On my hands and knees
God damn these vampires
For what they’ve done to me
– The Mountain Goats.
It might well be pointless at this point to add another critique to the mix of Mark Fisher’s Vampires’ Castle article. I want to do just that anyway, at the risk of adding more whitenoise. I want to do so because I fear some critiques, although by no means all, have been too quickly dismissive. I also wanted to do so because while other critiques have focussed in on the question of identity politics or of class, many have expressed a confusion about the idea of “libidinal-discursive configurations”. Thus my critique is two-fold: first, to reveal how if the VC exists then there seems to be no outside of it by understanding this libidinal discursivity; and second, to suggest that Fisher’s article is the reactivation of old fault-lines on the left that operate in favour of an old left Leninism.
What exactly is the Vampires Castle? It’s a vexing question because it is hard to pin down who exactly belongs to it. It seems to be something that a lot of the British left belongs to, especially those who use twitter. When Fisher turns to defining the VC he calls it a “configuration”, and I think this is important to bear in mind. A configuration is an arrangement or an organisation of compositional elements; it is a geography or a given shape. As such the VC appears as a formal concept that expresses the particular gross anatomy of molecular physiological processes- it is about the shape rather than what composes that shape, the organisation rather than the organ. Yet this remains vague and abstract, asking the question of what it is that is being given this configuration. To this, Fisher answers that the VC is one of two ‘libidinal-discursive configurations’ that have brought about moralism that has generated a pervasive feeling of ‘guilt and fear’.
What is a libidinal-discursive configuration?
What are “libidinal-discursive configurations?” We could just as well say an affective speech, or a way of organising thought and of speaking, thus a way of arguing and justifying tactics, strategy, theory etc,, that have libidinal investments. It might be that these configurations are ways of talking and thinking that matter to the people involved in them. Freud talked about desire objects having libidinal investments in such a way as to signify that the between the psychic individual and the object-choice there was a more or less intense attachment. Thus the accusation hidden in the very idea of the VC & neo-anarchism as such configurations is that they involve some desirous attachment, that is some coupling of the subjects of their articulation and the configurations themselves.
The question here is whether there is such a thing as a non-libidinal discourse? I doubt that Freud would think so, given that all discursivity is part of the sublimation of our instincts and therefore form part of the hijacking or recodification of those insticts as libidinous drives. In this Freud harkens back to those most severe philosophers of affect: the Stoics. It is the Stoics who are regularly (and falsely) represented as looking to purge discourse and reason of the corrupting influence of affective judgements and attachments. In this reading of the Stoics the basic idea is that be eliminating affect from reason one could attain the position of wisdom and true knowledge of the Sage, a position that the Stoics aren’t even sure it is possible to attain. To even speak this way is to pretend at the possibility of a calm, detached, rationality that is completely cut off from libidinous investment in its thought. To deploy the words Merleau-Ponty used against Cartesian science in this other but entirely related domain, it is to cease living in things.
This leads us to the question of bodies. This libidinal-discursive mixture is bad? Because discourse is tainted with libido? So only a disembodied rationality, a Cartesian rationality, is allowed. This disembodied position is also echoed in places where Fisher talks about the twitter-left, as if people on twitter only existed on twitter in a state of total interpassivity, as if it were impossible that someone tweeting criticism of his position couldn’t also be organising in the street, the university, the workplace. Paradoxically, this twitter-left, and the academic Poshleft that Fisher conflates it with, are both symptoms of seeing discourse as the main actor. We can see why discourse must remain free of affectivity then- because it alone has agency. I doubt this is what Fisher actually thinks and yet it is what comes across here. It is as if the desire articulated in Capitalist Realism that we relearn how to imagine alternatives to capitalism as a necessary condition of overcoming capitalism has transformed into the belief that the right organisation of imagination can save us.
It remains possible however that Fisher only means that the VC and neo-anarchism are bad libidinal-discursivities and that elsewhere there are good ones to be found. In a very quick conflation Fisher melts Freud into Nietzsche’s critique of resentiment. In essence, Nietzsche states that there is a kind of thinking that belongs to slave morality (Christianity is Nietzsche’s example par excellence) that runs: “We are oppressed and suffering. They make us suffer. Therefore they are bad and we are good”. By calling this a slave morality, a slave revolt, Nietzsche intend to show paint Christianity as the morality of the weak, the lowly and the powerless and thus to paint it as little more than a vindictive and spiteful expression of a low kind of will. Nietzsche would link this to the asceticism of Christianity in order to show how it reactivity was also a life-denying influence on the development of culture and therefore bound up with nihilism, the denial of the body, and the domestication of strong wills. Resentiment is opposed to everything that Nietzsche championed. Where his was a philosophy of affirmation, of saying “yes” to existence, the resentful slave would always be caught saying “no”. Fisher retains all these elements of Nietzsche’s critique when he writes that
The Vampires’ Castle specialises in propagating guilt. It is driven by a priest’s desire to excommunicate and condemn, an academic-pedant’s desire to be the first to be seen to spot a mistake, and a hipster’s desire to be one of the in-crowd.
This also gets us closer to what the Vampires’ Castle is, or rather who the (Grey) Vampires that occupy it are: academics and pedants who peddle guilt and like to condemn others, or at least people who are infected by a particular libidinous formation “academic-pedant desire-hipster desire”. One would ask what these desires are but that would only lead us into regression. We could ask what they do but we know what they do: they excommunicate, correct, and form social groups with people they agree with. We could get more specific and ask Fisher to point out who these people are- perhaps it’s just that I’m lucky enough to have nothing to do with the academy and only follow a small number of people on twitter, but I’m almost entirely ignorant of who these people are. However, it seems irrelevant who these people are if you take Fisher’s terminology seriously. He is critiquing a configuration, or a certain kind of assemblage, and not a group of people- after all, to do so would be to fall into the liberal game of denouncing individuals that he accuses the VC of specialising in.
So putting aside any accusation of simple moralism we can return to the question of whether there is a good configuration that counters the bad configuration. The only answer I can find is that it would necessarily be the one Fisher is attached(?) to. Hving denounced, condemned and excommunicated vampires, neoanarchists and the poshleft from the true or the genuine left all that remains is to suggest that because they are bad we are good, because they have victimised us and thus revealed to us our own virtue. This seems to me to reproduce the ressentiment that Fisher has accused these other groups of displaying. I say this as someone who agrees that there is a tendency to moralism on”the left”, a tendency to judge people for failing to radical enough or radical in the right way, rather than attempting to educate them or say “well, you know what we’re not going to organise/communicate with you”. So I do agree with Fisher’s critique of moralism but I don’t think this VC exists- and still don’t really know what it is. If the Vampires’ Castle does exist then it seems like Fisher also occupies it.
Of course this is part of the point. Fisher has been criticised for insisting on an analysis that focusess onstructures rather than individuals. To my mind this has been an unfair criticism. After all, we are all supposed to be engaged with structural critique insofar as we are engaged in analyses of and struggles against configurations like capitalism, racism and patriarchy. These are names for structures or systems, or even “hyperobjects” that are really systems of systems, and which are irreducible to the actions, intentions and attitudes of individuals. When we talk about agency we must mean more than the agency of persons if we aren’t to fall into the kind of liberalism that Fisher diagnoses as symptomatic of the VC and neo-anarchism. If these expressions feel immediately baseless and even insulting it is because we do recognise that capitalism itself has some kind of alien impersonal agency. Indeed, the entire notion of class means that there are ontological units that class analysis is talking about and that class struggle is the waged by. For this reason it should come as no surprise that Fisher is implicated in his own critique, even if he appears to deploy his own ‘magical inversion projection-disavowal mechanism’.
It has been suggested to me that this is why Fisher has left twitter, although I think that it is more likely that he correctly sees the format of Twitter as inadequate to the kinds of discussions that need to be had. With its 140 character limit and its imperative for instantaneousness, Twitter all too often encourages what philosopher Paul Virilio has called the communism of affect or the democracy of emotions. For Virilio technologies of instant media really do issue an imperative that we respond to events now, if not sooner, and that this cripples our ability to formulate critical responses. For him this is an issue that is eroding representative democracy but even those of us who already reject that form of democracy as bunk can take heed of the essential warning: it takes time to think, but no time at all to feel. This isn’t to suggest a simplistic binary where emotion rests on the other side of reason but it is to repeat what we already know about how affective reason works via cognitive biases and fast heuristic thinking that our slower critical faculties are always struggling with. It might be that Twitter does encourage the kind of thinking that elsewhere we wouldn’t engage in or would be more careful about but this isn’t a reason to reject a tool that has also been instrumental to offline political organisation. As with any tool, and as Fisher himself recognises with more traditional mass media, the terrain is more ambiguous and tactical than that.
