Idiot Joy Showland

This is why I hate intellectuals

Tag: psychoanalysis

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.

Colton Burpo: all grown up

It’s New Year’s Eve, 2027, and Colton Burpo, subject of the bestselling 2010 book Heaven is for Real: A Little Boy’s Astounding Story of His Trip to Heaven and Back along with the hit 2014 film of the same name, is sitting in a strip club in the town of Little Whistling. He’s unrecognisable, and so nobody recognises him. The town is more a glorified truck stop, a shivering huddle of low square houses, half-buried in the loose winter ice that blankets the Dakota steppes in endless miles of blank white indistinction. Every time a big rig pulls into town, its headlights scything through the indifferent falling strata of snowflakes, the building shakes down to its foundations. 2027 is the harshest winter on record: outside it’s colder than the surface of Mars, but in Colton Burpo’s private booth there’s a heavy, sticky, woozy heat. The low rumble of an eighteen wheeler outside sends a brief seismic tremor through the stripper’s cellulite and gives Colton a jolt out from his narcotic daze. It’s not enough. He beckons the girl over. “Did you know why it is that serial killers keep on killing?” he says. He slurs, his head at a crooked angle; he doesn’t look right. Electra sighs. “No,” she says. “Now why is that?” She’s heard all this before. Every grizzled drifter that passes through Little Whistling ends up going off on a rant like this one, trying to imitate the engagingly twisted dialogue of the sexy redneck psychopaths they’ve seen on TV. It’s pathetic. Blood, snow, and the road; dead hobos and crooked cops; gun-running and dope-dealing; all as dull and as flat and as empty as the plains outside. Nobody’s real any more. (Not that she can really complain. Electra’s not a real stripper: she’s working undercover, writing an exposé on the dark underside of the sex industry for a feminist magazine. So far, all she’s been able to discover is that every other girl in this establishment is doing the exact same thing. Courageous investigative journalism is the only thing keeping these places running.) “It’s not that they enjoy killing,” Colton says. “They do it because they don’t. It ain’t never enough. It never gives them that thrill they want. So they just keep trying, in new ways, over and over again. It never works.” Satisfied, he sits back and pulls a little bag of white powder out his pocket. “You want some?” Electra shakes her head. She squats a little and presents him with her ass; customers like that sort of thing. “Not there,” he says. “Lie on your back.” This is where Electra can feel things start to get weird. He shakes a few soggy clumps of coke into the pit of her collarbone and snorts them up with a gruff yelp. It stings. Colton Burpo likes the town of Little Whistling. The people seem to be God-fearing folk, and honest, even if they do tend to embellish their personal histories. They’re willing to allow this pastor’s son his eccentricities. Colton Burpo has snorted cheap blow off just about every imaginable part of a woman’s body: her ankle, her labia, her armpit, her ocular cavity. He can’t get it back. It doesn’t work.

I first encountered Colton Burpo in 2012 while tearing through a Walmart superstore in Anaheim, California. I was reaching the end of my year-long stay in the United States and starting to panic. I had to cram as much absurd Americana into my final days as possible: Vegas, Disneyland, road trips, shooting ranges. I loved Walmart. I revelled in the logo (I’d never seen so many friendly yellow anuses in my life), the enormous bags of waxy grated cheese, the rows of rifles two aisles away from babycare products, the sense of an entire world repackaged and itemised in a single vast cube, ready to supply every possible human want. Somewhere in there I found a book called Heaven is for Real – for kids. It explained, with lovingly coloured illustrations, how a four year-old boy had ascended to Heaven during an emergency appendix surgery; how he’d spoken to dead family members and petted the rainbow-coloured steed of Christ and come back knowing things that he couldn’t possibly have known. I was so taken by this piece of extravagance that I don’t think I ever even noticed that the boy in question was, spectacularly, named Colton Burpo. I never considered what it must be like to actually be him: not just to go to Heaven, but to then have to come back. I don’t doubt for a second that he saw the afterlife. But how can Colton Burpo now live in the depravity and fallenness of the world, having seen what he’s seen, knowing that suicide is a mortal sin, unable to regain his paradise until the end of his long prison sentence of an earthly existence? What acts of oddness will he turn to in his attempts to recapture a lost Heaven?

