Idiot Joy Showland

This is why I hate intellectuals

On the violence of politics

This won’t be the last time, and things can only get worse. It’s not so much that Donald Trump has awakened something ugly in the American psyche, more that he’s found new uses for bodies. Spectacularised violence is becoming an increasing staple of his rallies: these political events, already strange and contrived rituals, are becoming outright dangerous. Protesters, often aligned with the Black Lives Matter movement or other racial justice organisations, are harassed or beaten, some are threatened with murder; occasionally anyone showing up without a white face is subjected to immediate intimidation. And up on his stage, the controller-demigod smiles and goads. People are learning that TV violence doesn’t have to stay on the TV; politicians are learning that electoral aims can be achieved with fists and cudgels. And in the atmosphere of increasing violence, his opponents are also beginning to resort to illegitimate means. Most concerningly, a Trump rally in Chicago was disrupted by thousands of protesters, who broke into scuffles with Trump supporters, chanted pro-Bernie Sanders slogans, and eventually forced the event’s cancellation. Whatever you think of Trump, his right to free speech must not be infringed by violent means. And besides, this intervention risks playing into his hands: the more disruption, the more fighting, the more chaos, the more Trump wins. It’s a death-spiral, the beginning of something ugly and frightening that we thought might have been done away with forever. Once violence gets into politics, it’s hard to get out; if you know your history, you know where this might end. Gangs of politically engaged supporters throwing shouts and fists will, sooner or later, pick up weapons: a debate over land ownership is concluded with three hundred Gracchus supporters floating dead in the Tiber; a noisy beer-hall brawl is won with the cities of Europe in ruins.

This is in some ways the received liberal wisdom on these events; you can see it being churned out by a broad swathe of bien-pensant media moderates, along with virtually every political candidate other than Donald Trump himself. ‘Violence has no place in politics.’ People might have legitimate grievances, but they can only be resolved by legitimate means. It is never acceptable to start attacking other people. I want to suggest something different: that in the end, it’s precisely this impulse, the horrified rejection of any violence within politics, the keening appeal to legitimacy in all things, which is ultimately capable of bringing about the most horrific forms of repression.

It should be pointed out that for all the furore, the action in Chicago was hardly a pitched battle. The Chicago police department, not usually the most restrained or liberal body, issued a statement confirming that the majority of demonstrators were peacefully exercising their right to protest, and that contrary to Trump’s claim, they had not in fact advised him to cancel the event. But even so, it’s possible to carry out a kind of Brechtian defence of extralegal violence: what crime is a few thrown fists, when Trump is advocating closing America’s borders to all Muslims and ordering the military to knowingly murder innocent people? There’s a strong case here, but it doesn’t do much to really interrogate that central formula, the idea that ‘violence has no place in politics.’ It’s something that might seem self-evidently true to any reasonable and right-thinking individual, but what does it actually mean? What is violence, and what is politics? Do these things really function as opposite poles, and what would it mean to introduce one into the other?

Two senses of the word ‘politics’ could be distinguished here. On the one hand, politics is the arena of human possibility, the sphere of contest between differing models of organising the structures of social life, the means by which people can come together to transform the world. But on the other, politics is also politicking, the dry scrambling for advantage that goes on within any of these modes of social organisation, the grim business of government that’s usually taught in politics classes: by-election procedure, parliamentary protocol, the division of powers, and all the rest of that boring wonkery. This is the kind of politics that people are generally referring to when they say that violence has no place in politics. And it’s true – the successful functioning of this kind of procedure, which is often agonistic and which often involves the direct competition of various individuals or social sectors for resources, tends to require the exclusion of violent means. This is why, for instance, the government and opposition benches in Westminster are famously just over two sword’s-lengths apart. But if you actually look at what these procedures actually create, the answer is generally violence. Political bodies are legislative: they create the law, which is a set of rules enforced and structured by the threat of violence. Representatives vote on a law; thereafter, if you don’t do what they tell you, eventually you will find yourself being confronted by armed men in the service of the state. The role of politics within society is to distribute and legitimise the application of violence: to say that violence has no place in politics is like saying that money has no place in the economy, or that words have no place in literature.

The example of Hillary Clinton is useful here: in a statement released after the events in Chicago, she repeated the ‘violence has no place in politics’ line, and suggested that the best way for people to effect change in the world is to behave like the families of the Charleston massacre victims, who ‘came together and melted hearts in the statehouse.’ This is, of course, from someone who as First Lady declared that black ‘superpredators’ in American cities must be ‘brought to heel’ as part of a war on crime, who as a Senator voted for the 2003 war in Iraq, and who as Secretary of State took America to war in Libya. Clinton might not have physically attacked people on the Senate floor, but isn’t this violence taking its place within politics? The recurrence of war here is significant: war isn’t just the most destructive expression of state violence, it is, as Foucault argues in Society Must be Defended, politics itself. Foucault inverts the usual Clausewitzian formula: politics is, he says, the continuation of war by other means. As something that encompasses the exercise of power and the struggle of competing groups, politics is war within civil society, the repression and violence of outright warfare in a coded form, and it’s only through the matrix of warfare that politics becomes intelligible.

Still, there’s a difference between the violence of the police and the military and the violence of citizens at political rallies: one is legitimate, the other is not. (You could rephrase Clinton’s statement to take this into account: ‘Illegitimate violence has no place in politics.’ At this point it immediately becomes nonsensical: surely the thing about illegitimate violence is that it should have no place anywhere.) Legitimate violence is that exercised by the state, which is after all defined by its monopoly on force within its territory. But as Walter Benjamin, among others, have pointed out, any legitimate political order is first premised on illegitimate violence. No political system is eternal, and wherever any structure of law exists it will have had to legitimise its founding violence after the fact. The monarchies were first imposed by death and conquest; the American Revolution was first an insurrection, the introduction of violence into politics – in other words, something illegal, before it became the source of the law itself.

The insistence that people trying to counter Donald Trump’s ascending brand of contemporary fascism should not resort to illegitimate means is being read by some people on the left as a call to do nothing, to just let it happen. Actually, it’s nothing of the sort. Liberals aren’t horrified by violence, they’re horrified by illegitimate violence: what scares them isn’t violence entering into the domain of politics but violence that exists outside of it. They want to stop Trump as much as the rest of us, but it must be done through the proper channels, through the political process, through the state. But the political process is warfare. At present, the ‘moderate’ wing of the Republican party is hoping to prevent Trump from gaining its nomination through a brokered convention, the overturning of a democratic mandate through bureaucratic means. But other means are available. They’re not saying it openly, not yet, but if it looks like Trump might win the Presidency, the liberals want a military coup. The powers that be are sensible; they won’t let the worst happen. If nothing else, the overthrow of the civilian government is a certain defence against violence finding its way into politics. And what’s more legitimate than the United States Armed Forces?

Why you’re not quitting Twitter


You have decided to stop using Twitter. You won’t pretend that there was some sudden moment of epiphany, some limpid instant scrolling elsewhere-eyed through ten thousand other people’s keening attempts to entertain, when you realised that this was no longer for you. Thinking of things in terms of moments and instants, that thinly sliced, superficial, impermanent digital Now – that’s part of the whole pattern of thought you’re trying to break out of. You want to do things deeply, slowly, properly; you want to have insights that can’t be compressed into one hundred and forty tossed-off characters. You’re tired of being snide, of the enforced narcissism, of being beholden to your brand, of manufactured outrage, of all those internecine arguments with angry ovarious hordes, dank keyboard-grubbying imbeciles, crude men smearing chip fat in iridescent streaks over their phone screens, people who don’t even work in the media.  You, comic books reviewer for the New York Oboe; you, occasional guest panellist on the BBC’s  Sweary Wednesdays; you, noted online thinkfluencer and inventor of the #DonaldTrumpHasHairlessShins Movement; you have had enough.

You’re going to start living in the real world again. You looked out a window, a real one, made of glass, and you saw a little bird, a real one, alive, not some sinister blue logo. You saw it trembling between the crooked branches, going about a business wilder and stranger than anything in our smooth fake online lives, and you thought your heart would break from the sheer beauty of it all. You made an off-colour joke at the bar – a real bar, made of real bricks – and there was nobody to pounce or denounce, nobody tried to eject you from the premises, and you felt so incredibly free. You’re streamlining your life now. You went out and bought twenty shirts, all in the same shade of grey, because life is too important for clutter. You’re going to go for walks in the park and read books in cafés and cook simple but wholesome meals incorporating flavours from three lesser-known continents. You’re going to stop wasting time and do work, real work, good work. Maybe a novel. But before you go, you’re going to write a little meditation on why you have to go, something longform, something thoughtful, and then you’ll compose your final missive to that abandoned, insular world. ‘Goodbye, Twitter,’ you’ll write. ‘I’m off, and here’s why.’ You’ll think for a moment. You’ll add a short appendix. ‘#Media #Twitter #Writing.’ You’ll think for another moment. You’ll delete the hashtags. You’ve been thinking a lot lately.

This isn’t a cynical move, but at the same time you do think you’re doing it at the right time, because Twitter is dying. The site lost two million users in Q4 of 2015, and because you understand such things, you know what this means. Social networks don’t really make any money, the profits come from the expectation that if they keep growing, sooner or later someone will figure out a way to properly monetise their userbase. Small companies get bought up for vast, parodic sums; big companies float themselves on the stock market and surrender themselves to the predictive powers of the market. It all depends on the capitalist symptom of reckless, tearaway growth: you conquer the world, or you die; nothing in between. And Twitter has failed to conquer the world, so its stock is collapsing. You’ve seen things collapse – families, relationships, buildings, countries – and you’ve learned that if you have a chance to spare yourself those awful final days, you should take it. Leave the place to crumble, and may those still inside be swiftly crushed. The indifferent waves of silicon will reclaim it, the jagged fragments of lost startups. Like the GeoCities, of which nothing remains, all those names pathetically repeating themselves – ‘Hi, I’m Mike, and welcome to my Formula 1 page’ – now silent, all those hideously personal colour combinations reduced to the desert whiteness of a 404 page. Or Myspace, which like all the other places where you used to hang out as a teenager now feels shameful and threatening, sullen graffiti, the lingering tang of body spray, the numinous autonomy of something you no longer own. Or Friends Reunited – remember Friends Reunited? – which only wanted to help, and got got no gratitude. Death will suit Twitter well; you’ll look back on it fondly, it’ll be far more loved as the nostalgic name of something you used to do than as the monster gobbling up your life.

