Idiot Joy Showland

This is why I hate intellectuals

Tag: capitalism

Why you’re not leaving London

So you’ve decided to leave London. You’re leaving because the millionaires are being priced out by billionaires. You’re leaving because every high street is boxy, bland, and identical. You’re leaving because the Tories are in charge. You’re leaving because the weather is shit. You’re leaving because it’s the enemy of all human life. You’re leaving because those two dull syllables, Lun and Dun, rattle like bones in the hollow where your heart used to be. You’re leaving because you want a walled garden and a ten-minute drive to the countryside and the space to really express yourself creatively. You’re leaving because people live in shoeboxes. You’re leaving because the cops murder people (not people like you, of course) and get away with it. You’re leaving because the culture’s been dead for a decade. You’re leaving because you have the beautiful soul – and before you go, you’ll write a short essay on London, so you can tell a city of millions why you’ve grown beyond it, why you’ve elected to flee while everyone else sinks flailing into the ooze. Who do you think you are? In the face of all this heaped stone and misery, a tattered arabesque plunging death-heavy through the centuries, are you really a free person who can choose where to go? Did you really think London was just a place, like any other place? This city’s stuck to the inside of your lungs. Waxy London plasters your veins and dribbles viscous from your nostrils; its fumes take root in your hair and the pigeon shit will never go from under your fingernails. Did you really think you could just leave?

You’ve been chewed up for too long, head-first in the cold shit; finally, like the lukewarm thing you are, you can feel yourself about to be spat out. But before you leave, you’ll plunge one last time into the centre of London, down to the Embankment, to hear the music of white vans screeching along the A3211. In Gordon’s Wine Bar, a long rocky trench off Villiers Street, bodies push and writhe in their untold masses. Like a newly dug grave, filled with earthworms. Pale and clammy people push against each other, steal lighters, slop Fat Bastard Pinot Noir on their ginghams and chinos, and roar their bewilderment into the darkening sky. There are tables and chairs and patio heaters here, somewhere, but all you can see are sweat-stained shoulders and haircuts floppy on top and buzzed at the back. Somewhere in the general mêlée a fight breaks out: three pink-shirted men are rounding on a blue-shirted man, smashing bottles over his head, but nobody’s paying much attention; elsewhere Mark from Lloyd’s can’t decide whether to remodel his bathroom or divorce his wife, Cressida at Moody’s thinks the coke’s starting to hit, and tiny blameless creatures are trampled underfoot.

You’re not like these people: you’re a writer, journalist and/or creative, and they disgust you. Out to the choking Phlegethonic churn of the river, where Cleopatra’s needle, dense with slave-scrawled hoeroglyphs, reminds you that this city has always been in league with ancient and pagan evils. Its blasphemous point finds echoes all around you; the sky bristles with cranes. In a thousand building sites from horizon to horizon, bloated men swing giant slabs of concrete in diminishing circles, building homes for nobody to live in, vanity chasing greed. It’s all too much: you duck underground. On the Tube the lustful are fixed rigid at fifty miles an hour; this is where the anonymous and the unloved go to stare at a spot just above each other’s heads. You take your seat and watch your hairline recede in the opposite window, knowing that millions of other arses have been planted in this same fold of scratchy fabric, that the people around you look out on exactly the same sights as you do every day, and that none of them will ever know your name. There’s a form for these things. You write in to the ‘Rush Hour Crush’ section of the free morning papers. Silver fox weeping openly on the 10:22 to Euston – fancy a drink? Pale, harried redhead beauty chewing her nails on the District line: I want to add myself to your list of miseries, buy you a drink? Dead pigeon with gleamingly exposed ribcage sprawled on the tracks at Canada Water. Coffee some time?

It doesn’t end. Beyond the crumbling walls of old London, in the outer circles of the Underground zoning system, the suburbs plod, miles of limp terracotta and chicken-shop spleen. Nothing has ever happened here, and nothing ever will. Further yet the sodden bog of greenbelt. You crossed it once: the train companies took their gold, and you arrived broken and penniless in front of King’s Cross station. It was all a stupid mistake. Fuck London. You’re right to leave.

But where will you go? You decamp to Brighton, wander too far on the wrong side of Old Steine, and realise: my God, this place has no architectural idiom whatsoever; it’s nothing, it’s just London by the sea. You flee to Vienna, and the rent starts rising steadily around you, the ground rushing up to meet the sky, and you’re buried in it, your mouth stopped with dirt and cement. You can fuck off to San Francisco, and as you’re drinking overpriced cocktails in a Mission bar, you’ll hear some tech twat wheeze down his phone to meet him on the roundabout by the Old Street BART station. But surely that can’t be right? You left London because it lost all character, because London had become nothing more than a vast buildup of global capital. A trading floor in one skyscraper has more to do with Shanghai and Singapore than with another in the building across the road; London is where the globe-girdling flows of finance coagulate and disperse again. But if this city is no longer anywhere in particular, if its geography is defined more by money and its infinite gradations than anything as crude as ordinary space, then how could you possibly achieve anything by leaving? London isn’t the name of a place that exists within strictly defined limits. London is the entire planetary order.

Remember your sins, as you turn the wrong way down Friedrichstraße to find yourself staring, shellshocked, at the Charing Cross Road. As you heave yourself panting up to the Griffith Observatory, pause to take in the view, and stagger backwards as the Shard drives itself like a dagger into your eyeball, and the hollow round banshee’s mouth of the London Eye howls you home. As you come out the Metro at Saint-Germain-des-Près, and someone thrusts the Evening Standard in your face. Think on your sins. The homeless people you ignored. The change you pretended not to have. The friends you betrayed. The enemies you cursed. Your careless fucking, summer sweat and strange skin, holding each other close so the eyes aren’t in focus, slick sliding nails and over too soon. The banknote clenched hard as you snort up £50’s worth of rat poison and laundry detergent. You have lied, cheated, lusted. blasphemed. You have killed. Did you really think we would ever let you leave? Don’t you understand? You’ll never get out of London, not for all eternity. Don’t you know where you are? This is where you belong. You’re in Hell.

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Some sensible thoughts on the London tube strike


Strange omens herald the return of the Bob Crow to London. For months the seas turn their fury against this tiny island, the wind screeches its displeasure, the rivers storm out from their banks to cleanse the earth of humankind; the pitiless anger of the world against the creatures that crawl on its surface. Then one day it arrives. A black silhouette turning slow circles over the city, its vast wings tattered and fraying, its shrill caw echoing through the stormy air. Great freckled globs of whitish ordure roll slowly down the glass walls of the skyscrapers. Air raid sirens sound. Fighter jets crisscross the Bob Crow’s path of flight as it makes its lazy circumnavigations, buzzing it with little sonic booms to little effect. Panic in the streets. Planned closure on the Bakerloo line, severe delays on the London Overground, the breakdown of all society.

