Antitheory: On Anna Kornbluh’s “Immediacy”
By Grace ByronJanuary 31, 2024
Immediacy: Or, the Style of Too Late Capitalism by Anna Kornbluh
Anna Kornbluh doesn’t oppose new modes of production. At least that’s not her main concern. She comes not to bring peace but a sword, ripping beloved cultural objects to shreds. “A cranky puncturing of beloved commodities is no fun, but fun bubbles in lingering with countercultural projects,” she writes early on in her new book Immediacy: Or, The Style of Too Late Capitalism. In the classical sense, Kornbluh is a Luddite. She is opposed to cost-cutting machinery, though the machinery in question is a style that Kornbluh claims pervades our entire culture. This style, dubbed immediacy, is difficult to pin down since it is “swelling with self-identical thisness.” Immediacy is the opposite of mediation. Representation is flat, not round. Commodities happen for commodity’s sake, not for need. Everything must flow forth never-ending. When things do not flow, the “salience of blockades in contemporary political struggle reveals the indispensability of ‘flow’ for the current order of things.” Whereas style used to be a Brechtian distancing between life and art, style now dissolves. Authenticity is a brand. Immediacy streams, loops, and emanates.
It is best to understand Kornbluh’s argument through specific examples. Her book is broken down into sections organized by medium, and video is her most convincing argument for the ubiquity of immediacy. Analyzing the 2019 film Uncut Gems, she writes of “[c]onstant movement, beating pulse, clenching bowels, gasping breath, vibrating phone, deadline ticking.” On the top level, she notes an increasing investment in “liveness,” a move away from the slick look of film stock to higher-resolution quality. This move mimics the early days of TV when shows were shot on lower, grainer stock. Today, we move toward higher frame rates that manufacture a hyperrealistic quality. Fewer and fewer directors are shooting on film, and when they do, they often seek to turn the frame rate up as much as physically possible. The emerging immanence in movies like Uncut Gems is similar, Kornbluh argues, to the direct address of streaming shows like Fleabag (2016–19), Insecure (2016–21), House of Cards (2013–18), and Euphoria (2019– )—“the camera as a prosthesis of intimacy” that mimics the way we hold our own phones.
Looping is another aesthetic facet of immediacy. “Ambient” TV like Emily in Paris (2020– ) and its “liquefaction of plot.” The eternal return of TV shows and films whose plots feature literal time loops, such as Russian Doll (2019–2022) and Palm Springs (2020). (I am judicious here for word count, not for lack of examples. Kornbluh’s book is flooded with lists.) “[I]f Emily in Paris is simply about instagramming, then of course you can use your phone while it’s on,” she writes. Anecdotally, countless people have some form of COVID-19 brain fog that makes it difficult to focus on one screen. Kornbluh argues that this may simply be a by-product of the way shows are constructed to encourage us in multilibidinal ways. Only when shows “surge” do they demand our attention through displays of violence or sex. She briefly notes that “cringe” is its own form of body genre that surges and demands attention, as in shows like Girls (2012–17) and Curb Your Enthusiasm (2000–24).
Less convincing is Kornbluh’s argument that “genre fluidity” is a sign of immediacy’s degradation of form. Adult cartoons unnerve her—partly, she notes, for their ability to save labor. This is a more convincing argument than her one about genre fluidity writ large, which never fully congeals. She critiques this fluidity for its cognitive distortion and marshals Orange Is the New Black (2013–19) as her chief offender for the way it flits between rape and humor. Certainly, there are many reasons to hate the show, its racism chief among them, but the fact that it blends genres seems less a cognitive distortion than a mirroring of our reality.
But this is Kornbluh’s argument—that to simply mirror reality is to lose the purpose of art. Art exists to mediate our experience. Art makes sense of our world; it doesn’t simply regurgitate it back to us. The “omnicrisis” will not be solved by the tactics of the omnicrisis. Instead, Kornbluh wants art (writing, video, theory) to interpret the world rather than blur it. “Immediacy encodes a crisis of futurity, a beclouded nonhorizon,” she writes. “[I]mmediacy’s authentications and engrossments now plat realness.” Immediacy is a failure of artistic history. We have taken on “too much of [our] logic from the flames.” The crisis of futurity fuels our rush towards too-muchness. “Shit is very bad,” she writes simply. “Party before the lights come up.”
This didacticism often eclipses Kornbluh’s Marxist reading of media writ large. Her Luddite questions about labor in animation or her discussion of the environmental impact of streaming video become mere background noise instead of essential components of her primary argument. She notes the data centers required to sustain our high-tech world, “the vast tracts of dispossessed land and swirling pools of water required to sustain them.” Kornbluh’s arguments about production are often more instructive about the way forward than her argument for a puerile aesthetics. Not because being a Luddite is embarrassing but because aesthetics cannot be limited to a simply interpretative function.
