American Carnage

Harold Jaffe – Performances for the End of Time (Equus Press, 2022)

American Carnage. The whole world is American Carnage.

The whole world is angry comments, angry text. Rage in short sentences. American sentences.

The whole world is the internet now – and the internet is an angry shack, atop furious wreckage; a pile of American debris.

This is American Carnage.

Oddly insular. Oddly sublime. Oddly, it’s exactly what we expected.

Jaffe is a veteran writer. He’s written a lot before, and now he writes, in Performances for the End of Time, with a kind of much-practiced wildness. He’s like an itinerant preacher, travelling from cowboy town to cowboy town, roaring and screaming about sin and desolation. He sounds like he’s ranting madly, just letting it all out – stream-of-consciousness – screaming conscienceless – but, having done it so many times before, don’t those same images keep coming back? Don’t the same phrases stick?

Before you know it, there’s a script emerging.

These are short little sections of text. Snippets of action. Rants paired down to notes, scrawled on the palm of a hand. Hand waving. Fist shaking.

Considering Jaffe’s disgust at smartphones – “gaping-mouthed smartphone users” – “staring at your smartphone”. But aren’t these snippeted performances are perfectly, as the kids say, shareable?

The performances are Tik-Tok length. Postmodern playlets. Coagulating platelets.

Images recur like fragments of Amos, Isaiah, Ezekiel or John’s Apocalypse; only now it’s CO2, refugees, school shootings, stolen elections, MAGA hats, suffering Indians, and ICE agents giving Mexican women forced hysterectomies. That last one happens two or three times.

Carbon footprints on the beach.

Scratch that. Make the beach a desert. Add some guns. Now we’re talkin’

The angry American is at his best when he’s truly American. Jaffe is more charming as parody than sincerity. When he’s sincere it’s all bumper stickers. Characters only come out when parody gives them life.

“Man! We’re so used to being Number 1.

Wherever the top of the heap is, that’s where our ass it at.

Yeah, we slaughtered the Indians.

We profited off the slave trade.

A child ain’t a real child if it’s coloured.

That’s just how it is.”

The American comes from the movies. When he tries to talk about our real world, where we live, out here, it’s unconvincing. Uncanny: Mickey Mouse turning to face the camera, pulling up a stool, his voice three octaves lower.

Let me talk seriously for a second, folks.

Americans are best when they stay in the movies. In America. Only that American movie is so torn up, now. That beautiful technicolour world. It’s all stained red now. It’s all so much ground beef.

Carnage: from the root carne

It’s no wonder that they’re turning into refugees themselves. Americans! Leaping out of the screen at us! Running through the aisles!

But here’s the twist: they can’t escape. For there is no escaping America.

The Mexicans and other assorted South Americans fleeing North; they become Americans. The Africans and the people from the Middle East fleeing to Europe; they become Americans too.

Europe was already America, but now even the Chinese and the Russians, safe behind their firewalls, are making little matchstick Americas for themselves.

195 countries making 195 Americas.

An America in every language. An America in every living room. An America in every fridge.

Parents! When you tuck your children in at night: what are they watching on those smartphones?

They are travelling through the Carnage. They are wading through it, knee-deep.

Jaffe’s book is a broadside for our time. A pamphlet for the modern apocalypse. If, at times, you are left wondering if it’s really about the end of time, or simply about the end of America… remember where you are living.

Remember where you spend all your time. Where all your thoughts and dreams take place.

Lights. Camera. Carnage.

Admit that you want to watch yourself in the starring role in the final denouement. Everything’s been leading up to this. Let Jaffe be your John the Baptist – your cinematographer – your choreographer – St. Spielberg of the Silvery Screen.

After all, these might be performances, but we ourselves are the performers.

Joe Darlington

Corroded Metals

Bill Peel – Tonight It’s A World We Bury – Black Metal, Red Politics (Repeater)

Reading this book was quite an epistemological experience. Why? All subcultures fluctuate politically. Take skinhead. A racially hybrid celebration of Jamaican culture via ska records and dances. Then the opposite, horrible white racism and nationalism, under the same name and style. The Fred Perry logo was originally the symbol of a famous tennis player’s branded sportswear, but of course the laurels it depicts have a far longer and more complex history. The Fred Perry logo has become, in the hands of its various purchasers, a symbol of post-colonial openness and cultural hybridity, and also of its opposite, a violent resistance to that post-colonial openness and hybridity. The sad end of Morrissey perpetuates the latter meaning.

The signifier rises over the signified, it is privileged. This is a permanent problem of language, meaning and culture. But it can also be a permanent delight. In skinhead, at various times, sheer opposites have been operating under the same styles and logo. Students of cultural anthropology will not be surprised at this. Meaning always traps and frees at the same time. To view it as doing so simultaneously is to attempt a dialectical reading.

But living beings who try to apply a whole politics to a particular but quite arbitrary brand of sportswear are nothing if not irrational. I am too. But we can become aware of this. Here though, the analyser of the culture in question seems to be as irrational as his subject.

But if meaning can be turned inside-out, as I describe, then we ought to grant Bill Peel a hearing, that Black Metal might incubate a Red Politics.

Peel takes several key words from Black Metal: distortion; decay; secrecy; coldness and heresy. This seems to be a way of doing things at the moment. Take a cultural subject, pick themes out of it and then weave whatever ideological hot take you wish in between them, with supposedly demonstrative theoretical asides. It is a methodology that breeds irrationalism. And this is surely the most counterintuitive hot take in some time.

There is no empirical material here, nobody talks back. This themed and riffed framework is one in which you can blast off and sermonise immediately, but despite an appearance of coherent structure, the results are obviously whacky. There are books on other topics, broken down into themes, which are (for instance) secret manifestoes for a fantasy version of the Labour Party, others which suggest we be less afraid of extreme revolutionary rhetoric, because of some pareidolic philosophical detail, which has been inflated within the text to fill the whole sky.

The left-cultural programme is awash with this stuff and I’m bored by it, and very itchy for something more solid to come along. This is a time between, but we will look back at its artefacts just as we look at strange folk objects in museums. And strange folk objects in museums are equally loaded up with crazed, evangelical left-prophetic rhetoric.

Because of the themed and riffed format, I am always confused as to whether Peel is seeing Black Metal as rescueable, or just a culture he is using to pull key words out of to explore. I often wonder if Peel is confused about this too. No justification is given for the selection of those particular key words, I suspect they were picked because Peel can begin to preach from each one of them straight away. Why isn’t one of the key words for Black Metal ‘Nazism’? Or ‘Paganism’? Or ‘anti-Christ’? Of course, not all Black Metal is Pagan, or Nazi, but enough of it is to merit section heads, under which those who do not fit can be explored. The lack of a sustained analysis of Nazism in Black Metal in a book trying to claim its potential for the left is actually quite remarkable. It is noted, as an object, but then never dealt with. The Luger on the breakfast table, which nobody mentions. The real hot topics of Black Metal are steered around, rather than tackled. ‘Black Metal is White Metal.’ Discuss. Surely this complex needs to be explored? Here black is argued as white and white black again.

I know full well that Metal is irrational. All culture is. Going to the Monsters of Rock festivals in the 1980s was a revelation for me. People with Tygers of Pan Tang on the backs of their denim jackets in metal studs. I could see it as an anthropologist might, before I fully knew what an anthropologist was. Dio on stage and a field full of arms and fingers like a Nazi rally. This shortarse in heels strutting like a God. And Dio were great that day. In-between bands, attendees threw two litre bottles of piss at each other with a vehemence that spoke of pent-up rage and troubled minds. This was the 1980s. The country was bleak. Here was an alternative set of social relations, hidden within the mainstream of British society. Some threw bottles with sand in them, I know, I got taken out by one, to the back of the head. I was 15: When the Global Gods left the stage, nasty national spirits returned; in that there is a useful cipher for some Black Metal. How that can be utopian socialism is still beyond me after reading this book.

What excites me about extreme metal – not just Black Metal – is that it tells me how flawed humans can be, and it expresses it, it describes that, in a formally appropriate way. These forms called ‘metal’ have become traditions. These forms reflect the hidden reality that lurks under the surface of the capitalist west, with its seemingly smoothe surfaces. It is Hobbes’ nasty and brutish with riffs. I take Hobbes’ diagnosis, to be clear, but not his prescription about what to do about that. What is quite delusional about this book is that it tries to tell me that Black Metal might do the opposite, to show us how humans could all be good. Therefore what is actually interesting about this book is that it really confesses the evangelism of its author, a political left evangelism, and Bill Peel’s publisher puts out a lot of those people. That this evangelism is strongly marked by the history of Christianity is hiding in plain sight. The left’s care for the underdog emerges from the history of Christianity. Anti-capitalism is not a separate stream of consciousness. In a book on Satanic metal that brings paradoxes that are not dealt with.

For Peel, Black Metal is essentially deeply Prophetic, because a longer dialectic is to be found out there in the world of Black Metal, revealing our true nature as Good, even if this must come after a violent clearing away, that is also rooted in biblical rhetoric. That this emerges from Christianity is the paradox that is never explicitly explored. For me, Black Metal reflects the darker sides of society hidden by the liberal, capitalist, consumerist western surfaces. There is an honesty there, but for me, Black Metal is a representational surface – not a prophetic other dimension – and for me this representational surface reveals something of our true nature as intrinsically flawed, rather than simplistically ‘Bad.’ This has some parallels with Christian views, I am aware of this, although I don’t ‘believe’, or go to church.

I was talking to someone recently about going to see metal bands. There was some to-ing and fro-ing about the politics: ‘Oh, but didn’t that band’s drummer say some dodgy things recently?’ The middle classed and aged looking for politically correct Metal to enjoy is a linked tendency to those on display in this book. I always find those tendencies amusing. I see my cover of a Deutsche Grammophon LP of Strauss’s Sinfonia Domestica. It bears an illustration of a late 19th c. / early 20th c. living room by Gerhard Noack. It is this space these people wish to consume their impossible, Clean Metal from.

What excites me about extreme metal – not just Black Metal – is that it expresses the nihilism at the root of any culture. What are we? What are we doing here? What is this brutal environment we have managed, somehow, to survive in for thousands of years? The ultimate answer to the question is always ‘don’t know’, even for the most advanced physicists. Metal isn’t afraid to show our culture as brutal, under the surface. But here the message is that the brutality only exists to strip away the bad and reveal the good below. What has annoyed me about the left recently is their blind evangelical tendencies in relation to these questions, and never blinder than here. Like the middle class search for politically correct Metal, if you want left-evangelical Metal, you’re not going to have much of a remainder. Not even Christian metal act Stryper. Because even under their advocacy is the history of western Christianity’s white, controlling moral order, its missionary zeal. There is then nothing intrinsically good about Stryper (in all senses).

So if there is no intrinsic good in Stryper, then maybe there is no intrinsic bad in Black Metal. In which case, maybe the thesis is not mad after all. That useful tools for Good People called Socialists can be found in Black Metal. But I am never convinced. I reach this point several times then dismiss it as I read on. There is no solid centre to the arguments, because the rational core here is the statement that culture is plastic, malleable enough to find the absolute other in a surprising place, the Good in the Bad. I completely agree that this can happen, of course, because language itself does not have stable categories, but so then neither does Black Metal, so when you go to ‘it’ looking for them – which is really everything this book attempts – you are not going to end up with a lasting proposition.

Reviewing a Stryper album, Dom Lawson called the record a ‘turn off’ and implausibly seemed to appeal to enlightenment rationalism in order to denounce the record: ‘Ultimately, you can try to kid people that worshipping sky fairies is a shrewd pastime, but it just isn’t.’

The metal critic being withering about ‘worshipping sky fairies.’ Just let that sink in. But asking for Socialist Black Metal seems to me on a par with Worshipping The Sky Fairies. The mirror image of all these subcultures and sects is really non-conformist religious groups from the seventeenth to the nineteenth century. When we look at all these subcultures we can see clearly that they are as saturated in irrational beliefs as non-conformist religious sects were, for instance The Shakers.

I am not claiming to be the only rational being left in a world of madness. I am irrational at core and flawed like everyone else. But the question that returns again and again as I read this book is ‘why did Bill Peel pick Black Metal at all?’ If you go to thrash metal you have a whole episteme to explore, which presents obsessive nuclear war fears, and hatred of it, disgust at injustice, at capitalism, at Mammon. Thrash was half-rooted in British new wave metal and hardcore punk, particularly the latter’s anarchist politics. Listen to the first Discharge album for the roots. Napalm Death are still going, I’m off to see them in a few days. The politics are there, as is their openness to extremes.

There are other books to be written on extreme metal. Black and Death Metal as the absolute lowest intensity of both romanticism and decadent poetry. There’s a great book to be made on Metal and the Baroque, all those flourishes, even in Slayer. Benjamin’s insights on bombastic language and tragic drama could be well-used there.

Why look to Black Metal for Red Politics, when all you have to do is look around for examples of avant garde metal, with a prole-facing anti-capitalist politics, in, say, Plebeian Grandstand. They are in plain sight, and are formally innovative, yet Peel goes off to search for it in Bathory records. I find this both inexplicable and funny. Thrash metal and its precedents and futures are already well covered elsewhere, and so in a desperate search for innovation, the most daring counterintuitive hot take on Black Metal is made. But it’s completely tenuous. Therefore what this book really reveals is the gnostic, pareidolic millenarian tendencies in its author, and in the left more broadly. In this, it is another very useful book for me, because I wrote about all those tendencies and concerns in Provocations with Brian Baker.

The underlying message is that ‘if we could all just see it this way, and all really really believe, very hard, then a new world is possible.’ The problem is that the figure who then arises out of this mist is the default white western cartoon of Jesus in his hippie beard and robes. At that point the theme of Black Metal entirely vanishes. And in a book on Black Metal, that is very funny indeed. Peel describes Black Metal’s extremes, quite weakly I think, and then states ‘it’s up to us to prevent this reactionary enclosure from being the end of Black Metal’s usefulness’, that ‘Socialist thought is about looking for new weapons, finding new tools with which to think and to challenge the new forms capitalism takes, and it does itself a disservice by ignoring weapons when they present themselves.’

There’s a kind of introverted megalomania in the neoleft these days, mainly because it operates online. That introverted megalomania is on display in this book, evidenced by quotes like the one above, which assumes that a scattering of zealots can reshape a whole genre. From an essentially bourgeois domestic space people signal that ‘hey we’ve got this’ or ‘we can change this.’ Huge problems, such as privatised energy, or water pollution. The Insiders signal back, giddy. Outsiders see their claims as completely ludicrous. And is Socialist thought really about looking for ‘new weapons?’ The uncritical use of the idea of violent revolution per se in this book is quite naive. It lurks, under the surface, unspoken, unspeakable. Black Metal’s lyrical hellscapes of total destruction, after which a new world will rise, are more aligned to the kind of vision Putin is inflicting on eastern europe right now than any socialist revolution. They seem rooted in some of the images of John Martin, a romantic painter, often of Christian apocalyptic scenes. Putin wishes to go back to earlier stages of Russian history, brutally wiping out any resistance.

And how much more Black Metal can you get than that? The answer is none more, none more Black Metal. Well, maybe he could set his heart further back in history, go Pagan, but it fits. Then you realise that the Orthodox church backing is just another big signifier, potentially interchangeable with that of Satan, like those earlier examples I gave. Still, it is all what Peel describes in this book as ‘Death Fetish.’ But who is Peel to lecture us on death fetish when this book is so full of his own? And by this I don’t mean death fetish as he does, a mournful sense of loss leading to Evil, but his clearly morbid fascination with an extreme genre.

Seeing Black Metal as something that might take on Capitalism is like asking Mussolini to do it. In some cases, given an army – and a leader of say Varg Vikernes – it might be worse. So Bill Peel is surely the Imaginary Ubermensch in his own work here, in this game of Fantasy Apocalypse. Black Metal is a ‘functioning weapon’, says Peel. But if let loose in the way Peel fantasises, in a parallel reality – fortunately the only place any of this will ever come to be – I expect it might eat him alive first.

But then Peel claims he has no intention of reclaiming Black Metal – right after boldly saying he wants to salvage it all – and we are suddenly returned to reality as it is. This is in line with the neoleft’s pathology. These sugar rushes of megalomaniac messaging always lapse back into amnesia and everyday life. But they get high on it all the time, and expect you to do the same. They’re up on this stuff all day long. What is actually happening is that people are riffing up novelty arguments for a marketplace, or for their insertion into a university order. That these often take place within the algorithmic endorphin landscape of social media is the one real thing to hold on to. Peel’s arguments take place in a book, which is a commodity, in a marketplace, published by a publisher with particular consumers. The process is the same as that of consumer-capitalist influencers.

Still, I enjoyed reading this book. Not because of what is in it, but how it takes me on a tour of my own cultural immersion – see, we all do it – and how it sadly reconfirms something about the desperate, tenuous nature of some contemporary cultural studies and leftist discourses, which are trying to resist postmodernity and return to BELIEF! Ultimately, the attempt is as irrational and anthropological as those dudes with studded Tygers of Pan Tang jackets at Donnington racetrack in 1987, throwing bottles of piss at the other end of the field. In fact at some other dudes quite like them. This review is just one more piss bottle.

Mods and rockers all fetishised two-wheeled modes of transport and overdriven guitar, bass and drums music emerging from American blues. But they still beat the living shit out of each other. So do the left and right, rhetorically. This said, the attempt to recombine the opposites during the present moment in which they fight will always fail, as it does here. Fifty years later, you might have a chance.

‘Black Metal adores secrecy’ Peel states and ‘this aligns Black Metal with insurrectionary anarchist critiques of political recognition.’ But the idea of Black Metal as a deeply hidden subculture is constantly overplayed here. I went to a big classical concert recently. In a Q&A afterwards, the middle class creative producer dropped the titillatory signifier of Black Metal: ‘my boyfriend is really into it.’ This had the quality of a childish confession, of something edgy being revealed – a ‘respectable’ cultural player’s attempt at symbolic transgression – but really it was as coffee table as a reference to the Joy Division, another band who flirted with Nazi signifiers, but who are given special dispensation to sit outside both postmodernism and the dodgy file by left-evangelicals.

There is a chapter on Black Metal’s secrecy. Its argument runs along the lines that Black Metal reveals little or nothing about itself and it tells lies and creates fabricated biographies. Out in the capitalist world the opposite – the confessional – is constantly traded. Peel gives us Emin’s Bed, Beyonce’s album Lemonade. But isn’t the weird world of conspiracy theorists really the immediate parallel to Black Metal secrecy? And how is that socialist and a wonderful new weapon for the left? Isn’t it the place where the extreme Far Right operate because there is no transparency there? And Peel recognises the links between Black Metal and the Far Right, if only by nodding. And Emin’s Bed, Beyonce’s Lemonade, they are not opposites, they are all fabrications, to a degree. They are not unaltered raw experience, not really confessions, but representations of confessions.

This book, which concentrates a whole chapter on Black Metal’s secrecy, is in fact a sign that Black Metal is no longer secret. It is not a scary or potent culture. When I watched the Throbbing Gristle documentary, the opening shot of Genesis P. Orridge going ‘raah’ at the camera as though they were a terribly scary person, was just silly. Orridge was terminally silly. I wrote a review of The Taste of TG – A Beginner’s Guide to the Music of Throbbing Gristle – for Everett True’s Plan B, back in 2003. I said that the truly shocking thing about TG was how boring they were. Below the line some sycophant posted ‘who is this person, Genny is really pissed.’ I said that the drab noise of TG was one thing which made it boring. I can say the same today about some Black Metal.

Everyone wants to immerse in the fantasy of potency beyond their real place in the world as weak and finite individuals, within a structured class order, and to make careers out of it, rather than live closer to the real. Like P. Orridge did. But living closer to the real is an essential project if the species is to have an idea of how endangered it actually is. And that, then, is a proper left project.

These cabalistic cultures are all supposed to halt capital’s information flows and… do what? How? They halt nothing. The capitalist world goes on without them. I could make the argument that capitalist speed is actually nanoimproved by Black Metal’s lack of bandwidth clutter. But that would be silly. So I don’t make that argument, I just think it then dismiss it. Maybe more thinking and discounting is needed all over.

So we all hide in the dark in basements offline, unseen from capital, and this will bring its downfall. Yeah, that’ll work. New Wave of British Heavy Metal band Samson’s track ‘Life On The Run’ contains the line ‘boy, you better keep running, don’t show your face to the sun.’ Here the boy who can’t show his face to the sun is the classed and stigmatised other, the modern urban version of the below stairs staff in the 19th century. Surely socialist politics means in the street and counted. The shout in the street of the great Marshall Berman. It all draws me to the conclusion that Metal’s almost default anarchist politics were always simply the end of the story, with little further analysis required. But this is just a hunch, because neither of us have any data.

Still, the politics of evasion, sheer disorder as positive, this book should have been called Black Metal, Black Politics. At least then it would have begun by describing something that already exists in Black Metal. Peel then seems to realise this and says that his take might sound too anarchist for some. Then he cites a bit of the Communist Manifesto which appears to show that communism has been hiding, but the quote he gives urges commies to come out openly. At the end of this chapter he seems to be asking us to base our activities on those of the Teutonic Brotherhood. Let’s not. It is all pebbledashed with spattered HP Lovecraft at this point.

What is hiding in plain sight is metal culture’s often quite gentle, supportive networks. Niall Scott has written about this. This also often contrasts with the imagery and themes of extreme metal. These networks could be described proto-socialist. But of course to describe this is to describe something which already exists, and will not provide an out of breath hottake hit. A 15-second endorphin hit on Twitter. It would just return us to the world as it is, it would not design a new Cistine ceiling for the cultures of leftist evangelical bro-belief.

What Peel never fully considers – despite nods towards it, to be fair to him – is capital’s ability to assimilate everything, Black Metal included. The neoleft and its cultural studies priests constantly lionize forms of ‘resistant’ culture which are really just their own fetishes lifted aloft and gamed into careers on the mediascape, or in universities. Again, the process is no different to that of contemporary influencers. I used to be the Ptolemaic Terrascope Reviews Editor. It was referred to as ‘parish magazine of the underground.’ I saw very quickly as McMullen at al unearthed incredible psych-folk figures such as Vashti Bunyan and Linda Perhacs. Five minutes later they were in the mainstream and the ‘underground’ envelope they once sat in was inside-out, crushed and discarded, about to be blown away by the wind. Put down this book, then, and pick up the Adorno, but…

Peel explores each of his chosen themes in Black Metal in turn: distortion; decay; secrecy; coldness and heresy. Peel states that ‘these tendencies of Black Metal resonate with socialist thought in ways I find productive.’ These are all re-claimed for the left, despite the caveat about ‘not reclaiming’, across credulity-snapping chapters. The side-trips into Zizek and others do exactly the opposite of what they are supposed to, which is ground the argument using theory. They undermine it. They have the purpose of the scripts of transubstantiation in Catholicism, they throw a mist out which loses those congregated in order to find them again as believers, to convert them. But this is to gift Black Metal a potency it doesn’t have. Ultimately, this book cannot escape its own form as a weird leftist Ted Talk in Corpse Paint. The philosophical game of Twister just leaves the players looking awkward and slightly violated at the end. Maybe it’s time to just assume a more natural posture? ‘Distortion as nomadic’ via the rolling out and rolling back of a wooden Deleuze is just plain funny.

The lack of any interviews is a problem. If you asked a large enough sample of the Black Metal community about their music incubating a red politics, what do you think the result would be? I think this book wouldn’t exist. It is a dreaming space, which is interesting, but in terms of its stated aims of real transformative processes, it is very limited. There are many books like this. Many more will be made.

All the way through the book, I read the examples Peel gives completely oppositely to how he does – as a kind of thought experiment – without ever fully believing that alternative reading either. One can do this with all culture. Peel reads it one way, and I read it another. Peel shoehorns a quote from Fisher’s Weird and Eerie, that strangeness indicates that we might be in the presence of the new, but Black Metal isn’t new. Extreme Metal isn’t new. This is in the section on ‘distortion’, but I could make an argument that one of the most clichéd and empty sound-tropes of western culture is distortion. Its ability to convince us that it symbolises the dangerously uncaged is by now fundamentally weakened, precisely because its message has proliferated widely and Society has Not Collapsed.

To paraphrase Gramsci not only distortion, but all established forms are now tropey, because we are trapped in the old and the new cannot be born, and so yes the times are morbid. ‘Are You Morbid?’ Celtic Frost asked? Yes, I feel it, but not like these people.

Next. I read another section and then decide that I could make an argument that the blast beat’s dialectical other is the hip hop beat, which is global and hybrid in a way the blast beat is white and enclosed. But I would never fully believe that argument once I had made it either, because as I have explained, forms of communication are always semi-arbitrary. I believe in the important ‘semi-‘ suffix here, because there is still a glimmer of truth in that assertion. But only a glimmer. There are only ever glimmers here. The problem is that anyone can do this, which is why cultures are never fixed or stable, sometimes for the good, sometimes for the bad. It is all language, including the musical and visual. This also means – and this is never explored by Peel, as it is now completely taboo to the left – that all of this is a completely postmodern take on Black Metal. I have just written that book with Brian Baker, it is called Provocations.

I’m interested in this question: Are Black Metallers post-pagan? I struggle to see how they could ever return themselves to paganism as it was before Christianity, while still living in our present cultural environment.

But I suppose rhetoric and ideology are unavoidable, even – dare I say it – needed. And I still consider myself to be ‘on the left’, only a dissident from the orthodoxies when the orthodox includes this.

So I say to Bill Peel, go and make a great Red Metal Band by taking Black Metal and changing the text, its words, but try to not just re-invent thrash metal. Difficult. Then make the band so big it is on TV, at every major music festival across the world, to get the message over. Because secret little cells trading twenty or thirty tapes aren’t going to change the world, are they? But by then it won’t be called Black Metal anymore, although why would anyone care about that? Not me. And consider that it may have to sound more like a contemporary version of Foreigner to pull those crowds. Can you see how tenuous this ‘potential’ is, just by trying to think it through?

That’s how you move people, like Dio did, like A Nazi rally. But Dio was a priest of individuation, of Capital and American Style Freedom, which under it all means avoiding tax and accumulating. Dio’s High Mass was part of the capitalist-individualist triumphalism of American metal in the 1980s. Rush were Ayn Rand proselytisers. For the roots of it all, perhaps listen to ‘Just One Victory’ by Todd Rundgren. The ‘totally triumphant’ of Bill and Ted had a politics all along. Metal emerges from cultures of Liberalism, before turning sharply away from them in Black Metal. But it still lies at the roots of Black and Death Metal, because it all needed the liberal freedom to step away from a mainstream in the first place. The Beatles, Stones and Yardbirds did the demolition. Fast forward. Extreme metal then resists Christian America in its consumer form, to replace it with a more secular, then satanic, then pagan, hedonistic philosophy provided by – this is its default praxis – capitalist networks. We then arrive at Black Metal. But Black Metal’s loner independence is still provided for within these networks. They may wish to appear otherwise, but they do not make guitars and amps out of the ashen beams of burned Norwegian churches.

It is camp, actually. Sabbath were camp, closer to the music hall than the real coven, and Peel does mention this. But I never really bought the supposed tongue-in-cheek irony of Venom either. Symbolic alignment with ‘the devil’ means an alignment with the fallen one, an acceptance of hedonistic living, and then the elevation of such into a kind of philosophy. I am not a moralist, but all of that sits right inside liberal consumer capitalism. Black Metal is, objectively I think, heretical to very different things than Bill Peel’s idea of it. I was going to say that nobody is going to reclaim Stryper anytime soon, but on the back of this book any old brag is publishable.

Peel assumes everyone listens to Spotify and has stopped backing up CDs on hard drives. I haven’t stopped. I have backed thousands of CDs that I still have and continue to buy. He argues that Spotify is frictionless (therefore like uh capitalist and bad man) and Black Metal seeks to ‘add friction’ to its culture by not being easy to stream, or access. But this ignores how Black Metal cultures have proliferated online – even after he has described that – and it does not address the conclusion hiding in plain sight, that either a supposedly secretly Red Black Metal becomes mass enough to be a movement, something like Redblack Metal, or it stays a cult. Even if Redblack Metal is made, it too will be a cult. All the objections then flood in, so what is this culture? Is it mobile or radically enclosed? What are you talking about ‘this has radical potential?’ it has none.

Rather than a tenuous argument about ‘friction’ or ‘resistance’, I want to read the writer who talks about Black Metal in terms of capitalism, scarcity and fetish, which is also very active within it, despite the denials. Black Metal culture is hiding from all of this, or trying to, to be fair to it, but its resistance to the processes will be limited. Peel talks about cassettes shared on the understanding that they will not be ‘leaked to wider audiences’ as though all those people who watch Strictly will become Black Metal freaks the second they hear a Burzum tape. They will not. One or two might. In any case, under this logic the potential for Black Metal to become a socialist force that can blast apart capitalism – or whatever – is a complete non-starter. People produce product for the machine – with all of the warping assumptions about what that machines is imagined to want – rather than the machine producing product for the people. This includes Black Metal’s part of the machine.

Via Laclou and Mouffe Peel argues that Black Metal can ‘reintroduce explicit antagonism, opposition and conflict’, but under his own thesis of ‘secrecy’ it does so only to an initiated cult. There are a lot of cultural studies people who seem to assume that the simple existence of a cultural text in the world is enough to break down bad walls, and often the walls they assume to be bad are completely misunderstood by them. They should get out more, we all should. ‘Laclou and Mouffe would likely be proud of the frontier Black Metal has constructed and maintained for itself’ says Peel. That’s a really big claim to make, and one which immediately negates the idea of Black Metal culture as a broader potential force. Peel admits that ‘nothing can remain permanently uncommercial’ and I think ‘OK he gets it’, but then his wider evangelical argument is lost, right at that moment. Although actually, explicit fascism surely does repel the mainstream culture industry. I could then start to make a claim for Black Metal as ‘windowless’ monads of significatory potential, via Adorno in Aesthetic Theory… but let’s all just wake up a bit first, eh?

National Socialist Black Metal (or NSBM) includes bands like Kroda, Ukrainian fascists allegedly linked to the Azov Battalion. All of this is glossed so much in Peel’s book that I start to think about the default Putin apologists of Stop The War Coalition. My mind keeps drifting over there. There is also an appeal to paganism as some kind of alternative with radical potential, Kroda’s anti-Christianism is aligned with this. But there is a different leftist tendency which seeks to find radical alternatives in well-dressing, contemporary folk rituals and the ‘new wyrd.’ I think these things are more linked than any of the giddy proselytisers would like to admit. In pre-Christian Rome the idea of care for the underdog, which is central to Socialism, was a much rarer and different thing. The obvious questions about a return to Paganism are never addressed. Does it come with leaving the old to die in the forests? Or a return to the formal observances of the Viking Funeral? (look that up). But ultimately Peel’s argument has Christianity at its core, because Socialism is produced by it, yet Peel seems blissfully unaware of his place in that vortex. It is all such a confused confection of fetishes, but there is a lot of work like it.

Much of the left is a confused confection of fetishes. What did Bourdieu say in Against the Tyranny of the Market? That the right produces more texts, so the left should match them? If that means producing more stuff like this, I no longer agree. The right must see all this as a sign that the left are floating ash.

Peel opens a Russian Doll of an argument, that particular sorts of resistance can be found inside Black Metal, but inside that doll is the last, tiny hard figure, which does not open to reveal any more dolls. This final figure is the flawed, the human, the irrational. It stares back at this confused cartoon Jesus with its gargoyle face, revealing nothing but itself. Inside that face there is just dead wood.

At the start of a chapter on ‘Decay’ Peel states: ‘As is obvious, Dead had an obsession with death’: You see, when he was very young, Dead nearly died. I can’t help it, here I see Peel explaining this to Marty DiBergi in Spinal Tap. I’m not taking the moral high ground, I’m just the Butthead to his Beavis. Then I switch to adult mode and want to suggest that Dead should have sought psychoanalytical help. What happened? This was Norway, and he was from Sweden. I thought they had these things covered better than us?

Dead, whose birth name was Per Yngvie Ohlin, killed himself in the house he shared with other members of the band Mayhem. The scene of Dead’s suicide and Euronymous’s rearrangement and photographing of the scene is replayed over and over in many accounts of Black Metal. It is as dully predictable as the suicide of Ian Curtis, in our hugely necrophile culture: again, I am interested in what these accounts and obsessions tell me. I am interested in what is under the civilised surface, rather than the material itself.

There seems to be, in the focusing-in on scenes of suicide, an obsession with Belief, of meaning it enough to take your life. Richey Manic’s 4 Real times one thousand. And Manic may have gone the whole way, we don’t know. Peel describes German band Absurd killing a fifteen year old fan, then capitalising – I chose the word purposefully – on it from prison with recordings featuring photographs of his grave. How all of this is ‘Red’ never becomes fully clear, it is something to do with its capitalist opposite, of the billionaire’s obsession with eternal life. Death is like a prism, it refracts potential in all directions, Peel says. So why say that via all these grisly Black Metal murders, do you think they were good gestures, or what? It isn’t clear.

We mustn’t valourise life, Peel says, because all those capitalists are obsessed with extending life. Really? I will valourise the shortened temporalities of my working class parents and this muddle won’t convince me otherwise. And I want longer lives for them, and that is a politically Red desire.

Peel tries to differentiate the politics of death from that of decay, but it is all so flawed. The argument runs that decay is good in an ecosystem, essential. But surely the only good sort of decay – for humans – occurs after death. You wouldn’t want Huntington’s disease, the decay of nerve cells in the brain. Decay happens to the living, too. Decay doesn’t, as Peel puts it, ‘see things’ as full of life like the vitalists, or full of death like the Heideggerians. Decay doesn’t see at all. It just is. Decay doesn’t signify rebirths, but births, Peel states. Isn’t decay just decay? It only signifies at all for humans, within language. Should we not separate decay from growth? Decay is breakdown, not formation. I sense the unconscious warping of new age holism under this, despite the left-theoretical readings. And of course the ‘Decay’ chapter has a whole load of nonsense about fungus in it. The art and culture world on the left is awash with work on the supposed radical potential of moss, lichens and I sense the radical potential of Lice is next.*

The Heideggerians see death in life and The Vitalists life in death. I think about it all. If things are good, you want more life, when things are awful, less. I remember a time when both grandmothers of a friend were in care homes. One grandma had a nasty streak and her senility was unpleasant, she spat out at the carers. The other was quite blissed-out by temperament. Her senility was tranquil, amnesiac, she didn’t seem to know that she was any different. They were both decaying. For one it was OK, for the other, not. We should make the distinction. But never relapse into a claim that the ‘nasty’ gran was to blame, her being and body were one. It was probably genetic and learned. We should use enlightenment insights and techniques we have evolved from them to alleviate the suffering of the one for whom it was hell. This could be done on the left. Like skinhead, enlightenment can be good and bad. It is not, of course, the universal truth it presented itself as. Put this way, you can see that it is enlightenment-christian. But it could also be left and frictionless, surely? So shouldn’t we argue for extended and equalitarian life for all who want it? That the tech available to those with billions be socialised and rolled forward to as many as possible? Am I old-fashioned? But will our rolling back to Paganism take enlightenment knowledge and tech with it? Aren’t Black Metal’s regressive tendencies just regressive? What will its brutalism be used for? Violent revolution? This is never made clear.

Peel then likens ‘death fetishism’ to leftist melancholy, that things are in decline and the left is losing. Apparently this attitude is bad. I think it is real. They are objectively in decline, and this book shows us how. Death fetish is the woefulness of both the left and Black Metal, who see nothing but failure and lost battles in the past. In Thatcherite victories on the left, for instance, and in the historical rise of Christianity and repressive morals for Black Metal. It is the flimsiest pop-up argument possible, made out of two partly re-constructed historical events. If ‘death fetishism’ equals leftist melancholy and similar in Black Metal and both are unproductive then I have to wonder, why are you immersed in either? If death fetish is bad on both the left and in Black Metal, are we still trying to rescue both? Or have we given up?

Decay, for Peel, is potentially good, but death not. Decay means the new can be born. But Peel approvingly cites Kristeva, that seeing the abjection of a corpse is a powerful thing, and that his grandfather’s corpse was essentially fetishised by undertakers, made safe. Seemingly out of nowhere he describes the migrant trying to cross nation-state borders and states that ‘Death fetishism keeps these borders intact.’ What he means is that the nation-state ideology is retrogressive to the point of being co-terminous with death fetish. But it is utterly simplistic to imagine that borders can just be dropped, or that any geographical territorial line is like, bad man. Lines can be drawn to protect. I keep thinking about Corbyn’s incredibly naive advocacy on Ukraine, and again about Stop the War Coalition. That I can’t shut these thoughts out is telling. The tropey ‘zombie capitalism’ scripts roll out. Karl Marx’s by now grubby coat – passed through millions of hands in David Harvey’s podcasts – gets traded for money rather than the distilled essence of tears once more. The described M-C-M chains seem to operate completely apart from Black Metal’s irrationalism.

Then out of nowhere Peel asserts that the act of enclosure brought great benefits as it created industrialism and the proles, which is both over-stated, contradictory, and a line in favour of revanchist liberal-conservative brutality. It also seems to be pro-borders after a condemnation of borders as ‘death fetishism.’ He is suddenly looking back at the enclosures as Putin looks back at The Wall, with Death Fetish. If Black Metal is anything, it is liberally expressed revanchist brutality. How all this can be useful to socialism always needs to be scraped up off the floor and reheated.

I get to the end of this chapter and wonder what any of it has to do with Black Metal. Even as an abstract philosophical discourse I’d score it C- at A Level. If hiding in basements under a pseudonym watching the aftergrowth on decay following the destruction of all life by capital is radical and has red politics then I’m Cliff Fucking Richard and we may as well give up now. I wonder if this is written under a pseud. several times, I have no idea why.

Satan’s fallen world is a profane one of pain and pleasure, with no thought for the future. Sounds like capitalism, right? So the question arises, how do you take the Satan out of Black Metal and it remain Black Metal? Maybe you don’t, maybe it is just these tendencies in Black Metal that are useful. Decay, distortion, etc. But there are always already far more fecund fields to harvest than this one. You wouldn’t go picking cherries in Mordor, if it existed. It doesn’t.

Nostalgia, rather than future-thinking, seems to be a strong urge of Black Metal. Is this not Death Fetish as Peel explains it? Peel covers the band Nargaroth’s yearning for the Oslo scene before Varg Vikernes stabbed Euronymous to death. Then Black Metal looks even further back to a generative idea of a pre-Christian Pagan past. Nostalgia often seeks purity in the past, a dodgy urge, with obvious big warning examples. The past, in these cases, is only ever a constructed ideal, it is not the grey-in-grey of the present, which is of course, also the past, only experienced in reality. The look-back is Orphean, the loved object vanishes, forever, when we turn to see it. It does not exist in reality, it never did.

The fact that this book exists at all may be one more sign that the culture is, contra its own thesis, already assimilated. The scholarship of Metal culture per se ‘could be taken as one more sign of the domestication of metal’ say Mark LeVine, Keith Kahn-Harris and Titus Hjelm. However, they conclude that it retains an edge via the courting, consciously or not, of controversy. I agree. Levine, Kahn-Harris and Hjelm also mention Porngrind and its total inversion of feminist critiques of pornography into a ‘virtue.’ If you want to see the signifier really move, metal culture is a good place to go to. But you might not like how that happens, I often don’t. Extreme metal, for me, always signifies the grey-in-grey of the present. If you want its signifier to stop moving, to congeal into a red political essence, this is not going to happen for you. This is Canute territory. When an unrealistic manifesto-making attempt such as this one comes along, it needs strong questioning. And the desire to see the signifier congeal into essence at all is surely a really dodgy urge, isn’t it? Keith Kahn-Harris’s work on metal culture is, however, an example of a relativised and largely objective take on it. It is possible.

In the Provocations book with Brian Baker I described Dan Hancox comparing East End Dubstep and Grime cultures with those resistant to Fascism in Spain. I think Hancox’s work on Dubstep and Grime is really strong actually, but sometimes there is this rhetorical over-reach, and I have done it myself, it is just that Peel’s book is nearly all over-reach.

So much leftist cultural discourse is Canuteist now. Pareidolic and Canuteist (I will develop my own critical glossary). Plus it strikes me forcefully that the other side, the English right, is also mentally on the shorelines, wishing to send the tides back out again.

If Black Metal does anything, it describes the aftermath of the oncoming horror of human culture in a now opening vortex of shocks. This is the realism at the core of Black Metal’s representations, for me. Yet the author appears to think Black Metal signifies its opposite, that a new and warmer world of social connection which resists tyranny will emerge from its brutal clearing-away. An extraordinary conclusion. Maybe Peel reads this opposite conclusion in the material because living fully in the reality of our world of risk is psychically impossible, he is unconsciously trying to tame an unstable object, on its ‘dangerous’ parallel symbolic terrain.

I wish I could conclude by saying this is an anomaly in our culture, but there’s a lot of it about. The neoleft is nearly all this kind of non-conformist evangelical weirdness now. I sense it in myself too, to be clear, and when I started to explicitly think about that, I decided to go fully into it on the one hand (by writing A Shaken Bible) and to go critically against it on the other (by writing Provocations and this review and material like it). By doing that I at least try to keep the irrational-prophetic in its place, where you can see what it is, and the critical, also, in its place.

But the biggest irony, in a review of a book on Black Metal, is that the missing object at the centre of all of this is ‘God’.

Steve Hanson

* For one example of the sheer Un-Darwinism which seems to everywhere, see Nick Jordan’s film Pathways Through the Entangled Forest: Living With Motor Neurone Disease, currently showing at HOME. This film takes scientific insights into ecosystems and turns them into an evangelical mirror for the idea of humans and human communities as intrinsically good. At one point, the animals of the forest are described as all co-operating with each other: this nonsense seems to be everywhere now.

Words and Pauses

Laura Scott – The Fourth Sister (Carcanet, 2023)

Simple words placed upon a page contain a distinct kind of magic. The opposite of baroque. Laura Scott writes this kind of poetry, and it is a poetry for our time.

There are no metaphysics. No sesquipedalian oratorical flourishes. No fireworks.

Instead, four sisters. The branches that snag their skirts. Feathers, photographs, and the feel of water.

If there is a central theme of the poem, it is the notion of love. These are “unusual love poems”, not written to lovers, but to grandparents, friends, the dead; to childhood memories and to the starlings that scare her.

A mature love, of the spiritual kind. One that is best expressed not through the poet’s own internal organs – beating hearts and breathless lungs – but through a clear, precise depiction of the thing itself. Scott strips everything back. She shows us what she loves, not how she loves it.

There’s a certainty in that. A certain that we’ll love it to, or else, if not, that it doesn’t matter. One sees it or one doesn’t.

The tree pushed her / higher and higher / up to where its branches / scratched the sky / and the wind blew her / hair into the leaves…”

In simple lines like these we feel the weight of our poetical past paring off. The tangled lines and obtuse metaphors and ecstatic exclamations that hung around for so long after rhyme and metre had been thrown out; you can’t go back to those now. Not after poetry like this.

The clarity of haiku but without its stillness. The verb-metaphor – “the tree pushed her” – the only sign of a deep sophistication otherwise hidden behind apparent effortlessness.

Which is not to say that Laura Scott is the creator of this style. It had been around a while. Another great recent practitioner is James Harpur. Historical precedents can be found in the imagists. H.D. in particular.

But there is something so fresh in Scott’s lyrical voice that her poetry can’t help but feel like a revelation. An education in what’s possible within poetry. A mature and serious poetry for equally serious minds.

Joe Darlington

Post-War Experimental British Writing

Joseph Darlington – The Experimentalists (Bloomsbury, 2021)

Natalie Ferris – Abstraction in Post-War British Literature 1945-1980 (Oxford English Monographs, 2022)

Joseph Darlington’s The Experimentalists: The Life and Times of the British Experimental Writers of the 1960s and Natalie Ferris’s Abstraction in Post-War British Literature 1945-1980 are testament to the growing strength and variety of scholarly work on mid to late twentieth century experimental writing in Britain. Early examples of interest in this area are Lyndsey Stonebridge and Marina McKay’s British Fiction after Modernism: The Novel at Mid-Century (2006) and Francis Booth’s The British Experimental Novel 1940-1980 (2012). More recently, the field has expanded with notable examples including Adam Guy’s The nouveau roman and Writing in Britain After Modernism (2019), Andrew Hodgson’s The Post-War Experimental Novel: British and French Fiction, 1945–75 (2020), and Julia Jordan’s Late Modernism and the Avant-Garde British Novel: Oblique Strategies (2020). Some have aimed to reclaim and recover the importance of women’s experimental writing in this period – for example, Carole Sweeney’s Vagabond Fictions: Gender and Experiment in British Women’s Writing, 1945–1970 (2020), and Andrew Radford and Hannah Van Hove’s ‘Slipping through the Labels’: British Experimental Women’s Fiction, 1945-1975 (2021) – and some have honed in on a specific decade – for instance, Sebastian Groes’s British Fictions of the Sixties: The Making of the Swinging Decade (2016) and mine and Kaye Mitchell’s British Avant-Garde Fiction of the 1960s (2019).

In such examples, the identifier ‘British’ loosely marks location – as Ferris notes, in one sense this is used ‘simply as a means of situating the selected circles of activity within a geographical framework’ (p. 7). At the same time, its particular inclusion reminds us of a perceived dissonance between ‘British’ sensibility on the one hand, and European aligned ‘Experimental’ or ‘Avant-Garde’ aesthetics on the other. Wider establishment culture’s unease and resistance to such writing is identified in the ‘underlying’ question of Ferris’s book: ‘to what extent was Britain’s literary culture as responsive to progress as her artistic culture?’ (p. 10). Darlington articulates a similar question in different terms, positioning his perspective alongside the ‘British experimentalist writers of the 1960s’ who saw themselves as ‘rising up against the dread forces of the establishment’ (p. 2) culture which they saw as boring and unresponsive to change and challenge. As these examples begin to suggest, while both books are working in the same scholarly field and engaged with similar questions – and indeed while both proceed in broadly chronological order to give a sense of the shifting developments in and attitudes towards experimental writing in Britain during this time – Ferris and Darlington’s focus of attention and modes of articulation are quite different and distinct.

In his ‘Introduction’, Darlington tells the reader that after ten years of work, the ‘hoped-for academic monograph failed to come to pass’, because although his extensive research clearly showed that British experimentalist writers were connected by similar aims, he was not able to address what he identifies as the ‘academic’ question, which is to ‘tell us what this means’ (p. 1). Darlington’s book instead offers the reader ‘part history, part study, part story’ which aims to give ‘a sense of the whole picture’ (p. 2). Well, perhaps not quite the whole picture: as Darlington acknowledges, although broad and capacious, his story of the experimentalists is also necessarily selective in terms of its timeframe and ‘characters’. The book’s main focus is on an eclectic selection of writers such as Anthony Burgess, B. S. Johnson, Christine Brooke-Rose, Maureen Duffy, Brigid Brophy, Eva Figes, Zulfikar Ghose, Alan Burns, J.G. Ballard, Ann Quin, with more peripheral mention of writers such as John Fowles, William Burroughs, Wilson Harris, Angela Carter and more. The decision not to write an academic monograph frees up Darlington’s methods, structure and prose, and the result is a highly readable, informed and informative group biography which offers an insightful addition to current scholarship. Darlington finds the experimentalists compelling, and his enthusiasm is infectious. The book’s tone and style is enthusiastic, conversational and sometimes witty and wry, and its plot has pace, ranging across a wide variety of individual experiences and historical and political contexts.

The Experimentalists opens in 1938 with ‘six-year-old Eva Figes’ (p. 5) walking with her mother on a pavement strewn with shattered glass the morning after Kristalnacht, and closes with Figes again, in the late 1970s, setting down her pen on a dark December night, to ‘pick it up again tomorrow night, and the night after that’ (p. 236). The decision to begin and end with Figes in very different circumstances and locations demonstrates Darlington’s instinct for character and storytelling – the example here is the poignant figure of Figes, while elsewhere he gives equal attention to Johnson’s bombast and Duffy and Brophy’s satirical stances among other details. Throughout, the book moves between focus on specific scenes and individual experimental writers, discussion of selected examples of the experimentalists’ publications, their encounters with and interactions with each other, and wider cultural and historical contexts such as the education system in Britain in the 1940s and 1950s, for example, and Duffy and Brophy’s setting up of the Writer’s Action Group. In this way, Darlington’s focus expands and contracts across the book to tell an animated story of the lives, times and writing of the British experimentalists. The book’s biographical focus and capacious, magpie-like collection of characters and stories is a key strength in terms of narrative momentum and readerly engagement: at the same time this approach can be a little haphazard, and doesn’t leave much space for the sustained literary analysis a scholar might desire.

Equally engaging but very different in terms of its intellectual approach, tone and register, Ferris’s Abstraction in Post-War British Literature 1945-1980 is a more traditional ‘academic’ monograph and a work of impressive scholarship. This book’s method includes examples of detailed depth work with sustained, careful and precise analyses of Ferris’s key writers – Herbert Read, Ian Hamilton Finlay, Christine Brooke-Rose, John Berger, B. S. Johnson – as well as a consideration of broader movements and contexts, including within its scope abstract and concrete poetry; visual, video, text and installation art; exhibitions, collectives, design and publishing; and experimental novels. In this, Ferris’s book seeks to include discussion of ‘literature as object, as instrument, and as installation’ (p. 101). Early on, she posits the far-reaching and challenging question ‘on what terms, if at all, does the abstract work communicate?’ (p. 6) and in response the book charts the course of abstraction in British visual and textual culture to consider how and why abstraction ‘became a provocation’ (p. 7) for post-war experimental writers. One of the book’s aims, and this its key contribution to the field, is to engage in interdisciplinary thinking across different art forms in order to ‘endorse a broader conception of the post-war literary avant-garde’ (p. 7). Ferris describes abstraction in terms of an artistic mode ‘attentive to the qualities of its medium’ (p. 56), a definition that also articulates her approach and focus across the book which considers experimental literature in terms of its own visual qualities, as well as noting its engagement with visual art.

Abstraction in Post-War British Literature opens with the ekphrastic poem ‘On a Painting by William Gear For an Unreceptive Person’, by George MacBeth (1954) and ends with a discussion of Ed Atkins’s recent video installation work and poetry (from 2014 onwards). With both examples, and in a gorgeously multi-layered way with the first, where her description is of a poem which describes an abstract painting – and which she calls ‘an apologia for abstraction’ (p. 4) – the mode of Ferris’s writing necessarily takes the form of ekphrasis in order to communicate the visual via the verbal. While some images of the visual poetry and artworks under discussion are included – and as a brief aside it is a shame it wasn’t possible to include colour images here, especially of Gear’s ‘Autumn Landscape’ – many more are encountered in terms of verbal description. Even when Ferris is working with written texts, the focus is primarily on what is seen rather than what the words might represent or mean. As a result, her distinctive interdisciplinary approach produces a written text caught up in what it describes – both in its ekphrasis and because of its attempt to articulate (in language) the various ways in which language might become abstract – resulting in a complex and compelling demonstration of how her chosen texts work. This is a compelling aspect of the book. Some particularly clear examples can be found in the evocative verbal descriptions of Finlay’s abstract poems from Rapel – for example, the formal poem that generates the words ‘tree’ and ‘deer’ (p. 63), the reiterative ‘black block’ (pp. 67-68), and the discussion of Pear/Appear (pp. 80-81) – as well as in her discussion of experimental literature.

Having attended to how abstraction works in the poetry of Read and Finlay, the book’s final chapter ‘Seeing Comes Before Words’ offers a sustained analysis of Brooke-Rose’s writing, culminating in a consideration of Thru. Ferris gives Brooke-Rose, Johnson and John Berger as examples of novelists whose experimental writing aims to insist upon the visual experience of language to the point that words are encountered in the same way as the eye sees colour. In Brooke-Rose’s case in particular, the attempt to ‘bring language closer to colour is an attempt to give language a greater opacity’ (p. 172-173). Thru is Ferris’s final substantive example because of how Brooke-Rose’s book’s shuffling kaleidoscopic form defamiliarizes the reader’s/viewer’s encounter with language and refocuses ‘attention upon the dazzling—and often laughable—profundity of language’ (p. 178). Ferris points out how, in this way, Thru anticipates and acts upon the reader/viewer in the manner of a non-literary art form such as a ‘video-text’ (p. 179) because of how the novel ‘foretells the discursive chaos of the information age’ (p. 180). Darlington also discusses Thru in his final chapter, ‘1973 and After’. Here, Brooke-Rose’s text is considered in the context of the dissolution of ‘the experimentalists’ following the deaths of writers Ann Quin and B. S. Johnson. Darlington does not offer a close analysis of Thru but instead considers it as a text which marked the culmination and disappointment of the experimentalist writers’ endeavour and ushered in the subsequent shift to postmodernism. He notes that despite the fact that ‘the initial buzz was sufficient to move a thousand copies’ (p. 225), initial reviews and responses were largely critical and negative, with readers claiming the book to be ‘impenetrable, elitist’; ‘literary experimentation gone too far’ (p. 225). As a result, despite her belief that the novel was ‘totally mimetic’ (p. 224), Brooke-Rose was in the end ‘distraught at the failure of her novel’ (p. 226).

Both Darlington and Ferris note the significance of Brooke-Rose’s context for Thru, in terms of her university post at Vincennes, Paris and her engagement with French poststructuralist thought, and both acknowledge the bafflement of many of the book’s readers. For Darlington, Thru offers an affective example of the ‘end of an era’ (p. 227), a book whose textual difficulty somehow figured or coincided with a wider difficulty amongst the experimentalist group. For Ferris, although Thru marks a termination point, it is also a paradigm example of literary abstraction, a text which ‘made theory spectacle’ (p. 178) and through which the reader can be understood as a ‘catalytic agent of sight’ (p. 141), to refer back to Ferris’s intention for her final chapter. My consideration of how each book approaches Thru here is not necessarily to value one approach above the other, but to give a sense of the distinct characteristics of each book, and to suggest that reading the two alongside each other is an enriching and expanding comparative experience in terms of our appreciation of such writers and their work. While much scholarship to date has aimed to demonstrate the significance of post-war British experimental writing and to redress previous critical neglect, these two very differently engaging and exciting books – a group biography on the one hand, and an interdisciplinary study on the other – exemplify the current strength and variety of this expanding but still young field, as demonstrated by the fact that both The Experimentalists and Abstraction in Post-War British Literature mark the culmination of doctoral and post-doctoral work. It is a delight to see them published!

Nonia Williams

The Crucian Pit

Nicholas Royle – Manchester Uncanny (Confingo, 2023)

In 2021, Nicholas Royle took us to the stranger side London with his collection London Gothic. Now, he returns to Manchester with its sequel: Manchester Uncanny.

The collection of sixteen short stories range from the realist to the experimental, with a journey through what horror-genre aficionados might label “weird fiction” along the way.

In one story, a young woman is shown around an expensive flat with bars on the windows and a “private garden” that may or may not be fire escape. In the centre of the room in a giant, immovable safe.  

When asked about it, the estate agent shrugs and suggests it’s a kind of quirky “feature”.

I’ve heard that before. Anyone who lives around the Southern crescent (Chorlton, Withington, Didsbury, the Heatons) has done. What happens next is what surprises.

There are house viewings in Withington, flats in Fallowfield, a secret pond near the Airport. The landscapes in Manchester Uncanny are familiar, which adds much to the subtle disruptions that Royle introduces into the surface of their realities.

The “Crucian Pit” – the aforementioned secret fishing pond – is a particularly compelling image. I have no idea if it’s real or not, but I’m tempted to head straight out to the airport to look for it. Perhaps I’ll be disappointed? Perhaps surprised?

Royle’s stories leave you with a sense of a world not-quite-stable. Dark hints, glimpses, unresolved ambiguities abound around a city all too quick to bury its pasts.

One of the collection’s most abiding images is of a man kept constantly awake by the sound of the upstairs neighbours. The only thing is; he lives on the top floor. Sure enough, he soon discovers that plans are afoot to extend his tower block, outwards and upwards, giving him new upstairs neighbours and stealing away the last frail sunshine to reach his window.

Not only is this a deeply unsettling image, but it’s one that captures the alienating power of the New Manchester of glass and steel being elevated all around us. Not only are the new buildings, going up at a rate matched only by places like Dubai or China, changing streets and communities beyond recognition (some of these communities being almost new themselves), but even the old, familiar, unchanging places seem to be shrouded in these new shadows.

Nothing is stable and nowhere is safe. We are being brushed along the surface of the tarmac like so many discarded facemasks.

The ghosts of an older image of Manchester abide here as well. The “depressing 80s music”, as one character’s wife describes it (cf/ Joy Division, The Fall, The Smiths, and other lesser-known acts), make regular appearances; both true to these characters, but also unsettling, not-quite-fitting with the new Manchester of property and coffee shops.

One particular experimental piece, “Disorder”, is made up entirely of lyrics from Unknown Pleasures. Its staccato style works perfectly as an interlude between longer pieces.

The whole collection, in fact, works as one extended piece, moving seamlessly from story to story until we reach a final end. It’s extremely readable, and very difficult to put down once you’ve got started.

Royle continues to be Manchester’s premier purveyor of unsettling scenes. Manchester Uncanny is a worthy successor to London Gothic, and is an essential read for our Mancunian readers. The places are familiar, and perhaps some of the people too. You may have even been in attendance at the same events as Royle’s protagonists.

Just don’t expect a restful night after reading!

  • Joe Darlington

Self and Self Again

Graeme Macrae Burnet – Case Study (Saraband, 2022)

Mythologically, the 1960s have become the modern world’s innocent childhood. The 1950s are some distant thing, like the Victorians or the Tudors or the Romans, with their own world and values. The 1960s mark the birth of “people like us”, only without our jaded cynicism. The cynicism comes in the 1970s.

It’s a powerful narrative; one that I myself used in The Experimentalists, and one that Graeme Macrae Burney makes use of in original and exciting ways in Case Study.

Case Study opens with a premise suitable for a psychological thriller. A rogue pseudo-Laingian therapist appears to have driven a woman to suicide. Now it’s up to her sister to investigate; signing herself up for the same psychiatrist under an assumed name.

Soon, as one might expect, things begin to unravel. The therapist is superhumanly astute. Our plucky protagonist reveals she may not be as sane as she lets on. It has all the makings of a Hitchcockian mystery, and opens with the kind of giddy, breathless pace that one finds in all the best pageturners.

Yet there is a second voice in the novel. Alongside the diaries of our female protagonist, we have a male writer, the seeming master of the text, it’s compiler, who intersperses his own book on the therapist between the diary entries.

Third person objective versus first person subjective. The authoritative voice of history versus the suspect voice of the personal testimony.

And yet both, superficially at least, confirm each other. The narrative flows nicely between the two, as if one is seeing the same object merely through two perspectives.

This seemingly perfect alignment between the two narratives is punctured throughout, however, by slippages – pubs and people are wrongly named, stories are told and then revealed as fantasies – by incongruities – a dead mouse in her handbag, a suspiciously calm reaction to watching her mother fall from a cliff – and by an ever-more-developed character emerging from the persona that our protagonist adopts.

We are forced to reinterpret our own understanding of the novel, both in terms of the story we’re being told and the fictional world it’s creating. Perhaps the story is not true but the fictional world remains stable? Or maybe our ontological foundations are not as stable as we think?

The therapist, Collins Braithwaite, is a character so believable that he could he walked straight out of a non-fiction history of the sixties. A Northern lad with a scholarship to Oxford in the late 1950s finds the place pretentious and drops out. He falls out with Laing’s idea of the “authentic self” and says that all selves are in some way authentic (which is to say that all personas are pure performance and so none is more “true” than any other), then writes a garbled book arguing this (entitled Kill Your Self) that, despite making little sense, is filled with punchy, toilet-wall-worthy slogans:

To escape despair, don’t kill yourself; kill your Self.

So far, so Jerry Rubin (and so Abby Hoffman, so R.D. Laing, so Timothy Leary, so Jeff Nuttall…)

Braithwaite becomes a hit with the Swinging London crowd and sets up his own clinic, visited by celebrities, actors, musicians and other assorted hippies and hipsters.

Burnet does an amazing job of integrating real figures into his fictional history. A real McCartney quote about adopting personas on Sgt Pepper in order to better enjoy making music is convincingly attributed to Braithwaite’s influence. It’s about as believable as the apparently true tale of William Burroughs’ tape cut-ups inspiring the tape loops on Revolver.

As the Sixties roll on, there’s a sex scandal and Braithwaite is busted for drugs. The inevitable spiral of decadence, decay and dejection sets in, with Braithwaite ending up back in his childhood home in Darlington, drinking himself to death and searching for redemption. The year is 1971. He’s right on schedule.

Braithwaite’s fate is, we realise, as determined by history as it’s possible to be. It follows the same arc as nearly all the great 1960s counterculture revolutionaries.

Unexpectedly, it’s the straight-laced, sexually repressed, chronically anxious and possibly murderous diarist that comes out on top. As a creature of pure persona, she ends up living out Braithwaite’s philosophy more successfully than the man himself.

There’s a philosophical twist here as well as a satisfying narrative. Was the postmodern world really a product of the everyman, rather than the professional critic? Were the most important social changes, those that define the modern world, those made instinctively and not intellectually?

There are many deep thoughts to be had after reading this book, and the more time passes since I closed its covers, the more I seem to find in there. I have no doubt that this is one that will stick with us.

Joe Darlington

Zero the Hero

Brian Baker – Argo-0 (Steel Incisors)

The most obvious reference point for this work is Tom Phillips’ Humument versionings. Painted surfaces have been constructed over older texts. The Chronic Argonauts by H.G. Wells appears at one point, which was essentially a dry run for The Time Machine. But I believe there is another late nineteenth century text under this, too, as there was under Phillips’ Humument.

Like A Humument, the narrative and the aesthetic surface is open and shifting, it is darkly psychedelic. It does not pin a strong main reading down. This is a strength, but it is important to mention upfront that what follows is my interpretation of this work only. This can be taken as a trippy, graphic short story, or an open visual poem, inside which you can expand out, imaginatively, your own reading.

But this is not just aesthetic play. You can take this book on one level, that of a strange journey, but those who have read more deeply will see more and more in it. This is a strong literary work. Here’s how.

The main protagonist of the narrative is a ‘doctor’. This most immediately takes us into the history of science fiction. All those ordinary scientists suddenly recast as heroes, after Vernes, and Wells, and most obviously Dr Who – those many doctors – but also Quatermass, and the odd scientists of John Wyndham, encountering weirdness from outer space – or inner physics – with their strangely distant, unworried tones of voice.

It’s also, then, Goethe and Faust and all of the Fausts which followed. A key origin myth for modernity. But this is the modernism of Nash and dazzle ships, of Orwell’s wars and Pynchon’s libidinous, primitive robot bombs. The horror of modernity is thankfully retained and explored here. The Devil’s bargain, the double bind of modernism. The robot bombs are now landing on Ukraine, with a re-awakened nuclear peril. What keeps you safe here can also kill us all. This is Pharmakon, poison and cure in one.

But what is incommensurable about all of our lives in late modernity is here, too. It is best represented by the abstract. When it is hard to see the full picture the representational itself is weakened. So here, we are always in dizzying patterns and details. The gothic in it is quite strong, too, aesthetically. There would be no science-fiction, or horror, without the gothic.

But look for the clues. It is a ‘doctored text.’ The author of this book is also a doctor, Dr Baker. For those of us privileged to know him, he is a scholar of science fiction and other strange literatures. I can sort-of see the real Dr Baker in there – visually I mean – somewhere in the layers. So the author is in the text, but buried. He is trapped here in his own work, in the history of science fiction most immediately, but also in its origin myths, Orpheus, Hamlet, Faust. He takes us with him.

The parallel underworlds-of-the-future incubated by odd Victorians such as Edward Bulwer-Lytton seem to be part of this too. The anachronic man, the man out of time, recalls Philip K Dick’s Time Out of Joint, more recently explored by the late Mark Fisher. But its origins are Shakespeare’s Hamlet: ‘The time is out of joint, oh cursed spite! That ever I was born to set it right’ Hamlet exclaims. His father has just returned as a ghost, revealing that he was murdered by his uncle.

Similarly this book is a kind of gash, or wound, in time. Brian is burrowing through his own underground stores of decades of literature. On the back of Starless and Bible Black, an album by the band King Crimson, is another Tom Phillips artwork: ‘This Night Wounds Time’ cuts down the sleeve. Inside are minor earthquakes, such as the track ‘Fracture’. This book is another sort of fracture, revealing what is under the smooth surface of contemporary life. It shows what was behind the brochure version of modernity, under its smooth surfaces. All the fizzing wires and blown pipes and millions of deaths. The rats and the shit. The darkness of the signifiers picked out of the obliterated text really pushes this reading.

But there is another dimension to this work, which is trying to see what is coming, the world of Quantum logic applied to everyday life, and its inevitable double binds. Weird shapes dub-echo off into infinity. Language stutters and fails us in this dimension, because we are not there yet, we are still stuck inside a broken and haemorrhaging late modernity. A post-modernity falling apart, awaiting its pre- … what?

The title Argo-0 takes us back to the classical hero myths of the Greeks. Perhaps the Argo-0 is the ur-hero. All those who wander. There is an adventurer, trapped both in and outside of time. It is a specific adventurer, and all adventurers, at the same time. The grail myth, then, is also present at some level, but the cup is lost and the reason we looked for it blasted away by drugs and technologies and sheer time. This is a shattered surface, not a simplistically coherent one.

The layers are bleeding through here, nothing is stable. How very now. The zero of Argo-0 could be a year zero, the calculated reset of modernist literature and culture, as well as countercultures such as punk. But it could also be the void, the nought, that which we do not know, that which is beyond our necessary bubbles of language. Wittgenstein’s beyond which we cannot speak, that is always coming from the future, to destabilise your present. The inevitable vortex which opens up and swallows us all, in whatever historical era, whatever cosy enclosures of belief we create around ourselves. And there is more than a hint of Vorticism in this work.

This was the real u-topia or ev-topia all along. Not the shiny spaceships of a fantasy such as ‘Safe At Any Speed’ by Larry Niven, but simply that which is coming, that place which is opening up, into which we have no choice but to go.

– Steve Hanson

[The] ‘words are like gold dust’

Sarah-Clare Conlon – Marine Drive (Broken Sleep Books, 2022); cache-cache (Contraband Books 2022)

Sarah-Clare Conlon (SCC) is well known in the Manchester literary scene. I have heard her read several times and I have always enjoyed her presentation of words. These two pamphlets, Marine Drive (prose) and cache-cache (poetry) show SCC’s versatility and deft use of language. I have been looking forward to their release and it has been a pleasure to review them.

Marine Drive has no wasted words. It is exact in observation and needle sharp in style. Stories are told obliquely and as soon as I felt a sense emerging from the text, it would turn a sharp corner or go back on itself or turn itself inside out. I felt WOW when reading this. So perfect, so beautifully shaped, with clean black and white lines, maybe zigzagging at times. There was a high level of adept confidence in this pamphlet, with excesses of flair, flexibility and openness in the writing.

“It was hot up here, fuggy. The room she’d specified could probably use some modernising, but my granddad had taught me about roses so I didn’t mind the flock so much and it had been hung proper; no spaces and plumb straight.” (From ‘Surface Tension’)

This quotation gives an impression of the work. It represents a confusing yet compelling grasp towards meaning. I loved it and it certainly deserves more than one perusal, in fact, it needs this.

In cache-cache SCC watches people during the early days of covid lockdowns. Meticulously observed laughing wordplay is the output from her hiding place.  SCC gives us her lens, her snippet, she watches us as she herself is being surveilled. I wonder who the plumpish woman in pink is and what is in her bag. I consider where the white-haired man with wraparound sunglasses is going. I start to believe I am the woman in the purple coat, but I have not worn it for years, so I am probably not her.  The essentially disconcerting lone magpie frequents the scene regularly, adding to a humorous yet vaguely ominous emotion.

SCC’s gaze is relatable and I was interested to read two phrases that I have pondered on for years, and the different senses they make.  The first was ‘What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger’ (which I think is not true to be honest, as what doesn’t kill you can make you depressed), and the second was ‘Keep your enemies close’ (where I believe the threatening nature of friendship can create a fine line between friend / enemy). With both phrases, and their usage of them, SCC provides us with a wry, dry take on covid laws.

Notwithstanding the content and form, in more clean clear lines, and an index (!), SCC also writes in French, and mixes French and English. Even though I cannot speak French (I could never develop the accent so dropped it aged 14), I enjoyed hearing the words in my mind. However, these works need to be heard aloud, preferably at a reading from SCC.  

These two pamphlets by SCC, I was pleased to note, have had pieces in them published by myself in the Mid-life crisis zine series. I flatter myself with good taste.

N.B. There is a Launch event for cache-cache: Wed 26 Oct, 6.30pm, Saul Hay Gallery, Manchester

– Sally Barrett

Achilles’ Shield: Metamodernism and its Discontents

This essay began as a review of Antony Rowland’s Metamodernism and Contemporary Poetry (Cambridge University Press, 2022). The review was intended for Manchester Review of Books. At some point, I looked back over what I had written, sweating, and saw that Rowland’s book – which is in many ways very good – was really just the hair trigger on a bigger subject, that of Metamodernism and contemporary culture. This is important to place upfront.

I have been trying to scratch the itch of this supposedly new academic paradigm Metamodernism for a few years. I don’t think it is new. It seems to me bound up in bigger social structures. In universities, yes, but on the left, and in the arts, too.

Back in 2019 I wrote a paper for JCEPS on the ‘real but greatly exaggerated death of Postmodernism’. In it, I wanted to understand what had happened to Postmodernism. Bluntly, nobody talks about it anymore, and Rowland doesn’t talk about it enough in his book.

Postmodernism is clearly on the wane as a discourse, particularly in universities, but we are still in it, as a culture, in the west, but also in the east. And there are problems with the interpretative paradigm that is being hastily rushed in to replace it. In that paper I declared my scepticism about the usefulness of ‘neomodernism’, ‘Metamodernism’ and the ‘New Sincerity’ as suggested paradigms coming after (or within) Postmodernism. According to Rowland, its adherents are trying to move away from ‘theories of Postmodernism’ which ‘appeared less able to engage with postmillennial developments in history and culture.’ But I will go on to argue here that a culture of untruth which is strikingly Postmodern can be found all over the world, and in the east.

My reflections came after attending the AHRC Metamodernism Research Network, a day of paper presentations at MMU. Rowland was involved. I saw Peter Boxall speak there, who is also sceptical about the Metamodernism thesis, finding it all ‘limited’. His paper was more solid. Rowland brings him in here and acknowledges this. So there are people in the institutions with more sceptical takes.

To be fair to the believers, I also argue that Postmodernity is bound to change shape with austerity, climate change, and increased geopolitical risk, making a speculative comparison between access to credit curves and library loans of postmodern literature (this was meant to be viewed as a sketch, rather than hard data). In this, I am on the same page as the Metamodernists. When a discourse is clearly on the wane, something is happening. But thereafter I leave them to what I see as a practice little different to scrying with animal entrails.

We knew that Postmodernism was dead in the university already, no big conferences, no new books. I wrote about ‘the final affirmative absence of a pulse in the university.’ Of course, the books are still in the library for now, and students may still get them out, but no new work on Postmodernism is coming through from behind. There have been other declarations of the death of Postmodernism, for instance Kirby in 2006, but back then we did not have a ‘sense of what is coming.’

I decided back in 2019 that ‘what is coming is The New We Do Not Know What. The Neounknown, The Pseudovoid, and it is not “sublime” because there is absolutely no beauty in it.’ I wrote all that at the end of my Postmodernism paper, before the pandemic, and before the new Ukraine war. I was right. And then we saw what was coming, and we couldn’t believe our fucking eyes.

I wrote in 2019 that the announcement of ‘Depthiness’ or a new term in ‘Metamodernism’, even as a development of Postmodern theory, is cracked with problems. Tim Vermeulen – a key academic of Metamodernism – has discovered that although postmodern culture is vacuous, it actually means things to people and causes emotive responses. That people’s meaning is contradictory and unreal, but of great emotion-inducing importance – in short, real to them – has been understood by social anthropologists for decades. It may be true to say that just because it’s fake you don’t feel it, or that just because you feel it, it doesn’t mean it’s real, but all of that has been the territory of anthropology, psychoanalysis, psychotherapy and ‘false consciousness’ for decades. It is also, crucially, the territory of Postmodernism and not a new cultural epoch.

Adorno understood that the cinema-goers were resistant to the supposed truths they were seeing on the screen back in modernity. And Fredric Jameson was sceptical of the pomo-positive. Jameson’s take on postmodernity was not that it is a good thing, but that it is a new geist to explore. When I look back at Jameson, it seems to me that the new Metamodernism academics are no further on than he was in the late 1970s and early 1980s. Crucially, in relation to Rowland’s book, Postmodern theory never said that people would stop making innovative, difficult work. In fact Jameson said that an avant-garde continues, only underground, and it did, which is exactly where it still is. And this is essentially what Rowland describes across his central chapters.

Rowland cites Raymond Williams’ structures of feeling suggesting that the ‘residual’ and ’emergent’ are now the Metamodern. He then immediately capitulates to the criticism that these will only be a few among many different local cultural states. Rowland caves-in, then, precisely to the state of Postmodernism’s continuity, to the state of things as they already are. Metamodernism thus far neither describes the world nor puts new forces into play. You can be as radically innovative as you like, via tiny presses that sell 100 books tops, or in £100 monographs, but you always do so from under the flabby white buttocks of ironic daytime TV, mass consumerism and mendacious postmodern politics.

