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This is why I hate intellectuals

Tag: psychoanalysis

Avengers: Endgame, or, why this is all your fault

you

You were born. For billions of years, the universe existed and you were not alive. There were stars and lights and giant lizards and Romans and so on, but it all took place under a kind of invisible shroud, the blackness of non-experience. One day you will go back into that blackness, and it will be as if the universe had never existed. But you are alive now, in the early twenty-first century – and because of that fact, the human race will probably be extinct within the next thousand years.

This is called the Doomsday Argument, and frankly it makes a lot of sense. This subjectivity, this you-ness that you experience, could have come into the world at any point in human history. You could have been one of those Romans, but you weren’t. You were born in the middle of the greatest population explosion in human history. Two hundred years ago, the global population barely scraped a billion; it took nearly a century for that number to double. It’ll be eight billion soon. You were born in the time in which there were more people than ever before – and did you think this was a coincidence? You’re here now because now is the most likely time for you to be here. You’re here now because you’re not special.

The argument is a version of the German Tank Problem, which goes something like this. Millions of people are dying horribly in the Second World War, and in the middle of all this chaos you’ve managed to sneak a spy into a German tank factory – but they’re soon discovered, and manage to escape with their life having only taken one photo. A tank’s chassis, with the serial number 396. So: how many tanks are the Nazis producing? Keep in mind that the answer is crucial to the war effort. They might have only built four hundred tanks, and your spy happened to snap one of the last off the assembly line. Or maybe your spy caught one of the first, and the Germans are building millions of the things, tens of millions, enough tanks to drive into the English Channel, fill it up, and keep on driving, simply flattening everything from Dover to Durness. But in both cases, the probability is low. There’s only a 1% chance this tank is in the first or last 1% of tanks made. Without any other data, you have to assume that the one instance you’re aware of is probably somewhere around the middle of the distribution. So: eight hundred tanks total, give or take. This was a statistical method the Allies actually used, based on serial numbers from captured vehicles. After the war, when production figures from the Reichsministerium für Rüstung were analysed, the statistical method turned out to have been almost spookily accurate, far more so than the estimates given by ordinary intelligence. The nerds won. They always do.

You are a German tank. You were built by the Nazis to do evil in the world. The only data-point we have is that you are alive in the present day, and without anything else to work with, we have to assume that you were born vaguely in the middle of experiential history. Something like one hundred billion people have ever lived, so, once the dust clears and the final accounts are totted up, chances are there will have been around two hundred billion people to have lived and died on this miserable rock. But we’re still in the middle of a population explosion; we’re eating into that remaining one hundred billion faster than we’ve ever done before. The future of humanity will be much, much shorter than its past.

The simplest thing would be to kill you. Yes, I know, you didn’t ask for any of this – but the inevitable extinction of humanity is still entirely your fault, and it would still be pretty satisfying to make you suffer for it. But it’s too late now, your damage is already done. You doomed us all the moment you entered the world. The only thing you can really do is make sure that the life you’re living is worth the mass extinction it’s caused. It’s an impossible task, but you can try. Except you’re not even trying, are you? Life is short, and finite, and Avengers: Endgame is three goddamn hours long, and you watched it. You paid money to sit in a darkened room and eat popcorn and drink Coca-Cola while you watched Captain America travel into the past to knock himself unconscious and leer at his own ass, as if he’s about to pull down his own trousers and start fucking it. And now you’re reading a review of the same film, and every second that passes is lost forever. What the hell is wrong with you? How can you bear to look at yourself in the mirror? How do you sleep at night? Aren’t you ashamed of what you’ve done?

* * *

Look: I don’t understand the world, and even as a cultural critic, I’m ok with that. I don’t know why kids keep saying things like ‘yeet’ and ‘mood.’ I’m fine not knowing. The answer will end up being something horrible, mass lead poisoning maybe; I don’t want to find out. I don’t know why I’m haunted by intermittent intrusive visions of someone taking a disposable razor, sticking it in their mouth, and ‘shaving’ their gums. I don’t know why Americans who claim to be socialists are putting so much demented effort into opposing a less monstrous and cruel healthcare system. And I don’t really understand why people like the Avengers films; I have a theory, but I don’t really ‘get’ it. This is also fine. Not everyone will like the same things I like; it would be a terrible world if they did. What bothers me is the fact that the last two Avengers films also received near-universal critical acclaim, from people whose sole task on this earth it is to watch films and discern the good ones from the bad. These same people are basically united in the opinion that the DC comic book films are stupid, portentous, and ungainly, that their plots make no sense, that they keep hamfistedly telling us to care about fundamentally hollow characters, and that their over-long and terrifyingly expensive action sequences resolve into noisy tedium. But they like these ones. Why? What is it that’s crawled into their brains? Is there any way of getting it out again, or will we just have to line up every overgrown fanboy in every pivoted-to-online legacy publication in front of a ditch, and do what must be done?

These films are terrible. They’re not just bad in comparison to Tarkovsky or Bergman, bad in the way that all commmodity-culture is fundamentally bad. They’re bad as dumb action films. They fail to even meet the requirements of the genre. You are being pandered to and patronised. Why do you not want revenge?

In a New Yorker review, Richard Brody proposes that Avengers: Endgame could have been better if it spent more time delving into the characters and their emotions, if it dealt more seriously with the theme of loss. This is a terrible idea; he wants to turn the film with a giant blue alien into another tedious Hampstead novel. Instead, imagine taking a moderately bright and imaginative twelve-year-old boy and telling him you have a basically infinite budget to produce two films, which you want him to write. The films have to concern the Plot Emeralds, which were created alongside the universe itself, and contain the terrifying potencies of its six aspects: Space, Time, Mind, Soul, Reality, and Power. In the first film, a big purple villain manages to acquire all six IndecipheraBalls, and uses them to commit an act of cataclysmic evil. In the second, the bedraggled heroes band together and travel back in time to get the Sempiternal Zirconias back, and undo the damage he’s done. What kind of story would a twelve-year-old write? Probably, at a guess, one in which the narrative potential of these Chaos Crystals is actually explored. Space is spliced, cloned, distorted: the universe folds into terrifying new shapes, organic monstrosities unfurl from inorganic matter, the stars are dandruff, pebbles are planets, everything is a distortion of everything else. Time twists into loops and paradoxes; laser battles in medieval castles, Stone Age shamans hurling spears between distant suns. In the chaos, inert objects are ensouled and living creatures become mindless automatons; dreams blur with reality, unreal logics are set loose on the world, and our heroes have to battle in a universe turned to vapour.  For all the inevitable high-concept manoeuvres, it would probably be quite dumb. But at least it would be fun.

This is not what we get. The stones are barely used in either film. In the first, Thanos attaches them to a big glove and snaps his fingers: half of all living creatures suddenly die. In the second, the Hulk does the exact same thing, and everyone who died comes back. That’s basically it. What a waste! The real focus is always on the crossover aspect, the fact that every character from every Marvel film is here, together. Instead of the creative potentials of a twelve-year-old, these films are pitched towards the level of someone of around six. A child playing with the tie-in action figures, recombining the characters: what if Iron Man met Nebula? What if Star Lord teamed up with Thor? If the Bog-Hole fought Pencil-Guy, who would win? Five and a half cumulative hours of a media franchise showing us its various copyright properties, all in their original packaging. Let me be mawkish and hysterical for a moment. Is this the kind of imaginative model we want to pass on to our children? Are these the dreams we want them to dream? Is this sordid petty rearrangement all that they have left?

Superhero narratives have a fairly obvious social role. People are boring and frustrated; they’d like to be more than they are, but everyone is still somehow less than themselves. You can feel your existence fraying away at its fringes. Whatever life should have been, it isn’t this: not plasterboard bureaucracies staffed by people with irritating vocal tics; not slow-withering marriages, hair falling out, cartilage wearing thin, dreams unfulfilled, places unseen, books unwritten and unread; not Netflix automatically queuing up the next episode; not this couch, this rough fabric, this laundry, this potted plant, this foetid darkness of 11.26 pm on a Saturday night, this screen, this single life in a planet of seven billion lives, this life that will not be remembered, that will vanish without a trace into the ooze of unbeing, that will end having gone unlived, full of regret, emptying its nothing into the nothing that ever was and shall ever be. But this is what you get. So you have superheroes, people who live in the not-this. They can fly: where would you go, if you could fly? They can turn invisible or stop time: what hideous crimes would you commit, if you could turn invisible or stop time? They can beat anyone in a fight: how would you live, if you weren’t so afraid? And they have secret identities, because this freedom could belong to anyone, maybe even you.

The social function of a superhero story is to work through all these possibilities, to leave the audience with some of the libidinal payoffs that come with a brief excursion to the not-this, exhausted but satisfied, ready to go back to work. In Minima Moralia, Adorno complains that under conditions of domination, happiness is reduced to tawdry pleasure: one ‘has no choice but to find inspiration in the trashy film, the expensive but bad meal at the French restaurant, the serious “drink” and sexuality reduced to doses of “sex.”‘ The classic superhero story stands in the same relation to actual liberation as sex does to sexuality. But clearly, we’re no longer in that era. It’s got much, much worse. Another layer of ersatzification has formed over our enjoyments. That vague sense of the not-this has been hardened and crystallised into the hermetic detachability of a cinematic universe, in the same way that the vastness of love and sexuality became the healthy energetic pleasures of sex, and then contracted further into porn: rigid and isolated, infinitely distant from the actual act. The vision of another existence no longer needs to explore the unfolding of human potentials. It can just as easily be maintained in their annihilation. After all, these characters are dealing with the fundamental forces of the universe, but they’re absurdly under-powered. One of them is a superhero by dint of being good at archery. Not that it matters. A made-up world where meaningless heroes fight meaningless monsters with meaningless names.

It works. You love it. It takes you out of yourself for a moment. It’s like you’re already dead.

