Twerking over Ghouta: Miley Cyrus, Syria, and war as a consumer item
by Sam Kriss
True fact: Miley’s pelvic gyrations spell out a list of war casualties in Morse code. Scientists are baffled by this phenomenon.
The spider’s been dead for three days – an eternity in the arthropod timescale – but its web is still there; suspended between the housing and the yoke of a stage light. When the lamp clunks on and starts to throb with burning mercury it sends the flies into a dizzy rage; they launch themselves, terrified, in all directions. One tries to take refuge in the darkness behind the light itself and finds itself suddenly caught in the web. There’s a brief, flailing panic, in which the fly manages to tear off one of its own wings. It’s no use. A sudden calm. It can’t free itself, and without the spider’s ministrations death will take a long time. The fly resignedly settles down to watch the show. It might not realise it, but it’s got a very good seat.
In one of his correspondences, Michel Houellebecq proposes what he calls a ‘bacterial view’ of humanity. We’re a saprophytic swarm, teeming in our billions across the carcass of the planet, turning it into rotten mush. Perhaps it would be better if the whole infestation were wiped out. As ever, he’s being a thoroughly miserable bastard. It’s far more interesting to take his phrase more literally. If humans and bacteria are equivalent, what view would our prokaryotic cousins take on human civilisation? Would they be astounded by the scale of our achievements? Would they care that we put a man on the moon? Maybe their attitude would be one of haughty contempt. This is their world, not ours: their total biomass dwarfs ours; we can’t even keep them out of our own bodies, and when they want to, they can kill us at will. From their point of view, we multicellular organisms are little more than a brief gimmick of evolution, one sure to meet a dead end before too long. It must appear incredible that while they can survive quite happily clinging to Antarctic rock and swimming in the fires below the Earth’s crust we starve to death in our millions surrounded by fertile soil.
The bacterial view is too strange to properly conceptualise. A fly is easier. Suspended from the spider’s web, it watches the last show of its life. It doesn’t know it, but it’s present at the 2013 MTV Video Music Awards in Brooklyn, and the teen pop sensation Miley Cyrus is about to twerk her way to international notoriety. Humans have a hard time recognising sexual dimorphism in most animals, so it’s fair to assume the reverse is true. At the front of the stage there are two humans, one black and white, the other tan, vague blurry forms. They’re moving. A fly’s eye picks up motion at a flicker rate of three hundred frames a second; a fly in a cinema will see a slow procession of still images cascading down the screen. As Miley Cyrus wriggles her arse against Robin Thicke’s crotch, the fly sees the skin ripple across her flesh with all the serene solemnity of a tsunami tracking its way across a vast ocean. Her tongue unfurls as slowly as a flower opening at dawn. The music hums a droning threnody; drums crash like breaking waves. The fly doesn’t think about feminism, or representations of sexuality, or race relations. All it has is its hypernoia and its own furious little ego; in Miley Cyrus’s twerking it sees a reflected image of its own death.
It’s trapped. So are we. The days after Cyrus’s performance saw a sudden paroxysm of hand-wringing among the usual designated commentators. What we witnessed was the naked appropriation of an African-American cultural form, the spectacularisation and commodification of the female body, the banalisation of eroticism, an utterly dreadful example for young women. They’re completely right, of course, but that’s the trap. After the performance Cyrus boasted on Twitter that she had been the subject of 306,000 tweets a minute. The whole thing was designed to infuriate Hadley Freeman and her various clones; the point was to get people who wouldn’t otherwise be talking about Miley Cyrus talking about Miley Cyrus. By trying to pull ourselves out of the web we’re only tearing out our own wings. Then there was the tiresome follow-up: a further round of hand-wringing over the hand-wringing itself. Why are we talking about some singer when people are dying in Syria? This sanctimoniousness reached its apotheosis with a Tumblr blog called Miley Cyrus Twerking on Reality, a series of low-effort high-smugness images of the pop star gyrating against various online news stories supposedly constituting ‘reality’. It completely misses the point. The real critical task isn’t to complain that Miley Cyrus is diverting attention from real and important issues; it’s to see in her performance and the situation in Syria two parts of a single system.
Nobody asked for Miley Cyrus Twerking At The 2013 MTV Music Video Awards, it was thrust upon us. The same trend is everywhere in consumer society. When Apple announces a new glowing rectangle, it’s not so much persuading us of its usefulness as telling us in no uncertain terms that this is the new thing we need to own. The most egregious example of this might be the launch of the new BT Sport channel in the UK. It’s not like the company has invented any new and interesting sports; it’s just bought the broadcast rights for various games from its competitors. The adverts plastered around London bluntly repeated this fact: some of your matches won’t be on the usual channel any more, In other words, pay up if you want to see your footy. It’s the same with war. A vast industry of death puts on a cheerful face and tells us to sit tight and be entertained.
Earlier this month an alleged chemical attack in the suburbs of Damascus killed up to 1700 people. The Syrian government denied all responsibility and blamed rebel fighters; the rebels (and much of the Western world) blamed Assad. He’s crossed Obama’s red line: to kill people in their tens of thousands by putting bits of metal into their bodies at high speed is unpleasant but allowed; to kill people making them inhale poisonous gases is strictly forbidden. In the absence of any expertise in biochemistry or rocket physics I won’t pretend to know who carried out the attack or what weapons were really used; that said, the whole affair carries a farcical echo of 2003 and 1898. The idea that the Syrian government would do this kind of thing a few days after the arrival of UN inspectors and in a region where they are gaining rather than losing ground doesn’t make a whole lot of sense, while the argument that Assad gassed hundreds of people to flaunt his invincibility before the world stage seems a bit absurd given that Western powers are now screaming retribution. If it happens, this retribution will take the form of a punitive strike, punishing Assad while securing his chemical weapons stockpiles. It’s not exactly clear how you can ‘secure’ a depot with a Tomahawk missile: is the idea to encase it safely in rubble, or will enough missiles be fired that their bodies will form a protective dome around the sites? What’s clear is that any move will not constitute an act of war against Syria or an intervention in support of any rebel group. In other words, its geopolitical value is precisely zero. This isn’t war in the Clausewitzian sense of politics continued by other means, it’s war for the domestic market, war as a consumer item. Most opinion polls show that populations in the West are broadly against intervention; this is precisely the point. The attack exists solely to provide a justification for its own existence.
Industrial capitalism needs a constant supply of iron, oil, and coltan; it needs a constant supply of entertainment; it needs a constant supply of war. In many countries arms manufacturers are pretty much the last big industrial operations still going; we’ll trust China to make the shiny gadgets through which we mediate our social lives, but the the production of death is still very much a domestic concern. Weapons are all we have left, and there’s no point churning out a constant stream of the things if they’re not going to be used. The problem with war is that it’s hard to work out a proper line of supply for the stuff; you need the co-operation of the other side, and unless you have a nice Flower War-type setup, nations tend not to work together much once hostilities have broken out. In a post-Fordist economic order dominated by the principles of just-in-time production, this isn’t much good at all. The consumers of war need their product to arrive in a steady, continuous, and predictable manner. The solution is to get rid of the other side entirely, so that war is no longer a relation between opposing forces but a mass consumer product as fungible as any other. Now you can go down to the gas station to pick up a microwave burrito, a pack of Slim Jims, and an armed incursion into a refugee camp, killing sixteen.
In Egypt, before the military government started massacring protesters in the streets, it declared a state of emergency that would last for exactly one month. Either general al-Sisi’s precognitive abilities let him know exactly how long the terrorist threat posed by the Muslim brotherhood would last, or the army was always in complete control of the precise levels of disturbance and could wage war or make peace entirely on its own terms. In early August, not too long after the Snowden leaks on government surveillance, Britain and the United States shut down their embassies in Sana’a in response to an unspecified but ‘immediate’ terrorist threat. This was followed by a series of drone strikes throughout Yemen that killed at least fourteen suspected militants; in response a Yemeni military helicopter was shot down. I wrote about something similar in relation to Israel’s most recent attack on Gaza: one side decides that there will be a crisis, the other has no choice but to act out its allotted role. The radicalisation caused by drone strikes is a feature, not a bug: this is war as a continual spectacle, not a war that achieves any concrete aims. If there were no angry herdsmen with Kalashnikovs, there wouldn’t be anyone to kill next time our intelligence services have a crisis of credibility.
It’s not enough for us to consume any more; it’s constantly demanded that we interact with our commodities. Join the conversation! Accept your new reality! Miley Cyrus twerking wouldn’t have much value if it weren’t for the thousands of blogs like this one clamouring to present an opinion on it. This is the next step: for the consumer base to be fully engaged with war as a mass entertainment product. Special packs of corn-based snacks will come with the co-ordinates of a single square mile of Pakistani territory: if your area is the site of a terrorist bombing you could win a new Xbox! A chirpy voice shouts from the TV: if you want the next drone strike to be in SOMALIA, press the RED button on your remote now. If you want the next drone strike to be in MALI, press the GREEN button on your remote now. The point is to make us all complicit. Armies are a tired old Westphalian relic; in the new age of mass-produced war there’s no need for any separation between military and civilian life. For some of us, armed intervention will merge into a seamless cycle of wiggling arses and electronic self-affirmation. Meanwhile, those people unlucky enough to live outside the bounds of the twerking-warfare complex won’t even be able to understand themselves to be at war; they’ll live their lives under the shadow of a vast organic-cybernetic mass, total and homogeneous, swarming in the skies and killing on a whim. Behind a suburban sofa, a fly is trapped in a spider’s web. As it waits to die it watches the last show of its life. A slow succession of images pulses on the television screen as six hundred channels rear up and flicker away: a human dressed in black giving a drawn-out wail as it holds up a dead body to the camera, a human dressed in nothing slowly gyrating on a stage; and the fly sees no difference at all.
PS: As everyone knows by now, Miley Cyrus is of course the direct descendent and probable reincarnation of the Achaemenid ruler Cyrus II, founder of the First Persian Empire, the Great King, King of Persia, King of Anshan, King of Media, King of Babylon, King of Sumer and Akkad, King of the four corners of the world.