Idiot Joy Showland

This is why I hate intellectuals

Tag: polemic

Why you’re not quitting Twitter

150524a1-800x430

You have decided to stop using Twitter. You won’t pretend that there was some sudden moment of epiphany, some limpid instant scrolling elsewhere-eyed through ten thousand other people’s keening attempts to entertain, when you realised that this was no longer for you. Thinking of things in terms of moments and instants, that thinly sliced, superficial, impermanent digital Now – that’s part of the whole pattern of thought you’re trying to break out of. You want to do things deeply, slowly, properly; you want to have insights that can’t be compressed into one hundred and forty tossed-off characters. You’re tired of being snide, of the enforced narcissism, of being beholden to your brand, of manufactured outrage, of all those internecine arguments with angry ovarious hordes, dank keyboard-grubbying imbeciles, crude men smearing chip fat in iridescent streaks over their phone screens, people who don’t even work in the media.  You, comic books reviewer for the New York Oboe; you, occasional guest panellist on the BBC’s  Sweary Wednesdays; you, noted online thinkfluencer and inventor of the #DonaldTrumpHasHairlessShins Movement; you have had enough.

You’re going to start living in the real world again. You looked out a window, a real one, made of glass, and you saw a little bird, a real one, alive, not some sinister blue logo. You saw it trembling between the crooked branches, going about a business wilder and stranger than anything in our smooth fake online lives, and you thought your heart would break from the sheer beauty of it all. You made an off-colour joke at the bar – a real bar, made of real bricks – and there was nobody to pounce or denounce, nobody tried to eject you from the premises, and you felt so incredibly free. You’re streamlining your life now. You went out and bought twenty shirts, all in the same shade of grey, because life is too important for clutter. You’re going to go for walks in the park and read books in cafés and cook simple but wholesome meals incorporating flavours from three lesser-known continents. You’re going to stop wasting time and do work, real work, good work. Maybe a novel. But before you go, you’re going to write a little meditation on why you have to go, something longform, something thoughtful, and then you’ll compose your final missive to that abandoned, insular world. ‘Goodbye, Twitter,’ you’ll write. ‘I’m off, and here’s why.’ You’ll think for a moment. You’ll add a short appendix. ‘#Media #Twitter #Writing.’ You’ll think for another moment. You’ll delete the hashtags. You’ve been thinking a lot lately.

This isn’t a cynical move, but at the same time you do think you’re doing it at the right time, because Twitter is dying. The site lost two million users in Q4 of 2015, and because you understand such things, you know what this means. Social networks don’t really make any money, the profits come from the expectation that if they keep growing, sooner or later someone will figure out a way to properly monetise their userbase. Small companies get bought up for vast, parodic sums; big companies float themselves on the stock market and surrender themselves to the predictive powers of the market. It all depends on the capitalist symptom of reckless, tearaway growth: you conquer the world, or you die; nothing in between. And Twitter has failed to conquer the world, so its stock is collapsing. You’ve seen things collapse – families, relationships, buildings, countries – and you’ve learned that if you have a chance to spare yourself those awful final days, you should take it. Leave the place to crumble, and may those still inside be swiftly crushed. The indifferent waves of silicon will reclaim it, the jagged fragments of lost startups. Like the GeoCities, of which nothing remains, all those names pathetically repeating themselves – ‘Hi, I’m Mike, and welcome to my Formula 1 page’ – now silent, all those hideously personal colour combinations reduced to the desert whiteness of a 404 page. Or Myspace, which like all the other places where you used to hang out as a teenager now feels shameful and threatening, sullen graffiti, the lingering tang of body spray, the numinous autonomy of something you no longer own. Or Friends Reunited – remember Friends Reunited? – which only wanted to help, and got got no gratitude. Death will suit Twitter well; you’ll look back on it fondly, it’ll be far more loved as the nostalgic name of something you used to do than as the monster gobbling up your life.

So why does this brave real world you’ve decided to start living in feel so familiar? Why does it feel so false? You’re going to start writing, you’ve decided, without distractions: so the day yawns open at you, a stinking cavern of dead black time, and you find you have nothing to do. How many times can you water a plant before the thing gets waterlogged and dies? You tried tracing its long glossy leaves with your fingertips, marvelling at the intricate patterning in its mesophyll, and have come to the sad conclusion that plants are actually quite boring. You try to read a book – Middlemarch; you’re slowly sinking down the list of great novels to read before you die – but your gaze slips from the first sentence in one paragraph to another, searching for the point – and you think: when I do die, will it really matter if I’ve read this stupid thing or not? You have a funny observation about the day’s news, clever but not really good enough to make copy, and given that all your friends are online you text it to your mother. She doesn’t reply; for four damn hours she doesn’t reply. ‘Ha! x.’ Could it be that you’ve forgotten how to live? It’s being cooped up in here, it’s these four plain walls. You need to do the unthinkable. You need to go outside.

You leave without any clear aim or destination in mind, but it doesn’t matter. You’re a flâneur! You’re the poet of the material world! Passing by a chain coffee outlet, you decide to drop in, listen to people talking, gauge their lives and concerns through good, old-fashioned, unmediated, personal voyeurism. And, even though you won’t need to say or do anything, the patrons will silently admire you, and maybe even want to fuck you – how could they not? You order your filter coffee (‘No, no milk, I’m a deeply serious person’), unfold your newspaper, and wait. But it’s so strange: half the people there are just looking at their phones; glancing up occasionally into the eyes of their friend or lover with unalloyed disgust, as if repulsed by their needling physicality – and the ones who do talk seem to have a compulsive verbal tic you’d never noticed before. Before they say anything they’ll always address their interlocutors by their full names. ‘Stephanie Jones: Didn’t they say it’d rain later?’ ‘Mark Eyabunoh, Corey Adelusi: Ha ha! That’s so funny.’ It reminds you of something, something unpleasant. This place is wrong. But when you rush outside, they’re all at it. Someone seems to be walking down the street, acting normally, but a hideous change comes over them as soon as you’re in earshot. A furious political argument erupts between two strangers; they look as if they’re about to claw each other’s eyes out. Teen girls scream about One Direction as you approach. Drivers start singing football chants out their windows, staring spittle-flecked and manic in your direction and only yours. One woman dances, thrusting a picture on phone into your face: ‘Here’s what I had for lunch!’ A schlubby-looking man in a brown suit and purple tie seems to be in the middle of an epileptic fit; his hands judder, his shoes scuff against the pavement, and he croaks, over and over again, ‘Taylor Swift: Show us your feet. Taylor Swift: Send us foot picture? Taylor Swift: Show us your feet. Taylor Swift: Send us foot picture?’ You don’t stop to help. You just ignore him. You learned, somewhere, to ignore.

Other people aren’t good for you, it’s clear. They’re strangers, witless and dull; what you need is nature. You start to head home, back towards the high street, maybe you’ll rent out a cottage somewhere in the barren north where there’s no wifi. But as soon as you turn the corner, every head snaps suddenly to fix its gaze on you. ‘Tosser,’ says one shopper after another. ‘Arsehole.’ ‘Pompous twat.’ They crowd on you, breathing halitosis and malice into your innocent face. ‘Why do you keep saying I’m a tosser?’ you yell. ‘I don’t even know you!’ The nearest creature, a skinny man in glasses and store-bought stubble, smirks. ‘Yeah,’ he says. ‘You don’t know me, because you’re a tosser.’ Everyone laughs and claps and starts giving this smug prick his comradely pats on the back. Maybe it wasn’t Twitter. Maybe you really are a tosser. But surely that can’t be true?

The birth of that new cult gave you time to escape, at least, so you scramble panicked up a hill, some big comforting grass-edged tit, to look out over the city and try to take stock of things. Maybe you’ll sketch the view in your Moleskine. On a grey and blustery afternoon, there’s nobody else in sight. The trauma recedes a little; it’s almost peaceful. But the skyline doesn’t rise slowly inch by inch over the horizon, like you’d imagined; it jumps out suddenly, fanged and snarling, in the break between two trees. Patches of sunlight swim jellyfish-like between the skyscrapers, the whole giddy tapestry of human life is laid out in front of you. And there, hovering fifty feet above midtown, are three huge, spectral symbols. You know what they are. Reply, Retweet, Like. No. You clench your eyes tight and frantically jab at the other button like it’s the only thing that can save you. Report abuse. Report abuse. You need to block it all, it offended you, it needs to go. This mustn’t happen. Give me control. Make me admired. Make me loved.

You can’t quit Twitter: you, writer; you, comedian; you, journalist; you, early adopter; you, self-confessed nerd and unapologetic brunch snob. You created it, with your earnest musings and your boiling self-regard; you summoned the demon, and while its name might change the beast will never be able to relent. You bring Twitter with you wherever you go, because you are Twitter. And it’s dying, because you’re already dead.

Bill Kristol is wrong about things

While the secret knowledge is only available to some members of the society, there is an ideology, an ethics, and a phenomenology of ignorance that is shared, to some degree, by all.
Jonathan Mair et al., ‘Making Ignorance an Ethnographic Object’

150524a1-800x430

The respected American political commentator Bill Kristol is consistently wrong about things, and it’s funny, until you start seeing dead bodies on your lawn. This week, he predicted that Marco Rubio would win the New Hampshire Republican primary. He did not. Last year, he predicted that Joe Biden would be seeking his party’s nomination for President. He would not. Ten years ago, in the run-up to the 2008 Democratic race, he predicted that Barack Obama would lose in every single state. He did not. During the scheduled pregame session for the 2003 invasion of Iraq, Kristol predicted that American forces would be welcomed as liberators. They were not. (Later he added that the war would ‘clarify who was right and who was wrong about weapons of mass destruction.’ It did, but only in the same way that Croesus’s invasion of Persia resulted in a stunning military success.) In 1998, he predicted that ‘a year from now, Clinton will be gone.’ He was not. In 1993, he predicted that that year would be the ‘high-water mark’ of the gay rights movement, which would afterwards collapse. It did not. In 1914, he advised the Tsar of Russia that war against Austria-Hungary would unite the population and smother any internal strife. It did not. In 1202, he predicted that the departing Crusaders would conquer Jerusalem within the year. They did not. Fourteen billion years ago, he whispered in the ear of the lion-headed snake-demon Ialdaboath, and predicted that the creation of the Universe would be ‘if nothing else, a vast improvement on current conditions.’ It was not.

