Tag Archives: Matt Colquhoun

(not) giving it the progressive legitimacy it would lack otherwise

One of the joys of having unplugged from the birdsite again is being able to largely ignore the whole crypto/Web3/NFT circus, at least in its most immediate expression. Of course, various people are writing about it more slowly, and it’s probably a function of my pre-existing biases that have ensured the vast majority of what I’ve read tends to cash out as academic or practitioner-accented versions of NOPE NOPE NOPE. Without any shame for the hipsterness of the statement, I’ll note that I was skeptical of this stuff when it was still new (and I have the receipts to prove it).

But when people I respect contradict or challenge me, well, I do my best to listen. Here’s yer man Matt Colquhoun:

The world is changing, both on- and offline, but our imaginations are slow to catch up. Without an insistence upon it proceeding otherwise, Web3 will be (and is being) used to replicate the pre-existing cultural hegemony of Funko-Populist finance bros.

Let’s just stop to do a full on gatsby.gif at that lovely coining in the last line, there. Chapeau, sir.

Now, Matt seems to me to be saying that he’s worried that by NOPEing out of this space entirely, we’re giving up the chance to seize the potentially good bits of this assemblage. On that point, I agree. But my instinct—and I will gladly concede that it is very much an instinct, one nurtured by the intense disillusionment of the Nougties blogging goldrush (of which I was arguably one of the people who did moderately well, albeit in a very drawn-out and roundabout sort of way), but also from, ah, let’s just say an earlier stage of life during which I was exposed to an awful lot of hucksterism and hustle of an even more naked sort—my instinct, leavened with a bit of research (though not so much as an advocate would insist was a precondition of having an opinion), says to me that there’s nothing there fight for, or if there is, the triumph of the very worst potentials thereof—already very much in the ascendant—is effectively baked in due to its unfolding within the inducement structure of capitalism more broadly.

None other than Evgeny Morozov sees it as being worse still: by looking for the bright side of this mess, we end up giving it a veneer of progressive respectability:

How does one criticize a flawed, unrealistic, and extremely partial narrative that is, nonetheless, being rapidly turned into reality? This is not a problem that one can solve by adopting a more pragmatic, solutions-oriented attitude that many of the proponents of Web3 demand from their critics. The goal here cannot just be to find a more progressive use for DAOs or tokens or NFTs. I’m sure they exist – and many more of them can be found in due time. But what is the point of such search expeditions, when, in the end, such efforts are only likely to help in the left-washing of the Web3 brand, giving it the progressive legitimacy it would lack otherwise?

As he puts it, “there is no ‘there’ there”; the self-referentiality of the whole edifice means anything you do to fight it just gets hoovered up by the rhetorical cyclone.

But back to Matt:

But there are a number of alternative visions out there — the latest issue of Spike Art magazine contains advocates for a bunch of them, who are both optimistic and pessimism about the current state of things. The worry I have, and that many others have, is that it may already be too late. What depresses me isn’t so much how NFTs are being used by the internet’s most naïve denizens, but that their idiocy atrophies the political imagination of the rest of us.

In that sense, the responsibility for our unabating digital dystopia lies as much with the mindless naysayers as it does mindless enthusiasts. The narcosis of an old digital radicalism is developing necrosis. Something has got to give, but we need to realize that this needn’t be the communities we hold dear in themselves. There is space for them to well and truly thrive, if we demand and carve out that space, just as we did when the internet first became available to us.

Now, I have a lot of time for Matt’s negation-of-the-negation argument, to the point that I have once phrasing of it blu-tacked to the wall above my desk. Maybe it’s just a function of me being An Old nowadays, but I think the reason for the necrosis of digital radicalism is the acceleration of the capture process with each new iteration of the digital frontier… plus, perhaps, a dawning realisation that perpetually turning to the next frontier is a foundational plank of the thing we’re trying to fight against.

To reiterate a point from a few days back, this ain’t me going all primitivist and suggesting “we can do without technology”; far from it. But I think I do perhaps feel that getting away from this attitude where the technological is often or always the site—a non-spatial site, which is perhaps another root of the problem—of the next potential victory. I try not to cite ol’ Grandpa Karl too often, as I don’t think I’ve read enough of him, but I’m pretty sure that his basic argument was that while technology might serve to enable a more socialist world, it could only do so once the political economy in which it operated had been reconfigured. Seize the means of production first, right? Then reorganise the uses it’s put to. So wading in to the Web3 shitstorm to me feels like trying to fine-tune (post-)Fordism for socialist ends: totally well-intended, but ultimately of use only to the factory owners.