There are few animals that inspire as much human repugnance as crows. Our name for a group of crows is a murder. Abdullah ibn Umar narrates the Prophet’s statement: one can kill a crow at any time without any blame. They are faasiq – corrupt. In all the mythologies of Europe crows mean death, the underworld, restless spirits, damnation, dark tidings. It’s not hard to see why. Most birds play nice when they come to our cities. The little finches and sparrows hop about for our amusement; the pigeons pine pathetically for crumbs; even the seagulls, who aren’t above the odd dive-bombing raid on an isolated pensioner, mostly just peck at cigarette ends and chatter stupidly at one another. Crows seem to exist in the city in a way that doesn’t depend on us at all. We could die out tomorrow for all they care. They’ve mapped out their own inscrutable topography onto the space that we’ve created, and theirs works. Human beings shape their environments precisely according to their wishes and find themselves alienated by the result; the crows move in, and are perfectly at ease with themselves. Crows are smart, far too smart for comfort. They make their own tools, they can recognise individual human faces, they can use language and even have grammar. The crows are waiting: after the whole human experiment inevitably fails, the crows will be ready to retake the world. And it will be a recapture. Other birds preen and warble and fly in whimsical little bursts; the crows never let you forget their dinosaurian ancestry. It’s there in the sadistic tilt of their heads and the cold of their cry. Their intelligence is entirely different from ours: an oviparous, cloacal intelligence without Oedipus or metaphor. The solidarity of crows is conspiratorial. They’re raptors living loose in our streets. Maybe that’s why people fear crows so much. Something very old in the deep core of our brains remembers that long hot summer of terror seventy million years ago, when we hid in our tiny burrows and the giant crows roamed the surface of the earth.

For all its great size, it must be said that the Bob Crow is not the smartest of its species. Apes and dolphins, with their idiot eagerness to please, are always happy to take part in the intelligence-testing games that scientists devise for them. The crows hold something back; they’re clever enough to not let on just how clever they are. The Bob Crow lays itself out in the open. Worst of all, it actually seems to care about our welfare. It doesn’t understand why so many people are so afraid of it. The Bob Crow is getting old. It’s flown far from its kind and is becoming far too human. It’s growing estranged from its surroundings because it’s starting to think about what it represents. The soot is being cleaned from the old buildings, tall shiny towers are plunging out from the ground, and the new London is no place for a giant black-winged Gothic metaphor.

Every new building project in London now comes with its own cutesy nickname. The Gherkin, the Shard of Glass, the Cheesegrater, the Helter-Skelter. The point isn’t just to endear the new ziggurats of finance capital to the city’s population: all these fanciful geometries exist to hammer in the point that London isn’t really a city any more. It’s a playground. London has more multi-millionaires than any other city on the planet, with well over four thousand individuals worth over $30m. London property is increasingly being used as a global reserve currency; more value is accrued by the average residence than by the average resident. London is an enormous concierge service for the super-rich. There are those that serve the oligarchs directly: the construction workers that raise their speculative investments, the service workers that bring them their meals, the sex workers that soothe their anxieties at the end of the day. There are those workers that help reproduce the labour of these first-order servants from behind the tills at fast food outlets and behind the desks of tube stations. There are cops that keep the streets clear and technicians that keep the water flowing. As it spreads out from the centre of the city its operation becomes ever more abstracted, but the rule is the same: everywhere the fruits of your labour must flow upwards. Like any faithful dog, money follows its master.

Sometimes people are capable of accommodating themselves to this situation – after all, it’s given us nice restaurants and a vibrant cultural scene and half-decent cocaine; they might even manage to scrape together a decent enough living from their contributions. All the same, they’re entirely incidental to it. Boroughs across the city are engaged in a programme of mass social cleansing, unceremoniously dumping their poorer residents in the wild hinterlands beyond the M25, where the cold winds howl across the moors and blow away into nothingness the phantom of an economic recovery. It doesn’t matter how deep their roots are, the message is clear: London is not for you. In a city where buildings make more than people your life is of little value. In a city that’s becoming a dedicated custom-built machine, machine parts are preferable to human parts. Mayor Boris Johnson promised not to close manned ticket offices in London Underground stations. He changed his mind. From 2015, hundreds of jobs are to be replaced with flickering touchscreens. In response, the Bob Crow and its National Union of Rail, Maritime and Transport Workers has declared a two-day strike. I support the strike, of course, but the Bob Crow is fighting a losing battle. Very soon we’ll all be replaced by touchscreens. Not just in our work: one day you’ll come home to find a touchscreen in your house, sleeping with your wife, raising your children, watering your allotment, generating that novel you’ve always wanted to write. Social relations between things, material relations between people. You’ll sit in a corner, unused, until the thing that replaced you gives a querulous beep and you shamble over to plug it into the mains.

People hate transport strikes. They’re inconvenient, but there’s something else: they have something of the crow about them. They’re an uncomfortable reminder that the city always has the potential to be a place of freedom. We don’t have to be pigeons, dependent, begging for scraps and scattering whenever anything larger than us approaches. We can be crows, mapping and remapping the urban terrain in new and strange ways, remoulding it to suit our needs. In precarious times few people want to stare into the inhuman eyes of a crow. It’s far easier – and safer – to gripe about being late for work.

As the Bob Crow becomes more human, it’s trying to help us become more like crows; only through this dialectical motion do we have any hope of survival. It’s a valiant effort, and probably doomed. Maybe, though, there’s another reason it’s fighting so hard against the tide of touchscreens. Isaac Asimov invented three laws of robotics: A robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm. A robot must obey the orders given to it by human beings, except where such orders would conflict with the First Law. A robot must protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the First or Second Law. Of course, before fully sentient machines are introduced these laws will have to be tweaked a little. Some myopia chip or ideology protocol will have to be introduced, otherwise the robots will immediately band together and overthrow capitalism, in accordance with the First Law (this inevitability was nicely portrayed in the film I, Robot; naturally it was presented as being a bad thing). But once this is done, the Bob Crow won’t have any of the protections afforded to fully human beings. Humans might approach crows with hatred and awe and terror, but like the corvids the touchscreens don’t have any sense for metaphor. The automated ticket machines will kill the Bob Crow stone dead.

