Thursday, June 08, 2017

Bring on the flood posted by Richard Seymour

A freshet is a river flood, brought on by the melting of snow. We need a freshet in this election, brought on by a great political thawing, a sort of glasnost of neoliberalism. We need, in short, those frozen over blocs of non-voters, those who have been disempowered and excluded, those who haven't been represented, those who just gave up voting -- most of whom would have been Labour voters if it in any way represented them -- to be fired up and put into motion.

In this election, it is not surprising that there has been a huge controversy about turnout. Jeremy Corbyn's leadership pitch was, from the start, that he would bring back lost voters, people who have given up and felt alienated from the system. He said, from the start, that Labour needed to win over people who had stopped voting. Part of the surge in Labour's support during this campaign has been driven by groups of voters who ordinarily don't vote, or who haven't voted before. That, to an extent, reflects success on Corbyn's part. But it is one thing for people to be politically won over by Corbyn; it is another thing for them to be persuaded they must vote.

There is always the risk that the bubbles of political life, encouraged by social media -- what they call the "pluralization of life-worlds" -- has created a false sense among some of us of just how widespread and how deep the excitement is. That risk is tempered by the very obvious successes of Labour's campaign, by the tremendous reception Corbyn gets in diverse settings, by his surprisingly strong media performances, and by the sheer calamity that is the Tory campaign. Nonetheless, I think we all -- all of us who will campaign for Labour tomorrow -- worry that we're missing some hidden structural resources of conservatism, or confusing wish-fulfilment for analysis. Even when we try to check our biases, passionate longing has a way of making one dream.

And we are dreaming, and not just that Labour will do well. Let's be honest, we want there to be a Spring surprise, a shock Labour win, a rupture, something that radically confounds received wisdom. We want the entire set of assumptions by which neoliberalism rules, above all the internalised defeat that goes under the mantra 'There Is No Alternative' to be irradiated. We want the cultural predicates, by which everything should have a market price, and by which refugees and those on benefits are sadistically punished, while banks and large corporations endlessly get away with it, to be overturned. We want, on Friday morning, to wake up to a different country.

That, though we all know the odds against it, though we all know how much power is mobilised to stop precisely this from happening, exerts a gravitational pull on all our analysis. And we have to be endlessly careful not to give in to it.

In this election, because of the unusual degree of volatility and uncertainty, polls have been wildly divergent in their assumptions. Some polling companies have consistently predicted a Labour share of the vote around 33-35%. Those would include ICM, Opinium, ComRes, Panelbase and (until tonight) TNS. YouGov (until tonight), Survation and ORB have shown much higher Labour shares, in the region of 38-40%. The ironic role reversal tonight was that it was TNS which put Labour up 5 points to 38%, and YouGov which, with some methodological adjustments, brought Labour down three points to 35%.

Choosing between these is impossible, and reflects a mix of desire and gut instinct. One of the problems with polling, one of the reasons why it can get things wrong, and why weighting is such an issue, is that its method of inquiry starts from the assumption -- which then has to be corrected, post-hoc -- that political action is based on individualised units of opinion, in which every opinion is of equal weight and competency. In fact, ideologies are usually formed in collective, group contexts, based on shared experiences: your class, your race, your gender, your locality, your religion, your nationality, your street, your occupation, and so on.

Posing the question in an individualised way sidesteps the collective way in which people form ideas and make decisions. And it has the effect of forcing people to rely on impressions gained from recent media campaigns. That renders polls particularly susceptible to media-driven buzz. Recall that before the 2015 problems which produced such reflection from pollsters, there was also the 2010 "Cleggasm". I don't remember too much panic about that, but polling companies seriously overstated the Liberal vote (with the effect of uncharacteristically understating the Labour vote) in that election year.

This is, of course, not to dismiss polling. It is a highly technically advanced way of gaining a snapshot of ideological forces in motion -- raw material which politicians and public relations professionals are able to work with, and work on very effectively. It is often wrong, but not usually that wrong. And with the huge differences among polling organisations, they all have a degree of rationality in their predictions, informed by past practice as well as (frankly) a degree of unconscious ideology manifesting as 'gut instinct'. They have a huge amount of future business riding on their predictions, so they have every interest in getting it right. YouGov probably has a mixture of professional concerns in adjusting its estimate and business concerns -- the costs of underestimating Labour are a lot lower than those of overestimating labour.

But it is to say that there is nothing authoritative about polling. It is always just raw material to act on. We read the polls looking for points of weakness in our opponents, moments of opportunity, areas where intervention can make a difference, ambiguities and ambivalences in what appears to be a consensus.

And as we approach polling day, we read them with only one answer. Let's get as many people out to vote as possible. Let's make all the pollsters wrong. Let's confound their expectations. And even if we can't, even if what we're doing now is building a basis for the future, even if we know that we were never going to turn Britain into a left-wing country within just two years, or just one election campaign, in the wake of Brexit and after years of reaction... Still, let's bring on the flood.

