An idiot’s manifesto
by Sam Kriss
Why should we hear about body bags and deaths? It’s not relevant. So why should I waste my beautiful mind on something like that?
(Materials brought in evidence at the trial of Barbara Bush)
Not too long after the election, I was walking downtown on 6th Avenue in Manhattan when I passed a sign, frosted into the window of a fast-casual Mexican chain restaurant, that said ‘Queso at Chipotle: not fake news.’
That sign made me an idiot.
At home, certain brands of chocolate bar are Brexity, with a chalky stodge in the bite that sticks, like the guilt you feel over your unvisited and dying relatives, implacably to the front of your teeth. An advert for HSBC bank is solidly Remain.
They made me hungry. Everything only makes me hungry for idiocy.
To say that everything is political is no longer an insurrectionary act, not now that everything really is. Every swollen mosquito of a transnational corporation has a codified set of progressive values. Every conversation in pubs or coffee shops ends up being about politics. Every online dating service promises to pair you with some stranger who shares your opinions or will fight you over them; the pretence that you’re in it for something as absurd as sex is just a euphemistic fiction. How are you meant to deal with the unacceptable politics of your extended kin at Christmas? Let some bright-eyed bores help you, with their handy online guides. Family dinners everywhere now follow the same messy form: two scripted one-person performance pieces trying to share a single stage, a discordance kaleidoscoped into infinity. Children, I hear, are constantly offering wise pronouncements on the state of the world, castigating the stupidity of our leaders in ways that seem strangely un-childlike, with none of the good sharp mockery of a playground insult, but judicious, rooted firmly in good morals and good policy. ‘Liberating ourselves, expressing ourselves at whatever cost – a form of blackmail and ultimatum.’ Chicken sandwiches, sports shoes, coffee machines, craft supplies, burritos, and sitcoms are political, sold politically, consumed or not consumed politically. Music videos are political. The personal is political.
Not me though. I’m an idiot.
As Marxists, we’re long accustomed to the practice of digging around under the foundations of things, scrabbling to find an essence which will always be ineluctably political. Domination with its leprous grimace, bubbling away under a blank façade of mere social life. We find the hidden propaganda in films and TV; the material basis of history; the networks of social relations that dominate our lives in the workplace, in the streets, or in the bedroom. Everything that parades itself to the senses is a crust over the deep subterranean well of the political. Once the political nature of things is made overt, we’ve been announcing for decades, we will all be one step closer to being free.
The well has become a geyser now, and we have never been further from our freedom.
Walter Benjamin wrote that fascism is the aestheticisation of politics, and communism politicises art. Well, we’ve politicised art; every glue-gun assemblage of hunched material, every glorified mirror in mixed or digital media, declares itself as an affront to Trexit and Brump. But where’s our communism?
It would be foolish to assume not only that there’s still something more profound beneath it all, but that what lies beneath is still more politics.
Today, to abandon the world of politics is the last, the only, and the truest political act.
Yes, we know. Behind all this relentless opinion-having about politics there’s a relentless entrepreneurship of the self, which has to adorn itself with all the right stances for whatever demographic it’s targeting, and the more often you repeat them the higher your market-assigned price. (Do you support the good things? Do you oppose the bad things? Then what sort of a person are you? Hot wet indignity, the psychotic injury of someone who can’t accept that every game always has an opposing team.) Better to leave every evil in its place, so you can oppose it, than to overturn them and be left bereft. And behind this brutalised vision of the self are the laws of neoliberal political economy, which haven’t just stamped themselves in our flesh but sealed us in, like the bindings that used to make infants’ soft heads grow into tall and alarming shapes, since before we were born. But you’ve not uncovered anything, just come back to where we started. You’re on a Möbius strip; there is no other side. And don’t you ever find it boring?
Yes, we know. Complacency is a luxury. Irony is a luxury. In this moment of crisis, in this moment of opportunity, to do nothing, to fail to have a position on the political shoes or the political sandwiches, to not preen yourself into a Good Person in a cruel world, to not talk about the latest deprivation over coffee and wine and hemlock and sewage, to let each dumb moment fall through our fingers, and not try to grab at it, to not fix its dwindling in the aspic of thought while every day people are suffering, is a luxury. May all luxuries belong to the working classes.
No, we don’t know a thing.
Sometimes my dreams are political. But in the end, it matters less that I dreamed I was consoling Barack Obama over the phone, and more that I did so in a cottage cut directly into the bedrock of a Hebridean crag, where the naked stone was livid with chilly light, where the sea glittered like needles, where titanic gulls – swift omnivorous airships, wingtips stabbing each towards its horizon, birds that could only hatch from the powdered eggshell of the moon – called out hideously overhead.
Prince Myshkin, Dostoyevsky’s idiot, sees the world from the vantage-point of infinity. It comes in his fits. At an aristocratic dinner full of cruel and vain society notables, he fucks everything up: he tries to discuss theology, he sprays spittle in the salad, he makes a spectacle of himself. He already knew he would break that Chinese vase. He knows, too, that at any moment the Bolsheviks will be breaking down the French windows to cart everyone off to a labour camp. Dostoyevsky’s novel, unlike anything else in the nineteenth century, unlike even Marx, comes with a full understanding of the fragility of the present. But the epileptic is not an excavator; his wisdom is the same as his ignorance, which is the same as his insensitivity, which is the same as his trembling. He suspects no subtleties. ‘He did not turn the coat and see the shabby lining.’ Instead he skims. Look at the grass growing, he announces, and then falls to the floor in a froth.
The Greeks used the word idiot, ίδιώτης, to denote someone who was uninterested in the communal life of the polis. A private person, a selfish person, a person who keeps themselves to themselves, which was the true sin of Sodom. But the self of the idiot is not the same as the self of the present order. An idiot is never fungible. An idiot is absented from the system of values, exchange-values and political values included. Not a separation from the tissues of the world, but an approach on a different register. Prince Myshkin does not close himself off from society; he simply doesn’t understand it. An idiot suffers from idiopathies, strange and unknown diseases. An idiot speaks in an idiolect, a strange and unknown speech. An idiot is idiothermic, warmed by a strange and unknown light.
We, too, must become strange and unknown.
The idiot has started reading novels again, which were always laced with a surplus – of what isn’t entirely clear, but it’s certainly not meaning – that can only be inassimilable to politics. At first it’s hard to give up the game of making clever inferences and readings, but once they learn that literature is, like sex or the sky, fundamentally prelinguistic and pleasurable, they wonder why they ever bothered. The idiot has taken an interest in early medieval panel paintings. Specifically, forging them. They end up selling panels to galleries and museums to the tune of £800,000 before being found out. The idiot is learning to be kinder and better to other people, to work diligently and conscientiously, to always be careful stomping around after it rains in case they hear the sickening wet crunch of a snail dying underfoot. The idiot murders a high-level diplomat for no reason whatsoever.
The idiot sits in a garden filled with terrifying flightless birds, which regard you from bronze-dull eyes. In the garden of the idiot foxgloves tower as tall as cypresses. Children with wild hair – not the idiot’s, maybe not anyone’s – climb the stalks of these plants, and settle themselves into their tubular flowers, and shriek from each nectar-smeared lip that this petal-pod is theirs, and they’ll kill anyone who tries to get in, and the idiot sits in the sunshine with a very small cup of coffee and shuffles papers without reading them.
The idiot decides to believe that market ideology is only humanity’s unconscious attempt – through the scrabbling activity of conquest, and the torque of capital flows – to speed the rotation of the earth on its axis. (This frenzy for speed will be its own undoing; read Capital, chapter ten, on the working day.) The idiot conjectures that liberal inclusivity, with its constellation of oppressions and privileges, is the political expression of an ancient Atlantean star-map. The idiot knows that the Sino-Soviet split was really only a metaphor for the eternal crisscrossings of the sun (Mao) and the moon (Brezhnev), and the same story was told by the Navajo around forgotten fires.
The idiot has translated their speech into a buzzing like that of bees, but the bees can’t understand them. Bees communicate through dance, and the idiot has never been any good at dancing.
Scales creep across the idiot’s skin. They harden. The idiot’s tongue has a weltering itch all the way down its length. The idiot is turning into a lizard. Thin leathery frills web the space under the idiot’s arms. The idiot might never be able to fly, but it’s possible they could one day learn how to swoop.
I’m becoming an idiot.
I’m going to delete my Facebook. I’m only going to watch cooking shows on TV, and I won’t draw any lessons from them. The radio is for sports and music. If someone offers me the Evening Standard at the tube station, I’m going to spit cold blood in their face.
When a conversation turns to politics, I’ll get up and walk away, leaving my restaurant bill unpaid, and go to jail if I have to.
I’m going to clear out all this useless mental clutter. I’ll forget the capitals of Europe. I’ll stop being proud of knowing all the countries that only border one other country, even though everyone always forgets the Gambia. I’ll let the world fade away by degrees, until all that’s left is what I can touch, and mystery.
I’m going to lock myself away in my home and expand. I’ll refuse to understand anything outside its walls, and watch the patterns of dust on the windowsill to see what they do.
I’m going to lock myself in a sensory deprivation tank and expand. My entire world will be contained in a few feet of motionless water, and I won’t be there to experience any of it.
I’m not going to have any crazy hallucinations. I’m going to let blackness settle over me, and I’ll find it neither boring nor interesting.
I’m going to lock myself in a sealed tank, and only sleep.
I’m going to sleep where nobody will be able to disturb me.
When I die, they’ll bury me deep in the ground.