Idiot Joy Showland

This is why I hate intellectuals

Category: Literature, Philosophy & Theory

The company of geese

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The first animal that ever made a person happy simply by existing was a goose.

In book XIX of the Odyssey, Penelope makes a small confession to the stranger that’s come to her house. ‘I keep a flock of twenty geese here,’ she tells him. ‘They come in from the pond to pick up their grain and I delight in watching them.’ As far as I can tell, this is the first time in literature that an animal is honoured not for being beautiful, or loyal, or strong, but for the sheer pleasure you get from seeing another living creature going about its day.[1] Penelope’s days are not happy. She’s spent twenty years waiting for something to happen, and nothing does. Every time we meet her, she’s either on the point of bursting into tears or curling into a depressive sleep.  She doesn’t get any joy from her palace, or her treasures, or even her son. She suffers. But watching her geese, just sitting idly and looking at them as they come in from the pond, gives her delight. 

It’s weird to feel such a kinship with someone who lived three thousand years ago, and who didn’t even exist to boot – but I get it. Whatever your miseries, it’s delightful to be around geese.

For months now the weather’s been balmy and the pubs have been shut; I’ve been spending a lot of time around geese. Like a somewhat thinner Tony Soprano, with marginally more hair, in the middle of a catastrophe, getting sentimental about waterfowl. In Regent’s Park, my favourite are a family of Egyptian geese that’s taken to lazing around near the Hanover Gate. The goslings are nearly grown now – only a few scruffs of down around their necks, their bodies breaking out in dappled ochre – but they still like to huddle close to each other, and they still sing in delicate cheeps. Further along the lake, Canada geese honk and plod out of the water in big genial gangs. There are a few greylags too, with their handsome dented faces. They seem to breed later; their goslings are still tiny and yellowish, little marzipan figurines.

I find geese beautiful. But I have no illusions. These are supremely ridiculous birds, and they know it. Their big, heavy, jellied walk on splayed and silly feet. The way they wag their stumpy tails. The constant laughter of their honks. The grand implausibility of their flight. Geese are slapstick creatures. They’re perfectly capable of being graceful, when they want to: watch them preen their feathers, see how that long neck dips and glides. When they dive to snatch something underwater, it’s with oiled precision; when they fly high overhead, it’s in a perfect V. But most of the time, they choose not to care. Geese are ironical birds, always mocking themselves. It’s there in the eyes, the most expressive eyes of any bird. I know some chickens, emotionally complex and surprisingly playful animals, but a chicken looks at you through hard-rimmed jewels. The eyes of a goose, on the other hand, are black and very deep. They will meet your gaze, and it’s impossible not to know that something is in there, inquisitive and alive, looking out at you. The gleam of a primordial chuckle at the world.

But sometimes, when it’s grazing, or drinking, or in a confrontation, a goose will walk with its shoulders hunched and its neck stretched out straight, held parallel to the ground. You know this stance. You’ve seen it huge, in bones, at the museum. Make no mistake, this thing is a dinosaur. Other birds never let you forget their ancestry. Ted Hughes saw it: ‘Terrifying are the attent sleek thrushes on the lawn, more coiled steel than living…’ The lizard shines through in tilted heads and predatory stabs. With geese it works the other way. What are we missing, when we reassemble all those enormous bones? When we draw dinosaurs, we give them monstrous skeletal grins – but we lose the way they might have skittered over the water, their happy waddle, and the laughter of their song.

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Birds have always been signs and portents; the ancient Greeks had the same word, ὄρνις, for bird and omen. Hence Aristophanes: ‘A word can be a bird for you.’ In prophecy or poetry, all language leaps to flight; it becomes avian. ‘Turn your minds to our words, our ethereal words, for the words of birds last forever!’ (In the same play, we’re reminded that the birds are ‘older far than Kronos and the Titans, and even Earth;’ the true gods and kings of creation.) Geese, too, are symbols; Penelope’s geese appear in a prophetic dream. Like all good symbols, they’re contradictory. First, geese stand for loyalty. They mate for life, and raise their young together. Pairs dance together when they reunite. They return to the same nesting grounds. They mourn when an egg or a gosling is lost; if one partner dies, the widow is inconsolable. Konrad Lorenz, who virtually founded the discipline of ethology – the study of animal behaviour – on his studies with geese, writes that ‘a greylag goose that has lost its partner shows all the symptoms described in young human children… the eyes sink deep in their sockets, and the individual has an overall drooping experience, literally letting the head hang.’ Lonely poets have always seen themselves mirrored in the mourning goose. Du Fu’s The Solitary Goose, written during the Tang Era: 谁联一片影, 相失万重云 – or, in Burton Watson’s translation, ‘Who pities his lonely form, lost from the others in ten-thousand-layered clouds?’ But geese strive to help their lonely. If a goose is tired or injured during flight, a few others from the flock will drop out of formation with it and stand guard until it’s recovered. And at the same time, geese also represent transience. They migrate: these heavy, fickle birds brighten the world for a season, and then the leaves change and they’re gone.

Geese don’t just signify; they also talk to us, specifically to us. Studies have shown that humans are capable of understanding geese signals intuitively, without any special knowledge of the animals. You can tell, without even thinking, when a goose is honking contentedly, when it’s searching for something, when it’s warning you away, or when it’s raising the alarm. Their sadness is bodily, viscerally the same as ours. So is their dancing, clucking, foot-stomping joy. The only other animal that shares so much of our semiotic space is a dog, and dogs are our own creations. And geese sometimes have the upper hand. In 390 BC, when an army of Gauls scaled the Capitoline Hill, the guard dogs slept, but the Romans were warned by the clamour of Juno’s sacred geese. Their ability to pass on meaningful messages has been understood for a very long time. It’s why geese are still used as guard animals today.

Like dogs, geese understand our language. They can learn their own names; flying geese will come to land if you call out for them. Even wild geese will quickly come to recognise individual humans, and can form strong friendships with us. But they also include us in their own speech. If you try to miaow at a cat, you’ll only get a blank look in return; cats have developed a one-way signalling system for humans. It’s not a medium of conversation, it’s a way of getting what they want. But geese want to chat. They know we can understand them. When they graze in groups, geese make soft reassuring noises to each other, in a complex social call and response – and when humans imitate their noises, they respond.

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In all their relations with humans, geese start with an assumption of equality. These are profoundly democratic birds. They certainly have nothing like a pecking order, and their monogamy guards against harems, dominance displays, or the greasy pole of hierarchy. (It’s not that these things don’t exist in geese, but they’re far less significant in their social behaviour than in other gregarious animals – like seals, for instance, or ourselves.) But this is not the same as being docile. A goose will calmly stand its ground against much larger animals. This extends to humans too. A few high-profile pecks and a defamatory video game have given geese a reputation for aggression, even malice, which is entirely undeserved. They don’t dislike us; nothing could be further from the truth. They’re simply not afraid of us. (Foxes, which I also admire, are the same. If you catch a fox loping across the road late a night, it will usually slow down, pause to study you with a slow, deft, mocking glance.) Lying down in the park, I once felt a slight tap on my head, and looked up to find a herd munching grass around me. If they trust you, they’ll even let you hang out with their goslings. These creatures are equally at home on land, on the water, and in the air: all of creation is theirs; they can slip from one realm to another whenever they choose. An animal with such majestic sovereignty can afford to be gentle, and unflappable, and brave.

Geese are territorial. They know which patches of land have been set aside by other geese, and also which territories are claimed by humans. If you see a group of geese genially and noisily going where they’re not supposed to be, it’s not because they don’t understand; they’re contesting our claim. This is more a game than an invasion; geese have a good ironic attitude towards the institution of private property. Anywhere that isn’t physically occupied is assumed to be up for grabs – and then the geese await our response. As always, they’d like to talk to us, to engage with us, because they believe they can. Sometimes we can annoy them, and sometimes we need a good sharp peck to keep the peace, but for the most part we’re good-natured, gregarious, and faintly silly animals, with occasional glints of intelligence, waddling lopsidedly over the earth.

We would be a far better species, and this would be a far better world, if we were more like the creatures the geese think we are.

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(All goose photos mine.)