Matt doesn’t want “the communities we hold dear” to be sacrificed to to the necessity of change, and yeah, I hear that. I guess I’m just not so convinced as I once was—and those who’ve known me long enough will know that I was super convinced, a bona fide Web2.0 evangelist—that a change of medium to the next new thing is going to keep those communities vital. To be honest, I think making better, slower use of the superseded media might be a better place to start. The Arab Spring didn’t fail because social media wasn’t sufficiently advanced or decentralised; it failed because the systems of power it was arraigned against were too deeply entrenched, and those media were in turn embedded into those structures from the get-go.

Eh, I dunno—like I say, I’m An Old now, and increasingly identifying with the (historical, rather than vernacular) label of Luddite. Sure, the Web3 powerloom might revolutionise many of the things I do for a living… but even if the nice guys work out a way to do that, is it going to compete with the monkey-jpeg people and Andreessen-Horowitz? Not bloody likely, mate. I only have so much fight left in me, and I’m not wasting it in a space where the signal-to-noise ratio (not to mention the VC bankroll) is that high.

Still, good luck to anyone who wants to brave it. Because I agree with Matt’s parting line, as well:

It is our complacency, not Web3, that will be the death of us.

And yeah, maybe I’m just NOPEing out of the definitional struggle of our times… but I can’t see what work there is to be done there, let alone how to start doing it. Perhaps I just don’t have enough of a stake in it? Perhaps the (veeeerrrry relative) security of early career academia has seduced me away from the vanguard? Quite possible.

But I very clearly remember believing that having my own website and socnet handles would lift me out of the neoliberal precariat, and I remember seeing that—even as it did so for a very lucky few of us—it made things even worse for those who missed the bus. My sense that Web3 &c. will be an even crueller and faster clusterfuck goldrush is, as I say above, predominantly instinctual—which is perhaps to say imaginative.

I can’t imagine a metaverse in which things are better for most people. But I can imagine a world in which we’ve decided that chasing our emancipation down the fibre-optic backbones and into the data-centers will look, in hindsight, like a very weird thing people once believed, like the indulgences that came off the early printing presses. Progress is the greatest lie ever told, and Web3 looks like the very shiniest empty box it has ever been put in.

Good luck in there, but count me out.

bold as (nostalgic) love: Gwyneth Jones and hauntology

A Metafilter thread on the new St Ettienne album (haven’t heard it yet) gave up this comment:

It’s interesting to see the 90s End Of History era displace the Swinging 60s as a lost golden age just out of clear memory.

I’m sharing this here due to its synchronicity with a point I made in a just-filed review of the Gollancz Masterworks reissue of Gwyneth Jones’s Castles Made of Sand.

In the introduction to said book, Adam Roberts draws a connection between the utopian idealism of the 1960s and the original British Romanticism movement of the early C19th, and in my review I leap from there to observe that, while Jones doesn’t only put the Sixties influence front and centre in the Bold as Love cycle, but also leans on the Arthurian mythos of Olde Albion (which was largely constructed by the long wave of Romanticism), the actual texture of the near-future Britain of the first few volumes is very much a Nineties vibe.

This was a great opportunity to wax shamelessly lyrical from the core of my own nostalgia for my formative years, but there was—or so I tell myself—a point to doing so, which is to underscore the way in which the Nineties, however unknowingly to many of us in the countercultural trenches at the time, was an attempt to re-run the Sixties, albeit absent the political theoretics whose influence on the Sixties we have been carefully encouraged to forget, as the cultural artefacts of that period have been pruned and bowdlerised in order to reduce a time of genuine (if misguided and largely failed) revolutionary fervour to an aesthetic: kaftans, badly-rolled joints, twelve-string guitars etc etc.

This has further relevance in light of the recently published last lectures of Mark Fisher, in which he was clearly trying to go back to that period and unearth all the dangerous stuff in order to determine what went wrong, and how that atmosphere of revolutionary change might be rekindled against the backdrop of the neoliberal settlement that has so successfully encased it it in the amber of the Spectacle. There’s an extent to which Fisher and some of his contemporaries were, for all their repudiation of nostalgia, somewhat fixated on the early Nineties as the Last Great Moment of Modernism (with e.g. the music of the “hardcore continuum” representing the last time anything felt to them genuinely new and futuristic), even as the reactionary revivalism of baggy, Britpop and what would become landfill indie rose like a tide to drown it all.

