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This is why I hate intellectuals

Tag: philosophy

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.


Robot wars: drones and the hegemony of the molecular

Something interesting’s happening in the East China Sea. The dispute between China and Japan over the uninhabited Senkaku Islands has seen Japanese businesses torched in cities across China, fighter jets circling each other over the barren rocks in question, and printouts of flags heroically ripped in half. Now both China and Japan are stockpiling drones. If it happens, the drone war for the Senkaku Islands will be the first of its kind: pure war, war in the abstract, war fought without armies or soldiers. Two fleets of faceless robots knocking each other out of the sky, a war that takes place on a plane of virtuality. It makes a sort of sense. For all their posturings, China and Japan are economically codependent. Maybe the drones will allow them to have their war and their trade links at the same time. Maybe the result will be something completely different. In any case, the conventions of warfare that have been in place for five thousand years might be approaching their overthrow.

It’s not just in East Asia. Hezbollah is building its own drones and flying them into Israeli airspace. The United States has set the precedent here: drones are not contained by borders; drones can operate anywhere in the world. I’m convinced that someone in the CIA’s been reading Deleuze. In Afghanistan and Pakistan, the United States is fighting real nomads, Pashtun herdsmen with goats and rifles and monotheism who recognise the border for what it is: a meaningless and obsolete dividing line between the British and Russian spheres of the late 19th Century. The US has done well; it’s adapted by turning its machines of war back into warmachines, becoming more nomadic than the nomads themselves. Drones don’t just operate according to smooth rather than striated space, they obliterate space altogether. In the place of spatiality comes something like distribution. In Langley, a man pushes a button on an Xbox controller; in Waziristan, fragments of houses and pieces of people are scattered across a half-mile radius. Drones operate outside the structures of the Law: deterritorialised from their human controllers, they exist everywhere at once. There is no field of combat, only pure exteriority. Somalia, Yemen, the Philippines: they’re all separated only by the width of a fibreglass wing. War itself is a second-order concern. War is an invention of the State, a part of its stratification. For the autonomous warmachines it doesn’t exist. Instead the drone continually produces its own object. In casualty reports from drone strikes, any male over sixteen years is considered to have been a militant: if they weren’t an enemy, what were they doing in the strike area? If you’re not a threat to us, then why did we just kill you? Unlike tanks or planes drones don’t identify and eliminate their targets, they create them; you become a target by virtue of having been killed by a drone. President Obama maintains a personally approved ‘kill list’ of enemy targets. As soon as a target is destroyed another emerges to take its place. The drones have a logic all of their own; politicians are caught up in its spirals. There can be no end, not until every last building is flattened and the horizontality of the nomadic desert re-establishes itself.

For the State, capture of the warmachine is necessary for its process of continual stratification. We’re seeing something different here: the capture of the State by the warmachine. Wall Street is a warmachine par excellence, obliterating any boundary to the free flow of capital, describing lines of flight that arc across the surface of the Earth at the speed of light. Austerity programmes make warmachines out of schools and hospitals. Microfascism has taken over the world. In his critique of Deleuze, Baudillard writes that power and desire operate along the same channels. Beware of the molecular, he warns. To be fair, Deleuze and Guattari never say that the molecular is any nicer than the molar. It’s here, I think, that we reach the horizon of Deleuzian radicalism. When molecularity is hegemonic, resistance may have to take on new forms.

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: [accessed 11/06/2012]

Against authenticity

I’m starting to lose sympathy for Baudrillard and Debord and Eco and other theorists of the simulacrum. Maybe it’s because I’ve spent too long in Los Angeles; maybe it’s because I am a child of the spectacle and have been duped into ‘forget[ting] that it has only just arrived’ – but it seems as if the idea of simulacrum itself is predicated on an entirely false binary, with the opposite principle being that of authenticity. Was the period before the emergence of late capitalism and its cultural logic in any way more ‘authentic’? Was the misery of a medieval serf in any way more ‘real’ than the misery of a modern wage-labourer? Was the sacred sublimity of ancient Egyptian religion or the false consciousness generated by Roman panis et circenses any different, any less artificial, any less of a usurpation of ‘reality’ than contemporary spectacular society? During the age of high Romanticism, long before the mechanical reproduction of mass culture, wealthy landowners would alter the landscapes of their estates to bring them more into line with the picturesque paintings of artists such as Lorrain; they would with Speerian insanity build pre-ruined classical follies on their grounds; they would view sublime scenery through a tinted mirror, facing away from it, so that the object of their enjoyment would more closely resemble an oil painting. It’s not hyperreality that’s a recent invention, it’s reality itself. Authenticity is not something we’ve lost, it’s a recent conceptual manifestation of the guilt and neurosis that attends an alienated society. The insistence on a lost authentic past of which our world is a degenerated imitation seems to be little more than a rehash of tired old Platonist dogmas. A far more helpful and productive concept is Deleuzian virtuality: the virtual object is not one that lacks reality, but one that lacks actuality; in its movement towards actuality the virtual has enormous creative potential.