Drawing on Lacan, Kornbluh states that an overinvestment in the imaginary “initiates all kinds of psychic dischord,” primarily an inability to relate to things beyond the boundaries of the self. When “the Imaginary” is where development stops—without moving through “the Symbolic” and “Real”—psychic development is stunted. The Lacanian Imaginary is the realm where projections and images don’t cohere but appear. The Symbolic invests these with mimetic language and is often a shared realm where we learn and create meaning together. The Real is paradoxically something beyond both of these—an ability to understand that some things are ineffable.
Getting stuck in the Imaginary stunts any possible interpretive function. Instead, we become paranoid, narcissistic, lonely, immersed in depression. Kornbluh attributes the emergence of first-person-oriented art to this psychic disruption: “Every I, lousy with panache.” Kim Kardashian is set alongside Marina Abramović’s The Artist Is Present (2012) and TV shows like I May Destroy You (2020) since all are supposedly examples of how self-obsession creates an inability to co-create art.
This self-obsession, Kornbluh argues, contributes to the creation of our mini phantasy kingdoms. Everyone is living in their own world of feedback, both online and off. You can’t tear someone away from their cabal of desire. Writers like Judith Butler and Naomi Klein have also recently attempted to understand why our culture is so politically isolated. This is the “Mirror World” Klein presents in Doppelganger (2023), the psychic bubbling of condensation and displacement that Butler warns us against in their forthcoming study Who’s Afraid of Gender? Both writers ask why the collective psychic imaginary has become so fragmented on the left and such a highly motivated macrocosm on the right. This splitting allows for scapegoats to be called diabolical and eradicated. There is no moving beyond the “I.”
We have lost our symbolic common ground. TV has become a place haunted by the supernatural, cringeworthy and surreally violent. “True, TV may not be the place to look for psychic relief,” Kornbluh admits before pressing on, but this seems a crisis of modernity rather than futurity. Understanding what mediates these kingdoms of phantasy seems vital to any possible political project. We can’t ignore the modes of production that create our cultural landscape. So, the problem becomes—are we interpreting? And shouldn’t we be?
Kornbluh’s previous work has melded psychoanalysis with Marxism to take on everything from the Victorian novel to Fight Club (1999), from The Good Wife (2009–16) to choosing a perfume. Her investment in formalism manifests as a critique of the systemic ways we obscure the classist origins of production. By labeling immediacy a style, she seeks to take a step back “toward reestablishing theoretical distance”—a bold move, certainly in the Marxist mode. Yet, while she complicates the modes of both production and consumption, her notion of “style” often collapses in on itself. To be a killjoy, one doesn’t just have to present an alternative (which she does: her conclusion argues for more realism, impersonalism, and community, citing Colson Whitehead, Brandon Taylor, Sianne Ngai, and the OWN series Queen Sugar as examples); one also needs to convince their audience that the joy they’re killing is actually rotten. By spreading herself so thin, Kornbluh only convincingly pierces some of the cultural objects she turns over.
Kornbluh hopes that by closely examining immediacy, its values will break down, that its “thisness” and self-evidence will unspool—that we will stop “[e]ating the real with a spoon” and recognize that reality, too, is a construction. She is certainly right when she says that to denaturalize is the role of theory. But it’s a curious choice to label and attack a variety of frameworks like autotheory as undisciplined “antitheory”: “First-person present as idiom solves the democratic paradox of representing others, electing itself as more politically and aesthetically sound than theories or tactics scaffolded by collective subjectivity or shared signifiers.” Instead, Kornbluh wants thick, chewy theory that mediates our time instead of merely verifying it.
Philosophy has always been about slowing down and questioning our assumptions of sight, taste, touch, sound, and smell, and Kornbluh gives a beginner’s download on “how capital mediates value while pretending it is not a medium.” Sara Ahmed, Andrea Long Chu, Fred Moten, Frank B. Wilderson III, Paul Preciado, Maggie Nelson, Christina Sharpe, and McKenzie Wark all come under Kornbluh’s fire. Like Lauren Oyler’s dismissal of the aphoristic novel for its failure to build a cohesive argument, Kornbluh excoriates antitheory’s “elliptical nonnarratives.” She is critical of Chu’s admission that autotheory “relies on [one’s] own vulnerability to insulate [oneself] from close scrutiny.” Still, it seems a lack of imagination to put Maggie Nelson in the same camp with Chu (who has written her own takedown of Nelson’s style).
More convincingly, Kornbluh argues that autotheory evolves out of a response to the marketability of work that transcends academia. In the gig economy, where tenure is a pipe dream, it’s important to be nimble. Perhaps a better case study would be Chu’s turn from publishing books with Verso to writing criticism for New York magazine. Or Kornbluh could focus on the salability of Nelson’s work instead of only criticizing its style. Autotheory sells. Sarah Ahmed’s Living a Feminist Life (2017) was Duke University Press’s bestseller of the decade.
Kornbluh tells us that autotheory is an erosion of the public intellectual and the fortress of academia. This is a strange assertion considering that many public intellectuals, from Susan Sontag to Walter Benjamin, were often at odds with the academy. Kornbluh tries to steer away from moral panic and instead focus on Marxist critique, but the fear of theory’s mirroring capacity seems opaquely ethical. There is undoubtedly some truth to her claims about the watered-down nature of autotheory, but to lump it all together is a disservice to the variety of work the field encompasses, from polemics like Chu’s Females (2019) to Afropessimistic interventions (Saidiya Hartman is mentioned but never returned to, perhaps because her work complicates the easy dismissal of nihilism).
Immediacy is its own kind of polemic. While Kornbluh avoids the first person on principle, her discussions feature a close third-person narrator and quippy style (“Whatever. Like the meme says: get in, loser”). Kornbluh is right to note that one strand of theory has turned away from interpretation toward sensuality. Christina Sharpe’s Ordinary Notes (2023), for example, attempts to interpolate notes, experiences, aphorisms, lists, and jots instead of building an argument step by step, as Kornbluh does here. Kornbluh believes this kind of theory obscures, mirrors, and follows a path different (read: weak, wrong, unmediated) from that taken by orthodox leftist theory. It privileges the body in a way that is less liberatory than we may want to believe, masking a failure to mount convincing arguments by proliferating spectacle. Kornbluh isn’t alone in critiquing the ephemeral notes-app style in too late capitalist theory: Elleza Kelley recently made a similar argument in The Yale Review.
“Aboutness,” Kornbluh worries, takes on a value of its own without any political function. It is true that after reading an autotheory book, I often feel I have read a pleasant memoir rather than a text with clear argumentative aims. That said, to blame the downfall of theory on autotheory feels like a stretch. Kornbluh’s North Star Sianne Ngai hasn’t suffered from the proliferation of autotheory. If one is truly to engage with the watering-down of theory, to slow down and mediate, shouldn’t one also examine the possible positive aspects of autotheory? And why do Black and trans theorists bear the brunt of this “mistake”? If there is a missing ingredient in so-called “weak theory,” there must also be some redemption in the unsaid, the interstitial, the fragmentary. Even Walter Benjamin loved a good aphorism.
Kornbluh is quite critical of Afropessimism and abstractions about “abolition,” calling them “theologies of the negative.” This is a big body of work to take on in 10 pages toward the end of a book. But they are, in Kornbluh’s analysis, quintessential symptoms of immediacy—the opposite of “construction, contradiction, contingency—of struggle and solidarity.” Because “[i]f nothing is changeable, if solidarity fails, if it is too late, the obligation to act dissipates.” These claims are not unfounded, though she doesn’t cite José Sanchez, who made a similar argument in his 2022 essay “Against Afro-Pessimism.” Community requires a collective investment in the future, the idea that even if shit is bad, it could be worse. That even a failing world is worth fighting for.
Critiquing a vast swath of writing makes for easy clickbait. In her section titled “Writing,” Kornbluh takes autofiction and the poetic novel to task for their inability to see the world outside of the Lacanian Imaginary. Karl Ove Knausgaard is her primary target due to his vehement opposition to “fiction.” Autofiction disregards interpretation, according to Kornbluh, in favor of life as it is. This obsession with the “I” disregards—what? Others? Certainly the world has become selfie-obsessed (Kornbluh also takes aim at an obvious target in Kim Kardashian’s 2015 book Selfish), but surely there must be some room for the “I.” Hilton Als has written convincingly about Joan Didion’s fly-on-the-wall eye in his introduction to her collection Let Me Tell You What I Mean (2021), the telescopic “I” that later became her signature flair. It is her awareness of her position that makes her writing so crisp, Als argues. Thus, the “I” can be a weapon as much as a veil.