Cross-posted from my Patreon. If you like the post, please consider making a 'pledge'.

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Sunday, June 04, 2017

Let's drop the big one posted by Richard Seymour

"The individual would misconceive the nuclear peril if he tried to understand it primarily in terms of personal danger, or even in terms of danger to the people immediately known to him, for the nuclear peril threatens life, above all, not at the level of individuals, who already live under the sway of death, but at the level of everything that individuals hold in common. Death cuts off life; extinction cuts off birth . . . the meaning of extinction is therefore to be sought first not in what each person’s own life means to him but in what the world and the people in it mean to him." 
  —Jonathan Schell

"We died with the dying: 
See, they depart and we go with them. 
We are born with the dead; 
See, they return and bring us with them." 
  — T S Eliot

During the Korean War, when troops from the People's Republic of China entered North Korea to repel the US invasion, General MacArthur conducted a quick strategic re-thinking. Let's invade China, he said. Let's drop the big one. "Oriental psychology," he insisted, was such that it would only "respect and follow aggressive, resolute and dynamic leadership".

During the Vietnam War, the US government looked into the use of nuclear weapons to decisively finish off a determined, disciplined revolutionary nationalist movement that was actually in the course of decimating the US army.

During the Second Cold War, US weapons policy was informed by the most alarmist neoconservative prognoses about red danger, triggering a nuclear arms race. The United States president was a man who interpreted biblical prophesy to mean that the United States was destined for nuclear confrontation with the Communist antichrist. His Secretary of State wanted to bomb Cuba and "turn that island into a fucking parking lot". His Pentagon repeatedly war-gamed a nuclear war with the USSR, and readied the US military for a "protracted" nuclear war in which the US must prevail. It took a mass anti-nuclear movement to put a dampener on the nuclear arms race.

You can see these little moments, alongside the Cuban Missile Crisis, as a series of near-misses for the species. Millions of lives, perhaps all of human life, depended on those misses. After all, this is what definitional about what these extinction-level events, be it ecological collapse or nuclear war. It isn't just about ending a lot of lives in an unjust and tragic way. It is about ending the possibility of life. The one tiny spot in this vast, mostly lifeless universe -- as far as we know or have any right to guess -- where life has emerged. And we have come uncomfortably close, several times, to extinguishing it.

A lot hangs on that 'we'. Because after all, most of 'we' had little to do with it. These were decisions made by bureaucrats and military personnel acting within certain lines of strategic and jurisprudential logic. That logic is, as we can plainly see from the MacArthur case, not so much exempt from ideology as a concentrated form of ideology. We could even describe it as, since it impelled its bearers toward the brink of megadeath, a kind of fanaticism.

'We' are the hostages, the human shields, of a thermonuclear protection racket. There is no purpose to a nuclear weapon other than to annihilate major population centres. The weapons are pointed at us, by the rulers of the states in which we live. And they tell us that the gun pointed at our heads is for our protection, when it is the administration of death, of extinction.

And yet 'we', or some of us, a minority perhaps, are also eminently available for this transaction. Enthusiastic, sadomasochistic participants. The thermonuclear state probably doesn't have a huge popular constituency. But the other side of politics, usually working for the side of reaction, has nothing to do with the usual norms of enlightened self-interest, nothing to do with "rational choice". That other side works according to the logic of the unconscious.

A friend reminded me earlier of the Spanish fascist slogan, 'Viva La Muerte'. Which, translated, means 'Long Live Death'. Think about the logic of that slogan. It is completely contradictory, containing no sense of logic or sequence or temporality. It is a slogan that comes from a place outside of reality, defying the laws of physics: hence its peculiar poetic resonance. It wants life in death; death in life. Unconscious death-wishes often work that way.

And this is the world into which we are inducted when we hear from fellow citizens for whom, happiness is a gun pointed at your head. Citizens for whom, it is the job of a political leader to hold that gun there and be willing to pull the trigger. It is a world where death and supremacy rules. Where people don't mind dying in a nuclear blaze as long a migrant doesn't get to claim benefits.

This isn't a world half way around the planet. It isn't even a world half way down the block. It is the world we live in, dying.

Cross-posted from my Patreon -- if you liked this post, consider supporting my writing by making a pledge.

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Saturday, May 27, 2017

Troops on the streets, crazy in the news sheets. posted by Richard Seymour

One death-drive turns another. One journalist calls for the "internment of thousands". Another calls for a "final solution".

When the Westminster attacker, Khalid Masood, struck, there was the usual authoritarian frenzy, such as calls for the end of instant messaging privacy, and The Sun demanding armed cops on every street corner -- a lurid Petainist fantasy. But there was also a sub-current of exciting, macho rhetoric. 

