“Literally a Communist”?: Communism’s Ontology of Difference (Part 0.5)

← Part 0

The debate continues…

There’s no denying that Ash Sarkar declaring she was a Literal Communist on Good Morning Britain was one of the more surprising televisual events of 2018, but I think “Liz from Leeds'” concise and combative declaration of solidarity with her on the typically hellish chat show The Wright Stuff might have been even better.

It’s interesting to (continue to) see communism be discussed on the TV like this — by which I mean, discussed at all. At the moment, however, I’m intrigued by the quantity of debate rather than quality… You can see the full segment on The Wright Stuff here if you can stomach five people talking about something they obviously have no idea about (despite Sarkar’s vague efforts to inform — I’m afraid to say that the novelty of dropping references to the Grundrisse on national telly is wearing off when the expositions accompany them are obscure and lacklustre with little hope of penetrating the surrounding deaf ears).

“Liz from Leeds” definition of communism is a good one, however, and it is one that I think resonates somewhat with the ontosocial definition offered up in previous posts.

She begins somewhat generically (no prizes for any “we (want to) live in a society” jokes):

Communism is a human society. It’s where we take care of each other. We’re not divided by racism, misogyny, homophobia, the profit motive no longer rules over us, and we actually establish production on the basis of human need. It’s very, very simple…

This is a fairly standard and vague definition of communism, hinging on social equality and acquiring the means of production. It’s short, sharp and — to be honest — innocuous, failing to stick its broader provocations to the state and to politics as we know them. Trying to debate communism without this other stuff seems pointless to me, because it always ends up looking like this, but “Liz from Leeds” at least highlights what is central to a lot of communist thinking in recent decades that I’ve already expressed an interest in on the blog: a “community” that gives itself as a goal, etc.

At this point, Carole Malone mindlessly asks where in the world today communism is actually working (which is precisely why the radical nature of imagined communism needs bringing out into the open — to just stop that dumb line of questioning in its tracks as an irrelevancy) but “Liz from Leeds” complete lack of time for her is beautiful. (I think “Liz from Leeds” is referring, in her short sharp dismissal of Malone, to this really bizarre clip from Sky News in which she comes across like a tone-deaf Tyneside Bill O’Reilly and displays a remarkable propensity for reactionary cluelessness.)

Liz gives Malone the usual condensed history lesson on how real communism does not and has never existed — never mind been tried — anywhere in the world and she then lobs a final challenge into the panel’s midst before being cut off for a conveniently timed ad break. She says:

You can’t vote communism in. You build communism through our collective human struggles…

Unfortunately, the end of her sentence is spoken over by the host but the audible point is the key one.

For now, however, let’s stick a momentary pin in this…


I think it might be interesting to contrast this video with another one, with another recent guest on The Wright Stuff… Someone I’d be otherwise reluctant to bring into the fray but someone who, I must admit, I think makes a good point, even if it is subsequently badly applied… And an opportunity to twist one of his opinions towards supporting a vision of communism is actually quite delicious… So let’s talk about Jordan Peterson.

Continue reading ““Literally a Communist”?: Communism’s Ontology of Difference (Part 0.5)”

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Daisuke Yokota’s Selected Acidic Works

I used to know of a guy online called Roger. He used to be a regular on a music forum I frequented in my teens and he was the resident expert on experimental and out-of-this-world musics. I remember his avatar was a photo of Christian Vander, on stage with Magma, a disturbing grimace across his face as if channelling Saturn Devouring His Son. He was particularly interested in experimental musics from Japan. He introduced many of us to Japanese noise outfit The Gerogerigegege and he remains my key to spelling their name.

Ge-roger-igegege.

For better and for worse, I was most receptive to the band’s gross-out antics as a 15 year old and they served as a gateway to a world of Japanese noise and ambient that I might not have otherwise explored. The hilarity and relentless energy of Tokyo Anal Dynamite overjoyed whilst albums like Hell Driver and Endless Humiliation kept me up at night.

Alongside its music scenes, Japan has also fascinated me for its experimental photography and I can’t help but view both mediums on similar terms.

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Daisuke Yokota is one such photographer that I have been following with some interest since I came across his work in 2013. Around this time, I read a description of his work that was surprisingly musical:

Creating a haunting imagery by the recourse of layers and manipulation (photocopy, photoshop and re-photographing), Daisuke Yokota plays with effects borrowed from music such as delay, reverb, and echo to challenge the photographic representation of duration and the sensation of time.

This way of working is well-trodden ground — although Yokota’s results are particularly pleasing — but what intrigued me most was the conscious alignment of his work with music rather than with fellow countrymen, Daido Moriyama most famously pioneering a similar sort of “style”. His practice is essentially dub photography and, just like the reggae-rooted musical genre, it is a dissection and warping of the quasi-temporal nature of photography; of experimentation, remixing and reshaping.