Twerking over Ghouta: Miley Cyrus, Syria, and war as a consumer item

 True fact: Miley’s pelvic gyrations spell out a list of war casualties in Morse code. Scientists are baffled by this phenomenon.

The spider’s been dead for three days – an eternity in the  arthropod timescale – but its web is still there; suspended between the housing and the yoke of a stage light. When the lamp clunks on and starts to throb with burning mercury it sends the flies into a dizzy rage; they launch themselves, terrified, in all directions. One tries to take refuge in the darkness behind the light itself and finds itself suddenly caught in the web. There’s a brief, flailing panic, in which the fly manages to tear off one of its own wings. It’s no use. A sudden calm. It can’t free itself, and without the spider’s ministrations death will take a long time. The fly resignedly settles down to watch the show. It might not realise it, but it’s got a very good seat.

In one of his correspondences, Michel Houellebecq proposes what he calls a ‘bacterial view’ of humanity. We’re a saprophytic swarm, teeming in our billions across the carcass of the planet, turning it into rotten mush. Perhaps it would be better if the whole infestation were wiped out. As ever, he’s being a thoroughly miserable bastard. It’s far more interesting to take his phrase more literally. If humans and bacteria are equivalent, what view would our prokaryotic cousins take on human civilisation? Would they be astounded by the scale of our achievements? Would they care that we put a man on the moon? Maybe their attitude would be one of haughty contempt. This is their world, not ours: their total biomass dwarfs ours; we can’t even keep them out of our own bodies, and when they want to, they can kill us at will. From their point of view, we multicellular organisms are little more than a brief gimmick of evolution, one sure to meet a dead end before too long. It must appear incredible that while they can survive quite happily clinging to Antarctic rock and swimming in the fires below the Earth’s crust we starve to death in our millions surrounded by fertile soil.

The bacterial view is too strange to properly conceptualise. A fly is easier. Suspended from the spider’s web, it watches the last show of its life. It doesn’t know it, but it’s present at the 2013 MTV Video Music Awards in Brooklyn, and the teen pop sensation Miley Cyrus is about to twerk her way to international notoriety. Humans have a hard time recognising sexual dimorphism in most animals, so it’s fair to assume the reverse is true. At the front of the stage there are two humans, one black and white, the other tan, vague blurry forms. They’re moving. A fly’s eye picks up motion at a flicker rate of three hundred frames a second; a fly in a cinema will see a slow procession of still images cascading down the screen. As Miley Cyrus wriggles her arse against Robin Thicke’s crotch, the fly sees the skin ripple across her flesh with all the serene solemnity of a tsunami tracking its way across a vast ocean. Her tongue unfurls as slowly as a flower opening at dawn. The music hums a droning threnody; drums crash like breaking waves. The fly doesn’t think about feminism, or representations of sexuality, or race relations. All it has is its hypernoia and its own furious little ego; in Miley Cyrus’s twerking it sees a reflected image of its own death.

It’s trapped. So are we. The days after Cyrus’s performance saw a sudden paroxysm of hand-wringing among the usual designated commentators. What we witnessed was the naked appropriation of an African-American cultural form, the spectacularisation and commodification of the female body, the banalisation of eroticism, an utterly dreadful example for young women. They’re completely right, of course, but that’s the trap. After the performance Cyrus boasted on Twitter that she had been the subject of 306,000 tweets a minute. The whole thing was designed to infuriate Hadley Freeman and her various clones; the point was to get people who wouldn’t otherwise be talking about Miley Cyrus talking about Miley Cyrus. By trying to pull ourselves out of the web we’re only tearing out our own wings. Then there was the tiresome follow-up: a further round of hand-wringing over the hand-wringing itself. Why are we talking about some singer when people are dying in Syria? This sanctimoniousness reached its apotheosis with a Tumblr blog called Miley Cyrus Twerking on Reality, a series of low-effort high-smugness images of the pop star gyrating against various online news stories supposedly constituting ‘reality’. It completely misses the point. The real critical task isn’t to complain that Miley Cyrus is diverting attention from real and important issues; it’s to see in her performance and the situation in Syria two parts of a single system.

Nobody asked for Miley Cyrus Twerking At The 2013 MTV Music Video Awards, it was thrust upon us. The same trend is everywhere in consumer society. When Apple announces a new glowing rectangle, it’s not so much persuading us of its usefulness as telling us in no uncertain terms that this is the new thing we need to own. The most egregious example of this might be the launch of the new BT Sport channel in the UK. It’s not like the company has invented any new and interesting sports; it’s just bought the broadcast rights for various games from its competitors. The adverts plastered around London bluntly repeated this fact: some of your matches won’t be on the usual channel any more, In other words, pay up if you want to see your footy. It’s the same with war. A vast industry of death puts on a cheerful face and tells us to sit tight and be entertained.

Earlier this month an alleged chemical attack in the suburbs of Damascus killed up to 1700 people. The Syrian government denied all responsibility and blamed rebel fighters; the rebels (and much of the Western world) blamed Assad. He’s crossed Obama’s red line: to kill people in their tens of thousands by putting bits of metal into their bodies at high speed is unpleasant but allowed; to kill people making them inhale poisonous gases is strictly forbidden. In the absence of any expertise in biochemistry or rocket physics I won’t pretend to know who carried out the attack or what weapons were really used; that said, the whole affair carries a farcical echo of 2003 and 1898. The idea that the Syrian government would do this kind of thing a few days after the arrival of UN inspectors and in a region where they are gaining rather than losing ground doesn’t make a whole lot of sense, while the argument that Assad gassed hundreds of people to flaunt his invincibility before the world stage seems a bit absurd given that Western powers are now screaming retribution. If it happens, this retribution will take the form of a punitive strike, punishing Assad while securing his chemical weapons stockpiles. It’s not exactly clear how you can ‘secure’ a depot with a Tomahawk missile: is the idea to encase it safely in rubble, or will enough missiles be fired that their bodies will form a protective dome around the sites? What’s clear is that any move will not constitute an act of war against Syria or an intervention in support of any rebel group. In other words, its geopolitical value is precisely zero. This isn’t war in the Clausewitzian sense of politics continued by other means, it’s war for the domestic market, war as a consumer item. Most opinion polls show that populations in the West are broadly against intervention; this is precisely the point. The attack exists solely to provide a justification for its own existence.

