The True King in the North

Benjamin Myers – The Gallows Pole (Bluemoose Books, 2017)

There’s a movement among Northern writers that’s been around for a while now. Back in 2016 I called it “Powerhouse Gothic”. The Northern Powerhouse reference might be a little dated now, but the movement goes on strong. Literature always outlasts politics.

The subgenre is typified by windswept moors meeting industrial grit, hard men with drinking problems, resourceful women, and, somewhere out on the margins, a hint of magic.

Andrew Michael Hurley is one of these types of writers, as is Glen James Brown, Rosie Garland and, in places, Jenn Ashworth. Zoe Gilbert’s Folk (2018) is not Northern, but fits the bill. My own offering, Avon Murray (2016), is one of these as well.

But the undisputed king of Powerhouse Gothic is Benjamin Myers, and in particular his novel The Gallows Pole. I’m surprised it’s taken me as long to read as it has. It’s been prominently displayed in every book shop and cultural centre in Manchester since it came out and shows no sign of disappearing soon.

Readers have clearly taken to the novel. Having finally read it, I can see why.

On its surface, The Gallows Pole is a historical novel with vaguely left wing undertones. The Cragg Vale Coiners, a gang from up in the Calder valley, conspired to “clip” coins, forge new ones from the clippings, and flood the valley with their new-coined wealth.

The gang were very much real. They share a collective headstone in the same graveyard as Sylvia Plath. Their clipping collapsed the value of the King’s coin across the North and the massive operation to track them down and arrest them helped bring law to the moors. With law came industry.

So the stage is set for a heroic tale of peasant bandits making a brave last stand before the coming of the industrial revolution. Their actions finally, in a twist of fate, make possible the mills and mineshafts they so fear.

But, thankfully, the story is not so simple. Myers wears no rose-tinted spectacles when he looks back on the eighteenth century. He sees its violence, its muck, and its grinding poverty. He also sees the Coiners for what they are, low down crooks the same as any modern criminal gang.

“King” David Hartley is a masterfully rendered bully. In his own words – his “last confeshuns, ritten on bog roll in prisun” – we hear of his rise to “kingship”, the man who betrayed him, and his brutal efforts in pursuing “lejund” status.

The narrative moves between these short, first-person accounts and poetically phrased third-person rendering of the events. Later, more voices enter: the wanted posters, the newspaper clippings, the special ordinances from the King. But it’s the tension between Hartley and his story that drives the narrative.

Myers plants our feet firmly in the Calder Valley mud. We pity the Coiners their brutal lives, but our stomach is soon turned by their brutality.

My favourite moment was the arrival of the customs officer, William Deighton. For men with leather clothes and wooden clogs, this eighteenth century gentleman in his wig, his red silken waistcoat and his soft polished shoes is like a terrible avenging angel manifesting from another plane.

And of course there is magic. The Coiners themselves are very poor at their job. Their success only comes when a wandering alchemist joins them, plying his occult trade. The gods of fire and smoke predict a bad end to King David; a prophecy that, like all prophecies, sets in motion its own coming about.

Then there are the stagmen. Half-man, half-stag creatures who dance and perform sacred rituals in the forests and on the moors. They have a connection to Hartley, he tells us, and have visited him many times.

The secret of The Gallows Pole’s success lies in its variety of action and pacing. It’s both a biography of a gangster and the police procedural that catches him. It is a historical novel depicting with great accuracy the toil of eighteenth century rural life, and also a folk tale, a piece of magical realism.

It is by turns poetic and pacey, saccharine and brutal.

It’s likely that, if you were going to read this novel, then you would have already read it by now. Still, if you were like me and were tempted, but never quite got around to it, then I’d say dive in. It’s a novel that will stay with you. A future classic.

– Joe Darlington

SF speculations

Will Davies (ed) – Economic Science Fictions (Goldsmiths / MIT)

Sci-fi has always been a chrome, jet-powered ideas machine. Here sci-fi is the vehicle for political economists, sociologists and urban writers such as Owen Hatherley.

This book came out in 2018. Our ‘current economic reality is neither credible nor viable’ ran the slogan. In March 2020, that bites really hard.

Drawing on Ballard, editor Will Davies explains that ‘the so-called economy’ is a ’tissue of fictions’. He stresses that fiction does not mean falsehood, but that sci-fi and modernity are linked. Modernity emerges from a ‘reflexive’ engagement with industrial life in the nineteenth century; sci-fi then comes out of that as a fictional genre in relation to past, present and future.

Writing in the first wave of the coronavirus panic, I can add the science fictification of everyday life. Adam Tooze in the Guardian explains that the ‘relentless expansion’ of hypermodern economies in Asia and ‘the resulting mix of modern urban life with traditional food customs’ can create ‘viral incubators’. Where did many of us in the west see those scenes first? Bladerunner. But of course here is where we need to proceed with caution, and see that our fictions also contain judgements. Those judgements can have dire consequences.

Davies explains that ‘it is not just that all that is solid melts into air’, but that our ‘air is constantly materialising into solidity.’ He cites Ursula Le Guin, who asked science fiction writers to think that we live in capitalism – and that it seems inescapable – but so did the divine right of kings. Notably, Le Guin’s father was anthropologist Alfred Kroeber.

All of this runs two ways politically though, as Davies points out:

‘The literary fiction of Ayn Rand […] has very real consequences in the form of a libertarian Conservative clique that was inspired by it and now has access to the White House.’

Rand’s followers were called ‘the Collective’ but Rand preached the philosophy of selfishness. Sociology itself, Davies points out – citing Ruth Levitas – has always been a speculative, imaginative science. I will add to this the work of C. Wright Mills. The time for creative speculation is now. Even before coronavirus, as the storms flooded masses of people, it was clear that taken-for-granted industries such as the insurance business were no longer fit for purpose.

2020, whether we like it or not, is the start of an acutely painful transformation of the world: Will Davies has just dropped that article on the Guardian website. This volume, then, is going to be extremely useful.

The book is dedicated to Mark Fisher and the introduction is by him. It is incisive, cutting open Capitalist Realism further. Fisher describes how the neoliberal project had to push on to a place where even free market American doctrines are outpaced. This has now mutated into what Fisher called ‘market Stalinism’. The ‘choice’ in what was once a whole project of choosing has been slowly, invisibly, siphoned off until all that is left is brutal market logic: inhuman in the older philosophical sense and inhuman in the newer, algorithmic sense.

For over twenty years the inequality has been hidden by structural fixes at every scale: from the large scale to the individual; from national bank bailouts to personal loans.

The coronavirus crisis has uncovered the chasmic class divide all over again. The state pays businesses to pay their workers in a crisis, but only if they are fully tenured. Payment holidays for owners (the leaches) but not renters (the hosts) illuminates the real relationship. That this is the exact opposite to the picture painted on our sunny screens should come as no surprise. Our economic logic is being turned inside-out, at the same time as our societies are. This book decided to wilfully invert our default logics two years before the crisis. It is worth revisiting because of that alone.

The individual chapters are excellent. For Ha-Joon Chang markets are political and ethical constructs. The economists’ claim to be scientific, therefore, is a science fiction. Laura Horne, in her chapter ‘Future Inc?’, identifies the trope of the ‘evil corporation’ in science fiction. She delightfully explodes this and moves on to Kim Stanley Robinson’s Mars Trilogy, where the evil corporation was invoked and the worker co-op was the answer, particularly the Mondragon co-ops in Spain.

But Mondragon is very dull and businesslike. It isn’t quite the psychedelic alternative one might expect to find in sci-fi. But Horne anticipates my scepticism and moves to a concluding section which says just that. Every chapter here is similarly explorative. There is no table-hammering accelerationism here, even though the texts are somehow related to that phenomena.

It’s a bit rich of me to criticise this – because I don’t have a secret dossier of far-reaching ideas either – but the worker co-op is still pretty much the limit of our ability to imagine an alternative. And worker co-ops and co-ops more generally are often more hassle, not less.

But these wider questions – essentially around a capitalism that is still by default emancipatory, rather than about attachment – are present under the surface of all the texts here. Moving towards something more attached to human life and the planet we are on is key to survival. It is not going to be easy. The Anthropocene means nature is on the agenda and reason is knocked back – Will Davies says as much here – but all of this is still, I think, also a local struggle within Enlightenment, of a sort. Davies seems to suggest that in his recent Guardian article. The 1755 Lisbon earthquake – monitored by Kant and Voltaire – led to a spike in reason, not irrationalism.

But our recent crisis is showing us different forms in altogether unexpected places. Davies explains how anti-trust is the ‘central political weapon in the neoliberal armoury’, but we are seeing how competition laws might be suspended in the UK so that supermarkets can co-ordinate stock better. This could be a glimpse straight through consumer capitalism into communism, but it could also be the solidified future of full Market Stalinism – as Mark Fisher described it – right around the corner.

Temps are sucked into the swirl of supermarkets now drained by panic-buying stockpilers and necessary staff isolation. Some of those will be literally risking death for pennies. At the end of it, those who survive will be flung out again. But they have no choice. Our ‘best of all possible worlds’ looks exactly like it did in Candide, described by Voltaire’s Dr Pangloss, a sick joke.

The rhetoric on the supermarket websites is currently that workers are ‘not just stacking the shelves’ but ‘feeding the nation’. Shabby Johnsonian bluster. But people are swallowing it. The infantile fantasies of patriotism so often mediated through millimetre thin visions of World War Two seem to be everywhere.

For many others though, the line between believing in a social fabric and nihilism is wearing very sheer indeed. People are not starving, or even eating more. Fear is driving them into a purchasing frenzy, its main point is endorphin release in a situation of panic. You are not ‘doing it’ for your country, you are doing it for capitalism.

We should write down all the ways in which the world is warping before our eyes as it does so. It is likely that many contingencies will become new ways of life, for better or worse, and in Britain, probably worse. In his recent Guardian article, Davies writes that the ‘platform giants’ are going from strength to strength. We won’t necessarily come out of this holding hands singing songs.

Davies is a great communicator and clearly a deeply read scholar. Ludwig von Mises looked at 1914-18 to think about ‘The War Economy’. Already Coronavirus as an economic situation is being compared to wartime (though often in politically infantile ways). The point Mises made back in the 1920s and Will Davies returned to in 2018 is that the planned economy of crisis can be rolled out in ‘peacetime’. In 2020 we can add that this is relevant if you are fighting each other, or a ‘nova’ virus.

Davies says Ludwig von Mises and Hayek gave us a private vision of modernity – or rather a model for a series of private visions – around a fixed core of economies. Davies links this to postmodernity via Jameson, in which there are only islands of thought cut off from the mainstream: any collective vision of the future has now completely vanished.

This begins with Hayek and Rand and ends in the dead, futureless present Mark Fisher described. As Davies says a ‘revived historical consciousness is therefore a matter of existential urgency, though that doesn’t guarantee that it will occur.’ I guess it must also be said that the NSDAP count as an earlier example of ‘revived historical consciousness’ as much as Extinction Rebellion do.

‘Thanks to risk modelling’ Davies says ‘the unknowability of the future’, which ‘might otherwise be a basis for hope, becomes instead a source of further financial profit.’ Dominic Cummings is currently the default risk managing, freakonomics ruler of the land. 2020 might entail an entire restructuring of the world order, but ask yourself under whose auspices and under what logics. However, it is very much in Davies’s favour that he is not a naive interpreter of history, or for instance of neoliberalism, as he has demonstrated in other pieces of writing.

Davies explained that for some German neoliberal economists and political thinkers a generous welfare state was required in order to ensure that the market did not simply brutalise people. These details are often missing from the analysis of the British neoleft turn of 2017-19. I am also glad to see that Davies is still citing Lyotard. The Momentum period 2017-19 also saw the demolition of such thinkers – or certainly it did round my way – and it is clear now that Lyotard was right, that knowledge itself has different uses, it is not one substance, and that The Differend was still, up until a month ago at least, our default philosophico-political terrain.

I am also reminded of Unger actually, that great experimenter. His time is surely now. He hasn’t been popular precisely because he wants us to go against political orthodoxy, and 2016-17 saw a return to a fairly orthodox Marxist left in Britain (although returns are always re-inventions too).

There is hope though, when Davies says it is ‘often remarked that a utopia is not a plan or a constitution or a blueprint, but something that emerges among all of us as a need in the face of some lack.’ He may as well have been writing for 2020, two years before it happened.

Smart infrastructures are now in the hands of surveillance capital, Davies says, but imagine if that were inverted. A tectonic political shift is required. This book is about inversions and speculations: ‘If accounting holds a privileged position in the development of capitalist rationality, as Weber and others have argued’ then ‘alternative accounting practices’ should be explored for non-capitalist or post-capitalist societies. Lawyers interpret existing rules for those with money, but why not combine them with artists, activists and philosophers in order to create new situations to challenge what Davies calls ‘the rigidity of capitalist institutions, which are always partly imaginary.’

The chapter on money by Sherryl Vint is excellent in this sense. I wrote a little book called Clocking Off in 2016. It was part sci-fi and speculated on a form of currency that rotted away at specifically timed points. It had to be exchanged, it could never be hoarded. ‘The Future Encyclopedia of Luddism’ by Miriam A. Cherry is a fabulous kick more in the style of Stewart Home’s Mind Invaders. So is the report on Fatbergs and Sinkholes. Again, in 2016 I designed a series of t-shirts bearing the slogan sous le pavés la vide (‘under the pavement, the void’) printed on an image of the huge Manchester ring road sinkhole.

There is far too much in this book to cover in a single review. It begins on a concrete ground of economics and by the end it is beginning to dynamite it.

The purpose of this book is that ‘in a time when capitalism and socialism have collapsed into each other, obliterating spaces of alterity or uncalculated discourse in the process’, then just to ‘describe unrealised (maybe unrealistic) economic possibilities’ is also to ‘rediscover a glimpse of autonomy’. How loaded that statement now seems.

But what this book ultimately demonstrates is that the human brain is still one of the most sophisticated tools in the universe. Now we really need to use it.

– Steve Hanson

Return to shock city

Ian McGuire – The Abstainer (Scribner, 2020)

Manchester in the late nineteenth century was full of coppers and rogues: The Scuttlers and their nemesis detective Jerome Caminada who nabbed Robert Horridge and broke up the drag ball. Arthur Conan Doyle was watching and writing Caminada into Sherlock Holmes. This is now a well-rehearsed script. But Conan Doyle wrote the James Bond equivalent of a 19th century detective, whereas McGuire writes the LeCarré version in his detective constable James O’Connor.

The villain of the piece, Stephen Doyle, casually sits in the detective’s office by the town hall for half an hour and then draws up its layout and leaves. He goes to the train station to watch the police looking for him. He fought in the American Civil War for money, not for ideals. This is no simplistic hero and villain show. This book explores the bleary, ethically-compromised but universal human landscape. It feels real. The prose is sparse; orange fires reflect off a ‘black and boatless Irwell’. In McGuire’s hands, four simple words in train do the job of a painter. The human understanding is acute and handled skillfully. Someone looks around at the furniture as though the answer to the mess they are in is to be found there. James O’Connor feels his alcoholism as a weight in his chest, lighter now, some time sober. Rats swarm like boiling tea leaves. Dead rats lie like ‘fat commas’. McGuire pulls the fullest picture from the smallest space. It is economic but very rich, albeit a richness of browns, greys and blacks.

Manchester in the late nineteenth century was full of Irish displaced from their conflicts with the English. Levenshulme was full of them. Levenshulme is still home to their ancestors. Irish politics became a little more settled on the surface, across the 1990s, even through a market crash. But the rage is burning through the flimsy frost once more. The toxic Tory-DUP punishment-reward relationship is just one place to look. The hanging of what became known as the Manchester Martyrs, which the book opens with, is real. Up in Levenshulme a few years ago a café was closed as someone had the bad luck to call it Isis. A little later, tabloids descended on a family whose son joined Isis. I cannot help reading the radicalisation in this book partly through that lens. Fenians taking the oath, spies within them. Of course, the Irish radicals seem closer to the white British, of course, Isis and the Fenians and later the IRA are not to be confused or conflated. But this book, bringing the 1860’s version of similar struggles back in fictional form, in 2020, is inevitably going to arrive loaded in a very particular way.

There’s a moment in which the old world revolutionary ideals of the Fenians and the proto-terrorism of Stephen Doyle meet and take leave of each other. The IRA, actually, is coming.

The Mayor, Robert Neill – a real Manchester Mayor, 1867-8 – became lauded for throwing up cheap back-to-backs. How very now, with a housing crisis and the stupid Manchester monoculture of property speculation continuing unchecked. The politics – of an American Civil War fighter and Fenian revolutionaries – could not be more contemporary, in a mythical-metonymical sense. We now have a government who five minutes ago were trying to install freeports and grease new and bigger connections with American capitalism. At the same time, the idea of full socialism is bust in Britain and the ravaged landscape of the late nineteenth century is back. Marx gave up on the working classes at the end of his life, so did Engels, which makes it incredible to see the ‘inevitability’ of class struggle returning to leftwing chat.

Author Ian McGuire went from the University of Manchester to the University of Virginia and then back to Manchester: His novel has an Irish emigré coming back to Manchester from America. In this, a very big fictional trope is broken up before we even start; that of the move west to ‘the new world’. It may seem like a tiny detail to focus on, but not only does it sever a cliché, it returns us to the possibility of connections with America meaning decline. When I grew up, the US of A was the land of gold pavements. This change of direction also refuses a Whig-historical reading, that time’s forward march means freedom and democracy. It is written plainly at one point: ‘We think we are moving forward, but we are only going round and round again.’ That is what the planet we are on does, after all.

America, in this novel, could be read as an associative curse. The American returns to wreak havoc. The Manchester landscape of the first ‘northern powerhouse’ is also one of living death. The ‘morning light is weak, recessional, as if the day is ending before it has even begun.’ The author’s geography is good. Piccadilly is a hill with a lunatic asylum on it. I already have my own nineteenth century Manchester in my head, from my own ad hoc research. My maps and McGuire’s match. Occasionally a place flashes up which is still here, the Turk’s Head pub for instance, it provides what Homi Bhabha once called a ‘reflux of astonishment’.

I could pick at it. The copper falls off the wagon right on cue. It’s being lined up for television. I can already see the BBC2 ads, all grey smog, but with a Peaky Blinders edge. If the boy had just fallen into the canal and died it would have been realer. It would have slapped me awake, but I began to drift here, if only a little.

But really, this nitpicking is churlish. This is great popular culture in the making. You can take it as a historical thriller, or you can take it as a lens through which you might scry the current landscape. It is either or both. All good literature is, and this is very good literature. It is highly relevant to the Manchester citizen and to the citizen of Britain and the world. It speaks terrifyingly to our times from the past. It is erudite, stylishly written and thrilling, an excellent piece of art.

– Steve Hanson

The Art of Ignoring Things

Adam Scovell – How Pale the Winter Has Made Us (Influx Press, 2020)

There are two viruses blighting the world right now. The most dangerous by far is the virus of language. It is language that has people feverish pawing at their phone screens, desperately searching for worse, worse, always worse news. It is language that we turn to in order to unburden ourselves; another panicked status, another reference to a doomsday movie. It bursts out of us.

The Freudian anal expulsive tendency. The infant’s desire to mess its nappy, longing for the parental attention that will follow. Our messes validate us. The bigger mess the better. Why else would we stockpile toilet paper?

It is for this reason that Adam Scovell’s new novel might be the perfect novel for our times. It is a novel of avoidance. A protagonist who, faced with the gross dramas of life, prefers to lose herself in art, culture and academic marginalia. It turns ignoring calamity into an art form.

How Pale the Winter Had Made Us tells the story of Isabelle, an academic type who is living in Strasbourg with a disinterested boyfriend when she learns that her father has committed suicide. Her dad, a failed artist living in Crystal Palace, hung himself in a public park. Her hateful mother blames the death on Isabelle, and demands she return to sort out the funeral.

But Isabelle refuses to do that. Her father she remembers as a self-absorbed creature, her mother is narcissistic and demanding. Isabelle, perhaps echoing these family traits, or perhaps transcending them, ignores her mother’s nasty messages and instead sets about exploring Strasbourg.

From here, the novel takes on a flaneurish air. Stuffy domestic drama is set aside as we learn about the young Goethe, Jean Arp’s poetry and the photography of Oliver Franck. The city forms a backdrop to the glittering curate’s eggs of its history.

Most captivating of all is the lesser known second invention of Gutenberg’s. Alongside the printing press, he also developed a special mirror. A tiny, handheld one with a curtain in front. Its purpose was religious, as it promised to “hold” the last image that had been reflected by its surface.

A pilgrim could therefore hold up their Gutenberg mirror to a sacred spectacle and capture its essence within the mirror. The curtain would then be pulled over and its holy essence would be stored for later use.

On one’s sickbed, for example, one might take down a Gutenberg mirror with the essence of Jerusalem in it and bathe in the Holy City’s stored glory while waiting for the quarantine to end.

Isabelle encounters a series of different collectors on her journey. A local antiques merchant introduces her to his great aunty, daughter of a famous botanist. She is joined in a café by an art lecturer whose uncle knew Arp. The local homeless metalhead whose sign reads “1 Euro pour la BOISSON” keeps an intricately inscribed notebook full of lyrics, including some lifted from Goethe.

The novel reminds me of the best moments when reading nouveau romans. The eye for detail is delectable, the objects almost there, present and palpable before you. The tone is fresh and open; pleasingly mannered.

Yet, unlike nouveau romans, which often get boring by page 60, Scovell’s novel contains just enough emotional resonance that we keep on reading. The entrancement lasts. It could not be mistaken for a romantic novel, certainly, but it is anything but dry.

I read it on a rush hour train from Manchester to London. With the viruses, there were only four travellers in the whole thirteen-carriages. I put my feet up in my own private carriage and read the book in one setting.

It is a fantastic book to ignore a pandemic to.

– Joe Darlington

Such, such were the…

Svend Brinkmann – The Joy of Missing Out (Polity)

I was on Twitter watching Charlie Brooker casually accept his status as a prophet because the current UK Big Brother contestants don’t know what’s going on outside: a mass pandemic; a scenario very much like his Dead Set.

He isn’t a mystic. What’s really happening is that when the context shifts, the lens through which you see everything is swapped.

I turned around, literally a second after reading the tweet, and there was this book. A yellow smiley helium balloon on the cover, rising away from our grasp.

It wasn’t a premonition, it has just become very ‘now’.

Brinkmann’s diagnosis seemed to be officially enshrined in art by Damien Hirst back in 1991: ‘I Want to Spend the Rest of My Life Everywhere, with Everyone, One to One, Always, Forever, Now’.

Brinkmann wants us to drop this and stay in one groove. Find a single thing and do it. His vision for the future just became real, but without the ‘Joy’.

Only the Big Brother housemates are gleefully missing out.

Brinkmann argues that we need to live better. Make not doing things become as important as doing them. This is classic existentialist territory and he appropriately draws on Kierkegaard. The ‘good thing’ must be one, it cannot be split.

There are clear lines forward to Sartre and ‘bad faith’, but there’s a whiff of Christian fervour in the quest for purity of motive in this book. The Kierkegaard works on paper, but in real life? The moment you get a job, a completely necessary thing to have to survive for most, you are in a state of split. Millions of people in offices testify to being pumped by what they do, in order to get what they really want.

The infinite potential of freedom is not freedom, it is just potential. As soon as you move from the seemingly limitless possibilities in the abstract and start to employ or ‘spend’ your freedom in a concrete world – exercising that still historically novel thing, ‘choice’ – you immediately become less free.

But the argument here is actually more specific: The drive to do everything in a world of inequality is what gets at Brinkmann – he lives in Denmark where inequality is not high – but he sees how the global and globalised world has become a horror story of polar societies.

What we are seeing now is the inverse of The Joy of Missing Out. What happens when ‘missing out’ becomes a highly necessary dictat in the unequal society Brinkmann lightly describes? The UK government promise mortgage holidays for owners and nothing for renters. The tenured are paid work or play, the casualised thrown to the wolves. Of course, that’s just business as usual in Britain, only now in a warped, zombie movie mirror image.

Brinkmann nervously insists the politics are more robust in this book than in previous volumes of his. But the real kernel is still absent. Not doing something as a choice of free will versus not doing something because you cannot do anything due to economic circumstances more rigid than a caste system.

Not doing something as a choice of free will that can be described at upper middle class dinner parties, in order to take a distinctive lead over the other diners. Not doing something you want to do because you have to clean their house after their party, which has just become not doing anything, because of coronavirus. And in Britain there are several layers of not doing anything because of coronavirus, depending on your allotment in the economic caste.

Brinkmann is arguing for moderation. But this is often described as a personal choice, not a structural fix. If everyone ‘missed out’ the economy would risk collapse. Now we see how. It’s just that some people can miss out and still get paid, the others, well they can fuck off and die.

Spinoza preached moderation in all things, as he moderately worked away, grinding lenses. The glass powder reduced his lungs from moderately useful organs to fatal ones.

Coronavirus has been described as looking like glass powder under x-ray.

The Joy of Missing Out now has inverted wedding cake layers of hell Dante could never have imagined.

On the one hand the subject of this book is a hot topic. And it is well-communicated and engaging. On the other hand, it is perhaps unluckily timed.

– Steve Hanson

Doubling black

Percival Everett – I Am Not Sidney Poitier (Influx)

Released on March 19, this novel has been out of print since 2009, but Influx are republishing it in Britain with a new Foreword by Courttia Newland.

Percival Everett is the storyteller and his mode of telling is ‘shaggy dog’. The longer lineage begins with Tristram Shandy and runs through Confederacy of Dunces and the Vonnegut of Hocus Pocus. As literature goes – and in the case of the latter two, as American literature goes – that’s not very far from my ideal house of mansions.

Everett’s main character is called Not Sidney Poitier. Not Sidney looks exactly like Sidney Poitier and people assume he is called Not Sidney Poitier because of this. But his mother seems to have chosen the name despite the physical similarity. Her name was Portia Poitier.

Everett gleefully demolishes language and meaning like this. He inflates similarities until you feel laughing gas high. A fictional Percival Everett also appears in the novel, another inflated similarity (and one trying to lose weight). Perhaps the Joyce picture in the fictional Percival Everett’s office is a reference to James Joyce’s teasing out of equivalents, which Everett is up to in broad daylight, no stealth about it. On page 120, a jock of a college roommate points out that I am Not Sidney Poitier (the name) and ‘I am not Sidney Poitier’ (the disclaimer) are both affirmations of identity, as well as negations.

If the Hegelian dialectic is a historical wrestler’s hold – two tons of absolute tension going nowhere, just the occasional foot slam – this is two Sumo having fallen about in hysterical laughter because they suddenly realised the absurdity of how similar they looked. And yet they had become combatants!

In amongst all of this, some of the references simply hang. The picture of Terry McMillan is apparently in the fictional Percival Everett’s office because Terry McMillan likes reading books by the real Percival Everett.

Not Sidney Poitier’s mother Portia Poitier – get the poetry in this too – is also brilliantly crazy and dies during the opening pages. Not Sidney’s mother was impregnated by hysteria, which is both biblical and Freudian.

Not Sidney Poitier’s mother may be nuts, but she invested everything she had in an emerging television company before dying. The television company is owned by a white southern male that some fiction writers might begin with as the enemy, by default. The historical white cowboy in a black hat. But this white southern male owner, Ted, takes Not Sidney in and leaves him cared for, but essentially free. Ted’s politics comes through the dialogue:

‘Betty was teaching me about the evils of supply-side economics when Ted came into the room. Betty was just finishing a sentence, “…and though Keynesian economics is no kind thing to common people, Say’s Law is truly the work of the white, European, devil mind.”

“I’d have to agree,” Ted said.

This startled Betty. She had not seen him enter.

“I believe that the market is driven by demand,” Ted said. “Otherwise, people get screwed up the hind end. The only thing that ever trickles down to poor people is rain, and that ain’t much more than God’s piss.”‘

It’s an American’s take on class, but Everett’s fiction really exists in the interzone between the hard fact of American racism and a sheer ambivalence about ethnicity.

The thin membrane between comedy and damage is well known, but if this book were to be filmed – which would be great – the result would be very far from The Joker with Joaquin Phoenix. No matter how dark it gets, the acid trip physics of the thing seems to bleed light back through. Not Sidney Poitier gestated for two whole years:

‘Then after twenty-four months I was in fact born and not terribly quietly, mind you, as my mother woke many people with this emergency, at first by knocking, then by howling like a coyote, and so my entry was well attended and well documented by a shocked few who told a shocked, though mainly uncaring, many.’

The repeat use of ‘shocked’, where a trained journalist would insert another word – perhaps ‘astonished’ – is drawing your attention to the nature of language as wooden toys, which is pretty much how Lacan describes it at one point. In fact I swear Lacan is partly behind the second test paper question Not Sidney is given in his Philosophy class:

‘Is the I one’s body? Is fantasy the specular image? And what does this have to do with the Borromean knot? In other words, why is there no symptom too big for its britches?’

Not Sidney Poitier takes a class by the fictional Percival Everett, called the Philosophy of Nonsense. At one point the fictional author seems to give us a rationale for his art, that it is ‘perhaps a sort of epistemological discontinuity that is undoubtedly connected to […] our highly unusual sociohistorical factors.’

The way the narrative flips between the urban hypermodern and a sort of dark ages hell reminds me of Voltaire’s Candide, and the fictional Percival Everett is an even more bizarre version of Pangloss:

‘Everett talked on and on about a thing being self-identical, but failed at any turn to make a drop of sense. He laughed over his assertion that contingency was necessary for the existence of necessary truth and laughed harder as he blabbed on about truth as a “pliable vacuum of manipulated fragments of no whole entity.”’

Courttia Newland describes Everett as writing whatever he likes and I see why. This may in fact be ‘a pliable vacuum of manipulated fragments of no whole entity’, but the use of language is systematic, it is a strategy:

‘Her screams filled the streets like screams.’

It’s funny – and the logical rupture creates the laugh – but it loosens you up philosophically too. Jane Fonda appears, doing disco workouts. Already, only 23 pages in, whether this is the ‘real’ Jane Fonda or not is so unclear as to be irrelevant. Of course, Everett is showing you what language does again. Or rather, he is showing you what it never does, only appears to, and that is create a fixed tie between sign and referent.

Perhas this work is more disciplined than it seems because some of it takes the form of straight-out joking. Kids pick on Not Sidney Poitier because of his name. A rich seam of British comedy appears, for instance The Monty Python gag about Mr Smokestoomuch. The punchline comes when someone quips ‘you should cut down then, I bet everyone says that to you’ and Mr Smokestoomuch replies ‘no not at all.’ Everett sometimes pushes the same logic right to the edge though, to the point where the responses are almost pure form:

‘I did not say untiringly twice, not.’

Here and there, it turns into poetry, and Everett has published volumes of it. Out beyond language lies a realm of shapes with no sense, ‘meaning’ is behind us here. Here are Plato’s forms. But these examples only stud the text. Mostly, Everett never goes as far as Joyce or Pynchon.

Mostly this is a landscape of shifting, sliding scenery. The TV magnate’s boat is called Channel Seventeen, a clear metonymical shift from Channel Steamer, but the boat is a sloop. A version of Mesmerism by an Austrian psychologist called Fesmer becomes Fesmerism. It only takes a single consonant shift to knock meaning into another world, but as in the case of the hypnosis, what the name change is applied to is often very appropriate. This puts a capital S onto the ‘Semi’ in semi-arbitrary. We are all mesmerised by language precisely because it makes little difference if you call it ‘fesmerised’ or something else.

Fancy semiotic analysis is all well and good, but the novel works on a more direct level. The fact that kids are willing to beat the shit out of another kid because of his name translates immediately into their willingness to beat the shit out of someone because they have darker skin.

Not Sidney has wealth but doesn’t really own it, can never fully inhabit it. His own name is a lack, a presence as a wipe.

Under our jokes there is often a brutal politics. I’m reminded of Eddie Hitler in the British comedy TV series Bottom, who is asked if he is ‘any relation?’ to which he replies ‘yes, actually.’ But under the joking here is what Courttia Newland explains in the Foreword as a ‘sustained, hard won argument for being considered American with no signifier.’

Earnest black ladies appear, telling Not Sidney of the evils of the white man and capitalism. Not Sidney carries on with something approaching ambivalence. At exactly the same time, the logically unscrewed world Everett creates brings ‘race’ right back in again. The sheer unlikeliness of Not Sidney’s origins and good fortune ushers in urban sociology. Weber’s iron cage for instance, that rationalisation also rationalises-out. W.E.B. Du Bois and others seem to appear as I read – in fact there’s a Du Bois building – but they appear in a strange double-negative form. Not Sidney talks eloquently about his mother:

‘My point is, she didn’t want to be white. More importantly, she didn’t want to be not black.’

Courttia Newland writes that ‘Percival Everett recognised, seemingly before most, that speaking truth to power does not end with speaking truth to power held by White people. We must speak truth as a whole.’

But maybe I secretly like the sound of that because I’m a white guy writing a review. Maybe ‘the post-Black novel’ is actually Double Black, and this is a novel of doubles and doubling. The author probably won’t recognise that assertion, but I think there’s something in it.

Percival Everett manages to speak ‘truth as a whole’ by being ambivalent about his signs having referents. This then becomes an exact mirror of his politics of race. That he takes you through all that seriousness doubled over, crying with laughter, is utterly brilliant.

But the ambivalence is really only present in this book when we’re in a setting of urban wealth. As soon as anyone leaves a city, we return to some sort of primordial AmeriKKKa. Twice Not Sidney lights out for the Big Country in a car and drives straight into psychotic crackers and weirdos. Each time he should have flown.

Actually, scratch that, the section on the Thanksgiving meal with the black middle classes who think Poitier is too dark is lacerating. Here we get Not Sidney’s dead mother’s take on Thanksgiving:

‘My mother had been, if not disdainful then suspicious of holidays; she thought that they were all either some form of corporate extortion, religious indoctrination, or governmental propaganda. Thanksgiving fell into the third category — one big glorious lie to put a good face on continental theft.’

Not Sidney’s mother is another strong presence as an absence. She has a brilliant potty mouth. Her reaction to a TV appearance of Ward and June Cleaver is devastatingly funny:

‘“How dare they put that propaganda on the television?” my mother barked. “But of course that’s what the box is for, isn’t it? Here is my black son sitting here in his black neighborhood watching some bucktoothed little rat and his washed-out, anally stabbed, Nazi-Christian parents.”‘

There is far more to the novel than even this, and this book is too good for spoilers. But if it sounds like what you need right now, you won’t be disappointed. No wonder Courttia Newland read one single book by Everett before hoovering up the lot.

Manchester Review of Books would like to push for a full flowering of all of Percival Everett’s works in Britain – his books are much more easily available in America – and to do that we have to try to get you to buy this one.

– Steve Hanson

Cold Sea Sky Concrete

John Lanchester – The Wall (Faber & Faber, 2019)

The sea rises and Europe sinks. England is surrounded by the Wall.

This is the set-up for John Lanchester’s masterful new dystopian fantasy. Our protagonist, Joseph Kavanagh aka Chewy, is serving his obligatory two-year stint as a Defender on the Wall.

The wall is cold. It rains, and when it doesn’t rain it’s even colder. There is only the concrete, the rain, the wind, the cold, and the sea beyond.

The sea has risen. We never know quite how far it has risen, but the Others – those who attack the Wall in the hopes of getting in – come from across Europe and Africa. Nowhere, it seems, has survived. Nowhere without a Wall.

The rules are simple. For every Other that crosses the Wall, a Defender is cast out to sea. With stakes this simple it’s easy to understand Chewy’s plight. He doesn’t question. He doesn’t explain. The Wall simply happens to him.

He looks out at the sea and hopes the Others won’t come.

There is obviously something very contemporary about the Wall. The hardback edition features a jacket cover that might, if you squint, show an image of Trump’s wall. The paperback is more honest in its design, but imagery of walls and migrants still predominate.

Yet as a writer, Lanchester seems keen to avoid any direct comparisons with the contemporary. At each turn he rejects the easy nod to today’s news in favour of a symbolic, transcendent and literary rendering of the subject matter.

Some have compared it to 1984; Orwell’s critique of Stalinism that carried a universal message. I would compare it instead to Rex Warner’s The Aerodrome. Written in wartime, Warner used the image of an aristocratic RAF officer to speculate about a future neo-feudal order. Lanchester uses the Wall as a way to transcend the present and think philosophically about survival.

Being born into a nation is an accident of geography, but that doesn’t invalidate the idea of the nation. Chewy hates his parents for letting the world fall to pieces, but he hates the Others more. The threat of the sea, of eternal movement, stokes our primal fears and our animal uncertainties.

The Wall is both necessary and monstrous. That’s what makes it so believable. This isn’t a cheap political allegory. It’s a dystopia that strikes at the very core of what it is to exist and to survive.

It is also written with all the pace and excitement of a thriller. I might read a lot, but despite this I am a slow reader. I read The Wall in two sittings. The last time I did that was with Cormac McCarthey’s The Road. If you liked that book, you’ll love this one.

Desolate, heartbreaking, and action-packed too. This one’s a hell of a read.

– Joe Darlington

And this day…

Paul Hanley – Have A Bleedin’ Guess (Route)

Just published, Have A Bleedin’ Guess is about the making of Hex Enduction Hour by The Fall.

Author Paul Hanley was one of two drummers on that record. E Smith used to big up The Glitter Band in the music press when explaining the Fall double drummer line-up.

When I watched Joaquin Phoenix come down the steps to The Glitter Band in The Joker – the film-makers pressing a great big red button – in my head was The Fall of Hex Enduction Hour. Highly strung, sinister and loaded.

But this book detonates myths, at the same time as it shows you the real legendary core of The Fall: There were two drummers because Hanley was under-age for an American tour. At one point, he drummed alternate nights with Karl Burns.

Hex Enduction has since become a swollen parable unto itself with a box set version, a ‘classic’. But canonisation so often means you’re now a cadaver. I’m guilty of being part of the process. I reviewed the Voiceprint reissue on CD in 2000 (for Ptolemaic Terrascope) but I could never stand the great groupwank over “Manchester” and tried to keep it as real as possible.

The Fall always seemed exempt somehow, because they reflected what the Manchester Area Psychogeography Group called ‘the multi-real’, the ‘flickering montage of meanings that is Oldham Street.’ E. Smith stuttered signifiers representing such urban polyphony.

This has been good for the longevity of the work. Where are lines such as ‘rooms are empty I’ve got plenty’ and ‘we’re moving in with’ in a city now known for its deep homeless crisis and property speculation monoculture? And live forever?

It all seems like fluff on an Ortofon cartridge, to be blown off before lowering the needle on the records that matter.

The Fall somehow stayed in the grey horrors of Manchester as everyone else left reality, at the same time as E Smith was probably more out of it than any of them. Hex Enduction Hour is a good place to test that theory. The northern noir revelations of ‘Jawbone And The Air Rifle’ are horribly thrilling, lucid. ‘Winter’ is truly psychogeographic, a spatial exploration.

Smith was a giggling, gummy imp. He made the song less important than the impression made, but his torn jotter methods placed him closer to Cubism than Impressionism. Schwitters opening a Beefheart franchise in Blackburn.

This book provides a handy guide to Hex, but also to The Fall method of composing (as they go) and to the lay of the land of their early recordings.

Hex Enduction Hour is also placed in the longer timeline of the group. Hex’s follow-up Room To Live is ramshackle and note form, a menacing smashed fragment as magnum opus.

This book retains that appropriate spirit of collage as well, without being at all incoherent or ditching narrative. The title comes from a Hex pen cover scribble.

Formally, then, the book is great, as sections of it seem like an anthology of quotes. This is very close to the spirit of Hex Enduction Hour and the follow-up Room To Live. It feels like a privileged guided tour through a secret dossier.

Hanley has got into the psyche of the record collector really well here. He knows the NME reader of old, the one who used to keep clippings. (I was one of them, until the clippings burned down at 1am, along with the house I was in).

It seems exhaustive, but it isn’t exhausting, and doesn’t exhaust the subject.

Actually, how could it? The more you know about Hex Enduction Hour the more you know about it, but that never puts you any closer to why that period of The Fall crawled into your mind and set up permanent camp there.

Hex Enduction Hour – and Room To Live and the singles of that time – can never be drained. They have a nuclear half-life that will outlive us. Hanley explains that Hex Enduction Hour is only a tad shorter than Exile on Main Street and London Calling.

If ‘And This Day’ had been left at its full length, it would have been a double. You feel the sprawl when riding the record. It’s a motorway of multi-storey car parks.

This book is faithful to Hex Enduction Hour in that it gives data and it dispels, but it puts you back into a spell again at the same time. It could so easily have been a dreadful memoir full of smug anecdotes ending with exclamation marks! It is absolutely nothing of the sort.

It takes good archival research, essentially, and sifts it with a sceptical eye, calling upon knowledgeable others as it goes. Even the section titles are pure Fall: ‘Obligatory Comsopolitan Music Viewpoint’ and ‘Bawdy Lap-Up By Levi’d UK Hired Cast.’ This is not an addition to the subject of Hex Enduction Hour, it is an extension of it.

Stewart Lee introducing the text nails it when he says that Hanley lived through the album, but ‘amassed both the critical tools and the critical distance’ to cover Hex Enduction Hour.

Lee is withering about teenage oedipal struggles in music writing. I should know, I wrote a few. Reading Winnicott on the transitional object was a revelation to me twenty five years ago. It makes you a better writer, if nothing else.

Hanley has distance and is an excellent communicator without ever writing a dry word. You can take it as a sort of micro-encyclopedia, or a thrilling and sometimes hilarious kick. It does both jobs, but it is grounded and it sifts the records objectively. Hanley’s first book Leave The Capital was nominated for the ARSC Award for Excellence in Historical Recorded Sound Research.

Some of the more ludicrous claims disappear, but competing claims are left next to each other, hanging in space with an invisible question mark over them. The methodology is good.

The preening romanticisms about Iceland and Reykjavik – they had only just come out of prohibition when I first went there – are gladly deflated. This said, the trip was organised by Einar Orn and Bjork was around, of course. But going to Reykjavik is kind of like going to Halifax.

Hex was recorded in a studio built into a lava cave in Iceland, with a Steinway in it, and then in the empty Regal Theatre in Hitchin. Not so strange when you think about Can’s Inner Space Studio. The Fall were Can nuts. But the Regal had a fully fitted 16-track studio, it was not another cave, as legend suggests.

And this book makes you realise just how barnacled with myths the hull of The Fall became, as it scrapes some of them off. ‘King Shag Corpse’ was either Karl Burns or Grant Showbiz, not Ian Curtis. And Dave Tucker did not put a copper straight on Corporation Street-uh.

Every fact given seems to rip a fatuous fantasy in half, but in doing so returns us to the potency of Hex and its surroundings all over again. Puts us back into its powerful glamour. The title of Hex Enduction Hour may even come from the Hekla or ‘Heck’, one of Iceland’s most active volcanoes, the ‘Gateway to Hell’.

But this book will not drain or spoil your love, it will redouble it.

I wrote a little pamphlet with David Wilkinson in 2012 which explored the language of The Fall. We also wanted to deflate the mystique. ‘I’m sick of everyday sources I read on The Fall mythologizing him as inscrutable, so much of it has to do with class’ David said back then, and I still agree with him. I always thought that working class slang was crucial to explain The Fall:

Being ‘of Lancashire’ when I first heard them I thought ah, they’re doing local bullshit like us. Later, I realised that nobody else really got this and moreover they often assumed The Fall were crypto-occultists, when it actually seemed quite straightforward if you had inhabited a rubbish Secondary School in the northwest. In an interview E. Smith at one point says the Fall could have come from anywhere, like all British bands from the Stones to Joy Division. I disagree completely, he’s covering his tracks, they are utterly Lancashire.

An example: At my school everyone had a nickname ending in a ‘y’, so for instance Christian Godfrey became, by unconsciously agreed default, ‘Goddy’. At that point a brand of underpants existed – Jockey Y-Fronts – we found this amusing, the mix of ‘riding’ and underwear (tee hee) and so right in front of teachers a slang developed which they would not understand: ‘Goddy Ys’ would be followed with ‘y’alreet Jockey?’ and we used to add more gestural noises such as ‘ch-ch’ at the end. *

Basically, many people in my school already talked like a Fall record. This book tackles some of the lyrics in a similarly pragmatic way. For instance the controversial ‘obligatory niggers’ line, which is explained as being about ethnic tokenism on British TV.

I love that Kamera staff promoted Freddie Starr records. I love that a Roger Chapman album came out next. The Fall sounded out of tune early on and then became less so. The answer? Sweet Will Sergeant introduced the band to the electronic guitar tuner. But The Fall sounding out of tune became a whole aesthetic from The Fire Engines to Sonic Youth and Pavement.

Mayo Thompson was refused a Producer’s seat – the legend of Red Krayola! This shows how bloody or single-minded E Smith was. At times he appears in my head as a Little Hitler, a Chaplin moustache drawn on, at other times as a sweet Manc lad.

There are some necessary ripostes to E Smith’s lifetime of venomous quotes here too.

Most interesting is the debunking of his ‘hard work’ and working class ethos. Most people who were there claim he was undisciplined. James Brown fined his musicians because he really was a well-oiled Funk Machine. E Smith was well-oiled in the English pub culture sense and never in the James Brown sense. The idea that E Smith would be up and out by 9am is ridiculed by those who were there.

The book also gives a rough sketch of The Fall’s economy and sociology: 45p a pint on £25 a week wages, much of it handed over the bar in The Foresters Arms during meetings, often followed by a lock-in. Actually, given the sheer toxicity of Smith’s regard for former Fall members, the treatment he gets here is very generous, egalitarian even.

E Smith was often withering about the idea of authenticity and authorship (until pay was an issue, of course). He did not look back at old material and so might not approve of this book. But I don’t buy that E Smith would want The Fall archive to be forgotten the moment he popped his clogs, because he was only interested in ‘the now’. Unconsciously or not, he was a massive myth-maker and myths transmit through the walls of mortality, through time.

At the end is a quote from Mark E saying the more you read about me the less you know. The work has outlived its orchestrator so very well. You don’t really need the white crap talking back, the work stands up on its own, and it is the work that is under discussion here.

As ‘God is in the details’, Stewart Lee writes, ‘so Paul Hanley is in the footnotes. Absolutely essential. And buy brother Steve Hanley’s The Big Midweek too.

Notes

* Steve and David talk about The Fall: https://nowtpress.files.wordpress.com/2012/07/the-fall1.pdf [accessed 08/03/20]

Riding the Intergalactic Herd

Nicky Drayden – Escaping Exodus (Harper Voyager, 2019)

Earth has long been abandoned. The human race left aboard a fleet of generation ships centuries ago. Finding no viable planets, they hitched themselves onto giant space beasts. Now we live inside them, like parasites, killing the herd off one by one.

I have never read Nicky Drayden’s novels before, neither the Prey of Gods series nor Temper, but the premise of Escaping Exodus alone was enough to hook me in. It’s wild, ambitious, far-future stuff that surprises at every turn, just as good sci-fi should.

The narrative follows Seske Kaleigh, heir to the throne of her ship. She is young and impetuous, seeing little need for the rigid class structure she has been born into.

Her foil is the scrappy Adalla, who has recently fallen from grace in the heartworker class and has been demoted to bonework. The workers who struggle to keep the space beast alive are gruff, tattooed sailor types. Adalla is torn between falling for a boneworker, Laisze, or staying true to princess Seske.

Seske, moving between both the elite and the workers, realises that the beast she will inherit is rapidly dying. Tumours grow rapidly in every organ. Its heart beats irregularly. It falls pregnant, forcing her mother, the Matris, to send troops to perform an abortion.

So far, so dramatic; and the above action is only the first third of a relatively short book. Drayden is an excellent action writer. Her command of pacing and tone will keep you hooked throughout, but won’t exhaust you. The balance of romantic intrigue and space adventure is near-perfect.

Nicky Drayden is unashamedly Afrofuturist in her approach to sci-fi. She embraces tribal markings, ancestor worship and ritual scarification as part of her future society. The matriarchal system onboard ship is more tribal than familial, with futuristic totems and taboos maintaining a strict social order under conditions of intensive population control.

A core strength of the novel is its refusal to shrink from harsh realities. Life inside the Beast is hard, and the ostensibly feminist elements of society that emerge in response to this – polyamory, polygamy, matriarchy – are imperfect solutions to imperfect situations.

The men aboard the beast are weak and pathetic. The women are spiteful and cruel. Only the characters brave enough to shun their society hold any sympathy for us.

It is tempting to compare Escaping Exodus to Tade Thompson’s Rosewater trilogy – another Afrofuturist hit of recent years – but where Thompson’s near-future Nigeria mixes cyberpunk and noir elements with African imagery, Drayden’s far-future adventure goes all the way.

There is almost nothing recognisable in the world of Exodus. Every element is introduced, clearly and confidently, and followed to their logical conclusion through a concise three-hundred pages. You are sucked entirely into Drayden’s alternative universe. It is the stuff of sci-fi at its finest.

If you’re after a mindbending read that you’ll be unable to put down, Escaping Exodus is the book for you. I find it hard to imagine a better sci-fi book being published this year.

– Joe Darlington

What’s the big idea?

McKenzie Wark – Capital Is Dead, is this something worse? (Verso, 2020)

McKenzie Wark’s book is in a lineage. I’m going to call it a tradition now, because there’s enough of it already and 2020 is going to push it into the past for a while. It’s in the tradition of the accelerationist manifesto, its diasporas and controversies.

Paul Mason is the scarecrow in the middle of this field. The most visible and stuffed with straw. Mason is a bloody good journalist actually, and a very useful totem figure for the British Labour Left. But when he strays into risky philosophical-theoretical territory, he is likely to get himself pecked up.

Actually, reading Mason feels like a recent incident: A colleague of mine sat down at lunch, while talking assuredly about big ideas. He parked his coffee. I was all ears. Then he pulled open his shrinkwrapped baguette with some force. The sandwich flew high into canteen air – backwards, over his shoulder – leaving him contemplating the edible qualities of a cellophane wrapper (he might say ‘edibility’).

The shrieking grew louder over the far side of the room. The sound of chairs and tables being pushed back. Reading this stuff sometimes feels that way too. To coin a phrase that might be wartime code, when reading McKenzie Wark’s book ‘the sandwich flies through the air many times.’

Some of it is just a bit OTT. For instance, at one point, Wark describes neoliberalism as alt-fascism. Wark declares that privacy is a bourgeois indulgence. I’ll be round your place in half an hour to rummage through your stuff McKenzie. I don’t take it seriously, which shouldn’t be a problem. But finding that on page one makes me take the rest of the book with a pinch, which might be a problem. Perhaps it’s not my problem. Perhaps it’s Verso and Wark’s. A socialist might say it’s the movement’s problem. An anarchist of a certain stripe might claim indifference. I think it’s a book, with some writing in it.

And again, there have been a lot of books with writing in them recently, about roughly the same thing. A lot of them came out in Britain in the period between the Corbyn-Momentum headrush and now, the early 2020 sugar crash. The deadening December 2019 election result can still be felt, and it is horrible, right enough. But there is even a literature review of the reviews of this kind of book which can be done now. For instance, Owen Hatherley covered Paul Mason’s and Alex Williams and Nick Srnicek’s books on ‘postcapitalism’ very well in LRB, in June 2016.

I think that the subject of postcapitalism has two psychic modes.

Mode 1: the scary realisation that many of us in the West were living like Nero back there and nobody flogged us for moaning about it all the time; ‘after Capitalism’ meaning there is worse to come also kind-of means ‘ah shit, look…’

Mode 2: the giddy otherside to the skin-picking anxiety seems to be bobhatted Momentum tote-bag carrying evangelists pulling old ladies to one side to preach the virtues of asteroid-mining.

Before the egg mayo and cress hits the atrium windows once again – a segmented impact scenario, with a good deal of fallout – let me suggest two other binary modes of the postcapitalscape; perhaps some people are in Capitalism and some are already after Capitalism. Those who have achieved the supposedly impossible perpetuum mobile state of doing what they like and somehow making a living – they might not recieve universal basic income, it doesn’t exist, but it must feel the same way – as opposed to those who never do what they like and struggle simply to be.

Perhaps ‘Socialism for the rich, Capitalism for the poor’ could now be translated into a new slogan. That slogan might be ‘postcapital for the privileged, in it for the masses.’ I am absolutely certain that ‘sustainable’ now simply means, to hijack Orwell, that ‘everyone is sustainable, but some are far less sustainable than others.’ Of course, the savvy will complain that those floating in some sort of buoyant state and those drowning all do so in Capital, and they will be right to do so. I’m just shoving a hard finger into some soft ribs.

I agree with them, but McKenzie Wark doesn’t. The groundwork of the book seems very good. Capitalism has essences and appearances. But even in Wark’s own arguments the appearance has shifted, but the essence remains. Then stubbornly Wark will insist that the essence has in fact changed, to the extent that Capitalism has gone.

The evidence need go no further than the act of reading Wark’s book. It is ordered via just-in-time processes on behalf of a company that turns profit and loss and creates surplus from labour processes. Wark’s attempt to suggest a kind-of Darwinian shift in human production is at least in part a gambit towards creating novelty in a corner of a saturated marketplace. The idea of Capitalism’s end is undermined in Wark’s idea of how Capitalism is ending. That self-undermining is then underscored by the mode of delivery of that argument.

The pulling back of a curtain to reveal a bigger monster than the one we thought we faced is part of that big sell. It is melodramatic and the melodrama ends with an offer of how to understand the new monster and what to do about it. Wark produces innovation in a corner of the marketplace – leftwing theory – and then embeds this in a future curve during which this innovation can be mined. Wark’s game then is at least partially, perhaps fully, Capitalist. We will not negate Capital – except through our own self-destruction – nature will now negate it, and us.

However I do agree with Wark that flinging chunks of ancient nineteenth century theoretical stuff into the Western breach will not fill it. What we are facing here needs new, not the ashen old Marxist or ‘progressive’ scripts. And I consider myself a kind of Marxist. Wark argues that we move from high theory to low theory. I like the concept of a profane, riffing, open ‘theory’. But in Wark’s hands it seems to mean that the rejection of grand theory says we can find transgressive microhistories. This just makes it a reversal to the posts- and to the Foucauldian. I think the recent reversal to a time before pomo and postructuralism is just bruised mourning, but I also think that retrenching into fragments of postmodernity is futile.

But there is a limit to how far theoretical innovation itself is useful. Because people with homes suddenly full of filthy water are not going to start saying ‘oh well that’s OK because I always wanted the line between nature and the man-made to blur.’ McKenzie Wark can say whatever McKenzie Wark likes precisely because McKenzie Wark doesn’t sleep in a doorway on the high street. When Wark describes the hacker class, Wark is suddenly describing McKenzie Wark.

Wark claims that negation has happened and that tech is an essence, not an appearance. Heidegger thought technology would never unconceal itself. Its essence was forever inscrutable. Yet Wark jumps in and claims it exactly just so. Hardt and Negri thought new media meant revolution was a moment away. I agree with Hardt and Negri more than Wark, and I don’t believe them at all.

Wark takes the opening of Marx’s Capital as a collection of things and says it is now information about things. In the commodities exchange in Manchester, information about things became lifted off the things themselves. Engels saw this and wrote about it in his own time. Those things included bales of raw cotton produced by abused, wageless black slaves forcibly taken from their homes in Africa. It all became abstracted in indexes. Wark understands that production has shifted to bad states with punitive regimes, yet still insists on the larger part of the book’s argument. That larger argument hangs in strips. It never knits. The shift from object to spectacle to web 2.0 is surely a shift to immersion. There are already accounts of the way information shifted, for which look to Friedrich Kittler and Leo Findeisen, particularly Findeisen’s essay ‘Some Code To Die For’.

But this book isn’t to be rejected. The key part of its argument runs that what at first was put in place to ‘assist capital to defeat Labour in the overdeveloped world was also a defeat for capital’. This is the crux. I think about this through the demand that Feudalism adapt and survive in the early nineteenth century, and that old capital also had to do something similar at other times. In terms of Wark’s territory, this begins in the late 1970s. Each period has particular shapes. The ruffles on the dress of history may only be ruffles, but the cloth falls in an unrepeatable way each time. Infocapital has its own peculiar effect. The ‘vector enters the flesh and commands it, and not just as meat, but also as information…’ Here, Wark hits on a rich seam of very real understanding and communicates it beautifully. I think the conclusion is on page 48, that ‘the vectoral infrastructure throws all of the world into the engine of commodification, meanwhile modifying the commodity form itself.’

This gets right to the heart of what Wark is trying to say. On page 69 Wark states that ‘the socialisation of knowledge’ is ’embedded into the form of technology as general intellect.’ These are excellent insights and strong contributions to contemporary theory, but the end of Capitalism it is not. The question of the title ‘Capital is dead, is this something worse?’ already has its parallel, metonymical reply: ‘Capital is always dying away and coming back with sharper fangs.’ It may be a vampire, a zombie – all metaphors, yes – it is probably both and it has not been superceded by a new monster. It is definitely vectoral, it has finally penetrated our minds and bodies, but it has not stopped being Capitalism. The ‘vectoralist class still sits atop a pyramid of exploited labour’ writes Wark on page 115. There you go. Capitalism.

Wark’s ‘Hacker Class’ is still interesting and useful too. Wark states that it ‘turns out that politics is much less about the relation between the friend and the enemy, and much more crucially about relations among nonfriends and nonenemies.’ This an American perspective on class, but I do believe we had our first American election in Britain in 2019. Not only was it Trumpian in important ways, but the old class perspectives are shaken. The Tories’ ‘Dave from Bolton’ is of course a bullshit advertisement, but there is enough that is real about him. (And also damn you Dave, what the hell do you think you are doing?!).

The post-EU open borders island has a mixed demographic of incomers who think more like Americans. The old British struggles of labour versus capital make less sense to them. The orthodox British left will no doubt strongly object, in a further refusal of basic reality. Others may scream ‘xenophobe’. Do what you like, I think a UK of vast cultural difference is great, but I don’t have to like a multitudinous politics and the multitude doesn’t have to like mine. Wark is good on this. The idea of a diverse workforce says ‘of course the algorithm is in theory very tolerant about who it exploits.’ The idea of the ‘California ideology’ in Wark’s book is very useful too, but it doesn’t take arcane theory to see everyone in the West has been affected by that.

But there are problems even here. The ‘class location blues chapter’ views everything through the lens of the laptopped New Yorker. This is the risk with the Hacker Class. If you are one of those people, it will be very tempting to see the vast assemblage through the lens of the connected. It’s one thing saying that all of capital is now vectors if you are in this world of flows yourself. If you work in a Chinese flip-flop factory, you would probably be better off reading mid-nineteenth century Marx. Wark goes hard on Marxists for not giving us a proper materialist reading, then weaves unsteadily between a critique of materialism and ideologies. Wark claims to be cleaving to a hardcore materialism, at the same time as thinking privacy is a bloated idea.

I prefer Benjamin Noys on all of this. He can do the philosophy properly. He doesn’t make ludicrous claims or write things that sound like a self-help manual. But what makes him very good is probably what makes less people know about him. In fact, I reckon Wark would be a better writer unshackled from the theoretical framework of Marxism entirely. When this work is good it is brilliant, but that tallies with more open, speculative thinking, rather than work trying to align or disalign itself with ‘the tradition’.

It fizzles out with the détourning Wark of old, ‘workings of the world untie’ and becoming acommunist. And yet and yet. Among all this dusting the ash off J.D. Bernal and others there is a flash of exactly what we need. A new Scientific Enlightenment completely aware of our precarious position in the universe:

‘Scarcity predates Capital and endures beyond it. The project to overcome it can (and must) be freely chosen but can never close the gap between the human and the nonhuman worlds. At best it might result in an inhuman apparatus less worse, less damaging, than the last.’

Wark cites Drew Milne’s poetry collection In Darkest Capital. In, not out, McKenzie, see? Milne is the essential antidote to the accelerationism of the Nick Land that ended up producing ‘Dark Enlightenment’. It is the slowest overthrow. Darkest Capital has the sense of ‘In Darkest Africa’ to it, and here is Marx’s concept of primitive accumulation, that capitalism begins with a defibrillator jolt of genocide and an injection of the raw materials that would have been available to the dead. Milne refers to Aristotle’s notion of ‘entelechy’, a sort-of self-organising motive force.

So I think behind all of this is Enlightenment. Nobody seems to be tackling Enlightenment. I send you to Noys, and via Noys back to Dialectic of Enlightenment by Adorno & Horkheimer. Extinction Rebellion are Enlightenment, but they need the negation of Adorno & Horkheimer. When Greta Thunberg says listen to climate scientists and use your freedom to do something, she is as Enlightenment as Voltaire’s knee breeches. And I salute those knee breeches, and I salute Greta Thunberg. But we can’t have Enlightenment like Steven Pinker thinks it. What Wark essentially describes is a sinister fold inwards of instrumentalised Enlightenment thought, but never says that.

Therefore Hatherley was right to say, back in 2016, just before all this literature became a curve, that much of it describes an absence. Capital is not Dead. It thrives. But there are glimmers of another book here and I want McKenzie Wark to write it.

– Steve Hanson