In Ocean of Sound, David Toop describes dub as follows:

When you double, or dub, you replicate, reinvent, make one of many versions. There is no such thing as an original mix, since music stored on multi-track tape, floppy disk or hard disk, is just a collection of bits. The composition has been decomposed, already, by technology. Dubbing, at its very best, takes each bit and imbues it with new life, turning rational order of musical sequences into an ocean of sensation.

Similar ideas and techniques to these have existed photographically since the medium’s inception. In this way, to call something “dub photography” is to simply rename something always already inherent to photography. The ubiquity of Photoshop has now made these ideas wholly inseparable from the medium and the overabundance of glitch projects that tamper with the coding that constitutes JPEGs feels like a continuation of this productively destructive tradition of impurity. It is perhaps because of this seamless absorption into the digital medium, these analogue dubbing processes are now increasingly used for play, without acknowledging the similar ubiquity of their precedents.

Previously I have written on the inherent anxiety of a medium like photography and the visual spectacle of dubbing is a case in point. Take, for example, this scene from Michelangelo Antonioni’s Blow Up — perhaps the most famous example of photographic dubbing on screen — which at first feels anxious as Thomas, a fashion photographer, examines, dubs and blows up his photographs, believing to have unwittingly foiled an attempted murder during a photo shoot, attempting to somehow dub his own memory and perception along with that of the camera, hoping to find some new perspective beyond the spatiotemporal rigidity of the phenomenological eye and the virtuality of its negative.

He is certain that he has captured something in the background of a series of photographs taken in a London park, he just — somewhat ironically — cannot see it yet. Despite Thomas’s rushed, fervent, even panicked looking, the process of producing these dub images is aesthetically enchanting in a way similar to Yokota’s. Let us not forget that Thomas’s comment, on ringing up a friend, is that these pregnant and violent images are “fantastic”, cherishing the interpersonal and material violence of the process.

Watching the scene itself — the unfolding process of developing, dubbing, printing, blowing up — is beautiful. It demonstrates an intensity of looking that, despite the end goal, imbues the thrill of photography’s material processes with a paranormality that is often only associated with the final image but which will be recognisable to anyone who has seen a photograph appear out of thin air in a red-lit dark room.

Every time I watch this scene, I want to explore the possibilities hidden within my own archive of photographic negatives and find the beautiful violence within.

daisuke-yokota-from-series-black-yard

Using these photographic techniques for reasons other than their “original” and practical purposes is something deeply rooted in many experimental musics, so when I read that Yokota counts Aphex Twin as one of his primary influences, I was not surprised.

Aphex Twin AKA Richard D. James is perhaps the most obvious modern figurehead for the creative abuse of modernist music technologies. His various and infamous antics — DJing with sandpaper comes to mind — are far more applicable and contemporaneous to Yokota’s wider practice and performances than, say, those of dub pioneer King Tubby.

To define dub by its use of the studio as an instrument is not where these practices are at their most interesting. For Yokota, Aphex Twin is a much better and more interesting fit when RDJ is understood, primarily, as a DJ. 

As John Doran notes, writing a storming lead review of the 2015 AFX EP Orphaned Deejay Selek 2006-2008 for The Quietus:

When thinking about Aphex Twin and progress, we should ideally look at it from several perspectives. If we’re considering Richard D. James then we need to take an inclusive look at his entire cultural output in different time frames. [I]s it reasonable to assume that his bleeding edge instincts should necessarily be satisfied in the studio? I’d say a lot of this pioneering spirit is pushed into his DJ sets — in terms of visuals and sound engineering as well as the actual process of mixing. I see him primarily as a DJ — he’s consistently been in my top five for the last 20 years — and many others do as well.

There is a sense that, in watching an Aphex Twin DJ set, you are watching him manically distil his otherwise rigorous studio practice down into a one-hour flash of mobile intensity. I can’t remember where I remember hearing this — and with Aphex it surely doesn’t matter — but I am sure he once claimed to mix down tracks whilst DJing in order to play them out immediately, flattening the perceived gap between producer and DJ.

Daisuke Yokota’s approach to performance feels very similar. If to DJ for Aphex is to somehow present the mania of the studio live, Yokota is likewise well-known for his book and print-making performances in which he demonstrates the energy of creating his objects in front of a live audience.

One such performance, in Tate Modern’s Turbine Hall, noddied to the Aphex influence explicitly with the name “Effect Twin”, with Yokota and fellow photographer Hiroshi Takisawa performing a b2b set of photographic dubbery.

