Idiot Joy Showland

This is why I hate intellectuals

On the stupidity of Nate Silver


If there’s a dominant experience of the twenty-first century, it’s that of living in a world that does not make sense. Life is stupid. Not stupid in the same way that a person might be stupid, in the sense of an incomplete grasp of the facts and a throttled slowness in processing those that it has, but a slick, dizzy, reckless, triumphant, positive stupidity, a stupidity that happily assimilates to itself all forms of intelligence. Sexual relationships are stupid; any form can only dissolve, monogamy, polygamy, celibacy, all teeming in panic against our inability to cope with other people or ourselves, charging like flies against a windowpane. Work is stupid; pointless drudgery that no longer pretends to have anything more in common with actual productive labour than ritual animal sacrifice, so that there’s nobody who won’t freely admit that they’ve wasted their life, so that the cherished tradition of killing time in the office had to be introduced as a new form of labour discipline. Democratic politics are stupid, not so much a reality TV show as a glorified version of the policeman’s identity parade, but in reverse time: the mass of voters identify the perp, and then he gets to go and commit his crimes. The international order is stupid, drugs law is stupid, global warming is stupid, mass media is stupid, going to the beach is stupid, the Sun and the Moon are stupid, staying at home is stupid, the tiny furrowed creatures that burrow between immense grains of earth are stupid. The world is ending! How did we end up here? Somewhere along the road, centuries ago, millennia ago, we took a very wrong turn. Hegel might have described a parallel reality where it never happened, but here, every new stage of history is a further progression in the dialectic of the original Mistake.

A stupid world can still make sense; what faces us now is the collapse of all its explanatory and predictive mechanisms. The gods, who had a plan, can no longer account for a world without one; nor can divination, or the natural sciences, or hermeneutics, or Marxism. It’s not that these procedures can’t be accurate – Marxism, in particular, might still be the only thing that can help us, retaining as it does the worthwhile kernels of all previous forms – but each of them serves to change the world as it is described, so that the dispassionate, bodiless observing eye becomes another component in the machinery, impaled on its axle, squelching and wobbling along with every other greasy cog. The gods were supposed to let us know what was good and just; instead they fucked us in the form of a swan, and in the war that started no ceasefire has ever lasted long. The natural sciences were supposed to flood the dark corners of the universe with reason; instead they choked the air with smog. Stupidity triumphant isn’t defeated by its opposite. It crawls the world on slug-trails, searching for cleverness to eat. Look at the US election: with every stupid lie Donald Trump speaks a thousand liberals jump up like snakes from a can to explain exactly why he’s wrong, as if they don’t realise that being wrong is in no sense a fault.

This is, I think, where my good friend Tom Whyman is wrong about Nate Silver. The American psephologist was a brief celebrity after the 2008 presidential election, when he correctly predicted the outcome in all but one of the fifty states; he promised a new way of approaching political events, based not on loyalty, prejudice, gut instinct, stereotyping, or partisan attempts to change the outcome by predicting it, but cold, objective numbers. No wonder he became a liberal hero – in whatever small way, he took an unpredictable world that did not make sense, and found a pattern. Silver did what nobody else had thought to do: he looked at the polls, measured them against each other, and formed a set of statistical probabilities. Ignoring any analysis of political moods or economic circumstances, he decided that the most likely predictor for how people would vote was who they said they were going to vote for. This is why Whyman refers to him as a ‘cold demon of knowledge’: the people and politicians who actually impact reality are idiots, but Silver, content to merely describe it, ‘the judge only of bland truisms that would and continue to exist anyway, seems god-like.’ Whyman is Hegelian here: the aggregated understanding of all existing active stupidity becomes a passive intelligence; there’s a conversion of quantity into quality. But stuck between these two poles – transformative stupidity, descriptive knowledge – he demands another: a transformative knowledge, the power to make discernments about the world and then ‘say, not merely: “it is thus and so” but also, “and it should be thus.”’