So why does this brave real world you’ve decided to start living in feel so familiar? Why does it feel so false? You’re going to start writing, you’ve decided, without distractions: so the day yawns open at you, a stinking cavern of dead black time, and you find you have nothing to do. How many times can you water a plant before the thing gets waterlogged and dies? You tried tracing its long glossy leaves with your fingertips, marvelling at the intricate patterning in its mesophyll, and have come to the sad conclusion that plants are actually quite boring. You try to read a book – Middlemarch; you’re slowly sinking down the list of great novels to read before you die – but your gaze slips from the first sentence in one paragraph to another, searching for the point – and you think: when I do die, will it really matter if I’ve read this stupid thing or not? You have a funny observation about the day’s news, clever but not really good enough to make copy, and given that all your friends are online you text it to your mother. She doesn’t reply; for four damn hours she doesn’t reply. ‘Ha! x.’ Could it be that you’ve forgotten how to live? It’s being cooped up in here, it’s these four plain walls. You need to do the unthinkable. You need to go outside.

You leave without any clear aim or destination in mind, but it doesn’t matter. You’re a flâneur! You’re the poet of the material world! Passing by a chain coffee outlet, you decide to drop in, listen to people talking, gauge their lives and concerns through good, old-fashioned, unmediated, personal voyeurism. And, even though you won’t need to say or do anything, the patrons will silently admire you, and maybe even want to fuck you – how could they not? You order your filter coffee (‘No, no milk, I’m a deeply serious person’), unfold your newspaper, and wait. But it’s so strange: half the people there are just looking at their phones; glancing up occasionally into the eyes of their friend or lover with unalloyed disgust, as if repulsed by their needling physicality – and the ones who do talk seem to have a compulsive verbal tic you’d never noticed before. Before they say anything they’ll always address their interlocutors by their full names. ‘Stephanie Jones: Didn’t they say it’d rain later?’ ‘Mark Eyabunoh, Corey Adelusi: Ha ha! That’s so funny.’ It reminds you of something, something unpleasant. This place is wrong. But when you rush outside, they’re all at it. Someone seems to be walking down the street, acting normally, but a hideous change comes over them as soon as you’re in earshot. A furious political argument erupts between two strangers; they look as if they’re about to claw each other’s eyes out. Teen girls scream about One Direction as you approach. Drivers start singing football chants out their windows, staring spittle-flecked and manic in your direction and only yours. One woman dances, thrusting a picture on phone into your face: ‘Here’s what I had for lunch!’ A schlubby-looking man in a brown suit and purple tie seems to be in the middle of an epileptic fit; his hands judder, his shoes scuff against the pavement, and he croaks, over and over again, ‘Taylor Swift: Show us your feet. Taylor Swift: Send us foot picture? Taylor Swift: Show us your feet. Taylor Swift: Send us foot picture?’ You don’t stop to help. You just ignore him. You learned, somewhere, to ignore.

Other people aren’t good for you, it’s clear. They’re strangers, witless and dull; what you need is nature. You start to head home, back towards the high street, maybe you’ll rent out a cottage somewhere in the barren north where there’s no wifi. But as soon as you turn the corner, every head snaps suddenly to fix its gaze on you. ‘Tosser,’ says one shopper after another. ‘Arsehole.’ ‘Pompous twat.’ They crowd on you, breathing halitosis and malice into your innocent face. ‘Why do you keep saying I’m a tosser?’ you yell. ‘I don’t even know you!’ The nearest creature, a skinny man in glasses and store-bought stubble, smirks. ‘Yeah,’ he says. ‘You don’t know me, because you’re a tosser.’ Everyone laughs and claps and starts giving this smug prick his comradely pats on the back. Maybe it wasn’t Twitter. Maybe you really are a tosser. But surely that can’t be true?

The birth of that new cult gave you time to escape, at least, so you scramble panicked up a hill, some big comforting grass-edged tit, to look out over the city and try to take stock of things. Maybe you’ll sketch the view in your Moleskine. On a grey and blustery afternoon, there’s nobody else in sight. The trauma recedes a little; it’s almost peaceful. But the skyline doesn’t rise slowly inch by inch over the horizon, like you’d imagined; it jumps out suddenly, fanged and snarling, in the break between two trees. Patches of sunlight swim jellyfish-like between the skyscrapers, the whole giddy tapestry of human life is laid out in front of you. And there, hovering fifty feet above midtown, are three huge, spectral symbols. You know what they are. Reply, Retweet, Like. No. You clench your eyes tight and frantically jab at the other button like it’s the only thing that can save you. Report abuse. Report abuse. You need to block it all, it offended you, it needs to go. This mustn’t happen. Give me control. Make me admired. Make me loved.

You can’t quit Twitter: you, writer; you, comedian; you, journalist; you, early adopter; you, self-confessed nerd and unapologetic brunch snob. You created it, with your earnest musings and your boiling self-regard; you summoned the demon, and while its name might change the beast will never be able to relent. You bring Twitter with you wherever you go, because you are Twitter. And it’s dying, because you’re already dead.

Bill Kristol is wrong about things

While the secret knowledge is only available to some members of the society, there is an ideology, an ethics, and a phenomenology of ignorance that is shared, to some degree, by all.
Jonathan Mair et al., ‘Making Ignorance an Ethnographic Object’


The respected American political commentator Bill Kristol is consistently wrong about things, and it’s funny, until you start seeing dead bodies on your lawn. This week, he predicted that Marco Rubio would win the New Hampshire Republican primary. He did not. Last year, he predicted that Joe Biden would be seeking his party’s nomination for President. He would not. Ten years ago, in the run-up to the 2008 Democratic race, he predicted that Barack Obama would lose in every single state. He did not. During the scheduled pregame session for the 2003 invasion of Iraq, Kristol predicted that American forces would be welcomed as liberators. They were not. (Later he added that the war would ‘clarify who was right and who was wrong about weapons of mass destruction.’ It did, but only in the same way that Croesus’s invasion of Persia resulted in a stunning military success.) In 1998, he predicted that ‘a year from now, Clinton will be gone.’ He was not. In 1993, he predicted that that year would be the ‘high-water mark’ of the gay rights movement, which would afterwards collapse. It did not. In 1914, he advised the Tsar of Russia that war against Austria-Hungary would unite the population and smother any internal strife. It did not. In 1202, he predicted that the departing Crusaders would conquer Jerusalem within the year. They did not. Fourteen billion years ago, he whispered in the ear of the lion-headed snake-demon Ialdaboath, and predicted that the creation of the Universe would be ‘if nothing else, a vast improvement on current conditions.’ It was not.

This infinite capacity for stupidity on the part of Bill Kristol, his ability to bob against any prevailing wind, has led to a very predictable reaction from the liberal left. Sometimes his wrongness is the wrongness of propaganda or ideology, but most of the time it’s just naked and evident untruth. So they ask: why does this man still have a job? Why is he given a platform, why is he allowed to present his opinions to leaders and publics, when they’re not just incorrect but so utterly unhelpful? It’s the right question, but nobody seems to be willing to actually answer it. Well, why does he still have a job? The only possible answer is that his being consistently, spectacularly, demonstrably wrong is serving, somewhere, some kind of important function. Which has to change your view of things a little. The prevailing model of the planet is of a giant, floating information-processing machine. Market forces built the Earth of the Hadean era; a geological stock market distributed surging columns of lava and pockets of boiling slime. Later the emerging biosphere would form a part of this computational apparatus, each living being a data-point recorded in its index, their genetic share-prices occasionally misvalued, but still axiomatically true. And then there was human society, plugging in to the natural mechanisms of price and utility, producing information to be sorted and filed in the planet’s core. But while Bill Kristol lives, our planet is just a swelling bag of falsehoods; what really determines the value of things is not accuracy but idiocy. A world in which Bill Kristol is successful is wrong; not morally wrong, but factually wrong. Something like the revelation at the end of Philip K Dick’s The Man in the High Castle: the world we are living in does not, in fact, exist.

At first glance, Kristol isn’t that unusual; there are so many types of untruth. It’s not the absence of truth, depending on truth as its opposite pole, but a positive phenomenon in its own right, appearing as lies, ignorance, literature, pseudohistory, Cartesian doubt, and conceptual abstraction. Plenty of people are wrong about things; arguably, just about everyone tends to be wrong about pretty much everything. But nobody is wrong in the same way as Bill Kristol. It’s very easy to be wrong about the past or the present: these are grim and murky places where nothing really makes sense. But Bill Kristol is wrong about the future, and this is an entirely different kind of wrongness. Under the classical or correspondence model of truth, propositions about the future are impossible to evaluate: there’s no reality against which to measure any image, because it hasn’t happened yet. Any statement about the future will in a sense always be wrong: it sits there, trembling, waiting for the annihilatory incoming of the event, and there’s no way of distinguishing a true prediction from a false one until this takes place. Except for the fact that statements about the future are also actions in the present: one prediction might have eventually been fulfilled, until another is made that, while not itself being realised, alters events so that something else entirely comes to pass. Little eddies of chaos surround any prophecy; this way, any number of formally incorrect statements about the future can carry deep in their bowels a hideous, twisted kind of reality. After all, the thing about untruth is that it projects a different world. And always being wrong about the future grants someone incredible powers.