Much of what Yokota achieves with his practice, whilst it is rooted in what many would refer to as an analogue “discipline”, is the explicit result of doing things wrong and his boundless approach to experimentation means that damage and obscurity are the foundation on which he builds upon, intervening and honing that which is technically “ruined”. His is a kind of Raku photography that does not avoid the further productive and destructive potentials of digital media and technology. Elsewhere, he regularly exposes photographic film, prior to its machinic manipulation, with boiling water, fire and acid. 

Both Aphex and Yokota have “acid” in common — and it is a word that has featured on this blog and elsewhere many times for its restlessly revolutionary connotations. In countless contexts, it infers a kind of xenobody horror. Acid desolves all materials — flesh and object. This is how Yokota’s images feel too. His is a world viewed through acid-damaged cameras and, by extension, eyes, clinically blinded by radioactive waste. Echoing a lineage of so much culture reacting directly and indirectly to a changed world in the aftermath of twentieth-century Holocausts; of Fat Man and Little Boy. They give the illusion of allowing us to see an alien and alternate world previously unseen, like nuclear explosions captured by rapatronic cameras.

With Yokota’s visuals, the advice remains the same as that offered by Simon Reynolds when exposed to AFX Acid. Reynolds says of “Isoprophlex”:

James was no slouch when it came to industrial-strength hardcore. The chemical-formula title and astringent sound of Isoprophlex suggests a nasty corrosive fluid, the kind whose container carries warnings like ‘avoid inhalation’ and ‘irrigate the eye area immediately, then seek medical help.’

With Aphex, the advice should perhaps be “irrigate your ears”, with Yokota the advice remains the same. If you get to close, be prepared to seek medical attention.




A version of this post originally appeared on an old blog in around 2015. The end of this post later grew into “Aphex Acid“.

The Great American Pervert

We have been told recently that there is a crisis in masculinity in America, and that we should be worried about it. We have been subjected to ideologues using this “crisis” as impetus to consider radically regressive ideas about sexuality. We can counteract this fearmongering by remembering the misogyny of the [literary] canon, which reveals to us that we have always worried about male sexual frustration more than we need to (or at least, more than we worry about more widely devastating social issues). We have always treated the alienation of men as if it deserved thousands of pages of analysis, perhaps because we feared it had the power to endanger us all.

The Guardian recently reposted an essay by Erin Spampinato, asking the question: “How does the literary canon reinforce the logic of the incel?” 

In her essay, after charting the now-familiar rise to prominence of the “incel” “movement” on- and offline, Spampinato wonders if it is less underground internet cultures that have nurtured its principles and more the Great American Novel that has given these alienated young men such odd ideas about sexual entitlement. She writes that incels “aren’t monsters of cruel internet culture — they are the product of the American literary canon that has long glorified male sexual frustration”; the product of the Great American Novel, that nationalised canonical signifier, which “treats the topic of male sexual frustration as if it is of prime importance to us all.”

In reading this historical overview of so-called “involuntary celibacy”, I can’t help but feel like Spampinato is overseeing Western misogyny more generally, albeit topically narrowed to address the recent “incel” explosion. Her observations will already be familiar to most — old-fashioned misogyny and “involuntary celibacy” are, of course, closely linked and share many of the same dissonant contradictions, which she highlights here explicitly — but there are nuances here which can perhaps tell us more about American literature, and certain subsections of the American psyche today more generally, than Spampinato’s overview immediately allows.

The primary frustration for Spampinato is that she is fed up of being force-fed this kind of literature, at the expense of all else that is written within the country and about its society. Her central recommendation is that men broaden their horizons when it comes to their reading habits — suggesting that women’s lives may in fact depend on it — and whilst that is almost certainly a legitimate concern, there is, at the same time, that suggests the “incel movement” is a symptom of modernist man finally being well on the way out.


In reading Spampinato’s essay, I am reminded — once again — of Leslie Fielder’s Love and Death in the American Novel, a book I really haven’t been able to stop going on about in recent months, with it having galvanised a newly ferocious appetite for the “classics” of American fiction that I have previously had no (studious) contact with.

This does not detract from Spampinato’s criticism of over saturation, of course. Male sexual frustration is given all kinds of precedence in the anglo-American literary canon, but what lies beneath this?

At one point, Spampinato links to another article by Rebecca Solnit — “80 Books No Woman Should Read” — written in response to an Esquire article of what it considers to be the 80 best books that everyone should read. Here, the various books are presented to the reader through a woefully performative masculine brevity. (#1 is Cormac McCarthy’s The Road: “Because he showed us just how long the road could be.” It’s like a coffee house spoken word bro’s personality turned into a listicle. It makes me want to retch.) Solnit writes:

Scanning the list, which is full of all the manliest books ever, lots of war books, only one book by an out gay man, I was reminded that though it’s hard to be a woman it’s harder in many ways to be a man, that gender that’s supposed to be incessantly defended and demonstrated through acts of manliness. I looked at that list and all unbidden the thought arose, no wonder there are so many mass murders. Which are the extreme expression of being a man when the job is framed this way, though happily many men have more graceful, empathic ways of being in the world.

