Idiot Joy Showland

This is why I hate intellectuals

Corbynism or barbarism

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The Labour Party’s leadership election, slowly and greasily phlegmed up into being over the past month, is supposed to present us with a political choice. Jeremy Corbyn and Owen Smith – in other words, two sets of personalities, two ranges of competencies, even, if you squint, two sociopolitical classes. And overriding everything is the great question, shouted at the selectorate from every angle, of power versus principle: purity of purpose against hard-nosed political machinations, a party leader who seems to have abandoned any hope of actually winning elections or one determined to do whatever’s needed to get back into government. The question shouldn’t be rejected entirely; it’s something that the left has faced before. The Bolsheviks for instance, in the immediate aftermath of the October Revolution, worked under the principle that other revolutionary parties should be represented in an All-Russian Constituent Assembly; eventually, they had to sacrifice that principle for the power to make gains elsewhere. In less urgent and desperate times, like 1917, this was a question we had some time to ponder. Now, it should be the least of our concerns.

It’s not just that the terms don’t fully make sense, although they really don’t. As the party’s chorus of Cassandras keeps insisting, Labour is in an incredibly weak position – to take power at the next election would require a surge in support unprecedented in modern British political history, something utterly outside the boundaries of convention. So why do they think that going to the polls with a conventional leader, espousing now-conventional policies, would produce that result? How is someone like Owen Smith, a piece of forgettable biological generica, someone whose main tactic appears to be pretending to have so few distinguishing characteristics that the only possible polemic against him would be a mean-spirited attack on the essential impotence and idiocy of humanity as such, supposed to do it? If Corbyn’s leadership has been incompetent, how much more incompetent are the Parliamentary rebels who can’t even defeat him within their own party? If the worry is that a right-wing media will never accept Corbyn, hasn’t a half-decade of embarrassing bacon sandwich-eating shots shown that no successor is likely to fare any better? In a time when political certainties have all melted into the stale fog, when loony minority propositions like leaving the European Union can suddenly surge to victory, when any monster can apparently wrench itself out of the imagination and into reality, when the quiet and dignified prude on the Clapham omnibus is now sweating omnicidal rage from every pore as the bus cooks in the July heat and small riots pop off like firecrackers in scattered corners of the city, why is centrist pabulum still thought to be what the great British public are desperately crying out for?

But what’s being presented is not, despite appearances, a tactical question. It’s not even a political choice. The battle isn’t between the left and the centre, and it’s certainly not between Corbyn and Smith; it’s a choice between politics in general and something else, between the possibility of politics as a terrain for contention and its collapse into the crumbling administration of class society as it slowly declines into incoherence. Jeremy Corbyn, for better or worse, might be the last party leader whose politics are still actually political. His removal would be the victory of the monster, an enormous creature turning a sanitised face of bland focus-group triangulation towards us, while far away at its distant arse-end there’s the febrile wailing of a resurgent fascism. The fact that my politics are substantially different to Corbyn’s, or that I happen to think his old-Labour Keynesianism, lightly inflected with universal basic modishness, is actually less likely to be put into practice in the current climate than the kind of ludic revolutionary hyperbole I’d prefer – it’s immaterial. Now is not the time. Emancipatory politics of any shade, from the mildest reformism to Bataille’s becoming other or else ceasing to be, can only have a language in which to communicate themselves while there’s still a field of politics separate from management. Without that, they’ll slip back into theology. The concerned types of the soft left, the ones who don’t even really disagree with Corbyn’s politics but have decided that he’s too compromised and too toxic and a unifying candidate needs to be found, would condemn their own projects and mine for the sake of removing one crotchety old man and in the vain hope of winning one general election. The real choice has been with us for a while. Corbynism or barbarism.

And we are already in barbarism; the catastrophe isn’t incoming, it’s already here. ‘The world,’ Derrida wrote, ‘is going very badly.’ That was in 1993; since then it’s continued to go very badly, and for long millennia beforehand it was going very badly too. Occasionally people like to point out that some things have improved, that people are living longer than they were a century ago, that there’s less lead in our drinking water, that fewer people are mauled by bears, as if this were anything other than the slow wearing-out of a giant machine for producing corpses. The world, the field for our powerlessness, the thing foreign to us into which we are thrown, the thing that elsewhere I’ve called the dead world, is always going very badly. The moment it starts to go well will be the moment we are no longer alienated from objective existence; at that point there will be no vast crushing indifferent entity to give that name to. Until then, the world and the end of the world will continue to be exactly the same thing.

Barbarism is everywhere. The Prime Minister recently announced in Parliament that she would be willing to use Britain’s nuclear deterrent, and Owen Smith, speaking on a cheerful ITV breakfast show, repeated the same line: he would fire the missiles, because ‘if you are serious about defence and serious about having a nuclear deterrent then you have to be prepared to do that.’ Atomic weapons aren’t just some ominous future threat of devastation; they enforce the immanent mass destructibility of human life. The fact that our governing classes will proudly announce their intention to kill millions of people in a nuclear war, all for no reason, the fact that they’re structurally required to make that announcement, is what allows for everything else: slow death by austerity, migrants drowning on the Mediterranean, the demotion of vast sectors of the world’s population to the status of surplus flesh, to be fed occasionally, without forgetting that it’s a terrible drain on public finances. None of this is political, before long it’ll just be common sense, a final enclosure of the name of the commons.

I’m writing this too late. The nominations are closed, and so are the voter registrations; if I wanted to encourage you to sign up as Labour party supporters like I haven’t and vote for Jeremy Corbyn like I won’t, I wouldn’t be able to. That’s not really what I want to do. Electoral boosterism is always faintly sickening – the sense of a circus suddenly turning on its audience, the clowns in their painted rictuses teetering on a narrow political proscenium, staring into the cowed darkness and barking now you make us laugh. There’s not that much between your old friends you never speak to taking to Facebook with the cheery demand that whoever you vote for you just get out there and vote like hell, and – to take a random example – Will Self last year, breaking however many decades of principled anarcho-floccinaucinihilipilification to beg us all to go and vote for, of all people, Ed Miliband. In any case Corbyn’s re-election as Labour leader seems pretty much assured, but this is a Baudrillardian age, of volatilisation and disappearance. Whatever it is that comes next, the good or the barbaric, will only have use for electoral engagement as a minor prop. Still, there’s no finality, and the nihilist void of pure management is a form among others; it too can fade. Something is about to vanish before our eyes. The question, between two evaporating sides, is what. The terms of combat are this: will Corbyn’s leadership be the last fluttering breath of politics, or is its choke the water coming out the lungs in the unsteady birth of something new?

Sickness, health, death

Medical thought finally effected an identification over which all Western thought since Greek medicine had hesitated: that madness, after all, was only madness.
Michel Foucault, Madness and Civilisation

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We are all crazed, weird loners. I am. You are. Silent all day, fixed to the computer, quiet in company, meek and polite, docile, neutered, and dangerous. We went wrong somewhere, a line was crossed, and though we don’t know when it happened we do know that we shouldn’t be feeling like this, that this isn’t just ordinary unhappiness. It’s hard to fix. Somatic sicknesses have their pathogens swarming in your veins, but there’s no antibiotic for an illness that comes from outside and everywhere.

Whenever someone snaps, when an ordinary and anonymous person starts killing, the obvious question is why. This is the kind of thing that ought not to be happening; we’ve worked for centuries to excise violent death from ordinary life, but the result is that when it does happen it’s all the more wounding, a tear cut right through the thinness of social existence, and we need to know why. This desperate need to know doesn’t apply so much to all the other horrors people suffer constantly, things that are held to be an intrinsic part of the world, even though most people don’t have much of a rigorous understanding of them either: why are some people poor and other people rich? Why are we always at war? Never mind murder, where does bread come from? There aren’t any easy answers for these, although people have tried. For the other question we have plenty. If that moment, the person snapping, the tragedy, is classed as terrorism, there’s a ready-made language of violent ideology, radicalisation, geopolitics and civilisational conflict waiting to be inhabited. If it’s been classed as something else, another world awaits: this is about mental health, loners and weirdos, a psychology hovering on the edge of the biological. Madness happens, sometimes, and for no good reason: of course it’s inexplicable, otherwise it wouldn’t be madness.

This is what happened when a single gunman murdered the Labour MP Jo Cox this week: the newspapers insisted that this was a case of one man’s disease, the hatred of a crazed, weird loner. The nature of the disease doesn’t need to be mentioned. Schizophrenia, psychosis, depression, anorexia, trichotillomania all collapse into the blank euphemism of the Mentally Ill, a sympathetic shorthand for doing what ought not to be done. And they’re right. It’s all very well to insist that mentally ill people are far more likely to be the victims of violence than its perpetrator – but this particular form of violence, the lone obsessive’s attack, is with only a few exceptions the preserve of the sick. A mentally healthy person does not do this. The smiling people in adverts and sitcoms, the obnoxiously at-ease, the people whose minds sit happily in their skulls and don’t torment them with the sweat and terror of late-night resentment – these people do not commit acts of random mass murder, or shoot politicians on the street, or blow themselves up in a crowd of strangers. Nobody has ever killed because they were too happy and too content with their life.

But who are these mentally healthy people? In the simplest of terms, they don’t exist. Illness is a presence: there’s something wrong, something that announces itself, you can probe it and ask it questions, diagnose it and give it a name. Health is a negative, the absence of anything wrong. The mentally healthy person is entirely in accord with their environment, without any tension between inside and out, faultless in a perfect homogeneity with the world. The only person this could actually describe is a fully decomposed corpse. For the living, there are only different species of madness: in psychoanalysis, for instance, the great manoeuvre is to turn the psychotic into a more socially acceptable neurotic, and untangle a few of the neurotic’s looser knots; that’s the best we can do. What we really mean by a healthy person is someone whose madness isn’t out of step with the madness of the social whole, who suffers what Adorno called the health unto death. The social whole is deeply, terrifyingly mad.

The victim was an MP noted for her advocacy for Syrian migrants. Her killer was a neo-Nazi, who bought gun-making instructions from an American white supremacist group, reportedly shouted ‘Britain First!’ after the murder, and gave his name in court as ‘death to traitors, freedom for Britain.’ You can call his ideology an epiphenomenon of his madness if you want; plenty have. Since 1945, happy and content people have tended not to be outright Hitlerists. (In fact, they tend to not be interested in any kind of politics whatsoever.) But there is no mental illness known to medical practice that turns its sufferers into violent fascists; fascism as a political ideology is not independently created, swastikas and all, every time something goes clunk in the brain. Go back to your Lacan: the mind is not a self-contained system; nothing in the psyche is ever a pure interiority. This fascism is coming from somewhere, and the fog over Britain is full of it.

Who did this? Nigel Farage, and Boris Johnson, and Michael Gove, and all the others wallowing happily in this island’s deep muddy fathoms of petty resentment and slow-boiling hate, crusted over with a thin facade of blank politeness. The whole country is a crazed, weird loner, locking itself off with oceans, distant but friendly, furious inside. More than anyone, this situation is the creature of the Labour party itself, which has been for decades covering itself in the soft fascism of anti-immigrant sentiment, assured that everyone would like them if only they were more racist, convinced that demanding controls on immigration from a big rock or a novelty mug would endear them to an imagined audience of nationalist thugs. In the process, they shut out anything that would have insisted on our common humanity as sneering metropolitan humanism. They fattened up the fury of groups like Britain First; an ideology as crazed and lunatic as fascism wouldn’t be able to communicate itself if it didn’t find friendly footholds in the ruling discourses. It’s not that the EU referendum has unleashed an already existing tide of xenophobia and racism – this debate, and so many beforehand, have been actively creating it.

It’s not just newspapers and politicians, though; as Britain declines the entire country has taken on an unspoken nihilist ideology, a constant drizzling hatred for all life. The bloom of anti-migrant feeling in Britain is stinking and poisonous, but it’s only a symptom, and like all symptoms it speaks itself. We talk about the burden of migration, having to cope with however many new arrivals, the drain on common resources that each of them represents. In other words, the human being is both excess and negation, something distressingly more than it ought to be, something less than a presence, something that ought not to exist at all. Every person is a void, sucking up food and jobs and healthcare that could have gone to someone else. In a post-industrial society, our dominant economic activity is no longer production but consumption, and politics lacks a language for all the other ways in which any person can add to the world: all it can see is a ravenous jaw and a shitting anus, a despoiler, a locust. The Khmer Rouge said that ‘to keep you is no benefit, to destroy you is no loss,’ but in twenty-first century Britain we really believe it. And in such a situation to kill someone isn’t to destroy a life, it’s the only kind of production we can still recognise.

The world is wrong, the social whole is sick, and we’re sick with it. The Brexit charade has brought a terrifying frenzy to our usual political stupor, but there’s no point pretending that the killing of Jo Cox represents some new violence, a death of civility, a withering of respect. With its grey damp misery this country has always hated life: before this we were butchering in the Middle East, before that we were massacring in Ireland, before that Britain was seized by a five hundred year long spasm of murder, washing blood over every continent, and we called it glorious. But the general sickness carries a central contradiction: you’re meant to believe that the country is under threat, that enemies are swarming in, that life is worthless – but you’re not supposed to do anything about it. The sane and healthy people will still kill, but in more socially acceptable ways – in uniform, or from behind a desk, out of sight; they do it happily, but within a legitimised structure that blots out the personal will. This is what it comes down to: the murderer of Jo Cox swallowed it all up and killed all by himself, and therefore he was crazy.

Learning to live after Bernie Sanders

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It’s OK to feel helpless, because you are, and evil is triumphant. Whatever else he says, Bernie Sanders has lost the world. Trump versus Clinton is not the contest of two creatures in a ruined city; it’s Miltonian chaos, eternal anarchy amidst the noise of endless wars. Of course one of them is better than the other; you can even pull out your utilitarian calculator and work out which one it is – but these are not fungible quantities, but endlessly different, and therefore the same. Hillary Clinton is, as her supporters like to put it, imperfect – a mass murderer, a wrecker of nations and peoples, the political expression of biophagous finance, a ruthless cynic who will fling millions into whatever ravine presents itself to get what she wants, which is power. Donald Trump doesn’t want power; he’s far more dangerous than that. He wants attention. How can you really measure her long list of abuses against the sheer potential for disaster coiled in his stupid, stocky body? Measure so many thousands of dead Libyans, so many tens of thousands of dead Syrians, so many hundreds of thousands of dead Iraqis against the peril of a waddling baby in charge of the world? Still it’s not impossible, we can quantify anything. Say two million excess deaths under President Clinton – from financial predation, from disease, from war – and ten million excess deaths under President Trump – all those plus racist violence, malfeasance, and incompetence – and there’s your moral case for voting for Clinton. It’s not nice, it never is, but you vote for the lesser of two evils, refining the selection process again and again until you find something good. Except you never will; there’s a sameness beyond magnitude. This is where the evil comes from: quantification, ethics as a series of numbers, human life as a data-point. The least bad option, which represents the systematisation of evil, is always worse than the worst.

Bernie Sanders lost, and he was supposed to replace this logic: you didn’t have to vote for the lesser of two evils, you could vote for the good. When someone makes that claim it’s important to evaluate it properly, and for those of us who still call ourselves communists and socialists it was always clear that he wasn’t really on our side. After all, he had efficiently managed a decent-sized town under capitalism. He was never a serious anti-imperialist or internationalist, happy to vote for bombs and occasionally implying that American workers were being cheated by greedy Vietnamese sweatshop labourers; his analysis was not a real class analysis, slumping over the lazy shorthand of big banks and the 1%; his vaunted democratic socialism was only social democracy, not phase one in the sliding scale of communism but a distinct ideology, a postwar class compromise designed to ward off the real thing, and discarded by capital when it was no longer necessary. Bernie Sanders was also a compromise candidate, the lesser of two evils, but a very diminished evil, a tiny evil whose domed sand-speck of a forehead might sparkle in the palm of your hand. And there were plenty of reasons to support him, even if only in that ropey old Leninist sense. For the calmer, milder, saner types among us, his candidacy might pull the Democratic party gently to the left, letting them know that there was a voter base out there for more progressive politics. The semi-official line at Jacobin magazine was that a few Sanders successes would help to distigmatise the name ‘socialism,’ to get more people interested in radical ideas, so they might go further than he could. More then anything, when there’s a vaguely decent man fighting a monster like Hillary Clinton, you support him, however passively, whatever it means to do so, in the full knowledge that he’ll never win, with the solidarity of the doomed.

But then he did something unexpected: he started to win, he started to surge in the polls, he started to look like someone who might actually do what he was pretending to be doing. The terror from media liberals, the paranoiac’s pervert-train of cloistered idiots, was thick: witless vultures, flapping and colliding, people who really thought that accusing Bernie’s supporters of being rude on Twitter would make normal non-psychotic voters switch to Clinton. Whatever stopped his rise, it wasn’t that; I’ll leave it to the numbers-sadists to work out what it was. The point is that as soon as President Bernie Sanders became an actual possibility, it became meaningless: building that idol towered over any other goal. Forming a government is not seizing the state; and we don’t want the state because that’s where power lives, but so we can use it as a crowbar for its real nexuses. Say Bernie really was a good anti-imperialist – why would you want him to become Commander in Chief? Say he really was a good anti-capitalist – why put him in charge of a capitalist economy? Stuff a pacifist in the warhead of a ballistic missile, so they can stop the violence. Take a good person and dunk them in a vat of boiling acid, so they can reform the acid from within.

Fielding candidates can be useful for radical movements, but you won’t build socialism out of ballot boxes. The vote and its deployment of passive helpless majorities is another piece of arithmetical logic, the quantification of humanity, structurally inimical to the good. Having the lesser evil in office can ameliorate some ills, but it can’t do it alone. Where good things have happened, it’s always through mechanisms other than the vote – including the extension of the vote itself to people who were denied it, in causes that would have lost if they’d been put to a referendum. As Badiou asks, why would number have any political virtue? As the Bolsheviks knew, a true majority has nothing to do with a mere headcount. Bernie Sanders losing the popular vote – and he did lose it, more narrowly than we might have expected, more crushingly than we might have hoped – has abandoned us powerless to the monsters, but him winning would have done the same: on the terrain of the vote we’re always powerless, able to lift a pencil, barely, but that’s all. Our strength lies elsewhere, in the places where politics actually takes place. This isn’t a call to the stupid ceremonies and grimly coerced cheerfulness of political voluntarism; this isn’t to pretend that we’re not all deeply fucked. For now, we can’t stop them. Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump will be the next President of the United States, which is bad enough; what’s worse is that the President of the United States has always been the President of the United States. I won’t tell you how to vote (I’ll just hint) because that’s not the point. Vote for Clinton to stop Trump; save the eight million, nobody will blame you. But the task isn’t to stop this or that person from becoming President, but to find the President itself, that lifeless shambling thing with so many bodies, and put something pointy through its heart.

In defence of personal attacks

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The left does not have a great literary tradition. The really titanic writers and novelists of the twentieth century tended either towards a kind of weary nihilism – Beckett, Kafka, even Joyce – or the outright fascism of a Céline, a Mishima, a Borges, or a Lawrence. Within the Soviet Union, novelists tended toward mild reaction, and Stalin had to intervene to save his favourites. ‘Leave that holy fool alone,’ he said of Pasternak. ‘It’s not good calling literature right and left. These are Party words,’ was his judgement on Bulgakov. This position, that great art transcends politics, is itself political, a reactionary one, but literature makes us reactionaries. Something about socialism as it’s often practised, perhaps the insistent optimism in the face of suffering, doesn’t lend itself well to the novel as form. There’s a famous story about Engels: after Marx’s death, he was regularly approached by young socialist writers who wanted him to read their manuscripts, and these were almost invariably terrible. Didactic little stories about brave, noble, heroic workers who banded together and triumphed over their bad evil bosses. Engels would tell these writers to go away and read some Balzac. And Balzac was a monarchist. This doesn’t mean that progressive politics can’t be reconciled with the written word; we just have our own forms. Communists write engaging history, anthropology, and literary theory; we’re good at hybrid, inventive, or indeterminate forms, in particular the essay; we have good poets. But more than anything we know who the enemy is and we’re not afraid to exercise moral judgement, and so we write excellent, vicious, brutal political invective.

Lately, the value of personal unpleasantness has been the subject of some debate, if you can call it that, which I’ll get to in a moment. But first I feel I ought to defend my own practice. I’ve previously used this space to be really very mean about quite a few important people – Slavoj Žižek, the corpse of Margaret Thatcher, Richard Dawkins, Nigel Farage, the Royal family, Alain de Botton, Tony Blair, Abraham Foxman, Stephen Fry, the cereal café twins, Chris Kyle, Slavoj Žižek again, Howard Jacobson, Slavoj Žižek a third time, Howard Jacobson a second time, Slavoj Žižek a fourth time, Bill Kristol, Neil deGrasse Tyson, Nate Silver, and Nick Cohen. These critiques are often hyperbolic: I don’t just disagree with someone’s ideas, but make unpleasant comments about the way they look or talk, I place them in gruesome sexual scenarios, I indulge in strange fantasies in which they get kidnapped and beaten to a pulp, are humiliated on live TV, expose themselves from a medieval tower, develop a psychotic fear of frogs, or sneak into people’s homes to commit strange acts of voyeurism. Some of these comments are potentially libellous (sue me, you fuckers!), all of them are frankly gratuitous and unnecessary. In fact, this is an occasional response I receive – my point, when I bother to make one, is marred by the vitriol of the personal insults; it’s unfair and unbecoming; when I insult someone’s person it can look as if I’m not competent to grapple with their ideas. So why do it?

I want to mount a defence of exactly this kind of crude, cruel, spiteful rhetoric, and it’s helpful to start by looking at its opposite. An excellent example is provided by Neil Postman’s 1985 book Amusing Ourselves to Death, one of the great broadsides against the dumbing-down of America, the reduction of great and noble ideas-based debates to crass bickering. Television, writes Postman, has become to dominant form for communicating ideas, to which all other forms are subservient (one could say the same of the internet today); it has supplanted the written word, and the results have been disastrous. Writing forces people to think an argument through linearly, to concentrate on pages of fairly unattractive squiggles for hours on end in silence and contemplation, to engage with concept that do not necessarily have any immediate visual referent; with television, meanwhile, you just sit in front of the box and let the images wash through your brain. In the first section, Postman describes the highly literate society of the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, when ordinary people would actually read books, when ideas circulated freely, when most people wouldn’t recognise the US President if they saw him on the street, because great figures were seen primarily as a collection of texts, to be evaluated by the dispassionate critical intelligence. This was the Age of Reason, and it was great. Later, he describes an attempt by television to display some serious and rational enquiry to its viewers: an eighty-minute discussion programme broadcast by ABC in 1983, with a panel of respected experts, all titans in their field, and men that Postman clearly admires. But because this discussion was broadcast on TV, it was impossible to represent the serious intelligence of its guests; instead of thinking, with all the uncertainty that implies, they were forced to make rambling little commentaries: ‘what the ABC network gave us was a picture of men of sophisticated verbal skills and political understanding being brought to heel by a medium that requires them to fashion performances rather than ideas.’

There are two things to note here. First, Postman is victim to a fetishism of the book as a physical object; second, to a fetishism of the Idea as such. He talks about reading a lot, but very rarely about writing: the text is passively received, evaluated but never responded to. For the great mass of people the written word is an ennobling force that comes from the outside, and they are to gladly lap it up. As any good Derridean knows, this is nonsense; the act of inscription is all but universal, especially within what Postman calls pre-literate societies. And he misses a fairly important question – what did these great ennobling books actually say? Even now, there are people who try to build their identity on the fact that they really love reading – they’re such a nerd haha, they don’t go out drinking at night, they’d far rather curl up with a good book. What books? Oh, all books are great; Mein Kampf, the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, the latest from Michael Deacon; I just love books. What were people reading in Postman’s great Age of Reason? From the way he writes, you’d think they were all reading John Locke, Thomas Paine, and the Bible. Except this was also the era of brutal imperialism and the beginnings of scientific racism; the South was full of slaves, and the slaveowners were frequently publishing apologia for their monstrosities – which, it has to be said, were expressed in complex sentences designed to appeal to the faculty of reason. Similarly in the present day. Postman is full of respect for the panellists on that ABC show, because they are men of ideas, but while he writes paeans to the act of evaluation inherent in the written word, he doesn’t seem to exercise it himself. That discussion was broadcast after the film The Day After, about nuclear war, and the panel was an interesting bunch. One of its members was Ellie Weisel, the professional whitewasher of Israeli ethnic cleansing. Another was white supremacist William F Buckley. A third was the celebrity war criminal Henry Kissinger. Postman is most effusive in his praise for Kissinger – a ‘paradigm of intellectual sobriety,’ who would make ‘viewers feel sorry he was no longer their Secretary of State by reminding everyone of books he had once written, proposals he had once made, and negotiations he had once conducted.’ And in a way, Postman is right. Kissinger is deeply serious. But he’s a deeply serious monster.

The world we live in is not populated by ideas, it’s populated by people, and people die – millions of them, constantly, for no good reason other than the avarice and cruelty of other people. This is a central Marxist insight: ideas do not exist in their own glittering sphere; they emerge from concrete relations of production and power. Henry Kissinger is not a collection of texts and concepts, but a profoundly evil man. It’s important to rebut his ideas, because they are dangerous. But if you also attack him in the face – or, preferably, in his dick and balls – it’s harder for these ideas to escape into their weightless world where any concept is as good as any other. Kissinger as a set of abstract notions is incommensurable with anything in material reality; a sad, naked, doughy Kissinger with a pale and shrivelled penis is a human body, far harder to divorce from the millions of human bodies he destroyed in south-east Asia. Gratuitous personal insults are essential. A grotesque satirical fantasy, Kissinger cranking off in a Phnom Penh hotel room to napalm videos, whatever, belongs to reality; the vision of him as a big fleshy book does not.

Debate club rules are not universally applicable. When people demand that discourse only take place on the level of ideas, rather than ugly reality, it’s often because there is something in reality that they’d rather not face. The people who really object on principle to being mocked or insulted, the ones who decry it as violence, tend to be far less critical of actual, physical, deadly violence. Blood is fine. Dick jokes are not.

All this is written in response to the fallout from what should have been a fairly inconsequential internet spat, in which the leftist blogger Matt Bruenig referred to the liberal thinktankie Neera Tanden as a ‘scumbag.’ Incredibly, this somehow ended in Bruenig losing his job. Friends and comrades have already written excellent essays on this incident and the issues surrounding it; in particular Gavin Mueller’s materialist critique of media stratification, Roqayah Chamseddine’s urgent analysis of the weaponisation of feminism for bourgeois ends, and Amber A’Lee Frost’s prophetic call, published shortly before all this nonsense broke out, for a return to eighteenth-century political vulgarity. (Neil Postman, incidentally, has surprisingly little to say about de Sade.) I’ll try to avoid repeating too much of these very perceptive analyses, but I will add a few things. Firstly, there’s a strange consensus among media liberals that discussion on the internet is marked by an unacceptable incivility. Protected by anonymity and distance, the id bursts up through an encrusted ego, and the fury of distant savage millennia leaks out through keyboard to screen. Here it’s worth looking at where civility actually comes from. Enforced codes of conduct were first established to guard against the very real threat of murderous violence. If two people meet and do not behave politely to each other, there’s a serious chance one of them may end up dead. This is why you shake with your right hand; it’s the same hand that holds the sword. Rudeness isn’t bad in and of itself, it’s the violence that’s bad. On the internet, this is very rarely an issue; we’ve been liberated from the circumstances that demand politeness, and there’s no good reason not to be rude. But the protection it provides isn’t universal. The people Bruenig annoyed were powerful – Tanden, for instance, is likely to be Hillary Clinton’s chief of staff – and so they had the means to deprive him of his job. But they defend causing him material harm by reference to a principle of civility – means become ends, their actions are justified by a code designed precisely to prevent this from happening.

Secondly, what unites the liberals attempting to demonise Bruenig – Sady Doyle, Joshua Foust, Jordan Kay, and others you’re probably very lucky to have never heard of – is their total uselessness at good, vicious political invective. It’s just not their natural terrain. They like to condemn groups and caricatures, slinging their mud out a bucket from on high, where they never get dirty themselves; they’re entirely incapable of getting a decent playground insult to land on any one individual. The only other option, besides violence, is to whine ‘but you’re being meeaaan.’ These people are just clueless. Case in point is Doyle, who once wrote that ‘trying to parse Hillary Clinton without also parsing Hillary hate is like trying to drink water without touching the glass,’ apparently having never heard of the popular invention known as a ‘straw.’ Or, for that matter, Foust, who cheerleads for murderous despots, and fantasised about gunning down the childhood bullies he didn’t know how to respond to. In the end, it’s not the case that you make personal attacks because you don’t have the intellectual heft to engage with ideas. Far more often, you adopt a high-minded posture because you don’t have the rhetorical wit to make personal attacks.

 

Nick Cohen is in your house

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This is urgent, so I’ll get straight to the point. Nick Cohen is in your house. Yes, that Nick Cohen, the Orwell Prize-shortlisted writer, journalist and commentator, the author of five books, frequently published in the Observer and the Spectator, the one who looks like a kind of malignant egg, with his pervert’s dent of a top lip, his strange remnant of a haircut, and those eerily mild eyes, the faint twirling eyes of a man who likes more than anything to observe, to spectate: he is in your house. I don’t know exactly how he got in there. I can’t tell you exactly where he is. Nick Cohen might be hiding under your bed, rolling a carelessly drooped bit of fabric between his gleeful fingers. He might be in your closet, his breath hard and ecstatic through the slats as you unthinkingly undress in front of him. He might peek through cracks in the plaster, he might take photos while you sleep. You think you know your own home, but so does Nick Cohen, and there are a thousand places he might be, film camera in hand, watching you. He could be standing right behind you, pale bloated fingers hovering just above your shoulders. Don’t turn around. You won’t see him unless he wants you to see him. But you can speak to him if you want. Take out your mobile phone and call your home number. You’ll hear it ring, and then his voice. ‘I told you I was in your house,’ he’ll say. ‘I’m in your house right now. You need to listen to me. The regressive left poses a very real threat to free speech.’

Nick Cohen is a bad writer with terrible opinions, but there are teeming thousands of those; there’s something else about him that makes the man so creepy. His views are, broadly, those of the liberal commentariat in general, and arguing against them would just mean repeating the same lines, endlessly, until every newspaper columnist in the country has heard them. An utter waste of time. This is why you have to resort to personal attacks. ‘So you’ve got a problem with what I have to say?’ Nick Cohen asks. ‘You want to silence me?’ And it’s true, I don’t agree with what he says, but that’s not the problem: the problem is that he’s saying it while inside my house.

If you’ve seen the 1997 David Lynch film Lost Highway, you’ve met Nick Cohen before. He is the Mystery Man, the sinister deathly-white figure at the party who is, simultaneously, in your house. I’m not just saying that Nick Cohen looks absolutely identical to him – although he really does; they have the same bulbously terrifying face, with its deep-set eyes and its obscene red gash of a mouth – but that they are, quite literally, the same thing. (A brief detour. Lynch scholarship is still very much dominated by Slavoj Žižek, and under this Lacanian rubric his films are held to be all about dreams, the play between fantasy and reality; the point, as Žižek puts it, is ‘to discern in [the film] the part of (symbolic) reality and the part of fantasy hallucination.’ Less scholarly critics are also fond of this line – describe a film as ‘dreamlike,’ and you’re suddenly under no obligation to make any sense of it whatsoever. This is nonsense. A film is fantasy throughout, there’s no point in trying to identify which part of it contains the ‘real’ narrative and which does not; it’s as stupid as trying to work out whether Tony Soprano dies at the end, as if he were ever alive. Lynch’s films aren’t about dreams, they’re about media, infinite layers of image and representation. The camera in the Mystery Man’s hand, the tape mailed to your house, the video you watch from your seat until you find yourself, suddenly, within it. Reducing the Lynchian vertigo to oneirocriticism is actually deeply boring. Dreams are just a rearrangement of reality, but if you fold the process of representation you get mise en abyme, the image emerging from the void.) The Mystery Man tells you that he is in your house, and that you invited him in, even though you’re repulsed by him, even though you don’t want him there. Later, he shoves his camera in your face. ‘And your name,’ he barks. ‘What the fuck is your name?’

Nick Cohen is in the political left. It’s not that he’s part of it, exactly; he doesn’t fight in the left’s struggles, he doesn’t seem to care about leftist causes, but he’s there, within, watching. This has been, for some years now, his journalistic gimmick. He’s on the left, yes, but he’s also possibly the last journalist in Britain to still defend the 2003 attack on Iraq, he endlessly whinges about student no-platforming of fascists or the censure of Charlie Hebdo‘s state-sponsored racism as a threat to freedom of speech, and he’s never met a socialist government or a popular resistance movement that he didn’t loathe. But because he’s on the left, his global hostility to actual socialism must therefore be an authentic leftist position. A strange, greasy three-stage manoeuvre: first he’s in the left, then he is the left, then you’re not. Nick Cohen’s favoured term for people who don’t think exactly like Nick Cohen is ‘pseudo-left’: people who oppose imperialist wars, for instance, or defend successful socialist revolutions – what the fuck is your name? This was the subject of an entire book, but it seems the theme hasn’t yet exhausted itself. In his most recent article, an utterly bizarre outburst, politically useless but the kind of parapraxical emission that’s always been of interest to psychoanalysis, he writes that Westerners who have solidarity with the progressive government in Venezuela are exactly like sex tourists. During the Labour leadership contest, he dismissed support for the socialist Jeremy Corbyn as a kind of ‘identity leftism’ on the part of the narcissistic youth, people who just want to see their opinions reflected in someone else – a strange critique, coming from a man whose only real connection to the left is that he identifies himself as being within it. But there he is. Nick Cohen is in your left. As a matter of fact, he’s there right now.

Nick Cohen is a Jew. He’s not halachically Jewish – one paternal grandfather, enough to claim Israeli citizenship, not enough to help make up a minyan – and neither is he in any sense culturally Jewish. It’s not only that he never spun a dreidel or had to ask why his penis looked different to all the other boys’; as anyone who’s read his columns will know, he has no connection at all to the great Jewish literary, comedic or radical traditions. But he has decided to be a Jew. In fact, he’s decided to do so not once but twice. He’s not actually converting, you understand; no siddur will pollute his atheist’s hands. He’s becoming a Jew first of all so that he can claim for himself a slice of Jewish oppression, so he can rub oily indignity all over his face – but also so he can have a peek at his newfound co-religionists, and he doesn’t like what he sees. In his most recent statement of conversion, he spares a few lines for those actual Jews who oppose the state of Israel, people like me. ‘Whenever I hear Jews announce their hatred of Israel’s very existence,’ he writes, ‘I suspect that underneath their loud bombast lies a quiet plea to the Islamists and neo-Nazis who might harm them: I’m not like the others. Don’t pick on me.’ If this invective was coming from someone who was not Jewish, it would be recognised for what it is: a collection of classically antisemitic tropes, the cringing Jew, the cowardly Jew, the conniving Jew, the Jew who will lie and grovel and dissimulate to protect himself and his miserly little pile of belongings. That would be unacceptable; surely nobody would publish him, not even the Spectator. But Nick Cohen is in your Judaism. As a matter of fact, he’s there right now.

Nick Cohen is in your house. You might not think you want him there, but you invited him in. It is not his custom to go where he is not wanted. And it’s been a pleasure for him to talk to you.

How do you eat the world’s biggest pizza?

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The other day, the city of Naples in Italy built the world’s longest pizza: two kilometres of classic margherita, snaking all along the famous waterfront like a sea wall, a last line of defence against floods or volcanoes. I say ‘built’ because a mile-long pizza is not really food in any meaningful sense; it’s a structure, a monument or memorial, something that belongs to the domain of architecture no less for being made out of dough and mozzarella rather than brick and mortar. Whatever this gargantuan pizza is, it’s not for dinner. In fact, it doesn’t at first appear to be ‘for’ anything, other than to be what it is, the longest pizza in the world. Hundreds of people were involved in its construction, it used two thousand kilograms of flour and two hundred litres of olive oil. But why?

Cultural theorists have some form with this type of thing, the close examination of some harmless little cultural quirk which always ends up forming a distillation of all the contradictions in the whole. (Although in this case it’s not really so little a cultural quirk; it’s a pizza that can be seen from space.) The general human tendency to build hyperbolically large versions of normal food poses some problems. Certainly it’s significant, and it can’t just be reduced to a gimmick or a bit of fun – if we found that an uncontacted Amazonian tribe was sporadically creating enormous versions of everyday foodstuffs, wouldn’t we want to think about why? All the grand forms of which anthropology is occasionally still fond seem to be replicated here, but at the same time it’s something entirely different. The enormous pizza is a vision of sheer plenitude and material bounty; we might think of the potlatch, symbolic feasts, ecstatic animal sacrifice. Its edible architectonics recall folk utopias, places from the Land of Cockaigne to the Big Rock Candy Mountain that in popular fantasies have always featured a landscape you can eat: houses made of pies, creeks fizzing with clear lemonade, the Edenic possibility of a world plastic and responsive to human desires. These fantasies aren’t simply a stylised negation of actually existing deprivation: they model a schema in which desire is unstructured by lack and life is untouched by death. The world wants to be eaten, and to eat it does not diminish it. Things do not die. The human mouth is not a locust’s, we are not a plague, we do not devastate – we produce. The fantasy of endless food is primarily an anal fantasy, an overcoming of the contradictions between mouth and anus, so that vital and edible flows predominate over their stoppages, darting happily through the alimentary canal. (In one version of the Cockaigne legend, you shit honey.) With such plenty, and with humanity arranged as a seamless field of mouths and anuses, the feast is by nature communal; in the Big Rock Candy Mountain you never have to ask before taking a chip off someone else’s plate.

This is not the world in which we live; we live in the dead world, the restricted economy, where houses are made of bricks. But shades of the living world seep through: the ecstatic sacrifice, the Feast of the Communion, and pizza. Pizza is a utopian food, the pie of communism: the egalitarian circle is to be shared, everyone grabs a slice. Unlike other sharing foods (barbecue, canapés, the sandwich platter) it forms a divisible whole to match the social totality, rather than a finite number of self-contained items to be doled out by some social-democratic bureaucrat. (The calzone, meanwhile, folded in on itself, marks the onset of fascist ressentiment.) The world’s biggest pizza, then, ought to be a miraculous social gift, a moment of joy and wonder for everyone. But in fact it’s nothing of the sort. The world’s longest pizza is stretched out for public view, but it is to be engaged with strictly on the domain of the visible. It’s a spectacle. All along its splendid length the pizza is guarded by rails and fences: you are to marvel at it, to conceive of it in terms of quantifiable size rather than infinite plenty, and on no account are you allowed to grab some cutlery and tuck in. The paradoxical prohibition voiced by authority for sixty centuries: this pizza is not for you.

It is still to be eaten, cut up and donated to the needy and the hungry of Naples, in what is an undeniably altruistic gesture, if a strange one – here, have this pizza, it’s been sitting around outside by the seafront all day, where the birds can shit on it. Still, nobody could deny that the poor are more deserving of the big pizza than anyone who happens to walk past it. But there’s something significant here – the way plenty is immediately put into association with lack, the way that under capitalist conditions of deprivation the world’s longest pizza forms an intolerable excess. When material plenitude does not actually exist, really big food signifies an increase in desolation. (This is, incidentally, a dialectic thoroughly explored in the film Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs.) The huge pizza isn’t the living body of the Sacrament, but a sepulchre. See how ‘the world’s longest’ overdetermines ‘pizza’: food reduced to acreage is dead food. A corpse of a pizza, lying in state for the mourners to wail over; a cheese and tomato tombstone.

In fact, funeral rites are always the law of very big food, and its production can never be disentangled from warfare and hatred. Milan built a big pizza, so Naples built a bigger one; the wars of Italian unification only found a new battleground. For decades now, Israel and Lebanon have been competitively creating the world’s biggest bowl of houmous – and houmous is, like pizza, a utopian food, served in a holy circle, dipped in with whatever scrap of bread you have to hand. The Israeli Air Force bombs Beirut from the sky; Lebanon retaliates with an enormous bowl of chickpea dip. These occasions are solemn and dignified; it’s a question of national pride against an oppressive neighbour. Often the big houmous is paraded through the streets in a ritual that mirrors almost exactly the Islamic funeral procession: held up up by its pallbearers, the chefs in their uniforms mimicking the white dress of pious mourners. The giant bowl of houmous is the image of something that died.

But what is it? Giorgio Agamben quotes the twentieth-century classicist Elias Bickermann on the funeral of Antonius Pius in 161: ‘Iustitium (public mourning) begins only after the burial of the bones, and the state funeral procession starts up once the remains of the corpse lie already in the ground! And this funus publicum, as we learn from Dio’s and Herodian’s reports, concerns the wax effigy made after the image of the deceased sovereign […] All these accounts leave no doubt: the wax effigy, which is “in all things similar” to the dead man, and which lies on the official bed wearing the dead man’s clothes, is the emperor himself.’ The king has, famously, two bodies, the body natural and the body politic: when the body natural dies it is only the corpse of a man named Antonius, and the public need not be concerned, while the wax image is the emperor as such, his body politic, this is the thing whose passing we must mourn. And it must be mourned properly: as Derrida writes, ‘the work of mourning […] has to make sure that the dead will not come back: quick, do whatever is needed to keep the cadaver localised, in a safe place, decomposing right where it was inhumed.’ The symbolic funeral is a guard against spectres, a fence separating the living from the dead. But times have changed in Italy: the imperial colossus is now a record-breaking pizza. This pizza is not in the image of some dead potentate; its function is political in a far broader sense. The giant pizza is in the image of plenty, the image of the commons, the image of the living world. It’s a funeral for the possibility of a better life; a conjuration against hope. The land of plenty is gone, but we remain. Here, on the dead earth, under the dead sky, surrounded by the dead pizza. Raise your eyes, let the glow above fester and bring out those rotting tears. We did it. The world’s biggest pizza. The biggest pizza in the whole damn world.

On the stupidity of Nate Silver

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If there’s a dominant experience of the twenty-first century, it’s that of living in a world that does not make sense. Life is stupid. Not stupid in the same way that a person might be stupid, in the sense of an incomplete grasp of the facts and a throttled slowness in processing those that it has, but a slick, dizzy, reckless, triumphant, positive stupidity, a stupidity that happily assimilates to itself all forms of intelligence. Sexual relationships are stupid; any form can only dissolve, monogamy, polygamy, celibacy, all teeming in panic against our inability to cope with other people or ourselves, charging like flies against a windowpane. Work is stupid; pointless drudgery that no longer pretends to have anything more in common with actual productive labour than ritual animal sacrifice, so that there’s nobody who won’t freely admit that they’ve wasted their life, so that the cherished tradition of killing time in the office had to be introduced as a new form of labour discipline. Democratic politics are stupid, not so much a reality TV show as a glorified version of the policeman’s identity parade, but in reverse time: the mass of voters identify the perp, and then he gets to go and commit his crimes. The international order is stupid, drugs law is stupid, global warming is stupid, mass media is stupid, going to the beach is stupid, the Sun and the Moon are stupid, staying at home is stupid, the tiny furrowed creatures that burrow between immense grains of earth are stupid. The world is ending! How did we end up here? Somewhere along the road, centuries ago, millennia ago, we took a very wrong turn. Hegel might have described a parallel reality where it never happened, but here, every new stage of history is a further progression in the dialectic of the original Mistake.

A stupid world can still make sense; what faces us now is the collapse of all its explanatory and predictive mechanisms. The gods, who had a plan, can no longer account for a world without one; nor can divination, or the natural sciences, or hermeneutics, or Marxism. It’s not that these procedures can’t be accurate – Marxism, in particular, might still be the only thing that can help us, retaining as it does the worthwhile kernels of all previous forms – but each of them serves to change the world as it is described, so that the dispassionate, bodiless observing eye becomes another component in the machinery, impaled on its axle, squelching and wobbling along with every other greasy cog. The gods were supposed to let us know what was good and just; instead they fucked us in the form of a swan, and in the war that started no ceasefire has ever lasted long. The natural sciences were supposed to flood the dark corners of the universe with reason; instead they choked the air with smog. Stupidity triumphant isn’t defeated by its opposite. It crawls the world on slug-trails, searching for cleverness to eat. Look at the US election: with every stupid lie Donald Trump speaks a thousand liberals jump up like snakes from a can to explain exactly why he’s wrong, as if they don’t realise that being wrong is in no sense a fault.

This is, I think, where my good friend Tom Whyman is wrong about Nate Silver. The American psephologist was a brief celebrity after the 2008 presidential election, when he correctly predicted the outcome in all but one of the fifty states; he promised a new way of approaching political events, based not on loyalty, prejudice, gut instinct, stereotyping, or partisan attempts to change the outcome by predicting it, but cold, objective numbers. No wonder he became a liberal hero – in whatever small way, he took an unpredictable world that did not make sense, and found a pattern. Silver did what nobody else had thought to do: he looked at the polls, measured them against each other, and formed a set of statistical probabilities. Ignoring any analysis of political moods or economic circumstances, he decided that the most likely predictor for how people would vote was who they said they were going to vote for. This is why Whyman refers to him as a ‘cold demon of knowledge’: the people and politicians who actually impact reality are idiots, but Silver, content to merely describe it, ‘the judge only of bland truisms that would and continue to exist anyway, seems god-like.’ Whyman is Hegelian here: the aggregated understanding of all existing active stupidity becomes a passive intelligence; there’s a conversion of quantity into quality. But stuck between these two poles – transformative stupidity, descriptive knowledge – he demands another: a transformative knowledge, the power to make discernments about the world and then ‘say, not merely: “it is thus and so” but also, “and it should be thus.”’

The fourth pole, descriptive stupidity, slips out of his discourse. It’s not quite the same thing as being simply wrong, although wrongness might be involved; in a fundamentally very stupid world, the concept that is in accordance with the present state of things will inevitably be a stupid one, while transformative knowledge gains its character precisely through its non-heterogeneity with things as they are, its capacity to imagine a better world as yet unrealised. On the level of the descriptive, knowledge and stupidity are therefore indistinguishable. (Let’s not forget that psephology contains its shadow twin, psephomancy. The ψῆφος is the pebble used as a ballot in Hellenic democracies; psephomancers would study the material patterns on pebbles or those made when they were thrown to gain knowledge of future events. The bloodless logic of data-driven election forecasters like Nate Silver only inverts the mysticism of the latter. Reading the prose of the world, you predict where the pebbles will fall; but the pattern itself is without signifying properties, meaningless, stupid.) But, as outlined above, the descriptive and the transformative can not so easily be distinguished. Under current conditions all poles are only attributes; the active and the passive, knowledge and ignorance, are just epiphenomena of a general stupidity. The cold demon doesn’t float above the earth but leaves icicles hanging in its wake. The forms of electoral practice have, since 2008, become entirely about numbers, number-forecasting, number-wrangling, polls and delegates, an idol in the demon’s likeness. But the content has become very different; Donald Trump is entirely unpredictable, a stupidity that cannot possibly be aggregated into knowledge. Since his candidacy was announced just about every American pundit has assured us that it’s doomed, that he’s a flash in the pan, that he will never take his party’s nomination. But they were wrong. And Nate Silver was wrong with them.

This election, there’s a new psephological hero, the most accurate pundit in the media: Carl ‘the Dig‘ Diggler. He correctly called Indiana for Bernie Sanders, while Silver was still giving a 90% chance for a Clinton victory; he predicted the results of the Iowa caucus, down to the exact order of candidates on both parties; he predicted every single one of the Super Tuesday primaries, while Silver only hazarded guesses at eight. Even when Diggler first appeared to have been wrong – predicting a Sanders win in Nevada, for instance – subsequent, seemingly random events retroactively changed the outcome in his favour. And he achieved this, not using polls or data, but with gut, personal instinct, conventional wisdom, race science, and stereotype (‘Cruz does exceptionally well in Midwestern states where Christian folks vote knowing the next Commander-in-Chief will preside over the Second Coming and End Times’) – all the things that Silver’s cold, inhuman intelligence was supposed to have done away with. And while Silver has repeatedly been challenged to account for his failures, in his cowardice he’s never responded.

This is, of course, because Diggler is not a real person, but a parody of the pundit classes created by Virgil Texas and Felix Biederman. Diggler is a hyperbolic sadsack, who spends about as much time complaining about his ex-wife and filing lawsuits against Tinder as he does making political judgements. His creators do look at the polls, but they balance out their predictions with other, non-numerical knowledge: the atmosphere at political rallies, who’s being talked about on TV, the actual personalities of the candidates and the people voting for them, things that can’t be reduced to data points. It would be possible to account for Diggler’s extraordinary predictive success, and everyone else’s failure, in this manner: the pundits are all very stupid, while Texas and Biederman are not. But something else is happening. If you see them talking about Carl in person, you notice something strange: they talk about him like new parents talking about their child; they talk about him as if he actually exists. He does actually exist. Carl Diggler is real – more real than Nate Silver or (say) Thomas Friedman, more real even than the people who invented him and who write his words. He’s not a fictional character, he’s a cuckoo; he’ll consume them with total indifference. Those predictions are all his own. Was wirklich ist, das ist vernünftig – but here the rational is never fully dissociable from its colloidal stupidity, and the real is a stunted reality that is never entirely actual. Carl Diggler is real because his stupidity is of a piece with the stupidity around him, because his virtuality is not a separate frame to everyday existence but constitutive of it. His parodic interpretations all come true, because as everyone is aware, the world is parodic and lacks an interpretation.

Meet the family

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The government budget is like a household budget. We need to live within our means. We can’t spend money we don’t have. We have to balance the books. Yes, it will be tough. Yes, a lot of people will lose the lifelines they depend on. But the government budget is like a household budget. We need to live within our means.

All this makes an intuitive kind of sense – money is money, no matter how much of it you have – which might be why governments across the world are so keen to repeat it to anyone who’ll listen. But just who is this household? Who are this family? We’re supposed to imagine the same kind of family that holds close to family values and enjoys family entertainment: a dual-income, high-earning, hard-working family with two impish but adorable children and a lightly sketched backdrop of uncles and godparents. Tammy’s finger-paintings are on the fridge, George knows absolutely everything about dinosaurs. These are fundamentally decent people, who through no real fault of their own have ended up getting themselves into a bit of financial bother, and will have to make some sad but unavoidable cutbacks. Caravans in France now, not river boats up the Mekong; good honest cheddar instead of chaource, a DVD boxset instead of a patio extension. They might be in a lot of debt, but the interest is always paid in full; their credit rating hardly dips. These aren’t people who will ever have to choose between food and heating on a week-by-week basis. These aren’t delinquents. They’re model citizens, and like all models their faces are frozen stiff. Mum likes Scandinavian detective dramas, and Dad tolerates them well enough after a nice glass of Chablis. They don’t blink. They don’t breathe.

The government budget is like a family budget: this looks like a literary simile, but it’s not. A literary simile works because it brings together two things that are fundamentally very different; you get a sense for the specificity of the object by its comparison to something of a different type. Eyes like fire are not really going to give you third-degree burns, legs like tree-trunks tend not to be covered in moss or have weevils scurrying under the bark. Nobody would usually bother to write that something is like itself. The family-government simile is far stranger, far more medieval: its principle is consistency, a variant on the Great Chain of Being, rooted in the idea that a similitude between two things indicates that on some level these things are fundamentally the same. In the end, it’s mystical and vaguely Hermetic: as above, so below; the state mirrored in the family, the family in the state. An idea of some antiquity: remember all those jurists who held that as the first paterfamilias, the Biblical Adam was also the first king; remember how often the sovereign has been described as the father of his people. Which is not to say that any of this isn’t true. But if the government budget is like a family budget, what are this family really like?

Let’s meet the family.

To begin with, forget about any friendly twenty-first century cosiness; status-symbol Agas, pictures pinned to the Smeg. Unlike most families, these people hardly know each other. Unlike most families, this one is incredibly old. It can trace its ancestry back for centuries, tens of centuries, and over the years its children have done many very notable things, almost all of them involving a great deal of death. The house has been in the family for generations. It sits alone on a low but perilous crag, surrounded by endless miles of thin, fallow, shivering heath. The grass and the nettles have been chopped piebald by various half-hearted attempts at gardening; here and there stand a few miserable clumps of trees, too old to give fruit, but still not exhausted enough to topple over for the mushrooms. There are no National Trust tours; the place is an eyesore. Every generation builds some hideous new wing in whatever style is currently fashionable, but it only takes a few years to fill up with must and crud. A thousand years of useless heirlooms washes slowly from one end of the building to the other. Gunk-scrubbed medals from forgotten wars, oil paintings turned fully abstract by the cracking lacquer, ornamental silver pisspots; a place must be found for everything, and family life goes on in the tiny gaps between all this accumulated stuff. The door creaks as you enter; of course it does. It’s dark inside. The air stinks. Rat droppings, rat poison, and rot. Welcome home. You’ve lived here all your life.

Here are your monsters. The father is – there’s no way to put it kindly – a brutish and violent thug. Most of the time he turns his inexpertly focused anger on his two younger children, roaring his horror at their ingratitude with small, creamy specks of outraged snot dripping from the edge of his moustache. He’ll pick up some piece of household crap – a toilet-plunger, a priceless vase – and fling it squarely at the centre of their torsos: look at what we had, look at what we built, don’t you have any respect for anything? Blood has been spilled, in glugs and drabs; little sprays of it brown around the edges and melt slowly into the general grime of the wallpaper. Sometimes he’ll lock them in a cupboard, or one of the dozens of chilly garrets – not without their dinner; he always remembers to feed his children, even when he keeps them chained up for months on end, it’s a point of pride. The kids are skinny and sooted but never starving. In fact, he’s utterly convinced of the justice of everything he does; he knows that if everyone would just listen to him and do as he tells them then none of this would be necessary. It’s an attitude he carries into his relations with the ordinary folk of the nearby village: every so often he’ll drive his car screaming to the local supermarket, and start brutally beating anyone he encounters with his antique cane. It’s for their own good, he’ll explain. And to be fair, while dozens of people have head their bones broken and their heads caved in, nobody ever calls the police.

With his wife, whom he despises, the anger takes a different form. He’s never once raised a hand to her; instead he rummages through her jewellery box, pulling out one string of lumps after another: do you really need this? Or this? Useless, vanity, trash. Shining arcs of gold and gemstones are lobbed unceremoniously out the window or fed into the waste disposal unit. Next it’s her clothes, slashed with his penknife or ripped apart by his bare hands; she wanders the grounds in silk and satin rags. Sometimes she’ll spend hours assembling a meal from the Jamie Oliver website (she was never a natural chef) only for her husband to stride in and tip it directly into the bin. She is, as far as he’s concerned, a sentimentalist, a wastrel, and a drunk, utterly unfit for motherhood. I gave you three fine young sons, he screams at her, and you’ve ruined them. This is at such a pitch that the kids, whatever turret or dungeon they’re confined to, can’t help but hear. She looks up, briefly, woozily. They’re lovely boys, she says. Lovely boys. And it’s true that she indulges them, endlessly offering new toys, desperate kisses, sips from whatever bottle is being attacked that afternoon, hundreds of gold stars, but it’s not like she really loves them; these are gifts given to replace the love she doesn’t feel, and always half in fear of what her sons might do if they ever found out.

In fact, it’s clear that there’s very little love anywhere in this family. The gold-star system must have started as a fun game, years or decades ago, nobody really remembers: completing some household chore would get you one gold sticker, and in a house so vast and ugly there are always plenty of chores. Somewhere over the years, it became something very different. Absolutely nothing will get done now without a few gold stars being placed next to someone’s name on the noticeboard. Making a cup of tea gets you one gold star, beating back the encroaching nettle-fields with a stick gets you two, shooting a rabbit or partridge for dinner will bring you five, and if husband and wife manage to successfully complete their joyless fuck of an evening they’ll both reward the other with a full ten. It’s cold and mercurial, but for a long time the system did seem to be working. The stars themselves were made by the eldest son, a frankly terrifying creature: round, placid, heartless, and very nearly thirty-five, he spent most of his days in his childhood bedroom with safety-scissors, coloured paper, and glue, making sure that whatever happened, he would always have more gold stars in reserve than anyone else. He’d give them out to his shivering siblings, usually in return for their putting on some painful or embarrassing display – running naked through the nettles, cleaning out his wax-clogged ear with their tongue. But not too many. Really it was the job of the parents to reward their children, which they did: the mother desperately, as if her life depended on it; the father grudgingly, and even then mostly just giving them back to his favoured first-born. The system worked.

Worked. The past tense is crucial. Eventually, the eldest brother somehow managed to stab himself in the eye with his safety-scissors; after that, none of the gold stars he made were fit for purpose. Gross, misshapen blobs, the points barely distinguishable, cheap triangles, things that no self-respecting person could ever accept. He’d keep on making them, not really knowing what else to do with his life, until the entire room was crammed floor to ceiling with shiny monstrosities, scattering in flurries at his frequent belches and his nocturnal snorts. Meanwhile, outside, crisis loomed. The family was giving away far too many gold stars to itself and not taking nearly enough of them in. Chores were going undone. It wasn’t just that family ties were beginning to fall apart, but the building itself, collapsing from its usual state of chaotic disrepair into a very real risk to everyone’s health. For a while there was an attempt to fix the situation by offering a massive gold-star subsidy to the eldest child, in the hopes that it’d induce him to return to his previous level of workmanship, but if anything this just made the problem worse, nearly wiping out the available supply. Something had to change, and for once the parents were in total agreement. There were enough gold stars for everyone; the problem was that they had too many children for them to go around. One wouldn’t be missed. The youngest: he was so scrawny, already it was like he wasn’t really there. And the estate was so vast, with so many places to bury an inconvenient corpse. You need to live within your means. You can’t spend money you don’t have. You’ve got to balance your books.

A review of ‘Batman v Superman,’ by a bat

The injustice which supposes all the others supposes that the other, the victim of the injustice of language, is capable of language in general, is man as a speaking animal. One would not speak of injustice or violence toward an animal, even less toward a vegetable or a stone.
Jacques Derrida, Force of Law: The Mystical Foundation of Authority

batman-v-superman

The new film Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice has received almost uniformly negative reviews, and it’s not hard to see why. The film isn’t just a bloated, stupid, self-important mess, a billion-dollar adaptation of a storyline first developed by a fairly dim child as he bashed his action figures together, performed by various off-cuts of pork in progressive stages of greening decay, and with camera work by one of the balls from Kafka’s Blumfeld. The concept itself is absurd, and it’s obvious as soon as the two title characters square off against each other in the big central fight sequence. This is supposed to be a grand fantastic spectacle, god against beast. What we actually get is ridiculous, an absurdity only heightened by its attempt at a dark, serious tone. In the rubble-strewn loft of some deserted Gotham warehouse, Superman bounds between the walls in his silly underwear, clutching a net in one hand, while a tiny Batman flutters above him with his red eyes and his fluttering leathery cape. This goes on for nearly an hour; every so often the two pause to trade vague homilies on the nature of jurisprudence. ‘I only want to help people,’ says Superman in grave and self-important tones. ‘Power derives from the consent of the governed.’ Batman replies. ‘Pieeeeeeeeeeeeps,’ he says, scrunching up his already densely-folded nose. There can be no communication. Even when the two team up against some boring ogre unleashed by a sarky mad scientist, things barely improve. Superman does all the legwork, while the Batman flaps off to gnaw at some half-rotten fruit and deposit small mounds of guano over the console of the Batmobile. Why does this film even exist? For money, of course; it’s clearly not for human enjoyment, its logic is entirely alien to human needs. So as a human I’m unable to really comprehend the thing; it requires a different perspective, one that first of all isn’t troubled by questions as stupid as how good or bad a film it is. What follows is a review of Batman v Superman, as given to me by a bat.

“I am a bat. I fly outside at night and eat small insects. I shiver through the night in my aching trails of wings. I feel the sky very close to my skin. I feel the moon very close to my skin. I eat the insects as they fly; I call to them in the night and they call out to me in turn so I can know where they are, buzzing frantic in the night. I crunch down on the hard shells of the insects and I feel their life jump out into my mouth, liquid and bitter. I do not pity them. During the day I hang from my claws in a dark place. The sun is painful to me. I do not have a name.

“I find it hard to enjoy cinema. I like the dark of the auditorium, but when I am hanging from its roof it is hard not to turn away from the glare of the screen, which I do not like. I am not blind, but my vision is poor; I can see only a bright square, too bright, on which unknown shapes drift slowly and without purpose, lapping and overlapping, like little eddies over the face of a fog-calmed sea. I do not like the noise in the cinema. It is too loud. It becomes hard for me to echolocate and I grow anxious. I scream and beat my pulsing little body against the ceiling. I flap and I cry for the open air, where I can feel the sky very close to my skin. In the auditorium I can not feel the emptiness of the sky close to my skin, I can not feel the cold breeze aching against the blood of my too-thin wings, I can not feel the dark distance which is not present to me but which I somehow know, and it makes me anxious. When I flap my wings in the auditorium the humans also scream and grow anxious. A bat, they scream, a bat. I do not know why they fear me. The insects that call out to me in the night do not fear me, even as I kill them. I can hear their hearts crashing in the huge cavities of their chests, I can hear the terror of these vast and ungainly beasts in the throb of blood through brute veins clogged with fatty deposits, I can hear the panic of a dying creature that does not know why it is dying. I do not pity them. All this makes it hard to concentrate on the plot of the movie, or to enjoy the action sequences. I fear the expensive CGI is wasted on me. I fear the clever references to the comic books are wasted on me. I fear Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice is wasted on me.

“But I have been asked to talk about the film, even though it was clearly not made with me in mind, even though I can not claim to know why it was made at all, and so I will. The film alludes to a dawn of justice. Does justice then have a beginning? I know that for Aristotle there is a justice before the law, a justice that consists in conformity with nature and with the gods. He quotes the Antigone of Sophocles, the sister who buries her brother in violation of Creon’s law, but in obedience to justice: ‘Not of today or yesterday it is, but lives eternal: none can date its birth.’ But I am not within justice. I fly through the night and eat small insects, and there is no justice. I do not atone for the death of the insects, and I do not pity them; there is no justice for them or for me. Among the pre-Socratics a sadder and lonelier view, one which I like, is given by Anaximander. If justice is natural, if justice means conformity with the natural world, how can there be injustice? Anaximander replies that all things originate from the apeiron or the Boundless, but that injustice consists in their springing forth from it, their differentiation into discrete phenomena. Justice comes in the return to indifference. ‘Whence things have their origin, thence also their destruction happens, as is the order of things; for they give to each other dike (justice) and recompense for their adikia (injustice), in conformity with the ordinance of Time.’ There will be justice for the insects I have killed; it will come when I am killed myself, when my wings are slashed by a cat and I return to the great dark night of the world.

“Justice is then nature, and animals and gods are not outside of justice; it is humans who are outside of justice, and it is for this reason that they must have the law. This is why the sovereign, the human who positions himself outside the juridical order in order to guarantee its functioning, is simultaneously god and beast, stepping into a zone of indistinction with the homo sacer his mirror; this is why while most humans can be said to be fair or unfair in their dealings with others, only the sovereign can be said to be just. Are Superman or Batman sovereign? These are the questions that the film raises, with its endless discussions of law and right – is Superman above the law, or must he appear before a Senate committee? Is Batman outside the law, or is he just a vigilante, a common criminal? As Walter Benjamin notes in his Critique of Violence, European (and, by extension, American) law prohibits individual violence not because it contravenes one or another law within a system – after all, individual laws are always contingent – but because it threatens the juridical order as such. Benjamin considers the fascination attached to the figure of the ‘great’ criminal: the sympathy for violence and its capacity to build a new law. But its treatment of these questions is thin and, despite the ponderous mood, unserious. There is always the threat that emerges from beyond the sphere of law, monsters or aliens, which legitimises the animals and gods, enclosing them as structural exceptions; this is why the film, like all superhero films, is fundamentally fascist. Batman and Superman are not interested in building a new law, or in abolishing the old one; they remain suspended in their vacuole, and effectively abandon the polis. See how carelessly they allow vast tracts of city to be destroyed. But humans, even sovereigns, cannot exist in this state of indifference to the law. Only two things can: animals and gods, who inhabit the realm of justice. (Contrast the Justice League with their Marvel equivalent, the Avengers; law-founding creatures of mythic violence. Divine violence is unrepresentable in a comic book adaptation.) In other words, the political use-value of Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice is precisely nil.

“One need not really say anything about this film; Derrida has already discussed it extensively in Force of Law. He must have seen it coming. Responding to the title, he writes that its ‘either/or, yes or no’ is ‘rather violent, polemical, inquisitorial. We may fear that it contains some instrument of torture.’ Responding to the pivotal scene in which it is revealed that the mothers of Batman and Superman share the same name, he touches on the ‘aleatory but significant coincidences of which proper names are necessarily the site.’ The relevance of his discussion of justice’s relation to animality should not need to be expanded upon. There is something else, though. Most of us are aware of Derrida’s insistence that deconstruction is justice, that justice is undeconstructible. We bats, at least, are endlessly chirruping about it. But if justice is the possibility of deconstruction, he adds, law is the possibility of the exercise of deconstruction. This resonates with some of his earlier discussion: law is the exercise of justice, and he notes the peculiar English idiom, to enforce the law. Can one speak of enforcing deconstruction? Later he refers to ‘two ways or two styles’ in which deconstruction can be practised: for all their grafting indeterminacy, a return to the torture-instrument of the either/or. A text deconstructs itself; to exercise deconstruction is to stand in the same relation to it as law does to justice. Humans, even sovereigns or criminals, cannot be deconstructionists. Only gods. Only animals.

“Can we teach you? In 1974, I was the subject of a paper by the philosopher of mind Thomas Nagel, What Is It Like To Be A Bat? Nagel argues against reductionist theories of consciousness: even if a bat could speak your language, even if a bat tried to describe in every detail what it’s like to experience the world through echolocation, something irreducible would remain; you will never be able to really hear the world as I hear it. Consciousness is the sense of being like yourself, something that others are incapable of grasping, and which does not admit objectivity. Even if you were to slowly metamorphose into a bat, fingers spindling, nostrils folding, ears pricking up from the side of your head, you would not understand. You will still be a human trapped inside a bat’s body. You will never feel the closeness of the moon at night. You will never understand the plunging of the sky at night. You will never understand how little I care about you.”

Finding how to lose

Grief fills the room up of my absent child,
Lies in his bed, walks up and down with me,
Puts on his pretty looks, repeats his words,
Remembers me of all his gracious parts,
Stuffs out his vacant garments with his form.
King John, Act 3, Scene 4

sad

I’m terrified of the EU referendum, not because of what might happen (because nothing will happen, nothing ever happens), but because of the way all this moral responsibility seems to be spiralling downwards onto me, a sword that hangs in expectation of my choice. And I don’t really know what to do. Both options are so utterly unpalatable: an indignant array of petty Poujadists in Union Jack waistcoats, arranged like souvenirs on some well-dusted shelf; the blank forces of international capital, their clanking machinery underground, their liquid streams of finance darting overhead. The union is monstrous; its opponents are monstrous too. It’s hard not to turn yourself into Hegel’s beautiful soul – the retreat of conscience from action into speech, the sense that everything surrounding us is evil, and the only thing one can do is avoid being muddied by it. The beautiful soul, Hegel writes, is the thing ‘whose light slowly fades, and who vanishes like a formless vapour disappearing into thin air.’ But this is Hegel: what fades always remains, preserved in its disappearance; the beautiful soul’s lonely death firms the ground for absolute knowledge. Start with the fairly obvious fact that voting doesn’t really matter, that one person’s voice is always lost in the democratic din. But you’re going to vote anyway. What negated things can we keep hold of in their negation? Why vote to win when you can fall silently into loss? I’ve decided what I’m going to do. I’ll follow the polls very carefully, and vote for whoever won’t win: if it’s clear that Britain will vote to leave the EU, I’ll vote to stay, a last-ditch effort to do something against that lethal wave of reactionary nativism; if it seems we’re staying, I’ll vote out, and slow the fading phantom of a slightly different world. It’s pointless, and it’ll only work if I’m the only one doing it. But when the worst happens, as it always does, I’ll be able to say: don’t blame me, I voted for Kodos.

But then I’ve always voted for Kodos. Every election, every referendum, everything I’ve ever given my grudging support to has lost. It’s a curse. I’m perpetually on the wrong side of history, but the things that never happened hang crystalline and unreal above a sordid world. This is something Walter Benjamin talks about in his Theses on the Philosophy of History. The task is to ‘brush history against the grain,’ to read its secret index of defeats and losses, the long sad tale of that which was never remembered, and find in it the messianic power of the weak. ‘Nothing which has ever happened is to be given as lost to history.’ All that once failed is reborn; as long as there are the victorious there will be the defeated, and as long as there are the defeated, the thing that we lost can never really be gone. The two senses of loss swirl together: loss in battle or loss in an election, and the loss of grief and melancholia. Somewhere out of their overlapping negations comes something to hold on tight to.

As a child I was unsatisfied with the world, already looking for ways out. I read some online pamphlet about Advaita Vedanta and decided I believed in it; I made myself a little diagram of the cosmos, within and without Māyā, dotted lines connecting Brahman to Atman to my own confined and unhappy self far across the limits of observable reality; I was weird. I liked things that weren’t really real; not pure fantasy but all those lenses that made the world bearable in its new capacity to be somehow otherwise, that gave me a kind of conceptual power to change things that I didn’t have in daily life. Conspiracy theory, pseudohistory, socialism, faith. I think it wasn’t long after my grandfather died that I found a collection of alternate histories, little stories told by pop-historians about what might have happened if one battle or another had gone the other way, a prism of worlds that never were. I don’t remember the title; it was actually a fairly stupid book (one account described the result of Lenin’s assassination on the way to St Petersburg: the Bolsheviks are effortlessly sidelined and we get a happy, prosperous, liberal-democratic twentieth century). The cover was utterly inevitable: a black and empty sky, and a swastika flag on the Moon. But that really did happen. The space programme that sent the first people to the Moon was the Nazi space programme, all those scientists snatched up in Operation Paperclip, effortlessly swapping Hitler for Washington. Watch the dialectic at work, preserving what it negates, proceeding as always by its bad side. It’s not that the Nazis are another example of Benjamin’s defeated of history; how could they be, when putting a swastika on the cover is still the best way to sell a book? But the litter that chokes our planet remains, all the bones remain, and one day we are promised the resurrection. This is why utopia is always melancholic, the refusal to simply mourn, the tight grip of the living to the dead.

Freud writes in The Ego and the Id that ‘the character of the ego is a precipitate of abandoned object cathexes that contains the history of those object-choices.’ We are who we are not because of the things we have, but the things we lost; the human psyche is a broken terrain pitted with innumerable jagged navels, places where the lines that once connected us to something else were ripped away. First we lose the world. The subject forms as the oceanic unity of the oral stage shatters. You’re no longer a mouth sucking in a world that is also yourself. You collapse into your limits, now you have a mouth, your first scar. You lose your invincibility in language, you lose everything else in other people. But there’s a solipsism that persists, into Freud’s own works: that reductive psychodynamics, the reconfiguration of a being-in-the-world into what is essentially a piece of highly complex plumbing, full of glooping streams of libido. A blockage in one interior capillary will cause the psychic fluid to gush the wrong way through its coil at furious speed, manifesting itself as neurosis. If a pipe or vent out of the system is cut off altogether, the fluid will just circulate endlessly around all the major channels, reaching boiling point, until touching the surface will burn the skin off your fingers: the plumbing has become psychotic. Everything is contained in this knotted ball of pipes. Freud spends most of Mourning and Melancholia insisting that the melancholic’s self-accusation really concerns a lost object, but that object is itself lost from the page as soon as you try to take hold of it. Instead there are images: melancholia is the ‘picture of a delusion,’ the object is reproduced internally within an ego that splits itself in two because other people don’t really exist. It’s the object-cathexes, not the object itself, that snaps back in the miserable subject’s face. Freud, you can tell, had never taken a punch. When my grandfather died we sat shiva in the house, and I spent the whole time staring through the dining-room window, watching weathered relatives filing in, deluding myself that at any moment I’d see his beige overcoat emerge out the gloom by the front path. I had never cathected that overcoat. This was something else, unrelated to any twanging lines of investment. The sudden and abyssal unreality of an object, the sensation of a thing that was not there, but whose absence became so solid, so close, more real than reality itself. And if there’s a worthwhile politics, and I hope there is, that’s where I think it can start: with a child who hasn’t yet learned how to grieve.

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