In 2006, Bill Kristol was kidnapped by a pro-Iranian guerilla group. Six masked men burst into his home; they pulled him naked and spluttering from his bed, beat him unconscious with the butts of their rifles, and dragged him into the back of a waiting van. They kept on pummelling him as the van screeched through midnight avenues, long after he’d passed out: black-gloved fists and chipped-black steel on his beige and spreading flesh, purple supernovae dancing through his hypodermis, flat white TV-teeth splintering into the jaggedness of a bombed-out city. Afterwards, in court, they had to explain this incredible brutality. It was his smile, they said. By the end Kristol was slipping at the edge of death. His face was a bulbous mess of bruises and lacerations; that raw-dough elasticity had finally come to snap, and it was only recognisable as human by a kind of gruesome pareidolia – but throughout he still had his smug, thin-lipped smirk, that knowing look of someone who is always wrong. The Iranians kept on trying to erase it with blunt force; it felt like being condescended to by a corpse. But they couldn’t. The newspapers report what happened next. Bill Kristol woke up handcuffed to a bed in an abandoned building somewhere in Washington DC, the floor thick with brick dust and piss, the windows grime-clouded or broken, the trees outside spindly black death’s-hands against a low and glaucous sky. A guard stood over him, rifle slung over one shoulder. ‘Oh God,’ whined Bill Kristol. ‘I’m not getting out of this one. I’m going to be trapped here for hours.’ And so twenty minutes later, they set him free.

It’s not clear whose side Bill Kristol is on, or even if the question makes any sense. Take the Iraq war. There’s an edge of malice throughout that whole disaster; all those neoconservative proposals that were for decades insisting that Iraq be split into three separate states, one Sunni, one Shi’ite, and one Kurdish, which is pretty much exactly what’s happened. Bill Kristol decided with all the rest of them that the United States would build a strong, stable, secular Iraq, with predictable results. At the same time he predicted with the total confidence of the inhumanly wrong that Saddam’s weapons of mass destruction would be found. Does he only want death and mayhem? It’s possible, but it’s far more possible that to talk about Bill Kristol in terms of what he wants and doesn’t want is to put things in an unworkable frame. What does capitalism want? What does the planet want? To reproduce themselves, to continue blind and ravenous and not entirely real. The only truth – if that word can have any meaning – is that we are not free. We live only because Bill Kristol allows it. Because any moment he might take it upon himself to make another optimistic prediction for the sunny future of humanity. ‘We’ll do great,’ he says, lounging on his chair in the ABC studio. ‘The human species will carry on, today, tomorrow, and for all the days to come.’ Cut to black.

All cats are girls and all dogs are boys: further notes on Slavoj Žižek

Where thought has opened up one cell of reality, it should, without violence by the subject, penetrate the next. It proves its relation to the object as soon as other objects crystallize around it. In the light that it casts on its chosen substance, others begin to glow.
Theodor Adorno, Minima Moralia


It was gratifying to see, in his latest response to me, that Slavoj Žižek is finally engaging with the psychoanalytic concepts that are (after all) his intellectual speciality. I happen to have some disagreements with the way in which he uses them, but I’ll come to that later. The dispute over certain terms – desire, fantasy, culture, and so on – spirals out from a parenthetical observation I made in my initial critique of Žižek. He writes that migrants should abandon the unrealistic demand for a better life in a ‘Norway’ that does not exist, and should agree to be settled wherever a coercive European state apparatus decides to send them. I respond: ‘Isn’t this precisely the operation of the objet petit a? What kind of Lacanian tells someone that they should effectively abandon their desire for something just because it’s not attainable? Or are migrants not worthy of the luxury of an unconscious mind?’ In our subsequent exchanges Žižek argues that my invocation of objet petit a is not legitimate, and that the desire in question has instead the structure of a fantasy. These are not, in the Lacanian cosmology, opposing terms; if what we’re dealing with here is indeed a fantasy, it needs to be taken seriously as such. Žižek disagrees; the fantasy must be ‘traversed.’ In this contest – who’s using the terms correctly, who’s abusing them, the gotcha game of faultlines and connections, the gasping slapfight for legitimacy, all of it largely irrelevant to the issue at hand – something was passed over: the question of whether migrants do, in fact, have an unconscious mind. The question was supposed to be absurd, but apparently I should have insisted on it with more force. Because the answer, according to Žižek’s recent essay in the New Statesman, is actually no, they don’t.

Here, Žižek builds on a structure proposed by Alain Badiou in the wake of the massacre in Paris, a division of the world into three forms of subjectivity: that of the liberal-democratic West (this is a neutral quantity, and demands no further investigation), and two modes of response to its global dominance. First, the ‘desire for the West,’ which manifests itself in migration and in what Žižek scorns as the ‘miserable copies of western prosperity’ – coffee shops in Lagos, shopping malls in Luanda. How dare they! (It’s not clear why Žižek invests these places with the horror of the unreal; you don’t have to be a Baudrillardian to recognise that the coffee shop in London or Lisbon is fundamentally also a miserable copy.) Secondly, the ‘nihilist reversal’: a zombie plague. The envy of the non-Western subject is inflamed into a fascistic, insensate rage, something that collapses into ‘hatred pure and simple.’ It’s here that Žižek diverges from Badiou. For the latter, our task is to ‘go and see who is this other about whom one talks, who are they really. We have to gather their thoughts, their ideas, their vision of things.’ For Žižek, this is impossible. This other is ‘utterly disoriented;’ behind their frantic psychodynamic torque there is no ‘”deeper” human core of global solidarity.’ So much for the depth metaphors of Freudianism; we cannot talk with these people because they are incapable of speech. It’s not just that we don’t share the same symbolic terrain; it’s a landscape on which they simply have no presence. They are incoherent Orientals, speechless and psychotic, objectively robbed of everything by the disposessive whirlwind of global capitalism, but on the subjective level terrifyingly uncastrated. This is the framework that Žižek uses to talk about the New Year’s Eve sexual assaults in Cologne.

His primary theoretical referent here is not Lacan or even Badiou, but the new Tarantino film The Hateful Eight. Who, he asks, is the hateful figure in this film? It’s the entire cast: the black man fighting off armed racists is every bit as ‘mean, brutal, and revengeful’ as his enemies; the forces of law and order are as venal and sadistic as the gang of criminals. (He doesn’t mention it, but the friendly black inkeepers are also virulent anti-Mexican racists.) The lesson Žižek draws is that everyone is bad: refugees might be fleeing from terrible horrors, but that doesn’t give them any great moral virtue; they’re still capable of carrying out violent and inexcusable crimes. The idea that everything is bad should be pretty much axiomatic; I’m certainly not interested in contesting it. But I think Žižek has engaged in a significant misreading of the film. The Hateful Eight is not a film about good or bad people; it’s a film about the State. Everything in it centres around paperwork; when they’re not killing each other, the characters spend most of the running time scrutinising each other’s documents. Samuel L Jackson’s character has a letter from President Lincoln which is occasionally demanded of him; he also has warrants for the deaths of the three bodies he carries around with him. With these pieces of paper he is a lawful bounty hunter; without them he is a criminal. Tim Roth’s character is a travelling executioner; his paperwork entitles him to hang the guilty for a living, and if the message weren’t already clear he gives us a long monologue on the difference between State force and personal violence. The real lesson is that neither can be considered independently: each produces, structures, and limits the other. I didn’t particularly like The Hateful Eight, but it does demonstrate a fairly obvious Marxist dictum: it’s pointless to consider any instance of violence in its isolated abstraction, you have to position it within the concrete historical totality of human relations. It’s no use talking about good or bad people; any action is necessarily a product of the social field in which it takes place.

To be fair, Žižek makes a feint in this direction, referring (in a rushed, unenthusiastic moment of obeisance to the leftist liturgy) to the ‘systematic violence of capitalism itself, from the catastrophic consequences of global economy to the long story of military interventions.’ But this doesn’t really inform his analysis. Fundamentalist fascism is something other to the civilised West, attached by a gossamer-thin dialectic; women were attacked in Cologne not because migrants don’t understand that Western sexual etiquette is different, but because they understand that perfectly well, and they hate it. Here the societies of the West are figured as free and open and (on the level of gender, at least) egalitarian; those of the Middle East are not, and the events in Cologne mark the point of friction between these two codes. This is patently untrue. Societies in Europe and the Middle East are both of them patriarchal and repressive (it’s not as if sexual assault was unknown in Cologne until the refugees arrived; such atrocities are epidemic throughout the continent), and feminist movements in both regions have to contend with an overwhelming tide of male violence. There is a long and heroic tradition of Arab and Islamic feminism: the question isn’t one of why the West is more permissive but why oppositional movements within the West have had more success in influencing their social fields. It’s impossible to answer this question without looking in detail at the history and politics of the regions concerned. Since the middle of the twentieth century, the Middle East and the wider Islamic world has experienced a brutal repression of womens’ rights – compare, for instance, photographs of street scenes in Kabul from the era of the Democratic Republic of Afghanistan with images from today, and compare how the women are dressed. Throughout the twentieth century, peoples across the Islamic world attempted to build secular, socialist, egalitarian states, and time and again they were met by Western imperialism. The West’s geopolitical aims in the Middle East require repressive governments, subdued populations, client states that will obediently facilitate the extraction of value – and social repression in general is inextricable from the oppression of women. Fundamentalist fascism is not the dialectical antithesis of the values of a bourgeois West, but something entirely immanent to it. The cruelty that displayed itself on the streets and squares of Cologne was not the result of a cultural difference, with cultural causes; its causes were political.

It’s this notion of culture that returns us to Žižek’s critique of my critique of his critique of my critique. Beyond some minor terminological wrangling (no, fantasy is not a symptom, and I didn’t intend to suggest that it is; the notion that a fantasy is symptomatic of a ‘deeper’ ill comes straight from Žižek’s own essay), his main objection is this: by using Lacanian concepts to consider the relation to an other that is constructed along racial or cultural rather than sexual-libidinal lines, I am distorting and misusing those concepts. Naturally, I disagree: properly deployed, a concept would not be a border clamping down on its object, but something that allows it to open up, form connections, and reach out to further non-identities. This is why theory is useful: it provides a way to alternately bring things together and spread them apart, to form ways of thinking that cut across phenomena in their isolation and allow us to think things in their bubbling totality. Here I think the Master might be on my side – after all, Lacan famously declared that ‘Marx invented the symptom’; he’s generally open to the ability of a signifier to drift through various regimes.

