Idiot Joy Showland

This is why I hate intellectuals

Tag: satire

Why you’re not quitting Twitter

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

American aphanisis: in search of Donald Trump

American society – the industrial society with anonymous management and vanishing personal power, etc. – is presented as a resurgence of the “society without the father.” But we are warned: the society of brothers is very dejected, unstable, and dangerous, it must prepare the way for the rediscovery of an equivalent to parental authority.
Deleuze and Guattari, Anti-Oedipus

Something strange about the question ‘is Donald Trump a fascist?’ Already, it’s the wrong question.

If we define fascism as a discrete political ideology whose advocates in Europe came to brief power in the first half of the twentieth century, as a checklist of traits that we can match something up against, then Donald Trump is not a fascist. He’s not created any paramilitary body, he has no mystical insignia except his own name, and there’s no indication he’d try to suspend the operation of formal democracy. He doesn’t want an economy in which capitalist production satisfies the needs of the nation rather than private profit; he doesn’t glorify the aesthetic qualities of war; he doesn’t seem to have any line on art, degenerate or otherwise, whatsoever. In fact, he doesn’t really have any politics at all: all his reactionary positions are provisional, calculated for thrust and impact; they’re projectiles; it’s the trajectory that matters more than anything like content. And in any case, you can be a right-wing demagogue without necessarily being essentially homogeneous with the death camps and the Final Solution. But all this only makes sense if we define fascism as a discrete political ideology, which it isn’t. And to simply say the opposite, that Trump is a fascist, that the politics of evil have once again broken into the mainstream, is just as stupid. Actually listen to Trump’s supporters, see what they say about him. ‘He’s just saying what we’re all thinking.’ Donald Trump has one hand grasping at the stars and the other slimy with brains; he takes the swarming private agonies that drill away at the inside of your skull, the ones only expressible as a wordless scream, and screams that scream right on national TV. Donald Trump, the shaman-king, maps the cannibal fury of the imaginary on a symbolic terrain. He says what people are thinking. And what are people thinking? Without anyone other than Trump to tell me, I went to find out. This is a travel blog. This is what I did on my holidays.

I’d hardly arrived in Los Angeles, and already they were trying to deport me. At various stages in the long line for immigration, an array of machine terminals scanned my fingerprints and my retinas and asked me if I was importing explosives or genocidal ideology or bull semen. A signposted ‘pledge to travellers’ explained to me what I could expect: they promised to ‘cordially greet and welcome you to the United States,’ to ‘treat you with courtesy, dignity, and respect,’ and to ‘present a single face worthy of this great nation.’ Big video monitors drooped from the ceiling, playing on repeat a short message of welcome from the peoples of the United States. ‘Welcome,’ said a punk girl on rollerblades. ‘Welcome,’ said a cop in full SWAT gear as gunfire crackled from somewhere out of shot. ‘Welcome,’ said a colourful Latinx family in chorus, waving from a kitchen table heavily encrusted by charming Catholic tat; Virgin Mary keychains glittering deliciously among the flakes in their breakfast cereal, a clone army of plastic Popes standing to attention where they should have had teeth. ‘Welcome,’ said a toothless meth addict, hunched over shivering on the corner of a filthy mattress; and while it was out of focus, the city behind him seemed to be on fire. ‘We need the end of your tongue,’ said the passport control guard. I must have gaped. ‘It’s a new security requirement,’ he said, picking up a pair of secateurs. ‘We need to snip off the end of your tongue. Please extend your tongue no less than one inch and lay it on the centre of this tray here.’

Clearly something was wrong. The guard held my tongue up in gloved fingers, examining it from various angles, before making a few experimental prints on my passport with the bloodied edge where it’d been cut. He held the thing up to me. ‘What does that look like to you?’ he said. ‘Uhkluhgh,’ I said, trying to be friendly and polite and not attract any suspicion. I’d lied: my blood was seeping through the paper; it didn’t look like a cloud, it looked like a blot. ‘Doesn’t look much like a cloud to me,’ he said.  ‘Clouds look like other things. A doggy, for instance.’ He snapped my passport shut. ‘Follow me, please.’ I was led through a tight warren of peeling-linoleum corridors to a secondary screening area, a grubby little waiting room, full of other people, almost silent. Two sounds: one, the flat rhythmic wheeze of an ageing, bloating Mexican in a cowboy hat strapped to an enormous respirator, his eyes washing from one side of the room to the other in subdued terror; two, the minute sobs of a twelve-year-old boy as a woman in uniform explained exactly how he’d be murdered once the paperwork for his deportation to Colombia went through. Very occasionally, the snap and clink as officials trotted through the room, pulling on blue rubber gloves, grabbing some unfortunate by his cuff and dragging him behind a door to be interrogated.

I must have waited three hours before my turn came and I was hauled before what were, I think, a pair of identical twins: the same cueball heads, the same dented noses, a pair of taut and glossy tits. They seemed to know everything about me, and at the same time nothing at all. Somebody had faxed over an itemised list of every time I’d had sex, the date and duration stamped in crowded black numbers with lines through the zeroes; they made me go through the whole list. ‘Get a bit excited that time, huh,’ they’d crow, or, ‘losing all feeling, are you? Worrying that you have a diminished capacity for physical pleasure, buddy? Starting to feel like you’re too good, too rarefied, for the most basic biological and psychological urge of human existence-‘ and then, in a grinning parody of my accent – ‘mate?’ But then none of their documents spelled my name the same way twice, and there was no sign that they even knew why I’d been sent to them. ‘Why is it you think you’re here?’ one asked. ‘We want to hear it from you.’ ‘Because my tongue didn’t look like a doggy,’ I said. ‘I can tell you,’ he said, ‘it’s not that.’ His companion nodded. ‘It’s not a crime in any jurisdiction if your tongue doesn’t look like a doggy.’ They spent a while going through my old school reports. Wants to coast by, doing the absolute minimum necessary. Socialises very poorly. Doodles in maths. The first threw up his arms. ‘He must have done something wrong,’ he said. ‘Fuck this. Let’s just shoot him.’ ‘Please don’t shoot me,’ I said. This seemed to upset them. ‘Listen, bro,’ one said. ‘You are a visitor in the United States of America. You do not make the rules. I make the rules. You do not tell me what to do. You want me to deport you? Piss me off, and I’ll have you put on the next plane back to…’ He scrunched up his face. ‘The uni-ted king-dom.’ And then they put a bag over my head, tied me to a post, put a gun to my cheek, and pulled the trigger.

Afterwards, I thought: thank God that Donald Trump has not yet brought fascism to this country’s shores, or else there might have been bullets in that thing.

I was free: Los Angeles was mine. I was in the desert. I discovered that primitive society, that thing loosely theorised by early twentieth-century anthropologists, really does exist, and what’s more, it’s a recent invention. The home of Hollywood isn’t a sophisticated net of postmodern virtuality draped over the prehistoric hills; it’s the wilderness itself. I learned that the first time I saw someone dying of thirst, dragging himself by the fingernails along a deserted sidewalk untraversed in a century. On one side, low suburban houses with their clashing historical forms, melting mile by mile into the miasma; on the other, a thirty-six-thousand-lane highway. I walked and took the bus, two things you must never do in Los Angeles, convincing myself I was taking up the traditions of Guy Debord and Iain Sinclair and Ivan Chtcheglov. The announcement on the bus had a strange cadence, an underworked voice-actor’s drawl, someone trying to be a gangster or a cowboy. ‘For your own safety, please WATCH YOUR STEP when exiting the bus.’ (It’s actually the voice of former mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, which is essentially the same thing.) In other cities people are stupid and comfortable; in LA they’re falling off the edge of the socius, and they’re afraid. Primordial danger: less a concrete city than the colloidal suspension of ten million anxieties. Fears loop and mingle, they amplify each other, so that the crack of a gun somewhere south of Downtown might echo and send the whole city sinking into the San Andreas Fault, so that the drought might bring packs of starved coyotes down from the hills to tear your children’s throats out, so that aliens might invade and strip-mine the earth of its sprouting alfalfa. People were afraid of Donald Trump. The weather was beautiful, and they wore big heavy winter coats whenever they went outside, which was seldom. Space worked differently. Two places close by could be entirely unrelated – downtown, the five-star hotels butted onto sad rows of pawnshops and dollar stores: unlike so much of the city, this place was real, and it was falling apart. Walking, it made no sense; in a car, you just get on the freeway to somewhere else, grab a wormhole, pinch the map together with hyperspatial hands. Less science fiction than shamanism. All the glamour and spectacle has very little in common with industrial modernity or its narrative conventions. You know how the film will end as soon as you see the trailer; it’s a fireside show, a ritual war-dance, masks and all, cinema from the howling infancy of the species. No wonder that as soon as Adorno and Horkheimer arrived in southern California, they started writing about barbarism.

I became fascinated by the sight of old people in the city, perhaps because they so clearly didn’t belong. You could watch them through windows at Burger King, vertebrae popping like blisters through their shirts, poking at their flat gristly crystal, looking so utterly defeated, like a cartoon of the dying year. I couldn’t eat anything until my tongue healed; I drank vegetable juice and looked at billboards. All the season’s TV shows were about what would happen if America were under occupation by cartoon Nazis, and the networks had decided to promote them by putting up propaganda posters from their imagined futures. Above the low houses, Los Angeles was full of swastikas. Imagine how America would look under fascism. So I imagined. They seemed to think that fascism meant banning entertainment, or the suppression of any form of enjoyment by a dictatorship that exists solely to be cruel. It meant, essentially, not being able to party. Whatever they did, it could therefore never be fascist. Walter Benjamin defines it differently. Fascism is ‘the aestheticisation of politics.’ It’s the subordination of all modes of life to entertainment; American fascism would first of all be fun. But any game needs its rules. I went to the Simon Wiesenthal Center’s Museum of Tolerance, which told me that the Holocaust was the result of one man’s inexplicable hatred, and a cowardly population’s failure to confront it. Prejudice has no origin or cure. Intolerance causes inequality; inequality does not cause intolerance. At one point there were two doors, lit up in red and green: the red one said Prejudiced; the green Not Prejudiced. The green door was locked. After all, aren’t we all a little bit racist?

It was around that time that I started seeing Donald Trump everywhere. At the La Brea tar pits, a big gassy bubble globbed up to the surface of the pond. Just as the tension broke, its tear formed a puckered little mouth. ‘Winners,’ it whispered, leaving the stink of bitumen. Inspecting my turds one morning, I found them to be bright orange, like a newborn baby’s. Their creases and joins looked like a human face. ‘We will make America great again,’ screamed my shit. I tried to flush the thing, but it wouldn’t go down. ‘I’m being repressed by the establishment,’ it screamed as it fought its way upwards through the toilety gyre. ‘They don’t want to have me on TV.’ At night the moon swam hazy through a fume-fettered sky, big and round and wearing a combover that wasn’t fooling anyone. The moon sang to me in my sadness. ‘It will be a beautiful wall,’ sang the moon. ‘And Mexico is going to pay for it.’

There were storms and riots before I left. The drought was breaking, rain crashing seawards in ballistic volleys, a grey Pacific churned into something as messy as the land. Cops had killed another innocent black kid, they’d left his body out on the street for an ambulance that never came. The police knew they had an image problem; all that body armour, all those rifles and armoured vehicles, it made them look like the repressive forces of some distant dictatorship, which they were most certainly not. So when the mobs came for justice there was no tear gas or baton rounds. Instead, they held a recruitment fair. If you don’t like the way your police force operates, then join up and make a difference! We are an equal opportunity employer, read out LGBTQIA+ policy, learn about our retirement benefits. The leaders went first, scrawny young men taking selfies with oversized police caps falling over their ears. Only when about half the protest march had been deputised did the action start. As we drove to the airport, a freeway suspended five hundred feet over Inglewood, I saw blinding white streaks fall through the rain. Low rumbles as the warheads erupted. It was all so far away. Later, at the airport, Donald Trump’s face materialised out of the spinning blades on a jet engine. ‘Black-on-black violence,’ he said. ‘They should sort out their own communities before telling us what to do.’

Donald Trump, the billionaire property developer whose words get top billing on the TV news every night, is a political outsider – because he says what everyone’s thinking. In other words, he takes those things that are unsaid but which nonetheless structure the political discourse, and he says them. Sometimes people will try to defend Trump from accusations of fascism by pointing out that he doesn’t have any consistent politics, he’s only saying whatever will appease his reactionary base and whatever will provoke the media into giving him attention. Actually, they’ve just unwittingly stumbled on a fairly decent definition of what fascism actually is. All he does is gather up what’s already there, below the surface of things, and what’s below the surface is fascist ideology. As Ishay Landa and others have pointed out, it’s not heterogeneous to liberalism, but forms one of liberalism’s defence mechanisms, something that prickles up when class society finds itself under threat. Before the death camps there had to be colonial genocide and the Fordist assembly line; none of these things are intelligible without the others. We’re already living under fascism: all that violence and horror is a byproduct of the production process, it’s always been and always is latent to the capitalist order. Latent, in the full Freudian sense of the word: as in the latency period in psychosexual development, the false pause in which the same oedipalised energies of the initial stages are redirected outwards into the world, the repressive repression of that which is itself repressive – and as the latent content, the hidden content masked by the dream-work. And we are not awake.

Yes, Donald Trump is a fascist. But only because everything else is fascist too.

I’m writing this from New York City. It’s safe here; the Army came in and blew up all the bridges, and while the Bronx has been lost entirely all the other boroughs should be able to hold out. Life has, unavoidably, changed – Central Park is farmland now, millet mostly; a colonel with a tiny flat little nose went on TV to say that actually working with our hands ‘might do you people some good.’ You people; he didn’t actually use the J-word. I went down to Times Square, thinking that all the lights would be replaced by propaganda signs telling me in no uncertain terms what to do. But while there were tanks blocking off Broadway, Coca-Cola was still there. And that’s how I knew I would be OK.

A portrait of the Person-Guy

The Person-Guy comes in many forms. Sometimes he’s just you, and all the things you like to do, reified into something that is at once a general social type and a Platonic model from which lesser beings can learn such valuable lessons as ‘it is good to have at least one daughter’ and ‘pronounce the word “helicopter” correctly, you utter cretin.’ But most of the time the Person-Guy is someone you don’t like. The Person-Guy is either very stupid, or not entirely stupid, but the wrong kind of not entirely stupid. The Person-Guy is all the vain and shallow women that ever rejected you. The Person-Guy supports a politician you have reservations about, wore a toga to a frat party, and is mysteriously close to the levers of power. The Person-Guy is absolutely real.

It’s the other one, the Person-Guy, that things happen to. The Person-Guy exists in short, declarative sentences, generally structured around some form of the verb ‘to be’, and arranged in no particular order. The Person-Guy is the cause of every evil and frustration in your life. The Person-Guy only wears odd socks, because he thinks that wasting our limited lifespan sorting them into matching pairs is indicative of a potentially authoritarian neurosis. The Person-Guy has a minor vocal tic, and it sends you into strange daylight fantasies; tearing out his throat with your bare hands, feeling the frantic little pulses of blood as they spurt and froth around your claws and then go cold. The Person-Guy likes all the same things you like, which is why you hate him. The Person-Guy is not reading this article. Only you are reading this article.

The Person-Guy tells you that he’s getting really ‘into’ candles. He spends most of his day lighting candles with a specialist Egyptian cotton taper, and then extinguishing them with the tips of his fingers. He goes to trendy candle clubs to hang out with other Person-Guys. He subscribes to Candle Lighter’s Monthly. You visit his loft apartment in Brooklondon or Berlyn, and every flat surface is covered with candles. A few of them are lit, scattered randomly around the room; tealights drooping precariously by the inevitable stacks of yellowing old books, elegant purple ones dribbling hot streams of wax to pool in the mason jars and espresso cups they’ve been unceremoniously jammed into, one big spluttering log of a candle that sits under a soot-smeared stain on the ceiling. He doesn’t offer you a seat; the Person-Guy doesn’t believe in outmoded notions of chivalry, and besides, all the chairs bristle with rare candles. You try to make small-talk with the Person-Guy – you’re not friends, exactly, and you’re certainly not into him, but you’ve known each other a long while – but he looks distracted; there’s a fluttering gleam in his eyes, and his fingers keep twitching; he’s only pretending to listen, he’s waiting for you to leave so he can start lighting candles and then putting them out again. You’re almost mesmerised by the quick and impulsive movements of his forefinger and thumb, their snap and tremble, and it takes you a while before you notice, with a start, just how scarred and calloused they are, skin clinkered like the surface of a lava flow, blocks of darkened leathery flesh torn between weeping chasms. You make your hurried excuses, and the Person-Guy lets you leave with an almost catatonic indifference, but one you’re out of there you can’t resist the temptation to look over your shoulder, and through his window you see the soft, undulating light of lots of different candles being lit and then put out. You know someone like the Person-Guy. Everyone knows someone like the Person-Guy. How can they not realise what they’re like?

The Person-Guy is always at the top of your Facebook feed. He has some opinion about something you don’t care about, and insists that all his friends be endlessly subjected to it. The Person-Guy takes hundreds of selfies every time he goes out and posts them all online, endless iterations of the Person-Guy and his girlfriends bending over to make kissy-faces at the camera so their tits are almost popping out the top of their skimpy dresses, and if you don’t like and comment on enough of them he’ll stop talking to you. The Person-Guy keeps inviting you to play some stupid browser game. The Person-Guy publicly wishes you happy birthday every year, and then doesn’t even message you once in the intervening three hundred and sixty-four days. The Person-Guy writes long letters to the world at large, packed with banal pseudo-philosophical insights about how you need to believe in yourself and why other people’s opinions don’t matter, limp gutless phrases crammed like worms in a shoebox, and then hashtags it ‘#gym #workout #hatersgonnahate’. The Person-Guy continually writes ‘too’ instead of ‘to’, and it appears to be deliberate, but you have no idea why.

You slept with the Person-Guy once, and you’re still ashamed of it, but afterwards you decided to learn some self-respect and in a weird way that experience kinda made you the person you are today.

You are fine. The Person-Guy is everything objectionable. The Person-Guy is the grim truth of all social relations: that the human being is a burden, that to talk to someone is labour, that everything you do in the company of another is only the absence of everything else you could be doing instead. The Person-Guy has clammy hands. The Person-Guy claims to like classical music, but only knows the pieces that have been in films. The Person-Guy makes a big show of every nice thing he does, as if it’s not just basic human decency. Every attempt the Person-Guy makes at kindness only justifies your hatred. The Person-Guy is responsible for the melting of the ice caps, the lack of decent affordable housing, the expropriation of surplus value, the ivory trade, the fact that all living things must one day die, the absence of an interventionist God, the short shelf-life of organic groceries, the traffic jams on the M4, the weird smell in underpasses, the heat death of the Universe, the mole on your chin, the little accusing voice that keeps you up all night, the fat balding creature that squints at you from the mirror, and the Syrian civil war. The Person-Guy turns his soft, doughy, witless head to look you in the eyes, and his face is nowhere to be seen. It is not illegal to kill the Person-Guy.

As soon as he is named, the Person-Guy vanishes. He has no mass or motion. He is the type, abstract and globe-girdling, pressed into shape for unknown purposes by an unknown god. He exists only as a cloud of attributes; individually insubstantial, in combination each point is the tip of spear that rips through his hideous body. To describe something is to annihilate it, and the Person-Guy has been annihilated. His entrails litter the streets. But still he shambles on, a formless form, all spit and tendons, grasping against the grit of the paving-slabs inch by laboured inch, as if he doesn’t know that he ought to be dead.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Rihanna ‘Bitch Better Have My Money’ video roundtable

The following is the transcript of a roundtable discussion held at the offices of Damply Media in Brooklyn, to discuss the cultural importance of Rihanna’s new single ‘Bitch Better Have My Money’. The discussion brought together some of the leading thinkers in their fields for a unique evening of lively debate. PANTOPHAGIA PULPH is a digital sibyl, feminist scholar, literal goddess, and visiting professor at the Jersey Turnpike School of Media and Dentistry, and it’s not her job to educate you. ALAN GORKENBLUM is a respected economist noted for his work in developing nations, his occasional columns in the New York Times, and his influential 1994 paper ‘Could Death Squads Be Good For Freedom?’. PENCIL GLEASE is a radical leftist philosopher and the author of over fifty books, including ‘Why Breakfast Cereal Is Communism’, ‘Why Boy Bands Are Communism’, ‘Why Disneyland Is Communism,’ and ‘Why Capitalism Is Communism’. THE GHOST OF GEORGES RIBEMONT-DESSAIGNES, moderating the discussion, is a sad, tattered, howling spectre, barely capable of speech, his vague form clammy with sadness and regret. HELENA BIBBS is, despite all appearances, an adult woman.

ALAN GORKENBLUM: First of all, I’d like to thank Moist Media for inviting me to-

JENNIFER BIBBS: Damply.

ALAN GORKENBLUM: I’d like to very damply thank Moist Media for inviting me here to speak. Now, from what I can gather, the video under discussion today concerns Ms Rihanna’s personal experiences with an unscrupulous accountant, who squandered her money on wasteful programmes and led to her credit rating being downgraded. In the video, this fictionalised accountant is subjected to various punishments – his wife is kidnapped and murdered, and he is then murdered himself – which of course as a liberal I don’t condone. But it seems to me that the central dynamic here is the relation between debtor and creditor, and frankly it’s extremely encouraging to see youth culture finally expressing the important message that debts must be paid. For too long we’ve allowed the culture to become infested by socialistic ideals. But as Ms Rihanna says, you need to ‘pay me what you owe me’ – and this is a message that the current leadership in Greece, for instance, would do well to heed. In order for rational, sustainable relations to exist between human individuals in a free market, it is absolutely necessary that the consequences of debt non-payment be as, uh, cutting as possible. You know, the last time I was in Athens I spoke with a very well-educated taxi driver, who told me that the only way his country could ever get itself out of its current situation is if they remove the ridiculous restrictions preventing student agitators from being hacked apart with axes. So it’s a very positive sign that this kind of sensible message is being broadcast to young consumers.

THE GHOST OF GEORGES RIBEMONT-DESSAIGNES: Art is a cold wound. We will consume you.

HELENA BIBBS: ok so, i agree with everything you said and whatever, but can we just talk about how great RhiRhi is in the face of aaaallllll those haters? just look at her, you’ve got Maxine Fulgerswitch in Good Crockery Magazine saying that her video was sexist pornography worse than slavery and she’s just like, bitch idgaf, cactus emoji, i’m out here jus’ doin’ me while you get like two likes on your insta pics of some totally basic doilies? and this is so important, if your feminism doesn’t include a true luxury bitch murder aesthetic then don’t nobody give no shits about your backwards-ass praxis. but that hair! such an inspiration, it’s like, yaaasssss, slay, slay queen, slay me, i want you to tie me to a chair and, heart emoji, take a knife and draw it across my throat so the blood comes pouring out all wave emoji over my shitty basic-ass frock from H&M. can you imagine if rihanna actually ended your worthless life? it’d be everything. i think i’m actually in love with her. omg we need to die together. i’m coming for you. i’m coming.

THE GHOST OF GEORGES RIBEMONT-DESSAIGNES: Suffering.

PANTOPHAGIA PULPH: So first up, I’m not here to educate a bunch of crybaby white het cis binary ablebodied men about Black women, and about how this is the only worthwhile artwork ever produced because it shows a Black woman killing white people. If you want to learn about this video, you need to pay me.

THE GHOST OF GEORGES RIBEMONT-DESSAIGNES: They did pay us.

PANTOPHAGIA PULPH: Nobody asked you to speak. How is this helping me? Stay dead.

PENCIL GLEASE: Before I start, if this is a start, if it is possible to ‘start’ under the condition of a discourse already dependent on the structural possibility of its having-been-started, I would like to say a few words on the enigmatic nature of this verb, ‘to start’. For how can I speak of a video, of something which ‘to start’ appears as pure blackness, pure void on the screen, unless I can start the video, set in motion the chain of inscriptions and reinscriptions on the graphical substrate of pure absence? As in Joyce, the church is founded immovably upon the void. Now, the word ‘start’, as we all know, derives from the German stürzen, to fall, to fling, but into what? Into precisely that absence. So to start to speak about ‘Bitch Better Have My Money’ means not to institute a relation on the level of tangibility, to find a reference to any determinate object, but the very opposite. Before I started, if I have indeed started, I had a metaphysical relation to the object, to that void of meaning into which I am about to leap, but in the condition of having-started-ness I find myself permeated by that object in my discourse’s necessary condition of permeability, a permeability that defies definition or direction, that obliterates itself and in which I am obliterated. To start something is to institute a primordial lack, which is why in all metaphysics the creation of the Universe is experienced as a hollowing-out of the spectral univocity of absolute uncreated Being. In this way the universal dialectic can only be read as a progressive dismantling of the ontic, as the slow degradation already present in this verb ‘to start’. As such, in its possibility of being started, this video embodies a truly transcendent revolutionary hope.

THE GHOST OF GEORGES RIBEMONT-DESSAIGNES: Suffering.

PENCIL GLEASE: Yes, precisely.

THE GHOST OF GEORGES RIBEMONT-DESSAIGNES: Any final comments?

PENCIL GLEASE: I think one thing that we can all agree on is that this video is extremely important to politics. We are all serious intellectuals, we enjoyed watching it, and things can only be good if they reinforce our categories. Certainly at this point we’ve exhausted anything that can meaningfully be said about this film.

ALAN GORKENBLUM: I can only echo the title of the song under discussion: It’s Good To Have My Money. Uh, smiley face emoji.

PANTOPHAGIA PULPH: Yeah. Give your money to women. Greece needs to give its money to Angela Merkel.

HELENA BIBBS: i dont fear death. ive seen the face of god

Please join us for our next roundtable discussion, in which we’ll be talking about snails.

Why you’re not leaving London

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

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

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

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

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

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

Notes from the demonstration

It’s strange, but the same people who insist that voting is a sham and won’t change anything are often the ones who also maintain that your radicalism is inauthentic unless you get out in the streets and exercise your right to protest. Usually I find all this boosterism to be faintly ridiculous: the right of governments to peacefully ignore street demonstrations is by now a cherished part of our liberal democracy, and the people who put so much stock in these charades betray the same naive faith in the essential goodness of the capitalist state as those who think that non-voters instantly waive their right to an opinion. But we live in exceptional times. When I saw Prime Minister David Cameron go on TV to announce his plans to divert the asteroid 4179 Toutatis onto a collision course with Earth that would almost certainly wipe out the entire human species, I felt that the time for inaction was over. Something had to be done. So I went down to Saturday’s mass #StopTheAsteroid demonstration in central London, hoping against hope that something, anything, might happen. Life itself was in the balance.

They say that for a few days before the collision, Cameron’s Comet will be visible in the daytime sky, a tiny, tumbling sparkle hovering over the Thames between Wapping and Rotherhithe. It’ll stay there, static, fixed to the rotation of the Earth, sweeping through the distant void in perfect time with our planet’s slow decaying churn, until suddenly that glimmer bursts bright to swallow us all. I tried to imagine that scene as I crossed the river. The day was muggy and overcast; arthritic ripples trailed over the water’s surface. I wondered if the asteroid would appear as a hazy dot of light through those suffocating clouds, the way the Sun does sometimes, or if our shitty weather would leave us blind until the very last moment. In my head, people brought out deck chairs, or held hands as they crowded together to watch. Of course, it won’t happen like that: the government’s confirmed that most of us won’t even get the day off work. When the impact comes I’ll probably be doing something stupid; spasmodically failing to recover dropped change from a sandwich-shop floor, or fumbling for a roll of toilet paper that isn’t there, or suddenly realising I’ve missed my stop on the train, something like that. It won’t matter, not really. (I know I’m supposed to say if the impact comes. The parliamentary opposition keep telling us they can fight this. I’m not so sure. There’s something very inevitable about an asteroid.)

I could hear the protest before I could see it. A low babble, rising to a chant as I approached the Bank of England: ‘Fuck off back! To the void! We don’t want your asteroid!’ I was slightly early, but there must have been tens of thousands of people already clustered in the intersection before the Bank of England, heaped like dead spiders between the solemn stones. Loud festival drumming blasted from one crevice in the tangle of alleys around us, whistles shrieked from another. A few slimy geezers in leather jackets were pushing their way through the crowd with their elbows, thrusting Trotskyite papers into the hands, prams, or orifices of anyone who wasn’t paying sufficient attention. All entrances to the Tube had been chained shut; one was being repurposed by a troupe of young people in combat trousers and luridly painted gas masks, who had clambered on top to stage a Carnival Against The Comet. I watched for a few minutes: the comet, represented by a big papier mâché sphere on a stick, was turned away from Earth by three women in clown costumes representing Peace, Positivity, and Popular Participation. Elsewhere, various blocs were hoisting their standards: I saw one from Lewisham Teachers Fighting The Asteroid, another from Queer And Questioning Teens Oppose The Tory Meteor, and even two iron-eyed old ladies hoisting a banner for the Committee to Abolish Outer Space, which I had thought was just a myth.

The biggest contingent, or at least to begin with, was the badgers. The government had announced shortly after being elected that it would be rolling out a badger cull across the country, supposedly to prevent the spread of bovine tuberculosis, and so several thousand of the creatures had come in to central London to join the march. A mercury stream of badgers rushed between our legs and made frenetic circles around the edge of the protest, a dizzying stream of black and white indignation. Whenever the badgers took a pause you could see, between bulging eyes and snuffling snouts, the slogans daubed in mud or marker pens on their coats. Some of the badgers had opted for general anti-asteroid sentiments, in what might have been an attempt to emphasise the continuity of struggles, but most of them had (reasonably enough) chosen to take the opportunity to ask that they not be trapped and shot to death. Let me be! one said. I’m TB free! Some marchers were unimpressed. ‘It’s just identity politics,’ I heard one young man sneer. His satchel was dotted with Che badges. ‘When the asteroid hits, the badgers are gonna get it as bad as the rest of us.’ (Meanwhile some small scuffles broke out as a few protesters accidentally trod on the surging carpet of badgers running beneath them, while some especially pushy humans found a badger sinking its incisors deep into their ankle until the bones snapped – although I heard later that all this was a factional dispute between the badger bloc and some dregs of the Socialist Workers Party.) But for the most part the big badger debate took a back seat – most of what I heard was a gleeful whispering about which left-wing celebrity had been spotted where: Owen Jones spotted showing his bum from the balcony, Michael Sheen handing out placards to new arrivals on Threadneedle Street, or Russell Brand doing some impromptu swing-dancing with a few activists from Cheerful And Attractive A-Level Students Don’t Like This Asteroid Very Much. Everyone wanted to take a selfie with someone famous. After all, it might be the last chance they’d ever get.

After much hooting and piping, this swarm of people uncoiled itself from around the Bank of England and set off towards Westminster. Off we drifted, down Fleet Street, where kale-eaters in Itsu and Chinese tourists in waterproof ponchos stared at us in uncomprehending bemusement, through the Strand, where I saw one shopper turn to another and say ‘disgusting, they should bring out the water cannons,’ past Trafalgar Square, where the audience at a fenced-in festival called West End LIVE were entirely undisturbed by our last-ditch effort to save humanity, down Whitehall, where cops had encased the Cenotaph in protective plywood to stop the glorious dead being defaced by the ungratefully alive. We chanted. ‘We hate Tories, yes we do, and we hate their comet too,’ or ‘Get your comet out my face, send it back to outer space,’ or ‘Tory cunts are full of shite, and so’s their fucking meteorite.’ A float rolled by, crammed with speakers leaking euphoric drum and bass anthems from five years ago, DJ Fresh’s Gold Dust and so on, while the people surrounding it dipped and bobbed with that close, nervous energy of white people confronted by music without drugs. We marched in threads and clumps. Passing a glimpse of the river I was suddenly struck by the sheer dense claustrophobic vastness of London, the way it bloats for seething termite-mound miles in all directions. There were millions of people out there, not paying attention, as if the world weren’t ending. Where was the BBC? I felt fury growing, the sweet sting of vomit at the back of my throat. Forget the cops, forget the Tories: these people were the real enemies. The standers-by, the flatulent cud-chewers, the open-mouthed morons. They should be coming out to join this very important march against the bad asteroid. We shouldn’t be letting them live peacefully: we should be breaking the plate glass, dragging them off their injection-moulded plastic chairs as the crumbs of soggy falafel still fall from the corners of their mouths, out into the streets, to face revolutionary justice. Instead we just trundled on, a leisurely daytime stroll that was no more significant for the fact that it was being undertaken by two hundred thousand people. Maybe, I thought, we get the meteor we deserve.

The fact is that a lot of people in Britain passively support the destruction of all life on the planet. It’s something the whole country can get behind: it shows that Britain isn’t a spent power, and plus there’s the fact that 4179 Toutatis is named after a god of the ancient Britons. The policy might be mad and stupid, but it seems prudent and sensible. The asteroid is headed for a close approach with Earth anyway, on a course set from the beginning of time; what difference does one rocket nudging it towards our planet make? It’s just doing what needs to be done. It won’t be pleasant, but it’ll solve the debt crisis. The asteroid is all that gives them hope. Meanwhile there are the others, people who make it their speciality under the capitalist division of labour to take part in protests. When the asteroid comes, thundering towards the surface of our world with the full force of cosmic inevitability, they’ll be there, shouting at the asteroid to fuck off, willing it to turn away with lobbed fireworks and slogans and screams. For them, too, the asteroid is the only meaningful thing left.

In Parliament Square there was a stage, and speeches. Caroline Lucas came out to remind everyone that seventy-five percent of the British people didn’t vote for this asteroid. Owen Jones came out to say that the Tories would probably blame the total human extinction caused by their asteroid on immigrants and welfare scroungers, and that this was unfair. Jeremy Corbyn came out to ask why the Conservatives didn’t just go and live on the asteroid if they thought it was such a good idea. Charlotte Church came out to implore everyone, black and white, straight and queer, welfare recipients and CEOs, to come together to let the government know that we oppose their asteroid. ‘If we work together, someone or other said, ‘if we have faith in ourselves and our communities, we can and we will stop this asteroid!’ The crowd roared. Further up Whitehall, a couple of Class War insurrectionists in black bandanas were blasting gabber through portable speakers and setting fire ‘to let’ signs in a big circle, putting the purifying flames to their property of property. The Palace of Westminster was within puking distance, and we were in the hundreds of thousands; I couldn’t understand why nobody was rushing the gates to actually overthrow the government. Even if they had cops with sniper rifles on the roofs, they couldn’t shoot all of us. What would it matter, if we only have twelve months until the asteroid wipes us out anyway? This could all end! It was as if we were all resigned to the inevitability of the impact. Like we didn’t really want to live. I watched Russell Brand stumble around the stage, his eyes popping queasily, his shirt hanging in expensive rags. ‘Eeeuuurbbuhuh,’ he said, his head lolling in circles. ‘It’s systemic, yeah, a systemic asteroid, it’s this proper gestalt entity that’s the totality of everything threatening people today,’ he shrilled, his fingers twitching like faulty machinery. ‘Nnnurghh,’ he continued. ‘It’s like, oooouuuueeergh.’ If we don’t want to live, can you really blame us?

It was the cops that worried me the most. They were nowhere to be seen. When cops baton-charge a protest march, when they kettle the stragglers, when they snatch people from the crowd and cram them into trucks, it’s not pleasant – but it shows a level of respect. When their riot helmets and visors turn them into glassy robots, blank creatures of the faceless State, it’s because they’re ashamed to show their faces. Far worse for them to lounge in twos and threes at the sidelines, trusting the organisers to lead a protest that’s peaceful and responsible and entirely within the law, knowing that the demonstrators don’t pose any threat to anything. Even when the speeches gave way first to earnest men strumming acoustic guitars and singing about how the people can push back any asteroid, and then to nothing, after the scheduled protest finished, the self-satisfied daytripping contingent started to dribble back home, and only the militant and the badgers remained, the cops did nothing. Instead the sky darkened, and it began to rain. Now I know why it’s so damp in this country; now I know why fascism is so entrenched in our daily life. A crowd that would have kicked back tear gas canisters and struck body armour with the sticks off placards melted to nothing in the summer rain. Raindrops are miniature cops; the water here is liquid police. And Britain is an island.

(The left put the first person in space. Once we had our own grand projects. Now all we can do is feebly oppose the asteroids of our enemies, mount a rearguard action in defence of a planet we don’t even like. I don’t know why I’m writing this down. The government’s just announced £1.3 billion of funding for the rocket that’ll divert the asteroid’s orbit; it’s not like there’ll be anyone to read this in twelve months’ time.)

Eventually, just before dusk, the sky opened out once more – and I thought I saw a cold light twinkle in the dimming to the east. I stood and stared in the middle of the pavement, while patrons in the noisy shisha bar beside me, underlit in purple and orange, puffing rolling blooms of apple-scented smoke, stared themselves at me. Horns honked, men spat, women screeched, and something like life continued the way it always does, all buzz, all turn, all busyness and worry, all gas bills, box sets, pension plans and nights out, schmoozing at mosque and crying at home – but there it was. Something at once very distant and very near, like a pinprick through the fabric of the firmament, torn to reveal a mote of blinding-white truth beyond. The singularity. Pure speed and pure intent, crystallised in a fixed and shining speck. It wasn’t the asteroid, of course. Just a passenger plane, in its lazy final swoop down towards Heathrow. I realised my mistake as soon as I turned away. But it won’t be long. It won’t be long at all.

Cheeky Nando’s, or, what went wrong?

Americans, apparently, don’t ‘get’ what a cheeky Nando’s is.

Of course, you know what a cheeky Nando’s is. It’s when you’re hanging round the centre of town with the lads, just doing the usual, great bants all round, but you get proper peckish and you say ‘lads fancy a Macca’s’ but then your mate Cresty who’s a top notch lad and always on form with the suggestions goes ‘nah lads, I got it, let’s get a cheeky Nando’s’ because he’s a ledge and you go and Snapchat your meal and it’s well banging. Top.

Except sometimes you start to forget things. You know you’re in the centre of town, but how did you get there? What town? You don’t remember waking up in the morning. Haven’t you always been here? It’s England; this could only be England. Soot-stained bricks chipped to bleeding red. Trees in wire mesh. Chewing-gum and plastic pigeonshit grit. Not a big town, nothing here is big enough to be in a big town. It isn’t anywhere. The roadsigns tell you nothing: this street is marked ‘This Street’, across the road ‘That Street’ plunges down to Costa Coffee and payday loan infinity. The centre of town might stretch out forever. You could pick a direction and start walking, up the road past the JD Sports, past the Co-op with its petrified pears gleaming against the window, past the multi-storey car park that bloats in the afternoon mist, keep walking for weeks and years without ever seeing green fields or even houses, until eventually you’d round the globe and arrive back here again, still on this damp Wednesday that never ends and never began. The sky is bright. You can’t find the sun.

Here, under the awning of a glassy shopping centre. The squad smoke cigarettes and talk and smooth back their hair. You know these people. These are your friends. Tim, who got a swastika tattooed on his earlobe because he’s a total ledge. Paste, who lost his leg to a shark attack because he’s a right geezer. Buzz, whose left eyeball dangles on its nerve from a festering socket. J.B., a flayed heap of rags and lacerations, tottering on legs stripped to bone, breathing in bubbly gulps, pig’s trotters stitched to his wrists, gold nails bristling from his frail, heaving, ragged carcass. ‘Oi oi,’ he says. ‘Bants o’clock.’ Finally Cresty, whole and immobile, staring at nothing in particular. Inside his chest the blackboard scrape of rusting machinery. Proper lad. You’re having fun.

But you’re so hungry. You know what to say, lads fancy a Macca’s, but the words won’t make their way past your lips. Just a gasping whine. ‘Please. I’m hungry. I’m so hungry.’ It’s not like any hunger you’ve ever known. Correction: it’s the only hunger you’ve ever known. Visions swirl of you bursting into the battery farm, tearing chickens from their cages and ripping through their necks, burying your face in all that purple screeching food. You’d pull the creature apart from its cloaca. Feel the metal tang of blood smeared from ear to ear. The hunger’s not an absence, it’s something you need to expel, a tight shining dead ball of weight in the pit of your body, a cluster bomb. Everything is so heavy; your limbs tremble, you can hardly move. You want to tear yourself out of your own skin, just burst right out, gleaming and skeletal. You want to fuck the Earth bloody. You need to eat.

‘I’m hungry. I’m so hungry.’ There are other things you should have noticed. Like the women: shouldn’t there be women, somewhere? You have a vague sense that this is why you’re here, because there might be women. Shouldn’t there be people? You’re in the centre of town, but the streets are empty, and silence roars eternal fury in your ears. Shouldn’t there be cars? Somewhere, somehow, everything has gone terribly wrong. Your friends are talking, muffled honks drowned out by the void; you don’t understand them. All you can see is the flesh stretching and rippling around their mouths, the moist meaty flick of tongue, the haze of saliva that hangs motionless in the air after it’s sprayed from between two teeth. These faces, the ones you’ve known for as long as you can remember, the ones you’re poured all your secrets lies and braggadocio into, breaking out into a fit of incalculable otherness. What are these creatures? Who sent them? What do they want?

It all falls out at once, ladsfancyaMacca’s. Cresty’s head swivels towards you. He opens his mouth. You’re in front of Nando’s. You were there all along. There are things you can remember. Cheeky Nando’s. Extra-hot peri-peri chicken breast on pita with chips and a Coke Zero. Off the wall. Nutter. Your parents dead in bin-bags. Yeah love I’ve been to Nando’s before. Soldiers sweeping down your street helicopters plunging in flames. No shame in lemon and herb mate nah but shall we get a highchair for you while we’re at it. The laughter of women as you crouch naked penis shrivelling knees tucked to chest like the terrified child you’ve always been inside but thought you’d grown hide to conceal. Cheeky Nando’s with the lads. The sky a swollen bleeding pantophagous cunt. Bit expensive but it’s a good laugh. The radiation containment zone now covers the entire mainland United Kingdom north of Wakefield and south of Inverness. The state of emergency is a temporary measure. Fun is mandatory until the crisis passes. And flailing for something to be, desperate to rearrange the rubble, you chose to hang round the centre of town with the lads, to watch the stunned chickens on the conveyor belt twist heavy heads with round staring psychotic eyes and look out on a world they had no hope of ever being able to understand, and you laughed because you were better than them. You built this place. Cheeky Nando’s.

Nando’s is painted black. The name red. The menu chatty. The door obsidian. No sign of life inside. No inside to begin with, just a haze of images rising faintly through the glass, pictures of plates crowned with food, pictures of young men crowded round plates crowned with food, pictures of greying bones and tattered flesh. You turn to Cresty. ‘Say it,’ you whisper. Cresty blinks. ‘Just say it. Just say nah lads let’s just get a cheeky Nando’s.’ Cresty seems to dither. ‘Cheeky Nando’s. Please. So this can be over.’ Cresty’s jaw clangs shut. Whatever the test is, you’ve failed. Your fists bang against the window of Nando’s, a flailing spasm, and the glass doesn’t give, as thick and as solid as rock. And in another world, under another sky, on an ocean that flings cold salt-spray through the heat, on currents that will carry it charging from a cloistered past to a brighter tomorrow, the Portuguese ship slicks up the coast. Sails surge, timbers creak. The ensign whips in the wind, the captain struts through the sunshine. And in the suffocating darkness under its boards, six hundred men and women in chains and terror, and twenty crates of peri-peri peppers. Top.

The grey scale

The architectonic structure of the Kantian system, like the gymnastic pyramids of Sade’s orgies and the schematised principles of the early bourgeois freemasonry, reveals an organisation of life as a whole which is deprived of any substantial goal.
Adorno and Horkheimer, Dialectic of Enlightenment

1. Fifty Shades of Grey is a 2014 direct-to-DVD dystopian action film directed by Curtis Lumpus with a screenplay by Jott Prittsteck. In this terrifying vision of the year 2146, the United States of America has collapsed, to be replaced by a totalitarian state called Canesco, one ruled over by the secretive tyrant Christian Grey. Canesco enjoys a high standard of living and is entirely free from crime; however, citizens are subjected to constant surveillance, and all colours are banned. Grey’s belief that the unknown Cataclysm that destroyed the old world was caused by the blasphemy of colour has led him to create a barren concrete wasteland, in which chemical defoliants are used to extinguish all chlorophyll-producing life, except the crops grown in vast underground gruel farms. Drones on round-the-clock cloud-seeding flights maintain a dense layer of cloud over the entire North American continent. Only Grey can now remember that the sky was once blue. Female citizens of Canesco are required to sign a personal contract with Grey on reaching puberty in which they promise to keep the existence of the colour red a secret, in a ceremony known as the Initiationing. However, one plucky young girl called Anastasia STE-313, who always felt that she was somehow different from the conformist society that surrounds her, refuses to sign. Soon she finds herself on the run from the brutal government agents in an epic flight across three identical warehouses and one nondescript desert. Her desperate fight to survive against all odds pits her against the powers of the Grey Castle, but, as a hunky resistance fighter in head-to-toe tie-dye teaches her, it’s also a fight for the future of humanity. In the dramatic final scene, Anastasia hijacks Christian Grey’s personal helicopter, binds and gags him, and blows it up in midair. The explosion opens up a rift in the layer of permanent cloud, and as strings swell the people of Canesco see the sky for the first time. The film received mixed to negative reviews from critics, with many criticising its drab visual style, derivative plot, and clunky CGI. The casting of teen icon and YouTube pencil vlogger Jophia Splutt as Anastasia STE-313 was met with mockery from partisans of high culture and officially denounced by the Central Committee of the Communist Party of China. Commentators have also noted that the regulation grey boiler suits worn by all citizens of Canesco are clearly several sizes too large for many of the actors, and that as a result everyone in the film appears to have a tiny head. In a 2015 interview, the director insisted that this was deliberate.

2. Fifty Shades of Grey is a 2012 British romantic comedy film set in a retirement community in the Cotswolds. It was directed by Tom Flan with a screenplay by Polandria and Chimera Hugankiss. Herb is a mild-mannered former accountant whose life has settled into a comforting routine: morning walks, crosswords, cups of tea, and a slow, resigned wait for it all to be finally over. But his life is turned upside down by the arrival of Dorothy, an outgoing and vivacious dame with an idiosyncratic haircut and one very saucy secret. As Dorothy tries to entice Herb out of his own head and into a pair of furry pink handcuffs, their romance grows from the pace of a zimmer-frame stroll into a full-blown bingo-hall Bacchanalia. But when his three large and prudish sons turn up on an unannounced visit to find Herb scrubbing his floor, wearing nothing but a pair of assless chaps, his old and new lives find themselves in a hilarious head-on collision. Can Herb’s weak heart cope with the demands of a late-blooming love? Can arthritic hands train themselves to perform Japanese rope bondage? One thing’s for certain: life at Bumpy Acres will never be the same.

3. Fifty Shades of Grey is an unfinished novel by D H Lawrence, intended as a further sequel to 1915’s The Rainbow. The story follows the lives of the Brangwen sisters after the end of Women in Love. Gudrun leaves Dresden for Paris and, unable to rid herself of the coldness that had come over her ever since being strangled half to death by Gerald, finds herself falling into an algedonic underworld of sadistic sexual violence. Her sister visits from England, husband in tow, but Ursula is appalled to discover that Birkin sees an aesthetic authenticity in Gudrun’s new lifestyle. After watching a performance in a secret theatre in which Gudrun, dressed as a voodoo witch, simultaneously anally penetrates three nervous, hogtied young poets with a trident-shaped strap-on, Birkin declares his passion for her. As they make love he tightens a collar firm around her neck, and she feels the kindling of a fire in her breast long thought extinguished. The two declare themselves to be the Dictator and Dictatrix of Earth, and lead a violent mob to the Palais de l’Élysée, promising them the domination and servitude that the lower orders secretly crave.

4. Fifty Shades of Grey is a patented proprietary colour matching system devised by Pantone. Launched in 2004, it has been one of the company’s most successful products, used to design magazines and decorate apartments for boring people the world over.

5. Fifty Shades of Grey is a handbook distributed to medical workers from 1978 to be used in the event of a nuclear war with the Soviet Union. It identifies the causes, symptoms, and treatments for radiation poisoning, and included the notorious ‘grey-scale test’, in which it was asserted that patients whose skin had become discoloured beyond a certain shade of grey were beyond saving and should be left to die.

6. I saw Fifty Shades of Grey on Valentine’s Day in rural Somerset. It was disappointing. The cinema – if it could be called a cinema – was a rickety lean-to crumbling against the side of an ancient and pungent ciderworks. In this dense, hot room, sharp with the aphrodisiac tang of rotting apples, surrounded by the cacklings and fumblings of drunken locals, I felt almost immediately disoriented. At first I thought the cidery fog had Vaselined my vision: the screen wasn’t the prim white square I was used to but an indistinct shape, rippling and whorling, almost organic, almost alive. It took a while before I fully realised what I was seeing. Behind me, above the entrance of the shack, the projector was flickering, and the film was being projected onto a cow. Huge, almost entirely white, and clearly in pain. The poor beast had been chained up by its front and hind legs; a leather strap connected its nose-ring to the far wall, and a farmer in a Venetian mask and three-piece suit was flogging the creature with a riding crop whenever its laboured breathing or feeble attempts to escape interfered with the performance. Following the plot was hampered by the cow’s plaintive mooing and shifting, but from what I could make out it was about a woman who I assumed to be the tambourine player in an indie-folk band, who falls in love with an extremely powerful twelve-year-old boy. Sadly I didn’t get much further than that. As the first sex scene began, the imprisoned cow gave an almighty grunt and began to thrash around wildly, kicking up angry sprays of hay and manure. The timber of the shack, already weakened by several centuries of super-strength fumes, gave way. The cow was free. As I watched in mute horror, Christian Grey’s tight-lipped mid-coital face seemed to bulge and stretch, as if he were about to pop; I wondered would kind of fluid would seep out. Just before the beast burst through the image, I was dragged away by my viewing companion. We fled across sodden fields as the local folk took their revenge on the creature, but before we reached the safety of a nearby pub I could hear the cow’s desperate lowing and the sadistic yelps of its torturers turn into something else, a cold, seething reptile hiss that I thought had not been heard on this planet for sixty-five million years.

7. I saw Fifty Shades of Grey as part of a programme organised by the London Institute for Studies in Psychoanalysis, a subversive radical organisation I had been ordered to infiltrate. I didn’t understand much of it – all this stylised, highly sexed foreign cinema is frankly beyond me – but for the sake of appearances I jotted down a few observations. Typical Left propaganda: an industrialist billionaire and handcuff-happy sexual sadist seduces a young woman; what he doesn’t know is that she’s part of a revolutionary cell trying to take him down. For the most part, though, the film seems to be about contract law. The plutocrat tries to force his prey to sign a legal document waiving all her human rights protections, including the right to life; in this he’s thwarted by a series of increasingly abstract legal manoeuvres – by the end she’s stalling for time by demanding the contract include definitions for perfectly ordinary terms such as ‘and’, ‘but’, and ‘buttplug’. Procrastination seems to be her favourite tactic. At another point the capitalist, on discovering that she’s a student of English literature, asks if it was Charlotte Brontë, Jane Austen, or Thomas Hardy that made her fall in love with the written word. None of them, she says, before launching into a lengthy exegesis on contemporary literary theory before a man at first visibly aroused but who rapidly goes limp once it becomes apparent that poststructuralism isn’t just the text meaning whatever you want it to mean. So much for the film. Making idle small talk at the post-screening drinks reception (or about as small as talk can be among these self-important charlatans), I learned that for the LISP screening all the actual pornographic scenes had been cut from the film – this because of some Freudian dictum about sex never just being about sex, apparently. It was a shame, but it was also all I needed. Tampering with the film violated the terms of its rental from the distributors: finally, I had them on tape admitting to criminal activity. As soon as I could I pushed the button on my secret radio receiver. Most of the Institute were arrested alive; a few hid out in the building’s toilets and, regrettably, had to be shot by police snipers.

8. I saw Fifty Shades of Grey with my parents.

9. You ever feel like you’re living on the point of a knife? I really did want to write a review of Fifty Shades of Grey. But there’s that feeling of a knife at your stomach, just pricking the surface of your skin, so you know that if you take just one step forward your guts will pour out like slimy confetti. When people talk about their plans for the future, careers, families, don’t you want to stare at them with crazy eyes, ranting, breathing in manic gasps, and hiss: but it won’t happen! Don’t you understand? We’ll all be dead by then! Melting ice caps! Russian bombers off the coast of Cornwall! Everything’s fucked! Life in the crumbling, developed West isn’t great (people are starving to death, even here), but it still has the sense of an incredible precariousness, a bubble waiting to be popped. Fifty Shades of Grey is not a good film. But will sneering at that fact make it better? Will it save us from the coming bombs? Without God or communism we’ve been told that the point of life is to collect meaningful experiences, happy memories, and interesting opinions; to be entertained; to carve out some kind of expression of individuality that will, in its uniqueness and initerability, last forever. History suggests something different. Mostly people are destroyed, in their thousands, for no good reason. Why wouldn’t it happen to us? How many shiningly unique individuals were burned up in Dresden? When the Mongols came to Baghdad – a big urban cosmopolis, full of self-regarding educated types who, in the end, probably didn’t live too differently from you – they killed everyone. Like a nuclear bomb in slow motion. Scholars who’d spent most of their lives airily abstracting about the finer points of poetic technique and the exact arrangement of the heavenly spheres ended up with their heads suddenly piled up in a sloppy pyramid outside the city walls. (The scholars are remembered; more than, say, the women. Massacres of the educated are an affront to humanity, while men killing women is business as usual.) And why? The Mongol warlord Hulagu attacked the Abbasid caliphate on the advice of the usual gang of viziers and astrologists, but the loudest voice for war came from Nasir al-Din Tusi – a scholar and poet who’d become enraged after the Caliph, apparently disdaining its metrical and lexical subtleties, had lazily tossed one of his poems into the Tigris. One million people died, arrow-shafts through their bodies, knives through their necks, coughing up blood. Cultural critics beware.

10. I loved the book of Fifty Shades of Grey; I really loved it, with that total and unquestioning love you can only have for the utterly deformed. I loved its alternate psychoanalytic triad of the Subconscious, the Psyche and the Inner Goddess. I loved the catastrophically unsexy cor-blimey interior monologue. I loved the relentless commodity porn. It’s a universal story, an utterly bleak one: the story of power and its essential idiocy, and the tendency to read it as a wide-eyed paean to the titular pervert only demonstrates a critical failure of imagination. Yes, it started as fanfiction, but then so did the Aeneid. Yes, the relationship it depicts is fundamentally abusive, but safety, sanity and consent weren’t a major concern for de Sade, Bataille, Réage, or any of the other icons of literary sadomasochism either. With all its obtrusively terrible language it’s a book that constantly calls attention to its own writerly, textual quality, that’s constantly returning to its own meta- and inter-textual fabric. Fifty Shades had an overwhelming, effortless literariness, in a way that far outstripped the squalid grunting efforts of this century’s self-appointed guardians of high prose. Karl Ove Knausgård, Haruki Murakami, God help us, Jonathan fucking Franzen. They’re all squalid hacks, sad clowns, overinflated, overserious; it’s hard to imagine them keeping a straight face as they make their vague bromidic pronouncements on the Human Condition, shitting out watery insights as if anyone actually asked them, but somehow they do, and the same reading public that dismisses Fifty Shades as mere pornography nod wisely as they lap happily from the putrid trough. I’ll take bondage over coprophagy. Reviews of the Fifty Shades film have grudgingly commended it for turning a terrible book into something vaguely tolerable, competently produced if not exactly groundbreaking. As if descending from the mad and terrible stratospheres into Franzen-lite mediocrity is somehow an achievement. In fact, the film’s made a category error. A proper film adaptation should be pornography: ill-fitting suits, wobbly handheld cameras, and queasy lighting that makes the rippling flesh look like so much offcut meat, bright pink, churning out of an industrial mincer. Or it should resurrect not just the Inner Goddess and the Psyche but all the screaming others that crowd the mind of the modern schizophrenic; have the superego as a pale disappointed father, the id as a ravenous twelve-headed beast, doubt as a constant looming shroud, all watching every vaguely kinky sex session with drawn, horrified faces. Or it should delve deeper into the discourse of force and power and punishment, really take these concepts seriously. Every shot and every line of dialogue could remain exactly the same; it could be fixed in post-production. Black-clad jihadis parade hostages past the window of Ana’s hardware store. Christian’s helicopter is buzzed by Syrian MiG-23s, and as he flies over the city we see a dazzling constellation of explosions flashing in the streets below. Sniper rounds ping off the windscreen as the new Audi blithely swooshes past a rebel checkpoint. And as the couple stand naked before the floor-to-ceiling windows, the city beyond rises up to meet them: Aleppo, the final truth of our era, a thicket of gaunt ruins, concrete crags as lifeless and inhuman as a stranger’s face, drenched in the dust billowing from mortar strikes, coating the world in fifty thousand shades of grey.

A visit to the cereal café

There are three things glaringly wrong with the Cereal Killer Café on Brick Lane in East London. Firstly, the menu consistently renders the word ‘raisins’ as ‘raisans’, which is incorrect. Secondly, it’s owned and managed by Gary and Alan Keery, a uniquely ghastly pair of identical twins. These two ghouls sport identical location-standard bushy beards, identical obnoxious slicked-back haircuts, identical smarmy expressions. Twins who do this kind of thing into adulthood are always hiding something hideous and perverse: when faced with such uncanny mirror-perfect duplication I can’t help but posit the necessary existence of a grotesque, hidden, third brother. Something scrabbling in the cellars, a cringing Smerdyakov figure onto whose memory all the suppressed differences between the superterranean Keerys has been displaced. A mad and vicious creature, whose pathological love for breakfast cereal turned him into something more beast than boy. His musty dungeon full of pencil-toppers and Rubik’s cubes, bobblehead dolls from the bottom of promotional packs, all nodding in unison with serene smiling faces as the idiot rubs cornflake dust into the stinking pits of his body. He slurps milk between sugar-stained pegs, he howls the advertising slogans between mouthfuls. His laugh rises from a constricted phlegmy giggle to the full manic convulsions of someone who sees the death of all reason perfectly reflected in the scrying-stone that is his morning bowl of Frosties. They had to kill him, of course, the twins, and they buried his heavy bones – glossy as enamel from all the fortifying calcium in his diet – below the foundations of what would become the UK’s first speciality breakfast cereal café. To seal the pact, they vowed to take on the same form, to be more than brothers, to be the same person, knowing what happened to the third twin, knowing that they might not be strong enough to face the darkness alone, that cruel gibbering malignancy always lurking beneath their quirky love for breakfast cereal. And so the madness of the murdered brother leeched into every brick of the place, until it became his empire.

The third thing wrong with the Cereal Killer Café is the décor. In keeping with the name there are, along with the expected 80s and 90s memorabilia, several portraits of famous murderers, rendered in cereal on canvas. Hannibal Lecter stares out from a mask of Cheerios and Coco Pops. Next to him, a Cookie Crisp Myra Hindley, cold eyes expertly rendered in fragments of the limited-edition white chocolate chip version that was briefly sold in early 2009. H H Holmes, looking puffy and garish in a pointillist mélange of Lucky Charms and Froot Loops. Finally, the man himself, a tiny icon tucked away behind the bar, floating above the stacked boxes of cereals from around the world like the figure of God in a medieval panel. Hunched, sagging, shambling; a ruined city sketched out behind him in crumbs of muesli: pecans and brazil nuts for the larger chunks of broken concrete, fragments of sunflower seed for the dunes of rubble, freeze-dried strawberry for the red splats where looters were shot. Adolf Hitler is turning his face to you, the face of industrial human slaughter described in sweetened corn and oat shapes with all the complex carbohydrates you need to start your day feeling great.

I went to the cereal café on a chilly and brittle December afternoon. The place has drawn some criticism for selling a bowl of cereal for £3.50 despite being situated in Tower Hamlets, the most deprived borough in London, a place where most people have been reduced to eating their own flaking skin – but of course it isn’t really in Tower Hamlets. It’s in Shoreditch, and Shoreditch isn’t even part of London, being instead a sovereign joint extraterritoriality of EuroDisneyland and the third circle of Hell. I walked up from Liverpool Street, where the low winter sun and the hrímþursar-skyscrapers conspire to carve long deep shadows over the lower foothills of finance, my shoulders drawn up against the cold. As I trekked north along Bishopsgate strange things started to manifest themselves. Hashtags appeared over shopfronts, as if to signal that by pressing my face against the sign for #GAP I would achieve a sudden transcendental vision of the entrance to every Gap store on the planet. The pigeons had a paranoid glint in their eyes, and when they opened their mouths they never cooed but shrieked. Meanwhile the graffiti grew ever more incoherent and malicious. First, on Great Eastern Street, the dark, formless command, Let’s Adore And Endure Each Other. Then, as I turned onto Bethnal Green Road, a mural of a hedgehog, dancing on two feet with rows of taut glistening human breasts, along with the slogan Ulster Volunteer Force Red Hand Commando – All Hipsters Must Be Accompanied By A Responsible Adult. Over an entire two-storey wall at the corner of Brick Lane someone had spraypainted, in an elegant, aristocratic hand, a long diatribe against a specific person that I realised with a heart-quickening shock could only be me, including a punchy and viscerally erudite rubbishing of my self-involved writing style and an itemised list of my various sexual dysfunctions. I had enemies in this place. All I wanted was to get my cereal and get out.

It soon became clear that this would not be possible. The queue for the Cereal Killer Café stretched all the way down Brick Lane to the underpass by Grimsby Street, where it crossed the road and continued up the other side. I joined the end, stamped my feet, lit a cigarette, tried to look inconspicuous. At the point where the line was blocking off the street, a taxi driver had given up honking his horn and was now reduced to openly weeping out the window. Occasionally people passing by would ask someone what was going on. Sometimes they even asked me – perhaps because, despite looking like a normal person who’s been stretched on a medieval torture implement, or the result of a disastrous attempt to crossbreed a human with a beansprout, I was still the most conventional-looking individual out of a group of grown men and women willing to wait for hours in the cold to eat breakfast cereal. “It just opened,” I explained. “It’s a cereal café.” Cereal café?  “Yes. They serve one hundred and twenty different types of breakfast cereal from around the world, with twenty toppings, and twelve milks, and I’m here because I want to write about it.” At this my questioner would nod their head, as if to say well, that makes perfect sense, and carry on. And it did make sense, more sense than anyone would have liked to admit. There were still a few curry houses open on Brick Lane, the street signs were still in English and Bengali, there were still the two beigel bakeries, relics of a time when this had been the Jewish East End, when my own grandfather had grown up sharing a single room in Shoreditch with a dozen or so siblings – but now we were at the end of history, and all that was dead. A few doors down from the cereal café stood a boutique unicycle store, in which various arbortectural techniques were used to force saplings to grow into living, functioning one-wheeled contraptions. Across the road, not far from where I stood, a pop-up restaurant offered gourmet masonry from four continents, mud-bricks from Morocco, Yorkshire dry stone, chunks from demolished Chinese temples, along with various delicate files for turning these slabs into a broadly ingestible powder. And on my way to this endless line, I had passed a man lovingly, tenderly fucking his iPad in its headphone jack. An establishment selling only breakfast cereal? Why not? We’re free now. We eat pine cones. Nothing matters.

People entered the Cereal Killer Café, but I never saw anyone leaving – but after the first hour or so of slow shuffling towards its doors I cared more about just making it inside than the question of whether or not I would be killed. As I waited I had a chance to see some of daily life in the post-gentrification ruins of East London. I watched a gang of bailiffs dragging the owner of a newsagent out by his hair, before a crane swooped silently overhead and, with a shattering bang, precision-dropped a shipping container onto the building, splintering it into fragments of brickwork. The iron doors swung open; a functioning terrarium outlet was already inside; six were trampled to death in the rush. I saw a street gang shake down a couple of cops for the proceeds from their racketeering business. By the time whatever sunlight there had been was fading and the sickly yellow glow of streetlamps glooped over the tarmac, the militiamen of the Islamic State of Rochdale And East London were making their shari’a enforcement patrols. They all seemed frail and nervous, hoisting their rocket launchers backwards over their shoulders and looking as if they might collapse under the weight of so much gleaming metal. Their leader, a slight, studious man, unarmed, wearing pince-nez and an absurd puffer jacket over his shalwar kameez, was the first to jump out his convoy of pick-up trucks, while the machine-gunners in the flatbeds all pointed their muzzles at the viscous purple sky for American helicopters. First he accosted a group of drunk girls bounding arm-in-arm down the street in tiny dresses and long tan coats. He pointed out various edifying passages from his pocket Qur’an, and explained that they should behave with decency in a Muslim area. They told him to naff off and get a life. The gunmen were furious, and wanted to shoot the girls there and then, but the imam waved them on. Tiny sad tears were welling in his eyes, tears of holy frustration, as he moved on to educate a musclebound haircut in a deep v-neck tactically chundering behind some bins. I wondered why he persisted in doing this to himself. Clearly it wasn’t making him happy.

Before long the Islamic State were joined by a mob from Crusaders United to Neutralise Terrorist Scum, sixty or so hulking thugs. Their chants mostly sounded like indecipherable simian hooting, but this might have had something to do with the complex motet system they employed. The line of skinheads at the front would chuck beer bottles, pipe bombs, and chunks of bacon at the Islamic State convoy, then retreat backwards and sing one verse while the new frontline continued its assault, and the line behind sang an imitative counterpoint. As a result most of the actual words were lost in the swirling, delicate polyphony (not to mention the explosions and percussive spasms of retaliatory gunfire). Even so, I could pick out a few phrases from the cantus firmus. We’re not racists, they sang, it’s just common sense. Then, as the tenors took up a new theme, This violence is a sad product of the Labour party’s abandonment of white working-class voters. The bloodshed only really began once the Crusaders United wheeled out a harpsichord to perform an accompaniment. The mujahideen, shrieking that musical instruments were haraam, drew back behind their vehicles, and the mounted AA-gunners decimated the choir with a few shuddering bursts. I didn’t worry about catching a stray bullet. I knew my enemies here had more subtle means; a stilletto in the dark, not the blinding light of gunfire. It was sad, really: both sides were fighting a losing battle. Most of the evening revellers paid little attention to the slaughter, or, assuming it was all some kind of seasonal theatre piece, chucked a few pennies in their direction. Hard to not feel sorry for CUNTS and ISRAEL, especially the latter – they, at least, were trying to build a new and better society, even though all that was impossible now. In any case, by the time the skinheads had kicked away the still-twanging fragments of harpsichord and replaced it with a L118 field howitzer, I was finally at the front of the queue and ready to enter the Cereal Killer Café.

It was a café selling breakfast cereal. I briefly toyed with the idea that the most aesthetically and ideologically correct choice after waiting for several hours would be to order a bowl of plain cornflakes with semi-skimmed milk, but ended up going for a ‘cereal cocktail’, something with a stupid name that ended up coming in at just under £4. My order was taken by a girl with an iPad hovering over the line as it snaked up to the front: I gave her my money, and she then repeated what I’d told her to the cereal mixologists over the counter. They didn’t even pour the milk for me. With so many waiting customers in the ground floor, all the actual eating took place in the windowless basement, a strangely drab and dismal room, all exposed brick and flickering TVs showing silent clips from Hey Arnold! and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. I ate my cereal. It wasn’t great, but it wasn’t awful either. It was breakfast cereal. Food for children, vaguely miserable, invented in 1894 by a man who thought bland and boring food would prevent people from masturbating. Everyone knows that a real breakfast consists of sausages, bacon, black pudding, eggs, fried tomato and mushrooms, hash browns, tea, and toast (or string hoppers, coconut sambal and kiri hodi, or croissants and cigarettes, or huevos rancheros, or whatever). Breakfast cereal is toasted, granulated defeat, sprinkled with sugar, riboflavin, and iron filings. It’s all already there for you, and you just pour milk on top. Breakfast cereal is enjoyed by children because children are too passive and stupid to make a real breakfast for themselves.

I sat in a gloomy basement and ate a bowl of breakfast cereal, and wondered if it had really come to this, if we’d dropped the A-bomb for this. All around me grown adults were eating their cereal in a state of stunned silence. In fact this room, with its chipped brickwork, its flaking plaster, its once-beloved toys, its fusebox with visible looping wires, its low lighting and its silent screens, didn’t look too different from a nuclear shelter. I had a sudden sense that when (or if) I emerged, I’d find that what remains of the world had ended. The cereal café would be the only thing to survive our civilisation, in the same way that the Catholic Church had survived the Roman Empire. The cereal café would be there to instruct the bubo-ridden survivors in the ways of the world that had existed before. At prayers they would chant the names of all 151 original Pokémon, Mew and Mewtwo mouthed silently, with eyes clenched shut in fervour. Out of the rubble they would build a vast statue of Dora the Explorer to be their god. Five thousand years of history would only be remembered for the fact that once, it had given us breakfast cereal.

In the end I did make it out alive, and the world had not ended. On the street, the warring armies were retreating. An old man stood by the door, a tray around his neck, selling glow sticks and overpriced cigarettes. But on the way out I saw something, and now I know that it is Satan, and not God, who has power over this world. By the door of the Cereal Killer Café there’s a display of novelty and promotional cereal boxes, tie-ins with films and TV shows, sporting brands, and so on. And there, between the C-3PO’s and the Pac-Man Puffs, plonked in front of a bowl of cereal, spoon to its wide grinning mouth, trapped forever in a prison of shiny cardboard, was my own face. I won’t go back to the cereal café. But maybe all this is a lie. Maybe I’m still there, trapped in that image; maybe I never truly left.

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