarchy are by no means glossed over. Some of the most powerful passages in The Dispossessed describe the literally poisonous nature of the capitalist planet Urras to those used to the spartan conditions on the breakaway anarchist world Anarres. Capitalism, for Le Guin as much as for Burroughs, becomes a system of addictions.

The reason that this is so pertinent now is that, as Owen's post implies, the opposition that Le Guin keeps returning to still marks the limits of political possibilities. "Whatever organised resistance there is in Britain," writes Infinite Thought,"it looks like this: unable to formulate a properly economic response to the economic crisis, whatever opposition to the undead spectacle of neoliberalism there is has found itself moored on the shores of environmentalism and the odd industrial strike." Capitalist realism projects its own outside, and my suspicion is that the kind of anticapitalism for which Climate Camp seems to stand constitutes an "alternative" which is not uncongenial to it. CR wants us to have to choose between the sweet sickness of modernity and some agrarian "return to nature", (which contains all kinds of other wretched "returns": to the "local", to the "idiocy of rural life" that Marx and Engels rightly castigated). Or rather: by already incorporating the "local" and "the organic" - albeit in a partly simulated form - it presents itself as already containing these two possibilities. The real alternative consists in what is unthinkable now: an anti-capitalism that is also anti-organic.


Alex Autre disputes my claim that the anti-Climate Change movement is emptily consensual, but I still don't think that there is anything particulary controversial about saying that capitalism is now the prime cause of climate change. Everyone - in the sense of the big Other - can accept this, which is precisely why a film like Wall-E, which places the blame for environmental disaster firmly with multinational corporations, can be produced in the gleaming citadel at the heart of capitalism. The problem is of a different order - it concerns not the belief that capitalism causes environmental depredation, but the sense that anything could be done about it. That's why I'm profoundly sceptical of any campaign based on spreading the magical elixir "awareness", with its implication that the main reason people don't live in ecotopia is that they don't "know" things, or that, as soon as they do know, a critical mass will be achieved that will force change. It seems to me, however, that the problem is not lack of awareness: the actual issues are organisational and libidinal.

As Savonarola puts it in Owen's comments box:

    there's something frightening about the idea that 61 million people pissing on hay is somehow easier to think about than expanding public transport and minimizing car use, that lifestyle changes that as collective experiences would be catastrophic (and more or less depend on the - by no means farfetched - possibility of catastrophe, when what is today enjoyable as utopia is tomorrow imposed as grim necessity) are easier to fathom than actual shifts in social relations. So it's perhaps no longer a question of the end of capitalism being unimaginable, à la Jameson. We can imagine that end, but we can't imagine anything after it except something that simply isn't a social system, but only a magical convergence of lifestyles and good will, happily inured to Hobbesian horizons or Weberian imperatives.

But we must start with problems of bureaucracy and organisation, not regard them as evils which we, the good anticapitalists can overcome by virtue of our good will. It goes without saying that leaderless systems are not necessarily virtuous - capitalism is the leaderless system par excellence. Nor, to say the least, is there any necessary relation between consensus and the collective interest. Bureaucracy, centralization, globalization - the emphasis shouldn't be on eliminating these things, but on getting them in the right form.

As to libido... Who, apart from a resentful-nihilist inheritor of the Christian passion for eschatological annihilation, would want to live in a restored "organic" world? We ourselves - and the death drive that makes us what we are - are that inorganic disequilibrium which always disrupts quiescence and harmony. Part of the reason that capitalism has been so successful has been its flatness with the plasticity of libido. The major discovery of Freud and twentieth century modernism, reiterated by Lyotard, Baudrillard and Deleuze and Guattari in the 70s is that libido is inorganic: it is an artificialising montage-artist, not a respecter of the boundaries of the organism or of organic wholeness. Capitalism is constrained now by having to appear in an "organic", "natural" form - but it is necessary, now more than ever, to imagine an anti-capitalism that embraces the anti-organicism that capitalism is required to grass over.

Posted by mark at 12:05 PM | TrackBack

September 03, 2009

Capitalist Realism available to pre-order

One of the places you will be able to get Capitalist Realism is The Book Depository, where it is already available to pre-order.

