Sunday, 16 December 2012

Ariadne's Thread

Reflecting on the comments on my paper from the Walter Benjamin paper, particularly Paula Schwebel's point that I tended to talk about spatial images when referring to a politics of time and Andrew McGettigan's suggestion about intoxication, I fortuitously came across this 'thread'.

Reading Benjamin's On Hashish on an appropriately slow and apocalyptic Saturday night journey home from the badlands for South London I found this:
To begin to solve the riddle of the ecstasy of trance [Rauschgluck], one ought to meditate once again on Ariadne's thread. What joy in the mere act of unrolling a ball of thread! And this joy is very deeply related to the joy of intoxication, just as it is to the joy of creation. We go forward; but in so doing, we not only discover the twists and turns of the cave into which we're venturing, but also enjoy this pleasure of discovery against the background of the other, rhythmic bliss of unwinding the thread, The certainty of unrolling an rtfully wound skein - isn't that the joy of all produtivity, at least in prose? And under the influence of hashish, we are enraptured prose-beings raised to the highest power. (53)
I then came across this passage, today, from the 'Paralipomena':
Only when the course of historical events runs through the historians hands smoothly, like a thread, can one speak of progress, If, however, it is a frayed bundle unraveling into a thousand strands that hang down like unplaited hair, none of them has a definite place until they are all gathered up and braided into a coiffure.
 Here, I think, we can see the imposition of a spatial line of progress by the historian, which I think corresponds to the image of the rail tracks extending into the future, and to the infinite idea of progress. This spatialised conception captures the spatial features of capitalist time as 'empty, homogenous time'.
The intoxicated image of unwinding Ariadne's thread, which recurrs in the Hashish writings, suggests a 'productive' act that takes as its power not to unwind one thread as the line of progress, but to multiply and trace different 'threads' that need to be gathered together, or made citable, to resist being 'spatialised' as the line of progress. I think this may be another image of the variable production Benjamin invokes and which suggests another image of time as gathered threads.
It may also be linked to Kant's invocation of 'guiding threads'. Its probably an equally enigmatic image as the train, once we'd got through nearly all the permutations on that metaphor, but I think it suggests the kind of intoxicated self-extinguishing practice Andrew was invoking (against some more pious conceptions) and suggests another way of figuring 'spatialised time' on the grounds of that spatialisation (as with the Arcades project), but also against it.

Monday, 12 November 2012

Western Nihilism

Presented at
‘Weighs Like a Nightmare’, Historical Materialism Ninth Annual Conference
(8−11 November 2012)

Next evening, Profane was sitting in the guardroom at Anthroresearch Associates, feet propped on a gas stove, reading an avant-garde western called Existentialist Sheriff, which Pig Bodine had recommended.
Thomas Pynchon, V (1963)
I want to consider the politics of the Western under the sign of ‘epic nihilism’, which I derive from Alain Badiou’s The Century (2007: 85). Previously I have used this concept to analyse the ‘Spaghetti Western’, as a form which explicitly engages in a left politics of nihilism. We might say that these Westerns operate in that mode suggested by Walter Benjamin, via Naville: the ‘organization of pessimism’. What I want to do today is to attend to some of the equivocations of this ‘epic nihilism’, vectored particularly through what we might call ‘late’ US-westerns. I have in mind here the emergent revisionist Western on the late 1960s and early 1970s, in which the political crises of that period (especially the Vietnam War) came to inflect the form of the Western. This is, therefore, a parallel case to the Italian Western. To do this I will focus on one particular case, Robert Aldrich’s 1972 film Ulzana’s Raid. Something of a political exception, Aldrich was a union activist in Hollywood. He was also responsible for perhaps the most nihilist ending of a film (alongside Monte Hellman’s Two-LaneBlacktop (1971), with the literally apocalyptic Kiss Me Deadly (1955). In the case of Ulzana’s Raid, what I am concerned with are the tensions and equivocations of political nihilism.
            First, I want to set some of the coordinates of the politics of nihilism, and especially the ‘epic nihilism’ of the Western. My approach will be, admittedly, idiosyncratic and impressionistic. I want to select a number of moments, literary and filmic, which trace the coordinates of an equivocal politics of nihilism. My concern, in particular, is how these moments trace a politics of nihilism through a particular politics of labour.
A Very Brief History of Western Nihilism
We can consider the dubious kind of politics of nihilism at work in the writings of Joseph Conrad. Crucial to his work is the conception of a fundamental absence of transcendent or transcendental value. This is most clear from Lord Jim (1900), when after the eponymous central character is found guilty of cowardly misconduct for fleeing his ship while it seemed to be sinking the judge of the inquiry commits suicide. The implication appears to be this is a result of the collapse of value, later given its most resonant formation by the character Stein:

A man that is born falls into a dream like a man who falls into the sea. If he tries to climb out into the air as inexperienced people endeavour to do, he drowns — nicht wahr? . . . No! I tell you! The way is to the destructive element submit yourself, and with the exertions of your hands and feet in the water make the deep, deep sea keep you up. So if you ask me — how to be?

His answer to the rhetorical question is, famously, ‘In the destructive element immerse.’
            Yet this recognition of the collapse of the transcendental signifier is answered with a politics of labour, of the job well done, embodied in the cooperative work of the ship’s crew. The unpleasant nature of this politics is everywhere, from Marlow’s remark on the map of Africa in Heart of Darkness (1900):

There was a vast amount of red – good to see at any time, because one knows that some real work is done in there, a deuce of a lot of blue, a little green, smears of orange, and, on the East Coast, a purple patch, to show where the jolly pioneers of progress drink the jolly lager-beer. However, I wasn’t going into any of these. I was going into the yellow.  Dead in the centre.
Matters are even more explicit in The Nigger of the‘Narcissus’ (1897), in which the smooth and efficient running of the ship, the only bulwark against nihilism, is disrupted by the ‘nigger’ and by the socialist agitator. The nihilism that results from the ‘death of God’ is answered by a politics of labour that holds only one ‘value’ – efficiency – which is at best neutral, although in fact definitely constructed as the domain of the right. This is a colonial and capitalist politics of domination.
            In terms of the Western, we can find such a politics of efficiency everywhere. To choose a more recent example, the neo-Westerns of Cormac McCarthy most explicitly evoke both nihilism and the katechon of efficiency. Usually declaimed in burnt-out churches, just to make the point, McCarthy’s declarations of cosmic nihilism are a persistent feature of his work. The Judge in Blood Meridian (1985) puts this in typically portentous style:

