Idiot Joy Showland

This is why I hate intellectuals

Tag: communism

In defence of fantasy: a further response to Slavoj Žižek

boat

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

On the state of the State of the Left

If he up, watch him fall, I can’t fuck wit yall.
Pimp C, Big Pimpin’

Among the guardians of sclerotic radicalism, the ones who like to make grand pronouncements on the Current State of the Left, it’s become a grim axiom that we’ve somehow been defeated. This is pronounced with all the usual apocalyptic wailing: we’ve become weak and petty, we’ve splintered into irrelevancy, we’ve retreated into academia, we’ve polluted ourselves with all manner of useless theory – Nietzscheanism, Foucauldianism, intersectionality, ontology, cultural studies. Those who still hold to some kind of Marxist or communist line are like the seventh-century squatters in Diocletian’s palace, shivering in the walled-off ruins of something grand and terrifying and extinct while the barbarians scour the countryside. They’re right. The State of the Left is a terrible one: palsied, liver-spotted, emphysemic, crying out with its sandpaper rasp for a strong dose of barbiturates in a comfortingly bleak Swiss clinic. The point is that the State of the Left is not the same as the actual Left. Like all states its function is to arrive to us already in an advanced state of decay and to wither away as soon as possible. The left itself is doing just fine.

The moaners and complainers are ignoring a central lesson of the dialectic. Marx describes precisely its revolutionary quality in his 1873 postface to Volume I of Capital: the material dialectic regards every historically developed form as being in a fluid state, in motion, and therefore grasps its transient aspect as well; and [does] not let itself be impressed by anything. Deleuze and Guattari touch on a similar point in Plateau 1730 of Capitalism and Schizophrenia: in a becoming-animal what is real is the becoming itself, the block of becoming, not the supposedly fixed terms through which that which becomes passes. Any single State of the Left will be dead as soon as it is pinned down. Those who gripe about this or that static problem in the radical movement will see it as an endless succession of corpses, rather than a living motion.

And it is alive. As China plunges ever deeper into the watery graveyard of neoliberal accumulation, autonomous peasant uprisings are becoming a near-daily occurrence. In India the Naxalite insurgency governs vast swathes of the country. Radical left parties – both Cold War relics and newer coalitions – are gaining increasing support across much of Europe. Radical left magazines are reaching and radicalising new audiences. Protest movements are flaring up across the globe. Whatever the ideological or practical failings of these individual bodies or movements (and they exist), their emergence and resurgence is reason enough to be hopeful. The evidence is mounting for the radical – and correct – idea that the current way of doing things simply doesn’t work. There is significantly more debt than actual money in circulation, we’ve invested well over one planet’s worth of resources in the existing order, the wealth gap gets broader and more perilous with every crisis, the conditions necessary not only for social but biological life are being eroded, Macklemore won every rap award at the Grammys. Most importantly, this increasing consciousness of the sheer insanity of existing conditions has prompted an unashamed and unapologetic revival of the signifier communism.

In The German Ideology, Marx writes: Communism is for us not a state of affairs which is to be established, an ideal to which reality will have to adjust itself. We call communism the real movement which abolishes the present state of things. The State of the Left is not communism. Politics, properly understood, is the practical arena in which the question of how life should be lived is contested and the method through which human beings can through mass action entirely overhaul their mode of existence. The State of the Left, more concerned with ossifying the present state of things with the basilisk stare of its displeasure than abolishing it, is not only non-communist but non-political. It’s squabbling for position and the allocation of immaterial resources, the reconfiguration of left politics into left politicking, and beyond any ideological or practical objections it’s profoundly, abyssally boring.

It’s for this reason that I try to engage with this stuff as little as possible. My last flight into the turbulent miasma of leftist infighting was a response to Mark Fisher’s ‘vampire castle’ nonsense, mostly written because everyone else was doing one and as an excuse to spend a few paragraphs playing around with Gothic metaphors, which are always fun. This intervention is prompted by something a little less conceptually fecund. Recently, Richard Seymour (formerly of the Socialist Workers Party and author of the often excellent and occasionally execrable blog Lenin’s Tomb) resigned from the International Socialist Network; much of the crowing at his apparent fall from grace has been led by Ross Wolfe (formerly of the Platypus Affiliated Society and author of the often execrable and occasionally excellent blog The Charnel-House). The dispute that prompted this move centred on the racial implications of a work of art-cum-furniture owned by the Russian socialite Dasha Zhukova, with Seymour insisting on the acceptability of something called ‘race play.’ Personally, I think that to complain about the chair that an oligarch’s girlfriend chooses to sit on is to miss the point a little (especially when cops are shooting people of colour in the streets with impunity), but I’ve no interest in trying to wave away someone else’s sense of outrage or direct it from the outside. What’s important here (for a given value of ‘important’) is that an argument about a chair ended in a further split in what’s still masquerading as the left.

Seymour (and others) have previously complained of a ‘politics of anathema’ within the ISN; others have pointed to a supposed culture of excommunication throughout the left and tied it (unfairly, I think) to the increasing influence of intersectionality theory. It’s easy to disdain all this polemicism as being contrary to the spirit of reasoned debate, but the practice of polemic has a very distinguished leftist pedigree – Marx against Bakunin, Lenin against Kautsky, Stalin against Trotsky, Mao against Khrushchev, Tito against his own conscience, Hoxha against the slimy creatures scurrying inside his walls at night, Kim against the oral stage of psychosexual development. We have a leftist duty to engage in criticism and self-criticism, to get rid of a bad style and keep the good, to not let things slide for the sake of peace and friendship when a person has clearly gone wrong. What we shouldn’t do is confuse these duties with communist praxis.

Purely rational debate isn’t something that’s ever existed; it’s a transcendent regulative ideal buttressed with violence and used to hold back people who actually have a stake in the game. Insisting on measured reasonableness in a time of crisis is madness. Something’s changed, though. The new polemicism and the old polemicism don’t look very much alike. The discussion inevitably ends up veering away from politics because politics is fundamentally not a concern here. One of Seymour’s accusers on Facebook wrote: I hope a bird shits on you. I hope a bird shits on you every day. Catullus it ain’t. (Besides, isn’t being shat on by a bird supposed to bring good luck?) This is the real problem with the current leftist infighting: rather than being too vicious, it’s not vicious enough. I’m not going to make prescriptions about how this stratum of contest can be reformed; it’s a useless husk, and its uselessness is affirmed by how seriously everyone involved takes it. Calls for unity and pleasantness in a State of the Left already clotted into paralysis miss the point entirely. If anything, more splits, more divisions; everyone knows that communist cells reproduce asexually. But if we are to have a pointless squabbling sideshow to left activism, the very least it could do is make itself interesting.