Posted by mark at 06:22 PM | TrackBack

Be negative


(OK, so the Michael Jackson book is now with the copy-editor, so I have a little more time for posts here... So a couple of throat clearing posts before the long-promised Eliminativist Marxist post...)

Zone Styx Travelcard responds to Jude Rogers's simultaneously hilarious and depressing "Why Don't You"-style call to "action". What's interesting about Rogers's piece is the assumption, by no means unique to her, that "being positive" and "doing things" are automatically good, as if it is a duty to be chipper and keep your chin up. But it is this demand, this compulsory affirmationism, that is actually depressing. As Zone notes, "I was far more depressed reading Rogers’ piece, than I was when reading any of the quibblers she’s trying to call time on."

All of this resonated as, during the course of research for my next book, I read Darian Leader's The New Black: Mourning, Melancholia And Depression the other day. I was particularly struck by Leader's comparison of CBT with the techniques used by the leaders of the Cultural Revolution. "Cognitive therapy," Leader argues, "was perhaps used most widely in the Cultural Revolution in China, where people were taught that depression was just wrong thinking. ... Positive thinking should banish unhelpful and antisocial negative attitudes. This form of conditioning shares the aims of cognitive behavioural therapy today. The individual is taught to deny the legitimacy of their symptoms." However accurate or not this might be in relation to the Cultural Revolution, it is certainly the case that "positive thinking" functions as a tool of ideological realignment in late capitalism, So much of the labour of the cultural workers of late capitalism - with their light! upbeat! irreverent! cheerleading for the latest commodity - acts precisely to make us deny the legitimacy of our symptoms. (I think of the strangely solemn quality of Edith Bowman's dead-eyed enthusing on BBC3's coverage Reading festival: she looks like a hostage forced to profess the "brilliance" of everything that happens to pass into her consciousness.) Making negative judgements is held to be the result of "moaning", in other words a defective mental attitude. (With the implication, as Zone points out, that with the right mental attitude, one can learn to like anything.)

The by now familiar generational form of this argument - that the only reason anyone would be negative about current culture is that they are nostalgic for their lost youth - is equally depressing in its nihilistic relativism (for it suggests that enthusiasm is dependent upon being young rather than on any inherent features of the cultural objects themselves). But this falls down for at least three reasons. First, the idea that there is something innately radical about the young, or that there is a necessary relationship between radicalism and youth, is a kind of romantic-rockist myth that might have been convincing when youth culture was at the leading edge of popular modernism, but it is hard to seriously maintain now, when "youth" is routinely mobilised as a demographic weapon in the services of hedonic conservatism. (Why is Channel 4 crap? Because it is chasing the "young". Why does mouldy old rock enjoy full spectrum dominance - because the "young" love it.) It is this demographically-constituted "young" which is nostalgic, but its nostalgia is of a formal, not a pschological kind. In any case, the equation of youth with radicalism is merely the obverse of the idea that radicalism is a pathology of youth, put aside once "maturity" arrives. Second, whenever the young were radical, it was precisely by virtue of their discontent with the time and culture in which they happened to be living. The history of pop is the story of the tension between dissatisfaction and its commodification. Third, you you only have to look at the figures for depression amongst the young to realise that the young themselves are far from being happy-go-lucky pleasure-seekers who would just be enjoying themselves if it weren't for curmudgeonly theorists stealing their mojo, daddio. Faced with objectively appalling conditions (rising unemployment, continuously assessed education yielding qualifications that are getting worth less year by year) but embedded into a matrix of CBT, SSRIs and PR, the young are the primary victims of compulsory positivity, and even apparently hedonistic phenomena such as binge drinking are symptoms of despondency rather than straightforward expressions of pleasure-seeking. (Alex's remarks on the perils of narcomaterialism notwithstanding, the dominance of a low-level obliviate and sedative like alchohol in UK youth culture, tells its own story about the long comedown we've endured.)

One of the many reasons that Dominic's postulation of a "militant dysphoria" is so suggestive is that it holds open the possibility of a politics that is answerable to the negative, rather than one which obediently falls into line with the affirmationist imperative to "be positive".

