Idiot Joy Showland

This is why I hate intellectuals

Tag: benjamin

An idiot’s manifesto

Why should we hear about body bags and deaths? It’s not relevant. So why should I waste my beautiful mind on something like that?
(Materials brought in evidence at the trial of Barbara Bush)

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1.

Not too long after the election, I was walking downtown on 6th Avenue in Manhattan when I passed a sign, frosted into the window of a fast-casual Mexican chain restaurant, that said ‘Queso at Chipotle: not fake news.’

That sign made me an idiot.

At home, certain brands of chocolate bar are Brexity, with a chalky stodge in the bite that sticks, like the guilt you feel over your unvisited and dying relatives, implacably to the front of your teeth. An advert for HSBC bank is solidly Remain.

They made me hungry. Everything only makes me hungry for idiocy.

To say that everything is political is no longer an insurrectionary act, not now that everything really is. Every swollen mosquito of a transnational corporation has a codified set of progressive values. Every conversation in pubs or coffee shops ends up being about politics. Every online dating service promises to pair you with some stranger who shares your opinions or will fight you over them; the pretence that you’re in it for something as absurd as sex is just a euphemistic fiction. How are you meant to deal with the unacceptable politics of your extended kin at Christmas? Let some bright-eyed bores help you, with their handy online guides. Family dinners everywhere now follow the same messy form: two scripted one-person performance pieces trying to share a single stage, a discordance kaleidoscoped into infinity. Children, I hear, are constantly offering wise pronouncements on the state of the world, castigating the stupidity of our leaders in ways that seem strangely un-childlike, with none of the good sharp mockery of a playground insult, but judicious, rooted firmly in good morals and good policy. ‘Liberating ourselves, expressing ourselves at whatever cost – a form of blackmail and ultimatum.’ Chicken sandwiches, sports shoes, coffee machines, craft supplies, burritos, and sitcoms are political, sold politically, consumed or not consumed politically. Music videos are political. The personal is political.

Not me though. I’m an idiot.

As Marxists, we’re long accustomed to the practice of digging around under the foundations of things, scrabbling to find an essence which will always be ineluctably political. Domination with its leprous grimace, bubbling away under a blank façade of mere social life. We find the hidden propaganda in films and TV; the material basis of history; the networks of social relations that dominate our lives in the workplace, in the streets, or in the bedroom. Everything that parades itself to the senses is a crust over the deep subterranean well of the political. Once the political nature of things is made overt, we’ve been announcing for decades, we will all be one step closer to being free.

The well has become a geyser now, and we have never been further from our freedom.

Walter Benjamin wrote that fascism is the aestheticisation of politics, and communism politicises art. Well, we’ve politicised art; every glue-gun assemblage of hunched material, every glorified mirror in mixed or digital media, declares itself as an affront to Trexit and Brump. But where’s our communism?

It would be foolish to assume not only that there’s still something more profound beneath it all, but that what lies beneath is still more politics.

Today, to abandon the world of politics is the last, the only, and the truest political act.

2.

Yes, we know. Behind all this relentless opinion-having about politics there’s a relentless entrepreneurship of the self, which has to adorn itself with all the right stances for whatever demographic it’s targeting, and the more often you repeat them the higher your market-assigned price. (Do you support the good things? Do you oppose the bad things? Then what sort of a person are you? Hot wet indignity, the psychotic injury of someone who can’t accept that every game always has an opposing team.) Better to leave every evil in its place, so you can oppose it, than to overturn them and be left bereft.  And behind this brutalised vision of the self are the laws of neoliberal political economy, which haven’t just stamped themselves in our flesh but sealed us in, like the bindings that used to make infants’ soft heads grow into tall and alarming shapes, since before we were born. But you’ve not uncovered anything, just come back to where we started. You’re on a Möbius strip; there is no other side. And don’t you ever find it boring?

Yes, we know. Complacency is a luxury. Irony is a luxury. In this moment of crisis, in this moment of opportunity, to do nothing, to fail to have a position on the political shoes or the political sandwiches, to not preen yourself into a Good Person in a cruel world, to not talk about the latest deprivation over coffee and wine and hemlock and sewage, to let each dumb moment fall through our fingers, and not try to grab at it, to not fix its dwindling in the aspic of thought while every day people are suffering, is a luxury. May all luxuries belong to the working classes.

No, we don’t know a thing.

Sometimes my dreams are political. But in the end, it matters less that I dreamed I was consoling Barack Obama over the phone, and more that I did so in a cottage cut directly into the bedrock of a Hebridean crag, where the naked stone was livid with chilly light, where the sea glittered like needles, where titanic gulls – swift omnivorous airships, wingtips stabbing each towards its horizon, birds that could only hatch from the powdered eggshell of the moon – called out hideously overhead.

