Idiot Joy Showland

This is why I hate intellectuals

Tag: irony

In defence of lazy kneejerk contrarianism

I attack only causes that are victorious. I attack causes only when there are no allies to be found, when I am standing alone – when I am compromising myself alone.
Nietzsche, Ecce Homo

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Look, I’ve only read Less Than Zero and American Psycho, so maybe I’m wrong here. But it seems to me like Bret Easton Ellis, like every pornographer since de Sade, is a secret sentimentalist. He’s not a real nihilist, because there’s no such thing as a nihilist. He doesn’t believe that there are no values and nothing matters, because if he did, why show us rape and torture and apathy in particular? Like every crass contrarian, he doesn’t abolish value, he just inverts it; his books are apophatic morality tales. Not irony, just sarcasm. And sometimes, the mask slips. The protagonist in Less Than Zero plays at being dead inside, but really he’s still upset about his late grandmother. Still, in the time since 1985, Ellis seems to be getting better at disaffection, while everyone else is getting worse. See, for instance, his recent interview with Isaac Chotiner in the New Yorker.

The general media-class consensus seems to be that the interview was ‘brutal,’ ‘a murder,’ ‘asinine,’ etc, etc, etc. It’s definitely weird and frustrating to read. Does Ellis have anything interesting to say about the state of the world? It’s hard to say without actually reading his book, because all either Ellis or his interviewer wants to talk about is the fact that he doesn’t much care either way about Donald Trump. For the bulk of the interview, Chotiner brandishes the various terrible things Trump has said or done in front of Ellis, one by one – kids in cages, grab them by the pussy, Mexicans are rapists, decent folks in Charlottesville – and demands that Ellis start caring about them, like everyone else. And each time, Ellis shrugs. ‘I think the voice in the book is pretty chill and neutral.’ ‘Well, whatever.’ ‘I don’t really care.’ ‘I’m not really bothered by that one way or the other.’ ‘I think you are leading me into things I am not particularly that interested in.’ Ellis gets the last word. It’s been an interesting interview, he says. ‘The only problem, however, is that I am not that political, and so, when we have this conversation, and you confront me with certain things like this, I really am, I have to say, at a loss.’

And I’m at a loss too. Where’s the brutality? Where’s the murder? Where’s Ellis being gorily dismembered, like a victim in one of his books? All I can see are too people speaking entirely different languages to each other. And because the audience speak the same language as the New Yorker, and not the language of Ellis, they conclude that their language won.

Ellis is stuck in a different age. The Gen X era, the era of disaffection and OK Cola, the time in which caring too much about anything made you uncool. The twenty-first century is different. Frantic activity, desperate sloganeering. Being a good person means giving yourself brain damage about politics. He knows how it works. ‘Don’t you know anything about Sri Lanka? About how the Sikhs are killing like tons of Israelis out there?’ We’re in an upswing in the activism-vs-cynicism cycle that’s been churning since the 60s: we want pop stars to deliver bromides on anti–racism, we want fast food outlets to be our allies, we want everything in the world to be committed to progressive social change. In his introduction to the interview, Chotiner notes that the ‘materialism, misogyny, and amorality’ of Ellis’s characters ‘have persistently raised questions regarding the depth of his social critique.’ Because if a book is anything other than a profound social critique, why does it exist?

The activist posture has plenty of virtues, but when it becomes an enforced social norm, most of it will inevitably be deeply phony. Fake outrage, manufactured hysteria, culturally sanctioned radicalism, constantly caring about things as a narcissistic substitute for actually doing something about them. Chotiner’s complaint is precisely this: Ellis is refusing to move in lock-step with the times. He’s still stuck in that deeply passé 80s nihilism; it’s the horror of the cool confronted with unrepentant squareness. Why aren’t you freaking out every time Trump tweets something, just like everyone else?

And all this might have a little more weight, if it weren’t for the fact that the Mueller Report just came out, and told us all that the media class’s Trump obsession really was packed to the gills with deranged and obsessive fantasy. It might be easier to sympathise, if Libya weren’t in the news again, to remind a distracted public that our liberal heroes who care so much about things also engaged in the aerial destruction of an entire country, without a mote of outrage from almost anyone. It might be easier to laugh at Ellis for his apathy, if his apathy weren’t infinitely more honest than the frenzy that confronts it on all sides.

The 1990s were a vast battlefield in literature’s struggle for the soul of America. Ellis was on one side, with the forces of cruelty, nihilism, apathy, depthlessness, and despair. On the other side stood – because these things have to be balanced – another young writer with three names, David Foster Wallace. Where Ellis was cool, blank, hard, and indifferent, Wallace was warm. Dialogue in Ellis’s novels is lighter than air and always utterly impenetrable; it feels programmed, like the clattering of lifeless machines. Wallace is humble; he writes like he’s talking directly to you and you alone, in one of those deep long 4 am conversations with a well-loved friend, once you stop drinking wine and start drinking tea, where you can finally be honest, and give voice to the things that really worry you. In his celebrated essay E Unibus Pluram: Television and US Fiction, Wallace railed against the cruel ironism of his times, the cynicism of its sneer, the way it reduces everything potentially worthwhile to a nothing. Once, irony was useful: it was ‘a creative instantiation of deviance from bogus values’; it revealed the sordid phoniness that undergirded the straight-laced society of the past. But then irony itself, with its ‘blank, bored, too-wise expression’ became dominant. Wallace uses the example of a Pepsi advert, which dramatises the process of advertising, the stick being rattled in the swill-bucket, knowingly acknowledging that this is all a form of manipulation, but then encouraging you to drink Pepsi anyway. ‘The point of this successful bit of advertising is that Pepsi has been advertised successfully.’ This prompts a call for a New Sincerity, for the unashamed revival of ‘retrovalues like originality, depth and integrity,’ for a return to caring, deeply, vulnerably, about something.

And somewhere, a monkey’s paw twitches. Wallace’s side won, in a defeat so total that the last straggling survivors of irony and disaffection are simply no longer comprehensible to mainstream culture. Even the reactionaries, who play with the idea of nihilism, are basically frantic sincere activists: constantly fretting about white genocide or feminism ruining videogames or whatever else it is they keep caring about. And Ellis lost, even if he lived to see his defeat. What does a Pepsi advert look like now? It isn’t sneering, or cynical, or too-wise; it wants you to know that Pepsi cares. It looks like a Black Lives Matter protest – and when it fails, it fails for not being progressive enough, not being sincere enough, for not doing the Pepsi-Cola Corporation’s full duty to the revolution. Irony is fast becoming a term of abuse. We sneer at the sneerers, because it’s not cool to be too cool. We’re in the world David Foster Wallace built, and it’s a nightmare.

Unlike Ellis, I don’t hate David Foster Wallace. (His fiction is basically unreadably precious, but his essays are good.) I think there was an important value, in the irony-saturated 90s, of calling for a return to honesty and seriousness – even if I don’t actually agree. I think in the present moment, there’s a crucial need for irony, for a writing which explores the potential of possible positions without making a life-or-death stake out of everything, which engages with the infinite multiplicity of meaning and the world. Irony is not a distancing from the world, it’s a faithful attachment to the world in the fullness of its possibilities. (The opposite of irony, as Deleuze and Guattari understood, is not sincerity but paranoia, and ours is a deeply paranoid time.) After all, each term, activism and indifference, will inevitably contain its opposite. The coolness of Less Than Zero is a negative affirmation of sentimental values, the grim boosterism of mainstream culture is deeply cynical. This is why the highest achievable value, at any time, might be contrarianism. If radicalism is something other than a buzzword you can attach to commodities, if it means more than a narcissistic posture, then it means seeking out that which is heterogeneous to the world as it’s currently constituted. To declare for human values in a time of brattishness or indifference in a time of po-faced outrage is the lowest form of contrarianism, one which only speeds the dialectic along rather than breaking out of it. There are higher ironies; as everyone keeps saying, we need to do better. But it’s a start.

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Vladimir Putin: master satirist

Oo-err, missus.

Sensible types rejoice. Over at the Independent, Owen Jones has written against the old line that the first casualty of war is the truth: in the Ukrainian crisis, the first casualty has been irony. Russian intervention is illegitimate, but at the same time Western condemnation is hypocritical given our track record in Palestine, Bahrain, and Egypt. Owen Jones is a useful chap, because he marks very precisely the limit of generally acceptable left-wing thought. He keeps a solitary vigil at the frontier of reason, hands in his pockets, maybe whistling a comforting little tune to himself as he scans the horizon for incoming threats, eyes tracking back and forth in his big soft party balloon of a head. Stand with Owen Jones and you can have it all: Labour party membership, a weekly column in a national newspaper, regular appearances on the BBC and Channel 4; your book will adorn middle-class shelves all along the belt of radicalism that stretches across north London from Ealing to Islington. Take one step out beyond his lonely border-post and you’re in the wilderness. Famines, purges, gulags. Monsters winding their heavy bodies between the weather-beaten columns of ruined cities. Rust seeping into the nuclear cores of a shoal of beached submarines. Mute staggering mobs doomed to track vast circles in the desert for eternity. Madness.

It’s the duty of every sensible radical to see exactly where the boundaries of acceptable thought lie and then power straight through them, even if only to sketch out a critique of the hinterlands beyond. (It’s a sad fact that since the Romantic period the practice of architectural criticism has almost completely eclipsed geological or topological criticism – we shouldn’t just live in landscapes; we should interpret and change them.) More to the point, though, Owen Jones is wrong. The current standoff in Crimea doesn’t mark the death of irony, but its resurgence. War always involves the exercise of a certain sarcastic brutality. In 1945, the ancient Japanese capital of Kyoto was only saved from atomic destruction because US Secretary of War had spent an enjoyable honeymoon there – seventy thousand people had to die horribly in Nagasaki as punishment for their Sōfuku-ji lacking the refined charms of the Temple of the Golden Pavilion. The armistice that ended the First World War famously came into force on the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month, but this meant that thousands of soldiers on both sides died in the hours between midnight and 10:59 am, bravely sacrificing their lives so that schoolchildren in future generations would have an easy fact for their history essays. War itself is fundamentally ironic; its central truth is that you should want to kill someone before even deciding if you personally dislike them or not, and everything else is a mode of appearance that tries to cloud this fact in contradictions.

What makes the events in Crimea interesting is that they’re being satirised as they occur, and not by outside observers but by the primary participants. In the war of ironies being waged between Russia and the Western bloc, there’s only one clear winner. Vladimir Putin is a consummate ironist, a master of satire in the deep cold Russian tradition of Gogol and Bulgakov. Obama and Cameron and Merkel don’t stand a chance.

The really remarkable thing about Putin is how eagerly everyone in the West appears to swallow his tough-guy persona. It fits our image of Russia, and it fits the image Russia wants to project. The closest we’ll come to a hermeneutic approach to the Putin-spectacle is to chortlingly point out that for all his draconian homophobic policies, Vladimir Putin is totally gay. Tigers: flaming. Riding a horse, shirtless, in the mountains: a Village People tribute act. Aside from being a dubious essentialisation of sexual difference, it misses the point entirely. Putin isn’t a muscular he-man; he’s an apparatchik, a KGB dork. He famously had a long career in intelligence, but working for the Soviet secret services wasn’t all murdering dissidents with poison-tipped umbrellas or applying the spirit of détente to James Bond’s dick. Putin’s sole foreign assignment was in Dresden, where by all accounts his job mostly consisted of writing endless reports for his superiors in Moscow while the local Stasi did all the legwork. Putin is a nerd, and his excesses are all classic loser fantasies: learning judo, shooting large animals, flying fighter jets, bedding gymnasts, invading sovereign states, being the tough guy – all have their place in the sociopathic pantheon of nerdy wish-fulfilment. When it comes to nerds I’ll defer to the wisdom of the American right-wing radio host and lunatic Alex Jones: Nerds are the one of the most dangerous groups in this country, because they end up running things, but they still hate everybody, because they weren’t the jocks in high school, so they play little dirty games on everybody. They use their brains to hurt people. And I’m aware of them. OK? I see you, you little rats! As ever, Alex Jones is completely correct; there’s definite malice in the intrusive new reign of the Silicon Valley dorkocrats. But at the same time, nerds are attuned to the cruel ironies of the world in a way that high-school jocks like Alex Jones and self-righteous stoner fratboys like Barack Obama will never understand. They might be vicious, but at least they have a sense of humour.

Putin brought this out in his press conference on the 4th of March. Over sixty-six minutes, he made a series of outstanding claims. The armed men who had surrounded Ukrainian bases in Crimea and were demanding the surrender of those inside were clearly spontaneous local militia. Their uniforms, which looked suspiciously like those of the Russian military but lacked any insignia, were probably bought from army surplus shops. At the same time he vigorously defended Russia’s right to intervene in defence of the Russian-speaking population of Ukraine, even though that was definitely not what was happening. He had authorisation to intervene from the regional government in Crimea and from Victor Yanukovych, who was still the legitimate president of Ukraine despite being a powerless, corrupt, murderous, pathetic little worm. (This was a particular flourish; it’s not hard to imagine the lickspittle Yanukovych weeping into his pillow in Rostov-on-Don between stern-faced press appearances. He’s stuck now; Putin can do what he wants with him.) He even laughingly fessed up to the endemic corruption in Russian politics – it’s hard to see American leaders doing the same, despite the billions flowing into election funds from corporate lobbyists. If there’s one weakness in Putin’s performance, it’s that he was slightly too eager to explain the joke, comparing his incursion into Crimea with NATO intervention in Kosovo and Libya. Putin knows that most of what he’s saying isn’t true, and he knows that you know that too. Unlike Colin Powell showing made-up images of imaginary Iraqi bioweapons labs to the UN, Putin isn’t trying to make you believe him. The point is that he can say it; his talk of Crimean self-determination and human rights and the threat of ethnic cleansing is a self-conscious satire of the language of humanitarian intervention. Western states have reacted with such opprobrium not because of any geopolitical threat but because the sanctity of the Just War is being mocked. Lead is the parody of gold, coitus is the parody of crime, Crimea is the parody of imperial war. Parody is always a disruption of existing categories. The Russians have no insignia, no accountability – and, worst of all, they haven’t even had the decency to kill anyone yet.

Western condemnation has admittedly taken a lacklustre form. This might be because its chief instigator is US Secretary of State John Kerry, a great honking dullard with a face as dull and as oblong as a pencil eraser, a flouncy New England boarding-school cretin who somehow lost an election to George W Bush but still managed to wedge himself into a position of power through an unholy combination of dim-witted persistence and the $750m in his family coffers. In response to Putin’s press conference, the State Department published a listicle of ’10 false claims about Ukraine.’ If there’s one thing that could make Putin’s call for a return to traditional values sound appealing it’s this: for all the many sins of past societies, the dominant literary paradigms tended to be poetry or prose fiction, rather than BuzzFeed. Numbered lists might convey information in an exciting viral-ready format, and it might even be factually correct in the most banal of senses, but only rarely can they expose the cold truth of the world. The discourse they impose is one of bland attachment to existing conditions: here are some experiences, in gif form, that you will relate to if you have curly hair, or a Jewish boyfriend, or were born in the 1990s. The point of great art is to induce a sense of vertiginous estrangement. Vladimir Putin takes his place in a long line of expert ironists – along with the God of the Old Testament, Hamilcar Barca, Maximilien Robespierre, General Butt Naked, and the Google ‘I’m feeling lucky’ function – that do precisely that.

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