A man seeks his own destiny and no other, said the judge. Wil or nill. Any man who could discover his own fate and elect therefore some opposite course could only come at last to that selfsame reckoning at the same appointed time, for each man’s destiny is as large as the world he inhabits and contains within it all opposites as well. The desert upon which so many have been broken is vast and calls for largeness of heart but it is also ultimately empty. It is hard, it is barren. Its very nature is stone. (348)

This ‘universe of blood’ is not exactly redeemed but only resisted by moments of quiet containment; such as John Grady, in All the Pretty Horses (1992), quietly tapping the ash from his cigarette into the turn-up of his jeans.
            In the domain of film, we can consider Sam Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch (1969), in which the decision of the gang to suicidally attempt to save one of its members is signalled only by the laconic instruction ‘let’s go’. Again, the appeal is to a quiet activity of necessary labour, the one necessity in a world that has no meaning and necessity other than a certain code of ‘honour’ and friendship. The bulwark against nihilism deliberately aims at a minimalism, which itself achieves an overblown quality in the very repetitions that construct it as ‘code’ or habit. This is not (simply) the ‘will to power’, but rather the ‘will to efficiency’ – ‘wil’ against ‘nill’, but also the ‘wil’ that is ‘nill’.
The Infrastructure of Error

Robert Aldrich’s Ulzana’s Raid (1972) concerns a raid led from the San Carlos Indian Reservation by the Apache Ulzana, and the pursuit of the raiders by the US Cavalry, led by a naïve new lieutenant Garnett DeBuin (Davison) and the scout MacInstosh (played by Burt Lancaster), with the Apache scout Ke-Ni-Tay (Luke). Central to the film is the debate and discussion between MacIntosh and the lieutenant over the nature of the Apache and the means to hunt down Ulzana’s raiding party. The film is known for its brutality of presentation. In one of the opening scenes a US Cavalryman is escorting a female homesteader and her son when they are caught by the Apache raiding party. Begging the soldier to return and save her, the soldier turns and shots the female homesteader through the head before turning his gun on himself. The Apache, in pursuit of horses and ‘kills’, leave a trail of rape and torture of which the aftermath is graphically shown.
            The lieutenant, son of a pastor, constantly tries to understand the cruelty of the Apache. Drawing the Apache scout into conversation, the scout explains that the infliction of slow death by torture is a means to take a man’s power. The Apaches on the reservation have become weakened and ‘old men’ in terms of status, while their world is ruled by a metaphysics of power gained through the taking of a man’s spirit. Although trying to maintain his Christian beliefs the lieutenant is soon ‘hating’ the ‘Indians’, while MacIntosh comments he doesn’t have time for hate, preferring to simply fear them.
            Soon, the pursuit of the raiding party becomes a kind of game in which, as MacIntosh explains, the first to make a mistake will get killed. This conforms to Alain Silver’s characterization: ‘Most of Aldrich’s films, in their own genre contexts and particular plots, are explorations of the infrastructure of error.’ (2002) Having to conserve their horses and match pursuit with the faster Apache results in the constant attempt of each group to circumvent the others strategies. Ulzana leaves a raped woman alive, for example, to slow down the cavalry, or force them to split their forces to return her to the fort. This will then allow Ulzana to capture the cavalryman’s horses and slaughter the cavalrymen. The result is the final strategic bluff of the film, in which the cavalry patrol do split their forces to entice Ulzana into attack, while then planning to later rejoin and so surprise and defeat Ulzana. The planned strategy fails, as although Ulzana attacks the other troops do not arrive quickly enough and most of the original group are killed, with MacIntosh left mortally wounded. The lieutenant’s decision to sound the bugle also succeeds in warning off Ulzana, who escapes. MacIntosh remarks on the lieutenant’s error, before noting ‘there ain’t none of us right’.
            The film ends with MacIntosh requesting to be left behind to die, rather than face the agonizing and pointless attempt to get back to the fort for medical attention. In the meantime the apache scout Ke-Ni-Tay has succeeded in running down Ulzana and returns with Ulzana’s body. After the lieutenant has ordered Ulzana buried, rather than taking his body or, as one trooper suggests, his head, back to the fort they leave. The final image is of MacIntosh trying to light a cigarette, before dying.
            The film presents a twist on Richard Slotkin’s virtually contemporaneous thesis of ‘regeneration through violence’ (1973). Slotkin, critically reflecting on the continuity of this myth from the Western frontier to the Vietnam War, suggests the linking of the desire for independence with the capacity for violence as mechanism of rebirth. James Wood (2005), writing on Cormac McCarthy, has noted the equivocation in which Michael Herr hails McCarthy’s Blood Meridian (1985) as ‘a classic American novel of regeneration through violence.’ In this case critique is turned into valorization. Noting, instead, McCarthy’s attempt to articulate an ‘antimyth’, we could see the same task in Aldrich. In Ulzana’s Raid regeneration fails, precisely through error and the inability for violence to lead anywhere. The risk run, however, is the one Wood identifies as ‘metaphysical cheapness’, which is never far away in figurations of nihilism.
            Reflecting on Aldrich’s films, Alain Silver writes:

the one constant in Aldrich’s work is that ultimately no one is untouched by the savagery of the surrounding world. For those who expose the more visceral layers of their psyche to it, the risk is intensified. It is not merely annihilation but also, what may be worse, a descent into an unfulfilled, insensate existence. If, in the final analysis, Aldrich’s sympathy resides most with individuals who are anti-authoritarian, with anti-heroes like Reisman in The Dirty Dozen or Crewe in The Longest Yard, it resides there because these are persons who survive. They survive by resolving all the conflicting impulses of nature and society, of real and ideal, of right and wrong, in and through action. (2002)

In the case of Ulzana’s Raid this doesn’t seem quite right. Certainly the film exemplifies the exposure of the psyche, particularly in the figure of lieutenant, whose ideals are shattered, but also for MacIntosh and the other troopers. Also, the sympathy of the film lies with MacIntosh, who has a Native American wife, and who is largely responsible for the sensible decisions made during the pursuit. He is marked as anti-authoritarian as the cavalrymen at the fort regard him as morally and socially dubious. Yet, of course, he does not survive and certainly does not ‘resolve all the conflicting impulses’.
It is in this way that the nihilism of the film plays itself against dialectical, or better, pseudo-dialectical solutions, of ‘resolving’ or ‘regenerating’. In particular, I think, it questions the resolution ‘through action’ that, as we have seen, often structures a dubious politics of nihilism. If action necessarily fails then its valorization fails also. Here is where Aldrich does not take the path of ‘metaphysical cheapness’ by invoking new nihilist myths (as does McCarthy), instead embedding nihilism in the very ‘infrastructure of error’. The nearest the film comes to metaphysical pathos is the scene in which a homesteader is trapped by the apache in his shack. Nearly burned out the apache kick in the door, but none enter. Then he hears the bugle of the cavalry, and starts to praise God. We cut to the cavalry troop to see the bugle is not being sounded, in fact it’s a trick played by the Apache. The result, considering the terrible death inflicted on him, is more bathos than pathos. This is a deflationary nihilism in which, as in the conversation between the lieutenant and MacIntosh at the end of the film, one is forced to pick knowing no choice is right.

