Idiot Joy Showland

This is why I hate intellectuals

Month: May, 2014

Elliot Rodger among the ruins

It’s a cold, blustery day near Tintern Abbey. The wind, pouring over the wooded hills that surround this pile, washes the sharp stink of diesel exhaust against its tired stones. Vans chug along the A466, forming a slow but constant loop between Hereford and Newport. The abbey stands alone in its square of dead grass under a dead sky, hemmed in by a shabby stone wall. There’s a bus stop, and few B&Bs cluster nearby for those honeymooners whose imaginations can’t stretch further than south Wales. Aside from the speeding cars and the trembling of trees, battered into submission by modernity, there’s no sign of life. Any wreath of smoke sent up in silence from among the trees would be ripped to wisps in the wind. Nonetheless, he’s there, up in the houseless woods, in some Hermit’s cave, where by his fire the Hermit sits alone, scribbling line after line of self-aggrandising idiocy.

Before carrying out his killing spree in Santa Barbara, Elliot Rodger posted a 141-page autobiographical manifesto called My Twisted World on the internet. Most of the recent controversy around the aetiology of the murders has ended up drawing on this text. Can the killings be reduced to some nebulous concept of mental illness and anomie, or are they the product of general societal misogyny and male entitlement? Either way, the answer’s inside, if you look at the text closely enough. All this only plays into the killer’s hands: he wanted his words to be studied and pondered and argued over. No text is ever complete, closed, and hermetic; the function of an autobiography isn’t to give clear answers but to keep people asking questions, to prop up the heroic mystique of its author. The only way to avoid falling into Rodger’s trap is to refuse to start by analysing his account of events. To understand the tragedy in Santa Barbara, you have to begin with Wordsworth’s Lines Written a Few Miles Above Tintern Abbey.

Wordsworth was the quintessential English poet. He wrote with a deep childlike love of this country, its landscapes, and its soothing and gentle sights. His compositions move with a rolling fluidity from limpidly gorgeous descriptions of nature to profound reflections on universal themes. Every brick in every lowly peasant hut is imbued with a sense of calm significance. Wordsworth’s poetry has a slow deliberate style, one without any of the tubthumping demagoguery of Shelley or the overblown mythopoeia of Blake. He was, in other words, utterly shit. All the great Romantics knew this. Byron had his number: in his dedication to Don Juan he has great fun tripping up the pompous old lake poets as they tramp off on their lonely excursions in the dull old English countryside. There is narrowness in such a notion/ Which makes me wish you’d change your lakes for ocean. Even Keats, the sad sensitive soul of the Romantic movement, could reserve some viciousness for Wordsworth’s grand mediocrity: All of these are vile, but viler Wordsworth’s sonnet/ On Dover. Dover! – who could write upon it? For Keats even the grander moments in Wordsworth’s poetry constitute an egotistical sublime – whatever bucolic landscape the poet plonks himself in front of, his reflections always end up falling back on himself. Just as well, then, that Wordsworth kept to Dover and the Lake District. Imagine the damage he’d do if his withered imagination were let loose in a genuinely spectacular landscape – somewhere like Byron’s Italy, or southern California.

Tintern Abbey reached its present state of picturesque ruin after the dissolution of the monasteries of the 1530s, in which the assets of various ecclesiastical bodies were seized by the English crown, with the profits furthering imperial adventures abroad – but it’s not as if any of this historical fabric makes its way into Wordsworth’s poem. The abbey itself is never mentioned, appearing only as a trace, the conspicuous absence of a being-there under erasure. The abbey inspires Wordsworth’s reflections, but mentioning it can only destabilise the central opposition between the signifiers Nature and Man: the entire poem is an attempt to blot out the looming presence of the ruin and the historicity it represents. The landscape around Wordsworth is a wild secluded scene, a point of lasting communion with Nature: These beauteous forms/Through a long absence, have not been to me/As is a landscape to a blind man’s eye:/But oft, in lonely rooms, and ‘mid the din/Of towns and cities, I have owed to them/In hours of weariness, sensations sweet. Of course, the countryside around Tintern is no less artificial than the cities Wordsworth and Coleridge were so fond of despising; the pastoral farms/ Green to the very door are the result of centuries of enclosure and class struggle. For Wordsworth rural life is not merely idiocy, as in Marx’s formulation: it is fully non-human, appearing as part of a static Nature. Only the abbey, in its state of ruin or difference to itself, testifies to the internal heterogeneity of things; for that reason it must be erased.