Žižek’s objections, when taken seriously, indicate a strangely non-Lacanian approach. He writes that the lack of an appropriate signifier for the other is something that ‘does not primarily occur between different ways of life (cultures) but within each particular culture’ (ie, between a subject and its libidinal object) and that my position implies that ‘each culture somehow manages to be in touch with itself, it just lacks appropriate signifiers for other cultures.’ It does not; I’m talking about relations between subjects: as I’ve written before, I find the abstract notion of a distinct and cohesive culture to be fairly useless. Žižek’s insistence on upholding this idea in these circumstances is revealing: to do so, he ends up having to assert that the division of people into cultures is primary, primary even to the division in gender that Lacan is talking about. First people are arranged into different ‘ways of life,’ then we get Oedipus. This isn’t Lacan, it’s Samuel Huntington. Lacan, as far as I’m aware, does not tend to use the word ‘culture’ very much: what Žižek is talking about are his four discourses, those of the Master, the Hysteric, the University, and the Analyst – and not, I should point out, the European, the Arab, the African, and so on. Discourses are, as the name suggests, discursive; a structure of relations that will operate whenever there is any kind of relation. (As Žižek points out, this being Lacan, discourses are not spaces of mutual comprehensibility but different forms of mutual misunderstanding.) A subject can operate within a discourse, but to formulate an encounter between subjects – one that will necessarily take place under a certain set of conditions – as an encounter between discourses is nonsensical. These arrangements can meet, and have their agonisms – Lacan’s name for this is politics, and keeping in mind his dictum that ‘the unconscious is politics,’ it’s clear that this political clash of discourses should in no way be read as a clash of subjects.

Collapsing the notion of culture into that of discourse is, arguably, a far greater distortion of the terminology than anything I’ve achieved – most of all, because its operation is not expansive, but restrictive. With the discursive character of the discourse passed over, with its collapse into the blankness of culture, Žižek is capable of figuring migrants as a cultural null point, as those who do not and can not speak. What Žižek performs is an ossification of forms into static categories. All cats are girls. And all dogs are boys.

PS: I can’t finish without noting Žižek’s complaint against my ‘intellectual sleight of hand’: where he said ‘fundamentalist Muslims,’ I only quoted the second word. It’s a bit like one of his own parables: the word that’s missing is the one that gives the sentence meaning, etc, etc. I’ll admit to the misquote, but I’m not sure that the appended word alters the meaning in any significant manner; the opposition between ‘fundamentalist’ and ‘moderate’ Islam is a fairly insidious nonsense. Cracking kernels and so on.

PPS: In their discussion of the barbarian State, Deleuze and Guattari describe it as a train: the grand paranoiac, followed by his obedient perverts – ‘the conqueror and his elite troops, the despot and his bureaucrats, the anchorite and his monks.’ This came to mind while reading Adam Kotsko’s defence of Žižek. He argues that the best way to understand Žižek’s position is through the lens of his own book. (Well, of course.) Kotsko argues that the worst elements of Žižek’s stance on the migration crisis are in fact a provocative overidentification with the false terms of the debate. This is fine. He also writes that, unlike his critics, Žižek is providing concrete, sensible, workable solutions to the problem. This is also fine. I would suggest, though, that you can’t really have both.

How crying children conquered the world


I write about politics for Vice, and as a result a lot of people tend to call me a cunt. Sometimes, this happens in old-fashioned material reality, at which point I’m forced to immediately wrestle my interlocutor to the ground and snip off a lock of their hair, or else risk losing my honour within the clan. Mostly, however, it happens online. I understand why this happens: it happens because what I do is, essentially, morally indefensible. It’s not as if the people who call me a cunt are interrupting a peaceable conversation on the issues of the day between myself and a few like-minded souls. Because I have a platform, one which aggressively promotes itself, what I do is strange and hideous: I roll down someone’s street atop a huge, garish, horse-drawn float, surrounded by falteringly mechanical dancers and accompanied by a terrible backing track, to scream my opinions through a megaphone directly into their windows. What can I say? It’s a living. I try to mitigate this basic evil by being as entertaining or as insightful as my abilities allow, or by talking about something that I think is important, or that my readership will be able to relate to – but my efforts can’t change the fact that what I do is, at core, stupid, selfish, and wrong. People call me a cunt, and very often I disagree with their proximal reasons for having done so, but it’s hard to conclude that they’re entirely wrong. This is why I tend not to reply to them: I feel, constantly, a deep and keening sense of shame. I hide my face from people at bus stops. I need six Percocet and a punch to the face before I can sleep at night, or else ghastly fairground music echoes through my head and I soak my sheets in sweat until morning. I don’t know what I am, but I do know this: I am not a man.

It’s unsettling, then, how many of my colleagues in the commentariat have such a different reaction to being correctly identified by people who aren’t as famous as they are. I understand that when you’ve been running a column for several years, it can be hard to find new things to meaningfully talk about. The existence of the readership slowly falls away: there’s just you, and your editor, and an entire world grimly reconfiguring itself into nothing but raw material, dross and scoriae to be intelligently dissected every few days. So when your readership suddenly unconceals itself from view, by calling you a cunt, you go: aha, there’s my next column right there. Because you’ve forgotten that they could be anything other than the object of your finely honed discourse. Because you’ve forgotten, in the mire of your narcissism, that those faceless hordes have human bodies attached, and you’re not necessarily any better than they are. Because you’ve forgotten that, while you might have an editor and a salary and a very nice house in London, absolutely nobody wants to read about how upset you are that someone called you a cunt on the internet. And yet these columns keep getting written, each of them long and lily-white and, in accordance with the classical form of the colonnade, absolutely identical. Not just that: the same people write the same column over and over again, as if anything new is being said, as if anything worthwhile is being added to the discourse. Insulated from social reality, a whole class of people have come to believe that what the public really cares about is their tiny paltry personal grievances. It’s not really language; it’s far closer what Lacan refers to as ‘the cry’: a baby’s scream, an animal’s howl, an unsignifying, inrotrojective, psychotic whine of displeasure. These people are children.

I should point out that this is a sickness endemic and unique to broadsheet writers: people who write for the tabloids know that they exist to galvanise the converted and to inflame the outsiders; when they get attacked for their cruel and thoughtless opinions they know it’s the sign of a job well done. Broadsheet writers, who are far more stupid, actually think that what they do has merit: they don’t just want people to be swayed by the force of their argument and the intricacies of their prose; they want to be loved. Freud could tell you what comes next. When that love fails to materialise, when ordinary people who don’t even work for a newspaper dare to point out that what they’ve said is actually thoroughly moronic, we’re due another thousand-word corrective diatribe against saddos on social media. Which is a strange way of putting things – it might be pathetic to waste time tweeting anonymously at some big-name newspaper writer, but it’s even more pathetic for the writer to then spend several hours hashing out a self-regarding response, to bleat on about how the trolls don’t make them mad and they’re laughing actually. Of course, the difference is that the troll is not paid for their labour, while the broadsheet writer is. To which the only sane conclusion is that while the writer might not be so pathetic, the entire system by which contemporary capitalist society allocates value is in total collapse.

Case in point: Howard Jacobson. I’ve written about him before, so some of this might be familiar ground, but he’s contributed the most recent example of the genre, and he really is the worst: the smuggest, the most self-satisfied, the most unthinkingly and uncomprehendingly disagreeable. Howard Jacobson is a Booker prize-winning hack novelist who has, over an illustrious thirty-five-year career, repeatedly written the same book about how Jews who don’t support ethnic cleansing in Palestine are all self-hating neurotics. He also writes the worst newspaper column currently published anywhere in the world. His latest effort bills itself as being a set of ‘rules for online debate’, but don’t be fooled. He starts with a fiddly segment about irony and sincerity, a cheap plastic knockoff of Theodor Adorno’s The Essay as Form, but it’s only a clever little way of covering his own arse. All he’s saying is this: ‘I am better than you, so please don’t be mean to me or any of my famous friends.’ The piece is an extended sneer against ‘those who cling like drowning rats to the coat-tails of any writer who can swim.’ Which is an ungodly chimera of a metaphor: if you’re in the water with the rats, then you have presumably also fled the sinking ship. It’s also oddly familiar. Three months ago, Howard Jacobson wrote, in a separate column, that ‘people for good reason denied a platform of their own cling to the coat-tails of those published in the daylight.’ A desperate recapitulation of the same image, a circular motion going nowhere: it doesn’t so much suggest the artful strokes of an adept swimmer as the thrashing of someone about to drown.

Here are some of Howard Jacobson’s rules for online debate.

Lesson No 4: Don’t marvel that publications give space to the particular worst living writer you have your sights fixed on today. It sounds like sour grapes. Of course it is sour grapes, but you should try to conceal it. The last thing a person whose only outlet is an online forum should draw attention to is the envy consuming him from the fingers down.

Lesson No 8: A writer who has more words than you have isn’t ipso facto a show-off. Ditto a writer who has read a couple of books and is otherwise cultivé. By bleating about his or her erudition you are merely allowing your own ignorance to embarrass you. It should.

Lesson No 9: Don’t imagine that a word you say is going to make a blind bit of difference. You wouldn’t be tweeting poison if you were otherwise able to solicit interest. But if you must fight a losing battle try at least to be sophisticated. Telling a writer you despise that he has his head up his arse will only make him feel good about himself. Better his arse, after all, than yours.

This seems like it could be summed up in ten words: ‘I have a platform and you don’t, nyer nyer nyer.’ Having an outlet makes you important and worthwhile; being without one is akin to death. (Interesting, then, that Howard Jacobson himself once railed against the supposed vapidity of celebrities considerably more famous than he is, writing that ‘I am for banning the phrase “sour grapes” […] There is, quite simply, no life of the intellect when we can think of no motive for criticism but sour grapes.’ Funny how the times change, isn’t it?) Except the people Jacobson is complaining about do have a platform; if they didn’t, he wouldn’t even be aware of their existence. There’s a lot that’s deeply corrosive about communications technology, and most of the stuff about everyone having a voice is nonsense, but it has made it harder for mediocrities like Howard Jacobson to successfully abstract themselves from the world. All this is bluster, the disguised panic of someone whose plinth is slowly being eroded, the rage of a man used to making pronouncements from on high suddenly finding himself at ground level with everyone else. So what else does he have? His erudition, his cultivation, his self-satisfaction. Here’s a general rule: a writer who is this pleased with himself is never a good writer. The history of great literature is populated by writers inordinately suspicious of words in general and their own words in particular. Chaucer ends the Canterbury Tales with a retraction of his ‘translacions and enditynges of worldly vanitees’; Shakespeare has Prospero abjure the art of stagecraft and vow to ‘drown my book.’ Beckett, probably the greatest writer of the twentieth century, worries that ‘you would do better, at least no worse, to obliterate texts than to blacken margins, to fill in the holes of words till all is blank and flat and the whole ghastly business looks like what it is, senseless, speechless, issueless misery.’ Meanwhile, Howard Jacobson crows that he knows more words than you do. I’m not saying that I am a better writer than he is. I am saying that a dog pissing against a tree is a better writer than he is.

