I have decided to share the dissertation I wrote for my recent Masters Degree. It’s admittedly chewy to begin with, as I’m trying to club together ideas I’m still working on, so bear that in mind. But it is kind of important to me (for purposes of personal closure) that the text doesn’t solely exist as a symbol of an academic achievement. ‘Imposter Syndrome: a brief history of sadness in a ‘cult of self-belief’ was my attempt to try to locate personal distress in the idea of self sold to us in an era when we were told we had reached the end of history. I’m not claiming it’s a great text, but it is important for me that it exists. Fundamentally the core motivation was ability to locate a self-help, a way of inspiring life in myself, amidst all the other concerns I harbour and theories I’ve developed. I hope this shines through.
Introduction: the impossible yet necessary
This is an attempt to unravel what I see as the threads of deep social-psychic distress. As much as academic research can also be practical, this is a self-help guide; a self-help guide I would write to myself, aiming to live more productively and joyously, in spite of a long struggle finding a body worthy of social and self-recognition for an age I argue has been supercharged by a ‘cult of self-belief’ – an era I mostly refer to as ‘post-historical’1.
Through personal accounts, scripted through ‘autoethnographical’ contexts, and ‘psychogeographical’ observations, I attempt to both live through and passively observe how the self and the social have responded to the last 30 years – 30 years since ‘history ended’ in the wake of the collapse of the Berlin Wall, the crumbling of the Soviet Union, and the emergence of a form of ‘post-ideological’ governmentality in the West, where ‘politicians from both the right and left, tried to extend an idea of freedom modelled on the freedom of the market, to all other areas of society’.
I employ an ‘autoethnographical’ methodology following Garance Marechal, who suggests it can involve ‘…the reflexive accounting of the narrator’s subjective experience and subjectivity (autobiographical writing that has ethnographic interest).’
‘Autoethnography broadly operationalises three different conceptions of self: self as representative subject (as a member of a community or group) self as autonomous subject (as itself the object of inquiry, depicted in ‘tales of the self’) and other as autonomous self (the other as both object and subject of inquiry, speaking with their own voice)…’
I believed employing a form that is autoethnographic allows for a more truthful engagement with phenomena relating to an inability to escape self-referencing, under the conditions I argue make up a ‘cult of self-belief’, in-spite of it being the very desire for ‘escape’ that energises the argument.
In 1955, Guy Debord’s introduction to ‘A critique of Urban Geography’ helped lay the foundations for a practice we have come to understand as ‘psychogeography’, “[which] set for itself the study of the precise laws and specific effects of the geographical environment, whether consciously organized or not, on the emotions and behavior of individuals”.
However, I use psychogeography in what I argue are a very different set of circumstances and expectations to what enabled the confidence of post-war Situationist thinking one will find in Debord’s ‘manifesto’. So much so that my inhabitation of the psychogeographic is formed from a passive “…quest for a new way of life…”, and, far from being “…the only thing that remains exciting…”, is the outcome of what, via autoethnographic accounts, I show to be a psychogeographical pathos caused by never quite being able to be body-present.
This is why this pathos is equally what I call ‘hauntological desire’: a ‘lived in’ substitution to the far more emotionally-demanding ‘post capitalist desire’ , posited by the late theorist Mark Fisher, and is a desire to be without a body when a body is commanded to ‘voluntarily’ graft itself into a validated presence within a ‘post-industrial’ form of capitalism. It is a ‘critique of urban geography’ experienced on trains, buses and in pubs, avoiding ‘body-presencing’, perpetually hoping for an ‘event’ that would allow presence.
For this reason I take Michel Foucault’s understanding of the different historical practices of the governing of the body laid out in ‘Discipline and Punish’, in relation to what I will argue is the semi-disappearance of such structures in contemporary capitalism, creating not only a liberation from the oppressiveness of duty, but also liberation from a meaningful existence, to which I largely reference the ethnographic accounts collected from a post-industrial South Yorkshire by Simon J. Charlesworth.
The argument is punctuated by a dependency upon the ‘event’. Set between 1989 and 2019, I employ Slavoj Žižek’s ideas of the functionality of a ‘symbolic order’, which he based upon the psychoanalysis of Jacques Lacan, to autoethnographically depict the desire for the collapse of a neoliberal symbolic order in ‘austerity Britain’, as key to escaping ‘hauntological desire’.
Although I employ ‘post capitalist desire’ to posit the transcendental ‘event’ as necessary, I equally argue that the dependency upon the event is created by existing in a passive state or assumed powerlessness to act in a way one would truly wish to.
Following the thinking on ‘the emotions’ by 17th century philosopher Benedictus de Spinoza, borrowing many present-day employments of ‘Spinozism’; we find that the idea that ‘[w]hen a body “encounters” another body, or… another idea, it [can] happen that the two relations sometimes combine to form a more powerful [joyful] whole…’ [Spinoza: a Practical Philosophy, by Gilles Deleuze] is now being argued from a position of neuroscientific research [‘Looking For Spinoza – Antonio Damasio].
‘We can agree with Spinoza when he said that joy…was associated with a transition of the organism to a state of greater perfection…(and)…in keeping with Spinoza…the maps of sorrow are associated with the transition or the organism to a state of lesser perfection. The power and freedom to act are diminished.’
My argument strives to fold around the potentials rather than the limitations of this entwined nature of personal and social transformation, from the position of somebody who believes his own ‘…body [has] been affected in many ways whereby its power of acting [has been] diminished.’, resulting in living through the corresponding ‘sad passions’. Fisher said that “being a Spinozist is both the easiest and hardest thing in the world”, and taking on Catherine Malabou’s idea of ‘’destructive plasticity’ as the outcome of what Spinoza saw as negative, ‘disempowering encounters’, I wish to make speculative the notion that such threads of personal distress are embedded and reproduced at a global level, to the extent that they could actually define processes of reproduction we call ‘capitalist’: systems of trauma-reproduction.
In ‘Futurability’, Franco (Bifo) Berardi critiques Toni Negri’s reading of Spinoza, for… ‘the foundation of his faith in the necessity of liberation’. Yet in a book that seems to suggest in the second decade of the 21st century we are suffering from an unprecedented existential impotency, a sense of powerlessness that ‘inspires’ an abundance of sad passions, Berardi speaks of ‘morphogenesis ‘..the emergence of a new form of vibration, from the oscillation between evolutions of the body of possibilities’, suggesting out of a state of impossibility, a new previously unprecedented field of possibility can emerge.
This ‘impossible yet necessary’ depends upon the late Mark Fisher’s unfinished projects. Discovering ‘Capitalist Realism’ in 2010 was a watershed moment in which personal distress and political phenomena were succinctly connected into a diagnosis of a culture that has become trapped in the logic that there is no alternative to the current state of play. ‘Acid communism’ and ‘post-capitalist desire’ are two terms crucial to Fisher’s relentless energy and desire to find a way of overcoming ‘capitalist realism’, They are thus two recurrent themes running through my argument.
I hope, finally, it will become clear why I speak of ‘imposter syndrome’. I am speculating that in an age where we all need to be individuals who believe in their own abilities, we struggle to feel authentic; that we are forced to construct identities, sometimes out of ‘disempowering encounters’, provoking imposter syndrome when we do find ourselves in encounters that are outside what I call our ‘identity in capitalism’; which, through ‘acid communism’ we can suggest is a blockage to potential moments of personally and politically empowering, a collective joy. For this reason, the paper’s chronological flow is not to generate regret, but to foster receptiveness to the possibilities of living better.
Go forth and be yourself (at the end of history)
Beginning with an exercise in comparative literature, I compare Mark Fisher’s contextualisation of the celebrity Danny Baker’s autobiographical account of his working class childhood in the 1960’s, in relation to what Fisher saw as the ‘acid communism’ potential of that decade 24, to my own experience at the same age as Baker, in the summer of 1993.