Don't join in. Withdraw. Be negative.



Speaking of negativity, I can't say I was too impressed with Antichrist, which I finally got to see last night. I much preferred IT's remarks to the film itself. I've had quite a lot of contact with grief and depression recently, and Antichrist struck no sort of chord. This wouldn't matter if Trier had created some consistent plane, had produced a new mythography of despair; instead there was just a ragbag of off-the-shelf symbols and hack Gnosticism, all of it coming ready-packaged with a Significance that Trier does little to supplement or amplify. Trier didn't film Nature in a way that made it seem bleak or oppressive (it certainly appeared far less malevolent than it does in either The Evil Dead or The Blair Witch Project, two films with which Antichrist compares badly), he relied on Gainsbourg (unbelievably wooden throughout) and a talking fox telling us that it is infernal. Of course, the scenes of mutilation and automutilation have a visceral power, but it is cheaply achieved. (The most disturbing things are the small details of weirdness - the business with the child's shoes, for instance.) And far from being the objective correlatives of the emotions the characters are enduring, the violence dissipates any affect, tripping the film into an absurdity that it - although perhaps not Trier himself, who one can't help thinking is laughing all the way to the bank - was too po-faced to own. By now, we're in the territory of slasher exploitation films (how the directors of those films must wish that they had the licence which the censors have extended to Trier). But where pulp films, like Black Metal, have the courage to be pulled along by the absurdity of their material, Trier cleverly contains the extremity within a frame of arthouse tastefulness. The MO: take charged material which we're used to seeing in pulp (witches! child death! extreme violence!) and slow cook it in arthouse drear. The opening scene - in which a child dies in slow-mo black and white - is so breathtakingly hyper-aestheticised (it looks like a perfume commercial) that that you have to assume Trier was taking the piss. Similarly, it's hard to take the misogyny - or the meta-misogyny - seriously: by the end, all I could see was Trier calculating what will most easily generate broadsheet column debate. (As to the women's bodies/Nature/horror matrix, any of the films discussed by Barbara Creed in The Monstrous Feminine are far superior to Antichrist in their treatment of these themes, if only because they dared to be symptoms.) Judging art by its supposed intentions is a fallacy of course, and perhaps Trier was completely sincere - but it's hard to see how a film made by a manipulative cynic would have looked any different. If you want a film from this year which uses apocalyptic, christological and infernal imagery that lingers in the mind, go and see Terminator Salvation instead. Terminator Salvation feels like being plunged into the middle of a CGI-augimented nightmare; Antichrist feels like it's been cribbed out of a book of dream symbolism.


The article on depression that Dominic linked to is interesting, in spite of the findings being situated within the absurd framework of evolutionary psychology. The central question that evolutionary psychology is required to answer - what use did Evolution have for X or Y behaviour? - is as ludicrous as anything debated in Medieval theology, and totally opposed to the key insights of Darwin. Evolution legitimately functions only negatively, to show how phenomena which appeared designed could be explained by mechanistic causation. Evolutionary psychology is based on a simple fallacy of reasoning - just because "evolution" eliminates some maladaptive behaviours or traits doesn't mean that all the behaviours or traits that do survive fulfil some "purpose". Otherwise, "evolution" would an omniscient God, wisely and judiciously ensuring the optimal functionality of all behaviours and organs.


Incidentally, I couldn't disagree more with David Byrne's claim, cited in Jude Rogers's piece, that "We're very used to consuming art and culture. We find it easy to sit there and have it fed to us." Surely what we are used to is precisely the opposite - in our drive to interact, we find it hard to be fed anything now (an observation borne out by recent studies on "connected cocooning" which suggest that, whilst ostensibly watching television, many of us are actually engaged in digital twitch). As Kodwo argued in the interview below, the supposedly "passive" skill of listening is actually very hard to cultivate - a situation that has only worsened in the decade since Kodwo gave the interview. If Web 2.0 has established anything, it is that is far easier to (inter)act that it is to listen or to read - a revelation that the experience of being subjected to londonunderlondon at Gasworks underscored. We need artists who will subject us to things, and we need to (re)learn how to be subjected.

Posted by mark at 05:39 PM | TrackBack