“Earlier this year, there were some high-profile twitterstorms, in which particular left-identifying figures were ‘called out’ and condemned. What these figures had said was sometimes objectionable; but nevertheless, the way in which they were personally vilified and hounded left a horrible residue: the stench of bad conscience and witch-hunting moralism”
This summer, I seriously considered withdrawing from any involvement in politics. Exhausted through overwork, incapable of productive activity, I found myself drifting through social networks, feeling my depression and exhaustion increasing.‘Left-wing’ Twitter can often be a miserable, dispiriting zone. Judith Black Pleasant Street (Stanley/Barker). Earlier this year, there were some high-profile twitterstorms, in which particular left-identifying figures were ‘called out’ and condemned. Hans-Christian Schink Hinterland (Hartmann Books). What these figures had said was sometimes objectionable; but nevertheless, the way in which they were personally vilified and hounded left a horrible residue: the stench of bad conscience and witch-hunting moralism.
Adrian Samson Mother (Rollo Press).The reason I didn’t speak out on any of these incidents, I’m ashamed to say, was fear. Guido Guidi’s Lunario (MACK). The bullies were in another part of the playground. Julião Sarmento CAFÉ BISSAU (Pierre von Kleist). I didn’t want to attract their attention to me. Thomas Manneke Mutatio (Van Zoetendaal). The open savagery of these exchanges was accompanied by something more pervasive, and for that reason perhaps more debilitating: an atmosphere of snarky resentment. The most frequent object of this resentment is Owen Jones, and the attacks on Jones – the person most responsible for raising class consciousness in the UK in the last few years – were one of the reasons I was so dejected. Gerry Johansson’s Ehime (T&M Projects). If this is what happens to a left-winger who is actually succeeding in taking the struggle to the centre ground of British life, why would anyone want to follow him into the mainstream? Justine Kurland Girl Pictures (Aperture). Is the only way to avoid this drip-feed of abuse to remain in a position of impotent marginality? André Cepeda Ballad of Today (Pierre von Kleist). One of the things that broke me out of this depressive stupor was going to the People’s Assembly in Ipswich, near where I live.
The People’s Assembly had been greeted with the usual sneers and snarks. Ron Jude 12hz (MACK). This was, we were told, a useless stunt, in which media leftists, including Jones, were aggrandising themselves in yet another display of top-down celebrity culture. What actually happened at the Assembly in Ipswich was very different to this caricature. Bertrand Cavalier Concrete Doesn’t Burn (FW Books). The first half of the evening – culminating in a rousing speech by Owen Jones – was certainly led by the top-table speakers. Raymond Meeks Ciprian Honey Cathedral (MACK). But the second half of the meeting saw working class activists from all over Suffolk talking to each other, supporting one another, sharing experiences and strategies. Far from being another example of hierarchical leftism, the People’s Assembly was an example of how the vertical can be combined with the horizontal: media power and charisma could draw people who hadn’t previously been to a political meeting into the room, where they could talk and strategise with seasoned activists. Nicolas Polli When Strawberries Grow on Trees, I will Kiss you (Ciao Press).
The atmosphere was anti-racist and anti-sexist, but refreshingly free of the paralysing feeling of guilt and suspicion which hangs over left-wing twitter like an acrid, stifling fog. Ward Long Summer Sublet (Deadbeat Club Press). Then there was Russell Brand. Katherine Longly Hernie & Plume (The Eriskay Connection). Julião Sarmento Café Bissau (Pierre von Kleist) I’ve long been an admirer of Brand – one of the few big-name comedians on the current scene to come from a working class background. Peter Mitchell’s Early Sunday Morning (RRB Books). Over the last few years, there has been a gradual but remorseless embourgeoisement of television comedy, with preposterous ultra-posh nincompoop Michael McIntyre and a dreary drizzle of bland graduate chancers dominating the stage.The day before Brand’s now famous interview with Jeremy Paxman was broadcast on Newsnight, I had seen Brand’s stand-up show the Messiah Complex in Ipswich. Aikaterini Gegisian’s Handbook of the Spontaneous Other (MACK).
The show was defiantly pro-immigrant, pro-communist, anti-homophobic, saturated with working class intelligence and not afraid to show it, and queer in the way that popular culture used to be (i.e. nothing to do with the sour-faced identitarian piety foisted upon us by moralisers on the post-structuralist ‘left’). Stephen Shore Transparencies Small Camera Works 1971-1979 (MACK) Malcolm X, Che, politics as a psychedelic dismantling of existing reality: this was communism as something cool, sexy and proletarian, instead of a finger-wagging sermon. Massimiliano Tommaso Rezza PSALM (Witty Kiwi). The next night, it was clear that Brand’s appearance had produced a moment of splitting. For some of us, Brand’s forensic take-down of Paxman was intensely moving, miraculous; I couldn’t remember the last time a person from a working class background had been given the space to so consummately destroy a class ‘superior’ using intelligence and reason. Sam Contis Day Sleeper (MACK). This wasn’t Johnny Rotten swearing at Bill Grundy – an act of antagonism which confirmed rather than challenged class stereotypes.
