Idiot Joy Showland

This is why I hate intellectuals

Month: September, 2012

The Mirror Stages

Mirrors and copulation are abominable, because they increase the number of man.
Jorge Luis Borges

Seven years old, alone and bored in the flat, Yusuf K. (1) walked through the mirror to the other side.
He hadn’t been told not to, after all, he reasoned. His mother had told him not to watch TV and to do his colouring or read a book instead. He’d disobeyed, of course, but there’d been nothing good on; no cartoons, only boring grown-up programmes where people just sat and talked. It was his own fault, he knew; if he didn’t keep getting suspended from school he wouldn’t be so bored the whole time. But it was his mother’s fault too: how could she leave him alone there, with nothing to do? She had a job, but she also had a son; he should have been her first priority.
He watched the mirror for a while before he went in.
“Come on,” said his mirror-self. “Or are you scared?”
Yusuf K. (1) wasn’t scared. So he walked through.
For a while he and his mirror-self lay on the sofa and talked. His mirror-self wanted to show Yusuf K. (1) some of his books, but the writing was all backwards and he couldn’t understand it. Then they played noughts and crosses.
“You’ve got your pen in the wrong hand,” said Yusuf K. (1).
“No,” said his mirror-self. “You do.”
“No, you.”
And so on.
Eventually they heard the sound of the key in the lock. Yusuf K. (1)’s mirror-self dragged him behind an armchair.
“Well,” said his mother as she walked into the room, “Have you been good?”
“Don’t make a sound,” whispered the mirror-self.
“Oh,” said his mother. She left the room and called out into the hallway: “Yusuf!” There was the sound of a door opening. And then again: “Yusuf!” Wardrobe doors slamming. “Yusuf, this isn’t funny! Come here at once!”
By the time the police arrived Yusuf K. (1) was starting to feel a little guilty, but his mirror-self pulled on his sleeve whenever he made a move to come out from behind the armchair. His mother was almost in tears.
“He doesn’t have a key,” she said. “I can’t bear to think what could’ve happened.”
A policeman put one hand on her shoulder. “Can you think why he might have left?” he said.
“Oh, he was angry at me. Because I’d left him here. He was suspended from school, you see. Oh, Yusuf. I’m so sorry.” A tiny, hiccoughing sob.
Yusuf K. (1) poked his head out. In the mirror, one of the policemen suddenly looked up. “Oi oi,” he said. “You might want to look at this.”
Yusuf K. (1) met his mother’s gaze across the glass. She ran up to the mirror. “Yusuf!” she shouted. “You come out of there right now, do you hear me? Do you have any idea how worried you’ve made me?”
Reluctantly, looking downwards, Yusuf K. (1) crawled out from the mirror.
“I’m so sorry to have wasted your time,” his mother said to the police. “It won’t happen again.”
After that, Yusuf K. (1) wasn’t allowed to watch TV for a month. His mother also threw out all the mirrors in the flat except a little one in her bedroom. He didn’t really mind. It had been diverting, but he didn’t really like his mirror-self all that much. He was such a crude boy.

Walking to the bar, Yusuf K. (2) couldn’t help but glance at the mirror on the far wall. Reflected, the Brute glanced back.
“You know,” said Amina, smiling wryly, “you are one vain motherfucker. You can’t walk past a mirror without checking yourself out.”
“I’m not checking myself out,” said Yusuf K. (2).
“Oh yeah? What are you doing then?”
How could he explain? It was only their second date; he didn’t want to lay any heavy shit on her. She certainly didn’t have to know about the Brute.
“Nothing,” he said. “It’s just a mirror, innit?”
Behind the bar and the rows of blue and green bottles was another mirror. Yusuf K. (2) tried to concentrate on the barman. Misinterpreting the intensity of his gaze, the poor guy hurried over with an obsequious grin. “And what shall I get you, sir?”
“Pint of Foster’s, mate,” said Yusuf K. (2). “And…”
“Gin and bitter lemon, please,” said Amina.
“Gin and bitter lemon,” he repeated.
He stared at his pint as it was poured, ever aware that the Brute was waiting for him just a few metres away, watching with him. He gripped the rail along the bar until his fingers felt numb.
“Are you OK?” said Amina. She laughed. “Dude, don’t get all nervous now.”
Why did she have to mention the mirror? Everything could have been fine, but she had to be so perceptive… the fucking bitch! And there his will broke; his head jerked up, and he looked into the mirror. Amina was there, all delicate points and feminine curves, a look of faint worry exquisitely torturing her round eyes and little pink-painted lips… and standing next to her was the Brute. The Brute’s jaw jutted out, his stubble was thick and barbed, his eyes looked straight at Yusuf K. (2) not with any murderous evil but with a simple base animal incomprehension. The Brute’s face wasn’t really a face, just a mess of skin and orifices jumbled together without any unifying principle beyond its own dissonance, its own ugliness, the propulsive power of its own empty threatening stare. And there it was, the now-familiar shock of non-recognition. This was what he – he, Yusuf K. (2), a thing of light and thought – looked like to other people, this was the face Amina saw when she talked to him. She was such a nice girl! How could she bear to go for an intimate drink with the Brute?
“Seven pound twenty, please,” said the barman.
He should have taken her somewhere else, somewhere without mirrors, somewhere the Brute couldn’t find him. Too late now. The Brute was reflected in Yusuf K (2)’s eyes. Without saying a word, he turned around and left.

“And the bottom line?” said Dr Quigley.
“A, G, K, X, Q,” said Yusuf K. (3).
“That’s right,” said Dr Quigley. “For a man of your age, your eyesight is close to perfect.”
“I could have told you that myself,” said Yusuf K. (3). “Don’t need a Harley Street doctor to let me know I can see just fine. Can I go now?”
After Yusuf K. (3) left, Dr Quigley wrote in his notes: Based on his medical history, the Mirror Man’s eyesight appears entirely unaffected by the change. His pen dithered for a moment over the paper. Nonetheless, he wrote, looking into the Mirror Man’s eyes is a profoundly unsettling and anxiety-inducing experience.
The Daily Eye might have paid for the expensive ophthalmologist, but they weren’t about to chauffer Yusuf K. (3) around the city. He still had to take the bus home, and that meant having to deal with people. When his eyes had first changed, people had started giving him strange, startled looks; it wasn’t until he saw himself in the mirror at home and saw the perfectly reflective globes where his eyes had been that he realised why. Then, when the Daily Eye had run the story on him, he’d become a celebrity overnight. He’d never had so many free pints poured for him; people would walk up to him on the street and ask him – him, of all people! – for an autograph. They’d always seem a little disappointed on receiving it, though. They didn’t want his own name; they’d wanted him to sign as the Mirror Man. That had been two weeks ago. Things had changed.
A few days before, a kid in a hoodie had punched him in the face as he stood on the bus. “Don’t look at me!” he’d bellowed. “Don’t you fucking look at me with them eyes!” It wasn’t just the young and aggressive, though. He’d crossed paths with a group of businessmen; they’d jabbed him with their umbrellas and slapped his legs with their briefcases. As he fell down one of them had given a swift hard kick to his ribs. They hadn’t said anything, they’d just walked on, as if nothing had happened, not even breaking the flow of their conversation.
He could have worn dark glasses, he could have walked the streets unmolested, but something inside him rebelled instinctively at the thought. On the bus he looked out of the window for a while; he flitted between the faces of his fellow-travellers. He got off fairly lightly, really. One passenger standing next to him beat him around the head with a newspaper when their gazes met for a fraction of a second; another kicked him in the shin. Nothing too bad.
As he walked down the street to his house, he was aware of a loud commotion. A large mob of all ages, ethnicities and social classes surrounded the low suburban home, shouting obscenities about the Mirror Man. A few bricks and stones arced up from the mass of people; the thin line of black-clad police protecting his front door tried to bat them away with their shields but without much success. All his windows were broken. The smell of burning was in the air; the chants were witty in their invective; those on the outside of the mob were laughing and chatting happily; there was, in general, a thoroughly pleasant festival atmosphere.
As Yusuf K. (3) approached the crowd he saw the riot police make a desperate dash for him, but it was too late. The crowd was already on him: screaming, flecking him with spittle, lunging at his chest. Their stampeding force knocked him to the ground. Hands, seemingly independently, scrabbled at his face. Yusuf K. (3) knew what they wanted. “Take them!” he shouted. “Take them away from me! I don’t want the things!”

