Idiot Joy Showland

This is why I hate intellectuals

Tag: violence

A review of ‘Batman v Superman,’ by a bat

The injustice which supposes all the others supposes that the other, the victim of the injustice of language, is capable of language in general, is man as a speaking animal. One would not speak of injustice or violence toward an animal, even less toward a vegetable or a stone.
Jacques Derrida, Force of Law: The Mystical Foundation of Authority

batman-v-superman

The new film Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice has received almost uniformly negative reviews, and it’s not hard to see why. The film isn’t just a bloated, stupid, self-important mess, a billion-dollar adaptation of a storyline first developed by a fairly dim child as he bashed his action figures together, performed by various off-cuts of pork in progressive stages of greening decay, and with camera work by one of the balls from Kafka’s Blumfeld. The concept itself is absurd, and it’s obvious as soon as the two title characters square off against each other in the big central fight sequence. This is supposed to be a grand fantastic spectacle, god against beast. What we actually get is ridiculous, an absurdity only heightened by its attempt at a dark, serious tone. In the rubble-strewn loft of some deserted Gotham warehouse, Superman bounds between the walls in his silly underwear, clutching a net in one hand, while a tiny Batman flutters above him with his red eyes and his fluttering leathery cape. This goes on for nearly an hour; every so often the two pause to trade vague homilies on the nature of jurisprudence. ‘I only want to help people,’ says Superman in grave and self-important tones. ‘Power derives from the consent of the governed.’ Batman replies. ‘Pieeeeeeeeeeeeps,’ he says, scrunching up his already densely-folded nose. There can be no communication. Even when the two team up against some boring ogre unleashed by a sarky mad scientist, things barely improve. Superman does all the legwork, while the Batman flaps off to gnaw at some half-rotten fruit and deposit small mounds of guano over the console of the Batmobile. Why does this film even exist? For money, of course; it’s clearly not for human enjoyment, its logic is entirely alien to human needs. So as a human I’m unable to really comprehend the thing; it requires a different perspective, one that first of all isn’t troubled by questions as stupid as how good or bad a film it is. What follows is a review of Batman v Superman, as given to me by a bat.

“I am a bat. I fly outside at night and eat small insects. I shiver through the night in my aching trails of wings. I feel the sky very close to my skin. I feel the moon very close to my skin. I eat the insects as they fly; I call to them in the night and they call out to me in turn so I can know where they are, buzzing frantic in the night. I crunch down on the hard shells of the insects and I feel their life jump out into my mouth, liquid and bitter. I do not pity them. During the day I hang from my claws in a dark place. The sun is painful to me. I do not have a name.

“I find it hard to enjoy cinema. I like the dark of the auditorium, but when I am hanging from its roof it is hard not to turn away from the glare of the screen, which I do not like. I am not blind, but my vision is poor; I can see only a bright square, too bright, on which unknown shapes drift slowly and without purpose, lapping and overlapping, like little eddies over the face of a fog-calmed sea. I do not like the noise in the cinema. It is too loud. It becomes hard for me to echolocate and I grow anxious. I scream and beat my pulsing little body against the ceiling. I flap and I cry for the open air, where I can feel the sky very close to my skin. In the auditorium I can not feel the emptiness of the sky close to my skin, I can not feel the cold breeze aching against the blood of my too-thin wings, I can not feel the dark distance which is not present to me but which I somehow know, and it makes me anxious. When I flap my wings in the auditorium the humans also scream and grow anxious. A bat, they scream, a bat. I do not know why they fear me. The insects that call out to me in the night do not fear me, even as I kill them. I can hear their hearts crashing in the huge cavities of their chests, I can hear the terror of these vast and ungainly beasts in the throb of blood through brute veins clogged with fatty deposits, I can hear the panic of a dying creature that does not know why it is dying. I do not pity them. All this makes it hard to concentrate on the plot of the movie, or to enjoy the action sequences. I fear the expensive CGI is wasted on me. I fear the clever references to the comic books are wasted on me. I fear Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice is wasted on me.

“But I have been asked to talk about the film, even though it was clearly not made with me in mind, even though I can not claim to know why it was made at all, and so I will. The film alludes to a dawn of justice. Does justice then have a beginning? I know that for Aristotle there is a justice before the law, a justice that consists in conformity with nature and with the gods. He quotes the Antigone of Sophocles, the sister who buries her brother in violation of Creon’s law, but in obedience to justice: ‘Not of today or yesterday it is, but lives eternal: none can date its birth.’ But I am not within justice. I fly through the night and eat small insects, and there is no justice. I do not atone for the death of the insects, and I do not pity them; there is no justice for them or for me. Among the pre-Socratics a sadder and lonelier view, one which I like, is given by Anaximander. If justice is natural, if justice means conformity with the natural world, how can there be injustice? Anaximander replies that all things originate from the apeiron or the Boundless, but that injustice consists in their springing forth from it, their differentiation into discrete phenomena. Justice comes in the return to indifference. ‘Whence things have their origin, thence also their destruction happens, as is the order of things; for they give to each other dike (justice) and recompense for their adikia (injustice), in conformity with the ordinance of Time.’ There will be justice for the insects I have killed; it will come when I am killed myself, when my wings are slashed by a cat and I return to the great dark night of the world.

