Idiot Joy Showland

This is why I hate intellectuals

Month: June, 2013

What we need is a new sort of paintbrush

There aren’t any explanatory cards at the Royal Academy’s Summer Exhibition in London. This doesn’t mean that the viewer is forced to confront the painting on a barren field, with nothing to helpfully and patronisingly mediate between the gaze and the pure image. Instead, there’s a little booklet, in which all the works are listed according to their catalogue number, along with their prices. For those who object to such things, this could be read as a despicable commodification of culture; the work is swallowed whole by its exchange-value, the exhibition is less an art show than a degenerated flea market. As I tend to think art and money are joined at the hip, I found that it could actually be turned into a quite diverting game. This composition in red and black, with the gooseflesh ghost of a human form shimmering unsteadily in one corner – that’s £9,000; you were quite right to like it. On the other hand, this painting, acrylically abstract, its overlapping shapes looking like something you could make in five minutes on MS Paint – it costs £12,000, and you’ve lost this round. Better luck next time.

It’s a favourite pastime of art critics to snobbishly denigrate the Summer Exhibition’s supposed conservatism – even arch-traditionalist Brian Sewell is getting in on the act. It’s true that while many of the works on display are perfectly pleasant, none of them have the force of a punch in the gut, the sudden violence that marks out great art. Instead, wall after wall is crammed with pastiche. Shades of late Picasso, Miró, and Kandinsky dominate. Not that there’s anything wrong with Picasso, Miró, or Kandinsky, and some of these imitations are very well executed – but by being repeated their styles ossify and lose all sense of motion; revolutionary artists are turned into reactionaries. Heidegger thought that art could constitute an opening to the future; but in the Summer Exhibition it seems hopelessly mired in its own past. The saving grace of the exhibition is supposedly Greyson Perry’s series of tapestries. Here there’s more pastiche, this time of Hogarth (in fact, I hazily remember being made to ‘update’ the Rake’s Progress for GCSE Art); the ‘class satire’ is meanwhile very self-consciously clever but depressingly toothless. There’s no better demonstration of the enfeebled nature of pseudosatirical pastiche than the concentration of people hanging round the tapestry that depicts the middle classes, cooing with the joy of an infant looking at itself in the mirror. Yes, we do all read the Guardian, don’t we? And all our food is organic and fairtrade, and we all have therapists; isn’t it brilliant? All this is hardly the fault of the curators, though. Across the river, at the (unstuffy, unconservative) Tate Modern, you can see a grey felt-covered cuboid hanging on a wall with a little card next to it that breathlessly expounds the significance of this ‘box-like object’ – as if a box-like object could be, in the final analysis, anything other than a box. Outside the dust-heavy air of the museum, the best-known British artist is probably – for fuck’s sake – Banksy. Our young revolutionaries are, if anything, even more pathetic than our conservatives; at least our conservatives are aping something genuinely radical.

Not that the situation is hopeless. A small sculpture stood in a room of lithographs. I don’t know its name or that of the artists; it had no red dot or accompanying number; I couldn’t find it in the catalogue. It was as if some gang of guerillas had infiltrated Burlington House at night and left the thing there. A stylised donkey sits on a wooden table, holding a pencil. Turn the wheel: there’s a carefully calibrated creak as its hinges and pistons grate against each other, and it draws another stylised donkey. The pencil shudders along the same route, over and over again. It’s art as artistic criticism: self-portraiture is revealed as a blind mechanical mimesis, the compulsion of made things to repeat their own making. The prints and paintings that surround it are revealed for what they are: they become so many crude pencil sketches of so many mechanical donkeys.

The art of the early twentieth century was so great because the early twentieth century was a time of revolution and possibility, in which art could shamelessly imagine its own future. Our current time is one of reaction, of the hideous mechanised logic of capitalist austerity, in which merely pointing out the mechanical nature of our subjugation passes for a radical act. No wonder, then, that the most profound work at the Summer Exhibition was itself a machine. Maybe if our art isn’t doing what it should, we need a new sort of paintbrush. For a positively articulated vision of the future, you have to look to the outer fringes of the mind. Adorno writes that ‘the sickness of the normal does not necessarily imply as its opposite the health of the sick, but the latter usually only presents, in a different way, the same disastrous pattern.’ As a counterpoint, I’d present the Alternative Guide to the Universe exhibition currently running at the Hayward Gallery. Despite the name, which makes it sound like a weeknight offering from Channel 4, possibly something through which Jimmy Carr will foist himself on the nation, it’s excellent. Among the UFOlogists and selfie-obsessives avant le lettre are some genuinely revolutionary works. What unites the best of them is an overpowering sense of hope. There are few apocalypses or jeremiads; instead, these artists thought they were providing the blueprint for a better world. These worlds sometimes veer uncomfortably towards a kind of techno-fascism – William Scott envisages a day when San Francisco will be ‘cancelled’ and replaced with Praise Frisco, a city of ‘wholesome people’ and ‘wholesome encounters,’ while George Widener’s sketched cityscapes of the future are blighted by perpetual gridlock and architecture that has the faint whiff of Albert Speer about it. Still, there’s Marcel Storr, a deaf and illiterate street sweeper who would come home at night and construct impossibly detailed futuristic cityscapes in pencil and ink, looking like something between a Xanaduan pleasure-dome and Blade Runner; and Body Isek Kingelez, who builds playfully extravagant models for his vision of a new Kinshasa from scrap materials he finds around the city. Also on display is an infectious fluidity, a kind of conceptual synaesthesia, the kind of thing that is so sorely lacking at the Royal Academy. MC Ramellzee re-imagines the alphabet as a fleet of spikily armed starships mounted of skateboards, fighting to liberate letters from the tyranny of language. A.G. Rizzoli (my personal favourite) ‘symbolically sketched’ people he knew as fantastic buildings, so that the local postman becomes a sprawling Renaissance palace, and his mother a fairy-tale cathedral. All these were integrated into his masterplan for a new exhibition-city called Y.T.T.E., or Yield To Total Elation, in which the barriers between human beings and architecture would dissolve.

