Idiot Joy Showland

This is why I hate intellectuals

Tag: philosophy

In defence of Fred Phelps

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

On crapness and Christmas

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Defying Gravity

The new film Gravity does something quite brave: it doesn’t make space beautiful. We all have an idea of what outer space should look like: all those vast pink and blue nebulae draped in purple stars, swirling at the slow pace of cosmic infinity into (of course) phallic or pudendal forms. Space has gas clouds and supernovae and green-skinned alien babes and, quite possibly, God. At the same time we know that the sublime images we get from NASA are all in false colours; that for all the fascinating things in it (and there are plenty of them), most of space itself is actually quite boring as far as our libidinal imaginations are concerned. It’s a dead black void scattered with a few dead grey rocks, and they crash into each other according to a precise mathematical senselessness. But in our fiction, at least, we can have it all: black holes, asteroid fields, c-beams glittering in the dark near the Tannhäuser Gate. Not for Alfonso Cuarón; he’s got a real pedant’s eye for this stuff. The Earth is beautiful in Gravity, its clouds burning orange as the line of sunset crosses its surface, its cities shining in the night like diamonds on a lace – but space beyond its orbit is just a cold dark nothing. There’s only one shot that throws a sop to our aestheticised vision of the universe: our hero drifts out briefly into the void, and we see her framed against a galaxy of stars – but even here it looks washed out and anaemic; a semi-skimmed Milky Way. No grandeur, just emptiness. It’s incredibly impressive.

Cuarón does something else that’s pretty extraordinary: in a film where every shot and effect is fine-tuned to perfection, he’s managed to craft a plot that’s entirely unremarkable, dialogue so corny as to border on the emetic, and characters who might be floating in infinitely extended space but are entirely lacking in any depth themselves. It’s strange. In Y Tu Mamá También and Children of Men Cuarón showed that he’s every bit as capable a writer as he is a director, but the plot in Gravity hugs so closely to genre that you can pretty much work it all out from the trailer (if you can’t, look away now). There’s a disaster in space; Sandra Bullock and George Clooney are cast adrift; he dies heroically saving her life; she has a crisis of confidence but then looks inside herself to find the strength that she needs to survive, and ends up setting foot once more on the friendly soil of Earth. Along the way there’s some seriously embarrassing dialogue (“Will you pray for me? Nobody ever taught me how”) and a seemingly unnecessary backstory about the death of Bullock’s young daughter in lieu of any actual characterisation. It’s interesting that Clooney’s space fratboy – for all the wacky stories he half-relates – never has his emotional past strip-mined in the same manner; clearly the psychological depths of hysteria are still only to be plunged by women. In this really excellent post at Wasted Ideology the dodgy gender politics of the film are thoroughly taken apart, and the result isn’t pretty: in the end, even a disaster film in space needs to continually reaffirm ‘the centrality of love and family to everyone’s experience, weak women and strong men.’

This doesn’t mean that there’s not room for some significance in the film: after all, it has all that terrifying empty space gnawing at its periphery. The psychotherapist Aaron Balick gives an interesting reading, in which the repeated motif of ‘letting go’ (including in the film’s tagline) and the subject of Bullock’s lost daughter is read against Freud’s Mourning and Melancholia, turning the film into a psychological parable:

For Freud, the refusal to let go results in the person holding onto the lost other inside one’s self. So long as the lost person remains psychologically inside the self, they can never be properly mourned (or let go of) and nothing can ever take its place. Furthermore, it is a constant drain on the life energy as it is pulled inwards towards the lost object, and not available to go outwards into to the world; it operates like an internal black hole. When Dr. Stone [Sandra Bullock] decides to give up hope, this is a giving up of her relationship to the world. In a sense, it is an (unconscious) choice to abandon the real world and to be sucked into the endless chasm of depression induced self-involvement: to literally let go of the world and collapse in upon the self and die. She shuts off the oxygen in her pod awaiting her death, when the spectre of Matt [George Clooney] comes to snap her out of it (a representation from her unconscious). It is he (whom she has refused to let go before) that guides to towards the what she has lost, not just the whom, to use Freud’s words. He brings the unconscious part of her loss to consciousness. He essentially says, “your daughter is dead, you are not, you can choose life.”

Letting go, yes – but something of a Leninist approach is needed here: letting go into what? There’s something crucial in Mourning and Melancholia that’s missing in this approach; Freud’s text isn’t a self-help guide. Freud describes melancholia as a turning of the ego against itself – ‘the patient represents his ego to us as worthless, incapable of any achievement and morally despicable; he reproaches himself, vilifies himself and expects to be cast out and punished.’ What’s interesting is that Freud doesn’t necessarily disagree: the melancholic patient isn’t delusional, he probably is worthless, his sickness is that he’s lacking the narcissistic delusions that let most people ignore this fact and go about their days as normal. Freud connects this falling-away of delusions with the loss of a desired object (this loss isn’t necessarily death, but a rejection or disappointment) that the ego continues to strongly attach itself to. It’s not just a simple matter of ‘letting go’ of a loved one – the point is that the ego directs its hatred against itself because it unconsciously hates that same object of desire, but still identifies with it too strongly to express that hate. When you love someone, that other person becomes something of a master-signifier; the point around which your entire life and subjectivity gains meaning. It’s an impossible task; in the end we’re all just bags of flesh and offal, and loving someone is a terrible thing to impose on them. When that person inevitably fails to be perfect, it’s felt as a loss and a betrayal. Hatred results; if you love someone, you can’t help but hate them at the same time. Sometimes you can manage that hatred, but if you’re really in love, full of fire and passion, all your hatred is turned inwards on yourself, and the only way to recover from this is to admit to yourself how you actually feel. Letting go isn’t Sandra Bullock finally managing to move past the death of her daughter and value her own life. It’s a furious exclamation: fuck her, fuck her for dying; how could she do that to me? Letting go means floating off alone into the seething blackness of space.

