Idiot Joy Showland

This is why I hate intellectuals

Team Rocket blasts off again

To protect the world from devastation! To unite all peoples within our nation! To denounce the evils of truth and love! To extend our reach to the stars above!
Benjamin Netanyahu, address at the opening of the 2014 Knesset summer session

Imagine, if you dare, the sheer horror of living near an ideologically motivated amateur youth rocketry club. Something like the Socialist Youth Committee for Space Exploration, for instance, or the Young Tories Science Society. While at first it might be heartwarming to see teenagers developing an interest in politics and an involvement in practical physics, rather than indulging in their usual habits of playing violent video games all day or viciously cyberbullying each other to death, this would quickly grow tiring. The sudden bangs in the night, the scattered debris in the morning, the occasional terror as an errantly and implausibly airborne tin can goes screeching over your leafy suburb: it’s more than anyone could reasonably be expected to bear. Surely nobody would blame you if, after a few days of these potassium nitrate-powered hijinks, you and a few of your sensible middle-class neighbours got together to launch a combined military assault on the part of town where these kids hang out, killing them, their families, and several dozen others stupid enough to be in the area. It’s not that you’d get any particular pleasure from murdering all these people, but everybody deserves a decent night’s sleep.

This is the strange and inhuman scenario that the Jewish Anti-Defamation League invites us to consider. After one of the routine nightly Israeli massacres in the Gaza Strip, they posted a series of posters online, asking What if Hamas was in your neighbourhood? This question is accompanied by a map in which the Gaza Strip is superimposed on a major American city, appearing as an invasive white blob, cordoned off by a dotted line, radiating threatening circles and bristling with comically oversized missiles. Of the series my favourite is probably that showing New York: the contours of the Gaza Strip almost exactly match the line of the Hudson River, with the result that the genteel citizens of Brooklyn and Manhattan appear to be under mortal threat from rocket-powered proles in New Jersey and Staten Island. Most of these images implicitly raise the thorny question of exactly how Gaza came to be transplanted to the middle of Chicago or Houston; the New York poster neatly answers it. Gaza is already there; it always was. When the ADL talks about Israel defending itself, its audience are to imagine their own secret fantasy: having an excuse to fly over those awful poor neighbourhoods full of dreadful tacky people, and bombing them all to extinction.

Whenever the Israeli government feels the need to kill a few dozen Palestinians, everyone suddenly starts talking about rockets. The famously biased BBC, known to most Zionists as the international media wing of Islamic Jihad, led its coverage of a night in which 24 Gaza residents had been killed with the headline Israel under renewed Hamas attack. Meanwhile, ABC News in the United States showed images of Palestinians standing in front of the rubble that was once their homes and identified them as Israeli victims of rocket attacks. Even those nominally supportive of the Palestinian struggle are apparently compelled to add a bit of blather about how awful the rockets are. In the Guardian, a terrifying live-action Tintin figure calling itself Owen Jones felt the need to make – in an article about media distortion over the discrepancy between the two sides, no less – the caveat that there is no defence for Hamas firing rockets into civilian areas, and as sirens wail in Israel, the fear among ordinary Israelis should not be ignored or belittled.

Of course, the damage done by rockets to ordinary Israelis should never be understated. In Sderot, several people have tripped while running for bomb shelters, in some cases spraining their ankles; Tel Aviv’s summer morning lie-in was seriously disturbed by air-raid sirens as a flying tube of horse manure puttered its way to an empty field outside the city. It’s absolutely necessary for commentators of the prissy tepid left to utterly condemn any attempt by Palestinians to bring any object into aerial motion (be it a Qassam missile, a rock aimed at a heavily-armoured vehicle, or a fleck of spittle; in the West Bank and Gaza, the law of gravity is enforced by tanks and helicopters), because only by doing this can they hope to become the Palestinian Nelson Mandela – the secret ambition of all liberal quasi-Zionists. These people want to support liberation struggle, but first the oppressed have to stop firing rockets and learn instead to embrace non-violence; they need to bring their political programme down to the level of the inspirational quote set against a stock photo of a sunset. Still it’s not exactly clear what form this non-violent protest should take. During the First Intifada Israel was still heavily reliant on Palestinian labour and industrial action seriously threatened its smooth functioning; the arrival of immigrants from Africa and southeast Asia has solved that problem, and helpfully given the Israeli ruling class a new set of people to despise and brutalise. Weekly checkpoint protests in the West Bank are admirably peaceful, but have only really succeeded in boosting profits for the manufacturers of tear gas. All that’s left are rockets.

The rockets being fired from Gaza are a form of non-violent protest, and one that works. As military weapons they’re utterly useless. A 2012 analysis revealed that the 12,000 missiles fired over twelve years resulted in twenty-two Jewish fatalities – a kill rate of 0.175%. This is because they’re not really weapons. There are plenty of ways for resistance groups to inflict mass civilian casualties; the fact that they’re firing rockets instead shows that this isn’t on the agenda. It’s not a military campaign; it’s a highly visible protest against those forces that would prefer to turn Gaza into something like its representation in the ADL posters: a blank, white, empty expanse. The rockets are a reminder of the continued existence and the continued will to resist of the Palestinian people; insisting on this will without killing is a highly effective non-violent strategy. Given the dearth of any actual casualties in the rocket campaign, reports often focus on the psychological trauma suffered by Israelis living close to Gaza (and sometimes even their pets). This is taken as proof of Palestinian brutality, but when commentators decry the fear that the Qassams inspire, the implication is that they’d prefer a resistance strategy that had no effect whatsoever on the occupiers; in other words, one that could be safely ignored and might as well not exist. This point was most powerfully put by a spokesperson from the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine: The rockets are both a practical and a symbolic representation of our resistance to the occupier. They are a constant reminder that the occupier is in fact an occupier, and that no matter how they may engage in sieges, massacres, fence us in, deny us the basic human needs of life, we will continue to resist and we will continue to hold fast to our fundamental rights, and we will not allow them to be destroyed. So long as one rocket is launched at the occupier, our people, our resistance and our cause is alive. This is why they targeted the rockets – the rockets do make the occupier insecure, because every one is a symbol and a physical act of our rejection to their occupation.

Death to the moderates

I know thy works, that thou art neither cold nor hot: I would thou wert cold or hot. So then because thou art lukewarm, and neither cold nor hot, I will spue thee out of my mouth.
Sigmund Freud, The Psychopathology of Everyday Life

They live among us, the moderates, if what they have can be called life. You’ve probably seen them, strolling on the streets and driving in their cars and looking every bit like the human beings they aren’t; maybe you happen to be one yourself. There are (but why?) people who will go out in the evening and drink exactly one half of a bottle of wine; people who think the new Simpsons episodes are still pretty funny; people who can look at the sheer swirling insanity that surrounds us, the artificial famines and the drowning refugees and the suffocating alienation, and declare themselves to be moderate in relation to it. Things aren’t perfect, but a few tweaks here and there should set things straight: raise the top income tax bracket (but not by too much), legalise marijuana (but not any of the interesting drugs), overthrow the Assad government in Syria, casual Fridays at the office and police action against internet trolls; forge a world that’s basically the same but a little bit nicer. For those of us suffering from compulsive self-destruction, chronic back pain, vague and unexplained sexual guilt, amphetamine withdrawal, and a quiet but persistent voice in the back of our heads that regales us with a nightly lullaby about every shitty thing we’ve ever done – in other words, for those of us with a normal and healthy response to life under late capitalism – the moderates take on demoniac proportions. There’s nothing quite so revolting as another person’s happiness. In the United States prescription drugs are routinely advertised on TV: the pictures show attractive middle-aged white people taking picnics, riding bicycles, not being dead, etc., while a cheery voice quickly runs through all the drug’s potentially lethal side-effects. It would take the forbearance of a coma patient not to wish every single one of them – from dizziness and erectile dysfunction through to thrombocytopaenia, atrial fibrillation, and instant death – on these blithely fictional ghouls. The foundations of social and biological life are collapsing around them, and they ride their bikes through a verdant meadow drenched in sunlight, just so grateful to finally be rid of their osteoarthritis. It’s a fiction, but one the moderates yearn for, a transcendent ego-ideal. They’re not just myopic or unimaginative, they’re utterly insane. So why on earth would anyone want to give these maniacs weapons? What carnage could they wreak if they were armed not just with condescending smiles, but heavy machine guns?

We might be about to find out. The Obama regime has asked for $500 million to arm and train ‘moderate’ forces in Syria to fight both the cartoon supervillain Bashar al-Assad and the unstoppable demon army of the Islamic State (formerly ISIS). These moderates don’t really exist as conventionally imagined (genocidal civil war is not usually a hospitable environment for nice guitar-strumming liberalism), but even by itself this a monstrous idea. The everyday awfulness of moderation becomes something far stranger and uglier when imposed on Islam; armed moderation might sound like an oxymoron, but in fact it’s a very real and very horrifying possibility. Muslims in the West are still allowed to follow Islam, just about, but not too much. It’s not bloodshed or misogyny that need to be moderated, but the religion itself: Islam and dangerous threatening foreign violence lie along a single axis; any public display of belief equals extremism equals homo sacer. The demand for a moderate Islam is for a watered-down Islam; you should treat your absolute faith in the transcendent oneness of God in the manner of someone warily inspecting a supermarket curry. Outside the West, it’s a different story. A Saudi cleric can advocate the continued ban on all Christian worship, the continued relegation of women to a status somewhere above household furniture and somewhere below household pets, and other such non-Islamic idiocy – but as long as he doesn’t oppose Western ambitions elsewhere in the Islamic world, he’s a moderate. Abroad, moderate Islam means acquiescence to imperialism. The gestalt ideal of the moderate Muslim, then, is this: a monstrous figure, clothes drenched in the blood of innocents, inflicter of hideous tortures and gruesome executions, someone casting terror across the blasted landscape seemingly for no particular reason, but in a manner that doesn’t disturb the mechanisms of profit.

