Nihilists! One Less Effort if You Would be Nihilists

By John Cunningham, 17 May 2011

In the elegant and obscure Letters Journal, an anonymous collective traverses the black hole of nihilism to elude capitalism's all-encompassing ability to swallow resistance. Review by John Cunningham

Since its inception a couple of years ago Letters Journal - a self-described ‘Anti-Political Communist Journal' - has advocated the joys of doing nothing while retaining an impetus towards the destruction of capitalism.[i] However, part of the puzzle of Letters' critique is that this insurrectionist pleasure in negation exists in a tension with a pessimistic awareness of the constraints of contemporary capitalism. Imagine a strongly constructed box with a collection of weak, struggling human beings inside trying to break out. They actually built the box and now need to escape. However, even if they succeed there's just another tightly constructed box that constricts their possibility of movement, and so on. All the myriad inflections of capitalist social relations - alienation, work based exploitation, affective dysfunction - comprise a series of interlocking constraints. Rather than positing any 'outside' to this via acts of 'creative resistance', Letters' anti-politics posits resistance as being necessarily suspended within these constraints.

Melancholic claustrophobia, pessimism and nihilism all mark Letters Journal's terminal reflections on the limitations of anti-capitalist praxis and critique. This isn't, however, a journal that advocates any form of compliance with the cramped space of contemporary capitalism or a retreat into philosophical resignation. Letters retains a consistent tone of critical negation alongside a cheerful embrace of a nihilistic uncertainty in the face of capitalism's refusal to collapse into its own dead labour. This nihilism is jokingly referred to in a promo for Letters IV - Every Beggar is Odysseus that's posted on YouTube. Alfonso, a time travelling 1977 Autonomist, incoherently berates and threatens Letters while encased in a steel helmet and accompanied by a strangulated guitar solo soundtrack.[ii] Simultaneously, some masked-up guy holds up slogans such as ‘Nihilists, one less effort if you would be nihilists' and ‘Do Nothing'. This mobilisation of pessimism retains a playfulness, and Letters Journal's nihilism has nothing to do with punk cliché or the corpse-painted faces of black metal. It's more an expression of the absence of an exit from capitalism that Letters Journal glimpses in the present as well as a way of puncturing the balloon of self-importance attached to anti-capitalist endeavours and activist exertions. As Letters IV notes, ‘The first sin of the pro-revolutionary is to frame everything on a scale inversely proportionate to her significance. As she becomes more insignificant, her vision grows in grandeur.'

Image: Letters Journal IV unboxed

Letters Journal can be a difficult read for ‘pro-revolutionaries' or those in favour of revolution but without the agency to implement it whether Marxist, anarchist or whatever. The phrase ‘pro-revolutionary' was coined by the two-member 'Monsieur Dupont' collective, and both Le Garcon and Frére Dupont are in issue four. M. Dupont was partially formed out of a desire to mock the pretensions of revolutionary organisations with a similar membership ratio. Their tactic was to inject some ludic, nihilist realism into the anti-capitalist milieu by stepping out of the activist injunction to do something and instead 'Do nothing'. This wasn't necessarily an invitation to sit around and watch Bonsai trees grow but rather a critique of activist ‘urgency',  its ‘moral apparatus', and the ‘reproduction of authoritarian and capitalist forms within this (anti-capitalist) political milieu'[iii]. Both this, and their emphasis upon the stringent limitations imposed by economic structure upon the potential agency of anti-capitalist milieus, continue to be unerringly present within Letters. I'm sympathetic to this in that it identifies unacknowledged apparatuses - organisational and discursive structures that produce subjectivity - that are capable of deforming anti-capitalist politics. Political subjects (‘activist' or ‘militant'), organisations and even language often become invisible constraints clumsily locked in a cycle of self-valorisation. Such skepticism remains at the core of Letters Journal's anti-politics, but within its pages anti-political communism has developed into a much more speculative heresy.

Anti-Political Scission

Anti-politics as the tool for this particular work of the negative is loosely defined in issue one of Letters Journal as:

A rejection of representation and representatives... a refusal of activism and militancy [...] the embrace of human community and revolt [...] Anti-Politics is an open question usually expressed in inaction; a negation that we do not have the agency to realise.