Of course, Jameson was not the only voice on the subject either. But much of what passed (and passes) for the evidencing of a new or hidden cultural paradigm in ‘the Metamodern’ is generative. I was sceptical about the early ‘findings’ – the material seems pareidolic – and I am even more sceptical after following up on the latest developments.

It is not just the case that Postmodernism is being thrown out, several discourses are on the wane. I also wrote a pamphlet called E is for Enlightenment back in 2020. This pamphlet tried to explore the way the new left were rejecting Post-structuralism, along with Postmodernism. Yet at the same time they were pro-modernity and used the techniques of structuralism and post-structuralism in their teaching. I thought these tensions were curious. In fact all the posts- were being thrown out, and that seemed to match a similar rejection over on the right, as a harder and darker Tory Party returned to the supposedly ‘simpler’ values of the 1950s.

The Metamodernists state that we have reached the-end-of-the-end-of-history. It might be tempting to read the ditching of the posts- as a symptom of this new tempus manifesting itself. Maybe we have just stopped living in the fake eternal present and broken through into a realer ‘now’. I don’t believe this either, although the new left and the Metamods seem to believe it is happening. I believe the opposite in many ways, that Postmodern untruth is more virulent and dangerous than ever. The Fukuyama thesis is the most misunderstood zone, it outlines a generally agreed settlement of neoliberalism in the west, not the end of time. History never stopped, not even for Fukuyama.

These rejections seemed to return us all to a default philosophical ground of Enlightenment humanism. Even Extinction Rebellion (XR) are Enlightenment, after all they too wish to manipulate global conditions. They may have switched from the goal of the total extractive domination of nature, to a strategy which aims to secure humans a place within nature. But the human urge to alter environments, in many of their discourses, is no less marked. It is an urge to have control over forces at a planetary scale. I don’t think this urge is wrong, but I think that the ditching of the philosophy of the last sixty years is a wrong turn.

Opening, Rowland cites Luke Turner’s (2011) meta-modernist manifesto as ‘an impassioned plea to reembrace concepts such as truth, progress and grand narratives, as opposed to the “cynical insincerity” of Postmodernism.’ But Turner’s manifesto is deeply flawed at best, meaningless nonsense at its nadir. I could just as easily make a convincing argument that ‘Oscillation’, given in the manifesto as a Metamodernist trait, is the condition of Postmodernity. Again, if you are re-embracing ‘truth, progress and grand narratives’ are you not Enlightenment humanists? And aren’t there a lot of problems with that which many people have written about?

The adherents of Metamodernism herald its arrival as a return to depth, ‘difficulty’ in literature, and general seriousness. The weakest critique that I am prepared to give of all of this is that the Metamodernists don’t figure in the wider dominant state of Postmodernity as conditions change (and they are changing/will change radically). That their focus on tiny evangelical signs in the cultural fabric make them miss the underlying state of mendacious Untruth.

In any case, films, books and records with feeling, with depth and performed ‘hope’, have been coming out right across the Postmodern period.

The strongest critique which tempts me is that this is in fact a regression preparing the ground for a situation in which man (sic) will no longer make himself – in an of course limited liberal sense – but be made. This is probably inevitable, considering the crisis shocks that are coming. It is a kind of philosophical anxiety function. Strapped in to a futureless future, one looks desperately for signs of potential liberation from it.

But this is far too grand. Metamodernism has opened another frontier across which academics can generate a kind of innovation. This is part of what is happening. But I don’t think anyone is really considering the full ramifications of these turns, as they gleefully ditch huge slabs of past philosophy, in order to glorify themselves in this new present moment they are creating.

As Derrida explained, the historical substitution of centre for centre is both structured and structuring.

Rowland’s book is about British Poetry through the lens of Metamodernism. He states that British poetry – as if it is a thing – has not discussed Metamodernism in any great detail and that this ‘abstention is curious.’ This abstention may actually be sensible. It may be the only sensible thing ‘it’ has done for some time. Perhaps they sense the tenuousness which those fully cosseted in the institution don’t?

Rowland’s book is perfectly good as an exploration of contemporary poets who are making innovative, difficult work, across a particular time, sometimes via readings of Adorno. I am personally enthusiastic about many of the poets he deploys as examples (and Adorno). But as soon as you try to connect the poetry – or its surrounding cultural discourses – to the idea of Metamodernism as a new cultural paradigm, it all seems much less stable.

Rowland seems to distance himself from the Metamodernism thesis several times anyway, including when setting out the conclusion. That the Metamodernist theorisers have really just ‘allowed me to focalise the primary concern of this book, that the concept of enigmatical poetics should be central to any discussion of “innovative” and mainstream poetry influenced by modernist antecedents.’

Modernist-influenced innovative poetry is enigmatic. I thought we already knew that? But the central chapters of Rowland’s book are very rich. It is just that the thread of why this is Metamodern sometimes disappears.

The text is also brave in its tackling of the cultural bifurcation which has been hiding in plain sight for many years: Carol Ann Duffy’s inclusive lit-lite, which leans towards a BBC public, primarily trying to keep ‘poetry’ on the surface of the UK mediasphere, rather than service a practice that has always been used to encrypt and incubate the unsayable. Laureate Simon Armitage is of course part of this. They are the bloated end of what began as ‘the New Poetry.’ Rowland handles this sensitively and although he is clearly sympathetic to some aspects of Geoffrey Hill’s renunciation of the state of play, he nuances the debate extremely well.

Personally, I think that our babyish contemporary cultural conditions should be directly attacked. The same Lemn Sissay poem is painted on no less than two public walls near where I live:

‘Said the sun to the moon, said the head to the heart, we have more in common, than sets us apart.’

Both of these murals are decorated with painted birds and bees. The birds and the bees? Have you any idea what some birds do to insects? On the mural near me, an Owl is in the centre, just under the word ‘heart’. All I ever see is its beak, tearing out a vole’s liver. Last year, as though in reaction to the philosophical error the mural presents, a boy was stabbed to death not 30 seconds walk from it. A few weeks ago, another was stabbed – fatality or not unclear – in a park just five minutes away.

I am returned to my thesis that in Manchester simply invert any notion you find, to make it more honest. Of course the mural has a longer history of being located in troubled places, making them rhetorical by default. Here, they are becoming bleakly ironic. I could make a start on Manchester’s Bee symbol, but you can probably already guess how I read it.

Rowland tackles the issue of public-poetry-lite more sensitively than I do here – admittedly not difficult – and his efforts to gently tease a debate to the surface are appreciated. Within other sections he explores what is great about innovative poetry and how (by implication) it is far stronger than the default poetry of a withered public culture. I align with all of this strongly, and enjoy the way Rowland ushers us through the debates. But the book’s title should have been related to these things, rather than the dirty M-word.

Geoffrey Hill may be right about the postmodern marketplace of lit-lite, and about Carol-Ann Duffy, but Metamodernism in this sense could mean that someone – probably in a university – is going to decide for you what is Metamodern and what is Pomo, what mainstream is, and who is innovative, but innovation is already going on under their noses outside the building. Publish on demand means the old gatekeepers need these people less and less. Hill is a Judge and he wants his gavel back. One secret meaning of Metamodernism could be the reinstallation of the same kind of ballaches who were in charge of the game in the fifties and sixties. At the very best it is neo-Arnoldism. A return to the best of all that can be thought and said, with appropriate middle class gatekeepers, and a return to those shitty poetry rejection letters (my friend’s favourite, ‘I’m not touching these turkeys’).

Otherwise why create these structures of difference, which can be used to other? ‘Mainstream’ and ‘innovative’? Those words incubate – intentionally or otherwise – their more casual ‘boring’ and ‘exciting’. I sense the desire to be able to judge literary quality again. It has been partly removed from monetised environments, in which it is convenient to say everything is good. These, yes Postmodern, environments of ultimate relativism are nonsense, I completely agree. Can you imagine someone grading work along with the sentence ‘of poor literary quality’ now? This is a problem of the Postmodern university. Metamodernism, it seems to me, conceals an attempt to re-install a critical vice of some sort, which can grip literary quality, which can make distinctions again, while hanging on to relativism at the same time. The word ‘committed’ creeps in. I realise this is because of Adorno’s premise that innovative work is dialectically committed and autonomous. But there are plenty of shit poets who are deeply committed to what they do. And autonomous. And ‘enigmatical’. As committed as Geoffrey Hill. You have to make a distinction, between them and effective art, which is what the M-word is partly for. It is a little crown or laurel wreath. Maybe this is better way of making distinctions than the endless rounds of meaningless prizes. But no, it all collapses because the category of distinction called Metamodernism is totally flawed. Like a phone-tapper, Metamodernism sneaks in to install a set of values, under the cover of installing a new interpretive paradigm. It is just that the new interpretive paradigm doesn’t work, so the covert exercise is pointless. We are bounced back to subjective judgements again. We are back at the panel discussion for the prize-giving.

Geoffrey Hill believes in ‘universal value’. But he seems monomaniacally focused on classicism, then Shakespeare and finally Pound and Eliot, which is by now neo-classicism of a sort. These are the new keepers of the Canon, they are not radicals. But I agree that something needs to happen.

Hill’s book titles Orchards of Syon and Scenes from Comus seem made for Ed Reardon’s Week. Which is also to say that we cannot view them from outside of Postmodernity anymore. Rowland describes Hill withering Eliot for his pompous man-of-letters tone. Is Hill kidding? Has he heard himself speak?! Rowland does not ultimately align himself with Hill, to be fair, not fully. But seen this way, one strong function of Metamodernism for those already in the building is going to be its use simply as a filter, the mechanism by which they might stem the flow of the masses who make culture, hoi polloi and their access. New movements happening both within and without the university continue, with no need for their approval or disapproval.

This is not a new crisis for the arts in the academy. When photography became far less technical, roughly around the same time that digital became a mass popular market, new photo theory books appeared, which were rather up themselves. I believed (and still believe) that the intended function of these books was to re-inscribe exclusivity into a practice that was rapidly losing it. Everyone could do the practice now – whatever you might say about the variable quality of the outputs – but not everyone was going to be able to get their head around this bullshitty essay on photography and Deleuze, and so here it is.

It was, at root, an attempt to cling on to the position of gatekeeper, as technology swiftly eroded that position. You no longer needed to go and learn how to process colour film and prints in a darkroom. You did not need that gatekeeper. So they made new but less justifiable gates, to keep themselves in the building. The thing is, like Metamodernism, nobody needs to go through these new gates, because they are doors to nowhere.

Of course, this opens up another set of debates about quality and who decides what that is. Peer-review is often a kind of legitimated bullying, which hides careerist machinations. But that is not to say a completely open process is fully desirable either, it isn’t.

Still, I suspect that Metamodernism is a desperate attempt to re-exclusivise a field for people who feel to be losing their hold. They are re-building Merlin’s Misty Cave of Magic Mirrors for themselves. But Metamodernism does not describe the state of the world, it describes the desires of a particular social class.

Metamodern theory so far is sketchy and contradictory because it is hedging. Of course, culture is going to change – we are witnessing what I file in my head under the balkanization of globalisation – the Metamodern is just academics pre-booking their seats at the top table. ‘How could I not define our new epoch for the rest of the world?’ Like annexing a country, once the re-naming has been done, the details can be filled in as history shows itself. There is something of the Napoleon Complex in it. Actually, when I take myself to it, I always find Metamodernism funny. It is tragi-comic in its pathetic, grasping gamble. The narrow pareidolic gaze, the desperate myopic scanning of details, followed by the unlikely – miraculous even – megalomaniac ballooning into a description of History. I know, because I have done all of that too. But it is time to look at it all sober again.

I was reading Gombrowicz yesterday. He was saying that philosophy is always utopian in character and that its systems always ultimately fail. But each one is useful in its own way, if read critically. Obviously Gombrowicz wasn’t the first to say that, but saying it is the mark of a real philosopher.

Of course, Metamodernist originators Vermeulen and van den Akker refute that they are doing anything so systematic as philosophy, affirming and denying at the same time, like true Postmodernists. But I think that they are pushing something they think is an emerging pseudo-philosophy, which they have invented. And so how are we reading this emerging philosophy?

‘Historicity of the present’ is a ludicrous coupling of words, signifying at such a scale that it can only ever arrive to us stripped of meaning. And there it is, on page three of Rowlands’ book. Postmodernism, when announced, was partly an observation of different tendencies within modernism, partly a media construct. And to an extent it became self-fulfilling. But once embedded, ‘Postmodernism’ did present a working description of the present, of sorts. It too was flawed and far too broad, but Postmodernism, once explained, clearly described a state of western culture that was relatively new. Postmodernism was the state of things, it was all-encompassing, it was an attitude to everything, including older forms of culture (by which I mean the things that were not conceived or made as pomo, which for instance postmodern architecture was).

Metamodernism is in many ways similar. Tease out tendencies already within Postmodern culture and give them a new name, it might become a self-fulfilling prophecy, it may take hold. But the thing Postmodernism had, and still has, which Metamodernism does not, is the end of central state planning and the switch to markets and ‘play.’ This is Postmodernity’s ‘historicity of the present’: Its superstructural phenomena were and are connected at the infrastructural level. Metamodernism doesn’t have that, at least not yet.

It is currently a dream space inside crisis Postmodernism. I could end this review-essay there, but there is much more to say.

I dislike much Postmodern culture, but Postmodernism is still the Dominant state of things and it has turned very bleak indeed. I also think that one cannot say this about Metamodernism. It does not describe the state of the world. It is evangelistic.

However, democracies are collapsing all around the world. Perhaps Metamodernism will also come to describe those new undemocratic spaces, as well as the few utopian ones which manage to get built. But maybe that won’t happen, because one glaring omission in the Metamodern archive is that of negative examples: nobody has called the far right’s hope in a mono-nationalist future a return to sincerity. But is it? Maybe it is? They aren’t afraid of grand-narratives. The anti-vaxers, actually, are exercising belief again. Are they not, then, also Metamodern? This is perhaps the most obvious moment of my role as Devil’s Advocate here: my mask may slip, but the points stick; the far right and the anti-vaxers are deeply Postmodern in their collaged conspiracy theories, but they also, like, really believe.

For the Nazis, so often sketched in cartoon form as cold clinicians, science is actually disastrous – because as stated by Joachim Fest – it ‘leads away from instinct’. The idea of a free science subject not oriented to an external direction, for the Third Reich, was ‘absurd’. How neatly does this seem to fit the anti-vaxers, as a description? But can we not describe the anti-vaxers as Metamodern too? They perform belief right in the heart of its antinomies, is this not depthiness?

There is far more going on, then, and far more at stake, when someone selects something and crowns it with the term ‘Metamodern.’ There is a whole broadly leftwing politics under the surface. But over there, on the right, a simplistic set of signifiers around nation and patriotism are also being deployed to try to re-inscribe ‘hope’ and feeling. A philosophy that is also a science would find Metamodern examples over here, too, but this is not happening. Owen Hatherley’s work on Keep Calm and Carry On, actually, might be a place to start. Keep Calm and Carry On trash culture is utterly Postmodern, the original poster was never used. It isn’t quite a copy with no original, Baudrillard’s fourth stage simulacra, more an original that was never copied in its time, but it is involved in a subjective process of dreaming and hoping at street level which could be described as Metamodern, if the Metamodernists were not a themselves a dreaming faction of the left, which I think they are.

Metamodernism is neither Philosophy nor Science.

As I have begun to outline, Rowland’s book makes a bit of a risky bet when it is trying to link to Metamodernism: It tries to heave a comfortable, cloistered practice of close-reading into a future sky, but the object is too heavy, and it often crashes down, smashing into a million Postmodern pieces.

Rowland’s book frames Metamodernism via that subject’s originators, for instance Timotheus Vermeulen, one of a handful who outlined it as a new term and interpretive paradigm. Its justifications are given as 9-11, the 2008 crash and austerity. Postmodernism can no longer explain the world after these things, they say. But this does not scan at all.

The Metamodernism academics seemed to think – or at least back before the pandemic they did – that the turn which will come out of austerity will react directly against iniquitous capital, or mean a switch to a more authentic, connected and deeper cultural meaning. Even if this is bracketed by having been through postmodernity, they say, something is happening.

Something is happening, I agree, but what we have also seen has been quite the opposite: an alignment with rightwing, capitalist, populist politics; a rise in conspiracy theory as a way of explaining the world. Conspiracy theory is so ‘pomo’ it hurts.

In contemporary western culture the signal may or may not be real and the noise it generates will take many forms, but it is not guaranteed to share your politics. Thinking bad times equals good reactions seems like those early web enthusiasts imagining that the internet might overcome all cultural barriers. A new world may arrive! And it did, just not like that…

As things get worse people – on the surface only – become more reserved and conservative, less outspoken. The negative is dropped and there is a turn to inward-looking affirmation, right at the point where the opposite is needed. The irrational also spikes. This is not seminal knowledge.

Rowland reads Ahren Warner’s third collection in which he claims ‘government taxes, elections, and economic disparities can no longer mean that his behaviour can be conceived as taking place in a postmodern city in which nothing matters, because nothing is “true.”‘ I could argue the direct opposite: that as iniquity has bitten, it has injected more unreality poison to further befuddle its victims, and that poison is Postmodern. I guess these people don’t live among the lower working classes anymore, or see how skewed their worldviews can be. I see it, clearly, in my own family (don’t get me started).

Again, maybe one major problem with Metamodernism is that almost all of the examples being given are left-liberal. I have yet to see a paper which describes the new far right as a return to ‘beliefiness.’ I could write that paper, but again, as a hard poke in the ribs. You can probably guess what it would contain, just by reading this essay.

If Metamodernism is anything, it is the incubated dream space of university arts and humanities schools. They are under increasing attack from right wing governments all over the world. These governments are more fully legitimated by increasingly right wing publics. I believe that Metamodernism is in part a reaction to this state of affairs. I feel it too. The attack is disgusting. I was at Millbank in 2010, twelve years ago, and the right have pushed right through with their changes as if unopposed. I might be out of the art schools now, but I live in a divided country in which I am currently – as far as my opposites the Tory Party are concerned – an internal enemy in a culture war. In this situation, and with a Postmodern desert outside, you try to dream your way out. I see it, I understand the urges only too well.

But Metamodernism, as a response to all this (which I think it unconsciously is) probably just gives the right another stick to hit them with. For the academic Tim Vermeulen and others, deracinated modernity plus affect equates to what he calls ‘The New “Depthiness”’ (2015). Vermeulen wrote that ‘while watching the television show Girls’ he ‘was struck by a line from a Radiohead song “Just because it’s fake, doesn’t mean I don’t feel it.”’

Maybe, he mused, ‘we are seeing the first stage in another history of another kind of deepening, one whose empirical reality lies above the surface even if its performative register floats just below it: depthiness.’ (ibid, my italic).

