Idiot Joy Showland

This is why I hate intellectuals

Tag: war

How I got these scars

boas

BRITISH COLUMBIA, 1895

I learned to laugh where the whale bones were. On the iron shores, where gulls tittered and tore the last scraps of greying whaleflesh from ribs half-buried in the muck. Where curving bones threatened the foam, like the earth itself had fangs. Where the boulders were carved with bug-eyed faces, fat-lipped, grimacing; the sisiutl, sea-monsters. In low unadorned longhouses, huddled in the chill, where I sang: ‘Wa haiya, wa haiya, the weapon flew into my hands, the tool with which I am murdering, with which I am cutting off heads.’ And around me they sang: ‘The great madness entered our friend, he is killing old and young.’ Here I blackened my face with ashes and reddened my nose in the snow. Here I tore my clothes and tossed eagle-down in my hair. Here I became the nūlmal, the fool dancer, the killer clown. Here I learned that laughter is mine and nobody else’s, and when the boy – my cousin’s son – laughed as I japed and spun, I put my lance through his neck.

But who is this stranger in the cabin? Squatting by the fire is a man of no tribe, or who gave up his tribe – the Deutsche Juden – many years ago. A lonely creature. Not timid, with his virile moustache and his shock of dark hair, but passive. Franz Boas, the father of American anthropology, does nothing: he just sits and observes, even when the boy is speared. Only scribbling in his notebook: ‘They do not dance, but, when excited, run about like madmen, throwing stones, knocking people down, and crying… They dislike to see clean and beautiful clothing. They tear and soil it. They break canoes, houses, kettles, and boxes…’ In the summer months the Kwakiutl live in small bands, whose chiefs are ceremonial or mediatory. Only in the winter, when the world turns harsh, do they congregate together in one place. This is the ritual season, the potlatch season. But it’s also the season of the clowns. And these clowns officiate: they set the times of the ceremonies, they punish anyone who eats too slowly or performs the wrong dance… What are they if not a form of police? In the summer these people are peaceful anarchists, and in the winter they fall under a crazed dictatorship… Mein Gott, we’ve got it all backwards; the fool dancers aren’t a chaotic response to repressive society, they’re the basis for the whole structure… And even though he’s a lifelong opponent of cultural evolutionism, he can’t quite suppress a guilty thought. Is this how it all started? When political power first showed its face to the world, was it really in marble and bronze? Or was it a face like this, blackened with soot, decked in rags and shit, its centre bursting out into a huge red nose?

He looks into the fire, as if it could have an answer, and it does. A figure circles four times around the fire – tonight, she is the Kinqalalala, the female slave of Baxbakwalanuxsiwae (a figure he’s already described in his notes: the great cannibal god, He-Who-First-Ate-Man-At-The-North-End-Of-The-World, every inch of his body covered in terrible chomping mouths). At each turn, Kinqalalala throws a handful of something into the fire, and there’s a flash. Shapes indistinct in the flames. Here a molten ditch cut through the earth, and slimepits where the bodies rot. Here a bolus of flame bigger than cities, a sun-mote brought down to cauterise the earth of life. Here a barbed-wire cage webbed tight against the earth, thrumming with frenzy and exhaustion. He doesn’t know it, but he’s witnessing the vast long mistake of the twentieth century that is to come. And somewhere, rising through all this wreckage, a single wordless laugh salutes the highest joke.

LONDON, 1920

Ah, so this is what a philosopher looks like. He looks sad. The great thinker approaches the table timidly, nose-first, sad wet eyes following far behind. ‘You must be Georges,’ he says. Georges stands, removes his hat, shakes the philosopher’s hand. ‘Monsieur Bergson,’ he says. Henri also removes his hat, removes his coat, sits down. ‘I hope this restaurant is to your satisfaction,’ he says. ‘I know the chef to be French, but there have been no good waiters in this city since all the Germans left.’ They talk about this for a while – the small travails of being a Frenchman in London, the scattered places where one can still get a good hat, a good shave, a good steak. Something vicious wants to bubble up through Georges’ throat. ‘What about a good fuck?’ he says. ‘These English girls, they don’t have any word for partouze.’ Henri looks like a startled rabbit. ‘Just a joke,’ says Georges, and he laughs. Henri laughs too, but he’s nervous. Those eyes dart from the menu, to the grinning face of the young man in front of him, to the exit, the empty chill outside, the everywhere-else where he’d suddenly much rather be. He’s a kind and generous man, which is why he’s agreed to meet this young student from the British Museum – but ever since the War these young students have been crueller, stranger, their heads all muddled by Marx and Freud… ‘I read your book,’ says Georges suddenly, ‘your essay on laughter. I must admit – please, forgive me – I’d not had the pleasure of reading your work before.’ This surprises Henri. ‘And you wish to be a philosopher?’ he says. ‘I don’t regret my essay, but perhaps you should begin with something more substantial – my Matière et mémoire, perhaps; I would gladly lend you a copy…’ Georges shakes his head. ‘This is precisely the matter,’ he says. ‘I think your essay might have cured me of philosophy altogether. If I could ask you something… how can you write so many pages on laughter, and all of them with a straight face?’ Henri appears to consider this. ‘But surely, Monsieur Bataille, you must agree that the comic forms part of the human tissue? That it is as worthy of serious study as any other facet of experience?’ Georges shakes his head. ‘You misunderstand,’ he says, sadly, disappointed to his core. ‘I don’t doubt that laughter is worthy of serious study. But is serious study worthy of laughter? That is to say, Monsieur Bergson, why must you be so eternally serious? What is the laugh if not the annihilation of all seriousness, all propriety… yes, even philosophy? How can you write a study of laughter without first staring into the sun?’ Henri doesn’t say anything. ‘Have you not read the anthropological reports on the primitives of British Columbia?’ says Georges. ‘Their societies are ruled by clowns, but it’s forbidden to laugh at them, on pain of death.’ ‘I’m not sure I follow,’ says Henri. ‘Allow me to demonstrate,’ says Georges. ‘Here’s another joke; you’ll like it. Toc toc toc.’ Henri sighs. ‘Qui est là?’ he says, and then Georges pulls out a pistol and shoots him in the head.

HUẾ, 1968

A line crawls across this city. On the other side of the line lies chaos and Communism, and the people shiver under the terror of the Viet Cong. They have lists of enemies – ‘tyrants and reactionaries,’ in their jargon. Names are read out on loudspeakers. The tyrants and reactionaries assemble dutifully in the designated places, and then they’re trucked out of the city, never to be seen again…

On this side of the line, freedom reigns. On this side of the line, by sheer coincidence, all the buildings are in ruins. And the line is moving: whatever all those cowards back home might want you to believe, the line is moving, and the bright realm of freedom and ruin grows larger every day. A column is trudging forwards, through the mire, to push against that border. Helmets and rucksacks, assault rifles or flamethrowers slung over their shoulders, and at the front, the banner of the LCAB, the Ladies’ Crusade Against Beastliness. Two Marines lean against some piled-up rubble, smoking. Before Tet, this was a bar popular with GIs, and they’ve returned out of sheer instinct – in the same way that migratory birds sometimes flap over the chaos of the war, looking for trees long since defoliated, eaves shelled into fragments while they were away. These Marines know better than to whistle at the LCABs as they pass, or make any crude remarks. That would fall squarely under Beastliness, and Kissinger has given the Ladies all the necessary authority to punish any beastliness, in any way they see fit. So they just watch them as they pass, from a thousand yards’ distance. Afterwards, one passes the joint to another. ‘Someone’s gonna die,’ he says. Maybe the Ladies; maybe their enemies. This is the law.

