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This is why I hate intellectuals

Notes towards a phenomenology of conspiracy theory


Really, what I want to talk about here is the unspoken axiom behind all epistemology: that we ought to believe statements that are propositionally true, and that we ought not to believe statements that are propositionally false. This general principle is rarely ever stated, and tends to just appear as the hidden code that governs any logical process. P1 is true, so it was kept; P2 is false, so we no longer considered it; the fact that this is less a logical axiom than a moral injunction is subdued in all this bloodless process, while the invidious character of the terms ‘true’ and false’ neatly closes up any gap between ‘is’ and ‘ought’ that would otherwise make such an ethics of reasoning more distinctly problematic. In any case, there are forms of truth beyond the propositional, ones where this autogenerative law finds itself making commands beyond its jurisdiction. What about the revealed truth of religious texts, which must be believed before their truth can become apparent? What about the unconscious truths of psychoanalysis, which must not be consciously believed in order to function? It’s now accepted (among most of the media and political classes, at least) that the statement ‘While at Oxford University, Prime Minister David Cameron took part in an initiation ceremony during which he fucked a dead pig’ is not propositionally true – but even if that’s the case, isn’t it in a very important way more true than the truth?

But I’m not going to resort to postmodern vaguery, beardscratchingly prognosticating on the distortion inherent in any reduction of truth to concept. Instead, I want to sink down deep into a set of statements that are generally considered to be propositionally false, and surface arguing why we should believe them anyway. For this I’m choosing conspiracy theory, because conspiracy theory is fascinating and mysterious and vast, and I love it, and I hope that you do too. Conspiracy theory appears to be an epistemic discourse, almost maniacally focused on ‘truth’ – so that, for instance, the phrase ‘9/11 truth’ for most people immediately yields the meaning ‘crazy 9/11 speculation’. But the other great master-signifier of conspiracy, the call to ‘wake up’, is very different: we’re dealing with modes of experience, the clouded, the fantastic, the pellucid, that demand a consideration beyond dreary propositionalism: a phenomenology of shapeshifting lizards and the New World Order.

An interesting point of entry here is provided by ‘Conspiracy Theories and the Popular Wisdom‘, an essay by the University of Otago philosopher Charles Pidgen, published in Episteme volume 4, issue 2, which has been doing the rounds lately in certain left-wing circles that are understandably sensitive to accusations of conspiracy theory. Pidgen’s central proposition – that we should believe conspiracy theories, or at the very least investigate them while being open to the possibility that we might – is not dissimilar to mine, but the case he makes is an epistemic one, and given that there’s clearly something broken in epistemic reasoning, it’s inevitably insufficient. He thinks we should believe conspiracy theories because they are propositionally true. He begins by noting that the charge of conspiracy theory is often used to discredit ideas that are unhelpful to the powerful, and that according to the conventional wisdom conspiracy theories are a priori absurd and unworthy of investigation. But if we hold this position, and sensibly define conspiracy theory as ‘a theory that posits a conspiracy,’ then we have to throw out most of what we know about the past. If we don’t believe in conspiracy theories, then we would have to hold that Brutus and Cassius and the others all happened to come up with the idea of murdering Caesar independently and coincidentally. ‘Much of recorded history would dissolve into a blur of inexplicable events.’ (Which, from a certain Benjaminian perspective, is exactly what it is, but never mind.) Clearly none of this is tenable, and so Pidgen – who’s spent the bulk of his essay disproving a position that nobody actually holds – quite correctly concludes that there’s something wrong with his definition. But if conspiracy theory isn’t just ‘a theory that posits a conspiracy’, then what else could it be?

Pidgen’s proposed redefinition is still insufficient. When the conventional wisdom tells us not to believe in conspiracy theories, he writes, it means those ‘that postulate evil schemes on the part of recent or contemporary Western governments (or government agencies) and that run counter to the current orthodoxy in the relevant Western countries.’ He notes that the idea that Saddam Hussein’s Iraq was stockpiling weapons of mass destruction and in league with al-Qaeda is not considered a conspiracy theory, even though it posits a conspiracy. But because of his focus on propositional truth, he ignores the tissues through which any proposition lances. A conspiracy theory is an explanatory device used to make sense of conditions that are not entirely understood: a general prerequisite for conspiracy theory is that it is sincerely believed by the person that proposes it. The charge that Iraq had WMD wasn’t a conspiracy theory; it was a lie. It’s very possible to imagine conspiracy theories that don’t fit Pidgen’s definition. Had George W Bush instead announced that President Hussein were the high priest of an ancient Mesopotamian death-cult that had controlled humanity since the dawn of civilisation through the emasculating medium of writing, and that he could only be defeated by a sturdy gang of tooled-up all-American illiterates, some people might still have believed him, but that would have been unambiguously a conspiracy theory. Conspiracy theory isn’t a type of proposition that can be taxonomically isolated by its propositional content; it’s a relation between propositions, between knowledge and unknowledge, the seen and the unseen, the incomparably ancient and the buzzing urgency of the present.

We could start, Occam-like, by proposing that conspiracy theory is the general tendency to attribute visible events to invisible conspiracies when a simpler and more plausible non-conspiratorial explanation is available. But that’s not enough: what is a conspiracy, anyway? It’s not a epistemic or a phenomenological concept, but a legal category. Of course conspiracies happen; if they didn’t, there’d be no need for a law. The crime of conspiracy was not codified until the Criminal Law Act of 1977; until then, in English common law (which also provides the basis for law in the United States and many Commonwealth countries), it fell under the category of ‘inchoate offences’, along with attempt and incitement; a nebulous cluster of suspicion, sporadically enforced and prosecuted according to the whims of the enforcers. The charge is not entirely extricable from that of witchcraft, broadly understood as a conspiracy with the Devil; as such, a conspirator could easily have been working alone. (Aren’t we all conspiring within our own heads?) In common law, something that is not an offence may become one if conspiracy is present: handing out medicinal herbs is legal; doing so with the Devil at your side, or after meeting your coven by midnight, is not. Conspiracy was not considered to be the mode of operation of the powerful, but the powerless: Satanic peasants in rickety huts, plotting against the mirrored institutions of God and State. The first major shift came with Lutheranism, and its charges of Papal blasphemy: suddenly it was not only the rulers who feared conspiracies on the part of their ungrateful populations, but everyone; social existence itself became a host of potential conspiracies. For obvious reasons, this is not a sense of the word that made it into the 1977 Act, which states that ‘if a person agrees with any other person or persons that a course of conduct shall be pursued which, if the agreement is carried out in accordance with their intentions, either— (a)will necessarily amount to or involve the commission of any offence or offences by one or more of the parties to the agreement, or (b)would do so but for the existence of facts which render the commission of the offence or any of the offences impossible, he is guilty of conspiracy to commit the offence or offences in question.’ One important provision of codified conspiracy law is that conspiracy is only an offence if the act that the conspirators intend to commit is itself an offence. In conspiracy theory, meanwhile, the acts that are alleged to have been perpetrated by unknown conspirators are sometimes formally illegal (assassinating JFK, carrying out the 9/11 attacks), but more often tend to exist in a Benjaminian sphere of violence that founds the law, and is incorporated into it (putting flouride in the drinking water, faking the Moon landings, inventing the Holocaust). It’s hard to imagine the shapeshifting lizards being taken into court in handcuffs; in any case, for an alien lizard to invade the planet by assuming human form and putting strange patterns on the currency isn’t even a crime in most jurisdictions. (It might, conceivably, be a tort.)

The ‘conspiracy’ in ‘conspiracy theory’ refers to the term in its pre-codified sense, in which it describes not a hidden relationship between multiple human individuals, but a relationship between human individuals and hiddenness itself. Conspiracy theory is not a theory that posits a conspiracy, but the hypostasisation of conspiracy to the level of theory, or occlusion as a general system of Being. It’s not just that public events have hidden causes: the seen is only an attribute or epiphenomenon of the unseen, which is essential to reality. In many conspiracy theories, the primary aim of the conspiracy seems to be the presentation of an experience in which the conspiracy itself does not outwardly appear. For readers of the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, what appears to be the chaotic stampede of human history is actually an elaborate performance-piece engineered as a distraction by the Jews lurking backstage. Flat-Earthers believe that a vast and sinister plot exists to place globes in every classroom and doctored images on the TV, with the sole purpose of having us think that the Earth is round. In David Icke’s sweeping cosmology, the Moon is an artificial satellite broadcasting something called the ‘Moon Matrix’ (although it actually originates from Saturn), an information-blocking signal that reduces our consciousness to its five limited senses. More convincingly (although I’m here not really interested in evaluating the propositional truth of any of these notions), many leftist media critics consider the wealth of images in capitalist society to form a single ‘spectacle’ that obscures existing class antagonisms.

None of this should be particularly unfamiliar: conspiracy theory in this sense is a kind of Kantianism. Noumena, the objects as they actually are, are by nature hidden from us; all we can approach by reason or perception is the phenomenon, the distortion provided by our senses. But rather than performing a Husserlian Einklammerung or epoché, conspiracy theory maintains a puckish Hegelian ambition to touch the face of the thing-in-itself. Its goal is reconciliation: as in Adorno, the subject-object distinction is not eternal but the product of particular historical conditions. But given that the conspiracy itself is by definition imperceptible, it’s not possible for one to have direct knowledge of it within experience. (There are, of course, people who claim to have witnessed UFOs spinning through the sky, or to have listened in on the cloistered Zionist congresses; there are various ‘leaked’ documents purporting to be minutes of the global conspiracy, but in practice such transcendental arguments make up a surprisingly small portion of the general conspiracy corpus.) Instead, conspiracy theory tends to coincide with a strange form of immanent critique, in which the visible phenomena of the world must be ‘decoded’ to reveal their secret meaning. Hence the insistence that the secret masters of the world would, for unknown reasons, leave little clues around the place pointing to their existence. Banknotes are popular here – what’s that eye and pyramid business about? And did you notice that if you fold them a certain way, it looks just like the photos of 9/11? Numerology and cod-etymology is also popular: can’t you see that it’s called an iPhone because its ‘eye’ is always watching? If we’re not living in Hell, then why do we greet each other with Hell-o? Conspiracy theory could be understood as less a set of discrete propositions and more a Heideggerian Stimmung – attunement or mood, a mode of In-der-Welt-sein in which phenomenal reality reveals itself to Dasein in some particular manner. Here, as in boredom (discussed in The Fundamental Concepts of Metaphysics), things appear empty and impoverished, but by contrast they are not without interest. They point beyond themselves to their occulted source; the world takes on significance not as a world, but as a map. Conspiracy theory reaches beyond the world as it seems, not by grasping at clouds from tiptoes, but by digging down, uncovering the foundations of things to see the vastness below.