Prince Myshkin, Dostoyevsky’s idiot, sees the world from the vantage-point of infinity. It comes in his fits. At an aristocratic dinner full of cruel and vain society notables, he fucks everything up: he tries to discuss theology, he sprays spittle in the salad, he makes a spectacle of himself. He already knew he would break that Chinese vase. He knows, too, that at any moment the Bolsheviks will be breaking down the French windows to cart everyone off to a labour camp. Dostoyevsky’s novel, unlike anything else in the nineteenth century, unlike even Marx, comes with a full understanding of the fragility of the present. But the epileptic is not an excavator; his wisdom is the same as his ignorance, which is the same as his insensitivity, which is the same as his trembling. He suspects no subtleties. ‘He did not turn the coat and see the shabby lining.’ Instead he skims. Look at the grass growing, he announces, and then falls to the floor in a froth.

The Greeks used the word idiot, ίδιώτης, to denote someone who was uninterested in the communal life of the polis. A private person, a selfish person, a person who keeps themselves to themselves, which was the true sin of Sodom. But the self of the idiot is not the same as the self of the present order. An idiot is never fungible. An idiot is absented from the system of values, exchange-values and political values included. Not a separation from the tissues of the world, but an approach on a different register. Prince Myshkin does not close himself off from society; he simply doesn’t understand it. An idiot suffers from idiopathies, strange and unknown diseases. An idiot speaks in an idiolect, a strange and unknown speech. An idiot is idiothermic, warmed by a strange and unknown light.

We, too, must become strange and unknown.

3.

The idiot has started reading novels again, which were always laced with a surplus – of what isn’t entirely clear, but it’s certainly not meaning – that can only be inassimilable to politics. At first it’s hard to give up the game of making clever inferences and readings, but once they learn that literature is, like sex or the sky, fundamentally prelinguistic and pleasurable, they wonder why they ever bothered. The idiot has taken an interest in early medieval panel paintings. Specifically, forging them. They end up selling panels to galleries and museums to the tune of £800,000 before being found out. The idiot is learning to be kinder and better to other people, to work diligently and conscientiously, to always be careful stomping around after it rains in case they hear the sickening wet crunch of a snail dying underfoot. The idiot murders a high-level diplomat for no reason whatsoever.

The idiot sits in a garden filled with terrifying flightless birds, which regard you from bronze-dull eyes. In the garden of the idiot foxgloves tower as tall as cypresses. Children with wild hair – not the idiot’s, maybe not anyone’s – climb the stalks of these plants, and settle themselves into their tubular flowers, and shriek from each nectar-smeared lip that this petal-pod is theirs, and they’ll kill anyone who tries to get in, and the idiot sits in the sunshine with a very small cup of coffee and shuffles papers without reading them.

The idiot decides to believe that market ideology is only humanity’s unconscious attempt – through the scrabbling activity of conquest, and the torque of capital flows – to speed the rotation of the earth on its axis. (This frenzy for speed will be its own undoing; read Capital, chapter ten, on the working day.) The idiot conjectures that liberal inclusivity, with its constellation of oppressions and privileges, is the political expression of an ancient Atlantean star-map. The idiot knows that the Sino-Soviet split was really only a metaphor for the eternal crisscrossings of the sun (Mao) and the moon (Brezhnev), and the same story was told by the Navajo around forgotten fires.

The idiot has translated their speech into a buzzing like that of bees, but the bees can’t understand them. Bees communicate through dance, and the idiot has never been any good at dancing.

Scales creep across the idiot’s skin. They harden. The idiot’s tongue has a weltering itch all the way down its length. The idiot is turning into a lizard. Thin leathery frills web the space under the idiot’s arms. The idiot might never be able to fly, but it’s possible they could one day learn how to swoop.

4.

I’m becoming an idiot.

I’m going to delete my Facebook. I’m only going to watch cooking shows on TV, and I won’t draw any lessons from them. The radio is for sports and music. If someone offers me the Evening Standard at the tube station, I’m going to spit cold blood in their face.

When a conversation turns to politics, I’ll get up and walk away, leaving my restaurant bill unpaid, and go to jail if I have to.

I’m going to clear out all this useless mental clutter. I’ll forget the capitals of Europe. I’ll stop being proud of knowing all the countries that only border one other country, even though everyone always forgets the Gambia. I’ll let the world fade away by degrees, until all that’s left is what I can touch, and mystery.

I’m going to lock myself away in my home and expand. I’ll refuse to understand anything outside its walls, and watch the patterns of dust on the windowsill to see what they do.

I’m going to lock myself in a sensory deprivation tank and expand. My entire world will be contained in a few feet of motionless water, and I won’t be there to experience any of it.

I’m not going to have any crazy hallucinations. I’m going to let blackness settle over me, and I’ll find it neither boring nor interesting.

I’m going to lock myself in a sealed tank, and only sleep.

I’m going to sleep where nobody will be able to disturb me.

When I die, they’ll bury me deep in the ground.

 

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

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

batman-v-superman

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Notes towards a phenomenology of conspiracy theory

7-Party-(R)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Breaking the law

America has a cop problem. Black people everywhere have a cop problem. Humanity has a cop problem.

