Idiot Joy Showland

This is why I hate intellectuals

Category: Visual Arts & Aesthetics

A review of ‘Batman v Superman,’ by a bat

The injustice which supposes all the others supposes that the other, the victim of the injustice of language, is capable of language in general, is man as a speaking animal. One would not speak of injustice or violence toward an animal, even less toward a vegetable or a stone.
Jacques Derrida, Force of Law: The Mystical Foundation of Authority

batman-v-superman

The new film Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice has received almost uniformly negative reviews, and it’s not hard to see why. The film isn’t just a bloated, stupid, self-important mess, a billion-dollar adaptation of a storyline first developed by a fairly dim child as he bashed his action figures together, performed by various off-cuts of pork in progressive stages of greening decay, and with camera work by one of the balls from Kafka’s Blumfeld. The concept itself is absurd, and it’s obvious as soon as the two title characters square off against each other in the big central fight sequence. This is supposed to be a grand fantastic spectacle, god against beast. What we actually get is ridiculous, an absurdity only heightened by its attempt at a dark, serious tone. In the rubble-strewn loft of some deserted Gotham warehouse, Superman bounds between the walls in his silly underwear, clutching a net in one hand, while a tiny Batman flutters above him with his red eyes and his fluttering leathery cape. This goes on for nearly an hour; every so often the two pause to trade vague homilies on the nature of jurisprudence. ‘I only want to help people,’ says Superman in grave and self-important tones. ‘Power derives from the consent of the governed.’ Batman replies. ‘Pieeeeeeeeeeeeps,’ he says, scrunching up his already densely-folded nose. There can be no communication. Even when the two team up against some boring ogre unleashed by a sarky mad scientist, things barely improve. Superman does all the legwork, while the Batman flaps off to gnaw at some half-rotten fruit and deposit small mounds of guano over the console of the Batmobile. Why does this film even exist? For money, of course; it’s clearly not for human enjoyment, its logic is entirely alien to human needs. So as a human I’m unable to really comprehend the thing; it requires a different perspective, one that first of all isn’t troubled by questions as stupid as how good or bad a film it is. What follows is a review of Batman v Superman, as given to me by a bat.

“I am a bat. I fly outside at night and eat small insects. I shiver through the night in my aching trails of wings. I feel the sky very close to my skin. I feel the moon very close to my skin. I eat the insects as they fly; I call to them in the night and they call out to me in turn so I can know where they are, buzzing frantic in the night. I crunch down on the hard shells of the insects and I feel their life jump out into my mouth, liquid and bitter. I do not pity them. During the day I hang from my claws in a dark place. The sun is painful to me. I do not have a name.

“I find it hard to enjoy cinema. I like the dark of the auditorium, but when I am hanging from its roof it is hard not to turn away from the glare of the screen, which I do not like. I am not blind, but my vision is poor; I can see only a bright square, too bright, on which unknown shapes drift slowly and without purpose, lapping and overlapping, like little eddies over the face of a fog-calmed sea. I do not like the noise in the cinema. It is too loud. It becomes hard for me to echolocate and I grow anxious. I scream and beat my pulsing little body against the ceiling. I flap and I cry for the open air, where I can feel the sky very close to my skin. In the auditorium I can not feel the emptiness of the sky close to my skin, I can not feel the cold breeze aching against the blood of my too-thin wings, I can not feel the dark distance which is not present to me but which I somehow know, and it makes me anxious. When I flap my wings in the auditorium the humans also scream and grow anxious. A bat, they scream, a bat. I do not know why they fear me. The insects that call out to me in the night do not fear me, even as I kill them. I can hear their hearts crashing in the huge cavities of their chests, I can hear the terror of these vast and ungainly beasts in the throb of blood through brute veins clogged with fatty deposits, I can hear the panic of a dying creature that does not know why it is dying. I do not pity them. All this makes it hard to concentrate on the plot of the movie, or to enjoy the action sequences. I fear the expensive CGI is wasted on me. I fear the clever references to the comic books are wasted on me. I fear Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice is wasted on me.

“But I have been asked to talk about the film, even though it was clearly not made with me in mind, even though I can not claim to know why it was made at all, and so I will. The film alludes to a dawn of justice. Does justice then have a beginning? I know that for Aristotle there is a justice before the law, a justice that consists in conformity with nature and with the gods. He quotes the Antigone of Sophocles, the sister who buries her brother in violation of Creon’s law, but in obedience to justice: ‘Not of today or yesterday it is, but lives eternal: none can date its birth.’ But I am not within justice. I fly through the night and eat small insects, and there is no justice. I do not atone for the death of the insects, and I do not pity them; there is no justice for them or for me. Among the pre-Socratics a sadder and lonelier view, one which I like, is given by Anaximander. If justice is natural, if justice means conformity with the natural world, how can there be injustice? Anaximander replies that all things originate from the apeiron or the Boundless, but that injustice consists in their springing forth from it, their differentiation into discrete phenomena. Justice comes in the return to indifference. ‘Whence things have their origin, thence also their destruction happens, as is the order of things; for they give to each other dike (justice) and recompense for their adikia (injustice), in conformity with the ordinance of Time.’ There will be justice for the insects I have killed; it will come when I am killed myself, when my wings are slashed by a cat and I return to the great dark night of the world.

“Justice is then nature, and animals and gods are not outside of justice; it is humans who are outside of justice, and it is for this reason that they must have the law. This is why the sovereign, the human who positions himself outside the juridical order in order to guarantee its functioning, is simultaneously god and beast, stepping into a zone of indistinction with the homo sacer his mirror; this is why while most humans can be said to be fair or unfair in their dealings with others, only the sovereign can be said to be just. Are Superman or Batman sovereign? These are the questions that the film raises, with its endless discussions of law and right – is Superman above the law, or must he appear before a Senate committee? Is Batman outside the law, or is he just a vigilante, a common criminal? As Walter Benjamin notes in his Critique of Violence, European (and, by extension, American) law prohibits individual violence not because it contravenes one or another law within a system – after all, individual laws are always contingent – but because it threatens the juridical order as such. Benjamin considers the fascination attached to the figure of the ‘great’ criminal: the sympathy for violence and its capacity to build a new law. But its treatment of these questions is thin and, despite the ponderous mood, unserious. There is always the threat that emerges from beyond the sphere of law, monsters or aliens, which legitimises the animals and gods, enclosing them as structural exceptions; this is why the film, like all superhero films, is fundamentally fascist. Batman and Superman are not interested in building a new law, or in abolishing the old one; they remain suspended in their vacuole, and effectively abandon the polis. See how carelessly they allow vast tracts of city to be destroyed. But humans, even sovereigns, cannot exist in this state of indifference to the law. Only two things can: animals and gods, who inhabit the realm of justice. (Contrast the Justice League with their Marvel equivalent, the Avengers; law-founding creatures of mythic violence. Divine violence is unrepresentable in a comic book adaptation.) In other words, the political use-value of Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice is precisely nil.

“One need not really say anything about this film; Derrida has already discussed it extensively in Force of Law. He must have seen it coming. Responding to the title, he writes that its ‘either/or, yes or no’ is ‘rather violent, polemical, inquisitorial. We may fear that it contains some instrument of torture.’ Responding to the pivotal scene in which it is revealed that the mothers of Batman and Superman share the same name, he touches on the ‘aleatory but significant coincidences of which proper names are necessarily the site.’ The relevance of his discussion of justice’s relation to animality should not need to be expanded upon. There is something else, though. Most of us are aware of Derrida’s insistence that deconstruction is justice, that justice is undeconstructible. We bats, at least, are endlessly chirruping about it. But if justice is the possibility of deconstruction, he adds, law is the possibility of the exercise of deconstruction. This resonates with some of his earlier discussion: law is the exercise of justice, and he notes the peculiar English idiom, to enforce the law. Can one speak of enforcing deconstruction? Later he refers to ‘two ways or two styles’ in which deconstruction can be practised: for all their grafting indeterminacy, a return to the torture-instrument of the either/or. A text deconstructs itself; to exercise deconstruction is to stand in the same relation to it as law does to justice. Humans, even sovereigns or criminals, cannot be deconstructionists. Only gods. Only animals.

“Can we teach you? In 1974, I was the subject of a paper by the philosopher of mind Thomas Nagel, What Is It Like To Be A Bat? Nagel argues against reductionist theories of consciousness: even if a bat could speak your language, even if a bat tried to describe in every detail what it’s like to experience the world through echolocation, something irreducible would remain; you will never be able to really hear the world as I hear it. Consciousness is the sense of being like yourself, something that others are incapable of grasping, and which does not admit objectivity. Even if you were to slowly metamorphose into a bat, fingers spindling, nostrils folding, ears pricking up from the side of your head, you would not understand. You will still be a human trapped inside a bat’s body. You will never feel the closeness of the moon at night. You will never understand the plunging of the sky at night. You will never understand how little I care about you.”

The Englishman and the Octopus

If you’ve seen Spectre, it should already be obvious to you that the James Bond franchise is a spinoff, taking place entirely within HP Lovecraft’s Cthulhu mythos.

Say 007 arrives at Mexico City Airport at four in the afternoon. He goes through customs. He takes a taxi to his blankly intercontinental chain hotel. He makes himself a slapdash vodka martini from the little bottles in the minibar, pouring the entire stub of vodka and a passionless vermouth glug into one of the film-wrapped plastic cups from the bathroom, and drinks it on his balcony. He looks out at Mexico City, and something looks back. The Cthulhu mythos only works if its characters don’t realise that they’re in it. When done right, Cthulhu stories don’t need to actually portray the Great Old Ones; they can lurk in the deconstructive background, appearing as a hollowness in the mise-en-scène, a spacing and a vastness suspended just beyond sight. Another recent film about Anglo imperialists in Latin America, this year’s Sicario, was an example of what could be called ‘landscape horror’, fine-tuned to Yanqui racism: long panning shots of barren or broken landscapes, the blasphemous edge between lawnmower-perfect American suburbia and the desert beyond, or Mexican cities that seem to sprawl without reason over the hills and valleys, protoplasmic shoggoth-blots poised to gobble up the border. This isn’t the ordinary Burkean sublime, but something far stranger. Ciudad Juárez is ‘the Beast’; the scarred and hollowed-out Earth is itself a cosmic evil. Bond on his balcony faces a city that does not end, from horizon to horizon. Where are the goons? Usually this is when some gormless lunks try to jump him, and from there it’s only a short kidnapping to the supervillain’s lair, where someone will tell him everything he needs to know, saving him the trouble of doing any detective work. Instead, there’s CNN, complimentary soap, and blithe miles of homes and highways. It’s hard not to feel lonely. It’s hard not to feel afraid. He’s in Lovecraft territory; those trillion-tentacled monsters from outer space that intrude upon stately New Englanders were always a barely concealed metaphor for one man’s horror of black and brown bodies in their nameless shoals, leaking degradation over a world fissuring from imperial decline. But over and above that, they stand for a universe that is not required to make sense.