Being moderate means destroying all possible futures and replacing them with a listlessly cheerful nihilism. The philosophy of moderation has always been one of bloodshed. Aristotle, who in his Eudemian Ethics celebrated the virtue of Mildness and argued that the moral good always lies between two extremes, was a tutor to Alexander the Great, who slaughtered hundreds of thousands so that modesty might conquer the world. Bloodthirsty prudery has always dispatched its victims because their misery or their enjoyment was too excessive.  In our age, the armed moderates of Syria are just the beginning. One of the groups under the FSA umbrella likely to receive some of the $50m jackpot is Jabhat al-Nusra, the official al-Qaeda affiliate in Syria. They’ll need it. Having the dual support of the Western intelligence apparatus and the stuffy old pedants that succeeded bin Laden doesn’t really do them any favours; they’re like a jihadi group officially sanctioned by your dad. The fighters joining Jabhat al-Nusra instead of the Islamic State are the gangly nerds of international terrorism: people who ride scooters, drink Pepsi, eat cashew butter, and spent their teenage years listening to prog instead of punk – impeccable moderates. They’ve also been filmed eating human hearts. Like all forms of mass discipline, this tactic of violent moderation is unlikely to stay in the imperial periphery. It didn’t take long for Victorian imperialists to start conceiving of their metropolitan working-class populations with the same eugenic horror in which they held the repressed colonial multitudes; it won’t be long before the moderates among us take up arms, and if we don’t stop them, their reign will be brutal.

Tony Blair, dread creature of the forbidden swamp

In the Hegelian system the history of mankind no longer appeared as a wild whirl of senseless deeds of violence, all equally condemnable at the judgement seat of mature philosophic reason and which are best forgotten as quickly as possible, but as the process of evolution of man himself.
Engels, Socialism: Utopian and Scientific

There was meant to be progress. Slowly at first, and then with gathering confidence, human beings were supposed to be turning the world from a Hell we couldn’t understand into a finely tuned machine that we could. We would predict the weather and split the atom and put a brushed-aluminium fridge-freezer with an ice-cube dispenser in every household, whether they wanted one or not. It was all a lie. What’s been called progress was nothing more than a war of annihilation against the ghosts. At first our odds were slim: the ghosts outnumbered us several times over. Every little copse had its nymphs and sprites; every wild animal carried the head of a god; in every home the jealous ancestors would take up their positions by the fire. It took centuries, but we pushed them back. We got rid of the strange and powerful forces that had controlled the clouds and the rain, and replaced them with tiny floating particles to form the seeds of water droplets. We slowly starved the moon-goddess to death, and replaced her with a big lump of floating rock; we even sent an expeditionary force to its surface to plant a flag there and confirm its lifelessness. All the whispering local spirits were massacred, and their ownership of the sacred sites was passed on to brutal landowners. You could be forgiven for thinking that we’d won. The universe makes sense, after a fashion; a lot of it be explained without any need for ghosts or spirits. If you want, you can now climb Mount Olympus yourself: there are regular tour buses from Athens; if the gods were ever there they’ve now moved on. Machines have been sent out into space to let us know exactly how boring it all is. But if that’s the case, and the magical forces that once haunted every inch of our world are gone forever, then just what the fuck is Tony Blair?

Tony Blair rises every couple of months, like a bubble of swamp gas. First there’s an uneasy buried rumbling, then small tremors shake the surface, and then suddenly he bursts through, a gassy eruption stinking of farts and sulphur. It doesn’t matter how many rounds you fire into his shambling frame; he just won’t die. Whenever something unpleasant happens in the Middle East, whenever some huge corporation is discovered to be starving people to death or poisoning them through calculated negligence, whenever the chaos of the international order starts to wobble into another death-spiral, a damp wind blows through a graveyard somewhere in England and Tony Blair emerges from his tomb. There’s something viscerally revolting about the man. His fake chumminess and his sham gravitas are both as nauseatingly contrived as his shiny oily skin, hiding what can only be bloated rotting organs inside. He’s a gremlin, an incubus, very strange and very cruel and very foreign to our world. But still there’s a decaying vestige of that charm, the memory of the love in which he was once held, that universal joy when he finally ended a generation of Conservative rule by ending the Tory monopoly on evil. We’ve deluded ourselves into thinking that we’ve learned from the experience, we’re past all that now, but every time Tony Blair re-emerges there’s still a shock. There he stands, with his jug ears and his peg teeth and his manic eyes full of an otherworldy certainty – it’s like the shock of seeing a former lover going through your bins at night, or a long-forgotten childhood toy waiting for you on your bed. He represents something that’s been repressed, and even though the repressed always returns, it’s always a surprise. Who is this hideous figure? Why is he still alive? Why won’t he just leave us alone? Of course, Tony Blair was never alive. He’ll never leave us alone.

Tony Blair is old, older than time itself. Beyond left and right, beyond right and wrong, beyond age and death. When the first cave-dwellers made the first image of their god, Tony Blair was there with his shiny spiv’s suit to suggest that it might require a blood sacrifice. When the first half-fish heaved itself out from the boiling sea to flap around in the sodden tidal slime, Tony Blair was there with his cold intense stare to offer it words of vague encouragement and then crush its head under his heel. When the first drifting clouds of interstellar dust began to coalesce into what would one day become our little speckled world, the bodiless malice of Tony Blair was there to help them set the stage for our future suffering.

Older and wiser societies than ours knew about Tony Blair, and they knew to be afraid. Throughout history he’s arrived among the homes of men and promised a very slightly better life, before suddenly carrying out inexplicable destruction.The Sumerians knew him as Tešgali, a snake-demon twenty miles long, who would enter a walled city in the guise of a man, and then uncoil his vast scaly bulk and devour everything inside. This knowledge was passed on to the early Christian Gnostics, who called him Tialdabaoth, the blind creator-god with the head of a lion and a serpent’s tail, architect of all madness, who created this world out of spite and envy and who tried to prevent the first humans from eating from the Tree of Knowledge. Country folk of the Middle Ages were terrified of the bálfar, creatures of beguiling appearance but malicious intent, who lived in the marshes and the wildernesses but would sneak into human villages by night. Certain trees were sacred to these bálfar, and cutting them down would mean imminent death; if your house stood in their path they would tear it apart. The bálfar were known to kidnap human children and even grown adults (several Old English epics tell the story of a man’s doomed quest to retrieve his wife from their kingdom) and replace them with one of their own, a creature identical in all respects but for a savage listless boredom. They ruled by inscrutable and murderous caprice, but it was possible to appease them with small offerings: a ring of flowers, a saucer of milk, a thimble. Those they took favour on would be treated to a great feast, but like all elfin magic this was a simulacrum: eventually the guests would realise that the food was not real, and that they were eating dirt from the ground. Tony Blair even appears in the Daemonologie of King James I, as Tibericaxus, a Deuill who being of great Charme and Guille, sneaketh into the homes of the Godlie, and perswades them to addict themselues to his seruice.

But soon after that something changed. With the dawn of the Enlightenment people stopped believing in the old horrors that lurk in the dark corners of reality. The universe was no longer a grand stage for the cosmic clash of good and evil, and God became a kind of divine tinkerer, neatly slotting all the cogs of his Newtonian machine together and leaving it to run with a steady tick. We thought we could understand the world, and so when Tony Blair returned we didn’t even see him for what he really is. We should have known better, but we thought he was just a politician.

What Tony Blair represents is the final meaninglessness of the world. We still don’t know why there is something rather than nothing. Stare too long into Tony Blair’s face and it’s hard to tell if there is something rather than nothing. What kind of a world is this if Tony Blair exists in it? For centuries philosophers would construct grand systems: an ontology and a metaphysics and an epistemology and a theory of ethics and a theory of aesthetics, all connected by one overarching principle. For Plato the eternal, for Kant the absolute, for Hegel the unfolding, for Kierkegaard the teleological. All these finely honed contraptions utterly failed to account for the whole of existence. Even Heidegger, who finally reached the understanding that there is no universal substance of Being but only individual beings, felt the need to turn this into a complete system; even the deconstructionists had to hold up their technique as a fidelity to a text. There might be nothing outside the text, but its basic unit is not one of meaning but of insufficiency in the face of the unsignifying Real. The truth is that there is no unifying principle behind anything beyond its total incoherency. Every time we think we might have a handle on how things actually work, the ghastly figure of Tony Blair emerges from its ancient swamp to remind us that this world is not a sane or a rational place.

Sisterfucking up the Euphrates

In German, the prefix ur- is used to indicate the now deeply unfashionable sense of an originary, primal form of a thing, which is also its end. Something ursprünglich is the first of its kind, so you’ll have the Uraufführung, or the début performance; the Urtext, the lost first draft of the Hebrew Bible that supposedly existed before all the various priests started fucking around with it; the Urwald, the dense dark forest that once covered the whole of central Europe. The word itself is of good Old Germanic stock, and it’s probably just a coincidence that this caveman’s grunt of a syllable is also the name of a city: that built by ‘Ara son of Kesed, where he made graven images and unclean simulacra, where evil spirits seduced him into wrong and sin, and where the sons of Noah first began to make war on each other. It’s a word from the oldest of the old histories, from when the world was still new; the brutal hoary infancy of civilisation. Before the Romans or the Greeks or the Persians or the Babylonians or the Egyptians, there was Ur, the city on the mouth of the Euphrates where Abraham smashed the idols of his father.