It might be futile. But is it, phenomenologically speaking, true? In Heidegger, truth is not a matter of a subjective mental image conforming to reality, but the disclosure of a world. Truth is ‘letting whatever is sleeping become wakeful’ (sheeple) – the unconcealment of what had been hidden. I say that Socrates is mortal, and his manifest mortality, knobbly knees and tremoring heart, is suddenly made apparent to you. In this sense, conspiracy theory – all conspiracy theory – is true. And it’s a truth far more fecund and far more fun than anything allowed to us by epistemology. In conspiracy theory, the things of the world are atoms of signification, to be combined and recombined into the modes of appearance of any number of potential noumena. ‘The RAND Corporation, in conjunction with the saucer people, under the supervision of the reverse vampires, are forcing our parents to go to bed early in a fiendish plot to eliminate the meal of dinner.’ Life encrusts itself like milk on endless fathoms of possibility. And yes, most of it is evil. But it doesn’t have to be. Remember that through much of our history, the conspiracy was not a creature of aristocratic malice, but a mode of popular resistance. The Illuminati is not only to be fought; it’s to be established.

In defence of fantasy: a further response to Slavoj Žižek


Yesterday, Slavoj Žižek responded to my earlier critique of his discussion of the migrant crisis. There are a few strange moments in his piece – I’ve never before read anyone refer to ‘a hoax brilliantly performed by [the] Daily Currant‘ – but the essay is mostly dominated by a familiar discussion of the antinomies of liberal tolerance. Žižek has made a name for himself by bravely challenging leftist dogmas on the merits of multiculturalism, with a critique so puckish and devastating that, as many people have pointed out, it’s virtually indistinguishable from overt right-wing nativism. I’m not going to repeat this argument – in fact, I agree with Žižek: there is something deeply wrong with the logic of liberal multiculturalism, but rather than subjecting it to any serious critique, he only reproduces its worst aspects. To borrow a phrase of which he’s fond, his criticism is only the obverse of its object. Multiculturalism is a profoundly antihumanist discourse: its basic unit is not the distinct and individual subject but the distinct and individual culture. And while there’s a case to be made for antihumanism – as Marxists and Freudians know, the individual subject isn’t an originary Democritean atom but something constructed – any discourse that takes culture rather than class (or even race, sexuality, or any of the other axes of oppression) as its basic unit strays into murky, fascoid territory. Class analysis is carried out with the goal of abolishing class altogether, an antihumanism that aims to restore the human; multiculturalism reifies and hypostasises culture into an eternal absolute. Multiculturalism does not see a person who happens to be Muslim, it sees Islam embodied, and while it might call for all (assumed) differences to be respected, the actual person it addresses is approached only as a signifier of cultural difference. Within these synchronic cultural blocs any internal difference is erased; the fact that these cultures or ways of life are abstractions formed out a multiplicity of real behaviours is abandoned to a mystical idealism. The proper term for this kind of approach is racism. As Žižek himself frequently argues, the primary pathology of the racist is to refuse to see the Jew or the Muslim or the Roma as a person, but to see them only as an embodiment of Jew-ness, Muslim-ness, Roma-ness. So what, then, are we to make of his statement that ‘Muslims find it impossible to bear our blasphemous images and reckless humour, which we consider a part of our freedoms’? Or when he approving quotes Yevgeny Grishkovetz, who writes that ‘they [migrants] have no idea of European values, lifestyles and traditions, multiculturalism or tolerance’? Or when he says of migrants that that ‘their way of life is incompatible with the ideological foundations of the Western welfare-state’? Isn’t the appeal to the national or cultural way of life as fundamentally constitutive of subjectivity one that’s generally made by fascists?

Much of this material is essentially a reiteration of his earlier essay in the London Review of Books, and I think it can stand (or fall) on its own merits. But his critique of my position is not just ideologically suspect; it verges on the illiterate.

In discussing my response to his initial argument in the LRB, Žižek zeroes in on a single parenthetical statement, in which I write that even if the dream migrants have of a good life in Norway is impossible, it functions as a transcendent object of desire, and it’s strange behaviour for a Lacanian to insist on the unreality of that object and to urge someone to be more realistic. This is, Žižek writes, ‘simply ridiculous, theoretical nonsense.’ His criticism can be read in two ways. Either his charge is that I’ve made a nonsense out of the theory, misapplying and distorting Lacanian concepts – or that I’m indulging in academic obscurantism, waffling on about obscure psychoanalytical theory while the migrants are charging in to destroy our cherished European way of life. Weirdly, the latter reading appears to be the correct one.

The ideal migrants hold of a better life in Europe is not objet petit a, Žižek writes – it’s ‘a fantasy.’ He continues: ‘Refugees who want to reach Norway present an exemplary case of ideological fantasy—a fantasy-formation that obfuscates the inherent antagonisms. Many of the refugees want to have a cake and eat it: They basically expect the best of the Western welfare-state while retaining their specific way of life, though in some of its key features their way of life is incompatible with the ideological foundations of the Western welfare-state.’ In what sense is the word ‘fantasy’ being deployed here? In general, non-theoretical usage it refers to an imagined scenario that simply can’t take place: a deluded person is living in a fantasy-world, they need to snap out of it and rejoin reality. In this sense it makes perfect sense to talk about fantasy as something that ‘obfuscates inherent antagonisms.’ In psychoanalysis, it’d be a contradiction in terms: fantasy is that which structures reality, and even if it’s a symptom, the symptom is always a sign to be interpreted, rather than a cloud that obfuscates.

Let’s say, for the sake of immanence, that Žižek is right, and the good life in Norway is not object petit a but a fantasy. (Not that these two terms stand in any kind of opposition – the matheme of fantasy, $ a, merely represents the barred subject’s relation to that object.) In Freud, the fantasy is integral to sexual life and to life itself. ‘Life, as we find it, is too hard for us […] in order to bear it we cannot dispense with palliative measures.’ While for Freud the fantasies are ‘illusions in contrast with reality,’ they remain ‘psychically effective.’ He compares them directly with art and with scientific activity, both of which are ‘deflections,’ but both of which also allow access to truth. With Lacan, the role of fantasy in constituting the subject and its mental life is emphasised: as Žižek himself writes elsewhere, ‘in the opposition between dream and reality, fantasy lies on the side of reality.’ Lacan’s most famous dictum is that il n’y a pas de rapport sexuel; fantasy is the means by which love manages to persist anyway. The other is always lacking, their gaze is always a void, their figure is always the object of a certain ambivalence, they can never give you what you want. Fantasy compensates for this essential lack in the other; it’s what allows desire for the other to take place despite their inability to fulfil it. From the Écrits: ‘Fantasy is the means by which the subject maintains himself at the level of his vanishing desire.’ This is not the fantasy that Žižek is talking about when he talks about migrants in Europe; he never allows his Lacanianism to actually inflect his politics, because the two are not reconcilable. In Lacanian terminology, what Žižek identifies as a fundamental disparity between ‘our’ civilised European way of life and the irreducible foreignness of the migrants would be called a asymmetry in the Symbolic order. (It’s not just Lacanianism that he abandons here – what happened to the Hegelian identity of non-identity and identity?) If this asymmetry does exist, then fantasy is precisely the means by which it can be resolved. If we lack the appropriate signifiers for each other, then the interdicting untruth of fantasy opens up a space for some semblance of communication. If migrants are to live peacefully and happily in Europe, the demand should not be that they give up their fantasy of a better life, but that they cling to it for all its worth.

One final point. For decades, Marxists have made use of psychoanalytic theory; it’s sometimes easy to forget that Freud and Lacan were not themselves Marxists. In The Question of a Weltanschauung Freud, the Schopenhauerian pessimist, dismisses the Marxist theory of history as a ‘precipitate of the obscure Hegelian philosophy in whose school Marx graduated’ and laments that in the Soviet Union ‘any critical examination of Marxist theory is forbidden, doubts of its correctness are punished in the same way as heresy was once punished by the Catholic church.’ But if he wasn’t a Communist, he was a refugee. When the Nazis absorbed Austria in 1938, Freud escaped to London, fleeing those who would have murdered him with all of Europe’s Jews. (Four of his sisters died in the concentration camps.) He remained there until his death, twenty days after the declaration of war in September 1939. The British media of the time was full of familiar sentiments: fear of the tide of European Jews coming into Britain, represented as rats in cartoons, bringing with them nasty foreign diseases like revolutionary Communism, not respecting our way of life. Did Sigmund Freud abandon his Viennese ‘way of life’ for that of the British Empire? Successive attempts by British governments to define a discrete set of ‘British values’ have generally ended up producing bland nothings, but if we had to identify one absolutely central feature of the national character, it would have to be this: on absolutely no account whatsoever are you to talk about sex. Freud continued his psychoanalytic practice up until his death; we can only assume that this was a cultural injunction he failed to respect. And nor should he.

My own ancestors were Jewish migrants to Britain; had they remained in the Pale of Settlement, their children may well have been incinerated in Auschwitz, and I would have never lived to write these words. But still I’m not content with the situation we have: as a Marxist and a communist, I’m committed to a different and better world, one that does not yet exist. Call it Norway if you want. Žižek, who appears to have abandoned liberation, might sneer. And this may well be, in the conventional sense of the word, a fantasy. But it’s still one that absolutely must be maintained.

How to politicise a tragedy

I am writing this the morning after a series of violent attacks in Paris that left over one hundred and twenty people dead, and still it feels callous to even be writing about it. As much of the world reels, there’s something very brutal about the idea that now is a good time to demand that others listen to your very clever opinion. If it’s barbarism to write poetry after Auschwitz, then it’s also barbarism to write thinkpieces after Paris. Don’t politicise; don’t use mass murder to score rhetorical points against your enemies, don’t crow je te l’avais bien dit, don’t play tug-of-war with the bodies, don’t make this about yourself, don’t make this about politics.

Which on the face of it is odd: death is always political, and nothing is more political than a terrorist attack. These events happen for political reasons, and they have political consequences; to have an opinion is nice if frustrating in times of peace, but absolutely essential in times of crisis. And yet. A sense of disgust rises when people comment on France’s unprecedented measure of closing its borders by bleating that if they’d done that earlier, all this could have been avoided; when they start gurgling about the global threat of Islam and the foreigners in our midst; when they smugly declare that restrictive gun laws left the population defenceless. This isn’t a tendency limited to the political right: there are plenty on the soi-disant left also using the massacre as a pristine stage on which to exhibit their one-person morality plays. What if the attackers had been white; wouldn’t we all be talking about mental health? Don’t you know that non-Muslims commit atrocities too? Why do you care about this, and not about all the other tragedies going on elsewhere in the world? Can’t you see that all these bodies only exist to prove that I was right about everything all along?

Normally the duty to not opine would only apply to a very small sector of the population, but for the last few years we’ve all been at it. Most of this take-mongering is happening online, and it feels absolutely and entirely wrong to be worthily prognosticating about hundreds of personal apocalypses on the same platforms and in the same forms that are used to sound off about TV shows and and football matches. A lot of this has to do with the demands of the format itself: you’re endlessly encouraged to Have Your Say and Join The Conversation, to constantly be filling white boxes with words, because what you think about any given topic is now incredibly important, and before you know it, in the stampede to have your say and join the conversation you’re trampling over the dead. We scrawl our thoughts in blood. To express anything other than sorrow is monstrous.

But then look at what’s being said. Last night, President Hollande stood outside the Bataclan concert hall, where many dozens had died, to say that ‘we are going to fight, and this fight will be merciless.’ There will be more war, more death, and more tragedy. The TV stations are bringing in experts to insist that this is all the fault of the migrants and the foreigners, as if refugees were carrying the violence they fled along with them. More repression, more cruelty, more pogroms. Terrorist attacks, as we all know, are carried out with the intent of setting the people against each other and sparking an intensification of the violence of the State, and so the people are duly set against each other, and the State announces its determination to do violence. This is already a politicisation of the tragedy, and to loudly speak out against it is yet another: is that also unacceptable? The day before the attacks in Paris, two suicide bombers blew themselves up in Bourj el-Barajneh, a predominately Shia suburb of Beirut, murdering 43 innocent people as they went about their lives. Wire agencies such as Reuters reported an attack against a ‘Hezbollah stronghold.’ The humanity of the victims disappeared, they were brutally synecdochised into a political party that some of them may or may not have supported, they weren’t people, they were Hezbollah, as if what had been attacked were a castle sharp with battlements rather than a neighbourhood full of families. Many people very loudly voiced their horror at this – but that was also the politicisation of tragedy: was that also unacceptable?

When it’s deployed honestly, the command to not politicise means to not make someone’s death about something else: it’s not about the issue you’ve always cared about; it’s not about you. To do this is one type of politics. But there’s another. Insisting on the humanity of the victims is also a political act, and as tragedy is spun into civilisational conflict or an excuse to victimise those who are already victims, it’s a very necessary one. There is the politicisation that seizes on death for limited political aims, and then there is the politicisation that would refuse any predetermined script other than the call for liberation. It insists on the political nature of tragedy, not to shunt it towards one or another narrative pit, or to put a left-ish or right-ish filter over the images of bloodshed, but because politics is a way out of all this. Atrocity demands solidarity. Absolute sympathy for the victims; for all victims. To insist on having an opinion, not the knowing sneer of someone who was right all along, but undiminished solidarity in the face of devastation. To fight against those who attack concerts and cafes, those who bomb cities with fighter jets and with their own bodies, those who abandon migrants to the cold outside their borders, and those sent them fleeing. To struggle: the common struggle of all who suffer, against suffering.

The Englishman and the Octopus

If you’ve seen Spectre, it should already be obvious to you that the James Bond franchise is a spinoff, taking place entirely within HP Lovecraft’s Cthulhu mythos.

Say 007 arrives at Mexico City Airport at four in the afternoon. He goes through customs. He takes a taxi to his blankly intercontinental chain hotel. He makes himself a slapdash vodka martini from the little bottles in the minibar, pouring the entire stub of vodka and a passionless vermouth glug into one of the film-wrapped plastic cups from the bathroom, and drinks it on his balcony. He looks out at Mexico City, and something looks back. The Cthulhu mythos only works if its characters don’t realise that they’re in it. When done right, Cthulhu stories don’t need to actually portray the Great Old Ones; they can lurk in the deconstructive background, appearing as a hollowness in the mise-en-scène, a spacing and a vastness suspended just beyond sight. Another recent film about Anglo imperialists in Latin America, this year’s Sicario, was an example of what could be called ‘landscape horror’, fine-tuned to Yanqui racism: long panning shots of barren or broken landscapes, the blasphemous edge between lawnmower-perfect American suburbia and the desert beyond, or Mexican cities that seem to sprawl without reason over the hills and valleys, protoplasmic shoggoth-blots poised to gobble up the border. This isn’t the ordinary Burkean sublime, but something far stranger. Ciudad Juárez is ‘the Beast’; the scarred and hollowed-out Earth is itself a cosmic evil. Bond on his balcony faces a city that does not end, from horizon to horizon. Where are the goons? Usually this is when some gormless lunks try to jump him, and from there it’s only a short kidnapping to the supervillain’s lair, where someone will tell him everything he needs to know, saving him the trouble of doing any detective work. Instead, there’s CNN, complimentary soap, and blithe miles of homes and highways. It’s hard not to feel lonely. It’s hard not to feel afraid. He’s in Lovecraft territory; those trillion-tentacled monsters from outer space that intrude upon stately New Englanders were always a barely concealed metaphor for one man’s horror of black and brown bodies in their nameless shoals, leaking degradation over a world fissuring from imperial decline. But over and above that, they stand for a universe that is not required to make sense.

James Bond, meanwhile, is a man in search of the transcendental signifier. It’s hard to do a Bond story these days, with the end of the Cold War, the rise of feminism, and an inherent ridiculousness to the form that perfectly crystallises itself in Austin Powers, which managed to carry out a satire of the Bond films simply by replicating them in every detail. But before there could be Austin Powers, there was Thomas Pynchon. His novels (especially V, with its deliberate Bond insert) subject the spy story to the (un)logic of post-structuralism. In spy stories the hero jets off around the world in search of the Thing that allows disparate events to reveal themselves as products of a singular Plan. In Pynchon, this structure is preserved, but knowing as he does that the object petit a does not exist, he simply takes away the MacGuffin. Bond’s shark-sprint for the truth falls apart into a messy and ever-widening entropic spiral. Postmodernism posed a far more serious threat to MI6 than Soviet spies ever could. Bond’s response was sloppy. At the start of the Daniel Craig era, the franchise put away most of Pierce Brosnan’s silliness for a lot of dark and gritty po-faced nonsense; the resulting films were basically terrible. In Skyfall, it reacted with a kind of watered-down postmodernism of its own, a plot barely held together by its spider’s-web network of smug self-references. Spectre – by far the best Bond film in recent decades – was at this point probably inevitable. Orbis non sufficit: the world is not enough. The villain in Casino Royale was only a puppet of the villain in Quantum of Solace, who was only a puppet of the villain in Skyfall, who was only a puppet of the villain in Spectre: you can only take this kind of thing so far before the evil grows beyond one lonely planet’s capacity, and plunges into outer space. With his metanarrative collapsing around him, James Bond escaped into a new one, a lair where Pynchon or Powers couldn’t find him. He escaped into HP Lovecraft.

This film doesn’t exactly hide its place within Lovecraftian mythology. You really think that creature on the ring is just an octopus? Uniquely for a Bond film, it starts with an epigraph of sorts, the words ‘the dead are alive’ printed over a black screen – a not particularly subtle allusion to the famous lines from the Necronomicon: ‘That is not dead which can eternal lie/ And with strange aeons even death may die.’ In the credits sequence, vast tentacles coil around him as he murders and fucks his way to an absent truth. In his house at R’lyeh, dead Cthulhu waits dreaming. The villain’s base is built around an asteroid, glossy and scarred, that fell from the sky millions of years ago. You almost expect alien ooze to start trickling from its cavities. With 1979’s Moonraker, heroes and villains invaded outer space; in Spectre it’s the other way round. And in its Lovecraftian context, everything starts to make a lot more sense. Why do Bond villains always explain their entire plan to 007 before killing him? Real-life conspiracies (like the financial markets, the internet, or history in general) are not so much secret as unspoken; they fold themselves into the basic fabric of social life, so that it’s often impossible for anyone at all to stand outside their situatedness and articulate what’s going on. Lovecraft’s monsters, on the other hand, live in the permanent outside; they don’t need to worry about revealing themselves to you, because they know that as soon as you clap eyes on even the shadow of their true form you’ll go irretrievably mad. For Cthulhu to reveal himself is not weakness but power.

Spectre is a film that deliberately resists any sense for the climactic or any libidinal payoff; all we get is lingering dread. The first post-credits chase scene is downright weird; Bond and his adversary race sports cars through the centre of Rome, but the gap between them never closes, the backwards-firing machine-guns don’t have any ammunition, and the sequence just keeps on going, all thrill long dissipated, until it takes on a kind of shambling undeath. ‘The longer the note, the more dread.’ Brecht calls this Verfremdungseffekt: by refusing to simply give pleasure to an audience, you prevent them from ever being entirely immersed in narrative events; they begin to consciously interrogate the fragility of the social conditions that hold up any action. But overall the Italy sequence is short. Bond’s never really been at home in Catholic Europe; he’s a creature of the Western hemisphere, and in particular the Caribbean. Gorgeous, tiny islands with their histories bayoneted out of existence, places where the hotels are luxurious and the bar staff eager to please. So Spectre gives us Moroccan scrubland instead, flat and impoverished, neither beautiful nor sublime, just two thin tracks plunging through a plane without interest forever. When there is an invocation of orgasm, it directly undercuts any myth of the secret agent’s sexual prowess. In the third act, we get an ironic version of the usual Bond structure: he’s taken to Blofeld’s secret lair (white cat and all), invited for drinks at four, and told the whole plan. So far, so good. Then, after nearly being killed in a pointlessly baroque way, he escapes, fires six shots, and the whole base explodes. Is that it? There was a big bang, sure but it was all over too soon. If you ever wanted to know what it’s really like to have sex with James Bond, Spectre is here to tell you.

But of course that’s not it. After orgasm, nightmares. The traditional ending is followed by a strange and shadowy coda in London: Bond, collapsing into a ruined MI6 building, finds his name and an arrow spraypainted on a memorial to the dead. He follows it. Shades of Lot 49: for the entire film, he’s only acted on the instruction of the omniscient dead. Older Bond outings allowed us to notice the essential powerlessness of the hero in a world always determined by its villainous Big Other, and feel very smart for having picked up on it; here, it’s thrown mercilessly in our faces. A mural at the mountains of madness. Spectre constantly frustrates the pleasure principle; it’s an awed testament to a Todestrieb that, itself unrepresentable, appears only in the spacing and repetition of something else. James Bond is no longer a brutal, neurotic male wish-fulfillment fantasy: he has no will of his own, no love for his own life, and he can’t even fuck. He falls into the grasp of something else, vast and pitiless, the key and the guardian of the gate, that watches the tiny escapades of Her Majesty’s Secret Service from far beyond the stars.

A portrait of the Person-Guy

The Person-Guy comes in many forms. Sometimes he’s just you, and all the things you like to do, reified into something that is at once a general social type and a Platonic model from which lesser beings can learn such valuable lessons as ‘it is good to have at least one daughter’ and ‘pronounce the word “helicopter” correctly, you utter cretin.’ But most of the time the Person-Guy is someone you don’t like. The Person-Guy is either very stupid, or not entirely stupid, but the wrong kind of not entirely stupid. The Person-Guy is all the vain and shallow women that ever rejected you. The Person-Guy supports a politician you have reservations about, wore a toga to a frat party, and is mysteriously close to the levers of power. The Person-Guy is absolutely real.

It’s the other one, the Person-Guy, that things happen to. The Person-Guy exists in short, declarative sentences, generally structured around some form of the verb ‘to be’, and arranged in no particular order. The Person-Guy is the cause of every evil and frustration in your life. The Person-Guy only wears odd socks, because he thinks that wasting our limited lifespan sorting them into matching pairs is indicative of a potentially authoritarian neurosis. The Person-Guy has a minor vocal tic, and it sends you into strange daylight fantasies; tearing out his throat with your bare hands, feeling the frantic little pulses of blood as they spurt and froth around your claws and then go cold. The Person-Guy likes all the same things you like, which is why you hate him. The Person-Guy is not reading this article. Only you are reading this article.

The Person-Guy tells you that he’s getting really ‘into’ candles. He spends most of his day lighting candles with a specialist Egyptian cotton taper, and then extinguishing them with the tips of his fingers. He goes to trendy candle clubs to hang out with other Person-Guys. He subscribes to Candle Lighter’s Monthly. You visit his loft apartment in Brooklondon or Berlyn, and every flat surface is covered with candles. A few of them are lit, scattered randomly around the room; tealights drooping precariously by the inevitable stacks of yellowing old books, elegant purple ones dribbling hot streams of wax to pool in the mason jars and espresso cups they’ve been unceremoniously jammed into, one big spluttering log of a candle that sits under a soot-smeared stain on the ceiling. He doesn’t offer you a seat; the Person-Guy doesn’t believe in outmoded notions of chivalry, and besides, all the chairs bristle with rare candles. You try to make small-talk with the Person-Guy – you’re not friends, exactly, and you’re certainly not into him, but you’ve known each other a long while – but he looks distracted; there’s a fluttering gleam in his eyes, and his fingers keep twitching; he’s only pretending to listen, he’s waiting for you to leave so he can start lighting candles and then putting them out again. You’re almost mesmerised by the quick and impulsive movements of his forefinger and thumb, their snap and tremble, and it takes you a while before you notice, with a start, just how scarred and calloused they are, skin clinkered like the surface of a lava flow, blocks of darkened leathery flesh torn between weeping chasms. You make your hurried excuses, and the Person-Guy lets you leave with an almost catatonic indifference, but one you’re out of there you can’t resist the temptation to look over your shoulder, and through his window you see the soft, undulating light of lots of different candles being lit and then put out. You know someone like the Person-Guy. Everyone knows someone like the Person-Guy. How can they not realise what they’re like?

The Person-Guy is always at the top of your Facebook feed. He has some opinion about something you don’t care about, and insists that all his friends be endlessly subjected to it. The Person-Guy takes hundreds of selfies every time he goes out and posts them all online, endless iterations of the Person-Guy and his girlfriends bending over to make kissy-faces at the camera so their tits are almost popping out the top of their skimpy dresses, and if you don’t like and comment on enough of them he’ll stop talking to you. The Person-Guy keeps inviting you to play some stupid browser game. The Person-Guy publicly wishes you happy birthday every year, and then doesn’t even message you once in the intervening three hundred and sixty-four days. The Person-Guy writes long letters to the world at large, packed with banal pseudo-philosophical insights about how you need to believe in yourself and why other people’s opinions don’t matter, limp gutless phrases crammed like worms in a shoebox, and then hashtags it ‘#gym #workout #hatersgonnahate’. The Person-Guy continually writes ‘too’ instead of ‘to’, and it appears to be deliberate, but you have no idea why.

You slept with the Person-Guy once, and you’re still ashamed of it, but afterwards you decided to learn some self-respect and in a weird way that experience kinda made you the person you are today.

You are fine. The Person-Guy is everything objectionable. The Person-Guy is the grim truth of all social relations: that the human being is a burden, that to talk to someone is labour, that everything you do in the company of another is only the absence of everything else you could be doing instead. The Person-Guy has clammy hands. The Person-Guy claims to like classical music, but only knows the pieces that have been in films. The Person-Guy makes a big show of every nice thing he does, as if it’s not just basic human decency. Every attempt the Person-Guy makes at kindness only justifies your hatred. The Person-Guy is responsible for the melting of the ice caps, the lack of decent affordable housing, the expropriation of surplus value, the ivory trade, the fact that all living things must one day die, the absence of an interventionist God, the short shelf-life of organic groceries, the traffic jams on the M4, the weird smell in underpasses, the heat death of the Universe, the mole on your chin, the little accusing voice that keeps you up all night, the fat balding creature that squints at you from the mirror, and the Syrian civil war. The Person-Guy turns his soft, doughy, witless head to look you in the eyes, and his face is nowhere to be seen. It is not illegal to kill the Person-Guy.

As soon as he is named, the Person-Guy vanishes. He has no mass or motion. He is the type, abstract and globe-girdling, pressed into shape for unknown purposes by an unknown god. He exists only as a cloud of attributes; individually insubstantial, in combination each point is the tip of spear that rips through his hideous body. To describe something is to annihilate it, and the Person-Guy has been annihilated. His entrails litter the streets. But still he shambles on, a formless form, all spit and tendons, grasping against the grit of the paving-slabs inch by laboured inch, as if he doesn’t know that he ought to be dead.

2015 Democratic debate: the expert view

TROWEL HENDERMAN: Hi, and welcome to our exclusive analysis of yesterday’s first Democratic Party debate, brought to you live from Las Vegas, the ‘glittering crystalline city in the middle of an endless desert that ought not to exist.’® It’s going to be an evening of furious debate and expert commentary, in an election season that broke all the rules. I’m your moderator, Trowel Henderman, and let me just say we’ve got a great panel here for you: we’ve got sexually active foreign policy consultant and former NSA bigwig John Pulsings! We’ve got YouTube star and professional woman Ashley Spootz! We’ve got civil rights activist and GlaxoSmithKline brand ambassador Marcus Choleric! And, last but not least, we’ve got your very own stereotyped Jewish mother! Let’s give it up for your mother, folks!

[The studio audience signal on one side of the room blares the word OEDIPUS. On the other side, it reads APHANISIS. Mild, confused applause.]

JOHN PULSINGS: Great to be here, Trowel.

YOUR MOTHER: But my gawd, it’s so cold out. Isn’t Vegas meant to be nice this time of year? I knew I shoulda packed a scarf. You boys’ll catch chill in those shoddy thin suits, mark my words.

TROWEL HENDERMAN: So let’s start with the big story. Hillary Clinton absolutely stole that debate, didn’t she? Confident, assured, she had all the right lines in all the right places – let’s take a look.

[The first clip rolls. HILLARY CLINTON, perfectly coiffed, a wry and cheeky chipmunk’s grin planted adorably in the middle of her face, is outlining her progressive agenda for the United States of America. She talks passionately and knowledgeably, bringing to bear her firm liberal principles and her wealth of personal experience, both inside the hall of government and outside of them. But it’s strange: afterwards, it’s hard to remember exactly what it is she said. If you had eyes to see, you’d see that her lips aren’t even moving. You’d see the blood, splattered in tiny droplets by her fingernails, smudged on her cheeks, swelling with frothy bubbles of spittle by her stretched-thin slit of a mouth. You’d see the gold and the silk adorning a body that’s blotchy and grey and bloated from twelve thousand years of putrefaction. If you had ears to hear, you’d hear the dull monotone that chokes from a bulging sac halfway down the creature’s throat. This world is mine, it says, and I have claimed it. First woman President This world is mine and I have claimed it. First woman President.But you have neither eyes to see nor ears to hear. Didn’t she do a brilliant job?]

MARCUS CHOLERIC: You know, Trowel, watching that truly rousing performance I was put in mind of the words of the great Huey P. Newton.

[Sixty seconds pass in silence.]

TROWEL HENDERMAN: What words were those, Marcus?

MARCUS CHOLERIC: Oh, none in particular. Just his words. His general words.

ASHLEY SPOOTZ: So just in regards of what you were just saying I just thought that Hillary was just so spectacular and all the other people there were just some gross old white cis het men who aren’t even fit to be smashed to a fine pulp under her perfect shoes and tbh I don’t even know why she shared a stage with them when she doesn’t even need to get elected it’s not like any of them could ever win because she was just born for this role you know she’s the queen she’s just the queen she’s got like billions of dollars and she was born to rule and queens don’t have to go debate with commoners they just sit up on their totally lux diamond encrusted throne but not with diamonds from conflict regions and everyone else like all the poor people just bow down in the mud and turds and she just orders them to be tortured to death with knives and tongs or whatever and large pear-shaped devices that are slowly inserted into a man’s anus before the spring-loaded razors inside tear his innards to tagliatelle and then we can finally start just dismantling white supremacist patriarchal capitalism in this country? [She resumes texting or sexting or whatever it is young people do on their phones all day]

JOHN PULSINGS: Two out of ten. Would not hit.

TROWEL HENDERMAN: But Hillary’s been on the back foot for most of this campaign so far – there’s been the persistent accusations that she mishandled the Benghazi crisis, there’s the issue of her emails, there’s the feeling that she’s only up there because of her second name. How well do you think she handled her critics?

YOUR MOTHER: Those boys were so cruel to her. [Dabbing a tissue to the corner of one eye.] I don’t know what their poor mothers must think. Some people just weren’t brought up right.

MARCUS CHOLERIC: She shut them down fine and she shut them down fast. When Anderson asked about so-called private email account, and she said… she said…. [His eyes start rolling. A thin line of blood trickles down from one of his ears] she said…

TROWEL HENDERMAN: Now of course the biggest threat to her campaign so far has come from the surprise insurgent campaign of self-described democratic socialist Bernie Sanders. Could this be the start of a revolution in American politics? Let’s see what he has to say for himself.

[Second clip. It’s a TOMATO: red on the outside, soggy on the inside, and technically not a vegetable. We cut to the TOMATO in the middle of a quick-fire debate. The TOMATO speaks: ‘Let me be clear. No, let me be clear. Bernie Sanders is not a hippie. You wanna have a woar? Let’s have a woar! I support woar! Give me the damn co-ordinates! Bernie Sanders will be there in a B-52, dropping bombs on whatever foreign country you want. But once again let me be clear. When we’ve wiped out the rest of the world, the fight is coming to those coiporations. Because those coiporations are the number one enemy of the middle class in America! They make me so mad! I could putz! Fuck!’]

YOUR MOTHER: Oy, he reminds me of your great-uncle Mintzy before he passed away. Such narishkeit from that man. His poor heart gave in, you know.