James Bond, meanwhile, is a man in search of the transcendental signifier. It’s hard to do a Bond story these days, with the end of the Cold War, the rise of feminism, and an inherent ridiculousness to the form that perfectly crystallises itself in Austin Powers, which managed to carry out a satire of the Bond films simply by replicating them in every detail. But before there could be Austin Powers, there was Thomas Pynchon. His novels (especially V, with its deliberate Bond insert) subject the spy story to the (un)logic of post-structuralism. In spy stories the hero jets off around the world in search of the Thing that allows disparate events to reveal themselves as products of a singular Plan. In Pynchon, this structure is preserved, but knowing as he does that the object petit a does not exist, he simply takes away the MacGuffin. Bond’s shark-sprint for the truth falls apart into a messy and ever-widening entropic spiral. Postmodernism posed a far more serious threat to MI6 than Soviet spies ever could. Bond’s response was sloppy. At the start of the Daniel Craig era, the franchise put away most of Pierce Brosnan’s silliness for a lot of dark and gritty po-faced nonsense; the resulting films were basically terrible. In Skyfall, it reacted with a kind of watered-down postmodernism of its own, a plot barely held together by its spider’s-web network of smug self-references. Spectre – by far the best Bond film in recent decades – was at this point probably inevitable. Orbis non sufficit: the world is not enough. The villain in Casino Royale was only a puppet of the villain in Quantum of Solace, who was only a puppet of the villain in Skyfall, who was only a puppet of the villain in Spectre: you can only take this kind of thing so far before the evil grows beyond one lonely planet’s capacity, and plunges into outer space. With his metanarrative collapsing around him, James Bond escaped into a new one, a lair where Pynchon or Powers couldn’t find him. He escaped into HP Lovecraft.

This film doesn’t exactly hide its place within Lovecraftian mythology. You really think that creature on the ring is just an octopus? Uniquely for a Bond film, it starts with an epigraph of sorts, the words ‘the dead are alive’ printed over a black screen – a not particularly subtle allusion to the famous lines from the Necronomicon: ‘That is not dead which can eternal lie/ And with strange aeons even death may die.’ In the credits sequence, vast tentacles coil around him as he murders and fucks his way to an absent truth. In his house at R’lyeh, dead Cthulhu waits dreaming. The villain’s base is built around an asteroid, glossy and scarred, that fell from the sky millions of years ago. You almost expect alien ooze to start trickling from its cavities. With 1979’s Moonraker, heroes and villains invaded outer space; in Spectre it’s the other way round. And in its Lovecraftian context, everything starts to make a lot more sense. Why do Bond villains always explain their entire plan to 007 before killing him? Real-life conspiracies (like the financial markets, the internet, or history in general) are not so much secret as unspoken; they fold themselves into the basic fabric of social life, so that it’s often impossible for anyone at all to stand outside their situatedness and articulate what’s going on. Lovecraft’s monsters, on the other hand, live in the permanent outside; they don’t need to worry about revealing themselves to you, because they know that as soon as you clap eyes on even the shadow of their true form you’ll go irretrievably mad. For Cthulhu to reveal himself is not weakness but power.

Spectre is a film that deliberately resists any sense for the climactic or any libidinal payoff; all we get is lingering dread. The first post-credits chase scene is downright weird; Bond and his adversary race sports cars through the centre of Rome, but the gap between them never closes, the backwards-firing machine-guns don’t have any ammunition, and the sequence just keeps on going, all thrill long dissipated, until it takes on a kind of shambling undeath. ‘The longer the note, the more dread.’ Brecht calls this Verfremdungseffekt: by refusing to simply give pleasure to an audience, you prevent them from ever being entirely immersed in narrative events; they begin to consciously interrogate the fragility of the social conditions that hold up any action. But overall the Italy sequence is short. Bond’s never really been at home in Catholic Europe; he’s a creature of the Western hemisphere, and in particular the Caribbean. Gorgeous, tiny islands with their histories bayoneted out of existence, places where the hotels are luxurious and the bar staff eager to please. So Spectre gives us Moroccan scrubland instead, flat and impoverished, neither beautiful nor sublime, just two thin tracks plunging through a plane without interest forever. When there is an invocation of orgasm, it directly undercuts any myth of the secret agent’s sexual prowess. In the third act, we get an ironic version of the usual Bond structure: he’s taken to Blofeld’s secret lair (white cat and all), invited for drinks at four, and told the whole plan. So far, so good. Then, after nearly being killed in a pointlessly baroque way, he escapes, fires six shots, and the whole base explodes. Is that it? There was a big bang, sure but it was all over too soon. If you ever wanted to know what it’s really like to have sex with James Bond, Spectre is here to tell you.

But of course that’s not it. After orgasm, nightmares. The traditional ending is followed by a strange and shadowy coda in London: Bond, collapsing into a ruined MI6 building, finds his name and an arrow spraypainted on a memorial to the dead. He follows it. Shades of Lot 49: for the entire film, he’s only acted on the instruction of the omniscient dead. Older Bond outings allowed us to notice the essential powerlessness of the hero in a world always determined by its villainous Big Other, and feel very smart for having picked up on it; here, it’s thrown mercilessly in our faces. A mural at the mountains of madness. Spectre constantly frustrates the pleasure principle; it’s an awed testament to a Todestrieb that, itself unrepresentable, appears only in the spacing and repetition of something else. James Bond is no longer a brutal, neurotic male wish-fulfillment fantasy: he has no will of his own, no love for his own life, and he can’t even fuck. He falls into the grasp of something else, vast and pitiless, the key and the guardian of the gate, that watches the tiny escapades of Her Majesty’s Secret Service from far beyond the stars.

The grey scale

The architectonic structure of the Kantian system, like the gymnastic pyramids of Sade’s orgies and the schematised principles of the early bourgeois freemasonry, reveals an organisation of life as a whole which is deprived of any substantial goal.
Adorno and Horkheimer, Dialectic of Enlightenment

1. Fifty Shades of Grey is a 2014 direct-to-DVD dystopian action film directed by Curtis Lumpus with a screenplay by Jott Prittsteck. In this terrifying vision of the year 2146, the United States of America has collapsed, to be replaced by a totalitarian state called Canesco, one ruled over by the secretive tyrant Christian Grey. Canesco enjoys a high standard of living and is entirely free from crime; however, citizens are subjected to constant surveillance, and all colours are banned. Grey’s belief that the unknown Cataclysm that destroyed the old world was caused by the blasphemy of colour has led him to create a barren concrete wasteland, in which chemical defoliants are used to extinguish all chlorophyll-producing life, except the crops grown in vast underground gruel farms. Drones on round-the-clock cloud-seeding flights maintain a dense layer of cloud over the entire North American continent. Only Grey can now remember that the sky was once blue. Female citizens of Canesco are required to sign a personal contract with Grey on reaching puberty in which they promise to keep the existence of the colour red a secret, in a ceremony known as the Initiationing. However, one plucky young girl called Anastasia STE-313, who always felt that she was somehow different from the conformist society that surrounds her, refuses to sign. Soon she finds herself on the run from the brutal government agents in an epic flight across three identical warehouses and one nondescript desert. Her desperate fight to survive against all odds pits her against the powers of the Grey Castle, but, as a hunky resistance fighter in head-to-toe tie-dye teaches her, it’s also a fight for the future of humanity. In the dramatic final scene, Anastasia hijacks Christian Grey’s personal helicopter, binds and gags him, and blows it up in midair. The explosion opens up a rift in the layer of permanent cloud, and as strings swell the people of Canesco see the sky for the first time. The film received mixed to negative reviews from critics, with many criticising its drab visual style, derivative plot, and clunky CGI. The casting of teen icon and YouTube pencil vlogger Jophia Splutt as Anastasia STE-313 was met with mockery from partisans of high culture and officially denounced by the Central Committee of the Communist Party of China. Commentators have also noted that the regulation grey boiler suits worn by all citizens of Canesco are clearly several sizes too large for many of the actors, and that as a result everyone in the film appears to have a tiny head. In a 2015 interview, the director insisted that this was deliberate.

2. Fifty Shades of Grey is a 2012 British romantic comedy film set in a retirement community in the Cotswolds. It was directed by Tom Flan with a screenplay by Polandria and Chimera Hugankiss. Herb is a mild-mannered former accountant whose life has settled into a comforting routine: morning walks, crosswords, cups of tea, and a slow, resigned wait for it all to be finally over. But his life is turned upside down by the arrival of Dorothy, an outgoing and vivacious dame with an idiosyncratic haircut and one very saucy secret. As Dorothy tries to entice Herb out of his own head and into a pair of furry pink handcuffs, their romance grows from the pace of a zimmer-frame stroll into a full-blown bingo-hall Bacchanalia. But when his three large and prudish sons turn up on an unannounced visit to find Herb scrubbing his floor, wearing nothing but a pair of assless chaps, his old and new lives find themselves in a hilarious head-on collision. Can Herb’s weak heart cope with the demands of a late-blooming love? Can arthritic hands train themselves to perform Japanese rope bondage? One thing’s for certain: life at Bumpy Acres will never be the same.

3. Fifty Shades of Grey is an unfinished novel by D H Lawrence, intended as a further sequel to 1915’s The Rainbow. The story follows the lives of the Brangwen sisters after the end of Women in Love. Gudrun leaves Dresden for Paris and, unable to rid herself of the coldness that had come over her ever since being strangled half to death by Gerald, finds herself falling into an algedonic underworld of sadistic sexual violence. Her sister visits from England, husband in tow, but Ursula is appalled to discover that Birkin sees an aesthetic authenticity in Gudrun’s new lifestyle. After watching a performance in a secret theatre in which Gudrun, dressed as a voodoo witch, simultaneously anally penetrates three nervous, hogtied young poets with a trident-shaped strap-on, Birkin declares his passion for her. As they make love he tightens a collar firm around her neck, and she feels the kindling of a fire in her breast long thought extinguished. The two declare themselves to be the Dictator and Dictatrix of Earth, and lead a violent mob to the Palais de l’Élysée, promising them the domination and servitude that the lower orders secretly crave.

4. Fifty Shades of Grey is a patented proprietary colour matching system devised by Pantone. Launched in 2004, it has been one of the company’s most successful products, used to design magazines and decorate apartments for boring people the world over.