This infinite capacity for stupidity on the part of Bill Kristol, his ability to bob against any prevailing wind, has led to a very predictable reaction from the liberal left. Sometimes his wrongness is the wrongness of propaganda or ideology, but most of the time it’s just naked and evident untruth. So they ask: why does this man still have a job? Why is he given a platform, why is he allowed to present his opinions to leaders and publics, when they’re not just incorrect but so utterly unhelpful? It’s the right question, but nobody seems to be willing to actually answer it. Well, why does he still have a job? The only possible answer is that his being consistently, spectacularly, demonstrably wrong is serving, somewhere, some kind of important function. Which has to change your view of things a little. The prevailing model of the planet is of a giant, floating information-processing machine. Market forces built the Earth of the Hadean era; a geological stock market distributed surging columns of lava and pockets of boiling slime. Later the emerging biosphere would form a part of this computational apparatus, each living being a data-point recorded in its index, their genetic share-prices occasionally misvalued, but still axiomatically true. And then there was human society, plugging in to the natural mechanisms of price and utility, producing information to be sorted and filed in the planet’s core. But while Bill Kristol lives, our planet is just a swelling bag of falsehoods; what really determines the value of things is not accuracy but idiocy. A world in which Bill Kristol is successful is wrong; not morally wrong, but factually wrong. Something like the revelation at the end of Philip K Dick’s The Man in the High Castle: the world we are living in does not, in fact, exist.

At first glance, Kristol isn’t that unusual; there are so many types of untruth. It’s not the absence of truth, depending on truth as its opposite pole, but a positive phenomenon in its own right, appearing as lies, ignorance, literature, pseudohistory, Cartesian doubt, and conceptual abstraction. Plenty of people are wrong about things; arguably, just about everyone tends to be wrong about pretty much everything. But nobody is wrong in the same way as Bill Kristol. It’s very easy to be wrong about the past or the present: these are grim and murky places where nothing really makes sense. But Bill Kristol is wrong about the future, and this is an entirely different kind of wrongness. Under the classical or correspondence model of truth, propositions about the future are impossible to evaluate: there’s no reality against which to measure any image, because it hasn’t happened yet. Any statement about the future will in a sense always be wrong: it sits there, trembling, waiting for the annihilatory incoming of the event, and there’s no way of distinguishing a true prediction from a false one until this takes place. Except for the fact that statements about the future are also actions in the present: one prediction might have eventually been fulfilled, until another is made that, while not itself being realised, alters events so that something else entirely comes to pass. Little eddies of chaos surround any prophecy; this way, any number of formally incorrect statements about the future can carry deep in their bowels a hideous, twisted kind of reality. After all, the thing about untruth is that it projects a different world. And always being wrong about the future grants someone incredible powers.

In 2006, Bill Kristol was kidnapped by a pro-Iranian guerilla group. Six masked men burst into his home; they pulled him naked and spluttering from his bed, beat him unconscious with the butts of their rifles, and dragged him into the back of a waiting van. They kept on pummelling him as the van screeched through midnight avenues, long after he’d passed out: black-gloved fists and chipped-black steel on his beige and spreading flesh, purple supernovae dancing through his hypodermis, flat white TV-teeth splintering into the jaggedness of a bombed-out city. Afterwards, in court, they had to explain this incredible brutality. It was his smile, they said. By the end Kristol was slipping at the edge of death. His face was a bulbous mess of bruises and lacerations; that raw-dough elasticity had finally come to snap, and it was only recognisable as human by a kind of gruesome pareidolia – but throughout he still had his smug, thin-lipped smirk, that knowing look of someone who is always wrong. The Iranians kept on trying to erase it with blunt force; it felt like being condescended to by a corpse. But they couldn’t. The newspapers report what happened next. Bill Kristol woke up handcuffed to a bed in an abandoned building somewhere in Washington DC, the floor thick with brick dust and piss, the windows grime-clouded or broken, the trees outside spindly black death’s-hands against a low and glaucous sky. A guard stood over him, rifle slung over one shoulder. ‘Oh God,’ whined Bill Kristol. ‘I’m not getting out of this one. I’m going to be trapped here for hours.’ And so twenty minutes later, they set him free.

It’s not clear whose side Bill Kristol is on, or even if the question makes any sense. Take the Iraq war. There’s an edge of malice throughout that whole disaster; all those neoconservative proposals that were for decades insisting that Iraq be split into three separate states, one Sunni, one Shi’ite, and one Kurdish, which is pretty much exactly what’s happened. Bill Kristol decided with all the rest of them that the United States would build a strong, stable, secular Iraq, with predictable results. At the same time he predicted with the total confidence of the inhumanly wrong that Saddam’s weapons of mass destruction would be found. Does he only want death and mayhem? It’s possible, but it’s far more possible that to talk about Bill Kristol in terms of what he wants and doesn’t want is to put things in an unworkable frame. What does capitalism want? What does the planet want? To reproduce themselves, to continue blind and ravenous and not entirely real. The only truth – if that word can have any meaning – is that we are not free. We live only because Bill Kristol allows it. Because any moment he might take it upon himself to make another optimistic prediction for the sunny future of humanity. ‘We’ll do great,’ he says, lounging on his chair in the ABC studio. ‘The human species will carry on, today, tomorrow, and for all the days to come.’ Cut to black.

Howard Jacobson is the worst living writer

Linger but a while, dear reader, on these words – and forgive me my presumptive apostrophising, but the fact, crude as it may be, yet remains: you are my sadly anonymous reader, and I am the great and lauded novelist Howard Jacobson, twice shortlisted for the Booker Prize, once the winner, fêted by the literary establishment for my wry and incisive wit, my charming, bittersweet empathy, my deft dabbings of sentiment, my scarf, my beard, and all my other many enlivening qualities. I’ve read Ulysses. By this point you might already feel an exhaustion, or a poison bulge of resentment suppurating in the back of your throat; you may long for me to get to the point. But I beseech you, put this aside. Learn, as King Solomon is said to have learned, that all things must pass. I’ve also read Middlemarch. The point may never arrive, or it may only come in the final sentence. What a life this might be if we could grow beyond humanity’s unfortunate predilection for the pointed! No more blades to cut and wound, nor razor-wire to keep us apart from one another, only soft, sagging flesh, or the generous shade of trees, which I adore, oaks especially. Did I, perchance, mention that I’ve read Ulysses? It is, in many ways, the point (there it is again) of apotheosis of the grand Victorian humanist novel, and might you discern something of Leopold Bloom in my humble self? Reader, perhaps you may. A learned toleration, a mournful libidinality, a gentleness and goodness that so faintly lingers from a time now past. How I yearn for a world of peace and unity! But, malheureusement, that is not the sphere on which we have sprouted. So in the meantime, please allow me to nurture this seedling of a scintilla in your intracranial folds, let it grow and take root: we must shoot the proles and nuke the Gaza Strip.

There’s something uniquely repulsive about Howard Jacobson’s weekly columns in the independent. His books are bad, but they’re bad in the normal way, the way in which basically all recent capital-L Literary novels are bad. Like Donna Tartt, or Jonathan Franzen, or Haruki Murakami, or Karl Ove Knausgård, or that one that you quite like. The way in which any lingering (post-)modernist concern for the questions of what a text is and what its possibilities might be are shunted aside in favour of minute observations about family life and sexual neuroses occasionally jumbled up with flatulent pronouncements on the Human Condition. It’s a little like a return to the traditions of 19th century realism (an era in which, as now, the only actually worthwhile English novels were shoddily produced, amateurishly written, and shamelessly pulpy), but more than that it’s the dying pant of the novel as a dominant literary form. Howard Jacobson’s particular shtick is that all his novels are a middle-class, middle-aged Jewish male writing a novel about a middle-class, middle-aged Jewish male writing a novel about a middle-class, middle-aged Jewish male; it’s like Philip Roth on benzodiazepines. Shoddy but not unusual. But as a columnist, he’s the absolute worst in Britain, and very possibly the world.

This isn’t something I say lightly. As you’d expect from a class of people who, looking out at a planet full of constant horror, mostly see the chance to have a correct or profitably offensive opinion about it, the professional commentariat is a gallery of monsters and imbeciles. Katie Hopkins, circling the drowning refugees in her speedboat as she cackles through plasticky gums. Jeremy Clarkson’s jeans, which have long sunk into his skin and colonised his organs, so that he’s now just denim all the way through, entertainingly calling for the mass extermination of this week’s despised minority. An army of broadsheet bores, endlessly droning in the imperative mood, telling the public and the government and the opposition what they should and shouldn’t do, as if having a column in a daily newspaper confers some kind of spiritual leadership. Simon Jenkins. Jonathan Jones. Me. But Howard Jacobson isn’t satisfied with the usual conventions of the bad opinion column; he’s a Booker-winning novelist, deigning to bring his subtle art to this most debased of forms – mostly by draping run-of-the-mill reactionary opinions in the kind of sanctimonious waffle that makes you wish for the sleek, punchy polemicism of a Richard Littlejohn or a Melanie Phillips. Howard Jacobson could write two thousand words on how a square has four sides, tack on some class chauvinism or virulent anti-Palestinian rhetoric, and produce something virtually indistinguishable from his usual output. Howard Jacobson is Britain’s worst living writer.

