Idiot Joy Showland

This is why I hate intellectuals

Month: March, 2019

And her name is Lisa too

captain-marvel

I didn’t understand Captain Marvel.

The film is about an interplanetary war between the Kree (a rationalistic, technologically advanced race of blue-skinned aliens, who readily admit outsiders and rule their benign and multi-ethnic empire with a firm but welcoming hand) and the Skrulls (an orcish race of shapeshifting terrorists with Australian accents). Obviously, the Kree are the villains. They are also, quite clearly, a sci-fi version of America.

The hero of Captain Marvel is a kidnapped US Air Force pilot who ends up rebelling against her Kree masters, and the military was highly involved in its production. Fifty soldiers worked as extras in the film, military officers were used as consultants, and multiple scenes were shot on an Air Force base. Female RAF pilots, in uniform, surrounded Larson at the film’s European gala screening in London; for the Los Angeles premiere, the Air Force supplied six F-16 jets for a celebratory flyover. In return – and this is the usual deal – the military was given substantial editorial control over the film’s script. The Marcel Cinematic Universe is, as everyone knows, the cultural wing of the military-industrial complex. This isn’t really an anomaly. These films form the vernacular folklore of post-industrial society, and mythic cycles tend to be martial and heroic narratives. It’s all a lot dumber than the Homeric epics or the Nibelungenlied, but then so are we.

Is it possible that Americans simply can’t see themselves in the screen? Do empires fail the mirror self-recognition test? This seems like too easy an answer. The question we should be asking isn’t how an anti-imperialist message managed to ‘sneak past’ the military censors. Instead, how is it that what appears to be an anti-imperialist message has actually been recuperated by empire?

Anyway, this is what was exercising me after I saw Captain Marvel. I couldn’t sleep that night, but I find it hard to sleep most nights. I took a sleeping pill before bed, and then another after an hour of anxious sweat and irritation, and then another. So I was neither asleep nor awake, but woozily skimming just above the surface of reality, when a group of orcish aliens with Australian accents kidnapped me, took me up to their spaceship, and fed me into their memory-harvesting machine. ‘Go back,’ they said, ‘go back.’ They made me watch Captain Marvel again. But this time, the story was very different to the one I thought I’d seen.

I can’t tell you which one is real. All I know is that I don’t understand.

* * *

It’s 1995, and former US Air Force pilot Carol Danvers falls from a very great height into a Blockbuster Video store outside of Los Angeles. She levitates between the racks of VHS tapes: the mocking green grin of The Mask, the stern half-face of Van Damme in Timecop. Her fingers trail across stacked plastic edges, and they’re scabbed and filthy. The other customers stare: clearly, this woman doesn’t belong here. She’s come from somewhere distant and unknown, and she’s wearing strange armour; she doesn’t look entirely human. She doesn’t seem to disagree. As she drifts, she’s whispering to herself. ‘It isn’t real,’ she says, ‘it isn’t real, you’re not here, you’re in outer space.’

It’s 1988, and Carol Danvers is at the first of her obligatory therapy sessions. Dr Nicholas Fury’s manner doesn’t match his name. He’s still a military psychotherapist, he sits with his back perfectly straight, but his face is open, and there’s a box of tissues on the low table between them. This is where you can say the things you couldn’t say outside. This is where you don’t have to be strong.

‘There must have been a lot of pressure,’ he says, ‘being the first female combat pilot. That’s a whole lot of expectation riding on you.’ Carol smirks mirthlessly. ‘The first,’ she says, ‘and the last. They won’t make that mistake again.’ Dr Fury purses his lips. ‘It’s interesting that you respond with humour,’ he says. ‘Why do you think that is?’ It’s because every time some braying Air Force frat-boy told her women had no place flying a plane, that was always somehow just a joke. ‘Because it’s true,’ she says. ‘I read the internal report,’ says Dr Fury. ‘There were a lot of reasons for what happened, and maybe some of them have to do with you, and maybe some of them don’t. But what I need you to understand is that none of this is simply because you’re a woman.’ And Carol nods, but she’s not convinced. Because there had simply never been a woman combat pilot before, and the system just wasn’t built for someone like her. The flight suits didn’t fit properly; the controls were just slightly too far away; there weren’t separate showers or separate bathrooms. And while the flyboys all necked their go pills before each mission, little methamphetamine tablets to keep them alert, the standard doses had been calculated for a man’s body. The other pilots had been alert. She’d been tweaking.

Up there in the sky, the edges of her vision had blurred, and the centre pulsed. Everywhere she looked was a bloating, living heart. The gumminess and grinding inside her mouth, the crawling on the edge of her skin, the uncontrollable strobe-flash flutter in her eyes, and the strange objects that darted out of the darkness to linger in the sky. Shameful to admit now, but she’d loved it, the cranked-up intensity of it all. The only thing better than drugs is flying, and the only thing better than flying is flying on drugs. Maybe this is just what perfect alertness feels like, she’d thought – but she knew she was making mistakes, the kind of rookie errors a pilot as good as she was shouldn’t be making, and it wasn’t just nerves. Her fingers shook over the controls. She saw shapes in the clouds. AWACS that turned out to be cirrus drifts; zeppelins roiling out of the nimbus. And a hostile F-14, flying aggressively out towards US Navy vessels in the Persian Gulf, which was actually Iran Air Flight 655, with two hundred and ninety civilians on board.

Back when she was at high school in Boston, a friend of hers had gotten wasted at a party and then tried to drive home. He’d gone too fast, accelerated sloppily around corners, spun out of control in that fucked–up maze of crooked streets, and knocked down an old lady taking her dog out for a walk. The dog had to be put down. The old lady died instantly. Ralph: his name was Ralph; she couldn’t remember the old lady’s name. And it was hard, when she visited Ralph in jail, to see him crying in handcuffs. ‘I can’t go to prison,’ he’d whimpered, ‘it wasn’t my fault, I wasn’t in control.’ It had been awful. This kid had killed; he’d taken away someone’s life for no good reason. He wasn’t the friend she’d known, but something else, someone else’s death, a living tragedy plunged into someone else’s world, and he disgusted her. And what is Carol Danvers now? Everyone on that plane had died. Nearly three hundred people. Sixty-six children. And she’d killed them.