“Justice is then nature, and animals and gods are not outside of justice; it is humans who are outside of justice, and it is for this reason that they must have the law. This is why the sovereign, the human who positions himself outside the juridical order in order to guarantee its functioning, is simultaneously god and beast, stepping into a zone of indistinction with the homo sacer his mirror; this is why while most humans can be said to be fair or unfair in their dealings with others, only the sovereign can be said to be just. Are Superman or Batman sovereign? These are the questions that the film raises, with its endless discussions of law and right – is Superman above the law, or must he appear before a Senate committee? Is Batman outside the law, or is he just a vigilante, a common criminal? As Walter Benjamin notes in his Critique of Violence, European (and, by extension, American) law prohibits individual violence not because it contravenes one or another law within a system – after all, individual laws are always contingent – but because it threatens the juridical order as such. Benjamin considers the fascination attached to the figure of the ‘great’ criminal: the sympathy for violence and its capacity to build a new law. But its treatment of these questions is thin and, despite the ponderous mood, unserious. There is always the threat that emerges from beyond the sphere of law, monsters or aliens, which legitimises the animals and gods, enclosing them as structural exceptions; this is why the film, like all superhero films, is fundamentally fascist. Batman and Superman are not interested in building a new law, or in abolishing the old one; they remain suspended in their vacuole, and effectively abandon the polis. See how carelessly they allow vast tracts of city to be destroyed. But humans, even sovereigns, cannot exist in this state of indifference to the law. Only two things can: animals and gods, who inhabit the realm of justice. (Contrast the Justice League with their Marvel equivalent, the Avengers; law-founding creatures of mythic violence. Divine violence is unrepresentable in a comic book adaptation.) In other words, the political use-value of Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice is precisely nil.

“One need not really say anything about this film; Derrida has already discussed it extensively in Force of Law. He must have seen it coming. Responding to the title, he writes that its ‘either/or, yes or no’ is ‘rather violent, polemical, inquisitorial. We may fear that it contains some instrument of torture.’ Responding to the pivotal scene in which it is revealed that the mothers of Batman and Superman share the same name, he touches on the ‘aleatory but significant coincidences of which proper names are necessarily the site.’ The relevance of his discussion of justice’s relation to animality should not need to be expanded upon. There is something else, though. Most of us are aware of Derrida’s insistence that deconstruction is justice, that justice is undeconstructible. We bats, at least, are endlessly chirruping about it. But if justice is the possibility of deconstruction, he adds, law is the possibility of the exercise of deconstruction. This resonates with some of his earlier discussion: law is the exercise of justice, and he notes the peculiar English idiom, to enforce the law. Can one speak of enforcing deconstruction? Later he refers to ‘two ways or two styles’ in which deconstruction can be practised: for all their grafting indeterminacy, a return to the torture-instrument of the either/or. A text deconstructs itself; to exercise deconstruction is to stand in the same relation to it as law does to justice. Humans, even sovereigns or criminals, cannot be deconstructionists. Only gods. Only animals.

“Can we teach you? In 1974, I was the subject of a paper by the philosopher of mind Thomas Nagel, What Is It Like To Be A Bat? Nagel argues against reductionist theories of consciousness: even if a bat could speak your language, even if a bat tried to describe in every detail what it’s like to experience the world through echolocation, something irreducible would remain; you will never be able to really hear the world as I hear it. Consciousness is the sense of being like yourself, something that others are incapable of grasping, and which does not admit objectivity. Even if you were to slowly metamorphose into a bat, fingers spindling, nostrils folding, ears pricking up from the side of your head, you would not understand. You will still be a human trapped inside a bat’s body. You will never feel the closeness of the moon at night. You will never understand the plunging of the sky at night. You will never understand how little I care about you.”

Team Rocket blasts off again

To protect the world from devastation! To unite all peoples within our nation! To denounce the evils of truth and love! To extend our reach to the stars above!
Benjamin Netanyahu, address at the opening of the 2014 Knesset summer session

Imagine, if you dare, the sheer horror of living near an ideologically motivated amateur youth rocketry club. Something like the Socialist Youth Committee for Space Exploration, for instance, or the Young Tories Science Society. While at first it might be heartwarming to see teenagers developing an interest in politics and an involvement in practical physics, rather than indulging in their usual habits of playing violent video games all day or viciously cyberbullying each other to death, this would quickly grow tiring. The sudden bangs in the night, the scattered debris in the morning, the occasional terror as an errantly and implausibly airborne tin can goes screeching over your leafy suburb: it’s more than anyone could reasonably be expected to bear. Surely nobody would blame you if, after a few days of these potassium nitrate-powered hijinks, you and a few of your sensible middle-class neighbours got together to launch a combined military assault on the part of town where these kids hang out, killing them, their families, and several dozen others stupid enough to be in the area. It’s not that you’d get any particular pleasure from murdering all these people, but everybody deserves a decent night’s sleep.

This is the strange and inhuman scenario that the Jewish Anti-Defamation League invites us to consider. After one of the routine nightly Israeli massacres in the Gaza Strip, they posted a series of posters online, asking What if Hamas was in your neighbourhood? This question is accompanied by a map in which the Gaza Strip is superimposed on a major American city, appearing as an invasive white blob, cordoned off by a dotted line, radiating threatening circles and bristling with comically oversized missiles. Of the series my favourite is probably that showing New York: the contours of the Gaza Strip almost exactly match the line of the Hudson River, with the result that the genteel citizens of Brooklyn and Manhattan appear to be under mortal threat from rocket-powered proles in New Jersey and Staten Island. Most of these images implicitly raise the thorny question of exactly how Gaza came to be transplanted to the middle of Chicago or Houston; the New York poster neatly answers it. Gaza is already there; it always was. When the ADL talks about Israel defending itself, its audience are to imagine their own secret fantasy: having an excuse to fly over those awful poor neighbourhoods full of dreadful tacky people, and bombing them all to extinction.

Whenever the Israeli government feels the need to kill a few dozen Palestinians, everyone suddenly starts talking about rockets. The famously biased BBC, known to most Zionists as the international media wing of Islamic Jihad, led its coverage of a night in which 24 Gaza residents had been killed with the headline Israel under renewed Hamas attack. Meanwhile, ABC News in the United States showed images of Palestinians standing in front of the rubble that was once their homes and identified them as Israeli victims of rocket attacks. Even those nominally supportive of the Palestinian struggle are apparently compelled to add a bit of blather about how awful the rockets are. In the Guardian, a terrifying live-action Tintin figure calling itself Owen Jones felt the need to make – in an article about media distortion over the discrepancy between the two sides, no less – the caveat that there is no defence for Hamas firing rockets into civilian areas, and as sirens wail in Israel, the fear among ordinary Israelis should not be ignored or belittled.

Of course, the damage done by rockets to ordinary Israelis should never be understated. In Sderot, several people have tripped while running for bomb shelters, in some cases spraining their ankles; Tel Aviv’s summer morning lie-in was seriously disturbed by air-raid sirens as a flying tube of horse manure puttered its way to an empty field outside the city. It’s absolutely necessary for commentators of the prissy tepid left to utterly condemn any attempt by Palestinians to bring any object into aerial motion (be it a Qassam missile, a rock aimed at a heavily-armoured vehicle, or a fleck of spittle; in the West Bank and Gaza, the law of gravity is enforced by tanks and helicopters), because only by doing this can they hope to become the Palestinian Nelson Mandela – the secret ambition of all liberal quasi-Zionists. These people want to support liberation struggle, but first the oppressed have to stop firing rockets and learn instead to embrace non-violence; they need to bring their political programme down to the level of the inspirational quote set against a stock photo of a sunset. Still it’s not exactly clear what form this non-violent protest should take. During the First Intifada Israel was still heavily reliant on Palestinian labour and industrial action seriously threatened its smooth functioning; the arrival of immigrants from Africa and southeast Asia has solved that problem, and helpfully given the Israeli ruling class a new set of people to despise and brutalise. Weekly checkpoint protests in the West Bank are admirably peaceful, but have only really succeeded in boosting profits for the manufacturers of tear gas. All that’s left are rockets.

The rockets being fired from Gaza are a form of non-violent protest, and one that works. As military weapons they’re utterly useless. A 2012 analysis revealed that the 12,000 missiles fired over twelve years resulted in twenty-two Jewish fatalities – a kill rate of 0.175%. This is because they’re not really weapons. There are plenty of ways for resistance groups to inflict mass civilian casualties; the fact that they’re firing rockets instead shows that this isn’t on the agenda. It’s not a military campaign; it’s a highly visible protest against those forces that would prefer to turn Gaza into something like its representation in the ADL posters: a blank, white, empty expanse. The rockets are a reminder of the continued existence and the continued will to resist of the Palestinian people; insisting on this will without killing is a highly effective non-violent strategy. Given the dearth of any actual casualties in the rocket campaign, reports often focus on the psychological trauma suffered by Israelis living close to Gaza (and sometimes even their pets). This is taken as proof of Palestinian brutality, but when commentators decry the fear that the Qassams inspire, the implication is that they’d prefer a resistance strategy that had no effect whatsoever on the occupiers; in other words, one that could be safely ignored and might as well not exist. This point was most powerfully put by a spokesperson from the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine: The rockets are both a practical and a symbolic representation of our resistance to the occupier. They are a constant reminder that the occupier is in fact an occupier, and that no matter how they may engage in sieges, massacres, fence us in, deny us the basic human needs of life, we will continue to resist and we will continue to hold fast to our fundamental rights, and we will not allow them to be destroyed. So long as one rocket is launched at the occupier, our people, our resistance and our cause is alive. This is why they targeted the rockets – the rockets do make the occupier insecure, because every one is a symbol and a physical act of our rejection to their occupation.

How to overthrow your own body

Pictured: Gold medallist, men’s 750,000 metre coup

Human language had a good run, but it’s about time to admit that the whole experiment has ended in failure. For two hundred thousand years we’ve been flapping mouths and breathing spittle at each other in a supposedly meaningful manner. We’ve invented needlessly complex processes for immortalising these self-important eructations, first on rock, then paper, then computers. It’s hard to calculate exactly how much this habit of language has cost us over the centuries, but it could only run into the tens of trillions of dollars. All those cuneiform temple inscriptions, all those public speaking engagements, all those shitty radio panel shows – and for what? The whole system has proven itself so useless that we feel the need to periodically massacre each other for attaching the wrong meanings to the wrong set of belches. This still goes on today, despite the fact that it’s now well known that words can never really refer to things but only to other words. Language is the hideous bastard hatchling of a hydra and and an ouruborus, and it needs to be slain immediately. If any further evidence of this is needed, you only have to look at the official readout of Obama’s phone call with Putin concerning the Russian intervention in Crimea.

The degeneration of language is happening at a frightening pace. Nothing in Obama’s ninety-minute conversation makes any sense. The phrase ‘going forward’ (a ghastly coinage bordering on the eldritch, one that’s apparently supposed to convey an energetic dynamism but only summons the image of some unfortunate person drowning in an office cubicle as it slowly fills with printouts of pie charts) appears twice in the space of four sentences. Obama talks about the Budapest Memorandum and the Helsinki Final Act and the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe; he sounds like a dorkily enthusiastic teenager getting a bit too wrapped up in his performance at a Model UN conference. He hints at sanctions, as if half of Europe weren’t dependent on Russian gas. It’s a twisted parody. Language is, before anything else, a vector of deception. The United States government has broken all the agreements he mentioned, reneging on its promise not to extend NATO up to Russia’s borders, helping prompt and direct the nationalist revolution that overthrew Yanukovych, engaging in wars of aggression across the globe. More fundamentally, he’s pretending that he and Putin are something other than what they are: a pair of bureaucrats instead of two bloodstained warlords, each of whom could, if the fancy took them, kill every single human being on the planet several times over. There’s no record of Putin’s response to Obama’s extended series of laryngal honks, but you get the impression that he’s gently humouring this earnest American who doesn’t seem to understand the way the world actually works, playing along in his game of talking about other words rather than things. It’s a shame, because for a while Putin looked like the only person who could save language from itself. In 2008, as Russian tanks were comprehensively fucking the Georgian army, he declared his intent to ‘hang [Georgian President] Saakashvili by his balls.’ This is what linguists call a speech act, doing by saying; precisely through abandoning the principle of representation it’s the closest words can come to being about things.

There aren’t many speech acts in the current crisis. We’re beyond the point where we can meaningfully distinguish between words and deeds. The Russian intervention in Crimea is intended to send a message to the new government in Kiev and its backers in Brussels and Washington; action has become infected with the sordid ephemerality of language.

~

In the end, this whole mess can be blamed on the Sochi Winter Olympics. It’s a well-known and boring fact that in ancient Greece, wars were put on hold for the duration of the Games. The idea of doing the same thing now isn’t just infeasible but nonsensical; war and the Olympics are one and the same thing. Host governments treat the Games in much the same way that they treat foreign wars: they provide a chance to issue some contracts and boost important industries, they let you redraw the maps (turning a beach town into a mountain resort, or a moulding industrial park into a germ for gentrification), they’re a matter of national pride and a propaganda vehicle that helps calm internal contradictions – but at the same time they never seem to deliver the profits they promise; the costs inevitably spiral, and afterwards they tend to leave cities full of half-ruined buildings. It’s not just a matter of resemblance. With their vast crowds and attending dignitaries they’re a deliberate target for terrorists, allowing the hosts to show off their various defence technologies to the world. London 2012 wasn’t much more than an enormous arms fair, with an aircraft carrier on the Thames and missile batteries on the roofs of homes. Russia in particular seems to like conducting its imperial adventures during the Games. While jets battered Stalin’s birthplace in Georgia, representatives from the two countries were playing beach volleyball in Beijing. The Ukrainian paralympic team is still in Sochi. All this isn’t a distraction from the sport; it’s another facet of the same phenomenon.