You let go into empty space, but space always carries meaning. Since Kant we’ve known that spatiality isn’t an objective prior substance in which things exist but something that we create when we conceive of relations between objects. In A Thousand Plateaus, Deleuze and Guattari posit two modalities of space: the smooth and the striated. Smooth space is intensive nomad space, in which ‘the point is between two lines;’ striated space is the extensive space of the State, in which ‘the line is between two points.’ Felt is smooth; woven cloth is striated. Earth orbit in Gravity is a heavily striated space; movements are always made between fixed positions. We go to the shuttle, and from there to the ISS, and from there to the Chinese station; as Bullock tumbles into the void Clooney tries to fix her line of flight through reference to points. What can you see? Can you see the shuttle? Can you see the moon? However, as Deleuze and Guattari point out, the two forms of space are always in a dialectic: farmers put up walls and pastoralists tear them down. At the beginning of the film there’s a catastrophe: an anti-satellite missile test goes horrible wrong and suddenly a deadly tide of debris is circling the planet at lethal speed. Now every fixed point must be considered in terms of its relation to that moving line. Striated space comes with all the blockages of bourgeois subjectivity – the nation-state, the family unit, the Oedipal triangle – and, of course, Bullock only survives in the film by upholding these striations. She doesn’t let go, she doesn’t admit that she hates her dead daughter, she keeps on going to preserve her melancholic attachment, to carry on affirming that desire is a lack. But there’s another way.

The Earth is beautiful in Gravity. Space isn’t beautiful, but it is smooth, a void in which nothing is stable, crisscrossed by tumbling objects and lines of flight. However tightly focused the action is onscreen, it’s always lurking there in the background, a silent rebuke to all the striations arcing up from the planet’s surface. As he floats away to die, Clooney’s character has a choice: he can disappear among the stars, or he can use the last few breaths of fuel in his jetpack to nudge himself in the direction of Earth. After a while, floating will become falling. Gravity will get him. He’ll burn to a crisp, but he’ll do so under the blue skies of home. What would you do? Clooney chooses the stars, and he can do this because he hasn’t been subjected to the same bullshit characterisation as Bullock. The narrative demands that she risk her life re-entering the atmosphere because she’s been thoroughly interpellated as a woman, a grieving mother, and a melancholic. Clooney still has a touch of the everyman about him, and out there in empty space you can approach what Badiou calls the ‘generic.’ You become your own movement. Gender and nation and subjectification mean nothing for a human body spinning powerlessly in the void. In a way, God is out there; the promise of the New Testament is fulfilled: There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither bond nor free, there is neither male nor female: for ye are all one in Christ Jesus. The film can’t endorse it, of course – that’s why it’s only ever presented as a danger – but it’s still haunted by this idea: the communism of outer space.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Grand Theft Auto and the extinction of being

More like Geworfenheit Theft Auto amirite

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

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

~

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Philosophy for the weak

But God hath chosen the foolish things of the world to confound the wise; and God hath chosen the weak things of the world to confound the things which are mighty; and base things of the world, and things which are despised, hath God chosen, yea, and things which are not, to bring to nought things that are.
I Corinthians 1:27-28

A sick man, a spiteful man, an unpleasant man; a cruel and strange weirdo, a loser, a stateless foreigner living alone in a single room; in other words, a man who can’t bear to see a horse being whipped. He hugs its neck, he wails, he collapses. Eventually the police are called. What’s the deal with Nietzsche and horses? Twenty years beforehand, when he was young and strong, he’d abandoned his ancient books and joined the Prussian artillery, quickly distinguishing himself as an excellent rider. Then, one day, as he jumped happily into the saddle, something went wrong. He tore two muscles down his left side; he couldn’t walk for months. A fracture opened up. No more games with horses and cannon for young Fritz; an unhappy return to his old childhood world of classical philology, Hölderlin and Schopenhauer. From here on his body would only disintegrate: syphilis turns his bones to mush; indigestion sets his entrails on fire; genius, the worst sickness of all, sends him mad. All because of one horse. It’s hard to see Nietzsche angry at the horse, though; it’s much easier to imagine him bent over in pain as the horse watches with placid incomprehension, looking up into its dark eyes and suddenly conceiving of the doctrine of eternal recurrence. All this could happen again, exactly, to the last detail, and he’d be glad. Nietzsche trying and failing to mount his horse is a philosophical encounter. He loves horses, wild horses, war-horses, cart-horses. We could ask instead: what’s the deal with Nietzsche and his father? Ever since Freud’s Little Hans we’ve had to look at horses suspiciously. A horse isn’t just a horse, it’s a big snorting priapic dad. It’s strange, though: the same furious Nietzsche who tears down gods and nations speaks in only the kindest terms of his timid Lutheran pastor of a father; through him he invents an entire lineage of Polish nobility to be his ancestors. A delusional man. A man whose life isn’t so much a life as a constant writhing agony. His apartment in Turin is full of dust and little else; no wonder his lungs are playing up. It’s dark, and faintly moist, and it smells of decay. Moths flap about in gloomy corners. A single trunk, a single desk, a single bed. The gas-lamp outside sends the odd flicker of orange light, Dämmerung-deathly, across the room. In the middle of all this, Friedrich Nietzsche sits down at his desk and writes works of cold bright Arctic clarity.