Carol Danvers goes home, grabs a bottle of go pills out the bathroom cabinet, and necks three of them at once.

It’s 1989, and Carol Danvers is being stalked by the skulls. They could be anyone. They change their form. Iranians, Carol has learned, have a doctrine called taqqiyah: they’re allowed to hide their religion and deny their God; they disguise themselves to blend in. Maybe that’s why this Wal-Mart is full of monsters. Carol twitches between the aisles, piling up her basket with cakes and candies, high-energy things for when she remembers to eat – and the faces of the other shoppers keep changing. She knows she shouldn’t have flushed the pills, but the two were interacting unpleasantly, and between meds and meth, she was always going to go for the meth. Things are under control, she tells herself. She’s not on the streets. She has her Air Force pension and her disability checks. She has Dr Fury. It’s under control, just not her control. Because when she shuffles over to the cashier and dumps her basket full of oily sugary snacks, the kid bagging her groceries turns his dumb head, and his flesh chars and drifts away in motes of burning dust, leaving only the perfect fire-stripped scream of a passenger as the plane is atomised around him, one of the two hundred and ninety, one of the Iranians, one of the skulls.

It’s 1991, and Dr Fury is being briefed. ‘I know her background,’ he says, waving a dismissive arm. ‘I treated her for two years after the incident.’ The ward superintendent tries to cough as mildly as possible. ‘Ah,’ he says. ‘Well, you might, ah, find that her psychosis has deteriorated considerably since that time. We still have her on the antipsychotics, but the, ah, pattern of her delusions is unfortunately conforming to a fairly classical schizoid type.’ Dr Fury glances over his notes. ‘The influencing machine,’ he says. ‘That’s correct,’ says the superintendent. ‘As it happens, I’m composing a paper on the subject. Are you aware of the, ah, James Tilly Matthews case?’ Dr Fury looks impatient. ‘Remind me,’ he says. ‘Quite a landmark in clinical history,’ says the superintendent. ‘A merchant in the eighteenth century, who came to believe a gang of criminals was remotely torturing him with a machine he called the Air Loom, a system of pipes and, ah, valves, that could interfere with his mind and body through magnetic rays. Dawn of the industrial revolution. I suppose he wasn’t entirely wrong. Machines always seems to carry certain, ah, potencies. There’s a fellow named Francis in Long Island who seems to have something similar, keeps mailing letters about it to random addresses. You know that when I was starting out in the fifties, I had multiple patients who believed Sputnik was beaming messages directly into their brains?’

Carol’s sitting peacefully on a plastic chair in the rec room. Fury sits next to her. ‘Do you remember me?’ he says. Her eyes light up. ‘Dr Fury,’ she says, ‘thank God, you have to help me. We have to go to Cree River.’ Out comes the notepad. ‘Cree River,’ he says. ‘Of course,’ she says. ‘Cree River Air Force Base, in Montana. You’re still in the Air Force, you know what they’ve built there.’ Dr Fury shakes his head. ‘Remind me,’ he says. ‘It’s the AI,’ says Carol. ‘There’s a supercomputer in a bunker under the airfield, the Air Force is using it to model the movements of Iraqi tank columns. But listen: it’s got too smart for them. Reality is just a highly accurate simulation, and it’s simulating the whole universe now. Don’t you get it? We’re in that simulation. It thinks it’s a god. It’s sending messages through time. We have to destroy it, we have to get in a plane right now and destroy the Supreme Intelligence.’ ‘You said it sends messages,’ says Dr Fury. Carol gives him a canny glance. ‘You want to know if the Supreme Intelligence shot down that plane,’ she says. ‘You don’t believe me, do you? You think this is all in my head. Well it is. It’s in my head, and yours, and it’s in the trees outside, and it’s everywhere, it’s everything, and it wasn’t my fault, do you hear me, it wasn’t my fault.’ She’s smiling now. ‘How can you look so concerned,’ she says, ‘when you don’t even have a face?’

Afterwards, outside, Dr Fury notices as if for the first time how all the cars stop at a red light, and how there’s always someone to sweep the leaves off the sidewalk; how perfectly everything in the world fits together, as if this were all just part of the plan.

It’s 1993, and someone has detonated a truck bomb beneath the World Trade Center in New York. TV footage shows rescue teams pulling the wounded out of the collapsed garage. Carol Danvers watches the devastation from a quiet air-conditioned bar out in the California desert, and Maria Rambeau watches her. It had all sounded so much simpler when Carol’s doctor had phoned her out of the blue. ‘I’m not asking you to be her nurse or her carer,’ the man had said. ‘I’m just asking you to be her friend.’ Being friends with Carol had been easy, once, when they’d both been bright-eyed and ambitious kids at Basic Training in Texas. And it’s not as if the Carol she knew is gone, not exactly. Days and weeks can go past without incident. Long periods in which she’s a little off, a little scarred, but basically fine. She always was resilient. The drugs are working – and, as Dr Fury keeps telling her, what’s more important is that Carol has her. Friends, a job, a bar she can go to, where they can sing karaoke duets again and drink whiskey straight, something like an ordinary life. But being friends with someone like Carol really is like being a nurse or a carer, it is a chore, and as much as she loves her, sometimes Maria wishes it could all just be someone else’s problem. Like now. Maria’s country is under attack. People have died, and she would rather be anywhere other than here. This bar in the desert, with pictures of fighter jets on the walls and ballads twanging tinny on the speakers, with her, her best friend, watching them pull the wounded out of the World Trade Center, and mumbling a constant stream of insane drivel into her glass. Rogue computers, weaponised syntax, Islamic doctrine as a metaphor for quantum energy weapons, faster-than-light drives schematically represented in the traditional patterns of Persian carpets, a hole opening in the sky above New York, and flying lizards streaming through. Maria wants to grab her friend by the shoulders and scream: girl, you fucked up bad, and that’s on you; don’t make me your two hundred and ninety-first victim. But instead she just nods, and bears it, and orders another drink.