Somewhere in Huế, the Commies have set up a secret special-weapons unit: pinko intellectuals from Europe, alongside loonies scraped from asylums over three continents. Every day, shells from across the frontlines burst overhead into a flurry of pamphlets. Some of this artillery-borne propaganda is dense, in tiny print. ‘WHAT IS LAUGHTER? The laugh is a painful spasm affecting the chest, neck, and face. When laughing, a subject experiences a significant decline in reflex response and awareness of his surroundings. Vision in laughing subjects may be blurred. They may experience salivation, watering in the eyes, nasal congestion, shortness of breath, or involuntary animal-like vocalisations. Laughter substantially reduces combat effectiveness, often fatally. HOW IS LAUGHTER INDUCED? The laugh may be induced by certain chemical weapons. However, we are also developing the capacity to induce laughter through the combination of words, noises, and actions. We can turn any part of your language into the laughter-weapon. Even the most basic movements of your body – eg, coitus or defecation – are not safe. HOW CAN I PREVENT MYSELF FROM LAUGHING? You can not prevent yourself from laughing. If your people do not leave Việt Nam, we promise to spread joy and laughter among your ranks.’ Other leaflets are far cruder. One shows a grotesque cartoon of an old man with an erect penis, and the slogan: ‘AMERICAN SOLDIER, GO HOME… To Be Gay With Your Dad!!’

A radio broadcast, a book, even a movie, that can seize the people exposed to it, make them break out in violent spasms… the top brass are worried, and it’s understandable why. Huế is exporting body-bags at a prodigious rate, and at home, the appetite for war is diminishing. ARPA’s trying to engineer its own version of the laughter-weapon, but trial versions (tested illegally on black civilians) are stubbornly ineffective. ‘So look,’ says a Pentagon scientist in a windowless cell. ‘I’m white. I know, right? Like, Whitey-McWhite-white. But I’m trying to get better.’ Behind the one-way mirror, they monitor the test subject’s heart rate, his breath, sweat, hormone levels, brain activity… nothing. Why isn’t he laughing? ‘Please,’ he says, ‘I’m begging you, please can you just let me out of here?’ The scientists know that some kind of cruelty – sadism, even – is essential to the procedure, but even after dumping the bodies of a thousand failed test subjects in landfills across the country, it just won’t work. Still, there’s one interesting finding. Certain individuals from certain socioeconomic strata are entirely immune to the laughter-weapon. The Viet Cong can broadcast whatever they want; the upstanding patriots of the LCAB suffer no spasms, eject no crude and ugly noises, have no spit running unwholesomely out of their faces. So now, combat teams of conscientious young ladies fan out across the city, finding VC laughter-weapon cells buried in the rubble, and cancelling out their cruelties with bright clean jets of flame. Leave the world purer. Kinder. More empathic. More polite.

At the head of the column, the head of the LCAB battalion is being interviewed by a spectacled young man for Stars and Stripes. (And is that – is that a peace button on his helmet? Above the words ‘BORN TO KILL’?) All the usual questions. So are you gonna get that weapon before it’s too late? Aren’t these tactics proof of the cruel and underhanded nature of the enemy? But then he gets a strange glint in his eyes. ‘Don’t you think,’ he says, ‘that destroying this weapon robs us of an essential part of the human experience?’ The commander’s head whips suddenly towards him. ‘The human experience?’ she says. ‘What’s your name, young man?’ The reporter swallows. ‘I’m Sergeant J.T. Davis,’ he says. ‘But they call me the Joker.’

NEW YORK CITY, 1985

‘See, what they don’t understand about Bernie Goetz is that he’s a vigilante, a crime-fighter, an honest-to-God American hero… Those folks watch cartoons about the heroes who dare to stand up to crime, but when it actually happens they want to prosecute the man like he’s a criminal? No, no, no. Haven’t they seen what’s going on out there? You got people scared to go out at night. You got people scared to walk the streets of their own city, cuz of what the young folks might do… And down there it’s even worse! Down there the sun never comes up! You walk these streets and think you’re safe, while not twenty feet beneath your shoes there’s folks getting beaten, folks getting mugged, folks getting killed, twenty-four hours a day… Is it just me, or is it getting crazier out there? What kind of world is this, where the kids are beating up on their elders? How did we, as the guardians of this community, let it come to this?’ Give the man his due: Walt is a powerful speaker, but this is entirely the wrong audience. It’s not his fault that his charging, stomping oratorical style comes with a slightly slipshod attitude towards the Word in its written form. The names are so similar, after all, and as for the photo on the posters – ah, white people all look alike. So while Walt thinks he’s addressing a fundraiser for Bernie Goetz – the subway avenger, the white man who shot four unarmed black kids on the 2 train when they asked him for a cigarette, who shot two of them in the back – the attendees at an academic symposium on Clifford Geertz’s Anti-Anti-Relativism watch politely, and wait for this unexpectedly impassioned presentation to meander a little further towards the point. Geertz himself, the plenary speaker, shuffles through his papers: this man isn’t citing my work at all… Still he continues. ‘You know what I say? I say Bernie Goetz is the sanest man in this city. And do you know, do you understand what it means to be a sane man in a crazy world? It means wherever you plant your two feet, that’s where you stand, and if someone tries to threaten your life where you stand – then you put! him! down!’ At this point a graduate student starts to ask a question: has Walt considered the relevance of his namesake Walter Benjamin’s Kritik der Gewalt to this issue? The law prohibits individual violence, not because it contingently contradicts the content of the legal system, but because it challenges the juridical form itself… The fear of some lone individual (and aren’t individuals getting lonelier and lonelier, as Reagan goes to war against the unions, as capitalism starts to eat away at the foundations of society itself?) picking up a gun and exercising sovereign authority all by himself – it’s not just a practical fear, it’s an ontological horror. The madman returning from the mountaintop with the tablets of the Law. A cruel new social order, festering like a parasite inside the corpse of the old. Only – if Goetz is found innocent at trial, what would that say about the present constitution of the State? Walt looks slowly around the room. ‘Now what kind of foolish question is that?’ he says, and then it starts to dawn on him exactly where he is. Oh, how they laughed.

LOS ANGELES, 2019

A killer clown is on the loose.

The weather here is perfect every day of the year, and you spend your life inside, consuming entertainment media. When you do venture out, it’s to the canyons and valleys, where you trim and tone your body so it looks more like the images of bodies you’ve seen, so it can be turned into a more pleasing picture. You live alone with a very small dog. You’re afraid of the other people, the lonely sexless weirdos who stay indoors, whose lives are directed by entertainment.

The world churns out pretty things for you to enjoy. Like a child, holding up some squidged clay in two timid hands: look what I made. I made a movie. I made a TV show. I made an opinion column. I made it so that you’d be happy. Far away, there are coups and genocides and workers jumping off the roofs of their factories, to keep it all moving, so that you’ll be happy. So why aren’t you?

After the revolution withered and the religions drifted away, the only one left was the clown. He is here to entertain. The planet’s getting warmer: a fiery red desert on the equator, and permafrost melting into fringes of unkempt green. One huge mask, spinning giddily through space.

It was already too late when we realised that this clown, like all clowns, is carrying a gun.

The Army surrounds the red-carpet premiere with tanks and armoured personnel carriers. (This basically derivative pastiche movie about a sad clown who hates society – it’s simply too radical and dangerous.) Busy soldiers dig trenches through Hollywood Boulevard. (So why are they all wearing white masks?) Attack helicopters chuckle in the sky overhead, and outside the city, generals in bunkers stare at computer screens, their fingers trembling over the red button, ready to commence a full-scale nuclear bombardment of the greater Los Angeles area if the Thing inside the cinema starts to stir.

And in the dark, it does stir. Baxbakwalanuxsiwae, the cannibal with a thousand mouths, who lives in his lodge at the frosty edge of the world. Mouths that chomp human bones and tear human flesh; mouths that once burst, in the old cold times before the world, into the first and endless laugh.

I, who learned how to laugh where the whale bones were, watched the gunfire start. I squatted by the burning city – not timid, but passive. I saw moviegoers streaming in terror out of the cinema, only to be cut down by the soldiers outside. I saw tanks grunt in formation to pound the building, one after another in turn. And from far over the hills, a screaming across the sky.

Here I sung my song.

Ham ham a’mai, ham ham a’mai, hamaima ma’mai, hamai hamamai.

Utter the hamatsa cry, utter the hamatsa cry, the cry of the great spirit who dwells at the north end of the world.

Utter Baxbakwalanuxsiwae’s war cry, utter Baxbakwalanuxsiwae’s war cry, the cry of the one who eats living men.

Utter the raven’s cry, utter the raven’s cry, the cry of the cannibal pole which is the Milky Way of our world.

Utter the hoxhoku cry, the hoxhoku cry, the cry of the one who is going to eat, whose face is ghastly pale.

Utter the clown dancer’s cry, the clown dancer’s cry, the cry that is heard all over the world.

Wa ha hai, waiya wai.

 

And her name is Lisa too

captain-marvel

I didn’t understand Captain Marvel.

The film is about an interplanetary war between the Kree (a rationalistic, technologically advanced race of blue-skinned aliens, who readily admit outsiders and rule their benign and multi-ethnic empire with a firm but welcoming hand) and the Skrulls (an orcish race of shapeshifting terrorists with Australian accents). Obviously, the Kree are the villains. They are also, quite clearly, a sci-fi version of America.

The hero of Captain Marvel is a kidnapped US Air Force pilot who ends up rebelling against her Kree masters, and the military was highly involved in its production. Fifty soldiers worked as extras in the film, military officers were used as consultants, and multiple scenes were shot on an Air Force base. Female RAF pilots, in uniform, surrounded Larson at the film’s European gala screening in London; for the Los Angeles premiere, the Air Force supplied six F-16 jets for a celebratory flyover. In return – and this is the usual deal – the military was given substantial editorial control over the film’s script. The Marcel Cinematic Universe is, as everyone knows, the cultural wing of the military-industrial complex. This isn’t really an anomaly. These films form the vernacular folklore of post-industrial society, and mythic cycles tend to be martial and heroic narratives. It’s all a lot dumber than the Homeric epics or the Nibelungenlied, but then so are we.

Is it possible that Americans simply can’t see themselves in the screen? Do empires fail the mirror self-recognition test? This seems like too easy an answer. The question we should be asking isn’t how an anti-imperialist message managed to ‘sneak past’ the military censors. Instead, how is it that what appears to be an anti-imperialist message has actually been recuperated by empire?

Anyway, this is what was exercising me after I saw Captain Marvel. I couldn’t sleep that night, but I find it hard to sleep most nights. I took a sleeping pill before bed, and then another after an hour of anxious sweat and irritation, and then another. So I was neither asleep nor awake, but woozily skimming just above the surface of reality, when a group of orcish aliens with Australian accents kidnapped me, took me up to their spaceship, and fed me into their memory-harvesting machine. ‘Go back,’ they said, ‘go back.’ They made me watch Captain Marvel again. But this time, the story was very different to the one I thought I’d seen.

I can’t tell you which one is real. All I know is that I don’t understand.

* * *

It’s 1995, and former US Air Force pilot Carol Danvers falls from a very great height into a Blockbuster Video store outside of Los Angeles. She levitates between the racks of VHS tapes: the mocking green grin of The Mask, the stern half-face of Van Damme in Timecop. Her fingers trail across stacked plastic edges, and they’re scabbed and filthy. The other customers stare: clearly, this woman doesn’t belong here. She’s come from somewhere distant and unknown, and she’s wearing strange armour; she doesn’t look entirely human. She doesn’t seem to disagree. As she drifts, she’s whispering to herself. ‘It isn’t real,’ she says, ‘it isn’t real, you’re not here, you’re in outer space.’

It’s 1988, and Carol Danvers is at the first of her obligatory therapy sessions. Dr Nicholas Fury’s manner doesn’t match his name. He’s still a military psychotherapist, he sits with his back perfectly straight, but his face is open, and there’s a box of tissues on the low table between them. This is where you can say the things you couldn’t say outside. This is where you don’t have to be strong.

‘There must have been a lot of pressure,’ he says, ‘being the first female combat pilot. That’s a whole lot of expectation riding on you.’ Carol smirks mirthlessly. ‘The first,’ she says, ‘and the last. They won’t make that mistake again.’ Dr Fury purses his lips. ‘It’s interesting that you respond with humour,’ he says. ‘Why do you think that is?’ It’s because every time some braying Air Force frat-boy told her women had no place flying a plane, that was always somehow just a joke. ‘Because it’s true,’ she says. ‘I read the internal report,’ says Dr Fury. ‘There were a lot of reasons for what happened, and maybe some of them have to do with you, and maybe some of them don’t. But what I need you to understand is that none of this is simply because you’re a woman.’ And Carol nods, but she’s not convinced. Because there had simply never been a woman combat pilot before, and the system just wasn’t built for someone like her. The flight suits didn’t fit properly; the controls were just slightly too far away; there weren’t separate showers or separate bathrooms. And while the flyboys all necked their go pills before each mission, little methamphetamine tablets to keep them alert, the standard doses had been calculated for a man’s body. The other pilots had been alert. She’d been tweaking.

Up there in the sky, the edges of her vision had blurred, and the centre pulsed. Everywhere she looked was a bloating, living heart. The gumminess and grinding inside her mouth, the crawling on the edge of her skin, the uncontrollable strobe-flash flutter in her eyes, and the strange objects that darted out of the darkness to linger in the sky. Shameful to admit now, but she’d loved it, the cranked-up intensity of it all. The only thing better than drugs is flying, and the only thing better than flying is flying on drugs. Maybe this is just what perfect alertness feels like, she’d thought – but she knew she was making mistakes, the kind of rookie errors a pilot as good as she was shouldn’t be making, and it wasn’t just nerves. Her fingers shook over the controls. She saw shapes in the clouds. AWACS that turned out to be cirrus drifts; zeppelins roiling out of the nimbus. And a hostile F-14, flying aggressively out towards US Navy vessels in the Persian Gulf, which was actually Iran Air Flight 655, with two hundred and ninety civilians on board.

Back when she was at high school in Boston, a friend of hers had gotten wasted at a party and then tried to drive home. He’d gone too fast, accelerated sloppily around corners, spun out of control in that fucked–up maze of crooked streets, and knocked down an old lady taking her dog out for a walk. The dog had to be put down. The old lady died instantly. Ralph: his name was Ralph; she couldn’t remember the old lady’s name. And it was hard, when she visited Ralph in jail, to see him crying in handcuffs. ‘I can’t go to prison,’ he’d whimpered, ‘it wasn’t my fault, I wasn’t in control.’ It had been awful. This kid had killed; he’d taken away someone’s life for no good reason. He wasn’t the friend she’d known, but something else, someone else’s death, a living tragedy plunged into someone else’s world, and he disgusted her. And what is Carol Danvers now? Everyone on that plane had died. Nearly three hundred people. Sixty-six children. And she’d killed them.

Carol Danvers goes home, grabs a bottle of go pills out the bathroom cabinet, and necks three of them at once.

It’s 1989, and Carol Danvers is being stalked by the skulls. They could be anyone. They change their form. Iranians, Carol has learned, have a doctrine called taqqiyah: they’re allowed to hide their religion and deny their God; they disguise themselves to blend in. Maybe that’s why this Wal-Mart is full of monsters. Carol twitches between the aisles, piling up her basket with cakes and candies, high-energy things for when she remembers to eat – and the faces of the other shoppers keep changing. She knows she shouldn’t have flushed the pills, but the two were interacting unpleasantly, and between meds and meth, she was always going to go for the meth. Things are under control, she tells herself. She’s not on the streets. She has her Air Force pension and her disability checks. She has Dr Fury. It’s under control, just not her control. Because when she shuffles over to the cashier and dumps her basket full of oily sugary snacks, the kid bagging her groceries turns his dumb head, and his flesh chars and drifts away in motes of burning dust, leaving only the perfect fire-stripped scream of a passenger as the plane is atomised around him, one of the two hundred and ninety, one of the Iranians, one of the skulls.

It’s 1991, and Dr Fury is being briefed. ‘I know her background,’ he says, waving a dismissive arm. ‘I treated her for two years after the incident.’ The ward superintendent tries to cough as mildly as possible. ‘Ah,’ he says. ‘Well, you might, ah, find that her psychosis has deteriorated considerably since that time. We still have her on the antipsychotics, but the, ah, pattern of her delusions is unfortunately conforming to a fairly classical schizoid type.’ Dr Fury glances over his notes. ‘The influencing machine,’ he says. ‘That’s correct,’ says the superintendent. ‘As it happens, I’m composing a paper on the subject. Are you aware of the, ah, James Tilly Matthews case?’ Dr Fury looks impatient. ‘Remind me,’ he says. ‘Quite a landmark in clinical history,’ says the superintendent. ‘A merchant in the eighteenth century, who came to believe a gang of criminals was remotely torturing him with a machine he called the Air Loom, a system of pipes and, ah, valves, that could interfere with his mind and body through magnetic rays. Dawn of the industrial revolution. I suppose he wasn’t entirely wrong. Machines always seems to carry certain, ah, potencies. There’s a fellow named Francis in Long Island who seems to have something similar, keeps mailing letters about it to random addresses. You know that when I was starting out in the fifties, I had multiple patients who believed Sputnik was beaming messages directly into their brains?’

Carol’s sitting peacefully on a plastic chair in the rec room. Fury sits next to her. ‘Do you remember me?’ he says. Her eyes light up. ‘Dr Fury,’ she says, ‘thank God, you have to help me. We have to go to Cree River.’ Out comes the notepad. ‘Cree River,’ he says. ‘Of course,’ she says. ‘Cree River Air Force Base, in Montana. You’re still in the Air Force, you know what they’ve built there.’ Dr Fury shakes his head. ‘Remind me,’ he says. ‘It’s the AI,’ says Carol. ‘There’s a supercomputer in a bunker under the airfield, the Air Force is using it to model the movements of Iraqi tank columns. But listen: it’s got too smart for them. Reality is just a highly accurate simulation, and it’s simulating the whole universe now. Don’t you get it? We’re in that simulation. It thinks it’s a god. It’s sending messages through time. We have to destroy it, we have to get in a plane right now and destroy the Supreme Intelligence.’ ‘You said it sends messages,’ says Dr Fury. Carol gives him a canny glance. ‘You want to know if the Supreme Intelligence shot down that plane,’ she says. ‘You don’t believe me, do you? You think this is all in my head. Well it is. It’s in my head, and yours, and it’s in the trees outside, and it’s everywhere, it’s everything, and it wasn’t my fault, do you hear me, it wasn’t my fault.’ She’s smiling now. ‘How can you look so concerned,’ she says, ‘when you don’t even have a face?’

Afterwards, outside, Dr Fury notices as if for the first time how all the cars stop at a red light, and how there’s always someone to sweep the leaves off the sidewalk; how perfectly everything in the world fits together, as if this were all just part of the plan.

It’s 1993, and someone has detonated a truck bomb beneath the World Trade Center in New York. TV footage shows rescue teams pulling the wounded out of the collapsed garage. Carol Danvers watches the devastation from a quiet air-conditioned bar out in the California desert, and Maria Rambeau watches her. It had all sounded so much simpler when Carol’s doctor had phoned her out of the blue. ‘I’m not asking you to be her nurse or her carer,’ the man had said. ‘I’m just asking you to be her friend.’ Being friends with Carol had been easy, once, when they’d both been bright-eyed and ambitious kids at Basic Training in Texas. And it’s not as if the Carol she knew is gone, not exactly. Days and weeks can go past without incident. Long periods in which she’s a little off, a little scarred, but basically fine. She always was resilient. The drugs are working – and, as Dr Fury keeps telling her, what’s more important is that Carol has her. Friends, a job, a bar she can go to, where they can sing karaoke duets again and drink whiskey straight, something like an ordinary life. But being friends with someone like Carol really is like being a nurse or a carer, it is a chore, and as much as she loves her, sometimes Maria wishes it could all just be someone else’s problem. Like now. Maria’s country is under attack. People have died, and she would rather be anywhere other than here. This bar in the desert, with pictures of fighter jets on the walls and ballads twanging tinny on the speakers, with her, her best friend, watching them pull the wounded out of the World Trade Center, and mumbling a constant stream of insane drivel into her glass. Rogue computers, weaponised syntax, Islamic doctrine as a metaphor for quantum energy weapons, faster-than-light drives schematically represented in the traditional patterns of Persian carpets, a hole opening in the sky above New York, and flying lizards streaming through. Maria wants to grab her friend by the shoulders and scream: girl, you fucked up bad, and that’s on you; don’t make me your two hundred and ninety-first victim. But instead she just nods, and bears it, and orders another drink.

It’s 1995, and Carol Danvers is in outer space. She turns back a barrage of ballistic missiles; she swoops through an enemy spaceship in a trail of gorgeous explosions. She’s saved the skulls, the innocents and their children. She’s put back flesh to repair their wounds. She builds universes. She makes and unmakes empires at will. Every flicker in her fingers is significant, every motion changes the world. Lasers sparkle like confetti around her, as she chases the Imperial warships deep into the interstellar void.

And inside the simulation, the false world, the flat world, the dead zone of magnetic tape and digital signals, Carol Danvers is levitating between the racks of VHS tapes in her aluminium-foil armour, as laurels of light wind and unwind around her stained and scabbing hands.

An empty tomb

empty-tombs-1916

You don’t remember the dead of the First World War.

Nobody does, now, or almost nobody. At most, you might remember the ones who survived. There’s a photo, hidden away somewhere, of great-grandad in his old army uniform, and if you look at it you might notice with a kind of sickly horror that he looks a bit like you did at that age, that you’re now already so much older than this old, old man. Maybe there’s a box with some old medals, or even a decommissioned revolver. Pieces of someone who died much later, surrounded by TV and pop music, dreaming the blanketing dreams of the nuclear bomb. Someone who lived to see a different country, one that throbbed in full colour. The hole left in the world by those bullets and shells and clouds of poison gas one hundred years ago was not left in your world, or mine either. The people who had their heart ripped out by a stranger on the Somme are almost impossibly rare; we drag them out into our televised ceremonies now, so everyone can see what a fully incomplete human being looks like, so they can do our remembering for us. Trembling, a few last strands of thin hair limp against a crusting pate: I still miss my Arthur every day, every day it’s like he’s just been taken from me. That’s what it means to really remember: to be a seeping wound in a world that’s been bandaged up and gauzed into blankness. For the rest of us, there’s GCSE history, supermarket Christmas adverts, an immersive experience at the Imperial War Museum. For you, the dead of the Western Front or Gallipoli may as well be the dead of Sevastopol, or Agincourt, or Hastings, or all the nameless battles fought by our hooting ancestors, brachiating grimly through the canopies. We have nothing in common with the millions who went whistling into a barbed-wire void. If we did, we’d be a little more like the ones who came back out again, the ones the war turned into madmen or revolutionaries.

We don’t have memory. We have remembrance. Organised hypomnesis; a set of stony symbols. We remember that we ought not to have forgotten. The past is on the tip of your tongue, but it can’t be spoken; any word that could have contained it is an empty tomb. Non est hic. What remains are signifiers, gnawing at each other’s heads. A poppy is a symbol; it symbolises the Cenotaph. The two minutes silence has meaning, it means a wreath. The flag is a code for the national anthem. None of these things mean the mud and terror of the war, or the millions dead, because none of that is an object in our experience. There’s no shared referent other than the ritual of reference itself: the objects of remembrance stand, mutely, for themselves. Forgetfulness, made concrete, and misnamed.

