Idiot Joy Showland

This is why I hate intellectuals

Month: September, 2016

Why I put PZ Myers in a hot air balloon

balloon

I don’t blame PZ Myers for not liking me; if I were him I wouldn’t like me either. Myers is a grown adult and an associate professor of biology at UM Morris, best known for not believing in God, for refusing to condemn bestiality, and for a 2008 stunt in which he desecrated a Communion host along with some pages from the Qu’ran. He runs a blog, Pharyngula, which he disconcertingly describes as ‘random ejaculations from a godless liberal.’ (It’s not inaccurate – his daily rants do elicit that same combination of pity and disgust as the sight of someone rubbing one out in public.) If I’m honest, Myers first came to my attention when he wrote a brief response to my unfair and uncharitable hitpiece on Neil deGrasse Tyson, describing me as ‘an anti-intellectual reverse-snob — he thinks he should be proud of being so blatantly pro-mystery and anti-science,’ an epithet so apt I had to put it on my masthead. More recently, he’s taken exception to my essay on the general intellectual tenor of the atheist movement in the Baffler, writing a counterblast titled ‘Sam Kriss, master of projection.’ I’m not surprised; I struck first. The essay itself isn’t really original; nothing ever is: the core argument is for the most part a recapitulation of Max Horkheimer’s critique in Theism and Atheism, inflected with Kierkegaard, my own non-invidious alethiology, and vitriol. It’s the vitriol that Myers seems to be most upset by – which is strange, as he’s certainly capable of dishing it out. In my introductory paragraph I run through a couple of atheism’s leading lights, and the sheer strangeness of their behaviour. Richard Dawkins, for instance, is ‘a wheeling lunatic, dizzy in his private world of old-fashioned whimsy and bitter neofascism.’ Chris Hitchens, ‘blinded by his fug of rhetoric, fell headlong into the Euphrates.’ And Myers I describe as ‘psychotic, screeching death from a gently listing hot air balloon.’

‘Well, actually…’ he writes. His whole ideology can be contained in that ‘well, actually.’ I’m not really all that interested here in defending the substance of my essay from Myers’s counterarguments, such as they are; it can stand for itself. His invocation of projection, pointing out that I ascribe various degrees of madness to all these prominent atheists while at the same time coming across a little unhinged myself, mostly just shows that he doesn’t really get it. I’ll only note that it’s interesting to see, after having routinely criticised atheism for being dismally pedantic – blind to metaphor and nuance, relentlessly fixated on the stupid binary of true and false, seized with the monstrous idea that the best statement is one which blithely repeats an existing state of affairs and does no more – that both Myers and his readership are utterly baffled by my comment on Hitchens. ‘It wasn’t a fug that killed him,’ Myers writes, ‘or even his own rhetoric, but cancer.’ Well, shit. One Owlmirror speculates: ‘Did Hitchens at some point literally fall in the Euphrates? I mean, he was a journalist in the right area… Or could it be a convoluted reference to Hitchens’ fondness for whiskey?’ Another wonders if I’m ‘somehow referring to Euphrates the Stoic.’ I’ll leave them to work it out; what I really want to zero in on is Myers’s response to my characterisation of himself. He writes: ‘Again, “screeching death” is also terribly inapt, and why has he put me in a hot air balloon?’

It’s usually bad form to explain your own metaphors; as well as resolving the meaning of a text back to boring old authorial intention, it strips away all the indeterminacy that makes a metaphor interesting in the first place. If you can cut through the metaphor and explain what you mean without any damage to that meaning, you should have just said what you meant in the first place. But this is a special case; the object of the metaphor is himself demanding to know why he’s in a hot air balloon, and it wouldn’t be fair to trap someone in a basket high above the earth without at least telling them why. So I’ll give PZ Myers the explanation I owe him. This is why I put him in a hot air balloon.