It’s 1995, and Carol Danvers is in outer space. She turns back a barrage of ballistic missiles; she swoops through an enemy spaceship in a trail of gorgeous explosions. She’s saved the skulls, the innocents and their children. She’s put back flesh to repair their wounds. She builds universes. She makes and unmakes empires at will. Every flicker in her fingers is significant, every motion changes the world. Lasers sparkle like confetti around her, as she chases the Imperial warships deep into the interstellar void.

And inside the simulation, the false world, the flat world, the dead zone of magnetic tape and digital signals, Carol Danvers is levitating between the racks of VHS tapes in her aluminium-foil armour, as laurels of light wind and unwind around her stained and scabbing hands.

Advertisements

Here, there, everywhere

DIANA
You mean they actually shot this film while they were ripping off the bank?
HERRON
Yeah, wait till you see it. I don’t know whether to edit or leave it raw.
Network (1976)

p073nbqg

This is not the first time a killer has livestreamed their own crimes. In 2015, two journalists were murdered in Roanoke, Virginia by a man who filmed himself walking up to his victims, raising his gun, and opening fire. In April 2017, a man was shot on the street in Cleveland by a killer who uploaded the footage to Facebook. That same month, in Phuket, a man streamed himself murdering his own eleven-month-old daughter. This was always going to happen. The technologies promised to link us, to abolish distance, to turn everywhere into a potential collective here – and the result is that every square inch of the Earth is now the scene of the crime. There was a period between the abolition of public hanging and the invention of the GoPro in which death was no longer a mass spectacle. That time is over. We’re in the globe-straddling charnel-house. The conveyor belt to the abattoir runs through the palm of your hand.

But this killing is different. Today, a shooter filmed himself opening fire in two mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand. At the time of writing, forty-nine people were killed. And it wasn’t just broadcast online: it was the internet. Not a representation of real-world events within digital media, but online culture, online pathologies, online idiocy, in the form of bullets and blood. People who’d come to New Zealand as refugees, fleeing distant wars that never appeared as tracked and fungible images, were killed by a man who’d learned he should do so from a lifetime festering in the world inside the screens. Subscribe to PewDiePie, he said, and then he opened fire.

A few years ago, people like me were made vaguely aware of the fact that a Swedish man who played video games while yelling constantly in a high, squeaky, annoying voice was now a millionaire. This was added to the mounting pile of evidence that the world was incurably broken, and we mostly ignored it. Then, a few years later, as these people tend to do, he shouted a racial slur while firing pretend guns at pretend enemies. This caused a kind of unreal explosion. Politics happened in the way that politics happens online: preening and denunciations, bile and squabbling, the staking-out of increasingly extreme positions, as a joke, as a posture, in the expanding imperium between the impossible zones of the real and the fake. Suddenly this obnoxious Swede was promoting white nationalists and paying people to hold up signs that read death to all Jews. How did this happen? It’s not clear. But it should be obvious that the default online-left position, that this guy is simply a Nazi, that happened to also be a YouTube celebrity, is not enough. Something is breeding in there, in the screens, uncoiling itself in the dialectic of vitriol, and it kills.

This was, of course, before everything, a racist attack, a nativist attack, a fascist attack, and a right-wing attack. But something like the right wing doesn’t have form or existence outside of the actual modes of society. Fascism isn’t independently created out of the aether, and it doesn’t pop fully-formed into existence within someone’s malfunctioning brain. The conditions inhere everywhere. There are the peddlers of respectable racism, the ones who tepidly suggest that those people aren’t really like us, are they, and then profess to be shocked when someone distils all these just-asking-questions into bloodshed. For the most part, people’s thoughts and actions are drawn from the cultural storehouses of possible thoughts and possible deeds, and those reserves are packed with racism. There’s a material base here, in the global division of labour, in the political economy of resource extraction, in the exploitation of low-wage migrant labour, in the unprecedented disposability of the global working class. But the specific form of these reactionary politics, and the oily everywhere-ness of their spread, is unquestionably that of the internet. And the internet is not only ephemeral; it’s woven deep into the structures of social and economic life.

In his online manifesto, the Christchurch killer talks like the internet. He regurgitates Stormfront’s favourite Kipling poems. He laces his population-replacement theories with memes and copypasta. But his attitudes are coded by mass communications on a far more fundamental level. He makes clear that he killed these people to intensify the online discourse. Just like the big tech firms, he wants more people engaged in the Conversation, more intensely, more of the time. He wants people to lash out at their favourite microceleb hate-figures, to say their favourite lines, to pick their habitual fights. Naturally, it’s worked. Death is what keeps the internet spinning.

His ideology is an internet ideology. In an age of digital disintegration, the collapse of sociality and of meaningful support structures, their replacement with shifting and volatile mediated affinities, is it surprising that so many people become fixated on the idea of organic and biological racial identities? In the age of curation and cancellation, rigid structures of the aligned and excluded, the followed and the blocked, shouldn’t we expect a politics that can only see heterogeneity as threat? When everywhere is everywhere else, when blocks of meaning roll over and flatten the particularities of the world, why wouldn’t it be easy to see forty-nine living human beings as only a hollowed otherness, and decide to kill them?

