February 2024

Anna Kornbluh is Professor of English and a member of the United Faculty Bargaining Committee at the University of Illinois Chicago. She is the author of The Order of Forms: Realism, Formalism, and Social Space (University of Chicago 2019), Marxist Film Theory and Fight Club (Bloomsbury "Film Theory in Practice” series, 2019), and Realizing Capital: Financial and Psychic Economies in Victorian Form (Fordham UP 2014). Her essays on climate aesthetics, TV, academic labor, and psychoanalysis have appeared in venues like The Chronicle of Higher Education, The Los Angeles Review of Books, Public Books, Diacritics, Differences, and Portable Gray. She is also the founding facilitator of InterCcECT (The Inter Chicago Center for Experimental Critical Theory), and a partner in Humanitiesworks.org.

Immediacy, or The Style of Too Late Capitalism, is a new book by Kornbluh analyzing the cultural formation which dominates our times. A totalizing (in the positive sense) examination of the effects of economic imperatives to speed up circulation on our capacity, willingness, and ability to think and represent capitalist society in its fullness, this book moves from literature to film to TV to higher education to theoretical production. Negation Magazine sat down with Kornbluh to speak with her about the book and the value of immediacy for understanding politics. 

The interview has been edited and condensed for clarity. 

Andrew McWhinney: What is immediacy, as you define it? Why is it politically relevant for us to understand and study?

Anna Kornbluh: I use immediacy in an almost dictionary sense of the negation of mediation, the crushing of representation, a kind of emptying out of thicknesses, of bridge-building and connective tissue. Mediation is a really important concept in the history of Marxist aesthetics and in the history of Marxist cultural theory. It means not just the kind of banal, political sense of “I'm going to mediate my relationship” or addressing conflict. It means putting into medium, it means making representations or making ideas or making language or making images that help us make sense of our daily lives. And it also means the way that daily lives are structured or determined by systems of relations. You can't put your finger on capitalism exactly, but the dollar is a mediation of capitalism, for example; that's a place where we can sort of see the system concretize as it were, or also maybe take on sensuous form. Mediation also connects to art, putting phenomena or experience into representation or into form so that it can become the subject of conversation and connection, deliberation and contemplation.

So immediacy is the kind of attack-on and emptying-out of all of those forms of sensemaking and bridge-building and formalization and structuring that I'm presenting as a kind of name for our style of our culture now; that we have a kind of intolerance for representation. There's a rapid uptake in the mode of how we consume, and there’s a demand that everything be amenable to rapid uptake, like “you got to have your clear message!” “DM me!” There’s this idea that art is elitist if it requires you to contemplate it instead of just telegraphing its point, or that we should be able to give political report cards to art, when actually, in the history of aesthetics, art is not a pamphlet nor a policy program. Cool art is art that helps us think about contradictions, it's not art that gives us an upload of leftist values or something.

Politically speaking, to go to that part of your question, if we take this intolerance for representation or this negation of these thicknesses of cultural bridge-building as the style that Immediacy is chronicling, it's not a book that's really about politics. I sort of indicate that I think there are a lot of political manifestations of immediacy, in a troubling sense. It's really hard for us to do solidarity, which is a practice, but a set of representations and shared meaning and shared slogans and shared visions. If we have a general intolerance for representation, if we think that things are self-identical, imminent, and fluid, and that we don't have to do the work of making that meaning or interpreting meanings, [that makes solidarity difficult]. But also that there might be political ideas that are themselves in the immediacy style that are rejections of the need for organization or the need for forms like unions or parties to hold our relations together and to sustain our exercises of collective power. So ideologies of spontaneity, vitalism, horizontalism, and some forms of anarchic ideologies, these reject the mediating power of social forms and embody the kind of fantasy that politics is just chaos, ungovernability, or spontaneity. I think that's a kind of version of it, and so that's one thing that's really important for us to think about. 

We, on the left as it were, in the United States, but in many other countries as well, have witnessed a full scale, highly organized revolution in the last few decades. And that's been a right-wing revolution, not a left-wing one. The authoritarian takeover of institutions in the United States is a very disciplined exercise about voting, showing up, not this “I'm too cool to vote” [attitude], about understanding what the tactics in a situation are, what the power in a situation is and how to seize it, about staying on message, and then ultimately expelling the people they hate from the political exercise of power. 