The fourth pole, descriptive stupidity, slips out of his discourse. It’s not quite the same thing as being simply wrong, although wrongness might be involved; in a fundamentally very stupid world, the concept that is in accordance with the present state of things will inevitably be a stupid one, while transformative knowledge gains its character precisely through its non-heterogeneity with things as they are, its capacity to imagine a better world as yet unrealised. On the level of the descriptive, knowledge and stupidity are therefore indistinguishable. (Let’s not forget that psephology contains its shadow twin, psephomancy. The ψῆφος is the pebble used as a ballot in Hellenic democracies; psephomancers would study the material patterns on pebbles or those made when they were thrown to gain knowledge of future events. The bloodless logic of data-driven election forecasters like Nate Silver only inverts the mysticism of the latter. Reading the prose of the world, you predict where the pebbles will fall; but the pattern itself is without signifying properties, meaningless, stupid.) But, as outlined above, the descriptive and the transformative can not so easily be distinguished. Under current conditions all poles are only attributes; the active and the passive, knowledge and ignorance, are just epiphenomena of a general stupidity. The cold demon doesn’t float above the earth but leaves icicles hanging in its wake. The forms of electoral practice have, since 2008, become entirely about numbers, number-forecasting, number-wrangling, polls and delegates, an idol in the demon’s likeness. But the content has become very different; Donald Trump is entirely unpredictable, a stupidity that cannot possibly be aggregated into knowledge. Since his candidacy was announced just about every American pundit has assured us that it’s doomed, that he’s a flash in the pan, that he will never take his party’s nomination. But they were wrong. And Nate Silver was wrong with them.

This election, there’s a new psephological hero, the most accurate pundit in the media: Carl ‘the Dig‘ Diggler. He correctly called Indiana for Bernie Sanders, while Silver was still giving a 90% chance for a Clinton victory; he predicted the results of the Iowa caucus, down to the exact order of candidates on both parties; he predicted every single one of the Super Tuesday primaries, while Silver only hazarded guesses at eight. Even when Diggler first appeared to have been wrong – predicting a Sanders win in Nevada, for instance – subsequent, seemingly random events retroactively changed the outcome in his favour. And he achieved this, not using polls or data, but with gut, personal instinct, conventional wisdom, race science, and stereotype (‘Cruz does exceptionally well in Midwestern states where Christian folks vote knowing the next Commander-in-Chief will preside over the Second Coming and End Times’) – all the things that Silver’s cold, inhuman intelligence was supposed to have done away with. And while Silver has repeatedly been challenged to account for his failures, in his cowardice he’s never responded.

This is, of course, because Diggler is not a real person, but a parody of the pundit classes created by Virgil Texas and Felix Biederman. Diggler is a hyperbolic sadsack, who spends about as much time complaining about his ex-wife and filing lawsuits against Tinder as he does making political judgements. His creators do look at the polls, but they balance out their predictions with other, non-numerical knowledge: the atmosphere at political rallies, who’s being talked about on TV, the actual personalities of the candidates and the people voting for them, things that can’t be reduced to data points. It would be possible to account for Diggler’s extraordinary predictive success, and everyone else’s failure, in this manner: the pundits are all very stupid, while Texas and Biederman are not. But something else is happening. If you see them talking about Carl in person, you notice something strange: they talk about him like new parents talking about their child; they talk about him as if he actually exists. He does actually exist. Carl Diggler is real – more real than Nate Silver or (say) Thomas Friedman, more real even than the people who invented him and who write his words. He’s not a fictional character, he’s a cuckoo; he’ll consume them with total indifference. Those predictions are all his own. Was wirklich ist, das ist vernünftig – but here the rational is never fully dissociable from its colloidal stupidity, and the real is a stunted reality that is never entirely actual. Carl Diggler is real because his stupidity is of a piece with the stupidity around him, because his virtuality is not a separate frame to everyday existence but constitutive of it. His parodic interpretations all come true, because as everyone is aware, the world is parodic and lacks an interpretation.

Meet the family


The government budget is like a household budget. We need to live within our means. We can’t spend money we don’t have. We have to balance the books. Yes, it will be tough. Yes, a lot of people will lose the lifelines they depend on. But the government budget is like a household budget. We need to live within our means.

All this makes an intuitive kind of sense – money is money, no matter how much of it you have – which might be why governments across the world are so keen to repeat it to anyone who’ll listen. But just who is this household? Who are this family? We’re supposed to imagine the same kind of family that holds close to family values and enjoys family entertainment: a dual-income, high-earning, hard-working family with two impish but adorable children and a lightly sketched backdrop of uncles and godparents. Tammy’s finger-paintings are on the fridge, George knows absolutely everything about dinosaurs. These are fundamentally decent people, who through no real fault of their own have ended up getting themselves into a bit of financial bother, and will have to make some sad but unavoidable cutbacks. Caravans in France now, not river boats up the Mekong; good honest cheddar instead of chaource, a DVD boxset instead of a patio extension. They might be in a lot of debt, but the interest is always paid in full; their credit rating hardly dips. These aren’t people who will ever have to choose between food and heating on a week-by-week basis. These aren’t delinquents. They’re model citizens, and like all models their faces are frozen stiff. Mum likes Scandinavian detective dramas, and Dad tolerates them well enough after a nice glass of Chablis. They don’t blink. They don’t breathe.

The government budget is like a family budget: this looks like a literary simile, but it’s not. A literary simile works because it brings together two things that are fundamentally very different; you get a sense for the specificity of the object by its comparison to something of a different type. Eyes like fire are not really going to give you third-degree burns, legs like tree-trunks tend not to be covered in moss or have weevils scurrying under the bark. Nobody would usually bother to write that something is like itself. The family-government simile is far stranger, far more medieval: its principle is consistency, a variant on the Great Chain of Being, rooted in the idea that a similitude between two things indicates that on some level these things are fundamentally the same. In the end, it’s mystical and vaguely Hermetic: as above, so below; the state mirrored in the family, the family in the state. An idea of some antiquity: remember all those jurists who held that as the first paterfamilias, the Biblical Adam was also the first king; remember how often the sovereign has been described as the father of his people. Which is not to say that any of this isn’t true. But if the government budget is like a family budget, what are this family really like?

Let’s meet the family.

To begin with, forget about any friendly twenty-first century cosiness; status-symbol Agas, pictures pinned to the Smeg. Unlike most families, these people hardly know each other. Unlike most families, this one is incredibly old. It can trace its ancestry back for centuries, tens of centuries, and over the years its children have done many very notable things, almost all of them involving a great deal of death. The house has been in the family for generations. It sits alone on a low but perilous crag, surrounded by endless miles of thin, fallow, shivering heath. The grass and the nettles have been chopped piebald by various half-hearted attempts at gardening; here and there stand a few miserable clumps of trees, too old to give fruit, but still not exhausted enough to topple over for the mushrooms. There are no National Trust tours; the place is an eyesore. Every generation builds some hideous new wing in whatever style is currently fashionable, but it only takes a few years to fill up with must and crud. A thousand years of useless heirlooms washes slowly from one end of the building to the other. Gunk-scrubbed medals from forgotten wars, oil paintings turned fully abstract by the cracking lacquer, ornamental silver pisspots; a place must be found for everything, and family life goes on in the tiny gaps between all this accumulated stuff. The door creaks as you enter; of course it does. It’s dark inside. The air stinks. Rat droppings, rat poison, and rot. Welcome home. You’ve lived here all your life.