In Anti-Nietzsche, Malcolm Bull confronts the modern-day ubiquity of that strange and lonely man going mad in Turin. Nietzscheanism is everywhere; Bull points out quite rightly how strange it is that a philosopher famous for his oppositionalism is so scarcely opposed. Socialists, feminists, and Christians swear their fidelity to the ideas of the anti-egalitarian, misogynist and atheist Nietzsche. However, Bull points out that defeating him isn’t an easy thing to do. Nietzsche writes about the will to power; if you try to critique his ideas, you’re only asserting your own will to power over his. Nietzsche writes about master and slave morality; if you try to overturn his principles, you’re only proposing your own master morality. Nietzsche’s works are full of conflict, war, and dynamite; if you try to fight him, he’s already won. So Bull doesn’t try. As he puts it, Nietzsche wants us to ‘read for victory,’ so he reads for defeat. Bull’s tactic is for us to accept Nietzsche’s philosophy in its entirety but to position ourselves on the ‘wrong’ side of every opposition. Rather than trying to raise ourselves to Übermenschen, we should become less than human; we should abandon the aesthetic; we should arm ourselves with nothing except our weakness, because we are weak. Bull encourages us to ‘read like losers.’ It’s a fascinating idea, but I think there’s something he’s missed. There’s no need for us to read like losers, because Nietzsche writes like a loser.

I usually don’t like this kind of biographical argument. When people claim that Bishop Berkeley’s subjective idealism was just a philosophical manifestation of his life-long constipation and inability to produce matter, I find it hard not to have a vague objection. It’s the same when there’s an attempt to reduce political ideologies to some kind of cod-psychopathology: you’re only a conservative because of your dominating father, I’m only a communist because I never got over my infantile egotism, whatever. These are ideas, they should be confronted as such. With Nietzsche it’s different. His great achievement was to drag philosophy down from its pretentious heights and roll it around in the mud a little. He was the first to see philosophy as a ‘kind of unintended and unwitting memoir’ of its author – as a symptom. There’s no reason to think that Nietzsche ever excluded his own (anti)philosophy from this perspectivism. When he tells us not to believe everything written down in fine style, he’s talking about his own writing. There’s a note of sad irony in all his works: his chapters with titles like ‘why I am so clever’ and ‘why I write such good books’ refer to nothing more than his migraines, his blindness, and his loneliness. Nietzsche carefully cultivated this image of his own lack: even as he was dying of syphilis, he continued to maintain that he’d never slept with a woman. In his Introduction to Antiphilosophy Boris Groys writes that ‘when Nietzsche praises victorious life, preaches amor fati and identifies himself with the forces of nature that are bound to destroy him, he simply seeks to divert himself and others from the fact that he himself is sick, poor, weak and unhappy.’ I don’t think diversion is what’s going on here. He’s coding or communicating his sickness; the incredible strength of his works and the incredible weakness of the man himself are one and the same thing, and neither one can be understood without the other.

Ignoring Nietzsche’s weakness can get you into trouble. I’m not talking about the fascists, whose Nietzsche is more a signifier than a thinker, but people like Georges Bataille. Bataille was a great philosopher but a really shoddy Nietzschean. While he famously confronts Hegel with laughter, he takes Nietzsche far too seriously – because Nietzsche’s laugh is that of the weak, choked with phlegm. Bataille wasn’t weak, even despite his tuberculosis. He lived an affirmative life of the kind that Nietzsche recommended: he wasted several fortunes in bars, casinos, and brothels; he founded secret societies; he was an enthusiastic participant in the partouze, he masturbated over the corpse of his mother while his pregnant wife slept in the next room. He was outwardly courteous and handsome; he didn’t need to hide his face behind a ridiculous moustache. He didn’t quite get it. You can see this in some of his most overtly Nietzschean texts; The Practice of Joy before Death, for instance. Bataille writes that ‘man “is” as soon as he stops behaving like a cripple, glorifying necessary work and letting himself be emasculated by the fear of tomorrow.’ Later he shows us how to do this: ‘I AM joy before death. Joy before death carries me. Joy before death hurls me down. Joy before death annihilates me. I remain in this annihilation and, from there, I picture nature as a play of forces expressed in multiplied and incessant agony.’ It’s powerful stuff, but there’s a glaring lack of irony here, a very un-Nietzschean didacticism. Bataille doesn’t quite get it because Nietzsche is a hypocrite, and he isn’t.

Bataille’s attitude to weakness is one of disavowal: Je sais bien that I am tubercular, mais quand même when I scream I AM THE SUN the verb être is the vehicle of an amorous frenzy. This is particularly evident in his writings on ritual orgy. In Eroticism Bataille rejects the idea of the orgy as an agrarian ritual, or at least the idea that the ritual orgy is entirely reducible to agrarian ritual. Instead it’s seen as an intrusion of the sacred world (that characterised by continuity, deindividuation, violence and ecstasy) into the profane world of work and discontinuity. The ritual orgy is a religious experience in the highest sense; it has no primary purpose other than unleash the transgressive forces of violent and frenzied eroticism. Bataille likens the orgy to war, another explosion of the sacred whose secondary, political purpose is only assigned to it later; it becomes enmeshed in his doctrine of excessive life and overabundant strength. He refers to ‘the men who ordained these orgies,’ but the men who ordained these orgies were women. The Dionysian Mysteries were a grotesquerie, a festival of the weak and the excluded in Greek society: women, slaves, cripples and outlaws. Their power was like Nietzsche’s: the paradoxical power of weakness, a power Bataille has disavowed. When the weakness goes; so does the power. Last year I took part in a masquerade orgy in London’s South Bank; the principle of female ordination was there (men could only attend if accompanied by a female partner, only women could approach men) but it was immensely different from the ancient mysteries. Afterwards many of my friends wanted to know what it had been like; more specifically they wanted to know if the whole thing had been tinged with horror and if it had left me feeling dead inside. They were quite disappointed to find out that it had just been quite fun. The people there were young and wealthy, bankers and investors; before we could go we had to send photos to the organisers so they could make sure we were attractive enough. In Bataille’s terms, it was libertinage rather than dissolution. There was no element of the sickness or the weakness that expresses itself as lightning and dynamite.

It’s notable that the discussion of ritual orgy in Eroticism is immediately followed by a critique of Christianity. The reason the Bacchic orgy no longer exists as a mass phenomenon has to do with Christianity’s reappraisal of the sacred and the profane; Bataille argues that in Christianity the sacred is associated exclusively with purity and the non-erotic love of agápē, while the ‘bad’ elements of the sacred (frenzy, violence) become part of the profane world, which is condemned as evil. In doing so Christianity loses much of the religious spirit, replacing it with sterile piety. Even so, it can’t abolish the impure aspect of the sacred, which finds its medieval expression in the Witches’ Sabbath and the Black Mass, inverted representations of Catholic liturgy. Again, Bataille’s argument loses something from the absence of any sense for weakness; he doesn’t see what really distinguishes Christianity. As he himself notes, the ‘sacred world is nothing but the natural world.’ It’s the order of the profane, with its division into work-time and leisure-time, that’s an artificial world formed through societal rites. However, the formation of the profane world is itself a product of religion; the laws which set up taboos and demand diligence in work are universally held to be a product of divine or cosmic revelation. Religion doesn’t belong to the sacred; it establishes a boundary between the sacred and the profane. The innovation of Christianity is to cast the profane world as the site of evil, to reject the world of work and to uphold the radical continuity of the weak. It’s true that the medieval Church tried to suppress the unruly side of the sacred, and that this impurity nonetheless found a way to express itself; but it wasn’t in the Witches’ Sabbath and its inversion of Christian prayer. Instead, frenzy, violence, and liberation were expressed precisely within the fabric of Christianity, in the form of the peasants’ revolt. These uprisings, generally led by radical preachers and taking inspiration from Biblical communism, erupted with all the thunder and fury of the sick and the weak, flaring up across Europe from the 1300s until they reached their apotheosis in the French Revolution. In Christianity, the sacred is class struggle.

Nietzsche would have called this slave morality, but Nietzsche loved horses. He saw a horse being whipped on the Piazza Carlo Roberto in Turin and rushed over to the animal, cradling its neck, trying to protect it. Then he collapsed. His Zarathustra surrounded himself with eagles and serpents, but Nietzsche loved cart-horses, slow and docile animals cowering under the whip. This doesn’t invalidate his philosophy; it opens it up. Master and slave morality aren’t in absolute opposition; just like Nietzsche’s power and his weakness, they form a dialectic. At a certain extreme point an identity of opposites is reached: the weak are the strong, and the strong are the weak. All it takes is a little will.

The image at the top of this essay is from Béla Tarr’s The Turin Horse, which you should watch.

Art, money, beauty, shit, representation, the communal

א In Der Ursprung des Kunstwerkes, Martin Heidegger attempts to account for and justify the phenomenon of modern art. While maintaining his own somewhat conservative tastes, he claims that modern art possesses autonomous value – despite its production requiring no evident skill or virtuosity, despite its challenge to conventional aesthetics pushing it into the realm of outright ugliness, despite its lack of any identifiable object of representation, despite it being entirely counter to the prevailing contemporary sensibility. This is, he concludes, because it contains an element of aletheia: clearing, or unconcealment; it is unpopular in the present because it speaks to the future; it has its origin in its own future. We are now in Heidegger’s future – Der Ursprung des Kunstwerkes was first published in 1950 – and his prediction seems to have manifested itself. The challenges of modernism have become the dogmas of postmodernism; what was revolutionary has become institutionalised; what was vital has ossified. Artists parade an unending succession of mundane objects in front of us – is this art? Is this art? How about this? – and with every degree of separation from Duchamp the question steadily loses its power. Art has become solipsistic. And while Heidegger could see an unknowable future prefigured in art’s setting-into-work of Truth, the postmodern bonfire of the metanarratives has obliterated the future, replacing it with a terminal self-reference. Something, somewhere, has been lost.

1.1 There’s a simple answer to Heidegger: he’s ignored the position of art in the commodity market. Contemporary art is given value not because of its intrinsic qualities but precisely because anything that calls itself art is a good store for value. Art is an excellent investment, its use-value hovering in a zone of indistinction between infinity and zero, its exchange-value untouched by the turbulence of the market. Unlike oil or wheat or subprime mortgage derivatives, the price of art is invulnerable to fluctuations in supply and demand. Some of the greatest works of art ever produced lie unseen in safety deposit boxes; meanwhile, subjecting art to the cold logic of the commodity, corporate investors ensure the production of facile, anodyne artworks of ever-increasing value and ever-decreasing worth.

1.2 I find this line of argument entirely unconvincing. Before the age of corporate-funded art, it was financed by usurers and robber barons; before that by monarchs and aristocrats, before that by the Church, before that by the temple-State complex. Shakespeare called his group of actors the King’s Men for his patron, James I. Virgil’s Aeneid was a paean to Augustus. (While in Broch’s The Death of Virgil his dying command to burn the manuscript is the basis for a denunciation of State art, there’s little to suggest that such concerns were particularly prevalent at any time before the 19th Century, let alone the classical period.) Because the work of art tries to touch on something essential and immutable outside of the relations of production, because  its value is distinct from that of the money-economy, it is always forced to parasite itself off the exploiters of those same social relations.

1.2 Art and money are more than just joined at the hip: they’re joined at the anus. Freud famously formulated the equation money = shit, with miserliness being a mature manifestation of infantile anal eroticism; meanwhile, the production of shit is the first expression of creativity, the first instance of the subject creating something external to themselves to be admired. The anus is a Deleuzian machine, channeling and cutting off a single flow: a flow that appears as money on one side of the anus-machine and as art on the other.

1.3 The intimate connection between art and money is demonstrated by their shared origin. Marx notes that the currency-form has its root in ‘the sensuous splendor of precious metals.’ It is from this sensuousness that money develops the fetishistic power to transform ‘imagination to life, imagined being into real being’ – in Heideggerian terms, to effect the self-disclosure of Being. In other words, money performs the exact same function as art. Wherever the currency-form arises, the money-commodity is always something possessing a sensuous beauty: gold and silver, cowrie shells, beads, brass rods, sandalwood. It’s not just their value was seen to inhere because of their beauty: the money-commodity was always that which was used to adorn the body – a practice universal in human cultures and unique to them. Here is where the rupture between money and art can be found: the raw material of money is spectacular and beautiful, while art, by contrast, is built out of the base and the mundane. Early painters used pigments made from mud, blood, and shit. Sculptors used rock, earth, and bone. Poets and playwrights, mere words. Heidegger is correct when he identifies as an essential element of the work of art its thingliness, its grounding in the Earth, its existence as an object known to ‘cargo-carriers or cleaning ladies in the museum.’ The work of art is not the beautiful object; it never has been. Money is that which is used for adornment and enjoyment, the foundational purpose of art is entirely distinct from any sense of the aesthetic. In producing art that contradicted the prevailing sense of the beautiful, the Modernists weren’t defying art’s conventions but reaching back to its roots.  Money with its baseness doesn’t disturb the spirituality of art; rather with its spirituality it disturbs art’s baseness.

2.1 If art isn’t the beautiful, if the beautiful is disruptive to art, what differentiates it? It could be argued that the purpose of art is to be a ‘mirror held up to nature’; that the present condition has its roots in the movement of the Impressionists away from a truthful representation of the thing as it is towards the thing as it is perceived. A piece of art that doesn’t form an image of something isn’t an artwork at all. It’s just pigment of a canvas or a heap of atoms, as useless as it is meaningless.

2.2 I don’t think this is the case either. Modernism’s deliberate abstraction and rejection of the representational isn’t really anything new at all. When medieval artists depicted soldiers standing as tall as the walls they laid siege to, when they placed human figures in a spatial field without regard for pose or perspective, when they depicted Christ being crucified by Roman soldiers in knightly armour, it wasn’t from any lack of knowledge or skill. Much of the fiercely naturalistic art and sculpture of the classical period was still around: medieval art is deliberately stylised, its ultimate point of reference being not the external world but artistic conventions. Medieval art abounds in mise en abyme, representations of the work of art within the work of art itself, generally in a highly stylised form: artists of the period might not have produced works that were directly representative, but they were keenly aware of the question of representation and its problems and opportunities.

2.3 In fact, art itself implies self-reference. Pure representation has always had a magical quality to it: early drawings of animals were believed to summon the game to the hunting-grounds or functioned as objects of worship. In monotheism, the act of representation, as a sort of second-order creation, is a blasphemy. The image always threatens to come alive: it is for this reason that the God of the Old Testament forbids the creation of ‘any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth.’ Only when the image is tempered with self-reference and self-consciousness of its position as a piece of art does this magical power dissipate. Pure abstraction is not therefore the antithesis of art, but art in the fullest sense.

3.1 This primordial magical quality is essential, however, if art is to find its way out of its current situation. In a sense, Plato’s assertion that art is a second-order imitation is correct, but it’s not the natural world that art refers to. In The Birth of Tragedy, Nietzsche describes how the theatre of ancient Greece has its origins in Dionysian rites later softened by the influence of the Apollonian Kunsttrieb. This principle holds true for all forms of art: sculpture and painting originally provided objects of ecstatic religious veneration, music and song were used to induce frenzy. The art of today is a shadow of these practices, but some of its power is retained. Schopenhauer’s belief in the power of art to suspend the rotation of the wheel of Ixion is well-founded, but this requires not individual contemplation but communal transcendence. It is precisely this quality that is missing in contemporary art. To reinvigorate art it is not necessary to reintroduce standards of aesthetic beauty, nor to return to the principle of artistic self-expression, nor to reconnect it with the natural world as opposed to the artistic milieu. Art needs to return in some way to the communal.

3.2 As for how this is to be done, we’ll have to wait and see.

Qassam existentialism

1: Why the rockets? The Palestinians are trying to kill Jews, any Jews, they’re targeting civilians. Except that’s not really the case. The rockets are useless, tin cans filled with horse shit and refined sugar with warheads of dodgy trinitrotoluene. Many fail to launch altogether, most of those that do get off the ground are shot down by Israel’s Iron Dome anti-missile system, most of those that manage to land somewhere generally end up in some empty patch of ground miles from anyone. From the twelve thousand rockets launched in the last twelve years, there have been twenty-two Jewish fatalities. That’s a kill rate of 0.175%. If Hamas were really serious about killing Jews they’d have plenty of other ways to go about it. There are always soldiers patrolling up and down the fence that rings the Gaza Strip, it’d be far easier to have a pop at one of them. Or it’d still be possible to smuggle some gunmen into Israel proper to enact a few atrocities in a couple of kibbutzim – expensive, certainly, but given that each rocket costs about $800, it’d be a far more effective investment. But instead of doing that, they fire rockets. Not just Hamas, either. In times of truce the Hamas police have to go about arresting and torturing members of other groupuscules, gangs of kids feverishly building rockets in basements across Gaza City. Why the rockets?

1.1: The rockets aren’t weapons of war at all. Gaza has no industry, no exports, eighty percent of its population is dependent on aid. Most of the world, its nominal allies included, would rather it weren’t there. The rockets are a form of communication, the only one available. A reminder, a gadfly’s bite, a projection of the reality that is life in Gaza beyond the cloacal confines of the world’s largest prison camp. Extension du domaine de la lutte. Every sad volley of sputtering white-tailed rockets is another desperate whisper: I exist… I exist… And every precision-guided Israeli bomb is a brutally curt reply: No you don’t.

1.2: Well, not quite. Israel might not want the Gazans, but it certainly needs their rockets. The IDF, the most advanced army on the face of the planet, is now not much more than the armed wing of Netenyahu’s re-election committee; a few Israeli lives lost in the cause of party politics is apparently perfectly acceptable. Israel is defending itself – against what? The current escalation has been entirely contrived by the Israeli side. Hamas only started firing rockets after Israel lobbed shells at children playing on a football pitch. When Ahmed Jabari was murdered he was hashing out the details of a long-term truce. The Israeli bombardment of Gaza isn’t designed to stop the rockets, that’s the last thing they want; it’s a deliberate provocation. If enough rockets are fired they can respond however they want. Freud wrote that a masochist is always at the same time a sadist. Hit me, hit me again, let Gaza transform itself into a volcanic fountain spewing scrap iron and potassium nitrate, hit me until the roles suddenly switch and I seize the whip to avenge myself.

1.2.1: It’s not about Gaza at all, it’s about the January election and the upcoming Palestinian bid for recognition at the United Nations. More than that: it’s autotelic, war for the sake of war. The worst thing is that the Gazans must know this; they know they’ve been turned into mere implements. It might have been better for them to have not responded – the only way they could have thwarted their aggressors was by inaction. Impossible, of course. Our form might precede our function, our freedom might be absolute, but if your leader is assassinated on a whim you can’t just do nothing. You have to strike back, you have to launch rockets at Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, you have to play along and carry out your role in a play that’s already been meticulously scripted. Otherwise you lose legitimacy. Hamas is like Sartre’s café waiter, playing at being itself.

2: The Palestinians fire rockets from densely populated civilian areas. They hide behind their women and children. Of course they do. Why shouldn’t they? They know that Israel needs to keep its end up in the propaganda war. They know that Gaza is full of mobile phones with their all-seeing eyes. No sensible military commander would see the opportunity to attack with impunity and not take it. What should they do instead? Should they march out in formation to a patch of dust outside Gaza City, nice and gentlemanly, with muskets gleaming in the sun, so an Israeli jet can come over and wipe them all out without injuring any photogenic kiddies? Supporters of Israel continually voice their disgust at how Hamas is waging its war. How would they prefer them to do it? Maybe the Knesset should approve the sale of a few unmanned drones to the Palestinian resistance. Then the two sides could both hide themselves safely away, firing missiles with xbox controllers and calling each other fags through their headsets.

2.1: More to the point, Zionist disgust articulates itself in a strangely constricted moral field. Palestinians try to send their rockets into population centres. Israelis, meanwhile, talk sickeningly of precision warfare and surgical strikes. As if the airdropped leaflets warning of a raid excuses the raid itself. As if it’s perfectly admissible for them to kill whomever they want, as long as they’ve bloodlessly decided on which particular person they intend to kill. As if their ongoing colonial project is a-ok as long as they don’t murder too many innocents. As if the specific tactics of Hamas invalidate the justice of the Palestinian cause.

2.1.1: The leaflets say: avoid Hamas operatives, don’t go near them, we are trying to kill them, we are determined to defend ourselves. Hamas is the elected government in Gaza. The leaflets are telling people to avoid their own state. The IDF is a Deleuzian nomad, a war machine defined by its absolute exteriority, warding off state-formation and smoothing striated space, its missiles describing lines of flight. Liberation.

2.2: Talk of collateral damage is always sickening. We’re not trying to kill you, they say, so if you die it’s not our fault, it’s the caprice of chance, we will express regret but never apologise. The language of surgical warfare is nothing more than a feckless shrug at the dozens of civilian deaths. At the same time, though, some of what the Israelis are saying is true: millions of dollars of munitions have been fired at Gaza in hundreds of air assaults; considering that, the fatality rate is preternaturally low. So if these raids aren’t causing casualties, what are they targeting? Arms caches, military posts, and so on. But Gaza isn’t that big a place. During the last Israeli massacre in Gaza, they destroyed water treatment plants, telephone exchanges, factories. Organs of the state, after all, and the state is controlled by Hamas. David Harvey calls this kind of thing ‘creative destruction on the land’ – capital always needs somewhere to reinvest, it needs that magic three percent yearly growth; if you bomb a factory then you get to award the contract for its reconstruction afterwards. I don’t think it’s just that. During periods of truce, Israel is forever breaking its own blockade. It sends mountains of aid into Gaza, armoured vans full of shekels to prop up the banks, trucks full of food in quantities determined by the government’s coldly calculated calorie allowances. It’s a propaganda coup. Such generosity, we’re feeding our prisoners, we’re supplying their services, because for some mysterious reason they can’t do it themselves. And after all this, the ingrates dare to fire rockets at us.

3: And the people living in Sderot and Ashkelon and Nahal Oz, who famously have sixty seconds to scramble into their bomb shelters, whose skulls resound with the sounds of sirens and impacts – what are they doing there? Unlike their less fortunate neighbours, they have no wall keeping them in. Is their colonial project so important that they’d subject their children to these terrors? There could almost be a kind of wild romanticism to it: desert settlers, building a new rugged Judaism out in the scrublands, where the ground is hard and the sun is blistering and the sky spits a constant barrage of rockets. They could culture a good strong fanaticism out there, piously farm the chthonic irrationality that bubbles up from inbetween the rocks. That could be forgivable. Of course the actuality is the total opposite. In interview after interview the residents of these towns say the same thing: they just want a nice quiet life, they want things to go back to normal, and the slaughter in Gaza is a fair price for their diazepamoid banality. They want the humiliation – sometimes the extermination – of an entire people for the transcendent Good of low house prices and a tolerable commute. Sderot is a blasphemy, a monster sitting on the corpse of the Palestinian village of Najd: rows of houses with their pitched red roofs sprouting along broad avenues, delicately pruned palm trees rising from nail-clippered grass embankments, dreadful public sculptures. Its people are Hebrew-speaking Americans, displaying the same kind of petty anaesthetic viciousness that has the sublime crags of the San Gabriel mountains intercut with lines of identical bungalows, that builds Burger King restaurants by the side of the freeway in the Mojave Desert, that reels out electrified fences on the banks of the Rio Grande. Kill them all, they say. They’d enact an anodyne genocide.

3.1: Architecture is the continuation of war by other means.

3.2: Eyal Weizman told us that the Israeli army reads Deleuze. If they’re not doing so already, the Palestinians should read Negarestani. The war is being fought in the air, with drones and rockets, but its source is subterranean: the tunnels into Sinai, the bomb shelters under Ashdod. The surface is a fragile and ( )holey membrane, a plane of peril.

4: My first reaction to a monstrous injustice being carried out against people on the other side of the world is to find someone who supports it and argue with them. It’s pointless, and probably not particularly healthy, but what else is there? During Operation Cast Lead, I was baton-charged by police outside the Israeli embassy in London. There were thousands of us demonstrating: bourgeois students like myself, Hamas supporters in keffiyehs, sweet old ladies hoisting banners of Stalin. When the last remnants of the protest were broken apart by riot police, I went home bruised and exhausted to find out that Israel had mounted a ground invasion while I was out.

5: Žižek describes war as a kind of phatic communication. It’s true that when two radically different cultures first encounter each other, they’re always very curious: they want to know about each other; chiefly they want to know how the other side dies. Now they have new ways of talking. The Israeli Defence Forces and the Izz ad-Din al-Qassam Brigades are idly chatting on Twitter: swapping threats and insults; disputing claims of downed planes, rocket attacks, civilian casualties. The IDF operates a programme for its online sympathisers: by sharing propaganda photos on Facebook, you can rise through imaginary military ranks. You too can serve in the Israeli armed forces, fighting the war from your laptop. Actually, the opposite is taking place. The keyboard warriors aren’t being integrated into the military, the military is turning into part of the online commentariat. It’s turning into me. Baudrillard said that the Gulf War didn’t take place, that the Americans were fighting a nonexistent enemy. Now both sides are nonexistent. The war is a staged event, a text; it exists not to be won but to be interpreted. It’s a fiction being played out in real life.

5.1: And people are dying.

9/11 & the Burkean sublime

My year studying literature at UCLA was academically pretty satisfying. Without having to follow any structured degree course, I was free to abandon actual literary works altogether and indulge myself reading obtuse Continental theorists. Most importantly, the grades I received didn’t impact my overall degree, which allowed my work to sometimes veer away from strict academic tone (I referred to Shakespeare as ‘Shakey P’ throughout one paper) and into areas of questionable bad taste, as in the essay below, which I’m posting in commemoration/memoriam of yesterday’s anniversary. I’m not sure if I agree with everything I’ve written; certainly not with the rather Arendtite equivalency I appear to be drawing between Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union – but I rarely fully agree with anything I write, even the stuff  that I put up on this thing. There was also more I wanted to say: I wanted to discuss in greater depth the revolutionary potential of reactionary ideas such as those of Burke in a postmodern age, I wanted to more thoroughly deconstruct the aesthetic effect of the attacks themselves. The piece does end quite suddenly; I suppose I had other things to do. I’ve decided after some reflection not to amend or expand it (I’ve got other things to do). Here ya go.

In his 1757 essay A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful, Edmund Burke developed a theory of aesthetics based on two opposing principles: the beautiful and the sublime. The beautiful is that which is pleasant and well-formed (although he disputes the notion that a sense of proportion is intrinsic to beauty). The sublime, by contrast, is considered to be a far more powerful force: it is that which induces fear and awe. Central to sublimity is the experience of vastness, infinity, and danger. While a sense of terror is essential to an experience of the sublime, the danger must not be immediate – Burke uses the example of a viewer on shore watching a ship being tossed about by a storm.

Although extensive use was made of the sublime in the art and politics of the Romantic period, its importance appears to have diminished during the modern era, and especially since the First World War.. It is arguable that elements of the Burkean sublime persisted into the politics of the twentieth century. In his Commentary on the Society of the Spectacle, Guy Debord distinguishes between two forms of spectacularity: the concentrated spectacle of Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union during Stalin’s premiership, and the diffuse spectacle of American capitalism.[1] It is arguable that the first form is heavily reliant on the sublime: Burke argues that the ‘succession and uniformity of parts are what constitute the artificial infinite;’ and such succession and uniformity formed a prominent element of Nazi and Stalinist mass demonstrations;[2] meanwhile the Lichtdomen designed by Albert Speer for the Nuremberg Rallies produced at once the extreme light and extreme darkness which are ‘both, in spite of their opposite nature, brought to concur in producing the sublime.’[3]

However, as Debord points out, the concentrated spectacle has been entirely vanquished by the diffuse spectacle, in which ‘wage-earners [are driven] to apply their freedom of choice to the vast range of new commodities now on offer.’[4] If the organising principle for the concentrated spectacle is the sublime, for the diffuse spectacle it is the beautiful – sensations of awe and terror rarely lend themselves to the consumption of consumer goods. As Foucault points out, the master-signifier of morality in late capitalism is ‘our feelings’ – while in classical Greece the good life was considered to be that which accorded to aesthetic principles, with ethics and aesthetics considered to be non-contradictory, in contemporary society the conception of the good life is inextricably bound up with the fulfilment of desires and the maintenance of pleasant feelings and a positive emotional state.[5] In such a society the sublime can not, as in the ‘totalitarian’ societies of the early twentieth century or the monarchies of the eighteenth century, help prop up established power. Rather, by its very nature, it constitutes a threat.

While Debord claimed that the two forms had reached a kind of Hegelian synthesis in the ‘integrated spectacle,’ which was claimed to have been pioneered in France and Italy, any examination of the administrations of Sarkozy or Berlusconi (or, for that matter, Hollande or Monti) reveals that, to whatever extent Debord’s integrated spectacle actually realised itself, the sublime is not among its attributes.

With the decoupling of the political and the aesthetic, the sublime has found limited articulation in certain cultural artefacts. Recent innovations in the technologies of computer-generated imagery have allowed for the creation of landscapes and environments calculated to induce a sensation of the sublime, and whose effect is arguably greater than those found in the natural world. In the 2009 film Avatar, for instance, director James Cameron created the fictional planet of Pandora, complete with craggy and vertiginous landscapes and fantastical, threatening wild creatures. The aesthetic effect of the film was such that some viewers reported experiencing depression after watching it, with some contemplating suicide, as the world depicted was not real and could not be experienced directly.[6] While on the one hand the success of the film indicates a continued appreciation for the sublime on the part of contemporary populations, at the same time it highlights the discontinuity between the sublime and quotidian existence: the sublime has been so thoroughly purged from the modern world that it can appear only on distant and fictional planets.

As such, when the sublime does intrude into the organised banality of the contemporary West, it can only do so through sudden and shocking acts of violence. It is arguable that the most notable reappearance of the sublime in the modern world was the terrorist attacks of September 11th 2001 in New York. While for its victims and those in Manhattan during the attacks the distance from danger necessary for a sensation of the sublime was obviously not present, the significance of 9/11 transcends their immediate location. News footage of the attacks was viewed around the world, and images of the World Trade Centre and its collapse have since been endlessly reproduced in a manner that speaks not only to the political import of the attacks but a grim fascination with their aesthetic effects. Many of the aesthetic qualities described by Burke as producing the sublime are present in such representations: aside from their suddenness and sense of terror they induce, the attacks made rugged the smooth faces of the Twin Towers; their vertical collapse heightened their vastness and perpendicularity.


[1] Guy Debord, Commentary on the Society of the Spectacle (Verso: London 1998)

[2] Edmund Burke, A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful(Oxford University Press: Oxford 2007) p. 132

[3] Burke, p. 146

[4] Debord, p. 8

[5] Michel Foucault, ‘On the Genealogy of Ethics: An Overview of a Work in Progress’, in The Foucault Reader, ed. by Paul Rabinow (Vintage: New York 2010) pp. 340-372  p. 352

[6] Jo Piazza, Audiences experience ‘Avatar’ blues. CNN: http://articles.cnn.com/2010-01-11/entertainment/avatar.movie.blues_1_pandora-depressed [accessed 11/06/2012]

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