So what lessons do we have to learn from that revolution having taken place? What lessons do we learn from the fact that the really enormous mass mobilizations of people in countries all over the world in the streets as protests have coincided with, and maybe even begotten, authoritarian backlash and more systematic kinds of legislative and other kinds of institutional exercises of power by the right? These have not materialized in left gains in power other than certain wage gains in the United States in very recent years. These are all questions to me about the mediations of power, about how collective sovereignty takes form and gets put into shape and gets put into medium—those are all political questions. 

I don't ask tons of those in the book because I'm not a scholar of politics, but I really, really hope that naming this problem as our dominant way of making sense or our dominant kind of style can inspire people to think about it politically. 

Marine Tucker: The words “style” and “culture” are both used to describe a phenomenon that suffuses widely across human behavior, but doesn’t dominate every aspect all the way through—a vein running through the world branching off in arteries vs. a grand swamp where all manner of life brews. You’re very particular on identifying immediacy as a style, not a culture. Why?

AK: So when we talk about culture, what are we talking about? Raymond Williams, the Marxist critic, says culture is ordinary. Culture is just everyday life. It's everyday practices and everyday meanings. 

I am a scholar of culture, but of formed or mediated culture; of representations, of art objects, of literature, of film, of poetry, of ways of putting culture, values, and ideas into medium in a way that then makes them available to us so that we can ask: what are the ideas in this work? What are the things that are being depicted? What questions are being asked and how do they relate to the way that I live every day, either to the more phenomenal kind of culture or the more diffuse and practical kind of culture? And so I think that when we take that scholarly orientation or take that training towards the art objects themselves or the aesthetic mediations, it's because they can help us see things because they're delimited. If you want to talk about culture, where do you start? There’s so much! But a movie, for example, is a little bit of a portal into [culture]. 

Style is really important because it's a way of thinking that something has been made in a particular way, even when it's pretending not to have been made in a particular way. So the immediacy style is often about this rejection of representation, these kinds of claims to be “uncut funk,” this realness; this is not metaphor, this is the ideal self, this is my instant, off-the-cuff, shoot-from-the-hip, no-filter [presentation]. And that is not just simply manifestive authenticity, that is itself a stylized vocabulary. The idea of style puts a container around some of those kinds of claims, some of those kinds of ideologies, so that we can start to think through them. 

So style as a vein, yeah, you're totally right. This isn't everything. Raymond Williams also has this formulation: dominant style or dominant culture, residual culture, and emergent culture. There are other things going on; there are old forms, old thick mediations that are still going on, and I talk about some of those in the conclusion of the book. There are new things happening; maybe people will grow tired of this formation. But one of the things I'm trying to do in the book is to say that a style is made by the broader social and economic relations around it. It's not just a matter of how we elect to use art or language or judge art or language, but it’s about the broader matrix of values around us. If we live in a hyper-intense, on-demand, DM kind of platform economy, those values are going to exert a lot of force on our aesthetics and our meanings.

MT: That's very clarifying. There was an Instagram meme I saw the other day: it was a Kafka quote that basically says: I feel like life is a costume party where I wear my own face. This quote clearly has appeal right now [because of the prevalence of this style]. 

AK: Yeah, right? The pressure to dress up, but to dress up as your true self. Those are some of the kinds of really profound economic, political, and psychological myths that we have about manifestation, right? You just actualize yourself. You're just human capital pulling yourself up by your bootstraps. But it’s also about just uploading our content and accreting to our brand and building our influencer platforms that are in the service of data industries.

AM: You do talk a little bit about, in the beginning of the book, the relationship between immediacy as a style of what you would call “too late capitalism;” we're living in a moment of capitalism that's apocalyptic. We're seeing climate collapse, there's all of these kinds of emerging pressures that push us to feel an immense anxiety and this need to quickly reach for what we feel are these unmediated solutions, expressions, and so on. You also contrast that with what some of the great Marxist literary critics like Fredric Jameson were talking about in terms of postmodernity as its own cultural logic. You discuss the difference between these two formations: postmodernity spends a lot of time playing in hyper-awareness of some of the mediations and styles of its time – interacting with some of them, in some ways discarding them – whereas immediacy is much more about the crushing of the question of mediation entirely. 