'Politics' within capitalism can only be the management of what's possible within capitalism, the economic relations that lead to a repetition of the same in the form of a regime that extracts value or profit from labouring bodies. This is the first scission or division from the political that any communist anti-politics has to make. It's aptly summed up by Gilles Dauvé and Francois Martin in their statement made in the wake of the May '68 revolt that 'The communist movement is anti-political not a-political'.[iv] Resistance to capitalism is embodied in wild cat strikes and occupations that retain a distance from organisational representation and might even constitute an oppositional 'movement' immanent to capitalism. A non-state libertarian communism is also a rejection of the parties and unions that seek a continued management of capitalism even while proclaiming an opposition to it. Or, as Letters III notes, 'Who are the future policemen with red flags?'; a particularly pertinent question in terms of current anti-austerity resistance. This rejection of the management of the possible can still collapse into the unexamined subject roles of activist and militant that become a de facto representation of the proletariat, generic ‘humanity' or anti-capitalist revolt. This second division from the political is an engaged withdrawal that acts back upon the ground from which anti-political communism emerges and examines the presuppositions of agency attached to activist militancy. Much is contained in the term 'pro-revolutionary' which acknowledges the necessary limitation upon the actions of supposed radicals within capitalist constraints. 'Do nothing' also soberly questions what is perpetuated by doing anything political in the present. As Letters IV notes, '[T]he only means of successfully reproducing an organisation under capitalist conditions is to reproduce it as a capitalist organisation.'

French ultra-leftist Jacques Camatte identified the subtle contradictions that can entrap oppositional politics in his concept of 'repressive consciousness'. Camatte's influence in Letters is pervasive, and his own trajectory through the 1970s from relative Marxist orthodoxy to a fierce critique of 'rackets' and ultimately an (unfortunate) espousal of primitivism is worthy of note in itself, if little documented. Camatte writes that:

The object of repressive consciousness is the goal which it thinks it controls [...] consciousness makes itself the goal and reifies itself in an organization which comes to incarnate the goal.[v]

‘Repressive consciousness' reveals itself in how supposedly revolutionary Marxist theory and its attendant organisational forms take themselves as the embodiment of a revolutionary subject. They become more concerned with their own self-perpetuation and garnering of human and ideological capital than revolt. Camatte termed such organisations ‘rackets' of oppositional enterprise expressive of a fully subsumed ‘material community of capital' itself composed of such 'rackets' in the forms of business, state, media, etc. Much of Letters' anti-politics is concerned with undermining the ways anti-capitalist politics can operate as such a ‘racket', and how this can block the emergence of revolt by valorising itself as the agency of revolt. Maybe, a danger with anti-political communism is that it could become a purist sect that refuses any engagement with resistance that doesn't meet its own fairly exacting standards. Then anti-politics might degenerate into yet another ‘racket' even if expressed quietly through theoretical whinging at the inadequacies of every other ‘racket'.

How might the anti-political communism of Letters Journal attempt to avoid this? Partly through a questioning of the significance of anti-capitalist theory and milieus as opposed to the more indeterminate actuality of both capitalism and all those proletarianised 'others' who don't desire to constitute a 'movement'. This is the ‘open question' expressed by looking elsewhere for resistance, outside of any self-designated and self-referential anti-capitalist politics. Letters actively drifts away from either a simplistic anarchist valorisation of revolt or a more reductive 'scientific' Marxist certainty towards an evaluation of the limits of such anti-capitalist praxis. As well as speculation over how these limits might be transgressed, Letters' anti-politics is expressed through a constant interrogation of the boundaries of its own critical activity. It's this awareness of the potential insignificance of the theoretical murmurings of anti-political critique that's a check to any potential racketeering.

This further division from the political even casts doubt upon the theorisation of anti-political communism as constituting part of a social movement implicit within Dauvé and Martin's formulation. This is an involution of negation towards a (self)questioning of whether believing in an immanent agency of revolt might not ultimately block its realisation. Such a shift problematises the significance attached to anti-capitalist praxis in the present - which could just be a burnt-out sullenness, but arguably responds to factors that are simply present in the world. These include the decline of the 'old' workers' movement, the self-referentiality of 'radical' academics, the impotent banality of 1990s style 'creative resistance' and, more widely, class decomposition and the disappearance of the 'mass' worker. This is a scission from within the anti-political itself that's expressed frequently in Letters IV in a pessimistic and melancholy register, but also through a fragmentation of the forms critique might take. As the latest issue notes, social crisis is 'as indicated by the functional failure of organs of revolution as by failure of [...] any other social institution'. 'Social crisis' - the recurrent economic crises of capital - might also be expressed through the degeneration and failure of an 'anti-capitalism' all too intertwined with capitalism. Is such a failure to be welcomed? Is anti-politics a withdrawal from anti-capitalist milieus, a deliberate exile from (self-)certainty in order to accentuate critique as an indeterminate negation?

