Thursday, 7 May 2009

A Discussion of Failure with Jared "Squee"

The publication of my text 'On Failure and its Possible Remedies' led to an exchange of correspondence between Jared "Squee" and myself. As the issues we discussed may be of interest of others, I have, with Jared’s agreement, reproduced our exchange here. Jared’s initial message and my response are given in their entirety. These are followed by an extract from a subsequent message from Jared in which he summarizes a message of his that was lost before it could be sent.

1) Jared “Squee” to Wayne Spencer, 29 April 2009

Wayne,

I just finished reading your "On Failure" (posted to anarchistnews.org) and a portion of what you have posted to your blog. I feel that I could lend some insight from the experience of a young writer with similar perspectives. About the apparent reception you have had of the 3 texts you mention... that seems fairly normal to me and the analysis of why this has happened may be a bit premature. Society is over-saturated with information... you obviously recognize this. But, it looks like you are missing an analysis of why the information that becomes popular does become popular and the contemporary methods of marketing behind it. I am not writing this to advise you on marketing, but even the media that becomes "viral" over the world-wide-web is the result of very well placed and inconspicuous advertising that largely depends on the capacity for said media to generate profit via content (either as content that will produce search engine hits or that will excite a sites spectator into trusting consumption). As far as the world outside digital resources goes, at least in the US, there is not much of a culture for the reception of theory (unless we mean by "theory" some mushed up scientific writings like Richard Dawkins or reinforcing addendums to already existing theoretical trends). The "revolutionary" networks are not much different and even though there is a revitalization of interest in Situationist theory... there is a very small portion of people that would have any time or interest in reading (and "reading" is one of the big key reasons here) much in that way of writing.

The closest thing that I have seen circulating widely to your writing is "The Coming Insurrection" and its popularity is definitely due to something that you had mentioned - the relationship of the text to a current event in the relative milieu. The remedies that you suggest would thus make for amazing works that I myself would be excited for the development of... but they would still be works without a seasoned audience. Some of the most popular theoretical work today is also in a completely different format: video. This is a huge point to consider, especially when you see everyone at least notice "The Secret", "What the Bleep", etc. (unless this is strictly an United States phenomena). I do not think that producing a journal with the content you mention would be a bad idea - but to gain readership, it will still take some sort of marketing scheme or another to get the spectators neurons firing and what-have-you. Even when it comes to radical groups endorsing your work, there is a labyrinth of group politics and loyalties that will get in the way. This is not to say though that there is not a great opportunity to interact with others with similar notions, but I am really starting to believe that literature is a dead means to popularizing theory.

Sorry if this is all too idiotic, but I loved what I read from you thus far and could not help myself to offering what I could so that you may see that you are being pretty damn hard on yourself when the silence of others is more-so approval that does not know how to give itself, change that does not know how to apply itself to every day life, and interest that does not know how to show itself. I personally know the experiences that you are talking about, even with mere comments on message boards this stuff happens. But it is worth reminding yourself that in that silence, there ARE those that have gained a lot from your work without the slightest clue as what the appropriate response is. They will likely just apply what they can of your writing with their close friends and never mention the source - a strange symptom of the search for authenticity in this society and a lack of truly understanding those that are not using ideas for mere social capital.

Anyway - good luck and keep writing!
Jared "Squee"

2) Wayne Spencer to Jared "Squee", 30 April 2009

Jared,

Thank you for taking the time to send me your interesting thoughts on my text, ‘On Failure’.

I am aware that it is possible to consider the impact of a text in terms of its exposure as well as its reception. I am also aware, at least to some degree, of how the best travelled regions of the World Wide Web are, in one way or another, structured by seductive or prominent interconnections (with the result that much online browsing consists of moving around between quite a limited array of corporate-dominated or government sites). If I did not dwell on these matters in my article, this was more a matter of deliberate omission than theoretical blindness. A person who lacks the motivation to conduct an assiduous search outside the usual channels for material that may help to shed light on his or her alienation, or who finds attractive the blandishments by means of which spectacular thought and entertainment beckon to the passer-by, is, at bottom, colonized by spectacular taste. I took the view, therefore, that such propensities need not be addressed separately from the general matter of the continued influence of the spectacle’s ideas of happiness.

A similar point occurred to me in relation to the distaste for theory that you have, quite correctly, highlighted. The notion that theory is cold, irrelevant to daily life and inferior to the frivolous consumption of fun rests upon spectacular forms of thought and feeling. Once again, I thought, it could be collapsed into the general discussion of alienated happiness that I had in mind.

