How crying children conquered the world

by Sam Kriss

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I write about politics for Vice, and as a result a lot of people tend to call me a cunt. Sometimes, this happens in old-fashioned material reality, at which point I’m forced to immediately wrestle my interlocutor to the ground and snip off a lock of their hair, or else risk losing my honour within the clan. Mostly, however, it happens online. I understand why this happens: it happens because what I do is, essentially, morally indefensible. It’s not as if the people who call me a cunt are interrupting a peaceable conversation on the issues of the day between myself and a few like-minded souls. Because I have a platform, one which aggressively promotes itself, what I do is strange and hideous: I roll down someone’s street atop a huge, garish, horse-drawn float, surrounded by falteringly mechanical dancers and accompanied by a terrible backing track, to scream my opinions through a megaphone directly into their windows. What can I say? It’s a living. I try to mitigate this basic evil by being as entertaining or as insightful as my abilities allow, or by talking about something that I think is important, or that my readership will be able to relate to – but my efforts can’t change the fact that what I do is, at core, stupid, selfish, and wrong. People call me a cunt, and very often I disagree with their proximal reasons for having done so, but it’s hard to conclude that they’re entirely wrong. This is why I tend not to reply to them: I feel, constantly, a deep and keening sense of shame. I hide my face from people at bus stops. I need six Percocet and a punch to the face before I can sleep at night, or else ghastly fairground music echoes through my head and I soak my sheets in sweat until morning. I don’t know what I am, but I do know this: I am not a man.

It’s unsettling, then, how many of my colleagues in the commentariat have such a different reaction to being correctly identified by people who aren’t as famous as they are. I understand that when you’ve been running a column for several years, it can be hard to find new things to meaningfully talk about. The existence of the readership slowly falls away: there’s just you, and your editor, and an entire world grimly reconfiguring itself into nothing but raw material, dross and scoriae to be intelligently dissected every few days. So when your readership suddenly unconceals itself from view, by calling you a cunt, you go: aha, there’s my next column right there. Because you’ve forgotten that they could be anything other than the object of your finely honed discourse. Because you’ve forgotten, in the mire of your narcissism, that those faceless hordes have human bodies attached, and you’re not necessarily any better than they are. Because you’ve forgotten that, while you might have an editor and a salary and a very nice house in London, absolutely nobody wants to read about how upset you are that someone called you a cunt on the internet. And yet these columns keep getting written, each of them long and lily-white and, in accordance with the classical form of the colonnade, absolutely identical. Not just that: the same people write the same column over and over again, as if anything new is being said, as if anything worthwhile is being added to the discourse. Insulated from social reality, a whole class of people have come to believe that what the public really cares about is their tiny paltry personal grievances. It’s not really language; it’s far closer what Lacan refers to as ‘the cry’: a baby’s scream, an animal’s howl, an unsignifying, inrotrojective, psychotic whine of displeasure. These people are children.

I should point out that this is a sickness endemic and unique to broadsheet writers: people who write for the tabloids know that they exist to galvanise the converted and to inflame the outsiders; when they get attacked for their cruel and thoughtless opinions they know it’s the sign of a job well done. Broadsheet writers, who are far more stupid, actually think that what they do has merit: they don’t just want people to be swayed by the force of their argument and the intricacies of their prose; they want to be loved. Freud could tell you what comes next. When that love fails to materialise, when ordinary people who don’t even work for a newspaper dare to point out that what they’ve said is actually thoroughly moronic, we’re due another thousand-word corrective diatribe against saddos on social media. Which is a strange way of putting things – it might be pathetic to waste time tweeting anonymously at some big-name newspaper writer, but it’s even more pathetic for the writer to then spend several hours hashing out a self-regarding response, to bleat on about how the trolls don’t make them mad and they’re laughing actually. Of course, the difference is that the troll is not paid for their labour, while the broadsheet writer is. To which the only sane conclusion is that while the writer might not be so pathetic, the entire system by which contemporary capitalist society allocates value is in total collapse.

Case in point: Howard Jacobson. I’ve written about him before, so some of this might be familiar ground, but he’s contributed the most recent example of the genre, and he really is the worst: the smuggest, the most self-satisfied, the most unthinkingly and uncomprehendingly disagreeable. Howard Jacobson is a Booker prize-winning hack novelist who has, over an illustrious thirty-five-year career, repeatedly written the same book about how Jews who don’t support ethnic cleansing in Palestine are all self-hating neurotics. He also writes the worst newspaper column currently published anywhere in the world. His latest effort bills itself as being a set of ‘rules for online debate’, but don’t be fooled. He starts with a fiddly segment about irony and sincerity, a cheap plastic knockoff of Theodor Adorno’s The Essay as Form, but it’s only a clever little way of covering his own arse. All he’s saying is this: ‘I am better than you, so please don’t be mean to me or any of my famous friends.’ The piece is an extended sneer against ‘those who cling like drowning rats to the coat-tails of any writer who can swim.’ Which is an ungodly chimera of a metaphor: if you’re in the water with the rats, then you have presumably also fled the sinking ship. It’s also oddly familiar. Three months ago, Howard Jacobson wrote, in a separate column, that ‘people for good reason denied a platform of their own cling to the coat-tails of those published in the daylight.’ A desperate recapitulation of the same image, a circular motion going nowhere: it doesn’t so much suggest the artful strokes of an adept swimmer as the thrashing of someone about to drown.

Here are some of Howard Jacobson’s rules for online debate.

Lesson No 4: Don’t marvel that publications give space to the particular worst living writer you have your sights fixed on today. It sounds like sour grapes. Of course it is sour grapes, but you should try to conceal it. The last thing a person whose only outlet is an online forum should draw attention to is the envy consuming him from the fingers down.

Lesson No 8: A writer who has more words than you have isn’t ipso facto a show-off. Ditto a writer who has read a couple of books and is otherwise cultivé. By bleating about his or her erudition you are merely allowing your own ignorance to embarrass you. It should.

Lesson No 9: Don’t imagine that a word you say is going to make a blind bit of difference. You wouldn’t be tweeting poison if you were otherwise able to solicit interest. But if you must fight a losing battle try at least to be sophisticated. Telling a writer you despise that he has his head up his arse will only make him feel good about himself. Better his arse, after all, than yours.

This seems like it could be summed up in ten words: ‘I have a platform and you don’t, nyer nyer nyer.’ Having an outlet makes you important and worthwhile; being without one is akin to death. (Interesting, then, that Howard Jacobson himself once railed against the supposed vapidity of celebrities considerably more famous than he is, writing that ‘I am for banning the phrase “sour grapes” […] There is, quite simply, no life of the intellect when we can think of no motive for criticism but sour grapes.’ Funny how the times change, isn’t it?) Except the people Jacobson is complaining about do have a platform; if they didn’t, he wouldn’t even be aware of their existence. There’s a lot that’s deeply corrosive about communications technology, and most of the stuff about everyone having a voice is nonsense, but it has made it harder for mediocrities like Howard Jacobson to successfully abstract themselves from the world. All this is bluster, the disguised panic of someone whose plinth is slowly being eroded, the rage of a man used to making pronouncements from on high suddenly finding himself at ground level with everyone else. So what else does he have? His erudition, his cultivation, his self-satisfaction. Here’s a general rule: a writer who is this pleased with himself is never a good writer. The history of great literature is populated by writers inordinately suspicious of words in general and their own words in particular. Chaucer ends the Canterbury Tales with a retraction of his ‘translacions and enditynges of worldly vanitees’; Shakespeare has Prospero abjure the art of stagecraft and vow to ‘drown my book.’ Beckett, probably the greatest writer of the twentieth century, worries that ‘you would do better, at least no worse, to obliterate texts than to blacken margins, to fill in the holes of words till all is blank and flat and the whole ghastly business looks like what it is, senseless, speechless, issueless misery.’ Meanwhile, Howard Jacobson crows that he knows more words than you do. I’m not saying that I am a better writer than he is. I am saying that a dog pissing against a tree is a better writer than he is.

This is where we are: the people whose job it is to have thoughts for mass consumption are not just stupid but thoughtless. How did we get here? It’s not that crying children seized the world by force, it’s just that rulers, whenever challenged, always reveal themselves to be essentially infantile. In a period of secular decline such as ours, what this looks like is an era of ultimogeniture. It shouldn’t be surprising that, under capitalism, the task of moderating the general discourse has gone to a pack of overgrown babies; it is surprising how little consciousness they have of what they are. Writers have always secretly despised their public; this is nothing new, and should broadly be encouraged. When the appointed greats write about how much they despise their public, when they seemingly do very little else, it’s a sign that something has exhausted itself, that what we’re watching is the last recursive twitch of a long-dead corpse. There is still writing, there are still opinions, there is still goodness. But not here.

(PS: It’s entirely possible that Jacobson’s repeated use of the phrase ‘the worst living writer’ is entirely coincidental. But it also formed the title of my first post on him, and given that this blog is occasionally read and shared by people in writing and publishing and other allied trades, it’s not inconceivable that he’s read it. In which case I should point out that it’s customary, when responding to a critique, to refer to it directly. For all his sins, Slavoj Žižek is not afraid to say my name: he actually believes in the kind of honest engagement that Jacobson emptily trumpets; he believes that he is right and I am wrong, and that his case isn’t weakened by pointing directly to mine. If you’re reading this, Howard, man the fuck up.)