Industrial capitalism needs a constant supply of iron, oil, and coltan; it needs a constant supply of entertainment; it needs a constant supply of war. In many countries arms manufacturers are pretty much the last big industrial operations still going; we’ll trust China to make the shiny gadgets through which we mediate our social lives, but the the production of death is still very much a domestic concern. Weapons are all we have left, and there’s no point churning out a constant stream of the things if they’re not going to be used. The problem with war is that it’s hard to work out a proper line of supply for the stuff; you need the co-operation of the other side, and unless you have a nice Flower War-type setup, nations tend not to work together much once hostilities have broken out. In a post-Fordist economic order dominated by the principles of just-in-time production, this isn’t much good at all. The consumers of war need their product to arrive in a steady, continuous, and predictable manner. The solution is to get rid of the other side entirely, so that war is no longer a relation between opposing forces but a mass consumer product as fungible as any other. Now you can go down to the gas station to pick up a microwave burrito, a pack of Slim Jims, and an armed incursion into a refugee camp, killing sixteen.

In Egypt, before the military government started massacring protesters in the streets, it declared a state of emergency that would last for exactly one month. Either general al-Sisi’s precognitive abilities let him know exactly how long the terrorist threat posed by the Muslim brotherhood would last, or the army was always in complete control of the precise levels of disturbance and could wage war or make peace entirely on its own terms. In early August, not too long after the Snowden leaks on government surveillance, Britain and the United States shut down their embassies in Sana’a in response to an unspecified but ‘immediate’ terrorist threat. This was followed by a series of drone strikes throughout Yemen that killed at least fourteen suspected militants; in response a Yemeni military helicopter was shot down. I wrote about something similar in relation to Israel’s most recent attack on Gaza: one side decides that there will be a crisis, the other has no choice but to act out its allotted role. The radicalisation caused by drone strikes is a feature, not a bug: this is war as a continual spectacle, not a war that achieves any concrete aims. If there were no angry herdsmen with Kalashnikovs, there wouldn’t be anyone to kill next time our intelligence services have a crisis of credibility.

It’s not enough for us to consume any more; it’s constantly demanded that we interact with our commodities. Join the conversation! Accept your new reality! Miley Cyrus twerking wouldn’t have much value if it weren’t for the thousands of blogs like this one clamouring to present an opinion on it. This is the next step: for the consumer base to be fully engaged with war as a mass entertainment product. Special packs of corn-based snacks will come with the co-ordinates of a single square mile of Pakistani territory: if your area is the site of a terrorist bombing you could win a new Xbox! A chirpy voice shouts from the TV: if you want the next drone strike to be in SOMALIA, press the RED button on your remote now. If you want the next drone strike to be in MALI, press the GREEN button on your remote now. The point is to make us all complicit. Armies are a tired old Westphalian relic; in the new age of mass-produced war there’s no need for any separation between military and civilian life. For some of us, armed intervention will merge into a seamless cycle of wiggling arses and electronic self-affirmation. Meanwhile, those people unlucky enough to live outside the bounds of the twerking-warfare complex won’t even be able to understand themselves to be at war; they’ll live their lives under the shadow of a vast organic-cybernetic mass, total and homogeneous, swarming in the skies and killing on a whim. Behind a suburban sofa, a fly is trapped in a spider’s web. As it waits to die it watches the last show of its life. A slow succession of images pulses on the television screen as six hundred channels rear up and flicker away: a human dressed in black giving a drawn-out wail as it holds up a dead body to the camera, a human dressed in nothing slowly gyrating on a stage; and the fly sees no difference at all.

PS: As everyone knows by now, Miley Cyrus is of course the direct descendent and probable reincarnation of the Achaemenid ruler Cyrus II, founder of the First Persian Empire, the Great King, King of Persia, King of Anshan, King of Media, King of Babylon, King of Sumer and Akkad, King of the four corners of the world.

What the radical left can learn from One Direction

My entire generation is traumatised by something that hasn’t happened yet. Shaking and sleeplessness, autoimmolatory alcoholism, fits of violent rage and sobbing breakdowns, weeks of self-imposed seclusion, an epidemic of anxiety. Generation Todestrieb. The accusatory inner voice that used to constantly seek out our weaknesses and insecurities doesn’t even have to bother any more. It just screams its wordless rage directly into our stream of thought, knowing that we know exactly what it means. We have all the symptoms of post-traumatic stress, except that for many of us there’s no primal fracture, no repressed event. What’s tormenting us is the future, or rather the lack of a future. Now that the myth of human progress has been gently euthanised, the only thing facing us is a catastrophe. We’re standing on a cliffside, so close to the edge that the angle of its descent isn’t even visible. There’s just a blank and distant sea.

Personally, I’ve never been a nervous type; I tend towards melancholia instead. Days thud past like slats on a railway line, their rhythm producing only a jolting queasiness. They’re not hard to fill. Aside from the regulation egodystonicity of the heautontimoroumenos, which is quite time-consuming all by itself, I tend to find myself wasting a few hours on a couple of Nouvelle Vague films. Sad men and self-destructive women fuck, kill cops, smoke cigarettes, and feel nothing – and I’m always left with a strange kind of jealousy, as if a impeccably cut charcoal-grey suit and a Erik Satie soundtrack could lend my unhappiness some kind of significance. Or I’ll watch Hollywood blockbusters online; pirated cam versions filmed in a cinema somewhere in the Russian provinces. I prefer them. It’s not low quality, it’s high aesthetics. Action is flattened, motion is shaky, the multi-million dollar digital effects spectacle is reduced to a chaotic blur, an intricate mess of abstract patterns rising from the darkness of the screen; the whole thing starts to look like an overblown tribute to German Expressionism. All this is punctuated by occasional twelve-hour binges, expensive drinks, gambling, until I emerge somewhere near the Embankment some time after dawn and idly consider throwing myself in the Thames. It’s not too bad.

My sample is admittedly small and unscientific: a handful of recent graduates, often broadly middle class, mostly from the humanities. But there are more thorough studies that bear out my conclusions. ‘Millennials’ – the generation born after the early 1980s – carry the brunt of the ongoing anxiety epidemic. It’s not hard to see why. We’re the inheritors to an economic crisis which is starting to seem less and less like a genuine collapse and more and more like a cover for wholesale pillage on the part of the ultra-rich, a planet that’s slowly choking to death in its own farts, a society steadily reverting to the age-old division between the smugly monied and the shambling cap-in-hand peons. It’s there in our popular entertainment: we don’t expect glittering crystal cities, however dystopian; we expect a future of zombie hordes or mud-caked poverty.