It’s sadly not possible to go through every single one of Howard Jacobson’s terrible columns, but luckily in the last month alone he’s managed to produce some of his stupidest crap to date. I’ll start with the fluff. Exhibit A, a column from the 18th of September, titled ‘I don’t understand this ‘LinkedIn’ and the way it evokes memories of childhood rejection in me.’ This is a late contribution to the genre of Old People Vocally Infuriated By The Internet, and has apparently come to us through a wormhole leading to the year 2006, when it was last acceptable for apparently serious newspapers to print sentiments along the lines of ‘What’s all this Face-Book nonsense? Why don’t you just read an actual book, with your actual face?’ It also bears a strange resemblance to the slogan t-shirts still sold (but to whom?) in Camden Market and souvenir shops, the ones with messages like ‘Forget Google – ask my wife!’ or ‘You looked better on Facebook’ – although these at least have the virtue of brevity. In his essay, Jacobson describes receiving an (almost certainly automated) email from some unknown person inviting him to use the social networking service, and while he refuses, he’s still wracked by guilt, by ‘the idea of someone hanging on, anxiously eyeing the mail every morning, wondering if you received the original request, wondering if you’ve responded yet, wondering if you ever will’ – which is naturally bound to bring a Proustian reminiscence of ‘all the rebuffs and repudiations one’s suffered – in my case a half a century of unrequitedness.’ Jacobson isn’t just confused by what the website does, he can’t even work out its name – but because he’s an award-winning writer, he’s befuddled in a profoundly literary way. ‘Never having heard it spoken, and possessing no instinct for cyber semiotics, I couldn’t make out the word the letters added up to.’ Eventually he decides it’s ‘a Finnish translation of the name of a princess from One Thousand and One Nights […] the Princess Link-a-din.’ A simple two-word phrase is too much for him, which raises the unsettling implication that this lauded men of letters is actually functionally illiterate.

Jacobson’s inevitable prescription is to log off. ‘Only deconnect,’ he says (see what he did there?). ‘Out in the free, uncompromised world of the unlinked no hell-troll can hound the mildest Corbyn sceptic.’ Which is a strange way of framing things, given that earlier in the month Jacobson had written an article neatly slotting the then-leadership candidate into his grand overarching mythos, a kind of fantasy world in which the political Left, and in particular the Palestine solidarity movement, is motivated solely by a foaming hatred of the Jews. (And what about those anti-zionists who, like myself, happen to be Jewish? In his novel The Finkler Question, we’re represented in the title character’s former incarnation as a greedy, egotistical Shylock character, cynically deploying his Jewishness to curry favour with pro-Palestinian Gentiles while in fact pathologically hating his own people. In Kalooki Nights a similar figure, a cartoonist desperate to expunge his unwanted Jewishness onto the page, discovers to his horror that the people commissioning his work are overt antisemites. In other words, we’re just self-haters. In which case, Howard Jacobson is just another cop putting fences up around the borders of Jewish identity.) The point, when he gets round to it, is this: let’s say Corbyn is not himself an antisemite – although of course it’s not ‘possible to guarantee the complexion of another’s soul’ – but why does he spend so much time hanging out with people who are? Why does he want to boycott Israel but not Hamas? It’s a boring and boorish smear, cribbed directly from our more frenzied tabloids; what Jacobson does, in his inimitable style, is add insufferability to stupidity. ‘The offence you take at any imputation of prejudice is the hollow hypocrite’s offence,’ he says to Corbyn, ‘and your protestations of loving peace and justice, no matter who believes them, are as ash.’ A solid effort, but it could be improved by using the full phrase, beloved by teenage poets for decades, ‘as ashes in my mouth.’ The Booker Prize comes with an award of £50,000. There’s no justice.

Jacobson never outrightly states that Palestine solidarity is driven by antisemitism (he’s far too literary for that); he just occasionally wonders, or considers, or innocently questions the motives of this or that person, again and again, in column after column, a lone man in a small cell farting out little insubstantial clouds of suspicion until the accumulating stink fills the room. From his attack on Corbyn: ‘The truism that criticism of Israel does not equate to anti-Semitism is repeated ad nauseam. Nor, necessarily, does it. But those who leave out the “necessarily” ask for a universal immunity. Refuse it and they trammel you in the “How very dare you” trap.’ How very dare you indeed. When footage emerged of a young Queen performing a Nazi salute, Jacobson did all the requisite forelock-tugging – ‘I know she is good for the Jews. How do I know? I just know’ – before, in the last two paragraphs, saying what he really sat down to say: British Jews like Howard and I shouldn’t be worried about the be-swastika’d upper classes, but we should be terrified of Hezbollah, Hamas, and the political Left (where antisemitism ‘goes by another name’). In 2009, immediately after a war that killed nearly 1,500 Palestinians and thirteen Israelis, Jacobson wrote a column with the title ‘Let’s see the ‘criticism’ of Israel for what it really is.’ Within, amid the usual self-inflating pontification, he described comparisons between Gaza and the Warsaw Ghetto as ‘the latest species of Holocaust denial.’ In 2011, he wrote a kind of open letter to his fellow author Alice Walker, begging her not to join the aid flotilla to Gaza that would shortly be subjected to murderous State piracy in international waters. In particular, he focuses on the fact that the flotilla was carrying ‘letters expressing solidarity and love’ for children in Gaza. This offends his egalitarian instincts. ‘Not, presumably, for Israeli children. Perhaps it is thought that Israeli children are the recipients of enough love already. So what about solidarity?’ What really grates Jacobson about the anti-occupation movement is its certitude, the way they’ve entirely made up their minds – how gauche, how unsophisticated; they should, like him, airily flit between parties, make a big show of holding them up to equal scrutiny, before inevitably fluttering to rest on the side of the nuclear-powered colonialists rather than the people they’re occupying.

Not that Howard Jacobson’s prejudice is limited to the oppressed peoples of the Middle East: he has plenty of scorn for the poor and tactless here at home. Take another piece, also published in the last month, on lad culture at British universities. For Jacobson, the problem with sexual assault on campus isn’t the sexual assault, it’s the fact that it’s happening on campus. The problem is that universities are no longer for the elite, but have been invaded by a tide of oversexed oiks. He looks back fondly on his days as a student at Cambridge, when everyone at university was shy, scrawny, studious, celibate, and not ‘interested in the carnivals of the proletariat.’ In his telling, over-serious middle class boys never rape anyone, only the feral underclasses. Jacobson and his dweeby cohort were, he says with all apparent seriousness, just like Paul Morel in DH Lawrence’s Sons and Lovers – a strange citation, given that Morel wasn’t exactly a standard-bearer for good sexual ethics. ‘Where have men of this sort gone?’ (They’ve probably all escaped to Link-a-din.) He continues: ‘In the case of those of us who studied literature, the books we read turned us inward and kept us civil. It would have been hard to go from reading Jane Eyre to inveigling totty back to our rooms and doing violence on them. I don’t say an MA in gangsta rap or business studies will necessarily make you a rapist, but there’s less mental distance to travel before you get there.’ Besides his thoughtless class hatred, Jacobson betrays an incredibly impoverished attitude to literature – the idea that it exists to turn us into kinder, milder, gentler people, that great art ought to be a kind of primitive Xanax. (Should someone tell Howard Jacobson what DH Lawrence actually got up to? Maybe instead of Sons and Lovers he should have read Women in Love, which towards the end features another wealthy and bookish young man attempting to strangle his girlfriend to death.) He ends with a defiant insight: ‘Sex is better when it’s mutual and, better still, when the parties to it pause occasionally to read a book together.’ Midway through the act? Maybe he’s freakier than I thought.

Unlike the best tabloid columnists, real masters of their craft, Howard Jacobson never entertainingly rolls around in the muck of his own hatred. Instead, against all the evidence, he insists that he’s a good right-on liberal – a socialist, even. After all, how could anyone be prejudiced when they have such a profound love of words? Even if it’s a love that he expresses in the same way Paul Morel expresses his love for Miriam: by imposing himself on them. But the real question isn’t why Jacobson is so bad; it’s why people still seem to respect him despite his total worthlessness. If this is how our heroes write now, then literature ought to be put out of its misery. In a way, Howard Jacobson really does perform a trenchant and incisive critique of our society – but it’s not in the things that he writes, it’s in the reaction to them.

One last one. Jacobson’s most recent column, published over the weekend, is another ebulliently witty broadside against any and all criticism of Israel. This time, his ire is drawn by a Spanish clowning troupe who protested by stripping naked in front of the apartheid wall near Bethlehem, inadvertently upsetting some local residents. Cue the usual whinging about the fiendish complexity of the situation, and how ‘meddlesome’ it is for anyone other than Howard Jacobson to take a moral stance. But before he gets there, a brief detour on the virtues of staying shtum when you don’t have anything of value to contribute, in this ‘age of immoderate opinion unhampered by knowledge.’ Jacobson quotes Wittgenstein, or, at least, a scrap of Wittgenstein he picked up somewhere else: ‘I don’t grasp what philosophical problem concerning language and reality the sentence “Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent” addresses – but I am going to employ it, anyway, against those who don’t know their arses from their elbows and ought to shut the fuck up.’ Physician, mate, heal thyself.

Why you’re not leaving London

So you’ve decided to leave London. You’re leaving because the millionaires are being priced out by billionaires. You’re leaving because every high street is boxy, bland, and identical. You’re leaving because the Tories are in charge. You’re leaving because the weather is shit. You’re leaving because it’s the enemy of all human life. You’re leaving because those two dull syllables, Lun and Dun, rattle like bones in the hollow where your heart used to be. You’re leaving because you want a walled garden and a ten-minute drive to the countryside and the space to really express yourself creatively. You’re leaving because people live in shoeboxes. You’re leaving because the cops murder people (not people like you, of course) and get away with it. You’re leaving because the culture’s been dead for a decade. You’re leaving because you have the beautiful soul – and before you go, you’ll write a short essay on London, so you can tell a city of millions why you’ve grown beyond it, why you’ve elected to flee while everyone else sinks flailing into the ooze. Who do you think you are? In the face of all this heaped stone and misery, a tattered arabesque plunging death-heavy through the centuries, are you really a free person who can choose where to go? Did you really think London was just a place, like any other place? This city’s stuck to the inside of your lungs. Waxy London plasters your veins and dribbles viscous from your nostrils; its fumes take root in your hair and the pigeon shit will never go from under your fingernails. Did you really think you could just leave?

You’ve been chewed up for too long, head-first in the cold shit; finally, like the lukewarm thing you are, you can feel yourself about to be spat out. But before you leave, you’ll plunge one last time into the centre of London, down to the Embankment, to hear the music of white vans screeching along the A3211. In Gordon’s Wine Bar, a long rocky trench off Villiers Street, bodies push and writhe in their untold masses. Like a newly dug grave, filled with earthworms. Pale and clammy people push against each other, steal lighters, slop Fat Bastard Pinot Noir on their ginghams and chinos, and roar their bewilderment into the darkening sky. There are tables and chairs and patio heaters here, somewhere, but all you can see are sweat-stained shoulders and haircuts floppy on top and buzzed at the back. Somewhere in the general mêlée a fight breaks out: three pink-shirted men are rounding on a blue-shirted man, smashing bottles over his head, but nobody’s paying much attention; elsewhere Mark from Lloyd’s can’t decide whether to remodel his bathroom or divorce his wife, Cressida at Moody’s thinks the coke’s starting to hit, and tiny blameless creatures are trampled underfoot.

You’re not like these people: you’re a writer, journalist and/or creative, and they disgust you. Out to the choking Phlegethonic churn of the river, where Cleopatra’s needle, dense with slave-scrawled hieroglyphs, reminds you that this city has always been in league with ancient and pagan evils. Its blasphemous point finds echoes all around you; the sky bristles with cranes. In a thousand building sites from horizon to horizon, bloated men swing giant slabs of concrete in diminishing circles, building homes for nobody to live in, vanity chasing greed. It’s all too much: you duck underground. On the Tube the lustful are fixed rigid at fifty miles an hour; this is where the anonymous and the unloved go to stare at a spot just above each other’s heads. You take your seat and watch your hairline recede in the opposite window, knowing that millions of other arses have been planted in this same fold of scratchy fabric, that the people around you look out on exactly the same sights as you do every day, and that none of them will ever know your name. There’s a form for these things. You write in to the ‘Rush Hour Crush’ section of the free morning papers. Silver fox weeping openly on the 10:22 to Euston – fancy a drink? Pale, harried redhead beauty chewing her nails on the District line: I want to add myself to your list of miseries, buy you a drink? Dead pigeon with gleamingly exposed ribcage sprawled on the tracks at Canada Water. Coffee some time?

It doesn’t end. Beyond the crumbling walls of old London, in the outer circles of the Underground zoning system, the suburbs plod, miles of limp terracotta and chicken-shop spleen. Nothing has ever happened here, and nothing ever will. Further yet the sodden bog of greenbelt. You crossed it once: the train companies took their gold, and you arrived broken and penniless in front of King’s Cross station. It was all a stupid mistake. Fuck London. You’re right to leave.

But where will you go? You decamp to Brighton, wander too far on the wrong side of Old Steine, and realise: my God, this place has no architectural idiom whatsoever; it’s nothing, it’s just London by the sea. You flee to Vienna, and the rent starts rising steadily around you, the ground rushing up to meet the sky, and you’re buried in it, your mouth stopped with dirt and cement. You can fuck off to San Francisco, and as you’re drinking overpriced cocktails in a Mission bar, you’ll hear some tech twat wheeze down his phone to meet him on the roundabout by the Old Street BART station. But surely that can’t be right? You left London because it lost all character, because London had become nothing more than a vast buildup of global capital. A trading floor in one skyscraper has more to do with Shanghai and Singapore than with another in the building across the road; London is where the globe-girdling flows of finance coagulate and disperse again. But if this city is no longer anywhere in particular, if its geography is defined more by money and its infinite gradations than anything as crude as ordinary space, then how could you possibly achieve anything by leaving? London isn’t the name of a place that exists within strictly defined limits. London is the entire planetary order.

Remember your sins, as you turn the wrong way down Friedrichstraße to find yourself staring, shellshocked, at the Charing Cross Road. As you heave yourself panting up to the Griffith Observatory, pause to take in the view, and stagger backwards as the Shard drives itself like a dagger into your eyeball, and the hollow round banshee’s mouth of the London Eye howls you home. As you come out the Metro at Saint-Germain-des-Près, and someone thrusts the Evening Standard in your face. Think on your sins. The homeless people you ignored. The change you pretended not to have. The friends you betrayed. The enemies you cursed. Your careless fucking, summer sweat and strange skin, holding each other close so the eyes aren’t in focus, slick sliding nails and over too soon. The banknote clenched hard as you snort up £50’s worth of rat poison and laundry detergent. You have lied, cheated, lusted. blasphemed. You have killed. Did you really think we would ever let you leave? Don’t you understand? You’ll never get out of London, not for all eternity. Don’t you know where you are? This is where you belong. You’re in Hell.

Green-eyed loco men

“Nilbog! That’s…”

Forgive me, but the much-vaunted ‘Green Surge’ doesn’t sound like the most important underground political shift in a generation. It doesn’t sound like politics at all. It’s a disease, one of those old medieval sicknesses that would suddenly sweep its bile-trimmed cloak across a nation and then vanish, leaving modern historians baffled. What caused the Green Surge? Why was it that thousands of people in 13th-century England spewed this strange green substance from every possible orifice before dying in their inexplicable filth? From what infected pits of the body did the Green Surge spring? Contemporary scientists suggest some kind of virus, an organism too blind and stupid to know not to kill its host, possibly carried to Europe with seafaring rats. The people of the time knew better. These sicknesses come with the miasma that wafts into towns with the morning breeze, carrying with it the stench of undrained marshes and dense bogs, the foulness of rotting vegetable matter and the eructations of unclean animals. Like a rolling, invisible tide, sweeping past the fragile barriers that separate civilisation from all that swarming organic decay upon which the social limpet is encrusted; the stinking revenge of the English countryside, in all its ancient, unknowable evil. Nature kills.

According to the Green Party itself, the Green Surge is actually a sudden exponential spike in their membership, which has since the beginning of the year given them more paying party members than either Ukip or the Liberal Democrats – but then these people shouldn’t be trusted. The Greens aren’t a political party, they’re a cult. American politics are often described as a circus: they’ve got the flashing lights and booming announcers, the roving lights that settle on some terrified elephant shuffling along a high fiscal tightrope. Every American politician is inescapably clownish, with their heavy caking of make-up, their pathetic and seedy desire to entertain that only terrifies the children, and the sure knowledge that they’ll all eventually all die strung out on prescription painkillers in a lonely ranch somewhere. British politics is less refined, less glossy. It harkens back to a more earthy form of entertainment: parliamentary procedure is a gang of witless peasants pushing each other into the village midden. But even among all these gormless shit-splattered idiots, the Green Party might be the worst. They’re the only ones who actually want to roll around in all that natural, organic filth. They want it with such a seriousness that the cult is the only available working model. Eco-scientology: a ghastly dead-eyed vegetable legion, a slow cellulose celebration of every tuberous bloat in the ranks of the Turnip People. You can see Green Party members canvassing on any given Sunday in farmers’ markets and greengrocers. One of us, they chant through brussels-sprout blob mouths, staring at a bag of spinach with a fraternal reverence. One of us, they implore the silent ranks of moulding courgettes. One of us, they yelp as they fuck a lettuce. One of us. Any politics that’s not grounded in a fundamental disdain for all vegetables is not worthy of the name.

God knows why, but people – normal, ordinarily sensible people – actually plan on voting for this gang of dendrophile lunatics. Ask them why, and they’ll come up with the usual platitudes: a break from politics as usual, the chance for a fairer society, a different way of doing things. Haven’t we learned anything? This was the same brave cry thousands of students roared five years ago as they flung themselves into the fathomless void of Nick Clegg’s conscience, like young Hashishim from the walls of Alamut. The Greens are a chiliastic suicide cult as mad and deadly as the worst of them. Their logo literally depicts the world in flames. They, too, are waiting for the aliens to come and whisk them away: they’re here to prepare the ground for the final victory of the plants. The tendrils that will twist their way through the mortar of our homes, the scraggly blotches of lichen that will expand upon the oily surfaces of our great artworks. The seething, bubbling, rotting stupidity of mere life, Utopia and apocalypse all at once.

To be fair to the potato folk, they’re in a strange and contradictory position. On the one hand they’re desperate to be seen as a real, proper, viable political party, which is why they’re collecting council seats like gym badges and clamouring for a spot in the TV debates. Not just a drifting protest march of sandal-wearing beardies, but an organisation capable of real competency in real politics. On the other, there’s still the buried desire to be an actually radical alternative, to delineate the absolute horizon of acceptable thought under conditions of post-everything modernity and, by circumscribing it, necessitate the faint conceptualisation of its Other, a thought and a programme that lies beyond any such limit. There’s nothing wrong with either of these desiderata, especially not the fact that they’re mutually contradictory. The problem is that rather than attempting any kind of synthesis, the Greens have settled on a policy of abstract negation. As Caroline Lucas, their only current MP, admitted, the Greens won’t be taking power any time soon; instead they exist to put forward some radical ideas which this political system needs so badly, and to push Labour to be far more progressive. What this actually means is that firstly, these radical ideas must remain as ideas and only ideas; even if framed as concrete proposals in a manifesto, their function is only ever entirely symbolic. And secondly, the radical nature of these ideas must always be essentially non-heterogeneous to the politics of the Labour front bench – a group which should, after its jolly little adventure in Iraq, be considered a genocidal party of a type with the Khmer Rouge and the Impuzamugambi. (And how should Labour be more radical? According to Lucas, by renationalising the railways. Icarus never dared dream higher.) The absolute worst of both worlds: at once a flighty, immaterial, nonsensical radicalism without its usual and important virtue of that unbounded creativity only possible through sheer silliness – and a grounded, measly, banal fascism that doesn’t even have the grisly sop of bare practicability. There’s nothing there. It’s a politics of the void; the unthinkingness of plant life.

