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This is why I hate intellectuals

Tag: ontology

If I’m so bad, why don’t they take me away?

Vivek Chibber is the most controversial figure on the Left today – or, at least according to Vivek Chibber he is. The latest kerfuffle is, once again, over his attacks on postcolonialism. Chibber’s stated goal is to rescue Marxism from what he sees as an empirically incorrect perspectivism embedded in postcolonial theory – essentially, the idea that ‘our capitalism is different.’ Part of this programme involves, with the tedious weight of inevitability, a defence of Enlightenment rationality. This is a boring dispute, and I’m not really going to go into it. The more interesting aspects of his critique are those that slip and tremble in those strange spaces between the great tectonic monoliths of politics and ontology. Chibber wants to reclaim the universal: the idea that behind all the squirming differences of the world there is a level of understanding in which all things are essentially the same, and can all be described according to a single principle. But the way he goes about this is very odd.

Disputes between universalism and particularism go back to Spinoza and Leibniz, and beyond. The question runs like a zigzagging fissure throughout recent thought, opening up sudden chasms within formerly continuous areas of the intellectual landscape. On the side of the Universal there’s Hegel, Deleuze (in his plane-of-immanence univocity-of-Being mode), and Badiou (at least in terms of the political, with his reference to the figure of the ‘generic’); the partisans of the particular include Heidegger, Adorno, Derrida, and Spivak. There are convincing concepts on both sides here, and even if the politics envisaged are seemingly irreconcilable, this ought to indicate something for those of us who know our dialectic: what’s being presented is ultimately a false choice.

There are some aspects of Chibber’s argument that are worthwhile. The idea that we can have solidarity and even some level of understanding of lived experiences that are not exactly the same as our own really ought to be a truism: however arbitrary language may be, it’s still grounded in the commonality of the Symbolic. When Chibber characterises subaltern studies as a kind of contemporary Orientalism, one in which the colonial other is always an irrational, occulted mystery, his critique does seize on something important, even if it’s slightly unfair. I certainly agree that Marx is not just ‘another white male philosopher’. (Although I’m not sure if anyone of any significance is really disputing this. It’s an argument that’s been made, but from what I can tell it’s mostly made on Twitter rather than in the academy, and usually alongside other claims that are so bafflingly untrue – the idea that Marx was suspiciously silent on the question of slavery, for instance – that they indicate the operation of some unspoken fixation or agenda.) It’s a shame, then, that the central portion of Chibber’s argument is not just wrong and non-Marxist, but fully horrifying.

A dominant – and strangely unacknowledged – influence on Chibber’s line of thought is of course Jürgen Habermas. Habermas has charted an interesting course, from the would-be saviour of Frankfurt School critical theory to his current post as the official rubber duck lookalike of the European Union. Taking cues from a theorist so unabashedly enthusiastic about the European project – one that future historians (if any are allowed to exist) could only ever regard as one of history’s greatest evils – doesn’t generally make for a good critique. Elsewhere in the world the oceans are only poisoned by oil slicks; on Europe’s fortified seasides, the waves roll bloated corpses against the holiday resorts. In some cases, Chibber even doubles down on some of Habermas’s more profoundly stupid innovations. Habermas argues for socialism as the actual realisation of the liberal ethos – the problem with liberalism isn’t its principles, but the contradictions that prevent it from being able to actually put those principles into practice. Chibber puts a new gloss on this, going beyond slightly dodgy immanent critique into what amounts to an outright surrender to existing conditions: what we think of as liberalism isn’t a unified project but the result of extended class struggle. This is not particularly controversial in and of itself, but for Chibber those ‘positive’ elements within liberalism are not heterogeneous to liberalism itself. In other words, the good society isn’t a promise yet to be realised; it’s here, now, and we’re living in it. Exactly how this position can be reconciled with the scum-soaked pit of shit and misery that constitutes life in the twenty-first century is yet to be seen.