This is where we are: the people whose job it is to have thoughts for mass consumption are not just stupid but thoughtless. How did we get here? It’s not that crying children seized the world by force, it’s just that rulers, whenever challenged, always reveal themselves to be essentially infantile. In a period of secular decline such as ours, what this looks like is an era of ultimogeniture. It shouldn’t be surprising that, under capitalism, the task of moderating the general discourse has gone to a pack of overgrown babies; it is surprising how little consciousness they have of what they are. Writers have always secretly despised their public; this is nothing new, and should broadly be encouraged. When the appointed greats write about how much they despise their public, when they seemingly do very little else, it’s a sign that something has exhausted itself, that what we’re watching is the last recursive twitch of a long-dead corpse. There is still writing, there are still opinions, there is still goodness. But not here.

(PS: It’s entirely possible that Jacobson’s repeated use of the phrase ‘the worst living writer’ is entirely coincidental. But it also formed the title of my first post on him, and given that this blog is occasionally read and shared by people in writing and publishing and other allied trades, it’s not inconceivable that he’s read it. In which case I should point out that it’s customary, when responding to a critique, to refer to it directly. For all his sins, Slavoj Žižek is not afraid to say my name: he actually believes in the kind of honest engagement that Jacobson emptily trumpets; he believes that he is right and I am wrong, and that his case isn’t weakened by pointing directly to mine. If you’re reading this, Howard, man the fuck up.)

American aphanisis: in search of Donald Trump

American society – the industrial society with anonymous management and vanishing personal power, etc. – is presented as a resurgence of the “society without the father.” But we are warned: the society of brothers is very dejected, unstable, and dangerous, it must prepare the way for the rediscovery of an equivalent to parental authority.
Deleuze and Guattari, Anti-Oedipus

Something strange about the question ‘is Donald Trump a fascist?’ Already, it’s the wrong question.

If we define fascism as a discrete political ideology whose advocates in Europe came to brief power in the first half of the twentieth century, as a checklist of traits that we can match something up against, then Donald Trump is not a fascist. He’s not created any paramilitary body, he has no mystical insignia except his own name, and there’s no indication he’d try to suspend the operation of formal democracy. He doesn’t want an economy in which capitalist production satisfies the needs of the nation rather than private profit; he doesn’t glorify the aesthetic qualities of war; he doesn’t seem to have any line on art, degenerate or otherwise, whatsoever. In fact, he doesn’t really have any politics at all: all his reactionary positions are provisional, calculated for thrust and impact; they’re projectiles; it’s the trajectory that matters more than anything like content. And in any case, you can be a right-wing demagogue without necessarily being essentially homogeneous with the death camps and the Final Solution. But all this only makes sense if we define fascism as a discrete political ideology, which it isn’t. And to simply say the opposite, that Trump is a fascist, that the politics of evil have once again broken into the mainstream, is just as stupid. Actually listen to Trump’s supporters, see what they say about him. ‘He’s just saying what we’re all thinking.’ Donald Trump has one hand grasping at the stars and the other slimy with brains; he takes the swarming private agonies that drill away at the inside of your skull, the ones only expressible as a wordless scream, and screams that scream right on national TV. Donald Trump, the shaman-king, maps the cannibal fury of the imaginary on a symbolic terrain. He says what people are thinking. And what are people thinking? Without anyone other than Trump to tell me, I went to find out. This is a travel blog. This is what I did on my holidays.

I’d hardly arrived in Los Angeles, and already they were trying to deport me. At various stages in the long line for immigration, an array of machine terminals scanned my fingerprints and my retinas and asked me if I was importing explosives or genocidal ideology or bull semen. A signposted ‘pledge to travellers’ explained to me what I could expect: they promised to ‘cordially greet and welcome you to the United States,’ to ‘treat you with courtesy, dignity, and respect,’ and to ‘present a single face worthy of this great nation.’ Big video monitors drooped from the ceiling, playing on repeat a short message of welcome from the peoples of the United States. ‘Welcome,’ said a punk girl on rollerblades. ‘Welcome,’ said a cop in full SWAT gear as gunfire crackled from somewhere out of shot. ‘Welcome,’ said a colourful Latinx family in chorus, waving from a kitchen table heavily encrusted by charming Catholic tat; Virgin Mary keychains glittering deliciously among the flakes in their breakfast cereal, a clone army of plastic Popes standing to attention where they should have had teeth. ‘Welcome,’ said a toothless meth addict, hunched over shivering on the corner of a filthy mattress; and while it was out of focus, the city behind him seemed to be on fire. ‘We need the end of your tongue,’ said the passport control guard. I must have gaped. ‘It’s a new security requirement,’ he said, picking up a pair of secateurs. ‘We need to snip off the end of your tongue. Please extend your tongue no less than one inch and lay it on the centre of this tray here.’

Clearly something was wrong. The guard held my tongue up in gloved fingers, examining it from various angles, before making a few experimental prints on my passport with the bloodied edge where it’d been cut. He held the thing up to me. ‘What does that look like to you?’ he said. ‘Uhkluhgh,’ I said, trying to be friendly and polite and not attract any suspicion. I’d lied: my blood was seeping through the paper; it didn’t look like a cloud, it looked like a blot. ‘Doesn’t look much like a cloud to me,’ he said.  ‘Clouds look like other things. A doggy, for instance.’ He snapped my passport shut. ‘Follow me, please.’ I was led through a tight warren of peeling-linoleum corridors to a secondary screening area, a grubby little waiting room, full of other people, almost silent. Two sounds: one, the flat rhythmic wheeze of an ageing, bloating Mexican in a cowboy hat strapped to an enormous respirator, his eyes washing from one side of the room to the other in subdued terror; two, the minute sobs of a twelve-year-old boy as a woman in uniform explained exactly how he’d be murdered once the paperwork for his deportation to Colombia went through. Very occasionally, the snap and clink as officials trotted through the room, pulling on blue rubber gloves, grabbing some unfortunate by his cuff and dragging him behind a door to be interrogated.

I must have waited three hours before my turn came and I was hauled before what were, I think, a pair of identical twins: the same cueball heads, the same dented noses, a pair of taut and glossy tits. They seemed to know everything about me, and at the same time nothing at all. Somebody had faxed over an itemised list of every time I’d had sex, the date and duration stamped in crowded black numbers with lines through the zeroes; they made me go through the whole list. ‘Get a bit excited that time, huh,’ they’d crow, or, ‘losing all feeling, are you? Worrying that you have a diminished capacity for physical pleasure, buddy? Starting to feel like you’re too good, too rarefied, for the most basic biological and psychological urge of human existence-‘ and then, in a grinning parody of my accent – ‘mate?’ But then none of their documents spelled my name the same way twice, and there was no sign that they even knew why I’d been sent to them. ‘Why is it you think you’re here?’ one asked. ‘We want to hear it from you.’ ‘Because my tongue didn’t look like a doggy,’ I said. ‘I can tell you,’ he said, ‘it’s not that.’ His companion nodded. ‘It’s not a crime in any jurisdiction if your tongue doesn’t look like a doggy.’ They spent a while going through my old school reports. Wants to coast by, doing the absolute minimum necessary. Socialises very poorly. Doodles in maths. The first threw up his arms. ‘He must have done something wrong,’ he said. ‘Fuck this. Let’s just shoot him.’ ‘Please don’t shoot me,’ I said. This seemed to upset them. ‘Listen, bro,’ one said. ‘You are a visitor in the United States of America. You do not make the rules. I make the rules. You do not tell me what to do. You want me to deport you? Piss me off, and I’ll have you put on the next plane back to…’ He scrunched up his face. ‘The uni-ted king-dom.’ And then they put a bag over my head, tied me to a post, put a gun to my cheek, and pulled the trigger.

Afterwards, I thought: thank God that Donald Trump has not yet brought fascism to this country’s shores, or else there might have been bullets in that thing.

I was free: Los Angeles was mine. I was in the desert. I discovered that primitive society, that thing loosely theorised by early twentieth-century anthropologists, really does exist, and what’s more, it’s a recent invention. The home of Hollywood isn’t a sophisticated net of postmodern virtuality draped over the prehistoric hills; it’s the wilderness itself. I learned that the first time I saw someone dying of thirst, dragging himself by the fingernails along a deserted sidewalk untraversed in a century. On one side, low suburban houses with their clashing historical forms, melting mile by mile into the miasma; on the other, a thirty-six-thousand-lane highway. I walked and took the bus, two things you must never do in Los Angeles, convincing myself I was taking up the traditions of Guy Debord and Iain Sinclair and Ivan Chtcheglov. The announcement on the bus had a strange cadence, an underworked voice-actor’s drawl, someone trying to be a gangster or a cowboy. ‘For your own safety, please WATCH YOUR STEP when exiting the bus.’ (It’s actually the voice of former mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, which is essentially the same thing.) In other cities people are stupid and comfortable; in LA they’re falling off the edge of the socius, and they’re afraid. Primordial danger: less a concrete city than the colloidal suspension of ten million anxieties. Fears loop and mingle, they amplify each other, so that the crack of a gun somewhere south of Downtown might echo and send the whole city sinking into the San Andreas Fault, so that the drought might bring packs of starved coyotes down from the hills to tear your children’s throats out, so that aliens might invade and strip-mine the earth of its sprouting alfalfa. People were afraid of Donald Trump. The weather was beautiful, and they wore big heavy winter coats whenever they went outside, which was seldom. Space worked differently. Two places close by could be entirely unrelated – downtown, the five-star hotels butted onto sad rows of pawnshops and dollar stores: unlike so much of the city, this place was real, and it was falling apart. Walking, it made no sense; in a car, you just get on the freeway to somewhere else, grab a wormhole, pinch the map together with hyperspatial hands. Less science fiction than shamanism. All the glamour and spectacle has very little in common with industrial modernity or its narrative conventions. You know how the film will end as soon as you see the trailer; it’s a fireside show, a ritual war-dance, masks and all, cinema from the howling infancy of the species. No wonder that as soon as Adorno and Horkheimer arrived in southern California, they started writing about barbarism.

