Idiot Joy Showland

This is why I hate intellectuals

Category: Literature, Philosophy & Theory

The voice from the black hole


People are right about exactly one thing when it comes to YouTube: the place is a hole. They talk about falling in, starting out with the surface-level cats and music videos, until the recommendation algorithm does its work and they suddenly discover that they’ve turned into a Nazi. They talk about the depths. They talk about a tunnel or a vortex. This is all true, in a very literal sense. Most of the internet is a membrane, and things skim across its flat surface. That’s what it means when something goes viral: it becomes lubricated, slippery; it rolls, fluid and unstoppable, between the corners of the world. But every location is indexed, searchable, on precise co-ordinates and open to a roving gaze. It’s true that some parts of this flat surface are fenced off – locked Twitter accounts, private forums, paywalled websites, academic journals – but there’s always a high degree of entropy at work, wearing down the levees. Someone takes a screenshot. Someone’s account gets hacked. Any sufficient quantity of liquid content will inevitably end up slopping over the walls. But YouTube is something else.

It’s taken the mainstream quite a while to notice exactly what’s been happening on the site. But, to be fair, how were they supposed to find it? Text and images are synchronic: they’re arranged, fixed and static, to be scanned over, harvested, and thrown away. Video is diachronic: its basic unit isn’t meaning, but time. And YouTube contains a lot of time. Five hundred hours are uploaded to the site every minute. An entire human lifespan goes up every day. Thirty thousand years’ worth of video is added every year, which is six times longer than the entirety of written history.

Forty thousand years ago, the first known piece of figurative art was created: a sculpture in mammoth ivory of a man with the head of a lion. We don’t know what the lion-man did, or why it was produced. We don’t know what worlds of meaning its distant creators inhabited. This was the beginning of human cultural history, and in total YouTube archives a span of time fifty times longer than that. If unbroken generations had lived their lives watching every single YouTube video uploaded up until today, the first in the chain would have been an australopithecine, a squatting ape whose only tools were sticks and stones. You’re paddling out over that same chasm every time you watch someone opening boxes or shoutily explaining their political opinions on YouTube. It’s an accretion of masses and masses of impacted time, heaped over itself, condensed down to a single point. It’s a hole torn through the fabric of the universe.

Down in these depths, there are celebrities you’ve never heard of. Millions of children are obsessed with other, perfectly ordinary children, who mostly just answer questions about their favourite colours. Millions of adult men watch other adult men playing videogames. There are nursery rhymes and cartoon skits for toddlers that feature injections, decapitations, and torture. There are flat earthers and anti-vaxxers and people who think ordinary geometrical coincidence is a vast system of Satanic symbolism. There are senseless centuries that seem to have been spun out by algorithms. And what a surprise: just like the dark side of the moon, just like the inaccessible plains of the Antarctic, this black hole is full of Nazis.

I’ve been aware of right-wing YouTube for years now, before it started piling up real-world bodies in the street, before one of its heroes ran a hilariously failed Ukip election bid, before it became something that ordinary parents felt they had to worry about. What always struck me, far more than the antisemitism and the conspiracy theories, was just how lonely it was. A man sits in front of a camera, alone, and talks at rambling length about how the Jews are ruining everything. They’re talking in an empty room. Nobody’s actually there. And unlike film or TV, internet video is almost structurally designed to be viewed alone. You don’t watch it with a friend or a partner, you just share it on other digital platforms, to other people in other empty rooms.

This isolation is there even for the right-wing YouTubers who made it big – but most people never make it big. So many of the channels I saw had viewerships in the low tens, and these people still churn out videos, day after day, hour after hour. I found one, a video titled My message to the radical left, which had been viewed exactly once: by me. The orator sways and wobbles and pokes the phone camera up his nostril. You created your enemy, he says, and that was your biggest mistake, because with the anti-discrimination and the affirmative action you never leave us alone. Did this person know that I was the one he’d be talking to? Could he know that his message would, at long last, reach its destination?

YouTube was always going to end up being ruled by the right, because right-wing politics are a politics of loneliness. The helpless, atomised individual, endlessly at war with the world around them and everyone in it, desperate to cling to some imagined national, cultural, racial, or political community,  talking to an enemy who isn’t there. The new 14 words: Oh yeah, and by the way, please don’t forget to like, share, and subscribe. If the site’s algorithms seem to be sending people into a tunnel to reaction, it’s because that’s what’s there; if the site has become a fascist playground, it’s because fascism is the sickness of internet video as a medium.

As always, the symptom gets confused with the disease. A lot of people seem to know intuitively that there’s something very badly wrong with the grand system of online video, but that complaint ends up turning into a very limited demand: YouTube just needs to kick the Nazis off its platform, and then it’ll be fine. It will not be fine. The platform itself, the whole complex of platform capitalism, is a machine for making Nazis, and the Nazis are only the most visible of its products.

This is why the mostly well-intentioned attempt to foster a leftist YouTube community is doomed to fail. It feels (with one or two honourable exceptions) deeply awkward, and not just because of the gangliness of the people who make these videos, or the way their jokes tend to fall flat. It’s the wrong content being shoehorned into the wrong form. Mass participatory politics can’t be fully expressed by one person talking to a camera in an empty room, in the same way that the unknown shamanism that surrounded the lion-man figurine couldn’t be expressed in a Papal bull, and mathematical proofs make poor protest chants. The left that takes shape on YouTube and the various other social media platforms tends to be a gloss over something that remains fundamentally reactionary: bickering and resentment, cringiness and vituperation, a bitter identification with imagined national, cultural, racial, or political communities, a subject at war with the world around them and everything in it. You can make a video or a blog post against neoliberal atomisation if you want, but it’s still in you, baked in to your every word.

It can’t be drowned out and it can’t be switched off. The only way to shut down the fascist creep on YouTube is to shut down YouTube itself.

This is, for obvious reasons, not Google’s preferred approach. For a long time, they simply did nothing, which is at the very least a coherent approach. The line goes that the site is a platform rather than a publisher, anyone can use it, and the firm isn’t responsible for what people throw into the hole it’s given them. And in any case, something like YouTube is impossible to effectively moderate. If you wanted full scrutiny, you’d need 90,000 moderators, watching every single newly uploaded video on eight-hour shifts. (YouTube presently has about 2,000 employees.) Pay them $10 an hour, and that’s $7.9bn a year. The complaints of liberal internet users are not worth $7.9bn a year. But they are worth something. And while the vast tunnel of YouTube can’t be effectively explored by humans, it can be processed by machines.

YouTube already used artificial intelligence to clamp down on nudity and copyright infringement in videos; now, in the wake of some stupid scandal, it’s doing the same for politics. The problems with this approach (even putting aside the inevitable free-speech squabble, or questions over whether we really want to give giant capitalist tech firms the power to determine what is and isn’t politically acceptable) are obvious. Almost as soon as the new anti-Nazi robot was installed, a slew of antifascist videos were taken offline, often for using Nazi imagery such as the swastika. If they’re smart, actual Nazis tend not to brandish swastikas in people’s faces, because the symbol has a well-known off-putting effect. Antifascists, who want people to know exactly what it is they’re fighting against, will deploy the swastika, for precisely the same reason.

Maybe these issues will be ironed out. More likely, people will end up learning what to do and what not to do to avoid being flagged up by the algorithms. Computers tend to have a hard time processing irony, ambiguity, and the use-mention distinction, so these things will vanish from our discourse and our two-million-year archive. (Of course, this was already happening.) We will start to think a little more like machines, sorting everything into clear, cold categories. We will start to speak less and less in language, and more and more in code.

This isn’t new; every technology turns human thought, to some degree, into an extension of itself. No animism without pigment, no Enlightenment materialism without clockwork gears, no fascism without radio. The difference is that previous technologies only left their stamp on relations between human subjects, while digital communications interposes itself entirely. This is why, even if it works perfectly, with no discursive collateral damage, algorithmic moderation is still a nightmare – not because it closes down the flows of speech, but because it creates a concentrated torrent of non-communication. I might have been the only person to view My message to the radical left, but despite the title it wasn’t to me. The intersubjective dimension is draining out of the world; what’s left is empty talk, psychotic mumbling, externalised monologue – not addressed to another human, but pouring itself into the void. All those people in front of cameras in empty rooms: they’re talking to and for the machine. They put their lips to the black hole and speak, and no echo meets them out of its infinite and lonely depths.

PS: The problem is that a lot of what I’ve said about internet video here also applies to writing. Literature is also solitary, composed in silence, read in silence; it’s a fundamentally pathetic and asocial activity. In writing, we also talk to the inscription-machine more than we do to any actual reader: as Derrida argues in his commentary on Lacan’s seminar on The Purloined Letter, a letter never reaches its destination. One property of writing is its capacity to go unread. That said, three points in defence of my practice: writing is not embeddable within a concentrated technical platform; the materials of writing are not (necessarily) a global communications infrastructure but an emergent and mutually agreed-upon system of words; writing is removed from its object, and therefore involves a properly significatory aspect that video – which can only enframe, capture, and replicate – lacks. As such, it’s intersubjective in a way that video can not be, because words are not an exterior technology but the foundational stuff of subjectivity. But maybe we’ll have to get rid of all this as well.


How to disdain your dragon

I have never been here before: my breath comes differently, the sun is outshone by a star beside it.
Kafka, Aphorism 17


Literary fiction these days is crap, isn’t it? It might be better if the problem were just that most books are worthless – they are, but that’s always been the case; you always need a few decades to let the dross sink. There’s still good stuff out there; the blame must be placed squarely with you, the readers. Because somehow, even with your lives constantly probed and perforated, shokushu-like, by digital text, you people have forgotten how to read.

Look at what was probably the most significant literary event of the last few years, the publication of Kristen Roupenian’s short story “Cat Person”. The story of two people who meet, text each other, have awful unsatisfying sex, and then drift apart, “Cat Person” is written in a brisk, frank, stark, plain, competent, readable style. It includes sentences like ‘Robert sent her back a smiley-face emoji whose eyes were hearts’ and ‘maybe, she thought, her texting “lol r u serious” had hurt him, had intimidated him and made him feel uncomfortable around her.’ It describes a situation that’s fairly familiar – just about everyone I know, both male and female, has been in the position it describes, of having sex with someone out of a sense of exhausted duty, going through the motions so as not to upset or disappoint the other person, of resigning yourself to a basically joyless life. It’s very easy to point at one or both of the basically hapless couple and say: it me. It’s all very well-observed, a very plausible dip into the mind of a tedious neurotic. It was received very well.

But something about this reception was strange. Shortly after the story exploded, people were announcing – in breathless, almost angry tones – that the author was actually a writer, that Roupenian actually had an MFA, and a PhD in English from Harvard to boot, that “Cat Person” might actually be a deliberately constructed work of fiction. This feels like a strange thing to be saying about a short story published in the New Yorker, but it was necessary. Broad swathes of the reading public seemed determined to read “Cat Person” as anything other than literature. Something about that brisk, frank, stark, plain style marked it off as something else: a piece of reportage, a personal account, a confession, an accusation. Something about the naïve realism of the literary voice made people assume that the author herself had to be a naïf, unadorned with any kind of creative untruth. Opinion writers – many of whom had their own degrees in English literature – refused to see it as a text to be evaluated; instead, the point was apparently to simply correctly identify the goodie and the baddie in the story, and hate the baddie appropriately. This is how children read. What is going on?

All this is particularly strange when you consider that “Cat Person” was written in a very particular ritual dialect called Mfalé, which emerged out of the temple complexes in Norwich and Iowa City, and is short for MFA Literary English. But the thing about Mfalé is that it tries to make itself invisible: it’s the style of no style; simple, unadorned, correct realist writing. This is how it became a vernacular; this is why Mfalé literature is so easily read as something other than literature. But for all that, it’s still a set of conventions, as basically artificial as any other.

Texts written in Mfalé are brisk, frank, stark, plain, competent, and readable. They concern the daily lives of a few everyday characters, usually young, usually in some kind of bad sexual relationship or complicated breakup, usually mediated by digital technology. There’s a close attention to sensory detail, and an even closer attention to minor affective nuances: moments of inattention or miscommunication, people who see each other as more or less than they actually are, small eddies of desperation or loneliness or regret. There’s a lot of banal but realistically rendered dialogue. Stories are generally (but not always) written in the third person, but hew very closely to one particular perspective. If they’re not autobiographical, they read very strongly as if they might be autobiographical. They’re implicitly universal, but shy away from allegory, symbolism, or satire; instead of being general they’re relatable, so that each incident could plausibly echo a situation in your own life in a blossoming of one-to-one correspondences, so that the reader can imagine that the smart but fucked-up girl or the soulful but awkward boy is themselves and nobody else. Unlike some terminally online writers you might want to name, the authors of these works aren’t adverbially preening themselves with strange words or sentences elongated into unreadability – but they’re also not self-consciously flat or affectless or nihilistic. They gesture towards a kind of emotional hyperliteracy. If the author is showing off about something, it’s how much they see, how well they understand the social pitfalls of ordinary life.

I find these texts to be, in general, deeply creepy. If literature is not only a reproduction of social existence, but a site in the production of subjectivity, then this form is a machine for creating paranoiacs. The narrative is odourless and invisible, practically absent altogether, but it sees everything. It watches every minute shift in your emotional state, and jots it down. It’s the literary voice of the creature hiding in the shadows. The technology didn’t arrive until afterwards, but there might be a reason this style is so dominant now: it’s the literature of the social-media panopticon, where everyone is sitting blank-faced behind a screen, watching each other, and waiting for a chance to judge.

This would all be forgivable, if it weren’t for the fact that these texts are also profoundly unrealistic. Take, for instance, Sally Rooney’s novel Normal People, which is definitely one of the better instances of the form. The story concerns a couple who get together, then split up again, then get together again, then split up again, then get together again, and in the final pages are implied to be about to split up again. Like “Cat Person”, it’s well observed and very competently written. But this is a story about young Irish people in the present day, and not once in the entire novel does anyone actually crack a joke. Every conversation is deeply earnest and deeply fraught. These people just have feelings, and conceal or talk about them, and are utterly po-faced throughout.

Realist fiction is not realistic. After all, what is a joke? It’s the eruption of a kind of abstract absurdity into the social world, an absurdity that throws everything into sharp relief, that reveals a certain truth that was previously buried, but without simply representing it. Realism is always meticulously anti-absurdist: everything has to be believable, or it’s harder to relate. Which is how you end up with a vision of human existence that rings true in every particular, but fails to add up to anything, that presents people as always diminished, petty, and dull. As Borges notes of Proust, these fictional events are ‘unacceptable as inventions, and we unwittingly resign ourselves to them as we resign ourselves to the insipidity and the emptiness of each new day.’