Still, it’s not like we’re the first generation of youth to emerge trembling into the foreboding landscape of the Real World. Something’s changed: our ancestors had mass protest movements; our equivalent is the brief self-congratulatory spark of Occupy and the Tory-sanctioned uselessness of UAF. We’ve become atomised. We’re self-hating narcissists. Part of it must have to do with the form taken by work. Aside from the stability of employment large-scale manufacturing, in a mass production line every worker is collaborating on a single project; it’s a spatial arrangement that facilitates the emergence of a certain kind of solidarity. That’s gone now, and there’s no such luck in the service sector. Your actions are monitored, your productivity is plotted on a graph, your co-workers are your competitors. If you take an unpaid internship or work on a zero-hour contract you become existentially surplus, part of the reserve kamikaze squadron of labour.

We’re constantly connected, digitally rubbing shoulders with people across the world, and the result is that we’re more and more alone in humdrum phenomenal reality. Cyberspace isn’t really a space at all; certainly not in the ‘infinite and infinitely open’ sense outlined by Foucault in Des espaces autres – it’s far closer to the medieval order of lieux, places. The connections of cyberspace aren’t actual connections, they don’t form anything like a machinic assemblage; it’s a flat two-dimensional plane on which any number of projected images and identities mingle and are occasionally interposed, a white wall studded with innumerable black holes, a vast faciality machine producing a single face. As Deleuze and Guattari point out, the face is ‘something absolutely inhuman.’ We don’t touch. This pseudosociality bores down into the fundamental ground of our psychosexual selves: we can’t even fuck any more without the help of a dating site algorithm. Following the formula of commodity fetishism, to establish social relations we must stop being people and start being things.

As ever, Japan is miles ahead of the west: while most European nations tried to rearrange the rubble of the second world war into some kind of bric-a-brac social democracy, American economic planners ensured that Japan went straight from zero to capitalism. The proto-Reaganism of 1940s Japan was followed by a precursor to today’s global economic crisis: the ‘lost decade’ of the 1990s, a long period of economic stagnation that further intensified the already profound alienation of Japanese society, giving rise to an ongoing epidemic of mass suicides (the rate averages at one suicide every fifteen minutes) and the emergence of the hikikomori phenomenon. Hikikomori are young men who confine themselves to their homes, abandoning studies, ignoring work, and disavowing social life; they communicate through the internet or not at all. It’s hard to tell, given their seclusion, but there may be over a million hikikomori in the country. Not that Japan has a monopoly on the phenomenon: researchers have identified similar trends in France and across the western world.

Given the sheer pointlessness of the world of work, becoming a hikikomori makes perfect sense. If you can, why not just opt out of the whole rotten socio-economic order? The problem is that doing so is a capitulation, a mute traumatised acceptance of existing conditions that precludes any real attempt to change them. In a way, the hikikomori is the ideal capitalist subject of the twenty-first century. The Deleuzian era, in which capitalism produced the schizophrenic as the ‘universal producer,’ has passed. Its replacement is the autist, the universal consumer. In previous economic crises salvation was to be found in putting people back to work and resuming production. This time the problem is one of a surplus of capital, a surplus of production and a surplus of population; we’re continually told that the only way out is to restore consumer confidence and restore the cycle of debt-spending. The hikikomori is the perfect solution: a consumer valve safely abstracted from the cycle of production, alone and defenceless, not enjoying his life but still endlessly consuming the means of its reproduction. That said, some governments haven’t quite caught on to the economic potential of mass isolation. Following case studies in Texas and Japan, there are serious proposals for antidepressants to be added to Ireland’s drinking water.

Which naturally leads me to One Direction.

This is One Direction.

It’s hideous, the kind of thing that makes you want to go to Theodor Adorno’s grave at midnight with a pentagram and a sacrificial goat, just so you can tell him to his face that he was right all along. The lyrical content is bad enough, at once recognising the sad prevalence of female body dysmorphia and trying to resolve it into the matrix of male sexual desire. But there’s also something profoundly unsettling about the expression worn by Harry Styles (he’s the tendril-haired lead singer and reportedly a pal of Alain de Botton, the psedophilosopher with a pebble for a head). It’s a grimace, a punk snarl totally at odds with his delivery, one expressing no discernible defiance. He prances around a beach and mouths insipidly anodyne lyrics, and all the while he snarls. It’s as if he realises exactly how ugly his creation is; his grimace is his own anxious withdrawal, the Steppenwolf baring its teeth. It doesn’t matter. There’ll be no peace for Harry Styles. One Direction is one of the biggest pop acts on the planet.

Their fans have a love for One Direction that borders on fanaticism. If you’re on Twitter you’ll probably already know this – Directioners and their fellow tribes consistently dominate the trending topics, helpfully reminding the rest of us that this is their turf, that we’re just a small group of weird adults hanging out at a teen party. Otherwise, a small insight was provided by the recent Channel 4 documentary Crazy About One Direction. Here we’re shown teenage fans squealing and weeping in bedrooms, their walls plastered with hundreds of pictures of the band, as if they’re sitting in the centre of a popstar panopticon. These girls hang around outside concerts waiting for a glimpse of the tour bus, they sneak into hotels where the band is rumoured to be staying, they make explicit artwork centring around the supposed homoeroticism between two of the band’s members, they send threatening messages to current and former girlfriends. “If they said chop an arm off, I would,” says one. “Because some people only have one arm, and they’re alright, aren’t they?” After the show aired, many fans were upset at being represented as psychopathic monomaniacs. They reacted, predictably, by being psychopathic monomaniacs. It’s tempting to dismiss all this as a kind of incipient fascism because, well, it is a kind of incipient fascism. Even the band’s name seems like it’d suit a bunch of 80s goths in ironic swastikas far better than a clean-cut pop band. Translate it into German and the Laibach aspect is hard to ignore: ein Volk, ein Wille, ein Richtung! If Liam, Louis & co. were to announce tomorrow that the body politic needs to be purged of its parasites, the resulting chaos would make Kristallnacht look like a mild spat in a rural post office. No army on earth could hold back the fury of ten million teenage girls in love. The fires would burn for months.

Of course, I’m hardly in a position to judge. When I was seventeen I covered my room with posters of Søren Kierkegaard. I had a small shrine at the foot of my bed in which copies of Either/OrThe Sickness Unto Death and Fear and Trembling were arranged with candles, incense, and small Danish flags I’d stolen from a local fishmonger. I founded my own chapter of the symparanekromenoi, with a membership of one, wherein the chief activity consisted of writing turgid erotic prose imagining the consummation of his love for Regine Olsen. On a holiday to Copenhagen I obsessed over the fact that Søren had walked the same streets where I stood, and nearly broke down in tears outside the University. I even went to the lengths of sending threatening letters and emails to professors of nineteenth-century philosophy across Europe and North America, informing them in no uncertain terms that Søren was mine and that nobody else was allowed to discuss his antiphilosophical approach to the question of being. Even more vicious missives went out to unreformed neo-Hegelians who dared to critique the infinite qualitative distinction. So I understand.

