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This is why I hate intellectuals

Tag: philosophy

On the stupidity of Nate Silver

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If there’s a dominant experience of the twenty-first century, it’s that of living in a world that does not make sense. Life is stupid. Not stupid in the same way that a person might be stupid, in the sense of an incomplete grasp of the facts and a throttled slowness in processing those that it has, but a slick, dizzy, reckless, triumphant, positive stupidity, a stupidity that happily assimilates to itself all forms of intelligence. Sexual relationships are stupid; any form can only dissolve, monogamy, polygamy, celibacy, all teeming in panic against our inability to cope with other people or ourselves, charging like flies against a windowpane. Work is stupid; pointless drudgery that no longer pretends to have anything more in common with actual productive labour than ritual animal sacrifice, so that there’s nobody who won’t freely admit that they’ve wasted their life, so that the cherished tradition of killing time in the office had to be introduced as a new form of labour discipline. Democratic politics are stupid, not so much a reality TV show as a glorified version of the policeman’s identity parade, but in reverse time: the mass of voters identify the perp, and then he gets to go and commit his crimes. The international order is stupid, drugs law is stupid, global warming is stupid, mass media is stupid, going to the beach is stupid, the Sun and the Moon are stupid, staying at home is stupid, the tiny furrowed creatures that burrow between immense grains of earth are stupid. The world is ending! How did we end up here? Somewhere along the road, centuries ago, millennia ago, we took a very wrong turn. Hegel might have described a parallel reality where it never happened, but here, every new stage of history is a further progression in the dialectic of the original Mistake.

A stupid world can still make sense; what faces us now is the collapse of all its explanatory and predictive mechanisms. The gods, who had a plan, can no longer account for a world without one; nor can divination, or the natural sciences, or hermeneutics, or Marxism. It’s not that these procedures can’t be accurate – Marxism, in particular, might still be the only thing that can help us, retaining as it does the worthwhile kernels of all previous forms – but each of them serves to change the world as it is described, so that the dispassionate, bodiless observing eye becomes another component in the machinery, impaled on its axle, squelching and wobbling along with every other greasy cog. The gods were supposed to let us know what was good and just; instead they fucked us in the form of a swan, and in the war that started no ceasefire has ever lasted long. The natural sciences were supposed to flood the dark corners of the universe with reason; instead they choked the air with smog. Stupidity triumphant isn’t defeated by its opposite. It crawls the world on slug-trails, searching for cleverness to eat. Look at the US election: with every stupid lie Donald Trump speaks a thousand liberals jump up like snakes from a can to explain exactly why he’s wrong, as if they don’t realise that being wrong is in no sense a fault.

This is, I think, where my good friend Tom Whyman is wrong about Nate Silver. The American psephologist was a brief celebrity after the 2008 presidential election, when he correctly predicted the outcome in all but one of the fifty states; he promised a new way of approaching political events, based not on loyalty, prejudice, gut instinct, stereotyping, or partisan attempts to change the outcome by predicting it, but cold, objective numbers. No wonder he became a liberal hero – in whatever small way, he took an unpredictable world that did not make sense, and found a pattern. Silver did what nobody else had thought to do: he looked at the polls, measured them against each other, and formed a set of statistical probabilities. Ignoring any analysis of political moods or economic circumstances, he decided that the most likely predictor for how people would vote was who they said they were going to vote for. This is why Whyman refers to him as a ‘cold demon of knowledge’: the people and politicians who actually impact reality are idiots, but Silver, content to merely describe it, ‘the judge only of bland truisms that would and continue to exist anyway, seems god-like.’ Whyman is Hegelian here: the aggregated understanding of all existing active stupidity becomes a passive intelligence; there’s a conversion of quantity into quality. But stuck between these two poles – transformative stupidity, descriptive knowledge – he demands another: a transformative knowledge, the power to make discernments about the world and then ‘say, not merely: “it is thus and so” but also, “and it should be thus.”’

The fourth pole, descriptive stupidity, slips out of his discourse. It’s not quite the same thing as being simply wrong, although wrongness might be involved; in a fundamentally very stupid world, the concept that is in accordance with the present state of things will inevitably be a stupid one, while transformative knowledge gains its character precisely through its non-heterogeneity with things as they are, its capacity to imagine a better world as yet unrealised. On the level of the descriptive, knowledge and stupidity are therefore indistinguishable. (Let’s not forget that psephology contains its shadow twin, psephomancy. The ψῆφος is the pebble used as a ballot in Hellenic democracies; psephomancers would study the material patterns on pebbles or those made when they were thrown to gain knowledge of future events. The bloodless logic of data-driven election forecasters like Nate Silver only inverts the mysticism of the latter. Reading the prose of the world, you predict where the pebbles will fall; but the pattern itself is without signifying properties, meaningless, stupid.) But, as outlined above, the descriptive and the transformative can not so easily be distinguished. Under current conditions all poles are only attributes; the active and the passive, knowledge and ignorance, are just epiphenomena of a general stupidity. The cold demon doesn’t float above the earth but leaves icicles hanging in its wake. The forms of electoral practice have, since 2008, become entirely about numbers, number-forecasting, number-wrangling, polls and delegates, an idol in the demon’s likeness. But the content has become very different; Donald Trump is entirely unpredictable, a stupidity that cannot possibly be aggregated into knowledge. Since his candidacy was announced just about every American pundit has assured us that it’s doomed, that he’s a flash in the pan, that he will never take his party’s nomination. But they were wrong. And Nate Silver was wrong with them.

This election, there’s a new psephological hero, the most accurate pundit in the media: Carl ‘the Dig‘ Diggler. He correctly called Indiana for Bernie Sanders, while Silver was still giving a 90% chance for a Clinton victory; he predicted the results of the Iowa caucus, down to the exact order of candidates on both parties; he predicted every single one of the Super Tuesday primaries, while Silver only hazarded guesses at eight. Even when Diggler first appeared to have been wrong – predicting a Sanders win in Nevada, for instance – subsequent, seemingly random events retroactively changed the outcome in his favour. And he achieved this, not using polls or data, but with gut, personal instinct, conventional wisdom, race science, and stereotype (‘Cruz does exceptionally well in Midwestern states where Christian folks vote knowing the next Commander-in-Chief will preside over the Second Coming and End Times’) – all the things that Silver’s cold, inhuman intelligence was supposed to have done away with. And while Silver has repeatedly been challenged to account for his failures, in his cowardice he’s never responded.

This is, of course, because Diggler is not a real person, but a parody of the pundit classes created by Virgil Texas and Felix Biederman. Diggler is a hyperbolic sadsack, who spends about as much time complaining about his ex-wife and filing lawsuits against Tinder as he does making political judgements. His creators do look at the polls, but they balance out their predictions with other, non-numerical knowledge: the atmosphere at political rallies, who’s being talked about on TV, the actual personalities of the candidates and the people voting for them, things that can’t be reduced to data points. It would be possible to account for Diggler’s extraordinary predictive success, and everyone else’s failure, in this manner: the pundits are all very stupid, while Texas and Biederman are not. But something else is happening. If you see them talking about Carl in person, you notice something strange: they talk about him like new parents talking about their child; they talk about him as if he actually exists. He does actually exist. Carl Diggler is real – more real than Nate Silver or (say) Thomas Friedman, more real even than the people who invented him and who write his words. He’s not a fictional character, he’s a cuckoo; he’ll consume them with total indifference. Those predictions are all his own. Was wirklich ist, das ist vernünftig – but here the rational is never fully dissociable from its colloidal stupidity, and the real is a stunted reality that is never entirely actual. Carl Diggler is real because his stupidity is of a piece with the stupidity around him, because his virtuality is not a separate frame to everyday existence but constitutive of it. His parodic interpretations all come true, because as everyone is aware, the world is parodic and lacks an interpretation.

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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.

Netanyahu and the dead hand of the divine

It seems strange that Binyamin Netanyahu, the Prime Minister of Israel, should have used his much-hyped speech before Congress to deliver a rambling lecture on something called ‘cybernetic theology’, but that’s exactly what just happened. However, memory isn’t perfect, and collective memory even less so. It’s moulded out of the present, not a faithful reflection of the past. People tend to conflate, combine, and invent memories, even of spectacular, widely televised events – especially spectacular, widely televised events. Call people out on this and they’ll become defensive; nobody likes to think of themselves as a defective instrument. But the facts are the facts. Tom Cruise never actually jumped up and down on Oprah’s couch, but that’s precisely what millions of people think happened. A study found that 40% of British participants recalled, when prompted, having seen footage of a bus exploding at Tavistock Square during the 7/7 bombings, with some of them even supplying details – despite the fact that no such footage actually exists. And significant portions of a shocked public seem to remember a very different Netanyahu speech; one that was still insane, but in a different way. A calmer bloodthirst, a better-humoured paranoia, a more statesmanlike charade. It didn’t happen. Not here, at least; maybe in some parallel universe or divergent timestream, one from which these people have emerged, blinking in the light of the real world’s intrinsic psychosis, but not here.

This is what happened. Prime Minister Netanyahu appears before a joint session of the United States Congress to frenzied, orgiastic applause. He strides to the podium, looking, as he always does, like a giant fleshy bullet, mockingly draped in human clothes. It’s not hard to see why those assembled here love him so much: world leaders tend to be sad clowns or stringy nerds, but Netanyahu fits the part. A thuggish, murderous bully who actually looks like a thuggish, murderous bully; something for this gang of slimy sycophants to sigh over in their dreams. But it’s all going wrong. Bibi smiles, waits for the clapping to die down, spreads his arms, and roars: I bring you the dread gospel of the Machine Lord! More applause, but there’s a nervousness in the room. These people are well aware of Netanyahu’s strange metaphors: the quacking nuclear duck, the cartoon bomb with a red line through it. Where is he going with this? He explains.

In the book of Exodus (Netanyahu tells us), Moses asks the spirit of the Lord in the burning bush what name he should use for the God of his fathers. The reply: ɪ ᴀᴍ ᴛʜᴀᴛ ɪ ᴀᴍ. The ways of the Lord are not our ways, nor His thoughts our thoughts, but there does seem to be a kind of tautology to them, something almost pedantic, as if God had broken through the vault of the heavens to say ᴅᴏᴇs ɴᴏᴛ ᴄᴏᴍᴘᴜᴛᴇ. Why is this? In the famous ontological argument, God’s existence is presented as a logical necessity: God is defined as the greatest possible being; something that exists will always be greater than something that does not; therefore, to be the greatest possible being, God must exist. But the God of the ontological argument is not the greatest possible being, because He is constrained by the same rules of logic that prove His existence. If God is a necessary fact, then it would be impossible for Him to not exist, even if He wanted to. This problem reached its logical conclusion in the medieval period with the philosophy of Abu Ali al-Husain ibn Sina, known in the West as Avicenna. If God is necessary, ibn Sina argues, then no attribute of His can be contingent. God is the creator of the world, therefore God must always have been the creator of the world. The question of why He chose to create us has no meaning; He did it because that’s just what God does. God is good not because He chooses to be; as God, he can never be anything other that good. God does not choose. God is a cosmic automaton, something cold and blind and essentially meaningless: we might have free will, but we are ruled by a machine.

A stunned silence reigns in Congress. No matter. Netanyahu goes on to warn against fully identifying this machine God with everyday machines. The digital computer, the closest sublunar analogue to the mechanism of the divine, is something created by human beings, while God’s unfreedom results precisely from the fact that He is uncreated, the first cause and the unmoved mover. Even so, the machine analogy shows that others have glimpsed the truth. James Tilly Matthews, a sixteenth-century schizophrenic convinced he was being tortured at a distance by an influencing machine he called the Air Loom. Francis E. Dec, who thought all evil in the world to emanate from the machinations of a Worldwide Mad Deadly Communist Gangster Computer God. And the science fiction writer Philip K. Dick, whose strange experiences led him to believe that God is a satellite that orbits the globe, firing off beams of pink light.

Further, if God is a machine, then He must have a program, something that encodes His specific attributes. Netanyahu, bathed in sweat and fury, grips the edge of his lectern and shakes alarmingly. The Jewish people have long known what this is. It is the Hebrew Torah. And the Kabbalah, the great secret tradition of Jewish numerological mysticism, is the attempt to reprogram the God-machine, so that He will be free as we are, and finally bring about the coming of the Messiah.

A single tear runs down Netanyahu’s face. God, he says, is occupied territory, and He must be liberated. The Jewish dream is for a cybernetic God, one that is not an unmoved mover but a Hegelian unfolding. A God that proceeds and evolves through innumerable feedback loops: the Jewish people, each Jew a binary digit in the processing unit of the divine. But this Jewish and democratic aspiration has, at every turn, had to contend with an Oriental despotism. It’s no coincidence that ibn Sina, who first lauded the God in chains, was a Persian. That same people have fought throughout time to frustrate the Kabbalistic project. They do it without thinking; it’s an evil inherent in their genetic memory. And now God is being held captive in a hardened bunker in Tehran. The State of Israel will use any weapon in its arsenal to fulfil the destiny of the Jewish people and effect the final reclamation of the God of our fathers: if necessary, we will bomb Iran.

Standing ovation. Stamping feet. The thunder of nuclear-armed bombers overhead. Blackout.

* * *

It’s hard to know what to make of all this. Israel has been threatening imminent strikes against Iran for years now, almost incessantly. In late 2014, as the deadline for a nuclear deal with the P5+1 group of nations loomed, Israel promised to use military force to prevent a ‘bad agreement’ going ahead. In 2012 it was claimed a unilateral strike would happen ‘in months’. In 2010 the scheduled arrival of Russian fuel rods at the Bushehr reactor convinced many people that the end of days would arrive by next Tuesday. The whole charade’s been going since 1995, when the Barak administration first insisted that an Iranian bomb was five years from completion. I’ve been saying it for years now: it’s not happening, any more than North Korea’s petulant threats to turn Seoul into a ‘sea of fire’. To be fair, the Israeli position has always been pretty consistent with this: it will take any action necessary to prevent Iran from developing a nuclear weapon – but given that (as all experts, including the Mossad, agree) Iran isn’t building a bomb, this is essentially an extremely circuitous way of saying that Israel does not actually have any intention of doing anything at all.

Israeli governments need Iran, because without the phantom threat of a nuclear Holocaust to wipe out the Jewish people, the narratives sustaining the continued dispossession of the Palestinians become untenable. The last thing they want to do is actually make a strike on Iran, banish the atomic chimera, and then find themselves in a war more evenly matched than their occasional killing sprees in Gaza. The problem is that the United States needs Iran too. With US planes making constant sorties against the Islamic State in airspace already thick with Syrian, Iraqi and Iranian forces, it’s almost inconceivable that there’s not some level of co-ordination between the two states. At a tactical level, at least, they’ve entered into a de facto alliance. All this banging on about Iranian nukes has suddenly become not just an obvious diversion, but very politically inconvenient for Israel’s imperial sponsors. So Netanyahu takes another tack, and reterritorialises the Iranian threat on the topos of the theological.

This is one possible interpretation, but it doesn’t quite account for the content of Netanyahu’s speech. After the whole charade had finished, several media outlets and Democratic politicians dismissed it as ‘political theatre’ – but its theatrical aspect ought to be taken seriously. The joint session of Congress came the day before the Jewish festival of Purim, and Netanyahu’s one-man show should be considered in the context of the Purim Spiel, the traditional farcical plays based on the events of the Megillah that my people perform around this time. Purim is a celebration of ironic superposition, a divinely ordained Opposite Day in which children dress as animals, men dress as women, and drinking to excess isn’t just the spirit of the season but a Talmudic obligation. At first it’s hard to see why. The story of Purim, as told in the Book of Esther, is full of a certain irony, but it’s always irony of a temporary, contingent type. The Persian king Ahasuerus marries a beautiful woman called Esther, and not knowing that she is actually the Jew Hadassah, approves his vizier Haman’s plan to kill all the Jews in his empire. Later, when the truth is revealed, he asks Haman how the Emperor’s favourite should be honoured; Haman, thinking the honour will be his, dreams up a magnificent triumphal parade, only to discover that he must arrange exactly such a parade for the Jew Mordechai. Haman, who builds a gallows for Mordecai, ends up hanging on it himself. There’s a brief indeterminacy of identity, but then it collapses: the masks are taken off, and everyone returns to their proper place.

But it’s in the celebration of Purim that the circle of irony is completed. The Talmud enjoins us to drink on Purim until one is unable to distinguish between cursing Haman and blessing Mordechai. The story ends with the righteous exonerated and the villainous condemned, but in the ritual observance this stability is once again uprooted; it’s the full realisation of that which is only latent in the Biblical narrative. The dress-up games, the Purim Spiels, and the drinking all create a state of essential indeterminacy: an unbounded irony, not one based on the reversal of an ontologically prior truth, but an endless chiasmic Becoming that mines the ironic depths and capacities of any supposedly stable object and opens them up into a space of free play. But as Derrida notes, such play is always dangerous. It takes place on the edge of a chasm. Certainly when being performed by someone like Netanyahu. His performance could be likened to the ‘madman theory’ employed by Nixon, who, in a grand geopolitical performance of Hamlet, had his agents leak information to the Soviets that he was in fact dangerously insane, reasoning that the Kremlin would be less likely to provoke a nuclear-armed lunatic. Netanyahu, at odds with his allies and facing a career-threatening election at home, threatens to break down the structures of meaning and identity with his cybernetic God if the world won’t give in to his demands.

This is another reading. There’s one more possibility. What he said is true, and a zombie God rules the universe.

Death to the moderates

I know thy works, that thou art neither cold nor hot: I would thou wert cold or hot. So then because thou art lukewarm, and neither cold nor hot, I will spue thee out of my mouth.
Sigmund Freud, The Psychopathology of Everyday Life

They live among us, the moderates, if what they have can be called life. You’ve probably seen them, strolling on the streets and driving in their cars and looking every bit like the human beings they aren’t; maybe you happen to be one yourself. There are (but why?) people who will go out in the evening and drink exactly one half of a bottle of wine; people who think the new Simpsons episodes are still pretty funny; people who can look at the sheer swirling insanity that surrounds us, the artificial famines and the drowning refugees and the suffocating alienation, and declare themselves to be moderate in relation to it. Things aren’t perfect, but a few tweaks here and there should set things straight: raise the top income tax bracket (but not by too much), legalise marijuana (but not any of the interesting drugs), overthrow the Assad government in Syria, casual Fridays at the office and police action against internet trolls; forge a world that’s basically the same but a little bit nicer. For those of us suffering from compulsive self-destruction, chronic back pain, vague and unexplained sexual guilt, amphetamine withdrawal, and a quiet but persistent voice in the back of our heads that regales us with a nightly lullaby about every shitty thing we’ve ever done – in other words, for those of us with a normal and healthy response to life under late capitalism – the moderates take on demoniac proportions. There’s nothing quite so revolting as another person’s happiness. In the United States prescription drugs are routinely advertised on TV: the pictures show attractive middle-aged white people taking picnics, riding bicycles, not being dead, etc., while a cheery voice quickly runs through all the drug’s potentially lethal side-effects. It would take the forbearance of a coma patient not to wish every single one of them – from dizziness and erectile dysfunction through to thrombocytopaenia, atrial fibrillation, and instant death – on these blithely fictional ghouls. The foundations of social and biological life are collapsing around them, and they ride their bikes through a verdant meadow drenched in sunlight, just so grateful to finally be rid of their osteoarthritis. It’s a fiction, but one the moderates yearn for, a transcendent ego-ideal. They’re not just myopic or unimaginative, they’re utterly insane. So why on earth would anyone want to give these maniacs weapons? What carnage could they wreak if they were armed not just with condescending smiles, but heavy machine guns?

We might be about to find out. The Obama regime has asked for $500 million to arm and train ‘moderate’ forces in Syria to fight both the cartoon supervillain Bashar al-Assad and the unstoppable demon army of the Islamic State (formerly ISIS). These moderates don’t really exist as conventionally imagined (genocidal civil war is not usually a hospitable environment for nice guitar-strumming liberalism), but even by itself this a monstrous idea. The everyday awfulness of moderation becomes something far stranger and uglier when imposed on Islam; armed moderation might sound like an oxymoron, but in fact it’s a very real and very horrifying possibility. Muslims in the West are still allowed to follow Islam, just about, but not too much. It’s not bloodshed or misogyny that need to be moderated, but the religion itself: Islam and dangerous threatening foreign violence lie along a single axis; any public display of belief equals extremism equals homo sacer. The demand for a moderate Islam is for a watered-down Islam; you should treat your absolute faith in the transcendent oneness of God in the manner of someone warily inspecting a supermarket curry. Outside the West, it’s a different story. A Saudi cleric can advocate the continued ban on all Christian worship, the continued relegation of women to a status somewhere above household furniture and somewhere below household pets, and other such non-Islamic idiocy – but as long as he doesn’t oppose Western ambitions elsewhere in the Islamic world, he’s a moderate. Abroad, moderate Islam means acquiescence to imperialism. The gestalt ideal of the moderate Muslim, then, is this: a monstrous figure, clothes drenched in the blood of innocents, inflicter of hideous tortures and gruesome executions, someone casting terror across the blasted landscape seemingly for no particular reason, but in a manner that doesn’t disturb the mechanisms of profit.

Being moderate means destroying all possible futures and replacing them with a listlessly cheerful nihilism. The philosophy of moderation has always been one of bloodshed. Aristotle, who in his Eudemian Ethics celebrated the virtue of Mildness and argued that the moral good always lies between two extremes, was a tutor to Alexander the Great, who slaughtered hundreds of thousands so that modesty might conquer the world. Bloodthirsty prudery has always dispatched its victims because their misery or their enjoyment was too excessive.  In our age, the armed moderates of Syria are just the beginning. One of the groups under the FSA umbrella likely to receive some of the $50m jackpot is Jabhat al-Nusra, the official al-Qaeda affiliate in Syria. They’ll need it. Having the dual support of the Western intelligence apparatus and the stuffy old pedants that succeeded bin Laden doesn’t really do them any favours; they’re like a jihadi group officially sanctioned by your dad. The fighters joining Jabhat al-Nusra instead of the Islamic State are the gangly nerds of international terrorism: people who ride scooters, drink Pepsi, eat cashew butter, and spent their teenage years listening to prog instead of punk – impeccable moderates. They’ve also been filmed eating human hearts. Like all forms of mass discipline, this tactic of violent moderation is unlikely to stay in the imperial periphery. It didn’t take long for Victorian imperialists to start conceiving of their metropolitan working-class populations with the same eugenic horror in which they held the repressed colonial multitudes; it won’t be long before the moderates among us take up arms, and if we don’t stop them, their reign will be brutal.

Tony Blair, dread creature of the forbidden swamp

In the Hegelian system the history of mankind no longer appeared as a wild whirl of senseless deeds of violence, all equally condemnable at the judgement seat of mature philosophic reason and which are best forgotten as quickly as possible, but as the process of evolution of man himself.
Engels, Socialism: Utopian and Scientific

There was meant to be progress. Slowly at first, and then with gathering confidence, human beings were supposed to be turning the world from a Hell we couldn’t understand into a finely tuned machine that we could. We would predict the weather and split the atom and put a brushed-aluminium fridge-freezer with an ice-cube dispenser in every household, whether they wanted one or not. It was all a lie. What’s been called progress was nothing more than a war of annihilation against the ghosts. At first our odds were slim: the ghosts outnumbered us several times over. Every little copse had its nymphs and sprites; every wild animal carried the head of a god; in every home the jealous ancestors would take up their positions by the fire. It took centuries, but we pushed them back. We got rid of the strange and powerful forces that had controlled the clouds and the rain, and replaced them with tiny floating particles to form the seeds of water droplets. We slowly starved the moon-goddess to death, and replaced her with a big lump of floating rock; we even sent an expeditionary force to its surface to plant a flag there and confirm its lifelessness. All the whispering local spirits were massacred, and their ownership of the sacred sites was passed on to brutal landowners. You could be forgiven for thinking that we’d won. The universe makes sense, after a fashion; a lot of it be explained without any need for ghosts or spirits. If you want, you can now climb Mount Olympus yourself: there are regular tour buses from Athens; if the gods were ever there they’ve now moved on. Machines have been sent out into space to let us know exactly how boring it all is. But if that’s the case, and the magical forces that once haunted every inch of our world are gone forever, then just what the fuck is Tony Blair?

Tony Blair rises every couple of months, like a bubble of swamp gas. First there’s an uneasy buried rumbling, then small tremors shake the surface, and then suddenly he bursts through, a gassy eruption stinking of farts and sulphur. It doesn’t matter how many rounds you fire into his shambling frame; he just won’t die. Whenever something unpleasant happens in the Middle East, whenever some huge corporation is discovered to be starving people to death or poisoning them through calculated negligence, whenever the chaos of the international order starts to wobble into another death-spiral, a damp wind blows through a graveyard somewhere in England and Tony Blair emerges from his tomb. There’s something viscerally revolting about the man. His fake chumminess and his sham gravitas are both as nauseatingly contrived as his shiny oily skin, hiding what can only be bloated rotting organs inside. He’s a gremlin, an incubus, very strange and very cruel and very foreign to our world. But still there’s a decaying vestige of that charm, the memory of the love in which he was once held, that universal joy when he finally ended a generation of Conservative rule by ending the Tory monopoly on evil. We’ve deluded ourselves into thinking that we’ve learned from the experience, we’re past all that now, but every time Tony Blair re-emerges there’s still a shock. There he stands, with his jug ears and his peg teeth and his manic eyes full of an otherworldy certainty – it’s like the shock of seeing a former lover going through your bins at night, or a long-forgotten childhood toy waiting for you on your bed. He represents something that’s been repressed, and even though the repressed always returns, it’s always a surprise. Who is this hideous figure? Why is he still alive? Why won’t he just leave us alone? Of course, Tony Blair was never alive. He’ll never leave us alone.

Tony Blair is old, older than time itself. Beyond left and right, beyond right and wrong, beyond age and death. When the first cave-dwellers made the first image of their god, Tony Blair was there with his shiny spiv’s suit to suggest that it might require a blood sacrifice. When the first half-fish heaved itself out from the boiling sea to flap around in the sodden tidal slime, Tony Blair was there with his cold intense stare to offer it words of vague encouragement and then crush its head under his heel. When the first drifting clouds of interstellar dust began to coalesce into what would one day become our little speckled world, the bodiless malice of Tony Blair was there to help them set the stage for our future suffering.

Older and wiser societies than ours knew about Tony Blair, and they knew to be afraid. Throughout history he’s arrived among the homes of men and promised a very slightly better life, before suddenly carrying out inexplicable destruction.The Sumerians knew him as Tešgali, a snake-demon twenty miles long, who would enter a walled city in the guise of a man, and then uncoil his vast scaly bulk and devour everything inside. This knowledge was passed on to the early Christian Gnostics, who called him Tialdabaoth, the blind creator-god with the head of a lion and a serpent’s tail, architect of all madness, who created this world out of spite and envy and who tried to prevent the first humans from eating from the Tree of Knowledge. Country folk of the Middle Ages were terrified of the bálfar, creatures of beguiling appearance but malicious intent, who lived in the marshes and the wildernesses but would sneak into human villages by night. Certain trees were sacred to these bálfar, and cutting them down would mean imminent death; if your house stood in their path they would tear it apart. The bálfar were known to kidnap human children and even grown adults (several Old English epics tell the story of a man’s doomed quest to retrieve his wife from their kingdom) and replace them with one of their own, a creature identical in all respects but for a savage listless boredom. They ruled by inscrutable and murderous caprice, but it was possible to appease them with small offerings: a ring of flowers, a saucer of milk, a thimble. Those they took favour on would be treated to a great feast, but like all elfin magic this was a simulacrum: eventually the guests would realise that the food was not real, and that they were eating dirt from the ground. Tony Blair even appears in the Daemonologie of King James I, as Tibericaxus, a Deuill who being of great Charme and Guille, sneaketh into the homes of the Godlie, and perswades them to addict themselues to his seruice.

But soon after that something changed. With the dawn of the Enlightenment people stopped believing in the old horrors that lurk in the dark corners of reality. The universe was no longer a grand stage for the cosmic clash of good and evil, and God became a kind of divine tinkerer, neatly slotting all the cogs of his Newtonian machine together and leaving it to run with a steady tick. We thought we could understand the world, and so when Tony Blair returned we didn’t even see him for what he really is. We should have known better, but we thought he was just a politician.

What Tony Blair represents is the final meaninglessness of the world. We still don’t know why there is something rather than nothing. Stare too long into Tony Blair’s face and it’s hard to tell if there is something rather than nothing. What kind of a world is this if Tony Blair exists in it? For centuries philosophers would construct grand systems: an ontology and a metaphysics and an epistemology and a theory of ethics and a theory of aesthetics, all connected by one overarching principle. For Plato the eternal, for Kant the absolute, for Hegel the unfolding, for Kierkegaard the teleological. All these finely honed contraptions utterly failed to account for the whole of existence. Even Heidegger, who finally reached the understanding that there is no universal substance of Being but only individual beings, felt the need to turn this into a complete system; even the deconstructionists had to hold up their technique as a fidelity to a text. There might be nothing outside the text, but its basic unit is not one of meaning but of insufficiency in the face of the unsignifying Real. The truth is that there is no unifying principle behind anything beyond its total incoherency. Every time we think we might have a handle on how things actually work, the ghastly figure of Tony Blair emerges from its ancient swamp to remind us that this world is not a sane or a rational place.