Every Beggar is Odysseus

The latest issue of Letters is packaged in a screen printed envelope replete with question marks and the enigmatic if erudite title ‘Every Beggar is Odysseus'. Such relative aestheticism immediately marks Letters off from similar products in the far left margins of the anti-capitalist milieu. The journal certainly looks good and the material packaging is a clue to the sensibility that informs Letters. As an (anonymous) author writes in Letters IV: ‘When I dream of print culture and a time when ideas meant something [...] I am dreaming of a society now decades in the past...'.

Image: The envelope for Letters Jounal IV

Letters in its printed form is as nostalgic in the midst of the digital information-dump dystopia as those radicals it takes to task for being tied to past forms of resistance such as the mass party. And it knows it. This raised the question for me of why printed material as such is produced, given how much information is accessible digitally. Printed matter like Letters does have an immediacy to it as an object which is often lost on the web. Nicholas Thoburn articulates something of this in his theorisation of the 'communist object' as an object that embodies a sensuous, 'intensive expressiveness'. Objects act through a combination of a 'fragmented circulation, emergent association, physical composition [and] ephemeral duration'.[vi] I wouldn't put all of this conceptual weight on Letters alone, but it does suggest the persistence of journals and pamphlets, etc. in anti-capitalist milieus as being more than a nostalgic affectation. There's a faint trace of less alienated social relations in the simple existence of a culture that disseminates such objects and in the forms they actually take. Even if, like everything, such a culture can become bloated and subject to the commodity form, as with artists' book fairs. Historical avant-gardes such as the Surrealists and the Situationist International used journals as a conduit for polemic, and the dissemination of ideas as well as being a physical expression of the 'movement'.

There's a resonance with this past, avant-gardist praxis in the way Letters is much more formally innovative than most anti-capitalist critique. Issue four is a heterogeneous assemblage of essays, anecdotes, short stories, decontextualised quotations, dialogues, interviews, letters and poetry presented in the main journal and attached literary supplement. If anything, there's an excess of material in Letters IV and a lot of speculation around such questions as the present (im)possibilities of communism, anti-productivism, the organisational redundancy of the 'Left' and the outmoded historical specificity of images of communist utopia. Letters has an iconoclastic edge but this iconoclasm is fairly nuanced. For instance, Marx's notion of a happily productive day spent fishing, writing poetry and so forth becomes, for Frére Dupont, 'an already obsolete future'. Marx's faith in the 'progressive' role of the productive forces in producing technological and material plenty to enable such a communism is analysed as both of its time and misguided. As Frére Dupont writes: 'Can we afford to suppose that the same factories which concretised exploitation yesterday could concretise socialisation tomorrow?'

Letters' method is to deepen such aporias and not attempt to theoretically synthesise the antimonies of such problems. As I sit and write this on my laptop in the dysfunctional but highly technological (shit lifts, shit heating) machine for modern living I rent a space in, an anti-productivist communism seems impossibly far away. This is probably the point of Letters' consistent accentuation of the negative around such questions, since this underlines the (unimaginable) rupture or break that communism would actually be and opens up a space for further speculation. The main question this opens up, for me, is around the possibility of non-capitalist social relations and whether an anti-productivism that still refuses a naive primitivism is possible. Maybe, the dividing line between primitivism and communisation - understood as the destruction of the value form and the dissolution of the proletariat - is that a communising anti-productivism would be predicated on how exploitative a specific technology actually is.

Of the poetry I particularly liked ‘The Parrot Eater', a series of sketches on the jouissance of eating whole, live parrots, bones, feathers and all:

‘Passing lone judgments/ Feathers in his teeth/ Set his will/ The heir to no fortune.'