5. Fifty Shades of Grey is a handbook distributed to medical workers from 1978 to be used in the event of a nuclear war with the Soviet Union. It identifies the causes, symptoms, and treatments for radiation poisoning, and included the notorious ‘grey-scale test’, in which it was asserted that patients whose skin had become discoloured beyond a certain shade of grey were beyond saving and should be left to die.

6. I saw Fifty Shades of Grey on Valentine’s Day in rural Somerset. It was disappointing. The cinema – if it could be called a cinema – was a rickety lean-to crumbling against the side of an ancient and pungent ciderworks. In this dense, hot room, sharp with the aphrodisiac tang of rotting apples, surrounded by the cacklings and fumblings of drunken locals, I felt almost immediately disoriented. At first I thought the cidery fog had Vaselined my vision: the screen wasn’t the prim white square I was used to but an indistinct shape, rippling and whorling, almost organic, almost alive. It took a while before I fully realised what I was seeing. Behind me, above the entrance of the shack, the projector was flickering, and the film was being projected onto a cow. Huge, almost entirely white, and clearly in pain. The poor beast had been chained up by its front and hind legs; a leather strap connected its nose-ring to the far wall, and a farmer in a Venetian mask and three-piece suit was flogging the creature with a riding crop whenever its laboured breathing or feeble attempts to escape interfered with the performance. Following the plot was hampered by the cow’s plaintive mooing and shifting, but from what I could make out it was about a woman who I assumed to be the tambourine player in an indie-folk band, who falls in love with an extremely powerful twelve-year-old boy. Sadly I didn’t get much further than that. As the first sex scene began, the imprisoned cow gave an almighty grunt and began to thrash around wildly, kicking up angry sprays of hay and manure. The timber of the shack, already weakened by several centuries of super-strength fumes, gave way. The cow was free. As I watched in mute horror, Christian Grey’s tight-lipped mid-coital face seemed to bulge and stretch, as if he were about to pop; I wondered would kind of fluid would seep out. Just before the beast burst through the image, I was dragged away by my viewing companion. We fled across sodden fields as the local folk took their revenge on the creature, but before we reached the safety of a nearby pub I could hear the cow’s desperate lowing and the sadistic yelps of its torturers turn into something else, a cold, seething reptile hiss that I thought had not been heard on this planet for sixty-five million years.

7. I saw Fifty Shades of Grey as part of a programme organised by the London Institute for Studies in Psychoanalysis, a subversive radical organisation I had been ordered to infiltrate. I didn’t understand much of it – all this stylised, highly sexed foreign cinema is frankly beyond me – but for the sake of appearances I jotted down a few observations. Typical Left propaganda: an industrialist billionaire and handcuff-happy sexual sadist seduces a young woman; what he doesn’t know is that she’s part of a revolutionary cell trying to take him down. For the most part, though, the film seems to be about contract law. The plutocrat tries to force his prey to sign a legal document waiving all her human rights protections, including the right to life; in this he’s thwarted by a series of increasingly abstract legal manoeuvres – by the end she’s stalling for time by demanding the contract include definitions for perfectly ordinary terms such as ‘and’, ‘but’, and ‘buttplug’. Procrastination seems to be her favourite tactic. At another point the capitalist, on discovering that she’s a student of English literature, asks if it was Charlotte Brontë, Jane Austen, or Thomas Hardy that made her fall in love with the written word. None of them, she says, before launching into a lengthy exegesis on contemporary literary theory before a man at first visibly aroused but who rapidly goes limp once it becomes apparent that poststructuralism isn’t just the text meaning whatever you want it to mean. So much for the film. Making idle small talk at the post-screening drinks reception (or about as small as talk can be among these self-important charlatans), I learned that for the LISP screening all the actual pornographic scenes had been cut from the film – this because of some Freudian dictum about sex never just being about sex, apparently. It was a shame, but it was also all I needed. Tampering with the film violated the terms of its rental from the distributors: finally, I had them on tape admitting to criminal activity. As soon as I could I pushed the button on my secret radio receiver. Most of the Institute were arrested alive; a few hid out in the building’s toilets and, regrettably, had to be shot by police snipers.

8. I saw Fifty Shades of Grey with my parents.

9. You ever feel like you’re living on the point of a knife? I really did want to write a review of Fifty Shades of Grey. But there’s that feeling of a knife at your stomach, just pricking the surface of your skin, so you know that if you take just one step forward your guts will pour out like slimy confetti. When people talk about their plans for the future, careers, families, don’t you want to stare at them with crazy eyes, ranting, breathing in manic gasps, and hiss: but it won’t happen! Don’t you understand? We’ll all be dead by then! Melting ice caps! Russian bombers off the coast of Cornwall! Everything’s fucked! Life in the crumbling, developed West isn’t great (people are starving to death, even here), but it still has the sense of an incredible precariousness, a bubble waiting to be popped. Fifty Shades of Grey is not a good film. But will sneering at that fact make it better? Will it save us from the coming bombs? Without God or communism we’ve been told that the point of life is to collect meaningful experiences, happy memories, and interesting opinions; to be entertained; to carve out some kind of expression of individuality that will, in its uniqueness and initerability, last forever. History suggests something different. Mostly people are destroyed, in their thousands, for no good reason. Why wouldn’t it happen to us? How many shiningly unique individuals were burned up in Dresden? When the Mongols came to Baghdad – a big urban cosmopolis, full of self-regarding educated types who, in the end, probably didn’t live too differently from you – they killed everyone. Like a nuclear bomb in slow motion. Scholars who’d spent most of their lives airily abstracting about the finer points of poetic technique and the exact arrangement of the heavenly spheres ended up with their heads suddenly piled up in a sloppy pyramid outside the city walls. (The scholars are remembered; more than, say, the women. Massacres of the educated are an affront to humanity, while men killing women is business as usual.) And why? The Mongol warlord Hulagu attacked the Abbasid caliphate on the advice of the usual gang of viziers and astrologists, but the loudest voice for war came from Nasir al-Din Tusi – a scholar and poet who’d become enraged after the Caliph, apparently disdaining its metrical and lexical subtleties, had lazily tossed one of his poems into the Tigris. One million people died, arrow-shafts through their bodies, knives through their necks, coughing up blood. Cultural critics beware.

10. I loved the book of Fifty Shades of Grey; I really loved it, with that total and unquestioning love you can only have for the utterly deformed. I loved its alternate psychoanalytic triad of the Subconscious, the Psyche and the Inner Goddess. I loved the catastrophically unsexy cor-blimey interior monologue. I loved the relentless commodity porn. It’s a universal story, an utterly bleak one: the story of power and its essential idiocy, and the tendency to read it as a wide-eyed paean to the titular pervert only demonstrates a critical failure of imagination. Yes, it started as fanfiction, but then so did the Aeneid. Yes, the relationship it depicts is fundamentally abusive, but safety, sanity and consent weren’t a major concern for de Sade, Bataille, Réage, or any of the other icons of literary sadomasochism either. With all its obtrusively terrible language it’s a book that constantly calls attention to its own writerly, textual quality, that’s constantly returning to its own meta- and inter-textual fabric. Fifty Shades had an overwhelming, effortless literariness, in a way that far outstripped the squalid grunting efforts of this century’s self-appointed guardians of high prose. Karl Ove Knausgård, Haruki Murakami, God help us, Jonathan fucking Franzen. They’re all squalid hacks, sad clowns, overinflated, overserious; it’s hard to imagine them keeping a straight face as they make their vague bromidic pronouncements on the Human Condition, shitting out watery insights as if anyone actually asked them, but somehow they do, and the same reading public that dismisses Fifty Shades as mere pornography nod wisely as they lap happily from the putrid trough. I’ll take bondage over coprophagy. Reviews of the Fifty Shades film have grudgingly commended it for turning a terrible book into something vaguely tolerable, competently produced if not exactly groundbreaking. As if descending from the mad and terrible stratospheres into Franzen-lite mediocrity is somehow an achievement. In fact, the film’s made a category error. A proper film adaptation should be pornography: ill-fitting suits, wobbly handheld cameras, and queasy lighting that makes the rippling flesh look like so much offcut meat, bright pink, churning out of an industrial mincer. Or it should resurrect not just the Inner Goddess and the Psyche but all the screaming others that crowd the mind of the modern schizophrenic; have the superego as a pale disappointed father, the id as a ravenous twelve-headed beast, doubt as a constant looming shroud, all watching every vaguely kinky sex session with drawn, horrified faces. Or it should delve deeper into the discourse of force and power and punishment, really take these concepts seriously. Every shot and every line of dialogue could remain exactly the same; it could be fixed in post-production. Black-clad jihadis parade hostages past the window of Ana’s hardware store. Christian’s helicopter is buzzed by Syrian MiG-23s, and as he flies over the city we see a dazzling constellation of explosions flashing in the streets below. Sniper rounds ping off the windscreen as the new Audi blithely swooshes past a rebel checkpoint. And as the couple stand naked before the floor-to-ceiling windows, the city beyond rises up to meet them: Aleppo, the final truth of our era, a thicket of gaunt ruins, concrete crags as lifeless and inhuman as a stranger’s face, drenched in the dust billowing from mortar strikes, coating the world in fifty thousand shades of grey.

The last of the cowboys

Chris Kyle, the most lethal sniper in American military history, died on the 2nd of February, 2013. He’d served four tours in Iraq, been injured twice, involved in six roadside bomb attacks, and killed up to two hundred and fifty-five people; Islamist insurgents had offered a reward of $80,000 for his head, but when he died it was at the Rough Creek Lodge and Resort, an elegant ranch-style resort offering fine dining and a spa, plus a pool and tennis courts, an unremarkable flash of blue and white off Route 67 near Fort Worth, Texas. The man who killed an American icon, Eddie Ray Routh, was another Iraq War veteran; since his discharge he’d been in and out of psychiatric wards, bouncing between a bureaucratic state apparatus that tried to keep him sedated and a bureaucratic family apparatus that just couldn’t understand the horrors he’d lived through. But neither could Chris Kyle. The most lethal sniper in American military history never worried about what he’d done. Every Iraqi he’d killed was an American life saved; his only regret was that he hadn’t killed more people, saved more lives. It was a job, and he was extremely good at it. Afterwards, when he came home, he set about making regular TV appearances and publishing a folksy ghostwritten memoir in which the reader is consistently addressed as y’all, a book that ended up staying on the New York Times best-seller list for 37 weeks. He loved his wife and kids. He made it his mission to keep on saving American soldiers, and he went about it in the only way he knew: he’d take injured veterans out shooting. And then one of them killed him. He never thought that for someone still shaking from the slaughter in Iraq, the best therapeutic option might not be to put a gun back in his hands and let off rifle fire all around him. He never thought that the cure for war could be anything other than war. All this was something America’s greatest killer simply wasn’t capable of understanding.

If Chris Kyle had been killed in Iraq by someone who’d got lucky, or was simply better than him, it would’ve just been part of the general idiocy of war. Instead, he died because of that bullish indifference, the precise same buried trait that made him so successful in combat. Kyle was something somehow more or less than human, a man capable of not just killing without remorse but of laughing about it on Conan O’Brien afterwards. Someone who just couldn’t understand. His death in the flat fields of Erath County, Texas isn’t a strange coda or an anticlimactic end to a life of action; it’s a perfect catharsis, something out of Sophocles, a moment of pure Greek tragedy in the modern age. It’s an incredible story.

So how on Earth was it fucked up so badly?

American Sniper, the Clint Eastwood biopic of Chris Kyle, isn’t just a piece of gratuitous military propaganda; it’s a godawful, artless, bloated, cowardly failure of a film. Defending the abomination he’d created against accusations of propaganda, Eastwood insisted that it isn’t political, but a character study. Except the encounter between Kyle and Routh, the essential character-defining moment of the story, is entirely absent. All we see is Kyle’s wife watch him driving off with a stranger who, as we’re meant to infer from the slow zooming of the camera and the shot’s framing through a crack in the doorway, is somehow evil. Then fade to black, the words Chris Kyle was killed that day by a veteran he was trying to help, and stirring music over real footage of Kyle’s funeral procession. Roll credits. That’s it.

In fact, none of Kyle’s actual character seems to have made it into this character study. The real-life Chris Kyle was a strange and unpleasant man: not just a killer but a liar, a braggart, and a thief. There’s something weirdly childish about him. He said he’d shot thirty armed looters from the top of the New Orleans Superdome in the aftermath of Katrina (despite also boasting of having himself looted from apartments in Iraq), was successfully sued for claiming have knocked out the former politician and wrestler Jesse Ventura in a bar fight, and insisted he’d once effortlessly killed two Mexican carjackers in Texas. His uncle works for Nintendo, and he knows a secret karate move called the Touch of Death, and he totally had sex with all the girls at school, but don’t ask any of them about it, because they’ll only lie. It’s hard to take anything he says seriously. Chris Kyle served in Ramadi and Fallujah: in both cities American forces set up arbitrary no-go zones without any signposts, and shot anyone who stepped outside their homes or took a wrong turn while driving. Residents were afraid to even go near their windows. In Fallujah a sniper was positioned outside a hospital and fired on ambulance crews as they tried to leave. Was it Kyle? Who can say? In his book Kyle never really approaches Iraqis as being fully human, never takes a moment to try to comprehend why the people he kills might resent being occupied by the same empire that starved five hundred thousand of their children to death. It’s because they’re evil, he decides: playground morality. He never wonders what he’d do if a foreign power took over Texas. Your character study’s all here, ready and waiting, but this isn’t the film Clint Eastwood makes.

And then there’s his name: Chris Kyle. There’s always something slightly unsettling about people with two first names (and I say that as someone who is, sonically if not orthographically, among their number). There’s always the potential for a dangerous kind of play, like Yossarian with Irving Washington and Washington Irving. People with two first names can be mirrored, inverted; they always have Gothic doubles or ghostly opposites hanging around them somewhere. Who is Kyle Chris? Obviously someone like Eddie Ray Routh. But Eastwood takes a different approach.

The problem with a character study that refuses to study its subject’s character is that it doesn’t really leave anywhere else to go. Chris Kyle’s real military career was a monotonously brutal series of unconnected killings; day after day of waiting, watching, shooting, without any narrative beyond the scattering of the Iraq War into entropic meaninglessness. One scene illustrates the problem nicely: a car full of insurgents attempt to fire a rocket at an American convoy; the machine-gunners instantly reduce it to bloodied scrap metal. When the forces are so mismatched there’s little scope for narrative tension, but a film needs a plot, so Clint Eastwood invents one. It’s a Western; a cowboy film. Bradley Cooper stars as the grizzled bearded stranger who rides into town with an uncanny knack for straight-shootin’, an inexplicable nonchalance towards murder, and a keen, Godly sense of right and wrong. As the armoured vehicles crawl towards Fallujah, someone says: welcome to the new Wild West of the old Middle East. One of the only aspects of Kyle’s book that Eastwood actually leaves in is his habit of referring to Iraqis – who, let’s not forget, invented irrigation, writing, and the State – as savages: these are Injuns here, warlike and whooping. And any Western needs a shootout: enter Kyle Chris, in the form of Mustafa, an invented Syrian sniper that Kyle faces off against throughout the film, culminating in a gunfight that across the dusty Main Street that is Baghdad’s Sadr City. Our hero draws first. He wins.

It doesn’t work. Nothing works. For a start, American Sniper seems to have been plotted by a wandering amnesiac or a slightly dim child. At first the main villain is ‘the Butcher’, a sadistic and fictional al-Qa’eda enforcer who vanishes from the story midway through and is never captured or heard from again. Kyle’s grisly tours of duty are interspersed with scenes in which he returns to an America of rolling wheatfields and sun-speckled copses, as if he’d briefly ascended to a patriotic Thomas Kinkade version of Heaven. The point might be to introduce pacing, but it ends up turning the story into half-chewed vomit. The action scenes are basically tedious, and in the end the constant gunfire just sounds like someone stepping on bubble wrap. But it fails on more fundamental levels as well. It’s interesting to compare American Sniper with Eastwood’s earlier cowboy adventures, many of which were masterpieces of the anti-Western genre. In Sergio Leone’s films the heroic trick-shooting cowboy of American mythology is transformed into the Man With No Name, someone skidding on the edges between avenging angel and brutally intrusive psychopath. A figure without past or future, only impish wit, venal greed, and silence.

This is a contradiction heightened in High Plains Drifter, one of Eastwood’s first films as a director. A mysterious Stranger rides into town from the mountainous wilds; all he claims to want is a drink and a haircut, but there’s an incredible violence to him, a seething, bodily violence, barely buried. Some local toughs start on him, and he kills them almost effortlessly. But there are also bandits coming for the townspeople, and with their protectors now dead, the Stranger agrees to organise their defence. But the Stranger is a rapist and a glutton, and his brief rule is very strange. He makes a grotesque dwarf called Mordecai the town’s mayor and sheriff; when the enemy approaches he paints all the buildings red and suddenly retreats, allowing the bandits to murder half the townspeople before returning to finish them off. The whole town is guilty, and he’s punished them. As the Stranger rides off again Mordecai comments that he never did know his name. Yes, you do, he says. If you know your masques, your lords of misrule, and your Bulgakov, you do too. It’s the Devil: justice in excess of itself and law as the right of the stronger is the Devil.

American Sniper feels wrong. It’s all hollow; there’s a constant sense of dislocation, like we’re looking at everything from the wrong angle. It wants the blood and brutality of the Stranger or the Man With No Name, only without his strangeness or his namelessness. It wants the Devil of Ramadi, but can’t accept that he might have been a devil. In fact, the opposite: Eastwood relentlessly humanises his hero, showing us all the pain and stress that the real Chris Kyle never suffered. He wants us to like this guy, this mass murderer, to like him unproblematically – because he’s a good guy, a sheepdog. It’s strange: he’s trying to resurrect all the stupid cowboy clichés he and Leone so thoroughly dismantled decades ago. But for all he rides in rodeos and prances around in a big hat, his Kyle isn’t a friendly cowboy. He kills too easily. He kills children. (At the start of the film, our hero kills a child holding a grenade. His mother rushes towards the body – and then picks up the weapon, forcing Kyle to kill her too. She can’t have loved her child, and so the infanticide is justified. In Kyle’s book, it’s just the woman, who he describes as being evil and having a twisted soul for trying the resist a foreign invasion of her home.) So with both poles of the cowboy continuum barred, the role can only escape into the dangerous wilds of the third term. Kyle is the bandit, the invader: Angel Eyes.

It’s still a cowboy film, but there are no great American cowboys any more. Cowboys don’t have helicopter support; they don’t provide covering fire for armoured columns, and no matter how morally ambiguous, they don’t kill kids. But the Man With No Name still rides. Mustasfa, the Syrian in the film, is a clumsy fiction, but he’s based on a real person: Juba, the Baghdad sniper, the terror of the occupiers, the hope of a nation. Unlike Chris Kyle, his TV appearances are grainy and functional. Somewhere in the haze of pixels there’s a soldier on patrol; a thunk, and he drops to the ground. Only occupiers: never Iraqi troops, never civilians. Perhaps Eastwood’s made his most daring deconstruction of the cowboy genre yet – something outwardly terrible, but which encodes another, very different film; one visible only by its negation, by the tiny cracks in the filmic facade. See how Mustafa runs across rooftops and jumps over alleyways, see his split-second moment of domesticity, his wife and infant child, his framed Olympic photo. Mustafa is killed in the film, but Juba never was. Nobody knows his name, nobody knows his face. He is everyone and no-one. He doesn’t talk, he acts. When armed cavalrymen from the West storm the city, when they burst into people’s homes at night and shoot children on the streets, one man makes a stand. The strange and savage invaders have cruise missiles and helicopter gunships; this hero is armed only with a rusting old Russian rifle, a gift for marksmanship, a moral code that’s firm but obscure, and his enduring faith in God. One man against a whole army! Can he survive? But a horse races across the deserts of Anbar province, and a low nasheed mingles with the billowing clouds of dust. Out from the freedom of the open range rides something cruel and strange. Our last best hope. He is the last of the cowboys. He is the American sniper.

Justin Bieber: the aesthetics of destruction

Oh no no, oh no no/ I have come to cast fire upon the earth; and how I wish it were already kindled!
– Justin Bieber, Confident

From left to right: tragedy, farce

I live in fear of Justin Bieber in much the same way that people once lived in fear of God. It’s hard to think of anyone alive that I regard with such terror and fascination and respect. Last week Justin Bieber was hauled in by Miami cops for dragracing, driving under the influence, and resisting arrest. His booking photo shows him grinning at the police camera with a face full of boyish insouciance and a mouth full of Hollywood-white teeth. It’s all a lie. Justin Bieber has the eyes of a predator. Not a shark, not something driven by pure animal need, but a brutally human predator. His eyes are cold – but they’re not dead, they shine with an obscene excess of life. He sees you, and already you disgust him. Justin Bieber wants to put a torch to the world, and he wants to burn up with it.