Here are your monsters. The father is – there’s no way to put it kindly – a brutish and violent thug. Most of the time he turns his inexpertly focused anger on his two younger children, roaring his horror at their ingratitude with small, creamy specks of outraged snot dripping from the edge of his moustache. He’ll pick up some piece of household crap – a toilet-plunger, a priceless vase – and fling it squarely at the centre of their torsos: look at what we had, look at what we built, don’t you have any respect for anything? Blood has been spilled, in glugs and drabs; little sprays of it brown around the edges and melt slowly into the general grime of the wallpaper. Sometimes he’ll lock them in a cupboard, or one of the dozens of chilly garrets – not without their dinner; he always remembers to feed his children, even when he keeps them chained up for months on end, it’s a point of pride. The kids are skinny and sooted but never starving. In fact, he’s utterly convinced of the justice of everything he does; he knows that if everyone would just listen to him and do as he tells them then none of this would be necessary. It’s an attitude he carries into his relations with the ordinary folk of the nearby village: every so often he’ll drive his car screaming to the local supermarket, and start brutally beating anyone he encounters with his antique cane. It’s for their own good, he’ll explain. And to be fair, while dozens of people have head their bones broken and their heads caved in, nobody ever calls the police.

With his wife, whom he despises, the anger takes a different form. He’s never once raised a hand to her; instead he rummages through her jewellery box, pulling out one string of lumps after another: do you really need this? Or this? Useless, vanity, trash. Shining arcs of gold and gemstones are lobbed unceremoniously out the window or fed into the waste disposal unit. Next it’s her clothes, slashed with his penknife or ripped apart by his bare hands; she wanders the grounds in silk and satin rags. Sometimes she’ll spend hours assembling a meal from the Jamie Oliver website (she was never a natural chef) only for her husband to stride in and tip it directly into the bin. She is, as far as he’s concerned, a sentimentalist, a wastrel, and a drunk, utterly unfit for motherhood. I gave you three fine young sons, he screams at her, and you’ve ruined them. This is at such a pitch that the kids, whatever turret or dungeon they’re confined to, can’t help but hear. She looks up, briefly, woozily. They’re lovely boys, she says. Lovely boys. And it’s true that she indulges them, endlessly offering new toys, desperate kisses, sips from whatever bottle is being attacked that afternoon, hundreds of gold stars, but it’s not like she really loves them; these are gifts given to replace the love she doesn’t feel, and always half in fear of what her sons might do if they ever found out.

In fact, it’s clear that there’s very little love anywhere in this family. The gold-star system must have started as a fun game, years or decades ago, nobody really remembers: completing some household chore would get you one gold sticker, and in a house so vast and ugly there are always plenty of chores. Somewhere over the years, it became something very different. Absolutely nothing will get done now without a few gold stars being placed next to someone’s name on the noticeboard. Making a cup of tea gets you one gold star, beating back the encroaching nettle-fields with a stick gets you two, shooting a rabbit or partridge for dinner will bring you five, and if husband and wife manage to successfully complete their joyless fuck of an evening they’ll both reward the other with a full ten. It’s cold and mercurial, but for a long time the system did seem to be working. The stars themselves were made by the eldest son, a frankly terrifying creature: round, placid, heartless, and very nearly thirty-five, he spent most of his days in his childhood bedroom with safety-scissors, coloured paper, and glue, making sure that whatever happened, he would always have more gold stars in reserve than anyone else. He’d give them out to his shivering siblings, usually in return for their putting on some painful or embarrassing display – running naked through the nettles, cleaning out his wax-clogged ear with their tongue. But not too many. Really it was the job of the parents to reward their children, which they did: the mother desperately, as if her life depended on it; the father grudgingly, and even then mostly just giving them back to his favoured first-born. The system worked.

Worked. The past tense is crucial. Eventually, the eldest brother somehow managed to stab himself in the eye with his safety-scissors; after that, none of the gold stars he made were fit for purpose. Gross, misshapen blobs, the points barely distinguishable, cheap triangles, things that no self-respecting person could ever accept. He’d keep on making them, not really knowing what else to do with his life, until the entire room was crammed floor to ceiling with shiny monstrosities, scattering in flurries at his frequent belches and his nocturnal snorts. Meanwhile, outside, crisis loomed. The family was giving away far too many gold stars to itself and not taking nearly enough of them in. Chores were going undone. It wasn’t just that family ties were beginning to fall apart, but the building itself, collapsing from its usual state of chaotic disrepair into a very real risk to everyone’s health. For a while there was an attempt to fix the situation by offering a massive gold-star subsidy to the eldest child, in the hopes that it’d induce him to return to his previous level of workmanship, but if anything this just made the problem worse, nearly wiping out the available supply. Something had to change, and for once the parents were in total agreement. There were enough gold stars for everyone; the problem was that they had too many children for them to go around. One wouldn’t be missed. The youngest: he was so scrawny, already it was like he wasn’t really there. And the estate was so vast, with so many places to bury an inconvenient corpse. You need to live within your means. You can’t spend money you don’t have. You’ve got to balance your books.

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Finding how to lose

Grief fills the room up of my absent child,
Lies in his bed, walks up and down with me,
Puts on his pretty looks, repeats his words,
Remembers me of all his gracious parts,
Stuffs out his vacant garments with his form.
King John, Act 3, Scene 4


I’m terrified of the EU referendum, not because of what might happen (because nothing will happen, nothing ever happens), but because of the way all this moral responsibility seems to be spiralling downwards onto me, a sword that hangs in expectation of my choice. And I don’t really know what to do. Both options are so utterly unpalatable: an indignant array of petty Poujadists in Union Jack waistcoats, arranged like souvenirs on some well-dusted shelf; the blank forces of international capital, their clanking machinery underground, their liquid streams of finance darting overhead. The union is monstrous; its opponents are monstrous too. It’s hard not to turn yourself into Hegel’s beautiful soul – the retreat of conscience from action into speech, the sense that everything surrounding us is evil, and the only thing one can do is avoid being muddied by it. The beautiful soul, Hegel writes, is the thing ‘whose light slowly fades, and who vanishes like a formless vapour disappearing into thin air.’ But this is Hegel: what fades always remains, preserved in its disappearance; the beautiful soul’s lonely death firms the ground for absolute knowledge. Start with the fairly obvious fact that voting doesn’t really matter, that one person’s voice is always lost in the democratic din. But you’re going to vote anyway. What negated things can we keep hold of in their negation? Why vote to win when you can fall silently into loss? I’ve decided what I’m going to do. I’ll follow the polls very carefully, and vote for whoever won’t win: if it’s clear that Britain will vote to leave the EU, I’ll vote to stay, a last-ditch effort to do something against that lethal wave of reactionary nativism; if it seems we’re staying, I’ll vote out, and slow the fading phantom of a slightly different world. It’s pointless, and it’ll only work if I’m the only one doing it. But when the worst happens, as it always does, I’ll be able to say: don’t blame me, I voted for Kodos.

But then I’ve always voted for Kodos. Every election, every referendum, everything I’ve ever given my grudging support to has lost. It’s a curse. I’m perpetually on the wrong side of history, but the things that never happened hang crystalline and unreal above a sordid world. This is something Walter Benjamin talks about in his Theses on the Philosophy of History. The task is to ‘brush history against the grain,’ to read its secret index of defeats and losses, the long sad tale of that which was never remembered, and find in it the messianic power of the weak. ‘Nothing which has ever happened is to be given as lost to history.’ All that once failed is reborn; as long as there are the victorious there will be the defeated, and as long as there are the defeated, the thing that we lost can never really be gone. The two senses of loss swirl together: loss in battle or loss in an election, and the loss of grief and melancholia. Somewhere out of their overlapping negations comes something to hold on tight to.

As a child I was unsatisfied with the world, already looking for ways out. I read some online pamphlet about Advaita Vedanta and decided I believed in it; I made myself a little diagram of the cosmos, within and without Māyā, dotted lines connecting Brahman to Atman to my own confined and unhappy self far across the limits of observable reality; I was weird. I liked things that weren’t really real; not pure fantasy but all those lenses that made the world bearable in its new capacity to be somehow otherwise, that gave me a kind of conceptual power to change things that I didn’t have in daily life. Conspiracy theory, pseudohistory, socialism, faith. I think it wasn’t long after my grandfather died that I found a collection of alternate histories, little stories told by pop-historians about what might have happened if one battle or another had gone the other way, a prism of worlds that never were. I don’t remember the title; it was actually a fairly stupid book (one account described the result of Lenin’s assassination on the way to St Petersburg: the Bolsheviks are effortlessly sidelined and we get a happy, prosperous, liberal-democratic twentieth century). The cover was utterly inevitable: a black and empty sky, and a swastika flag on the Moon. But that really did happen. The space programme that sent the first people to the Moon was the Nazi space programme, all those scientists snatched up in Operation Paperclip, effortlessly swapping Hitler for Washington. Watch the dialectic at work, preserving what it negates, proceeding as always by its bad side. It’s not that the Nazis are another example of Benjamin’s defeated of history; how could they be, when putting a swastika on the cover is still the best way to sell a book? But the litter that chokes our planet remains, all the bones remain, and one day we are promised the resurrection. This is why utopia is always melancholic, the refusal to simply mourn, the tight grip of the living to the dead.

Freud writes in The Ego and the Id that ‘the character of the ego is a precipitate of abandoned object cathexes that contains the history of those object-choices.’ We are who we are not because of the things we have, but the things we lost; the human psyche is a broken terrain pitted with innumerable jagged navels, places where the lines that once connected us to something else were ripped away. First we lose the world. The subject forms as the oceanic unity of the oral stage shatters. You’re no longer a mouth sucking in a world that is also yourself. You collapse into your limits, now you have a mouth, your first scar. You lose your invincibility in language, you lose everything else in other people. But there’s a solipsism that persists, into Freud’s own works: that reductive psychodynamics, the reconfiguration of a being-in-the-world into what is essentially a piece of highly complex plumbing, full of glooping streams of libido. A blockage in one interior capillary will cause the psychic fluid to gush the wrong way through its coil at furious speed, manifesting itself as neurosis. If a pipe or vent out of the system is cut off altogether, the fluid will just circulate endlessly around all the major channels, reaching boiling point, until touching the surface will burn the skin off your fingers: the plumbing has become psychotic. Everything is contained in this knotted ball of pipes. Freud spends most of Mourning and Melancholia insisting that the melancholic’s self-accusation really concerns a lost object, but that object is itself lost from the page as soon as you try to take hold of it. Instead there are images: melancholia is the ‘picture of a delusion,’ the object is reproduced internally within an ego that splits itself in two because other people don’t really exist. It’s the object-cathexes, not the object itself, that snaps back in the miserable subject’s face. Freud, you can tell, had never taken a punch. When my grandfather died we sat shiva in the house, and I spent the whole time staring through the dining-room window, watching weathered relatives filing in, deluding myself that at any moment I’d see his beige overcoat emerge out the gloom by the front path. I had never cathected that overcoat. This was something else, unrelated to any twanging lines of investment. The sudden and abyssal unreality of an object, the sensation of a thing that was not there, but whose absence became so solid, so close, more real than reality itself. And if there’s a worthwhile politics, and I hope there is, that’s where I think it can start: with a child who hasn’t yet learned how to grieve.

Neil deGrasse Tyson: pedantry in space


Something terrible happened to you in outer space. All you can remember are the last few moments, the sun fading to a speck as you and your crew broke free from the solar system, the ship’s systems suddenly shutting down, the panic and blackness inside, shouting and sobbing, outside the phosphorescent fringes of the wormhole as it opened up in front of you – and then you woke up, sweat-slick in your own bed at sunrise, with the birds singing outside, in another universe. You are trapped in the world of the popular TV astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson, and you know this, because here the sunrise isn’t a sunrise at all. In fact, the earth is a sphere orbiting the sun, so the sun does not in any sense actually ‘rise’ – it’s just that you happen to be positioned right on the moving line, known as the ‘terminator’, that separates the illuminated portion of the planet from its dark side. And the birds singing aren’t really singing – actually, they’re just emitting a series of noises without any of the tonal qualities that distinguish singing from other vocal emissions. And the bed isn’t yours, because scientists have never been able to find any way of isolating ‘ownership’ in the physical composition of any object. You jump out of bed and start banging frantically at the walls. Is there no way out? Where are your crew? You rush to the window, and almost collapse in horror. It’s all there, spread out in front of you, exactly like home: everything is exactly the same, but in this sick parody of a universe it’s all been twisted into something hollow, meaningless, and mercilessly dull.

Pink strands of cloud fizzle up from the horizon, and you know that actually the horizon is just the curvature of the earth, and that the clouds, which were once believed to be inhabited by angels, house nothing of the sort. A few people are already outside in the streets below you, jogging, going to work, but they’re not really people. Actually, they’re just apes of the family Hominidae, most closely related to the genus Pan, going about their ape-business, which remains primarily motivated by the ape-needs of food, shelter, and sex. There is nothing that isn’t instantly boring. It’s too much. You rush into the kitchen, rattling the drawer in sheer panic (actually just dyspnea, tachycardia and dilation of the pupils caused by a surge of epinephrine in your body), pull out the knife (actually just a piece of metal attached to a piece of wood), and open your wrists. The blood (which was once thought to be one of the four humours, governing personality traits, but which is actually primarily used to transmit oxygen) glugs out, darker in colour and slower than you’d expected. It’ll be over now, you think. But actually, you’re not dying: you’re just a collection of atoms, and every single one of those atoms will remain. Not only are you in this universe, this universe is in you.

Neil deGrasse Tyson is, supposedly, an educator and a populariser of science; it’s his job to excite people about the mysteries of the universe, communicate information, and correct popular misconceptions. This is a noble, arduous, and thankless job, which might be why he doesn’t do it. What he actually does is make the universe boring, tell people things that they already know, and dispel misconceptions that nobody actually holds. In his TV appearances, puppeted by an invisible army of scriptwriters, this tendency is barely held in check, but in his lectures or on the internet it’s torrential; a seeping flood of grey goo, paring down the world to its driest, dullest, most colourless essentials. He likes to watch scifi films, and point out all the inaccuracies. Actually, lasers wouldn’t make any sound in space; actually a light year is a unit of space rather than time; actually, none of this is real, it’s just a collection of still images projected at speed to present the illusion of movement, and all the characters are just actors who have never really been into outer space. When the rapper B.o.B. started loudly declaring that there’s a vast conspiracy to hide that fact that the world is really flat, Neil deGrasse Tyson immediately jumped in to refute him, even featuring on a eye-stabbingly awful rap song insisting that ‘B.o.B. gotta know that the planet is a sphere, G’ – a passionate, useless, and embarrassing defence of the blindingly obvious. In a world that’s simply given, brute fact, any attempt to imagine it into an entirely different shape must be stamped out. Why? The subject-matter is cosmic and transcendental, the object-cause is petty and stupid. Neil deGrasse Tyson strides onto stage to say that actually the Earth orbits the sun, that actually living beings gain their traits through evolutionary processes, that actually your hand has five fingers, that actually cows go moo, that actually poo comes out your bum – and you are then supposed to think yes, I knew that, and imagine someone else, someone who didn’t know it already, some idiot, and think: I’m better than that person, I’m so much smarter than everyone else.