By 2045 Colton Burpo has, like so much of the world’s monied flotsam, washed up in the Sovereign Emirate of London. For a while around independence some people were suspicious of the new name, but by now Londoners have grown proud of it. Absolute monarchy is good for trade, and London has even less in common with the stuffy old monarchies of Europe than it does with the grotty hinterlands out in the British Isles. Emirates are modern and forward-thinking and business-friendly; kingdoms aren’t. It’s said that the Windsors, exiled from Buckingham and Balmoral, are now occupying a nice semi-detached house in Manchester, wherever that is. It’s also said that there are people starving to death in Yorkshire and sprawling refugee camps along the Scottish border, for all anyone cares. The skyscrapers of London receive and transmit constant streams of capital, and the tangled medieval streets around them are a net, trapping some of it in the city, even if only for a second. People too. Colton Burpo lost everything when the dollar collapsed. At the time the thing to do was to go to China, so he did; hamming up his old boy-who-went-to-Heaven routine around Shanghai and Guangzhou for audiences of enraptured evangelicals – as if it were still a beautiful story of inspiration and hope, as if it were anything other than a clawing void deep in his chest. He left after a few years. He can’t stay in one place too long: the sky presses down on him, the ground swallows him up, it’s all so hideously material. Everywhere is the same now, but London is special, because it’s more the same than anywhere else. It’s gone midnight when Colton Burpo spots his prey, but the sky is still a bright hellish orange , the low clouds glowing with reflected fire and infamy. The youth is striding out of one of the huge towers that line Brixton Road. Apart from the occasional swoosh of a surveillance orb, it’s silent here. No trees for birds; no homes, only offices. The kid is sharply dressed in business attire; his white t-shirt expertly stained, his tracksuits all but falling apart. He’s wealthy and important, but then so is everyone in London – everyone except domestic servants, and the menial workers ferried in and out of the city every day from one of the tiny surrounding fiefdoms, but it’s not as if they count. Colton has stopped trying to work out why he does what he does; all he knows is that he has to keep doing it.

Freud locates the source of the ‘oceanic’ religious feeling of universal interconnectedness in infantile prehistory, before the ego detaches from the outside world. In the immediate oral stage, the child doesn’t conceive of the mother’s breast as being a separate entity; mouth and teat form a single machinic assemblage controlling a single flow. She is the world; the world is her. It’s only when she looks at herself in the mirror and identifies with her specular image that the unified and discrete Subject is formed; after that only faint aftershocks of this originary molecularity remain. No wonder religious myths tend to place Paradise in the far-distant past. Colton Burpo knows better; he knows that Heaven is still here, just across the fragile bound of every living instant. When someone refuses to move past the oral stage they develop a neurotic fixation: they’ll become anxious and needy, or domineering and manipulative; alcoholic; unwell. It’s not uncommon. Everyone’s a neurotic. The real problems emerge if you proceed through the stages of psychosexual development in a perfectly ordinary fashion, and are then suddenly thrust back, all too briefly, into the deep dark holy oceans of immanent unity. Visiting Heaven as a four-year old boy will only give you psychosis, and the most dangerous psychotic delusions are the ones that happen to be true. Georges Bataille writes that continuous (or deindividuated) life is always accessible, at the moment of death and in the heights of erotic passion. These moments are still deeply religious in character, but in an inverted form: if you can achieve continuous life by murdering a priest in the church of San Seville, then all the better. For Colton Burpo in 2045, Bataille is tedious and conventional. Nobody likes to think that they live in an era of innocence, but we do. The decadents of the generation before 1914 didn’t think they lived in an innocent time either. Great terrors await. The present tendency towards jaded irony is held to be some kind of postmodern affliction; we forget that the twenty-first century is fourteen years old, and has just discovered sarcasm. Colton Burpo was born on the eve of the millennium; he’s as old as our present age. His psychosis is our psychosis; his future is our future.