But still I struggle to marry up the criticisms wholly with the reality. Whilst the whole atmosphere around these books and their canonical reputation is intolerable, there is surely more to many of the books themselves.

Many are books, most notably, about men trying and failing to be men. Mass murder seems less an extreme expression of “the job” done well and more the result of a buckling under its weight. These books, to me — as a recent and quite possibly naive reader — demonstrate a sort of protective romanticisation and dramatisation of men’s historic inability to be themselves. These are undoubtedly violent books about frustrated and troubled characters, but rather than offering men with an example to follow, surely what they demonstrate is masculinity at the edge of itself — or, indeed, at the edge of something else.

Take McCarthy’s The Road as a prime example; as a book about fatherhood at the end of the world. Surely it is no coincidence that these two topics are tackled together.

Or, perhaps, to sidestep into the cinematic, Howard Beale in Network. Is he not the epitome of the modern American man? He isn’t just a newsreader. He’s a man despairing at his situation. A man who despairs within his patriarchal role as information-giver and his actual impotence in the face of it.

Fiedler’s argument is even more specific than this in Love and Death in the American Novel and, in contrast to Spampinato’s argument, contends less with the general sociohistorical misogyny of Anglo-American culture and more with the entangled homoeroticism and impotency that defines, for him, all classical literary representations of American masculinity.

Classic American fiction, Fiedler writes, is less misogynistic through its sense of entitlement to the female body and more through its avoidance of women altogether, instead turning “from society to nature or nightmare out of a desperate need to avoid the facts of wooing, marriage, and child-bearing.” Fiedler continues: “the typical male of our fiction has been a man on the run, harried into the forest and out to sea, down the river or into combat — anywhere to avoid ‘civilisation,’ which is to say, the confrontation of a man and woman which leads to the fall to sex, marriage, and responsibility.”

Fiedler even goes so far as to declare that “there is no real sexuality in American life and therefore there cannot very well be any in American art.”

Of course, so many of these writers, like today’s incels, have long engaged in similar feats of mental gymnastics to account for their own misogyny and sociosexual impotency. Fiedler highlights, for instance, how Mark Twain, in 1601, “contrasts the vigor of Elizabethan Englishwomen with their American descendants; contrasting the sexual utopia of precolonial England with a fallen America where the men copulate ‘but once in seven yeeres'”.

As with Spampinato’s view of today’s incels, this sexual frustration seems borne of ineptitude rather than a distinct lack of flirtatious opportunities with the opposite sex. However, unlike Spampinato, it is this which Fiedler takes to be the primary focus of the American novel. It’s sexual context is perhaps a left-over tradition from the modern European novel as it has defined itself since its conception. Whilst it nonetheless relates to sexual conquest explicitly, let us not limit the symbolism of impotence to this alone. It becomes, instead, a national trait in all circumstances.

The first modern novel, so says Fiedler and countless others, is Gustave Flaubert’s Madame Bovary, a classic story that concerns itself with seduction more than anything else. The tribulations of seduction are also, notably, what seem to end up killing everyone in the story.

This central engine, arguably ever-present but exaggerated in modern literature is, in the most general sense, what Fiedler would suggest is the primary concern of an American literature in his most famous essay “Come Back to the Raft Ag’in, Huck Honey!” — not love or seduction as such, but an abstracted, at first at least, interpersonal responsibility and failure to uphold it.

This presents the American psyche with a potent challenge, one which has tended towards conservatism ever since the time of the frontier: “the white American must make a choice between coming to terms with institutionalized discrepancy or formu- lating radically new ideologies.”

What is the “incel”, in this respect? Is it a radically new ideology in the face of an institutionalised impotence? A new accounting for that central condition of the American psyche? No — it’s certainly not new, Spampinato and Fiedler both make that abundantly clear. Is it, then, instead, another generation’s way of coming to terms with institutionalized discrepancy, here interpreted to refer to the blanket misogyny of Western society more generally, as a deeply institutionalized discrepancy between the sexes?

Fiedler notes, already, that queerness and blackness have, for many decades, been the tandem discrepancies to be processed by the white American man. These remain potent points of contention and each has been a central concern for mass shooters in recent years too but now, relative to previous moments in the recent history of American gun violence, it is misogyny that seems to be provoking the most violent ire.

