About Nowt

Martin Demant Frederiksen – An Anthropology of Nothing in Particular (Zero Books, 2018)

For a short while in my formative years I was deeply involved with a girl from what sociologists would call the underclass. Three generations of unemployment lived head-to-toe in the same battered and neglected council house. “Nothing” was a common refrain.

What you doing? Nothing. What do you think? I don’t think nothing. Why did you do that? Because I don’t give a fuck and I don’t believe in nothing. Through a haze of hashish and casual violence they had reached a twenty-first century approximation of Hassan-e Sabba.

Subsequent success in the world of academia trained me to identify this nihilistic mindset with an extreme mode of alienation. Philosophers cannot abide meaninglessness. Expressions of nothingness must be meaning in disguise.

It’s a comforting thought, not only as it keeps nothingness at bay, but also because it suggests that these people will all join the Glorious Socialist Revolution once the Oxbridge Marxists finally bring it about.

But what else are we to do with the organic nihilists of the world if not interpret them? In his new book, Martin Demant Frederiksen proposes a radical answer: take them at their word.

Instead of training a prurient eye upon the abjection and squalor of those who do not give a fuck, Frederiksen proposes nothingness as a recognizable mode of being. It is a valueless and directionless way of encountering the world, but it is nevertheless an encounter. Compared to other philosophies, it at least has the virtue of honesty and consistency.

Although Frederiksen does utilize the occasional philosopher to craft his arguments, he balances this with an anthropologist’s observation of real life (mostly in the form of pointless chats with acquaintances and drinking vodka). Part real observation, partly fictional condensations of lived experience; the form of the book is as wonderfully unfocused as its subject matter.

The writing is detached and casual. Frederiksen carries you along like a directionless wander on a balmy afternoon, passing around a bottle. It is as unpretentious as a work integrating Nietzsche, Boudieu and the Null Morpheme could possibly be, using a light touch which leaves questions open and ideas unfixed. It feels like the kind of loose talk you’d have in the early hours. A fitting approach.

So what happens when we believe that some people just do nothing? Well, nothing much. There is no heroic conclusion to the book. No moment where the angry young writer declares “…and therefore we must all do this!”. Instead you get a real anthropological sense of how some, perhaps many, people live… and that’s it.

As a joyless workaholic I personally could not live the way that Frederiksen’s characters live. My existence is instead dictated by my desperate bad faith, clawing at any and all bits of meaning that fall within reach. Yet this, somehow, made the book appealing to me, comforting almost.

I guess it’s nice to think that somewhere out there are people who are happy to watch twenty minutes of a movie they’ve seen before and then turn it off and have a nap even though it’s only 11am. It’s pleasant to read about people with nowhere to be. People who hold opinions that aren’t particularly strong and who have no interest in whether they are agreed with or not.

In summing up meaninglessness and packaging it in a form perfectly suited to the subject matter, Frederiksen has essentially captured a little bit of nothing between the covers of a book. I would recommend it both to those who want to feel nothing, and those who are simply tired of always being made to feel something.

You should definitely read this book. Or don’t. Whatever…

– Joe Darlington

The Unstable Self

Thomas Hylland Eriksen & Elisabeth Schrober (eds) Identity Destabilised (Pluto, 2016)

This is a powerful book. It moves Cultural Anthropology right out of the Twentieth Century. This thematic, edited collection is already a benchmark classic of its discipline. But like equally great Anthropology collections – Locality and Belonging, edited by Nadia Lovell, for instance, in 1998 – it works equally well as a book for anyone interested in the shape of human meaning in their time.

It is properly politicised. It looks to the global surface, rather than treating fake indigenousnesses with curatorial white gloves. The sub-title of ‘Living in an Overheated World’, as Hylland Eriksen has demonstrated elsewhere, means overheated subjectivities on an overheated planet. Overheated in terms of the ever faster flows of raw materials, goods and labour, processes that produce ‘short-termism’. Processes that uproot families, lives and mental states, all over the world, not just in small pockets of it. The ethnographies collected here include Manchester, Sierra Leone, Montenegro, Australia…

But the subtext of ‘overheated’, of course, is global warming. This is Anthropocene-Anthropology. The Anthropocene posits that mankind’s emergence as a shaper of his environment, right through to his late capitalist phase, his whole voracious transformation of the ecosphere – and I gender this intentionally – is just another stage in the planet’s shifts. Of course, by positing this, right now, The Anthropocene also suggests that we may be on the edge of a seismic shift into another ‘cene’.

I strongly embrace some parts of ‘The Anthropocene’ as a theory, but strongly reject others. Key to this is the fact that The Anthropocene appears only now, and not in, for instance, the nineteenth century. We cannot escape our fundamental species difference as a very particular kind of language animal. The fine details of this will provide a written argument for another time and place, but what is captured unequivocally here is the fact that as the global circuits begin to heat up, glow and blur dangerously, so do the circuits of the psyche.

What we might call ‘identity creep’ is not new, but as Stuart Hall pointed out, the so-called ‘fluidity’ of identity in no way halts the solid political and cultural conflict which contemporary identity fuels. This isn’t just a concealed nod to fundamentalist religion either, as the chapter on Manchester United and its relatively recent, global, fluid nature shows.

This book pulls no punches. It contains what is essentially a second, politicised introductory chapter by Jeremy MacClancy, titled ‘Down With Identity! Long Live Humanity!’ Another big problem I have with The Anthropocene is that it dovetails neatly with Posthumanism. I side with Marcus Morgan, who is laying out a kind of post-foundational humanism for social philosophy. Here, Jeremy MacClancy includes a picture of a piece of Delph pottery in the shape of a bible from the Ashmolean. A book that isn’t a book, bearing a message that he decodes poetically for our era: ‘Earth I am / it is most trew / disdain me not / for soe are you.’ Identities aren’t people and people aren’t identities. But nor are humans dogs and neither do dogs drop bombs or produce television shows.

However, resistance to global capital might be rooted in practices of identity. MacClancy goes so far as to suggest the use of ‘Anon’ as a radical political identity, like a kind of pacifist ‘Spartacus’. Like some sort of identarian Jedi Knights, we might develop a form of Being resistant to our performative subjectivities, meshed into capital through its online manifestations: That’s how good this book is.

But MacClancy is careful to point out that he is not advocating fundamentalist identities. Here, my mind turns back to all that is good in Richard Sennett, The Fall of Public Man and Uses of Disorder. Because MacClancy is interested to stress the importance of forms of social identity that act as juncture points in the social world, face-to-face. The dialectical otherside to online wigs and masks, anonymous, open, honest and agonistic meetings in the real world.