As well as instant fame, “Cat Person” gave Kristen Roupenian a $1.2 million advance on her book. But when You Know You Want This was published this year, it was to tepid, cautious reviews. Some of the awkwardness that surrounds an apostate: aside from “Cat Person” itself and one or two others, the texts it contains are not written in Mfalé. Instead, they’re fabular, artifical, constructed; less like a story and more like a tale, something like the Grimm brothers, Kafka, or the Arabian Nights. They describe situations that it’s harder to relate to, because you’ve never fused all your enemies into a giant flesh-monster, or killed your husband because of a bucket. People are depthless, obscure and obscene. In the LRB, a frustrated reviewer took to parenthetically adding ‘(no reason)’ every time one of Roupenian’s characters did something that couldn’t be understood. These stories carry a note of the inexplicable. A rising strangeness that’s set against the background of mundane thoughts and lives, and seems to emerge out of it, but in a way that can’t be reduced to that setting. This is what reviewers complained about: you have a story about a young couple forced to deal with what’s obviously a metaphor for Our Modern-Day Issues With Self-Esteem, a woman obsessing over every inch of her skin with a magnifying glass – but then the metaphor ‘pierces through her flesh and wriggles free,’ alive, spiked with thousands of tiny legs, and incapable of thinking neurotically about what it might mean.

Tales, in general, are truer than stories. Here’s one, related by Borges in The Dialogues of Ascetic and King: one night, an old man arrives at the court of Olaf Tryggvason, who had been converted to Christianity while in England. The king asks him what he can do, and the old man replies that he knows how to play the harp and tell stories. After a few songs, he relates the story of the birth of Odin. Three Fates arrived at the god’s birth; two prophesied great fortune and happiness, but the third, in a rage, said: you will live no longer than the candle burning by your side, and so Odin’s parents quickly extinguished the candle. Olaf Tryggvason doesn’t believe the story, and the two of them debate the matter into the night, until the lights are dim and the stranger finally announces that it is late, and he must leave. After the lights have exhausted themselves, the king and his men go out to search for him. A few steps from the king’s house, Odin is lying dead.

It’s a melancholy story. The passing of an era, the roar of the old gods fading to a few quiet notes on the harp, the way Odin comes to inhabit the meekness of the Christ that overthrew him. But it’s not just a historical artefact. It feels true, without having any obvious point of identification or clear symbolic meaning. Sad dignity, resignation, and the inexplicable, because life itself is often sad and thankless and strange. The sense, somewhere, of an entirely different way of being, a different way of relating to the snow and the gods and time, a dying world, but one that still echoes, that’s curled up tight inside our potential selves, even today.

All of this, of course, is by way of talking about Game of Thrones.

It’s become a commonplace to point out just how uncreative most fantasy is. I’m sometimes struck by it, reading the blurbs on the fantasy novels at the Tube station mini library. Gogorax is an apprentice Brightcaster – a wielder of powerful magic. When the evil Lord Zugenhelm threatens the realm of Palovar, he must embark on a journey that leads him past the Pillars of Plib and the swamplands of Plonts to collect the five mystical Orbs of Power. This is what’s called worldbuilding, but it’s not world that’s being built. A world is a way of experiencing reality and other people; it’s the unit of social and phenomenological difference. The greatest builder of fantasy worlds in literature was probably Bruno Schulz, who set all his stories in the same quiet Polish town. What these authors build are only geographies.

The innovation of Game of Thrones was supposedly to build a more realistic world. Instead of the hollow creatures of schlock-fantasy – the trueborn heir, the dark lord, the sturdy peasant – you get fleshed-out characters, with the same family squabbles and romantic disappointments you’ve learned to expect from Rooney or Knausgaard. When the war against an undead evil comes, you still need to worry about how you’re going to feed the horses. Even if there’s a bit of magic here and there, it’s all ultimately about politics: it’s realist fiction with dragons in. But then, in the last two seasons, the glamour of realism started to wear off.

An online petition demanding that the final season be scrapped and remade has gathered, at the time of writing, three billion signatures. But beyond the self-evident fact that this show has become extremely bad, the complaint is actually quite incoherent. On the one hand, viewers are upset that ‘character arcs’ aren’t being respected, that the show’s done away with the narrative conventions of high fantasy. The magic zombie army is destroyed in a single battle, almost as a prelude to three more episodes of squabbling and politics! It’s not even the secret trueborn heir who defeats them! In the end, he doesn’t even take the throne! Why isn’t this The Lord of the Rings? But at the same time, the show is no longer realistic. How are these characters zipping instantaneously around the map? Why did they put the catapults in front of their infantry? How come she couldn’t see all those ships? What happened to the Mongols? Why do characters no longer do things that an actual person would do in their situation, but act as if tugged along by invisible lines of plot?

I’m not here to defend one of the biggest and most lucrative culture-commodities of the twenty-first century. A complaint can be both incoherent and also correct (in fact, they usually are). I just want to talk about one particular scene. In the penultimate episode, Dragon Hillary finally gets everything she ever wanted. Her troops breach the walls of the enemy’s capital, the forces opposing them surrender, the crown is practically tossed at her feet. And in this moment, as the bells ring, the liberator goes on a murderous rampage, burning and killing hundreds of thousands of innocent people – once she’s already won – for, as the LRB would put it, (no reason).

You could talk about this in terms of cheap and lazy plotting, rushed heel-turns, violence against the character. This is dull. You could talk about representation and the distrust of women in power, or crow that Dragon Hillary turned out to be just like the real Hillary after all. This is also dull. So is Hobbes and realpolitik, the arbitrary violence of sacred kingships, the mass human sacrifices that accompanied royal successions in West Africa and Mesoamerica. What struck me about that scene – and it struck me hard, shortened breath and anxious heartbeats as the city burned – was how true it was to daily life. A child has a favourite toy confiscated; for weeks he begs to get it back, because it’s the thing he wants most in the world – and then when it’s returned, in a fit of sudden sourceless fury, he smashes the thing to bits. A basic psychoanalytic principle: the thing you want is never the thing you really want. The thing you really want, the objet petit a, is the impossible thing, the thing that isn’t, the thing that flies with dragons in the night. And Dragon Hillary, watching her victory from a distance, isn’t satisfied. She thought this would make her happy, but it’s not enough; happiness doesn’t work like that. So she burns it all down – and afterwards it’s too late; you can burn it down, but you can’t fix it once that’s done, and you can’t fix yourself. (In a better show, the next episode would have had her advisors confront her in those terms: so, do you feel better now? Did you get it out of your system?) I’ve felt that urge before, that vertigo. You have too.

You can describe all this with realist narrative and without any dragons. Of course you can; it’s what I’m trying to do right now. But it’s missing something, and it’ll never be as real. It will always lack the impossibility and inexplicability of our lives. It will miss the fact that we all live with our fingertips trailing through other worlds. It will forget that we are lit by other suns.



Avengers: Endgame, or, why this is all your fault


You were born. For billions of years, the universe existed and you were not alive. There were stars and lights and giant lizards and Romans and so on, but it all took place under a kind of invisible shroud, the blackness of non-experience. One day you will go back into that blackness, and it will be as if the universe had never existed. But you are alive now, in the early twenty-first century – and because of that fact, the human race will probably be extinct within the next thousand years.

This is called the Doomsday Argument, and frankly it makes a lot of sense. This subjectivity, this you-ness that you experience, could have come into the world at any point in human history. You could have been one of those Romans, but you weren’t. You were born in the middle of the greatest population explosion in human history. Two hundred years ago, the global population barely scraped a billion; it took nearly a century for that number to double. It’ll be eight billion soon. You were born in the time in which there were more people than ever before – and did you think this was a coincidence? You’re here now because now is the most likely time for you to be here. You’re here now because you’re not special.

The argument is a version of the German Tank Problem, which goes something like this. Millions of people are dying horribly in the Second World War, and in the middle of all this chaos you’ve managed to sneak a spy into a German tank factory – but they’re soon discovered, and manage to escape with their life having only taken one photo. A tank’s chassis, with the serial number 396. So: how many tanks are the Nazis producing? Keep in mind that the answer is crucial to the war effort. They might have only built four hundred tanks, and your spy happened to snap one of the last off the assembly line. Or maybe your spy caught one of the first, and the Germans are building millions of the things, tens of millions, enough tanks to drive into the English Channel, fill it up, and keep on driving, simply flattening everything from Dover to Durness. But in both cases, the probability is low. There’s only a 1% chance this tank is in the first or last 1% of tanks made. Without any other data, you have to assume that the one instance you’re aware of is probably somewhere around the middle of the distribution. So: eight hundred tanks total, give or take. This was a statistical method the Allies actually used, based on serial numbers from captured vehicles. After the war, when production figures from the Reichsministerium für Rüstung were analysed, the statistical method turned out to have been almost spookily accurate, far more so than the estimates given by ordinary intelligence. The nerds won. They always do.

You are a German tank. You were built by the Nazis to do evil in the world. The only data-point we have is that you are alive in the present day, and without anything else to work with, we have to assume that you were born vaguely in the middle of experiential history. Something like one hundred billion people have ever lived, so, once the dust clears and the final accounts are totted up, chances are there will have been around two hundred billion people to have lived and died on this miserable rock. But we’re still in the middle of a population explosion; we’re eating into that remaining one hundred billion faster than we’ve ever done before. The future of humanity will be much, much shorter than its past.

The simplest thing would be to kill you. Yes, I know, you didn’t ask for any of this – but the inevitable extinction of humanity is still entirely your fault, and it would still be pretty satisfying to make you suffer for it. But it’s too late now, your damage is already done. You doomed us all the moment you entered the world. The only thing you can really do is make sure that the life you’re living is worth the mass extinction it’s caused. It’s an impossible task, but you can try. Except you’re not even trying, are you? Life is short, and finite, and Avengers: Endgame is three goddamn hours long, and you watched it. You paid money to sit in a darkened room and eat popcorn and drink Coca-Cola while you watched Captain America travel into the past to knock himself unconscious and leer at his own ass, as if he’s about to pull down his own trousers and start fucking it. And now you’re reading a review of the same film, and every second that passes is lost forever. What the hell is wrong with you? How can you bear to look at yourself in the mirror? How do you sleep at night? Aren’t you ashamed of what you’ve done?

* * *

Look: I don’t understand the world, and even as a cultural critic, I’m ok with that. I don’t know why kids keep saying things like ‘yeet’ and ‘mood.’ I’m fine not knowing. The answer will end up being something horrible, mass lead poisoning maybe; I don’t want to find out. I don’t know why I’m haunted by intermittent intrusive visions of someone taking a disposable razor, sticking it in their mouth, and ‘shaving’ their gums. I don’t know why Americans who claim to be socialists are putting so much demented effort into opposing a less monstrous and cruel healthcare system. And I don’t really understand why people like the Avengers films; I have a theory, but I don’t really ‘get’ it. This is also fine. Not everyone will like the same things I like; it would be a terrible world if they did. What bothers me is the fact that the last two Avengers films also received near-universal critical acclaim, from people whose sole task on this earth it is to watch films and discern the good ones from the bad. These same people are basically united in the opinion that the DC comic book films are stupid, portentous, and ungainly, that their plots make no sense, that they keep hamfistedly telling us to care about fundamentally hollow characters, and that their over-long and terrifyingly expensive action sequences resolve into noisy tedium. But they like these ones. Why? What is it that’s crawled into their brains? Is there any way of getting it out again, or will we just have to line up every overgrown fanboy in every pivoted-to-online legacy publication in front of a ditch, and do what must be done?

These films are terrible. They’re not just bad in comparison to Tarkovsky or Bergman, bad in the way that all commmodity-culture is fundamentally bad. They’re bad as dumb action films. They fail to even meet the requirements of the genre. You are being pandered to and patronised. Why do you not want revenge?

In a New Yorker review, Richard Brody proposes that Avengers: Endgame could have been better if it spent more time delving into the characters and their emotions, if it dealt more seriously with the theme of loss. This is a terrible idea; he wants to turn the film with a giant blue alien into another tedious Hampstead novel. Instead, imagine taking a moderately bright and imaginative twelve-year-old boy and telling him you have a basically infinite budget to produce two films, which you want him to write. The films have to concern the Plot Emeralds, which were created alongside the universe itself, and contain the terrifying potencies of its six aspects: Space, Time, Mind, Soul, Reality, and Power. In the first film, a big purple villain manages to acquire all six IndecipheraBalls, and uses them to commit an act of cataclysmic evil. In the second, the bedraggled heroes band together and travel back in time to get the Sempiternal Zirconias back, and undo the damage he’s done. What kind of story would a twelve-year-old write? Probably, at a guess, one in which the narrative potential of these Chaos Crystals is actually explored. Space is spliced, cloned, distorted: the universe folds into terrifying new shapes, organic monstrosities unfurl from inorganic matter, the stars are dandruff, pebbles are planets, everything is a distortion of everything else. Time twists into loops and paradoxes; laser battles in medieval castles, Stone Age shamans hurling spears between distant suns. In the chaos, inert objects are ensouled and living creatures become mindless automatons; dreams blur with reality, unreal logics are set loose on the world, and our heroes have to battle in a universe turned to vapour.  For all the inevitable high-concept manoeuvres, it would probably be quite dumb. But at least it would be fun.

This is not what we get. The stones are barely used in either film. In the first, Thanos attaches them to a big glove and snaps his fingers: half of all living creatures suddenly die. In the second, the Hulk does the exact same thing, and everyone who died comes back. That’s basically it. What a waste! The real focus is always on the crossover aspect, the fact that every character from every Marvel film is here, together. Instead of the creative potentials of a twelve-year-old, these films are pitched towards the level of someone of around six. A child playing with the tie-in action figures, recombining the characters: what if Iron Man met Nebula? What if Star Lord teamed up with Thor? If the Bog-Hole fought Pencil-Guy, who would win? Five and a half cumulative hours of a media franchise showing us its various copyright properties, all in their original packaging. Let me be mawkish and hysterical for a moment. Is this the kind of imaginative model we want to pass on to our children? Are these the dreams we want them to dream? Is this sordid petty rearrangement all that they have left?

