[Morbid Books; 2020]
Nina Power’s Platforms is a strange little book, a curious mixture of letter, poem, and meditation. For reasons which I shall go into below, it’s bound to be met with some controversy, but it’s essentially, for all its obvious artistic intent, a modest text, some notes from a moment of unresolved personal crisis.
The book opens with a fragment that captures something of the open nature of this crisis: “Bardo Thodol state”. The Bardo Thodol is the book more commonly known in the West as The Tibetan Book of the Dead, a kind of guidebook for the dead, which is used in death rituals by some sections of the Tibetan Buddhist community. The word bardo literally means “between two”: a state between two other states, an in-between or intermediate state. So the space of dream, for example, would be a bardo, because it lies between two waking states. Likewise the space of meditation, which seeks an opening between thoughts, and especially the space between life and rebirth, which is the focus of the rituals. The idea recurs explicitly and implicitly as a motif throughout Power’s book.
The situation is that of a woman suffering from jetlag and insomnia — a not-quite waking state, perhaps — addressing her often agonized thoughts to a lover. The relationship is apparently an affair and thus complicated by instability and undecidedness: while the “I” is free to love and committed to it, the “you” is not, or not yet. The “I” — let‘s call them the speaker as per the terminology of poetry — is thus in that peculiarly active state of waiting that a lover on the less equal side of an unequal relation can find themselves in, obsessing over the contradictions, evasions, and vacillations of the beloved, trying to find ways through, looking everywhere for clarifications, portents, and possibilities. She examines etymologies and tarot readings, writes lists, poses endless questions. How can the lovers move beyond this impasse? What practical move can they make so that this abortive romance can be borne or pass away? What is the key to understanding the situation? Do the categories of modern social life help? Is the beloved a “narcissist”, as some people, even he, seem to worry? Is her relation to him “masochistic”? How can the lovers avoid the dynamic of masochism and sadism and find an ebb and flow beyond its formulaic motions? The means to pose these questions don’t seem fully satisfactory, the answers less so, and her lover doesn’t help much either. She sifts through the detritus of the situation, looking for guidance, considering and discarding, while alternating proudly and powerlessly between moments of anger, remorse, hope, celebration, futility, and faith.
Although in this suspended, unsatisfactory bardo state between encounter and commitment, the relationship has offered a way out of another state, the hell of boozing and blackouts, which the speaker imagines as a kind of recurring death: “this state where no new memories were made, where there was only a kind of screaming, a kind of desert-being”. The “you” is a guide in the afterlife, leading her beyond death, or the endless reenactment of drunken oblivion. Although the speaker is in many ways despairing, there’s the sense of a worse despair behind her, one that can’t even be properly conscious of itself. She exists now in a state that is at least awake to things, perhaps more than the “you”, who is in the end, for all his position of power and role as a guide, also “in limbo” and seemingly not taking on the same burden of thinking the situation through. She is taking stock, and things are becoming clearer. And within all this, apart from despair, there are moments of joy and playfulness, so that this bardo, despite the “wandering around corpses” of her fatigued imagination, is far from seeming undead.
As a document, Platforms has all the trappings of the genuinely personal: It’s a letter, addressed to one person, and ending with kisses in the form of three xs. It has crossings-out of unclear rhetorical value, suggesting a hand-written document, and a structure that seems to be established spontaneously by the moments in which it was written (“After New York”, “Wednesday”, etc.). Its events are set in a larger chronology that is hinted at but opaque, related to the knowledge of the ostensible “you” rather than the ordinary reader, along with references to mutual acquaintances and ongoing conversations. At the same time, it has ambition to go beyond the personal, both conceptually and formally — and this does not necessarily break the illusion of the personal if we imagine the writer in the role of the pining, inspired lover, longing both to disclose herself and raise herself to a higher degree of possibility (there’s nothing like love for inspiring the literary).
There are moments of dystopia or social critique, including an imagined 2025 where human life is infinitely quantified, managed, and mediated by technology. And there is also a utopian counterpoint throughout, linked to experiences of nature, including a wistful vision of a “third summer of love” in 2020, a kind of Arcadia: “The land no longer cloistered, enclosed, but open, endless, collective, reawakened, festive, awash with emotion.” The vision, however, is quickly shut down by a dystopian moment (“And they make you rank everything you care about . . .”), the latter possibility more coextensive with current trends, perhaps. In the end, the speaker doesn’t find herself really in either possibility, but in the bardo between them, where politics is faltering. In keeping with this, though politics is present, the text is not essentially political in nature, and sometimes explicitly skeptical (from one of the lists: “Political: a limited sphere”). More on politics when we come to the context of the book.