Notes

[1] Yes, fine, sure, there’s Hyperion and his cattle, ‘the cattle that gave me such joy every day as I climbed the starry sky and as I dropped down from heaven and sank once more to earth.‘ But the Sun is a god, not a human being, and a purely sensory pleasure in the natural world has always been the prerogative of the sovereign gods. ‘He saw it and it was good.’ For the sailors, these cattle either have utilitarian value as food, or else they’re sacred, in the sense of being forbidden. Men and their stomachs.  Homer likes to describe Odysseus and Telemachus with the epithet θεοειδής, godlike, but in fact it’s Penelope who, in a quiet moment with her geese, touches the divine.

The Idiot Joy Showland coronavirus reading list

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These are twelve tales for the empty hours. They’re stories about waiting, about watching, about deferral and delay, about abeyance, about being somewhere else, at a distance, at a remove. They’re books about being stuck.

Early in Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow, Jessica asks a question. “What was it like? Before the war?” She knows she was alive then, a child, but it’s not what she means. The question is impossible to answer. There’s nothing to recall. “All I remember is that it was silly. Just overwhelmingly silly. Nothing happened.” Jessica doesn’t want to know about the events that came before the war, the abdication, the fashion, the politics, but something stranger and harder to grasp. What did it feel like to live in a world that wasn’t always exploding? Flashes of small incidence. Games, pinafores, girl friends, a black alley kitten with white little feet, holidays all the family by the sea, brine, frying fish, donkey rides, peach taffeta, a boy named Robin… It barely exists.

If you’re like me, you might have suspected, for a very long time, that we were going about our lives in the blank empty period before the war.

I live in London. My girlfriend lives in New York. A few months ago, this wasn’t really much of a problem. I can do my day-job from basically anywhere; there was nothing really stopping me from jetting off across the Atlantic to sprawl around her apartment for a few weeks and develop strange obsessive new opinions about pizza. Now? The catastrophe we were all waiting for has finally arrived, and it’s another wait. The coronavirus puts everything in abeyance. If you don’t want other people to die – and I don’t – the only thing to do is to stay inside. Put your plans on hold. Suspend all hope. A vast pause descends on the world, and the future disintegrates. It rots into empty time.

My girlfriend works in fashion. You can probably see the problem: it might be fun to swan around an empty home in something expensive for a day or two, but nobody really needs couture during a plague. It belongs to the old world, the one of seeing and being seen, before the war. It might still return, when we come out of this thing. (When we come out of this thing is already in mythic time now, like when Judgement Day arrives or when the revolution comes.) But things won’t ever be the same; reality is already mutating while our backs are turned. Distance and delay seep into the stuff of the world.

I talk to her on the phone. Her face swims out of pixels and glitch. Can you see me? Can you hear me? I can hear you but I can’t see you. I can see you but I can’t hear you. Because I’m a dickhead, I spend a decent chunk of my time coming up with annoying little try-hard troll-statements to get a rise out of her. Being queer, I say, is when you’re either a gay man or a straight woman. She’s better at this game than I am. Well done, babe, she says, her voice full of enthusiasm and serenity and distance. I miss her a lot. I don’t know when I’ll get to see her again.

I have a flatmate. I have some hens I can visit without the risk of contaminating anyone. They’re wonderful birds; they bounce and cluck and follow me around the garden on their stubby little legs, and then once they’ve raced down to where I’m sitting they’ll peck at the dirt a short distance away, cooing happily, pretending not to notice me. But they’ll glance, sometimes, with dark gentle eyes. Herzog was wrong, and chickens are not stupid. They like to know I’m there.

For everyone else, the best thing I can do is be somewhere else.

One of Adorno’s aphorisms: every work of art is an uncommitted crime. Literature has always been a kind of grey substitute for the world. (From the very beginning, in fact; the signifier and the symbolic begin as sacrificial offerings, born out of the terror of castration.) To read or write is the opposite of living, which is why Nietzsche had so much scorn for people who could read a book in the morning. When you read, you are not in motion, you’re not in your body, you’re barely in your own head. You are displaced. You are also alone. Literary prose is the best system we’ve ever devised for really accessing the subjectivity of another human being – but for it to work, the other person has to be absent, annulled in words, stripped down to the ghost of a voice. (This is why communities of writers usually produce mediocrities, and communities of readers are always ruled by psychopaths.) Every book is a miniature quarantine zone.

The tales in this list are not Great Books to finally get around to, now you have so much time. Some of them are long, but others are short, very short. These are not achievements to tick off your list, so you’re still productive while you’re self-isolating, so this enormous hush descending on the world doesn’t stop you Achieving Your Goals. If that’s what you’re after, you might as well just give up now rather than later, and just binge-watch something on Netflix like everyone else. These are not stories to distract you from your isolation, to make it pass quicker, to make you feel better, to nourish your soul during the uncertain months ahead. Literature is not therapy, and putting a bird-feeder on your window will achieve all those things better than any book ever could. These are books that lengthen the silence in things.

* * *

Plays

Aeschylus, Prometheus Bound
Under such suffering, speech and silence alike are beyond me.
A man is pinned to a rock, alone. Others pass by. They beg him to ask forgiveness and free himself, but he’s full of scorn, and he refuses. Prometheus is certain that one day, Zeus will have to free him: a disaster is coming, and only he can prevent it. History completes the joke for us. The second and third parts of Aeschylus’ trilogy, Prometheus Unbound and Prometheus the Fire-Bringer, are irretrievably lost. We’ll never know who the enemy was that only Prometheus could defeat. He is still on his rock.

William Shakespeare, The Tragedy of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark
The time is out of joint.
A late Elizabethan grimoire, a guide to communicating with ghosts. An atlas of interstices, hiding-places, shadows: the spaces behind a tapestry, the chapels, the maze of ramparts, the places where bodies lie, compounded with dust, the innards where something is rotten. An agony of indecision. But most of all, a guide to reading and writing when you’d rather be doing something else. In the first act, Hamlet decides to wipe away all saws of books: to give up words and act. When do we see him next? Enter HAMLET, reading.

Novels

Laurence Sterne, The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman
Is it not a shame to make two chapters of what passed in going down one pair of stairs?
A lazy amble through the world and words. Famously, Tristram isn’t even born until a third of the way through; to account for him would mean accounting for everything. Like many of the best books – Moby-Dick, or Ulysses, or the Bible – it’s a treasury of the whole of the world, in which all its variegated stuff is pressed up close together, and everything that exists is only a distraction from something else. Most of all, though, it’s a book about time. Chronological time, measured by the clock, and the sexually exciting pauses as it runs down and is wound up again; narrative time, bending and contracting and racing ahead of itself; writerly time; historical time. It stretches forever, and everything and nothing happens in it at once. This is a long book, but you have plenty of time.

Joris-Karl Huysmans, À Rebours
The tortoise was still lying absolutely motionless. He touched it; it was dead.
Jean Des Esseintes, a dying thirty-year-old aristocrat, shuts himself away in a house on the outskirts of Paris, where he builds himself a synthetic paradise. The walls must be painted in colours that suit an artificial light; the poisonous plants he grows must look like artificial flowers, with ghastly pink blossoms. Like the 120 Days of Sodom, it’s less a novel than a catalogue of sensations. In the 21st century, we’re all Sadeans now: maybe not murdering and mutilating, but impoverished aristocrats in a tightly enclosed world, where the only goal in life is to curate exceptional experiences. Lockdown only accelerates the process. In retreating from modernity, Des Esseintes becomes its founding genius.

Joseph Conrad, The Nigger of the ‘Narcissus’: A Tate of the Forecastle
Nothing seems left of the whole universe but darkness, clamour, fury – and the ship.
The titular character is James (or Jimmy) Wait, a crewman on a ship from India to London. He announces himself by shouting that name: it can’t be made out on the ship’s roster; it’s all a smudge. The chief mate thinks he’s trying to hold up the ship’s departure, and he’s not wrong. Wait is a gap, a blockage, a delay in the imperial circulation of goods and capital. As soon as the Narcissus sets sail, he starts insisting that he’s about to die. He is a bad omen. First the ship capsizes, then it’s becalmed. Wait admits that he feigned his illness, but he’s quarantined anyway. Then, he really does start to become sick. Only when he dies can good winds speed us to London. Obviously, the book’s title leaves it open to the accusation that this is simply a racist text. Is Wait a fully human and fully realised character? No, of course not. He has a head powerful and misshapen with a tormented and flattened face – a face pathetic and brutal: the tragic, the mysterious, the repulsive mask of a nigger’s soul. Which is the entire point: he lives in a world in which he’s only legible as a smudge, a blockage, a gap, a distance. You should be able to relate. His mask is your mask: the soul of a disposable human subject in a time of plague.

