Thursday, 20 December 2012

Have yourself an UNlovely Christmas...

The BBC Sports Personality of the Year Awards was a chilling reminder, if we needed it, of the extent to which the London Olympics was, in its aggressive inanity and remember-to-smile ethos, truly, horribly, the event of our times. As if to snare the few remaining sceptics, the programme overran into the 10 o'clock news, by a good 20 minutes, enough time to bear witness to the incredibleness, the unbelievableness, the indescribableness etc. etc. etc, which seem to be preconditions now for even the most basic experience. You're nobody these days unless you're an inspiration. In this sense, the Paralympics were more potent than the Olympics themselves, truly the star of the whole show: the extent to which they devised events to suit athletes, multiplied events to reward athletes, and generated a wash of sentimentalism - we're all different, you know - they made salient the nature of the Games generally, which laundered the misery of economic, political, environmental and cultural collapse, through a massive PR exercise for neoliberalism thinly disguised as a sports competition.

After the programme ended, the BBC ran a tribute to us - we had had our representatives in the 'games-makers' who attended the show itself, of course - who had made the games possible and whose spirit of openness and fun, of togetherness and optimism, had been the real winner. With the result that any viewer already incensed by the Olympics, and by the awards programme, and by all the horror-wrapped-in-sweet-papers of our times, was left only with the option of churlish refusal to be optimistic, open, fun, and in-it-together. But if that is the only option left to us, we must take it. The alternative - of acquiescing in saccharine control - is not to be borne.

Two weeks ago, The Northern Stage Theatre in Newcastle had a large and illuminated sign hung in their bar (it may still be there). It read: L - O - V - E - L - Y. That's it. Nothing more. The naive question would be: What is lovely? 'Lovely' is an adjective, after all. Ah, but not any more it isn't. The mantra of modern life, the category into which experience must fall and to which description must tend, 'Lovely' is, in fact, the imperative of our times, a steel magnolia, so unobjectionable, so enhancing, so adorning, so lovely, but (and you had better believe it) so true.

So, whatever you do this Christmas, do not make it a lovely one, will you?

Thursday, 13 December 2012

Control Is King

The following job advertisement was posted on Tuesday (Dec 11 2012) by Dalkey Archive Press:

The Press is looking for promising candidates with an appropriate background who: have already demonstrated a strong interest in literary publishing; are very well read in literature in general and Dalkey Archive books in particular; are highly motivated and ambitious; are determined to have a career in publishing and will sacrifice to make that career happen; are willing to start off at a low-level salary and work their way upwards; possess multi-dimensional skills that will be applied to work at the Press; look forward to undergoing a rigorous and challenging probationary period either as an intern or employee; want to work at Dalkey Archive Press doing whatever is required of them to make the Press succeed; do not have any other commitments (personal or professional) that will interfere with their work at the Press (family obligations, writing, involvement with other organizations, degrees to be finished, holidays to be taken, weddings to attend in Rio, etc.); know how to act and behave in a professional office environment with high standards of performance; and who have a commitment to excellence that can be demonstrated on a day-to-day basis. DO NOT APPLY IF ALL OF THE ABOVE DOES NOT DESCRIBE YOU.     
We certainly seek people with relevant experience, but just as important or more so, we seek people who know what a job is, are able to learn quickly, are dedicated to doing excellent work, can meet all deadlines, and happily take on whatever needs to be done. Attitude and work habits, along with various skills, are just as important as experience and knowledge.    Any of the following will be grounds for immediate dismissal during the probationary period: coming in late or leaving early without prior permission; being unavailable at night or on the weekends; failing to meet any goals; giving unsolicited advice about how to run things; taking personal phone calls during work hours; gossiping; misusing company property, including surfing the internet while at work; submission of poorly written materials; creating an atmosphere of complaint or argument; failing to respond to emails in a timely way; not showing an interest in other aspects of publishing beyond editorial; making repeated mistakes; violating company policies. DO NOT APPLY if you have a work history containing any of the above.

It makes for shocking reading, particularly given that the first paragraph of the advertisement states that successful applicants will, with perhaps an exception or two, be unpaid for an indeterminate length of time. But why be shocked? What is new here, after all? Is it not just another instance of neoliberal control, which puts to work, as Virno says, 
the complex of inclinations, dispositions, emotions, vices, and virtues that mature precisely in a socialization outside of the workplace...: habituation to uninterrupted and nonteleological change, reflexes tested by a chain of perceptive shocks, a strong sense of the contingent and the aleatory, a nondeterministic mentality, urban training in traversing the crossroads of differing opportunities. These are the qualities that have been elevated to an authentic productive force. ("The Ambiguity of Disenchantment")
Nothing new in Dalkey's job advert, then, but its tone, which has abandoned the saccharine speak of "opportunities" and "one big family" in favour of old-style laying-down of the law: control showing us at last that it's king.

Well done Dalkey Archive, for effecting such a marvelous translation: of the worst of present times into the language of the worst of past times.

Tuesday, 11 December 2012

Child Labour, Yummy Style


One aspect of current thinking on child-rearing, and now orthodoxy among health professionals and the “yummy mummies” they inspire, is what has been branded, “baby-led weaning,” whereby baby is encouraged to determine what, when and how she will make the transition from a milk to a solid-food diet. This means that at “mealtimes” – and it is important now to distance ourselves from this term, for mealtimes are an adult invention, not a baby-led one – the one person in the room yet to have even approached the age of reason is the one person in the room to decide upon the amount and kind of calories she will consume, in the process distributing those calories in a manner that constitutes them as things to play with as well as to eat, things to ingest in jest; enthusiasts for baby-led weaning defend it as the best way of making food easy and fun for baby and you.

The most recent large-scale survey on the topic in the UK revealed that one quarter of all boys, and one third of all girls, between the ages of two and nineteen, are overweight or obese. And the problem, we are told, is getting worse, another recent survey predicting that the numbers are set to rise to sixty-three per cent of all children in the not-too-distant future. The question all but asks itself: how, when we are making such efforts to initiate our babies into the practice of eating and drinking, are our babies growing up to be more and more fat?

But this is the wrong question. For, we should rather ask: why do we continue to make such efforts to initiate our babies into the practice of eating and drinking, when it is clear that, at the very least, these efforts do not improve our babies’ relationship to eating and drinking?

If we ask the question in this way, then an answer very quickly presents itself. And it is this: the commitment to baby-led weaning flourishes, not in spite of the fact that it hands over control of food and drink to someone whose IQ, we are reliably informed, is less than twenty, not in spite of the fact that it results in food wastage and mess, not in spite of the fact that it makes it much more difficult to monitor the amount of food and drink that baby consumes, not in spite of the fact that mealtime loses definition and flows outwards into the whole of the waking day, and not in spite of the fact that it at least does not ameliorate the poor relationship to food and drink that leads to obesity in our children, but actually because of these effects. Baby-led weaning, like many of the practices recommended to child-rearers these days, is a very effective way of preoccupying us with fun, burdening us with ease, and generating low-lying but persistent feelings of anxiety by means of low-level but continuous opportunities for gratification.

Baby-led weaning: surely too innocent a practice to produce such effects? On the contrary, it is precisely by way of innocent practices that the populations of modern, western democracies, so attuned to explicit restrictions on their freedom, are controlled. Indeed, to the extent that baby-led weaning is actually liberating – of children, from culturally determined constraints upon eating and drinking; and of adults, from the expectation that they assume authority and impose agenda – it counts as that mode of control that is most effective of all. By removing the boundaries around those times of day when food is prepared and consumed, and around the various stages of maturity (which are put into a melting pot, out of which babies emerge as leaders and carers as led), it gives rise to a grazing populace, unused to the definition and deferral of gratification that separates us from all other animals. By literally eating into the time and space we might use for pursuit of the “higher pleasures,” as Mill famously described them, baby-led weaning fashions us as mere pigs at the trough. 

Furthermore, when we consider these let-it-all-hang-out effects of baby-led weaning, in conjunction with what has been an immeasurable increase in recent times in the dissemination of norms of child-rearing - how many calories are optimal for baby, what range of foods and textures are best for baby, when baby can be expected to hold her bottle, to hold her spoon, to hold her cup, and so on and so on – norms that, because they are thought of as knowledge, are not rejected as the unacceptable restriction of baby's freedom that a regimen of mealtimes and menus is regarded as, there emerges into full view just that combination, of “freedom”-where-there-should-be-constraint and “knowledge”-where-there-should-be-judgment, which is the tie that binds us now in our “liberty.”

*

The philosopher Hans-Georg Gadamer writes, in Truth and Method, that “Man is characterized by the break with the immediate and the natural that the intellectual, rational side of his nature demands of him.” Quoting Hegel, he continues, “[Man] is not, by nature, what he should be.” The task for human beings, then, is what in German is called Bildung, which means something like, cultivation, edification, formation. We humans must make ourselves human, by turning from ourselves towards something more abstract, by “sacrificing particularity for the sake of the universal.” Gadamer continues:

To recognize one’s own in the alien, to become at home in it, is the basic movement of spirit, whose being consists only in returning to itself from what is other...Hence all...Bildung...is merely the continuation of a process of Bildung that begins much earlier. Every single individual who raises himself out of his natural being to the spiritual finds in the language, customs, and institutions of his people a pre-given body of material which, as in learning to speak, he has to make his own. Thus every individual is always engaged in the process of Bildung and in getting beyond his naturalness, inasmuch as the world into which he is growing is one that is humanly constituted through language and custom.

Seen in this light – seen, that is, from a perspective for which getting beyond our naturalness is the quintessentially human task – baby-led weaning appears as a truly sinister development. For, to the extent that it would remove even the most fundamental ways in which the world is alien to us, it would also remove the essentially formative effect of our efforts to recognize ourselves in the alien. When the world comes to you, you do not have to make yourself at home in the world; when mealtimes are your times, you do not have to exert yourself in that basic movement of spirit which consists in returning to yourself from what is other. Gadamer is right to identify the building blocks of Bildung in those experiences we have when very young, in those early encounters with the language, customs and institutions of our society. He is mistaken, however, in his assumption that these early encounters can be relied upon to persist, for it is precisely these early encounters that our society is denying us, as the alien nature of language, customs and institutions ebbs away before the baby-led, child-centred, student-as-partner, flexible-working, design-your-own, just-for-you orthodoxy of our time. Baby-led weaning: the first step in a lifetime of failure to make ourselves human.   

Ergonomics, it turns out, is the science of our time. Derived from two Greek words, ergon (work) and nomoi (natural laws), it describes the study of how to fit the world of work to the natural condition of the worker, rather than force the natural condition of the worker to form itself by work; the study, we might say, of how to make work easy and fun. Before we have the time or the space to exert ourselves, we are already achieving what we aimed to achieve. Our most basic instincts are responded to, so readily that we encounter no obstacle that we can make sense of, meet no resistance that we can comprehend, confront no limitation to make us feel that we are, after all, only human. But instinct is a poor substitute for effort. For we are not, by nature, what we should be; not feeling that we are only human reduces us to a mode of being less than human. The world into which we are growing is one that is no longer humanly constituted through language and custom, but animally constituted through ease and through fun.

It is worth quoting here, Matthew Crawford’s The Case For Working With Your Hands, whose argument for getting out of the office and into the workshop is perfectly aligned with my argument for not being led by baby. Pointing to the formative effects of engagement with materials as resistant, as unergonomic, as old motorcycles, whose moral significance lies in their occasioning the exercise of human judgment, Crawford writes:

The necessity of such judgment calls forth human excellence. In the first place, the intellectual virtue of judging things rightly must be cultivated, and this is typically not the product of detached contemplation. It seems to require that the user of a machine have something at stake, an interest of the sort that arises through bodily immersion in some hard reality, the kind that kicks back. Corollary to such immersion is the development of what we might call a sub-ethical virtue: the user holds himself responsible to external reality, and opens himself to being schooled by it. His will is educated – both chastened and focused – so it no longer resembles that of a raging baby who only knows that he wants.

A raging baby who only knows that he wants, even a raging baby who only knows what he wants, is not the extent of our intellectual and ethical potential; today’s endlessly-refreshed feeling that the world is ours for the taking is not liberatory but constraining, not uplifting but degrading.

It turns out that the ever increasing problem of the heavy formlessness of our bodies, burdened with ease and laden with fun, is but a physical manifestation of an at least equally worrying heaviness and formlessness: of mind, of intellect, of soul, of spirit. If, in the not-too-distant future, sixty-three percent of all UK children, between the ages of two and nineteen, will be physically overweight or obese, than what percentage will be intellectually so? What percentage, in short, will have been denied the opportunity of making themselves human?

*

To discover why it is that modern, western society conspires to bring our children to such a pass, one need look no further than to the work of the Italian radical, Paolo Virno, whose brilliant analysis of post-productive economies, in the essay “The Ambiguity of Disenchantment,” describes the manner in which they “put to work,” not the disciplined bodies and minds required by productive economies, but the so-called “soft” skills that constitute much of what now counts as labour, the “non-stop inertia,” as Ivor Southwood terms it, in which not having a job is almost indistinguishable from having a job (indeed, in the case of “zero-hour contract” jobs, entirely indistinguishable). And what are these “soft” skills? They are, according to Virno,

the complex of inclinations, dispositions, emotions, vices, and virtues that mature precisely in a socialization outside of the workplace...: habituation to uninterrupted and nonteleological change, reflexes tested by a chain of perceptive shocks, a strong sense of the contingent and the aleatory, a nondeterministic mentality, urban training in traversing the crossroads of differing opportunities. These are the qualities that have been elevated to an authentic productive force.

Think for a moment, of what it is for a baby to lead herself through weaning, “free” to eat when and where she feels like it and to try out whatever lies within her reach: habituation to nonteleological change?; reflexes tested by a chain of perceptive shocks?; a strong sense of the contingent and the aleatory?; a nondeterministic mentality?; training in coping with differing opportunities? “The ‘professionalism’ supplied and demanded today,” writes Virno, “consists of skills gained during the prolonged and precarious period preceding work.” And we are never too young, it seems, to begin to develop these skills, never too young to learn to be “professional,” never too young to be “put to work.”

 “Work,” writes Gadamer, “is restrained desire”; hence its essentially formative effect. But Gadamer’s writing is dated. For, nowadays, work is all your heart desires: undefined; untimed; unspaced; uncertain; unsecured; unregulated. In short, easy and fun. When I asked an acquaintance of mine, who had recently changed jobs, how he found his new position, he replied: “Great! It’s so nice to be playing with grown-ups.” While the babes are at work, it seems the men are at play...

*

In Victorian times, when a baby was born, the expression used was that there was “a stranger in the house.” So indifferent-sounding to our ears! So cold and uncaring! In our times, when a baby is born, we immediately go “skin-to-skin,” holding our naked offspring against us within as few seconds as possible of her birth. But the urgency with which this first contact is promoted by those who assist and advise a woman during pregnancy and childbirth, ought to give us pause. What can be at stake? The answer: nothing short of ensuring that the world never feels like anywhere but home, and other people like anyone but me. The little stranger had at least the opportunity the make herself at home in the world. The little stranger had at least the chance to make herself human.    

Wednesday, 28 November 2012

For A Left With Some Sense

Nina Power, on "the pessimism of time":
As we defend those who await trial, or write to those in prison, or sit in courts, job centres and universities as futures are crushed all around, time may be all we have left: time in which to abolishtheir notion of time and replace it neither with Clark’s tragic present, nor Fukuyama’s ‘ideology of the future’ but with a life in which nobody seeks to make time measurable at all, for all time.
The left has truly no future, when it deals, thus, not only in the imagined futures against which Clark would argue, but in unimaginable futures, "in which nobody seeks to make time measurable at all, for all time." Even when read, carefully, in the context of the article in which it appears, this is, literally, non-sense. It is not possible for us even to imagine a life in which time is not measured, or is immeasurable. What, then, is gained here by invoking it, above and beyond the credentials of being of the left?

Never has Clark's argument in favour of "plain" speaking been more necessary. "Plain" speaking need not be banal, he says. He is right. For, nothing is as banal as nonsense.

There is, as Power reports, a vacuum where the left ought to be. With conditions, in Greece for instance, so ripe, left-wing politics has so far been devastatingly ineffectual. One has the sense that the Greek people were yearning to vote to reject the bailout-government they (almost didn't) vote to accept. But, if it is understandably difficult to place one's trust in an imagined future, it is sheer nihilism to throw in one's lot with an unimaginable one. The left must begin to talk sense.


Monday, 26 November 2012

An Answer to Question Time

Bill Readings, writing on Lyotard, tells the story of Herzog's film Where The Green Ants Dream, in which a group of Aborigines clashes with a mining company intent on setting up shop on Aboriginal land. The matter goes to court, which sits to establish who owns the land in question. The court is not lacking in impartiality; the Aborigines have a chance of a fair hearing. Except that they do not. Because Aborigines do not have a concept of land ownership. They claim the right to determine that the stretch of land is not mined for profit, but not on the basis of any sense of proprietorship over it. The impartiality of the court cannot therefore show impartiality to the Aborigines; the justice of the court cannot do them justice.

The courtroom in Herzog's film stages what Lyotard calls le differend, that is, an event in which the difference between two positions is inexpressible, inaudible, invisible. The Aborigines are silenced, not because the court is unjust, but because the court is just. Justice for the owners of the land at the center of the dispute between the Aborigines and the mining company is necessarily injustice for the Aborigines. It is not, then, simply that the Aborigines cannot be heard - they are given full and ample time to make their case - but that a fundamental difference between the Aborigines and the mining company cannot be heard. That is le differend.

And that is what unfolded last Thursday evening, in the studio - the Palace of Westminster, no less - for the BBC's Question Time, which staged an event in which the difference between the perspective within which debate in this country occurs and another perspective, that of Owen Jones, was inexpressible, inaudible, invisible.

Do not mistake me: it is not that Jones was silent - of course not; nor is it that he was incoherent, or ineffectual in what he said - on the contrary, what he said was articulate, uplifting, inspiring. But the difference between what he said and what was said by everyone else seated at the table with him could not make itself heard, except, for one glorious moment, in the muffled raucousness of a woman at the back of the room. "Madam, don't shout out from the back. Let him [Charles Kennedy] speak," insisted David Dimbleby, in that moment giving as much airing as was going to be given to the defining aspect of the whole programme, that is, the absolute impossibility of the difference between Jones' position and that of everybody else being given the floor.

Charles Kennedy, into one of whose long and vacuous answers the woman from the back was shouting, did not complain about the interruption. "This is the home of free speech," he said, to a round of applause from the audience (minus one, perhaps). And there it is: le differend. You cannot shout out because you must let others speak; you cannot answer because the question did not anticipate you; you cannot speak because you are free to do so. But only by shouting out and for the entire duration of the show, only by refusing to answer a single question that was asked, only by reneging upon everybody else's freedom to speak, would it have been possible, last Thursday evening, for where Owen Jones was "coming from" to enter the fray. As it was, the only dog in last Thursday evening's fight was neoliberal capitalism, with its grotesquely shameless mascot in the woman from Dragon's Den. And neoliberal capitalism is a perspective in which freedom of speech, above all else, is enshrined, with the result that nothing can be said against it because we must always "let it speak." (David Dimbleby, it must be admitted, is truly worth the job of overseer of all of this.)

The woman at the back shouted at Charles Kennedy when he refused to support a fellow liberal democrat's claim, reported by Dimbleby, that the government cap on welfare payments is immoral. He doesn't make claims about morality or immorality, Kennedy replied; he leaves that to the Anglican bishops (rather careless of Kennedy, if only given that he described himself as a Catholic). But, he added, his liberal democrat colleague was "perfectly entitled to her view." And there it is in a nutshell: insofar as anything remains of right and wrong in a neoliberal capitalist society, it remains in this generosity, this openness, this tolerance, this fairmindedness, this spirit of debate, that makes everyone entitled to their view. But Owen Jones neither wanted to be entitled to his view, nor considered anyone else to be entitled to theirs. Owen Jones, you see, was dealing in a much more fulsome currency of right and wrong than that which flows through the society he finds himself in.  But Owen Jones, for that reason, could not but fall outside the terms of generosity, of openness, of tolerance, of fairmindedness, of the spirit of debate. "We've heard a lot from you," said Dimbleby to Jones. "Please answer the question," said Dimbleby to Jones. But Jones was not nearly as time-consuming as others at the table; and he was much more direct in his answers than they were in theirs. What Dimbleby's impatience was confusedly responding to was Jones' lack of generosity, of openness, of tolerance, of fairmindedness, of the spirit of debate, Jones' refusal to allow that everyone's entitled to their view. 

"What was significant about bbcqt last night was to see an ideological apparatus rendered visible and actively challenged," tweeted KPunk. "Ideology is about what we are made to think the Other thinks. Many share Owen's views, but ideology functions to make us think we're alone." But this is not quite it. The ideological differences were perfectly visible on Thursday's Question Time; we could have written the scripts for everyone there, with Tory making a case for cuts, Labour warning of the dangers of cuts, Liberal Democrat saying nothing at all of content, and the woman from Dragon's Den spouting the most ill-informed, unthought-out, individualistic, will-it-and-it-will-be-so, of drivel. What was not rendered visible was the paradigm within which these ideological differences are played out: neoliberal capitalism, which, far from being an ideology, is now the epoch, the era, the time in history, within which ideological differences are possible.

When it is a question, as it was for Jones, of reneging upon the entitlement of others to hold their views; when it is a question, as it was for Jones, of undermining our right to free speech; when it is a question, as it was for Jones, of making claims for moral right and wrong; then it is a question, not of showing up that the Other thinks as we think, but of showing up that it doesn't matter that the Other thinks as we think because we're all thinking the same, especially when we think we're alone in what we think, especially, that is, when we would invoke the "freedom to think," the "entitlement to hold our view," in defense of what we think. Ideology-critique is a smoke screen, which forms into shapes like Charles Kennedy, Yvette Cooper, David Dimbleby, Ian Duncan-Smith, and the woman from Dragon's Den, but never ever into shapes like Owen Jones, which cannot be heard except, in the rarest of moments, indistinctly, in a muffled shouting out of ungenerosity, unopenness, intolerance, close-mindedness, and outright refusal to enter the spirit of debate.

Tuesday, 30 October 2012

Where there are adults present, there is no sex; and where there is sex, there are no adults present

Andrew O'Hagan's article on the Jimmy Savile affair offers real insight into the ethos that facilitated Savile's conduct, an ethos that prevails not simply at the BBC but in British society as a whole. 

"Why is British light entertainment so often based on the sexualisation of people too young to cope?" asks O'Hagan. "Is it to cover the fact, via some kind of willed outrage, that the culture itself is largely paedophile in its commercial and entertainment excitements?" O'Hagan makes a very good case for thinking so. But there is more. For, the paedophilia of British culture extends beyond its commercial and entertainment excitements, to define social relations more generally.

One of the aspects of British culture most striking to the newcomer is British humour, which has, for the most part, the following two components: references to bodily function, including to sexual function; and silliness. The archetypal humourous moment occurs when your friend's dad rises from the dinner table, says something like: "Wee willy needs a wonking...," and exits to the bathroom, to delighted giggles from the home crowd. The newcomer is inevitably nonplussed; both the content and the style of this humour is, to her, quintessentially childish, combining the slightly-hysterical lack of wit and the slightly-knowing reference to body parts that are the lot, in other societies, of some older children during some few short years. 

But this characteristically British humour can be understood with reference to two further aspects of British culture that are striking to the newcomer. 

The first is British sex, which has at least the following components. First: an excessive directness of approach; none of those roundabout, ritualistic we-really-shouldn'ts, so fundamental for example to Catholic societies as actually to constitute sex in those societies, but instead a kind of get-your-kit-off-then lack of ceremony, a sort of lewd innocence, without sidestep or byroad. Sex, like other bodily functions, does not seem off-limits or private. Second, and clearly related: an all-pervasive infantilism. There is a disconcerting sense to the newcomer, of British families that are at once rather indifferent to each other and rather besotted with each other, at once lacking in family feeling and brimming with, well, sexual tension. Perhaps because parents seem to live somewhat separate lives - he watches the football; she Facebooks her friends - and lack a certain investment in each other, children are made to provide much of the sexual satisfaction available in British family life. With the result that there seems little content to adult sexuality, nothing for adults to grow into. This is most painfully evident in those who ought to be growing fast, in young men and women, no longer children themselves and with no children yet to focus upon. Young women of twenty, who we might think ought to be in the first full flush of sexual awareness, dress and demean themselves like ten-year-old girls, shuffling about in great sheepskin slippers, in leggings through which their undergarments are unconsciously to be seen, with hair and coffee cups and satchels and cardigans big enough to make them appear even more diminutive than their demeanor would suggest (they are often not diminutive in fact, heavier now than young women ever were). As for young men: it is hardly a coincidence that the urchin rent-boy look is more prevalent here than almost anywhere else in the world, done either for the office (suit that looks two sizes too small, long pointed shoes as if they're Dad's) or for the street (pipe-cleaner jeans worn a long, long way below the waist and hair tousled carefully in front of the face).  

The other aspect of British culture of relevance to understanding British humour is: British reserve, the total and utter formalization of almost all of social encounter; the absence of spontaneity, of banter, of anything like conversation except in the most rarefied and self-consciously "intellectual" of environments (where conversation tends to be dull). Nothing must stray from the path laid out for it; service at the supermarket is very polite and very efficient, but it does not expect to hear or to say the unexpected.

Now, this last aspect of British culture, British reserve, would seem to be in conflict with at least the directness of British sex. But it is not. And not for the reason that Foucault gives for why the reserve of Victorian culture was not in conflict with the proliferation, during Victorian times, of categories, investigations, analyses and practices of sex. Foucault's question is: why, during an age which is associated most with prudery about the body generally and about sex in particular, was there such an explosion of ways of knowing about sex; why, when you weren't supposed to talk about it, was there so much being said? The answer Foucault gives is that knowing and doing are not necessarily liberatory, nor are not knowing and not doing necessarily prohibitive. The explosion of knowledge about sex and the explosion of sex followed from all of the ways in which people were put under surveillance to make sure they did not know about or have sex, just as the increase in knowledge about sex and in sex generated whole new categories of how not to know about or to have sex. Knowledge and power; licentious prohibition, prohibitive licentiousness. 

Now, to anyone from a Catholic country, as Foucault was, this Victorian society sounds familiar; indeed, to the extent that it began to employ the practice of confession (the "talking cure" is its secular equivalent), very very familiar indeed... 

But this is not how British reserve is related to British sex. Because the fact is that there is no relation between British reserve and British sex, except that where there is reserve there is no sex, and where there is sex there is no reserve. Or, we might say, where there are "adults" present, there is no sex; and where there is sex, there are no "adults" present. As for British humour (and British light entertainment, perhaps) that is what prevents the situation from imploding, by operating as a comforting reminder, when there are "adults" present, that the Queen's just "Cabbage," the BBC's just "Auntie," and we'll all be allowed out to play sometime very soon...

Saturday, 27 October 2012

The Future Perfect/The Present Lost

Any kind of resistance to our present condition here in Britain must attempt to forge a relationship to time that does not assume the future perfect form of we will have been...

The grotesque projections of our main political parties - of One Nation, of The Big Society - amount to nothing less than an effort to annihilate the present, by urging us to anticipate a time when we will have been...at a street party for the birth of our future king, out sweeping the leaves on our street with a band of neighbour-brothers, waving our troops off to some meaningful fight, welcoming our team home from some olympic feat...The tactic is genius, bringing utopianism in line with nostalgia, coopting gritty determination and cup-cake regret in a pincer offense against now.

And the tactic goes unnoticed because it operates from the bottom up, not simply from Westminster down. We photograph the birthdays that will have been wonderful; we video the weddings that will have been special; we minute the meetings that will have been right on message; we write the books that will have been misunderstood; and we raise the child who will have been the most important thing in my life. The pathological mediation of these, our times, does not work simply by placing a screen between us and these, our times: it transports these, our times, into a future that does not proceed from them, in order to bury these, our times, in a past that does not precede them. Which causes "these, our times" to lose its reference...

In her reply to T. J. Clark's "For A Left With No Future," Susan Watkins issues a challenge to Clark's call for the Left to attend to the present, by observing that "the present itself, as a political moment, can only be grasped through its periodization; a process of differentiation that necessarily posits a future as well as a past." But this is the "necessary process" that must now be overthrown, for it is precisely the process through which the present itself, as a political moment, can never be grasped...

In grammar, a tense is a category that locates a situation in time. But the future perfect tense would lose our situation in these, our times. We must cease to hope and cease to regret...

Tuesday, 23 October 2012

It is right that...


John Harris of The Guardian, characterizes the rhetoric of the parliamentary Left: 
Essentially, you sling together one or two cliches, at least one word or phrase (such as "reboot") that suggests you own a computer, and a couple of propositions that it would be impossible to argue against (a la "Feed the world" or "Make trade fair"). You then chuck in some apparently oxymoronic ideas, to make yourself look a bit clever.
The ingredients here - truism, tautology, technology and oxymoron - just about summarize the pass to which the dominant mode of language, and therefore of experience, has now come. But not quite. For, Harris omits to mention the final piece of the puzzle: the superfluous insistence that "it is right that", as in, "I believe that it is right that we should make the bankers pay..." I challenge you to listen to one parliamentarian speak for more than one minute without witnessing the "it is right that" insertion.

To what does all of this tend? T.J. Clark describes societies such as ours as being comprised of "isolate obedient 'individuals' with the technical support to match." And this is precisely how such 'individuals' speak.

Full of the cynicism that is the hallmark of our times, a cynicism which has long since relinquished the expectation that anything actually means anything, we 'individuals' rarely motivate ourselves to anything other than cliche. If nothing means anything anyway (and I am not saying that this cynicism is self-conscious), the thing that is easiest to say is as good as anything else...

But this is a cynicism tempered by a low-level but constant "feeling for" the marginalized (small children, nice-looking animals, stay-at-home-mummys, gay best-friends...), which "feeling for" achieves adequate expression via the kind of utterly abstract, all-inclusive, nonsense that has trickled down from the postmodern intellectualism of difference, liminalities, and others - "Feed the world" is just another way of saying, "We must theorize plurality within commonality..."

The oxymoron, for its part, is merely the inverse of the truism and the tautology: what does it matter that one is inconsistent, when the grounds for consistency have receded and there can be no content to anything anyway; and abandoning the anachronistic demand that we avoid contradicting ourselves opens up so much space for communication that it's a no-brainer at this stage - "Sitting around the table as a family is the most important thing to us"; "I've already eaten"...

As for the language of technology: it gives expression to that irresistible sense that the world is both at our finger-tips and beyond our reach, both there for us and utterly outside of our comprehension, both under and beyond our control - your new Virgin Media set-up is overwhelmingly responsive except for those times when it is bewilderingly unresponsive...

But isolate, obedient individuals are not the stuff for society, as Clark argues; David Harvey (A Brief History of Neoliberalism) points to this as the reason for the upsurge in popularity of neoconservatism in the US, which effectively adds to the neoliberal pot the important ingredients of religious fundamentalism and/or militant patriotism, as top-down galvanizers of an otherwise dangerously-unconnected populace. There are versions of both of these galvanizers at play in Britain too - albeit, less religious and more secular-moral, (slightly) less militant and more remember-to-smile Olympic. And their catchphrase is: "It is right that..."

Friday, 19 October 2012

We are living in an immaterial world...

So the tap in your kitchen starts to drip. You call the plumber. He tells you, there's no way to fix it - "No such thing as replacing the washer these days. Have to replace the whole thing." You duly go to the DIY superstore, where you are confronted with a range of tap options so wide that you could not have imagined it. There is, it seems, a tap for every tap-whim, a tap for every tap-fancy, a tap for every tap-fetish. But, without whim, fancy or fetish, you do exactly what it has been predicted you would do: choose a middle-of-the-range tap, a decent tap, a tap that does what it says on the tin.

But there's the rub. The tap you buy does not do what it says on the tin. One year later, it too begins to drip. Only now, you are not so naive as to call the plumber to fix it. There's no such thing as replacing a washer these days, after all. So, in time with your new tap's tortuous percussion, you reflect on how immaterial is this world we are living in...

We have learnt by now to be concerned at how our practices of consumption have degraded all of those areas of human life that ought not to be merely for sale: education, health, family feeling, romantic love...But even this concern is out of date. For, our practices of consumption too are now degraded, by almost totally ephemeral practices of exchange, whose material component is all but negligible. Of least importance in the story of the tap is the tap. Of greatest importance in the story of the tap is: the affirmation of the endless obsolescence of the things to which we might, if we got the chance, moor ourselves; and the impression, of a level of response to our particular wants so replete as to feel to us tailor-made. The story of the tap, in short, tells the tale of how anything in which we might have invested ourselves is taken from our grasp, substituted for by the spectacle of all of the ways in which we are about to get precisely the thing we wish for. This is what consumption has come to: the endlessly-refreshed feeling that the world is ours for the taking.

Ergonomics is the science of our time. It designs a world that comes to meet us. Before we have the time or space to exert ourselves, we are already getting what we want. Our most instinctual movements are responded to. With the result that we encounter no obstacle that we can make sense of, meet no resistance that we can comprehend, come up against no limitation that can make us feel that we are, after all, only human. But instinct is a poor substitute for endeavour. For, as Hegel said, "we are not, by nature, what we should be." Not feeling that we are only human reduces us to a state of being that is less than human.

If I could only have dismantled that tap, and turned my gaze from myself for just a moment in an effort to understand its workings. But instead, I went to the DIY superstore, and turned my gaze on a range of options so vast as to be comprehensible only as encompassing a tap just made for me. Instead, in other words, I turned my gaze once more upon myself. And now that the tap drips once more, I shall turn my gaze once more upon myself... 

Being materialistic had its merits: it did at least give us some things to contemplate...

Friday, 12 October 2012

Swear More: On the Hyperinflation of Dissent

Some recent contributions on Twitter, intended as a show of dissent to the three main-party political conferences, have been underwhelming, stark evidence of a Left that cannot find its voice.

One of the remarkable features of key speeches given at the party conferences was a more-than-ever "presidential" style: big on embarrassingly mindless rhetoric, and featuring personal anecdotes and intimate details. The way to win votes now, it appears, is to emote without content, exhort without substance, and look people straight in the eye without having anything else to say. This is not surprising. Britain, after all, is in the full swing of post-Fordist, corporatist, "non-stop inertia," in which mode what counts is feeling it. Genuine, innovative responses to the financial crisis seem a lifetime away; any kind of response to the environmental crisis is all but unheard of: there is nothing being done, nothing to be done, but proceed (towards a doomsday that will be riddled with the same old socio-economic divisions that have been the great achievement of neoliberalism) with the feeling that we are all one big family, one nation, striving together, and having a lovely time...

What can be done in opposition to this tide of yummy nihilism is indeed a difficult question. But, let me offer an opinion as to what at least ought not to be indulged in: the kind of name-calling, negativist, endlessly cynical, insatiably dissatisfied, ad hominem rhetoric that has characterized some of the offerings on Twitter in recent times. Not because such rhetoric is "exactly what you'd expect from loony lefties," but because such rhetoric is exactly what you'd expect from anyone. Ed Miliband spoke, totally cynically, utterly emptily, about one nation channeling the Olympic spirit into the forging of a new age; where, then, is the gain in speaking, totally cynically, utterly emptily, about the fucking totally cynical, fucking one nation crap, typical of fucking New Labour fucking anyway? Politicians now, like the people they do represent, are subject to the hyperinflation of experience that demands that we lay ourselves prostrate with hyperbole when the slightest occasion presents itself to do so; any kind of resistance, then, must begin by attempting to reclaim the voice of reasonable dissent. Think of it as dealing with an infant (we are all infants in the one big happy nation, after all): when a child begins to act unreasonably, you can either meet senseless volume on its own terms and contribute to the kind of headless escalation in which the child, much more than you, will feel at home; or you can value mature reasonableness sufficiently to remain its representative throughout. Or, you can strike a blow. Not so easy nowadays, of course, but...

