Meditation III

Anger is socially heavy, and so morally unthinkable. Anger must be muted and contained, suspended as contempt. It is required of all affects that they be substituted for their lightest operational equivalent, a least energy principle with minimisation of social noise as its boundary constraint. Relations of interiority are folded into exteriorities, lighter because interiority implies weight of involvement. Interiority is involvement, and involvement is nothing other than concrete social labour, inseparable from risk. Risk and labour are heavy, and therefore condemned. There is a fractal decomposition of social space into distinct micropods, the residue of this exothermic mitosis gathering in salvageable droplets across the growing surface of the membrane1. At last everyone can relax: nowhere is lighter than outer space.

A synthesising dialectic of anger and guilt is switched for a non-synthesising dialectic of contempt and shame, a closed and self-stabilising circuit constrained to the plane of affect. The link between thought and action is severed at its centre, belief rendered impossible as thought becomes mandatory2. Thought persists, but only as epiphenomenon. What is no longer possible is to participate in thought, since participation is made possible only by affective substructures always-already immobilised. What remains is an aesthetisisation of thought: the Idea receives its gilded frame, encircled and beautiful, liberated from risk. Ouroboric thought short-circuits motive outputs, all categoricals diffracting into non-completing series of hypotheticals. A critical theory approved by capital impresses itself with its capacity to create space for the last word, always doing so faster than the space can be filled. Discourse is free to proliferate without the faux pas of judgement. Careers are made this way.

Contempt is light, and thus morally permissible. Anger is only possible between those who share social space, which is to say those who cohabit an interior. Cohabitation is the precondition of anger’s generative function as affective motor in the synthetic and reconciliatory process traversing guilt and empathy. The immanence of the series—the conjunct of both its interiority and its intensity—constitutes both its reconciliatory potential and its heaviness. Contempt, its simulated double, is seductive in its lightness. But in seduction it is forgotten that where there is no risk there can be no opportunity, just as where there is no difference there can be no change. Affective economies are grounded on a principle of dynamic equilibrium, spinning forever without resolution.

Contempt is lighter than anger. Where anger echoes in the hollow of a social interior contempt is silent, demanding nothing: it simply cleaves space in two. Anger is despised because it betrays a lack of mindfulness, that is, the ability to form a relation of exteriority to oneself. (To relate to anger from the third person is to no longer possess it, or rather be possessed by it—by now we all know this mantra.) Those who express anger are held in contempt precisely for their insistence on the existence of a shared interior. The reactive guilt which confirms its existence therefore becomes a cause for self-castigation: contempt wraps back on itself, metabolising into shame. The call to lightness everywhere imposes relations of exteriority, an outsideness with respect to one another and finally oneself. Total aesthetisation: the placement of every aspect of social and material existence into a viewing frame, the bending of perception to an optics excluding as unreal all that is not safely behind perspex.

Peter Sloterdijk says modernity is a foam3. The fracturing of subjectivity into distinct spheres seems less important than that it has been invited, on account of the membranes being i. transparent, and ii. pressed close against one another. Severing of involvements combined with transparency and the closeness of exteriors amplifies an omnidirectional gaze which is in the first place aesthetic, a gaze unavailable in contexts of participation. (The rattlesnake’s tail cannot be admired from inside the tank.) The interjection of the membrane amplifies both aesthetic access and remoteness of involvement, hypervisibility and normative isolation dual products of the same process. What is left is a simulation of closeness, at once backlit with fascination and stripped of all history, exchangeable for any equivalent but incapable of growth.

Critics of irony call it a passive and detached criticality, a strategy of evasion enumerating all problems and absolving all responsibility for solving them in the same breath4. Irony, they say, is strategic self-absolution. The ironist never reveals, and never becomes vulnerable. Intrigued by everything but fascinated by nothing. Irony functions immunologically by foreclosing all possibility of risk, and it is on these grounds that it is ultimately disavowed as too timid. Heralded as the antidote to irony’s fatal self-reflection is naïveté, and a return to intention as validator of action. Suspicious of irony’s privileging of thought naïveté calls one to act from the heart. It says: thought will leave you bound up in paralysis—stop it (or at least stop it short). Apathy, they say, is the greatest sin of all.

This strategy can never work. In taking irony as their culprit heralds of naïveté remix symptom as cause. Baudrillard said of irony that it is our last hope of perdition in a world that has become obscene5. What he meant by the obscene is nothing other than the impossibility of encountering a foamy world in anything other than the aesthetic mode. Irony is deployed as a coping strategy, response within thought to the aesthetisisation of everything—the extrinsic and systematic erasure of both risk and opportunity from all aspects of life. Once irony was a response to the necessity of action in the absence of possibilities for thought, to an absence of rational criteria which leaves action undecidable. Now the laugh is saved for the impossibility of action in a world stifled by a proliferation of thought fed endlessly back into itself. Action is impossible not because it is undecidable, but because the stack is never allowed to unwrap into an output. This is the foamification of irony, its aesthetic and ouroboric implosion, futile response within thought to the aesthetisisation and consequent immobilisation of thought itself.

