Friday, 19 March 2010

Book Review: Cold World: The Aesthetics of Dejection & the Politics of Militant Dysphoria by Dominic Fox

Although I had great hopes for Dominic Fox's (see his blog, Poetix, here) pamphlet I was disappointed. All those who call themselves radicals of the left are estranged from mainstream society; they do not fit in, they are alienated. This is a given and does not need much explanation. Alienation can be enforced through circumstance or temperament but all 'militants' are displaced or dispossessed materially or mentally from the everyday environment of capitalist work and leisure. Displacement is their motivation to become politically active, to struggle against society so as to change it, rather then wallowing in gloomy 'existentialism' or a trendy type of middle-class adolescent angst. I include myself in this description of general alienation of course; furthermore I'm a solitary, shy, sometimes melancholy person, with a deep suspicion of 'happy-clappy' positivism and hippy New Ageism. A book like this should appeal to me.

But Cold World: The Aesthetics of Dejection & the Politics of Militant Dysphoria, deals not with alienation as such or the importance of negativity, withdrawal or refusal in political action, but extreme states of depression or despair; a terrifying mental illness that precludes all hope in the mind of the sufferer, without any allevation through political action, merely suicide, a rejection of life. For those who do not suffer from deep depression, an embracing of an aestheticism of despair is merely a privileged life style choice for western teenagers, easily co-opted by consumerism. Also there is very little politics in Cold World and is mainly a close reading of dark aesthetics: the poetry of Gerard Manley Hopkins and Coleridge and the extreme misanthropy and bleakness of Black Metal. This in itself is interesting, especially the chapter on extreme Black Metal, a musical genre I'm getting into at the moment, but how this relates to leftist social struggle is so tenuous and obscure as to only create frustration in the average reader. When we do get to some 'political analysis' in the last chapter on Ulrike Meinhof and the Red Army Faction what we actually get is something even more obscure. Maybe I'm lacking understanding here, but is this chapter a critique of the 70's left wing terrorist group or an intellectual defence of Meinhof's Marxist-Leninist vanguardism and her disregard of 'ordinary' people as mere 'collateral damage'? Dominic Fox was too busy being clever to give a clear answer.

I fail to see what the concept of a 'cold world' has to offer the radical left. Negative emotions such as alienation, anger or boredom, even clear-headed hatred can lead to worldly engagement through resistance, but a freezing up in despair leads only in one direction, to misanthropy and nihilism and the logic of that is suicide, ultimately to the extinction of humanity, which is really the unconscious path of capitalism. Hope for a better world is the positive side of the dialectic of struggle and is as vital as negativity ; so is seeing the potential in technologies such as the Internet which have directly arisen out of capitalism. The message of the so-called urban guerrillas of the 70's was that the defeat or co-option of the popular movements of the 60's lead to the despair (the cold world) of some of its participants, resulting in pointless violence and utter contempt for the working class and eventually their own organisational collapse into lengthy prison sentences, or for some such as Ulrike Meinhof, suicide itself.