True to form, the scene on the banks of the Wye soon gives way to an extended bout of poetic onanism, with Wordsworth recalling a previous visit to the same spot. Five years beforehand, he bounded o’er the mountains, by the sides/Of the deep rivers, and the lonely streams/Wherever nature led; now he’s more inclined towards a subdued, solitary contemplation, and both desires are enthusiastically met by a promiscuous and polymorphously perverse Nature, one that never did betray/The heart that loved her. These modes of engagement are like the attributes of Spinoza’s divine Substance; Nature is a univocity of Being, a motion and a spirit, that impels/All thinking things, all objects of all thought,/And rolls through all things – but at the same time it is directly opposed to the artificiality of the world, the heavy and weary weight/ Of all this unintelligible world. Nature is meaning, eternity, and infinity. It’s a state of grace, a gift, but like all gifts its giving institutes a primordial lack. As such it can only be accessed by disavowing the impermanence of the world – in other words, by erasing the hulk of Tintern Abbey. But this is always an impossibility; the trace of the abbey plagues the poem like a rotten tooth.

William Wordsworth and Elliot Rodger are describing the same phenomenon. Rodger’s screed is full of resentment against those living a better life. The bliss seen by Wordsworth in the impossible univocity of Nature is seen by Rodger in the impossible univocity of sex. However, Rodger was a virgin: he didn’t understand that the gift is impossible, and while Wordsworth tries to erase its non-existence, Rodger demands to receive it. He imagines that for those who can access sexual experiences, life must be a Paradise – when, of course, life is mostly vaguely shit for everyone, sex or no sex (and, as Adorno points out, happiness is always something you remember, not something you experience). There’s a lot that’s frightening in My Twisted World – the narcissism, the accounts of brutally failed attempts at socialisation, the fantasy of mass industrial femicide – but among its most disturbing aspects is the author’s complete lack of any of the fetishes or perversions that make actually existing sexuality sustainable. For Rodger sex is always homogeneous to itself. He doesn’t experience proximal sexual desire so much as a desire for sex, uninflected and generic. It’s only through this impossible unity that he can achieve happiness. Had he ever lost his virginity, his reaction could only have been one of enraged disappointment. Like Wordsworth, he can’t tolerate the internal difference of things – hence the continual egotistical return to the illusory unity of the self. (It’s no coincidence that Rodger subscribed to our era’s iteration of the mawkishly monist metaphysics of Wordsworth and Coleridge, in the form of The Secret, a book that proclaims that the Universe exists to facilitate our desires, and that wishing for anything hard enough will make it come true.)

In the end, it comes back to Tintern Abbey and the dissolution of the monasteries. Elliot Rodger was propelled by a murderous culture of male entitlement, one in which women aren’t in any sense human beings but mere walking dispensers of sexual gratification. It’s an institutionalised system of domination that we’re all to some degree responsible for, a fact only confirmed by the inevitable self-centred attempts to wriggle out of this responsibility: but not all men! At the same time, it’s not just male entitlement that’s responsible. In My Twisted World Rodger describes himself as a perfect gentleman, someone hailing from the prestigious Rodger family; a family that was once part of the wealthy upper classes. Elsewhere he writes: How could an inferior, ugly black boy be able to get a white girl and not me? I am descended from British aristocracy. He is descended from slaves. I deserve it more. Rodger’s entitlement is a feudal entitlement. Contemporary patriarchy tends to operate through the commmodification of female bodies; for Rodger such commodity-relations are inscrutable. He has an aristocratic horror of truck and barter, the processes of negotiation through which most people navigate the libidinal economy. When he decides that his only salvation lies in becoming a multi-millionaire, he decides to achieve this by winning the lottery, appealing to divine Providence instead of lowering himself to tradesmanship. His relations with women follow a similar pattern. He recounts the days leading up to his twentieth birthday: I made a bid to do everything I could to lose my virginity in those few remaining days I had […] I walked over to the centre of Isla Vista every day and sat at one of the tables outside Domino’s Pizza, hoping against hope that a girl would come up and talk to me. Why wouldn’t they? Women are subjects, not in the ontological but the sociological sense: peons expected to obey his desires without them ever being articulated, let alone acted upon. Nobody ever rejected Elliot Rodger; he never entered into any relation where acceptance or rejection was possible. What the women of Santa Barbara rejected was the social code of the fourteenth century – and for that, he decided that they had to die.

