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Ghosts and autonomy

Author: joe

Friday, 20 September, 2013 - 08:16

Producing the new depends upon certain kinds of withdrawal - from, for instance, sociality as much as from pre-existing cultural forms but the currently dominant form of socially networked cyberspace, with its endless opportunities for micro-contact and its deluge of YouTube links, has made withdrawal more difficult than ever before.
 
Mark Fisher, Ghosts of My Life (extract)

Mark Fisher summarises one of the reasons for a certain kind of malaise in contemporary society, in a recently published extract of his upcoming book, 'Ghosts of my Life'. Fisher calls on the supporting concepts of 'retromania' and 'dyschronia' (Reynolds) whereby popular music is dominated by reproductions of existing forms and styles and culture itself seems to endlessly recycle varieties of historical modes until they lose reference to their foundational context; the 'slow cancellation of the future' (Berardi) which captures the failing sense in which the passage of time is experienced as progress towards new social formations and possibilities; 'nostalgia mode' (Jameson) which is less a yearning for a lost past than a phenomenon established precisely because the past is constantly recreated in pastiche and parody; and 'polar inertia', concomitant with accerelating speeds of communication (Virilio), which describes the bloated immobility that seems to take hold when everything that we might wish to experience and consume is always instantly summonable: the mediated, home-delivery sensory and experiential universe available without effort.

There is little to disagree with here, in particular Fisher's diagnosis of Britain's sky-high property prices as an influence on how people who might otherwise spend some of their lives being temporarily autonomous are forced to become part of the economy which usurps any time they might devote to the sort of self-expressive creativity that fosters the production of music, art and writing, and the freedom for experimentation and discovery. There are two aspects of the argument Fisher makes that arouse if not disagreement then at least further thought, though: does creativity really need withdrawal from sociality and existing cultural forms in order to flourish and generate the newness that Fisher mourns in his piece? and is it is really true that contemporary society suffers a sort of anachronism and unrootedness that is genuinely different from the experience of previous generations?

I can distinguish between two kinds of withdrawal which might clarify the first question. If I do not withdraw from sociality, cultural noise, norms and practices then I am enmeshed in a world of endlessly intricate calls and demands, needs and responses. To withdraw from these things I must unarticulate myself from them, and allow them to lose purchase on me. I do not feel the need to honour every call made on me or to commit myself: I can be autonomous, because I can feel as though I choose my commitments - to people, subcultures, ways of life, social formations and cultural practices. In these circumstances - which are most commonly experienced when young, unemployed, feeling life as a threshold of possibilities as yet undetermined - I can try things out, be one person or another, iterate, fail, simulate, play, and pursue a form of self-discovery and self-invention. Those external pressures which seem to impinge on my ability to experience autonomy and self-determination in these ways, and which inhibit my withdrawal from a world of commitments which limit my freedom to experiment, all curtail and circumscribe the space available to me to move in directions of my own choosing. Whether they are the economic practicalities of the sheer cost of existence in a world of workfare, benefit caps and housing bubbles, or the social pressures associated with being accepted into subcultures and peer groups, from body-image to anti-intellectualism to class-distinction to misogyny, such external pressures are factors in the extent to which anyone might understand themselves as freely choosing who they want to become.

This is a different kind of withdrawal than one which limits exposure to cultural forms and ubiquitous media, which Fisher seems to suggest is also necessary for the production of new music or TV programming which might either be felt as genuinely new or satisfy a hunger for a certain kind of quality. All production is necessarily a form of reproduction: from Plato's allegory of the cave to DJ Spooky's analysis of sampling, the postmodern idea that there is nothing new is nothing new. The very act of communication is achieved because humans learn to speak with the same words rather than each inventing their own language; comedians make us laugh because they blend the familiar with the unexpected and absurd; musical styles, notwithstanding their wildly divergent surface qualities and genres, share structures and scales developed and maintained over millenia. The greek work 'poeisis' from which we derive our word 'poetry', and which we often translate as 'production' might well be better understood as 'transformation' - after Heidegger, the bursting of the blossom into bloom, the slow thaw of a frozen waterfall, the metamorphosis of the chrysalis. The creation of the new is the remaking of what already exists expressed in new forms and making new articulations possible. The use of a concept such as withdrawal here, is as a component of the autonomy necessary for someone to choose to be creative, iterative, experimental and productive: that autonomy then provides the opportunity to engage, rather than withdraw, from the world of influence and affinity that will provide the inspiration and raw materials for making music and art.

Our contemporary world certainly seems to offer dwindling opportunities for this kind of autonomy, despite the prevalent view that we are in a society that enjoys freedom on an unprecedented scale. The prevailing economic situation seeks to colonise every space of life with financial accountability. Idleness must be converted into leisure, the consumption of enjoyment; childhood must be supplemented with the right play products, activities and lessons; schoolyears are assessment bootcamps; gap years must result in transferable skills rather than the experience of being alive. Adolescence ought to be the threshold time of self-discovery, but increasingly it is either consumed by chasing employability criteria or blackened by the sense of unemployable uselessness. There is no corner of life in which the imperative to be an economic resource has not infiltrated. The hard-won gains of a post-war settlement which brought universal welfare, social security and free healthcare have been hollowed out and either marketised or demonised. It is hard not to see the 21st century not as merely dyschronic, but even as a world without time. Days counted in productivity and capital rather than living and being, the temporal counterpart to Auge's non-place, imposing contraints on where and when we can and cannot move, demanding we comply with the economic expectations placed on us.

Faced with this horror it is tempting to escape into nostalgia mode, and immerse ourselves in another, happier time: the good honest hard-working time of post-war Britain's austerity years, the courtly excesses of Tudor palaces, the buttoned-up passion of Georgian gentry in search of wives, or even the time-bending isolation of air-crash survivors or the travels of timelords. It is easy to project our phantasies onto earlier historical periods: times when we lived closer to nature, or had more opportunities for adventure, or could fulfil a pioneering spirit, or be masters of an empire. Even just a few decades ago, Berardi and Fisher seem to say, we could believe in the future in a way we no longer can: the spirit of the times has been crushed under the weight of neo-liberalism, and our reaction to the deluge of hypermassive catastrophe - financial meltdown, unending warfare, ecological devastation and global climate change - can only be paralysed apathy. After all what can we do but carry on watching, reduce the enormity of our calamity to a managed, prepackaged spectacle, narrated with the odd mixture of sincerity and utter alienation that news channels seem to have perfected?

It is therefore difficult to imagine that earlier generations whose circumstances were not like our own could understand us and our predicament, nor we theirs. To read a three thousand year old book is not only to read the stories of the time, but also to encounter the very social conditions in which it could exist: the commitments to which its authors chose to respond. The interpretation of that work entails a meeting of our own horizon with that of the world of the text. We might look to investigate the words historiographically and reconstruct what meanings they would have had to the readers of the time; we might search out the writers and their biographies, in order to better understand the contexts in which they wrote; and to understand those contexts we would have to get to grips with the social realities with which their existence is caught up. At each step we must cross the gap between their world and ours. As Gadamer puts it, we must read the 'great dark book' of the world in order to understand the works that are made within it. The body of culture past and present represents 'the collected work of the human spirit, written in languages of the past, whose texts it is our task to understand'.

Is it the case that our current economic situation and cultural inertia have pushed our own horizon of experience too far from the horizons of past generations? A particular way of thinking about how the self is caught in the structures of society suggests it is: the Foucauldian argument is that we suffer ruptures in history, Kuhn's paradigm shifts, which render the past unintelligible. Just as the death of a loved one marks a watershed boundary between their presence and their senseless absence, so such shifts make the worlds of the past not only foreign, but somehow halcyon - a lost world in which something authentic is left behind. When we encounter the traces of these lost worlds - the writing, the music, the historical records and the social attitudes so far as they can be scryed - we might as well be marvelling at alien civilisations, and any sense we have of familiarity or nostalgia for such times is a form of deception. In this view, the notion that we can ever recreate the felt meaning of their lives, or the texture of their experience, is an illusion: we have been caught up in an epstemic shift, in which the very conditions of our own knowledge have broken with the past.

The alternative to this view must rely on some sense of continuity with the past. Our horizon is constituted not only by our present conditions: our conditions were already there before we found ourselves within them. Certainly dramatic episodes can render it unimaginable that we could return to these worlds as they were, but every horizon we encounter, every world that is recreated for us by artefacts of the past is an ancestor, cousin or sibling to our own, and there is always the chance that we can work our way across to that consciousness. While languages evolve and words change their meaning, they are not unmoored from the world in the way the deconstructionists would have us believe. As Latour put it, only linguists could believe that words only associate with other words, rather than the complex boil of material, social and cultural practices that make up a person, a people and their world. Our cultural lives are haunted by the surviving echoes of the past, with some voices louder than others. Many stories of the past boom loudly, and others are fainter and force us to strain our ears or find ways to tune in. The very faintest might never be restored, but they are not lost: the voices of travellers on an ancient dirt road perturbed the air and left traces in the soil like the voice of Edison on a wax cylinder. Centuries of walkers, soil, stone, concrete and tarmac might have covered over those traces in ways that make it impossible for us to hear them again, but nevertheless they are there in the strata of the ground beneath our own feet and in the very fact that we walk the same routes today.

Reading the 'great dark book' of the past is a way to experience fellow-feeling with the people of worlds which seem to have disappeared - indeed the recycling of the past about which Fisher worries is a way of doing so, however shallowly. Future historians, if they are sufficiently attentive, perhaps to things which we ourselves may not be able to comprehend, will strain to grasp the texture of our world and divine something of our contemporary consciousness from our artefacts, the endless recycling of an immediate past, the re-imaginings of other times. I wonder whether they will detect that our malaise is not that our lack of musical adventure has made us empty, but that our sense of solidarity and fellow-feeling has dwindled as we are ever more persuaded that we are powerless against the tides of state surveillance, global capital, unending warfare and climatic disaster. We are failing to find fellow-feeling with one another as the shallow populism of our politicians and media corporations inculcate enmity for the disadvantaged, intolerance towards migrants, and a bruised entitlement that encourages us to begrudge anyone seen to be in more need than ourselves.

Mainstream entertainment has done everything it can to detach itself from any kind of political consciousness. But it is hard to believe that a generation of burgeoning minds is not confronting the world with 'diamonds in their mouths' and wondering how to make it their own in the face of such exclusion, coercion, financial temptation and artistic banality. A world in which a small group of wealthy power-brokers hoard and squander their riches, demonise the poor, engineer conflict, foster divisiveness and inculcate hopelessness is not a new one! However, to an opening mind I hope it is an offence worth resisting. Perhaps if it is difficult to imagine a musical movement producing a genuine edge of excitement and jeopardy into the establishment in the way that punk or the raves did, maybe that's because what we need is not new musical genres, but new diggers, Jarrow marchers and revolting peasants. We can't demand that young musicians or film-makers provide our glimmer of hope if we ourselves are mean-spirited and supine. How do you encourage people to nurture a strange blend of fellow-feeling, generosity and rage? What ghosts should we invite to haunt us to invoke such shared anger and kindness?

Categories: fisher, ghosts-of-my-life, ghosts, autonomy, creativity,
Comments: 0

Life balance

Author: joe

Tuesday, 31 January, 2012 - 22:24

Bat, Bean, Beam recently wrote about the various parking, dismantling and deaths of blogs ‑ and I thought, hmmm, have I got a dead blog? Well I have several actually, but menticulture has always been where I've gone to Write Something In Blog Format, and where, recently, months have intervened without a whisper. Anyway, in true speech act style, this very clacking of keys on the bodywork and thin‑film transistors dancing on the light canvas exactly are the decision not to let the old menticulture blog sip away just yet.

In the autumn of 2010 I set myself the task of writing something every working day, in the hope (correct as it turned out) that a little writing leads to a lot of writing. I should try to be so disciplined again, though perhaps not with such stringent constraints. Lately the not‑writing has not been a symptom of gazing at the wall vacantly wondering what to do with myself ‑ quite the opposite: a family, a baby girl, a new county and other homely busy‑keeping has kept the small hours full, while I'm increasingly finding it impossible to squeeze as much out of working life as I used to. No longer willing to work moonlight hours for an increasingly demanding university, I have little time beyond what has become a grind of teaching to pursue the different strands of personal work ‑ research projects, PhD progress, digital practice ‑ not to mention the necessity of the freelance work which complements my part‑time position at the university.

All this has lately led me to wonder whether it isn't time to rethink the academic part of my life. A few years ago I had a brief conversation with a mentor who had taken a career‑path not very dissimilar to my own, bridging a primary role as a practitioner with subsequent work as a researcher and teacher. My mind blew out slightly when he suggested I should perhaps put the teaching on hold for a while and concentrate on the other things ‑ complete your research, focus on your professional work. I had gone to him hoping to find strategies for maintaining the different components in some vertically aligned way, and failed to see how jettisoning my main source of (admittedly small) income could possibly help.

Now however, I am starting to see the attraction of this option. Part of me is utterly aghast that it has come to this. For so long I've seen teaching as the most important aspect of my work ‑ teaching as the primary function of a university system which can then harness the intelligence of its community to conduct research. To be sure, I felt it would be a sort of charlatanism to 'just' teach a practical discipline which you do not also practice: if you daren't live by the wits of your practice, why should any student expect to learn anything from you? But what at the end of the day is the value of work that you don't want to share with others, to uncover the apparent mysteries of craft and invite people to experience the pleasure that attends learning how to make things?

The pressures in the institution have long been such that to achieve this balance of personal integrity and educational efficacy you have to sacrifice many other parts of your life. When I was a kidult single bachelor hedonist I could choose to subsidise the HE institution by working 70 hours a week in term time and recuperating other parts of my life in the breaks. That option is no longer open to me, and more than a decade of working in HE has shown me how people who dedicate their lives to a project like teaching, treating it as a vocation that invites devotion and commitment, often end up feeling betrayed by their institution's tendency to undergo changes of management, policy, funding imperatives and the blunt churn of turnover. When the line‑managers in your department are replaced by new suits with new executive orders and with the new odours of the political wind in their noses, those years of effort don't seem to count for as much as you hoped.

Categories: teaching, work-life balance, decisions,
Comments: 2

Anachronistic workers

Author: joe

Wednesday, 15 December, 2010 - 22:59

Someone asks, who are the workers? In so asking they suggest my Marxist reference to 'the worker' is anachronistic, or that by workers I must mean the 'chavs', or the immigrants who routinely take up the most menial jobs in society (and therefore could not possibly benefit from a Higher Education system).

Paradoxically, many people rebut polemics against the Coalition government's spending cuts, or criticise 'whinging' protesters, by demanding that they should get a job and stop relying on those who WORK! (The word is usually capitalised, thereby denoting what a RADICAL POLITICAL ACTION going to work really is).

The good honest worker, that mythical hero we all become when we think of how we sacrifice our precious free time to pay our way. All we must do is work, and the world around us magically transforms into a place of merit and recognition, advancement and reward, or a benign adventureland in which the vulnerable can finally sip from the luxurious cup of welfare.

The sign-system mobilised by such appeals to work carry the implication that the harder we work, the more deserving we are, and the better off we will be. He who works longest reaps the most reward. It feels almost insulting to point out the obvious fact - how can it be necessary to point it out!? - that it is generally those who work longest who earn the least, that value is transferred from the worker (whose labour value is diminished) to the commodity (whose fetishisation 'magically' creates value), and that those with the luxury of capital make a profit from those without it? It's Marxism 101, and I'd tire of teaching it if it were not so fucking fundamental to understanding the inequality in society.

Categories: marxism 101, work, labour,
Comments: 0

Wounded research #1

Author: joe

Monday, 20 April, 2009 - 23:03

Last week I attended a two day masterclass with Robert Romanyshyn, two days of incredibly intense thinking about the role of the researcher in the research: the work of research - or better, since the word 'research' comes with such a lot of alienating baggage, simply - the work - as a vocation which forms a part of the life of the researcher. I thought I'd write some notes here which emerged from the class for me. There was such a lot in it that it's taking time to disentangle the many ideas and responses, aesthetic, intellectual, and emotional, that unlodged themselves from unnoticed peripheral places and swam into view briefly before yet other currents took hold and carried them away. I managed to write some of them on a piece of paper in front of me, but even then, the words are simply spidery shadows of thoughts that are now gone.

Firstly, it isn't possible to summarise the two-day masterclass without being utterly reductionist. In fact the nature of reductionism, as opposed to a generative approach to knowing, was a constant underlying thought for me as the days passed. I've written about this before: the misleadingly common-sensical idea that the formulation of knowledge is about finding patterns of truth that account for many things in the world - the unity in diversity that is so beguiling. This characterises a pattern-view of knowledge dominant in empiricist and positivist fields like science, in which heterogenous phenomena are worked, and worked on, until they can be 'unified'. The accounting-for of the weak, strong and electro-magnetic forces, and the sought-for incorporation of gravity into this one model, is an exemplar of such an endeavour. Against this is the constructivist notion that the production of knowledge is an adding to the world of discourse, rather than an encompassing of diversity into an ever-shrinking set of axioms. We make knowledge, rather than either stumble into it blindly, or discover it deliberately; and the constant striving for more knowledge inevitably makes yet more knowledge in a self-fulfilling wish. The great fear and exhilaration of a 'theory of everything' is the paradox that such a theory explicates everything, leaving a universe made out of one algorithmic axiom, even while a theory of everything is just another moment of talking in a century-long conversation, another blade added to the collection of knives, a metaphorical doubling which, in the collision of new discourses with old, not only augments the inventory of the world but also piles up yet more tantalising ambiguity as a remainder of its workings.