* * *

Thanos is a Malthusian, but he doesn’t appear to have any books on his big spaceship of doom, so we’ll have to assume that he’s never actually read Malthus. This has to be the case, otherwise he would never have thought that exterminating one-half of the living population of the universe would make things any better. Too many people, he says, not enough to go round – but he’s forgotten that the number of people will still continue to grow, and it’ll grow faster if there are more resources available. So he snaps his fingers, and returns the Earth’s population to what it was in the year 1973, when we had no problems whatsoever.

1973, as it happens, was the year of the economic crisis that put an end to the era of social-democratic expansion in the First World. In its wake, we got the beginnings of neoliberalism, the financialisation of the economy, the replacement of common ownership with cheap credit. This new system met its own major crisis with the economic collapse of 2008. That was also the year that Iron Man, the first film in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, was released.

And this is supposed to be a coincidence?

* * *

It’s maybe not entirely true that there’s no element of wish-fulfilment fantasy in Avengers: Endgame. The heroes don’t maintain secret identities while performing exhilarating feats in their spare time, but they do go back into the past, correct their mistakes, and resurrect the loved ones that they’ve lost. This fantasy has a decent pedigree, right back to Gilgamesh and Orpheus. And I get it: when tragedy has struck in my own life, there’s always been an irrational part of my mind that’s told me this isn’t real, you can go back, you can undo it all. I’d like to undo it all. I’d like to go back and tell that first cell not to split, avoid all the trauma of differentiation, let life in its entirety persist in a singular eternal prokaryotic bliss. It can’t be done, which is why I’m a melancholic, constantly splitting and doubling my ego, introducing new traumas and breaks, to preserve all the objects that were lost. But it’s nice to see someone manage to do it onscreen.

Except – what is this underworld that we enter to resurrect the dead? Here, it’s the past, but a specific past: they go back into the previous Avengers films. We get to see the big scaly monsters from the first instalment invade New York again, only this time our heroes are standing around wryly commenting on the action, rather than participating in it. We’re watching Thor again, and the first moments of Guardians of the Galaxy. The stakes have vanished; it’s been doubled into farce. And this is happening everywhere. Sequels and reboots aren’t enough; now the Hollywood nostalgia-machine is umping out simple recapitulation, serving up the exact same warmed-over pap that we’ve already seen. One of the new Star Wars films overlaps directly with the first trilogy, with the help of a CGI Carrie Fisher. A decent chunk of 2015’s Terminator Genisys takes place within the action of the 1984 original. In Jurassic World, one of the more interesting examples, the sequel itself appears within the film as a ravenous and unholy monster cooked up by mercurial executives, which tramples all over Spielberg’s legacy before finally being taken down by the iconic tyrannosaur. What is going on?

Theory is comfortable with self-reference, but this is something else. The classical poststructuralist metaphysics of inscription constrains its institution of difference within a horizon of ineradicability. Writing institutes a relation to death precisely because, unlike the vocal utterance, it survives its author, whose death and absence ‘belongs to the structure of all writing.’ Omar Khayyam had it: ‘The moving finger writes, and having writ, moves on; nor all thy piety nor wit shall lure it back to cancel half a line, nor all thy tears wash out a word of it.’ In Derrida, writing is figured as a negative space, a break or chasm in matter: track or footprint, chisel to stone, fissuring neurones. It is also indifferent to its substrate; without writing, the lithographic ‘slate’ is in a state of ‘virginity’ – but further, writing must ‘produce the space and materiality of the sheet itself.’ This notion is articulated in his essay Freud and the Scene of Writing, itself a reading of Freud’s Notiz über den Wunderblock. Here he compares the function of the perceptual system to a children’s toy, the Mystic Writing Pad, consisting of a clear plastic sheet pressed against a block of wax. By making marks with a stylus on the plastic sheet, you can record words and images; lift the sheet away, and the surface is cleared. But even though these traces are no longer visible, they are retained, imperceptibly, within the wax. The analogy is not perfect: Freud notes that to function like the mind, it would have to be possible for the wax to recall and make use of marks that had already been withdrawn from the surface, to bring them back again after they’d been erased. ‘It would be a mystic pad indeed if it could accomplish that.’ Here, in the twenty-first century, we can recognise what he’d done. In 1925, Sigmund Freud invented the computer.

You are reading this review of Avengers: Endgame sequentially, from the beginning to the end, maybe skipping over the boring bits, maybe giving up halfway through, but treating it as what it is: a written block of linear time. But I wrote it on a computer, and as I wrote it I continually went back, changing things, fixing things, dipping in and out of linear time at will – because I badly need an editor, but I’m doing my best. In Paper Machine, Derrida gives some thought to the potentials of word processing. ‘With the computer, everything is rapid and so easy; you get to thinking that you can go on revising forever.’ But the operative word here is rapid: throughout, he conceives of digital writing as an acceleration of existing processes. Before the computer, actions were ‘slow, heavy, and sometimes off-putting,’ now, ‘the word processor saves an amazing amount of time.’ It’s ‘a question of speed and rhythm,’ differing velocities on the same course. But digital text abolishes the sequential ‘now’ of writing; there is no speed and there is no course, only an endless folding and complication, potentially interminable revisions, a text that is endlessly going back and fixing itself, reanimating its own corpse.

The desire to bring back the dead, to re-present the impressions that have been wiped clean – this isn’t Orpheus, because Orpheus had to go elsewhere, into the underworld, into the future, to smooth over the gaps in the world. In Avengers: Endgame, the journey is into the past, into itself, into the existing body of text, pulling out a section, pasting it into the roving present. It’s the dream the computers have dreamed for us. And this dream is incapable of computing finality. (Even after I publish this review, if I find a typo I can stick my hands back into the thing and fix it.) But the world itself is only a final and oncoming horizon. Is it any wonder, then, that we seem to be so incapable of dealing with something like climate change, stuck in our endlessly editable fantasia? Is it any wonder that you’re wasting your life watching Avengers: Endgame and reading reviews of Avengers: Endgame, even while the circle of light that surrounds you is narrowing, and the blackness tightens closer to crush you through your skin?

At a showing of Avengers: Endgame in Fullerton, California, an entire film-going audience was unwittingly exposed to measles. The measles virus, of course, works by sticking its glycoproteins into a host cell, and editing the cell’s DNA to produce more viruses. It causes around one hundred thousand deaths a year. More meat for the past; a slow swelling in the ranks of the one hundred billion who brought us here, to this moment, to this film, to you. Can you really pretend that it isn’t your fault?

Basilisk

basilisk

The kid does nothing. He stands, and stares, and does nothing.

God, but it’s disturbing. The drummer ducks and weaves and chants, and the kid stands motionless, like a snake watching some quick warm scurrying thing through heat-sensitive pits. The flickering grin of a predator. The kid with his sharp nose, sharp chin, rosy cheeks, callous and clean, facing off against a man aged leathery by a thousand year history the kid will never understand. A new world is coming, and it’s an annihilation. No more memory, no more twine and leather drums: the future will be white, peach-pink white, and heartless. The kid claims otherwise. He was trying to calm the situation, he says, and he thought the best way to do it would be to stand perfectly still. And if you want it to be, that smirk could be awkwardness or embarrassment: a much older man is playing a drum loudly in his face, and he doesn’t know what to do, so he stands there and smirks at him, and then later he goes home. Maybe. But that’s not what we see: we see something disturbing, that bothers you in the marrow of your bones. It’s creepy. It’s unsettling. It makes you feel like snakes are coiling cold and smooth down the shiver of your spine. Anything is justified, anything at all, to make it go away.

The situation is this. A group of Catholic high school students from Kentucky gather at the Lincoln memorial, as part of an organised trip to an anti-abortion rally. (And there’s something deeply, unbearably wrong with a world in which all-boys fee-paying schools will bus children out to take part in an anti-abortion rally.) While there, they’re taunted and mocked by a group of Black Hebrew Israelites, present for the Indigenous Peoples March. (I’m quite fond of that group, in a weird way; their encyclopaedic Bible knowledge, their utter sincerity. Once I had a chat with a group of Black Hebrew Israelites in New York. They told me that they were the real Jews, and I was a demonic impostor. I disagreed. One of them asked me what tribe I was from, with a gotcha smirk. Tribes are patrilineal, but my mother’s a Levite, and I told him so. In their history, the tribe of Levi corresponds to modern-day Haiti. He looked me up and down for a moment. Well, he said, maybe you’ve got some of the black man in you. Take from that what you will.) At this point, Nathan Phillips, an elder from the Omaha tribe, stands between the two groups and sings the American Indian Movement song: a wordless, pan-tribal, post-signifying chant of unity, for drums and voices. (The story goes that it was first hummed by a child at the Crow Fair. It was sung at Wounded Knee.) He’s trying to defuse tensions. At first, the students chant and dance along. Then they laugh. They appear to be mocking him. And one of them stands, and stares, and does nothing.

In a video filmed after the incident, Phillips is fighting back tears. It’s heartbreaking. I heard them saying build that wall, build that wall. This is indigenous lands. We’re not supposed to have walls here, we never did. For a millennium, before anyone else came here, we never had walls. We never had a prison. We always took care of our elders, we took care of our children. We always provided for them, we taught them right from wrong. I wish I could see the energy of the young masses, the young men, put that energy into making this country really great. Helping those that are hungry. (For some reason, that very last sentence seems to go unquoted in most media reportage.) He’s a liberal, in the best sense of the word. He sees two ranks of bigots squaring off against each other, and he wants to heal the divisions. He insists that he’s standing on indigenous land, not so he can raise a discursive wall around it and mark it off as his property, but because he wants the white people and the black people to understand that they are guests, and that they should behave accordingly, with politeness. He’s a better man that I am. If I had to come up with a new categorical imperative, it would be something like this: build a world fit for someone like Nathan Phillips to live in.

We are not in that world.

