:: Article

Breaking the Ice

By Joe Kennedy.


Dominic Fox, Cold World: The Aesthetics of Dejection and the Politics of Militant Dysphoria, Zer0 Books, 2009.

Since its emergence last year, Zer0 Books has swiftly put together an impressive catalogue of concise works which seek to disrupt the phoney frontier between the kinds of political discussion stamped ‘academic’ or ‘theoretical’ and the public sphere. Stating its commitment to ‘the idea of publishing as a making public of the intellectual’, Zer0’s roster of authors have produced a set of arguments which rail iconoclastically against the vision of good living shilled by liberal governments since the end of the Cold War. The rubric of choice and personal fulfilment deployed to legitimate late capitalism’s most recent makeover is subjected to a form of scrutiny which harmonises rigour of thought with elegance and accessibility: the sometimes super-specialised analyses of academic critics of postmodernity such as Slavoj Žižek, David Harvey, Alain Badiou, and Fredric Jameson are unpacked for a broad constituency in the hope that the ‘blandly consensual’ character of contemporary culture might be laid bare. That the claims made in, for example, Owen Hatherley’s Militant Modernism or Mark Fisher’s Capitalist Realism, are pertinent has become arrestingly apparent as the political consequences of the global recession have emerged. Neoliberalism’s presentation of itself as the solution to problems which originate, precisely, with neoliberalism has been met not with just scepticism but with a concurrence which styles itself as hard-headed realism. The result of the UK general election corroborates the diagnosis of stagnancy emanating from Zer0; calls for a stringent thinking-out of new forms of political organisation are obtaining a purchase they may not have been able to five or ten years ago.

Dominic Fox’s Cold World seems initially to sit a little oddly with a work as candidly political as Capitalist Realism. Its title is borrowed from Coleridge, a move which seems to announce its primary concerns as aesthetic, and one is asked to do a substantial amount of reading between the lines in order to establish exactly what a ‘Politics of Militant Dejection’ might be. This is no bad thing. Tracing the history of dysphoria – the state in which one is incapable of taking pleasure in the world – from Romanticism through to the unfettered negativity of Xasthur and Darkthrone’s Black Metal via Gerard Manley Hopkins, Philip Larkin, Iris Murdoch, and Ulrike Meinhof (as unlikely a ménage as ever there was), Fox makes an implicit case for refusing to grasp liberalism’s cornucopia of so-called possibilities. As he puts it:

Depressive thinking is simultaneously intensely lucid and intensely blinkered: ruthlessly and brilliantly reductive, it is able to demolish any consoling counter-argument by referring it immediately to the ground zero of its own originary devastation.

In this account, capitalism’s strategic diminishment of horizons of political expectation is checkmated by depressive thinking’s refusal of any of the comforts that the market proffers to make the world inhabitable. Some might interpret this as a fundamentally adolescent posture, and a predictable one at that, but the vicious precision of depressive thought is matched by the way in which Fox’s historicising of it unveils its immaculate logicality.

Coleridge is the go-to for an originating point of dysphoria as a response to modernity. Fox sews the story of the Person from Porlock into ‘Kubla Khan’ to demonstrate how the dream-vision of the latter acquires significance only in its interruption by disappointing, worldly business. The poem does nothing unless it becomes composite with the narrative of its composition: taken on its own terms, it is nothing but a shred of marginalia. Read like this, ‘Kubla Khan’ enacts a tension between the hallucination of a plenitude which challenges the dreamer’s powers of belief and a world in which the time available to realise that vision slips away before even a fraction of the task can be completed. Fox observes the same phenomenon in Larkin’s ‘Aubade’, which sets out its stall with an image suggesting imprisonment in time’s inexorable ebb: ‘I work all day and get half-drunk at night./ Waking at four to soundless dark, I stare.’ For Larkin, there isn’t even the consolation of what might be in the shape of a dream. This, for Fox, is the terror of ‘a permanently anaesthetised existence’ in which death is ‘a name for a failure of linguistic power that deprives the subject of the ability to make sense of, or take pleasure in, the world as it appears.’ Poetry’s solicitations of, and investments in, the world are at best fallacious, and it succeeds only in its tracking of its own impotence.

A poet himself, Fox handles Coleridge and Larkin with a deftness that makes Cold World interesting for a reader with little or no curiosity in the ideological questions at stake. For those who approach it as a critique of the marketisation of all cultural activity, however, it’s impressive how observations on a diverse array of topics whose incongruence is emphasised by the brevity of the work crystallise almost imperceptibly as a politics of disinvestment. When we’re told that Xasthur’s music ‘is designed to confront the listener with the waste and horror of human existence, the worthlessness of all human striving […] the affect it aims to induce is one of overwhelming despair’, it’s not merely the case that the reader is supposed to nod and acknowledge the existence of a depressive axis threading Romanticism with Black Metal. The amplification of an affect of ‘overwhelming despair’ is something linked directly to the sense that, in a manner which is itself describable only as an intensification, nothing escapes the taint of commodity value. In its most reductive state, despair stays impervious to reification. Its sheer lack of malleability, regardless of the compensations spread before it, makes it a site for the establishment of a different kind of politics. Fox cites Ulrike Meinhof’s distinguishing of protest and resistance to show how this might be the case. In 1968, she wrote that ‘Protest is when I say that something does not suit me. Resistance is when I make sure that that which does not suit me no longer occurs.’ Drawing together the various strands of thought wound together in Cold World, then, despair’s affect enables a clarity about ‘that which does not suit me’ which can proceed to the rectification of that unsuitability.

Whatever one thinks of Meinhof’s own efforts to make radical adjustments to unsuitable political circumstances, Cold World is a timely invitation for us to consider the possibilities nestled in a rebuttal of the opportunities to make attachments to the world offered by contemporary culture. Disengagement is framed here as a radical manoeuvre rather than as a purely petulant one, an undertaking which is carried out with commendable succinctness and erudition. This is a significant contribution to Zer0’s project of disseminating complex and at times uncomfortable political arguments to an audience that extends beyond those who participate in academic discourses on the subjects in question. It will be intriguing to observe the fortunes of this ambitious publishing endeavour as mainstream politics continues to insist on self-serving ‘realism’.


Joe Kennedy is an academic and poet.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Friday, June 11th, 2010.