Until recently, the Greens called for the replacement of the current benefits structure with a universal basic income of £72 a week. As a transitional demand, it’s not a terrible idea (even if it came with the quesily cauvinist name of a Citizens’ Income). That plan has been dropped from their 2015 manifesto. Why? Because the Green platform is structurally required to be a colossal failure of the imagination. Uniquely, the Greens could rename themselves the Why-Isn’t-Everything-Nicer Party without any substantial loss of meaning. Their vision is of a Britain powered by the kinetic energy of middle-aged people in cardigans pottering around allotments. A Britain where every family will bury acorns over the winter, where discussions of state will take place in a magnificent wooden treehouse, where thousands of protected voles will form a living quilt to scurry you off to sleep at night. (Plenary sessions at their party conferences – this is true – start with enforced ataraxy, a horrifying hippie-fascist ‘period of attunement’ in which the delegates engage in sixty seconds of ‘calm reflection’ to ‘clear their minds’ before the chakra-straining bustle of minor-party politics. Hard not to imagine them skimming off all actual thought like the fatty film from a psychic consommé.)  It’s the same kind of ideology that propels people into thinking that 3D-printed shovels can save Africa; that drinking soya milk will refoliate the rainforests, make dogs and cats be friends again, and resolve the subject-object dichotomy; that they’re ‘lifehacking’ or ‘finding ingenious solutions to everyday problems’ as thousands of twanging rubber bands bounce around their heads and smash all their glassware. Heads in the clouds, knees in the shit; social change reconceived as a single rubbery floret of overcooked broccoli.

Given that they’re without any real radical vision or plan for action, the Greens have had to organise themselves around some kind of principle beyond mere vegetative idiocy. Be like the cabbage might have worked as a rallying cry at the time of Puritan pietism, but it doesn’t sound quite so sexy now. So the Green movement has taken as its empty signifier of choice a concern for the environment. Fine: who could possibly be against saving the environment? But what environment? An environment is something that surrounds, encloses, and determines any individual phenomena, something that always remains fundamentally outside. What’s called the natural environment is not this thing; in fact, it no longer really exists. There’s not a scrap of the non-human world that hasn’t been invaded and encoded by capitalist practices. The bunnies fucking in the fields are being pimped out by greetings cards companies. Songbirds now chirp car-insurance adverts every fifteen minutes. Even those places that are supposedly still wild and untouched are, precisely by virtue of their exclusion from the order of commodity society, utterly enmeshed within it – after all, sovereignty is defined by its capacity to create a state of exception. The deep-sea tube worms that gulp nutrients from the fires at the centre of the earth, waving their sad frilly fringes alone and unseen in a world without sunlight – they’re pioneering examples of neoliberal entrepreneurship. The last really wild megafauna are the subject of a frantic exchange in images; more than anything, they’re used to advertise their own endangerment. Some Latin American governments are seeking money to not exploit their oil reserves – a proposal that, while gesturing towards the inviolable difference of the ‘natural’ world, actually effects its opposite: the gooey remains of our old dinosaur rulers can’t even gloop around in peace beneath the soil without being subjected to the laws of the commodity. If there is an environment that acts as a substrate to our everyday activities, it’s not nature, but late capitalism itself. The esoteric core of the Green leadership must know this. Just like the malignant nature that threatened earlier societies, capital is vast, profligate, and ravenous; it knows no limits to itself, but seeks to spread its evil to the furthest galaxies. It’s something we’re in but not of; a vast stalking alien demon. The abstract principle that the Greens want to protect is nothing more than the blank futility of the status quo.

Their ideology is utterly hollow, and they don’t even have the aesthetic sense to exult in its hollowness. But still thousands of people believe in it – not just that, they believe in it very seriously. Believing something stupid but magnificent is generally laudable. Believing something stupid and miserly is cultish. This is the difference between a cult and a religion: when you join a cult, you have to give up your imagination at the door.

It doesn’t matter that some of the things they actually say about climate and inequality and so on happen to be true. Imagine some young person telling you, with perfect straight-faced enthusiasm, as if they’d just discovered the most important fact in human history, some perfectly ordinary truth – that blue whales are bigger than any dinosaur, that ducks fly south in the winter, that the polar ice caps are melting, whatever. Now imagine that this person keeps telling you their fact, over and over again, and tries to cajole you into signing a petition to help their fact gain wider recognition, and begs you to join their organisation, dedicated to the propagation of this important fact. The truth-value of what they’re saying doesn’t matter. It’s in the earnestness, those wide sugar-blasted eyes: this person is insane. Someone who cares this much about waterfowl migration can’t put much of a value on human life. Any hierarchical organisation affirming cetacean vastness can only be a violent, paranoid sect. Should I run? Am I about to be bludgeoned to death with a clipboard? When the nails on those wiry, intense hands start to claw at my face, will anything be left of me apart from a messy splat on the pavement? This is how the Green Party functions.

This isn’t to say that earnestness by itself is a bad thing. But if you’re going to earnestly attach yourself to a political project, it should at least be one that has something to show for itself. Storming palaces, overthrowing humanity, war against the Sun, not a miserable set of policy prescriptions designed purely to appeal to the symbolic intelligence of disaffected lefties. Look at the areas where the Greens are projected to do well. Brighton, Oxford, west Bristol, and north London: middle class enclaves, petty fiefdoms of the bien pensant liberal bourgeoisie (full disclosure: I’ve lived in two of these places). Ukip is bearing down on the east coast like a horde of zimmer-frame vikings, the Tories soar over vast swathes of the countryside on ragged vulture wings, an infestation of Labour candidates scuttle through city sewers – and the Greens send their zapped-out cultists to canvass for votes in Brockley and Stokes Croft. For a counter-example, just look at Syriza in Greece. They also started as a small, weird party, and however many theoretical and practical mistakes they’ve made since taking power – and there have been plenty – their method of getting there was exemplary. They actually listened to the people, stepped in to provide services when the state couldn’t, helped to organise workers and position themselves as something radically heterogeneous to the governmental system. Even after taking office, they promised to keep the central locus of power on the streets; they knew that party politics is just an abstracted expression of the real, visceral thing. This was hailed as a radical innovation, but it’s not really anything new: the Black Panthers were doing the same thing in the 60s, giving out free school meals and getting shot by police for their efforts; Hezbollah have come to replace the State in much of Lebanon; even Occupy briefly experimented with moving homeless families into foreclosed properties. The Greens don’t seem to do anything of the sort. They’re far more interested in getting MPs and council seats; for them a 6% electoral representation is the highest radical goal. They move entirely within the repressive state apparatuses, as if politics is something that takes place only in constituency surgeries and the wormy tunnels of Westminster. When they do try to actually effectuate any kind of change it’s always as a local government – here in Brighton, for instance, where their rule has been an unmitigated disaster. But of course it has: the institutions they’re working in are structurally calibrated to make radical change an impossibility, which is why they’ve ended up as the simpering enforcers of austerity.

The election is looming, and even the most devout Green cultists will eventually be forced to admit that they’re not going to do especially well. But doing well was never the point. The political right is, of course, up in arms about some of their policies – they want to legalise ISIS but ban your bins! they want foxes and hunters to attend interspecies sensitivity courses! they want to give all our jobs to Mongolian yak-herders and teach our children to go into prostitution instead! – but far from delegitimising the Greens, these paranoid critiques actually recapitulate the narrative in which any of this might actually happen, in which the Greens are a genuine electoral viability. They’ve been compared to a watermelon, green on the outside, red on the inside; in fact they’re a cauliflower, grey and frothy without, grey and rubbery within. What this troupe of cauliflower-headed clowns want more than anything is your vote: the claws to dig them further into the bloated corpse of liberal democracy, the biofuel that keeps the dismal train of parliamentary radicalism chuffing, so they can continue their sad stomping march into the algae-choked sea. They want your vote with a vegetable hunger, eyeless, faceless, insatiable.  Don’t give it to them.

The poppy conspiracy

An enigmatic figure, common to all great mythologies: the blue demon, the sower and reaper of blood.

Conspiracy theory: British imperial history, in its entirety, is the result of a dark and ancient plot on the part of the poppies; a Papaveraceaen pact ranged against humanity. For centuries they schemed in their hedgerows and pastures, dreaming up strange and cruel ideas in those ugly flaring heads of theirs, communicating their vegetable conspiracies through codes carried on unwitting bees (while the rest of us just innocently assumed them to be having sex), until the time came to strike. Wherever empire goes, poppies seem to follow: maybe we’ve got it the wrong way round. Our ruling classes have had their alliance with these plants for a long time now; in a state of opiate suggestion, it’s very possible that the flowers could do whatever they wanted with them. The poppies wanted China: we took them there, and forced millions into somniferous slavery. The poppies wanted to grow undisturbed, and our artillery obediently churned up the fields of Europe for them. Even this century they’ve reclaimed Afghanistan with British helicopter support. Now the poppies, and their puppeted politicians, are so sure of their angiospermic power over us that they can demand we peons each wear their plastic sigil every November, to remind us who we belong to. Now angry mobs will descend on anyone who insults our overlords by burning them in effigy, or else these iconoclasts will be legally imprisoned for crimes against the dignity of plants that (let’s not forget) grow in shit. Poppies have been a symbol of death since the Greeks; the fury of the pro-poppy partisans is the fury of death against life; it’s almost certain that the poppies are trying to lure us into a nuclear war, so that when the dust clears from the sky and all the humans are dead, the scorched scrublands of the future will flower with nothing but giant irradiated poppies, twisting happily in the wind as it howls an unheard threnody through the shells of ruined cities.

Even if all this isn’t true – and I don’t see why it couldn’t be – it doesn’t matter. Conspiracy theory is always true in a sense, in form if not content. We’re not being controlled by creatures from outer space (whatever kind of lizard the Queen is, it’s one autocthonous to this lump of rock), the Jews aren’t putting fluorine in your water and gay propaganda on your TV, and however you arrange the little clues you’ll never be able to make a complete and rational account of things – but at the same time our society functions by conspiracy: no actions are innocent, every meeting of a two implies an excluded third. We’re constantly told that this is a time of synoptic openness; nothing is further from the truth. It no longer makes sense to say, for instance, that you’re going shopping: you’re being made complicit in a conspiracy between yourself and the supermarkets against some poor indentured Guinean cocoa farmer. Reading a book is a conspiracy between you and the author, going outside is a conspiracy between the earth and the Sun. We’re all complicit, we’re all somewhere in the cold staring pyramid, and poppies are growing in straggly clumps all along its base.

So what: it’s just a symbol, it’s just a nice way of remembering the dead. The problem is that every act of ritualised remembrance necessitates a simultaneous forgetting. What’s remembered is the ritual itself, the po-faced charade of monarchs and prime ministers placing those sinister circles of poppies by the Cenotaph, a two minutes’ silence indistinguishable from a two minutes’ acquiescence. The process of memory and its transformations must be wiped out in the moment of remembering. Nobody now seems to remember that the whole red-poppy charade was brought to Britain by none other than one Field Marshal Douglas Haig, the man responsible for the brutal waste of millions of lives at Passchendaele and the Somme. He struts around postwar London with a fake poppy in his lapel, and by its apotropaic magic the teeming ghosts of his victims no longer impede his sight but can only claw ineffectually at his shoulders. If the poppy were just a symbol inscribed with unfortunate militaristic overtones it could be opposed without much effort, but in fact it’s much more subtle and dangerous than that. We’re locked in a struggle against dreams and magic. Wearing a poppy doesn’t honour the victims of war, it banishes them. As long as we can fixate on the narcotic solemnity of those two clean red circles, we don’t need to think about the mud and gas and rats, or the victims of shellshock tried and shot by their own officers, or the millions of innocents slaughtered before and after the war in Ireland and India and Malaya and Kenya and Iraq, or those ethnic and religious minorities who are even today compelled to demonstrate their patriotism by wearing poppy-patterned hijabs. It’s a drug, something out of a Philip K Dick novel; it produces a new reality and traps us inside of it. If we’re to start really remembering the tragedy of war, the only way is to burn all the poppies, wipe out their evil magic with fire, and look our ghosts squarely in the eye.

Faced by an onslaught of politicised remembrance, the instinct from the Left seems to be to depoliticise, to present the war as a purely human tragedy, one in which any imposition of political meaning is something like blasphemy. To actually celebrate a victory is crass beyond imagining. This is bullshit. The First World War was a class war, an organised assault against the European working classes on the part of the European ruling classes – and we won. It wasn’t a war for freedom or democracy: even by the standards of miserable contemporary liberalism Britain in 1914 was not a democracy (neither was France, or Canada, or Australia, or the United States), for the simple reason that women and the working classes were denied the vote. Our victory didn’t coincide with the Armistice; it was uneven and generally rolled back, and it came at a terrible cost, but it was real. Everywhere returning troops struggled to overthrow the forces that had sent them off to die. Votes for women and the empowerment of labour unions in the United Kingdom, a surge of civil rights militancy in the United States, workers’ uprisings in Germany, and the Great October Socialist Revolution in Russia. Still it’s not finished. Remembrance Sunday demands that we sit by passively and let the vague tones of history wash over us; our real history compels us – in honour of the dead, and in respect of their legacy – to fight.

This post is dedicated to the memory of those ten thousand soldiers who were killed in the six hours between the signing of the Armistice and its taking effect ninety-six years ago, who gave their lives so that schoolchildren could easily learn that the war ended on the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month.

Fuck Stephen Fry: towards a new theory of ghosts

Derrida […] even wrote about his belief in ghosts, which seems to be literal.
Johann Hari, Why I won’t be mourning for Derrida

Pictured: front-page reviews of Stephen Fry’s latest TV drama

Hallowe’en is coming. If, like all sensible decent right-thinking people, you live in the temperate portion of the northern hemisphere, you’ll have noticed its portents already. The night draws its claws from one languidly extended arm; the days are racked by a series of shuddering contractions. These temporal shifts leave debris everywhere. As we begin to approach the winter solstice the nocturnal howls of the neighbourhood dogs are drawn out longer and longer with every passing night; by the time Christmas starts to roll around even the flimsiest yappiest terrier can sustain a single note for up to thirty-five minutes. Meanwhile as the sunlight hours – or what passes for them – are condensed into an ever-smaller period of time, the tiny specks of water vapour in the air are forced together: the clear skies of summer cloud over, and it rains for days on end. Maybe it’s all the fault of the trees. When their leaves crinkle into those soft yellows and burnished browns people are so fond of it’s because they’re being filled with a summer’s worth of poisons. Then the leaves fall and get mulched up into the earth, and their rot drifts up into the atmosphere to feed the endless nights. If they didn’t put on this prismatic striptease for our distraction maybe none of it would happen – but they do, and so Hallowe’en is coming. For one night in the year, the spirits of the dead once again walk the earth; according to some experts, the Devil is granted free reign over the sublunar world. Like all earthquakes, it has its tremors. Already several respected media outlets are reporting on an epidemic of black-eyed ghost children, ferocious snarling creatures haunting our public spaces and wreaking strange vengeance on our cherished local businesses. Lock your doors, hug your loved ones: the frost outside has fangs.

There is at present no broadly accepted scientific explanation for the phenomenon of Hallowe’en. The once-dominant Einsteinian model (first proposed by Nathan Warstein in his famous 1931 paper) is now largely discredited, but given its past influence it bears repeating. It’s now well known that the cherished Abrahamic-Enlightenment linear conception of time is false: time is not an unbroken line stretching from the Creation to the Last Day, but a dimension in the manifold of Minkowski space or the spacetime continuum. This fabric of spacetime is warped or disturbed by massive objects; while this distortion is usually all but imperceptible except in the cases of supermassive phenomena such as black holes, it is always present. As the Earth rotates around the Sun, it trails behind it a field of distortions in the spacetime manifold; when it completes a full circuit this turbulence starts to interfere with itself before snapping back into the planet’s gravitational pull. During this brief period of extreme temporal flux, which usually occurs on or around the 31st of October, past events will recur, and the dead are reanimated for one night, thus explaining the existence of ghosts.

Of course, the problems with this theory are obvious. If the Warstein model is correct, all ghosts appearing should be of those individuals who died during the year from the previous Hallowe’en. This implication was put to the test under laboratory conditions in 1988 by the MIT research team of Davis, Wilkes and Jobanputra. Over a sixty-hectare area in the Nevada desert, they observed 1,129 ghosts, of which 657 appeared to originate from the period before 1945. Ghosts are notoriously difficult to communicate with, so it was impossible to determine their era with any precision – but even allowing for the possibility that some individuals had died while attending historical re-enactments or retro burlesque evenings, or while performing on the set of a period drama, it was concluded to be statistically impossible that so many instances of anachronistic dress would occur among the recently dead of 1987-8. Since the overturning of the Einstein-Warstein theory of ghosts, numerous other models have been put forward: one of the most popular, proposed by a team at the Karlsruher Institut für Technologie posits a form of quantum entanglement occurring across all spatiotemporal dimensions. Whatever the merits of the Radler-Grosz Hypothesis, it’s yet to be met with full academic consensus: many feel, reasonably enough, that any recourse to quantum physics to account for macro-scale phenomena smacks of pseudoscience. A possibility many of these researchers seem to have missed is that the appearance of the superannuated ghosts identified by Davis, Wilkes and Jobanputra may in fact be a recent development. Ghosts in Shakespeare – those of Banquo, Old Hamlet, and Caesar) appear relatively soon after death; now, however, as Hamlet declares – and as Derrida is fond of quoting – the time is out of joint. Derrida expands on this point in his interview with Maurizio Ferraris: there is, he points out, a dislocation of the present, which renders the present non-contemporary to itself and these people non-contemporary to each other […] our time is perhaps the time in which it is no longer so easy for us to say ‘our time’. In other words, despite its aura of ancient mysticism, which pervades despite all scientific advances, Hallowe’en takes the form it does because of us, the living, and our relation to the past.

~

Given that Hallowe’en is a perfectly normal astronomical event, and one that (barring especially large solar flares) tends to occur every year, why is it so connected in the popular imagination with fear? Not just ghosts: Hallowe’en is a time for vampires, werewolves, witches, demons, sharknadoes, flibblemitkins, satsumas, and all the other hobgoblins of the medieval mind. Why are we so afraid of the paranormal? There’s so much more to be afraid of than a humdrum old ghost. The world is going very badly. Forces of the Islamic State have occupied huge swathes of the East Midlands and are advancing on Daventry; real estate in London is so expensive it’s only being marketed intergalactically, to sentient beings from planets made of solid diamond; Michael Portillo is a sexual being. With all this going on, why do we waste our fear on things that are real but not important or important but not real? Why aren’t we afraid of Stephen Fry?

Stephen Fry (if such a thing indeed exists) is, on first appearance, the opposite of Hallowe’en. While Hallowe’en marks a moment of rupture or discontinuity in time, Stephen Fry is all smooth progression: a tweed-wearing atavism that is also inexplicably popular on Twitter, the last seventy years all rolled up into one big bundle of plummy homogeneity. While Hallowe’en celebrates the chilly and the gothic and the intoxicatingly unpleasant, the very sound of Stephen Fry’s voice is like sinking into a warm bath of treacly English mush. While Hallowe’en reminds us of the human inability to understand such basic phenomena as death or ghosts, Stephen Fry gives us a world easily broken down into tiny scattered monadic concrete facts, all of them vaguely engaging, but without any particular bearing on anything at all: they’re quite interesting, but never interesting on the level of sex or God or even football. Stephen Fry is utterly (but sadly not uniquely) awful. He represents an insidious brand of unbearable bourgeois smugness: knowledge of useless facts and a fetishistic fondness for gin reconfigured as the instruments of class power. In Stephen Fry’s utopia, those nasty estates full of yobbos would all be bulldozed (if possible with the residents still inside) so lots of bunting can be hung on the wreckage and everything can go back to being simply lovely again. Anyone unaware of what a cummerbund is, or unable to identify which red wines go with a nice Brillat-Savarin (sirens blare! trick question! It’s none of them; the saltiness of the cheese is best paired with a malty pale ale) would be shot against a wall behind the National Gallery and have their remains carted off to fertilise a charming wooded dell full of flowers. He might have lots of little facts in that fleshy bulbous head of his – and might try to convince us that this makes him very clever rather than, say, a human filing cabinet – but this knowledge is never actualised in the form of a critique of anything. Whenever anything like critique emerges, it’s always predictably myopic. As his various pronouncements have shown, Stephen Fry can’t understand religious faith, or why some people might find hate speech offensive, or the basic concept of informed sexual consent. He’s an idiot, and one who marches at the head of a long column of idiots, all fanatically devoted to him. Local pub quiz champions, pipe smokers, grown adults who say ‘poo’. Never mind Hallowe’en: the ghouls already walk among us, every day of the year.

I’m not going to dwell too long on all that; enough space has been devoted in these pages to the general hideousness of the English middle classes and their godawful cuntish heroes. Instead it might be productive to zero in on the third example of Stephen Fry’s all-encompassing idiocy identified above. In 2010 he provoked some consternation when he insisted that women don’t enjoy sex and only engage in the whole rigmarole to snare a male partner. Earlier this year there was rather a bit of a fuss when he appeared to claim that women habitually make false rape accusations in hope of fame or revenge. And recently (on the same day that the first reports of black-eyed ghost children emerged; as I intend to demonstrate, this is not a coincidence) a bloody silly kerfuffle kicked off when he suggested that 14 year old girls raped by celebrities should not be considered victims. Why does he keep doing this? More to the point, who’s listening? It’s not as if he’s an expert on the subject. Stephen Fry was voluntarily celibate for fifteen years, and by his own account found the idea of sex viscerally disgusting; it’s hard to see him as anyone’s first choice for some down-home truths about fucking. His interminable televised displays of factiness might have turned him into an object of national transference, a collective sujet supposé savoir – but every time he says something so plainly and evidently abhorrent there’s the public sphere’s equivalent of QI‘s flashing lights and honking sirens as ten thousand blog posts and opinion pieces are unleashed on him in a ritual display of performative condemnation. You’d think his status as a designated font of all knowledge would have declined by now, but if anything it’s getting stronger by the day: a monstrous, morbid, undead power over the mind.

People like Stephen Fry for the same reason they fear ghosts. It’s all visceral: he’s warm and friendly while they bring the damp mouldering chill of the grave wherever they go. What both represent is a certain way of relating to the past. Stephen Fry gives us an imagined British past of bow ties and cocktails on the lawn (along with repressed sexuality and chronic depression: our cherished twee fantasies still aren’t very nice), one that contradicts material reality but still manages to live on in and through the paunchy presence of Mr Fry himself. As long as he’s alive that past is too; switch on your TV and it can blend seamlessly into our own time. Ghosts remind us that the past is dead, or death itself, and their presence only underscores the impossibility of that presence, the absolute break and cold irretrievability of what once was. Where do ghosts come from? It’s not quantum entanglement, it’s not general relativity, it’s not unfinished business in the world of the living. Whenever Stephen Fry opens his mouth and comes out with some piece of retrograde nonsense about sexual politics, a disjuncture occurs between the generally accepted values of our own time and those of the past: we can hold him accountable, and cut the link to our suddenly gruesome history, or this rupture can be displaced in the form of a ghost. Stephen Fry exhales ghosts in their swarming thousands (it’s surely no coincidence that the Davis-Wilkes-Jobanputra experiment took place on the October after the first broadcast of A Bit of Fry & Laurie). New ghosts, from the distant past, not the harmless echoes we’re used to but vicious biddable black-eyed monsters. As for why he’s doing this, it should by now be obvious. Stephen Fry is the deceiver, the shining one, father of abominations, prince and general of ghostly legions that mass unseen, awaiting the one night in the year when he is granted free reign over the sublunar world. Feel the heat drain from the room? Hear the sound of evil screeching on the wind? Shiver in your corners, bolt your windows, have your gun ready – it won’t save you: they can walk through walls. Hallowe’en is coming.

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.

The oleagineity of Nigel Farage

 … ssss…. kill them all… eat their egssssss….

Russian leaders have followed a strict pattern since 1825: lisiy–volosatiy, bald-hairy. A bald leader has always been followed by a hairy leader, a hairy leader by a bald leader. In the UK we do things a little differently. While in Russia hair sprouts with the furious fecundity of Stalin’s purges and Yeltsin’s shock treatment before receding in Khrushchev’s secret speech at the 20th Party Congress or Putin’s managed democracy, in Britain nothing ever changes. Russia has dialectical progress, we have dynamic stasis. Our prime ministers come in two types: the slimy and the greasy. Our politics is a contest between opposing forms of oleaginous unpalatability. David Cameron is slimy. Call me Dave, he says, as he stares at you with hunger in his slitted eyes. Gordon Brown is greasy. He may as well have been made from leftover chip fat. Tony Blair is slimy. The Iraqi blood slides right over the shiny coating on his hands. John Major is greasy. His leftover Y-fronts could supply the UK’s energy needs for the next decade. Thatcher was slimy. Callaghan was greasy. Wilson slimy, Heath greasy, Wilson no less slimy the first time. And on and on, the eternal pattern cycling back through the centuries to that distant day when the first poor wretch scrambling around in Albion’s mud took it upon himself to rule over his fellows. But all that might be about to end.

Ed Milliband is greasy, perhaps the greasiest man ever to lurch his way into the House of Commons; he looks like a blob of Vaseline with a haircut and an awkward smile drawn on. Even so, something is changing in our world; the old rules no longer make any sense. The air resounds with governments and economies falling like hailstones. The ice caps are melting. The rain is poison. The sea is plastic. The End of Days is upon us. And Nigel Farage is both slimy and greasy.

Nigel Farage. Say it. It’s horrible, like a slug sitting on your tongue. It fits him perfectly. There’s not a photo of the man in which it doesn’t look like his skin’s about to split open, fall away so the crawling thing inside can rear up in all its insectoid glory. And Ukip is a party in his image. You can see it in that tacky purple and yellow logo, which makes it look like the political wing of Poundland (which, in a sense, is exactly what it is: a cheap, exploitative alternative, feeding off the common desparation). You can see in the language they use, too. We’re not racist, but. It’s common sense. Brussels wants to get rid of your curtains – your curtains, the ones you spend so many hours happily twitching – and replace them with Venetian blinds. Vote Ukip, save our snooping. Barmy Eurocrats want you to eat food with more than two colours. Vote Ukip, save our slurry. Gays want to paint the cliffs of Dover pink. Vote Ukip, save our staidness. Muslims – yes, all of them – want to bring wild-eyes mullahs in to inspect your pantry. Vote Ukip, save our sausages. Be afraid. We’re not racist, but. It’s common sense.

What does common sense mean here? Petty viciousness, the kind the British are so fond of, that’s all. In the run-up to the local election in East Chersterton, candidates were fielded a series of questions by the Cambridge Cycling Campaign. “Do you support plans to allow cycling on Green Dragon Bridge?” asked the Campaign. Most of the candidates mulled it over and tried to give a vaguely reasonable answer, or at least one that would endear them to voters. Not Peter Burkinshaw of Ukip. He applied some common sense. “I don’t use Green Dragon bridge,” he said, “so am not able to make an informed comment. However, I am constantly subjected to verbal abuse from cyclist riding of the footbridge at Jesus Lock when I ask them to stop ignoring the please dismount signs.” It’s a perfect image. Burkinshaw, the shit Napoleon in his purple rosette, standing by the lock, waiting for a cyclist to come by so he can remind them of the rules. And the cyclist, speeding past: oh, do fuck off. It almost makes you proud.

The needling puritanical side of what I’m calling the ‘There is a sign-Oh do fuck off’ Axis has always been a part of British life, but its recent resurgence has a precise aetiology. Successive British governments have for decades wormed away at people’s livelihoods and communities: affordable housing has been deprioritised, healthcare gutted, schools turned into businesses. In the place of the industrial sector that once secured the livelihoods of millions we’ve been left with the terrors of the service industry. No unions, no job security – forget alienation, there’s no end-product of labour to be alienated from; and to cap it all off, you might at any point be replaced by a beeping machine that querulously complains of an unexpected item in the bagging area. A few bones have been thrown our way, of course. You can go on a Saturday night talent show to be ritually humiliated by a panel of wankers in the hope of one day reaching international fame as That Guy Who Won That Show Once And Now Mostly Does Panto. (If you have intellectual pretensions, you can try BBC1’s The Voice, a daring televisual adaptation of Theodor Adorno’s On the Fetish-Character in Music.) Everyone must have a talent, and if yours doesn’t propel you to stardom then you probably deserve to work nine hours a day in a windowless office. If that doesn’t placate you, our political class has a solution of last resort: blame the immigrants! Don’t blame us, or at least not too vociferously, don’t blame our friends in the financial sector, blame the immigrants! Blame the poor and vulnerable, the huddled masses, they’re not like us, we don’t owe them anything. Blame the immigrants, hisses slimy Cameron. Blame the immigrants, rumbles greasy Brown. And somewhere, in a disused sewerage pipe in Kent, the slime and grease of their duplicity blends together and forms a hideous blob, growing with every new outrage, until it assumes human form and a wonky grin tears across Nigel Farage’s face…

In yesterday’s local elections, Ukip gained 136 councillors across the country. Farage claimed that he’s reshaped British politics. It rained a little this morning. As I watched, the rain drew thick, viscous trails across my window.

Richard Dawkins and the ascent of madness

 The fossil later received £250,000 in an out-of-court settlement.

Richard Dawkins wakes some time before dawn. He doesn’t blink or yawn or stretch – his eyes clang open with all the force and suddenness of a steel door. He stares at his ceiling, blue and brown swirling in his irises like cars and livestock in the centre of a tornado. Richard Dawkins’ head is fizzing with mad thoughts. He chatters under his breath as he strides out of bed and down the stairs of his Oxford home. His wife gives a small grunt and goes back to sleep. Outside a shimmering band of turquoise near the horizon brings a soft sparkle to the beads of dew hanging from trees in early bud; the heavy clouds in the distance look peach-pink and insubstantial; so do the old pale brick houses that line his street. The birds are singing in riotous chorus. “Accept my genetic information, females of my species!” they sing. “Observe my superior fitness for survival, as evidenced by the strength and clarity of my voice! Oh, and, by the way, as a bird I have no concept of God or metaphysics, but I do believe in strict gender roles and the principles of Aufklärung!” Richard Dawkins sets off into the world.

As he shambles down his street a few small birds burst from a shrub, scattering at his approach. The famous scientist suddenly breaks from his mutterings and watches them carefully. “Horses!” he says, finally. “Flying horses. Nonsense. Balderdash. Not now. Not yet. One day. Tiny flying horses, tiny flying horses, millions of tiny flying horses. One day. One day.” Later, an upended bin gives the bestselling biologist some cause for reflection. Foxes have tipped it over, sprawling its contents over the pavement. “Hitler’s brain!” Dawkins exclaims. “Save Hitler’s brain, study Hitler’s brain, gain Hitler knowledge. Hitler science. Science Hitler. Hitler Hitler.” Soon he is heading down from his wealthy suburb into the medieval heart of Oxford, towards the University, seat of learning and discovery for over nine hundred years. A few vans making early-morning deliveries trundle past him. He smiles and waves. “You want to see some films of a lady giving birth?” he shouts happily. “Fantastic stuff. Two million years old. Baby porn, baby.” By the time he’s on Market Street the sky has lightened and there are already a few pedestrians on the road – postgrad students with their morning coffees, undergraduates still stumbling home from the previous night. Some stare as he passes; some turn their backs. Suddenly, Richard Dawkins stops dead. He raises an accusatory finger at a horrific building standing in front of him. His face is twisted in fury. It’s not a church, though – it’s a charity shop. “WHERE DO AMPUTEES BUY THEIR SHOES?” the internationally renown secularist bellows, spitting and grimacing, tears rolling down his face. “DO AMPUTEES THROW AWAY ONE SHOE?”

His journey is almost complete. As the sun, burning with nuclear fusion’s blasphemous glory, begins to float above the crenelated urban horizon, Richard Dawkins is climbing Magdalen Tower. Finally he is at the summit, surrounded by its magnificent Gothic spires. As dawn becomes day, Richard Dawkins looks out at a gloriously mechanistic universe, and begins to laugh. “There is no God!” he shouts. “There is no God! There is no God!” As he does so, his testicles sway freely in the breeze, swinging slowly, with all the dignified solemnity of old church bells.

~

Richard Dawkins has gone insane.

It’s probably for the best. In his more lucid moments his proclamations tend towards an unselfconscious misogyny and Islamophobia – his thought bears the ugly stamp of the bigot who thinks that not believing in God lends his opinions some kind of Rational Objectivity. His links with the far right are extensive; it might not be a coincidence that his personal foundation shares a logo with the neo-Nazi Golden Dawn. Far better for him to be endlessly wittering about Pleistocene porn and Hitler’s brain. I’d like to think I helped in some small way: I am, after all, one of the voices that reminds him daily of an inconvenient truth. But really it was inevitable; it’s inscribed in his ideology. The ‘New Atheists’ should, I think, more properly be called the New Young Hegelians; much of their bad politics comes from their refusal to accept that their ideas were thoroughly refuted by a pair of bearded weirdos over 150 years ago. This is aggravating enough, but the madness comes in when their insistence on rationality turns from an irritating ideological quirk into a full-blown psychosis. You can’t talk to these people. “I prefer tangerines to oranges,” I say. “I’ll believe that when I see the proof,” they thunder in response, glutamated granules falling from their beards like dandruff as they shake their heads in scorn. “Maybe the juridical categories of proof and evidence aren’t universally applicable?” I suggest. The whining chorus: “Got any evidence for that?” Wander too far down the path of rationalist dogma and it’ll be no surprise if you’ll end up like Richard Dawkins, sunning his genitals in a world that no longer makes any sense.

But what if it’s something more? What if Richard Dawkins’ madness isn’t the end of his story, but the start of his elevation to something entirely different?

~

Richard Dawkins is not new. Richard Dawkins has been with us for thousands of years. Xanthus of Lydia writes of the presocratic philosopher Empedocles:

Having reached the summit of Etna, he threw himself into the flames, believing that with the scourging of his body by the fire he would arise as a god. From that day he was known to the people as Μαργίτηἅγιοσ (Margithagios).

What is a margithagios? The word recurs several times in Greek writing without much in the way of elucidation. In Latin it was translated as furiosus sanctum, or the holy madman: the Roman jurist Sextus Pomponius wrote that ‘the holy madman is he who, having been a great man, places himself by his own will beyond the limit of the law and its reason. Thereafter he is the property of the gods; he is theirs to kill or take in sacrifice.’ That the gods will claim their sacrifice seems to be a given. Of the individuals later described as margithagies or furiosi sancti, few tend to meet a peaceful end. The fourteenth-century German theologian Thomas von Klöt was born to an aristocratic family but renounced his worldly wealth in the service of the Church; he was at one point considered a candidate for posthumous canonisation. However, his preaching became steadily more bizarre and began to verge on the blasphemous: he began to insist that God manifested Himself in vegetable life and forbade his followers to eat any plants or anything which fed on them (flies, worms, etc were at the time believed to emerge through spontaneous generation and were therefore considered safe to eat). He was killed with two of his disciples when he was crushed by a falling tree. Comte Xavier de Mazan, commonly considered to be an inspiration for the Marquis de Sade, took to calling himself Priapus Invictus and walking around Paris in specially designed breeches that allowed his penis to protrude through an opening surrounded by rubies and sapphires; he died in 1761 when an improperly cut diamond tore through his femoral artery. At the close of the nineteenth century, the British imperialist and industrial magnate Harry Suggle began to take an interest in Hindu cosmology and eventually proclaimed himself Īshvara, the supreme ruler of Vyāvahārika or the World Inside the Veil, to a crowd of his workers. He was killed when a rotary blade in his beet-processing factory came loose and sheared off the top of his head.

A general theory of margithagies was first devised by the structuralist anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss in his 1972 work Les Hommes à l’extérieur. Lévi-Strauss connected the figure of the margithagios with the Outside Men of Amerindian society – those madmen who, unlike prophets or shamans, would live within the camp but not take part in its rites. The position of the Outside Man was an ambiguous one: at once man, god, and beast. In times of grave general danger (such as drought or war), the holy madman would be ritually sacrificed; however once the rite was carried out it was forbidden to speak of it on pain of death. Perhaps the most systematic analysis of the sacred madman, however, is in Giorgio Agamben’s 1996 Margithagios: Dissent and despotism from the classical to the modern. Agamben argues that the margithagios formed a ‘state of exception’ allowing ancient societies to allow for dissenting or contradictory opinion to be at once openly expressed and rejected as madness (and potentially cut short with the life of the holy madman). In his conclusion, Agamben explicitly identifies the margithagios with freedom of speech in liberal democracy, proclaiming that ‘in the twenty-first century, we will all be furiosi sancti.’ Notably, Deleuze and Guattari refer to the holy madman in Plateau 10 of Capitalism and Schizophrenia:

We refer not to prophets or seers, molar aggregates all, but the margithagios, for whom the revelation is always a becoming: becoming-God, becoming-flames, becoming-ashes. Can we say with certitude that Empedocles did not, in the end, adopt the trajectories of an Apollo? In the margithagios space becomes a field of n points, n-dimensional movements, intersected by n plan(e)s. Margithagios haecceities form lines of flight extending in every dimension, the contagion of the sacred madman is effected through these backchannels, in which deterritorialisation and reterritorialisation form a loop or sequence connected not by graduation but consistency. There is never a city, there is only a city and a volcano, never a volcano, only a volcano and a sandal, never a sandal, only a sandal and a god. Rhizome.

The theoretical margithagios is diverting, but you get the sense that Deleuze and Guattari have missed the point a little. The holy madmen existed. For a short time they transcended our world while continuing to walk within it, and then they all fell. They were sacred to something. Something took them back to itself, something greater and more powerful than we can imagine. As he babbles about tiny flying horses and people with more shoes than legs, a question is forced upon us – is Richard Dawkins about to prove the existence of God?

~

Richard Dawkins stands on the top of Magdalen Tower. The sun is rising over Oxford. The fires of Etna shine their feverish light over his naked body. He smiles.

%d bloggers like this: