Idiot Joy Showland

This is why I hate intellectuals

Tag: theory

What to do when you’ve been cucked


So you came home to find your wife fucking another man, someone you’d never even met before, right there on the living-room sofa. Your own response surprised you; you were surprised by just how unsurprised you were. Your wife and her lover were steadily shuffling the cushions off that sofa you’d bought, and all the while she was making noises you’d never heard before, not pantomime screaming but breathy fluttering moans of a genuine pleasure you could never possibly give her, and you asked the two of them to keep it down a bit maybe as there was some work you had to get one with, and then you left. You’d always wondered, dimly, what someone like your wife could ever see in someone like you, and as it turned out the answer was that she didn’t. Almost reassuring. There’s something to be said for not being seen. So you went up into the little study you’d made for yourself in the spare room, and put on some nice mid-2000s indie music to drown out the noises still coming from downstairs. It wasn’t as if you’d not been warned. Everyone is tired now of the identification of the sexual with the political, the fact that you can hardly bring up Marx now without Freud trotting along smartly on his heels; you are an enlightened man, and feel vaguely that statecraft should be about bigger and grander things than the policing of which bits of which bodies are allowed to go where, but you were warned. For months now strange men had been pestering you online whenever you offered up one of your sensible and well thought-out takes on the day’s news, and all of them had been calling you a cuck. Your wife, they’d been telling you, is fucking another man. And they weren’t wrong.

For most people aware of the phenomenon, it seems strange or ridiculous that the online far-right should be adopting accusations of cuckoldry as its insult of choice. Of all possible slurs, cuck is pretty much unique in that the only person it ever really diminishes is the person saying it. The people most fond of it are young, pyogenic, leeringly antifeminist men who spend far too much time online, and for whom cuckoldry is an object of terror and fascination in equal measure, despite the fact that – let’s be frank – they don’t tend to fuck very much; men who are deeply anxious that someone else might have sex with the wives that they don’t have. It’s not even hidden: all the cuck-sayers are doing is universalising their lack of phallus. On their various websites (4chan, the manosphere, there’s no point indulging in the usual nonsense about the ‘dark corners of the internet’ when the whole panoptic prison is floodlit at all times) the idea of female inconstancy dominates. One notion, tied to the principle of a universal hypergamy, is that 80% of women are having sex with 20% of men, with the remaining men either being double-timed or left entirely celibate; another holds that up to a third of all fathers are unwittingly raising a child that is not theirs. To even be capable of processing the insult you need to be aware of all this stupid shit; that’s the only sense in which it’s effective: if someone calls you a cuck and you know what they mean, you should probably sort your life out. So why use it?

These things always coil in on themselves: the men with their dripping fear of being cuckolded inevitably tend to be the same ones who get off on watching it happen. In cuck porn a (white) husband squirms, crestfallen and ineffectual, while his (white) wife is fucked by another (usually black) man. Most of the work on this phenomenon, much of it very good, still tends to focus on its unpleasant racial politics – which are absolutely present, but hardly new; Frantz Fanon could have told you all about it – while passing over what’s really novel in cuckold porn. Here, the figure of viewer identification is not one of the participants, but the cuckolded husband; the viewer is not just watching, but watching the process of watching. The husband is forced to observe, sometimes masturbating, always ashamed of himself: cuckold porn is a metapornography, in which the viewer of the traditional pornographic film is himself inserted into the mise-en-scène to become the cathected object, a pornography at once narcissistic and utterly castrated. But power reproduces itself here: the wife and her lover are only spectacle, mute amusement, while the husband is spectator, or in other words subject. Cuckoldry is the real embodiment of the universal white male subject, the sourceless gaze that sees everything and desires everything and categorises everything while touching nothing; far from representing the crisis of white masculine dominance, it’s the agony of its realisation.

Which might be why it lends itself so easily to politics. (Those most often accused of being cucks are, after all, the followers of the dominant liberal-democratic ideology, something deeply ineffectual but which asserts itself everywhere with a terrifying violence.) In the mythology of the far-right, nations are cucked by welfare and migration, politicians are cucked by business interests, the average male is cucked by every bureaucratic indignity that’s keeping him from being an untamed creature of the forests like his notional ancestors (and usually, sooner or later, by the horrifying, cystic, priapic figure of the Jew). You could say, on a certain level, that they’re not wrong: doesn’t being forced to live under capitalism induce a profound psychic mutilation of the individual, their alienation from their species-being? Are we not weak? Isn’t your wife fucking another man right now as you read this?

It’s not so easy. The figure of the cuck maintains a certain hostility to Marxist categories. In classical cuckoldry, the cuck is not just the man whose wife is having an affair, but one who is raising her lover’s child as his own. There is nothing here of exploitation, the expropriation of surplus value –  capitalism functions by partialities, always giving, coiling vast streams of plenitude and desire around a wretched and miserly core: what you get out is less that what you worked for, wealth is indissociable from scarcity, you have been short-changed. That little skimmed-off portion of surplus value is a void, formed by rational and autonomous processes, and in a void there’s nothing for the tendrils of cathexis to grab hold of. The cuck inhabits a very different universe: double-timed rather than short-changed, nothing has been taken away from him; instead, a shadowy, nebulous something has been added. He isn’t diminished by being cuckolded in the sense of the worker diminished by wage-labour; he was always ontologically insufficient. His partiality seeks not completion but the sequential introduction of further partial objects, of which there can never be enough. In medieval Europe – still today, in some places – the cuckold was said to wear horns, the sign of a demonically rich nature. The cuck desires his own cuckoldry. His world groans under its own weight, overstuffed, seeping surplus everything in a trillion lines of forbidden sweat; the form of appearance of the living world within a dead one. He is the coddled, declining bourgeois; postindustrial, atomised, and observant; incapable of overcoming his condition by collective action, shut off not from his own full self-realisation but from the manic overproduction that surrounds and supports his twitching form. You are in your own house, nothing has changed, except the strange man vigorously fucking your wife downstairs, the immenseness of a pleasure that no single body can contain. A vast unknown dimension opens up in front of you, as the cuck trembles on the precipice of infinity.

So you have been cucked – now what? Are you going to divorce your wife? Of course not, you don’t have the balls. The strange lonely men with their anime avatars and their antisemitism like to proudly declare themselves uncucked, which is an obvious nonsense; there is no end to cuckoldry, whose schema is that of limitlessness. The cuck-sayers, with their constant whining about other people being allowed enjoyment, are the most cucked of all – next to their idealised heroic image of the noble and independent man, a pathetic animal cucked every day by the scarcities of blind nature. There’s nothing else to do: you will wait for your wife’s lover to leave, and then you will make a dinner of grilled salmon, brown rice, and broccoli, which you and your wife will share with half a bottle of supermarket red, and you will talk about – what else? – politics, and then you will go to sleep. You miserable, pathetic cuck.

There’s always more, no end to the monstrous things crawling out the chasm between sex and politics. The cuck-sayers are all tremendous fans of Donald Trump, despite the fact that, as everyone knows, he’s only running as part of a secret deal with Hillary Clinton, in which the two old friends agreed that Trump would present himself as the most unpalatable candidate possible to make sure that Clinton would, finally, get everything she ever wanted. The two of them share the same dream. Clinton deploying her big prosthetic Donald, long and rubbery, charging to victory on the engorged Donald that she carries between her legs; and Trump, daring to imagine what could happen if he actually won, his eyes rolling as he fantasises about birthing a new, cruel, strange America, hot streams of life and death flowing endlessly from out his broad and fertile cunt.

The Harambe variations


INTRODUCTION, or GORILLA ZERO, the META-APE OF UNDERSTANDING: Harambe in the chaos of the world

Harambe is the dead ape that will not die. It’s been months now since the Cincinnati Zoo ruthlessly dispatched its prize 440 lb Western lowland gorilla with a single deadly gunshot after a three-year-old boy fell into his enclosure, but his name lives. During the recent parliamentary elections in Australia, many voters wrote ‘Harambe’ over their ballot papers, with one telling an Independent journalist, who appeared to take it in full sincerity, that this was because ‘we Aussies feel our government should have done more to save Harambe and now we’re voting for his corpse.’ In Ohio, a street was renamed ‘Harambe Drive’ on Google Maps after multiple reports to the company from three local teenagers. ‘Bush did Harambe’ signs appeared at the Republican National Convention. ‘Dicks out for Harambe’ has become a global cri de cœur. Clearly something has happened, and is continuing to happen. Isn’t it natural to want to explain?

At the start of this month, an undergraduate student at the New School for Social Research called Alexander Fine wrote a short blog post about the enduring legacy of Harambe, noting that the people most fascinated by the gorilla tended to be on the political left, and attempting to draw some kind of relation between Harambe and its wider social and political context. ‘Harambe memes,’ he wrote, ‘reflected, and continue to reflect, the left’s disillusionment with our political reality and the media at large. The left keeps Harambe alive because we see ourselves in the dead ape. Harambe’s death was inevitable, and so too was the defeat of an ageing presidential candidate who identified as a socialist.’ It’s hard to remember what else he wrote, because the post was quickly deleted – it became the subject of a mass outburst of derision; there was something in this form of interpretation that was recognised as being fundamentally inappropriate. Fine’s essay was judged to carry an unacceptable excess of thinkpieceiness, to be uncomfortably commingling the weighty and the ludic, to deal with something inherently silly in far too serious a manner, even despite its evident playfulness. It was agreed to be a bad take. But why?

It’s not as if other attempts haven’t been made to ask the same question, of why people remain so attached to Harambe, or why he’s still funny, without generating the same backlash. See, for instance, a recent essay by Brian Feldman in New York Magazine, which does much the same thing as Fine did, without attracting any of the same scorn. Feldman attempts to classify the Harambe memes (they ‘aren’t the topical equivalent of dead-baby jokes; they’re fairly standard internet non-sequitur nonsense humour’); he relates them to current events and to asymmetries in the discourse (noting, for instance, their echo of Cecil the Lion memes); he even situates his discussion within a broadly Marxist framework. If there is a central difference between the two interpretations it’s this: Fine situates the death of Harambe within the political order and sensuous reality; he relates the loss of an ape to the other senses of loss that dominate the experience of the twenty-first century; he approaches Harambe as an overdetermination, a sign that points to a phenomenal referent. Feldman, on the other hand, situates the death of Harambe within a network of other memes. In other words, to draw meaning from a sign is tacitly forbidden, to present the world as being explicable through signs is classed as a risible proposition. Signifiers relate only and always to other signifiers, and Harambe has become a metasignifier, taking on a Barthesian dimension of myth. To say that Harambe must be a symbol for something, that the fascination with Harambe points to something else, is a sacrilege.

This is not an essay about Harambe, the ape who died, but one about interpretation, the ways in which people take the raw material chaos of the world and fashion it into something meaningful. I’m not interested in denying the dominant position that Harambe can only be meaningfully related to other signs, only in testing it or situating it; all I want to say is that a silverback gorilla is a very large animal, and it can carry many things.

(Humour: Blood. Element: Air. Planet: Jupiter. Gemstone: Sand.)

The magical ape begins in curiosity and terror. The curiosity of the child, looking into the enclosure and unable to differentiate between the friendly monkeys of cards and cartoons and the brute sweating thing before him. The terror of the child, taking its first lesson in depth analysis as a creature beyond language drags him through the water by the legs. The curiosity of the ape, padding down to sniff at this tiny, fragile thing of a type he’d seen before, but only ever seen, as if through a television screen, now tumbling from image to object. The terror of the ape, rattled by the screams from outside his cage, puffing himself up, ready to deliver death or be dealt it. The terror of the parents, the terror of the zoo authorities, the terror of the marksman. And then the questions: was Harambe threatening the child, or protecting him? Is a gorilla’s life worth more than an infant’s? The body of a gorilla is strong, and any number of interpretative schemata can tense or flex under his skin.

The first ape is the visual ape. Under its regime symbols do not simply emerge through mimesis or signifiers through onomatopoeia; the ape beheld by the eye codes a world in which words and things endlessly refer back to one another. Prior to the initial phallic signification the snake is shaped after its own name, while the penis leaks poison in imitation of its zoological archetype; there’s no genitality in the Garden of Eden. Oedipalisation occurs only when the child crawls into that enclosure in the Cincinnati Zoo: now we’re faced by a dyad, the child and the gorilla, the child and the father. On the terrain of magic or similtude an ape is a visual intensification of the father, physically terrifying, hirsute, a potent castrator. Here the principles of Darwinian evolution are only a minor feature of Oedipus: the ape is the father of humanity. Remember the originary father in Freud, half-man, half-ape, pure threat and pride, who must be killed by his weaker, more glabrous sons. Only then is the father mourned, and his arbitrary law incorporated into the psyche.

But animals are also gods or totems, and God the Father is also the paternal superego. Pure identity, without representation, without one prior to the other. Christ on his cross cries out: eli, eli, lama sabachthani? My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? Was he not told the entire plan? The death of Harambe is a blasphemous inversion of the passion of the Christ; here it’s the father, and not the son, who dies for our sins. The name for this heresy is patripassianism, or Sabellian modalism, an immanent possibility in Christianity denounced since Tertullian, and endlessly produced in its denunciation. The Trinity, Sabellius declared, is only a mask, describing aspects of one person. He could not bring himself to say it, but the implication is unavoidable. The Godhead in its entirety suffered and perished on Golgotha. It’s easy to see why this doctrine prospered, and why it was so ruthlessly stamped out: this is the Oedipal fantasy, the cannibalistic feast of the first father. They killed the ape in Cincinnati, and as they did so they unleashed the vastness of a heretical third-century theology; we are fascinated by a dead gorilla, because something that started two thousand years ago on a hill outside Jerusalem is now finally complete.

(Humour: Melancholia. Affect: Embarrassment. Constellation: Pisces. Gemstone: Ruby.)

Six days before the death of Harambe, two lions were shot dead by a zoo in Santiago after a man climbed into their enclosure, intending to commit suicide. There was, briefly, an explosion of anger at the zoo. Why the ape? Why not the lions? Why Harambe?

For much of his life, Georges Bataille was obsessed with the anal scrags of great apes. In The Pineal Eye, he describes a tropical sacrifice ceremony: a gibbon is buried alive, head down, with only the ‘bald false skull’ of its anus protruding; a nude woman crouches over it and ‘the beautiful boil of red flesh is set ablaze with stinking brown flames.’ Later he declares that ‘the little girls who surround the animal cages in zoos cannot help but be stunned by the ever-so lubricious rear ends of apes.’ In The Jesuve, he notes that with a hint of sadness that ‘anal obscenity, pushed to such a point that the most representative apes even got rid of their tails (which hide the anuses of other mammals), completely disappeared from the fact of human evolution,’ but takes comfort from the fantasy of a new sexual organ located in the human forehead. (It could be added, after Deleuze and Guattari, that ‘the first organ to suffer privatisation, removal from the social field, was the anus… it is the anus that removes and sublimates the penis.’) The obsession with apes is an obsession with a brutal and a terrifying freedom we’ve lost long ago.

We have done terrible things to the animals: most of them are wiped out and gone for good; some are slaughtered by the billions, mulched up and turned into hundred-gram increments of edible slurry; a few still sulk in the furthest wildernesses and the deepest oceans, hunger-crazed and desperate. The unluckiest become objects of contemplation. Watch a pig in a pen and try to see that brutal and terrifying freedom; walk along the rows of cloistered cattle, each tagged and microchipped, each staring in dull incomprehension, a living thing in a hard shell of cruelty, its feed dispensed by computers, its milk sucked out by machines, its death decided by algorithms, and try to find an erotic thrill.

But at the same time, an ape hovers on the edge of meaning. There is another gorilla, Koko, which has been taught basic sign language; not only can it signify, it’s capable of the rudiments of abstract thought. This is the ape as metaphor; the political ape. Killing a lion represents the cruel mastery of animals by humans, a kind of heroic mastery, with all that implies – in many societies only the king could hunt a lion. The decision to shoot a gorilla with a sniper rifle, on the other hand, represents the subjection of rational beings to the principle of reason. There is no heroism, not even a transcendental subject; only system. Aren’t we all, in some way, trapped in an enclosure, with the marksman’s single shot – delivered, of course, for very good reasons – always a possible threat? As Baudrillard writes, ‘animals have preceded us on the path of liberal extermination. All the aspects of the modern treatment of animals retrace the vicissitudes of the manipulation of humans, from experimentation to industrial pressure in breeding.’ But when it happens to an ape – an ape with a name, no less – it becomes impossible to ignore the fact that we are not free. We say Harambe’s name because he is the hero we lack, because he is the sign of our own unfreedom. We say Harambe’s name because the new orifice Bataille imagined really has opened across our foreheads, plugged in to the internet, and that’s the name it screams.

(Humour: Choler. Voltage: 240 V. Disposition: Agitated. Gemstone: Topaz.)

It’s possible to discern several stages in the general reaction to Harambe’s death. First, the non-ironised, the determinate, the unfunny. Was what the zoo did justified? Donald Trump said yes. Others said no. Many were furious, petitions were signed, there were calls for the child’s parents to face criminal charges. This first movement was also the last phase in which it was at all possible to talk about image and object. Next, hyperbolic descriptions of animal slaughter at the zoo. Instances overwhelm. ‘Zoo employs troop of insane hollering teen infantry to ride multiple M1 Abrams tanks through lemur enclosure, shooting them with the tanks.’ ‘Child Plays Calypso On Ancient Galapagos Tortoise’s Shell Before Zoo Crew Obliterates Beast With M-4s.’ ‘The gorilla was killed by a tungsten rod dropped from a satellite in geosynchronous orbit over the zoo.’ Then, rewording song lyrics to be about Harambe – but this intentionality is anaemic and ironised; the songs are not about Harambe so much as the word Harambe, and a set of other words that have come to coalesce around it. This advanced form marks Harambe in the purity of its irony: a signifier without any signified whatsoever.

The ape is simply not there; this is Feldman’s ape, the mythic meme-ape, the ape as empty signifier. Its differential nature is expressed not as a relation between signifiers but as one between ‘Harambe’ and the systematicity of the signifying system itself. As Laclau points out, however, the outside which is from within the system constituted as ‘pure negativity, pure threat to the system’ is in fact ‘the simple principle of positivity – pure being.’ Harambe therefore eventually comes to signify the immanent positivity of ironic superimposition; performatively, in its discursive rather than semiological meaning, it is invoked to signify the presence of an irony – itself an empty signifier. Something called irony occurs, but rather than being in the form of any kind of antiphrasis or anything that could be understood as a substitution of meanings, meaning itself is challenged by its other.

