Idiot Joy Showland

This is why I hate intellectuals

Category: Visual Arts & Aesthetics

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.

Forget Orwell

obama-orwell

Monday of last week marked the first annual George Orwell Day, seeing Penguin’s rerelease of several of his books, mass giveaways of his essay Politics and the English Language, and the launch of an Orwell season on BBC radio. (Purely by coincidence, it was also ‘blue Monday’ – the day calculated by to be the most depressing of the year.) For a supposedly radical writer, Orwell fits very comfortably into the cultural mainstream. Certainly it’s easy to claim that Orwell’s been hijacked by the political Right – witness the countless chiding voices from the Left reminding those that hold up the Obama administration as a prophecy fulfilled or recommend Animal Farm as an education for naive socialists that Orwell was, in fact, actually, despite what you might think, incredible though it may seem, something of a leftie himself. Was he actually, though? Now that Orwell’s been thoroughly assimilated into the ideological state apparatuses, it’s time to ask if there’s really much left over. To be honest, there’s not a lot. Here’s why.

1: Nineteen Eight-Four misses the point entirely.

I’ll start with the big one. There are two main criticisms of the dystopian society presented in Nineteen Eighty-Four: firstly, it’s impossible, and secondly, it already exists. These aren’t quite as contradictory as they appear.

The society in the novel is an absolute tyranny, a warning (not, as we’re continually reminded, a prediction) of the horrific consequences of absolute power and its ability to completely dominate both the individual human and the entire world. This Orwellian-Arendite dogma needs to be challenged. So-called ‘totalitarian’ societies are in fact defined not by their totalising discourses but by their utter failure to exert such a monopoly. Totalitarianism is a state of vulnerability: the paranoid totalitarian state continually affirms its own weakness. It is beset by saboteurs or contaminated with impure races; it is situated in opposition to a political Other with which it must maintain a constant dialogue (albeit one of repression); it depends, utterly and openly, on the support of the faithful masses. (Really, Arendite totalitarianism should be considered not as a social form but as a tactic.) The Orwellian society simultaneously projects an image of fragility (bombing its own citizens, inventing a political Other in the form of Emmanuel Goldstein) and an image of strength (orders are barked from screens, Big Brother is everywhere, sexuality is confined, reality itself is moulded to its rulers’ will).  Such a society wouldn’t last two minutes: in its crude parody of authoritarianism it could never admit that the source of its continuation lies in the faith of its populace, despite such an admission being absolutely essential for its operation.  This is why, for instance, present-day dictatorial societies are in general far more likely to yield to popular pressure on matters of policy. It’s precisely because such governments are not constrained by judicial, constitutional or electoral limits to their power that they have to listen very carefully to the voice of the street: if they ignore it too much, they lose all legitimacy. Democratically elected governments, meanwhile, already have their legitimacy in the ritual of the vote; they are entirely unbounded; they can ignore millions of marchers or break up protest camps with disproportionate force, and when challenged, they have an undeniable excuse: well, you voted for us.

This is where the impossibility of Nineteen Eighty-Four meets its pre-existence. We do, in fact, live in a society where discourse is totalised and panopticism is embedded in the structure of everyday life. Dictatorial societies must engage with their Other; in liberal society the political Other is pathological or an aberration, it can be rectified through the use of military violence but is never engaged with. A constrictive discourse of rights, freedoms, limitations, and above all of choices is maintained far more subtly than any Newspeak because the violence that underpins its operation is not an overt one. The panoptic gaze that fixes and individuates us is everywhere, but rather than watching for forbidden activity, it commands us to enjoy. When it comes to subsuming libidinal flows, the pornographic commodification of sexuality functions more efficiently than the Junior Anti-Sex League.