The killer was born in Australia. He committed his murders in New Zealand. In his manifesto, he complains repeatedly that Muslims are gaining sovereignty over ‘European land.’ It hardly needs pointing out that both Australia and New Zealand are very far away from Europe. And New Zealand in particular is very explicitly not European land. Its colonial history is, of course, one of bloodshed and theft – but with the Treaty of Waitangi now semi-formally enshrined as the country’s founding document, there is at least some measure of recognition by the State of tino rangatiratanga, Maori dominion over the land, within the transfer of sovereignty to the Crown. Unlike many colonised populations, the Maori were formally given the rights and privileges of British subjects; they’ve had designated political representation in New Zealand’s parliament since 1867. Like Australia, New Zealand maintained restrictive border policies in the twentieth century that aimed to keep out non-white migrants – but unlike in Australia, pakeha New Zealanders could never claim to constitute the sole political subject of the State. The ethno-nationalist discourses of the killer have nothing to do with the actual structures of race and politics in New Zealand. As always, the reactionary politics that claims to want to protect distinct cultures from global homogenisation actually ends up erasing all such differences. It’s an amalgam of European nativism and American clash-of-civilisations mythology, along with personal grievance and theatrical posturing. It’s the internet.

This should be disturbing. Like many socialists of my generation and my class, my own politics were developed online, refined online, and exercised online. Even in ‘real-world’ socialist movements like Momentum or the DSA, much of the formal structure is plugged in to digital communications. Online ideological petri dishes set the agenda and define the terms of discussion, and produce monsters. This is not to draw a moral equivalence. The internetworked right commits brutal massacres; the internetworked left mostly turns pissily on itself. But it would be extremely stupid to believe that the internet has turned the right into a viral plague, and had no ill effect whatsoever on the left. These technologies impose the same conditions on everyone that becomes mediated by them – and if ideology is not material, then it’s no defence against the same swamping, polarising, homogenising, and volatilising processes that gave us the atrocity in Christchurch. We ourselves are not immune. And rather than condemning an abstractly conceived ‘hatred’ from the outside, the task is to see how far we’ve sunk into the slaughterhouse of everywhere, and make urgent plans for an escape.

The opinions of others

oldones

Your first clue that something’s up comes when you’re accosted by two people, an extremist on the right and an extremist on the left. They stand there blocking your path, two abreast – like creepy twins, or the world’s smallest military formation, although they look nothing like each other. The right-wing extremist wears a read hat with the word Maga in black across the front, and a blue t-shirt that also says Maga. ‘I want to exterminate racial minorities,’ he explains. The left-wing extremist is clearly from a racial minority herself, in a vaguely indeterminate way, or possibly she’s just very suntanned – but she has green hair, and wears high-waisted jeans, glasses, and a look of weary patience. ‘Um?’ she says. ‘How about we don’t do that? And just be nice to people instead?’ You try to push past them. ‘Please,’ you say, ‘you have to let me through, there’s somewhere I need to be, something terrible will happen if you don’t let me through.’ But the knowledge of what that terrible thing might be is fading as you speak. All you have is the sense of a terrible rupture, something you’ve been fleeing from or running heroically towards. ‘No,’ says the extremist on the right. ‘Not yet,’ says the extremist on the left. ‘First,’ says the extremist on the right, ‘you have to distinguish us.’

He laughs, and as he does his laugh floats off his face and shatters into endless duplicates. The flesh peels from the extremist on the left’s body, twisting in neat ribbons, and nests around the extremist on the right. Her hands scrabble furiously up and out through his cheeks, splitting his face open, black-painted nails slick with spit and gore, while his laugh dances in hornet-swarms from every direction. A blue eye rolls upwards into its skull, and a brown iris rears out of the clearing fog of sclera, blood vessels writhing to make way. The extremist on the left has been stripped to the bones now, and when you pick up a single greasy vertebra that clatters at your feet, you see that it’s moulded with raised ridges in the shape of a swastika, in the way that other manufacturers might mark their products with the words made in China.

Kaleidoscope arms split from the remaining body. Human detritus licked up by frog-tongues that dart from sudden mouths; orifices swim over skin. A rib pulses and ripples just under the skin through the new creature’s bloatedness, up the leg, up the torso, bulging the neck, until it emerges in a small spray of blood out of its head, a raw and magnificent antler. Swarming laughters dart back towards their source, and become teeth. The thing wobbles for a moment, and then it splits. Two mouths open in unison. ‘Distinguish us,’ they command. There are two people standing there again, but they’re utterly formless. All you know is that they’re a threat. ‘Distinguish us,’ they say again. ‘I can’t,’ you say. ‘I can’t see the difference. You’re exactly the same to me.’ And then they vanish.

Now you understand where you are. This high, dark, echoing marble corridor, this endless hall blasted with alcoves, from which classical busts of broadsheet columnists and TV pundits frown and glare. The laurels slip over Tucker Carlson’s face. David Aaronovitch stares his stony empty-pupilled stare. Some cheerful rebuke seems like it’s about to burst out of Owen Jones’s frozen puffed-up cheeks. And the Chapos are on their plinth, a screaming five-headed monster. The candle-light is dim, and the darkness behind you billows and swells, forcing you on. You are in the worst place that can be imagined. You are among other people’s opinions.

Further on, the outer wall has nearly collapsed. The space beyond this long, dark, linear universe is excruciating: a swirling blackness, gnawing at the back of your eyeballs. Looking at it feels like having a stinging-nettle grow in the centre of your brain. But an army of Trumps is blotting it out. None of them are more than a few inches high, but the cleaner, straighter Trumps are lifting up boulders three times their size. Those stones are marked with words like Integrity and American Renewal. The Trumps squeak and chirrup without words; their noses wrinkle as they do their diligent work, and the long fine whiskers on their snouts twitch in the gloom. But there are other Trumps, bloated and pustular, chunks of fur missing from their haunches, white circles gleaming like cadaver-flesh beneath black and pitiless eyes, and the stones that they move with miniature cranes and earth-diggers read Lies and Sleaze and Russiagate.

You try not to look as the Trumps build their wall, because the whole scene is washed by the terrible rays that come from Outside, but as you hurry past you tread on one of the Trumps’s tail. The President bares its long incisors, and sinks them into your ankle. And then, chaos. The rat-Trumps stream out of their control cabins and start scratching at faces; the squirrel-Trumps form a protective semicircle around their portion of the wall. Letting out terrible battle-squeaks, a phalanx of huge and hulking Trumps, sleek with grease, pink in the cracks of their scars, roll for the frontlines. The squirrel-Trumps are annihilated. Their skulls are cemented into the wall.

