Idiot Joy Showland

This is why I hate intellectuals

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The old golden savages killed their philosophers

Yesterday, in the funniest thing to have ever happened in Washington DC, thousands of Trump supporters breached the US Capitol in an attempt to prevent Joe Biden’s victory being confirmed in the Senate. This is worrying, for obvious reasons. These people are entirely disconnected from reality, susceptible to far-right messaging, capable of violence, and numerous. It’s a dangerous erosion of democratic norms and the rule of law. It’s tragic: four people died in the disturbance; four worlds have gone black forever because of the doomed political fantasies of a TV game show host. But it’s also – and this is not an ethical judgement, or even really a commentary, just a statement of the facts on the ground – hilarious.

It’s funny in the way that the truth is always funny. Here is the bland citadel of American power, big white halls with mediocre paintings, men in breeches either firing muskets at each other or engaged in some lofty Enlightenment-era debate. The myth of America. And here, hooting and hollering as they ransack the place, are the Americans. This is the world you made: an army of corn-fed cretins, blasted in the face by digital media until their brains shrivelled into radioactive pebbles; churning flesh in the gears of the most advanced bureaucracy ever devised by man. A nation that rants, that stands on street corners yelling to itself, sometimes into a camera, sometimes into the faces of anyone passing by. They came here from the dead places. Car dealerships, yacht clubs, poisoned creeks; the places where covid swept away twenty million years of cumulative memory and nobody really cared. Not the wretched of the earth, but a new kind of lumpen. The rabble at the dead end of history, lost in a world that no longer needs their productive labour, or their folkways, or their lives.

One of them was a topless, muscled man wearing a fur hood, patriotic face paint, and horns. Another came to the protest with a bright red MAGA cap perched on top of his ghillie suit. Others were dressed in Revolutionary War outfits, or as cavemen, or simply looked like they’d just escaped from a hospice. Orwell once wrote that the mere words ‘Socialism’ and ‘Communism’ draw towards them with magnetic force every fruit-juice drinker, nudist, sandal-wearer, sex-maniac, Quaker, ‘Nature Cure’ quack, pacifist, and feminist in England. Now, the same thing is happening on the right: yesterday’s crowd included a man hoisting a sign that read NO BLOODY CIRCUMCISERS – PERVERTS IN U.S. COURTS, U.S. SENATE OR U.S. PRESIDENT, NO FORESKIN NO PEACE!!! Given that we’re in the middle of a pandemic, all these people could have easily hidden their identities – but because of they’ve convinced themselves that a cloth mask dangerously cuts off your oxygen supply, they allowed their faces to be photographed, and now they’ll all be rounded up and sent to federal prison for a decade. One of the fatalities occurred when someone tasered themselves by accident. When they broke into Nancy Pelosi’s office, they took turns pretending to be her, sitting in her special chair, picking up her phone and acting as if they had to take an important political call. This is funny. Even funnier is the spectacle of the politicians themselves, ducking in the aisles, cucked and cowardly in their ridiculous plastic-bag gas masks, trembling in fear as their own constituents try to rip the wood panelling off the walls. This is not what an attempted coup looks like. This is the circus. And you’re lying, you’re lying to yourself and everyone around you, if you claim that you’re not entertained.

More than half a decade ago, I wrote up a fruitless A-to-B anti-austerity march through central London, ending in Parliament Square: The Palace of Westminster was within puking distance, and we were in the hundreds of thousands; I couldn’t understand why nobody was rushing the gates to actually overthrow the government. Even if they had cops with sniper rifles on the roofs, they couldn’t shoot all of us. It never happened. The closest we ever came was the storming of Millbank Tower in 2010 – and that was always enemy territory; we couldn’t march through Tory HQ and shout, like the people who breached the Capitol: this is our house, this belongs to us. If it had been leftists breaking into the halls of power, we’d have known exactly what to do: declare a provisional revolutionary government, set up a thousand different subcommittees, and then immediately start braining each other with congressional paperweights in a series of bloody factional purges. This lot, meanwhile, had no idea what they were supposed to actually do once they were inside.

For a while they milled about, carrying flags and stealing things. They didn’t even start any fires; all they left with were some bits of wood and covid-19. There was no plan to any of this, because their brand of right-wing populism isn’t really a politics at all. It has no real coherent sense of what it wants to abolish or what it wants to uphold, and a long frantic scream instead of a theory of change. This is why you don’t need to worry that a ‘competent fascist’ might come along to pick up where Trump left off: incompetence and incoherence is the substance of this movement. Nothing that smells like ideological rigour will stick in our swirling stupid age. (This is why it’s equally unlikely that these unfocused anti-establishment energies will be redirected into a populist grand coalition with the left. This isn’t a primitive dissatisfaction that just needs a few lessons on how surplus value works to mature into a good socialist analysis; it’s its own thing, not inchoate, but a final form.) A friend of mine once came across a QAnon protest in London and realised that she simply couldn’t understand any of their signs, all of which seemed to have to do with the politics of an entirely separate reality. As a political demonstration, it was a total failure; it did nothing to communicate what the activists thought was going on or what they wanted done to fix it. But it wasn’t a political demonstration. What these people want is simply to be recognised: for the social machine to know they exist. (Obviously, this same instinct is perfectly capable of wearing the skin of left-wing politics too. It’s the spirit of our age; it swallows everything it finds without discrimination.) Entering a semiotic zero-space does nothing to hurt this cause; if anything, believing truly stupid and incomprehensible things only adds to the mystique. Force the machine to ask why. Is this fascism? Is this a coup? The protesters broke into the temple of American democracy, not despite the waiting cameras, but because of them. They want to see themselves floating within the system of images. Notice me. Care about me. Give me a hug.

They know that Trump really won the election; the truth of it is in their bones. All the stuff about voter fraud is just an elaborate rationalisation of something very visceral and very universal and which has nothing to do with politics. If Trump actually lost, then it means I don’t matter. If Trump actually lost, then the universe repudiates me. Hard to blame them: very few of us are capable of confronting the Lovecraftian reality of our blind, uncaring cosmos. These people aspire to exist, and they were just unfortunate enough to sink all their cathectic energies into a painted clown instead of something more appropriate, like a sports team or a war. But you can understand why: here, the same affects go all the way up to the top. Just like his followers, Trump doesn’t have a plan. If he’s still refusing to concede defeat, it’s simply because he believes in the power of positive thinking. Just like your ex-girlfriend, he thinks that the universe will give him whatever he wants as long as he wants it hard enough. It’s worked well for him so far, hasn’t it? So why give up on your dreams now?

In the end, it’s hard for me to feel too upset about anyone who trashes a big public building in Washington DC. I last visited DC about a year ago; unfortunately, I had friends there. Unfortunately, because it’s grimmer than a typhoid-riddled refugee camp or a North Korean jail: the worst, most miserable place in the world. This is not a city. It’s an endless maze of low barriers and security zones, a place infinitely cordoned off from itself. Every street is lined with low ugly business-park blocks that modestly announce themselves as the headquarters of some kind of terrible global evil: the International Directorate for Diarrhoea and Diarrhoea-Causing Pathogens, the Alliance for Tearing Small Holes In Mosquito Nets, the US State Department, the IMF. Evil without grandeur: the ground floor of every one of these blocks is always occupied by a CVS or a Peet’s Coffee. You want to eat? Eat this cinnamon swirl; it’s made from corn syrup and chalk. Your only other option is some brassy gloomy den of a hotel restaurant, where greased lobbyists feed their politicians on plates of paler flesh, scorched and braised, with truffles grated on top. Don’t ask what animal this came from. You don’t want to know his name. In the streets, the DC people bustle about: cut-throat mediocrities with suits shinier than their lanyards and foreheads shinier still, visibly humming with satisfaction. I made it! I’m here, in the birdshit trench of despair where Everything Gets Done! It’s good that these people don’t get Congressional representation. They shouldn’t get to breathe. Nothing good can survive in a place like this. Imagine if Slough or Swindon or Milton Keynes were also the nexus of a fanatical empire bent on world domination. Imagine seventy square miles in which the Nazis won the war.

The one really interesting place in DC is the Lincoln Memorial. It has what Albert Speer called Ruinenwert, ruin-value. (His idea was to construct buildings that would one day produce sublime wreckage, as a noble example for the Aryans of the distant future. The Red Army made sure that Nazi Germany left no monuments. As ever, America picked up the slack.) After all, it’s already a kind of tomb. The marble is too smooth, it glows too evenly; begging to be slapped about a bit, roughened up by time. I imagined the ceiling collapsing, the bog-weeds marching out of the Mall and up the famous steps to wetly choke these stones. The man himself sits there on his marble throne, huger than life. Maybe in the future, the savages that will inhabit this place might regard Lincoln as a kind of stern primordial god; maybe they’ll sacrifice twins at his feet. The text of the Gettysburg Address is chiselled into one wall. Lincoln is apparently no longer a woke hero, but it’s still stirring stuff. These are the words of someone who really genuinely believed in his political ideal – a new birth of freedom, an extirpation of the sin of slavery – and who was willing to spend hundreds of thousands of lives to achieve it, before he finally gave his own. A man like Lenin or Napoleon, a bloodied founder of the law. I imagined those holes in the wall cracking and filled with slime, and the tomb-dwellers of the future barely noticing them as they shuffle in and out carrying skinned deer and captive children from the other tribe. Outside, on the windswept steps, a black-clad Christian with a megaphone was preaching to a crowd of none. On Judgement Day, when you stand before holy God, it won’t matter a bit about Donald Trump. The Bible says all have sinned. Call Donald Trump a liar if you want, but how many lies have you told in your life? A few steps away, but not facing him, a man in dayglo cycling gear stood and heckled. YOU ARE DEFENDING A PIMP, A LIAR, AND A CON ARTIST! JESUS WOULD BE APPALLED! The secret is, of course, that the collapse I was imagining had already happened, that it’s been happening since the first syllable of recorded time.

As bowtie-wearing types have pointed out, the storming of the Capitol looks a lot like a barbarian sack of Rome. The gardens ravaged, the altars and chalices profaned, the Huns rode their horses into the monastery library and mangled the incomprehensible books and reviled and burned them – fearful perhaps that the letters of the books might harbour blasphemies against their god, which was a scimitar of iron. But what kind of Rome is Washington DC? To be honest, maybe it’s the same one. Philip K Dick got it: The Empire never ended. A single state, unevenly distributed in time. Storming out of the colonial lands to the west, far away from the traditional centres of civilisation. A ruling class that turns its genocidal conquests into a series of fun and fashionable diversions: foreign food, foreign décor, foreign clothes, foreign gods. An underclass that simmers and periodically threatens to burn everything down. Slave plantations. A set of good solid decent civic virtues that always seem to have really existed somewhere in the past, however far back you go. (Or – and this is always a nice rhetorical trick – among the barbarians.) And that unique combination of brutality and silliness, entertainment and administration and death. What was their civilisation? Vast, I allow: but vile. Later writers tried, but they couldn’t really understand the Romans. The medievals and early moderns had no reference point for the ruins they inhabited. Europe had to wait until the twentieth century, until it was once again conquered by a huge frivolous empire that only wanted to entertain. The primary instrument of Roman rule wasn’t the magistrates or even the legions, it was the arenas. Auction off the tax collection, let some local notable have his crown, but build a circus. The empire depends on it. Or maybe that’s the wrong way round: maybe the majesty of the Roman state, with its court poets and its marble halls and its great orators with their hands nailed to the rostra, only existed to spread the institution of the arena further across the world.

This time around, of course, things are simpler. There is nothing outside the empire and nowhere left to expand. There is nothing sacred to be defiled. You can worship God and the scimitar at the same time. The barbarians have always been ourselves.

The itch

The universe seems decent because decent people have gelded eyes.
An old French lai

It doesn’t take much to be exiled from this village, which sprawls in timber and straw by the mouth of the river. A limp is enough. A child born with fingers scrunched, a hare lip, or his knees pointed in. This one had an itchy eye. Most eyes want to look; for whatever reason, her eye wanted to be touched – and not gently. Better a rubbing knuckle than a stroke, better still a fingernail to dig and tear. It satisfied nothing, but once she’d started it was so hard to stop. The more you rub, the more it hurts, the more you keep on rubbing. Dig into the pain, deeper; claw through into the ugly and endless pleasure of an itch.

She might have been beautiful, but soon the skin around her left eye became thin and raw and shed small white flakes. Something other eyes couldn’t bear to see. When she scratched too hard there was blood, and afterwards the wound crusted over. Where the dirt got in, it bubbled and seeped. An eye set in a ring of boiling flesh. Nobody ever threw her out of the town, and no door was ever barred to her, but she never married, and eventually she went away to live in the hills. Higher than the trees will grow or the herds will graze, in the great blistered interior of the land, where winter winds scrape against the naked rock. There, in a little sheltered crevasse, she built her shack with yellowing moss on the roof, cultivated her garden, enjoyed the secret joys of her eye, and at long last she grew old there, alone.

This is the story of how the itch finally cost her the eye.

It wasn’t only the lame or the harelipped that vanished from this town. There was the girl whose footsteps led down across a meadow to the banks of a bright cold spring; there were no footsteps leading out. Another girl became a voice singing to herself in the forest, which you can still hear on moonless nights, when the sheep on their hillsides twitch worried noses and the insects fear to creak. Her high brave voice in the hollow of the woods. One girl, they say, was offered a ride out of town by a strange carter whose wheels left no ruts in the road. He kept his promise: she was never seen again.

Where did they go? On its outcrop, just over the river from the town with its streets dug through tight-packed dung, the English earl had his castle. Like an enormous gemstone: its high sheer curtain walls, its turrets. At low tide, the river was shallow enough to wade clear across. The brownish silt would suck at your shoes, and when it gave them up it released the smell of sulphur. When the people went across to pay their taxes, they would track mud over the smooth clean flagstones. This felt like part of the design: a reminder that you are a stain on the world. A generation ago, when Madog ap Llywelyn rose up to reclaim this land, the English knights fanned out from that castle over the countryside, burning fields and houses, killing fathers and taking away girls. Eventually they stopped burning the fields, but they still rode out for the girls. Everyone knew they kidnapped any young woman who went wandering the paths at night. She would be bundled up and carried away, off to that cold sheer castle to cook and clean and sew. And because everyone knew this, they never had to mention all the girls whose own families had sent them over the river. In a little stone room, the earl’s reeve would look a girl up and down, put a hand on her thigh or her forearm, squeeze. Smack his wet lips, nod, and pay her father with a handful of silver coins. There were many families ashamed and close to starving with a stash of silver coins buried in the soot of the hearth.

But there was also the girl on the rocks. She had been a crofter’s daughter; betrothed to a slight young man who crabbed along the shores of the bay, who knew the pools where scuttling things went to hide. This crabber was the one who found her there one morning, her back arched over the curve of a great boulder jutting out into the sea. Her body hung with seaweed and slime: a funeral robe. Her eyes still open: hard staring icy blue. They buried that girl in the black of the ground, but the crabber wouldn’t go. Around the same time, he started to drink. Outside the wake he leaned on a yew-tree and laughed in the mourners’ faces: that’s only a thing you’re burying, shit-brains, go on, go weep for your wooden doll. The family had to throw rocks until he left. In the night, he’d wander drunk over the rocks by the shore, calling her name. Because the girl he loved was still alive. Because the real girl’s eyes were green.

One night, many years later, this crabber wandered too far, until he found himself in a part of the country he’d never seen before. Lost and hungry, with frost forming in the grey of his beard, he ranged over the hillsides until the forests fell away and the grass became hard scratchy scrub. He thought he might die of cold. But finally, he reached the crest of a hill and saw beneath him a large stone house, with flowers growing up the walls and a warm light in every window. As he came closer, he could hear the lively music and the chatter of guests, spilling out of the doors, lounging around the scented gardens. The smell of roasting meat, and a sudden warmth in the air, like those close clammy summer nights when even at midnight the birds announce the dawn. When the guests noticed him, they crowded around; they told him how wonderful it was to see him and how glad they were he’d finally come. We have a place for you, they said, we’ve been waiting so long. What was this party? A wake, they said. These people were tall and beautiful and dressed like gentlemen, but they spoke to him in his own language. They offered him wine and meat. Starving, he accepted. One of them took him by the hand and led him inside, but just as he was about to pass through the door a young servant-girl grabbed his arm. Leave, she hissed, do not eat their food or drink their wine; it will turn to soil in your mouth, and this funeral is yours. He was almost at the doorway before he turned. The house was so warm and inviting, with its hundreds of candles and its mingling of perfumed skin. It felt, in a way he couldn’t describe, like sleep. But when he turned he saw the side of the servant-girl’s face, and her eye as green as pond-weed or the fields after rain.

The crabber woke on that rock, his back arched over the curve of the boulder, strewn with seaweed and slime. Overnight, banks of ice had built up by the foot of the stone. But in the scratchy scrub-hills high above the bay, he found a circle of ash burned into the earth, and a few singed petals still drifting on the wind.

The people in the village knew better than to disbelieve him, but they kept their distance all the same. The man was elf-touched; he had lingered by the gates of that other kingdom. Everyone knew it was there. The place of the invisible people who live underground, more ancient than the treeless hills, as deep in this country as its slate or its coal. They were here before the Normans and the Saxons both, and before the name of Jesus Christ. They speak the language of rustling leaves, or a knock from underneath the hearthstone on a winter’s night. Sometimes a ring of mushrooms might appear in the middle of a grassy field: a fairy-circle. There are places in the forests where people know not to go, where the trees warp in elderly coils, marking the drift of invisible forces in the slow vastness of time. Where the dawn always comes a little later; where boughs carry heavy wolfmoss robes. Where you might find a single human toe, twitching, sprouting from out of the muck.

Sometimes, in the night, they will join a pile of planks into a boat or sew leather into jerkins. If a house is untidy, they will scamper through every room and clean. Our drudgery is play for them; they are lighter and happier than we are. They are the the tylwyth teg, the Fair Family, and they do not know sin or sadness or jealousy or toil. They do not bear the curse of Eve. But because they aren’t serious about it, their work is poor: the boots the fairy-folk stitch tend to fall apart, and most of the thread they spin is useless.

Sometimes they steal human children, and leave one of their own in its place. Spiky-faced infants with rough skin or goat teeth; loud upsetting wails. You can send away a changeling by putting it in the oven or over an open fire; this is how many mothers quietly removed a troublesome or sickly child. But the best way is simply to show the fairy something it hasn’t seen. In view of the cradle, brew beer or boil stew in an empty eggshell. Your baby will exclaim: I am old, so very old; I lived when the oak was an acorn, before the forests grew – but I never saw beer brewed in an eggshell before! Then, discovered, it will vanish, leaving your real child in its place. The changeling is not really a baby.  It’s one of their elders, one whose time has come. For the tylwyth teg, the upper world is where the dead go. We are like shades and spectres to them: so heavy and mournful, bent down in our sadness, diligent in our monasteries, obedient to the law, and regretful when we die.

But for all their lightness, the tylwyth teg must live underground, and they cannot bear the sun. Their lives are in laughter, but they pay their tithes to Hell. They love spinning-wheels, needles, fine clothes, good meat, and good wine; they love music, tiaras, courtly dance, flowers, and golden coins – but the doorway to their other kingdom is far away from all those softer artificial things, high up in the hills where the wind howls against naked rock, where nobody lives except an old woman with red weeping welts all around her eye.

Without much else to do, this old woman became wise. She knew how to make a poultice to treat a broken leg; she knew what herbs to feed a sickly calf and how to tell tomorrow’s weather from the wriggling of the worms. A few times a year she’d be called down to the village to attend a difficult birth. Sometimes the mother would live, and sometimes she did what she could to make her dying easier. She was like the charcoal-burner in his hut or the lonely crabber who still pined among the rocks at night: someone necessary, but best kept far away. Paid in a few sacks of oats come harvest, firewood or fish.  Once, the call went out not from the village but the castle: two riders in chain-mail appeared outside her door, and while she spoke no English they made her understand that she was needed. She had never been on the back of a horse before. Inside the castle, she walked smooth flagstones and peered into its hundreds of halls. She saw girls she might have delivered, twelve or thirteen years old, scurrying around. Sometimes a bowed face to hide the bruise. She delivered the Countess’s child safely, and while the lady kept her head under a silk veil, she still left with the secret that the Earl’s wife kept her cunt in the French manner, without hair. Also a single gold dinar, which dented when she bit it. A line of writing around the edge of the coin testified that there is no god but God.

The only thing she didn’t learn was a cure for her itching eye. She could soothe a nettle-sting or the last gasps of death, but nothing could fix her eye. It wanted to be touched. It wanted to bleed.

Later, her legs grew weak and the hair started thinning on her head. Worst of all, her fingers stiffened. Harder to spin her thread or cook her meals. Eventually she went down to the village again. Crossed the mud-flats to the castle fair, where she might find a servant-girl to help her in her age. It was Christmas: a lean time; much to hoard and little to sell. In shivering tents the villagers displayed their last skinny parsnips, their young skinny daughters, their old skinny mules. Red-faced girls, roughened in the fields – but nobody wanted to hire themselves out to the old woman with the blistered eye. Nobody wanted to live out in the wilderness and the hills, a day’s heavy slog from their cousins and friends. At last, she found a girl who was standing all by herself. She was maybe seventeen years old. Lanky; gormless. An upturned nose; a triangular mouth half-open, showing a pair of rodenty teeth. Wide passive eyes, the eyes of the cows in their marshes. Hair like hay. Skin like sea-scum, or wet uncooked dough. She said her name was Eilian, which is a boy’s name, the name of the Roman saint who built his church on Ynys Môn. But the old woman shrugged. Everything is wrong in the world, so why not a name? She showed Eilian the gold coin, and offered it for a year’s work in her cottage. The girl readily agreed. They walked back together, not speaking, into the high barren hills.

Eilian was impossible to understand. In the mornings she would clean the shack, chop wood, light the fire, milk the goat, and set a pot of llymru bubbling over the hearth. In the afternoons she would churn butter or weed the vegetable garden, in the evenings she would spin, and at night she bedded down with the old woman in her heavy woollen coat. She did everything she was ordered to, but she needed orders. Eilian, chop some firewood. Eilian, light the fire. If she wasn’t told what to do, Eilian would simply sit and stare, her mouth hung open, with that little nub of a chin dangling in the middle of her neck. The old woman had a crwth: one evening, she asked Eilian if she could play. The girl took the thing and plucked a few strings like a child would, grabbing them at random. Pling plang plong. The old woman handed her the bow, and Eilian looked at it without much understanding, before suddenly breaking into a tune of dark rasping beauty, a song that sang with the winds in the black night of the moor. Slow and broken: the heartbreak of the land. It lasted a single minute, and then she handed back the box and continued staring at the wall. That song, whatever it was, had no meaning for her.

When she span in the gloaming, Eilian would take her work outside. Squatting in the snow, she looked like an old half-buried stone. Her curving back, wrapped in a lumpy coat – that was the silhouette of the boulder. The thin hair that snapped about in the furious January winds – that was the last clump, clinging, of summer straw. The silence of the mineral world. Especially since, even though it was hard to make everything out in the yellowy gloom, it looked to the old woman that when she sat outside Eilian’s long listless limbs never actually moved. Still, the work was done; Eilian spun all the wool that could be sheared, more than the old woman could possibly need. And if she forgot to tell Eilian to carry the wool back inside, half a dozen spindles would be left to rot in the snow until morning.

On the first day of spring, Eilian disappeared. After a long day shearing sheep, and a night of unwholesome dreams, the old woman woke to find the place cold and empty. On the hearth, she found a gold coin with Arabic letters stamped around the edge. The girl must have wandered down the hills again, following the goat-paths home with her mouth open and her arms drooping empty by her side. Well, at least she’d returned the coin.

The old woman spent her summer alone, eating little things, mushrooms. When the new year approached again, she only noticed from the stars. A year is like a life is like a day: you come into it bleary and slog through the long dark early reaches, waiting for something to get better, but when it ends it ends all at once.

The call came on the night of the solstice, the longest night of the year. This man looked like he had come up from the castle again: a short man, with a beardless and pretty little face, dressed in fine silks embroidered with golden thread. He asked if she was the midwife, and she said that she was. The man was in a panic, but there was still a kind of laughter swelling out in his cheeks; he was the kind of man who’d smile in his sleep. Not to be trusted. He led her to his horse: the biggest animal the old woman had ever encountered, a snorting monster heavier than a bull, with bright madness foaming from every hole in its face. They did not ride through the hills to the castle. Instead, the master gave a vicious crack of the whip, and the creature bolted higher up into the wilderness. They stopped, finally, by a place the old woman knew well, a patch of high moorland crowned with old stones. But this place was not how she remembered, because between the boulders gaped the mouth of a cave where there had never been a cave before.

The master lit a lantern and led her inside, and when the passage narrowed they crawled. Icicles of stone there, damp grit underfoot. And deeper: marks on the wall, flashes of surging antlers in the lamplight, or huge crude tusks. Once, something had lived here. Greasy scorches of soot, fragments of bone. The old woman knew a tale about a cave like this: a boy had found a gap in the rocks hidden by a scrap of turf, and inside a vast hall of stone where thousands of men in ugly spiked armour lay as if they had died in a heap, each clasping a switch of hazel. Frightened, the boy started to run for daylight, but he hit his head on a large bell suspended from the roof of the cavern. It clanged loud enough to shake the earth, and at once the men jumped up and started to shout: is this the day? Has it dawned? Is this the day? No, the boy managed, not today. Then the warriors went back to sleep. Not long after he emerged from underground, the boy pined away and died; nobody learned what day those men were waiting for. If we are lucky, we might never know.

Here, said the master. Here, in the foggiest depths of the cave, someone had cut a square hole through the rock and placed a heavy golden door. The old woman pushed, and the hinges were as smooth as butter. Inside was the most sumptuous place she’d seen, grander by far than the castle on the strait, maybe grander than the courts of France she’d heard described in ballads. The floor was heavy with richly coloured Persian carpets. The walls were decked in tapestries and furs. A huge fire crackled from its hearth, and everything glowed in its light. The brass baubles, the fine wooden furniture heaped with rare foods. Peaches, cherries, sides of salmon: summer delicacies in December. And a bed. Carefully, the old woman removed her boots so as not to spoil the carpets, and walked on suddenly aching feet over to that bed. The girl there had passed out in her labour, and the sweat was high on her forehead. The master hovered by her side. Save my child, he said, if you can only save one of them, then bring me my son.

She saved both. The boy, when he came, was fat and healthy, bellowing. The mother, pale, exhausted, mostly slept. When she looked at the old woman her face was clouded, only barely aware that someone else was in the room with her. She would take a few days to recover, and in that time the master invited the old woman to stay. She could warm herself by his fire, take whatever she wanted from his table, and tend to the mother and the child. She accepted. Finally, just before he left, the father passed a glass bottle into her hands. This oil, he said, is to be rubbed into my son’s eyes, only gently, but twice every day. And be warned: you must not touch your own eyes with it, not even a drop, or your fate will be terrible indeed.

The baby cried every time she poured the oil over his eyes. The fits would last for hours, each one worse than the last. She did her best to soothe him, bouncing him in her stiff skinny arms. She ate from the table: a few ripe apricots. They were soft and juicy, but not at all sweet. A salty-bitter taste, and something slimy between her teeth. These fruits were barren: without a stone. She looked at the tapestries on the walls, which all depicted hunts. The gentlemen on fine black horses were shown surrounding a bear; they thrust stone-tipped lances and split open the animal’s brains. She examined herself in the large polished bronze mirror, the wreckage of her face. The fire burned high. So why was she so cold? And why did it prick her feet so much to walk on that smooth, well-carpeted floor?

After maybe a night and a day – the place had no windows – the mother started to stir a little. She nursed the child and kissed his angry little scalp. She didn’t speak. She was beautiful, but something about her face troubled the old woman. Maybe she looked a little too much like the old woman herself might have looked, if she’d led a softer life. Once the baby was vomiting little glugs of milk, his mother gave him over to be anointed. The old woman shook a drop of the oil onto her left finger, and rubbed the baby’s eyes; he bawled, she handed him back. Now her eye itched again, so she sat on a chair and scratched. Pulse over the skin of the eyelid, push until the eye bruises the back of its socket. She had been scratching for quite a while until she noticed the slight greasiness between her finger and her eye, and realised that she had rubbed the oil into her own eye. Slowly, she withdrew her hand and opened her eyes.

This is what her right eye saw. There was the well-furnished room, the carpets, the tapestries, the fire, the table, the bed, the food, the baby, and his mother. But the left eye saw something else. It was only a matter of perspective, the slight distance between one eye and another, the world seen from a slightly different angle. Like peering behind a stage to see the ropes and the sawdust. Like peering around the back of a stately manor, where the pigs eat kitchen scraps and shit in the same mire. The left eye saw that this room was not a room, but a wet cavern. That there was no carpet, but the rough rocky floor that had shredded the soles of her feet. That there were no tapestries, but an array of skulls staring with empty sockets from every cranny: the skulls of deer, foxes, bears, and yes, human skulls, fractured, pierced with a stone-tipped lance. That there was no fire, but a fissure in the vault of the cave through which the drizzle came down. Not a table: a moss-furred rock. Not a bed: a stagnant pool of fronds and slime. No summertime fruit, but fat white feasting slugs. The left eye saw that the baby was a monstrous imp, covered in thick dark fur, that grinned through sharpened teeth. And his mother, naked in the slime, bleeding from the dozens of tiny deep gashes all over her breast, was Eilian.

Eilian, said the old woman. The girl looked up, still dazed. He said you wouldn’t see me, she said. Tell me what happened, said the old woman, and she told. The tylwyth teg had come to her on the moor, she said, and offered to lighten her labours. They would spin for her and chop the firewood; they even taught her their music. In return, she agreed to marry their elf-king before the first day of spring. The days between the winter solstice and the spring equinox are the season of the fairies, when the world slips away from the sun, given over to the unhomely powers of bog and heath; these are the dark rotting days in which fairies roam. In Elfland, it is always winter. Every night, Eilian had resisted the tylwyth teg; she slept with a belt of braided rowan-twigs across her waist, which the fairies cannot touch. But on the last day of winter she was so tired from her work that she forgot to wear her belt, and the elf-king came in the night to take what was his. Fairy weddings have no ceremony. In a minute the brutal business was done, all while the old woman slept next to them, dreaming goatish dreams. As soon as it was over he took Eilian away with him, under the hills to the sunless kingdom he ruled.

The old woman told Eilian that she would help them escape, but the girl shook her head. Wait a little longer, she said, and go when my husband returns; he will pay you well, but he must never know that you can see through his charms. Again and again the old woman tried to convince Eilian to abandon her monstrous child and leave, but every time the girl refused. Eventually her face took on a hard glinting set; there was a vein of cruelty there that the old woman would have never expected from the gormless girl at the castle fair. Eilian no longer left her mouth hanging open. How can you understand? she said. You are still a maid.

Her husband paid as well as was promised. Four gold coins, each identical to the dinar in her home. Down to the Arabic around the edge; down to the bite-mark. But later, when she’d returned to her shack and she looked at the coins again with her right eye closed, what she held was a brown handful of human teeth.

Much of the world stayed the same. The hills were the hills, the rain was only rain. These things had not been glamoured. But animals seemed larger through her new eye, and wilder too, shining primitive. The nanny-goat that munched behind her shack was no longer a goat, but Goatness itself. Maybe Adam had named something like this in the garden: a goat with a beard that kings could only imitate, a pair of horns finer than the Devil’s.

She learned things. She discovered that Elfland is not a different place under a different sky, but the world in its hiddenness. Every dark secret place is theirs; the empire reaches through the caves and the burrows, the dungeons, the cracks of the earth, and into your home. It’s under your bed and up in the rafters, in all the places that frighten children. Imagine a ball, and cup your hands around it tight: you’ve built a doorway to that other realm. Still there were secrets she couldn’t penetrate. They had to do with death, but also the savagery of the elves on their wedding-nights, and the way thick spears of grass throb towards the sky, and raw antlers shedding blood with the velvet, and the fact that Christ was born in the fairy-season, and Eilian’s mocking smile when she said you are still a maid.

The sky was one place to begin. She discovered, when she looked through her left eye, that the night sky was black and empty and there were no stars.  And when she steeled herself on a winter noon and stared directly at the sun, she wept for a week. The vastness of that dead thing, that carcass. She saw that what lights our days is a funeral pyre.

Once several weeks had passed, she noticed that her eye had stopped itching. She felt the skin with a cautious fingertip: it was healed.

Eventually, the old woman wandered into town for the market, to see if it was possible to spend one of her teeth. It was funny how the banners streaming from the castle were really only drab and white, with plain black letters that said SLEEP and CONFORM and OBEY. The market was busier now; the first daffodils were blooming, the first lambs were tottering bravely in the fields. She walked the stalls and felt invisible. Everyone in town had known her by her hideous eye, and now it was gone she could be anyone: a grandmother, maybe, from the next village over the hills. As she wandered, she noticed another figure always ahead of her, tripping from bench to bench, grabbing a loaf of bread, a measure of barley, a pot of herrings, throwing them in a black velvet sack. Thief, she cried. The vendors all looked up, but nobody stopped him. The old woman strode forward and grabbed the criminal by the scruff of his neck. Thief, she said again, but when he spun around she saw that this thief was none other the man who had come to her door on the longest night of the year, the man who married Eilian.

You can see me, said the elf-king, clearly delighted. Well, I did tell you that your fate would be terrible indeed. You must have been so confused by the things you saw! And how could you possibly understand them? You know how fond we are of our little tricks and our little games. Tell me, did you imagine that it was the truth? Now the elf-king drew himself very close to the old woman so she could smell the carrion on his breath, and whispered in her ear, like someone telling a juicy secret to a friend: there isn’t one. And although the fairy was still standing there, still smiling, still in his fine silks and perfumed hair, for an instant she saw that he was a mask. Something churned beneath his surface: the serpent that strangles and is the world.

Now, said the elf-king, which eye is it that you see me with? By your squint I know that it’s only the one. The old woman didn’t have a moment to answer; he was already peering close at her left eye, the one that had lost its halo of livid skin. In an instant, he flicked a bulrush and pulled out her eye. The eyeball glistened on the spear of his stick, dangling its bloodied wormy trail. Jelly ran out from where it had been pierced. An eye is only a ball of wet matter, invisible to the one that uses it. So is a brain. The elf-king flicked the eyeball to the ground, stamped on it once with the heel of his shoe, and then he went on his mischievous way to steal a round of good yellow cheese.

Canción de Trump

This isn’t about… yeah, it is about me, I guess, when you think about it.
Donald Trump, November 2, 2020

In October, President Donald Trump suggested he might leave the country if he lost the election. Now, he’s lost. He won’t go, but I like to imagine him in Greenland. You might remember that only last year, there was a brief scandal when Trump suggested buying the island from Denmark. The Danes stuck their chests out and refused the deal, and everyone pretended to ignore the fact that the island is functionally an American colony anyway, dotted with US military bases and only barely, vaguely, fictionally under Danish sovereignty. Maybe that was why the sale never went through: so Trump would have somewhere to flee.

Imagine Trump in Nuuk, scraggly-bearded and swaddled in a parka, trudging through the snow with his rod to fish. A quiet man, a teetotaller on an island full of broken violent drunks. He has his own way of being broken. Imagine Trump in the island’s lonely hinterlands, a hermit. Greenland is a haunted country, numinous and cold, whispering; one of the last places that’s still truly wild. Reindeer nuzzle the close dark moss, seals bask on their floes, glaciers creak and there are monsters in the deep. Imagine Trump alone, watching the northern lights spin gorgeous threads across the sky, alone. What would happen to the man if he had nobody to watch him, nobody paying attention? If he had to be a person, a living subject, rather than an image and a symbol and a name? Would he develop a conscience? Would he become wise? Or would he just dissolve into motes, and drift away in the Arctic wind?

The Greenlanders know. Their monsters are the qivittok, spirits of the strange or unworthy people exiled from the community. No human can survive alone in this cold and beautiful place, and so the qivittok become something other than human: furry or antlered, gruesome mongrel forms. Some of them can fly. They live in the mountains and attack travellers, leaving piles of gnawed red bones in the snow.

In a way, the qivittok is what Trump has always been. Trump’s rhetoric centre around the community, the flag, the symbols of belonging, because this is what he’s always lacked. He’s never had relationships, only transactions, and even those are few. In his businesses, he avoids partnerships, shareholders, or joint enterprises. He grew up lonely, the son of an indifferent father, insulated from the world by his wealth. It takes a lonely man to plaster his own name over tall buildings. It takes a lonely man to need this kind of concrete proof that he really exists.

What it comes down to is this: Donald Trump is simply not like other people. He is something different, an alien walking among us. A creature from a haunted land. In his own way, a genius. Something bright and rare and strange.

Donald Trump doesn’t hold himself like an ordinary person. He isn’t straight and he doesn’t slouch; he bends. Creasing at the waist, torso angled forward to hide his incredible fatness, which means that his big round damp coquettish arse is constantly sticking out behind him. Most people acquire their bad posture from a lifetime of bad habits, but Donald Trump’s stance is deliberate. He came up with a terrible new way of standing on his feet, all by himself.

Donald Trump doesn’t look like an ordinary person. He is orange; the man is visibly orange. White around the eyes, like a painted clown. A soft, moist, puckered mouth. Everything about him is soft; you could spread one of his teeth on a slice of toast. His hair is an elaborate combover, extremely long on one side, folded back and forth over his scalp. In the old patriarchal schema, men were seeing subjects and women were visible objects, but Donald Trump is a thoroughly feminised man. He has to appear a certain way, with a full head of hair, because he dreams of being the reservoir of someone else’s desire. Sometimes, in high winds, the whole structure of his hair opens up, and you can see his shockingly white and crusted pate. You think that’s upsetting? Just imagine how Donald Trump’s hair looks when wet.

Donald Trump doesn’t talk like an ordinary person. Usually, when someone speaks in a non-standard form, it’s because they’re part of a language community that’s developed its own grammars and vocabulary. There is nobody on earth that speaks like Donald Trump. He is a language community of one. What he speaks isn’t even a jargon, it’s just bizarre. On the one hand, his speech is utterly impoverished. It’s incapable of conveying almost any of the major human experience. Everything he says is somehow integrally inappropriate. Here is a man who once described Frederick Douglass as ‘an example of somebody who’s done an amazing job and is being recognised more and more.’ Like something out of Gertrude Stein: the black sludge of words, the sticky deposits left once language and communication have gone. But at the same time, his speech is incredibly fecund. The rolling rhythmic intensifiers that turn it into something like music, the way things are always very nice, very special, very good, or very, very, very… bad. Trump’s language never exhausts itself; he can fit a potentially infinite number of words between one concept and the next. This language really is a virus; a blob from outer space, breeding. Everyone I know has tried, at some point, to imitate it, and we all think we’re very clever. (Watching the chickens peck around the garden, I sometimes imagine them in his voice. We love mealworms, folks, don’t we love mealworms? Very wonderful mealworms, very nice and very delicious to eat. We love laying an egg.) But Trump invented this virus; he cooked it up in the strange secret lab inside his head. We just copy and pass it on. Infected. Transfixed.

How did a country as conservative as the United States ever manage to elect a man as utterly weird as Donald Trump? For decades, politicians have tried to sell themselves to ordinary people by pretending to be normal. Look at me eat a hot dog at a diner, just like all of you gurning rubes! Cramming wobbly tubes of pork into their mouths: aren’t I relatable? Aren’t I your abuela? But Donald Trump eats pizza with a knife and fork. You could not get a beer with him. He would not shake your hand. You are nothing alike. And still it doesn’t matter. Who ever said that people want to be governed by someone just like them? That’s what the ruling classes think, because they’re all covetous narcissists who want political power to wear a human face: their human face. They want their little daughters to grow up believing that one day they, too, could maintain an extrajudicial kill list. But the great mass of the people know better. They know that political power is something distant and strange that comes down from the white northern wastes.

It’s the sheer strangeness of the man that made him so intolerable, far more than any of the evil things he’s actually done. Even before he was elected, a vast conceptual production system was churning, trying to produce The Meaning of Donald Trump. Reduce him down to a single concept, something we know and can understand, something assimilable. So, for instance: Trump is just a cipher for race. Reterritorialise him on the stark terrain of white and black; people voted for him because they’re racists and they wanted to do racism; white people have a congenital sickness and its name is Trump. They’re still saying this, even after he increased his vote share among every demographic group except straight white men. If Trump really is making racial dogwhistles, his actual supporters don’t seem to hear them. The only creatures pricking up their ears are the racially-fixated media classes.

Another: Trump is a fascist, and his Presidency was a fascist regime. We all have an idea of what fascism is and what it looks like, so let’s just stuff this strange new creature into an already existing box. This theory has lost some credibility since Trump failed to suspend democracy or invade Poland, but I think there’s actually something to it – so long as it’s understood that Trump is fascist in the Theodor Adorno sense; the way that, say, the Marvel cinematic universe is fascist, rather than the way in which Adolf Hitler was a fascist. He’s a fascist because we live in an age of irrationality and unfreedom, and Joe Biden and Kamala Harris are fascists too. (Especially Kamala.) In other words, it’s true, but it tells us nothing at all.

A weaker version says that Trump is simply an authoritarian. He’s like those gaudy dictators in countries with unpronounceable names, the ones who build giant gold statues of themselves and rename the months of the year after their horses. Country-scale interior decorators with the power of life and death. Which is fine, but you don’t need to go trekking out to the fringes of the Taklamakan Desert to find a model of authoritarianism. Trump was a businessman, and he promised to run the country like a business. Every beloved small mom-and-pop business is a dictatorship in miniature, helmed by some grubby little Napoleon who leches on the employees, issues memos on acceptable hairstyles, or forces them to listen to his favourite conspiracy YouTubes while they work. But while they might admire him, none of these people will ever be Donald Trump.

What all these interpretations miss is that Donald Trump is the only person to have ever become President of the United States by accident. He never really wanted power, and he didn’t know what to do with the thing once he had it. He had no programme and no politics. His whole period in office was an aimless meander: sometimes he borrowed some policies from the people closest to him, sometimes he made them up as he went along. He spent most of those four years complaining that dishwashers don’t give you the kind of shine that they used to. If he was actually a right-wing populist, he would have given out multiple $1,200 stimulus cheques during the pandemic, and then handily won re-election. But he  didn’t. None of this was part of the plan. He simply wanted to win rather than lose – so people would pay attention to him, so he could continue to exist. That’s all. And around this tiny, dense, irrational core, millions of people built their own explanations, their own private reasons to love him or hate him and everything they wanted him to represent.

Trump has managed to form the passive centre for two personality cults: the one that loves him, and the one that’s no less of a cult for wanting him gone. To be honest, I prefer the first cult. They make better music. ¡Ay, ay, ay, ay, por Dios, yo voy a votar por Donald Trump! The negative cult thought they were resisting the man, but everything they did reeked of complicity. Obsessing over his every movement, freaking out under every one of his tweets. They ate up his turds one by one, greedily, smacking their lips, and then proclaimed: this shit is awful, it tastes disgusting, it’s poisoning us, and may I have some more? Rather than actually countering his worst actions, they were fixated on the idea that they could make him feel a certain way: mocking him, humiliating him. That stupid balloon of Trump as a baby that cost £16,000 – for what? To hurt his feelings? Why bother? All it did was charge him with subjectivity and substance – in other words, give him exactly what he’s always wanted. Even now, liberals aren’t satisfied with defeating Trump in the election, they want him to admit defeat. They want him duly chastened. They’re still trying to give the man a soul.

There are things that led to Trump. The millions consigned to surplus population, the hollow promise of the Obama years, the general social decay, the culture of fame and attention and narcissism in which he grew. All these conditions are necessary, but none of them are sufficient. Just like the world itself, Donald Trump has no singular meaning. He is an empty, misshapen container for others to fill with fantasy and desire.

Franz Kafka – the only man in human history to truly get it – tells a story about a crossbreed, a creature ‘half kitten, half lamb,’ inherited from his father. This thing also has no reason to exist. It should not exist. But against all reason, it does.

Sunday morning is the visiting hour. I sit with the little beast on my knees, and the children of the whole neighbourhood stand around me. Then the strangest questions are asked, which no human being could answer: Why there is only one such animal, why I rather than anybody else should own it, whether there was ever an animal like it before and what would happen if it died, whether it feels lonely, why it has no children, what it is called, etc.

They’re asking what the animal means, but Kafka doesn’t know. His creature seems to be happy. It likes to play, to dance, to purr, to run and skip around outside. In the proper order of things, something so unnatural ought to die. Watching his creature, Kafka decides that ‘the knife of the butcher would be a release for this animal,’ but that knife will never come. This monster was a legacy; a gift. So he looks at his crossbreed, and the crossbreed looks back, ‘challenging me to do the thing of which both of us are thinking.’

Today, we’ve beaten Donald Trump. We’ve banished the nightmare. We, the ungrateful of the earth, have done what Kafka couldn’t bear: we slaughtered the crossbreed. This is your victory. Enjoy it if you can.

PS: This really ought to be an entirely separate essay, but we’re all here now, so I might as well press ahead. About a week before the election, the New York Times published an opinion piece titled Why Leftists Should Vote for Biden in Droves. The actual argument is contained in a few sentences:

Mr Trump’s re-election would mean four more years of scrambling to shield the already insufficient Affordable Care Act, but a win by Mr Biden would allow socialists to go on the offence and push for a Medicare-for-all system. Mr Trump’s re-election would deal irreversible damage to the planet, but there are signs that Mr Biden could be pressured to adopt the ambition of the Green New Deal… These policies would not constitute the realisation of socialism, but they would help lay the foundation for liberating workers… Socialists should fight like hell to get Mr Biden into office – and then fight him like hell the day that he becomes president.

I disagree. I’m not saying there aren’t some upsides: the next regime will probably rejoin the Paris Climate Accords and ease sanctions on Iran, either of which could be worth the price of admission. But it will not create a more favourable terrain for socialism. Let me put forward another perspective: Joe Biden is going to eat you whole. Not aggressively, not deliberately, not with those white chomping teeth. He will consume you like a basking shark, trawling the seas with his mouth wide open, and you have already drifted right into his maw. His victory marks the end of the road for the American left as a significant political force. There will still be people with opinions, but they will never come close to forming policy. Joe Biden will do to the socialist left what Donald Trump did to the evangelical right.

Not so long ago, the evangelical right were genuinely terrifying. Under the George W Bush administration, they waged eight years of insane culture war, not to mention the actual war to reshape the Middle East. Abstinence and creationism in schools; the Ten Commandments outside courthouses, a curtain to cover the Spirit of Justice’s naked tits. Preachers screaming that Obama was the Antichrist. Gay marriage bans. Christofascism. And where are they now? Some of the churches those preachers screamed in are boarded up, and some have been converted into condos. Plenty are still going, but the parishioners are more likely to believe in some QAnon dribble than any imminent Rapture. Nothing collective and congregational; everything is scattered now, networked. It might come back – there are always revivals – but for now, organised Protestantism has lost its claws in American political life.

This is why. In 2016, the leadership of the religious right banded together to stop Trump winning the Republican primary. They were appalled by him, and for good reason. Donald Trump is, at heart, a New York liberal, a proud and open moral degenerate. How many abortions do you think he’s paid for? But when it came to the general, everything changed. What were they supposed to do – vote for Hillary Clinton? Don’t you know she eats fetuses? So they made their moral compromises, took whatever sops they were offered, and lined up behind Donald Trump. He’ll pander to them a little, when prodded. That’s enough.

Now, the Democrats have learned that this new revitalised socialist left can be cheated, backstabbed, connived against, offered absolutely no concessions whatsoever – and they will still vote for you. Not just that: the poor cretins will dance in the streets to celebrate your victory. So why give them anything now? The left has used up its last weapon, and they used it against Trump. Now they’re supposed to go on the offence for Medicare For All – but how? Pressure Biden for a Green New Deal – but how? Fight him like hell? But with what weapons?

One of the ugliest features of the Trump years was the way liberals suddenly found it in their hearts to forgive George W Bush. You can understand why they forgot his murder of one million Iraqis – they all voted for it, after all – but this was the president of Jesusland, the man whose mutant Christian army tried to get rid of their nice French cheeses and their nice French wine. In this context, though, it starts to make sense. Liberals could embrace the figurehead of the evangelical right because the evangelical right had become toothless; it was no longer the enemy. In the same vein, you can expect the right wing to start making similar overtures to what remains of the Bernie camp. In fact, it’s already happening. For instance, outlets like Quillette have started pointing out that class, rather than identity, is what really divides people. They’re right, of course, but why are they saying it? It’s not as if class analysis, even class analysis for babies, really gels with their ideology. Leftists can write for right-wing magazines if they want (I do), appear on their TV shows, spread the message; we all need to eat. I’m not here to pass judgement. But don’t ever imagine that some broad populist alliance is in the offing. The right will embrace you only because you are not a threat to them. You’re a legitimising trinket. They will wear you around their neck. This amulet that was your bones.

Of course, the Trump camp have been instrumentalising the left in other, subtler ways too. Over the summer, watching the political violence, the shootings, the militia on the streets, the revolutionaries seizing whole neighbourhoods, quite a few people I know decided that the United States was close to collapse or civil war. It wasn’t, of course. (One thing that never once occurred through all those months was an actual exchange of fire.) Instead, the state had strategically voided its authority over certain small areas, like the area that would become the CHAZ in Seattle. This was an obvious election ploy on Trump’s part: create pockets of instability to frighten his suburban base into voting for a stronger, more brutal, more repressive state. He was counting on the left to dramatically fuck up with whatever wisp of power he gave them, and even if it didn’t win him the election, they did exactly what he wanted.

On June 29th, self-appointed security forces in the CHAZ murdered Antonio Mays Jr, a sixteen-year-old black boy. On July 4th, armed protesters in Atlanta, occupying the Wendy’s where Rayshard Brooks was killed by police, opened fire on a passing car. They murdered Secoriea Turner, an eight-year-old black girl. Both crime scenes were heavily tampered with by protesters; the murderers of Antonio Mays and Secoriea Turner will probably never face justice. These names ought to be as famous as George Floyd or Tamir Rice. Why aren’t they? This is a genuine question: why? It’s fine for the left to turn itself into a circular firing squad over pronouns or microaggressions or awkward interactions – but not murder? After all, the scenario is very familiar: an armed authority claiming police powers indifferently destroys the lives of the same people it’s supposed to protect. But it turns out that these wonderful anti-racist abolish-the-police community defence units are actually far more sadistic and far less accountable than ordinary cops.

These killings ought to pose a major theoretical crisis for the insurrectionary left. These dead children should haunt your sleep. How is it that a movement against the police murder of black people ended up committing police murders of black people? What went wrong in your analysis of power, violence, and the state? How did this movement so quickly lose its moral right to complain? Because that right has absolutely been lost. It shouldn’t be hard to decry murder without hypocrisy, but here we are.

I don’t want to agree with him, but René Girard has an answer:

As soon as the essential quality of transcendence – religious, humanistic, or whatever – is lost, there are no longer any terms by which to define the legitimate form of violence and to recognise it among the multitude of illicit forms… The act of demystification retains a sacrificial quality and remains essentially religious in character as long as it fails to come to a conclusion – as long, that is, as the process purports to be nonviolent, or less violent than the system itself. In fact, demystification leads to constantly increasing violence, a violence perhaps less ‘hypocritical’ than the violence it seeks to oppose, but more energetic, more virulent, and the harbinger of something far worse – a violence that knows no bounds.

I would like the left to take power. But this left, the one we have, the one that systematically misuses whatever power it gains, the one that says nothing when children are gunned down in the street, does not deserve it. We blew it, and I don’t know how to fix this. But if you’re looking for a left case for Joe Biden, there it is.

Why you ought to vote

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Here’s something that’s changed lately: people are no longer ashamed to speak to the world at large in the imperative mood. It’s normal, now, to give orders to perfect strangers: stop doing this, start doing that. This is extremely rude, but I think I only really grasped its full horror when I saw an infographic telling me, in the jolly strident tones familiar from social justice advocacy, to Stop Making Depictions Of Blobfish As They Appear In Low-Pressure Environments. Hey asshole, why don’t you mind your own damn business? Who are you to tell me what I can and can’t draw? I’ll draw blobfish wobbling on the peak of Everest if I want! I will draw blobfish in space! I will draw the unhappiest and most exploded fish you’ve ever seen, its guts forming a frozen halo in the void, its lumpy baby-pap residue of a face collapsing into expressions of glumness too wearied for you to even imagine! Because I know the pain of the rapidly ascending blobfish. I have suffered its agonies; this miserable sack of slime is my brother. But you know nothing. How could you, in your bright helpful world where you’re always earnestly trying to do the right thing, understand a blobfish’s horror of the sun? Please, you quail, no, don’t depict suffering, don’t make art out of wretchedness, save me, I can’t handle the truth. Ingrate: I should force you to look at my drawings! Endless chapbooks full of collapsing psychrolutids! A pastel Holocaust of weird saggy fish! Did you really think you could take away my God-given right to draw marine wildlife however I see fit? Did you really think this tyranny, this affront to Enlightenment values, this new abyssopelagic Bolshevism – did you really think it could stand? Fuck you! Do you not know that we are warriors for a holy truth?

And it doesn’t even end with the blobfish. The big command right now, of course, is to VOTE. If you want, you can spend $850 on a black cashmere sweater that says VOTE in big white letters on the front. Not loud enough? You can also get a turquoise long-sleeved t-shirt that says VOTE VOTE VOTE VOTE on the front and VOTE VOTE on each of the arms and incidentally looks like absolute shit. If you want to tell people to VOTE while also reminding them that it’s possible to buy vaguely acceptable burritos from a popular fast casual chain, you can get a plain white shirt that says CHI-VOTE-LE for just $11.03. Naturally, this entire process is extremely asymmetrical. There are far more people stomping around instructing the world at large to VOTE than there are people earnestly wondering what civic activities will be on offer this Tuesday, or how to inoffensively depict a blobfish. There are no t-shirts that read PLEASE TELL ME WHETHER OR NOT I SHOULD PARTICIPATE IN ELECTORAL POLITICS. A vast overproduction of answers to a question nobody seems to have actually asked.

Obviously, I’m now going to get in on this grift. These are your instructions for how to vote in the upcoming US presidential election, and you can take them as seriously or as unseriously as you want.

If you’re legally entitled to vote in the upcoming US presidential election, and you feel like voting, YOU SHOULD VOTE. If you don’t meet both of these criteria (for what it’s worth, I don’t), YOU SHOULD NOT VOTE. If you really, genuinely want to vote for Donald Trump, there’s not much I can do to help you, but YOU SHOULD VOTE FOR DONALD TRUMP. If you really, genuinely want to vote for Joe Biden, then likewise, but nonetheless YOU SHOULD VOTE FOR JOE BIDEN. If you’re seized with the desire to vote but don’t want to vote for either of these two people, then YOU SHOULD VOTE THIRD PARTY, WRITE IN ANOTHER CANDIDATE (WHERE POSSIBLE), or DEFACE YOUR BALLOT.

That’s it. What I am not saying is that you should simply do whatever you were going to do anyway. You should only vote for Trump, or Biden, or any of the others, if that is what you really want to do. Not because you’re scared of the other choices, not as a compromise, not as the lesser of two evils, not because you feel constrained by the two-party system, not out of duty, not because you live in a swing state, not even because of the political consequences you think might result if your chosen candidate wins. Really, you should forget about politics entirely. It’s neither the time nor the place. Just vote because you want to, or else don’t.

In the past, in this space and elsewhere, I’ve had some unkind words for the empty liberal form of the vote. Our activism and our engagement should not be constrained by the ritual of ticking boxes every few years; it saps and neuters our political energy; we need to find ways of making a difference that aren’t already given to us. Which: yeah, fine. But the fact remains that for most people, voting is the full extent of their political activity, and it will probably remain so. This isn’t entirely terrible. A world where everyone is an activist, kvetching and clamouring about their chosen issue – it would be an unbearable nightmare. And give the empty liberal form of the vote its due: it really does manage to give people a brief moment of freedom.

When you vote, you vote alone. You’re accountable to nobody, watched by nobody, in the papery secrecy of your own desires. Capitalism likes to pretend that what it offers people is an array of endless choices, but market decisions are always invisibly constrained, even for the very rich. Here, at least, liberalism lives up to its utopian promise. You decide, and sovereign is he who makes the decision. We can dream about some future liberated society all we want; right here, in the present, this is the closest most people will ever get to any measure of real freedom in their own lives. An isolated, monadic freedom (Marx would call it one-sided), not the type I’d really prefer, but probably the best we can expect. Maybe this, more than any purely pragmatic fears, is what drove racist voter suppression campaigns, both in the Jim Crow era and today. The servile classes must not be allowed to experience this instant of total irresponsibility, this pure and arbitrary sovereign choice.

This is why I find the command to VOTE repellent: a forced choice is no longer sovereign. Just as much as the ones purging the voter rolls, you’re trying to take away someone’s freedom to decide. But lately, the line has changed. The critique of the blank command to VOTE has been absorbed; now, the busybodies are just as likely to tell you to VOTE, BUT ONLY IF YOU VOTE FOR BIDEN. There’s something very uncomfortable about the idea, as suggested by some of my friends, that Bernie Bro types really ought to tick the box for Biden, that they have a moral duty to prevent a second Trump term. Firstly, because it assumes that these votes belong to Biden by default, and that voting for anyone else – or simply not voting at all – is to rob this poor lonely man of that which is rightfully his. No: let’s accept this liberal institution on its own terms; your vote belongs to nobody but yourself, and if you don’t like someone you shouldn’t vote for them. And further, because what about the Trump voters? Do they share the same duty? It’s hard to imagine that they could, or how the presumption that their vote somehow rightfully belongs to the DNC could possibly hold. So: are you comfortable with an ethical system that simply doesn’t bother addressing itself to millions of people, that writes them off as something other than moral agents? Are people who disagree with you about politics reduced to wild nature? Do they have the same ethical status as lions or tornadoes? And if so, by what right could you possibly condemn them?

The only good reasons to vote in this election are non-political. As a personal experience, voting is defensible. As a mass activity, it’s horrific. If you follow Kant – himself a crucial figure in the history of telling other people what to do – then there’s still an argument for voting politically, even if your vote doesn’t really matter: imagine if everyone acted that way. (In fact, you don’t even need to imagine; Saramago did it for us in his Ensaio sobre a lucidez, which you should read.) But a Kantian would also be bound by the Selbstzweckformel: ‘Act in such a way that you treat humanity, whether in your own person or in the person of any other, never merely as a means to an end, but always at the same time as an end.’ Words to live by. Do you really think these candidates see you as an ends in yourself? Then do not make yourself their means.

The great democracies no longer conscript entire populations to die fighting each other in the trenches, but there’s still an echo of that age. An actuarial power, one that’s interested in counting and mobilising large numbers of passive and pliable people. White feathers for conscientious objectors. Each individual sacrifice is basically meaningless and changes nothing, but you’re forced to make it anyway. Cancel out a stranger on the other side. Something very, very different from the clamour of the masses or the cry of the oppressed. It was the French revolution that introduced universal suffrage, and also the levée en masse: these are just two different versions of the same thing.

In any case, politically, there’s nothing much at stake. This is not a popular idea; like every election, this one is supposed to be the most consequential of our lives. The only thing everyone involved seems to agree on is that it’s all incredibly important. In one voice, they insist that you should whip yourself into a gibbering frenzy about it. Aren’t we on the precipice? Hasn’t Trump (or Biden, delete as applicable) done horrific evil? Absolutely – but what do you think the Presidency is? It’s the position of symbolic war chief, someone to lob large rocks at the other moiety. In some non-state societies, political life is dominated by charismatic Big Men whose formal powers are hazy and undefined, but who exercise authority through their personal and kinship ties. In a way, this is a perfect Millsian representative democracy. (Deleuze and Guattari describe the schema perfectly: the grand paranoiac, surrounded by his perverts.) The Presidency of the United States is slightly more formalised, but however many parping trumpets and silly motorcades surround the institution, it’s still only slightly.

So, for instance, Trump is widely blamed for America’s devastating losses from the coronavirus. Chaos and mismanagement have certainly played their part, but chaos and mismanagement are endemic to American society, regardless of who’s in charge. France is governed by a Jupiterian technocrat, but it’s also a society in which a few joyously chaotic undercurrents still survive, and it hasn’t fared much better. Trump’s major impact might have been to muddy the waters among his supporters by casting doubt on various public health measures. So: vote him out, right? Sanity reigns once more. But the Big Man is a discursive, political leader, and voting out a Big Man doesn’t make him disappear. It’s funny: whenever they’re out of power, the Democrats tell you that electoral victory will simply wash away all the bad ideas forever. But as soon as they take the reins they can’t actually do anything, because of all the conservatives. (Obviously, this works in both directions. Vote for Trump to get rid of all the woke globalist postmodern neo-Marxism! Only – has this phantom been preying on you more or less since he took office?)

For the most part, the powers that these Big Men hold are the powers to do evil: to kill, to act senselessly and arbitrarily. That’s what power means. Kids in cages, assassinations on foreign soil. What you’re voting for, when you vote politically, is the right and privilege of supporting this evil instead of being forced to oppose it. (The technical term for this is ‘going back to brunch.’) The idea that you can vote for someone and then hold them to account is a nonsense; you’ve already sacrificed whatever leverage you had. The only way to hold a Big Man to account is to defect: join the sycophantic gaggle of perverts that surrounds one of his competitors. This is where your principles get you: trapped forever in the orbit of some big fat cretin, pleading for him to save you from himself. Crisis consumes everything, but the system is unperturbed and the stakes are always low.

Of course, there’s always the possibility that someone could put the entire system itself at stake. This was the best argument for Bernie Sanders: he could have been an effective Big Man, precisely by turning power over to his perverts; he could have penetrated the membrane enclosing politics, as an image or hologram of the independently organised and extrapolitical forces in society at large seeking to effect a more general change. But these possibilities are always brief, and if you don’t short-circuit the entire loop quickly enough the result is always the same. A few days ago, Jeremy Corbyn was suspended from the Labour party. Already, he’s become the centre of a black legend; the lies and libels are calcifying, hardening, taking on the impenetrable solidity of official fact. There’s no longer any point even that the whole antisemitism scandal was confected from top to bottom; we’re in the Kafka-trap stage, where disputing a slander only convinces people that it must be true. This is what happens when you try to make politics actually matter: they destroy you. They will turn all of your virtues against you, they will blacken your memory, they will fuck you so thoroughly that it’s not even about you any more, you’re a shell, you’re empty, you’re dead, and your name is now just a weapon, an insult lobbed against people who once dared to breathe your air.

Yes, it’s true that Trump is equally abhorred. But he’s also been in office for four years, and in that time the system has not broken open; he’s directed it further inward than ever before. In 2016, for example, he ran against NAFTA. His replacement, the USMCA, received bipartisan support. The only real difference between the two was that his version was a populist, heartland-themed neoliberal trade bloc, a piece of immiserating administration for our moiety and not theirs. The Democrats, who no longer want to include subjects like international trade in their discursive armoury, were happy to concede it. A set of commands to vote for Trump argues that he ‘represents the human party, even if bad humans, or even subhumans, whereas Biden is the avatar of forces which are not entirely human, but composed of abstractions or categories.’ It’s a nice line, even though I thought the post-Landian right were supposed to scorn all such mawkish humanism. But it falls apart in the end, because the other side believe the exact same thing. No, Hillary and Joe aren’t perfect, they have flaws, they’re only human, but they have stories, they’ve suffered, they’ve struggled, they’ve been brave, they persisted – and meanwhile Trump isn’t even a man, he’s just the nexus and embodiment of every structural evil: racism, sexism, imperialism, transphobia, an avatar of the transhistorical Straight White Male…

So: don’t vote to make things happen. Don’t vote to change the world, or the country, or the large-scale structure of society. This might be possible in another time or another place, but not today. Things will not get better. Things will not be normal. These are not the stakes. But vote, if you feel like it, because it might still be good for you. For a moment, you can be powerful, arbitrary and cruel, rampaging around the world, propelled only by your own desires. Following these instructions doesn’t actually do anything. There’s no way to distinguish your vote from all the others; like Kierkegaard’s knight of faith, you’re outwardly indistinguishable from everyone else, without any ‘chink through which the infinite might be seen to peer forth.’ This is the entire point. There’s just one last problem. If psychoanalysis has taught us anything, it’s that it’s impossible to speak about our ‘authentic’ desires. What we want, even how we want, is always structured by our encounter with other people. And because the world is chaos, there’s always a rift of ambivalence right through the middle of every preference. How are you supposed to make the sovereign choice when you yourself are a contested territory? Don’t look at me; this one is for you to work out on your own. I’m not here to tell you what to do.

Why look at fire?

Some time in the twentieth century, the fires started to disappear. Gaston Bachelard was one of the first people to notice; in his magisterial The Psychoanalysis of Fire, he points out that ‘the chapters on fire in chemistry textbooks have become shorter and shorter. There are, indeed, a good many modern books on chemistry in which it is impossible to find any mention of flame or fire. Fire is no longer a reality for science.’ That was in 1938. In the pages that follow, he talks about his pride when tending to the fire in his stove every morning, or parents rapping their children’s knuckles when their hands stray too close to the hearth. A text from a different world, one in which people lived close to their fires, intimately, in relationships worth subjecting to psychoanalysis. How much time do you spend around open flames?

Sometimes I still smoke cigarettes, and there’s a gas hob in my flat, but all I’d need to do is switch to vaping and move somewhere with an electric stove, and fire would vanish almost entirely from my life. Open fires do not heat our homes, cook our food, or provide our entertainment. The only places they tend to survive are special occasions and religious rites. The presence of fire marks out particular moments from ordinary time. Candles for birthday cakes or romantic dinners; Diwali and Hanukkah. Years ago, when I was a student, we used to make bonfires in our overgrown nettle-strewn garden, burning sticks from the park and unwanted furniture left by the kerbside, slowly dismantling the landlord’s greenhouse and burning it piece by piece. But if one person had gone into the garden alone to make a fire and warm themselves with it, the rest of us would have started locking our doors at night. The fire was for sitting with each other, drinking and talking. It was a social ritual. It did not belong to the world of the profane.

Fire has almost vanished now. This does not mean that it’s gone. The machine I’m using to write these words is powered by a nationwide network of enormous fires that never go out, oil and gas burning under huge chimneys, set in blackened and grassless landscapes – but these fires are invisible. So are the big burning pools of petrol that power vehicles on the street. When fire appears again in the ordinary world, it’s always in the shape of a disaster or a god.

* * *

On November 7, 2018, a man walked into a country-themed bar in Thousand Oaks, California, and fired thirty rounds from a semi-automatic pistol into the crowd. Twelve were killed. Days later, the fires came. Mourners, gathering at community centres to stand vigil for the dead, found the sky clotting over. Ash rained over the town. Footage from inside the city shows the pink haze, fringes of grass hissing with smoke. From the surrounding hillsides, the fire is a giant squatting heavily over Thousand Oaks: a monster from a very old world, roaring up through the surface-sheen of the California exurbs. A journalist who’d been in town to cover the shooting and its aftermath commented of the flames: ‘I was entranced by both their beauty and their power.’ On the face of it, this is a very strange thing to say. Isn’t it almost insensitive? Already, the fires raging across the western United States had killed dozens of people, many more than the gunman at the Borderline Bar & Grill. She would never have dreamed of writing that there was an aesthetic grace in the act of mass murder, that she was somehow attracted or impressed by the killer, that her horror at the crime was tinged with awe. But fire is different.

This year, the California fires turned the sky orange over San Francisco. It looked like a fever dream: the skyscrapers with their white glowing windows against a city in Martian red; a world that had already ended without noticing. Another journalist described the scene. ‘People really don’t know what to do right now. Everyone on the Embarcadero is stopping to record the sky and chit chatting in a way I haven’t seen since pre-pandemic.’ I’d suggest that people did in fact know exactly what to do. When there is a fire, even if it’s the fires of Armageddon, you stop and look at it. You huddle with other people, and watch.

Fire is not simply one of the many things that are interesting to look at: plausibly, other things are interesting only insofar as they resemble fire. Digital screen displays, which grab so much of our attention: it’s not hard to work out why your gaze keeps drifting to the TV in the corner of a bar; it flickers, it glows. Birds in flight, or trees in the wind. The gaze of an animal: a live animal is always more interesting than a dead one, because there’s that invisible flutter behind the stillness of its eyes. Sometimes we call it a spark. And humans too. A beautiful person is a person who is, in some sense, on fire.

For me, at least, there’s a certain type of fire-image that’s hard to look away from. Probably the most famous version is the one above, from the Oregon wildfires of 2017. At the Beacon Rock Golf Course, a few players calmly finish their round. In the hills behind them, every tree is outlined in flames. The pictures of San Francisco bustling its way through the apocalypse are part of the same genre. But my favourite is from 2018: produce workers hunched over in the fields, still picking crops while the sky burns. There’s an obvious political resonance to these images: this is bourgeois indifference or the cruelty of the wage-relation; this climate change, the world burning while we look the other way. A diagram of our lives, moving furniture around in a house on fire. But I think the real fascination comes from somewhere else.

These images violate every rule of classical composition, starting with the law that the foreground in an image should always be brighter than the background. How do you light your little tableau when the mise-en-scène is burning? Wildfires makes a mockery of figure and ground; they always has the capacity to pour out from the edges of the image and breathe hot danger at the viewer. It’s the revenge of the setting, the unheeded pliable stuff of the world, against our system of objects. Its effect is not quite the same as the sublime. For both Burke and Kant, a canonical case of the sublime is a ship at sea, threatened by terrible stormy waves – but only for a viewer on land, who is himself safe from any peril. For someone on the boat, it’s simply peril. But fire abolishes that remove. However distant you are, it’s spreading.

