Saturday, September 26, 2015

Backwards, Forwards

First, I'd like to congratulate everyone involved on the launch of Eruditorum Press. Now you can get Phil Sandifer, Jane Campbell, Jack Graham, and Pex Lives all in one place. I've updated my links list to reflect this exciting development.

Second, Shabcast 10 is up! Three solid hours of conversation with the intelligent, funny, inimitable Jack Graham of increasing Shabogan Graffiti fame. It's received some positive responses on social media, so I imagine you'll enjoy it. I may try to follow up on some things mentioned in the podcast, especially those places where I was less than clear.

It's also a late response to Kevin and James hoping to bait me and Jack into an anarchism vs. Marxism debate way back in the Hammer Frankenstein episode of Pex Lives. It turns out we get along famously, so my pals at Pex Lives can go screw. Oh, and hating the Caretaker is a sign of character and sound judgment. Recognizing the substantial overlap between Marxists and anarchists, especially in these beleaguered times for the radical left, is worthwhile. That's not to say the differences are unimportant, but it's not going to be my focus in addressing capitalism (in my small way), first because I find sectarian debate often tiresome, and second because I already had an internal debate on the subject years ago when I moved from Marxism to anarchism. Each are plural anyway, so teasing out the differences between libertarian Marxists and communist-anarchists (to name two of the closest) seems an exercise in angel-counting.

Besides, I've already rented out too much space in my brain to gothic horror and 1970s children's television, so I'm probably no longer capable of debate. Christ, how did I end up here? knowing more about Peter Cushing credits than points of divergence in rival Maoist groupuscules.

Four paragraphs in, and I haven't gotten to the point: Jack has a wonderful new post up, so go read it. I'm going to address only the last few paragraphs, but that shouldn't be taken to mean the rest isn't important to his argument. I'm just going to be focusing on a few aspects of it in connection with some things I've been thinking about lately.

I have a weakness for dusty old things and mouldy literature more in keeping with being an apolitical small c conservative than a supposed radical. Yesterday I got to hold an Anglo-Saxon coin from the reign of Edgar I, and I found it exciting as hell. I don't know why I should. It was a small, lightweight, insubstantial little thing, misshapen and crude. None of the gleaming practicality of a modern nickel, something with more bearing on my survival than the ugly, unimportant little thing I regarded and touched with the reverence due a holy relic. I'm overstating that reverence, of course, but I don't give my loose change a thought when I handle it.

Different too was my reaction to handling some Third Reich pennies minted in 1938. Hardly a Luger or an SS uniform, just small things as insubstantial as the Anglo-Saxon coin or the nickel in my pocket, but Christ, the horror of touching it. An object from a brutality much less remote than medieval England, and thereby felt more acutely.

But that brings me back to the nickel, a coin minted by a government responsible for some terrible crimes in my own lifetime. It's rather like the old point made by phenomenologists that what is closest to you is the hardest to see. The coin of an empire that counts me as a citizen passes from my hand without comment or thought. (To anticipate a reaction: I am not pulling a Godwin's Law here.)

So part of what generates the horror in touching the Nazi penny is not only in its nearness, but its distance. It's easier to see than the Anglo-Saxon or American coins. It's a kind of metaphorical maximum grip (to abuse a concept from Merleau-Ponty). I am ideally situated in respect to the penny for it to show up as an object of horror. The nickel, too close, shows up for me only in its being as practical equipment to further other ends, and Edgar's coin, too distant, shows up as an artifact, an end in itself for my appreciation and reverence. I suppose if I were a dealer in antiquities I'd appraise it from the standpoint of the artifact's market value, but I never look at old things in that way.

To avoid the danger of any of these coins becoming the Zahir, I'll turn again to Jack's post.

There's a point where we can go from recognizing brutality in the past to projecting modern brutality into the past. The strain of fantasy we see in Game of Thrones has brutality as its major theme. I remember coming across this post and thinking it had a good point: GoT has a lot more to do with colonialism than with feudalism. I'm interested in hearing what Jack might have to say about this as it's got a double edge to it: you could see such a move as progressive if it uses the projection of modern brutality into an imagined world with the trappings of medieval history as a way of criticizing that very recent horror (making it distant and easier to see), or as a potentially reactionary normalization of the brutality of the last few centuries by suggesting it's an essential fact of human nature and not the consequence of specific social relations and material history. I'm not familiar enough with Martin's work to make a judgment on this account—I've only seen the show and have a lot of distaste for it, similar to my issues with Walking Dead (to give a near-SF parallel), so I'm not the best judge.

What often interest me in the European Middle Ages are the conspicuous ruptures in its history, contrary to the popular narrative we've received from the victorious bourgeoisie depicting it as a monolithic church-state union setting a tone and not abating until Martin Luther's constipation caused the Reformation. Things were a lot weirder than we often recognize. For a radical perspective on these ruptures, you can look to books like Kenneth Rexroth's Communalism, Raoul Vaneigem's Resistance to Christianity (both in the links list) and Movement of the Free Spirit, and even Kropotkin's Mutual Aid. You have all these strange instances of communalism popping up throughout the period, sometimes contemporaneous with the quiet stirrings of what would become the bourgeoisie, and being in the medieval period, often framed in religious language. All of this could be overstated, and of course the protagonists of these communalist struggles were all defeated and the normal order restored, but there's still a shock of anachronism when we read about them.  

History in the gothic is a bit trickier than in SF and fantasy, I think. The gothic can be haunted by the past (numerous examples) or the future (Frankenstein is modern, after all), or one in the guise of the other (as in Moretti's reading of Dracula). That's part of its appeal and power. Folk horror (and despite the hype on the blogosphere, and being a concept coming from Mark Gatiss, I do think it's a legitimate genre distinction) has its own duality at times. In the paradigm example, The Wicker Man, you have the horror of a revived pre-Christian paganism, but damned if I and most of my friends don't have more sympathy for the pagan islanders than for the Christian cop.

How did we get here? To the capitalocene extinction as Jack calls it, to the technic (Gestell), to the constant instability of our age, to the world and human being as resource (Bestand)? It's an incessant question, cropping up in progressive and conservative contexts as people feel increasingly untethered but not liberated. So we turn to history to find the guilty party. Some philosophers go back as far as Plato and lay the blame on the invention of metaphysics, though that was itself the consequence of a change already underway before Plato and his puppet Socrates. Is it Descartes instead? He's certainly responsible for a lot of what I'd consider bad philosophy. But we could look materially, and identify it as the capitalism, itself sprung from the soil of feudalism as institutional consequence or as elaboration of the dialectic, your pick. Or it's the industrial revolution, or it's the invention of agriculture, or even the human phenomenon of language as some primitivists will tell you. I think this question is the founding question of the Neopagan movement, where the locus is identified as the conquest by monotheism. Sometimes it's in the service of positing a golden age and a subsequent fall from grace. Many people have a sense of a wrong turn in history. For conservatives, it's the outrage of increased social equality, for progressives, the recognition despite that increased equality, we are still subjects of capitalism, and capitalism has a history, an origin.

We don't have to go as far as the medieval period to find a candidate for the wrong turn. We can look at the 20th c.—it's familiar enough in the way most anarchists mourn the Spanish Revolution. The sense of loss as located in the recent past seems to permeate all of hauntology in its various guises today as blogosphere philosophy, academic and critical fad, or musical genre. Mark Fisher, in his book Ghosts of My Life, identifies it as a longing for lost futures, a distinctly progressive counterpart to nostalgia:
Haunting, then, can be construed as a failed mourning. It is about refusing to give up the ghost or—and this can sometimes amount to the same thing—the refusal of the ghost to give up on us. The spectre will not allow us to settle into/for the mediocre satisfactions one can glean in a world governed by capitalist realism. 
What's at stake in 21st century hauntology is not the disappearance of a particular object. What has vanished is a tendency, a virtual trajectory. 
. . . 
Popular modernism was by no means a completed project, some pristine zenith that needed no further improvement. In the 1970s, certainly, culture was opened up to working-class inventiveness in a way that is now scarcely imaginable to us; but this was also a time when casual racism, sexism and homophobia were routine features of the mainstream. Needless to say, the struggles against racism and (hetero)sexism have not in the meantime been won, but they have made significant hegemonic advances, even as neoliberalism has corroded the social democratic infrastructure which allowed increased working class participation in cultural production. The disarticulation of class from race, gender and sexuality has in fact been central to the success of the neoliberal project—making it seem, grotesquely, as if neoliberalism were in some way a precondition of the gains made in anti-racist, anti-sexist and anti-heterosexist struggles. 
What is being longed for in hauntology is not a particular period, but the resumption of the processes of democratisation and pluralism for which Gilroy calls. Perhaps it's useful to remind ourselves here that social democracy has only become a resolved totality in retrospect; at the time, it was a compromise formation, which those on the left saw as a temporary bridgehead from which further gains could be won. What should haunt us is not the no longer of actually existing social democracy, but the not yet of the futures that popular modernism trained us to expect, but which never materialised. These spectres—the spectres of lost futures—reproach the formal nostalgia of the capitalist realist world.  
This casting back into the past for an answer to the common question is a desire to rewrite the present for the sake of the future. If we can just identify where it went wrong. . . but it can't just be one thing, one moment, can it? Still, I think the sense of a wrong turn can be useful to progressives. I'm not particularly attached to the idea of historical inevitability, nor progression in discrete stages. The usefulness of inevitability as a Sorelian myth doesn't seem current anymore. I cite Sorel here because I want to bring out the multivalence (or is it ambivalence?) running through the whole discussion—like history in Jack's post, Sorel can be used for leftist syndicalism or rightist fascism. The wrong turn as indictment of the present haunts 20th c. poetry. Ever notice how most of the major figures of (the first half of) 20th c. modernist poetry are either socialist (typically Marxist at that), anarchist, or fascist? Or weird combinations of the three/atavistic quasi-pagans like D. H. Lawrence or Robert Graves? A complacent figure like Wallace Stevens, an insurance executive by day, is unusual for the period. I suppose it's trite and a commonplace notion to blame it all on the first World War, considering how modernism predates it, but the war is probably responsible for the explosion of modernism in poetry. Despite some turning to the peculiarly modern, brutal conservatism of fascism, that turn still seems to have come from a dissatisfaction with the way things were.

That's changed in the neoliberal decades. As a radical and poet, I'm always disappointed in how complacent contemporary poets can be. Sure, many of them, perhaps the majority, are liberal, even on the left wing of their respective establishment liberal parties, but few are radical. Just on an aesthetic level, and feel free to attack me for this sentiment, I'd prefer a lunatic fascist like Ezra Pound to a milquetoast liberal, just to have a good enemy to rail against. Instead, I get another person talking about electability, not making the perfect the enemy of the good, and other platitudes. I'm fine with amelioration, but there has to be some analysis of root causes and proposed solutions to systemic problems.

I got off on a bit of a tangent there. This is already threatening to be TLDR, but I'll continue to dig my grave with a glad heart.

Perhaps this is a good place to talk about the Norman Yoke.
And this appears cleer, For when any Trustee or State Officer is to be Chosen, The Free-holders or Landlords must be the Chusers, who are the Norman Common Souldiers, spread abroad in the Land; And who must be Chosen: but some very rich man, who is the Successor of the Norman Colonels or high Officers. And to what end have they been thus Chosen? but to Establish that Norman power the more forcibly over the enslaved English, and to beat them down again, when as they gather heart to seek for Liberty. 
For what are all those Binding and Restraining Laws that have been made from one Age to another since that Conquest, and are still upheld by Furie over the People? I say, What are they? but the Cords, Bands, Manacles, and Yokes that the enslaved English, like Newgate Prisoners, wears upn their hands and legs as they walk the streets; by which those Norman Oppressors, and these their Successors from Age to Age have enslaved the poor People by, killed their younger Brother, and would not suffer Jacob to arise. 
O what mighty Delusion, do you, who are the powers of England live in! That while you pretend to throw down that Norman yoke, and Babylonish power, and have promised to make the groaning people of England a Free People; yet you still lift up that Norman yoke, and slavish Tyranny, and holds the People as much in bondage, as the Bastard Conquerour himself, and his Councel of War.
– Gerrard Winstanley, The True Levellers Standard Advanced (1649)
I was reminded of this when listening to the new Eruditorum Press Season 9 Podcast. In the episode, there's a brief discussion about the Meddling Monk attempting to prevent the Norman Conquest (and the great suggestion that a series following the Monk would be the better one). Jack remarks something to the effect that the Monk succeeding wouldn't have been a bad thing. Sounds like the Norman Yoke. Now, it's a notion fallen out of currency and often called discredited, so I don't want to claim that Jack holds that opinion, but it's worth considering as one of the many potential wrong turns I've been yammering about this whole time. That's not to say I endorse identifying it as a wrong turn—I haven't bothered to unpack that notion and see if it's worthwhile—but it's an established paradigm for the concept.

By a happy accident, Paul Kingsnorth's novel The Wake arrived in the mail the same day I listened to the podcast. Of course, I haven't read it yet, but I have read some of the material in the back of the book outlining his intention in writing it. It's a peculiar book, written in a pseudo-Saxon reminiscent of Alan Moore's similar attempts to capture the language of a distant past in his Voice of the Fire. The novel depicts the guerrilla struggle of Saxons against the Normans in the immediate aftermath of the invasion. I think it's telling that the protagonist Buccmaster is a pagan, and this despite the long history of Christianization in England. Really ties in, doesn't it? You can get a good idea of the background of the novel by reading this piece by Kingsnorth. It's fairly short, and I know the reader is begging for such mercy after slogging through this post.

In an opportune aside, one of the first things you usually hear about the Norman influence on the English language is the distinction between the animal in the field and the meat on the plate. Cow, pig, and sheep are Saxon words from Saxon farmers raising the animals for consumption by the Normans, who in turn eat beef, pork, and mutton. I think it's wonderfully apropos that the pig David Cameron is alleged to have fucked was dead—it became pork, fit for the ruling class.

I was going to talk about technology and the disposable in Jack's post, and also about how an experience of the seasons is different in the country than the city, but that'll have to wait for another time as this is already too long.

I'll wrap it up by returning to the perennial blog obsession: 1970s children's television ephemera. So, Shadows: The Inheritance. I can't expect anyone to have seen this, but it's only 25 minutes long, so take a look. It's a strange little episode, but it fits perfectly into the ideas under examination here and in the original post. Young Martin, under the influence of his dying grandfather, has visions of an ancient pagan dance performed by men wearing antlers. As a consequence, he rejects the future of capitalist aspiration (in insurance of all things) foisted upon him by his upwardly striving parents, and goes to the country to follow his own way doing something not terribly useful to the capitalist society surrounding him. I think it's ambiguous how progressive this is, but it's certainly a refusal to participate in the prevailing order. It would take another post for me to tease out a full reading of it—I think the grandfather's relationship to the deer is especially interesting. In lieu of an analysis at this time, I just encourage you to watch it with these themes in mind.

This was supposed to be a brief response to Jack's post, to be followed by an examination of personal mythologies in the poetics of W. B. Yeats, Robert Graves, Wallace Stevens, and D. H. Lawrence, but I'm so exhausted after writing this that it'll be a while before I get to that subject. Much to the reader's fortune. If there are typos and a lack of clarity, I apologize, but I haven't the time or energy to revise this.

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