I’m not consistent in this, of course. I still can’t stand the fucking Kindle.

Guest column: Slavoj Žižek reviews ‘A Very Harold & Kumar 3D Christmas’

It would be tempting to perform a crude Freudian analysis of the Harold & Kumar films, to say that in Harold and Kumar we find the basic categories of superego and id respectively, with Kumar as the hedonist that leads the two into a state of peril, and Harold as the rational law-abider who constrains the desires of his friend, and so on, and so on. But this is not the case. We must always be conscious of the fact that the ultimate command of the superego is to enjoy, to fulfil your fantasies; and because the object of desire cannot be attained, it is that same superego that is the source of anxiety. Is it not Kumar, then, who is then the superego? Our desires lead to neurosis only when they are consciously articulated.

We must ask: what is desire in this film? It is not the smoking of marijuana, that forms only a kind of subcultural backdrop to the narrative. Rather, the Harold & Kumar films take the form of the heroic quest: the heroes must go off and find something, they have escapades along the way, eventually it is retrieved and there is the happy ending. In Lacanian terminology this ‘something’ is the objet petit a, the transcendent object of desire. It is the eventual obtainment of this object that renders the first film, Harold & Kumar Go To White Castle, a work of fantasy. What is desirable about the objet petit a is intrinsically linked with its quality of unattainability; it is only in the fantasy-space of the film that such desires can be realised. In the film, the attainment of the hamburger is bound up with the attainment of other fantasies – Harold stands up to the bullies of the workplace, he talks to the girl he is attracted to, and so on, and so on. White Castle is therefore a symbolic representation of all desire. One could comment on the imagery of the white castle itself – in medieval poetry the white castle is a symbol of Heaven or the Kingdom of Truth; then as now the white castle is a transcendent Utopian image – or, as Derrida would have it, a messianic image, an image of that which is always yet to come – in which is encoded our very earthly desires, as in the Islamic fantasy of the seventy-two virgins.

But see what happens in A Very Harold & Kumar 3D Christmas. This is not at all like the first film, the two heroes are not acting on their own desires. Rather, Harold must find a replacement Christmas tree for his father-in-law: he is acting out of a sense of duty towards the Other. The pivotal moment of the film is when Harold tells Kumar that he does not have to replace the tree, rather, it is that he wants to. And again further on, when Kumar faces his responsibility for his unborn child: it is not because he has to, but because he wants to. This is not, I think, a casting aside of duty so much as a reinterpretation of duty. Here, we see the old Kantian conception – Du kannst, denn du sollst! – being dispensed with, it is too rigidly compulsive, it does not sit easy with our liberal individualism. What we get instead is a strange inversion: Du sollst, denn du wollst! – you must, because you want to!

I find this despicable, almost totalitarian, even – far more so than Kant’s formulation. Even our desires are not our own, the hegemonic order insists not only that we do our duty, but that we really want to do so. It is like when Saddam Hussein published his novels under a false name: his megalomania was such that he did not just want good reviews because he is the dictator, he wanted the people to genuinely love his writing. Only when the novels were derided in the newspapers did he republish under his own name and shoot the critics. Is what we see here not the same thing? If there is a message in this film, is it not that we must genuinely love the duties imposed on us by capitalism, that we must find jouissance in the fulfilment of duty?