I became fascinated by the sight of old people in the city, perhaps because they so clearly didn’t belong. You could watch them through windows at Burger King, vertebrae popping like blisters through their shirts, poking at their flat gristly crystal, looking so utterly defeated, like a cartoon of the dying year. I couldn’t eat anything until my tongue healed; I drank vegetable juice and looked at billboards. All the season’s TV shows were about what would happen if America were under occupation by cartoon Nazis, and the networks had decided to promote them by putting up propaganda posters from their imagined futures. Above the low houses, Los Angeles was full of swastikas. Imagine how America would look under fascism. So I imagined. They seemed to think that fascism meant banning entertainment, or the suppression of any form of enjoyment by a dictatorship that exists solely to be cruel. It meant, essentially, not being able to party. Whatever they did, it could therefore never be fascist. Walter Benjamin defines it differently. Fascism is ‘the aestheticisation of politics.’ It’s the subordination of all modes of life to entertainment; American fascism would first of all be fun. But any game needs its rules. I went to the Simon Wiesenthal Center’s Museum of Tolerance, which told me that the Holocaust was the result of one man’s inexplicable hatred, and a cowardly population’s failure to confront it. Prejudice has no origin or cure. Intolerance causes inequality; inequality does not cause intolerance. At one point there were two doors, lit up in red and green: the red one said Prejudiced; the green Not Prejudiced. The green door was locked. After all, aren’t we all a little bit racist?

It was around that time that I started seeing Donald Trump everywhere. At the La Brea tar pits, a big gassy bubble globbed up to the surface of the pond. Just as the tension broke, its tear formed a puckered little mouth. ‘Winners,’ it whispered, leaving the stink of bitumen. Inspecting my turds one morning, I found them to be bright orange, like a newborn baby’s. Their creases and joins looked like a human face. ‘We will make America great again,’ screamed my shit. I tried to flush the thing, but it wouldn’t go down. ‘I’m being repressed by the establishment,’ it screamed as it fought its way upwards through the toilety gyre. ‘They don’t want to have me on TV.’ At night the moon swam hazy through a fume-fettered sky, big and round and wearing a combover that wasn’t fooling anyone. The moon sang to me in my sadness. ‘It will be a beautiful wall,’ sang the moon. ‘And Mexico is going to pay for it.’

There were storms and riots before I left. The drought was breaking, rain crashing seawards in ballistic volleys, a grey Pacific churned into something as messy as the land. Cops had killed another innocent black kid, they’d left his body out on the street for an ambulance that never came. The police knew they had an image problem; all that body armour, all those rifles and armoured vehicles, it made them look like the repressive forces of some distant dictatorship, which they were most certainly not. So when the mobs came for justice there was no tear gas or baton rounds. Instead, they held a recruitment fair. If you don’t like the way your police force operates, then join up and make a difference! We are an equal opportunity employer, read out LGBTQIA+ policy, learn about our retirement benefits. The leaders went first, scrawny young men taking selfies with oversized police caps falling over their ears. Only when about half the protest march had been deputised did the action start. As we drove to the airport, a freeway suspended five hundred feet over Inglewood, I saw blinding white streaks fall through the rain. Low rumbles as the warheads erupted. It was all so far away. Later, at the airport, Donald Trump’s face materialised out of the spinning blades on a jet engine. ‘Black-on-black violence,’ he said. ‘They should sort out their own communities before telling us what to do.’

Donald Trump, the billionaire property developer whose words get top billing on the TV news every night, is a political outsider – because he says what everyone’s thinking. In other words, he takes those things that are unsaid but which nonetheless structure the political discourse, and he says them. Sometimes people will try to defend Trump from accusations of fascism by pointing out that he doesn’t have any consistent politics, he’s only saying whatever will appease his reactionary base and whatever will provoke the media into giving him attention. Actually, they’ve just unwittingly stumbled on a fairly decent definition of what fascism actually is. All he does is gather up what’s already there, below the surface of things, and what’s below the surface is fascist ideology. As Ishay Landa and others have pointed out, it’s not heterogeneous to liberalism, but forms one of liberalism’s defence mechanisms, something that prickles up when class society finds itself under threat. Before the death camps there had to be colonial genocide and the Fordist assembly line; none of these things are intelligible without the others. We’re already living under fascism: all that violence and horror is a byproduct of the production process, it’s always been and always is latent to the capitalist order. Latent, in the full Freudian sense of the word: as in the latency period in psychosexual development, the false pause in which the same oedipalised energies of the initial stages are redirected outwards into the world, the repressive repression of that which is itself repressive – and as the latent content, the hidden content masked by the dream-work. And we are not awake.

Yes, Donald Trump is a fascist. But only because everything else is fascist too.

I’m writing this from New York City. It’s safe here; the Army came in and blew up all the bridges, and while the Bronx has been lost entirely all the other boroughs should be able to hold out. Life has, unavoidably, changed – Central Park is farmland now, millet mostly; a colonel with a tiny flat little nose went on TV to say that actually working with our hands ‘might do you people some good.’ You people; he didn’t actually use the J-word. I went down to Times Square, thinking that all the lights would be replaced by propaganda signs telling me in no uncertain terms what to do. But while there were tanks blocking off Broadway, Coca-Cola was still there. And that’s how I knew I would be OK.

Notes towards a phenomenology of conspiracy theory


Really, what I want to talk about here is the unspoken axiom behind all epistemology: that we ought to believe statements that are propositionally true, and that we ought not to believe statements that are propositionally false. This general principle is rarely ever stated, and tends to just appear as the hidden code that governs any logical process. P1 is true, so it was kept; P2 is false, so we no longer considered it; the fact that this is less a logical axiom than a moral injunction is subdued in all this bloodless process, while the invidious character of the terms ‘true’ and false’ neatly closes up any gap between ‘is’ and ‘ought’ that would otherwise make such an ethics of reasoning more distinctly problematic. In any case, there are forms of truth beyond the propositional, ones where this autogenerative law finds itself making commands beyond its jurisdiction. What about the revealed truth of religious texts, which must be believed before their truth can become apparent? What about the unconscious truths of psychoanalysis, which must not be consciously believed in order to function? It’s now accepted (among most of the media and political classes, at least) that the statement ‘While at Oxford University, Prime Minister David Cameron took part in an initiation ceremony during which he fucked a dead pig’ is not propositionally true – but even if that’s the case, isn’t it in a very important way more true than the truth?

But I’m not going to resort to postmodern vaguery, beardscratchingly prognosticating on the distortion inherent in any reduction of truth to concept. Instead, I want to sink down deep into a set of statements that are generally considered to be propositionally false, and surface arguing why we should believe them anyway. For this I’m choosing conspiracy theory, because conspiracy theory is fascinating and mysterious and vast, and I love it, and I hope that you do too. Conspiracy theory appears to be an epistemic discourse, almost maniacally focused on ‘truth’ – so that, for instance, the phrase ‘9/11 truth’ for most people immediately yields the meaning ‘crazy 9/11 speculation’. But the other great master-signifier of conspiracy, the call to ‘wake up’, is very different: we’re dealing with modes of experience, the clouded, the fantastic, the pellucid, that demand a consideration beyond dreary propositionalism: a phenomenology of shapeshifting lizards and the New World Order.

An interesting point of entry here is provided by ‘Conspiracy Theories and the Popular Wisdom‘, an essay by the University of Otago philosopher Charles Pidgen, published in Episteme volume 4, issue 2, which has been doing the rounds lately in certain left-wing circles that are understandably sensitive to accusations of conspiracy theory. Pidgen’s central proposition – that we should believe conspiracy theories, or at the very least investigate them while being open to the possibility that we might – is not dissimilar to mine, but the case he makes is an epistemic one, and given that there’s clearly something broken in epistemic reasoning, it’s inevitably insufficient. He thinks we should believe conspiracy theories because they are propositionally true. He begins by noting that the charge of conspiracy theory is often used to discredit ideas that are unhelpful to the powerful, and that according to the conventional wisdom conspiracy theories are a priori absurd and unworthy of investigation. But if we hold this position, and sensibly define conspiracy theory as ‘a theory that posits a conspiracy,’ then we have to throw out most of what we know about the past. If we don’t believe in conspiracy theories, then we would have to hold that Brutus and Cassius and the others all happened to come up with the idea of murdering Caesar independently and coincidentally. ‘Much of recorded history would dissolve into a blur of inexplicable events.’ (Which, from a certain Benjaminian perspective, is exactly what it is, but never mind.) Clearly none of this is tenable, and so Pidgen – who’s spent the bulk of his essay disproving a position that nobody actually holds – quite correctly concludes that there’s something wrong with his definition. But if conspiracy theory isn’t just ‘a theory that posits a conspiracy’, then what else could it be?