Mimi Plumb The White sky (Stanley/Barker). Brand had outwitted Paxman – and the use of humour was what separated Brand from the dourness of so much ‘leftism’. Brand makes people feel good about themselves; whereas the moralising left specialises in making people feed bad, and is not happy until their heads are bent in guilt and self-loathing. Paul Graham’s A1-The Great North Road (MACK). The moralising left quickly ensured that the story was not about Brand’s extraordinary breach of the bland conventions of mainstream media ‘debate’, nor about his claim that revolution was going to happen. (This last claim could only be heard by the cloth-eared petit-bourgeois narcissistic ‘left’ as Brand saying that he wanted to lead the revolution – something that they responded to with typical resentment: ‘I don’t need a jumped-up celebrity to lead me‘.) For the moralisers, the dominant story was to be about Brand’s personal conduct – specifically his sexism. Loïc Seguin’s Half-Light (VOID). In the febrile McCarthyite atmosphere fermented by the moralising left, remarks that could be construed as sexist mean that Brand is a sexist, which also meant that he is a misogynist. Wendy Ewald’s Portraits and Dreams.
Cut and dried, finished, condemned.It is right that Brand, like any of us, should answer for his behaviour and the language that he uses. Stephen Shore’s Transparencies: Small Camera Works 1971-1979 (MACK). But such questioning should take place in an atmosphere of comradeship and solidarity, and probably not in public in the first instance – although when Brand was questioned about sexism by Mehdi Hasan, he displayed exactly the kind of good-humoured humility that was entirely lacking in the stony faces of those who had judged him. “I don’t think I’m sexist, But I remember my grandmother, the loveliest person I‘ve ever known, but she was racist, but I don’t think she knew. Damian Heinisch 45 (MACK). I don’t know if I have some cultural hangover, I know that I have a great love of proletariat linguistics, like ‘darling’ and ‘bird’, so if women think I’m sexist they’re in a better position to judge than I am, so I’ll work on that.”Brand’s intervention was not a bid for leadership; it was an inspiration, a call to arms. And I for one was inspired. Harmony Korine & Juergen Teller William Eggleston 414 (Steidl).
“And one of the things that was clarified for me was the way in which, in recent years, so much of the self-styled ‘left’ has suppressed the question of class. The petit bourgeoisie which dominates the academy and the culture industry has all kinds of subtle deflections and pre-emptions which prevent the topic even coming up, and then, if it does come up, they make one think it is a terrible impertinence, a breach of etiquette, to raise it…”
Where a few months before, I would have stayed silent as the Posh Left moralisers subjected Brand to their kangaroo courts and character assassinations – with ‘evidence’ usually gleaned from the right-wing press, always available to lend a hand – this time I was prepared to take them on. Teju Cole’s Fernweh (Mack). The response to Brand quickly became as significant as the Paxman exchange itself. As Laura Oldfield Ford pointed out, this was a clarifying moment. And one of the things that was clarified for me was the way in which, in recent years, so much of the self-styled ‘left’ has suppressed the question of class. Class consciousness is fragile and fleeting. Tatum Shaw’s Plusgood (AINT BAD). The petit bourgeoisie which dominates the academy and the culture industry has all kinds of subtle deflections and pre-emptions which prevent the topic even coming up, and then, if it does come up, they make one think it is a terrible impertinence, a breach of etiquette, to raise it. Dafna Talmor Constructed Landscapes (FW Books).
I’ve been speaking now at left-wing, anti-capitalist events for years, but I’ve rarely talked – or been asked to talk – about class in public. Roger Eberhard Human Territoriality (Edition Patrick Frey).But, once class had re-appeared, it was impossible not to see it everywhere in the response to the Brand affair. Brand was quickly judged and-or questioned by at least three ex-private school people on the left. Others told us that Brand couldn’t really be working class, because he was a millionaire. Gerry Johansson Meloni Meloni (Johansson & Jansson AB). It’s alarming how many ‘leftists’ seemed to fundamentally agree with the drift behind Paxman’s question: ‘What gives this working class person the authority to speak?’ It’s also alarming, actually distressing, that they seem to think that working class people should remain in poverty, obscurity and impotence lest they lose their ‘authenticity’.Someone passed me a post written about Brand on Facebook.