Samuel Beckett, Molloy, Malone Dies, The Unnamable
I longed to go back to the forest. Oh not a real longing. Molloy could stay, wherever he happened to be.
There is a voice, maybe one voice, maybe several voices, it’s no matter, they are here, or perhaps they could be elsewhere, perhaps it’s you who are elsewhere and they who are here. No matter. You are lost here. You travel in straight lines by reading in circles and travel in circles by reading in straight lines. No matter. Go on.

Louis-Ferdinand Céline, Castle to Castle
I’m always talking about myself!… It was easy for Hamlet to philosophise about skulls!… He had his security! We certainly didn’t!
A world is ending, even if that world is the Third Reich. Céline, with a gaggle of fellow Vichy lackeys, flees to Schloss Siegmaringen, a kind of Nazi Gormenghast, where the French fascists are making their final pointless stand. In a sense, this is Céline’s most hopeful book: even with the nightmare of the war as his subject, he can’t help but be his bilious self, unchanged and unchangeable. He keeps surfacing, again and again, to the present, where he whines about his literary reputation. (I’m just no candidate for the Pantheon… highest priced worms in the world!) A panicked scene at a railway station gives way to an extended rant on the practice of rating women’s looks on a twenty-point scale. (I’m speaking of all this as a veterinarian, a racist so to speak… the socio-Proustian terminology of the drawing rooms could easily turn me into a murderer… I’m only handing out marks… nothing else… “Hike up your skirts! Now let’s see! What mark?”) All he has is bitterness and spite. Bitterness and spite might save us, too, in the end.

Stories

Nikolai Gogol, The Nose
‘What an infernal face!’ he exclaimed, and spat with disgust. ‘If there were only something there instead of the nose, but there is absolutely nothing.’
A fable for the disintegrating body. A man’s nose appears in a loaf of bread. At first it’s an execrable object, to be dropped off a bridge – but as its one-time owner tries to find the thing, he discovers that his nose has become a state-councillor in a gold-embroidered uniform with a stiff, high collar. It firmly but politely refuses to rejoin his face. Political power always has the ability to strip us down into our constituent parts. Your mouth, your hands, the fluid in your lungs. What is an N95 mask for? It keeps your nose in place.

Fyodor Dostoevsky, White Nights
I am a dreamer; I have so little real life that I look upon such moments as this now, as so rare, that I cannot help going over such moments again in my dreams.
It’s summer, the sun barely sets, and the city is empty. Everyone has fled for their summer villas; you have been left behind. You wander the streets alone. You are a stranger to everyone except the houses; you imagine them talking to you when their owners are gone. For a moment – a flash, a bright second – you meet another person and fall in love. But the rules of social distancing were imposed on you a long time ago. A whole moment of happiness! Is that too little for the whole of a man’s life?

Bruno Schulz, The Comet
A spool of insulated wire became the symbol of the times.
This is not a story about the end of the world. It’s a story about a world that wants to end. Not from exhaustion or despair, but in the full confidence of its knowledge of itself. The most progressive, free thinking end of the world, befitting the times, plainly honourable, and a credit to the Supreme Wisdom. It was Schulz’s last story. The greatest Polish author of the twentieth century was shot on the street by a Nazi officer in 1942.

JG Ballard, The Enormous Space
This conventional suburban villa is in fact the junction between our small illusory world and another larger and more real one.
Good luck.

* * *

The final story is At Night by Franz Kafka, possibly the last human individual to ever truly Get It. It’s extremely short, and I’m reproducing it in full.

Deeply lost in the night. Just as one sometimes lowers one’s head to reflect, thus to be utterly lost in the night. All around people are asleep. It’s just play acting, an innocent self-deception, that they sleep in houses, in safe beds, under a safe roof, stretched out or curled up on mattresses, in sheets, under blankets; in reality they have flocked together as they had once upon a time and again later in a deserted region, a camp in the open, a countless number of men, an army, a people, under a cold sky on cold earth, collapsed where once they had stood, forehead pressed on the arm, face to the ground, breathing quietly. And you are watching, are one of the watchmen, you find the next one by brandishing a burning stick from the brushwood pile beside you. Why are you watching? Someone must watch, it is said. Someone must be there.

We must be there for each other. Which is to say, we must be elsewhere, for each other.

Love in the time of coronavirus

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Is there an erotics of the coronavirus?

I ask because I’ve been ill lately, stuck at home, coughing and wheezing and watching old films. It’s probably just the common cold. It’s probably not anything to worry about. But if what you read here seems woozy or feverish, now you know why. I called the NHS helpline and described my symptoms. Where are you located? the faceless voice on the end of the line asked. London, I said. The voice seemed to find this suspicious. It didn’t like my answer. What’s the nearest town to you? it asked. London, I said. Ok, said the voice, irritated and confused, as if it was until now unaware that a major world capital is hiding in the south-east of this island. What’s your nearest city? it said. London, I said. We’re doomed.

What I’ve noticed about the old films is the way people in them do things that you could never get away with now. They touch their faces. They touch each other’s faces. They peck each other on the cheek. Already, these gestures are starting to feel charged, excessive, and dangerous. They have the potential to be either an expression of total devotion – you’re everything to me, pathogens and all – or total cruelty – you’re nothing to me, and if I touch you it’s only to spread my disease.

Kingsley Amis is supposed to have said that the sexiest part of a naked woman is her face. Back then, this was a piece of wit; now, it’s a symptom. The great unnoticed psychological shift in our era has been the total erotic devaluation of the genitalia, and the rise of the face. Digital networks have unburdened the face of its communicative functions: thanks to the internet, people can become friends, form relationships, or nurture hatreds without ever looking each other in the eye. It’s all in the hands, in text. As Richard Seymour points out, this isn’t really communication at all; it’s a collective project of inscription, a vast shared writing project addressed to nobody in particular. But the result has been to turn the face into a surplus, a zone of danger and desire. Grand right-wing fantasies about the Islamisation of Europe and global racial war always seem to hinge on the horrifying, tempting, fascinating vision of the woman with the visually unavailable face. In porn, some performers will show everything except the face; scenes of writhing acephales, penetrating and being penetrated in a world without sight or speech. But other forms focus on the face almost exclusively: a face that’s gagging, spluttering, streaming with mucus from the nose, the mouth, and the eyes. The symptoms of the virus were already waiting for us in our fantasies.

In Freud, the latency period is prompted by a sudden command: stop touching your genitals. It can never really be obeyed; all you get out of it is a lifetime of shame. Similarly, we’re now told to stop touching our faces. But on average, people touch their faces every two to three minutes. It happens without thought, and without anyone even noticing: you need a team of university researchers with cameras or a global pandemic before people start to realise what’s been going on. Humans are the only animals that do this. You need opposable thumbs and an upright posture: even apes, when they groom themselves, groom with the face, running the mouth and tongue over their forearms. An ape is still mostly arranged on what Bataille described as the horizontal axis, with the face as the prow, the foremost part through which it interacts with the world. An animal’s subjectivity lives entirely in its face. But humans are vertical; we extend into the world through our hands. The face is abstracted; as Deleuze and Guattari point out, ‘the face is produced only when the head ceases to be part of the body.’ Our own faces are capable of becoming an object: autonomous, detached, and erotic.

Deleuze and Guattari again. ‘A horror story, the face is a horror story.’

The virus can feel like a wordless critique of modernity. Just look at how it spreads: air travel, tourism, the globalised economy. Like so many of our commodities, it’s put together in China, where it inflicts mostly-invisible misery, before circulating in the churn and frenzy of global trade. Look at where the virus breeds: in cities. The city, an environment built deliberately by humans to suit our needs, has still never been the optimal environment for human life. For most of human history, cities were sink habitats: the death rate was always much higher than the birth rate, and they only kept growing because of migration from the hinterlands. (In many cities, this is still the case.) But the city is an almost perfect environment for endemic diseases. It’s a permanent feast. The sheer density of hosts, all rubbing up close against each other, all spraying every possible surface with snot. If an alien visitor came to our world without any preconceptions, they might assume that pathogens were our dominant species. The microbes were the ones who built our cities, as vast farm complexes for their livestock.

(But at the same time, it’s significant that these diseases, which seem so perfectly calibrated for a globe-straddling, city-dwelling, face-poking humanity, all seem to originate with wild animals. The beings that have no place in the capitalist order; the lives whose value – unlike those of domestic animals – can’t be computed, exchanged, volatilised. In these conditions, they move towards extinction and disappearance. It’s through disease that wild animals find a way of representing themselves within the system. In an interview with the German socialist magazine Marx21, biologist Rob Wallace traces these pandemics to capitalism’s destruction of primary forests. ‘Pathogens previously held in check by long-evolved forest ecologies are being sprung free.’ A deadly, occult secret in the ancient woods, but one capable of plugging into and hijacking the systems of modernity. Irruptions of the Outside. The 2002 SARS outbreak was transmitted by civets and bats; the H1N1 epidemic in the 2010s was spread by migrating birds. It’s possible that the coronavirus is the work of the pangolin. It’s hard to think of a creature that better deserves its revenge.)

Institutions more abstract than the city also take on a strange new light in the wake of the virus. More than anything, the US presidential election is revealed as an enormous disease vector. All those energised and infectious young people criss-crossing the country, smearing their hands over every doorbell, hacking and wheezing into every wrinkly face. All those big rallies. You wanted a future, but what you get is a plague.

But the virus doesn’t affect all politics equally. Mass-participation movements are uniquely vulnerable; projects based on universalism, collective emancipation, the collective subject. But movements based on what Pfaller and Žižek have called ‘interpassivity’ are not. Jair Bolsonaro has the virus, but it might not loosen his grip on power; he already conducted most of his 2018 campaign from behind closed doors, after being stabbed at a campaign event. Meanwhile, some critics are confounded by the recent successes of the Biden campaign against Bernie Sanders. After all, Biden has hardly any field offices, no ground game, no passion or joy behind his candidacy, no movement. There’s simply nothing there to attach yourself to; as Biden himself put it, ‘nothing would fundamentally change.’ This is more dangerous by far than Trumpism, which is still basically a participatory movement in the old mould. Trump wants something from you. Biden doesn’t; he insults seemingly every voter in his path, and sometimes forgets what position he’s even running for. He’s successful not despite the fact that his brain is clearly turning to jelly, but because of it. Leftists are currently insisting that Biden will inevitably lose to Trump, but the reality could be far worse. He’s the perfect expression of our senescent age. A politics of grudgeful stasis; in other words, a politics of defacialisation, a politics of social distancing, a politics of the coronavirus.

Blanchot, quoting Biden: ‘The coronavirus ruins everything, all the while leaving everything intact.’ What the virus achieves is an intensification of everything that was already happening: the detachment of the face from the body, the detachment of human individuals from each other. The advice is to self-isolate: don’t go outside, don’t see your friends, don’t go to museums or theatres, don’t have sex, just stay at home and order stuff online. Watch porn. Consume entertainment media.  Post on the internet. Isn’t that what we were all doing already? In South Korea, health alerts have exposed ordinary people’s private lives to the world: everyone surveiling everyone else, disease as mass entertainment. In China, workers who were asked to do their jobs from home when the virus first emerged are now being told to stay there. The virus might imperil international trade, but the great dark secret of the post-2008 economy is that international trade has already collapsed, and while economists still can’t quite work out why, everything is still working.

In the end, after the chaos, the impact of the virus might be almost undetectable. You will be lonelier than before, but you were always lonelier than before. You will be feverish and breathless, but you were always feverish and breathless. You’ll sit in your isolation tank, and sometimes your hands will twitch, all by themselves, towards the alien entity that was once your face.

 

Teenage bloodbath: the 2010s in review

Death is grievance, and only grievance.
Philip Roth (died 2018)

orc

Reviewed:
Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker (film, JJ Abrams, 2019)
The Irishman (film, Martin Scorsese, 2019)
Once Upon a Time in Hollywood (film, Quentin Tarantino, 2019)
‘ok boomer’ (meme, the New York Times, 2019)
The death of Jeffrey Epstein (hyperobject, Bill and Hillary Clinton, 2019)
YA fiction (genre, JK Rowling et al., 1997)
The 2010s (decade, Time, 2010)
Industrial capitalism (mode of production, the World-Spirit, 1760)
The Earth (planet, God, 4,543,000,000 BC)
Myself (imbecile, God, 1990)

The most interesting images in the new Star Wars films are the ones in which they literally ruin the original trilogy. There’s one in 2015’s The Force Awakens: the collapsed shell of a Star Destroyer, huge in the desert, jammed into the world at the wrong angle. There’s one in the most recent film, The Rise of Skywalker: the Death Star itself, its colossal eye fractured, splattered with seaweed on a savage moon. (2017’s The Last Jedi didn’t have any of these shots, which might be why it’s the worst of the three.)[1] What’s strange is that these images show us something completely different to the films themselves. They mark a recognition of linear time and death: something was here, and now it’s gone; here is the index of its absence. But the films themselves are spastically cyclical. The plot of The Force Awakens is exactly the same as the plot of the 1977 original. The Empire isn’t really in ruins, it’s just been rebranded. Nothing grows, nothing dies, nothing changes. The latest film pushes this even further. Even the mild innovations of the sequels were too much; nobody cared about the new crop of villains, so now it’s Palpatine again. Philip K Dick predicted this. ‘The Empire never ended.’

There’s a sort of Mark Fisher-ish point to be made here. In the modernist 20th century, culture produced novelty: new galaxies, new empires, new images and affects. Now, in the era of neoliberalism, it’s all repetition and pastiche; the best we can do is repeat ourselves. Disney is churning out soulless live-action remakes of its old cartoons at a frightening, industrial rate. These aren’t for children: they’re for people who used to be children, and aren’t any more, but never actually grew up. People who want to remember their childhoods, but this time with lots of CGI. Sappy idiots. Meanwhile, every other major blockbuster is either a sequel or a franchise. Pop music copies the forms of the 70s, 80s, and 90s. Literature recoils into tedious 19th century realism. All we can do is rearrange the rubble of the past.

You might remember that this current era of exhaustion was immediately preceded by the Age of Apocalypse. For a few years around the beginning of the 2010s, Hollywood showed us constant images of our own ruin. Skyscrapers squished. Cities splintered. London and New York abandoned, overgrown, and strangely beautiful. Sometimes this was vaguely inflected with 9/11 imagery, but not always.[2] These films didn’t refer to any actual destruction, but a culture that had nowhere else to go. In 2012, we cared about the end of the world, because it really was happening. Now, it’s already over. Around the same time, the big intellectual fad was for accelerationism: forget critique, forget ‘the emergency brake of history,’ let’s just passively will ourselves to get to the moment of crisis faster, and then everything will sort itself out. The moment of crisis is passed. Did you get everything you ever wanted?

The most dramatic example of this isn’t actually Star Wars, which is a bad film, but last year’s The Irishman, which is a good film. This isn’t a question of subject-matter, whatever Scorsese himself might think. There aren’t that many subjects that really matter. American pop culture is capable of telling stories about five different types of people: cowboys, criminals, cops, capes, and couples. Star Wars is about cowboys. The Irishman is about criminals. But The Irishman is a good film because it’s not just a collection of intellectual properties, it’s about people. Again, Scorsese doesn’t really understand his own work: he seems to really think it’s about giving outward visual expression to the inner life of a realistically drawn character. ‘Human beings trying to convey emotional, psychological experiences to another human being.’ He thinks it’s still possible to create decent bourgeois art. But in fact, his real achievement is to turn up the volume on the raging nothingness of subjectivity. De Niro’s character isn’t a fully realised human being; he’s a fleshy instrument who obeys without really knowing why. ‘I deliver steak. I could deliver you steak.’ At the end of the film, he won’t say what really happened to Hoffa, even though every reason to keep his silence died a long time ago. He simply isn’t there, and this is precisely why he’s such a compelling figure. Scorsese’s previous film, Silence, was about the sense – advanced by theologians since Eriugena[3] – of God as a vast, all-powerful nothingness. ‘Am I praying to nothing? Nothing, because you are not there?’ This isn’t Andrew Garfield’s character losing his Christianity, but fully encountering it. The great revelation of Christ is an empty tomb. The absence of God is a religious experience, and the death of God is the condition of faith. And Foucault promised that the death of God would be followed by the death of Man.

Still, a few nods to capital-c Culture and some superficial psychological goodness count for a lot; it’s why I happily sat through all nine hours of The Irishman in the cinema, while after about forty minutes of flashing Star Wars drivel I wanted to scream or puke or both.[4] But The Irishman is also a deeply worrying film. This is Martin Scorsese directing Robert De Niro, Al Pacino, and Joe Pesci in a film about Italian-American gangsters. It’s a McNugget of a Scorsese film; it’s as if his earlier canon had been juiced and then reconstituted. The most arresting thing about the film is its use of digital de-aging, allowing the 76-year-old De Niro to (not entirely convincingly, but still) play a man in his mid-thirties. As a proof of concept, Scorsese had De Niro recreate the Christmas party scene from Goodfellas, and then used the technology to make him look exactly as he did in 1990. This is more than nostalgia, it’s the extermination of time. Scorsese can dip into the past and insert a new item into his 90s crime canon. He can obliterate the last thirty years. In the ‘now’ of the film, the present from which De Niro remembers his life, US jets are bombing Yugoslavia. The most advanced digital technologies are used to keep culture in a permanent stasis.

It’s the end of anything resembling dignity. Look how Star Wars wheels out dead Carrie Fisher for one last sappy CGI-assisted waltz. She deserved better, but there’s no hope now. They’ll resurrect you, spin you backwards through time; they’ll crap in and through your mouth. You can live forever, but the price is a total passivity. Living forever is so much like being dead.

Or take our other great Italian-American auteur. Quentin Tarantino, at least, never made any claims to novelty. Instead, he spent his career referencing and reworking older films, back when this process was known as postmodernism, when it was a valid artistic technique, rather than just a symptom of our total cultural exhaustion. So what does he do now? In last year’s Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, he’s still referencing old movies – but they’re not the 60s cowboy flicks the film is supposedly about, they’re the films from the 90s and 2000s that Tarantino himself made. Viewers thought they were smart because they picked up on his foot fetish from Pulp Fiction and Jackie Brown – so now he shows us a whole room full of young female Manson cultists, each with two naked feet and twenty naked toes. It’s not eroticism any more, because eroticism is over. The foot fetish, like the brief moment of brutal teenage-girl murder at the end of the film, has become a static and redeployable signifier, a reference, a husk.

But in fact, I think this kind of analysis doesn’t go far enough. In the Fisherite reading, something (creativity, novelty, etc) was here, and now it’s gone. But let’s go back to those ruined spaceships. The new Star Wars films could have told a new story, one about what happens after the Empire falls; instead, they popped the Hero’s Journey back in the microwave and slopped it out to us again. History gives us some clues to what this new story should look like. The fall of empires is almost always accompanied by a collapse in long-distance trade. Life expectancy falls; material and literary culture is hollowed out. Cities depopulate. The seas are full of monsters and pirates. The barbarian confederations that brought down the empire usually split up into warring factions.[5] But this story has already been told. It’s Star Wars.

George Lucas was the Albert Speer of cinema. Everything he built had extraordinary ruin value; all those spaceships work far better as enormous wrecks than as active fantasies. They were destroyed from the very beginning.

What kind of a state is the Galactic Empire? It’s hollow; it barely exists. It has no cities. It has no signs of a complex literary or material culture. It rules the entire galaxy, but all we see are border-zones; lawless, half-deserted worlds where an agrarian peasantry are continually menaced by criminal gangs and outright savages. A border with what? The only interplanetary trade seems to be carried out by smugglers and outlaws. There’s a military, but even that is only a shell. In the original 1977 film, our heroes blast through the facade of the sleek fascist-modernist Death Star, dart inside, and find themselves in the guts of the Empire. A primordial horror of a waste-disposal system: the room’s full of back sludge, and a huge tentacled monster is waiting for you just beneath the surface. This is a fake empire. It’s already collapsed; it was never anything other than its own collapse. This is why it needs the Death Star. A weapon that destroys entire planets is useless for counterinsurgency warfare, but that’s not the point. The Empire only uses its weapons against itself.

A decade ago, the volume of international trade suddenly collapsed. There’s been a partial recovery, but trade has been stagnating ever since. Huge trade firms like Hanjin Shipping have gone bankrupt; one of the stranger consequences is a sudden surplus in shipping containers, which we’re now expecting the poverty-stricken to actually live in. Economists are genuinely baffled: production keeps on going, but the stuff simply isn’t moving anywhere. Meanwhile, life expectancy is declining in Britain and America. For the first time in centuries, young people now can expect to live shorter lives than their parents. We can still travel in relative safety, but the monsters and pirates are coming. Star Wars accurately diagnosed our present. Everything is still here, and it will stay here forever. We can’t get rid of the empire, because it doesn’t exist.

* * *

Still, new things do happen. For instance, there are new people. They’re happening at a much slower rate, but there are still enough of them that they become impossible to ignore. 2019 was the year in which mass culture finally realised that millennials – my generation – are no longer children; that some of us will soon be forty. We’re over, we’re cancelled, it’s already done. The average millennial is balding now; he has a daughter that he can’t stop posting about on social media (yes! dip your child into the endless stream of digital images! submerge her! nothing could possibly go wrong!), he gets nostalgic about Disney or Pokémon; he’s a defeated sadsack loser, and history has already passed him by. In his place there’s something else. Kids now don’t understand the world by comparing it to The Simpsons, which is the good and correct way to behave; they understand the world by comparing it to SpongeBob SquarePants, which is wrong and terrifying.[6] They are genderless cyborgs, downloading new identities from an internet that now bleeds directly into their flesh. They are – depending on who you listen to – either hysterically woke or veering sharply towards the far right. (Same thing! These two things are the same thing!) And they’ve fired a terrifying and unprovoked shot in a new generational struggle: they say ‘ok boomer.’

Deleuze and Guattari argue that there’s only one class, and it’s the bourgeoisie. ‘To reread history through the class struggle is to read it in terms of the bourgeoisie as the decoding and decoded class. It is the only class as such.’ Similarly, you could make the case that there’s only one generation, the boomers. Who invented the language we use to talk about generational divides? The boomers. Who broke apart multigenerational community? The boomers. Who permanently inscribed mass culture on the substrate of youth rebellion? The boomers. The Futurists wanted to be slaughtered when they got old – but who dreamed of living forever, of staying young forever, of keeping their revolutionary fire lit forever, of wearing blue jeans and smoking weed into an embarrassing senescence, of pumping the corpse of culture full with their drab, deathless, synthetically youthful spurts? The boomers, the fucking unkillable zombie boomers. ‘Ok boomer’ is a boomer slogan. It’s a prison for young people, or an instrument of discipline; a way to force them to constitute themselves as a generation – that is, as boomers. The demand of age and power is to be young and rebel. Hate your parents, in the same way that we hated ours.[7]

I’m sure there are some young people who really have made a habit of saying ‘ok boomer.’ But not many of them. Young people simply don’t share any discursive spaces with the old. Old people spend the last years of their lives getting brain poisoning from Facebook and Twitter; young people are giving themselves vigorous new tumours from TikTok. How many teenagers are spending their time arguing online with septuagenarians? The phrase only became a phenomenon once it had featured in a viral New York Times article, full of frantic praise. ‘”Ok boomer” has become Generation Z’s endlessly repeated retort to the problem of older people who just don’t get it, a rallying cry for millions of fed up kids.’ Sounds pretty boomery. Are we really supposed to believe that teenagers are taking their cultural cues from the New York Times?

Youth, in our era of exhaustion, is a phantom. It’s something dreamed up by old people; it belongs to them, and they’ll control it until they die; maybe afterwards. In 2019, it was incontrovertibly proved that the world really is governed by a cabal of murderous paedophiles. They murdered Jeffrey Epstein. He was still paying out hush money to his victims from jail, because he wasn’t suicidal, but they murdered him. He had a crate full of DVDs of powerful people having sex with children, and now those tapes might be lost forever, because they murdered him. He could have brought down the entire global ruling class, and to stop this happening, they murdered him. Anyone who pretends to doubt any of this is not just an idiot, but probably dangerous. When Epstein was murdered, my first reaction was to think: ok, what really happened on 9/11? Who did kill JFK? What if the Moon really is a hologram? Because I was wrong, and the conspiracy theorists were right. Because clearly, we’re not living in the world we thought we were. This world isn’t just ruled by surplus value and the declining rate of profit; it’s deeper and stranger than that. Mystery and sacrifice, ugly magics and telluric wars, sunlight and demons, and the Milky Way a star-dark cunt smeared across the sky.

But actually, the most likely explanation is this: the paedophile elite didn’t think they were doing anything wrong by fucking children, because they all believed that they were, in some sense, children themselves. Boomers who never really managed to grow up; not adults, just kids with grey hair and dangling ballsacks. People who, on their deathbeds, will still be worrying about whether they’re cool or not. Monsters. The deadly global paedophile cabal that controls every aspect of our lives is only the highest, cruellest manifestation of  a general rule: youth has been privatised by the old. It permeates our culture. Is it really any surprise that only 1.7% of Teen Vogue‘s readership are 17 or younger, and only 4.3% are under 25? Is it any surprise that a solid majority of the readers of ‘young adult’ fiction are, in fact, full-grown adults?

I have to say, I called this one. More than three years ago, I wrote that Harry Potter was ‘never for children, and always for the bored 29-year-old human resources workers they would grow into.’ But I didn’t predict just how viciously youth would be deployed against the young. Late last year, a mob of bestselling young-adult authors, including Jodi Picoult (53), Jennifer Weiner (49), NK Jemisin (47), Roxane Gay (45), and led by Sarah Dessen (49), tried to destroy a college student for not liking their books. The student had been interviewed by a local newspaper article on her involvement in the college’s ‘Common Read’ programme, which assigns one book for all first-year students. Dessen was one of the authors being considered. ‘She’s fine for teen girls,’ the student said, ‘but definitely not up to the level of Common Read. So I became involved simply so I could stop them from ever choosing Sarah Dessen.’ You should know how these things go by now. Thousands of brave women heroically spoke out against this terrible oppression. The student was a cultural elitist, a snob, an agent of the patriarchy, smashing the dreams and aspirations and validity of teenage girls, a fucking bitch, a raggedy ass bitch. Picoult: ‘To not speak up about this incident isn’t just demeaning to Sarah. It’s demeaning to women, period. Want to fight the patriarchy? Start by reminding everyone that stories about women are worthy, that they matter, that they are necessary.‘ The university issued an apology for having failed to eradicate literary taste in everyone who passes through its gates. ‘We are very sorry to Sarah Dessen… we love young adult novels.’ The student suffered all the psychological brutality that goes with this sort of thing. Nobody – for the first few days, at least – seemed too bothered by the fact that she had actually been a teen girl much, much more recently than the people monstering her.

Of course, the tide turned eventually; this thing was just slightly too stupid even for a deeply stupid world.[8] And an instinctive critique – one it’s hard not to sympathise with a little – developed. It goes like this: why are you losers reading books for actual children? Why are you getting so angry about them? Grow up! Read a proper book for adults! Fuck you! Yeah, sure. There’s nothing as grotesque as a forty-year-old millionaire who thinks you have to be nice to her because she’s only a baby. But actually, adults should be reading books for children. Books for children tend to be free of all the tedious conventions of the bourgeois novel. They’ve inherited the legacy of the myth, the epic, and the tale. As Walter Benjamin pointed out, psychological realism will never come as close to the meat of human subjectivity as a good, radically indeterminate fairy-tale metaphor. See how he rails against ‘the dreadful cobbling-together of disparate elements that loosely make for characters in novels of an inferior sort,’ thrown together with ‘the repulsive crust of the psychologically palpable completing the mannequin.’ Children’s stories, and tales more generally, knew how to present things ‘dry, so to speak, drained of all psychological motivation,’ and ‘they lost nothing as a result.’

But there’s hardly any children’s fiction around any more – as an author friend put it to me, we jump straight from picture-books to young adult fiction. And young adult fiction is for adults. It’s fiction that Deals With Issues In People’s Lives; even when it’s about wizards or vampires, it’s always in a realist mode. If we take Derrida’s definition of literature – literature is a text in which the ‘thetic relation to meaning or referent’ is ‘complicated and folded,’ a text that isn’t simply about the thing that it’s about, but which involves you in the processes and difficulties of getting from words to meanings – then none of this stuff is literature. The repeated demand from the adult consumers of YA fiction is that it must always be more socially relevant, more virtuous, more unambiguous, more thetic. A good book is one that means the right things. But the solution isn’t to just read the books for adults that are marketed as being books for adults, because our contemporary prizewinning fiction is all shitty realist thetic non-literature as well. It’s in what I’ve elsewhere called Mfalé, MFA Literary English. All fiction is young-adult fiction now, and none of us are young.

* * *

I turn thirty this year. I knew this sort of thing happened to other people. But how could it happen to me?

Notes

[1] The film does redeem itself in its visual presentation of the Force as a mirror that shows you the back of your head. A lot of people seem to think that because of the endless references to the ‘dark side of the Force,’ there must also be a corresponding ‘light side.’ But none of the Star Wars films ever mention such a thing. The Force is its dark side. This is why ‘bringing balance to the Force’ means massacring children and blowing up entire planets.
[2] Do you remember 9/11? You promised you would, but it’s strange; the attacks seem to have left almost no permanent cultural traces, except a few memes about jet fuel and steel beams. In the years after the attacks, culture was saturated with 9/11; every film had the same washy ashy hues, every too-smart New York Jew had to write a novel about The Towers. Now? In The Emoji Movie, a big tower is destroyed in a way that looks pretty 9/11ish, but it was brought down by our endearingly clumsy hero in an accident. Keep in mind, though, that The Emoji Movie was the first film to be screened in Saudi Arabia since its ban on cinema was lifted.
[3] John Scotus Eriugena taught that all of human history is the dream of a dreaming God, and his students stabbed him to death with their pens. His contemporaries knew his as the Irishman. You can believe this is a coincidence if you want.
[4] There’s also the films’ treatment of their women. In The Irishman, women are basically silent throughout; when one does speak, right at the end, it’s an apocalypse. This is considerably less restrictive than the current Hollywood dogma on women, which is that there must be lots of them, but they should also be basically featureless, with one single personality-trait: ‘brave.’
[5] See, for instance, the disputes between the United States and al-Qa’eda after the collapse of the Soviet Union.
[6] This means that they’re unaware of Abe Simpson’s Curse. ‘I used to be with it, but then they changed what it was. Now what I’m with isn’t it, and what’s it seems weird and scary to me. It’ll happen to you.’ But is this true any more? Part of why generational discourse has become so weird lately might be that the kids now might not become the grumpy old men of tomorrow. Personally, I refuse to call them Generation Z or zoomers; they’re Generation Terminus, because they’ll be the last.
[7] Obviously, this isn’t univocal. There are still a few ‘shut up and listen to your elders’ types out there, people who whinge about lazy millennials, people who seem to be deeply upset that they don’t get to fuck Greta Thunberg. As Baudrillard points out in The implosion of meaning in the media – basically the only text you need to understand our world, and one that almost nobody seems to be reading – children and proletarians always face both the subject-demand and the object-demand. But the subject-demand is always stronger; the subject-position is the horizon of our discourse.
[8] The afterlife of this incident is, if anything, more interesting than the event itself. Public opinion quickly turned against the bullies, and some of them issued apologies. Roxane Gay, for instance, wrote that ‘I absolutely messed up. I will definitely do better and be more mindful moving forward. I made a mistake.’ This is how they all seemed to see it – as a momentary personal moral lapse. None of them seemed to be interested in questioning how this actually happened. I don’t know if Roxane Gay googles herself – but given that she probably does, what do you reckon? What made a group of famous women in their forties, all with impeccable bien-pensant liberal-feminist politics, decide it was a good and just and brave thing to make life hell for a young college student? What clouded your vision? When you decided to call her a raggedy ass bitch, what structures were speaking through you? Why is it easier to accept that you Did A Bad Thing and Must Do Better than to accept that plugging your consciousness into a planet-sized communications system that turns you into a vicious psychopath might lead to some unpleasant results? When Dessen herself apologised (‘moving forward, I’ll do better’), the response was brutal: this apology isn’t enough, you need to take more personal responsibility, make yourself more accountable, debase yourself even further, grovel for us, beg, beg, beg. Because, of course, this kind of sadism seemed like the good and just and brave thing to do. These people have lost their minds. If you’re reading this and you use Twitter, even if you’re not Roxane Gay, DELETE YOUR ACCOUNT AT ONCE. It’s a poison, and you’re poisoning yourself. It is making you stupider, uglier, and worse every second you’re exposed to it. Nothing is worth this. You think you’re immune. You think it’s only the other people who do unconscionable things online. This is one of the symptoms of being poisoned. For your own sake, delete your fucking account.

The case for giving up

dying-gaul

1.1 A bull charges out of the sea. A white bull, white as the foam that birthed it, glowering with newborn joy, and beautiful. Turning and turning on the sand, tossing its mane now to the marble city on its hill, now to the man praying by the water’s edge. Everything here is bright and simple. The bull is a mirror for the sun, and the sun burns like a charging bull. The sea leaves glittering webs across the sand, and both earth and sky are dark with treasure. Poseidon leaves no message, only the bull, and it’s enough: you know what must be done. Take a knife and cut his throat. Let his salty blood drain into the sea, and then burn his body under the sun, a sacrifice to the god that sent him. The purpose of beautiful things is to be destroyed. This is why young people are closer to death than the old, why well-laid cities are always bombed, why history progresses by its bad side, and why revolutions fail. But King Minos doesn’t slaughter the bull; he wants to keep it. Big mistake. If a beautiful thing is allowed to live, it will fuck your wife and sire only monsters.

1.2 Something trembles at the bottom of a jar. Epimetheus struggles towards its voice against the tide of rubble that was once his world. The ruins are piling up, but all he can see is the past. ‘I shouldn’t have married Pandora,’ he says. ‘I shouldn’t have let her open the jar.’ The room where every evil erupted is unrecognisable now, but the voice calls him on, deeper into the heart of the storm. What had been a home with gold and marble columns, a school wreathed in ivy, a hospital, a railway, the scent of summer and figs – now, stones are churned in black slime, and evils jabber through the night. Still the voice pushes him on, even as the swarm of sufferings starts to peel away at his skin. Find me. Find me. And there, at the bottom of the jar, he finds only himself. Elpis, hope; in other words, blissful ignorance of the new and awful future, afterthought, Epimetheus. Nobody knows if this was the mercy of Zeus, or his final act of spite.

1.3 In one version of the story, the Moirai, the Fates who weave the world from a single thread, once had a fourth sister. Hetera, the warp in the weft. The others portioned out what would be and what would not be; Hetera weaved what was possible. Her work was beautiful and vague. She strangled herself in its knots.

2.1 Socialism started out speaking a very crude language, almost military – seize this, crush that, to victory! History is on our side! Decades of defeat have deepened our concepts. Sadness has enriched them. We’ve become elegaic, wistful; always broken, but still defiant. The heart of a heartless world. The soul of soulless conditions. Now, we don’t talk about victory; we talk about Beauty and Hope and The Possible. Our ideology has become a metaphor for the human condition, striving on against the odds. Other philosophies are not the same. The opposite of liberalism is conservatism. The opposite of despotism is democracy. The opposite of socialism isn’t capitalism, it’s the void. A Catholic priest isn’t troubled by Hinduism or Shinto, but by the vast, crushing silence of God. In the same way, our struggle isn’t against contingent social conditions, it’s against entropy and despair.

2.2 Leftist rhetoric puts a taboo on despair. Gramsci thunders against ‘the thick, dark cloud of pessimism which is oppressing the most able and responsible militants.’ He was writing in darker times than ours: the horrors facing him weren’t Boris or Brexit but the real thing, Mussolini in Rome, the catastrophe swelling. Still, there’s no room for despair. ‘Our party exists and that is something in itself; it is in that which we have never-ending faith as the better, most sound, most honest part of the Italian proletariat.’ Walter Benjamin has no time for the melancholic; they’re ‘agents or hacks who make a great display out of their poverty, and a banquet out of yawning emptiness.’ This tradition continues. The line after every defeat is the same. ‘Don’t mourn, organise.’ The worst sin for a Christian is to deny the Holy Spirit; the worst sin for a socialist is to lose hope. A vein of banal positivity runs through political discourse; at points it’s indistinguishable from the language of inspirational quotes about going to the gym. The rictus, the manic posture, the false cheer. Don’t quit! Keep going! If you stop for even a moment, the ground will swallow you and you’ll die. A few months ago, a panel of politicians from various parties were asked on the BBC’s Any Questions whether they considered themselves optimists or pessimists. Every single one of them loudly professed their optimism. Of course they did; it would have been a catastrophe otherwise. If we had this kind of enforced uniformity of opinion on any other subject, we’d see it for what it is. Optimists control the media, the government, the corporations – and even the revolutionaries are under their spell. It’s utterly forbidden not to hope. Despair must be repressed at all costs.

2.3 But despair is what there is. I don’t see the point of repressing, or pretending otherwise. The repressed always returns, nastier than it was, and more pervasive; the first step is to say it openly: I am in despair.

3.1 Like thousands of others, I fought hard for a Labour victory last week. I knocked on doors and talked to strangers, I talked Lib Dems down off the ledge, I got out the vote. In the end, we delivered the party’s worst electoral defeat since 1935. Corbynism was a movement based on joyful, emancipatory hope. It coalesced around the most fundamentally decent person to ever lead a British political party. It offered the possibility of something beautiful in an ugly world – and voters didn’t just reject it, they hated it.

3.2 Four years ago, Corbynism made a specific electoral promise. We argued that for decades the party had been chasing a small number of Labour-Tory swing voters by tacking steadily to the right, making things worse and alienating its core constituency in the process. But there was another way. By returning to an insurgent socialist platform, the party could reactivate the disillusioned working-class voters it had steadily haemorrhaged over the Blair years. Not only did this not happen, we managed to achieve the precise opposite effect. Former mining areas that had returned only Labour MPs for over a century are now in the hands of the Conservatives. The new Labour constituency is elsewhere. It’s the young, the urban, and the highly educated. It’s people like me, twats who have to reach for their Hesiod to explain why they feel upset. This is very bad.

3.3 The consolations on offer are – sorry – lacklustre. We might have been brutally rejected by the public, but look at all the new bonds of solidarity we’ve formed within our activist core. In other words, maybe the real socialism was the friends we made along the way.  Some people have attempted to redefine the problem away. Are young people automatically excluded from the working classes? No, but if you’re young, one of two things will happen, and they’re both awful: either you die, or you get old. The last century has seen one youth movement after another wait hungrily for the future, and then look on in shock and horror as everyone’s skin starts to droop. Youth is the only demographic with a 100% attrition rate, and the politics of youth are not sustainable. One of the reasons Momentum has managed to avoid the posturing, infighting, and embarrassment that plagues groups like the DSA is that its activist backbone is not made up of young people, but nice middle-aged mums from the Midlands. The other prong is to insist that the working classes are not all flat-cap wearers from the North, but are much blacker and browner and more metropolitan than people like to pretend. This is true (although one of the many virtues of our multiethnic working class is its blanket refusal to indulge in any of the soft-segregationist bourgeois racial neurosis that floods our liberal discourse). But it’s a sorry excuse; it doesn’t change the fact that there’s a critical mass of voters – however you want to define them – that Labour tried to reach, ought to have reached, and failed to reach.

4.1 I’m in despair. Everything I write here is written from despair, and should be read with that understanding. Don’t take me too seriously. But there’s one place to which even I won’t sink, which is to blame the voters. Weirdly, this is the gesture – the absolute blackest, most nihilistic, most obscenely despairing gesture – that’s been far too common from some of my comrades, the same ones who keep forbidding us to give up hope. This is the line you end up with when you repress despair, so forcefully that it has nowhere else to go except out your pores. Corbynism lost because it was simply too good for this world, because the British working classes were too racist, too thoughtless, too pigshit-ignorant and ugly and useless and vile to see all the good things we wanted to do for them. Brecht saw through this shit in 1953. If you want to know why we lost, start there: in a truly socialist movement, such a sentiment shouldn’t even be possible to articulate.

4.2 Some other explanations are equally untenable. You can blame the media and their broadly deranged campaign against the Labour leadership. Aside from London, one of the major surviving centres of Labour support is Liverpool. Why? Well, Scousers famously don’t read the Sun. The old press is dying, but it’s still not dying fast enough. You can blame the antisemitism scandal, which at this point we can all surely recognise for the smear campaign it was. The people peddling it are certainly aware of it. Days after Corbyn’s defeat, there was a raft of takes accusing Bernie Sanders – sorry, (((Bernie Sanders))) – of posing an existential threat to world Jewry. It should be impossible now for anyone to pretend, with a straight face, that these people were thinking anything other than ‘well, that line seemed to work in Britain, so let’s try it over here.’ You can blame the disloyalty of the party’s MPs and functionaries, who decided they’d rather sink the raft than allow it to veer to the left. But all this sounds too much like an excuse. We knew we’d face a hostile press, that they’d use every weapon in their arsenal, that they’d try to make Corbyn poisonous, that the right wing of the party would hatch its plots. We didn’t counter this effectively. The proper response to the antisemitism smears was not to endlessly decry the evils of antisemitism, it was outrage: ‘how dare you accuse me of this?’ This is the line Bernie’s staff are taking, but it wasn’t what Labour did. In the end, we didn’t have the guts.

4.3 When Labour lost in 2015, I wrote that it lost because it deserved to lose. I said much the same thing about Remain and Hillary Clinton in 2016. I can’t in good faith ignore the possibility that we, too, deserved to lose – even if we lost trying to do something good rather than something sordid. It wasn’t the media or the party’s right or even the Tories that beat us; leftism’s opposite isn’t rightism but despair. We lost to our own capacity for defeat. At the very least, we should give the winning side its due.

5.1 The explanation offered by the leadership is that Labour lost because of its stance on Brexit. In 2017, we ran promising a soft Brexit, and achieved the largest swing to Labour since 1945. (A lot of this came from young, educated people, which is not how it was supposed to go, but still.) This year, we won promising a second referendum, and we were crushed. The move to a more Remainy position was came after immense pressure from Guardian columnists and the kind of people who think it’s ‘cool’ to make a big sign that says ‘Fromage not Farage’: once again, Labour had to choose between bourgeois media liberals and its base, and once again it decided to take the base for granted. In the event, plenty of people who voted Remain were (like me) prepared to accept a Leave outcome, while people who voted Leave were fiercely intransigent, because – and it’s insane that this needs repeating – Leave actually won. But I’m still not sure if it’s true that ‘Brexit would have won.’ This isn’t the problem; it’s a symptom. The problem is the method. Watching Parliament pull out every trick to frustrate Boris Johnson’s Brexit plans earlier this year, I couldn’t help but feel a touch of dread: we’re going to be punished so hard for this. The problem is that Jeremy Corbyn’s approach to politics – and that of Corbynism more broadly – is predicated on a deep respect for the institutions of British representative democracy. Parliament is, after all, where he’s spent the last forty years. But there’s a gaping, unresolved contradiction. These institutions are the home of what Rancière calls la politique, politics, the squabbling over the apportioning of resources, as opposed to le politique, the political, the radical breaking-through of the demand for equality. It is utterly anathema to Beauty and Hope and The Possible. I don’t suffer from any insurrectionary fantasies here; we can’t do without electoralism – as a weapon in our arsenal, if nothing else. But it should be treated with extreme carefulness, and we were not careful. Watch – if you can bear it – footage of Jeremy Corbyn during the 2015 leadership hustings. It’s astonishing. He speaks honestly, passionately, and well. He speaks like a human being surrounded by flesh robots, which is exactly what he was. This was why he won, and why he deserved to win. But compare his performance in the debates against Boris Johnson. Now, he’s evading questions and regurgitating lines. He’s not facing down the monster, he’s in its mouth, speaking its words. He’s had to make compromises and espouse things he doesn’t really believe. He’s become a politician. Politics is an ophiocordyceps. It gets into your brain and makes you climb up to the highest leaf on the tree, so it can push mushrooms out of your head.

5.2 The failure of Corbynism was a failure on the level of theory. It’s important to contextualise the decline of the Labour party. This wasn’t an isolated incident; the traditional centre-left is dying across Europe and across the world. Social-democratic politics are (mostly) a mass politics, and the last forty years have conspired to shatter all masses. Neoliberalism and deindustrialisation and the assault on the unions have disrupted collective subjects and collective solidarity – but new technologies do the same thing. Marxism was the ideological expression of the printed word, and we’re all illiterates now. How was it that so many voters in former mining communities could go for the Tories? It helps that many of these voters are no longer in former mining communities; they’re on their phones. Intergenerational links have dissolved. The work that’s replaced the coal mines – and the work that dominates among the ‘new’ urban working classes – is service-oriented, instilling brutal competition between workers for diminishing resources. It’s customer-facing, which, more often than not means, facing not a person but a screen. We are deracinated, individuated, torn free and sent spinning into the stream of digital images and synthetic affects. Digital communications are a weapon; they are to the class war what the nuclear bomb was to war between nations. And the ‘new left media’ are not a solution to this problem, but another symptom, breaking up masses into consumer groups ruled by the aegis of a single media principle. Adorno and Horkheimer predicted this: ‘The ruthless unity of the culture industry is evidence of what will happen in politics. The public is catered for with a hierarchical range of mass-produced products of varying quality, thus advancing the rule of complete quantification.’ The gambit made by Corbynism was to re-engage the traditional working classes through a platform that could open a space for mass politics – the Green Industrial Revolution, the expansion of free time, the fostering of solidarity. But this was also its failure. These proposals existed only as hopes and possibilities; Labour was speaking to the ghost of a collective subject. People liked these policies, but the social infrastructure for their realisation simply wasn’t there. For the strategy to have been effective, the collective subject would have had to already have been constituted. But the work of constituting it has not been done; it can only take place outside the forms of platforms and manifestos: within politics, and not the political.

5.3 I don’t know if this task can even be achieved. The left has a tendency to lapse into a kind of vulgar Kantianism here. Du kannst, denn du sollst: it’s necessary, therefore it must be possible. All we need is enough hope. What if it isn’t? Gramsci attacks ‘the sweet illusion that events could only follow a certain sequence, as we predicted, in which they would inevitably run into the dikes and channels that we constructed’ – but what if the dikes and channels are all working exactly as intended, and they were built by our enemies? We have to win, or it’ll be a disaster – but disaster is already triumphant. The crises of neoliberalism haven’t done much to dull its effects; if anything, they’re strengthened. They’re in our communicative media; they’re in the air we breathe. I thought the financial crash of 2008 would lead to a revitalised left, but the oppositional movements that followed were scattered and useless, reduplicating the worst aspects of neoliberalism under the banner of resistance. I thought the collapse of liberalism in 2016 would leave us poised to inherit the earth, but it’s produced a reactionary paradise in which we struggle to gain a foothold. I’m not convinced that more desperate optimism and voluntarism can help us here, if it means anything more than just headbutting the problem until your skull cracks. So: what’s out there, far away, in the bright worlds beyond hope? I don’t know, but I’d like to find out. All I know is that despair is only the first step, and the path will not be a circle. We’re standing where the land ends, on a bright and frenzied beach. We tremble on its edge. Time to charge into the sea.

The voice from the black hole

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

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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

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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

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[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.

[Applause.]

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.]

PETERSON: Well.

[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.

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