PS: For all the complaints of excommunication, the State of the Left is hardly catholic or Catholic in nature. Excommunication is a profoundly dialectical censure; the object is to prod the wayward sheep back into the fold precisely by showing them what going it alone would mean. Instead, the function of contemporary left infighting is a kind of secular takfirism, a static universalism within strict horizons. Excommunication is vicious, takfirism is merely brutal. Once you’ve been pronounced apostate, there’s no return. You might follow the same doctrine and the same liturgy; it doesn’t matter – you are our enemy and always have been. This can be seen in the doctrine of Platypus: only one obscure Marxist reading group can rescue the left from its ruin, everything else must be destroyed. It’s hard not to be reminded of the splinter groups in the Algerian Civil War that were able to declare themselves to be the only true Muslims and every single person outside their militia kafir.

On crapness and Christmas

If there’s a general cultural mode to contemporary existence in Britain, it’s an overwhelming and pervasive sense of the crap. This crapness – this New British Coprotopia – isn’t quite the same as postimperial decay. Decay is the riotous and unrestrained explosion of new life over the shrinking territory of the corpse, while crap is a zombie: dead matter assuming the warmth and the trajectory of something living. Crapness isn’t a slow entropic dissolution, it’s something that’s deliberately created. Everywhere there’s a distinctly faecal seediness, but above all crapness is the seediness of efficiency. In the UK our new professional apartments in their crap-Modernist blocks tend to have smaller floor sizes than the old social housing units; our government’s plan to ease the recession is to make the country competitive by systematically depressing wages through the introduction of slave-labour workfare; our scopophilic security services, our system of control orders, and our fungally breeding network of security cameras together make up the pillars of a uniquely crap police state. Once again, Britain leads the world; we’re the new vanguard of humanity’s foetid future, and nowhere are the machinations of this New Turd Order more in evidence than in the phenomenon of the crappy winter theme park.

This year’s defining crap Christmas experience is the Winter Wonderland in Milton Keynes. Visitors were told to expect a ‘fabulous, enchanted woodland with magical creatures.’ Here, vast and otherworldly powers far beyond the comprehension of we mere mortals – beings made all the more unfathomable by their infinite and frankly undeserved beneficence towards mankind – would place one small patch of the South Midlands ‘under a captivating spell, to come alive and be transformed into an enchanting Winter Wonderland.’ Instead, those initiates of the cosmic mysteries who made the pilgrimage to Buckinghamshire found themselves in a muddy field with only two miserable huskies and an emaciated hornless reindeer to give a sense of the non-human world through their sad, trapped, uncomprehending eyes. Meanwhile, the ice rink had no ice and Santa was unacceptably skinny, his street clothes plainly visible under his flimsy red cloak. Previous failed Christmas parks such as 2008’s Lapland New Forest attracted similar complaints: the Enchanted Walk Through The Woods was a plywood shack with fake pine branches and cheap stuffed toys scattered on the floor; the advertised polar bear was plastic; the snow came from a spraycan; the animatronic Rudolf’s nose gave visitors radiation sickness; the Santa’s Chimney Experience was just an open-pit toilet, the Good-Or-Bad-O-Meter rated every child as ‘bad’ while explaining that ‘wrong life cannot be lived rightly,’ and so on. Occasionally these places are bad enough that someone has to go to court to make up for all the loss of childhood innocence; mostly, though, they’re just dull enough to go unnoticed. Generally they make pretty good money.

These things aren’t aberrations; they’re part of a wider system. The War on Christmas is over (it never really began); now Christmas itself is staged as a kind of proxy warfare. As the economy still struggles to break out of recession, fourth-quarter retail spending is now gravely important. Forget the potlatch, forget your heartfelt and home-crafted expressions of affection; Christmas is a matter of national security. If it doesn’t go precisely according to plan, the cuts will lacerate deeper. Every high-priced gadget you don’t buy is another meal torn from the hands of the impoverished and another bullet out the armoury of our brave boys battling it out in Afghanistan. It’s not hard to imagine the Tory Trotskyites in charge having to impose their own version of War Communism: the establishment of large and well-disciplined labour armies of consumerism with George Osborne valiantly marching at their helm, buying gift after gift on increasingly shaky credit and pressing them into the hands of ever more distant acquaintances, knowing full well that their generosity will have to be reciprocated, enjoying Christmas to the point of penury, starvation and death.

This is the mechanism of crapness: something efficient and regimented and dead following the course of something alive, following it so closely that it’s not always entirely possible to tell that anything’s changed. There’s only the lingering feculent whiff of an essential insufficiency. Delve deep enough into the history of the winter festival and you’ll find a scene not unlike the Milton Keynes Winter Wonderland. A cold and muddy field somewhere in England, a small circle of primitive buildings, a pile of soggy logs on which a few feeble flames tremble, the tears of children, the haunted stares of animals, the ritual exchange of gifts, everywhere skinniness and emaciation, everywhere magic. Real magic, the kind that requires a blood sacrifice or an orgy or, ideally, both. When the disappointing winter wonderlands offer us an escape into the wonderful world of seasonal Christmas magic, we should keep in mind that seasonal magic is an ancient and agricultural magic – in other words, one of brutal and immediate violence. These winter wonderland parks are so popular – and despite the near-riots they provoke they are popular; thousands pour in every year and millions more giggle over them in newspapers – because they’re a comforting reminder that the living fire, horror, and beauty of Christmas has been replaced by a dead mechanical crapness. (New Year’s is admittedly different; by the time midnight rolls around, most people on the streets are crying, fighting, or being arrested. Linear time is a terrible thing to do to people.) It’s a similar phenomenon to that of the Christkindlmarkten sprouting up everywhere across the country: plywood huts decorated with fake holly and Gothic lettering, beer halls hosting oompah bands who don’t speak a word of German, something somehow intrinsically less than it is. (It’s important to note that the UK’s cutesy German Christmas markets are mostly franchises of the one in Frankfurt, that notably non-rustic centre of European finance capital.) Crapness is everywhere at all times, but it’s at Christmas that the gap it opens yawns the widest.

