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This is why I hate intellectuals

Tag: agamben

How do you eat the world’s biggest pizza?

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The other day, the city of Naples in Italy built the world’s longest pizza: two kilometres of classic margherita, snaking all along the famous waterfront like a sea wall, a last line of defence against floods or volcanoes. I say ‘built’ because a mile-long pizza is not really food in any meaningful sense; it’s a structure, a monument or memorial, something that belongs to the domain of architecture no less for being made out of dough and mozzarella rather than brick and mortar. Whatever this gargantuan pizza is, it’s not for dinner. In fact, it doesn’t at first appear to be ‘for’ anything, other than to be what it is, the longest pizza in the world. Hundreds of people were involved in its construction, it used two thousand kilograms of flour and two hundred litres of olive oil. But why?

Cultural theorists have some form with this type of thing, the close examination of some harmless little cultural quirk which always ends up forming a distillation of all the contradictions in the whole. (Although in this case it’s not really so little a cultural quirk; it’s a pizza that can be seen from space.) The general human tendency to build hyperbolically large versions of normal food poses some problems. Certainly it’s significant, and it can’t just be reduced to a gimmick or a bit of fun – if we found that an uncontacted Amazonian tribe was sporadically creating enormous versions of everyday foodstuffs, wouldn’t we want to think about why? All the grand forms of which anthropology is occasionally still fond seem to be replicated here, but at the same time it’s something entirely different. The enormous pizza is a vision of sheer plenitude and material bounty; we might think of the potlatch, symbolic feasts, ecstatic animal sacrifice. Its edible architectonics recall folk utopias, places from the Land of Cockaigne to the Big Rock Candy Mountain that in popular fantasies have always featured a landscape you can eat: houses made of pies, creeks fizzing with clear lemonade, the Edenic possibility of a world plastic and responsive to human desires. These fantasies aren’t simply a stylised negation of actually existing deprivation: they model a schema in which desire is unstructured by lack and life is untouched by death. The world wants to be eaten, and to eat it does not diminish it. Things do not die. The human mouth is not a locust’s, we are not a plague, we do not devastate – we produce. The fantasy of endless food is primarily an anal fantasy, an overcoming of the contradictions between mouth and anus, so that vital and edible flows predominate over their stoppages, darting happily through the alimentary canal. (In one version of the Cockaigne legend, you shit honey.) With such plenty, and with humanity arranged as a seamless field of mouths and anuses, the feast is by nature communal; in the Big Rock Candy Mountain you never have to ask before taking a chip off someone else’s plate.

This is not the world in which we live; we live in the dead world, the restricted economy, where houses are made of bricks. But shades of the living world seep through: the ecstatic sacrifice, the Feast of the Communion, and pizza. Pizza is a utopian food, the pie of communism: the egalitarian circle is to be shared, everyone grabs a slice. Unlike other sharing foods (barbecue, canapés, the sandwich platter) it forms a divisible whole to match the social totality, rather than a finite number of self-contained items to be doled out by some social-democratic bureaucrat. (The calzone, meanwhile, folded in on itself, marks the onset of fascist ressentiment.) The world’s biggest pizza, then, ought to be a miraculous social gift, a moment of joy and wonder for everyone. But in fact it’s nothing of the sort. The world’s longest pizza is stretched out for public view, but it is to be engaged with strictly on the domain of the visible. It’s a spectacle. All along its splendid length the pizza is guarded by rails and fences: you are to marvel at it, to conceive of it in terms of quantifiable size rather than infinite plenty, and on no account are you allowed to grab some cutlery and tuck in. The paradoxical prohibition voiced by authority for sixty centuries: this pizza is not for you.

It is still to be eaten, cut up and donated to the needy and the hungry of Naples, in what is an undeniably altruistic gesture, if a strange one – here, have this pizza, it’s been sitting around outside by the seafront all day, where the birds can shit on it. Still, nobody could deny that the poor are more deserving of the big pizza than anyone who happens to walk past it. But there’s something significant here – the way plenty is immediately put into association with lack, the way that under capitalist conditions of deprivation the world’s longest pizza forms an intolerable excess. When material plenitude does not actually exist, really big food signifies an increase in desolation. (This is, incidentally, a dialectic thoroughly explored in the film Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs.) The huge pizza isn’t the living body of the Sacrament, but a sepulchre. See how ‘the world’s longest’ overdetermines ‘pizza’: food reduced to acreage is dead food. A corpse of a pizza, lying in state for the mourners to wail over; a cheese and tomato tombstone.

In fact, funeral rites are always the law of very big food, and its production can never be disentangled from warfare and hatred. Milan built a big pizza, so Naples built a bigger one; the wars of Italian unification only found a new battleground. For decades now, Israel and Lebanon have been competitively creating the world’s biggest bowl of houmous – and houmous is, like pizza, a utopian food, served in a holy circle, dipped in with whatever scrap of bread you have to hand. The Israeli Air Force bombs Beirut from the sky; Lebanon retaliates with an enormous bowl of chickpea dip. These occasions are solemn and dignified; it’s a question of national pride against an oppressive neighbour. Often the big houmous is paraded through the streets in a ritual that mirrors almost exactly the Islamic funeral procession: held up up by its pallbearers, the chefs in their uniforms mimicking the white dress of pious mourners. The giant bowl of houmous is the image of something that died.

But what is it? Giorgio Agamben quotes the twentieth-century classicist Elias Bickermann on the funeral of Antonius Pius in 161: ‘Iustitium (public mourning) begins only after the burial of the bones, and the state funeral procession starts up once the remains of the corpse lie already in the ground! And this funus publicum, as we learn from Dio’s and Herodian’s reports, concerns the wax effigy made after the image of the deceased sovereign […] All these accounts leave no doubt: the wax effigy, which is “in all things similar” to the dead man, and which lies on the official bed wearing the dead man’s clothes, is the emperor himself.’ The king has, famously, two bodies, the body natural and the body politic: when the body natural dies it is only the corpse of a man named Antonius, and the public need not be concerned, while the wax image is the emperor as such, his body politic, this is the thing whose passing we must mourn. And it must be mourned properly: as Derrida writes, ‘the work of mourning […] has to make sure that the dead will not come back: quick, do whatever is needed to keep the cadaver localised, in a safe place, decomposing right where it was inhumed.’ The symbolic funeral is a guard against spectres, a fence separating the living from the dead. But times have changed in Italy: the imperial colossus is now a record-breaking pizza. This pizza is not in the image of some dead potentate; its function is political in a far broader sense. The giant pizza is in the image of plenty, the image of the commons, the image of the living world. It’s a funeral for the possibility of a better life; a conjuration against hope. The land of plenty is gone, but we remain. Here, on the dead earth, under the dead sky, surrounded by the dead pizza. Raise your eyes, let the glow above fester and bring out those rotting tears. We did it. The world’s biggest pizza. The biggest pizza in the whole damn world.

Richard Dawkins and the ascent of madness

 The fossil later received £250,000 in an out-of-court settlement.

Richard Dawkins wakes some time before dawn. He doesn’t blink or yawn or stretch – his eyes clang open with all the force and suddenness of a steel door. He stares at his ceiling, blue and brown swirling in his irises like cars and livestock in the centre of a tornado. Richard Dawkins’ head is fizzing with mad thoughts. He chatters under his breath as he strides out of bed and down the stairs of his Oxford home. His wife gives a small grunt and goes back to sleep. Outside a shimmering band of turquoise near the horizon brings a soft sparkle to the beads of dew hanging from trees in early bud; the heavy clouds in the distance look peach-pink and insubstantial; so do the old pale brick houses that line his street. The birds are singing in riotous chorus. “Accept my genetic information, females of my species!” they sing. “Observe my superior fitness for survival, as evidenced by the strength and clarity of my voice! Oh, and, by the way, as a bird I have no concept of God or metaphysics, but I do believe in strict gender roles and the principles of Aufklärung!” Richard Dawkins sets off into the world.

As he shambles down his street a few small birds burst from a shrub, scattering at his approach. The famous scientist suddenly breaks from his mutterings and watches them carefully. “Horses!” he says, finally. “Flying horses. Nonsense. Balderdash. Not now. Not yet. One day. Tiny flying horses, tiny flying horses, millions of tiny flying horses. One day. One day.” Later, an upended bin gives the bestselling biologist some cause for reflection. Foxes have tipped it over, sprawling its contents over the pavement. “Hitler’s brain!” Dawkins exclaims. “Save Hitler’s brain, study Hitler’s brain, gain Hitler knowledge. Hitler science. Science Hitler. Hitler Hitler.” Soon he is heading down from his wealthy suburb into the medieval heart of Oxford, towards the University, seat of learning and discovery for over nine hundred years. A few vans making early-morning deliveries trundle past him. He smiles and waves. “You want to see some films of a lady giving birth?” he shouts happily. “Fantastic stuff. Two million years old. Baby porn, baby.” By the time he’s on Market Street the sky has lightened and there are already a few pedestrians on the road – postgrad students with their morning coffees, undergraduates still stumbling home from the previous night. Some stare as he passes; some turn their backs. Suddenly, Richard Dawkins stops dead. He raises an accusatory finger at a horrific building standing in front of him. His face is twisted in fury. It’s not a church, though – it’s a charity shop. “WHERE DO AMPUTEES BUY THEIR SHOES?” the internationally renown secularist bellows, spitting and grimacing, tears rolling down his face. “DO AMPUTEES THROW AWAY ONE SHOE?”

His journey is almost complete. As the sun, burning with nuclear fusion’s blasphemous glory, begins to float above the crenelated urban horizon, Richard Dawkins is climbing Magdalen Tower. Finally he is at the summit, surrounded by its magnificent Gothic spires. As dawn becomes day, Richard Dawkins looks out at a gloriously mechanistic universe, and begins to laugh. “There is no God!” he shouts. “There is no God! There is no God!” As he does so, his testicles sway freely in the breeze, swinging slowly, with all the dignified solemnity of old church bells.

~

Richard Dawkins has gone insane.

It’s probably for the best. In his more lucid moments his proclamations tend towards an unselfconscious misogyny and Islamophobia – his thought bears the ugly stamp of the bigot who thinks that not believing in God lends his opinions some kind of Rational Objectivity. His links with the far right are extensive; it might not be a coincidence that his personal foundation shares a logo with the neo-Nazi Golden Dawn. Far better for him to be endlessly wittering about Pleistocene porn and Hitler’s brain. I’d like to think I helped in some small way: I am, after all, one of the voices that reminds him daily of an inconvenient truth. But really it was inevitable; it’s inscribed in his ideology. The ‘New Atheists’ should, I think, more properly be called the New Young Hegelians; much of their bad politics comes from their refusal to accept that their ideas were thoroughly refuted by a pair of bearded weirdos over 150 years ago. This is aggravating enough, but the madness comes in when their insistence on rationality turns from an irritating ideological quirk into a full-blown psychosis. You can’t talk to these people. “I prefer tangerines to oranges,” I say. “I’ll believe that when I see the proof,” they thunder in response, glutamated granules falling from their beards like dandruff as they shake their heads in scorn. “Maybe the juridical categories of proof and evidence aren’t universally applicable?” I suggest. The whining chorus: “Got any evidence for that?” Wander too far down the path of rationalist dogma and it’ll be no surprise if you’ll end up like Richard Dawkins, sunning his genitals in a world that no longer makes any sense.

But what if it’s something more? What if Richard Dawkins’ madness isn’t the end of his story, but the start of his elevation to something entirely different?

~

Richard Dawkins is not new. Richard Dawkins has been with us for thousands of years. Xanthus of Lydia writes of the presocratic philosopher Empedocles:

Having reached the summit of Etna, he threw himself into the flames, believing that with the scourging of his body by the fire he would arise as a god. From that day he was known to the people as Μαργίτηἅγιοσ (Margithagios).

What is a margithagios? The word recurs several times in Greek writing without much in the way of elucidation. In Latin it was translated as furiosus sanctum, or the holy madman: the Roman jurist Sextus Pomponius wrote that ‘the holy madman is he who, having been a great man, places himself by his own will beyond the limit of the law and its reason. Thereafter he is the property of the gods; he is theirs to kill or take in sacrifice.’ That the gods will claim their sacrifice seems to be a given. Of the individuals later described as margithagies or furiosi sancti, few tend to meet a peaceful end. The fourteenth-century German theologian Thomas von Klöt was born to an aristocratic family but renounced his worldly wealth in the service of the Church; he was at one point considered a candidate for posthumous canonisation. However, his preaching became steadily more bizarre and began to verge on the blasphemous: he began to insist that God manifested Himself in vegetable life and forbade his followers to eat any plants or anything which fed on them (flies, worms, etc were at the time believed to emerge through spontaneous generation and were therefore considered safe to eat). He was killed with two of his disciples when he was crushed by a falling tree. Comte Xavier de Mazan, commonly considered to be an inspiration for the Marquis de Sade, took to calling himself Priapus Invictus and walking around Paris in specially designed breeches that allowed his penis to protrude through an opening surrounded by rubies and sapphires; he died in 1761 when an improperly cut diamond tore through his femoral artery. At the close of the nineteenth century, the British imperialist and industrial magnate Harry Suggle began to take an interest in Hindu cosmology and eventually proclaimed himself Īshvara, the supreme ruler of Vyāvahārika or the World Inside the Veil, to a crowd of his workers. He was killed when a rotary blade in his beet-processing factory came loose and sheared off the top of his head.

A general theory of margithagies was first devised by the structuralist anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss in his 1972 work Les Hommes à l’extérieur. Lévi-Strauss connected the figure of the margithagios with the Outside Men of Amerindian society – those madmen who, unlike prophets or shamans, would live within the camp but not take part in its rites. The position of the Outside Man was an ambiguous one: at once man, god, and beast. In times of grave general danger (such as drought or war), the holy madman would be ritually sacrificed; however once the rite was carried out it was forbidden to speak of it on pain of death. Perhaps the most systematic analysis of the sacred madman, however, is in Giorgio Agamben’s 1996 Margithagios: Dissent and despotism from the classical to the modern. Agamben argues that the margithagios formed a ‘state of exception’ allowing ancient societies to allow for dissenting or contradictory opinion to be at once openly expressed and rejected as madness (and potentially cut short with the life of the holy madman). In his conclusion, Agamben explicitly identifies the margithagios with freedom of speech in liberal democracy, proclaiming that ‘in the twenty-first century, we will all be furiosi sancti.’ Notably, Deleuze and Guattari refer to the holy madman in Plateau 10 of Capitalism and Schizophrenia:

We refer not to prophets or seers, molar aggregates all, but the margithagios, for whom the revelation is always a becoming: becoming-God, becoming-flames, becoming-ashes. Can we say with certitude that Empedocles did not, in the end, adopt the trajectories of an Apollo? In the margithagios space becomes a field of n points, n-dimensional movements, intersected by n plan(e)s. Margithagios haecceities form lines of flight extending in every dimension, the contagion of the sacred madman is effected through these backchannels, in which deterritorialisation and reterritorialisation form a loop or sequence connected not by graduation but consistency. There is never a city, there is only a city and a volcano, never a volcano, only a volcano and a sandal, never a sandal, only a sandal and a god. Rhizome.

The theoretical margithagios is diverting, but you get the sense that Deleuze and Guattari have missed the point a little. The holy madmen existed. For a short time they transcended our world while continuing to walk within it, and then they all fell. They were sacred to something. Something took them back to itself, something greater and more powerful than we can imagine. As he babbles about tiny flying horses and people with more shoes than legs, a question is forced upon us – is Richard Dawkins about to prove the existence of God?

~

Richard Dawkins stands on the top of Magdalen Tower. The sun is rising over Oxford. The fires of Etna shine their feverish light over his naked body. He smiles.

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