Yusuf K. (4) had painted four parallel lines in bright blue on a primed canvas. They were called Untitled Meditation 8. He sat looking at them. He wished he could scrub them off, sell the canvas back, use the money to do something he actually enjoyed.
Taped to one wall of the studio was a cutting from a review of his exhibition at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. A new and terrifying force in contemporary painting, the headline said. That had been the opinion of just about everyone. Yusuf K. (4) had been a new and terrifying force. The article went on: Yusuf K. (4)’s works challenge both the lazy conventions of fashionable abstraction and throw down the gauntlet to reactionary realists. His stark, restricted-palette paintings beguile you with their dense swirls of shades and textures; it is only after you have been contemplating their intricately composed harmonies for some time that they coalesce – as if by pareidolia – into recognisable forms, at turns bucolic, erotic, and threatening. Armies of horsemen with demoniac grimaces charge through his paintings, reclining nudes give sultry glances from below the paint, sublime landscapes hover just this side of intelligibility. Yusuf K. (4) gives us the entire history of Western art, recontextualised into something entirely new. From this magnificent exhibition, it’s not hard to see why the established art world is both terrified and entranced by him.
That had been in 1968.
He’d never quite known how he’d done it, exactly. He’d wanted to make abstract art, but before he’d even finished his pencil sketches a shape had always risen out from the mist of curving lines to stare him in the face. At first he’d tried to ignore them; he’d been successful at this for a while, and lived on bread and cheese for months. Eventually he gave in, and became famous.
He’d had a strange gift once, one he’d acquired without ever asking for it. It had stayed for a while, and then gone, and now Yusuf K. (4) was reduced to painting blue lines on white canvases, like the peddlers of lazy abstraction who had once found him so fearsome. Except, as all the critics agreed, Yusuf K. (4)’s blue lines on white canvases were without much merit. They had to review his exhibitions, in smaller and smaller galleries, on account of his name, but when they did the verdict was always the same. His works didn’t suggest anything, they didn’t conjure anything, they didn’t reflect anything. Yusuf K. (4) just wasn’t a very good artist any more.

9/11 & the Burkean sublime

My year studying literature at UCLA was academically pretty satisfying. Without having to follow any structured degree course, I was free to abandon actual literary works altogether and indulge myself reading obtuse Continental theorists. Most importantly, the grades I received didn’t impact my overall degree, which allowed my work to sometimes veer away from strict academic tone (I referred to Shakespeare as ‘Shakey P’ throughout one paper) and into areas of questionable bad taste, as in the essay below, which I’m posting in commemoration/memoriam of yesterday’s anniversary. I’m not sure if I agree with everything I’ve written; certainly not with the rather Arendtite equivalency I appear to be drawing between Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union – but I rarely fully agree with anything I write, even the stuff  that I put up on this thing. There was also more I wanted to say: I wanted to discuss in greater depth the revolutionary potential of reactionary ideas such as those of Burke in a postmodern age, I wanted to more thoroughly deconstruct the aesthetic effect of the attacks themselves. The piece does end quite suddenly; I suppose I had other things to do. I’ve decided after some reflection not to amend or expand it (I’ve got other things to do). Here ya go.

In his 1757 essay A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful, Edmund Burke developed a theory of aesthetics based on two opposing principles: the beautiful and the sublime. The beautiful is that which is pleasant and well-formed (although he disputes the notion that a sense of proportion is intrinsic to beauty). The sublime, by contrast, is considered to be a far more powerful force: it is that which induces fear and awe. Central to sublimity is the experience of vastness, infinity, and danger. While a sense of terror is essential to an experience of the sublime, the danger must not be immediate – Burke uses the example of a viewer on shore watching a ship being tossed about by a storm.

Although extensive use was made of the sublime in the art and politics of the Romantic period, its importance appears to have diminished during the modern era, and especially since the First World War.. It is arguable that elements of the Burkean sublime persisted into the politics of the twentieth century. In his Commentary on the Society of the Spectacle, Guy Debord distinguishes between two forms of spectacularity: the concentrated spectacle of Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union during Stalin’s premiership, and the diffuse spectacle of American capitalism.[1] It is arguable that the first form is heavily reliant on the sublime: Burke argues that the ‘succession and uniformity of parts are what constitute the artificial infinite;’ and such succession and uniformity formed a prominent element of Nazi and Stalinist mass demonstrations;[2] meanwhile the Lichtdomen designed by Albert Speer for the Nuremberg Rallies produced at once the extreme light and extreme darkness which are ‘both, in spite of their opposite nature, brought to concur in producing the sublime.’[3]

However, as Debord points out, the concentrated spectacle has been entirely vanquished by the diffuse spectacle, in which ‘wage-earners [are driven] to apply their freedom of choice to the vast range of new commodities now on offer.’[4] If the organising principle for the concentrated spectacle is the sublime, for the diffuse spectacle it is the beautiful – sensations of awe and terror rarely lend themselves to the consumption of consumer goods. As Foucault points out, the master-signifier of morality in late capitalism is ‘our feelings’ – while in classical Greece the good life was considered to be that which accorded to aesthetic principles, with ethics and aesthetics considered to be non-contradictory, in contemporary society the conception of the good life is inextricably bound up with the fulfilment of desires and the maintenance of pleasant feelings and a positive emotional state.[5] In such a society the sublime can not, as in the ‘totalitarian’ societies of the early twentieth century or the monarchies of the eighteenth century, help prop up established power. Rather, by its very nature, it constitutes a threat.

While Debord claimed that the two forms had reached a kind of Hegelian synthesis in the ‘integrated spectacle,’ which was claimed to have been pioneered in France and Italy, any examination of the administrations of Sarkozy or Berlusconi (or, for that matter, Hollande or Monti) reveals that, to whatever extent Debord’s integrated spectacle actually realised itself, the sublime is not among its attributes.

With the decoupling of the political and the aesthetic, the sublime has found limited articulation in certain cultural artefacts. Recent innovations in the technologies of computer-generated imagery have allowed for the creation of landscapes and environments calculated to induce a sensation of the sublime, and whose effect is arguably greater than those found in the natural world. In the 2009 film Avatar, for instance, director James Cameron created the fictional planet of Pandora, complete with craggy and vertiginous landscapes and fantastical, threatening wild creatures. The aesthetic effect of the film was such that some viewers reported experiencing depression after watching it, with some contemplating suicide, as the world depicted was not real and could not be experienced directly.[6] While on the one hand the success of the film indicates a continued appreciation for the sublime on the part of contemporary populations, at the same time it highlights the discontinuity between the sublime and quotidian existence: the sublime has been so thoroughly purged from the modern world that it can appear only on distant and fictional planets.

As such, when the sublime does intrude into the organised banality of the contemporary West, it can only do so through sudden and shocking acts of violence. It is arguable that the most notable reappearance of the sublime in the modern world was the terrorist attacks of September 11th 2001 in New York. While for its victims and those in Manhattan during the attacks the distance from danger necessary for a sensation of the sublime was obviously not present, the significance of 9/11 transcends their immediate location. News footage of the attacks was viewed around the world, and images of the World Trade Centre and its collapse have since been endlessly reproduced in a manner that speaks not only to the political import of the attacks but a grim fascination with their aesthetic effects. Many of the aesthetic qualities described by Burke as producing the sublime are present in such representations: aside from their suddenness and sense of terror they induce, the attacks made rugged the smooth faces of the Twin Towers; their vertical collapse heightened their vastness and perpendicularity.


[1] Guy Debord, Commentary on the Society of the Spectacle (Verso: London 1998)

[2] Edmund Burke, A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful(Oxford University Press: Oxford 2007) p. 132

[3] Burke, p. 146

[4] Debord, p. 8

[5] Michel Foucault, ‘On the Genealogy of Ethics: An Overview of a Work in Progress’, in The Foucault Reader, ed. by Paul Rabinow (Vintage: New York 2010) pp. 340-372  p. 352

[6] Jo Piazza, Audiences experience ‘Avatar’ blues. CNN: http://articles.cnn.com/2010-01-11/entertainment/avatar.movie.blues_1_pandora-depressed [accessed 11/06/2012]

Slavoj Žižek answers a question on ‘Fifty Shades of Grey’

SLAVOJ: Yes. My god. This question, I claim, it is inevitable, but I had hoped that it would be inevitable in the manner of Derrida’s messiah which is always coming but never comes, not in the manner of the inevitability of socialism. I should begin, I think, by saying that I have not read this book. In my house in Ljubljana, I have a hundred copies of each of my own books, there is no room for anyone else’s. It is a field of pure madness, pure narcissism, in the Lacanian sense, of course; it is the perfect image that constitutes the Subject. I may as well have made every wall a mirror. This book, it starts on the Internet, no? People are reading more than ever before with this technology, it is disgusting, wholly degenerate. I think the only true literary figure of our times is Katie Price, you know this? The woman who has written more books than she has read. She forms the highest critique of literature – and I do not mean this in the liberal nostalgic way of the culture is declining, everything is becoming commercialised, and so on, and so on. No! What she does is very important, I claim, she reveals the truth that was always there, that reading books is a worthless activity. There is an excellent line in Nietzsche, he says: at the dawn of one’s strength, to read a book – I call that viciousness! So I claim, the problem with this book is not that the author has not read enough, it is that she has read anything at all. My god. But this book, it is simulated sex, no? It is pure pornography. But that is not what is obscene about it; all literature is pornography, after all. No, what is obscene is the reaction. This is the difference between the modern and the postmodern: when that other pornographic book was published, Lady Chatterley’s Lover, it was banned at once. This is good, very healthy indeed. Pornography that is not banned at once, you know, it is like coffee without caffeine, beer without alcohol, a proletarian movement without the Absolute, and so on, and so on. But this book, the Fifty Shades of Grey book, it is embraced openly, the women read it on public transport, and so on, and so on. It is the Other without Otherness, utterly obscene. In the liberal society, everything is permitted, every kind of sexuality; not only permitted, it is mandatory. The command everywhere is this: you must Enjoy! The truly radical act, this I claim, is to not enjoy. The revolutionary is the real hedonist of the twenty-first century because he puts Communism over his own jouissance. It is this which is unacceptable. I am reminded of an old Soviet joke: Marx, Engels and Lenin take turns buggering a peasant woman in a field. When they are done, Marx kisses her cheek, Engels kisses her mouth, and Lenin has been stealing the wheelbarrows. I claim: if you do not get this joke, you are a fascist.

I’m convinced that it would be relatively easy to programme a computer algorithm which, given sufficient input in the form of pop culture and political events, would be able to churn out fully formed Žižek books at the rate of three hundred a second. The man himself already lies deep within the Uncanny Valley: like Marxism and eschatonic Christianity, he exists only to prefigure his own redundancy.

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