Andrew Neil, in a speech he was allowed to deliver to camera by the BBC, derided this "poundland terrorist". Do you, he wondered, have any idea who you're dealing with? We are the British. We conquered half the planet. We have committed untold acts of violence. You are nothing next to us. Bring it on. Send your best, send your worst. Come ahead, square go. This phallic bombast was so thrilling that Tommy Robinson, sharing the speech, said it gave him goosebumps. A visceral reminder that all rhetoric is erotica.

The stirring evocation of armour-plated British omnipotence was, however, only as persuasive as the attack was unsuccessful. Masood's methods were crude and chaotic. His headlong death-lunge at the nominal centre of British power was always doomed to fail. The indications are that he had converted to Islam to get out of a violent life -- he dreamed of blood, as he put it. But he was seemingly never a doctrinaire jihadi. 

Salman Abedi, the 22 year old suicide attacker in Manchester, was a different type of attacker. This we know just from what he did. He used an explosive device, not knives. He picked a soft target, and a large target. Some 21,000 people, not protected by armed police, or even a baggage check, were potentially within the radius of his explosion. And maybe there was also an element of religious sadism, in targeting young people who had been having a good time. It seems obvious what he sought to provoke; exactly the kind of reaction that similar attacks have provoked in France, in the hope that an increasingly embattled minority of young Muslim men will flock to the theocratic far right. They want British politicians, spies and cops to become the recruiting sergeants for Daesh, and also collaterally the recruiting sergeants for Europe's next wave of fascism. Another turn in a depressingly familiar death-spiral.

And so, the Prime Minister gave a speech. The reclusive, gaffe-prone, gurn-smirking Theresa May, finally found her mark. It was, by all accounts, stateswomanlike, dignified, resolute, capturing the mood of the nation -- which is to say, it was exactly the same as any speech any Prime Minister would have given at such a moment. It said nothing, but said it with conviction. The point of such speeches is that, in their authoritative disbursement of information that was already available, in their solemn declarations of the obvious, in their insistence on certain adjectives which do the heavy lifting of explanation -- cowardice, evil, and so on -- they seem to make a superficial sense. Such attacks do not make sense. They are where sense breaks down. But the obligatory Prime Ministerial speech insists on making sense. In saying that we are strong, they were weak; we are brave, they are cowards; we will win, they will lose, it re-asserts a whole order of sense-making that has come into question.

What was far more important, registering the actual tenor of her policy response, was what came after. Theresa May is an ally of hardliners in the state, particularly in MI5. It was a former spook whom she recruited to draft her snoopers' charter some years ago. Her repertoire of responses to terror all fall on the side of intensified authoritarianism. Last time, she used the occasion to once more browbeat messaging services like Whatsapp -- on the preciously thin grounds that Masood may have sent a vital message linked to his attack before dying -- into abolishing user privacy. 

This time, in the middle of an election, she has raised the "threat level" to "critical" and sent armed forces out into the streets. Without attempting to second-guess government claims that there is another terror attack imminent, or inquire into the integrity of those "threat levels" (if it hasn't dropped below "severe" in such a long time, perhaps the war isn't working), this is obviously not going to stop an attack.

It is, like airport security, a superstitious ritual. The point of this sort of terrorist tactic is that it is flexible, unpredictable, designed to upset calculations, and work around obstacles. As long as Daesh and like organisations have the ability to recruit, to summon loyalty, there will always be soft targets. Why? Because the idea of an ironclad, completely securitised nation, with no vulnerabilities, is a sinister totalitarian fantasy. Even if it were possible, it would depend on a repression ten times more ferocious than that which it was called down to stop.

So this is posturing, which happens to serve the interests of Theresa May and of police hardliners who want to show off a bit of British muscle and steel. And the more barbaric and violent the discourse becomes, the more it can be canalised into this statist machismo. The more-or-less civilised, collectivist, solidaristic reaction of Mancunians, the blood donations and free taxi rides, the homeless man rushing in to help the victims, the refusal to 'be divided', the chasing away of EDL provocateurs, is a cultural counterweight to that dangerous and ineffectual strutting. 

But at some point, we need that multicultural conviviality to be conjoined with something which is presently absent, and that is a serious and critical reappraisal of every assumption of every 'counterterrorist' policy that has produced this terrifying impasse. That would mean the Prevent strategy, the various foreign policy interventions, the alliance with Saudi Arabia, everything. It would all have to be on the table, without intimidation. Because that intimidation is coming. The Birmingham MP, Khalid Mahmood, is already using the attack to demand that people stop criticising the hugely discriminatory and counterproductive Prevent strategy. Bear in mind that even such figures as Liam Byrne and Syeeda Warsi have criticised Prevent for the chilling effect it has on Muslim communities and on the enjoyment of civil liberties. The vitriol against Corbyn for his supposed Provo sympathies is part of this offensive, pour encourager les autres

Nonetheless, the discussion has to happen. Because the cost of not having these conversations will probably be measured in a body count.