Call it meta-spectacle, the spectacularisation of someone looking. Video of the incident spread almost instantly around the world. And in a mob of rich Catholic-school kids on an anti-abortion march, jeering and chanting, the focus could only narrow itself to one particular point. The kid becomes fixed, a still form in a moving picture, an object of almost universal hatred. That one. I don’t like that one. He weirds me out. It’s not a political repudiation of right-wing ideology. It’s not even revenge. It’s disgust, the mass expression of disgust, both reactive and reactionary. Thousands of people on social media, doing everything they can to find out his name, and punish him. Sample tweet: Say good-bye to life as you knew it kid because it’s about to change for good. He did it to himself. Another: You are nothing now – your future just went out the window. No college or job opportunities coming your way. You are just a piece of dust now. Not the cry of the oppressed, but the gloat of power. People so woozy on power that they don’t even notice when they don’t have it. (Snotty right-wing kids from snotty right-wing private Catholic schools often go on to snotty right-wing private Catholic colleges. You have no dominion there.) A kid grows up in the swilling resentment of some white suburb in Kentucky – and you think you can shame him out of his upbringing? Roads without pavements, deserts of empty grass leading up to peaked-roof bungalows, the latest kitchen gadgets, frog memes, and an itch – and you think you can fix it by making shitty supervillain speeches online? Of course not. Nathan Phillips wanted people to behave better. You just want to make them bleed.

A name was discovered. Inevitably, it was the wrong one. A family member described the result. Harassment and threats of physical violence… my parents, uncles, and aunts receive messages saying they are pieces of shit and won’t be able to protect [him] forever… people then started circulating articles of him regarding his dreams and goals of being a chef, find the college he plans on attending and proceed to blow them up encouraging them to rescind offer and calling him a racist POS. The response? Something along the lines of well, if it’s not him, then say who it is. You know his name. They go to the same school. Give your friend over to us, let him face our justice. How can anyone possibly think this is a reasonable demand? What on earth do these people think they’re doing? Is this social justice? Thousands of grown adults, claiming for themselves the power of unrestricted punishment over a child. Yes, non-white children – black children playing with toy guns in the park, refugee children sluiced into various inhuman state processing systems – tend to be read as adults. This is monstrous. And on the day that one single child is released from a migrant concentration camp because a mob of adults tried to destroy a private Catholic school student on social media, I’ll endorse it as a tactic forever. Until then, it’s sadism.

But it’s strange how few people can point out what’s happening right in front of them. The person they hate the most in the video is the one who isn’t laughing, or hooting, or chanting. It’s the one who stands silently, doing nothing at all.

A basilisk is a snake, twelve fingers long, and the most poisonous creature on the earth. You will know a basilisk’s lair, because the plants that surround it will have blackened and died. In one story, a hunter on horseback speared a basilisk, and the venom travelled up the spear, so that both the hunter and his horse were instantly killed. Most famously, its gaze itself is lethal; in later legends, it turns its victims to stone. In psychoanalysis, the gaze always belongs to the other; the gaze is the sensation of being looked at, reduced to an object of contemplation, of withering into the dead matter of the world. Mulvey and her followers can describe a pervasive male gaze that silently commands and restrains women; men sometimes protest that they don’t see anything, they’re just terrified objects too. They’re both right. The basilisk must exist, because the basilisk is the one that does the looking. Slithering beneath the earth, coiled around the strutwork of satellites in orbit, the basilisk looks. It is lonely to be a basilisk, the only creature that can never look another being in its living eyes. The basilisk structures all social relations, because it is infinitely apart from them. The name basilisk comes from the Greek βασιλεύςbasileus, meaning king.

Only: what are you doing right now? You are hunched over, cold-blooded and motionless, staring at a screen.

Of all the things to throw your hatred into, why this? Desperate boats have started to cross the English Channel. It’s fifty degrees in Australia. Before long, significant tracts of the earth will be uninhabitable, places that are currently home to millions of people. Turkish-backed militia are ethnically cleansing Kurdish lands in Syria. There’s a fuel shortage in Gaza; four lion cubs froze to death in Rafah City Zoo. Everything is going terribly; the world is terrible beyond belief. There is constant violence, brutal physical violence, corpses churned into the earth. So why do we feel such a particular unease at this one kid, smirking silently without words?

Because we do nothing, because we can do nothing. We stand, and stare, and do nothing at all.

Why won’t you push the button?

Nuclear war is not only fabulous because one can only talk about it, but because the extraordinary sophistication of its technologies coexists, cooperates in an essential way with sophistry, psycho-rhetoric, and the most cursory, the most archaic, the most crudely opinionated psychagogy, the most vulgar psychology.
Jacques Derrida, No Apocalypse, Not Now (Full Speed Ahead, Seven Missiles, Seven Missives)

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Imagine if a politician openly promised, during a campaign, that they would be willing to burn people alive. They come to knock on your door, bright and smiling in a freshly crinkled rosette: unlike my opponent, who doesn’t care about your security and the security of your family, I will personally subject someone to sixty million-degree heat, so that their fat melts and their bones are charred and their eyeballs burst and their bodies crumble into toxic dust. I will torture other people by burning their skin, I will torch their flesh away and leave them with open wounds bubbling with disease. They will die slowly. I will poison others; their organs will fail and they will shit out their guts in agony. I will do this to people who have done nothing wrong, to families, to children, to their pets; one by one, I will burn them to death. For you. For your security.

This is what the bomb did to Hiroshima. This is utter barbarism. Even saying that you would do it is utter barbarism. Of course, the nuclear deterrent only works if you say that you’re prepared to use it – which just demonstrates that we shouldn’t have it, that the whole logical structure of nuclear deterrence is abominable. Any tool whose mere existence forces you to say the unspeakable is not worth having; a hammer that causes you to make death threats is not fit for purpose. Anyone who threatens the world with blinding destruction in unspecified circumstances is simply not responsible enough to hold power. There is no situation in which the use of these weapons is ever justified – never, not in the most tortured hypotheticals of an undergraduate ethics seminar, not in the most Boschian secondary worlds inhabited by right-wing fantasists. If a nuclear attack on Britain has already been launched, retaliation will save nobody; it would just be the final act of spite in a long spiteful history. Nobody would accept a politician who threatened from the podium on live TV to personally burn one person to death, so why should we accept the idea of burning millions?

But what’s strange about the moral case against nuclear weapons – they cause horrendous suffering, must never be used, and should not exist – is that it doesn’t work.

We saw this on Friday night’s Question Time debate, as a parade of questioners took Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn to task over his refusal to say that he would ‘push the button’ and initiate an attack. Theresa May has said that she would press the button in a first strike; Owen Smith, during the last leadership contest, said the same thing. This seems to be a fairly popular decision; the thoughtless destruction of everything that exists plays well with the British public. More than that: it’s demanded; according to the eldritch nostrums that structure British political life, if you’re not willing to promise horrendous genocide with the breezy psychopathy of some ancient khagan drinking from the skulls of his enemies, you can’t be trusted to keep us safe. The appetite for murder is incalculable. After Corbyn ruled out a first strike, one member of the public – red-faced, ageing, some sad retired insurance salesman comforting himself in his flabby decline with thoughts of the fiery extermination of humanity – demanded to know if he’d use Trident as a second strike: the British people demand death from beyond the grave; he’d die gladly if he knew that a few million innocent Iranians or Koreans went too.

It’s striking how sharply the inhuman vastness of nuclear war contrasts with the pettiness and finitude and awfulness of the people who demand it. The first question on nuclear weapons came from one Adam Murgatroyd, who looks exactly how you’d expect, some simpering Tory ponce with his slicked-back hair and his practised raise of an eyebrow. ‘It’s disconcerting,’ he later told the press, ‘that we could potentially in six days’ time have a prime minister who wouldn’t be prepared to protect British lives over someone else’s life.’ Imagine the air poisoned, the soil dying, the biosphere eradicated, the grand flailing tragedy of humanity and its aspirations put to an abrupt stop, the families huddling their loved ones close as the shock wave hits, knowing they’re about to die – and all because some limp umbrella of a man wanted a leader who’d make the right kind of nationalistic hoots about defence. Now I am become Adam from the BBC studio audience, destroyer of worlds.

We should consider the questions of the atomic age in fear and trembling. Instead we get the blearing idiocy of common sense, always pointing us to the wrong and most monstrous answer. The process of thinking about the red button has become as automatic as the button itself.

Nuclear war is unthinkable, in the most literal sense. It has no end and no interpretation; it is invisible, ungraspable, unconscionable. There is a significant cultural industry dedicated to depicting nuclear war precisely because it’s impossible, because we’re trying to find ways to depict a looming absence of everything, a nothing that can never be depicted. (This is why Derrida considers the real literature of the nuclear age to not be works that directly imagine a post-apocalyptic future, but the texts of Kafka, Mallarmé, and Joyce – the writing that comes closest to touching its own finitude and destructibility.) The death drive, Kristeva writes, is not represented in the unconscious, because the unconscious can not admit negation – only, as Freud puts it, ‘contents, cathected with greater or lesser strength.’ Instead, Kristeva writes, there is a ‘hiatus, spacing, or blank that constitutes death for the unconscious.’ Death is in the cadence of the psyche, the pause that gives regularity and reason to its articulation, the silence against which it expresses itself. Nuclear war is the death of politics and administration, the emptiness in which politics speaks. This is why petty, stupid bureaucrats, small people with small concerns, who mostly fuss about which type of coffee plays best with the focus-group voters, have to occasionally declare that they would take on the titanic task of wiping out all of human history. They have to announce their fidelity to the interior non-substance of our political discourse, which is the death of every living thing. Then they’re allowed to go on and talk about parking spaces and healthy eating and cutting taxes and aspiration. Everything is in its unplace, all policy is properly situated at ground zero, where the bombs will fall.