It’s 2069, and Colton Burpo is dying. He’s lucky. Here, in this private hospice high up in the Ural mountains, the air is still clean. His last breath won’t choke him. From his window Colton can see the snowless peaks plunging down under a cold and limpid sky. The whole flat expanse of Europe is spread out before him, coquettishly cloaked in its radioactive smog. On the other side, nothing. He’s been pushed here, thrown up against the edges of the world. It’s time. He signals for a priest. For the first time in decades Colton thinks of his father. Pastor Todd Burpo, who believed everything, who spread the good news. The clean airy smell of whitewash and disinfectant in the Nebraska church; those long bright summers when Heaven seemed so real and so fresh he could see it whenever he closed his eyes, before the book and the TV appearances and the movie and everything else, before the space stations fell from the sky and the nuclear plants popped one by one. He almost expects the priest to be like those he remembers, someone in blue jeans and a polo shirt with an acoustic guitar slung over his shoulder. Instead there’s a dour Orthodox seminary student in black robes and a black felt cap. The buboes are visible all over his neck; it’s not like it matters now. The man takes Colton’s hand for a second, crosses himself, and begins to administer the last rites. “Blagosloven Bog nash vsegda-” Colton stops him. A last feeble rasp. “Once,” he says, “once when I was young – too young to understand – He showed me Heaven. I know now that I’m not going back. Ever since, He’s shown me nothing but Hell, and all its horrors. Now… I wonder what He’s going to show me next.”

(There’s a tragic misconception that in Christianity, what one does is this earthly world is only important insofar as it secures one’s position in the afterlife. In such an understanding, Heaven and individual salvation is the only proper goal in life. This is nonsense, and it has no basis in Scripture or the theological consensus, both of which are as materialist and as hostile to such transcendentalism as anything in Marx or Nietzsche. There are some within Christianity that believe in a conscious afterlife immediately following death, but at no point is this idea of personal salvation held to be any kind of telos. Far from being eternal, the intermediate state isn’t much more than a spiritual screensaver, something to occupy the soul until the bodily reincarnation of the dead promised in Matthew 22:31-32. For the thnetopsychitae, this filler heaven doesn’t even exist. They may be right: the immortality of the soul was always a Platonist Greek doctrine, not a Christian one.

Biblical writings are singularly unconcerned with the fate of the soul immediately after death; the point is always to return to the world in all its immanence after the Last Judgement. Heaven isn’t a metaphysical realm; it’s what happens here, and the New Earth or the Kingdom of Heaven must be built. With postmillenial salvation – operating on the level of the 144,000 or the numberless multitude rather than on that of the individual subject – the curse of Adam is lifted. The old order to be overturned is described precisely in Genesis 3:18-19: Cursed is the ground for thy sake; in sorrow shalt thou eat of it all the days of thy life; thorns also and thistles shall it bring forth to thee; and thou shalt eat the herb of the field; in the sweat of thy face shalt thou eat bread, till thou return unto the ground. In other words, by opposition we can see that the salient features of the Kingdom of Heaven are: the unleashing of productive forces in the clearing-away of thorns and thistles, an end to the antagonistic dialectic between the equally false categories of Nature and Man, and the abolition of alienated wage-labour. It’s in this New Earth that the dead are redeemed and justified.

The Kingdom of Heaven is not a state of affairs which is to be established, an ideal to which reality will have to adjust itself. We call the Kingdom of Heaven the real movement which abolishes the present state of things. We do not passively wait for it. Luke 17:20-21: And when he was demanded of the Pharisees, when the kingdom of God should come, he answered them and said, the kingdom of God cometh not with observation: Neither shall they say, Lo here! or, lo there! for, behold, the kingdom of God is within you. As ever, God is impeccably Marxist.)

The passion according to Luke

Everyone has their fantasies. There are people who dream of chains and rope and hot wax, silent watching eyes, dungeons of degradation, masked strangers, shiny black leather. Then there are the perverts, people who get unaccountably excited by the idea of second homes and high-quality consumer goods, holidays in Europe, tasteful interior décor, and a high-paying job in a full-employment economy. Repulsive as they might be, even these fantasies help sustain the subject of the fantasist; they don’t really hurt anyone as long as nobody tries to actually put them into practice. This is the rule of fantasy: you can act it out as an image of an image, but it can never actually come true. Once it does, it loses all its power and enchantment. There are many fantasies like these, tiny glittering gasps of desire, but they’re all in orbit around an invisible sun, one single hidden image that gives them their allure: the ‘foundational fantasy,’ represented by Lacan in the matheme $ a. In this formulation $ represents the castrated or ‘barred’ subject, forced to understand the world through images in response to a primordial lack, with a standing for that absence, the transcendent and nameless object of desire. What’s notable about this matheme is that it lacks an intermediary symbol (such as standing for a problematic relationship, as in the formula $ a for neurotic fantasy): between the two terms there is no relation. Fantasy is grounded in a double absence; the fantasist never necessarily knows the full content of their fantasy. You have to browse through an infinite collection of images and see which ones excite you, find out what kind of radiation the black hole of your desire emits. Here are a few fantasies. See if they work for you.

Luke Vivian-Neal, of the School of Oriental and African Studies team in the 2013-14 season of BBC2’s University Challenge, has a woman with beautiful hair brought to him, saying he simply wishes to examine her hair; but he cuts it off very traitorously and discharges upon seeing her melt into tears and bewail her misfortune, at which he laughs immoderately.
Luke Vivian-Neal, whose team made it to the semi-finals before being beaten by Somerville College, Oxford, sups at an immense table; for light, he has six burning candles, each inserted into the ass of a naked girl lying upon the table.
Luke Vivian-Neal from Lusaka in Zambia, who is studying Chinese but also knows a lot about words of Arabic origin and the location of the Schönbrunn Palace, attaches a slender but attractive girl to a large rocket, the fuse is ignited, the rocket ascends, then returns to earth with the girl still attached.

These are all from entries in the Marquis de Sade’s The 120 Days of Sodom, a pornographic novel that quickly descends into an early example of the Buzzfeed-style listicle; six hundred numbered acts of debauchery and murder presented with very little adornment or narrative sequence. De Sade was a fantasist in the classic mould: while his libertinage caused some scandals he was still entirely devoted to his wife and obedient to his mother; in his actual sexual practices he tended far more towards masochism than the sadistic tendency to which he gave his name. What’s interesting about the 120 Days of Sodom is that all these deeds are described not as fantasies or stories, but as passions, divided into les passions simples, doubles, criminelles, and meurtrières – all this despite the somewhat offhand way in which de Sade’s heroes carry out their orgies and massacres. In traditional medieval dualism, passion was opposed not to boredom or indifference but to action; it shares a Latin root with passivity. Pneumatic theory, which posited a substance called pneuma through which physical sense impressions were mediated into mental images, held erotic desire to be a passion: you are not an agent, a subject desiring an object, but a patient, the object of a desire that acts on you. Passions are pneumatic images,sensations from outside that seize and overwhelm the subject. For the advocates of courtly love, the idea that you might grab hold of the source of your desire and actually fuck them wasn’t just crass and unseemly; it missed the point entirely. Actions belong to the body, and passions to the mind; consummation of a passion is nothing more than the contemplation or the expression of an image. It’s in this context that de Sade’s passions begin to make sense. His passions are fantastical images, stories within a story, emerging from a void: mise en abyme.

Luke Vivian-Neal is clearly a very passionate man. Or, in the words of various Twitter commentators, he is ‘ever so intense,’ ‘a prime example of a secret serial killer,’ ‘the sort who would wear your skin to a party,’ ‘an evil Paul Merton,’ and ‘actually going to kill all of us #thoseeyes.’ He’s certainly the most interesting contestant University Challenge has had in a while. He holds his forehead low, his hair flops over his eyebrows, and he stares up at the camera with what appears to be utterly undisguised loathing. When he answers a question correctly there’s a tiny grin, a fractured chink through which the horror of the Other’s enjoyment can be glimpsed. When he gets one wrong he looks omnicidal, a glowering thundercloud of a human being. He definitely has a rich inner life. This effect is only heightened by the rest of the SOAS team: motherly Weber, trying to cheer Vivian-Neal up with a smile and a pat on the back; team leader McKean, the cheerfully studious everyman; thoughtful and deliberate Figueroa. They don’t seem to be from the same planet as Vivian-Neal, let alone the same university. It’s not hard to imagine them as the cast of a University Challenge spinoff, a tense psychological thriller in which Vivian-Neal slowly picks them off one by one. Of course, the most important thing about the passion of Luke Vivian-Neal is that it’s a passion: something that acts on him from the outside, an image, a fantasy. Real serial killers are, for the most part, astonishingly boring people; not cold and steely and erudite like Hannibal Lecter or Norman Bates, but driven by dull brutish psychopathy. If Vivian-Neal actually had bodies in his freezer, he’d lose all his fascination. The fantasy of the smart, brooding, potentially murderous young man isn’t his – it belong to us, the viewers.

When I was briefly living in America, I naturally took it upon myself to smugly educate as many of the country’s inhabitants as possible in the wonders of British television. These efforts had various levels of success. Some people liked Peep Show, fewer had patience for Stewart Lee, but University Challenge was met with unanimous approval. Part of its appeal might have to do with the show’s inherent excess: these people are quizzed on knowledge that is for the most part fundamentally useless, for what appears to be no real reason, and without even getting a cash prize at the end. There’s a gleeful superfluity to it that fits in well with the sprawling all-consuming mentality of Los Angeles. At the same time it’s something of a human zoo: you’re presented with a constant succession of endearingly dorky and often utterly strange characters, but in a way that deliberately encourages the formation of fantasy. Unlike some quiz show hosts, Jeremy Paxman never asks his contestants how they’re feeling, or who they’ve got supporting them back home, or what their hopes and dreams are; you have to work it all out (or invent it) based on their eagerness with the buzzer, their spluttering when named, the things they know and the things they don’t, their reactions when they win and when they lose. University Challenge reproduces, in laboratory conditions, the formation of fantasy as a defence against the lack that inheres in the Other. No wonder so many of its contestants become minor sex symbols. Intelligence might be sexy, but there’s nothing that stimulates neurotic attachment like a void.

The fantasy of Luke Vivian-Neal is of someone somehow inhuman, someone whose mind follows different rules to the rest of ours. This image forms part of a process of transference. All those desires that the viewer at home watching University Challenge isn’t comfortable with are shifted onto him; he becomes a receptacle for our own deadly passions. In fact, unlike the neurotic voyeurs observing him on their screens, Vivian-Neal seems fully healthy and fully human, entirely unashamed of himself. When he gives that sullen stare, he’s communicating exactly what he wants to.  There might be murderers in this season of University Challenge, but he’s not one of them. The SOAS team lost a decisive quarter-final match to Trinity College, Cambridge 280 points to 105. Vivian-Neal was inconsolable; he couldn’t even bring himself to say the traditional end-of-match ‘goodbye’ to the viewers. The standout character of the Trinity team is Filip Drnovšek Zorko. It’s not just his excellent name, which the announcer reads out with an air of unbridled excitement: Drnovšek Zorko appears to be a genuinely agreeable person. He’s a lamb among wolves. The rest of the Trinity team, with their collared shirts and v-neck jumpers and gemstone-dead eyes, are all monsters of the Oxbridge elite – the same British impulse that conquered the world and killed millions out of sheer boredom. Vivian-Neal has an authentic misery; the only thing they communicate is a shark’s mindlessly propulsive self-satisfaction. Phantom pith helmets hover over their heads. In tonight’s final, Trinity play against Somerville, Oxford for the title. There’s every chance they’ll win; they’re an extremely effective team. If they do, everyone goes home happy. If they lose, the last thing Drnovšek Zorko will see will be his teammates’ pupils narrowing to reptilian slits and their fangs swooshing down from their mouths before they consume him. 

In defence of Fred Phelps

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Justin Bieber: the aesthetics of destruction

Oh no no, oh no no/ I have come to cast fire upon the earth; and how I wish it were already kindled!
– Justin Bieber, Confident

From left to right: tragedy, farce

I live in fear of Justin Bieber in much the same way that people once lived in fear of God. It’s hard to think of anyone alive that I regard with such terror and fascination and respect. Last week Justin Bieber was hauled in by Miami cops for dragracing, driving under the influence, and resisting arrest. His booking photo shows him grinning at the police camera with a face full of boyish insouciance and a mouth full of Hollywood-white teeth. It’s all a lie. Justin Bieber has the eyes of a predator. Not a shark, not something driven by pure animal need, but a brutally human predator. His eyes are cold – but they’re not dead, they shine with an obscene excess of life. He sees you, and already you disgust him. Justin Bieber wants to put a torch to the world, and he wants to burn up with it.

There are some people (generally in our ghastly po-faced commentariat) who make it their business to moralise about the psychological effect that stardom has on young idols like Bieber, agonising over how they’re broken and abused by a cynical celebrity culture. I find this attitude revolting. These kids have been robbed of everything (a normal life, a normal death), and in return all they get is cold clunking money and the ephemeral fart of fame – but now these altruists want to rob them of their madness too. The same goes for all the celebrity do-gooders trying to leech themselves on Bieber’s misbehaviour. Will Smith, Adam Levine, Mark Wahlberg, Eminem, and Oprah Winfrey have all tried to ‘reach out’ to the child star in a desperate pious attempt to steer him back onto the path of righteousness. A darkly approaching flock of pestilential vultures. They don’t understand Justin Bieber at all; they understand him even less than his fans.

Justin Bieber is, of course, mad. On this point the whimpering columnists are completely correct. The kid can’t post ‘good morning’ on Twitter without ten thousand acolytes screaming their love for him. This kind of adulation has been compared to Beatlemania, but of course it’s completely different. The fans that gathered to greet John, Paul and co. could only be perceived as a single crowd projecting a single piercing din. They belonged to the era of mass social movements; today’s Beliebers are an unending digital stream of individuated bits. Justin Bieber isn’t famous or well-liked; he’s adored and raised to the level of master-signifier by fifty million individual totalities. There’s always a hideous aspect to the desire of the other, a faint putrid taste, born from a lingering infantile resentment towards your own specular image. Nobody wants to see themselves through the eyes of another person, even if it’s as an object of love; to cross the boundary of the subject is to induce the nausea of abjection. Multiply this effect by fifty million. The last people to experience a similar psychological effect to today’s pop stars were the Egyptian pharaohs, and they all went insane and fucked their sisters.

What distinguishes Justin Bieber is the precise trajectory his madness has taken. For all the panic over his bad-boy breakaway antics, they’ve been comparatively quite mild. He left an ill-advised note in the guestbook at the Anne Frank Museum, he pissed in a mop-bucket, he turned up late to a concert, he punched a paparazzo (which is really less a sign of incipient degeneracy and more a general Kantian ethical duty), he insulted Bill Clinton (ditto), he drove a fast car, he egged his neighbour’s house. All in all, it’s more Cliff Richard than Lou Reed, barely worth a footnote in the annals of celebrity libertinage. I used to think that Justin Bieber was slowly descending into a hedonistic death-spiral and that we’d get to watch the whole grimly compelling tragedy play out live before our captive eyes. I was wrong. Everything he does is very carefully contrived: he’s engaged in a performance of hedonism, a self-conscious parody of excess. He’s writing the narrative for his own self-immolation, because it’s what he wants.

What kind of story is Justin Bieber trying to tell? There’s something very 19th century about him; for all his synthesised backing tracks he seems to have stepped right out of the dawning of modernity. His pseudo-hedonism isn’t a product of teenage rebellion and surging narcissism but a total and all-encompassing boredom. At the age of nineteen he’s been a global phenomenon for six years; he knows how little this world has to offer him. He’s a tubercular nihilist, a hero of Charles Baudelaire or Ivan Turgenev. Like Bazarov in Fathers and Sons he seems weary of his own pleasures: the blood circulates, the brain works and even desires something as well… What sheer ugliness! What sheer nonsense! The narrative he’s so  diligently crafting has as its purpose the aestheticisation of his omnicidal ennui. Justin Bieber has a hunger, but it’s not a hunger for life; rather the hunger of a life beyond its bounds. He’s the first pop star to stand on the summit of his fame and bellow: I want less! There is too much of everything, complains Chremylos in Aristophanes’ Plutus. Justin Bieber will set this right. What he wants isn’t more fame or more money or more fun: pointless, boring trifles for lesser men. He wants beauty, which is the most dangerous thing of all.

The story goes that Minos, king of Crete, faced a challenge to his rule, and asked the god Poseidon for a sign of his favour. In response, Poseidon sent a beautiful white bull out of the waves, such an exemplar of bovine perfection that the ancient writers often spend most of their account rhapsodising about its gloriousness. The proper thing would have been for Minos to have slaughtered the bull at once and carbonise its body in tribute to the god that gifted it to him. Instead he decided to keep it. Poseidon had his revenge: he had the king’s wife Pasiphae become so entranced by the beast that she actually fucked it; the result was the legendary Minotaur of Knossos. The moral of the story is clear: the true beauty of things lies in their destruction. Let them carry on for too long, and they’ll create monsters. I don’t know if Justin Bieber ever heard the story of King Minos, but he certainly seems to understand it.

Justin Bieber is, of course, a fascist. Like Yukio Mishima, he wants to turn his death into a work of art; unlike Mishima he has no Emperor to be his unwitting patron. All he has is himself, and his fans, and his boredom – his is a pure fascism, unattached to any political project. This is why I can’t help but admire him: he’s refined radical Evil into something weightless and infinitely potent. Fifty million people follow Justin Bieber on Twitter, a number that dwarfs the combined force of every military on the planet. This is the way the world ends: not with a bang or a whimper, but with a swaggering bassline that cracks the bedrock of the continents and a billowing autotuned vocal track that sends them plunging into the fires at the centre of the world.

Defying Gravity

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Philosophy for the weak

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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