Idiot Joy Showland

This is why I hate intellectuals

Category: Politics & Current Events

The voice from the black hole

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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.

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What was Theresa May?

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Theresa May has a facial tic. When she’s giving a speech to four glum men in an enormous aircraft hangar, or engaged in fruitless eight-hour negotiations with her plumber, or licking all the nuclear launch codes so her successor can’t touch them, or otherwise discharging her duties as the head of Her Majesty’s government, the corners of her mouth will twitch and turn down, and she’ll flash an expression of utter disgust. As if she’s suddenly had a moment of terrible clarity, and realised exactly what it is she’s become. In photos she looks like a deep-sea fish, face gulping in permanent horror. Combined with the natural whelk-grey texture of her skin, it gives the sense of a general aquatic unhealthiness. Stinking silt, creatures with translucent needle-sharp teeth, worms feasting on the sunken corpse of a whale: she has come to us from the grey and empty place where dead things fall.

In general, the British media tend not to be unkind enough to actually mention her noticeable facial tic. That would be rude. Instead, whenever she dramatically bungles some minor endeavour – which is just about every day – they cover the front pages of the newspapers with a picture of her grimacing like a fart’s just come out of her own mouth. But some people are less generous than others. Me, for instance. I know, without remembering, that at some point in the last three years, in one outlet or another, I must have mocked the one thing about the woman that’s not her fault. I also know why I did it. It’s because I also have a facial tic.

I can keep it under control, mostly; strangers probably see it more often than friends. On the street, on the Tube, at the urinals – the need grabs me, and I have to push out my lower lip and fold it over itself, so the mucous membrane glistens and I look like a sad, drooling clown. I don’t enjoy doing this. It doesn’t make me feel any better. It just happens, at my direction but without my consent. It was worse when I was younger. Sometimes, at parties, I’d have to briefly hide myself in a corner to do it four or five times in quick succession where nobody could see me – but the whole procedure of hiding my weird facial spasms would put me in such a nervous state that I’d immediately feel the need to do it again. Throughout my teenage years, I was basically terrified that someone would see me doing it, and then call attention to it in front of everybody. Then they’d all know that I’m not really a person, but an animal, a thing of dumb instinct, a freak. So while I don’t know what it’s like for your embarrassing facial tic to be on the front page of the newspapers every morning, I can imagine. And this is why I can’t stand to see Theresa May do her trademark grimace. Not because she looks so gruesome and so weird, but because in the worst possible way, she and I are the same.

I don’t think this is just me. Theresa May has set herself up as the most nakedly authoritarian leader in recent British political history. She’s catastrophically mismanaged a major constitutional transition, devastated anonymous thousands of lives, wrecked the country, wrecked her own party, wrecked our future. But as she prepares to leave office, the big question isn’t about her actions or her legacy, or even the mess she’s left on the steps of Downing Street. It’s this: is it ok to feel sorry for her?

I do. I can’t help it. I feel sorry for Theresa May.

* * *

It wasn’t always like this. For a moment, in late 2016 and early 2017, Theresa May was the most popular British Prime Minister for nearly half a century. Or, at least, something that went by the name of Theresa May was. Whatever people loved in those short months, it wasn’t her.

The old political classes took this tense, rangy, fleabitten creature, these shabby rags framing a vulturine stoop, and turned her into Mummy. A big warm milky ocean you can also fuck, a fat-cheeked Oedipal fantasy come to envelop all the overgrown permanent schoolboys in acres of pillowy flesh – and then, when they’ve been naughty, to cane them across their leathery arses, because Mummy loves them, and Mummy needs them to obey.

The sensible technocratic classes took this screeching ideologue, the woman who sent vans with National Front slogans trundling around the outer boroughs of London, the woman who summarily deported 34,000 students because she couldn’t properly invigilate an English test, and turned her into A Firm Hand On The Wheel. Capable and serious, walking the sensible middle line between the irrational extreme of just murdering everyone and the irrational extreme of trying to make things somewhat better, a Remainer willing to make compromises, a capable negotiator with all the facts at her fingertips, a kind of vast spreadsheet buzzing behind synthetic skin.

The red-nosed tabloid editors took this glob spat out of the Tory front benches and into Downing Street, a woman whose premiership was secured on the basis of 199 votes in a country of sixty-six million, and turned her into The Voice Of The People. Red eyes, white hair, blue politics; a giant avenging mecha-suit powered by the incoherent outrage of millions of retired insurance salesmen, in a power stance so uncomfortably wide her legs straddle the entire country: one vast kitten heel ploughing through Lancashire until bubbles of shale gas wheeze out of the soil, the other flattening London into a great glowing splat of pulverised elites.

But all politicians create fantasies about themselves. What makes Theresa May different is that she’s so bad at it. Someone like Tony Blair is a pure simulacrum: there’s no point asking what the real Tony Blair is really like, because he’s just neon and soundbites all the way down. You can try to look behind his curtain, but it was put there by Parrhasius. Theresa May, on the other hand, was hiding something. She was alive in there, buried deep beneath mummy and monster and machine. She didn’t want to be seen. She has a facial tic.

* * *

It was the 2017 election that changed everything, but at first it was hard to see what was happening. The event was announced with terrifying authoritarian fanfare. ‘Every vote for the Conservatives,’ she said, ‘will make me stronger.’ The energy-vampire, swelling itself on a million willing sacrifices. Give me power! Give me life! A Schmittian sovereign, here to exercise the popular will with her limitless power to decide, inhaling blood and sweat. ‘There should be unity here in Westminster,’ she said, ‘but instead there is division. The country is coming together,’ she said, ‘but Westminster is not.’ Across the country, the stolid yeoman folk of England perform mass synchronised maypole dances around the eaten cake – and why aren’t you keeping time? And then, in two short months, it all fell apart.

She wouldn’t debate, she cringed when voters confronted her in the street, she spoke in front of tiny rallies while Corbyn was mobbed everywhere he went. It’s nice to pretend that it’s her nasty reactionary politics that were unpopular, but that’s not really true. Her politics were popular; they’re still popular today. It wasn’t that she was hollow inside: we like hollow flashy politicians with no substance. The problem was that the shell of Theresa May wasn’t empty enough. There was a little hermit crab in there, all claws and angles, and it was weird. We watched her gurn and grimace, and we could not love her.

Since then, it’s been humiliation after humiliation. Her Parliamentary majority vanished. Her throat caved in. Scenery collapsed around her. She suffered historic defeats in the Commons, and African schoolchildren laughed in her face when she tried to dance. She ended up in front of Downing Street, still notionally the most powerful person in the country, resigning in tears. Her own party hate her, in the cruel, spiny way that an overgrown schoolboy hates his own mother. The press hate her, in the hazy, slurring way that a professional fantasist hates all of invertebrate reality. And everyone else too. The electorate, the donors, the Europeans, the BBC studio audiences, the stalks of wheat bristling in the fields. As it turns out, people have an almost instinctual horror of Theresa May.

Henri Bergson, in his theory of laughter, suggests that we find animals funny ‘because you have detected in it some human attitude or expression’ – a dog trying to walk on two legs, or with some recognisable plaintiveness or eagerness in its face – and that we find people funny when they behave like machines. ‘The laughable element consists of a certain mechanical inelasticity… the rigidity is the comic, and laughter is its corrective.’ Theresa May is a person who behaves like a machine.

It was there from the start, in her favourite awful tautology: Brexit means Brexit means Brexit. It was there in her glum repetition, strong and stable, strong and stable, a computer stuttering as its circuits are deactivated one by one. She submitted the same Brexit bill to Parliament three hundred and twelve times, and each time it was rejected, and each time she tried again. When she has private meetings with MPs, instead of actually talking to them she writes what she wants to say on a piece of paper, and reads it out in front of them. The Guardian‘s sketchwriter started calling her the Maybot, and it stuck – because she’s not like other people, because there’s only a mechanical clunking behind her eyes.

But Bergson never noticed what happens when you run the sequence backwards. A machine that behaves like a human; a living doll, a creepy figure stalking the uncanny valley. A human that behaves like an animal; blind, grunting, savage instinct, where there should be thoughts and words. What these things inspire is horror. And as much as she was laughed at, there was always something deeply unsettling about May. A tic is something both animal and mechanical. A shudder in the gears, a flash of the wetness inside a living creature’s mouth. It turned the smooth fascist ideal of Brexit Britain into rotting flesh; it turned Mummy into the clockwork mother-thing whose wheels scream in the night.

* * *

So it’s not surprising that the dominant answer to the question of whether it’s ok to feel sorry for her seems to be a loud, bitter no. You can’t consider her on a merely human level, because she isn’t human. She’s the tens of thousands immiserated by austerity, women abused at Yarl’s Wood, the Windrush generation humiliated, surging right-wing street violence, Grenfell in flames. She’s a hostile environment. She’s tendons and rust.

And she is all of these things. But this is precisely why she might be the most human politician we’ve had. A human is not good; a human is a monster, an awful assemblage of animal and machine. In the Greek origin myth, Epimetheus gives the animals their attributes, sharp claws or wings or poison-tipped spears, but by the time he gets to us there’s nothing left. This is why Prometheus has to step in and give us fire and language and culture: we can’t live without machines. And we’re taking our revenge: one by one, the other animals are vanishing. Our true face is the grey face of the ticcing thing, the naked disaster, incompetent and despised.

Nobody likes looking in an unexpected mirror. Maybe you can’t bring yourself to feel sorry for the great ugly weirdos of the world; that’s fine. My problem is with the implicit commandment against sympathy, the point where I don’t becomes you can’t. For the left, it is politically unacceptable to feel sorry for Theresa May. As if there’s a ration-card system for human feelings. As if feeling sorry for her means diminishing your stock of sympathy for all the numberless people whose worlds she’s destroyed. As if you could measure someone’s moral worth by whether they feel sorry for the wrong kind of people. Watch your own feelings, citizen: make sure you’re only feeling bad for the correct designated victims. All this strikes me as not just misguided, but actively deranged.

The thing about sympathy is that it’s involuntary. Theresa May doesn’t deserve my sympathy, but she has it – and if you can only feel sympathy for the people that deserve it, what you have isn’t sympathy at all, just an opinion. I can’t see a person who lost everything – not because of blind chance, or because someone else took it from her, but simply because of what she was – and not feel sorry for her. And there’s something desperate in all these professions of indifference. People training themselves not to care, because they’re seized with the mad idea that how you feel is a question of political duty. People installing a GCHQ listening station inside their own heads. It’s a cruelty that’s not too different from Mayism itself, which taught the country not to feel sorry for the foreigners, the scroungers, the asylum seekers, the shouty metropolitan young people, because they were the wrong type.

Of course, it’s possible I’m being played here. Is this just what power looks like now? May is gone, and the dark hulking teddy-bear shape of Boris Johnson squats heavy on the horizon. Here he is, stuck on a zipline. Here he is, falling into a pond. Here he is, accidentally reeling off a series of obsolete racial slurs in a speech to the United Nations. It’s not his fault, he’s just a bit clumsy and a bit out of touch. Don’t you feel sorry for him?

In defence of lazy kneejerk contrarianism

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Savages, savages, barely even human

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

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What does capitalism actually look like?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

On being bored of Brexit

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

There’s no such country as Russia

madeupnotreal

On the internet, there’s a small but dedicated group of people who believe that Donald Trump is secretly trans. To be honest, it explains a lot. That’s why he’s so histrionic, so obsessed with slights and appearances, so consumed with petty gossip and petty grievances. It’s why he’s so utterly soft, like a person sculpted out of margarine. It’s why he loves expensive things and little cakes: he’s a woman, and we all know what those are like. And it’s not just the first female President, but his entire family. Don Jr and Eric had big red ‘F’s on their birth certificates, to match the next twenty gormless years of transcripts and report cards. Melania wears all those disastrously unwoke outfits so nobody notices her dick. Barron is a girl being coercively raised with short hair and videogames; Ivanka was a boy forced to wear dresses. The believers scour through every second of video footage of the First Family, looking for any tiny trace of gender misperformance, filing it away in long YouTube videos: here is The Evidence. Of course, it all goes much deeper than the Trumps. They’re only part of a secret elite Satanic trans cabal. Everyone in the higher reaches of power is trans, from the British royal family to pop stars to TV anchors. Why isn’t entirely clear. Because they hate nature, because they hate God, because they’re mimicking the androgyny of the Baphomet, because they’re just perverts. (The theory is also somehow linked to the idea that all animals not mentioned in the Bible are actually fake – zebras are just painted donkeys, gorillas are men in suits, sloths are animatronics, and so on.) But the truth is plain to see, and the investigation continues. Soon, all will be revealed.

This is a fairly stupid, bigoted, and dangerous theory. It’s also far more believable than the idea that Donald Trump is a secret deep-cover Kremlin agent. So why is the Transvestigation confined to a few YouTube channels, while Russiagate spent nearly three years dominating the news?

Three years of drivel. Three years of Putin’s puppet, of game theory, of Slovakia being part of ‘Soviet Yugoslavia,’ of the shocking revelation that Russia sends delegates to the World Economic Forum, of a Hollywood actor declaring war on behalf of a government that never got to exist, of ‘the Communists are now dictating the terms of the debate,’ of ‘the death penalty, for espionage, being considered for Steve Bannon,’ of ‘what would your family do if Russia killed the US power grid,’ of ‘the only option is a coup,’ of ‘Russia was able to influence our election because they figured out that racism, sexism, anti-Semitism, homophobia, and transphobia are America’s Achilles heel,’ of protesters waving hammer-and-sickle flags at demonstrations, of ‘Comrade Trump,’ of ‘welcome to the resistance,’ of hysteria, of anthem-farting nativist boosterism, of fantasies in which all your political enemies are legislated out of existence, of the idea that the mere existence of the world’s largest country is somehow illegitimate, of endless screams for war and military aggression, of sub-John Birch Society reactionary psychosis, eyes rotating independently, brains glittering with crank, delusions piling on delusions, TV comedians and failed politicos turning themselves into volunteer CIA analysts, an entire intellectual class bursting out of reality and into the lunatic swirls beyond, a bourgeois elite that needs to invent global conspiracies to account for the fact that nobody loves them as much as they love themselves, messianic terrors, indictments swooping in the night, the titanomachy for the soul of America, the war against saboteurs and spies, braindead dads playing toy soldiers on Twitter, silent retractions, bashful corrections, denial, bargaining, anger, total psychological rot. Three years of this crap, and none of it was true.

From the Mueller report, the thing that all these mad hopes hinged on and swung from: ‘The investigation did not establish that members of the Trump Campaign conspired or coordinated with the Russian government in its election interference activities.’

Of course, the investigations have led to several indictments, and exposed some of Trump’s sleaze, lies, and criminality – but that’s just because the man is a sleazy lying criminal. That wasn’t the focus, it wasn’t what the investigations and their boosters promised. For years, I was gloatingly told that any day now, it would be proved that the President of the United States had covertly worked with the Russian state to steal the 2016 election, not that he’d illegally paid off a porn star out of campaign funds to cover up an affair. It’s not hard to catch the world’s absolute pigshit dumbest head of state out – but somehow, the Russiagaters have shown themselves to be even stupider than he is. They challenged a bloated foetus with a combover to a game of wits, and they can’t stop losing. For three years, they’ve been trying to get some dirt on a scummy Mafia associate – and they thought they could do it by collectively pretending to live in a spy novel.

It doesn’t matter. It isn’t over: it’ll never be over, not as long as people continue to believe. At the time of writing, the theory goes that the Attorney General’s summary of the Mueller investigation’s findings is actually a cover-up, a Trump nominee lying about the devastating report in a last desperate effort to hide the awful truth. When the full report is released, it’ll be something else. If the Rapture didn’t come on the predicted date, it’s because you were too sinful; if the comet failed to pick you up and carry you out into kaleidoscopic polysexual interstellar space, it’s because something polluted your positive vibes.

Conspiracy theories, the idea goes, swill around in the dregs of society, among the toothless, tobacco-stained, and deranged. The people who believe Trump is secretly trans are isolated cranks, while the people who believe Trump is secretly a Russian agent – or pretend to think that – are Hillary Clinton, the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Guardian, CNN, MSNBC, a substantial chunk of elected Democrats and not a few Republicans, along with doctors, lawyers, scientists, and celebrities. Early in 2017, the Washington Post published an op-ed castigating sections of the public for believing the insane reactionary nativist fantasy that Barack Obama is a secret Muslim, while not believing the insane reactionary nativist fantasy that Donald Trump is a Russian asset. Obviously, this writer didn’t think these ideas were comparable. It’s hard to imagine that the class character of the people who hold them didn’t have an effect. But ruling-class conspiracies aren’t really so unusual. For centuries, the European ruling classes were happily spreading and inventing paranoia against the continent’s Jews. Today, the Hungarian ruling classes do much the same thing. And the Prime Minister of Israel, not to be outdone, has tried to somehow exonerate Hitler for the Holocaust, and pin it all on the Palestinians.

All this is difficult for me, because I love conspiracy theories and the people that hold them. But there’s an inconsistency. Climate change denialists are not as dear to me as creationists. I can’t sympathise with people who think a tragic drink-driving accident was actually an Islamic terror attack because the driver was Indian, not in the same way that I sympathise with people who think the Sun’s been replaced by an artificial double because the daylight seemed warmer when they were young. And while I love flat earth, hollow moon, and the new chronology, I can’t love Russiagate. Maybe it’s because I don’t have family members furiously insisting that all of history up to the sixteenth century was fabricated by the Jesuits. Maybe it’s because my class and my education mean that I can love these other things without anyone taking it too seriously. But mostly I think it’s because what I admire in untruth is its expansiveness, and Russiagate is so small. Nasty, measly bullshit; Cold War imperialism and a horror of foreign contamination; the petty presumption of the educated upper class. I don’t hate it because it’s untrue. I hate it because it’s another grim wift of what’s killing us.

‘We do not object to a judgement just because it is false,’ writes Nietzsche, ‘and this is probably what is strangest about our new language.’ We’re all Nietzscheans now. It’s worth noting that the people who gave themselves brain damage over an utterly imaginary Russiagate are the same ones who’ve also been having a three-year-long freakout about fake news and post-truth politics. The responsible, the sensible, the evidence-based, the moderate. In 2017, the British publishing industry saw fit to put out three separate books titled Post-Truth. Two had the word ‘bullshit’ in the subtitle. This frantic repetition, as any good Freudian knows, is the foundation of civilisation and sanity, while itself being utterly deranged. (Psychoanalysis is always quite Nietzschean in this regard. Whether your father actually wants to castrate you is immaterial. Just because they’re after you, doesn’t mean you’re not paranoid.) I’ve spent a long time writing against this kind of miserable desaturated administration-as-politics, but if it ever existed in fact rather than as a regulative ideal, that mask has fallen now. All the Mueller report has done is made it a little bit harder to pretend that politics is, or should be, within the domain of facts. Russiagaters, welcome to the unreal. Let’s build you a better lie.

And her name is Lisa too

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I didn’t understand Captain Marvel.

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

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Here, there, everywhere

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The opinions of others

oldones

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Policy break: maternal mortality

policy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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