“There is a world to be transformed”: Interview With Matt Colquhoun

Matt Colquhoun is a writer and photographer from Kingston-Upon-Hull, UK. He is the author of Egress: On Mourning, Melancholy and Mark Fisher and editor of Mark Fisher’s Postcapitalist Desire: The Final Lectures. He blogs at xenogothic.com.

Ege Çoban: Hi Matt and thanks for agreeing to do interview. To begin, can you talk about what first got you interested in art and philosophy, what were some of the formative encounters that got you where you are today?

Matt Colquhoun: Thanks very much for having me!

I don’t think my formative years were all that special, looking back. There are many boring responses I could give you. If I wanted to sound clever, I’d probably emphasise the importance of Mark Rothko and his essay “The Romantics were prompted…” on my impressionable mind but, behind the familiar story of teenager-as-cultural-sponge, there’s a nice love story.

My favourite subjects at school were history and art. I wasn’t particularly good at either but I was interested in the history of ideas and how I could explore those ideas for myself in the present. My art teacher and my history teacher were both relatively young and I loved their lessons. I didn’t have much patience for anything else.

One year, my school’s history department organised a trip to Belgium to visit the war graves in Flanders. I took a lot of photographs whilst I was there and made a film about the trip on an old camcorder. My art teacher said the material I brought back had a lot of merit, and he encouraged me to keep at it. Somewhere along the way, my art teacher and my history teacher fell in love. They bonded over a passion of Italian art history, and they ended up organising a joint trip to Rome for their photography and history students. A year or so later, they got married there and I took the pictures. It was their relationship, more than the possibility of any kind of academic achievement, that I found life-affirming. It made me want to be a photographer as an adult.

However, it wasn’t simply the romance of travel that made photography an attractive vocation. In fact, that was the importance of Rothko. “The romantics were prompted to seek exotic subjects and to travel to far off places”, he wrote. “They failed to realize that, though the transcendental must involve the strange and unfamiliar, not everything strange or unfamiliar is transcendental.” That is a provocation that remains relevant to my interests today.

Later, aged 18, I went to study photography in Wales. I loved my time at university but I was perpetually frustrated with both my peers and the industry I entered into once I graduated. Photographic technique was hailed above all else; ideas, history, ethics were seldom considered at all, and if they were it was in a way that would be laughable to those actively engaged with them in their proper context.

I quickly found artists to be vapid and cold in how they actually engaged with the world around them, and I wasn’t too impressed with most curators either. However, I was painfully aware that I did not have the language to properly express how frustrated I was with the world around me. So, after a couple of years working in the arts, I went back to university to study “Contemporary Art Theory”, under the tutelage of Mark Fisher and Kodwo Eshun, among others.

I had initially planned to take what I had learned back to the gallery world and see what I could do to improve it. In the end, I abandoned the art world completely and now I work as a writer and researcher full-time.

E.Ç: You’ve previously talked about your background in the artistic milieus in Hull – which is a city with a really interesting history, being the birthplace of COUM Transmissions etc. – and then your gradual move to London to study in Goldsmiths. How would you compare the two intellectual & artistic scenes in these cities and how did your move from one to the other effect your interests at the time?

M.C: London is incomparable to anywhere else in the UK. To an outsider like myself, London feels like the UK’s only “global” city. However, this is not to say that London is somehow “better” than anywhere else; rather, the rest of the country is deprived of what London tends to have in abundance.

Hull, like the rest of the North of England, has long had an antagonistic relationship with the nation’s capital because of this. For example, one of Hull’s most famous exports, a band called the Housemartins, released an album in 1986 titled London 0 Hull 4 — like a football score; the band’s four members constituted four points to London’s zero. That album cover is replicated in many places around the city.

But Hull isn’t just antagonistic towards London; it doesn’t have a lot of interest in the rest of the country either. Philip Larkin also adopted Hull as his home – he was one of England’s most beloved poets, and he wrote many of his best poems about the city. One such poem, entitled Here, talks about Hull’s own sense of itself, as well as how its landscape, and being on the very edge of the world, informs its attitude. The poem ends: “Here is unfenced existence: / Facing the sun, untalkative, out of reach.” Hull looks out at the frigid North Sea and cares little about what the rest of the country is doing behind its back – London in particular. This creates something of a paradox. What is it to consider yourself an outsider in a nation already defined by its “island mentality”?

As lovely as that might sound to your average misanthrope, Hull is hardly a cultural idyll. COUM Transmissions were my saving grave as a teenager – they made me proud to be from a city that was otherwise the punchline of many jokes – but they were also a group that was effectively chased out of the city. They moved to London eventually, as most people have to if they really want to make something of themselves in the arts in this country.

That is the saddest thing about Hull for me. It has spawned many amazing artists and movements, but it often doesn’t realise what it has got until it’s gone. Very few of its best-known artists are known for having stayed at home.

Nevertheless, I hope to move back one day. It was a much more pleasant place to live than London. I recently moved back to Yorkshire and feel much more at home here. London is vibrant and busy and full of culture but its identity is not mine. I am not a Londoner. I’m from Hull, and Hull’s defiant awkwardness is compatible with few places other than itself.

E.Ç: I think of you as one of today’s best writers doing what Jane Gallop calls Anecdotal Theory. How do you think we should look at the relation between personal life and theory?

M.C: That’s very kind of you to say! I think my interest in what Gallop calls “anecdotal theory” is related to my interest in photography. “Write about what you know” is a cliched piece of advice, often given to people who have writers’ block, but it is something I have always lived by. With photography, it is unavoidable – I can only make work about or with the place that I am in at any given moment. Although that may just say something about my lack of imagination…

I think of it as a psychogeographic principle, or even a geophilosophical principle. Thought does not emerge from people so much as it emerges from places. The way I think, however that might be defined, has less to do with my individual psychology than it has to do with where I am from and the things that happened to me there growing up. One may influence the other, but it is the world that comes first, not the mind. I think that is true for most people. Understanding that, however, is another matter.

This is why your previous question is pertinent. There is something about Hull – its cultural outsideness, its industrial hardship, its exposure to the sea and the elements, its landscape and relative isolation – that makes it produce a certain kind of nihilist, whether that is of the COUM Transmissions or Philip Larkin variety. It begets a kind of Gothic outlook that nonetheless has a sense of humour and does not take itself too seriously. It is “xenogothic”.

It is also worth noting that, if London shaped my thinking at all, it was only whilst I was living there. I tend to absorb the thinking of the place where I am living. I also lived in Wales for some time, for instance, and came to understand a very familiar “unfenced existence” there. The people of Wales have much in common with the people of Yorkshire, particularly in terms of their political history, and understanding how Wales’ sense of itself differed from Yorkshire’s allowed me to better appreciate the uniqueness of both. I’ve recently moved to Huddersfield in West Yorkshire, which is a city I have never lived in before, and it has taken some getting used to, but already I have enjoyed reading about the Brontë sisters, born nearby, as well as the violent clashes between the British army and Luddite workers here in the nineteenth century. To understand the history of a place and why its people think a certain way is the first step towards forming friendships in that place, but it also enriches one’s own thought and life.

The relationship between personal experience and theory, then, for me at least, is inextricable. And it is important for me to include that in much of my writing; to remain loyal to the specific contexts that have generated certain ideas. That sort of process takes time, however. I do not think you can write in this way as a tourist; you can only write from a place you call home.

E.Ç: To come to Mark, although having two very distinct relations to them, his background comes both from the Cultural Studies scene in Birmingham and from the Cyber-Theory scenes in Warwick. How do you conceive his relation to these different traditions, do you think he transcends these influences?

M.C: Mark Fisher is an exemplary writer who was attuned to the rhythms of his time. He had an interest in both popular culture and underground culture, and cyber-theory, in the late Nineties and early 2000s, was on the border between both. If he transcends those interests, I think that is because he moved with the times. That does not sound like a particularly unique skill, but it is rare to find a writer so finely tuned to cultural time as he was.

E.Ç: You have mentioned several times that Mark’s last book [The Weird and the Eeire] is indispensable for a comprehensive understanding of his project, what do you think readings that gloss over this book miss when trying to reconstruct Mark’s program?

M.C: At first glance, most understand the titular weird and eerie of Mark’s book to be aesthetic categories, but they are much more than this. The weird and the eerie are ontological categories; names for ruptures in being, rather than just ruptures in appearances. For most, this is not explicit in the book itself but, understood in the broader context of Fisher’s work, it quickly becomes obvious.

The weird and the eerie, for instance, illuminate the lacunae of capitalist realism and the ghosts of futures past as much as they epitomise the psychedelia of his Acid Communism. They are names for aspects of events that fundamentally challenge how we think about the world around us, and I believe it was Fisher’s overall project to make those kinds of events legible to us again, in whatever form they might appear.

E.Ç: Sonic Cultures; how they spread, how they are lived, how they seem to possess an ability to libidinise and construct a community seemed to be an important inspiration for Mark’s understanding of how theoretical and political cultures should operate. As you also talk about the importance music in your book [Egress: On Mourning, Melancholy and the Fisher-Function], what kinds of stuff do you think theoretical and political circles can learn from music culture?

M.C: What was of particular importance to Fisher towards the end of his life was an understanding of how cultural movements prefigure political change. He spoke about how, in America, for instance, the growing visibility and audibility of Black music on television and radio paved the way for political change and the civil rights movement most explicitly. Indeed, it is often through music that we first imagine new ways of living for ourselves. Popular culture did this constantly in the 1960s and ‘70s but Fisher believed that, more recently, culture stopped informing politics as intently as it once did.

Black music, as ever, continues to set an agenda for the betterment of Black lives – and rightly so – but this sentiment is still less pervasive than it once was. Fisher was fascinated by the popularity of psychedelic culture, for instance, and the way that pop bands like the Kinks or the Beatles effectively popularised the idea of a world without work. To look back, it was the equivalent of One Direction having a radical political agenda. Where are our radical pop acts today? The prevalence of politically-active Black artists is arguably related to the fact that the Black community is very much conscious of the circumstances of Black lives, which can and should be improved. Are other communities somehow more complacent and accepting of their lot in life? That was Fisher’s question, and precisely what he wanted to challenge. How might other demographics, at the level of popular culture, effectively share in that kind of messaging? The message being that there are alternatives; there is a world to be transformed.

Any philosopher or political theorist who feels the same way might ask themselves how their ideas can be freed from the enclosure of an increasingly-blinkered academy or art world and find footing in popular culture – not just through pop culture’s interpretation but actively through cultural production as well. Fisher is notable, I think, because he strove to do both. He was an academic in a London university who nonetheless remained engaged in cultural production, in a way that wasn’t just for the benefit of his academic standing.

E.Ç: You edited the recent publication Mark’s last lectures by Repeater Books. What was your thought process going into the transcription and editing of the courses?  

M.C: Recordings of Mark’s final lectures had been available to listen to online since 2017, but there seemed to be little engagement with that material. This is perhaps understandable – it constitutes about ten hours of audio. I engaged with that material very early on, and it was listening to those lectures, and coming to understand what Mark was building before his untimely death, that inspired me to write my book Egress. There was so much hope in those lectures and Egress was my mournful attempt to reconcile that hope with the reality of what happened later.

After my book came out, it was clear that something was missing. The popular picture of Mark’s thought, as it had coalesced after his death, was poor. Misunderstandings and cliches spread much faster than any desire to actually engage with the astonishing amount of work he left behind; perhaps because he had become so posthumously popular and it was no longer especially “cool” to take him so seriously.

This was especially clear following the publication of the unfinished introduction to his next book, Acid Communism. Although it helped to fill in some of the gaps, the essay was so introductory as to allow for any number of interpretations from readers. Most of these interpretations were innocuous but they were nonetheless inaccurate. It was obvious to many of us at Goldsmiths that Mark had much more of the project planned, if not written down, and it was far more consistent with his preceding thought than many assumed after he had died.

With all that in mind, I approached Postcapitalist Desire as the last available piece of a still-incomplete puzzle. Beyond that, the book is also intended to be a gift to those who never experienced the joy of being taught by Mark – an experience that inspired so many of us to remain loyal to his work and keep promoting serious engagement with it after his death. But, primarily, it is an attempt to foreground that unfortunately unfinished project, and provide an appropriate background to Acid Communism so that the tensions within Mark’s last thought could be properly discussed rather than smoothed out and made impotent.

E.Ç: In your elucidations on what Acid Communism [the name of the book Mark was writing before his passing] may imply, you criticise readings of the concept by people like Jeremy Gilbert on the basis that, although a communist emancipation – that would be Acid in nature – is certainly desirable, it might not be pleasurable. And that this disturbance of pleasure is precisely the point. Can you elaborate more on this distinction you make between desire and pleasure and what you think an understanding of emancipatory politics as solely within the realm of the pleasure principle leads to?

M.C: It was one of Sigmund Freud’s most important observations that we do not always act in accordance with the pleasure principle. Particularly when dealing with certain pathologies, we have a tendency to repeat our past traumas. Relatedly, pleasure-seeking can be a sign that we are repressing our true feelings. There are so many unhealthy things we do to feel good when our general experience of life feels bad.

Fisher’s suspicions regarding pleasure were similar. “Pleasure” is a loaded concept – what someone finds pleasurable can be heavily influence by class, culture and circumstance. What Fisher was most suspicious of, perhaps, was a very middle-class notion of pleasure. He deplored drugs, in that regard, not morally but politically. The real issue is that the acquisition of that sort of “pleasure” often comes at a great cost – namely, the sacrifice of all autonomy.

This is a particularly important point in our capitalist present. We are so conditioned by capitalist expectations that what is nice and pleasant and familiar is far from the political reality we might otherwise desire. This is a problem for political emancipation. After all, we say we desire freedom, but having been raised in capitalist captivity, if the doors of our cages were suddenly thrown open, many of us would recoil and prefer the familiar over the radically new.

Fisher understood this explicitly. It is arguably the real subject of his final book The Weird and the Eerie. We fear the unfamiliar and may find it unpleasurable, but that dark alleyway might lead to a far better world than the one we currently live in. In that sense, we must be prepared to push beyond capitalism’s pleasure principle and into the weird.

Koray Kırmızısakal: Do you think Mark’s thoughts will continue to haunt us or were they only important for a particular moment after 2008 and the early 2010’s. Is k-punk exhaustible by the historicity of its object of critique?     

M.C: I think that Fisher’s thought will haunt us for as long as we remain stuck at “the end of history”. Fisher believed in the movement of thought – his own thought, though it has many underlining consistencies, changed a great deal over the twenty years he was actively writing. I think that is what makes his thought so exciting. It is very much alive. Fisher was not the kind of person to labour over the same point long past its relevancy.

With this in mind, I think the day that Fisher’s work becomes an object of historical interest rather than present relevance is a day we should look out for. Were he still here, he would no doubt move with the times. Now that he is no longer with us, the continued validity of his thought only demonstrates our own stuckness. But this is not to say that his thought does not contain insights of a more fundamental nature. Fisher will remain relevant for as long as we are struggling against our own internal habits of reaction and retrospection, and every generation struggles with those habits at some point. This is to say that, whilst capitalist realism may seem less like the ideological monolith that it was in 2009, the underlying problems that constitute it are far from vanquished.

KK: One of the fears we were having while looking at how the term ‘’capitalist realism’’ was being used everywhere was that this concept might be losing its critical edge. If we want to produce counter-factual imaginaries with regard to the status quo then it seems it would be better to think of ‘’Post-Capitalist Desire’’ rather than ‘’Capitalist Realism’’ when one tries to navigate in the lanes that Mark opened. Do you think there is a danger in focusing on Capitalist Realism without putting it in the general context of Mark’s work?

M.C: Yes, I think so. Capitalism realism, as you say, was born from a very specific moment, following the financial crash of 2008. That was a time when we were told, again and again, that the banks – and capitalism as such – were too big to fail.

In the present, that no longer rings true. It is not just economies that have faltered but entire nation-states. Here in the UK, we are struggling to imagine a world beyond Brexit, but for many that future does not include the United Kingdom as we know it. Many anticipate the union will fracture, with capitalism along with it.

Still, there is a case to be made that this is all still an issue of capitalist realism. Around the world, we are now dealing with problems that have existed for a long time but which we cannot put off any longer. Capitalist realism was responsible for that deferral of action. But it will only be eradicated if we can imagine new futures to escape into.

George Monbiot recently argued that Brexit represents a civil war within capitalism – that is, between the EU’s neoliberal capitalist hegemony and the UK’s reactionary capitalist nostalgia. Capitalism is in crisis but, at present, whoever wins, we are still fighting over capitalist alternatives rather than alternatives to capitalism.

If capitalist realism has lost its critical edge, it is because this crisis has forced us to finally think about the alternatives available to us. But thinking about them is not the same as achieving them. Capitalist realism will remain relevant to us all until we are finally on the other side of its tyranny.

This is why Acid Communism felt like a sequel to Fisher’s best-selling book. “Capitalist realism” described the reality we have that tells us there are no alternatives; “acid communism” was an attempt to describe an imaginative alternative that is increasingly within our reach but seldom discussed with any seriousness. The “acid” of Acid Communism is psychedelic in much the same way that capitalist realism was psychedelic; it is concerned with consciousness but, rather than its limits, Fisher had moved on to discuss its potentialities.

Ege Çoban: Lastly, can you talk about what you are currently working on? We hear you are planning a book on accelerationism.

M.C: I have a number of projects that are currently in various stages of completion. A book on accelerationism is the most developed of those projects.

Accelerationism was initially a methodology for emphasising the ways that capitalism produces affects that threaten its own existence. The rise of automation, for instance, produced glimmers of a world without work. We might say, then, that capitalism has a death drive. This is an issue, however, if you are a capitalist, and so capitalists, on the whole, wish to slow capitalism down. Accelerationism theorises how we might intensify those vectors that undermine capitalism from within. The problem, however, is that accelerationism has fallen on its own sword. Just as capitalism can produce vectors of its own self-annihilation, so can critiques of capitalism produce their own weak spots. I think this is one way of explaining how this mode of thought, which began as an attempt to usher in the radically new, has become associated with the most reactionary impulses present in society today.

To write this book at a time when accelerationism is at its most controversial is quite a daunting task, however, and one I am undertaking with great sensitivity. It’s for the sake of my own sanity, then, that I have a few other projects in the works too. Another is a further exercise in anecdotal theory, exploring the politics of child adoption and their surprising influence on the development of psychoanalysis and our understanding of subjectivity.

And when the weight of those self-serious projects gets too much, I turn to a manuscript about the psychedelic function of the American West in the popular imagination.

Suffice it to say I am happy for this quarantine to continue forever. I have plenty to be getting on with.

Ege Çoban, Fransa ve Türkiye arasında yaşıyor. Yabancılaşma ve Evrenselliğin felsefe tarihindeki kavramsal gelişimi üzerine bağımsız olarak çalışıyor.

Matt Colquhoun
Yazar ve fotoğrafçı, Mark Fisher üzerine iki kitabı bulunuyor, xenogothic.com'da blog yazıyor.



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