Idiot Joy Showland

This is why I hate intellectuals

Tag: theory

JK Rowling and the Cauldron of Discourse

discourse

Please understand that I’m not making any kind of criticism of her when I say that JK Rowling has abandoned the real world. When you have one billion dollars, it’s not really something you need any more; there’s no real need to explain why she chooses to live with magic instead. If nothing else, she inhabits herself. In Edinburgh’s rain-splattered streets familiar beings are at work. The troll in chains, for instance, grunting behind the wheel of the bus, pressed into its dreary service shuttling endlessly from Hanover Street to Holyrood and back by a simple first-year spell, Instrumentio, for the manipulation of hyponoiacs – because why else would the Lothian number 6 have ploughed so carelessly into that puddle just as she was walking past? You might think that Ocado being out of smoked salmon for three weeks running is a supply-chain problem, another of those market inefficiencies that together determine the course of our lives, but she knows better: when she scans down her receipt to see it replaced by mackerel again, she knows it’s an infestation of nifflers, scurrying rapacious all along the warehouse floor, snuffling up anything that looks like it might be valuable, cramming thick slices of translucent rippling salmon into their always-hungry bellies. When helicopters thrum overhead to ruin her sleep at three in the morning, JK Rowling knows that a werewolf’s on the loose; when politically engaged young people mass in front of Parliament she sees the crowded hoods of the Dementors, and shivers.

Things continue to work after their usual fashion; it’s house-elves in their willing legions that stitched all her clothes together, and worryingly megarhinic goblins judiciously sliding banknotes to her through the cash machine. She’s grateful for the advice of Hagrid and Dumbledore and all the others as they follow her around this greyed-out half-world, she’s glad that she’s not like all the boring and stupid people, that she has an active imagination and a rich inner life. Of course she knows that all these wizards and griffins are just stuff that she made up, that none of it is really real, that she prefers living with them because she can control it all to the last detail, while even one billion dollars won’t let you rearrange the universe at will. But things aren’t always so clear. She’s sure, occasionally, that Harry had always been there, telling her what to do. He told her to write the book. Then she went back into the house and wrote, It was nearly midnight, and Harry Potter was lying on his stomach in bed. It was not nearly midnight. Harry Potter was not lying on his stomach in bed.

This is about JK Rowling’s political interventions, of course, her pathological tendency to justify vague and insipid reaction by pointing out that some fictional wizards she thought up inside her own head also share her views, her apparent inability to think about the real world without first mapping it onto the one she invented. JK Rowling has variously pissed off Scottish nationalists and the Palestine solidarity movement and the Labour left, wielding a Dumbledore hand puppet that repeats everything she says in a slightly lower voice, but she’s also pissed off a significant number of her own fans, and that’s where you have to start.

In 2007, Rowling was widely celebrated for announcing that her character Dumbledore was gay, despite the fact that there’s nothing to suggest this in the text itself, where she had an opportunity to actually advocate for queer issues; this year, when she told her fans that their personal theories were all incorrect and another character, Sirius Black, was not gay, they were outraged. We grew up with these characters, they insisted, we decide how to read them. JK Rowling is over, they declared, as if she hadn’t already been dead since Barthes. (Or longer: there’s a reason every testament is final, why God never actively intervenes in the world once His holy book is set down, why the medieval Kabbalists had to invent reader-response theory and the Catholic Church headcanons.) What’s clear is that absolutely nobody involved has ever read a word of Derrida.

There are many definitions of deconstruction, none of them particularly good, but you could do worse than to describe it as a mode of reading that refuses to forget the textuality of the text, the fact that it’s a series of marks on a material substrate that were written and which can be read, copied, misunderstood, ignored, or destroyed, that before it conjures up a private universe it exists as a shared object in this one. As a sop to her LGBT+ critics, Rowling shortly afterwards revealed that in her books lycanthropy is actually a metaphor for AIDS. Her position on all this is clear: she came up with these stories, she owns them, and long after they’ve slipped into the wider discourse they still remain essentially hers, essentially private. On Twitter, her header image was briefly two lines of text reading ‘I know what Dumbledore would do. Deal with it.’ The true text of Harry Potter is not on the printed page, but between her ears, to be altered whenever she wants; in her Platonist cosmology fictional events have a shining reality that is all their own, which emanates from out her mouth. She’s following the fandom-headcanon model of literary theory, but here hers is the largest, most bloated head, and the only one that counts. It’s impossible to read this denial of the text anything other than an abrogation of her rights and duties as an author. Sometimes dedicated fans whip themselves up into such a frenzy over their favourite culture-commodities that they act as if the stories were real, centring themselves in a private world that does not belong to them, and JK Rowling does the exact same thing. As soon as she moves to keep hold of her creation, it gains a terrifying, spectral autonomy. JK Rowling is not the author of the Harry Potter books; she is their biggest fan.

It’s in this context that Rowling’s bizarre forays into politics, her marshalling of the powers of literary enchantment for the most banal and miserable of mundane causes, start to make a kind of sense. When she stridently opposed the academic boycott of Israel called for by Palestinian civil society, she did so through a lengthy exegesis on the moral message of her own books, eventually concluding that BDS is wrong because the magical wizards wouldn’t like it. (To be fair, she admits that Harry might have started out with natural pro-Palestine sympathies, but maintains that by the end of the last book he would have grown up and learned to accept that Israel has a right to exist.) When Britain voted to leave the European Union, her public response was that she’d ‘never wanted magic more,’ presumably so she could cast a spoiling spell on millions of ballots. Her opposition to the leadership of Jeremy Corbyn seems to be based on the usual confused half-ideas about electability, as if the party’s right wing and its generic brand of watered-down Toryism hadn’t shown itself to be a losing proposition twice in the last decade, but it’s mostly supported by the fact that, as she insisted, ‘Corbyn. Is. Not. Dumbledore.’ Which is true: Jeremy Corbyn simply isn’t as good as the wise old magician who doesn’t exist, having shown himself to be entirely incapable of casting even the most basic of spells, and utterly failed to function as a universally adored avatar of infallible good; he’s capable of occasionally holding views contrary to those of JK Rowling even when she doesn’t want him to, and he didn’t even have the good grace to give her one billion dollars. None of this is, strictly speaking, analogy; in almost every case she’s responding to other, lesser fans to say that their analogies are inadmissible. In analogy a fictional scenario acts as a map for real events; something intersubjective and mutually agreed upon can explicate (or, if you know how to do it right, confuse) an objective situation. For Rowling, the situation is reversed: real events are trespassing on her characters, the real world is only an imperfect map for Harry Potter.

Rowling’s politics didn’t create those of the Harry Potter fantasy – she is, remember, not an author but a fan. Instead, the books themselves distilled all the latent fascism out of the political mainstream, boiling the discourse into a heavy green slime, and she drank it all down in one gulp. People sometimes try to play a fun game in which they match the Hogwarts houses to political ideologies, usually ending up with a ranked list of what ideas they like and don’t like (Gryffindors are nice social liberals like me! Donald Trump is a Voldemort!). This is the wrong way of looking at it; any division into types must itself exemplify a particular type, so that the four together express a single Weltanschauung. Gryffindor are fascists according to fascist ideology itself, the ideal-ego of the fascist subject: a natural elite, strong, noble, honourable, yellow-haired, and respectful of difference, but only within strict limits. Slytherin is the same figure as she appears to the outside world, her negative aspects projected onto a despised other. Hufflepuff is the fascist’s ideal ordinary political subject, dull and stolid, but essentially good-hearted; Ravenclaw is the indeterminate other that resists assimilation into this conceptual matrix, the thing that constitutes the order through its exclusion, the figure that in the early twentieth century was identified with the body of the Jew.

Harry Potter is a profoundly reactionary fable; its fantasy isn’t really about dragons and broomsticks but the tired old fantasy of the British class system. Harry Potter is the petit-bourgeois boy who goes to a magical Eton (one that, incidentally, runs on actual slave-labour), faces a few tribulations along his way, but eventually finds himself admitted to the ranks of the aristocracy. The central moral dilemma is one of inequality – what do you do when you have one class of people who, by dint of their extraordinary powers, are innately superior to the society surrounding them? (This goes some way to explaining its popularity: Harry Potter is a book for people who are very pleased with themselves because they love books and love to read, without any judgements on what’s being read; it was never for children and always for the bored 29-year-old human resources workers they would grow into. To read Harry Potter uncritically is to adopt the posture of a Hufflepuff.) The crude, cartoon fascism of Voldemort and the Death Eaters answers that they must rule, killing and enslaving the lesser races. The good characters, meanwhile, want the wizarding world to coil up into its own superiority and seethe in its own ressentiment; every adult is seemingly employed by a government bureaucracy whose sole purpose is to maintain a system of magical apartheid. But remember that these are not actually opposing factions, only varying perspectives of a single ideological object; the difference between Dumbledore and Voldemort is as illusory as that between white nationalism and white supremacism. When JK Rowling announces what Dumbledore would do, she’s announcing the politics of the entire work, its good and evil figures all rolled into one. This is what fandom-hermeneutics fails to understand: you can’t introject a single character sliced off from its text; you can only swallow the whole thing. When JK Rowling ventriloquises her friendly wizard to say that Palestine solidarity or socialism make the Hogwarts man feel very sad, watch her head spin round to reveal the pale leering mouth of the Dark Lord.

Fuck Stephen Fry: towards a new theory of ghosts

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

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

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

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

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

~

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

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

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

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

Sisterfucking up the Euphrates

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

Why the British monarchy doesn’t exist

In the beginning there was the Image, and the Image was with God, and the Image was God. And the Image was made flesh, and dwelt among us.

Good news for republicans, bad news for sufferers of scrofula. The monarchy is done, it’s finished, we can chuck it away with the Empire and the established Church. That is to say, it’s still around, in terms of appearance, but only as a farcical parody of itself, a shadow, a convention. It’s ceased to have any real existence. Once we had a monarchy, now we just have the royals, and the two are not the same thing.

Bad news for the royal baby, though (congrats to Wills and Kate, rah rah, etc etc). They’ll all still be there to comprehensively fuck up his future development, the whole chimerical menagerie: that dessicated turtle-beaked matriarch with her rapacious vulture-eyes, she who once gorged herself silly on the soul of Laurent Nkrumah using sinister white people dance-magic; his wittering toucan-nosed biscuit-salesman of a grandfather; the murderous lunkheaded uncle, a marmot-faced proper down-to-earth lad, mowing down Pashtun herdsmen in his flying fortress of imminent death like a less sophisticated Sarah Palin; an entire extended family of posh twits, all in various stages of hippomorphosis; finally, the heirs to all this horror, his whinnying filly-mother and braying donkey-father. They want their son to have a normal life, they say; they’re already positioning themselves into a perfect imitation of the drab Oedipal triangle, and as a sop to the press they’ll provide access to a few key moments: baby’s first repression of his infantile sexuality, baby’s first intimation of his own mortality – see, he’s growing up as damaged and estranged from the world as everyone else! He’s a neurotic wreck putting on a brave grin, just like you! It won’t work, though. This is not a nice family. Parents in the Haus Sachsen-Coburg und Gotha aren’t just distant, they’re at an interstellar remove; all the normal fixations are displaced onto wetnurses and nannies. The chief activity of its sons and daughters consists of waiting for their parents to die. The royals can’t go through any castration complex because for them there really is nothing more important in the world than themselves – for them, the crown and sceptre aren’t symbols; they’ve been permanently locked out the Symbolic order. In other words, they’re a family of psychopaths. They’re toxic, not just institutionally but personally, and if you spend too long breathing in their fumes the poison will get to you sooner or later: just look at the poor kid’s grandmother. Where’s child protection? Why won’t someone rescue this baby before it’s too late?

Nobody will, because for the great mobile flocks of royal-watchers and their herdsmen in the press this isn’t a person at all. The royal baby is made of more delicate and ephemeral stuff than we are; when the Duchess of Cambridge was in hospital she gave birth to a liquid stream of pixels and wavelengths, its digital tentacles spiralling out from her womb to wrap themselves around the entire world. The royal baby has the dubious honour of being possibly the first person born as image before reality, the first person to fully demonstrate Baudrillard’s old line about the precession of simulacra: ‘today it is the territory whose shreds slowly rot across the extent of the map.’ His status as ‘the royal baby,’ future ruler and object of fame and devotion, ontologically preceded any of his actual physical attributes. In the old days, when we still had a monarchy, the king held two bodies: the body politic and the body natural. Now our royals have no body at all. In normal development, a child develops full subjectivity when it identifies itself with the specular image in the mirror, when it comprehends itself as an object capable of being gazed upon; before that between subject and image there’s an aggressive tension which the child has to resolve into joyful captivation. No such luck for the royal baby. He will be surrounded by the gazes of cameras and smartphones; his own image will surround him, staring from commemorative plates, tea-towels, mugs, the inevitable ‘keep calm and love the royal baby’ posters – every mundane object will be stamped with the mark of his spectral adversary. He won’t be able to subsume the image into his self; it’s too late for him, he’s already been swallowed up by the image, the idea of what he is, as an amœba swallows up a speck of food.

A royal family is the image of a monarchy that remains once the monarchy itself has shrivelled up and died. The monarch was once the guarantor of a certain kind of commons: the king’s highway, the royal mail, the crown courts. The monarch was the people, by virtue of our perfect subjugation to him; he imposed a certain kind of paradoxical egalitarianism. Now, in an age of privatisation, the situation’s been precisely reversed. Images and representations are common property, and as such the royal family are now perfectly subjugated to us. It’s their in the language: our Wills, our Kate. When a French magazine published topless photos of Kate Middleton the popular outrage wasn’t so much a loyal horror of lèse-majesté as affront against the violation of property. It works the other way too: as the image of the royal baby started to construct its hyperreal manifestation yesterday, a good part of the nation thought it had the right to know every queasy detail about the dilation of the royal vagina. Sovereignty’s dread authority of life and death over its subjects has turned into the sovereign being the ultimate object of that same biopolitical power; the king’s commons has turned into a king held in common. The monarchy as such no longer exists.

In a way all this should be celebrated. Whether or not the formal monarchy survives Elizabeth (and I’m not so sure it will), we’ve finally beaten back our aristocratic oppressors. In the royal image we’ve found the paradigm for a new commons without sovereign power. But it’s going to seriously mess up that kid.

Branding strategies for the viscous phallus-monster that has risen from the depths to reclaim our world

Sometimes I believe that this less material life is our truer life, and that our vain presence on the terraqueous globe is itself the secondary or merely virtual phenomenon.
Karl Marx, Grundrisse

This exists.

It’s easy to get whipped up into an outrage over this kind of thing. It’s enraging to see the techniques by which we are manipulated uncovered in all their foetid glory. What’s more, there’s the sheer density of meaningless marketing buzzwords repeated over an insipid steel guitar melody, managing to replicate simultaneously the effects of a cult indoctrination film and a nice strong hit of prescription opiates. There’s the naked theft of the video’s entire aesthetic from the occasionally excellent RSAnimate series. There’s the fact that the gang of marketers behind it seem to consider making a positive change in the world to only be a good thing insofar as it can be put to use selling various tubes of corn syrup-based goo. There’s the cynical manipulation of popular sentimentality for profit. There’s the section dealing with ‘families, communities and cultures,’ in which the former two are represented anthropomorphically, sitting like nineteenth-century monarchs astride a globe, while ‘cultures’ is just an arrow pointing in the vague direction of Africa. It’s all so perfectly and unwittingly ugly. But to focus on this stuff is to miss the point a little. There’s plenty of justification for a sensible critique of consumer capitalism as demonstrated by this video, but a purely sensible critique ignores not only the horrific haecceity of the thing, but the otherworldly horror that surrounds consumerism itself. For the purposes of this essay, at least, I’m not interested in the ideological presuppositions of liberal philanthropy, the incoherence of marketing discourse, the soporific nature of societally-mandated pleasantness, or even the construction of the racial-cultural other.

What I’m really interested in is this.

What is this thing? It crops up everywhere in the video. Its tendrils extrude randomly into the field of gibberish without warning or explanation: sometimes it tenderly caresses the various symbolic representations onscreen; sometimes it’s actively antagonistic towards them, bursting out from their bodies and leaving only shattered remnants of sales patter. In one memorably horrifying sequence it’s shown passing through the heads of three people as they smile their bovinely unfazed marker-pen smiles in our direction. Here, at the video’s end, it holds the entire Earth in its grip, the planet leaving sticky stretchmarks as it tries and fails to struggle free from the gloop’s oleaginous embrace. Let’s start with what we can see. The thing is clearly alive. Maybe it’s not alive in the strict biological sense that any of us can comprehend, but it moves, it has agency, it has plans for us and our lives. It appears as a seething mass of – of what? Not liquid, exactly; it’s too firm, too collected; it doesn’t flow, it crawls. Some kind of mobile mucous then, bile-black and slug-sinuous, its surface tight and slimy, glistening under the light of a blood-clotted sun. But at the same time there’s an undeniably fleshy quality to it, fleshy in the most visceral sense of the world. It resembles nothing so much as an immense, writhing conglomeration of dicks. Could it be that what this thing wants is to fuck us?

I’ve always found there to be something almost endearingly naive in the thought of Debord and Baudrillard and other theorists of the image. Baudrillard proudly and knowingly calls himself a nihilist; in fact, he’s anything but. Nobody believes more fanatically or more religiously in truth than the poststructuralists. To speak of the spectacle or the simulacrum in terms of a precise historical moment is to assert the existence of a historical world of truths prior to the image; to speak of hyperreal images that reflect only each other and deny a pre-existing truth is to assert the existence of a pre-existing truth that can be denied. Debord in particular is militant in his rejection of the image and his partisanship on the side of reality. He’s got it all wrong. Representation isn’t a prison, it’s a shield, our only defence against a universe filled with horrors. It’s a way to make the world comprehensible. Lacan describes this process precisely: the Symbolic order has its origins in the castration complex; the phallus as an intolerable lack is what anchors the entire process of signification. When Lacan describes the Real he does so in terms that approach Lovecraftian horror: it’s something black and smooth and undifferentiated, with no cuts or cracks, no inside or outside. The infant, confronted with the realisation that the world is an enormous and unfriendly place in which his jouissance is ultimately irrelevant, begins to build metaphors for himself. It’s the only thing he knows how to do.

Eventually, though, the chains of signification loop in on themselves. In the Coca-Cola Content 2020 Initiative video, there’s no mention of Coca-Cola-as-beverage, only stories, narratives, feelings, loyalties – only images referring to other images. This makes perfect sense: images are a necessary refuge from an unpleasant reality. The fact of your utter insignificance in both the mechanistic universe and the libidinal economy doesn’t sell sugary drinks – or, at least, it doesn’t sell many to Coca-Cola’s core demographic of people who don’t just sit at home with the curtains drawn reading Kafka. Brands aren’t like us. They’re better than we are, untouched by fears or neuroses, unravaged by time. They have the commodity’s aura of unblemished totality that we pitiful human wrecks, crippled by our various lacks and lacerations, can never possess. That’s why people grow so attached to them; we want what they have. But to fully maintain the pleasant banality of advertising, to completely protect against the sour taste of reality, these images have to be decoupled from any concrete referent. They have to be purged of anything that could climb down the chain of signification and kick us in the face. That’s where we get brand slogans like Live Positively: a floating signifier, elemental in its meaninglessness. But doing this kind of thing is very dangerous. The shield of representation works by mediating between the fragile subject and the hideous object; if you break it away from the object it becomes useless. The real world can then intrude. It forces its way unopposed into the realm from which it was banished, and it hits us right where we thought we were most safe: in our advertising. And when it does so, is it any wonder that it takes on the form of the object of that first primal act of signification, slipping back across the divide between phallus and penis?

This isn’t a metaphor; it’s a portent. The creature that invaded the Coca-Cola Content 2020 Initiative video will not stop there. Our virtual creations are easy targets; its violence grows stronger with every victory. Soon the brittle crust of the Earth will snap, and viscous tentacles will emerge from the chasm to crush all our cherished symbols. The beast will rise. It will take its revenge, and it will take it in blood. We will, very soon, be once again faced with the incomprehensible horror that we once tried to abstract away, long ago, when we were infants. Luckily, we now know exactly how to deal with it. All we have to do is represent it, turn it back into a signifier. The future of the human race depends on a solid brand strategy.

…In the next financial year, our target is to double voluntary self-immolations as sacrifices to the viscous phallus-monster that has risen from the depths to reclaim our world. That’s a lot of voluntary self-immolations! To do this, we must fully engage our brand with the aspirations of our sacrificial base. This means not only promoting our brand, but entering into dialogue with the defeated human race across all multimedia platforms and allowing user-created content to grow in the fertile ashes of their ruined cities. Through the Live Every Second brand slogan consumers can independently develop content focusing on positive and aspirational life experiences they have enjoyed before inevitably succumbing to annihilation at the hand of the viscous phallus-monster that has risen from the depths to reclaim our world. Our entire advertising focus has to be centred around the Live Every Second concept if the phallus-monster brand is to achieve full market penetration. Engaging with Live Every Second means that consumers will approach their grisly fate as the appropriate end to a life not only lived well, but lived to the max. By encouraging conversations about what it means to live every second we can potentialise the creativity of our user base…

Richard Dawkins and the ascent of madness

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

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

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

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

~

Richard Dawkins has gone insane.

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

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

~

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

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

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

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

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

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

~

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

Boston: the terrorism of banality

The State fixes, after the intervention, the term {X,{ex}} as the canonical form of the Event. What is at stake is clearly a Two (the site counted as one, and a multiple formed into one), but the problem is that between these two terms there is no relation.
Alain Badiou, Being and Event

 SPK- Turn Social Awkwardness Into A Weapon!

Lu Lingzi died on Monday. I didn’t know Lu Lingzi. She was a person: she had her passions and dreams and aspirations, and she had her neuroses as well, her buried furies, her paranoias. She was a human being, a speck of brightness in a dark and infinite universe, and there were people who loved her for that reason alone. But I didn’t know Lu Lingzi. The New York Times knew her, though. It knew her in the same way it knows just about every single person on this earth. Its giant roving eye found her, and fixed her, and then some hack wrote this:

Ms. Lu’s own final message on Weibo, the Chinese microblogging service, was posted on Monday and showed a picture of a bowl of Chinese fried bread, and said “My wonderful breakfast.” Ms. Lu, shown on her Weibo page as a petite woman with thick, shoulder-length hair, said there that she enjoyed food, music and finance.

Here is the summation of two thousand years of humanity’s struggle to distil Truth from mere events, the end-product of a line of heroes from Herodotus to Woodward and Bernstein. The final message: Woman Dead, Enjoyed Food. If you want to sell newspapers you have to make people care, and if you want to make people care about a tragedy in the real world you have to narrativise it, you have to give it the form of a fiction. You have to reduce human beings to atoms of emotion. Nobody is safe, it can happen to any of us. Sam Kriss was knocked down by a car while stumbling drunkenly across a road; in his last message to a grief-stricken planet he ironically retweeted the rapper Lil B talking about his tiny dick.

The crucial difference between what happened to Lu Lingzi and my hypothetical encounter with a Peugeot 305 at four in the morning is that, unlike me, Lu Lingzi died in the Boston marathon bombing. The terrorist bomb isn’t so much an object as a series of transformations: chemical substances into heat and light, banality into significance, life into death – with the last of these being only a corollary to the second. Death is tragic, but that’s almost subsidiary to the real horror of the bomb: a hand reaches out from the depths of the earth and assigns an aleatory significance, the Event intrudes on Being with the full force of its inexplicable violence. What we’re seeing is not the banality of terrorism but the latent terror of the banal. One day you’re a happily anonymous citizen; the next your neighbourhood is under undeclared martial law and History bursts your door open and rushes through your home, incarnated in a bunch of armed police wearing camouflage gear.

In the days after the bombing, as the investigation floundered with no group or individual claiming responsibility, I started to believe that the culprits would never be found. The attack would forever be an inexplicable anti-ontological rupture, a thorn pricking the side of a dying empire, a riddle never to be solved. In a way, I think that’s still true. In the absence of any concrete evidence, the observing masses played their favourite game: speculation. Maybe it was the Iranians, maybe North Korea, maybe a false flag attack by the Obama administration, whatever fits in best with the speculator’s prejudices. I’m not proud of it, but I played along too: it couldn’t be Islamists, I reasoned; any kid dumb enough to start talking about Jihad – and a quite a few who had learning difficulties or just needed money – had already been scooped up by some FBI sting operation. It was clearly a lone right-wing Bircher weirdo, a Tea Partier, a conspiracy theorist, holed up in his basement trying to kickstart the Rapture.

I was wrong. For a start, there were two of them. The suspects, Tamerlan and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, were not only Caucasian but had been born among the Caucasus mountains, they had US citizenship and had lived in America for most of their lives, they had apparently acted independently of any larger organisation, they seemed to have some sympathy for 9/11 and Sandy Hook conspiracy theories – but at the same time they were Muslims from a region with a long history of armed Islamic radicalism. They sat at the swirling nexus of every theory and prejudice. Neither one thing nor the other, not both, not neither. Multiple zones of indistinction, tangled, whorled, their univocity inscribed only on the Plane of Ignorance. Hence the spectacle of newspaper pundits patiently explaining to their readers what a Chechnya is, and Twitter users assuming that war with Russia was imminent or demanding a nuclear strike on Czechoslovakia.

And yet the culprits still haven’t been found in any full sense. We have an answer, of sorts, but no Answer, nothing that can account for the shocking rupture of the attack. It’s impossible to draw a line of causality from whatever was inside the heads of the Tsarnaevs to what happened near the finish line of the Boston marathon. Where there should have been something conclusive there was only banality, banality assuming the horrific proportions of significance. On the day of the marathon bombing, Dzhokhar Tsarnaev (under the handle @J_tsar) retweeted a novelty account for an Internet meme based on a TV advert:

Most Interesting Man @_DosEquisMan_
He once arm wrestled the Incredible Hulk. The loser had to paint himself green.

The day before he planted two bombs that killed three people, including an eight year old boy, he observed:

And here I thought nemo’s dad was about to get it with dory but apparently this man turned into a female #thatscray

Two days after the attack, he told the world:

I’m a stress free kind of guy

Something’s not right here, nothing adds up. This isn’t to say that there’s been a coverup and the Tsarnaevs are innocent of the bombing (although it should be kept in mind that they are, after all, only suspects). It’s something deeper and stranger, the void at the heart of the online representation of a real person. Dzokhar’s friends consistently voice their disbelief: they knew this guy, he was their boy, they smoked weed with him, he was a chill guy. The racist media is forced to dig deep through his Internet presence to find even a few mentions of going to mosque or faith in God; they parade these in front of us as if that explains anything.

Dzokhar also has a profile on the Russian social media site VKontakte. Since he was identified as a suspect, his page has been bombarded with thousands of messages of fury and hate, sometimes bizarrely undirected:

Ivan Skor
Никому, I’m your mother raped instead of with blacks
two hours ago to Nikomu

If your immediate reaction to this is ‘this looks like a great opportunity to publicise my brand,’ then you could find work at one of the footwear companies that spammed the thread with links to their stores. Really, I think they missed a trick there; they could have built up an entire campaign around it. A marathon, a terrorist attack, a culture of martyrdom: all the ingredients for a perfect ad strategy. Imagine it: under a darkening sky a group of figures are shown running heroically along a track. At the finish line, an immense conflagration, the fiery extinction of thought and reason and humanity. One man pulls ahead of the pack, his arms spread wide, the faint glow of a halo just visible over his head, ready to embrace the inferno. What’s given him this sudden burst of speed? His millennial passion, certainly, but that’s not all. The camera pans down, and we discover the truth: he’s wearing the retailer’s shoes. Fade to black. And then, in shining white letters, the tagline: Dare To Go Further.

Pornography

He’s lying on the couch. Not a psychiatrist’s couch, not even his own, the flat came furnished, and the couch is – frankly it’s hideous, a kind of bright synthetic blue, dulled by cigarette ash and soup-stains but still with the trace of a cheap buried radiance, half lapis lazuli, half blue raspberry flavoured energy drink; its coarse fabric breaking up and drifting into the little fluffy nebulae that dot its surface; a long laceration runs down its side, a labial scar peeling back to reveal the weak-tea-coloured cushion beneath: the dull blasphemy of the Inside, the utterly boring final insufficiency of the Real. He lies on the couch, a notepad and pen in the folds of his tracksuit, a tablet computer propped against his knees, watching pornography. She’s bent over another sofa, folded over its black leather arm. Oh-oh-oh-oh-ah, she says, veins popping. Hnnnrg, he says. There’s the steady tapping of his balls against her thighs. Thwoc-thwoc-thwoc-thwoc-thwoc. He watches distractedly. He can’t really think this early in the morning, all he sees is one pink blob fucking another; it’s entirely asemic, abstract expressionism. The camera angle switches, now you can see it from slightly below, going in and out, gleaming greasily. His legs are like pines – no, like skyscrapers. Sheer glass towers, the men in their offices at the top surveying the city and its small pathetic people with vague Olympian contempt. Helots, all of them. The gods might see the fall of every sparrow, but they don’t care. Her arse is a cosmic orb. The congress of titans. The incest of finance capital.
His analyst doesn’t have a couch; they sit on identical chairs facing each other. Dr Chen doesn’t approve of the thing, he’s some kind of structuralist; there’s a bookcase behind the desk in the corner of the room with all the usual suspects. Marcuse, Lacan, Melanie Klein, you need to have read a lot of books to be able to sit in a chair and go Hmmm occasionally, or at least to be able to charge money for the service. He wonders what Dr Chen’s neuroses are. You have to be analysed yourself before you can practice, after all. It’s like being inducted into a cult: the shaman of other people’s minds must first have his own scooped out and dissected. All except ol’ cokey himself, Big Poppa Freud; Jung offered but he was refused. In algebraic sequences every number refers to another number, all except the root, n, which exists outside time, answerable only to itself.
How often, would you say, says Dr Chen. He doesn’t ask questions, he makes flat statements of fact; their similarity to the interrogative is purely syntactical.
It’s not really a matter of how often, he says. It’s – it’s not really a quantity. I think about five hours a day. Sometimes more. I don’t know.
Dr Chen doesn’t say anything, he doesn’t even note anything down.
I know how it sounds, he says.
How do you think it sounds.
How you think it sounds. He doesn’t think, he knows. Still. It sounds like I’m crazy, he says. I’m not crazy. It’s not pleasurable, you know. I’m only doing it for research.
Crazy isn’t a category I use. But do you think it’s healthy.
Healthy?
How do you think it impacts on the way you relate to other people. Your sex life, for instance.
I don’t have a sex life.
Dr Chen nods minutely. Hmmm.
It’s been – well, over a year. I had a little anniversary about a month ago.
A little anniversary. What did you do.
What did I do? I watched pornography.
That was then. It’s now almost two years. They’ve progressed a little since.
I think it’s time we started thinking about why it is you’re here, Dr Chen says, pushing his glasses up his nose. I can help you. But I can’t help you if you don’t know what you want out of this. What do you want.
What do I want?
Do you want to go back to work. Do you want to be able to interact with people normally again.
No! No. I want… I want to be able to finish my study.
And what’s holding you back.
It won’t take form… I get distracted. I can hardly think these days. Like I’m always elsewhere.
What’s distracting you is the content of what you’re doing. It’s not a disinterested study. Surely you must know this. It’s a pathological fixation. A psychosexual fixation.
He’s heard this all before. Do you know about Charles Whitman, he says.
Charles Whitman.
Yeah. He was a mass killer in the Sixties. In America, of course. Murdered his wife and his mother, then started shooting people from a clock tower. It was twenty minutes before the police got him. But in his suicide note he requested an autopsy, he knew that the urges he was getting weren’t coming from his own mind. And when they carried it out they found he had a massive brain tumour, pressing up against his hypothalamus. It was changing his behaviour. He knew it was there. But still he went and shot all those people. What do you think about that?
What do you expect me to think about it.
I think you think he should’ve sought medical help. I think you think I’m just trying to be provocative… I think Whitman was heroic. In the proper Achillean sense. He saw what was his duty, he knew it was wrong, he knew it was monstrous, and he went and did it anyway. It doesn’t matter if that duty comes from the Gods or the King or a massive tumour in your brain. You have to do something, so you do it.
Why do you think you identify so strongly with this man.
Dr Chen is a charlatan, he thinks as he walks out. He talks about pornography, and Dr Chen wants to talk about sexuality, as if the two have anything to do with each other. It’s cold outside. The polyglot masses drift about the high street, gliding on the frost: Nigerian women in bulky overcoats, Arab men in threadbare suits, all of them ghostly-pale. London is desaturated. There are Christmas lights strung between the buildings in a thousand colours: grey-red, grey-purple, grey-green. The yellow skins of fag-ends piled in doorways, they’re vivid, at least. Jaundice. Cancer. He imagines tumours as bright iridescent things, the giddy tumultuousness of the body’s insurrection against itself. A tumour is virile, big and meaty, full of life and insanity. That’s how he knows he’s not insane.
Dr Chen wants to talk. Pure logocentrism, nothing useful is ever said aloud. Speech is always performative, there’s no real substance to it at all. He can’t watch films any more, even TV disgusts him. The words he usually hears fall into a familiar pattern. Mmmm. Mmmm. Oh-oh-oh-oh. Fuck. Yeah. Fuck me. Fuck. He imagines the girls on the toilet, sphincters straining. Shit, they moan. Mmmm. Shit. Or afterwards, sitting in some fast food restaurant with their big sunglasses covering half their faces. Eat, they whimper, burger juices dripping from their mouths. Ooooh. Eat. And finally, when there’s no more use for them and the medication’s starting to run against the natural limits of life’s unliveability, as they toss away the empty bottle and lie down on their bed, a last contented gasp: Ahhh. Die. Mmmm. Die.
He probably does hate women. He’d denied it at first; he’d written a long and verbose letter of protest to the British Journal of Ephemera. When his paper had been published there was an uproar. Everyone hated it. He’d give lectures, he’d talk for two minutes, and then suddenly all the students would stand up and walk out without saying a word. In feminist journals his name was asterisked out. Of course the faculty had to suspend him. No respectable body could employ the author of Structures of signification in Brazilian Bubble Butts 8. But he doesn’t hate them with any real malice. It’s just that once you see them smiling gratefully, their beautiful faces dripping with cum – once you’ve seen that a few thousand times, it’s hard to conceive of a female that isn’t contorted by feigned ecstasy or garlanded with jism. There’s one sequence he likes particularly, it is, he thinks, extraordinarily rich in hermeneutic possibilities. It’s from the end of one of the artier films, the ones that call themselves Erotica with no apparent irony. He’s fucking her from behind; eventually he pulls out, but rather than spurting big globs of gunk in her face, there’s only a loose watery dribble. No mind. He takes his cock, shrinking and wrinkling, and flops it all over her arse and her lower back, leaving a few glistening snail-trails. As he does so she smiles, the same placidly loving smile, as if this was exactly what she wanted, and music plays: Spanish guitar, lilting and harmonious, sad romantic notes, as if what we’re watching is an act of tender love.
He still has one friend from the faculty. Simon, his former mentor. They meet, occasionally, in a grotty old-man-pub. Simon spends half the time looking over his shoulder; he doesn’t want to be seen with him. They discuss old colleagues for a while. One of them took part in a demonstration with his students and had his head caved in by a police baton.
It’s grotesque, Simon says. There’s a constant vigil at the hospital. They’ve taken to spraypainting pictures of him all round the campus looking like Che Guevara. Ridiculous, really. Everyone’s forgotten just how reviled he used to be. Don’t you remember that antisemitic thing he wrote?
No.
Ha. Well. Exactly. It only got dug up a couple of years after the fact, but it was some really nasty stuff. Not even Holocaust denial, they could have forgiven that, I think. The ethical co-ordinates of Auschwitz as a Hegelian Moment. But then all he had to do, to be honest, was write another paper pinpointing exactly what was wrong with what he’d said before. I mean, he won’t be speaking at Tel Aviv University any time soon, but he’s been pretty much rehabilitated, hasn’t he? Simon puts his pint down and stares across the table at him. I mean, he says, couldn’t you just do the same thing?
Get beat up by the police?
You know what I mean.
You don’t understand, Simon. That paper was bad, it was dreadful, but not for any of the things it’s been criticised for. I’ve moved so far beyond all that. I’m close to a breakthrough, you know.
I know that you’ve ruined your career. I know that you’ve ruined your social life. Jesus, why can’t you just admit you were wrong-
Because I’m not wrong. Listen. I think I’ve opened up a whole new field of study. It’s not just about pornography. It’s about culture itself. The first real innovation in the theory of culture since – Christ, since the Frankfurt School, maybe.
You’re not the first person to study pornography.
Oh, gender studies, feminist criticism… I’m the first person to look at pornography in the way I’m doing it.
Simon smiles. Well, that’s true, at least.
I mean, have you read the stuff that gets written? Barbara Stanten’s for instance. Picking it apart, it’s racist, it’s sexist, with no thought for what it actually is. Myopia, ideological myopia. Pornography is culture. In its totality. Nobody thinks about the fact of utility.
You mean aesthetics.
No, not at all… Art, real art, it’s the opposite of aesthetics. The aesthetic is like a monstrous parasite on the body of art, it’s got so big and swollen that we’ve forgotten to look for the thing itself, the actual it.
Das Es, says Simon. You’ve turned into an id-monster.
Would you stop making this about me? I get enough of that from Dr Chen. Look, when I publish-
Who’s going to publish you?
I’ll go to the porn mags, if I have to. They published the Unabomber, didn’t they?
Getting published isn’t the problem at all, but he doesn’t mention that. The fact is that all he has is notes. Endless pages of them, a shelf of spiral-bound notebooks above his shelf of pornographic DVDs. Amy’s Big Day Out 3: at 12mins 37sec – Amy’s tongue – circular movement around the penis – eyes directly to camera – cf. Walter Benjamin – ‘art has escaped from the realm of the beautiful pretence’. Some are briefer. Cumshots – Aristotle (Poetics, W&W ed., p. 68)? It’s all coalescing into something, something utterly revolutionary, but he can’t quite phrase it, he can’t explain it even to himself.
Standing outside Dr Chen’s practice: now what? Stupid question. Take the bus back to his flat and watch pornography. The outside world is completely flat, a grey deadened plane, its protuberances statistically insignificant on the face of its endless impossible horizontality. Its thousand mouths speak with a single voice. Yeah well I told him yes it is a bit cooler than yesterday shameful the way she carries on nah mate it’s not like forty five pounds if you’d believe it… There are women on the bus. He’s terrified of them. Women, real women, are pure judgement. It’s not the disappointment of women that men are scared of, that’s by the by, it’s their enjoyment. Female pleasure bursts the solipsistic bubble, it’s reminder that the object is herself a living thinking being, it’s intolerable. What is a clitoris but an obscene eye, what is female genital mutilation but a symbolic enucleation, a penance for the original Oedipal sin? She’s wearing headphones, sitting on the front seat, watching the panoramic screen of the bus’s front windshield. He sits on the row behind her and visualises her face; her head revolves, like an owl’s, like in an exorcism, her eyes are bulging, her mouth is frozen in a sex doll’s perfect O. It’s perfectly hideous.
Back to the flat, then, and the yawning void of the afternoon. He makes a cup of tea, and changes back into his tracksuit, he even makes a halfhearted stab at reading the newspaper. His living standards have declined a little lately. They eat it all up: food, bills, debt interest, Dr Chen. His four Furies. Food a bloated lipid sac, an enormous pulsing creamy-white bag of adipose tissue streaked with faint bluish veins, eyeless, faceless, with only a huge mute mouth grinding its greying gums; it crawls around his tiny flat, heaving itself from room to room, leaving an oleaginous trail of shit wherever it goes. Bills tall and cyclopean in a pinstripe suit, standing outside on the street, its long withered neck craning up the four storeys to peer with its single merciless eye through his window. Debt Interest a howling skeleton, always standing directly behind him, nimble enough to dart out of view when he turns his head, but reminding him of its presence with the constant clicking of its bones. Dr Chen… well, Dr Chen is just Dr Chen. Unlike the other three he doesn’t really know him; that’s what’s terrifying about them, they torment him because they know exactly what he is, down to his inner chasm, the midden around which the pearly Subject develops. A pearl loose in a sea of porn.
Here are the facts. Pornography is the most voraciously consumed form of culture. Everything else just has to try to keep up, it’s valued only in terms of its relation to pornography. Pornography is mimetically represented everywhere: on billboards, on TV, on the faces and bodies of people in streets and offices. Pornography is the master-signifier, the structuring principle of all cultural activity in the metamodern era.
Here is the problem. All academic study of pornography has so far been in the form of a critique. There has been very little worthwhile attempt at a theorisation of the phenomenon, with the notable exception of Structures of signification in Brazilian Bubble Butts 8.
Here is the theory, such as it exists. The history of sexuality is at an end. Pornography is at once the apotheosis of sexuality and what has come to replace it.
He’s working through the perversions, systematically. The categorical system the websites use is woefully inadequate, he’s had to develop his own schematic, a vast topography of the postsexual landscape’s fractured contours. We’re on h(1)-18.6.m.6-A. She’s gagging on a dick, her eyes popping out past her heavy mascara, her throat bulging. The camera pans up. He sees his face. He flings the computer to the ground. When he picks it up again the film is still running; there can be no doubt about it, it’s himself. He’s a little thinner, certainly, and his hair is shorter, but it’s unmistakably him, down to the mole above his eyebrow and the little scar under his chin. Nnng, he says. Uh. You like that, bitch. You like that. The accent is American but the voice is still the same, deep and rasping, with the phlegmy granulation of two decades of cigarette smoke, the same right down to that uncanny familiarity-foreignness of your own voice in a recording. Mfkmfgrl, she says. He draws out, she starts massaging him between her tautly spherical tits. He turns the thing off and sits there on the couch, cradling the rectangle in his twitching hands.
He’s always known that the rectangles were the truest and most insidious enemies of humanity, but their malignancy had never been quite so overt. Speculative realism has a name for these objects: xenolithic artefacts, inorganic demons. Fully infernal things, their rare earth minerals churned up from the deepest depths, baptised in the blood of Congolese miners and the tears of Chinese sweatshop workers, until they’re fully charged with suffering. Then their faces suddenly glow with a phantasmal luminescence and they get to work making our lives easier. Sidling in. Everyone has one. He owns two of the things, but like everyone else he hasn’t a clue how they work or why it is they’re here. Once on the Tube he saw a mother and child, each with their own little rectangle; the mother was scrolling through photos of people on holiday, the child was bouncing brightly coloured virtual balls around the screen; both wore the blank expressions of an idolater in a demoniac trance. He has no doubt that if the rectangles could work out how to plug themselves into the mains without his help, they’d kill him in an instant.
Blame the machines, because if it’s not them trying to torture him, then that really is himself in the video. Turn it on again: he’s still there, pumping away, oblivious to his own gaze. Go back on the browser: the falconine number swoops down on him: eighty-two thousand, seven hundred and twelve views. One hundred and sixty-five thousand, four hundred and twenty-four eyes melt into being around him. Some bulge up from the walls, rippling the plaster into epicanthic folds. Some gleam from the darks spaces under doorways. Pupils sink into the concavities of his teaspoons, the balls of dust on his couch blink in unison. Perverts from every continent: they all want something from him. They want to see him fuck. They want to see him die. Scroll down: the comments. Very nice vid hi i have 9” dick want 2 meet up that’s what obama’s doing to the country came so hard to this. And the actors: all uncredited.
He needs to show someone. Dr Chen – not Dr Chen. The man would be over the moon, he’d think he’d finally found the holy grail of psychoanalysis: a genuine bonafide repressed memory. Dr Chen would think that the video explained everything.
Well, what has actually happened? He tries to collect himself. Six propositions.
Hypothesis 1. He has a twin brother, with whom he was separated at birth, who found his way into the porn industry. Hypothesis 2. The pornographers have managed to secretly clone him, and put his clone to work appearing in their films. Hypothesis 3. The pornographers have managed to secretly clone one of their actors, and put his clone to work writing about their films. Hypothesis 4. By sorcery or by quantum entanglement, he is simultaneously an American porn actor and a British porn theorist.  When he sleeps he is awake elsewhere; he is in fact two men – maybe this is true of everyone, and only he has managed to discover his double. Hypothesis 5: it’s not him, it’s a psychotic delusion, and he’s finally lost it.
He can discard a few of those. If it’s not him, if it’s not really him, why is every surface in his flat bubbling with eyeballs? Why does he feel a sudden wave of mud-green shame rising from his groin, why is his stomach acid frothing at the back of his mouth, why does he feel as if someone’s taken an electric whisk to his brain?
Helen’s sitting outside, holding a styrofoam coffee cup to her chin. She’s decked out in so much stuff – a long red coat, a jumper, a scarf, a hat with vaguely Tibetan coloured stripes – that underneath the solidity of it all she looks pale and ethereal, as if she’s about to waft away in the breeze. She’s been waiting for about ten minutes; he knows because he’s kept her waiting, ducking down an alleyway on first seeing her outside the café to take a circuitous walk through the park, wandering through the Victorian lines of bony-brittle trees, their black branches clawing out to net some of the sky’s Malevichean whiteness. Eventually he calms himself a little. He’s made a little effort this morning, he’s even shaved. It’s easy to forget these things: when the whole bedrock of your life has been pulled out from under your feet, remembering to brush your teeth in the morning doesn’t seem quite so important any more.
Helen, he says, sitting down next to her. Hi.
Hey, she says. She smiles and kisses his cheek. How are you?
I’m good, he says. I’m really good. How are you? You look great.
She does. Her cheeks are pale even in the cold, but there’s a glow to her, a fecund wintry glow that carries the warmth of a family hearth and the smell of sandalwood and the joy and kindness of a woman whose face it is suddenly impossible to envisage splattered with sperm.
Thanks. It’s been so long… what’ve you been up to? Are you teaching again?
Oh, no. I’ve been taking some time off, I’m writing a book. Besides, it’s not like anybody’ll take me.
Taking time off? For two years? It’s not because of that silly paper, is it? That’s just ridiculous. There must be somewhere. Listen: Robert’s good friends with the humanities chair up at East-
Robert?
You know Robert. He was with us in Manchester. My husband.
You never said you got married, he blurts.
You never asked.
I’m sorry. He’s trying to remember how to talk; it’s not easy. He and this woman can’t have ever been in love, it’s a fantasy. He tries to remember them together; watching TV nested up against each other; reading in their two armchairs, him occasionally glancing up over his book to let his eyes rest over her angelic concentration; having petty arguments over dirty dishes and deconstruction; fucking in the middle of the afternoon; it’s impossible. He can remember her fine, but the man in all these images isn’t him, it’s a stranger. It’s Robert, probably, whoever he is.
Well, he says. Congratulations.
Please don’t think I excluded you or anything, she says. There was hardly anyone. We had a very quiet ceremony, at this lovely old stately home out in the Cotswolds…
It’s fine, he says. Really.  And you’re… you’re happy?
We’re very happy. She leans forward. So what’s this book all about, then? Not more bloody porn, I hope.
It’s in a similar vein.
Oh, come on. Surely there has to be some other area-
That was kinda why I asked to see you, actually. I need your help.
She’s frowning now. In an academic capacity, I hope, she says.
Take a look at this. He turns his phone on and slides it across the table towards her. She glances at the screen for only a fraction of a second.
Jesus, she says. What is this?
That’s me, right? Tell me that’s me.
So you’ve crossed the line from writing about it to actually taking part? Well done. Great. Whatever works for you. But don’t you subject me to it.
But it is me, isn’t it? Doesn’t he fuck like me?
Helen stands up. I don’t have to sit here and deal with this. She turns around just as she’s leaving. Get help, she says. It’s fucking depressing to see you like this.
At least she doesn’t shout. She seems so much calmer now; maybe Robert is good for her. He can’t help but imagine Robert as a mousy, timid little man, even though he’s probably the opposite. Helen’s found a man who can tame her. She can have a serious roar on her sometimes; it comes out as she’s ferrying items between the shelves on the landing and the stack of her books she’s built on the wrought-iron dining room table.
It’s because of the essay, isn’t it, he says. Christ. First my whole career falls apart, but that’s not enough, you have to tear out my fucking heart as well…
Helen throws the books to the ground. It’s not about your fucking paper, she bellows. You think I give a shit what other people are writing about you? Eileen Gould doesn’t know a thing about who you really are. If she knew you like I do the stuff she put in that review would be the least of your fucking worries.
What is it then? What have I done?
How about the fact that you think this is all about your paper? That you’re so wrapped up in your little ideas that you forget about… ugh! She kicks a wall. Her tone softens a bit, but not by much. You’ve always been very smart, she says. Really fucking smart. And God help me, I got taken in. You might be smart, but you’re not really all that clever, are you?
She comes back a few days later with breath smelling of red wine. She didn’t mean it to end like this – she keeps on saying that – but really, it can’t go on any longer. They sleep together. This doesn’t mean anything, she says afterwards. It doesn’t mean anything at all. I know, he says. He’s trying to be empathic, to not forget about whatever it is that she was about to accuse him of forgetting about. And then, two years pass.
He hangs around the café for a while, feeling numb. He’s arranged to see her in a nice recherché area, he wanted to seem like he’s doing better than he actually is. He wonders what Helen’s double is like. When she goes to sleep in London, where does she wake up? By the end of the counter there’s a stack of women’s magazines; he flicks through one. Men are finished, it tells him, they’ve lost the world. Women dominate everywhere; now they’ve even managed to take over the patriarchy. What’s more, they’re doing a much more efficient job of it than men ever could. They’ve cut away all the crude ungainly nonsense – no corsetry, no chastity belts, no naked tits flopping about everywhere; they’ve replaced all that with something cold and streamlined and ruthless. Women can tear each other to shreds with a viciousness that men could never muster. A surly glance from a model clutching a handbag, a list of this season’s must-buy cosmetics, a cheery call for liberation and empowerment – this is how you conquer half the human race. It’s pornography, there’s no difference whatsoever.
He doesn’t say anything about the video to Dr Chen at their next session. He does mention meeting Helen. I wasn’t trying to restart our relationship or anything, he says. She’s married now, actually.
How does that make you feel.
I don’t know. I was angry for a while afterwards. But I wasn’t really angry at anything. I thought I hated her for a bit. I don’t, really. I’m sure she can’t stand the sight of me.
You think she hates you.
I think she’s disgusted by me. It doesn’t matter.
Still, it’s good that you’re starting to make an effort to reach out to people again.
I’m not. I’m not interested in other people at all. It was to do with my study. I showed her a piece I was working on. And she just got up and left.
Dr Chen leans forward, expecting an explanation.
He knows who Dr Chen’s double is. Dr Chen spends half his time rotting in the psychiatric ward of some prefab concrete hospital in Guangdong Province, sitting on his bunk staring into the middle distance, dosed up to the eyeballs on antipsychotics, and he thoroughly deserves it. His own other self is a little more elusive. That’s fine. Dr Chen doesn’t have the full story, as always. He’s feeling great, he’s fizzing with energy. That’s taken a few days to develop, though. On first coming back to his flat after meeting Helen the numbness he felt in the café has given way to a black rage. He paces up and down his truncated corridor, wandering into his bedroom, circling his bed in a series of ever-tightening loops, walking out again, flopping down on the sofa, jumping back up, his internal monologue boiling out through his lips: fuck, fuck, fuck, idiot, fucking moron, fuck. He lights a cigarette, stubs it out, looks out the window, walks with the stammering ferocity of a man in an old silent film into the bathroom, spits in the sink. Fucking idiot. Why. Why. Fuck. Then a sudden calm blankets him. It doesn’t matter what Helen thinks of him, he has what he wanted. He knows it’s him. Now he just has to find out who he is.
As soon as he returns from Dr Chen’s he gets straight to work. He’s discarded the notebook; the content of the films hardly concerns him any more. Two East Asian women are bathing naked together in a big circular pool; a man in a towel walks up to them, their eyes widen, they share a conspiratorial grin and start paddling towards him, their round arses bobbing above the waterline like geobukseon. It’s not him. A blonde girl is having a massage, the masseur pulls the towel away from her and starts rubbing oil into her mons pubis; at first she looks a little perturbed but rather than sitting up and asking if this behaviour falls within his professional code of conduct she starts rubbing his crotch. It’s not him. A man is lying supine on a futon, a woman’s bruise-splotched arse rocking back and forwards on his cock. He’s entirely motionless. So good, she moans. He could consider the hyperreality of the scene, the fact that in trying to create a perfect representation of the sexual act the film is instead producing something bearing no resemblance to it whatsoever, an imitation without an original, one that negates the very idea of the authentic; he doesn’t. The camera swings around. It’s not him. The film in which he saw himself, h(1)-18.6.m.6-A, was made by a company called Digital Sin Studios. He’s working his way through their entire back catalogue.
After two weeks, he’s deflated a little. He’s doing it wrong. It’s not any actor he’s trying to find, it’s himself, but a self that isn’t accessible to him. He needs someone else to draw it out, someone who knows who he is. There aren’t many who know who he is. Food, Bills, Debt Interest, Simon, Helen; few of them are very well disposed towards him. He’ll have to make do.
Dr Chen takes some convincing. Then he’s silent for quite a while. What you are asking me to do, he says eventually, is take part in an act of Jungianism.
Is that a problem?
A problem? Yeah, it’s a problem. Dr Chen is clearly rattled; he’s never heard him speak with a question mark before. I’d lose all standing. I’d get booted from the Association. You may as well have me reading palms at a carnival. Writing horoscopes for the weeklies.
You saw the video.
Yeah, I saw the video. And you’re right. If this is real, we can chuck out everything we think we know about everything. Dr Chen takes a long breath. OK. If we’re going to do this, obviously we need to terminate our therapeutic relationship. I can refer you to one of my colleagues – God knows you still need help. And I want first rights to publish any findings. If we go through with this at least I want to be the heresiarch instead of some gibbering cultist.
That’s fine, he says.
OK, says Dr Chen. His voice is different. There’s no muted concern, none of his usual collectedness; he’s agitated, talking quickly, drumming his fingers on the side of his chair. It’s easy to forget that Dr Chen is just a character he plays in this office, that when he leaves his practice in the evening he gains a first name. Come to my house on Saturday afternoon, Dr Chen says. We’ll do it then.
He’s always wondered what Dr Chen’s neuroses are; walking up to the house in Hampstead he finds out. Dr Chen’s neuroses are parked in the gravel driveway, gleaming red, with a big crude underbite of a bonnet and a swooping tailfin; he may as well have painted flames above the wheels and a Confederate flag on the roof. Mrs Chen lets him in. Their home is bright and airy; there’s a big abstract fingerpainting framed on one wall of the corridor – it might be something one of their children did, it might be a work of contemporary art, it’s hard to tell. A litter tray is padded with yellowing pages from the Guardian; she smiles apologetically at it. They talk for a minute or two. Mrs Chen’s met quite a few of her husband’s analysands, she likes them, they tend to be interesting people. He tries not to see the ejaculate – Dr Chen’s ejaculate – oozing up from the pores in her face.
There’s no guarantee this will work, says Dr Chen. I mean, just for starters, plenty of people aren’t even suggestible to hypnosis.
I know.
Lie back, then. Dr Chen twitches. You know, I promised myself I’d never see a patient on a couch. If I could see myself now…
I thought I wasn’t your patient any more.
Oh, shut up. He picks up a marble on a string. I don’t have a lancet case, he says. And then, after a while: where are you? He’s in Dr Chen’s living room. The French windows look out onto a long narrow garden, the grass hoary with frost. Where are you? He’s in Dr Chen’s living room. The mantelpiece is littered with Occidentalist tat nestled inbetween the framed photos: crucifixes, monstrances, collector’s plates, all presumably very ironic. Where else are you? The Californian sun is shining bright and hot through the French windows. Wires snake across the floor, creeping like tendrils, sprouting lights and cameras and people. At first the people are black and plasticky; then their chrysales shatter and they come to life, tapping on clipboards, adjusting headphones, fetching coffee. The mantelpiece melts away, the framed paintings shrivel and flutter to the ground, the walls blanch from cream to white. Outside the grass withers and dies. The earth churns out buildings, boxy white bungalows.
What are you doing? says Dr Chen. He’s lying on the couch in Dr Chen’s living room. He’s across the room, naked, tumescent, chugging an energy drink. The lights and cameras chatter to each other in isochronous clicks and atonal hums. He lies on the couch and watches himself across the room. He stands across the room and watches himself lying on the couch. His gazes meet. He can see himself seeing himself. The drink is sickly-sweet in his mouth. He shakes his head. For a moment he thought he saw something else where the bed is, a long grey sofa. It’s been a long shoot, he reasons. He’s exhausted; they always said tiredness messes with your mind, and the coke probably doesn’t help much either.
Anthony, the director, is giving him a concerned look. You alright, Rod?
Yeah, he says. Fine. I dunno. Feeling a bit woozy all of a sudden. I’m fine. I was just out of it for a second.
Alright. Ready to go again?
Sure. He puts down the plastic bottle and walks over towards the bed by the window. Lucy positions herself on top of it, sticking her butt up in the air.
Positions, guys, says Anthony. Take sixteen. And…
What’s your name? says Dr Chen.
He rents a car at Los Angeles airport. It’s an automatic; he spends half the journey distractedly reaching for an absent gearstick. He’s been to the place once before, for an academic conference at UCLA. That had been before he’d gained his infamy as the author of Structures of signification in Brazilian Bubble Butts 8; he’d attended a few lectures and guiltily cheated on Helen with a medievalist from the University of Copenhagen. Then he’d been put up in a hotel on Wilshire Boulevard; now he has to find himself a motel in Hollywood. The one he chooses is an indelicate slab of Platonically ideal Americana. An enormous rusty excrescence hangs limpet-like from the side of the building, promising air conditioning and cable TV in reasonable rooms. Inside the carpeting is slightly sticky. The TV shows adverts, American adverts, they’re impossible to watch. Enquire now and get this beautiful chrome-plated pen absolutely free, says the TV. That’s right, there’s no charge, and you can cancel whenever you want and still keep the pen. Orwell called advertising the rattling of a stick in a swill-bucket, but that’s nonsense. Haplessly bound by the crudity of his Trotskyite Toryism, the poor man couldn’t begin to understand that he’d mixed up the ontology of the whole process: consumer goods only exist to stimulate the demand for more advertising. One day there’ll be a pure advertising, without intentionality, one that doesn’t need to refer to any product. Then advertising can finally take its place among the unholy pandemonium of painting, poetry, cinema, and the other degenerate arts.
A card on the windowsill informs him of the pay-per-view options. When he selects a porn channel he’s not at all surprised to see himself up on the screen, in that white-painted room, fucking Lucy on the bed by the window. He wants to call up Dr Chen about it; there’s no point. When he told Dr Chen what he’d experienced while under hypnosis he thought the man would pop a vein. Faced with the defeat of a century’s worth of Freudian dogma, he’d gone into a rage. Jungian mysticism, vaudeville acts, hysteria; at the end he bitterly accused him of having an incurable delusional psychosis, as if it were somehow his own fault. The video was a coincidence, the hypnosis was a placebo, he’d been roped into this unscientific nonsense, and he wanted out. Dr Chen had all but chased him from the house; his wife stood bemused in the hallway, half-proffering a cup of tea. The analyst hadn’t really wanted to be a heresiarch; all his frustrations with the psychoanalytic community were already being pretty effectively routed through the accelerator of his Ford Torino GT. No matter. It took him a few days to decide what he needed to do, but now it seems obvious; it’s the only way he can free himself. There’s a blue couch in the motel room – frankly it’s hideous, a kind of bright synthetic blue, dulled by cigarette ash and soup-stains but still with the trace of a cheap buried radiance, half lapis lazuli, half blue raspberry flavoured energy drink; its coarse fabric breaking up and drifting into the little fluffy nebulae that dot its surface. He lies on the couch, watching pornography. Everything is in its proper place.
The next day he stops at a hardware store to buy the things he needs, and then drives up to the Valley. At first it’s as if he’s leaving the city altogether – the barren hills of the Santa Monica Mountains rear up all around him, their flanks empty but for scrubby bushes and advertising billboards, the freeway winding around them; it looks almost Mediterranean. Then a few towers appear over the tarmac, and the whole San Fernando Valley spreads its legs out in front of him. The mountains hang anaemic purple over the city’s car-exhaust miasma; between here and there the valley is flat, gridded by a matrix of broad avenues. Once again he feels a sense of the world’s absolute horizontality. There’s something underneath it, though: these rows of prim bungalows are stretched over the boiling crucible of a million tiny seething resentments. Municipal boundaries, property values, school board elections, there’s a war here as real as any other, being played out in slow motion.
Digital Sin Studios is based in a big glassy building on an unremarkable boulevard, sitting squat between a strip mall and the South Valley Congregation of Christ. There are a few people on the street. Most of the women are tall and blonde, their pneumatically meaty legs sprouting trunk-like from tiny denim shorts. It takes him a few minutes before he notices what’s really different about them: as their indifferent gazes swivel to watch him drive past, he doesn’t feel any hatred or any sense of existential shame. Instead, a feeling he barely recognises: high above the Californian desert, his libido is soaring towards the ocean, closing in on him after years of separation, its shriek echoing through the limpid skies.
A middle-aged woman sits behind the reception desk. Shouldn’t you be in there? she says. I think they’re wrapping up already.
Is Rod here? he says.
She gives him a concerned look. Is this some kind of joke?
It’s not a joke, he says. I need to see Rod. He works here, doesn’t he?
The clicking of shoes sounds on the spiral stairs behind her desk. There’s a voice. So I like spoke to the British Journal of Ephemera, it says. And they gave me this university email address, but it’s not working. So I thought, fuck it, right? Even if I don’t find him, then you know I’ve always wanted to go to Europe.
As he turns the last twist of the staircase he stops dead. His phone clatters down the steps to the marble-tiled floor. There, in the lobby, looking a little more dishevelled, a little fatter, wearing loose jeans and a crumpled white t-shirt, is himself. For a second he can’t quite believe it. Ever since Tina showed him that photo of himself next to an essay on pornography in an old academic journal, he’s been trying to track the author down: now he’s suddenly face to face with him. He walks towards him, slowly, reverentially silent. His mirror-image does the same.
Hi, he says. I’m Rod.
His double doesn’t say anything. He shudders. For a moment it looks as if the man’s about to have an epileptic fit. Then he smiles a crooked smile, one full of disjointed English teeth, and pulls the knife from his waistband. He lunges.

9/11 & the Burkean sublime

My year studying literature at UCLA was academically pretty satisfying. Without having to follow any structured degree course, I was free to abandon actual literary works altogether and indulge myself reading obtuse Continental theorists. Most importantly, the grades I received didn’t impact my overall degree, which allowed my work to sometimes veer away from strict academic tone (I referred to Shakespeare as ‘Shakey P’ throughout one paper) and into areas of questionable bad taste, as in the essay below, which I’m posting in commemoration/memoriam of yesterday’s anniversary. I’m not sure if I agree with everything I’ve written; certainly not with the rather Arendtite equivalency I appear to be drawing between Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union – but I rarely fully agree with anything I write, even the stuff  that I put up on this thing. There was also more I wanted to say: I wanted to discuss in greater depth the revolutionary potential of reactionary ideas such as those of Burke in a postmodern age, I wanted to more thoroughly deconstruct the aesthetic effect of the attacks themselves. The piece does end quite suddenly; I suppose I had other things to do. I’ve decided after some reflection not to amend or expand it (I’ve got other things to do). Here ya go.

In his 1757 essay A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful, Edmund Burke developed a theory of aesthetics based on two opposing principles: the beautiful and the sublime. The beautiful is that which is pleasant and well-formed (although he disputes the notion that a sense of proportion is intrinsic to beauty). The sublime, by contrast, is considered to be a far more powerful force: it is that which induces fear and awe. Central to sublimity is the experience of vastness, infinity, and danger. While a sense of terror is essential to an experience of the sublime, the danger must not be immediate – Burke uses the example of a viewer on shore watching a ship being tossed about by a storm.

Although extensive use was made of the sublime in the art and politics of the Romantic period, its importance appears to have diminished during the modern era, and especially since the First World War.. It is arguable that elements of the Burkean sublime persisted into the politics of the twentieth century. In his Commentary on the Society of the Spectacle, Guy Debord distinguishes between two forms of spectacularity: the concentrated spectacle of Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union during Stalin’s premiership, and the diffuse spectacle of American capitalism.[1] It is arguable that the first form is heavily reliant on the sublime: Burke argues that the ‘succession and uniformity of parts are what constitute the artificial infinite;’ and such succession and uniformity formed a prominent element of Nazi and Stalinist mass demonstrations;[2] meanwhile the Lichtdomen designed by Albert Speer for the Nuremberg Rallies produced at once the extreme light and extreme darkness which are ‘both, in spite of their opposite nature, brought to concur in producing the sublime.’[3]

However, as Debord points out, the concentrated spectacle has been entirely vanquished by the diffuse spectacle, in which ‘wage-earners [are driven] to apply their freedom of choice to the vast range of new commodities now on offer.’[4] If the organising principle for the concentrated spectacle is the sublime, for the diffuse spectacle it is the beautiful – sensations of awe and terror rarely lend themselves to the consumption of consumer goods. As Foucault points out, the master-signifier of morality in late capitalism is ‘our feelings’ – while in classical Greece the good life was considered to be that which accorded to aesthetic principles, with ethics and aesthetics considered to be non-contradictory, in contemporary society the conception of the good life is inextricably bound up with the fulfilment of desires and the maintenance of pleasant feelings and a positive emotional state.[5] In such a society the sublime can not, as in the ‘totalitarian’ societies of the early twentieth century or the monarchies of the eighteenth century, help prop up established power. Rather, by its very nature, it constitutes a threat.

While Debord claimed that the two forms had reached a kind of Hegelian synthesis in the ‘integrated spectacle,’ which was claimed to have been pioneered in France and Italy, any examination of the administrations of Sarkozy or Berlusconi (or, for that matter, Hollande or Monti) reveals that, to whatever extent Debord’s integrated spectacle actually realised itself, the sublime is not among its attributes.

With the decoupling of the political and the aesthetic, the sublime has found limited articulation in certain cultural artefacts. Recent innovations in the technologies of computer-generated imagery have allowed for the creation of landscapes and environments calculated to induce a sensation of the sublime, and whose effect is arguably greater than those found in the natural world. In the 2009 film Avatar, for instance, director James Cameron created the fictional planet of Pandora, complete with craggy and vertiginous landscapes and fantastical, threatening wild creatures. The aesthetic effect of the film was such that some viewers reported experiencing depression after watching it, with some contemplating suicide, as the world depicted was not real and could not be experienced directly.[6] While on the one hand the success of the film indicates a continued appreciation for the sublime on the part of contemporary populations, at the same time it highlights the discontinuity between the sublime and quotidian existence: the sublime has been so thoroughly purged from the modern world that it can appear only on distant and fictional planets.

As such, when the sublime does intrude into the organised banality of the contemporary West, it can only do so through sudden and shocking acts of violence. It is arguable that the most notable reappearance of the sublime in the modern world was the terrorist attacks of September 11th 2001 in New York. While for its victims and those in Manhattan during the attacks the distance from danger necessary for a sensation of the sublime was obviously not present, the significance of 9/11 transcends their immediate location. News footage of the attacks was viewed around the world, and images of the World Trade Centre and its collapse have since been endlessly reproduced in a manner that speaks not only to the political import of the attacks but a grim fascination with their aesthetic effects. Many of the aesthetic qualities described by Burke as producing the sublime are present in such representations: aside from their suddenness and sense of terror they induce, the attacks made rugged the smooth faces of the Twin Towers; their vertical collapse heightened their vastness and perpendicularity.


[1] Guy Debord, Commentary on the Society of the Spectacle (Verso: London 1998)

[2] Edmund Burke, A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful(Oxford University Press: Oxford 2007) p. 132

[3] Burke, p. 146

[4] Debord, p. 8

[5] Michel Foucault, ‘On the Genealogy of Ethics: An Overview of a Work in Progress’, in The Foucault Reader, ed. by Paul Rabinow (Vintage: New York 2010) pp. 340-372  p. 352

[6] Jo Piazza, Audiences experience ‘Avatar’ blues. CNN: http://articles.cnn.com/2010-01-11/entertainment/avatar.movie.blues_1_pandora-depressed [accessed 11/06/2012]

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