There’s another kind of image that actively moves towards you as you approach. We love to look at fire because it is a mirror.

* * *

Traditionally, fire is not ours. It always comes from somewhere else. Sometimes it’s a gift; very often, it’s stolen. Prometheus descended from Olympus with a burning fennel-brush; Maui tore out the fingernails of fire from the goddess Mahuika. The God of Moses likes manifesting Himself in pillars of fire and burning bushes: ‘for the Lord your God is a consuming fire.’ The Israelites understood things very clearly. But what about the people for whom fire is brought by birds? In a Breton folk-narrative that survived well into the modern era, the wren steals the fire of heaven, but his wings are burned; he passes it on to the robin redbreast, whose chest is torched, and who passes it on again to the lark, who delivers it finally to the ground. Similar stories crop up across the world – the fire-bringer is variously a wren, a finch, a cockatoo, a crow, or a hawk. (And birds do actually carry fires: black kites have been observed clasping flaming sticks in their beaks, spreading fire in dry forests to flush out prey. Some people have been tempted to use this to argue that indigenous folklore encodes important scientific knowledge. This is euheremistic drivel. Don’t ever debase myth by dressing it up as data; myth is true in a far more important way. The truth of these stories is in the birds themselves: so firelike, trembling in quick feathers.)

In what might be the starkest version of the fire-origin story, fire is first stolen not from the gods or from heaven, but from women. A tradition among the Gaagudju of northern Australia, collected in 1930 by JG Frazer, holds that once only the women knew how to make fire; when the men returned to the camp after hunting, the women would gather up the burning ashes and hide them in their vaginas. In revenge, the men turned themselves into crocodiles and killed the women. ‘When all was over, the crocodile-men dragged the dead women out on the bank, and said to them, “Get up, go. Why did you tell us lies about the fire? But the dead women made no reply.’ They didn’t realise what they had done. Innocent reptiles, who understood none of the things that come from fire: warmth, and light, and knowledge, and death.

(Freud, who may or may not have been aware of this story, tells a similar myth. Human civilisation was only possible once men could restrain themselves from urinating all over any fire they encountered in homoerotic glee. Women, whose ‘anatomy makes it impossible for [them] to yield to such a temptation,’ might have got there first. A faint image emerges of women frustrated for thousands of years, constantly discovering fire, drawing themselves to the precipice of a long steep slide into advanced technological civilisation – only for the men of the tribe to arrive, honking and hollering, extinguishing the germ of all future society with joyful streams of piss.)

It’s with the emergence of philosophy that fire lost its secret history. Heraclitus declared that the universe was ‘made neither by God nor man, but it ever was and is, and will be, an ever-living fire’ – but Thales said the same for water, and Anaximenes for air. What’s interesting is that nobody ever proposed that earth might be the arche, or the fundamental substance of reality. The earth is always this particular piece of earth, granulated, strewn with rocks and bones; a silent archive of all the wrongs that have been done to it, shelved away in its sedimentary layers. It carries the dead weight of its history. Fire, meanwhile, takes no impressions. ‘All things are an exchange for fire,’ writes Heraclitus, ‘and fire for all things, as goods for gold and gold for goods.’

This is an interesting comparison. It took Marx to really burrow into the universality of gold, to dig beneath the blank face of the money-form and see what hidden histories of suffering it contained. We could do the same with fire. As it turns out, the Bretons and the Gaagudju were right, and Heraclitus was wrong. Fire does have a history; it is, like us, contingent. We can say precisely when fire entered the world: it came to us in the year 470,000,000 BC.

* * *

In biology lessons, as a child, I was taught the properties of living things: movement, respiration, reproduction, excretion, and so on. It was stressed that all of these criteria must be met before you reach the magical status of life. Viruses adapt and reproduce, but they are not themselves living organisms. And fire, too, does so many of the same things that we do. It breathes in air and eats up fuel; it splits and spreads, and leaves ashes in its wake. But fire is not alive, it’s only a chemical reaction. (Well, so am I.) And that was that: I never wondered why it was that fire sprung out of a dead world and licked so close to life. The answer ought to have been obvious. The things that burn are, almost exclusively, organic materials: grass and wood; flesh and fat. (There are exceptions; flammable organic materials like methane can be produced by abiotic processes. Titan, a moon of Saturn, has glorious swirling methane seas, and Titan is lifeless – at least, as far as we know. But Titan also has no oxygen in its atmosphere. Those seas roil in the distant sunlight, but they’ll never burn.)

Before the emergence of living terrestrial organisms under an oxygen-rich sky, there was no fire. The slow crawl of molten rock down barren volcanoes, the diamond-spray of magma as asteroids collided with a liquid slag-heap earth, the distant nuclear reactors in the stars, but nothing that could be called a flame. Fire is the bright twin of terrestrial life. It’s been here as long as life has, exactly as long as we have. Maybe we have things the wrong way round. Maybe life is not a particularly important phenomenon in the universe; maybe it’s just the placenta, a self-replenishing stock of fuel, the egg-sac for a world birthing fire.

But humanity is a special case. Bernard Stiegler suggested that technics are a system in which human beings serve as the genital organs in an evolution of the inorganic; we are the reproductive system for our ever-changing tools. But for Stiegler – despite all his Promethean references – the paradigm of epiphylogenesis is in flint-knapping; tools of stone. ‘One must first ask what mirage of the cortex is experienced as pathbreaking, in the hardness of flint; what plasticity of grey matter corresponds to the flake of mineral matter.’ But fire fits his schema far more efficiently. By disguising itself as a technical instrument for human use, fire unconstrained itself. Tens of thousands of years ago, forests that would once burn and regrow and eventually burn again, returning the nutrients locked in trees to the soil, were burned for the last time; early humans used fire liberally to permanently clear the forests, creating wide grasslands in which to hunt. Tens of millions of years ago, intact forests were fossilised; now, we dig through the geological strata of the earth, tearing out vast quantities of coal and oil, to meet the fire they escaped the first time round. The distant past is burning, the future fills with smoke. If the movements and stasis of history make us feel anxious, unmoored, neurotic, it’s because we are simply a time machine for the flames.

As Stiegler argues, this relationship is based on a mutual constitution. Our australopithecine ancestors had a long digestive tract; ours are significantly shorter. This is because we evolved eating cooked food: when proteins and starches are broken down by heat, they can be digested much more efficiently.  Parasites and pathogens are killed by cooking, and humans have weaker immune systems than our ape relatives. It’s possible that the ability to cook unlocked significant energetic surpluses, with the shrinkage of the energy-intensive gut allowing for the costly development elsewhere. For instance, a bigger brain. The much-hyped human consciousness might, in the end, just be the residue of fire, a lump of charcoal left smouldering in our DNA.

What we’re not born with is any hardwired instinct for rubbing bits of wood together until there’s a spark. ‘Lay the secret on me,’ King Louis demands, ‘of man’s red fire.’ But Mowgli doesn’t know the secret; all he has is an alimentary canal that’s incomplete, that needs to be plugged in to an external, cultural machine. You need technics, language, science, and traditions. There is no pristine originary pre-cultural state of nature in our history. Instead, if you want to see where nature meets culture, if you want to see your origin and your future and yourself, then look into the flames.

The company of geese

goose2

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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(All goose photos mine.)

Notes

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

White skin, black squares

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Can you get rid of racism just by protesting against it?

Yes. Yes you can, absolutely, yes.

We know exactly how to reduce racist sentiment in people. It’s actually very simple. You don’t need any seminars, or handbooks, or reading lists, or even all that much introspection. There really is just one weird trick, and it’s this: racial animus goes down when people from different backgrounds stand together, work together, and fight together, on an equal footing, in their shared interest, and for a common goal. Once this happens, it becomes impossible to see the other person as only an instantiation of their race, something abstract and empty of determinate content. Once the practice of solidarity is established, it’s much harder for dehumanising ideas to take root. Obviously the process is uneven, and sometimes it only goes part way; you should never underestimate our capacity for hypocrisy. But it works.

This is why I’m quite hopeful about the ongoing protest movement in response to the police murder of George Floyd. Despite all the usual dangers of hope; despite the attempts at corporate hijack, despite the horizontalism, despite the grifters. From what I can see – and with the caveat that I’m not in America, and I can’t see everything – the protests seem to be strikingly racially desegregated. A lot of people from very different backgrounds have been brought together by their shared revulsion. They saw the state snuff out a man’s life, suffocate him to death on the concrete, laughing, sadistic – and said enough. Black lives matter, no more deaths. Without knowing exactly what to do or how to end this, they met each other in the streets. I can’t say what the long-term political impact will be, but this is how new collective subjects are formed.

So what am I supposed to make of something like this?

This is the time for white people and non-black POC to look at themselves in the mirror, take a hard look, and realise that you are not George Floyd in this story. In this story, and in all the different versions of this story, you are the pig that killed him. You cannot ever put yourself in a black person’s shoes.

There’s no nice way to say this: a certain subset of (mostly) white people have lost their minds online. These people wake up to a vast insurrection crossing all racial and national boundaries – and contrive to make this all about themselves. Their affects, their unconsciouses, their moral worthiness. How can I be Not Complicit? How can I be a Better Ally? How do I stop benefiting from white supremacy in my daily life? How do I rid myself of all the bad affects and attitudes? Can I purify my soul in the smelter of a burning police precinct? Occasional ratissages out into mainstream culture (we’re decolonising the Bon Appétit test kitchen!), but mostly what this uprising calls for is an extended bout of navel-gazing. Really get in there, get deep in that clammy lint-filled hole, push one finger into the wound of your separation from the primordial world, and never stop wriggling. Maybe there’s a switch, buried just below the knot, and if you trip it your body will open up like a David Cronenberg nightmare to reveal all its greasy secrets to your eyes. Interrogate yourself! Always yourself, swim deep in the filth of yourself. The world is on fire – but are my hands clean? People are dying – but how can I scrub this ghastly whiteness off my skin?

You could set aside the psychosexual madness of this stuff, maybe, if it actually worked. It does not work. It achieves nothing and helps nobody. Karen and Barbara Fields: ‘Racism is not an emotion or state of mind, such as intolerance, bigotry, hatred, or malevolence. If it were that, it would easily be overwhelmed; most people mean well, most of the time, and in any case are usually busy pursuing other purposes. Racism is first and foremost a social practice.’ Social practices must be confronted on the level of the social. But for people who don’t want to change anything on the level of the social, there’s the Implicit Associations Test. This is the great technological triumph of what passes for anti-racist ideology: sit in front of your computer for a few minutes, click on some buttons, and you can get a number value on exactly how racist you are. Educators and politicians love this thing. Wheel it into offices. Listen up, guys, your boss just wants to take a quick peek into your unconscious mind, just to see how racist you are. How could anyone object to something like that?

Only one problem. Carlsson & Agerström, 2016: there is ‘little evidence that the IAT can meaningfully predict discrimination.’ Turns out that the inner content of your heart has no real bearing on the actual racial inequalities faced by actual non-white people in the actual world. (If you come across someone who very badly wants not to believe this, run. They don’t care about improving the world. They just want to take a scalpel to someone’s brain, maybe yours.) And there’s more. Duguid & Thomas-Hunt, 2015: ‘In a competitive task, individuals who received a high prevalence of stereotyping message [ie, messaging about the evils of racial stereotypes] treated their opponents in more stereotype-consistent ways.’ All your Important Work, your self-reflection, your enforced racial neurosis – it’s making people more racist. Whoops! Classic slapstick. Unless, of course… unless that was always the point.

See, for instance, the form letters: How To Talk To Your Black Friends Right Now. Because I refuse to be told I can’t ever empathise with a black person, I try to imagine what it would be like to receive one of these. Say there’s been a synagogue shooting, or a bunch of swastikas spraypainted in Willesden Jewish Cemetery. Say someone set off a bomb inside Panzer’s in St John’s Wood – and then one of my goy friends sends me something like this:

Hey Sam – I can never understand how you feel right now, but I’m committed to doing the work both personally and in my community to make this world safer for you and for Jewish people everywhere. From the Babylonian Captivity to the Holocaust to today, my people have done reprehensible things to yours – and while my privilege will never let me share your experience, I want you to know that you’re supported right now. I see you. I hear you. I stand with the Jewish community, because you matterPlease give me your PayPal so I can buy you a bagel or some schamltz herring, or some of those little twisty pastries you people like.

How would I respond? I think I would never want to see or hear from this person again. If I saw them in the street, I would spit in their face, covid be damned. I would curse their descendants with an ancient cackling Yiddish curse. These days, I try to choose my actual friends wisely. Most of them tend to engage me with a constant low level of jocular antisemitic micoaggressions, because these things are funny and not particularly serious. But if one of my friends genuinely couldn’t see me past the Jew, and couldn’t see our friendship past the Jewish Question, I would be mortified. Of course, it’s possible that the comparison doesn’t hold. Maybe there are millions of black people I don’t know who love being essentialised and condescended to, who are thrilled by the thought of being nothing more than a shuddering expendable rack for holding up their own skin. But I doubt it. Unless you want me to believe that black people inherently have less dignity than I do, this is an insult.

(An anecdote from Frantz Fanon. ‘It was my philosophy professor, a native of the Antilles, who recalled the fact to me one day: “Whenever you hear anyone abuse the Jews, pay attention, because he is talking about you.” And I found that he was universally right – by which I meant that I was answerable in my body and my heart for what was done to my brother. Later I realised that he meant, quite simply, an anti-Semite is invariably anti-Negro.’)

If you want to find the real secret of this stuff, look for the rules, the dos and don’ts, the Guides To Being A Better Ally that blob up everywhere like mushrooms on a rotting bough. You’ve seen them. And you’ve noticed, even if you don’t want to admit it, that these things are always contradictory:

DO the important work of interrogating your own biases and prejudices. DON’T obsess over your white guilt – this isn’t about you! DO use your white privilege as a shield by standing between black folx and the police. DON’T stand at the front of marches – it’s time for you to take a back seat. DO speak out against racism – never expect activists of colour to always perform the emotional labour. DON’T crowd the conversation with your voice – shut up, stay in your lane, and stick to signal boosting melanated voices. DO educate your white community by providing an example of white allyship. DON’T post selfies from a protest – our struggle isn’t a photo-op for riot tourists.

Žižek points out that the language of proverbial wisdom has no content. ‘If one says, “Forget about the afterlife, about the Elsewhere, seize the day, enjoy life fully here and now, it’s the only life you’ve got!” it sounds deep. If one says exactly the opposite (“Do not get trapped in the illusory and vain pleasures of earthly life; money, power, and passions are all destined to vanish into thin air – think about eternity!”), it also sounds deep.’ The same goes here. Whatever you say, it can still sound woke. Why?

Some right-wing critics have argued that the reason for all this contradiction is that the people making these demands want to boss their white allies around, but don’t know what they actually want from them. (Malcolm X with his cold hard stare, and a word: Nothing.) It’s a form of lashing out, a way to extract obedience for its own sake. If you think this, you don’t understand a thing. You have a layer of toilet bleach surrounding your brain. Look closer. What you’re reading is a menu. Good evening sir, ma’am – what would you like to be forbidden today? If you like, I could tell you not to empathise with black people. Or would sir prefer to be cautioned against leading chants at a rally? We have a specials list of phrases that aren’t for you this week…

This stuff is masochism, pleasure-seeking, full of erotic charge – and as Freud saw, the masochist’s desire is always primary and prior; it’s always the submissive partner who’s in charge of any relationship. Masochism is a technology of power. Setting the limits, defining the punishments they’d like to receive, dehumanising and instrumentalising the sadistic partner throughout. The sadist works to humiliate and degrade their partner, to make them feel something – everything for the other! And meanwhile, the masochist luxuriates in their own degradation – everything for myself! You’re just the robotic hand that hits me. When non-white people get involved in these discourses, they’re always at the mercy of their white audiences, the ones for whom they perform, the ones they titillate and entertain. A system for subjecting liberation movements to the fickle desires of the white bourgeoisie. Call it what it is. This is white supremacy; these scolding lists are white supremacist screeds.

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But systems of white supremacy have never been in the interests of most whites (‘Labour cannot emancipate itself in the white skin when in the black it is branded’), and they have never really fostered any solidarity between whites. Look at the stories. I had a run-in with the police, you announce, and a black person might have died, but I’m fine, because I’m white. No – you’re fine because you’re white and rich. You’re fine because you look like someone who reviews cartoons for a dying online publication called The Daily Muffin, which is exactly what you are. Bald and covered in cat hair. Frameless glasses cutting a red wedge into the bridge of your nose. The white people who get gunned down by police don’t look like you. Their class position is stamped visibly on their face, and so is yours. And you’ve trained yourself to see any suffering they experience as nothing more than ugly Trump voters getting what they deserve.

Why aren’t there protests when a white person is murdered by police? Answer 1: because, as John Berger points out, ‘demonstrations are essentially urban in character.’ Native Americans are killed by cops at an even higher rate than black people, but this too tends to happen very far away from the cities and the cameras; it becomes invisible. Answer 2: because nobody cares about them. Not the right wing, who only pretend to care as a discursive gotcha when there’s a BLM protest. And definitely not you. Sectors of the white intelligentsia have spent the last decade trying to train you out of fellow-feeling. Cooley et al., 2019: learning about white privilege has no positive effect on empathy towards black people, but it is ‘associated with greater punishment/blame and fewer external attributions for a poor white person’s plight.’ A machine for turning nice socially-conscious liberals into callous free-market conservatives.

The rhetoric of privilege is a weapon, but it’s not pointed at actually (ie, financially) privileged white people. We get off lightly. All we have to do is reflect on our privilege, chase our dreamy reflections through an endlessly mirrored habitus – and that was already our favourite game. You might as well decide that the only cure for white privilege is ice cream. Working-class whites get no such luxuries. But as always, the real brunt falls on non-white people. What happens when you present inequality in terms of privileges bestowed on white people, rather than rights and dignity denied to non-white people? The situation of the oppressed becomes a natural base-state. You end up thinking some very strange things. A few years ago, I was once told that I could only think that the film Black Panther isn’t very good because of my white privilege. Apparently, black people are incapable of aesthetic discernment or critical thought. (Do I need to mention that the person who told me this was white as sin?) This framing is as racist as anything in Carlyle. It could only have been invented by a rich white person.

Give them their due; rich white people are great at inventing terrible new concepts. Look at what’s happening right now: they’re telling each other to read White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard For White People To Talk About Racism by Robin DiAngelo. You should never tell people to read White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard For White People To Talk About Racism by Robin DiAngelo – but we live in an evil world, and it’s stormed to the top of the Amazon bestsellers list. You maniacs, you psychopaths, look what you’ve done. I’m not saying people shouldn’t read the book – I read it, and I don’t get any special dispensations – but you should read it like Dianetics, like the doctrine of a strange and stupid cult.

Robin DiAngelo is a white person, an academic, an anti-racism educator, an agent of the CIA or Hell or both, and the author of a very bad book. It’s at the vanguard of one of the worst tendencies in contemporary politics, that of particularising the human condition. Freud showed us that the ego is just a scar or a callus on the surface of the id, a part that had to crack and harden on contact with a cruel and unpleasant world. We are all brittle. We are all fragile. We all try to protect ourselves with shabby costumes, and we all get upset when someone tries to triumphantly snatch them away. But some people like to pretend that this condition is specific. It’s ‘being a snowflake.’ It’s ‘white fragility.’

The book is a thrill-ride along a well-paved highway – ‘powerful institutions are controlled by white people;’ true, accurate, well-observed – that quickly takes a dive off the nearest cliff – ‘therefore white people as a whole are in control of powerful institutions.’ Speak for yourself, lady! All a are b, DiAngelo brightly informs us, therefore all b must also be a. She doesn’t advocate for her understanding of the world, she simply assumes it. So it’s not a surprise that the real takeaway from White Fragility is that Robin DiAngelo is not very good at her job. See this passage:

I recently gave a talk to a group of about two hundred employees. Over and over, I emphasised the importance of white people having racial humility and of not exempting ourselves from the unavoidable dynamics of racism. As soon as I was done speaking, a line of white people formed – ostensibly to ask me questions – but more typically to reiterate the same opinions on race they held when they entered the room.

Well, it didn’t work, then, did it?

Imagine a devoted cultist of Tengrism, who sometimes gets invited by company bosses to harangue the workforce on how the universe is created by a pure snow-white goose flying over an endless ocean, and how if you don’t make the appropriate ritual honks to this cosmic goose you’re failing in your moral duty. But every time she gives this spiel, she always gets the same questions. Exactly how big is this goose? Surely the goose must have to land sometimes? Geese hatch in litters – what happened to the other goslings? Something must be wrong with these people. Why don’t they just accept the doctrine? Why do they hate the goose? We need a name for their sickness. Call it Goose Reluctance, and next time someone doesn’t jump to attention whenever you speak, you’ll know why. Of course, the comparison is unfair; ideas about eternal geese are beautiful, and DiAngelo’s are not. But the structure is the same. Could it be that Robin DiAngelo is a poor communicator selling a heap of worthless abstractions? No, it’s the workers who are wrong.

(By the way, how did you feel about that phrase, racial humility? I didn’t like it, but her book is full of similar formulations – she also wants us to ‘build our racial stamina’ and ‘attain racial knowledge.’ Now, maybe I’m an oversensitive kike, but I can’t encounter phrases like these and not hear others in the background. Racial spirit. Racial consciousness. Racial hygiene. And somewhere, not close but coming closer, the sound of goosestepping feet.)

I didn’t seek out any of the material I talk about here. It came to me. And it’s making me feel insane. The only social media I use these days is Instagram – because if I’m going to be hand-shaping orecchiette all night, and serving it with salsiccia, rapini, and my own home-pickled fennel, it’s not for my own pleasure, and I demand to receive a decent 12 to 15 likes for my efforts. (I will not be accepting your follow request.) A week ago, on the 2nd of June, my feed was suddenly swarming with white people posting blank black squares. People I’d never known to be remotely political, people whose introduction to politics was clearly coming through the deranged machine of social media. Apparently, that was ‘Blackout Tuesday.’ I don’t know whose clever idea this was, and I don’t want to know, but it came with a threat. If all your friends are posting the square, and you’re not, does it mean you simply don’t care enough about black lives? Around the same time, I was helpfully made aware of a viral Instagram album titled Why The Refusal To Post Online Is Often Inherently Racist. I honestly can’t imagine how terrifying it must be to live like this – always on edge, always trying to be Good, always trying to have your Goodness recognised by other people, in a game where the scores are tracked by what you post on the internet, and the rules are always changing.

The real kicker was what happened next. Under just about every black square, some self-appointed prefect had commented, warning people not to tag the things with the #blacklivesmatter hashtag. Activists use the hashtag to post important information, and the black boxes risked swamping it, flooding the whole thing with silence. Sorry, but I’m not buying it. After all, the #blacklivesmatter tag is – like all the rest of them – indifferently and algorithmically curated by Facebook’s proprietary software. The ethico-political demand, then, is to avoid disrupting the algorithm at all costs.

Why am I complaining about this? The police are brutalising demonstrators on the street, multiple protesters have already died, Trump wants to deploy the army, something truly horrible might be lurking in our near future – so why spend nearly 4000 words talking about stupid ideas on the internet? Because I want the movement to win, and this is poison. It has killed movements before. It kills everything it can touch.

At the end of Black Skin, White Masks, in his closing burst of glorious autopoietic Nietzscheana, Fanon gives his sole demand: ‘That the tool never possess the man. That the enslavement of man by man cease forever.’ It’s a hope I share, and one that I think the actual movement could one day help realise. But not if it surrenders to the forms and codes of social media, because social media is a tool that possesses the man. Like the owner of property, but also like a possessing devil. It takes over your mouth and your hands, and it whispers right into your brain. It tells you that the people around you are enemies, that you might be an enemy; it sends you spiralling into the claustrophobia of yourself. I can hope that this explosion of madness online is a final efflorescence, the monster making one last screech for attention. Something genuinely inspiring is happening, and maybe all the parasitic brands and networked neurotics will be left in the dust. But maybe, if we’re not careful, and if we can’t look away from our phones, a dumb comment from someone a thousand miles away will drown out the solidarity of the person next to you, and the moment will be lost.

Why Bernie lost (and how you can too)

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First hypothesis. (Humour: melancholia / Star: Saturn / Stone: topaz.)

Bernie lost because he lost the working class. He started his campaign marshalling what Amber Frost has described as the Busytown coalition: the postal workers, the firemen, the nurses; the people who, even now, are still in shops and warehouses, ensuring the continuation of human life. It’s a good coalition. It cuts across all lines of age, race, gender, and sexuality. There are a lot of these people, and what’s more, they have justice on their side. So what the hell happened? Why is it that, by Super Tuesday, places with lower average incomes, higher unemployment, more ethnic diversity, more people without health insurance, and fewer university degrees were tilting towards Biden? The answer is you. You did this.

If you’re reading this, I know what you’re like. You’re young, or young-ish; you’re well-educated and ever so smart, but your life didn’t turn out exactly how you hoped. Your parents are from the middle classes, but what are you? Column A: you’re currently tending to a sourdough starter, you lug around several suitcases of books whenever you move house, and you can talk about Debussy or drill with equal enthusiasm. Column B: you’re flat fucking broke. When you were a kid, you imagined what your life would be like at twenty-five, or thirty, or forty, and it didn’t look like this. You imagined yourself into An Adult, a mythological creature that never unfurled from your cocoon. You are a nymph. You’re the same kid, terrified of the passing time, but still waiting. It’s not too late for you, not yet, but so much would need to change in such a short time. We’d need to totally decarbonise the economy and end all interventions in the Middle East. We’d need to massively raise corporate taxes and someone would have to marry you. You believe passionately in that kind of change, and that’s why you supported Bernie. We are the same, you and I. We’re poison, absolute poison, for any democratic leftist movement. We corrode it from the inside out.

I watched the same thing happen in the UK: Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour party tried to reactivate the working class vote – and instead, working-class voters fled the party in droves, abandoning it to a rump of young people with advanced degrees and low prospects. Children are not the future. Young people are not a solid political constituency. Give us our due, though: we’re passionate, and committed, and we’re strivers. In a few short weeks, we had the Bernie campaign speaking our language and broadcasting our concerns. We turned ourselves into its faces and figureheads. Just in time to thoroughly alienate everyone who wasn’t already onside.

I don’t think socialism is always, by necessity, a bourgeois idea. On both sides of the Atlantic, left-populism did briefly enjoy a broad base of support. But we need to be smarter: we need to understand that ordinary people simply do not like us, and they’re not wrong to feel that way. We’re basically obnoxious, and to overcome that we need to meet the people where they are. This is how.

Step one is to place a permanent taboo on the following words, which we use too much, and which do nothing to help our cause:

  • Kindness. A disgusting word. The watery eyes of some paedophile vicar, smacking his lips together as he dreams his gentle brutalities. Be kind to me, oh be kind to me, let’s all be kind to each other. You make me sick.
  • Empathy. Even worse. The person who needs to put a name to fellow-feeling, who needs to adopt it as a regulative principle, has none of the stuff. The person who endlessly natters on about empathy is always, without exception, a bitter and spiteful toad, asking for the manager, making complaints, deplatforming: bottomlessly, abysmally cruel.
  • Hope. The most vicious of the bunch. Hope is an ancient Greek curse. Hope is only a substitute for the thing you hope for; it’s what you’re left with after everything else has fled. Hope is always, always disappointed. No movement that bandies around words like hope ever delivers on its promises. No movement that talks about hope is ever trusted.

That’s step one. In step two, we embrace the values that actually matter to American voters. Namely, patriotism, the family, and badass overpowered military hardware. If you want to embark on a programme of economic nationalisation, why would you willingly give up a potent rhetorical tool like nationalism? If you want to build bonds of solidarity, why would you ignore the already-existing communism within a well-functioning family unit? And if you want the working classes to own the world their labour creates, should that not include the nightly livestreamed bombing runs over the Middle East? I made that, we could say, watching the fires consume an Afghan village. My hands tended this death.

Finally, with step three we build on the progress we made at the start, and gradually eliminate all words from our vocabulary. The working classes hate words. They’re all illiterate, probably; I assume they communicate in grunts and squeals. We must learn to squeal like they do. Roll around in the muck. Hide your delicate bourgeois face in a plastic snout. Lap up corn syrup from the trough. Drape yourself in a soiled flag and grunt the name of Jesus Christ. Squeal, piggy, squeal.

Second theory. (Humour: choler / Star: Jupiter / Beast: the Hog)

Bernie lost because, in the end, he wasn’t willing to fight. He set himself up rhetorically in opposition to a deeply corrupt and moribund Democratic establishment – but then he adopted all their dumbest talking points. He promised to support the nominee, whoever it was, because the greatest danger was another four years of Trump and his Russian cronies. No: the greatest danger to ordinary people is capitalism, whoever its figurehead. Trump won in 2016 by utterly eviscerating and then colonising a hated party structure. Bernie couldn’t bring himself to do the same. He talked about a revolution, but shrunk back from revolutionary agonisms. What he offered was, as he himself kept insisting, a political revolution – which is to say, not a social revolution, not a revolution in the forms of human life, but only in their superstructural expressions – and he couldn’t even do that. Imagine how differently things would have gone if, during one of the televised debates, Bernie had denounced Joe Biden as a kulak fattening himself on the misery of the American peasants. I don’t know why he didn’t do this; he should have been listening to me instead of his lib advisors. He should have pointed out this dazed, leathery man as a class enemy, and then two of his Blue Guards should have run out from the wings to beat Biden in the head with the butts of their rifles, until he was forced to kneel right in front of the MSNBC studio hosts and confess, with tears in his eyes, to being a capitalist roader and a traitor to the working masses. Execution should have followed instantly: a single nod from Bernie, and a single bullet in the back of Joe’s head. At this point the audience should have stood up and cheered as Biden’s blood congealed tackily over the pristine half-CGI debate stage – but the theatre of justice shouldn’t have ended there. More Blue Guards in Bernie caps with rifles slung over their shoulders should have poured out onto the stage and erected a guillotine, singing cheerful songs as they winched the enormous razor into place. Then Bernie should have puffed out his cheeks and wagged his finger and shouted ‘The people’s revenge is not yet whetted! Which of our enemies will hone this blade?’ and then he should have condemned his rivals to death and beheaded them one by one. One cannot serve as the Attorney General for California innocently! The Blue Guards should have blocked off all the exits to this philanthropically-funded theatre and arts space in a third-tier Midwestern city, to encourage patriotic feeling among the audience as the heads of one politician after another tumbled from the jaws of the guillotine, their faces frozen in expressions of unutterable horror – but if Bernie heard a murmur of discontent as the lifeless bodies were flung into the orchestra pit, limbs folded at unnatural angles, torsos crowned in red-rimmed stumps, he should have given the signal for one-tenth of the audience to be dispatched too, so a productive atmosphere of Blue Terror might set in among the workers and peasants live-streaming at home. Then, once the bloodshed was over, a gorgeous person of my preferred gender should have turned to me and said ‘We did it, comrade – we finally overthrew traditional beauty standards, and now I don’t mind that you’re obsessed with seedy violent revenge-fantasies and have a deeply unfortunate neck that just kinda melts clammily into your shoulders; at long last, you have become sexually viable,’ and then I should have never been alone again.

Third assertion. (Humour: blood / Planet: Mars / Curse: eternal)

Bernie lost because the 2020 Democratic primary was ssstolen.

You think you know what happened: Klobuchar and Buttigieg dropped out as if according to a script, dealsss were forged, rooms filled with sssmoke, polling sssstations were closed down in low-income and ethnic-minority areas, exit polls showed a marked dissscrepancy from the final result, there was some vast fuckery in Iowa, because They – the unnameable They – would never let Bernie Sssanders win.

This is not what I mean.

I know it was ssssstolen because I ssstole it myself.

For years now I have been sssneaking into Bernie’s house at night, quietly, sssilently, in through the windowsss to lick his furniture, up through the floorboards to wander through the objects of his life.

And one dark February night I sssaw it – I sssaw where he kept the election, hidden in his house.

It was an egg, an unformed thing.

He kept it in his fridge, in a carton with the other eggs, and nothing on its sssurface told how different this egg was from any of the otherssss – maybe he didn’t know himssself, but I knew; I felt what was waiting within its yolk, the thing that could hatch.

I conssssumed that egg there, in Bernie Sanders’ kitchen – I ate it whole, shell and all, unsocketing my jaw, engorging my gullet; hunger, straining againssst the wholenessss of this large cold egg.

And out of my throat black tendrils grew.

Fourth conjecture. (Humour: phlegm / Planet: Mercury / Leprosy: gleaming)

  1. Bernie lost because nobody – and I mean NOBODY – understands why people make the decisions they do.
  2. I mean, look at it. Look at the Biden voters who said they wanted Medicare for All. Or the Biden voters who said they thought radical – even revolutionary – change was necessary. But they still pulled the lever for ol’ Creepy Joe. They liked Bernie and they liked his policies, but they weren’t voting for them. You thought it would be easy? You thought you just had to present the right ideas in the right language? Nah. Something much stranger is at work.
  3. And please, I’m begging you, please don’t give me any guff about low-information voters. You seen what it’s like out there? You can’t move for information. The sky and the trees are information. It’s being poured into our eyes at one gigabyte per second, EVERY SECOND OF OUR LIVES. We eat pure information three meals a day. Chomp through it, metabolise, shit it out. We fuckin’ radiate data, and at night the tech companies come and gobble up whatever we’ve left behind. Like dust mites feasting on our sloughed-off skin. Maybe you wanna start talking about low-oxygen voters too while you’re at it?
  4. But you wanna hear a secret? Advertising is bunk. Market research is bunk. None of it works. All those urban legends about how gifted psychopaths are rearranging supermarkets to make you buy shit you don’t need – all fake. It’s the admen’s last con. Even marketing types don’t really understand why people make the decisions they do. Not in the market, not in relationships, not anywhere. Cuz what we have now is the data, man, THE DATA. We can see the chaos of everyone’s life in ten trillion consumer decisions, and none of it adds up. Like there’s some tiny chaotic imp burrowing around in the innermost folds of your brain, doing stuff for no reason. And everyone’s praying the truth of it never gets out, cuz if it does? Google, Facebook – worthless. Spent a decade collecting the whole global population’s shit, promising they could sift out some specks of gold. It ain’t there. Useless. Planetary midden. And yeah, it just so happens that we’ve premised the entire economy on online data-collection and advertising. Imagine if tomorrow morning, oil was as flammable as water. That’s the level of trouble we’re in.
  5. Unless there was a new science. Deleuze saw it, in the Postscript on the Societies of Control: ‘Can we already grasp the rough outlines of these coming forms, capable of threatening the joys of marketing?’ A science that could explain why people make the decisions they make, and accurately model long-term social changes. One that could inherit and abolish all the failed theories of the past. Shit like Marxism. Gramscianism. Freudianism. I’m talking politics, rhetoric, marketing. Marginal utility and rational-choice economics and von Neumann games. Hell, let’s chuck art in there too. It ain’t heavy. This theory would be huge. I’m not talking about a revolution in the human sciences. I’m talking about a revolution, full stop.
  6. Folks – this theory is real. It already exists.
  7. It’s called IMPERATOLOGY.
  8. And its terrifying power can be yours – TODAY.
  9. Find out what other people want – what they really want, what they don’t even know they desire. Or, better yet, change their minds. With IMPERATOLOGY, it’s all possible. It’s the most awesome weapon ever devised. It’s the ATOM BOMB OF THE PSYCHE – and I want to put it in YOUR hands.
  10. How does it work? Simple! All previous accounts of the mind have conceived of subjectivity as a field of positively articulated drives and needs. Even psychoanalysis can only compute death drive as a BLANK OR SPACING in the terrain of desire. Even Marxism insists that all NEGATION must be DETERMINATE, and papers over the FISSURES OF UNBEING that scar our world. But with IMPERATOLOGY the night is ended! Our modelling software uses a system based on NEGATIVE INFINITIES, allowing you to delve into the VAST RESERVOIRS OF DARKNESS that lie at the core of your being. (Sexual nihilism! Political unreason! Cannibal orgies! Blood! Ice on trees! A trackless and limitless forest! Wild hares dancing! The blank dancing eyes of a wild hare in the frosty dawn of the world!) Our patented system empowers YOU to scoop up variegated PEARLS OF MADNESS with your own TINY GRASPING CLAWS!
  11. I’m talking THE SECRET BACK DOOR TO THE HUMAN MIND. I’m talking MONEY. I’m talking SEX. I’m talking about YOUR BIZARRE AND IDIOSYNCRATIC POLITICAL OPINIONS, turned into received wisdom OVERNIGHT. I’m talking about a WORLD FUNDAMENTALLY RESHAPED INTO A SERIES OF LIVING DIORAMAS FOR YOUR OWN MASTURBATORY PLEASURE. Not sure how to use it? Forgotten how to get yourself off? No worries! Simply deploy the techniques of IMPERATOLOGY on YOURSELF, and instantly achieve SELF-REALISATION AS AN ABSOLUTE IDEA. I’m talking about PEERING BEYOND THE VEIL OF OUR EARTHLY REALITY. And I’ve been there. I’ve seen it. Let me tell you, folks, my third eye is a YAWNING, DISTENDED CHASM. Wildflowers grow wherever I lay my feet, and I have witnessed galaxies SPURT LIKE MY SEED across the velvet folds of time!
  12. Acquire the giddying power of IMPERATOLOGY with just TWELVE ONLINE SEMINARS, open for new students at the low, low price of $399.95 each. Discounted rates available for police officers, veterans, psychopaths, and the morbidly obese. No refunds.

Fifth derangement. (Humour: gelatine / Planet: Niburu / Destination: across the nameless sea to Knossos, where we are devoured)

Bernie lost because politics is not about power. It’s not about collective decision-making; it’s not even about representation. Try to imagine things differently. Try to imagine the 2020 election as a highly advanced form of vivisection.

Think of all the endless awful candidates invading your consciousness, one after another. Didn’t it feel like some kind of experiment was being performed? The system throws people and archetypes at you – A Woman, A Person Of Colour, A Rich Guy – and tries to find out what sticks. We might think the contenders are just a bunch of hollow-eyed narcissists vying for control of an enormous nuclear arsenal, and they might think it too, but they’re not. These are test subjects. In a sense, they’re victims.

A politician is shoved under the spotlight, and they tremble. Slowly, scientists peel back the skin so we can see their innards. We find out more about the personal histories and inner worlds of Beto O’Rourke or John Delaney than any sane person could possibly want to know. But someone, or something, somewhere, is learning. Slice through the flesh; get to the organs, the queasy, greasy, soft wobbling darkness in the creature’s furthest pit. See what’s there. Cory Booker’s kidneys. Julián Castro’s spleen. Scandals and corruption; dark money, racial epithets, sex scandals, and lies. The attrition rate is high; most test subjects don’t survive the procedure. Pour enough shampoo into Kamala Harris’s eyeballs, pump enough anti-depressants up Tom Steyer’s arsehole, and eventually the creature will just go limp.

For Baudrillard, new schemata of social control are always applied first to animals, and then to human beings. ‘Animals have preceded us on the path of liberal extermination.’ Couldn’t we say the same thing about politicians? What are electoral politics, if not a breeding-ground for affects and psychoses, a petri dish swarming with new and disordered ways of relating to the world? Forget policy. Forget the presidency. This is what it’s for.

Decades ago, politicians started being followed by people with cameras, monitoring their movements, looking for any hint of wrongness – a banana, for instance, held at an unusual angle. They had to perform, every minute of their waking lives. Forbidden from breaking character, they melted into their own personae. Politicians were the first to enter the world of inescapable digital surveillance, then celebrities, and then you and me. The innovation now, of course, is that the person following you around with the camera is yourself. We’re all public servants now.

Examples pile up. Politicians were the first humans to turn themselves into brands, to sell themselves not as a lump of labour-power but as a finished commodity, with the full fetishistic halo. Before there could be a Kim Kardashian, first there had to be a Tony Blair.

Of course, there’s another type, the Bernie-type. Politicians who sold themselves on the promise of what they could do rather than what they might mean. Politicians who offered something to the voting masses, a pact, a contract, not the possibility of representation or identification. Politicians who didn’t want to be your bff or your abuela, but who did want to build a big new canal. The heroic, promethean, reforming bourgeois politicians of the eighteenth century onwards, who set out to transform reality by their labour, not for themselves, not to rule the world, but only to remake it – these were the advance guards of proletarianisation. Their time has ended now. Like the organised proletariat, they survive – but lost in a whirlwind of new forms.

In fact, you could go further. The thing we call politics – in the sense of an ideological agonism, not just manoeuvring between personal factions – begins with the English and French revolutions. The birth of politics is also the birth of politicide, the idea that you can fix things by simply killing everyone with bad opinions. Both revolutions also featured, quite prominently, the removal of a royal head. The king becomes a politician – which is to say, a carcass, an animal test-subject – the moment the blade touches the hairs on the back of his neck. (This seems to hold across time. The ancient Greeks had their factional intrigues, and they thought a lot about systems of government, but they never managed to develop the political movement. The Romans, who executed their king, did.) He clears the way. Then the masses can follow him into the guillotine, or march off in vast conscript armies to the meat-grinder of the front.

This is why the nomination went to Joe Biden, a man who is clearly senile and dying, and not Bernie Sanders. He is our future, the herald of an exhausted and forgetful age. Digital archives are already eating away at our ability to remember. Automation enfeebles our bodies. The frenzy of communications puts a stammer in our speech. Senseless and dependent, passive in a meshwork of machines. In the crypt of the Capuchin friars in Rome, stacks of grinning skulls bear a motto. Quello che voi siete, noi eravamo; quello che noi siamo, voi sarete. What we are, you will be; what you are, we once were. Look on Joe Biden’s empty face, and be afraid.

The Idiot Joy Showland coronavirus reading list

atlast

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * *

Plays

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

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

Novels

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

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

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

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

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

Stories

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

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

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

Love in the time of coronavirus

regnault

Is there an erotics of the coronavirus?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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