Indeed, considering the hype surrounding the homoeroticism of Bronze Age Pervert, it seems that queerness at least has been absorbed into the male psyche. (Mike Crumplar did well to highlight this strange turn in his review of Bronze Age Mindset.) Blackness still has a long ways to go but, surely, given the continual shifting of demographics, it is only a matter of time. Misogyny, on the other hand, shows no signs of abating.

In the theorising of the “incel” mindset in such a way that seems to bottle this condition, long said by the likes of Fiedler to be a foundation of the American male psyche, we nonetheless see a distinct lack of self-awareness in these online groups. Spampinato suggests that part of the problem may lie in how these books are taught — as well as broadening their horizons, if America were more honest about the way it has long represented itself, it may stop kidding itself.

Because the truth is, if it has always been hard to be a man, it is only getting harder, and the irony of how much effort is being put into retaining misogyny by some groups is astounding and — surely — unsustainable.

As Uri tweeted recently:




Edit: A note on the title:

And I didn’t think about changing it before posting…

Note to self: pick titles after you’ve written things, not before.

ABCcru: Applied Ballardianism and Accelerationism

I’ve got a couple of longer posts in the oven at the moment so apologies for the recent inactivity. I spotted an opportunity for a quick post, however, on J.G. Ballard and Accelerationism following an exchange with Simon “Ballardian” Sellars on Twitter the other day.

Or, at least, it was intended to be a quick post before it became a meandering — but nonetheless interesting — hellthread… Someone has already asked for a TL;DR and this is not one of those… But at least this might make it easier to follow one of the most interesting Twitter conversations to take place recently. I think it is well worth preserving in blogged form.

A note on housekeeping: long tweet threads and conversations will be copied and pasted as quotes here with bracketed numbers linking to original tweets. This is just for cosmetic purposes because the blogosphere and long Twitter threads are wholly incompatible.


I’ve been intending to write something on the blog about Simon Sellars’ new book, Applied Ballardianismfor months now — I read a review copy back in February — but it is a difficult book to approach and do justice second-hand. I have a draft post somewhere focusing on the micro-nations that feature towards the end of the book. I wanted to use their appearances to talk about Ballard and patchwork and the joint dissolution of self and state that I think is exemplified by the protagonist’s (“Sellars'”) tandem adventures into the world and into his own mind as a jobbing travel writer. I’ll finish it eventually…

Simon recently pointed out on Twitter that there is a new “special issue” of Humanities, a peer-reviewed journal from MDPI, in the works. The title of the special issue is “J. G. Ballard and the Sciences” and it is anticipated to feature an essay on Ballard and Accelerationism that name-drops Simon’s book explicitly. Simon tweeted:

The alignment of Simon’s book with an academic project is one he already foresaw and preemptively lampooned — the book’s title in itself is a joke at the expense of his impossible attempt to live an otherwise academic Ballardianism. To align this with an explicitly left-wing project seems to be missing the point even further, but it seems disingenuous to tar Ballard with that brush more generally as well.

Continue reading “ABCcru: Applied Ballardianism and Accelerationism”

A Postcard: Roker Park and Marsden Rock

 

There is that moment in Donnie Darko when the English teacher at Donnie’s school, played by Drew Barrymore, notes how “cellar door” is — according to some unnamed linguist — the most beautiful phrase in the English language.

The phrase has had many admirers — Poe and Tolkein apparently amongst them — but I just don’t get it. It seems like a terrible example. As far as I can tell, the only reason the phrase is considered beautiful is that it is aesthetically French. It is beautiful in that it doesn’t sound English. That seems like more of an joke on the English language than a celebration of it…


I spent the weekend up in Sunderland attending my cousin’s wedding. Exploring the city’s beaches between the ceremony and the party, I was thinking about this awful scene in Donnie Darko and instead began to wonder about the phrases that don’t best exemplify a language as such but rather an accent.

“Cellar door” seems to resonate with the continental aspirations of a bourgeois class defined by its “Received Pronunciation“. It will sound different and perhaps far less poetic depending on whereabouts in the UK you hear it spoken. So what phrase, said in a particular accent, demonstrates the inherent beauty of that accent in itself?

In Sunderland, it is surely “Roker Park”. As many syllables as “Cellar Door” with its vowels in all the right places, it is a combination of vowels and consonants that roll off the Mackem tongue perfectly.

Rooted in the history of the city and its beloved football team, it is a phrase that most will associate with the city’s old football stadium since knocked down. Now it’s just the name of a normal park in Roker but a beautiful one nonetheless, with a tunnel carved into the cliffside leading down from the lush inner city park to the beach.

Although it is the name of a real place, it has become, through my own repetitions, a beautiful abstraction enclosed in its own context.