Foamy irony is being replaced by foamy naïveté. This is the response within action to the total aesthetisation of action. Foamy naïveté is complicit in the production of homeostatic deadlock for the same but inverted reasons, digging the ravine from its other bank. Honest inaction is unstable, and mutates into theatre. Action without risk, action for the camera, action exchangeable as social capital. If participation seems amplified it is because it leverages risklessness: to “participate” in a political protest is now just to perform a political thought, never to take part in a political act (which was only ever to stake something that matters). What is called political action is instead predicated on its costlessness, which is to say the act is not political at all. Insomuch as it can be referred to as action it is more apiece with consumer action (we should say rather activity, since its direction is illusory). What has been lost in all this is the political itself. Rather than participate in the political by staking something one cannot afford to lose, a simulation of the political is purchased with something one can. If things are hopeless make a self-ironising aesthetic out of the tragedy; or simulate a utopian solution via an exchangeable action—both cede power via the same mechanism, and both photograph beautifully. Extinction Rebellion and mumble rap: same thing.

The society of the spectacle placed the audience at an Archimedean point outside of its image6. The audience is permitted to witness events only on the condition that they cede narrative detachment from them, consent to viewing them from the other side of the fourth wall. But the spectacle has now grown to encompass its audience, who no longer have access to an outside with which to locate themselves. The critical irony of the audience member evaporates, and transforms into the gurning faux earnest of the vaudeville. The society of the spectacle has become the society of the LARP.

Extinction Rebellion successfully aestheticised the political. Exactly the same mechanism it used to drive engagement undermined its own capacity to produce systems change. To participate politically is to stake something, to put on the line something one cannot afford to lose in the name of a principle that transcends mere desire. If arrest either costs you nothing or gets you something it cannot be a political act. The accusation that XR is a movement of and for the privileged was never really a charge that it defined direction action such that only those who could afford arrest were able to act politically by its lights; the problem was the exact opposite, perpetuated by both accusers and accused: that only those who could be arrested without risking politics were able to buy premium access to the LARP. In other words, that it was an exclusive simulation masquerading as inclusive. That this was conveyed as a limiting of the political inclusivity of XR only served to bolster the illusion that XR was ever anything like a political movement. That it generated large amounts of engagement is no mystery—it did so by ensuring engagement need not be political. Political engagement is costly, involving personal risk for collective struggle. Consumer engagement is cheap, requiring only a performance of ideology in return for symbolic self-realisation.

A recent advert for Squarespace ran with the tagline “a website makes it real”. It is this sense of the real that dominates the logic of value in foamy space. The real is now a cipher for a specialised yet distributed optics of value whose operation renders unreal all that is not curated, that is coded in the form of a decodable identity (an aesthetic) synthesised from salvaged fragments of whatever. (Literally whatever: value is entirely synthetic, brought into being by the act of curation itself.) The essentially exclusionary mechanics of curation serve two purposes: i. removing all elements that overstep and thus threaten the implicit norms constituting the identity (heterogeneity is nominally welcomed, even expected—but only within strict confines imposed from above. True heterogeneity is stifled, since difference is generative and inherently dispersive, a force that fractures identities. That which has been authorised to present itself as the new is never more than a new variation on a pre-existing theme. Those traces of the truly new that do break through remain invisible until they can be coded, by which point they are already old.) ii. masking the process of fragmentation and salvage, making both its operation and its casualties literally invisible, because unreal, ie. passed over by the optics of value (ie. doesn’t have a website). The assimilation of creation into curation is characteristic of foamy culture. Technologically facilitated curatorial practices seep through all media, which by now include physical reality itself. Everywhere organic unities are shattered and replaced by an artificial synthesis of the fragments. This is the curatorial operation: authenticity bent to the constraint of seriality, as Baudrillard once put it7.

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  1. Cf. Anna Tsing’s development of salvage accumulation, The Mushroom at the End of the World.

  2. Cf. Mark Fisher’s reflexive impotence.

  3. Peter Sloterdijk, Spheres III: Foams.

  4. A point made by David Foster Wallace.

  5. Jean Baudrillard, Passwords.

  6. Guy Debord, The Society of the Spectacle.

  7. Jean Baudrillard, Gesture and Signature: Semiurgy in Contemporary Art.