Across Europe, Protestant countries experienced some kind of a dissolution of the monasteries, but the experience of England is unique. On the Continent, the loss of monastic land was prompted by waves of popular anti-clericism; in England it was in intervention by the ruling class, widely opposed by the people. The dissolution of the monasteries marked the end of the static world of the medieval period and the ties of social obligation and feudal duty that had once characterised everyday life. As part of the process of primitive accumulation, it was the beginning of the world of property-relations that succeeded it. But these transitions are never so total as they might seem: as Marx writes, the tradition of all dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the brains of the living. The sense of noble privilege that fuelled the Santa Barbara killings is not, in the end, entirely heterogeneous to contemporary capitalist society: it’s present wherever human beings are instrumentalised. Tintern Abbey is in ruins, but its ghosts remain, haunting William Wordsworth and Elliot Rodger and the families of his victims. Throughout the centuries, their grim whisper is the same: the world is singular and homogeneous, and you deserve the impossible gift.

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Voting is magic!

UKIP election leaflet, 2014

Most societies have, buried in their vast cultural storehouses, some kind of apotropaic rite: one carried out to ward off the evil forces that constantly lay siege to ordinary social life. In ancient Egypt, crocodiles were thrown into blacksmiths’ furnaces. In medieval and early modern England, travelling troupes would perform comic ‘mummers plays’; a similar tradition among the Lakota and Sioux involves the temporary reign of sacred clowns. The Aztec priests tore out the hearts from millions of (often willing) victims to ensure that the world made it from one 52-year cycle to the next without collapsing under the weight of its own absurdity. These rituals have varying levels of success. At no point prior to 1521 did the Sun ever fail to rise in the morning – but even though the Earth’s rotation has slowed slightly since the forced abolition of tlamictiliztli, it’s yet to stop entirely. On the other hand, there are no records of anyone having been kidnapped by the Devil after spilling salt, so long as they take the wise precaution of chucking some over their shoulder. Still none of these rituals are as destructive as the mode of apotropaic magic endemic to the contemporary West, in which  the priesthood demands that we make a mark next to the printed name of someone we don’t like and then put it in a box. This strange and stupid ritual, which any rigorous analysis will show to produce far fewer positive results than a simple rain-dance or burnt-offering, is nonetheless imposed by force on much of the world, in fear of the great evil that will arise if it’s not performed properly. The result is that, with a brutal calendar regularity, hundreds of people are massacred every year for making the marks incorrectly.

Electoral representation in the post-ideological age has far more in common with apotropy than politics. Very few people vote to choose their leaders; instead they vote to prevent the other guy from winning. The genealogy of voting follows a very different path from that of democracy. In classical Athens, which is to a greater or lesser extent to blame for both practices, governmental positions were usually determined by lots, to counteract the advantages enjoyed by rich citizens and great orators. If, as a fifth-century Athenian citizen, you were actually voting for a politician, chances are you were casting an ostrakon: voting for them to be exiled from the city and its civic life. Voting is an apotropaic act. Little has changed. In this week’s European elections, millions of people will vote for the individuals they want to be torn from their homes and families and sent away to the godforsaken marshy swamplands of Brussels.

In the United Kingdom, these elections are expected to be a devastating victory for UKIP, the Boko Haram of East Anglia. UKIP are standing on a political platform that appears to champion clean fridges as an antidote to sexual promiscuity, an end to costly environmental protection for African forest ungulates, giving due weight to the erotogenic model of climate change, and the systematic demonisation of the most exploited and vulnerable members of society. All their blunders, and the concerted attempt by the mainstream parties to brand them as racists, haven’t put much of a dent in their poll figures – and why would it? They represent a peculiarly British kind of fascism. We’ve already conquered the world and slaughtered millions with ruthless industrial precision; why would we want to do it again? It’s a bumbling, Dad’s Army, lovable underdog fascism; efficient precisely because of its shambolic inefficiency. It’s hard to shake the feeling that the bien pensant pissants of the three major parties fear UKIP so much not because of any real concern for migrant populations (after all, this scapegoating is a monster they themselves made) but because of their refusal to conform to the unwritten rule of the ritual: above all else, be boring.

For those of us on the left, the way to perform the ritual properly is to vote for the Labour party. Newspapers are full of deeply concerning reports of their shrinking poll lead: only with our vote do they have the power to banish the forces of evil and chaos from the land. We owe them this vote, in the same way that humans owe the gods of the Aztec pantheon their lives, in restitution for a primordial sacrifice. If the cycle of immaterial debt isn’t maintained the world will fall apart. Vote Labour, or the sun won’t rise and the soil will turn to ash. I voted for Labour once, for all the good it did anyone, in the full throes of apotropaic ecstasy that came with 2009’s general election. It took twenty showers before I could properly wash the smell of it off my skin, a stench like unto mouldering constituency offices and cheap air freshener and tortured Iraqi prisoners, the abject sensation of having one of Gordon Brown’s oily hairs stuck somewhere in my mouth. To ward off the nasty party of cuts and class oppression, we’re to vote for the nice party of cuts and class oppression; to ward off the nasty party of anti-immigrant rhetoric and British global chauvinism, we’re to vote for the nice party of anti-immigrant rhetoric and British global chauvinism. It’s all extremely dull.

In 2012, as massive street protests were challenging the legitimacy of the Syrian government, it responded by approving a new constitution that ended nearly half a decade of Ba’ath one-party rule. In accordance with the new constitution, presidential elections will take place next month. The incumbent, one Bashar al-Assad, is basing his campaign on lukewarm national unity, 80s nostalgia, and feeble puns on his professional background in ophthalmology. Of his opponents, Hassan Abdullah al-Nouri of the National Initiative for Administration and Change is promising to end corruption and oversee the return of the squeezed middle class, while Maher Abdul-Hafiz Hajjar of the People’s Will party vows to bolster a strong centralised state. Meanwhile cities lie in ruins, fanatics rule the countryside, thousands suffocate on poison gas. The election is being denounced as a sham by Western governments, which of course it is; but that doesn’t do much to distinguish it from many others. It’d be far more illuminating if the psephologists treated the Syrian election exactly as they do one of ours: reprinting hilarious Twitter reactions to Assad’s latest gaffe, breathlessly speculating on how the opening of Syrian embassies in Jordan and Lebanon to refugee voters will affect the result, sternly condemning rebel efforts to disrupt the poll in Aleppo, and, as Judgement Day nears, sounding the trumpets and rolling out the all-knowing swingometer. None of the imperialist politicians condemning the Syrian election are genuinely disappointed that it’s not being held in accordance with international democratic standards; the worry is that it works all too well as a satire of our own mystical procedures. An apotropaic rite, in which talking about the economy and corruption and foreign investment is used to ward off the lingering shadow of war.

These rituals always involve a symbolic element: the Egyptians slaughtered crocodiles as symbols of Seth; the mummers plays introduced cosmic themes of death and resurrection into the bawdy context of a punch-and-judy carnival. To challenge the election on the grounds that it’s a symbolic farce rather than an actual democratic procedure isn’t likely to get you very far; everyone already knows. Standing up in the middle of a mummers play and loudly insisting that it isn’t real and the figures swordfighting are only actors won’t earn you the awestruck gratitude of the audience. We have these rites for a reason; simply refusing to play the game is no less boring and pointless than getting swept up in its magic and voting for Labour. When a particular piece of magic doesn’t work the task isn’t to loudly declare the whole thing over, but to help its internal contradictions demonstrate precisely why that is the case. The election-rite only maintains its power through the pretence that everyone is in fact voting for the party they like the most, and that’s exactly what we should do.

Personally, I plan to vote for the Communities United Party. All their campaign material is wonderful: the gloriously confused national imagery of a bald eagle glaring proudly in front of a British flag; the creepy slogan ‘Strength in Unity’; the paunchy glum face of leader Kamran Malik, who once mistakenly identified himself as a communist in a typo-ridden press release. Their manifesto admits no particular ideology, moving directly from a grand pledge to return integrity and justice to politics to whining about parking fees. If they’re not to your taste there are others, some of them not even made up, all based on the same pathetic useless hope that’s so essential to the British economy. The National Liberals are dedicated to bringing independence to Kurdistan and Punjab by gaining seats on various local councils. The Wessex Democrats want to restore the old Anglo-Saxon kingdoms of England. The New Levellers Initiative demand a written constitution primarily so it can outlaw all roadbumps. Perhaps the best of all is the We Demand A Referendum Now party, formed in a split from UKIP. It campaigns on the sole issue of a referendum on EU membership, and according to a YouGov poll one third of all British adults intend to lend it their votes, despite its only fielding candidates in the West Midlands. It is the duty of all those who believe in real democracy against the representative mysticism of the present system to ensure that they have a Westminster majority next year.

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