Between my cousin’s wedding ceremony and the evening party, we explored the coast, driving from our base — the Harbour View pub in Roker — up to Marsden Rock.

Both my parents are from Sunderland and it is a city I love. Although I’m rarely there, it has always felt like a second home. The accent, in particular, is an instant aural comfort. I love its history, lived vicariously through the generations on my Dad’s side of the family, heavily documented by my Nana Betty — my Dad’s Mum.

A few years ago, working on a photography project for university called “The Family Album” (which ultimately amounted to nothing), my Auntie Liz gave me some digital scans of my Nana’s old pictures.

Exploring Marsden Rock for the first time on Saturday, I couldn’t help thinking about the photographs of my Dad on my hard drive. He in his Jacques Cousteau red hat, with his Dad and my Uncle George, seafishing by that imposing monolith, the tower-block home of seagulls and cormorants.

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Each arrival back in London after time away makes me wonder what I’m really here for. I want to live by the rock.

 

“Literally” a Communist?: Communism’s Ontology of Difference (Part 0)

Recently, on Good Morning Britain — the UK’s televisual equivalent of a morning dump; a once-innocuous morning television show for tabloid news and banal pleasantries turned personal soapbox for Piers Morgan — go-to lefty pundit Ash Sarkar uttered an infuriated riposte that was heard across the internet.

On the programme, Morgan bullishly constructed a straw man argument against Sarkar, arguing that the hysterics surrounding Trump’s visit to the UK were hypocritical considering that far worse geopolitical characters have walked into this country without any resistance. (Morgan has shown himself up with this argument before.)

No one protested Obama when he came to visit over his problematic domestic and foreign policies, Morgan proclaimed. Where was Sarkar then? Sarkar, of course, refuted this. She explained she did protest Obama’s domestic and foreign policies when he was president. However, she was unable to make herself heard over Morgan’s incessant questions, asked without pause so that he might hear an answer. Sarkar had had enough when, despite all her attempts to say otherwise, Morgan doubled-down and ordained her as a disciple of “Saint Obama”, to which she replied that she was not a fan of Obama or the Democratic Party at all because “I’m a communist, you idiot … I’m literally a communist.”

The retort took flight, making its way across the internet. Capitalising on the moment, Novara Media — the political news platform of which Sarkar is a senior editor — began to sell t-shirts emblazoned with the phrase “I’m literally a communist”, adding fuel to the viral fire.

The mainstream media response to the whole affair was painfully predictable. Many on the right were appalled that someone could openly align themselves with an ideology that resulted in the deaths of some nine million people in the 20th century. This parroting of arguably the most common criticism of Communism offered by free market capitalists without any self-awareness is nothing new. The left is so used to firing back statistics of social murder under capitalism that this time it seemed too tired of the charade to even bother. Instead, many on the political left simply refuted Sarkar’s communist credentials — myself included, at first, I must admit — launching a thousand alternatively nuanced definitions into the Twitter milieu, each taking as their focus an issue which Sarkar had not publicly acknowledged.

Sarkar went on to clarify her definition of communism later in a succession of interviews, particularly when speaking to Teen Vogue — of all people. She explained that, for her,

being a communist means being a fierce critic of the prison industrial complex and the military industrial complex. The expanded use of drone warfare and the expansive use of deportation under Obama. You can be a vocal critic of all those things, while also looking at how Trump [has done them] because, quite simply, he was able to build on a lot of Obama’s legacy, particularly in terms of executive overreach. He’s been able to pursue extreme, draconian forms of state violence.

In this way, communism is understood not necessarily as the state owning the means of production, as a kind of post-socialist end-game, but rather as something that is critical of and points itself towards the horizon of present understandings of the state and its infrastructures of control and expansion. The confusion I have had in trying to understand Sarkar’s position is whether she is an actually anti-state communist or not. Perhaps criticisms of the state-as-such are a line better left uncrossed on national television. Later, however, Sarkar is more clear, telling Teen Vogue that the central communist issue of our times is “the crisis represented by the automation of labor.” She explains:

Human labour cannot compete with fixed capital — that’s just a fact. In the U.K., one in five jobs is going to be automated. What does that mean? Does that mean one in five people is then excluded from the means of survival because they can no longer afford to feed themselves [or] house themselves?…

[As a communist,] you say, ‘OK, technology, which Marx calls fixed capital in The Fragment on the Machine, has a contradictory element because on the one hand it makes you more precarious as a worker. On the other hand, it shows what you can be when liberated from work because you’ve got all this extra time. You can imagine different ways of living. You can pursue your passions. You can live a happy life.’ Why don’t we just bring that technology into common ownership? Ownership of the people, not the capitalist class, and distribute the abundance generated by that fixed capital equitably.

And there are different ways of distributing that more equitably. That’s possible under social democracy through taxation or universal basic income. It’s possible under socialism. But communism is the only thing which says all things should be brought into the hands of commons to benefit all people. In the past, you’d call that communism. I think in the future, we’ll have to call that common sense.

If Sarkar is making her fellow pundits anxious, it’s perhaps because this definition resembles most clearly a kind of “Classic Communism” of state-ownership and control. It is an expression of a familiar means towards an end that, I would argue, we are already seeing take shape. What is there, in Sarkar’s argument, that stops the flows of capitalism from capturing these other ways of living for its own aims? In this staggered trajectory, what safeguards are in place that allow these changes to retain their radicality rather than remaining susceptible to capture?

Sarkar’s colleague at Novara Media, Aaron Bastani, invited onto the BBC current events programme Newsnight in the wake of Sarkar’s Good Morning Britain appearance, clarified his own position on communism in more general terms. Asked whether he and Sarkar were just “romanticising a murderous ideology”, he responded:

No. The way I look at the word ‘communism’ is it is talking about a kind of society that is so qualitatively different to capitalism, as capitalism was to feudalism, which is to say its key features — within capitalism: having to sell your labour for a wage, production for profit, production for exchange — these things would no longer exist. Have we ever had a political economy, a polity, which didn’t have those features? No, we haven’t. I’m not talking about Actually Existing Socialism from the ’80s, the 1990s, North Korea or the Soviet Union, I’m talking about a politics which fits the technological possibilities which we’re only just beginning to see — clearly in automation but I think elsewhere as well.

This I am on board with.

What this apparently shocking ideological aberration indicates, nestled amongst the already weird daily news cycles of 2018, is not only the willingness of a new generation to openly adopt the ideologies of communism, undeterred by the negative connotations it has accrued over previous generations, but also the very problem of communism itself in the 21st century.

The left’s reaction to this whole affair was the most telling by far. Whilst other writers within the political media pronounced a kind of just-left-of-Corbyn line, left twitter more generally decried Sarkar’s credentials. “She isn’t literally a communist”, I saw again and again on the timeline. I echoed this sentiment myself.

But then I saw myself…

I’ve just had a text published on Acid Communism, championing the multiplicity inherent to communism’s seizing of the means of desiring-production, but the timeline’s inundation by splintering communisms made me want everyone to just shut the fuck up. After calling “I’m literally a communist” the worst political meme of 2018, I had to stop and take a closer look at what my issue was. Is this not what I wanted? Is this not the fractious discourse I was calling for?

In short: No. I think what we’re seeing here is, instead, the very thing that is holding us back. What is so (genuinely) funny about Sarkar’s literal communism is its polemical vagueness aimed squarely at Piers Morgan’s hyper-specific worldview. But is such a communism not an impossibility in the 21st century?

Bastani, on Newsnight, highlights the communism to come in a way that seems to largely fly over his fellow panelist’s heads.

I don’t believe “communism” — as in, something beyond capitalism — was even possible in the 20th century. An analogue here is John Wycliffe who was a heretical priest, 14th century Protestant — his idea were more or less the same as Luther. They didn’t scale in the 1400s like they would in the 1500s. Why? The absense of the printing press. I think we’re now at a moment where there are a presence of technologies that make new realities plausible.

This is entirely ignored by the panel who instead, along with the rest of us, choose instead to attempt to answer concretely the slipperiest of questions: “What is a communist?” “What is a literal communist?” “What does a literal communist look like?” If Novara Media’s new t-shirt campaign is a viral marketing success, perhaps they might soon be able to assemble some sort of typology…

That is perhaps the ultimate joke. Like the “This is what a feminist looks like” t-shirts of a few years back, such things only serve to highlight the inherent multiplicity and communal valence of a term being paradoxically self-affirmed. 

Communism, as Bastani makes more clear, is a word that antagonistically connotes an outsideness, an otherness, “a kind of society that is so qualitatively different” to what we have now, echoing precisely the position of Mark Fisher and others.

We can break this notion of a communist “society” down here to be a signifier for — amongst other things — an economic, political and ontological otherness. Economic otherness is the central concern for most mainstream leftist communists but rarely do we hear discussions about the other two kinds of other. Perhaps this is because economics is already viewed as a kind of outsideness. It is far easier to pass comment on and theorise, but to theorise the tandem changes to the subject is territory far too speculative and complex for most public discussions.

Why?

It’s the opinion of this blog that this is the consolidated consciousness that needs to be razed; this form of fragmentation that must be accelerated.


In the English preface of The Disavowed Community, his 2014 statement on the ontopolitical problem of communism today, Jean-Luc Nancy writes:

If there is a “work-in-progress” in contemporary philosophy, it is undoubtedly in work on community — on the common, communism, communitarianism, being-in-common, being-with, being-together, or again in “living together”, which today designates, in a manner that is poignant and sometimes entirely naive, the preoccupation of a society shocked by attacks that condemn it in its very being even as society simultaneously experiences itself as uncertain and anxious. …

The entirety of the Western world believed that it progressed toward the possibility of common existence, of law, freedom, and equality. It believed that this word “democracy” was society’s own true foundation. It had been encouraged to think this by the fact that what called itself “communism” revealed itself to be unfounded, imposed by a will that was no less dominating than the imperialism that had already taken possession of much of the world.

Communism that was labeled “real” collapsed for having exclusively gambled on military power and the domination of a worn-out ideology. For its part, democracy was increasingly recognised as a facade behind which economic power operated, which now contained the real mechanisms of control. Politics lost its most illuminating sense.

Nancy, of the three actors involved in the conversation on communism — Georges Bataille and Maurice Blanchot being the other two thinkers he is in explicit orbit of — is the voice I like the least but here, in his latest statement, he atones for previous misunderstandings. He comes to recognise that which is central to the thought of Bataille and Blanchot that he failed to account for: that which “escapes”.

For Blanchot, it is a question of pursuing a thought of “community” on the side of love and more precisely a love whose pleasure [jouissance] is unsharable [impartageable], unshared, and “essentially escapes”. It escapes all institution, all forms of communal consistency.

Blanchot’s communism is a communism for the 21st century. It is a communism to be built out of the social and communal relations that are already central to being as we know it but also to difference as we fail to comprehend it. These are the relations which, today, feel most fraught but which are nonetheless central to our futures. Blanchot’s is, for me, a Deleuzian communism through and through, built on a new ontology of difference. Our lack of faith in a “literal communism” or our ridiculing of the silhouette of a literal communist is a damning self-indictment but also clarifies the paradox of the collective subject that we must still contend with.

Nancy, at the end of this book, highlights how Blanchot once drew attention to Samuel Becket’s “soi soi-disant”, his “so-called self”, illuminating the paradox of a self which tries to but cannot affirm itself.

This is because the self is a transcendental wall, affirmed by its outside. The self, self-defined, is a paradox, amputating all that is unavowable about itself but which truly constitutes itself.

If we struggle to contend with the individual self in this way, what hope do we have of collectivising selves towards a new understanding of our world and its infrastructures?

What I’d like to do here on the blog in the coming weeks is consider this idea in more detail, tentatively exploring what a communism of the 21st century can learn — specifically — from Deleuze’s Difference & Repetition.

The reasons for doing this are, at present, not very rigorous. I’m writing this, at present, based mostly on a hunch about a half-baked idea coupled with a general desire to understand this book better, but I think there’s something in it. I had initially intended this to be a long paper to shop around elsewhere but I have far too much to figure out and so, having quickly established the contemporary stakes of a communism shaped by its own multiplicity rather than what Nancy calls a “worn-out” consolidated politic, let’s dive in deep and see what a better understanding of Deleuze’s ontology of difference can provide a thinking about communism…

To be continued…

Before I Fall Asleep

I’ve had an idea today. It’s a big one. The kind I need to diagram before I start writing it.

These don’t come along very often.

Unfortunately, I’ve no idea when I’m going to get the chance to work on it in the coming weeks. The multiple day jobs are defined by their deadlines and these must take priority, but it’s the kind of idea burning a hole in my head, wanting to get out.

I’ve just spent about an hour writing an introduction and the basic structure before I forget it, but I’m all too aware that this is an egg laid that I won’t have time to sit on.

Still full of writing energy, i feel like committing a memory to the blog so that I might be freed from it and allowed to sleep. I can’t cope with another week of nodding off at my desk. My mental health is not robust enough at the moment to cope with work on a lack of sleep.

And yet, I’m kept awake thinking about the height of last year’s summer.

My girlfriend had moved down to London from Manchester so that we could be together after a very difficult year apart. She moved into a run-down flat in a big Victorian terrace house in Dulwich. The ceilings were high and the furniture spoke every time you touched it. I was finishing my Masters dissertation and I did nothing but write all day, every day.

At the time, I was driven by the looming deadline but, in hindsight, that summer was bliss. Wanting an excuse to keep writing all the time is why this blog exists.

I’m sorry to say that life is finally starting to get in the way.

I’m nonetheless aware every time I say this, I trigger a spate of productivity. Here’s hoping I eat my words again and miraculously find the time to cough up new ones.

Proper ones. Substantial ones. Not 20-minute missives fired off into the night. Here’s hoping I can find the time to read and ruminate.

Right now, though, that’s my writing itch scratched.