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This is why I hate intellectuals

How to disdain your dragon

I have never been here before: my breath comes differently, the sun is outshone by a star beside it.
Kafka, Aphorism 17

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Literary fiction these days is crap, isn’t it? It might be better if the problem were just that most books are worthless – they are, but that’s always been the case; you always need a few decades to let the dross sink. There’s still good stuff out there; the blame must be placed squarely with you, the readers. Because somehow, even with your lives constantly probed and perforated, shokushu-like, by digital text, you people have forgotten how to read.

Look at what was probably the most significant literary event of the last few years, the publication of Kristen Roupenian’s short story “Cat Person”. The story of two people who meet, text each other, have awful unsatisfying sex, and then drift apart, “Cat Person” is written in a brisk, frank, stark, plain, competent, readable style. It includes sentences like ‘Robert sent her back a smiley-face emoji whose eyes were hearts’ and ‘maybe, she thought, her texting “lol r u serious” had hurt him, had intimidated him and made him feel uncomfortable around her.’ It describes a situation that’s fairly familiar – just about everyone I know, both male and female, has been in the position it describes, of having sex with someone out of a sense of resigned duty, going through the motions so as not to upset or disappoint the other person, of resigning yourself to a basically joyless life. It’s very easy to point at one or both of the basically hapless couple and say: it me. It’s all very well-observed, a very plausible dip into the mind of a tedious neurotic. It was received very well.

But something about this reception was strange. Shortly after the story exploded, people were announcing – in breathless, almost angry tones – that the author was actually a writer, that Roupenian actually had an MFA, and a PhD in English from Harvard to boot, that “Cat Person” might actually be a deliberately constructed work of fiction. This feels like a strange thing to be saying about a short story published in the New Yorker, but it was necessary. Broad swathes of the reading public seemed determined to read “Cat Person” as anything other than literature. Something about that brisk, frank, stark, plain style marked it off as something else: a piece of reportage, a personal account, a confession, an accusation. Something about the naïve realism of the literary voice made people assume that the author herself had to be a naïf, unadorned with any kind of creative untruth. Opinion writers – many of whom had their own degrees in English literature – refused to see it as a text to be evaluated; instead, the point was apparently to simply correctly identify the goodie and the baddie in the story, and hate the baddie appropriately. This is how children read. What is going on?

All this is particularly strange when you consider that “Cat Person” was written in a very particular ritual dialect called Mfalé, which emerged out of the temple complexes in Norwich and Iowa City, and is short for MFA Literary English. But the thing about Mfalé is that it tries to make itself invisible: it’s the style of no style; simple, unadorned, correct realist writing. This is how it became a vernacular; this is why Mfalé literature is so easily read as something other than literature. But for all that, it’s still a set of conventions, as basically artificial as any other.

Texts written in Mfalé are brisk, frank, stark, plain, competent, and readable. They concern the daily lives of a few everyday characters, usually young, usually in some kind of bad sexual relationship or complicated breakup, usually mediated by digital technology. There’s a close, but brief, attention to sensory detail, and an even closer attention to minor affective nuances: moments of inattention or miscommunication, people who see each other as more or less than they actually are, small eddies of desperation or loneliness or regret. There’s a lot of banal but realistically rendered dialogue. Stories are generally (but not always) written in the third person, but hew very closely to one particular perspective. If they’re not autobiographical, they read very strongly as if they might be autobiographical. They’re implicitly universal, but shy away from allegory, symbolism, or satire; instead of being general they’re relatable, so that each incident could plausibly echo a situation in your own life in a blossoming of one-to-one correspondences, so that the reader can imagine that the smart but fucked-up girl or the soulful but awkward boy is themselves and nobody else. Unlike some terminally online writers you might want to name, the authors of these works aren’t adverbially preening themselves with strange words or sentences elongated into unreadability – but they’re also not self-consciously flat or affectless or nihilistic. They gesture towards a kind of emotional hyperliteracy. If the author is showing off about something, it’s how much they see, how well they understand the social pitfalls of ordinary life.

I find these texts to be, in general, deeply creepy. If literature is not only a reproduction of social existence, but a site in the production of subjectivity, then this form is a machine for creating paranoiacs. The narrative is odourless and invisible, practically absent altogether, but it sees everything. It watches every minute shift in your emotional state, and jots it down. It’s the literary voice of the creature hiding in the shadows. It predates the technology, but there might be a reason this style is so dominant now: it’s the literature of the social-media panopticon, where everyone is sitting blank-faced behind a screen, watching each other, and waiting for a chance to judge.

This would all be forgivable, if it weren’t for the fact that these texts are also profoundly unrealistic. Take, for instance, Sally Rooney’s novel Normal People, which is definitely one of the better instances of the form. The story concerns a couple who get together, then split up again, then get together again, then split up again, then get together again, and in the final pages are implied to be about to split up again. Like “Cat Person”, it’s well observed and very competently written. But this is a story about young Irish people in the present day, and not once in the entire novel does anyone actually crack a joke. Every conversation is deeply earnest and deeply fraught. These people just have feelings, and conceal or talk about them, and are utterly po-faced throughout.

Realist fiction is not realistic. After all, what is a joke? It’s the eruption of a kind of abstract absurdity into the social world, an absurdity that throws everything into sharp relief, that reveals a certain truth that was previously buried, but without simply representing it. Realism is always meticulously anti-absurdist: everything has to be believable, or it’s harder to relate. Which is how you end up with a vision of human existence that rings true in every particular, but fails to add up to anything, that presents people as always diminished, petty, and dull. As Borges notes of Proust, these fictional events are ‘unacceptable as inventions, and we unwittingly resign ourselves to them as we resign ourselves to the insipidity and the emptiness of each new day.’

As well as instant fame, “Cat Person” gave Kristen Roupenian a $1.2 million advance on her book. But when You Know You Want This was published this year, it was to tepid, cautious reviews. Some of the awkwardness that surrounds an apostate: aside from “Cat Person” itself and one or two others, the texts it contains are not written in Mfalé. Instead, they’re fabular, artifical, constructed; less like a story and more like a tale, something like the Grimm brothers, or the Arabian Nights, or Kafka. They describe situations that it’s harder to relate to, because you’ve never fused all your enemies into a giant flesh-monster, or killed your husband because of a bucket. People are depthless, obscure and obscene. In the LRB, a frustrated reviewer took to parenthetically adding (no reason) every time one of Roupenian’s characters did something that couldn’t be understood. These stories carry a note of the inexplicable, the abstract, and the absurd. A rising strangeness that’s set against the background of mundane thoughts and lives, and seems to emerge out of it, but in a way that can’t be reduced to that setting. This is what reviewers complained about: you have a story about a young couple forced to deal with what’s obviously a metaphor for Our Modern-Day Issues With Self-Esteem, a woman obsessing over every inch of her skin with a magnifying glass – but then the metaphor ‘pierces through her flesh and wriggles free,’ alive, spiked with thousands of tiny legs, and incapable of thinking neurotically about what it might mean.

Tales, in general, are truer than stories. Here’s one, related by Borges in The Dialogues of Ascetic and King: one night, an old man arrives at the court of Olaf Tryggvason, who had been converted to Christianity while in England. The king asks him what he can do, and the old man replies that he knows how to play the harp and tell stories. After a few songs, he relates the story of the birth of Odin. Three Fates arrived at the god’s birth; two prophesied great fortune and happiness, but the third, in a rage, said: you will live no longer than the candle burning by your side, and so Odin’s parents quickly extinguished the candle. Olaf Tryggvason doesn’t believe the story, and the two of them debate the matter into the night, until the lights are dim and the stranger finally announces that it is late, and he must leave. After the lights have exhausted themselves, the king and his men go out to search for him. A few steps from the king’s house, Odin is lying dead.

It’s a melancholy story. The passing of an era, the roar of the old gods fading to a few quiet notes on the harp, the way Odin comes to inhabit the meekness of the Christ that overthrew him. But it’s not just a historical artefact. It feels true, without having any obvious point of identification or clear symbolic meaning. Sad dignity, resignation, and the inexplicable, because life itself is often sad and thankless and strange. The sense, somewhere, of an entirely different way of being, a different way of relating to the snow and the gods and time, a dying world, but one that still echoes, that’s curled up tight inside our potential selves, even today.

All of this, of course, is by way of talking about Game of Thrones.

It’s become a commonplace to point out just how uncreative most fantasy is. I’m sometimes struck by it, reading the blurbs on the fantasy novels at the Tube station mini library. Gogorax is an apprentice Brightcaster – a wielder of powerful magic. When the evil Lord Zugenhelm threatens the realm of Palovar, he must embark on a journey that leads him past the Pillars of Plib and the swamplands of Plonts to collect the five mystical Orbs of Power. This is what’s called worldbuilding, but it’s not world that’s being built. A world is a way of experiencing reality and other people; it’s the unit of social and phenomenological difference. The greatest builder of fantasy worlds in literature was probably Bruno Schulz, who set all his stories in the same quiet Polish town. What these authors build are only geographies.

The innovation of Game of Thrones was supposedly to build a more realistic world. Instead of the hollow creatures of schlock-fantasy – the trueborn heir, the dark lord, the sturdy peasant – you get fleshed-out characters, with the same family squabbles and romantic disappointments you’ve learned to expect from Rooney or Knausgaard. When the war against an undead evil comes, you still need to worry about how you’re going to feed the horses. Even if there’s a bit of magic here and there, it’s all ultimately about politics: it’s realist fiction with dragons in. But then, in the last two seasons, the glamour of realism started to wear off.

An online petition demanding that the final season be scrapped and remade has gathered, at the time of writing, three billion signatures. But beyond the self-evident fact that this show has become extremely bad, the complaint is actually quite incoherent. On the one hand, viewers are upset that ‘character arcs’ aren’t being respected, that the show’s done away with the narrative conventions of high fantasy. The magic zombie army is destroyed in a single battle, almost as a prelude to three more episodes of squabbling and politics! It’s not even the secret trueborn heir who defeats them! In the end, he doesn’t even take the throne! Why isn’t this The Lord of the Rings? But at the same time, the show is no longer realistic. How are these characters zipping instantaneously around the map? Why did they put the catapults in front of their infantry? How come she couldn’t see all those ships? What happened to the Mongols? Why do characters no longer do things that an actual person would do in their situation, but act as if tugged along by invisible lines of plot?

I’m not here to defend one of the biggest and most lucrative culture-commodities of the twenty-first century. A complaint can be both incoherent and also correct (in fact, they usually are). I just want to talk about one particular scene. In the penultimate episode, Dragon Hillary finally gets everything she ever wanted. Her troops breach the walls of the enemy’s capital, the forces opposing them surrender, the crown is practically tossed at her feet. And in this moment, as the bells ring, the liberator goes on a murderous rampage, burning and killing hundreds of thousands of innocent people – once she’s already won; for, as the LRB would put it, (no reason).

You could talk about this in terms of cheap and lazy plotting, rushed heel-turns, violence against the character. This is dull. You could talk about representation and the distrust of women in power, or crow that Dragon Hillary turned out to be just like the real Hillary after all. This is also dull. So is Hobbes and realpolitik, the arbitrary violence of sacred kingships, the mass human sacrifices that accompanied royal successions in West Africa and Mesoamerica. What struck me about that scene – and it struck me hard; shortened breath and anxious heartbeats as the city burned – was how true it was to daily life. A child has a favourite toy confiscated; for weeks he begs to get it back, because it’s the thing he wants most in the world – and then when it’s returned, in a fit of sudden sourceless fury, he smashes the thing to bits. A basic psychoanalytic principle: the thing you want is never the thing you really want. The thing you really want, the objet petit a, is the impossible thing, the thing that isn’t, the thing that flies with dragons in the night. So Dragon Hillary, watching her victory from a distance, isn’t satisfied. She thought this would make her happy, but it’s not enough; happiness doesn’t work like that. So she burns it all down – and afterwards it’s too late; you can burn it down, but you can’t fix it once that’s done, and you can’t fix yourself. (In a better show, the next episode would have had her advisors confront her in those terms: so, do you feel better now? Did you get it out of your system?) I’ve felt that urge before, that vertigo. You have too.

You can describe all this with realist narrative and without any dragons. Of course you can; it’s what I’m trying to do right now. But it’s missing something, and it’ll never be as real. It will always lack the impossibility and inexplicability of our lives. It will miss the fact that we all live with our fingertips trailing through other worlds. It will forget that we are lit by other suns.

 

 

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Avengers: Endgame, or, why this is all your fault

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You were born. For billions of years, the universe existed and you were not alive. There were stars and lights and giant lizards and Romans and so on, but it all took place under a kind of invisible shroud, the blackness of non-experience. One day you will go back into that blackness, and it will be as if the universe had never existed. But you are alive now, in the early twenty-first century – and because of that fact, the human race will probably be extinct within the next thousand years.

This is called the Doomsday Argument, and frankly it makes a lot of sense. This subjectivity, this you-ness that you experience, could have come into the world at any point in human history. You could have been one of those Romans, but you weren’t. You were born in the middle of the greatest population explosion in human history. Two hundred years ago, the global population barely scraped a billion; it took nearly a century for that number to double. It’ll be eight billion soon. You were born in the time in which there were more people than ever before – and did you think this was a coincidence? You’re here now because now is the most likely time for you to be here. You’re here now because you’re not special.

The argument is a version of the German Tank Problem, which goes something like this. Millions of people are dying horribly in the Second World War, and in the middle of all this chaos you’ve managed to sneak a spy into a German tank factory – but they’re soon discovered, and manage to escape with their life having only taken one photo. A tank’s chassis, with the serial number 396. So: how many tanks are the Nazis producing? Keep in mind that the answer is crucial to the war effort. They might have only built four hundred tanks, and your spy happened to snap one of the last off the assembly line. Or maybe your spy caught one of the first, and the Germans are building millions of the things, tens of millions, enough tanks to drive into the English Channel, fill it up, and keep on driving, simply flattening everything from Dover to Durness. But in both cases, the probability is low. There’s only a 1% chance this tank is in the first or last 1% of tanks made. Without any other data, you have to assume that the one instance you’re aware of is probably somewhere around the middle of the distribution. So: eight hundred tanks total, give or take. This was a statistical method the Allies actually used, based on serial numbers from captured vehicles. After the war, when production figures from the Reichsministerium für Rüstung were analysed, the statistical method turned out to have been almost spookily accurate, far more so than the estimates given by ordinary intelligence. The nerds won. They always do.

You are a German tank. You were built by the Nazis to do evil in the world. The only data-point we have is that you are alive in the present day, and without anything else to work with, we have to assume that you were born vaguely in the middle of experiential history. Something like one hundred billion people have ever lived, so, once the dust clears and the final accounts are totted up, chances are there will have been around two hundred billion people to have lived and died on this miserable rock. But we’re still in the middle of a population explosion; we’re eating into that remaining one hundred billion faster than we’ve ever done before. The future of humanity will be much, much shorter than its past.

The simplest thing would be to kill you. Yes, I know, you didn’t ask for any of this – but the inevitable extinction of humanity is still entirely your fault, and it would still be pretty satisfying to make you suffer for it. But it’s too late now, your damage is already done. You doomed us all the moment you entered the world. The only thing you can really do is make sure that the life you’re living is worth the mass extinction it’s caused. It’s an impossible task, but you can try. Except you’re not even trying, are you? Life is short, and finite, and Avengers: Endgame is three goddamn hours long, and you watched it. You paid money to sit in a darkened room and eat popcorn and drink Coca-Cola while you watched Captain America travel into the past to knock himself unconscious and leer at his own ass, as if he’s about to pull down his own trousers and start fucking it. And now you’re reading a review of the same film, and every second that passes is lost forever. What the hell is wrong with you? How can you bear to look at yourself in the mirror? How do you sleep at night? Aren’t you ashamed of what you’ve done?

* * *

Look: I don’t understand the world, and even as a cultural critic, I’m ok with that. I don’t know why kids keep saying things like ‘yeet’ and ‘mood.’ I’m fine not knowing. The answer will end up being something horrible, mass lead poisoning maybe; I don’t want to find out. I don’t know why I’m haunted by intermittent intrusive visions of someone taking a disposable razor, sticking it in their mouth, and ‘shaving’ their gums. I don’t know why Americans who claim to be socialists are putting so much demented effort into opposing a less monstrous and cruel healthcare system. And I don’t really understand why people like the Avengers films; I have a theory, but I don’t really ‘get’ it. This is also fine. Not everyone will like the same things I like; it would be a terrible world if they did. What bothers me is the fact that the last two Avengers films also received near-universal critical acclaim, from people whose sole task on this earth it is to watch films and discern the good ones from the bad. These same people are basically united in the opinion that the DC comic book films are stupid, portentous, and ungainly, that their plots make no sense, that they keep hamfistedly telling us to care about fundamentally hollow characters, and that their over-long and terrifyingly expensive action sequences resolve into noisy tedium. But they like these ones. Why? What is it that’s crawled into their brains? Is there any way of getting it out again, or will we just have to line up every overgrown fanboy in every pivoted-to-online legacy publication in front of a ditch, and do what must be done?

These films are terrible. They’re not just bad in comparison to Tarkovsky or Bergman, bad in the way that all commmodity-culture is fundamentally bad. They’re bad as dumb action films. They fail to even meet the requirements of the genre. You are being pandered to and patronised. Why do you not want revenge?

In a New Yorker review, Richard Brody proposes that Avengers: Endgame could have been better if it spent more time delving into the characters and their emotions, if it dealt more seriously with the theme of loss. This is a terrible idea; he wants to turn the film with a giant blue alien into another tedious Hampstead novel. Instead, imagine taking a moderately bright and imaginative twelve-year-old boy and telling him you have a basically infinite budget to produce two films, which you want him to write. The films have to concern the Plot Emeralds, which were created alongside the universe itself, and contain the terrifying potencies of its six aspects: Space, Time, Mind, Soul, Reality, and Power. In the first film, a big purple villain manages to acquire all six IndecipheraBalls, and uses them to commit an act of cataclysmic evil. In the second, the bedraggled heroes band together and travel back in time to get the Sempiternal Zirconias back, and undo the damage he’s done. What kind of story would a twelve-year-old write? Probably, at a guess, one in which the narrative potential of these Chaos Crystals is actually explored. Space is spliced, cloned, distorted: the universe folds into terrifying new shapes, organic monstrosities unfurl from inorganic matter, the stars are dandruff, pebbles are planets, everything is a distortion of everything else. Time twists into loops and paradoxes; laser battles in medieval castles, Stone Age shamans hurling spears between distant suns. In the chaos, inert objects are ensouled and living creatures become mindless automatons; dreams blur with reality, unreal logics are set loose on the world, and our heroes have to battle in a universe turned to vapour.  For all the inevitable high-concept manoeuvres, it would probably be quite dumb. But at least it would be fun.

This is not what we get. The stones are barely used in either film. In the first, Thanos attaches them to a big glove and snaps his fingers: half of all living creatures suddenly die. In the second, the Hulk does the exact same thing, and everyone who died comes back. That’s basically it. What a waste! The real focus is always on the crossover aspect, the fact that every character from every Marvel film is here, together. Instead of the creative potentials of a twelve-year-old, these films are pitched towards the level of someone of around six. A child playing with the tie-in action figures, recombining the characters: what if Iron Man met Nebula? What if Star Lord teamed up with Thor? If the Bog-Hole fought Pencil-Guy, who would win? Five and a half cumulative hours of a media franchise showing us its various copyright properties, all in their original packaging. Let me be mawkish and hysterical for a moment. Is this the kind of imaginative model we want to pass on to our children? Are these the dreams we want them to dream? Is this sordid petty rearrangement all that they have left?

Superhero narratives have a fairly obvious social role. People are boring and frustrated; they’d like to be more than they are, but everyone is still somehow less than themselves. You can feel your existence fraying away at its fringes. Whatever life should have been, it isn’t this: not plasterboard bureaucracies staffed by people with irritating vocal tics; not slow-withering marriages, hair falling out, cartilage wearing thin, dreams unfulfilled, places unseen, books unwritten and unread; not Netflix automatically queuing up the next episode; not this couch, this rough fabric, this laundry, this potted plant, this foetid darkness of 11.26 pm on a Saturday night, this screen, this single life in a planet of seven billion lives, this life that will not be remembered, that will vanish without a trace into the ooze of unbeing, that will end having gone unlived, full of regret, emptying its nothing into the nothing that ever was and shall ever be. But this is what you get. So you have superheroes, people who live in the not-this. They can fly: where would you go, if you could fly? They can turn invisible or stop time: what hideous crimes would you commit, if you could turn invisible or stop time? They can beat anyone in a fight: how would you live, if you weren’t so afraid? And they have secret identities, because this freedom could belong to anyone, maybe even you.

The social function of a superhero story is to work through all these possibilities, to leave the audience with some of the libidinal payoffs that come with a brief excursion to the not-this, exhausted but satisfied, ready to go back to work. In Minima Moralia, Adorno complains that under conditions of domination, happiness is reduced to tawdry pleasure: one ‘has no choice but to find inspiration in the trashy film, the expensive but bad meal at the French restaurant, the serious “drink” and sexuality reduced to doses of “sex.”‘ The classic superhero story stands in the same relation to actual liberation as sex does to sexuality. But clearly, we’re no longer in that era. It’s got much, much worse. Another layer of ersatzification has formed over our enjoyments. That vague sense of the not-this has been hardened and crystallised into the hermetic detachability of a cinematic universe, in the same way that the vastness of love and sexuality became the healthy energetic pleasures of sex, and then contracted further into porn: rigid and isolated, infinitely distant from the actual act. The vision of another existence no longer needs to explore the unfolding of human potentials. It can just as easily be maintained in their annihilation. After all, these characters are dealing with the fundamental forces of the universe, but they’re absurdly under-powered. One of them is a superhero by dint of being good at archery. Not that it matters. A made-up world where meaningless heroes fight meaningless monsters with meaningless names.

It works. You love it. It takes you out of yourself for a moment. It’s like you’re already dead.

* * *

Thanos is a Malthusian, but he doesn’t appear to have any books on his big spaceship of doom, so we’ll have to assume that he’s never actually read Malthus. This has to be the case, otherwise he would never have thought that exterminating one-half of the living population of the universe would make things any better. Too many people, he says, not enough to go round – but he’s forgotten that the number of people will still continue to grow, and it’ll grow faster if there are more resources available. So he snaps his fingers, and returns the Earth’s population to what it was in the year 1973, when we had no problems whatsoever.

1973, as it happens, was the year of the economic crisis that put an end to the era of social-democratic expansion in the First World. In its wake, we got the beginnings of neoliberalism, the financialisation of the economy, the replacement of common ownership with cheap credit. This new system met its own major crisis with the economic collapse of 2008. That was also the year that Iron Man, the first film in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, was released.

And this is supposed to be a coincidence?

* * *

It’s maybe not entirely true that there’s no element of wish-fulfilment fantasy in Avengers: Endgame. The heroes don’t maintain secret identities while performing exhilarating feats in their spare time, but they do go back into the past, correct their mistakes, and resurrect the loved ones that they’ve lost. This fantasy has a decent pedigree, right back to Gilgamesh and Orpheus. And I get it: when tragedy has struck in my own life, there’s always been an irrational part of my mind that’s told me this isn’t real, you can go back, you can undo it all. I’d like to undo it all. I’d like to go back and tell that first cell not to split, avoid all the trauma of differentiation, let life in its entirety persist in a singular eternal prokaryotic bliss. It can’t be done, which is why I’m a melancholic, constantly splitting and doubling my ego, introducing new traumas and breaks, to preserve all the objects that were lost. But it’s nice to see someone manage to do it onscreen.

Except – what is this underworld that we enter to resurrect the dead? Here, it’s the past, but a specific past: they go back into the previous Avengers films. We get to see the big scaly monsters from the first instalment invade New York again, only this time our heroes are standing around wryly commenting on the action, rather than participating in it. We’re watching Thor again, and the first moments of Guardians of the Galaxy. The stakes have vanished; it’s been doubled into farce. And this is happening everywhere. Sequels and reboots aren’t enough; now the Hollywood nostalgia-machine is umping out simple recapitulation, serving up the exact same warmed-over pap that we’ve already seen. One of the new Star Wars films overlaps directly with the first trilogy, with the help of a CGI Carrie Fisher. A decent chunk of 2015’s Terminator Genisys takes place within the action of the 1984 original. In Jurassic World, one of the more interesting examples, the sequel itself appears within the film as a ravenous and unholy monster cooked up by mercurial executives, which tramples all over Spielberg’s legacy before finally being taken down by the iconic tyrannosaur. What is going on?

Theory is comfortable with self-reference, but this is something else. The classical poststructuralist metaphysics of inscription constrains its institution of difference within a horizon of ineradicability. Writing institutes a relation to death precisely because, unlike the vocal utterance, it survives its author, whose death and absence ‘belongs to the structure of all writing.’ Omar Khayyam had it: ‘The moving finger writes, and having writ, moves on; nor all thy piety nor wit shall lure it back to cancel half a line, nor all thy tears wash out a word of it.’ In Derrida, writing is figured as a negative space, a break or chasm in matter: track or footprint, chisel to stone, fissuring neurones. It is also indifferent to its substrate; without writing, the lithographic ‘slate’ is in a state of ‘virginity’ – but further, writing must ‘produce the space and materiality of the sheet itself.’ This notion is articulated in his essay Freud and the Scene of Writing, itself a reading of Freud’s Notiz über den Wunderblock. Here he compares the function of the perceptual system to a children’s toy, the Mystic Writing Pad, consisting of a clear plastic sheet pressed against a block of wax. By making marks with a stylus on the plastic sheet, you can record words and images; lift the sheet away, and the surface is cleared. But even though these traces are no longer visible, they are retained, imperceptibly, within the wax. The analogy is not perfect: Freud notes that to function like the mind, it would have to be possible for the wax to recall and make use of marks that had already been withdrawn from the surface, to bring them back again after they’d been erased. ‘It would be a mystic pad indeed if it could accomplish that.’ Here, in the twenty-first century, we can recognise what he’d done. In 1925, Sigmund Freud invented the computer.

You are reading this review of Avengers: Endgame sequentially, from the beginning to the end, maybe skipping over the boring bits, maybe giving up halfway through, but treating it as what it is: a written block of linear time. But I wrote it on a computer, and as I wrote it I continually went back, changing things, fixing things, dipping in and out of linear time at will – because I badly need an editor, but I’m doing my best. In Paper Machine, Derrida gives some thought to the potentials of word processing. ‘With the computer, everything is rapid and so easy; you get to thinking that you can go on revising forever.’ But the operative word here is rapid: throughout, he conceives of digital writing as an acceleration of existing processes. Before the computer, actions were ‘slow, heavy, and sometimes off-putting,’ now, ‘the word processor saves an amazing amount of time.’ It’s ‘a question of speed and rhythm,’ differing velocities on the same course. But digital text abolishes the sequential ‘now’ of writing; there is no speed and there is no course, only an endless folding and complication, potentially interminable revisions, a text that is endlessly going back and fixing itself, reanimating its own corpse.

The desire to bring back the dead, to re-present the impressions that have been wiped clean – this isn’t Orpheus, because Orpheus had to go elsewhere, into the underworld, into the future, to smooth over the gaps in the world. In Avengers: Endgame, the journey is into the past, into itself, into the existing body of text, pulling out a section, pasting it into the roving present. It’s the dream the computers have dreamed for us. And this dream is incapable of computing finality. (Even after I publish this review, if I find a typo I can stick my hands back into the thing and fix it.) But the world itself is only a final and oncoming horizon. Is it any wonder, then, that we seem to be so incapable of dealing with something like climate change, stuck in our endlessly editable fantasia? Is it any wonder that you’re wasting your life watching Avengers: Endgame and reading reviews of Avengers: Endgame, even while the circle of light that surrounds you is narrowing, and the blackness tightens closer to crush you through your skin?

At a showing of Avengers: Endgame in Fullerton, California, an entire film-going audience was unwittingly exposed to measles. The measles virus, of course, works by sticking its glycoproteins into a host cell, and editing the cell’s DNA to produce more viruses. It causes around one hundred thousand deaths a year. More meat for the past; a slow swelling in the ranks of the one hundred billion who brought us here, to this moment, to this film, to you. Can you really pretend that it isn’t your fault?

Scenes from the Žižek-Peterson debate

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[Applause. SLAVOJ ŽIŽEK and JORDAN PETERSON are standing in a big cauldron, tied together back-to-back, before an audience of CANNIBALS from a racist 19th century cartoon. The CHIEF CANNIBAL, or at least the one with the largest bone through his nose, prances around the cauldron, humming an obscure tune and freezing at regular intervals to hiss and violently shake a long staff at the two debaters. He is the moderator. Once this ritual is complete, he gives the cauldron a good sharp kick, and it rings satisfyingly. The AUDIENCE squats. They spit betel juice into the damp earth. We are ready to begin.]

MODERATOR: Thank you, thank you all. I’d like to start by acknowledging that we are on the ancestral lands of the earthworms, who funnelled the soil through their bodies before we walked upon it, and who will eat us when we die.

[Applause.]

MODERATOR: So: we have something of a treat for you tonight – two of the most prolific and controversial scholars in the humanities, Slavoj Žižek and Jordan Peterson, finally coming head to head, here to debate the motion ‘For God’s sake, not me, don’t eat me, eat him.’ Arguing for the motion is Professor Žižek. Slavoj Žižek is the author of over eight thousand books, some of which are slightly different. Stunning in its breadth and fluency, his work has touched on Lacan, Hegel, Marx, what would happen if they were cold pockets instead of hot pockets, what the deal is with airline food, and whether or not we deserve doggos. Among his roster of impressive academic titles, he is Global Distinguished Professor at NYU’s College of Dentistry, Professor of Philosophy and Psychoanalysis at the European Graduate Dental School, International Director at Birkbeck Dental Institute, and a Senior Researcher at the Department of Dental Diseases and Endodontics at the University of Ljubljana.

[ŽIŽEK hacks up what appears to be a small quantity of frogspawn onto his shirt.]

MODERATOR: Arguing against the motion, we’re very lucky to have Dr Peterson, who shot to fame after he filmed himself eating dog turds to prevent Islam. He’s received further notoriety for his self-help book Crying Yourself to Dignity, sleeps surrounded by Soviet propaganda for apparently non-sexual reasons, and is currently serving on the editorial review board for a twelve-year-old’s Disney blog. The debate will work like this. Each participant will have ten minutes to make an opening statement, which will be followed by three minutes for rebuttals, before we open it up to the audience, who will be able to ask questions and then eat one of the debaters. Professor Žižek, you’re arguing for the motion, so if you’d like to start?

[Applause. PETERSON rolls his eyes.]

ŽIŽEK: Thank you, thank you, no, no, thank you.

[He does his bit about Stalin clapping for himself.]

ŽIŽEK: I’m very glad to be here, my God, in this pot, to be cooked and eaten and so on and so on. In this situation, I am reminded of one of my beloved Radio Yerevan jokes from Soviet Union. You will see, I have a very vulgar sense of humour.

[Indescribable throat noises.]

ŽIŽEK: So the listener asks, is it true that Marx, Engels, and Lenin were stealing the wheelbarrows? And Radio Yerevan replies, in principle yes, but with three corrections. First, it wasn’t Marx, Engels, and Lenin, but you, second, you weren’t stealing them but being gifted them, and third, they weren’t wheelbarrows, but a pair of testicles hanging underneath your chin. I claim, is this not our situation today? I like this joke in that it repeats itself. You will see what I mean. First you have the heroes of the grand socialism of twentieth century, my God, in reality it is only yourself, the politics of the self. The act of stealing the wheelbarrows, in which we see labour activism, fighting your bosses, insurrection, all that bullshit: they are not what is taken, but precisely that which is given to us by power. You know, I was at Occupy, but now I have no time for these things, it is precisely the form prescribed by capitalism. It is as Jacques Lacan said to the revolutionary students in Paris ’68 – as hysterics, what you want is a new master.

[He does his bit about perverse fantasy vs. hysterical questioning.] 

ŽIŽEK: But see what is happening in this joke! Here I agree with my good friend Alain Badiou – the testicles are the least shameful area of the body, precisely because they belong to the part of the Real; there is no testicular enjoyment, testicular desire, and so on, and so on. They constitute the remainder, the third term that destabilises the system, it is here that the truth of the system will be found. In the whole of Freud, he refers to the testicles only twelve times, and the penis, you know, on every page he has the penis, if you look. But do you know this, Freud’s first research as a physician was to try to find the testicles of an eel by, how do you say in English, disekcija, cutting up hundreds of eels to find their balls. You do not need me to finish the joke, you are good Lacanians: he did not find them. The eels, they are very postmodern, very LGBT-plus, they do not grow the balls until mating season comes, eel gets horny, and they appear.

[He does his bit about the Hegelian implications of ‘being a plus’ in LGBT+.]

ŽIŽEK: Now Freud says in his letters, he writes: I cannot find these testicles, all the specimens must therefore be female, das schönere Geschlecht. In this, I claim, we find the model of the entire theory of castration complex. It is not, as the postmodern feminists will tell you, that Freud can only see woman as a mutilated man. No! The true history of Freudian psychoanalysis is the history of a fruitless search precisely for the mutilation, for testicles within the, sorry to be vulgar, the impenetrable feminine-phallic body of the eel. But what is it when the testicles appear underneath the chin? Just as what was taken is in fact a gift, now the Real we try to encounter in revolution becomes this grotesque ornament. Here I am a pessimist. It is not that mystical bullshit, the answers will always elude us, we have limited intellect, truth is outside our grasp, and so on and so on. No! The answers are literally under our noses, but they are only a pair of testicles, they will not satisfy you. But I see from our moderator that I am running out of time talking about the testicles on his chin, ok, so enough stupid jokes, I will address the question. You know, my critics will tell me that as a Communist I should not be arguing for this motion, that I should take the militant posture, sacrifice my life, heroically demand that I be eaten instead of Dr Peterson, and so on and so on. But here I claim that in this stance we do not see the testicles on the groin, the proper functioning of things, but precisely the testicles on the face. The renunciation of desire is in itself a perversion, because there is no ordinary operation of things in which the testicles that have no proper place are in their proper place.

MODERATOR: Slavoj Žižek, thank you very much.

[He throws a bay leaf and some peppercorns into the cauldron.]

PETERSON: Well.

[He chuckles. A pause.]

PETERSON: I suppose I’m meant to respond to this, but I think my opponent’s made my case for me already. He claims I have a pair of testicles on my chin. I don’t. It simply isn’t true at all. I challenge you to find even one, let alone two. Clearly Professor Žižek doesn’t have the faintest bloody idea about basic human anatomy. It’s an absolutely dreadful lie, it’s a horrible thing for a distinguished professor to be teaching people, and it’s the kind of degeneration of civilised debate that happens when you allow this neo-Marxism to take over our universities. Professor Žižek is upholding an ideology that brutally murdered tens of millions of people, starved them in gulags, shot them in ditches, all because they held to the nonsense idea that people could have testicles on their chins. Totally contrary to biology, and when you come up against the laws of nature you need to be ready, man, because they will always win. I think the only sane solution is to just damn well eat him. Among certain species of amoeba, they performed a study, the amoebae will hold a debate on abstract concepts, and the losers are digested by the winners. And you see the same principle in the Bible, when Elijah holds an Parliamentary-style debate with the prophets of Baal and slaughters five hundred of them on a point of information. So you can complain, or call this injustice, but you have to accept that the most competent individual will always win, and elites are there for a reason.

[There’s a whine like escaping gas. Has the fire been lit? But the wood’s still dry; it’s just Jordan Peterson, thinking.]

PETERSON: Except academic elites, they don’t count.

[The CANNIBALS nod sagely and make hungry humming noises.]

PETERSON: There’s an important archetype you should know about here, and that’s the Devouring Mother. There’s the Devouring Mother in Babylonian myth, the monster Tiamat, and in some of the early Care Bears cartoons. And the Devouring Mother teaches you that if you’re not careful, the same things that created you are going to consume you, and that’s life, man. It goes to show that these behaviours have been with us for a long time. You can’t just throw out these traditions, you can’t go into a fantasy world where you pretend they don’t exist, unless they tell you to eat a varied diet of grains, pulses, fruits, and vegetables. So maybe if more discussions were run like this, and people understood that the consequences of falling into this kind of pernicious nonsense is that the nonsense is going to come and eat you, bucko, then we’d have a lot more caution and a much fairer debate on our college campuses.

MODERATOR: I should remind Dr Peterson that the motion today is ‘For God’s sake, not me, don’t eat me, eat him,’ and he’s agreed to argue against it.

[PETERSON bursts instantly into tears.]

PETERSON: No, I’m sorry. No, no, no, I don’t accept that premise in the least. There’s a basic principle of fair discussion, and that’s the equal and opposite nature of each side. That is foundational. I won’t debate on these terms.

[ŽIŽEK tries to interrupt with something about the dialectic, but the MODERATOR bonks him over the head with a ladle.]

PETERSON: You can’t have us both arguing that I should be the one that gets eaten. That’s entirely unjust. Look at what you’ve thrown away! Western civilisation is in ruins! We had trains that arrived on time, they had a computer to tell you when they’d be arriving to the minute – an honest-to-God miracle, something that would have astounded every one of our ancestors. A society that works – and they want to get rid of it! Look what happens when the SJWs get the upper hand! Cannibalism, gulags, Frozen, the total bloody collapse of meaning in people’s lives! This is how Marxism always ends! It’s got to the point now that they’re openly saying – and this is their argument, not mine – that they should kill and eat people if they don’t like their ideas!

[He’s bawling now. PETERSON strains against his bonds, and ŽIŽEK is also struggling, trying to scratch his nose with his elbow. Clearly, it’s all a joke to him; he’s worked out where he is. He wears a truly monstrous grin. Some of the CANNIBALS rush over to fan PETERSON ineffectually with large banana leaves, but the MODERATOR bares his teeth, filed into a row of serrated points, and they disperse. PETERSON appears to be finished – or, if he has more to say, it’s drowned by his sobs. Striking the cauldron again with his stick, the MODERATOR allows ŽIŽEK to make his rebuttal.]

ŽIŽEK: You know, I agree with everything my friend Dr Peterson says here. My God, it is a monstrosity that we must eat him, I oppose this utterly. But let me pick up on what he says here. Yes, I agree, we must defend the Western tradition, but is it not true that Marxism and postmodernism come precisely out of that tradition? I claim, look at where we are, in this pot, about to be eaten by naked cannibals: instead of the opposing term of Western humanism, is this not its own internal fantasy of the colonial other? So when Dr Peterson says that one tries to escape the contradictions of reality in a fantasy world, is not fantasy that which is precisely more real than the reality?

[His opponent doesn’t seem to hear him. He twitches, and tries to rock back and forth, but he’s immobilised by ŽIŽEK’s bulk.]

PETERSON: My testicles are normal. They’re not on my chin. They’re normal. I have normal balls.

[Finally, the Q&A begins – but nobody has a question. The SAVAGES all seem bored, listless; they’re not happy with the debate. Why these speakers, and this topic? It might make sense to have ŽIŽEK and PETERSON tussle, with Lacan and Jung, over the ashes of Freud. But who eats and who gets eaten is a political question, and these two are both uniquely inappropriate representatives of their putative politics. ŽIŽEK, who is simply too clever by half to repeat all the stale and earnest socialist talking points, who’d rather talk about the antinomies of the left than the evident evils of capitalism. PETERSON, who seems to think capitalism is as socially conservative as he is, who thinks he’s defending competence hierarchies rather than entropy itself, who doesn’t understand that he’s been riding his own chaos-dragon for his entire career. Still, there’s a group of GIRLS in grass skirts. They giggle and avert their eyes, and stutter over the words, until they each take a deep breath and chant their question in chorus.]

GIRLS: Daddy, does capitalism make us happy, or does it create a need in happiness? Daddy, does it fulfil the essential lack in being, or does it open up a void to be filled? Daddy, does happiness only ever belong to other people?

[Both ŽIŽEK and PETERSON attempt to answer at the same time.]

GIRLS: Daddy, please.

[ŽIŽEK releases a flurry of woodland animal noises, slurring over mutations of the word ‘precisely,’ emitting the phrase ‘petit a‘ in a sharp volley of spit. PETERSON complains, between sobs, that he’s not their daddy, and what would the girls’ real father think about how they’re using that word? At this, an ENORMOUS NAKED SAVAGE suddenly stands. A terrified silence. His vast, muscled body is covered in patterned scars, whorls of gleaming spider’s-web flesh all over his chest and back. He wears a long necklace beaded with human teeth. His balls are enormous, and not under his chin; one of his eyes is milky-white, the other only ferocious. A long spear in his hand, viciously barbed. When he opens his mouth the teeth are black and rotting, and the foulness of his breath wilts the long grasses. Is this the father? What could this monster possibly want?]

ENORMOUS NAKED SAVAGE: This isn’t really a question, more of a statement.

[He sits back down.]

ŽIŽEK: Yes. My God. I couldn’t agree more.

[A fire is lit under the cauldron. Rot and jungle surrounds the whooping in the camp, and the hills slope down to a warm and sparkling sea.]

In defence of lazy kneejerk contrarianism

I attack only causes that are victorious. I attack causes only when there are no allies to be found, when I am standing alone – when I am compromising myself alone.
Nietzsche, Ecce Homo

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Look, I’ve only read Less Than Zero and American Psycho, so maybe I’m wrong here. But it seems to me like Bret Easton Ellis, like every pornographer since de Sade, is a secret sentimentalist. He’s not a real nihilist, because there’s no such thing as a nihilist. He doesn’t believe that there are no values and nothing matters, because if he did, why show us rape and torture and apathy in particular? Like every crass contrarian, he doesn’t abolish value, he just inverts it; his books are apophatic morality tales. Not irony, just sarcasm. And sometimes, the mask slips. The protagonist in Less Than Zero plays at being dead inside, but really he’s still upset about his late grandmother. Still, in the time since 1985, Ellis seems to be getting better at disaffection, while everyone else is getting worse. See, for instance, his recent interview with Isaac Chotiner in the New Yorker.

The general media-class consensus seems to be that the interview was ‘brutal,’ ‘a murder,’ ‘asinine,’ etc, etc, etc. It’s definitely weird and frustrating to read. Does Ellis have anything interesting to say about the state of the world? It’s hard to say without actually reading his book, because all either Ellis or his interviewer wants to talk about is the fact that he doesn’t much care either way about Donald Trump. For the bulk of the interview, Chotiner brandishes the various terrible things Trump has said or done in front of Ellis, one by one – kids in cages, grab them by the pussy, Mexicans are rapists, decent folks in Charlottesville – and demands that Ellis start caring about them, like everyone else. And each time, Ellis shrugs. ‘I think the voice in the book is pretty chill and neutral.’ ‘Well, whatever.’ ‘I don’t really care.’ ‘I’m not really bothered by that one way or the other.’ ‘I think you are leading me into things I am not particularly that interested in.’ Ellis gets the last word. It’s been an interesting interview, he says. ‘The only problem, however, is that I am not that political, and so, when we have this conversation, and you confront me with certain things like this, I really am, I have to say, at a loss.’

And I’m at a loss too. Where’s the brutality? Where’s the murder? Where’s Ellis being gorily dismembered, like a victim in one of his books? All I can see are two people speaking entirely different languages to each other. And because the audience speak the same language as the New Yorker, and not the language of Ellis, they conclude that their language won.

Ellis is stuck in a different age. The Gen X era, the era of disaffection and OK Cola, the time in which caring too much about anything made you uncool. The twenty-first century is different. Frantic activity, desperate sloganeering. Being a good person means giving yourself brain damage about politics. He knows how it works. ‘Don’t you know anything about Sri Lanka? About how the Sikhs are killing like tons of Israelis out there?’ We’re in an upswing in the activism-vs-cynicism cycle that’s been churning since the 60s: we want pop stars to deliver bromides on anti–racism, we want fast food outlets to be our allies, we want everything in the world to be committed to progressive social change. In his introduction to the interview, Chotiner notes that the ‘materialism, misogyny, and amorality’ of Ellis’s characters ‘have persistently raised questions regarding the depth of his social critique.’ Because if a book is anything other than a profound social critique, why does it exist?

The activist posture has plenty of virtues, but when it becomes an enforced social norm, most of it will inevitably be deeply phony. Fake outrage, manufactured hysteria, culturally sanctioned radicalism, constantly caring about things as a narcissistic substitute for actually doing something about them. Chotiner’s complaint is precisely this: Ellis is refusing to move in lock-step with the times. He’s still stuck in that deeply passé 80s nihilism; it’s the horror of the cool confronted with unrepentant squareness. Why aren’t you freaking out every time Trump tweets something, just like everyone else?

And all this might have a little more weight, if it weren’t for the fact that the Mueller Report just came out, and told us all that the media class’s Trump obsession really was packed to the gills with deranged and obsessive fantasy. It might be easier to sympathise, if Libya weren’t in the news again, to remind a distracted public that our liberal heroes who care so much about things also engaged in the aerial destruction of an entire country, without a mote of outrage from almost anyone. It might be easier to laugh at Ellis for his apathy, if his apathy weren’t infinitely more honest than the frenzy that confronts it on all sides.

The 1990s were a vast battlefield in literature’s struggle for the soul of America. Ellis was on one side, with the forces of cruelty, nihilism, apathy, depthlessness, and despair. On the other side stood – because these things have to be balanced – another young writer with three names, David Foster Wallace. Where Ellis was cool, blank, hard, and indifferent, Wallace was warm. Dialogue in Ellis’s novels is lighter than air and always utterly impenetrable; it feels programmed, like the clattering of lifeless machines. Wallace is humble; he writes like he’s talking directly to you and you alone, in one of those deep long 4 am conversations with a well-loved friend, once you stop drinking wine and start drinking tea, where you can finally be honest, and give voice to the things that really worry you. In his celebrated essay E Unibus Pluram: Television and US Fiction, Wallace railed against the cruel ironism of his times, the cynicism of its sneer, the way it reduces everything potentially worthwhile to a nothing. Once, irony was useful: it was ‘a creative instantiation of deviance from bogus values’; it revealed the sordid phoniness that undergirded the straight-laced society of the past. But then irony itself, with its ‘blank, bored, too-wise expression’ became dominant. Wallace uses the example of a Pepsi advert, which dramatises the process of advertising, the stick being rattled in the swill-bucket, knowingly acknowledging that this is all a form of manipulation, but then encouraging you to drink Pepsi anyway. ‘The point of this successful bit of advertising is that Pepsi has been advertised successfully.’ This prompts a call for a New Sincerity, for the unashamed revival of ‘retrovalues like originality, depth and integrity,’ for a return to caring, deeply, vulnerably, about something.

And somewhere, a monkey’s paw twitches. Wallace’s side won, in a defeat so total that the last straggling survivors of irony and disaffection are simply no longer comprehensible to mainstream culture. Even the reactionaries, who play with the idea of nihilism, are basically frantic sincere activists: constantly fretting about white genocide or feminism ruining videogames or whatever else it is they keep caring about. And Ellis lost, even if he lived to see his defeat. What does a Pepsi advert look like now? It isn’t sneering, or cynical, or too-wise; it wants you to know that Pepsi cares. It looks like a Black Lives Matter protest – and when it fails, it fails for not being progressive enough, not being sincere enough, for not doing the Pepsi-Cola Corporation’s full duty to the revolution. Irony is fast becoming a term of abuse. We sneer at the sneerers, because it’s not cool to be too cool. We’re in the world David Foster Wallace built, and it’s a nightmare.

Unlike Ellis, I don’t hate David Foster Wallace. (His fiction is basically unreadably precious, but his essays are good.) I think there was an important value, in the irony-saturated 90s, of calling for a return to honesty and seriousness – even if I don’t actually agree. I think in the present moment, there’s a crucial need for irony, for a writing which explores the potential of possible positions without making a life-or-death stake out of everything, which engages with the infinite multiplicity of meaning and the world. Irony is not a distancing from the world, it’s a faithful attachment to the world in the fullness of its possibilities. (The opposite of irony, as Deleuze and Guattari understood, is not sincerity but paranoia, and ours is a deeply paranoid time.) After all, each term, activism and indifference, will inevitably contain its opposite. The coolness of Less Than Zero is a negative affirmation of sentimental values, the grim boosterism of mainstream culture is deeply cynical. This is why the highest achievable value, at any time, might be contrarianism. If radicalism is something other than a buzzword you can attach to commodities, if it means more than a narcissistic posture, then it means seeking out that which is heterogeneous to the world as it’s currently constituted. To declare for human values in a time of brattishness or indifference in a time of po-faced outrage is the lowest form of contrarianism, one which only speeds the dialectic along rather than breaking out of it. There are higher ironies; as everyone keeps saying, we need to do better. But it’s a start.

Savages, savages, barely even human

It is worth noting that tribal peoples tend to feel that it is they who depict and we who symbolise.
Thomas McEvilley, Doctor, Lawyer, Indian Chief

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What does capitalism actually look like?

There’s a standard leftist answer to this question, from the great repertoire of standard leftist answers: we can’t know. Capitalism has us by the throat and wraps itself around our brain stem; we were interpellated as capitalist subjects before we were born, and from within the structure there’s no way to perceive it as a totality. The only way to proceed is dialectically and immanently, working through the internal contradictions until we end up somewhere else. But not everyone has always lived under capitalism; not everyone lives under capitalism today. History is full of these moments of encounter, when industrial modernity collided with something else. And they still take place. In 2007, Channel 4 engineered one of these encounters: in a TV show called Meet the Natives, a group of Melanasian villagers from the island of Tanna in Vanatu were brought to the UK, to see what they made of this haphazard world we’ve built. (It’s almost impossible to imagine anyone trying the same stunt now, just twelve years on. The whole thing is just somehow inappropriate: not racist or colonial, exactly, but potentially condescending, othering, problematic.) Reactions were mixed.

They liked ready meals, real ale, and the witchy animistic landscapes of the Hebrides. They were upset by street homelessness, confused by drag queens in Manchester’s Gay Quarter, and wryly amused by attempts at equal division in household labour. They understood that they were in a society of exchange-values and economic relations, rather than use-values and sociality. ‘There is something back-to-front in English culture. English people care a lot about their pets, but they don’t care about people’s lives.’ But there was only one thing about our society that actually appalled them, that felt viscerally wrong. On a Norfolk pig farm, they watched sows being artificially inseminated with a plastic syringe. This shocked them. They told their hosts to stop doing it, that it would have profound negative consequences. ‘I am not happy to see the artificial insemination. Animals and human beings are the same thing. This activity should be done in private.’

I was reminded of this episode quite recently, when reading, in an ‘indigenous critique of the Green New Deal‘ published in the Pacific Standard, that ‘colonists were warned by word and weapon that a system of individual land ownership would lead to ecological apocalypse, and here we are. What more could you ask from a system of truth and analysis than to alert you to a phenomenon like climate change before it occurs, with enough time to prevent it? That is significantly more than colonial science has offered.’

It’s not that the substance of this claim is entirely untrue (although it should be noted that many indigenous nations did have systems of private land ownership; land wasn’t denatured, fungible, and commodified, as it is in today’s capitalism, but then the same holds for European aristocracies, or the Nazis for that matter). Non-capitalist societies have persistently recognised that there’s an incredible potential for disaster in industrial modernity. Deleuze and Guattari develop an interesting idea here: capitalism isn’t really foreign to primitive society; it’s the nightmare they have of the world, the possibility of decoding and deterritorialisation that lurks somewhere in the dark thickets around the village. ‘Capitalism has haunted all forms of society, it is the dread they feel of a flow that would elude their codes.’ Accordingly, the development of capitalism in early modern Europe wasn’t an achievement, but a failure to put up effective defences against this kind of social collapse. You can see something similar in the response of the Tanna islanders to artificial insemination. What’s so horrifying about it? Plausibly, it’s that it denies social and bodily relations between animals, and social and bodily relations between animals and people. The animal is no longer a living thing among living things (even if it’s one that, as the islanders tell a rabbit hunter, was ‘made to be killed’), but an abstract and deployable quantity. It’s the recasting of the mysteries of fecund nature as a procedure. It’s the introduction of what Szerszynski calls the ‘vertical axis,’ the transcendence from reality in which the world itself ‘comes to be seen as profane.’ It’s the breakdown of the fragile ties that hold back the instrumental potential of the world. When people are living like this, how could it result in anything other than disaster?

