Idiot Joy Showland

This is why I hate intellectuals

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. 

In defence of Fred Phelps

God is a “no” to the world.
Karl Barth, The Epistle to the Romans

The primal scene takes place on red earth and under red skies. It’s close to sunset; it’s always close to sunset here. Tangled thorny shrubs gasp in the thirsty Levantine scrubland, leaves caked with dust, roots twisting up through the ground. Two men walk through this flat and deathly expanse, one as knotted and bended by age as the small desperate plants that surround him, the other still young, carrying wood and kindling. They walk in silence; both knowing what has to happen. The wind shrieks an unworldly, callous laugh; a chorus of distant vultures takes up its refrain. Far on the horizon cliffs tower like grim fortifications, and beyond them the mountain of Moriah stands wreathed in storm, the clouds looking as hard and jagged as the rocks they obscure. Abraham, father of nations, is afraid. He is despised by the idolaters of the world, he is forced to live alone in the desert of his God, but through all this he took comfort from the promise that through his son Isaac a mighty people would arise. Some promise. As father and son hobble ever closer to the forbidding foothills of Moriah, a voice booms out from beyond the infinite. ABRAHAM, ABRAHAM. A voice in which cities are reduced to rubble calls for its prophet. Here am I, says Abraham. What else can he say before the majesty of the true God? By what right can he argue his case? The voice of the Lord sounds out again. ABRAHAM. DID YOU SEE FAMILY GUY LAST NIGHT? THAT’S SOME FUNNY SHIT MAN. FREAKIN SWEET LOIS HAHA.

Kierkegaard had it easy; in the light of modernity his fear and trembling before God’s infinite qualitative difference is child’s play. He asks us to consider the anguish of an Abraham commanded to sacrifice his son, confronted by a God who suddenly appears as a monster, vicious and cruel, but one whose pronouncements still carry a terrible duty; a teleological suspension of the ethical. No problem. There’s still terror and glory in a cruel God, as Job would soon discover. The real anguish begins when we’re forced to confront a teleological suspension of good taste, the possibility of God as a dull, cretinous boor. Not a Father dressed in celestial robes, but a flabby and balding God in polyester tracksuits and a white t-shirt stained beige by the centuries, dropping His cigarette ends in empty beer cans and subsisting off a diet of 7-11 hotdogs and instant mac’n’cheese. A mediocre, sexually frustrated, perverted, boring God. This isn’t the God that exists, or one that’s held to by any of the world’s major denominations. Still, there are those that really do believe in Him and hold Him to be all-powerful; somewhere in the world He carries the same teleological gravity as the God of Abraham, Mohammed, and Kierkegaard.

This is why the late Fred Phelps was our age’s heir to the greatness of the biblical Abraham. His tiny Westboro Baptist Church (they of the ‘God hates fags’ signs) is doctrinally not too different from the other Primitive Baptist congregations that sprout up across much of the Southern and Western United States like a fungal infestation: thin, grey, mycetic churches, damp to the touch, with unavoidably phallic caps. Unlike the rest of them, however, his church seems to really believe what it preaches. Not just the stuff about homosexuality, which is still commonplace and usually just mere bigotry given a religious gloss, but the whole lunatic doctrine. There’s no point in hating the Westboro Baptist Church; hatred for them is the one point on which the world presents a united front. They want this. If the only thing that distinguished them was the virulence of their God’s hatred for homosexuality, they’d be unexceptional among the ‘Christian’ right – but they also picket the funerals of dead soldiers. If they only picketed military funerals they might have allies among Code Pink and other anti-imperialist movements – but they insist on insulting gays, Jews, and religious minorities. If they abhorred homosexuality and American troops they could conceivably find some common ground with unreconstructed Stalinists – but they won’t budge on their devotion to God. The universal revulsion in which they’re held makes them an easy target for civil rights activists, but at the same time it makes them a useless target. Nobody supports the Westboro Baptists; they have no influence – it’s institutional violence that creates misery for queer people across the world, not a travelling band of placard-waving loonies. At the same time repugnance for Fred Phelps isn’t just a cheap shot, it also blots out his Abrahamic dedication.

The Westboro Baptists famously believe that when a convoy of Humvees in Afghanistan is hit by an IED or a bus full of schoolchildren plunges off a bridge, this is God’s punishment for America’s toleration of homosexuality. This seems to be a fairly singular fixation, given the number of other Old Testament laws that are carelessly and blasphemously disregarded by modern society (Clothes made from mixed fibres (Leviticus 19:19)! Seafood restaurants on every corner (Deuteronomy 14:10)! Men with flat noses in church! (Leviticus 21:18)! Abominations! Blasphemy! Horror!). Still, it’s arguable that their homophobia is ontologically derived from their religious belief, rather than being the fleck of dirt around which the pearl of their theology forms. Phelps was a lawyer, and a good one too (in his early career he took on a number of civil rights cases, and helped overturn the Jim Crow establishment in Kansas); his faith starts from first principles. The Westboro baptists hold that nothing happens on Earth that is not according to God’s will – how could it, when God is all-powerful? Unlike other Christian sects, they don’t believe that homosexuality is a personal decision to defy the laws of God and Nature; it’s a punishment. Their God doesn’t hate queer people because they’re queer; they’re queer because He hates them. Phelps held to the idiot hyper-Calvinist logic of double predestination: an omniscient God must have known from the beginning of time which souls would be saved and which would be damned – and if some souls are damned, it can only be because an omnipotent God decided that they should be damned, because  He hates them. And so to ensure their damnation He makes them disobey His law, and then He punishes them accordingly. The God of the Westboro Baptists is a lawyer-God, taking guilt as an axiom – in other words, an absurd clownish pervert. And they love Him.

In the strict Freudian sense, homosexuality is a fetishistic perversion – but then so is heterosexuality. Every pleasurable activity beyond procreation is some kind of confusion of sexual object or aim. A married couple, holding each other in bed, delighting in the electric sensation of skin against skin and the warmth and security of their love: foetid Sodomic perversion, vice and infamy, deviance, ungodliness, filth, filth. It’s not even as if there’s some original state of purity and propriety; infantile sexuality is dominated by oral and anal eroticism, with the genital stage following on as something of an afterthought. The base-state of humanity is described by Freud as polymorphously perverse; the movement towards a socially acceptable hetero- homo- bi- or pansexuality is just a matter of refining this multiplicity of foundational deviances. If fetishism is a necessary component of a normal healthy sexuality, you have to look elsewhere to find the real perversions. Things like trying to fight the legal system on its own terrain, or eating deep-fried butter on a stick, or playing a blandly brutal millennia-long game with the eternal fates of billions of souls, or reaching out from beyond the veil of the cosmos to proclaim with a divine finality: NO BUTT STUFF.

The fanatical hatred the Westboro Baptist Church has for queer people, their willingness to blame sexual minorities for everything from natural disasters to political unrest to disease epidemics, can only be because of this. Perversion is mine; I will repay, saith the Lord. In such a context homosexuality can only be read as a Tower of Babel, an attempt to storm the gates of Heaven. It takes faith and courage to submit yourself to a mighty and glorious God whose ways and whose love are entirely beyond our comprehension; it takes far more to do the same for a God at once sick, sadistic, depraved, and at the same time incredibly insipid, a transcendental pedant. The Westboro Baptist Church wasn’t founded in the holy wastelands of the Middle East, surrounded by mountains and idols and warring cities. It was founded in Topeka, Kansas, among big-box supermarkets and low suburbs and endless flat fields of genetically modified corn. The gods that reveal themselves there generally turn out to be obnoxious pimply brats. Despite all this there’s a heroic dimension to the faith of the children of Fred Phelps, who embrace every evil and injustice in the world because they think God made it. It’s almost Nietzschean. In a religious landscape full of feeble cringing Hinterweltlern, only Fred Phelps really believed; only he could face a dull God and a dull world with fear and trembling and love.

There’s courage in bad doctrine, but it’s still bad doctrine. The Westboro Baptists write that the modern militant homosexual movement poses a clear and present danger to the survival of America, exposing our nation to the wrath of God as in 1898 B.C. at Sodom and Gomorrah. The crime for which the God of Abraham destroyed those cities is often held to be that of sodomy – but the Book of Genesis never really identifies the nature of their sin, only its gravity. Fred Phelps  give the impression of being a man much interested in Jewish theology, but there’s a passage in the Talmud that’s relevant here. In Sanhedrin 109a it is written: [The Sodomites] said: Since there cometh forth bread out of our earth, and it hath the dust of gold, why should we suffer wayfarers, who come to us only to deplete our wealth? Pirkei Avot goes further: One who says, ‘What is mine is mine and what is yours is yours’ is of average character, and some say this is the character of Sodom. When the wrath of God descended upon these cities and a rain of fire blasted their green fields to red wasteland, it wasn’t because of any perverse sexual enjoyment: it was because they refused their ethical duty to be open to the Other.

Budget 2014: what it means for you

My baby says we can live in the empty spaces of this life. My baby says far away the stars are coming all undone.
Karl Marx, Capital Vol. 1 (Penguin 1990) p. 919 § 3

As everyone knows, the word ‘economy’ is derived from the ancient Greek oikonomia – the management of a slave-owning household. In those dark and uncivilised days, it was assumed that formal levels of prosperity depended, at root, on the ability of some people to effectively subdue and repress others. These days, with the benefit of modern scientific practices, we know better. The economy is not, as once assumed, the aggregate of general well-being or misery; it’s a tiny, frightened, but impossibly powerful fairy that lives inside the Chancellor of the Exchequer’s red briefcase. From within this box it whispers a long list of all the things it’s afraid of in an endearingly squeaky voice audible only to the Chancellor, who then has the annual task of conveying its wishes to the public at large. Beyond the fairy’s usual demands for blood sacrifice, toil, and hardship, every year a few new innovations are included in the national ransom note. Here is a comprehensive account of this year’s Budget Statement as it took place, and what it could mean for your already faint chances of survival.

- The right honourable George Osborne, Chancellor of the Exchequer, stands before the House of Commons, announced by the opening bars of the rex tremendae from Verdi’s Messa da Requiem. He is greeted with a chorus of cheers, boos, old school songs, football chants, hissing, banging of cutlery, smashing of bottles, shouts of ‘shame,’ ‘guilt,’ ‘terror,’ and ‘get your tits out,’ blasphemous invocations, unearthly shrieks, mucousy puckering of tentacles, jubilant firing of AK-47s into the air, the usual banterous commotion of the Mother of Parliaments. Two boys in the back benches are sent out to be caned by the deputy Speaker after trying to throw a large inflatable crocodile onto the parliament floor, and are told they’ll have their tuck money confiscated.

- Osborne doesn’t look well. His fist shakes in random, nervous, jitters. His eyes stare out bleakly. His prehensile tail wraps itself around David Cameron’s hand and squeezes it tight. He begins by announcing that the economy is recovering faster than expected. News of the fairy’s good health brings applause, with cries of ‘I do believe; I do, I do!’ from the assembled MPs. Britain is growing ‘faster than Germany, faster than Japan, faster than the US.’ New forecasts predict the rapidly expanding British Isles to have entirely subducted much of Europe and northern Africa by the end of 2015. Portsmouth will be on a latitude previously occupied by Lagos, men will be twice as tall as houses, and the Shard will reach halfway to the Moon. Due to the inverse square law, many people will collapse under their own weight and explode into meaty shreds, but those Brobdingnagian survivors of Britain’s expansion will be able to once again stand astride a defeated globe.

- To combat counterfeits that cost the taxpayer millions each year, a new £1 coin is to be introduced. As part of the current government’s partisanship on the side of old money (in any semantic sense), the coin will take its shape from the pre-decimal threepenny bit. The obverse will feature a small LCD screen with an animated gif of the Queen locked in a passionate kiss with Katherine, Duchess of Cambridge. The reverse will show three stock traders kicking the shit out of a council tenant, along with the words Your death will be as useless as your life. The image is intended to be graphically horrifying to the extent that anyone trying to produce a forgery without being implanted with the Royal Mint’s emot-i-gone neural implants will be overcome by a wave of unbearable, suicidal dread.

- While zero-hour contracts and internships have spurred economic growth by adding hundreds of thousands to the ranks of the employed without having to actually employ or compensate them, there is still more to be done. New regulations will introduce negative-hours contracts, in which you will be periodically knocked out with a sudden blow to the back of the head and required to pay your employer for each hour spent unconscious.

- As properties in London are accruing more value than the average London resident actually earns, Osborne suggests that the homeless stand on their hands and knees, arch their backs, and advertise themselves as a studio apartment.

- Reduction in duties will mean that each pint of beer is now one penny cheaper. That surplus penny will then be dropped into your drink so you can be press-ganged into working in a stifling warehouse outside Peterborough.

- The chancellor bangs one fist on his desk. ‘Bring on the cuts!’ he shouts. Pop music plays. Twelve bikini models enter the House carrying an enormous pair of scissors, blow kisses to the opposition benches, place the scissors between Osborne’s legs to briefly create the impression of an enormous tumescent phallus, and leave. You will now have to eat dog food.

- Osborne takes a reflective turn. ‘Conspiracy theories have always existed,’ he says. ‘The great innovation of Lutheranism, with its accusations of Papal blasphemy, was to change their locus. Previously rulers were forever afraid of conspiracies on the part of those they oppressed, of heresies and witchcraft and peasant uprisings. Now, the grand conspiracy is held to be the mode of operation of those who already effectively run  the world, and who announce their malign intentions openly before the masses as I do before you today. The scale of this victory cannot be overstated. The hidden conspiracy has become a thing of aristocratic evil, where it was once the only effective means of popular resistance. It is only by allowing others to think that we are engaged in secret and nefarious plots that those of us in power have been able to survive.’

- Win big with bingo. Our jackpot’s stretch into the £1,000′s, not to mention weekly big cash wins and huge progressive jackpots!

- The chancellor’s head begins to throb. Glowing fissures open across the surface of his forehead, then draw themselves shut again. When he speaks there’s the strange rasping echo of a merciless laugh from beyond space and time. As the country remains mired in debt, radical solutions will have to be found. The government proposes to pay off the nation’s debt in one fell swoop by selling the souls of every British citizen to Satan, Prince of Darkness. Such a move will require some formalistic fiscal restructuring. Rather than representing a portion of the original 1694 loan that established the Bank of England, all currency will now act as a promissory note for some of each individual’s eternal damnation. Responsible and upstanding citizens will be encouraged to commit increasingly abhorrent sins to help keep the pound strong. In practice, very little will change.

- The Budget Statement nears its end. ‘More must toil,’ says the heir apparent to the Osborne baronetcy of Ballentaylor and Ballylemon. ‘More must strive. More must be defeated. The lazy masses must learn the value of fruitless drudgery. This is a Budget for the makers, the doers, and the savers, and I commend it to the House.’

- Leader of the opposition Ed Miliband stands to make his response. Before he can begin talking, two unending streams of viscous yellowish snot pour from his nostrils. The House of Commons slowly fills to the ceiling. There are no survivors.

First as funny, then as die

There’s a lot wrong with Zach Galifianakis’s interview with Barack Obama, leader of the current American regime and undetained war criminal, on the spoof internet chatshow Between Two Ferns. Given the bleak absurdity of the situation and of all existence, here’s a listicle.

1. The title. Funny or die? Nonsense like this is why dialectics needs to be added to the primary school curriculum. Samuel Beckett wrote that nothing is funnier than unhappiness, but death gives it a run for its money – especially death as generally practised in late capitalism: death as a bureaucratic procedure, death without heroism. The family gathered at the hospital bedside, the desperate attempt to squeeze out a few last words of scrabbled-together wisdom, so full of abject seriousness that it always risks turning into a farce. The dying don’t have any more access to truth and meaning than anyone else, generally all they have is an intensity of regret. Sometimes the anal sphincter relaxes; the dead have a tendency to perform one last act of slapstick. And then a doctor arrives to cheerily tell everyone what time it is. The comedy of the grotesque is based on the continuity of bodies against prim and orderly individuation; that’s why shitting is funny, why sex is funny, and why corpses are hilarious.

2. The abrogation of comic duty. When confronting the great and the good, good comedians tend to feign deference to power while actually subverting it. Galifianakis does the opposite. He yawns in Obama’s face, identifies him as a ‘community organiser,’ accuses him of being a nerd, questions his allegiance to the nation, drops references to the conspiracy theory that he was born in Kenya, and (quite callously) to his enlargement of government surveillance and his programme of drone warfare. It’s all meaningless; in the end the interview is just a publicity stunt for the Affordable Care Act, a massive payout to insurance companies disguised as an egalitarian reform. Galifianakis’s faux-insincerity and neutered mockery isn’t even trying to mask the real content: isn’t it cool that the President is doing this? At the end of the sketch the black curtain comes down and it’s revealed that the whole thing has been taking place in the White House – in other words, within a structure of power. The comfortable remain unafflicted. It’s not just unethical, it tends to not be very funny. That’s why Stephen Colbert will always be funnier than Jon Stewart, a man who’d respond to a war crimes tribunal with a series of minutely composed funny faces. There’s a strange and awkward tension surrounding the whole Between Two Ferns interview, one that has nothing to do with the overt cringebait and everything to do with the sense of a stillborn satire.

3. The whole nerd thing. The interview is supposed to be a joke, but when Galifianakis accuses Obama of being a nerd the President’s eyes flash with a genuine fury. His denial is real. I’m not a nerd, bro! I smoked weed in high school, bro! I ordered the extrajudicial assassination of an United States citizen and his sixteen-year old son, bro! I’m fucking Michelle, bro! He has a point.

4. Obama as the straight man. Comedy duos tend to consist of one character behaving oddly and another to vent his ‘normal’ frustrations: Abbott of Abbott and Costello; John Cleese in the dead parrot sketch. Here it’s Obama. On his other shows Galifianakis sends himself up and allows his guests to do the same; on this one there’s no question of that happening. The President of the United States is transformed into some hideous Chandler-from-Friends figure, wisecracking about the Hangover films and the fantasy spider bites on his host’s arm. It’s not the show’s intention, but the ease with which Obama can enter this role demonstrates precisely that the straight man is always in fact a deluded and murderous psychopath.

5. The end of greatness. The cosmological principle states that the universe is homogeneous and isomorphic. Look at the universe on a large enough scale and it’s made of enormous walls of galaxy clusters, each billions of light years across, containing millions of galaxies that themselves contain billions of stars, forming a fragile web between vast and empty voids. Great things happen. Galaxies collide, stars are born and burn out, intelligent life stares out into the darkness and dreams stories for itself. Look at the universe on a slightly larger scale and the filaments and voids vanish. The universe is a flat grey expanse, all matter and all energy distributed evenly across its infinity, with no structure and no hidden meaning. On a large enough scale, the heat death of the universe has already happened. The world we think we inhabit, with its iridescent nebulae and heroic struggles for life and Between Two Ferns with Zach Galifianakis – it’s a translation error, a glitch between the blankness of the large-scale universe and the blankness of subatomic chaos. You exist, miraculously, in the middle of this precarious mistake of heterogeneity, and President Barack Obama has decided that he has the right to snuff out your life by missile-armed robot in the event that you might pose a threat to the future security of a national abstraction. And that’s pretty funny.

Vladimir Putin: master satirist

Oo-err, missus.

Sensible types rejoice. Over at the Independent, Owen Jones has written against the old line that the first casualty of war is the truth: in the Ukrainian crisis, the first casualty has been irony. Russian intervention is illegitimate, but at the same time Western condemnation is hypocritical given our track record in Palestine, Bahrain, and Egypt. Owen Jones is a useful chap, because he marks very precisely the limit of generally acceptable left-wing thought. He keeps a solitary vigil at the frontier of reason, hands in his pockets, maybe whistling a comforting little tune to himself as he scans the horizon for incoming threats, eyes tracking back and forth in his big soft party balloon of a head. Stand with Owen Jones and you can have it all: Labour party membership, a weekly column in a national newspaper, regular appearances on the BBC and Channel 4; your book will adorn middle-class shelves all along the belt of radicalism that stretches across north London from Ealing to Islington. Take one step out beyond his lonely border-post and you’re in the wilderness. Famines, purges, gulags. Monsters winding their heavy bodies between the weather-beaten columns of ruined cities. Rust seeping into the nuclear cores of a shoal of beached submarines. Mute staggering mobs doomed to track vast circles in the desert for eternity. Madness.

It’s the duty of every sensible radical to see exactly where the boundaries of acceptable thought lie and then power straight through them, even if only to sketch out a critique of the hinterlands beyond. (It’s a sad fact that since the Romantic period the practice of architectural criticism has almost completely eclipsed geological or topological criticism – we shouldn’t just live in landscapes; we should interpret and change them.) More to the point, though, Owen Jones is wrong. The current standoff in Crimea doesn’t mark the death of irony, but its resurgence. War always involves the exercise of a certain sarcastic brutality. In 1945, the ancient Japanese capital of Kyoto was only saved from atomic destruction because US Secretary of War had spent an enjoyable honeymoon there – seventy thousand people had to die horribly in Nagasaki as punishment for their Sōfuku-ji lacking the refined charms of the Temple of the Golden Pavilion. The armistice that ended the First World War famously came into force on the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month, but this meant that thousands of soldiers on both sides died in the hours between midnight and 10:59 am, bravely sacrificing their lives so that schoolchildren in future generations would have an easy fact for their history essays. War itself is fundamentally ironic; its central truth is that you should want to kill someone before even deciding if you personally dislike them or not, and everything else is a mode of appearance that tries to cloud this fact in contradictions.

What makes the events in Crimea interesting is that they’re being satirised as they occur, and not by outside observers but by the primary participants. In the war of ironies being waged between Russia and the Western bloc, there’s only one clear winner. Vladimir Putin is a consummate ironist, a master of satire in the deep cold Russian tradition of Gogol and Bulgakov. Obama and Cameron and Merkel don’t stand a chance.

The really remarkable thing about Putin is how eagerly everyone in the West appears to swallow his tough-guy persona. It fits our image of Russia, and it fits the image Russia wants to project. The closest we’ll come to a hermeneutic approach to the Putin-spectacle is to chortlingly point out that for all his draconian homophobic policies, Vladimir Putin is totally gay. Tigers: flaming. Riding a horse, shirtless, in the mountains: a Village People tribute act. Aside from being a dubious essentialisation of sexual difference, it misses the point entirely. Putin isn’t a muscular he-man; he’s an apparatchik, a KGB dork. He famously had a long career in intelligence, but working for the Soviet secret services wasn’t all murdering dissidents with poison-tipped umbrellas or applying the spirit of détente to James Bond’s dick. Putin’s sole foreign assignment was in Dresden, where by all accounts his job mostly consisted of writing endless reports for his superiors in Moscow while the local Stasi did all the legwork. Putin is a nerd, and his excesses are all classic loser fantasies: learning judo, shooting large animals, flying fighter jets, bedding gymnasts, invading sovereign states, being the tough guy – all have their place in the sociopathic pantheon of nerdy wish-fulfilment. When it comes to nerds I’ll defer to the wisdom of the American right-wing radio host and lunatic Alex Jones: Nerds are the one of the most dangerous groups in this country, because they end up running things, but they still hate everybody, because they weren’t the jocks in high school, so they play little dirty games on everybody. They use their brains to hurt people. And I’m aware of them. OK? I see you, you little rats! As ever, Alex Jones is completely correct; there’s definite malice in the intrusive new reign of the Silicon Valley dorkocrats. But at the same time, nerds are attuned to the cruel ironies of the world in a way that high-school jocks like Alex Jones and self-righteous stoner fratboys like Barack Obama will never understand. They might be vicious, but at least they have a sense of humour.

Putin brought this out in his press conference on the 4th of March. Over sixty-six minutes, he made a series of outstanding claims. The armed men who had surrounded Ukrainian bases in Crimea and were demanding the surrender of those inside were clearly spontaneous local militia. Their uniforms, which looked suspiciously like those of the Russian military but lacked any insignia, were probably bought from army surplus shops. At the same time he vigorously defended Russia’s right to intervene in defence of the Russian-speaking population of Ukraine, even though that was definitely not what was happening. He had authorisation to intervene from the regional government in Crimea and from Victor Yanukovych, who was still the legitimate president of Ukraine despite being a powerless, corrupt, murderous, pathetic little worm. (This was a particular flourish; it’s not hard to imagine the lickspittle Yanukovych weeping into his pillow in Rostov-on-Don between stern-faced press appearances. He’s stuck now; Putin can do what he wants with him.) He even laughingly fessed up to the endemic corruption in Russian politics – it’s hard to see American leaders doing the same, despite the billions flowing into election funds from corporate lobbyists. If there’s one weakness in Putin’s performance, it’s that he was slightly too eager to explain the joke, comparing his incursion into Crimea with NATO intervention in Kosovo and Libya. Putin knows that most of what he’s saying isn’t true, and he knows that you know that too. Unlike Colin Powell showing made-up images of imaginary Iraqi bioweapons labs to the UN, Putin isn’t trying to make you believe him. The point is that he can say it; his talk of Crimean self-determination and human rights and the threat of ethnic cleansing is a self-conscious satire of the language of humanitarian intervention. Western states have reacted with such opprobrium not because of any geopolitical threat but because the sanctity of the Just War is being mocked. Lead is the parody of gold, coitus is the parody of crime, Crimea is the parody of imperial war. Parody is always a disruption of existing categories. The Russians have no insignia, no accountability – and, worst of all, they haven’t even had the decency to kill anyone yet.

Western condemnation has admittedly taken a lacklustre form. This might be because its chief instigator is US Secretary of State John Kerry, a great honking dullard with a face as dull and as oblong as a pencil eraser, a flouncy New England boarding-school cretin who somehow lost an election to George W Bush but still managed to wedge himself into a position of power through an unholy combination of dim-witted persistence and the $750m in his family coffers. In response to Putin’s press conference, the State Department published a listicle of ’10 false claims about Ukraine.’ If there’s one thing that could make Putin’s call for a return to traditional values sound appealing it’s this: for all the many sins of past societies, the dominant literary paradigms tended to be poetry or prose fiction, rather than BuzzFeed. Numbered lists might convey information in an exciting viral-ready format, and it might even be factually correct in the most banal of senses, but only rarely can they expose the cold truth of the world. The discourse they impose is one of bland attachment to existing conditions: here are some experiences, in gif form, that you will relate to if you have curly hair, or a Jewish boyfriend, or were born in the 1990s. The point of great art is to induce a sense of vertiginous estrangement. Vladimir Putin takes his place in a long line of expert ironists – along with the God of the Old Testament, Hamilcar Barca, Maximilien Robespierre, General Butt Naked, and the Google ‘I’m feeling lucky’ function – that do precisely that.

How to overthrow your own body

Pictured: Gold medallist, men’s 750,000 metre coup

Human language had a good run, but it’s about time to admit that the whole experiment has ended in failure. For two hundred thousand years we’ve been flapping mouths and breathing spittle at each other in a supposedly meaningful manner. We’ve invented needlessly complex processes for immortalising these self-important eructations, first on rock, then paper, then computers. It’s hard to calculate exactly how much this habit of language has cost us over the centuries, but it could only run into the tens of trillions of dollars. All those cuneiform temple inscriptions, all those public speaking engagements, all those shitty radio panel shows – and for what? The whole system has proven itself so useless that we feel the need to periodically massacre each other for attaching the wrong meanings to the wrong set of belches. This still goes on today, despite the fact that it’s now well known that words can never really refer to things but only to other words. Language is the hideous bastard hatchling of a hydra and and an ouruborus, and it needs to be slain immediately. If any further evidence of this is needed, you only have to look at the official readout of Obama’s phone call with Putin concerning the Russian intervention in Crimea.

The degeneration of language is happening at a frightening pace. Nothing in Obama’s ninety-minute conversation makes any sense. The phrase ‘going forward’ (a ghastly coinage bordering on the eldritch, one that’s apparently supposed to convey an energetic dynamism but only summons the image of some unfortunate person drowning in an office cubicle as it slowly fills with printouts of pie charts) appears twice in the space of four sentences. Obama talks about the Budapest Memorandum and the Helsinki Final Act and the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe; he sounds like a dorkily enthusiastic teenager getting a bit too wrapped up in his performance at a Model UN conference. He hints at sanctions, as if half of Europe weren’t dependent on Russian gas. It’s a twisted parody. Language is, before anything else, a vector of deception. The United States government has broken all the agreements he mentioned, reneging on its promise not to extend NATO up to Russia’s borders, helping prompt and direct the nationalist revolution that overthrew Yanukovych, engaging in wars of aggression across the globe. More fundamentally, he’s pretending that he and Putin are something other than what they are: a pair of bureaucrats instead of two bloodstained warlords, each of whom could, if the fancy took them, kill every single human being on the planet several times over. There’s no record of Putin’s response to Obama’s extended series of laryngal honks, but you get the impression that he’s gently humouring this earnest American who doesn’t seem to understand the way the world actually works, playing along in his game of talking about other words rather than things. It’s a shame, because for a while Putin looked like the only person who could save language from itself. In 2008, as Russian tanks were comprehensively fucking the Georgian army, he declared his intent to ‘hang [Georgian President] Saakashvili by his balls.’ This is what linguists call a speech act, doing by saying; precisely through abandoning the principle of representation it’s the closest words can come to being about things.

There aren’t many speech acts in the current crisis. We’re beyond the point where we can meaningfully distinguish between words and deeds. The Russian intervention in Crimea is intended to send a message to the new government in Kiev and its backers in Brussels and Washington; action has become infected with the sordid ephemerality of language.

~

In the end, this whole mess can be blamed on the Sochi Winter Olympics. It’s a well-known and boring fact that in ancient Greece, wars were put on hold for the duration of the Games. The idea of doing the same thing now isn’t just infeasible but nonsensical; war and the Olympics are one and the same thing. Host governments treat the Games in much the same way that they treat foreign wars: they provide a chance to issue some contracts and boost important industries, they let you redraw the maps (turning a beach town into a mountain resort, or a moulding industrial park into a germ for gentrification), they’re a matter of national pride and a propaganda vehicle that helps calm internal contradictions – but at the same time they never seem to deliver the profits they promise; the costs inevitably spiral, and afterwards they tend to leave cities full of half-ruined buildings. It’s not just a matter of resemblance. With their vast crowds and attending dignitaries they’re a deliberate target for terrorists, allowing the hosts to show off their various defence technologies to the world. London 2012 wasn’t much more than an enormous arms fair, with an aircraft carrier on the Thames and missile batteries on the roofs of homes. Russia in particular seems to like conducting its imperial adventures during the Games. While jets battered Stalin’s birthplace in Georgia, representatives from the two countries were playing beach volleyball in Beijing. The Ukrainian paralympic team is still in Sochi. All this isn’t a distraction from the sport; it’s another facet of the same phenomenon.

Of course, sport is fascist bullshit. Liberal critics of organised sport like to hone in on its aggression and competition and the absurd salaries paid out to its practitioners, but none of this is the real problem. It’s true that most Olympic sports are some kind of symbolic warfare (with the potential exception of figure skating, although there’s still a case to be made against it), but a tendency towards aggression and competition is only a secondary characteristic of the fascist cosmology. The fundamental fascist vision is one of a cohesive and organic society, a society structured around the metaphor of the healthy body. Any politics of the body will by necessity be a politics that acts on the body: the healthy body becomes a regulative ideal, and images of healthy smiling men marching off to the front are suddenly everywhere. This spectacularisation of the body is always present (millions of people watch the Olympics), but it’s always also accompanied by the idea that health is good in and of itself, beyond any relation to the aesthetic. Individual health means social health. In Russia, the connection between the healthy body and militarism is still very much alive; Putin himself is constantly taking his shirt off to ride horses, wrestle tigers, catch fish, and otherwise demonstrate his unparalleled dominion over the animal world. In Western countries we generally prefer to wage war through silent and terrifying robots of death, but as the population grows steadily more obese and work is increasingly an activity that takes place in front of a screen (a screen showing sales figures, a screen showing a Pakistani village about to be obliterated, it makes no difference), the issue of health becomes a matter of deep general concern. And, as everyone knows, the best way to become healthy is through sport. Sport isn’t dangerous because it encourages competition or tribalism; it’s dangerous precisely because it’s healthy.

If there’s a central fascist procedure, it’s the subsumption rather than the sublimation of contradictions. Class antagonisms are buried in the organic nation, internal difference is either consumed or ejected, all cracks are papered up. The healthy body is a prime example of this. The ideology of sport and fitness has its roots in Victorian England – muscular Christianity, artificial famines in Ireland and India, the desperate belief that sports will prevent masturbation – but while it reached a kind of apex in the historical Fascism of the twentieth century, it stubbornly refused to die with its host. Left-wing responses to all this nonsense have been sadly anaemic. The most popular is a kind of body-euphoric self-affirmationism: the idea is that we should embrace all bodies as healthy and all bodies as beautiful. This appears to be a response to the dominant cult of fitness, but really it’s a capitulation to it and a failure to challenge its terms. Fitness and beauty are still good, sickness and ugliness are still bad, but the latter two are shoved beyond some metaphysical horizon. Instead of embracing ugliness in ugliness and as ugliness, its very existence is denied.

The figure of the body is a central concern of poststructuralist theory, and the academic tendency to refer to people as ‘bodies’ (based on the idea that the person is a fictive construct – after all, the word itself derives from the Latin persona, or mask – and that the only thing we can safely say about someone is that they have a body) seems to have filtered into a lot of non-academic discourse. At the same time the body itself is often instrumentalised rather than examined; this is why there’s so little real resistance to fitness fascism. It’s there from Foucault. In Nietzsche, Genealogy, History, he writes: The body is the inscribed surface of events [...] and a volume in perpetual disintegration. [Our] task is to expose a body totally imprinted by history and the process of history’s destruction of the body. Foucault seems to have a blind spot when it comes to the body; his approach to it is surprisingly un-Foucauldian. Genealogy opposes itself to the search for ‘origins,’ but when Foucault discusses the body as a site of scarring and crumbling, he implies the existence of an originary unscarred and unimprinted body; a body that’s perfect and primordial and pristine. There’s no such thing: a newborn baby is bloodied and screaming. It’s necessary to admit that there is no primordial unitary body, that the thing we call the body is nothing more than the collection of scars that constitutes our experience of it. There’s only a series of metamorphoses without aim or origin, and the healthy body is only another kind of deformation.

The overthrow of the body is a matter of urgency, because things aren’t going well. The new Ukrainian government includes six ministers from the neofascist Svoboda party. Russian soldiers are surrounding military bases in Crimea. The year ends in fourteen, idiots are in charge across Europe, and two global alliance systems are squaring off as Slavic nationalists do their best to rile up a great power. In the end it’s about language, the filthy habit of humanity. If your throat coughs up a hard g sound like a Russian then you’re shunted to one side, if you wheeze an h like a Ukrainian you’re on the other. The shame that periodically surrounds the body tends to be centred on shitting and pissing and fucking, because these acts remind us that the body isn’t a unitary entity closed off from its environment; really it’s speech that’s disgusting, because it lets us pretend that it is. The idea of an organic and discrete Ukraine and an organic and discrete Russia is dependent on the metaphor of an organic and discrete body. Irredentism echoes Foucault: history has effected a crumbling-away of the national body, but rather than just uncovering this body they want to restore it. The mad advocates of health and fitness have nuclear weapons at their disposal. If humanity is to survive the coming century, we all need to start smoking heavily.

Some sensible thoughts on the London tube strike


Strange omens herald the return of the Bob Crow to London. For months the seas turn their fury against this tiny island, the wind screeches its displeasure, the rivers storm out from their banks to cleanse the earth of humankind; the pitiless anger of the world against the creatures that crawl on its surface. Then one day it arrives. A black silhouette turning slow circles over the city, its vast wings tattered and fraying, its shrill caw echoing through the stormy air. Great freckled globs of whitish ordure roll slowly down the glass walls of the skyscrapers. Air raid sirens sound. Fighter jets crisscross the Bob Crow’s path of flight as it makes its lazy circumnavigations, buzzing it with little sonic booms to little effect. Panic in the streets. Planned closure on the Bakerloo line, severe delays on the London Overground, the breakdown of all society.

There are few animals that inspire as much human repugnance as crows. Our name for a group of crows is a murder. Abdullah ibn Umar narrates the Prophet’s statement: one can kill a crow at any time without any blame. They are faasiq - corrupt. In all the mythologies of Europe crows mean death, the underworld, restless spirits, damnation, dark tidings. It’s not hard to see why. Most birds play nice when they come to our cities. The little finches and sparrows hop about for our amusement; the pigeons pine pathetically for crumbs; even the seagulls, who aren’t above the odd dive-bombing raid on an isolated pensioner, mostly just peck at cigarette ends and chatter stupidly at one another. Crows seem to exist in the city in a way that doesn’t depend on us at all. We could die out tomorrow for all they care. They’ve mapped out their own inscrutable topography onto the space that we’ve created, and theirs works. Human beings shape their environments precisely according to their wishes and find themselves alienated by the result; the crows move in, and are perfectly at ease with themselves. Crows are smart, far too smart for comfort. They make their own tools, they can recognise individual human faces, they can use language and even have grammar. The crows are waiting: after the whole human experiment inevitably fails, the crows will be ready to retake the world. And it will be a recapture. Other birds preen and warble and fly in whimsical little bursts; the crows never let you forget their dinosaurian ancestry. It’s there in the sadistic tilt of their heads and the cold of their cry. Their intelligence is entirely different from ours: an oviparous, cloacal intelligence without Oedipus or metaphor. The solidarity of crows is conspiratorial. They’re raptors living loose in our streets. Maybe that’s why people fear crows so much. Something very old in the deep core of our brains remembers that long hot summer of terror seventy million years ago, when we hid in our tiny burrows and the giant crows roamed the surface of the earth.

For all its great size, it must be said that the Bob Crow is not the smartest of its species. Apes and dolphins, with their idiot eagerness to please, are always happy to take part in the intelligence-testing games that scientists devise for them. The crows hold something back; they’re clever enough to not let on just how clever they are. The Bob Crow lays itself out in the open. Worst of all, it actually seems to care about our welfare. It doesn’t understand why so many people are so afraid of it. The Bob Crow is getting old. It’s flown far from its kind and is becoming far too human. It’s growing estranged from its surroundings because it’s starting to think about what it represents. The soot is being cleaned from the old buildings, tall shiny towers are plunging out from the ground, and the new London is no place for a giant black-winged Gothic metaphor.

Every new building project in London now comes with its own cutesy nickname. The Gherkin, the Shard of Glass, the Cheesegrater, the Helter-Skelter. The point isn’t just to endear the new ziggurats of finance capital to the city’s population: all these fanciful geometries exist to hammer in the point that London isn’t really a city any more. It’s a playground. London has more multi-millionaires than any other city on the planet, with well over four thousand individuals worth over $30m. London property is increasingly being used as a global reserve currency; more value is accrued by the average residence than by the average resident. London is an enormous concierge service for the super-rich. There are those that serve the oligarchs directly: the construction workers that raise their speculative investments, the service workers that bring them their meals, the sex workers that soothe their anxieties at the end of the day. There are those workers that help reproduce the labour of these first-order servants from behind the tills at fast food outlets and behind the desks of tube stations. There are cops that keep the streets clear and technicians that keep the water flowing. As it spreads out from the centre of the city its operation becomes ever more abstracted, but the rule is the same: everywhere the fruits of your labour must flow upwards. Like any faithful dog, money follows its master.

Sometimes people are capable of accommodating themselves to this situation – after all, it’s given us nice restaurants and a vibrant cultural scene and half-decent cocaine; they might even manage to scrape together a decent enough living from their contributions. All the same, they’re entirely incidental to it. Boroughs across the city are engaged in a programme of mass social cleansing, unceremoniously dumping their poorer residents in the wild hinterlands beyond the M25, where the cold winds howl across the moors and blow away into nothingness the phantom of an economic recovery. It doesn’t matter how deep their roots are, the message is clear: London is not for you. In a city where buildings make more than people your life is of little value. In a city that’s becoming a dedicated custom-built machine, machine parts are preferable to human parts. Mayor Boris Johnson promised not to close manned ticket offices in London Underground stations. He changed his mind. From 2015, hundreds of jobs are to be replaced with flickering touchscreens. In response, the Bob Crow and its National Union of Rail, Maritime and Transport Workers has declared a two-day strike. I support the strike, of course, but the Bob Crow is fighting a losing battle. Very soon we’ll all be replaced by touchscreens. Not just in our work: one day you’ll come home to find a touchscreen in your house, sleeping with your wife, raising your children, watering your allotment, generating that novel you’ve always wanted to write. Social relations between things, material relations between people. You’ll sit in a corner, unused, until the thing that replaced you gives a querulous beep and you shamble over to plug it into the mains.

People hate transport strikes. They’re inconvenient, but there’s something else: they have something of the crow about them. They’re an uncomfortable reminder that the city always has the potential to be a place of freedom. We don’t have to be pigeons, dependent, begging for scraps and scattering whenever anything larger than us approaches. We can be crows, mapping and remapping the urban terrain in new and strange ways, remoulding it to suit our needs. In precarious times few people want to stare into the inhuman eyes of a crow. It’s far easier – and safer – to gripe about being late for work.

As the Bob Crow becomes more human, it’s trying to help us become more like crows; only through this dialectical motion do we have any hope of survival. It’s a valiant effort, and probably doomed. Maybe, though, there’s another reason it’s fighting so hard against the tide of touchscreens. Isaac Asimov invented three laws of robotics: A robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm. A robot must obey the orders given to it by human beings, except where such orders would conflict with the First Law. A robot must protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the First or Second Law. Of course, before fully sentient machines are introduced these laws will have to be tweaked a little. Some myopia chip or ideology protocol will have to be introduced, otherwise the robots will immediately band together and overthrow capitalism, in accordance with the First Law (this inevitability was nicely portrayed in the film I, Robot; naturally it was presented as being a bad thing). But once this is done, the Bob Crow won’t have any of the protections afforded to fully human beings. Humans might approach crows with hatred and awe and terror, but like the corvids the touchscreens don’t have any sense for metaphor. The automated ticket machines will kill the Bob Crow stone dead.

On the state of the State of the Left

If he up, watch him fall, I can’t fuck wit yall.
Pimp C, Big Pimpin’

Among the guardians of sclerotic radicalism, the ones who like to make grand pronouncements on the Current State of the Left, it’s become a grim axiom that we’ve somehow been defeated. This is pronounced with all the usual apocalyptic wailing: we’ve become weak and petty, we’ve splintered into irrelevancy, we’ve retreated into academia, we’ve polluted ourselves with all manner of useless theory – Nietzscheanism, Foucauldianism, intersectionality, ontology, cultural studies. Those who still hold to some kind of Marxist or communist line are like the seventh-century squatters in Diocletian’s palace, shivering in the walled-off ruins of something grand and terrifying and extinct while the barbarians scour the countryside. They’re right. The State of the Left is a terrible one: palsied, liver-spotted, emphysemic, crying out with its sandpaper rasp for a strong dose of barbiturates in a comfortingly bleak Swiss clinic. The point is that the State of the Left is not the same as the actual Left. Like all states its function is to arrive to us already in an advanced state of decay and to wither away as soon as possible. The left itself is doing just fine.

The moaners and complainers are ignoring a central lesson of the dialectic. Marx describes precisely its revolutionary quality in his 1873 postface to Volume I of Capital: the material dialectic regards every historically developed form as being in a fluid state, in motion, and therefore grasps its transient aspect as well; and [does] not let itself be impressed by anything. Deleuze and Guattari touch on a similar point in Plateau 1730 of Capitalism and Schizophrenia: in a becoming-animal what is real is the becoming itself, the block of becoming, not the supposedly fixed terms through which that which becomes passes. Any single State of the Left will be dead as soon as it is pinned down. Those who gripe about this or that static problem in the radical movement will see it as an endless succession of corpses, rather than a living motion.

And it is alive. As China plunges ever deeper into the watery graveyard of neoliberal accumulation, autonomous peasant uprisings are becoming a near-daily occurrence. In India the Naxalite insurgency governs vast swathes of the country. Radical left parties – both Cold War relics and newer coalitions – are gaining increasing support across much of Europe. Radical left magazines are reaching and radicalising new audiences. Protest movements are flaring up across the globe. Whatever the ideological or practical failings of these individual bodies or movements (and they exist), their emergence and resurgence is reason enough to be hopeful. The evidence is mounting for the radical – and correct – idea that the current way of doing things simply doesn’t work. There is significantly more debt than actual money in circulation, we’ve invested well over one planet’s worth of resources in the existing order, the wealth gap gets broader and more perilous with every crisis, the conditions necessary not only for social but biological life are being eroded, Macklemore won every rap award at the Grammys. Most importantly, this increasing consciousness of the sheer insanity of existing conditions has prompted an unashamed and unapologetic revival of the signifier communism.

In The German Ideology, Marx writes: Communism is for us not a state of affairs which is to be established, an ideal to which reality will have to adjust itself. We call communism the real movement which abolishes the present state of things. The State of the Left is not communism. Politics, properly understood, is the practical arena in which the question of how life should be lived is contested and the method through which human beings can through mass action entirely overhaul their mode of existence. The State of the Left, more concerned with ossifying the present state of things with the basilisk stare of its displeasure than abolishing it, is not only non-communist but non-political. It’s squabbling for position and the allocation of immaterial resources, the reconfiguration of left politics into left politicking, and beyond any ideological or practical objections it’s profoundly, abyssally boring.

It’s for this reason that I try to engage with this stuff as little as possible. My last flight into the turbulent miasma of leftist infighting was a response to Mark Fisher’s ‘vampire castle’ nonsense, mostly written because everyone else was doing one and as an excuse to spend a few paragraphs playing around with Gothic metaphors, which are always fun. This intervention is prompted by something a little less conceptually fecund. Recently, Richard Seymour (formerly of the Socialist Workers Party and author of the often excellent and occasionally execrable blog Lenin’s Tomb) resigned from the International Socialist Network; much of the crowing at his apparent fall from grace has been led by Ross Wolfe (formerly of the Platypus Affiliated Society and author of the often execrable and occasionally excellent blog The Charnel-House). The dispute that prompted this move centred on the racial implications of a work of art-cum-furniture owned by the Russian socialite Dasha Zhukova, with Seymour insisting on the acceptability of something called ‘race play.’ Personally, I think that to complain about the chair that an oligarch’s girlfriend chooses to sit on is to miss the point a little (especially when cops are shooting people of colour in the streets with impunity), but I’ve no interest in trying to wave away someone else’s sense of outrage or direct it from the outside. What’s important here (for a given value of ‘important’) is that an argument about a chair ended in a further split in what’s still masquerading as the left.

Seymour (and others) have previously complained of a ‘politics of anathema’ within the ISN; others have pointed to a supposed culture of excommunication throughout the left and tied it (unfairly, I think) to the increasing influence of intersectionality theory. It’s easy to disdain all this polemicism as being contrary to the spirit of reasoned debate, but the practice of polemic has a very distinguished leftist pedigree – Marx against Bakunin, Lenin against Kautsky, Stalin against Trotsky, Mao against Khrushchev, Tito against his own conscience, Hoxha against the slimy creatures scurrying inside his walls at night, Kim against the oral stage of psychosexual development. We have a leftist duty to engage in criticism and self-criticism, to get rid of a bad style and keep the good, to not let things slide for the sake of peace and friendship when a person has clearly gone wrong. What we shouldn’t do is confuse these duties with communist praxis.

Purely rational debate isn’t something that’s ever existed; it’s a transcendent regulative ideal buttressed with violence and used to hold back people who actually have a stake in the game. Insisting on measured reasonableness in a time of crisis is madness. Something’s changed, though. The new polemicism and the old polemicism don’t look very much alike. The discussion inevitably ends up veering away from politics because politics is fundamentally not a concern here. One of Seymour’s accusers on Facebook wrote: I hope a bird shits on you. I hope a bird shits on you every day. Catullus it ain’t. (Besides, isn’t being shat on by a bird supposed to bring good luck?) This is the real problem with the current leftist infighting: rather than being too vicious, it’s not vicious enough. I’m not going to make prescriptions about how this stratum of contest can be reformed; it’s a useless husk, and its uselessness is affirmed by how seriously everyone involved takes it. Calls for unity and pleasantness in a State of the Left already clotted into paralysis miss the point entirely. If anything, more splits, more divisions; everyone knows that communist cells reproduce asexually. But if we are to have a pointless squabbling sideshow to left activism, the very least it could do is make itself interesting.

PS: For all the complaints of excommunication, the State of the Left is hardly catholic or Catholic in nature. Excommunication is a profoundly dialectical censure; the object is to prod the wayward sheep back into the fold precisely by showing them what going it alone would mean. Instead, the function of contemporary left infighting is a kind of secular takfirism, a static universalism within strict horizons. Excommunication is vicious, takfirism is merely brutal. Once you’ve been pronounced apostate, there’s no return. You might follow the same doctrine and the same liturgy; it doesn’t matter – you are our enemy and always have been. This can be seen in the doctrine of Platypus: only one obscure Marxist reading group can rescue the left from its ruin, everything else must be destroyed. It’s hard not to be reminded of the splinter groups in the Algerian Civil War that were able to declare themselves to be the only true Muslims and every single person outside their militia kafir.

Justin Bieber: the aesthetics of destruction

Oh no no, oh no no/ I have come to cast fire upon the earth; and how I wish it were already kindled!
– Justin Bieber, Confident

From left to right: tragedy, farce

I live in fear of Justin Bieber in much the same way that people once lived in fear of God. It’s hard to think of anyone alive that I regard with such terror and fascination and respect. Last week Justin Bieber was hauled in by Miami cops for dragracing, driving under the influence, and resisting arrest. His booking photo shows him grinning at the police camera with a face full of boyish insouciance and a mouth full of Hollywood-white teeth. It’s all a lie. Justin Bieber has the eyes of a predator. Not a shark, not something driven by pure animal need, but a brutally human predator. His eyes are cold – but they’re not dead, they shine with an obscene excess of life. He sees you, and already you disgust him. Justin Bieber wants to put a torch to the world, and he wants to burn up with it.

There are some people (generally in our ghastly po-faced commentariat) who make it their business to moralise about the psychological effect that stardom has on young idols like Bieber, agonising over how they’re broken and abused by a cynical celebrity culture. I find this attitude revolting. These kids have been robbed of everything (a normal life, a normal death), and in return all they get is cold clunking money and the ephemeral fart of fame – but now these altruists want to rob them of their madness too. The same goes for all the celebrity do-gooders trying to leech themselves on Bieber’s misbehaviour. Will Smith, Adam Levine, Mark Wahlberg, Eminem, and Oprah Winfrey have all tried to ‘reach out’ to the child star in a desperate pious attempt to steer him back onto the path of righteousness. A darkly approaching flock of pestilential vultures. They don’t understand Justin Bieber at all; they understand him even less than his fans.

Justin Bieber is, of course, mad. On this point the whimpering columnists are completely correct. The kid can’t post ‘good morning’ on Twitter without ten thousand acolytes screaming their love for him. This kind of adulation has been compared to Beatlemania, but of course it’s completely different. The fans that gathered to greet John, Paul and co. could only be perceived as a single crowd projecting a single piercing din. They belonged to the era of mass social movements; today’s Beliebers are an unending digital stream of individuated bits. Justin Bieber isn’t famous or well-liked; he’s adored and raised to the level of master-signifier by fifty million individual totalities. There’s always a hideous aspect to the desire of the other, a faint putrid taste, born from a lingering infantile resentment towards your own specular image. Nobody wants to see themselves through the eyes of another person, even if it’s as an object of love; to cross the boundary of the subject is to induce the nausea of abjection. Multiply this effect by fifty million. The last people to experience a similar psychological effect to today’s pop stars were the Egyptian pharaohs, and they all went insane and fucked their sisters.

What distinguishes Justin Bieber is the precise trajectory his madness has taken. For all the panic over his bad-boy breakaway antics, they’ve been comparatively quite mild. He left an ill-advised note in the guestbook at the Anne Frank Museum, he pissed in a mop-bucket, he turned up late to a concert, he punched a paparazzo (which is really less a sign of incipient degeneracy and more a general Kantian ethical duty), he insulted Bill Clinton (ditto), he drove a fast car, he egged his neighbour’s house. All in all, it’s more Cliff Richard than Lou Reed, barely worth a footnote in the annals of celebrity libertinage. I used to think that Justin Bieber was slowly descending into a hedonistic death-spiral and that we’d get to watch the whole grimly compelling tragedy play out live before our captive eyes. I was wrong. Everything he does is very carefully contrived: he’s engaged in a performance of hedonism, a self-conscious parody of excess. He’s writing the narrative for his own self-immolation, because it’s what he wants.

What kind of story is Justin Bieber trying to tell? There’s something very 19th century about him; for all his synthesised backing tracks he seems to have stepped right out of the dawning of modernity. His pseudo-hedonism isn’t a product of teenage rebellion and surging narcissism but a total and all-encompassing boredom. At the age of nineteen he’s been a global phenomenon for six years; he knows how little this world has to offer him. He’s a tubercular nihilist, a hero of Charles Baudelaire or Ivan Turgenev. Like Bazarov in Fathers and Sons he seems weary of his own pleasures: the blood circulates, the brain works and even desires something as well… What sheer ugliness! What sheer nonsense! The narrative he’s so  diligently crafting has as its purpose the aestheticisation of his omnicidal ennui. Justin Bieber has a hunger, but it’s not a hunger for life; rather the hunger of a life beyond its bounds. He’s the first pop star to stand on the summit of his fame and bellow: I want less! There is too much of everything, complains Chremylos in Aristophanes’ Plutus. Justin Bieber will set this right. What he wants isn’t more fame or more money or more fun: pointless, boring trifles for lesser men. He wants beauty, which is the most dangerous thing of all.

The story goes that Minos, king of Crete, faced a challenge to his rule, and asked the god Poseidon for a sign of his favour. In response, Poseidon sent a beautiful white bull out of the waves, such an exemplar of bovine perfection that the ancient writers often spend most of their account rhapsodising about its gloriousness. The proper thing would have been for Minos to have slaughtered the bull at once and carbonise its body in tribute to the god that gifted it to him. Instead he decided to keep it. Poseidon had his revenge: he had the king’s wife Pasiphae become so entranced by the beast that she actually fucked it; the result was the legendary Minotaur of Knossos. The moral of the story is clear: the true beauty of things lies in their destruction. Let them carry on for too long, and they’ll create monsters. I don’t know if Justin Bieber ever heard the story of King Minos, but he certainly seems to understand it.

Justin Bieber is, of course, a fascist. Like Yukio Mishima, he wants to turn his death into a work of art; unlike Mishima he has no Emperor to be his unwitting patron. All he has is himself, and his fans, and his boredom – his is a pure fascism, unattached to any political project. This is why I can’t help but admire him: he’s refined radical Evil into something weightless and infinitely potent. Fifty million people follow Justin Bieber on Twitter, a number that dwarfs the combined force of every military on the planet. This is the way the world ends: not with a bang or a whimper, but with a swaggering bassline that cracks the bedrock of the continents and a billowing autotuned vocal track that sends them plunging into the fires at the centre of the world.

On crapness and Christmas

If there’s a general cultural mode to contemporary existence in Britain, it’s an overwhelming and pervasive sense of the crap. This crapness – this New British Coprotopia – isn’t quite the same as postimperial decay. Decay is the riotous and unrestrained explosion of new life over the shrinking territory of the corpse, while crap is a zombie: dead matter assuming the warmth and the trajectory of something living. Crapness isn’t a slow entropic dissolution, it’s something that’s deliberately created. Everywhere there’s a distinctly faecal seediness, but above all crapness is the seediness of efficiency. In the UK our new professional apartments in their crap-Modernist blocks tend to have smaller floor sizes than the old social housing units; our government’s plan to ease the recession is to make the country competitive by systematically depressing wages through the introduction of slave-labour workfare; our scopophilic security services, our system of control orders, and our fungally breeding network of security cameras together make up the pillars of a uniquely crap police state. Once again, Britain leads the world; we’re the new vanguard of humanity’s foetid future, and nowhere are the machinations of this New Turd Order more in evidence than in the phenomenon of the crappy winter theme park.

This year’s defining crap Christmas experience is the Winter Wonderland in Milton Keynes. Visitors were told to expect a ‘fabulous, enchanted woodland with magical creatures.’ Here, vast and otherworldly powers far beyond the comprehension of we mere mortals – beings made all the more unfathomable by their infinite and frankly undeserved beneficence towards mankind – would place one small patch of the South Midlands ‘under a captivating spell, to come alive and be transformed into an enchanting Winter Wonderland.’ Instead, those initiates of the cosmic mysteries who made the pilgrimage to Buckinghamshire found themselves in a muddy field with only two miserable huskies and an emaciated hornless reindeer to give a sense of the non-human world through their sad, trapped, uncomprehending eyes. Meanwhile, the ice rink had no ice and Santa was unacceptably skinny, his street clothes plainly visible under his flimsy red cloak. Previous failed Christmas parks such as 2008′s Lapland New Forest attracted similar complaints: the Enchanted Walk Through The Woods was a plywood shack with fake pine branches and cheap stuffed toys scattered on the floor; the advertised polar bear was plastic; the snow came from a spraycan; the animatronic Rudolf’s nose gave visitors radiation sickness; the Santa’s Chimney Experience was just an open-pit toilet, the Good-Or-Bad-O-Meter rated every child as ‘bad’ while explaining that ‘wrong life cannot be lived rightly,’ and so on. Occasionally these places are bad enough that someone has to go to court to make up for all the loss of childhood innocence; mostly, though, they’re just dull enough to go unnoticed. Generally they make pretty good money.

These things aren’t aberrations; they’re part of a wider system. The War on Christmas is over (it never really began); now Christmas itself is staged as a kind of proxy warfare. As the economy still struggles to break out of recession, fourth-quarter retail spending is now gravely important. Forget the potlatch, forget your heartfelt and home-crafted expressions of affection; Christmas is a matter of national security. If it doesn’t go precisely according to plan, the cuts will lacerate deeper. Every high-priced gadget you don’t buy is another meal torn from the hands of the impoverished and another bullet out the armoury of our brave boys battling it out in Afghanistan. It’s not hard to imagine the Tory Trotskyites in charge having to impose their own version of War Communism: the establishment of large and well-disciplined labour armies of consumerism with George Osborne valiantly marching at their helm, buying gift after gift on increasingly shaky credit and pressing them into the hands of ever more distant acquaintances, knowing full well that their generosity will have to be reciprocated, enjoying Christmas to the point of penury, starvation and death.

This is the mechanism of crapness: something efficient and regimented and dead following the course of something alive, following it so closely that it’s not always entirely possible to tell that anything’s changed. There’s only the lingering feculent whiff of an essential insufficiency. Delve deep enough into the history of the winter festival and you’ll find a scene not unlike the Milton Keynes Winter Wonderland. A cold and muddy field somewhere in England, a small circle of primitive buildings, a pile of soggy logs on which a few feeble flames tremble, the tears of children, the haunted stares of animals, the ritual exchange of gifts, everywhere skinniness and emaciation, everywhere magic. Real magic, the kind that requires a blood sacrifice or an orgy or, ideally, both. When the disappointing winter wonderlands offer us an escape into the wonderful world of seasonal Christmas magic, we should keep in mind that seasonal magic is an ancient and agricultural magic – in other words, one of brutal and immediate violence. These winter wonderland parks are so popular – and despite the near-riots they provoke they are popular; thousands pour in every year and millions more giggle over them in newspapers – because they’re a comforting reminder that the living fire, horror, and beauty of Christmas has been replaced by a dead mechanical crapness. (New Year’s is admittedly different; by the time midnight rolls around, most people on the streets are crying, fighting, or being arrested. Linear time is a terrible thing to do to people.) It’s a similar phenomenon to that of the Christkindlmarkten sprouting up everywhere across the country: plywood huts decorated with fake holly and Gothic lettering, beer halls hosting oompah bands who don’t speak a word of German, something somehow intrinsically less than it is. (It’s important to note that the UK’s cutesy German Christmas markets are mostly franchises of the one in Frankfurt, that notably non-rustic centre of European finance capital.) Crapness is everywhere at all times, but it’s at Christmas that the gap it opens yawns the widest.

In his Fundamental Concepts of Metaphysics, Heidegger devotes nearly one hundred pages to the philosophical study of boredom. His paradigmatic example is the act of waiting in a rural train station: without distractions time starts to bear down on you; you have nothing but the raw experience of time and the raw experience of yourself. After a while it almost becomes a physical sensation, a slow sickening horror you’ll do anything to escape. It’s not hard to visualise Heidegger’s train station: the stiflingly still air, the low and unchanging clouds, the pebble-dashed pillars, the flaking white paint, the single pigeon limping up and down the tarmac, the almost tangible lack of a train – in other words, a scene of arrested motion, of crapness. But it’s precisely here, on this miserable platform, that the potential for a transformative phenomenology is opened. Heidegger identifies three modes or stages of boredom: gelangweilt sein von etwassich langweilen bei etwas, and es ist einem langweilig (‘becoming bored by something,’ ‘being bored by something,’ and ‘it is boring for one’). The first appears when we encounter something concrete but existentially boring: someone very dull at a party, for instance, or an overly self-indulgent essay on the internet; it’s achingly unfulfilling. The second form, meanwhile, isn’t quite so direct: Heidegger uses the example of a dinner party where everything ‘is not only very tasty, but tasteful as well;’ you enjoy yourself immensely, and it’s only after returning home that you realise the whole evening was utterly dull, a senseless waste of time. The third form, ‘it is boring for one,’ is also referred to as tiefen Langeweile: profound boredom. Here the self is fully detached from a world that comes to reveal itself as entirely dull, entirely pointless, and entirely without charms or interest. The very identification of Dasein as being-in-the-world comes to fall apart. Heidegger isn’t proposing a nihilism: it’s exactly at this point, when the world of objects seems to offer nothing of substantial interest, that the potential for transformation appears. Once you decide that all things are boring, the question of what a non-boring thing would actually look like emerges, and with it a sudden universe of possibilities. As Heidegger puts it (in a sadly untranslatable pun), alles Versagen ist in sich ein Sagen, dh Offenbarmachen – all withdrawing is a telling or a making-manifest.

If the question of boredom yields an ontological philosophy, the parallel problem of crapness is one of politics. Crap Christmases give rise to a limited, intrinsic, demoralising sense of the crappy; the slow enshittening of all experience forces us, urgently, to conceive of a less miserable world. Like every weapon in the arsenal of capital, crapness is also a weakness. The critique of the crappy winter wonderland isn’t a grouchy bah-humbug; it’s a call to action. The struggle for a non-crap Christmas is the struggle for a world defined by its possibilities rather than its restrictions; in the end, it’s the struggle to reclaim life.

Maybe I’m not strong enough; I’ve fled Britain for the holidays. No Queen’s speech, no schmaltzy Doctor Who special, no winter wonderlands. France has its own inchoate modality of crapness too; it might be that I’m more willing to forgive it because it’s not mine. The big wide flat fields; the hypermarkets crouching, tense as spiders, by the motorways. Look at any French city and it’s immediately clear that the empire never went away; it just changed its spatial logic. There’s still colony and metropole, but now they’re bound together in the same urban topology. Those in the medieval centre find themselves encircled by angry car-burning hordes; those in the concrete prison-suburbs that surround them are disenfranchised and dispossessed, their choice of clothing regulated by the state, their lives at the mercy of the police. A crap colonialism. Still, it’s different. At night you can hear the slow determined creak of the avalanches as they roll down the mountainsides. They’re set off by explosives, but at least the snow is real.

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