How to overthrow your own body
by Sam Kriss
Pictured: Gold medallist, men’s 750,000 metre coup
Human language had a good run, but it’s about time to admit that the whole experiment has ended in failure. For two hundred thousand years we’ve been flapping mouths and breathing spittle at each other in a supposedly meaningful manner. We’ve invented needlessly complex processes for immortalising these self-important eructations, first on rock, then paper, then computers. It’s hard to calculate exactly how much this habit of language has cost us over the centuries, but it could only run into the tens of trillions of dollars. All those cuneiform temple inscriptions, all those public speaking engagements, all those shitty radio panel shows – and for what? The whole system has proven itself so useless that we feel the need to periodically massacre each other for attaching the wrong meanings to the wrong set of belches. This still goes on today, despite the fact that it’s now well known that words can never really refer to things but only to other words. Language is the hideous bastard hatchling of a hydra and and an ouruborus, and it needs to be slain immediately. If any further evidence of this is needed, you only have to look at the official readout of Obama’s phone call with Putin concerning the Russian intervention in Crimea.
The degeneration of language is happening at a frightening pace. Nothing in Obama’s ninety-minute conversation makes any sense. The phrase ‘going forward’ (a ghastly coinage bordering on the eldritch, one that’s apparently supposed to convey an energetic dynamism but only summons the image of some unfortunate person drowning in an office cubicle as it slowly fills with printouts of pie charts) appears twice in the space of four sentences. Obama talks about the Budapest Memorandum and the Helsinki Final Act and the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe; he sounds like a dorkily enthusiastic teenager getting a bit too wrapped up in his performance at a Model UN conference. He hints at sanctions, as if half of Europe weren’t dependent on Russian gas. It’s a twisted parody. Language is, before anything else, a vector of deception. The United States government has broken all the agreements he mentioned, reneging on its promise not to extend NATO up to Russia’s borders, helping prompt and direct the nationalist revolution that overthrew Yanukovych, engaging in wars of aggression across the globe. More fundamentally, he’s pretending that he and Putin are something other than what they are: a pair of bureaucrats instead of two bloodstained warlords, each of whom could, if the fancy took them, kill every single human being on the planet several times over. There’s no record of Putin’s response to Obama’s extended series of laryngal honks, but you get the impression that he’s gently humouring this earnest American who doesn’t seem to understand the way the world actually works, playing along in his game of talking about other words rather than things. It’s a shame, because for a while Putin looked like the only person who could save language from itself. In 2008, as Russian tanks were comprehensively fucking the Georgian army, he declared his intent to ‘hang [Georgian President] Saakashvili by his balls.’ This is what linguists call a speech act, doing by saying; precisely through abandoning the principle of representation it’s the closest words can come to being about things.
There aren’t many speech acts in the current crisis. We’re beyond the point where we can meaningfully distinguish between words and deeds. The Russian intervention in Crimea is intended to send a message to the new government in Kiev and its backers in Brussels and Washington; action has become infected with the sordid ephemerality of language.
In the end, this whole mess can be blamed on the Sochi Winter Olympics. It’s a well-known and boring fact that in ancient Greece, wars were put on hold for the duration of the Games. The idea of doing the same thing now isn’t just infeasible but nonsensical; war and the Olympics are one and the same thing. Host governments treat the Games in much the same way that they treat foreign wars: they provide a chance to issue some contracts and boost important industries, they let you redraw the maps (turning a beach town into a mountain resort, or a moulding industrial park into a germ for gentrification), they’re a matter of national pride and a propaganda vehicle that helps calm internal contradictions – but at the same time they never seem to deliver the profits they promise; the costs inevitably spiral, and afterwards they tend to leave cities full of half-ruined buildings. It’s not just a matter of resemblance. With their vast crowds and attending dignitaries they’re a deliberate target for terrorists, allowing the hosts to show off their various defence technologies to the world. London 2012 wasn’t much more than an enormous arms fair, with an aircraft carrier on the Thames and missile batteries on the roofs of homes. Russia in particular seems to like conducting its imperial adventures during the Games. While jets battered Stalin’s birthplace in Georgia, representatives from the two countries were playing beach volleyball in Beijing. The Ukrainian paralympic team is still in Sochi. All this isn’t a distraction from the sport; it’s another facet of the same phenomenon.