Freud tells a nice parable about the origin of the superego, what could be called an Ur-über-Ich. Once, among a band of squatting cannibal ape-men that would one day become the refined intellectual circus of Vienna, there lived a great and powerful father. This father had many wives, and he took many wives for himself: some were the captured daughters of smaller bands, some were his own daughters. Such was his power that his sons were left with neither food, nor loot, nor wives, and were reduced to contesting among themselves for what scraps they could gain. Eventually, in the face of his unbearable potency, the brothers grouped together, overwhelmed their father, and clubbed him to death. That night they held a great feast, at which their father was the main course. At this moment, the superego was brought into the world. The brothers were jealous of their father, but at the same time they still loved him; out of their guilt the rapacious greed of the father became internalised as a moral code, with its first commandment being a restatement of his paternal rights: Thou shalt not fuck thy sisters.

Like most myths of the land of Ur(-), it doesn’t really matter if any of this actually took place or not. Hobbes and Rousseau were both happy to admit that their states of nature never really existed; Marx was equally unconcerned by the historicity of primitive communism. Freud has a particularly good get-out clause – as he has his ‘exasperated reader’ exclaim, so it’s immaterial whether one kills one’s father or not! While some fathers might have a different opinion on the matter, Freud concedes the point: wanting to kill your father and actually doing so both produce the same psychological effect; the same guilt, the same internalisation. It’s in this context that the story of Abraham begins to make sense. When he lived with his father Terah in the city of Ur, the family sold graven idols; Abraham destroyed these unclean simulacra and went with his wife Sarah into the desert. It doesn’t matter that Terah died peacefully at the age of two hundred and five: the idols, rooted in the paternal totem of the victorious brothers, represent what Lacan calls the name-of-the-father; the Symbolic father that maintains the prohibition on incest. It’s possible to advance an alternate reading of Abraham’s flight to Canaan: when he lived in Mesopotamia he was married to Sarah but still he couldn’t fuck her, not in the house of his father. The book of Genesis explains their childlessness by claiming that Sarah was barren, but the book of Genesis was also written by men, who are always a little squeamish when it comes to male impotence. Sarah was the daughter of Terah by his second wife: she was Abraham’s sister.

Lacan’s concept of the name-of-the-father is a triple pun: le nom du père recalls le non du père (the ‘no’ of the father, the prohibitive function of the superego) but also les non-dupes errent (the non-dupes err). Those who refuse to be ‘duped’ by the process of castration and induction into the Symbolic order – the kind of person who might, for instance, take it upon himself to smash the idols of his father – are not in fact seeing the world as it really is; they’re stuck among the horrors of the Imaginary. The book of Genesis is full of hints towards Abraham’s singular neurosis. Several times in his journeys, as he comes across various unfriendly peoples, he has Sarah pretend to be his sister – in other words, pretend to be what she really is – so that kings and pharaohs will try to sleep with her. For this God punishes them with plagues and nightmares: none shall disrupt His holy incest.

All this is by way of approaching an understanding of the current instability in Iraq. The land of Ur is, for the Western powers that have been steadily clubbing it for the last century, a feared and hated father. All the paternal functions of society first sprung up in the area between the Tigris and the Euphrates: alphabetical writing, codes of law, economic class, monotheism. In the pre-Oedipal stages of infantile psychology there is no recognition of sexual difference and the fantasy of anal birth is common, so it’s no wonder that the Iraq-Father assumes a hemaphrodite form. One vast leg stretches down the Arabian peninsula, the other is cocked between the Persian Gulf and the Caspian Sea. Between these lie the damp muddy openings of the rivers, passages leading up into the womb of civilisation, while beyond their fertile banks the desert stretches for miles. An old, decaying parental presence that refuses to die. No wonder everyone from Alexander the Great to Genghis Khan to Winston Churchill felt the need to invade Iraq.

On the plane of grand strategy, nobody’s Middle East policy makes any sense. Saudi Arabia props up the secular Sisi regime in Egypt, and has threatened to blockade Qatar over the latter’s support for the ousted Muslim Brotherhood. At the same time Sisi supports the Assad government in Syria, which the Saudis have spent millions trying to overthrow, and is making friendly overtures towards Iran, while his deposed predecessor Morsi tended to align himself with the Saudi-Israeli anti-Tehran axis. The United States is now considering intervention in support of Iran against Islamist movements in Iraq, fighting the same people it’s armed and funded (through Saudi proxies) to fight Iran’s allies in Damascus. The ‘war on terror’ was never really a consistent programme: while Western imperialism made some efforts against Sunni salafism (Afghanistan in 2001, possibly Iraq now) it’s mostly been used to attack secular Arab nationalist governments (Iraq in 2003, Libya in 2011, Syria from 2012). This is diplomacy as a dialectic. Its model isn’t the Nile, with its divisions along the axis of a straight line, but the swampy chaos of Mesopotamia. There are no fixed power blocs, not even Sunni and Shia, only a series of fluid phases successively subsumed in their own contradictions. It’s a grand process of decoding, the untethering of signification, the struggle against the Symbolic, the denial of castration, the murder of the father.

In 2003, the occupying US Army set up Camp Alpha, a huge military base in the ruins of Babylon. Helicopters buzzed around the ancient bricks, Humvees rolled through the Ishtar Gate, defensive trenches were dug through the strata of five millennia. As symbolic erasures of the name-of-the-father go, it ranks up there with Abraham’s destruction of his father’s idols. Still, after the father is killed, it still remains to eat his corpse. Iraq must be consumed. In recent weeks a small armed outfit calling itself the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (or of Iraq and al-Sham, or of Iraq and the Levant, or Daash – such signifiers tend to only refer to each other) has captured a string of cities in the country and is advancing, or at least making a feint, towards Baghdad. Reports in the Western media claim ISIS funds itself from the territory it already holds and doesn’t require any state support. They’re known to be selling oil to the Syrian government forces they’re supposedly fighting, and (this is a nice touch) are reportedly profiting from the sale of looted antiquities from archaeological digs. All this is pretty dubious, but in any case the Saudis seem rather nonchalant about the peril to the Iranian-aligned Maliki government. Even if ISIS aren’t receiving direct Western support it’s almost certain that arms supplied to ‘moderate’ Syrian rebels are filtering through to them. The terrors and massacres in Mesopotamia are as Western-manufactured as Big Macs and banking crises. Of course, when imperial adventures cause chaos, the solution is more imperial adventure. There’s a growing clamour for intervention; aircraft carriers are heading up the Gulf, the hideous grinning hobgoblin that is Tony Blair returns to haunt the political discourse with its carefully considered opinion. There’s a very real chance that we might be about to enter a third Gulf War. In the face of this danger, it must be kept in mind that when imperialists press for action, all they really mean is that they want to be able to fuck their own sisters.

The grand imperial puppet show

HIPPOLYTA:
This is the silliest stuff that ever I heard.
THESEUS:
The best in this kind are but shadows; and the worst
are no worse, if imagination amend them.
HIPPOLYTA:
It must be your imagination then, and not theirs.
Shakespeare, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, 5.1.210-213

Imperialism, as comrade Mao Tse-tung famously pointed out, is a paper tiger. The phrase has now become so well-worn that it can be taken as a familiar piece of imagery, that we can forget to ask: why a tiger? Why paper? The term is a Chinese idiom of some pedigree, but Mao was always scrupulously careful in his use of metaphor (especially when dealing with Western journalists), never missing an opportunity to interrogate every possible meaning. He says: In appearance [US imperialism] is very powerful but in reality it is nothing to be afraid of, it is a paper tiger. Outwardly a tiger, it is made of paper, unable to withstand the wind and the rain. The image emerges of something like Henri Rousseau’s Tiger in a Tropical Storm, the fear blazing in the beleaguered creature’s eyes as the damp winds wash its frame into sodden pulp. (Rousseau’s painting was initially titled Surprise!, with the implication that the tiger is about to pounce on an unsuspecting prey – but it’s equally possible to discern in the awkward position of the animal, its leg half-suspended over the foliage, the idea that it’s the tiger that’s been surprised, caught out among the suddenly inclement elements.) This image, with the unhappy predator crumbling under the triumphant might of the people, has a firm place in the Maoist repertoire, recalling directly his slogan that the East wind is stronger than the West wind. But all this is complicated immediately afterwards. History as a whole, Mao declares, the history of class society for thousands of years, has proved this point: the strong must give way to the weak. The tiger appears strong when in reality it is weak, but the winds and the rain that tear it to shreds are weaker still; it’s only in this weakness that they can gain their victory. What exactly are we talking about when we talk about paper tigers?

Paper animals are transient, vulnerable to the elements, powerless against time. They’re not built to last. Paper animals are decorative; they’re entertainment. A paper tiger takes on the form of something very powerful, but it’s a self-conscious ruse. However convincing the representation, nobody is really expected to be afraid of it, except the children. Mao continues: When we say US imperialism is a paper tiger, we are speaking in terms of strategy. Regarding it as a whole, we must despise it. But regarding each part, we must take it seriously. It has claws and fangs. Another reversal: the thing that projects a unified, total image of power is actually weak and vulnerable; the thing that should be correctly understood as weak and vulnerable in its abstract totality is actually very dangerous in its concrete particulars. Mao’s programme for the practical struggle against imperialism is to behave like a child at a puppet show, reacting to each swipe of the paper tiger’s claws as if it were real, while at the same time never forgetting that it’s all an illusion. It’s not enough to simply refute the lies of the imperialists; you have to defeat them on the level of their own simulation: knock out its teeth one by one, even though they’re only paper.

All this is by way of responding to the recent polemic on anti-imperialism and the left; in particular two essays by workers and scholars whose thought I greatly respect: No blood for oil? by Matthijs Krul, and On the urgent necessity of anti-imperialism by the sublunar entity known occasionally as Emma Quangel. The centre of the dispute, if I understand it correctly, is this: Krul argues that the slogan ‘no blood for oil’ represents a model of anti-imperialist thought that both understates imperialism’s scope and overrates its ability to succeed; Quangel responds by asserting that if the average protester does not understand wholly the conditions of the world petroleum market, they are still taking a correct stance against US Imperialism; that is: to condemn it. Krul cautions against an uncritical support for supposedly ‘anti-imperial’ states that precludes any actual appreciation for the political and social structures peculiar to the societies in question; Quangel maintains that the goal should be to try to hobble the greatest threat to building a better world.

It’s necessary to start with particulars. Quangel begins her intervention by stating that many of the youth coming into the anti-imperialist movement today seem genuinely confused about what imperialism is - what it smells like. What, then, does imperialism smell like? Burning oil wells, charred bodies, the sharpness of gunpowder and sweat – but as she points out, imperialism is not the same as imperial war. Imperialism is a global system existing primarily to perpetuate itself, stifling any germ of an alternate social order, and its primary vector is aid and development. Development money is used to integrate states into the general system of capitalist expropriation; recourse is usually only made to guns and bombs when these means are refused. Imperialism is an all-encompassing narrative, a puppet show being played against the backdrop of the entire world, and its smell is not the stench of war. Imperialism smells like roasting chestnuts, popcorn, fireworks, the sweet clinging night-time smell of entertainment.

Imperialism is seductive, in the full Baudrillardian sense of the term. In the nineteenth century, it operated along the principle of contest, propelled by the self-confidence of the newly dominant bourgeoisie, pitting its strength against the strength of others. In the twenty-first, imperialism operates within the other’s area of weakness, which is also its own. The precursor to any imperialist action, whether as development aid or military intervention, is always an initial rupture, a breach in the form of a humanitarian crisis. There are famines, or shortages, or a government crackdown on protests, or a civil war. When this occurs, imperialist powers do not proclaim their decision to act as a function of a world-spanning omnipotence. Instead, they plead their own powerlessness in the face of the catastrophe (as in Syria today) and their own vulnerability against the other, until the clamour for action reaches boiling point. Imperial adventures from Korea to Iraq have been launched in the form of desperate measures against a looming threat; it was not only necessary for Saddam Hussein’s government to have brought suffering and genocide against its own people, he was also required to have the capacity to launch chemical drone attacks against American cities. This is a dual weakness: it’s precisely on the terrain of the human catastrophe that imperialism is weakest, because imperialism is the mother of all catastrophes.

Recent years have seen the grim spectacle of avowed leftists and socialists aligning themselves with the grand catastrophe of global imperialism to ward off the lesser catastrophe that precedes it. The counter-slogan, adopted from current trends in feminism, is that my Marxism will be anti-imperialist or it will be bullshit. The necessity of such a position is made clear by the abject pronouncements of empire’s left-apologists, less sleek running-dogs than mangy senile old hounds loping in circles as they attempt to gain a lick at their own anuses – but it also raises the spectre of an anti-imperialism without communism. A prime example of this phenomenon is provided by a recent article by Atheling P Reginald Mavengira published by the Centre for Research on Globalisation, alleging that the Boko Haram insurgency is a CIA covert operation designed to neutralise the supposed Nigerian threat to American regional power. He writes that Nigeria is a country which has always been known for its resilience and ability to resolve its problems without outside interference [...] Why is someone somewhere hell bent on engineering Nigerians to form the un-Nigerian habit of harbouring and perpetrating desperate, extreme and unforgiving actions against themselves? As any cursory reading of Nigerian history should demonstrate, this is bullshit. Africans are just as capable as Europeans of delivering death and horror on each other. Mavengira has the correct stance on US imperialism – to condemn it – but it’s a condemnation arising from spurious allegations and bourgeois nationalism (although, confusingly, Mavengira doesn’t appear to be Nigerian himself but is instead a Zimbabwean businessman living in South Africa). He approaches imperialism as a function of American geopolitical ambition ranged against African states; in fact imperialism is perfectly willing to tolerate a strong and stable Nigeria. Capital always needs new spaces in which to expand: Nigeria was listed among the ‘next 11′ emerging economies by Goldman Sachs, whose board of directors now includes a Nigerian banker, and the operation of capital investment (and the enclosure and dispossession that goes with it) within the country is likely to be far more damaging than any mythical CIA covert operation. However correct Mavengira’s stance on imperialism, his analysis of it is politically useless.

Both the left apologists for empire and these vulgar anti-imperialists commit the same error: they’re taken in by the puppet show, confusing paper tigers for real ones. In the subaltern nations there is chaos and confusion; imperialism is an orderly and rational system. The only difference lies in whether they stand with this order or against it. Against this it needs to be stressed that imperialists are, for the most part, idiots who don’t know what they’re doing. The CIA isn’t some hidden cabal out of the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, directing events with a malign precision; it’s a hive of myopic nerds that excels only at receiving government money, levelling Pakistani villages, and systematically fucking up. The global ruling class might have been able to ruthlessly profiteer from the current economic crisis, but they couldn’t predict or prevent it. It’s always been this way. In the nineteenth century a grand geopolitical game of chess was played between Britain and Russia over the Central Asian heartland: the British played admirably, protecting India from any encroachment to the north; the Russians had no idea the game was even taking place. There is no master plan or secret logic: imperialism is a catastrophe. Not an explosion of violence or the sudden onset of famine, but a single, sustained, rolling catastrophe, blind and stupid and propelled only by its own weakness, that has bounced around the world for five centuries, until it has eventually become the world.

How should Marxists respond when imperialism threatens a foreign state, plunging through the rupture of some local crisis to substitute its own, globally institutional crisis? Simply condemning it has not, so far, brought much success, and reading the impoverished language of some vulgar anti-imperialists might explain why. It’s been remarked that much Anglophone critical theory reads as if it had been translated from French; this stuff, with its clunky sloganeering and reliance on the imperative, sounds like an inelegant translation from Chinese. Defend the heroic resistance against US imperialism! Stand against NATO aggression! People must write these pronouncements, and some might even read them, but it’s unclear why. As Krul points out, making a show of support for one or another ‘side’ (be it the ‘anti-imperial’ state apparatus or some inconsequential socialist sect) offers little scope for actively disrupting imperialism. The task is to, in a sense, play along with the imperial game of pitting weakness against weakness. We must see where imperialism is weak and confront it there, confront it with our own weakness in the face of its cataclysm, and that weak spot is precisely those crimes and horrors used by imperialism to justify its actions. These are not the lesser of two evils: they are non-heterogeneous to the greater evil. In a world shaped and defined by the madness of imperialism, there is no human tragedy that does not follow in some manner from these conditions, nor any real distinction between the local catastrophes and the grand catastrophe: the latter is nothing more than the sum total of the former. Our world is like the Chaos described by Milton: Eternal anarchy, amidst the noise/ Of endless wars [...] A universal hubbub wild/ Of stunning sounds and voices all confus’d. Every imperial intervention is a strike against itself. To admit to the global supremacy of imperialism is at the same time to show up its monumental idiocy and weakness. Any system that conquers the world becomes isomorphic with it: imperial capitalism is now not only reshaping political geography but altering the planet’s climate – it has become the wind and the rain, but it’s that wind and that rain that tears paper tigers apart.

Elliot Rodger among the ruins

It’s a cold, blustery day near Tintern Abbey. The wind, pouring over the wooded hills that surround this pile, washes the sharp stink of diesel exhaust against its tired stones. Vans chug along the A466, forming a slow but constant loop between Hereford and Newport. The abbey stands alone in its square of dead grass under a dead sky, hemmed in by a shabby stone wall. There’s a bus stop, and few B&Bs cluster nearby for those honeymooners whose imaginations can’t stretch further than south Wales. Aside from the speeding cars and the trembling of trees, battered into submission by modernity, there’s no sign of life. Any wreath of smoke sent up in silence from among the trees would be ripped to wisps in the wind. Nonetheless, he’s there, up in the houseless woods, in some Hermit’s cave, where by his fire the Hermit sits alone, scribbling line after line of self-aggrandising idiocy.

Before carrying out his killing spree in Santa Barbara, Elliot Rodger posted a 141-page autobiographical manifesto called My Twisted World on the internet. Most of the recent controversy around the aetiology of the murders has ended up drawing on this text. Can the killings be reduced to some nebulous concept of mental illness and anomie, or are they the product of general societal misogyny and male entitlement? Either way, the answer’s inside, if you look at the text closely enough. All this only plays into the killer’s hands: he wanted his words to be studied and pondered and argued over. No text is ever complete, closed, and hermetic; the function of an autobiography isn’t to give clear answers but to keep people asking questions, to prop up the heroic mystique of its author. The only way to avoid falling into Rodger’s trap is to refuse to start by analysing his account of events. To understand the tragedy in Santa Barbara, you have to begin with Wordsworth’s Lines Written a Few Miles Above Tintern Abbey.

Wordsworth was the quintessential English poet. He wrote with a deep childlike love of this country, its landscapes, and its soothing and gentle sights. His compositions move with a rolling fluidity from limpidly gorgeous descriptions of nature to profound reflections on universal themes. Every brick in every lowly peasant hut is imbued with a sense of calm significance. Wordsworth’s poetry has a slow deliberate style, one without any of the tubthumping demagoguery of Shelley or the overblown mythopoeia of Blake. He was, in other words, utterly shit. All the great Romantics knew this. Byron had his number: in his dedication to Don Juan he has great fun tripping up the pompous old lake poets as they tramp off on their lonely excursions in the dull old English countryside. There is narrowness in such a notion/ Which makes me wish you’d change your lakes for ocean. Even Keats, the sad sensitive soul of the Romantic movement, could reserve some viciousness for Wordsworth’s grand mediocrity: All of these are vile, but viler Wordsworth’s sonnet/ On Dover. Dover! – who could write upon it? For Keats even the grander moments in Wordsworth’s poetry constitute an egotistical sublime – whatever bucolic landscape the poet plonks himself in front of, his reflections always end up falling back on himself. Just as well, then, that Wordsworth kept to Dover and the Lake District. Imagine the damage he’d do if his withered imagination were let loose in a genuinely spectacular landscape – somewhere like Byron’s Italy, or southern California.

Tintern Abbey reached its present state of picturesque ruin after the dissolution of the monasteries of the 1530s, in which the assets of various ecclesiastical bodies were seized by the English crown, with the profits furthering imperial adventures abroad – but it’s not as if any of this historical fabric makes its way into Wordsworth’s poem. The abbey itself is never mentioned, appearing only as a trace, the conspicuous absence of a being-there under erasure. The abbey inspires Wordsworth’s reflections, but mentioning it can only destabilise the central opposition between the signifiers Nature and Man: the entire poem is an attempt to blot out the looming presence of the ruin and the historicity it represents. The landscape around Wordsworth is a wild secluded scene, a point of lasting communion with Nature: These beauteous forms/Through a long absence, have not been to me/As is a landscape to a blind man’s eye:/But oft, in lonely rooms, and ‘mid the din/Of towns and cities, I have owed to them/In hours of weariness, sensations sweet. Of course, the countryside around Tintern is no less artificial than the cities Wordsworth and Coleridge were so fond of despising; the pastoral farms/ Green to the very door are the result of centuries of enclosure and class struggle. For Wordsworth rural life is not merely idiocy, as in Marx’s formulation: it is fully non-human, appearing as part of a static Nature. Only the abbey, in its state of ruin or difference to itself, testifies to the internal heterogeneity of things; for that reason it must be erased.

True to form, the scene on the banks of the Wye soon gives way to an extended bout of poetic onanism, with Wordsworth recalling a previous visit to the same spot. Five years beforehand, he bounded o’er the mountains, by the sides/Of the deep rivers, and the lonely streams/Wherever nature led; now he’s more inclined towards a subdued, solitary contemplation, and both desires are enthusiastically met by a promiscuous and polymorphously perverse Nature, one that never did betray/The heart that loved her. These modes of engagement are like the attributes of Spinoza’s divine Substance; Nature is a univocity of Being, a motion and a spirit, that impels/All thinking things, all objects of all thought,/And rolls through all things - but at the same time it is directly opposed to the artificiality of the world, the heavy and weary weight/ Of all this unintelligible world. Nature is meaning, eternity, and infinity. It’s a state of grace, a gift, but like all gifts its giving institutes a primordial lack. As such it can only be accessed by disavowing the impermanence of the world – in other words, by erasing the hulk of Tintern Abbey. But this is always an impossibility; the trace of the abbey plagues the poem like a rotten tooth.

William Wordsworth and Elliot Rodger are describing the same phenomenon. Rodger’s screed is full of resentment against those living a better life. The bliss seen by Wordsworth in the impossible univocity of Nature is seen by Rodger in the impossible univocity of sex. However, Rodger was a virgin: he didn’t understand that the gift is impossible, and while Wordsworth tries to erase its non-existence, Rodger demands to receive it. He imagines that for those who can access sexual experiences, life must be a Paradise – when, of course, life is mostly vaguely shit for everyone, sex or no sex (and, as Adorno points out, happiness is always something you remember, not something you experience). There’s a lot that’s frightening in My Twisted World – the narcissism, the accounts of brutally failed attempts at socialisation, the fantasy of mass industrial femicide – but among its most disturbing aspects is the author’s complete lack of any of the fetishes or perversions that make actually existing sexuality sustainable. For Rodger sex is always homogeneous to itself. He doesn’t experience proximal sexual desire so much as a desire for sex, uninflected and generic. It’s only through this impossible unity that he can achieve happiness. Had he ever lost his virginity, his reaction could only have been one of enraged disappointment. Like Wordsworth, he can’t tolerate the internal difference of things – hence the continual egotistical return to the illusory unity of the self. (It’s no coincidence that Rodger subscribed to our era’s iteration of the mawkishly monist metaphysics of Wordsworth and Coleridge, in the form of The Secret, a book that proclaims that the Universe exists to facilitate our desires, and that wishing for anything hard enough will make it come true.)

In the end, it comes back to Tintern Abbey and the dissolution of the monasteries. Elliot Rodger was propelled by a murderous culture of male entitlement, one in which women aren’t in any sense human beings but mere walking dispensers of sexual gratification. It’s an institutionalised system of domination that we’re all to some degree responsible for, a fact only confirmed by the inevitable self-centred attempts to wriggle out of this responsibility: but not all men! At the same time, it’s not just male entitlement that’s responsible. In My Twisted World Rodger describes himself as a perfect gentleman, someone hailing from the prestigious Rodger family; a family that was once part of the wealthy upper classes. Elsewhere he writes: How could an inferior, ugly black boy be able to get a white girl and not me? I am descended from British aristocracy. He is descended from slaves. I deserve it more. Rodger’s entitlement is a feudal entitlement. Contemporary patriarchy tends to operate through the commmodification of female bodies; for Rodger such commodity-relations are inscrutable. He has an aristocratic horror of truck and barter, the processes of negotiation through which most people navigate the libidinal economy. When he decides that his only salvation lies in becoming a multi-millionaire, he decides to achieve this by winning the lottery, appealing to divine Providence instead of lowering himself to tradesmanship. His relations with women follow a similar pattern. He recounts the days leading up to his twentieth birthday: I made a bid to do everything I could to lose my virginity in those few remaining days I had [...] I walked over to the centre of Isla Vista every day and sat at one of the tables outside Domino’s Pizza, hoping against hope that a girl would come up and talk to me. Why wouldn’t they? Women are subjects, not in the ontological but the sociological sense: peons expected to obey his desires without them ever being articulated, let alone acted upon. Nobody ever rejected Elliot Rodger; he never entered into any relation where acceptance or rejection was possible. What the women of Santa Barbara rejected was the social code of the fourteenth century – and for that, he decided that they had to die.

Across Europe, Protestant countries experienced some kind of a dissolution of the monasteries, but the experience of England is unique. On the Continent, the loss of monastic land was prompted by waves of popular anti-clericism; in England it was in intervention by the ruling class, widely opposed by the people. The dissolution of the monasteries marked the end of the static world of the medieval period and the ties of social obligation and feudal duty that had once characterised everyday life. As part of the process of primitive accumulation, it was the beginning of the world of property-relations that succeeded it. But these transitions are never so total as they might seem: as Marx writes, the tradition of all dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the brains of the living. The sense of noble privilege that fuelled the Santa Barbara killings is not, in the end, entirely heterogeneous to contemporary capitalist society: it’s present wherever human beings are instrumentalised. Tintern Abbey is in ruins, but its ghosts remain, haunting William Wordsworth and Elliot Rodger and the families of his victims. Throughout the centuries, their grim whisper is the same: the world is singular and homogeneous, and you deserve the impossible gift.

Voting is magic!

UKIP election leaflet, 2014

Most societies have, buried in their vast cultural storehouses, some kind of apotropaic rite: one carried out to ward off the evil forces that constantly lay siege to ordinary social life. In ancient Egypt, crocodiles were thrown into blacksmiths’ furnaces. In medieval and early modern England, travelling troupes would perform comic ‘mummers plays’; a similar tradition among the Lakota and Sioux involves the temporary reign of sacred clowns. The Aztec priests tore out the hearts from millions of (often willing) victims to ensure that the world made it from one 52-year cycle to the next without collapsing under the weight of its own absurdity. These rituals have varying levels of success. At no point prior to 1521 did the Sun ever fail to rise in the morning – but even though the Earth’s rotation has slowed slightly since the forced abolition of tlamictiliztli, it’s yet to stop entirely. On the other hand, there are no records of anyone having been kidnapped by the Devil after spilling salt, so long as they take the wise precaution of chucking some over their shoulder. Still none of these rituals are as destructive as the mode of apotropaic magic endemic to the contemporary West, in which  the priesthood demands that we make a mark next to the printed name of someone we don’t like and then put it in a box. This strange and stupid ritual, which any rigorous analysis will show to produce far fewer positive results than a simple rain-dance or burnt-offering, is nonetheless imposed by force on much of the world, in fear of the great evil that will arise if it’s not performed properly. The result is that, with a brutal calendar regularity, hundreds of people are massacred every year for making the marks incorrectly.

Electoral representation in the post-ideological age has far more in common with apotropy than politics. Very few people vote to choose their leaders; instead they vote to prevent the other guy from winning. The genealogy of voting follows a very different path from that of democracy. In classical Athens, which is to a greater or lesser extent to blame for both practices, governmental positions were usually determined by lots, to counteract the advantages enjoyed by rich citizens and great orators. If, as a fifth-century Athenian citizen, you were actually voting for a politician, chances are you were casting an ostrakon: voting for them to be exiled from the city and its civic life. Voting is an apotropaic act. Little has changed. In this week’s European elections, millions of people will vote for the individuals they want to be torn from their homes and families and sent away to the godforsaken marshy swamplands of Brussels.

