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Monthly Archives: February 2014

Youth culture is constantly constructed as an object of contemplation and interpretation. There is a certain kind of journalist for whom youth culture provides a wellspring of material to be broken apart, reassembled, framed and offered up as a kind of diagnostic of the condition of society, always for a particular audience. This production of “knowledge” is always an exercise of power: youth are spoken about, interpreted, fretted over, represented, but rarely if ever included in the production of the discourse about them.

For the Right – the tabloids and the stuffier broadsheets – the archetypal narrative form is the moral panic. Youth appears always as the crisis of a liberal society gone too far: a destructive whirlwind of jouissance tearing apart all that remains orderly and good. Of course, the “youth media” – that is media produced by businesses and marketed at youth – is pretty much entirely a marketing apparatus, manipulating and producing youth cultures as revenue streams for various industries (music, fashion, etc.). In these cases, the operation of power is more or less transparent (at least, if viewed from sufficient distance).

But there is a certain type of left/liberal writing about youth culture – by trendy twenty-something journalists, for trendy twenty-somethings, both mutually invested in sustaining the delusion that they’re still part of the adolescent avant-garde – where the operations of power/knowledge are all the more insidious precisely because they represent themselves as sympathetic, and as occupying an “our man in the Orient” position simultaneously within and outside the culture they report on.*

* My own speaking-position on this subject is somewhat suspect also, as a 23-year-old who has never been in any way cool, and who mostly sits in his flat eating ready-meals and arguing about political theory on facebook.

A common feature of this kind of writing is a peculiar kind of historicism around the appearance of youth subcultures and countercultures. At every moment of history, Youth is expected to embody a spirit of rebellion against society, which I am calling the Punkgeist. The Punkgeist is the essence and historical mission of Youth: rebellion against the aesthetic/cultural establishment, the liberation of desire through the construction of a countercultural avante garde and new oppositional collective identities. Rock, punk, goth, rave, et al, are to be understood as particular manifestations of this eternal essence of Youth, which proceeds through a dialectical process: each generation produces its own countercultural forms, which over time are incorporated into the mainstream, becoming stale, clichéd, boring, repressive, only to be overturned by the aesthetic radicalism of the next generation. Thesis, antithesis, synthesis – Hegel reborn as a music journalist.

The puzzle then for those who assemble nostalgic misrepresentations of the youth movements of the past into a dialectic of history is why are the youth of today so docile, conservative, apolitical? Why are their trends not as cool and important as those that came before? This is the question that NekNominations (basically a viral drinking game) posed to one Vice writer, prompting him to write an article titled ‘NekNominations are what this generation has instead of punk or rave’.

The thesis put forward by the article is essentially this: the youth of today exist in a world where a technologically-enabled individuated eclecticism has replaced counterculture, and every rebellion is monetised and reincorporated into capitalism before it can even begin. But “there’s no way to monetise drinking a pint full of grasshoppers or getting your mates to pepper spray you in the face. They remain one of the last things in our society that are essentially unmarketable. Very few brands are going to encourage you to drink engine oil any time soon – they don’t want a shout out at your funeral, they want your money. NekNominate doesn’t, and it remains nihilistically enticing for that.”  The old is dying and the new cannot be born, so all that is left to teenagers is to drink, vomit and post the results on facebook.

I didn’t know quite what to make of the piece at first (hence why I’ve ended up writing a whole long thing about it). On the one hand, I’m sympathetic to the Capitalist Realismesque argument: culture is dead, authentic innovation and rebellion within art is now impossible, and all that remains is a depressive hedonism. (Although Adorno said much the same, and then the 60s happened.) But on the other hand, there’s something that feels really forced about the politicisation/intellectualisation of what seems to be a wholly apolitical and anti-intellectual gesture: the imposition of an interpretive framework that at the same moment patronises and gives far too much credit. “You might think you’re downing a pint of cider,” it seems to say, “but I know it’s really a desperate and nihilistic rebellion against postindustrial capitalism.” In any case, drinking games weren’t invented by teenagers in 2014, so I’m not sure why this one needs a special explanation, just because it happened virally on the Internet. (Seriously have none of the people writing the acres of columns on this topic ever necked a pint in their lives?)

Perhaps the problem is this: the Punkgeist doesn’t exist. Perhaps rebellion is not the telos of youth. Perhaps there was always far more involved in counterculture than just teenage hormones. Perhaps punk was not just a generation acting out because they were young, but a far more conscious and political project, and perhaps this generation hasn’t come up with the new punk because punk was a deliberate intervention in particular historical circumstances that no longer exist. In any case, the pop-Hegelianism of the common-currency Punkgeist explanation for countercultural movements has tended to strip away everything authentically dangerous about them, reframing them as purely aesthetic rebellions, and as merely epiphenomena of the maturation of a generation: something to talk about at dinner parties (or in newspaper columns) when you inevitably grow up and get a proper job.

And maybe NekNomination is just a drinking game, not the spirit of punk returning in pathological form.

Alan Shatter must resign. Obviously. The Garda Commissioner too, whatever his name is. Everyone knows what’s happened here: the cops bugged the Ombudsman and Fine Gael are doing whatever they can to muddy the waters, playing absurd language games with standards of proof and meanings of evidences.

But is there not something utterly boring about how explosive all this is? Are we not here every single week watching some controversy or other blossom into an absurdist melodrama? The Minister Who Put A Hospital In His Back Garden, or The Banker Who Gets A 100k Bonus For No Discernible Reason, or some bullshit, all inducing the same back-and-forth conversation between press and PR consultants played out for our viewing pleasure. Each mundane obscenity producing a rich symphony of scandal – but each utterly structurally identical in its predictable effects.

We’re always angry, because there’s always someone taking the piss. But we’re always angry in precisely the same impotent and individuated way: someone is obviously corrupt or malevolent and yet for some reason gets to keep their job or their money or to avoid prison or whatever. The ‘free press’ makes limp efforts at ‘holding them to account’, but there’s a palpable sense that we’re all going through the motions that permeates the entire public sphere. The Dads of Ireland shout at the news, taxi drivers make cynical comments, and all the cool kids do more or less the same thing, but with hashtags. Voila: public discourse.

I try to avoid the news as much as I can. The kind of anger it produces – an anger that cannot possibly materialise the desire for which it stands – is ultimately just a corrosive, melting away whatever hope one has for the world. The position I take is one of informed apathy: I know what sort of thing is likely to happen, I can do without the details. Of course the cops break the law, they’re a gang of thugs hired by the State to keep order. What do you expect? Of course politicians lie and CEOs line their pockets while impoverishing society. That’s what they do. And if you cut one down, there’s ten more to take their place. And, of course, the discussion in the ‘free press’ circles round and round the absent signifier of structural causation – like those little horses on a merry-go-round – individualising blame, producing and directing anger towards those who – whatever the ethics of their personal choices – are ultimately only carriers for their social function. If this particular pseudo-controversy manages to depose the Garda Commissioner he’ll be replaced by another fucking cop. You can skim a layer of shit off the top of the tank, but there’s always more lurking in the depths waiting to float to the top. Some victory.

What should be obvious, but somehow isn’t, is that ‘popular anger’ is not some primordial force entering politics from the outside: it’s actively produced by the political conjuncture. We’re invoked to be angry here and not there, in this way and not that, at this individual and not this structure, and to consume our own anger through the mediation of the press in ways that are never allowed to amount to a meaningful collective challenge to power. It turns out that this is a pretty effective circuit for diffusing anger, all the while producing the sense that society is corrupt beyond rescue, but without allowing us to locate that corruption in anything concrete and therefore potentially changeable: a metaphysical corruption, for all practical purposes identical to collective possession by evil spirits.

It’s not at all clear to me how to short out this particular circuit of containment. But one thing that is clear is that the traumatic irruption of the Real within this world of spectacular representations will have nothing at all to do with the various organs of public opinion, or the relations of passive consumption they produce. Either we, as a first step, have better conversations that implicate structures and ultimately aim at posing a meaningful challenge to power, or we’ll remain trapped in pantomime anger: shouting at TVs and swapping cynical quips with taxi drivers ad mortem.

 I

The genie will not go back into the bottle. The recent Cambrian explosion of critiques of the Left – deploying the concepts of intersectionality and privilege – is not a reversible process. The old and comforting unities that have been disaggregated by these critiques cannot be reassembled – or at least not in the same way. Whether one is happy about this or not, intersectionality is now an active element of the Left, and the pre-intersectional Left cannot be recovered, even if one wished to.

 II

Those who insist upon rejecting intersectionality in toto – whether due to nostalgia for previous compositions of the Left from previous phases of struggle, or to utopian visions of what the Left could be – have retreated into idealism. They construct transcendental standards of what the Left must become (once again) against which the Left is compared and inevitably found wanting. Such an approach cannot succeed. The immanent self-development of the Left can only be a process of self-transformation reckoning with and utilising the material of the actually-existing Left.

 III

Intersectionality is not a ruling class conspiracy to destroy the Left. It is a critique of the Left from within the Left. Or, as Foucault would perhaps put it, an “insurrection of subjugated knowledges” within the Left. (Society Must Be Defended) It is the collective discursive assemblage deployed by minorised subjects within the Left to combat their marginalisation – a cutting tool to break through the ossified exclusions of Left theory and practice. Those who respond by waging a rhetorical war of annihilation against intersectionality and privilege have, as Mao might say, clearly gone wrong.

IV

There are no purely creative or productive transformations. Creation always entails a measure of destruction. The Left must continuously be destroyed in order to be produced anew. “The passion for destruction is a creative passion, too!” (Mikhail Bakunin, The Reaction in Germany)

This does not, however, mean that all destruction is also creation. There exist negations that are not dialectical. An atomic bomb does not produce a resurrection after it destroys.

V

If intersectionality is to be a force of revitalisation of the Left, how could it proceed but through negation? If the collective assemblages of the Left are ineffectual, stultifying, exclusionary, they must be broken apart – and parts thrown away, perhaps – before they can be assembled differently. The expectation that the intersectional transformation of the Left proceed only through pure positivity is in effect the demand that it not proceed at all.

VI

If one is working on an old house, one is likely to uncover elements of toxicity and decay – asbestos, mould, rats, damp, cracked walls, rotting beams, even shaky foundations. While it might seem as though the problems uncovered have appeared as a result of the work undertaken, the truth is they were there already. The Left is an old house.

Intersectionality as a process has uncovered relations within the Left that are toxic. These are often unpleasant to deal with. But putting the carpet back down does not stop the floorboards rotting.

VII

Fixing the Left is not an end-in-itself. It is not enough to get all of our internal relations in perfect balance. We are building a war machine, not an ornament.

VIII

The Left has always been angry. The Left has always been animated by the anger of the oppressed and exploited, as well as our hopes, desires, loves and aspirations. A Left that is not angry has succumbed to centrist capitulation, bureaucratic drudgery or hippy escapism.

The Left has never been unified. There has always been conflict and disagreement, sometimes bitter, because our divisions matter. A Left that has done away with all internal conflict is a Left that has given up all serious ambitions of transforming society and retreated into pantomime.

Why then has the presence of anger and conflict within the Left suddenly become intolerable?

IX

Anger is political. It is gendered and racialised. The question of when, how and by whom anger is to be expressed is a matter of political contestation. One might reasonably be troubled at the intensity of anger within a discourse, but any remedy to the problem must not involve resubmerging the anger of the oppressed beneath a cold ocean of silence.

X

Anger is more than a mere feeling: it is an energy, a potential. It is a creative moment of an individual. It is not enough for that anger to find expression and recognition – that is a circuit of containment – it must be allowed to flow – to produce, transform and overthrow according to its own immanent truth – and not merely diffuse. It is a matter for the individual to develop such an ethical relationship to their anger, and not for any external apparatus of policing or mediation.

XI

“Nobody in the world, nobody in history, has ever gotten their freedom by appealing to the moral sense of the people who were oppressing them.” (Assata Shakur)

Moralism is not the same as ethics. The former is based in what Nietzsche calls ressentiment, a resentment of the powerful that accepts the inevitability of one’s own powerlessness, and aims only at constraining the actions of the powerful, while valorising the condition of powerlessness. Moralism operates by setting up transcendental standards of good and evil which by the force of their ethical rightness are expected to determine the behaviour of individuals. In this sense it is an ineffectual idealist approach to ethics that can challenge power only in the abstract, rather than transforming the material conditions that enable that power.

For those struggling to make justice a material reality, moralism is a condition to be escaped or warded off. This does not, however, entail an abandonment of ethics, or a rejection of micropolitics. Any social movement that aims at being transformative must produce and practice a counterethics that aims at displacing and abolishing the dominant ethics by sweeping away the material mechanisms of the dominant ethics on all levels (individual, intersubjective, and social). Rejecting moralism in no way implies that we must compromise on our ethics, but rather that we develop a materialist and transformative approach to ethics – a counterethics conceived of as a component of a revolutionary machine.