Idiot Joy Showland

This is why I hate intellectuals

Tag: philosophy

Why look at fire?

Some time in the twentieth century, the fires started to disappear. Gaston Bachelard was one of the first people to notice; in his magisterial The Psychoanalysis of Fire, he points out that ‘the chapters on fire in chemistry textbooks have become shorter and shorter. There are, indeed, a good many modern books on chemistry in which it is impossible to find any mention of flame or fire. Fire is no longer a reality for science.’ That was in 1938. In the pages that follow, he talks about his pride when tending to the fire in his stove every morning, or parents rapping their children’s knuckles when their hands stray too close to the hearth. A text from a different world, one in which people lived close to their fires, intimately, in relationships worth subjecting to psychoanalysis. How much time do you spend around open flames?

Sometimes I still smoke cigarettes, and there’s a gas hob in my flat, but all I’d need to do is switch to vaping and move somewhere with an electric stove, and fire would vanish almost entirely from my life. Open fires do not heat our homes, cook our food, or provide our entertainment. The only places they tend to survive are special occasions and religious rites. The presence of fire marks out particular moments from ordinary time. Candles for birthday cakes or romantic dinners; Diwali and Hanukkah. Years ago, when I was a student, we used to make bonfires in our overgrown nettle-strewn garden, burning sticks from the park and unwanted furniture left by the kerbside, slowly dismantling the landlord’s greenhouse and burning it piece by piece. But if one person had gone into the garden alone to make a fire and warm themselves with it, the rest of us would have started locking our doors at night. The fire was for sitting with each other, drinking and talking. It was a social ritual. It did not belong to the world of the profane.

Fire has almost vanished now. This does not mean that it’s gone. The machine I’m using to write these words is powered by a nationwide network of enormous fires that never go out, oil and gas burning under huge chimneys, set in blackened and grassless landscapes – but these fires are invisible. So are the big burning pools of petrol that power vehicles on the street. When fire appears again in the ordinary world, it’s always in the shape of a disaster or a god.

* * *

On November 7, 2018, a man walked into a country-themed bar in Thousand Oaks, California, and fired thirty rounds from a semi-automatic pistol into the crowd. Twelve were killed. Days later, the fires came. Mourners, gathering at community centres to stand vigil for the dead, found the sky clotting over. Ash rained over the town. Footage from inside the city shows the pink haze, fringes of grass hissing with smoke. From the surrounding hillsides, the fire is a giant squatting heavily over Thousand Oaks: a monster from a very old world, roaring up through the surface-sheen of the California exurbs. A journalist who’d been in town to cover the shooting and its aftermath commented of the flames: ‘I was entranced by both their beauty and their power.’ On the face of it, this is a very strange thing to say. Isn’t it almost insensitive? Already, the fires raging across the western United States had killed dozens of people, many more than the gunman at the Borderline Bar & Grill. She would never have dreamed of writing that there was an aesthetic grace in the act of mass murder, that she was somehow attracted or impressed by the killer, that her horror at the crime was tinged with awe. But fire is different.

This year, the California fires turned the sky orange over San Francisco. It looked like a fever dream: the skyscrapers with their white glowing windows against a city in Martian red; a world that had already ended without noticing. Another journalist described the scene. ‘People really don’t know what to do right now. Everyone on the Embarcadero is stopping to record the sky and chit chatting in a way I haven’t seen since pre-pandemic.’ I’d suggest that people did in fact know exactly what to do. When there is a fire, even if it’s the fires of Armageddon, you stop and look at it. You huddle with other people, and watch.

Fire is not simply one of the many things that are interesting to look at: plausibly, other things are interesting only insofar as they resemble fire. Digital screen displays, which grab so much of our attention: it’s not hard to work out why your gaze keeps drifting to the TV in the corner of a bar; it flickers, it glows. Birds in flight, or trees in the wind. The gaze of an animal: a live animal is always more interesting than a dead one, because there’s that invisible flutter behind the stillness of its eyes. Sometimes we call it a spark. And humans too. A beautiful person is a person who is, in some sense, on fire.

For me, at least, there’s a certain type of fire-image that’s hard to look away from. Probably the most famous version is the one above, from the Oregon wildfires of 2017. At the Beacon Rock Golf Course, a few players calmly finish their round. In the hills behind them, every tree is outlined in flames. The pictures of San Francisco bustling its way through the apocalypse are part of the same genre. But my favourite is from 2018: produce workers hunched over in the fields, still picking crops while the sky burns. There’s an obvious political resonance to these images: this is bourgeois indifference or the cruelty of the wage-relation; this climate change, the world burning while we look the other way. A diagram of our lives, moving furniture around in a house on fire. But I think the real fascination comes from somewhere else.

These images violate every rule of classical composition, starting with the law that the foreground in an image should always be brighter than the background. How do you light your little tableau when the mise-en-scène is burning? Wildfires makes a mockery of figure and ground; they always has the capacity to pour out from the edges of the image and breathe hot danger at the viewer. It’s the revenge of the setting, the unheeded pliable stuff of the world, against our system of objects. Its effect is not quite the same as the sublime. For both Burke and Kant, a canonical case of the sublime is a ship at sea, threatened by terrible stormy waves – but only for a viewer on land, who is himself safe from any peril. For someone on the boat, it’s simply peril. But fire abolishes that remove. However distant you are, it’s spreading.

There’s another kind of image that actively moves towards you as you approach. We love to look at fire because it is a mirror.

* * *

Traditionally, fire is not ours. It always comes from somewhere else. Sometimes it’s a gift; very often, it’s stolen. Prometheus descended from Olympus with a burning fennel-brush; Maui tore out the fingernails of fire from the goddess Mahuika. The God of Moses likes manifesting Himself in pillars of fire and burning bushes: ‘for the Lord your God is a consuming fire.’ The Israelites understood things very clearly. But what about the people for whom fire is brought by birds? In a Breton folk-narrative that survived well into the modern era, the wren steals the fire of heaven, but his wings are burned; he passes it on to the robin redbreast, whose chest is torched, and who passes it on again to the lark, who delivers it finally to the ground. Similar stories crop up across the world – the fire-bringer is variously a wren, a finch, a cockatoo, a crow, or a hawk. (And birds do actually carry fires: black kites have been observed clasping flaming sticks in their beaks, spreading fire in dry forests to flush out prey. Some people have been tempted to use this to argue that indigenous folklore encodes important scientific knowledge. This is euheremistic drivel. Don’t ever debase myth by dressing it up as data; myth is true in a far more important way. The truth of these stories is in the birds themselves: so firelike, trembling in quick feathers.)

In what might be the starkest version of the fire-origin story, fire is first stolen not from the gods or from heaven, but from women. A tradition among the Gaagudju of northern Australia, collected in 1930 by JG Frazer, holds that once only the women knew how to make fire; when the men returned to the camp after hunting, the women would gather up the burning ashes and hide them in their vaginas. In revenge, the men turned themselves into crocodiles and killed the women. ‘When all was over, the crocodile-men dragged the dead women out on the bank, and said to them, “Get up, go. Why did you tell us lies about the fire? But the dead women made no reply.’ They didn’t realise what they had done. Innocent reptiles, who understood none of the things that come from fire: warmth, and light, and knowledge, and death.

(Freud, who may or may not have been aware of this story, tells a similar myth. Human civilisation was only possible once men could restrain themselves from urinating all over any fire they encountered in homoerotic glee. Women, whose ‘anatomy makes it impossible for [them] to yield to such a temptation,’ might have got there first. A faint image emerges of women frustrated for thousands of years, constantly discovering fire, drawing themselves to the precipice of a long steep slide into advanced technological civilisation – only for the men of the tribe to arrive, honking and hollering, extinguishing the germ of all future society with joyful streams of piss.)

It’s with the emergence of philosophy that fire lost its secret history. Heraclitus declared that the universe was ‘made neither by God nor man, but it ever was and is, and will be, an ever-living fire’ – but Thales said the same for water, and Anaximenes for air. What’s interesting is that nobody ever proposed that earth might be the arche, or the fundamental substance of reality. The earth is always this particular piece of earth, granulated, strewn with rocks and bones; a silent archive of all the wrongs that have been done to it, shelved away in its sedimentary layers. It carries the dead weight of its history. Fire, meanwhile, takes no impressions. ‘All things are an exchange for fire,’ writes Heraclitus, ‘and fire for all things, as goods for gold and gold for goods.’

This is an interesting comparison. It took Marx to really burrow into the universality of gold, to dig beneath the blank face of the money-form and see what hidden histories of suffering it contained. We could do the same with fire. As it turns out, the Bretons and the Gaagudju were right, and Heraclitus was wrong. Fire does have a history; it is, like us, contingent. We can say precisely when fire entered the world: it came to us in the year 470,000,000 BC.

* * *

In biology lessons, as a child, I was taught the properties of living things: movement, respiration, reproduction, excretion, and so on. It was stressed that all of these criteria must be met before you reach the magical status of life. Viruses adapt and reproduce, but they are not themselves living organisms. And fire, too, does so many of the same things that we do. It breathes in air and eats up fuel; it splits and spreads, and leaves ashes in its wake. But fire is not alive, it’s only a chemical reaction. (Well, so am I.) And that was that: I never wondered why it was that fire sprung out of a dead world and licked so close to life. The answer ought to have been obvious. The things that burn are, almost exclusively, organic materials: grass and wood; flesh and fat. (There are exceptions; flammable organic materials like methane can be produced by abiotic processes. Titan, a moon of Saturn, has glorious swirling methane seas, and Titan is lifeless – at least, as far as we know. But Titan also has no oxygen in its atmosphere. Those seas roil in the distant sunlight, but they’ll never burn.)

Before the emergence of living terrestrial organisms under an oxygen-rich sky, there was no fire. The slow crawl of molten rock down barren volcanoes, the diamond-spray of magma as asteroids collided with a liquid slag-heap earth, the distant nuclear reactors in the stars, but nothing that could be called a flame. Fire is the bright twin of terrestrial life. It’s been here as long as life has, exactly as long as we have. Maybe we have things the wrong way round. Maybe life is not a particularly important phenomenon in the universe; maybe it’s just the placenta, a self-replenishing stock of fuel, the egg-sac for a world birthing fire.

But humanity is a special case. Bernard Stiegler suggested that technics are a system in which human beings serve as the genital organs in an evolution of the inorganic; we are the reproductive system for our ever-changing tools. But for Stiegler – despite all his Promethean references – the paradigm of epiphylogenesis is in flint-knapping; tools of stone. ‘One must first ask what mirage of the cortex is experienced as pathbreaking, in the hardness of flint; what plasticity of grey matter corresponds to the flake of mineral matter.’ But fire fits his schema far more efficiently. By disguising itself as a technical instrument for human use, fire unconstrained itself. Tens of thousands of years ago, forests that would once burn and regrow and eventually burn again, returning the nutrients locked in trees to the soil, were burned for the last time; early humans used fire liberally to permanently clear the forests, creating wide grasslands in which to hunt. Tens of millions of years ago, intact forests were fossilised; now, we dig through the geological strata of the earth, tearing out vast quantities of coal and oil, to meet the fire they escaped the first time round. The distant past is burning, the future fills with smoke. If the movements and stasis of history make us feel anxious, unmoored, neurotic, it’s because we are simply a time machine for the flames.

As Stiegler argues, this relationship is based on a mutual constitution. Our australopithecine ancestors had a long digestive tract; ours are significantly shorter. This is because we evolved eating cooked food: when proteins and starches are broken down by heat, they can be digested much more efficiently.  Parasites and pathogens are killed by cooking, and humans have weaker immune systems than our ape relatives. It’s possible that the ability to cook unlocked significant energetic surpluses, with the shrinkage of the energy-intensive gut allowing for the costly development elsewhere. For instance, a bigger brain. The much-hyped human consciousness might, in the end, just be the residue of fire, a lump of charcoal left smouldering in our DNA.

What we’re not born with is any hardwired instinct for rubbing bits of wood together until there’s a spark. ‘Lay the secret on me,’ King Louis demands, ‘of man’s red fire.’ But Mowgli doesn’t know the secret; all he has is an alimentary canal that’s incomplete, that needs to be plugged in to an external, cultural machine. You need technics, language, science, and traditions. There is no pristine originary pre-cultural state of nature in our history. Instead, if you want to see where nature meets culture, if you want to see your origin and your future and yourself, then look into the flames.

The company of geese


The first animal that ever made a person happy simply by existing was a goose.

In book XIX of the Odyssey, Penelope makes a small confession to the stranger that’s come to her house. ‘I keep a flock of twenty geese here,’ she tells him. ‘They come in from the pond to pick up their grain and I delight in watching them.’ As far as I can tell, this is the first time in literature that an animal is honoured not for being beautiful, or loyal, or strong, but for the sheer pleasure you get from seeing another living creature going about its day.[1] Penelope’s days are not happy. She’s spent twenty years waiting for something to happen, and nothing does. Every time we meet her, she’s either on the point of bursting into tears or curling into a depressive sleep.  She doesn’t get any joy from her palace, or her treasures, or even her son. She suffers. But watching her geese, just sitting idly and looking at them as they come in from the pond, gives her delight. 

It’s weird to feel such a kinship with someone who lived three thousand years ago, and who didn’t even exist to boot – but I get it. Whatever your miseries, it’s delightful to be around geese.

For months now the weather’s been balmy and the pubs have been shut; I’ve been spending a lot of time around geese. Like a somewhat thinner Tony Soprano, with marginally more hair, in the middle of a catastrophe, getting sentimental about waterfowl. In Regent’s Park, my favourite are a family of Egyptian geese that’s taken to lazing around near the Hanover Gate. The goslings are nearly grown now – only a few scruffs of down around their necks, their bodies breaking out in dappled ochre – but they still like to huddle close to each other, and they still sing in delicate cheeps. Further along the lake, Canada geese honk and plod out of the water in big genial gangs. There are a few greylags too, with their handsome dented faces. They seem to breed later; their goslings are still tiny and yellowish, little marzipan figurines.

I find geese beautiful. But I have no illusions. These are supremely ridiculous birds, and they know it. Their big, heavy, jellied walk on splayed and silly feet. The way they wag their stumpy tails. The constant laughter of their honks. The grand implausibility of their flight. Geese are slapstick creatures. They’re perfectly capable of being graceful, when they want to: watch them preen their feathers, see how that long neck dips and glides. When they dive to snatch something underwater, it’s with oiled precision; when they fly high overhead, it’s in a perfect V. But most of the time, they choose not to care. Geese are ironical birds, always mocking themselves. It’s there in the eyes, the most expressive eyes of any bird. I know some chickens, emotionally complex and surprisingly playful animals, but a chicken looks at you through hard-rimmed jewels. The eyes of a goose, on the other hand, are black and very deep. They will meet your gaze, and it’s impossible not to know that something is in there, inquisitive and alive, looking out at you. The gleam of a primordial chuckle at the world.

But sometimes, when it’s grazing, or drinking, or in a confrontation, a goose will walk with its shoulders hunched and its neck stretched out straight, held parallel to the ground. You know this stance. You’ve seen it huge, in bones, at the museum. Make no mistake, this thing is a dinosaur. Other birds never let you forget their ancestry. Ted Hughes saw it: ‘Terrifying are the attent sleek thrushes on the lawn, more coiled steel than living…’ The lizard shines through in tilted heads and predatory stabs. With geese it works the other way. What are we missing, when we reassemble all those enormous bones? When we draw dinosaurs, we give them monstrous skeletal grins – but we lose the way they might have skittered over the water, their happy waddle, and the laughter of their song.


Birds have always been signs and portents; the ancient Greeks had the same word, ὄρνις, for bird and omen. Hence Aristophanes: ‘A word can be a bird for you.’ In prophecy or poetry, all language leaps to flight; it becomes avian. ‘Turn your minds to our words, our ethereal words, for the words of birds last forever!’ (In the same play, we’re reminded that the birds are ‘older far than Kronos and the Titans, and even Earth;’ the true gods and kings of creation.) Geese, too, are symbols; Penelope’s geese appear in a prophetic dream. Like all good symbols, they’re contradictory. First, geese stand for loyalty. They mate for life, and raise their young together. Pairs dance together when they reunite. They return to the same nesting grounds. They mourn when an egg or a gosling is lost; if one partner dies, the widow is inconsolable. Konrad Lorenz, who virtually founded the discipline of ethology – the study of animal behaviour – on his studies with geese, writes that ‘a greylag goose that has lost its partner shows all the symptoms described in young human children… the eyes sink deep in their sockets, and the individual has an overall drooping experience, literally letting the head hang.’ Lonely poets have always seen themselves mirrored in the mourning goose. Du Fu’s The Solitary Goose, written during the Tang Era: 谁联一片影, 相失万重云 – or, in Burton Watson’s translation, ‘Who pities his lonely form, lost from the others in ten-thousand-layered clouds?’ But geese strive to help their lonely. If a goose is tired or injured during flight, a few others from the flock will drop out of formation with it and stand guard until it’s recovered. And at the same time, geese also represent transience. They migrate: these heavy, fickle birds brighten the world for a season, and then the leaves change and they’re gone.

Geese don’t just signify; they also talk to us, specifically to us. Studies have shown that humans are capable of understanding geese signals intuitively, without any special knowledge of the animals. You can tell, without even thinking, when a goose is honking contentedly, when it’s searching for something, when it’s warning you away, or when it’s raising the alarm. Their sadness is bodily, viscerally the same as ours. So is their dancing, clucking, foot-stomping joy. The only other animal that shares so much of our semiotic space is a dog, and dogs are our own creations. And geese sometimes have the upper hand. In 390 BC, when an army of Gauls scaled the Capitoline Hill, the guard dogs slept, but the Romans were warned by the clamour of Juno’s sacred geese. Their ability to pass on meaningful messages has been understood for a very long time. It’s why geese are still used as guard animals today.

Like dogs, geese understand our language. They can learn their own names; flying geese will come to land if you call out for them. Even wild geese will quickly come to recognise individual humans, and can form strong friendships with us. But they also include us in their own speech. If you try to miaow at a cat, you’ll only get a blank look in return; cats have developed a one-way signalling system for humans. It’s not a medium of conversation, it’s a way of getting what they want. But geese want to chat. They know we can understand them. When they graze in groups, geese make soft reassuring noises to each other, in a complex social call and response – and when humans imitate their noises, they respond.


In all their relations with humans, geese start with an assumption of equality. These are profoundly democratic birds. They certainly have nothing like a pecking order, and their monogamy guards against harems, dominance displays, or the greasy pole of hierarchy. (It’s not that these things don’t exist in geese, but they’re far less significant in their social behaviour than in other gregarious animals – like seals, for instance, or ourselves.) But this is not the same as being docile. A goose will calmly stand its ground against much larger animals. This extends to humans too. A few high-profile pecks and a defamatory video game have given geese a reputation for aggression, even malice, which is entirely undeserved. They don’t dislike us; nothing could be further from the truth. They’re simply not afraid of us. (Foxes, which I also admire, are the same. If you catch a fox loping across the road late a night, it will usually slow down, pause to study you with a slow, deft, mocking glance.) Lying down in the park, I once felt a slight tap on my head, and looked up to find a herd munching grass around me. If they trust you, they’ll even let you hang out with their goslings. These creatures are equally at home on land, on the water, and in the air: all of creation is theirs; they can slip from one realm to another whenever they choose. An animal with such majestic sovereignty can afford to be gentle, and unflappable, and brave.

Geese are territorial. They know which patches of land have been set aside by other geese, and also which territories are claimed by humans. If you see a group of geese genially and noisily going where they’re not supposed to be, it’s not because they don’t understand; they’re contesting our claim. This is more a game than an invasion; geese have a good ironic attitude towards the institution of private property. Anywhere that isn’t physically occupied is assumed to be up for grabs – and then the geese await our response. As always, they’d like to talk to us, to engage with us, because they believe they can. Sometimes we can annoy them, and sometimes we need a good sharp peck to keep the peace, but for the most part we’re good-natured, gregarious, and faintly silly animals, with occasional glints of intelligence, waddling lopsidedly over the earth.

We would be a far better species, and this would be a far better world, if we were more like the creatures the geese think we are.


(All goose photos mine.)


[1] Yes, fine, sure, there’s Hyperion and his cattle, ‘the cattle that gave me such joy every day as I climbed the starry sky and as I dropped down from heaven and sank once more to earth.‘ But the Sun is a god, not a human being, and a purely sensory pleasure in the natural world has always been the prerogative of the sovereign gods. ‘He saw it and it was good.’ For the sailors, these cattle either have utilitarian value as food, or else they’re sacred, in the sense of being forbidden. Men and their stomachs.  Homer likes to describe Odysseus and Telemachus with the epithet θεοειδής, godlike, but in fact it’s Penelope who, in a quiet moment with her geese, touches the divine.

On being bored of Brexit

Fuck knows. I’m past caring. It’s like the living dead in here.
Sophocles, Oedipus at Colonus


First there was a no. The Brexit referendum, nearly three years ago, was an enormous no to something, even if it wasn’t entirely clear what. Immigration, multiculturalism, neoliberalism, bureaucracy, the democratic deficit, the loss of empire, the passage of time both historical and subjective, the zippy newness of everything, merciless, intangible, and the bloating hairy decay of a human body that’s always monstrously here, the impersonal systems that administer our general managed decline, the existence of a teeming world beyond Britain’s grey fag-end shores, the ugliness of life in general, the ugliness of those burgundy passports in particular, etc, etc, etc. All those things congealed into the shape of the EU, and we wanted them gone. The task was to turn this loud and incoherent no into an actual set of governing regulations to manage the future economic and political relationship between the UK and the European Union, which is stupid and can’t be done. The whole thing is a category error; it’s like trying to comfort a dying cancer patient with some new zoning laws to ban cemeteries. No wonder it’s all been going so badly. All the progress made in the three years since has been in the form of various deferrals, backstops and transition periods, levees against the frothing tides of no. And they’ve three times been voted down, including in the most devastating Parliamentary defeat for a sitting government in British history.

This is what Hegel calls abstract negation. As opposed to determinate negation, the negation that propels the dialectic, that ‘cancels in such a way that it maintains and preserves what has been cancelled,’ abstract negation is an action annulling its object, that tries to simply blot everything out, ‘declaring it to be a nothingness.’ But sadly, there is something rather than nothing, and as long as this basic travesty continues, the no that cries out for the abolition of everything will only ever result in more ontological clutter. The pure no of the referendum has to become a no to Commission Regulation (EC) No. 2257/94, and once it’s gone an alternative banana-curvature regime will have to be put in its place.

Obviously, this doesn’t satisfy. This week, Parliament itself tried to break through the stasis by holding a series of ‘indicative votes,’ in which the Commons tried to establish whether it would be easiest to secure a majority for Theresa May’s withdrawal agreement, a customs union, EEA membership, a Norway-plus common-market arrangement, a second referendum, a unilateral revocation of Article 50, or leaving the EU without a deal. We should have seen the punchline coming from a mile off. Every single one of the indicative votes was defeated. We don’t want to stay in the EU, we don’t want to leave without a deal, but also we don’t want a deal. It’s not that doing nothing isn’t an option; it is, we’ve just turned it down.

This was probably the funniest thing to happen in politics for a while, and like every actually funny thing, it’s a combination of slapstick and nihilism. Two years of negotiations, two weeks to go before we leave, and we still can’t say what we actually want. We are frenzied. Parliament is a conga line of circus clowns juggling buckets of custard. We are inert. Limp, corpse-like, washing up on the tides, passing over every decision, passively rejecting the whole of the sunlit world, rolling round on Earth’s diurnal course. Theresa May tried to drum up support for her proposals by promising to resign if they passed: she tried to give her yes the dense allure of a no. It didn’t work. Now, she’s hoping for a fourth vote, Sideshow Bob plodding grimly for another rake. It’s obvious which proposal might pass the Commons; it’s just that nobody’s been brave enough to introduce it yet. Evacuate the island. Drill a few holes in the cliffs of Dover. Scuttle the whole country. We can gather at Calais or the Faroes to watch Britain sink into the sea, and then disperse, never to see each other again.

This situation feels new. It’s not. Philosophy has a name for it: boredom.

Kierkegaard describes precisely the dynamic behind the indicative votes debacle in Either/Or. ‘I can’t be bothered. I can’t be bothered to ride, the motion is too violent. I can’t be bothered to walk, it’s too strenuous; I can’t be bothered to lie down, for either I’d have to stay lying down and that I can’t be bothered with, or I’d have to get up again, and I can’t be bothered with that either. In short: I can’t be bothered.’ This is the situation Heidegger gives as the third and highest form of boredom, the Es ist einem langweilig, ‘it is boring for one’: a boredom that is not bored by any specific object, a boring party, a boring film, but in which boredom becomes a Stimmung, an attunement, a way of being with regards to external reality. A boringness that leaks in grey spurts from everything on the earth. After the boring party or the boring film, you might go and have some vaguely interesting sex; but if you’re in the realm of the third form of boredom, that too, and sleeping afterwards, and breakfast, and the sun in the sky, and the European common market, and a no-deal Brexit, will all reveal themselves as unbearably dull. Things, Heidegger writes, refuse themselves, they withdraw into nothingness.

But Heidegger was not a nihilist; he was a Nazi. (This is generally considered to be worse.) He wasn’t content to see boredom as a black hole, the washed-out final truthlessness of a world without interest. He liked mountain-climbing and shiny buttons; something must come out the other side. For Heidegger, the depths of boredom are revelatory; they force us to consider the nature of the Being that has departed from the world. It leads, in the end, to a more profound relation to the temporality of one’s being. His argument for this mostly hinges on an untranslateable German pun: alles Versagen ist in sich ein Sagen; ‘all withdrawing is a telling.’ Kierkegaard, who was not a Nazi, but one of history’s greatest ironists, can’t make the same leap. ‘Boredom,’ he writes, ‘is the demonic pantheism. It is built on emptiness, but for this very reason it is a pantheistic qualification.’ It’s important in and of itself, not because it inevitably leads you somewhere else. Nothingness in its vast full suffocating weight; the dictatorship of an absent god, the inescapable empire of the undone.

And this Kierkegaardian boredom is everywhere. I’m so tired: that’s what people say now, isn’t it? The ruling political affect isn’t really hatred, or righteous anger, which is actually quite hard to fake for extended periods of time. It certainly isn’t anything as rich or as dark – or as strangely, secretly hopeful – as sadness. It’s exhaustion. Industrial society blasts us in the face with a hot stream of lights and colours, and we go ugh, can you not, I haven’t had my coffee. Nanette: ‘I identify as tired.’ Tired of people who don’t share our vague and mostly provisional opinions even though it’s 2019, tired of other people in general, tired of the white supremacist cisnormative heteronormative fatphobic ableist imperialist capitalist patriarchy. To negate something, you don’t have to say that it’s actively damaging or destructive, just that you can’t be bothered with it, that it makes you tired. It’s not that things intrude too deeply; what’s tiring is how they fade away. This is, of course, not the affect of the oppressed. As Kierkegaard – along with Walter Benjamin, in The Origins of German Tragic Drama – points out, the subject exhausted by the nullity of everything is usually a prince. ‘Those who bore others are the plebians, the mass, the endless train of humanity in general. Those who bore themselves are the elect.’

And this is the thing: Brexit is deeply boring. Two years of negotiations, and every day the front pages of the newspapers announce another roadbump, and it’s all so utterly dull. And then, in the last few weeks, it got interesting again. It got funny, as soon as the process abandoned its activist mode and started to do nothing, as soon as Brexit finally entered the third mode, in which it stopped boring the public and became bored with itself. It’s finally been whittled down to that essential core of no. For Heidegger, this would mean that some great revelation is coming, that we’re on the path to a deeper and more authentic engagement with the materials of being. But I’m not so sure it’s possible to pass out of boredom. What would that engagement look like? A return to the Gelangweilt sein von etwas, a dullness without demonic grandeur or insight. Your bananas can be as straight or as bendy as you like; they’ll still taste like mushy nothing in your mouth.

For the pangolin

Why does one not say, to describe the absolute power of God, “God is small,” “really small,” instead of saying “God is great”? I leave you to reply to this question.
Jacques Derrida, The Beast and the Sovereign, Seminar X


An animal is the living strangeness of the world.

It’s unfathomable that we can share a world with these bright, strange, deep, ancient gods. What are these things, with eyes that can look into ours, and bodies that move like ours, but which are so utterly unlike us? How did they get to be so old? A wild animal looks at you from far away, from another world, a place beyond language, history, politics, or time. Even a newborn animal is in eternity, and its eyes are vast with the whole of the universe. Still, they know us. Crows will recognise individual humans. If they like you, they’ll bring gifts. If they turn against you, they’ll spread the word; crows you’ve never met before will croak viciously and swoop to peck your skull. They know what we are, maybe better than we know ourselves.

There’s a kind of naive theory, in which our Palaeolithic ancestors, the ones who covered their caves with endless patterns of stampeding wild animals, must have worshipped these creatures as gods. Maybe they did; it’s impossible to tell. But see how long it took for the gods of Egypt to take off their animal heads. Look at the magnificent Assyrian lion-hunt reliefs in the British Museum, see Ashurbanipal and his retainers with their fixed, calm, empty, ataraxic smiles, and compare the sheer living suffering of the lions, who yowl with pain and fury as arrows split their flanks, or even the horror of the bridled horses. An animal is more real, more human, than humanity itself. We might have it the wrong way round. Maybe the gods, with their names and their rites and their rivalries, are only an echo of the fear and awe with which the first humans beheld the sacred beasts.

That strange world is receding. So many animals are dead. The mammoth is gone. The giant flightless owls that once stalked the forests of the Caribbean are gone. The gorilla-sized lemurs of Madagascar, who lived at the same time as Zhuangzi and Aristotle, are gone. Maybe soon, the pangolin will also be gone, and all we’ll be left with will be the cows, tagged and microchipped, mulched up and turned into hundred-gram increments of edible slurry. Dogs and cats, animals that recognise their names, that you can dress up in costumes, loyally enduring it all.

Why did we have to kill them? Maybe the animal always had a privileged connection with death. Theirs is the spirit-world, the dimensions folded into the cracks of reality. In a sense, they are already dead, already outside the finitude of life and world. ‘Mortals,’ writes Heidegger, ‘are they who can experience death as death. Animals cannot do so. But animals cannot speak either.’ For Hegel, an animal can speak, but only once, as it’s dying. Language depends on the negation of its object, in which it’s ‘transformed into a pure and simple ideal.’ An animal’s noises can only point, not signify: birds chirp a stalking cat, wildebeest low a circling lion; not the general concept of catness or lionosity. But as an animal dies, it cries for an object – itself – that is no longer there. ‘Every animal finds a voice in its violent death; it expresses itself as a removed-self.’ In its dying cry, the animal learns to talk. In this way, the slaughter of an animal is a kind of miracle. It’s the only way we have of really speaking with these strange and wonderful things, sharing a register, inhabiting a single world, in which we live and they die. No wonder animal sacrifice is a central feature of so many world religions; it’s in the death of an animal that humans and gods can touch.

The wave of mass extinctions that followed the spread of our own species across the earth, and the wave of mass extinctions that’s happening right now, have any number of causes. Social, political, economic, accidental. But I think a lot of it comes down to this: that same desperate need to communicate with the animals that live beyond our world. A refusal to live with the otherness of the other, a steamrollering of radical difference into the flatness of the Same. Everything that is strange, and stays strange, gets obliterated – not despite our fascination, but because of it. A few years ago, conservationists warned against focusing too much on charismatic megafauna, the endangered elephants and pandas, while the crucial but ignored creatures that made up their environment were quietly snuffed out of existence. Now everyone is worried about the massive decline in insect populations, and it turns out that insects are also charismatic megafauna – the vast majority of all life is composed of single-celled organisms, and they’re dying too. I believe it. But if it’s not too late, if something can be pulled out of the oncoming wreckage of the future and preserved, if we can save just one living god, I’d like it to be the pangolin.

* * *

Ground-dwelling pangolins are bipedal. They walk on their hind legs, which are flat and splaying, almost like an elephant’s, and hold their little hands timidly crossed in front of them. Pangolins are the only mammals with scales, which are made from chitin, like human fingernails. Their bodies are like flowers. They walk from termite-mound to termite-mound, slipping their long tongues into the nests to feed. Baby pangolins, too young to walk, ride along on their parents’ tails. Some tree pangolins use their tails to hang from branches while they strip away sections of bark, revealing the insects beneath. While up there, they coil and flex, scratching their own bellies; they’re clearly having fun. When threatened, pangolins roll into a ball. Their scaly backs are a good enough defence against their natural predators, things with long teeth and sharp claws. But they’re almost absurdly vulnerable to anything with opposable thumbs. When poachers find one, they can just pick up the living shuddering terrified ball of pangolin, and take it away to its death.

Pangolins are beautiful. Some people, who suffer from trypophobia or some other made-up condition, find their patterns of overlapping scales disgusting. Once, I tried in anxious desperation to show a friend just how wonderful they were: pictures of gentle pangolins browsing through the savannah, joyful pangolins playing in a mudhole, baby pangolins hugging tight to a larger pangolin’s tail, newborn pangolins sleeping in angelic circles. Get rid of it, she said, it’s horrible, I hope they go extinct. Otherness can be met with disgust, and this animal is bizarre beyond belief. But at the same time, it’s so hard not to see something speaking from its alien face. The habitual expression of a pangolin is a kind of loveable, fretful worry. They look embarrassed, with their nervous hands, and their sorrowful eyes. Oh, they say, me? But that’s so kind of you. They are ravenous killers of ants and termites, eating up to seventy million of them a year, but in all their dealings with anything else, they are marvellously gentle. Stooped, questing, humble, and hopeful, they browse over the strangeness of the earth. An unassuming dignity. They show another face of nature, not constant pointless struggle, but not hokey mystical balance either. If a creature can make itself safe from the terrors of the world under its overlapping scales, then nature can produce something rare and weird, infinitely variegated, utterly wonderful, and impossibly kind.

The meekness of the pangolin allowed it to survive for tens of millions of years. They are so very old. But humans, the only creatures that can threaten them, have not been kind to them in return. Of the eight species of pangolin, four are listed as vulnerable, two as endangered, and two as critically endangered. They are the most trafficked animals in the world.

The anthropologist Mary Douglas’s book Purity and Danger is a crucial text – not least when it comes to understanding our own contemporary political neuroses – but what I love most of all is its treatment of the pangolin cult among the Lele of the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Like many people, the Lele distinguish between ritually pure animals, which can be eaten, and ritually impure animals, which can not. But the pangolin is a conundrum. It resists the prisons of thought, by the sheer virtue of its weirdness. ‘It is scaly like a fish, but it climbs trees. It is more like an egg-laying lizard than a mammal, yet it suckles its young.’ And its young are born singly, like human children, rather than in litters. Other animals are teeming and fecund, but this creature is slow, thoughtful, and still. The pangolin is a moment of calm in the chaos of wild nature, and while chaos can be moulded into order, the pangolin continues under its own peaceful laws, and refuses to submit to any other. As Douglas writes, they embody ‘the limitation on human contemplation of existence.’ They are the unapproachable equals of ourselves.

Among some peoples, it’s forbidden to kill a pangolin. Anti-poaching initiatives in Zimbabwe are trying to reactivate some of these traditions – how can it be anything other than taboo to destroy an animal that’s so mild, and so defenceless against death? But the Lele do kill and eat pangolins – never for their daily sustenance, but only as part of religious rituals. It is outside of the categories of ordinary life,  and they are fully aware that what they are killing is a god. ‘Like Abraham’s ram in the thicket and like Christ, the pangolin is spoken of as a voluntary victim. It is not caught, but rather it comes to the village. It is a kingly victim: the village treats its corpse as a living chief and requires the behaviour of respect for a chief on pain of future disaster. The mysteries of the pangolin are sorrowful mysteries.’

Emmanuel Levinas describes God as an ‘infinite Other,’ something unfathomably distant from ourselves, something which we can never hope to grasp conceptually. But that infinity is not unreachable; it exists whenever one living being looks at the defencelessness of another. Once, a long time ago, I was asked if I could ever be an ethical vegan. I said no: animals are not ethical subjects, and ethical gestures are only meaningful between ethical subjects. The animal is on the perpetual outside. Now, I’m not so sure. I still eat meat: the poor cows, the poor sheep, the poor and wonderful octopuses. But now I think an ethical system that only has meaning within its sectioned-off field of the Same fails the most fundamental test, which is our duty to the other, a duty that doesn’t diminish as the other gets stranger and more distant, but intensifies. A truly ethical system would be that which gives us a duty to those who are not ethical subjects – not despite their otherness, but because of it.

God is the suffering other, the infinitely distant suffering other. Somewhere beyond the endlessness of the meanings of the world, there is an image. A quiet, unassuming pangolin, nailed to a wooden cross.

If the pangolins were wiped out tomorrow, we wouldn’t even notice, and this is why they must be saved. I would love to see a pangolin in the wild, but even more than that, I would love to simply exist in a world that can contain them, a world where the pangolins are safe, happy, distant, and unseen. Today is World Pangolin Day. It doesn’t mean much to the pangolins, who are far beyond all such things, but it means a lot to me. For the love of God, and for the love of the pangolins, which means the same thing, their strangeness must not vanish.

Who is Niezy?


You could pretend it’s a game. Christmas is nearly here, and in the pale lazy brandy-soaked hours after dinner, you can sprawl around with your strange friends or your spiteful family and play a fun game of Who’s Nietzsche? There aren’t really any rules as such, but the game goes like this. In the first days of January 1889, the people of Turin might have one of the modern age’s greatest philosophers on the street, dashing lopsidedly between his front door and the city post office, a weird little man hurrying with his weird little letters. It’s unlikely that anyone would have recognised Nietzsche, but he wasn’t really Nietzsche any more. In some of those letters – sent to his friends, to the King of Italy, to the Grand Duke of Baden and his family, to ‘the illustrious Pole’ – the weird little man identified himself as the Buddha. The Buddha had holes in his boots. Several were signed by ‘The Crucified.’ Jesus wore a threadbare coat. In a letter to Cosima Wagner, widow of the great composer, he identified himself as her dead husband – but also as Alexander, Caesar, Shakespeare, and Napoleon. ‘What is unpleasant and a strain to my modesty,’ he wrote in another note, ‘is that in fact I am every historical personage.’ These were Nietzsche’s last written works. A few of the recipients of these letters, full of pious concern, quickly intervened: they had him carted away to a clinic in Switzerland. When Nietzsche died in 1901, it was after a decade of feverish silence.

To play the game, all you have to do is take Nietzsche at his word. Say he really was Caesar and Napoleon and all the rest of them. ‘I am Prado, I’m also Prado’s father.’ A genius, reborn endlessly through time, fated to violently remake the world in his own image and then watch as it dissolves back into goo, before he can return to mould it again. And why should the cycle have ended in 1900? Maybe Zarathustra has come back down from his mountain to preach to us again; maybe the incarnation of the living Nietzsche walks among us. If you had to identify someone as a candidate, who would it be?

There are plenty of wannabe prophets around these days, but none of them really fit the bill. We can definitely eliminate all those slovenly Silicon Valley techno-futurists, the ones waiting for a superintelligent artificial intelligence to pluck them out of their greasy bungalows and their greasy gangly bodies and the whole greasy mess of physical reality, so they can play video games forever and never have to log off. Backwordsmen, all of them. God is dead, said Nietzsche, horrified by the enormity of deicide. Who can replace Him? The prophets of the singularity want to replace Him with a big calculator. Not one of them were Caesar or Napoleon.

The same goes for all your favourite political prophets, the Jordan Petersons or Ben Shapiros, or whichever other rat-faced wimp is thrown up by the hidden telluric waves of smugness and outrage into general consciousness. Everything these people say is basically resolvable to a whine, and the content of that whine is always it’s not fair. Something has gone wrong in the last few decades; their face-stamping boot is now on someone else’s foot, and they’d like it back please. Slave morality! Smallness! Lice crawling over the corpse of modernity, as if gnawing its flesh could give over the grandeur of those bones! But it’s not any of the saprophages on the other side either, any yaas-kween clapback af woke embarrassment. True, these people tend to utterly despise the name of Nietzsche while unknowingly echoing his more brutal thoughts (‘the argument against a stupid head is a clenched fist’), which is a positive sign, and they at least speak like a master – this is mine by right, but this is not for you, Becky – but they insist on polluting it with the language of justice. If nothing else, it’s dishonest. All too human.

Maybe a better candidate is Elon Musk, who does at the very least appear to have gone genuinely mad, with some impressive delusions of grandeur, and who’s managed to cough up a few suitable weird aphorisms. ‘I would like to die on Mars,’ he once said, and it’s quite a Nietzschean sentiment, as long as you assume that the sole reason he keeps boosting Mars exploration is so he can step off his spaceship, the first man on an alien world, and then keel over on the landing ramp, instantly dead. Sadly, that’s probably not the case. All of Musk’s most quotable quotes have to do with parsimony and efficiency, energy-saving and calculation. Nietzsche had his number; he saw through the fake bluster of rationalism: ‘The objective man is in truth a mirror accustomed to prostration before everything that wants to be known.’ He’s never encountered the terror of infinite return. Besides, Zarathustra could never have shareholders. So who’s left? You? Me? Don’t make me croak bitterly into my clotted cream. The world is starved. We’re nothing. We’re the Last Men. We sit around with our belts fatly loosened, and wonder who the prophet might be, and blink.

In the end, Who’s Nietzsche? isn’t a very good game. Not because there’s no answer, and therefore no point, but because the answer is so obvious. We know Nietzsche is back; he’s been back for fifteen years, and he’s been saying so himself. How could it have ever been anyone other than Kanye West?

* * *

Kanye and Nietzsche are identical twins, stranded across time. Both love to proclaim their genius, as if it weren’t already evident. Both are propelled by a kind of expansive asexuality, both speak in quick aphorisms with barbed punchlines. Both have the same audacity of gesture, making Zoroaster an immoralist or sampling Strange Fruit to talk about insta thots. Both are in a sense unbearable – overflowing and tyrannical, as if we can’t see, as if it’s not obvious that all their grandstanding is just compensating for some private lack. Kanye spouts strange drivel, apparently oblivious to the fact that he’s not in on his own joke. Nietzsche thunders vitality with the cycles of the universe, as if we don’t know how skinny his chest is, or about his syphilis, his indigestion, his migraines, his rot. They swagger in time with one another, and with the same manic hollowness. There’s a tendency to wade into areas of which they know absolutely nothing. Kanye has his ill-judged political interventions. Nietzsche, strangely, has music. ‘There has never been a philosopher,’ he writes, ‘who has been in his essence a musician to such an extent as I am.’ (Kanye, meanwhile, has announced himself as a philosopher. Do you see now?) As a birthday gift, Nietzsche sent the sheet music for his own compositions to Richard and Cosima Wagner. You can listen to his music yourself, if you want. It’s terrible. Not the parping bombast you’d expect, but something basically sterile, imitating all of the basic features of music and sticking very carefully to the rules, music that would be strangely Apollonian if it weren’t also subtly, maddeningly wrong. Wagner had to excuse himself during the performance of his gift; he was found in another room, on the floor, laughing hysterically. Kanye should have stuck to music; Nietzsche should have stuck to not-music. But neither of them will be bounded, not even by their own talent.

If you wanted to be pedantic, you could list all the times that Kanye and Nietzsche have said the same thing – not repeating each other, but each of them saying it again and for the first time. ‘I am Warhol. I am Shakespeare in the flesh.’ Sound familiar? ‘Early in the morning,’ writes Kanye, ‘at break of day, in all the freshness and dawn of one’s strength, to read a book – I call that viciousness!’ And Nietzsche echoes: ‘I would never want a book’s autograph. I am a proud non-reader of books.’ In 2010’s My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, Nietzsche unveils the consummating death, the festival death, the death that comes at the right time. Clearly, he’s quoting Yeezy’s Zarathustra: ‘Now this will be a beautiful death.’ Open the book to section fourteen: ‘Be at least mine enemy! How many of us? How many jealous?’ Who challenges us to name one genius who ain’t crazy? Who knows that one must still have chaos in oneself to give birth to a dancing star? They both chorus: ‘I am God, and this farce is my creation.’ And while they’re not the only madmen to have summarily deified themselves, for the last twenty centuries all the other pretenders have only tried to be the Judge of a trembling Abraham. Kanye and Nietzsche aren’t so tedious. They are Dionysus, the god of farce, frenzy, and screams.

What really distinguishes them is that both Nietzsche and Kanye are simply not interested in negation. They have no time for the dialectic, for opposites, for non-being: the world screams in bright colours, and everything in it must be affirmed. This is not quite the same as being positive. Someone like Hegel or Beyonce can accept the existence of evil or finitude because it’s necessary for the eventual triumph of good. That’s easy. Nietzsche and Kanye are driven to embrace everything. Not just because it marks a necessary historical stage comprehensible to absolute reason, not just because the darkness makes the light shine brighter, but in the fullness of its monstrosity. They go about this in slightly different ways. Nietzsche has eternal return, Kanye has his universal love for everyone and everything. (Not as different as they might appear. As Deleuze, who understood Nietzsche pretty well for a philosopher, puts it, ‘laziness, stupidity, baseness, cowardice or spitefulness that would will its own eternal return would no longer be the same laziness, stupidity etc. How does the eternal return perform the selection here? It is the thought of the eternal return that selects.’ And see how Kanye’s universal love functions: it transforms the world, refracting it via infinity, into something more loveable – so long as it’s met.) But they end up at the same place. Nietzsche throwing his arms over a sad dumb cart-horse, a plodding embodiment of the smallness and meekness he was supposed to despise. And Kanye, with a red hat on, embracing President Trump. So why were people so surprised? Did they really expect Dionysus to have good taste?

* * *

Kanye West’s brief flirtation with right-wing politics was many things, but it was not political. ‘I attack only causes that are victorious,’ he writes. ‘I attack causes only when there are no allies to be found, when I am standing alone – when I am compromising myself alone.’ Call it contrarianism if you want; at least it’s an ethos. And here he really did stand alone. Yes, he stood alone in embracing a political power that is, in fact, victorious, that commands the terrifying blinkered loyalty of millions, that kidnaps children, locks them in cages, and traumatises them for life, that commits regular and cowardly airborne massacres, that confronts the desperate with military calcifications against the border and chemical weapons for fleeing children – but those weren’t the terms in which Kanye embraced Trump. There are people who like the goblins of power precisely because they’re willing to carry out this violence. Kanye is not one of them. When he says he likes Trump because they both have dragon energy, he means it.

He stood alone in the White House with history’s greatest monster because while distant and silent psychopaths might enjoy his atrocities, Kanye’s doxa – that of Hollywood, hip-hop, and haute couture – is populated by a different type of psychopath altogether. Since Trump’s election, the vast culture-engine has been seized by a frenzy of contradiction. All it can do is watch what the government is doing, and scream no. (Not that there isn’t any determinate element: the hope is that if you say no to Trump loudly enough, the whole system will rebalance itself along the lines of a healthy Third Way liberalism. Good luck.) The fame factories spill huddled clouds of abstract negation. Slicks of negativity wash up against the beaches, cinders of cancellation creak and crackle over the hills. This stuff is absolutely hegemonic, even if it’s not politically efficacious – observe all the dark muttering that surrounded Taylor Swift (Kanye’s eternal Apollonian opposite) for her quite reasonable refusal to broadcast her opinions, and note how quickly she was lauded after caving in and endorsing a few right-wing Democrats like everyone else. How brave.

And Nietzsche is not interested in the negative. What he saw in Trump was a living principle of positivity, to which all the sour Puritan liberals in his new neighbourhood were glumly opposed – and there, at least, he wasn’t wrong. Look at what he actually said in the White House. ‘There was something about when I put this hat on that made me feel like Superman.’ Insurgent affirmationism; the power of flight. Or consider this: what kind of right-wing Trumpist installs himself in front of the great shit-eater himself to declare how much he loves Hillary Clinton?

The prophet always knew that he would be misinterpreted. ‘I have a terrible fear that one day I shall be considered holy.’ The fear was well-placed. At the end of October, Kanye West appeared to walk back his short flirtation with the right. ‘My eyes are now wide open,’ he wrote, ‘and now realise I’ve been used to spread messages I don’t believe in. I am distancing myself from politics and completely focusing on being creative.’ He was right; he had been used, in the same way that he had once been used by the murderous cabbage-fart dullards of the Third Reich. What could someone as magnificently sincere as Kanye West have in common with a smirking con artist like Candace Owens or the hosts of Fox News? Did his new boosters on the right really think he now supported public-sector austerity, state repression against the poor, corporate tax relief, tariffs on raw materials as a geopolitical bargaining tool, and everything else that slops along the sewer of conservative thought? He stood alone, despite these sycophants, or because of them. They can only have been cynical or deluded, and my money’s on cynical. They saw someone they could parasite themselves on, and, parasites that they are, they took the opportunity. But the left had nothing to gain from what they did. What’s their excuse?

* * *

The liberal mainstream’s attempted Dixie-Chicks-ing of Kanye West might be the most shameful and transparent moment in media history since the Iraq War. Everyone knew that when he called for the repeal of the 13th Amendment, he was talking about prison abolition – but it’s so much more gratifying to pretend to think he wanted slaves in the fields again. The worst are those who understand perfectly well what he was saying, but reserve the right to grab their pitchforks anyway, because he was being – unforgivable! – tone-deaf. Of course he was! He’s Kanye West! Why should he be subject to this ghastly new Victorian refinement? Why is it that the people who yap fuck civility at every opportunity are always the same trilling bourgeois cyber-matrons who spend their lives guarding against every potentially scandalous gesture, every fluctuation in the vagaries of tone?

But the tone has changed. See, for instance, how a popular music website – I won’t name it, because it’s no worse than any of the others, but yes, it’s obviously the one you’re thinking of – responded to his last two albums. 2016’s The Life of Pablo was – let’s be honest – a sloppy and unfinished effort, not without its frequent moments of brilliance but basically thin, thrown-together, and fallow. The reviewer manages to spin this into an act of profound Dadaist brilliance: album as objet trouvé. ‘The universe is a trick of the light, and we’re nothing but a figment in a higher being’s imagination. Nothing is as it seems, nothing is safe from revision, and nothing lasts.’ In other words, don’t you see what he’s doing? It’s not crap, it’s a statement about crapness. 2018’s ye was, by contrast, something far stronger: his Ecce Homo, a searing document of a man’s battle for recognition against himself, and a fully Nietzschean broadside against the deformation of the ideal subject in a time of scurrying smallness. ‘See, if I was trying to relate it to more people, I’d probably say I’m struggling with loving myself because that seems like a common theme. But that’s not the case here. I love myself way more than I love you.’ And what does our reviewer make of it? ‘Seven tracks he farted out to meet his arbitrarily self-imposed deadline… an album born from chaos for chaos’ sake, an album that can barely be bothered to refer to that chaos with anything more committal than a Kanye shrug.’

You may have noticed that the analysis of the two albums is identical in its particulars; only the valence has changed. Poptimsism was always a sham; you never really thought there was any actual liberatory potential in pop culture. If 2016 Kanye releases a hasty and provisional album, it’s an act of secret brilliance. If 2018 Kanye uses a photo he took on the way to his album’s launch party as its cover art, then he’s just a freewheeling asshole. What’s changed? There are plenty of plausible interpretations, but the most legible is this: it’s because Kanye went to the White House and hugged it out with Donald Trump. He took the side of the absolute negation of everything good and true, and it burned through his form. Or, to put it less charitably: in 2016 the received opinion was that he was brilliant if sometimes embarrassing, so we liked his music; now, everyone thinks he has dodgy politics, so we don’t. He’s bad now, tainted, and if we don’t wash our hands furiously enough we’ll get tainted too. (The politics of purity and contagion, it should be noted, are always deeply conservative, verging on fascist; far more reactionary than a red hat or a monologue about iPhones in the Oval Office.) What was it Kanye West said, a long time ago, about how the will to truth is a mask, about how ‘the greater part of conscious thinking must be counted among the instinctive functions’? Do these people know that they’re being dishonest? Clearly not, otherwise they wouldn’t have exposed the underbelly of panicked self-preservation that trembles beneath our system of cultural values. Nietzsche’s affirmationist contranianism might be juvenile, but the one who’s unwilling to deeply compromise themselves is infinitely worse. Here is your own dishonesty, they whimper, here it is scrubbed of difference. Please don’t kill me.

* * *

There is, of course, a second acceptable response to Kanye’s antics, which is to note that he’s clearly mentally ill, and we shouldn’t make the situation any worse by paying attention to him. This is, at least, not entirely untrue. We know Kanye West is suffering from mental illness, because he’s told us. He told us in 2016, when he mentioned that he had been prescribed Lexapro, a selective serotonin re-uptake inhibitor. He told us in 2012, when he discussed suffering from depression and suicidal thoughts. In one unreleased song, he provided an extensive list of the psychiatric symptoms he suffers from. ‘Do you experience nervousness or shakiness inside, faintness and dizziness? The idea that someone else can control your thoughts. Feeling others are to blame for most of your thoughts. Feeling afraid in open spaces or in public. Thoughts of ending your life.’ We’ve known for a very long time, and the general response was to lionise him for speaking up and starting a conversation about mental health, which is now the only thing that an alienated society knows to do with its mad. We saw him interrupt live shows with bizarre rants, alienate those close to him, behave in ways that would be troubling if someone you actually knew and loved started exhibiting them – and we politely applauded. (It didn’t help that the people who had a problem with it were almost uniformly obnoxious, untroubled by fifty years of rock-star narcissism but violently upset by the same stuff coming from a black man. You don’t want to give ground to them.) But as soon as there’s the suggestion that these symptoms might take on a political dimension, the approach suddenly shifts. Disengage, block it out, seal it off, silence him, mock him if you feel like it – but make sure his madness stops speaking itself, and make sure it’s no longer heard. For his own good, of course. But why?

Possibly the most depressing image I’ve ever seen is a poster produced by the New York City Health Department as part of its ‘Choose the Best Words’ campaign. For a while, the things were everywhere in the city, plastered up like the banners of a dictatorial cult. The point is to teach people what to say and what not to say to friends who are suffering from mental health issues. Two cartoon figures on a basketball court. One is slumped over on the bench. The other says I know exactly how you feel. These are the wrong words, of course; you can tell, because they’ve been crossed out. The right words are Hey. Want to talk? Third panel, and the response: Thanks for talking, I feel better now. So what the hell happened in between? Thirty seconds of static? The right words are the vague notion of ‘talking,’ talking about talking, speaking up talkingly. The wrong words are, apparently, any actual specific instance of speech. How do we solve the mental health crisis? By feeding it to the discourse-monster, by flattening it into something that can shimmer on the surface of discursive life with all the other signifiers. Freudianism, once shucked off by psychopharmacology, returns – except now there’s no analyst, just your friends, press-ganged into the role of unpaid mental health nurse. Now, the latency that needs expression is only the empty form of latency. Now the talking-cure functions without anything ever being said.

Contemporary mental health discourse is founded on the exclusion of the particularity of madness itself; it effects a facile resolution of madness to sanity,  and declares its work done in the gesture of equivalence. (It’s true, obviously, that those we call mad are just those who aren’t assimilable to the neurotic mutilation of ordinary subjects – but that non-assimilability remains.) The mad have become, somehow, an identity group. Something like race, which has no prior existence outside of the repressive and historically contingent categories of racism. A form, engaged in the differential contest of hollow forms. The mad must speak up, represent our subject-position, communicate, and be listened to. The fact that madness profoundly problematises speech and the subject doesn’t enter into it. A mania for form, a terror of content. (Online writing, it’s true, is routinely referred to as content – but all this means is that it’s a shapeless fluid,  transparent and undifferentiated, whose function is only to ensure that all pre-existing forms are duly filled.) This is why mental health advocates are always calm and seemingly stable: they have anxiety or depression, but almost never psychosis, schizophrenia, any madness that might make their TV appearances too incomprehensible or too grimly fascinating.

Nietzsche, who is not a dialectician, has very little to say about form and content. What he does talk about is style. When he comes to reflect on the composition of his Zarathustra – the MBDTF of philosophy – he finds its first seeds in ‘a second birth within me of the art of hearing.’ His thought is solidified music: words and paragraphs are not a neutral container into which propositional content might be slotted and then maybe withdrawn. Styles are multiple, but the presence of one or another style is fundamental to the project; meaning is a property of what he calls ‘the tempo of the signs.’ A semiology without linguistics. (It’s probably not insignificant that parrots, the only other animals to make use of human speech, also dance for pleasure.) In Beyond Good and Evil (the first draft of 808s & Heartbreak): ‘There is art in every good sentence – art that must be figured out if the sentence is to be understood!’ See how Nietzsche’s thought limps when denuded of its style; listen to Heidegger glossing him. ‘Truth is the essence of the true; the true is that which is in being; to be in being is to be that which is taken as constant and fixed.’ Unrecognisable, pedantic, tautologous; a philosophy that’s become so gratingly German. As soon as you stop talking in dithyrambs, you no longer understand Becoming. It’s not Heidegger’s fault; he was more sensitive to the buried iceberg-weight of words than most. (Elsewhere in his seminars on Nietzsche, he argues very clearly that ‘to relegate the animated, vigorous word to the immobility of a univocal, mechanically programmed sequence of signs would mean the death of language and the petrification and devastation of Dasein.’) It’s just that attempts to translate Nietzsche into the ordinary language of philosophy always, always fail. Dumb teenage nihilists who think they’re the Overman understand him better than distinguished scholars of nineteenth-century thought, and Kanye West understands him best of all, despite never having read a word of his books. It’s in the style, the movement of it: he is his twin in the art of hearing.

(Derrida, it must be noted, disagrees. A style, he writes, is ‘a long object, an oblong object, a word, which perforates even as it parries.’ A stylus, a lance or a needle, a pen. ‘But, it must not be forgotten, it is also an umbrella.’ Style shelters that which is enclosed by it, and Derrida holds up as an instance of unstyled text a note in Nietzsche’s unpublished margins: ‘I have forgotten my umbrella.’  Meaning, it would seem, without art. Nietzsche is no longer compensating for his lacks with grandiloquence and fury, just baldly stating what is not there. That pure presence has been withdrawn from him. He has forgotten who he is, and so he scrabbles through space and time to find new answers. But what, in the end, is Nietzsche without his umbrella? A man in a clinic. Only silence.)

This was what agonised Kanye’s critics: they couldn’t separate the ‘real’ or healthy man, the part of him they were supposed to like, from the part that had gone awry. They couldn’t extricate worthy content from a maddened style. Not even conceptually; all they could do was temporalise. How did we get from ‘George Bush doesn’t care about black people’ to this? Yes, there’s been a Becoming, but he has only ever become what he is. You can’t really like his music while hating his political interventions; they’re all swirled together. Kanye’s madness refuses to play by the rules that have been set for the mad. It’s not an abstract subject-position, but something positively articulated and in the fullness of its being. And as madness usually does, all this offends the sensibilities of a bourgeoisie anxious for its moral self-preservation. So Kanye’s friends do what Kanye’s friends did all those years ago in 1889: they try to shut him up, to cart him away to a mountainous silence, for his own good.

Writing and identity

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

The Harambe variations


INTRODUCTION, or GORILLA ZERO, the META-APE OF UNDERSTANDING: Harambe in the chaos of the world

Harambe is the dead ape that will not die. It’s been months now since the Cincinnati Zoo ruthlessly dispatched its prize 440 lb Western lowland gorilla with a single deadly gunshot after a three-year-old boy fell into his enclosure, but his name lives. During the recent parliamentary elections in Australia, many voters wrote ‘Harambe’ over their ballot papers, with one telling an Independent journalist, who appeared to take it in full sincerity, that this was because ‘we Aussies feel our government should have done more to save Harambe and now we’re voting for his corpse.’ In Ohio, a street was renamed ‘Harambe Drive’ on Google Maps after multiple reports to the company from three local teenagers. ‘Bush did Harambe’ signs appeared at the Republican National Convention. ‘Dicks out for Harambe’ has become a global cri de cœur. Clearly something has happened, and is continuing to happen. Isn’t it natural to want to explain?

At the start of this month, an undergraduate student at the New School for Social Research called Alexander Fine wrote a short blog post about the enduring legacy of Harambe, noting that the people most fascinated by the gorilla tended to be on the political left, and attempting to draw some kind of relation between Harambe and its wider social and political context. ‘Harambe memes,’ he wrote, ‘reflected, and continue to reflect, the left’s disillusionment with our political reality and the media at large. The left keeps Harambe alive because we see ourselves in the dead ape. Harambe’s death was inevitable, and so too was the defeat of an ageing presidential candidate who identified as a socialist.’ It’s hard to remember what else he wrote, because the post was quickly deleted – it became the subject of a mass outburst of derision; there was something in this form of interpretation that was recognised as being fundamentally inappropriate. Fine’s essay was judged to carry an unacceptable excess of thinkpieceiness, to be uncomfortably commingling the weighty and the ludic, to deal with something inherently silly in far too serious a manner, even despite its evident playfulness. It was agreed to be a bad take. But why?

It’s not as if other attempts haven’t been made to ask the same question, of why people remain so attached to Harambe, or why he’s still funny, without generating the same backlash. See, for instance, a recent essay by Brian Feldman in New York Magazine, which does much the same thing as Fine did, without attracting any of the same scorn. Feldman attempts to classify the Harambe memes (they ‘aren’t the topical equivalent of dead-baby jokes; they’re fairly standard internet non-sequitur nonsense humour’); he relates them to current events and to asymmetries in the discourse (noting, for instance, their echo of Cecil the Lion memes); he even situates his discussion within a broadly Marxist framework. If there is a central difference between the two interpretations it’s this: Fine situates the death of Harambe within the political order and sensuous reality; he relates the loss of an ape to the other senses of loss that dominate the experience of the twenty-first century; he approaches Harambe as an overdetermination, a sign that points to a phenomenal referent. Feldman, on the other hand, situates the death of Harambe within a network of other memes. In other words, to draw meaning from a sign is tacitly forbidden, to present the world as being explicable through signs is classed as a risible proposition. Signifiers relate only and always to other signifiers, and Harambe has become a metasignifier, taking on a Barthesian dimension of myth. To say that Harambe must be a symbol for something, that the fascination with Harambe points to something else, is a sacrilege.

This is not an essay about Harambe, the ape who died, but one about interpretation, the ways in which people take the raw material chaos of the world and fashion it into something meaningful. I’m not interested in denying the dominant position that Harambe can only be meaningfully related to other signs, only in testing it or situating it; all I want to say is that a silverback gorilla is a very large animal, and it can carry many things.

(Humour: Blood. Element: Air. Planet: Jupiter. Gemstone: Sand.)

The magical ape begins in curiosity and terror. The curiosity of the child, looking into the enclosure and unable to differentiate between the friendly monkeys of cards and cartoons and the brute sweating thing before him. The terror of the child, taking its first lesson in depth analysis as a creature beyond language drags him through the water by the legs. The curiosity of the ape, padding down to sniff at this tiny, fragile thing of a type he’d seen before, but only ever seen, as if through a television screen, now tumbling from image to object. The terror of the ape, rattled by the screams from outside his cage, puffing himself up, ready to deliver death or be dealt it. The terror of the parents, the terror of the zoo authorities, the terror of the marksman. And then the questions: was Harambe threatening the child, or protecting him? Is a gorilla’s life worth more than an infant’s? The body of a gorilla is strong, and any number of interpretative schemata can tense or flex under his skin.

The first ape is the visual ape. Under its regime symbols do not simply emerge through mimesis or signifiers through onomatopoeia; the ape beheld by the eye codes a world in which words and things endlessly refer back to one another. Prior to the initial phallic signification the snake is shaped after its own name, while the penis leaks poison in imitation of its zoological archetype; there’s no genitality in the Garden of Eden. Oedipalisation occurs only when the child crawls into that enclosure in the Cincinnati Zoo: now we’re faced by a dyad, the child and the gorilla, the child and the father. On the terrain of magic or similtude an ape is a visual intensification of the father, physically terrifying, hirsute, a potent castrator. Here the principles of Darwinian evolution are only a minor feature of Oedipus: the ape is the father of humanity. Remember the originary father in Freud, half-man, half-ape, pure threat and pride, who must be killed by his weaker, more glabrous sons. Only then is the father mourned, and his arbitrary law incorporated into the psyche.

But animals are also gods or totems, and God the Father is also the paternal superego. Pure identity, without representation, without one prior to the other. Christ on his cross cries out: eli, eli, lama sabachthani? My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? Was he not told the entire plan? The death of Harambe is a blasphemous inversion of the passion of the Christ; here it’s the father, and not the son, who dies for our sins. The name for this heresy is patripassianism, or Sabellian modalism, an immanent possibility in Christianity denounced since Tertullian, and endlessly produced in its denunciation. The Trinity, Sabellius declared, is only a mask, describing aspects of one person. He could not bring himself to say it, but the implication is unavoidable. The Godhead in its entirety suffered and perished on Golgotha. It’s easy to see why this doctrine prospered, and why it was so ruthlessly stamped out: this is the Oedipal fantasy, the cannibalistic feast of the first father. They killed the ape in Cincinnati, and as they did so they unleashed the vastness of a heretical third-century theology; we are fascinated by a dead gorilla, because something that started two thousand years ago on a hill outside Jerusalem is now finally complete.

(Humour: Melancholia. Affect: Embarrassment. Constellation: Pisces. Gemstone: Ruby.)

Six days before the death of Harambe, two lions were shot dead by a zoo in Santiago after a man climbed into their enclosure, intending to commit suicide. There was, briefly, an explosion of anger at the zoo. Why the ape? Why not the lions? Why Harambe?

For much of his life, Georges Bataille was obsessed with the anal scrags of great apes. In The Pineal Eye, he describes a tropical sacrifice ceremony: a gibbon is buried alive, head down, with only the ‘bald false skull’ of its anus protruding; a nude woman crouches over it and ‘the beautiful boil of red flesh is set ablaze with stinking brown flames.’ Later he declares that ‘the little girls who surround the animal cages in zoos cannot help but be stunned by the ever-so lubricious rear ends of apes.’ In The Jesuve, he notes that with a hint of sadness that ‘anal obscenity, pushed to such a point that the most representative apes even got rid of their tails (which hide the anuses of other mammals), completely disappeared from the fact of human evolution,’ but takes comfort from the fantasy of a new sexual organ located in the human forehead. (It could be added, after Deleuze and Guattari, that ‘the first organ to suffer privatisation, removal from the social field, was the anus… it is the anus that removes and sublimates the penis.’) The obsession with apes is an obsession with a brutal and a terrifying freedom we’ve lost long ago.

We have done terrible things to the animals: most of them are wiped out and gone for good; some are slaughtered by the billions, mulched up and turned into hundred-gram increments of edible slurry; a few still sulk in the furthest wildernesses and the deepest oceans, hunger-crazed and desperate. The unluckiest become objects of contemplation. Watch a pig in a pen and try to see that brutal and terrifying freedom; walk along the rows of cloistered cattle, each tagged and microchipped, each staring in dull incomprehension, a living thing in a hard shell of cruelty, its feed dispensed by computers, its milk sucked out by machines, its death decided by algorithms, and try to find an erotic thrill.

But at the same time, an ape hovers on the edge of meaning. There is another gorilla, Koko, which has been taught basic sign language; not only can it signify, it’s capable of the rudiments of abstract thought. This is the ape as metaphor; the political ape. Killing a lion represents the cruel mastery of animals by humans, a kind of heroic mastery, with all that implies – in many societies only the king could hunt a lion. The decision to shoot a gorilla with a sniper rifle, on the other hand, represents the subjection of rational beings to the principle of reason. There is no heroism, not even a transcendental subject; only system. Aren’t we all, in some way, trapped in an enclosure, with the marksman’s single shot – delivered, of course, for very good reasons – always a possible threat? As Baudrillard writes, ‘animals have preceded us on the path of liberal extermination. All the aspects of the modern treatment of animals retrace the vicissitudes of the manipulation of humans, from experimentation to industrial pressure in breeding.’ But when it happens to an ape – an ape with a name, no less – it becomes impossible to ignore the fact that we are not free. We say Harambe’s name because he is the hero we lack, because he is the sign of our own unfreedom. We say Harambe’s name because the new orifice Bataille imagined really has opened across our foreheads, plugged in to the internet, and that’s the name it screams.

(Humour: Choler. Voltage: 240 V. Disposition: Agitated. Gemstone: Topaz.)

It’s possible to discern several stages in the general reaction to Harambe’s death. First, the non-ironised, the determinate, the unfunny. Was what the zoo did justified? Donald Trump said yes. Others said no. Many were furious, petitions were signed, there were calls for the child’s parents to face criminal charges. This first movement was also the last phase in which it was at all possible to talk about image and object. Next, hyperbolic descriptions of animal slaughter at the zoo. Instances overwhelm. ‘Zoo employs troop of insane hollering teen infantry to ride multiple M1 Abrams tanks through lemur enclosure, shooting them with the tanks.’ ‘Child Plays Calypso On Ancient Galapagos Tortoise’s Shell Before Zoo Crew Obliterates Beast With M-4s.’ ‘The gorilla was killed by a tungsten rod dropped from a satellite in geosynchronous orbit over the zoo.’ Then, rewording song lyrics to be about Harambe – but this intentionality is anaemic and ironised; the songs are not about Harambe so much as the word Harambe, and a set of other words that have come to coalesce around it. This advanced form marks Harambe in the purity of its irony: a signifier without any signified whatsoever.

The ape is simply not there; this is Feldman’s ape, the mythic meme-ape, the ape as empty signifier. Its differential nature is expressed not as a relation between signifiers but as one between ‘Harambe’ and the systematicity of the signifying system itself. As Laclau points out, however, the outside which is from within the system constituted as ‘pure negativity, pure threat to the system’ is in fact ‘the simple principle of positivity – pure being.’ Harambe therefore eventually comes to signify the immanent positivity of ironic superimposition; performatively, in its discursive rather than semiological meaning, it is invoked to signify the presence of an irony – itself an empty signifier. Something called irony occurs, but rather than being in the form of any kind of antiphrasis or anything that could be understood as a substitution of meanings, meaning itself is challenged by its other.

But then something unusual occurs. The current moment – dicks out, signs at protests, streets renamed – is marked by a return to veneration of the dead ape, a kind of dialectical recuperation of the first phase. The living and dying animal itself returns, but here no longer as an event to be coded by interpretation, but an interpretation by which to code other events. The moral question of whether his shooting was justified is no longer in effect; in fact, the zoo and the child and shooting have disappeared entirely. We are angry that Hillary Clinton refused to mention Harambe in her acceptance speech. We are worried that North Korea is testing new ballistic missiles, and Harambe is not here to protect us. We wonder, in times of crisis, what Harambe would do. Word and thing are reuinited. This is the point at which the Harambe thinkpieces proliferate, attempting to interpret the phenomenon. But all such attempts at a transcendental critique necessarily fail, because the dead body of Harambe has become isomorphic with the heuristic as such; we are in Harambe, we cannot hope to think outside our present Harambe.

(Humour: Phlegm. Articulation: Multifoliate. Sex: I’ve. Gemstone: Space Junk.)

I love Harambe, the ape who died. I love the dead ape Harambe.

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Notes towards a phenomenology of conspiracy theory


Really, what I want to talk about here is the unspoken axiom behind all epistemology: that we ought to believe statements that are propositionally true, and that we ought not to believe statements that are propositionally false. This general principle is rarely ever stated, and tends to just appear as the hidden code that governs any logical process. P1 is true, so it was kept; P2 is false, so we no longer considered it; the fact that this is less a logical axiom than a moral injunction is subdued in all this bloodless process, while the invidious character of the terms ‘true’ and false’ neatly closes up any gap between ‘is’ and ‘ought’ that would otherwise make such an ethics of reasoning more distinctly problematic. In any case, there are forms of truth beyond the propositional, ones where this autogenerative law finds itself making commands beyond its jurisdiction. What about the revealed truth of religious texts, which must be believed before their truth can become apparent? What about the unconscious truths of psychoanalysis, which must not be consciously believed in order to function? It’s now accepted (among most of the media and political classes, at least) that the statement ‘While at Oxford University, Prime Minister David Cameron took part in an initiation ceremony during which he fucked a dead pig’ is not propositionally true – but even if that’s the case, isn’t it in a very important way more true than the truth?

But I’m not going to resort to postmodern vaguery, beardscratchingly prognosticating on the distortion inherent in any reduction of truth to concept. Instead, I want to sink down deep into a set of statements that are generally considered to be propositionally false, and surface arguing why we should believe them anyway. For this I’m choosing conspiracy theory, because conspiracy theory is fascinating and mysterious and vast, and I love it, and I hope that you do too. Conspiracy theory appears to be an epistemic discourse, almost maniacally focused on ‘truth’ – so that, for instance, the phrase ‘9/11 truth’ for most people immediately yields the meaning ‘crazy 9/11 speculation’. But the other great master-signifier of conspiracy, the call to ‘wake up’, is very different: we’re dealing with modes of experience, the clouded, the fantastic, the pellucid, that demand a consideration beyond dreary propositionalism: a phenomenology of shapeshifting lizards and the New World Order.

An interesting point of entry here is provided by ‘Conspiracy Theories and the Popular Wisdom‘, an essay by the University of Otago philosopher Charles Pidgen, published in Episteme volume 4, issue 2, which has been doing the rounds lately in certain left-wing circles that are understandably sensitive to accusations of conspiracy theory. Pidgen’s central proposition – that we should believe conspiracy theories, or at the very least investigate them while being open to the possibility that we might – is not dissimilar to mine, but the case he makes is an epistemic one, and given that there’s clearly something broken in epistemic reasoning, it’s inevitably insufficient. He thinks we should believe conspiracy theories because they are propositionally true. He begins by noting that the charge of conspiracy theory is often used to discredit ideas that are unhelpful to the powerful, and that according to the conventional wisdom conspiracy theories are a priori absurd and unworthy of investigation. But if we hold this position, and sensibly define conspiracy theory as ‘a theory that posits a conspiracy,’ then we have to throw out most of what we know about the past. If we don’t believe in conspiracy theories, then we would have to hold that Brutus and Cassius and the others all happened to come up with the idea of murdering Caesar independently and coincidentally. ‘Much of recorded history would dissolve into a blur of inexplicable events.’ (Which, from a certain Benjaminian perspective, is exactly what it is, but never mind.) Clearly none of this is tenable, and so Pidgen – who’s spent the bulk of his essay disproving a position that nobody actually holds – quite correctly concludes that there’s something wrong with his definition. But if conspiracy theory isn’t just ‘a theory that posits a conspiracy’, then what else could it be?

Pidgen’s proposed redefinition is still insufficient. When the conventional wisdom tells us not to believe in conspiracy theories, he writes, it means those ‘that postulate evil schemes on the part of recent or contemporary Western governments (or government agencies) and that run counter to the current orthodoxy in the relevant Western countries.’ He notes that the idea that Saddam Hussein’s Iraq was stockpiling weapons of mass destruction and in league with al-Qaeda is not considered a conspiracy theory, even though it posits a conspiracy. But because of his focus on propositional truth, he ignores the tissues through which any proposition lances. A conspiracy theory is an explanatory device used to make sense of conditions that are not entirely understood: a general prerequisite for conspiracy theory is that it is sincerely believed by the person that proposes it. The charge that Iraq had WMD wasn’t a conspiracy theory; it was a lie. It’s very possible to imagine conspiracy theories that don’t fit Pidgen’s definition. Had George W Bush instead announced that President Hussein were the high priest of an ancient Mesopotamian death-cult that had controlled humanity since the dawn of civilisation through the emasculating medium of writing, and that he could only be defeated by a sturdy gang of tooled-up all-American illiterates, some people might still have believed him, but that would have been unambiguously a conspiracy theory. Conspiracy theory isn’t a type of proposition that can be taxonomically isolated by its propositional content; it’s a relation between propositions, between knowledge and unknowledge, the seen and the unseen, the incomparably ancient and the buzzing urgency of the present.

We could start, Occam-like, by proposing that conspiracy theory is the general tendency to attribute visible events to invisible conspiracies when a simpler and more plausible non-conspiratorial explanation is available. But that’s not enough: what is a conspiracy, anyway? It’s not a epistemic or a phenomenological concept, but a legal category. Of course conspiracies happen; if they didn’t, there’d be no need for a law. The crime of conspiracy was not codified until the Criminal Law Act of 1977; until then, in English common law (which also provides the basis for law in the United States and many Commonwealth countries), it fell under the category of ‘inchoate offences’, along with attempt and incitement; a nebulous cluster of suspicion, sporadically enforced and prosecuted according to the whims of the enforcers. The charge is not entirely extricable from that of witchcraft, broadly understood as a conspiracy with the Devil; as such, a conspirator could easily have been working alone. (Aren’t we all conspiring within our own heads?) In common law, something that is not an offence may become one if conspiracy is present: handing out medicinal herbs is legal; doing so with the Devil at your side, or after meeting your coven by midnight, is not. Conspiracy was not considered to be the mode of operation of the powerful, but the powerless: Satanic peasants in rickety huts, plotting against the mirrored institutions of God and State. The first major shift came with Lutheranism, and its charges of Papal blasphemy: suddenly it was not only the rulers who feared conspiracies on the part of their ungrateful populations, but everyone; social existence itself became a host of potential conspiracies. For obvious reasons, this is not a sense of the word that made it into the 1977 Act, which states that ‘if a person agrees with any other person or persons that a course of conduct shall be pursued which, if the agreement is carried out in accordance with their intentions, either— (a)will necessarily amount to or involve the commission of any offence or offences by one or more of the parties to the agreement, or (b)would do so but for the existence of facts which render the commission of the offence or any of the offences impossible, he is guilty of conspiracy to commit the offence or offences in question.’ One important provision of codified conspiracy law is that conspiracy is only an offence if the act that the conspirators intend to commit is itself an offence. In conspiracy theory, meanwhile, the acts that are alleged to have been perpetrated by unknown conspirators are sometimes formally illegal (assassinating JFK, carrying out the 9/11 attacks), but more often tend to exist in a Benjaminian sphere of violence that founds the law, and is incorporated into it (putting flouride in the drinking water, faking the Moon landings, inventing the Holocaust). It’s hard to imagine the shapeshifting lizards being taken into court in handcuffs; in any case, for an alien lizard to invade the planet by assuming human form and putting strange patterns on the currency isn’t even a crime in most jurisdictions. (It might, conceivably, be a tort.)

The ‘conspiracy’ in ‘conspiracy theory’ refers to the term in its pre-codified sense, in which it describes not a hidden relationship between multiple human individuals, but a relationship between human individuals and hiddenness itself. Conspiracy theory is not a theory that posits a conspiracy, but the hypostasisation of conspiracy to the level of theory, or occlusion as a general system of Being. It’s not just that public events have hidden causes: the seen is only an attribute or epiphenomenon of the unseen, which is essential to reality. In many conspiracy theories, the primary aim of the conspiracy seems to be the presentation of an experience in which the conspiracy itself does not outwardly appear. For readers of the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, what appears to be the chaotic stampede of human history is actually an elaborate performance-piece engineered as a distraction by the Jews lurking backstage. Flat-Earthers believe that a vast and sinister plot exists to place globes in every classroom and doctored images on the TV, with the sole purpose of having us think that the Earth is round. In David Icke’s sweeping cosmology, the Moon is an artificial satellite broadcasting something called the ‘Moon Matrix’ (although it actually originates from Saturn), an information-blocking signal that reduces our consciousness to its five limited senses. More convincingly (although I’m here not really interested in evaluating the propositional truth of any of these notions), many leftist media critics consider the wealth of images in capitalist society to form a single ‘spectacle’ that obscures existing class antagonisms.

None of this should be particularly unfamiliar: conspiracy theory in this sense is a kind of Kantianism. Noumena, the objects as they actually are, are by nature hidden from us; all we can approach by reason or perception is the phenomenon, the distortion provided by our senses. But rather than performing a Husserlian Einklammerung or epoché, conspiracy theory maintains a puckish Hegelian ambition to touch the face of the thing-in-itself. Its goal is reconciliation: as in Adorno, the subject-object distinction is not eternal but the product of particular historical conditions. But given that the conspiracy itself is by definition imperceptible, it’s not possible for one to have direct knowledge of it within experience. (There are, of course, people who claim to have witnessed UFOs spinning through the sky, or to have listened in on the cloistered Zionist congresses; there are various ‘leaked’ documents purporting to be minutes of the global conspiracy, but in practice such transcendental arguments make up a surprisingly small portion of the general conspiracy corpus.) Instead, conspiracy theory tends to coincide with a strange form of immanent critique, in which the visible phenomena of the world must be ‘decoded’ to reveal their secret meaning. Hence the insistence that the secret masters of the world would, for unknown reasons, leave little clues around the place pointing to their existence. Banknotes are popular here – what’s that eye and pyramid business about? And did you notice that if you fold them a certain way, it looks just like the photos of 9/11? Numerology and cod-etymology is also popular: can’t you see that it’s called an iPhone because its ‘eye’ is always watching? If we’re not living in Hell, then why do we greet each other with Hell-o? Conspiracy theory could be understood as less a set of discrete propositions and more a Heideggerian Stimmung – attunement or mood, a mode of In-der-Welt-sein in which phenomenal reality reveals itself to Dasein in some particular manner. Here, as in boredom (discussed in The Fundamental Concepts of Metaphysics), things appear empty and impoverished, but by contrast they are not without interest. They point beyond themselves to their occulted source; the world takes on significance not as a world, but as a map. Conspiracy theory reaches beyond the world as it seems, not by grasping at clouds from tiptoes, but by digging down, uncovering the foundations of things to see the vastness below.

It might be futile. But is it, phenomenologically speaking, true? In Heidegger, truth is not a matter of a subjective mental image conforming to reality, but the disclosure of a world. Truth is ‘letting whatever is sleeping become wakeful’ (sheeple) – the unconcealment of what had been hidden. I say that Socrates is mortal, and his manifest mortality, knobbly knees and tremoring heart, is suddenly made apparent to you. In this sense, conspiracy theory – all conspiracy theory – is true. And it’s a truth far more fecund and far more fun than anything allowed to us by epistemology. In conspiracy theory, the things of the world are atoms of signification, to be combined and recombined into the modes of appearance of any number of potential noumena. ‘The RAND Corporation, in conjunction with the saucer people, under the supervision of the reverse vampires, are forcing our parents to go to bed early in a fiendish plot to eliminate the meal of dinner.’ Life encrusts itself like milk on endless fathoms of possibility. And yes, most of it is evil. But it doesn’t have to be. Remember that through much of our history, the conspiracy was not a creature of aristocratic malice, but a mode of popular resistance. The Illuminati is not only to be fought; it’s to be established.

Fragments against the ruin

1. Syriza are an anti-austerity party, and they have an excellent record when it comes to opposing austerity. They opposed the measures put forward by Greece’s creditors in February. They opposed the plan of agreement drawn up in June, and put it to a referendum. They opposed the harsh and punitive measures suggested by Germany over the weekend. Wherever the threat of austerity emerges in Greece, Syriza are on hand to heroically oppose it. They’ll oppose the sunset, they’ll oppose the locusts as they come in their chattering thousands to strip green islands to naked rock, and when they wheeze their dying breaths, cold and emaciated on soggy mattresses, they’ll oppose that too. Despite their pleas for an alternative, they’ve never approached austerity as anything other than a deterministic inevitability. It might be time to question how much value there actually is in ‘anti-austerity’ politics: it’s a formation in which opposing something has come to function as an effective substitute for actually doing anything about it. Anti-austerity movements scream their refusal to participate in the grand, stupid mechanism of austerity – and then do so anyway. These things are not opposed to each other.

2. In this context, the strange farce of the referendum starts to make a twisted sort of sense. The population of Greece overwhelmingly voted against austerity measures demanded by the Troika, only for the government of Greece to then almost immediately submit a set of proposals that mirrored them in every detail. In fact, Prime Minister Tsipras wrote to his creditors conceding to almost all of their demands before the referendum had even taken place. But the referendum was never intended to actually decide anything; after all, the plan of agreement to be accepted or rejected was no longer even on the table. It was always, explicitly, to be a gesture of rejection, something purely performative, which for some reason Syriza thought might help them negotiate a fairer deal.

3. Its ‘no’ was a pure ‘no’; there was no indication what the result of this rejection would be, because there was never to be a result. This isn’t far from what Hegel describes as ‘abstract negation’. Abstract negation is the form of negation based on an eternal and static binary of true and false or being and nothingness: under abstract negation what is negated is cast into pure nothingness. The act of negation, rather than producing a new state of affairs, instead simply cancels out everything; in the end, it doesn’t really matter what is being negated. Hegel’s complaint isn’t that abstract negation is too destructive, but that it isn’t destructive enough: abstract negation always fails. It sees the nothingness into which it condemns that which is negated as an absence that precedes any particular negation, while the dialectic recognises that any particular negation will continue to express the content of that which is negated, as ‘the nothingness of that from which it results. A negation built on stasis will remain static; without any process of sublation, the negated object will slowly achieve a kind of zombie rebirth, crawling on skeletal hands out the abyss of its own cancellation. This is how 61% of Greek voters managed to reject austerity, only for their government to then triumphantly impose it as the culmination of their democratic will.

4. Most journalists don’t know much about Greece, but they have been to Oxbridge, which is why it’s hard to read anything on the situation without some reference to Sophocles or Aeschylus. What would Thucydides make of the European bond market? Isn’t Tsipras a modern Priam of Troy? This is nonsense. There is a text that can help us understand what’s happening in Greece, but it’s not from some cartoon antiquity. In Leopold von Sacher-Masoch’s Venus in Furs we meet Severin, a sick and sensitive young man, exhausted by Northern civilisation, an admirer of the free sensuality of Greece. He seemingly wills a portrait of the goddess Venus into life as Wanda, an impish and imperious woman; the two draw up a contract in which Severin agrees to be her slave, and enter into a relationship. Theirs is not, as it’s been described, a sado-masochistic relationship, but one between masochists: Wanda, too, wants to be dominated and humiliated, and because Severin is unable to do this for her, she soon begins to lose her love for him. The identification of masochism as an inverse of sadism is troubled from the start: Fifty Shades aside, sadists don’t tend to write contracts with their victims. Sadism is mechanical and automatic, from the distant burning cruelty of the stars to the bloodstained fury of all wild animals; de Sade’s grotesques don’t draw up contracts, they just do whatever they want. Laws and agreements are functions of a willed, deliberate masochism. (As Deleuze writes, the masochist ‘aims not to mitigate the law but on the contrary to emphasise its extreme severity.’) In the end Wanda, now disgusted by her slave, falls for a brutish, Byronic, ‘barbarian’ Greek. First she rejects Severin, then she declares her love for him, makes him agree to put aside his masochism and enter into a ‘normal’, sadistic relationship – and then ties him to a bed, whereupon the Greek suddenly appears, to ‘whip all poetry from him.’ This Greek is a walking dildo; he dies before long, and for all his displays of dominance he only really existed to satisfy Wanda’s masochistic desires. Freud, with whom the idea of masochism as an inverted sadism originates, was still troubled throughout his career by the idea of a ‘primary masochism’. By the time of Beyond the Pleasure Principle he was ready to admit its existence, but his death drive is still fundamentally ambiguous: on the one hand it’s a desire to return to an inorganic stillness, on the other it’s just a redirection of the universal sadistic impulses against the self. In fact, this ambiguity goes back to his Three Essays on the Theory of Sexuality in 1905; at the same time as he describes masochism as an inverted sadism, he also connects sadism with cannibalism. The Bemächtigungsapparatus, or structure of domination, exists only to serve the desires of another, ‘ontogenetically prior’ impulse – but, syntactically, it’s never clear whether this prior impulse is cannibalism or masochism. (After all, in actually existing BDSM relationships, the real power always belongs to the submissive partner: theirs is the limit that must not be crossed.) In the end, it’s far easier for Freud to imagine that we want to eat each other than to think that, when surrounded by a universal and impersonal sadism without subject, the immediate human response is to want to give in to it. The German response to Syriza’s desperate, humiliated proposals – to reject them, and insist on something even harsher, even though it may well end up harming them – has been strongly criticised, but in a way Greece’s creditors are only following the blank and impersonal laws of capital. Their sadism is the sadism of the unliving. Solidarity with Greece shouldn’t imply sympathy for Syriza: they could have got out of this dually-masochistic contract if they wanted (throughout the referendum period it was assumed that Greece was drawing up secret plans for an exit from the Euro; now it’s been revealed that beyond a few tiny committees, they really weren’t); instead they’re bringing in austerity as the fulfilment of their own desires.

5. Among a few of Syriza’s defenders, there’s a complaint that left-wing critics seem to want Greece to fling itself into uncertainty for the sake of a few old Marxist orthodoxies. From our armchairs in the insulated north, we leftier-than-thou dilettantes demand that an entire country ruin itself, just so that we can get the vicarious thrill of resistance. But the ruin is already here. We’re living in it. The deal that Greece has agreed to will enforce mandatory privatisations, automatic spending cuts, and a mechanism to ensure that all these measures are locked outside the realm of politics. The anti-austerity party has delivered the forces of austerity a far more total victory than the old ND-Pasok coalition ever could – they, at least, had to deal with a strong domestic opposition. This ruin is all of Europe’s. In his pre-referendum speech, Tsipras made constant, fawning references to ‘European ideals’ betrayed by the EU, but of course Europe has never really existed. It’s a spur of Asia with unwarranted pretensions, and because it has no geographical reality, it’s had to invent a cultural one. In the years after the collapse of the Mediterranean world, Europe and Christendom were almost identical concepts; after that, Europe was defined by white skin and a habit of imperial massacre elsewhere in the world. Now, Europe is best defined as the place where they implement austerity. Any movement that tries to change this will have to start by abolishing Europe altogether.

6. After the fall of the Roman empire, locals plundered its grand ruins for stones to build homes and churches. For some reason this is generally treated as a terrible philistinism, but in fact it’s determinate negation in action: the cancellation of something already cancelled in order to build something new. It’s better to have a house than a ruin. In Greece, there are still factions willing to oppose the destruction of the country, including the KKE, the Greek Communist Party, and PAME, the All-Workers Militant Front. These groups have consistently warned against Syriza’s brand of capital-friendly anti-austerity politics; there are plans for strikes and demonstrations; the resistance continues. Of course, it’s not enough to simply negate the disaster, and expect it to then be done with. Against the blank and useless negationism of Syriza, it might now be necessary to turn the ruins into a proper structure: to be not against austerity, but for communism.

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