What I have not considered in any serious way is the possibility of presenting my own observations by way of video, in part because I am keenly aware that my lack of technical knowledge about the mechanics of film-making is likely to make the process extremely time-consuming and vexatious. In itself, the widespread preference for video does not incline me to take up the medium. It has to be borne in mind that I am not in search of just any readers or viewers. Revolutionary theory is communication by and for the dissatisfied. I am very doubtful that persuasion by revolutionaries is capable of making an individual dissatisfied in the first place. Rather a certain far-from-negligible threshold of dissatisfaction must have been attained before revolutionary thought seems anything other than ludicrous to a person who encounters it. I suspect that one is unlikely to find too many persons of this description amongst the enthusiasts for ‘The Secret’ or ‘What the Bleep’. On the contrary, what I shall uncharitably call the depraved taste for consuming video inanities strikes me as one aspect of a puerile frivolity that serves as one of key subjective bases of the current stage of capitalism. I see no need to pander to this species of smiling surrender. Of course, it does not follow that video must be eschewed as a whole. However, I would suggest that revolutionary video-making must precisely make itself as unpalatable as possible to the giddy consumer.

As for 'theoretical videos', I have seen a lot of films on social and political issues over the last several years but I have been impressed by few. In general, the theory they employ (including the theory of their own practice) seems uninteresting or underdeveloped. The narrative elements of such works are, in my experience, mostly taken from liberal or leftist ideology; the visual style usually rests on clich├ęs derived from conventional documentary expositions, art cinema, or music video; and the objectives they pursue in relation to the audience rarely seem to go beyond exciting the indignation of leftist-liberals and obtaining the approval of cultural consumers, fellow artists, and the institutional figures who award grants, degrees and exhibitions.

I do not myself see too many parallels between my own work and ‘The Coming Insurrection’; but I gather that the English translation circulating on the web is not an especially good one, so it may be too soon to draw any conclusions about this. What ‘The Coming Insurrection’ does, perhaps, illustrate is the unhappy truth that notoriety and celebrity heavily influence many people’s reading preferences. Without the French state’s clumsy denunciation of the text and arrest of its alleged authors, it would probably have attained only the usual obscurity. At the risk of repeating myself beyond endurance, a curiosity or enthusiasm that is guided by whatever sensational stories about revolutionaries that happen to be crossing the spectacle’s firmament at any given time is not an entirety creditable one.

Having said all that, I am sure that you are right that increasing the visibility of my work would not be an entirety bad thing. Abandoning the blog in favour of a website that has been designed so as to optimize the probability that it will be detected by relevant web searches would seem a sensible first step.

I also agree that one should not disregard the possibility that there exist readers who have found something of value in what I have written but who remain in baffled silence as to the practical implications. I am sympathetic to this quandary. No amount of rhetoric can disguise the fact that we live in bad times for revolutionary contestation in the advanced capitalist countries. To borrow a phrase from Guy Debord and Gil Wolman, the objective conditions for revolutionary transformation “are not only ripe, they have begun to rot”; the subjective conditions, however, are desperately underdeveloped. This can make it all but impossible for isolated individuals to develop a practical negation of the alienations they encounter within their everyday lives, for in the face of a unified wall of incomprehension and complacency, one can often do little. Yet there is always the possibility of publicizing one’s discontent and one’s understanding of its causes, even if only anonymously. It is a recourse I would recommend to others.

I would stress in passing that although a theory of the revolution of everyday life can undoubtedly be applied with friends, it cannot, without being transformed for the worst, be confined to friends and the relationships between friends. Any social revolution that is worthy of our participation must include the transformation of friendship; however, a practice that remains within the narrow dimensions granted to friendship in the dominant society will quickly descend into niggardly and ineffectual reforms of selected elements of private life.

I have no objections to readers using my work without citation or acknowledgement. As Ken Knabb once said: "Generally speaking, the practical reading of a radical text is characterized by a critical, seemingly almost callous attitude, which constantly has an eye out for what can be ripped off from it, and which cares little for the intrinsic merit of what can’t. Whereas the feeling 'This is absolutely fantastic! There’s so much I don’t know! I’m going to have to read a lot more of this!' announces the nascent theory colonization" ('Double Reflection', 1974). Amongst the elements that can often be winnowed out in this way is the name and identity of the author.

Finally, I have no interest whatsoever in securing the approval of established political groups. We are too far apart.

Best wishes,

Wayne

3) Jared "Squee" to Wayne Spencer, 5 May 2009

Haha, actually I just checked my "sent" box and see that I wrote you an email that didn't send. But, it said in so many words that I see your aims a lot clearer now and no longer find a lot of my earlier comments applicable. It also had some explanation on why I mentioned 'The Coming Insurrection': it is one of only a few recent Situationist-like texts that I have read. But, it wasn’t brought up in topical reference to your work […]