This kind of obsession isn’t just the alluring aura of commodity fetishism, it’s something far more significant. “What do you think about real boys?” the interviewer asks one fan, a nineteen-year-old with a One Direction tattoo and a tendency to camp out by the Styles family residence. She’s not interested; she doesn’t really speak to them. “Most One Direction fans are single. It’s weird. We’re all just single.” Real boys just get in the way the whole time, another explains. “Boy bands have ruined my life,” she says. She smiles. She doesn’t mind. What’s a life? There’s something admirable about this passion, something genuinely heroic about the extent to which these people sacrifice their own lives in the cause of a pop group-cum-transcendent Idea. In his Philosophy for Militants, Badiou proposes as the ‘revolutionary conception of our time’ a ‘militant desire’ standing against normal desires: the militant idea of desire is a ‘desire that permanently affirms the existence of that which has no name.’ Under a social order that has tried to eradicate all such yearnings, Directioners remain authentically militant in their devotion to a timeless and transhistorical Cause.

The object of this militant desire is not called One Direction. All the fans interviewed were painfully aware of a lack structuring their lives. For those who haven’t met the band, this lack becomes One Direction-shaped. They’ll meet their favourite member, sleep with them, marry them, and then everything will be better. For those who have, it’s a different story. Once is never enough; they have to meet them again and again, with ever-diminishing returns. They grow to realise that the band itself is insufficient. What they want is a different mode of existence. That something as banal as a manufactured pop group can embody this desire ought to be heartening: it’s the transcendent fervour, not its proximal object, that’s important. These girls are victims of the traumatic atomisation of contemporary capitalism. Many are cut off from conventional relationships; they spend long hours alone with Twitter and Tumblr, endlessly reiterating their love for something that exists beyond their comprehension, in a shared devotion that has become something like what Badiou terms the ‘local creation of something generic’ – something based not on the facile ‘connections’ of social media but a dissolution into a strong general unity of purpose.

Marx wrote that capitalism always creates the conditions for its own overthrow; Lenin nicely summarised the same principle when he declared that ‘we will hang the capitalists with the rope that they sell us.’ Through its campaign of atomisation capitalism has attempted to resolve this problem, but in doing so it’s created an acute consciousness of the wrongness of alienated existence. Directioners have achieved far more than most leftist thinkers in demonstrating how this anxiety can be displaced onto a real and immanent movement towards a transcendent goal. This is task the radical left faces: to become as fanatical about the overthrow of existing conditions as teenage girls are about One Direction.

What we need is a new sort of paintbrush

There aren’t any explanatory cards at the Royal Academy’s Summer Exhibition in London. This doesn’t mean that the viewer is forced to confront the painting on a barren field, with nothing to helpfully and patronisingly mediate between the gaze and the pure image. Instead, there’s a little booklet, in which all the works are listed according to their catalogue number, along with their prices. For those who object to such things, this could be read as a despicable commodification of culture; the work is swallowed whole by its exchange-value, the exhibition is less an art show than a degenerated flea market. As I tend to think art and money are joined at the hip, I found that it could actually be turned into a quite diverting game. This composition in red and black, with the gooseflesh ghost of a human form shimmering unsteadily in one corner – that’s £9,000; you were quite right to like it. On the other hand, this painting, acrylically abstract, its overlapping shapes looking like something you could make in five minutes on MS Paint – it costs £12,000, and you’ve lost this round. Better luck next time.

It’s a favourite pastime of art critics to snobbishly denigrate the Summer Exhibition’s supposed conservatism – even arch-traditionalist Brian Sewell is getting in on the act. It’s true that while many of the works on display are perfectly pleasant, none of them have the force of a punch in the gut, the sudden violence that marks out great art. Instead, wall after wall is crammed with pastiche. Shades of late Picasso, Miró, and Kandinsky dominate. Not that there’s anything wrong with Picasso, Miró, or Kandinsky, and some of these imitations are very well executed – but by being repeated their styles ossify and lose all sense of motion; revolutionary artists are turned into reactionaries. Heidegger thought that art could constitute an opening to the future; but in the Summer Exhibition it seems hopelessly mired in its own past. The saving grace of the exhibition is supposedly Greyson Perry’s series of tapestries. Here there’s more pastiche, this time of Hogarth (in fact, I hazily remember being made to ‘update’ the Rake’s Progress for GCSE Art); the ‘class satire’ is meanwhile very self-consciously clever but depressingly toothless. There’s no better demonstration of the enfeebled nature of pseudosatirical pastiche than the concentration of people hanging round the tapestry that depicts the middle classes, cooing with the joy of an infant looking at itself in the mirror. Yes, we do all read the Guardian, don’t we? And all our food is organic and fairtrade, and we all have therapists; isn’t it brilliant? All this is hardly the fault of the curators, though. Across the river, at the (unstuffy, unconservative) Tate Modern, you can see a grey felt-covered cuboid hanging on a wall with a little card next to it that breathlessly expounds the significance of this ‘box-like object’ – as if a box-like object could be, in the final analysis, anything other than a box. Outside the dust-heavy air of the museum, the best-known British artist is probably – for fuck’s sake – Banksy. Our young revolutionaries are, if anything, even more pathetic than our conservatives; at least our conservatives are aping something genuinely radical.

Not that the situation is hopeless. A small sculpture stood in a room of lithographs. I don’t know its name or that of the artists; it had no red dot or accompanying number; I couldn’t find it in the catalogue. It was as if some gang of guerillas had infiltrated Burlington House at night and left the thing there. A stylised donkey sits on a wooden table, holding a pencil. Turn the wheel: there’s a carefully calibrated creak as its hinges and pistons grate against each other, and it draws another stylised donkey. The pencil shudders along the same route, over and over again. It’s art as artistic criticism: self-portraiture is revealed as a blind mechanical mimesis, the compulsion of made things to repeat their own making. The prints and paintings that surround it are revealed for what they are: they become so many crude pencil sketches of so many mechanical donkeys.

The art of the early twentieth century was so great because the early twentieth century was a time of revolution and possibility, in which art could shamelessly imagine its own future. Our current time is one of reaction, of the hideous mechanised logic of capitalist austerity, in which merely pointing out the mechanical nature of our subjugation passes for a radical act. No wonder, then, that the most profound work at the Summer Exhibition was itself a machine. Maybe if our art isn’t doing what it should, we need a new sort of paintbrush. For a positively articulated vision of the future, you have to look to the outer fringes of the mind. Adorno writes that ‘the sickness of the normal does not necessarily imply as its opposite the health of the sick, but the latter usually only presents, in a different way, the same disastrous pattern.’ As a counterpoint, I’d present the Alternative Guide to the Universe exhibition currently running at the Hayward Gallery. Despite the name, which makes it sound like a weeknight offering from Channel 4, possibly something through which Jimmy Carr will foist himself on the nation, it’s excellent. Among the UFOlogists and selfie-obsessives avant le lettre are some genuinely revolutionary works. What unites the best of them is an overpowering sense of hope. There are few apocalypses or jeremiads; instead, these artists thought they were providing the blueprint for a better world. These worlds sometimes veer uncomfortably towards a kind of techno-fascism – William Scott envisages a day when San Francisco will be ‘cancelled’ and replaced with Praise Frisco, a city of ‘wholesome people’ and ‘wholesome encounters,’ while George Widener’s sketched cityscapes of the future are blighted by perpetual gridlock and architecture that has the faint whiff of Albert Speer about it. Still, there’s Marcel Storr, a deaf and illiterate street sweeper who would come home at night and construct impossibly detailed futuristic cityscapes in pencil and ink, looking like something between a Xanaduan pleasure-dome and Blade Runner; and Body Isek Kingelez, who builds playfully extravagant models for his vision of a new Kinshasa from scrap materials he finds around the city. Also on display is an infectious fluidity, a kind of conceptual synaesthesia, the kind of thing that is so sorely lacking at the Royal Academy. MC Ramellzee re-imagines the alphabet as a fleet of spikily armed starships mounted of skateboards, fighting to liberate letters from the tyranny of language. A.G. Rizzoli (my personal favourite) ‘symbolically sketched’ people he knew as fantastic buildings, so that the local postman becomes a sprawling Renaissance palace, and his mother a fairy-tale cathedral. All these were integrated into his masterplan for a new exhibition-city called Y.T.T.E., or Yield To Total Elation, in which the barriers between human beings and architecture would dissolve.

To call this stuff ‘outsider art’ is, I think, to miss the point entirely. Nobody today calls William Blake an ‘outsider poet’ or Friedrich Nietzsche an ‘outsider philosopher.’ Of course, many of the artists in question were mad, or suffered from developmental disabilities, but, as Adorno suggests, sickness does not exist isolated from the society that contains and creates it. Similarly, Deleuze and Guattari saw schizophrenia as simultaneously being the final result of the logic of capitalism and a productive, revolutionary force that disturbs its operation. It’s not the case that in a society that has abolished its own future only the mad still dream of a better world; rather, actually hoping for anything different itself becomes madness, a madness whose limits are defined by the rigid (im)possibilities of our own impoverished existence. In other words, it’s a madness whose creativity is intrinsically bound up with the regimented sterility of late capitalism, as source and foil. Is a man who builds minutely detailed models from scrap paper and beer cans an obsessional neurotic, a holy lunatic, or a respectable architect? Surely that depends only on whether his models are shown in his own home, in an exhibition such as the Hayward’s, or in the atrium of an architectural practice. If this is insanity, it’s not the seething unreason of the id, but instead rationality made to do things that, by ‘normal’ standards, it’s not supposed to do. Alfred Jensen creates number tables in oil paints, their colours and composition influenced by Indian spirituality and the I Ching; there’s a certain ordered stillness in them not too different from that engendered by a Rothko canvas. Widener believes that in the future superintelligent machines would finally be able to decode the mathematical patterns he discerns in the calender; it’s no surprise to learn that he once worked with US military cryptographers. This is, in its own eccentric way, precisely the health of the sick.

Some critics have taken issue with the exhibition’s name. What’s being presented is not, they claim, an alternate guide to the universe, but a small introduction into another world: the private universe of the unhinged. I don’t agree. We’re being shown a possible future, but as Marx knew, every future is ‘still stamped with the birthmarks of the old society from whose womb it emerges.’ These visions are built on the foundations of the world we all inhabit now; they are the repressed content of our life. All these worlds already exist. Rizzoli, on seeing female genitalia for the first time at the age of forty, immortalised the moment as an immense Art Deco church. So That You Too May See Something You’ve Not Seen Before, he wrote above it. So that we may experience the wonder and strangeness of something which is immanent but hidden. In art as in politics the productive forces are here; we have only to unleash them.

Thanks to Twitter user @HealthUntoDeath for inadvertently providing the title for this piece.

Robot wars: drones and the hegemony of the molecular

Something interesting’s happening in the East China Sea. The dispute between China and Japan over the uninhabited Senkaku Islands has seen Japanese businesses torched in cities across China, fighter jets circling each other over the barren rocks in question, and printouts of flags heroically ripped in half. Now both China and Japan are stockpiling drones. If it happens, the drone war for the Senkaku Islands will be the first of its kind: pure war, war in the abstract, war fought without armies or soldiers. Two fleets of faceless robots knocking each other out of the sky, a war that takes place on a plane of virtuality. It makes a sort of sense. For all their posturings, China and Japan are economically codependent. Maybe the drones will allow them to have their war and their trade links at the same time. Maybe the result will be something completely different. In any case, the conventions of warfare that have been in place for five thousand years might be approaching their overthrow.

It’s not just in East Asia. Hezbollah is building its own drones and flying them into Israeli airspace. The United States has set the precedent here: drones are not contained by borders; drones can operate anywhere in the world. I’m convinced that someone in the CIA’s been reading Deleuze. In Afghanistan and Pakistan, the United States is fighting real nomads, Pashtun herdsmen with goats and rifles and monotheism who recognise the border for what it is: a meaningless and obsolete dividing line between the British and Russian spheres of the late 19th Century. The US has done well; it’s adapted by turning its machines of war back into warmachines, becoming more nomadic than the nomads themselves. Drones don’t just operate according to smooth rather than striated space, they obliterate space altogether. In the place of spatiality comes something like distribution. In Langley, a man pushes a button on an Xbox controller; in Waziristan, fragments of houses and pieces of people are scattered across a half-mile radius. Drones operate outside the structures of the Law: deterritorialised from their human controllers, they exist everywhere at once. There is no field of combat, only pure exteriority. Somalia, Yemen, the Philippines: they’re all separated only by the width of a fibreglass wing. War itself is a second-order concern. War is an invention of the State, a part of its stratification. For the autonomous warmachines it doesn’t exist. Instead the drone continually produces its own object. In casualty reports from drone strikes, any male over sixteen years is considered to have been a militant: if they weren’t an enemy, what were they doing in the strike area? If you’re not a threat to us, then why did we just kill you? Unlike tanks or planes drones don’t identify and eliminate their targets, they create them; you become a target by virtue of having been killed by a drone. President Obama maintains a personally approved ‘kill list’ of enemy targets. As soon as a target is destroyed another emerges to take its place. The drones have a logic all of their own; politicians are caught up in its spirals. There can be no end, not until every last building is flattened and the horizontality of the nomadic desert re-establishes itself.