War is God
Cormac McCarthy’s nihilist antimyth is ‘war is God’; this was recently retooled in Karl Malantes’s Vietnam novel Matterhorn(2010), with its proclamation, as Jackson Lears’s (2010) argues of ‘War as authentic experience: this is the nihilist edge of modern militarism, unalloyed by moral pretension.’ This form was perhaps best articulated in Ernst Jünger’s valorization of war as ‘inner experience’, in 1922. Despite Alain Badiou’s contention that we have passed beyond the ‘passion for the real’ figured in the scission of combat this shadowy continuity suggests a more problematic attachment to the forms of militarized nihilism. Here the modelling of efficiency finds its form in a disregard for ideology, hence nihilism, and a valorization of the act of killing as the ‘sacred act’ which permits contact with the ‘Real’. Of course, as any Lacanian would say, this is an evasion of the trauma of the Real through its displacement. Contact with the Real is predicated on the death of the Other and the survival of the self, hence the pronounced egotism of this ‘heroic nihilism’.
            In contrast, Aldrich suggests war is a human-all-too-human ‘infrastructure of error’, evident also in his film Attack! (1956). What I am suggesting is, beyond its evident critique of the Vietnam War, Ulzana’s Raid speaks to a critique of the valorization of nihilism in combat and efficiency. While certainly not unproblematically poised the film’s acceptance of a nihilism of error that does not attain the ‘metaphysical cheapness’ of these myths, undermines a particular and singular form of ‘epic nihilism’. The latter examples suggest, however, the fleeting nature of this insight, which belongs to the particular configuration of the American experience of defeat in Vietnam. Marlantes’s work, in fact, suggests the ‘reversal’ of defeat into epic nihilism, and it is notable that Jünger’s elevation of war is also borne from the experience of defeat. This suggests the difficulty which an ‘infrastructure of error’ might have in breaking with the ideology of military nihilism.
The Ethos of Nihilism
To conclude, I want to borrow Alberto Toscano’s memorable citation from The Big Lebowski (1998): ‘Nihilists! Fuck me. I mean, say what you like about the tenets of National Socialism, Dude, at least it’s an ethos’. My suggestion is that nihilism, or at least in the dominant form I have traced here, is an ethos. To be precise, it is an ethos of labour, an ethos, to borrow from Fredric Jameson’s characterization of Heidegger, which is a ‘handicraft ideology’. In this form the ideology is of expertise and craft that is indifferent to the job itself, hence its nihilism, but only concerned with the doing of that job. It is ‘handicraft’ because it retains that element of personal expertise that will be eroded by the deskilling effects of capital – hence its relation to capital’s nihilism, rooted in the indifference of abstract labour, is somewhat equivocal.
            The persistence of this form of ideology speaks to the constant reinvention of the epic, away from the form of national foundation and towards the form of nation ‘saving’. Hence, the Western plays a particularly equivocal role in the US in the 1960s and 1970s as this ‘will to efficiency’ incarnates a resistance to nihilism in the context of, admittedly limited, national self-questioning. That this is politically dubious can be seen in the ‘hard hats’ versus ‘the hippies’, and Jefferson Cowie’s tracing of the declension of US labour during the 1970s in his Stayin’ Alive (2010). In this case the disappearance of the West is tracked to the disappearance of labour (or certain forms of manual and handicraft labour).
            Therefore, we might risk locating the twists and turns of this politics of nihilism qua politics of labour not only within the context of war, but only in the context of this collapse of the usual role of labour within the ideological and economic space of capitalism. In this way, Aldrich’s Ulzana’s Raid becomes not only an ironic commentary on the nihilism of war, but also on the nihilism of labour. Whereas the Italian Western responded with explosive outbursts of violence, embedded within longueurs, here we have violence, but within an ‘infrastructure of error’ that finally leads to resignation. This is, of course, not enough to escape this ideology, but rather, I think, it registers its internal faultlines and incapacities – a certain impossibility in the ‘will to efficiency’, a failure in labour as a bulwark. Perhaps a failure that points to the true impossibility of labour under capital.

Monday, 8 October 2012

Real Savages & Imaginary Philosophy

This will probably be my one and only post on speculative realism (SR) or, to be more precise, a post on someone else on SR. I wanted just to give a sense of the paper by Eduardo Viveiros de Castro (EVC) at the conference The Ontological Turn, which I recently attended. Eduardo spoke in Portuguese (which was streamed), and probably/did depart from the English text I had for his presentation (for which I was respondent).

He began with the fact that philosophy has been content to speak of imaginary savages to generate real philosophy and so, as an anthropologist, he wanted to speak of real savages to do imaginary philosophy. Welcoming the speculative turn, EVC valorised metaphysics as a Borgesian branch of fantastic literature. He also agreed with the need to get over correlationism but, and this is a big but, his means to do this pass through Amerindian thought, the metaphysics of others, to return to the dissident tradition of panpsychism (Tarde, Latour, Whitehead, et al), the 'other metaphysics'.