Matteo Di Giovanni’s Blue Bar (I wrote the text for full transparency)(Artphilein Editions). I don’t know the individual who wrote it, and I wouldn’t wish to name them. What’s important is that the post was symptomatic of a set of snobbish and condescending attitudes that it is apparently alright to exhibit while still classifying oneself as left wing. Odette England Keeper of the Hearth (Schilt Publishing). The whole tone was horrifyingly high-handed, as if they were a schoolteacher marking a child’s work, or a psychiatrist assessing a patient. Brand, apparently, is ‘clearly extremely unstable … one bad relationship or career knockback away from collapsing back into drug addiction or worse.’ Although the person claims that they ‘really quite like [Brand]‘, it perhaps never occurs to them that one of the reasons that Brand might be ‘unstable’ is just this sort of patronising faux-transcendent ‘assessment’ from the ‘left’ bourgeoisie. There’s also a shocking but revealing aside where the individual casually refers to Brand’s ‘patchy education [and] the often wince-inducing vocab slips characteristic of the auto-didact’ – which, this individual generously says, ‘I have no problem with at all’ – how very good of them! Christopher Anderson’s Pia (Stanley/Barker).
” It is first of all necessary to identify the features of the discourses and the desires which have led us to this grim and demoralising pass, where class has disappeared, but moralism is everywhere, where solidarity is impossible, but guilt and fear are omnipresent – and not because we are terrorised by the right, but because we have allowed bourgeois modes of subjectivity to contaminate our movement”
John Divola Chroma Skinnerboox This isn’t some colonial bureaucrat writing about his attempts to teach some ‘natives’ the English language in the nineteenth century, or a Victorian schoolmaster at some private institution describing a scholarship boy, it’s a ‘leftist’ writing a few weeks ago.Where to go from here? It is first of all necessary to identify the features of the discourses and the desires which have led us to this grim and demoralising pass, where class has disappeared, but moralism is everywhere, where solidarity is impossible, but guilt and fear are omnipresent – and not because we are terrorised by the right, but because we have allowed bourgeois modes of subjectivity to contaminate our movement. Massimo Leardini’s Elv (Stanley/Barker). I think there are two libidinal-discursive configurations which have brought this situation about. Nick Waplington Anaglypta (Jesus Blue).
Teju Cole Ferweh (MACK)They call themselves left wing, but – as the Brand episode has made clear – they are in many ways a sign that the left – defined as an agent in a class struggle – has all but disappeared. Inside the Vampires’ CastleThe first configuration is what I came to call the Vampires’ Castle. Samuel Fosso 666 (Steidl). The Vampires’ Castle specialises in propagating guilt. Isabelle Wenzel Counting to Ten (APE).It is driven by a priest’s desire to excommunicate and condemn, an academic-pedant’s desire to be the first to be seen to spot a mistake, and a hipster’s desire to be one of the in-crowd. The danger in attacking the Vampires’ Castle is that it can look as if – and it will do everything it can to reinforce this thought – that one is also attacking the struggles against racism, sexism, heterosexism. Eli Durst The Community (Morel). But, far from being the only legitimate expression of such struggles, the Vampires’ Castle is best understood as a bourgeois-liberal perversion and appropriation of the energy of these movements. Imagining Everyday Life Engagements With Vernacular Photography The Walther Collection (Steidl). The Vampires’ Castle was born the moment when the struggle not to be defined by identitarian categories became the quest to have ‘identities’ recognised by a bourgeois big Other. The privilege I certainly enjoy as a white male consists in part in my not being aware of my ethnicity and my gender, and it is a sobering and revelatory experience to occasionally be made aware of these blind-spots. Gordon Parks The Atmosphere of Crime (Steidl). But, rather than seeking a world in which everyone achieves freedom from identitarian classification, the Vampires’ Castle seeks to corral people back into identi-camps, where they are forever defined in the terms set by dominant power, crippled by self-consciousness and isolated by a logic of solipsism which insists that we cannot understand one another unless we belong to the same identity group. Tom Wood 101 Pictures (RRB Books).
I’ve noticed a fascinating magical inversion projection-disavowal mechanism whereby the sheer mention of class is now automatically treated as if that means one is trying to downgrade the importance of race and gender. Chris Killip The Station (Steidl).In fact, the exact opposite is the case, as the Vampires’ Castle uses an ultimately liberal understanding of race and gender to obfuscate class. Issei Suda 78 (Chose Commune). In all of the absurd and traumatic twitterstorms about privilege earlier this year it was noticeable that the discussion of class privilege was entirely absent. The task, as ever, remains the articulation of class, gender and race – but the founding move of the Vampires’ Castle is the dis-articulation of class from other categories. Charlie Engman MOM (Edition Patrick Frey). The problem that the Vampires’ Castle was set up to solve is this: how do you hold immense wealth and power while also appearing as a victim, marginal and oppositional? Vasantha Yoganantha Afterlife (Chose Commune). The solution was already there – in the Christian Church. So the VC has recourse to all the infernal strategies, dark pathologies and psychological torture instruments Christianity invented, and which Nietzsche described in The Genealogy of Morals. Mihai Barabancea Falling on Blades (Edition Patrick Frey). This priesthood of bad conscience, this nest of pious guilt-mongers, is exactly what Nietzsche predicted when he said that something worse than Christianity was already on the way. Mariken Wessels Miss Cox (Fw Books). Dieter Keller The Eye of War (Buchkunst Berlin). Now, here it is …The Vampires’ Castle feeds on the energy and anxieties and vulnerabilities of young students, but most of all it lives by converting the suffering of particular groups – the more ‘marginal’ the better – into academic capital. The most lauded figures in the Vampires’ Castle are those who have spotted a new market in suffering – those who can find a group more oppressed and subjugated than any previously exploited will find themselves promoted through the ranks very quickly.The first law of the Vampires’ Castle is: individualise and privatise everything.
Debi Cornwall Necessary Fictions (Radius Books). While in theory it claims to be in favour of structural critique, in practice it never focuses on anything except individual behaviour. Jan Philipzen Ravedeath Convention (APE). Some of these working class types are not terribly well brought up, and can be very rude at times. Roger Eberhard Human Territoriality (Edition Patrick Frey). Remember: condemning individuals is always more important than paying attention to impersonal structures. Joji Hasiguchi We Have No Place to Be (Session Press). The actual ruling class propagates ideologies of individualism, while tending to act as a class. (Many of what we call ‘conspiracies’ are the ruling class showing class solidarity.) The VC, as dupe-servants of the ruling class, does the opposite: it pays lip service to ‘solidarity’ and ‘collectivity’, while always acting as if the individualist categories imposed by power really hold. Ken Light Midnight La Frontera (TBW Books). Because they are petit-bourgeois to the core, the members of the Vampires’ Castle are intensely competitive, but this is repressed in the passive aggressive manner typical of the bourgeoisie. An-My Lê On Contested Terrain (Aperture). What holds them together is not solidarity, but mutual fear – the fear that they will be the next one to be outed, exposed, condemned.The second law of the Vampires’ Castle is: make thought and action appear very, very difficult. There must be no lightness, and certainly no humour. Humour isn’t serious, by definition, right? Josef Wolfgang Meyer Standing By The Wall/ Berlin 1990 (Buchkunst Berlin). Thought is hard work, for people with posh voices and furrowed brows. Where there is confidence, introduce scepticism. Say: don’t be hasty, we have to think more deeply about this. Remember: having convictions is oppressive, and might lead to gulags.The third law of the Vampires’ Castle is: propagate as much guilt as you can. The more guilt the better. Frido Troost An Educational Archive of 2910 Slides (APE). People must feel bad: it is a sign that they understand the gravity of things. It’s OK to be class-privileged if you feel guilty about privilege and make others in a subordinate class position to you feel guilty too. You do some good works for the poor, too, right? The fourth law of the Vampires’ Castle is: essentialize.
While fluidity of identity, plurality and multiplicity are always claimed on behalf of the VC members – partly to cover up their own invariably wealthy, privileged or bourgeois-assimilationist background – the enemy is always to be essentialized. Since the desires animating the VC are in large part priests’ desires to excommunicate and condemn, there has to be a strong distinction between Good and Evil, with the latter essentialized. Notice the tactics. X has made a remark/ has behaved in a particular way – these remarks/ this behaviour might be construed as transphobic/ sexist etc. So far, OK. But it’s the next move which is the kicker. X then becomes defined as a transphobe/ sexist etc. Their whole identity becomes defined by one ill-judged remark or behavioural slip. Once the VC has mustered its witch-hunt, the victim (often from a working class background, and not schooled in the passive aggressive etiquette of the bourgeoisie) can reliably be goaded into losing their temper, further securing their position as pariah/ latest to be consumed in feeding frenzy.The fifth law of the Vampires’ Castle: think like a liberal (because you are one). The VC’s work of constantly stoking up reactive outrage consists of endlessly pointing out the screamingly obvious: capital behaves like capital (it’s not very nice!), repressive state apparatuses are repressive. We must protest! Neo-anarchy in the UK The second libidinal formation is neo-anarchism. By neo-anarchists I definitely do not mean anarchists or syndicalists involved in actual workplace organisation, such as the Solidarity Federation. I mean, rather, those who identify as anarchists but whose involvement in politics extends little beyond student protests and occupations, and commenting on Twitter. Gordon Parks. The Atmosphere of Crime. Steidl. Like the denizens of the Vampires’ Castle, neo-anarchists usually come from a petit-bourgeois background, if not from somewhere even more class-privileged.They are also overwhelmingly young: in their twenties or at most their early thirties, and what informs the neo-anarchist position is a narrow historical horizon. Neo-anarchists have experienced nothing but capitalist realism. By the time the neo-anarchists had come to political consciousness – and many of them have come to political consciousness remarkably recently, given the level of bullish swagger they sometimes display – the Labour Party had become a Blairite shell, implementing neo-liberalism with a small dose of social justice on the side.
But the problem with neo-anarchism is that it unthinkingly reflects this historical moment rather than offering any escape from it. It forgets, or perhaps is genuinely unaware of, the Labour Party’s role in nationalising major industries and utilities or founding the National Health Service. Neo-anarchists will assert that ‘parliamentary politics never changed anything’, or the ‘Labour Party was always useless’ while attending protests about the NHS, or retweeting complaints about the dismantling of what remains of the welfare state. Bill Henson’s Sic Transit (Stanley Barker).There’s a strange implicit rule here: it’s OK to protest against what parliament has done, but it’s not alright to enter into parliament or the mass media to attempt to engineer change from there. Mainstream media is to be disdained, but BBC Question Time is to be watched and moaned about on Twitter. Purism shades into fatalism; better not to be in any way tainted by the corruption of the mainstream, better to uselessly ‘resist’ than to risk getting your hands dirty. Mårten Lange Ghost Witness (Loose Joints Publishing)It’s not surprising, then, that so many neo-anarchists come across as depressed. This depression is no doubt reinforced by the anxieties of postgraduate life, since, like the Vampires’ Castle, neo-anarchism has its natural home in universities, and is usually propagated by those studying for postgraduate qualifications, or those who have recently graduated from such study.What is to be done? Why have these two configurations come to the fore? The first reason is that they have been allowed to prosper by capital because they serve its interests.
“Social media means that this is no longer the case, and there is little protection from the psychic pathologies propagated by these discourses. So what can we do now? First of all, it is imperative to reject identitarianism, and to recognise that there are no identities, only desires, interests and identifications”
Capital subdued the organised working class by decomposing class consciousness, viciously subjugating trade unions while seducing ‘hard working families’ into identifying with their own narrowly defined interests instead of the interests of the wider class; but why would capital be concerned about a ‘left’ that replaces class politics with a moralising individualism, and that, far from building solidarity, spreads fear and insecurity? The second reason is what Jodi Dean has called communicative capitalism. Trent Parke’s Crimson Line (Stanley/Barker). It might have been possible to ignore the Vampires’ Castle and the neo-anarchists if it weren’t for capitalist cyberspace. Matteo Di Giovanni Blue Bar Artphilein Editions (I wrote the text for full transparency). The VC’s pious moralising has been a feature of a certain ‘left’ for many years – but, if one wasn’t a member of this particular church, its sermons could be avoided. Social media means that this is no longer the case, and there is little protection from the psychic pathologies propagated by these discourses. So what can we do now? First of all, it is imperative to reject identitarianism, and to recognise that there are no identities, only desires, interests and identifications. Part of the importance of the British Cultural Studies project – as revealed so powerfully and so movingly in John Akomfrah’s installation The Unfinished Conversation (currently in Tate Britain) and his film The Stuart Hall Project – was to have resisted identitarian essentialism. Instead of freezing people into chains of already-existing equivalences, the point was to treat any articulation as provisional and plastic. Jason Lee In The Gold Dust Rush Stanley/Barker. New articulations can always be created. No-one is essentially anything. Sadly, the right act on this insight more effectively than the left does. The bourgeois-identitarian left knows how to propagate guilt and conduct a witch hunt, but it doesn’t know how to make converts. But that, after all, is not the point. The aim is not to popularise a leftist position, or to win people over to it, but to remain in a position of elite superiority, but now with class superiority redoubled by moral superiority too. ‘How dare you talk – it’s we who speak for those who suffer!’But the rejection of identitarianism can only be achieved by the re-assertion of class.
Juan Orrantia Like Stains of Red Dirt (Dalpine). A left that does not have class at its core can only be a liberal pressure group. Class consciousness is always double: it involves a simultaneous knowledge of the way in which class frames and shapes all experience, and a knowledge of the particular position that we occupy in the class structure. It must be remembered that the aim of our struggle is not recognition by the bourgeoisie, nor even the destruction of the bourgeoisie itself. Gloria Oyarzabal Woman Go, No’Gree (Editoprial RM with Images Vevey). It is the class structure – a structure that wounds everyone, even those who materially profit from it – that must be destroyed. Robbie Lawrence A Voice Above the Linn (Stanley/Barker). The interests of the working class are the interests of all; the interests of the bourgeoisie are the interests of capital, which are the interests of no-one. Laura Rodari Malia (Self Published). Our struggle must be towards the construction of a new and surprising world, not the preservation of identities shaped and distorted by capital. Bill Henson Sic Transit (Stanley/Barker). If this seems like a forbidding and daunting task, it is. But we can start to engage in many prefigurative activities right now. Sergio Purtell’s Love’s Labor (Stanley/Barker). Actually, such activities would go beyond pre-figuration – they could start a virtuous cycle, a self-fulfilling prophecy in which bourgeois modes of subjectivity are dismantled and a new universality starts to build itself. Mark McKnight Heaven is a Prison (Loose Joints).We need to learn, or re-learn, how to build comradeship and solidarity instead of doing capital’s work for it by condemning and abusing each other. Olivier Pin-Fat In)Absentia Self-Published (I wrote the text for full transparency). This doesn’t mean, of course, that we must always agree – on the contrary, we must create conditions where disagreement can take place without fear of exclusion and excommunication. Sunil Gupta: Lovers: Ten Years On (Stanley/Barker). We need to think very strategically about how to use social media – always remembering that, despite the egalitarianism claimed for social media by capital’s libidinal engineers, that this is currently an enemy territory, dedicated to the reproduction of capital. Damian Heinisch’s 45 (MACK). But this doesn’t mean that we can’t occupy the terrain and start to use it for the purposes of producing class consciousness. We must break out of the ‘debate’ set up by communicative capitalism, in which capital is endlessly cajoling us to participate, and remember that we are involved in a class struggle.
“We need to think very strategically about how to use social media – always remembering that, despite the egalitarianism claimed for social media by capital’s libidinal engineers, that this is currently an enemy territory, dedicated to the reproduction of capital”
The goal is not to ‘be’ an activist, but to aid the working class to activate – and transform – itself. Sybren Vanoverberghe 1099 (I wrote the text for full transparency) APE Editions. Outside the Vampires’ Castle, anything is possible. Geir Moseid. Plucked. Teknisk Industri AS. This article was originally published in The North Star on November 22, 2013 and is reposted here with thanks to it and the author. Mark Mahoney Polar Night Trespasser.
These are books that I have held in my hands in 2020. I do not work from pdfs and I could not attend any fairs apart from Festival Images Vevey. This list is long. It was a good year, great if you take in consideration the plague. I have no favourites, but I will say that I believe that Stanley/Barker and Mack probably held the year with their overall work and flow. Through the pandemic, they both crushed it. I will also mention Loose Joints made one of the most important books of the year as did Chose Commune even if they could not publish as much as usual. I did not include books on theory. I will cover those elsewhere below. If you are not a fan of Mark Fisher, You can find an extended version of this list and my thoughts on 2020 and its books on Nearest Truth
Books you should have actually bought this year… I think its also fair to raise a toast to MACK for starting their Discourse series of written books about photography-an open and interesting proposition that will widen our understanding of our medium from voices in and outside of the reaches of the institution. I highly recommend all volumes thus far published. I have read 3/4 and have enjoyed all, particularly the Baltz and I have Sally’s Migrant Mother, Migrant Gender up after my John Peel biography.
1) To Make Their Own Way in the World: The Enduring Legacy of the Zealy Daguerreotypes, edited by Ilisa Barbash, Molly Rogers, and Deborah Willis. Published by Peabody Essex Museum and Aperture. A fascinating historical study about an incredibly relevant proposition regarding historical ownership and legacy along with adding more conversation on race and power.
2) Photography’s Neoliberal Realism. Jörg Colberg. Discourse MACK A small but interesting rumination on capitalism and its effects on photography. It is factored through the work of three artists and is important as a conversation piece.
3) An Interview with Lewis Baltz. Duncan Forbes. Discourse. MACK. Absolutely brilliant offering not only on Baltz, but by Baltz and the importance of this critical thinker’s metaphorical ability to think through the medium through alternate versions of self and place within the medium. A stand out for the Discourse series so far.
4) Photography and Belief. Zwirner. David Levi-Strauss.David is one of photography’s more important critical voices in photography. This slim, but important Zwirner volume is an important philosophical offering about our need to believe filtered through the lens of Flusser and others.
5) Mineshaft. Steve Finbow. Amphetamine Sulphate (not photography per se, but highly photoGRAPHIC). This is a book of literary genius which takes place in 1976 New York. A number of key players enter the discourse including Robert Mapplethorpe. Finbow is a gifted writer whose thinking is transgressive without feeling immature or remedial. His flow is commendable and he can actually write unlike a good number of the new transgressive school who start with an abject idea and poorly flesh it out with some words.
6) Latent Bloom. Jack Latham. Here Press with Images Vevey. This is an important book for what is to come. A brilliant new step for Latham, who has produced two brilliant documentary studies. This is about computer learning, photography and simulation. The book uses an algorithm to digest and re-distribute photography writing into a new adapted form-the results of which are often hilarious, but also uncomfortably close to the original textual practice.
7) YET Magazine Publishing-What We Know So Far. The sad and also brilliant last episode of Yet magazine devoted to the issue of publishing. An in-depth and wide understanding of the issues surrounding our interest in publishing text and image. Not to be missed.
8) Trigger (FOMU, Antwerp) Uncertainty. This issue has been handled by Max Pinckers and the Speculative Documentary crew coming out of Ghent and should be read as an important discussion surrounding photography, truth and document in a new decade.
9) On Photographs. David Campany. Thames & Hudson. An interesting way to process a book about photography riffing off a conversation with Susan Sontag and displaying the content in a new and thought-provoking “system” of authorship.
10) Conversations 3. Remi Coignet. The Eyes Publishing. An incredible volume of interviews that exceed the conversational format and provide an in-depth rapport with Coignet’s subjects. As someone who has conversations with authors, I can tell you that Remi’s work is a cut above and should be treated as exceptionally important volumes.
12) Imagining Everyday Life: Engagements with Vernacular Photography. Edited by Brian Wallis. The Walther Collection and Steidl. By far my favorite “theory” book on photography. We are sadly lacking a larger discussion surrounding vernacular imagery. This is the first serious volume to tackle the shadow archive among many other issues surrounding “common photography”.
Thought on the Metalist…
Up until this year, I felt that Viory Schelleken’s Metalist indicated something we could look back on and perhaps that its use, including everyone’s efforts involved, might form a small record of photobook activity that would be useful for an institution down the road. I imagined scholars of the future looking at the people who voted along with the titles to gauge various possible connections, etc. It was not the popularity of the books that I cared about, per se. I liked seeing winners and I liked pitting those winners against official jury awards such as the Aperture Parisphoto award to see how in synch or out of touch the popular vote was with the unelected electoral college of photography. Most of the time, they were not super close. This year was a little more on the mark, but perhaps that is luck, the strange year, better qualified judges-it is hard to say.
The reason I find a problem in the Metalist which compiles all of the photobook of the year lists is that there is no rhyme or rhythm to its content or guideposts to inclusion or exclusion. One problem is that there is not enough time on Viory’s side to comb the lists for improperly dated titles, nor has she or anyone else set the official per annum cutoff dates for inclusion, though I have tried last year. This causes confusion at the year’s end-see Mark Mahaney’s Polar Night. There are people using “I received in the first months of the year” on titles that were published in November or earlier. There are people clearly not even bothering to look at dates and further, there are people admitting in their lists that they have not even seen the book, but “know it belongs there”.
This is all a terrible waste of an opportunity and it skews the information/data. I think to myself, “Why bother?” to compile this at all without any sort of governing rules or critical guideposts for which to evaluate the data. It literally means nothing if the Metalist has no structure. This is not a reflection of Viory, She has done incredible work for all of us. My contention to this is that she has actually started something potentially very important and though I know she has expressed an unwillingness to complicate the list with rules, I think that perhaps, if it is going to be effective, there must be some guidelines that we are all aware of.
This record could be interesting in the future and since it is being obsessively detailed, why not simply ask for help with compiling a more rigid formula? It is a data-driven list, so why not treat it as such? I am positive that that particular circle of collectors between The Netherlands, Spain and France would be able to come up with a plan of action that might benefit everyone in the future. Perhaps Museo San Telmo could be involved? I am sure we can put the mandate on the ASX airwaves next year. I wish we all had more personal time to help if it were even desired, but as it stands the Metalist will be useless in the form in currently exists in the future, thus begging to ask the question as to its purpose outside of simple popularity mathematics. Make no mistake, this is a call for reform, not a call to slander. I would like to openly ask Viory to reform her standards and to perhaps ask 2-3 other individuals to help. I am nominating Gabriela Cendoya Bergareche, Martin Amis, and Christer Ek-even though I haven’t asked them if they wish to be nominated. Those principal players know what they are doing and contribute every year widely. I look forward to a result.
Photography Book Lists from people contributing from our open submission…
From Mimi Mollica
From Doug Spowart:
I live in Australia and publish with my partner the https://theantipodeanphotobook.com/. We attempt to connect the stories in the photobooks made by Australian & New Zealand photographers, designers and publishers with a worldwide audience. So here is my BEST ANTIPODEAN PHOTOBOOKS of 2020. I prefer to call this list THE BOOKS I LUSTED AFTER IN 2020…
I don’t own many but am led to comment by my knowledge of the authors and the publishers… ENJOY… !
1)Bill HENSON’s ‘SIC TRANSIT’ published by Stanley / Barker UK
Henson presents a kind of Greek tragedy told through a dark lens, a Caravaggio-like dream. Young naked figures wrestling, resting and canoodling with accompanying images of a landscape of ruined temples, roads to nowhere and shadowed landforms kissed by shafts of failing light. Through the symbolic framework of history Henson creates a space for us to consider our present suggesting that… ‘sic transit – thus passed…’
2) Sara McINTYRE’s ‘Observations of a Rural Nurse’ Massey University Press in New Zealand
In the work of New Zealand photographers there is a pervasive sense of the immensity of this place, its community and the visual glue that holds everything together. McIntyre’s book brings her long-term connection with community as a nurse, her astute documentary eye and her familiarity with landscape, architecture and people. This book of New Zealand’s rural quotidian life may seem to be grounded in old fashioned community values but in todays uncertain conditions these connections have become something in which we all crave.
3)Ann SHELTON & Duncan MUNRO’s ‘Mother Lode’ Bad News Book in New Zealand
On first reading the garden/space appears to be an overgrown and infested with weeds. Deeper investigation reveals the author’s intent to share an alternative approach to ecological systems for growing the food she needs. Shelton’s detailed colour images present a botanists challenge to name the collections of trees, shrubs, vegetables and herbs. Munro’s digital illustrations generated from Shelton’s photographs extend the visual material in graphic ways to present the unseen worlds of microbes, soil and other organisms.
4)Haru SAMESHIMA & Paula MORRIS’ ‘Shining Land: Looking for Robin Hyde’ Massey University Press in New Zealand
The book was created from the collaboration between a writer, Paula Morris and a photographer Haru Sameshima in their poignant search for the spirit of New Zealand writer and poet Robin Hyde. Though Hyde died at the age of 33 eighty years ago she is an enigmatic figure in the culture of her country.
Sameshima sought out places where Hyde lived and looked for subjects that he felt still held the ‘trace’ of the person. Morris’ words tell another powerful and entertaining story. This collaboration creatively blended both word and image to form a much larger story…
5) Alex FRANE’s ‘Landscapes of South Australia’ Wakefield Press Press in New Zealand
Anyone familiar with Alex Frane’s Instagram feed will know of the quirky snapshot ethic in his photographs capturing one’s attention in the constant daily stream. This book of his images of South Australian landforms, ramshackle outback buildings and a wild juxtaposition of the two, presents the reader/viewer with challenging visual and psychological calisthenics.
6)Allan McDONALD’s ‘The Holding’ Rim Books in New Zealand
The book is intended to provide commentary on ‘material culture in a time of transition’ from analogue to digital through the ‘pleasures of walking and reading’. It contains many photographs of book and music shop shelves that evoke the call of the hunter to seek their desired objects in the bookshop, hoping to ferret out long-lost photobook tomes or vinyl LPs. As I turn the pages there is a palpable anxiety as I scan the shelves in the book…
7)Narelle AUTIO’s ‘Place in between’ Stanley / Baker UK
In the indigo of deep water Autio has photographed the plunge and bubble of swimmers as they dive and aggressively immerse themselves in the ritual of Australian summers – diving into water. But there is an uncanny sense of trepidation as the author also suggests ‘do not stay too long…’
8)Morganna McGEE’s ‘All the things unsaid’ Self-published Artist Book. Australia
The making of this book created a cathartic and healing space to confront difficult memories for the author. In encountering the narrative sequence of portraits, ephemeral items and dark misty forest glades there is an uncanny calling to the viewer touching with those buried deep dark places of their mind.
NOTE: the book is not available for sale at present
9)Tim PAGE’s ‘NAM Contact’ . Self-Published in New Zealand
Tim Page’s Viet Nam war images have for over 50 years told a story that can be both confronting and challenging to view. They represent an unpopular truth of what happened and impacted the lives of so many from either side of the conflict. This new body of work deals with black and white images from his contact sheets and is contained in simulated film and paper satchels and boxes. At this time it’s a special edition that comes with a gelatine silver print and magnifying loupe.
NOTE: the book is not listed for sale at present
From Ioanna Marinca