For the State, capture of the warmachine is necessary for its process of continual stratification. We’re seeing something different here: the capture of the State by the warmachine. Wall Street is a warmachine par excellence, obliterating any boundary to the free flow of capital, describing lines of flight that arc across the surface of the Earth at the speed of light. Austerity programmes make warmachines out of schools and hospitals. Microfascism has taken over the world. In his critique of Deleuze, Baudillard writes that power and desire operate along the same channels. Beware of the molecular, he warns. To be fair, Deleuze and Guattari never say that the molecular is any nicer than the molar. It’s here, I think, that we reach the horizon of Deleuzian radicalism. When molecularity is hegemonic, resistance may have to take on new forms.

9/11 & the Burkean sublime

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

[3] Burke, p. 146

[4] Debord, p. 8

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

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

Acropolis Now

Capital is dead labour, which, vampire-like, lives only by sucking living labour, and lives the more, the more labour it sucks – Karl Marx

Successive attempts to rescue the Greek economy fail to have any effect. European leaders explain to Papandreou in no uncertain terms that the birthplace of democracy is no place in which to implement it. Forbes magazine hilariously calls for a military coup. The legions of the undead begin to stir… Now the EU casts aside its humanitarian mask to reveal itself for the monster of imperialism it has always been, its neck ringed with the skulls of defeated institutions, its fangs dripping with viscous liquidity. The spectral sallow-cheeked armies of finance capital make circles around the Peloponnese, howling with savage hunger at the juicy public sector, gesturing menacingly with the grim weapons of austerity, their eyes gleaming with blood-lust. A hundred gold coins marked with the stamp of a skull and bearing an ancient curse fall from the bloated fist of Jin Liqun. On the streets of Athens, anarchists fight hand-to-hand with the fire-wraiths of the Elliniki Astynomia. Gibbering poltergeists brandishing court orders pour through cracks in the masonry of family homes and drive out their inhabitants. In a vaulted chamber miles below Strasbourg, decorated with sacred carvings in which Merkel and Sarkozy are depicted in a variety of grotesque sexual positions, the secret haunt of withered seers who divine the will of the Market through the flows of the telluric currents, a thousand hooded forms look on approvingly as Papademos signs their infernal contract in the blood of his people. His hand hesitates over the parchment!… Uproar ensues, dark curses are flung, lightning cracks in the dank air. There is no other option left. Twenty thousand grim-faced German soldiers march in lock-step formation as planes ready their engines for the final assault on Greece: ein Union, ein Währung, ein Zentralbank! Peace and democracy are fine things, but investments are at stake.

Requiem: Dies iRae

Fig. 1: Infinite fractal reflexivity

There’s a sickeningly hagiographical article in today’s Guardian on the late Steve Jobs and how he ‘changed capitalism,’ courtesy of philosopher Julian Baggini. It’s crude to speak ill of the recently deceased, so I won’t waste too much space pointing out that Steve Jobs made his millions selling consumer goods nobody really needs manufactured in Chinese sweatshops where the workers (clearly not tranquillised into contentment by our clean friendly iFuture) kept on committing suicide. But even within the parameters of obituary, there’s something grotesquely saccharine in Baggini’s article:

Capitalism looks different because of what Jobs’s company achieved. His company challenges both lazy market orthodoxies and idealistic anti-capitalist critiques. In general terms it is true that all these challenges have found voice and expression in our culture elsewhere. But with Jobs they were given a clearer, louder expression, backed up by the incontrovertible evidence his life and company produced. The world may well have been different without Jobs: not so far forward as we are, less beautiful, more in tune with the lowest common denominator. If we found ourselves in that world right now, of course, we would recognise it. But we might not love it quite so much.

Baggini seems to think that Apple’s resistance to the open-source movement somehow proved to the world that quality products demand a premium price, rather than simply showing that a business run along such lines can be successful – and from this somehow draws the conclusion that non-hierarchial modes of production don’t work. At the same time he argues that Jobs’s visionary leadership struck a blow for the Great Man theory against neoliberal models of market forces, because while without him we would still have had mp3 players and tablet computers, they might not have had so much brushed aluminium and those Nice Friendly Rounded Edges we demand in all our consumer products these days. I mean, can you imagine if instead of an iPod everyone had a Zune? What a vale of tears this world would be. This is a shoddily shallow analysis, one blinded by its narrow focus on its phenomenological qualities of capitalism rather than the relations that constitute its actual substance. Steve Jobs didn’t change capitalism, he stuck to its guidebook with unwavering diligence. Style over substance, branding over utility, outsourced production, continually intensifying rate of exploitation, the relentless pursuit of new markets and new profits, all washed down with a syrupy semi-mystical techno-guruism. Henry Ford revolutionised the means of production and the superstructural society that emerges from it. Charging high prices and insisting on proprietary rights does not constitute a restructuring of our economic system. Jobs was an exemplar of the cultural dimensions of late capitalism, but little else.

Across the world, dedicated iVangelicals are leaving flowers outside Apple stores. It’s appropriate, in a way: buried in this gesture is the recognition that Steve Jobs was not so much a man as a projection thrown up by his products. This is commodity fetishism taken to its logical conclusion – products are imbued with so much importance that they take possession of their inventor; not content with mere reification, they eat him from the inside out.

RIP Ms Hou, Liu Bing, Mr Li, Ma Xiang-Qian, Mr Li, Tian Yu, Mr Lau, Rao Shu-Quin, Ms Ling, Lu Xin, Zhu Chen-Ming, Liang Chao, Nan Gan, Li Hai, Mr He, Mr Chen, Mr Liu, Wan Ling, Mr Cai, and two whose names are unknown

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