The really scary stuff only appears late in Chibber’s lecture, but it’s what really constitutes the core of his project. For Chibber, there are certain ‘basic human needs’ that are not conditioned by class or culture, that have to do with the biological core of our being, and that are exactly the same everywhere in the world. It’s on this level that we can all understand each other, and it’s from this base that we can build a solidarity that cuts across boundaries of race, gender, and sexuality. As with Badiou’s invocation of the ‘generic’, this is a political project that insists on the stripping-away of all that is not essential; those elements that are lost in returning to this common core of our species are ultimately ephemeral epiphenomena. Even provisionally accepting that this kind of operation is even possible, it’s founded on a fairly dubious assumption – that what is the same between people is ontologically essential to them, and what differs between them is not. Race and gender might be constructed, but it’s this kind of formulation that can – without ever meaning to, but by slipping down the rungs from ontology to normativity – allow for the idea that being black or a woman is somehow a deviation from the norm.

What are these basic human needs? In his works Chibber gives a few examples: the need for shelter, for security, for dignity, liberty, and personal well-being. These are the things that define what it is to be human, across time, space, and culture. But if this is a universal essence, it’s a strange kind. The need for shelter is here a fundamental part of the species; but of course shelter itself is not. Nobody is born with a roof bolted to their heads. If well-being, rather than the need for well-being, were basic to existence, there would be no need for well-being. All these needs in fact describe a lack – what’s essential to all humanity isn’t in us at all; our basic properties consist of those things we don’t have. In a way, Chibber’s stripping-away of epiphenomena is really incomplete: he’s retained an extraneous need, when what he could have said is that the basic nature of humanity is to be exposed, vulnerable, wretched, persecuted, and sick.

This is a decent (if uncreative) reading of Beckett, but it’s not Marxism.

For Marx there is something like a universal solidarity, as in his famous slogan that ‘the working men have no country.’ But where Chibber makes a major and bizarre misstep is in ontologising this universality. In Marx what unites people is not some mysterious quality locked in to every human being, the navel and core of their existence, but the most ephemeral of all ephemera: capitalism itself. International proletarian solidarity is a unique creature of the capitalist mode of production; it emerges because capitalism (as Chibber correctly points out) is universal, not out of some pre-existing universal substance that gloops beneath the phenomenal appearances of things. This universality need not be homogeneous. The forces of capitalism act in different ways on different people – wage-labourers and artisans, queer and disabled people – because these people are different. This is not to say that there can be no solidarity and no processes of overdetermination, but these are fleeting unities formed out of the false and imposed unity of capitalism.

There is a real universal, but it’s not subject to the tyranny of the Same. Marx does, it’s true, refer in his ‘humanist’ works to something called ‘species-being’, but it’s not a ‘being’ in the usual, ontological sense of the word. Species-being is bound up with the process of production: the human capacity to change and remake the world, a capacity that is itself coded by that which is produced and changed. Species-being stands for the unfettered and continual realisation of human potential, with new potentialities opening with every new realisation. Returning to species-being does not for Marx require the stripping-away of everything but the essential, but the creation of vast and unknown realms of possibility and difference. This is not so much being as becoming; an ontology of continual flux. (Here, as in so many other areas, Marx and Nietzsche are not just compatible but exhibit an almost spooky level of correspondence.) This is where Chibber’s divergence from Marx is most striking: for Marx, communism means freedom from alienation and an opening up of the infinite possibilities that constitute our being. Chibber, meanwhile, presumably wants to see a world in which dignity and well-being are available to all, but because in his cosmology human beings are eternally defined by the fact that we lack these things, for him communism can only be a total estrangement from what we really are.


Abraham Foxman’s adventures in antisemitism

Usually it’s reasonable enough. There is antisemitism, which human dignity holds to be repugnant and historical experience has shown to be brutal; and so to struggle against the murderous masochism of the antisemites there have to be people who are, professionally, not antisemites. Occasionally troubling reports will emerge from somewhere in the world. In a humid equatorial republic nobody usually cares about, the teenagers in one of the larger cities have taken to wearing shirts emblazoned with giant swastikas; meanwhile a café owner in a roadside village  has put up a big inflatable Hitler by his shack to tempt in the motorists. Worst of all, a few among the rising young national bourgeoisie have taken to reading Mein Kampf as a business strategy guide, in much the same way that their Western counterparts would make a show of reading the Art of War (you might not agree with what he did, but you have to admit that he did it very efficiently) and leafing through the Protocols of the Learned Elders of Zion in the same way others might read Fifty Shades of Grey. This is, of course, extremely dangerous and utterly unacceptable. Groups like the Anti-Defamation League and the Simon Weisenthal Centre spend millions every year fighting against such antisemitism. It’s not always exactly clear how this is done, but it’s not hard to imagine. An age-gnarled woman, bent nearly double by seven decades of indentured labour, reels in shock in her rice paddy. The landing helicopter sends miniature tsunamis rippling across its surface. The noise is deafening. All this has happened before, when she was younger: back then it was soldiers with mortars and flamethrowers, now it’s something different. Out bounds a red-faced young man, the sweat already running in rivulets over the adipose crest of flesh where his neck meets his tightly buttoned collar. He has flipcharts and photos, he explains his loss and her guilt in an impassioned if slightly reedy voice; he wont rest until she recognises the suffering of the Jews of Europe.