How contiguous are these moments? Can we trace immediacy as a tendency within this postmodern play with mediation? There are lots of descriptions in some of the work on postmodernity about the ecstasy and bliss of this play with this mediation that evokes this sort of blurry sense of access you might get from just trying to access a pure unmediated “vibe” or affect.

AK: One of the things that I'm proposing is that immediacy is something different from postmodernism. 

And so postmodernism – if we don't take the right wing definition of it, but some of the original strict aesthetic and economic definitions of it – Jameson is a foremost theorist of it, and writes this original essay in New Left Review in 1984, about how something different than modernism is happening. And he's really interested in correlating that difference to globalization, to multinational corporations, to a kind of profound complexity of the deindustrializing American economy of the 1960s and 1970s. 

And the question I'm asking is “are we still in that moment?”. A lot of critics of literature and art have suggested we are no longer in postmodernism and have been trying to figure out what's the reason for that. Some people say, well, it's digital media, just works differently, and so there's kind of a whole new media ecology. So it’s post-postmodern! Or some people say we've turned to more sincerity; postmodernism was so ironic, but there's a kind of different affective turn. Some people say kind of ideologically, that postmodernism tracks a lot with neoliberalism, and that maybe there's some kind of attenuating of neoliberalism. There's some economists and sociologists who propose that about the post-pandemic response of governments worldwide. 

So I'm trying to think about what are the economic dynamics that were particular to postmodernism, and are those still the same 40 years later. And the kind of way that you nicely phrased the question of “what are the things that are tendencies in postmodernism that are also part of immediacy?” Some things are the same, but some things are also different, and how do we think both of those things at the same time? That's a kind of real question for what Marxists would call periodizing, making a period. Are you thinking about a transformation in the economic base? Are you thinking about a transformation in ideology? And do those things always cause each other? 

And so if I look at the economic determinants of postmodernism that Jameson specifies with the help of people like David Harvey, Ernst Mandel, and so on, that there is, again, globalization – this kind of emerging network for logistics, for shipping, for exchange, that make it so that the world feels interconnected in hitherto unimagined ways, that make it so that goods can move quickly and that multinational corporations are the ones who are organizing that integration or that relation. And what do we have now, 40 or 50 years deep into that? We do have the sense that the movement of a lot of production to other countries besides the U.S. as the imperial seat has changed the economic level or the class in some of those countries. But there's a bottoming out or topping out of the expansion of the world market. What that produces is a profit crisis for those multinational corporations that are based on the G7 economies. And it is both a Marxist thesis and an empirically confirmed [phenomenon] that the G7 economies have had trouble growing in the last 40 years, and that fact of that sustained period of non-growth – what is now called by “totally not Marxists,” people like Larry Summers – call it this secular stagnation. There's stagnation in the G7 economies and that looks different, I think, at the end of a 40-year period than it did at the beginning when Jameson was trying to think about it.

And so how does that sense of stagnation write itself into our culture? One of the things I try to track is how it becomes ever more important, if you're not making things, to exchange them faster. Marx elaborates the production part of capitalism and the circulation part of capitalism. So production: making stuff, circulation: trading stuff, exchanging stuff. So what do we have in our non-growing G7 economies but super-fast exchange? We have Postmates, we have Uberization, we have what the industry calls disintermediation – you cut out the middle-man. You cut point-of-sale places, you have direct to consumer transactions between, say, your Uber driver and you, instead of having a taxi company as the intervening layer. That is the kind of intensification of exchange; “let's make things move faster.” That is the effort to compensate for there not being enough production. 

And what are the values of intensified exchange? Fluidity, flexibility, instantaneity, on-demand, direct access, you do you, and your Postmates does you. And so those values have gotten more sheerly dominant. And the fact of circulation intensification being the main source of economic activity really is exerting a force on our cultural aesthetics, or modulating our cultural aesthetics differently than the moment of trying to understand multinational capital’s effects on modern aesthetics.

But aren't there some ways that postmodern pastiche and heterogeneity, like all this mixing together, kind of leads to blur and immediacy, like you were saying? For sure! But how do we sort of think about the difference between those? There's a continuum, but in postmodernism, heterogeneity means that I can mark the contours of the two different things that are coming together, the multiple things that are coming together. And in blur, it's the loss of distinction, it's a loss of contour. Postmodernism has a kind of attitude towards heterogeneity and to mixing into disorientation, which is often thought of as playful or irreverent or meta or ironic. [It embodies] what Jameson describes as a kind of waning of affect; there's not a lot of intense feeling there because there's so much slippage between levels and there's so much distance and humor and kind of meta-mixing.

But then immediacy I think of as a waxing of affect. We have [such a] profundity of feeling that what are you supposed to draw on for your performance of authenticity but like your trauma, or this intensity of your pleasures? What is supposed to erupt on the screen, and what are you supposed to be rating your Postmates driver on the basis of, but your experience? I think that is something that’s really a disconnect: postmodernism, the waning of affect, and immediacy, the waxing of affect.

AM: To jump back a little bit to when you brought up that distinction from Williams about dominant, residual, and emergent cultures, you point to a few kind of specific examples at the end of the book where there is a return of thickening enabled by certain stylistic methods and techniques seen in the 18th and 19th century in novels and such: the return of the third person, again, establishing some degree of distance and a mapping of relations between institutions, the characters, and so on. Succession is of the ones that you point out. 

Earlier in the book, you bring up emojis as an example of something that emerges from the pressures and developments of increasing speed in communications and circulation technology; instead of somebody needing to mediate emotions, something that can be difficult just through text, you can send an icon that beams that directly to the other person. I was thinking about how now in some subcultures online and elsewhere, we’ve been to sort of see a thickening or a re-emergence of sorts of symbolic orders, were people are re-thickening emojis and their uses, and they begin to take on more than kind of just a direct beaming of affect. I don't know if that's something that you've noticed, or if you've noticed other similar moments in some of our other everyday communication techniques that emerged from the pressures of intensified circulation.  

AK: I think people can do stuff with aesthetic styles and they can do stuff with dominant forms that has critical purpose or does make connective tissue. I would really contrast the usage of emojis to the usage of memes, especially because memes so often have language embedded in them – they’re images with words over them, and the way that people circulate them is to change the words over them and apply them to different situations. Because memes work through repetition that gives you an accreting of “oh, we're literate in this, but also we're going to change it to this situation.” Memes implicitly form comparisons between like, “oh, I used this meme, you know, the last time I was taking a hard midterm exam, but now I'm going to use it when I'm going to Costco during the Super Bowl,” or whatever. Memes make these comparisons across things and invoke communities of people who are familiar with them.

But with emojis, it's a very limited repertoire. It's a small number, and they're images, not words. And that's really what's important to me, that the reign of the image, the regime of the image, and the circulation and exchange of images, is qualitatively different than that of words. We process it differently and at different speeds in our brain; we can intake images much, much faster than we can intake words, for instance. And I think that there's something about how images circulate in our culture. That's not to say that there isn't somebody cool who wrote an emoji poem or something like that. That really is an incitement to contemplation and to making meaning and to a demand for interpretation rather than a telegraph. But it is to say – and again, I do think people use memes in all kinds of interesting ways – it is to say that I think we have to attune to what is lost in this frictionless icon-world that we're in. This idea that “oh, I give you the heart and you know that I'm happy about a thing,” or you know that I approve of a thing or that I'm glad that you texted me, right? You don't actually know exactly what I mean, but all that is just collapsed into, “oh yeah, well, she hearted that.”

MT: I do love how one app picked up the emoji reaction thing and then it just spread to every other app. I don't know how I ever went without it, without telling my friends “Heart. I did read that. I did appreciate it. I'm not leaving you on read. I just don't have time to form a full sentence."

AK: Yeah, but why do we have that demand for instant relation if we don't have time to reply? Why do we have that impatience? Where do these pressures come from that our relationships have to be reduced to telegraphability and instantaneity? Like, you're at work and you can't reply, and that's okay. They can sit with a little bit [and think] “what does Marine think of this?” “Does that work for Marine?” And wait to find out a little bit.

MT: Exactly, yeah. There was so much in here that I read and thought, “Oh, that is so me.”

I have a little game where I'm going to hit you with parts of my day-to-day life that made me think of your book, and you'll have to tell me whether they are part of what we might call a logic of immediacy or whether they’re something else. 

For example, my extended relatives, they don't know what to get me for Christmas. They don't know me like that, so they just get me cash. Is that immediacy? 

AK: Not really; it's complicated. Marx calls cash the universal mediator. If they got you crypto, that would be [more like immediacy]. Because the whole thing about [crypto] is that it's trying to bypass the mediating institution of the bank. It's trying to bypass the solvency, the mediating function of money. So it's true, they don't know you well enough to figure out something, but cash is a useful gift and cash is exchangeable for other things. It's not this [concreteness] in and of itself. It would be nice for one to feel like “oh, my family loves me and knows me well enough to get me like the perfect thing I want,” but gift giving is really hard, especially in consumer society. So I don't think giving you cash is immediacy. I think it's true that they didn't express their love in a red scarf or a box of chocolates or a gift certificate for therapy. They just expressed their love in the most you know, fluent way, but it is for the purpose of other kinds of relations. It's not to arrest relation or to stamp out mediation.

MT: That's a helpful clarification, that when there's no financial institutions now we're in immediacy territory. Cash is almost thinning out as circulation takes precedence.

AK: Right? Like you wanna just have the transfer between the phones or the wireless data information, you don't even need that medium of exchange. And Marx says that that's the tendency of money, to immanentize the exchange circuit to do away with those mediations. 

MT: All right, next one. There's a lot of ADHD advice, you know, Tumblr posts and TikToks and such. There was one I read that suggested taking the doors off your cupboards so that you don't feel so overwhelmed in the kitchen – you know where everything is, you can see it all. I can't do that, I'm a renter, but I have put all my silverware out in jars on the table and I have a lot more kitchen implements that I commonly use on the counter, and it has made me much less overwhelmed. But it made me think [how] that there's this need to have everything in front of you or else it's just this undifferentiatable mass of stuff. I do think that some of this ADHD and anxiety crisis is part of this general economic and climate pressure and this feeling of immediacy that you're talking about. What do you think?

AK: I totally think that. So there's a lot there. One thing I think is, as you say, you're a renter, you can't take the door cabinets off. You don't have space on your kitchen counter for every kitchen implement. Where do you get the sharp knife? Or you might only need the cheese grater every other day. You can't keep everything in sight. It can't be instantaneously perceptible. That doesn't mean it's not stressful to try to figure those things out where they are. But there are ways to structure your kitchen; there are systems of organization. [You can say] “okay, this is my cooking utensil drawer, and I am gonna learn that, and I'm gonna have the intervention or the mediation of the drawer and the system.” And you learn it through routine and habit and repetition. Trust me, I have a much bigger house than you and I own it, so I could take the doors off, but my husband… it's not a house big enough that you can have all the stuff immediately in front of your face. But we have labels, there's a system, and now my husband doesn't have that kind of stress, but I really know acutely what you're talking about. 

And I think that’s right, it's like you think that the way to deal with that sense of overwhelmingness is to get rid of the representation, to get rid of the drawer that's in between you and the thing, to cut straight to the thing. But there's too much stuff and you can't cut straight to all of it! And I think that overwhelmingness is actually about the “too much stuff.” What does it mean that you're a poor working person and you can’t organize your kitchen in the way that's most intuitive to you, that you feel that you have to eat in a rush or that eating is a chore and you have to hurry through it and get out of the kitchen so you can go back to editing your podcast because that's where you're trying to make the donuts. So these rushes, these time crushes, these are intensifications, speeds-up of work, the kind of infinite bleed of work and home life – a lot about building our brands and having our status and our symbolic capital and all those things. Those are social forces that cause us great psychic distress. I try to write about some of these things in the chapter called “Imaginary,” where I'm sort of trying to think about why is everybody your age like so anxious and so depressed and so many other things? There's an acute epidemic of misery, and that's not because of iPhones! It might be because of climate change, you know, because the old people have fucked you. It is, I think, because of the whole convergence of the hamster wheel of [the fact that] you're trying to make it in your economy and the futurelessness of your habitable planet and there's too many images and there's too much of a demand to manifest, and to just be present and in time. All those things together, you know, I think they're making people very unhappy.

MT: Yeah, the blur of social media you talk about in that section is very good. And the blur of human activity as well. It's a pretty basic point, but the work from home situation where you're sitting at home and it's like, “oh, I could do the chores or I could do this work that I'm supposed to do,” every option is available to you. Infinite freedom, infinite blur.

AK: Yeah, and you're supposed to optimize. But it takes time to be a person! It takes time to walk across the kitchen and think for a second, “oh, I do need this knife and I do need this cheese grater, and so I'm gonna set up my mise-en-place and I'm gonna cook dinner because that's what a human has to do every day.” But we have these forces that suggest you don't have time.

MT: Let's talk about literary realism, because you definitely had some thoughts on the broader 20th century literary phenomenon, as well as 18th and 19th century literary phenomena, outside of the auto-fictional swerve towards the “I” that is the necessary focus of this book. What does a 21st century realism look like? Because it's not as simple as just the return to 18th and 19th century techniques of social realism. It's not as simple as a return to the third person. What are the innovations you see? 

AK: I do tend to study and teach about novels and their long history. And it's a long history, it's a few hundred years, about 300 years in English, but that's [also] only the history of capitalism. The novel is the art form that tracks its emergence in capitalism, and capitalism's emergence happens at the same time for all kinds of reasons that really interesting scholars have put theses about, and that's why the novel is really important to Marxist cultural theory. But it is true that, in the earlier modes of the English novel, realism – which is not the mode of all novels – often involves a balancing of psychic depth, the ability of narrators to present the interior of characters, with social breadth, with lots of different kinds of characters, or characters of different economic classes, or different geographic locations, or different demographics. You can do that balancing partly because you balance interior description with exterior description and you can do it partly because you have long temporal spans of the novel; they often have long time arcs. Not always of course, but that's why the circadian novel or the diurnal novel are unusual mini-genres, because a lot of novels span time. They track people growing up. They track things changing. In general in the 18th and 19th century, you can do that within realism because you're interested in narration as an abstract capacity. So I can move around between these different heads, these different characters, these different points of view. I can know things that none of them could know exactly individually. I can create a kind of representation of general thoughts, like what was the ideology in this time? The narrator is going to be a good portal to that, which is more than just what one character thinks. They can also end up sort of having some interesting social judgments or critical or political judgments and realism because narrators, in discourse and other abstract ways, say “this is how our culture functions right now” or ”these are what the values are in the factory system in 19th century England,” or “this is how the Victorian bankers worked.” There are lots and lots of novels that are all about those kinds of social details and that are trying to produce knowledge about them, are abstracting from them [in a way] that gives us the ability to reflect on them. 

What I think is interesting about the some of the mutation in the English novel right now is not just what I track as a really dramatic transformation towards the majority of novels being written in a first person – which is very unusual in this 300 year history, where the majority is in the third person – but also that there's all kinds of attenuating of the span of fiction. It doesn't last a long time; maybe it’s a day, maybe it’s less than a day. There's not necessarily events or plot or a  kind of patterning of events. There's not necessarily multiple plots. There's not necessarily even characters or different kinds of people. There's often this kind of singularization of the charismatic One that we're encountering through their narration and through their first-person presentation. They're not often growing; that's again a feature of not having the time scale. They're just sort of exuding who they are at this moment, this presence and this instant quality.

And to me, a lot of those features, and also the subtraction of abstraction, the concretization, the interest in repudiating metaphor or in making things just be like the seamless flow of “here I'm giving you who I am, and this is my truth,” – that that's taking away from realism its critical capacity, its ability to build perspective, to reflect back to us things that when we're just immersed in their phenomena and in their immediacy, we don’t necessarily have a way to integrate or to make sense of or to track patterns or to think about connections across different kinds of people or across different geographic locations. And so when you give up those capacities of realism, I do think something is lost. 

That's not to say that there aren't wonderful modes that are anti-realist, you know, fantastical, speculative, spectacular, Gothic and so on. But sometimes those [also] use the features of abstraction or third person or temporal duration. I just think that there's something that is diminished. Also, most of the novelists who are doing this stuff are really explicit about that diminishment. They think either we don't have time for novels or the world is too fucked so nobody should write a novel. Even Sally Rooney says so in her latest autofiction – like the protagonist, who is the novelist in crisis, says novels don't matter. There is the [idea that] the duty of the writer is to fight fiction, this idea that what we're supposed to do is not represent anything or not build any bridges or not stage any ideas, but just manifest. And that seems to me to be a real diminution. And it's a puzzle; why are people opposed to fiction? Why do people want to say you shouldn't make anything? And to go back to our stagnation problem, it's like “making” is illegitimate for a lot of these writers that I'm talking about. They don't want to make things up. They don't want to produce worlds. They don't want to do world-building. They don't want to make characters and make thick representations and long plots. And they just want to, you know, exchange. They just want to get the intensity of their sensation across to you as their own property that you have telegraphed. That is what secular stagnation looks like in novelistic form.

MT: The latest Sally Rooney book does have multiple characters and events and dynamics, and it's a romance. If you look through the 20th century you also see sort of a collapse of time spans somewhat; if you look at writers like Flannery O'Connor and Raymond Carver, they're not writing the same kind of sprawling social novels as their predecessors. Do you see this as like a general dynamic in fiction that's been going on for a long time?

AK: That's such a good question. I said even Sally Rooney because I think she's incredibly smart and interesting, and that book is such a mess! And it's largely such a mess, I think, because she's diving into autofiction and then doesn't quite want to do it and doesn't know how to not do it. It's just really bearing out a crisis, I think, of fictionality. I wouldn't say that she is a proponent of it in the way that some of the other people are. But the form is really bearing the sense of that crisis and that pressure. I think that there are  all kinds of interesting writers and there are, you know, even really wonderful fictions being written in the first person that are thick and weird and interesting. I just recently read Biography of X, which got a lot of attention last year and is in the first person, but it has a historical retrospective and is a kind of counterfactual history of the United States. And so it has all these other kinds of techniques for mediation.

What I'm trying to track across that chapter is this weird convergence between the literary fiction movements, popular fiction markets, and genres in journalism to help us think about how not just economically but institutionally, the transformations in journalism, publishing, and higher education have sort of all conspired to make it so that self-manifestiveness seems like it's the only thing that anybody has. So that there is just this rhyme across these different modes, and what we might want to call high or literary fiction is really just doing pretty much the same thing all these other modes are also doing. And what is that homogeneity? To me that is again part of the compression or the emptying out of mediation, that this difference across genres doesn't even matter anymore because it's all just self-writing.

AM: I think your book provides an excellent economic framework for understanding the origins of the kinds of pressures, as well as the effects of the suppression of mediation in a range of areas. So we're talking not just fiction, but a lot of the critical apparatus is in places like humanities departments in North America; what we might consider the “theory” part of the theory and practice distinction. On the practice side of things, you briefly discuss organizing, as we’ve mentioned, and see manifestations of immediacy in the forms of horizontalism and spontaneity. 

And as you mentioned here and in the book, people are skeptical and distrustful of representational logic for a range of reasons. They feel pressured to do things now because we're facing apocalyptic scenarios. People feel that traditional mediating institutions like the state have failed us in addressing major political problems. I think we can add to this – and these are things that Negation has been thinking through – the failure of major socialist states, such as the USSR, over the course of the 20th century, and what people would maybe call the arguable failure of contemporary China as a socialist state. And then even on the organizational level, the status of North American communist parties such that, though they call for a universal representational logic to counter the failures of liberal institutions to build a better world, they still do things like cover up sexual assault; they fail to embody these universalist logics.

People seem to have both these unconscious pressures caused by immediacy that turn them away from abstraction and representation, but some are also rightfully burned in varying degrees by the ways that organizing in supposedly more vertical forms has turned out over the last couple of years. For you, and this is a big question – we at Negation haven’t solved this, and we’ve been trying for a few years – how do we convince people in one way or another – not necessarily in a rational debate, “marketplace of ideas” way – to return to sort of these representational logics and to mediation? How do we do so while meaningfully addressing their real concerns? How do we show them what makes mediation and abstraction done with what are ostensibly the Marxist or communist principles outlined in your book and elsewhere different, and how do we embody these appropriately in a way that don't kind of fall into these other representational logics like those of liberalism?

AK: I think that's an amazing question. And [in] the way that you frame it, you can see [that] the dilemma for a left is how to produce new values. We have a regime that is making people miserable. So how do we do something different? And it's really hard, and you need the forces of imagination and you need to fail a lot and keep retrying. And you don't have the revanchist right or the ability to just fall back on all of this terrible history of domination or all of this nostalgia; we don't have those things. And so it's really, really a challenge, but I don't think it's  met well by the rejection of mediation. It’s not met well by undialectically thinking about institutions. 

So if you don't like your union's statement or your party's statement of what its values are, then rewrite it. But that's not saying “I'm having a new party” or “I'm not having any parties anymore” or “the party is an inherently corrupt form and we shouldn't work through it” or “I'm not doing labor organizing because it's top down and it's bad” or something. It's like, okay, well, let's get the rank and file together, and what are the conversations we can have in our workplace so that we can have worker-led organizing? I think there's a real pleasure for people in renouncing mediation and rejecting existing political formations, feeling that they are the beautiful soul and everything that has come before is too gross. And I don't think that that's really a good strategy. I think it's self-serving to the person who is aggrandized by being cooler than everybody else or being more of a seer than everybody else. And it's not doing the hard, hard work of failing better, of trying again to forge those connective ties. 

I think there's a lot of unhelpful conversation about organizing in online spaces. But I would just say, if you do the kind of organizing that I have done for a long, long time in my workplace – which has the virtue of being delimited as a workplace, but all different kinds of people work there, and we had to make a union from scratch there 15 years ago – you find out that a lot of organizing is not sexy stuff, and it's not getting to be right. It is just like... checking your spreadsheets and reaching out to people and seeing what they need and how you can get them to kind of resonate with what other people are saying together, and how you can find common frames for saying, “okay, is this happening to you? This is happening to me. Do you think we could do anything about it? What have some people done together in the past about it?” And it just takes time. It's just hard work and it is easier to be like, “unions are corrupt.” These are hard, hard things. And so staying with that repetitiveness and that slow scaling and that bridge building, it's not always easy at all. And I think it can be easy to renounce and retreat, especially when you have righteous vocabularies for that.

MT: Something that could have been part of the game earlier is that I have also noticed that the mass energy is now is almost with this Platonic form of protest, like with this genocide in Gaza. Everybody comes out. At least for me, it wasn't even an active decision whether I would go out and join the protests or not; it was just too powerful of a moment.

But in terms of structured opposition, whether that be protesting specific institutions or pressuring specific institutions to divest, obviously they've all been boosted, but it's a much more subcultural situation for them. So that's one place where this dynamic is illustrated. It's important to have a psychoanalytic or similar understanding of the masses rather than a “rational” one. What sort of intervention can be made when the energy really is in these spontaneous movements? How are they directed? I guess part of it is just like building institutions that receive them in the correct way.

AK: Yeah. I mean, I just think that's, again, like a perennial and key left question. But I think the lesson of the 21st century is that mass movements are not enough in the protest vision, even though there's so much joy in them. There's so much that is sustaining and being there with other people and just saying, this is wrong and not in our name. And we object. That's so powerful. But you have to hold it forward. You have to put some language upon it and some narratives upon it that collate people together to figure out where the levers of power actually are. 

I am no expert in any of this in general or in specific, but I do think it's really interesting that we've had all these protests about Gaza and I was asked in an interview last week, “oh, well, aren't we winning the social media [battle] in Gaza? There's all these TikToks on Gaza.” No, we're not winning because the weapons deals are still happening! And where is the lever of power for some of that stuff? And if you look at just one tactic in institutional politics, there's this campaign to write uncommitted in the Democratic primary in Michigan. And that campaign is very serious because of the Arab-American community in Michigan and because of the deciding force of Black voters in Detroit and in Clinton and in Michigan. And so in some sense it’s just a symbolic thing, but in a lot of leftist lenses, [people will look at that and say] “oh this is is irrelevant, we can't vote for anybody, we certainly can't vote for Biden because everybody is just equal-opportunity genocidaires” or whatever. But the lever there is that now Biden staffers are formally apologizing to Arab-American communities in Michigan. They're meeting with people. How do you get any traction on authoritarian structures? You think about what they respond to. And the fact is that like old people vote and the Democratic president is in power because of the people who do vote, not the people who didn't vote last time and aren't saying, “well, I'm not voting this time.” 

And just in that one situation, it's just thinking, what's the difference between a protest and then compelling like a high-ranking presidential aide to respond to a community of people who have collectively organized with the lever that's available to them? It's just a little object lesson. Obviously, we don't know what the impact will be, and again, I’m no expert; I'm not saying that that's inherently better than protesting, but you have to think about other things that sustain the energy of the protest towards seizing collective power, towards making a difference. And it's really hard when we have authoritarian structures. It's really hard when the world is governed by weapons dealers, the securitization complex; all these countries that have the most weapons want to use the most weapons and consume the most weapons to make themselves unsafe so that they consume more weapons… So what do we do? But it has to be more than protests, I think.