Of course, sport is fascist bullshit. Liberal critics of organised sport like to hone in on its aggression and competition and the absurd salaries paid out to its practitioners, but none of this is the real problem. It’s true that most Olympic sports are some kind of symbolic warfare (with the potential exception of figure skating, although there’s still a case to be made against it), but a tendency towards aggression and competition is only a secondary characteristic of the fascist cosmology. The fundamental fascist vision is one of a cohesive and organic society, a society structured around the metaphor of the healthy body. Any politics of the body will by necessity be a politics that acts on the body: the healthy body becomes a regulative ideal, and images of healthy smiling men marching off to the front are suddenly everywhere. This spectacularisation of the body is always present (millions of people watch the Olympics), but it’s always also accompanied by the idea that health is good in and of itself, beyond any relation to the aesthetic. Individual health means social health. In Russia, the connection between the healthy body and militarism is still very much alive; Putin himself is constantly taking his shirt off to ride horses, wrestle tigers, catch fish, and otherwise demonstrate his unparalleled dominion over the animal world. In Western countries we generally prefer to wage war through silent and terrifying robots of death, but as the population grows steadily more obese and work is increasingly an activity that takes place in front of a screen (a screen showing sales figures, a screen showing a Pakistani village about to be obliterated, it makes no difference), the issue of health becomes a matter of deep general concern. And, as everyone knows, the best way to become healthy is through sport. Sport isn’t dangerous because it encourages competition or tribalism; it’s dangerous precisely because it’s healthy.
If there’s a central fascist procedure, it’s the subsumption rather than the sublimation of contradictions. Class antagonisms are buried in the organic nation, internal difference is either consumed or ejected, all cracks are papered up. The healthy body is a prime example of this. The ideology of sport and fitness has its roots in Victorian England – muscular Christianity, artificial famines in Ireland and India, the desperate belief that sports will prevent masturbation – but while it reached a kind of apex in the historical Fascism of the twentieth century, it stubbornly refused to die with its host. Left-wing responses to all this nonsense have been sadly anaemic. The most popular is a kind of body-euphoric self-affirmationism: the idea is that we should embrace all bodies as healthy and all bodies as beautiful. This appears to be a response to the dominant cult of fitness, but really it’s a capitulation to it and a failure to challenge its terms. Fitness and beauty are still good, sickness and ugliness are still bad, but the latter two are shoved beyond some metaphysical horizon. Instead of embracing ugliness in ugliness and as ugliness, its very existence is denied.
The figure of the body is a central concern of poststructuralist theory, and the academic tendency to refer to people as ‘bodies’ (based on the idea that the person is a fictive construct – after all, the word itself derives from the Latin persona, or mask – and that the only thing we can safely say about someone is that they have a body) seems to have filtered into a lot of non-academic discourse. At the same time the body itself is often instrumentalised rather than examined; this is why there’s so little real resistance to fitness fascism. It’s there from Foucault. In Nietzsche, Genealogy, History, he writes: The body is the inscribed surface of events […] and a volume in perpetual disintegration. [Our] task is to expose a body totally imprinted by history and the process of history’s destruction of the body. Foucault seems to have a blind spot when it comes to the body; his approach to it is surprisingly un-Foucauldian. Genealogy opposes itself to the search for ‘origins,’ but when Foucault discusses the body as a site of scarring and crumbling, he implies the existence of an originary unscarred and unimprinted body; a body that’s perfect and primordial and pristine. There’s no such thing: a newborn baby is bloodied and screaming. It’s necessary to admit that there is no primordial unitary body, that the thing we call the body is nothing more than the collection of scars that constitutes our experience of it. There’s only a series of metamorphoses without aim or origin, and the healthy body is only another kind of deformation.
The overthrow of the body is a matter of urgency, because things aren’t going well. The new Ukrainian government includes six ministers from the neofascist Svoboda party. Russian soldiers are surrounding military bases in Crimea. The year ends in fourteen, idiots are in charge across Europe, and two global alliance systems are squaring off as Slavic nationalists do their best to rile up a great power. In the end it’s about language, the filthy habit of humanity. If your throat coughs up a hard g sound like a Russian then you’re shunted to one side, if you wheeze an h like a Ukrainian you’re on the other. The shame that periodically surrounds the body tends to be centred on shitting and pissing and fucking, because these acts remind us that the body isn’t a unitary entity closed off from its environment; really it’s speech that’s disgusting, because it lets us pretend that it is. The idea of an organic and discrete Ukraine and an organic and discrete Russia is dependent on the metaphor of an organic and discrete body. Irredentism echoes Foucault: history has effected a crumbling-away of the national body, but rather than just uncovering this body they want to restore it. The mad advocates of health and fitness have nuclear weapons at their disposal. If humanity is to survive the coming century, we all need to start smoking heavily.