Superhero narratives have a fairly obvious social role. People are boring and frustrated; they’d like to be more than they are, but everyone is still somehow less than themselves. You can feel your existence fraying away at its fringes. Whatever life should have been, it isn’t this: not plasterboard bureaucracies staffed by people with irritating vocal tics; not slow-withering marriages, hair falling out, cartilage wearing thin, dreams unfulfilled, places unseen, books unwritten and unread; not Netflix automatically queuing up the next episode; not this couch, this rough fabric, this laundry, this potted plant, this foetid darkness of 11.26 pm on a Saturday night, this screen, this single life in a planet of seven billion lives, this life that will not be remembered, that will vanish without a trace into the ooze of unbeing, that will end having gone unlived, full of regret, emptying its nothing into the nothing that ever was and shall ever be. But this is what you get. So you have superheroes, people who live in the not-this. They can fly: where would you go, if you could fly? They can turn invisible or stop time: what hideous crimes would you commit, if you could turn invisible or stop time? They can beat anyone in a fight: how would you live, if you weren’t so afraid? And they have secret identities, because this freedom could belong to anyone, maybe even you.

The social function of a superhero story is to work through all these possibilities, to leave the audience with some of the libidinal payoffs that come with a brief excursion to the not-this, exhausted but satisfied, ready to go back to work. In Minima Moralia, Adorno complains that under conditions of domination, happiness is reduced to tawdry pleasure: one ‘has no choice but to find inspiration in the trashy film, the expensive but bad meal at the French restaurant, the serious “drink” and sexuality reduced to doses of “sex.”‘ The classic superhero story stands in the same relation to actual liberation as sex does to sexuality. But clearly, we’re no longer in that era. It’s got much, much worse. Another layer of ersatzification has formed over our enjoyments. That vague sense of the not-this has been hardened and crystallised into the hermetic detachability of a cinematic universe, in the same way that the vastness of love and sexuality became the healthy energetic pleasures of sex, and then contracted further into porn: rigid and isolated, infinitely distant from the actual act. The vision of another existence no longer needs to explore the unfolding of human potentials. It can just as easily be maintained in their annihilation. After all, these characters are dealing with the fundamental forces of the universe, but they’re absurdly under-powered. One of them is a superhero by dint of being good at archery. Not that it matters. A made-up world where meaningless heroes fight meaningless monsters with meaningless names.

It works. You love it. It takes you out of yourself for a moment. It’s like you’re already dead.

* * *

Thanos is a Malthusian, but he doesn’t appear to have any books on his big spaceship of doom, so we’ll have to assume that he’s never actually read Malthus. This has to be the case, otherwise he would never have thought that exterminating one-half of the living population of the universe would make things any better. Too many people, he says, not enough to go round – but he’s forgotten that the number of people will still continue to grow, and it’ll grow faster if there are more resources available. So he snaps his fingers, and returns the Earth’s population to what it was in the year 1973, when we had no problems whatsoever.

1973, as it happens, was the year of the economic crisis that put an end to the era of social-democratic expansion in the First World. In its wake, we got the beginnings of neoliberalism, the financialisation of the economy, the replacement of common ownership with cheap credit. This new system met its own major crisis with the economic collapse of 2008. That was also the year that Iron Man, the first film in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, was released.

And this is supposed to be a coincidence?

* * *

It’s maybe not entirely true that there’s no element of wish-fulfilment fantasy in Avengers: Endgame. The heroes don’t maintain secret identities while performing exhilarating feats in their spare time, but they do go back into the past, correct their mistakes, and resurrect the loved ones that they’ve lost. This fantasy has a decent pedigree, right back to Gilgamesh and Orpheus. And I get it: when tragedy has struck in my own life, there’s always been an irrational part of my mind that’s told me this isn’t real, you can go back, you can undo it all. I’d like to undo it all. I’d like to go back and tell that first cell not to split, avoid all the trauma of differentiation, let life in its entirety persist in a singular eternal prokaryotic bliss. It can’t be done, which is why I’m a melancholic, constantly splitting and doubling my ego, introducing new traumas and breaks, to preserve all the objects that were lost. But it’s nice to see someone manage to do it onscreen.

Except – what is this underworld that we enter to resurrect the dead? Here, it’s the past, but a specific past: they go back into the previous Avengers films. We get to see the big scaly monsters from the first instalment invade New York again, only this time our heroes are standing around wryly commenting on the action, rather than participating in it. We’re watching Thor again, and the first moments of Guardians of the Galaxy. The stakes have vanished; it’s been doubled into farce. And this is happening everywhere. Sequels and reboots aren’t enough; now the Hollywood nostalgia-machine is umping out simple recapitulation, serving up the exact same warmed-over pap that we’ve already seen. One of the new Star Wars films overlaps directly with the first trilogy, with the help of a CGI Carrie Fisher. A decent chunk of 2015’s Terminator Genisys takes place within the action of the 1984 original. In Jurassic World, one of the more interesting examples, the sequel itself appears within the film as a ravenous and unholy monster cooked up by mercurial executives, which tramples all over Spielberg’s legacy before finally being taken down by the iconic tyrannosaur. What is going on?

Theory is comfortable with self-reference, but this is something else. The classical poststructuralist metaphysics of inscription constrains its institution of difference within a horizon of ineradicability. Writing institutes a relation to death precisely because, unlike the vocal utterance, it survives its author, whose death and absence ‘belongs to the structure of all writing.’ Omar Khayyam had it: ‘The moving finger writes, and having writ, moves on; nor all thy piety nor wit shall lure it back to cancel half a line, nor all thy tears wash out a word of it.’ In Derrida, writing is figured as a negative space, a break or chasm in matter: track or footprint, chisel to stone, fissuring neurones. It is also indifferent to its substrate; without writing, the lithographic ‘slate’ is in a state of ‘virginity’ – but further, writing must ‘produce the space and materiality of the sheet itself.’ This notion is articulated in his essay Freud and the Scene of Writing, itself a reading of Freud’s Notiz über den Wunderblock. Here he compares the function of the perceptual system to a children’s toy, the Mystic Writing Pad, consisting of a clear plastic sheet pressed against a block of wax. By making marks with a stylus on the plastic sheet, you can record words and images; lift the sheet away, and the surface is cleared. But even though these traces are no longer visible, they are retained, imperceptibly, within the wax. The analogy is not perfect: Freud notes that to function like the mind, it would have to be possible for the wax to recall and make use of marks that had already been withdrawn from the surface, to bring them back again after they’d been erased. ‘It would be a mystic pad indeed if it could accomplish that.’ Here, in the twenty-first century, we can recognise what he’d done. In 1925, Sigmund Freud invented the computer.

You are reading this review of Avengers: Endgame sequentially, from the beginning to the end, maybe skipping over the boring bits, maybe giving up halfway through, but treating it as what it is: a written block of linear time. But I wrote it on a computer, and as I wrote it I continually went back, changing things, fixing things, dipping in and out of linear time at will – because I badly need an editor, but I’m doing my best. In Paper Machine, Derrida gives some thought to the potentials of word processing. ‘With the computer, everything is rapid and so easy; you get to thinking that you can go on revising forever.’ But the operative word here is rapid: throughout, he conceives of digital writing as an acceleration of existing processes. Before the computer, actions were ‘slow, heavy, and sometimes off-putting,’ now, ‘the word processor saves an amazing amount of time.’ It’s ‘a question of speed and rhythm,’ differing velocities on the same course. But digital text abolishes the sequential ‘now’ of writing; there is no speed and there is no course, only an endless folding and complication, potentially interminable revisions, a text that is endlessly going back and fixing itself, reanimating its own corpse.

The desire to bring back the dead, to re-present the impressions that have been wiped clean – this isn’t Orpheus, because Orpheus had to go elsewhere, into the underworld, into the future, to smooth over the gaps in the world. In Avengers: Endgame, the journey is into the past, into itself, into the existing body of text, pulling out a section, pasting it into the roving present. It’s the dream the computers have dreamed for us. And this dream is incapable of computing finality. (Even after I publish this review, if I find a typo I can stick my hands back into the thing and fix it.) But the world itself is only a final and oncoming horizon. Is it any wonder, then, that we seem to be so incapable of dealing with something like climate change, stuck in our endlessly editable fantasia? Is it any wonder that you’re wasting your life watching Avengers: Endgame and reading reviews of Avengers: Endgame, even while the circle of light that surrounds you is narrowing, and the blackness tightens closer to crush you through your skin?

At a showing of Avengers: Endgame in Fullerton, California, an entire film-going audience was unwittingly exposed to measles. The measles virus, of course, works by sticking its glycoproteins into a host cell, and editing the cell’s DNA to produce more viruses. It causes around one hundred thousand deaths a year. More meat for the past; a slow swelling in the ranks of the one hundred billion who brought us here, to this moment, to this film, to you. Can you really pretend that it isn’t your fault?

Scenes from the Žižek-Peterson debate


[Applause. SLAVOJ ŽIŽEK and JORDAN PETERSON are standing in a big cauldron, tied together back-to-back, before an audience of CANNIBALS from a racist 19th century cartoon. The CHIEF CANNIBAL, or at least the one with the largest bone through his nose, prances around the cauldron, humming an obscure tune and freezing at regular intervals to hiss and violently shake a long staff at the two debaters. He is the moderator. Once this ritual is complete, he gives the cauldron a good sharp kick, and it rings satisfyingly. The AUDIENCE squats. They spit betel juice into the damp earth. We are ready to begin.]

MODERATOR: Thank you, thank you all. I’d like to start by acknowledging that we are on the ancestral lands of the earthworms, who funnelled the soil through their bodies before we walked upon it, and who will eat us when we die.


MODERATOR: So: we have something of a treat for you tonight – two of the most prolific and controversial scholars in the humanities, Slavoj Žižek and Jordan Peterson, finally coming head to head, here to debate the motion ‘For God’s sake, not me, don’t eat me, eat him.’ Arguing for the motion is Professor Žižek. Slavoj Žižek is the author of over eight thousand books, some of which are slightly different. Stunning in its breadth and fluency, his work has touched on Lacan, Hegel, Marx, what would happen if they were cold pockets instead of hot pockets, what the deal is with airline food, and whether or not we deserve doggos. Among his roster of impressive academic titles, he is Global Distinguished Professor at NYU’s College of Dentistry, Professor of Philosophy and Psychoanalysis at the European Graduate Dental School, International Director at Birkbeck Dental Institute, and a Senior Researcher at the Department of Dental Diseases and Endodontics at the University of Ljubljana.

[ŽIŽEK hacks up what appears to be a small quantity of frogspawn onto his shirt.]

MODERATOR: Arguing against the motion, we’re very lucky to have Dr Peterson, who shot to fame after he filmed himself eating dog turds to prevent Islam. He’s received further notoriety for his self-help book Crying Yourself to Dignity, sleeps surrounded by Soviet propaganda for apparently non-sexual reasons, and is currently serving on the editorial review board for a twelve-year-old’s Disney blog. The debate will work like this. Each participant will have ten minutes to make an opening statement, which will be followed by three minutes for rebuttals, before we open it up to the audience, who will be able to ask questions and then eat one of the debaters. Professor Žižek, you’re arguing for the motion, so if you’d like to start?

[Applause. PETERSON rolls his eyes.]

ŽIŽEK: Thank you, thank you, no, no, thank you.

[He does his bit about Stalin clapping for himself.]

ŽIŽEK: I’m very glad to be here, my God, in this pot, to be cooked and eaten and so on and so on. In this situation, I am reminded of one of my beloved Radio Yerevan jokes from Soviet Union. You will see, I have a very vulgar sense of humour.

[Indescribable throat noises.]

ŽIŽEK: So the listener asks, is it true that Marx, Engels, and Lenin were stealing the wheelbarrows? And Radio Yerevan replies, in principle yes, but with three corrections. First, it wasn’t Marx, Engels, and Lenin, but you, second, you weren’t stealing them but being gifted them, and third, they weren’t wheelbarrows, but a pair of testicles hanging underneath your chin. I claim, is this not our situation today? I like this joke in that it repeats itself. You will see what I mean. First you have the heroes of the grand socialism of twentieth century, my God, in reality it is only yourself, the politics of the self. The act of stealing the wheelbarrows, in which we see labour activism, fighting your bosses, insurrection, all that bullshit: they are not what is taken, but precisely that which is given to us by power. You know, I was at Occupy, but now I have no time for these things, it is precisely the form prescribed by capitalism. It is as Jacques Lacan said to the revolutionary students in Paris ’68 – as hysterics, what you want is a new master.

[He does his bit about perverse fantasy vs. hysterical questioning.] 

ŽIŽEK: But see what is happening in this joke! Here I agree with my good friend Alain Badiou – the testicles are the least shameful area of the body, precisely because they belong to the part of the Real; there is no testicular enjoyment, testicular desire, and so on, and so on. They constitute the remainder, the third term that destabilises the system, it is here that the truth of the system will be found. In the whole of Freud, he refers to the testicles only twelve times, and the penis, you know, on every page he has the penis, if you look. But do you know this, Freud’s first research as a physician was to try to find the testicles of an eel by, how do you say in English, disekcija, cutting up hundreds of eels to find their balls. You do not need me to finish the joke, you are good Lacanians: he did not find them. The eels, they are very postmodern, very LGBT-plus, they do not grow the balls until mating season comes, eel gets horny, and they appear.

[He does his bit about the Hegelian implications of ‘being a plus’ in LGBT+.]

ŽIŽEK: Now Freud says in his letters, he writes: I cannot find these testicles, all the specimens must therefore be female, das schönere Geschlecht. In this, I claim, we find the model of the entire theory of castration complex. It is not, as the postmodern feminists will tell you, that Freud can only see woman as a mutilated man. No! The true history of Freudian psychoanalysis is the history of a fruitless search precisely for the mutilation, for testicles within the, sorry to be vulgar, the impenetrable feminine-phallic body of the eel. But what is it when the testicles appear underneath the chin? Just as what was taken is in fact a gift, now the Real we try to encounter in revolution becomes this grotesque ornament. Here I am a pessimist. It is not that mystical bullshit, the answers will always elude us, we have limited intellect, truth is outside our grasp, and so on and so on. No! The answers are literally under our noses, but they are only a pair of testicles, they will not satisfy you. But I see from our moderator that I am running out of time talking about the testicles on his chin, ok, so enough stupid jokes, I will address the question. You know, my critics will tell me that as a Communist I should not be arguing for this motion, that I should take the militant posture, sacrifice my life, heroically demand that I be eaten instead of Dr Peterson, and so on and so on. But here I claim that in this stance we do not see the testicles on the groin, the proper functioning of things, but precisely the testicles on the face. The renunciation of desire is in itself a perversion, because there is no ordinary operation of things in which the testicles that have no proper place are in their proper place.

MODERATOR: Slavoj Žižek, thank you very much.

[He throws a bay leaf and some peppercorns into the cauldron.]


[He chuckles. A pause.]

PETERSON: I suppose I’m meant to respond to this, but I think my opponent’s made my case for me already. He claims I have a pair of testicles on my chin. I don’t. It simply isn’t true at all. I challenge you to find even one, let alone two. Clearly Professor Žižek doesn’t have the faintest bloody idea about basic human anatomy. It’s an absolutely dreadful lie, it’s a horrible thing for a distinguished professor to be teaching people, and it’s the kind of degeneration of civilised debate that happens when you allow this neo-Marxism to take over our universities. Professor Žižek is upholding an ideology that brutally murdered tens of millions of people, starved them in gulags, shot them in ditches, all because they held to the nonsense idea that people could have testicles on their chins. Totally contrary to biology, and when you come up against the laws of nature you need to be ready, man, because they will always win. I think the only sane solution is to just damn well eat him. Among certain species of amoeba, they performed a study, the amoebae will hold a debate on abstract concepts, and the losers are digested by the winners. And you see the same principle in the Bible, when Elijah holds an Parliamentary-style debate with the prophets of Baal and slaughters five hundred of them on a point of information. So you can complain, or call this injustice, but you have to accept that the most competent individual will always win, and elites are there for a reason.

[There’s a whine like escaping gas. Has the fire been lit? But the wood’s still dry; it’s just Jordan Peterson, thinking.]

PETERSON: Except academic elites, they don’t count.

[The CANNIBALS nod sagely and make hungry humming noises.]

PETERSON: There’s an important archetype you should know about here, and that’s the Devouring Mother. There’s the Devouring Mother in Babylonian myth, the monster Tiamat, and in some of the early Care Bears cartoons. And the Devouring Mother teaches you that if you’re not careful, the same things that created you are going to consume you, and that’s life, man. It goes to show that these behaviours have been with us for a long time. You can’t just throw out these traditions, you can’t go into a fantasy world where you pretend they don’t exist, unless they tell you to eat a varied diet of grains, pulses, fruits, and vegetables. So maybe if more discussions were run like this, and people understood that the consequences of falling into this kind of pernicious nonsense is that the nonsense is going to come and eat you, bucko, then we’d have a lot more caution and a much fairer debate on our college campuses.

MODERATOR: I should remind Dr Peterson that the motion today is ‘For God’s sake, not me, don’t eat me, eat him,’ and he’s agreed to argue against it.

[PETERSON bursts instantly into tears.]

PETERSON: No, I’m sorry. No, no, no, I don’t accept that premise in the least. There’s a basic principle of fair discussion, and that’s the equal and opposite nature of each side. That is foundational. I won’t debate on these terms.

[ŽIŽEK tries to interrupt with something about the dialectic, but the MODERATOR bonks him over the head with a ladle.]

PETERSON: You can’t have us both arguing that I should be the one that gets eaten. That’s entirely unjust. Look at what you’ve thrown away! Western civilisation is in ruins! We had trains that arrived on time, they had a computer to tell you when they’d be arriving to the minute – an honest-to-God miracle, something that would have astounded every one of our ancestors. A society that works – and they want to get rid of it! Look what happens when the SJWs get the upper hand! Cannibalism, gulags, Frozen, the total bloody collapse of meaning in people’s lives! This is how Marxism always ends! It’s got to the point now that they’re openly saying – and this is their argument, not mine – that they should kill and eat people if they don’t like their ideas!

[He’s bawling now. PETERSON strains against his bonds, and ŽIŽEK is also struggling, trying to scratch his nose with his elbow. Clearly, it’s all a joke to him; he’s worked out where he is. He wears a truly monstrous grin. Some of the CANNIBALS rush over to fan PETERSON ineffectually with large banana leaves, but the MODERATOR bares his teeth, filed into a row of serrated points, and they disperse. PETERSON appears to be finished – or, if he has more to say, it’s drowned by his sobs. Striking the cauldron again with his stick, the MODERATOR allows ŽIŽEK to make his rebuttal.]

ŽIŽEK: You know, I agree with everything my friend Dr Peterson says here. My God, it is a monstrosity that we must eat him, I oppose this utterly. But let me pick up on what he says here. Yes, I agree, we must defend the Western tradition, but is it not true that Marxism and postmodernism come precisely out of that tradition? I claim, look at where we are, in this pot, about to be eaten by naked cannibals: instead of the opposing term of Western humanism, is this not its own internal fantasy of the colonial other? So when Dr Peterson says that one tries to escape the contradictions of reality in a fantasy world, is not fantasy that which is precisely more real than the reality?

[His opponent doesn’t seem to hear him. He twitches, and tries to rock back and forth, but he’s immobilised by ŽIŽEK’s bulk.]

PETERSON: My testicles are normal. They’re not on my chin. They’re normal. I have normal balls.

[Finally, the Q&A begins – but nobody has a question. The SAVAGES all seem bored, listless; they’re not happy with the debate. Why these speakers, and this topic? It might make sense to have ŽIŽEK and PETERSON tussle, with Lacan and Jung, over the ashes of Freud. But who eats and who gets eaten is a political question, and these two are both uniquely inappropriate representatives of their putative politics. ŽIŽEK, who is simply too clever by half to repeat all the stale and earnest socialist talking points, who’d rather talk about the antinomies of the left than the evident evils of capitalism. PETERSON, who seems to think capitalism is as socially conservative as he is, who thinks he’s defending competence hierarchies rather than entropy itself, who doesn’t understand that he’s been riding his own chaos-dragon for his entire career. Still, there’s a group of GIRLS in grass skirts. They giggle and avert their eyes, and stutter over the words, until they each take a deep breath and chant their question in chorus.]

GIRLS: Daddy, does capitalism make us happy, or does it create a need in happiness? Daddy, does it fulfil the essential lack in being, or does it open up a void to be filled? Daddy, does happiness only ever belong to other people?

[Both ŽIŽEK and PETERSON attempt to answer at the same time.]

GIRLS: Daddy, please.

[ŽIŽEK releases a flurry of woodland animal noises, slurring over mutations of the word ‘precisely,’ emitting the phrase ‘petit a‘ in a sharp volley of spit. PETERSON complains, between sobs, that he’s not their daddy, and what would the girls’ real father think about how they’re using that word? At this, an ENORMOUS NAKED SAVAGE suddenly stands. A terrified silence. His vast, muscled body is covered in patterned scars, whorls of gleaming spider’s-web flesh all over his chest and back. He wears a long necklace beaded with human teeth. His balls are enormous, and not under his chin; one of his eyes is milky-white, the other only ferocious. A long spear in his hand, viciously barbed. When he opens his mouth the teeth are black and rotting, and the foulness of his breath wilts the long grasses. Is this the father? What could this monster possibly want?]

ENORMOUS NAKED SAVAGE: This isn’t really a question, more of a statement.

[He sits back down.]

ŽIŽEK: Yes. My God. I couldn’t agree more.

[A fire is lit under the cauldron. Rot and jungle surrounds the whooping in the camp, and the hills slope down to a warm and sparkling sea.]

In defence of lazy kneejerk contrarianism

I attack only causes that are victorious. I attack causes only when there are no allies to be found, when I am standing alone – when I am compromising myself alone.
Nietzsche, Ecce Homo

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Look, I’ve only read Less Than Zero and American Psycho, so maybe I’m wrong here. But it seems to me like Bret Easton Ellis, like every pornographer since de Sade, is a secret sentimentalist. He’s not a real nihilist, because there’s no such thing as a nihilist. He doesn’t believe that there are no values and nothing matters, because if he did, why show us rape and torture and apathy in particular? Like every crass contrarian, he doesn’t abolish value, he just inverts it; his books are apophatic morality tales. Not irony, just sarcasm. And sometimes, the mask slips. The protagonist in Less Than Zero plays at being dead inside, but really he’s still upset about his late grandmother. Still, in the time since 1985, Ellis seems to be getting better at disaffection, while everyone else is getting worse. See, for instance, his recent interview with Isaac Chotiner in the New Yorker.

The general media-class consensus seems to be that the interview was ‘brutal,’ ‘a murder,’ ‘asinine,’ etc, etc, etc. It’s definitely weird and frustrating to read. Does Ellis have anything interesting to say about the state of the world? It’s hard to say without actually reading his book, because all either Ellis or his interviewer wants to talk about is the fact that he doesn’t much care either way about Donald Trump. For the bulk of the interview, Chotiner brandishes the various terrible things Trump has said or done in front of Ellis, one by one – kids in cages, grab them by the pussy, Mexicans are rapists, decent folks in Charlottesville – and demands that Ellis start caring about them, like everyone else. And each time, Ellis shrugs. ‘I think the voice in the book is pretty chill and neutral.’ ‘Well, whatever.’ ‘I don’t really care.’ ‘I’m not really bothered by that one way or the other.’ ‘I think you are leading me into things I am not particularly that interested in.’ Ellis gets the last word. It’s been an interesting interview, he says. ‘The only problem, however, is that I am not that political, and so, when we have this conversation, and you confront me with certain things like this, I really am, I have to say, at a loss.’

And I’m at a loss too. Where’s the brutality? Where’s the murder? Where’s Ellis being gorily dismembered, like a victim in one of his books? All I can see are two people speaking entirely different languages to each other. And because the audience speak the same language as the New Yorker, and not the language of Ellis, they conclude that their language won.

Ellis is stuck in a different age. The Gen X era, the era of disaffection and OK Cola, the time in which caring too much about anything made you uncool. The twenty-first century is different. Frantic activity, desperate sloganeering. Being a good person means giving yourself brain damage about politics. He knows how it works. ‘Don’t you know anything about Sri Lanka? About how the Sikhs are killing like tons of Israelis out there?’ We’re in an upswing in the activism-vs-cynicism cycle that’s been churning since the 60s: we want pop stars to deliver bromides on anti–racism, we want fast food outlets to be our allies, we want everything in the world to be committed to progressive social change. In his introduction to the interview, Chotiner notes that the ‘materialism, misogyny, and amorality’ of Ellis’s characters ‘have persistently raised questions regarding the depth of his social critique.’ Because if a book is anything other than a profound social critique, why does it exist?

The activist posture has plenty of virtues, but when it becomes an enforced social norm, most of it will inevitably be deeply phony. Fake outrage, manufactured hysteria, culturally sanctioned radicalism, constantly caring about things as a narcissistic substitute for actually doing something about them. Chotiner’s complaint is precisely this: Ellis is refusing to move in lock-step with the times. He’s still stuck in that deeply passé 80s nihilism; it’s the horror of the cool confronted with unrepentant squareness. Why aren’t you freaking out every time Trump tweets something, just like everyone else?

And all this might have a little more weight, if it weren’t for the fact that the Mueller Report just came out, and told us all that the media class’s Trump obsession really was packed to the gills with deranged and obsessive fantasy. It might be easier to sympathise, if Libya weren’t in the news again, to remind a distracted public that our liberal heroes who care so much about things also engaged in the aerial destruction of an entire country, without a mote of outrage from almost anyone. It might be easier to laugh at Ellis for his apathy, if his apathy weren’t infinitely more honest than the frenzy that confronts it on all sides.

The 1990s were a vast battlefield in literature’s struggle for the soul of America. Ellis was on one side, with the forces of cruelty, nihilism, apathy, depthlessness, and despair. On the other side stood – because these things have to be balanced – another young writer with three names, David Foster Wallace. Where Ellis was cool, blank, hard, and indifferent, Wallace was warm. Dialogue in Ellis’s novels is lighter than air and always utterly impenetrable; it feels programmed, like the clattering of lifeless machines. Wallace is humble; he writes like he’s talking directly to you and you alone, in one of those deep long 4 am conversations with a well-loved friend, once you stop drinking wine and start drinking tea, where you can finally be honest, and give voice to the things that really worry you. In his celebrated essay E Unibus Pluram: Television and US Fiction, Wallace railed against the cruel ironism of his times, the cynicism of its sneer, the way it reduces everything potentially worthwhile to a nothing. Once, irony was useful: it was ‘a creative instantiation of deviance from bogus values’; it revealed the sordid phoniness that undergirded the straight-laced society of the past. But then irony itself, with its ‘blank, bored, too-wise expression’ became dominant. Wallace uses the example of a Pepsi advert, which dramatises the process of advertising, the stick being rattled in the swill-bucket, knowingly acknowledging that this is all a form of manipulation, but then encouraging you to drink Pepsi anyway. ‘The point of this successful bit of advertising is that Pepsi has been advertised successfully.’ This prompts a call for a New Sincerity, for the unashamed revival of ‘retrovalues like originality, depth and integrity,’ for a return to caring, deeply, vulnerably, about something.

And somewhere, a monkey’s paw twitches. Wallace’s side won, in a defeat so total that the last straggling survivors of irony and disaffection are simply no longer comprehensible to mainstream culture. Even the reactionaries, who play with the idea of nihilism, are basically frantic sincere activists: constantly fretting about white genocide or feminism ruining videogames or whatever else it is they keep caring about. And Ellis lost, even if he lived to see his defeat. What does a Pepsi advert look like now? It isn’t sneering, or cynical, or too-wise; it wants you to know that Pepsi cares. It looks like a Black Lives Matter protest – and when it fails, it fails for not being progressive enough, not being sincere enough, for not doing the Pepsi-Cola Corporation’s full duty to the revolution. Irony is fast becoming a term of abuse. We sneer at the sneerers, because it’s not cool to be too cool. We’re in the world David Foster Wallace built, and it’s a nightmare.

Unlike Ellis, I don’t hate David Foster Wallace. (His fiction is basically unreadably precious, but his essays are good.) I think there was an important value, in the irony-saturated 90s, of calling for a return to honesty and seriousness – even if I don’t actually agree. I think in the present moment, there’s a crucial need for irony, for a writing which explores the potential of possible positions without making a life-or-death stake out of everything, which engages with the infinite multiplicity of meaning and the world. Irony is not a distancing from the world, it’s a faithful attachment to the world in the fullness of its possibilities. (The opposite of irony, as Deleuze and Guattari understood, is not sincerity but paranoia, and ours is a deeply paranoid time.) After all, each term, activism and indifference, will inevitably contain its opposite. The coolness of Less Than Zero is a negative affirmation of sentimental values, the grim boosterism of mainstream culture is deeply cynical. This is why the highest achievable value, at any time, might be contrarianism. If radicalism is something other than a buzzword you can attach to commodities, if it means more than a narcissistic posture, then it means seeking out that which is heterogeneous to the world as it’s currently constituted. To declare for human values in a time of brattishness or indifference in a time of po-faced outrage is the lowest form of contrarianism, one which only speeds the dialectic along rather than breaking out of it. There are higher ironies; as everyone keeps saying, we need to do better. But it’s a start.

Savages, savages, barely even human

It is worth noting that tribal peoples tend to feel that it is they who depict and we who symbolise.
Thomas McEvilley, Doctor, Lawyer, Indian Chief


What does capitalism actually look like?

There’s a standard leftist answer to this question, from the great repertoire of standard leftist answers: we can’t know. Capitalism has us by the throat and wraps itself around our brain stem; we were interpellated as capitalist subjects before we were born, and from within the structure there’s no way to perceive it as a totality. The only way to proceed is dialectically and immanently, working through the internal contradictions until we end up somewhere else. But not everyone has always lived under capitalism; not everyone lives under capitalism today. History is full of these moments of encounter, when industrial modernity collided with something else. And they still take place. In 2007, Channel 4 engineered one of these encounters: in a TV show called Meet the Natives, a group of Melanasian villagers from the island of Tanna in Vanatu were brought to the UK, to see what they made of this haphazard world we’ve built. (It’s almost impossible to imagine anyone trying the same stunt now, just twelve years on. The whole thing is just somehow inappropriate: not racist or colonial, exactly, but potentially condescending, othering, problematic.) Reactions were mixed.

They liked ready meals, real ale, and the witchy animistic landscapes of the Hebrides. They were upset by street homelessness, confused by drag queens in Manchester’s Gay Quarter, and wryly amused by attempts at equal division in household labour. They understood that they were in a society of exchange-values and economic relations, rather than use-values and sociality. ‘There is something back-to-front in English culture. English people care a lot about their pets, but they don’t care about people’s lives.’ But there was only one thing about our society that actually appalled them, that felt viscerally wrong. On a Norfolk pig farm, they watched sows being artificially inseminated with a plastic syringe. This shocked them. They told their hosts to stop doing it, that it would have profound negative consequences. ‘I am not happy to see the artificial insemination. Animals and human beings are the same thing. This activity should be done in private.’

I was reminded of this episode quite recently, when reading, in an ‘indigenous critique of the Green New Deal‘ published in the Pacific Standard, that ‘colonists were warned by word and weapon that a system of individual land ownership would lead to ecological apocalypse, and here we are. What more could you ask from a system of truth and analysis than to alert you to a phenomenon like climate change before it occurs, with enough time to prevent it? That is significantly more than colonial science has offered.’

It’s not that the substance of this claim is entirely untrue (although it should be noted that many indigenous nations did have systems of private land ownership; land wasn’t denatured, fungible, and commodified, as it is in today’s capitalism, but then the same holds for European aristocracies, or the Nazis for that matter). Non-capitalist societies have persistently recognised that there’s an incredible potential for disaster in industrial modernity. Deleuze and Guattari develop an interesting idea here: capitalism isn’t really foreign to primitive society; it’s the nightmare they have of the world, the possibility of decoding and deterritorialisation that lurks somewhere in the dark thickets around the village. ‘Capitalism has haunted all forms of society, it is the dread they feel of a flow that would elude their codes.’ Accordingly, the development of capitalism in early modern Europe wasn’t an achievement, but a failure to put up effective defences against this kind of social collapse. You can see something similar in the response of the Tanna islanders to artificial insemination. What’s so horrifying about it? Plausibly, it’s that it denies social and bodily relations between animals, and social and bodily relations between animals and people. The animal is no longer a living thing among living things (even if it’s one that, as the islanders tell a rabbit hunter, was ‘made to be killed’), but an abstract and deployable quantity. It’s the recasting of the mysteries of fecund nature as a procedure. It’s the introduction of what Szerszynski calls the ‘vertical axis,’ the transcendence from reality in which the world itself ‘comes to be seen as profane.’ It’s the breakdown of the fragile ties that hold back the instrumental potential of the world. When people are living like this, how could it result in anything other than disaster?

This seems to be the general shape of impressions of peoples living under capitalism by those who do not. These strangers are immensely powerful; they are gods or culture heroes, outside of the world. (The people of Tanna revere Prince Philip as a divinity.) At the same time, they’re often weak, palsied, wretched, and helpless; they are outside of the world, and lost. In 1641, a French missionary recorded the response of an Algonquian chief to incoming modernity. One the one hand, he describes Europeans as prisoners, trapped in immobile houses that they don’t even own themselves, fixed in place by rent and labour. ‘We can always say, more truly than thou, that we are at home everywhere, because we set up our wigwams with ease wheresoever we go, and without asking permission of anybody […] We believe that you are incomparably poorer than we, and that you are only simple journeymen, valets, servants, and slaves.’ At the same time, the French are untethered, deracinated, endlessly mobile. The Algonquians territorialise; everywhere they go becomes a home. The Europeans are not even at home in their static houses. They have fallen off the world. ‘Why abandon wives, children, relatives, and friends? Why risk thy life and thy property every year, and why venture thyself with such risk, in any season whatsoever, to the storms and tempests of the sea?’ And this constant circulation is a profound danger. ‘Before the arrival of the French in these parts, did not the Gaspesians live much longer than now?’

There’s something genuinely fascinating in these encounters. Whenever members of non-capitalist societies encounter modernity, they see something essential in what’s facing them. (For instance, Michael Taussig has explored how folk beliefs about the Devil in Colombia encode sophisticated understandings of the value-form.) But it seems to me to be deeply condescending to claim that this constitutes an explicit warning about climate change, that the methods of ‘indigenous knowledge systems’ are the same as the physical sciences, and to complain that ‘Western science has a lot of nerve showing up just as we’re on the precipice of a biospheric death spiral to brandish some graphs.’ The argument that the transcendent vertical axis estranges human beings from the cycles of biological life, with potentially dangerous results, is simply not the same as the argument that increased quantities of atmospheric carbon dioxide will give rise to a greenhouse effect. It’s not that there’s nothing to learn from indigenous histories, quite the opposite. (I’ve written elsewhere on how the Aztecs – definitely not the romanticised vision of an indigenous society, but indigenous nonetheless – prefigured our contemporary notion of the Anthropocene.) But the claims in this essay set a predictive standard which ‘indigenous knowledge systems’ will inevitably fail; it refuses to acknowledge their actual insight and utility, and instead deploys them in a grudge match against contemporary political enemies.

Most fundamentally, the essay doesn’t consider this encounter as an encounter between modes of production, but an encounter between races. In the red corner, white people: brutally colonising the earth, wiping out all biological life, talking over BIPOC in seminars, etc, etc. In the blue corner, indigenous folk, who live in balance with the cycles of life, who feel the suffering of the earth because they are part of it, who intuitively understand climate atmospheric sciences because they’re plugged in to the Na’vi terrestrial hivemind, who are on the side of blind nature, rather than culture. This is not a new characterisation. The Algonquian chief complains that the French believe he and his people are ‘like the beasts in our woods and our forests;’ the Pacific Standard seems to agree.

This shouldn’t need to be said, but indigenous peoples are human, and their societies are as artificial and potentially destructive as any other. Being human means – Marx saw this very clearly – an essential disjuncture with essence and a natural discontinuity with nature. Ancient Amerindian beekeeping techniques are as foundationally artificial as McDonald’s or nuclear weapons. When humans first settled the Americas, they wiped out nearly a hundred genera of megafauna; the essay is entirely correct that ‘indigenous peoples have witnessed continual ecosystem and species collapse.’ Indigenous beliefs about the interconnectedness of life and social relations between humans and nonhumans are the mode of expression of their social forms in agrarian or nomadic communities. (Although some American societies were highly urbanised, with monumental earthworks, stratified class societies, and systemic religious practices. All of this is, of course, flattened under the steamroller of pacific indigeneity.) They are not transcendently true. They can not simply be transplanted onto industrial capitalism to mitigate its devastations.

The ‘indigenous critique’ suggests that, rather than some form of class-based mass programme to restructure our own mode of production, the solution to climate catastrophe is to ‘start giving back the land.’ (Here it’s following a fairly widespread form of reactionary identitarian discourse on indigineity.) Give it back to whom? To the present-day indigenous peoples of North America, who for the most part have cars and jobs and Social Security numbers, who have academic posts and social media, who do not confront capitalism from beyond a foundational ontological divide, but are as helplessly within it as any of the rest of us? (And meanwhile, what about Europe or China? Where are our magic noble savages?) Is ancestry or identity an expertise? Is living in a non-capitalist society now a hereditary condition?

Some indigenous beliefs about the interconnectedness of life and so on persist, long after the modes of production that gave rise to them have vanished. As we all know, the tradition of all dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the brains of the living. But they’re also an artefact of modernity, which ceaselessly produces notions of wholesome authentic mystical nature in tandem with its production of consumer goods, ecological collapse, and death. Unless this relation is established, beliefs are all we get. ‘Real solutions require a rethinking of our global relationship to the land, water, and to each other.’ Think differently, see things differently, make all the right saintly gestures, defer to the most marginalised, and change nothing.

This racialisation is particularly obscene when you consider who else has made dire warnings about the environmental effects of private ownership in land. The encounter between capitalist and non-capitalist society didn’t only take place spatially, in the colonial world, but temporally, during the transition from feudalism. And the same critiques made by the Ni-Vanatu, and the Algonquians, and many more besides, were also expressed by insurrectionaries within Europe. Take just one instance: The Crying Sin of England, of not Caring for the Poor, the preacher John Moore’s 1653 polemic against primitive accumulation and the enclosure of common land: this would, he promised, lead to catastrophe, the impoverishment of the earth, the fury of God, the dissolution of the social ties that keep us human, the loss of sense and reason, the decoding of all codes. The ruling classes, ‘by their inclosure, would have no poore to live with them, nor by them, but delight to converse with Beasts; and to this purpose turn Corne in Grasse, and men into Beasts.’ He, too, saw things as they were. And he was right. Here we are, in a world in which the ruling classes have disarticulated themselves from society in general, in which cornfields are swallowed up by the desert, in which people pretend to be like animals in order to be taken seriously. The solution is obvious. Find the descendants of John Moore, and give back Norfolk.

On being bored of Brexit

Fuck knows. I’m past caring. It’s like the living dead in here.
Sophocles, Oedipus at Colonus


First there was a no. The Brexit referendum, nearly three years ago, was an enormous no to something, even if it wasn’t entirely clear what. Immigration, multiculturalism, neoliberalism, bureaucracy, the democratic deficit, the loss of empire, the passage of time both historical and subjective, the zippy newness of everything, merciless, intangible, and the bloating hairy decay of a human body that’s always monstrously here, the impersonal systems that administer our general managed decline, the existence of a teeming world beyond Britain’s grey fag-end shores, the ugliness of life in general, the ugliness of those burgundy passports in particular, etc, etc, etc. All those things congealed into the shape of the EU, and we wanted them gone. The task was to turn this loud and incoherent no into an actual set of governing regulations to manage the future economic and political relationship between the UK and the European Union, which is stupid and can’t be done. The whole thing is a category error; it’s like trying to comfort a dying cancer patient with some new zoning laws to ban cemeteries. No wonder it’s all been going so badly. All the progress made in the three years since has been in the form of various deferrals, backstops and transition periods, levees against the frothing tides of no. And they’ve three times been voted down, including in the most devastating Parliamentary defeat for a sitting government in British history.

This is what Hegel calls abstract negation. As opposed to determinate negation, the negation that propels the dialectic, that ‘cancels in such a way that it maintains and preserves what has been cancelled,’ abstract negation is an action annulling its object, that tries to simply blot everything out, ‘declaring it to be a nothingness.’ But sadly, there is something rather than nothing, and as long as this basic travesty continues, the no that cries out for the abolition of everything will only ever result in more ontological clutter. The pure no of the referendum has to become a no to Commission Regulation (EC) No. 2257/94, and once it’s gone an alternative banana-curvature regime will have to be put in its place.

Obviously, this doesn’t satisfy. This week, Parliament itself tried to break through the stasis by holding a series of ‘indicative votes,’ in which the Commons tried to establish whether it would be easiest to secure a majority for Theresa May’s withdrawal agreement, a customs union, EEA membership, a Norway-plus common-market arrangement, a second referendum, a unilateral revocation of Article 50, or leaving the EU without a deal. We should have seen the punchline coming from a mile off. Every single one of the indicative votes was defeated. We don’t want to stay in the EU, we don’t want to leave without a deal, but also we don’t want a deal. It’s not that doing nothing isn’t an option; it is, we’ve just turned it down.

This was probably the funniest thing to happen in politics for a while, and like every actually funny thing, it’s a combination of slapstick and nihilism. Two years of negotiations, two weeks to go before we leave, and we still can’t say what we actually want. We are frenzied. Parliament is a conga line of circus clowns juggling buckets of custard. We are inert. Limp, corpse-like, washing up on the tides, passing over every decision, passively rejecting the whole of the sunlit world, rolling round on Earth’s diurnal course. Theresa May tried to drum up support for her proposals by promising to resign if they passed: she tried to give her yes the dense allure of a no. It didn’t work. Now, she’s hoping for a fourth vote, Sideshow Bob plodding grimly for another rake. It’s obvious which proposal might pass the Commons; it’s just that nobody’s been brave enough to introduce it yet. Evacuate the island. Drill a few holes in the cliffs of Dover. Scuttle the whole country. We can gather at Calais or the Faroes to watch Britain sink into the sea, and then disperse, never to see each other again.

This situation feels new. It’s not. Philosophy has a name for it: boredom.

Kierkegaard describes precisely the dynamic behind the indicative votes debacle in Either/Or. ‘I can’t be bothered. I can’t be bothered to ride, the motion is too violent. I can’t be bothered to walk, it’s too strenuous; I can’t be bothered to lie down, for either I’d have to stay lying down and that I can’t be bothered with, or I’d have to get up again, and I can’t be bothered with that either. In short: I can’t be bothered.’ This is the situation Heidegger gives as the third and highest form of boredom, the Es ist einem langweilig, ‘it is boring for one’: a boredom that is not bored by any specific object, a boring party, a boring film, but in which boredom becomes a Stimmung, an attunement, a way of being with regards to external reality. A boringness that leaks in grey spurts from everything on the earth. After the boring party or the boring film, you might go and have some vaguely interesting sex; but if you’re in the realm of the third form of boredom, that too, and sleeping afterwards, and breakfast, and the sun in the sky, and the European common market, and a no-deal Brexit, will all reveal themselves as unbearably dull. Things, Heidegger writes, refuse themselves, they withdraw into nothingness.

But Heidegger was not a nihilist; he was a Nazi. (This is generally considered to be worse.) He wasn’t content to see boredom as a black hole, the washed-out final truthlessness of a world without interest. He liked mountain-climbing and shiny buttons; something must come out the other side. For Heidegger, the depths of boredom are revelatory; they force us to consider the nature of the Being that has departed from the world. It leads, in the end, to a more profound relation to the temporality of one’s being. His argument for this mostly hinges on an untranslateable German pun: alles Versagen ist in sich ein Sagen; ‘all withdrawing is a telling.’ Kierkegaard, who was not a Nazi, but one of history’s greatest ironists, can’t make the same leap. ‘Boredom,’ he writes, ‘is the demonic pantheism. It is built on emptiness, but for this very reason it is a pantheistic qualification.’ It’s important in and of itself, not because it inevitably leads you somewhere else. Nothingness in its vast full suffocating weight; the dictatorship of an absent god, the inescapable empire of the undone.

And this Kierkegaardian boredom is everywhere. I’m so tired: that’s what people say now, isn’t it? The ruling political affect isn’t really hatred, or righteous anger, which is actually quite hard to fake for extended periods of time. It certainly isn’t anything as rich or as dark – or as strangely, secretly hopeful – as sadness. It’s exhaustion. Industrial society blasts us in the face with a hot stream of lights and colours, and we go ugh, can you not, I haven’t had my coffee. Nanette: ‘I identify as tired.’ Tired of people who don’t share our vague and mostly provisional opinions even though it’s 2019, tired of other people in general, tired of the white supremacist cisnormative heteronormative fatphobic ableist imperialist capitalist patriarchy. To negate something, you don’t have to say that it’s actively damaging or destructive, just that you can’t be bothered with it, that it makes you tired. It’s not that things intrude too deeply; what’s tiring is how they fade away. This is, of course, not the affect of the oppressed. As Kierkegaard – along with Walter Benjamin, in The Origins of German Tragic Drama – points out, the subject exhausted by the nullity of everything is usually a prince. ‘Those who bore others are the plebians, the mass, the endless train of humanity in general. Those who bore themselves are the elect.’

And this is the thing: Brexit is deeply boring. Two years of negotiations, and every day the front pages of the newspapers announce another roadbump, and it’s all so utterly dull. And then, in the last few weeks, it got interesting again. It got funny, as soon as the process abandoned its activist mode and started to do nothing, as soon as Brexit finally entered the third mode, in which it stopped boring the public and became bored with itself. It’s finally been whittled down to that essential core of no. For Heidegger, this would mean that some great revelation is coming, that we’re on the path to a deeper and more authentic engagement with the materials of being. But I’m not so sure it’s possible to pass out of boredom. What would that engagement look like? A return to the Gelangweilt sein von etwas, a dullness without demonic grandeur or insight. Your bananas can be as straight or as bendy as you like; they’ll still taste like mushy nothing in your mouth.

For the pangolin

Why does one not say, to describe the absolute power of God, “God is small,” “really small,” instead of saying “God is great”? I leave you to reply to this question.
Jacques Derrida, The Beast and the Sovereign, Seminar X


An animal is the living strangeness of the world.

It’s unfathomable that we share the world with these bright, strange, deep, ancient gods. What are these things, with eyes that can look into ours, and bodies that move like ours, but which are so utterly different? How did they get to be so old? A wild animal looks at you from far away, from another world, a place beyond language, history, politics, or time. Even a newborn animal is within eternity, and its eyes are vast with the whole of the universe. But still, they know us. Crows will recognise individual humans. If they like you, they’ll bring gifts. If they turn against you, they’ll spread the word; crows you’ve never met before will croak viciously and swoop to peck your skull. They know what we are, maybe better than we know ourselves.

There’s a kind of automatic theory, in which our Palaeolithic ancestors, the ones who covered their caves with endless patterns of stampeding wild animals, must have worshipped these creatures as gods. Maybe they did; it’s impossible to tell. But see how long it took for the gods of Egypt to wrest off their animal heads. Look at the magnificent Assyrian lion-hunt reliefs in the British Museum, see Ashurbanipal and his retainers with their fixed, calm, empty, ataraxic smiles, and compare the sheer living suffering of the lions, who yowl with pain and fury as arrows split their flanks, or even the horror of the bridled horses. An animal is more real, more human, than humanity itself. We might have it the wrong way round. Maybe the gods, with their names and their rites and their rivalries, are only an echo of the fear and awe with which the first humans beheld the sacred beasts.

That strange world is receding. So many animals are dead. The mammoth is gone. The giant flightless owls that once stalked the forests of the Caribbean are gone. The gorilla-sized lemurs of Madagascar, who lived at the same time as Zhuangzi and Aristotle, are gone. Maybe soon, the pangolin will also be gone, and all we’ll be left with will be the cows, tagged and microchipped, mulched up and turned into hundred-gram increments of edible slurry. Dogs and cats, animals that recognise their names, that you can dress up in costumes, loyally enduring it all.

Why did we have to kill them? Maybe the animal always had a privileged connection with death. Theirs is the spirit-world, the dimensions folded into the cracks of reality. In a sense, they are already dead, already outside the finitude of life and world. ‘Mortals,’ writes Heidegger, ‘are they who can experience death as death. Animals cannot do so. But animals cannot speak either.’ For Hegel, an animal can speak, but only once, as it’s dying. Language depends on the negation of its object, so that it’s ‘transformed into a pure and simple ideal.’ An animal’s noises can only point, not signify: birds chirp a stalking cat, wildebeest low a circling lion; not the general concept of catness or lionosity. But as an animal dies, it cries for an object – itself – that is no longer there. ‘Every animal finds a voice in its violent death; it expresses itself as a removed-self.’ In its dying cry, the animal learns to talk. In this way, the slaughter of an animal is a kind of miracle. It’s the only way we have of really speaking with these strange and wonderful things, sharing a register, inhabiting a single world, in which we live and they die. No wonder animal sacrifice is a central feature of so many world religions; it’s in the death of an animal that humans and gods can touch.

The wave of mass extinctions that followed the spread of our own species across the earth, and the wave of mass extinctions that’s happening right now, have any number of causes. Social, political, economic, accidental. But I think a lot of it comes down to this: that same desperate need to communicate with the animals that live beyond our world. A refusal to live with the otherness of the other, a steamrollering of radical difference into the flatness of the Same. Everything that is strange, and stays strange, gets obliterated – not despite our fascination, but because of it. A few years ago, conservationists warned against focusing too much on charismatic megafauna, the endangered elephants and pandas, while the crucial but ignored creatures that made up their environment were quietly snuffed out of existence. Now everyone is worried about the massive decline in insect populations, and it turns out that insects are also charismatic megafauna – the vast majority of all life is composed of single-celled organisms, and they’re dying too. I believe it. But if it’s not too late, if something can be pulled out of the oncoming wreckage of the future and preserved, if we can save just one living god, I’d like it to be the pangolin.

* * *

Ground-dwelling pangolins are bipedal. They walk on their hind legs, which are flat and splaying, almost like an elephant’s, and hold their little hands timidly crossed in front of them. Pangolins are the only mammals with scales, which are made from chitin, like human fingernails. Their bodies are like flowers. They walk from termite-mound to termite-mound, slipping their long tongues into the nests to feed. Baby pangolins, too young to walk, ride along on their parents’ tails. Some tree pangolins use their tails to hang from branches while they strip away sections of bark, revealing the insects beneath. While up there, they coil and flex, scratching their own bellies; they’re clearly having fun. When threatened, pangolins roll into a ball. Their scaly backs are a good enough defence against their natural predators, things with long teeth and sharp claws. But they’re almost absurdly vulnerable to anything with opposable thumbs. When poachers find one, they can just pick up the living shuddering terrified ball of pangolin, and take it away to its death.

Pangolins are beautiful. Some people, who suffer from trypophobia or some other made-up condition, find their patterns of overlapping scales disgusting. Once, I tried in anxious desperation to show a friend just how wonderful they were: pictures of gentle pangolins browsing through the savannah, joyful pangolins playing in a mudhole, baby pangolins hugging tight to a larger pangolin’s tail, newborn pangolins sleeping in angelic circles. Get rid of it, she said, it’s horrible, I hope they go extinct. Otherness can be met with disgust, and this animal is bizarre beyond belief; alien and unknowable. But at the same time, it’s so hard not to see something speaking from its alien face. The habitual expression of a pangolin is a kind of loveable, fretful worry. They look embarrassed, with their nervous hands, and their sorrowful eyes. Oh, they say, me? But that’s so kind of you. They are ravenous killers of ants and termites, eating up to seventy million of them a year, but in all their dealings with anything that doesn’t get scooped up by their flicking tongues, they are marvellously gentle. Stooped, questing, humble, and hopeful, they browse over the strangeness of the earth. An unassuming dignity. They show another face of nature, not constant pointless struggle, but not hokey mystical balance either. If a creature can make itself safe from the terrors of the world under its overlapping scales, then nature can produce something rare and weird, infinitely variegated, utterly wonderful, and impossibly kind.

The meekness of the pangolin allowed it to survive for tens of millions of years. They are so very old. But humans, the only creatures that can threaten them, have not been kind to them in return. Of the eight species of pangolin, four are listed as vulnerable, two as endangered, and two as critically endangered. They are the most trafficked animals in the world.

The anthropologist Mary Douglas’s book Purity and Danger is a crucial text – not least when it comes to understanding our own contemporary political neuroses – but what I love most of all is its treatment of the pangolin cult among the Lele of the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Like many people, the Lele distinguish between ritually pure animals, which can be eaten, and ritually impure animals, which can not. But the pangolin is a conundrum. It resists the prisons of thought, by the sheer virtue of its weirdness. ‘It is scaly like a fish, but it climbs trees. It is more like an egg-laying lizard than a mammal, yet it suckles its young.’ And its young are born singly, like human children, rather than in litters. Other animals are teeming and fecund, but this creature is slow, thoughtful, and still. The pangolin is a moment of calm in the chaos of wild nature, and while chaos can be moulded into order, the pangolin continues under its own peaceful laws, and refuses to submit to any other. As Douglas writes, they embody ‘the limitation on human contemplation of existence.’ They are the unapproachable equals of ourselves.

Among some peoples, it’s forbidden to kill a pangolin. Anti-poaching initiatives in Zimbabwe are trying to reactivate some of these traditions – how can it be anything other than taboo to destroy an animal that’s so mild, and so defenceless against death? But the Lele do kill and eat pangolins – never for their daily sustenance, but only as part of religious rituals. It is outside of the categories of ordinary life,  and they are fully aware that what they are killing is a god. ‘Like Abraham’s ram in the thicket and like Christ, the pangolin is spoken of as a voluntary victim. It is not caught, but rather it comes to the village. It is a kingly victim: the village treats its corpse as a living chief and requires the behaviour of respect for a chief on pain of future disaster. The mysteries of the pangolin are sorrowful mysteries.’

Emmanuel Levinas describes God as an ‘infinite Other,’ something unfathomably distant from ourselves, something which we can never hope to grasp conceptually. But that infinity is not unreachable; it exists whenever one living being looks at the defencelessness of another. Once, a long time ago, I was asked if I could ever be an ethical vegan. I said no: animals are not ethical subjects, and ethical gestures are only meaningful between ethical subjects. The animal is on the perpetual outside. Now, I’m not so sure. I still eat meat: the poor cows, the poor sheep, the poor and wonderful octopuses. But now I think an ethical system that only has meaning within its sectioned-off field of the Same fails the most fundamental test, which is our duty to the other, a duty that doesn’t diminish as the other gets stranger and more distant, but intensifies. A truly ethical system would be that which gives us a duty to those who are not ethical subjects – not despite their otherness, but because of it.

God is the suffering other, the infinitely distant suffering other. Somewhere beyond the endlessness of the meanings of the world, there is an image. A quiet, unassuming pangolin, nailed to a wooden cross.

If the pangolins were wiped out tomorrow, we wouldn’t even notice, and this is why they must be saved. I would love to see a pangolin in the wild, but even more than that, I would love to simply exist in a world that can contain them, a world where the pangolins are safe, happy, distant, and unseen. Today is World Pangolin Day. It doesn’t mean much to the pangolins, who are far beyond all such things, but it means a lot to me. For the love of God, and for the love of the pangolins, which means the same thing, their strangeness must not vanish.

Who is Niezy?


You could pretend it’s a game. Christmas is nearly here, and in the pale lazy brandy-soaked hours after dinner, you can sprawl around with your strange friends or your spiteful family and play a fun game of Who’s Nietzsche? There aren’t really any rules as such, but the game goes like this. In the first days of January 1889, the people of Turin might have one of the modern age’s greatest philosophers on the street, dashing lopsidedly between his front door and the city post office, a weird little man hurrying with his weird little letters. It’s unlikely that anyone would have recognised Nietzsche, but he wasn’t really Nietzsche any more. In some of those letters – sent to his friends, to the King of Italy, to the Grand Duke of Baden and his family, to ‘the illustrious Pole’ – the weird little man identified himself as the Buddha. The Buddha had holes in his boots. Several were signed by ‘The Crucified.’ Jesus wore a threadbare coat. In a letter to Cosima Wagner, widow of the great composer, he identified himself as her dead husband – but also as Alexander, Caesar, Shakespeare, and Napoleon. ‘What is unpleasant and a strain to my modesty,’ he wrote in another note, ‘is that in fact I am every historical personage.’ These were Nietzsche’s last written works. A few of the recipients of these letters, full of pious concern, quickly intervened: they had him carted away to a clinic in Switzerland. When Nietzsche died in 1901, it was after a decade of feverish silence.

To play the game, all you have to do is take Nietzsche at his word. Say he really was Caesar and Napoleon and all the rest of them. ‘I am Prado, I’m also Prado’s father.’ A genius, reborn endlessly through time, fated to violently remake the world in his own image and then watch as it dissolves back into goo, before he can return to mould it again. And why should the cycle have ended in 1900? Maybe Zarathustra has come back down from his mountain to preach to us again; maybe the incarnation of the living Nietzsche walks among us. If you had to identify someone as a candidate, who would it be?

There are plenty of wannabe prophets around these days, but none of them really fit the bill. We can definitely eliminate all those slovenly Silicon Valley techno-futurists, the ones waiting for a superintelligent artificial intelligence to pluck them out of their greasy bungalows and their greasy gangly bodies and the whole greasy mess of physical reality, so they can play video games forever and never have to log off. Backwordsmen, all of them. God is dead, said Nietzsche, horrified by the enormity of deicide. Who can replace Him? The prophets of the singularity want to replace Him with a big calculator. Not one of them were Caesar or Napoleon.

The same goes for all your favourite political prophets, the Jordan Petersons or Ben Shapiros, or whichever other rat-faced wimp is thrown up by the hidden telluric waves of smugness and outrage into general consciousness. Everything these people say is basically resolvable to a whine, and the content of that whine is always it’s not fair. Something has gone wrong in the last few decades; their face-stamping boot is now on someone else’s foot, and they’d like it back please. Slave morality! Smallness! Lice crawling over the corpse of modernity, as if gnawing its flesh could give over the grandeur of those bones! But it’s not any of the saprophages on the other side either, any yaas-kween clapback af woke embarrassment. True, these people tend to utterly despise the name of Nietzsche while unknowingly echoing his more brutal thoughts (‘the argument against a stupid head is a clenched fist’), which is a positive sign, and they at least speak like a master – this is mine by right, but this is not for you, Becky – but they insist on polluting it with the language of justice. If nothing else, it’s dishonest. All too human.

Maybe a better candidate is Elon Musk, who does at the very least appear to have gone genuinely mad, with some impressive delusions of grandeur, and who’s managed to cough up a few suitable weird aphorisms. ‘I would like to die on Mars,’ he once said, and it’s quite a Nietzschean sentiment, as long as you assume that the sole reason he keeps boosting Mars exploration is so he can step off his spaceship, the first man on an alien world, and then keel over on the landing ramp, instantly dead. Sadly, that’s probably not the case. All of Musk’s most quotable quotes have to do with parsimony and efficiency, energy-saving and calculation. Nietzsche had his number; he saw through the fake bluster of rationalism: ‘The objective man is in truth a mirror accustomed to prostration before everything that wants to be known.’ He’s never encountered the terror of infinite return. Besides, Zarathustra could never have shareholders. So who’s left? You? Me? Don’t make me croak bitterly into my clotted cream. The world is starved. We’re nothing. We’re the Last Men. We sit around with our belts fatly loosened, and wonder who the prophet might be, and blink.

In the end, Who’s Nietzsche? isn’t a very good game. Not because there’s no answer, and therefore no point, but because the answer is so obvious. We know Nietzsche is back; he’s been back for fifteen years, and he’s been saying so himself. How could it have ever been anyone other than Kanye West?

* * *

Kanye and Nietzsche are identical twins, stranded across time. Both love to proclaim their genius, as if it weren’t already evident. Both are propelled by a kind of expansive asexuality, both speak in quick aphorisms with barbed punchlines. Both have the same audacity of gesture, making Zoroaster an immoralist or sampling Strange Fruit to talk about insta thots. Both are in a sense unbearable – overflowing and tyrannical, as if we can’t see, as if it’s not obvious that all their grandstanding is just compensating for some private lack. Kanye spouts strange drivel, apparently oblivious to the fact that he’s not in on his own joke. Nietzsche thunders vitality with the cycles of the universe, as if we don’t know how skinny his chest is, or about his syphilis, his indigestion, his migraines, his rot. They swagger in time with one another, and with the same manic hollowness. There’s a tendency to wade into areas of which they know absolutely nothing. Kanye has his ill-judged political interventions. Nietzsche, strangely, has music. ‘There has never been a philosopher,’ he writes, ‘who has been in his essence a musician to such an extent as I am.’ (Kanye, meanwhile, has announced himself as a philosopher. Do you see now?) As a birthday gift, Nietzsche sent the sheet music for his own compositions to Richard and Cosima Wagner. You can listen to his music yourself, if you want. It’s terrible. Not the parping bombast you’d expect, but something basically sterile, imitating all of the basic features of music and sticking very carefully to the rules, music that would be strangely Apollonian if it weren’t also subtly, maddeningly wrong. Wagner had to excuse himself during the performance of his gift; he was found in another room, on the floor, laughing hysterically. Kanye should have stuck to music; Nietzsche should have stuck to not-music. But neither of them will be bounded, not even by their own talent.

If you wanted to be pedantic, you could list all the times that Kanye and Nietzsche have said the same thing – not repeating each other, but each of them saying it again and for the first time. ‘I am Warhol. I am Shakespeare in the flesh.’ Sound familiar? ‘Early in the morning,’ writes Kanye, ‘at break of day, in all the freshness and dawn of one’s strength, to read a book – I call that viciousness!’ And Nietzsche echoes: ‘I would never want a book’s autograph. I am a proud non-reader of books.’ In 2010’s My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, Nietzsche unveils the consummating death, the festival death, the death that comes at the right time. Clearly, he’s quoting Yeezy’s Zarathustra: ‘Now this will be a beautiful death.’ Open the book to section fourteen: ‘Be at least mine enemy! How many of us? How many jealous?’ Who challenges us to name one genius who ain’t crazy? Who knows that one must still have chaos in oneself to give birth to a dancing star? They both chorus: ‘I am God, and this farce is my creation.’ And while they’re not the only madmen to have summarily deified themselves, for the last twenty centuries all the other pretenders have only tried to be the Judge of a trembling Abraham. Kanye and Nietzsche aren’t so tedious. They are Dionysus, the god of farce, frenzy, and screams.

What really distinguishes them is that both Nietzsche and Kanye are simply not interested in negation. They have no time for the dialectic, for opposites, for non-being: the world screams in bright colours, and everything in it must be affirmed. This is not quite the same as being positive. Someone like Hegel or Beyonce can accept the existence of evil or finitude because it’s necessary for the eventual triumph of good. That’s easy. Nietzsche and Kanye are driven to embrace everything. Not just because it marks a necessary historical stage comprehensible to absolute reason, not just because the darkness makes the light shine brighter, but in the fullness of its monstrosity. They go about this in slightly different ways. Nietzsche has eternal return, Kanye has his universal love for everyone and everything. (Not as different as they might appear. As Deleuze, who understood Nietzsche pretty well for a philosopher, puts it, ‘laziness, stupidity, baseness, cowardice or spitefulness that would will its own eternal return would no longer be the same laziness, stupidity etc. How does the eternal return perform the selection here? It is the thought of the eternal return that selects.’ And see how Kanye’s universal love functions: it transforms the world, refracting it via infinity, into something more loveable – so long as it’s met.) But they end up at the same place. Nietzsche throwing his arms over a sad dumb cart-horse, a plodding embodiment of the smallness and meekness he was supposed to despise. And Kanye, with a red hat on, embracing President Trump. So why were people so surprised? Did they really expect Dionysus to have good taste?

* * *

Kanye West’s brief flirtation with right-wing politics was many things, but it was not political. ‘I attack only causes that are victorious,’ he writes. ‘I attack causes only when there are no allies to be found, when I am standing alone – when I am compromising myself alone.’ Call it contrarianism if you want; at least it’s an ethos. And here he really did stand alone. Yes, he stood alone in embracing a political power that is, in fact, victorious, that commands the terrifying blinkered loyalty of millions, that kidnaps children, locks them in cages, and traumatises them for life, that commits regular and cowardly airborne massacres, that confronts the desperate with military calcifications against the border and chemical weapons for fleeing children – but those weren’t the terms in which Kanye embraced Trump. There are people who like the goblins of power precisely because they’re willing to carry out this violence. Kanye is not one of them. When he says he likes Trump because they both have dragon energy, he means it.

He stood alone in the White House with history’s greatest monster because while distant and silent psychopaths might enjoy his atrocities, Kanye’s doxa – that of Hollywood, hip-hop, and haute couture – is populated by a different type of psychopath altogether. Since Trump’s election, the vast culture-engine has been seized by a frenzy of contradiction. All it can do is watch what the government is doing, and scream no. (Not that there isn’t any determinate element: the hope is that if you say no to Trump loudly enough, the whole system will rebalance itself along the lines of a healthy Third Way liberalism. Good luck.) The fame factories spill huddled clouds of abstract negation. Slicks of negativity wash up against the beaches, cinders of cancellation creak and crackle over the hills. This stuff is absolutely hegemonic, even if it’s not politically efficacious – observe all the dark muttering that surrounded Taylor Swift (Kanye’s eternal Apollonian opposite) for her quite reasonable refusal to broadcast her opinions, and note how quickly she was lauded after caving in and endorsing a few right-wing Democrats like everyone else. How brave.

And Nietzsche is not interested in the negative. What he saw in Trump was a living principle of positivity, to which all the sour Puritan liberals in his new neighbourhood were glumly opposed – and there, at least, he wasn’t wrong. Look at what he actually said in the White House. ‘There was something about when I put this hat on that made me feel like Superman.’ Insurgent affirmationism; the power of flight. Or consider this: what kind of right-wing Trumpist installs himself in front of the great shit-eater himself to declare how much he loves Hillary Clinton?

The prophet always knew that he would be misinterpreted. ‘I have a terrible fear that one day I shall be considered holy.’ The fear was well-placed. At the end of October, Kanye West appeared to walk back his short flirtation with the right. ‘My eyes are now wide open,’ he wrote, ‘and now realise I’ve been used to spread messages I don’t believe in. I am distancing myself from politics and completely focusing on being creative.’ He was right; he had been used, in the same way that he had once been used by the murderous cabbage-fart dullards of the Third Reich. What could someone as magnificently sincere as Kanye West have in common with a smirking con artist like Candace Owens or the hosts of Fox News? Did his new boosters on the right really think he now supported public-sector austerity, state repression against the poor, corporate tax relief, tariffs on raw materials as a geopolitical bargaining tool, and everything else that slops along the sewer of conservative thought? He stood alone, despite these sycophants, or because of them. They can only have been cynical or deluded, and my money’s on cynical. They saw someone they could parasite themselves on, and, parasites that they are, they took the opportunity. But the left had nothing to gain from what they did. What’s their excuse?

* * *

The liberal mainstream’s attempted Dixie-Chicks-ing of Kanye West might be the most shameful and transparent moment in media history since the Iraq War. Everyone knew that when he called for the repeal of the 13th Amendment, he was talking about prison abolition – but it’s so much more gratifying to pretend to think he wanted slaves in the fields again. The worst are those who understand perfectly well what he was saying, but reserve the right to grab their pitchforks anyway, because he was being – unforgivable! – tone-deaf. Of course he was! He’s Kanye West! Why should he be subject to this ghastly new Victorian refinement? Why is it that the people who yap fuck civility at every opportunity are always the same trilling bourgeois cyber-matrons who spend their lives guarding against every potentially scandalous gesture, every fluctuation in the vagaries of tone?

But the tone has changed. See, for instance, how a popular music website – I won’t name it, because it’s no worse than any of the others, but yes, it’s obviously the one you’re thinking of – responded to his last two albums. 2016’s The Life of Pablo was – let’s be honest – a sloppy and unfinished effort, not without its frequent moments of brilliance but basically thin, thrown-together, and fallow. The reviewer manages to spin this into an act of profound Dadaist brilliance: album as objet trouvé. ‘The universe is a trick of the light, and we’re nothing but a figment in a higher being’s imagination. Nothing is as it seems, nothing is safe from revision, and nothing lasts.’ In other words, don’t you see what he’s doing? It’s not crap, it’s a statement about crapness. 2018’s ye was, by contrast, something far stronger: his Ecce Homo, a searing document of a man’s battle for recognition against himself, and a fully Nietzschean broadside against the deformation of the ideal subject in a time of scurrying smallness. ‘See, if I was trying to relate it to more people, I’d probably say I’m struggling with loving myself because that seems like a common theme. But that’s not the case here. I love myself way more than I love you.’ And what does our reviewer make of it? ‘Seven tracks he farted out to meet his arbitrarily self-imposed deadline… an album born from chaos for chaos’ sake, an album that can barely be bothered to refer to that chaos with anything more committal than a Kanye shrug.’

You may have noticed that the analysis of the two albums is identical in its particulars; only the valence has changed. Poptimsism was always a sham; you never really thought there was any actual liberatory potential in pop culture. If 2016 Kanye releases a hasty and provisional album, it’s an act of secret brilliance. If 2018 Kanye uses a photo he took on the way to his album’s launch party as its cover art, then he’s just a freewheeling asshole. What’s changed? There are plenty of plausible interpretations, but the most legible is this: it’s because Kanye went to the White House and hugged it out with Donald Trump. He took the side of the absolute negation of everything good and true, and it burned through his form. Or, to put it less charitably: in 2016 the received opinion was that he was brilliant if sometimes embarrassing, so we liked his music; now, everyone thinks he has dodgy politics, so we don’t. He’s bad now, tainted, and if we don’t wash our hands furiously enough we’ll get tainted too. (The politics of purity and contagion, it should be noted, are always deeply conservative, verging on fascist; far more reactionary than a red hat or a monologue about iPhones in the Oval Office.) What was it Kanye West said, a long time ago, about how the will to truth is a mask, about how ‘the greater part of conscious thinking must be counted among the instinctive functions’? Do these people know that they’re being dishonest? Clearly not, otherwise they wouldn’t have exposed the underbelly of panicked self-preservation that trembles beneath our system of cultural values. Nietzsche’s affirmationist contranianism might be juvenile, but the one who’s unwilling to deeply compromise themselves is infinitely worse. Here is your own dishonesty, they whimper, here it is scrubbed of difference. Please don’t kill me.

* * *

There is, of course, a second acceptable response to Kanye’s antics, which is to note that he’s clearly mentally ill, and we shouldn’t make the situation any worse by paying attention to him. This is, at least, not entirely untrue. We know Kanye West is suffering from mental illness, because he’s told us. He told us in 2016, when he mentioned that he had been prescribed Lexapro, a selective serotonin re-uptake inhibitor. He told us in 2012, when he discussed suffering from depression and suicidal thoughts. In one unreleased song, he provided an extensive list of the psychiatric symptoms he suffers from. ‘Do you experience nervousness or shakiness inside, faintness and dizziness? The idea that someone else can control your thoughts. Feeling others are to blame for most of your thoughts. Feeling afraid in open spaces or in public. Thoughts of ending your life.’ We’ve known for a very long time, and the general response was to lionise him for speaking up and starting a conversation about mental health, which is now the only thing that an alienated society knows to do with its mad. We saw him interrupt live shows with bizarre rants, alienate those close to him, behave in ways that would be troubling if someone you actually knew and loved started exhibiting them – and we politely applauded. (It didn’t help that the people who had a problem with it were almost uniformly obnoxious, untroubled by fifty years of rock-star narcissism but violently upset by the same stuff coming from a black man. You don’t want to give ground to them.) But as soon as there’s the suggestion that these symptoms might take on a political dimension, the approach suddenly shifts. Disengage, block it out, seal it off, silence him, mock him if you feel like it – but make sure his madness stops speaking itself, and make sure it’s no longer heard. For his own good, of course. But why?

Possibly the most depressing image I’ve ever seen is a poster produced by the New York City Health Department as part of its ‘Choose the Best Words’ campaign. For a while, the things were everywhere in the city, plastered up like the banners of a dictatorial cult. The point is to teach people what to say and what not to say to friends who are suffering from mental health issues. Two cartoon figures on a basketball court. One is slumped over on the bench. The other says I know exactly how you feel. These are the wrong words, of course; you can tell, because they’ve been crossed out. The right words are Hey. Want to talk? Third panel, and the response: Thanks for talking, I feel better now. So what the hell happened in between? Thirty seconds of static? The right words are the vague notion of ‘talking,’ talking about talking, speaking up talkingly. The wrong words are, apparently, any actual specific instance of speech. How do we solve the mental health crisis? By feeding it to the discourse-monster, by flattening it into something that can shimmer on the surface of discursive life with all the other signifiers. Freudianism, once shucked off by psychopharmacology, returns – except now there’s no analyst, just your friends, press-ganged into the role of unpaid mental health nurse. Now, the latency that needs expression is only the empty form of latency. Now the talking-cure functions without anything ever being said.

Contemporary mental health discourse is founded on the exclusion of the particularity of madness itself; it effects a facile resolution of madness to sanity,  and declares its work done in the gesture of equivalence. (It’s true, obviously, that those we call mad are just those who aren’t assimilable to the neurotic mutilation of ordinary subjects – but that non-assimilability remains.) The mad have become, somehow, an identity group. Something like race, which has no prior existence outside of the repressive and historically contingent categories of racism. A form, engaged in the differential contest of hollow forms. The mad must speak up, represent our subject-position, communicate, and be listened to. The fact that madness profoundly problematises speech and the subject doesn’t enter into it. A mania for form, a terror of content. (Online writing, it’s true, is routinely referred to as content – but all this means is that it’s a shapeless fluid,  transparent and undifferentiated, whose function is only to ensure that all pre-existing forms are duly filled.) This is why mental health advocates are always calm and seemingly stable: they have anxiety or depression, but almost never psychosis, schizophrenia, any madness that might make their TV appearances too incomprehensible or too grimly fascinating.

Nietzsche, who is not a dialectician, has very little to say about form and content. What he does talk about is style. When he comes to reflect on the composition of his Zarathustra – the MBDTF of philosophy – he finds its first seeds in ‘a second birth within me of the art of hearing.’ His thought is solidified music: words and paragraphs are not a neutral container into which propositional content might be slotted and then maybe withdrawn. Styles are multiple, but the presence of one or another style is fundamental to the project; meaning is a property of what he calls ‘the tempo of the signs.’ A semiology without linguistics. (It’s probably not insignificant that parrots, the only other animals to make use of human speech, also dance for pleasure.) In Beyond Good and Evil (the first draft of 808s & Heartbreak): ‘There is art in every good sentence – art that must be figured out if the sentence is to be understood!’ See how Nietzsche’s thought limps when denuded of its style; listen to Heidegger glossing him. ‘Truth is the essence of the true; the true is that which is in being; to be in being is to be that which is taken as constant and fixed.’ Unrecognisable, pedantic, tautologous; a philosophy that’s become so gratingly German. As soon as you stop talking in dithyrambs, you no longer understand Becoming. It’s not Heidegger’s fault; he was more sensitive to the buried iceberg-weight of words than most. (Elsewhere in his seminars on Nietzsche, he argues very clearly that ‘to relegate the animated, vigorous word to the immobility of a univocal, mechanically programmed sequence of signs would mean the death of language and the petrification and devastation of Dasein.’) It’s just that attempts to translate Nietzsche into the ordinary language of philosophy always, always fail. Dumb teenage nihilists who think they’re the Overman understand him better than distinguished scholars of nineteenth-century thought, and Kanye West understands him best of all, despite never having read a word of his books. It’s in the style, the movement of it: he is his twin in the art of hearing.

(Derrida, it must be noted, disagrees. A style, he writes, is ‘a long object, an oblong object, a word, which perforates even as it parries.’ A stylus, a lance or a needle, a pen. ‘But, it must not be forgotten, it is also an umbrella.’ Style shelters that which is enclosed by it, and Derrida holds up as an instance of unstyled text a note in Nietzsche’s unpublished margins: ‘I have forgotten my umbrella.’  Meaning, it would seem, without art. Nietzsche is no longer compensating for his lacks with grandiloquence and fury, just baldly stating what is not there. That pure presence has been withdrawn from him. He has forgotten who he is, and so he scrabbles through space and time to find new answers. But what, in the end, is Nietzsche without his umbrella? A man in a clinic. Only silence.)

This was what agonised Kanye’s critics: they couldn’t separate the ‘real’ or healthy man, the part of him they were supposed to like, from the part that had gone awry. They couldn’t extricate worthy content from a maddened style. Not even conceptually; all they could do was temporalise. How did we get from ‘George Bush doesn’t care about black people’ to this? Yes, there’s been a Becoming, but he has only ever become what he is. You can’t really like his music while hating his political interventions; they’re all swirled together. Kanye’s madness refuses to play by the rules that have been set for the mad. It’s not an abstract subject-position, but something positively articulated and in the fullness of its being. And as madness usually does, all this offends the sensibilities of a bourgeoisie anxious for its moral self-preservation. So Kanye’s friends do what Kanye’s friends did all those years ago in 1889: they try to shut him up, to cart him away to a mountainous silence, for his own good.

Why won’t you push the button?

Nuclear war is not only fabulous because one can only talk about it, but because the extraordinary sophistication of its technologies coexists, cooperates in an essential way with sophistry, psycho-rhetoric, and the most cursory, the most archaic, the most crudely opinionated psychagogy, the most vulgar psychology.
Jacques Derrida, No Apocalypse, Not Now (Full Speed Ahead, Seven Missiles, Seven Missives)


Imagine if a politician openly promised, during a campaign, that they would be willing to burn people alive. They come to knock on your door, bright and smiling in a freshly crinkled rosette: unlike my opponent, who doesn’t care about your security and the security of your family, I will personally subject someone to sixty million-degree heat, so that their fat melts and their bones are charred and their eyeballs burst and their bodies crumble into toxic dust. I will torture other people by burning their skin, I will torch their flesh away and leave them with open wounds bubbling with disease. They will die slowly. I will poison others; their organs will fail and they will shit out their guts in agony. I will do this to people who have done nothing wrong, to families, to children, to their pets; one by one, I will burn them to death. For you. For your security.

This is what the bomb did to Hiroshima. This is utter barbarism. Even saying that you would do it is utter barbarism. Of course, the nuclear deterrent only works if you say that you’re prepared to use it – which just demonstrates that we shouldn’t have it, that the whole logical structure of nuclear deterrence is abominable. Any tool whose mere existence forces you to say the unspeakable is not worth having; a hammer that causes you to make death threats is not fit for purpose. Anyone who threatens the world with blinding destruction in unspecified circumstances is simply not responsible enough to hold power. There is no situation in which the use of these weapons is ever justified – never, not in the most tortured hypotheticals of an undergraduate ethics seminar, not in the most Boschian secondary worlds inhabited by right-wing fantasists. If a nuclear attack on Britain has already been launched, retaliation will save nobody; it would just be the final act of spite in a long spiteful history. Nobody would accept a politician who threatened from the podium on live TV to personally burn one person to death, so why should we accept the idea of burning millions?

But what’s strange about the moral case against nuclear weapons – they cause horrendous suffering, must never be used, and should not exist – is that it doesn’t work.

We saw this on Friday night’s Question Time debate, as a parade of questioners took Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn to task over his refusal to say that he would ‘push the button’ and initiate an attack. Theresa May has said that she would press the button in a first strike; Owen Smith, during the last leadership contest, said the same thing. This seems to be a fairly popular decision; the thoughtless destruction of everything that exists plays well with the British public. More than that: it’s demanded; according to the eldritch nostrums that structure British political life, if you’re not willing to promise horrendous genocide with the breezy psychopathy of some ancient khagan drinking from the skulls of his enemies, you can’t be trusted to keep us safe. The appetite for murder is incalculable. After Corbyn ruled out a first strike, one member of the public – red-faced, ageing, some sad retired insurance salesman comforting himself in his flabby decline with thoughts of the fiery extermination of humanity – demanded to know if he’d use Trident as a second strike: the British people demand death from beyond the grave; he’d die gladly if he knew that a few million innocent Iranians or Koreans went too.

It’s striking how sharply the inhuman vastness of nuclear war contrasts with the pettiness and finitude and awfulness of the people who demand it. The first question on nuclear weapons came from one Adam Murgatroyd, who looks exactly how you’d expect, some simpering Tory ponce with his slicked-back hair and his practised raise of an eyebrow. ‘It’s disconcerting,’ he later told the press, ‘that we could potentially in six days’ time have a prime minister who wouldn’t be prepared to protect British lives over someone else’s life.’ Imagine the air poisoned, the soil dying, the biosphere eradicated, the grand flailing tragedy of humanity and its aspirations put to an abrupt stop, the families huddling their loved ones close as the shock wave hits, knowing they’re about to die – and all because some limp umbrella of a man wanted a leader who’d make the right kind of nationalistic hoots about defence. Now I am become Adam from the BBC studio audience, destroyer of worlds.

We should consider the questions of the atomic age in fear and trembling. Instead we get the blearing idiocy of common sense, always pointing us to the wrong and most monstrous answer. The process of thinking about the red button has become as automatic as the button itself.

Nuclear war is unthinkable, in the most literal sense. It has no end and no interpretation; it is invisible, ungraspable, unconscionable. There is a significant cultural industry dedicated to depicting nuclear war precisely because it’s impossible, because we’re trying to find ways to depict a looming absence of everything, a nothing that can never be depicted. (This is why Derrida considers the real literature of the nuclear age to not be works that directly imagine a post-apocalyptic future, but the texts of Kafka, Mallarmé, and Joyce – the writing that comes closest to touching its own finitude and destructibility.) The death drive, Kristeva writes, is not represented in the unconscious, because the unconscious can not admit negation – only, as Freud puts it, ‘contents, cathected with greater or lesser strength.’ Instead, Kristeva writes, there is a ‘hiatus, spacing, or blank that constitutes death for the unconscious.’ Death is in the cadence of the psyche, the pause that gives regularity and reason to its articulation, the silence against which it expresses itself. Nuclear war is the death of politics and administration, the emptiness in which politics speaks. This is why petty, stupid bureaucrats, small people with small concerns, who mostly fuss about which type of coffee plays best with the focus-group voters, have to occasionally declare that they would take on the titanic task of wiping out all of human history. They have to announce their fidelity to the interior non-substance of our political discourse, which is the death of every living thing. Then they’re allowed to go on and talk about parking spaces and healthy eating and cutting taxes and aspiration. Everything is in its unplace, all policy is properly situated at ground zero, where the bombs will fall.

This silence is not pure unsignifying madness: it’s the final home of rationality. The sense in which we talk about reason – pure objectivity, emotionlessness, abstract numerical calculation, a kind of ratio that would have seemed very strange to, for instance, the medieval Europeans who helped first define it – is a product of the nuclear age. It’s well known that game theory, in which human decisions are modelled according to the assumption that everyone is a calculating and atomised individual who only wants to maximise their utility – was first taken up as a praxis to model the Cold War nuclear standoff, and was only then applied to all areas of social and economic life. But the most basic relay mechanisms of nuclear weapons by themselves enforce a post-politics. Paul Virilio notes that, as the warning times for a nuclear attack and a possible counter-attack shrunk from fifteen minutes to ten minutes to one, the effect was that of ‘finally abolishing the Head of state’s power of reflection and decision in favour of a pure and simple automation of defence systems… After having been the equivalent of total war the war machine suddenly becomes the very decision for war.‘ Somewhere, various sets of computer systems analyse the likelihood of an unprovoked strike and try to pre-empt it; when the end comes, it won’t be for explicable political goals, but out of a pure uninflected machine-reason, and none of us will ever know why. Reason and madness lose their distinction here. See Nixon, the shit Hamlet with his ‘madman doctrine,’ threatening to unleash the powers of apocalyptic calculation; see the tortured but valid syllogisms by which every democratic British leader has to make gruesome threats against the world. This is the ground of politics as administration and necessity and the root of the technocratic age. Once the life and death of every living thing can become a matter of calculation without ideology or ethics, so is everything else. People can starve to death in empty flats because there’s no magic money tree; thousands can drown on the Mediterranean because we don’t have the resources to take in any more. It’s common sense. Common sense in the twenty-first century is always common sense from the point of view of an atomic bomb.

Just like austerity or the massacre-by-inaction on Europe’s waters, the logic of nuclear weapons is not some pre-Kantian pure reason without a social or epistemological substrate. Nuclear weapons are, first of all, weapons in the class struggle. The greatest vector for socialism has always been war – in war, the ruling classes arm and mobilise the proletariat, tell them that they have the power to build the fate of nations, and then send them off to die; it’s only a matter of time before these workers decide that this power could be put to better use, and the people taking the most principled stand against these senseless wars have always been Communists. War between the powers became too great a threat to power itself. Nuclear weapons abolish this: abstract mobilisation, the disappearance of territory, the omnipresence of the front. Working classes win by striating and reinterpreting space – building barricades, occupying squares, cutting off the flows of production and exchange at crucial points – and under the global sovereignty of the bomb there is no such thing as space. Instead, our role is simply to die, in endless billions. But it all makes sense; every step is perfectly rational. It’s a death you can trust, to keep you and your family safe.

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