A decent name for this tendency, for stars and spaceships recast as the instruments of a joyless and pedantic class spite, would be I Fucking Love Science. ‘Science’ here has very little to do with the scientific method itself; it means ontological physicalism, not believing in our Lord Jesus Christ, hating the spectrally stupid, and, more than anything, pretty pictures of nebulae and tree frogs. ‘Science’ comes to metonymically refer to the natural world, the object of science; it’s like describing a crime as ‘the police,’ or the ocean as ‘drinking.’ What ‘I Fucking Love Science’ actually means is ‘I Fucking Love Existing Conditions.’ But because the word ‘science’ still pings about between the limits of a discourse that depends on the exclusion of alternate modes of knowledge, the natural world of I Fucking Love Science is presented as being essentially a series of factual statements. There are no things, there are only truths. The fact that the earth is a sphere is vast and ponderous: you stand on its grinding surface, as that fact carries you on its heavy plod around our nearest star. The fact that the forms of organic life emerge through Darwinian evolution is fractal and distributed, so that little fragments of that fact will bark at you in the street or dart chirping overhead. The fact that there is no God, being a negative statement, is invisible, but you know for certain that it’s out there.

Which is not to say that there’s any requirement that these facts be true. None of this is real. Those multicoloured nebulae are not real objects, they exist only in fantastic pictures overlaid with Neil deGrasse Tyson’s face and some vague sentiments about how wonderful the universe is when it’s very far away from human life.  The images are digitally stitched together, the colours are fake, the shapes are not anything that could actually be seen out the window of your spaceship, a real-life nebula is about as exciting as a damp fog. If you’re going to love the natural world, really Fucking Love it, it’s best that you know as little about it as possible, or it might start to seem less lovable. Like when Neil DeGrasse Tyson quipped that ‘if ever there were a species for which sex hurt, it surely went extinct long ago.’ It’s a perfect Tyson fact, true because it’s basically tautologous, its scientific quality having everything to do with the idea that actual phenomena are just instantiations of abstract laws, and nothing to do with any scientific observation, such as listening to the yelps of cats fucking at night, or to women. Or when his TV show Cosmos described the sixteeth-century astrologer Giordano Bruno as a martyr for science, executed by the Catholic church for proposing a heliocentric solar system. See how the idiots persecute us, the rational, with their superstition and their hostility to objective thought. The reality – that Bruno believed in magic, worshipped the ancient Egyptian god Thoth, and was executed not for heliocentrism but for denying the divinity of Christ – is ignored, because that isn’t Fucking Science Love. Or when he decided that ‘Italy valued cathedrals while Spain valued explorers. So worldwide, five times as many people speak Spanish than Italian.’ A spurious reconstruction of the past from present conditions, or the I Fucking Love Scientific theory of history: successful tribes were populated by little atavistic Carl Sagans; if Italians didn’t slaughter millions in the New World it isn’t because the peninsula was at the time fractured into multiple city-states (some of them occupied by, uh, Spain) which supplied significant amounts of capital rather than colonists, it’s because they weren’t interested in spaceships.

But all this is pedantry, the perverse insistence on how the world is, the total apathy to how it could be different. Pedantry could be broadly defined as a hostility to metaphor, the demand that every object stand for itself and nothing else, that words function in the same way as numbers. Which is why it’s pointless to criticise Neil deGrasse Tyson or the I Fucking Love Scientists for being the pompous, self-important, and utterly cretinous pedants that they are: it’s just falling back into their own dismal, boring logic, insisting that a thing is what it is rather than something else. It won’t help you, lying dazed on the lino, the blood now spluttering in half-congealed dribs from your arms, running diagonally to the corner of the room, where the cat is skittishly starting to lap it up with tiny flicks of its tongue. You lie there, and you try to remember if you ever did really go into outer space. It was so black out there, you remember. And all the stars were so far apart.

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.)

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