  1. It’s funny. No man is more ridiculous than the one trapped in a gently listing hot air balloon, and PZ Myers has been trapped in a gently listing hot air balloon all his life. The man has a fairly round head, its taper towards the chin smoothed out by that odobenine beard; his body seems to dangle from the rising roundness of his head. All I did was put him next to a mirror of himself. As I cut the ropes and the hot air balloon started to wobble towards the heavens his big round head wobbled too, poking out from over the lip of the basket, demanding that I let him down at once. But it was too late. Even if I’d wanted to, there was nothing I could do to save him: PZ Myers and his balloon were already high above me, diminishing into the sky’s glittering haze, bloating upwards to a higher truth, to punch the face of God.
  2. Atheism, of the type I describe in the Baffler piece, could be considered as a form of helplessness before the facts. The highest endeavour of humanity is to catalogue all the stupid details of our physical universe, to ingest them and then barf them out again; the human being is just a mechanism by which the universe repeats itself, for no good reason. We are not active, we do not form our own world; any attempt to do so is denounced as superstition and untruth. Atheists always love to present their interventions as being exceptionally brave, personal conscience against the follies of society, but in fact it’s hard to conceive of an ideology that’s more thoroughly passive. To give him his due, Myers distinguishes himself from some of his contemporaries with a stated commitment to social change; he’s broadly pro-feminist, he supports LGBT+ struggles, and so on, like so many social liberals he is at least opposed to the more morbid symptoms of the disease – but all this, as his response shows, remains in the context of that same godawful pedantry. His arguments for egalitarianism are epistemological arguments; like so many liberal Aufklärer he considers social justice to follow from the brute facts, rather than as something that seeks to abolish them. In other words, we are in the hot air balloon, knocked about by the winds, unable to steer our own course; all we can do is embrace the jetstreams as they knock our big blobby heads across the skies, because if nothing else they are at least factually true. Myers roars his power and indignation, and all the while his balloon tilts onwards to nowhere.
  3. Consider the loneliness of the man in the hot air balloon. Up on his lonely rootless perch all other figures slowly melt into their backdrop. Houses fade into cities, cities fade into a fuzzy urban smudge; above a certain height, even the birds will no longer visit him. The gaze of scientific rationality is abstract and disembodied; it sees the world of facts spread out beneath it, and knows that it can never come back down. PZ Myers is a monad. Like all dogmas atheism has its schisms and its cleavages, but Myers has managed to utterly alienate himself from his co-religionists: he’s disliked by the bigoted, bellicose contingent because of his attempts to disown the nerd misogyny and the general unpleasantness that surrounds organised atheism; he’s disliked by the social-justice contingent for his furious outbursts, his bloodthirstiness, his malice, his badly cloaked self-regard, his bellicose bigotry. PZ Myers fell into the sky. You can see him sometimes, on a clear day; a tiny dot hovering by the edge of a faded afternoon moon, his screams unheard, the ruler of his pelagic isolation.
  4. In 2008, the Brazilian priest Adelir Antônio de Carli died in a cluster ballooning accident. De Carli was a champion of the poor and destitute in his city of Paranaguá, defending beggars against police violence; he regularly carried out similar stunts to raise money for local charities. On his last balloon flight, de Carli found himself floating out over the ocean, where he lost contact with his ground team; months later, his body was found near an offshore oil rig. PZ Myer’s response was sheer gruesome delight; his only concern was that more priests weren’t dying thousands of miles from the ground. ‘I am imagining a day,’ he wrote, ‘when every priest in the world stands smiling beneath a great happy bobbing collection of many-colored balloons, and they all joyously loft themselves up, up into the sky, joyfully drifting away before the winds until they are just a tiny speck and then … gone.’ (This is a minor quibble, next to the sheer monstrosity of his fantasies, but nobody who uses ‘joyously’ and ‘joyfully’ in the same sentence should ever think of criticising someone else’s writing.) PZ Myers dreams of massacring Latin American Catholic priests, shooting them down with ‘an ultralight aircraft and a BB gun’; he dreams with the Escuadrón de la Muerte; it was only right that someone should put him in a balloon all for himself.
  5. He was rude to Tami, which is unforgivable.
  6. PZ Myers struggled at first, when I put him in the hot air balloon. All the usual complaints: no, I don’t want to go, don’t put me in there, I don’t like it. But he settled down once it started to rise; whatever the indignity, it’s fun to go on a hot air balloon ride – even if you are alone, even if you can never come back down. I put him there because I could, and he stayed there because that hot air balloon is where he’s always belonged.
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JK Rowling and the Cauldron of Discourse

discourse

Please understand that I’m not making any kind of criticism of her when I say that JK Rowling has abandoned the real world. When you have one billion dollars, it’s not really something you need any more; there’s no real need to explain why she chooses to live with magic instead. If nothing else, she inhabits herself. In Edinburgh’s rain-splattered streets familiar beings are at work. The troll in chains, for instance, grunting behind the wheel of the bus, pressed into its dreary service shuttling endlessly from Hanover Street to Holyrood and back by a simple first-year spell, Instrumentio, for the manipulation of hyponoiacs – because why else would the Lothian number 6 have ploughed so carelessly into that puddle just as she was walking past? You might think that Ocado being out of smoked salmon for three weeks running is a supply-chain problem, another of those market inefficiencies that together determine the course of our lives, but she knows better: when she scans down her receipt to see it replaced by mackerel again, she knows it’s an infestation of nifflers, scurrying rapacious all along the warehouse floor, snuffling up anything that looks like it might be valuable, cramming thick slices of translucent rippling salmon into their always-hungry bellies. When helicopters thrum overhead to ruin her sleep at three in the morning, JK Rowling knows that a werewolf’s on the loose; when politically engaged young people mass in front of Parliament she sees the crowded hoods of the Dementors, and shivers.

Things continue to work after their usual fashion; it’s house-elves in their willing legions that stitched all her clothes together, and worryingly megarhinic goblins judiciously sliding banknotes to her through the cash machine. She’s grateful for the advice of Hagrid and Dumbledore and all the others as they follow her around this greyed-out half-world, she’s glad that she’s not like all the boring and stupid people, that she has an active imagination and a rich inner life. Of course she knows that all these wizards and griffins are just stuff that she made up, that none of it is really real, that she prefers living with them because she can control it all to the last detail, while even one billion dollars won’t let you rearrange the universe at will. But things aren’t always so clear. She’s sure, occasionally, that Harry had always been there, telling her what to do. He told her to write the book. Then she went back into the house and wrote, It was nearly midnight, and Harry Potter was lying on his stomach in bed. It was not nearly midnight. Harry Potter was not lying on his stomach in bed.

This is about JK Rowling’s political interventions, of course, her pathological tendency to justify vague and insipid reaction by pointing out that some fictional wizards she thought up inside her own head also share her views, her apparent inability to think about the real world without first mapping it onto the one she invented. JK Rowling has variously pissed off Scottish nationalists and the Palestine solidarity movement and the Labour left, wielding a Dumbledore hand puppet that repeats everything she says in a slightly lower voice, but she’s also pissed off a significant number of her own fans, and that’s where you have to start.

In 2007, Rowling was widely celebrated for announcing that her character Dumbledore was gay, despite the fact that there’s nothing to suggest this in the text itself, where she had an opportunity to actually advocate for queer issues; this year, when she told her fans that their personal theories were all incorrect and another character, Sirius Black, was not gay, they were outraged. We grew up with these characters, they insisted, we decide how to read them. JK Rowling is over, they declared, as if she hadn’t already been dead since Barthes. (Or longer: there’s a reason every testament is final, why God never actively intervenes in the world once His holy book is set down, why the medieval Kabbalists had to invent reader-response theory and the Catholic Church headcanons.) What’s clear is that absolutely nobody involved has ever read a word of Derrida.

There are many definitions of deconstruction, none of them particularly good, but you could do worse than to describe it as a mode of reading that refuses to forget the textuality of the text, the fact that it’s a series of marks on a material substrate that were written and which can be read, copied, misunderstood, ignored, or destroyed, that before it conjures up a private universe it exists as a shared object in this one. As a sop to her LGBT+ critics, Rowling shortly afterwards revealed that in her books lycanthropy is actually a metaphor for AIDS. Her position on all this is clear: she came up with these stories, she owns them, and long after they’ve slipped into the wider discourse they still remain essentially hers, essentially private. On Twitter, her header image was briefly two lines of text reading ‘I know what Dumbledore would do. Deal with it.’ The true text of Harry Potter is not on the printed page, but between her ears, to be altered whenever she wants; in her Platonist cosmology fictional events have a shining reality that is all their own, which emanates from out her mouth. She’s following the fandom-headcanon model of literary theory, but here hers is the largest, most bloated head, and the only one that counts. It’s impossible to read this denial of the text anything other than an abrogation of her rights and duties as an author. Sometimes dedicated fans whip themselves up into such a frenzy over their favourite culture-commodities that they act as if the stories were real, centring themselves in a private world that does not belong to them, and JK Rowling does the exact same thing. As soon as she moves to keep hold of her creation, it gains a terrifying, spectral autonomy. JK Rowling is not the author of the Harry Potter books; she is their biggest fan.

It’s in this context that Rowling’s bizarre forays into politics, her marshalling of the powers of literary enchantment for the most banal and miserable of mundane causes, start to make a kind of sense. When she stridently opposed the academic boycott of Israel called for by Palestinian civil society, she did so through a lengthy exegesis on the moral message of her own books, eventually concluding that BDS is wrong because the magical wizards wouldn’t like it. (To be fair, she admits that Harry might have started out with natural pro-Palestine sympathies, but maintains that by the end of the last book he would have grown up and learned to accept that Israel has a right to exist.) When Britain voted to leave the European Union, her public response was that she’d ‘never wanted magic more,’ presumably so she could cast a spoiling spell on millions of ballots. Her opposition to the leadership of Jeremy Corbyn seems to be based on the usual confused half-ideas about electability, as if the party’s right wing and its generic brand of watered-down Toryism hadn’t shown itself to be a losing proposition twice in the last decade, but it’s mostly supported by the fact that, as she insisted, ‘Corbyn. Is. Not. Dumbledore.’ Which is true: Jeremy Corbyn simply isn’t as good as the wise old magician who doesn’t exist, having shown himself to be entirely incapable of casting even the most basic of spells, and utterly failed to function as a universally adored avatar of infallible good; he’s capable of occasionally holding views contrary to those of JK Rowling even when she doesn’t want him to, and he didn’t even have the good grace to give her one billion dollars. None of this is, strictly speaking, analogy; in almost every case she’s responding to other, lesser fans to say that their analogies are inadmissible. In analogy a fictional scenario acts as a map for real events; something intersubjective and mutually agreed upon can explicate (or, if you know how to do it right, confuse) an objective situation. For Rowling, the situation is reversed: real events are trespassing on her characters, the real world is only an imperfect map for Harry Potter.

Rowling’s politics didn’t create those of the Harry Potter fantasy – she is, remember, not an author but a fan. Instead, the books themselves distilled all the latent fascism out of the political mainstream, boiling the discourse into a heavy green slime, and she drank it all down in one gulp. People sometimes try to play a fun game in which they match the Hogwarts houses to political ideologies, usually ending up with a ranked list of what ideas they like and don’t like (Gryffindors are nice social liberals like me! Donald Trump is a Voldemort!). This is the wrong way of looking at it; any division into types must itself exemplify a particular type, so that the four together express a single Weltanschauung. Gryffindor are fascists according to fascist ideology itself, the ideal-ego of the fascist subject: a natural elite, strong, noble, honourable, yellow-haired, and respectful of difference, but only within strict limits. Slytherin is the same figure as she appears to the outside world, her negative aspects projected onto a despised other. Hufflepuff is the fascist’s ideal ordinary political subject, dull and stolid, but essentially good-hearted; Ravenclaw is the indeterminate other that resists assimilation into this conceptual matrix, the thing that constitutes the order through its exclusion, the figure that in the early twentieth century was identified with the body of the Jew.

Harry Potter is a profoundly reactionary fable; its fantasy isn’t really about dragons and broomsticks but the tired old fantasy of the British class system. Harry Potter is the petit-bourgeois boy who goes to a magical Eton (one that, incidentally, runs on actual slave-labour), faces a few tribulations along his way, but eventually finds himself admitted to the ranks of the aristocracy. The central moral dilemma is one of inequality – what do you do when you have one class of people who, by dint of their extraordinary powers, are innately superior to the society surrounding them? (This goes some way to explaining its popularity: Harry Potter is a book for people who are very pleased with themselves because they love books and love to read, without any judgements on what’s being read; it was never for children and always for the bored 29-year-old human resources workers they would grow into. To read Harry Potter uncritically is to adopt the posture of a Hufflepuff.) The crude, cartoon fascism of Voldemort and the Death Eaters answers that they must rule, killing and enslaving the lesser races. The good characters, meanwhile, want the wizarding world to coil up into its own superiority and seethe in its own ressentiment; every adult is seemingly employed by a government bureaucracy whose sole purpose is to maintain a system of magical apartheid. But remember that these are not actually opposing factions, only varying perspectives of a single ideological object; the difference between Dumbledore and Voldemort is as illusory as that between white nationalism and white supremacism. When JK Rowling announces what Dumbledore would do, she’s announcing the politics of the entire work, its good and evil figures all rolled into one. This is what fandom-hermeneutics fails to understand: you can’t introject a single character sliced off from its text; you can only swallow the whole thing. When JK Rowling ventriloquises her friendly wizard to say that Palestine solidarity or socialism make the Hogwarts man feel very sad, watch her head spin round to reveal the pale leering mouth of the Dark Lord.

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