Idiot Joy Showland

This is why I hate intellectuals

Tag: derrida

Why won’t you push the button?

Nuclear war is not only fabulous because one can only talk about it, but because the extraordinary sophistication of its technologies coexists, cooperates in an essential way with sophistry, psycho-rhetoric, and the most cursory, the most archaic, the most crudely opinionated psychagogy, the most vulgar psychology.
Jacques Derrida, No Apocalypse, Not Now (Full Speed Ahead, Seven Missiles, Seven Missives)


Imagine if a politician openly promised, during a campaign, that they would be willing to burn people alive. They come to knock on your door, bright and smiling in a freshly crinkled rosette: unlike my opponent, who doesn’t care about your security and the security of your family, I will personally subject someone to sixty million-degree heat, so that their fat melts and their bones are charred and their eyeballs burst and their bodies crumble into toxic dust. I will torture other people by burning their skin, I will torch their flesh away and leave them with open wounds bubbling with disease. They will die slowly. I will poison others; their organs will fail and they will shit out their guts in agony. I will do this to people who have done nothing wrong, to families, to children, to their pets; one by one, I will burn them to death. For you. For your security.

This is what the bomb did to Hiroshima. This is utter barbarism. Even saying that you would do it is utter barbarism. Of course, the nuclear deterrent only works if you say that you’re prepared to use it – which just demonstrates that we shouldn’t have it, that the whole logical structure of nuclear deterrence is abominable. Any tool whose mere existence forces you to say the unspeakable is not worth having; a hammer that causes you to make death threats is not fit for purpose. Anyone who threatens the world with blinding destruction in unspecified circumstances is simply not responsible enough to hold power. There is no situation in which the use of these weapons is ever justified – never, not in the most tortured hypotheticals of an undergraduate ethics seminar, not in the most Boschian secondary worlds inhabited by right-wing fantasists. If a nuclear attack on Britain has already been launched, retaliation will save nobody; it would just be the final act of spite in a long spiteful history. Nobody would accept a politician who threatened from the podium on live TV to personally burn one person to death, so why should we accept the idea of burning millions?

But what’s strange about the moral case against nuclear weapons – they cause horrendous suffering, must never be used, and should not exist – is that it doesn’t work.

We saw this on Friday night’s Question Time debate, as a parade of questioners took Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn to task over his refusal to say that he would ‘push the button’ and initiate an attack. Theresa May has said that she would press the button in a first strike; Owen Smith, during the last leadership contest, said the same thing. This seems to be a fairly popular decision; the thoughtless destruction of everything that exists plays well with the British public. More than that: it’s demanded; according to the eldritch nostrums that structure British political life, if you’re not willing to promise horrendous genocide with the breezy psychopathy of some ancient khagan drinking from the skulls of his enemies, you can’t be trusted to keep us safe. The appetite for murder is incalculable. After Corbyn ruled out a first strike, one member of the public – red-faced, ageing, some sad retired insurance salesman comforting himself in his flabby decline with thoughts of the fiery extermination of humanity – demanded to know if he’d use Trident as a second strike: the British people demand death from beyond the grave; he’d die gladly if he knew that a few million innocent Iranians or Koreans went too.

It’s striking how sharply the inhuman vastness of nuclear war contrasts with the pettiness and finitude and awfulness of the people who demand it. The first question on nuclear weapons came from one Adam Murgatroyd, who looks exactly how you’d expect, some simpering Tory ponce with his slicked-back hair and his practised raise of an eyebrow. ‘It’s disconcerting,’ he later told the press, ‘that we could potentially in six days’ time have a prime minister who wouldn’t be prepared to protect British lives over someone else’s life.’ Imagine the air poisoned, the soil dying, the biosphere eradicated, the grand flailing tragedy of humanity and its aspirations put to an abrupt stop, the families huddling their loved ones close as the shock wave hits, knowing they’re about to die – and all because some limp umbrella of a man wanted a leader who’d make the right kind of nationalistic hoots about defence. Now I am become Adam from the BBC studio audience, destroyer of worlds.

We should consider the questions of the atomic age in fear and trembling. Instead we get the blearing idiocy of common sense, always pointing us to the wrong and most monstrous answer. The process of thinking about the red button has become as automatic as the button itself.

Nuclear war is unthinkable, in the most literal sense. It has no end and no interpretation; it is invisible, ungraspable, unconscionable. There is a significant cultural industry dedicated to depicting nuclear war precisely because it’s impossible, because we’re trying to find ways to depict a looming absence of everything, a nothing that can never be depicted. (This is why Derrida considers the real literature of the nuclear age to not be works that directly imagine a post-apocalyptic future, but the texts of Kafka, Mallarmé, and Joyce – the writing that comes closest to touching its own finitude and destructibility.) The death drive, Kristeva writes, is not represented in the unconscious, because the unconscious can not admit negation – only, as Freud puts it, ‘contents, cathected with greater or lesser strength.’ Instead, Kristeva writes, there is a ‘hiatus, spacing, or blank that constitutes death for the unconscious.’ Death is in the cadence of the psyche, the pause that gives regularity and reason to its articulation, the silence against which it expresses itself. Nuclear war is the death of politics and administration, the emptiness in which politics speaks. This is why petty, stupid bureaucrats, small people with small concerns, who mostly fuss about which type of coffee plays best with the focus-group voters, have to occasionally declare that they would take on the titanic task of wiping out all of human history. They have to announce their fidelity to the interior non-substance of our political discourse, which is the death of every living thing. Then they’re allowed to go on and talk about parking spaces and healthy eating and cutting taxes and aspiration. Everything is in its unplace, all policy is properly situated at ground zero, where the bombs will fall.

This silence is not pure unsignifying madness: it’s the final home of rationality. The sense in which we talk about reason – pure objectivity, emotionlessness, abstract numerical calculation, a kind of ratio that would have seemed very strange to, for instance, the medieval Europeans who helped first define it – is a product of the nuclear age. It’s well known that game theory, in which human decisions are modelled according to the assumption that everyone is a calculating and atomised individual who only wants to maximise their utility – was first taken up as a praxis to model the Cold War nuclear standoff, and was only then applied to all areas of social and economic life. But the most basic relay mechanisms of nuclear weapons by themselves enforce a post-politics. Paul Virilio notes that, as the warning times for a nuclear attack and a possible counter-attack shrunk from fifteen minutes to ten minutes to one, the effect was that of ‘finally abolishing the Head of state’s power of reflection and decision in favour of a pure and simple automation of defence systems… After having been the equivalent of total war the war machine suddenly becomes the very decision for war.‘ Somewhere, various sets of computer systems analyse the likelihood of an unprovoked strike and try to pre-empt it; when the end comes, it won’t be for explicable political goals, but out of a pure uninflected machine-reason, and none of us will ever know why. Reason and madness lose their distinction here. See Nixon, the shit Hamlet with his ‘madman doctrine,’ threatening to unleash the powers of apocalyptic calculation; see the tortured but valid syllogisms by which every democratic British leader has to make gruesome threats against the world. This is the ground of politics as administration and necessity and the root of the technocratic age. Once the life and death of every living thing can become a matter of calculation without ideology or ethics, so is everything else. People can starve to death in empty flats because there’s no magic money tree; thousands can drown on the Mediterranean because we don’t have the resources to take in any more. It’s common sense. Common sense in the twenty-first century is always common sense from the point of view of an atomic bomb.

Just like austerity or the massacre-by-inaction on Europe’s waters, the logic of nuclear weapons is not some pre-Kantian pure reason without a social or epistemological substrate. Nuclear weapons are, first of all, weapons in the class struggle. The greatest vector for socialism has always been war – in war, the ruling classes arm and mobilise the proletariat, tell them that they have the power to build the fate of nations, and then send them off to die; it’s only a matter of time before these workers decide that this power could be put to better use, and the people taking the most principled stand against these senseless wars have always been Communists. War between the powers became too great a threat to power itself. Nuclear weapons abolish this: abstract mobilisation, the disappearance of territory, the omnipresence of the front. Working classes win by striating and reinterpreting space – building barricades, occupying squares, cutting off the flows of production and exchange at crucial points – and under the global sovereignty of the bomb there is no such thing as space. Instead, our role is simply to die, in endless billions. But it all makes sense; every step is perfectly rational. It’s a death you can trust, to keep you and your family safe.