There are some people (generally in our ghastly po-faced commentariat) who make it their business to moralise about the psychological effect that stardom has on young idols like Bieber, agonising over how they’re broken and abused by a cynical celebrity culture. I find this attitude revolting. These kids have been robbed of everything (a normal life, a normal death), and in return all they get is cold clunking money and the ephemeral fart of fame – but now these altruists want to rob them of their madness too. The same goes for all the celebrity do-gooders trying to leech themselves on Bieber’s misbehaviour. Will Smith, Adam Levine, Mark Wahlberg, Eminem, and Oprah Winfrey have all tried to ‘reach out’ to the child star in a desperate pious attempt to steer him back onto the path of righteousness. A darkly approaching flock of pestilential vultures. They don’t understand Justin Bieber at all; they understand him even less than his fans.

Justin Bieber is, of course, mad. On this point the whimpering columnists are completely correct. The kid can’t post ‘good morning’ on Twitter without ten thousand acolytes screaming their love for him. This kind of adulation has been compared to Beatlemania, but of course it’s completely different. The fans that gathered to greet John, Paul and co. could only be perceived as a single crowd projecting a single piercing din. They belonged to the era of mass social movements; today’s Beliebers are an unending digital stream of individuated bits. Justin Bieber isn’t famous or well-liked; he’s adored and raised to the level of master-signifier by fifty million individual totalities. There’s always a hideous aspect to the desire of the other, a faint putrid taste, born from a lingering infantile resentment towards your own specular image. Nobody wants to see themselves through the eyes of another person, even if it’s as an object of love; to cross the boundary of the subject is to induce the nausea of abjection. Multiply this effect by fifty million. The last people to experience a similar psychological effect to today’s pop stars were the Egyptian pharaohs, and they all went insane and fucked their sisters.

What distinguishes Justin Bieber is the precise trajectory his madness has taken. For all the panic over his bad-boy breakaway antics, they’ve been comparatively quite mild. He left an ill-advised note in the guestbook at the Anne Frank Museum, he pissed in a mop-bucket, he turned up late to a concert, he punched a paparazzo (which is really less a sign of incipient degeneracy and more a general Kantian ethical duty), he insulted Bill Clinton (ditto), he drove a fast car, he egged his neighbour’s house. All in all, it’s more Cliff Richard than Lou Reed, barely worth a footnote in the annals of celebrity libertinage. I used to think that Justin Bieber was slowly descending into a hedonistic death-spiral and that we’d get to watch the whole grimly compelling tragedy play out live before our captive eyes. I was wrong. Everything he does is very carefully contrived: he’s engaged in a performance of hedonism, a self-conscious parody of excess. He’s writing the narrative for his own self-immolation, because it’s what he wants.

What kind of story is Justin Bieber trying to tell? There’s something very 19th century about him; for all his synthesised backing tracks he seems to have stepped right out of the dawning of modernity. His pseudo-hedonism isn’t a product of teenage rebellion and surging narcissism but a total and all-encompassing boredom. At the age of nineteen he’s been a global phenomenon for six years; he knows how little this world has to offer him. He’s a tubercular nihilist, a hero of Charles Baudelaire or Ivan Turgenev. Like Bazarov in Fathers and Sons he seems weary of his own pleasures: the blood circulates, the brain works and even desires something as well… What sheer ugliness! What sheer nonsense! The narrative he’s so  diligently crafting has as its purpose the aestheticisation of his omnicidal ennui. Justin Bieber has a hunger, but it’s not a hunger for life; rather the hunger of a life beyond its bounds. He’s the first pop star to stand on the summit of his fame and bellow: I want less! There is too much of everything, complains Chremylos in Aristophanes’ Plutus. Justin Bieber will set this right. What he wants isn’t more fame or more money or more fun: pointless, boring trifles for lesser men. He wants beauty, which is the most dangerous thing of all.

The story goes that Minos, king of Crete, faced a challenge to his rule, and asked the god Poseidon for a sign of his favour. In response, Poseidon sent a beautiful white bull out of the waves, such an exemplar of bovine perfection that the ancient writers often spend most of their account rhapsodising about its gloriousness. The proper thing would have been for Minos to have slaughtered the bull at once and carbonise its body in tribute to the god that gifted it to him. Instead he decided to keep it. Poseidon had his revenge: he had the king’s wife Pasiphae become so entranced by the beast that she actually fucked it; the result was the legendary Minotaur of Knossos. The moral of the story is clear: the true beauty of things lies in their destruction. Let them carry on for too long, and they’ll create monsters. I don’t know if Justin Bieber ever heard the story of King Minos, but he certainly seems to understand it.

Justin Bieber is, of course, a fascist. Like Yukio Mishima, he wants to turn his death into a work of art; unlike Mishima he has no Emperor to be his unwitting patron. All he has is himself, and his fans, and his boredom – his is a pure fascism, unattached to any political project. This is why I can’t help but admire him: he’s refined radical Evil into something weightless and infinitely potent. Fifty million people follow Justin Bieber on Twitter, a number that dwarfs the combined force of every military on the planet. This is the way the world ends: not with a bang or a whimper, but with a swaggering bassline that cracks the bedrock of the continents and a billowing autotuned vocal track that sends them plunging into the fires at the centre of the world.

Defying Gravity

The new film Gravity does something quite brave: it doesn’t make space beautiful. We all have an idea of what outer space should look like: all those vast pink and blue nebulae draped in purple stars, swirling at the slow pace of cosmic infinity into (of course) phallic or pudendal forms. Space has gas clouds and supernovae and green-skinned alien babes and, quite possibly, God. At the same time we know that the sublime images we get from NASA are all in false colours; that for all the fascinating things in it (and there are plenty of them), most of space itself is actually quite boring as far as our libidinal imaginations are concerned. It’s a dead black void scattered with a few dead grey rocks, and they crash into each other according to a precise mathematical senselessness. But in our fiction, at least, we can have it all: black holes, asteroid fields, c-beams glittering in the dark near the Tannhäuser Gate. Not for Alfonso Cuarón; he’s got a real pedant’s eye for this stuff. The Earth is beautiful in Gravity, its clouds burning orange as the line of sunset crosses its surface, its cities shining in the night like diamonds on a lace – but space beyond its orbit is just a cold dark nothing. There’s only one shot that throws a sop to our aestheticised vision of the universe: our hero drifts out briefly into the void, and we see her framed against a galaxy of stars – but even here it looks washed out and anaemic; a semi-skimmed Milky Way. No grandeur, just emptiness. It’s incredibly impressive.

Cuarón does something else that’s pretty extraordinary: in a film where every shot and effect is fine-tuned to perfection, he’s managed to craft a plot that’s entirely unremarkable, dialogue so corny as to border on the emetic, and characters who might be floating in infinitely extended space but are entirely lacking in any depth themselves. It’s strange. In Y Tu Mamá También and Children of Men Cuarón showed that he’s every bit as capable a writer as he is a director, but the plot in Gravity hugs so closely to genre that you can pretty much work it all out from the trailer (if you can’t, look away now). There’s a disaster in space; Sandra Bullock and George Clooney are cast adrift; he dies heroically saving her life; she has a crisis of confidence but then looks inside herself to find the strength that she needs to survive, and ends up setting foot once more on the friendly soil of Earth. Along the way there’s some seriously embarrassing dialogue (“Will you pray for me? Nobody ever taught me how”) and a seemingly unnecessary backstory about the death of Bullock’s young daughter in lieu of any actual characterisation. It’s interesting that Clooney’s space fratboy – for all the wacky stories he half-relates – never has his emotional past strip-mined in the same manner; clearly the psychological depths of hysteria are still only to be plunged by women. In this really excellent post at Wasted Ideology the dodgy gender politics of the film are thoroughly taken apart, and the result isn’t pretty: in the end, even a disaster film in space needs to continually reaffirm ‘the centrality of love and family to everyone’s experience, weak women and strong men.’

This doesn’t mean that there’s not room for some significance in the film: after all, it has all that terrifying empty space gnawing at its periphery. The psychotherapist Aaron Balick gives an interesting reading, in which the repeated motif of ‘letting go’ (including in the film’s tagline) and the subject of Bullock’s lost daughter is read against Freud’s Mourning and Melancholia, turning the film into a psychological parable:

For Freud, the refusal to let go results in the person holding onto the lost other inside one’s self. So long as the lost person remains psychologically inside the self, they can never be properly mourned (or let go of) and nothing can ever take its place. Furthermore, it is a constant drain on the life energy as it is pulled inwards towards the lost object, and not available to go outwards into to the world; it operates like an internal black hole. When Dr. Stone [Sandra Bullock] decides to give up hope, this is a giving up of her relationship to the world. In a sense, it is an (unconscious) choice to abandon the real world and to be sucked into the endless chasm of depression induced self-involvement: to literally let go of the world and collapse in upon the self and die. She shuts off the oxygen in her pod awaiting her death, when the spectre of Matt [George Clooney] comes to snap her out of it (a representation from her unconscious). It is he (whom she has refused to let go before) that guides to towards the what she has lost, not just the whom, to use Freud’s words. He brings the unconscious part of her loss to consciousness. He essentially says, “your daughter is dead, you are not, you can choose life.”

Letting go, yes – but something of a Leninist approach is needed here: letting go into what? There’s something crucial in Mourning and Melancholia that’s missing in this approach; Freud’s text isn’t a self-help guide. Freud describes melancholia as a turning of the ego against itself – ‘the patient represents his ego to us as worthless, incapable of any achievement and morally despicable; he reproaches himself, vilifies himself and expects to be cast out and punished.’ What’s interesting is that Freud doesn’t necessarily disagree: the melancholic patient isn’t delusional, he probably is worthless, his sickness is that he’s lacking the narcissistic delusions that let most people ignore this fact and go about their days as normal. Freud connects this falling-away of delusions with the loss of a desired object (this loss isn’t necessarily death, but a rejection or disappointment) that the ego continues to strongly attach itself to. It’s not just a simple matter of ‘letting go’ of a loved one – the point is that the ego directs its hatred against itself because it unconsciously hates that same object of desire, but still identifies with it too strongly to express that hate. When you love someone, that other person becomes something of a master-signifier; the point around which your entire life and subjectivity gains meaning. It’s an impossible task; in the end we’re all just bags of flesh and offal, and loving someone is a terrible thing to impose on them. When that person inevitably fails to be perfect, it’s felt as a loss and a betrayal. Hatred results; if you love someone, you can’t help but hate them at the same time. Sometimes you can manage that hatred, but if you’re really in love, full of fire and passion, all your hatred is turned inwards on yourself, and the only way to recover from this is to admit to yourself how you actually feel. Letting go isn’t Sandra Bullock finally managing to move past the death of her daughter and value her own life. It’s a furious exclamation: fuck her, fuck her for dying; how could she do that to me? Letting go means floating off alone into the seething blackness of space.

You let go into empty space, but space always carries meaning. Since Kant we’ve known that spatiality isn’t an objective prior substance in which things exist but something that we create when we conceive of relations between objects. In A Thousand Plateaus, Deleuze and Guattari posit two modalities of space: the smooth and the striated. Smooth space is intensive nomad space, in which ‘the point is between two lines;’ striated space is the extensive space of the State, in which ‘the line is between two points.’ Felt is smooth; woven cloth is striated. Earth orbit in Gravity is a heavily striated space; movements are always made between fixed positions. We go to the shuttle, and from there to the ISS, and from there to the Chinese station; as Bullock tumbles into the void Clooney tries to fix her line of flight through reference to points. What can you see? Can you see the shuttle? Can you see the moon? However, as Deleuze and Guattari point out, the two forms of space are always in a dialectic: farmers put up walls and pastoralists tear them down. At the beginning of the film there’s a catastrophe: an anti-satellite missile test goes horrible wrong and suddenly a deadly tide of debris is circling the planet at lethal speed. Now every fixed point must be considered in terms of its relation to that moving line. Striated space comes with all the blockages of bourgeois subjectivity – the nation-state, the family unit, the Oedipal triangle – and, of course, Bullock only survives in the film by upholding these striations. She doesn’t let go, she doesn’t admit that she hates her dead daughter, she keeps on going to preserve her melancholic attachment, to carry on affirming that desire is a lack. But there’s another way.

The Earth is beautiful in Gravity. Space isn’t beautiful, but it is smooth, a void in which nothing is stable, crisscrossed by tumbling objects and lines of flight. However tightly focused the action is onscreen, it’s always lurking there in the background, a silent rebuke to all the striations arcing up from the planet’s surface. As he floats away to die, Clooney’s character has a choice: he can disappear among the stars, or he can use the last few breaths of fuel in his jetpack to nudge himself in the direction of Earth. After a while, floating will become falling. Gravity will get him. He’ll burn to a crisp, but he’ll do so under the blue skies of home. What would you do? Clooney chooses the stars, and he can do this because he hasn’t been subjected to the same bullshit characterisation as Bullock. The narrative demands that she risk her life re-entering the atmosphere because she’s been thoroughly interpellated as a woman, a grieving mother, and a melancholic. Clooney still has a touch of the everyman about him, and out there in empty space you can approach what Badiou calls the ‘generic.’ You become your own movement. Gender and nation and subjectification mean nothing for a human body spinning powerlessly in the void. In a way, God is out there; the promise of the New Testament is fulfilled: There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither bond nor free, there is neither male nor female: for ye are all one in Christ Jesus. The film can’t endorse it, of course – that’s why it’s only ever presented as a danger – but it’s still haunted by this idea: the communism of outer space.

What we need is a new sort of paintbrush

There aren’t any explanatory cards at the Royal Academy’s Summer Exhibition in London. This doesn’t mean that the viewer is forced to confront the painting on a barren field, with nothing to helpfully and patronisingly mediate between the gaze and the pure image. Instead, there’s a little booklet, in which all the works are listed according to their catalogue number, along with their prices. For those who object to such things, this could be read as a despicable commodification of culture; the work is swallowed whole by its exchange-value, the exhibition is less an art show than a degenerated flea market. As I tend to think art and money are joined at the hip, I found that it could actually be turned into a quite diverting game. This composition in red and black, with the gooseflesh ghost of a human form shimmering unsteadily in one corner – that’s £9,000; you were quite right to like it. On the other hand, this painting, acrylically abstract, its overlapping shapes looking like something you could make in five minutes on MS Paint – it costs £12,000, and you’ve lost this round. Better luck next time.

It’s a favourite pastime of art critics to snobbishly denigrate the Summer Exhibition’s supposed conservatism – even arch-traditionalist Brian Sewell is getting in on the act. It’s true that while many of the works on display are perfectly pleasant, none of them have the force of a punch in the gut, the sudden violence that marks out great art. Instead, wall after wall is crammed with pastiche. Shades of late Picasso, Miró, and Kandinsky dominate. Not that there’s anything wrong with Picasso, Miró, or Kandinsky, and some of these imitations are very well executed – but by being repeated their styles ossify and lose all sense of motion; revolutionary artists are turned into reactionaries. Heidegger thought that art could constitute an opening to the future; but in the Summer Exhibition it seems hopelessly mired in its own past. The saving grace of the exhibition is supposedly Greyson Perry’s series of tapestries. Here there’s more pastiche, this time of Hogarth (in fact, I hazily remember being made to ‘update’ the Rake’s Progress for GCSE Art); the ‘class satire’ is meanwhile very self-consciously clever but depressingly toothless. There’s no better demonstration of the enfeebled nature of pseudosatirical pastiche than the concentration of people hanging round the tapestry that depicts the middle classes, cooing with the joy of an infant looking at itself in the mirror. Yes, we do all read the Guardian, don’t we? And all our food is organic and fairtrade, and we all have therapists; isn’t it brilliant? All this is hardly the fault of the curators, though. Across the river, at the (unstuffy, unconservative) Tate Modern, you can see a grey felt-covered cuboid hanging on a wall with a little card next to it that breathlessly expounds the significance of this ‘box-like object’ – as if a box-like object could be, in the final analysis, anything other than a box. Outside the dust-heavy air of the museum, the best-known British artist is probably – for fuck’s sake – Banksy. Our young revolutionaries are, if anything, even more pathetic than our conservatives; at least our conservatives are aping something genuinely radical.

Not that the situation is hopeless. A small sculpture stood in a room of lithographs. I don’t know its name or that of the artists; it had no red dot or accompanying number; I couldn’t find it in the catalogue. It was as if some gang of guerillas had infiltrated Burlington House at night and left the thing there. A stylised donkey sits on a wooden table, holding a pencil. Turn the wheel: there’s a carefully calibrated creak as its hinges and pistons grate against each other, and it draws another stylised donkey. The pencil shudders along the same route, over and over again. It’s art as artistic criticism: self-portraiture is revealed as a blind mechanical mimesis, the compulsion of made things to repeat their own making. The prints and paintings that surround it are revealed for what they are: they become so many crude pencil sketches of so many mechanical donkeys.

The art of the early twentieth century was so great because the early twentieth century was a time of revolution and possibility, in which art could shamelessly imagine its own future. Our current time is one of reaction, of the hideous mechanised logic of capitalist austerity, in which merely pointing out the mechanical nature of our subjugation passes for a radical act. No wonder, then, that the most profound work at the Summer Exhibition was itself a machine. Maybe if our art isn’t doing what it should, we need a new sort of paintbrush. For a positively articulated vision of the future, you have to look to the outer fringes of the mind. Adorno writes that ‘the sickness of the normal does not necessarily imply as its opposite the health of the sick, but the latter usually only presents, in a different way, the same disastrous pattern.’ As a counterpoint, I’d present the Alternative Guide to the Universe exhibition currently running at the Hayward Gallery. Despite the name, which makes it sound like a weeknight offering from Channel 4, possibly something through which Jimmy Carr will foist himself on the nation, it’s excellent. Among the UFOlogists and selfie-obsessives avant le lettre are some genuinely revolutionary works. What unites the best of them is an overpowering sense of hope. There are few apocalypses or jeremiads; instead, these artists thought they were providing the blueprint for a better world. These worlds sometimes veer uncomfortably towards a kind of techno-fascism – William Scott envisages a day when San Francisco will be ‘cancelled’ and replaced with Praise Frisco, a city of ‘wholesome people’ and ‘wholesome encounters,’ while George Widener’s sketched cityscapes of the future are blighted by perpetual gridlock and architecture that has the faint whiff of Albert Speer about it. Still, there’s Marcel Storr, a deaf and illiterate street sweeper who would come home at night and construct impossibly detailed futuristic cityscapes in pencil and ink, looking like something between a Xanaduan pleasure-dome and Blade Runner; and Body Isek Kingelez, who builds playfully extravagant models for his vision of a new Kinshasa from scrap materials he finds around the city. Also on display is an infectious fluidity, a kind of conceptual synaesthesia, the kind of thing that is so sorely lacking at the Royal Academy. MC Ramellzee re-imagines the alphabet as a fleet of spikily armed starships mounted of skateboards, fighting to liberate letters from the tyranny of language. A.G. Rizzoli (my personal favourite) ‘symbolically sketched’ people he knew as fantastic buildings, so that the local postman becomes a sprawling Renaissance palace, and his mother a fairy-tale cathedral. All these were integrated into his masterplan for a new exhibition-city called Y.T.T.E., or Yield To Total Elation, in which the barriers between human beings and architecture would dissolve.

To call this stuff ‘outsider art’ is, I think, to miss the point entirely. Nobody today calls William Blake an ‘outsider poet’ or Friedrich Nietzsche an ‘outsider philosopher.’ Of course, many of the artists in question were mad, or suffered from developmental disabilities, but, as Adorno suggests, sickness does not exist isolated from the society that contains and creates it. Similarly, Deleuze and Guattari saw schizophrenia as simultaneously being the final result of the logic of capitalism and a productive, revolutionary force that disturbs its operation. It’s not the case that in a society that has abolished its own future only the mad still dream of a better world; rather, actually hoping for anything different itself becomes madness, a madness whose limits are defined by the rigid (im)possibilities of our own impoverished existence. In other words, it’s a madness whose creativity is intrinsically bound up with the regimented sterility of late capitalism, as source and foil. Is a man who builds minutely detailed models from scrap paper and beer cans an obsessional neurotic, a holy lunatic, or a respectable architect? Surely that depends only on whether his models are shown in his own home, in an exhibition such as the Hayward’s, or in the atrium of an architectural practice. If this is insanity, it’s not the seething unreason of the id, but instead rationality made to do things that, by ‘normal’ standards, it’s not supposed to do. Alfred Jensen creates number tables in oil paints, their colours and composition influenced by Indian spirituality and the I Ching; there’s a certain ordered stillness in them not too different from that engendered by a Rothko canvas. Widener believes that in the future superintelligent machines would finally be able to decode the mathematical patterns he discerns in the calender; it’s no surprise to learn that he once worked with US military cryptographers. This is, in its own eccentric way, precisely the health of the sick.

Some critics have taken issue with the exhibition’s name. What’s being presented is not, they claim, an alternate guide to the universe, but a small introduction into another world: the private universe of the unhinged. I don’t agree. We’re being shown a possible future, but as Marx knew, every future is ‘still stamped with the birthmarks of the old society from whose womb it emerges.’ These visions are built on the foundations of the world we all inhabit now; they are the repressed content of our life. All these worlds already exist. Rizzoli, on seeing female genitalia for the first time at the age of forty, immortalised the moment as an immense Art Deco church. So That You Too May See Something You’ve Not Seen Before, he wrote above it. So that we may experience the wonder and strangeness of something which is immanent but hidden. In art as in politics the productive forces are here; we have only to unleash them.

Thanks to Twitter user @HealthUntoDeath for inadvertently providing the title for this piece.

Superman: Man of Steel, or, hot XXX drone-on-drone action

 Spoiler alert: this guy wins in the end.

What is Superman? Everyone knows that Batman is a fascist, a jackbooted Il Duce-style thug who defaces the night sky with his symbol and tries to forge a society of class collaborationism between the haute bourgeoisie and the ‘law-abiding’ sectors of the proletariat. Similarly, it doesn’t take much critical discernment to see shades of postmodern neoliberalism in Iron Man – his world is one of panoptic openness, in which he’s not afraid to let the world know that he is the industrialist Tony Stark and Iron Man is just one of his trademarked brands; meanwhile his deadpan pseudowitticisms bear the mark of contemporary pastiche, what Jameson calls a ‘blank irony’ without referent,  ‘amputated of the satiric impulse, devoid of laughter.’ Aquaman, of course, has unwittingly represented since the 1940s the uselessness of our 21st-century corporate environmentalism. Green Lantern is a Posadist, Thor still speaks for reactionary monarchism; Avocado Woman is the heroine of the recent body-oriented (bio)politics; Fatty Lux symbolises Enlightenment rationality, the Bauxite Band anarcho-syndicalism (although Kaolinite Kid displays some Tuckerite tendencies), PenguinDude3000 a kind of Saint-Simonian utopian communitarianism. But then there’s Superman. What is Superman?

Superman’s mantra of ‘Truth, Justice, and the American Way’ recalls a more honest era, one in which deconstruction was still something you did with hammers and explosives, but all the same there’s a sinister note in there, a faint whiff of something very different from the image of the wholesome all-American hero in his mythos. He carries the mark of the Other. Clark Kent might be from Kansas, but his birthplace is Krypton – a place with four consonants next to each other in its name, a foreign planet that somehow manages to sound just a little Mitteleuropean. The other names that surround him are similarly un-WASP-y: Superman, or in German Übermensch, with its connotations of Nazi-tinged Nietzschean amoralism; the Man of Steel, or in Russian Stalin, who named weakness, idleness and stupidity as the only things that could be called vices; Clark Kent, or in Serbian Slobodan (lit. a low-level office worker) Milošević (a flat, grassy province near Belgrade, analogous to the English county). Whether of the left or the right, there’s something totalitarian about him; we recollect, with a rising nausea, that democracy is not among his tripartite principles. Of course, as Superman’s defenders continually remind us, he was created by two liberal-left Jewish high school kids, the children of immigrants. Hence all the Europeanisms: with their hero Siegel and Shuster packaged up all the neuroses of the shtetl and gave them a red-white-and-blue sheen. He’s not an expression of an all-encompassing class-State complex, but the fantasy of its disenfranchised underlings. Superman is a hero by the nerds, of the nerds, for the nerds. He’s weaponised nebbishness, and that’s exactly what makes him so dangerous. He can’t even be subsumed into the paradigm of healthy American libidinality; with Superman, Bataille’s connection between eroticism and death assumes horrifying proportions. As I watched Zack Snyder’s new Superman film, this year’s Man of Steel, it all started to make sense. Superman isn’t a man at all. His otherness is that of the inhuman. He’s a Predator drone.

We should have seen it from the beginning: he’s a man of steel, a robot. Is it a bird? Is it a plane? Almost, but not quite. The weak gravity of our world lets Superman fly through the stratosphere. He can pinpoint and target anyone on Earth with his X-ray vision, but nobody knows who or where he is. And in the meantime, he maintains a cover, a secret identity. Through this subterfuge, the drone maintains a privileged relationship with the news industry; what’s more, he sometimes even goes so far as to report ‘objectively’ on his own activities. When a drone ejaculates, people die. His is the murderous, cold-blooded victory of the CIA nerds over the jocks of the armed forces. That’s why so many of Superman’s enemies are evil geniuses: it’s not anti-intellectualism, they’re his mirror-images rather than his opposites, they’re encroaching on his turf. At the end of Man of Steel, Superman downs a US spy drone in front of a horrified general. “You can’t find out where I hang up my cape,” he says. So, the drone battles his doubles. But might there not have been, before the crash, a moment of tenderness between the two drones? “I’m sorry,” Superman says as he straddles the unmanned plane. “It’s nothing personal.” His legs clamp like pincers around its shapely fibreglass body and it begins to sink. As it does he can’t help but extend a hand to stroke with surprising delicacy her big bulbous head. His feet hook under her tailfins. So close. Two drones on a single trajectory, becoming their own motion. They’re falling faster now; the shuddering of their descent synchronises with the expertly timed revs of her spluttering engine, sending out warm vibrations that spread through Superman’s body and pool at the base of his torso. She’s getting excited too: her bomb hatch slides open with a metallic click. For the first and last time, both drones have found someone strong enough for them. And so, falling and fucking, the flapping red cape preserving their modesty and the film’s 12A rating, they spin towards the earth.

~

Of course, the main problem with drones is the collateral damage – as I’ve discussed in another post, drones retroactively designate their victims as targets; any male over 16 killed by a drone strike is assumed to be an enemy militant. And in Man of Steel, there’s a lot of collateral damage. At the end of the film Superman kills the evil Zod rather than let him murder a group of terrified humans, but only a few minutes earlier the Man of Steel is shown flinging his enemies through buildings – buildings that could well be full of people – at such high speed that they leave explosions in their wake. The death toll is presumably enormous. In this, he’s following the logic of the drone: all strikes are a priori ‘surgical,’ and the facts on the ground can be altered to fit the image on the computer screen. I’m not alone in noticing this; in the New York Magazine, Kyle Buchanan makes a similar point:

In 1980’s Superman II, […] when Superman knocks a baddie into a building — an act that sends the skyscraper’s spire tumbling towards a crowd of people on the ground — Superman actually halts the fight to grab that spire before it lands, a quaint moment that still reminds us that the lives of innocent citizens are at stake. In Man of Steel, however, the superhero seems mostly unfazed by the people of Metropolis who are surely collateral damage to his big battle; similarly, director Zack Snyder seems to have waved it off. There is no acknowledgement that all of the buildings that are being destroyed might have people in them. It’s a bloodless massacre of concrete, 9/11 imagery erased of its most haunting factor: the loss of life.

Buchanan is right about the 9/11 imagery; the film is overflowing with it. For a good half-hour the screen is filled with footage of skyscrapers in slow balletic collapse, skyscrapers spitting flames as they’re punctured by flying objects, skyscrapers reduced to billowing dust-clouds that pour through gridded streets, characters trapped under the wire and masonry of demolished skyscrapers. This is hardly unique; there’s another 9/11 in Olympus Has Fallen as the Washington Monument vertically collapses on itself; San Francisco meets a similar fate in Star Trek: Into Darkness – but nowhere is it more overt or more seemingly gratuitous. That said, Buchanan doesn’t really attempt to diagnose this trend, he only complains of it – and in an age of consumer culture, this kind of thing would only keep cropping up if people in some way wanted to see it happen. For an explanation, you’ll have to head for the comments section, in which it’s alleged that such scenes are for the benefit of the raving America-haters of the international distribution markets – nicely summing up why you should never read the comments section. Well then, if it’s not that (and it’s definitely not that), then what’s the cause?

Extreme violence is in itself an aesthetic object, but, as Buchanan observes, what we have here is a ‘bloodless massacre.’ One could advance a crude Freudian analysis. Man of Steel is the famous fort-da game writ large, a compulsive repetition and re-repetition of a traumatic event, a neurotic fixation, a recurring image through which the collective psyche tries to expunge the horror of that which actually occurred. You destroyed our buildings, the film says, well guess what – we wanted them destroyed, and we can do it better in representation than you ever could in reality. Of course, the compulsion to repeat exists beyond the pleasure principle, and the apocalyptic blockbuster is entertainment. There’s a visceral pleasure in the images of falling skyscrapers and ruined cities. We could posit a kind of allgemeine Todestrieb, a societal will towards its own violent destruction, manifesting in the sheer pleasure of carnage and atrocity. Maybe there’s even a kind of egalitarian impulse at work, a buried desire to see all the big fancy towers flattened as every mountain is made low. Maybe we all secretly want to be castrated.

None of this is quite sufficient. The answer is elsewhere. Man of Steel has received some flak for its epidemic of product placements (its brand partners brought in $160m before the film was even released) – as if we’re not all prostitutes, critics and commentators more so than anyone. This product placement takes something of an unusual form, though. The International House of Pancakes shelled out a presumably hefty sum for its recurring appearances in the film, but rather than showing Clark Kent chowing down on a hefty stack of syrup-glazed goodness, we instead see one of IHOP’s fine establishments systematically destroyed by two duelling aliens. They want us to buy their pancakes, so they show us a bunch of pancake-eating patrons being interrupted and (possibly) killed by superbeings from beyond the stars. Why? Like all brands, IHOP doesn’t just want our money, it wants – it needs – our loyalty and, most of all, our love. But love is something fiery and unpredictable; it can burn you up, reduce you to tears and ashes. If you really love something, in some small but present way you want to see it destroyed, you want to be there as it slips into the void – and the International House of Pancakes knows this. And so we’re thrilled by the destruction of our cities, because we love them. And so Superman, heaving the drone from the vaunted empyrean of the infinite gaze down to an earthy extinction, whispers three short words into its listening device as he snaps his red undies back on. “I love you,” he says. And then it dies.

Why George W Bush is the greatest living painter

Political violence is the continuation of art by other means. Wherever there are shock troops marching in the streets or big pyres of burning books or the sounds of mysterious gunfire near the parliament building at night, you can bet that behind it all flutters the soul of a sensitive young boy who always wanted to be an artist. Brutishness is easy; anyone can commit an atrocity in the right conditions. Violence requires a highly rarefied aesthetic sensibility.

Painters carry out wars of aggression. They’re in love with the image of things. Poets go for internal ethnic cleansing. The word must be properly spoken. Prose writers like revolutionary terror. The text is radically open. There have been fewer dictators from the other arts, but we could extrapolate. Photographers make good use of death squads; the gaze and the judgement are united in the click of a shutter. Sculptors are big on mass internment; the body is always already buried in the rock. Playwrights tend towards bureaucracy, musicians to exemplary massacre, film-makers to redistributive looting. Lenin and Mussolini wrote prose. Stalin, Mao and Ho Chi Minh were poets. Saddam Hussein wrote poetry alongside his anonymous novels. Churchill was a painter. Hitler was a painter, but he penned a few verses as well. George W Bush is a painter.

 This is the void. A line of detainees goes in, shackled, shuffling along in orange jumpsuits. Paintings of dogs come out. Nobody knows exactly what happens inside, or if they do, they don’t say.

George W Bush has produced fifty paintings of dogs. For every drone strike he ordered, he has produced one painting of a dog. For every round of golf he played while in the White House, he has produced two paintings of a dog. For every million Americans left unemployed at the end of his administration, he has produced five paintings of a dog. George W Bush has produced one painting of a dog for every thirteen US soldiers killed in Afghanistan during his Presidency, one painting of a dog for every hundred Palestinians killed by the IDF, and one painting of a dog for every two thousand, two hundred and thirty-seven civilians killed in Iraq since the invasion. Bush’s art teacher told reporters that he would go down in history as a great artist. I think she’s right.

There have been a couple of critical pieces on Bush’s paintings, and they all ask the same question: what do these paintings tell us about George W Bush’s inner life, or his psychology, or his presidency? They’ve all got it arse-backwards. If you follow that line you’ll only ever end up with trite reductive analogies. The running water represents Hurricane Katrina, or Bush’s need to atone for his crimes, or his fear of death; it’s a vaguely amusing parlour game, but not much more. If you want to know the truth, there’s no point looking at Bush’s self-portraits. You have to look at his paintings of dogs. The real question is: what do George W Bush’s dog paintings tell us about contemporary society? What do George W Bush’s dog paintings tell us about violence? What do George W Bush’s dog paintings tell us about art?

Imagine a creature from another world, something impossibly old and infinitely curious. Drifting between silent stars, she picks up a single stray transmission from an unknown planet in an uncharted backwater of the Milky Way. A picture of a dog. If our alien has eyes to see, she’ll be able to extrapolate our entire world from George W Bush’s painting of a bichon frisé on a blue background. A hierarchical class society looks out from its sad round eyes, capital accumulation can be inferred from the downwards tilt of its mouth, its outstretched paws tell you everything you need to know about the long slow decline of the nation-state. Most of all, though, our history is inscribed in the featureless blue plane on which the dog reclines. In fact, it’s swarming with tiny figures: child miners coughing dust, factory workers plunging from rooftops, women with acid scars bursting across their faces, people who wake up shaking from the bombs going off in their dreams, people who wake up shaking from the bombs going off in their ears. A society capable of producing that shade of blue leaves a lot of bodies in its wake.

Spend enough time looking at George W Bush’s paintings of dogs and it all starts to make sense. The war in Iraq was little more than the geopolitical expression of kitschy sentimentality. Imperialist universalism is the logic of the dog painting extended to nations and peoples. Radical evil is the weaponisation of bad taste. We’ll be greeted as liberators: of course we will, we love our dogs. History is on our side: of course it is, we like nice things. Our war will usher in a new age of peace and stability in the region: of course it will, we leave bright colours in our wake. George W Bush’s paintings of dogs represent a new height in Western society’s struggle to decouple art from violence. (This is why his nude self-portraits are all in bathrooms: only in the cleansing ritual is nudity non-erotic, and eroticism is after all only another form of violence.) It’s an impossible task. Violence and art are inseparable; the more you try to scrub the canvas clean of everything not clean and pleasant, the more hideous it becomes, the heavier the rain of bombs.

That’s why George W Bush is our greatest living painter. Nothing expresses more clearly the horror of existence than the most hated man in the world’s loving portrait of his dog. More than any gloomy conceptualist, Bush gives us the truth, the undisguised omnicidal violence of the nice and friendly. His paintings of dogs point towards the one subject all other contemporary art shies away from: the final extinction of the human race. Bright eyes and wagging tails, cities in ruins and skies scorched black. Art kills.

Art, money, beauty, shit, representation, the communal

א In Der Ursprung des Kunstwerkes, Martin Heidegger attempts to account for and justify the phenomenon of modern art. While maintaining his own somewhat conservative tastes, he claims that modern art possesses autonomous value – despite its production requiring no evident skill or virtuosity, despite its challenge to conventional aesthetics pushing it into the realm of outright ugliness, despite its lack of any identifiable object of representation, despite it being entirely counter to the prevailing contemporary sensibility. This is, he concludes, because it contains an element of aletheia: clearing, or unconcealment; it is unpopular in the present because it speaks to the future; it has its origin in its own future. We are now in Heidegger’s future – Der Ursprung des Kunstwerkes was first published in 1950 – and his prediction seems to have manifested itself. The challenges of modernism have become the dogmas of postmodernism; what was revolutionary has become institutionalised; what was vital has ossified. Artists parade an unending succession of mundane objects in front of us – is this art? Is this art? How about this? – and with every degree of separation from Duchamp the question steadily loses its power. Art has become solipsistic. And while Heidegger could see an unknowable future prefigured in art’s setting-into-work of Truth, the postmodern bonfire of the metanarratives has obliterated the future, replacing it with a terminal self-reference. Something, somewhere, has been lost.

1.1 There’s a simple answer to Heidegger: he’s ignored the position of art in the commodity market. Contemporary art is given value not because of its intrinsic qualities but precisely because anything that calls itself art is a good store for value. Art is an excellent investment, its use-value hovering in a zone of indistinction between infinity and zero, its exchange-value untouched by the turbulence of the market. Unlike oil or wheat or subprime mortgage derivatives, the price of art is invulnerable to fluctuations in supply and demand. Some of the greatest works of art ever produced lie unseen in safety deposit boxes; meanwhile, subjecting art to the cold logic of the commodity, corporate investors ensure the production of facile, anodyne artworks of ever-increasing value and ever-decreasing worth.

1.2 I find this line of argument entirely unconvincing. Before the age of corporate-funded art, it was financed by usurers and robber barons; before that by monarchs and aristocrats, before that by the Church, before that by the temple-State complex. Shakespeare called his group of actors the King’s Men for his patron, James I. Virgil’s Aeneid was a paean to Augustus. (While in Broch’s The Death of Virgil his dying command to burn the manuscript is the basis for a denunciation of State art, there’s little to suggest that such concerns were particularly prevalent at any time before the 19th Century, let alone the classical period.) Because the work of art tries to touch on something essential and immutable outside of the relations of production, because  its value is distinct from that of the money-economy, it is always forced to parasite itself off the exploiters of those same social relations.

1.2 Art and money are more than just joined at the hip: they’re joined at the anus. Freud famously formulated the equation money = shit, with miserliness being a mature manifestation of infantile anal eroticism; meanwhile, the production of shit is the first expression of creativity, the first instance of the subject creating something external to themselves to be admired. The anus is a Deleuzian machine, channeling and cutting off a single flow: a flow that appears as money on one side of the anus-machine and as art on the other.

1.3 The intimate connection between art and money is demonstrated by their shared origin. Marx notes that the currency-form has its root in ‘the sensuous splendor of precious metals.’ It is from this sensuousness that money develops the fetishistic power to transform ‘imagination to life, imagined being into real being’ – in Heideggerian terms, to effect the self-disclosure of Being. In other words, money performs the exact same function as art. Wherever the currency-form arises, the money-commodity is always something possessing a sensuous beauty: gold and silver, cowrie shells, beads, brass rods, sandalwood. It’s not just their value was seen to inhere because of their beauty: the money-commodity was always that which was used to adorn the body – a practice universal in human cultures and unique to them. Here is where the rupture between money and art can be found: the raw material of money is spectacular and beautiful, while art, by contrast, is built out of the base and the mundane. Early painters used pigments made from mud, blood, and shit. Sculptors used rock, earth, and bone. Poets and playwrights, mere words. Heidegger is correct when he identifies as an essential element of the work of art its thingliness, its grounding in the Earth, its existence as an object known to ‘cargo-carriers or cleaning ladies in the museum.’ The work of art is not the beautiful object; it never has been. Money is that which is used for adornment and enjoyment, the foundational purpose of art is entirely distinct from any sense of the aesthetic. In producing art that contradicted the prevailing sense of the beautiful, the Modernists weren’t defying art’s conventions but reaching back to its roots.  Money with its baseness doesn’t disturb the spirituality of art; rather with its spirituality it disturbs art’s baseness.

2.1 If art isn’t the beautiful, if the beautiful is disruptive to art, what differentiates it? It could be argued that the purpose of art is to be a ‘mirror held up to nature’; that the present condition has its roots in the movement of the Impressionists away from a truthful representation of the thing as it is towards the thing as it is perceived. A piece of art that doesn’t form an image of something isn’t an artwork at all. It’s just pigment of a canvas or a heap of atoms, as useless as it is meaningless.

2.2 I don’t think this is the case either. Modernism’s deliberate abstraction and rejection of the representational isn’t really anything new at all. When medieval artists depicted soldiers standing as tall as the walls they laid siege to, when they placed human figures in a spatial field without regard for pose or perspective, when they depicted Christ being crucified by Roman soldiers in knightly armour, it wasn’t from any lack of knowledge or skill. Much of the fiercely naturalistic art and sculpture of the classical period was still around: medieval art is deliberately stylised, its ultimate point of reference being not the external world but artistic conventions. Medieval art abounds in mise en abyme, representations of the work of art within the work of art itself, generally in a highly stylised form: artists of the period might not have produced works that were directly representative, but they were keenly aware of the question of representation and its problems and opportunities.

2.3 In fact, art itself implies self-reference. Pure representation has always had a magical quality to it: early drawings of animals were believed to summon the game to the hunting-grounds or functioned as objects of worship. In monotheism, the act of representation, as a sort of second-order creation, is a blasphemy. The image always threatens to come alive: it is for this reason that the God of the Old Testament forbids the creation of ‘any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth.’ Only when the image is tempered with self-reference and self-consciousness of its position as a piece of art does this magical power dissipate. Pure abstraction is not therefore the antithesis of art, but art in the fullest sense.

3.1 This primordial magical quality is essential, however, if art is to find its way out of its current situation. In a sense, Plato’s assertion that art is a second-order imitation is correct, but it’s not the natural world that art refers to. In The Birth of Tragedy, Nietzsche describes how the theatre of ancient Greece has its origins in Dionysian rites later softened by the influence of the Apollonian Kunsttrieb. This principle holds true for all forms of art: sculpture and painting originally provided objects of ecstatic religious veneration, music and song were used to induce frenzy. The art of today is a shadow of these practices, but some of its power is retained. Schopenhauer’s belief in the power of art to suspend the rotation of the wheel of Ixion is well-founded, but this requires not individual contemplation but communal transcendence. It is precisely this quality that is missing in contemporary art. To reinvigorate art it is not necessary to reintroduce standards of aesthetic beauty, nor to return to the principle of artistic self-expression (as I discuss here), nor to reconnect it with the natural world as opposed to the artistic milieu. Art needs to return in some way to the communal.

3.2 As for how this is to be done, we’ll have to wait and see.

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