Beyond this, Fisher is quite right to suggest that there is an in-crowdness to Twitter. After all, the majority of our followers and followees are people we broadly agree with, or at least find interesting and/or useful. This isn’t some expression of hipster desire but a part of how human beings tend to operate together. Time and again, and across disciplines, we see that human beings organise themselves into in-groups and out-groups. Evolutionary psychology and terror management theory both posit possible reasons for this- it’s a question of survival and of conditions we are evolved for, and it is a question of seeking a sense of security in a frightening existence. While we might be seeking a society where the in and out groups aren’t broken down along lines of injustice, inequality and violence it would be utopian to think that we will ever jump outside of the need to find ourselves in echo chambers sometimes let alone now, under conditions where the mainstream media and most of our own class still view us as weirdos or trouble makers. Fisher recognises this too, when in other places he refers to people who agree with his analysis of the VC & neo-anarchism as forming some kind of “we” with him. This we can’t help but partially enact a negative identification of not-being-vampiric. If the VC is a reality- none of us are outside of it on these grounds.
Returning to the question of libidinous-discusivities we find Deleuze and Guattari talking extensively about libidinal investments Anti-Oedipus. Particularly relevant is the section in which they discuss the idea of a revolutionary subject-group. They define this as
a group whose libidinal investments are themselves revolutionary, it causes desire to penetrate into the social field, and subordinates the socius or the forms of power to desiring-production; productive of desire and a desire that produces, the subject-group always invents mortal formations that exorcize the effusion in it of a death instinct; it opposes real coefficients of transversality to the symbolic determinations of subjugation, coefficients without a hierarchy or a group superego.
For D&G desire is an affirmative creative force that breaks through bounded organisations or “territorialisations” in order to produce new linkages, conjunctions or couplings. Against the Freudo-Lacanian image of desire as lack (the desire for something absent/absence itself) D&G posit a desire that is produced and productive of and in the formation of these subject-groups, what would later be called assemblages or machines. The point of the quote above is that the desire that engenders these machinic conjunctions operate beneath and in excess of whatever is produced; desiring-production is the affectivity of bodies that is created by molecular flows that populate, enter, leak out of, establish and undermine those bodies in their molarity. That the quote still deals with subject-groups mean that D&G are still thinking about revolutionary subjects rather than in terms of a general ontology.
D&G are outlining the revolutionary group as one that is a self-organisation that composes itself through its own innovative autonomous practices and that it does so in such a way that it always remains open to and conditioned by its own death as an affirmation. By contrast the subjugated-group- which is not revolutionary- is that group that operates via the Freudo-Lacanian constellation of lack and absence and that can’t help but enact a continuous death drive: that is, the subjugated-group is a pre-formed, concerned with its own molarity and thus forgetful of the molecularity subtending it, and which is caught forever by the demand of self-preservation. In other words, the subjugated-group resembles a political party as described by Jacques Camatte: it is a racket only interested in itself. We can also see that D&G are gesturing to the subjugated-group’s reactive existence that is symptom of its own kind of slave morality.
Guattari would later say that the subject-group was really an assemblage or an
arrangement of enunciation, of subjectivization, pragmatic arrangements that do not coincide with circumscribed groups.
Thus these assemblages are an example of what Fisher terms libidinal-discursive configurations that ‘ recognise that there are no identities, only desires, interests and identifications’. Here, I fully agree with Fisher’s rejection of identitarianism even if I can’t see it being as virulent as he claims it is. I agree with it because it is a reiteration of the anti-essentialism that it has become almost unnecessary to restate, the critique of essentialisms of all kinds being well known and widely accepted by now. There are no identities only identification means that there are no given, (pre-)assembled for all time essences but that there are only pragmatic processes of picking up, making strategic use of, or being conditioned into such essences. They are fleeting and without ontological stability; things we do rather than things we are. For this reason, while I agree that identity politics are bullshit I nonetheless understand that identities can be used strategically. To hover on this question a moment longer we could also ask whether Fisher conflates the working class and the proletariat. After all, the proletariat is precisely a non-identity, a substanceless substance, the most marginalised of the marginal, the part of no part and not a positive identity of any kind, whether it is class based or otherwise. On the subject of the proletariat, I also can’t help but point out that the only times it is deployed in the VC article is to discuss how cool it is. Isn’t concern for the cool meant to be part of the formation of hipster-desire?
To summarise in Guattari’s terminology, there are no subjects only subjectivations and no group is revolutionary so long as it reproduces the superego. I’m not sure who it is Fisher thinks disagrees with this, although that may be more a function of my own relative underexposure to the political circuitry of the British “left”.
That these assemblages or configurations are pragmatic means that they exist for a certain set of means and/or ends. This gives us the key to how they ought to be examined and judged. There are no good or bad assemblages, there are only assemblages that produce affects and it is these affects that need to be understood. Fisher has tried to analyse the affects of the VC by suggesting that, like Lazzarato’s analysis of debt, it all results in is guilt and depression; but where capital seeks to produce subjectivations that are loyal to it, the VC seeks nothing more than the moral self-aggrandisement of its members. Again, if the VC exists Fisher is equally implicated in this claim. Perhaps it is Jodi Dean, commenting in support of Fisher’s article, who cuts to the heart of the problem when she writes that the real issue with the VC’s criticisms of other radicals is that
In the course of the demolition, the capitalist is displaced as the other. He is safe, protected, no longer the target.
Others have already made the point about what this sleight-of-hand achieves but it’s worth reiterating: criticism, seen as illegitimate or coming from the wrong sources, gets recodified as demolition. While the energies spent pointing out that (say) Russell Brand is a misogynist is bad the rebuttal to this is good or necessary or otherwise neutrally evaluated. Never mind that in neither of these two cases is capital the direct target and that they are either both as guilty or else both as legitimate as each other. Where Fisher attacks neo-anarchism, Jodi Dean attacks David Graeber and Occupy calling it a failure and citing it as evidence for the need for a new party. If we are to judge enunciative actions by their affects then Fisher’s article ends by strengthening such calls.
I would point out here that I shared Fisher’s feelings about Russell Brand’s interview and that I thought that it was an important moment for the transmission and potential resonance of a certain kind of affect. However, to suggest that it was wrong or somehow or other kill-joy of intersectional feminists to critique his misogyny seems weird. If we are able to separate structures or enunciative acts from the person and system of intentionality behind it then I don’t see why we can’t say that Fisher was right about Brand-the-speaking-machines and that those feminists were right about Brand-the-misogynist-machine; they are two different assemblages partially composed by the same body/identification. Paraphrasing Guattari, Brand as a conduit for the impersonal collective rage of working class people and Brand as a millionaire celebrity are pragmatic arrangements that do not coincide with a circumscribed individual. More importantly than those considerations from a pragmatic perspective is what affects were generated by Brand. Among “the left” it seemed to generate either wild affirmations or total denunciations, while in the wider world it seemed to create opportunities for radicals to talk about politics to people they might not otherwise have been able to. It is still too soon to really say what the lasting effect has been- other than the production of articles by Fisher, Dean, numerous others and now me as well.
Really these have all tended to fall one way of another: Fisher bad or Fisher good. In a way these criticisms risk confirming Fisher’s charge regarding a petite-bourgeois individualism from certain factions. Unless we realise that it is possible to critique Fisher’s essay without that necessarily meaning we hate or despise Fisher. For instance, I think it’s pretty clear that I’d refute the existence of the VC (or include us all inside it if it does exist), but for all that I still think that Capitalist Realism was a good book and remain happy that mental health issues were set highly in that book. My issue isn’t with Mark Fisher the man but with Fisher as an enunciative event, particularly with the content of that event.
At root this event is the re-articulation of a series of historical fault-lines on “the left”, wounds of the class struggle that are re-opened whenever we don’t know where to go…which seems to be often. Fisher suggests that the VC is composed of those who champion the “more marginal than marginal”, who find the most victimised and rally to them, but there is also the sense that he thinks the VC speaks on these groups behalf. At core here is the idea that intersectional feminism downplays questions of class in order to play-up just how “more oppressed than you” a certain other other is. (In my opinion intersectionality comes down to an analysis of the unequal distrubution of vulnerabilities within the class). In other words, feminism is splitting the class. This is an old and incredibly damaging claim that people have rightly strongly rejected. It’s also quite peculiar given that Fisher’s own analysis of class is highly questionable (see the excellent Vampires’s aren’t real but class is and B-grade Politics). The problem is also that these people make the same argument that Fisher himself does about going among these groups to allow them to speak for themselves. What is especially curious is that while this criticism of representing others is going on the article also argues for the need to engage with parliamentary democracy. So it isn’t that representing other is bad, it is just who is doing that representing and where.
Added to this is the continued criticisms of neo-anarchism that again remains undefined. There is stuff about age, about not really getting the labour party, and about how these young neo-anarchists want to keep their hands clean from real-politik. This is all really just the same old same old infantile disorder stuff. It also doesn’t bear much resemblance to anarchism as it actually exists, although Fisher let’s some anarchists off the hook by pointing out that SolFed have done good work. Yet these good anarchists are just deployed to make the bad ones look really bad. Again, it is hard to see how this isn’t VC-style moralism. Quite aside from anything else Fisher’s brief portrait of neo-anarchism also accords with Jodi Dean’s criticism of horizontalism and thus is clearly of a piece with a defence of the party form. The only anarchists I can think of who look vaguely like the caricature that is often deployed in these arguments aren’t young and dumb at all but are older philosophers like Simon Critchley and Alain Badiou. Of course, some time ago Fisher did attack Badiou- but that somehow wasn’t an example of vampirism. Around that time this whole vampirememe was also central to debate, making this the second time Fisher has pointed to vampires.
