Friday, 12 August 2016

Interesting Things (1)

As seems customary for a blog, I'm going to start sharing roundups of various Interesting Things I've come across over the week.

You don't get any points for recognising the format (and you've all probably read/listened to at least some of these).

From beyond the orbit of Neptune!

Not read this yet, but it ticks all the right boxes (superficially, at least).

Ve shall build a new vorld, under ze ice!

Tentacles!

David J of Bauhaus was in a band with Alan Moore, talks to Phil Sandifer about magick and Northampton.

Currently listening to this.

And going to listen to this.

Sunday, 7 August 2016

THAT Žižek article

So, this happened.

There's a lot to say about this, such as this and this.

I'm not going to offer a survey of the (absolutely appropriate and on point) criticisms mentioned above. I'm not going to dignify the other criticisms accusing Žižek of being some kind of crypto-Nazi either.

I'm just going to offer a few vague ideas about what it is he's actually trying to articulate in the article in question.

I'm not suggesting that this is exhaustive, not even slightly. For a start, I'm going to leave the Lacanian stuff to one side because I've not read Lacan and I don't feel equipped to discuss any of that. Instead, I'm just going to give you a few short words about what I took him to be saying.

  1. Gendered (and all other) social relationships under capitalism suck
  2. All the same, there is something irreducible about the binary of gender, an antagonism in their very differentiation 
  3. Opening up the field of sexuality and gender to make room for a larger number of possible identities than the traditional binaries of sex and gender will not resolve the antagonism between the genders (any more than opening up the field of possible relationships with capital will resolve the primary antagonisms within the capitalist system) 
  4. Closing the field of sexuality and gender to restrict possible identities to the traditional binary and the traditional 'norms' of sex will not resolve the antagonism either 
  5. The queer rights movement, the trans rights movement and the work of deconstructing gender have been absolutely right to expose the historically contingent character of gender and sexual (social) identities  
  6. All the same, we shouldn't kid ourselves that we can do away with all social problems by simply allowing room for more identities than just the man/woman binary and heterosexuality 
  7. Discourse surrounding sex and gender prejudice often glides over class and race struggle in a deeply problematic way 
  8. Žižek could have said all of this a lot better

I'm not really defending the article, which is in places almost unforgivable, but there are ideas going on here, even if they're poorly put across and just weird. But ultimately, this is classic Žižek: highly suspicious of postmodern theory, reliant on psychoanalysis, fundamentally Hegelian.

Is he queerphobic and/or transphobic? In the sense of asking if he's opposed to furthering the rights of queer and trans people, no of course he isn't. One can be suspicious of postmodern theories of gender without advocating a biological or social essentialism that restrains the possibility of non-binary and non-heteronormative identities. And, ok, I can't quite remember where I heard him say it, but I have recently heard him flat-out say that the radical left ought to view the still-recent sexual and gender freedoms we now possess as victories.

All of this being said, one wonders how many trans people Žižek knows. It was actually a trans friend who alerted me to this piece in the first place, and I'm going to give her the last word: 'Well, he did a better job of it than Germaine Greer.'

Tuesday, 26 July 2016

'Universal' Culture

I'm aware that I'm probably being a bit too postmodern or structuralist or whatever in my analysis here, and, as ever, criticism is welcome. I also think the coherence of this piece is a bit tenuous, but, hell, I'll only get better if I keep trying...

The inimitable Scott Alexander has, once again, written An Interesting Thing, in response to Another Interesting Thing.

There's good stuff in this one:
I am pretty sure there was, at one point, such a thing as western civilization. I think it involved things like dancing around maypoles and copying Latin manuscripts. At some point Thor might have been involved. That civilization is dead. It summoned an alien entity from beyond the void which devoured its summoner and is proceeding to eat the rest of the world.
And:
“[W]estern medicine” is just medicine that works. It happens to be western because the West had a technological head start, and so discovered most of the medicine that works first. But there’s nothing culturally western about it; there’s nothing Christian or Greco-Roman about using penicillin to deal with a bacterial infection.
Also:
“Western culture” is no more related to the geographical west than western medicine. People who complain about western culture taking over their country always manage to bring up Coca-Cola. But in what sense is Coca-Cola culturally western? It’s an Ethiopian bean mixed with a Colombian leaf mixed with carbonated water and lots and lots of sugar. An American was the first person to discover that this combination tasted really good – our technological/economic head start ensured that. But in a world where America never existed, eventually some Japanese or Arabian chemist would have found that sugar-filled fizzy drinks were really tasty. It was a discovery waiting to be plucked out of the void, like penicillin. America summoned it but did not create it. If western medicine is just medicine that works, soda pop is just refreshment that works.

Read the whole article. It's great fun, as is ever the case with Scott Alexander. If you're one of those people who thinks that 'TL;DR' is ever a good response, I'll summarise: Alexander's argument is in response to a short piece by Bryan Caplan in which he argues that Western civilisation isn't anywhere near as fragile as people make it out to be, and that it is merrily conquering the whole world through sheer niceness and awesomeness. Alexander's response is a qualifier to Caplan, that it isn't 'Western civilisation' that's doing all this, it's something very different, which he dubs 'universal culture'.

The thing that makes it universal is that it's much more objective than other cultural forms and practices, which is why it works better and keeps winning. Hence the above comments about 'medicine that works' and 'soda pop that works'.

Now, I think I mostly agree with where he's coming from, but I think a few caveats are worthwhile.

First of all, he equates things that are obviously universally and objectively true, like medicine-that-works and drinks-that-are-nice with values he then posits as being universally and objectively true as well, such as 'democracy' and 'liberalism' and 'egalitarianism'. Is it really the case that these values have an objective and universal truth to them in the same way that the efficacy of penicillin and the tastiness of coke do?

A response to that would be that, from a utilitarian perspective, you could argue that values can be universally and objectively true if they consistently produce desirable utility outcomes, but that doesn't address the fact that the values behind the utility measure are very much grounded in contingent Western values about the desirability of reducing moral questions to utility calculations in the first place!

He also, and this is the most curious thing for me, seems to equate 'universal culture' with global capitalism. Indeed, his demonic metaphors made me think of Deleuze and Gauttari's characterisation of capitalism as the unspeakable Thing that demolishes all values, the monster all despotic civilisations had to guard against that, eventually, ate them alive. I think his essay would have been much improved by the concept of 'deterritorialisation'.

(I want Scott to read Anti-Oedipus. I don't have my copy to hand but I distinctly remember D & G talking about the contingent origins of global-capitalism in a little peninsula on the edge of Asia (that's us, Europe), with the great expanse of the sea's horizon calling us to explore it, with the competitive disorder of the web of feudal societies making the kind of general harmony found in China possible, creating an ideal environment for the emergence of Capital.)

Gathering my thoughts together, my key point is this: he's wrong to suggest that world-culture or global-culture or 'universal' culture is somehow a-cultural, that it isn't at least partially still inhabited with the specific cultural contingencies of its origin. What about other cultural elements that aren't so easily reducible to objective science? The ubiquity of Western media and fashion, for instance, doesn't strike me as being to do with Western movies being 'objectively' better or Western fashion being 'objectively' superior. They strike me as contingent cultural features that became global on the back of global capitalism. Perhaps that's all these remnants of the distinctively western are, but I don't think so. Modernity is distinctively Western, because the idea of modernity itself is fundamentally Western.

Alexander recently shared this article on the tribalism of people who characterise themselves as cosmopolitan, as opposed to the stereotypical 'Little Englander'.
This species [of cosmopolitan] is racially diverse (within limits) and eager to assimilate the fun-seeming bits of foreign cultures — food, a touch of exotic spirituality. But no less than Brexit-voting Cornish villagers, our global citizens think and act as members of a tribe. They have their own distinctive worldview (basically liberal Christianity without Christ), their own common educational experience, their own shared values and assumptions (social psychologists call these WEIRD — for Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich and Democratic), and of course their own outgroups (evangelicals, Little Englanders) to fear, pity and despise. And like any tribal cohort they seek comfort and familiarity: From London to Paris to New York, each Western “global city” (like each “global university”) is increasingly interchangeable, so that wherever the citizen of the world travels he already feels at home.
That sounds a lot like what Alexander is trying to present as universal and a-cultural...

I don't want to agree with Nick Land here, but I'm reminded of one of the possible outcomes he gives for global modernity in The Dark Enlightenment:
(1) Modernity 2.0. Global modernization is re-invigorated from a new ethno-geographical core, liberated from the degenerate structures of its Eurocentric predecessor, but no doubt confronting long range trends of an equally mortuary character. This is by far the most encouraging and plausible scenario (from a pro-modernist perspective), and if China remains even approximately on its current track it will be assuredly realized. [My emphasis.]
That is, Land anticipates that modernity, which I think is identical to what Alexander calls 'universal culture', may happen all over again, but with the unique and contingent cultural inheritance of somewhere other than Western Europe and its former colonies.

The problem here is that Alexander has fallen for the great conceit of liberal modernity, namely, that it really is universal and objective, and isn't grounded in pre-existing cultural norms. It pretends to be the light when really it just carries the candle.

Added: I'm not trying to make the relativist argument that as our values appear to emerge from contingencies that all cultural norms should be treated with equal respect, I'm just trying to, at the very least, render problematic the idea that our present global order is somehow 'objectively' correct.

Friday, 22 July 2016

The Neon Demon (2016)

Spoilers below 

Imagine an unconscionably unhealthy but irresistible dessert. Dark chocolate, rich flavour, perhaps with a fleck of edible gold-leaf on top. Or perhaps something with chemical colouring, bright, absurd blues and greens not seen anywhere in nature. You suspect that it will probably shorten your life slightly, but you can't resist it all the same, and you try not to think about what went into producing the impossibly intense flavours.

That's what this film is like. It is luxuriously decadent and profoundly unhealthy. This is a film that revels in superficiality, in duplicitous surfaces, and bathes in the bright neon glow of the artificial. It is a film that is far more concerned with style than substance, and the style in question is so engaging that it captivates and entrances the viewer.

It follows a young woman, a just-turned-sixteen virgin named Jesse, who arrives in L.A. looking to become a model. She's too young to understand the world she's in, but old enough to know she needs friends. Old enough to know that her beauty gives her power. She transitions from innocence to corruption, her hubris lying in her open acknowledgement of her looks and her mocking condemnation of women who 'starve to death' trying to approach her beauty.

What makes her so special? Her beauty is natural. It's all her, no surgery or artifice has gone into it. And yet, for her first professional shoot, she's stripped naked just so she can be covered in gold paint. Her natural beauty becoming distorted by a literal layer of falsehood. The surface obscuring the interior, the artificial obscuring the natural.

Early on we're told that women are more likely to buy lipsticks named for food or sex, and the predatory women (whose beauty is so affected that they are almost posthuman, or at least inhuman) that our heroine 'befriends' decide that Jesse is most certainly food. I mentioned her hubris above: her punishment is to be literally eaten by these grotesque creatures, these parodies of humanity.

Is it a satire of the fashion industry? Probably, but its satire is so obvious that my instinct is to say that the satire itself is a layer of superficiality, of deceit. It is so blunt, so lacking in nuance in its critique of an industry everyone knows is vicious that I don't want to grant that it is about that at all: but maybe that's just because I want a film so visually splendid to have some depth beneath its surface.

This is a film about surfaces more than anything else, about surfaces that glide and flow and move over unknown and invisible depths. Depths so deep that, maybe, they might as well not exist at all. The concern it has for the surface and its disdain for the inner perhaps suggests that the film should be regarded entirely as what it appears to be on the surface: a visually striking erotic horror film with pretensions of satire (and oh that soundtrack...). 

And yet the film undermines this reading with its conclusion. At a photo shoot featuring two of the trio who have consumed Jesse's beauty like a mere resource, one falls violently ill, vomits up one of Jesse's eye balls, and dies cutting herself open to 'get her out'. The revenge of the suppressed interior!

The most clear juxtaposition in the film is between the artificial and the natural, more so than between the superficial and the deep simply because the deep is something we have to assume, rather than something we're shown as clearly as the natural. As I said above, Jesse's beauty is distinct because it is not the result of artifice; she was born beautiful and that's that. In contrast, Gigi, one of the three women who will (again, quite literally) eat Jesse for her beauty, has had so much plastic surgery her surgeon nicknames her 'The Bionic Woman' ('Is that a compliment?' asks Jesse). Incidentally, it is Gigi that dies vomiting up Jesse's remains at the end of the film. The revenge of the exploited natural, and the suppressed interior!

The natural/artificial angle is one that it is worth spending time thinking about. We hear again and again that natural beauty is always superior to artificial beauty, but is the suggestion that natural beauty is simply more beautiful, or that its naturalness is the source of its superiority in itself? That is, the natural isn't simply more beautiful, but that natural beauty's status as natural, and not the product of human ingenuity, grants it an inner authenticity that cannot be replicated artificially because such replication would, precisely, rob it of that authentic quality. It is the product of chance, not design, and has a unique value because of that. The artificial attempts to subsume the natural as pure resource, only for the natural, the inner, the bloody guts of the thing itself to be literally vomited up.

Furthermore, this juxtaposition is exemplified in the very shooting of the film; the fashion, party and photo shoot sequences are stylised to the point of being almost hallucinogenic, while the scenes outside these settings are mundane and naturalistic.

A few final and more precise words: the performances are all very good, even (no, really) Keanu Reeves' offering as a spectacularly loathsome motel manager. Much of the limelight is, however, stolen by Jean Malone as Ruby. Malone is able to play the character as affable and friendly while having an obvious dark side to her.

The dialogue is somewhere between stilted and naturalistic in a way that is reminiscent of Lynch (whose Mulholland Drive is an overt influence), and the interactions between the women are pleasantly bitchy. Further, throughout the film Cliff Martinez's electronic (in places almost industrial) score carries you along like a tide, weaving into the visuals with remarkable skill, reminiscent of the eerie-though-beat-driven work of Pye Corner Audio.

By no means for the faint of heart, but an absolute treasure all the same.

Tuesday, 17 May 2016

Once again...

As ever, after an absence I feel the need to wave a big flag saying 'I'M STILL HERE!'

And, as ever, the only reason I've not been posting anything is I've not been bothered to write anything.

But have a couple of things anyway:

*

I'm toying with perhaps writing something trying to draw a parallel between the notion of Oedipus/Capital in Anti-Oedipus and the totalising tendency of Gestell in Heidegger's later writing. Can't promise that anything will happen with this any time soon, but a very, very rough outline would be something like:

For Deleuze & Guattari, Oedipus/Capital inflicts its codes onto the flows of productive desire, delimiting the range of productive desire within narrow limits (libidinal desire is coded through the frameworks of marriage, family, gender binary, heteronormativity etc.).

For Heidegger, Gestell is a particularly insidious form of revealing as in its purest form it masks its characters a form of revealing, presenting itself not as a perspective among others, but as the single, correct viewpoint upon the world. And this viewpoint is one where the world is only permitted to reveal itself to us as a calculable totality of resources ready for plundering.

(I'm not) Sorry for the gratuitous use of jargon there.

*

A friend managed to convince me join him at a local Effective Altruists meeting. The people there where exactly what I was expecting. Fiercely determined to do good, brilliantly intelligent, utterly, utterly caught up in their own way of thinking. It'd be unfair to say they were blinkered, and I had very good conversations with them, but in a memorable episode, one person outlined the epistemology he held, which was similar to the point of being identical with the phenomenological method of Husserl.

I pointed out this parallel, and was surprised that he'd not heard of Husserl. He informed me that he didn't bother with continental thinkers, as he saw nothing of value in them. 

Now I've said and thought the same about the Anglo-American tradition, so I'm in no position to criticise. But, it has made me wonder about this whole 'Analytic/Continental divide' business. I recall something I read in a book by Iris Murdoch once, that many of the ideas one finds in deconstruction were arguably hit upon and presented with greater clarity by Wittgenstein. 

I'm not familiar enough with either Wittgenstein or deconstruction to pass judgement on this, but my intuition agrees with Murdoch. 

Anyway, I'll try and post something that doesn't suck soon. 

Monday, 7 March 2016

Second Reading List for 2016

I'm going to write an overview of how I feel about what I read in my first list shortly, but having completed my first reading list, I'm going to make a habit of sharing what each subsequent list consists of in the hope this will help me stick to them, and because you might be interested.

Suggestions and recommendations are very welcome.

I'm also departing from the fiction/non-fiction structure I used before.

So, here's list two:

  1. England's Hidden Reverse by David Keenan (At the time of writing I've nearly finished this.)
  2. Basic Writings: Martin Heidegger edited by David Farrell Krell (I've read several of the essays in this collection already, but there's plenty I haven't, and I could do with refreshing my familiarity with what I've read already.)
  3. The Picture of Dorian Grey by Oscar Wilde
  4. Capitalist Realism by Mark Fisher
  5. True Detection edited by Edia Connole, Paul J. Ennis, Nicola Masciandaro 

Tuesday, 9 February 2016

Forwards/Backwards

I've been toying with a conceptual dichotomy for a while. It's probably not tremendously original, but it's helping me clarify my thinking a little. And hopefully writing about it here will allow me to polish my ideas further. I'd advise anyone unfamiliar with accelerationism to read my previous post on it before continuing (though it's worth mentioning that my understanding of accelerationism in general and its leftwards current in particular has developed since the writing of that piece).

I propose anti-modernism be viewed as having two potential directions. One I'd like to call 'accelerationist' if that hadn't already been coined, so we might perhaps call it the impulse to go beyond, or 'beyonder'. That is, responding to the various deficiencies and pathologies of modernity with a desire to push ahead, to traverse modernity and seek something beyond it. In other words: 'the way out is through.'

I call the other direction 'reversalist'. Modernity is an aberration, a mistake. One cannot be expected to find a way out by going 'through' it any more than one would expect to cure cancer by letting it 'sort itself out'. The only option is to excise the tumour. As such, one must seek to return to how things were before the aberration. This may be framed as a need to 'rediscover' the eternal truths of morality and the social order. 'The way out is to go back.'

I am not saying these definitions are absolute. I am just throwing out some thoughts that I have had for public inspection and criticism. The act of writing them down, in and of itself, helps me shape and understand them.

Anyway...

I find these definitions useful as they cut across the left/right dichotomy. One can argue that the right has a greater tendency towards the reversalist than the beyonder orientation, but one can find many on the left who seek a 'return' of some kind. The left-reversalist position generally finds modernity synonymous with capital itself, an alienating (and alien) force that destroyed the 'genuine authenticity' of the organic community of pre-modernity, even if that community existed in the context of its own set of injustices, i.e. feudal hierarchy, women regarded essentially as property and so on. Disdain for technology is also often common. Jaques Camatte's primitivism is an example of this. Such an attitude is common in environmentalism in its more radical incarnation, often suffused with nostalgia and, I'd argue, a naive understanding of life in pre-modernity. The Voluntary Human Extinction Movement, with its desire to rectify the great error that is humanity and return the biosphere to a pre-human state, may be described as either the absolute apotheosis of this position, or its moment of purest self-parody, depending on one's generosity.

The right-reversalist position may also contain an element of anti-capitalism, although generally in favour of some form of integralism or national socialism (though not necessarily National Socialism per se) over egalitarian, communal socialism. 'Rediscovery' or a 'homecoming' of some kind is generally the spirit of this position. Rediscovery of tradition, in either the weak or strong, capitalised sense of the word (Burke vs Evola and Guénon), restoration of legitimate authority (often monarchical), resurrection of the nation or race as a whole. Glorification of the past, especially a past characterised with imperial splendour, and a desire to return to it is key. It may not be a desire to return to 'how things were' simply because of their status as things passed. Rather, if Traditionalism is at the core of this tendency, the past is held up as an example of societies that were ordered according to values and principles considered eternal and perennial. The past is a thing to be returned to simply because it was ordered correctly, before the great error of modernity.

The beyonder current is well manifested in left-utopianism (anyone else remember that?). Pushing forward through this 'stage' in history, past capitalism into socialism and communism. Often, 20th Century communism displayed simply an outright rejection of the contemporary in favour of pursuing the future, or would attempt to outdo capitalism at its own game in terms of economic growth and prosperity. Left-accelerationism, to which I merrily confess the deepest of sympathies, is the most exciting manifestation of this position that I'm presently aware of. It possesses both a striking awareness of the problems of modern life with an impulse to rectify them which, I argue, is ultimately far more grounded in reality than the standard, insurrectionist response is. In seeking to turn modernity's successes against its failures, and to go beyond them into something altogether new, it captures the spirit of the beyonder impulse quite perfectly.

Much the same can be said of right-accelerationism, which we might as well call 'anarcho-techno-capitalism', though it lacks the sheen of utopianism. It identifies different problems with modernity than its leftwards twin does, but it still holds that the solution to the deficiencies of the contemporary is to go forwards rather than backwards. It is not a position that can be accused of nostalgia, as it draws upon what is useful from both the past and the present, the only worthwhile measure being its helpfulness. If it is 'Traditionalist' it is only in the loosest sense, the 'eternal law' being merely the laws of nature, its 'mysticism' being that of the Cthulhu Cult, rather than anything with regal grandeur.

Fascism was, arguably, a manifestation of this impulse as well, presenting itself as a force of renewal, both radically modernising the nation and restoring it to its past glory. The Futurists in Italy, with their paeans to technology, violence and velocity, and deep disdain for nostalgia and old things, and found themselves bedfellows with the Fascists. Nazism similarly presented itself as hostile towards the reactionary as well as the progressive. Something similar may be said of the Conservative Revolutionary Movement more generally, but that is pushing the boundaries of my knowledge.

A more problematic case is the Russian cosmists. Federov sought the past via way of the future. The powers of science and technology resurrecting the dead, unifying the world under the legitimate authority of the Tsar, the Church Fathers and Biblical Patriarchs, bringing the old prophets back to guide us more properly than we can guide ourselves. He sought an escape from modernity to the past via way of the future; less a revolution than a restoration. This might thus perhaps be called a reversalist position but here we see the boundaries becoming blurred to the point of non-existence.

Finally, where to place Neoreaction? Right-accelerationism has found its home there, arguably synonymous with 'techno-commercialism'. But NRx is a sufficiently broad church to resist easy definitions along the axis I propose. Certainly Moldbug seeks a reversal of modernity, though again via way of the future, with his image of a patchwork of for-profit run corporate city states relying on drones and sovereignty protected with encryption (though elsewhere I understand he lends his support to traditional forms of despotism and even monarchy). And the strain of NRx that was, at least formerly as I've no idea where he disappeared to, identifiable with Michael Annissimov was of a distinctly reversalist tone, as are the 'Heroic Reactionaries', that I understand. I actually wrote something about this particular tension in NRx a while ago, though the Reactosphere never had the big split I expected it to. Indeed, if anything it's become disappointingly quiet, but I digress.

I suggest using a beyonder/reversalist axis simply to add another layer of definition to our understanding of politics and ideology. If anything it can help us identify peculiar parallels between left and right we might not expect to see. Anyway, none of this has been thought out in much detail, so I invite the reader to comment on any inaccuracies, inconsistencies or stupidities in this piece.