Whether about late capitalist eating disorders, an allegory of self-exile or some perverse kind of desire I'm really not sure. Self-exile seems the most likely. Letters Journal's acerbic anti-political critique breaks with anti-capitalist milieus. Within this break there's no guarantee of a return to theoretical certainty or a successful resolution of the problem of communism. This critique carries within it the hidden cargo of an alienating distance from those anti-capitalist milieus from which anti-politics emerged. ‘Lone judgements' that infect anti-capitalism from its margins might be the effect of a hyper-criticality willing to accept being the ‘heir to no fortune'. Also, poetry as a way of expressing this suggests that the language of critique is itself exhausted and reiterates the clichés of ‘rackets'. The poetry in Letters IV tends to revolve around more affective and imaginative registers, stretching language towards expressing something less quantifiable than theoretical certainty. Letters Journal's inclusion of poetry opens out the limits of critique while acknowledging the dead end(s) that anti-capitalism finds itself in and can sometimes constitute.

Much of the journal is presented as fragments, such as ‘Fate', ‘Novelty' and ‘Friendship' alongside a longer essay called ‘The Parallax Few'. This is a dense cybernetic deconstruction of how anti-capitalist organizations 'function like poorly programmed robots stuck in a feedback loop of self-perpetuation. Cybernetics - the study of systemic dynamics - provides a tool to underline the limited efficacy of anti-capitalist intervention to communicate outside of a charmed circle of acolytes. Anything that happens will be determined at a higher structural level than the efforts of the local anarcho-syndicalist federation. As an examination of the ‘pathologies of left groups' the 'Parallax Few' works well. It's really a deconstruction of the toxicity of anti-capitalist communication channels if used to cement in place fantasias of a mass movement and proletarian identity. This reflects back upon Letters' own (non-)praxis as being a self-critical intervention into the anti-capitalist milieus that it remains within, albeit as a dissident element.

The inclusion of different forms of writing doesn't come across as a novelty, but as an attempt to disrupt such feedback loops in the way dissent is expressed. Like a dadaist montage, the textual machinery of Letters is deliberately constructed as difficult to assimilate. None of this is to insinuate that Letters desires to reinvent aesthetic or political avant-garde praxis. If - as the military roots of the term ‘avant-garde' suggest - much of the production of journals in the 20th century avant-garde was concerned with formulating an ideologically coherent offensive position, Letters is more concerned with decomposing any attempts to do so. For instance, in issue one of Letters the often derided expulsions from the Situationist International by Guy Debord are viewed less as a case of proto-Leninism than as an exemplary self-dissolution in order for the S.I. to avoid becoming a pitiful simulacrum of itself. Letters avoids disappearing into the black holes of 21st century post avant-garde self-referentiality and formal experimentation that swallow up much contemporary literary or theoretical production. Instead, Letters employs language to dig away at the delusions of revolt.

Anti-Political Fragments

Voice Two: ‘All black, eyes closed to the excess of disaster.'

– ‘Howls in Favour of De Sade', Guy Debord.[vii]

Voice Two: ‘She never wore black. Her eyes closed to the excess of disaster.'

– 'Howls in Favor of Sadie', Letters Journal IV 

The affinity with past avant-garde practice is often expressed fairly irreverently, adopting a trash picker's aesthetic that sifts through the detritus of 20th century revolt. ‘Howls in Favour of Sadie' in the Letters literary supplement is a detournement of Guy Debord's film ‘Howls in Favour of Sade' which unpicks the Situationist certainty of the original to express, I think, the unhappy suicide of the all too damaged subject Sadie who is unable to escape her own commodification whether through love or revolt. The 'excess of disaster' is nothing else but capitalism. Such an examination of the tension between the human collateral of capital and the structural constraints of existent social relations is a recurrent theme throughout Letters Journal. In this instance it also restores something of the anti-ideological import of detournement as an act of subversive and mimetic reversal, rather than simply adopting the terse aphoristic style of Situationist critique as is common in much anarchist and post-Tiqqun theorising.[viii] Letters' adoption of the method questions the reiteration of Situationist style as ideological bluster. Language - whether textual, visual or the embodied gestures of revolt - becomes boring as it's evacuated of context, meaning and import in our contemporary spectacle. It's not that flippant to think that the anti-politics of Letters is as much an expression of this boredom with the accepted norms of anti-capitalism as anything else.