To call this stuff ‘outsider art’ is, I think, to miss the point entirely. Nobody today calls William Blake an ‘outsider poet’ or Friedrich Nietzsche an ‘outsider philosopher.’ Of course, many of the artists in question were mad, or suffered from developmental disabilities, but, as Adorno suggests, sickness does not exist isolated from the society that contains and creates it. Similarly, Deleuze and Guattari saw schizophrenia as simultaneously being the final result of the logic of capitalism and a productive, revolutionary force that disturbs its operation. It’s not the case that in a society that has abolished its own future only the mad still dream of a better world; rather, actually hoping for anything different itself becomes madness, a madness whose limits are defined by the rigid (im)possibilities of our own impoverished existence. In other words, it’s a madness whose creativity is intrinsically bound up with the regimented sterility of late capitalism, as source and foil. Is a man who builds minutely detailed models from scrap paper and beer cans an obsessional neurotic, a holy lunatic, or a respectable architect? Surely that depends only on whether his models are shown in his own home, in an exhibition such as the Hayward’s, or in the atrium of an architectural practice. If this is insanity, it’s not the seething unreason of the id, but instead rationality made to do things that, by ‘normal’ standards, it’s not supposed to do. Alfred Jensen creates number tables in oil paints, their colours and composition influenced by Indian spirituality and the I Ching; there’s a certain ordered stillness in them not too different from that engendered by a Rothko canvas. Widener believes that in the future superintelligent machines would finally be able to decode the mathematical patterns he discerns in the calender; it’s no surprise to learn that he once worked with US military cryptographers. This is, in its own eccentric way, precisely the health of the sick.

Some critics have taken issue with the exhibition’s name. What’s being presented is not, they claim, an alternate guide to the universe, but a small introduction into another world: the private universe of the unhinged. I don’t agree. We’re being shown a possible future, but as Marx knew, every future is ‘still stamped with the birthmarks of the old society from whose womb it emerges.’ These visions are built on the foundations of the world we all inhabit now; they are the repressed content of our life. All these worlds already exist. Rizzoli, on seeing female genitalia for the first time at the age of forty, immortalised the moment as an immense Art Deco church. So That You Too May See Something You’ve Not Seen Before, he wrote above it. So that we may experience the wonder and strangeness of something which is immanent but hidden. In art as in politics the productive forces are here; we have only to unleash them.

Thanks to Twitter user @HealthUntoDeath for inadvertently providing the title for this piece.

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Istanbul, Prism, São Paulo: Unearthing chthonic conspiracies

 

Two events are happening at once. In the year of our Lord 534, it’s a slick, sweaty night in Taksim Square, the kind of night that makes your skin shine and your hair stick to your forehead, the kind of sticky, fecund night that breeds love affairs and revolutions. On this night, although they don’t know it, the citizens of Constantinople are witnessing the last ever Roman Triumph. The great general Belisarius has recaptured Africa for the Eastern Empire: in a few years Justinian I will accuse him of various conspiracies, pull his eyes out, and leave him as a beggar by the gates of Rome, but for now he has his glory. The procession starts. First, the spoils of his conquest. The Temple Menorah, first captured in the sack of Jerusalem and brought to Rome, then seized by the Vandals and brought to Carthage – now restored at last to the Church, its silver gleams as the plebeians crowd round and snap eager photos of the treasure on their smartphones. Then the man himself. Belisarius sits in the cabin of the ceremonial mechanical digger, resplendent in his corona triumphalis, soaking himself wrinkled in the adulations of the crowd. As demanded by tradition, a woman in hijab sits perched on the boom, the long yellow-painted arm wreathed with hydraulic sinews. Hominem te memento, she mouths. Nobody hears her. The crowd waves banners and Turkish flags, they throw flares and garlands of flowers; the riot cops join in the universal celebrations, joyously firing rubber bullets and sending out waves of teargas. The tree-lined street is soon hazy with jubilant smoke. Everything is organised to the finest detail; it’s a spectacle, and the protesters and the police all play their allotted role. Finally, Belisarius’ chariot comes to a halt. A digger knows how to do one thing: it digs. Istanbul is a city built on its own ruins. The Gezi Park demonstrators dig, past Constantinople, past Byzantium, down to the ancient grotto where the Deep State has been managing the affairs of the world for twenty-six centuries. And this excavation has been planned, too; everything is part of the plan.

A few weeks before the London Olympics in 2012, I found myself in small but pleasant company, drinking wine from the bottle in Trafalgar Square, as you do when you’re young and pointless. A man came up to us and asked for a light. We got talking. He was due in court the next day, he told us, he’d been arrested while protesting in support of Julian Assange; he seemed a bit over-earnest but generally quite right-on. Across the square stood an Olympic countdown clock flanked by the two terrifying cyclops-mascots the organising committee had foisted on the world. I must have said something about how I didn’t think it was such a great idea for there to be anti-air missile batteries on residential buildings and carriers on the Thames just to protect a glorified sports day, because he agreed. Plus, he said, if you looked at our hideous logo, the numbers spelled out the word Zion. So did the logo for the 2008 Olympics. And, in the handover ceremony in Beijing, the London delegation had wheeled out a fake double-decker bus in the Bird’s Nest stadium before blowing the roof off to reveal Jimmy Page and Leona Lewis, one day before a real London bus was blown up in Tavistock Square. Unconvinced but not uncurious, I looked into his assertions. Naturally, they were nonsense. To make the Beijing logo read Zion you have to take the whole thing apart seemingly at random. Of course, the 7/7 attacks took place three years before the 2008 Olympics. And if a shadowy Zionist conspiracy was ruling the world behind the scenes, then why would they announce themselves? What on earth would make them leave little clues for us to decode?

 Yeah, no.

Conspiracy theorists aren’t insane, they’re far saner then the rest of us; their delusions are those of sanity pushed to its furthest edge. Where we see a world that doesn’t make sense, they see something logical and precise and – crucially – knowable. Conspiracy theory is the most profound expression of Enlightenment ideology: there is a rational plan behind the phenomena we observe, and it can be uncovered through reason if you study and interpret those phenomena hard enough. In other words, there’s not as much separating dialectical materialism from the Space Lizards theory of western civilisation as good Marxists like myself would like to believe. It doesn’t really help that the world of late capitalism is, to some extent, structured exactly like the wildest fantasies of the conspiracy theorists. There really is a tiny – globally speaking – cabal at the top of the pyramid that run the lives of the billions below. They really do meet, occasionally, in secret summits with no reporters and no minutes taken. They really do pull the strings of our elected politicians. They really do leave clues to their activities; not as coded symbols, but in the newspapers – society’s conspiracy against itself is hidden in plain sight. The Queen really does look quite a bit like a cold-hearted creature from beyond the stars. Conspiracy theory is the nomos of a society in which the lacerations of democratic openness have become themselves a form of occlusion; in form, if not in content, they reflect actual conditions. The only difference is that there’s no singular teleological Plan; the initiates are just as dumb as the rest of us. There are only personal and class interests, bouncing off each other at a million intersecting angles.  We’re ruled not by cabals but by structures; conspiracy theory reduces the grand saga of the word to a roman à clef. Althusser describes the hidden conspiracy at the heart of society on the first page of Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses: every social formation must reproduce the conditions of production at the same time as it produces. Reproduce the conditions of production: this is the creed of the Templars, the rite of the Illuminati, and the Wu-Tang Secret.

Take the recent revelations about the NSA’s Prism system. Snowden is undoubtedly a hero, if a politically naïve one, but what he’s told us isn’t really anything new. Everyone understood already, in some vague sense, that Western governments were breaking the law and spying on the internet communications of their citizens, it’s practically axiomatic. The diplomatic cables released by Wikileaks told us more of what we already knew: US ambassadors were exasperated with every country they happened to be stationed in, and their hosts were equally bored with the meddling hyperpower. Leaked recordings of a conversation between Obama and Sarkozy revealed that neither of them much liked Israeli President Netenyahu; well, of course not, the man’s an utter twat. It’s not just that Bush and Blair lied about WMD to take us to war with Iraq; they didn’t even bother to make their lies convincing. The really dangerous liars are those who claim to have been convinced by the evidence in 2003. In the 1970s, Nixon and Kissinger went to extraordinary lengths to cover up their secret bombing of Cambodia; now, in 2013, every drone strike gets a short paragraph in the newspapers, described in neutral terms, as if they were natural disasters rather than acts of war. If you want to do evil, it’s far easier to do it out in the open. That way, when you’re called out on it, you can just shrug your shoulders and say: “Yeah. So what?”

What makes the recent Turkish protest movement interesting in this regard is that here it isn’t the protesters entertaining absurd conspiracy theorists; it’s the government. Edrogan has accused the protesters of being part of a global conspiracy against his government, one that takes in the feeble secular opposition, the international finance system, the BBC, the Knights Templar seeking to avenge the fall of Jerusalem, the reptilian aliens hoping to neutralise the threat posed to them by the indomitable Turkish race. So he’s crazy. After all, it’s not like his AK Party hasn’t done plenty of sucking up to finance capital in the past. Except the Turkish deep state, a murderous conspiracy of the anti-democratic and pro-secular powers that be, really did exist, and everyone knew that it existed long before it was officially uncovered. Did the protests seep up from its subterranean chambers? Probably not, but in its context the government response is understandable if not excusable. This is why Edrogan wants to pave over Gezi Park: parks are dangerous, anything can burrow down there; it’s easier to hatch plots beneath the soil than beneath a shopping centre. Conspiracies reach for the cloudless heights of power, but they’re always based underground. Chthonic spaces are hideous, they spawn plots and sacrilege. For all the years that Osama bin Laden was living comfortably in a two-storey house in Abbottabad, it was generally assumed that he was hiding out in a cave somewhere. In Negarestani’s terms, holey spaces subvert the plane of the monotheistic desert; the Inside is the spawning-ground of blasphemies.

The crackdown on the Taksim Square protests is, of course, being compared to the Arab Spring; all the tedious old questions about the compatibility of Islam with liberal democracy are being summoned from out of their graves to shuffle hungrily around newspaper opinion pages. Really, the government’s response should be answering these questions rather than posing them. Thousands were brutally beaten in the co-ordinated crackdown on the Occupy movement in 2011; the previous year riot police in London pulled a student demonstrator from his wheelchair and attacked him with batons. In ignoring demonstrators’ demands and sending in armoured cops against them Erdogan isn’t behaving like the archetypal Islamic dictator; he’s following to the letter the model provided by the Western democracies.

 Oscar Niemeyer’s Brasilia is the inverse of Haussman’s Paris. Its openness neutralises the advantage of police over protesters; in building a home for the state, he abolishes the State as such. His congress building is a stage. It moulds reality into revolutionary art.

The sound of truncheons against skulls echoes across the Atlantic. It’s interesting to note that the protest movement in Brazil is breaking out just under a year before (and is in part sparked by) the 2014 Brazil World Cup, just as the 2011 riots in England broke out just under a year before the 2012 London Olympics. Maybe this marks the beginning of a pattern: the symbolic violence of organised sports must be proceeded by real, political violence. The rioting functions as a prologue, an unofficial opening ceremony, to get everyone in the appropriate mood. Meanwhile the international news media will know to get their crews and commentators on the ground a year early to catch the mayhem. In 2019 a former footballer sits in front of an animated mural of a burning Almudena Cathedral. Outside the studio, the sky glows a demonic red. “A really strong showing from the rioters here in Madrid, Terry,” he says. “They played an great game, they were incredibly passionate, but honestly you have to hand it to the police. Excellent formation, really strong use of tear gas and pepper spray, top form throughout.”

The situations in Turkey and Brazil are, of course, not the same; nonetheless what’s happening in São Paulo might serve as a warning for Taksim. Ominous reports are coming in from Brazilian comrades: what started as a movement against a hike in transport prices spearheaded by working-class anarchist and communist parties is being hijacked by the far right. Red flags are being burned. Leftist demonstrators are being attacked, not by the police, but by the fascists in their midst. There are calls for the reimposition of military dictatorship. One account describes the origin of the situation very powerfully – I’m quoting at length because the author is, unlike me, on the ground in São Paulo; she describes the conditions there far better than I ever could:

The initial wave of protests were organized by the MPL, Movimento Passe-Livre, which is an autonomist anarchist movement, based primarily in public universities. Their main goal is and always was free, public funded transportation. The protests were organized in response to (left-wing, social democrat/liberal PT Worker’s Party) mayor Fernando Haddad’s and (right-wing, conservative, social democrat in name only PSDB governor) Geraldo Alckimin’s hikes in bus and metro fares.

The protests were instantly joined by communist parties PSTU, PSOL and PCB. The MPL, due their anarchist ideology, denounced party participation. This will become important later on.

The media, at first, launched a total offensive against the protests, accusing it of vandalism, and of being made-up by extreme leftists. They justified the actions of the armed Military Police of Brazil (which is a Gendarme), which was, at the time, shooting rubber bullets at people’s faces (which is lethal), beating up primarily women, using lots of tear gas and pepper spray to disperse the movement, as well as several intimidation tactics, such as baseless arrests (including the famous arrests for vinegar possession).

The media realized that despite all of their efforts, the movement had a popular agenda and had been garnering support across progressive sections of the population. One very popular ultra-conservative pig-loving anchor attempted to ask the extremely loaded question to his viewers: do you support vandalism in ongoing protests? only to have his primarily reactionary audience humiliate him live by voting yes. The media, realizing they could no longer discredit the movement, and noticing that their most reactionary viewers were ready to take the street, switched strategies.

As I predicted, the raging anti-communist pundit withdrew his previous opinion and started favoring the protests, but also started claiming that the protests were about “much more”, and started to tell his viewers that the protests were about the long running list of anti-leftist complaints that were traditionally presented by the media against the left leaning worker’s party and used electorally by the right-wing PSDB. The rest of the media did exactly the same thing.

The most illuminating detail, however, comes from here:

They tried to hijack our rally, threatened, provoked, harassed us. It was tense. I was fucking scared.

One of the most common slogans people were yelling was “People united don’t need a party.” While yelling, they took the sidewalks and waved their arms in the nazi fashion.

When a protest movement loses its positively articulated ideological character and becomes a vehicle for negatively defined apolitical ‘discontent,’ it then becomes ripe for subversion. The neo-nazis are the ones assaulting people, but they could only do so once a space for fascist infiltration was opened by the well-meaning liberals, those for whom ‘ideology’ has become a dirty word. An absurd scene emerges: anti-partisan platitudes of tolerance emerging from the mouths of fascists as they set about attacking anyone wearing red shirts. In Istanbul, we’re told that there are Kemalists sitting next to Kurds sitting next to Keynesians as if this kind of ideological incoherence was somehow a good thing, rather than a testament to the sad decline of the unified worker’s party. Of course resistance should be as broad and inclusive as possible, but such inclusivity is not a substitute for a strong, organised radical left. As Mao writes, ‘if there is to be a revolution, there must be a revolutionary party.’ If there’s a lesson here, it’s that the resuscitation of the party-form, or the invention of a suitable alternative, is an urgent priority.

Meanwhile, in the sixth century, the mechanical digger digs. It would have been used to tear up the park that the protesters want to save; in fighting Gezi’s destruction, they’ll do the work themselves.

Superman: Man of Steel, or, hot XXX drone-on-drone action

 Spoiler alert: this guy wins in the end.

What is Superman? Everyone knows that Batman is a fascist, a jackbooted Il Duce-style thug who defaces the night sky with his symbol and tries to forge a society of class collaborationism between the haute bourgeoisie and the ‘law-abiding’ sectors of the proletariat. Similarly, it doesn’t take much critical discernment to see shades of postmodern neoliberalism in Iron Man – his world is one of panoptic openness, in which he’s not afraid to let the world know that he is the industrialist Tony Stark and Iron Man is just one of his trademarked brands; meanwhile his deadpan pseudowitticisms bear the mark of contemporary pastiche, what Jameson calls a ‘blank irony’ without referent,  ‘amputated of the satiric impulse, devoid of laughter.’ Aquaman, of course, has unwittingly represented since the 1940s the uselessness of our 21st-century corporate environmentalism. Green Lantern is a Posadist, Thor still speaks for reactionary monarchism; Avocado Woman is the heroine of the recent body-oriented (bio)politics; Fatty Lux symbolises Enlightenment rationality, the Bauxite Band anarcho-syndicalism (although Kaolinite Kid displays some Tuckerite tendencies), PenguinDude3000 a kind of Saint-Simonian utopian communitarianism. But then there’s Superman. What is Superman?

Superman’s mantra of ‘Truth, Justice, and the American Way’ recalls a more honest era, one in which deconstruction was still something you did with hammers and explosives, but all the same there’s a sinister note in there, a faint whiff of something very different from the image of the wholesome all-American hero in his mythos. He carries the mark of the Other. Clark Kent might be from Kansas, but his birthplace is Krypton – a place with four consonants next to each other in its name, a foreign planet that somehow manages to sound just a little Mitteleuropean. The other names that surround him are similarly un-WASP-y: Superman, or in German Übermensch, with its connotations of Nazi-tinged Nietzschean amoralism; the Man of Steel, or in Russian Stalin, who named weakness, idleness and stupidity as the only things that could be called vices; Clark Kent, or in Serbian Slobodan (lit. a low-level office worker) Milošević (a flat, grassy province near Belgrade, analogous to the English county). Whether of the left or the right, there’s something totalitarian about him; we recollect, with a rising nausea, that democracy is not among his tripartite principles. Of course, as Superman’s defenders continually remind us, he was created by two liberal-left Jewish high school kids, the children of immigrants. Hence all the Europeanisms: with their hero Siegel and Shuster packaged up all the neuroses of the shtetl and gave them a red-white-and-blue sheen. He’s not an expression of an all-encompassing class-State complex, but the fantasy of its disenfranchised underlings. Superman is a hero by the nerds, of the nerds, for the nerds. He’s weaponised nebbishness, and that’s exactly what makes him so dangerous. He can’t even be subsumed into the paradigm of healthy American libidinality; with Superman, Bataille’s connection between eroticism and death assumes horrifying proportions. As I watched Zack Snyder’s new Superman film, this year’s Man of Steel, it all started to make sense. Superman isn’t a man at all. His otherness is that of the inhuman. He’s a Predator drone.

We should have seen it from the beginning: he’s a man of steel, a robot. Is it a bird? Is it a plane? Almost, but not quite. The weak gravity of our world lets Superman fly through the stratosphere. He can pinpoint and target anyone on Earth with his X-ray vision, but nobody knows who or where he is. And in the meantime, he maintains a cover, a secret identity. Through this subterfuge, the drone maintains a privileged relationship with the news industry; what’s more, he sometimes even goes so far as to report ‘objectively’ on his own activities. When a drone ejaculates, people die. His is the murderous, cold-blooded victory of the CIA nerds over the jocks of the armed forces. That’s why so many of Superman’s enemies are evil geniuses: it’s not anti-intellectualism, they’re his mirror-images rather than his opposites, they’re encroaching on his turf. At the end of Man of Steel, Superman downs a US spy drone in front of a horrified general. “You can’t find out where I hang up my cape,” he says. So, the drone battles his doubles. But might there not have been, before the crash, a moment of tenderness between the two drones? “I’m sorry,” Superman says as he straddles the unmanned plane. “It’s nothing personal.” His legs clamp like pincers around its shapely fibreglass body and it begins to sink. As it does he can’t help but extend a hand to stroke with surprising delicacy her big bulbous head. His feet hook under her tailfins. So close. Two drones on a single trajectory, becoming their own motion. They’re falling faster now; the shuddering of their descent synchronises with the expertly timed revs of her spluttering engine, sending out warm vibrations that spread through Superman’s body and pool at the base of his torso. She’s getting excited too: her bomb hatch slides open with a metallic click. For the first and last time, both drones have found someone strong enough for them. And so, falling and fucking, the flapping red cape preserving their modesty and the film’s 12A rating, they spin towards the earth.

~

Of course, the main problem with drones is the collateral damage – as I’ve discussed in another post, drones retroactively designate their victims as targets; any male over 16 killed by a drone strike is assumed to be an enemy militant. And in Man of Steel, there’s a lot of collateral damage. At the end of the film Superman kills the evil Zod rather than let him murder a group of terrified humans, but only a few minutes earlier the Man of Steel is shown flinging his enemies through buildings – buildings that could well be full of people – at such high speed that they leave explosions in their wake. The death toll is presumably enormous. In this, he’s following the logic of the drone: all strikes are a priori ‘surgical,’ and the facts on the ground can be altered to fit the image on the computer screen. I’m not alone in noticing this; in the New York Magazine, Kyle Buchanan makes a similar point:

In 1980’s Superman II, […] when Superman knocks a baddie into a building — an act that sends the skyscraper’s spire tumbling towards a crowd of people on the ground — Superman actually halts the fight to grab that spire before it lands, a quaint moment that still reminds us that the lives of innocent citizens are at stake. In Man of Steel, however, the superhero seems mostly unfazed by the people of Metropolis who are surely collateral damage to his big battle; similarly, director Zack Snyder seems to have waved it off. There is no acknowledgement that all of the buildings that are being destroyed might have people in them. It’s a bloodless massacre of concrete, 9/11 imagery erased of its most haunting factor: the loss of life.

Buchanan is right about the 9/11 imagery; the film is overflowing with it. For a good half-hour the screen is filled with footage of skyscrapers in slow balletic collapse, skyscrapers spitting flames as they’re punctured by flying objects, skyscrapers reduced to billowing dust-clouds that pour through gridded streets, characters trapped under the wire and masonry of demolished skyscrapers. This is hardly unique; there’s another 9/11 in Olympus Has Fallen as the Washington Monument vertically collapses on itself; San Francisco meets a similar fate in Star Trek: Into Darkness – but nowhere is it more overt or more seemingly gratuitous. That said, Buchanan doesn’t really attempt to diagnose this trend, he only complains of it – and in an age of consumer culture, this kind of thing would only keep cropping up if people in some way wanted to see it happen. For an explanation, you’ll have to head for the comments section, in which it’s alleged that such scenes are for the benefit of the raving America-haters of the international distribution markets – nicely summing up why you should never read the comments section. Well then, if it’s not that (and it’s definitely not that), then what’s the cause?

Extreme violence is in itself an aesthetic object, but, as Buchanan observes, what we have here is a ‘bloodless massacre.’ One could advance a crude Freudian analysis. Man of Steel is the famous fort-da game writ large, a compulsive repetition and re-repetition of a traumatic event, a neurotic fixation, a recurring image through which the collective psyche tries to expunge the horror of that which actually occurred. You destroyed our buildings, the film says, well guess what – we wanted them destroyed, and we can do it better in representation than you ever could in reality. Of course, the compulsion to repeat exists beyond the pleasure principle, and the apocalyptic blockbuster is entertainment. There’s a visceral pleasure in the images of falling skyscrapers and ruined cities. We could posit a kind of allgemeine Todestrieb, a societal will towards its own violent destruction, manifesting in the sheer pleasure of carnage and atrocity. Maybe there’s even a kind of egalitarian impulse at work, a buried desire to see all the big fancy towers flattened as every mountain is made low. Maybe we all secretly want to be castrated.

None of this is quite sufficient. The answer is elsewhere. Man of Steel has received some flak for its epidemic of product placements (its brand partners brought in $160m before the film was even released) – as if we’re not all prostitutes, critics and commentators more so than anyone. This product placement takes something of an unusual form, though. The International House of Pancakes shelled out a presumably hefty sum for its recurring appearances in the film, but rather than showing Clark Kent chowing down on a hefty stack of syrup-glazed goodness, we instead see one of IHOP’s fine establishments systematically destroyed by two duelling aliens. They want us to buy their pancakes, so they show us a bunch of pancake-eating patrons being interrupted and (possibly) killed by superbeings from beyond the stars. Why? Like all brands, IHOP doesn’t just want our money, it wants – it needs – our loyalty and, most of all, our love. But love is something fiery and unpredictable; it can burn you up, reduce you to tears and ashes. If you really love something, in some small but present way you want to see it destroyed, you want to be there as it slips into the void – and the International House of Pancakes knows this. And so we’re thrilled by the destruction of our cities, because we love them. And so Superman, heaving the drone from the vaunted empyrean of the infinite gaze down to an earthy extinction, whispers three short words into its listening device as he snaps his red undies back on. “I love you,” he says. And then it dies.

Prism: the psychopathology of internet surveillance

The gaze of the other is a scotoma, a blind spot or plough cutting into the field of vision; the gaze looks, but does not see us.
Allan Pero, The Chiasm of Revolution

The NSA’s PowerPoint slides were apparently designed by Timmy, aged seven

The truth is out, in the form of an almost preternaturally tacky slideshow, but the truth has only ever been a pathological construct, the ultimate fetish-object in a world of images without referents. Here’s the truth: you are being watched – but the really important question isn’t what the truth is, but what the truth does, and that all depends. Maybe you don’t mind being watched, maybe you get off on it. What do you do when you’re alone with the Internet? Perhaps you sit in a darkened room, silent except for the syncopated rasp of your breath and the oily rustling of a half-empty bag of Chilli Heatwave Doritos, hunched over as you scroll endlessly through pictures of people you knew three years ago, each pulling the same identical pouty face as they pose at the club, pose at the beach, pose in front of scenes of outstanding natural beauty, pose in front of memorials to the victims of the genocide. Perhaps you watch only the tamest and most inoffensive of pornography, stuff given a stamp of approval by the National Organisation for Women and six prominent feminist bloggers – but that’s all you do, seven hours a day, seven days a week. Perhaps you like to hang out with your friends on Twitter to have fun sharing bomb-making tips and complaining about the slow progress of global Jihad. Perhaps you make rage comics, you sick freak.

What’s going on? Four hypotheses: the neurotic, the psychotic, the schizophrenic, the melancholic. Choose your sickness; it’s the only choice you’ll ever make.

Neurosis. Top-secret documents released recently by the Guardian and the Washington Post reveal the existence of a far-reaching surveillance programme operated by the National Security Agency (a part of the US military), codenamed PRISM. Under the programme, personal communications from nine Internet services – including Facebook, Skype, and Google, but with the notable exception of Twitter – can be accessed at any time by government security agents. Not just public postings but also private emails and video calls; in a separate scandal it was revealed that the NSA has been collecting the phone records of US citizens. What’s more shocking is that these companies voluntarily signed up to the programme; they abused the trust of their users in handing over private data to government spies. What we’re seeing is the development of a surveillance society far more insidious than any historical totalitarian regime. You can still think and say whatever you want, but you’re always being watched; your right to privacy has disappeared without you even noticing it. In some sinister concrete server complex there’s a digital file on you, containing everything you’ve said and done. Government agencies listen in on your telephone calls, software built in to your iPhone records your exact location, web cookies track your browsing habits. This is what radical openness means; it’s a laceration. The government-corporation complex is with you at every moment, and should it decide that it doesn’t like what you’re thinking and saying, it has the power to murder you on a whim.

Psychosis. There’s something grimly humorous about the whole situation. One of the nine services that forms part of the Prism system is YouTube; the unbidden image arises of a young, driven NSA staffer going in to work – his tie fastidiously knotted, his shoes gleaming like an oil slick – to watch hundreds of videos of cats falling over in the defence of American security interests. With every new maladroit kitten the aquiline focus of his eyes sharpens; the furrows on his forehead grow glacial in their cragginess. Ashley’s going for cocktails with the girls, Matt’s watching the football, Tariq’s eaten too much Ardennes pâté, and the government has to take note of it all in a desperate and doomed attempt to regulate our world. Except what if that’s the entire point? The programme isn’t political, it’s sexual. It’s not surveillance, it’s scopophilia. You think the NSA is trudging through millions of hours of Skype conversations just so they can catch out a couple of would-be terrorists? What do those initials really stand for, anyway? Nudes Seekin’ Agency? Nasty Sex Appraisers? Our agent isn’t watching out for coded communications, he’s got something entirely different in mind. A couple are talking into their webcams. She’s gone off to university, he stayed at home; they’re still together but in her absence he’s been feeling kinda down. He wants to touch her, he wants to hold her, he wants to feel flesh against flesh, but he can’t. As he talks a smile slithers across her face. “Oh, don’t,” she says. “Not now.” “Come on,” he says. “Please. I’m going crazy out here.” They think they’re alone. “OK,” she says. She takes off her shirt. As her tits flop out our agent bellows in exultation. There are hundreds of workstations in the big tile-carpeted room in Fort Meade, Maryland, and they all spout arcing parabolas of cum…

Schizophrenia. Internet surveillance is different from ordinary surveillance. The NSA isn’t putting bugs in your home or following you down the street; you’re giving them everything they want. You’re putting all this information out there of your own free will, and you can stop any time you want. We all know that everything we post online is monitored, that every ‘like’ on Facebook is worth £114 to advertisers and retailers, that Google knows far more about our shameful desires than our sexual partners or our psychotherapists, that intelligence agencies routinely prowl through our communications. And yet we still do it. Some people can’t eat their lunch without slapping an Instagram filter on it, others feel the need to tweet the precise consistency of their morning shit. Planet Earth produces 25 petabytes of data every day, a quantity of information several orders of magnitude larger than that contained in every book ever published – and most of it is banality or gibberish. A web developer named Mike DiGiovanni commented of Google Glass: “I’ve taken more pictures today than I have the past 5 days thanks to this. Sure, they are mostly silly, but my timeline has now truly become a timeline of where I’ve been.” As if this perverse behaviour is somehow to be encouraged. Why do we do this? Why can we no longer handle unmediated reality? Why does it always have to be accompanied by a digital representation? The fear of death must play into it. We mustn’t lose a moment to the decay of time, it has to be electronically immortalised. But surely that can’t be all. Perhaps this is precisely what we were designed to do. It’s engineered into the fabric of our being, it’s what we’re for. Our world is a distraction, it’s light entertainment. The NSA existed long before our society. It existed before the first human being gazed at the stars and rearranged them into shapes it could comprehend,  it existed before the first gasping half-fish hauled itself out of the slime to feel the sun on its back. The NSA is our demiurge, and we are its creatures. And as for what its agents look like when they take their masks off, perhaps it’s better for us to never know.

Melancholia. There’s something odd about all these interpretations: they’re grotesque, but at the same time they tickle our narcissism – a narcissism which is, after all, founded on the gaze. In a strange way it’s nice to think that you’re being watched, it’s nice to think that whatever drivel you produce somehow merits the attention of big important government agencies. It’s far more horrifying to think that nobody is watching you, because nobody cares. The problem is that that’s the truth – that, as Lacan insisted, the Big Other doesn’t exist. You’re being watched, but only by machines. Your data is thoroughly chewed up in the inhuman mandibles of some great complex algorithm, and by the time it’s regurgitated for advertisers or spies you’re pretty much unrecognisable. You’re not a person, you’re input and output; a blip with a few pathetic delusions of sentience. And the narcissism of the surveilled is the most telling of those delusions. This is the complaint of the privacy campaigners: the flying robots of death were bad, but this is really the last straw. As if someone snooping on your emails was the worst thing that could ever happen to anyone. We don’t live in a society of surveillance; that’s ultimately ephemeral. We do live in a society of incarceration. It’s the fundamental fact of our world, and hardly anyone is talking about it. The United States Government is carrying out the largest mass imprisonment in human history, on a scale that dwarfs the Stalinist Gulags. One in every three black American men in their twenties is under some form of criminal supervision; more black people are imprisoned now than worked as slaves in the antebellum South. Prison labour produces $2.4bn every year, and in the Louisiana State Penitentiary – a former plantation – inmates are put to work picking cotton. Not that any of this matters. It’s fine for them, it’s just what happens. The contemporary Western political subject is too busy innovatively creating hot new apps to worry about that sort of thing. But give him a little taste of this oppression and indignity – search through his emails, for instance – and he knows what’s up. His civil liberties are under an unprecedented assault.

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