Speaking in an almost purely impressionist sense, times of restoration and right-wing retrenchment always bring with them their own reactionary romanticisms. While originating in reaction, these cultural and subcultural effects can nonetheless acquire an ambiguous quasi-autonomy from their political genesis.
Thus the goth subculture in the UK, the New Romantics of the 1980s, and so on. While recalling the Muscadins, ‘meveilleuses’ and Incroyables of the post-revolutionary period, with their dandyish mourning dress, bouffant pompadours, imperialist ceremonial dress, army trench-coats, aristocratically emphasised makeup, uncanny social affectations like the effete and jarring posture of the head (as if dislocated by the failure of the guillotine or gallows) or the robotisation of affect and motion, a broad youth culture emerged in the late twentieth century—accompanying the rapid ascension of neoliberalism—a darkly scintillating aesthetic so well prefigured in the fiction of Hugo, Huysmans, Hoffmann and de Maupassant. Indeed, this stormcloud feeds into the cultural background of my own late childhood: a fusion of modernism and romanticism, both reacting to and on behalf of the rampant Toryism of the Thatcher era. It’s a paradox that in some sense Maggie herself was the most eminent, if hidden kernel, of the New Romantic aesthetic while being at the same time everything that its commitment to intellectual obscurity, cosmopolitanism and spiritual heterogeneity reviled. She was in some sense what Queen Elizabeth II had been for punk: a bushy-haired eminently recognisable icon seized upon for the play of iconoclasts.
However, now hair-sprayed into paralysis, the image of Thatcher congeals everything about that age, however heterogeneous, into a composite slab. It’s like a frozen meal lost in the back of the freezer and destined never to be thawed and consumed—a contemporary das ding, an object to be kept only at a distance. Accordingly there is not a middle-aged goth alive in the UK possessed of indifference towards the memory that her figure invokes. Traumas have been called boulders in the soul, indigestible solids our psyche cannot metabolise. Wherein does our solidity lie, our ability to resist and slam on the brakes on the runaway train, if not in such obstacles to smooth machinic functioning? To be ‘woke’, as we are disparagingly called, follows from some kind of jolt, some traumatic displacement that unconceals all those processes of social production usually kept well behind the curtain. For one who discovered that they were ‘a goth’ or something like this—that they belong to the community of those who can’t tolerate the experience of belonging otherwise, perhaps there is even a degree of empathy disorder at work (the Weltschmerz, the lachrymae rerum too much to bear), childhood depression, perhaps separation anxiety—it virtually came with the territory. One doesn’t develop an adolescent fascination with momento mori (while friends are busy chasing girls and street cred) out of nowhere; to get this way there’s always already been a trauma and if you don’t agree it’s because you don’t remember that you don’t remember it. This is not to pathologise the left; on the contrary, it’s only exposure to trauma that characterises the stirrings of the aspiration to become a human being. Ignorance is, perhaps, in the end only ever ignorance of trauma, and there are degrees.
Old enough now to see not ‘history repeat itself’ but rather spasmodically reflex—provoked by the hopeful possibilities of populist leftism glimpsed momentarily in Corbynism—I look fondly upon today’s young dandies and fops of the precariat as survivors of a trauma that, like all traumas, never definitively happened but as such never cease. An intelligent proletariat wearied with hand-wringing and hand-washing (covid-19 cabin fever setting in deep) feels it doesn’t matter whence it came but only whither a culture goes; if it brings enjoyment then it’s well-deserved. If they, the ‘haves’, can bemoan their mansions, then so can we bemoan the mansions we don’t have. Nothing brings enjoyment more than affectation: the terms are virtually synonyms.
Existence-as-affectation does not belong purely to Bourbon restorationism. Just as the subject of the landscape escaped from the reactionary pseudo-mystical religious framework in which the painter Caspar David Friedrich tried to constrain it, into a wild and modern heathenry, ubiquitous in successive centuries’ gothic fiction and ‘weird tales’ illustration, so too does the modern romantic insistence on ‘a return’ to the wild, to the authentic and to a wholesome ecological integrity, follow not the past (how could it?) but a yet-to-emerge model. Saving the planet takes imagination. Ironically enough, and painful though it is to even utter it given the phrase’s origins in corporate culture, saving the planet may well mean we have to ‘fake it till we make it’. If keeping up the pressure on the corporate network does nothing but cause them to at least pretend to care, in time the pretence can set in as genuine concern (especially as their assets begin to catch fire).
Stylistically, ‘the gothic’, once a semi-disparaging term (from ‘Visigothic’) for a barbaric religiosity which held nothing in reserve in its upward, heaven-piercing architectural aspirations, now covers everything with the least bit of self-regard: the campy, sentimental, the popular and the kitsch—a far more horizontal and cathartic movement. The aristocrat count who feeds on the blood of peasant women by night has been replaced by the new figure of a heroic vampire-of-the-people, emerging from the mob; indeed the heroic vampire is the people, the democratic mob is our nosferatu: a vampire not to be feared but embraced in the motto of ‘eat the rich’. Nay-sayers never fail to remind me that Robespierre fell victim to the monster he unleashed. You know what? It will have been worth it. Yeah, I’ll happily be that green-eyed hero, unflinching and incorruptible. I’ll even sexualise it… as if revolutionary feeling was anything other than the best of sexual feelings!
The alchemical dew that fell from heaven to vivify the earth in the emblematic tradition of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries will turn out to be nothing other than the tears of twenty-first century bourgeois shareholders, upon which our newborn will be nourished. If we are capable of exiting the vampire’s castle (to keep faith with Mark Fisher’s marvelous event) it will be to mobilise, precisely, a vampiric advance-guard, a militating body, war machine, a marching castellation of the populus capable of storming the conservative Bastille. Our own castles-in-the-air may have momentous material consequences, if we can but hold true to the holy spirit of solidarity. Crusty ‘orthodox’ Marxists will always grimace and accuse the youth of merely pouting, posturing, cosplaying, LARPing, being ‘hobbyist leftists’ or something similar. How goose-like and patronising, how ignorant of the cunning of historical reason. Any good historian will tell you that the world is held up not by bottomless stacks of turtles but by imposture upon imposture. Impostures are, in the end, productive forces. Capitalism’s grave-diggers are an immanent force, not external onlooking high theorists.