Sunday, May 30, 2010

Mark Fisher – Capitalist Realism: Is There No Alternative? (2009)

It was with some interest that I embarked upon Mark Fisher (better known as k-punk)’s new work of theory – his widely- and justly-feted pop culture blog being one of the most impressive meldings of theory and cultural analysis online (and one which never strays into inaccessibility), as well as being impressively prescient. His new work deals initially with the title concept, ‘capitalist realism’ – that is, the way in which capitalism installs itself in the psyche, individual and collective, as a ‘least worst,’ naturalised-normative system, one which slavers over the defeated corpses of grand-narrative ideologies; a sterile end to history in which, for the ironically distanced and thereby consenting, apathetic consumer-spectator whose cultural subjectivity is increasingly constituted by pastiche and revivalism, no alternative is imaginable. This term (‘capitalist realism’) is described as an alternative to Frederic Jameson’s definition of postmodernism as ‘the cultural logic of late capitalism’ – in contrast to the period in which Jameson’s concept was developed, ‘capitalist realism’ would encompass the collapse of political alternatives, the commodification and aestheticization of modernism, and the post-cold war settlement in which the problem faced is not one of colonisation and appropriation per se, but rather of a lack of externality to colonise.

In exploring the capitalist territorialisation of opposition, Fisher does an admirable job of taking to task the ostensible resistance of present-day texts, authors and genres such as V for Vendetta, Frank Miller, Wall-E and gangsta rap (on this note, I hear that Prince of Persia encompasses a plotline in which the supposed presence of weapons of mass destruction justifies brutal invasion, even while ‘whitefacing’ the main characters… and is it just me, or were Hollywood anti-Iraq movies all about five years too late?) – as well as taking to task the deceptive realist authenticity of the documentary style (a particular target is Supernanny). And he accomplishes this without undertaking the converse, that is, the all-too-common elite-contrarianist position which would present counter-readings of populist works such as Bruno, Antichrist, Kick-Ass or Life Is Beautiful as radical despite their populism. Texts Fisher lauds as diagnostics of the present malaise include Alfonso Cuarón’s film of P. D. James’ Children of Men; Franz Kafka (who only seems to grow more relevant with the passing of time, and who is delightfully used to analyse the call centre as distilling the political phenomenology of late capitalism); William Gibson’s Neuromancer (in the figure of the debtor-addict as paradigmatic subject in the control society); Michael Mann’s Heat; Mike Judge’s Office Space; Ursula Le Guin’s novel The Lathe of Heaven (in regard to the dreamwork-esque overwriting of the real, to memory disorder as symbolic of the capitalist destruction of narrative memory combined with a nostalgia for authenticity); Alan Pakula’s The Parallax View (a central concept for Slavoj Žižek); and the videodrome-control trinity of Burroughs, Dick and Cronenberg.

Capitalist Realism, like Fisher’s blog, is a deeply engaging (and slim) read – I devoured it in a few days – which is peppered liberally with intriguing offhand concepts (many which I would have liked to see further explored) while never collapsing under the weight of theoretical density. There is some repetition throughout, and in this light the book sometimes reads like a collection of short pieces rather than a coherent or logically-organised whole (and indeed, although structured as numerical chapters, some of this work has appeared separately online). Not quite either a piece of strictly cultural or strictly political-economic analysis, nor one of original theory, this is, rather, a work of synthesis, with cultural texts analysed as examples of the theories of the scholars with whom Fisher is engaged. Neither of the two theorists of whom he makes the most use, Žižek and Jameson, are authors whose work I’ve read extensively, so I can’t say to what extent his arguments build upon their work rather than re-presenting it (having said which, the back cover features a Žižek endorsement).

As far as Fisher’s themes, I was particularly taken by the skewering of the way in which, in direct contradiction to the promises of anti-Stalinism and the supposed streamlined efficiency of the market, sclerotic bureaucracy (as a means of surveillance and auto-surveillance) is a deeply systematised feature of late capitalist society, one with which any reader will be deeply familiar (Fisher’s particular and personal concern, one which I share, is the deeply disquieting progress of this process in the academic sector). The demise of the big Other, he argues, has been greatly exaggerated: rather, the audit is our response to that Other, meaningless data our offering (I would add that the other big Other, so to speak, of the present day is ‘the market,’ comparable to the role of the natural deities in agricultural societies: the question always being, how will the market respond?)

One problematic here, which is becoming a bugbear of mine, is the Lacan – Deleuze & Guattari – Žižek engagement with psychoanalysis (not to mention schizophrenia) as a central heuristic of meaning. While Fisher is not solely indebted to these models, in taking these thinkers as paradigmatic in developing his critique this model is clearly visible throughout. For all the problematising of original Freudian models which has been done by these and other theorists (and for all the mythological beauty of psychoanalysis considered as an artistic system of meaning rather than as a praxis), I can’t help wondering why the employment of or engagement with this discourse is necessary or useful. I find, for example, the use of ‘symbolic castration’ as an explanatory tool to be a real ballbreaker, as is an analysis which damns the subsumption of the ‘paternal’ concept of duty into the ‘maternal’ imperative to enjoy (Fisher’s quotation marks) – and really, if we take the insights of the cultural turn seriously, shouldn’t we recognise that however much we problematise and interrogate these terms, to use ‘castration’ as a signifier of disempowerment (along with the rest of the gendered framework of psychoanalysis) will never be other than reactionary?

In questioning the basis for this model, one wonders about its groundedness – for example, Žižek’s latest work takes the stages of reaction to grief (and death) as a model for historical reaction to the death of capitalism, whereas in fact this ‘stages’ model is completely discredited, existing rather as a popular myth comparable to popular understandings of various Freudian concepts. And, for all the theoretical predecession, with what conceptual justification do we apply psychological processes which were developed in regard to the individual to society or societies as a whole (which are thus defined as single, if internally divided, units)? Indeed, with regard to the application of this problematic in another scenario Fisher explores Žižek’s ‘temptation of the ethical,’ the way in which the system counters critique by deflecting blame onto pathological individuals, rather than the institutions (for example, legally personified corporations) within which they operate – which conveniently cannot be treated as individuals for the purposes of ascription of responsibility.

With regard to the individual and the social unit, I would have liked to see further questioning of the intimate personal relationship within capitalism, which, I would argue, has become a quasi-religious repository of the wished-for transcendence provided neither by labour nor by consumption; but one which is not only futile in achieving this end (hence, the increasing popularity and franchise of marriage paired with serial monogamy in general), but which subsumes the individual into practical and psychological-ideological networks, in particular but by no means solely the family, which only serve to tighten the coils of the system within which we are enmeshed (and how would the heuristic use of psychoanalaytic theories centring on libido, castration and so on fit in here?)

In speaking of psychology, there is also the contention here, popular in contemporary discourse, that the increasing levels of mental illness in affluent societies represents an inherent systemic dysfunctionality, which the system deflects by privatising that illness, by making it a quality of the individual to be treated with commodities like drugs, therapy and ‘positive thinking.’ While I wouldn’t contest that this is the case – that the nature of late capitalist labour, in particular, is implicated in a spreading existential crisis of meaning which is sublimated by the burgeoning self-help industry – at the same time, this is dangerously close to the sixties and seventies view which saw mental illness (which is undeniably related to biological factors, though not reducible to them) as treatable by what Fisher calls ‘effective antagonisms,’ politicised acts, that is, by strength of willpower put into action.