Where A Very Harold & Kumar 3D Christmas fails is precisely in this attempt to reconcile duty with desire through the matrix of capitalist institutions: the family unit, the workplace, Christmas, and so on, and so on. Duty towards the Other must not be subject to desire! What we must instead admit is that under capitalism our desires are different to our duties, or, in the language of vulgar Marxism, our desires are superstructural to the economic base. Our duty consists of confronting and changing our desires, not in the alienating manner of the Freudian superego, but through the radical project of overturning the current socio-economic order in the name of the Other. Against the false union of duty and desire we must proclaim the primacy of duty, we must, in effect, return to the old Kantian formulation. It is significant that the finale of A Very Harold & Kumar 3D Christmas requires the intervention of the supernatural in the form of Santa Claus: under capitalism, duty and desire cannot ordinarily be reconciled. What is needed in our situation is another form of supernatural intervention – the intervention of Benjaminian divine violence. Only then can this antinomy be untangled.

Stevie Cobb and her Incredible Rhizomatic Orchestra

four in the morning in nasville tennessee.  stevie cobb is deconstructing the keyboard. stevie cobb is dreaming strange dreams. stevie cobb is metabolising glycogen. stevie cobb can do several things at once. stevie cobb is a multiplicity of multiplicities.

silence. the faint dusty smell of an empty theatre. the slightly mournful stage lights bright. all bright. on stevie cobb’s shirt the dandruff. sparkling. on stevie cobb’s arms the fine network of wrinkles. bits of piano everywhere. reels of piano wire. keys scattered all over the wooden floor dispersed. like teeth after a bar fight. the brooding tenebrosity of the concert hall behind her seethes. the hazy orange light coming in through the windows. casting strange shapes on the opposite walls. stevie cobb is deconstructing the keyboard.

the problem with the keyboard is that it is a series of channels. blighted by organicity. entire purpose is to channel and direct musical flows. impede lines of flight. arborescent sequencing built into its construction. but you need a piano. there’s not a piano part in the piece the orchestra is to perform. you need a piano. so you have to deconstruct the keyboard. find the subtext of the piano. probe apart its internal contradictions. start with the black and white notes. a binary in urgent need of expansion. stevie cobb rewires the black and white notes. white notes sound flat and sharp now. but that’s just inversion. make them multiple. there’s a lot to do.

it’s two in the afternoon before the keyboard has been fully deconstructed. light in the windows. people bustling about around her. the light here always has the consistency of treacle. it doesn’t pour in bright and clean like water from a tap. slides down the walls. heavy light. it’s clammy. the sweat of pride. droplets that cover stevie cobb’s forehead. like thorns. like blisters. she pulls back the cloth. behold the schizopiano! there’s only seven strings now. one for each octave. and a sliding mechanism. stevie cobb holds a pedal. runs her hands along the keyboard. hinges churn. mechanical arms sweep up and down from inside the piano. it seems to be working. stevie cobb releases the pedal and plays the first couple of bars from the finale of rachmaninov’s third piano concerto.

dum da-dum da-dum-da-dum-da-daa da (ba bee boop boop ba bee boop boop) DUM da-dum da-dum da-dum-da-dum-da-daa…

players applaud. it’s not quite the same. the sound is different. notes almost melt into each other. like a steel guitar. stevie cobb is pleased with it. could have done more. could have prised apart the false unity of the note. have the whole piano play a single note. b flat.  for instance. every key a different imagining of b flat. different timbres. different moods. you’d need eighty-eight schizopianos. but it would work. the chords that would sound out from such an array! she’d need to write scores in three dimensions. time note emotion. next time.

still work to be done. for a start. how can you deterritorialise a bassoon? how do you situate it away from its bassoonicity? stevie cobb flicks the bassoon with a single serrated fingernail. you have to see beyond the bassoon. you have to consider the bassoon as what it could be rather than what it is. what is the body without organs of a bassoon? how are we to go about precipitating the bassoon’s becoming-other? start by considering everything the bassoon is not. find the break. the line of separation. feel for its molar segmentarity. then dehierarchialise it. smooth out its striated space. what isn’t a bassoon? it’s not a castle. a light-bulb. it’s not a. a. not a. a fish. it’s not a fish. turn the bassoon into a fish. give it gills. in a frenzy stevie cobb stabs the bassoon with a boxcutter denting tearing. give it gills.

so much to do. some of the players are worried. the performance is tonight and stevie cobb is still modifying the instruments. they know of course that ‘performance’ as an event situated in space and time is a structural construct. they know they must operate according to nomadological principles. they know they must tunnel through the various striations. performance. concert hall. audience. wipe them smooth. but still. the performance is tonight. and stevie cobb is still modifying the instruments.

some of them are practicing. but sometimes stevie cobb comes up behind them and grabs the instrument out of their hands seize it. she’ll peer at the thing as if she can’t quite understand what it is. look at all the other ways you can make sound from this. listen to this. she raps on the body of the cello knuckles tapping hollow. a musical instrument is a text. it has its dominant readings. it has its subversive readings. it can be deconstructed. maybe hit yourself over the head with it. she demonstrates. listen. it’s sonorous.

has stevie cobb gone mad?

the performance. people cluster in the lobby. black jackets. white shirts. black dresses. red shoes. cologne. lipstick. a smell. cigarette smoke. malt whiskey. perfume. stevie cobb designed the posters herself. debussy’s la mer. big letters. as performed by stevie cobb’s incredible rhizomatic orchestra. small letters. laura turner concert hall. schermerhorn symphony center. nashville tennessee.

stevie cobb watches them file in. sitting on the podium. small puddle of warm light around her. boxer shorts. grubby t-shirt. skinny legs pale. bristling with fine hairs pale. dandruff. scratches her hair. she hopes there’s a riot. she’d give anything for a riot.

madames et messieurs. sous votre siège il y a une flûte. il peut faire beaucoup de sons. les frapper les uns contre les autres. si vous voulez. some of the audience don’t understand at first. but as their neighbours retrieve the flutes they too reach under their seats. they hold them in their laps. perturbed. we will not play music to you. we reject the false binary of performer and audience. play your flutes. at any time. any way you want. play them now.



one. two. one two three four.

first movement. de l’aube à midi sur la mer. soft. low. brass quiver. shimmering waves of strings. crescendo almost reached. back down. rolling. those in the audience who know the piece sit with an air of studied recognition. the sounds are all a little different. but not too different. a clarinettist rips two pages from his score. suddenly he is playing a triumphant major theme. others follow suit. scores upside down turned. cymbal spins over the audience like a discus. like a frisbee. crash against the far wall. paint and plaster shower down. the whole piece being played at once. no discord though. rhizomaticity is not atonality. swells and lapses still. melodies intertangling. stevie cobb licks her baton. the oboe a plodding melody. stops. silence. cymbalist swings the remaining cymbal by one edge. smashes it against the xylophonist’s head. all instruments burst into sound. drag the players along with them. a glorious swell. you can pick out one instrument. listen to its melody alone for a few seconds. then let it sink back into the harmonious cacophony. or listen to the strings as they cut angles across each other. or the vocalists coughing melodiously. the contrabassoonist and the tubist are kissing passionately. they swap instruments and return to their music. then break again to resume.

first flute notes waft from the audience.

stevie cobb remembers. the old white house in the catskills. running through the forest scabbed knees. climbing the cliffs. blood and mud. why don’t you play with dolls like all the other girls. remembers. later. mrs elderman the piano teacher. stephanie you need to play according to the score. the music rises like the mountains. the flutes. the audience. lofty trees packed like commuters on trains. undulating. and in the autumn the screeching tumult of red and orange and brown. cloud-carpets of leaves. someone rushes on stage from the audience. starts to play the schizopiano. the prickling of leaves on her back as she lay with adam on the forest floor. that summer she saw the sea for the first time. fourteen. a tidal wave of flute music from the audience. like a single note. the music twisting sinuously around it. until the last line of flight stretches out to infinity and the surging sea is stilled. first movement over. a lingering air of melancholy.

the audience leaps to its feet. applause commotion. so daring. so inventive. so unusual. so exciting. what an experience.

the first gentle notes of the second movement. jeux de vagues. scherzo. audience waiting for the furore to begin again. giving them permission to join in. licensed anarchy. structured rhizomaticity. safely ensconced in the soft prison of culture. what fun.

stevie cobb sits dejected. it’s all working perfectly. they loved it. it has been a failure, an utter failure.

Zarathustra in Basel

The clear streams sing no more in the mountains, and the lush pastures of the plains shudder as articulated lorries rumble along the Autobahn.

Zarathustra is silent in the communal sitting-room of the Pflegeheim. The chilly winds of eternal recurrence have blown the hair from his head, and now only a dank grey fringe hangs limply down the back of his neck. His crown is scabbed and speckled, the sharp blue of his eyes has faded to beige, his lips quiver arhythmically. Only his nose still juts forward accusingly: a faint shadow of the ferociousness with which his eyes once interrogated those he spoke to lingers on in its haughty bend.

Once he had walked in the hills and the deserts, and had loved every thing that he saw. He had exulted in the poetry of the brooks and the mournful whisperings of the swirling sands. He had drunk deeply the cold water of the mountains, he had strode boldly through the dappled forests. He had walked on tightropes and danced on embers, and everywhere he went he would spread his teaching. Zarathustra scorned all morality and weakness, Zarathustra would never look behind him, Zarathustra would always surge on forward, in Zarathustra’s voice could be heard the screech of the eagle that embraces its freedom and the roar of the bear that does not hide from its own power. Except now there are no more rocky landscapes to traverse, and in front of him there leers a void. Once he might have plunged himself gleefully into that chasm. Now, for the first time, Zarathustra is afraid.

Zarathustra stares out the window. Across the street, rows of identical suburban houses behind neatly trimmed lawns. Clustered round them are globular cars, wheelie-bins, milk-bottles, plastic toys. Behind, the grey shape of the Hoffman-La Roche pharmaceutical factory, and in the hazy distance, the outline of the Basler Messeturm. There are mountains out there, somewhere in the distance, high peaks and jagged cliffs, glistening with ice, soaring through cloudless skies, bold and terrifying, the precipitous haunts of hawks and wolves. He can’t see them.

There’s a nurse. Perhaps she has always been there.

– Would you like us to bring you your lunch, Herr Köhler?

– Herr Köhler? I am Zarathustra. I am the imp dancing in the heart of the flames, I am the triumphant roar of the gale, I am the thunder of hooves and the surging of the sea. I am life itself. I drink only the pure light of the heavens. I eat only in the joyful company of my companions.

Only he doesn’t speak. The words roar in Zarathustra’s head, but his throat seizes up, and from his lips only a broken mumbling emerges. Maybe it’s because he almost doesn’t believe it any more.

– I’ll just get that for you, shall I?

Zarathustra never used to look over his shoulder at what he had left behind. Even if he came to the same place twice he would always find it different. Zarathustra never used to be remotely concerned with being or with essence, because he knew that everything around him was always becoming, always reaching out to be something greater. Now Zarathustra is trying to remember. Now Zarathustra is trying to remember who he is. He had been a Persian once, a wanderer, a lofty firebrand. And a Prussian, too, a solitary genius racked by frailties. But there are other faces and other images, his old class at Weiterbildungsschule, his commander during Militärdienst, the brown and avocado tiling of his bungalow – there’s no order to them, no sense. They are not Zarathustra’s memories.

– Here you go.

The nurse is holding a tray in front of him. In one little compartment, doughy-looking potatoes and semi-disintegrated beans. In another some shreds of stringy meat wallow in a puddle of gravy. A plastic cup half-filled with water, and three pills in red and purple capsules. It isn’t food: food must nourish the spirit as much as the body, it must leave a man feeling refreshed and vigorous. This is just matter, sustenance to stave off death for another day. It is smallness and mediocrity. He will not eat it. Zarathustra shakes his head.

– Am I going to have to feed you myself?

Balancing the tray in one hand, the nurse scoops up a forkful of meat and potatoes and brings it towards Zarathustra’s face.

– Open wide.

Zarathustra’s arm jerks out, he strikes the bottom of the tray with the last of his anger. Gravy splatters the nurse’s blouse, water drenches her face, potatoes slide down the front of her skirt. She storms out. Zarathustra isn’t proud of what he’s done, there’s no nobility in striking the small-minded, but he’s relieved that some dying glint of the Will still burns within him. He’s not been defeated, not yet.

The nurse returns, thin-lipped, cold-eyed. Kindness and humanity can only go so far. She tries so hard to help the old man, to keep him warm and safe and fed, but he seems incapable of gratitude. He doesn’t want to be helped. She knows that he’d appreciate the effort she puts in for him if he were in his right mind. She is a caring and selfless woman, even if hers is a thankless job. Two hundred milligrams of thioridazine for Zarathustra.

A fever dream: on the eviction of Slavoj Žižek from the Celebrity Big Brother House

The scene: a raised platform, ringed with bright white lights, set before a surging mob, waving placards for pitchforks, bearing the political slogans of the post-ideological age, spitting and grimacing, desperate for vicarious jouissance, their toothy grins tinged with the threat of violence. On the platform: to the left, Davina McCall, professional objet petit a; to the right, Slavoj Zizek, the subject-supposed-to-know-what-a-subject-supposed-to-know-is. Between the pillars of light, grotesquely large pictures of Slavoj’s face – or what face there exists between bulbous nose and parasitically fungal beard. For a brief moment they both stare blankly forward – a cameraman gives a series of hand signals – suddenly they are animate, Davina cheering and throwing up her arms, Slavoj frantically tapping his nose and beard in a spasmodic fit.

DAVINA: Welcome back to Celebrity Big Brother, and welcome to Slavoj!

The crowd erupts in – not a cheer, exactly, but a noise, a mingling of yelling and clapping and hissing and roaring and stamping of feet, a riotous commotion.

SLAVOJ: Thank you very much, no, yes, it is an honour.

DAVINA: And it’s an awful shame, isn’t it, because you were so close, you were one of the last four left in the house.

SLAVOJ: Well, yes, I am not so much interested in the winning of the show, the accolades, the headlines, and so on, and so on – but the fantasy of being the last person in the house, to be alone in the house, with the cameras, with the constant presence of the Big Other, this I am interested in. It is a recurring theme in horror movies, no? You are alone in the house, but you are not alone, someone is there, someone is watching you – it is a perverse fantasy, I think. And very much Freudian, as well, in the sense of the unheimlich, of the home being a place of danger. So I am disappointed I did not win, yes, very much, indeed.

DAVINA: [unfazed] Let’s talk about some of the other housemates. There was a lot of tension, wasn’t there, between you and Chipmunk?

SLAVOJ: [with a startled snort] You say there was? I did not see any of this tension, entirely not, I felt he was an interesting man – maybe clinically, perhaps, you could say.

DAVINA: [to the crowd] Shall we show him the diary room tapes?

The crowd roars its assent. Fists are flung into the air in jubilatory schadenfreude: some miss and collide with another person, suddenly a hundred brawls are taking place, the crowd turns in on itself, here and there knives are produced and the sharp tang of blood mixes with the stink of sweat in the air. Only after the first few gunshots are heard do the security guards intervene: a phalanx of rottweiler-faced men in dayglo jackets forces its way towards where the violence is at its most intense – they are consumed by the crowd. Perhaps they are killed, perhaps they melt into its roil, it is impossible to say. A line of police cavalry charges. At first they make some progress: those at the edges of the crowd are swiftly truncheoned and detained, but soon the horses find themselves mired in the furious swarm, and in their anxiety they throw off their riders, the line is broken, the plan of attack evaporates. Some of the crowd attack the horses, some of the horses start fighting one another, gnawing chunks from each other’s necks. In the near distance, the low rumble of heavy artillery can be heard.

DAVINA: [exultant] Let’s show him the tapes!

CHIPMUNK: [onscreen] I just don’t get him man, like, what’s he done, why is he here? I ain’t never seen him on anything, like, nothing. And he’s some fucking wasteman, like, man ain’t had a single shower since the start of the show, swear down, he fucking stinks, doesn’t he? I can’t fucking sit next to him, or like even near him, you know what I’m saying? And he chats some breeze, innit. I’m saying, it’s not just his weird accent, and all the snorting and those little hand twitchy things he’s always doing, you know what I mean – he’s talking about sex the whole time: like, yeah, cool, but it’s all perversions, everything’s perverted, I can’t take a dump without it being some representation of my desires in the symbolic order or whatever – I’m like, are you kidding me? This guy built a career on that bullshit? It’s not even anything, really, it makes its own internal sense, kinda, but it’s entirely divorced from the actuality of human subjectivity and the actuality of the human condition, and that’s what the ultimate focus of philosophy needs to be, not all these masturbatory Lacanian abstractions. It bears no relation to how people actually function, it’s a poststructuralist psychoanalysist’s fantasy about how people actually function. So, nah. Me and Slavoj, I don’t see us being in the getalong gang in the Big Brother house, you know what I mean?

DAVINA: So, Slavoj, how does that make you feel?

SLAVOJ: Well, myself, I make it a point of never reading my critics, never reading my reviews. Or I will tell the publishers: put the bad reviews on the back of the book! My audience know who I am, they will read me anyway. But Chipmunk – he is ultimately an empiricist, he has a very British way of conceiving these things, this antipathy towards the abstraction, the Continentalism, and so on, and so on. In his music and his music videos, the focus – it is entirely on the immediacy of experience, no? So his criticism, it is still rooted in ideology, this I claim. The ideological disagreement, it does not translate into personal antagonisms. I am a good Hegelian, after all, such oppositions, they are necessary. But I should say, the proceduralism of intimacy in the diary room, it is exactly like Catholic confession, no, it is exactly the same. You do not confess to the priest, your confession is directed towards God, towards the Infinite Other, as in Levinas, and so on, and so on. You do not talk to Big Brother, you talk to the Big Other, to the audience at home, to the Holy Spirit. After I am evicted from this house, I am no longer a participant, I am an observing subject, an ordinary pervert, then it is acceptable to show me these tapes – it is a form of licensed voyeurism, is it not?

DAVINA: [nodding her head] One last question.

SLAVOJ: Please, please, go on.

Throughout this exchange Davina has been undergoing a grotesque metamorphosis: her cheeks grow fuller, her paunch expands, her tits shrink, her hair turns white and recedes. At first the faint shadow of a moustache falls on her upper lip, then stubbly hairs sprout from her chin. Soon she has a full beard, her eyebrows sit heavily on her brow, her camera-friendly coquettishness becomes a stern gaze, almost disdainful, which she now fixes on Slavoj. She is no longer Davina McCall: instead, Slavoj finds himself being scrutinised by the unmistakeable visage of Karl Marx – or perhaps Jehovah; depictions of the two are, after all,  very similar.

MARX: Do you not think that your participation in this televisual charade, your gleeful willingness to put your theorising at the services of capital, your unashamed prostitution, your jestering and japing, your fruitless contrarianism, your pop-psychoanalysis – do you not think that this not only casts disrepute on your status as a serious Marxist thinker, but also cheapens Marxism itself? Are you not turning revolutionary ideology into just another media gimmick?

The crowd, who are all orthodox historical materialists, nod sagely, in unison.

SLAVOJ: I know you. You said a man should be able to hunt in the morning, fish in the afternoon, rear cattle in the evening, and criticise after dinner. Well then – can I not play the jester in the morning, advertise for garment retailers in the afternoon, appear on reality TV in the evening, and still be a serious philosopher after dinner?

MARX: You forget that we are still living under capitalism.

SLAVOJ: But under capitalism, we must still live.

The crowd, racked by confusion, briefly organises itself into a series of non-hierarchial egalitarian communes, forms a workers’ state, undergoes Thermidor, becomes disillusioned. Defeated, they shuffle back to their allotted space in front of the platform.

DAVINA: [for it is her again: the beard has gone, the grin has returned] Well, Slavoj, it’s been a pleasure to have you on Celebrity Big Brother. Do you have anything else to say before the end of the show?

SLAVOJ: Yes, I do. I would like to say that I endorse all the products of the Coca-Cola corporation, and that the cool refreshing taste of a glass of Coke proves without question that the transcendent object of desire is not in fact unobtainable – in fact, it can be obtained at your local newsagent or grocery store.

Lights wind down, theme music plays, scattered applause. Slavoj, rising from his seat to re-enter the world, takes an especially deep snort – then starts to gag. Something is clearly wrong. Davina sits impassively as Slavoj chokes on his own mucus: the cameras are off, after all. Slavoj writhes on the ground, flailing frantically. The sycophantic crowd tries to imitate his dying motions. Everywhere they collapse, their limbs jerk around, they feign choking noises. Everything begins to blur: the crowd, the stage, the cameras – now they are only a single undulating mass, a throbbing that reaches up above the horizon and encircles the world. Perhaps an orgy is taking place, it’s difficult to tell. There are no images any more, no clearly defined shapes or people, only an immense all-enveloping pulsation. The dream ends. Still, nothing is understood.

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