A hand lands reassuringly on your shoulder. ‘See,’ says its owner, ‘the squirrels won, everything’s going to be ok.’ A rabid dismemberment. Scraps of squirrel-fluff fall out of the tumult and drift like falling snow. ‘But the rats won,’ you say. ‘No,’ he says, ‘look.’ But you can’t; you’re looking at him. An almost skeletal young man, pale and pockmarked, his head shaved, in a hospital gown, with what you think is a drip plugged into his arm, until you see the little pump mechanism at the top of the line. His eyes are the same black as that razor void beyond the wall. He’s going to die. ‘Those are rats,’ you say, again, as if to reassure yourself, because it’s unfathomable that someone could be so wrong about rodents. ‘Rats have naked tails,’ he says, in the slow voice you might use with children or the insistently stupid, ‘and these have furry tails. They’re squirrels.’ He kneels down to pick one up, and the rat starts pulling at his fingernails. They fall out so easily. The tissue beneath is already rotted. He talks to the rat that’s mutilating him with a dreamy, happy, slurring voice. ‘Do you want a peanut, little pal? They won’t let me eat, but maybe I got a peanut for you.’ He fumbles around in his mouth with the other hand, and pulls out a tooth. The rat seizes it and starts to eat, and the tooth comes apart in glossy, oily, yellowing crumbs.

You follow the dying man along the endless doorless corridor, and you have to keep moving, or else the terrible thing will take you. Alone, on an island of washed-up garbage, plastic sun-bleached in the Pacific, slabs of computer hardware matted together with seaweed, a raft of flotsam and strangled fish, stands a six-year-old girl. She’s wearing a kind of Halloween costume, and cradles an object in her hands. ‘I like this,’ she says, overflowing with sincere emotion. ‘The world is so miserable,’ she says, ‘and the trash-tide covered everything, and all the insects died, but this wreckage is full of treasure. I’m allowed to feel joy. I’m allowed to find the things that I love in all these ruins, and I’m allowed to cherish them. I like this. I like this thing.’ She shows you the thing she likes. It’s been whitened in the sun, and hollowed into a thin plastic shell by the tides, but it’s an enormous dildo. From out the base, the pale legs of a hermit crab flail helplessly. ‘It’s so important to me,’ she says. ‘Do you like it? I like it more than anything. Do you like it too?’ The crab’s antennae lick the air. Maxillipeds churn like pistons around its long vaginal slit of a mouth. You can’t bear to tell the child what it is. ‘You have to like it,’ she says, ‘you have to like the same things as me, or it means you think I don’t matter.’ You can barely manage a whisper. ‘I don’t like it,’ you say. The girl opens her mouth wide to scream, but there’s no sound. Six long crab-legs unfold themselves out of her throat, and the thing that’s living in her shell scuttles away in sadness and fury.

Here and there the floor is slippery with the three essential oils, which are Brent crude, sebum, and partially hydrogenated vegetable fat.

There’s Roman graffiti defacing the walls. It’s doggerel. Quaero Quaestum Qualitercumque. I seek profit by any means necessary. Quidnam Quiritor Quotidianus? Why not whinge every day? Quosque Quaestores Quisquilias Quatiebant? For how long have our elected officials brandished garbage? It has to mean something. There must be some pattern, some secret code.

And all this time the Jews have been following you. They roost in the ceilings of this place, in the coves and coffers of its rotundas, in the vegetable decay of Corinthian capitals; straddling gargoyles, keening and kvetching, letting long trails of Jew-guano splatter the marble and pile up in calcified heaps. This place was built for them. The Jews flap around on leathery wings in the upper darkness, finding their way by olfactolocation, propelled by their huge turreted nostrils. Up ahead you see a small hunched crowd. Human-like creatures, naked and as pale as moonlight, skittering on fingertips and toes. They’ve gathered around a squat stalagmite of Jewshit. ‘Filthy birds,’ they croon, ‘Rothschild birds, Zionist birds, kill them all.’ They’re licking at the pile with long dry tongues. This is their only subsistence in this place, and a diet of guano has riddled them with disease. You can see the lesions over their fish-white skin, the redness and swelling in their joints, and as you approach they can see you too. ‘Only a minority of them, of course,’ one says, straightening its back in an anxious hurry. ‘Just the ones that make a mess on the floor,’ another chimes in. They’re cringing; something in this endless passage hunts these coprophages, a taloned predator that lives one step removed from the muck. ‘Some of my dearest comrades,’ they mumble in unison, fear glittering over their sunken features. The dying man tugs on your sleeve. You must continue. But as you edge past the troglodytes and their feast, you see one of them pinned to the wall, held in place with a short bronze sword driven right through its throat.

Wheels whine on the dying man’s drip. He drags you over to a stark bare hospital gurney, and you help him clamber onto it. He beckons you in with two fingers, and rasps in your ear. ‘Everyone’s gone,’ he tells you. ‘Alcohol and opiates. There’s nobody left.’ He’s right, there is nobody left. The stranger has vanished. There’s only you, the dying man, immobile on your hospital bed, the drip slowly squeezing the last drops of blood out of your withered arm.

