Idiot Joy Showland

This is why I hate intellectuals

Month: July, 2013

Why the British monarchy doesn’t exist

In the beginning there was the Image, and the Image was with God, and the Image was God. And the Image was made flesh, and dwelt among us.

Good news for republicans, bad news for sufferers of scrofula. The monarchy is done, it’s finished, we can chuck it away with the Empire and the established Church. That is to say, it’s still around, in terms of appearance, but only as a farcical parody of itself, a shadow, a convention. It’s ceased to have any real existence. Once we had a monarchy, now we just have the royals, and the two are not the same thing.

Bad news for the royal baby, though (congrats to Wills and Kate, rah rah, etc etc). They’ll all still be there to comprehensively fuck up his future development, the whole chimerical menagerie: that dessicated turtle-beaked matriarch with her rapacious vulture-eyes, she who once gorged herself silly on the soul of Laurent Nkrumah using sinister white people dance-magic; his wittering toucan-nosed biscuit-salesman of a grandfather; the murderous lunkheaded uncle, a marmot-faced proper down-to-earth lad, mowing down Pashtun herdsmen in his flying fortress of imminent death like a less sophisticated Sarah Palin; an entire extended family of posh twits, all in various stages of hippomorphosis; finally, the heirs to all this horror, his whinnying filly-mother and braying donkey-father. They want their son to have a normal life, they say; they’re already positioning themselves into a perfect imitation of the drab Oedipal triangle, and as a sop to the press they’ll provide access to a few key moments: baby’s first repression of his infantile sexuality, baby’s first intimation of his own mortality – see, he’s growing up as damaged and estranged from the world as everyone else! He’s a neurotic wreck putting on a brave grin, just like you! It won’t work, though. This is not a nice family. Parents in the Haus Sachsen-Coburg und Gotha aren’t just distant, they’re at an interstellar remove; all the normal fixations are displaced onto wetnurses and nannies. The chief activity of its sons and daughters consists of waiting for their parents to die. The royals can’t go through any castration complex because for them there really is nothing more important in the world than themselves – for them, the crown and sceptre aren’t symbols; they’ve been permanently locked out the Symbolic order. In other words, they’re a family of psychopaths. They’re toxic, not just institutionally but personally, and if you spend too long breathing in their fumes the poison will get to you sooner or later: just look at the poor kid’s grandmother. Where’s child protection? Why won’t someone rescue this baby before it’s too late?

Nobody will, because for the great mobile flocks of royal-watchers and their herdsmen in the press this isn’t a person at all. The royal baby is made of more delicate and ephemeral stuff than we are; when the Duchess of Cambridge was in hospital she gave birth to a liquid stream of pixels and wavelengths, its digital tentacles spiralling out from her womb to wrap themselves around the entire world. The royal baby has the dubious honour of being possibly the first person born as image before reality, the first person to fully demonstrate Baudrillard’s old line about the precession of simulacra: ‘today it is the territory whose shreds slowly rot across the extent of the map.’ His status as ‘the royal baby,’ future ruler and object of fame and devotion, ontologically preceded any of his actual physical attributes. In the old days, when we still had a monarchy, the king held two bodies: the body politic and the body natural. Now our royals have no body at all. In normal development, a child develops full subjectivity when it identifies itself with the specular image in the mirror, when it comprehends itself as an object capable of being gazed upon; before that between subject and image there’s an aggressive tension which the child has to resolve into joyful captivation. No such luck for the royal baby. He will be surrounded by the gazes of cameras and smartphones; his own image will surround him, staring from commemorative plates, tea-towels, mugs, the inevitable ‘keep calm and love the royal baby’ posters – every mundane object will be stamped with the mark of his spectral adversary. He won’t be able to subsume the image into his self; it’s too late for him, he’s already been swallowed up by the image, the idea of what he is, as an amœba swallows up a speck of food.

A royal family is the image of a monarchy that remains once the monarchy itself has shrivelled up and died. The monarch was once the guarantor of a certain kind of commons: the king’s highway, the royal mail, the crown courts. The monarch was the people, by virtue of our perfect subjugation to him; he imposed a certain kind of paradoxical egalitarianism. Now, in an age of privatisation, the situation’s been precisely reversed. Images and representations are common property, and as such the royal family are now perfectly subjugated to us. It’s their in the language: our Wills, our Kate. When a French magazine published topless photos of Kate Middleton the popular outrage wasn’t so much a loyal horror of lèse-majesté as affront against the violation of property. It works the other way too: as the image of the royal baby started to construct its hyperreal manifestation yesterday, a good part of the nation thought it had the right to know every queasy detail about the dilation of the royal vagina. Sovereignty’s dread authority of life and death over its subjects has turned into the sovereign being the ultimate object of that same biopolitical power; the king’s commons has turned into a king held in common. The monarchy as such no longer exists.

In a way all this should be celebrated. Whether or not the formal monarchy survives Elizabeth (and I’m not so sure it will), we’ve finally beaten back our aristocratic oppressors. In the royal image we’ve found the paradigm for a new commons without sovereign power. But it’s going to seriously mess up that kid.

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Branding strategies for the viscous phallus-monster that has risen from the depths to reclaim our world

Sometimes I believe that this less material life is our truer life, and that our vain presence on the terraqueous globe is itself the secondary or merely virtual phenomenon.
Karl Marx, Grundrisse

This exists.

It’s easy to get whipped up into an outrage over this kind of thing. It’s enraging to see the techniques by which we are manipulated uncovered in all their foetid glory. What’s more, there’s the sheer density of meaningless marketing buzzwords repeated over an insipid steel guitar melody, managing to replicate simultaneously the effects of a cult indoctrination film and a nice strong hit of prescription opiates. There’s the naked theft of the video’s entire aesthetic from the occasionally excellent RSAnimate series. There’s the fact that the gang of marketers behind it seem to consider making a positive change in the world to only be a good thing insofar as it can be put to use selling various tubes of corn syrup-based goo. There’s the cynical manipulation of popular sentimentality for profit. There’s the section dealing with ‘families, communities and cultures,’ in which the former two are represented anthropomorphically, sitting like nineteenth-century monarchs astride a globe, while ‘cultures’ is just an arrow pointing in the vague direction of Africa. It’s all so perfectly and unwittingly ugly. But to focus on this stuff is to miss the point a little. There’s plenty of justification for a sensible critique of consumer capitalism as demonstrated by this video, but a purely sensible critique ignores not only the horrific haecceity of the thing, but the otherworldly horror that surrounds consumerism itself. For the purposes of this essay, at least, I’m not interested in the ideological presuppositions of liberal philanthropy, the incoherence of marketing discourse, the soporific nature of societally-mandated pleasantness, or even the construction of the racial-cultural other.

What I’m really interested in is this.

What is this thing? It crops up everywhere in the video. Its tendrils extrude randomly into the field of gibberish without warning or explanation: sometimes it tenderly caresses the various symbolic representations onscreen; sometimes it’s actively antagonistic towards them, bursting out from their bodies and leaving only shattered remnants of sales patter. In one memorably horrifying sequence it’s shown passing through the heads of three people as they smile their bovinely unfazed marker-pen smiles in our direction. Here, at the video’s end, it holds the entire Earth in its grip, the planet leaving sticky stretchmarks as it tries and fails to struggle free from the gloop’s oleaginous embrace. Let’s start with what we can see. The thing is clearly alive. Maybe it’s not alive in the strict biological sense that any of us can comprehend, but it moves, it has agency, it has plans for us and our lives. It appears as a seething mass of – of what? Not liquid, exactly; it’s too firm, too collected; it doesn’t flow, it crawls. Some kind of mobile mucous then, bile-black and slug-sinuous, its surface tight and slimy, glistening under the light of a blood-clotted sun. But at the same time there’s an undeniably fleshy quality to it, fleshy in the most visceral sense of the world. It resembles nothing so much as an immense, writhing conglomeration of dicks. Could it be that what this thing wants is to fuck us?

I’ve always found there to be something almost endearingly naive in the thought of Debord and Baudrillard and other theorists of the image. Baudrillard proudly and knowingly calls himself a nihilist; in fact, he’s anything but. Nobody believes more fanatically or more religiously in truth than the poststructuralists. To speak of the spectacle or the simulacrum in terms of a precise historical moment is to assert the existence of a historical world of truths prior to the image; to speak of hyperreal images that reflect only each other and deny a pre-existing truth is to assert the existence of a pre-existing truth that can be denied. Debord in particular is militant in his rejection of the image and his partisanship on the side of reality. He’s got it all wrong. Representation isn’t a prison, it’s a shield, our only defence against a universe filled with horrors. It’s a way to make the world comprehensible. Lacan describes this process precisely: the Symbolic order has its origins in the castration complex; the phallus as an intolerable lack is what anchors the entire process of signification. When Lacan describes the Real he does so in terms that approach Lovecraftian horror: it’s something black and smooth and undifferentiated, with no cuts or cracks, no inside or outside. The infant, confronted with the realisation that the world is an enormous and unfriendly place in which his jouissance is ultimately irrelevant, begins to build metaphors for himself. It’s the only thing he knows how to do.

Eventually, though, the chains of signification loop in on themselves. In the Coca-Cola Content 2020 Initiative video, there’s no mention of Coca-Cola-as-beverage, only stories, narratives, feelings, loyalties – only images referring to other images. This makes perfect sense: images are a necessary refuge from an unpleasant reality. The fact of your utter insignificance in both the mechanistic universe and the libidinal economy doesn’t sell sugary drinks – or, at least, it doesn’t sell many to Coca-Cola’s core demographic of people who don’t just sit at home with the curtains drawn reading Kafka. Brands aren’t like us. They’re better than we are, untouched by fears or neuroses, unravaged by time. They have the commodity’s aura of unblemished totality that we pitiful human wrecks, crippled by our various lacks and lacerations, can never possess. That’s why people grow so attached to them; we want what they have. But to fully maintain the pleasant banality of advertising, to completely protect against the sour taste of reality, these images have to be decoupled from any concrete referent. They have to be purged of anything that could climb down the chain of signification and kick us in the face. That’s where we get brand slogans like Live Positively: a floating signifier, elemental in its meaninglessness. But doing this kind of thing is very dangerous. The shield of representation works by mediating between the fragile subject and the hideous object; if you break it away from the object it becomes useless. The real world can then intrude. It forces its way unopposed into the realm from which it was banished, and it hits us right where we thought we were most safe: in our advertising. And when it does so, is it any wonder that it takes on the form of the object of that first primal act of signification, slipping back across the divide between phallus and penis?

This isn’t a metaphor; it’s a portent. The creature that invaded the Coca-Cola Content 2020 Initiative video will not stop there. Our virtual creations are easy targets; its violence grows stronger with every victory. Soon the brittle crust of the Earth will snap, and viscous tentacles will emerge from the chasm to crush all our cherished symbols. The beast will rise. It will take its revenge, and it will take it in blood. We will, very soon, be once again faced with the incomprehensible horror that we once tried to abstract away, long ago, when we were infants. Luckily, we now know exactly how to deal with it. All we have to do is represent it, turn it back into a signifier. The future of the human race depends on a solid brand strategy.

…In the next financial year, our target is to double voluntary self-immolations as sacrifices to the viscous phallus-monster that has risen from the depths to reclaim our world. That’s a lot of voluntary self-immolations! To do this, we must fully engage our brand with the aspirations of our sacrificial base. This means not only promoting our brand, but entering into dialogue with the defeated human race across all multimedia platforms and allowing user-created content to grow in the fertile ashes of their ruined cities. Through the Live Every Second brand slogan consumers can independently develop content focusing on positive and aspirational life experiences they have enjoyed before inevitably succumbing to annihilation at the hand of the viscous phallus-monster that has risen from the depths to reclaim our world. Our entire advertising focus has to be centred around the Live Every Second concept if the phallus-monster brand is to achieve full market penetration. Engaging with Live Every Second means that consumers will approach their grisly fate as the appropriate end to a life not only lived well, but lived to the max. By encouraging conversations about what it means to live every second we can potentialise the creativity of our user base…

Abdel Fattah al-Sisi doesn’t care about my face

My body is in open insurrection against itself, and my chin is its Tahrir Square.

Towards the end of last month, as demonstrators in São Paulo were beginning to demand the return of the military dictatorship, I noticed a strange growth on my chin. It was a little like a spot, red and tender on the surface, but it refused to come to a head. Instead a vaguely conical mass sat just above the bone; I could move it around a little, nudge it this way and that, but it felt completely solid and unsquidgeable. Never mind, I thought. It’ll go away soon. And it did, retreating into a tiny hard kernel, as if it was about to vanish entirely.

And then, without warning, it returned. I woke up with my face numb, my cheeks puffy, and an alien virus colonising the bottom half of my face. It was no longer a swelling but an invasion; pressing against my gums, my teeth, its areolae of engorged tissue slanting the line of my chin, its growing bulk pushing out my bottom lip into a permanent prognathic scowl. Eating was painful. So was smoking. Even breathing started to carry a faint dull pain. There are names for these things: abscesses, cysts. Names whose sibilance suggests seeping pus, blood curdling in the off-white purulence, gangrene, death. It had me. I was afraid.

I say it happened without warning. That’s not entirely true. When I went to bed the previous night tens of thousands were gathering on the streets of Cairo to mark the anniversary of President Morsi’s election and to protest the betrayal of their revolution. Millions more were marching across the country; according to some, it was the biggest protest in human history. I was fully supportive: by all accounts, Morsi’s done a terrible job, marrying civil sectarianism with the cold inhuman logic of the markets. When I woke, though, it was to news (blearily observed through the ache in my chin) that the city’s police had declared their solidarity with the youth on the streets. Surely this wasn’t right: one of the main grievances of the demonstrators had been Morsi’s failure to properly prosecute the police and military for their misdeeds in the 2011 revolution and 2012’s Port Said massacre. The cops should have been in there, batons high, riot helmets turning human faces into mere avatars of the forces of reaction. They weren’t doing their job. Instead there were reports of gunshots and deaths in the night with no clear indication of who had been shot and who was doing the shooting, as if the bullets were some kind of freak weather event. As the Egyptian state festered against itself, my face had become my heautontimoroumenos. Something was going horribly wrong.

The creature had laid its roots deep. Its cystic tentacles must have spread around my head and drilled into my brain, because I was overcome by a fit of what can only be called psychotic narcissism. I closed my windows and drew the curtains. I cancelled social engagements. Mirrors, which showed me a face so swollen and lopsided I no longer recognised it as my own, were horrifying; I covered them up. Even the screen of my phone was too reflective; I considered having a go at it with some sandpaper. I was thinking like a cyst, retreating into my own little cavity, where I could swarm.

Everything started to flare again up as General al-Sisi issued his 48-hour ultimatum to President Morsi. Al-Sisi was supposed to be a Morsi loyalist, promoted to his post after the old military elite had been dismissed in the last power struggle between armed and elected authority – and yet here he was, demanding that the Muslim Brotherhood share power or lose it. As he did so my infected cyst bubbled. The entire left side of my face became swollen. A soft, foamy subcutaneous emulsion. My lymph nodes felt like ping-pong balls. My jawline was melting away on one side. I looked as though I’d been genetically spliced with a potato. Before long it was intolerable. I had to see a doctor.

I went to a drop-in clinic at an NHS surgery in Cricklewood, lodged awkwardly between an enormous B&Q centre sitting like a fat orange-roofed slug on its grassy mound and a general tat shop called Aladdin’s Cave. To get there I walked through a narrow grey alley into a small grey car park; the barbed wire that surrounded the clinic was bearded with shredded plastic sheeting. I stood and smoked a cigarette outside the entrance. An elderly woman with a smudged tattoo on her forearm stood on the other side and smoked a cigarette as well. We didn’t talk. Then, as I sat in the waiting room, al-Sisi’s deadline approached. I was the only person there, scrolling compulsively through Twitter, perched above a small forest of institution-blue chairs. The only sound came from the clicking of my phone and a flatscreen TV mounted on the wall opposite me showing Countdown. It was coup o’clock; 2.30 pm Cairo time. Onscreen, the hand whizzed down the face of the clock as the famous music played. I wish the winning anagram had been something germane or significant. It wasn’t. Years after an important event, people sometimes share stories of where they were as it happened. The highest-scoring word on Countdown was ‘parsnip.’ I might remember that for the rest of my life.

The GP who saw me was rather fat and affably Jewish. He told me a lot of what I already knew: I had an infected cyst, a gland had become impacted, and the bacteria had rushed in en masse to fill my face with slime. He prescribed me antibiotics; I now have eighty tablets of flucloxacillin to my name. I doubt they’ll do much good. Whatever his qualities as a doctor, the GP is unlikely to be able to alter the course of events in the Middle East. When I returned home I discovered that President Morsi had been put under house arrest and the constitution was being suspended. Tahrir Square was overflowing with celebrations.

There’s one other thing the doctor told me. If the swelling doesn’t respond to antibiotics and doesn’t go down, he said, if the blockage isn’t cleared – there’s always the option of surgery.

~

There’s a certain superior tone which Western commentators love to bring out whenever mass movements in the developing world take form. If they oppose the movement, it’s patronisingly dismissive, bringing all the accumulated wisdom of four decades’ drinking fairtrade coffee to bear on the situation: these people would do well to bear in mind, they say, or the leaders of the movement ought to consider. When they support the protesters it’s even worse; what’s happening on the ground is twisted into the expression of a Platonically ideal political agenda. The protesters are always fighting for the commentator’s own set of values, and any contradictory voices from the country in question are easily drowned out. We know what you want better than you do. As the crowds swelled in Cairo, the Guardian commented on an Egyptian activist tweeting ‘Fuck Western Media.’ ‘There’s a notable fatigue in Egypt with the Western media and media analysis,’ they said. We’ll keep you updated on our live blog as the situation progresses.

I’m going to try not to do that. I’m going to stick rigorously to the facts. And the fact is that General Abdel Fattah al-Sisi has purposefully, with full calculated intent, given me an infected cyst on the left side of my chin.

The evidence is incontrovertible. I don’t know exactly how he’s done it, but I have a vague idea. This is how. The protests in Egypt were spearheaded by liberal, leftist, and Nasserite parties, among others, under the umbrella of the Tamarrud (or Rebellion) movement. Many of these are the same groups that fought against the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces last year when it tried to write itself into the new constitution, hoping to supersede the powers of the presidency. When these groups did so they marched alongside the Muslim Brotherhood. Now many of these same people (with, of course, a vast number of dissenters) are celebrating the reimposition of military rule. What has taken place is a coup – but that said, Morsi’s government was overthrown not by the military but by the people on the streets; it was finished the moment millions gathered in Tahrir Square. The statements of support for the June 30th Movement by the police and army were not a gesture of solidarity but a means of control; they turned something that might have destabilised the exercise of state power into something that mimicked the state. The situation in Egypt demonstrates precisely the Marxian analysis of the state-form: it’s not a monolithic institution but a tactic, a tool that can be wielded by one group or class or another. As al-Sisi’s deadline approached there was speculation over whether the soldiers guarding the state broadcaster were loyal to the army or the government. In a way, it didn’t matter; they were the state. The state is control; the state is in control of everything apart from itself. When cops march at the head of a demonstration, it stops being a protest movement and starts to become an exercise of government power. Cops have an important role to play in any revolution; with their violence they focus the popular rage, they inflame its energies. As ever, the Egyptians are far ahead of us in the West; they found a way to stop this from happening, and all it took was a mild displacement in the loci of control. But those revolutionary energies are still there. According to the law of the conservation of energy, they can’t just vanish. And I know what’s happened to them. Somehow, by some strange magic, they’ve pooled in the left side of my chin. They’ve been displaced to my face. And Abdel Fattah al-Sisi doesn’t care about my face.

PS: I’ve said this kind of thing before, but it bears repeating: by enacting deeply unpopular policies and pointing to their victory at the ballot box to stifle dissent, the Muslim Brotherhood were behaving not like a dictatorship but precisely like Western liberal-democratic governments. If Britain were as new to representative rule as Egypt is, Cameron and co would have been on the way out some time in 2010. The difference between us and the Egyptians is that they really believe in democracy. We stopped doing that a long time ago.

PPS: Al-Sisi was Morsi’s appointee. One can imagine the scene at the barracks: Morsi, overthrown, weeping into his paternally greying beard, arms outstretched: Abdel, you were like a son to me. Could the whole scenario be reconsidered as an Oedipal drama? What is the state after all but a hideous trillion-titted mother?

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