Just Say No

The artist Michael Wilkinson’s show ‘Lions After Slumber’, which was exhibited last May at the Modern Institute in Glasgow, was a repository of artefacts from past militant moments. The show was dominated by images and objects referring to the May ‘68 events in Paris and the punk and post-punk cultural sequences that happened in the UK in the late 70s and early 80s. The largest item in ‘Lions After Slumber’ was a massive photograph of Piccadilly Circus – the same image that had hung, upside down, in Malcolm McLaren’s shop Seditionaries in the 70s. But, tellingly, Wilkinson exhibited the photograph the right way up, a sign of the ways in which – in the thirty subsequent years – power has been restored. Wilkinson’s show was in many ways about the same malaise that I described in my book Capitalist Realism. [1] The book is about the retreat of the militancy, which ‘Lions After Slumber’ invokes. The surrender of any utopian impulse to a ‘capitalist realism’ which expects business to dominate all areas of culture has elicited a range of responses – a mordant sense of resignation, a cheerily compliant cynicism, an impotent protest, the quiet yet implacable plague of youth depression. All of which is manifested in a culture given over to (a largely unacknowledged) retrospection and pastiche. But even as pessimism totally pervades today’s culture at an unconscious level, negativity is officially abjured.

The punk and post-punk cultures whose relics are collected in ‘Lions After Slumber’ were characterised by their extreme negativity – by the new ways that they invented to say “No”. They were examples of what Herbert Marcuse, in his One-Dimensional Man, called “the Great Refusal, against that which is”. Marcuse’s critique was developed in the 1950s, when, in the West, consumer capitalism had learned to ward off proletarian discontent by satisfying many of the material needs of the working class, and generating a whole series of “false needs” which only commodities could seem to meet.

Marcuse’s vision of a totally administered society in which disaffection and revolt were absorbed by the system was criticised for its failure to predict the eruption of popular negativity in the 60s – a popular negativity that, ironically enough, Marcuse’s own writing played its part in propagating. In some ways, however, Marcuse’s critique, far from being superseded, now has a renewed pertinence.

For what we have seen in the last two decades has been the very incorporation of the former counterculture, with the result that we find ourselves in a New Fifties in which complacency poses as radicalism, and retrospection masquerades as innovation. Jim McGuigan has described the contours of this process in his book Cool Capitalism, which discusses “the incorporation of the ‘great refusal’ of art in general into the capitalist ideology and market practices”. The New Fifties seems even more seamless than that of the original Fifties, because they come dressed in all the faux-sophistication, all the gloss and froth of sexuality and a hedonism, which may have once functioned as refusal, but which now operate as components of a New Positivity.

One tactic that the New Positivity typically employs is to dismiss any reference to ways in which things in the past might have been better as “nostalgic”. But comparisons with the past are only guilty of nostalgia if they distort the past in order to degrade the present. What we find with the New Positivity, however, is a distortion of the present. It is the present, not the past, which is seen through rose-tinted designer lenses, by a tepid boosterism which isn’t terribly convincing, but which nevertheless has the effect of maintaining the exile of negativity. The accusations of nostalgia preclude any kind of critical judgement – as if it is simply impossible that we could be in a moment of sterility and retrenchment. We live in a massively over-rewarded era (has there ever been a time when there were so many cultural awards?), yet this conspicuous self-congratulation is transparently a thin mask for deep – and justified – sense of insecurity.

The New Positivity conflates negativity with pessimism, but they are very far from being the same thing. Pessimism assumes that things can never improve, only worsen, whereas negativity can have a galvanising effect. Hatred, anger, alienation and frustration were the libidinal motors of youth culture long before punk: “I can’t get no satisfaction” and “no fun” preceded “no future”. Yet at a time when there really does seem to be no future, when no-one expects culture to do much except recombine elements that are already familiar, where are the new voices ready to say “no”? Perhaps they were muted, tranquilised and subdued by the boom. But now that the boom is over and the neoliberal project has been discredited, is it time for a new Great Refusal to emerge from the wreckage?

Mark Fisher


[1] Mark Fisher, Capitalist Realism: Is There No Alternative?, Zero Books 2009.

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