On 6 January 2007, Ken Knabb, of the Bureau of Public Secrets, circulated his annual New Year News and Greetings to certain friends and acquantances. Intrigued by his example of looking back at his life and the wider society during the year just passed, I decided to reply to him in kind. This is what I wrote on 18 January 2008:
As you kindly sent me your reflections on the year just passed, I thought I would respond in kind.
2007 was a significant year for me, as it marked some important steps in my public return to a politics I had abandoned some 20 years ago. There were many reasons for this return, but some of the most immediate had to do with my consumption of culture.
A few years ago, my musical tastes moved from older mainstream jazz first to modern jazz, then free jazz, then the less jazz-inflected European free improvisation of the late 1960s and early 1970s, and finally to a form of music sometimes referred to as “reductionism” (borrowing an old formulation of mine, “reductionism” can be defined as wholly or partly improvised music that to a large degree utilizes microtonality, extended playing techniques, pianissimo dynamics, small gestures, silence, austerity, and unconventional sounds and timbres that blur the distinctions between music and noise). Along the way, I became intrigued by the notion (largely derived from the writings of improvising drummer Eddie Prévost) that the relations within freely improvising music ensembles and between such ensembles and the audience constituted a radical prefiguration of liberated, non-capitalist social relations. I also became convinced that reductionism’s refusal of the arbitrary conventions of tonal music and the loud and frenetic activity characteristic of certain sectors of contemporary society were subversive in nature. In the course of 2005 and early 2006, this philosophy of mine began to collapse. I was by then not just attending performances and listening to recordings, but also organising events as a volunteer member of a non-profit music promoter, writing reviews for publication online, and meeting and corresponding with musicians and some of the more dedicated aficionados of the genre. At length, I found it impossible to escape the conclusion that the political significance I imputed to the music existed only in my imagination. While many of the musicians were very pleasant individuals, almost none seriously regarded the music as having a substantial element of political praxis. Their perspectives were aesthetic, and their goal was the production of merely artistic performances and objects. Far from challenging the wider socio-political order, they sought only to find ways of operating within a framework of commodification, hierarchical social relations and cultural institutions that was largely taken for granted or viewed as unchangeable. They did whatever they needed to do to promote their music in a world of CD sales, concerts, state subsidies, radio programmes, etc. On the side of the audience, the supposedly radical effects of the music were equally hard to find. At bottom, the people who admired the music were much like any other musical fans. They avidly collected and discussed musical commodities, experiences and gossip. They had their heroes and their villains. They cherished the music simply as sound and analysed it in abstraction with the aid of various religious and philosophical views. They left each musical experience just as they entered it, returning to carry on their everyday lives of work and consumption much as before. In short, I recognised that the individuals involved in improvised music may in some instances have disdained the dominant society but their musical practices did not challenge that society. Moreover, neither musicians nor audience felt any great concern about the accommodation they had reached with the society. Whatever egalitarian relations it may transiently establish between performers in the separate world of the stage, improvised music helps produce and maintain everyday lives that are as a matter of practice resigned to the domination of the commodity-economy and its state.
My relationship with improvised music reached a point of crisis in early 2006. The music itself had been changing, shifting away from the quiet and austere sounds that I had enjoyed. More important, I had been working on a text, The New Improvised Music, that was intended to set out at length the political aspects of the music. The more I thought about the subject and interrogated my experiences, the more the philosophy I had meant to expand and expound turned to dust in my hands. The last draft I produced, dated March 2006, observes that the radical outcomes suggested as possible are not often found in practice. The text was then abandoned, having been circulated to a few friends and correspondents. I also dropped all my work as a critic and stepped down from the promoter with which I had been involved.