Baker’s account of a holiday aged 9 on a barge in the Norfolk broads, sounds equally mundane and magic, which Fisher encapsulates with the term ‘exorbitantly sufficient’. To an extent it could characterise a time-memorial experience of childhood moments that seem abundant in joy creation. However, Fisher is asking us to see within his accounts the unique conditions of the 1960’s as the enabler of ‘exorbitant sufficiency’.
‘This is happening now. THIS is happening now.”
Yet because this all too closely resembles the conditions that enabled my family’s first ‘proper holiday’ in the summer of 1993, I use this account to suggest our conditions momentarily enabled a stain of a ‘second Sixties’ to be etched into my psyche. For if the car radio was playing what, thanks to Laura Grace Ford’s ‘Hermes Chthonius’, I will define as ‘the second wave of psychedelia meeting mainstream popular culture’, this was also because my dad (who is of similar age to Baker) had recently acquired a college teaching position, the first such job in our family’s history, giving credit to a feeling that not only would my future would be different to the past, it would be better.
With what felt like a coming millennium of ‘electric dreams’ slowly actualising, this was my ‘exorbitantly sufficient’ moment, in ‘Perranporth’, Cornwall‘, with a blue Atlantic coastline that looked like it belonged on film. I can honestly say that the words in my head were identical to Baker’s:
‘This is happening now. THIS is happening now.’
In hindsight, the conditions of the 1990s enabled a moment that was an anachronism of the 60’s, maybe even an hallucination. My parents were of very similar age to Baker in the 1960s. The song that made Baker’s exorbitant sufficiency was ‘Bus Stop’ by the Hollies, but as Fisher points out, the conditions that enabled this moment could have been heard on other songs my parents’ generation would encounter on ‘transistor radio”. For a brief moment, the sounds of ‘2 Unlimited’, ‘Urban Cookie Collective’ and ‘The Prodigy’, gave me a sense that 1993 was the start of my generation’s 1960’s.
I never really came to terms with the disappointment that followed, as mental disorders would afflict my sister that year, and myself years afterwards. I can see we were caught between fields of power; a fold between the superegos of two opposing ways of living (two unforgiving scripts); one defined by working class trauma of a violently post-industrialised area into which we grew up, (“why were we suddenly not poor like the ‘others’?”); the other centred around achievement – where one needed a body with ‘skills’ not for survival, but to excel. It is now of no surprise that both aforementioned accounts of mental disorder were related to the body – confused, anxious about where to place ourselves.
Nonetheless, what culminated around the summer of 1993 would last until 1997: a warm promise of a trauma-less future. The message, the promise, welcomed one to the coming Millennium like the sign on gates in the 1993 blockbuster ‘Jurassic Park’, which, with its employment of ground-breaking computer-generated imagery felt like some exciting universal gesture of achievement pointing towards the next century. The post-political dream was ingrained into the ‘Jurassic Park’ plot – the kind of experiment humanity engages with when all other problems have been as solved as they possibly can be. But just like in the film, in reality it would become a case of ‘be careful what you wish for’.
But what was it we were wishing for…?
In October 1989, the Berlin Wall fell. This marked the beginning of the end of the repressive Soviet Union regime, and ushered in an “optimism, faith in the future and a sense of shared humanity…that found an echo in cultural movements in the West, such as rave, that arrived at the end of what was felt as a very divisive 1980’s’. In 1993 the last symbol of that divisive decade came tumbling down: I watched across the valley from my home as a large colliery was demolished in a controlled explosion, marking a relief that coal mining was going to be a thing of the past. Admittedly too young to know the legacy of the political struggle that had recently marked this area, it’s certainly suggestible that this detonation fed into a cultural narrative that our future would no longer be based on division.
David Stubbs, identifies 1996 as representing ‘…the 1990’s at their ripest’, ‘where…cultural forces gathered, as if in a manifestation of the collective unconscious, to recreate the year 1966…’ but possibly motivated, energised by a sense…that Britain had been permanently relieved of the seemingly chronic condition of post-war anxiety by the collapse of the Berlin Wall, and the End of History…’
But what is ‘the End of History’?
‘In the summer of 1989, the American economist Francis Fukuyama famously declared the final triumph of liberalism and the alleged end of history…’, and although the acclamation was widely criticised by other philosophers, notably the deconstructivist Jacques Derrida, it is now also seen as an acclamation that became a self-fulfilling prophecy.
Both Derrida and Žižek suggested that this ‘new gospel’ announcing liberal democracy as the final gesture of historical progress was motivated by a desire to finish history before any more of it could be made, due to the fact that Western democracy itself wasn’t in a good place. It seemed to feed upon a much broader desire for the 20th century and all its upheavals to be wrapped up, promptly. Derrida said that “The dominating discourse [surrounding the end of history announcement] often ha[d] the manic, jubilatory, and incantatory form that Freud assigned to the so-called triumphant phase of mourning work”.
Retroactively this potential relief still stirs emotion in the simulated recollections of 1990 we have encountered through nostalgia television. Here the ‘Mourning work’ was performed through the tears of Paul Gascoigne (in the 1990 World Cup) and Sinead O’Connor’s cover of Prince’s ‘Nothing Compares 2 U’ which, although about relationship breakup, seems somewhat suggestive of relief over relinquishing the burden of responsibility towards the 20th century, and the warning to be careful what we wish for.
‘Since you been gone I can do whatever I want
I can see whomever I choose
I can eat my dinner in a fancy restaurant
But Nothing compares, nothing compares to you”
Nonetheless, if 1990 was the year of relief. The following years were punctuated by pop songs that had a far more forward looking message. The mines and mills had closed, the Cold War was over, the Millennium and the computer revolution were coming: it was time to ‘go forth and be yourself’.
Sad Monads in a century that ‘didn’t arrive’
‘A thing cannot be destroyed except by an external cause…’ [Spinoza, The Ethics]
Enter the post ‘9/11’ world…
I recently encountered the word ‘monad’, in ‘Relationships as Dialogues’, an essay about ‘Relational Dialectics’: a term Leslie. A. Baxter and Barbara Montgomery use to describe the dialogism theory of Mikhail Bakhtin:
Monologization” was a word Bakhtin used to describe the impact of the belief that “social life was a… closed…univocal monologue in which only a single voice (perspective, theme, ideology, person) could be heard…”’
Bakhtin was very critical of what Baxter suggests was ‘… a view of the individual as a “coherent, integrated, singular entity’. Bakhtin, Baxter tells us, saw this encouraging a ‘monadic self’ [my italics], who according to Bakhtin (1981), is a “hermetic and self-sufficient whole, one whose elements constitute a closed system presuming nothing beyond themselves, no other utterances”.
The wider relational dialectics theory argument ‘…that selves and relationships are constituted in communication…[and]… relationships are closed not because selves get revealed but because selves are constituted, or authored…in the interaction between relationship parties”, is far removed from my uncomfortable autoethnographic accounts of the early years of the 21st century.
Although the message remained the same, ‘being yourself’ no longer felt like a shining message for a new century, and increasingly like a self-inflicted curse; as the shame of a pathetically selfish childlike helplessness to the psychic distress began to rain down in the space that was now supposed to be occupied by becoming a self-actualised ‘adult’.
By why was this happening?
Firstly, what happened on September 11th 2001?
Franco (Bifo) Berardi appears to suggest that ‘9/11’ was ‘the last shock of the New’:
‘[B]y the beginning of the twenty-first century, the long history of the artistic avante-garde was over. Beginning with Wagner’s Gesamtkunstwerk and resulting in the Dadaist cry to “Abolish art, abolish everyday life, abolish the separation between art and everyday life,” the history of the Avante-garde culminates in the gesture of 9/11…. the consummate work of art of the century with no future.’
There was a sense that we now could no longer be surprised, ‘…no [more] ‘shocks of the new’ to come’. Naomi Klein’s ‘The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism’, explains how the shock and awe of the 9/11 spectacle enabled the exponential growth of surveillance and security companies. I suggest we look rather at the televised terror of 9/11 for the precedence I argue it initiated within the advent of rolling news, culminating in smart-phone tech. I wouldn’t wish to suggest that the 21st century has been qualitatively worse than the 20th, but that 9/11 accelerated a process Catherine Malabou argues’…inspire[s] indifference…[and a] loss of the capacity to feel wonder’.
Was 9/11 the moment when the 20th century ended and the 21st century never started?
‘The slow cancellation of the future‘, according to both Fisher and Berardi begins in the late 20th century, becoming undeniable at the beginning of the 21st century. But I think of this term mostly in what I believe was a process of irrecoverable disappointment that 9/11 set in motion; the ‘slow cancellation’ being a ‘slow trauma’, looking at what Malabou calls “the accidents of cerebrality [where] wounds…cut the thread of history, place history outside itself, suspend its course…’ as simultaneously cultural and personal phenomena. Perhaps it is most adequate to locate this slow trauma within societies that were arguably accustomed to being immunised from a chaotic and violent experience of the world; where the framework of the mass medias of television and radio, although far from a desirable media model, gave the self a sense of being part of a world.
I am suggesting that this was an emerging reality that made the promises of a ‘cult of self-belief’ begin to feel somewhat jaded.
In retrospect it appears it was commonplace to use alcohol-based social encounters to try to circumvent the inhibitions of a shameful self-identification that was locked in unhappy adolescence when it ‘should’ have been becoming ‘adult’. It was quite a common experience, in drunken conversations, to almost reference one’s ‘depression’ as an ice-breaker, a disarming disclosure of one’s ‘true self’, to befriend others with. Importantly, there was a mournful quality to this ‘hedonism’ we pursued; a pervasive but cloudy sense that the true hedonism that seemed to characterise the 1990s of childhood, had gone. However, even in its absence, it felt like the only thing left to pursue. Only years later does the disappointment and dislike of ones ‘true’ identity seem to have a potential class and geographical context to it, for an age when nobody ‘talked politics’.
In the moving article, ‘Good For Nothing’, Mark Fisher says ‘…each individual member of [the] subordinate class is encouraged into feeling that their poverty, lack of opportunities, or unemployment is their own fault alone. What [David] Smail calls “magical voluntarism” – the belief that it is within every individual’s power to make themselves whatever they want to be…is both an effect and a cause of the currently historically low level of class consciousness…a population that has all its life been sent the message that it is good for nothing is simultaneously told that it can do anything it wants.’
‘Class consciousness’, was certainly absent from understandings of depression – no connection seen between social mobility and emotional mobility (the ability to move beyond a state of unhappiness). This was at a time when I was moving from further education to undergraduate education level. Even though the young adults who wound up on this undergraduate arts course, in a town deprived of the culture and amenities of ‘university towns’, rarely had a long-viewed, strategic reason for being there, they never spoke of themselves as potentially being at a disadvantage.
Sociologist Lynsey Hanley talks about how the ‘…new universities [went] out of their way to smooth over the cracks of class….’ . Describing two such new universities, which she gives pseudonyms, Hanley says:
‘…’Eastern’ and ‘Northern’ provide a degree-level study…characterized by an emphasis on continuity rather than change…[allowing] working class students to feel they are accepted as they are..[which] often involves carrying over from school into higher education a sense – a stance, maybe – of not-botheredness…’.
However, this doesn’t discredit the fact that they went to college to study art, that they were there; after all, once your body is ‘not needed’ in a factory, or on a picket line, surely you ‘find yourself’, become an artist?
Michel Foucault’s main argument in ‘Discipline and Punish’ is that governmentality has always revolved around the use of bodies. This demand on the body is usually seen negatively, but in a post-industrial context many were told they should be themselves within a situation where any meaning/role in a social context had evaporated. Like Fisher, they recognised they were ‘good for nothing’.
The anthropologist Simon J Charlesworth’s employment of Pierre Bourdieu’s understanding of the self’s embodiment of capital, in post-industrial South Yorkshire, helps reveal the ‘cult of self-belief’ by what is blocks rather than enables. Charlesworth sees that what I term ‘the cult of self-belief’ leaves many without any form or ‘recognition’ which is ‘…a vital aspect of human personhood…’ adding that he believes ‘… that too many are condemned to anonymous impersonal lives that produce a violence as anonymous as the lives of those who struggle to realise a form of recognition….’.
Quoting one man who said ‘you’ve got to be brain dead to live in Rotherham’ [my translation from Yorkshire dialect], Charlesworth says that ‘[t]his is a state to be aspired to because so many people are now experiencing their desires and human capacities as things that only bring them suffering.’ It turns out that ‘being yourself’ really isn’t much fun, if it means very little to anybody else.
Admittedly, I’d had more investment: I was one of only a few whose father had gone to university. However, it still felt that misidentification of adult self-actualisation through alcoholic encounters was the only choice ‘in town’. Arriving into adulthood with a metaphorical jacket coated in badges that identified myself with the restraints I blamed on mental distress and eating disorders, I was unaware, initially, that I perhaps had acquired more scope to negotiate different social environments, enabling more social mobility than most people I encountered.
Only upon finding work in galleries in the wake of my degree, would I experience what I quickly came to see people for whom I can now confidently say had upward social mobility on their side; only then did I realise that whilst gaining a bachelor’s degree, contrary to what my supportive F.E tutor said about it how “it wasn’t just a certificate from Barnsley by the sea” [a derogatory term used to describe something that holds little prestige]; it really was “just Barnsley by the sea”. That, despite many great memories and great tutors, the ‘optimism, faith in the future and a sense of shared humanity…’ of the previous decade felt like an empty gesture.
It is within this context I began to construct my ‘artist’ identity: “I am this – I can be nothing else, and these are my skills”. Yet it was locked in inertia: I never knew what it else it could be, because I never knew what else I could be. In some sense my twenties were characterized by a malaise constitutive to what Fisher calls ‘reflexive impotence’ (..), a condition he saw afflicting specifically UK students, caused by what he locates as neoliberalism’s success in naturalising capitalism as a purely economic system and making politics seem pointless. Within the situation of ‘reflexive impotence’, he saw ‘the majority of students [he encountered, as seeming] to be in a state what he called “…depressive hedonia… an inability to do anything else except pursue pleasure’.
“There is a sense that ‘something is missing’ – but no appreciation that this mysterious, missing enjoyment can only be accessed beyond the pleasure principle.’ Or, as I experienced, the self seems unable to move beyond a sad reflection of itself which it must constantly soothe with ‘sad passions’.
The increasing sense of impotence within a post-911 world meant there was no doubt the situation was “depressing to think about”. “Thus…”, as many a pub conversation would go, “you may as well enjoy yourself”. Yet the culture I encountered, the consolidating platitudes shared, and inwardly directed, were actually enabling the continuation of what I now see as ‘sad monads’.
Both Paulo Virno and Jacques Derrida seem to suggest that there was intent (self-aware or not) in the culture that enabled the ‘end of history’ to find what Virno calls an ‘escape tunnel’ (…) from what Derrida calls ‘responsibility’ attached to a political and historical ‘inheritance’ we were trying to evade: a demand to be liberated into ‘the now’. Virno refers to the two “forms of [human] life Alexandre Kojeve saw as prevailing ‘in post-historical societies’: One, the ‘snobbery of memory’ and the other ‘becoming animal again’ – an ‘artistic, erotic, playful’ way of life. Yet the ‘sad monads’ is the failure to be either of the post-historical people, if not for lack of trying.
Virno located the phenomenon of the ‘end of history’ in what he calls a ‘false recognition’, employing the ideas of Henri Bergson: that encounters involve two forms of perception responses; perception of the present and memory of the present, and when the latter enters the same perceptive space as the former, we experience what we call ‘deja vu’ – mistaking a memory of present for something that has already happened. Virno calls this mistake ‘false recognition’; a replacement of a formal anachronism (memory of the present), with a ‘real anachronism (a conviction that this is a repetition).
Thus, not only is the post-historical arguably defined by this ‘false recognition’, (“nothing can ever change”), have our identities also followed suite? “This is me, this is what I think, and this is what I will always be”.
Spinoza argued that ‘…we can do nothing by a decision of the mind unless we recollect having done so before….” [but]...no one has yet been taught by experience what the body can do…’.
Spinoza understood that it is the body, and its encounters from where we grasp a sense of what is possible. The retrospective autoethnography of my early adult years tells of people who knew they had to enjoy life, but were simultaneously resigned to a situation, that, although liberating them from historical responsibility had simultaneously liberated them from any ability to change their circumstances. They were powerless to do anything but be a self they already knew, and pursue ‘fun’ from this subjective state.
The real of this ‘just enjoy yourself’ platitude is perfectly captured by Fisher in his appropriately-named text ‘Fear and misery in neoliberal Britain’
“Stepping over the vomit, you remember too late: only a fool would go out into a provincial English town centre late in the evening. It’s night of the living dead out here. Screams that sound like they come from the Dante-damned. And that’s just from the people who are enjoying themselves. The lurching zombie threat of violence simmering. Try not to catch anyone’s eye. When you go by Accident and Emergency, you see all the walking wounded, and some who are not walking. All the casualties of the UK’s many happy hours’.
‘Hauntological desire’ and the psychogeography of ‘hungry ghosts’ in ‘late Soviet’ Britain.
In a 2012 BBC interview, art critic Estelle Lovatt said that art’s increasing popularity has been down to its cathartic powers in ‘time[s] of economic uncertainty’:
‘…art makes you forget your troubles’.
However, employed in art galleries, a common remark goes like this: “galleries are the new cathedrals” – explaining away what feels like their increasing popularity. If true, and if they command the same respect and attention, I do not blame people for dispersing this force, by ‘instagramming’ the art in question. For if it is my argument that far from allowing us to be decent to ourselves, the ‘cult of self-belief’ violently demands we reapply to be ourselves, then nothing exemplifies this more than an encounter with art – a lonely experience of interrogation of the self in a ‘cult of self-belief’.
Yet, admittedly, this could be an entirely subjective position: my imposter syndrome revolves around this ‘specialisation’, that has defined my adult life. My formative years as an artist were equally a side-step away from action; not really ever knowing how to be a body, art was activity that allowed me to remain passive. Yet simultaneously, as a ‘speciality’, art was the vehicle through which I’d have to self-actualise. The impress of the ‘cult of self-belief’ demands that one actively engages with art; yet I learned how to engage with the world passively. As life conditions became qualitatively different, imposter syndrome was the result of being forced into be a self-believing body.
Unlike ‘the docile body’ “…that can be made… out of formless clay …turning [it] silently into the automatism of habit…”[Foucault], we are no longer moulded into soldiers or workers by disciplinary systems, rather, we are forced into doing it to ourselves as if out of our own desire.
Admittedly until the early 2000s, ‘culture’ was what came through the radio and television. As I began to argue in the previous chapter, in the wake of 9/11, there came a ‘slow cancellation’ of the sense of being part of a world’. We were on our own from now on. Choice is violent: one must choose and dismiss based on anxious, blind stabs towards whatever may best reflect their perceived best interests. This autoethnography is one of facing ‘culture’ alone; experiencing it as having violent expectations of one’s body.
David Smail said that ‘it seems that the society held together by the discipline of scientific surveillance, which Foucault so brilliantly revealed, is…. being replaced by [a]magical liberalism, but [added that] both are equally the creation of power…’. ‘Magical liberalism’, or what Fisher employed as ‘magical voluntarism’ is the source of this aforementioned violence, and is arguably most manifest now the old structures that coerced ‘the masses’ feel so fragmented with the advent of social media technologies.
The previous dominance of TV and radio allowed one to be passively part of something; this ‘something’ may have already reached a state of play Jean Baudrillard called the ‘hyperreal’, signs that need not signify anything; however, is this not what constitutes what Žižek ,via Lacan, calls the ‘big Other’ (a shared unspoken belief in something that ‘doesn’t really exist’)? Since the transition towards social media dominance, I argue it is hard to feel part of any world: these technologies engage us into the city-world as psychological noise, but without the sense of being part of it; abandoned to the command to ‘self-actualise’.
In hindsight it seems to make sense as to why towns, cities and train stations would become my adulthood muse. A passive ‘lived in’ psychogeography allowed me, momentarily, to skirt what felt like the violence of trying to self-actualise in a way that felt undesirable and unachievable. This, within this context based around the past decade, would foster, I argue, a state I can only deem fit to call ‘hauntological desire’.
‘Hauntology’ derives from Jacques Derrida’s methodology of ‘deconstruction’, and ‘like earlier terms, it referred to the way in which nothing enjoys a purely positive existence.’. In ‘Spectres of Marx’, a critique of Francis Fukuyama’s book ‘the End of History and the last Man’, Derrida takes apart the ‘triumphalist’ fanfare that met Fukuyama’s ‘announcement’ that ‘the ideal of liberal democracy could not be improved on…’, arguing that ‘…the attempts to presence [the] ‘ hegemony’ of “neocapitalism and neoliberalism’) so as to leave no shadows under which history could continue, was, to begin with, being attempted under “…paradoxical and suspect conditions’. The more some something claims total presence the more we are haunted by the shadows of that it claims to have made absent.
Yet this “new gospel” was successful enough to make the dominant and lasting cultural imperative one of self-improvement. It is on the individual’s own watch to self-actualise in the ‘now’, by ‘learning to live’, which is very much what Slavoj Žižek sees as ‘injunction to enjoy’ in today’s society. It is a command to be body-present at the end of history. Or, as Kurt Cobain should have painfully screamed in 1991: ‘here we are now, so enjoy it!’.
Whilst this dominant imperative of ‘learning to live’ tells us to liberate ourselves from the past and future, two decades later Mark Fisher used hauntology to suggest that it is these very 21st century conditions ‘…marked by anachronism and inertia’ that make the present tense un-locatable, and thus, by extension, uninhabitable. Identifying ‘the past 30 years… [as a] time of traumatic change… [which has seen] a transnational restructuring of the capitalist economy…[alongside] the way that internet and mobile phone telecommunications technologies [have altered] the texture of everyday experience beyond recognition…’ Fisher pays close attention to ‘…the sheer persistence of recognisable forms” [specifically in popular music] – something that he says would have shocked people of previous decades. Concluding that a “secret sadness” marked by exhaustion hides behind the “… superficial frenzy of ‘newness’, of perpetual movement…” of the 21st century.
What I call ‘hauntological desire’ is the allure to evade body-presencing within the ‘capitalist realism’ of post 2010 UK. There is, however, I will conclude, very little liberation found in this refusal to be body-present.
If it is the norm to view ‘electronic’ music as music for ‘the good times’, as somebody who has rarely been able to show public expressions of joy nor have a rave of a time [always plagued by futures and pasts], I’ve admittedly always felt intimidated by those who can ‘party’; for the internal inquisition it provokes: justifying why I can’t act towards the command to ‘live a life’. Yet perhaps it is within ‘electronic music where such a ‘secret sadness’ is most potently expressed? Fisher, on hearing the electronic artist Burial’s self-titled 2006 debut album said it “...is like the faded ten-year-old tag of a kid whose Rave dreams have been crushed by a series of dead end jobs”. “Burial [he says] is haunted by what could have been…” – haunted too much, perhaps, for the present to be anything close to being ‘exorbitantly sufficient’.
Burial’s mournful sound disarms what can often feel like the violence in the command to be having a great time. Whereas Spinoza’s argument is that ‘…[t]he first thing which constitutes the essence of the mind is nothing else than the idea of a body existing,’ which according to the neuroscientist Antonio Damasio, ‘…is [now] being put to experimental test…’, I’d argue Burial’s allure it in how it perpetually ghosts the idea of a body. Whether ‘In MacDonald’s’ or on the ‘Night Bus’, there is a sense that this narrator of London remains totally in spirit form, never beaten by the downfall of mournful rainfall that cloaks the music. A spirit (or ‘Archangel’) hurt by the false promises of ‘end of history’ optimism; watching from the side-lines, physically unaffected but unable to escape spiritual pain, as the bitter betrayal of such promises manifests as an ‘Austerity Street VS Gentrification Street’, which is transforming Burial’s London.
Indeed, although the ‘hauntological desire’ to evade the commands to be body-present in our ‘capitalist realism’ persists in all contemporary space, Burial’s music is undeniably ‘London’, and of the certain [dis]spirit that haunts it. ‘Burial’s London’ appeals, even in its sadness, due to being blocked into becoming in the smaller UK cities that feel trapped by provincial-attitudes that feel as ingrained into the psyche as much as the aged-stains of soot in millstone terraces.
The continuous sound of rain, always going elsewhere, becoming other, could be said to be the protagonist of Burial’s dampened-spirit London; subtropical, of an ‘already happened’ climate change; inconsequential, like the rain in the film ‘Blade Runner’. Yet in the lonely UK provincial cities of ‘gentrification street VS austerity street’, the rain hits the body like little drops of shame; very much reminding you of your body – a body that brings shame.
‘You fall fast in a void of pain, only to remember that you still remain’ (Sleaford Mods).
There is a morbid allure of many imagined Dystopian landscapes. It seems that when we think of Dystopia we can never carry the idea of our body – to all intents and purposes, we observe the Dystopia like one of Burial’s ‘angels’. Mark Fisher’s notion of ‘boring Dystopia‘ came close to summing up the misery of being a body in a Dystopia, that must have somewhere to go, cannot simply float as an angel-esq observer. The Dystopia upon the body in the ‘cult of self-belief’ is the physical sensation of struggling to find a way to exist endurably. ‘The Sleaford Mods’ may be the best narrators of such an experience.
Why are The Sleaford Mods, two men in their 40’s, expressing an anger and dysphoria typically associated with discontented youth? Perhaps younger adults are too caught up in trying to gain socially-validated survival to afford to be angry? Speaking in 2016, Franco (Bifo) Berardi talked about the reasons he saw for electorates voting for Trump, or for Brexit, saying it is the ‘…political face of a sentiment of existential impotence.’ Berardi was arguing that this ‘existential impotence’ was being provoked by our competitive, individualistic culture no longer having a place for ageing, saying ageing has become a social humiliation ‘…because you lose, you become a loser.’
I believe the ‘humiliation of ageing’ is important in understanding the ‘lived in’ psychogeography painted by Jason Williamson’s’ words, exemplified in Paul Sng’s 2015 film ‘Invisible Britain’, where the group’s songs narrate the film’s ‘flaneuristic’ filming style of an austerity-hit provincially-urban landscape, one that is specific to a ‘…rotten soil of nowhere-land’.
Williamson’s utterances, which are so many, are so dense with relatable content, that they only unveil themselves in comparative encounters. Unlike Burial, The Sleaford Mods never let you escape the ‘dead weight’ of an ageing body that can neither find its own space, nor outrun the encroachment of an impersonal one upon it. Whether it’s the ‘night bus confidence killer’, ‘weekends that give you a kicking‘, or having ‘to walk back from the train, with the Stella kicking in my brain’ it’s the desperation of a knowing-disempowerment; where every idea reminds one of their own miserable body in ‘nowhere land’.
I first encountered the group in my early 30’s, when the appeal of traversing local cities to skirt the command to self-actualise evaporated. Turning 25 only months after the 2008 financial crash, there was a sense of imminent great social, environmental upheaval; we would, it seemed, be forced into action, in a drastic, frightening, but necessarily collective way. This expectation persisted, and perhaps culminated in 2011 with two constraining gestures: the ‘UK Riots’95, and the ‘Occupy’ Movement.
The writer and Mental Health worker, Mark Brown, recently said how, although the financial crash of 2008 was expected to have fast catastrophic effects, quoting the then UK prime minister Gordon Brown, who, said it would be ‘anarchy’ if the governments of the world didn’t act immediately, the real outcome was more ‘…like the sound of ice caps melting... [The change [‘that would leave many further from hope…’] was slow and incremental…’ And although Brown is addressing the condition of the prospects of hope for people in direct need of psychological support, I’d argue the form this decade has taken left most totally unprepared.
As the decade ends, this much anticipated great leveller of ‘eco-austerity’ clearly never arrived. However, I’d argue that what did occur was a silent war on the body, forcing it into one of two camps: ‘Gentrification Street’ or ‘Austerity Street’. An irreconcilable social body: split between the struggle to survive in the shadows, and an energy-demanding fight to achieve recognition in the ‘emasculated’ regenerated zones of our post-industrial landscape, accepting, I’d argue, mediocrity as ‘the place to be’.
If my 20’s permitted the evasion of the command to ‘self-actualise’, being a body in my 30’s was an unpleasant surprise. One older work colleague told me “you’ve done now”, inferring that I was now too old to find ‘proper’ employment. I’d never wanted to, but now, this refusal felt compromised. I’d exhausted myself in other ways, and felt increasingly left behind. But, in Spinoza’s understanding of the conatus [a person’s striving], even if informed by sorrow, one’s body must continue to act, it has no choice but to strive.
It is through this experience that ‘The Sleaford Mods’ began to narrate the decade. It momentarily felt like companionship to what, even in ‘leftist’ circles (where the ‘harsh Leninist superego’ [Fisher, Acid Communism] can have little time for those who haven’t suffered enough) felt like inexcusable failure. I’d not had a terribly unprivileged upbringing; but I was gripped by an inability to actualise in the present. One early Sleaford Mod’s track ‘Teacher Faces Porn Charges’, mournfully describes a body that cannot find a positive light to appear under, yet must still rematerialise every day.
‘I’m like one of those nonexistent old blokes you see
From time to time
Wearing flip-flops, pajamas
Plastic bag full of beer
I’m 35 years old
And my mother is still putting money into my account
So I can go to the shop in flip-flops, pajamas
To buy a plastic bag of beer.
Things should be in order
I’m not talkin’ about the usual shit
House, car, blah blah blah
I’m just sayin’
Things should be in order’
Where does a body go, what does it do, when to doesn’t want, nor cannot be, body-present within the social reality that its existence coincides with? It carries on wandering, whilst hopes of meaningful connections diminish, and the reliance on a ‘substitute’ becomes greater.
‘We played dead coz we wanted to, and now the life don’t seem to notice you’.
In the context of artist Laura Grace Ford’s work, Mark Fisher speaks of ‘Restoration London’. Although its shape may differ across the provincially-urban remainder of the land, ‘restoration’ correlates to the aforementioned split between ‘Gentrification Street’ and ‘Austerity street’, which is haunted not by alternatives, but by their absence.
Ford’s work isn’t strictly about walking, but there’s always a sense that she must be, as ‘the voices she speaks in – and which speak through her[…], those of the officially defeated […] left behind by [a] history which has ruthlessly photoshopped them out of its finance-friendly SimCity’ give her work a sense of a pathology stuck in perpetual displacement, waiting for this ‘zombie’ ‘Restoration’ form to collapse. Memories, which need not be her own, place bodies intimately back where they could no longer exist. Shared spaces, where conflict exists (‘The landlord hates us but not enough to refuse our money…signs up about travellers and George crosses all over the bar…’) only because, here, space can still accommodate co-existence.
Ford speaks of an occupation of space that I believe has disappeared since 2010. John Harris argues that ‘[a]usterity and technology have combined to close pubs, youth clubs and libraries up and down the country’, but that the “love of quality”, and for that matter, the emphasis on healthy over unhealthy, has combined with ‘elitism and exclusion’ to entrench the ‘sense of a country hopelessly divided’.
Although we may only recognise the violence upon the bodies of ‘Austerity Street’, where we see the bodies of those who once had space to exist within, forced into a semi-ghosted realm of daily survival (their crime being their inability to internalise the managing of “…life and survival…” for the purposes of social reproduction, what Foucault calls ‘Biopower’), ‘Gentrification Street’ is by no means paradise found.
Although the bespoke pubs and trendy gymnasiums in former shipping containers create the effect of ease; there is an internalised politics of violence on the body that is constant. Leisure must always be beneficial, self-help memes on social media advise one to ‘never miss a chance’, and headphones drown out the ‘unproductive’ garble from the ‘un-educated’ on public transport – ultimately one is constantly having to continually chase re-recognition. But their bodies will eventually age, committing the biggest crime possible to the neoliberal superego: ‘they will lose’.
Reflecting upon traversing cities over the past 10 years, the only bodies who seemed to have been welcome are the ones photo-shopped from Mediterranean climates into the computer Generated impressions of the developments for the now-familiar triad of ‘commercial, retail and leisure’. Everybody else can, and will eventually have to, move on…
‘I can’t place it, this zone, east side park, millennial point…’
‘…as we walk that path, between avenues of birch, I feel as though Birmingham, as I knew it then, has gone somewhere else.’
My ‘hauntological desire’ was enabled by inertia. There was no way I’d end up homeless due to an infantilising family safety net. Thus I had no justifiable story as to why I had gotten into this state, and thus, no excuse. I felt more pressed to ‘actualise’ but still unable to figure out how. I craved independence but saw friends exhausted by the process of having to put their soul through a constant re-application process for tentative independence. ‘Hauntological desire’ was a substitute for what Mark Fisher called ‘Post capitalist Desire’, sensing no way of overcoming this state, I remained in limbo, waiting for something to give way.
‘There are weird epochs when a regime, for a limited period, persists in power, although its time is clearly up.’
David Stubbs’ account of the ‘1990’s’, of the ‘…perpetual golden-sunset glow that is a recurring motif and dominant hue in the adverts of 1996’ arguably persists, on advertisement boards for the construction sites that still dominate city-scapes. But does it now merely reflect a society that no longer believes what it sees, but still carries on as if no alternative is possible?
Lifting his gaze, wandering ‘… into post-Olympics East London…’ political thinker Will Davis described how he saw ‘. ‘… into post-Olympics East London…’ political thinker Will Davis described how he saw ‘...[t]he awful warning of late-Soviet homogenisation.’
‘British capitalism already has many of the hallmarks of Brezhnev-era socialist decline: macroeconomic stagnation, a population as much too bored as scared to protest about very much, a state that performs tongue-in-cheek legitimacy…’.
The Eastern bloc socialism, which Davis makes this sober comparison with, dragged on in the 1970’s and 1980’s, because nobody knew what else to do. More recently, US journalist Umair Haque argued that ‘The English-Speaking World is ‘The New Soviet Union’’ likening it to the ‘divorce from lived reality’ that allowed The Soviet Union to continue to evade symbolic death even though it had already stopped functioning.
It’s all too close to the analogy Žižek uses to explain the gap between real and symbolic death:
‘…a [cartoon] cat [that] walks out in the air at the top of a cliff [and only] falls only after it looks down and becomes aware it has no support beneath its feet.”
Thirty years after the sudden and unexpected fall of the Berlin Wall, as ‘millions of westerners cannot shake off a deep and understandable sense of decline’ Harris suggests we should make 2019 another ‘year of transformation’ (However, Adam Curtis’s 2016 BBC feature-film ‘Hypernormalisation’120, with Curtis’s typical reluctance to offer solutions, offers no sudden disappearance of ‘the big Other’, and collapse of the symbolic order of neoliberalism.
‘Hypernormalisation’ is about ‘…a society where nobody believed in anything, or had any vision of the future… where everyone knew that what their leaders said was not real, because they could see with their own eyes that the economy was falling apart. But everybody had to play along and pretend it was real, because no-one could imagine any alternative’.
In footage we must assume is from the dying days of the Soviet Union, a woman is asked if she has any dreams, to which she responds ‘I don’t wish for anything. I don’t have any dreams, even if they did they wouldn’t come true.’1 She appears to characterise what Catharine Malabou calls ‘the new wounded’; a person so disaffected, they can no longer even feel sad passions.
‘The change may equally well emerge from apparently anodyne events, which ultimately prove to be veritable traumas inflecting the course of life, producing the metamorphosis of someone about whom one says: I never guessed they would “end up like that’.
Yet the body must always act, it cannot become as still as a statue. The symbolic order still impresses its power upon the body, and body still responds through its drives and needs. The destructive error of ‘hauntological desire’ is to attempt to sit out the present, waiting for the collapse and transformation of the symbolic order from a passive subjective state, accepting the state of reflexive impotence whilst-ever things remain as the same.
The assumed powerlessness that defines reflexive impotence leads directly to what Spinoza calls sad passions. I prefer ‘sad actions’, to visualise a body still compelled to act, but from such a state that those actions will be pre-defined by future regret.
‘It’s easier to imagine the end of the world than it is the end of capitalism’ quote attributed to Frederic Jameson.
‘It’s easier to imagine the end of the world than a world in which we no longer need alcohol’. My own speculation, June 2019
Thus far, my experience of this ‘late Soviet’ Britain has been a psychogeography of ‘Hungry Ghosts’: increasingly lacking rewarding encounters and an inability to be body-present, it felt easier to be always elsewhere – elsewhere normally resulting in what Paul Verhaege calls ‘depressive pleasure-seeking’.
Journalist Johann Hari argues that ‘addiction’ is fundamentally ‘…about not being able to bear to be present in your life’. That lacking connections in the present, being unable to ‘…bond [with others] because you’re traumatised, alienated, or beaten down by life, you will bond with something that will give you some sense of relief… gambling… pornography…cannabis…[etc].’
This is ‘…the realm of the hungry ghosts’, which Gabor Maté. takes from one of ‘the six realms in the Buddhist Wheel of Life’ for a book that deals with ‘this…domain of addiction, where we constantly seek something outside ourselves to curb the insatiable yearning for relief.’ Where ‘…[w]e haunt our lives without ever being truly present.’
Adding that addiction ‘… is a forlorn attempt to solve the problem of human pain.’ We can suggest that pain is caused by lack of meaningful connections dependent on others. Simon J Charlesworth identifies ‘recognition’ ‘as a vital aspect of human personhood’, that gave people a purpose and reason to exist in ‘formerly proud communities’. This isn’t nostalgia for the days of Foucault’s ‘discipline and punish’ society, where all bodies were forced to have a ‘role’, but suggesting that the absence any role causes severe distress.
We should be careful to so easily designate the haves and have nots. I call this a ‘psychogeography’ because it is addiction in a relational context, constituted in urban and suburban space. Nobody can deny the addiction in ‘Austerity Street’; one need only look at the epidemic of ‘spice’ use, which makes the user as distant from presence as humanly possible. However, I argue ‘Gentrification Street’ merely disguises addiction and an inability to feel at home, through straw-houses of social recognition where the ability to be body-present is rented, rather than owned.
‘Sad actions’ leave a trail of regrets. How does one find the ability to live in empowered, active and healthy way, in relation to their personal history? This is the impossible yet necessary.
The Safe Space and its limitation at ‘the Retro Bar at The End of the Universe’
The ‘[a]ctivist Pauline Bradley, describes social struggle as ‘better than prozac’ – able to bring life changes which drugs…etc can’t. However, the current state seems to have undermined these emotionally reinforcing effects, by making the experience of protest feel increasingly disempowering and traumatic.’.
I’d argue the beauty in moments of ‘coming together’ as a collective, artistic, political, or not intentionally either, can quickly recede as soon as the self is reminded of their ‘identity in capitalism’; a type of selfhood Mark Fisher called ‘mandatory individualism’. Miserable feelings seep in, critique can suddenly begin to feel personal.
In a blog written for action group ‘Plan C’, ‘The Institute for Precarious consciousness raising’, argued that ‘anxiety’ is the ‘public secret’ underlying our present mode of capitalism. Through a Žižekian-like understanding of the function of ideology, it looks at how historical political movements enabled the dominant public secrets of previous modes (misery and boredom) to become structurally recognised, forcing the capitalism to adjust to meet popular desire. In 2018, the artist-led collective I am involved in, ‘The Retro Bar at the End of the Universe’ (RBATEOTU), named its most ambitious project to date ‘The Public Secret’.
Yet, for reasons I will promptly return to this brought many challenges to the collective.
The RBATEOTU stumbled into existence around 2014. Originating with myself and PHD researcher John Wright engaging in a performance employing the notion of Ivor Southwood’s book ‘Non Stop Inertia’, a book that takes a comprehensive look into the situation of the “deep paralysis of thought and action” caused by the ‘ideologically constructed’ landscape of precarity, we were from the onset dealing with the assumption that it was increasingly hard to inhabit the present tense, that contemporary conditions conspired to make only ‘yesterday’ recognisable.
I can now recognise that the RBATEOTU formed with the intent of being spectral, amidst not only a context of political posturing and geographic limitations, but also remaining spectral to the command to self-actualise within art. The name suggested it could be at home in one of the popular drinking quarters in a fashionable side of ‘Gentrification Street’ yet it’s play upon Douglas Adam’s’ sci-fi novel ‘The Restaurant at The End of the Universe’ gave it a sense of an indefinite non-presence.
Our greatest expression of ‘hauntological desire’ came in 2017, amidst political events that, if only temporarily, seemed to gesture at the collapse of the symbolic order of ‘neoliberalism’, a moment the blogger ‘Flipchart Fairy Tales’ may have been the most alert to, suggesting this was ‘the end of the long 1990s’. In a disused pub in an area of West Yorkshire that had abandoned all essence of place to a busy through-way to Leeds/Bradford airport, the RBATEOTU staged ‘Will the Last Person To Leave The 20th Century Please Turn Out The Lights?’. It was our finest gesture towards the ‘hauntological desire’ to remain spectral. I felt a strong desire to never leave, forever evade the command to be a body in the world beyond the pub doors.
Yet, as the collective grew, and a sense that contesting arguments against ‘capitalist realism 2.0’ felt palpable, the collective was aware that it had to act so that its capabilities and intent wouldn’t fold into impotent and unhealthy gestures in relation to a rapidly changing socio-political landscape: maybe ‘hauntological desire’ could be usurped by ‘post-capitalist desire’, in the only way possible: with confidence? Maybe it was time to break from this cycle of ‘depressive-pleasure seeking’ regrets? Waiting for the collapse of the symbolic order could be indefinite, yet how could one ‘learn to live’ after years of avoiding the command to self-actualise in a way that never felt achievable or desirable?
This was an artist collective that had refused a body within the present; it was a safe space from the command to self-actualise within the capitalist realism 2.0 of ‘Gentrification street VS austerity street’. Yet until this point the RBATEOTU was unable to enable the ‘collective joy’ that Keir Milburn would ask us recall our last memories of experiencing in ‘acid communism workshops’.
‘The Public Secret’, a project enabled by the Leeds-based community arts organisation ‘Skippko’ was our call to find our own avenue into action. Tangled into the awareness that the collective now faced the prospect of requiring a body, was the dilemma of to whom do we speak, and to whom do we potentially speak against. Here, I believe I was already becoming a ‘Spinozist’, finding it hard to locate the line between the oppressor and the oppressed in the daily struggle of ‘identity in capitalism’; I also couldn’t ignore my own regrets, my own darkest thoughts: for who am I to speak, at all? ‘The Public Secret’ was a desire to find a space to which everybody could speak about their vulnerabilities; but could it be a safe space for us to confront our most unpleasant qualities without feeling the weight of moral judgement bear down on us?
Spinoza told us ‘pain diminishes or hinders a man’s power of action’ and ‘the greater the pain the greater it must be opposed to the man’s power of acting…’. We can understand this as understanding power as embodied, leading to what Spinoza saw as the ability to live to our ‘true nature’; by power which enables ‘reason of love’. By this understanding the desire to have power over others, to fight and extinguish the other, is not only a desire to grab something that isn’t embodied but is in fact motivated by a state of assumed powerlessness to overcome pain.
When we not only look at the character assassination tactics of contemporary politics, but to the populist leaders whom here find fertile terrain, are we not seeing people in pain, people who do not know how to acquire power to overcome this pain, so deal with it through vengeance, locked in an idea of themselves, where ‘images’ of past ‘things’ arise inflicting the ‘…same pain with [which they regarded] it when it existed.’?
Gabor Maté says ‘no society can understand itself without looking at its shadow side’. However, we shouldn’t perceive addiction in terms of physical substances in terms of the shadowy alleyway, but the shadow made by the towering penthouse. Maté says that of all the ‘…various diagnoses with which [Donald Trump] has been labelled [which] may accurately describe his actions, attitudes, verbal patterns and mental state…, [that]… underneath all [these] psychiatric categories Trump manifests childhood trauma.’
‘According to biographers, Trump’s father was workaholic, ruthless, emotionally cold and authoritarian, a man who believed that life is a competition where the “killers” win. Donald’s elder brother drove himself into alcoholism, a common escape from pain, and to an early death. The younger, favoured child is now self-destructing on the world stage.’
But Maté says we all live in a ‘deeply traumatised society’. Equally Catherine Malabou characterises our times of ones of ‘the new wounded’, where trauma manifests itself in our technological interface engagement with 21st century life, generating a state beyond ‘sad passions’, where there is ‘…a loss of the capacity to feel wonder’. I speculate (admittedly wildly) that the Western forms of social organisation that came to organise the world, were informed by the historical accumulation of trauma (). Jason Moore, quotes L. Mumford in the context of an “organisation of Nature” coming out of the ‘long 16th century’, he calls ‘Capitalocene’, saying that although pre-Northern European civilisations “…had machines; …they did not develop ‘the machine’.”. I suggest ‘The Machine’ to be born from trauma, and is thus a ‘trauma-repeating machine’, reproducing systemic trauma on fresh living organisms.
As Fisher said, being a ‘[b]eing a Spinozist is both the easiest and the hardest thing in the world’: as easy as realising that if even the most powerful are in some sense, miserable, why don’t we seek collective happiness? As difficult as realising that we exist inside a highly sophisticated ideological fortress, ‘…set up to block [what Fisher calls] Red Plenty.’
Equally, attempting its practical employment within RBATEOTU felt blocked. Blocked by the external-yet-internalising restraints placed on the collective members, (money, time, energy diversion towards necessary career advancement, etc), reminding us of our ‘identity in capitalism’, the selves we must be in order to negotiate capitalist life. ‘The ‘psychic privatisation’ that Fisher describes as the key effect of ‘mandatory individualism’, reinforces separation; reminding us of things we feel we must defend because our ‘identity in capitalism’ depends on them. However, I’d argue the desire, in nearly all aspects of life is always to overcome this subjective state.
In ‘Domesticating The Furies: on hope in mental health’ Mark Brown speaks of ‘the embarrassment of hoping’, describing his experience of ‘rupture’ with what previously felt permanent, through “…a week long campus occupation…”, saying, that ‘[I]n that week I found a version of myself that I had never experienced before. A me that was confident, decisive, able to talk and joke with everyone.’. However, in a fashion that is sadly recognisable, he states how, ‘outside of that situation…[he] collapsed into ill health… had found a gate of possibility that suddenly slammed shut as the ‘real world’ reasserted itself…embarrassed by the version of the future that had seemed possible.’.
No more miserable monads.
In ‘The Origins of Unhappiness’, David Smail, said that from his ‘…experience as a clinical psychoanalyst”, he became ‘…less and less able to see the people who consult[ed] [him] as having anything ‘wrong’ with them, and more and more aware of the constraints that are placed on their ability to escape the distress they experience.’
It has taken until this point in my life to admit to myself that there was actually never anything nothing wrong with me; early experiences had habituated me to panic amidst adversity, and out of these experiences I found my ‘identity in capitalism’: a ‘misfit’ artist with mental health issues. It was an identity I clung to because, although it kept me from more joyful encounters, I couldn’t locate the resources to overcome it on the terms set by this era. When opportunities of overcoming this monadic-self appeared, the imposter syndrome emerged, warning that if I was to lose my ‘identity in capitalism’, I would lose everything.
Moments I identify as joyful are moments where a situation enables me to forget this identity. As much as the RBATEOTU was set up to mitigate the misery of monads, sometimes wrong-footing our ‘identity in capitalism’ depends upon the unexpected.
‘Acid communism’ was a term brought into being by Mark Fisher, so it seemed a little lazy to respond to Keir Milburn’s ‘acid communism workshop’ question “when was the last time you experienced collective joy? by saying it was generated by a blog posted on ‘K-punk’ around the time of a UK General Election. Yet the strange context of May 2015, the very context which would begin to bring about a different political landscape in the UK, made me feel something I had never previously encountered from writing associated with ‘the left’: joy.
The sense of collective grief after that heart-breaking and surprise victory for Conservative party, created an online sense of confusion as to who actually had voted ‘Tory’. But, in Fisher’s ‘Abandon Hope (Summer is Coming)’ we weren’t in need of scapegoats, but to empathise with the ‘depressive realism’ that smothers the ‘jaded and detached’ Tory voters ‘…voting out of fear as much as self-interest (and self-interest is often experienced as fear). Empathy because perhaps all of us are slowly demoralised with ‘[t]he idea that life is essentially drudgery… [a belief that Fisher suggests] has a particular traction in a burnt-out post-protestant culture like England’s’.
For a few days, perhaps weeks, from a moment that initially came as the relief of experiencing ‘joy’ in relation to ‘post capitalist desire’, the affect K-punk galvanised gave me a sense that I was gaining a capacity to act in life in a way I longed for. But it was arguably dependent upon the seasonal optimism of mid-spring weeks, where change always feels possible. Something that felt confirmed as I slowly fell back into my miserable monadic self, in the dead-green of summer: I hadn’t ‘abandoned hope’ after all.
Fisher-as-Spinozist argued that ‘[h]ope and fear are essentially interchangeable; they are passive affects, which arise from our incapacity to actually act. Like all superstitions, hope is something we call upon when we have nothing else…’.
There is a common response that can easily beat down a tentative ‘post capitalist desire’: “if you can’t live as desired in the present, then you will always project your ‘happiness’ into a far off place, always be discontent, and worse, do nothing about the things you complain about – a criticism that comes as much from ‘the sneering inner voice’.
Foucault, on acknowledging ‘new modes of investment’ in body control in the 1970’s, when… advertisement and pornography had superseded 19th century repression, added that whilst “[o]ne had to recognise the indefiniteness of [this] struggle…[that] this is not to say it won’t some day have an end…’ Yet, ‘the end’ is problematic, because it relates to a body unable to inhabit the present, constantly looking for signs; desire dislodged from the body by trauma. Yet, what is a desire for the world to change than an ingrained desire, perhaps from childhood emotional wounds onwards, to get back to one’s true capacities?
In a recent interview, Berardi advocates the spirit of the 2011 Occupy movements, not as a direct way to challenge power (as ‘[f]inancial power is not in the streets…’), but to attempt to ‘reactive our body’ from loneliness. But Berardi adds that this should not become a desire to be saved, we should not a ‘hope’ we are saved.
Fisher spoke of a ‘captured Spinozism’ from which I recognise the culture promoting self-actualisation, living for ‘now’, but equally, totally disconnected from politics. An ability to live to our full capacity only in agreement that we cannot change the reality we act within.
Yet how do we broach our personal trail of guilt of having all-too-often acted against principles that are supposed to accompany our desires? I believe there is an unusual self-help story here: a possibility for moral fidelity to a better world whilst still being a somewhat slave to ‘sad actions’ that work against the actualisation of such desires.
As much as we are bullied by a ‘Gentrification street’ superego, one forged by ‘surrendering’ to capitalism, on the other side there is what Fisher saw as an obstructive figure to ‘acid communism’; ‘the Harsh Leninist Superego [which is]…defined by its absolute refusal to compromise…[W]hatever we do, it’s never enough…[of a dedication] to the revolutionary event.’ I have encountered variants of this, but its message remains the same; ‘you are with us or against us; if you are somewhere between that then you’re are a fraud’.
In the spirit of a practical ‘self-help’ guide, I can now attest that I am no imposter! Although, I do not (yet) fight on the streets for that which I desire to see the outcome of, I am no fraud. I’m aware that experience trained me away from my true capacities and towards the habitual and towards superstition – yet I know this has sway over most of us. What prevents many from joining an ‘Extinction Rebellion’ road blockage (for example) is the same blockage to ‘collective joy’ that blocks our access to the ‘rave’. Acting out of the pleasure of activity is the ‘Democracy is Joy’ Fisher spoke of.
John Roberts employs the term ‘revolutionary pathos’, which he argues marks the crucial distinction between the intent of the historical artistic avant-garde, and the neo-avant-garde. Listing forms that the neo-avant-garde has taken he argues that they all ‘…all subscribe…[to an] ethos…[based on]…’…a general desire to be free from revolutionary pathos altogether…’
Yet, I believe a ‘revolutionary pathos’ is more widely latent than we’d like to believe. Could ‘revolutionary pathos’ persist, including in its counter-revolutionary form so long as people feel unable to act to what Spinoza called their ‘true nature?’ Although our culture endorses personal liberation, I believe our abilities to act to our true capacities are blocked, and unblocking them would necessarily require political transformation.
This Spinozist conception of what produces joy is in opposition to how I have learned to live; but I certainly recognise I am not alone. Indeed, from a Spinozist notion of how power either enables us or affects us, any idea of an ‘enemy’ becomes simply other human beings who have potentially staggered towards vengeance or addiction, from an ability to act productively.
Malabou’s insights into the power of a ‘destructive plasticity’ in shaping people from joyous beings into beings unable to feel anything, is for a me a beautiful understanding of an ‘acid sadness’ that rains down on often helpless bodies, corroding our power to live towards a greater happiness. However, I cannot accept ‘acid sadness’. The sense of grieving injustices that we all encounter growing up cannot be dealt with from the position of a body overcome with imposter syndrome when it shows enjoyment outside it’s ‘identity in capitalism’, nor can one negotiate their sense of powerlessness by accepting it – by accepting ‘acid sadness’.
In ‘Abandon Hope (Summer is coming)’ Mark Fisher used the term ‘Red Plenty’. Far from about a fidelity to any ideological ‘superego’, ‘Red Plenty’ is the desire to live by what Fisher calls the ‘collective capacity to produce, care and enjoy’. ‘Everything for everyone. All of us first’ – seeing no other body as an essential enemy of our own.
‘Red belonging is temporal and dynamic. It is about belonging to a movement: a movement that abolishes the present state of things, a movement that offers unconditional care without community (it doesn’t matter where you come from or who you are, we will care for you anyway.’
Beyond the abstractions of ‘revolutionary pathos’ is a need to at least mitigate my toxic self-identification. My relationship to the arts is deeply problematic because my imposter syndrome has enabled me to feel both a fraud both inside and outside the arts. Yet if I can endorse the ‘exorbitance’ of ‘acid communism’, I can either shake free of my imposter syndrome and engage in the arts free such imposterism or I can no longer even identify as an artist, without an accompanying terror around how it affects my ‘identity in capitalism’. To work with others no matter what the result is, or, (for that matter), what I, in turn, become.