Seeing in flames


A journal article by me, on Guy Debord’s theory of spectacular time, the politics of the image, subjectivity and narrative, is in the new issue of CHASE’s postgraduate journal Brief Encounters. Thanks to Masuda Qureshi, Nicole Mennell and the Brief Encounters editorial team, including the two peer reviewers for their suggestions. It’s hopefully an indicator of sorts of part of the methodology of my research project in general, much of which focuses on the relationship between innovations in narrative time in recent experimental fiction and the condition of the image in a spectacular society in crisis. In this case the paper’s conclusions are quite general, but may provide openings for further work on narrative in contemporary fiction, moving-image work and online writing – I mention it briefly in the footnotes, but Mark Currie’s invaluable scholarship on narrative time almost entirely lacks (not that surprisingly) any engagement with Debord. (I suspect the Pro-Situ impact on the SI’s reputation, turning it into a chapter in one of an endless stream of crypto-academic books on art vandalism, has been worse in this regard than the condescension of WJT Mitchell et al.) I’ve given a bunch of papers that draw on these resources – some of which you can see, handily, at Humanities Commons (hint hint).

World and time (but not for us)

001115197-d85a1b23-219a-45c2-ad3b-6c803ac54b66I wrote an essay for New Socialist about the Manics, nostalgia for the pre-1979 world, capitalist realism and labour’s economic framework. There’s a lot of bits I could append to it, but I just thought I’d add a few notes people might find useful.

The first is a couple of resources the piece was in a dialogue with but I didn’t actually mention. Firstly, Joe Kennedy’s fantastic Authentocrats, which I’ve seen much praised but hardly referenced in debates around the figure of the British ‘left-behind’. The ideological bind of contemporary centrism that Joe describes – in which the bare life of those whom Blairism failed is invoked against any form of thinking that might stray outside of Blairism’s own ‘common sense’ (including its own soc-dem ornaments like Sure Start) – is one that any serious left movement for even the most minor reform of relations of production will have to deconstruct and dissolve. Authentocracy participates in the forms of capitalist-realist engineering I describe in the piece: lacking a coherent lifeworld, it names that very lack (the bare life of deindustrialisation) as the permanent reality within which life must be constructed. Like all such frameworks of ‘realism’, authentocracy is what Marx called the “socially necessary form of appearance” of an impasse at the level of production and circulation, and their conditions of possibility in economic policy. (I can’t remember if Joe engages much with Marx in the book, but in this sense the authentocratic structure of thought is ideological in the critical sense: an imaginary solution to a real problem, that nonetheless has an immense reality.) And like the subject-object relation itself, which structured the realism of Renaissance perspective, authentocracy has to construct positions: the sadly obliging metropolitan-liberal subject, and the stump-like ex-proletarian object, who preserves within him, like the commodity-form itself, the value of a historic past the subject has gone out of its way to destroy. There has of course been a backlash against authentocracy within the Labour left – the tone of callous laughter among much of left Twitter, with its sitcom idiolect of “slugs” and “melts”, dissolves the ‘post-liberal’ seriousness of Labour authentocrats. Such a tone could even be seen as in dialogue with the early Manics’ hyperbolic celebration of the inauthentic and outrageous (an obsession at odds with their existentialist emphasis on suffering). But I’d caution against simply opposing the ‘inauthenticity’ that constitute many Labour members’ everyday lives – a demonology of hummous, craft beer, tattoos and precarious software jobs – against the calcified ideal of flat caps, bitter and whippets. This runs the risk of overlooking the fact of deindustrialisation, the utopian kernel of the history that production destroyed. The only way of getting away from the antinomy of authentic and inauthentic would be the production of a new and liveable context, a different reality beyond unreal alternatives.

Secondly, I was thinking of Konvolut a of Benjamin’s Arcades Project (the editors title it ‘Social Movements’) and TJ Clark’s remarks on it – the original essay is paywalled but here’s the relevant paragraphs:

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As an aside, I think Clark thought he was invoking a similar history “without consolation” in ‘For a Left with No Future’, which I’m also writing about at the moment, but he absolutely wasn’t. The tonality of such a history would be very different – something close, I think, to moments of The Holy Bible and Everything Must Go, but one that has its counterpart in something like Nas’ Illmatic. As Benjamin suggests in ‘On the Concept of History’, such a thought of history without progress is the only one that can co-operate with whatever was actually utopian in the history of the workers’ movement.

There’s also a more general problem here, which I only gestured at in the piece, around time and temporality. Mark Fisher and, before him, Jameson, formulated a certain time-problem with the now-deadly phrase “it’s easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism”, a formula I now tend to think hinges on “imagine” rather than “end”. Fisher’s insistence in his late essays that neoliberalism’s hegemony entailed the “slow cancellation of the future” was answered, to some extent, by the ‘populist’ or fascist imaginaries I write of towards the end of the piece: Trumpism imagines a future, but one that consists of more of the same. (Hence the apocalyptic conspiracy outgrowths that have formed in reaction to this, particularly in the form of QAnon: the belief that Trump, contrary to appearances, is actually changing things, just in secret.) Industrial labour and the world it made in its own image provides a way of thinking and figuring time, but this thinking emerges only as the epistemology of a universal artificiality (as Debord says, inverting Hegel, “the true is a moment of the false”), and takes on its particular clarity in retrospect. By contrast, the left has only partially begun to produce collective tools of thought that can figure ongoing time as change rather than the Five Year Plans of minor technocratic reform dreamed up by the Democrats’ cadres. I think it therefore be insightful to read these problems alongside work examining the changing time-sense running from the beginnings of post-Fordism to now – Jasper Bernes’ fantastic The Work of Art in the Age of Deindustrialisation would be a good place to start, as would Sianne Ngai’s Our Aesthetic Categories and Mark McGurl’s writing on ‘Fiction in the Age of Amazon’. The narrative structure of a whole host of contemporary novels and films – most obviously the works of Tom McCarthy or Ben Lerner – could be seen in this light as trying to produce a kind of ‘cognitive mapping’ of time in the wake of deindustrialisation.