But then something unusual occurs. The current moment – dicks out, signs at protests, streets renamed – is marked by a return to veneration of the dead ape, a kind of dialectical recuperation of the first phase. The living and dying animal itself returns, but here no longer as an event to be coded by interpretation, but an interpretation by which to code other events. The moral question of whether his shooting was justified is no longer in effect; in fact, the zoo and the child and shooting have disappeared entirely. We are angry that Hillary Clinton refused to mention Harambe in her acceptance speech. We are worried that North Korea is testing new ballistic missiles, and Harambe is not here to protect us. We wonder, in times of crisis, what Harambe would do. Word and thing are reuinited. This is the point at which the Harambe thinkpieces proliferate, attempting to interpret the phenomenon. But all such attempts at a transcendental critique necessarily fail, because the dead body of Harambe has become isomorphic with the heuristic as such; we are in Harambe, we cannot hope to think outside our present Harambe.

(Humour: Phlegm. Articulation: Multifoliate. Sex: I’ve. Gemstone: Space Junk.)

I love Harambe, the ape who died. I love the dead ape Harambe.

In defence of personal attacks


The left does not have a great literary tradition. The really titanic writers and novelists of the twentieth century tended either towards a kind of weary nihilism – Beckett, Kafka, even Joyce – or the outright fascism of a Céline, a Mishima, a Borges, or a Lawrence. Within the Soviet Union, novelists tended toward mild reaction, and Stalin had to intervene to save his favourites. ‘Leave that holy fool alone,’ he said of Pasternak. ‘It’s not good calling literature right and left. These are Party words,’ was his judgement on Bulgakov. This position, that great art transcends politics, is itself political, a reactionary one, but literature makes us reactionaries. Something about socialism as it’s often practised, perhaps the insistent optimism in the face of suffering, doesn’t lend itself well to the novel as form. There’s a famous story about Engels: after Marx’s death, he was regularly approached by young socialist writers who wanted him to read their manuscripts, and these were almost invariably terrible. Didactic little stories about brave, noble, heroic workers who banded together and triumphed over their bad evil bosses. Engels would tell these writers to go away and read some Balzac. And Balzac was a monarchist. This doesn’t mean that progressive politics can’t be reconciled with the written word; we just have our own forms. Communists write engaging history, anthropology, and literary theory; we’re good at hybrid, inventive, or indeterminate forms, in particular the essay; we have good poets. But more than anything we know who the enemy is and we’re not afraid to exercise moral judgement, and so we write excellent, vicious, brutal political invective.

Lately, the value of personal unpleasantness has been the subject of some debate, if you can call it that, which I’ll get to in a moment. But first I feel I ought to defend my own practice. I’ve previously used this space to be really very mean about quite a few important people – Slavoj Žižek, the corpse of Margaret Thatcher, Richard Dawkins, Nigel Farage, the Royal family, Alain de Botton, Tony Blair, Abraham Foxman, Stephen Fry, the cereal café twins, Chris Kyle, Slavoj Žižek again, Howard Jacobson, Slavoj Žižek a third time, Howard Jacobson a second time, Slavoj Žižek a fourth time, Bill Kristol, Neil deGrasse Tyson, Nate Silver, and Nick Cohen. These critiques are often hyperbolic: I don’t just disagree with someone’s ideas, but make unpleasant comments about the way they look or talk, I place them in gruesome sexual scenarios, I indulge in strange fantasies in which they get kidnapped and beaten to a pulp, are humiliated on live TV, expose themselves from a medieval tower, develop a psychotic fear of frogs, or sneak into people’s homes to commit strange acts of voyeurism. Some of these comments are potentially libellous (sue me, you fuckers!), all of them are frankly gratuitous and unnecessary. In fact, this is an occasional response I receive – my point, when I bother to make one, is marred by the vitriol of the personal insults; it’s unfair and unbecoming; when I insult someone’s person it can look as if I’m not competent to grapple with their ideas. So why do it?

I want to mount a defence of exactly this kind of crude, cruel, spiteful rhetoric, and it’s helpful to start by looking at its opposite. An excellent example is provided by Neil Postman’s 1985 book Amusing Ourselves to Death, one of the great broadsides against the dumbing-down of America, the reduction of great and noble ideas-based debates to crass bickering. Television, writes Postman, has become to dominant form for communicating ideas, to which all other forms are subservient (one could say the same of the internet today); it has supplanted the written word, and the results have been disastrous. Writing forces people to think an argument through linearly, to concentrate on pages of fairly unattractive squiggles for hours on end in silence and contemplation, to engage with concepts that do not necessarily have any immediate visual referent; with television, meanwhile, you just sit in front of the box and let the images wash through your brain. In the first section, Postman describes the highly literate society of the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, when ordinary people would actually read books, when ideas circulated freely, when most people wouldn’t recognise the US President if they saw him on the street, because great figures were seen primarily as a collection of texts, to be evaluated by the dispassionate critical intelligence. This was the Age of Reason, and it was great. Later, he describes an attempt by television to display some serious and rational enquiry to its viewers: an eighty-minute discussion programme broadcast by ABC in 1983, with a panel of respected experts, all titans in their field, and men that Postman clearly admires. But because this discussion was broadcast on TV, it was impossible to represent the serious intelligence of its guests; instead of thinking, with all the uncertainty that implies, they were forced to make rambling little commentaries: ‘what the ABC network gave us was a picture of men of sophisticated verbal skills and political understanding being brought to heel by a medium that requires them to fashion performances rather than ideas.’

There are two things to note here. First, Postman is victim to a fetishism of the book as a physical object; second, to a fetishism of the Idea as such. He talks about reading a lot, but very rarely about writing: the text is passively received, evaluated but never responded to. For the great mass of people the written word is an ennobling force that comes from the outside, and they are to gladly lap it up. As any good Derridean knows, this is nonsense; the act of inscription is all but universal, especially within what Postman calls pre-literate societies. And he misses a fairly important question – what did these great ennobling books actually say? Even now, there are people who try to build their identity on the fact that they really love reading – they’re such a nerd haha, they don’t go out drinking at night, they’d far rather curl up with a good book. What books? Oh, all books are great; Mein Kampf, the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, the latest from Michael Deacon; I just love books. What were people reading in Postman’s great Age of Reason? From the way he writes, you’d think they were all reading John Locke, Thomas Paine, and the Bible. Except this was also the era of brutal imperialism and the beginnings of scientific racism; the South was full of slaves, and the slaveowners were frequently publishing apologia for their monstrosities – which, it has to be said, were expressed in complex sentences designed to appeal to the faculty of reason. Similarly in the present day. Postman is full of respect for the panellists on that ABC show, because they are men of ideas, but while he writes paeans to the act of evaluation inherent in the written word, he doesn’t seem to exercise it himself. That discussion was broadcast after the film The Day After, about nuclear war, and the panel was an interesting bunch. One of its members was Ellie Weisel, the professional whitewasher of Israeli ethnic cleansing. Another was white supremacist William F Buckley. A third was the celebrity war criminal Henry Kissinger. Postman is most effusive in his praise for Kissinger – a ‘paradigm of intellectual sobriety,’ who would make ‘viewers feel sorry he was no longer their Secretary of State by reminding everyone of books he had once written, proposals he had once made, and negotiations he had once conducted.’ And in a way, Postman is right. Kissinger is deeply serious. But he’s a deeply serious monster.

The world we live in is not populated by ideas, it’s populated by people, and people die – millions of them, constantly, for no good reason other than the avarice and cruelty of other people. This is a central Marxist insight: ideas do not exist in their own glittering sphere; they emerge from concrete relations of production and power. Henry Kissinger is not a collection of texts and concepts, but a profoundly evil man. It’s important to rebut his ideas, because they are dangerous. But if you also attack him in the face – or, preferably, in his dick and balls – it’s harder for these ideas to escape into their weightless world where any concept is as good as any other. Kissinger as a set of abstract notions is incommensurable with anything in material reality; a sad, naked, doughy Kissinger with a pale and shrivelled penis is a human body, far harder to divorce from the millions of human bodies he destroyed in south-east Asia. Gratuitous personal insults are essential. A grotesque satirical fantasy, Kissinger cranking off in a Phnom Penh hotel room to napalm videos, whatever, belongs to reality; the vision of him as a big fleshy book does not.

Debate club rules are not universally applicable. When people demand that discourse only take place on the level of ideas, rather than ugly reality, it’s often because there is something in reality that they’d rather not face. The people who really object on principle to being mocked or insulted, the ones who decry it as violence, tend to be far less critical of actual, physical, deadly violence. Blood is fine. Dick jokes are not.

All this is written in response to the fallout from what should have been a fairly inconsequential internet spat, in which the leftist blogger Matt Bruenig referred to the liberal thinktankie Neera Tanden as a ‘scumbag.’ Incredibly, this somehow ended in Bruenig losing his job. Friends and comrades have already written excellent essays on this incident and the issues surrounding it; in particular Gavin Mueller’s materialist critique of media stratification, Roqayah Chamseddine’s urgent analysis of the weaponisation of feminism for bourgeois ends, and Amber A’Lee Frost’s prophetic call, published shortly before all this nonsense broke out, for a return to eighteenth-century political vulgarity. (Neil Postman, incidentally, has surprisingly little to say about de Sade.) I’ll try to avoid repeating too much of these very perceptive analyses, but I will add a few things. Firstly, there’s a strange consensus among media liberals that discussion on the internet is marked by an unacceptable incivility. Protected by anonymity and distance, the id bursts up through an encrusted ego, and the fury of distant savage millennia leaks out through keyboard to screen. Here it’s worth looking at where civility actually comes from. Enforced codes of conduct were first established to guard against the very real threat of murderous violence. If two people meet and do not behave politely to each other, there’s a serious chance one of them may end up dead. This is why you shake with your right hand; it’s the same hand that holds the sword. Rudeness isn’t bad in and of itself, it’s the violence that’s bad. On the internet, this is very rarely an issue; we’ve been liberated from the circumstances that demand politeness, and there’s no good reason not to be rude. But the protection it provides isn’t universal. The people Bruenig annoyed were powerful – Tanden, for instance, is likely to be Hillary Clinton’s chief of staff – and so they had the means to deprive him of his job. But they defend causing him material harm by reference to a principle of civility – means become ends, their actions are justified by a code designed precisely to prevent this from happening.

Secondly, what unites the liberals attempting to demonise Bruenig – Sady Doyle, Joshua Foust, Jordan Kay, and others you’re probably very lucky to have never heard of – is their total uselessness at good, vicious political invective. It’s just not their natural terrain. They like to condemn groups and caricatures, slinging their mud out a bucket from on high, where they never get dirty themselves; they’re entirely incapable of getting a decent playground insult to land on any one individual. The only other option, besides violence, is to whine ‘but you’re being meeaaan.’ These people are just clueless. Case in point is Doyle, who once wrote that ‘trying to parse Hillary Clinton without also parsing Hillary hate is like trying to drink water without touching the glass,’ apparently having never heard of the popular invention known as a ‘straw.’ Or, for that matter, Foust, who cheerleads for murderous despots, and fantasised about gunning down the childhood bullies he didn’t know how to respond to. In the end, it’s not the case that you make personal attacks because you don’t have the intellectual heft to engage with ideas. Far more often, you adopt a high-minded posture because you don’t have the rhetorical wit to make personal attacks.


How do you eat the world’s biggest pizza?


The other day, the city of Naples in Italy built the world’s longest pizza: two kilometres of classic margherita, snaking all along the famous waterfront like a sea wall, a last line of defence against floods or volcanoes. I say ‘built’ because a mile-long pizza is not really food in any meaningful sense; it’s a structure, a monument or memorial, something that belongs to the domain of architecture no less for being made out of dough and mozzarella rather than brick and mortar. Whatever this gargantuan pizza is, it’s not for dinner. In fact, it doesn’t at first appear to be ‘for’ anything, other than to be what it is, the longest pizza in the world. Hundreds of people were involved in its construction, it used two thousand kilograms of flour and two hundred litres of olive oil. But why?

Cultural theorists have some form with this type of thing, the close examination of some harmless little cultural quirk which always ends up forming a distillation of all the contradictions in the whole. (Although in this case it’s not really so little a cultural quirk; it’s a pizza that can be seen from space.) The general human tendency to build hyperbolically large versions of normal food poses some problems. Certainly it’s significant, and it can’t just be reduced to a gimmick or a bit of fun – if we found that an uncontacted Amazonian tribe was sporadically creating enormous versions of everyday foodstuffs, wouldn’t we want to think about why? All the grand forms of which anthropology is occasionally still fond seem to be replicated here, but at the same time it’s something entirely different. The enormous pizza is a vision of sheer plenitude and material bounty; we might think of the potlatch, symbolic feasts, ecstatic animal sacrifice. Its edible architectonics recall folk utopias, places from the Land of Cockaigne to the Big Rock Candy Mountain that in popular fantasies have always featured a landscape you can eat: houses made of pies, creeks fizzing with clear lemonade, the Edenic possibility of a world plastic and responsive to human desires. These fantasies aren’t simply a stylised negation of actually existing deprivation: they model a schema in which desire is unstructured by lack and life is untouched by death. The world wants to be eaten, and to eat it does not diminish it. Things do not die. The human mouth is not a locust’s, we are not a plague, we do not devastate – we produce. The fantasy of endless food is primarily an anal fantasy, an overcoming of the contradictions between mouth and anus, so that vital and edible flows predominate over their stoppages, darting happily through the alimentary canal. (In one version of the Cockaigne legend, you shit honey.) With such plenty, and with humanity arranged as a seamless field of mouths and anuses, the feast is by nature communal; in the Big Rock Candy Mountain you never have to ask before taking a chip off someone else’s plate.

This is not the world in which we live; we live in the dead world, the restricted economy, where houses are made of bricks. But shades of the living world seep through: the ecstatic sacrifice, the Feast of the Communion, and pizza. Pizza is a utopian food, the pie of communism: the egalitarian circle is to be shared, everyone grabs a slice. Unlike other sharing foods (barbecue, canapés, the sandwich platter) it forms a divisible whole to match the social totality, rather than a finite number of self-contained items to be doled out by some social-democratic bureaucrat. (The calzone, meanwhile, folded in on itself, marks the onset of fascist ressentiment.) The world’s biggest pizza, then, ought to be a miraculous social gift, a moment of joy and wonder for everyone. But in fact it’s nothing of the sort. The world’s longest pizza is stretched out for public view, but it is to be engaged with strictly on the domain of the visible. It’s a spectacle. All along its splendid length the pizza is guarded by rails and fences: you are to marvel at it, to conceive of it in terms of quantifiable size rather than infinite plenty, and on no account are you allowed to grab some cutlery and tuck in. The paradoxical prohibition voiced by authority for sixty centuries: this pizza is not for you.

It is still to be eaten, cut up and donated to the needy and the hungry of Naples, in what is an undeniably altruistic gesture, if a strange one – here, have this pizza, it’s been sitting around outside by the seafront all day, where the birds can shit on it. Still, nobody could deny that the poor are more deserving of the big pizza than anyone who happens to walk past it. But there’s something significant here – the way plenty is immediately put into association with lack, the way that under capitalist conditions of deprivation the world’s longest pizza forms an intolerable excess. When material plenitude does not actually exist, really big food signifies an increase in desolation. (This is, incidentally, a dialectic thoroughly explored in the film Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs.) The huge pizza isn’t the living body of the Sacrament, but a sepulchre. See how ‘the world’s longest’ overdetermines ‘pizza’: food reduced to acreage is dead food. A corpse of a pizza, lying in state for the mourners to wail over; a cheese and tomato tombstone.

In fact, funeral rites are always the law of very big food, and its production can never be disentangled from warfare and hatred. Milan built a big pizza, so Naples built a bigger one; the wars of Italian unification only found a new battleground. For decades now, Israel and Lebanon have been competitively creating the world’s biggest bowl of houmous – and houmous is, like pizza, a utopian food, served in a holy circle, dipped in with whatever scrap of bread you have to hand. The Israeli Air Force bombs Beirut from the sky; Lebanon retaliates with an enormous bowl of chickpea dip. These occasions are solemn and dignified; it’s a question of national pride against an oppressive neighbour. Often the big houmous is paraded through the streets in a ritual that mirrors almost exactly the Islamic funeral procession: held up up by its pallbearers, the chefs in their uniforms mimicking the white dress of pious mourners. The giant bowl of houmous is the image of something that died.

But what is it? Giorgio Agamben quotes the twentieth-century classicist Elias Bickermann on the funeral of Antonius Pius in 161: ‘Iustitium (public mourning) begins only after the burial of the bones, and the state funeral procession starts up once the remains of the corpse lie already in the ground! And this funus publicum, as we learn from Dio’s and Herodian’s reports, concerns the wax effigy made after the image of the deceased sovereign […] All these accounts leave no doubt: the wax effigy, which is “in all things similar” to the dead man, and which lies on the official bed wearing the dead man’s clothes, is the emperor himself.’ The king has, famously, two bodies, the body natural and the body politic: when the body natural dies it is only the corpse of a man named Antonius, and the public need not be concerned, while the wax image is the emperor as such, his body politic, this is the thing whose passing we must mourn. And it must be mourned properly: as Derrida writes, ‘the work of mourning […] has to make sure that the dead will not come back: quick, do whatever is needed to keep the cadaver localised, in a safe place, decomposing right where it was inhumed.’ The symbolic funeral is a guard against spectres, a fence separating the living from the dead. But times have changed in Italy: the imperial colossus is now a record-breaking pizza. This pizza is not in the image of some dead potentate; its function is political in a far broader sense. The giant pizza is in the image of plenty, the image of the commons, the image of the living world. It’s a funeral for the possibility of a better life; a conjuration against hope. The land of plenty is gone, but we remain. Here, on the dead earth, under the dead sky, surrounded by the dead pizza. Raise your eyes, let the glow above fester and bring out those rotting tears. We did it. The world’s biggest pizza. The biggest pizza in the whole damn world.

On the stupidity of Nate Silver


If there’s a dominant experience of the twenty-first century, it’s that of living in a world that does not make sense. Life is stupid. Not stupid in the same way that a person might be stupid, in the sense of an incomplete grasp of the facts and a throttled slowness in processing those that it has, but a slick, dizzy, reckless, triumphant, positive stupidity, a stupidity that happily assimilates to itself all forms of intelligence. Sexual relationships are stupid; any form can only dissolve, monogamy, polygamy, celibacy, all teeming in panic against our inability to cope with other people or ourselves, charging like flies against a windowpane. Work is stupid; pointless drudgery that no longer pretends to have anything more in common with actual productive labour than ritual animal sacrifice, so that there’s nobody who won’t freely admit that they’ve wasted their life, so that the cherished tradition of killing time in the office had to be introduced as a new form of labour discipline. Democratic politics are stupid, not so much a reality TV show as a glorified version of the policeman’s identity parade, but in reverse time: the mass of voters identify the perp, and then he gets to go and commit his crimes. The international order is stupid, drugs law is stupid, global warming is stupid, mass media is stupid, going to the beach is stupid, the Sun and the Moon are stupid, staying at home is stupid, the tiny furrowed creatures that burrow between immense grains of earth are stupid. The world is ending! How did we end up here? Somewhere along the road, centuries ago, millennia ago, we took a very wrong turn. Hegel might have described a parallel reality where it never happened, but here, every new stage of history is a further progression in the dialectic of the original Mistake.

A stupid world can still make sense; what faces us now is the collapse of all its explanatory and predictive mechanisms. The gods, who had a plan, can no longer account for a world without one; nor can divination, or the natural sciences, or hermeneutics, or Marxism. It’s not that these procedures can’t be accurate – Marxism, in particular, might still be the only thing that can help us, retaining as it does the worthwhile kernels of all previous forms – but each of them serves to change the world as it is described, so that the dispassionate, bodiless observing eye becomes another component in the machinery, impaled on its axle, squelching and wobbling along with every other greasy cog. The gods were supposed to let us know what was good and just; instead they fucked us in the form of a swan, and in the war that started no ceasefire has ever lasted long. The natural sciences were supposed to flood the dark corners of the universe with reason; instead they choked the air with smog. Stupidity triumphant isn’t defeated by its opposite. It crawls the world on slug-trails, searching for cleverness to eat. Look at the US election: with every stupid lie Donald Trump speaks a thousand liberals jump up like snakes from a can to explain exactly why he’s wrong, as if they don’t realise that being wrong is in no sense a fault.

This is, I think, where my good friend Tom Whyman is wrong about Nate Silver. The American psephologist was a brief celebrity after the 2008 presidential election, when he correctly predicted the outcome in all but one of the fifty states; he promised a new way of approaching political events, based not on loyalty, prejudice, gut instinct, stereotyping, or partisan attempts to change the outcome by predicting it, but cold, objective numbers. No wonder he became a liberal hero – in whatever small way, he took an unpredictable world that did not make sense, and found a pattern. Silver did what nobody else had thought to do: he looked at the polls, measured them against each other, and formed a set of statistical probabilities. Ignoring any analysis of political moods or economic circumstances, he decided that the most likely predictor for how people would vote was who they said they were going to vote for. This is why Whyman refers to him as a ‘cold demon of knowledge’: the people and politicians who actually impact reality are idiots, but Silver, content to merely describe it, ‘the judge only of bland truisms that would and continue to exist anyway, seems god-like.’ Whyman is Hegelian here: the aggregated understanding of all existing active stupidity becomes a passive intelligence; there’s a conversion of quantity into quality. But stuck between these two poles – transformative stupidity, descriptive knowledge – he demands another: a transformative knowledge, the power to make discernments about the world and then ‘say, not merely: “it is thus and so” but also, “and it should be thus.”’

The fourth pole, descriptive stupidity, slips out of his discourse. It’s not quite the same thing as being simply wrong, although wrongness might be involved; in a fundamentally very stupid world, the concept that is in accordance with the present state of things will inevitably be a stupid one, while transformative knowledge gains its character precisely through its non-heterogeneity with things as they are, its capacity to imagine a better world as yet unrealised. On the level of the descriptive, knowledge and stupidity are therefore indistinguishable. (Let’s not forget that psephology contains its shadow twin, psephomancy. The ψῆφος is the pebble used as a ballot in Hellenic democracies; psephomancers would study the material patterns on pebbles or those made when they were thrown to gain knowledge of future events. The bloodless logic of data-driven election forecasters like Nate Silver only inverts the mysticism of the latter. Reading the prose of the world, you predict where the pebbles will fall; but the pattern itself is without signifying properties, meaningless, stupid.) But, as outlined above, the descriptive and the transformative can not so easily be distinguished. Under current conditions all poles are only attributes; the active and the passive, knowledge and ignorance, are just epiphenomena of a general stupidity. The cold demon doesn’t float above the earth but leaves icicles hanging in its wake. The forms of electoral practice have, since 2008, become entirely about numbers, number-forecasting, number-wrangling, polls and delegates, an idol in the demon’s likeness. But the content has become very different; Donald Trump is entirely unpredictable, a stupidity that cannot possibly be aggregated into knowledge. Since his candidacy was announced just about every American pundit has assured us that it’s doomed, that he’s a flash in the pan, that he will never take his party’s nomination. But they were wrong. And Nate Silver was wrong with them.

This election, there’s a new psephological hero, the most accurate pundit in the media: Carl ‘the Dig‘ Diggler. He correctly called Indiana for Bernie Sanders, while Silver was still giving a 90% chance for a Clinton victory; he predicted the results of the Iowa caucus, down to the exact order of candidates on both parties; he predicted every single one of the Super Tuesday primaries, while Silver only hazarded guesses at eight. Even when Diggler first appeared to have been wrong – predicting a Sanders win in Nevada, for instance – subsequent, seemingly random events retroactively changed the outcome in his favour. And he achieved this, not using polls or data, but with gut, personal instinct, conventional wisdom, race science, and stereotype (‘Cruz does exceptionally well in Midwestern states where Christian folks vote knowing the next Commander-in-Chief will preside over the Second Coming and End Times’) – all the things that Silver’s cold, inhuman intelligence was supposed to have done away with. And while Silver has repeatedly been challenged to account for his failures, in his cowardice he’s never responded.

This is, of course, because Diggler is not a real person, but a parody of the pundit classes created by Virgil Texas and Felix Biederman. Diggler is a hyperbolic sadsack, who spends about as much time complaining about his ex-wife and filing lawsuits against Tinder as he does making political judgements. His creators do look at the polls, but they balance out their predictions with other, non-numerical knowledge: the atmosphere at political rallies, who’s being talked about on TV, the actual personalities of the candidates and the people voting for them, things that can’t be reduced to data points. It would be possible to account for Diggler’s extraordinary predictive success, and everyone else’s failure, in this manner: the pundits are all very stupid, while Texas and Biederman are not. But something else is happening. If you see them talking about Carl in person, you notice something strange: they talk about him like new parents talking about their child; they talk about him as if he actually exists. He does actually exist. Carl Diggler is real – more real than Nate Silver or (say) Thomas Friedman, more real even than the people who invented him and who write his words. He’s not a fictional character, he’s a cuckoo; he’ll consume them with total indifference. Those predictions are all his own. Was wirklich ist, das ist vernünftig – but here the rational is never fully dissociable from its colloidal stupidity, and the real is a stunted reality that is never entirely actual. Carl Diggler is real because his stupidity is of a piece with the stupidity around him, because his virtuality is not a separate frame to everyday existence but constitutive of it. His parodic interpretations all come true, because as everyone is aware, the world is parodic and lacks an interpretation.

Finding how to lose

Grief fills the room up of my absent child,
Lies in his bed, walks up and down with me,
Puts on his pretty looks, repeats his words,
Remembers me of all his gracious parts,
Stuffs out his vacant garments with his form.
King John, Act 3, Scene 4


I’m terrified of the EU referendum, not because of what might happen (because nothing will happen, nothing ever happens), but because of the way all this moral responsibility seems to be spiralling downwards onto me, a sword that hangs in expectation of my choice. And I don’t really know what to do. Both options are so utterly unpalatable: an indignant array of petty Poujadists in Union Jack waistcoats, arranged like souvenirs on some well-dusted shelf; the blank forces of international capital, their clanking machinery underground, their liquid streams of finance darting overhead. The union is monstrous; its opponents are monstrous too. It’s hard not to turn yourself into Hegel’s beautiful soul – the retreat of conscience from action into speech, the sense that everything surrounding us is evil, and the only thing one can do is avoid being muddied by it. The beautiful soul, Hegel writes, is the thing ‘whose light slowly fades, and who vanishes like a formless vapour disappearing into thin air.’ But this is Hegel: what fades always remains, preserved in its disappearance; the beautiful soul’s lonely death firms the ground for absolute knowledge. Start with the fairly obvious fact that voting doesn’t really matter, that one person’s voice is always lost in the democratic din. But you’re going to vote anyway. What negated things can we keep hold of in their negation? Why vote to win when you can fall silently into loss? I’ve decided what I’m going to do. I’ll follow the polls very carefully, and vote for whoever won’t win: if it’s clear that Britain will vote to leave the EU, I’ll vote to stay, a last-ditch effort to do something against that lethal wave of reactionary nativism; if it seems we’re staying, I’ll vote out, and slow the fading phantom of a slightly different world. It’s pointless, and it’ll only work if I’m the only one doing it. But when the worst happens, as it always does, I’ll be able to say: don’t blame me, I voted for Kodos.

But then I’ve always voted for Kodos. Every election, every referendum, everything I’ve ever given my grudging support to has lost. It’s a curse. I’m perpetually on the wrong side of history, but the things that never happened hang crystalline and unreal above a sordid world. This is something Walter Benjamin talks about in his Theses on the Philosophy of History. The task is to ‘brush history against the grain,’ to read its secret index of defeats and losses, the long sad tale of that which was never remembered, and find in it the messianic power of the weak. ‘Nothing which has ever happened is to be given as lost to history.’ All that once failed is reborn; as long as there are the victorious there will be the defeated, and as long as there are the defeated, the thing that we lost can never really be gone. The two senses of loss swirl together: loss in battle or loss in an election, and the loss of grief and melancholia. Somewhere out of their overlapping negations comes something to hold on tight to.

As a child I was unsatisfied with the world, already looking for ways out. I read some online pamphlet about Advaita Vedanta and decided I believed in it; I made myself a little diagram of the cosmos, within and without Māyā, dotted lines connecting Brahman to Atman to my own confined and unhappy self far across the limits of observable reality; I was weird. I liked things that weren’t really real; not pure fantasy but all those lenses that made the world bearable in its new capacity to be somehow otherwise, that gave me a kind of conceptual power to change things that I didn’t have in daily life. Conspiracy theory, pseudohistory, socialism, faith. I think it wasn’t long after my grandfather died that I found a collection of alternate histories, little stories told by pop-historians about what might have happened if one battle or another had gone the other way, a prism of worlds that never were. I don’t remember the title; it was actually a fairly stupid book (one account described the result of Lenin’s assassination on the way to St Petersburg: the Bolsheviks are effortlessly sidelined and we get a happy, prosperous, liberal-democratic twentieth century). The cover was utterly inevitable: a black and empty sky, and a swastika flag on the Moon. But that really did happen. The space programme that sent the first people to the Moon was the Nazi space programme, all those scientists snatched up in Operation Paperclip, effortlessly swapping Hitler for Washington. Watch the dialectic at work, preserving what it negates, proceeding as always by its bad side. It’s not that the Nazis are another example of Benjamin’s defeated of history; how could they be, when putting a swastika on the cover is still the best way to sell a book? But the litter that chokes our planet remains, all the bones remain, and one day we are promised the resurrection. This is why utopia is always melancholic, the refusal to simply mourn, the tight grip of the living to the dead.

Freud writes in The Ego and the Id that ‘the character of the ego is a precipitate of abandoned object cathexes that contains the history of those object-choices.’ We are who we are not because of the things we have, but the things we lost; the human psyche is a broken terrain pitted with innumerable jagged navels, places where the lines that once connected us to something else were ripped away. First we lose the world. The subject forms as the oceanic unity of the oral stage shatters. You’re no longer a mouth sucking in a world that is also yourself. You collapse into your limits, now you have a mouth, your first scar. You lose your invincibility in language, you lose everything else in other people. But there’s a solipsism that persists, into Freud’s own works: that reductive psychodynamics, the reconfiguration of a being-in-the-world into what is essentially a piece of highly complex plumbing, full of glooping streams of libido. A blockage in one interior capillary will cause the psychic fluid to gush the wrong way through its coil at furious speed, manifesting itself as neurosis. If a pipe or vent out of the system is cut off altogether, the fluid will just circulate endlessly around all the major channels, reaching boiling point, until touching the surface will burn the skin off your fingers: the plumbing has become psychotic. Everything is contained in this knotted ball of pipes. Freud spends most of Mourning and Melancholia insisting that the melancholic’s self-accusation really concerns a lost object, but that object is itself lost from the page as soon as you try to take hold of it. Instead there are images: melancholia is the ‘picture of a delusion,’ the object is reproduced internally within an ego that splits itself in two because other people don’t really exist. It’s the object-cathexes, not the object itself, that snaps back in the miserable subject’s face. Freud, you can tell, had never taken a punch. When my grandfather died we sat shiva in the house, and I spent the whole time staring through the dining-room window, watching weathered relatives filing in, deluding myself that at any moment I’d see his beige overcoat emerge out the gloom by the front path. I had never cathected that overcoat. This was something else, unrelated to any twanging lines of investment. The sudden and abyssal unreality of an object, the sensation of a thing that was not there, but whose absence became so solid, so close, more real than reality itself. And if there’s a worthwhile politics, and I hope there is, that’s where I think it can start: with a child who hasn’t yet learned how to grieve.

All cats are girls and all dogs are boys: further notes on Slavoj Žižek

Where thought has opened up one cell of reality, it should, without violence by the subject, penetrate the next. It proves its relation to the object as soon as other objects crystallize around it. In the light that it casts on its chosen substance, others begin to glow.
Theodor Adorno, Minima Moralia


It was gratifying to see, in his latest response to me, that Slavoj Žižek is finally engaging with the psychoanalytic concepts that are (after all) his intellectual speciality. I happen to have some disagreements with the way in which he uses them, but I’ll come to that later. The dispute over certain terms – desire, fantasy, culture, and so on – spirals out from a parenthetical observation I made in my initial critique of Žižek. He writes that migrants should abandon the unrealistic demand for a better life in a ‘Norway’ that does not exist, and should agree to be settled wherever a coercive European state apparatus decides to send them. I respond: ‘Isn’t this precisely the operation of the objet petit a? What kind of Lacanian tells someone that they should effectively abandon their desire for something just because it’s not attainable? Or are migrants not worthy of the luxury of an unconscious mind?’ In our subsequent exchanges Žižek argues that my invocation of objet petit a is not legitimate, and that the desire in question has instead the structure of a fantasy. These are not, in the Lacanian cosmology, opposing terms; if what we’re dealing with here is indeed a fantasy, it needs to be taken seriously as such. Žižek disagrees; the fantasy must be ‘traversed.’ In this contest – who’s using the terms correctly, who’s abusing them, the gotcha game of faultlines and connections, the gasping slapfight for legitimacy, all of it largely irrelevant to the issue at hand – something was passed over: the question of whether migrants do, in fact, have an unconscious mind. The question was supposed to be absurd, but apparently I should have insisted on it with more force. Because the answer, according to Žižek’s recent essay in the New Statesman, is actually no, they don’t.

Here, Žižek builds on a structure proposed by Alain Badiou in the wake of the massacre in Paris, a division of the world into three forms of subjectivity: that of the liberal-democratic West (this is a neutral quantity, and demands no further investigation), and two modes of response to its global dominance. First, the ‘desire for the West,’ which manifests itself in migration and in what Žižek scorns as the ‘miserable copies of western prosperity’ – coffee shops in Lagos, shopping malls in Luanda. How dare they! (It’s not clear why Žižek invests these places with the horror of the unreal; you don’t have to be a Baudrillardian to recognise that the coffee shop in London or Lisbon is fundamentally also a miserable copy.) Secondly, the ‘nihilist reversal’: a zombie plague. The envy of the non-Western subject is inflamed into a fascistic, insensate rage, something that collapses into ‘hatred pure and simple.’ It’s here that Žižek diverges from Badiou. For the latter, our task is to ‘go and see who is this other about whom one talks, who are they really. We have to gather their thoughts, their ideas, their vision of things.’ For Žižek, this is impossible. This other is ‘utterly disoriented;’ behind their frantic psychodynamic torque there is no ‘”deeper” human core of global solidarity.’ So much for the depth metaphors of Freudianism; we cannot talk with these people because they are incapable of speech. It’s not just that we don’t share the same symbolic terrain; it’s a landscape on which they simply have no presence. They are incoherent Orientals, speechless and psychotic, objectively robbed of everything by the disposessive whirlwind of global capitalism, but on the subjective level terrifyingly uncastrated. This is the framework that Žižek uses to talk about the New Year’s Eve sexual assaults in Cologne.

His primary theoretical referent here is not Lacan or even Badiou, but the new Tarantino film The Hateful Eight. Who, he asks, is the hateful figure in this film? It’s the entire cast: the black man fighting off armed racists is every bit as ‘mean, brutal, and revengeful’ as his enemies; the forces of law and order are as venal and sadistic as the gang of criminals. (He doesn’t mention it, but the friendly black inkeepers are also virulent anti-Mexican racists.) The lesson Žižek draws is that everyone is bad: refugees might be fleeing from terrible horrors, but that doesn’t give them any great moral virtue; they’re still capable of carrying out violent and inexcusable crimes. The idea that everything is bad should be pretty much axiomatic; I’m certainly not interested in contesting it. But I think Žižek has engaged in a significant misreading of the film. The Hateful Eight is not a film about good or bad people; it’s a film about the State. Everything in it centres around paperwork; when they’re not killing each other, the characters spend most of the running time scrutinising each other’s documents. Samuel L Jackson’s character has a letter from President Lincoln which is occasionally demanded of him; he also has warrants for the deaths of the three bodies he carries around with him. With these pieces of paper he is a lawful bounty hunter; without them he is a criminal. Tim Roth’s character is a travelling executioner; his paperwork entitles him to hang the guilty for a living, and if the message weren’t already clear he gives us a long monologue on the difference between State force and personal violence. The real lesson is that neither can be considered independently: each produces, structures, and limits the other. I didn’t particularly like The Hateful Eight, but it does demonstrate a fairly obvious Marxist dictum: it’s pointless to consider any instance of violence in its isolated abstraction, you have to position it within the concrete historical totality of human relations. It’s no use talking about good or bad people; any action is necessarily a product of the social field in which it takes place.

To be fair, Žižek makes a feint in this direction, referring (in a rushed, unenthusiastic moment of obeisance to the leftist liturgy) to the ‘systematic violence of capitalism itself, from the catastrophic consequences of global economy to the long story of military interventions.’ But this doesn’t really inform his analysis. Fundamentalist fascism is something other to the civilised West, attached by a gossamer-thin dialectic; women were attacked in Cologne not because migrants don’t understand that Western sexual etiquette is different, but because they understand that perfectly well, and they hate it. Here the societies of the West are figured as free and open and (on the level of gender, at least) egalitarian; those of the Middle East are not, and the events in Cologne mark the point of friction between these two codes. This is patently untrue. Societies in Europe and the Middle East are both of them patriarchal and repressive (it’s not as if sexual assault was unknown in Cologne until the refugees arrived; such atrocities are epidemic throughout the continent), and feminist movements in both regions have to contend with an overwhelming tide of male violence. There is a long and heroic tradition of Arab and Islamic feminism: the question isn’t one of why the West is more permissive but why oppositional movements within the West have had more success in influencing their social fields. It’s impossible to answer this question without looking in detail at the history and politics of the regions concerned. Since the middle of the twentieth century, the Middle East and the wider Islamic world has experienced a brutal repression of womens’ rights – compare, for instance, photographs of street scenes in Kabul from the era of the Democratic Republic of Afghanistan with images from today, and compare how the women are dressed. Throughout the twentieth century, peoples across the Islamic world attempted to build secular, socialist, egalitarian states, and time and again they were met by Western imperialism. The West’s geopolitical aims in the Middle East require repressive governments, subdued populations, client states that will obediently facilitate the extraction of value – and social repression in general is inextricable from the oppression of women. Fundamentalist fascism is not the dialectical antithesis of the values of a bourgeois West, but something entirely immanent to it. The cruelty that displayed itself on the streets and squares of Cologne was not the result of a cultural difference, with cultural causes; its causes were political.

It’s this notion of culture that returns us to Žižek’s critique of my critique of his critique of my critique. Beyond some minor terminological wrangling (no, fantasy is not a symptom, and I didn’t intend to suggest that it is; the notion that a fantasy is symptomatic of a ‘deeper’ ill comes straight from Žižek’s own essay), his main objection is this: by using Lacanian concepts to consider the relation to an other that is constructed along racial or cultural rather than sexual-libidinal lines, I am distorting and misusing those concepts. Naturally, I disagree: properly deployed, a concept would not be a border clamping down on its object, but something that allows it to open up, form connections, and reach out to further non-identities. This is why theory is useful: it provides a way to alternately bring things together and spread them apart, to form ways of thinking that cut across phenomena in their isolation and allow us to think things in their bubbling totality. Here I think the Master might be on my side – after all, Lacan famously declared that ‘Marx invented the symptom’; he’s generally open to the ability of a signifier to drift through various regimes.

Žižek’s objections, when taken seriously, indicate a strangely non-Lacanian approach. He writes that the lack of an appropriate signifier for the other is something that ‘does not primarily occur between different ways of life (cultures) but within each particular culture’ (ie, between a subject and its libidinal object) and that my position implies that ‘each culture somehow manages to be in touch with itself, it just lacks appropriate signifiers for other cultures.’ It does not; I’m talking about relations between subjects: as I’ve written before, I find the abstract notion of a distinct and cohesive culture to be fairly useless. Žižek’s insistence on upholding this idea in these circumstances is revealing: to do so, he ends up having to assert that the division of people into cultures is primary, primary even to the division in gender that Lacan is talking about. First people are arranged into different ‘ways of life,’ then we get Oedipus. This isn’t Lacan, it’s Samuel Huntington. Lacan, as far as I’m aware, does not tend to use the word ‘culture’ very much: what Žižek is talking about are his four discourses, those of the Master, the Hysteric, the University, and the Analyst – and not, I should point out, the European, the Arab, the African, and so on. Discourses are, as the name suggests, discursive; a structure of relations that will operate whenever there is any kind of relation. (As Žižek points out, this being Lacan, discourses are not spaces of mutual comprehensibility but different forms of mutual misunderstanding.) A subject can operate within a discourse, but to formulate an encounter between subjects – one that will necessarily take place under a certain set of conditions – as an encounter between discourses is nonsensical. These arrangements can meet, and have their agonisms – Lacan’s name for this is politics, and keeping in mind his dictum that ‘the unconscious is politics,’ it’s clear that this political clash of discourses should in no way be read as a clash of subjects.

Collapsing the notion of culture into that of discourse is, arguably, a far greater distortion of the terminology than anything I’ve achieved – most of all, because its operation is not expansive, but restrictive. With the discursive character of the discourse passed over, with its collapse into the blankness of culture, Žižek is capable of figuring migrants as a cultural null point, as those who do not and can not speak. What Žižek performs is an ossification of forms into static categories. All cats are girls. And all dogs are boys.

PS: I can’t finish without noting Žižek’s complaint against my ‘intellectual sleight of hand’: where he said ‘fundamentalist Muslims,’ I only quoted the second word. It’s a bit like one of his own parables: the word that’s missing is the one that gives the sentence meaning, etc, etc. I’ll admit to the misquote, but I’m not sure that the appended word alters the meaning in any significant manner; the opposition between ‘fundamentalist’ and ‘moderate’ Islam is a fairly insidious nonsense. Cracking kernels and so on.

PPS: In their discussion of the barbarian State, Deleuze and Guattari describe it as a train: the grand paranoiac, followed by his obedient perverts – ‘the conqueror and his elite troops, the despot and his bureaucrats, the anchorite and his monks.’ This came to mind while reading Adam Kotsko’s defence of Žižek. He argues that the best way to understand Žižek’s position is through the lens of his own book. (Well, of course.) Kotsko argues that the worst elements of Žižek’s stance on the migration crisis are in fact a provocative overidentification with the false terms of the debate. This is fine. He also writes that, unlike his critics, Žižek is providing concrete, sensible, workable solutions to the problem. This is also fine. I would suggest, though, that you can’t really have both.

American aphanisis: in search of Donald Trump

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Notes towards a phenomenology of conspiracy theory


Really, what I want to talk about here is the unspoken axiom behind all epistemology: that we ought to believe statements that are propositionally true, and that we ought not to believe statements that are propositionally false. This general principle is rarely ever stated, and tends to just appear as the hidden code that governs any logical process. P1 is true, so it was kept; P2 is false, so we no longer considered it; the fact that this is less a logical axiom than a moral injunction is subdued in all this bloodless process, while the invidious character of the terms ‘true’ and false’ neatly closes up any gap between ‘is’ and ‘ought’ that would otherwise make such an ethics of reasoning more distinctly problematic. In any case, there are forms of truth beyond the propositional, ones where this autogenerative law finds itself making commands beyond its jurisdiction. What about the revealed truth of religious texts, which must be believed before their truth can become apparent? What about the unconscious truths of psychoanalysis, which must not be consciously believed in order to function? It’s now accepted (among most of the media and political classes, at least) that the statement ‘While at Oxford University, Prime Minister David Cameron took part in an initiation ceremony during which he fucked a dead pig’ is not propositionally true – but even if that’s the case, isn’t it in a very important way more true than the truth?

But I’m not going to resort to postmodern vaguery, beardscratchingly prognosticating on the distortion inherent in any reduction of truth to concept. Instead, I want to sink down deep into a set of statements that are generally considered to be propositionally false, and surface arguing why we should believe them anyway. For this I’m choosing conspiracy theory, because conspiracy theory is fascinating and mysterious and vast, and I love it, and I hope that you do too. Conspiracy theory appears to be an epistemic discourse, almost maniacally focused on ‘truth’ – so that, for instance, the phrase ‘9/11 truth’ for most people immediately yields the meaning ‘crazy 9/11 speculation’. But the other great master-signifier of conspiracy, the call to ‘wake up’, is very different: we’re dealing with modes of experience, the clouded, the fantastic, the pellucid, that demand a consideration beyond dreary propositionalism: a phenomenology of shapeshifting lizards and the New World Order.

An interesting point of entry here is provided by ‘Conspiracy Theories and the Popular Wisdom‘, an essay by the University of Otago philosopher Charles Pidgen, published in Episteme volume 4, issue 2, which has been doing the rounds lately in certain left-wing circles that are understandably sensitive to accusations of conspiracy theory. Pidgen’s central proposition – that we should believe conspiracy theories, or at the very least investigate them while being open to the possibility that we might – is not dissimilar to mine, but the case he makes is an epistemic one, and given that there’s clearly something broken in epistemic reasoning, it’s inevitably insufficient. He thinks we should believe conspiracy theories because they are propositionally true. He begins by noting that the charge of conspiracy theory is often used to discredit ideas that are unhelpful to the powerful, and that according to the conventional wisdom conspiracy theories are a priori absurd and unworthy of investigation. But if we hold this position, and sensibly define conspiracy theory as ‘a theory that posits a conspiracy,’ then we have to throw out most of what we know about the past. If we don’t believe in conspiracy theories, then we would have to hold that Brutus and Cassius and the others all happened to come up with the idea of murdering Caesar independently and coincidentally. ‘Much of recorded history would dissolve into a blur of inexplicable events.’ (Which, from a certain Benjaminian perspective, is exactly what it is, but never mind.) Clearly none of this is tenable, and so Pidgen – who’s spent the bulk of his essay disproving a position that nobody actually holds – quite correctly concludes that there’s something wrong with his definition. But if conspiracy theory isn’t just ‘a theory that posits a conspiracy’, then what else could it be?

Pidgen’s proposed redefinition is still insufficient. When the conventional wisdom tells us not to believe in conspiracy theories, he writes, it means those ‘that postulate evil schemes on the part of recent or contemporary Western governments (or government agencies) and that run counter to the current orthodoxy in the relevant Western countries.’ He notes that the idea that Saddam Hussein’s Iraq was stockpiling weapons of mass destruction and in league with al-Qaeda is not considered a conspiracy theory, even though it posits a conspiracy. But because of his focus on propositional truth, he ignores the tissues through which any proposition lances. A conspiracy theory is an explanatory device used to make sense of conditions that are not entirely understood: a general prerequisite for conspiracy theory is that it is sincerely believed by the person that proposes it. The charge that Iraq had WMD wasn’t a conspiracy theory; it was a lie. It’s very possible to imagine conspiracy theories that don’t fit Pidgen’s definition. Had George W Bush instead announced that President Hussein were the high priest of an ancient Mesopotamian death-cult that had controlled humanity since the dawn of civilisation through the emasculating medium of writing, and that he could only be defeated by a sturdy gang of tooled-up all-American illiterates, some people might still have believed him, but that would have been unambiguously a conspiracy theory. Conspiracy theory isn’t a type of proposition that can be taxonomically isolated by its propositional content; it’s a relation between propositions, between knowledge and unknowledge, the seen and the unseen, the incomparably ancient and the buzzing urgency of the present.

We could start, Occam-like, by proposing that conspiracy theory is the general tendency to attribute visible events to invisible conspiracies when a simpler and more plausible non-conspiratorial explanation is available. But that’s not enough: what is a conspiracy, anyway? It’s not a epistemic or a phenomenological concept, but a legal category. Of course conspiracies happen; if they didn’t, there’d be no need for a law. The crime of conspiracy was not codified until the Criminal Law Act of 1977; until then, in English common law (which also provides the basis for law in the United States and many Commonwealth countries), it fell under the category of ‘inchoate offences’, along with attempt and incitement; a nebulous cluster of suspicion, sporadically enforced and prosecuted according to the whims of the enforcers. The charge is not entirely extricable from that of witchcraft, broadly understood as a conspiracy with the Devil; as such, a conspirator could easily have been working alone. (Aren’t we all conspiring within our own heads?) In common law, something that is not an offence may become one if conspiracy is present: handing out medicinal herbs is legal; doing so with the Devil at your side, or after meeting your coven by midnight, is not. Conspiracy was not considered to be the mode of operation of the powerful, but the powerless: Satanic peasants in rickety huts, plotting against the mirrored institutions of God and State. The first major shift came with Lutheranism, and its charges of Papal blasphemy: suddenly it was not only the rulers who feared conspiracies on the part of their ungrateful populations, but everyone; social existence itself became a host of potential conspiracies. For obvious reasons, this is not a sense of the word that made it into the 1977 Act, which states that ‘if a person agrees with any other person or persons that a course of conduct shall be pursued which, if the agreement is carried out in accordance with their intentions, either— (a)will necessarily amount to or involve the commission of any offence or offences by one or more of the parties to the agreement, or (b)would do so but for the existence of facts which render the commission of the offence or any of the offences impossible, he is guilty of conspiracy to commit the offence or offences in question.’ One important provision of codified conspiracy law is that conspiracy is only an offence if the act that the conspirators intend to commit is itself an offence. In conspiracy theory, meanwhile, the acts that are alleged to have been perpetrated by unknown conspirators are sometimes formally illegal (assassinating JFK, carrying out the 9/11 attacks), but more often tend to exist in a Benjaminian sphere of violence that founds the law, and is incorporated into it (putting flouride in the drinking water, faking the Moon landings, inventing the Holocaust). It’s hard to imagine the shapeshifting lizards being taken into court in handcuffs; in any case, for an alien lizard to invade the planet by assuming human form and putting strange patterns on the currency isn’t even a crime in most jurisdictions. (It might, conceivably, be a tort.)

The ‘conspiracy’ in ‘conspiracy theory’ refers to the term in its pre-codified sense, in which it describes not a hidden relationship between multiple human individuals, but a relationship between human individuals and hiddenness itself. Conspiracy theory is not a theory that posits a conspiracy, but the hypostasisation of conspiracy to the level of theory, or occlusion as a general system of Being. It’s not just that public events have hidden causes: the seen is only an attribute or epiphenomenon of the unseen, which is essential to reality. In many conspiracy theories, the primary aim of the conspiracy seems to be the presentation of an experience in which the conspiracy itself does not outwardly appear. For readers of the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, what appears to be the chaotic stampede of human history is actually an elaborate performance-piece engineered as a distraction by the Jews lurking backstage. Flat-Earthers believe that a vast and sinister plot exists to place globes in every classroom and doctored images on the TV, with the sole purpose of having us think that the Earth is round. In David Icke’s sweeping cosmology, the Moon is an artificial satellite broadcasting something called the ‘Moon Matrix’ (although it actually originates from Saturn), an information-blocking signal that reduces our consciousness to its five limited senses. More convincingly (although I’m here not really interested in evaluating the propositional truth of any of these notions), many leftist media critics consider the wealth of images in capitalist society to form a single ‘spectacle’ that obscures existing class antagonisms.

None of this should be particularly unfamiliar: conspiracy theory in this sense is a kind of Kantianism. Noumena, the objects as they actually are, are by nature hidden from us; all we can approach by reason or perception is the phenomenon, the distortion provided by our senses. But rather than performing a Husserlian Einklammerung or epoché, conspiracy theory maintains a puckish Hegelian ambition to touch the face of the thing-in-itself. Its goal is reconciliation: as in Adorno, the subject-object distinction is not eternal but the product of particular historical conditions. But given that the conspiracy itself is by definition imperceptible, it’s not possible for one to have direct knowledge of it within experience. (There are, of course, people who claim to have witnessed UFOs spinning through the sky, or to have listened in on the cloistered Zionist congresses; there are various ‘leaked’ documents purporting to be minutes of the global conspiracy, but in practice such transcendental arguments make up a surprisingly small portion of the general conspiracy corpus.) Instead, conspiracy theory tends to coincide with a strange form of immanent critique, in which the visible phenomena of the world must be ‘decoded’ to reveal their secret meaning. Hence the insistence that the secret masters of the world would, for unknown reasons, leave little clues around the place pointing to their existence. Banknotes are popular here – what’s that eye and pyramid business about? And did you notice that if you fold them a certain way, it looks just like the photos of 9/11? Numerology and cod-etymology is also popular: can’t you see that it’s called an iPhone because its ‘eye’ is always watching? If we’re not living in Hell, then why do we greet each other with Hell-o? Conspiracy theory could be understood as less a set of discrete propositions and more a Heideggerian Stimmung – attunement or mood, a mode of In-der-Welt-sein in which phenomenal reality reveals itself to Dasein in some particular manner. Here, as in boredom (discussed in The Fundamental Concepts of Metaphysics), things appear empty and impoverished, but by contrast they are not without interest. They point beyond themselves to their occulted source; the world takes on significance not as a world, but as a map. Conspiracy theory reaches beyond the world as it seems, not by grasping at clouds from tiptoes, but by digging down, uncovering the foundations of things to see the vastness below.

It might be futile. But is it, phenomenologically speaking, true? In Heidegger, truth is not a matter of a subjective mental image conforming to reality, but the disclosure of a world. Truth is ‘letting whatever is sleeping become wakeful’ (sheeple) – the unconcealment of what had been hidden. I say that Socrates is mortal, and his manifest mortality, knobbly knees and tremoring heart, is suddenly made apparent to you. In this sense, conspiracy theory – all conspiracy theory – is true. And it’s a truth far more fecund and far more fun than anything allowed to us by epistemology. In conspiracy theory, the things of the world are atoms of signification, to be combined and recombined into the modes of appearance of any number of potential noumena. ‘The RAND Corporation, in conjunction with the saucer people, under the supervision of the reverse vampires, are forcing our parents to go to bed early in a fiendish plot to eliminate the meal of dinner.’ Life encrusts itself like milk on endless fathoms of possibility. And yes, most of it is evil. But it doesn’t have to be. Remember that through much of our history, the conspiracy was not a creature of aristocratic malice, but a mode of popular resistance. The Illuminati is not only to be fought; it’s to be established.

In defence of fantasy: a further response to Slavoj Žižek


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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