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Tag: sex

The Englishman and the Octopus

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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.

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.

Elliot Rodger among the ruins

It’s a cold, blustery day near Tintern Abbey. The wind, pouring over the wooded hills that surround this pile, washes the sharp stink of diesel exhaust against its tired stones. Vans chug along the A466, forming a slow but constant loop between Hereford and Newport. The abbey stands alone in its square of dead grass under a dead sky, hemmed in by a shabby stone wall. There’s a bus stop, and few B&Bs cluster nearby for those honeymooners whose imaginations can’t stretch further than south Wales. Aside from the speeding cars and the trembling of trees, battered into submission by modernity, there’s no sign of life. Any wreath of smoke sent up in silence from among the trees would be ripped to wisps in the wind. Nonetheless, he’s there, up in the houseless woods, in some Hermit’s cave, where by his fire the Hermit sits alone, scribbling line after line of self-aggrandising idiocy.

Before carrying out his killing spree in Santa Barbara, Elliot Rodger posted a 141-page autobiographical manifesto called My Twisted World on the internet. Most of the recent controversy around the aetiology of the murders has ended up drawing on this text. Can the killings be reduced to some nebulous concept of mental illness and anomie, or are they the product of general societal misogyny and male entitlement? Either way, the answer’s inside, if you look at the text closely enough. All this only plays into the killer’s hands: he wanted his words to be studied and pondered and argued over. No text is ever complete, closed, and hermetic; the function of an autobiography isn’t to give clear answers but to keep people asking questions, to prop up the heroic mystique of its author. The only way to avoid falling into Rodger’s trap is to refuse to start by analysing his account of events. To understand the tragedy in Santa Barbara, you have to begin with Wordsworth’s Lines Written a Few Miles Above Tintern Abbey.

Wordsworth was the quintessential English poet. He wrote with a deep childlike love of this country, its landscapes, and its soothing and gentle sights. His compositions move with a rolling fluidity from limpidly gorgeous descriptions of nature to profound reflections on universal themes. Every brick in every lowly peasant hut is imbued with a sense of calm significance. Wordsworth’s poetry has a slow deliberate style, one without any of the tubthumping demagoguery of Shelley or the overblown mythopoeia of Blake. He was, in other words, utterly shit. All the great Romantics knew this. Byron had his number: in his dedication to Don Juan he has great fun tripping up the pompous old lake poets as they tramp off on their lonely excursions in the dull old English countryside. There is narrowness in such a notion/ Which makes me wish you’d change your lakes for ocean. Even Keats, the sad sensitive soul of the Romantic movement, could reserve some viciousness for Wordsworth’s grand mediocrity: All of these are vile, but viler Wordsworth’s sonnet/ On Dover. Dover! – who could write upon it? For Keats even the grander moments in Wordsworth’s poetry constitute an egotistical sublime – whatever bucolic landscape the poet plonks himself in front of, his reflections always end up falling back on himself. Just as well, then, that Wordsworth kept to Dover and the Lake District. Imagine the damage he’d do if his withered imagination were let loose in a genuinely spectacular landscape – somewhere like Byron’s Italy, or southern California.

Tintern Abbey reached its present state of picturesque ruin after the dissolution of the monasteries of the 1530s, in which the assets of various ecclesiastical bodies were seized by the English crown, with the profits furthering imperial adventures abroad – but it’s not as if any of this historical fabric makes its way into Wordsworth’s poem. The abbey itself is never mentioned, appearing only as a trace, the conspicuous absence of a being-there under erasure. The abbey inspires Wordsworth’s reflections, but mentioning it can only destabilise the central opposition between the signifiers Nature and Man: the entire poem is an attempt to blot out the looming presence of the ruin and the historicity it represents. The landscape around Wordsworth is a wild secluded scene, a point of lasting communion with Nature: These beauteous forms/Through a long absence, have not been to me/As is a landscape to a blind man’s eye:/But oft, in lonely rooms, and ‘mid the din/Of towns and cities, I have owed to them/In hours of weariness, sensations sweet. Of course, the countryside around Tintern is no less artificial than the cities Wordsworth and Coleridge were so fond of despising; the pastoral farms/ Green to the very door are the result of centuries of enclosure and class struggle. For Wordsworth rural life is not merely idiocy, as in Marx’s formulation: it is fully non-human, appearing as part of a static Nature. Only the abbey, in its state of ruin or difference to itself, testifies to the internal heterogeneity of things; for that reason it must be erased.

True to form, the scene on the banks of the Wye soon gives way to an extended bout of poetic onanism, with Wordsworth recalling a previous visit to the same spot. Five years beforehand, he bounded o’er the mountains, by the sides/Of the deep rivers, and the lonely streams/Wherever nature led; now he’s more inclined towards a subdued, solitary contemplation, and both desires are enthusiastically met by a promiscuous and polymorphously perverse Nature, one that never did betray/The heart that loved her. These modes of engagement are like the attributes of Spinoza’s divine Substance; Nature is a univocity of Being, a motion and a spirit, that impels/All thinking things, all objects of all thought,/And rolls through all things – but at the same time it is directly opposed to the artificiality of the world, the heavy and weary weight/ Of all this unintelligible world. Nature is meaning, eternity, and infinity. It’s a state of grace, a gift, but like all gifts its giving institutes a primordial lack. As such it can only be accessed by disavowing the impermanence of the world – in other words, by erasing the hulk of Tintern Abbey. But this is always an impossibility; the trace of the abbey plagues the poem like a rotten tooth.

William Wordsworth and Elliot Rodger are describing the same phenomenon. Rodger’s screed is full of resentment against those living a better life. The bliss seen by Wordsworth in the impossible univocity of Nature is seen by Rodger in the impossible univocity of sex. However, Rodger was a virgin: he didn’t understand that the gift is impossible, and while Wordsworth tries to erase its non-existence, Rodger demands to receive it. He imagines that for those who can access sexual experiences, life must be a Paradise – when, of course, life is mostly vaguely shit for everyone, sex or no sex (and, as Adorno points out, happiness is always something you remember, not something you experience). There’s a lot that’s frightening in My Twisted World – the narcissism, the accounts of brutally failed attempts at socialisation, the fantasy of mass industrial femicide – but among its most disturbing aspects is the author’s complete lack of any of the fetishes or perversions that make actually existing sexuality sustainable. For Rodger sex is always homogeneous to itself. He doesn’t experience proximal sexual desire so much as a desire for sex, uninflected and generic. It’s only through this impossible unity that he can achieve happiness. Had he ever lost his virginity, his reaction could only have been one of enraged disappointment. Like Wordsworth, he can’t tolerate the internal difference of things – hence the continual egotistical return to the illusory unity of the self. (It’s no coincidence that Rodger subscribed to our era’s iteration of the mawkishly monist metaphysics of Wordsworth and Coleridge, in the form of The Secret, a book that proclaims that the Universe exists to facilitate our desires, and that wishing for anything hard enough will make it come true.)

In the end, it comes back to Tintern Abbey and the dissolution of the monasteries. Elliot Rodger was propelled by a murderous culture of male entitlement, one in which women aren’t in any sense human beings but mere walking dispensers of sexual gratification. It’s an institutionalised system of domination that we’re all to some degree responsible for, a fact only confirmed by the inevitable self-centred attempts to wriggle out of this responsibility: but not all men! At the same time, it’s not just male entitlement that’s responsible. In My Twisted World Rodger describes himself as a perfect gentleman, someone hailing from the prestigious Rodger family; a family that was once part of the wealthy upper classes. Elsewhere he writes: How could an inferior, ugly black boy be able to get a white girl and not me? I am descended from British aristocracy. He is descended from slaves. I deserve it more. Rodger’s entitlement is a feudal entitlement. Contemporary patriarchy tends to operate through the commmodification of female bodies; for Rodger such commodity-relations are inscrutable. He has an aristocratic horror of truck and barter, the processes of negotiation through which most people navigate the libidinal economy. When he decides that his only salvation lies in becoming a multi-millionaire, he decides to achieve this by winning the lottery, appealing to divine Providence instead of lowering himself to tradesmanship. His relations with women follow a similar pattern. He recounts the days leading up to his twentieth birthday: I made a bid to do everything I could to lose my virginity in those few remaining days I had […] I walked over to the centre of Isla Vista every day and sat at one of the tables outside Domino’s Pizza, hoping against hope that a girl would come up and talk to me. Why wouldn’t they? Women are subjects, not in the ontological but the sociological sense: peons expected to obey his desires without them ever being articulated, let alone acted upon. Nobody ever rejected Elliot Rodger; he never entered into any relation where acceptance or rejection was possible. What the women of Santa Barbara rejected was the social code of the fourteenth century – and for that, he decided that they had to die.

Across Europe, Protestant countries experienced some kind of a dissolution of the monasteries, but the experience of England is unique. On the Continent, the loss of monastic land was prompted by waves of popular anti-clericism; in England it was in intervention by the ruling class, widely opposed by the people. The dissolution of the monasteries marked the end of the static world of the medieval period and the ties of social obligation and feudal duty that had once characterised everyday life. As part of the process of primitive accumulation, it was the beginning of the world of property-relations that succeeded it. But these transitions are never so total as they might seem: as Marx writes, the tradition of all dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the brains of the living. The sense of noble privilege that fuelled the Santa Barbara killings is not, in the end, entirely heterogeneous to contemporary capitalist society: it’s present wherever human beings are instrumentalised. Tintern Abbey is in ruins, but its ghosts remain, haunting William Wordsworth and Elliot Rodger and the families of his victims. Throughout the centuries, their grim whisper is the same: the world is singular and homogeneous, and you deserve the impossible gift.

The passion according to Luke

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

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

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

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

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

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

In defence of Fred Phelps

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Why I want to fuck Boris Johnson

Apologies to J.G. Ballard. No, really. I’m so sorry.

THE ZIPLINE INCIDENT: MYTHOPOEIA OF THE LEGENDARY

Focus group surveys aimed to reproduce a representative sample of the British population at large for market research. Subjects surveyed included a recent university graduate wondering how long he has until it’s no longer acceptable to listen to house music, a semi-popular circuit comedian gradually metamorphosing into his own character, a harried single mother who’s been tramping up and down a single supermarket aisle for fourteen consecutive hours, everyone inside a Blackpool bingo hall at 7 pm last Friday, a Welshman, an ethnic, and a football with a smiley face drawn on in felt-tip pen. Most subjects were recruited for consumer surveys through pop-up adverts on the lactation fetish pages of several popular pornographic websites; others were kidnapped on the street; some were grown in vitro and have lived here their entire lives, consuming nothing but weak tea and re-runs of BBC panel shows.

Subjects were asked to evaluate Boris Johnson’s performance in a number of Mayoral duties: leading an army of warriors against the goblin menace, pushing back the tide as it creeps up the Thames in his quest for a new airport, initiating a nuclear attack on Argentina, nursing a newborn fawn at his lactating teat, baking a tray of delicious muffins, and dangling from a zipline. Evaluations were given on a five-point mythological and meta-narratival scale, descending from epic through legendary, saga-esque and apocryphal to Talmudic. A full 91% of respondents considered the Mayor of London’s breastfeeding abilities to be either legendary or epic. In response to being questioned on his abilities as a military leader against geopolitical, elemental and supernatural foes, most respondents either marked him as Talmudic, considered the question to be metaphorical, or begged to be released. During a word association exercise Johnson was, in 82% of cases, identified with the ‘maternal’ against the ‘paternal’ element of a word pairing (as in cake/bread, warm/cold, shame/fear, hate [existential]/hate [conditional], wine/beer).

JOHNSON’S HAIRSTYLE

Subjects were asked to give examples of consumer products that could be improved or more easily marketed if supplied with their own trademark straw-coloured Bojo mop. ‘A potato’ was not included in statistical analysis given the bewigged potato’s physical indistinguishability from the Mayor himself. The most popular non-tuberal responses were (in descending order) a dead pigeon on the pavement, the pudenda, standard issue prison uniform, a small heap of used teabags, and the white cliffs of Dover.

TOP BANTER

Altered footage was assembled, using a team of Californian CGI artists, of the Mayor appearing to perform the following comedic routines: a rambling and repetitive Stewart Lee monologue about shoelaces, Michael McIntyre drunkenly failing to seduce a 17 year old in an Edinburgh dive bar, the Socialist Workers Party Disputes Committee’s proceedings against Comrade Delta, and Hitler’s speech before the Reichstag of July 13th 1934. All were seen by the vast majority of subjects to exhibit Johnson’s trademark wit and intelligence. The latter sequence, when spliced into Dave’s regular Tuesday night programming, is believed to have caused a statistically significant spike in the national birth rate nine months later. Video footage of ‘Boris Johnson’ stamping on kittens was, when rated on a scale from cute and blimey to fail and trashy, voted cute by 87% surveyed.

THE GENETIC ARISTOCRACY

99.87% of sixth-form students at St. Jonty’s School for the Incurably Retrognathic believed themselves to be among the 2% of the human species with an IQ over 130. The same proportion, when presented with the idea that ‘intelligence’ when phrased in such terms is nothing more than an instrument used by those with social status to justify their position after the fact and to wage war against those without, agreed vociferously, adding that this is exactly as things ought to be.

MACHINE RUNWAY HYPERSYNTHETIC GENODATA NANOSPASM

Subjects were introduced to the ‘Bumblorator 3000,’ a basic robot programmed to painfully wound them and then make a brief apology or a comic pratfall. Laceration with a rotary blade followed by ‘oh, I am frightfully sorry’ produced a weary chuckle in 63% of subjects. Removal of the lower teeth with pliers followed by a collapse into a small pond produced a 77% rate of muffled sympathetic giggling. Decapitation of the subject with a rusty machete followed by ‘my word, what could I have been thinking’ produced an apologetic grin in 61% of freshly severed heads.

BORIS JOHNSON’S FACE: CRISIS OF POSTLIBIDINAL SEXUALITY

Several scenarios were drawn up by market researchers for sexual congress with Boris Johnson; among them ‘creepy uncle at Christmas,’ ‘forbidden thrill of filial incest,’ ‘boyish public school hijinks,’ and ‘coked-up yacht orgy.’ Almost all were deeply unsuccessful, with subjects (drawn from the ear, nose & throat wards of three hospitals) reporting sensations of extreme distress and self-recrimination. The conclusion that Boris Johnson was not a fit libidinal object was broken by two anomalous findings. Firstly, simulated congress involving rope, hot wax, body hanging, coprophagia, urophagia and nipple clamps was reported to result in a sensation of fuzzy warmth tinged with bittersweet nostalgia. Secondly, scenarios in which Boris Johnson was presented attempting coitus with non-human objects including a cupcake, a copy of the Daily Telegraph and a porcelain teacup induced spontaneous orgasm within two minutes in nearly all subjects. When replicated across the board a similar result was obtained.

While the faces of Tony Blair, David Cameron and Nick Clegg uniformly provide genital – specifically phallic – suggestions, that of Boris Johnson was held by 81% of those surveyed to resemble the breasts of a woman or the buttocks of a man. The Mayor of London could be held to represent a pornographic or post-libidinal sexual politics in which he simultaneously represents sexual object and fetish-object, the central point in a sexual topology otherwise characterised by total indifference. Should Boris Johnson succeed in becoming Prime Minister the suicide rate is not expected to spike significantly, although a gradual increase in fatal incidences of auto-erotic asphyxiation is inevitable over the course of his term. The actual conversion of the entire country into an enormous playground for international finance capital should result in no more that 1-2 million excess deaths.

Why does Alain de Botton want us to kill our young?

Philosophy means asking difficult questions. Not the questions that actually make up philosophical enquiry – those tend to be quite simple, which is why they can be so easily worked into summer blockbusters – but the tiny, dark questions that swarm around them. The questions that you can never quite get out of your head, even though you know full well that the answers won’t bring you any hope or solace. Questions that form miniature doorways into small tight universes of unrelenting horror. A field philosopher of an earlier century, his brain slow-cooking in his pith helmet, tramping through the sweaty heat of a tropical rainforest with the weight of his rifle and pack dragging him down into the muddy ooze below, trying to discern the mating call of his prey in the jungle’s unending din, might stop and ask himself – if I do manage to track and shoot the synthetic a priori proposition, will that make me happy? These days, the rainforests have mostly been cleared to grow soybeans and palm oil, and the old briery questions that used to hide in their shadows are now everywhere. Why do I keep making such a tit out of myself at parties? Was romantic love really invented by a conspiracy of medieval poets and soft toy manufacturers in collusion against the world? Does Alain de Botton actually fuck? And if he does, then what could that kind of monstrosity actually look like?

Alain de Botton is the most banal man alive and the most banal man to have ever lived, but it’s not enough to just complain about banality as itself, because banality doesn’t exist. Banality isn’t like misery, or ecstasy for that matter, which swallow you up completely, admitting no outside or differentiation, like Badiou’s grey-black that negates even the possibility of a light. Banality is a spectral relation between something real and something that used to be real; it speaks to something that’s been lost. If everything in the world were completely banal and always had been, we wouldn’t be able to talk about it; we’d have nothing to compare it to. There has to be something significant, somewhere. The problem is that most things are pretty dull. Look around you; try to find one non-boring mass-produced object, anything whose existence you could really uphold in the court of eternity. It’s not easy. The sense of banality is the ghost of a significance that has been thoroughly and deliberately wiped out. These concepts are all the products of a particular set of material and historical circumstances: the idea of virtue would be impossible without classical slavery, ennui came out of the stillbirth of modernity, and banality is the cultural logic of colonial genocide. Dig around near the roots of any piece of tritely inspirational advice, and it won’t be long before you unearth the mass graves.

You can see this in the suburb, an urban form so monolithically banal its structural violence rivals that of the temple complexes in Tenochtitlan. The vast bloated suburbs of the western United States could only be built once the native Americans had been completely wiped out and any mystical autonomous connection between humanity and the earth had been eradicated; only then were the hills and the desert reduced to mere land, which could be parcelled out in lots for tract housing and strip malls. In France, meanwhile, the suburb-form appears as a drab concrete prison suffocating the ancient heart of the city, a holding pen for the survivors of the state’s imperial killing sprees abroad. Britain’s commuter belt villages, coma-quiet but for church bells and the dying yelps of the foxes, built their sleepy tedium on the superprofits extracted through the rape of three continents. The strange tendency for acolytes of the supremely boring New Atheism to be from Australia makes a lot of sense in this context: once the songlines have been scrubbed out and the unburdened creativity of the Dreaming has been extinguished – along with the continent’s original inhabitants – the land becomes a flat and empty space for the exercise of instrumental reason. Israel, one of the few actively ongoing colonial projects in the old mould, is fast getting in on the act: it’s official propaganda is now laced with dull affirmatory homilies. Banality is the quiet revenge of the societies we’ve destroyed and the lives we’ve extinguished, its stiflingness is the traumatic echo of the bloody chaos that suddenly descended on them. And Alain de Botton is the most banal person to have ever lived. How many massacres must he have committed?

I’ve mentioned de Botton a few times before in these pages, but only because I find him an object of gruesome fascination and psychotically obsessive hate. According to his own personal website, he is ‘a writer of essayistic books that have been described as a ‘philosophy of everyday life.’ He’s written on love, travel, architecture and literature. His books have been bestsellers in 30 countries.’ He’s also presented a couple of TV series and is the founder of something faintly ominous called the ‘School of Life.’ He is, we’re expected to believe, a philosopher: someone with the same basic job description as Heraclitus or Kant or Hegel. What the site fails to mention is that he looks like nothing of this world. Generally it’s bad form to make fun of someone’s physical appearance; they can’t really help it, after all. (In any case, philosophers shouldn’t really look like normal people. They exist to seek out the strangeness in life: Heraclitus was a ragged he-crone, Kierkegaard was a hunchback, Adorno was an absurd Humpty Dumpty figure; if these people weren’t weirdos they would’ve ended up getting a normal job.) With de Botton it’s different; his bodily strangeness is inseparable from the bland conventionality of his thought.  Alain de Botton looks like a human being as designed by HR Giger. His forehead rises high up to a vaulted dome, a tapering lizard’s egg of a cranium. His eyebrows jolt and shudder with his shoulders. His nose has a lubricious gleam; his mouth is a dark stain, red wine or fresh blood, and when he talks his deathly-white teeth seem to slide oilily against each other. His skin is faintly rubbery, and while it mostly seems to fit him there are still a few places where is bunches up or stretches out, like a cutaneous gimp suit. He looks weird, interstellarly weird; half Mystery Man from Lynch’s Lost Highway, half sentient rock formation. The general impression given is that of a reptilian alien awkwardly stuffed into a human form – not a particularly malevolent alien, just one that in its own unknowable way is making an honest and doomed attempt to fit in among us Earthlings. It’s a lie. He’s evil, and his evil is entirely human.

Alain de Botton specialises in a kind of humdrum potted sagacity, the kind of stuff that has all the outward appearance of insight while managing to avoid saying anything at all. This mushy nothingness can take the form of pointless tautology (‘In a meritocracy, success comes to seem earnt – but failure deserved’), excerpts from the Dictionary of Twee Vacuousness (‘Magnanimity: the one who was right does not say ‘I told you so,’ the one who was wronged does not seek vengeance’), outright untruth (‘Choosing a spouse and choosing a career: the two great decisions for which society refuses to set up institutional guidance’), inspirational pap (‘Our real motivation comes from people who don’t believe in us’), and the final spluttering descent into total incoherency (‘The end logic of our relationship to computers: sincerely asking the search engine “what should I do with the rest of my life?”‘).

These nuggets are all from his inevitable Twitter account; for the really heavy froth you’ll have to turn to his books. To be fair, Alain de Botton is a man of great intellectual breadth. In his many published works he has managed to be boring about Proust, anodyne about art and architecture, tedious about travel, and spend several hundred pages completely failing to understand love, sex, and religion. Aside from the general awfulness of his writing, it’s on these last two subjects (I don’t really like Proust) that his peculiar monstrosity really shines through. In Religion for Atheists (Penguin, 2012) he tries to reconcile the virtues of religious faith with a non-belief in an objectively existing God. That’s perfectly fine; plenty of worthwhile thinkers (Bloch, Althusser, Agamben, Badiou) have tried to do the same. However, for de Botton religion is useful because it ‘teaches us to be polite, to honour one another, to be faithful and sober’ and because it can help us learn ‘how to face the trials of the workplace with a modest and uncomplaining temper.’ No it’s not. Religion is fire and passion, a point of connection between humanity and the infinite, the cry of the oppressed creature, the foundation of universalism. It’s meant to be vast and terrifying and emancipatory. In the face of the vastness of the Absolute Other all human distinctions are meaningless; that’s why so many radical liberation movements have been religious in nature. What this book does is try to turn six millennia of blazing fervour into a half-baked set of minute consolations. It’s an act of hideous violence.

That’s bad enough, but How To Think More About Sex (Picador, 2012) might be the worst book ever written. It’s not too long, but de Botton manages to squeeze into its pages an entire compendium of some of the most grotesque and ungodly sexual acts ever committed. There are the infamous blood orgies of the Mughal emperors, in which the slit throat of a young harem slave was used as a lubricant; there are the thanatophilic séances of certain Theosophist sects, in which the spirits of the dead were summoned and subjected to days of sexual torture; there’s the story of the medieval Saint Quasivermus of Caenumia, who held that congress with earthworms was the only unsinful carnal activity. His book describes every possible interposition of body parts with orifices: there are toes in nostrils, the practice of ‘elbow-fucking,’ and one instance in which an entire dwarf is inserted into an anus. The whole book is awash in a queasy sea of bodily effluent – blood, vomit, bile, cum, pus, piss. Of course, none of this is in the text itself, but it’s the unvoiced content of de Botton’s continual refusal to follow his title and actually think about sex. What he does is recoil from it. For him, sex is for procreation and to stave off loneliness; it’s always a fundamentally selfish act. Most of the time it’s a case of ‘squandered human energy;’ he continually resorts to the idea of sexuality being somehow base: a vestigal, degrading, primal urge we’d all be better off without. At one point he even upholds impotence as an ‘achievement of the ethical imagination.’ None of which is necessarily objectionable – maybe we would be better off without libidinality, free to concentrate on more important things like compiling spreadsheets of sporting statistics and overthrowing capitalism – except for the fact that de Botton never actually makes any argument for this position; he just presents it as a given. He doesn’t seem to even consider the idea that sexuality might be fundamentally related to how we can conceive of ourselves as people, or even that it might actually be enjoyable.

Alain de Botton doesn’t understand sex or religion because sexual and religious experiences are fundamentally transcendental; they allow people to escape the bounds of the atomised subject. They point, however darkly, to something we can’t quite name or describe. They are experiences that are not yet completely banal, and there’s no room for that kind of thing in his watered-down gruel of a philosophy. Does Alain de Botton fuck? Of course he doesn’t. What happens is the female of the de Botton species releases her eggs in the water, and the male comes along later and fertilises them. But supposing he did?

It’s all very well to make fun of Alain de Botton for being an intellectual lightweight and looking like a monster from a cheap B-movie, but these facts should be immediately obvious to anyone. The point is that his brand of fluffy philosophy-as-self-help isn’t just annoying. It’s an enemy; it’s bloodthirsty and dangerous. The usual charge levied against de Botton is that he ‘isn’t a real philosopher.’ This isn’t true at all; he’s a philosopher in the highest sense, as described by Marx and Nietzsche – in the sense that philosophers are ‘advocates who refuse the name, wily spokesmen for their prejudices,’ or those who try to interpret the world when the point is to change it. Despite his small nods to the idea that maybe the senseless and continual catastrophe of capitalism might not be the best way to run a planet, de Botton isn’t really interested in changing the world. He thinks people should be a little bit more reflective, he thinks he can help people cope with the stresses of the workplace and the perils of romance, he thinks everyone should have a ‘sunlit room set with honey-coloured limestone tiles’ in which to relax – and that’s basically it. No passions, no fury, no grand and wild ideas, just a dull life with a few small pleasures and a few small worries, instantly soothed. He’s standing atop a pile of corpses and suggesting that they might be arranged more pleasingly. Alain de Botton isn’t just banal, he embraces his own banality; he tries to dress vacuousness up as significance. If the sense of the banal is the whispering reminder that there was once something important and our society has since then expended every effort in wiping it out, then de Botton’s achievement is to close up that anxious gap, to make dullness a universal with no horizon. With that achieved, the slaughter can continue. Alain de Botton would see the seas turned to acid slime and the sky filled with iron and smoke. He is directly responsible for every evil act in the world today. He wants us to kill our young.

He’s not alone. De Botton is just the thin edge of an enormous and boring wedge, the Blitzkreig of banality. This stuff is dangerous, and it needs to be fought with every weapon available, with all the puerile and tasteless fury we can muster. What if Alain de Botton actually fucked? What could such a monstrosity actually look like? His tiny, shiny pebble-head gleaming with sweat, his weird lips twisting into a grimace of enjoyment. His flappy, skinny torso heaving, pale as milk, brushed with dark greasy hairs. He’d go too far. He’s coming into contact with something he’s disavowed his entire life; all his symbolic violence is coming into brutal reality. First the blood, then the fragments of bone tossed around the room, a screeching, scrabbling fury. Alain de Botton rears his head and howls – then stops. He looks down at himself. He looks at the carnage he’s responsible for. Finally, he’s come face to face with what he really is.

PS: I might have been a little unkind to Mr. de Botton. He’s not a total stranger to outright fury – after a negative book review, he left a comment on the author’s blog, writing ‘I will hate you till the day I die and wish you nothing but ill will in every career move you make.’ I await his comments on my own appraisal of his work with anticipation.

Philosophy for the weak

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Superman: Man of Steel, or, hot XXX drone-on-drone action

 Spoiler alert: this guy wins in the end.

What is Superman? Everyone knows that Batman is a fascist, a jackbooted Il Duce-style thug who defaces the night sky with his symbol and tries to forge a society of class collaborationism between the haute bourgeoisie and the ‘law-abiding’ sectors of the proletariat. Similarly, it doesn’t take much critical discernment to see shades of postmodern neoliberalism in Iron Man – his world is one of panoptic openness, in which he’s not afraid to let the world know that he is the industrialist Tony Stark and Iron Man is just one of his trademarked brands; meanwhile his deadpan pseudowitticisms bear the mark of contemporary pastiche, what Jameson calls a ‘blank irony’ without referent,  ‘amputated of the satiric impulse, devoid of laughter.’ Aquaman, of course, has unwittingly represented since the 1940s the uselessness of our 21st-century corporate environmentalism. Green Lantern is a Posadist, Thor still speaks for reactionary monarchism; Avocado Woman is the heroine of the recent body-oriented (bio)politics; Fatty Lux symbolises Enlightenment rationality, the Bauxite Band anarcho-syndicalism (although Kaolinite Kid displays some Tuckerite tendencies), PenguinDude3000 a kind of Saint-Simonian utopian communitarianism. But then there’s Superman. What is Superman?

Superman’s mantra of ‘Truth, Justice, and the American Way’ recalls a more honest era, one in which deconstruction was still something you did with hammers and explosives, but all the same there’s a sinister note in there, a faint whiff of something very different from the image of the wholesome all-American hero in his mythos. He carries the mark of the Other. Clark Kent might be from Kansas, but his birthplace is Krypton – a place with four consonants next to each other in its name, a foreign planet that somehow manages to sound just a little Mitteleuropean. The other names that surround him are similarly un-WASP-y: Superman, or in German Übermensch, with its connotations of Nazi-tinged Nietzschean amoralism; the Man of Steel, or in Russian Stalin, who named weakness, idleness and stupidity as the only things that could be called vices; Clark Kent, or in Serbian Slobodan (lit. a low-level office worker) Milošević (a flat, grassy province near Belgrade, analogous to the English county). Whether of the left or the right, there’s something totalitarian about him; we recollect, with a rising nausea, that democracy is not among his tripartite principles. Of course, as Superman’s defenders continually remind us, he was created by two liberal-left Jewish high school kids, the children of immigrants. Hence all the Europeanisms: with their hero Siegel and Shuster packaged up all the neuroses of the shtetl and gave them a red-white-and-blue sheen. He’s not an expression of an all-encompassing class-State complex, but the fantasy of its disenfranchised underlings. Superman is a hero by the nerds, of the nerds, for the nerds. He’s weaponised nebbishness, and that’s exactly what makes him so dangerous. He can’t even be subsumed into the paradigm of healthy American libidinality; with Superman, Bataille’s connection between eroticism and death assumes horrifying proportions. As I watched Zack Snyder’s new Superman film, this year’s Man of Steel, it all started to make sense. Superman isn’t a man at all. His otherness is that of the inhuman. He’s a Predator drone.

We should have seen it from the beginning: he’s a man of steel, a robot. Is it a bird? Is it a plane? Almost, but not quite. The weak gravity of our world lets Superman fly through the stratosphere. He can pinpoint and target anyone on Earth with his X-ray vision, but nobody knows who or where he is. And in the meantime, he maintains a cover, a secret identity. Through this subterfuge, the drone maintains a privileged relationship with the news industry; what’s more, he sometimes even goes so far as to report ‘objectively’ on his own activities. When a drone ejaculates, people die. His is the murderous, cold-blooded victory of the CIA nerds over the jocks of the armed forces. That’s why so many of Superman’s enemies are evil geniuses: it’s not anti-intellectualism, they’re his mirror-images rather than his opposites, they’re encroaching on his turf. At the end of Man of Steel, Superman downs a US spy drone in front of a horrified general. “You can’t find out where I hang up my cape,” he says. So, the drone battles his doubles. But might there not have been, before the crash, a moment of tenderness between the two drones? “I’m sorry,” Superman says as he straddles the unmanned plane. “It’s nothing personal.” His legs clamp like pincers around its shapely fibreglass body and it begins to sink. As it does he can’t help but extend a hand to stroke with surprising delicacy her big bulbous head. His feet hook under her tailfins. So close. Two drones on a single trajectory, becoming their own motion. They’re falling faster now; the shuddering of their descent synchronises with the expertly timed revs of her spluttering engine, sending out warm vibrations that spread through Superman’s body and pool at the base of his torso. She’s getting excited too: her bomb hatch slides open with a metallic click. For the first and last time, both drones have found someone strong enough for them. And so, falling and fucking, the flapping red cape preserving their modesty and the film’s 12A rating, they spin towards the earth.

~

Of course, the main problem with drones is the collateral damage – as I’ve discussed in another post, drones retroactively designate their victims as targets; any male over 16 killed by a drone strike is assumed to be an enemy militant. And in Man of Steel, there’s a lot of collateral damage. At the end of the film Superman kills the evil Zod rather than let him murder a group of terrified humans, but only a few minutes earlier the Man of Steel is shown flinging his enemies through buildings – buildings that could well be full of people – at such high speed that they leave explosions in their wake. The death toll is presumably enormous. In this, he’s following the logic of the drone: all strikes are a priori ‘surgical,’ and the facts on the ground can be altered to fit the image on the computer screen. I’m not alone in noticing this; in the New York Magazine, Kyle Buchanan makes a similar point:

In 1980’s Superman II, […] when Superman knocks a baddie into a building — an act that sends the skyscraper’s spire tumbling towards a crowd of people on the ground — Superman actually halts the fight to grab that spire before it lands, a quaint moment that still reminds us that the lives of innocent citizens are at stake. In Man of Steel, however, the superhero seems mostly unfazed by the people of Metropolis who are surely collateral damage to his big battle; similarly, director Zack Snyder seems to have waved it off. There is no acknowledgement that all of the buildings that are being destroyed might have people in them. It’s a bloodless massacre of concrete, 9/11 imagery erased of its most haunting factor: the loss of life.

Buchanan is right about the 9/11 imagery; the film is overflowing with it. For a good half-hour the screen is filled with footage of skyscrapers in slow balletic collapse, skyscrapers spitting flames as they’re punctured by flying objects, skyscrapers reduced to billowing dust-clouds that pour through gridded streets, characters trapped under the wire and masonry of demolished skyscrapers. This is hardly unique; there’s another 9/11 in Olympus Has Fallen as the Washington Monument vertically collapses on itself; San Francisco meets a similar fate in Star Trek: Into Darkness – but nowhere is it more overt or more seemingly gratuitous. That said, Buchanan doesn’t really attempt to diagnose this trend, he only complains of it – and in an age of consumer culture, this kind of thing would only keep cropping up if people in some way wanted to see it happen. For an explanation, you’ll have to head for the comments section, in which it’s alleged that such scenes are for the benefit of the raving America-haters of the international distribution markets – nicely summing up why you should never read the comments section. Well then, if it’s not that (and it’s definitely not that), then what’s the cause?

Extreme violence is in itself an aesthetic object, but, as Buchanan observes, what we have here is a ‘bloodless massacre.’ One could advance a crude Freudian analysis. Man of Steel is the famous fort-da game writ large, a compulsive repetition and re-repetition of a traumatic event, a neurotic fixation, a recurring image through which the collective psyche tries to expunge the horror of that which actually occurred. You destroyed our buildings, the film says, well guess what – we wanted them destroyed, and we can do it better in representation than you ever could in reality. Of course, the compulsion to repeat exists beyond the pleasure principle, and the apocalyptic blockbuster is entertainment. There’s a visceral pleasure in the images of falling skyscrapers and ruined cities. We could posit a kind of allgemeine Todestrieb, a societal will towards its own violent destruction, manifesting in the sheer pleasure of carnage and atrocity. Maybe there’s even a kind of egalitarian impulse at work, a buried desire to see all the big fancy towers flattened as every mountain is made low. Maybe we all secretly want to be castrated.

None of this is quite sufficient. The answer is elsewhere. Man of Steel has received some flak for its epidemic of product placements (its brand partners brought in $160m before the film was even released) – as if we’re not all prostitutes, critics and commentators more so than anyone. This product placement takes something of an unusual form, though. The International House of Pancakes shelled out a presumably hefty sum for its recurring appearances in the film, but rather than showing Clark Kent chowing down on a hefty stack of syrup-glazed goodness, we instead see one of IHOP’s fine establishments systematically destroyed by two duelling aliens. They want us to buy their pancakes, so they show us a bunch of pancake-eating patrons being interrupted and (possibly) killed by superbeings from beyond the stars. Why? Like all brands, IHOP doesn’t just want our money, it wants – it needs – our loyalty and, most of all, our love. But love is something fiery and unpredictable; it can burn you up, reduce you to tears and ashes. If you really love something, in some small but present way you want to see it destroyed, you want to be there as it slips into the void – and the International House of Pancakes knows this. And so we’re thrilled by the destruction of our cities, because we love them. And so Superman, heaving the drone from the vaunted empyrean of the infinite gaze down to an earthy extinction, whispers three short words into its listening device as he snaps his red undies back on. “I love you,” he says. And then it dies.

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