The root of the problem here is Orwell’s conception of power as something that is held and wielded by a group or individual. It’s not: power is a field, it’s decentred, something that can only be directed; that’s what makes it so pernicious. In the medieval period the field of power was fractal, with the feudal and family units replicating royal sovereignty; in this manner its structure was able to be continually reproduced. In liberal capitalism it is decentred; this is another defence mechanism. In the panopticon the exercise of power is both universally supervised and universal in its reach; there is no Big Brother, just everyone else. Improper attitudes aren’t punished, they’re medicalised; the patient turns herself in, there’s no need for rats, and the administrator of the cure can believe that she’s doing the right thing.

Displacing the panoptic and discourse-totalising elements of contemporary society onto an imagined ideal totalitarian state means that these aspects are relegated to the Outside of contemporary politics. It is precisely because of this that paranoiacs of all shades can see the incipient elements of a Nineteen Eighty-Four-style tyranny manifesting themselves in our society: totalitarianism is evident in security cameras, in government jargon, in detention without trial. The Orwellian society is one that we might move towards, it is not something that is already there. Not that these aren’t valid concerns, but they’re the accoutrements of totalitarianism, not its content. Our present society can’t exert despotic power, Nineteen Eighty-Four tells us, not until the government starts rationing food and banning sex.

2: Animal Farm is pretty awful and Trotskyism isn’t much good either.

Admittedly, the most glaring problem with Animal Farm isn’t so much the text itself as the way it’s entered the literary canon. It’s a staple of the GCSE curriculum in the UK, and seems to be just as prevalent in America. Nothing wrong with that, except for the fact that it’s not presented as a historical document embodying a certain political attitude, but both as allegorical literature representing universal themes and as an accurate history of the Russian Revolution. It’s no such thing. Animal Farm is, avowedly and openly, a Trotskyite polemic, a political pamphlet.

The text has its own problems – the lack of a Lenin-figure, for instance, or any allegorical representation of the Civil War – but it’s this Trotskyism that lies at the root of its easy integration into the educational apparatuses of ideology. Trotskyism shouldn’t really be considered as a branch of Marxist thought in the proper sense. Rather, it’s a symptom. Trotskyism represents simultaneously the elevation of the October Revolution to a world-historical moment and the disavowal of every subsequent attempt at building socialism. Trotskyites like the idea of revolution – which is why they make every effort to turn 1917 into an abstract ideal – but they don’t much like any of its ‘perverted’ aftereffects. Trotskyism means keeping the revolution pure and unsullied by historical reality, turning it into a dinner party.

Trotsky himself is really incidental to all this. His actual deeds and policies are irrelevant; he’s only a master-signifier for anti-Stalinism. Needless to say, this is all profoundly anti-materialist: despite their attempts to effect a materialist analysis of Stalinism as ‘bureaucratic state capitalism,’ the jargon really just disguises a complaint: ‘if my guy had won out, everything would have been so much better!’ – with the unspoken caveat that this can never be anything other than a conditional, that Trotsky represents nothing more than the guy who didn’t win out. As such Trotskyism raises the cult of personality to its apotheosis: it’s pure personality-cult, based on a ‘pure’ personality, defined entirely negatively, a personality that can gain universal relevance through avoiding any particular affirmation.

It should be remembered that after he consolidated his power, Stalin actually put most of Trotsky’s ‘far-left’ policies into practice, collectivising agriculture and focusing on the rapid development of heavy industry in the five-year plans. None of this is to say that the excesses of Stalinism should not be critiqued; the point is that the Trotskyite critique lacks any substantive foundation. Imagine a counterfactual: if Trotsky had won the Soviet power struggle, expelling Stalin and extending the violence of War Communism into peacetime, would present-day Trotskyites have affiliated themselves with his period in power? Of course not. They’d be calling themselves Stalinists.

You can see this in Homage to Catalonia: Barcelona under the Anarchists and the POUM is described as ‘real socialism,’ pure and unsullied. Why? Because they were crushed. Any successful socialist project is inherently untrustworthy; ‘real socialism’ is that which is crushed. This is why Animal Farm lends itself so easily to anti-Communist interpretation. The only pig-character not at fault – including Snowball, the Trotsky-surrogate – is Old Major, representing Karl Marx, who dies before the Revolution. While Napoleon demonstrates his evil by drinking the communal milk, his evil is on an axis with Snowball’s speechmaking and political organising; despite their internal differences the pigs are for the first few pages presented as a coherent bloc. Class divisions inhere; socialism is ultimately a quixotic endeavour. In other words, Trotsky himself is guilty of the Trotskyite original sin: he actualised revolutionary ideology.

3. Politics and the English Language is utterly repulsive.

Really it’s not the whole essay I want to take issue with, but this helpful list right near the end:

  1. Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.
  2. Never use a long word where a short one will do.
  3. If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.
  4. Never use the passive where you can use the active.
  5. Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word, or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.
  6. Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous.

There’s a great line in Godard’s film La Chinoise: ‘We are not the ones using obscure language; it’s our society, which is hermetic and closed up in the poorest of languages possible.’ Orwell’s rules, more than those of anyone except perhaps Strunk and White, have impoverished the English language. They’ve become entrenched: creative writing programmes encourage their students to righteously purge their works of any adjectives or adverbs, contemporary literature has become a sullen grey plain of terse mediocrity. Why shouldn’t we use long words? Why shouldn’t we use more words than is strictly necessary? Why not enrich our works with language from around the world and throughout the span of human knowledge? Orwell has his answer: without poetic language it would be impossible for politicians to mislead people. Any cursory reading of the grimly matter-of-fact reportage that surrounds the ongoing drone war would be enough to bring that into question. Nonetheless, he has something of a point: it would be hard for a dictatorship to survive under his rules; the same goes for anything approaching literature. Orwell is not a great stylist. He communicates himself through language well enough, but to reduce the incredible power of language to its capacity to convey a series of statements – in the name of combating totalitarianism, no less – is to rob it of everything that makes it valuable. It’s barborous. And so, by Orwell’s sixth law, the others should be immediately discarded.

4. Time for a purge.

There’s plenty more to be said, I’ve barely scratched the surface. John Dolan has an excellent piece on Orwell’s racism, classism and anti-Catholicism. It shouldn’t be forgotten that he wrote a blacklist of ‘crypto-communists’ working in the media for the British Foreign Office, or that the dissemination of his books was encouraged by imperialist intelligence agencies. Above all, however, the problem with Orwell is not that he was a writer who collaborated with oppressive forces or held incorrect or prejudicial opinions – there have been plenty of those; some are very good – but the extent to which he’s wormed himself in to the general understanding. To understand totalitarianism, you must read Nineteen Eighty-Four, and end up with an entirely distorted view of what State power is and how it functions. As an introduction to Soviet history, we’re given Animal Farm, and a partisan screed is enshrined as a true historical fable. And, God knows why, but being a writer still means being held to the standard of Politics and the English Language, and the blandly awful fiction being produced today speaks for itself. It’s time to rid ourselves of this toxic influence – maybe only temporarily, so that afterwards we can go back to Orwell without the figure of Orwell weighing down on us. It’s interesting that this year’s Orwell Day was held not on the anniversary of the writers birth, but that of his death. Perhaps Orwell Day should mark the day that he can finally be laid to rest.

9/11 & the Burkean sublime

My year studying literature at UCLA was academically pretty satisfying. Without having to follow any structured degree course, I was free to abandon actual literary works altogether and indulge myself reading obtuse Continental theorists. Most importantly, the grades I received didn’t impact my overall degree, which allowed my work to sometimes veer away from strict academic tone (I referred to Shakespeare as ‘Shakey P’ throughout one paper) and into areas of questionable bad taste, as in the essay below, which I’m posting in commemoration/memoriam of yesterday’s anniversary. I’m not sure if I agree with everything I’ve written; certainly not with the rather Arendtite equivalency I appear to be drawing between Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union – but I rarely fully agree with anything I write, even the stuff  that I put up on this thing. There was also more I wanted to say: I wanted to discuss in greater depth the revolutionary potential of reactionary ideas such as those of Burke in a postmodern age, I wanted to more thoroughly deconstruct the aesthetic effect of the attacks themselves. The piece does end quite suddenly; I suppose I had other things to do. I’ve decided after some reflection not to amend or expand it (I’ve got other things to do). Here ya go.

In his 1757 essay A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful, Edmund Burke developed a theory of aesthetics based on two opposing principles: the beautiful and the sublime. The beautiful is that which is pleasant and well-formed (although he disputes the notion that a sense of proportion is intrinsic to beauty). The sublime, by contrast, is considered to be a far more powerful force: it is that which induces fear and awe. Central to sublimity is the experience of vastness, infinity, and danger. While a sense of terror is essential to an experience of the sublime, the danger must not be immediate – Burke uses the example of a viewer on shore watching a ship being tossed about by a storm.

Although extensive use was made of the sublime in the art and politics of the Romantic period, its importance appears to have diminished during the modern era, and especially since the First World War.. It is arguable that elements of the Burkean sublime persisted into the politics of the twentieth century. In his Commentary on the Society of the Spectacle, Guy Debord distinguishes between two forms of spectacularity: the concentrated spectacle of Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union during Stalin’s premiership, and the diffuse spectacle of American capitalism.[1] It is arguable that the first form is heavily reliant on the sublime: Burke argues that the ‘succession and uniformity of parts are what constitute the artificial infinite;’ and such succession and uniformity formed a prominent element of Nazi and Stalinist mass demonstrations;[2] meanwhile the Lichtdomen designed by Albert Speer for the Nuremberg Rallies produced at once the extreme light and extreme darkness which are ‘both, in spite of their opposite nature, brought to concur in producing the sublime.’[3]

However, as Debord points out, the concentrated spectacle has been entirely vanquished by the diffuse spectacle, in which ‘wage-earners [are driven] to apply their freedom of choice to the vast range of new commodities now on offer.’[4] If the organising principle for the concentrated spectacle is the sublime, for the diffuse spectacle it is the beautiful – sensations of awe and terror rarely lend themselves to the consumption of consumer goods. As Foucault points out, the master-signifier of morality in late capitalism is ‘our feelings’ – while in classical Greece the good life was considered to be that which accorded to aesthetic principles, with ethics and aesthetics considered to be non-contradictory, in contemporary society the conception of the good life is inextricably bound up with the fulfilment of desires and the maintenance of pleasant feelings and a positive emotional state.[5] In such a society the sublime can not, as in the ‘totalitarian’ societies of the early twentieth century or the monarchies of the eighteenth century, help prop up established power. Rather, by its very nature, it constitutes a threat.

While Debord claimed that the two forms had reached a kind of Hegelian synthesis in the ‘integrated spectacle,’ which was claimed to have been pioneered in France and Italy, any examination of the administrations of Sarkozy or Berlusconi (or, for that matter, Hollande or Monti) reveals that, to whatever extent Debord’s integrated spectacle actually realised itself, the sublime is not among its attributes.

With the decoupling of the political and the aesthetic, the sublime has found limited articulation in certain cultural artefacts. Recent innovations in the technologies of computer-generated imagery have allowed for the creation of landscapes and environments calculated to induce a sensation of the sublime, and whose effect is arguably greater than those found in the natural world. In the 2009 film Avatar, for instance, director James Cameron created the fictional planet of Pandora, complete with craggy and vertiginous landscapes and fantastical, threatening wild creatures. The aesthetic effect of the film was such that some viewers reported experiencing depression after watching it, with some contemplating suicide, as the world depicted was not real and could not be experienced directly.[6] While on the one hand the success of the film indicates a continued appreciation for the sublime on the part of contemporary populations, at the same time it highlights the discontinuity between the sublime and quotidian existence: the sublime has been so thoroughly purged from the modern world that it can appear only on distant and fictional planets.

As such, when the sublime does intrude into the organised banality of the contemporary West, it can only do so through sudden and shocking acts of violence. It is arguable that the most notable reappearance of the sublime in the modern world was the terrorist attacks of September 11th 2001 in New York. While for its victims and those in Manhattan during the attacks the distance from danger necessary for a sensation of the sublime was obviously not present, the significance of 9/11 transcends their immediate location. News footage of the attacks was viewed around the world, and images of the World Trade Centre and its collapse have since been endlessly reproduced in a manner that speaks not only to the political import of the attacks but a grim fascination with their aesthetic effects. Many of the aesthetic qualities described by Burke as producing the sublime are present in such representations: aside from their suddenness and sense of terror they induce, the attacks made rugged the smooth faces of the Twin Towers; their vertical collapse heightened their vastness and perpendicularity.


[1] Guy Debord, Commentary on the Society of the Spectacle (Verso: London 1998)

[2] Edmund Burke, A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful(Oxford University Press: Oxford 2007) p. 132

[3] Burke, p. 146

[4] Debord, p. 8

[5] Michel Foucault, ‘On the Genealogy of Ethics: An Overview of a Work in Progress’, in The Foucault Reader, ed. by Paul Rabinow (Vintage: New York 2010) pp. 340-372  p. 352

[6] Jo Piazza, Audiences experience ‘Avatar’ blues. CNN: http://articles.cnn.com/2010-01-11/entertainment/avatar.movie.blues_1_pandora-depressed [accessed 11/06/2012]

Guest column: Slavoj Žižek reviews ‘A Very Harold & Kumar 3D Christmas’

It would be tempting to perform a crude Freudian analysis of the Harold & Kumar films, to say that in Harold and Kumar we find the basic categories of superego and id respectively, with Kumar as the hedonist that leads the two into a state of peril, and Harold as the rational law-abider who constrains the desires of his friend, and so on, and so on. But this is not the case. We must always be conscious of the fact that the ultimate command of the superego is to enjoy, to fulfil your fantasies; and because the object of desire cannot be attained, it is that same superego that is the source of anxiety. Is it not Kumar, then, who is then the superego? Our desires lead to neurosis only when they are consciously articulated.

We must ask: what is desire in this film? It is not the smoking of marijuana, that forms only a kind of subcultural backdrop to the narrative. Rather, the Harold & Kumar films take the form of the heroic quest: the heroes must go off and find something, they have escapades along the way, eventually it is retrieved and there is the happy ending. In Lacanian terminology this ‘something’ is the objet petit a, the transcendent object of desire. It is the eventual obtainment of this object that renders the first film, Harold & Kumar Go To White Castle, a work of fantasy. What is desirable about the objet petit a is intrinsically linked with its quality of unattainability; it is only in the fantasy-space of the film that such desires can be realised. In the film, the attainment of the hamburger is bound up with the attainment of other fantasies – Harold stands up to the bullies of the workplace, he talks to the girl he is attracted to, and so on, and so on. White Castle is therefore a symbolic representation of all desire. One could comment on the imagery of the white castle itself – in medieval poetry the white castle is a symbol of Heaven or the Kingdom of Truth; then as now the white castle is a transcendent Utopian image – or, as Derrida would have it, a messianic image, an image of that which is always yet to come – in which is encoded our very earthly desires, as in the Islamic fantasy of the seventy-two virgins.

But see what happens in A Very Harold & Kumar 3D Christmas. This is not at all like the first film, the two heroes are not acting on their own desires. Rather, Harold must find a replacement Christmas tree for his father-in-law: he is acting out of a sense of duty towards the Other. The pivotal moment of the film is when Harold tells Kumar that he does not have to replace the tree, rather, it is that he wants to. And again further on, when Kumar faces his responsibility for his unborn child: it is not because he has to, but because he wants to. This is not, I think, a casting aside of duty so much as a reinterpretation of duty. Here, we see the old Kantian conception – Du kannst, denn du sollst! – being dispensed with, it is too rigidly compulsive, it does not sit easy with our liberal individualism. What we get instead is a strange inversion: Du sollst, denn du wollst! – you must, because you want to!

I find this despicable, almost totalitarian, even – far more so than Kant’s formulation. Even our desires are not our own, the hegemonic order insists not only that we do our duty, but that we really want to do so. It is like when Saddam Hussein published his novels under a false name: his megalomania was such that he did not just want good reviews because he is the dictator, he wanted the people to genuinely love his writing. Only when the novels were derided in the newspapers did he republish under his own name and shoot the critics. Is what we see here not the same thing? If there is a message in this film, is it not that we must genuinely love the duties imposed on us by capitalism, that we must find jouissance in the fulfilment of duty?

Where A Very Harold & Kumar 3D Christmas fails is precisely in this attempt to reconcile duty with desire through the matrix of capitalist institutions: the family unit, the workplace, Christmas, and so on, and so on. Duty towards the Other must not be subject to desire! What we must instead admit is that under capitalism our desires are different to our duties, or, in the language of vulgar Marxism, our desires are superstructural to the economic base. Our duty consists of confronting and changing our desires, not in the alienating manner of the Freudian superego, but through the radical project of overturning the current socio-economic order in the name of the Other. Against the false union of duty and desire we must proclaim the primacy of duty, we must, in effect, return to the old Kantian formulation. It is significant that the finale of A Very Harold & Kumar 3D Christmas requires the intervention of the supernatural in the form of Santa Claus: under capitalism, duty and desire cannot ordinarily be reconciled. What is needed in our situation is another form of supernatural intervention – the intervention of Benjaminian divine violence. Only then can this antinomy be untangled.

On self-expression

Check this out:

My world is falling, crumbling apart, life is meaningless & that’s just the start
My hearts so sore, I can feel it breaking & I swear to god it leaves me shaking
Late at night till early in the morning, lying in bed eyes wide open. Didn’t sleep last night, like all the others, instead I just lie crying in the covers
Quick, wipe away all the tears before they come near. must hide this depression & the feelings of fear
For all they know I’m happy & always smiling, but deep inside my soul is dying
I can feel it rotting, it wants to scream, but I won’t let it… not for the time being
I can never tell them how I feel cause the happiness I wear to them is real
For them to hear that I wish I was dead… it would kill them, they’d be filled with dread
So I’ll try my best no to be selfish, I’ll keep my secret hidden & just let them rest
but god I can’t take it much longer… I’ll probably be dead before they even wonder.

The teenage author of this poem, as much as they might object, is not really taking off the mask of their day-to-day ‘false’ persona and letting their real unique self shine through in all its tortured tragedy. They are, in fact, simply putting on another mask: their ‘true’ ‘hidden’ self is as much a construct as the face they show to those around them, and this constructed identity is constituted of all manner of external influences: the hegemonic image of the ‘teenager’, music, cinema, television, and, not least, other poems like this one, which are speckled about the Internet like chewing gum and bird shit on a pavement. This example is just one of a brimming ocean of such poems: all employing the same metaphors, using the same key words, expressing the same sentiments. The hormonal turbulence of adolescence and the alienation that pervades society is not enough to account for the sheer homogeneity on display. They are all fundamentally intertextual, in constant dialogue with each other and with other forms of art, creating between them a holographic projection of decentralised teenagerhood. In writing, the author of this piece is adopting the conventions of depression, moulding herself into a particular archetype. It’s not that the depression felt is somehow unreal, but in its articulation it undergoes a culturally informed metamorphosis. Her poem is not an example of art as a form of self-expression, but of the self as something produced by art.

Alexander Semionov, smashing lazy assumptions about socialist realism like Chuck Norris with a paintbrush. I’m not actually going to talk about this painting but I think it’s pretty good

I point all this out because the teenage angst-poem is held to be a paradigm case of art-as-self-expression, and it is in fact nothing of the sort. Writers and artists do not produce their works in a vacuum. A work of art does not emerge from some cloistered part of the soul in which Pure Emotion quivers, unseen by the rest of the world. Artists are not nexuses of infinite subjectivity. They are conduits through which the fabric of ideas and aesthetics that surrounds them achieves its self-actualisation. Art is composed of references and reactions to tradition or the prevailing conventions of the time (sometimes along with outright theft). This holds true for every facet of art: the teenager’s work above is as much informed by cultural norms and the pre-existing canon as Eliot’s frenzied patchwork-poetry. The function of art has never been unadulterated self-expression but always communication. A work of art is a dialogue between creator and viewer; it is at the point of interaction between the two that the actual creation of art takes place. Good art doesn’t just look nice: it is a palimpsest, a space of continual reinscription. A painting locked up in a safety deposit box is not art, it’s just a bunch of chemicals smeared on a canvas. For something to be art it must be engaged with.

Against this, however, we have the Cult of the Artist, which continues to insist that we must know about Van Gogh’s ear to understand his paintings, which situates the Timeless Artist outside his milieu, which upholds individual self-expression as the ultimate source of all art. This obsession has had its opponents from Keats to Barthes, but still it persists: discredited in academia, it hangs on in galleries and auction houses, it dominates the way art is taught in schools, and forms the underlying narrative for the presentation of art to the public.

We don’t always blindly follow the Cult of the Artist, however. When it comes to artefacts from ‘ethnic’ or aboriginal cultures (usually those we Westerners pushed to the edge of extinction and are now equally intent on preserving in some kind of cultural stasis) there’s no consideration for individual artistry or for self-expression. In the popular examination of such works, an emphasis is placed on social function that is unseen in the criticism of contemporary and Western pieces. Art is seen as being representative not of an individual but of an entire culture, as if every member of the tribe gets together to make bone-carvings or tapestries as a commune. This is the case even in instances when such works are exercises in bragging, monuments to shamanistic prowess like the Mojave Desert petroglyph pictured above.

This distinction encodes the idea that ‘our’ art doesn’t actually fulfil any social function. What happens, though, when artists themselves start to buy into their own cult? What happens when, conscious of the existing traditions, they nonetheless attempt to express their Sovereign Indivisible Self? You get asemic awfulness like abstract expressionism, works that sell for millions but that have no discernible aesthetic or semiotic qualities, shit like this:

Jackson Pollock, Aftermath of a Marathon Masturbation Session, oil on canvas, 1950

Here we find the artist so engrossed with the idea that they must be expressing themselves and their hidden inner feelings through art that they forget to actually express anything, let alone communicate. This work induces no emotional response and has no intellectual content; any meaning it might have contained is intelligible only to its creator. If I’m picking on Jackson Pollock here it’s simply because he was by far the worst of the bunch, allowing his vaunted apolitical self-expression to be used as an ideological weapon by the CIA, who believed his series of overpriced squiggles to embody the personal freedom that can (of course) only be realised through the market economy. In a way, they were right: individualism suffuses the work; it’s self-expression for its own sake, empty and meaningless.

I’m not trying to argue against abstraction itself. There are plenty of artworks even within the expressionist school that are communicative rather than simply expressionistic; but there remains a distressing trend in contemporary art for pieces so wrapped up in their self-expressive qualities that they make any attempt at hermeneutics impossible. As a counter-example, take a work by Kandinsky, one of the pioneers of abstraction:

Wassily Kandinsky, Now That’s How You Fucking Do It, oil on canvas, 1923

In contrast to Pollock, Kandinsky’s abstraction (and even his expressionism) opens up a space for interpretation rather than snuffing it out. We are not commanded to stoke the painter’s ego by trying to imagine how he was feeling as he slapped pigment against parchment. The frozen explosion of lines and colours by themselves communicate a sense of unrestrained exaltation, an emotion not just felt by the artist but induced in the viewer; around its edges we find shapes that could almost be recognisable objects but that stop short of actual representation; in the interplay of organic and geometric forms a strange harmony emerges.

The Futurists of the early 20th Century wanted to burn all the galleries and destroy all the cluttering art of the past (it’s a cruel irony that futurism is now just one of the many aesthetic modes for contemporary art to draw influence from). Perhaps it would be better to leave all the art of the past centuries exactly where it is, but rip the informational labels from gallery walls, blot out the name of the author on every book jacket, to encourage expression, but without the self.

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