This seems to be the general shape of impressions of peoples living under capitalism by those who do not. These strangers are immensely powerful; they are gods or culture heroes, outside of the world. (The people of Tanna revere Prince Philip as a divinity.) At the same time, they’re often weak, palsied, wretched, and helpless; they are outside of the world, and lost. In 1641, a French missionary recorded the response of an Algonquian chief to incoming modernity. One the one hand, he describes Europeans as prisoners, trapped in immobile houses that they don’t even own themselves, fixed in place by rent and labour. ‘We can always say, more truly than thou, that we are at home everywhere, because we set up our wigwams with ease wheresoever we go, and without asking permission of anybody […] We believe that you are incomparably poorer than we, and that you are only simple journeymen, valets, servants, and slaves.’ At the same time, the French are untethered, deracinated, endlessly mobile. The Algonquians territorialise; everywhere they go becomes a home. The Europeans are not even at home in their static houses. They have fallen off the world. ‘Why abandon wives, children, relatives, and friends? Why risk thy life and thy property every year, and why venture thyself with such risk, in any season whatsoever, to the storms and tempests of the sea?’ And this constant circulation is a profound danger. ‘Before the arrival of the French in these parts, did not the Gaspesians live much longer than now?’

There’s something genuinely fascinating in these encounters. Whenever members of non-capitalist societies encounter modernity, they see something essential in what’s facing them. (For instance, Michael Taussig has explored how folk beliefs about the Devil in Colombia encode sophisticated understandings of the value-form.) But it seems to me to be deeply condescending to claim that this constitutes an explicit warning about climate change, that the methods of ‘indigenous knowledge systems’ are the same as the physical sciences, and to complain that ‘Western science has a lot of nerve showing up just as we’re on the precipice of a biospheric death spiral to brandish some graphs.’ The argument that the transcendent vertical axis estranges human beings from the cycles of biological life, with potentially dangerous results, is simply not the same as the argument that increased quantities of atmospheric carbon dioxide will give rise to a greenhouse effect. It’s not that there’s nothing to learn from indigenous histories, quite the opposite. (I’ve written elsewhere on how the Aztecs – definitely not the romanticised vision of an indigenous society, but indigenous nonetheless – prefigured our contemporary notion of the Anthropocene.) But the claims in this essay set a predictive standard which ‘indigenous knowledge systems’ will inevitably fail; it refuses to acknowledge their actual insight and utility, and instead deploys them in a grudge match against contemporary political enemies.

Most fundamentally, the essay doesn’t consider this encounter as an encounter between modes of production, but an encounter between races. In the red corner, white people: brutally colonising the earth, wiping out all biological life, talking over BIPOC in seminars, etc, etc. In the blue corner, indigenous folk, who live in balance with the cycles of life, who feel the suffering of the earth because they are part of it, who intuitively understand climate atmospheric sciences because they’re plugged in to the Na’vi terrestrial hivemind, who are on the side of blind nature, rather than culture. This is not a new characterisation. The Algonquian chief complains that the French believe he and his people are ‘like the beasts in our woods and our forests;’ the Pacific Standard seems to agree.

This shouldn’t need to be said, but indigenous peoples are human, and their societies are as artificial and potentially destructive as any other. Being human means – Marx saw this very clearly – an essential disjuncture with essence and a natural discontinuity with nature. Ancient Amerindian beekeeping techniques are as foundationally artificial as McDonald’s or nuclear weapons. When humans first settled the Americas, they wiped out nearly a hundred genera of megafauna; the essay is entirely correct that ‘indigenous peoples have witnessed continual ecosystem and species collapse.’ Indigenous beliefs about the interconnectedness of life and social relations between humans and nonhumans are the mode of expression of their social forms in agrarian or nomadic communities. (Although some American societies were highly urbanised, with monumental earthworks, stratified class societies, and systemic religious practices. All of this is, of course, flattened under the steamroller of pacific indigeneity.) They are not transcendently true. They can not simply be transplanted onto industrial capitalism to mitigate its devastations.

The ‘indigenous critique’ suggests that, rather than some form of class-based mass programme to restructure our own mode of production, the solution to climate catastrophe is to ‘start giving back the land.’ (Here it’s following a fairly widespread form of reactionary identitarian discourse on indigineity.) Give it back to whom? To the present-day indigenous peoples of North America, who for the most part have cars and jobs and Social Security numbers, who have academic posts and social media, who do not confront capitalism from beyond a foundational ontological divide, but are as helplessly within it as any of the rest of us? (And meanwhile, what about Europe or China? Where are our magic noble savages?) Is ancestry or identity an expertise? Is living in a non-capitalist society now a hereditary condition?

Some indigenous beliefs about the interconnectedness of life and so on persist, long after the modes of production that gave rise to them have vanished. As we all know, the tradition of all dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the brains of the living. But they’re also an artefact of modernity, which ceaselessly produces notions of wholesome authentic mystical nature in tandem with its production of consumer goods, ecological collapse, and death. Unless this relation is established, beliefs are all we get. ‘Real solutions require a rethinking of our global relationship to the land, water, and to each other.’ Think differently, see things differently, make all the right saintly gestures, defer to the most marginalised, and change nothing.

This racialisation is particularly obscene when you consider who else has made dire warnings about the environmental effects of private ownership in land. The encounter between capitalist and non-capitalist society didn’t only take place spatially, in the colonial world, but temporally, during the transition from feudalism. And the same critiques made by the Ni-Vanatu, and the Algonquians, and many more besides, were also expressed by insurrectionaries within Europe. Take just one instance: The Crying Sin of England, of not Caring for the Poor, the preacher John Moore’s 1653 polemic against primitive accumulation and the enclosure of common land: this would, he promised, lead to catastrophe, the impoverishment of the earth, the fury of God, the dissolution of the social ties that keep us human, the loss of sense and reason, the decoding of all codes. The ruling classes, ‘by their inclosure, would have no poore to live with them, nor by them, but delight to converse with Beasts; and to this purpose turn Corne in Grasse, and men into Beasts.’ He, too, saw things as they were. And he was right. Here we are, in a world in which the ruling classes have disarticulated themselves from society in general, in which cornfields are swallowed up by the desert, in which people pretend to be like animals in order to be taken seriously. The solution is obvious. Find the descendants of John Moore, and give back Norfolk.

On being bored of Brexit

Fuck knows. I’m past caring. It’s like the living dead in here.
Sophocles, Oedipus at Colonus

namjunepaik

First there was a no. The Brexit referendum, nearly three years ago, was an enormous no to something, even if it wasn’t entirely clear what. Immigration, multiculturalism, neoliberalism, bureaucracy, the democratic deficit, the loss of empire, the passage of time both historical and subjective, the zippy newness of everything, merciless, intangible, and the bloating hairy decay of a human body that’s always monstrously here, the impersonal systems that administer our general managed decline, the existence of a teeming world beyond Britain’s grey fag-end shores, the ugliness of life in general, the ugliness of those burgundy passports in particular, etc, etc, etc. All those things congealed into the shape of the EU, and we wanted them gone. The task was to turn this loud and incoherent no into an actual set of governing regulations to manage the future economic and political relationship between the UK and the European Union, which is stupid and can’t be done. The whole thing is a category error; it’s like trying to comfort a dying cancer patient with some new zoning laws to ban cemeteries. No wonder it’s all been going so badly. All the progress made in the three years since has been in the form of various deferrals, backstops and transition periods, levees against the frothing tides of no. And they’ve three times been voted down, including in the most devastating Parliamentary defeat for a sitting government in British history.

This is what Hegel calls abstract negation. As opposed to determinate negation, the negation that propels the dialectic, that ‘cancels in such a way that it maintains and preserves what has been cancelled,’ abstract negation is an action annulling its object, that tries to simply blot everything out, ‘declaring it to be a nothingness.’ But sadly, there is something rather than nothing, and as long as this basic travesty continues, the no that cries out for the abolition of everything will only ever result in more ontological clutter. The pure no of the referendum has to become a no to Commission Regulation (EC) No. 2257/94, and once it’s gone an alternative banana-curvature regime will have to be put in its place.

Obviously, this doesn’t satisfy. This week, Parliament itself tried to break through the stasis by holding a series of ‘indicative votes,’ in which the Commons tried to establish whether it would be easiest to secure a majority for Theresa May’s withdrawal agreement, a customs union, EEA membership, a Norway-plus common-market arrangement, a second referendum, a unilateral revocation of Article 50, or leaving the EU without a deal. We should have seen the punchline coming from a mile off. Every single one of the indicative votes was defeated. We don’t want to stay in the EU, we don’t want to leave without a deal, but also we don’t want a deal. It’s not that doing nothing isn’t an option; it is, we’ve just turned it down.

This was probably the funniest thing to happen in politics for a while, and like every actually funny thing, it’s a combination of slapstick and nihilism. Two years of negotiations, two weeks to go before we leave, and we still can’t say what we actually want. We are frenzied. Parliament is a conga line of circus clowns juggling buckets of custard. We are inert. Limp, corpse-like, washing up on the tides, passing over every decision, passively rejecting the whole of the sunlit world, rolling round on Earth’s diurnal course. Theresa May tried to drum up support for her proposals by promising to resign if they passed: she tried to give her yes the dense allure of a no. It didn’t work. Now, she’s hoping for a fourth vote, Sideshow Bob plodding grimly for another rake. It’s obvious which proposal might pass the Commons; it’s just that nobody’s been brave enough to introduce it yet. Evacuate the island. Drill a few holes in the cliffs of Dover. Scuttle the whole country. We can gather at Calais or the Faroes to watch Britain sink into the sea, and then disperse, never to see each other again.

This situation feels new. It’s not. Philosophy has a name for it: boredom.

Kierkegaard describes precisely the dynamic behind the indicative votes debacle in Either/Or. ‘I can’t be bothered. I can’t be bothered to ride, the motion is too violent. I can’t be bothered to walk, it’s too strenuous; I can’t be bothered to lie down, for either I’d have to stay lying down and that I can’t be bothered with, or I’d have to get up again, and I can’t be bothered with that either. In short: I can’t be bothered.’ This is the situation Heidegger gives as the third and highest form of boredom, the Es ist einem langweilig, ‘it is boring for one’: a boredom that is not bored by any specific object, a boring party, a boring film, but in which boredom becomes a Stimmung, an attunement, a way of being with regards to external reality. A boringness that leaks in grey spurts from everything on the earth. After the boring party or the boring film, you might go and have some vaguely interesting sex; but if you’re in the realm of the third form of boredom, that too, and sleeping afterwards, and breakfast, and the sun in the sky, and the European common market, and a no-deal Brexit, will all reveal themselves as unbearably dull. Things, Heidegger writes, refuse themselves, they withdraw into nothingness.

But Heidegger was not a nihilist; he was a Nazi. (This is generally considered to be worse.) He wasn’t content to see boredom as a black hole, the washed-out final truthlessness of a world without interest. He liked mountain-climbing and shiny buttons; something must come out the other side. For Heidegger, the depths of boredom are revelatory; they force us to consider the nature of the Being that has departed from the world. It leads, in the end, to a more profound relation to the temporality of one’s being. His argument for this mostly hinges on an untranslateable German pun: alles Versagen ist in sich ein Sagen; ‘all withdrawing is a telling.’ Kierkegaard, who was not a Nazi, but one of history’s greatest ironists, can’t make the same leap. ‘Boredom,’ he writes, ‘is the demonic pantheism. It is built on emptiness, but for this very reason it is a pantheistic qualification.’ It’s important in and of itself, not because it inevitably leads you somewhere else. Nothingness in its vast full suffocating weight; the dictatorship of an absent god, the inescapable empire of the undone.

And this Kierkegaardian boredom is everywhere. I’m so tired: that’s what people say now, isn’t it? The ruling political affect isn’t really hatred, or righteous anger, which is actually quite hard to fake for extended periods of time. It certainly isn’t anything as rich or as dark – or as strangely, secretly hopeful – as sadness. It’s exhaustion. Industrial society blasts us in the face with a hot stream of lights and colours, and we go ugh, can you not, I haven’t had my coffee. Nanette: ‘I identify as tired.’ Tired of people who don’t share our vague and mostly provisional opinions even though it’s 2019, tired of other people in general, tired of the white supremacist cisnormative heteronormative fatphobic ableist imperialist capitalist patriarchy. To negate something, you don’t have to say that it’s actively damaging or destructive, just that you can’t be bothered with it, that it makes you tired. It’s not that things intrude too deeply; what’s tiring is how they fade away. This is, of course, not the affect of the oppressed. As Kierkegaard – along with Walter Benjamin, in The Origins of German Tragic Drama – points out, the subject exhausted by the nullity of everything is usually a prince. ‘Those who bore others are the plebians, the mass, the endless train of humanity in general. Those who bore themselves are the elect.’

And this is the thing: Brexit is deeply boring. Two years of negotiations, and every day the front pages of the newspapers announce another roadbump, and it’s all so utterly dull. And then, in the last few weeks, it got interesting again. It got funny, as soon as the process abandoned its activist mode and started to do nothing, as soon as Brexit finally entered the third mode, in which it stopped boring the public and became bored with itself. It’s finally been whittled down to that essential core of no. For Heidegger, this would mean that some great revelation is coming, that we’re on the path to a deeper and more authentic engagement with the materials of being. But I’m not so sure it’s possible to pass out of boredom. What would that engagement look like? A return to the Gelangweilt sein von etwas, a dullness without demonic grandeur or insight. Your bananas can be as straight or as bendy as you like; they’ll still taste like mushy nothing in your mouth.

There’s no such country as Russia

madeupnotreal

On the internet, there’s a small but dedicated group of people who believe that Donald Trump is secretly trans. To be honest, it explains a lot. That’s why he’s so histrionic, so obsessed with slights and appearances, so consumed with petty gossip and petty grievances. It’s why he’s so utterly soft, like a person sculpted out of margarine. It’s why he loves expensive things and little cakes: he’s a woman, and we all know what those are like. And it’s not just the first female President, but his entire family. Don Jr and Eric had big red ‘F’s on their birth certificates, to match the next twenty gormless years of transcripts and report cards. Melania wears all those disastrously unwoke outfits so nobody notices her dick. Barron is a girl being coercively raised with short hair and videogames; Ivanka was a boy forced to wear dresses. The believers scour through every second of video footage of the First Family, looking for any tiny trace of gender misperformance, filing it away in long YouTube videos: here is The Evidence. Of course, it all goes much deeper than the Trumps. They’re only part of a secret elite Satanic trans cabal. Everyone in the higher reaches of power is trans, from the British royal family to pop stars to TV anchors. Why isn’t entirely clear. Because they hate nature, because they hate God, because they’re mimicking the androgyny of the Baphomet, because they’re just perverts. (The theory is also somehow linked to the idea that all animals not mentioned in the Bible are actually fake – zebras are just painted donkeys, gorillas are men in suits, sloths are animatronics, and so on.) But the truth is plain to see, and the investigation continues. Soon, all will be revealed.

This is a fairly stupid, bigoted, and dangerous theory. It’s also far more believable than the idea that Donald Trump is a secret deep-cover Kremlin agent. So why is the Transvestigation confined to a few YouTube channels, while Russiagate spent nearly three years dominating the news?

Three years of drivel. Three years of Putin’s puppet, of game theory, of Slovakia being part of ‘Soviet Yugoslavia,’ of the shocking revelation that Russia sends delegates to the World Economic Forum, of a Hollywood actor declaring war on behalf of a government that never got to exist, of ‘the Communists are now dictating the terms of the debate,’ of ‘the death penalty, for espionage, being considered for Steve Bannon,’ of ‘what would your family do if Russia killed the US power grid,’ of ‘the only option is a coup,’ of ‘Russia was able to influence our election because they figured out that racism, sexism, anti-Semitism, homophobia, and transphobia are America’s Achilles heel,’ of protesters waving hammer-and-sickle flags at demonstrations, of ‘Comrade Trump,’ of ‘welcome to the resistance,’ of hysteria, of anthem-farting nativist boosterism, of fantasies in which all your political enemies are legislated out of existence, of the idea that the mere existence of the world’s largest country is somehow illegitimate, of endless screams for war and military aggression, of sub-John Birch Society reactionary psychosis, eyes rotating independently, brains glittering with crank, delusions piling on delusions, TV comedians and failed politicos turning themselves into volunteer CIA analysts, an entire intellectual class bursting out of reality and into the lunatic swirls beyond, a bourgeois elite that needs to invent global conspiracies to account for the fact that nobody loves them as much as they love themselves, messianic terrors, indictments swooping in the night, the titanomachy for the soul of America, the war against saboteurs and spies, braindead dads playing toy soldiers on Twitter, silent retractions, bashful corrections, denial, bargaining, anger, total psychological rot. Three years of this crap, and none of it was true.

From the Mueller report, the thing that all these mad hopes hinged on and swung from: ‘The investigation did not establish that members of the Trump Campaign conspired or coordinated with the Russian government in its election interference activities.’

Of course, the investigations have led to several indictments, and exposed some of Trump’s sleaze, lies, and criminality – but that’s just because the man is a sleazy lying criminal. That wasn’t the focus, it wasn’t what the investigations and their boosters promised. For years, I was gloatingly told that any day now, it would be proved that the President of the United States had covertly worked with the Russian state to steal the 2016 election, not that he’d illegally paid off a porn star out of campaign funds to cover up an affair. It’s not hard to catch the world’s absolute pigshit dumbest head of state out – but somehow, the Russiagaters have shown themselves to be even stupider than he is. They challenged a bloated foetus with a combover to a game of wits, and they can’t stop losing. For three years, they’ve been trying to get some dirt on a scummy Mafia associate – and they thought they could do it by collectively pretending to live in a spy novel.

It doesn’t matter. It isn’t over: it’ll never be over, not as long as people continue to believe. At the time of writing, the theory goes that the Attorney General’s summary of the Mueller investigation’s findings is actually a cover-up, a Trump nominee lying about the devastating report in a last desperate effort to hide the awful truth. When the full report is released, it’ll be something else. If the Rapture didn’t come on the predicted date, it’s because you were too sinful; if the comet failed to pick you up and carry you out into kaleidoscopic polysexual interstellar space, it’s because something polluted your positive vibes.

Conspiracy theories, the idea goes, swill around in the dregs of society, among the toothless, tobacco-stained, and deranged. The people who believe Trump is secretly trans are isolated cranks, while the people who believe Trump is secretly a Russian agent – or pretend to think that – are Hillary Clinton, the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Guardian, CNN, MSNBC, a substantial chunk of elected Democrats and not a few Republicans, along with doctors, lawyers, scientists, and celebrities. Early in 2017, the Washington Post published an op-ed castigating sections of the public for believing the insane reactionary nativist fantasy that Barack Obama is a secret Muslim, while not believing the insane reactionary nativist fantasy that Donald Trump is a Russian asset. Obviously, this writer didn’t think these ideas were comparable. It’s hard to imagine that the class character of the people who hold them didn’t have an effect. But ruling-class conspiracies aren’t really so unusual. For centuries, the European ruling classes were happily spreading and inventing paranoia against the continent’s Jews. Today, the Hungarian ruling classes do much the same thing. And the Prime Minister of Israel, not to be outdone, has tried to somehow exonerate Hitler for the Holocaust, and pin it all on the Palestinians.

All this is difficult for me, because I love conspiracy theories and the people that hold them. But there’s an inconsistency. Climate change denialists are not as dear to me as creationists. I can’t sympathise with people who think a tragic drink-driving accident was actually an Islamic terror attack because the driver was Indian, not in the same way that I sympathise with people who think the Sun’s been replaced by an artificial double because the daylight seemed warmer when they were young. And while I love flat earth, hollow moon, and the new chronology, I can’t love Russiagate. Maybe it’s because I don’t have family members furiously insisting that all of history up to the sixteenth century was fabricated by the Jesuits. Maybe it’s because my class and my education mean that I can love these other things without anyone taking it too seriously. But mostly I think it’s because what I admire in untruth is its expansiveness, and Russiagate is so small. Nasty, measly bullshit; Cold War imperialism and a horror of foreign contamination; the petty presumption of the educated upper class. I don’t hate it because it’s untrue. I hate it because it’s another grim wift of what’s killing us.

‘We do not object to a judgement just because it is false,’ writes Nietzsche, ‘and this is probably what is strangest about our new language.’ We’re all Nietzscheans now. It’s worth noting that the people who gave themselves brain damage over an utterly imaginary Russiagate are the same ones who’ve also been having a three-year-long freakout about fake news and post-truth politics. The responsible, the sensible, the evidence-based, the moderate. In 2017, the British publishing industry saw fit to put out three separate books titled Post-Truth. Two had the word ‘bullshit’ in the subtitle. This frantic repetition, as any good Freudian knows, is the foundation of civilisation and sanity, while itself being utterly deranged. (Psychoanalysis is always quite Nietzschean in this regard. Whether your father actually wants to castrate you is immaterial. Just because they’re after you, doesn’t mean you’re not paranoid.) I’ve spent a long time writing against this kind of miserable desaturated administration-as-politics, but if it ever existed in fact rather than as a regulative ideal, that mask has fallen now. All the Mueller report has done is made it a little bit harder to pretend that politics is, or should be, within the domain of facts. Russiagaters, welcome to the unreal. Let’s build you a better lie.

And her name is Lisa too

captain-marvel

I didn’t understand Captain Marvel.

The film is about an interplanetary war between the Kree (a rationalistic, technologically advanced race of blue-skinned aliens, who readily admit outsiders and rule their benign and multi-ethnic empire with a firm but welcoming hand) and the Skrulls (an orcish race of shapeshifting terrorists with Australian accents). Obviously, the Kree are the villains. They are also, quite clearly, a sci-fi version of America.

The hero of Captain Marvel is a kidnapped US Air Force pilot who ends up rebelling against her Kree masters, and the military was highly involved in its production. Fifty soldiers worked as extras in the film, military officers were used as consultants, and multiple scenes were shot on an Air Force base. Female RAF pilots, in uniform, surrounded Larson at the film’s European gala screening in London; for the Los Angeles premiere, the Air Force supplied six F-16 jets for a celebratory flyover. In return – and this is the usual deal – the military was given substantial editorial control over the film’s script. The Marcel Cinematic Universe is, as everyone knows, the cultural wing of the military-industrial complex. This isn’t really an anomaly. These films form the vernacular folklore of post-industrial society, and mythic cycles tend to be martial and heroic narratives. It’s all a lot dumber than the Homeric epics or the Nibelungenlied, but then so are we.

Is it possible that Americans simply can’t see themselves in the screen? Do empires fail the mirror self-recognition test? This seems like too easy an answer. The question we should be asking isn’t how an anti-imperialist message managed to ‘sneak past’ the military censors. Instead, how is it that what appears to be an anti-imperialist message has actually been recuperated by empire?

Anyway, this is what was exercising me after I saw Captain Marvel. I couldn’t sleep that night, but I find it hard to sleep most nights. I took a sleeping pill before bed, and then another after an hour of anxious sweat and irritation, and then another. So I was neither asleep nor awake, but woozily skimming just above the surface of reality, when a group of orcish aliens with Australian accents kidnapped me, took me up to their spaceship, and fed me into their memory-harvesting machine. ‘Go back,’ they said, ‘go back.’ They made me watch Captain Marvel again. But this time, the story was very different to the one I thought I’d seen.

I can’t tell you which one is real. All I know is that I don’t understand.

* * *

It’s 1995, and former US Air Force pilot Carol Danvers falls from a very great height into a Blockbuster Video store outside of Los Angeles. She levitates between the racks of VHS tapes: the mocking green grin of The Mask, the stern half-face of Van Damme in Timecop. Her fingers trail across stacked plastic edges, and they’re scabbed and filthy. The other customers stare: clearly, this woman doesn’t belong here. She’s come from somewhere distant and unknown, and she’s wearing strange armour; she doesn’t look entirely human. She doesn’t seem to disagree. As she drifts, she’s whispering to herself. ‘It isn’t real,’ she says, ‘it isn’t real, you’re not here, you’re in outer space.’

It’s 1988, and Carol Danvers is at the first of her obligatory therapy sessions. Dr Nicholas Fury’s manner doesn’t match his name. He’s still a military psychotherapist, he sits with his back perfectly straight, but his face is open, and there’s a box of tissues on the low table between them. This is where you can say the things you couldn’t say outside. This is where you don’t have to be strong.

‘There must have been a lot of pressure,’ he says, ‘being the first female combat pilot. That’s a whole lot of expectation riding on you.’ Carol smirks mirthlessly. ‘The first,’ she says, ‘and the last. They won’t make that mistake again.’ Dr Fury purses his lips. ‘It’s interesting that you respond with humour,’ he says. ‘Why do you think that is?’ It’s because every time some braying Air Force frat-boy told her women had no place flying a plane, that was always somehow just a joke. ‘Because it’s true,’ she says. ‘I read the internal report,’ says Dr Fury. ‘There were a lot of reasons for what happened, and maybe some of them have to do with you, and maybe some of them don’t. But what I need you to understand is that none of this is simply because you’re a woman.’ And Carol nods, but she’s not convinced. Because there had simply never been a woman combat pilot before, and the system just wasn’t built for someone like her. The flight suits didn’t fit properly; the controls were just slightly too far away; there weren’t separate showers or separate bathrooms. And while the flyboys all necked their go pills before each mission, little methamphetamine tablets to keep them alert, the standard doses had been calculated for a man’s body. The other pilots had been alert. She’d been tweaking.

Up there in the sky, the edges of her vision had blurred, and the centre pulsed. Everywhere she looked was a bloating, living heart. The gumminess and grinding inside her mouth, the crawling on the edge of her skin, the uncontrollable strobe-flash flutter in her eyes, and the strange objects that darted out of the darkness to linger in the sky. Shameful to admit now, but she’d loved it, the cranked-up intensity of it all. The only thing better than drugs is flying, and the only thing better than flying is flying on drugs. Maybe this is just what perfect alertness feels like, she’d thought – but she knew she was making mistakes, the kind of rookie errors a pilot as good as she was shouldn’t be making, and it wasn’t just nerves. Her fingers shook over the controls. She saw shapes in the clouds. AWACS that turned out to be cirrus drifts; zeppelins roiling out of the nimbus. And a hostile F-14, flying aggressively out towards US Navy vessels in the Persian Gulf, which was actually Iran Air Flight 655, with two hundred and ninety civilians on board.

Back when she was at high school in Boston, a friend of hers had gotten wasted at a party and then tried to drive home. He’d gone too fast, accelerated sloppily around corners, spun out of control in that fucked–up maze of crooked streets, and knocked down an old lady taking her dog out for a walk. The dog had to be put down. The old lady died instantly. Ralph: his name was Ralph; she couldn’t remember the old lady’s name. And it was hard, when she visited Ralph in jail, to see him crying in handcuffs. ‘I can’t go to prison,’ he’d whimpered, ‘it wasn’t my fault, I wasn’t in control.’ It had been awful. This kid had killed; he’d taken away someone’s life for no good reason. He wasn’t the friend she’d known, but something else, someone else’s death, a living tragedy plunged into someone else’s world, and he disgusted her. And what is Carol Danvers now? Everyone on that plane had died. Nearly three hundred people. Sixty-six children. And she’d killed them.

Carol Danvers goes home, grabs a bottle of go pills out the bathroom cabinet, and necks three of them at once.

It’s 1989, and Carol Danvers is being stalked by the skulls. They could be anyone. They change their form. Iranians, Carol has learned, have a doctrine called taqqiyah: they’re allowed to hide their religion and deny their God; they disguise themselves to blend in. Maybe that’s why this Wal-Mart is full of monsters. Carol twitches between the aisles, piling up her basket with cakes and candies, high-energy things for when she remembers to eat – and the faces of the other shoppers keep changing. She knows she shouldn’t have flushed the pills, but the two were interacting unpleasantly, and between meds and meth, she was always going to go for the meth. Things are under control, she tells herself. She’s not on the streets. She has her Air Force pension and her disability checks. She has Dr Fury. It’s under control, just not her control. Because when she shuffles over to the cashier and dumps her basket full of oily sugary snacks, the kid bagging her groceries turns his dumb head, and his flesh chars and drifts away in motes of burning dust, leaving only the perfect fire-stripped scream of a passenger as the plane is atomised around him, one of the two hundred and ninety, one of the Iranians, one of the skulls.

It’s 1991, and Dr Fury is being briefed. ‘I know her background,’ he says, waving a dismissive arm. ‘I treated her for two years after the incident.’ The ward superintendent tries to cough as mildly as possible. ‘Ah,’ he says. ‘Well, you might, ah, find that her psychosis has deteriorated considerably since that time. We still have her on the antipsychotics, but the, ah, pattern of her delusions is unfortunately conforming to a fairly classical schizoid type.’ Dr Fury glances over his notes. ‘The influencing machine,’ he says. ‘That’s correct,’ says the superintendent. ‘As it happens, I’m composing a paper on the subject. Are you aware of the, ah, James Tilly Matthews case?’ Dr Fury looks impatient. ‘Remind me,’ he says. ‘Quite a landmark in clinical history,’ says the superintendent. ‘A merchant in the eighteenth century, who came to believe a gang of criminals was remotely torturing him with a machine he called the Air Loom, a system of pipes and, ah, valves, that could interfere with his mind and body through magnetic rays. Dawn of the industrial revolution. I suppose he wasn’t entirely wrong. Machines always seems to carry certain, ah, potencies. There’s a fellow named Francis in Long Island who seems to have something similar, keeps mailing letters about it to random addresses. You know that when I was starting out in the fifties, I had multiple patients who believed Sputnik was beaming messages directly into their brains?’

Carol’s sitting peacefully on a plastic chair in the rec room. Fury sits next to her. ‘Do you remember me?’ he says. Her eyes light up. ‘Dr Fury,’ she says, ‘thank God, you have to help me. We have to go to Cree River.’ Out comes the notepad. ‘Cree River,’ he says. ‘Of course,’ she says. ‘Cree River Air Force Base, in Montana. You’re still in the Air Force, you know what they’ve built there.’ Dr Fury shakes his head. ‘Remind me,’ he says. ‘It’s the AI,’ says Carol. ‘There’s a supercomputer in a bunker under the airfield, the Air Force is using it to model the movements of Iraqi tank columns. But listen: it’s got too smart for them. Reality is just a highly accurate simulation, and it’s simulating the whole universe now. Don’t you get it? We’re in that simulation. It thinks it’s a god. It’s sending messages through time. We have to destroy it, we have to get in a plane right now and destroy the Supreme Intelligence.’ ‘You said it sends messages,’ says Dr Fury. Carol gives him a canny glance. ‘You want to know if the Supreme Intelligence shot down that plane,’ she says. ‘You don’t believe me, do you? You think this is all in my head. Well it is. It’s in my head, and yours, and it’s in the trees outside, and it’s everywhere, it’s everything, and it wasn’t my fault, do you hear me, it wasn’t my fault.’ She’s smiling now. ‘How can you look so concerned,’ she says, ‘when you don’t even have a face?’

Afterwards, outside, Dr Fury notices as if for the first time how all the cars stop at a red light, and how there’s always someone to sweep the leaves off the sidewalk; how perfectly everything in the world fits together, as if this were all just part of the plan.

It’s 1993, and someone has detonated a truck bomb beneath the World Trade Center in New York. TV footage shows rescue teams pulling the wounded out of the collapsed garage. Carol Danvers watches the devastation from a quiet air-conditioned bar out in the California desert, and Maria Rambeau watches her. It had all sounded so much simpler when Carol’s doctor had phoned her out of the blue. ‘I’m not asking you to be her nurse or her carer,’ the man had said. ‘I’m just asking you to be her friend.’ Being friends with Carol had been easy, once, when they’d both been bright-eyed and ambitious kids at Basic Training in Texas. And it’s not as if the Carol she knew is gone, not exactly. Days and weeks can go past without incident. Long periods in which she’s a little off, a little scarred, but basically fine. She always was resilient. The drugs are working – and, as Dr Fury keeps telling her, what’s more important is that Carol has her. Friends, a job, a bar she can go to, where they can sing karaoke duets again and drink whiskey straight, something like an ordinary life. But being friends with someone like Carol really is like being a nurse or a carer, it is a chore, and as much as she loves her, sometimes Maria wishes it could all just be someone else’s problem. Like now. Maria’s country is under attack. People have died, and she would rather be anywhere other than here. This bar in the desert, with pictures of fighter jets on the walls and ballads twanging tinny on the speakers, with her, her best friend, watching them pull the wounded out of the World Trade Center, and mumbling a constant stream of insane drivel into her glass. Rogue computers, weaponised syntax, Islamic doctrine as a metaphor for quantum energy weapons, faster-than-light drives schematically represented in the traditional patterns of Persian carpets, a hole opening in the sky above New York, and flying lizards streaming through. Maria wants to grab her friend by the shoulders and scream: girl, you fucked up bad, and that’s on you; don’t make me your two hundred and ninety-first victim. But instead she just nods, and bears it, and orders another drink.

It’s 1995, and Carol Danvers is in outer space. She turns back a barrage of ballistic missiles; she swoops through an enemy spaceship in a trail of gorgeous explosions. She’s saved the skulls, the innocents and their children. She’s put back flesh to repair their wounds. She builds universes. She makes and unmakes empires at will. Every flicker in her fingers is significant, every motion changes the world. Lasers sparkle like confetti around her, as she chases the Imperial warships deep into the interstellar void.

And inside the simulation, the false world, the flat world, the dead zone of magnetic tape and digital signals, Carol Danvers is levitating between the racks of VHS tapes in her aluminium-foil armour, as laurels of light wind and unwind around her stained and scabbing hands.

Here, there, everywhere

DIANA
You mean they actually shot this film while they were ripping off the bank?
HERRON
Yeah, wait till you see it. I don’t know whether to edit or leave it raw.
Network (1976)

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This is not the first time a killer has livestreamed their own crimes. In 2015, two journalists were murdered in Roanoke, Virginia by a man who filmed himself walking up to his victims, raising his gun, and opening fire. In April 2017, a man was shot on the street in Cleveland by a killer who uploaded the footage to Facebook. That same month, in Phuket, a man streamed himself murdering his own eleven-month-old daughter. This was always going to happen. The technologies promised to link us, to abolish distance, to turn everywhere into a potential collective here – and the result is that every square inch of the Earth is now the scene of the crime. There was a period between the abolition of public hanging and the invention of the GoPro in which death was no longer a mass spectacle. That time is over. We’re in the globe-straddling charnel-house. The conveyor belt to the abattoir runs through the palm of your hand.

But this killing is different. Today, a shooter filmed himself opening fire in two mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand. At the time of writing, forty-nine people were killed. And it wasn’t just broadcast online: it was the internet. Not a representation of real-world events within digital media, but online culture, online pathologies, online idiocy, in the form of bullets and blood. People who’d come to New Zealand as refugees, fleeing distant wars that never appeared as tracked and fungible images, were killed by a man who’d learned he should do so from a lifetime festering in the world inside the screens. Subscribe to PewDiePie, he said, and then he opened fire.

A few years ago, people like me were made vaguely aware of the fact that a Swedish man who played video games while yelling constantly in a high, squeaky, annoying voice was now a millionaire. This was added to the mounting pile of evidence that the world was incurably broken, and we mostly ignored it. Then, a few years later, as these people tend to do, he shouted a racial slur while firing pretend guns at pretend enemies. This caused a kind of unreal explosion. Politics happened in the way that politics happens online: preening and denunciations, bile and squabbling, the staking-out of increasingly extreme positions, as a joke, as a posture, in the expanding imperium between the impossible zones of the real and the fake. Suddenly this obnoxious Swede was promoting white nationalists and paying people to hold up signs that read death to all Jews. How did this happen? It’s not clear. But it should be obvious that the default online-left position, that this guy is simply a Nazi, that happened to also be a YouTube celebrity, is not enough. Something is breeding in there, in the screens, uncoiling itself in the dialectic of vitriol, and it kills.

This was, of course, before everything, a racist attack, a nativist attack, a fascist attack, and a right-wing attack. But something like the right wing doesn’t have form or existence outside of the actual modes of society. Fascism isn’t independently created out of the aether, and it doesn’t pop fully-formed into existence within someone’s malfunctioning brain. The conditions inhere everywhere. There are the peddlers of respectable racism, the ones who tepidly suggest that those people aren’t really like us, are they, and then profess to be shocked when someone distils all these just-asking-questions into bloodshed. For the most part, people’s thoughts and actions are drawn from the cultural storehouses of possible thoughts and possible deeds, and those reserves are packed with racism. There’s a material base here, in the global division of labour, in the political economy of resource extraction, in the exploitation of low-wage migrant labour, in the unprecedented disposability of the global working class. But the specific form of these reactionary politics, and the oily everywhere-ness of their spread, is unquestionably that of the internet. And the internet is not only ephemeral; it’s woven deep into the structures of social and economic life.

In his online manifesto, the Christchurch killer talks like the internet. He regurgitates Stormfront’s favourite Kipling poems. He laces his population-replacement theories with memes and copypasta. But his attitudes are coded by mass communications on a far more fundamental level. He makes clear that he killed these people to intensify the online discourse. Just like the big tech firms, he wants more people engaged in the Conversation, more intensely, more of the time. He wants people to lash out at their favourite microceleb hate-figures, to say their favourite lines, to pick their habitual fights. Naturally, it’s worked. Death is what keeps the internet spinning.

His ideology is an internet ideology. In an age of digital disintegration, the collapse of sociality and of meaningful support structures, their replacement with shifting and volatile mediated affinities, is it surprising that so many people become fixated on the idea of organic and biological racial identities? In the age of curation and cancellation, rigid structures of the aligned and excluded, the followed and the blocked, shouldn’t we expect a politics that can only see heterogeneity as threat? When everywhere is everywhere else, when blocks of meaning roll over and flatten the particularities of the world, why wouldn’t it be easy to see forty-nine living human beings as only a hollowed otherness, and decide to kill them?

The killer was born in Australia. He committed his murders in New Zealand. In his manifesto, he complains repeatedly that Muslims are gaining sovereignty over ‘European land.’ It hardly needs pointing out that both Australia and New Zealand are very far away from Europe. And New Zealand in particular is very explicitly not European land. Its colonial history is, of course, one of bloodshed and theft – but with the Treaty of Waitangi now semi-formally enshrined as the country’s founding document, there is at least some measure of recognition by the State of tino rangatiratanga, Maori dominion over the land, within the transfer of sovereignty to the Crown. Unlike many colonised populations, the Maori were formally given the rights and privileges of British subjects; they’ve had designated political representation in New Zealand’s parliament since 1867. Like Australia, New Zealand maintained restrictive border policies in the twentieth century that aimed to keep out non-white migrants – but unlike in Australia, pakeha New Zealanders could never claim to constitute the sole political subject of the State. The ethno-nationalist discourses of the killer have nothing to do with the actual structures of race and politics in New Zealand. As always, the reactionary politics that claims to want to protect distinct cultures from global homogenisation actually ends up erasing all such differences. It’s an amalgam of European nativism and American clash-of-civilisations mythology, along with personal grievance and theatrical posturing. It’s the internet.

This should be disturbing. Like many socialists of my generation and my class, my own politics were developed online, refined online, and exercised online. Even in ‘real-world’ socialist movements like Momentum or the DSA, much of the formal structure is plugged in to digital communications. Online ideological petri dishes set the agenda and define the terms of discussion, and produce monsters. This is not to draw a moral equivalence. The internetworked right commits brutal massacres; the internetworked left mostly turns pissily on itself. But it would be extremely stupid to believe that the internet has turned the right into a viral plague, and had no ill effect whatsoever on the left. These technologies impose the same conditions on everyone that becomes mediated by them – and if ideology is not material, then it’s no defence against the same swamping, polarising, homogenising, and volatilising processes that gave us the atrocity in Christchurch. We ourselves are not immune. And rather than condemning an abstractly conceived ‘hatred’ from the outside, the task is to see how far we’ve sunk into the slaughterhouse of everywhere, and make urgent plans for an escape.

The opinions of others

oldones

Your first clue that something’s up comes when you’re accosted by two people, an extremist on the right and an extremist on the left. They stand there blocking your path, two abreast – like creepy twins, or the world’s smallest military formation, although they look nothing like each other. The right-wing extremist wears a read hat with the word Maga in black across the front, and a blue t-shirt that also says Maga. ‘I want to exterminate racial minorities,’ he explains. The left-wing extremist is clearly from a racial minority herself, in a vaguely indeterminate way, or possibly she’s just very suntanned – but she has green hair, and wears high-waisted jeans, glasses, and a look of weary patience. ‘Um?’ she says. ‘How about we don’t do that? And just be nice to people instead?’ You try to push past them. ‘Please,’ you say, ‘you have to let me through, there’s somewhere I need to be, something terrible will happen if you don’t let me through.’ But the knowledge of what that terrible thing might be is fading as you speak. All you have is the sense of a terrible rupture, something you’ve been fleeing from or running heroically towards. ‘No,’ says the extremist on the right. ‘Not yet,’ says the extremist on the left. ‘First,’ says the extremist on the right, ‘you have to distinguish us.’

He laughs, and as he does his laugh floats off his face and shatters into endless duplicates. The flesh peels from the extremist on the left’s body, twisting in neat ribbons, and nests around the extremist on the right. Her hands scrabble furiously up and out through his cheeks, splitting his face open, black-painted nails slick with spit and gore, while his laugh dances in hornet-swarms from every direction. A blue eye rolls upwards into its skull, and a brown iris rears out of the clearing fog of sclera, blood vessels writhing to make way. The extremist on the left has been stripped to the bones now, and when you pick up a single greasy vertebra that clatters at your feet, you see that it’s moulded with raised ridges in the shape of a swastika, in the way that other manufacturers might mark their products with the words made in China.

Kaleidoscope arms split from the remaining body. Human detritus licked up by frog-tongues that dart from sudden mouths; orifices swim over skin. A rib pulses and ripples just under the skin through the new creature’s bloatedness, up the leg, up the torso, bulging the neck, until it emerges in a small spray of blood out of its head, a raw and magnificent antler. Swarming laughters dart back towards their source, and become teeth. The thing wobbles for a moment, and then it splits. Two mouths open in unison. ‘Distinguish us,’ they command. There are two people standing there again, but they’re utterly formless. All you know is that they’re a threat. ‘Distinguish us,’ they say again. ‘I can’t,’ you say. ‘I can’t see the difference. You’re exactly the same to me.’ And then they vanish.

Now you understand where you are. This high, dark, echoing marble corridor, this endless hall blasted with alcoves, from which classical busts of broadsheet columnists and TV pundits frown and glare. The laurels slip over Tucker Carlson’s face. David Aaronovitch stares his stony empty-pupilled stare. Some cheerful rebuke seems like it’s about to burst out of Owen Jones’s frozen puffed-up cheeks. And the Chapos are on their plinth, a screaming five-headed monster. The candle-light is dim, and the darkness behind you billows and swells, forcing you on. You are in the worst place that can be imagined. You are among other people’s opinions.

Further on, the outer wall has nearly collapsed. The space beyond this long, dark, linear universe is excruciating: a swirling blackness, gnawing at the back of your eyeballs. Looking at it feels like having a stinging-nettle grow in the centre of your brain. But an army of Trumps is blotting it out. None of them are more than a few inches high, but the cleaner, straighter Trumps are lifting up boulders three times their size. Those stones are marked with words like Integrity and American Renewal. The Trumps squeak and chirrup without words; their noses wrinkle as they do their diligent work, and the long fine whiskers on their snouts twitch in the gloom. But there are other Trumps, bloated and pustular, chunks of fur missing from their haunches, white circles gleaming like cadaver-flesh beneath black and pitiless eyes, and the stones that they move with miniature cranes and earth-diggers read Lies and Sleaze and Russiagate.

You try not to look as the Trumps build their wall, because the whole scene is washed by the terrible rays that come from Outside, but as you hurry past you tread on one of the Trumps’s tail. The President bares its long incisors, and sinks them into your ankle. And then, chaos. The rat-Trumps stream out of their control cabins and start scratching at faces; the squirrel-Trumps form a protective semicircle around their portion of the wall. Letting out terrible battle-squeaks, a phalanx of huge and hulking Trumps, sleek with grease, pink in the cracks of their scars, roll for the frontlines. The squirrel-Trumps are annihilated. Their skulls are cemented into the wall.

A hand lands reassuringly on your shoulder. ‘See,’ says its owner, ‘the squirrels won, everything’s going to be ok.’ A rabid dismemberment. Scraps of squirrel-fluff fall out of the tumult and drift like falling snow. ‘But the rats won,’ you say. ‘No,’ he says, ‘look.’ But you can’t; you’re looking at him. An almost skeletal young man, pale and pockmarked, his head shaved, in a hospital gown, with what you think is a drip plugged into his arm, until you see the little pump mechanism at the top of the line. His eyes are the same black as that razor void beyond the wall. He’s going to die. ‘Those are rats,’ you say, again, as if to reassure yourself, because it’s unfathomable that someone could be so wrong about rodents. ‘Rats have naked tails,’ he says, in the slow voice you might use with children or the insistently stupid, ‘and these have furry tails. They’re squirrels.’ He kneels down to pick one up, and the rat starts pulling at his fingernails. They fall out so easily. The tissue beneath is already rotted. He talks to the rat that’s mutilating him with a dreamy, happy, slurring voice. ‘Do you want a peanut, little pal? They won’t let me eat, but maybe I got a peanut for you.’ He fumbles around in his mouth with the other hand, and pulls out a tooth. The rat seizes it and starts to eat, and the tooth comes apart in glossy, oily, yellowing crumbs.

You follow the dying man along the endless doorless corridor, and you have to keep moving, or else the terrible thing will take you. Alone, on an island of washed-up garbage, plastic sun-bleached in the Pacific, slabs of computer hardware matted together with seaweed, a raft of flotsam and strangled fish, stands a six-year-old girl. She’s wearing a kind of Halloween costume, and cradles an object in her hands. ‘I like this,’ she says, overflowing with sincere emotion. ‘The world is so miserable,’ she says, ‘and the trash-tide covered everything, and all the insects died, but this wreckage is full of treasure. I’m allowed to feel joy. I’m allowed to find the things that I love in all these ruins, and I’m allowed to cherish them. I like this. I like this thing.’ She shows you the thing she likes. It’s been whitened in the sun, and hollowed into a thin plastic shell by the tides, but it’s an enormous dildo. From out the base, the pale legs of a hermit crab flail helplessly. ‘It’s so important to me,’ she says. ‘Do you like it? I like it more than anything. Do you like it too?’ The crab’s antennae lick the air. Maxillipeds churn like pistons around its long vaginal slit of a mouth. You can’t bear to tell the child what it is. ‘You have to like it,’ she says, ‘you have to like the same things as me, or it means you think I don’t matter.’ You can barely manage a whisper. ‘I don’t like it,’ you say. The girl opens her mouth wide to scream, but there’s no sound. Six long crab-legs unfold themselves out of her throat, and the thing that’s living in her shell scuttles away in sadness and fury.

Here and there the floor is slippery with the three essential oils, which are Brent crude, sebum, and partially hydrogenated vegetable fat.

There’s Roman graffiti defacing the walls. It’s doggerel. Quaero Quaestum Qualitercumque. I seek profit by any means necessary. Quidnam Quiritor Quotidianus? Why not whinge every day? Quosque Quaestores Quisquilias Quatiebant? For how long have our elected officials brandished garbage? It has to mean something. There must be some pattern, some secret code.

And all this time the Jews have been following you. They roost in the ceilings of this place, in the coves and coffers of its rotundas, in the vegetable decay of Corinthian capitals; straddling gargoyles, keening and kvetching, letting long trails of Jew-guano splatter the marble and pile up in calcified heaps. This place was built for them. The Jews flap around on leathery wings in the upper darkness, finding their way by olfactolocation, propelled by their huge turreted nostrils. Up ahead you see a small hunched crowd. Human-like creatures, naked and as pale as moonlight, skittering on fingertips and toes. They’ve gathered around a squat stalagmite of Jewshit. ‘Filthy birds,’ they croon, ‘Rothschild birds, Zionist birds, kill them all.’ They’re licking at the pile with long dry tongues. This is their only subsistence in this place, and a diet of guano has riddled them with disease. You can see the lesions over their fish-white skin, the redness and swelling in their joints, and as you approach they can see you too. ‘Only a minority of them, of course,’ one says, straightening its back in an anxious hurry. ‘Just the ones that make a mess on the floor,’ another chimes in. They’re cringing; something in this endless passage hunts these coprophages, a taloned predator that lives one step removed from the muck. ‘Some of my dearest comrades,’ they mumble in unison, fear glittering over their sunken features. The dying man tugs on your sleeve. You must continue. But as you edge past the troglodytes and their feast, you see one of them pinned to the wall, held in place with a short bronze sword driven right through its throat.

Wheels whine on the dying man’s drip. He drags you over to a stark bare hospital gurney, and you help him clamber onto it. He beckons you in with two fingers, and rasps in your ear. ‘Everyone’s gone,’ he tells you. ‘Alcohol and opiates. There’s nobody left.’ He’s right, there is nobody left. The stranger has vanished. There’s only you, the dying man, immobile on your hospital bed, the drip slowly squeezing the last drops of blood out of your withered arm.

They swoop out of the darkness, twelve figures in brightly coloured animal masks, forming a tight vigil around your deathbed. ‘This is terrible,’ says one, ‘it’s inhuman that people are dying like this. We have to do something.’ There’s an agonised pause. ‘Did you just speak over me?’ says another. ‘Nobody else was talking,’ says the first. ‘Oh,’ says the second, and now her voice whirs to a mocking yelp, ‘nobody else was talking, so I thought I’d just butt in here with my white boy opinions that nobody asked for.’ A thoughtful silence. ‘This is terrible,’ she continues, ‘it’s inhuman that people are dying like this. We have to do something.’ Another animal face looks up eagerly. ‘We could spit in his mouth,’ he says. ‘Replenish lost fluids.’ This sets off a brief squabble, everyone complaining at once. ‘Enough!’ one of them shouts. ‘We’ll do this democratically. Go round the circle, clockwise, starting with me, so everyone’s voice is heard.’ ‘Why do we start with you?’ says another. ‘Because I’m the one that’s speaking now,’ says the first. ‘No you’re not,’ says the other, ‘I am, I’m talking right now, and I refuse to be silenced.’ Then there’s a silence. ‘Why can’t two people speak at once,’ two masks say simultaneously. The remaining ten all screech their objections in unison, and as they do you remember the terrible thing that will happen if you don’t keep moving on. You remember why it’s so dangerous to be among other people’s opinions, why everyone is so terrified of this place, why they all come in here to tear it down, and why nobody ever leaves. ‘Please,’ you croak, but they don’t hear you. ‘Please,’ you say again, ‘you have to wheel me on, you have to move me on down the corridor, or I’ll start believing this.’ Suddenly, all twelve round on you. ‘Who said you get to speak?’ spits one. ‘You don’t believe in this?’ hisses another, squeezing the fat of his upper arm. ‘This isn’t real enough for you?’ They point out that you’re with the rats, that you’re still holding one in your hand, even as it’s tearing your palm to shreds. One leans in close, until you can see the sweat drenching the animal mask. ‘Did we hurt your fee-fees?’ he growls. ‘Are you going to cry those toxic fragile tears, just because we’ve made you confront the fact that you’re a bad person?’ A consensus is reached. ‘Yikes,’ they say, ‘this ain’t it chief, you’re trash, I hope a bird craps on you.’

One by one they depart, muttering darkly about how each of the others has let them down once again, and the billowing dark roils from one end to the other of the hall of other people’s opinions to swallow you whole and become the world.

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