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notes on militant method

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Gabe just left a provocative comment about Zero Books under the “militant preciousness” post:

Maybe it’s my fault for having overly high expectations, but there is a common stylistic let down in the blogs that is accentuated by the way the books promise more than they deliver, which is a perceptive or witty analysis of some cultural phenomenon, and then a final mini-paragraph which says, ‘and perhaps x shows that another way of living is possible’ which has not been earned in any way by the preceding analysis. I’m not convinced this (very enjoyable) polemic and analysis needs this ‘militant’ wrapping at all. And the clear pleasure in the ’self-marketing’ and being ‘on message’ with the unified branding and catchphrases is pretty striking to an outsider.

I feel that I should answer this the long way around, to make clear just what’s driving my rather palpable frustration with certain things. It’s sort of a long story, but basically the background to many of my positions / much of my current and future work, so hopefully you’ll bear with me.

I don’t have a problem with the “marketing” of the books per se. I have a problem when marketing steps in front of, outruns thought and argument. That is to say, I lived (as a Very Young Man) through the final years of the dominance of capital-T Theory in English departments, and cringe a bit when I think back on the ways that a sort of hipness or slickness was taken by publishers and even readers as a fully convertable currency in place of thought, practicality, and rigorous argumentation. The whole scene was, to put it bluntly, fucking useless.

Far too often, the form that “political” work in the humanities took was as follows: reassemble theoretical machine in your apartment. Force literary (or other) texts through machine. Scrape up what comes out the other end – generally a fairly bleak picture of our world and our prospects. Strain and mould into monograph. Just before baking, add a few vague, handwaving gestures about practice – gestures generally way out of sync in either their modestness or their hubristic magical thinking with the bleakness of the portrait you’ve just painted. Finally, bake in the glow of your self-admiration – for now you are a servant of revolution, you have changed the world with your book on, say, racial politics in the 19th century novel.

Then all of a sudden, capital-T theory failed. And then one day I was reading an essay about Conrad and imperialism, and noticed something. What the author was discussing was moderately valuable, interesting even. But the rotely grandiloquent claims at the front of the paper seemed to imply that she was in fact, in writing and publishing this paper, doing something about imperialism, racism, and gender imbalance. She gave a sense (and it’s not really her fault – this is just what one did or does in papers like these – it’s a sort of boilerplate that you insert at the front and the back) that a few more papers like this, and, well, we could expect a major improvement in the state of affairs whose backstory she was tracing.

All of a sudden, this seemed criminally untenable to me. It did because it is. And my head was set a-spinning. For this was just the sort of paper that I wrote too – I put the boilerplate in just the same way. Depressing! And so I started thinking about what might be done.

And I’m still thinking. But a few things have become relatively clear to me:

1. We must think steadily, honestly, and realistically about what it is that our works might reasonably do.

2. The fact that they probably won’t spur the immediate resolution of age-old antimonies and contradictions doesn’t mean that they are totally useless.

3. But getting #1 wrong will likely lead them to be useless, yes. Getting #1 right will likely lead to marginal usefulness, and marginal usefulness is better than no usefulness at all.

4. The cultural sphere still is the place where decisions collective and individual are made about who we are, where we’re headed, and what we should do. The base and superstructure are codeterminant. Intervention in culture is still very valuable.

5. You just have to think about which levers you can pull from where you’re standing. And make sure they are the right levers.

So… Writing anything that jumps a bit too quickly and way too far from object of analysis / findings to the pragmatics earned by the former sticks in my craw. Obviously, none of this is easy to sort out, there’s always a leap of some sort, and it’s very difficult to know in advance. But Owen’s work, for instance, seems to me to get the calibration just about right. (As does IT’s, for that matter). Making an argument – even if it largely at this point takes the form of pointing at things and saying that was good, there are obvious reasons to want more of that – that’s counter-intuitive or runs in the face of conventional wisdom and that is actually distributable (and distributed at this point, due to Owen’s voluminous journalism!) to those who are making real-world decisions about real-world things seems to me an object-lesson in one way we might start to do the work of what we call or used to call “theory” but to get it a bit more right this time around.

On the other hand – and here is where my comments over the last few months about “militant dysphoria” are coming from – some of the stuff being said by people (may of whom are writing books for Zero) seems to me to draw us all the way back and then some to the bad old days. The problem gives itself away, to my mind, when they’ve started fantasizing about the landscapes of the Terminator movies, or post-apocalyptic survival scenarios, or when we think vaguely Nazi Death Metal is somehow dialectically recuperable…. though they can’t say quite how, keep drawing up just short of where the connective tissue is supposed to be. This is why I keep asking for an explanation of the mechanics, and I think this is why people get a bit upset when I do.

And this is where the distortive effect of the marketing cart dragging the theoretical horse comes into play. It’s of course very sexy to lead with Absolute Destruction and Fucking Rubble!!!, Radical Moodiness and really Dark Music! But absent the steps that I’ve described above, I can’t help but feel that what we’re getting is something like the chronic perversity of marketing rather than the necessary rigor and clarity of thought that would be effective.