This silence is not pure unsignifying madness: it’s the final home of rationality. The sense in which we talk about reason – pure objectivity, emotionlessness, abstract numerical calculation, a kind of ratio that would have seemed very strange to, for instance, the medieval Europeans who helped first define it – is a product of the nuclear age. It’s well known that game theory, in which human decisions are modelled according to the assumption that everyone is a calculating and atomised individual who only wants to maximise their utility – was first taken up as a praxis to model the Cold War nuclear standoff, and was only then applied to all areas of social and economic life. But the most basic relay mechanisms of nuclear weapons by themselves enforce a post-politics. Paul Virilio notes that, as the warning times for a nuclear attack and a possible counter-attack shrunk from fifteen minutes to ten minutes to one, the effect was that of ‘finally abolishing the Head of state’s power of reflection and decision in favour of a pure and simple automation of defence systems… After having been the equivalent of total war the war machine suddenly becomes the very decision for war.‘ Somewhere, various sets of computer systems analyse the likelihood of an unprovoked strike and try to pre-empt it; when the end comes, it won’t be for explicable political goals, but out of a pure uninflected machine-reason, and none of us will ever know why. Reason and madness lose their distinction here. See Nixon, the shit Hamlet with his ‘madman doctrine,’ threatening to unleash the powers of apocalyptic calculation; see the tortured but valid syllogisms by which every democratic British leader has to make gruesome threats against the world. This is the ground of politics as administration and necessity and the root of the technocratic age. Once the life and death of every living thing can become a matter of calculation without ideology or ethics, so is everything else. People can starve to death in empty flats because there’s no magic money tree; thousands can drown on the Mediterranean because we don’t have the resources to take in any more. It’s common sense. Common sense in the twenty-first century is always common sense from the point of view of an atomic bomb.

Just like austerity or the massacre-by-inaction on Europe’s waters, the logic of nuclear weapons is not some pre-Kantian pure reason without a social or epistemological substrate. Nuclear weapons are, first of all, weapons in the class struggle. The greatest vector for socialism has always been war – in war, the ruling classes arm and mobilise the proletariat, tell them that they have the power to build the fate of nations, and then send them off to die; it’s only a matter of time before these workers decide that this power could be put to better use, and the people taking the most principled stand against these senseless wars have always been Communists. War between the powers became too great a threat to power itself. Nuclear weapons abolish this: abstract mobilisation, the disappearance of territory, the omnipresence of the front. Working classes win by striating and reinterpreting space – building barricades, occupying squares, cutting off the flows of production and exchange at crucial points – and under the global sovereignty of the bomb there is no such thing as space. Instead, our role is simply to die, in endless billions. But it all makes sense; every step is perfectly rational. It’s a death you can trust, to keep you and your family safe.

Sickness, health, death

Medical thought finally effected an identification over which all Western thought since Greek medicine had hesitated: that madness, after all, was only madness.
Michel Foucault, Madness and Civilisation

sickness

We are all crazed, weird loners. I am. You are. Silent all day, fixed to the computer, quiet in company, meek and polite, docile, neutered, and dangerous. We went wrong somewhere, a line was crossed, and though we don’t know when it happened we do know that we shouldn’t be feeling like this, that this isn’t just ordinary unhappiness. It’s hard to fix. Somatic sicknesses have their pathogens swarming in your veins, but there’s no antibiotic for an illness that comes from outside and everywhere.

Whenever someone snaps, when an ordinary and anonymous person starts killing, the obvious question is why. This is the kind of thing that ought not to be happening; we’ve worked for centuries to excise violent death from ordinary life, but the result is that when it does happen it’s all the more wounding, a tear cut right through the thinness of social existence, and we need to know why. This desperate need to know doesn’t apply so much to all the other horrors people suffer constantly, things that are held to be an intrinsic part of the world, even though most people don’t have much of a rigorous understanding of them either: why are some people poor and other people rich? Why are we always at war? Never mind murder, where does bread come from? There aren’t any easy answers for these, although people have tried. For the other question we have plenty. If that moment, the person snapping, the tragedy, is classed as terrorism, there’s a ready-made language of violent ideology, radicalisation, geopolitics and civilisational conflict waiting to be inhabited. If it’s been classed as something else, another world awaits: this is about mental health, loners and weirdos, a psychology hovering on the edge of the biological. Madness happens, sometimes, and for no good reason: of course it’s inexplicable, otherwise it wouldn’t be madness.

This is what happened when a single gunman murdered the Labour MP Jo Cox this week: the newspapers insisted that this was a case of one man’s disease, the hatred of a crazed, weird loner. The nature of the disease doesn’t need to be mentioned. Schizophrenia, psychosis, depression, anorexia, trichotillomania all collapse into the blank euphemism of the Mentally Ill, a sympathetic shorthand for doing what ought not to be done. And they’re right. It’s all very well to insist that mentally ill people are far more likely to be the victims of violence than its perpetrator – but this particular form of violence, the lone obsessive’s attack, is with only a few exceptions the preserve of the sick. A mentally healthy person does not do this. The smiling people in adverts and sitcoms, the obnoxiously at-ease, the people whose minds sit happily in their skulls and don’t torment them with the sweat and terror of late-night resentment – these people do not commit acts of random mass murder, or shoot politicians on the street, or blow themselves up in a crowd of strangers. Nobody has ever killed because they were too happy and too content with their life.

But who are these mentally healthy people? In the simplest of terms, they don’t exist. Illness is a presence: there’s something wrong, something that announces itself, you can probe it and ask it questions, diagnose it and give it a name. Health is a negative, the absence of anything wrong. The mentally healthy person is entirely in accord with their environment, without any tension between inside and out, faultless in a perfect homogeneity with the world. The only person this could actually describe is a fully decomposed corpse. For the living, there are only different species of madness: in psychoanalysis, for instance, the great manoeuvre is to turn the psychotic into a more socially acceptable neurotic, and untangle a few of the neurotic’s looser knots; that’s the best we can do. What we really mean by a healthy person is someone whose madness isn’t out of step with the madness of the social whole, who suffers what Adorno called the health unto death. The social whole is deeply, terrifyingly mad.

The victim was an MP noted for her advocacy for Syrian migrants. Her killer was a neo-Nazi, who bought gun-making instructions from an American white supremacist group, reportedly shouted ‘Britain First!’ after the murder, and gave his name in court as ‘death to traitors, freedom for Britain.’ You can call his ideology an epiphenomenon of his madness if you want; plenty have. Since 1945, happy and content people have tended not to be outright Hitlerists. (In fact, they tend to not be interested in any kind of politics whatsoever.) But there is no mental illness known to medical practice that turns its sufferers into violent fascists; fascism as a political ideology is not independently created, swastikas and all, every time something goes clunk in the brain. Go back to your Lacan: the mind is not a self-contained system; nothing in the psyche is ever a pure interiority. This fascism is coming from somewhere, and the fog over Britain is full of it.

Who did this? Nigel Farage, and Boris Johnson, and Michael Gove, and all the others wallowing happily in this island’s deep muddy fathoms of petty resentment and slow-boiling hate, crusted over with a thin facade of blank politeness. The whole country is a crazed, weird loner, locking itself off with oceans, distant but friendly, furious inside. More than anyone, this situation is the creature of the Labour party itself, which has been for decades covering itself in the soft fascism of anti-immigrant sentiment, assured that everyone would like them if only they were more racist, convinced that demanding controls on immigration from a big rock or a novelty mug would endear them to an imagined audience of nationalist thugs. In the process, they shut out anything that would have insisted on our common humanity as sneering metropolitan humanism. They fattened up the fury of groups like Britain First; an ideology as crazed and lunatic as fascism wouldn’t be able to communicate itself if it didn’t find friendly footholds in the ruling discourses. It’s not that the EU referendum has unleashed an already existing tide of xenophobia and racism – this debate, and so many beforehand, have been actively creating it.

It’s not just newspapers and politicians, though; as Britain declines the entire country has taken on an unspoken nihilist ideology, a constant drizzling hatred for all life. The bloom of anti-migrant feeling in Britain is stinking and poisonous, but it’s only a symptom, and like all symptoms it speaks itself. We talk about the burden of migration, having to cope with however many new arrivals, the drain on common resources that each of them represents. In other words, the human being is both excess and negation, something distressingly more than it ought to be, something less than a presence, something that ought not to exist at all. Every person is a void, sucking up food and jobs and healthcare that could have gone to someone else. In a post-industrial society, our dominant economic activity is no longer production but consumption, and politics lacks a language for all the other ways in which any person can add to the world: all it can see is a ravenous jaw and a shitting anus, a despoiler, a locust. The Khmer Rouge said that ‘to keep you is no benefit, to destroy you is no loss,’ but in twenty-first century Britain we really believe it. And in such a situation to kill someone isn’t to destroy a life, it’s the only kind of production we can still recognise.

The world is wrong, the social whole is sick, and we’re sick with it. The Brexit charade has brought a terrifying frenzy to our usual political stupor, but there’s no point pretending that the killing of Jo Cox represents some new violence, a death of civility, a withering of respect. With its grey damp misery this country has always hated life: before this we were butchering in the Middle East, before that we were massacring in Ireland, before that Britain was seized by a five hundred year long spasm of murder, washing blood over every continent, and we called it glorious. But the general sickness carries a central contradiction: you’re meant to believe that the country is under threat, that enemies are swarming in, that life is worthless – but you’re not supposed to do anything about it. The sane and healthy people will still kill, but in more socially acceptable ways – in uniform, or from behind a desk, out of sight; they do it happily, but within a legitimised structure that blots out the personal will. This is what it comes down to: the murderer of Jo Cox swallowed it all up and killed all by himself, and therefore he was crazy.