Didion, on the other side of Kornbluh’s dialectic, has written about Ernest Hemingway with pure adoration, praising his “romantic individualism.” She predicted the rise of autofiction when she condemned readers for trying to discover Hemingway’s biography through his fiction—the sticky sliding that Kornbluh admonishes. She points to the “increasing inability of many readers to construe fiction as anything other than roman à clef,” calling this “a denial of the idea of fiction” itself. In Big Fiction: How Conglomeration Changed the Publishing Industry and American Literature (2023), Dan Sinykin argues that the rise of conglomerate publishing led writers like Didion and Toni Morrison to embrace both genre and autofictional elements to push back on and make sense of the industry. This transformation of the market into fiction is certainly a representational function and not simply a “thisness.” Sinykin offers a corollary to Kornbluh in his material analysis of literature as a product of culture—though he offers less judgment on the books he discusses, merely pointing out how the market has shaped the rise of genre fiction, first-person narration, and digestible novels by literary heavyweights.
Autofiction and memoir split and wrap around each other, each demanding more truth from the other and driving the market toward one conclusion: immediacy. This acceleration of fact and fiction troubles Kornbluh, who sees a move away from collective solidarity. But this ignores large swaths of work by individuals who use the first person to discuss their own interiority as it relates to collective struggle. Not every first-person writer or autofictional author ignores politics or refuses to interpret the world around them. Kornbluh’s fear that such writing is always cynical ignores the work of writers like Audre Lorde, Lou Sullivan, Derek Jarman, Naomi Klein, David Wojnarowicz, and Miss Major.
Immediacy argues that the first-person present tense has become its own static hegemony. But this ignores the fact that plenty of first-person writing is deeply political and critiques the “thisness” of the world. By primarily stating facts, Annie Ernaux’s Happening (2000) exposes the way we have come to think of abortion as an abstract act instead of a bodily occurrence. Kornbluh argues that these “goals are fundamentally therapeutic” and that often these writers shy away from camaraderie in favor of individualistic exposure to the political weather. Yet Kornbluh herself has written about the use of present tense in Victorian literature as a way of parsing social ills.
In Immediacy, Kornbluh asks writing to harness the impersonal. I’m not sure what this impersonal voice is. Restraint is its own affect. All registers have a place in political struggle. Kornbluh is misconstruing and conflating vastly different political projects. Some memoirs may call for moral outrage or anger or sorrow. Neither Lorde nor Wojnarowicz attempt “restraint” but rather dig into their lived experiences with lyrical, painful, and joyful language. To say that these authors aren’t in favor of collectivism would be absurd. While it may be true that first-person writing can be vapid and narcissistic, it’s too easy to write the whole genre off. This failure not only vitiates Kornbluh’s tract; it also suggests that her own ritualized form of anti-immediacy would simply create a new dialectic.
The panic over the personal essay, therapeutic literature, and memoir is not new. Kornbluh argues that the personal essay boom is an economic issue: “Your story is something to own.” She denigrates Rupi Kaur (tired, trite), flails self-help books (useless), and dismisses Ottessa Moshfegh (abject). While I have a lot of the same targets, I’m suspicious of throwing out the baby with the bathwater. “[T]he novel is the literary form unique to capitalism,” she writes. But is it really? More than video? More than stadium concert tours?
From self-effacing indie rock to the films of Quentin Tarantino, our contemporary culture reflects an obsession with portraying the world as it is and calling this transgressive. Yet simply depicting the apocalypse is not a politic, as Kornbluh well knows. This nihilistic worldview doesn’t allow for building a shared future, instead saying, “Give up! Shit is really bad!” But if we can’t have hope, then we can’t have a shared politics.
In her essay “Cool Cynicism: Pulp Fiction,” bell hooks also critiques this approach, arguing, through a close reading of Tarantino’s 1994 film, that displaying the world as it is is not revolutionary. Perhaps this argument sounds simple, but its impact is far-reaching. Showing the world as it is—broken, homophobic, racist, classist—is not revelatory, interesting, or groundbreaking. Shock does not inspire action. The flow of the omnicrisis paralyzes us, Kornbluh argues. It is beautiful to see the apocalypse, to look at ruin, to give up. In hooks’s words, “a good cynical read on life can be compelling, entertaining, and downright satisfying.” Both hooks and Kornbluh argue that a collective vision offers a more compelling political catalyst.
Polemics like Immediacy are a powerful tool. But their sweeping categorizations and untempered fervor can often run roughshod over nuance and the possibility of reparative readings. Mediating requires the slowing down that Kornbluh praises. Immediacy is a powerful intervention into the aesthetic status quo, with valuable detours into the destructive potential of capital. But it can often come across as unconvincing in its totalistic claims about contemporary culture. The water we swim in can be hard to name. Blockading flow is no easy task.
Kornbluh is surely right to say that reading the world simply as it is will never be our salvation. Pessimism will not save us. Nihilism will not tend the garden or produce water during a drought. The radical project, she reminds us, is to find hope anyway and build the ark for the fragile future we so desperately want to see.
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