I see him, sat on the settee, pulling at the stray thread of a half-remembered song, while watching the television, empty Ben & Jerry’s carton to one side, before the magical thunderbolt blasts forth to save us all. So yes, some of the origins of Metamodernism are quite ridiculous, making it very easy to attack. The details don’t add up, either.

There is a website called Notes on Metamodernism. On it is a Frieze video. In this video, Tim Vermeulen and Robin van den Akker explain Metamodernism. They give a list of Postmodern culture, the things that came before Metamodernism.

David Foster Wallace is one. But that verbose, riffing wiseguy voice is still firmly Postmodern. I see how it has affect and ‘depthiness’ too, but so did other big-league Postmodern authors like Douglas Coupland. I don’t think Houllebecq is a fully ironic postodern writer either. Even in Whatever Houllebecq put us on notice that the neoliberal period – which Vermeulen and van den Akker state is key to Postmodernism – was coming to an end. Atomised ends with a Utopianism that I could claim to be Metamodern. I don’t think Sarah Lucas is always an ironic postmodern artist. The rage in her work at the 2004 In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida show, particularly the wank-hand lorry driver piece, with its tabloid wallpaper in the cab, I could also claim this – while only ever displaying depthy affect – as Metamodern.

How are the band Nirvana ironic? Wasn’t the raging underlying passion of Nirvana Metamodern? They meant every single decibel of their affront to alienation. I saw them live. You don’t ruin your throat like that and not really mean it. I can make a strong argument for ‘Come As You Are’ as Metamodern. I could do the same for Radiohead. But Vermeulen and van den Akker give them all as Postmodern examples.

In 2000 or 2001 I wrote a review of an album, ‘IV’, by the band The Fucking Champs. It was presented by their label Drag City as ironic pomo post-metal. But, I argued, you don’t learn how to play guitar like that just to send-up an aesthetic. You learn guitar like that in a bedroom which smells of socks and sperm. You consume every issue of Guitar Player that comes out, with dogged commitment.

There, I have talked myself into thinking The Fucking Champs were Metamodern, but I will never fully believe it either. Because I am trapped in Postmodernism, and because, as Vermeulen and van den Akker explain, the naivete and purity of modernism – particularly avant garde modernism – is now impossible, so to be Metamodern is a performance (hence ‘depthiness’) because the utopian is now sullied. But I believe that this also still describes Postmodernism.

In 2015 Vermeulen and van den Akker revisited their creation and its reception. To be fair to them they admit that Metamodernism ‘…was conceived late at night in a student dorm room in London, discussing, not entirely sober, the financial crisis, the rise of populism and New Romanticism…’

There is of course nothing in the circumstances of its creation which stops the idea being brilliant. Although elsewhere, they also deny they invented the idea: ‘Metamodernism, as we see, it is not a philosophy. In the same vein, it is not a movement’, or ‘a programme.’

But this is disingenuous. By speculating a whole interpretive paradigm and then pushing it out, you are creating a revanchist field, a frontier, across which others will pour. And the bandwagon-jumpers and panners for niche gold streamed right over the border. ‘Speculators’ is the right word to use. Many will wander out of the wilderness again, bedraggled, the real winners having made cultural capital from the rush itself, not the ‘gold’.

There are scores of speculating articles in the Metamodernism online archive. I wasn’t converted, as you can tell, although I love the idea of Robert Peston as a kind of nervous Metamodern avatar trapped inside your pomo TV.

Metamodernism is already a cult. It could become a movement, through snowballing circulation, but it will always be a deeply flawed movement, unless it coincides with a profound shift at the level of state and economics. This is also not impossible, it is just incredibly unlikely in England.

Actually, when I boil the nub of my objections right down to a hard single substance, it is the announcement of a new epoch. And despite all of the protestations – that they are just humble suggesters of concepts, and that they are only describing identifiable tracks in culture, and despite denying that they are describing a new epoch at all – Vermeulen and van den Akker state, only a few paragraphs further along, that:

‘…the 2000s are the defining period for the shift from postmodernism to metamodernism to occur (just as the sixties were the defining transitional period for the shift from modernism to postmodernism).’

So they do think that they have uncovered a historical shift. The self-deprecation of academics is also a kind of performative affect, as it was back in the Postmodern period. Vermeulen and van den Akker have wired-in denials to their arguments all along, that they are not suggesting any fundamental shifts, that they come out with their hands up, as ordinary men, at the same time as they announce a new epoch, like benevolent Gods. (And in the introduction to my copy of The End of History, Fukuyama seems to be shifting a lot of emphasis for the controversial book onto his wife).

All of the supposedly opposed phenomena under discussion beneath the heading of ‘Metamodern’ have occurred within each other, right across all of the periodising borders: Irony, sincerity, depth, depthlessness. Modernism within Postmodernism occurred. Postmodernism is still taking place in western culture, and in eastern culture. Postmodern content and systems of transmission (multiple, not ‘state’, choice-led) are completely dominant. They are not emergent or residual. In some ways, more’s the pity, but it is far too easy to say this, because over in Russia the lack of choice is a sort of living mummification. Perhaps we can agree on one change, and that is the migration of Postmodernism eastwards after 1989?

I agree with Vermeulen and van den Akker’s idea that we are all ‘negotiating islands’ of culture, but these are middle class islands. It is a middle class leisure and affluence which drifts around the archipelago. Look at all the fancy art examples Metamodernism is pinned to. This is the real discourse you need. The middle class island hopper for culture is Postmodern, too. Eat Japanese food in Hawaii, then fly to another island. The island is a crass example to use, as migrants eke it out on Greek islands, a state embattled by deep economic and ecological crises:

‘For us metamodernism is this moment of radical doubt, of constantly, at times desperately, repositioning between the islands, finally choosing one.’

This also seems a bit too close to the politics of exit associated with alt-right cultures such as ‘seasteading’, which is Crypto financed maleness.

Vermeulen and van den Akker describe Metamodernism as a ‘feeling, a mood, if you will, an attitude “dependent”, as philosopher Noel Carroll (1976) has brilliantly put it, on the “overall state of the organism, its level of energy, the level of resources at its disposal…”‘

Metamodernism often seems little different to accounts of enchanted landscapes from rural incomers or retirees. The authors refer to the brief pause of the ‘End of History’ as though it were a given. The authors talk about the Arab Spring and Syria as new Metamodern signs of the return of history, but history of that sort kept on rolling all the way through its own supposed end. Whatever Fukuyama said about things, however the entitled felt in the west (‘bored’) there was not a pause for the subaltern.

Was Iraq a pomo war just because Baudrillard riffed on it? And how was Syria, a conflict even more drowned in the west by the circulation of superficial messages, no longer viewed through Postmodern lenses in the west? Who reads the Baudrillard and Zizek ‘takes’ on all of this? A particular set of people, a sort-of class structure. But mainly university staff in arts and humanities schools.

Here is one of the key questions: where does this ‘mood’ largely exist? Where is it mainly described and named? Where does all of this ‘Metamodern’ discourse take place? In arts and humanities in universities, and in their parallel art worlds. It is actually a codeword for the desires of a morphing class.

Alex Callinicos was as sceptical as I am here about Postmodernism, and post-structuralism, back in 1990. However convincing his scepticism was – and his core thesis of capitalist infrastructure weathering any changes is solid – the whole superstructural carnival happened with or without his consent anyway. Metamodernism happens without my consent too, and rightly so, but like Callinicos I reserve the right to be rude about it.

Vermeulen and van den Akker complain that ‘a structure of feeling may be connected to new stages of capital’ and that they do not like that. Well, Metamodernism itself is generated for the capitalist business of the new university (maybe not yet fully capitalist in Amsterdam, but in England, almost completely). Academics, with notable exceptions, are good at examining the ideologies in all forms of cultural output except their own.

But maybe every cultural shift is made by people starting to scry new loops in an old fabric, who then pull at those loops, to place them elsewhere, and so make holes in the old fabric? Eventually the old fabic is destroyed, as another is remade.

In this spirit, what if someone declared Metamodernism as the new (political) dream space of humanities? Then dropped the silly M-word completely, and then expanded it into a future-facing programme? Wouldn’t that be wonderful? Instead of pretending it is an interpretive paradigm, it could then be what it really is, in the clear light of day, a form of Cultural Evangelism. I think that Metamodernism suffers badly from trying to be even pseudo-sciencey, because it is housed in universities, while it gets on with being mainly ideological. The mist it pumps out tries to conceal the cracks.

I agree that times have changed, don’t get me wrong. The end of the new liberalism was obvious during the rise of populism. Trump in America and Brexit in Britain. The end of globalisation was all over the media during the Covid-19 pandemic years, but more grimly and finally announced after the Russian invasion of Ukraine.

We are in a new epoch. Politically, it is a jamming up, a freezing up, it is the 1989 thaw in reverse. The physical world though, becomes more unstable by the minute, and is literally thawing. This is the dialectic and it isn’t new, as some people seem to think.

Vermeulen and van den Akker give politicians on TV no longer shaking hands as a sign of them ‘entrenching themselves in some kind of corner.’ But the most potent image of this is surely Putin at his enormous desk. The fuck-you bargepole of an Imperialist Fantasy become mass mental illness. Is this ‘depthy’ in its end-of-the-end-of-history pathos? Or is it the ultimate in Postmodern alienation?

Vermeulen and van den Akker would probably say that it is both/either, a fundamentally Postmodern response.

I listen to music all the time. It is my one remaining permanently allowed crutch. I have been listening to Art Bears a lot, who were into Brecht and the Frankfurt School. I listened again and again to ‘All Hail!’ recently, particularly its last verse:

‘The world waits only for its time / when nature speaks / false reason ends / and what is volatile, descends’.

That’s where we are now. And I write it out in the middle of a deep heatwave, there are fires all over London: ‘when nature speaks, false reason ends.’

‘All Hail! The Time!’

That track was inspired by the Amiens Quaterfoil. ‘All Hail!’ was recorded in 1982.

What a volatile year, 1982. Forty years ago. I have just turned fifty.

THE OBJECT is coming for us all, isn’t it?

So yes, we are in another time. But Metamodernism thus far is not adequate to describe it.

But when the apocalyptic events Art Bears sing about arrive – or more accurately Dagmar Krause sings about – will ‘false reason end’? Or will false reason deepen? It seems to be deepening to me, as democracies crash all around the world. Much of Metamodernism appears, to me, as false reason too.

Having worked in Manchester universities, I saw clearly that the ambience was very Metamodern. Sociologically, I mean. There’s a particular atmosphere, I won’t call it an intellectual atmosphere, in all of the Manchester arts and humanities schools. I’ve worked in two out of three of them, as a lecturer.

There is a parallel obsessive interest in Modernism I see in Manchester which is intrinsically Postmodern. The Manchester Modernist Society fetishises Modernism in the same way that older societies fetishised the Victorian, saving its buildings and secretly desiring a largely generated set of values which they uncritically project on to the historical material from a safe place, well outside of its time.

The rejection of Postmodernism in these places could also be described as Postmodern, an elective decision that ignores the state of wider reality as it heads for its own constructed cultural bubble. This is how weird Postmodernism is. It is a strange cultural gravity well. You cannot simply wish yourself out of it. I wish we all could, I really do.

But I walked around a brand spanking new Frank Gehry building in Arles last week, which is Capital P Postmodern from its toes to its head, complete with playful Carsten Höller slides, and a set of purposeless automated entrances in the garden, the aesthetic straight from mall and office culture. It is Sensation 2022. So you see, I can’t climb out either.

And I wasn’t that keen on the Gehry building. It stank of money and amnesia. So let me be clear as I can be, that I’m not pro-Pomo. It didn’t hurt me either though, I had a good day.

Much of what I experience in and around Manchester I file in my head under the term ‘neo-Modernism’. It isn’t quite what most Metamodernist academics are saying, but it is absolutely historically parallel. And it shares key qualities. Metamodernism’s whole value is as a wish for a new and better world. I feel that too. It might not be a bad function – as long as its fantasies can become self-fulfilling – but people need to come clean about its true function and drop the name and the sciencey pretentions. I might even get on board.

But all of these cults – and Metamodernism is one of them – practice exceptionalism. What is interesting about the fetish of, for instance, Brutalism in architecture, is that the subject is retro, but very often excused from bearing that title by its champions. The same can be said about the rash of ‘hauntological’ work which fetishises supposedly ‘uncanny’ popular culture from the mid-20th c. The scholars’ ‘methods’ – for as much as they can be said to use them at all – are also postmodern. Feely-research, invoking invented nostalgias. The New Hauntology also comes after a full scissor-cut between their work and what Derrida was originally saying, and a full reading of Derrida is often excused or misted-over. And the fetishes they have are always ‘resistant’ to bad politics – though it is never satisfactorily explained how – and ultimately resistant to the threat of fascism. The same problem exists even in the new flaneur, getting deliberately deranged to resist capital. Yeah, that’ll work.

People seem to have bleshed, which was Theodore Sturgeon’s word for gestalt group consciousness in his novel More Than Human. They have bleshed around modernism, post-WW2 concrete structures, the ‘wyrd’ rural, the occult, the gothic, electronic music, a warped and expanded situationism – including psychogeography – ‘place’ (as though anything happens outside one, even the digital sits on desert servers), ‘the uncanny’, ‘the sublime’, ruins, darkness, post-punk and being a particular kind of ‘leftist’, which usually boils down to Bennism plus posturing communist tropes.

Far from arriving every day in a place where knowledge has no horizon, we risk arriving in a claustrophobically walled cult temple. I was reading Gombrowicz again, who had a dig at Sartre, in 1969, who ‘naturally insists that every writer be engaged, that he belong to the left, and that he be subject to rigorous rules.’ (my italics).

They often present fetishes, with a flirtatious suggestion of access to other worlds, contingent realities. Of course, more people read that stuff than they do a dry but philosophically stable-ish paper. But it only takes a viewing at a few feet more distance to see plainly that much of it is sleight of hand. Or rather, it is the contemporary equivalent of weird non-conformist religious beliefs in the 18th century, during times of upheaval. It is a contemporary evangelism in universities – and in linked external spaces – also during a time of chaos. But this is a working description of conspiracy theory, too.

I see its purpose, but these fetishes are therefore magical in exactly the same way as an anthropological totem. And as magical as the enchanted landscape for middle class rural dwellers. But according to these evangelists, your Peaky Blinders version of nostalgia, over on the popular right, well this is simply Bad Politics, and not magical or resistant at all. This is how knowledge itself has been skewed by the new university. The Enlightenment is bracketed, again, it is essentially Postmodern, they pick their cultural fetishes to create a particular atmosphere. The thing which better describes all of it, including the leftist version, is post-truth populism, which is postmodernity gone viral, by which I mean infecting everything and becoming far more pernicious.

I probably need to start working in cities that aren’t Manchester. Many people here think something ugly is beautiful because they imagine that makes them edgy and punk rock, at exactly the moment punk rock is being recycled on the Disney Channel.

To be clear, some people are researching the subjects with a more solid epistemological grip, and I am interested in a lot of these topics as well, they excite me too. So this could be a case of people who are fans of something. Enthusiasts. But often – and not in every case – there is something else going on. The way some people take that excitement and then try to hustle it into a whole new kind of game for themselves, or turn it into a form of personal branding, is a symptom of the university as a new capitalist market space in which people outdo each other with novelty.

The German privatdozents were faced with a similar environment. Schopenhauer deliberately clashed his lecture times with Hegel’s, but of course his classes were dead and Hegel’s were rammed. Given the choice between the philosophy of suicide and spirited, lofty abstractions, what would you spend your money on? In Manchester more widely, people game the topics into strange micro-careers.

We could of course also call it a discourse, this collection of partly arbitrary obsessions. But again it is something more. Because the evangelists want these topics to go beyond being an interest, to become a belief, or a politics, and in doing so prove that belief is still possible, in a Postmodern world where Belief itself has been – and continues to be – fundamentally weakened. Bringing this into being also of course means the installation of Priests.

In the spirit of the nonsense, let me briefly invoke a cartoon version of Deleuze-Guattari and call all this the student excitement machine. It is plugged into the student recruitment machine and also the publishing and REF machine. This is plugged into the university development machine. Which is plugged into the halls of residence machine, which is plugged into the city property market machine, which is plugged into the business and tourism machine.

Here, we arrive inside the Manchester Museum of The New Order of Hacienda, which is not just a museum of the past, but of the present and of wait! He is with us! Brother, he walks among us today, because he is in us!

All of this, ultimately, is plugged into the sell property and land to dodgy regimes such as the Saudis machine. It is all Pauline, in that it is produced entirely through belief, and believers.

It is at all times hooked up to the individual Ego machines and the stay-in-the-building with the privileges machines.

When Achilles gets a new decorated shield in The Iliad. This is what is happening.

Note that the dream space at the bottom of this assemblage does not at any point connect to a communist machine at the top. It does not connect to a portal to another world, or isolate a supernatural material. No wonder it is an almost fully unconscious dreaming space. It cannot wake to what it is connected to, or the dream would end. At the same time this bleshed thought-cloud has also thrown Freud and the unconscious out, lest it wake to that reality too. It must remain, somehow, impossibly, post-rationally rational, as it holds forth.

When I was writing things for Open Democracy a research contact likened Manchester, as run by its Labour Council, to the last city of the White Russians during the revolution. He meant that Manchester was the last hardcore New Labour zone as central Labour swung left. This was 2017 of course. As it turned out, the swing left was only a twitch. Of course, this is England.

As I write, the Saudi land sell-off scandal is hitting global news, which is absolutely wonderful to see. If you want an example of university research in Manchester which is solid, challenges assumptions, is political, and causes actual change, then look to what Jon Silver is doing at… the University of Sheffield. But Labour central can’t even touch the story to make political capital from it. Not because they are Starmerite tosspots – although that can’t help – but because the sleaze was that of a Labour council, in Manchester.

Maybe things are changing. Sir Richard Leese left as the Saudi story got hotter. Burnham has made the buses public. But the green policy is backwards and the fundamentalism of the capitalist game plays on untouched. And there is no more fabulated and fantasised about figure in the country than Burnham. Again, another piece of writing, but the cliché of “Manchester” in scare quotes is key to this.

If, like me, you find that none of this weak magic works on you, you will feel that culture is an empty husk here, which seemingly refuses to scatter, no matter how hard the wind blows. Like Postmodernism itself, the cultural physics here is different.

But I also think this makes it a very Metamodern City, because all these fetishes are as arbitrary to the outsider as they are transparent and natural to the insider. Neo-modernism is a culture, but it is closer to a belief system than other cultures in Manchester, for instance the visual art or music scenes there, although these overlap, for instance ‘post-punk’ is a strong fetish which is hung with Metamodern garlands in the city. At the same time, people go into Primark and buy piles of band t-shirts because they are cool, rather than because they believe in a subculture, or even like the bands. Calling that ‘depthiness’ is not just weak, it is a category mistake. The great rump of this rotting world is bleakly pomo. I don’t like it either, but it is reality.

The attempt to bracket mainstream and innovative away from each other, or to map Postmodernism on to the mainstream, and Metamodernism onto the innovative, is also doomed to failure and Rowland’s book admits as much. Rowland is working through something interesting though, it is emerging… but…

Metamodernism allows its evangelists to bracket off the whiffy culture – from The One Show to posh weekend poetry volumes – and to laud their treasured stuff. At the same time, it allows them to see new evangelical signs in tiny details of The Fantastic Mr Fox, or the TV series Girls. I know because I do all of that too.

The only way this is different from postgraduate consumer patterns and practices is that they have positions in universities. They will do this for you, as experts of a new paradigm they are creating on your behalf. It is Pauline evangelism. It sees signs everywhere. But only selected signs.

Electing to ignore the dominant state of dark postmodernity in the world and to then focus on your happy place of so-called Metamodern fetishes is actually a very Postmodern thing to do: Metamodernism, then, unfortunately, is often still Postmodern. The decisions being made by The Metamodernists are subjective ones. The word ‘feeling’ gets used. The height of the evangelism seemed to run exactly parallel with the Cult of JC, as people appeared to experience Corbyn face pareidolia when presented with an unusually shaped vegetable.

The Cultural Corbynistes were trying to pre-fit a hegemony for some dream future Bennite state. Or rather, the intelligent ones were attempting this fully consciously, and with a full understanding of how the contingent reality may be very different. Others will just breathe in the curious atmosphere every day and then perspire it back out into the air as an odour which others inhale. I think this process and Metamodernism share some things.

When I wrote my initial notes on Metamodernism the term was beginning to stack up in the pay-to-play journals. Ideas spread, locally and globally, airborne. But as Nietzsche points out, this does not mean that the spreading ideas have a relationship with this thing called Truth.

It is all, I think, extended millenarianism. Again, I could actually conclude right here, but there is still much more to say. Because as always there is a real hard core around which the madness swirls: THE OBJECT is coming to us all.

Behold! The Ground!

So you see, my response is partly that of apocalyptic millenarianism. Always try to speak in the language of the culture at hand!

I align with the dislike of much mainstream culture. The state of Britain, the Disunited Queendom, is as produced by infantile mainstream culture as it is by selfish Toryism. My political enthusiasms are left-leaning and Marxist of a sort (definitely un-orthodox). So I love the use of Adorno in Rowland’s book, he is a figure in my pantheon too. But I refuse to tally how I would like to view myself with the condition of actually being it, as the evangelists do, because I am always by default a citizen in a consumer society. I cannot ‘do Marxism’ here, writing isn’t ever enough to really make me one, nor is trade union activity. I want a world in which the rhetoric and my activities in everyday life can match and this is not possible inside Dark Pomo. In any case, Cynicism is as important to me as the philosophers I have read.

In the university, certain subjects are routinely refused the status of legitimate knowledge – despite the repetitive pub bore statements about ‘all forms of knowledge being legitimate.’ Anger is one (Michael Keith has written eloquently on this) and humour is another. Full Cynicism is completely taboo because it is the sharpest knife in the kitchen. They are likely to try to close you down for all of these things, calling it un-professional. To profess used to mean you called out the bullshit whatever anyone else thought, now it means you swallow the bullshit whole to get out of the arguments altogether, and up the ladder.

I’ve seen a lot of comments about the return to conferences recently. I saw some indignation at having to return to a room with people who challenge your ideas. Conferences became so listless and polite across the early 2000s. I want a return to an open and public culture of agonism, because weak paradigms like Metamodernism exist because of the lack of challenge, and because many academics are now traders in novelty signifiers.

So my desires for a new world are always filtered, by Cynicism, by my realism towards my place in the world and culture. By my naturally negating psyche.

But the desired ends do not wipe out the means – I want a better world, I want something that is not this – it is just that the new means of Metamodernism are short of the task of delivering a better End than the one we all currently face. I realise that is to ask far too much of it, but I also think that it isn’t, thus far, a functioning interpretive paradigm. I too want to see a literary movement able to eclipse what Rowland calls mainstream poetry, but I sense within it a reactionary dash for the values of the past – even if that is a radical past – and in that I glimpse England’s state of permaconservatism. In its hidden, exceptionalist nostalgias, again, Metamodernism is actually quite Postmodern.

The body temperature of the contemporary humanities university in Britain is postmodern degrees celsius, ‘pomodemia’, including the part which proselytizes Metamodernism.

A movement of ‘Metamodernism’ in poetry, actually, simply doesn’t exist. The avant gardes have been going quietly at it all the way through the Postmodern period, tucked away, without the name. Metamodernism is also hugely revisionist. But often its ‘revisions’ are just delivering the same description under a new title. The weirdness may become more bitingly urgent and political in places, for instance in Alan Halsey & Kelvin Corcoran’s blisteringly brilliant Winterreisen (2019) but we can reach back to Tom Raworth and Linton Kwesi Johnson (the latter with a ‘mainstream’ Penguin) for equally strange resistances and burning politics in poetry.

If you have worked in a relatively efficient part of the civil service you will probably claim that Modernism never went away either.

Maybe if Britain achieves a socialist state of (by necessity) authoritarian but caring green socialism, we will be Metamodern. But by then, if it ever happens, the aesthetic will be extremely different. You can sense that net zero is not going to just happen magically by democratic means, can’t you? So on one hand some global democracies are already collapsing – signalling the end of all sorts of cultures – and on the other their continuation spells a different kind of end. If someone manages to pull off a new positive hegemony in England, it will only then take one person to draw a cock and balls on a government poster for its disintegration to begin.

You can see how even just trying to describe it is cracked with contradiction. This is language and philosophy. This is life. Metamodernism is a dreaming space, and it may be useful as that, but to make the state real we first need to wake up to the fact that now and into the immediate future is dangerous Postmodern Populism. It remains enthroned.

The positive thing which I remain left with each time I run through the material, is the urge to throw off Postmodernity. I don’t think it is entirely a natural historical waning, the end of Postmodernism, as the Metamodernists sometimes seem to suggest, I think it is an active desire, and one I share.

The urge to throw off pomo has antecedents, for instance Andrea Schleiker and Alex Farquharson claiming, in the name of British Art Show 6, that we are in ‘post-postmodern days.’ The art was tediously Postmodern, although Mark Titchner was in the show, who is great. My friend Robert Galeta once went to a talk by Richard Rogers who asked of Postmodernism, ‘how can you be after now?’ and so Galeta asks of the post-postmodernist claims, how can you be after-after-now?

Yet Nadine Fessler uses the term ‘post-postmodern’ as though it is sensible. Judged only on its name, ‘Metamodernism’ seems to be floating outside of modernity, but actually that was one explanation of pomo, as a strange parallel phenomenon to modernism.

More recently (2022) the Guardian ran an article on the architectural ‘shape of post-post-postmodernism’, with pictures, of solidly postmodern buildings. The arguments and evidence are as weak as the urge to escape our cultural conditions is strong. Metamodernism is only the failed post-postmodern escape plan, under a different codename.

In my 2019 paper I suggested that the left-academic rejection of Postmodernism was a kind of belief system. What is ‘innovative’ (and therefore Metamodern) in Rowland’s book is a far too cosy network of practitioners. This book is evangelical mist forming condensation inside the bubble of a professorial reservation. I might include, for instance, Amy McCauley or Sean Bonney. They are also ‘difficult’ and fundamentally of the early 21st century and its crises. There is something about Bonney’s work which cuts deep into Postmodernity, but sharp as it is, it can never reach through and change the state of western culture.

Knowledge itself is being bent out of shape by the new university-as-business. The work is secreted in a particular form there, in the new student farms, it is unconsciously edited. Once amnesia sets in, so does indulgence. The only potential critical voices are from students. These students rely on academic mercy for grades, and grades are a far bigger concern now than they were twenty years ago.

None of this has been good for academics, or for knowledge. The university-as-business is Postmodern, so it is perhaps not surprising that Metamodernism, being produced under those conditions, is in the shape it is in (ie an attempt to simultaneously work inside and resist the awful conditions under which it produces, and a dream of exit). Again, academics have also been through two years of online-only conferencing, and the thicker bubble may be produced by this, too.

We need to make new work through our bleak reality, through the End of Hope, not through our wishes. Because things have shifted for culture, just not like that.

I wonder if we might begin to sketch some things out now: Vladislav Surkov.

Surkov, for those who are unaware, helped to create the current atmosphere of untruth and unreality in Russia by backing – as a formal member of the state apparatus – multiple contradictory causes and groups in the east. The bottom line, the goal, the point, was not the backing of these groups, but a polity in which truth had been fundamentally weakened. In short, Weaponised Postmodernism. Surkov spent some time in the avant garde. So how might we deal with avant garde formalism which bends truth in the name of representations after Vladislav Surkov became one of the architects of Putinism? Very broadly, how does all of this impact literature? And art?

These are the questions I am interested in. Not whether someone in a living room can wring something close to a real emotion out of watching a TV programme. Or whether I care about weak poetry on the BBC. The kind of evangelism present across the left and in much of Metamodernism is a problem, because it completely mists up any possible clear view of what is coming. The End of Hope is a good thing. It is what we all need.

I have also been talking to Roger Burrows about another End of Hope, about Nick Land and the Dark Enlightenment, or NRx. One of the main figures of the NRx, Curtis Yarvin, collects ‘strains of individualist libertarianism’ from historical literature which:

‘…in the end, concludes that Prussian cameralism, in which a state is a business that owns a country, offers the most viable model for a future 21st-century politics. Originally called “neocameralism”, his position soon became known as “neoreactionary” philosophy (NRx) and then, once passed through Land’s nihilist Deleuzian filter, as The Dark Enlightenment.’

Burrows explains that ‘Yarvin’s vision’ is rooted ‘in his mathematical precociousness’ and his ‘immersion in Silicon Valley techno-libertarian culture.’ NRx is Postmodern fragmentation pushed to the nth. Deleuze as nihilism can be nothing other than Postmodern, as Deleuze was a life-affirming philosopher, and NRx is markedly fascist.

These things are not marginal, Dominic Cummings planted NRx seeds when in government and Rishi Sunak dreams of ‘Charter Cities’, neo-Singapores or Dark Enlightenment Exit.

Recently, Sam Bankman-Fried was reportedly giving away millions of dollars from a crypto trading practice he openly described as largely a ponzi scheme. You can then go anywhere in the city to hear the crypto bros spouting anti-Soros rightwing dark-Postmodernist theories. My local leisure centre is rife with it. Recently one was explaining to another how 5G shuts down brain processing speed, but how cannabis water of some sort can mitigate the effects. Now try claiming that everyday environments of untruth can only be found in China, Russia or North Korea. At the very least add Manchester, now quite literally madchester. Incredulity towards the meta-narrative, here, is like deep man.

Is this the city after the Postmodern one in which everything matters, and in which things are true? I suspect social class is a big part of what is happening. Both in the Metamodernists (middle, or getting there) and the everyday Postmodern cultural continuity (lower). Perhaps, to paraphrase Julie Burchill – was it Burchill? – it is no longer socialism for the middle class, capitalism for the working, but Metamodernism for the arty middle classes and Postmodernism for the lower. I am joking with this last point. We are all in the shit, it is just that some people create better bubbles for themselves. In some ways I wish I could do this too, but I am pathologically unable.

But that is my purpose. I send dispatches from outside the bubble. Someone said to me recently, about a piece of my writing, ‘in the nineties we used to say “don’t go there” and you always go there.’ He was right and this is one of my core purposes.

I go further and say it should probably be yours. One of our first imperatives should be to locate and clarify that persistent, nagging thing, which seems unsayable, and then say it. And in an essay form like this one – the sort that Brian Dillon urges – we should say it even if it turns out to be wrong. But I don’t think I’m wrong. I just wish I were.

In Rowland’s book on Metamodernism and Poetry there are calls for a return to ‘exasperating art’, but after Vladislav Surkov is this sensible? There are also calls for the ‘clown’s rule’ in poetry, but really?! At this point in history? As I write, Boris Johnson – a man who always affirmed what he denied and denied what he affirmed – has just left the building, and not, at the same time, which is very Postmodern indeed. It doesn’t matter that this point is made via the work of Geraldine Monk, who I absolutely love. The advocacy is at least questionable at this point in history.

And I say this as someone who has produced exasperating texts and then delivered them like a fool. I am also just waking up, I’m not trying to claim that I’m very far ahead. When I wrote my pamphlet E is for Enlightenment I was siding with the poets. Now I am not sure. Or rather, I am sure that deliberate delerium now favours The Right.

Surkov invented the contemporary environment of untruth in Russia, which is still the default landscape of meaning there. Surkov is an eastern parallel to Land and Yarvin, I think. Russian citizens babble about the west and NATO fascism – as do British leftists who have been tankied – and the populists in the west babble about Soros and hidden cabals. They mirror one another, and in the west this phenomena isn’t just limited to the dusty, lost-looking people who suddenly started turning up at English war memorials. Just as I was talking to Burrows, completely by accident, I started talking to someone who worked in an art school, who professed to being a ‘psychedelic anarchist’. Suddenly, he told me he thought that Nick Land was great.

I wrote an essay for a little publication just over ten years ago, called Worker’s Playtime. It was written in a moment of crisis for Bradford School of Art. In it I said ‘The Tories know that the arts have been coloured pink for generations, but there is nothing natural or inevitable about this, it can and possibly will disappear.’ It felt as though this art school ‘psychedelic anarchist’ strolled up to tell me that what I predicted then has now finally happened. It felt like he was placed there by this massive cosmic joke I inhabit (this feeling hits me regularly). At the same time, many of the left-evangelists still in the building are so intellectually hobbled by their own posh academic cred they are functionally redundant. What I didn’t explain back then – because I didn’t expect it – was the extent to which ‘pink’ would be the thing which turned. By which I mean counterculture utopianism shifting sharply rightwards.

This supposed ‘psychedelic anarchist’ then claimed to be extremely excited by ‘seasteading’, a concept Burrows et al view, I think completely correctly, as the neoliberal politics of exit with a high potential for American-style revanchist fascism. Angela Nagle’s Kill All Normies book is important (2017) but I need to expand on that elsewhere. For now let us just be clear that all of these people have been put into a spell by The Agents of Chaos. Surely this we can agree on, no?

But maybe not, because at the same time, some academics are still myopically presenting an entirely generative left-utopianism and making it the whole world for themselves. This is nothing but the necessary bubble-thinking for their psychic survival. That they do some archival research, before selecting the parts which conform to their view of the world, does not validate the work, it does the opposite, because in the archive, right under their nose – and more importantly out in everyday life – lies its complete negation. I think the same about Metamodernism so far. I also made the point that the left can be post-truth too, in an article for Open Democracy in 2017.

Students are encouraged to unpick discourses – find the toxic ideology in ‘the culture’ – but the ideological assemblages advocating this right in front of them remain out of sight. Hidden in plain sight.

Strictly speaking Metamodernism has nothing to do with Corbynism, but at the same time I see its bubbling-up was closely parallel, a kind of precursor, in the everyday lives of a continually-morphing middle class: Metamodernism and its related structures of feeling are the symptoms of those people trying to re-make culture with their name on it. Again, there is nothing new about that.

Perhaps the left evangelicals should have the university and arts spaces? And then let the dialectic play. After all, the rest of England seems occupied unopposed, by a sickening mainstream Toryism. But after January 2022 what was an itching scepticism has turned into a distrust. The horizon should not be so slyly framed or pre-described when there are those on the left who are so hobbled they can no longer speak against Russia because (essentially) it used to be communist. Not everyone fits this description, of course, but the leftist cultural-critical programme has collapsed for me because of it.

Like I said, I think all of this is extended millenarianism, and that THE OBJECT is coming, like a waterfall, descending from a cloud.

But then does false reason end? Or does false reason intensify?

Srećko Horvat, in his book After the Apocalypse (2021) seems to think that it might intensify.

What is being missed by Metamodernism, and why We are Still Pomo, is the fact that any notion of universals in literature are weakened by the global conditions I began to describe above. Literature itself has shrunk into a kind of model village in our contemporary historical circumstances. ‘Literature’ is not necessarily fragmented, but infinitely weakened by the strategized counter-information at scale of the Surkov school. It is shrunk by Nick Land. It becomes a trinket case in a dusty part of a city. It doesn’t matter if rich middle classes still consume it. It doesn’t matter if academics invent new paradigms for it, unable to see that they are over the cliff edge, but still running. The objects in the case are then further wizened by the stratospherically increased precariousness of human life on the planet: climate; nuclear war; bioweapons.

I read Charlie Gere’s book World’s End recently. He reminded me again of the distinction Jeff Nuttall made between VE Day and VJ Day. VE day belongs, still, to the old time order that goes back to the ancients, and universal literature belongs to it: literature that broadcasts through walls and time, even before wi-fi, because it is remade constantly in new editions. Although it is re-contextualised, it always has power in every new context. But I think we would be very glib to simply assume this tradition’s power to safeguard values and the continuation of humanity is still with us, as a universal backstop.

Before The Bomb, Nuttall was saying, there may be trouble, and death at scale, but humans would go on. But Nuttall thought that this state of being ended. After The Bomb, and now I would add climate, and AI and bioweapons, our place is precarious forever. We cannot go back through a door into the old world, that door closed in 1945. Even if ‘we’ were on Mars – Mars is merely the imaginary exit trajectory of the Billionaire class – we would still be precarious. Because living on Mars presents an environment as extreme as that which earth now does. It is not the same environment. But both are environments of sheer risk, without constant strategizing and technologizing to mitigate that risk.

Mars always was that, earth has only become so recently, in a way that is universally perilous, hazardous to everyone, and signalling the end of us all: but nobody is spared by it being a recent problem. Compared to all of this, the proselityzers of ‘the new depthiness’, if there are any left by now, are beyond glib. Now, with all this… by which I mean literally the last days, the canon is shrunk, not broken-up. The real end of history is coming, not just the capitalist amnesia bubble Fukuyama described. And so I despise Surkov and Land, but they are symptoms of a wider set of historical turns.

Because if you have time as a continuum, which up to a very specific point is possible, you have literature as a potentially infinite good, or an infinite power. But I think this was broken in 1945. And it becomes even more shrunk at times of apocalyptic intensity, such as now. It shrivels further. Surkovism and Landism are signs of the warped reality that grips in these new circumstances. It is as potent and negatively transformative as a new form of cultural physics. It is not Metamodern, a Grand Narrative, or a return to Truth.

I actually suggested to Patrick Keiller that his work was Modernist within Postmodernism at the start of an interview for Street Signs in 2003. He thought his work was Postmodern. Even if I concede for a moment that there are some works and projects we might call ‘metamodern’, Keiller’s films, or Forensic Architecture, the fact of their tiny existence is bobbing precariously on a sea of madness, in a world reaching many tipping points.

The larger part of the world’s meaning has gone over the edge into a state of dark Postmodernism. In Russia nobody has a clue what is real any more. If you watch particular TV channels in America, you are in another land. All of this was part of contemporary postmodern culture when Baudrillard was describing it. In Britain, there is an elephant shaped room the Tribune editors do their work in. Not a single story on Ukraine for months, after emerging at the start of the war with a Tankie line, before retreating. They had been played by Russia. Again I wrote an article on this in Open Democracy back in 2017 and now I feel completely vindicated by what subsequently happened.

The humanities university and the politics it largely aligns itself with, perhaps symbolically represented by the Tribune, has also shrunk and is now in the trinket case along with its own literature. Is this what theory – that nebulous zone – has to offer us in our time?

We cannot reverse our historical situation and we cannot halt it either. Benjamin was interested in a moment from Joshua in which a judge cries out for time to be stilled. But he does this so that a battle can be won. Benjamin I think takes this and asks for time to freeze so the slaughter can be stopped. This becomes the dialectical image and the far too commonly cited Angel of History.

We have been very lucky with our breaks in fighting that can save the day thus far and the logic of mathematical risk determines that at some point this luck will break. I am thinking about this after returning to Pierre Missac’s (1995) book on Benjamin and the section in which he writes about Saturnalia.

Of course I’m also thinking about Russia in Ukraine and the heightened nuclear tension. The subversive character of avant garde saturnalia ends, in our time, in Vladislav Surkov’s manipulation and subsequent anullment of meaning in the service of Putin, or in the Qanon Shaman at the Capitol. Or Nick Land desiring nothing but fragmentation, and fragmentation machines, and here comes Web 3.0, and I can hear the conspiracy bros in the sauna talking about their beloved crypto (perhaps maybe less now it is crashing). Surkov went from avant garde art to (now former) Deputy Chairman of the Government of the Russian Federation.

All strategies have to be facing this now. How might we deal with avant garde formalism after Vladislav Surkov became one of the architects of Putinism? Is it appropriate to use deliberately disorienting and disinformative strategies in art after Surkov? Perhaps it is completely inappropriate. Perhaps a literature of empirical accuracy is now the only thing that can be radical (hence Forensic Architecture). At which point I begin to reconsider modernism and Metamodernism, but then all the usual objections about ‘realism’ flood back in to drown this statement. I have started working on the old questions of realism in literature again, and of course Stalinism and socialist realism figure in the history of the debates, particularly in Lukacs. But that is another piece of writing.

Back in 2018, when I saw that they were ditching Poststructuralism in favour of a fake ‘neosolid’ I sided strongly with the poets. But when Rowland asks if poetry’s function should now be ‘to exasperate rather than to assuage?’ (p.134) I can only view it through this new landscape of default untruth. Rowland means well, and I have been aligned to strategic derangement in art for a long time. But the tricksters, the Lokis, are in the Tory Party. They are not merrily dancing us into a new state of being from outside, with limited-run pamphlets and £100 monographs.

Maybe it doesn’t matter. I am sceptical of the potency of art or literature to puncture anyway. All art could melt into the world of securitised asset markets and essentially fascist power, it is possible. AI could do this, eventually, if we get there. After VJ day time itself as linear and potentially limitless – if one thinks in terms of generations – has been cracked, if not totally shattered. This is the bomb crater Adorno works in after WW2. So I am very keen on Rowland’s work with Adorno. But literature has been shrunk in the face of that. Compressed. Like stuff at the edge of a black hole before it shoots in. Actually we’re not there yet, but we are nearly there, we are not far off, historically.

And we are all shaken and shrunk by this.

What I am trying to get at here is what is totally new in our situation: I don’t agree with Derrida when he flattens the death of a treasured individual and the death of millions under a nuclear detonation. We had reached the point at which we had culturally digested the individual death, and literature played a big part in that digestion. That old logic was wonderful, it was the same logic that Nuttall says we lost, and I pine for it: It went something like this; some of us may die horribly, but we go on, and we remember through writing, and that writing is beautiful. It was like that for thousands of years. But all of that is now over.

And my heart is broken.

I side with Hobbes’ diagnosis, but not his cure: Man (sic) in a state of nature is not good; but totalitarian responses to that state of nature breed further evils. This tension informs most of my thinking.

I have been reading George W.S. Trow’s Context of No Context, which I picked up in a book swap. It’s a bit ‘Matthew Arnold USA’, but some of the sections are like knives, slicing all the pretentiousness and nonsense away. A reviewer of the book, on the back, John Irving, describes how it skewers our culture’s ‘terminal silliness.’ It is a great two-word insult, ‘terminal silliness’, and true. A clownlike Boris Johnson might become an avatar for this morbid cultural goofiness, which is everywhere now.

But we need to be really clear about the state of the country after English populism. Clear about Johnson as a gaslighter for personal gain, or an actual saboteur. This is very serious. The island has been sleeping and let its security drop almost completely. MI6 woke up, and I woke up to how deluded certain key figures in the left were, particularly Seumas Milne, after the Salisbury Poisonings. None of that is funny. Johnson and the neoliberal Russia-UK greed ambassadors are all deeply implicated in this. At the same time, a new kind of Hobbesianism I am not signed up for is right at the surface of UK governance. Its brutality towards migrants and the poor is as barely concealed as its cavalier attitude to its own morality. The slick media lie surface that covers it all is Postmodern. History isn’t a toy, but if you start to claim this as a ‘Grand Narrative’ I will laugh at you. These are the scattered shards of a smashed present.

Look through the splinter in your eye.

There is, then, essentially a new kind of Postmodern Sophistry in the world. Dark Pomo. For an avatar of this spirit, we might look to a figure such as Dominic Cummings who was, and is, the new Gorgias. His form of Sophistry is the new condition for UK political life. A Machiavellian Ends before Means man, a Bad Enlightenment Guru using Cal Tech instrumentalism frosted with liberal icing. I approve of none of it, but it is pomo. None of it is going away.

You could call ‘The New Cold War’ a Grand Narrative – inauguration 2022 – but how does that go down with depthiness and inscrutable play in art? And as I have outlined, its Weaponised Undeep Untruth excludes it from ‘the Metamodern’.

In any case, Grand Narratives never really left. In the Postmodern period the West has Consumerism, Neoliberalism and Casino Capitalism. I never bought this part of Postmodern theory actually. Who says that the rise of Oligarchic Russia was not a Gand Narrative? I can see how it was Postmodern too, involving the collapse of a central state, but…

Who says the rise of China as a manufacturing power was not a Grand Narrative? But can you call Post-truth Populism a Grand Narrative when it is so Postmodern in character? You see none of it really hangs together. We could all do with starting again from scratch.

We will have to do that anyway. Culture is going to change, inevitably, because the world is about to enter a period of relentless crisis shocks:

Nature descends! False reason ends!

Or does it? Maybe one of the biggest fights we now have is against false reason, because it is going to intensify.

Robert Reich said something in a substack post recently, that Civilization is the opposite of the ‘state of nature’:

‘A civil society doesn’t allow the strong to brutalize the weak. Our job — the responsibility of all who seek a decent society — is to move as far from a state of nature as possible.’

But this logic is also utterly cracked now. The dirty secret of Marx is a bare advocacy for Man to conquer Nature totally. That war isn’t over, we may just be shifting from the offensive to the defensive. We might also legitimately call all of that a new Grand Narrative, but it already has a name and it is the Anthropocene. The logic that suggests man-made enclosures can be built better and forever, is gone. The logic that says culture can be passed on via books and so the individual death is mitigated. That’s in the past.

In fact there’s a whole romantic tendency towards the (actual) death of the writer, Lorca, for instance. But Lorca was late, he was murdered less than a decade shy of the Bomb. The shift that comes with the possible end of human culture has not been taken in yet. It is bigger than the death of God which anticipated and maybe even prepared for that shift. Because god for me is not God, god is just one aspect of meaning-within-culture – god is words – and now we face the end of the whole culture. Meaning itself will die with that culture. This is when God really dies. For practical purposes only, Nietzsche really wrote of the Death of Belief.

Maybe when Lorca died a deeper romanticism was still possible. A tiny moment after, in the bigger context of time, it was not. Our epoch is still in romanticism – in the sense of the development of the individual – but the form it takes is Postmodern, at which point whether you drop the term ‘romantic’ or not is a moot point.

These are the lineages that I think are important. Is it right to ask us to hold on to old assumptions about potentially infinite generational time and a deathless revolutionary spirit in the face of all of this? I don’t think it is wrong, but I think it is pompous.

Even if it still exists, you won’t find it in all those fetishes you have irrationally accumulated.

I think there is a massive lag between the world-historical and the cultural-theoretical. In all of this, Metamodernism presents snail trails.

Actually I am convinced that there is already an answer to the conundrum about the poets, about fusing deliberate untruth – or rather extreme representational strategies – with a fuller sort of enlightenment, and that it exists in Adorno, and Horkheimer.

Adorno was convinced that philosophy could no longer halt the irrational. I agree, but the attempt can’t be just be thrown away and so I also think there is another solution hiding in plain sight, to be achieved by swapping evangelistic, positivistic, affirmating Metamodernism, with cynical negation, and encouraging people who write like this, with all of the antinomies present and explored. The atmosphere of contemporary culture though, and not just university culture, has made this verboten. It is a dream space inside a deepening crisis. And I am refusing to observe the rigorous rules.

I noticed a philanthropical project, a big one, the other day. They are giving away millions of dollars. They ask for the usual things, writers and academics to fund, but they also list other priorities, for instance Bioweapon shelters.

I look it up again. Then I switch between news websites. A row of houses is blazing in Wennington. Twitter. Another video, cars drive down the familiar dual carriageway, but with A STREAM OF FIRE!


Unlike the Iraq War, and even 9-11, which were declared as ‘Postmodern information events’, the new crisis breakouts are coming to a town near you, very soon. False reason really does end, right at the point of no going back.

When the third city is erased by a nuclear weapon – we are merely waiting for this – will false reason end before then, or will it intensify? And if a Metamodernist answers both/either, do they deserve their name, and what is their use?

Forget the lazy buzzwords for new paradigms. This is where we are at: there is no creative impulse that Power cannot finally manipulate, duplicate or destroy. That Nature cannot end and erase. Discuss. Write.

– Steve Hanson

Some books etc

Art Bears (1982) ‘All Hail!’ originally on a Ralph Records flexidisc, but collected in The Art Box (ReR Records).
Burrows (2018) On Neoreaction [accessed July 19 2022]
Burrows, Smith (2021) ‘Software, Sovereignty and the Post-Neoliberal Politics of Exit’ in Theory, Culture & Society (38, 6). London: Sage.
Gere, Charlie (2022) World’s End. London: Goldsmiths Press/MIT.
Gombrowicz (1969) A Guide To Philosophy In Six Hours and Fifteen Minutes. Yale University Press.
Hanson (2004) Interview with Patrick Keiller in Street Signs via: [accessed July 21 2022]
Hanson (2010) ‘Language, Dissent and the Classed Art School’, in Worker’s Playtime. Bradford, Hibrida.
Hanson (2018) ‘The New Left Can Be Post Truth Too’ in Open Democracy: [accessed July 19 2022]
Hanson (2019) ‘The real but greatly exaggerated death of Postmodernism’ in Journal for Critical Education Policy Studies, Volume 17, Number 2 [accessed July 19 2022]
Hanson (2022) Last Days of Pompeii, Vol.1. Sheffield: Erratum Press.
Missac (1995) Walter Benjamin’s Passages. New York: MIT. Missac’s book on Benjamin is the best book on Benjamin by far.
Moore, Rowan (2022) ‘Red House, Dorset: the shape of post-post-postmodernism?’, in the Guardian. [accessed July 19 2022]
Nagle, Angela (2017) Kill All Normies. London: Zero (Jesus).
Nuttall (1969) Bomb Culture. London: Paladin. Also see Nuttall’s Wake on CD.
Rowland (2022) Metamodernism and Contemporary Poetry. Cambridge University Press.
Vermeulen, T. (2015) ‘The New “Depthiness”’ E-flux Journal #61.
Trow, George W.S. (1997) Within the Context of No Context. Atlantic Monthly Press.


This will be out in expanded form as a book soon, with Dr Brian Baker, University of Lancaster.

The Gesamtkunstwerk of fragments

Ansgar Allen – Plague Theatre (Equus)

Scarborough. A man finds an old manuscript. It tells of plague and bad times.

Ansgar Allen’s larger body of work is a great thing. Across this work, he treats the same set of themes to repeated but different literary experiments. Allen’s educational writings, his work on cynicism, and his strategic experimental texts all return to the same concerns. Here, in Plague Theatre, we see them return again: ‘The intellectual persona is always a miserable creature and a fraud.’ Museums are ‘destroyed by intellects.’

Allen is, I think, exploring a philosophical core via experimental fictional strategies. Perhaps as a scientist might bombard his subject material with repeated attacks, in order to see what it is made of. The object of the exercise, though, is less about finding an unbendable, final, enlightenment truth, rather than understanding that reality is remade each time by the very experiments which try to find that truth. Paradoxically though, this gives Allen’s work a strong centre of enquiry.

Here the author begins by quoting and paraphrasing Artaud’s Theatre and The Plague. The ‘author’ then seems to split, as bacteria multiplies, into a narrator, an author within the fiction, and an overarching, organising writer, Allen himself, we might assume. Superego and Ego.

Here’s how the book begins, and establishes the premise of the story: The ‘author’ describes a found manuscript, discovered in an old building in Scarborough. This manuscript seems to be an account of the plague in Scarborough. Defoe, then, arrives later in this work, both the Tour and of course A Journal of the Plague Year.

The narrator speculates that Defoe mapped the plague in Scarborough, 1720, which the mysterious text describes, on to Defoe’s published ‘Plague Year’ text about the known London plague.

To communicate how this text works it is best to describe what it does at certain points: here, the author is describing how ‘the author’ is transcribing the found manuscript. There, the author is reflecting on how he will put together the text that has already been put together. It has obviously been put together, as you are reading it in its published form.

Put more simply, Allen unsettles the reader just as soon as they start to get comfortable. He does not allow them to immerse, and this is done subtly, rather than through some showy or contrived alienation effect. This is achieved in a similar way to Allen’s earlier work, Wretch: The author-narrator in Plague Theatre is not an exact copyist; the work is changed as it is preserved. As Allen states elsewhere, all we have left to work with are fragments. Leftovers. Again, these are core concerns for Allen. We are witnessing a literary body of work take shape here.

‘The author’ describes the found manuscript in such an adjacent way that it risks appearing without ever appearing, which is exactly the genius of Brian Catling’s Stumbling Block and Its Index, the key to its status as a piece of art (and I’m ambivalent about whether you call it art or literature or poetry).

But here the manuscript does appear, slowly, by degrees. It is revealed, although its revealing is one half uncovering and one half concealing. I am reminded of Heidegger strongly at points.

The description of course creates a new object, not a clear window we look through. All the unreliablility and speculation of the discoverer, the keeper and transcriber, is kept in the account of the object. Further, it is written back into the object. For this is truth in any age, the most recent and teleologically complex media age being the most slippery, rather than the most faithful.

Even with the scan, the digital copy, and similar techniques: Allen knows this, but pitches his ideas onto this slippery terrain of anecdotes from the east coast of England, onto a strategically sketchy account of a found text, and therefore, also, into the past. The excavation and the exhumation are merged here. An early Briton appears, in an early coffin, a hollowed tree, the body as black as Jet. Anyone who has explored the Scarborough and Whitby coastline – I have, and looking for fossils – will know that Jet comes from the remains of the monkey puzzle tree, which has been compressed for millions of years. This is more than a metaphorical device.

Actually, Brian Catling’s later work appears to describe human culture turning itself to coal before igniting itself. Plague Theatre, similarly, relates to the concept of longer historical contours. In one section the cliff edges of human time are very simply given as roughly fifty years. The way they overlap the larger units of centuries, one hundred years, is then alluded to. It is a particularly excellent passage. It does a counter-intuitive thing that lesser writers struggle with, it communicates complexity by simplifying.

The Roman ruffle on the dress of history appears, implicitly, in the concept of the ‘century’, then more explicitly in descriptions of Roman remains found around Scarborough. The hollowed-out tree coffin of the early Briton seems to be a metonym for another fictional object in Plague Theatre: a piece of wood which floats in the Atlantic for two decades before being washed ashore. Their being symbolically adjacent seems to decentre the ‘Briton’, which so many have been desperate to fakely re-centralise again, over the last few years. As I type, Tommy Robinson briefly trends on Twitter once more. There are two moments in which the author takes pot shots at blue plaques and local museums. Both underscore the sheer banality of English culture. At another point, the narrator states that English culture needs shaking out. Here be a plague, I wrote, in my book Proceedings, a parallel plague of words. A linguistic virus that arrived well before Covid-19. Plague Theatre is as much about that as it is about the philosophy of meaning.

Then a moment arrives in which the fourth wall appears to be broken. The author tells us – some way into this long description about the found manuscript, and about what he is doing to keep it – that he will start this account with Artaud’s Theatre and The Plague as a kind of epigraph. But breaking the fourth wall doesn’t suddenly bring a reliable narrator, if anything it throws the fox back in the hen coop all over again. Allen’s earlier book Wretch did similar things.

Artaud’s notion that plague and a certain type of theatre are ‘revealers’ follows: ‘During a plague the psychological makeup and moral fibre of society is attacked and attacks itself…’ Here, the raining frogs and speaking in tongues, 21st century style, of England’s turn to conspiracy appears, again, without being explicitly named. Artaud is actually, on one level, brought in simply to state what Allen is doing in this book: revealing our time to us.

The unspoken but obvious other lens here is Allen himself, writing just after the pandemic. This is the text as a kind of mitosis, but the whole book becomes a sort of prism through which we can see our present time and the past in one view.

There is so much to explore here. Like Allen’s other work it is almost impossibly rich. But its importance for our present moment is that it makes the familiar strange and the strange familiar, in order to show us where we live, in a time of very rapid transition.

Steve Hanson