What the radical left can learn from One Direction
by Sam Kriss
My entire generation is traumatised by something that hasn’t happened yet. Shaking and sleeplessness, autoimmolatory alcoholism, fits of violent rage and sobbing breakdowns, weeks of self-imposed seclusion, an epidemic of anxiety. Generation Todestrieb. The accusatory inner voice that used to constantly seek out our weaknesses and insecurities doesn’t even have to bother any more. It just screams its wordless rage directly into our stream of thought, knowing that we know exactly what it means. We have all the symptoms of post-traumatic stress, except that for many of us there’s no primal fracture, no repressed event. What’s tormenting us is the future, or rather the lack of a future. Now that the myth of human progress has been gently euthanised, the only thing facing us is a catastrophe. We’re standing on a cliffside, so close to the edge that the angle of its descent isn’t even visible. There’s just a blank and distant sea.
Personally, I’ve never been a nervous type; I tend towards melancholia instead. Days thud past like slats on a railway line, their rhythm producing only a jolting queasiness. They’re not hard to fill. Aside from the regulation egodystonicity of the heautontimoroumenos, which is quite time-consuming all by itself, I tend to find myself wasting a few hours on a couple of Nouvelle Vague films. Sad men and self-destructive women fuck, kill cops, smoke cigarettes, and feel nothing – and I’m always left with a strange kind of jealousy, as if a impeccably cut charcoal-grey suit and a Erik Satie soundtrack could lend my unhappiness some kind of significance. Or I’ll watch Hollywood blockbusters online; pirated cam versions filmed in a cinema somewhere in the Russian provinces. I prefer them. It’s not low quality, it’s high aesthetics. Action is flattened, motion is shaky, the multi-million dollar digital effects spectacle is reduced to a chaotic blur, an intricate mess of abstract patterns rising from the darkness of the screen; the whole thing starts to look like an overblown tribute to German Expressionism. All this is punctuated by occasional twelve-hour binges, expensive drinks, gambling, until I emerge somewhere near the Embankment some time after dawn and idly consider throwing myself in the Thames. It’s not too bad.
My sample is admittedly small and unscientific: a handful of recent graduates, often broadly middle class, mostly from the humanities. But there are more thorough studies that bear out my conclusions. ‘Millennials’ – the generation born after the early 1980s – carry the brunt of the ongoing anxiety epidemic. It’s not hard to see why. We’re the inheritors to an economic crisis which is starting to seem less and less like a genuine collapse and more and more like a cover for wholesale pillage on the part of the ultra-rich, a planet that’s slowly choking to death in its own farts, a society steadily reverting to the age-old division between the smugly monied and the shambling cap-in-hand peons. It’s there in our popular entertainment: we don’t expect glittering crystal cities, however dystopian; we expect a future of zombie hordes or mud-caked poverty.
Still, it’s not like we’re the first generation of youth to emerge trembling into the foreboding landscape of the Real World. Something’s changed: our ancestors had mass protest movements; our equivalent is the brief self-congratulatory spark of Occupy and the Tory-sanctioned uselessness of UAF. We’ve become atomised. We’re self-hating narcissists. Part of it must have to do with the form taken by work. Aside from the stability of employment large-scale manufacturing, in a mass production line every worker is collaborating on a single project; it’s a spatial arrangement that facilitates the emergence of a certain kind of solidarity. That’s gone now, and there’s no such luck in the service sector. Your actions are monitored, your productivity is plotted on a graph, your co-workers are your competitors. If you take an unpaid internship or work on a zero-hour contract you become existentially surplus, part of the reserve kamikaze squadron of labour.
We’re constantly connected, digitally rubbing shoulders with people across the world, and the result is that we’re more and more alone in humdrum phenomenal reality. Cyberspace isn’t really a space at all; certainly not in the ‘infinite and infinitely open’ sense outlined by Foucault in Des espaces autres – it’s far closer to the medieval order of lieux, places. The connections of cyberspace aren’t actual connections, they don’t form anything like a machinic assemblage; it’s a flat two-dimensional plane on which any number of projected images and identities mingle and are occasionally interposed, a white wall studded with innumerable black holes, a vast faciality machine producing a single face. As Deleuze and Guattari point out, the face is ‘something absolutely inhuman.’ We don’t touch. This pseudosociality bores down into the fundamental ground of our psychosexual selves: we can’t even fuck any more without the help of a dating site algorithm. Following the formula of commodity fetishism, to establish social relations we must stop being people and start being things.
As ever, Japan is miles ahead of the west: while most European nations tried to rearrange the rubble of the second world war into some kind of bric-a-brac social democracy, American economic planners ensured that Japan went straight from zero to capitalism. The proto-Reaganism of 1940s Japan was followed by a precursor to today’s global economic crisis: the ‘lost decade’ of the 1990s, a long period of economic stagnation that further intensified the already profound alienation of Japanese society, giving rise to an ongoing epidemic of mass suicides (the rate averages at one suicide every fifteen minutes) and the emergence of the hikikomori phenomenon. Hikikomori are young men who confine themselves to their homes, abandoning studies, ignoring work, and disavowing social life; they communicate through the internet or not at all. It’s hard to tell, given their seclusion, but there may be over a million hikikomori in the country. Not that Japan has a monopoly on the phenomenon: researchers have identified similar trends in France and across the western world.
Given the sheer pointlessness of the world of work, becoming a hikikomori makes perfect sense. If you can, why not just opt out of the whole rotten socio-economic order? The problem is that doing so is a capitulation, a mute traumatised acceptance of existing conditions that precludes any real attempt to change them. In a way, the hikikomori is the ideal capitalist subject of the twenty-first century. The Deleuzian era, in which capitalism produced the schizophrenic as the ‘universal producer,’ has passed. Its replacement is the autist, the universal consumer. In previous economic crises salvation was to be found in putting people back to work and resuming production. This time the problem is one of a surplus of capital, a surplus of production and a surplus of population; we’re continually told that the only way out is to restore consumer confidence and restore the cycle of debt-spending. The hikikomori is the perfect solution: a consumer valve safely abstracted from the cycle of production, alone and defenceless, not enjoying his life but still endlessly consuming the means of its reproduction. That said, some governments haven’t quite caught on to the economic potential of mass isolation. Following case studies in Texas and Japan, there are serious proposals for antidepressants to be added to Ireland’s drinking water.
Which naturally leads me to One Direction.
This is One Direction.
It’s hideous, the kind of thing that makes you want to go to Theodor Adorno’s grave at midnight with a pentagram and a sacrificial goat, just so you can tell him to his face that he was right all along. The lyrical content is bad enough, at once recognising the sad prevalence of female body dysmorphia and trying to resolve it into the matrix of male sexual desire. But there’s also something profoundly unsettling about the expression worn by Harry Styles (he’s the tendril-haired lead singer and reportedly a pal of Alain de Botton, the psedophilosopher with a pebble for a head). It’s a grimace, a punk snarl totally at odds with his delivery, one expressing no discernible defiance. He prances around a beach and mouths insipidly anodyne lyrics, and all the while he snarls. It’s as if he realises exactly how ugly his creation is; his grimace is his own anxious withdrawal, the Steppenwolf baring its teeth. It doesn’t matter. There’ll be no peace for Harry Styles. One Direction is one of the biggest pop acts on the planet.
Their fans have a love for One Direction that borders on fanaticism. If you’re on Twitter you’ll probably already know this – Directioners and their fellow tribes consistently dominate the trending topics, helpfully reminding the rest of us that this is their turf, that we’re just a small group of weird adults hanging out at a teen party. Otherwise, a small insight was provided by the recent Channel 4 documentary Crazy About One Direction. Here we’re shown teenage fans squealing and weeping in bedrooms, their walls plastered with hundreds of pictures of the band, as if they’re sitting in the centre of a popstar panopticon. These girls hang around outside concerts waiting for a glimpse of the tour bus, they sneak into hotels where the band is rumoured to be staying, they make explicit artwork centring around the supposed homoeroticism between two of the band’s members, they send threatening messages to current and former girlfriends. “If they said chop an arm off, I would,” says one. “Because some people only have one arm, and they’re alright, aren’t they?” After the show aired, many fans were upset at being represented as psychopathic monomaniacs. They reacted, predictably, by being psychopathic monomaniacs. It’s tempting to dismiss all this as a kind of incipient fascism because, well, it is a kind of incipient fascism. Even the band’s name seems like it’d suit a bunch of 80s goths in ironic swastikas far better than a clean-cut pop band. Translate it into German and the Laibach aspect is hard to ignore: ein Volk, ein Wille, ein Richtung! If Liam, Louis & co. were to announce tomorrow that the body politic needs to be purged of its parasites, the resulting chaos would make Kristallnacht look like a mild spat in a rural post office. No army on earth could hold back the fury of ten million teenage girls in love. The fires would burn for months.
Of course, I’m hardly in a position to judge. When I was seventeen I covered my room with posters of Søren Kierkegaard. I had a small shrine at the foot of my bed in which copies of Either/Or, The Sickness Unto Death and Fear and Trembling were arranged with candles, incense, and small Danish flags I’d stolen from a local fishmonger. I founded my own chapter of the symparanekromenoi, with a membership of one, wherein the chief activity consisted of writing turgid erotic prose imagining the consummation of his love for Regine Olsen. On a holiday to Copenhagen I obsessed over the fact that Søren had walked the same streets where I stood, and nearly broke down in tears outside the University. I even went to the lengths of sending threatening letters and emails to professors of nineteenth-century philosophy across Europe and North America, informing them in no uncertain terms that Søren was mine and that nobody else was allowed to discuss his antiphilosophical approach to the question of being. Even more vicious missives went out to unreformed neo-Hegelians who dared to critique the infinite qualitative distinction. So I understand.
This kind of obsession isn’t just the alluring aura of commodity fetishism, it’s something far more significant. “What do you think about real boys?” the interviewer asks one fan, a nineteen-year-old with a One Direction tattoo and a tendency to camp out by the Styles family residence. She’s not interested; she doesn’t really speak to them. “Most One Direction fans are single. It’s weird. We’re all just single.” Real boys just get in the way the whole time, another explains. “Boy bands have ruined my life,” she says. She smiles. She doesn’t mind. What’s a life? There’s something admirable about this passion, something genuinely heroic about the extent to which these people sacrifice their own lives in the cause of a pop group-cum-transcendent Idea. In his Philosophy for Militants, Badiou proposes as the ‘revolutionary conception of our time’ a ‘militant desire’ standing against normal desires: the militant idea of desire is a ‘desire that permanently affirms the existence of that which has no name.’ Under a social order that has tried to eradicate all such yearnings, Directioners remain authentically militant in their devotion to a timeless and transhistorical Cause.
The object of this militant desire is not called One Direction. All the fans interviewed were painfully aware of a lack structuring their lives. For those who haven’t met the band, this lack becomes One Direction-shaped. They’ll meet their favourite member, sleep with them, marry them, and then everything will be better. For those who have, it’s a different story. Once is never enough; they have to meet them again and again, with ever-diminishing returns. They grow to realise that the band itself is insufficient. What they want is a different mode of existence. That something as banal as a manufactured pop group can embody this desire ought to be heartening: it’s the transcendent fervour, not its proximal object, that’s important. These girls are victims of the traumatic atomisation of contemporary capitalism. Many are cut off from conventional relationships; they spend long hours alone with Twitter and Tumblr, endlessly reiterating their love for something that exists beyond their comprehension, in a shared devotion that has become something like what Badiou terms the ‘local creation of something generic’ – something based not on the facile ‘connections’ of social media but a dissolution into a strong general unity of purpose.
Marx wrote that capitalism always creates the conditions for its own overthrow; Lenin nicely summarised the same principle when he declared that ‘we will hang the capitalists with the rope that they sell us.’ Through its campaign of atomisation capitalism has attempted to resolve this problem, but in doing so it’s created an acute consciousness of the wrongness of alienated existence. Directioners have achieved far more than most leftist thinkers in demonstrating how this anxiety can be displaced onto a real and immanent movement towards a transcendent goal. This is task the radical left faces: to become as fanatical about the overthrow of existing conditions as teenage girls are about One Direction.