In his Fundamental Concepts of Metaphysics, Heidegger devotes nearly one hundred pages to the philosophical study of boredom. His paradigmatic example is the act of waiting in a rural train station: without distractions time starts to bear down on you; you have nothing but the raw experience of time and the raw experience of yourself. After a while it almost becomes a physical sensation, a slow sickening horror you’ll do anything to escape. It’s not hard to visualise Heidegger’s train station: the stiflingly still air, the low and unchanging clouds, the pebble-dashed pillars, the flaking white paint, the single pigeon limping up and down the tarmac, the almost tangible lack of a train – in other words, a scene of arrested motion, of crapness. But it’s precisely here, on this miserable platform, that the potential for a transformative phenomenology is opened. Heidegger identifies three modes or stages of boredom: gelangweilt sein von etwassich langweilen bei etwas, and es ist einem langweilig (‘becoming bored by something,’ ‘being bored by something,’ and ‘it is boring for one’). The first appears when we encounter something concrete but existentially boring: someone very dull at a party, for instance, or an overly self-indulgent essay on the internet; it’s achingly unfulfilling. The second form, meanwhile, isn’t quite so direct: Heidegger uses the example of a dinner party where everything ‘is not only very tasty, but tasteful as well;’ you enjoy yourself immensely, and it’s only after returning home that you realise the whole evening was utterly dull, a senseless waste of time. The third form, ‘it is boring for one,’ is also referred to as tiefen Langeweile: profound boredom. Here the self is fully detached from a world that comes to reveal itself as entirely dull, entirely pointless, and entirely without charms or interest. The very identification of Dasein as being-in-the-world comes to fall apart. Heidegger isn’t proposing a nihilism: it’s exactly at this point, when the world of objects seems to offer nothing of substantial interest, that the potential for transformation appears. Once you decide that all things are boring, the question of what a non-boring thing would actually look like emerges, and with it a sudden universe of possibilities. As Heidegger puts it (in a sadly untranslatable pun), alles Versagen ist in sich ein Sagen, dh Offenbarmachen – all withdrawing is a telling or a making-manifest.

If the question of boredom yields an ontological philosophy, the parallel problem of crapness is one of politics. Crap Christmases give rise to a limited, intrinsic, demoralising sense of the crappy; the slow enshittening of all experience forces us, urgently, to conceive of a less miserable world. Like every weapon in the arsenal of capital, crapness is also a weakness. The critique of the crappy winter wonderland isn’t a grouchy bah-humbug; it’s a call to action. The struggle for a non-crap Christmas is the struggle for a world defined by its possibilities rather than its restrictions; in the end, it’s the struggle to reclaim life.

Maybe I’m not strong enough; I’ve fled Britain for the holidays. No Queen’s speech, no schmaltzy Doctor Who special, no winter wonderlands. France has its own inchoate modality of crapness too; it might be that I’m more willing to forgive it because it’s not mine. The big wide flat fields; the hypermarkets crouching, tense as spiders, by the motorways. Look at any French city and it’s immediately clear that the empire never went away; it just changed its spatial logic. There’s still colony and metropole, but now they’re bound together in the same urban topology. Those in the medieval centre find themselves encircled by angry car-burning hordes; those in the concrete prison-suburbs that surround them are disenfranchised and dispossessed, their choice of clothing regulated by the state, their lives at the mercy of the police. A crap colonialism. Still, it’s different. At night you can hear the slow determined creak of the avalanches as they roll down the mountainsides. They’re set off by explosives, but at least the snow is real.

Defying Gravity

The new film Gravity does something quite brave: it doesn’t make space beautiful. We all have an idea of what outer space should look like: all those vast pink and blue nebulae draped in purple stars, swirling at the slow pace of cosmic infinity into (of course) phallic or pudendal forms. Space has gas clouds and supernovae and green-skinned alien babes and, quite possibly, God. At the same time we know that the sublime images we get from NASA are all in false colours; that for all the fascinating things in it (and there are plenty of them), most of space itself is actually quite boring as far as our libidinal imaginations are concerned. It’s a dead black void scattered with a few dead grey rocks, and they crash into each other according to a precise mathematical senselessness. But in our fiction, at least, we can have it all: black holes, asteroid fields, c-beams glittering in the dark near the Tannhäuser Gate. Not for Alfonso Cuarón; he’s got a real pedant’s eye for this stuff. The Earth is beautiful in Gravity, its clouds burning orange as the line of sunset crosses its surface, its cities shining in the night like diamonds on a lace – but space beyond its orbit is just a cold dark nothing. There’s only one shot that throws a sop to our aestheticised vision of the universe: our hero drifts out briefly into the void, and we see her framed against a galaxy of stars – but even here it looks washed out and anaemic; a semi-skimmed Milky Way. No grandeur, just emptiness. It’s incredibly impressive.

Cuarón does something else that’s pretty extraordinary: in a film where every shot and effect is fine-tuned to perfection, he’s managed to craft a plot that’s entirely unremarkable, dialogue so corny as to border on the emetic, and characters who might be floating in infinitely extended space but are entirely lacking in any depth themselves. It’s strange. In Y Tu Mamá También and Children of Men Cuarón showed that he’s every bit as capable a writer as he is a director, but the plot in Gravity hugs so closely to genre that you can pretty much work it all out from the trailer (if you can’t, look away now). There’s a disaster in space; Sandra Bullock and George Clooney are cast adrift; he dies heroically saving her life; she has a crisis of confidence but then looks inside herself to find the strength that she needs to survive, and ends up setting foot once more on the friendly soil of Earth. Along the way there’s some seriously embarrassing dialogue (“Will you pray for me? Nobody ever taught me how”) and a seemingly unnecessary backstory about the death of Bullock’s young daughter in lieu of any actual characterisation. It’s interesting that Clooney’s space fratboy – for all the wacky stories he half-relates – never has his emotional past strip-mined in the same manner; clearly the psychological depths of hysteria are still only to be plunged by women. In this really excellent post at Wasted Ideology the dodgy gender politics of the film are thoroughly taken apart, and the result isn’t pretty: in the end, even a disaster film in space needs to continually reaffirm ‘the centrality of love and family to everyone’s experience, weak women and strong men.’

This doesn’t mean that there’s not room for some significance in the film: after all, it has all that terrifying empty space gnawing at its periphery. The psychotherapist Aaron Balick gives an interesting reading, in which the repeated motif of ‘letting go’ (including in the film’s tagline) and the subject of Bullock’s lost daughter is read against Freud’s Mourning and Melancholia, turning the film into a psychological parable:

For Freud, the refusal to let go results in the person holding onto the lost other inside one’s self. So long as the lost person remains psychologically inside the self, they can never be properly mourned (or let go of) and nothing can ever take its place. Furthermore, it is a constant drain on the life energy as it is pulled inwards towards the lost object, and not available to go outwards into to the world; it operates like an internal black hole. When Dr. Stone [Sandra Bullock] decides to give up hope, this is a giving up of her relationship to the world. In a sense, it is an (unconscious) choice to abandon the real world and to be sucked into the endless chasm of depression induced self-involvement: to literally let go of the world and collapse in upon the self and die. She shuts off the oxygen in her pod awaiting her death, when the spectre of Matt [George Clooney] comes to snap her out of it (a representation from her unconscious). It is he (whom she has refused to let go before) that guides to towards the what she has lost, not just the whom, to use Freud’s words. He brings the unconscious part of her loss to consciousness. He essentially says, “your daughter is dead, you are not, you can choose life.”

Letting go, yes – but something of a Leninist approach is needed here: letting go into what? There’s something crucial in Mourning and Melancholia that’s missing in this approach; Freud’s text isn’t a self-help guide. Freud describes melancholia as a turning of the ego against itself – ‘the patient represents his ego to us as worthless, incapable of any achievement and morally despicable; he reproaches himself, vilifies himself and expects to be cast out and punished.’ What’s interesting is that Freud doesn’t necessarily disagree: the melancholic patient isn’t delusional, he probably is worthless, his sickness is that he’s lacking the narcissistic delusions that let most people ignore this fact and go about their days as normal. Freud connects this falling-away of delusions with the loss of a desired object (this loss isn’t necessarily death, but a rejection or disappointment) that the ego continues to strongly attach itself to. It’s not just a simple matter of ‘letting go’ of a loved one – the point is that the ego directs its hatred against itself because it unconsciously hates that same object of desire, but still identifies with it too strongly to express that hate. When you love someone, that other person becomes something of a master-signifier; the point around which your entire life and subjectivity gains meaning. It’s an impossible task; in the end we’re all just bags of flesh and offal, and loving someone is a terrible thing to impose on them. When that person inevitably fails to be perfect, it’s felt as a loss and a betrayal. Hatred results; if you love someone, you can’t help but hate them at the same time. Sometimes you can manage that hatred, but if you’re really in love, full of fire and passion, all your hatred is turned inwards on yourself, and the only way to recover from this is to admit to yourself how you actually feel. Letting go isn’t Sandra Bullock finally managing to move past the death of her daughter and value her own life. It’s a furious exclamation: fuck her, fuck her for dying; how could she do that to me? Letting go means floating off alone into the seething blackness of space.

You let go into empty space, but space always carries meaning. Since Kant we’ve known that spatiality isn’t an objective prior substance in which things exist but something that we create when we conceive of relations between objects. In A Thousand Plateaus, Deleuze and Guattari posit two modalities of space: the smooth and the striated. Smooth space is intensive nomad space, in which ‘the point is between two lines;’ striated space is the extensive space of the State, in which ‘the line is between two points.’ Felt is smooth; woven cloth is striated. Earth orbit in Gravity is a heavily striated space; movements are always made between fixed positions. We go to the shuttle, and from there to the ISS, and from there to the Chinese station; as Bullock tumbles into the void Clooney tries to fix her line of flight through reference to points. What can you see? Can you see the shuttle? Can you see the moon? However, as Deleuze and Guattari point out, the two forms of space are always in a dialectic: farmers put up walls and pastoralists tear them down. At the beginning of the film there’s a catastrophe: an anti-satellite missile test goes horrible wrong and suddenly a deadly tide of debris is circling the planet at lethal speed. Now every fixed point must be considered in terms of its relation to that moving line. Striated space comes with all the blockages of bourgeois subjectivity – the nation-state, the family unit, the Oedipal triangle – and, of course, Bullock only survives in the film by upholding these striations. She doesn’t let go, she doesn’t admit that she hates her dead daughter, she keeps on going to preserve her melancholic attachment, to carry on affirming that desire is a lack. But there’s another way.

The Earth is beautiful in Gravity. Space isn’t beautiful, but it is smooth, a void in which nothing is stable, crisscrossed by tumbling objects and lines of flight. However tightly focused the action is onscreen, it’s always lurking there in the background, a silent rebuke to all the striations arcing up from the planet’s surface. As he floats away to die, Clooney’s character has a choice: he can disappear among the stars, or he can use the last few breaths of fuel in his jetpack to nudge himself in the direction of Earth. After a while, floating will become falling. Gravity will get him. He’ll burn to a crisp, but he’ll do so under the blue skies of home. What would you do? Clooney chooses the stars, and he can do this because he hasn’t been subjected to the same bullshit characterisation as Bullock. The narrative demands that she risk her life re-entering the atmosphere because she’s been thoroughly interpellated as a woman, a grieving mother, and a melancholic. Clooney still has a touch of the everyman about him, and out there in empty space you can approach what Badiou calls the ‘generic.’ You become your own movement. Gender and nation and subjectification mean nothing for a human body spinning powerlessly in the void. In a way, God is out there; the promise of the New Testament is fulfilled: There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither bond nor free, there is neither male nor female: for ye are all one in Christ Jesus. The film can’t endorse it, of course – that’s why it’s only ever presented as a danger – but it’s still haunted by this idea: the communism of outer space.

Philosophy for the weak

But God hath chosen the foolish things of the world to confound the wise; and God hath chosen the weak things of the world to confound the things which are mighty; and base things of the world, and things which are despised, hath God chosen, yea, and things which are not, to bring to nought things that are.
I Corinthians 1:27-28

A sick man, a spiteful man, an unpleasant man; a cruel and strange weirdo, a loser, a stateless foreigner living alone in a single room; in other words, a man who can’t bear to see a horse being whipped. He hugs its neck, he wails, he collapses. Eventually the police are called. What’s the deal with Nietzsche and horses? Twenty years beforehand, when he was young and strong, he’d abandoned his ancient books and joined the Prussian artillery, quickly distinguishing himself as an excellent rider. Then, one day, as he jumped happily into the saddle, something went wrong. He tore two muscles down his left side; he couldn’t walk for months. A fracture opened up. No more games with horses and cannon for young Fritz; an unhappy return to his old childhood world of classical philology, Hölderlin and Schopenhauer. From here on his body would only disintegrate: syphilis turns his bones to mush; indigestion sets his entrails on fire; genius, the worst sickness of all, sends him mad. All because of one horse. It’s hard to see Nietzsche angry at the horse, though; it’s much easier to imagine him bent over in pain as the horse watches with placid incomprehension, looking up into its dark eyes and suddenly conceiving of the doctrine of eternal recurrence. All this could happen again, exactly, to the last detail, and he’d be glad. Nietzsche trying and failing to mount his horse is a philosophical encounter. He loves horses, wild horses, war-horses, cart-horses. We could ask instead: what’s the deal with Nietzsche and his father? Ever since Freud’s Little Hans we’ve had to look at horses suspiciously. A horse isn’t just a horse, it’s a big snorting priapic dad. It’s strange, though: the same furious Nietzsche who tears down gods and nations speaks in only the kindest terms of his timid Lutheran pastor of a father; through him he invents an entire lineage of Polish nobility to be his ancestors. A delusional man. A man whose life isn’t so much a life as a constant writhing agony. His apartment in Turin is full of dust and little else; no wonder his lungs are playing up. It’s dark, and faintly moist, and it smells of decay. Moths flap about in gloomy corners. A single trunk, a single desk, a single bed. The gas-lamp outside sends the odd flicker of orange light, Dämmerung-deathly, across the room. In the middle of all this, Friedrich Nietzsche sits down at his desk and writes works of cold bright Arctic clarity.

In Anti-Nietzsche, Malcolm Bull confronts the modern-day ubiquity of that strange and lonely man going mad in Turin. Nietzscheanism is everywhere; Bull points out quite rightly how strange it is that a philosopher famous for his oppositionalism is so scarcely opposed. Socialists, feminists, and Christians swear their fidelity to the ideas of the anti-egalitarian, misogynist and atheist Nietzsche. However, Bull points out that defeating him isn’t an easy thing to do. Nietzsche writes about the will to power; if you try to critique his ideas, you’re only asserting your own will to power over his. Nietzsche writes about master and slave morality; if you try to overturn his principles, you’re only proposing your own master morality. Nietzsche’s works are full of conflict, war, and dynamite; if you try to fight him, he’s already won. So Bull doesn’t try. As he puts it, Nietzsche wants us to ‘read for victory,’ so he reads for defeat. Bull’s tactic is for us to accept Nietzsche’s philosophy in its entirety but to position ourselves on the ‘wrong’ side of every opposition. Rather than trying to raise ourselves to Übermenschen, we should become less than human; we should abandon the aesthetic; we should arm ourselves with nothing except our weakness, because we are weak. Bull encourages us to ‘read like losers.’ It’s a fascinating idea, but I think there’s something he’s missed. There’s no need for us to read like losers, because Nietzsche writes like a loser.

I usually don’t like this kind of biographical argument. When people claim that Bishop Berkeley’s subjective idealism was just a philosophical manifestation of his life-long constipation and inability to produce matter, I find it hard not to have a vague objection. It’s the same when there’s an attempt to reduce political ideologies to some kind of cod-psychopathology: you’re only a conservative because of your dominating father, I’m only a communist because I never got over my infantile egotism, whatever. These are ideas, they should be confronted as such. With Nietzsche it’s different. His great achievement was to drag philosophy down from its pretentious heights and roll it around in the mud a little. He was the first to see philosophy as a ‘kind of unintended and unwitting memoir’ of its author – as a symptom. There’s no reason to think that Nietzsche ever excluded his own (anti)philosophy from this perspectivism. When he tells us not to believe everything written down in fine style, he’s talking about his own writing. There’s a note of sad irony in all his works: his chapters with titles like ‘why I am so clever’ and ‘why I write such good books’ refer to nothing more than his migraines, his blindness, and his loneliness. Nietzsche carefully cultivated this image of his own lack: even as he was dying of syphilis, he continued to maintain that he’d never slept with a woman. In his Introduction to Antiphilosophy Boris Groys writes that ‘when Nietzsche praises victorious life, preaches amor fati and identifies himself with the forces of nature that are bound to destroy him, he simply seeks to divert himself and others from the fact that he himself is sick, poor, weak and unhappy.’ I don’t think diversion is what’s going on here. He’s coding or communicating his sickness; the incredible strength of his works and the incredible weakness of the man himself are one and the same thing, and neither one can be understood without the other.

Ignoring Nietzsche’s weakness can get you into trouble. I’m not talking about the fascists, whose Nietzsche is more a signifier than a thinker, but people like Georges Bataille. Bataille was a great philosopher but a really shoddy Nietzschean. While he famously confronts Hegel with laughter, he takes Nietzsche far too seriously – because Nietzsche’s laugh is that of the weak, choked with phlegm. Bataille wasn’t weak, even despite his tuberculosis. He lived an affirmative life of the kind that Nietzsche recommended: he wasted several fortunes in bars, casinos, and brothels; he founded secret societies; he was an enthusiastic participant in the partouze, he masturbated over the corpse of his mother while his pregnant wife slept in the next room. He was outwardly courteous and handsome; he didn’t need to hide his face behind a ridiculous moustache. He didn’t quite get it. You can see this in some of his most overtly Nietzschean texts; The Practice of Joy before Death, for instance. Bataille writes that ‘man “is” as soon as he stops behaving like a cripple, glorifying necessary work and letting himself be emasculated by the fear of tomorrow.’ Later he shows us how to do this: ‘I AM joy before death. Joy before death carries me. Joy before death hurls me down. Joy before death annihilates me. I remain in this annihilation and, from there, I picture nature as a play of forces expressed in multiplied and incessant agony.’ It’s powerful stuff, but there’s a glaring lack of irony here, a very un-Nietzschean didacticism. Bataille doesn’t quite get it because Nietzsche is a hypocrite, and he isn’t.

Bataille’s attitude to weakness is one of disavowal: Je sais bien that I am tubercular, mais quand même when I scream I AM THE SUN the verb être is the vehicle of an amorous frenzy. This is particularly evident in his writings on ritual orgy. In Eroticism Bataille rejects the idea of the orgy as an agrarian ritual, or at least the idea that the ritual orgy is entirely reducible to agrarian ritual. Instead it’s seen as an intrusion of the sacred world (that characterised by continuity, deindividuation, violence and ecstasy) into the profane world of work and discontinuity. The ritual orgy is a religious experience in the highest sense; it has no primary purpose other than unleash the transgressive forces of violent and frenzied eroticism. Bataille likens the orgy to war, another explosion of the sacred whose secondary, political purpose is only assigned to it later; it becomes enmeshed in his doctrine of excessive life and overabundant strength. He refers to ‘the men who ordained these orgies,’ but the men who ordained these orgies were women. The Dionysian Mysteries were a grotesquerie, a festival of the weak and the excluded in Greek society: women, slaves, cripples and outlaws. Their power was like Nietzsche’s: the paradoxical power of weakness, a power Bataille has disavowed. When the weakness goes; so does the power. Last year I took part in a masquerade orgy in London’s South Bank; the principle of female ordination was there (men could only attend if accompanied by a female partner, only women could approach men) but it was immensely different from the ancient mysteries. Afterwards many of my friends wanted to know what it had been like; more specifically they wanted to know if the whole thing had been tinged with horror and if it had left me feeling dead inside. They were quite disappointed to find out that it had just been quite fun. The people there were young and wealthy, bankers and investors; before we could go we had to send photos to the organisers so they could make sure we were attractive enough. In Bataille’s terms, it was libertinage rather than dissolution. There was no element of the sickness or the weakness that expresses itself as lightning and dynamite.

It’s notable that the discussion of ritual orgy in Eroticism is immediately followed by a critique of Christianity. The reason the Bacchic orgy no longer exists as a mass phenomenon has to do with Christianity’s reappraisal of the sacred and the profane; Bataille argues that in Christianity the sacred is associated exclusively with purity and the non-erotic love of agápē, while the ‘bad’ elements of the sacred (frenzy, violence) become part of the profane world, which is condemned as evil. In doing so Christianity loses much of the religious spirit, replacing it with sterile piety. Even so, it can’t abolish the impure aspect of the sacred, which finds its medieval expression in the Witches’ Sabbath and the Black Mass, inverted representations of Catholic liturgy. Again, Bataille’s argument loses something from the absence of any sense for weakness; he doesn’t see what really distinguishes Christianity. As he himself notes, the ‘sacred world is nothing but the natural world.’ It’s the order of the profane, with its division into work-time and leisure-time, that’s an artificial world formed through societal rites. However, the formation of the profane world is itself a product of religion; the laws which set up taboos and demand diligence in work are universally held to be a product of divine or cosmic revelation. Religion doesn’t belong to the sacred; it establishes a boundary between the sacred and the profane. The innovation of Christianity is to cast the profane world as the site of evil, to reject the world of work and to uphold the radical continuity of the weak. It’s true that the medieval Church tried to suppress the unruly side of the sacred, and that this impurity nonetheless found a way to express itself; but it wasn’t in the Witches’ Sabbath and its inversion of Christian prayer. Instead, frenzy, violence, and liberation were expressed precisely within the fabric of Christianity, in the form of the peasants’ revolt. These uprisings, generally led by radical preachers and taking inspiration from Biblical communism, erupted with all the thunder and fury of the sick and the weak, flaring up across Europe from the 1300s until they reached their apotheosis in the French Revolution. In Christianity, the sacred is class struggle.

Nietzsche would have called this slave morality, but Nietzsche loved horses. He saw a horse being whipped on the Piazza Carlo Roberto in Turin and rushed over to the animal, cradling its neck, trying to protect it. Then he collapsed. His Zarathustra surrounded himself with eagles and serpents, but Nietzsche loved cart-horses, slow and docile animals cowering under the whip. This doesn’t invalidate his philosophy; it opens it up. Master and slave morality aren’t in absolute opposition; just like Nietzsche’s power and his weakness, they form a dialectic. At a certain extreme point an identity of opposites is reached: the weak are the strong, and the strong are the weak. All it takes is a little will.

The image at the top of this essay is from Béla Tarr’s The Turin Horse, which you should watch.

What is fascism?

In my last piece, I wrote that ‘microfascism has taken over the world.’ In that line I was adapting the Deleuzian use of the term: Deleuze draws a line between historical Fascism (of the type that came to power in Germany, Italy, Romania, etc) and microfascism: a field of destructive, authoritarian impulses that permeates capitalist society. In Capitalism and Schizophrenia microfascism is the result of a blocked line of flight, a molarisation of repressed desire; in my essay I was considering the possibility that microfascism could function molecularly as well as through molarity. A deviation, but one with its genealogy in the text: Deleuze and Guattari continually equate the repressive totalitarian with fascism. In doing so they’re broadly in line with much of the radical left: communism is presented as one side of a polarity, with the opposite being fascism. Fascism is abstracted from being a real historical ideological movement into a general principle, a kind of radical Evil.

In a recent article in the Telegraph, Alan Johnson describes Slavoj Žižek as a ‘left-fascist.’ Clearly this is meant to be a criticism, and there’s certainly much to dislike about Žižek: his egregious antiziganism, his refusal to support genuine socialist movements in Latin America while singing the praises of Occupy Wall Street, his ‘ironic’ construction of a cult of personality. It’s not this, however, that riles up Alan Johnson. Instead, Žižek is criticised for ‘believ[ing] liberal civilisation is a nightmare from which only violent revolution can awake us,’ for his ‘contempt for the bourgeoisie,’ for advocating ‘unquestioning fidelity to a transcendent Cause’ as a cure for psychosocial ills. All this, Johnson informs us, means that Žižek has far more in common with interwar Fascism than with the far Left. Well, no. Critique of liberalism, revolutionary agitation, rejection of bourgeois values, and sublimation of the individual will within the revolutionary cause are all not only compatible with Communism, but essential to it. Johnson calls Žižek a fascist because it has become an epithet: he calls him a fascist for being a Communist. It’s idiotic, but even so, he touches on something important.

Every time the English Defence League tries to march its sorry band of hooligans past a mosque or a road with more than one halal butcher’s, leftist organisers drum up support against them with a single word: fascism. The EDL aren’t Fascists. Neither are the BNP. Neither is Marianne Le Pen. Neither is George W. Bush. Fascism is a Weltanschauung; like Communism, it is a complete and all-encompassing movement. The EDL doesn’t care about Nietzsche, or Hegel, or Giovanni Gentile, or Third Positionism. They’re racists, not Fascists. Racism proceeds from Fascism but is in no way essential to it: even the 1934 Montreux Fascist Conference was riven by disagreements over whether Fascist societies could be multiethnic. To call the EDL fascists is to credit them with a level of theoretical and philosophical awareness that they don’t possess.

Well, so what? Fascism is universally reviled; if applying it to groups like the EDL bolsters opposition to them, why not do it? If transmuting fascism into a general principle allows us to easily identify our enemies, isn’t that harmless? Not really. For a start, conflating racism with fascism blinds us to the racism outside the ‘fascist’ fringe. If fascism is racism then non-fascism must be non-racist: the anti-fascist campaigns that relentlessly attack groups of the far right are much more forgiving of the everyday racism practiced by liberal-democratic governments, and tend to gloss over completely racism on the left (such as Žižek’s). ‘Fascism’ becomes an immense distraction: as Badiou points out, the dogmatic abhorrence with which nationalist parties are held only allows systemic racism to go unchallenged.

There’s also the potentiality for misdirection. It’s not just the Left that abhors fascism. When fascism is turned into a universal principle of Evil, it becomes a useful tool for imperialists and reactionaries. Witness the coining of the term ‘Islamofascist,’ used by neoconservatives – who were, let’s not forget, mostly ex-Trotskyites – to drum up support for the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. Fascism untied from its historical roots becomes a floating signifier, utterly meaningless.  You can use it on anything. The Fourth International referred to social democracy as ‘social fascism’ because of its class collaborationism; one could equally call an apple a ‘fascist orange’ for refusing to properly recognise its internal divisions. As Alan Johnson inadvertently demonstrates in his essay, anything can be fascist, but especially anything with transcendent political goals – in other words, any ideology opposed to hegemonic liberalism. Abstracting fascism plays directly into the hands of the reactionaries: the status quo is good, any revolutionary challenge to it is absolute Evil.

Most of all, though, the abstraction of fascism contradicts historical reality and allows us to ignore important historical lessons. What is fascism? Fascism is a deviation from socialism based on idealism instead of materialism and the principles of nationalism and class collaboration instead of internationalism and class struggle; it is an aestheticisation of socialism. The founding ideologues of Fascism weren’t diametrically opposed to socialism; they emerged from the same philosophical branch. Giovanni Gentile wasn’t only the greatest scholar of Hegel since Marx, he borrowed extensively from Marxian thought. Georges Sorel was an orthodox Marxist and a supporter of the Bolshevik revolution; his Reflections on Violence remains a useful Marxist text. It’s time to dispense with Trotsky’s old ‘materialist’ analysis of Fascism: despite its reactionary quality, Fascism (outside of Germany, at least) was never a rearguard action by the ruling classes to protect their interests. It was a chimerical mass movement, a branch of socialism that went hideously awry.

Foucault describes how madness is turned into a unified principle of pure chaos so that society does not have to see itself in the madness of individuals. In much the same way, by turning fascism into an abstracted opposite principle, the Left protects against having to see itself in historical Fascism. By painting fascism as pure reactionary ideology, we’re not forced to confront difficult questions about the teleological inevitability of socialism. By considering it as the violent essence of capitalism, we can ignore the fact that socialism and Fascism arise under the same material conditions. A while ago, I wrote that Leftists ought to be more critical of 20th century Communism than its most vociferous opponents, that we should be utterly ruthless, picking apart its slightest failings – while at the same time maintaining fidelity to it and recognising it as fundamentally ours. In Marxist practice, ruthless criticism is the highest honour. The same goes for Fascism: by recognising ourselves in it rather than considering it as a hideousness somehow inherent to humanity, we can learn the catastrophic consequences of bad theory and, hopefully, prevent them from happening again. And by decoupling Fascism from absolute Evil, we can even learn from Fascist thinkers. As Johnson notes, interwar Fascists made lucid and piercing critiques of liberal democracy and bourgeois ideology, and stirring calls to collective action in the name of the transcendent Cause. He seems to think that these points are invalidated by the fact that they were articulated by Fascists. Historical materialists, conscious of the extents of their ideological family tree, should know better. These things belong to radical egalitarianism: they are not the constituent parts of radical Evil, and we should not surrender them.

Gun laws & the aetiology of mass murder

The mass murder of infant schoolchildren in Connecticut last week was unspeakably tragic. That doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be spoken about. Almost immediately afterwards there came the usual chorus from the American Right: don’t talk about guns, don’t politicise this tragedy. What exactly is signified by ‘politics’ here? Really, what’s being objected to is what Rancière calls ‘the political’: the idea of power-hungry statesmen playing tug-of-war with the bodies of murdered children isn’t a very pretty one. But that’s not all politics is. Political issues are those that address the fundamental questions of how we live our lives, how we structure our society, and how we relate to one another and the world around us. In other words, questions of ideology. Ideology is in a certain light contiguous with the Symbolic order in Lacanian thought: a solipsist in a sealed room might be politically neutral, but as soon as you put two people together then some kind of ideological discursive regime must govern their  interaction. Given this, the tragedy in Connecticut doesn’t need to be politicised; it’s already a political act. Violence, by its nature, can never take place in a vacuum, it must always have intentionality, a vector within the social field.

To be fair, this time around, there have been plenty of voices clamouring precisely for the politicisation of this tragedy. However, they appear to only really be apprehending a particular sector of the field of politics: that which is under discussion on Capitol Hill. Rather than seeking to interrogate the social formations that enable monstrous acts like that in Newtown, instead they demand gun control.

I’ll be open with my biases here: I like guns. I think being a good shot is an important life skill. I think the liberal drive to control firearms is much like the henpecking puritanism that tirelessly insists that we all give up smoking; it’s all a part of Western society’s incredible neurosis about death. Eat well, we are told, go jogging, enjoy yourself in acceptable doses, and your banal life can stretch out for a hideous eternity. Most of all I think private gun ownership is an important and necessary disruption of the State monopoly on force. In his address of the Central Committee To the Communist League, Marx and Engels wrote that ‘the workers must be armed and organized. The whole proletariat must be armed at once with muskets, rifles, cannon and ammunition. Under no pretext should arms and ammunition be surrendered; any attempt to disarm the workers must be frustrated, by force if necessary.’ After the October Revolution, one of the first actions the Bolsheviks took was to legalise private gun ownership and turn over military arsenals to the popular masses. Of course, the State has a far more sophisticated and devastating array of weaponry than it did in 1850 or 1917. Still, as Mao pointed out, reactionaries are paper tigers; nothing in Lockheed Martin’s laboratories can match the revolutionary spirit of millet plus rifles. This is something the authors of the US Bill of Rights understood. For all their faults, they did have moments of genuine radicalism, and the Second Amendment is one of them. It was never about self-defence – it’s right there in the text: a well regulated militia being necessary to the security of a free state. Admittedly Jefferson’s well-regulated militia of the propertied is not the same as Lenin’s armed mass of the people, but there’s the same ideological substrate: a genuine democracy requires the people’s capacity to resist encroachments on their freedom by force of arms. In the face of this, the contemporary Left’s retreat into the rhetoric of gun control is nothing less than a total ideological capitulation.

It doesn’t follow, though, that tragedies like the one in Connecticut are in any way a worthwhile price to pay for an armed populace. In fact, the two phenomena are entirely distinct. The mass murder in Sandy Hook was not caused by gun ownership. The millions of Americans who own guns do not perpetrate such atrocities on a daily basis. The reality is far more complex. Mental health provision in the United States is patchy, and where it exists it mostly focuses on palliative pharmaceutical psychiatry, in which symptoms are numbed with drugs without much being done to address the deeper root causes. More fundamentally, poverty is epidemic and swallowing up more and more of the population – in many recent spree killings, the perpetrator is someone who’s lost their job or home or has been forced to accept humiliating work conditions. This works hand in hand with a dominant ideology of absolute individualism: everyone is responsible for themselves. If you’ve failed, it’s because you haven’t worked hard enough. If you’re miserable, it’s because you’re not thinking positively enough. If you’re isolated, it’s because you aren’t putting in enough effort. It’s this hegemonic discourse that produces mass murderers. In more community-oriented social formations such as those in much of the Third World, spree killings are very rare; there’s violence, certainly, but nobody is ever allowed to become so isolated that their violence manifests itself in such a brutal and cataclysmic manner. America might have high rates of gun ownership but it also has a profoundly alienating social structure. Guns are incidental in all this.

Switzerland has the third-highest rate of gun ownership in the world, with around one gun for every two people. Every individual between the ages of 20 and 30 is issued an assault rifle by the government, which they are required to keep in their home. Meanwhile gun crime is so low that statistics aren’t even kept. Meanwhile, despite its high population of bankers and associated parasites, Switzerland retains a functioning welfare state and a low poverty rate. As a counter-example, look at Japan, which has some of the most stringent gun laws on the planet. The country’s law opens with the statement that ‘nobody shall own a firearm or a sword,’ with very few exceptions being listed. And it’s true that Japan doesn’t see gun massacres like that in Newtown. Instead, people use knives. In 1999 Yasuaki Uwabe used his car and a knife to kill five people and injure ten in Shimonoseki Station; in 2008 eight children were stabbed to death in Ikeda Elementary School in Osaka; in 2008 eight people were killed and ten injured when Tomohiro Kato attacked pedestrians in Tokyo’s Akihabara district with a truck and a knife. At the same time, Japanese society is as alienating as that in the United States, with its highly competitive culture manifesting itself in the suicides that take place on average every fifteen minutes, or in the hikikomori phenomenon of absolute social withdrawal that affects over three million Japanese.

It’s not enough to just blame this on some nebulously abstract concept of ‘culture.’ The form a culture takes is in continual dialectic with the economic base. Japanese society takes the form it does for the most part because of the liberalisation imposed on its economy after 1945. Ending spree killings (along with a host of other social ills) in the United States requires a similar economic overhaul, one in which the use of force is likely to be necessary. It’s going to be difficult. But unlike gun-control legislation, it might actually work.

I went to Chernobyl

Chernobyl is not how you’d expect. By the time you go, you’ve done your research: you know that the nuclear power station there leaked a cloud of radioactive gas that swept over an entire continent. You know that Prypiat, a town of fifty thousand people, was evacuated and has been abandoned for twenty-five years. And the phrases you hear in connection with it – ghost town, nuclear wasteland, zone of alienation – conjure images of broad lifeless expanses of concrete and dead earth, of barren inhospitality, of a fractured landscape so unearthly it might be a sort of embassy of the moon. And as the coach takes you from Kiev into the contaminated zone, you are shown an absurdly lurid documentary about the disaster itself – although perhaps its Discovery-Channel sensationalism is perfectly appropriate for the absurdity of what happened there. A scientific experiment carried out by Soviet physicists at Chernobyl Reactor 4 that went horrifically wrong and almost threatened to wipe out half of Europe: it’s the stuff of pulp science fiction and disaster movies; that it actually happened seems somehow unreal. And you’ve learned about the heroism of the helicopter pilots who were rushed over from Afghanistan to drop sandbags onto the burning reactor and who all died from the radiation – not immediately, they didn’t suddenly slump lifeless over their controls, helicopters didn’t corkscrew out of the sky and smash into the ground with the cathartic finality of a Hollywood explosion; they died later, in a Moscow hospital, sickly-pale and emaciated, deep gouges cut into their flesh by the invisible subatomic enemy.

And then you see the reactor itself, its mangled mess of broken pipes and twisted vessels covered by an enormous concrete sarcophagus, a vast tombstone that forms a more sublime memorial for the victims of the tragedy than any of the slightly tacky plasticky monuments scattered around the area. It was built with no real consideration for architecture, the concrete blocks were assembled haphazardly, as quickly and as efficiently as possible, to contain the leaking radiation, but it does in fact look exactly like a cathedral. The faded smokestack forms the spire, it has its long nave, its square pillars like flying buttresses, its transept of scaffolding. It is the cathedral of the Enlightenment, a temple built to mollify the eschatonic power of the atom. Like the kaaba, or the kadosh hakadoshim, it contains a light so fierce that it would burn away any man who entered; and those who visit must undergo ritual cleansing – except here, instead of being anointed with oil, you press your hands against one of the large Geiger counters that ring the site and pray that the little light turns green.

But when you come to Prypiat, the ghost town, it’s almost impossible to draw a line of causality between the horrors of the disaster, the starkness of the power plants, and the organic lushness of what you see before you. Prypiat isn’t a barren wasteland, it is full of life. The forest has swallowed it up – and rather than being grim or menacing, it has an air of complete serenity. It’s impossible to find any sense of urbanity here: the central square is like a brief clearing in which some spindly plants still grow; what were once broad avenues now seem like country lanes. It’s as if the town had not been built and then abandoned, but had grown by itself in the middle of the forest without any human involvement at all: as if the buried strata of rock and iron, jealous of the autotelic vivacity of the plants above, had decided to organise themselves into roads and buildings, bursting out through the soil, twisting into new shapes to form a pre-ruined city. Its edges are frayed not because it has been dilapidated, but because the natural world rarely works in straight lines; even when inside the buildings, the layer of broken glass that crunches underfoot seems as innocuous as the litter of a forest floor.

Only when you go further from the bright concourses of the abandoned buildings does this illusion shatter, because every room in every building you visit is full of stuff: human stuff, notebooks, trinkets, portraits, music sheets, reminders that fifty thousand people once lived here, and now there is nobody. In a municipal swimming pool, the diving-board still arches gracefully over a tiled pit filled only with broken glass and debris. In the palace of culture, books lie torn and scattered across the shelves: a moment of panic, frozen. In the rusted tangle of what was once a funfair, you find a child’s shoe on the tarmac: only one.

The most doleful place of all is the school. The floor and tables in every classroom are carpeted with papers: essays, projects, drawings, exercise books half-filled, textbooks half-deteriorated. The little artworks of children who either had to grow up in a foreign city or were denied that chance by the radioactive dust. Things that once held so much importance to some unknown person are now just another fleck in a sea of nuclear debris. Worse still are the toys, the dolls and soldiers that slump forlornly in dusty corners or gleefully display their pathos on desk tops. Then, at the top of a flight of stairs, two crates full of gas masks: a brute intrusion of the catastrophe itself into this poignant little mausoleum.


These children lived in a different world. Hammer-and-sickles decorate the corners of their drawings; in one of their art classrooms you find a student’s piece: a lino print of a stylised missile, superimposed with the words нет бомби. The Soviet Union of 1986 was not a worker’s paradise, but the students of Prypiat were still taught that theirs was a society dedicated to the emancipation of humanity, the erasure of alienation, the resolution of antagonisms, to peace and socialism. It was no such thing, of course, but here and there it made its successes, and in Prypiat you can gain the tiniest of glimpses into the Soviet Union as seen from the inside: not as the menacing bear spreading its claws across Europe and Asia, with nuclear warheads tipping its canines, but as a place where a trace of the October Revolution’s optimism and hope for a better society still lingered on. A failure, yes, ultimately, but one at least still haunted by its own spectre.

Back, then, to the prosperous swarm of Kiev. In Independence Square, an old woman, shawled, hunched over, her clothes stained, her legs mottled with purple veins, her arms dappled with sagging skin, the muck of the streets ingrained in the creases on her face, carrying a stinking plastic bag by one shaking withered talon-like hand, shambles from bin to bin, rummaging for glass bottles. Above, the billboards blare out their stern commandments: to enjoy, to be lovin’ it. This is the victory of the West, this is the triumph of freedom. Here, in the bright liberal business-friendly centre of the New Europe, you can find the true ruins of Communism. In the sylvan tranquillity of Chernobyl, something of it still lives.

%d bloggers like this: