Dan Hodges, lost in reality
by Sam Kriss
Dan Hodges – formerly of the Telegraph, now at the Mail on Sunday, but always, from the very first instant, predestined for Hell – is not the most vicious man in British comment journalism. He’s vicious enough: a recent full-page spread springs to mind, published shortly after the murder of Jo Cox, in which Jeremy Corbyn appears in a coffin, with the headline ‘Labour MUST kill vampire Jezza.’ But the real monsters of the field, people like Katie Hopkins or Richard Littlejohn, have a kind of icy interstellar hatred for everything good and just in life, something poor plodding Dan could never really muster. He’s not the most obnoxious (Howard Jacobson), not the most outrightly racist (Rod Liddle), not the most blundering (Camilla Long), not the most credulous (George Eaton), he doesn’t have the most unpleasantly shaped head (a tossup between Stephen Pollard and David Aaronovitch) or the most lifeless prose (Simon Jenkins), he’s not even the most distantly removed from the concerns of any sane readership (Polly Toynbee). Dan Hodges’ honour is to be the absolute thickest person in the UK media.
Examples abound. There’s the time he seemed to seriously be wondering why nuclear war is a bad thing; there’s the time he insisted that Labour criticising abusive workplace conditions at Sports Direct was a bad idea because it’s ‘a company favoured by millions of Britons,’ there’s the thoughtless antisemitism shining through the empty-gesture (((echo))) in his handle, there’s his decision that a Tory front-bencher was actually a great guy because nobody he had dinner with could be an evil man, there’s his tendency to believe any weird old lie about Jeremy Corbyn (or indeed myself for that matter) as long as it’s passed to him by a trusted source, there’s the fact that he thought people would want a Falklands War-themed board game for only one lonely player, etc, etc, etc, world without end. Still, for the purposes of this essay I really just want to talk about one particular instance. In a Telegraph column last December, titled ‘Donald Trump is an outright fascist who should be banned from Britain today’ (always so brave), Hodges compared the ongoing American nightmare to a popular alternate-history Amazon TV show, in which the Nazis win the Second World War. ‘Donald Trump,’ he wrote, ‘wants to be the man in the high castle. Ban him. Ban him now.’ The Daily Telegraph used to pride itself on maintaining a desperate, fetishistic attachment to high culture against the common slop of TV and Hollywood; apparently not any more. As anyone who’s read Philip K Dick’s The Man in the High Castle knows, the titular character isn’t some dictator; it’s Hawthorne Abendsen, the author of a novel within the novel, in which Hitler is defeated by the Allies. It’s a slip-up roughly on the level of saying that a visit to Buckingham Palace made him feel like Rebecca from Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca, or that he loves playing as Zelda in The Legend of Zelda, or that he likes to pick his pineapples right from the conifer forests where they grow. Dan Hodges, you must understand, is extremely thick.
But it’s not just him. Over the weekend, this space’s perpetual enemy Nick Cohen wrote another piece on the extremism of Donald Trump, in which he notes that ‘Anglo-Saxon democracies’ enjoy producing alternate histories, so that ‘audiences can flatter themselves that they would never have collaborated with Robert Harris’s Fatherland or Amazon’s Man in the High Castle.’ Call me a totalitarian or an old-fashioned culture-grouch, but I think anyone who refers to ‘Amazon’s Man in the High Castle‘ should have all their writing fingers snapped. The possibility these incidents raise is horrifying. We’re in a time of profound danger, and it seems that the people tasked with mediating political events to the population and structuring the national dialogue are morons and illiterates, people who have never read a word of Philip K Dick in their fucking lives.
The Man in the High Castle is not a dystopian novel; it’s a utopia, the only kind of utopia that it’s possible to write. Our heroes live in a world under ruthless fascist domination, but in secret they pass around a novel called The Grasshopper Lies Heavy, a fantastical history in which Britain and America defeat the Axis. This still isn’t a much better world, and it certainly isn’t ours: after Hitler is tried and executed, a new cold war breaks out between the United States and an increasingly brutal and racist British Empire. But it’s not just a fantasy either. As Abendsen reveals at the novel’s end, he didn’t write the book at all; it was written by the oracle of the I Ching, and the oracle wrote it to let a world know that their reality is not truly real. ‘Germany and Japan lost the war.’ But Dick’s novel does not simply affirm our reality against the fictionality of the text – as Patricia Waugh points out in her study of metafiction, these ’embedded strata which contradict the pre-suppositions of the strata immediately above or below’ allow us to ‘explore the possible fictionality of the world outside the literary text,’ one which is ‘no longer a world of eternal verities but a series of constructions, artifices, impermanent structures.’ Mise en abyme, its depths bottomless. This is a recurring trope in Dick’s literature (see Ubik, see The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch) – the layering on of stratified realities until all ontologies, including those of the reader, break down. This is why he’s among the most important writers of the twentieth century. Metafiction is utopian, precisely because rather than presenting us with a shoddy image of the good life in its totality for us to contemplate while trapped across the border between dreams and waking life, it reveals that we were in dreams all along, that like Juliana Frink and Nobusuke Tagomi we are ourselves in a work of dystopian literature, a fiction that for all its crushing horror is still contingent. In Adorno’s formulation, from Negative Dialectics, ‘Woe speaks: Go.’ Within our woe the good life can only be a negation; utopia can only be a Becoming without programme, pointed towards the not-this, a voyage beyond the mapped domains of experience.
But Dan Hodges and Nick Cohen have never read Philip K Dick, even as they exist in his world. Instead, their call, and the call from pragmatic opinion writers the world over, is for people – and the left especially – to grow up and accept reality. ‘Labour won’t win an election until it stops believing in fairytales,’ wrote Hodges, in a frankly embarrassing article full of bradycardia-inducingly terrible sporting analogies. Jeremy Corbyn can never take power in this country; that’s the reality. Socialism is a doomed project; sorry, kid, but them’s the breaks. Life is wretched, and will continue in its wretchedness forever; it is what it is. But Dan Hodges and Nick Cohen have never read Philip K Dick.
Consider, for a moment, what this reality is. Hodges and Cohen have just inadvertently admitted to us that they spend an inordinate amount of time in front of the TV, powering through Amazon box sets until they arrive in a world where The Man in the High Castle was written by a room full of of corporate executives. And it’s just one hallucination among others: these are people who watch PMQs every week, who obsessively follow the minutiae of parliamentary gossip, who receive comfortable salaries from their newspapers – in other words, people who are comfortably insulated at every stage from life as it’s actually lived, who exist in something that almost anyone would recognise as among the most impermanent of all textual constructions. But this reality, concentrated in the doughy bodies of a few comment-pages philistines, is then transmitted outwards to their readership, through the deeply stupid articles they write. Tlön-like, it begins to code the phenomenal world. As far as they’re concerned, their soap-bubble is the truth. And in a sense it is, but the thing about reality is that it’s constantly capable of stratifying and reshaping itself. They don’t even know it, but by blotting out his name they’ve landed squarely in Philip K Dick’s kaleidoscope of universes. And then they talk to us about cold hard political reality.
As Tom Whyman writes, ‘the partisans of reality today are in truth complete fantasists.’ Political reality is not a given. From the standpoint of feudalism, our current society would be utterly inconceivable, as impossible to think as a fully liberated one is for us. Reality is contested and constituted within politics, not just something to be described but something that’s reshaped at every turn. If everyone believes that two plus two equals five nothing changes, but if everyone believes that I am the king of France, a new constitution will have to be written with me in it. This plasticity need not always be a positive – elsewhere, I’ve written that we live in a time when ‘loony minority propositions like leaving the European Union can suddenly surge to victory, when any monster can apparently wrench itself out of the imagination and into reality.’ But then we’ve always lived in such a time; the world becomes what it is by the successive formulation and attainment of impossibilities. This is not to uphold a false utopia, to say that we can stop worrying and a Corbyn premiership will fix everything – the impossible that creates itself tends, more often than not, to be the worst. It’s only to say that with so little that is solid, there are few things that can be said with certainty, except that there is no creature more stupid than Dan Hodges.