Pidgen’s proposed redefinition is still insufficient. When the conventional wisdom tells us not to believe in conspiracy theories, he writes, it means those ‘that postulate evil schemes on the part of recent or contemporary Western governments (or government agencies) and that run counter to the current orthodoxy in the relevant Western countries.’ He notes that the idea that Saddam Hussein’s Iraq was stockpiling weapons of mass destruction and in league with al-Qaeda is not considered a conspiracy theory, even though it posits a conspiracy. But because of his focus on propositional truth, he ignores the tissues through which any proposition lances. A conspiracy theory is an explanatory device used to make sense of conditions that are not entirely understood: a general prerequisite for conspiracy theory is that it is sincerely believed by the person that proposes it. The charge that Iraq had WMD wasn’t a conspiracy theory; it was a lie. It’s very possible to imagine conspiracy theories that don’t fit Pidgen’s definition. Had George W Bush instead announced that President Hussein were the high priest of an ancient Mesopotamian death-cult that had controlled humanity since the dawn of civilisation through the emasculating medium of writing, and that he could only be defeated by a sturdy gang of tooled-up all-American illiterates, some people might still have believed him, but that would have been unambiguously a conspiracy theory. Conspiracy theory isn’t a type of proposition that can be taxonomically isolated by its propositional content; it’s a relation between propositions, between knowledge and unknowledge, the seen and the unseen, the incomparably ancient and the buzzing urgency of the present.

We could start, Occam-like, by proposing that conspiracy theory is the general tendency to attribute visible events to invisible conspiracies when a simpler and more plausible non-conspiratorial explanation is available. But that’s not enough: what is a conspiracy, anyway? It’s not a epistemic or a phenomenological concept, but a legal category. Of course conspiracies happen; if they didn’t, there’d be no need for a law. The crime of conspiracy was not codified until the Criminal Law Act of 1977; until then, in English common law (which also provides the basis for law in the United States and many Commonwealth countries), it fell under the category of ‘inchoate offences’, along with attempt and incitement; a nebulous cluster of suspicion, sporadically enforced and prosecuted according to the whims of the enforcers. The charge is not entirely extricable from that of witchcraft, broadly understood as a conspiracy with the Devil; as such, a conspirator could easily have been working alone. (Aren’t we all conspiring within our own heads?) In common law, something that is not an offence may become one if conspiracy is present: handing out medicinal herbs is legal; doing so with the Devil at your side, or after meeting your coven by midnight, is not. Conspiracy was not considered to be the mode of operation of the powerful, but the powerless: Satanic peasants in rickety huts, plotting against the mirrored institutions of God and State. The first major shift came with Lutheranism, and its charges of Papal blasphemy: suddenly it was not only the rulers who feared conspiracies on the part of their ungrateful populations, but everyone; social existence itself became a host of potential conspiracies. For obvious reasons, this is not a sense of the word that made it into the 1977 Act, which states that ‘if a person agrees with any other person or persons that a course of conduct shall be pursued which, if the agreement is carried out in accordance with their intentions, either— (a)will necessarily amount to or involve the commission of any offence or offences by one or more of the parties to the agreement, or (b)would do so but for the existence of facts which render the commission of the offence or any of the offences impossible, he is guilty of conspiracy to commit the offence or offences in question.’ One important provision of codified conspiracy law is that conspiracy is only an offence if the act that the conspirators intend to commit is itself an offence. In conspiracy theory, meanwhile, the acts that are alleged to have been perpetrated by unknown conspirators are sometimes formally illegal (assassinating JFK, carrying out the 9/11 attacks), but more often tend to exist in a Benjaminian sphere of violence that founds the law, and is incorporated into it (putting flouride in the drinking water, faking the Moon landings, inventing the Holocaust). It’s hard to imagine the shapeshifting lizards being taken into court in handcuffs; in any case, for an alien lizard to invade the planet by assuming human form and putting strange patterns on the currency isn’t even a crime in most jurisdictions. (It might, conceivably, be a tort.)

The ‘conspiracy’ in ‘conspiracy theory’ refers to the term in its pre-codified sense, in which it describes not a hidden relationship between multiple human individuals, but a relationship between human individuals and hiddenness itself. Conspiracy theory is not a theory that posits a conspiracy, but the hypostasisation of conspiracy to the level of theory, or occlusion as a general system of Being. It’s not just that public events have hidden causes: the seen is only an attribute or epiphenomenon of the unseen, which is essential to reality. In many conspiracy theories, the primary aim of the conspiracy seems to be the presentation of an experience in which the conspiracy itself does not outwardly appear. For readers of the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, what appears to be the chaotic stampede of human history is actually an elaborate performance-piece engineered as a distraction by the Jews lurking backstage. Flat-Earthers believe that a vast and sinister plot exists to place globes in every classroom and doctored images on the TV, with the sole purpose of having us think that the Earth is round. In David Icke’s sweeping cosmology, the Moon is an artificial satellite broadcasting something called the ‘Moon Matrix’ (although it actually originates from Saturn), an information-blocking signal that reduces our consciousness to its five limited senses. More convincingly (although I’m here not really interested in evaluating the propositional truth of any of these notions), many leftist media critics consider the wealth of images in capitalist society to form a single ‘spectacle’ that obscures existing class antagonisms.

None of this should be particularly unfamiliar: conspiracy theory in this sense is a kind of Kantianism. Noumena, the objects as they actually are, are by nature hidden from us; all we can approach by reason or perception is the phenomenon, the distortion provided by our senses. But rather than performing a Husserlian Einklammerung or epoché, conspiracy theory maintains a puckish Hegelian ambition to touch the face of the thing-in-itself. Its goal is reconciliation: as in Adorno, the subject-object distinction is not eternal but the product of particular historical conditions. But given that the conspiracy itself is by definition imperceptible, it’s not possible for one to have direct knowledge of it within experience. (There are, of course, people who claim to have witnessed UFOs spinning through the sky, or to have listened in on the cloistered Zionist congresses; there are various ‘leaked’ documents purporting to be minutes of the global conspiracy, but in practice such transcendental arguments make up a surprisingly small portion of the general conspiracy corpus.) Instead, conspiracy theory tends to coincide with a strange form of immanent critique, in which the visible phenomena of the world must be ‘decoded’ to reveal their secret meaning. Hence the insistence that the secret masters of the world would, for unknown reasons, leave little clues around the place pointing to their existence. Banknotes are popular here – what’s that eye and pyramid business about? And did you notice that if you fold them a certain way, it looks just like the photos of 9/11? Numerology and cod-etymology is also popular: can’t you see that it’s called an iPhone because its ‘eye’ is always watching? If we’re not living in Hell, then why do we greet each other with Hell-o? Conspiracy theory could be understood as less a set of discrete propositions and more a Heideggerian Stimmung – attunement or mood, a mode of In-der-Welt-sein in which phenomenal reality reveals itself to Dasein in some particular manner. Here, as in boredom (discussed in The Fundamental Concepts of Metaphysics), things appear empty and impoverished, but by contrast they are not without interest. They point beyond themselves to their occulted source; the world takes on significance not as a world, but as a map. Conspiracy theory reaches beyond the world as it seems, not by grasping at clouds from tiptoes, but by digging down, uncovering the foundations of things to see the vastness below.

It might be futile. But is it, phenomenologically speaking, true? In Heidegger, truth is not a matter of a subjective mental image conforming to reality, but the disclosure of a world. Truth is ‘letting whatever is sleeping become wakeful’ (sheeple) – the unconcealment of what had been hidden. I say that Socrates is mortal, and his manifest mortality, knobbly knees and tremoring heart, is suddenly made apparent to you. In this sense, conspiracy theory – all conspiracy theory – is true. And it’s a truth far more fecund and far more fun than anything allowed to us by epistemology. In conspiracy theory, the things of the world are atoms of signification, to be combined and recombined into the modes of appearance of any number of potential noumena. ‘The RAND Corporation, in conjunction with the saucer people, under the supervision of the reverse vampires, are forcing our parents to go to bed early in a fiendish plot to eliminate the meal of dinner.’ Life encrusts itself like milk on endless fathoms of possibility. And yes, most of it is evil. But it doesn’t have to be. Remember that through much of our history, the conspiracy was not a creature of aristocratic malice, but a mode of popular resistance. The Illuminati is not only to be fought; it’s to be established.

In defence of fantasy: a further response to Slavoj Žižek


Yesterday, Slavoj Žižek responded to my earlier critique of his discussion of the migrant crisis. There are a few strange moments in his piece – I’ve never before read anyone refer to ‘a hoax brilliantly performed by [the] Daily Currant‘ – but the essay is mostly dominated by a familiar discussion of the antinomies of liberal tolerance. Žižek has made a name for himself by bravely challenging leftist dogmas on the merits of multiculturalism, with a critique so puckish and devastating that, as many people have pointed out, it’s virtually indistinguishable from overt right-wing nativism. I’m not going to repeat this argument – in fact, I agree with Žižek: there is something deeply wrong with the logic of liberal multiculturalism, but rather than subjecting it to any serious critique, he only reproduces its worst aspects. To borrow a phrase of which he’s fond, his criticism is only the obverse of its object. Multiculturalism is a profoundly antihumanist discourse: its basic unit is not the distinct and individual subject but the distinct and individual culture. And while there’s a case to be made for antihumanism – as Marxists and Freudians know, the individual subject isn’t an originary Democritean atom but something constructed – any discourse that takes culture rather than class (or even race, sexuality, or any of the other axes of oppression) as its basic unit strays into murky, fascoid territory. Class analysis is carried out with the goal of abolishing class altogether, an antihumanism that aims to restore the human; multiculturalism reifies and hypostasises culture into an eternal absolute. Multiculturalism does not see a person who happens to be Muslim, it sees Islam embodied, and while it might call for all (assumed) differences to be respected, the actual person it addresses is approached only as a signifier of cultural difference. Within these synchronic cultural blocs any internal difference is erased; the fact that these cultures or ways of life are abstractions formed out a multiplicity of real behaviours is abandoned to a mystical idealism. The proper term for this kind of approach is racism. As Žižek himself frequently argues, the primary pathology of the racist is to refuse to see the Jew or the Muslim or the Roma as a person, but to see them only as an embodiment of Jew-ness, Muslim-ness, Roma-ness. So what, then, are we to make of his statement that ‘Muslims find it impossible to bear our blasphemous images and reckless humour, which we consider a part of our freedoms’? Or when he approving quotes Yevgeny Grishkovetz, who writes that ‘they [migrants] have no idea of European values, lifestyles and traditions, multiculturalism or tolerance’? Or when he says of migrants that that ‘their way of life is incompatible with the ideological foundations of the Western welfare-state’? Isn’t the appeal to the national or cultural way of life as fundamentally constitutive of subjectivity one that’s generally made by fascists?