In defence of fantasy: a further response to Slavoj Žižek

boat

Yesterday, Slavoj Žižek responded to my earlier critique of his discussion of the migrant crisis. There are a few strange moments in his piece – I’ve never before read anyone refer to ‘a hoax brilliantly performed by [the] Daily Currant‘ – but the essay is mostly dominated by a familiar discussion of the antinomies of liberal tolerance. Žižek has made a name for himself by bravely challenging leftist dogmas on the merits of multiculturalism, with a critique so puckish and devastating that, as many people have pointed out, it’s virtually indistinguishable from overt right-wing nativism. I’m not going to repeat this argument – in fact, I agree with Žižek: there is something deeply wrong with the logic of liberal multiculturalism, but rather than subjecting it to any serious critique, he only reproduces its worst aspects. To borrow a phrase of which he’s fond, his criticism is only the obverse of its object. Multiculturalism is a profoundly antihumanist discourse: its basic unit is not the distinct and individual subject but the distinct and individual culture. And while there’s a case to be made for antihumanism – as Marxists and Freudians know, the individual subject isn’t an originary Democritean atom but something constructed – any discourse that takes culture rather than class (or even race, sexuality, or any of the other axes of oppression) as its basic unit strays into murky, fascoid territory. Class analysis is carried out with the goal of abolishing class altogether, an antihumanism that aims to restore the human; multiculturalism reifies and hypostasises culture into an eternal absolute. Multiculturalism does not see a person who happens to be Muslim, it sees Islam embodied, and while it might call for all (assumed) differences to be respected, the actual person it addresses is approached only as a signifier of cultural difference. Within these synchronic cultural blocs any internal difference is erased; the fact that these cultures or ways of life are abstractions formed out a multiplicity of real behaviours is abandoned to a mystical idealism. The proper term for this kind of approach is racism. As Žižek himself frequently argues, the primary pathology of the racist is to refuse to see the Jew or the Muslim or the Roma as a person, but to see them only as an embodiment of Jew-ness, Muslim-ness, Roma-ness. So what, then, are we to make of his statement that ‘Muslims find it impossible to bear our blasphemous images and reckless humour, which we consider a part of our freedoms’? Or when he approving quotes Yevgeny Grishkovetz, who writes that ‘they [migrants] have no idea of European values, lifestyles and traditions, multiculturalism or tolerance’? Or when he says of migrants that that ‘their way of life is incompatible with the ideological foundations of the Western welfare-state’? Isn’t the appeal to the national or cultural way of life as fundamentally constitutive of subjectivity one that’s generally made by fascists?

Much of this material is essentially a reiteration of his earlier essay in the London Review of Books, and I think it can stand (or fall) on its own merits. But his critique of my position is not just ideologically suspect; it verges on the illiterate.

In discussing my response to his initial argument in the LRB, Žižek zeroes in on a single parenthetical statement, in which I write that even if the dream migrants have of a good life in Norway is impossible, it functions as a transcendent object of desire, and it’s strange behaviour for a Lacanian to insist on the unreality of that object and to urge someone to be more realistic. This is, Žižek writes, ‘simply ridiculous, theoretical nonsense.’ His criticism can be read in two ways. Either his charge is that I’ve made a nonsense out of the theory, misapplying and distorting Lacanian concepts – or that I’m indulging in academic obscurantism, waffling on about obscure psychoanalytical theory while the migrants are charging in to destroy our cherished European way of life. Weirdly, the latter reading appears to be the correct one.

The ideal migrants hold of a better life in Europe is not objet petit a, Žižek writes – it’s ‘a fantasy.’ He continues: ‘Refugees who want to reach Norway present an exemplary case of ideological fantasy—a fantasy-formation that obfuscates the inherent antagonisms. Many of the refugees want to have a cake and eat it: They basically expect the best of the Western welfare-state while retaining their specific way of life, though in some of its key features their way of life is incompatible with the ideological foundations of the Western welfare-state.’ In what sense is the word ‘fantasy’ being deployed here? In general, non-theoretical usage it refers to an imagined scenario that simply can’t take place: a deluded person is living in a fantasy-world, they need to snap out of it and rejoin reality. In this sense it makes perfect sense to talk about fantasy as something that ‘obfuscates inherent antagonisms.’ In psychoanalysis, it’d be a contradiction in terms: fantasy is that which structures reality, and even if it’s a symptom, the symptom is always a sign to be interpreted, rather than a cloud that obfuscates.

Let’s say, for the sake of immanence, that Žižek is right, and the good life in Norway is not object petit a but a fantasy. (Not that these two terms stand in any kind of opposition – the matheme of fantasy, $ a, merely represents the barred subject’s relation to that object.) In Freud, the fantasy is integral to sexual life and to life itself. ‘Life, as we find it, is too hard for us […] in order to bear it we cannot dispense with palliative measures.’ While for Freud the fantasies are ‘illusions in contrast with reality,’ they remain ‘psychically effective.’ He compares them directly with art and with scientific activity, both of which are ‘deflections,’ but both of which also allow access to truth. With Lacan, the role of fantasy in constituting the subject and its mental life is emphasised: as Žižek himself writes elsewhere, ‘in the opposition between dream and reality, fantasy lies on the side of reality.’ Lacan’s most famous dictum is that il n’y a pas de rapport sexuel; fantasy is the means by which love manages to persist anyway. The other is always lacking, their gaze is always a void, their figure is always the object of a certain ambivalence, they can never give you what you want. Fantasy compensates for this essential lack in the other; it’s what allows desire for the other to take place despite their inability to fulfil it. From the Écrits: ‘Fantasy is the means by which the subject maintains himself at the level of his vanishing desire.’ This is not the fantasy that Žižek is talking about when he talks about migrants in Europe; he never allows his Lacanianism to actually inflect his politics, because the two are not reconcilable. In Lacanian terminology, what Žižek identifies as a fundamental disparity between ‘our’ civilised European way of life and the irreducible foreignness of the migrants would be called a asymmetry in the Symbolic order. (It’s not just Lacanianism that he abandons here – what happened to the Hegelian identity of non-identity and identity?) If this asymmetry does exist, then fantasy is precisely the means by which it can be resolved. If we lack the appropriate signifiers for each other, then the interdicting untruth of fantasy opens up a space for some semblance of communication. If migrants are to live peacefully and happily in Europe, the demand should not be that they give up their fantasy of a better life, but that they cling to it for all its worth.

One final point. For decades, Marxists have made use of psychoanalytic theory; it’s sometimes easy to forget that Freud and Lacan were not themselves Marxists. In The Question of a Weltanschauung Freud, the Schopenhauerian pessimist, dismisses the Marxist theory of history as a ‘precipitate of the obscure Hegelian philosophy in whose school Marx graduated’ and laments that in the Soviet Union ‘any critical examination of Marxist theory is forbidden, doubts of its correctness are punished in the same way as heresy was once punished by the Catholic church.’ But if he wasn’t a Communist, he was a refugee. When the Nazis absorbed Austria in 1938, Freud escaped to London, fleeing those who would have murdered him with all of Europe’s Jews. (Four of his sisters died in the concentration camps.) He remained there until his death, twenty days after the declaration of war in September 1939. The British media of the time was full of familiar sentiments: fear of the tide of European Jews coming into Britain, represented as rats in cartoons, bringing with them nasty foreign diseases like revolutionary Communism, not respecting our way of life. Did Sigmund Freud abandon his Viennese ‘way of life’ for that of the British Empire? Successive attempts by British governments to define a discrete set of ‘British values’ have generally ended up producing bland nothings, but if we had to identify one absolutely central feature of the national character, it would have to be this: on absolutely no account whatsoever are you to talk about sex. Freud continued his psychoanalytic practice up until his death; we can only assume that this was a cultural injunction he failed to respect. And nor should he.

My own ancestors were Jewish migrants to Britain; had they remained in the Pale of Settlement, their children may well have been incinerated in Auschwitz, and I would have never lived to write these words. But still I’m not content with the situation we have: as a Marxist and a communist, I’m committed to a different and better world, one that does not yet exist. Call it Norway if you want. Žižek, who appears to have abandoned liberation, might sneer. And this may well be, in the conventional sense of the word, a fantasy. But it’s still one that absolutely must be maintained.

The Englishman and the Octopus

If you’ve seen Spectre, it should already be obvious to you that the James Bond franchise is a spinoff, taking place entirely within HP Lovecraft’s Cthulhu mythos.

Say 007 arrives at Mexico City Airport at four in the afternoon. He goes through customs. He takes a taxi to his blankly intercontinental chain hotel. He makes himself a slapdash vodka martini from the little bottles in the minibar, pouring the entire stub of vodka and a passionless vermouth glug into one of the film-wrapped plastic cups from the bathroom, and drinks it on his balcony. He looks out at Mexico City, and something looks back. The Cthulhu mythos only works if its characters don’t realise that they’re in it. When done right, Cthulhu stories don’t need to actually portray the Great Old Ones; they can lurk in the deconstructive background, appearing as a hollowness in the mise-en-scène, a spacing and a vastness suspended just beyond sight. Another recent film about Anglo imperialists in Latin America, this year’s Sicario, was an example of what could be called ‘landscape horror’, fine-tuned to Yanqui racism: long panning shots of barren or broken landscapes, the blasphemous edge between lawnmower-perfect American suburbia and the desert beyond, or Mexican cities that seem to sprawl without reason over the hills and valleys, protoplasmic shoggoth-blots poised to gobble up the border. This isn’t the ordinary Burkean sublime, but something far stranger. Ciudad Juárez is ‘the Beast’; the scarred and hollowed-out Earth is itself a cosmic evil. Bond on his balcony faces a city that does not end, from horizon to horizon. Where are the goons? Usually this is when some gormless lunks try to jump him, and from there it’s only a short kidnapping to the supervillain’s lair, where someone will tell him everything he needs to know, saving him the trouble of doing any detective work. Instead, there’s CNN, complimentary soap, and blithe miles of homes and highways. It’s hard not to feel lonely. It’s hard not to feel afraid. He’s in Lovecraft territory; those trillion-tentacled monsters from outer space that intrude upon stately New Englanders were always a barely concealed metaphor for one man’s horror of black and brown bodies in their nameless shoals, leaking degradation over a world fissuring from imperial decline. But over and above that, they stand for a universe that is not required to make sense.

James Bond, meanwhile, is a man in search of the transcendental signifier. It’s hard to do a Bond story these days, with the end of the Cold War, the rise of feminism, and an inherent ridiculousness to the form that perfectly crystallises itself in Austin Powers, which managed to carry out a satire of the Bond films simply by replicating them in every detail. But before there could be Austin Powers, there was Thomas Pynchon. His novels (especially V, with its deliberate Bond insert) subject the spy story to the (un)logic of post-structuralism. In spy stories the hero jets off around the world in search of the Thing that allows disparate events to reveal themselves as products of a singular Plan. In Pynchon, this structure is preserved, but knowing as he does that the object petit a does not exist, he simply takes away the MacGuffin. Bond’s shark-sprint for the truth falls apart into a messy and ever-widening entropic spiral. Postmodernism posed a far more serious threat to MI6 than Soviet spies ever could. Bond’s response was sloppy. At the start of the Daniel Craig era, the franchise put away most of Pierce Brosnan’s silliness for a lot of dark and gritty po-faced nonsense; the resulting films were basically terrible. In Skyfall, it reacted with a kind of watered-down postmodernism of its own, a plot barely held together by its spider’s-web network of smug self-references. Spectre – by far the best Bond film in recent decades – was at this point probably inevitable. Orbis non sufficit: the world is not enough. The villain in Casino Royale was only a puppet of the villain in Quantum of Solace, who was only a puppet of the villain in Skyfall, who was only a puppet of the villain in Spectre: you can only take this kind of thing so far before the evil grows beyond one lonely planet’s capacity, and plunges into outer space. With his metanarrative collapsing around him, James Bond escaped into a new one, a lair where Pynchon or Powers couldn’t find him. He escaped into HP Lovecraft.

This film doesn’t exactly hide its place within Lovecraftian mythology. You really think that creature on the ring is just an octopus? Uniquely for a Bond film, it starts with an epigraph of sorts, the words ‘the dead are alive’ printed over a black screen – a not particularly subtle allusion to the famous lines from the Necronomicon: ‘That is not dead which can eternal lie/ And with strange aeons even death may die.’ In the credits sequence, vast tentacles coil around him as he murders and fucks his way to an absent truth. In his house at R’lyeh, dead Cthulhu waits dreaming. The villain’s base is built around an asteroid, glossy and scarred, that fell from the sky millions of years ago. You almost expect alien ooze to start trickling from its cavities. With 1979’s Moonraker, heroes and villains invaded outer space; in Spectre it’s the other way round. And in its Lovecraftian context, everything starts to make a lot more sense. Why do Bond villains always explain their entire plan to 007 before killing him? Real-life conspiracies (like the financial markets, the internet, or history in general) are not so much secret as unspoken; they fold themselves into the basic fabric of social life, so that it’s often impossible for anyone at all to stand outside their situatedness and articulate what’s going on. Lovecraft’s monsters, on the other hand, live in the permanent outside; they don’t need to worry about revealing themselves to you, because they know that as soon as you clap eyes on even the shadow of their true form you’ll go irretrievably mad. For Cthulhu to reveal himself is not weakness but power.

Spectre is a film that deliberately resists any sense for the climactic or any libidinal payoff; all we get is lingering dread. The first post-credits chase scene is downright weird; Bond and his adversary race sports cars through the centre of Rome, but the gap between them never closes, the backwards-firing machine-guns don’t have any ammunition, and the sequence just keeps on going, all thrill long dissipated, until it takes on a kind of shambling undeath. ‘The longer the note, the more dread.’ Brecht calls this Verfremdungseffekt: by refusing to simply give pleasure to an audience, you prevent them from ever being entirely immersed in narrative events; they begin to consciously interrogate the fragility of the social conditions that hold up any action. But overall the Italy sequence is short. Bond’s never really been at home in Catholic Europe; he’s a creature of the Western hemisphere, and in particular the Caribbean. Gorgeous, tiny islands with their histories bayoneted out of existence, places where the hotels are luxurious and the bar staff eager to please. So Spectre gives us Moroccan scrubland instead, flat and impoverished, neither beautiful nor sublime, just two thin tracks plunging through a plane without interest forever. When there is an invocation of orgasm, it directly undercuts any myth of the secret agent’s sexual prowess. In the third act, we get an ironic version of the usual Bond structure: he’s taken to Blofeld’s secret lair (white cat and all), invited for drinks at four, and told the whole plan. So far, so good. Then, after nearly being killed in a pointlessly baroque way, he escapes, fires six shots, and the whole base explodes. Is that it? There was a big bang, sure but it was all over too soon. If you ever wanted to know what it’s really like to have sex with James Bond, Spectre is here to tell you.

But of course that’s not it. After orgasm, nightmares. The traditional ending is followed by a strange and shadowy coda in London: Bond, collapsing into a ruined MI6 building, finds his name and an arrow spraypainted on a memorial to the dead. He follows it. Shades of Lot 49: for the entire film, he’s only acted on the instruction of the omniscient dead. Older Bond outings allowed us to notice the essential powerlessness of the hero in a world always determined by its villainous Big Other, and feel very smart for having picked up on it; here, it’s thrown mercilessly in our faces. A mural at the mountains of madness. Spectre constantly frustrates the pleasure principle; it’s an awed testament to a Todestrieb that, itself unrepresentable, appears only in the spacing and repetition of something else. James Bond is no longer a brutal, neurotic male wish-fulfillment fantasy: he has no will of his own, no love for his own life, and he can’t even fuck. He falls into the grasp of something else, vast and pitiless, the key and the guardian of the gate, that watches the tiny escapades of Her Majesty’s Secret Service from far beyond the stars.

Justin Bieber’s dick: reflections from the limits of psychoanalysis

Psychoanalysis is the discourse of the dark and distant places, whether the inner caverns of the psyche or the forbidden pit between the legs; its contention isn’t just that these places can be meaningful and significant, but that it’s in this void that meaning and significance take place. And there’s no chasm blacker than early childhood. Nobody remembers their first few years, their first neuroses, their first steps, their first words. We think before we are. It’s as if we all emerged as fully speaking beings, springing fully-formed like Greek gods out of the placid seas. Anything we do remember is generally false: I thought I knew what my own first memory was, something about playing with toy trucks in the bath, until one day I discovered that no, it was a photograph I’d seen years later, and that’s why in my mind’s eye I’m always hovering a few feet in front of my own face. Freud calls these ‘screen memories,’ they cover up a childhood inevitably full of repressed traumas. There’s a kind of circular logic here: psychoanalysis insists that the essential truths of the psyche must spring from this distant and forgotten world, and then proposes that it must have been forgotten because of the essential truths buried within. Which is not to say that this is incorrect. But if I’m honest, my earliest memories are all dreams, specifically, nightmares. Elongated hallways and thudding footsteps, ordinary places turned eerily unreal, and something approaching; the childhood terror of a Thing without qualities. Besides those, nothing: flashes, instants, bursts of light that stutter briefly in a darkness seething with unseen monsters. Everything that actually happened I only know through stories from people who were there. It all happened to somebody else. Which is fortunate for some: if it worked any other way, everyone could be their own analyst.

Sometimes people afraid of dying are told that death is just like how it was before you were born, a comforting line that does nothing to comfort: back then I wasn’t, but I’m here right now, existing, to one day stop, there’s no comparison. It’s more like those first few years of existence – you’re there, growing, bloating, rotting, but the whole experience is unperceived. In Heidegger, the death of Dasein is the condition of its individuality; death belongs to it alone, and nobody else can die for it. This is nonsense. Death is, after all, not an event in experience (Wittgenstein concurs here: ‘We do not live to experience death’), but it is experienced, by our survivors. Our death belongs only and always to other people. And childhood too: childhood, the order of the Imaginary, Oedipus – our prehistory is not our own.

Say a young boy is terrified of horses. Normally a perfectly ordinary child, good-tempered and healthily perverse, at the sight of horses he goes into fits; watching through shuttered hands as the poor docile cart-horses from the coaching house across the street wearily clop over the cobblestones; their nodding, snorting unconsciousness sets him shrieking, bawling, shivering. And he’s always at the balcony: he says he’s waiting for the little girl to appear through the opposite window, but in the meantime he delights himself by being terrified of horses. ‘I have to look at horses, and then I’m frightened.’ Naturally the parents are worried: as devotees of the eminent psychologist Sigmund Freud, they’ve tried to raise their child to be as happy and uninhibited as possible; they can’t understand where they could possibly have gone wrong. So they enlist his help. Sigmund talks to the boy, briefly, with only a little condescension, and then afterwards the child races to the balcony to watch the distinguished psychologist crossing the street. Sigmund Freud paces quickly, wrapping his overcoat tight around his bones against the cold, as he hurries over to the coaching house to speak with one of the horses. A big muscular creature, stained city-white, black harness, black blinkers. He talks seriously and animatedly to the horse, taking off his glasses, stowing them in his overcoat, putting them back on again, blowing big clouds of pipe-smoke into the frosty air. The horse nods solemnly, or bares its gnashing yellow teeth, and all the while its monstrous penis slowly extends, brown and slimy, steam rising from the creature’s great heaving haunches as it discusses it’s son’s curious phobia. And the boy watches, trembling through his tears, full of ancient and unknowable terror.

Little Hans was afraid that his father, embodied as a horse, would come and cut off his penis, a fear that’s so elementary and constitutive of the subject that it’s in a way more true than truth itself. Freud, in his case study of the child, gains most of his understanding of the situation by talking to the father himself; while his entire approach is governed by the idea that Hans is terrified for an explicable reason, that ‘the arbitrary has no existence in mental life,’ there’s still the shroud that falls over childhood that makes it impossible to access from the outside. So he talks to the father, a sensible Freudian himself, to get the facts. Hans is afraid that a horse will bite off his piddler, and Freud goes and discusses the issue with the horse. But there’s one question he doesn’t ask. So, do you? Do you want to cut your son’s dick off?

Psychoanalysis is also, like any symbolic discourse, a discourse of the father; in other words, one in which the actual father is conspicuously absent. The psychoanalytic father is the Symbolic father; both as paternal principle in the order of the Symbolic and as the fundamental and generative phallic signifier. A son’s feelings towards his father are psychoanalytically significant; the father’s towards his son are not. In Lacan, the castration complex ends with what is in a sense an actual castration: the infant, cowed by the father’s potency, abandons any attempt to identify itself with the imaginary phallus; thereafter the phallus is always conceived as that which one lacks. It’s something that belongs to the other, and induction into the Symbolic order of signifiers, in which the phallus is the first, is compensation for this loss. But what happens when the infant grows up, and has children of his own? What happened when Hans became a horse himself? Did he remember the fear he once felt, as he clattered blithely over his own cobblestones? In Freud the child fears castration from the terrifying and priapic father; but in Lacan the father was already castrated a long time ago. And now he’s faced by a red-faced, screaming thing that does not happen to itself, without language, without reason, an unmediated and purely phallic presence. Wouldn’t the immediate, buried instinct be to cut it off?

All this is by way of talking about the nude photos supposedly of Justin Bieber that were recently leaked online. Two things are significant here. Firstly, the fact that the neurotic castrati of online are simultaneously transfixed by the question of how big it is and entirely unable to provide themselves with a satisfying answer. There’s a particular hatred for Justin Bieber that seems to emanate entirely from adult men: they complain that his music is terrible (it’s not that bad, really), as if trying to establish a narcissism of small differences between themselves and a twelve-year-old girl; the real complaint can only be his function as the object of the other’s desire. In other words, from the perspective of psychoanalysis, they hate Justin Bieber because he is their own father. Secondly, there’s this:

The original has been deleted, as if that could fix anything. This is of course Bieber’s father, proudly announcing to the world that he deliberately sought out pornographic images of his own son, and who has essentially sent him a “fuck me daddy” tweet. Some context: Bieber père separated from the star’s mother when he was thirteen months old, and has seemingly returned to cash in on his child’s celebrity; in 2014 it was revealed in a court case that Justin pays his father’s $1,650 monthly rent, nicely inverting the traditional Oedipal triad. In 2002, he allegedly kicked an eighteen-year-old woman in the face, breaking her jaw in two places, after she ejected him from a party at which he boasted that he could beat up anyone in the room and demanded that she lift up her shirt. In another incident, he abused and harassed flight attendants on a private jet. He pushed his four-year-old son’s face into a birthday cake, whereupon Justin tried to calm the child’s tears by showing him images of the event so he could see how funny it was. Of course Jeremy wants to cut his son’s dick off, of course that was what he meant when he leeringly commented on how big it is – like so many millions of others, he ascribes phallus to Justin Bieber, a phallus that even in Lacan can never entirely escape its penile origin; like all of us, his subject is the precipitate of lost objects, the sum total of everything it doesn’t have. Presence belongs to the other, and the paternal instinct is to abolish it. Like every other seemingly normal and healthy person, Jeremy Bieber hungers for the end of the world. But the point isn’t to form a psychoanalysis of the Bieber family, to add some Freudian tinge to the ordinary game of speculating about the private lives of the celebs. The point is to see how Justin Bieber’s dick can push through the edges of psychoanalysis itself, plumb though that hazy region where science fades into the black tomb of infantility and death.

Like the phallus as such, Justin Bieber’s dick is a signifier without a signified. It belongs to nobody – beamed across the world, leered over by millions – certainly not to him. The waking world is the site of an infinite dislocation: there’s a unity and wholeness to its outside, but that happens to someone else, a real person, of which we are only the tumbling echo. The mournful ghost of a world we lost long ago. A hypothetical retort to Freud’s theory of infantile amnesia: early childhood is not forgotten because of the traumas that occur, but because in the absence of trauma there’s no need for memory – after all, in his Project for a Scientific Psychology Freud himself conceives of memory, whether conscious or repressed, as a traumatic breaching in the brain. It’s in these dark places or non-places that psychoanalysis seeks out its truths. Justin Bieber’s dick invites us to step across the threshold of existence into something not fully conceivable: a psychoanalysis of the afterlife.

Fragments against the ruin

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

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

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

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

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

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

The strangling of nonsense

We live in the desert now. If this is indeed a desert. If this is indeed life. Desert, because the sand dunes ripple off so far into the distance that it’s hard to believe that these low wobbles ever end, or that there are any oceans left, or that there’s any non-desert to provide enough of a contrast for us to say that we live in the desert now. Life, because we’ve lately taken to propping up the bodies of the dead with sticks and crutches, whatever we can find, and talking to them as if they are still alive, with the result that there’s now some confusion as to whether we’re not among their number. Alive or otherwise, there’s no end. I ate a lizard today. (Today? The sun never moves. Maybe I’m still eating it. Maybe hundreds of years have since passed.) I saw a snout emerge from one of the desert’s innumerable tiny cloacae and I pounced. I ripped its head off between hand and teeth. I crunched down the bones, slurped up the skin, everything. It was good; this is what we are now, the death of lizards. Strange to think that once I was an investment banker, or a lecturer in biochemistry, or a hard-working migrant labourer, or whatever it was. Something. Maybe I was always like this: bones against the baking wind, born a gasping skeleton.

Still I remember, however dimly, a world that existed before: wet grass, barking dogs, the smell of buttered toast, something called England. A story, one that ends with me here, eating lizards in the desert under a corpse-still sun.

Three things happened at the start of this story. In the town of Strood in Kent, a man hung some St George’s flags from his house. This happened without comment; it was assumed to be comment enough. Then, the Labour party’s Shadow Attorney General, who was in the area to campaign for a local by-election, tweeted a photo of the house. This also happened without comment; it was also assumed to be comment enough. Then she was fired from her shadow cabinet position by a party leader apparently overcome with fury, while the owner of the house briefly became a minor political celebrity, and a right-wing newspaper printed a six-point manifesto he’d penned, outlining a no-nonsense plan for a better Britain. This was commented on widely.

What could all this mean? Begin with the flags. National flags began as vexilloids and standards; they existed so that forces in battle would know which group of weary battered men they were supposed to kill and which they were to defend. At sea they were used to identify ships, protecting them from one gang of pirates while endangering them from several others. Rochester was not the site of pitched warfare; foreign privateers were not sailing up the River Medway to pound its fishing villages with cannon-fire or plunder the gold from its monasteries, there was no confusion over whether the towns and suburbs of Kent were part of England or not – but the presence of the flags could be read as suggesting that this was, whether in a literal or metaphorical sense, precisely the case. The St George Cross had its origins in the Second and Third Crusades, even in the 21st century it was a form that could never be entirely separated from violence against Muslims. The red cross on the white field represented the taking up of the cross, but there are other possibilities. Hung above the doorway of a house, its redness recalls the blood of the Passover lamb smeared over the lintels of the righteous, so that the Angel of Death would not take the first-born sons within, knowing that the people there are of the chosen tribe. The defacement, the grubbying of a clean white square, indicates the sense of a loss, a distant primordial wholeness, a racial whiteness, the whiteness of inorganic unity or death before life, the seething white fungi that cocooned the bodies of the dead before the desert came. The mathematical intersection of the red stripes forms a statement of affiliation and unity, the common purpose of the nation-as-body, or the subsuming of a corrupted body in the precise and transcendent national ideal; their straightness implies an instrumentalised rationality, the desire for a rational social order, the desire to fix the line of the Earth’s orbit from an abstract Outside. Or, viewed differently, as four white squares against a red field, the impossibility of communication, the separateness, the inviolability of a two-storey house in an English market town. Some of this is nonsense; all of it is true.

Then the photo. Class snobbery: look at this grotesque working class stereotype; his flags, his white van, his terraced house, his petty fascism. Or blank neutral reportage: nationalist feeling is on display here as the by-election takes place. These were the readings culled from the teeming possibilities of the moment, seemingly at random; there are others. All this happened at a time when space had become a flattened prism; every landscape existed only insofar as it had the potential to become a photograph: filtered, tinted, bounced from orbital satellite to orbital satellite without ever touching the ground again. This scene must be fixed in a photographic eternity. If I tweet this, some part of me might escape my death. Maybe the touring MP was momentarily transfixed by the composition of the phenomena in front of her, the abstract lines and squares of the flags shading into the architectural abstraction if the lines and squares of the house, sinking into the engineered abstraction in the lines and squares of the white van; maybe she saw in it a tiny fragment of eternity. Maybe she knew that it prefigured the desert.

Finally the manifesto. It went like this:

Welfare state: Work for four years after you leave school before you can claim benefits.
Immigration: Copy the Aussies. If people show up uninvited, send them back.
Transport: Public transport costs are too high. More investment in roads too.
Education: Better discipline. Kids are too mouthy now, not like when we had the cane.
Justice: Tougher sentences for murderers. And jail those who burn the poppy.
Taxes: A killer for self-employed people like me. Start-ups need more breaks.

There’s no point commenting on it now. The only interesting thing in all this vague fascism is how the newspaper described it: a no-nonsense plan for a better Britain. They were right. There’s no nonsense here at all.

Derrida writes of the curious tendency that language has to increase simultaneously the reserves of random indetermination and the powers of coding and overcoding, of control and self-regulation. This competition between randomness and code disturbs the very systematicity of the system, even while it regulates the system’s play in its instability. It’s the tension between overcoding and decoding that makes meaning possible, it’s through the internal displacement within the systematicity of structure that structure can continue to function. Meaning can only expand through a traversal over the expanses of nonsense that surround it; it’s this gap of nonsense that allows words and things to breathe and change, to take on new meanings, to mean different things to different people at different times. Derrida makes a similar gesture in Force and Signification in his discussion of Flaubert’s desire to write a book about nothing. This book about nothing is figured as the pure Book, the necessary precondition for all writing; not the absence of this or that, but the absence of everything in which all presence is announced. Every act of writing is at once an attempt at reaching this Book, what Verlaine calls the law of the earth, and the earth’s true Bible, and a defacement of it. Nonsense is despoiled by coding, and disturbs its structures, but there can be no writing or meaning without nonsense, no law without nonsense first.

What could it mean to form a language without nonsense? When nonsense is extinct there’s no separation between words and things: a flag is a flag, without associations, locked in a hold as tight and still as death. Kierkegaard tells a story in his Concluding Unscientific Postscript: a man escapes from a mental institution and into town, but worries that he’ll be returned to his cell if he is discovered to be mad. Deciding that he needs to convince everyone by the objective truth of what [he] says, that all is in order as far as [his] sanity is concerned, he responds to every question with the statement that the earth is round. This is, from what I can remember, true. It’s also madness. The extreme of sanity is madness, the extreme of code is nonsense – but not the same madness or the same nonsense. As Freud discovered, madness speaks itself; the symptom is a linguistic sign. Repeating that the world is round says nothing, in the same way that a language without nonsense can only say nothing. Kids are too mouthy now. Too much nonsense, too much speech.