But, there's more than nihilist ennui in this. The fragmentary forms of writing that Letters adopts suggest a radical indeterminacy and lack of closure to anti-politics rather than an attempt to establish the answer in the form of a particular ideology or organisational form. This openness is, then, much more than a formal exercise, though as with much incorporated in the notion of 'Do Nothing', there's a playfulness there. This playfulness inheres within the ambivalent potentiality of ceasing to act through the established channels or forms of resistance. Such a withdrawal might allow new possibilities to emerge and different forms of theoretical praxis. Or even the ability to admit that it's not a question of what is to be done but that - momentarily - there might be nothing to do. Also, Letters IV argues that 'Constituting an anti-political language is primarily a question of honesty.' This is often carried out in a way that's elusive, and sometimes rambling and opaque, if well written. To hazard a guess, this is probably a deliberate anti-political stratagem that seeks to reflect - through the inclusion of more literary, affective and anecdotal modes of address alongside the theoretical - something of the ways experience is broken apart and separated within spectacular capitalism.

Image: Photograph by John Mostrom, 2003

'Friendship' for instance forms a constellation of theorisations and anecdotes by differing authors that range from the subversive potentiality of friendship as a 'pure means', to its venal subsumption in capitalism and speculation around its happy dissolution in communism.[ix] Like much of Letters' anti-politics, the ghostly theoretical presence of famed Marxist pessimist Theodor Adorno animates this in the attention paid to the fate of the damaged subject within the capitalist productive relation. Also, the piece hints at the ambiguities of friendship being inscribed within the form of the writing - much like the spectral trace of non-capitalist relations Adorno glimpsed in art. Such experimentation could be a slightly ingenuous shift since it runs the risk of over-valuing the supposedly ‘intuitive' and real over the supposedly ‘abstract' and theoretical. Given that we dwell in the ‘real abstraction' of capital wherein abstract categories such as value and the commodity are actualised in the world, it's fair to say the abstractions of Marxism have a role to play in any critique of this. Also, used badly, such a technique might even lead to a micro-sub genre of nauseating anti-capitalist confessionals on Amazon.

In actuality Letters avoids these traps and the juxtaposition of different elements in the journal isn't to the detriment of any one of them. The scientific, philosophical, political, literary and everyday registers combine in an anti-political, self-reflective decomposition of the hierarchies of theoretical production that refuse any easy resolution while widening the scope of what might be considered within the speculative anti-political heresy of Letters. Blanchot, in an essay on Marx, writes of ‘communist speech' as being one ‘of incessant contestation [that] must constantly develop and break away from itself in multiple forms'[x]. Letters IV seems to be reaching towards something like this by allowing the experiential fragmentation of the present to shape critique rather than being pushed to the side as extraneous to the construction of political subjectivities such as the militant activist, Marxist theorist etc. More personal anecdotes are allowed to infect and destabilize an anti-political language that might just have been yet another autistic anti-capitalist enterprise in theoretical self valorisation or affirmation of resistance. This raises the question of how much the expression of critique should reflect its content. Much theoretically astute anti-capitalist critique ends up playing a game of valorising itself at the expense of the possibilities it might suggest. Letters' decomposition of theoretical hierarchy injects an element of fragility and risk to the expression of dissent that's both reflective and constitutive of its anti-politics. This restores an immediacy to oppositional critique through a sense of intimacy with the affective resonance of capitalism in the everyday. And this immediacy is characterised by the lack and absence of any glimpse of communism in the present.

Exit / No Exit

In all likelihood, communism is an unsolvable task. The conditions for its solution cannot exist or form in this world. For this reason, we are cautiously optimistic.

- Letters Journal IV

As fragmentary as Letters appears to be it's in no way random or ill thought out. Overall, the effect is of a cohesive assemblage happily indeterminate in its theoretical negation and intent on opening out anti-capitalist critique without locking into pre-existing models. This assemblage revolves around the absent object 'communism' more defined by its lack in the present than any latent immanence. As Letters IV notes, 'Whatever is possible in this world is not communism'. This lack is disruptive in its absence, forcing the anecdotal and literary fragments to revolve around it. But the notion of communism is also decomposed in that reflections upon it end up incorporating the everyday experience of its lack. This infects the certainty usually expressed in critique with an awareness of its own limitations and failure however embedded in critical science it may be. In Letters IV this is almost a negative theology with ‘G-d' replaced by a communism immanent in its very absence. Much like Kafka's parables of 'no exit' such as The Castle, this accentuates the negativity of the existent, with any kind of utopia only existing as the negative image of the accumulated debris of the capitalist present.[xi] This does run the risk of over-emphasising 'no exit' over any agency to change 'fate'. Emphasising 'no exit' can risk a reification of such structural constraints and the loss of any sense of the essential instability of capitalism due to its basis in that most unstable element of all - human labour. Generally though, this sense of 'no exit' is finely balanced between its destructive use as a way of accentuating the lack inherent in a world built around the needs of capital and a subsequent necessity of not simply retreating to the safety of theoretical certainty.

Letters organises its various anti-political fragments around the ‘absence and weight of absent community' and the apprehension that ‘[a]nother world does not exist anymore; nor the movement; nor the community.' As well as accentuating the restrained threat of negation that Letters carries - what would these anti-political communists do if they had the chance? - this melancholic appraisal of the present reduces it to a figurative ruin. Within this sense of present day 'no exit', Letters establishes a tension between revolt and an almost fatalistic awareness of the structural over-determination of contemporary capitalism. Part of the 'honesty' of Letters' anti-political language is a willingness to admit the failure of anti-capitalist milieus to raise consciousness, bring about social war or even slow down the continued instauration of the capitalist social relation. This sense of failure is utilised in a way that's more akin to Samuel Beckett's maxim: 'Try again, fail again, fail better' than as an attempt to elide the question of resistance altogether.

Or not so much 'try again' as to wager that the very dissolution of 'Left' certainties is an element in a wider structural crisis of capitalism. Given that the 'Left' has traditionally valorised prole identity or 'workers' control' rather than the dissolution of such, then it might be that class decomposition and lack of 'leftist' consciousness open up possibilities in the present. As the 'Parallax Few' argues, the lack of wider prole interest in the ‘Left' both reflects this and suggests proletarian ‘consciousness' is far in advance of any supposed ‘vanguard' movement. The proletariat's teetering ‘on the edge of its disengagement from the myths of the subject-worker' gives rise to a very nuanced questioning of the abstraction - and alienation - of proletarian experience that even underlies attempts to theorise capitalism. This casts into doubt the point of critique - to which the 'Parallax Few' suggests an alternative in the 'communising' form of organisation.

This isn't a pre-emptive strike to destroy and/or appropriate the production apparatus but critique as a remainder of negative intent that is simultaneously aware of its limitations, 'delights in its encounters with the human community' and is always on the 'far side' of what is being achieved in terms of anti-capitalist opposition. Such a form of critique would take a certain pleasure in undercutting itself through allowing what might be seemingly extraneous - affect, proletarian indifference, lack of efficacy - to shape pro-revolutionary activity. This is the 'communising' it suggests. Incorporating material - philosophical but also scientific, poetic and experiential - that opens out what's considered in (or as) critique and is usually viewed as extraneous to anti-capitalist critique.

One gets the sense that such a ‘communising' form is very adept at waiting for the contingent possibility that social crisis might lead to forms of opposition outside of present day ‘rackets'. This kind of speculation was the aspect of Letters IV I found most incisive and rewarding alongside the playful subversion of the writing of theory. The dividing scission of anti-politics in this issue suggests that the ‘open question' is also present day anti-capitalism and its perpetuation of the detritus of parties, unions and various leftist sects. Even self-organisation, while undoubtedly a response to other organisational forms, tends to be limited by a valorisation of proletarian identity in an oppositional anti-institutional form.[xii] Due to their basis in maintaining production and/or a proletarian identity, such forms of organisation elide the negation of capitalism and instead maintain it. Of course, the aporia to this is that there's no manifest suggestion that such forms won't be perpetually thrown up within capitalism and still act as a conduit for necessary and unavoidable dissent and resistance. As Letters IV notes, ‘The solution of self-management is obviously a false one [...] We have not even scratched the surface.' There's a suggestion at the end of this issue that any possible exodus from the 'desert' of the existent social relation depends upon this generation of anti-capitalism dying out. In its own self-reflective way Letters' anti-political negation is an astute contribution to this death and maybe anti-politics as a form of critique is also constitutive of this ‘desert'. That contemporary forms of anti-capitalism might decompose along with the past class compositions such as the 'mass worker' might, in actuality, be a reason for a cautious optimism. Our continued if unwitting participation in the ongoing disaster of contemporary capitalism continues to leave the possibility that as Letters IV notes, ‘An unsolvable task constantly provokes the anti-bodies that seek its solution.'