Writing and identity

There are also others, an infinite number of them, the innumerable generality of others to whom I should be bound by the same responsibility, a general and universal responsibility. I cannot respond to the call, the request, the obligation, or even the love of another without sacrificing the other other, the other others… As a result, the concepts of responsibility, of decision, or of duty are condemned a priori to paradox, scandal, and aporia.
Jacques Derrida, The Gift of Death


0. To write feels like violence. All of us are mortal, but the text can survive long after its author: who are you, fleshy and contingent thing, who wants to live forever? To write is to stain clean paper, press sticks in smooth clay; in some sense always, to deform the world. To write something down is to turn the limitless possibility of what could be into the dead presence of what turned out to have been. A line in Beckett’s Molloy which I always find myself returning to, because it speaks what it isn’t: ‘You would do better, at least no worse, to obliterate texts than to blacken margins, to fill in the holes of words till everything is blank and flat and the whole ghastly business looks like what it is, senseless, speechless, issueless misery.’ Writing obscures the ghastliness of what is, which is speechlessness; it weaves a flimsy veil of presence around the eternal nothing. Writing is a lack, but the lack is not in words but the world that surrounds them.

1. One form of the discourse in question, an instance: Don’t write thinkpieces about Beyoncé (or whatever) if you’re not a black woman. You will not understand the subject-matter, not properly, it will be a waste. It isn’t for you. (As if the commodified culture-object is ever really for anyone.) The really notable thing here is where the demand is placed. What’s needed – and what’s generally articulated – is a critique of the journalistic economy and its deeply unequal hiring and commissioning practices, the thorny nexus of social practices that create a class of profession writers that generally looks like the class of the bourgeoisie from which it is mostly drawn. But what can often occur with it is a metaphysics of the text: illegitimate writing is not even itself, but an absence, the absence of everything else that could have been there instead. Any one person writing means another who can’t; the sin is in its having been written, the fault belongs to the writer as such. But while most writing really is inexcusably bad, the one mark in its favour is that the possibility of writing is limitless. It’s the industrial complex of writing that is restricted, along with the number of people who can sustain themselves in this fairly shabby trade: here, as everywhere, the task is to reproduce in the economy at large the infinity that already exists in the economy of language, to abolish the distinction between the professional writer and the public they serve or negate, to make sure that nobody will ever go hungry again.

2. Instead, a general trend within those discourses that claim to have justice as their aim is the selective and demographic apportioning out of the field of human understanding: black writers may and must write about black celebrities, music, and their own experiences; women writers may and must must write about lifestyle trends, feminism, and their own experiences; trans writers about their own experiences; Muslim writers about their own experiences; disabled writers about their own experiences. In one avowedly intersectional-feminist online publication, female writers are given an ‘Identity Survey,’ a monstrous questionnaire in which they’re asked to list every horrifying experience they had ever survived, and are then told to turn it all into short, shareable, fungible articles for $90-a-day wages. I was raped, I was in an abusive relationship, I had an abortion, I suffered; a strip-mining of saleable identities, a kind of primitive accumulation across the terrain of trauma. Meanwhile the universal subject, the one that need not suffer to be heard, remains white and male. The right of black women to write about Beyoncé is important. But they must also be able to write about deep-sea ecology, Kantian philosophy, writing itself, and what they do not know – and while there are many who do precisely this, the under-representation of writers of colour, queer and trans writers, and other marginalised people on the topics of oceanography, German idealism, deconstruction, and ignorance is significantly more marked. Overwhelmingly it is white men who are afforded the privilege of being other than themselves, of not having to continuously say ‘I’ – not least because the validity of their self-identity is already assured, because the world is already in their image. And while the ability to declare oneself in the face of a world that would prefer you not to to is essential, the dogma that writing must and can only be a self-declaration resigns marginalised people to this condition. My critique here is very limited: within this discourse it has become the case that it is the presence and particularity of the ‘I’ that legitimises writing, that makes it appropriate or inappropriate, that makes it either it either presence itself or the lack of something else. And this is not helpful.

3. If there must be a rule, then it should be that we must not only write what we know. If we don’t write an ignorance other than ourselves, in the end all that remains is a mute, gnashing, helpless, final I. There is no writing that is only legible to and can only be created by people occupying a particular subject-position; there are experiences that are unique and incommensurable, even incommunicable, but if this were the case here there would be no possibility of writing: everyone who could understand would already know.

4. Derrida notes in Plato’s Pharmacy that ‘the speaking subject is the father of his speech […] Logos is a son, then, a son that would be destroyed in his very presence without the present attendance of his father. His father who speaks for him and answers for him. Without his father he would be nothing but, in fact, writing.’ There is no speech without its anchor in the person that speaks and her physical presence, but in writing – the ‘breathless sign’ – the author is always simply not there, even if she has an active Twitter account. It persists without its creator; what faces you is the text, something entirely different. I speak and say ‘I’ and you know who says the word, but the written ‘I’ is always indeterminate, a tangle of lies and fantasies and ironies and pretences, a person just like you half a world away, the person that you are yourself, an immortal and changing thing. If you speak and someone interprets what you say in a way you didn’t intend, what’s taken place is a misunderstanding. If you write and someone interprets what you’ve written in a way you didn’t intend, what’s taken place is literature. The demand that any text be legitimised by the self-identity of its author is the demand for a text that behaves more like speech. And not just any speech. The writing that responds to this demand is ‘testimonial’ or ‘confessional’ writing, and the place in which one testifies or confesses is in a court. In a courtroom logocentrism holds sway; the preference is for a speaking person, whose truth is guaranteed by a spoken oath, who is present to speak for and answer for their own speech. The discourse here is not one of justice, strictly speaking, but the law. It is the law that, first of all, demands to know who a person is before deciding what to do with them. These are not opposing concepts, necessarily, but they are not the same. The law can be deconstructed. Justice cannot.

5. Whose voice is allowed to speak? Only yours. In Beckett’s novels the reader is lost and confused, stranded in a mire of words that seem designed to be inhospitable and to exclude, accompanying something that speaks its unquestioning I-say-I while forbidding any identification – until you realise that the strange tormenting voice that is mentioned sometimes, the one that tells people what to do, the one that is constantly trying to bring itself to an end but is never able to stop speaking itself, is the same voice that’s been in your head the entire time as you read. It’s shocking, but there’s a sense of joy at the same time. What distinguishes real writing from a legal deposition or a laundry list is its occasional capacity to provoke a kind of joy, even in evocations of sadness, loneliness, misery, loss, repression, and horror, the sheer pleasure of something entirely alien and entirely intimate, of a voice that is nobody’s and everyone’s and yours, there with you in your solitude, of language in the infinity of its play and substitutions, a moment of the freedom that’s still to come.

JK Rowling and the Cauldron of Discourse


Please understand that I’m not making any kind of criticism of her when I say that JK Rowling has abandoned the real world. When you have one billion dollars, it’s not really something you need any more; there’s no real need to explain why she chooses to live with magic instead. If nothing else, she inhabits herself. In Edinburgh’s rain-splattered streets familiar beings are at work. The troll in chains, for instance, grunting behind the wheel of the bus, pressed into its dreary service shuttling endlessly from Hanover Street to Holyrood and back by a simple first-year spell, Instrumentio, for the manipulation of hyponoiacs – because why else would the Lothian number 6 have ploughed so carelessly into that puddle just as she was walking past? You might think that Ocado being out of smoked salmon for three weeks running is a supply-chain problem, another of those market inefficiencies that together determine the course of our lives, but she knows better: when she scans down her receipt to see it replaced by mackerel again, she knows it’s an infestation of nifflers, scurrying rapacious all along the warehouse floor, snuffling up anything that looks like it might be valuable, cramming thick slices of translucent rippling salmon into their always-hungry bellies. When helicopters thrum overhead to ruin her sleep at three in the morning, JK Rowling knows that a werewolf’s on the loose; when politically engaged young people mass in front of Parliament she sees the crowded hoods of the Dementors, and shivers.

Things continue to work after their usual fashion; it’s house-elves in their willing legions that stitched all her clothes together, and worryingly megarhinic goblins judiciously sliding banknotes to her through the cash machine. She’s grateful for the advice of Hagrid and Dumbledore and all the others as they follow her around this greyed-out half-world, she’s glad that she’s not like all the boring and stupid people, that she has an active imagination and a rich inner life. Of course she knows that all these wizards and griffins are just stuff that she made up, that none of it is really real, that she prefers living with them because she can control it all to the last detail, while even one billion dollars won’t let you rearrange the universe at will. But things aren’t always so clear. She’s sure, occasionally, that Harry had always been there, telling her what to do. He told her to write the book. Then she went back into the house and wrote, It was nearly midnight, and Harry Potter was lying on his stomach in bed. It was not nearly midnight. Harry Potter was not lying on his stomach in bed.

This is about JK Rowling’s political interventions, of course, her pathological tendency to justify vague and insipid reaction by pointing out that some fictional wizards she thought up inside her own head also share her views, her apparent inability to think about the real world without first mapping it onto the one she invented. JK Rowling has variously pissed off Scottish nationalists and the Palestine solidarity movement and the Labour left, wielding a Dumbledore hand puppet that repeats everything she says in a slightly lower voice, but she’s also pissed off a significant number of her own fans, and that’s where you have to start.

In 2007, Rowling was widely celebrated for announcing that her character Dumbledore was gay, despite the fact that there’s nothing to suggest this in the text itself, where she had an opportunity to actually advocate for queer issues; this year, when she told her fans that their personal theories were all incorrect and another character, Sirius Black, was not gay, they were outraged. We grew up with these characters, they insisted, we decide how to read them. JK Rowling is over, they declared, as if she hadn’t already been dead since Barthes. (Or longer: there’s a reason every testament is final, why God never actively intervenes in the world once His holy book is set down, why the medieval Kabbalists had to invent reader-response theory and the Catholic Church headcanons.) What’s clear is that absolutely nobody involved has ever read a word of Derrida.

There are many definitions of deconstruction, none of them particularly good, but you could do worse than to describe it as a mode of reading that refuses to forget the textuality of the text, the fact that it’s a series of marks on a material substrate that were written and which can be read, copied, misunderstood, ignored, or destroyed, that before it conjures up a private universe it exists as a shared object in this one. As a sop to her LGBT+ critics, Rowling shortly afterwards revealed that in her books lycanthropy is actually a metaphor for AIDS. Her position on all this is clear: she came up with these stories, she owns them, and long after they’ve slipped into the wider discourse they still remain essentially hers, essentially private. On Twitter, her header image was briefly two lines of text reading ‘I know what Dumbledore would do. Deal with it.’ The true text of Harry Potter is not on the printed page, but between her ears, to be altered whenever she wants; in her Platonist cosmology fictional events have a shining reality that is all their own, which emanates from out her mouth. She’s following the fandom-headcanon model of literary theory, but here hers is the largest, most bloated head, and the only one that counts. It’s impossible to read this denial of the text anything other than an abrogation of her rights and duties as an author. Sometimes dedicated fans whip themselves up into such a frenzy over their favourite culture-commodities that they act as if the stories were real, centring themselves in a private world that does not belong to them, and JK Rowling does the exact same thing. As soon as she moves to keep hold of her creation, it gains a terrifying, spectral autonomy. JK Rowling is not the author of the Harry Potter books; she is their biggest fan.

It’s in this context that Rowling’s bizarre forays into politics, her marshalling of the powers of literary enchantment for the most banal and miserable of mundane causes, start to make a kind of sense. When she stridently opposed the academic boycott of Israel called for by Palestinian civil society, she did so through a lengthy exegesis on the moral message of her own books, eventually concluding that BDS is wrong because the magical wizards wouldn’t like it. (To be fair, she admits that Harry might have started out with natural pro-Palestine sympathies, but maintains that by the end of the last book he would have grown up and learned to accept that Israel has a right to exist.) When Britain voted to leave the European Union, her public response was that she’d ‘never wanted magic more,’ presumably so she could cast a spoiling spell on millions of ballots. Her opposition to the leadership of Jeremy Corbyn seems to be based on the usual confused half-ideas about electability, as if the party’s right wing and its generic brand of watered-down Toryism hadn’t shown itself to be a losing proposition twice in the last decade, but it’s mostly supported by the fact that, as she insisted, ‘Corbyn. Is. Not. Dumbledore.’ Which is true: Jeremy Corbyn simply isn’t as good as the wise old magician who doesn’t exist, having shown himself to be entirely incapable of casting even the most basic of spells, and utterly failed to function as a universally adored avatar of infallible good; he’s capable of occasionally holding views contrary to those of JK Rowling even when she doesn’t want him to, and he didn’t even have the good grace to give her one billion dollars. None of this is, strictly speaking, analogy; in almost every case she’s responding to other, lesser fans to say that their analogies are inadmissible. In analogy a fictional scenario acts as a map for real events; something intersubjective and mutually agreed upon can explicate (or, if you know how to do it right, confuse) an objective situation. For Rowling, the situation is reversed: real events are trespassing on her characters, the real world is only an imperfect map for Harry Potter.

Rowling’s politics didn’t create those of the Harry Potter fantasy – she is, remember, not an author but a fan. Instead, the books themselves distilled all the latent fascism out of the political mainstream, boiling the discourse into a heavy green slime, and she drank it all down in one gulp. People sometimes try to play a fun game in which they match the Hogwarts houses to political ideologies, usually ending up with a ranked list of what ideas they like and don’t like (Gryffindors are nice social liberals like me! Donald Trump is a Voldemort!). This is the wrong way of looking at it; any division into types must itself exemplify a particular type, so that the four together express a single Weltanschauung. Gryffindor are fascists according to fascist ideology itself, the ideal-ego of the fascist subject: a natural elite, strong, noble, honourable, yellow-haired, and respectful of difference, but only within strict limits. Slytherin is the same figure as she appears to the outside world, her negative aspects projected onto a despised other. Hufflepuff is the fascist’s ideal ordinary political subject, dull and stolid, but essentially good-hearted; Ravenclaw is the indeterminate other that resists assimilation into this conceptual matrix, the thing that constitutes the order through its exclusion, the figure that in the early twentieth century was identified with the body of the Jew.

Harry Potter is a profoundly reactionary fable; its fantasy isn’t really about dragons and broomsticks but the tired old fantasy of the British class system. Harry Potter is the petit-bourgeois boy who goes to a magical Eton (one that, incidentally, runs on actual slave-labour), faces a few tribulations along his way, but eventually finds himself admitted to the ranks of the aristocracy. The central moral dilemma is one of inequality – what do you do when you have one class of people who, by dint of their extraordinary powers, are innately superior to the society surrounding them? (This goes some way to explaining its popularity: Harry Potter is a book for people who are very pleased with themselves because they love books and love to read, without any judgements on what’s being read; it was never for children and always for the bored 29-year-old human resources workers they would grow into. To read Harry Potter uncritically is to adopt the posture of a Hufflepuff.) The crude, cartoon fascism of Voldemort and the Death Eaters answers that they must rule, killing and enslaving the lesser races. The good characters, meanwhile, want the wizarding world to coil up into its own superiority and seethe in its own ressentiment; every adult is seemingly employed by a government bureaucracy whose sole purpose is to maintain a system of magical apartheid. But remember that these are not actually opposing factions, only varying perspectives of a single ideological object; the difference between Dumbledore and Voldemort is as illusory as that between white nationalism and white supremacism. When JK Rowling announces what Dumbledore would do, she’s announcing the politics of the entire work, its good and evil figures all rolled into one. This is what fandom-hermeneutics fails to understand: you can’t introject a single character sliced off from its text; you can only swallow the whole thing. When JK Rowling ventriloquises her friendly wizard to say that Palestine solidarity or socialism make the Hogwarts man feel very sad, watch her head spin round to reveal the pale leering mouth of the Dark Lord.

In defence of personal attacks


The left does not have a great literary tradition. The really titanic writers and novelists of the twentieth century tended either towards a kind of weary nihilism – Beckett, Kafka, even Joyce – or the outright fascism of a Céline, a Mishima, a Borges, or a Lawrence. Within the Soviet Union, novelists tended toward mild reaction, and Stalin had to intervene to save his favourites. ‘Leave that holy fool alone,’ he said of Pasternak. ‘It’s not good calling literature right and left. These are Party words,’ was his judgement on Bulgakov. This position, that great art transcends politics, is itself political, a reactionary one, but literature makes us reactionaries. Something about socialism as it’s often practised, perhaps the insistent optimism in the face of suffering, doesn’t lend itself well to the novel as form. There’s a famous story about Engels: after Marx’s death, he was regularly approached by young socialist writers who wanted him to read their manuscripts, and these were almost invariably terrible. Didactic little stories about brave, noble, heroic workers who banded together and triumphed over their bad evil bosses. Engels would tell these writers to go away and read some Balzac. And Balzac was a monarchist. This doesn’t mean that progressive politics can’t be reconciled with the written word; we just have our own forms. Communists write engaging history, anthropology, and literary theory; we’re good at hybrid, inventive, or indeterminate forms, in particular the essay; we have good poets. But more than anything we know who the enemy is and we’re not afraid to exercise moral judgement, and so we write excellent, vicious, brutal political invective.

Lately, the value of personal unpleasantness has been the subject of some debate, if you can call it that, which I’ll get to in a moment. But first I feel I ought to defend my own practice. I’ve previously used this space to be really very mean about quite a few important people – Slavoj Žižek, the corpse of Margaret Thatcher, Richard Dawkins, Nigel Farage, the Royal family, Alain de Botton, Tony Blair, Abraham Foxman, Stephen Fry, the cereal café twins, Chris Kyle, Slavoj Žižek again, Howard Jacobson, Slavoj Žižek a third time, Howard Jacobson a second time, Slavoj Žižek a fourth time, Bill Kristol, Neil deGrasse Tyson, Nate Silver, and Nick Cohen. These critiques are often hyperbolic: I don’t just disagree with someone’s ideas, but make unpleasant comments about the way they look or talk, I place them in gruesome sexual scenarios, I indulge in strange fantasies in which they get kidnapped and beaten to a pulp, are humiliated on live TV, expose themselves from a medieval tower, develop a psychotic fear of frogs, or sneak into people’s homes to commit strange acts of voyeurism. Some of these comments are potentially libellous (sue me, you fuckers!), all of them are frankly gratuitous and unnecessary. In fact, this is an occasional response I receive – my point, when I bother to make one, is marred by the vitriol of the personal insults; it’s unfair and unbecoming; when I insult someone’s person it can look as if I’m not competent to grapple with their ideas. So why do it?

I want to mount a defence of exactly this kind of crude, cruel, spiteful rhetoric, and it’s helpful to start by looking at its opposite. An excellent example is provided by Neil Postman’s 1985 book Amusing Ourselves to Death, one of the great broadsides against the dumbing-down of America, the reduction of great and noble ideas-based debates to crass bickering. Television, writes Postman, has become to dominant form for communicating ideas, to which all other forms are subservient (one could say the same of the internet today); it has supplanted the written word, and the results have been disastrous. Writing forces people to think an argument through linearly, to concentrate on pages of fairly unattractive squiggles for hours on end in silence and contemplation, to engage with concepts that do not necessarily have any immediate visual referent; with television, meanwhile, you just sit in front of the box and let the images wash through your brain. In the first section, Postman describes the highly literate society of the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, when ordinary people would actually read books, when ideas circulated freely, when most people wouldn’t recognise the US President if they saw him on the street, because great figures were seen primarily as a collection of texts, to be evaluated by the dispassionate critical intelligence. This was the Age of Reason, and it was great. Later, he describes an attempt by television to display some serious and rational enquiry to its viewers: an eighty-minute discussion programme broadcast by ABC in 1983, with a panel of respected experts, all titans in their field, and men that Postman clearly admires. But because this discussion was broadcast on TV, it was impossible to represent the serious intelligence of its guests; instead of thinking, with all the uncertainty that implies, they were forced to make rambling little commentaries: ‘what the ABC network gave us was a picture of men of sophisticated verbal skills and political understanding being brought to heel by a medium that requires them to fashion performances rather than ideas.’

There are two things to note here. First, Postman is victim to a fetishism of the book as a physical object; second, to a fetishism of the Idea as such. He talks about reading a lot, but very rarely about writing: the text is passively received, evaluated but never responded to. For the great mass of people the written word is an ennobling force that comes from the outside, and they are to gladly lap it up. As any good Derridean knows, this is nonsense; the act of inscription is all but universal, especially within what Postman calls pre-literate societies. And he misses a fairly important question – what did these great ennobling books actually say? Even now, there are people who try to build their identity on the fact that they really love reading – they’re such a nerd haha, they don’t go out drinking at night, they’d far rather curl up with a good book. What books? Oh, all books are great; Mein Kampf, the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, the latest from Michael Deacon; I just love books. What were people reading in Postman’s great Age of Reason? From the way he writes, you’d think they were all reading John Locke, Thomas Paine, and the Bible. Except this was also the era of brutal imperialism and the beginnings of scientific racism; the South was full of slaves, and the slaveowners were frequently publishing apologia for their monstrosities – which, it has to be said, were expressed in complex sentences designed to appeal to the faculty of reason. Similarly in the present day. Postman is full of respect for the panellists on that ABC show, because they are men of ideas, but while he writes paeans to the act of evaluation inherent in the written word, he doesn’t seem to exercise it himself. That discussion was broadcast after the film The Day After, about nuclear war, and the panel was an interesting bunch. One of its members was Ellie Weisel, the professional whitewasher of Israeli ethnic cleansing. Another was white supremacist William F Buckley. A third was the celebrity war criminal Henry Kissinger. Postman is most effusive in his praise for Kissinger – a ‘paradigm of intellectual sobriety,’ who would make ‘viewers feel sorry he was no longer their Secretary of State by reminding everyone of books he had once written, proposals he had once made, and negotiations he had once conducted.’ And in a way, Postman is right. Kissinger is deeply serious. But he’s a deeply serious monster.

The world we live in is not populated by ideas, it’s populated by people, and people die – millions of them, constantly, for no good reason other than the avarice and cruelty of other people. This is a central Marxist insight: ideas do not exist in their own glittering sphere; they emerge from concrete relations of production and power. Henry Kissinger is not a collection of texts and concepts, but a profoundly evil man. It’s important to rebut his ideas, because they are dangerous. But if you also attack him in the face – or, preferably, in his dick and balls – it’s harder for these ideas to escape into their weightless world where any concept is as good as any other. Kissinger as a set of abstract notions is incommensurable with anything in material reality; a sad, naked, doughy Kissinger with a pale and shrivelled penis is a human body, far harder to divorce from the millions of human bodies he destroyed in south-east Asia. Gratuitous personal insults are essential. A grotesque satirical fantasy, Kissinger cranking off in a Phnom Penh hotel room to napalm videos, whatever, belongs to reality; the vision of him as a big fleshy book does not.

Debate club rules are not universally applicable. When people demand that discourse only take place on the level of ideas, rather than ugly reality, it’s often because there is something in reality that they’d rather not face. The people who really object on principle to being mocked or insulted, the ones who decry it as violence, tend to be far less critical of actual, physical, deadly violence. Blood is fine. Dick jokes are not.

All this is written in response to the fallout from what should have been a fairly inconsequential internet spat, in which the leftist blogger Matt Bruenig referred to the liberal thinktankie Neera Tanden as a ‘scumbag.’ Incredibly, this somehow ended in Bruenig losing his job. Friends and comrades have already written excellent essays on this incident and the issues surrounding it; in particular Gavin Mueller’s materialist critique of media stratification, Roqayah Chamseddine’s urgent analysis of the weaponisation of feminism for bourgeois ends, and Amber A’Lee Frost’s prophetic call, published shortly before all this nonsense broke out, for a return to eighteenth-century political vulgarity. (Neil Postman, incidentally, has surprisingly little to say about de Sade.) I’ll try to avoid repeating too much of these very perceptive analyses, but I will add a few things. Firstly, there’s a strange consensus among media liberals that discussion on the internet is marked by an unacceptable incivility. Protected by anonymity and distance, the id bursts up through an encrusted ego, and the fury of distant savage millennia leaks out through keyboard to screen. Here it’s worth looking at where civility actually comes from. Enforced codes of conduct were first established to guard against the very real threat of murderous violence. If two people meet and do not behave politely to each other, there’s a serious chance one of them may end up dead. This is why you shake with your right hand; it’s the same hand that holds the sword. Rudeness isn’t bad in and of itself, it’s the violence that’s bad. On the internet, this is very rarely an issue; we’ve been liberated from the circumstances that demand politeness, and there’s no good reason not to be rude. But the protection it provides isn’t universal. The people Bruenig annoyed were powerful – Tanden, for instance, is likely to be Hillary Clinton’s chief of staff – and so they had the means to deprive him of his job. But they defend causing him material harm by reference to a principle of civility – means become ends, their actions are justified by a code designed precisely to prevent this from happening.

Secondly, what unites the liberals attempting to demonise Bruenig – Sady Doyle, Joshua Foust, Jordan Kay, and others you’re probably very lucky to have never heard of – is their total uselessness at good, vicious political invective. It’s just not their natural terrain. They like to condemn groups and caricatures, slinging their mud out a bucket from on high, where they never get dirty themselves; they’re entirely incapable of getting a decent playground insult to land on any one individual. The only other option, besides violence, is to whine ‘but you’re being meeaaan.’ These people are just clueless. Case in point is Doyle, who once wrote that ‘trying to parse Hillary Clinton without also parsing Hillary hate is like trying to drink water without touching the glass,’ apparently having never heard of the popular invention known as a ‘straw.’ Or, for that matter, Foust, who cheerleads for murderous despots, and fantasised about gunning down the childhood bullies he didn’t know how to respond to. In the end, it’s not the case that you make personal attacks because you don’t have the intellectual heft to engage with ideas. Far more often, you adopt a high-minded posture because you don’t have the rhetorical wit to make personal attacks.


How do you eat the world’s biggest pizza?


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A short note on racism

The other night, millions of TV viewers were treated to the grand spectacle of a woman being racist on camera. The woman was former Ukip councillor Rozanne Duncan, and the programme itself, Meet the Ukippers, was the usual paternalistic BBC fare – one long sneer at those dreadful tacky ukips, with their mobility scooters and their purple ties and their collections of almost two thousand porcelain clowns (although, to be fair, they do have a collection of almost two thousand porcelain clowns). I live in Seaside Ukipville myself: a damp, ugly trough of barely drained bog and shoddy housing hemmed in by barren bag-strewn hills, a geological latrine that curves out from the less fashionable end of Brighton; I know how it goes. My neighbour flies a huge British flag in his back garden, visible above the low roofline, the kind of thing you’d expect to see in a Third World border town; behind my house there’s a tattered cross of St George, and across the street someone’s decked out the front of their home in both English and British flags. The local shop sells tabloids and tinned peas, all the cheese comes in individually wrapped slices, the aisles are filled with hoarse grandmothers roaring impotent fury at kids with sticky fingers and feral, darting eyes, and you simply can’t get decent bruschetta or even a bottle of wine that didn’t roll flat-bottomed off a conglomerate assembly line somewhere south of the Equator. The whole area was purpose-built after the First World War as part of the Homes for Heroes programme, but these are less homes than filing cabinets for human beings. These places are easy to hate because, well, they’re utterly hateable: dismal, depressing, and shot through with a kind of existential meanness, in both senses – the miserliness of low ceilings and crumbling plaster, the general atmospheric sense of a total hostility to human life. The one thing they have going for them is that they tend to be cheap. That’s why, up to a point, it’s generally best to blame the hideousness of these places on the landlords, the speculators, the ones who left people with no other choice, rather than the people who actually live there.

Up to a point. That point was nicely identified by Ms Duncan, who delivered a long racist rant in front of a clearly horrified Ukip press officer (aghast, no doubt, that someone was actually saying what everyone’s thinking) and – unbelievably – an entire BBC camera team. She ticked just about every box: not just ominously referring to people with Negroid features but directly and openly voicing a specific, personal, visceral dislike for such people, and even recounting an instance in which she had discriminated against them (by pushing for Negro children to be excluded from sheltered housing). And she just kept on going, a bubbling sewer-sluice of the stuff, idiocy after idiocy. What’s strange is that she also insisted, and continues to insist, that she is not a racist. In an interview filmed after she had been fired from Ukip, she seemed to believe that her offence wasn’t a clearly voiced animus towards black people, but the anachronistic use of the word Negro. It’s a description, not an insult, she said. Like how Jews have bent noses. (Mine, I should add, is beaky and protruding but ramrod-straight.) But of course she didn’t think she was saying anything wrong – otherwise she wouldn’t have said it in front of a BBC camera crew, all of them surely trying to stifle their grins and hoping the word paydirt wasn’t visibly flashing across the whites of their eyes.

It’s strange. For a long time anti-racists have been trying to show that racism isn’t just an overt expression of hatred towards one racialised group or another, that it’s an unvoiced hierarchy structurally embedded in the fabric of society, that the construction of race itself is mutually inextricable from racism – and yet after all that, when someone performs the most basic, crude, open expression of racism, she’s unable to recognise it as such. In a way we’re the victims of our own success. In fact, it’s not hard to imagine a slightly more literate racist-apologist defence of Ms Duncan: of course, what she said was unacceptable, but it wasn’t really racist; after all, racism is a structural relation, and what’s one person’s simple prejudice next to the large-scale bigotry of an impersonal system?

Where does this chiasmic structure come from? What Duncan’s insistence on her non-racism demonstrates is that the word ‘racism’ has been emptied of all content. The formation I’m not racist but… is rightly mocked, but it needs to be taken very seriously: it’s the master-signifier of modern racial discourse. After decades of work we’ve finally hammered in the message that Racism Is Bad to the extent that almost nobody will now admit to actually being a racist (with the exception of Chelsea fans abroad); in fact, the word racist has come to mean nothing more than the thing that one is not. There are no longer any racist signifiers; racism exists only on the level of the signified, and when the signifier is entirely overdetermined, something like racism becomes a strange, scuttling, hermit-crab thing. It’s a nomad language, a subterraneous seepage that gloops beneath the solid structures of words and concepts. Like the wet rot that plagues houses in my malarial pit of a neighbourhood, it seeps up into a phrase from beneath and carries out its work beneath paint and plaster. Even the most egregious examples of racism – the string of police killings of unarmed black people in the United States, for instance, or the exclusionary jeering of European secularists – never allow themselves to appear as such, and any attempt to properly fumigate them leaves itself open to the perverse accusation of racialisation.

Some anti-racists seem to be labouring under a strange illusion, the idea that once you identify something as being racist (or sexist, or homophobic, or ableist, or transphobic, or otherwise oppressive) you’ve in some way done away with it. In a way this is true: overt racism really isn’t allowed in the general discourse any more. But racism stubbornly continues to exist; in fact, we seem to be doing more work correctly identifying it than ever. It’s the same with Ukip: the party is routinely mocked on social and traditional media; it’s become a handy byword for stuffy, ugly incompetence; it’s been so utterly annihilated by every stand-up comedian on the circuit that by now there surely shouldn’t be anything left – but for some reason they just keep winning elections. The problem is that simply identifying something or someone as racist, however correctly, has become semantically empty. What’s being said is that the thing is that which it is impossible for anything to be, an obvious nonsense. If the subject is embedded in a discourse of the signifier, and racist is an absolute negation, then it’s structurally impossible for anyone to actually be a racist. (In a way racist is the perfect signifier; it does all the things that Saussure and Derrida and so on say such things should – defining itself negatively, relating to signs rather than things – while most other words still operate according to some kind of magical thinking.) A funhouse mirror version of Hegel’s was wirklich ist, das ist vernünftig: what is real is not racist.

What can be done? It’s always possible to invent new words, but while logodaedaly is generally a good in and of itself it’s always very hard to put a slithering oizytic evil back in the box. I don’t have too much objection to the idea of really engaging with the meat of the matter, the intercranial signified, with fists if necessary. But in the end what might be most needed is the continued insistence on a simple truth, as trite as it might seem: racist ideas aren’t wrong because they’re racist; they’re wrong because they’re wrong.

(This is probably a separate discussion, but the fact that Duncan appeared to believe that her racism is a punishment for misdeeds in a past life, and that it could possibly be cured by regression therapy, merits further analysis. The Nazis had grand and stupid alternate cosmologies; their shitty contemporary iteration appears to have an appropriately banalised myth-structure. When Ukip inevitably enter into a governing coalition with Labour this year, will drowning asylum seekers be told that they’re the reincarnations of ungrateful Englishmen? Will Farage claim the quiddity of King Arthur? The future is a terrible place.)

The strangling of nonsense

We live in the desert now. If this is indeed a desert. If this is indeed life. Desert, because the sand dunes ripple off so far into the distance that it’s hard to believe that these low wobbles ever end, or that there are any oceans left, or that there’s any non-desert to provide enough of a contrast for us to say that we live in the desert now. Life, because we’ve lately taken to propping up the bodies of the dead with sticks and crutches, whatever we can find, and talking to them as if they are still alive, with the result that there’s now some confusion as to whether we’re not among their number. Alive or otherwise, there’s no end. I ate a lizard today. (Today? The sun never moves. Maybe I’m still eating it. Maybe hundreds of years have since passed.) I saw a snout emerge from one of the desert’s innumerable tiny cloacae and I pounced. I ripped its head off between hand and teeth. I crunched down the bones, slurped up the skin, everything. It was good; this is what we are now, the death of lizards. Strange to think that once I was an investment banker, or a lecturer in biochemistry, or a hard-working migrant labourer, or whatever it was. Something. Maybe I was always like this: bones against the baking wind, born a gasping skeleton.

Still I remember, however dimly, a world that existed before: wet grass, barking dogs, the smell of buttered toast, something called England. A story, one that ends with me here, eating lizards in the desert under a corpse-still sun.

Three things happened at the start of this story. In the town of Strood in Kent, a man hung some St George’s flags from his house. This happened without comment; it was assumed to be comment enough. Then, the Labour party’s Shadow Attorney General, who was in the area to campaign for a local by-election, tweeted a photo of the house. This also happened without comment; it was also assumed to be comment enough. Then she was fired from her shadow cabinet position by a party leader apparently overcome with fury, while the owner of the house briefly became a minor political celebrity, and a right-wing newspaper printed a six-point manifesto he’d penned, outlining a no-nonsense plan for a better Britain. This was commented on widely.

What could all this mean? Begin with the flags. National flags began as vexilloids and standards; they existed so that forces in battle would know which group of weary battered men they were supposed to kill and which they were to defend. At sea they were used to identify ships, protecting them from one gang of pirates while endangering them from several others. Rochester was not the site of pitched warfare; foreign privateers were not sailing up the River Medway to pound its fishing villages with cannon-fire or plunder the gold from its monasteries, there was no confusion over whether the towns and suburbs of Kent were part of England or not – but the presence of the flags could be read as suggesting that this was, whether in a literal or metaphorical sense, precisely the case. The St George Cross had its origins in the Second and Third Crusades, even in the 21st century it was a form that could never be entirely separated from violence against Muslims. The red cross on the white field represented the taking up of the cross, but there are other possibilities. Hung above the doorway of a house, its redness recalls the blood of the Passover lamb smeared over the lintels of the righteous, so that the Angel of Death would not take the first-born sons within, knowing that the people there are of the chosen tribe. The defacement, the grubbying of a clean white square, indicates the sense of a loss, a distant primordial wholeness, a racial whiteness, the whiteness of inorganic unity or death before life, the seething white fungi that cocooned the bodies of the dead before the desert came. The mathematical intersection of the red stripes forms a statement of affiliation and unity, the common purpose of the nation-as-body, or the subsuming of a corrupted body in the precise and transcendent national ideal; their straightness implies an instrumentalised rationality, the desire for a rational social order, the desire to fix the line of the Earth’s orbit from an abstract Outside. Or, viewed differently, as four white squares against a red field, the impossibility of communication, the separateness, the inviolability of a two-storey house in an English market town. Some of this is nonsense; all of it is true.

Then the photo. Class snobbery: look at this grotesque working class stereotype; his flags, his white van, his terraced house, his petty fascism. Or blank neutral reportage: nationalist feeling is on display here as the by-election takes place. These were the readings culled from the teeming possibilities of the moment, seemingly at random; there are others. All this happened at a time when space had become a flattened prism; every landscape existed only insofar as it had the potential to become a photograph: filtered, tinted, bounced from orbital satellite to orbital satellite without ever touching the ground again. This scene must be fixed in a photographic eternity. If I tweet this, some part of me might escape my death. Maybe the touring MP was momentarily transfixed by the composition of the phenomena in front of her, the abstract lines and squares of the flags shading into the architectural abstraction if the lines and squares of the house, sinking into the engineered abstraction in the lines and squares of the white van; maybe she saw in it a tiny fragment of eternity. Maybe she knew that it prefigured the desert.

Finally the manifesto. It went like this:

Welfare state: Work for four years after you leave school before you can claim benefits.
Immigration: Copy the Aussies. If people show up uninvited, send them back.
Transport: Public transport costs are too high. More investment in roads too.
Education: Better discipline. Kids are too mouthy now, not like when we had the cane.
Justice: Tougher sentences for murderers. And jail those who burn the poppy.
Taxes: A killer for self-employed people like me. Start-ups need more breaks.

There’s no point commenting on it now. The only interesting thing in all this vague fascism is how the newspaper described it: a no-nonsense plan for a better Britain. They were right. There’s no nonsense here at all.

Derrida writes of the curious tendency that language has to increase simultaneously the reserves of random indetermination and the powers of coding and overcoding, of control and self-regulation. This competition between randomness and code disturbs the very systematicity of the system, even while it regulates the system’s play in its instability. It’s the tension between overcoding and decoding that makes meaning possible, it’s through the internal displacement within the systematicity of structure that structure can continue to function. Meaning can only expand through a traversal over the expanses of nonsense that surround it; it’s this gap of nonsense that allows words and things to breathe and change, to take on new meanings, to mean different things to different people at different times. Derrida makes a similar gesture in Force and Signification in his discussion of Flaubert’s desire to write a book about nothing. This book about nothing is figured as the pure Book, the necessary precondition for all writing; not the absence of this or that, but the absence of everything in which all presence is announced. Every act of writing is at once an attempt at reaching this Book, what Verlaine calls the law of the earth, and the earth’s true Bible, and a defacement of it. Nonsense is despoiled by coding, and disturbs its structures, but there can be no writing or meaning without nonsense, no law without nonsense first.

What could it mean to form a language without nonsense? When nonsense is extinct there’s no separation between words and things: a flag is a flag, without associations, locked in a hold as tight and still as death. Kierkegaard tells a story in his Concluding Unscientific Postscript: a man escapes from a mental institution and into town, but worries that he’ll be returned to his cell if he is discovered to be mad. Deciding that he needs to convince everyone by the objective truth of what [he] says, that all is in order as far as [his] sanity is concerned, he responds to every question with the statement that the earth is round. This is, from what I can remember, true. It’s also madness. The extreme of sanity is madness, the extreme of code is nonsense – but not the same madness or the same nonsense. As Freud discovered, madness speaks itself; the symptom is a linguistic sign. Repeating that the world is round says nothing, in the same way that a language without nonsense can only say nothing. Kids are too mouthy now. Too much nonsense, too much speech.

In the end the Rochester by-election was won by UKIP, giving them their second parliamentary seat, and setting off a general panic that included the dismissal of Emily Thornberry, the shadow cabinet member who’d tweeted the photo of the house. At the same time the Labour party overhauled its immigration policy. When asked what he felt when he saw a white van, Labour leader Ed Miliband responded, Respect. Overcoding is a deadly contagion. The left grumbled darkly about a UKIPisation of the political discourse, but there was nothing of the sort. UKIP was only the phenomenon; the strangulation of nonsense and all its freedoms was begun by the mainstream parties – Labour especially. They displaced the blame for the slow enshittening of everything onto the figure of the immigrant. They turned politics into an exercise in code and branding. They declared the class war over. After all, class is a kind of nonsense, a word without a tangible thing. After that, what did it matter that Dan Ware, the flag-draped van-owner, was – despite his shaved head and his commitment to the sign of the poppy – not of the working classes, in terms of his relation to capital, but a business owner and certified petit-bourgeois? He was the designated voice of the proletariat, a proletariat ranged in opposition to black and brown people despite being largely composed of black and brown people, because he spoke without nonsense.

In the months that followed the Rochester by-election, the campaign against nonsense was executed flawlessly. Ed Miliband spent a week crouched in the back of a white van, gleefully chucking England flags at crowds of cheering supporters, and ducks in the pond, and the cold emptiness of the night. Schoolchildren were required to learn core British values that could only be expressed through grunts and flailing hand gestures. The Royal Navy was deployed in the Mediterranean to sink refugee boats with RGM-84 anti-ship missiles. When the general election results came in, no party had an overall majority. On a cold May morning, the Labour-UKIP coalition was sealed with a handshake in front of Number 10. Everyone had what they wanted. Nigel Farage had finally won his political legitimacy, Ed Miliband had finally reconnected with working-class voters. And then the desert came. When I ate the lizard its tail wouldn’t stop twitching; even after I’d bitten right through the head this flailing panic didn’t stop. I don’t know why. There’s a lot I don’t know any more. But at least there’s no nonsense in the desert. From one blank burning horizon to the other, no nonsense at all.

Fuck Stephen Fry: towards a new theory of ghosts

Derrida […] even wrote about his belief in ghosts, which seems to be literal.
Johann Hari, Why I won’t be mourning for Derrida

Pictured: front-page reviews of Stephen Fry’s latest TV drama

Hallowe’en is coming. If, like all sensible decent right-thinking people, you live in the temperate portion of the northern hemisphere, you’ll have noticed its portents already. The night draws its claws from one languidly extended arm; the days are racked by a series of shuddering contractions. These temporal shifts leave debris everywhere. As we begin to approach the winter solstice the nocturnal howls of the neighbourhood dogs are drawn out longer and longer with every passing night; by the time Christmas starts to roll around even the flimsiest yappiest terrier can sustain a single note for up to thirty-five minutes. Meanwhile as the sunlight hours – or what passes for them – are condensed into an ever-smaller period of time, the tiny specks of water vapour in the air are forced together: the clear skies of summer cloud over, and it rains for days on end. Maybe it’s all the fault of the trees. When their leaves crinkle into those soft yellows and burnished browns people are so fond of it’s because they’re being filled with a summer’s worth of poisons. Then the leaves fall and get mulched up into the earth, and their rot drifts up into the atmosphere to feed the endless nights. If they didn’t put on this prismatic striptease for our distraction maybe none of it would happen – but they do, and so Hallowe’en is coming. For one night in the year, the spirits of the dead once again walk the earth; according to some experts, the Devil is granted free reign over the sublunar world. Like all earthquakes, it has its tremors. Already several respected media outlets are reporting on an epidemic of black-eyed ghost children, ferocious snarling creatures haunting our public spaces and wreaking strange vengeance on our cherished local businesses. Lock your doors, hug your loved ones: the frost outside has fangs.

There is at present no broadly accepted scientific explanation for the phenomenon of Hallowe’en. The once-dominant Einsteinian model (first proposed by Nathan Warstein in his famous 1931 paper) is now largely discredited, but given its past influence it bears repeating. It’s now well known that the cherished Abrahamic-Enlightenment linear conception of time is false: time is not an unbroken line stretching from the Creation to the Last Day, but a dimension in the manifold of Minkowski space or the spacetime continuum. This fabric of spacetime is warped or disturbed by massive objects; while this distortion is usually all but imperceptible except in the cases of supermassive phenomena such as black holes, it is always present. As the Earth rotates around the Sun, it trails behind it a field of distortions in the spacetime manifold; when it completes a full circuit this turbulence starts to interfere with itself before snapping back into the planet’s gravitational pull. During this brief period of extreme temporal flux, which usually occurs on or around the 31st of October, past events will recur, and the dead are reanimated for one night, thus explaining the existence of ghosts.

Of course, the problems with this theory are obvious. If the Warstein model is correct, all ghosts appearing should be of those individuals who died during the year from the previous Hallowe’en. This implication was put to the test under laboratory conditions in 1988 by the MIT research team of Davis, Wilkes and Jobanputra. Over a sixty-hectare area in the Nevada desert, they observed 1,129 ghosts, of which 657 appeared to originate from the period before 1945. Ghosts are notoriously difficult to communicate with, so it was impossible to determine their era with any precision – but even allowing for the possibility that some individuals had died while attending historical re-enactments or retro burlesque evenings, or while performing on the set of a period drama, it was concluded to be statistically impossible that so many instances of anachronistic dress would occur among the recently dead of 1987-8. Since the overturning of the Einstein-Warstein theory of ghosts, numerous other models have been put forward: one of the most popular, proposed by a team at the Karlsruher Institut für Technologie posits a form of quantum entanglement occurring across all spatiotemporal dimensions. Whatever the merits of the Radler-Grosz Hypothesis, it’s yet to be met with full academic consensus: many feel, reasonably enough, that any recourse to quantum physics to account for macro-scale phenomena smacks of pseudoscience. A possibility many of these researchers seem to have missed is that the appearance of the superannuated ghosts identified by Davis, Wilkes and Jobanputra may in fact be a recent development. Ghosts in Shakespeare – those of Banquo, Old Hamlet, and Caesar) appear relatively soon after death; now, however, as Hamlet declares – and as Derrida is fond of quoting – the time is out of joint. Derrida expands on this point in his interview with Maurizio Ferraris: there is, he points out, a dislocation of the present, which renders the present non-contemporary to itself and these people non-contemporary to each other […] our time is perhaps the time in which it is no longer so easy for us to say ‘our time’. In other words, despite its aura of ancient mysticism, which pervades despite all scientific advances, Hallowe’en takes the form it does because of us, the living, and our relation to the past.


Given that Hallowe’en is a perfectly normal astronomical event, and one that (barring especially large solar flares) tends to occur every year, why is it so connected in the popular imagination with fear? Not just ghosts: Hallowe’en is a time for vampires, werewolves, witches, demons, sharknadoes, flibblemitkins, satsumas, and all the other hobgoblins of the medieval mind. Why are we so afraid of the paranormal? There’s so much more to be afraid of than a humdrum old ghost. The world is going very badly. Forces of the Islamic State have occupied huge swathes of the East Midlands and are advancing on Daventry; real estate in London is so expensive it’s only being marketed intergalactically, to sentient beings from planets made of solid diamond; Michael Portillo is a sexual being. With all this going on, why do we waste our fear on things that are real but not important or important but not real? Why aren’t we afraid of Stephen Fry?

Stephen Fry (if such a thing indeed exists) is, on first appearance, the opposite of Hallowe’en. While Hallowe’en marks a moment of rupture or discontinuity in time, Stephen Fry is all smooth progression: a tweed-wearing atavism that is also inexplicably popular on Twitter, the last seventy years all rolled up into one big bundle of plummy homogeneity. While Hallowe’en celebrates the chilly and the gothic and the intoxicatingly unpleasant, the very sound of Stephen Fry’s voice is like sinking into a warm bath of treacly English mush. While Hallowe’en reminds us of the human inability to understand such basic phenomena as death or ghosts, Stephen Fry gives us a world easily broken down into tiny scattered monadic concrete facts, all of them vaguely engaging, but without any particular bearing on anything at all: they’re quite interesting, but never interesting on the level of sex or God or even football. Stephen Fry is utterly (but sadly not uniquely) awful. He represents an insidious brand of unbearable bourgeois smugness: knowledge of useless facts and a fetishistic fondness for gin reconfigured as the instruments of class power. In Stephen Fry’s utopia, those nasty estates full of yobbos would all be bulldozed (if possible with the residents still inside) so lots of bunting can be hung on the wreckage and everything can go back to being simply lovely again. Anyone unaware of what a cummerbund is, or unable to identify which red wines go with a nice Brillat-Savarin (sirens blare! trick question! It’s none of them; the saltiness of the cheese is best paired with a malty pale ale) would be shot against a wall behind the National Gallery and have their remains carted off to fertilise a charming wooded dell full of flowers. He might have lots of little facts in that fleshy bulbous head of his – and might try to convince us that this makes him very clever rather than, say, a human filing cabinet – but this knowledge is never actualised in the form of a critique of anything. Whenever anything like critique emerges, it’s always predictably myopic. As his various pronouncements have shown, Stephen Fry can’t understand religious faith, or why some people might find hate speech offensive, or the basic concept of informed sexual consent. He’s an idiot, and one who marches at the head of a long column of idiots, all fanatically devoted to him. Local pub quiz champions, pipe smokers, grown adults who say ‘poo’. Never mind Hallowe’en: the ghouls already walk among us, every day of the year.

I’m not going to dwell too long on all that; enough space has been devoted in these pages to the general hideousness of the English middle classes and their godawful cuntish heroes. Instead it might be productive to zero in on the third example of Stephen Fry’s all-encompassing idiocy identified above. In 2010 he provoked some consternation when he insisted that women don’t enjoy sex and only engage in the whole rigmarole to snare a male partner. Earlier this year there was rather a bit of a fuss when he appeared to claim that women habitually make false rape accusations in hope of fame or revenge. And recently (on the same day that the first reports of black-eyed ghost children emerged; as I intend to demonstrate, this is not a coincidence) a bloody silly kerfuffle kicked off when he suggested that 14 year old girls raped by celebrities should not be considered victims. Why does he keep doing this? More to the point, who’s listening? It’s not as if he’s an expert on the subject. Stephen Fry was voluntarily celibate for fifteen years, and by his own account found the idea of sex viscerally disgusting; it’s hard to see him as anyone’s first choice for some down-home truths about fucking. His interminable televised displays of factiness might have turned him into an object of national transference, a collective sujet supposé savoir – but every time he says something so plainly and evidently abhorrent there’s the public sphere’s equivalent of QI‘s flashing lights and honking sirens as ten thousand blog posts and opinion pieces are unleashed on him in a ritual display of performative condemnation. You’d think his status as a designated font of all knowledge would have declined by now, but if anything it’s getting stronger by the day: a monstrous, morbid, undead power over the mind.

People like Stephen Fry for the same reason they fear ghosts. It’s all visceral: he’s warm and friendly while they bring the damp mouldering chill of the grave wherever they go. What both represent is a certain way of relating to the past. Stephen Fry gives us an imagined British past of bow ties and cocktails on the lawn (along with repressed sexuality and chronic depression: our cherished twee fantasies still aren’t very nice), one that contradicts material reality but still manages to live on in and through the paunchy presence of Mr Fry himself. As long as he’s alive that past is too; switch on your TV and it can blend seamlessly into our own time. Ghosts remind us that the past is dead, or death itself, and their presence only underscores the impossibility of that presence, the absolute break and cold irretrievability of what once was. Where do ghosts come from? It’s not quantum entanglement, it’s not general relativity, it’s not unfinished business in the world of the living. Whenever Stephen Fry opens his mouth and comes out with some piece of retrograde nonsense about sexual politics, a disjuncture occurs between the generally accepted values of our own time and those of the past: we can hold him accountable, and cut the link to our suddenly gruesome history, or this rupture can be displaced in the form of a ghost. Stephen Fry exhales ghosts in their swarming thousands (it’s surely no coincidence that the Davis-Wilkes-Jobanputra experiment took place on the October after the first broadcast of A Bit of Fry & Laurie). New ghosts, from the distant past, not the harmless echoes we’re used to but vicious biddable black-eyed monsters. As for why he’s doing this, it should by now be obvious. Stephen Fry is the deceiver, the shining one, father of abominations, prince and general of ghostly legions that mass unseen, awaiting the one night in the year when he is granted free reign over the sublunar world. Feel the heat drain from the room? Hear the sound of evil screeching on the wind? Shiver in your corners, bolt your windows, have your gun ready – it won’t save you: they can walk through walls. Hallowe’en is coming.

Elliot Rodger among the ruins

It’s a cold, blustery day near Tintern Abbey. The wind, pouring over the wooded hills that surround this pile, washes the sharp stink of diesel exhaust against its tired stones. Vans chug along the A466, forming a slow but constant loop between Hereford and Newport. The abbey stands alone in its square of dead grass under a dead sky, hemmed in by a shabby stone wall. There’s a bus stop, and few B&Bs cluster nearby for those honeymooners whose imaginations can’t stretch further than south Wales. Aside from the speeding cars and the trembling of trees, battered into submission by modernity, there’s no sign of life. Any wreath of smoke sent up in silence from among the trees would be ripped to wisps in the wind. Nonetheless, he’s there, up in the houseless woods, in some Hermit’s cave, where by his fire the Hermit sits alone, scribbling line after line of self-aggrandising idiocy.

Before carrying out his killing spree in Santa Barbara, Elliot Rodger posted a 141-page autobiographical manifesto called My Twisted World on the internet. Most of the recent controversy around the aetiology of the murders has ended up drawing on this text. Can the killings be reduced to some nebulous concept of mental illness and anomie, or are they the product of general societal misogyny and male entitlement? Either way, the answer’s inside, if you look at the text closely enough. All this only plays into the killer’s hands: he wanted his words to be studied and pondered and argued over. No text is ever complete, closed, and hermetic; the function of an autobiography isn’t to give clear answers but to keep people asking questions, to prop up the heroic mystique of its author. The only way to avoid falling into Rodger’s trap is to refuse to start by analysing his account of events. To understand the tragedy in Santa Barbara, you have to begin with Wordsworth’s Lines Written a Few Miles Above Tintern Abbey.

Wordsworth was the quintessential English poet. He wrote with a deep childlike love of this country, its landscapes, and its soothing and gentle sights. His compositions move with a rolling fluidity from limpidly gorgeous descriptions of nature to profound reflections on universal themes. Every brick in every lowly peasant hut is imbued with a sense of calm significance. Wordsworth’s poetry has a slow deliberate style, one without any of the tubthumping demagoguery of Shelley or the overblown mythopoeia of Blake. He was, in other words, utterly shit. All the great Romantics knew this. Byron had his number: in his dedication to Don Juan he has great fun tripping up the pompous old lake poets as they tramp off on their lonely excursions in the dull old English countryside. There is narrowness in such a notion/ Which makes me wish you’d change your lakes for ocean. Even Keats, the sad sensitive soul of the Romantic movement, could reserve some viciousness for Wordsworth’s grand mediocrity: All of these are vile, but viler Wordsworth’s sonnet/ On Dover. Dover! – who could write upon it? For Keats even the grander moments in Wordsworth’s poetry constitute an egotistical sublime – whatever bucolic landscape the poet plonks himself in front of, his reflections always end up falling back on himself. Just as well, then, that Wordsworth kept to Dover and the Lake District. Imagine the damage he’d do if his withered imagination were let loose in a genuinely spectacular landscape – somewhere like Byron’s Italy, or southern California.

Tintern Abbey reached its present state of picturesque ruin after the dissolution of the monasteries of the 1530s, in which the assets of various ecclesiastical bodies were seized by the English crown, with the profits furthering imperial adventures abroad – but it’s not as if any of this historical fabric makes its way into Wordsworth’s poem. The abbey itself is never mentioned, appearing only as a trace, the conspicuous absence of a being-there under erasure. The abbey inspires Wordsworth’s reflections, but mentioning it can only destabilise the central opposition between the signifiers Nature and Man: the entire poem is an attempt to blot out the looming presence of the ruin and the historicity it represents. The landscape around Wordsworth is a wild secluded scene, a point of lasting communion with Nature: These beauteous forms/Through a long absence, have not been to me/As is a landscape to a blind man’s eye:/But oft, in lonely rooms, and ‘mid the din/Of towns and cities, I have owed to them/In hours of weariness, sensations sweet. Of course, the countryside around Tintern is no less artificial than the cities Wordsworth and Coleridge were so fond of despising; the pastoral farms/ Green to the very door are the result of centuries of enclosure and class struggle. For Wordsworth rural life is not merely idiocy, as in Marx’s formulation: it is fully non-human, appearing as part of a static Nature. Only the abbey, in its state of ruin or difference to itself, testifies to the internal heterogeneity of things; for that reason it must be erased.

True to form, the scene on the banks of the Wye soon gives way to an extended bout of poetic onanism, with Wordsworth recalling a previous visit to the same spot. Five years beforehand, he bounded o’er the mountains, by the sides/Of the deep rivers, and the lonely streams/Wherever nature led; now he’s more inclined towards a subdued, solitary contemplation, and both desires are enthusiastically met by a promiscuous and polymorphously perverse Nature, one that never did betray/The heart that loved her. These modes of engagement are like the attributes of Spinoza’s divine Substance; Nature is a univocity of Being, a motion and a spirit, that impels/All thinking things, all objects of all thought,/And rolls through all things – but at the same time it is directly opposed to the artificiality of the world, the heavy and weary weight/ Of all this unintelligible world. Nature is meaning, eternity, and infinity. It’s a state of grace, a gift, but like all gifts its giving institutes a primordial lack. As such it can only be accessed by disavowing the impermanence of the world – in other words, by erasing the hulk of Tintern Abbey. But this is always an impossibility; the trace of the abbey plagues the poem like a rotten tooth.

William Wordsworth and Elliot Rodger are describing the same phenomenon. Rodger’s screed is full of resentment against those living a better life. The bliss seen by Wordsworth in the impossible univocity of Nature is seen by Rodger in the impossible univocity of sex. However, Rodger was a virgin: he didn’t understand that the gift is impossible, and while Wordsworth tries to erase its non-existence, Rodger demands to receive it. He imagines that for those who can access sexual experiences, life must be a Paradise – when, of course, life is mostly vaguely shit for everyone, sex or no sex (and, as Adorno points out, happiness is always something you remember, not something you experience). There’s a lot that’s frightening in My Twisted World – the narcissism, the accounts of brutally failed attempts at socialisation, the fantasy of mass industrial femicide – but among its most disturbing aspects is the author’s complete lack of any of the fetishes or perversions that make actually existing sexuality sustainable. For Rodger sex is always homogeneous to itself. He doesn’t experience proximal sexual desire so much as a desire for sex, uninflected and generic. It’s only through this impossible unity that he can achieve happiness. Had he ever lost his virginity, his reaction could only have been one of enraged disappointment. Like Wordsworth, he can’t tolerate the internal difference of things – hence the continual egotistical return to the illusory unity of the self. (It’s no coincidence that Rodger subscribed to our era’s iteration of the mawkishly monist metaphysics of Wordsworth and Coleridge, in the form of The Secret, a book that proclaims that the Universe exists to facilitate our desires, and that wishing for anything hard enough will make it come true.)

In the end, it comes back to Tintern Abbey and the dissolution of the monasteries. Elliot Rodger was propelled by a murderous culture of male entitlement, one in which women aren’t in any sense human beings but mere walking dispensers of sexual gratification. It’s an institutionalised system of domination that we’re all to some degree responsible for, a fact only confirmed by the inevitable self-centred attempts to wriggle out of this responsibility: but not all men! At the same time, it’s not just male entitlement that’s responsible. In My Twisted World Rodger describes himself as a perfect gentleman, someone hailing from the prestigious Rodger family; a family that was once part of the wealthy upper classes. Elsewhere he writes: How could an inferior, ugly black boy be able to get a white girl and not me? I am descended from British aristocracy. He is descended from slaves. I deserve it more. Rodger’s entitlement is a feudal entitlement. Contemporary patriarchy tends to operate through the commmodification of female bodies; for Rodger such commodity-relations are inscrutable. He has an aristocratic horror of truck and barter, the processes of negotiation through which most people navigate the libidinal economy. When he decides that his only salvation lies in becoming a multi-millionaire, he decides to achieve this by winning the lottery, appealing to divine Providence instead of lowering himself to tradesmanship. His relations with women follow a similar pattern. He recounts the days leading up to his twentieth birthday: I made a bid to do everything I could to lose my virginity in those few remaining days I had […] I walked over to the centre of Isla Vista every day and sat at one of the tables outside Domino’s Pizza, hoping against hope that a girl would come up and talk to me. Why wouldn’t they? Women are subjects, not in the ontological but the sociological sense: peons expected to obey his desires without them ever being articulated, let alone acted upon. Nobody ever rejected Elliot Rodger; he never entered into any relation where acceptance or rejection was possible. What the women of Santa Barbara rejected was the social code of the fourteenth century – and for that, he decided that they had to die.

Across Europe, Protestant countries experienced some kind of a dissolution of the monasteries, but the experience of England is unique. On the Continent, the loss of monastic land was prompted by waves of popular anti-clericism; in England it was in intervention by the ruling class, widely opposed by the people. The dissolution of the monasteries marked the end of the static world of the medieval period and the ties of social obligation and feudal duty that had once characterised everyday life. As part of the process of primitive accumulation, it was the beginning of the world of property-relations that succeeded it. But these transitions are never so total as they might seem: as Marx writes, the tradition of all dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the brains of the living. The sense of noble privilege that fuelled the Santa Barbara killings is not, in the end, entirely heterogeneous to contemporary capitalist society: it’s present wherever human beings are instrumentalised. Tintern Abbey is in ruins, but its ghosts remain, haunting William Wordsworth and Elliot Rodger and the families of his victims. Throughout the centuries, their grim whisper is the same: the world is singular and homogeneous, and you deserve the impossible gift.

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