Matt Colquhoun has written a great deal about what we might think of as (post-)Fisherean hauntology, in an attempt to rescue the term from the trackless desert of semantic drift into which it (and so much else) seems to be receding, and I could really do with making the time to dig back into it all properly. But one chunk I recall passing clear is this bit on Boards of Canada, whose work:

… speaks to how important but also unstable acts of creation are in relation to worlding. On the surface, that is an obvious point, but creation is always a tightrope pulled taut between past, present and future; it is often a kind of double articulation, tangled up in maternal and paternal politics (symbolically, if not literally). It is always this complex balancing act between preservation, experimentation, and innovation. An album like Music Has The Right To Children is fascinating, I think, because it captures that tension pretty masterfully. Still, to this day, I listen to that album and feel in the presence of a deep engagement with the past that is nonetheless geared towards the future.

So often the discourse seems split between a kind of manic future-affirmatism (think of Teflon Mask’s hypercapitalist boner for Mars colonies on the right, or Bastani’s FALC solutionist-accelerationism on the left) or a hopelessly Romantic fixation on a largely imaginary and retconned past as the location of the utopian horizon (which has typically been a rightist and reactionary position, but in recent years manifests in a lot of soft-leftish thought as well). The denial of the past (and/or its strip-mining for the raw materials of a futurity intended to bury it), or the fetishisation of the past… neither are genuinely productive, if I understand Colquhoun correctly. But that temporal tightrope he describes above, now that’s interesting—not least because it doesn’t merely attempt to bring together the best of past and future. Rather, in drawing taut that rope between them, it affirms the continuity not of culture itself, but of the recombinative processes by which culture is produced.

Jones’s Bold as Love cycle, then, might be seen as culture that not only enacts that recombination, but actively foregrounds (even as it sort of cartoonises) the theatricality of cultural politics through which it is enacted: she is showing and telling, not just at the narratological level, but the historical as well.

the banality of the sacrificial truth

With the Covid pandemic, the sacrificial truth of capitalism came out. How so? We are openly asked to sacrifice (some of) our lives now to keep the economy going, by which I am referring to how some of Trump’s followers directly demanded that people over 60 should accept to die to keep the US capitalist way of life alive… Of course, workers in dangerous professions (miners, steelworkers, whale hunters) were risking their lives for centuries, not to mention the horrors of colonization where up to half of the indigenous population was wiped out. But now the risk is directly spelled out and not only for the poor. Can capitalism survive this shift? I think it cannot: it undermines the logic of an endlessly postponed enjoyment that enables it to function.

You know the world has been turned on its head (or on its feet, depending on how you saw the world before, I guess) when Žižek starts coming across as an optimist… though I guess you could counter that by saying that he’s consistently contrarian. Anyway, point being: I do not share his optimism regarding capitalism’s inability to survive the shift he’s describing here. It’s certainly possible that it might not survive it, but far from a fait accompli—to say otherwise is to fall into the same trap that Matt Colquhoun observes in folk who claim that “capitalist realism is over”, as if saying it were sufficient to replace the hard work of making it so. (Disclaimer: I’ve definitely done this myself. Magical thinking is very tempting in trying times.)

That said, Žižek’s observation of the pandemic’s exposure of the sacrificial truth of capitalism rings clear, at least to me, echoing as it does the bioethical implications of the pandemic that I discussed (or, more accurately, ranted about) months ago. But the neoliberal order’s response to (and incorporation of) that exposure was already then apparent, as manifest in the almost immediate establishment of global league tables of national death rates: the logic of market competition applied itself immediately, and we’re still arguing over who dun covid bestest, months later, despite it being far from over.

Furthermore, the same logic is starting to be applied to the sacrificial sectors: a competition to decide who gets the putative vaccine first, who gets to stay the safest for the longest time while we wait for it. Perhaps the Hunger Game vibes of this contest will eventually provoke some kind of pushback, as Žižek believes. But to return to Fisher, we’d do well to remember and respect capitalism’s ability to absorb, incorporate and commodify the fiercest attacks made upon it. The only counter to that paradigm is (a return to) a more communal, situated and grass-roots form of political organisation… and the medium-as-message constitution of the systems through which we are obliged to communicate and organise in lockdown and lockdown-adjacent circumstances are demonstrably and explicitly geared to exactly the opposite social dynamic. It is notable that the only political activity of any vitality at the moment is happening in the streets, in defiance of lockdown measures.