JOHN PULSINGS: Trowel, we gotta talk about my main dude Jim Webb. Man, he tore up that debate like I tear up virgin pussy. Who else in there has that kind of military experience? Who else had the balls to use the debate to start directly issuing personal threats to the Chinese politburo? I’m talking cajones here, Trowel, did you even know those guys have the biggest army in the world? There’s a war coming, folks, and it’s gonna be the big one. I was speaking to a good friend of mine, I can’t tell you his name for security reasons, but he’s General Michael Harassment, head of the Army’s cyberwarfare division, and he told me the Chinese have planted thousands of tiny nukes inside all the phones they build there and ship over to the United States. And they can use these nukes to make our phones send incriminating text messages to underage girls. You think Hillary Clinton has what it takes to deal with a threat like that? So what if Hillary Clinton killed tens of thousands of people in Libya? Did she do it with her own rippling, muscled hands? Roll the tape, Trowel. Roll the fucking tape.

[It’s the final round of the debate: the comedy question. ANDERSON COOPER asks the candidates who their first celebrity guest would be in the White House. JIM WEBB stands stock-straight, passing a flick-knfe from one hand to the other, the muscles squirming and straining in his neck. He looks straight into the camera. ‘I killed a guy in Nam,’ he growls. ‘I looked him dead in the eye when I did it. I wanted to know what it was like. He tried to close his eyes, so I held them open as I cut his throat. He was just a kid, some sixteen-year-old gook from one of the villages, who’d run away to join with the VC. He thrashed around when I cut him. The rain came down and the earth turned to mud and he thrashed around like a pig in the dirt. And then he stopped. I saw his eyes go still, and while he kept staring, there was nothing behind that blackness. No spark, no fire, not any more. I looked into his eyes and suddenly I knew everything. A human being is just a hundred and thirty pound sack of meat, nothing less, nothing more. You put the right meat in the right places and you get what you want. That’s all there is. So my first guest to the White House would be John Cena.’ He grins.]

TROWEL HENDERMAN: Well, that brings us to the end of our show. Final thoughts?

MARCUS CHOLERIC: Aite, I’m not being paid for this, but ladies, if you’ve got yourself a urinary tract infection, you need to get yourself some Augmentin brand antibiotics right now.

JOHN PULSINGS: I’ve had sex.

ASHLEY SPOOTZ: Don’t @ me.

YOUR MOTHER: It’s a disgrace. If I want to talk to you I have to go on a nationally syndicated panel show. Would it kill you to just call once in a while?

TROWEL HANDERMAN: And that’s all we’ve got time for. Thanks from everyone here in Las Vegas. Tune in next time, folks.

[Applause. Studio lights dim. On a single still-lit screen above our learned panel, LINCOLN CHAFEE, a creature resembling a plucked chicken, is banging his fists against the glass, screaming something we can’t quite hear, something about bombing a hospital in Afghanistan, something that might almost be important, but his lips are so strangely shaped and his posture so mesmerisingly weird that it’s impossible to make out what he’s saying. A caged animal arouses sympathy, but it passes, it always does. MARTIN O’MALLEY was also involved in the debate.]

Justin Bieber’s dick: reflections from the limits of psychoanalysis

Psychoanalysis is the discourse of the dark and distant places, whether the inner caverns of the psyche or the forbidden pit between the legs; its contention isn’t just that these places can be meaningful and significant, but that it’s in this void that meaning and significance take place. And there’s no chasm blacker than early childhood. Nobody remembers their first few years, their first neuroses, their first steps, their first words. We think before we are. It’s as if we all emerged as fully speaking beings, springing fully-formed like Greek gods out of the placid seas. Anything we do remember is generally false: I thought I knew what my own first memory was, something about playing with toy trucks in the bath, until one day I discovered that no, it was a photograph I’d seen years later, and that’s why in my mind’s eye I’m always hovering a few feet in front of my own face. Freud calls these ‘screen memories,’ they cover up a childhood inevitably full of repressed traumas. There’s a kind of circular logic here: psychoanalysis insists that the essential truths of the psyche must spring from this distant and forgotten world, and then proposes that it must have been forgotten because of the essential truths buried within. Which is not to say that this is incorrect. But if I’m honest, my earliest memories are all dreams, specifically, nightmares. Elongated hallways and thudding footsteps, ordinary places turned eerily unreal, and something approaching; the childhood terror of a Thing without qualities. Besides those, nothing: flashes, instants, bursts of light that stutter briefly in a darkness seething with unseen monsters. Everything that actually happened I only know through stories from people who were there. It all happened to somebody else. Which is fortunate for some: if it worked any other way, everyone could be their own analyst.

Sometimes people afraid of dying are told that death is just like how it was before you were born, a comforting line that does nothing to comfort: back then I wasn’t, but I’m here right now, existing, to one day stop, there’s no comparison. It’s more like those first few years of existence – you’re there, growing, bloating, rotting, but the whole experience is unperceived. In Heidegger, the death of Dasein is the condition of its individuality; death belongs to it alone, and nobody else can die for it. This is nonsense. Death is, after all, not an event in experience (Wittgenstein concurs here: ‘We do not live to experience death’), but it is experienced, by our survivors. Our death belongs only and always to other people. And childhood too: childhood, the order of the Imaginary, Oedipus – our prehistory is not our own.

Say a young boy is terrified of horses. Normally a perfectly ordinary child, good-tempered and healthily perverse, at the sight of horses he goes into fits; watching through shuttered hands as the poor docile cart-horses from the coaching house across the street wearily clop over the cobblestones; their nodding, snorting unconsciousness sets him shrieking, bawling, shivering. And he’s always at the balcony: he says he’s waiting for the little girl to appear through the opposite window, but in the meantime he delights himself by being terrified of horses. ‘I have to look at horses, and then I’m frightened.’ Naturally the parents are worried: as devotees of the eminent psychologist Sigmund Freud, they’ve tried to raise their child to be as happy and uninhibited as possible; they can’t understand where they could possibly have gone wrong. So they enlist his help. Sigmund talks to the boy, briefly, with only a little condescension, and then afterwards the child races to the balcony to watch the distinguished psychologist crossing the street. Sigmund Freud paces quickly, wrapping his overcoat tight around his bones against the cold, as he hurries over to the coaching house to speak with one of the horses. A big muscular creature, stained city-white, black harness, black blinkers. He talks seriously and animatedly to the horse, taking off his glasses, stowing them in his overcoat, putting them back on again, blowing big clouds of pipe-smoke into the frosty air. The horse nods solemnly, or bares its gnashing yellow teeth, and all the while its monstrous penis slowly extends, brown and slimy, steam rising from the creature’s great heaving haunches as it discusses it’s son’s curious phobia. And the boy watches, trembling through his tears, full of ancient and unknowable terror.

Little Hans was afraid that his father, embodied as a horse, would come and cut off his penis, a fear that’s so elementary and constitutive of the subject that it’s in a way more true than truth itself. Freud, in his case study of the child, gains most of his understanding of the situation by talking to the father himself; while his entire approach is governed by the idea that Hans is terrified for an explicable reason, that ‘the arbitrary has no existence in mental life,’ there’s still the shroud that falls over childhood that makes it impossible to access from the outside. So he talks to the father, a sensible Freudian himself, to get the facts. Hans is afraid that a horse will bite off his piddler, and Freud goes and discusses the issue with the horse. But there’s one question he doesn’t ask. So, do you? Do you want to cut your son’s dick off?

Psychoanalysis is also, like any symbolic discourse, a discourse of the father; in other words, one in which the actual father is conspicuously absent. The psychoanalytic father is the Symbolic father; both as paternal principle in the order of the Symbolic and as the fundamental and generative phallic signifier. A son’s feelings towards his father are psychoanalytically significant; the father’s towards his son are not. In Lacan, the castration complex ends with what is in a sense an actual castration: the infant, cowed by the father’s potency, abandons any attempt to identify itself with the imaginary phallus; thereafter the phallus is always conceived as that which one lacks. It’s something that belongs to the other, and induction into the Symbolic order of signifiers, in which the phallus is the first, is compensation for this loss. But what happens when the infant grows up, and has children of his own? What happened when Hans became a horse himself? Did he remember the fear he once felt, as he clattered blithely over his own cobblestones? In Freud the child fears castration from the terrifying and priapic father; but in Lacan the father was already castrated a long time ago. And now he’s faced by a red-faced, screaming thing that does not happen to itself, without language, without reason, an unmediated and purely phallic presence. Wouldn’t the immediate, buried instinct be to cut it off?

All this is by way of talking about the nude photos supposedly of Justin Bieber that were recently leaked online. Two things are significant here. Firstly, the fact that the neurotic castrati of online are simultaneously transfixed by the question of how big it is and entirely unable to provide themselves with a satisfying answer. There’s a particular hatred for Justin Bieber that seems to emanate entirely from adult men: they complain that his music is terrible (it’s not that bad, really), as if trying to establish a narcissism of small differences between themselves and a twelve-year-old girl; the real complaint can only be his function as the object of the other’s desire. In other words, from the perspective of psychoanalysis, they hate Justin Bieber because he is their own father. Secondly, there’s this:

The original has been deleted, as if that could fix anything. This is of course Bieber’s father, proudly announcing to the world that he deliberately sought out pornographic images of his own son, and who has essentially sent him a “fuck me daddy” tweet. Some context: Bieber père separated from the star’s mother when he was thirteen months old, and has seemingly returned to cash in on his child’s celebrity; in 2014 it was revealed in a court case that Justin pays his father’s $1,650 monthly rent, nicely inverting the traditional Oedipal triad. In 2002, he allegedly kicked an eighteen-year-old woman in the face, breaking her jaw in two places, after she ejected him from a party at which he boasted that he could beat up anyone in the room and demanded that she lift up her shirt. In another incident, he abused and harassed flight attendants on a private jet. He pushed his four-year-old son’s face into a birthday cake, whereupon Justin tried to calm the child’s tears by showing him images of the event so he could see how funny it was. Of course Jeremy wants to cut his son’s dick off, of course that was what he meant when he leeringly commented on how big it is – like so many millions of others, he ascribes phallus to Justin Bieber, a phallus that even in Lacan can never entirely escape its penile origin; like all of us, his subject is the precipitate of lost objects, the sum total of everything it doesn’t have. Presence belongs to the other, and the paternal instinct is to abolish it. Like every other seemingly normal and healthy person, Jeremy Bieber hungers for the end of the world. But the point isn’t to form a psychoanalysis of the Bieber family, to add some Freudian tinge to the ordinary game of speculating about the private lives of the celebs. The point is to see how Justin Bieber’s dick can push through the edges of psychoanalysis itself, plumb though that hazy region where science fades into the black tomb of infantility and death.

Like the phallus as such, Justin Bieber’s dick is a signifier without a signified. It belongs to nobody – beamed across the world, leered over by millions – certainly not to him. The waking world is the site of an infinite dislocation: there’s a unity and wholeness to its outside, but that happens to someone else, a real person, of which we are only the tumbling echo. The mournful ghost of a world we lost long ago. A hypothetical retort to Freud’s theory of infantile amnesia: early childhood is not forgotten because of the traumas that occur, but because in the absence of trauma there’s no need for memory – after all, in his Project for a Scientific Psychology Freud himself conceives of memory, whether conscious or repressed, as a traumatic breaching in the brain. It’s in these dark places or non-places that psychoanalysis seeks out its truths. Justin Bieber’s dick invites us to step across the threshold of existence into something not fully conceivable: a psychoanalysis of the afterlife.

Howard Jacobson is the worst living writer

Linger but a while, dear reader, on these words – and forgive me my presumptive apostrophising, but the fact, crude as it may be, yet remains: you are my sadly anonymous reader, and I am the great and lauded novelist Howard Jacobson, twice shortlisted for the Booker Prize, once the winner, fêted by the literary establishment for my wry and incisive wit, my charming, bittersweet empathy, my deft dabbings of sentiment, my scarf, my beard, and all my other many enlivening qualities. I’ve read Ulysses. By this point you might already feel an exhaustion, or a poison bulge of resentment suppurating in the back of your throat; you may long for me to get to the point. But I beseech you, put this aside. Learn, as King Solomon is said to have learned, that all things must pass. I’ve also read Middlemarch. The point may never arrive, or it may only come in the final sentence. What a life this might be if we could grow beyond humanity’s unfortunate predilection for the pointed! No more blades to cut and wound, nor razor-wire to keep us apart from one another, only soft, sagging flesh, or the generous shade of trees, which I adore, oaks especially. Did I, perchance, mention that I’ve read Ulysses? It is, in many ways, the point (there it is again) of apotheosis of the grand Victorian humanist novel, and might you discern something of Leopold Bloom in my humble self? Reader, perhaps you may. A learned toleration, a mournful libidinality, a gentleness and goodness that so faintly lingers from a time now past. How I yearn for a world of peace and unity! But, malheureusement, that is not the sphere on which we have sprouted. So in the meantime, please allow me to nurture this seedling of a scintilla in your intracranial folds, let it grow and take root: we must shoot the proles and nuke the Gaza Strip.

There’s something uniquely repulsive about Howard Jacobson’s weekly columns in the independent. His books are bad, but they’re bad in the normal way, the way in which basically all recent capital-L Literary novels are bad. Like Donna Tartt, or Jonathan Franzen, or Haruki Murakami, or Karl Ove Knausgård, or that one that you quite like. The way in which any lingering (post-)modernist concern for the questions of what a text is and what its possibilities might be are shunted aside in favour of minute observations about family life and sexual neuroses occasionally jumbled up with flatulent pronouncements on the Human Condition. It’s a little like a return to the traditions of 19th century realism (an era in which, as now, the only actually worthwhile English novels were shoddily produced, amateurishly written, and shamelessly pulpy), but more than that it’s the dying pant of the novel as a dominant literary form. Howard Jacobson’s particular shtick is that all his novels are a middle-class, middle-aged Jewish male writing a novel about a middle-class, middle-aged Jewish male writing a novel about a middle-class, middle-aged Jewish male; it’s like Philip Roth on benzodiazepines. Shoddy but not unusual. But as a columnist, he’s the absolute worst in Britain, and very possibly the world.

This isn’t something I say lightly. As you’d expect from a class of people who, looking out at a planet full of constant horror, mostly see the chance to have a correct or profitably offensive opinion about it, the professional commentariat is a gallery of monsters and imbeciles. Katie Hopkins, circling the drowning refugees in her speedboat as she cackles through plasticky gums. Jeremy Clarkson’s jeans, which have long sunk into his skin and colonised his organs, so that he’s now just denim all the way through, entertainingly calling for the mass extermination of this week’s despised minority. An army of broadsheet bores, endlessly droning in the imperative mood, telling the public and the government and the opposition what they should and shouldn’t do, as if having a column in a daily newspaper confers some kind of spiritual leadership. Simon Jenkins. Jonathan Jones. Me. But Howard Jacobson isn’t satisfied with the usual conventions of the bad opinion column; he’s a Booker-winning novelist, deigning to bring his subtle art to this most debased of forms – mostly by draping run-of-the-mill reactionary opinions in the kind of sanctimonious waffle that makes you wish for the sleek, punchy polemicism of a Richard Littlejohn or a Melanie Phillips. Howard Jacobson could write two thousand words on how a square has four sides, tack on some class chauvinism or virulent anti-Palestinian rhetoric, and produce something virtually indistinguishable from his usual output. Howard Jacobson is Britain’s worst living writer.

It’s sadly not possible to go through every single one of Howard Jacobson’s terrible columns, but luckily in the last month alone he’s managed to produce some of his stupidest crap to date. I’ll start with the fluff. Exhibit A, a column from the 18th of September, titled ‘I don’t understand this ‘LinkedIn’ and the way it evokes memories of childhood rejection in me.’ This is a late contribution to the genre of Old People Vocally Infuriated By The Internet, and has apparently come to us through a wormhole leading to the year 2006, when it was last acceptable for apparently serious newspapers to print sentiments along the lines of ‘What’s all this Face-Book nonsense? Why don’t you just read an actual book, with your actual face?’ It also bears a strange resemblance to the slogan t-shirts still sold (but to whom?) in Camden Market and souvenir shops, the ones with messages like ‘Forget Google – ask my wife!’ or ‘You looked better on Facebook’ – although these at least have the virtue of brevity. In his essay, Jacobson describes receiving an (almost certainly automated) email from some unknown person inviting him to use the social networking service, and while he refuses, he’s still wracked by guilt, by ‘the idea of someone hanging on, anxiously eyeing the mail every morning, wondering if you received the original request, wondering if you’ve responded yet, wondering if you ever will’ – which is naturally bound to bring a Proustian reminiscence of ‘all the rebuffs and repudiations one’s suffered – in my case a half a century of unrequitedness.’ Jacobson isn’t just confused by what the website does, he can’t even work out its name – but because he’s an award-winning writer, he’s befuddled in a profoundly literary way. ‘Never having heard it spoken, and possessing no instinct for cyber semiotics, I couldn’t make out the word the letters added up to.’ Eventually he decides it’s ‘a Finnish translation of the name of a princess from One Thousand and One Nights […] the Princess Link-a-din.’ A simple two-word phrase is too much for him, which raises the unsettling implication that this lauded men of letters is actually functionally illiterate.

Jacobson’s inevitable prescription is to log off. ‘Only deconnect,’ he says (see what he did there?). ‘Out in the free, uncompromised world of the unlinked no hell-troll can hound the mildest Corbyn sceptic.’ Which is a strange way of framing things, given that earlier in the month Jacobson had written an article neatly slotting the then-leadership candidate into his grand overarching mythos, a kind of fantasy world in which the political Left, and in particular the Palestine solidarity movement, is motivated solely by a foaming hatred of the Jews. (And what about those anti-zionists who, like myself, happen to be Jewish? In his novel The Finkler Question, we’re represented in the title character’s former incarnation as a greedy, egotistical Shylock character, cynically deploying his Jewishness to curry favour with pro-Palestinian Gentiles while in fact pathologically hating his own people. In Kalooki Nights a similar figure, a cartoonist desperate to expunge his unwanted Jewishness onto the page, discovers to his horror that the people commissioning his work are overt antisemites. In other words, we’re just self-haters. In which case, Howard Jacobson is just another cop putting fences up around the borders of Jewish identity.) The point, when he gets round to it, is this: let’s say Corbyn is not himself an antisemite – although of course it’s not ‘possible to guarantee the complexion of another’s soul’ – but why does he spend so much time hanging out with people who are? Why does he want to boycott Israel but not Hamas? It’s a boring and boorish smear, cribbed directly from our more frenzied tabloids; what Jacobson does, in his inimitable style, is add insufferability to stupidity. ‘The offence you take at any imputation of prejudice is the hollow hypocrite’s offence,’ he says to Corbyn, ‘and your protestations of loving peace and justice, no matter who believes them, are as ash.’ A solid effort, but it could be improved by using the full phrase, beloved by teenage poets for decades, ‘as ashes in my mouth.’ The Booker Prize comes with an award of £50,000. There’s no justice.

Jacobson never outrightly states that Palestine solidarity is driven by antisemitism (he’s far too literary for that); he just occasionally wonders, or considers, or innocently questions the motives of this or that person, again and again, in column after column, a lone man in a small cell farting out little insubstantial clouds of suspicion until the accumulating stink fills the room. From his attack on Corbyn: ‘The truism that criticism of Israel does not equate to anti-Semitism is repeated ad nauseam. Nor, necessarily, does it. But those who leave out the “necessarily” ask for a universal immunity. Refuse it and they trammel you in the “How very dare you” trap.’ How very dare you indeed. When footage emerged of a young Queen performing a Nazi salute, Jacobson did all the requisite forelock-tugging – ‘I know she is good for the Jews. How do I know? I just know’ – before, in the last two paragraphs, saying what he really sat down to say: British Jews like Howard and I shouldn’t be worried about the be-swastika’d upper classes, but we should be terrified of Hezbollah, Hamas, and the political Left (where antisemitism ‘goes by another name’). In 2009, immediately after a war that killed nearly 1,500 Palestinians and thirteen Israelis, Jacobson wrote a column with the title ‘Let’s see the ‘criticism’ of Israel for what it really is.’ Within, amid the usual self-inflating pontification, he described comparisons between Gaza and the Warsaw Ghetto as ‘the latest species of Holocaust denial.’ In 2011, he wrote a kind of open letter to his fellow author Alice Walker, begging her not to join the aid flotilla to Gaza that would shortly be subjected to murderous State piracy in international waters. In particular, he focuses on the fact that the flotilla was carrying ‘letters expressing solidarity and love’ for children in Gaza. This offends his egalitarian instincts. ‘Not, presumably, for Israeli children. Perhaps it is thought that Israeli children are the recipients of enough love already. So what about solidarity?’ What really grates Jacobson about the anti-occupation movement is its certitude, the way they’ve entirely made up their minds – how gauche, how unsophisticated; they should, like him, airily flit between parties, make a big show of holding them up to equal scrutiny, before inevitably fluttering to rest on the side of the nuclear-powered colonialists rather than the people they’re occupying.

Not that Howard Jacobson’s prejudice is limited to the oppressed peoples of the Middle East: he has plenty of scorn for the poor and tactless here at home. Take another piece, also published in the last month, on lad culture at British universities. For Jacobson, the problem with sexual assault on campus isn’t the sexual assault, it’s the fact that it’s happening on campus. The problem is that universities are no longer for the elite, but have been invaded by a tide of oversexed oiks. He looks back fondly on his days as a student at Cambridge, when everyone at university was shy, scrawny, studious, celibate, and not ‘interested in the carnivals of the proletariat.’ In his telling, over-serious middle class boys never rape anyone, only the feral underclasses. Jacobson and his dweeby cohort were, he says with all apparent seriousness, just like Paul Morel in DH Lawrence’s Sons and Lovers – a strange citation, given that Morel wasn’t exactly a standard-bearer for good sexual ethics. ‘Where have men of this sort gone?’ (They’ve probably all escaped to Link-a-din.) He continues: ‘In the case of those of us who studied literature, the books we read turned us inward and kept us civil. It would have been hard to go from reading Jane Eyre to inveigling totty back to our rooms and doing violence on them. I don’t say an MA in gangsta rap or business studies will necessarily make you a rapist, but there’s less mental distance to travel before you get there.’ Besides his thoughtless class hatred, Jacobson betrays an incredibly impoverished attitude to literature – the idea that it exists to turn us into kinder, milder, gentler people, that great art ought to be a kind of primitive Xanax. (Should someone tell Howard Jacobson what DH Lawrence actually got up to? Maybe instead of Sons and Lovers he should have read Women in Love, which towards the end features another wealthy and bookish young man attempting to strangle his girlfriend to death.) He ends with a defiant insight: ‘Sex is better when it’s mutual and, better still, when the parties to it pause occasionally to read a book together.’ Midway through the act? Maybe he’s freakier than I thought.

Unlike the best tabloid columnists, real masters of their craft, Howard Jacobson never entertainingly rolls around in the muck of his own hatred. Instead, against all the evidence, he insists that he’s a good right-on liberal – a socialist, even. After all, how could anyone be prejudiced when they have such a profound love of words? Even if it’s a love that he expresses in the same way Paul Morel expresses his love for Miriam: by imposing himself on them. But the real question isn’t why Jacobson is so bad; it’s why people still seem to respect him despite his total worthlessness. If this is how our heroes write now, then literature ought to be put out of its misery. In a way, Howard Jacobson really does perform a trenchant and incisive critique of our society – but it’s not in the things that he writes, it’s in the reaction to them.

One last one. Jacobson’s most recent column, published over the weekend, is another ebulliently witty broadside against any and all criticism of Israel. This time, his ire is drawn by a Spanish clowning troupe who protested by stripping naked in front of the apartheid wall near Bethlehem, inadvertently upsetting some local residents. Cue the usual whinging about the fiendish complexity of the situation, and how ‘meddlesome’ it is for anyone other than Howard Jacobson to take a moral stance. But before he gets there, a brief detour on the virtues of staying shtum when you don’t have anything of value to contribute, in this ‘age of immoderate opinion unhampered by knowledge.’ Jacobson quotes Wittgenstein, or, at least, a scrap of Wittgenstein he picked up somewhere else: ‘I don’t grasp what philosophical problem concerning language and reality the sentence “Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent” addresses – but I am going to employ it, anyway, against those who don’t know their arses from their elbows and ought to shut the fuck up.’ Physician, mate, heal thyself.

GOP 2016: Give Iran the bomb

I watched the latest Republican debate on a glitchily illegal stream from a dull and unassuming corner of north London. The debate was long, lasting roughly four thousand years; when the victor poked his head up from the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library in Simi Valley, California, the vast and mighty empire he had sworn to protect was long extinct, remembered only in Chinese textbooks and a few quirks of heraldry. And the time difference didn’t help; by the time it finished I was utterly exhausted, feverish and all but insensate. It’s hard to talk about what happened during the debate, when I can’t really be sure that any of it had happened at all. For instance, I could swear that at one point the CNN moderators had let eleven wild hogs loose onto the stage, and announced that the Republican nomination for President would be given to whichever candidate first wrestled their animal to the ground. Mike ‘Gabagool’ Huckabee bullishly nutted his hefty porker of an opponent in the back of the head: a meaty thump as two thick craniums collided, echoing with two sets of identical, frantic squeals. Rand Paul, caprine and trembling, faced his pig with hollowed cheeks and hungry eyes; they seemed to weave circles around his podium, fleeing and pursuing at the same time. Donald Trump’s pig just took a place by the man’s side, reared up onto its back trotters, and started oinking along to his speeches. I looked from pig to man and man to pig, but it was impossible to say which was which. That was when I realised that the fatigue had got the better of me: for the last twenty minutes, I had been watching the debate with double vision.

So much of the debate was like that. Did Ted Cruz really try to bolster his arguments by referring to an editorial cartoon? Did Jeb Bush really say that his brother had kept America safe by referring to 9/11? Was there really a long period in which everyone was fantasising about live brain harvesting? Were the candidates really asked what they’d like their Secret Service codenames to be? Did John Kasich really say Unit One? Did Rand Paul really say Justice Never Sleeps? Did Carly Fiorina really say Secretariat? Secretariat? But all I had to do was look on Twitter, and there it was. Once, political candidates spoke entirely in soundbites for the evening news, and that was bad enough. Now, their campaign teams are busy at work as the debates take place, frantically pasting their quips and dribbles onto stock photographs and dumping them online, to be shared and faved by the faithful. As the Situationists knew, any large enough collection of images creates a miniature reality, and these worlds are not required to make sense. Each candidate stood in the centre of their own pocket universe, each fundamentally identical, each identically insane. For someone with an interest in any of these lazily arranged gargoyles, it must have all made perfect sense. For me, it was like staring into a black hole.

It wasn’t really taking place in Simi Valley; we were on the ramparts of Elsinore. A new staging, the worst in history, in which everyone was trying to be Hamlet. First, the ghost of Ronald Reagan, clanking before the gates in his Air Force One-shaped armour, blood and senescence dripping from its joints, finally lifting his visor before his children to reveal a black maw, flesh dripping in streaky rivulets from fang to void. He wasn’t an entertainer who turned into a politician, he was entertainment itself, forgetting everything that precedes it, annihilating everything it faces, politics included. And then the ghost vanishes, and the play begins: eleven Hamlets all at once: they feign madness, they spurn words for bloodshed, they blankly dispatch their one-time friends, they cynically condemn women to a needless death, they dance with poisoned swords. But it’s all idiocy, and the result doesn’t matter: outside, the armies of Fortinbras have taken the walls.

It’s easy to say, with a dismissive shrug, that the Republicans are crazy. But they’re not, and the truth is far worse: they’re all pretending to be crazy. In the pre-debate, the warm-up freak-parade before the main event, each lesser candidates jostled to be crazier than the last. One of them (Lindsay Graham? Bobby Jindal? Does it matter? A beast with four heads and one voice) announced that Iran would only respect America if it started unilaterally ripping up international treaties. Another said that the Iranians would only be cowed by an American president who could bite the head off a newborn baby. Look at me! I’m crazy! I want to nuke the Sun! I’m even crazier! I repeatedly run at electrified fences! I shit the bath! I eat rocks! Early in the debate proper, Rand Paul responded to the idea that the nuclear agreement with Iran should be immediately cancelled by saying ‘I don’t think we need to be rash, I don’t think we need to be reckless.’ It was a weird moment: vaguely sane sentiments coming from the mouth of someone named after a woman who tried to turn psychopathy into the highest moral virtue, whose utopian New Sodom could only exist, even in fiction, with the help of a perpetual motion machine. There was no applause. The crowd stared, with the ravenous confusion of ten thousand starving hyaenas. Faced with the prospect of a weaponised Donald Trump, Carly Fiorina insisted that she had ‘a lot of faith in the common sense and good judgement of the voters of the United States of America.’ Meanwhile, the candidate that the voters of the United States of America have said they prefer – by double-digit margins – proudly thrust a steaming bowl of turds towards the camera. ‘I’m rich,’ he announced. ‘I’ve gone potty in many countries, all over the world. I could make a potty as big as the moon, if I wanted to.’

The other candidates knew better; their Howard Beale shticks were immaculate. They ranted about mass deportations, wars of extermination, burning flags, burning everything, the end of the world, and then insisted that Iran must not be allowed to enrich plutonium, because it’s ruled by a fanatical doomsday cult. (Honourable exception: Ben Carson, who just mumbled about nothing in particular with the breathy, halting affectlessness of a six year old child trying to read a phone book, and should probably give up rhetoric for his far less demanding day job as a paediatric neurosurgeon.) For all that they claim to love the American people, the thing these people actually addressed was an ugly caricature, and, like fast food or architecture, politics tends to create the people that it panders to. Driven by packs of bankers and witless condescending liberals from plywood mansions to breeze-block slums; bloated on imperial superprofits and dodgy credit; taunted by a myth of Rugged Individualism, deserts and danger, big leprous skies and the open road, as they teem like farmed salmon in the sluices of human history’s most advanced and uncaring bureaucracy; convinced that there’s nothing beyond America’s shining shores but threat and violence and, somewhere, a little gremlin of an ayatollah laughing at their ignorance. A creature that needs pills to fuck and foreign wars to not mind. It craves death, not in the sense of any flouncy romantic void, but megadeaths, irradiated zones, mutilated corpses on live TV. It doesn’t want a president, it wants a holy madman, a barbarian warlord, and a hug.

But it’s not enough to blame the voters. This is the eliminationist impulse of the terrified metropolitan liberal classes, every bit as vicious and bloodthirsty as the proles they despise, but less willing to cop to it: democracy doesn’t work, gas them all and bring in some drab rational middle-managers to return the country to prosperity. But in fact, the feigned frenzy of the Republican Party is just an American version of the administrative technocracies already imposed on much of the rest of the world. It’s not that the political right has gone insane; insanity has come to function as an effective substitute for politics. Case in point: Donald Trump. Earlier in the race, he said of the the Vietnam War veteran (and good friend of Ukrainian neo-Nazis) John McCain – who spent five and a half years as a prisoner of war when his plane was shot down during an attack on civilian infrastructure in Hànội – that ‘he’s not a war hero. He’s a war hero because he was captured? I like people who weren’t captured.’ Normally this would have ended his campaign; the one solid law of American politics is that you do not criticise The Troops. But his surge carried on unabated. He didn’t even have to apologise. This isn’t even liberal democracy any more: everyone involved is just form, blank and total, without any possibility of content; language without signification, madness without a psyche. This holds across the spectrum: Hillary Clinton, a blinding-white astral demon made of chicken gristle and wax-paper, doesn’t even pretend that she’s running for any reason beside her own personal hunger for power. She wants to rule the world; it’d be hers by birth, only she wasn’t born, she emerged like a lizard out its egg from the cold undeath of money, fully formed. Her entire campaign is less advertising than a judicial sentence. We have been condemned to four to eight years of Hillary Clinton, because it’s her turn now. There’s not much that’s good about the Republican party, but at least they’re from this planet.

During the debate the biggest issue was (of course) Iran, and the deal that had just been agreed that would prevent Iran from building any of the nuclear weapons that it wasn’t building anyway. This incensed most of the candidates, who seemed to think that eliminating Iran’s nuclear capacity was only worthwhile if it took place in the context of eliminating Iran as such. Which raises the question: what’s the point of making sure Iran can’t have the bomb, if we’re then just going to give it to Mike Huckabee, or Ted Cruz, or Bernie Sanders, or Hillary Clinton? Watching the debate as it ended, as the streets outside me filled with cars and chatter, normal people with something to live for, my head throbbed and my teeth chattered and the parade of lunatics onscreen seemed to turn to me and hiss vague personal threats through secret corners of their mouths obscured by the blurry low-resolution feed and I thought: give Iran the bomb. Not that it matters, but the country is a plateau of stability in a region turned to jelly by successive waves of imperialism; surrounded by Isis on one side, the Taliban on the other, and Saudi Arabia across the Gulf, Iran may as well be a Denmark on the Caspian. Not that it matters, but an Iran with an independent deterrent, safe from attack and invasion, no longer cowed in the shadow of Israel’s regional nuclear monopoly, might be the only thing that can save the human species. Not that it matters. Give Iran the bomb, because when the sun came up all I could see was a mushroom cloud, the flash before the devastation, and if we all go out together and the fire laps from pole to pole, I don’t want it to be because of Donald Trump.

Building Norway: a critique of Slavoj Žižek

Most of us are now grimly aware of the pernicious hydraulic metaphor for migration – the tendency in newspapers or opinion columns for movements of people to be described in ominously fluid terms: a flood, a wave, a stream, a tide, an influx, a rising body of stinking brown water that can only threaten any settled population. This language isn’t just monstrously deindividuating and dehumanising: when hundreds of migrants are dying at sea, it helps to suture up any ethical laceration before it can fully open itself. Water to water, dust to dust. Vast numbers of people – children included – can sink beneath the waves without anyone feeling any need to do anything about it; it’s only once bodies wash up on beaches that there’s an imperative to act. So it’s unfortunate, but not surprising, that The Non-Existence of Norway, Slavoj Žižek’s essay on migration in the London Review of Books, starts in these familiar terms: ‘The flow of refugees from Africa and the Middle East into Western Europe…’ What comes next is even more unsettling: Žižek compares the European response to the crisis to Kübler-Ross’s five stages of grief – denial, anger, bargaining, and so on. Not just any grief, though – Europe is displaying ‘a set of reactions strikingly similar to those we display on learning we have a terminal illness.’ Migrants aren’t just a flood; Žižek resurrects a far more nakedly racist metaphor. The internal other is a parasite, a pathogen, or a cancer, a corrosive and polluting agent that brings death for the (healthy, homogeneous and homoeostatic) body it infects. Of course, this is on the level of the European reaction; he’s not himself making the comparison; it’s something that could be very plausibly dismissed as a little rhetorical pirouette. But it doesn’t bode well for what’s to come.

There are no great old Soviet jokes in this essay, no references to Hitchcock or Kung Fu Panda, and only a brief, perfunctory mention of Stalin. Crucially, there’s no Freud, Lacan, or Hegel; not even (surprisingly, given that the question of migration is ultimately one of hospitality) any citation of Derrida. Above all, there’s nothing that could be considered as Marxism. Which raises the question of what theory is actually for. Is it essentially just a game, a way of forming entertaining readings of pop-cultural ephemera, to be put aside in favour of a level and pragmatic analysis as soon as Real And Important Issues such as migration emerge? Or is it something that’s actually essential in forming a sophisticated understanding of the world, and never more so than when the unspoken demand is that we put away our rhizomes and différances, and start dealing with reality? However guilty I might be of the former tendency, I’d like to believe that the latter is true. Clearly Žižek doesn’t agree: what The Non-Existence of Norway gives us is an unadulterated and unmediated opinion piece, one normal man’s take, something that would be equally at home in the op-ed pages of the Wall Street Journal or on the blog of a self-confessed political junkie.

Žižek’s argument is convoluted and contradictory, but it could be briefly summarised like this. The migration ‘crisis’ currently afflicting Europe is (correctly) identified as the inevitable result of successive Western interventions in the Middle East and north Africa, along with neocolonial relations across the global South. At the same time, migrants display an ‘enigmatically utopian’ demand: they don’t just want to arrive somewhere safe in Europe, away from bombs and guns. The thousands heroically marching across Hungary are scrambling for Austria and Germany, those forced to camp in squalid conditions in Calais are ‘not satisfied with France’ and demand Britain instead, people risking their lives on rubber dinghies across the Aegean want to build a good life for themselves and their children in Norway – but, Žižek insists, ‘there is no Norway, not even in Norway.’ Life isn’t fair, folks. Migrants are everywhere met with reactionary violence, claiming to defend the pre-existing European way of life from the invaders, but the ‘standard left-liberal line on this is an arrogant moralism’ – to insist that human dignity outweighs any concerns over social disruption is ‘merely the obverse of anti-immigrant brutality,’ because it accepts that the defence of one’s way of life is in contradiction with ‘ethical universalism.’ But rather than demonstrating that this is a false opposition, however, Žižek seemingly out of nowhere starts valorising the (nonsensical) view that migration threatens some posited European way of life. ‘Should we tolerate migrants who prevent their children going to state schools; who force their women to dress and behave in a certain way; who arrange their children’s marriages; who discriminate against homosexuals?’ After indulging in this airily speculative rhetoricising for a few paragraphs, Žižek finally gets down to some serious prescriptivism. Europe must ‘reassert its commitment’ to the dignified treatment of refugees. (Does this mean that such a commitment already exists?) At the same time, it ‘must impose clear rules and regulations,’ through a strengthened central European authority. Migrants will be allocated a destination in Europe, and they must remain there. They must not commit any acts of sexist, racist, or religious violence, as such foreign types are apparently wont to do. This is because they are in Europe now, and are no longer free to indulge in the barbarisms endemic and unique to those parts of the world that produce migration. ‘Such rules privilege the Western European way of life, but that is the price to be paid for European hospitality.’ And they must be backed up by brutal state violence.

There is a lot that’s deeply wrong here, even beyond the obvious. The idea that the primary problem is the ‘flow’ of migrants into Europe, that Europe is experiencing a migration crisis, rather than the far more accurate reversal: migrants are experiencing a European crisis, one of fences and fascists and cops. The baffling notion that a lack of sexist, racist, or religious violence is somehow a fundamental part of European life, that these things only exist in the global South, and will be carried, plague-like, by its former inhabitants. The sudden and unexplained invocation of the Islamic veil as the master-signifier of non-European otherness: when hundreds are drowning in the Mediterranean, and thousands more are imprisoned in dehumanising refugee camps, is their expression of religiosity really the most pressing issue? Žižek’s essay seems to be as uninformed by bare facts as it is by theory: a vast portion of the migrants reaching Europe are Syrian, from a middle-income country with a long history of secularism and communal co-existence; the takfiri ideology that is currently running rampage in the region is a foreign import, as are most of the takfiri fighters themselves. Many of the refugees that can afford to make it to Europe are from the Syrian petit-bourgeoisie; if we really do believe that class is a more crucial determining factor than nationality, we should at least be open to the idea that their ‘values’ and ways of life will not be too different from those of bourgeois Europe.

It’s even possible to argue that the migrants are more European than Europe itself. Žižek mocks the utopian desire for a Norway that doesn’t exist, and insists that migrants should stay where they’re sent. (It doesn’t seem to occur to him that those trying to reach a certain country might have family members already there, or be able to speak the language, that it’s driven precisely by a desire to integrate. But also – isn’t this precisely the operation of the objet petit a? What kind of Lacanian tells someone that they should effectively abandon their desire for something just because it’s not attainable? Or are migrants not worthy of the luxury of an unconscious mind?) In Calais, migrants trying to reach the United Kingdom protested against their conditions with placards demanding ‘freedom of movement for all.’ Unlike racial or gender equality, the free movement of peoples across national borders is a supposedly universal European value that has actually been implemented – but, of course, only for Europeans. These protesters put the lie to any claim on the part of Europe to be upholding universal values. Žižek can only articulate the European ‘way of life’ in terms of vague and transcendent generalities, but here it is in living flesh. If the challenge of migration is one of European universalism against backwards and repressive particularism, then the particularism is entirely on the part of Europe.

This is, however, a line of argument that Žižek has deployed himself – see his discussion of the Haitian Revolution in First as Tragedy, Then as Farce; the moment when invading French soldiers were met by revolutionary slaves singing the Marseillaise. (Of course, even if all this weren’t the case – so what? Must anyone who doesn’t embody a certain universalism be left to drown?) So why not now? Is it because the Haitian Revolution is safely ensconced in the past, while the migrants’ crisis is happening now? Is it because of the uncomfortable element of Islam (although, as Susan Buck-Morss demonstrates, that was far from absent in Haiti)? Why, especially, does Žižek perform this total abandonment of theory? His ‘straightforward’ approach results in some highly uncomfortable formulations – take, for instance, the line that ‘refugees are the price we pay for a globalised economy in which commodities – but not people – are permitted to circulate freely.’ Not an overtly objectionable statement, but for the juxtaposition of ‘price’ with ‘economy.’ A price is an exchange-value, something that can only exist within a certain economy. An economy itself cannot have a price without being itself situated within some greater and more general economy – one that, under conditions of capitalist totality, can only ever replicate it. Rather than trying to form any critique of economy as such, Žižek surrenders his analysis over to it. Human life must be calculated in terms of cost and benefit, price rather than value; not just the presence of refugees but their existence itself is figured as an unconscionable squandering of resources. Nobody should be forced from their home, but here those people who are should instead not exist at all. This is why theory is essential: it allows us to more clearly identify, and resist, lines such as these.

Some of these questions might be answered by taking another perspective on Žižek’s essay. A properly Marxist critique doesn’t just look at what a text says, but what it does, and to whom it’s speaking. Žižek makes generous use of the first person plural pronoun throughout, but who is this ‘we’? Only and always the settled Europeans. It’s never once considered that a migrant could be educated, that they could speak English, that they could be reading the London Review of Books. When Žižek uses the vocative case, when he directly apostrophises the reader and makes prescriptions for what they should do, it’s even more obvious who he’s talking to. He invokes, but never encourages, a commonality of struggle between Europeans and migrants, or the kind of displays of spontaneous solidarity that are already breaking out across the continent. Instead, he directly addresses the European ruling classes, instructing them to impose rules and regulations, to form administrative networks, to introduce repressive measures. This is, to put it mildly, strange behaviour for a self-described communist. The Non-Existence of Norway isn’t a theoretical analysis, it’s a gentle word of heartfelt advice in the ear of the European bureaucratic class, one that’s not particularly interested in Lacan. For all his insistence on ‘radical economic change,’ this epistolary structure ensures that such a change is, for the time being, entirely off the table. Hence the insistence that there is not, and can never be, a Norway. The capitalists do not intend to make one, and Žižek does not intend to address those that could. To which the Marxist response must be that if there is no Norway, then we’ll have to build it ourselves.


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