Another contrast is between the speaker as a philosopher and her lover as a poet. She brings to her aid her “dead friends / The philosophers / Who had already understood something // I think”, to reflect on the situation, with little haphazard pieces of thought. At the same time, as with so many of the contrasts and polarities in the text, she’s not quite content with this division of roles, and, as illustrated already in the previous quote, frequently breaks into (mostly paratactic) free verse, which works by giving more weight to moments or thoughts and slowing down the generally slow, pensive rhythm of the text. At other moments, the text speeds up and we have long, unpunctuated sentences with strings of clauses, representing here a rush of thoughts, and there an ambling flow of them. With these and other techniques, the text puts itself in the tradition of expansive autobiographical writing, whose modern form is perhaps typified by the Semiotext(e) Native Agents series. There’s no narrative as such, more the working through of a personal situation, but in such a way that the personal, the conceptual, and the literary are combined. In the end, it’s the description of a knot, of a problem that cannot yet be undone. It ends not with resolution but with the anticipation of something like one: “something must break and it cannot be my mind again so perhaps it could be my heart or perhaps it will be the dawn”.
The book certainly has its problems. The speaker brings in her philosophers but their contribution isn’t very fully developed. Often, thoughts seem a little too inconclusive, collapsing too quickly before they have a chance to really form themselves. This fits thematically with the malaise of uncertainty that the speaker finds themselves in but I can’t help feeling that it’s an aesthetic flaw. The poetry, while perfectly functional, is unspectacular, and there’s a lack of clarity about the form as a whole, which prevents it from really taking off at a certain level. Essentially, it’s a minor work. But it’s an interesting one, an emotionally honest one, and it manages to sustain its complex mood admirably and subtly. And there’s something about the way it realizes this idea of the bardo that does speak to something that we are living through at the moment, and this might be worth reflecting on. But that can’t be done before having looked at the context.
I’m now going to shift into a different mode, which will involve more use of the first person, footnotes, and a good deal of uncertainty. I would like to try and look at the context of the book, that is, to catch hold of something from the unbounded, messy, infinite stories of public life, as opposed to the bounded, relatively ordered, still (in its own way) infinite story in the book itself. I don’t think I’m fully adequate to the task, and what follows should be considered provisional. It’s merely a little contribution to the mess perhaps, but one that, I hope, will also be part of the attempt to clarify it. I’ll include some links at the end for those who want to investigate further. The figures as they appeared in the text and my extrapolations from it may appear here in different guises. I’m in a different guise too.
I was advised in no uncertain terms (but mostly with kindness) not to write a review of this book. What I’ve written about it so far wouldn’t give you much idea of why this might be. Indeed, if you read the book, you’d probably struggle to discover much of a controversy, other than perhaps the ordinary personal controversies that accompany a messy tangle of relationships. But this in itself will be seen by some as grounds for suspicion: a strategy of dissimulation, perhaps, on the part of the person who wrote it?
Nina Power became a public figure as one of a wave of UK intellectual bloggers in the first half of the 2000s. I used to read her blog, Infinite Thought, which discussed the intricacies of philosophy, feminism, left-wing politics, personal relationships, literature and so on with a wit, lightness, and clarity that was (and is) rare in intellectual circles. The labors and the tone of the blog were extended into her celebrated 2009 book, One Dimensional Woman, which was focused on her intra-feminist critique of contemporary consumerist feminism, and in the years that followed, she was active in various ways: writing for publications such as The Guardian and Wire Magazine, speaking regularly in public on various (normally political) themes, working against police violence with activist group Defend the Right to Protest, as well as holding down a job as Senior Lecturer in Philosophy at the University of Roehampton. I suppose she was on the fringes of public discourse, but in the small world of the British radical left, she was a visible figure: a typical overworked lefty public intellectual.
This image was drastically altered by a YouTube stream posted in February 2019, which featured Power in her office in friendly conversation with two people who are considered to be “alt-right”: D. C. Miller and Justin Murphy. The backlash in the British left was predictable and strong, with moves quickly being made to bar Power from liberal-left platforms and commentary picking up on the video’s numerous allusions to right-wing positions and mythologies. And there was indeed something unsettling about seeing Power, whilst not really advocating their positions, accepting the terms of her interlocutors, particularly in relation to her feminism, and tacitly, as it were socially, entertaining their approaches. And it was obvious that she was familiarizing herself with those approaches, not just their terms but their symbologies and modes of thought. It raised questions that Power herself raised years ago in relation to neo-liberalism: How do you have a conversation with representatives of a discourse that has radically different terms to your own? How do you avoid the trap of having your ideas absorbed and transformed in the structure of your adversary’s thought? And the converse might also be important: How do you avoid reducing your adversary’s thought, or, worse, their being, entirely to the terms of your own way of thinking? Questions that are all the more pressing, perhaps, if your adversary is a friend. But of course, the video also raised another question, which didn’t take the participants as adversaries at all: wait, is Nina Power a fascist now?
Power’s immediate response to the backlash was a long, considered piece of writing (appearing on a more recent blog, in her own name) in which she discussed the video, as well as other themes: accusations of transphobia,1 the toll that activism can take, her struggles with alcoholism and madness, and her relationship to the left and its group dynamics. It was actually mostly a lingering gratitude for this blog post that made me want to review her book. Somehow she was able, with clarity and humor, to refrain from falling into the feud state of moralism and recrimination that seems to have overcome politics both within the left and between the left and the right.2 It discussed the difficulties of her situation with apparent honesty and without defensiveness, attempting to open up lines of dialogue and possibility. Above all, it suggested a broader perspective beyond the stifling confines of contemporary discourse. Other than the work of Laura Kipnis, I’ve not seen much around that has managed to be at once so firm and so alive to ambiguity in its response to the current culture of indictment.
What the post didn’t do was clarify her political position. She said she would address the accusations that she was a “fascist” and a “nazi” in a post the following day, but no post appeared, and two later posts on issues related to the backlash, while interesting, didn’t address this either.3 The posts that appeared made no difference to the moves within the left to “cancel” her, which led to social ostracism, pressure on events organizers to exclude her, as well as loss of journalistic work.4 And, as if inevitably, it seems that she is indeed now carving out a space for herself within the libertarian right and the alt-right, writing for The Spectator and the Daily Telegraph, and in dialogue with various rightist figures, though still apparently advocating a critical, collectivist approach that would normally be associated with the left, albeit not in its most orthodox form.
The situation is, to my mind (others will most certainly disagree), not very clear. It can be illustrated by another little controversy that erupted while I was writing this review, concerning her accompanying text to an exhibition in New Zealand entitled, tellingly enough, “People of Colour”. The exhibition featured a number of postcard-sized flags, many containing swastikas and right-wing symbols, or, in one picture I saw, the slogan “it’s okay to be white”. Of particular controversy was the juxtaposition of these with indigenous flags. Now, I didn’t see the exhibition, so I can’t give a full analysis of it, but it certainly seems to operate within the standard frame of alt-right provocation, in which possibilities of “white identity” and white supremacy are asserted in ambiguous, taunting gestures. Power’s text, however, understands it as an attempt to attack the symbolic tyranny of flags — an attempt, that is, to put into question the categories that flags assume and help to instantiate. But are we really supposed to think that this exhibition is a serious contribution to the idea of a world without normative categories of nation and race? This seems somewhat improbable. Whatever strategies of ironic disavowal are involved here, whatever nihilism on a certain level, the juxtaposition of swastikas with Māori flags would seem to suggest their equivalence — equivalent meaninglessness, perhaps, but also equivalent availability for strategic use. It seems to me that it is not against but in the name of the flag, and the war it promises, that this exhibition takes place, whatever its hipster nonchalance. Understanding something of this, perhaps, the left took measures to attack the show, condemning participants and associates, putting the people it could reach through processes of ideological correction, etc. But the problem here is that this attack would have been foreseen by the artists. I can’t believe, in fact, that the exhibition didn’t precisely intend the outrage it provoked. What does this mean for the left’s response?
Whatever the meaning of the exhibition, I don’t believe Power’s text helps us to understand it. In fact, there is a dissonance between them, just as there are apparent dissonances between the politics of her milieu and what she professes in her work. This has led some to speak of “plausible deniability” or a “hidden agenda” or “secret faces”. Behind talk of “freedom of expression”, is there a covert conspiracy to enable the distribution of sexist and racist ideology? Is that what she has become? Is she simply a trojan horse for unwitting sympathetic readers like myself?Something about this story doesn’t satisfy me, but it’s a murky business. Certainly she is now immersed in the various streams of contemporary right-wing thought and more interested, at this point, in understanding them than being critical of them. Certainly she seems enthusiastic about some elements of right-wing culture, whilst still wanting to analyze them from the viewpoint of her feminism. If this strange position really does mean merely that she has “gone over to the other side” and is about to start decrying reproductive rights, celebrating the patriarchal family, and professing that IQ results really do suggest genetic hierarchies between the races, that would be a shame. For a moment, there was the glimmer of a critical voice that wouldn’t be exactly on either side, nor in the center in the traditional sense, defending instead an intermediate space beyond, one of exchange and risk, ambiguity and freedom.5
The text and its context
What does this story have to do with Platforms? It wouldn’t be impossible to read the text in the light of it. You could comb the text for suspicious signs, and you might find some. What exactly does she mean by nature at that moment? How is difference understood there? What are the ideological differences that she used to have with her lover? What’s G. K. Chesterton doing popping up at that point? (It occurs to me, thinking of the situation in the book, that this process would be strangely like the lover analyzing all the minutiae of the beloved’s words, gestures, expressions, and actions for signs that they are loved.) Some of the answers to these questions might be interesting. But they are not what the text offers. It is the depiction of a complex situation in somebody’s life, not, for all that it calls on philosophy, a treatise concerned with providing definitions or explanations. You may believe that to read this book without suspicion, because the situation depicted might be interesting in itself, is to somehow tolerate or encourage the politics of the person who wrote it. I often hear people talk about sympathy and understanding as if they were kinds of currency that should only be doled out to the deserving, or, better, rewards, like the little behavioral nudges that help keep us all addicted to our online worlds. But I hope that reading hasn’t become merely part of a coercive or punitive exercise. You may believe that reading Platforms could infect you with the politics of the person who wrote it, and want to protect yourself or somebody else from exposure. But, even if there were something somehow contagious to right-wing views, you’d be hard-pressed to find them in persuasive force here. The book is not in any direct sense about those views and, if it’s possible that certain styles of thought might contain fascistic currents, the questioning, probing, suffering voice of the speaker here is far from representing one. You may believe that it’s perfectly fine to read this text but not to review it, as I am doing. But then how are we going to have this discussion and thereby understand what is happening? Or should processes of understanding, with all their ambivalence, only take place in private? Have we really got to a place where uncertainty is such a threat?
And this is where the text, perhaps, provides us with something to consider. It’s not the depiction of somebody in the inviting thralls of a fascist ideology, it is the depiction of somebody in a process of change, a bardo state, an uncertain state. The word thodol in the name Bardo Thodol means “liberation through hearing”. The sacred text is supposed to provide a means with which to communicate with the soul that has just died. The idea, then, is that the dead soul is listening, and susceptible to guidance, even when they are beyond us. We all experience moments that are bardo, moments when the rules of the life that we have lived, good or bad, suddenly dissolve, and we find ourselves walking through darkness. And it may be that politically and socially at the moment we are, despite pervasive professions of certainty, all in a kind of bardo state, a moment of enormous, bewildering, overwhelming change, filled with anxiety and paranoia, perhaps sometimes charged with a strange giddiness or monstrous glee. The question emerges: who can guide us through this? Or perhaps, taking our cue from the speaker of Platforms, who is far from helpless: from what materials and with whose help are we going to fashion a thread to help lead ourselves through? It may be that the speaker and the author of Platforms are choosing ways that we wouldn’t ourselves or ways we might question or ways we might be against. But this shouldn’t make us kid ourselves that we are not also lost.
Blog post from Nina Power in response to the open letter.
Further blog posts: “Cancelled”, “Response to TERFs Out of Art’s ‘Statement of Intent’”
A response to those further posts, looking at the situation from a left-wing point of view.
Text on flags for the “People of Colour” exhibition.
Pride Auckland statement on the exhibition.
1. There isn’t the space here to examine these accusations, which, incidentally, preceded the video and meant that she was already somewhat of a controversial figure in some circles. Power’s blog post gives a detailed and frank account of all of this anyhow.
2. This feud state can easily be perceived in social media every day and Power is certainly embroiled in it to some degree. I know that D. C. Miller, with a telling narrative of victimization, understands his and Power‘s relationship with the left in relation to René Girard’s “scapegoat mechanism”. I’m sure he’s not completely wrong. But it seems to me from the evidence of his online presence that it should also be understood in terms of Girard’s concept of “mimetic violence”, whereby in the escalating confrontation of the feud, the parties, in this case left and right, become essentially indistinguishable — or perhaps it would be better to say they become perfectly compatible inversions of each other, seemingly designed to produce spirals of outrage, scorn, and altercation. This, of course, is useful to those who benefit from the current state of affairs in both camps, which can be reinforced by reference to an implacable enemy.
3. Edit: Nina Power has offered the following statement in response to the review: “For clarity, I do not support war, violence, nationalism, the negative evaluation of anyone on the basis of sex, race, religion or ethnicity. I am adamantly against censorship, book-burning, the fusion of state and corporation, surveillance or anything else that would be legitimately described as fascism. I think this term has been radically diluted in its usage today, in ways that do a total disservice to history and to all those who oppose everything it stands for (which includes myself).” I am grateful for the clarification, which I hope the reader will take into account when considering the complex situation discussed in the review.
4. Correction: These facts have been updated from an earlier version of this article that falsely claimed Power was forced to resign from the University of Roehampton.
5. It should go without saying that, whatever their strategic use of ambiguity, the apparent freedom the right offers is belied by the reified (that is, utterly typical) categories that structure their political program and ideal forms of life, the conventional hierarchies of being that they are trying to maintain or reinstitute. Nonetheless, I think it’s worth the left asking some questions here. What is the left’s own investment in some of these categories? Why is it that so many people see the right as offering a space of freedom at the moment? Why is it that the right is currently attracting swathes of alienated souls, who might once have been attracted to the promise of liberation that used to be the left’s hallmark?
Michael Reid struggles with words in Leipzig, Germany.