Is that an argument against lockdown measures? It’s not meant as one, but it might well be taken as such, I suppose. My point is that during lockdown, those privileged enough to be in lockdown experience the world outside only through multiple layers of mediation; the (very real) risk to older folk and the immune-compromised appears as part of the spectacle, but the (equally real) risk to the people embedded in the supply chains (in one’s own nation, but also far beyond it) which make living in lockdown possible appears far less frequently, if at all. The risk is indeed “directly spelled out”, as Žižek says—but to assume that this spelling-out of the universality of risk won’t result in people falling back on the old class and national divisions as a ready-made template for the (re)distribution of said risk seems optimistic in the worst possible passivity of that term. (OK, sure, the WHO has said everyone needs to pull together—but at this point it should be obvious that, for the most part, state apparatuses are taking only what they consider to be politically efficacious from the WHO’s pronouncements; an soft-pedalled argument for internationalism is unlikely to leave much of a mark, I’m assuming.)

After all, that (re)distribution of risk is always-already ongoing—and the metasystem’s effacement of consequences, now amplified still further by lockdown’s forcing us into a situation where our perception of the situation is so thoroughly and seamlessly mediated and curated by algorithms intended to flatter our pre-existing perspectives, makes it oh-so-easy to pretend that it isn’t. That which is appears is good; that which is good appears.

synthesis is an ever-complicating process

Here’s a gloriously rambling thing from Matt Colquhoun that starts off talking about dialectics. Hence my choice of title—I’m currently undergoing a sort of dialectics of my understanding of dialectics (if that’s not too pompously meta a way of putting it), and I keep getting sychronicitous little gifts of other people’s thought, like this one, that arrive just at the right moment to prod me along.

The piece wanders around to Colquhoun talking about what his new book was (in part) an attempt to do, where this bit leapt out at me:

A death is one of those moments — if not the only true moment — where a person’s thought really starts to come apart from within. Without a self to maintain the boundaries, all sorts of things start flying out of it. And what we see emerging on the left, when faced with Mark’s posthumously rendered thought in particular, is either an attempt to cancel Mark outright or instead just a sheering off of his work’s unattractive bits. Either Mark doesn’t deserve any attention whatsoever because he wrote an essay like “Exiting the Vampire Castle” or we shouldn’t talk about that essay and just focus on the nice bits about party political organising.

Mark was so much more than either of those things. And this isn’t just because Mark was some great and complex thinker but because he was human. This kind of complexity is present within everyone. But today we live in a culture that rejects this absolutely, on the most mundane level which, I think, is the most damaging. Like, most will reject an argument like this with alarmist examples like the fact someone can be a member of the communist party and they can also be an abuser. That’s a alarmist contradiction of a certain type and one that must be cut out without a second thought. Of course I agree that abusers and bullies are really bad, and I have no interest in affirming their existence, and I’d be quite content bullying them out of the things I hold dear, but today we find people can be excommunicated for having far less troublesome contradictory thoughts than these. You can find yourself socially shadowbanned for simply not following The Narrative, and the people who will deplore this kind of whingeing the most are, of course, those involve in the sorts of institutions that maintain the narrative, whatever it may be.

I hadn’t read the infamous Vampire Castle piece before I bailed on social media, but when I finally did read it, I recognised in it not so much my own experience but the fears and anxieties that had been building up in me for some time before. Perhaps it’s indicative of a particular twisted form of narcissism (or, indeed, of the acute case of mental dysfunction I was going through), but at the time I was less worried about by being censured for broaching The Narrative than I was of finding myself pinned into a caricature of my own ideas. It took a while to realise that those are two sides of the same coin, and furthermore that the phenomenon is ubiquitous, albeit variable in degree depending on where you’re looking.

(And now I’m intrigued by the possibility that I preemptively shadowbanned myself, on the basis of an emotional calculus whereby it’s somehow less painful to exile yourself than to face the possibility, however marginal, of being exiled.)

It’s an indication of just how persistent and wide-reaching the issue is that—even now, even here, on this all-but-unread blog—I feel the need to caveat that point with a statement to the effect that “of course I’m not saying that Twitter is the problem, or that I have all the answers, or…”. So perhaps my synthetic path is to henceforth abjure further such abjurations in my work and in myself… which is easier said than done, given the extent to which those anxieties are a core feature of my psyche, and have been for as long as I can recall.

But nothing worth doing is ever easy, is it?