The crucial intervention is rather than turning to so-called 'hard science', which SR has usually done, we can turn to anthropology as science, as the science not of one reality, but of multiple realities ('savages want the multiplication of the multiple', Pierre Calstres). The ontology of Amerindian societies is not merely another view on 'Nature', but rather a reinscription of the very relation to 'nature' - a multinatural perspectivism.
This cosmological theory stands with and against Western thought, implying 'a radical materialist panpsychism that manifests itself as an immanent perspectivism: an ontological and topological perspectivism.' Probably the key point is EVC's valorisation of relation, a hot topic in SR. His argument was that in Amerindian thought relation occupies the place of substance, and that the primary mode of relation is 'the alterity nexus'. This thought is one of metaphysical predation and consumption, metaphysically anthropophagic (a thesis outlined in Metaphysiques Cannibales).
In terms of SR, this means that EVC is anti-correlationism but pro-relationism. This is performed by distinguishing between anthropomorphism and anthropocentrism, which are often run together. Amerindian thought is anthropomorphic, but not anthropocentric. In this argument the problem with SR, particularly with Meillassoux, is that it is the negative form of anthropocentrism. The real way to break with correlation is via anthropomorphism, via panpsychism, and in a sense to 'drown' or specify 'correlation' as one limited form of relation within a sea of other forms of relation. 
This radicalised alterity posits proliferating difference, so the irony is the Amerindian affirmation of humanity as the original condition from which animality derives does not entail 'super-correlationism', but rather a panpsychism of existence = thought that places all in relation and otherness. There is a universal relationality, of which even this thinking of relation is only one part.
I'd add my own coda that although I think the material is fascinating, and agree with the need to really change thought with its 'outside' on a truly equal basis, I do have some problems. These are the invocations of 'insurrection' and 'alteration' to replace revolution, and the usual affirmative casting of critique as 'merely' negative (in the bad sense). I also think we need to think through the politics of the 'other metaphysics' (Latour & Tarde especially), which is not exactly 'innocent'. EDV himself remarked how Amazonia is becoming a crucial geopolitical nexus, and so I still think we need to think the ontological politics of the 'metaphysical predation' of capital. This is tricky because capital is not conjoint with the substantialist metaphysics of the 'West', which is why it is so hard to think. The promiscuity of capital's absorption, the minimal status of its own effects of real abstraction need, I think, to be thought alongside and inside 'Western metaphysics' (a category a little baggy for me).

Thursday, 9 August 2012

Black Metal Neuralgia

With the publication of Black Metal: Beyond the Darkness and the new issue of Glossator on Black Metal, both of which I've bought, I wanted to consider Black Metal Theory again. I wrote a piece for the earlier Hideous Gnosis on the politics of BM and was due to write something for Glossator. One of the obvious things that struck me was the hostility BM Theory attracted ('bedwetters' being one of my favourite comments, before I decided to stop reading people slagging me off). Of course, as the Hardcore Continuum 'debate' proves, writing on music theoretically seems to reactivate antitheory positions automatically: the abstract, cold, and intellectual ('theory wank') versus lived experience, truth, authenticity and the fan(atic). The use of masturbatory metaphors to condemn theorists as sterile, self-obsessed and narcissistic, implies the virile, (hetero)sexual coupling associated with the true experience of BM as creative practitioner/fan.
Of course obvious points can be made, not least that BM is often a heavily self-theorised from (this is partly what interested me). While that's true I think that the antagonism is due to the fact that this self-theorisation is explicitly opposed to the usual forms of theory, stressing the authentic, true, grounded, cthonic etc. More than that, BM's own theory (to collapse too much together) has something of the traditional in method: philological, autodidact, deliberately and provocatively amateur, if not gentlemanly. In a sense it is 'pre-theoretical' in quite a true sense, returning to forms of analysis even before modernist 'new critics' and the so-called humanism that theory was supposed to be reacting against (I have respect for these forms, just to be clear).

It was this hostility, in part, that lead me to abandon my piece for Glossator (you can read the abstract in the collection) and to be wary about writing anymore on BM (ironically, I've been listening to it a lot). I was also, however, dissatisfied with my piece for HG. I want to make a brief autocritique, which will be seen as another sign of theory narcissism, of course. The reason for this is that I do think legitimate problems were raised within the 'debate'.
1. I think the tone of my piece was wrong. It was too arch and too 'theoretical' in an overwritten bad sense (some truth to the 'pseudy' accusation). I also think it missed the humour in BM and was too po-faced. It was an inability to find a correct tone that also nixed my trying to write anymore on BM.

2. In terms of the analysis I tried to account for the difficulty of writing about 'BM in general' and its politics, but this could have been noted more. I took Peste Noire as a metonymic case study (and now appear on their wikipedia page, much to their annoyance I'm sure), but the difficulty is that part of the self-theorisation of BM is the resistance to commonality. This is a communal form in which practitioners insist on singularity, hence the proliferation and typologies of forms of BM.

3. In terms of the theoretical analysis of a certain politics of BM I do hold by what I said. I don't think aesthetics and politics can be split, and I do think the 'grounding' of BM in the matrix of the friend/enemy actually also speaks to much of the hostility the debate generated. I want to add a quote from Fredric Jameson's study of Wyndham Lewis Fables of Aggression (a great title for a collection on BM, in fact):

his artistic integrity is to be conceived, not as something distinct from his regrettable ideological lapses (as when we admire his art, in spite of his opinions), but rather in the very intransigence with which he makes himself the impersonal registering apparatus for forces which he means to record, beyond any whitewashing and liberal revisionism, in all their primal ugliness. (21)

I think there is still much to be written or, yes, theorised, about BM as an 'impersonal registering apparatus'.

Friday, 20 July 2012

Life's What You Make It: Vitalism and Critique

Presented at‘The Politics of Critique’, University of Brighton (July 18th – 19th 2012)

In a 2009 pamphlet issued out of the student occupations in New York we find what we might call the standard rejection of critique: ‘This activity of producing novel recommendations for the submission of the population is called critique.’ (2009, III) The activity of critique is treated as one that is indissolubly bound to what it rejects, and hence always constrained and always available for recuperation: ‘Critique illuminates all the errors of a society that its managers have overlooked.’ (2009, III) What we find is the rejection of critique founded on a rather unstable amalgam of an immanent thought of affirmation – which would charge critique with always being secondary, dependent, and a symptom of ressentiment – coupled to a post-Situationist model of perpetual recuperation – in which critical activity is a mere corrective or, as the pamphlet puts it, ‘[a] release valve for intellectual dissonance.’ (2009, III) The ‘solution’ to this impasse is one of radical separation, which aims to sever the relation to power: ‘Critique must be abandoned in favour of something that has no relation whatsoever to its enemy, something whose development and trajectory is completely indifferent to the nonlife of governance and capital.’ (2009, III)

The reference to ‘nonlife’ gives a clue perhaps to the nature of what has no relation to the enemy, what has a different development and trajectory: Life. It is the power of Life that will substitute for the impotence of critique. This is made explicit in the appeal to ‘a form of life which no reason can govern’ (2009, IX), and the closing assertion: ‘Our task, impossible, is to seize time itself and liquefy its contents, emptying its emptiness and refilling it with the life that is banned from appearing.’ (2009, XI) Of course, what justifies and supports this discourse is the work of Giorgio Agamben. It’s initially somewhat surprising that the supremely po-faced and hyper-refined thought of Agamben, in which the paradigm of modernity is the concentration camp, should be so prevalent in licensing radical discourse. No doubt, the work of Tiqqun and The Invisible Committee has been influential in encouraging this take-up through the redemptive reversal of the transformation of ‘bare life’ – life everywhere subject to sovereign power – into a transfigured life of glory. I will say more about this ‘transfiguration’ later, for the moment I want to pause for a while on the vitalism subtending this take-up.

Comedy and Critique

I want to turn to what might perhaps appear an unlikely topic – the comic (don’t worry this won’t be funny). It is the comic that will allow us to explore the continuing vitality of vitalism and, in particular, how vitalism attempts to replace critique. Henri Bergson’s work Laughter (1900) contains a famous definition of the comic as ‘something mechanical encrusted on the living’. One key example of this repetitious mechanism deployed by Bergson is the jack-in-the-box:

As children we have all played with the little man who springs out of his box. You squeeze him flat, he jumps up again. Push him lower, and he shoots up still higher. Crush him down beneath the lid, and often he will send everything flying. It is hard to tell whether or no the toy itself is very ancient, but the kind of amusement it affords belongs to all time. It is a struggle between two stubborn elements, one of which, being simply mechanical, generally ends by giving in to the other, which treats it as a plaything. A cat playing with a mouse, which from time to time she releases like a spring, only to pull it up short with a stroke of her paw, indulges in the same kind of amusement.
This example indicates the two tendencies that Bergson traces: the elasticity of life, represented by the act of playing, and the inelasticity of the comic, represented by the jack-in-the-box’s mechanical and thing-like repetition. The function of laughter is to free us from this inelastic ‘machine-like’ existence and return us to the social normality of elastic life – to prevent us from merely being jack-in-the-boxes, we might say.
This is, of course, equivocal because the return to social normality can itself seem like a return to something ‘machine-like’ and repetitive – the routines of social life being hardly more elastic than the comic. Therefore, Bergson himself notes how laughter can free us from the machine-like, but also risks returning us to the limited forms of social life:

Laughter comes into being in the self-same fashion. It indicates a slight revolt on the surface of social life. It instantly adopts the changing forms of the disturbance. It, also, is afroth with a saline base. Like froth, it sparkles. It is gaiety itself. But the philosopher who gathers a handful to taste may find that the substance is scanty, and the after-taste bitter.
The bitter taste of laughter is this limited ‘critical’ function and the difficulty of finding a true elasticity of Life. In finding the elasticity of Life we aim to replace the merely ‘negative’ function of critique by affirming that elasticity. Yet, the result is still equivocal, seemingly as bound to the social as critique is supposed to be. On the one hand, laughter threatens to return us to the rote routines of social life, to what Federico Luisetti calls the ‘founding mechanisms … of late capitalism’s violent entertainment compulsion’ (2012). On the other hand, laughter also incarnates a possible detachment or interruption of these mechanisms, and the possibility of a new construction.
We can find this latter kind of political (or anti-political) vitalism figured in the comic turns of activism that aims to mock the inertial repetitions of the 1% or capitalist capture. Laughter at those in power is the affirmative replacement for critique, indicating both how we can collapse into the social repetitions and machine-like roles of our capitalist personas and how we can break with these routines. The difficulty is that the very act of the comic, the very attempt to break social norms, can itself become another mechanical norm. The valorisation of the elasticity of Life – incarnated in lines of flight, exodus, and ‘movement’ – threatens to become another rote routine of affirmation, if not to fall back into replicating the ethical and social forms of a ‘mutational’ capitalism. The result is a perpetual conflict, a divine comedy, which serves to enforce the perpetual power of Life. Life as affirmative operator must also be returned to again and again to free it from any becoming inelastic, including in the inelasticity of opposition. The dread fear of recuperation, displaced onto critique, returns to haunt Life that always falls short of the excess it is supposed to figure.

What I am tracing is a strange mimicry and replication of the operation of critique, and its fate, by this political vitalism. The very stridency by which critique is condemned in the name of Life is suggestive of the parallel by which vitalism comes to replace, or try to replace, critique. The ‘empowering’ effect of vitalism, and also its comedy, makes it the signature gesture of the moment. It traces a biopolitical populism that poses Life against a vampiric Capital. This is an ethical discourse in which are actions are assessed by their ability to live up to the elasticity of Life and condemned by laughter at their failure to do so. We are perpetually comic subjects, laughing at our own enchainment to the mechanical, while repeatedly trying to conform to the vibrancy of Life. I want to unpack now a little more just why the interchangeability of vitalism and critique should take place and suggest a little more why this should be problematic.

A Renegade Discourse
Donna V. Jones has noted the popularity of vitalism in the contemporary moment as a replacement for the usual discourse of critique:

As a radical or renegade discourse, vitalism represents protest, disillusion, and hope. Life often grounds opposition today, after the political disappearance of a subject/object of history and scepticism about the philosophy of the subject in general. … A third way, Life disallows bourgeois stasis as certainly as it makes impossible the achievement of rational controls. In fine, Life conjures up experience, irrationality, and revolt. (2012: 17)
Obviously the slightly coy reference to the ‘subject/object of history’ indexes the absent proletariat, and so we might say Life indexes a new populist subject that, true to its object, overflows any class canalisation. Also, the reference to exceeding rationality is the trope of anti-planning and anti-rationality that is driven also by the claimed immeasurability and excess of Life over all control.
What Jones crucially indicates is that despite vitalism claiming the status of an affirmative and primary force it in fact always functions as a ‘reactive banner’, and should be ‘defined less affirmatively than as the negation of its own negation – the mechanical, machinic, and the mechanistic.’ (2012: 28) Life does not come first, but (as we saw with the comic and laughter) can only be recovered through and against the mechanical. It is for this reason, I want to suggest, that the hostility of vitalism to critique is a sign of what Freud would call the ‘narcissism of small differences’. Vitalism constantly makes a claim on Life as primary and castigates critique as reactive because it remains within the same matrix.

Now, of course, one response to this could be to suggest the complexity of vitalism as a ‘critical’ discourse – noting that it does not involve a simple opposition between Life and mechanism, but rather a complex and dynamic topology (as does Federico Luisetti). The path I wish to explore is rather the strange interchangeability this analysis sets up between vitalism and critique. Where we saw how vitalism starts to look like critique, I now want to briefly explore where critique starts to look like vitalism.