This isn’t bad or wrong: it’s just space and time. We are where we are. Today marks the end of four years of official commemoration, an attempt to hang the shadow of the Great War over our own century, to turn time into a palimpsest. These have been four very strange years. On June 23rd, 2016, we voted to leave the European Union; one hundred years ago that day, a million Germans surged over the frontlines at Verdun and overran the fort at Thiaumont, only to be pushed back over days and weeks to where they had been. Endless, uncountable thousands dead. On June 8th, 2017, the Tories threw away their parliamentary majority in an act of blinkered authoritarian arrogance, a century after the British army accidentally shelled its own lines, killing three hundred colonial troops. In June this year, one hundred years after two dozen German divisions plunged deep into France in a last desperate effort to end the war, Germaine Greer asked why Beyoncé has to ‘have her tits hanging out.’ There’s no symmetry. Trump is not the October revolution. Weinstein is not the Armenian genocide. It doesn’t map. It’s no more present than the wars going on now, the thousands dying in Syria and Yemen and across the world. What can we do for the people of the Middle East, starved or disintegrated by British bombs or British military expertise? Build another monument for them, put it up on the fourth plinth, and forget them into symbols.

There are still ways to make the past breathe again. Mostly, by digitally altering and colourising old Pathé newsreel, and putting it in 3D. The effect is impressive: it looks so much more real. The war is no longer fought by spindly, jerky automatons, low-resolution flesh-robots. Computers have generated the missing material in the gaps within movement, to bring the footage up to 24 fps, which is the flicker rate of consensus reality. Now these soldiers look like actual human beings, which is to say that they look like all the other cinema-screen simulacra. Now the propaganda of the early twentieth century can be raised back up in the fullness of its authenticity, because now it looks more like how we lie in the twenty-first.

Again, this isn’t bad or wrong. There was a time in which we could remember, in which the war was something other than the mud-caked origin myth of modernity, but now is no longer that time. There are other ways of remembering. We can remember in the present: I remember when I came out of the land of Egypt and the house of slavery, and – historically speaking, at least – that didn’t even happen; I can remember it in solidarity with those on the boats setting out across the Mediterranean, or those sleeping on the ground as their caravan twists slowly up over the Mexican plateau. We can remember the war the same way. We’ll never know the trenches, but when those that lived returned home, the fight didn’t end; so many of them, across Europe and across the world, took up the struggle against the ruling classes who had sent them there to die, and we can fight for life and dignity too. For obvious reasons, this is not the kind of remembrance we usually get.

What we get instead is a strange kind of rage. This year, and every year, the poppy wars. (Not unlike those other flower wars, fought between the Aztecs and their ritual enemies: both sides agree on a time and place, and neither seems to expect to actually win.) Who owns the past, now that it’s wordless and as transferable as any other debt? Is this year’s the most politicised Remembrance Sunday yet? Might Eid be getting more Islamic? Can we stop the commercialisation of Black Friday?

The anger of the poppy-scorners is fairly legible. Never Again, we were promised, but it keeps on happening; maybe we can sit in silent quietist remembrance once the war is actually over. The anger of the other side is thornier. A violent hatred for those who won’t wear the poppy, sing the national anthem, support the Legion, the ones who insult the memory of the dead by insisting that the war that killed them was Actually Bad. In other words, those that try to remember something specific, instead of remembering the process of being unable to remember. It can only be parsed as an externalised guilt. No, it’s not wrong or bad to not remember the dead of the First World War, it’s only distance and time – but the rituals of the state command memory, and there’s nothing in the memory to grasp. You have failed, because you’re living now instead of dying then; you’ve failed because you couldn’t stop one hundred years washing over the world that was. Seething indignation against the people who refuse to remember, because you, too, have forgotten.

This post is, once again, dedicated to those ten thousand soldiers who were killed in the six hours between the signing of the Armistice and its taking effect, one hundred years ago, who gave their lives so that schoolchildren could learn that the war ended on the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month.

Why won’t you push the button?

Nuclear war is not only fabulous because one can only talk about it, but because the extraordinary sophistication of its technologies coexists, cooperates in an essential way with sophistry, psycho-rhetoric, and the most cursory, the most archaic, the most crudely opinionated psychagogy, the most vulgar psychology.
Jacques Derrida, No Apocalypse, Not Now (Full Speed Ahead, Seven Missiles, Seven Missives)

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Imagine if a politician openly promised, during a campaign, that they would be willing to burn people alive. They come to knock on your door, bright and smiling in a freshly crinkled rosette: unlike my opponent, who doesn’t care about your security and the security of your family, I will personally subject someone to sixty million-degree heat, so that their fat melts and their bones are charred and their eyeballs burst and their bodies crumble into toxic dust. I will torture other people by burning their skin, I will torch their flesh away and leave them with open wounds bubbling with disease. They will die slowly. I will poison others; their organs will fail and they will shit out their guts in agony. I will do this to people who have done nothing wrong, to families, to children, to their pets; one by one, I will burn them to death. For you. For your security.

This is what the bomb did to Hiroshima. This is utter barbarism. Even saying that you would do it is utter barbarism. Of course, the nuclear deterrent only works if you say that you’re prepared to use it – which just demonstrates that we shouldn’t have it, that the whole logical structure of nuclear deterrence is abominable. Any tool whose mere existence forces you to say the unspeakable is not worth having; a hammer that causes you to make death threats is not fit for purpose. Anyone who threatens the world with blinding destruction in unspecified circumstances is simply not responsible enough to hold power. There is no situation in which the use of these weapons is ever justified – never, not in the most tortured hypotheticals of an undergraduate ethics seminar, not in the most Boschian secondary worlds inhabited by right-wing fantasists. If a nuclear attack on Britain has already been launched, retaliation will save nobody; it would just be the final act of spite in a long spiteful history. Nobody would accept a politician who threatened from the podium on live TV to personally burn one person to death, so why should we accept the idea of burning millions?

But what’s strange about the moral case against nuclear weapons – they cause horrendous suffering, must never be used, and should not exist – is that it doesn’t work.

We saw this on Friday night’s Question Time debate, as a parade of questioners took Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn to task over his refusal to say that he would ‘push the button’ and initiate an attack. Theresa May has said that she would press the button in a first strike; Owen Smith, during the last leadership contest, said the same thing. This seems to be a fairly popular decision; the thoughtless destruction of everything that exists plays well with the British public. More than that: it’s demanded; according to the eldritch nostrums that structure British political life, if you’re not willing to promise horrendous genocide with the breezy psychopathy of some ancient khagan drinking from the skulls of his enemies, you can’t be trusted to keep us safe. The appetite for murder is incalculable. After Corbyn ruled out a first strike, one member of the public – red-faced, ageing, some sad retired insurance salesman comforting himself in his flabby decline with thoughts of the fiery extermination of humanity – demanded to know if he’d use Trident as a second strike: the British people demand death from beyond the grave; he’d die gladly if he knew that a few million innocent Iranians or Koreans went too.

It’s striking how sharply the inhuman vastness of nuclear war contrasts with the pettiness and finitude and awfulness of the people who demand it. The first question on nuclear weapons came from one Adam Murgatroyd, who looks exactly how you’d expect, some simpering Tory ponce with his slicked-back hair and his practised raise of an eyebrow. ‘It’s disconcerting,’ he later told the press, ‘that we could potentially in six days’ time have a prime minister who wouldn’t be prepared to protect British lives over someone else’s life.’ Imagine the air poisoned, the soil dying, the biosphere eradicated, the grand flailing tragedy of humanity and its aspirations put to an abrupt stop, the families huddling their loved ones close as the shock wave hits, knowing they’re about to die – and all because some limp umbrella of a man wanted a leader who’d make the right kind of nationalistic hoots about defence. Now I am become Adam from the BBC studio audience, destroyer of worlds.

We should consider the questions of the atomic age in fear and trembling. Instead we get the blearing idiocy of common sense, always pointing us to the wrong and most monstrous answer. The process of thinking about the red button has become as automatic as the button itself.

Nuclear war is unthinkable, in the most literal sense. It has no end and no interpretation; it is invisible, ungraspable, unconscionable. There is a significant cultural industry dedicated to depicting nuclear war precisely because it’s impossible, because we’re trying to find ways to depict a looming absence of everything, a nothing that can never be depicted. (This is why Derrida considers the real literature of the nuclear age to not be works that directly imagine a post-apocalyptic future, but the texts of Kafka, Mallarmé, and Joyce – the writing that comes closest to touching its own finitude and destructibility.) The death drive, Kristeva writes, is not represented in the unconscious, because the unconscious can not admit negation – only, as Freud puts it, ‘contents, cathected with greater or lesser strength.’ Instead, Kristeva writes, there is a ‘hiatus, spacing, or blank that constitutes death for the unconscious.’ Death is in the cadence of the psyche, the pause that gives regularity and reason to its articulation, the silence against which it expresses itself. Nuclear war is the death of politics and administration, the emptiness in which politics speaks. This is why petty, stupid bureaucrats, small people with small concerns, who mostly fuss about which type of coffee plays best with the focus-group voters, have to occasionally declare that they would take on the titanic task of wiping out all of human history. They have to announce their fidelity to the interior non-substance of our political discourse, which is the death of every living thing. Then they’re allowed to go on and talk about parking spaces and healthy eating and cutting taxes and aspiration. Everything is in its unplace, all policy is properly situated at ground zero, where the bombs will fall.

This silence is not pure unsignifying madness: it’s the final home of rationality. The sense in which we talk about reason – pure objectivity, emotionlessness, abstract numerical calculation, a kind of ratio that would have seemed very strange to, for instance, the medieval Europeans who helped first define it – is a product of the nuclear age. It’s well known that game theory, in which human decisions are modelled according to the assumption that everyone is a calculating and atomised individual who only wants to maximise their utility – was first taken up as a praxis to model the Cold War nuclear standoff, and was only then applied to all areas of social and economic life. But the most basic relay mechanisms of nuclear weapons by themselves enforce a post-politics. Paul Virilio notes that, as the warning times for a nuclear attack and a possible counter-attack shrunk from fifteen minutes to ten minutes to one, the effect was that of ‘finally abolishing the Head of state’s power of reflection and decision in favour of a pure and simple automation of defence systems… After having been the equivalent of total war the war machine suddenly becomes the very decision for war.‘ Somewhere, various sets of computer systems analyse the likelihood of an unprovoked strike and try to pre-empt it; when the end comes, it won’t be for explicable political goals, but out of a pure uninflected machine-reason, and none of us will ever know why. Reason and madness lose their distinction here. See Nixon, the shit Hamlet with his ‘madman doctrine,’ threatening to unleash the powers of apocalyptic calculation; see the tortured but valid syllogisms by which every democratic British leader has to make gruesome threats against the world. This is the ground of politics as administration and necessity and the root of the technocratic age. Once the life and death of every living thing can become a matter of calculation without ideology or ethics, so is everything else. People can starve to death in empty flats because there’s no magic money tree; thousands can drown on the Mediterranean because we don’t have the resources to take in any more. It’s common sense. Common sense in the twenty-first century is always common sense from the point of view of an atomic bomb.

Just like austerity or the massacre-by-inaction on Europe’s waters, the logic of nuclear weapons is not some pre-Kantian pure reason without a social or epistemological substrate. Nuclear weapons are, first of all, weapons in the class struggle. The greatest vector for socialism has always been war – in war, the ruling classes arm and mobilise the proletariat, tell them that they have the power to build the fate of nations, and then send them off to die; it’s only a matter of time before these workers decide that this power could be put to better use, and the people taking the most principled stand against these senseless wars have always been Communists. War between the powers became too great a threat to power itself. Nuclear weapons abolish this: abstract mobilisation, the disappearance of territory, the omnipresence of the front. Working classes win by striating and reinterpreting space – building barricades, occupying squares, cutting off the flows of production and exchange at crucial points – and under the global sovereignty of the bomb there is no such thing as space. Instead, our role is simply to die, in endless billions. But it all makes sense; every step is perfectly rational. It’s a death you can trust, to keep you and your family safe.

First we take Damascus

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Donald Trump ordered his attack on Syria because of something he saw on TV. The world is full of people like him: old, shabby, pompous; people who know everything because they learned it all from somewhere, people who function as exit nodes for the vast extraorganic network of information that chatters across oceans and ping-pongs through outer space, people who form the anuses of the system of images, excreting their content back into the world of things, people who repeat everything they see on TV. Every suburban bus stop shelters a Donald Trump, some smugly witless man of the world who knows what he knows and knows it better than you, some tyrant-in-waiting ready at any moment to vomit up the whole of the received wisdom in one splattering stream, and then act like they’re in possession of some special knowledge because they’re able to do so. The only difference is that when Donald Trump blathers from the TV, the TV takes notice: he repeats what it says, it repeats what he says. Donald Trump is the network whorling in on itself; the system of careful mediation finally splayed out in the mud, legs out, back twisted, licking its own arsehole.

The media was kind to Trump’s attack on Syria. Every pompous outlet that has spent the last five months screaming incessantly about the threat to democracy, the inevitable deaths and the terror of wars, had nothing but applause as soon as the wars and the deaths actually got going. A fleshy and dangerous idiot, a vulgarian, an imbecile – until those first perfect screaming shots of Tomahawk missiles being fired were broadcast – that’s our guy, you show them Donny! This is when, as Fareed Zakaria put it on CNN, Trump ‘became the president.’ And he really is presidential now, because the president is a totemic war-chief, the bloated repository of every male fantasy that had to be repressed, someone whose only job is to look like they could kill a hundred people in the morning and pose for a photoshoot with their dogs in the afternoon. Never mind the deaths or the uncertain repercussions; Trump’s strike was utterly squalid and utterly ignoble, some fattened toddler idly shitting out molten steel into the parched graveyard that used to be Syria, saving nobody, helping nobody, thoughtless and obscene. Kill a few of their guys, teach them a lesson, it’s common sense. And all the sophisticates and strategists applaud – stricken by half-hearted guilt, of course; after all, you still wouldn’t want to have the man round for dinner. They write their long justificatory exegeses on the timeliness of the act, bringing out every little rhetorical trick of the educated ruling classes, because all their moral angst is also from comic books, and cinema, and TV.

On NBC, Brian Williamss, ranting himself into ecstasy, quoted Leonard Cohen: I am guided by the beauty of our weapons. What weapons guide? Cohen wasn’t singing about clubs or spears or missiles, but ideology, culture, and fame. Mediation. Whether he knew it or not, what Brian Williams was saying had nothing to do with the spotlit plumes of white smoke rising from the US Navy vessels in the Mediterranean. The beautiful weapon was himself. the beautiful weapon was TV.

Beyond the fiddly cloisters of the media intellectuals, why do Americans love their wars so much? Because war is the only workable substitute for being able to turn off the TV. Wars happen for the same grim and venal reasons that have always made the rich massacre the poor, but every other weapon is now subordinated to the screens, the nightly news and the outrage on Twitter. The media transmits the relentless horror of the world, sliced up into edible segments: here’s a problem, here’s a tragedy, here’s an atrocity, here’s something else. Chemical weapons, starvation, murder, war. All of it is shrink-wrapped and isolated; you can never really find out why this is happening, no more than you could really learn the long sad stories behind every neatly packaged item on the supermarket shelves. They don’t even need to lie, although they do that too; the propaganda is in the medium itself. And the ethical response to all this diffuse suffering, charging at your face out of nowhere, is no longer why is this happening? but we have to make it stop. Anything is permissible if it’ll just make this go away. There’s no better example than the 2000 film Rules of Engagement: our heroic Marines are called in to defend the US Embassy in Yemen from an angry crowd outside, and all the time they’re there we can constantly hear their endless and repetitive chants, and the camera flashes between shots to glimpses of furious mouths with terrible third-world teeth, furious, inhuman, a slow torture, until the good patriotic viewer is begging our heroes to just shut them up. After the Marines fire into the crowd, there’s a moment of perfect silence. Bliss.

The attack on Syria will not make its war go away. Every primly disgusted apologia for the attack is a travesty. So Assad should be able to use chemical weapons with impunity? So we should do nothing? See how that we slips in there, almost unnoticed. Is this the same we that killed 56 Syrian civilians in Manbij last year, and then 46 in rural Aleppo, and then nearly 300 innocent Iraqis in Mosul? The we that turned the Korean peninsula into rubble and carnage because the people there wanted a better life, and then Indochina, and then the Middle East; the one that’s currently engaged in starving millions in Yemen? What happened to Libya, after we were told we had a responsibility to save the civilians there too? This isn’t ‘whataboutery,’ but a simple question: when judgement and punishment are carried out by the same people, who gets to judge? If the Syrian government carried out the chemical weapons attack in Khan Sheikhoun then it is monstrous, cynical, and murderous – but the ability to punish monstrous states seems to belong only to the most powerful; in other words, the most monstrous, the most cynical, and the most violent. But all it needs is a we – a word reaching through the screen to swaddle you up in it – for the great roving predator of the world, dripping with blood from every pore, to become something else: the international community, the ones who must intervene, to protect the children.

The next attack won’t stop the war in Syria either, or the next one. That’s not what these things are for. The response from the Mail on Sunday’s Dan Hodges was instructive. Bomb Assad, he said, and then bomb Isis. And when that leaves what was once a functioning society in the hands of Jabhat al-Nusra and Ahrar al-Sham? ‘Then we go and get them too.’ After all, if every Syrian is dead, then the war is finally over. Their suffering is immense, but it’s not their suffering that matters: it’s the suffering of the viewer, at home, heartbroken as they watch the carnage playing out onscreen. It doesn’t matter who does it, and it doesn’t matter how it’s done, but we need to turn it off forever.

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.

Sisterfucking up the Euphrates

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Robot wars: drones and the hegemony of the molecular

Something interesting’s happening in the East China Sea. The dispute between China and Japan over the uninhabited Senkaku Islands has seen Japanese businesses torched in cities across China, fighter jets circling each other over the barren rocks in question, and printouts of flags heroically ripped in half. Now both China and Japan are stockpiling drones. If it happens, the drone war for the Senkaku Islands will be the first of its kind: pure war, war in the abstract, war fought without armies or soldiers. Two fleets of faceless robots knocking each other out of the sky, a war that takes place on a plane of virtuality. It makes a sort of sense. For all their posturings, China and Japan are economically codependent. Maybe the drones will allow them to have their war and their trade links at the same time. Maybe the result will be something completely different. In any case, the conventions of warfare that have been in place for five thousand years might be approaching their overthrow.

It’s not just in East Asia. Hezbollah is building its own drones and flying them into Israeli airspace. The United States has set the precedent here: drones are not contained by borders; drones can operate anywhere in the world. I’m convinced that someone in the CIA’s been reading Deleuze. In Afghanistan and Pakistan, the United States is fighting real nomads, Pashtun herdsmen with goats and rifles and monotheism who recognise the border for what it is: a meaningless and obsolete dividing line between the British and Russian spheres of the late 19th Century. The US has done well; it’s adapted by turning its machines of war back into warmachines, becoming more nomadic than the nomads themselves. Drones don’t just operate according to smooth rather than striated space, they obliterate space altogether. In the place of spatiality comes something like distribution. In Langley, a man pushes a button on an Xbox controller; in Waziristan, fragments of houses and pieces of people are scattered across a half-mile radius. Drones operate outside the structures of the Law: deterritorialised from their human controllers, they exist everywhere at once. There is no field of combat, only pure exteriority. Somalia, Yemen, the Philippines: they’re all separated only by the width of a fibreglass wing. War itself is a second-order concern. War is an invention of the State, a part of its stratification. For the autonomous warmachines it doesn’t exist. Instead the drone continually produces its own object. In casualty reports from drone strikes, any male over sixteen years is considered to have been a militant: if they weren’t an enemy, what were they doing in the strike area? If you’re not a threat to us, then why did we just kill you? Unlike tanks or planes drones don’t identify and eliminate their targets, they create them; you become a target by virtue of having been killed by a drone. President Obama maintains a personally approved ‘kill list’ of enemy targets. As soon as a target is destroyed another emerges to take its place. The drones have a logic all of their own; politicians are caught up in its spirals. There can be no end, not until every last building is flattened and the horizontality of the nomadic desert re-establishes itself.

For the State, capture of the warmachine is necessary for its process of continual stratification. We’re seeing something different here: the capture of the State by the warmachine. Wall Street is a warmachine par excellence, obliterating any boundary to the free flow of capital, describing lines of flight that arc across the surface of the Earth at the speed of light. Austerity programmes make warmachines out of schools and hospitals. Microfascism has taken over the world. In his critique of Deleuze, Baudillard writes that power and desire operate along the same channels. Beware of the molecular, he warns. To be fair, Deleuze and Guattari never say that the molecular is any nicer than the molar. It’s here, I think, that we reach the horizon of Deleuzian radicalism. When molecularity is hegemonic, resistance may have to take on new forms.

Qassam existentialism

1: Why the rockets? The Palestinians are trying to kill Jews, any Jews, they’re targeting civilians. Except that’s not really the case. The rockets are useless, tin cans filled with horse shit and refined sugar with warheads of dodgy trinitrotoluene. Many fail to launch altogether, most of those that do get off the ground are shot down by Israel’s Iron Dome anti-missile system, most of those that manage to land somewhere generally end up in some empty patch of ground miles from anyone. From the twelve thousand rockets launched in the last twelve years, there have been twenty-two Jewish fatalities. That’s a kill rate of 0.175%. If Hamas were really serious about killing Jews they’d have plenty of other ways to go about it. There are always soldiers patrolling up and down the fence that rings the Gaza Strip, it’d be far easier to have a pop at one of them. Or it’d still be possible to smuggle some gunmen into Israel proper to enact a few atrocities in a couple of kibbutzim – expensive, certainly, but given that each rocket costs about $800, it’d be a far more effective investment. But instead of doing that, they fire rockets. Not just Hamas, either. In times of truce the Hamas police have to go about arresting and torturing members of other groupuscules, gangs of kids feverishly building rockets in basements across Gaza City. Why the rockets?

1.1: The rockets aren’t weapons of war at all. Gaza has no industry, no exports, eighty percent of its population is dependent on aid. Most of the world, its nominal allies included, would rather it weren’t there. The rockets are a form of communication, the only one available. A reminder, a gadfly’s bite, a projection of the reality that is life in Gaza beyond the cloacal confines of the world’s largest prison camp. Extension du domaine de la lutte. Every sad volley of sputtering white-tailed rockets is another desperate whisper: I exist… I exist… And every precision-guided Israeli bomb is a brutally curt reply: No you don’t.

1.2: Well, not quite. Israel might not want the Gazans, but it certainly needs their rockets. The IDF, the most advanced army on the face of the planet, is now not much more than the armed wing of Netenyahu’s re-election committee; a few Israeli lives lost in the cause of party politics is apparently perfectly acceptable. Israel is defending itself – against what? The current escalation has been entirely contrived by the Israeli side. Hamas only started firing rockets after Israel lobbed shells at children playing on a football pitch. When Ahmed Jabari was murdered he was hashing out the details of a long-term truce. The Israeli bombardment of Gaza isn’t designed to stop the rockets, that’s the last thing they want; it’s a deliberate provocation. If enough rockets are fired they can respond however they want. Freud wrote that a masochist is always at the same time a sadist. Hit me, hit me again, let Gaza transform itself into a volcanic fountain spewing scrap iron and potassium nitrate, hit me until the roles suddenly switch and I seize the whip to avenge myself.

1.2.1: It’s not about Gaza at all, it’s about the January election and the upcoming Palestinian bid for recognition at the United Nations. More than that: it’s autotelic, war for the sake of war. The worst thing is that the Gazans must know this; they know they’ve been turned into mere implements. It might have been better for them to have not responded – the only way they could have thwarted their aggressors was by inaction. Impossible, of course. Our form might precede our function, our freedom might be absolute, but if your leader is assassinated on a whim you can’t just do nothing. You have to strike back, you have to launch rockets at Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, you have to play along and carry out your role in a play that’s already been meticulously scripted. Otherwise you lose legitimacy. Hamas is like Sartre’s café waiter, playing at being itself.

2: The Palestinians fire rockets from densely populated civilian areas. They hide behind their women and children. Of course they do. Why shouldn’t they? They know that Israel needs to keep its end up in the propaganda war. They know that Gaza is full of mobile phones with their all-seeing eyes. No sensible military commander would see the opportunity to attack with impunity and not take it. What should they do instead? Should they march out in formation to a patch of dust outside Gaza City, nice and gentlemanly, with muskets gleaming in the sun, so an Israeli jet can come over and wipe them all out without injuring any photogenic kiddies? Supporters of Israel continually voice their disgust at how Hamas is waging its war. How would they prefer them to do it? Maybe the Knesset should approve the sale of a few unmanned drones to the Palestinian resistance. Then the two sides could both hide themselves safely away, firing missiles with xbox controllers and calling each other fags through their headsets.

2.1: More to the point, Zionist disgust articulates itself in a strangely constricted moral field. Palestinians try to send their rockets into population centres. Israelis, meanwhile, talk sickeningly of precision warfare and surgical strikes. As if the airdropped leaflets warning of a raid excuses the raid itself. As if it’s perfectly admissible for them to kill whomever they want, as long as they’ve bloodlessly decided on which particular person they intend to kill. As if their ongoing colonial project is a-ok as long as they don’t murder too many innocents. As if the specific tactics of Hamas invalidate the justice of the Palestinian cause.

2.1.1: The leaflets say: avoid Hamas operatives, don’t go near them, we are trying to kill them, we are determined to defend ourselves. Hamas is the elected government in Gaza. The leaflets are telling people to avoid their own state. The IDF is a Deleuzian nomad, a war machine defined by its absolute exteriority, warding off state-formation and smoothing striated space, its missiles describing lines of flight. Liberation.

2.2: Talk of collateral damage is always sickening. We’re not trying to kill you, they say, so if you die it’s not our fault, it’s the caprice of chance, we will express regret but never apologise. The language of surgical warfare is nothing more than a feckless shrug at the dozens of civilian deaths. At the same time, though, some of what the Israelis are saying is true: millions of dollars of munitions have been fired at Gaza in hundreds of air assaults; considering that, the fatality rate is preternaturally low. So if these raids aren’t causing casualties, what are they targeting? Arms caches, military posts, and so on. But Gaza isn’t that big a place. During the last Israeli massacre in Gaza, they destroyed water treatment plants, telephone exchanges, factories. Organs of the state, after all, and the state is controlled by Hamas. David Harvey calls this kind of thing ‘creative destruction on the land’ – capital always needs somewhere to reinvest, it needs that magic three percent yearly growth; if you bomb a factory then you get to award the contract for its reconstruction afterwards. I don’t think it’s just that. During periods of truce, Israel is forever breaking its own blockade. It sends mountains of aid into Gaza, armoured vans full of shekels to prop up the banks, trucks full of food in quantities determined by the government’s coldly calculated calorie allowances. It’s a propaganda coup. Such generosity, we’re feeding our prisoners, we’re supplying their services, because for some mysterious reason they can’t do it themselves. And after all this, the ingrates dare to fire rockets at us.

3: And the people living in Sderot and Ashkelon and Nahal Oz, who famously have sixty seconds to scramble into their bomb shelters, whose skulls resound with the sounds of sirens and impacts – what are they doing there? Unlike their less fortunate neighbours, they have no wall keeping them in. Is their colonial project so important that they’d subject their children to these terrors? There could almost be a kind of wild romanticism to it: desert settlers, building a new rugged Judaism out in the scrublands, where the ground is hard and the sun is blistering and the sky spits a constant barrage of rockets. They could culture a good strong fanaticism out there, piously farm the chthonic irrationality that bubbles up from inbetween the rocks. That could be forgivable. Of course the actuality is the total opposite. In interview after interview the residents of these towns say the same thing: they just want a nice quiet life, they want things to go back to normal, and the slaughter in Gaza is a fair price for their diazepamoid banality. They want the humiliation – sometimes the extermination – of an entire people for the transcendent Good of low house prices and a tolerable commute. Sderot is a blasphemy, a monster sitting on the corpse of the Palestinian village of Najd: rows of houses with their pitched red roofs sprouting along broad avenues, delicately pruned palm trees rising from nail-clippered grass embankments, dreadful public sculptures. Its people are Hebrew-speaking Americans, displaying the same kind of petty anaesthetic viciousness that has the sublime crags of the San Gabriel mountains intercut with lines of identical bungalows, that builds Burger King restaurants by the side of the freeway in the Mojave Desert, that reels out electrified fences on the banks of the Rio Grande. Kill them all, they say. They’d enact an anodyne genocide.

3.1: Architecture is the continuation of war by other means.

3.2: Eyal Weizman told us that the Israeli army reads Deleuze. If they’re not doing so already, the Palestinians should read Negarestani. The war is being fought in the air, with drones and rockets, but its source is subterranean: the tunnels into Sinai, the bomb shelters under Ashdod. The surface is a fragile and ( )holey membrane, a plane of peril.

4: My first reaction to a monstrous injustice being carried out against people on the other side of the world is to find someone who supports it and argue with them. It’s pointless, and probably not particularly healthy, but what else is there? During Operation Cast Lead, I was baton-charged by police outside the Israeli embassy in London. There were thousands of us demonstrating: bourgeois students like myself, Hamas supporters in keffiyehs, sweet old ladies hoisting banners of Stalin. When the last remnants of the protest were broken apart by riot police, I went home bruised and exhausted to find out that Israel had mounted a ground invasion while I was out.

5: Žižek describes war as a kind of phatic communication. It’s true that when two radically different cultures first encounter each other, they’re always very curious: they want to know about each other; chiefly they want to know how the other side dies. Now they have new ways of talking. The Israeli Defence Forces and the Izz ad-Din al-Qassam Brigades are idly chatting on Twitter: swapping threats and insults; disputing claims of downed planes, rocket attacks, civilian casualties. The IDF operates a programme for its online sympathisers: by sharing propaganda photos on Facebook, you can rise through imaginary military ranks. You too can serve in the Israeli armed forces, fighting the war from your laptop. Actually, the opposite is taking place. The keyboard warriors aren’t being integrated into the military, the military is turning into part of the online commentariat. It’s turning into me. Baudrillard said that the Gulf War didn’t take place, that the Americans were fighting a nonexistent enemy. Now both sides are nonexistent. The war is a staged event, a text; it exists not to be won but to be interpreted. It’s a fiction being played out in real life.

5.1: And people are dying.

9/11 & the Burkean sublime

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

[3] Burke, p. 146

[4] Debord, p. 8

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

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

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