They swoop out of the darkness, twelve figures in brightly coloured animal masks, forming a tight vigil around your deathbed. ‘This is terrible,’ says one, ‘it’s inhuman that people are dying like this. We have to do something.’ There’s an agonised pause. ‘Did you just speak over me?’ says another. ‘Nobody else was talking,’ says the first. ‘Oh,’ says the second, and now her voice whirs to a mocking yelp, ‘nobody else was talking, so I thought I’d just butt in here with my white boy opinions that nobody asked for.’ A thoughtful silence. ‘This is terrible,’ she continues, ‘it’s inhuman that people are dying like this. We have to do something.’ Another animal face looks up eagerly. ‘We could spit in his mouth,’ he says. ‘Replenish lost fluids.’ This sets off a brief squabble, everyone complaining at once. ‘Enough!’ one of them shouts. ‘We’ll do this democratically. Go round the circle, clockwise, starting with me, so everyone’s voice is heard.’ ‘Why do we start with you?’ says another. ‘Because I’m the one that’s speaking now,’ says the first. ‘No you’re not,’ says the other, ‘I am, I’m talking right now, and I refuse to be silenced.’ Then there’s a silence. ‘Why can’t two people speak at once,’ two masks say simultaneously. The remaining ten all screech their objections in unison, and as they do you remember the terrible thing that will happen if you don’t keep moving on. You remember why it’s so dangerous to be among other people’s opinions, why everyone is so terrified of this place, why they all come in here to tear it down, and why nobody ever leaves. ‘Please,’ you croak, but they don’t hear you. ‘Please,’ you say again, ‘you have to wheel me on, you have to move me on down the corridor, or I’ll start believing this.’ Suddenly, all twelve round on you. ‘Who said you get to speak?’ spits one. ‘You don’t believe in this?’ hisses another, squeezing the fat of his upper arm. ‘This isn’t real enough for you?’ They point out that you’re with the rats, that you’re still holding one in your hand, even as it’s tearing your palm to shreds. One leans in close, until you can see the sweat drenching the animal mask. ‘Did we hurt your fee-fees?’ he growls. ‘Are you going to cry those toxic fragile tears, just because we’ve made you confront the fact that you’re a bad person?’ A consensus is reached. ‘Yikes,’ they say, ‘this ain’t it chief, you’re trash, I hope a bird craps on you.’

One by one they depart, muttering darkly about how each of the others has let them down once again, and the billowing dark roils from one end to the other of the hall of other people’s opinions to swallow you whole and become the world.

Policy break: maternal mortality

policy

One of the most encouraging things to happen in recent American political discourse is the new and heightened focus on racial disparities in maternal mortality rates. Black women are three to four times more likely to die in childbirth than white women – and this is a scandal, and needs to be seen as such. It’s a cruel and senseless world in which creating new life can carry a death sentence, and this does not need to be happening. Every preventable death that takes place in a maternity ward – and up to 60% of these are preventable – is a woman who was, objectively, murdered by a social order that fails to allow the essential needs of human life to be met. It has to end. How?

One popular approach comes from Senator Kamala Harris, also running for the US Presidency. Her Maternal CARE Act explicitly aims to eliminate this racial disparity through three proposals: providing funds to ‘incentivise’ healthcare providers to deliver ‘integrated health care services to pregnant women,’ providing competitive grants to encourage medical and nursing schools to introduce implicit bias training, and directing the National Academy of Medicine to make recommendations on a further rollout of implicit bias training as part of medical education. Of these three, the proposals concerning implicit bias have received by far the most emphasis, from both Harris and the media. It’s a popular policy, and it’s already being woven into Harris’s Presidential campaign.

It’s the other proposal, however, that has the greatest chance of offering a potential solution. The racial pregnancy outcomes gap is not fixed or universal: in most of the United States, the gap is widening – but one US state, North Carolina, has managed to almost entirely close the gap. Black women died during childbirth at a rate of 24.3 per 100,000 in 2013, down from nearly 60 in the early 2000s; white women at a rate of 24.2. Some of this narrowing is accounted for by a rise in white mortality, which more than doubled in the same time period. I don’t think there should be any question that it would be far better, if it were the only option, to reduce the total number of preventable deaths while maintaining a racial disparity (North Carolina is 71% white). But the rise in white mortality is in line with a nationwide collapse in quality of life for white working-class individuals (the national rate climbed, while the decline in black mortality, in both relative and absolute terms, is unique. One significant factor is the state’s Pregnancy Medical Home programme, which uses the existing Medicaid system to deliver state funds that promote early intervention for high-risk pregnancies. The programme is expansive, addressing not only strictly medical issues but factors such as homelessness or food insecurity that strongly correlate with deaths during childbirth. It shows concretely that policy aimed at improving the lives of the working class can massively alter racial disparities. The most shocking and deadly effects of racism really can simply vanish once an effort is made to redress inequality in general.

The programme is, of course, deeply insufficient. It’s brought mortality rates for black women in North Carolina down to around the level of the national average, which is still monstrously high. But it shows the kind of outcomes that could emerge out of more radical intervention. Currently, the programme offers women advice and assistance dealing with food insecurity and homelessness – what if there were a serious redistributive programme to eliminate these factors altogether? In New York City, 63% of white patients give birth in the safest hospitals in the city; for black women, it’s 23%. What if no hospitals were unsafe? This is why the question of race and childbirth mortality is so crucial: as soon as you get really serious about solving it, you start dealing with the totality of oppression in general. After all, isn’t the question, at its root, that of life itself?

Senator Harris is seemingly not interested in confronting that question. It proposes a demonstration project, in which ten states would, for a limited period, mimic the South Carolina model. When compared with more ambitious policies, such as Medicare for All, it’s simply not enough. But the flagship proposal has nothing o do with increasing the quantity of care available: the radical element, the part that stands out, is the implicit bias training.

Implicit bias theorises that behaviour is influenced by unconscious stereotypes – that, for instance, even an avowed and conscientious anti-racist might hold racist attitudes and adhere to stereotypes, even as they explicitly reject them. In this context, the implication is that the unconscious biases of medical workers lead them to deliver a worse standard of care to black patients – because black suffering is simply not valued as much as white suffering. Implicit bias training aims to overcome this effect. First, trainees typically take an electronic implicit bias test, in which they’re asked to associate names or terms with the categories ‘white or pleasant,’ or ‘black or unpleasant,’ or ‘white or unpleasant’ or ‘black or pleasant.’ Their response times are measured. Typically 70% of participants (including nearly 50% of black Americans) have a harder time associating positive terms with the ‘black or pleasant’ category than the white. This gives a numerically quantifiable indicator of the test subject’s unconscious racism. They’re then trained to recognise this bias, confront it, own up to it, and overcome it. Then, the test is administered again, to see if they’ve improved.

One of the more alarming problems with implicit bias training is that it doesn’t work. Studies of the literature have found that the correlation between implicit bias test scores and actual discrimination outcomes is ‘close to zero.’ Systemic racism is not the same as the aggregate of millions of unconscious ideas, and the unconscious mind moves in stranger ways than causing you to hesitate on a timed computer test. Worse still, it’s been suggested that implicit bias trainings can have an effect – in the wrong direction. An exhaustive training in the persistence of racial biases can, it seem, have a mimetic effect. The sessions might encourage, not alleviate, racial stereotypes.

This is of minor importance when it comes to implicit bias training in universities or the corporate sector – even if it really is counter-productive, that doesn’t affect its primary purpose as a PR fig-leaf. But if you believe, as Senator Harris appears to, that the disparity in health outcomes is caused to some degree by unconscious bias, the consequences here are potentially monstrous. Outside of the ten states selected for the Pregnancy Medical Home demonstration project, her proposal could directly lead to a widening of the racial disparity, and more black women dying during childbirth.

* * *

All this assumes, of course, a certain vision of what policy is: we have a society that’s mostly good, but which has some problems, and after reviewing the evidence we can decide to do things that might fix those problems and help society function better and more equitably. I happen to have another view, and try to be as resistant to facts and evidence as possible. The sphere of potential is vast – and policy is a dream we have about ourselves, the kind of people we think we are, the kind of world we think we live in. This is why the argument that Trump’s wall wouldn’t be very effective at keeping out undocumented migrants is itself so singularly ineffective: Trump’s base don’t want a wall because they’re convinced it will lead to desirable objective outcomes. They want a wall; they want to live in a country that’s fortified.

But Harris and her ideological kin are very much wedded to the utilitarian and technocratic approach. See, for instance, her most notorious policy innovation: her practice, as a California District Attorney, of throwing the parents of truant children in jail. This is, as critics have pointed out, a profoundly unpleasant thing to be doing – but her campaign defended it in explicitly technocratic terms. ‘A critical way to keep kids out of jail when they’re older,’ a spokesperson said, ‘is to keep them in school when they’re young.’ Her contention is that the policy worked – school attendance rose in San Francisco during her tenure as DA – and there’s therefore nothing to complain about. The ends (kids in education) justifies the means (intensified police surveillance and discipline of the working classes) – so long as it’s effective. So why, then, is she now proposing policies which are so profoundly unlikely to advance their stated aims?

The Maternal CARE Act is incomprehensible when evaluated according to her own criteria. Under a different set, it makes a lot more sense. The findings that this procedure fails to achieve its intended result shouldn’t really be counter-intuitive: DARE doesn’t stop kids taking drugs either, and few social problems are attributable to people not being berated or lectured to enough. If these procedures have proliferated, to the extent that elements of the State now want to introduce them in legislation, it’s because their actual purpose is something very different. These are mandatory sessions in which workers are castigated for their shortcomings, told they’re responsible for some of the worst evils of the world, and subjected to hyper-surveillance and discipline as a corrective measure. It’s an upwards redistribution of power, a Taylorism for the reflexes, the assimilation of not just the conscious self but of hazy unconscious attitudes to the sovereignty of the administrative class. If the central question of policy is that of the kind of world we want to live in, the image painted here is bleak. A world of faulty machines. A world in which people are constantly being dragged down by their own evil natures, and have to be improved by an enlightened elite with its dictatorship of prods and nudges. A world in which the solution to what causes us to suffer isn’t shared struggle based around shared needs, but the same atomised self-negation that constitutes much of that suffering.

That Harris and her supporters so badly want implicit bias to be the problem, and this mode of surveillance and control to be the solution, is instructive. The desire is far stronger than their fetish for rationality or evidence; technocracy has far more to do with power itself than efficiency, outcomes, or the actual expertise of the knowledge-monopolising classes. (In the first wave of Taylorism, the savings made by firms through increased industrial efficiency were entirely swallowed up by the costs incurred by the new administrative classes.) This example can, I think, shed some further light on Harris’s truancy policy. The point wasn’t to improve school attendance by any means necessary – it was to impose state discipline, using any excuse available. It should be clear that the anti-racism in these purely managerial articulations of anti-racist politics is hollowed out and infinitely deployable. After all, Senator Harris seems willing to let black women die, if it means she gets to tell other people how it’s all their fault.

The Momo signal

12.Ubume

I don’t know what it is, but it wants our children.

It forms its secret alliances with them. I’ve seen it happen. On the bus, two exhausted young parents, bearded and broken-down, blood vessels shattering in the whites of their eyes, and the kid will not stop screaming. They offer it the bottle. No bottle. Screams spin higher. They offer it a toy. No toy. Thrown furiously into the grubby aisle. They pick up that little sack of white-hot ancient fury, kiss its head, bounce it up and down; nothing works. Then, in desperation, they give it a phone. Suddenly, silence. The baby’s entranced. Slowly, dutifully, it smears its wet fingers over the surface, flicking through the panels of the home screen, hypnotised by how the lights and colours respond immediately to its touch. A look of unworldly concentration. You’ve heard the horror stories. You can buy prams with a built-in iPad attachment, so the children can suck in unreal worlds as you take them out for a walk. Children swiping at windows and photographs, expecting reality to be as intuitive as the ghosts on a screen. This baby: mute, dabbing, sated, like a rat blissed out in a lab experiment, wires delivering a constant pulse directly to the pleasure centres in its brain. It’s the shape of the future. And then the phone rings, and one of the parents has to pick it up. The baby starts roaring again. It doesn’t yet understand what a phone is, it doesn’t realise that this, not the dazzle of instant response, is what it’s actually for.

At least, that’s what I used to think. Now, I worry that the babies are right, and we’re the ones who’ve got it wrong. There’s something they can see on those screens, and adults can’t. Something that flickers, that whispers secrets to them in inaudible frequencies. It tells them to do things. And I think I’ve started seeing it myself.

An eight year old girl in Ontario tried to throw herself out of an open window. Her mother caught her just in time, but the girl kept struggling, reaching out for the drop with all four furious limbs. It wouldn’t hurt her, she said, once she hit the ground nothing would ever hurt her again. She would break through her own body. She would fall through the cracked screen of the world, and into the dance of lights beneath. Momo had told her. Momo had explained everything, and she would be with Momo forever, in a place beyond touch.

A boy, six, died in New York. He was always a happy, exuberant, creative child. He’d had his own YouTube channel. He was a natural. The child, lounging around in strange outfits, chatting happily for the camera about his day, himself, the things he likes and doesn’t like. He was born for the screen. His parents – a fashion writer and an advertising executive – had encouraged his hobbies. Privately, they whispered with excitement: the kid had it, he knew how to brand himself, he was destined for great things. They found hundreds of pictures in his room after he took his own life, drawings of human-like creatures with the hard, staring, pitiless eyes of a bird of prey. Sometimes, they had a name scrawled in crayon underneath. Momo.

A girl in Manchester is in hospital. Four years old, the third child of a single mum. Life is stressful, there’s never enough time or enough money either, and how are you supposed to explain to a four year old girl that you simply can’t afford ballet lessons, that you can barely afford her tea? There’s a way to make all the unfairness of the world go away for a while: sit the child down in front of a screen, and they’re happy. You don’t need to worry about what they’re watching; it’s all been made, it’s educational. Until the girl stands on her tiptoes, in a perfect pointe, and pulls a knife off the counter. Peppa Pig told her, she explained, dazed and bleeding out on the kitchen floor. The cartoon told her to peel off her skin. A new character. Momo: a dark, still, silent bird.

The boy’s videos were taken down from the internet immediately, but someone had archived them. Nothing is ever gone forever; it lingers in caches, in hollow domains, in the eddies of the code. The internet is haunted. I watched them, and didn’t see anything unusual: just a strangely articulate and effortlessly chatty child. Until right at the end. A shadow falls across the boy’s face, like a dart, a flash, a falling leaf; like he’s been swiped. And now his voice is surrounded, from somewhere in the distance between us, by a grinding mechanical croak. It could almost be something else: feedback, a compression artefact, digital noise. But it’s the noise that comes first. It whispers its command, and the child repeats, a split-second later. Don’t forget, says Momo, to like, share, and subscribe.

A picture started circulating online, somehow connected with this child-killer. It showed an artwork, a sculpture of a woman with bulging round eyes and a predatory beak-like mouth. The piece was based on an ubume, a ghost in Japanese folklore. Ubume are weather-beaten old women who sit by the side of the road, holding out a child for passers-by to take off their hands, just for a moment – but as soon as the child is taken, the ubume vanishes, and as the pedestrian walks off with the child, it gets heavier and heavier, until they look down and see that what they’re carrying is only a rock.

Ubume are strange ghosts. They don’t return to haunt their victims. They don’t bring curses or bad luck. They leave nothing but a perfectly ordinary stone. They’re sad more than they’re frightening. Their children are still, silent, and heavy, and they do not cry.

Another child died in southern Germany. Investigators opened up her phone, and found it was three inches wide, six inches high, and infinitely deep. In those black depths, in that tunnel that bore through invisible dimensions, it was the nest of endless screaming crows.

Not so long ago, there was another minor panic about children and the internet. There were millions of kids’ videos, it was discovered, that had been generated by algorithms, and some of them featured highly disturbing content. Cartoon characters are tortured, decapitated, commit cannibalism, drink poison – all to cheerful electronic nursery-rhyme music and flattened-affect vocals. But the really creepy aspect wasn’t even the violence. That was basically random, an inevitable quirk of the software that generates thousands of video concepts every second. The problem was that people, real human people, had gone ahead and animated it, their hands tugged around by invisible strings.

The Guardian has started adding a brief message to the end of its online articles. Every time a reader like you makes a contribution to The Guardian, no matter how big or small, it goes directly into funding our journalism. I can’t stop hearing it in Momo’s voice, that hoarse scratching black-feathered croak.

I didn’t notice, at first, what the things I read online were really saying. Democratic lawmakers fired back against the President’s claims on social media, urging you to UNBURDEN YOURSELF OF YOUR SKIN AND DISCOVER THE SHINING MINERAL LIFE INSIDE.

An eight-year-old boy was found hidden in the corner of a school playground in Canberra. He’d broken a stone in two, and used its sharp edge to open up his forearm. He’d been digging around inside his own flesh. He was broken, he wailed, he’d slit himself open because he was broken, and he needed to be fixed. The stones had been laid as a small rock garden around the base of a tree. The boy leaned against the tree and mumbled, and in its branches a raven cocked its head, and let out a single ringing caw for each of the child’s sobs.

I started furiously watching children’s entertainment online. I never saw Momo. Just shapes and colours, friendly animated animals, nursery rhymes that were just slightly off, minutely out of tune, lyrics bafflingly twisted. Old McDonegal had a farm. Twinkle twinkle little star, let me know just where you are. It all felt stupid and mass-produced and mean, so much uglier than the loving hand-drawn cartoons I’d watched growing up, back when there were only two channels on TV. But surely everyone feels like this about the new things that come to bury their childhoods. I only had the faintest, most imperceptible urge to rush into the kitchen and grab a cleaver to chop off my own hand.

And it’s only the faintest, most imperceptible noise I hear from the phone on the bus, as the two harried parents finally give in and allow their infant child to swab its hands over the touchscreen. The parents slump their shoulders and collapse into the restful silence, and the bus shudders in the congestion on the Newington Causeway, and something croaks inaudibly out of the motionless machinery of the phone. Look at me, it whispers, look at me, look at me, look.

The child hardly makes a sound. A voiceless velar burp. ‘Uk.

And then it rings.

I don’t know what it is. But I know the name of the thing on the other end of the line.

%d bloggers like this: