On collective freedom: Mark Fisher on rave, psychic privatisation, and baroque sunbursts
The cultural theorist Mark Fisher, in a short piece on rave and its influence on art and culture, talks of rave as a baroque sunburst. He quotes Fredric Jameson in Valences of the Dialectic:
‘From time to time, like a diseased eyeball in which disturbing flashes of light are perceived or like those baroque sunbursts in which rays of light from another world suddenly break into this one, we are reminded that Utopia exists and that other systems, other spaces are possible.’
The ‘energy flash’ of rave, Fisher argues, is one of these baroque sunbursts that point to the possibility of Utopia. One key question that Fisher’s essay raises is how we should respond to a situation of ‘psychic privatisation’ in which neoliberal capitalism has successfully encouraged us to see our inner life as wholly our own, and completely independent from anyone else’s. Communism is premised on the interdependence of individuals; it is only when our self-development is co-dependent on others’ that our psychic lives become truly our own. Fisher, though, focuses more on socialist or social-democratic ideas of collectivity. Socialism, as perhaps an intermediate step to communism, draws on notions of solidarity that Fisher often seems to be gesturing towards in his essay. One of the key present challenges for the Left, in Fisher’s project, is how to create spaces and events that generate collective joy and lasting political collectivities.
Fisher outlines, in broad scheme, the three moment of the process of psychic privatisation as they have worked with respect to rave: cultural exorcism, commercial purification, and mandatory individualism. Cultural exorcism rids a cultural form of the spectre of freedom (particularly in its collective and ecstatic modes); commercial purification rids interstitial spaces between the commercial and the festival of all elements of leisure; and, mandatory individualism is an always-incomplete process of eliminating collective festivity from capitalist modernity. Throughout, collectivity stands as a kind of political unconscious — the element that cultural forms cannot deal openly with, and so are always really ‘about’. (Jameson develops the idea of the ‘political unconscious’ of literature in his 1981 book of the same name, arguing that class struggle represents that which modern literature has to repress, and so cannot escape.) Capitalist realism, in one sense, is the period in which mandatory individualism reaches its apotheosis. Take football. The neoliberalisation of this social democratic game saw, in the 1990s, a corporate takeover of collective forms, with an authoritarian underbelly that drove the project forward using the Hillsborough disaster as its purported rationale.
Where does Fisher’s account of psychic privatisation leave us? It is clear that one element of the neoliberal project is an attack on collectivity, from the defeat of organised labour in the 1980s to the present political moment that privileges individual grievances over any solidaristic interests. At the same time, it is far from clear that rave is the potential collectivity-generating event that Fisher perhaps assumes it is. For even at first glance there are already a number of problems with rave as an expression of collectivity and the potential for Utopia.
First, and most importantly, rave is an escapist and hedonic response to the individualism that pervades our lives. It stands as ‘resistance’ only in the most temporary sense. In this way, we can see the parallels with the ‘Occupy’ movement — a temporary sitting-in on a completely colonised capitalist space. Although hierarchies are (temporarily) destroyed, nothing is built and so rave is ultimately compatible with capitalism. This is why, today, the cultural revolt of rave has been incorporated almost in its entirety into the neoliberal hedonism industry. Anything that is not antagonistic to capital is subsumed, eventually, within it. Similarly to Occupy, rave was unable to change the rules of the game. It now seems like an artefact of a passed cultural moment and, in an unfortunate irony, a victim of the retromania Simon Reynold has described, with teenagers wearing pork pie hats and Stone Roses t-shirts role playing the rave culture of the late 1980s and early 1990s.
The comedown then follows as the return of the repressed. Moreover, the comedown displays clearly the dominance of commodity logic — the domination of the present (living, human labour) by the past (dead, vampiric, ossified labour in capital). In this case, the hedonist pleasure and feeling of connectedness and realness is replaced by a look at our lives with ‘sober senses’, which takes in our isolation, meaninglessness and atomisation. In this sense, it is the comedown that explains the raver’s high — the absence of meaning outside of the rave makes the bacchanalia of the rave itself functional for the persistence of the system (i.e. the capitalist organisation of labour and leisure) that creates both, as it seems to offer temporary escape.
Instead of seeing hedonism or rave as inherently political, we should recognise that hedonistic release under neoliberal capitalism is instead functional for labour — we only need this particular form of hedonism because of the meaninglessness of our work and the absence of concrete political alternatives. Politics instead needs to build lasting collectivities and, ultimately, some form of political parties. It is, though, one of the aspirations of the Corbyn project — and in particular its ‘Acid Cobynism’ current — not only to overturn the idea that ‘there is no alternative’ but also to begin to create spaces where a transformative collectivity can be built.