In the end the Rochester by-election was won by UKIP, giving them their second parliamentary seat, and setting off a general panic that included the dismissal of Emily Thornberry, the shadow cabinet member who’d tweeted the photo of the house. At the same time the Labour party overhauled its immigration policy. When asked what he felt when he saw a white van, Labour leader Ed Miliband responded, Respect. Overcoding is a deadly contagion. The left grumbled darkly about a UKIPisation of the political discourse, but there was nothing of the sort. UKIP was only the phenomenon; the strangulation of nonsense and all its freedoms was begun by the mainstream parties – Labour especially. They displaced the blame for the slow enshittening of everything onto the figure of the immigrant. They turned politics into an exercise in code and branding. They declared the class war over. After all, class is a kind of nonsense, a word without a tangible thing. After that, what did it matter that Dan Ware, the flag-draped van-owner, was – despite his shaved head and his commitment to the sign of the poppy – not of the working classes, in terms of his relation to capital, but a business owner and certified petit-bourgeois? He was the designated voice of the proletariat, a proletariat ranged in opposition to black and brown people despite being largely composed of black and brown people, because he spoke without nonsense.

In the months that followed the Rochester by-election, the campaign against nonsense was executed flawlessly. Ed Miliband spent a week crouched in the back of a white van, gleefully chucking England flags at crowds of cheering supporters, and ducks in the pond, and the cold emptiness of the night. Schoolchildren were required to learn core British values that could only be expressed through grunts and flailing hand gestures. The Royal Navy was deployed in the Mediterranean to sink refugee boats with RGM-84 anti-ship missiles. When the general election results came in, no party had an overall majority. On a cold May morning, the Labour-UKIP coalition was sealed with a handshake in front of Number 10. Everyone had what they wanted. Nigel Farage had finally won his political legitimacy, Ed Miliband had finally reconnected with working-class voters. And then the desert came. When I ate the lizard its tail wouldn’t stop twitching; even after I’d bitten right through the head this flailing panic didn’t stop. I don’t know why. There’s a lot I don’t know any more. But at least there’s no nonsense in the desert. From one blank burning horizon to the other, no nonsense at all.

Sisterfucking up the Euphrates

In German, the prefix ur- is used to indicate the now deeply unfashionable sense of an originary, primal form of a thing, which is also its end. Something ursprünglich is the first of its kind, so you’ll have the Uraufführung, or the début performance; the Urtext, the lost first draft of the Hebrew Bible that supposedly existed before all the various priests started fucking around with it; the Urwald, the dense dark forest that once covered the whole of central Europe. The word itself is of good Old Germanic stock, and it’s probably just a coincidence that this caveman’s grunt of a syllable is also the name of a city: that built by ‘Ara son of Kesed, where he made graven images and unclean simulacra, where evil spirits seduced him into wrong and sin, and where the sons of Noah first began to make war on each other. It’s a word from the oldest of the old histories, from when the world was still new; the brutal hoary infancy of civilisation. Before the Romans or the Greeks or the Persians or the Babylonians or the Egyptians, there was Ur, the city on the mouth of the Euphrates where Abraham smashed the idols of his father.

Freud tells a nice parable about the origin of the superego, what could be called an Ur-über-Ich. Once, among a band of squatting cannibal ape-men that would one day become the refined intellectual circus of Vienna, there lived a great and powerful father. This father had many wives, and he took many wives for himself: some were the captured daughters of smaller bands, some were his own daughters. Such was his power that his sons were left with neither food, nor loot, nor wives, and were reduced to contesting among themselves for what scraps they could gain. Eventually, in the face of his unbearable potency, the brothers grouped together, overwhelmed their father, and clubbed him to death. That night they held a great feast, at which their father was the main course. At this moment, the superego was brought into the world. The brothers were jealous of their father, but at the same time they still loved him; out of their guilt the rapacious greed of the father became internalised as a moral code, with its first commandment being a restatement of his paternal rights: Thou shalt not fuck thy sisters.

Like most myths of the land of Ur(-), it doesn’t really matter if any of this actually took place or not. Hobbes and Rousseau were both happy to admit that their states of nature never really existed; Marx was equally unconcerned by the historicity of primitive communism. Freud has a particularly good get-out clause – as he has his ‘exasperated reader’ exclaim, so it’s immaterial whether one kills one’s father or not! While some fathers might have a different opinion on the matter, Freud concedes the point: wanting to kill your father and actually doing so both produce the same psychological effect; the same guilt, the same internalisation. It’s in this context that the story of Abraham begins to make sense. When he lived with his father Terah in the city of Ur, the family sold graven idols; Abraham destroyed these unclean simulacra and went with his wife Sarah into the desert. It doesn’t matter that Terah died peacefully at the age of two hundred and five: the idols, rooted in the paternal totem of the victorious brothers, represent what Lacan calls the name-of-the-father; the Symbolic father that maintains the prohibition on incest. It’s possible to advance an alternate reading of Abraham’s flight to Canaan: when he lived in Mesopotamia he was married to Sarah but still he couldn’t fuck her, not in the house of his father. The book of Genesis explains their childlessness by claiming that Sarah was barren, but the book of Genesis was also written by men, who are always a little squeamish when it comes to male impotence. Sarah was the daughter of Terah by his second wife: she was Abraham’s sister.

Lacan’s concept of the name-of-the-father is a triple pun: le nom du père recalls le non du père (the ‘no’ of the father, the prohibitive function of the superego) but also les non-dupes errent (the non-dupes err). Those who refuse to be ‘duped’ by the process of castration and induction into the Symbolic order – the kind of person who might, for instance, take it upon himself to smash the idols of his father – are not in fact seeing the world as it really is; they’re stuck among the horrors of the Imaginary. The book of Genesis is full of hints towards Abraham’s singular neurosis. Several times in his journeys, as he comes across various unfriendly peoples, he has Sarah pretend to be his sister – in other words, pretend to be what she really is – so that kings and pharaohs will try to sleep with her. For this God punishes them with plagues and nightmares: none shall disrupt His holy incest.

All this is by way of approaching an understanding of the current instability in Iraq. The land of Ur is, for the Western powers that have been steadily clubbing it for the last century, a feared and hated father. All the paternal functions of society first sprung up in the area between the Tigris and the Euphrates: alphabetical writing, codes of law, economic class, monotheism. In the pre-Oedipal stages of infantile psychology there is no recognition of sexual difference and the fantasy of anal birth is common, so it’s no wonder that the Iraq-Father assumes a hemaphrodite form. One vast leg stretches down the Arabian peninsula, the other is cocked between the Persian Gulf and the Caspian Sea. Between these lie the damp muddy openings of the rivers, passages leading up into the womb of civilisation, while beyond their fertile banks the desert stretches for miles. An old, decaying parental presence that refuses to die. No wonder everyone from Alexander the Great to Genghis Khan to Winston Churchill felt the need to invade Iraq.

On the plane of grand strategy, nobody’s Middle East policy makes any sense. Saudi Arabia props up the secular Sisi regime in Egypt, and has threatened to blockade Qatar over the latter’s support for the ousted Muslim Brotherhood. At the same time Sisi supports the Assad government in Syria, which the Saudis have spent millions trying to overthrow, and is making friendly overtures towards Iran, while his deposed predecessor Morsi tended to align himself with the Saudi-Israeli anti-Tehran axis. The United States is now considering intervention in support of Iran against Islamist movements in Iraq, fighting the same people it’s armed and funded (through Saudi proxies) to fight Iran’s allies in Damascus. The ‘war on terror’ was never really a consistent programme: while Western imperialism made some efforts against Sunni salafism (Afghanistan in 2001, possibly Iraq now) it’s mostly been used to attack secular Arab nationalist governments (Iraq in 2003, Libya in 2011, Syria from 2012). This is diplomacy as a dialectic. Its model isn’t the Nile, with its divisions along the axis of a straight line, but the swampy chaos of Mesopotamia. There are no fixed power blocs, not even Sunni and Shia, only a series of fluid phases successively subsumed in their own contradictions. It’s a grand process of decoding, the untethering of signification, the struggle against the Symbolic, the denial of castration, the murder of the father.

In 2003, the occupying US Army set up Camp Alpha, a huge military base in the ruins of Babylon. Helicopters buzzed around the ancient bricks, Humvees rolled through the Ishtar Gate, defensive trenches were dug through the strata of five millennia. As symbolic erasures of the name-of-the-father go, it ranks up there with Abraham’s destruction of his father’s idols. Still, after the father is killed, it still remains to eat his corpse. Iraq must be consumed. In recent weeks a small armed outfit calling itself the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (or of Iraq and al-Sham, or of Iraq and the Levant, or Daash – such signifiers tend to only refer to each other) has captured a string of cities in the country and is advancing, or at least making a feint, towards Baghdad. Reports in the Western media claim ISIS funds itself from the territory it already holds and doesn’t require any state support. They’re known to be selling oil to the Syrian government forces they’re supposedly fighting, and (this is a nice touch) are reportedly profiting from the sale of looted antiquities from archaeological digs. All this is pretty dubious, but in any case the Saudis seem rather nonchalant about the peril to the Iranian-aligned Maliki government. Even if ISIS aren’t receiving direct Western support it’s almost certain that arms supplied to ‘moderate’ Syrian rebels are filtering through to them. The terrors and massacres in Mesopotamia are as Western-manufactured as Big Macs and banking crises. Of course, when imperial adventures cause chaos, the solution is more imperial adventure. There’s a growing clamour for intervention; aircraft carriers are heading up the Gulf, the hideous grinning hobgoblin that is Tony Blair returns to haunt the political discourse with its carefully considered opinion. There’s a very real chance that we might be about to enter a third Gulf War. In the face of this danger, it must be kept in mind that when imperialists press for action, all they really mean is that they want to be able to fuck their own sisters.

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