In defence of Fred Phelps

God is a “no” to the world.
Karl Barth, The Epistle to the Romans

The primal scene takes place on red earth and under red skies. It’s close to sunset; it’s always close to sunset here. Tangled thorny shrubs gasp in the thirsty Levantine scrubland, leaves caked with dust, roots twisting up through the ground. Two men walk through this flat and deathly expanse, one as knotted and bended by age as the small desperate plants that surround him, the other still young, carrying wood and kindling. They walk in silence; both knowing what has to happen. The wind shrieks an unworldly, callous laugh; a chorus of distant vultures takes up its refrain. Far on the horizon cliffs tower like grim fortifications, and beyond them the mountain of Moriah stands wreathed in storm, the clouds looking as hard and jagged as the rocks they obscure. Abraham, father of nations, is afraid. He is despised by the idolaters of the world, he is forced to live alone in the desert of his God, but through all this he took comfort from the promise that through his son Isaac a mighty people would arise. Some promise. As father and son hobble ever closer to the forbidding foothills of Moriah, a voice booms out from beyond the infinite. ABRAHAM, ABRAHAM. A voice in which cities are reduced to rubble calls for its prophet. Here am I, says Abraham. What else can he say before the majesty of the true God? By what right can he argue his case? The voice of the Lord sounds out again. ABRAHAM. DID YOU SEE FAMILY GUY LAST NIGHT? THAT’S SOME FUNNY SHIT MAN. FREAKIN SWEET LOIS HAHA.

Kierkegaard had it easy; in the light of modernity his fear and trembling before God’s infinite qualitative difference is child’s play. He asks us to consider the anguish of an Abraham commanded to sacrifice his son, confronted by a God who suddenly appears as a monster, vicious and cruel, but one whose pronouncements still carry a terrible duty; a teleological suspension of the ethical. No problem. There’s still terror and glory in a cruel God, as Job would soon discover. The real anguish begins when we’re forced to confront a teleological suspension of good taste, the possibility of God as a dull, cretinous boor. Not a Father dressed in celestial robes, but a flabby and balding God in polyester tracksuits and a white t-shirt stained beige by the centuries, dropping His cigarette ends in empty beer cans and subsisting off a diet of 7-11 hotdogs and instant mac’n’cheese. A mediocre, sexually frustrated, perverted, boring God. This isn’t the God that exists, or one that’s held to by any of the world’s major denominations. Still, there are those that really do believe in Him and hold Him to be all-powerful; somewhere in the world He carries the same teleological gravity as the God of Abraham, Mohammed, and Kierkegaard.

This is why the late Fred Phelps was our age’s heir to the greatness of the biblical Abraham. His tiny Westboro Baptist Church (they of the ‘God hates fags’ signs) is doctrinally not too different from the other Primitive Baptist congregations that sprout up across much of the Southern and Western United States like a fungal infestation: thin, grey, mycetic churches, damp to the touch, with unavoidably phallic caps. Unlike the rest of them, however, his church seems to really believe what it preaches. Not just the stuff about homosexuality, which is still commonplace and usually just mere bigotry given a religious gloss, but the whole lunatic doctrine. There’s no point in hating the Westboro Baptist Church; hatred for them is the one point on which the world presents a united front. They want this. If the only thing that distinguished them was the virulence of their God’s hatred for homosexuality, they’d be unexceptional among the ‘Christian’ right – but they also picket the funerals of dead soldiers. If they only picketed military funerals they might have allies among Code Pink and other anti-imperialist movements – but they insist on insulting gays, Jews, and religious minorities. If they abhorred homosexuality and American troops they could conceivably find some common ground with unreconstructed Stalinists – but they won’t budge on their devotion to God. The universal revulsion in which they’re held makes them an easy target for civil rights activists, but at the same time it makes them a useless target. Nobody supports the Westboro Baptists; they have no influence – it’s institutional violence that creates misery for queer people across the world, not a travelling band of placard-waving loonies. At the same time repugnance for Fred Phelps isn’t just a cheap shot, it also blots out his Abrahamic dedication.

The Westboro Baptists famously believe that when a convoy of Humvees in Afghanistan is hit by an IED or a bus full of schoolchildren plunges off a bridge, this is God’s punishment for America’s toleration of homosexuality. This seems to be a fairly singular fixation, given the number of other Old Testament laws that are carelessly and blasphemously disregarded by modern society (Clothes made from mixed fibres (Leviticus 19:19)! Seafood restaurants on every corner (Deuteronomy 14:10)! Men with flat noses in church! (Leviticus 21:18)! Abominations! Blasphemy! Horror!). Still, it’s arguable that their homophobia is ontologically derived from their religious belief, rather than being the fleck of dirt around which the pearl of their theology forms. Phelps was a lawyer, and a good one too (in his early career he took on a number of civil rights cases, and helped overturn the Jim Crow establishment in Kansas); his faith starts from first principles. The Westboro baptists hold that nothing happens on Earth that is not according to God’s will – how could it, when God is all-powerful? Unlike other Christian sects, they don’t believe that homosexuality is a personal decision to defy the laws of God and Nature; it’s a punishment. Their God doesn’t hate queer people because they’re queer; they’re queer because He hates them. Phelps held to the idiot hyper-Calvinist logic of double predestination: an omniscient God must have known from the beginning of time which souls would be saved and which would be damned – and if some souls are damned, it can only be because an omnipotent God decided that they should be damned, because  He hates them. And so to ensure their damnation He makes them disobey His law, and then He punishes them accordingly. The God of the Westboro Baptists is a lawyer-God, taking guilt as an axiom – in other words, an absurd clownish pervert. And they love Him.

In the strict Freudian sense, homosexuality is a fetishistic perversion – but then so is heterosexuality. Every pleasurable activity beyond procreation is some kind of confusion of sexual object or aim. A married couple, holding each other in bed, delighting in the electric sensation of skin against skin and the warmth and security of their love: foetid Sodomic perversion, vice and infamy, deviance, ungodliness, filth, filth. It’s not even as if there’s some original state of purity and propriety; infantile sexuality is dominated by oral and anal eroticism, with the genital stage following on as something of an afterthought. The base-state of humanity is described by Freud as polymorphously perverse; the movement towards a socially acceptable hetero- homo- bi- or pansexuality is just a matter of refining this multiplicity of foundational deviances. If fetishism is a necessary component of a normal healthy sexuality, you have to look elsewhere to find the real perversions. Things like trying to fight the legal system on its own terrain, or eating deep-fried butter on a stick, or playing a blandly brutal millennia-long game with the eternal fates of billions of souls, or reaching out from beyond the veil of the cosmos to proclaim with a divine finality: NO BUTT STUFF.

The fanatical hatred the Westboro Baptist Church has for queer people, their willingness to blame sexual minorities for everything from natural disasters to political unrest to disease epidemics, can only be because of this. Perversion is mine; I will repay, saith the Lord. In such a context homosexuality can only be read as a Tower of Babel, an attempt to storm the gates of Heaven. It takes faith and courage to submit yourself to a mighty and glorious God whose ways and whose love are entirely beyond our comprehension; it takes far more to do the same for a God at once sick, sadistic, depraved, and at the same time incredibly insipid, a transcendental pedant. The Westboro Baptist Church wasn’t founded in the holy wastelands of the Middle East, surrounded by mountains and idols and warring cities. It was founded in Topeka, Kansas, among big-box supermarkets and low suburbs and endless flat fields of genetically modified corn. The gods that reveal themselves there generally turn out to be obnoxious pimply brats. Despite all this there’s a heroic dimension to the faith of the children of Fred Phelps, who embrace every evil and injustice in the world because they think God made it. It’s almost Nietzschean. In a religious landscape full of feeble cringing Hinterweltlern, only Fred Phelps really believed; only he could face a dull God and a dull world with fear and trembling and love.

There’s courage in bad doctrine, but it’s still bad doctrine. The Westboro Baptists write that the modern militant homosexual movement poses a clear and present danger to the survival of America, exposing our nation to the wrath of God as in 1898 B.C. at Sodom and Gomorrah. The crime for which the God of Abraham destroyed those cities is often held to be that of sodomy – but the Book of Genesis never really identifies the nature of their sin, only its gravity. Fred Phelps  give the impression of being a man much interested in Jewish theology, but there’s a passage in the Talmud that’s relevant here. In Sanhedrin 109a it is written: [The Sodomites] said: Since there cometh forth bread out of our earth, and it hath the dust of gold, why should we suffer wayfarers, who come to us only to deplete our wealth? Pirkei Avot goes further: One who says, ‘What is mine is mine and what is yours is yours’ is of average character, and some say this is the character of Sodom. When the wrath of God descended upon these cities and a rain of fire blasted their green fields to red wasteland, it wasn’t because of any perverse sexual enjoyment: it was because they refused their ethical duty to be open to the Other.

On crapness and Christmas

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Why does Alain de Botton want us to kill our young?

Philosophy means asking difficult questions. Not the questions that actually make up philosophical enquiry – those tend to be quite simple, which is why they can be so easily worked into summer blockbusters – but the tiny, dark questions that swarm around them. The questions that you can never quite get out of your head, even though you know full well that the answers won’t bring you any hope or solace. Questions that form miniature doorways into small tight universes of unrelenting horror. A field philosopher of an earlier century, his brain slow-cooking in his pith helmet, tramping through the sweaty heat of a tropical rainforest with the weight of his rifle and pack dragging him down into the muddy ooze below, trying to discern the mating call of his prey in the jungle’s unending din, might stop and ask himself – if I do manage to track and shoot the synthetic a priori proposition, will that make me happy? These days, the rainforests have mostly been cleared to grow soybeans and palm oil, and the old briery questions that used to hide in their shadows are now everywhere. Why do I keep making such a tit out of myself at parties? Was romantic love really invented by a conspiracy of medieval poets and soft toy manufacturers in collusion against the world? Does Alain de Botton actually fuck? And if he does, then what could that kind of monstrosity actually look like?

Alain de Botton is the most banal man alive and the most banal man to have ever lived, but it’s not enough to just complain about banality as itself, because banality doesn’t exist. Banality isn’t like misery, or ecstasy for that matter, which swallow you up completely, admitting no outside or differentiation, like Badiou’s grey-black that negates even the possibility of a light. Banality is a spectral relation between something real and something that used to be real; it speaks to something that’s been lost. If everything in the world were completely banal and always had been, we wouldn’t be able to talk about it; we’d have nothing to compare it to. There has to be something significant, somewhere. The problem is that most things are pretty dull. Look around you; try to find one non-boring mass-produced object, anything whose existence you could really uphold in the court of eternity. It’s not easy. The sense of banality is the ghost of a significance that has been thoroughly and deliberately wiped out. These concepts are all the products of a particular set of material and historical circumstances: the idea of virtue would be impossible without classical slavery, ennui came out of the stillbirth of modernity, and banality is the cultural logic of colonial genocide. Dig around near the roots of any piece of tritely inspirational advice, and it won’t be long before you unearth the mass graves.

You can see this in the suburb, an urban form so monolithically banal its structural violence rivals that of the temple complexes in Tenochtitlan. The vast bloated suburbs of the western United States could only be built once the native Americans had been completely wiped out and any mystical autonomous connection between humanity and the earth had been eradicated; only then were the hills and the desert reduced to mere land, which could be parcelled out in lots for tract housing and strip malls. In France, meanwhile, the suburb-form appears as a drab concrete prison suffocating the ancient heart of the city, a holding pen for the survivors of the state’s imperial killing sprees abroad. Britain’s commuter belt villages, coma-quiet but for church bells and the dying yelps of the foxes, built their sleepy tedium on the superprofits extracted through the rape of three continents. The strange tendency for acolytes of the supremely boring New Atheism to be from Australia makes a lot of sense in this context: once the songlines have been scrubbed out and the unburdened creativity of the Dreaming has been extinguished – along with the continent’s original inhabitants – the land becomes a flat and empty space for the exercise of instrumental reason. Israel, one of the few actively ongoing colonial projects in the old mould, is fast getting in on the act: it’s official propaganda is now laced with dull affirmatory homilies. Banality is the quiet revenge of the societies we’ve destroyed and the lives we’ve extinguished, its stiflingness is the traumatic echo of the bloody chaos that suddenly descended on them. And Alain de Botton is the most banal person to have ever lived. How many massacres must he have committed?

I’ve mentioned de Botton a few times before in these pages, but only because I find him an object of gruesome fascination and psychotically obsessive hate. According to his own personal website, he is ‘a writer of essayistic books that have been described as a ‘philosophy of everyday life.’ He’s written on love, travel, architecture and literature. His books have been bestsellers in 30 countries.’ He’s also presented a couple of TV series and is the founder of something faintly ominous called the ‘School of Life.’ He is, we’re expected to believe, a philosopher: someone with the same basic job description as Heraclitus or Kant or Hegel. What the site fails to mention is that he looks like nothing of this world. Generally it’s bad form to make fun of someone’s physical appearance; they can’t really help it, after all. (In any case, philosophers shouldn’t really look like normal people. They exist to seek out the strangeness in life: Heraclitus was a ragged he-crone, Kierkegaard was a hunchback, Adorno was an absurd Humpty Dumpty figure; if these people weren’t weirdos they would’ve ended up getting a normal job.) With de Botton it’s different; his bodily strangeness is inseparable from the bland conventionality of his thought.  Alain de Botton looks like a human being as designed by HR Giger. His forehead rises high up to a vaulted dome, a tapering lizard’s egg of a cranium. His eyebrows jolt and shudder with his shoulders. His nose has a lubricious gleam; his mouth is a dark stain, red wine or fresh blood, and when he talks his deathly-white teeth seem to slide oilily against each other. His skin is faintly rubbery, and while it mostly seems to fit him there are still a few places where is bunches up or stretches out, like a cutaneous gimp suit. He looks weird, interstellarly weird; half Mystery Man from Lynch’s Lost Highway, half sentient rock formation. The general impression given is that of a reptilian alien awkwardly stuffed into a human form – not a particularly malevolent alien, just one that in its own unknowable way is making an honest and doomed attempt to fit in among us Earthlings. It’s a lie. He’s evil, and his evil is entirely human.

Alain de Botton specialises in a kind of humdrum potted sagacity, the kind of stuff that has all the outward appearance of insight while managing to avoid saying anything at all. This mushy nothingness can take the form of pointless tautology (‘In a meritocracy, success comes to seem earnt – but failure deserved’), excerpts from the Dictionary of Twee Vacuousness (‘Magnanimity: the one who was right does not say ‘I told you so,’ the one who was wronged does not seek vengeance’), outright untruth (‘Choosing a spouse and choosing a career: the two great decisions for which society refuses to set up institutional guidance’), inspirational pap (‘Our real motivation comes from people who don’t believe in us’), and the final spluttering descent into total incoherency (‘The end logic of our relationship to computers: sincerely asking the search engine “what should I do with the rest of my life?”‘).

These nuggets are all from his inevitable Twitter account; for the really heavy froth you’ll have to turn to his books. To be fair, Alain de Botton is a man of great intellectual breadth. In his many published works he has managed to be boring about Proust, anodyne about art and architecture, tedious about travel, and spend several hundred pages completely failing to understand love, sex, and religion. Aside from the general awfulness of his writing, it’s on these last two subjects (I don’t really like Proust) that his peculiar monstrosity really shines through. In Religion for Atheists (Penguin, 2012) he tries to reconcile the virtues of religious faith with a non-belief in an objectively existing God. That’s perfectly fine; plenty of worthwhile thinkers (Bloch, Althusser, Agamben, Badiou) have tried to do the same. However, for de Botton religion is useful because it ‘teaches us to be polite, to honour one another, to be faithful and sober’ and because it can help us learn ‘how to face the trials of the workplace with a modest and uncomplaining temper.’ No it’s not. Religion is fire and passion, a point of connection between humanity and the infinite, the cry of the oppressed creature, the foundation of universalism. It’s meant to be vast and terrifying and emancipatory. In the face of the vastness of the Absolute Other all human distinctions are meaningless; that’s why so many radical liberation movements have been religious in nature. What this book does is try to turn six millennia of blazing fervour into a half-baked set of minute consolations. It’s an act of hideous violence.

That’s bad enough, but How To Think More About Sex (Picador, 2012) might be the worst book ever written. It’s not too long, but de Botton manages to squeeze into its pages an entire compendium of some of the most grotesque and ungodly sexual acts ever committed. There are the infamous blood orgies of the Mughal emperors, in which the slit throat of a young harem slave was used as a lubricant; there are the thanatophilic séances of certain Theosophist sects, in which the spirits of the dead were summoned and subjected to days of sexual torture; there’s the story of the medieval Saint Quasivermus of Caenumia, who held that congress with earthworms was the only unsinful carnal activity. His book describes every possible interposition of body parts with orifices: there are toes in nostrils, the practice of ‘elbow-fucking,’ and one instance in which an entire dwarf is inserted into an anus. The whole book is awash in a queasy sea of bodily effluent – blood, vomit, bile, cum, pus, piss. Of course, none of this is in the text itself, but it’s the unvoiced content of de Botton’s continual refusal to follow his title and actually think about sex. What he does is recoil from it. For him, sex is for procreation and to stave off loneliness; it’s always a fundamentally selfish act. Most of the time it’s a case of ‘squandered human energy;’ he continually resorts to the idea of sexuality being somehow base: a vestigal, degrading, primal urge we’d all be better off without. At one point he even upholds impotence as an ‘achievement of the ethical imagination.’ None of which is necessarily objectionable – maybe we would be better off without libidinality, free to concentrate on more important things like compiling spreadsheets of sporting statistics and overthrowing capitalism – except for the fact that de Botton never actually makes any argument for this position; he just presents it as a given. He doesn’t seem to even consider the idea that sexuality might be fundamentally related to how we can conceive of ourselves as people, or even that it might actually be enjoyable.

Alain de Botton doesn’t understand sex or religion because sexual and religious experiences are fundamentally transcendental; they allow people to escape the bounds of the atomised subject. They point, however darkly, to something we can’t quite name or describe. They are experiences that are not yet completely banal, and there’s no room for that kind of thing in his watered-down gruel of a philosophy. Does Alain de Botton fuck? Of course he doesn’t. What happens is the female of the de Botton species releases her eggs in the water, and the male comes along later and fertilises them. But supposing he did?

It’s all very well to make fun of Alain de Botton for being an intellectual lightweight and looking like a monster from a cheap B-movie, but these facts should be immediately obvious to anyone. The point is that his brand of fluffy philosophy-as-self-help isn’t just annoying. It’s an enemy; it’s bloodthirsty and dangerous. The usual charge levied against de Botton is that he ‘isn’t a real philosopher.’ This isn’t true at all; he’s a philosopher in the highest sense, as described by Marx and Nietzsche – in the sense that philosophers are ‘advocates who refuse the name, wily spokesmen for their prejudices,’ or those who try to interpret the world when the point is to change it. Despite his small nods to the idea that maybe the senseless and continual catastrophe of capitalism might not be the best way to run a planet, de Botton isn’t really interested in changing the world. He thinks people should be a little bit more reflective, he thinks he can help people cope with the stresses of the workplace and the perils of romance, he thinks everyone should have a ‘sunlit room set with honey-coloured limestone tiles’ in which to relax – and that’s basically it. No passions, no fury, no grand and wild ideas, just a dull life with a few small pleasures and a few small worries, instantly soothed. He’s standing atop a pile of corpses and suggesting that they might be arranged more pleasingly. Alain de Botton isn’t just banal, he embraces his own banality; he tries to dress vacuousness up as significance. If the sense of the banal is the whispering reminder that there was once something important and our society has since then expended every effort in wiping it out, then de Botton’s achievement is to close up that anxious gap, to make dullness a universal with no horizon. With that achieved, the slaughter can continue. Alain de Botton would see the seas turned to acid slime and the sky filled with iron and smoke. He is directly responsible for every evil act in the world today. He wants us to kill our young.

He’s not alone. De Botton is just the thin edge of an enormous and boring wedge, the Blitzkreig of banality. This stuff is dangerous, and it needs to be fought with every weapon available, with all the puerile and tasteless fury we can muster. What if Alain de Botton actually fucked? What could such a monstrosity actually look like? His tiny, shiny pebble-head gleaming with sweat, his weird lips twisting into a grimace of enjoyment. His flappy, skinny torso heaving, pale as milk, brushed with dark greasy hairs. He’d go too far. He’s coming into contact with something he’s disavowed his entire life; all his symbolic violence is coming into brutal reality. First the blood, then the fragments of bone tossed around the room, a screeching, scrabbling fury. Alain de Botton rears his head and howls – then stops. He looks down at himself. He looks at the carnage he’s responsible for. Finally, he’s come face to face with what he really is.

PS: I might have been a little unkind to Mr. de Botton. He’s not a total stranger to outright fury – after a negative book review, he left a comment on the author’s blog, writing ‘I will hate you till the day I die and wish you nothing but ill will in every career move you make.’ I await his comments on my own appraisal of his work with anticipation.

On the encounter, or how I missed a flight because of Slavoj Žižek

I have experienced the full horror of an encounter with that which exists beyond the wall of language and beyond the limits of our comprehension, and it happened in the departure lounge of London Stansted airport, in a seating area between the Wetherspoons pub and a branch of Pret A Manger.

I was there to visit some friends in Edinburgh, and I was flying because it’s cheaper to get to Scotland by hurtling through the sky in a tin can full of burning kerosene than it is to take a train. I don’t like airports. I don’t think anyone does, apart from planespotters, executive bankers, Boris Johnson, and other such psychopaths. It’s not even the queuing, or the brusquely voyeuristic security measures, or the abolition of the indoor smoking areas; it’s the fact that airports seem to be the focal points of a very peculiar sort of regimented insanity. Why do the tannoy announcers in airports seem to be so ashamed of their humanity that they mimic the blank tone and halting cadence of a robotic voice? Why do most of the books sold at airports seem to concern a terrorist plot to kill hundreds of people in an airport? In 2009 Heathrow chose as a writer-in-residence for its newly opened terminal that blithering clunkhead Alain de Botton. He wrote a book about the experience. Sample sentence: In the cloudless dawn, a sequence of planes, each visible as a single diamond, had lined up at different heights, like pupils in a school photo, on their final approach to the north runway. I don’t think anyone capable of producing such artless imagery should be allowed near a rural bus stop, let alone an international air transit hub. But in a way it makes sense: de Botton’s banal quietism, vaguely inquisitive but ultimately more concerned with homilies than critique, is precisely the kind of attitude that our infernal masters in the airport system want to promote.

In Stansted, I was busy inadvertently scalding my tongue on coffee and trying to pummel my mind into a book by de Botton’s less platitudinous namesake, Alain Badiou. I’d managed to find a less crowded area, but there was still plenty of commotion. Kids gnawed at the edges of their seats. Clashing strains of cheery pop blared from various exciting retail spaces. Harassed-looking commuters played an endless series of computerised bloops through their iPads as they crushed candies or angered birds or did whatever it is we’re now required to do to stop us committing suicide whenever we have five minutes to ourselves. Badiou was trying to tell me about the universality of the truth-event, but I’d had three hours’ sleep the previous night and it was pretty hard to listen. I felt a faint shadow fall over me in the diffuse airport light, and looked up. Standing in front of me, meeting my gaze with his, was the Slovenian philosopher, critic, author of over seventy books, and ‘intellectual rock star,’ Slavoj Žižek. He was pale and haggard, his nose pulsing, his legs trembling. I might have imagined this, but he appeared to be wearing an illustrated Žižek alphabet t-shirt: A is for the Absolute, B is for the Big Other, C is for cocaine, and so on, and so on. And he was looking at me with pure, undisguised terror.

I’d come across Žižek before. In a talk at the Royal Festival Hall he’d accused the entire audience – myself included – of being ideologically incoherent for failing to properly understand the ‘tomorrow belongs to me’ scene in Cabaret. In these pages I’ve variously mocked his beard, parodied his writing and speaking style, and pointed to the dearth of censure for his outbursts of antiziganism. His publishers follow me on Twitter. This was different. I wasn’t facing the ‘Elvis of cultural theory’ or ‘the most dangerous philosopher in the West,’ or even the author of over seventy books. With his sad grey eyes and his meline snuffling Slavoj Žižek looked like nothing so much as some reclusive woodland creature, something small and hunted and incredibly fragile. He was in shock. He’d been in London to promote his new film; he’d been surrounded by journalists and interviewers and, worst of all, his fans, who he famously can’t stand. Finally, he was in Stansted airport, protected by a wall of duty-free perfume and ruffled copies of the Daily Mail; he thought he was safe. No such luck. He was just looking for somewhere to sit before his flight, but then he saw me. He saw what I was reading. In a blurb, Žižek has said of Badiou that ‘a figure like Plato or Hegel walks here among us.’ I would know who he was. I would want to talk to him, or take a photo, or have him sign something; it would be unendurable. He had to leave before I noticed him. Too late. I looked at him and he looked at me. Or maybe the other way round: for a Lacanian, the Gaze is never your gaze, it’s the gaze of the Other, the anxious feeling that the object of our glance is looking back at us. In any case, he grunted and shuffled away as quickly as he could.

I was in shock too. My plans for that morning were to drink some coffee, try to read a book, and catch my flight to Edinburgh. I wasn’t expecting to be thrust into a miniature staring contest with Slavoj Žižek. Nobody had warned me that this was about to happen. Now I know how I’ll behave in a moment of crisis: as the sniper fire whooshes past my ears or the avalanche slowly descends or the inferno blazes around me I’ll just sit there, mute and stunned, an idiot smirk hovering on my lips. By the time I regained my senses he was gone. Quickly I hurried after him. I had to get something: a photo, an autograph, a blurb for my first novel, a response to my critique of his contribution to David Lynch scholarship, something to prove our encounter had actually happened. He had his role, and I had mine. He would flee, and I would hunt him.

I never did find him. By the time gave up my hunt my flight’s final call was imminent. In my panic I followed the wrong signs and found myself trapped on a slow-moving automated transit to a distant outpost of the terminal. When I eventually reached my gate the staff told me that the plane’s doors had been closed less than two minutes ago and that I couldn’t be allowed to board. Pleading had little effect. I had missed my flight, the next one wasn’t for seven hours, and it was all Slavoj Žižek’s fault.

This is what’s meant by an encounter. Most of the time when we see people we don’t really look at them, and for good reason. Walk down a crowded street and you’ll be confronted with countless gazes and subjectivities, an infinity of infinities of experience. You can’t approach all these people as other subjects; you’d go mad, end up as a street preacher or a serial killer. It’s much safer for everyone if you consider them as vaguely mobile obstacles. If you see someone you find particularly attractive or particularly objectionable you might go into a brief flailing panic, your eyes darting around them, your neck craning over to watch them walking away, but that’s over in a second. Sometimes, though, there’s an encounter; a point where you approach someone else in a manner that is entirely beyond the structures of signification and at the same time full of an incredible significance. We all leave a certain amount of turbulence in our wake. The encounter can result in grand leaps in human knowledge, or the ruin of cities, or me being stuck in Stansted airport for seven hours. For Badiou, though, the encounter is the fundamental basis of love. As a good Maoist, he rejects the banal cod-spiritualist view in which love is seen as a process by which two people become one: the essence of love is the properly dialectical formation of a Two. In an encounter – in a real encounter – a monadic subjectivity finds itself opened up to other people, to numerativity, and through this it gains access to the infinity of experience.

I’m not so sure about this. Badiou’s maths is probably better than mine, but I’ve yet to see a series of integers ever actually ending in infinity. Žižek is less positive about the whole thing; for him the paradigmatic form of the encounter is the encounter with the Real. He writes: ‘When do I actually encounter the Other ‘beyond the wall of language’, in the Real of his or her being? Not when I am able to describe her, not even when I learn her values, dreams, and so on, but only when I encounter the Other in her moment of jouissance: when I discern in her a tiny detail (a compulsive gesture, a facial expression, a tic) which signals the intensity of the real of jouissance. This encounter with the real is always traumatic; there is something at least minimally obscene about it; I cannot simply integrate it into my universe, there is always a gulf separating me from it.

My encounter with Slavoj Žižek was an encounter of this kind. I looked at him and he looked at me; we saw each other beyond the wall of language. The sensation that accompanied this encounter wasn’t love: it was mutual horror. For a brief second before I set off to chase him down, the linguistic structure of my subjectivity was shattered. I saw myself from the outside. It was something like Kristeva’s formulation of abjection – the awareness of a subject as something other than a subject, the feeling you get when confronted with human shit or a corpse. The traumatic sense of my own finitude.

The encounter is unpleasant, but this doesn’t mean that it should be avoided. In a sense, Badiou is right: it opens up a pathway to the infinity of experience, not through numerativity but through a Deleuzian operation of minority and multiplicity. Deleuze claims that we never encounter another person directly. We encounter the Gaze, and this wordless gaze emanates from the Real where there is no lack and no insufficiency. It’s upsetting, but it’s a duty: in the end, it’s our duty towards our own deaths.

In the end, I caught the next flight. Edinburgh was very nice.

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?

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