The strangling of nonsense
by Sam Kriss
We live in the desert now. If this is indeed a desert. If this is indeed life. Desert, because the sand dunes ripple off so far into the distance that it’s hard to believe that these low wobbles ever end, or that there are any oceans left, or that there’s any non-desert to provide enough of a contrast for us to say that we live in the desert now. Life, because we’ve lately taken to propping up the bodies of the dead with sticks and crutches, whatever we can find, and talking to them as if they are still alive, with the result that there’s now some confusion as to whether we’re not among their number. Alive or otherwise, there’s no end. I ate a lizard today. (Today? The sun never moves. Maybe I’m still eating it. Maybe hundreds of years have since passed.) I saw a snout emerge from one of the desert’s innumerable tiny cloacae and I pounced. I ripped its head off between hand and teeth. I crunched down the bones, slurped up the skin, everything. It was good; this is what we are now, the death of lizards. Strange to think that once I was an investment banker, or a lecturer in biochemistry, or a hard-working migrant labourer, or whatever it was. Something. Maybe I was always like this: bones against the baking wind, born a gasping skeleton.
Still I remember, however dimly, a world that existed before: wet grass, barking dogs, the smell of buttered toast, something called England. A story, one that ends with me here, eating lizards in the desert under a corpse-still sun.
Three things happened at the start of this story. In the town of Strood in Kent, a man hung some St George’s flags from his house. This happened without comment; it was assumed to be comment enough. Then, the Labour party’s Shadow Attorney General, who was in the area to campaign for a local by-election, tweeted a photo of the house. This also happened without comment; it was also assumed to be comment enough. Then she was fired from her shadow cabinet position by a party leader apparently overcome with fury, while the owner of the house briefly became a minor political celebrity, and a right-wing newspaper printed a six-point manifesto he’d penned, outlining a no-nonsense plan for a better Britain. This was commented on widely.
What could all this mean? Begin with the flags. National flags began as vexilloids and standards; they existed so that forces in battle would know which group of weary battered men they were supposed to kill and which they were to defend. At sea they were used to identify ships, protecting them from one gang of pirates while endangering them from several others. Rochester was not the site of pitched warfare; foreign privateers were not sailing up the River Medway to pound its fishing villages with cannon-fire or plunder the gold from its monasteries, there was no confusion over whether the towns and suburbs of Kent were part of England or not – but the presence of the flags could be read as suggesting that this was, whether in a literal or metaphorical sense, precisely the case. The St George Cross had its origins in the Second and Third Crusades, even in the 21st century it was a form that could never be entirely separated from violence against Muslims. The red cross on the white field represented the taking up of the cross, but there are other possibilities. Hung above the doorway of a house, its redness recalls the blood of the Passover lamb smeared over the lintels of the righteous, so that the Angel of Death would not take the first-born sons within, knowing that the people there are of the chosen tribe. The defacement, the grubbying of a clean white square, indicates the sense of a loss, a distant primordial wholeness, a racial whiteness, the whiteness of inorganic unity or death before life, the seething white fungi that cocooned the bodies of the dead before the desert came. The mathematical intersection of the red stripes forms a statement of affiliation and unity, the common purpose of the nation-as-body, or the subsuming of a corrupted body in the precise and transcendent national ideal; their straightness implies an instrumentalised rationality, the desire for a rational social order, the desire to fix the line of the Earth’s orbit from an abstract Outside. Or, viewed differently, as four white squares against a red field, the impossibility of communication, the separateness, the inviolability of a two-storey house in an English market town. Some of this is nonsense; all of it is true.
Then the photo. Class snobbery: look at this grotesque working class stereotype; his flags, his white van, his terraced house, his petty fascism. Or blank neutral reportage: nationalist feeling is on display here as the by-election takes place. These were the readings culled from the teeming possibilities of the moment, seemingly at random; there are others. All this happened at a time when space had become a flattened prism; every landscape existed only insofar as it had the potential to become a photograph: filtered, tinted, bounced from orbital satellite to orbital satellite without ever touching the ground again. This scene must be fixed in a photographic eternity. If I tweet this, some part of me might escape my death. Maybe the touring MP was momentarily transfixed by the composition of the phenomena in front of her, the abstract lines and squares of the flags shading into the architectural abstraction if the lines and squares of the house, sinking into the engineered abstraction in the lines and squares of the white van; maybe she saw in it a tiny fragment of eternity. Maybe she knew that it prefigured the desert.
Finally the manifesto. It went like this:
Welfare state: Work for four years after you leave school before you can claim benefits.
Immigration: Copy the Aussies. If people show up uninvited, send them back.
Transport: Public transport costs are too high. More investment in roads too.
Education: Better discipline. Kids are too mouthy now, not like when we had the cane.
Justice: Tougher sentences for murderers. And jail those who burn the poppy.
Taxes: A killer for self-employed people like me. Start-ups need more breaks.
There’s no point commenting on it now. The only interesting thing in all this vague fascism is how the newspaper described it: a no-nonsense plan for a better Britain. They were right. There’s no nonsense here at all.
Derrida writes of the curious tendency that language has to increase simultaneously the reserves of random indetermination and the powers of coding and overcoding, of control and self-regulation. This competition between randomness and code disturbs the very systematicity of the system, even while it regulates the system’s play in its instability. It’s the tension between overcoding and decoding that makes meaning possible, it’s through the internal displacement within the systematicity of structure that structure can continue to function. Meaning can only expand through a traversal over the expanses of nonsense that surround it; it’s this gap of nonsense that allows words and things to breathe and change, to take on new meanings, to mean different things to different people at different times. Derrida makes a similar gesture in Force and Signification in his discussion of Flaubert’s desire to write a book about nothing. This book about nothing is figured as the pure Book, the necessary precondition for all writing; not the absence of this or that, but the absence of everything in which all presence is announced. Every act of writing is at once an attempt at reaching this Book, what Verlaine calls the law of the earth, and the earth’s true Bible, and a defacement of it. Nonsense is despoiled by coding, and disturbs its structures, but there can be no writing or meaning without nonsense, no law without nonsense first.
What could it mean to form a language without nonsense? When nonsense is extinct there’s no separation between words and things: a flag is a flag, without associations, locked in a hold as tight and still as death. Kierkegaard tells a story in his Concluding Unscientific Postscript: a man escapes from a mental institution and into town, but worries that he’ll be returned to his cell if he is discovered to be mad. Deciding that he needs to convince everyone by the objective truth of what [he] says, that all is in order as far as [his] sanity is concerned, he responds to every question with the statement that the earth is round. This is, from what I can remember, true. It’s also madness. The extreme of sanity is madness, the extreme of code is nonsense – but not the same madness or the same nonsense. As Freud discovered, madness speaks itself; the symptom is a linguistic sign. Repeating that the world is round says nothing, in the same way that a language without nonsense can only say nothing. Kids are too mouthy now. Too much nonsense, too much speech.
In the end the Rochester by-election was won by UKIP, giving them their second parliamentary seat, and setting off a general panic that included the dismissal of Emily Thornberry, the shadow cabinet member who’d tweeted the photo of the house. At the same time the Labour party overhauled its immigration policy. When asked what he felt when he saw a white van, Labour leader Ed Miliband responded, Respect. Overcoding is a deadly contagion. The left grumbled darkly about a UKIPisation of the political discourse, but there was nothing of the sort. UKIP was only the phenomenon; the strangulation of nonsense and all its freedoms was begun by the mainstream parties – Labour especially. They displaced the blame for the slow enshittening of everything onto the figure of the immigrant. They turned politics into an exercise in code and branding. They declared the class war over. After all, class is a kind of nonsense, a word without a tangible thing. After that, what did it matter that Dan Ware, the flag-draped van-owner, was – despite his shaved head and his commitment to the sign of the poppy – not of the working classes, in terms of his relation to capital, but a business owner and certified petit-bourgeois? He was the designated voice of the proletariat, a proletariat ranged in opposition to black and brown people despite being largely composed of black and brown people, because he spoke without nonsense.
In the months that followed the Rochester by-election, the campaign against nonsense was executed flawlessly. Ed Miliband spent a week crouched in the back of a white van, gleefully chucking England flags at crowds of cheering supporters, and ducks in the pond, and the cold emptiness of the night. Schoolchildren were required to learn core British values that could only be expressed through grunts and flailing hand gestures. The Royal Navy was deployed in the Mediterranean to sink refugee boats with RGM-84 anti-ship missiles. When the general election results came in, no party had an overall majority. On a cold May morning, the Labour-UKIP coalition was sealed with a handshake in front of Number 10. Everyone had what they wanted. Nigel Farage had finally won his political legitimacy, Ed Miliband had finally reconnected with working-class voters. And then the desert came. When I ate the lizard its tail wouldn’t stop twitching; even after I’d bitten right through the head this flailing panic didn’t stop. I don’t know why. There’s a lot I don’t know any more. But at least there’s no nonsense in the desert. From one blank burning horizon to the other, no nonsense at all.