The SolFed gets a let off because they are ‘syndicalists involved in actual workplace organisation’ while the neo-anarchists are merely involved with student occupations. Here it is as if the entire analysis of “post-Fordism” and of all the disruptions to the partitioning of work from non-work that Fisher himself often brilliantly writes and talks about had never happened. It is as if workplaces meant factories, as if we were still in the 19th century. It is also as if eminent Marxists hadn’t spent time and effort showing how the factory has become a social factory, as if tomes weren’t constantly appearing about the privileged place the university has in the production of debt and of capitalist subjectivities. Furthermore, when we look at examples like Occupy Sussex we see students going into occupation in solidarity with support staff and lecturers. That is to say that such actions are forms of workplace organisation- and there are plenty of other such examples. Fisher isn’t a stupid man so I’m tempted to say that this move is made on purpose as a strategic attempt to make the “neo-anarchists” look stupid. I’m tempted to think that this is because it is only by making them look stupid that a possible vanguard could emerge to declare they know the truth. Although Fisher hasn’t made such a claim and seems unlikely to, it is nonetheless the case that this is argument is a likely consequence of people taking up the argument against the VC and neo-anarchism. And as Fisher wrote, it is not intentions that matter here but affects.
At root for Fisher
the problem with neo-anarchism is that it unthinkingly reflects this historical moment rather than offering any escape from it.
This is to return to the central problematic of Capitalist Realism; that we can no longer imagine an alternative to capitalism. Whether or not this claim is accurate it is telling that this criticism of neo-anarchism is that it remains mired in the world as it, echoing the stupid criticism that anarchism is really just neoliberalism. Anarchism & autonomism is stupid; but we other Marxists, we have insight and truth. If it is the case that Fisher’s critique flows into the politics of Jodi Dean (who he also cites positively) then we are looking at little more than a neo-Leninism. Another way to put this is that while using a criticism of anarchism to justify the party form and engagement with parliament, the argument also seeks to reactivate forms from an earlier historical moment as if they were an escape from the present one. I’m sure this renewed Leninism would be called a repetition rather than a return, it would be called a Leninism for th 21st century (like with the accelerationists), but we could just dismiss it as neo-Leninism without looking at it at all because…well, the precedent has been set. The irony of this is that such a politics would be, to use a term Fisher deploys in his excellent cultural criticism, hauntological: a politics of ghosts.
The obviousness of this Leninism is even apparent in the subheading “What is to be done”? To my mind this is a woeful question that thinks it has the luxury of grand strategic visions. While the historical fault-lines of the left are being reactivated, disbarring any genuine solidarity whilst also calling for it. But at the same time while people suggest that Fisher doesn’t think much about our own experience of class we should be careful to note that whatever Leninism he may or may not subscribe to it is tempered by an appreciation of such a phenomenology.
One of the more interesting upshots of this debate has been the project Wounds of Class that seeks to explore the indelible affects of class experience. I would also say that it would be stupid of us to suggest that there were no moralists or individualists in our ranks- I regularly see scorn for the average non-revolutionary person being expressed online. But to pretend that this is endemic to anarchism or that the only alternative to moralism is some version of Leninism is imaginatively bankrupt.
This isn’t the place to go into a detailed account of post-nihilist praxis but I want to very briefly point out that we are living in catastrophic times. Perhaps this is symptomatic my being 29 years old and so only ever having known capitalist realism but I believe we are living inside the catastrophe. The catastrophic has already occurred and the apocalyptic future is already arriving in an unevenly distributed manner. Climate change is one example of the catastrophe; Fukushima another. The don’t mention this to fall into apocalypticism but to state that all these political arguments about left unity or left disunity, accusations of petite-bourgeoisness of this or that faction pale into insignificance when we consider what we’re up against. This is a dying civilisation, whether we like it or not, and the transition to the next one isn’t going to be smooth or easy. We require a thought of harm reduction and of palliation, and we need to begin developing new psychic and material infrastructures. Revolution is no longer about justice and equality alone, it is also about survival. But then, as the class war advances…for many of us it is already about survival.
Whoever talks about revolution without speaking about catastrophe has a corpse in her mouth.