Such questions also go to the heart of questions of objectivity, that dream to which so much knowledge aspires. Robert's project is to explore the necessary subjectivity of the researcher who undertakes the work. Far from encountering the world dispassionately and investigating it with valueless eyes, identifying questions because they are there to be identified, and answering them through the antiseptic, sceptical techniques of empirical enquiry - actually workers engaged in the business of making knowledge are human beings who laugh and love and sweat and labour and hunch with sore tension in their shoulders over desks burdened with elbows and scrawled-on books and distracting thoughts of lovers and meals and farts and fears and hopes. And these workers, persons, identities, these foibled animals haunted by angelic consciousness, do the work for a expanding universe of reasons, of which they may not even be fully conscious - animated by a dialogue with not only the ever-unfolding edge of the present but also with the sum of the individual and collective past.

Categories: research, work, subjectivity, objectivity, phenomenology, depth psychology, knowledge, Jung, masterclass, Robert Romanyshyn,
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Life on the Web

Author: joe

Friday, 15 June, 2007 - 21:20

While I have the usual reservations about scientific positivism - not so much that it is a kind of imperialism, but rather that it is ultimately a totalising method, leaving little room for the qualitative experiences of people - I nevertheless have no sympathy for those nay-sayers, flatearthers, religious charlatans and general luddites who insist that anything that comes under the nomenclature of 'genetics' is FrankenBad.

Are we determined by nature? Are we determined by nurture? Why would the latter be so preferable to the former? Surely it is the 'determinism' itself that instils the fear. Or, if a creationist, why are you so reassured by the idea that you are determined by a God? How stultifying. And besides, why think of nature versus nurture, as though they are opposing ends of a spectrum? Why not think of nature and nurture as parallel determining, but open-ended, forces?

If the determinism of the physical laws of the universe is able to result in such a diverse and mind-boggling phenomenon as the universe itself with its dark matter, strange quarks, planetary nebulae, disc galaxies and comfortingly reliable gravity, why should we resent being also determined? Given that such determinism nevertheless is so convoluted as to produce the sense of agency that we so dearly cling to and to which we attribute our illusion of individuality, should we not be grateful for the laws that result in it? Wasn't Keats basically full of shit when he moaned about unweaving the rainbow? (I think that's a fair summary of Dawkins' book).

I say all this by way of pre-emptive defence. If you don't like an idea, the easiest way to attack it is to attack its author - and once you have dispensed with that author, all his subsequent ideas become anathema. E. O. Wilson, author of Sociobiology has incurred the wrath of the aforementioned nay-sayers, since his ideas can be caricatured as the basest form of genetic determinism - a gene for homosexuality, a gene for liking people called Alicia, a gene for grazing your knee when you're 12. Evolutionary psychology is an easy target for those who wish to further their own agenda - such as continental philosophers, proponents of the 'blank slate' (not in themselves objectionable, just intellectually weak as demonstrated by Pinker), cognitive scientists, sociologists with no knowledge of biology, and the like.

But I repeat - if there were, say, no gene for altruism after all, would we suddenly cease to bother being altruistic? And if there were found such a gene, would it mean our altruism were worthless? There is category error in abundance here.

So, having attempted to head off, at the pass, the common criticism of Wilson, I stand in awe at the project that is the Encyclopedia of Life. An electronic page on every species known to man. A collaborative project between a number of biological research institutions to make available to everyone our accumulated knowledge of earthly diversity:

When completed, www.eol.org will serve as a global biodiversity tool, providing scientists, policymakers, students, and citizens information they need to discover and protect the planet and encourage learning and conservation.
[EurekaAlert]

An excellent intervention of knowledge into the public domain, and an awesome implementation of the power of our network, the determinedly FrankenBad Internet.

Categories: science, biology, genetics, determinism, encyclopedia-of-life, sociobiology, agency, network, public-domain,
Comments: 0