Of course, sport is fascist bullshit. Liberal critics of organised sport like to hone in on its aggression and competition and the absurd salaries paid out to its practitioners, but none of this is the real problem. It’s true that most Olympic sports are some kind of symbolic warfare (with the potential exception of figure skating, although there’s still a case to be made against it), but a tendency towards aggression and competition is only a secondary characteristic of the fascist cosmology. The fundamental fascist vision is one of a cohesive and organic society, a society structured around the metaphor of the healthy body. Any politics of the body will by necessity be a politics that acts on the body: the healthy body becomes a regulative ideal, and images of healthy smiling men marching off to the front are suddenly everywhere. This spectacularisation of the body is always present (millions of people watch the Olympics), but it’s always also accompanied by the idea that health is good in and of itself, beyond any relation to the aesthetic. Individual health means social health. In Russia, the connection between the healthy body and militarism is still very much alive; Putin himself is constantly taking his shirt off to ride horses, wrestle tigers, catch fish, and otherwise demonstrate his unparalleled dominion over the animal world. In Western countries we generally prefer to wage war through silent and terrifying robots of death, but as the population grows steadily more obese and work is increasingly an activity that takes place in front of a screen (a screen showing sales figures, a screen showing a Pakistani village about to be obliterated, it makes no difference), the issue of health becomes a matter of deep general concern. And, as everyone knows, the best way to become healthy is through sport. Sport isn’t dangerous because it encourages competition or tribalism; it’s dangerous precisely because it’s healthy.

If there’s a central fascist procedure, it’s the subsumption rather than the sublimation of contradictions. Class antagonisms are buried in the organic nation, internal difference is either consumed or ejected, all cracks are papered up. The healthy body is a prime example of this. The ideology of sport and fitness has its roots in Victorian England – muscular Christianity, artificial famines in Ireland and India, the desperate belief that sports will prevent masturbation – but while it reached a kind of apex in the historical Fascism of the twentieth century, it stubbornly refused to die with its host. Left-wing responses to all this nonsense have been sadly anaemic. The most popular is a kind of body-euphoric self-affirmationism: the idea is that we should embrace all bodies as healthy and all bodies as beautiful. This appears to be a response to the dominant cult of fitness, but really it’s a capitulation to it and a failure to challenge its terms. Fitness and beauty are still good, sickness and ugliness are still bad, but the latter two are shoved beyond some metaphysical horizon. Instead of embracing ugliness in ugliness and as ugliness, its very existence is denied.

The figure of the body is a central concern of poststructuralist theory, and the academic tendency to refer to people as ‘bodies’ (based on the idea that the person is a fictive construct – after all, the word itself derives from the Latin persona, or mask – and that the only thing we can safely say about someone is that they have a body) seems to have filtered into a lot of non-academic discourse. At the same time the body itself is often instrumentalised rather than examined; this is why there’s so little real resistance to fitness fascism. It’s there from Foucault. In Nietzsche, Genealogy, History, he writes: The body is the inscribed surface of events […] and a volume in perpetual disintegration. [Our] task is to expose a body totally imprinted by history and the process of history’s destruction of the body. Foucault seems to have a blind spot when it comes to the body; his approach to it is surprisingly un-Foucauldian. Genealogy opposes itself to the search for ‘origins,’ but when Foucault discusses the body as a site of scarring and crumbling, he implies the existence of an originary unscarred and unimprinted body; a body that’s perfect and primordial and pristine. There’s no such thing: a newborn baby is bloodied and screaming. It’s necessary to admit that there is no primordial unitary body, that the thing we call the body is nothing more than the collection of scars that constitutes our experience of it. There’s only a series of metamorphoses without aim or origin, and the healthy body is only another kind of deformation.

The overthrow of the body is a matter of urgency, because things aren’t going well. The new Ukrainian government includes six ministers from the neofascist Svoboda party. Russian soldiers are surrounding military bases in Crimea. The year ends in fourteen, idiots are in charge across Europe, and two global alliance systems are squaring off as Slavic nationalists do their best to rile up a great power. In the end it’s about language, the filthy habit of humanity. If your throat coughs up a hard g sound like a Russian then you’re shunted to one side, if you wheeze an h like a Ukrainian you’re on the other. The shame that periodically surrounds the body tends to be centred on shitting and pissing and fucking, because these acts remind us that the body isn’t a unitary entity closed off from its environment; really it’s speech that’s disgusting, because it lets us pretend that it is. The idea of an organic and discrete Ukraine and an organic and discrete Russia is dependent on the metaphor of an organic and discrete body. Irredentism echoes Foucault: history has effected a crumbling-away of the national body, but rather than just uncovering this body they want to restore it. The mad advocates of health and fitness have nuclear weapons at their disposal. If humanity is to survive the coming century, we all need to start smoking heavily.

Grand Theft Auto and the extinction of being

More like Geworfenheit Theft Auto amirite

In Rostov-on-Don, a provincial city in the south of Russia, two men had an argument in a supermarket. There’s no footage of it, but we can imagine the scene. The squeaky lino floors, the tinny sound of pop music. The strip-lighting, buzzing as it casts a dreary mundane pallor on the rows of produce, scrubs the shadows from the faces of the disputants, and eventually drains all colour from the flecks of blood. The other shoppers look on first in exasperation, then in horror: the argument devolves into a fistfight until its frenzy reaches a point where one man pulls out a gun and fires several rubber bullets into the other’s head. So it goes. What’s brought this dull event to the world’s attention is the fact that the two men were reportedly arguing about the philosophy of Immanuel Kant. The international press has treated this story with a kind of wry amusement: it’s perfectly normal to shoot someone in an argument over sex or money or football; it’s pretty weird (and kinda funny) to shoot someone in an argument over the nature of the noumenon. Going by the experience of history, this isn’t really the case. For a good part of the 20th Century, a philosophical debate (or at least something that claimed to be a philosophical debate) about the degree of contradiction between the material dialectic and humanist values got so out of hand that for a quite while it looked like the only way to properly resolve the issue was through the mass slaughter of every human being on the planet. Disputes over the mysteries of the Holy Trinity saw swarms of horsemen turn fields into hellish seas of mud under their hooves and reduce cities to blood-drenched ruins under their swords. Aristotle’s doctrine of virtuous moderation allowed his protégé to send a moving line of fire and bloodshed that swept from the Aegean to the Indus. You haven’t really made it as a philosopher until you’ve stacked up a decent body count.

Even Kant, shy and gentle, punctiliously pedestrian, isn’t exempt from the violence of philosophy. Presidente Gonzalo, the leader of the Peruvian Shining Path, had a secret identity: Abimael Guzmán, mild-manned professor of philosophy at San Cristóbal of Huamanga University. As the group’s notorious massacres in peasant villages show, he had a lot to learn about the proper implementation of Mao Tse-Tung Thought; nonetheless, his Kantian credentials are impeccable. If anything, transcendental idealism handily lends itself to a certain kind of will to destruction. Like most very clever people, Kant had something of a nasty smug streak. In his What is Enlightenment?, he describes the unenlightened condition of humanity as a ‘self-imposed nonage’: if other people are stupid, lazy, and cowardly, it’s only their own fault; leaders and tyrants only channel this mass stupidity rather than imposing it. This is why he can write that ‘freedom need not cause the least worry concerning public order or the unity of the community.’ Against those who try to stifle argument, Kant proposes the dictum ‘argue as much as you like – but obey!’ Enlightened argument can only proceed towards a singular truth, and if a ruler is himself enlightened, then any argument that challenges his rule is by definition invalid, with no place in a liberated discourse. Kant’s enlightenment admits no contradiction. There’s a very short line from his veneration of Frederick’s Prussia to a man being shot in the head in a Russian supermarket. The shooter was applying the categorical imperative perfectly: if everyone who dares to be so clearly and obstinately wrong about philosophy gets a rubber bullet to the head, then proper reasoned argument can begin, to the benefit of all humanity.

~

One man shooting another because they disagree about the fundamental nature of reality is a funny human interest story. Someone pretending to shoot a virtual prostitute is grounds for a moral panic. Every iteration of the Grand Theft Auto series of games seems to raise the same clamour: it’s an awful, violent game in which you, the player, can fuck a prostitute, kill her, and then take your money back. It’s a strangely specific complaint – after all, you can do a lot of terrible things in GTA, your basic mode of existence in the game is that of a spree killer. This might have something to do with the level of intent involved: the game is ‘open’ to the extent that you can walk into a shop, stand in line for a while, and then shoot another customer in the head, but you can’t (yet) have a steadily escalating argument about Kant with him beforehand. The prostitute scenario is different; you have a reason to kill her. Ultimately, I think there’s more to it than that. The real object of horror isn’t the murder, it’s the retrieval of the money. What’s being dramatised is a violation of the laws of exchange, those in which – as Marx puts it in Volume I of Capital – ‘the owner of money must meet in the market with the free labourer, free in the double sense, that as a free man he can dispose of his labour-power as his own commodity, and that on the other hand he has no other commodity for sale, is short of everything necessary for the realisation of his labour-power.’ By taking your money back, you’re breaking a contract, dispelling the comforting illusions of the marketplace, turning the covert oppression of the trade in bodies into its overt expression in violence.

The question of violence in video games is based on the horror of the uncanny: it’s about the power of images of things to come alive, the potential for onscreen violence to turn into actual violence. What’s apparently certain is that these games have some primordial connection to humanity’s intrinsic cruelty. Depending on whether you believe the dessicated pinch-faced puritans or the sloppily hirsute misogynists that make up video gaming’s core user base, this relation is either one of normalisation, in which representations of violence bring our animal natures out from the fragile cloak of civilisation – or one of release, allowing an expression of this violent nature that helps us function normally in the real world with only minimal loss of life. The case of the argument over Kant in Rostov-on-Don shows that it’s a little more complicated than that. Violence doesn’t proceed only from violence but from something quite different; there’s nothing more shatteringly, existentially violent than the infinite stillness of a Rothko multiform or the fragile sorrow of Chopin’s nocturnes. I’m not going to question whether or not human beings are existentially violent; at root the question is what it means for us to be violent, or, more fundamentally, what it means for us to be – and, as Heidegger shows, our being is inseparable from the world in which we exist.

Heidegger’s innovation is not only to ground ontology in actual existing beings instead of some grand unifying principle (as in Spinoza’s substance or Leibniz’s monads) but to stress the situatedness of the ontological object. His term for the human mode of existence, or that ‘which, in its very Being, comports itself understandingly towards that Being,’ is Dasein – literally ‘being-there.’ Awareness of your own existence is a matter of experience rather than a solipsistic Cartesian introspection; Dasein is a being-in-the-world rather than a being that just so happens to find itself inhabiting something vaguely world-shaped. This world isn’t just a set of beings, or the spatial framework in which they are dispersed: in Heidegger’s definition, ‘the world worlds, and is more fully in being than the tangible and perceptible realm in which we feel ourselves to be at home.’ Non-human beings, meanwhile, are encountered in two modes: as present-at-hand (in which they’re an object of detached contemplation) and as ready-to-hand (in which Dasein is absorbed in their use, with the categories of subject and object falling away into the undifferentiated process of work). Against much previous philosophy, which considers entities in terms of their properties and attributes, Heidegger stresses the primacy of the ready-to-hand. On perceiving a hammer, we don’t think about its abstract composition but how we can use it. The world is filled with equipment; useful, handy things.

It’s a nice way of thinking about things, but you get the feeling that for all his talk of handiness and equipmentality Heidegger would still have trouble with an Ikea wardrobe. Beyond that, Heidegger’s system runs into some problems when we’re forced to confront beings that aren’t handy or useful to us. True to form, he has his own word for this: Unzuhandenheit, unreadiness-to-hand. The unready-to-hand tool is something broken that doesn’t fulfil its function properly; it inhabits a grey phantom zone between the absorption of the ready-to-hand and the distant appraisal of the present-at-hand. We become aware of the thing as an object, but at the same time Dasein is engaged with it in the search for a solution. What happens, though, when we come up against something which is working in perfect order, but whose being is directly adversarial to ours? It’s an important question, because these things have come to dominate our lives.

Scholars of Heidegger tend to dispute the exact nature of Dasein and its relation to what we think of as the human being (there haven’t been any recorded fatalities yet, but there’s still plenty of time). Graham Harman and other advocates of object-oriented ontology attempt an ‘anthropodecentrism,’ in which the status of human beings as those beings that move towards their own Being is deprivileged. In a way, they have it right. Under industrial capitalism, an understanding comportment towards Being isn’t something that occurs on the level of the human, but on that of the firm. Humans are instrumentalised, first through their labour-power, and again through their position as consumers, becoming tools used in the production process. Capital-producing institutions are Dasein, reaching out towards an authentic existence; we are Zuhandenheit, the equipment used. The immense wealth of commodities produced is useful, but not for us. There are few consumer items that are used to solve our problems; our new technologies impose themselves as the solutions to problems that didn’t even exist before their arrival. Tools bear the stamp of their owners; now the tool is the stamp. The new iPhone has a fingerprint scanner, the new Xbox has an always-on camera. At the same time, it’s these same things that are used to stage our response: a steady, furious crusade against everything useful and handy, a purging of our own usefulness. Our violence is the violence of a being-in-the-world whose ability to understand that Being is under threat of extinction.

Watch someone playing GTA – not going through the storyline missions, but really playing, tearing at random through the vast cityscape, mowing down pedestrians, ducking down alleyways to avoid the cops. The landscape is littered with useful things, but rather than being absorbed in their use, we discard and destroy them. Get out of one car, steal another, over and over again. What distinguishes Grand Theft Auto is the sheer destructibility of the environment; we are the equipment through which the world’s destructibility is realised. In a world where the relation between humans and tools is inverted, the game offer us another reversal. Heidegger describes the condition of the individual human as one of thrown-ness, a state that goes beyond its Sartrean reformulation in the precession of existence over essence to encompass the position of having-to-be-open. We’re tossed into a world we don’t understand; to make sense of it we have to open ourselves to other beings. Through GTA, the world is thrown into us and has to be open to us. We’re faced with the infinite usefulness that’s lacking in reality. And so, of course, we have to destroy it.

PS: Incidentally, this is why video games can never be art. Art discloses the world; by giving us a world thrown into us, video games enframe it. They’re technology, and also a waste of time.

PPS: I haven’t actually played the new GTA, but they’re all basically the same, aren’t they?

Why George W Bush is the greatest living painter

Political violence is the continuation of art by other means. Wherever there are shock troops marching in the streets or big pyres of burning books or the sounds of mysterious gunfire near the parliament building at night, you can bet that behind it all flutters the soul of a sensitive young boy who always wanted to be an artist. Brutishness is easy; anyone can commit an atrocity in the right conditions. Violence requires a highly rarefied aesthetic sensibility.

Painters carry out wars of aggression. They’re in love with the image of things. Poets go for internal ethnic cleansing. The word must be properly spoken. Prose writers like revolutionary terror. The text is radically open. There have been fewer dictators from the other arts, but we could extrapolate. Photographers make good use of death squads; the gaze and the judgement are united in the click of a shutter. Sculptors are big on mass internment; the body is always already buried in the rock. Playwrights tend towards bureaucracy, musicians to exemplary massacre, film-makers to redistributive looting. Lenin and Mussolini wrote prose. Stalin, Mao and Ho Chi Minh were poets. Saddam Hussein wrote poetry alongside his anonymous novels. Churchill was a painter. Hitler was a painter, but he penned a few verses as well. George W Bush is a painter.

 This is the void. A line of detainees goes in, shackled, shuffling along in orange jumpsuits. Paintings of dogs come out. Nobody knows exactly what happens inside, or if they do, they don’t say.

George W Bush has produced fifty paintings of dogs. For every drone strike he ordered, he has produced one painting of a dog. For every round of golf he played while in the White House, he has produced two paintings of a dog. For every million Americans left unemployed at the end of his administration, he has produced five paintings of a dog. George W Bush has produced one painting of a dog for every thirteen US soldiers killed in Afghanistan during his Presidency, one painting of a dog for every hundred Palestinians killed by the IDF, and one painting of a dog for every two thousand, two hundred and thirty-seven civilians killed in Iraq since the invasion. Bush’s art teacher told reporters that he would go down in history as a great artist. I think she’s right.

There have been a couple of critical pieces on Bush’s paintings, and they all ask the same question: what do these paintings tell us about George W Bush’s inner life, or his psychology, or his presidency? They’ve all got it arse-backwards. If you follow that line you’ll only ever end up with trite reductive analogies. The running water represents Hurricane Katrina, or Bush’s need to atone for his crimes, or his fear of death; it’s a vaguely amusing parlour game, but not much more. If you want to know the truth, there’s no point looking at Bush’s self-portraits. You have to look at his paintings of dogs. The real question is: what do George W Bush’s dog paintings tell us about contemporary society? What do George W Bush’s dog paintings tell us about violence? What do George W Bush’s dog paintings tell us about art?

Imagine a creature from another world, something impossibly old and infinitely curious. Drifting between silent stars, she picks up a single stray transmission from an unknown planet in an uncharted backwater of the Milky Way. A picture of a dog. If our alien has eyes to see, she’ll be able to extrapolate our entire world from George W Bush’s painting of a bichon frisé on a blue background. A hierarchical class society looks out from its sad round eyes, capital accumulation can be inferred from the downwards tilt of its mouth, its outstretched paws tell you everything you need to know about the long slow decline of the nation-state. Most of all, though, our history is inscribed in the featureless blue plane on which the dog reclines. In fact, it’s swarming with tiny figures: child miners coughing dust, factory workers plunging from rooftops, women with acid scars bursting across their faces, people who wake up shaking from the bombs going off in their dreams, people who wake up shaking from the bombs going off in their ears. A society capable of producing that shade of blue leaves a lot of bodies in its wake.

Spend enough time looking at George W Bush’s paintings of dogs and it all starts to make sense. The war in Iraq was little more than the geopolitical expression of kitschy sentimentality. Imperialist universalism is the logic of the dog painting extended to nations and peoples. Radical evil is the weaponisation of bad taste. We’ll be greeted as liberators: of course we will, we love our dogs. History is on our side: of course it is, we like nice things. Our war will usher in a new age of peace and stability in the region: of course it will, we leave bright colours in our wake. George W Bush’s paintings of dogs represent a new height in Western society’s struggle to decouple art from violence. (This is why his nude self-portraits are all in bathrooms: only in the cleansing ritual is nudity non-erotic, and eroticism is after all only another form of violence.) It’s an impossible task. Violence and art are inseparable; the more you try to scrub the canvas clean of everything not clean and pleasant, the more hideous it becomes, the heavier the rain of bombs.

That’s why George W Bush is our greatest living painter. Nothing expresses more clearly the horror of existence than the most hated man in the world’s loving portrait of his dog. More than any gloomy conceptualist, Bush gives us the truth, the undisguised omnicidal violence of the nice and friendly. His paintings of dogs point towards the one subject all other contemporary art shies away from: the final extinction of the human race. Bright eyes and wagging tails, cities in ruins and skies scorched black. Art kills.

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