Much of this material is essentially a reiteration of his earlier essay in the London Review of Books, and I think it can stand (or fall) on its own merits. But his critique of my position is not just ideologically suspect; it verges on the illiterate.

In discussing my response to his initial argument in the LRB, Žižek zeroes in on a single parenthetical statement, in which I write that even if the dream migrants have of a good life in Norway is impossible, it functions as a transcendent object of desire, and it’s strange behaviour for a Lacanian to insist on the unreality of that object and to urge someone to be more realistic. This is, Žižek writes, ‘simply ridiculous, theoretical nonsense.’ His criticism can be read in two ways. Either his charge is that I’ve made a nonsense out of the theory, misapplying and distorting Lacanian concepts – or that I’m indulging in academic obscurantism, waffling on about obscure psychoanalytical theory while the migrants are charging in to destroy our cherished European way of life. Weirdly, the latter reading appears to be the correct one.

The ideal migrants hold of a better life in Europe is not objet petit a, Žižek writes – it’s ‘a fantasy.’ He continues: ‘Refugees who want to reach Norway present an exemplary case of ideological fantasy—a fantasy-formation that obfuscates the inherent antagonisms. Many of the refugees want to have a cake and eat it: They basically expect the best of the Western welfare-state while retaining their specific way of life, though in some of its key features their way of life is incompatible with the ideological foundations of the Western welfare-state.’ In what sense is the word ‘fantasy’ being deployed here? In general, non-theoretical usage it refers to an imagined scenario that simply can’t take place: a deluded person is living in a fantasy-world, they need to snap out of it and rejoin reality. In this sense it makes perfect sense to talk about fantasy as something that ‘obfuscates inherent antagonisms.’ In psychoanalysis, it’d be a contradiction in terms: fantasy is that which structures reality, and even if it’s a symptom, the symptom is always a sign to be interpreted, rather than a cloud that obfuscates.

Let’s say, for the sake of immanence, that Žižek is right, and the good life in Norway is not object petit a but a fantasy. (Not that these two terms stand in any kind of opposition – the matheme of fantasy, $ a, merely represents the barred subject’s relation to that object.) In Freud, the fantasy is integral to sexual life and to life itself. ‘Life, as we find it, is too hard for us […] in order to bear it we cannot dispense with palliative measures.’ While for Freud the fantasies are ‘illusions in contrast with reality,’ they remain ‘psychically effective.’ He compares them directly with art and with scientific activity, both of which are ‘deflections,’ but both of which also allow access to truth. With Lacan, the role of fantasy in constituting the subject and its mental life is emphasised: as Žižek himself writes elsewhere, ‘in the opposition between dream and reality, fantasy lies on the side of reality.’ Lacan’s most famous dictum is that il n’y a pas de rapport sexuel; fantasy is the means by which love manages to persist anyway. The other is always lacking, their gaze is always a void, their figure is always the object of a certain ambivalence, they can never give you what you want. Fantasy compensates for this essential lack in the other; it’s what allows desire for the other to take place despite their inability to fulfil it. From the Écrits: ‘Fantasy is the means by which the subject maintains himself at the level of his vanishing desire.’ This is not the fantasy that Žižek is talking about when he talks about migrants in Europe; he never allows his Lacanianism to actually inflect his politics, because the two are not reconcilable. In Lacanian terminology, what Žižek identifies as a fundamental disparity between ‘our’ civilised European way of life and the irreducible foreignness of the migrants would be called a asymmetry in the Symbolic order. (It’s not just Lacanianism that he abandons here – what happened to the Hegelian identity of non-identity and identity?) If this asymmetry does exist, then fantasy is precisely the means by which it can be resolved. If we lack the appropriate signifiers for each other, then the interdicting untruth of fantasy opens up a space for some semblance of communication. If migrants are to live peacefully and happily in Europe, the demand should not be that they give up their fantasy of a better life, but that they cling to it for all its worth.

One final point. For decades, Marxists have made use of psychoanalytic theory; it’s sometimes easy to forget that Freud and Lacan were not themselves Marxists. In The Question of a Weltanschauung Freud, the Schopenhauerian pessimist, dismisses the Marxist theory of history as a ‘precipitate of the obscure Hegelian philosophy in whose school Marx graduated’ and laments that in the Soviet Union ‘any critical examination of Marxist theory is forbidden, doubts of its correctness are punished in the same way as heresy was once punished by the Catholic church.’ But if he wasn’t a Communist, he was a refugee. When the Nazis absorbed Austria in 1938, Freud escaped to London, fleeing those who would have murdered him with all of Europe’s Jews. (Four of his sisters died in the concentration camps.) He remained there until his death, twenty days after the declaration of war in September 1939. The British media of the time was full of familiar sentiments: fear of the tide of European Jews coming into Britain, represented as rats in cartoons, bringing with them nasty foreign diseases like revolutionary Communism, not respecting our way of life. Did Sigmund Freud abandon his Viennese ‘way of life’ for that of the British Empire? Successive attempts by British governments to define a discrete set of ‘British values’ have generally ended up producing bland nothings, but if we had to identify one absolutely central feature of the national character, it would have to be this: on absolutely no account whatsoever are you to talk about sex. Freud continued his psychoanalytic practice up until his death; we can only assume that this was a cultural injunction he failed to respect. And nor should he.

My own ancestors were Jewish migrants to Britain; had they remained in the Pale of Settlement, their children may well have been incinerated in Auschwitz, and I would have never lived to write these words. But still I’m not content with the situation we have: as a Marxist and a communist, I’m committed to a different and better world, one that does not yet exist. Call it Norway if you want. Žižek, who appears to have abandoned liberation, might sneer. And this may well be, in the conventional sense of the word, a fantasy. But it’s still one that absolutely must be maintained.

How to politicise a tragedy

I am writing this the morning after a series of violent attacks in Paris that left over one hundred and twenty people dead, and still it feels callous to even be writing about it. As much of the world reels, there’s something very brutal about the idea that now is a good time to demand that others listen to your very clever opinion. If it’s barbarism to write poetry after Auschwitz, then it’s also barbarism to write thinkpieces after Paris. Don’t politicise; don’t use mass murder to score rhetorical points against your enemies, don’t crow je te l’avais bien dit, don’t play tug-of-war with the bodies, don’t make this about yourself, don’t make this about politics.

Which on the face of it is odd: death is always political, and nothing is more political than a terrorist attack. These events happen for political reasons, and they have political consequences; to have an opinion is nice if frustrating in times of peace, but absolutely essential in times of crisis. And yet. A sense of disgust rises when people comment on France’s unprecedented measure of closing its borders by bleating that if they’d done that earlier, all this could have been avoided; when they start gurgling about the global threat of Islam and the foreigners in our midst; when they smugly declare that restrictive gun laws left the population defenceless. This isn’t a tendency limited to the political right: there are plenty on the soi-disant left also using the massacre as a pristine stage on which to exhibit their one-person morality plays. What if the attackers had been white; wouldn’t we all be talking about mental health? Don’t you know that non-Muslims commit atrocities too? Why do you care about this, and not about all the other tragedies going on elsewhere in the world? Can’t you see that all these bodies only exist to prove that I was right about everything all along?

Normally the duty to not opine would only apply to a very small sector of the population, but for the last few years we’ve all been at it. Most of this take-mongering is happening online, and it feels absolutely and entirely wrong to be worthily prognosticating about hundreds of personal apocalypses on the same platforms and in the same forms that are used to sound off about TV shows and and football matches. A lot of this has to do with the demands of the format itself: you’re endlessly encouraged to Have Your Say and Join The Conversation, to constantly be filling white boxes with words, because what you think about any given topic is now incredibly important, and before you know it, in the stampede to have your say and join the conversation you’re trampling over the dead. We scrawl our thoughts in blood. To express anything other than sorrow is monstrous.

But then look at what’s being said. Last night, President Hollande stood outside the Bataclan concert hall, where many dozens had died, to say that ‘we are going to fight, and this fight will be merciless.’ There will be more war, more death, and more tragedy. The TV stations are bringing in experts to insist that this is all the fault of the migrants and the foreigners, as if refugees were carrying the violence they fled along with them. More repression, more cruelty, more pogroms. Terrorist attacks, as we all know, are carried out with the intent of setting the people against each other and sparking an intensification of the violence of the State, and so the people are duly set against each other, and the State announces its determination to do violence. This is already a politicisation of the tragedy, and to loudly speak out against it is yet another: is that also unacceptable? The day before the attacks in Paris, two suicide bombers blew themselves up in Bourj el-Barajneh, a predominately Shia suburb of Beirut, murdering 43 innocent people as they went about their lives. Wire agencies such as Reuters reported an attack against a ‘Hezbollah stronghold.’ The humanity of the victims disappeared, they were brutally synecdochised into a political party that some of them may or may not have supported, they weren’t people, they were Hezbollah, as if what had been attacked were a castle sharp with battlements rather than a neighbourhood full of families. Many people very loudly voiced their horror at this – but that was also the politicisation of tragedy: was that also unacceptable?

When it’s deployed honestly, the command to not politicise means to not make someone’s death about something else: it’s not about the issue you’ve always cared about; it’s not about you. To do this is one type of politics. But there’s another. Insisting on the humanity of the victims is also a political act, and as tragedy is spun into civilisational conflict or an excuse to victimise those who are already victims, it’s a very necessary one. There is the politicisation that seizes on death for limited political aims, and then there is the politicisation that would refuse any predetermined script other than the call for liberation. It insists on the political nature of tragedy, not to shunt it towards one or another narrative pit, or to put a left-ish or right-ish filter over the images of bloodshed, but because politics is a way out of all this. Atrocity demands solidarity. Absolute sympathy for the victims; for all victims. To insist on having an opinion, not the knowing sneer of someone who was right all along, but undiminished solidarity in the face of devastation. To fight against those who attack concerts and cafes, those who bomb cities with fighter jets and with their own bodies, those who abandon migrants to the cold outside their borders, and those sent them fleeing. To struggle: the common struggle of all who suffer, against suffering.

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.

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