Idiot Joy Showland

This is why I hate intellectuals

Month: February, 2013

Italian election: the opera

OVERTURE: A symphony in three movements for orchestra, piano, articulated lorry, stock ticker, and tear gas canister.

ACT ONE

SCENE ONE: We are in Venice, at the start of the eighteenth century. Doge MARIO MONTI (tenor) sings the aria Siamo tutti fottuti from the balcony of his palace, in which he explains to the people of the city that a strange beast called il Mercato is stalking the streets and canals of the city at night, killing animals and destroying produce. The beast, which has ‘eyes that dance with the spark of lightning and claws with the chill of ice,’ has been sent to punish the Venetians for their profligacy and excess. Monti reveals that only he has the power to rein in the beast’s destruction, and claims that its wrath may be stilled if one child is drowned in the Grand Canal every week. He then announces that despite the beast’s reign of terror, the annual masquerade carnival will go ahead as planned. Inside his palace, Monti sings a duet with his lover, Donna ANGELA MERKEL (soprano). He assures her that their plan will succeed; she complains that his skin feels like old parchment and his breath smells like a cauliflower fart in a crypt, and notes with alarm that he sometimes licks his eyes like a lizard when he thinks she’s not watching.

SCENE TWO: The disgraced nobleman DON BERLUSCONI (baritone), our hero, reclines in the Palazzo Bunga-Bunga surrounded by North African prostitutes. He sings the aria Io scopare tutto ciò che si muove, lamenting his fall from power at the hands of Merkel and the court case brought against him by Monti. He vows to his manservant, ROBERTO MARONI (bass), that he will have his revenge against those who wronged him. Maroni suggests that they try to embarrass the Doge at the masquerade. He then sings Quest’uomo è un idiota, a mournful reflection on the frailty of man.

SCENE THREE: In a town square, DON BERSANI (countertenor) sings Il centrosinistra è politicamente praticabile, but nobody cares, and the audience is distracted by a juggler who comes onto the stage and performs a few basic tricks. The famous drunk BEPPE GRILLO (baritone) criticises Monti’s decision to start drowning children and vows to overthrow him. A CHORUS of citizens sing their support. Don Berlusconi watches from a window, and reflects that he could use Grillo’s popularity to engineer his revenge.

INTERLUDE: Twenty fascist football hooligans beat the shit out of an oboe.

ACT TWO

SCENE ONE: The day of the masquerade has dawned and Grillo is addressing a crowd. Watching him from a window, Don Berlusconi realises that he has fallen in love. He sings the aria Seriamente, qualsiasi cosa con le tette, in which he recounts his past romantic conquests and reminisces fondly over his simple past ‘when I had nothing but a media empire, an advertising company, and a construction firm.’ Across the street, Don Bersani has also fallen in love with Grillo. He and Don Berlusconi sing a duet in which each tries to prove his worthiness as a suitor, unaware that the object of their affections already left some time ago.

SCENE TWO: In a nearby tavern, Grillo reveals his plan to overthrow the Doge. He will attend the masquerade disguised as Don Bersani, who will not be attending because ‘that baldie loser hates parties.’ To prevent the suspicion Grillo’s absence would arouse, one of his followers will go dressed as him. As Monti must mingle without his bodyguards during the masquerade, he will then take the opportunity to challenge him to a duel. In the same tavern, Don Berlusconi discusses his plan to reclaim power and win Grillo’s heart, telling Meroni that he will do this by going to the masquerade dressed as a sexy nurse.

SCENE THREE: The masquerade begins. Doge Monti inaugurates the ball by singing the aria Più soldi più problemi and then by slow-dancing with Donna Merkel, to the disgust of all present. A visibly coked-up Don Berlusconi tries to seduce the man disguised as Grillo by singing Sono un ragazzo divertente, vero? to him; however, he is rejected. He then sees Grillo, dressed as Don Bersani, conferring with his follower. Assuming that his rival is making a similar attempt, he becomes inflamed with jealousy and draws his sword. The two fight. In the panic that follows, Don Berlusconi is killed by Grillo, who is dressed as Don Bersani; Grillo is killed by Maroni; and Doge Monti is killed by Don Bersani, who has attended the masquerade after all and is dressed as SpongeBob SquarePants. After the tumult of battle has cleared, only one man remains.

INTERLUDE: An old woman complains about how there’s never anything good on TV.

ACT THREE

SCENE ONE: The only survivor of the masquerade, still in his mask, proclaims himself Doge. He explains that the beast il Mercato was invented by Monti to control the people and that the citizens of the city are finally safe. Near the end of his aria E ‘tempo di formare una coalizione ragionevole, just as he prepares to reveal his identity, the monster bursts onto the stage, kills him, eats half the audience, privatises the opera house, and sells it to a real-estate developer to be turned into a branch of Pizza Hut.

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Google Glass: the horror, the horror

 If you want a picture of the future, imagine a human face grinning moronically at the middle distance – forever.

Google has strapped a smartphone to a pair of glasses, and it’s very exciting.

To try humanity’s brand new toy out, Google is demanding a fee of $1500 from the 800 winners of an online competition. For a chance to win, we’re to use the #ifihadglass hashtag to tell them how we’d use the thing. Thousands have eagerly replied that they’ll use it to creatively document the actualisation of their synergistic networking strategies – in other words, they’ve pointed out that Glass isn’t actually useful for anything. Actually, there’s one thing: it brings the panopticism of the information age to its apotheosis. Everything we do will we supervised; everything we look at will be analysed, all our information will feed into the contextual adverts that will inevitably start to pop up around our semi-virtual landscape. Glass is a technology of individuation, building a dystopically pliant Subject. It also finally euthanises the old, wheezing real world – technology ceases to be a part of existence; existence is now just one aspect of the technology. With Google Glass we can never be alone. We must always be connected. We must always be staring at images. Real people are reduced to holographic simulacra. Real relationships are reduced to digital delusions. And then there’s Google’s first promotional video, released last year, which dreams of a day when a twat can do some mundane stuff. Around a minute in, you realise that you’re supposed to actually identify with the smug self-absorbed protagonist rather than want to cave his head in with a rock. It’s an awful, sinking feeling: this is what the rich and powerful think we’re like. A world of preening narcissists.

But none of this is what’s really revolting about the whole thing. The panopticon was there before; it’s the panoptic nature of society that the problem, not the technology itself – the act of putting a camera on your face doesn’t inexorably lead to a surveillance society. Glass might provide a retreat from the real world, but so does art and literature and abstract thought itself; authenticity has never really existed. And twats are hardly a recent invention. Still, there remains something horrifying about it, something fundamentally and viscerally wrong.

Imagine this same video, shot from three feet in front of our hero instead of through his eyes. Suddenly, the technology recedes far into the background, and we’re left instead with what it’s created. We’re confronted with a man, hideous in his bodily actuality, sleeping on his sofa, a crusted line of drool running from the side of his mouth, still clothed in a plaid shirt, jeans, and flip-flops. The blinds are open; the pallid light of day shines without mercy on the whole fetid scene. A strange pair of glasses sit at an awkward angle across his face; there are red marks near the bridge of his nose where they’ve been pressing into his skin. He wakes up with a sudden start. As he does so his glasses whir into life. The man stretches his arms out. “Eeeeuuuuhhhh,” he says. His eyes flick back and forth. He’s looking at something, but we can’t see what it is; it doesn’t exist. There’s a strange unfocused aspect to them. They’re the eyes of a shaman, a prophet, the unblinking eyes of a madman, the staring eyes of a corpse. As he makes coffee his head lolls around and around. He can’t focus on anything. “Hng,” he says. He stands by a window for a while, looking but not seeing. “Gnunng,” he says. Then, shambling, eyes darting, he sets off into the world.

As he walks various grunts plop from his mouth. “Mmmng,” he says at a lamppost. “Hnuh,” he proclaims to an empty subway station. “Hueergh,” he tells a dog. A homeless man ranting in a corner pauses for a moment to observe the man in silent pity: at least he knows how to talk. Our hero carries on: he walks into a bookshop. “Where’s the music section?” he bellows – ignoring the plainly visible signs – to the horror of the other customers. As he blunders blind about the place he continues to speak, eyes rolling and darting, shouting at nobody. “Uuuugh,” he says. “Oh. Is Paul here yet? Heugh.” An employee’s hand hovers over the phone. She doesn’t want to call the police on a man who’s clearly not well, but he’s disturbing the customers, stomping and shouting – it’s as if he’s in his own little world, completely blind to the existence of those around him. Well, not quite: there’s someone outside who seems to recognise him; his carer, perhaps. “Hey dude,” he says. “How’s it going?” They buy coffee from a food truck, but even here his attention is diverted. He stares silently at its tyres for a while. “Cool,” he says, eventually, quaveringly. The other man soon leaves. It’s hard to blame him.

This tale of woe concludes on a windswept rooftop. Our hero stands by the edge. “Hey,” he says. “You wanna see something cool?” There is nobody around. He takes out a ukelele and plays a few twanging chords at the sunset, grinning wildly. He presses himself against the railing. Down on the street, passersby watch the frail form of a ukelele tumbling down the side of a building, buffeted up by the winds and falling down again, and soon after, a human shape, following it into the abyss…

One shambling zombie is a horrifying enough image. The second video, released last week, shows us a whole world of them. The cities are full of wandering people with flickering eyes. Their chatter rises to the clouds, a single monophonic drone. “Glass, record.” “Glass, take a photo.” “Hueergh.” “Glass, connect me.” “Hnnnugh.” “Glass, sustain me.” “Glass, direct me.” “Euuh.” “Glass, lift me from this pit of ashes and bones. Give me your fire. Let me burn as you burn.” Remove their glasses and it’s worse: they look at the world with a newborn’s bafflement. Where do they go? What do they do? The body is frail and helpless. Without one foot in the eternity of the digital Cloud their skin constricts them. It’s unendurable.

Everyone is always elsewhere. They ride rollercoasters. They go ice-skating. They perform in ballets. They don’t experience a thing. They’re watching themselves watching. The present moment is nonexistent, it’s only an electronically aided memory in progress, it’s already become the past, even while it’s happening. Crowds drift into the roads to be mowed down by distracted drivers. Hundreds are minced up. They don’t mind. The rollercoaster slides off its rails; the safety supervisor is watching TV through his glasses. As the car plunges towards the ground its passengers solemnly chorus: “Glass, record a video.” Far away, in a reinforced concrete server complex, their last moments will be stored. In these rows of humming computers all of humanity is kept: every second of their lives, documented, processed, regurgitated as consumer profiles and product suggestions. They will leave their record. They will not have died in vain.

Ten years later, children sift for scraps through the rubble of the old world.

Why not to write: a confession

Once you’ve done a little writing you start to hate words, really hate them, the kind of frothing obsessive hate that might be love if you could only push it a little further, but you can’t, something’s stopping you. The words are everywhere, they’re invasive; you wish they’d go away, but at the same time you can’t imagine life without them. There are too many of the things. Little stubby ones; long serpentine ones with twitching antennae and gossamer-thin probosces; pale words, translucent and squirming; big rich words engorged with blood, their carapaces dense with tiny thorns. An infestation. Some people freak out and see bugs crawling all over their skin; I get words. I don’t know which is worse.

There’s a sea of them. Not a pacific blue mirror nibbling tenderly at the sands, not an iron-grey ocean roaring its foam-flecked fury. A sullen greenish bog, oozing and bubbling, squirming with life, a primordial soup. I feel this sea of words somewhere at the base of my spinal column, a fetid reservoir, and with every sulphurous belch from its surface the words come teeming, crawling up my back, rippling under my neck, gnawing into my brain. When the words seize you it’s a feeling not unlike pain. It’s sharp and constant. You can’t think of anything else. They’ve got you by the throat, they repeat themselves in your ear, they can utterly ruin your day. The only way to get rid of them is to spit them out. You have to write them down.

That’s where the hate comes from. When the words are still crawling their way around your body they’re just an annoyance. Nobody really hates their runny nose or their aching feet. Like any sickness, it doesn’t really belong to you. Only when you’ve expelled the words and lined them out all neatly on a page do they become yours. Then their intrinsic hideousness is all your own fault.

The hatred is everywhere, it runs like a spine through the body of literature. Beckett’s Unnameable can’t go on, he must go on, he goes on, but all he really wants is to be silent. Shakespeare rejects words through Hamlet and renounces them through Prospero. Chaucer ends his Canterbury Tales with a penitent’s retraction. Virgil orders the Aeneid burned. There’s something really grotesque about words, it’s on the level of an innate repulsion, they’re hideous to the touch. It’s something unique to writers. Artists are a temperamental self-important bunch in general, but painters don’t tend to see the very act of applying pigment to canvas as something shameful. Sculptors don’t throw their clay to the ground and curse its earthy worthlessness. Composers don’t cultivate an instinctual distrust of their pianos.

If you work with paint or clay, what you make is already in the world, you’re just moving stuff around. That’s OK, you’re not disturbing anything too seriously. If you write, you’re making new world, you’re pumping more and more reality into the already overstuffed carcass of the Earth. Even if you never show anyone what you’ve written, it’s still there. The planet sags under its weight. All this blasphemy just to get the bugs off your skin.

If you do show it to people, it’s worse. Love this! you cry, shoving a handful of worms in their faces. Validate me! It’s pathetic. If you join a writing workshop, you’re beyond salvation.

In the book of Genesis, God forms the first man out of dust and breathes life into him. The animals are formed ex nihilo, but before he can be created, man must first be moulded. His image comes before his reality; he’s a representation first and a being second. It’s the same in so many creation myths: humanity is unique, its form precedes its function. There’s a difference, though: in the Old Testament, the world is spoken into being: before images there are words, the universe is a linguistic construct. It’s strange, then, that the Torah – usually so rigidly formulated – begins not with aleph, the first letter of the alphabet, but with beit, the second. The text is incomplete from the start, it’s intrinsically insufficient. Even the Word of God is still just a word, a hideous foreign thing that bores its way into your brain. To deal with words, to surround yourself with words – it’s an imperative, but it won’t save you. Christianity offers salvation by the blood of Christ. Judaism gives you only the Book: you trace your way backwards through the entire scroll, until you come up against the letter beit, and then you’ve got nowhere else to go.

That’s the root of it. Great writers tend not to be nice friendly Anglicans. In the West, at least, they’re of two types: Jews and antisemites, antisemites and Jews. One type, really. Antisemitism is just a desperate attempt to capture some of the Jew’s particular talent for self-loathing; Judaism is just a desperate attempt to account for the antisemite’s hatred. A Jew doesn’t have to be circumcised: Yitzhak Shapira is not a Jew; Jacques Lacan was a Jew par excellence. The Jew is the one for whom something is missing, circumcision is just a reminder of that fact. You try to replace it: that’s where you get psychoanalysis, political radicalism, Christianity. Pathological inventions, all of them.

Writing is displacement. The words are loathsome because they’re a constant reminder of something that isn’t there. It’s a symptom. If Nietzsche (the antisemite who wasn’t an antisemite) wasn’t crippled he could’ve walked the mountains himself, he wouldn’t have needed to write Thus Spake Zarathustra. If Kierkegaard (the Jew who wasn’t a Jew) wasn’t impotent he could’ve fucked Regine Olsen, he wouldn’t have needed to write Fear and Trembling. If you’re writing, it’s because the world has failed you. And, like the good little masochist that you are, you make more world, you make more people, you make more absence.

My shoulders are always tense, they’re full of knots, I can feel the muscle fibres fraying, like old sea-worn rope. It’s never painful, not exactly, but it’s hard to get comfortable. I can’t say why, but I almost relish it. I worked in an office for a few months; one day they had a masseur come in. They asked if I wanted a massage. I said no. Nothing valuable comes out of a lack of tension. It’s idiotic.

It’s said that everyone has a novel inside them. Always a novel: never a film or a painting or a really good spaghetti bolognese. Books about writing are everywhere, they’re consistently popular. The advice is consistently lousy, especially when it starts to border on spiritualism. You have to write from a place of love. You have to love storytelling, you have to love your characters, you have to love words. You have to write for an audience. You have to use fewer adjectives. I think the books should come with little warning labels. Caution: it won’t help, something like that. Not that they’ll save anyone, if you have the sickness there doesn’t seem to be much you can do about it, but at least people won’t be allowed to delude themselves.

Maybe I’m wrong. There are plenty of writers, many of them published, some of them quite successful, who claim that they do what they do out of a genuine love of words. I happen to think they aren’t much good, but after all I’ve not been published. Sometimes people tell me I do this to myself, I indulge in it, I could be content if I wanted to. They may well be right; it’s immaterial.

I’ve never felt like I have a novel inside me. Only words, sentences, stories, characters, flowing like pus from an open sore, crawling like ants. Sometimes the flow dries up for a while and I get worried, but it never stops for too long. The only way to really halt it would be to fumigate the anthill, to give it a nice fresh blast of diazinon, to tear down the whole rotten structure. I’ve been writing almost since I can remember. As a child I’d take a few sheets of blank paper, fold them in half and staple together to make a little book. I collected my first few volumes in a VHS case. I’d carry it around with me wherever I went. I don’t know where it is now. The first story I wrote – I must have been five or six years old, maybe younger – was called Lost in Space. In the story an astronaut on a spacewalk accidentally breaks his tether to the ship. He goes floating out into space. He drifts past planets and stars. It doesn’t seem to bother him too much. That’s all. I don’t think he ever made it back.

Art, money, beauty, shit, representation, the communal

א In Der Ursprung des Kunstwerkes, Martin Heidegger attempts to account for and justify the phenomenon of modern art. While maintaining his own somewhat conservative tastes, he claims that modern art possesses autonomous value – despite its production requiring no evident skill or virtuosity, despite its challenge to conventional aesthetics pushing it into the realm of outright ugliness, despite its lack of any identifiable object of representation, despite it being entirely counter to the prevailing contemporary sensibility. This is, he concludes, because it contains an element of aletheia: clearing, or unconcealment; it is unpopular in the present because it speaks to the future; it has its origin in its own future. We are now in Heidegger’s future – Der Ursprung des Kunstwerkes was first published in 1950 – and his prediction seems to have manifested itself. The challenges of modernism have become the dogmas of postmodernism; what was revolutionary has become institutionalised; what was vital has ossified. Artists parade an unending succession of mundane objects in front of us – is this art? Is this art? How about this? – and with every degree of separation from Duchamp the question steadily loses its power. Art has become solipsistic. And while Heidegger could see an unknowable future prefigured in art’s setting-into-work of Truth, the postmodern bonfire of the metanarratives has obliterated the future, replacing it with a terminal self-reference. Something, somewhere, has been lost.

1.1 There’s a simple answer to Heidegger: he’s ignored the position of art in the commodity market. Contemporary art is given value not because of its intrinsic qualities but precisely because anything that calls itself art is a good store for value. Art is an excellent investment, its use-value hovering in a zone of indistinction between infinity and zero, its exchange-value untouched by the turbulence of the market. Unlike oil or wheat or subprime mortgage derivatives, the price of art is invulnerable to fluctuations in supply and demand. Some of the greatest works of art ever produced lie unseen in safety deposit boxes; meanwhile, subjecting art to the cold logic of the commodity, corporate investors ensure the production of facile, anodyne artworks of ever-increasing value and ever-decreasing worth.

1.2 I find this line of argument entirely unconvincing. Before the age of corporate-funded art, it was financed by usurers and robber barons; before that by monarchs and aristocrats, before that by the Church, before that by the temple-State complex. Shakespeare called his group of actors the King’s Men for his patron, James I. Virgil’s Aeneid was a paean to Augustus. (While in Broch’s The Death of Virgil his dying command to burn the manuscript is the basis for a denunciation of State art, there’s little to suggest that such concerns were particularly prevalent at any time before the 19th Century, let alone the classical period.) Because the work of art tries to touch on something essential and immutable outside of the relations of production, because  its value is distinct from that of the money-economy, it is always forced to parasite itself off the exploiters of those same social relations.

1.2 Art and money are more than just joined at the hip: they’re joined at the anus. Freud famously formulated the equation money = shit, with miserliness being a mature manifestation of infantile anal eroticism; meanwhile, the production of shit is the first expression of creativity, the first instance of the subject creating something external to themselves to be admired. The anus is a Deleuzian machine, channeling and cutting off a single flow: a flow that appears as money on one side of the anus-machine and as art on the other.

1.3 The intimate connection between art and money is demonstrated by their shared origin. Marx notes that the currency-form has its root in ‘the sensuous splendor of precious metals.’ It is from this sensuousness that money develops the fetishistic power to transform ‘imagination to life, imagined being into real being’ – in Heideggerian terms, to effect the self-disclosure of Being. In other words, money performs the exact same function as art. Wherever the currency-form arises, the money-commodity is always something possessing a sensuous beauty: gold and silver, cowrie shells, beads, brass rods, sandalwood. It’s not just their value was seen to inhere because of their beauty: the money-commodity was always that which was used to adorn the body – a practice universal in human cultures and unique to them. Here is where the rupture between money and art can be found: the raw material of money is spectacular and beautiful, while art, by contrast, is built out of the base and the mundane. Early painters used pigments made from mud, blood, and shit. Sculptors used rock, earth, and bone. Poets and playwrights, mere words. Heidegger is correct when he identifies as an essential element of the work of art its thingliness, its grounding in the Earth, its existence as an object known to ‘cargo-carriers or cleaning ladies in the museum.’ The work of art is not the beautiful object; it never has been. Money is that which is used for adornment and enjoyment, the foundational purpose of art is entirely distinct from any sense of the aesthetic. In producing art that contradicted the prevailing sense of the beautiful, the Modernists weren’t defying art’s conventions but reaching back to its roots.  Money with its baseness doesn’t disturb the spirituality of art; rather with its spirituality it disturbs art’s baseness.

2.1 If art isn’t the beautiful, if the beautiful is disruptive to art, what differentiates it? It could be argued that the purpose of art is to be a ‘mirror held up to nature’; that the present condition has its roots in the movement of the Impressionists away from a truthful representation of the thing as it is towards the thing as it is perceived. A piece of art that doesn’t form an image of something isn’t an artwork at all. It’s just pigment of a canvas or a heap of atoms, as useless as it is meaningless.

2.2 I don’t think this is the case either. Modernism’s deliberate abstraction and rejection of the representational isn’t really anything new at all. When medieval artists depicted soldiers standing as tall as the walls they laid siege to, when they placed human figures in a spatial field without regard for pose or perspective, when they depicted Christ being crucified by Roman soldiers in knightly armour, it wasn’t from any lack of knowledge or skill. Much of the fiercely naturalistic art and sculpture of the classical period was still around: medieval art is deliberately stylised, its ultimate point of reference being not the external world but artistic conventions. Medieval art abounds in mise en abyme, representations of the work of art within the work of art itself, generally in a highly stylised form: artists of the period might not have produced works that were directly representative, but they were keenly aware of the question of representation and its problems and opportunities.

2.3 In fact, art itself implies self-reference. Pure representation has always had a magical quality to it: early drawings of animals were believed to summon the game to the hunting-grounds or functioned as objects of worship. In monotheism, the act of representation, as a sort of second-order creation, is a blasphemy. The image always threatens to come alive: it is for this reason that the God of the Old Testament forbids the creation of ‘any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth.’ Only when the image is tempered with self-reference and self-consciousness of its position as a piece of art does this magical power dissipate. Pure abstraction is not therefore the antithesis of art, but art in the fullest sense.

3.1 This primordial magical quality is essential, however, if art is to find its way out of its current situation. In a sense, Plato’s assertion that art is a second-order imitation is correct, but it’s not the natural world that art refers to. In The Birth of Tragedy, Nietzsche describes how the theatre of ancient Greece has its origins in Dionysian rites later softened by the influence of the Apollonian Kunsttrieb. This principle holds true for all forms of art: sculpture and painting originally provided objects of ecstatic religious veneration, music and song were used to induce frenzy. The art of today is a shadow of these practices, but some of its power is retained. Schopenhauer’s belief in the power of art to suspend the rotation of the wheel of Ixion is well-founded, but this requires not individual contemplation but communal transcendence. It is precisely this quality that is missing in contemporary art. To reinvigorate art it is not necessary to reintroduce standards of aesthetic beauty, nor to return to the principle of artistic self-expression (as I discuss here), nor to reconnect it with the natural world as opposed to the artistic milieu. Art needs to return in some way to the communal.

3.2 As for how this is to be done, we’ll have to wait and see.

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