Idiot Joy Showland

This is why I hate intellectuals

Tag: london

Why you’re not leaving London

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

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

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

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

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

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

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A visit to the cereal café

There are three things glaringly wrong with the Cereal Killer Café on Brick Lane in East London. Firstly, the menu consistently renders the word ‘raisins’ as ‘raisans’, which is incorrect. Secondly, it’s owned and managed by Gary and Alan Keery, a uniquely ghastly pair of identical twins. These two ghouls sport identical location-standard bushy beards, identical obnoxious slicked-back haircuts, identical smarmy expressions. Twins who do this kind of thing into adulthood are always hiding something hideous and perverse: when faced with such uncanny mirror-perfect duplication I can’t help but posit the necessary existence of a grotesque, hidden, third brother. Something scrabbling in the cellars, a cringing Smerdyakov figure onto whose memory all the suppressed differences between the superterranean Keerys has been displaced. A mad and vicious creature, whose pathological love for breakfast cereal turned him into something more beast than boy. His musty dungeon full of pencil-toppers and Rubik’s cubes, bobblehead dolls from the bottom of promotional packs, all nodding in unison with serene smiling faces as the idiot rubs cornflake dust into the stinking pits of his body. He slurps milk between sugar-stained pegs, he howls the advertising slogans between mouthfuls. His laugh rises from a constricted phlegmy giggle to the full manic convulsions of someone who sees the death of all reason perfectly reflected in the scrying-stone that is his morning bowl of Frosties. They had to kill him, of course, the twins, and they buried his heavy bones – glossy as enamel from all the fortifying calcium in his diet – below the foundations of what would become the UK’s first speciality breakfast cereal café. To seal the pact, they vowed to take on the same form, to be more than brothers, to be the same person, knowing what happened to the third twin, knowing that they might not be strong enough to face the darkness alone, that cruel gibbering malignancy always lurking beneath their quirky love for breakfast cereal. And so the madness of the murdered brother leeched into every brick of the place, until it became his empire.

The third thing wrong with the Cereal Killer Café is the décor. In keeping with the name there are, along with the expected 80s and 90s memorabilia, several portraits of famous murderers, rendered in cereal on canvas. Hannibal Lecter stares out from a mask of Cheerios and Coco Pops. Next to him, a Cookie Crisp Myra Hindley, cold eyes expertly rendered in fragments of the limited-edition white chocolate chip version that was briefly sold in early 2009. H H Holmes, looking puffy and garish in a pointillist mélange of Lucky Charms and Froot Loops. Finally, the man himself, a tiny icon tucked away behind the bar, floating above the stacked boxes of cereals from around the world like the figure of God in a medieval panel. Hunched, sagging, shambling; a ruined city sketched out behind him in crumbs of muesli: pecans and brazil nuts for the larger chunks of broken concrete, fragments of sunflower seed for the dunes of rubble, freeze-dried strawberry for the red splats where looters were shot. Adolf Hitler is turning his face to you, the face of industrial human slaughter described in sweetened corn and oat shapes with all the complex carbohydrates you need to start your day feeling great.

I went to the cereal café on a chilly and brittle December afternoon. The place has drawn some criticism for selling a bowl of cereal for £3.50 despite being situated in Tower Hamlets, the most deprived borough in London, a place where most people have been reduced to eating their own flaking skin – but of course it isn’t really in Tower Hamlets. It’s in Shoreditch, and Shoreditch isn’t even part of London, being instead a sovereign joint extraterritoriality of EuroDisneyland and the third circle of Hell. I walked up from Liverpool Street, where the low winter sun and the hrímþursar-skyscrapers conspire to carve long deep shadows over the lower foothills of finance, my shoulders drawn up against the cold. As I trekked north along Bishopsgate strange things started to manifest themselves. Hashtags appeared over shopfronts, as if to signal that by pressing my face against the sign for #GAP I would achieve a sudden transcendental vision of the entrance to every Gap store on the planet. The pigeons had a paranoid glint in their eyes, and when they opened their mouths they never cooed but shrieked. Meanwhile the graffiti grew ever more incoherent and malicious. First, on Great Eastern Street, the dark, formless command, Let’s Adore And Endure Each Other. Then, as I turned onto Bethnal Green Road, a mural of a hedgehog, dancing on two feet with rows of taut glistening human breasts, along with the slogan Ulster Volunteer Force Red Hand Commando – All Hipsters Must Be Accompanied By A Responsible Adult. Over an entire two-storey wall at the corner of Brick Lane someone had spraypainted, in an elegant, aristocratic hand, a long diatribe against a specific person that I realised with a heart-quickening shock could only be me, including a punchy and viscerally erudite rubbishing of my self-involved writing style and an itemised list of my various sexual dysfunctions. I had enemies in this place. All I wanted was to get my cereal and get out.

It soon became clear that this would not be possible. The queue for the Cereal Killer Café stretched all the way down Brick Lane to the underpass by Grimsby Street, where it crossed the road and continued up the other side. I joined the end, stamped my feet, lit a cigarette, tried to look inconspicuous. At the point where the line was blocking off the street, a taxi driver had given up honking his horn and was now reduced to openly weeping out the window. Occasionally people passing by would ask someone what was going on. Sometimes they even asked me – perhaps because, despite looking like a normal person who’s been stretched on a medieval torture implement, or the result of a disastrous attempt to crossbreed a human with a beansprout, I was still the most conventional-looking individual out of a group of grown men and women willing to wait for hours in the cold to eat breakfast cereal. “It just opened,” I explained. “It’s a cereal café.” Cereal café?  “Yes. They serve one hundred and twenty different types of breakfast cereal from around the world, with twenty toppings, and twelve milks, and I’m here because I want to write about it.” At this my questioner would nod their head, as if to say well, that makes perfect sense, and carry on. And it did make sense, more sense than anyone would have liked to admit. There were still a few curry houses open on Brick Lane, the street signs were still in English and Bengali, there were still the two beigel bakeries, relics of a time when this had been the Jewish East End, when my own grandfather had grown up sharing a single room in Shoreditch with a dozen or so siblings – but now we were at the end of history, and all that was dead. A few doors down from the cereal café stood a boutique unicycle store, in which various arbortectural techniques were used to force saplings to grow into living, functioning one-wheeled contraptions. Across the road, not far from where I stood, a pop-up restaurant offered gourmet masonry from four continents, mud-bricks from Morocco, Yorkshire dry stone, chunks from demolished Chinese temples, along with various delicate files for turning these slabs into a broadly ingestible powder. And on my way to this endless line, I had passed a man lovingly, tenderly fucking his iPad in its headphone jack. An establishment selling only breakfast cereal? Why not? We’re free now. We eat pine cones. Nothing matters.

People entered the Cereal Killer Café, but I never saw anyone leaving – but after the first hour or so of slow shuffling towards its doors I cared more about just making it inside than the question of whether or not I would be killed. As I waited I had a chance to see some of daily life in the post-gentrification ruins of East London. I watched a gang of bailiffs dragging the owner of a newsagent out by his hair, before a crane swooped silently overhead and, with a shattering bang, precision-dropped a shipping container onto the building, splintering it into fragments of brickwork. The iron doors swung open; a functioning terrarium outlet was already inside; six were trampled to death in the rush. I saw a street gang shake down a couple of cops for the proceeds from their racketeering business. By the time whatever sunlight there had been was fading and the sickly yellow glow of streetlamps glooped over the tarmac, the militiamen of the Islamic State of Rochdale And East London were making their shari’a enforcement patrols. They all seemed frail and nervous, hoisting their rocket launchers backwards over their shoulders and looking as if they might collapse under the weight of so much gleaming metal. Their leader, a slight, studious man, unarmed, wearing pince-nez and an absurd puffer jacket over his shalwar kameez, was the first to jump out his convoy of pick-up trucks, while the machine-gunners in the flatbeds all pointed their muzzles at the viscous purple sky for American helicopters. First he accosted a group of drunk girls bounding arm-in-arm down the street in tiny dresses and long tan coats. He pointed out various edifying passages from his pocket Qur’an, and explained that they should behave with decency in a Muslim area. They told him to naff off and get a life. The gunmen were furious, and wanted to shoot the girls there and then, but the imam waved them on. Tiny sad tears were welling in his eyes, tears of holy frustration, as he moved on to educate a musclebound haircut in a deep v-neck tactically chundering behind some bins. I wondered why he persisted in doing this to himself. Clearly it wasn’t making him happy.

Before long the Islamic State were joined by a mob from Crusaders United to Neutralise Terrorist Scum, sixty or so hulking thugs. Their chants mostly sounded like indecipherable simian hooting, but this might have had something to do with the complex motet system they employed. The line of skinheads at the front would chuck beer bottles, pipe bombs, and chunks of bacon at the Islamic State convoy, then retreat backwards and sing one verse while the new frontline continued its assault, and the line behind sang an imitative counterpoint. As a result most of the actual words were lost in the swirling, delicate polyphony (not to mention the explosions and percussive spasms of retaliatory gunfire). Even so, I could pick out a few phrases from the cantus firmus. We’re not racists, they sang, it’s just common sense. Then, as the tenors took up a new theme, This violence is a sad product of the Labour party’s abandonment of white working-class voters. The bloodshed only really began once the Crusaders United wheeled out a harpsichord to perform an accompaniment. The mujahideen, shrieking that musical instruments were haraam, drew back behind their vehicles, and the mounted AA-gunners decimated the choir with a few shuddering bursts. I didn’t worry about catching a stray bullet. I knew my enemies here had more subtle means; a stilletto in the dark, not the blinding light of gunfire. It was sad, really: both sides were fighting a losing battle. Most of the evening revellers paid little attention to the slaughter, or, assuming it was all some kind of seasonal theatre piece, chucked a few pennies in their direction. Hard to not feel sorry for CUNTS and ISRAEL, especially the latter – they, at least, were trying to build a new and better society, even though all that was impossible now. In any case, by the time the skinheads had kicked away the still-twanging fragments of harpsichord and replaced it with a L118 field howitzer, I was finally at the front of the queue and ready to enter the Cereal Killer Café.

It was a café selling breakfast cereal. I briefly toyed with the idea that the most aesthetically and ideologically correct choice after waiting for several hours would be to order a bowl of plain cornflakes with semi-skimmed milk, but ended up going for a ‘cereal cocktail’, something with a stupid name that ended up coming in at just under £4. My order was taken by a girl with an iPad hovering over the line as it snaked up to the front: I gave her my money, and she then repeated what I’d told her to the cereal mixologists over the counter. They didn’t even pour the milk for me. With so many waiting customers in the ground floor, all the actual eating took place in the windowless basement, a strangely drab and dismal room, all exposed brick and flickering TVs showing silent clips from Hey Arnold! and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. I ate my cereal. It wasn’t great, but it wasn’t awful either. It was breakfast cereal. Food for children, vaguely miserable, invented in 1894 by a man who thought bland and boring food would prevent people from masturbating. Everyone knows that a real breakfast consists of sausages, bacon, black pudding, eggs, fried tomato and mushrooms, hash browns, tea, and toast (or string hoppers, coconut sambal and kiri hodi, or croissants and cigarettes, or huevos rancheros, or whatever). Breakfast cereal is toasted, granulated defeat, sprinkled with sugar, riboflavin, and iron filings. It’s all already there for you, and you just pour milk on top. Breakfast cereal is enjoyed by children because children are too passive and stupid to make a real breakfast for themselves.

I sat in a gloomy basement and ate a bowl of breakfast cereal, and wondered if it had really come to this, if we’d dropped the A-bomb for this. All around me grown adults were eating their cereal in a state of stunned silence. In fact this room, with its chipped brickwork, its flaking plaster, its once-beloved toys, its fusebox with visible looping wires, its low lighting and its silent screens, didn’t look too different from a nuclear shelter. I had a sudden sense that when (or if) I emerged, I’d find that what remains of the world had ended. The cereal café would be the only thing to survive our civilisation, in the same way that the Catholic Church had survived the Roman Empire. The cereal café would be there to instruct the bubo-ridden survivors in the ways of the world that had existed before. At prayers they would chant the names of all 151 original Pokémon, Mew and Mewtwo mouthed silently, with eyes clenched shut in fervour. Out of the rubble they would build a vast statue of Dora the Explorer to be their god. Five thousand years of history would only be remembered for the fact that once, it had given us breakfast cereal.

In the end I did make it out alive, and the world had not ended. On the street, the warring armies were retreating. An old man stood by the door, a tray around his neck, selling glow sticks and overpriced cigarettes. But on the way out I saw something, and now I know that it is Satan, and not God, who has power over this world. By the door of the Cereal Killer Café there’s a display of novelty and promotional cereal boxes, tie-ins with films and TV shows, sporting brands, and so on. And there, between the C-3PO’s and the Pac-Man Puffs, plonked in front of a bowl of cereal, spoon to its wide grinning mouth, trapped forever in a prison of shiny cardboard, was my own face. I won’t go back to the cereal café. But maybe all this is a lie. Maybe I’m still there, trapped in that image; maybe I never truly left.

Some sensible thoughts on the London tube strike


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What we need is a new sort of paintbrush

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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