This is interchangeability is posed by Jones. She turns to Bergson’s essay on laughter to track how Bergson’s suggestion that ‘laughter is social therapy for action that has become mechanical’ (Jones 2012: 52) can be used to understand the work of Judith Butler and Pierre Bourdieu as forms of Bergsonian comedy. In the case of Butler’s theory of drag as parody the act of parody frees us from the laughable mechanical repetitions of gender roles, while Bourdieu’s analysis of the habitus becomes ‘a comedy of class society, a risible provocation.’ (Jones 2012: 55) These works of critique can be seen as vitalist in the ways they encourage us to mock routine and encourage invention and elasticity.

What we see here is how theories we might consider to be anti-vitalist and critical turn back around to vitalism once we recognise the critical function of vitalism. In this ‘comedy’ we find positions exchanged as critics become vitalists and vitalists critics (admittedly this may be a ‘comedy’ only found funny by a few sad souls). In Jones’s reading the addition of Marx’s analysis of reification is that there we laugh at how inanimate things act as living beings – in the ‘dancing’ commodity form. Marx inverts Bergson to demonstrate ‘living activity in inert things’ (Jones 2012: 55).
The effect of the deconstruction of the distinction between the living and the machinic seems to problematise vitalism, but still leaves it as a useful ‘critical’ discourse. In fact, this speaks to the difficulty of discarding vitalism, should we wish too. There is, if we like, a kind of persistence of the ‘living’ as norm secreted within the critical apparatus (as well as a critical apparatus secreted within the ‘living’). This is the ‘vitality of vitalism’ referred to by Georges Canguilhem, in which he stressed its ethical and imperative function (Greco 2005: 17-18).

Critical Life
Despite, or perhaps because, of these parallels and fusions the critique of vitalism seems all the more urgent. The very volatility, promiscuity and dispersion of vitalism (which mimics its own account of Life) threatens to leave no space at all for critique that could not be re-absorbed into Life. Max Horkheimer, in a 1934 essay, accepted the element of protest against reification at work in vitalism, but was critical of its elimination of history, evasion of the material, and irrationalism (Horkheimer 2005). Now, while these criticisms still hold good, I think, we might note the re-tooled anti-critical vitalism of the present tends to embrace these exact points of criticism.

If history is co-extensive with Capital and Empire, the ‘single catastrophe’ to use Benjamin’s oft-quoted phrase, then the elimination of history is the only way to found the novelty of the new. The crisis of capitalism and the exhaustion of left or social democratic forms is taken as a given and as the sign of the release of the repressed force of Life. In similar fashion the material only incarnates the practico-inert slumped into the frozen stasis of the commodity form. The alternative ‘materialities’ of Life – objects, networks, complexity, et al. – are the only hope against the dead matter of the present. This is what Badiou, in Logics of Worlds (2006), calls ‘democratic materialism’. Finally, irrationalism is to be welcomed against the sterile rationalisms of planning and order that are taken to encompass everything from state socialism to neo-liberalism.
This is something of clichéd presentation of the various forms of political vitalism, but I would argue that there is some truth to it, and some truth to it as an account for the attraction of biopolitical populism. In fact, this kind of political vitalism precisely tracks outside of the constraints of the present and presents itself as a discourse without limits. This was Michel Foucault’s point concerning what he described as the ‘savage ontology of life’ in The Order of Things (1966) (1974: 303; trans. mod.). The galvanising force of this ontology lies precisely in its disregard for the discourse of political economy. The difficulty is, however, that the discourse of ‘Life’ remains within the forms of capitalist and state power as its essential support.
My contention, then, is that ‘Life’ with a capital ‘L’ opposed to Power with a capital ‘P’ is obviously a critical discourse, but an inadequate replacement for critique. While it constantly tars critique with the brush of being reactive and trapped by its proximity to what it negates this supposed model of separation and distance replicates the forms and functions of capitalist ideology – which separate off ‘Life’ as the sphere of reproduction from production. In that sense it operates as a replacement for critique and founds its superiority on the affirmation of a productive value on which capitalism depends, and which capitalism posits. It mistakes interiority for exteriority, and also dissolves the difficult questions of class structure into the simplicity of two opposing blocs.

I want to suggest that critique here finally turns on the question of mediation. Part of the appeal of this political vitalism is its deliberate dissolution of mediations. Mediations are bad. They stand at the expense of the immediate expression of Life – whether those mediations are the forms of power of state and capital, the mediations of organisation in the forms of party or union, or the mediations that would impose rationality and direction on the forms of Life. Now as I have noted one form of these mediations, those of the organised left, have largely collapsed, or have certainly been hollowed-out and significantly weakened. This, however, does not license the complete removal of the problem of mediation.

Part of the difficulty here is that mediation tends to get understood as the search for the happy median, for mediation as synthesis, as stabilisation, in line with the usual clichés concerning Hegelian or Marxian mediation. In fact, mediation is a work of negativity and negation that does not propose to bring together, but which splits, divides, and exacerbates contradictions. We might say, and I would say, that the irony is that the seeming discourse of separation, of the radical division into Two, that is the discourse of the savage ontology of Life finds itself most subject to mediation in the bad sense it decries. Its very division forces it back into mediation.
My suggestion is then that mediation, in critical terms, traces an impossibility of conjoining and integration. In precise terms the mediation that concerns me is labour, as the very impossibility of labour. So, a thinking of labour does not entail the function of labour as mediator in terms of discipline and generation of either a capitalist or revolutionary identity – Marx’s ‘stern but steeling school of labour’. Rather, a thinking of the mediation of labour suggests that even labour can’t save us, that ‘wageless life’ is a future traced within the forms of labour as well as in abandonment from them. It’s precisely the collapsing of this mediation that feeds the fantasy of Life as norm of excess, but also this impossibility that reveals the form of Life with a Capital ‘L’ as capitalist fantasy of canalisable excess. Hence it is the political vitalisms that produce the antinomy of Life as excess and Capital as vampiric that results in a totalising (in the bad sense) discourse.
If the compactness of the class did not deliver then the compactness of Life will not either. In fact, what is lauded is the dispersion and volatility of Life beyond any positive or negative point of identification – precisely its lack of compactness attests to its always revolutionary potential. I want to suggest that this folds back into bad comedy – in which Life is always about to succeed but some final pratfall, last minute social or political blunder, leaves us laughing at Life reduced to mere lives. Rather than this perpetual comedy, I am suggesting that we look a little more closely at how Life was already mediated by capitalist and state power. This is not to sow a countervailing despair of ‘everything is recuperated’. In fact, it is the discourse of Life as radically separate that oscillates between the poles of Life as everything and Life as completely mediated and recuperated. In contrast, mediation lies in the patient work of insinuation and negation that reveals no affirmative ‘Life lesson’, with its consoling comedy, but rather the divine comedy of the purgatory we are in.

Marx remarked, in the Eighteenth Brumaire, that ‘the revolution is thoroughgoing. It is still traveling through purgatory. It does its work methodically.’ I doubt we still have quite the confidence of the teleology of the journey to paradise. That said, Marx also remarked about the complexity of any revolutionary process: while bourgeois revolutions ‘storm more swiftly from success to success’ they leave you with a terrible ‘Katzenjammer’ (hangover – literally cat’s wail); in contrast, proletarian revolutions ‘constantly interrupt themselves in their own course, return to the apparently accomplished, in order to begin anew’. This suggests that making life what we want it to be might be a winding process, more purgatorial, still a divine comedy, but not the storming to immediate transfiguration ‘Life’ would promise.

Monday, 16 July 2012

The Perils of the Research Novel (I)

Joshua Ferris's The Unnamed (2010) has as its central character Tim Farnsworth, a lawyer afflicted with compulsive walking. At several points in the novel is is noted that he is the only person who has ever had this disorder: 'I'm the only one ... No one else on record. That's crazy.'

It is crazy because a characters who has been to Switzerland for clinical treatment might have been thought to have come across Ian Hacking's book Mad Travellers (2002) which is about cases of compulsive walking in late nineteenth century France... particularly Albert Dadas, who is mentioned in the wikipedia entry on dromomania. A disorder also familiar to readers of Virilio's Speed and Politics (1977).

In case we might think this is unreliable narrator, the more reliable daughter Becky notes: 'but who had ever heard of what he had? Not even the Internet.' (94)

1. So we can conclude that despite being in ever other way similar to our world (excepting, perhaps, the extreme weather conditions) the world of the novel lacks 'dromomania'

2. Or, Ferris never encountered Hacking's book or the diagnosis, despite all the consulting of authorities listed in the acknowledgements

3. Or, he expects his readers not to know about it.

Saturday, 9 June 2012

'Avant-gardes have only one time': The SI, Communisation and Aesthetics

Presented at 'Situationist Aesthetics: The SI, Now'
University of Sussex
Friday 8th June 2012

The social revolution of the nineteenth century cannot take its poetry from the past but only from the future. It cannot begin with itself before it has stripped away all superstition about the past. The former revolutions required recollections of past world history in order to smother their own content. The revolution of the nineteenth century must let the dead bury their dead in order to arrive at its own content. There the phrase went beyond the content – here the content goes beyond the phrase.

One of the slogans of May ’68 that has been rendered most ironic is: ‘Art is dead, don’t consume its corpse’; constantly reworked, the result is particularly ironic in regards to the ‘corpse’ of the Situationist International (SI). The desire to bury the corpse of the SI – ‘let the dead bury the dead’ – is accompanied by just as many resurrections or, for the more Hegelian amongst us, sublations. Here I want to engage in yet another act of ‘world-historical necromancy’ in relation to the SI. My aim is not to revive the corpse, or to pose the ‘poetry of the future’ that would arrive from some final ‘surpassing’. Rather I aim to consider the historicization and critique of the SI posed by one current of communisation – that of Roland Simon and the group Theorié Communiste (TC).

The reason for this, as we will see, is that it is art and aesthetics that is particularly at stake in this critique. Despite appearances I will not be taking sides for communization and against the Situationists, or vice versa. Instead, I regard the communizing interpretation of the fate of the SI as a means to reflect on the current situation of the reception and resurrection of the SI. To carry this task out I will attempt at least three impossible things after breakfast: first, to sketch the nature of the communization problematic, especially as it is articulated by Roland Simon and TC; second, to explore Simon’s reflections on the SI and how the aesthetic plays a crucial role; third, to consider how these reflections might problematize the dominant ‘aesthetic’ reception of the SI.

Communization, and Its Discontents with the Situationists

The theory of communization articulated by TC rests on what they regard as the crisis of the identity of the worker in contemporary capitalism. In particular, they argue that out of the capitalist crisis of the 1970s and the social struggles of workers in the same period the idea of affirming a proletarian identity against capitalism came to an end. This is what they call the end of ‘programmatism’. Emerging from the general ultra-left scepticism concerning the role of unions, parties, and other worker’s organizations in mediating capitalist social relations, TC take this further – they have little time for worker’s councils and other forms of ‘alternative’ worker’s organizations. Instead, they argue the restructuring of capital makes the identity of the proletariat a barrier or impossibility to be overcome. The penetration of capitalist real subsumption goes through the identity of the worker and the affirmation of work as the antagonistic pole of capitalism. The collapse of this possibility, as capitalism restructures and destroys these forms of mediation by the ‘worker’, and as workers’ themselves refuse them, means that the ‘proletariat’ can now only exist as the negation of work and worker’s identity. Therefore, communization refers to this process of self-abolishment and not to various forms of prefigurative or alternative identities or struggles. If we cease to affirm the proletariat, we cannot affirm some alternative ‘identity’.

The ‘place’ of the SI in this schema is one of being on the cusp of this change. On the one hand, the SI’s analysis of the dominance of the spectacle as form of abstraction and the bankruptcy of worker’s identity indicates the future lines of Communization theory. On the other hand, their faith in worker’s councils or alternative forms of ‘constructed situations’ mark them as remaining at the end of the period of programmatism. In Roland Simon’s formulation this contradiction meant that: ‘I think the SI led programmatism to its point of explosion.’ (2006) What Debord could not tie together, for Simon, was his theorization of the spectacle as reality – as real abstraction – and the possibility of revolution. His failure to grasp the proletariat as an internal negation results in the positing of an outside, or alternative, that escapes representation. This speaks to the ‘vitalism’ of the SI, more marked in Vangeim than Debord, but present nonetheless. ‘Life’ marks this ‘exterior’ – ‘beneath the cobblestones, the beach’ – in Tom Bunyard’s critical analysis: ‘The “real” thus becomes “life”, considered as an abstract and romantic potential, against which stands a “capital” that has become equivalent to all present social existence.’ (2011: 132, cf. 166) In contrast, Communization insists on the interiority of the proletariat to the formation of capitalism, as its antagonist and force of dissolution.

The Realization and Suppression of Art
This, in a nutshell, summarizes the argument of TC and their critique of the SI. This critique can also be put, as Simon (2009) does, in terms of art and aesthetics. The tension here lies in the SI’s claims to the realization and suppression of art. Again, in parallel with the position of the proletariat, we have the thesis of a ‘positive’ possibility of alternative formulations and art practices in tension, or contradiction (‘realization’), with the ‘negative’ possibility of the ‘abolition’ of art pending the revolutionary process that would sublate and rework this category (‘suppression’). In common with many standard histories of the SI this contradiction is given a periodizing position in Simon’s account. We have the ‘early’, ‘artistic’ SI (up to the split of 1962), and then the ‘political SI’ (1963 to the dissolution in 1972); so canonical is such a division it appropriately structures the wikipedia page for the SI.
In terms of the critical reading of the SI in regards to the communization thesis the ‘realization’ model implies the belief in prefigurative possibilities of artistic practice that can be realized within and against capitalism. The ‘constructed situations’ of the early SI presage revolution in the forms of enclaves or moments within the reign of the spectacle on this reading. For Simon, it is the penetration of real subsumption – the dominance of capitalism that reworks the production process to capitalist ends – that signals the end of this possibility, along with the end of an alternative ‘working class’ identity; any such ‘moments’ or artworks cannot be realized under the dominance of capital. In contrast, following through on the rigorous negativity of revolution, Simon argues that the suppression of art and the ‘politicization’ of the SI indicates a recognition that ‘art’ can only take place within the revolutionary process – within communization. Therefore, ‘constructed situations’ might better describe the process of revolution – qua Communization – than the pre-revolutionary and prefigurative process of ‘triggering’ revolution.
It is the difficulty that the SI finds in accepting this formulation that lies at the root, for Simon, of the necessity to surpass the SI. We might add that the so-called ‘pessimism’ of the later Debord is a sign of the difficulty of overcoming the desire for a ‘positive’ instantiation of artistic and revolutionary possibility. Also, the much-remarked nostalgia of the Debord and the SI could be indexed as one sign of the difficulty of giving-up on these hopes, or their displacement into the past. In this analysis the tracing of the dominance of capital displaces a sense of ‘internal’ opposition to an aestheticized outside (cf. Bunyard, 2011). The SI, in this argument, remains too attached to the aesthetic and hence can only offer an aesthetic image or representation of revolution. To move beyond this ‘world-historical necromancy’ and to find the ‘poetry of the future’ requires the abandonment of the aesthetic and the abandonment of ‘positive’ visions of revolution, such as the worker’s councils.

Expressive Negation

What interests me is that this periodization and analysis implies the overcoming of the SI, and the overcoming of the artistic and aesthetic as the ‘positive’ prefiguration of the SI’s vision of revolution. The irony is that the analysis of the SI has tended to take another direction, one that is far more in line with the supposedly ‘surpassed’ moment of realization. To use a phrase of Johanna Isaacson (2011), we might say that the legacy of the SI has been thought in terms of ‘lineages of expressive negation’.

An exhaustive account would be beyond the limits of my time and your patience. What I would suggest is that these ‘the lineages of expressive negation’ have dominated many of the receptions of the SI: from Greil Marcus’s Lipstick Traces (1989), with its lineage of negation from the SI to punk, to McKenzie Wark’s The Beach Beneath the Street (2011), with its recovery of the ‘artistic SI’, the tendency has gone precisely in the other direction to that indicated by TC / Roland Simon.
I think, personally, this indexes a broader problem with the communization thesis, which claims justification in the historical actuality of the exhaustion of worker’s identity and the collapse of prefigurative radical politics, but then has to constantly account for why these ‘errors’ still occur. One absence, at least in the material I have read, is a convincing account for why these ‘errors’ should take place, unless it is regarded as unwarranted nostalgia or the lack of a ‘correct analysis’ of the present situation. This seems inadequate as an account of how these ‘errors’, if they are errors, are generated from social forms of struggle and forms of capitalist power.

In aesthetic terms, it indicates the persistent attraction of ‘expressive negation’ at a moment that is, to say the least, unconducive to such forms. The additional irony is that such ‘negations’ are often justified and retained precisely because of their positive forms. It is the fact that they seem existent possibilities, rather the austere path of the resolutely negative, that lends them a certain heft in the ‘weightless’ experience of capitalism. Without claiming to offer a full account, I would suggest that it is precisely the paradoxical ‘positivity’ of these ‘expressive negations’ that exerts attraction and fascination in the present moment. In this way, and here I have some sympathy with the communizing critique, the risk is of a consolatory function of the aesthetic.

Vaster Terrains
We can also find elements of this critique by TC anticipated by Debord, particularly in In girum imus nocte et consimimur igni (1978). The script and the use of the détourned images of The Charge of the Light Brigade, indicate that:

Avant-gardes have only one time; and the best thing that can happen to them is to have enlivened their time without outliving it. After them, operations move onto a vaster terrain. Too often have we seen such elite troops, after they have accomplished some valiant exploit, remain on hand to parade with their medals and then turn against the cause they previously supported. Nothing of this sort need be feared from those whose attack has carried them to the point of dissolution.
In this sense it is precisely the radicalized negativity of the ‘expressive negations’ of the avant-garde that indicate a recognition of their own finitude. This effect of dissolution, captured in the thematic of fire doused in the waters of time, relies on a dialectic of transformation in which we ‘move onto a vaster terrain’. Of course, the difficulty is that this dialectic appears broken.
In that sense the Communization critique tries to re-establish this dialectic through the argument that the collapse of workers’ identity is not simply the sign of defeat but precisely the sign of transformation and movement onto this new terrain. The cultural and aesthetic negations of the avant-garde are couched by the SI as the prefigurative ‘charge’ that is expended into a new proletarian movement and, if we like, Communization shifts the form and the timescale. I’d suggest, however, that the lingering sense of nostalgia and pessimism in the later Debord (despite worthwhile attempts to re-read this moment in more strategic direction (Cf. Tom Bunyard, 2011)) indicate an impasse or impatience that this transformation has not been delivered.

Again, then, we could say that the aesthetic reading of the SI is not simply false but registers this uneasy position – one I would say that is as uneasy for communization as it is for the SI. What if we don’t move onto a ‘vaster terrain’ but a terrain that is constricted? Or, if we move onto a vaster terrain how is that to translate to the precise contestations required to rupture the real abstractions of capital? It is here, to adapt a phrase I’m fond of, we could speak of a ‘persistence of the aesthetic’. The turn to the aesthetic reading is not merely consolatory, although it can be that, but also a desire to provide some kind of more precise sense of negation in the present. Unsatisfactorily, I suppose, I can only sketch this as a problem. We live then in the moment of what Debord called a ‘splendid dispersal’.