Idiot Savant

That there's no solution within the existent capitalist social relation makes Letters Journal ‘cautiously optimistic' that this ‘unsolvable task' will provoke presently unthinkable - if highly contingent - solutions. It's this determined, if uncertain, opening out through the impossibility of the present that prevents Letters Journal from collapsing into apolitical despair from a passively experienced nihilism. Letters' nihilism is the turning in upon itself of an ‘active' nihilism that would destroy the existent in an acceleration of the destructive capabilities of ‘will'. Usually in pro-revolutionary theory this is the form of nihilism invoked as with the situationist Raoul Vaneigem's ‘Nihilists, as De Sade would have said, one more effort if you want to be revolutionaries!'[xiii] The active nihilist, who delights in the decomposition of values and desires to accelerate the destructive potentiality of nihilism, needs herself to be subject to a detournement towards becoming a revolutionary subject. Letters Journal avoids this either/or trap by refusing the mantle of the radical subject who chooses the active nihilist role. Instead the aporia examined is of being trapped within the social relation but desiring a way out: ‘a negation we cannot realize.'

Communism and nihilism make for a particularly disjunctive synthesis given that the former has been linked to a redemptive teleology of history and the latter to a belief in nothing. This collapse of transcendent meaning in the face of scientific and philosophical enlightenment led to philosophical responses such as Nietzsche's ethical flailing towards the Übermensch. Letters' nihilism is more lucid because it inheres in the evacuation of meaning as it is produced through the domination of social relations by the real abstractions of contemporary capitalism. The qualitative and particular aspects of the world are dissolved in this (check out all those gentrified vegetables at the ‘farmers' market') but so are categories such as history and affect. Nihilism is less a problem of philosophy than a product of capitalism.

Such a nihilism is a mimetic transference of the emptiness produced through 'real abstraction' into a nihilist laughter at the sheer absurdity of 'no exit' and the failure of pro-revolutionaries to recognise it. But within this, Letters retains an all too human sense of the limitations of being trapped in capitalism. Thankfully, this is a nihilism of a broken down humanity rather than some anarchist Übermensch. My idiot savant question to Letters Journal is: ‘Why bother doing a journal if you're a nihilist communist?' My guess is that it's as good a way as any to not participate within an anti-capitalist milieu that's all too close to the imperative within contemporary capitalism to put any nascent potentiality to work. Maybe the central paradox of Letters is that its own activity suggests other possibilities that a too rigorous application of a sense of 'no exit' would close off. With 'Doing nothing' as a critique, it nevertheless retains mobility within the 'no exit' of the present and continues to pose difficult, often unanswerable, questions. Ultimately, Letters Journal's worth rests on a reiteration of this negating indeterminacy, anti-political critique as a negation that circulates and never rests except to do nothing. Exit/No Exit.

John Cunningham <coffeescience23 AT> is a writer and researcher based in London


[i] See Letters Journal Blog,

[ii] See,

[iii]   Monsieur Dupont, Nihilist Communism, , USA : Ardent Press, 2009, p. 199.

[iv] Gilles Dauvé and Francois Martin, The Eclipse and Re-Emergence of the Communist Movement, London: Antagonism, 1997, p.39. Originally published 1974 by Black and Red, Detroit, USA.

[v] Jacques Camatte, ‘The Wandering of Humanity', This World We Must Leave, Brooklyn: New York, Autonomedia, 1995, p.56.

[vi] Nicholas Thoburn, ‘Communist Objects and the Values of Printed Matter', Social Text 2010 28 (2 103), p.1-30.

[vii] Guy Debord, Howlings in Favour of De Sade, available here

[viii]  At least the reduction of this style to something of a cliché has generated this: Hours of fun.

[ix] As Giorgio Agamben writes: ‘this sharing without an object, this original con-senting that constitutes the political.'   See Friendship, What is an Apparatus, US: Stanford University Press, 2009, p.36.

[x] Maurice Blanchot, ‘Reading Marx',  Political Writings 1953- 1993, US: Fordham University Press, 2010, p.105.

[xi] As Michael Lowy writes on Kafka: 'The positive reverse side of the established world (libertarian utopia or messianic redemption) is a radical absence, and this is precisely what defines human life as demeaned, damned or void of meaning.' See Redemption and Utopia, Jewish Libertarian Thought in Central Europe, London: Athlone Press Ltd., 1992, p.93.

[xii] Theorie Communiste historicise the relation between self-organisation and proletarian identity here:

[xiii] Raoul Vaneigem, The Revolution of Everyday Life, London: Left Bank Books and Rebel Press, 1994, p.182.