In the United Kingdom, these elections are expected to be a devastating victory for UKIP, the Boko Haram of East Anglia. UKIP are standing on a political platform that appears to champion clean fridges as an antidote to sexual promiscuity, an end to costly environmental protection for African forest ungulates, giving due weight to the erotogenic model of climate change, and the systematic demonisation of the most exploited and vulnerable members of society. All their blunders, and the concerted attempt by the mainstream parties to brand them as racists, haven’t put much of a dent in their poll figures – and why would it? They represent a peculiarly British kind of fascism. We’ve already conquered the world and slaughtered millions with ruthless industrial precision; why would we want to do it again? It’s a bumbling, Dad’s Army, lovable underdog fascism; efficient precisely because of its shambolic inefficiency. It’s hard to shake the feeling that the bien pensant pissants of the three major parties fear UKIP so much not because of any real concern for migrant populations (after all, this scapegoating is a monster they themselves made) but because of their refusal to conform to the unwritten rule of the ritual: above all else, be boring.

For those of us on the left, the way to perform the ritual properly is to vote for the Labour party. Newspapers are full of deeply concerning reports of their shrinking poll lead: only with our vote do they have the power to banish the forces of evil and chaos from the land. We owe them this vote, in the same way that humans owe the gods of the Aztec pantheon their lives, in restitution for a primordial sacrifice. If the cycle of immaterial debt isn’t maintained the world will fall apart. Vote Labour, or the sun won’t rise and the soil will turn to ash. I voted for Labour once, for all the good it did anyone, in the full throes of apotropaic ecstasy that came with 2009′s general election. It took twenty showers before I could properly wash the smell of it off my skin, a stench like unto mouldering constituency offices and cheap air freshener and tortured Iraqi prisoners, the abject sensation of having one of Gordon Brown’s oily hairs stuck somewhere in my mouth. To ward off the nasty party of cuts and class oppression, we’re to vote for the nice party of cuts and class oppression; to ward off the nasty party of anti-immigrant rhetoric and British global chauvinism, we’re to vote for the nice party of anti-immigrant rhetoric and British global chauvinism. It’s all extremely dull.

In 2012, as massive street protests were challenging the legitimacy of the Syrian government, it responded by approving a new constitution that ended nearly half a decade of Ba’ath one-party rule. In accordance with the new constitution, presidential elections will take place next month. The incumbent, one Bashar al-Assad, is basing his campaign on lukewarm national unity, 80s nostalgia, and feeble puns on his professional background in ophthalmology. Of his opponents, Hassan Abdullah al-Nouri of the National Initiative for Administration and Change is promising to end corruption and oversee the return of the squeezed middle class, while Maher Abdul-Hafiz Hajjar of the People’s Will party vows to bolster a strong centralised state. Meanwhile cities lie in ruins, fanatics rule the countryside, thousands suffocate on poison gas. The election is being denounced as a sham by Western governments, which of course it is; but that doesn’t do much to distinguish it from many others. It’d be far more illuminating if the psephologists treated the Syrian election exactly as they do one of ours: reprinting hilarious Twitter reactions to Assad’s latest gaffe, breathlessly speculating on how the opening of Syrian embassies in Jordan and Lebanon to refugee voters will affect the result, sternly condemning rebel efforts to disrupt the poll in Aleppo, and, as Judgement Day nears, sounding the trumpets and rolling out the all-knowing swingometer. None of the imperialist politicians condemning the Syrian election are genuinely disappointed that it’s not being held in accordance with international democratic standards; the worry is that it works all too well as a satire of our own mystical procedures. An apotropaic rite, in which talking about the economy and corruption and foreign investment is used to ward off the lingering shadow of war.

These rituals always involve a symbolic element: the Egyptians slaughtered crocodiles as symbols of Seth; the mummers plays introduced cosmic themes of death and resurrection into the bawdy context of a punch-and-judy carnival. To challenge the election on the grounds that it’s a symbolic farce rather than an actual democratic procedure isn’t likely to get you very far; everyone already knows. Standing up in the middle of a mummers play and loudly insisting that it isn’t real and the figures swordfighting are only actors won’t earn you the awestruck gratitude of the audience. We have these rites for a reason; simply refusing to play the game is no less boring and pointless than getting swept up in its magic and voting for Labour. When a particular piece of magic doesn’t work the task isn’t to loudly declare the whole thing over, but to help its internal contradictions demonstrate precisely why that is the case. The election-rite only maintains its power through the pretence that everyone is in fact voting for the party they like the most, and that’s exactly what we should do.

Personally, I plan to vote for the Communities United Party. All their campaign material is wonderful: the gloriously confused national imagery of a bald eagle glaring proudly in front of a British flag; the creepy slogan ‘Strength in Unity’; the paunchy glum face of leader Kamran Malik, who once mistakenly identified himself as a communist in a typo-ridden press release. Their manifesto admits no particular ideology, moving directly from a grand pledge to return integrity and justice to politics to whining about parking fees. If they’re not to your taste there are others, some of them not even made up, all based on the same pathetic useless hope that’s so essential to the British economy. The National Liberals are dedicated to bringing independence to Kurdistan and Punjab by gaining seats on various local councils. The Wessex Democrats want to restore the old Anglo-Saxon kingdoms of England. The New Levellers Initiative demand a written constitution primarily so it can outlaw all roadbumps. Perhaps the best of all is the We Demand A Referendum Now party, formed in a split from UKIP. It campaigns on the sole issue of a referendum on EU membership, and according to a YouGov poll one third of all British adults intend to lend it their votes, despite its only fielding candidates in the West Midlands. It is the duty of all those who believe in real democracy against the representative mysticism of the present system to ensure that they have a Westminster majority next year.

Colton Burpo: all grown up

It’s New Year’s Eve, 2027, and Colton Burpo, subject of the bestselling 2010 book Heaven is for Real: A Little Boy’s Astounding Story of His Trip to Heaven and Back along with the hit 2014 film of the same name, is sitting in a strip club in the town of Little Whistling. He’s unrecognisable, and so nobody recognises him. The town is more a glorified truck stop, a shivering huddle of low square houses, half-buried in the loose winter ice that blankets the Dakota steppes in endless miles of blank white indistinction. Every time a big rig pulls into town, its headlights scything through the indifferent falling strata of snowflakes, the building shakes down to its foundations. 2027 is the harshest winter on record: outside it’s colder than the surface of Mars, but in Colton Burpo’s private booth there’s a heavy, sticky, woozy heat. The low rumble of an eighteen wheeler outside sends a brief seismic tremor through the stripper’s cellulite and gives Colton a jolt out from his narcotic daze. It’s not enough. He beckons the girl over. “Did you know why it is that serial killers keep on killing?” he says. He slurs, his head at a crooked angle; he doesn’t look right. Electra sighs. “No,” she says. “Now why is that?” She’s heard all this before. Every grizzled drifter that passes through Little Whistling ends up going off on a rant like this one, trying to imitate the engagingly twisted dialogue of the sexy redneck psychopaths they’ve seen on TV. It’s pathetic. Blood, snow, and the road; dead hobos and crooked cops; gun-running and dope-dealing; all as dull and as flat and as empty as the plains outside. Nobody’s real any more. (Not that she can really complain. Electra’s not a real stripper: she’s working undercover, writing an exposé on the dark underside of the sex industry for a feminist magazine. So far, all she’s been able to discover is that every other girl in this establishment is doing the exact same thing. Courageous investigative journalism is the only thing keeping these places running.) “It’s not that they enjoy killing,” Colton says. “They do it because they don’t. It ain’t never enough. It never gives them that thrill they want. So they just keep trying, in new ways, over and over again. It never works.” Satisfied, he sits back and pulls a little bag of white powder out his pocket. “You want some?” Electra shakes her head. She squats a little and presents him with her ass; customers like that sort of thing. “Not there,” he says. “Lie on your back.” This is where Electra can feel things start to get weird. He shakes a few soggy clumps of coke into the pit of her collarbone and snorts them up with a gruff yelp. It stings. Colton Burpo likes the town of Little Whistling. The people seem to be God-fearing folk, and honest, even if they do tend to embellish their personal histories. They’re willing to allow this pastor’s son his eccentricities. Colton Burpo has snorted cheap blow off just about every imaginable part of a woman’s body: her ankle, her labia, her armpit, her ocular cavity. He can’t get it back. It doesn’t work.

I first encountered Colton Burpo in 2012 while tearing through a Walmart superstore in Anaheim, California. I was reaching the end of my year-long stay in the United States and starting to panic. I had to cram as much absurd Americana into my final days as possible: Vegas, Disneyland, road trips, shooting ranges. I loved Walmart. I revelled in the logo (I’d never seen so many friendly yellow anuses in my life), the enormous bags of waxy grated cheese, the rows of rifles two aisles away from babycare products, the sense of an entire world repackaged and itemised in a single vast cube, ready to supply every possible human want. Somewhere in there I found a book called Heaven is for Real – for kids. It explained, with lovingly coloured illustrations, how a four year-old boy had ascended to Heaven during an emergency appendix surgery; how he’d spoken to dead family members and petted the rainbow-coloured steed of Christ and come back knowing things that he couldn’t possibly have known. I was so taken by this piece of extravagance that I don’t think I ever even noticed that the boy in question was, spectacularly, named Colton Burpo. I never considered what it must be like to actually be him: not just to go to Heaven, but to then have to come back. I don’t doubt for a second that he saw the afterlife. But how can Colton Burpo now live in the depravity and fallenness of the world, having seen what he’s seen, knowing that suicide is a mortal sin, unable to regain his paradise until the end of his long prison sentence of an earthlyexistence? What acts of oddness will he turn to in his attempts to recapture a lost Heaven?

By 2045 Colton Burpo has, like so much of the world’s monied flotsam, washed up in the Sovereign Emirate of London. For a while around independence some people were suspicious of the new name, but by now Londoners have grown proud of it. Absolute monarchy is good for trade, and London has even less in common with the stuffy old monarchies of Europe than it does with the grotty hinterlands out in the British Isles. Emirates are modern and forward-thinking and business-friendly; kingdoms aren’t. It’s said that the Windsors, exiled from Buckingham and Balmoral, are now occupying a nice semi-detached house in Manchester, wherever that is. It’s also said that there are people starving to death in Yorkshire and sprawling refugee camps along the Scottish border, for all anyone cares. The skyscrapers of London receive and transmit constant streams of capital, and the tangled medieval streets around them are a net, trapping some of it in the city, even if only for a second. People too. Colton Burpo lost everything when the dollar collapsed. At the time the thing to do was to go to China, so he did; hamming up his old boy-who-went-to-Heaven routine around Shanghai and Guangzhou for audiences of enraptured evangelicals – as if it were still a beautiful story of inspiration and hope, as if it were anything other than a clawing void deep in his chest. He left after a few years. He can’t stay in one place too long: the sky presses down on him, the ground swallows him up, it’s all so hideously material. Everywhere is the same now, but London is special, because it’s more the same than anywhere else. It’s gone midnight when Colton Burpo spots his prey, but the sky is still a bright hellish orange , the low clouds glowing with reflected fire and infamy. The youth is striding out of one of the huge towers that line Brixton Road. Apart from the occasional swoosh of a surveillance orb, it’s silent here. No trees for birds; no homes, only offices. The kid is sharply dressed in business attire; his white t-shirt expertly stained, his tracksuits all but falling apart. He’s wealthy and important, but then so is everyone in London – everyone except domestic servants, and the menial workers ferried in and out of the city every day from one of the tiny surrounding fiefdoms, but it’s not as if they count. Colton has stopped trying to work out why he does what he does; all he knows is that he has to keep doing it.

Freud locates the source of the ‘oceanic’ religious feeling of universal interconnectedness in infantile prehistory, before the ego detaches from the outside world. In the immediate oral stage, the child doesn’t conceive of the mother’s breast as being a separate entity; mouth and teat form a single machinic assemblage controlling a single flow. She is the world; the world is her. It’s only when she looks at herself in the mirror and identifies with her specular image that the unified and discrete Subject is formed; after that only faint aftershocks of this originary molecularity remain. No wonder religious myths tend to place Paradise in the far-distant past. Colton Burpo knows better; he knows that Heaven is still here, just across the fragile bound of every living instant. When someone refuses to move past the oral stage they develop a neurotic fixation: they’ll become anxious and needy, or domineering and manipulative; alcoholic; unwell. It’s not uncommon. Everyone’s a neurotic. The real problems emerge if you proceed through the stages of psychosexual development in a perfectly ordinary fashion, and are then suddenly thrust back, all too briefly, into the deep dark holy oceans of immanent unity. Visiting Heaven as a four-year old boy will only give you psychosis, and the most dangerous psychotic delusions are the ones that happen to be true. Georges Bataille writes that continuous (or deindividuated) life is always accessible, at the moment of death and in the heights of erotic passion. These moments are still deeply religious in character, but in an inverted form: if you can achieve continuous life by murdering a priest in the church of San Seville, then all the better. For Colton Burpo in 2045, Bataille is tedious and conventional. Nobody likes to think that they live in an era of innocence, but we do. The decadents of the generation before 1914 didn’t think they lived in an innocent time either. Great terrors await. The present tendency towards jaded irony is held to be some kind of postmodern affliction; we forget that the twenty-first century is fourteen years old, and has just discovered sarcasm. Colton Burpo was born on the eve of the millennium; he’s as old as our present age. His psychosis is our psychosis; his future is our future.

It’s 2069, and Colton Burpo is dying. He’s lucky. Here, in this private hospice high up in the Ural mountains, the air is still clean. His last breath won’t choke him. From his window Colton can see the snowless peaks plunging down under a cold and limpid sky. The whole flat expanse of Europe is spread out before him, coquettishly cloaked in its radioactive smog. On the other side, nothing. He’s been pushed here, thrown up against the edges of the world. It’s time. He signals for a priest. For the first time in decades Colton thinks of his father. Pastor Todd Burpo, who believed everything, who spread the good news. The clean airy smell of whitewash and disinfectant in the Nebraska church; those long bright summers when Heaven seemed so real and so fresh he could see it whenever he closed his eyes, before the book and the TV appearances and the movie and everything else, before the space stations fell from the sky and the nuclear plants popped one by one. He almost expects the priest to be like those he remembers, someone in blue jeans and a polo shirt with an acoustic guitar slung over his shoulder. Instead there’s a dour Orthodox seminary student in black robes and a black felt cap. The buboes are visible all over his neck; it’s not like it matters now. The man takes Colton’s hand for a second, crosses himself, and begins to administer the last rites. “Blagosloven Bog nash vsegda-” Colton stops him. A last feeble rasp. “Once,” he says, “once when I was young – too young to understand – He showed me Heaven. I know now that I’m not going back. Ever since, He’s shown me nothing but Hell, and all its horrors. Now… I wonder what He’s going to show me next.”

(There’s a tragic misconception that in Christianity, what one does is this earthly world is only important insofar as it secures one’s position in the afterlife. In such an understanding, Heaven and individual salvation is the only proper goal in life. This is nonsense, and it has no basis in Scripture or the theological consensus, both of which are as materialist and as hostile to such transcendentalism as anything in Marx or Nietzsche. There are some within Christianity that believe in a conscious afterlife immediately following death, but at no point is this idea of personal salvation held to be any kind of telos. Far from being eternal, the intermediate state isn’t much more than a spiritual screensaver, something to occupy the soul until the bodily reincarnation of the dead promised in Matthew 22:31-32. For the thnetopsychitae, this filler heaven doesn’t even exist. They may be right: the immortality of the soul was always a Platonist Greek doctrine, not a Christian one.

Biblical writings are singularly unconcerned with the fate of the soul immediately after death; the point is always to return to the world in all its immanence after the Last Judgement. Heaven isn’t a metaphysical realm; it’s what happens here, and the New Earth or the Kingdom of Heaven must be built. With postmillenial salvation – operating on the level of the 144,000 or the numberless multitude rather than on that of the individual subject – the curse of Adam is lifted. The old order to be overturned is described precisely in Genesis 3:18-19: Cursed is the ground for thy sake; in sorrow shalt thou eat of it all the days of thy life; thorns also and thistles shall it bring forth to thee; and thou shalt eat the herb of the field; in the sweat of thy face shalt thou eat bread, till thou return unto the ground. In other words, by opposition we can see that the salient features of the Kingdom of Heaven are: the unleashing of productive forces in the clearing-away of thorns and thistles, an end to the antagonistic dialectic between the equally false categories of Nature and Man, and the abolition of alienated wage-labour. It’s in this New Earth that the dead are redeemed and justified.

The Kingdom of Heaven is not a state of affairs which is to be established, an ideal to which reality will have to adjust itself. We call the Kingdom of Heaven the real movement which abolishes the present state of things. We do not passively wait for it. Luke 17:20-21: And when he was demanded of the Pharisees, when the kingdom of God should come, he answered them and said, the kingdom of God cometh not with observation: Neither shall they say, Lo here! or, lo there! for, behold, the kingdom of God is within you. As ever, God is impeccably Marxist.)

How to have fun in Kiev

I was in Kiev again recently, wandering around. I walked until my joints ached and my shoes filled with blood; eventually I collapsed in exhaustion outside a church. A priest took pity on me; he carried me inside, bandaged my wounds, sheltered me, taught me Orthodox liturgy, fed me black bread and borscht, until I was well enough to be on my way again. On my way out, I stole his photo album.

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Acts of spontaneous street ballet are on the rise. Perfect synchronised movements; slow, mute, contagious. Authorities suspect the influence of some long-dormant pathogen. Others suggest that the movements of the afflicted are in some way communicative; proposing even that the developments constitute a human Tanzsprache, a new moment in semiotic evolution. We’ll find out soon enough: the dancing spreads. It won’t be long before entire cities are overwhelmed.

Last night it rained sandbags. They burst as they hit the ground, sending out fireworks of brightly coloured sand to the amusement and delight of all. Families ran out into the streets, holding huge tarpaulins to catch the sandbags as they fell. Sometimes one would fall into the arms of a small child and they would hug it tightly, knowing that out of all the children in the world this sandbag chose them and them alone.

Numbers are stupid and have nothing to teach us.

This man can be booked for weddings, barmitzvahs, and corporate functions. He will not do anything.

Building sandcastles is fun, but only so you can kick them down again.

Eventually all the surviving wild animals, the ones that sulk in the dark old woods and the deep old oceans, hunger-crazed and desperate, away from the hunter’s bullet and the whaler’s harpoon – eventually they all cast off their masks. It turns out that all this time they were just metaphors, representing human behaviour.

Sometimes it looks like other people have faces, but it’s just a trick of the light.

When the first underground commuter railways were dug, some people were afraid that the tunnels might tap into the depths of Hell or unleash chthonic demons. Nonsense, of course – but look into the waxy deadened faces of your fellow commuters tomorrow morning and tell me they were wrong.

According to Freud, civilisation only became possible when early men (and of course it was men) could resist the urge to piss on every fire they saw.

I don’t know this guy. He’s a weirdo.

Beaver dams. The story goes that in Eden the beaver approached God and said: “O Lord, the fishes swim in the river and make their homes in its waters, and the birds nest in the forest and make their homes in its branches. And yet for me to make a home I must tear down the forests with my teeth and dam up a river with the logs. Why must it be that alone among Your creatures I am required to destroy my surroundings so I may live in them?” And so God said: “Out of you I will fashion a new creature, an all-consuming monster, so that you will not be alone.” And that is how the beaver came to be another word for the female human genitalia.

96890024At first we were good at fighting the zombies – but then the zombies hired some excellent PR guys, public opinion turned against us, and they ate all our brains.

Melanie Klein found that children could use toys to represent their parents; she didn’t consider that they might use their parents to represent toys. Real mothers have stainless-steel tits.

The calf, once separated from the herd, is quickly picked off by small but devious predators.

Despite appearances, what’s being advertised here is still pizza – albeit in a highly abstracted form.

I like Kiev. It has depths, and contains monsters. When I first visited there was a small and orderly protest not far from what would one day become the Euromaidan; the hundred or so people there were holding up EU flags and posters of Yulia Tymoshenko. They were hemmed in by a line of about twenty riot cops (a similar number were surrounding a group of four or five Communists up the street). Now the same movement has built a sprawling tent city occupying a big chunk of the old centre of town, at the cost of a hundred lives. At the rate things are going, who knows what it’ll be like next time I visit? Maybe there’ll be another smaller Kiev within Kiev, a tiny shiny futuristic Kiev, with its skyscrapers that come up to your waist, its suburbs you can hold in the palm of your hand.

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The passion according to Luke

Everyone has their fantasies. There are people who dream of chains and rope and hot wax, silent watching eyes, dungeons of degradation, masked strangers, shiny black leather. Then there are the perverts, people who get unaccountably excited by the idea of second homes and high-quality consumer goods, holidays in Europe, tasteful interior décor, and a high-paying job in a full-employment economy. Repulsive as they might be, even these fantasies help sustain the subject of the fantasist; they don’t really hurt anyone as long as nobody tries to actually put them into practice. This is the rule of fantasy: you can act it out as an image of an image, but it can never actually come true. Once it does, it loses all its power and enchantment. There are many fantasies like these, tiny glittering gasps of desire, but they’re all in orbit around an invisible sun, one single hidden image that gives them their allure: the ‘foundational fantasy,’ represented by Lacan in the matheme $ a. In this formulation $ represents the castrated or ‘barred’ subject, forced to understand the world through images in response to a primordial lack, with a standing for that absence, the transcendent and nameless object of desire. What’s notable about this matheme is that it lacks an intermediary symbol (such as standing for a problematic relationship, as in the formula $ a for neurotic fantasy): between the two terms there is no relation. Fantasy is grounded in a double absence; the fantasist never necessarily knows the full content of their fantasy. You have to browse through an infinite collection of images and see which ones excite you, find out what kind of radiation the black hole of your desire emits. Here are a few fantasies. See if they work for you.

Luke Vivian-Neal, of the School of Oriental and African Studies team in the 2013-14 season of BBC2′s University Challenge, has a woman with beautiful hair brought to him, saying he simply wishes to examine her hair; but he cuts it off very traitorously and discharges upon seeing her melt into tears and bewail her misfortune, at which he laughs immoderately.
Luke Vivian-Neal, whose team made it to the semi-finals before being beaten by Somerville College, Oxford, sups at an immense table; for light, he has six burning candles, each inserted into the ass of a naked girl lying upon the table.
Luke Vivian-Neal from Lusaka in Zambia, who is studying Chinese but also knows a lot about words of Arabic origin and the location of the Schönbrunn Palace, attaches a slender but attractive girl to a large rocket, the fuse is ignited, the rocket ascends, then returns to earth with the girl still attached.

These are all from entries in the Marquis de Sade’s The 120 Days of Sodom, a pornographic novel that quickly descends into an early example of the Buzzfeed-style listicle; six hundred numbered acts of debauchery and murder presented with very little adornment or narrative sequence. De Sade was a fantasist in the classic mould: while his libertinage caused some scandals he was still entirely devoted to his wife and obedient to his mother; in his actual sexual practices he tended far more towards masochism than the sadistic tendency to which he gave his name. What’s interesting about the 120 Days of Sodom is that all these deeds are described not as fantasies or stories, but as passions, divided into les passions simples, doubles, criminelles, and meurtrières – all this despite the somewhat offhand way in which de Sade’s heroes carry out their orgies and massacres. In traditional medieval dualism, passion was opposed not to boredom or indifference but to action; it shares a Latin root with passivity. Pneumatic theory, which posited a substance called pneuma through which physical sense impressions were mediated into mental images, held erotic desire to be a passion: you are not an agent, a subject desiring an object, but a patient, the object of a desire that acts on you. Passions are pneumatic images,sensations from outside that seize and overwhelm the subject. For the advocates of courtly love, the idea that you might grab hold of the source of your desire and actually fuck them wasn’t just crass and unseemly; it missed the point entirely. Actions belong to the body, and passions to the mind; consummation of a passion is nothing more than the contemplation or the expression of an image. It’s in this context that de Sade’s passions begin to make sense. His passions are fantastical images, stories within a story, emerging from a void: mise en abyme.

Luke Vivian-Neal is clearly a very passionate man. Or, in the words of various Twitter commentators, he is ‘ever so intense,’ ‘a prime example of a secret serial killer,’ ‘the sort who would wear your skin to a party,’ ‘an evil Paul Merton,’ and ‘actually going to kill all of us #thoseeyes.’ He’s certainly the most interesting contestant University Challenge has had in a while. He holds his forehead low, his hair flops over his eyebrows, and he stares up at the camera with what appears to be utterly undisguised loathing. When he answers a question correctly there’s a tiny grin, a fractured chink through which the horror of the Other’s enjoyment can be glimpsed. When he gets one wrong he looks omnicidal, a glowering thundercloud of a human being. He definitely has a rich inner life. This effect is only heightened by the rest of the SOAS team: motherly Weber, trying to cheer Vivian-Neal up with a smile and a pat on the back; team leader McKean, the cheerfully studious everyman; thoughtful and deliberate Figueroa. They don’t seem to be from the same planet as Vivian-Neal, let alone the same university. It’s not hard to imagine them as the cast of a University Challenge spinoff, a tense psychological thriller in which Vivian-Neal slowly picks them off one by one. Of course, the most important thing about the passion of Luke Vivian-Neal is that it’s a passion: something that acts on him from the outside, an image, a fantasy. Real serial killers are, for the most part, astonishingly boring people; not cold and steely and erudite like Hannibal Lecter or Norman Bates, but driven by dull brutish psychopathy. If Vivian-Neal actually had bodies in his freezer, he’d lose all his fascination. The fantasy of the smart, brooding, potentially murderous young man isn’t his – it belong to us, the viewers.

When I was briefly living in America, I naturally took it upon myself to smugly educate as many of the country’s inhabitants as possible in the wonders of British television. These efforts had various levels of success. Some people liked Peep Show, fewer had patience for Stewart Lee, but University Challenge was met with unanimous approval. Part of its appeal might have to do with the show’s inherent excess: these people are quizzed on knowledge that is for the most part fundamentally useless, for what appears to be no real reason, and without even getting a cash prize at the end. There’s a gleeful superfluity to it that fits in well with the sprawling all-consuming mentality of Los Angeles. At the same time it’s something of a human zoo: you’re presented with a constant succession of endearingly dorky and often utterly strange characters, but in a way that deliberately encourages the formation of fantasy. Unlike some quiz show hosts, Jeremy Paxman never asks his contestants how they’re feeling, or who they’ve got supporting them back home, or what their hopes and dreams are; you have to work it all out (or invent it) based on their eagerness with the buzzer, their spluttering when named, the things they know and the things they don’t, their reactions when they win and when they lose. University Challenge reproduces, in laboratory conditions, the formation of fantasy as a defence against the lack that inheres in the Other. No wonder so many of its contestants become minor sex symbols. Intelligence might be sexy, but there’s nothing that stimulates neurotic attachment like a void.

The fantasy of Luke Vivian-Neal is of someone somehow inhuman, someone whose mind follows different rules to the rest of ours. This image forms part of a process of transference. All those desires that the viewer at home watching University Challenge isn’t comfortable with are shifted onto him; he becomes a receptacle for our own deadly passions. In fact, unlike the neurotic voyeurs observing him on their screens, Vivian-Neal seems fully healthy and fully human, entirely unashamed of himself. When he gives that sullen stare, he’s communicating exactly what he wants to.  There might be murderers in this season of University Challenge, but he’s not one of them. The SOAS team lost a decisive quarter-final match to Trinity College, Cambridge 280 points to 105. Vivian-Neal was inconsolable; he couldn’t even bring himself to say the traditional end-of-match ‘goodbye’ to the viewers. The standout character of the Trinity team is Filip Drnovšek Zorko. It’s not just his excellent name, which the announcer reads out with an air of unbridled excitement: Drnovšek Zorko appears to be a genuinely agreeable person. He’s a lamb among wolves. The rest of the Trinity team, with their collared shirts and v-neck jumpers and gemstone-dead eyes, are all monsters of the Oxbridge elite – the same British impulse that conquered the world and killed millions out of sheer boredom. Vivian-Neal has an authentic misery; the only thing they communicate is a shark’s mindlessly propulsive self-satisfaction. Phantom pith helmets hover over their heads. In tonight’s final, Trinity play against Somerville, Oxford for the title. There’s every chance they’ll win; they’re an extremely effective team. If they do, everyone goes home happy. If they lose, the last thing Drnovšek Zorko will see will be his teammates’ pupils narrowing to reptilian slits and their fangs swooshing down from their mouths before they consume him. 

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