Despite making extensive use of direct quotation, and building on the theories of figures like Žižek, Jameson, Alain Badiou, and Deleuze and Guattari, among others (and, pedantic as always, I could have done without the Americanised spellings), CR is completely free from formal referencing, and contains neither index nor a bibliography, which is frustrating and which seems problematic inasmuch as the desire to engage with the academy surely necessitates a certain capitulation to its formal structures which are, for all the absurdity which they occasionally entail, designed both to facilitate dialogue, and to ensure a certain standard of intellectual attribution – that is, a (neo)modernist ethics with the goals of which this work seems elsewhere to be in sympathy. Incidentally, the book is printed by Zero Publishing, a small anti-capitalist publisher who print their manifesto on the final page – and, while wanting cultural production to provide a livelihood for the creator, one wonders whether market distribution (rather than, for example, free internet distribution) is the best way to achieve anti-capitalist goals.

And this raises a bigger question about theory in general. A major subject for CR and for much of the work upon which it draws is the way in which capitalism devours and territorialises not only that which is external, but ostensibly adversarial forces (Fisher gives not only obvious examples such as the commodification of rebellion, but critiques the recent Paris student uprisings, and, more generally, the carnivalesque oppositional mass movements of recent times). So, while supposedly oppositional cultural products make transgression into a saleable commodity (as noted and exemplified by The Clash), we are all able to function immersed in the realm of capital and its ‘market Stalinist’ bureaucratic structures, and to bolster these structures through our every action, by individualistic disavowal, by Marxist false consciousness or Sartrean bad faith (and here I think also of the concept, from genocide studies, of ‘internal resistance’), which means that we internally tell ourselves that we do not ‘believe’ in bureaucratic administration or growth and consumption as the path to meaningful functionality, freedom or happiness, even as we enforce the structures and pursue the aims which they propose, and act to impose these upon others. But couldn’t the exact same criticism be made of works like these, in themselves?

In other words, to take one example, how has the existence of Žižek’s body of work changed the nature of resistance to the present world-system to make any actually-enacted praxis of resistance more meaningful than it would be had he never written (other than making us get a warm glow inside by reading them)? Despite the subtitle, proposed strategies of resistance in CR are thin on the ground. The final prescription, which could be described as neomodernism (as might Fisher’s position throughout) is an argument for the Left to subordinate the state to the public will (hence resurrecting that concept) – for a progressive return to a grand narrative at least as far as a systemic critique of Capital. However, despite my sympathy with the second part of this equation, the first fails to convince: to what extent is a public will identifiable as something detached from the structural conditions which give rise to majority desires, and isn’t there a certain resemblance here to an unquestioning ideology of ‘democracy’ which fails to recognise the tyranny of the ‘public will’ (if I may be permitted to employ that hoary old chestnut)?

Fisher is hopeful that, although the response to the global financial crisis was undoubtedly a reassertion and strengthening of neoliberal practice, this epsiode has nonetheless discredited the discursive framework in which the system operates: neoliberalism can no longer be ‘an ideological project that has a confident forward momentum’ but one running on ‘inertial, dead defaults.’ In order to take advantage of this moment to occupy political terrain, the Left could, for example, promise to ‘deliver what neoliberalism signally failed to do: a massive reduction of bureaucracy.’ In regard to such strategies in concrete form, as a casual academic I particularly appreciated Fisher’s point that traditional strikes in the educational system are becoming meaningless, whereas a ‘strategic withdrawal of forms of labour which will only be noticed by management,’ a concerted refusal to carry out the endless stream of bureaucratic paper pushing chores demanded by the system, would actually constitute functional resistance (and Fisher seems to be pursuing these ideas 'on the ground' through the medium of conferences). Indeed, one of the pleasures of the book for me was the shock of recognition in Fisher’s grounded analysis of both the bureaucratic neoliberalisation of the post-disciplinary education system from a structural and labour perspective, and the attitude taken by many students (or should that be customers?), the ‘depressive hedonia’ and ‘post-lexianism’ which they live out in relation to their subject position as wired-in consumers of culture (the danger here, of course, is nostalgia for the good old days of patriarchal, hierarchical models of learning which focus solely on content not meaning – but I don’t think negotiating between these positions need be a zero-sum game).

But having said this, ‘offers no solutions’ is in itself, of course, a classic bastion of opposition to change – and indeed, it seems likely that, given the inevitable limitations of discursive horizons in lived experience, an alternative to late capitalism is unimaginable except as we begin to live it, to bring it in to being. In doing so, opening up a dialogue – particularly one which also proves a pleasurable and well-achieved model of the classic erudite, highbrow-lowbrow pleasure of cultural theory – is an act not to be sniffed at.

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Wilkie Collins - Poor Miss Finch (1872)

While it's one of Collins’ lesser-known works, Poor Miss Finch does not fall into the category of his ‘thesis’ novels, and it remains a work with much to offer the reader. It does not measure up to the heights scaled by some of his other novels, but unlike those pieces, this is a novel which has, not characterisation and intricate plotting, but philosophical, and, specifically, phenomenological exploration as its central strut. Nonetheless, we are not without the sensational, gothic and grotesque aspects which characterise Collins’ work – the double (a recurrent theme), hideous disfigurement, the exurban gothic setting of an isolated house in a remote corner of the country (though accompanied by that staple of Victorian fiction, the picaresque village), and a plot driven by crime, multiplying and improbable coincidence, and a sense of fated doom.

The narrative concerns Lucilla Finch, a young blind woman, and her suitor, the good-natured but weak and quick-tempered Oscar Dubourg, as well as his more worldly twin, Nugent. The story is related by Madame Pratolungo, a companion to Lucilla and a former South American revolutionary – who represents here, along with the eye surgeon Herr Grosse, an example of Collins’ problematic depictions of ‘foreigners’ (we might think of Professor Pesca in The Woman In White), as well as the occasional vehicle of somewhat misogynistic views, but is nonetheless a sympathetic character. Perhaps the most famous aspect of this tale is the treatment Oscar takes for epilepsy – silver nitrate, which turns his skin a metallic blue-grey. The work is subtitled 'A Domestic Story,' and Collins (who, like Dickens, had a highly unorthodox domestic situation, but who, unlike Dickens, was open to the presentation of radical sociosexual moral critique) treats us to a hideous parody of the lower-upper Victorian bourgeois family in the Finch rectory, a former nunnery.

The plot is at times artificially melodramatic, and hence the characters somewhat frustrating, although from a feminist perspective Lucilla is a very atypical Victorian heroine – strong willed and with a definite personality (even if at times more stereotypically irrational and emotionally labile) – but the gothic and melodramatic aspects can also be relished, in the setting (an isolated downland house) and the dénouemont (a wild chase to avert a marriage schemed up under the auspices of deceptive identity, the latter being another characteristic Collins theme).

But unlike many of Collins’ other works, the concern here is not only with identity in terms of appearances which are deceptive because misrecognised (treating here another typical Collins project, the converse characteristics and complex emotional bonds of the double), but also with the way in which identity is created by perception – in particular, in Lucilla’s travail between blindness and sight, and the implications for her character and state of mind. Collins did a great deal of research into blindness for the work, and it was written in a period in which explorations of perception and ontology, with particular reference to blindness, had been budding in the work of philosophers such as Locke, Molyneux, Diderot and Bishop Berkeley (Collins did a great deal of research into the medical aspects of the work, both accounts of blindness and recovered sight, and the treatment of epilepsy with silver nitrate).

In a deeper sense, then, the novel is one which questions deeply-held assumptions about ‘affliction,’ happiness and the human condition, and further, mutual intelligibility – Catherine Peters’ introduction quotes Shaw: ‘do not do unto others as you would they should do unto you. Their tastes may not be the same.’ Peters also notes that Collins’ project, well achieved, was not to show blindness in the typical Victorian sentimental mold, but in the light of human reality – and the sometimes frustrating aspects of Lucilla’s character may be an inevitable outcome of this approach.

Even more so than his better-known novels, this is not a piece without flaws – and those which are characteristic of Collins are the most magnified. But it is also a thought-provoking text and one which is fascinatingly unusual both within Collin’s already outré oeuvre – due to its philosophical concerns – and within the Victorian canon itself.