All this work is highly necessary, and there’s nobody better at it than Abraham Foxman, national director of the ADL. Bounding through a meadow on a cloudless summer day, his arms and tits wobbling in joyful tendrils, he fights the menace of antisemitism. Crouching by the peaty edge of a limpid gurgling stream, he catches a frog by its leg and keeps it in a pickle jar to torture later. Frogs, he exclaims, are antisemites. Running with his prize through the dappled silence of the woods, he trips on a protruding root; the jar smashes, the frog hops free. Trees, he bawls, are antisemites. Later, after the collapse of the last great trunk has sent a flood of embers rolling across the flat blackened earth, and the sharp resinated smoke has finally begun to clear, he finds the charred fringe of what was once his lucky blue cap half-buried in the ashes. Fire, he sobs, has always been tainted with the virus of antisemitism. From the burning of the Temple to the autos-da-fé to the Nazi crematoria, fire has shown itself to be an implacable foe of the Jewish people. Its policy of burning Jews and their possessions is one which it consistently refuses to recant or apologise for. Until it does so all Jews will continue to unite in quenching fires whenever or wherever they might occur. 

He wasn’t just good. He was the best.

But then something strange started to happen. Persistent and gruesome visions started to cloud his sight. One moment he was having lunch with a few of his donors, the next Abraham H. Foxman was crouching under the table, tightly gripping a butter-knife with both trembling hands. The frogs were on the march. A long slimy column of them, nine feet tall on their powerful hind legs, mottled eyes implacable, was making its way through the restaurant. They goosestepped in silence through the tables, padded feet hardly making a noise against the carpeted floor, leaving behind only a faint sticky residue. Hundreds of frogs: identical, stony-faced, skulls domed like Stahlhelme, webbing swinging like trenchcoats. The creature at the helm, a tiny but virulently coloured tree-frog, would point out one diner or another with a lazy wave of its hand; then one of the bullfrogs behind it would snap them up with a sudden dart of its tongue and swallow them whole. It was the Jews: the frogs were coming for the Jews. When he’d imprisoned that frog it was so easy to justify his action as a response to anuran antisemitism – but what if he’d been right? What if the antisemitism of frogs wasn’t just something he’d invented, but something he’d created?

Olive trees burst up spiralling through the pavements and speared Jews in their thorny branches; fires spread towards Los Angeles from the scrubby mountains and spared only those houses without mezuzot. It had long been a point of faith for Foxman and his associates that the material world was structurally, ontologically antisemitic: that what we understand to be reality was in fact nothing more than a phenomenal manifestation of the Jew-hatred that constitutes the actual substance of existence. He hadn’t actually meant it. Now the world of objects had finally, definitively turned itself against him. All those reports, all those TV appearances, all those thousands of things he’d condemned as antisemitic – how many antisemites were out there? When he saw other Jews recklessly endangering themselves, he wanted to scream. Put down that shuttlecock! Stay away from the terrarium! They’re antisemites! They want you dead! Without realising what he was doing, he’d managed to turn everything around him into an existential threat to the Jewish people – and the Jewish people didn’t see the threat; they kept on eating and drinking and intermarrying and assimilating as if nothing were wrong. Could it be that Jews were antisemitic? Abe retreated into one tiny room of his house, staring at the walls, and even then he didn’t feel secure: as Belshazzar came to understand, any wall can start prophesying your doom. At any moment the spraypainted swastikas might start to leach through. Abe stared, sleepless, waiting.

In the end Abe must have slept, because he then had a beautiful dream. With so many Jews in the world it would be impossible for him to protect them all from the peril; the solution, of course, was for there to no longer be any Jews. Abe dreamed that all the Jews of the world came together and became as one. First a brave few Jews dared to meld, forming a creature with four legs, then six, then eight, then eighty; a seething, bubbling ball of flesh that rippled with eyeballs and noses and teeth and tongues. Others dove in: they shed the cloak of their Jewishness, their ethics, their minoritarianism; naked and born anew they flung themselves into its roiling mass and were dissolved. Some were unwilling; they didn’t seem to understand that as Jews it was their duty – their nature – to abandon everything they thought it meant to be Jewish and join the flesh-ball. With its millions of mouths it sucked them in anyway: it was of them; they were of it. Then, from innumerable anuses, the creature disgorged guided missiles and wispy streaks of white phosphorus; from countless cunts it birthed reels of razor wire and chunks of concrete; its endless rows of waving cocks dribbled forth a pale fluid to cover the corpses from the eyes of the world. And Abraham Foxman woke happy, because finally he’d seen something that wasn’t antisemitism.

Grand Theft Auto and the extinction of being

More like Geworfenheit Theft Auto amirite

In Rostov-on-Don, a provincial city in the south of Russia, two men had an argument in a supermarket. There’s no footage of it, but we can imagine the scene. The squeaky lino floors, the tinny sound of pop music. The strip-lighting, buzzing as it casts a dreary mundane pallor on the rows of produce, scrubs the shadows from the faces of the disputants, and eventually drains all colour from the flecks of blood. The other shoppers look on first in exasperation, then in horror: the argument devolves into a fistfight until its frenzy reaches a point where one man pulls out a gun and fires several rubber bullets into the other’s head. So it goes. What’s brought this dull event to the world’s attention is the fact that the two men were reportedly arguing about the philosophy of Immanuel Kant. The international press has treated this story with a kind of wry amusement: it’s perfectly normal to shoot someone in an argument over sex or money or football; it’s pretty weird (and kinda funny) to shoot someone in an argument over the nature of the noumenon. Going by the experience of history, this isn’t really the case. For a good part of the 20th Century, a philosophical debate (or at least something that claimed to be a philosophical debate) about the degree of contradiction between the material dialectic and humanist values got so out of hand that for a quite while it looked like the only way to properly resolve the issue was through the mass slaughter of every human being on the planet. Disputes over the mysteries of the Holy Trinity saw swarms of horsemen turn fields into hellish seas of mud under their hooves and reduce cities to blood-drenched ruins under their swords. Aristotle’s doctrine of virtuous moderation allowed his protégé to send a moving line of fire and bloodshed that swept from the Aegean to the Indus. You haven’t really made it as a philosopher until you’ve stacked up a decent body count.

Even Kant, shy and gentle, punctiliously pedestrian, isn’t exempt from the violence of philosophy. Presidente Gonzalo, the leader of the Peruvian Shining Path, had a secret identity: Abimael Guzmán, mild-manned professor of philosophy at San Cristóbal of Huamanga University. As the group’s notorious massacres in peasant villages show, he had a lot to learn about the proper implementation of Mao Tse-Tung Thought; nonetheless, his Kantian credentials are impeccable. If anything, transcendental idealism handily lends itself to a certain kind of will to destruction. Like most very clever people, Kant had something of a nasty smug streak. In his What is Enlightenment?, he describes the unenlightened condition of humanity as a ‘self-imposed nonage’: if other people are stupid, lazy, and cowardly, it’s only their own fault; leaders and tyrants only channel this mass stupidity rather than imposing it. This is why he can write that ‘freedom need not cause the least worry concerning public order or the unity of the community.’ Against those who try to stifle argument, Kant proposes the dictum ‘argue as much as you like – but obey!’ Enlightened argument can only proceed towards a singular truth, and if a ruler is himself enlightened, then any argument that challenges his rule is by definition invalid, with no place in a liberated discourse. Kant’s enlightenment admits no contradiction. There’s a very short line from his veneration of Frederick’s Prussia to a man being shot in the head in a Russian supermarket. The shooter was applying the categorical imperative perfectly: if everyone who dares to be so clearly and obstinately wrong about philosophy gets a rubber bullet to the head, then proper reasoned argument can begin, to the benefit of all humanity.


One man shooting another because they disagree about the fundamental nature of reality is a funny human interest story. Someone pretending to shoot a virtual prostitute is grounds for a moral panic. Every iteration of the Grand Theft Auto series of games seems to raise the same clamour: it’s an awful, violent game in which you, the player, can fuck a prostitute, kill her, and then take your money back. It’s a strangely specific complaint – after all, you can do a lot of terrible things in GTA, your basic mode of existence in the game is that of a spree killer. This might have something to do with the level of intent involved: the game is ‘open’ to the extent that you can walk into a shop, stand in line for a while, and then shoot another customer in the head, but you can’t (yet) have a steadily escalating argument about Kant with him beforehand. The prostitute scenario is different; you have a reason to kill her. Ultimately, I think there’s more to it than that. The real object of horror isn’t the murder, it’s the retrieval of the money. What’s being dramatised is a violation of the laws of exchange, those in which – as Marx puts it in Volume I of Capital – ‘the owner of money must meet in the market with the free labourer, free in the double sense, that as a free man he can dispose of his labour-power as his own commodity, and that on the other hand he has no other commodity for sale, is short of everything necessary for the realisation of his labour-power.’ By taking your money back, you’re breaking a contract, dispelling the comforting illusions of the marketplace, turning the covert oppression of the trade in bodies into its overt expression in violence.

The question of violence in video games is based on the horror of the uncanny: it’s about the power of images of things to come alive, the potential for onscreen violence to turn into actual violence. What’s apparently certain is that these games have some primordial connection to humanity’s intrinsic cruelty. Depending on whether you believe the dessicated pinch-faced puritans or the sloppily hirsute misogynists that make up video gaming’s core user base, this relation is either one of normalisation, in which representations of violence bring our animal natures out from the fragile cloak of civilisation – or one of release, allowing an expression of this violent nature that helps us function normally in the real world with only minimal loss of life. The case of the argument over Kant in Rostov-on-Don shows that it’s a little more complicated than that. Violence doesn’t proceed only from violence but from something quite different; there’s nothing more shatteringly, existentially violent than the infinite stillness of a Rothko multiform or the fragile sorrow of Chopin’s nocturnes. I’m not going to question whether or not human beings are existentially violent; at root the question is what it means for us to be violent, or, more fundamentally, what it means for us to be – and, as Heidegger shows, our being is inseparable from the world in which we exist.

Heidegger’s innovation is not only to ground ontology in actual existing beings instead of some grand unifying principle (as in Spinoza’s substance or Leibniz’s monads) but to stress the situatedness of the ontological object. His term for the human mode of existence, or that ‘which, in its very Being, comports itself understandingly towards that Being,’ is Dasein – literally ‘being-there.’ Awareness of your own existence is a matter of experience rather than a solipsistic Cartesian introspection; Dasein is a being-in-the-world rather than a being that just so happens to find itself inhabiting something vaguely world-shaped. This world isn’t just a set of beings, or the spatial framework in which they are dispersed: in Heidegger’s definition, ‘the world worlds, and is more fully in being than the tangible and perceptible realm in which we feel ourselves to be at home.’ Non-human beings, meanwhile, are encountered in two modes: as present-at-hand (in which they’re an object of detached contemplation) and as ready-to-hand (in which Dasein is absorbed in their use, with the categories of subject and object falling away into the undifferentiated process of work). Against much previous philosophy, which considers entities in terms of their properties and attributes, Heidegger stresses the primacy of the ready-to-hand. On perceiving a hammer, we don’t think about its abstract composition but how we can use it. The world is filled with equipment; useful, handy things.

It’s a nice way of thinking about things, but you get the feeling that for all his talk of handiness and equipmentality Heidegger would still have trouble with an Ikea wardrobe. Beyond that, Heidegger’s system runs into some problems when we’re forced to confront beings that aren’t handy or useful to us. True to form, he has his own word for this: Unzuhandenheit, unreadiness-to-hand. The unready-to-hand tool is something broken that doesn’t fulfil its function properly; it inhabits a grey phantom zone between the absorption of the ready-to-hand and the distant appraisal of the present-at-hand. We become aware of the thing as an object, but at the same time Dasein is engaged with it in the search for a solution. What happens, though, when we come up against something which is working in perfect order, but whose being is directly adversarial to ours? It’s an important question, because these things have come to dominate our lives.

Scholars of Heidegger tend to dispute the exact nature of Dasein and its relation to what we think of as the human being (there haven’t been any recorded fatalities yet, but there’s still plenty of time). Graham Harman and other advocates of object-oriented ontology attempt an ‘anthropodecentrism,’ in which the status of human beings as those beings that move towards their own Being is deprivileged. In a way, they have it right. Under industrial capitalism, an understanding comportment towards Being isn’t something that occurs on the level of the human, but on that of the firm. Humans are instrumentalised, first through their labour-power, and again through their position as consumers, becoming tools used in the production process. Capital-producing institutions are Dasein, reaching out towards an authentic existence; we are Zuhandenheit, the equipment used. The immense wealth of commodities produced is useful, but not for us. There are few consumer items that are used to solve our problems; our new technologies impose themselves as the solutions to problems that didn’t even exist before their arrival. Tools bear the stamp of their owners; now the tool is the stamp. The new iPhone has a fingerprint scanner, the new Xbox has an always-on camera. At the same time, it’s these same things that are used to stage our response: a steady, furious crusade against everything useful and handy, a purging of our own usefulness. Our violence is the violence of a being-in-the-world whose ability to understand that Being is under threat of extinction.

Watch someone playing GTA – not going through the storyline missions, but really playing, tearing at random through the vast cityscape, mowing down pedestrians, ducking down alleyways to avoid the cops. The landscape is littered with useful things, but rather than being absorbed in their use, we discard and destroy them. Get out of one car, steal another, over and over again. What distinguishes Grand Theft Auto is the sheer destructibility of the environment; we are the equipment through which the world’s destructibility is realised. In a world where the relation between humans and tools is inverted, the game offer us another reversal. Heidegger describes the condition of the individual human as one of thrown-ness, a state that goes beyond its Sartrean reformulation in the precession of existence over essence to encompass the position of having-to-be-open. We’re tossed into a world we don’t understand; to make sense of it we have to open ourselves to other beings. Through GTA, the world is thrown into us and has to be open to us. We’re faced with the infinite usefulness that’s lacking in reality. And so, of course, we have to destroy it.

PS: Incidentally, this is why video games can never be art. Art discloses the world; by giving us a world thrown into us, video games enframe it. They’re technology, and also a waste of time.

PPS: I haven’t actually played the new GTA, but they’re all basically the same, aren’t they?

Boston: the terrorism of banality

The State fixes, after the intervention, the term {X,{ex}} as the canonical form of the Event. What is at stake is clearly a Two (the site counted as one, and a multiple formed into one), but the problem is that between these two terms there is no relation.
Alain Badiou, Being and Event

 SPK- Turn Social Awkwardness Into A Weapon!

Lu Lingzi died on Monday. I didn’t know Lu Lingzi. She was a person: she had her passions and dreams and aspirations, and she had her neuroses as well, her buried furies, her paranoias. She was a human being, a speck of brightness in a dark and infinite universe, and there were people who loved her for that reason alone. But I didn’t know Lu Lingzi. The New York Times knew her, though. It knew her in the same way it knows just about every single person on this earth. Its giant roving eye found her, and fixed her, and then some hack wrote this:

Ms. Lu’s own final message on Weibo, the Chinese microblogging service, was posted on Monday and showed a picture of a bowl of Chinese fried bread, and said “My wonderful breakfast.” Ms. Lu, shown on her Weibo page as a petite woman with thick, shoulder-length hair, said there that she enjoyed food, music and finance.

Here is the summation of two thousand years of humanity’s struggle to distil Truth from mere events, the end-product of a line of heroes from Herodotus to Woodward and Bernstein. The final message: Woman Dead, Enjoyed Food. If you want to sell newspapers you have to make people care, and if you want to make people care about a tragedy in the real world you have to narrativise it, you have to give it the form of a fiction. You have to reduce human beings to atoms of emotion. Nobody is safe, it can happen to any of us. Sam Kriss was knocked down by a car while stumbling drunkenly across a road; in his last message to a grief-stricken planet he ironically retweeted the rapper Lil B talking about his tiny dick.

The crucial difference between what happened to Lu Lingzi and my hypothetical encounter with a Peugeot 305 at four in the morning is that, unlike me, Lu Lingzi died in the Boston marathon bombing. The terrorist bomb isn’t so much an object as a series of transformations: chemical substances into heat and light, banality into significance, life into death – with the last of these being only a corollary to the second. Death is tragic, but that’s almost subsidiary to the real horror of the bomb: a hand reaches out from the depths of the earth and assigns an aleatory significance, the Event intrudes on Being with the full force of its inexplicable violence. What we’re seeing is not the banality of terrorism but the latent terror of the banal. One day you’re a happily anonymous citizen; the next your neighbourhood is under undeclared martial law and History bursts your door open and rushes through your home, incarnated in a bunch of armed police wearing camouflage gear.

In the days after the bombing, as the investigation floundered with no group or individual claiming responsibility, I started to believe that the culprits would never be found. The attack would forever be an inexplicable anti-ontological rupture, a thorn pricking the side of a dying empire, a riddle never to be solved. In a way, I think that’s still true. In the absence of any concrete evidence, the observing masses played their favourite game: speculation. Maybe it was the Iranians, maybe North Korea, maybe a false flag attack by the Obama administration, whatever fits in best with the speculator’s prejudices. I’m not proud of it, but I played along too: it couldn’t be Islamists, I reasoned; any kid dumb enough to start talking about Jihad – and a quite a few who had learning difficulties or just needed money – had already been scooped up by some FBI sting operation. It was clearly a lone right-wing Bircher weirdo, a Tea Partier, a conspiracy theorist, holed up in his basement trying to kickstart the Rapture.

I was wrong. For a start, there were two of them. The suspects, Tamerlan and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, were not only Caucasian but had been born among the Caucasus mountains, they had US citizenship and had lived in America for most of their lives, they had apparently acted independently of any larger organisation, they seemed to have some sympathy for 9/11 and Sandy Hook conspiracy theories – but at the same time they were Muslims from a region with a long history of armed Islamic radicalism. They sat at the swirling nexus of every theory and prejudice. Neither one thing nor the other, not both, not neither. Multiple zones of indistinction, tangled, whorled, their univocity inscribed only on the Plane of Ignorance. Hence the spectacle of newspaper pundits patiently explaining to their readers what a Chechnya is, and Twitter users assuming that war with Russia was imminent or demanding a nuclear strike on Czechoslovakia.

And yet the culprits still haven’t been found in any full sense. We have an answer, of sorts, but no Answer, nothing that can account for the shocking rupture of the attack. It’s impossible to draw a line of causality from whatever was inside the heads of the Tsarnaevs to what happened near the finish line of the Boston marathon. Where there should have been something conclusive there was only banality, banality assuming the horrific proportions of significance. On the day of the marathon bombing, Dzhokhar Tsarnaev (under the handle @J_tsar) retweeted a novelty account for an Internet meme based on a TV advert:

Most Interesting Man @_DosEquisMan_
He once arm wrestled the Incredible Hulk. The loser had to paint himself green.

The day before he planted two bombs that killed three people, including an eight year old boy, he observed:

And here I thought nemo’s dad was about to get it with dory but apparently this man turned into a female #thatscray

Two days after the attack, he told the world:

I’m a stress free kind of guy

Something’s not right here, nothing adds up. This isn’t to say that there’s been a coverup and the Tsarnaevs are innocent of the bombing (although it should be kept in mind that they are, after all, only suspects). It’s something deeper and stranger, the void at the heart of the online representation of a real person. Dzokhar’s friends consistently voice their disbelief: they knew this guy, he was their boy, they smoked weed with him, he was a chill guy. The racist media is forced to dig deep through his Internet presence to find even a few mentions of going to mosque or faith in God; they parade these in front of us as if that explains anything.

Dzokhar also has a profile on the Russian social media site VKontakte. Since he was identified as a suspect, his page has been bombarded with thousands of messages of fury and hate, sometimes bizarrely undirected:

Ivan Skor
Никому, I’m your mother raped instead of with blacks
two hours ago to Nikomu

If your immediate reaction to this is ‘this looks like a great opportunity to publicise my brand,’ then you could find work at one of the footwear companies that spammed the thread with links to their stores. Really, I think they missed a trick there; they could have built up an entire campaign around it. A marathon, a terrorist attack, a culture of martyrdom: all the ingredients for a perfect ad strategy. Imagine it: under a darkening sky a group of figures are shown running heroically along a track. At the finish line, an immense conflagration, the fiery extinction of thought and reason and humanity. One man pulls ahead of the pack, his arms spread wide, the faint glow of a halo just visible over his head, ready to embrace the inferno. What’s given him this sudden burst of speed? His millennial passion, certainly, but that’s not all. The camera pans down, and we discover the truth: he’s wearing the retailer’s shoes. Fade to black. And then, in shining white letters, the tagline: Dare To Go Further.

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