More to say, but it’s time to go to work!

Written by adswithoutproducts

October 5, 2009 at 12:30 pm

Posted in theory

22 Responses

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  1. Frustration tends to blur its objects and antecedent occasions together; but I think it would be helpful for you to try to draw some distinctions here. In terms of position and attitude, or mode and content of argument, there’s a fair bit of difference between myself and k-punk, for example (even though in other respects we’re very sympatico).

    With respect to Cold World, its ambitions are i) to put together a cogent set of metaphors for talking about depression in a non-privatising, non-medicalising way, and ii) to examine some figures of adolescent and post-adolescent revolt (including RAF-style militant political activism) and see if the same set of metaphors will afford us any purchase in talking about what’s driving them, and what they’re being driven up against.

    Certainly I hope that all of this speaks to our condition in some sense; but the type of speech is broadly not prescriptive. Are you certain that you’re applying the correct norms and expectations here?


    October 5, 2009 at 3:14 pm

  2. Now you’ve got me worried, since I’m yet another Zero Books author. I do have a week or so to tweak my ending, so perhaps one of my goals will be to try to make it not annoying to you and people like you.

    Adam Kotsko

    October 5, 2009 at 3:23 pm

  3. (Adam crosses off Activist Awkwardness, Dissident Discomfort and Communist Cringing from the possible titles list)


    October 5, 2009 at 5:10 pm

  4. […] “adolescent insanity”—draws a useful line in the sand and fol­lows up with a com­ment that self-​consciously polit­i­cal poet­mon­gers in this coun­try would do well to study: […]

    Dear Poets

    October 5, 2009 at 5:20 pm

  5. Ads – I greatly appreciate being exempted from the criticism here, but you should read Cold World, it really isn’t what you appear to think it is.


    October 5, 2009 at 6:52 pm

  6. Dominic,

    I haven’t read your book – still waiting for it to arrive. If I lump you in, it’s because of the discussion of militant dysphoria that I read on your blog and discussed here:

    But I’m interested in the book and will read it very soon!


    I’m sure you’ll be OK!


    See the above. But I do hope that you see what I am saying in terms of the thematic focus / ultimate political ends issue. I think that your stuff, as I said above, is realistically aimed. Which is good, which is wonderful at this point.


    October 5, 2009 at 8:15 pm

  7. Ads,

    I think you articulate better than I ever have a lot of my own problems with (even contemporary) theory. I try to be fairly realistic in my own writing, but there’s 2 rather strong tendencies to do otherwise: (1) it’s just damn attractive to write/think that you’re making a massive contribution; and (2) I don’t think the rhetorical aspect can be separated from it’s political usefulness. That is to say, if (1) is true for most people, writing that writes that way is more likely to catch on, and thus more likely to actually make a difference. I’m Latourian here – to make a difference, an idea has to actively spread, and this is a key part of any work, scientific or political. And staid, measured academic writing just isn’t popular. In that regard, K-Punk and Alex’s writing are both beautiful to me because of their ability to write in a way that goes far beyond academic limitations. Reading them, I always find myself spurred to both thought and action.

    Also, and others have already mentioned this and you’ve already responded to it, but Dominic’s book really is quite separate from the issues that have been raised online around this stuff. It’s an excellent book in it’s own right, and the rest of us have really just used it’s path-setting to go in our own selfish directions.

    Nick Srnicek

    October 5, 2009 at 10:16 pm

  8. Gabe’s titles are awesome. I wanted it to be just entitled “Awkwardness,” but they want me to do something more descriptive yet not academic-sounding.

    Adam Kotsko

    October 5, 2009 at 10:21 pm

  9. Adam,

    I think “Awkwardness” is perfect, actually, and have for a long time. It’s awkwardly dextrous, as a title.


    I’m not advocating staid academic writing. (Again, I wish I could link to some of the stuff I’ve been doing lately. Not that it’s super brilliant, and it ain’t Hunter S. Thompson, but I’m voting with my, um, laptop against boring academic monographs. I could write another post, equal and opposite, saying just what’s wrong with those….) Mark writes very well, I agree, and often gets things very much right. He’s definitely a blogger that whose every post I read – and there are only about 4 of those left at this point, so that is saying something. But when it comes to politics, and the future of theory, it’s super important to get things right, especially the fundamentals. There’s a way that writing beautifully can lead you in the wrong direction. The trick is to write beautifully, persuasively, and to get it right. As we’re doing well, as a group, we bloggers, but with doing well comes a shitpot of responsibility.

    I take this seriously because of this. We’re all doing very well. It’s important to get it right.


    October 5, 2009 at 10:27 pm

  10. OK – I’m a dummy. I don’t know what the hell ‘militant dysphoria’ actually means (and I hardly know what the hell Dominic is on about most of the time). I take it that it’s left-wing, but doesn’t ‘believe’ in ‘activism’? That its disgusted with capitalism, but revels in its ugliest, darkest cultural products (nazi metal, zzzzzombie movies etc.?)? That sees us all as bored and depressed, but thinks any personal attempt to ‘overcome’ this is ideological brainwashing?

    Or is it just a small clique of (bored) bloggers, up to their eyeballs in ‘theory’ and having a stab at making a ‘movement’ (ie. a publishing gig or conference or two) for themselves, with a cut’n’paste of previous theories with their own particular tastes in music/movies/novels thrown in for good measure?


    October 5, 2009 at 11:02 pm

  11. Ads,

    Yes, we’re in much more agreement than I thought then. And definitely agreed about the responsibility part, which is something I’m still admittedly in the process of adjusting to.


    I think we’ve been discussing your question throughout this post and Ads’ last post on militancy.

    Nick Srnicek

    October 5, 2009 at 11:10 pm

  12. … and also, why (outside the academy-speak) does are its reference points indistinguishable from what from an 80s Re:Search/Semiotexte idea of ‘radical’? Burroughs, Ballard, Zombies, post-punk, cybernetics, Baudrillard, ugly music (industrial then, metal now), feminist sci-fi, Lovecraft etc. etc. A lot of it does read like a series of schoolboy enthusiasms with ‘outsider’ philosophy sprinkled on top.


    October 5, 2009 at 11:15 pm

  13. … and the (seemingly infinite) references to Badiou and Deleuze are making me as jaded as any ‘last man’! Where’s my remote?


    October 5, 2009 at 11:20 pm

  14. Well and see, wayne, it may be hard for some to understand this, but I am coming only with love. Semiotexte published 45 bad books for every 3 good ones. I have a hard time separating love from critique, because critique is what makes the heavier stalks grow heavy.

    I agree with you about your list…


    October 5, 2009 at 11:21 pm

  15. To be fair, there’s other ‘schoolboy enthusiasms’ outside that list – ie. soft spots for really cheesy, posey, rapidly dated, over-marketed pop tat – that supposedly ‘says’ something about ‘post-human reality’ or suchlike…


    October 5, 2009 at 11:35 pm

  16. Wayne,

    I’m going to return to the issue of the list in a later post. It’s more complicated than both of us are making it.. You do have a really good point, but there’s more to be said…


    October 7, 2009 at 10:23 am

  17. […] stumbled onto this and the quoted bit really spoke to my experiences: I lived (as a Very Young Man) through the final […]

  18. I note k-punk has (as a deliberate wind up?) followed this template right down to the “perhaps” in his own “militant dysphoria could provide a leftist alternative” non-sequitur ending…

    “the time is right for new narratives to be developed and propagated [just not by us].”


    October 8, 2009 at 7:45 pm

  19. Lovely Lovely bitterness here. So glad I found it reposted on “What in the hell…”

    I don’t think that overstating your contribution is going to change, I do think that there might be more convincing models than the older discursive/cultural ones.

    It will not change that you hope your book is a smash hit and changes everyone and everything, but it will probably not be, and yet still it might matter in some way.

    We could write a different intro / conclusion argument than “this will fight biopower / neoliberalism / technology / humanism”. One approach is to skip the stance that your work is “political” but another is to make it political in some other way. The dominant line at this time remains that culture and discourse are where practices/representations/ideology subsist, so there is some agency at those locations. This is why I consider Judith Butler’s work important at all (rather than totally overly legalistic and textual), because it intervenes at the level of language and representation where a considerable amount of the problem actually is.

    Now I’m imagining a helpful seminar that would be called “who cares?” and would have, as reading, one essay that had a point that was valid (eg zombie movies have some relationship to colonialism and work and debt) and then the rest is all different ways to recuperate that fun stuff into Impacts In The World.

    I often think of the idea that poetry can be taken up by a movement, as one of the weakest possible defenses of why we should make poetry. Like I should go to the store in case I am hit by a car and then get to sue and win a pile of money.


    October 8, 2009 at 10:38 pm

  20. Just read K – punk’s latest post on militant dysphoria – and it still just runs off moody bedsit cliches. Am I alone in finding the quality of his blog seriously slipping over the past year? Not least because of this dysphoria malarkey? What’s to separate this ‘project’ from standard emo/metal/goth schtick?

    Joy Division vs. Morrisey? That’s a pub conversation I was having 20 years ago!


    October 8, 2009 at 10:39 pm

  21. Now I’m imagining a helpful seminar that would be called “who cares?”

    That’s how I ran my PhD seminars back in the USA. The title of the first seminar may as well have been “who fucking cares?”

    One approach is to skip the stance that your work is “political” but another is to make it political in some other way.

    Exactly. Generally speaking, works in the humanities or parahumanities aren’t going to have directly political effect. So you have to think about other ways, their reasonableness, their possible / probably efficacy.

    Actually, I’m going to return to your comment in a post – hopefully this morning if I get a chance.


    October 9, 2009 at 7:22 am

  22. […] (source) […]

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