More than ever. In the last few days, cops in Cleveland murdered the 12-year-old black child Tamir Rice for playing with a BB gun in a public park. A grand jury in Missouri failed to indict the cop that murdered the 18-year-old black teen Michael Brown as he held his hands above his head and shouted Don’t shoot. A grand jury in New York failed to indict the cop that murdered (on tape) the 43-year-old black man Eric Garner as he repeatedly gasped I can’t breathe. There’s a lot to be said about all this, but I’m not the one to say it. There are plenty of essays by black writers and activists that expose these travesties with far more anger and elegance than I ever could; among the most powerful are The Parable of the Unjust Judge or: Fear of a Nigger Nation by Ezekiel Kweku and Not another death: Black Lives Matter by Wail Qasim. What I want to talk about is something very specific: the process and the meaning of the failure to indict the murderers of Michael Brown and Eric Garner.

Under the grand jury system a failure to indict isn’t the same as a court finding a defendant innocent; by failing to indict the two grand juries have found these killer cops to be so utterly and impeccably innocent that there can be no actual trial on any charge. Something is seriously wrong here. Grand juries usually function as a rubber stamp for the prosecution; it’s hard to imagine a grand jury throwing out a case against someone accused of plotting an act of terrorism, for instance, however spurious the evidence. These cops appear to have broken the law and got away with it. Faced with this travesty, a few familiar slogans are being thrown around: even if you don’t agree with the outcome you have to respect the decision; justice is a process, not a result; we live under the rule of law. It’s time to clear out this bullshit. Despite appearances, the law is not broken when white cops kill black people; it’s strengthened. The law is a fetish, a piece of hocus pocus magic, a ceremonial mask for power, a primitive superstition for white folk. The law is a transcendental secret, the centre of a mystery cult. It’s not a normative ideal to which actual events must conform themselves: all signifiers refer only to other signifiers – and never more so than in the case of the law, in which most pieces of legislation primarily refer to and amend other pieces of legislation. Instead the law is the hidden core of an institution of differences; more than anything, it’s an object of veneration.

The founding scene of legality is pretty familiar. Moses climbs up a Mount Sinai wreathed in fire and lightning to receive the gift of the law as a divine inscription on tablets of stone. As he descends, he sees that the Children of Israel have abandoned their faith and melted their earrings into a golden calf for them to worship: in his fury he breaks the tablets, and only when the idol is destroyed and three thousand of the Israelites have been killed can he return to the mountain and bring back the law. It’s a myth that conforms to the Benjaminian theory of law-founding violence: before the law can begin to function, the sons of Levi must first, by virtue of might, slay every man his brother, and every man his companion, and every man his neighbour. There’s something else too: what’s objectionable about the golden calf is that it is a graven idol, a representation of a tangible thing. The true object of worship (see how even now the Torah is kissed and venerated) must be what Deleuze calls the paranoid, despotic, signifying regime of signs; an abstract and unknowable code for an abstract and unknowable God.

Given that it’s an idol, what the law says is of little importance when compared to what the law does. After smashing the tablets Moses divided the Children of Israel into those on the side of the Lord and those with the golden calf; the former to be saved, the latter to be slain. The law institutes an othering system based on a principle of proximity, in which this proximity to the law becomes an ontological attribute. Michael Brown was a criminal, a thug, a menace, because he allegedly shoplifted some cigars – because he was black, because he was distant from the law. Eric Garner was a criminal, a thug, a menace, because he allegedly sold some roll-up cigarettes – because he was black, because he was distant from the law. Without a modern-day Moses to draw the lines of distance and demarcation, this role has fallen to the police. The role of the cops isn’t to enforce or uphold the law, but to set the order for its worship. Something is legal because a cop does it, or illegal because a cop forbids it. Cop action constitutes legality. The law is a function of the cops, and cops are a function of privilege.

The word privilege comes from the Latin for private law, but (as dramatised by Kafka) the law is always a secret and always private: privilege is the law, and the law is privilege. More accurately: white supremacy is the law, and the law is white supremacy. The founding documents of the United States, the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, to which all US laws refer, spoke of the inalienable right of all to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness while millions of black people were enslaved. This isn’t a contradiction, or at least not a meaningful one; the thetic content of law is irrelevant. What these texts did was to form a political subject, one which had life, liberty, and happiness, one that was landed, male, and white, one that would be protected by the holy magic of legality.

Why won’t grand juries indict cops that break the law? Because it’s impossible for a cop to break the law. White people – those close to the law – are taught from an early age to see cops as living embodiments of legality, and in a way this is true. (Black people are taught from an early age to see cops as an imminent danger to life, and this is true in every way.) The law can’t break itself; by letting killer cops go free, jurors are just acknowledging its catechism. But the law can still be broken: Moses broke it once, shattering the tablets of stone on his way down from Sinai. It can be done again. Breaking the law means eradicating its system of distances and divisions: overturning capitalism and demolishing white supremacy, so that no more innocent people will have to die.

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