Another area of cultural consumption that led me to reflect more critically on my everyday life was the cinematic depiction of contemporary existence being produced by such directors as Bela Tarr, Tsai Ming-Liang and Hong Sang-Soo. Working with long takes, expressionless acting, minimal or fumbling dialogue, eventless or miserable plots, and ugly locales, this work can at times produce an unflinching portrait of the sheer, ghastly banality of everyday life in consumer societies. As such, it is a sobering experience. However, the films themselves offer no remedy for this evisceration of life, and neither do the practices of those involved in making and making available the film, consisting as they do of raising large amounts of state or private institutional money; constructing over time an aesthetic object under the hierarchical control of the director and various specialists; engaging in sustained conventional publicity for the benefit of capitalists, institutional managers and the passive public in order to secure and promote the release of the film; placing the film to be viewed in isolation by strangers who disperse afterwards; and then finally returning to the beginning of the cycle simply to repeat the process once again. It was necessary, I concluded, to step beyond the world of film. In order to negate the life the films portray, it is necessary to negate the world of which the making, showing and viewing of such films is an ordinary and supportive part.
A third cultural cause was a certain line of European fiction that takes a dark and sometimes savagely critical view of society, such as the work of the Austrian novelists Thomas Bernhard and Elfrida Jelinek. What I have already said about films applies equally to these books.
Of course, this cultural consumption did not have its effects in isolation from my everyday life as a whole. Rather it fed upon and advanced a dissatisfaction that was already there. I have not thought about this matter as much as I need to, however I suspect that the banalization produced by new waves of capitalist reconstruction of Britain’s cities and fresh economic growth played a significant part of the burgeoning of my dissatisfaction, especially when taken in conjunction with the mounting evidence of the serious environmental degradation arising out of capitalist production and consumption. The physical and social environments are being comprehensively remade. Production of commodities has reached such a fever pitch as to threaten the very survival of the planet. The individual is typically growing more affluent and consumes ever more. But what is the result? Nothing but mounting rubbish, in every domain of life.
My working life as a minor state functionary has doubtless also played a role. Having contrived to reduce the actual time I spend working to just an hour or two a day, I have created the opportunity to appreciate more vividly the misery and stupidity of the work I do. A sense that I probably have limited opportunities to escape through the fake novelty of taking up a new job (being too specialised and short of marketable skills), and that at age 43 my life is passing me by, also no doubt contributed, amongst many other things.
In an attempt to understand my life and the society in which I find myself, I read widely. Amongst other things, I took in academic social science, fashionable theorists such as Žižek and Negri, less fashionable figures such as Takis Fotopoulos, old Marxists such as Korsch, newer strands of Marxism such as that of CLR James, Castoriadis, and the Italian theorists of the 60s and 70s, plus a selection of contemporary anarchists and non-Leninist communists. Although I found some fragments of illumination here and there (for example, in the work of a group of British sociologists who have looked at the development of a hedonistic night-time economy to replace the decayed heavy industrial economy of parts of Britain), I was driven to the conclusion that only the work of the situationists provided a substantial basis for a critical theoretical engagement with the alienations of the ordinary person in advanced capitalist societies.
Looking around for contemporary material that draws on situationist theory, I soon found that the individuals who had been associated with the Declaration Concerning the Center for Research on the Social Question and the Notice Concerning the Reigning Society and Those Who Contest It and who had largely been responsible for extending situationist theory after the demise of the SI had largely abandoned the field. The one exception, of course, is you. I see that you have refined and added to your invaluable translations of the situationists (especially with your translation of ‘The Society of the Spectacle’) and that you added a number of new works of your own (notably the autobiography and ‘The Joy of Revolution’) in a new style that evidently aims for greater simplicity of expression. However, my sense is that in the post-Notice period you have somewhat stepped back from a critical examination of the development of contemporary alienation (and the resistance to it). Relatedly, you seem to have grown publicly rather uncritical about your own cultural consumption (Rexroth, rock-climbing, meditation, folk music, etc). This is not to say that there is no criticism at all, but at least some your personal enthusiasms touch on important developments in commodity society about which you are silent. For example, meditation would appear to be one facet of a constellation of ‘non-material’ and non-mundane consumption that now offers distinction, enlightenment or patient resignation to sectors of society who have either satisfied their basic needs to their own satisfaction or consumed the more ordinary and tangible commodities to the point of nauseous exhaustion. Moreover, in an age in which ecological pressures, and the patent failure of increased consumption to produce a better quality of life, might yet dictate a general shift away from resource-intensive consumption, ‘spiritual’ practices might perhaps best be thought of as an avant-garde laboratory for the reformed alienation of coming years. Your own experience might shed light on these hypotheses.
I also see some other familiar figures at work on the World Wide Web, for example Nick Brandt at Endangered Phoenix and the Wise brothers at Revolt Against an Age of Plenty. Unfortunately, these three appear to have been catastrophically affected by the rise of Thatcherism and the defeat of the miners, amongst others. They see the decimation of the old manufacturing industries and the resulting desperate lumpenproletarianization that has afflicted some of the working class areas those industries previously sustained. They also see some of newer types of work that have arisen, but only those with the very worst pay and conditions. What they do not perceive are the innumerable fairly or very well-paid jobs that survived Thatcherism or developed under or after it. The result is a frankly absurd caricature of poverty and dereliction that is far removed from the conditions of the average proletarian in modern Britain, one they share with the vast majority of anarchists and leftists, it seems. Brandt, Wise and Wise are undoubtedly right when they contrast the industrial militancy of the 1970s with the relative quiescence of today; however, it is a simple fact that the ordinary worker today is very considerably more affluent than his counterpart in the 1970s. That reality must be at the heart of any revolutionary theory about contemporary conditions in this country.
Looking further afield, I see numerous new translations of texts by the SI and former members of the SI albeit that the majority appear to be execrable (Bill Brown in particular has converted the unavailable into the unreadable on a quite industrial scale). Sadly, there appears to have been very few fresh and incisive applications and developments of situationist theory in recent years. Worse still, elements of the academy have taken up the situationists with gusto, transforming abstracted and misunderstood fragments of that theory into material for empty speculation, disarmed analysis, inconsequential debate, and the approval-seeking displays of bored students in search of qualifications.
During 2006 I decided that I should publish a text that would help clarify for myself why the revolutionary promise of the 1970s has not materialized and perhaps stimulate thought and debate amongst others considering the same issue from a revolutionary point of view. I also hoped that it would serve as a small contribution to resharpening situationist theory as a critical tool in contemporary conditions. The result was my text Gasping from out the Shallows, which was written over the Christmas period and then revised in early 2007. I printed a couple of hundred copies, some of which I offered to bookshops and distributors, and sent electronic copies to a few individuals I thought might be interested. I did not have any very definite expectations for the text, although I thought its criticisms of the proletariat and its assertion that the proletariat remained generally affluent might prove controversial. In the event, the response to date has been minimal. Sales have been quite slow. A few people have written to offer brief praise or brief criticism (the latter mostly being focussed on my comments about economic struggles), but in general it seems to have sparked little interest or public reflection. Why is that, I wonder? The text itself undoubtedly has problems. It was written quite quickly and revised even more quickly. I was very aware that the task of looking at four different areas of class struggle and providing the beginnings of an analysis of contemporary alienation was a huge one, and I was keen not to allow it to overwhelm me. In particular, I suspected it would prove easy to use deficiencies of structure or style as excuses for endlessly delaying, and ultimately abandoning, the project, so I had resolved to complete the text in a short time and then put it beyond prevarication or recall by publishing it immediately. In this way, I ensured that the text appeared but guaranteed that it would be deficient. Looking back at it now, I find the language rather turgid and the syntax sometimes wayward. The historical sections are also poorly structured and argued, with the result that my point has not been adequately conveyed in places. Other faults include a lack of concrete detail, which I suspect may make the discussion very abstract for those not familiar with the subject matter, and a failure to look at some of the issues dialectically. The text perhaps succumbs to catastrophism in its too rigid separation of the failed 70s and the contemporary period. It would have been better to examine the whole period from them to now more clearly and expressly in terms of the development of a proletarian dissatisfaction that has all along been entangled with the spectacle and that has sometimes been suborned and diverted by that entanglement and sometimes reacted against the recuperation that has resulted. I offered some remarks about how a continued adhesion to spectacular ideologies and practices contributed to the hobbling of proletarian resistance, but in each case that resistance simply disappears at some point in the text, as if some long-lasting absorption had abruptly descended.
In addition to the deficiencies of the text, and doubtless its invisibility to many, I suspect that a simple lack of interest in the kinds of question I raise has operated against my text.
Gasping was followed in June by On Lice and Fleas, a text built around the conflict between the Iranian and American governments. I intended that the text should range much more widely than a standard leftist tract denouncing American imperialism and perhaps the Iranian state. I wanted to look quite broadly at how the threat of such a conflict, and any actual conflict, might feed the false opposition that sustains rather than threatens the dominant society. I am not completely dissatisfied with the text. It is not sufficiently concrete in places and a couple of stupid last-minute changes served only to introduce errors; nonetheless, it’s generally better written than ‘Gasping’ and offers some pertinent and not-too-commonly expressed critical positions. That said, it was not directed at a concrete struggle and was launched into a vacuum. I have also relied on the internet to diffuse it amongst those interested, as well as emailing copies to a few rather far-left Iranian organisations (including the Komiteye Hamahangim, which I criticised). I doubt that has worked. One way or another, the text appears to have been a failure. As far as I can tell, it has made no impression whatsoever on anyone. A quick internet search suggests that it has been universally overlooked or ignored.
One of the recipients of the text was nothingness.org ‘situationist’ discussion list. In my experience, the list largely serves to exchange snide remarks, ancient texts, recommendations for cultural consumption, conventional discussion of news items, and absurd conspiracy theories and pseudo-science. I wondered, however, whether there may be a few lurkers who remained on the list just to pick up the odd useful item. My text prompted a lengthy discussion, albeit one concerned mostly with fragments of Gasping. It was a perfectly dismal experience. It may have led me to give some thought as to the relationship of theory to everyday life in a non-revolutionary epoch; but at length I became weary of arguing with people who seemed mainly concerned to deny that they themselves were proletarians or that proletarians were capable of becoming revolutionary. I signed off the list.
In terms of further texts, I have spent some time thinking about possible texts about Berlin (a city I visit quite often) and about the ideology of ‘affluenza’. They may be written this year. However, I am at present unsure that there is much point writing about such general phenomena.
I opened a blog this year, mostly because I was too lazy to start a website proper. I have added little to it beyond my two main texts. I do not have the time or inclination to engage in the habitual, daily commentary seemingly expected of the blogger. I am inclined to close it down. Indeed, a few weeks without the internet forced on me by a corruption in Windows made me aware of how much time I waste via the internet. For people generally, it seems in practice mainly to facilitate a ceaseless and enveloping immersion in inconsequence.
Finally, at work I have been involved in various strikes this year. The disputes concerned job cuts and a below-inflation pay deal. The public sector is the last redoubt of trade unionism in Britain, with membership rates of around 80%, I believe. The effects are nefarious. There is no conception of autonomous action, and not even the example of the postal workers has sparked the slightest interest in wildcat practices. The disputes have also, as usual, raised no passion or critical views of the wider system. Each strike is like a public holiday, with no discussion or debate before or after a strike and no collective activity; we all just shuffle off home for a day off. And, of course, the large majority of us know that we will survive the staffing reductions and the poor pay deal. Most of us would even survive forced transfer or redundancy (many may well be praying for the latter, as the payoff would be a good one). To some extent our indifference reflects the stakes for us.
My apologies for going on at such length.
[This message subsequently led to this exchange.]