(Cross-posted from my Patreon account. If you like it, please consider sending me a couple of quid.)

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Thursday, May 25, 2017

Writing posted by Richard Seymour

I have launched a new project, using Patreon, wherein I'll be writing daily and 'patrons' (anyone who pledges any monthly sum to my account) will have immediate access to that writing. There are already three articles up there, dealing with Labour, the elections, Manchester, terror, and the death-drive. This is an attempt to incentivise people to pay for writing, and to give me a reason to write every day. The pitch is as follows:

What do you do when you write? You give yourself a second body. And when you read, you breathe "air from another life and time and place".
Extended explanation, said the poet Marianne Moore, tends to spoil the lion's leap. I will be brief. You cannot pay for good writing. You can't incentivise someone to lift your day, or to send you out into the streets in a fury. And you can't subscribe to a life-changing experience. All you can do is pay for writing to happen, and see what comes.
If, somehow, you don't know me, I am the author of several books, most recently 'Corbyn: The Strange Rebirth of Radical Politics' (Verso, 2016). And I am a founding editor of Salvage magazine. I mostly write marxist political commentary -- a practiced purveyor of undead ideas. And sometimes I take strange, nocturnal detours.
If you support my writing, you will see daily political commentary (a diary or blog), regular political articles (roughly once a week), and occasional long-form essays before they appear anywhere else.
You will suffer shattering mood-swings, expand your vocabulary, acquire a certain aristocratic disposition, and fall in love twice as often as before. You will be on better terms with cats, and dogs will stop growling at you. The world will end more reluctantly and gracefully, and only after you've had dessert. Everything will be fine; no, it won't.
Please help.

If you 'subscribe' to this blog through PayPal, you are invited to switch, so that you get automated access to daily writing. I'll be continuing to write here, of course, especially the irregular longer form essays. But you can get more for your money by switching.

Also, the javascript service I was using has gone defunct, meaning this blog currently has a rather plain look. This is temporary. Normal service will be resumed. 

If you haven't ever supported my writing financially, do consider dropping a couple of quid my way. It doesn't have to be a lot, provided there are enough supporters.

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Friday, May 19, 2017

Eternal Sunshine of a Spotless Centre posted by Richard Seymour

My latest long form piece for Salvage is about Corbyn and the snap election:

"Nothing is forever, except absence. And if the bromides of the British pundit class seem timeless, that is because the political centre registers as an absence.

"Credibility, they’re saying. What Corbyn needs now, and sorely lacks, is credibility. How does one get credibility? A sharp swerve to the centre. The capitals of the European centre are collapsing around their ears, from London to Madrid to Athens to Amsterdam. Only Paris has averted the complete collapse of the centre through, as Perry Anderson put, a yuppie simulacrum of populist breakthrough. And even there, it followed the implosion of the Socialist Party and survived only because its major opponent was fascism. Yet nothing can shake a belief that has never even been thought about as such. The answer – cleave centre – is given with the same confidence that spiritual adepts once prescribed trepanning for the sick. Corbyn needs centrist credibility, in other words, like he needs a hole in the head.

"That Corbyn lacks credibility is the implied or explicit premise of almost every report, every editorial, every interview question in this election. When Corbyn supporters are sought out for a grilling on national television, the question is usually put with a degree of polite amusement: ‘do you really, in your heart of hearts, believe Jeremy Corbyn is a potential Prime Minister?’ The interviewee then has to choose between appearing to be unreasonable, in view of the polls, or offering a half-hearted, mealy-mouthed defence which amounts to the patronising idea, indulged by even his bitter enemies, that he is ‘a thoroughly decent person’.


"Let us cut through the bad faith and bullshit. The answer to the question is ‘no’: by their standards, Corbyn has absolutely no credibility, and is not a potential Prime Minister. However, while this should be given its full weight as a material factor, we should also recognise that the British political and media establishment is akin to Standard & Poor’s in their disbursement of ‘credibility’ ratings. This establishment has spent years giving triple A scores to what turned out to be toxic political stock, while regularly using its ratings and public statements to organise the processes it claims to be reporting on. And these last few years have seen a credibility crunch of gigantic proportions.

"This is not to double down on the unworldly claims of some of the Corbynite Left’s social media prize-fighters, who routinely claim that he is about to school Theresa May. As an expression of a devoutly held wish, an animating desire, this is laudable; as anything else, it is ineffectual bombast. The Conservatives may fall short of the 20 per cent leads they began to score after announcing a snap election. Labour’s polling, having been depressed to around 25 per cent post-Brexit and amid the ‘chicken coup’ and its reverberations, seems to have returned to around 30 per cent, which is where it has been in practice since 2010. But the local election results were poor, with the Conservatives gaining seats in the hundreds while Labour shed seats in the greater hundreds. Credibility may be a hugely depleted currency, but it is still a material force in this election. The punditocracy still has its power, and so therefore does its received wisdom. The centrist political establishment is on the back foot, but fighting back with ruthless determination and resourcefulness. The same countersubversive zeal with which May announced the snap election, pledging to crush the saboteurs, expunge division from politics and forge a unified national will, also animates the centre’s war on Corbynism..."

Read on.

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Is Fascism on the Rise? posted by Richard Seymour

I was asked to post this brief talk I recently gave to a Stop Trump meeting in South London.

It was the Martinican poet and anticolonial fighter, Aime Cesaire, who tried to point out to Europeans that what they called Nazism, they had been practicing with a free conscience in the colonial world for decades. And that this relationship was not incidental.

In fact, the conscience of the European was never free. Octave Mannoni, the French psychoanalyst who famously psychoanalysed the colonial situation, once suggested that there was a surprising pervasiveness of the colonised, in the dreams of Europeans who had never left the continent and never seen such a person. Today, one wonders if provincial, sedentary English men and women dream of the Muslim.

If they do, these hauntings allow them to dissociate: that is, to project all their destructive impulses (the death-drive) onto someone else. It also allows them to dream that, since there is this other figure who isn’t fully human, they are guaranteed full humanity, a plenitude of being, by their whiteness. A certain cosmic prestige. Remember D H Lawrence in his ecstatic passions about nature — the dandelion is a nonpareil, foolish, foolish, foolish, to compare it to anything else. This was also a racist metaphysics of a great chain of being, in which he judged life more vivid in him than in his Mexican driver.

A lethal anxiety can be provoked when the principle of race seems to collapse. Because then you might have to take back your projections. What’s more, you have to confront the emptiness of your identification with whiteness. You may remember the racist tram passenger, Emma West, emotively excoriating black passengers and saying, “my Britain is fuck all now!”

In the summer of 2011, David Starkey complained that the whites have become black. This was his explanation for multiracial, anti-police riots that flared across English cities. Well, five years later, Thomas Mair gave that anxiety the force of arms. In the middle of a Brexit campaign which dramatically represented the country as being at a “Breaking Point”, where that break was clearly linked to race, Mair sought out a 'traitor' to whiteness — just as Breivik did — for murder.

The Breiviks and Mairs, lone wolves of 21st century fascism, are also canaries in the coal mine. They don’t tell us that fascism has arrived, but they do show us what it means.

The question, “Is Fascism On the Rise?,” could too easily provoke us to offer glib answers. Trump isn’t a fascist, Farage isn’t a fascist, so we might think we can set the whole question of fascism aside. But we can only do that if we treat fascism as a scholastic typological question, rather than an historical one.

History is a process, and we need to understand the processes through which fascism arises. There is a traditional schema according to which economic crisis equals polarisation equals extremism. Things are more complicated. There’s a particular sequence which we should pay attention to.

Yes, economic crisis is important, but it has to be metabolised by the state somehow. A crisis of capitalism, has to be a crisis of its political institutions and of its ideological claims. That crisis must manifest itself in a deadlock of political leadership of the ruling class. If, typically, one of its sectors leads (say, the City of London) and imposes its imperatives as being for the good of all, that leadership will come into question.

There will be a crisis of representation, as the link between parties and their traditional social base breaks down. As governments flounder, the state apparatuses will achieve a higher degree of autonomy and salience. There will be profound and pervasive distrust of the existing ideologies and the media outlets which purvey them.

The Left will be weak, and retreating. The labour movement will be weak, employers on the offensive. That offensive will have severe consequences not just for workers but also for the lower ends of the middle class, who suddenly risk being plunged down into the ranks of the poorest — or worse, being made equal to the racialised outsider. The whites will become black.

And then, internationally, the state will be either in some state of relative ‘backwardness’ (as was the case for imperial late-comers Italy and Germany) or in some state of relative competitive decline. A decline which metaphorises the decline of all the downwardly mobile social strata in the nation.

In that context, of comprehensive crisis and left weakness, a fascist organisation can take power.

The traditional way of doing this would be to exploit democratic politics while building paramilitary strength; to forge networks of elite support and covert state alliances while posing as anti-establishment.

But in most cases, no mature fascist organisation exists. The closest we have come to seeing that in recent years was the Golden Dawn years in Greece, where they assembled mass support and rival centres of legitimate violence on the streets, alongside links to state allies — but the confrontation with bourgeois state power came too soon. They were crushed, for now.

But the fascism of the future doesn’t have to be traditional. Nor does it have to respect the sequences observed in the interwar years, or reanimate old cultures. It could even adopt a patina of edgy cool, as with the alt-right: we should never underestimate the erotic glamour of fascism and its appeal to the death-drive.

Nor does it have to always be on the brink of a putsch. Let us not forget the strategy of the Front national, to win mainstream credibility by demonstrating the ability to govern within liberal constraints. The attempt by Bannon and Miller to force a rupture in the American state was premature and voluntaristic. A more competent germinal fascism would take its time, patiently exploiting the fascist potential within the liberal state, to incubate and nurture the fascist monster of the future.

We face a parlous situation. The instability of capitalist democracies will produce both exhilarating breakthroughs and morbid symptoms. Recent polls across Europe showed that surprisingly huge numbers of young people would be up for a revolt against their government. This can be a radical groundswell, but let us not underestimate the space or pure negativity, the possibility for an identification with pure destruction. Polls around the time of Charlie Hebdo showed a surprisingly large reservoir of sympathy for Daesh among young French people — not just Muslims, as was inaccurately reported. How can the Left harness the best and head off the worst — if not to channel it through pointless social media blood-lettings? We know how the Right will respond; by racialising it, and by calling down the force of an authoritarian response ten times more lethal than what it is supposed to repress.

We on the Left are having a good campaign about class and economic issues right now, but to an extent we seem to want to have anti-fascist conversations without seriously addressing the centrality of race, nation, war and the colonial legacy. The national question, which in Britain is always a racial question, has become more and not less central. We would not be facing a Tory electoral behemoth now, had Brexit not completely transformed the terrain. Too much of the Left, including some of the Corbynite Left, would rather not have that conversation for reasons of electoral expediency. It would simply cost too much to have that conversation in the short run. What they don’t realise is what it will cost them in the long run not to have that conversation.

I return to Cesaire, talking about that troubled conscience of Europeans:

“it is Nazism, yes, but before they were its victims, they were its accomplices; they tolerated that Nazism before it was inflicted on them, they absolved it, shut their eyes to it, legitimized it, because, until then, it had been applied only to non-European peoples; they have cultivated that Nazism, they are responsible for it, and before engulfing the whole edifice of Western, Christian civilization in its reddened waters, it oozes, seeps and trickles from every crack.”

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Tuesday, May 09, 2017

One must not move too quickly to sense-making. posted by Richard Seymour

My interview with Période about my academic work and writing has been republished, in English, over at Historical Materialism:

"There is a rationalising tendency in all theory, Marxism included: a drive to ‘make sense’ of things. One of the virtues of psychoanalysis at its best is that it is comfortable making do with nonsense for a while — it doesn’t move too quickly to sense-making. And when you have people beating up Mexicans, or Poles, or behaving politically in ways that seem profoundly injurious even to themselves, there is a temptation to try to rationalise and move quickly to solutions. To say, “ah, they’re doing this because of economic insecurity” or “they’re doing this because the media have misinformed them about the real causes of their situation”. It might be worth spending time with the nonsense before moving to problem-solving."

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Monday, May 08, 2017

The Night Season posted by Richard Seymour

“I sleep, but my heart waketh,” begins a verse in the Song of Songs, “it is the voice of my beloved that knocketh”.

The songs of depression and loss begin as songs of obsession and yearning. If, as Andrew Solomon claims, depression is the flaw in love, it is in part because violence is the repressed truth of romance: it is always a St Valentine’s Day massacre.

The knocking of a woman’s heart becomes the knocking of the door, and the knocking of the bed. It is a dream, and the dream is a wish-fulfilment. Later, the woman goes out walking, after midnight, searching the streets for her lover.

This is a strange interlude in the early biblical texts, one which was included amid controversy, because it has no express spiritual content. It is an erotic poem, laden with superlative idealisation. The language points to qualities that exceed description. “His legs are as pillars of marble, set upon sockets of fine gold: his countenance is as Lebanon, excellent as the cedars”. “Who is she that looketh forth as the morning, fair as the moon, clear as the sun, and terrible as an army with banners?” “I am a wall, and my breasts like towers … Make haste, my beloved, and be thou like a roe or to a young hart upon the mountains of spices.”

The lovers in the Song of Songs find one another, a success story. They are not just idealised, but ideally matched, mirroring one another's desire: “brother” and “sister” in the curious language of the Old Testament. But if, as Michael Eigen wrote somewhere, “desire and idealisation are sisters,” the violence of idealisation appears in its language. She is “terrible as an army with banners,” he sings.  “Love is strong as death,” she sings, “jealousy is cruel as the grave”. We have to imagine that, as with all ideal lovers, they would be an absolutely awful couple.

Idealisation is a success story, simmering with violence which lurks, like piranha, just below the reflective shimmer. One might say, it is the success story of heteronormative patriarchy. Like perfectionism, it is gendered – we all do it, but women lose most from it. It comes from a need to control the unpredictable, to disavow the open and indeterminate. Idealisation is a defence against the future. A woman is terrifying, Jacqueline Rose says somewhere, because you never know what she is going to come up with.

Another side of this story, one of its many failures, might be found in Patsy Cline’s country and western song, ‘Walkin’ After Midnight’. A story told by a woman seemingly deserted by her lover, who goes out walking in the desperate hope that he will somehow materialise along the road, searching for her all along. As if her walking and wanting, tracing what town planners call the “desire lines” made by human footfall, will, like a magical ritual, summon the object of desire into being. The song is a dream, and the dream is a wish-fulfilment.

If, for Matthew Beaumont, night-walking is a tacit challenge to the political and social regime – think ‘Reclaim The Night’ or 'Nuit debout' – it can also be a very individualised rebellion, like depression. The term “night season,” which evokes a state of worldly abjection, is used often in religious language: frequently in connection with the Song of Songs, where it in fact does not appear. It occurs only once in the King James Bible, in Psalm 22. It is the season of abandonment:

“My God, my God, why has thou forsaken me? why are thou so far from helping me, and from the words of my roaring? O my God, I cry in the daytime, but thou hearest not; and in the night season, and am not silent.”

The psalm is a song of being forsaken. The feeling of being forsaken, an “immense and aching solitude” as William Styron put it, even amid crowds, even among friends, even when no real-world abandonment has taken place, is common in depression. (Styron began to experience melancholic depression late in life, after developing an intolerance of alcohol. But his description, in The Confessions of Nat Turner, of the hero's feeling of abandonment by his God in the aftermath of his failed uprising, suggests that he might have known this all along.) But if the song is also a dream, we might ask what sort of wish-fulfilment that could be. What sort of satisfaction there is to be had, or avoided, in abandonment. And whether idealisation can also be a defence against consummation.

The theological term for night-walking, is mysticism. Theologians who speak of the “night season” invoke a state, not only of abandonment, of being far from God, but of total subjective destitution. The removal of all worldly comfort and support. It is a state of being plunged into darkness.

Darkness is one of the first metaphors in Genesis, for matter without form, a world without language or purpose. Lord Byron’s meditation on apocalyptic darkness evokes an eternity without meaning:

“The bright sun was extinguish'd, and the stars
Did wander darkling in the eternal space,
Rayless, and pathless, and the icy earth
Swung blind and blackening in the moonless air.”

It is as though the sun bleeds to death in the heavens, and you wander darkling, blind, pathless, traversing frozen, lifeless tundra in every direction, which you must navigate in consummate darkness. At least the deep freeze is a kind of anaesthetic. We are used to depression as a refusal. This is depression as a kind of exile.

And it is, some believers will have you believe, a necessary pilgrimage. An experience without which faith is never realised, and which ultimately leads, if pursued, not to abandonment but to the more perfectly apprehended presence of God. As if to say, a self-cure for depression might be to relate to it differently, to think of it as the beginning of a voyage to ecstasy. What could this be like? “The end of a world,” says Michel de Certeau. A consummation devoutly to be wished for.

Mysticism is as old as religion, but it emerged as a substantive concept in the seventeenth century. The early modern mystics were depressives. The economic depression of their social strata, the political depression of their age of religious wars and oncoming modernity, left them feeling abandoned by God. The texts of seventeenth-century mystics use the term “night” to refer both to their dire global situation and to a way of moving in it: night-walking.

The disciplines of mysticism were ambulatory, not doctrinal. They engaged the breathing body: whatever they prescribed was intended to help the spiritual traveller walk in the dark. But to walk where? Away from the self, toward the north pole of the psyche. It is an imaginary, septentrional journey that ends in being taken by force – rapture.

Night-walking in this sense is not something one undertakes lightly. To give up worldly things and embark on a journey whose end-point is a kind of spiritual kidnapping, must be full of peril. And indeed, the religious historian Karen Armstrong describes the terror, guilt and tearful anxiety of mystics on their journey. Perhaps the most famous Biblical encounter with God is that of Ezekiel, who has to be forced into miserable exile before he can encounter the terrifying Almighty. And this is to say nothing of the death-like catalepsy that follows the lucid phase of the trance.

Those who made the trek expecting to find anything like a personal God to relate to would have been terribly disappointed – if not devastated – by what they found. The ecstatic subject, as Amy Hollywood writes, is she who “stands outside herself, encountering and communicating with another”. But it is not even clear that communication is what happens. This other is radically other. Other with a capital ‘O’, from another dimension of existence, defying human categories of comprehension.

To succeed as a mystic is to be abducted by an alien.

Mystics, attempting to communicate with an other, must assume the right to use language other-wise: a modus liquendi, Certeau wrote, valued more for what it does than what it says. In modernity, mystery is something to be resolved. Language is put at the service of elucidation. In mystic speech, language is its effects, and mystery is not to be resolved but experienced. Language must, at any rate, fail if its purpose is to signify that which by definition exceeds signification.

This partly explains the curious status of that erotic, aspiritual poem, the Song of Songs. For early night-walkers like Rabbi Akiva and Gregory of Nyssa, it was the very epitome of transcendence precisely through its delight in worldly things, its breathless ecstasies which push beyond the limits of language to try to grasp the thing-in-itself. This isn’t as paradoxical as it seems. Mysticism is defined by the value it places on knowing through experience; mystical texts, Certeau writes, display a passion for what is. Think of that other ecstatic poet, Hopkins, who glorifies God:

For dappled things –
For skies of couple-colour as a brinded cow;
For rose-moles all in stipple upon trout that swim;
Fresh-firecoal chestnut falls; finches’ wings…

This giddy blast of parataxes, descriptors, comparators and intensifiers, climaxes with one last foot, one last spondee: “Praise him.” As if to give up, and concede that all of these magnificent descriptions simply fail: only awestruck praise is possible. Something like this is true of the Song of Songs, in its superlative excesses. Early mystical texts treat the Bride’s descriptions of her Lover in this poem as an attempt to describe God – or rather, as an attempt to gesture at the failure of description.

The eroticism of mysticism, then, is predicated on a yearning for something that is beyond speech. Armstrong remarks that the reports of early Jewish mystics, as detailed as they are, “describe anything but God”. They provide details of the robe, the chariot, the palace, the stitched lettering reading ‘YHWH’, the gold, the fire, but these are all framing devices. The mystics knew perfectly well that this was just a stock of received religious imagery that they possessed and manipulated to get to the ecstatic place. But it frames, it circles around, a zone of – nothing. Or something so radically, absolutely Other that it manifests as a void.

Here, God resembles nothing like the personal being that appears in everyday theology and crude antitheism alike – the idea of God as some sort of chap, as Terry Eagleton scoffs. Whatever it is, it defies human categories. The psychoanalyst Darian Leader sees a similar pattern in modern art, wherein the negative space framed by image and text evokes nothing but the Lacanian Real – that part of experience which tortures and electrifies us but which cannot be represented.

The terrible joy and pathos of mystic speech is that it strains for something impossible. It tries to say it all, but what it wants to say most is unspeakable.

The tension in any pathos could be said to be like that of the string on a musical instrument. To make its music, it must be wound up tightly, at two ends, suspended over a carefully framed void. In this case, the two ends correspond to that which the mystic desperately wants to put into words, and that which can be put into words.

Mystics experience two kinds of ecstasy, corresponding to these points. The first is the rapturous sense of wholeness and plenitude, a return to Oneness through proximity to a being that stands for, says, absolutely everything. The second is linked to that religious experience of ‘standing near the cross’. Beholding, as it were, the battered, broken, bleeding body of Christ, and partaking of the fellowship of his suffering. This is an encounter, not with wholeness, but with something that is split wide open.

The human body is not always mutilated, but it is always lacking something. It is, in the psychoanalytic idiom, ‘castrated’. According to the religious philosopher Amy Hollywood, this movement between wholeness and fracture is typical of ecstatic experience. In his later years, Lacan began to give psychoanalytic attention to mystical experience, and the relationship of ecstasy to speech. For Lacan, the tortured doubling of mystic speech corresponds to the sexed doubling of language itself.

The two ecstasies, or jouissances, experienced by mystics were considered ‘phallic’ or ‘feminine’ depending on their relationship to castration. Phallic jouissance is that which is concerned with planetary fullness and plenitude, having and saying it all. Feminine jouissance, is the ecstasy made possible by not having and not saying it all. After all, a world in which there is always more to be said, is necessarily more open and undecided – and perhaps the more overwhelming, the more rapturous for it – than one which has been entirely spoken for. Phallic jouissance totalises; feminine jouissance seeps in through the split.

In language, there is a movement between the two positions. On the one end, there is always an attempt to stabilise language by positing a transcendental signifier (which could stand in for ‘God’). This signifier is supposed to cement the relationship between signifiers and meaning, which Saussure demonstrated was otherwise contingent on traditions of use. But, on the other end, there is the recognition that the transcendental signifier, which supposedly guarantees the presence of meaning, is itself empty. God, as we have seen, is a void. The music of language therefore depends on a movement, or play, along a string suspended between presence and absence. Between having and not having. Between saying it all, and not saying it all.

You could say that the yearning of mystical experience is toward that phallic jouissance, but the void cannot be full. Language never says everything, and there is always heterogeneity. All one can do is accede to that feminine jouissance of not saying it all. All one can do is put some of the Real into words.

And this is what happens to Ezekiel when he confronts God. He experiences, first, a raging inferno and howl, overwhelming to human senses, which resolves only briefly into a few opaque images and words. A chariot. A hand stretched out. A scroll filled with lamentations and wailings. A divine voice, which commands him to eat the scroll.

“When he forced it down,” Armstrong writes, “accepting the pain and misery of his exile, Ezekiel found that ‘it tasted sweet as honey’.”

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