In these times, when the substance of what is said is almost endlessly exchangeable, when we are all of us inured to the "it could always be otherwise" orthodoxy of our soft-skills society, style is all. And style now is personal, emotional, hyperbolic. That is enough for us to feel at home. Michael Gove is a friend, a stalwart to steer the course of our nation's children's and grandchildren's education through these troubled waters and out into a new and calmer future; or Michael Gove is a fucking fiend, a jumped-up, typical Tory, Latin-pushing prissy...Doesn't make much difference, you see. Once you've got the style right - personal, emotional, hyperbolic - it hardly matters whether you surf or ski...

Wednesday, 10 October 2012

Smile, though your heart is aching...

SMILE MORE: this was chalked in bold blue yesterday, on the path from the University to the first-year students' halls of residence. A sinister reprise of the mantra of one of those helpers who stood outside the venues for London's Olympic Games, recorded by the BBC news in the act of encouraging everyone to REMEMBER TO SMILE. Time has moved on since then. Not much time, it is true, but enough to have undermined the value of merely remembering to smile. Now, we must remember to smile more...

When I was at school, a teacher used to reprimand us pupils for misusing the word "love": "I love Home and Away," "I love Mars Bars," etc. He found it objectionable that a verb expressing an extreme of regard was being cheapened by its association with instances of mild appreciation. But time has moved on since then. During which, at some point when no-one was paying much attention, the gold standard for language was abandoned, meaning cut its ties with anything like a reality, and the hyperinflation of experience was set in awful train.

Remember to smile, smile more, smile even more, laugh out loud, laugh until your face hurts, laugh until your head falls off, laugh until you cry.

Friday, 5 October 2012

We are all of us "conservatives," "liberals," and "socialists"...

"Conservatives romanticize the past, liberals romanticize the present, socialists romanticize the future."

Nicely said. But it is missing a fourth phase: "...and we all of us romanticize nihilism."

Our society has put to work all of the modes of romanticizing named by Auerbach: total dearth of meaning goes hand in hand with a sentimentalizing, feminizing, nostalgia for an invented yet generic past, as we look out the most momentary of salvational teloi for our otherwise forsaken lives; lack of engagement with and commitment to anything finds its mode of being in an "it could always be otherwise" openness to countless alternative, "minority," principles and practices; and the fact that there is nothing satisfying to be had for us here and now is smoothed over by an infantilizing orientation towards the future...next time, at Christmas, when I retire, when the economy picks up...

We are all of us "conservatives," "liberals," and "socialists"; for, "conservatism," "liberalism" and "socialism" are the ways in which we find the utter nihilism of our lives to be, not just bearable, but meaningful, comforting, lovely...

These are the days "when nihilism speaks of happiness..." (Tiqqun).

Friday, 28 September 2012

Lord, Make Me An Instrument...

The University's counterpoint to this year's rise in student fees so far involves a dramatic increase in what were already grotesquely numerous bureaucratic exercises. The student is now to be a "partner" in the delivery of his/her education, a reconceptualization that serves once again, to undermine the little that is left of lecturers' professionalism and authority, and conveniently to generate a whole swathe of new procedures and documents to make it real. We are not far now from an explicit acknowledgment of the situation that has been implicitly in place for some time: the student as "author" of his/her education.

But the total and utter meaninglessness of almost everything done by the University now is not at all the result of the University's having signed up to a disastrous goal - that of satisfying students. Nor is it the result of its continuing to fail to realize this goal despite the most cumbersome and humiliating of efforts to do so - the "student" is now constituted in part by a low-lying but persistent sense of dissatisfaction. No, the total and utter meaninglessness now of everything results from the fact that there is no goal, not even a wrongheaded one. The University thinks up new plans, demands greater accountability, looks for more transparency, sets new standards, and devises new opportunities...all as a kind of self-sustaining system which, while serving no end, is rather rapidly replacing all of the ends that the University used to serve. Research in any meaningful sense has all but disappeared, replaced by exhausting and exhaustive Research Exercise Frameworks and funding bids; teaching in any meaningful sense has disappeared into continual efforts to accord with constantly changing teaching standards and their measurement; and learning, well...you do the math.

The University, to this extent, has about it a kind of fascination, akin to what Tiqqun describes in respect of "The YoungGirl":
...fascinating in the same way as everything that expresses its being closed in upon itself, a mechanical self-sufficiency or an indifference to the observer; like an insect, an infant, a robot, or Foucault's pendulum.
Like some, if not all, of these instances of mechanical and indifferent self-sufficiency, however, fascination with the University is experienced best from a certain middle-distance. Up close, it just numbs the soul.

The orthodox philosophical move, over the past century or more, for those of the European tradition of course, has been to attempt to loosen what was perceived to be the very limiting and ideologically problematic hold over us, exercised by "instrumental reason": human intelligence, we have learnt and taught, is not simply a tool, which we must practice using skillfully so that it may bring about the ends to which it has been assigned; human intelligence is capable of deliberating upon the ends to which it ought to be assigned! We are not mere animals, we have learnt and taught, to be trained in the realization of certain goals; we are human beings capable of determining which goals we should attempt to realize! Of course, deliberation upon ends, determination of goals, is no science, we have gone on to learn and to teach...it requires time and thought, it requires dialogue and consideration, it will never result in any certainty and must always be prepared to revise its findings in the face of challenge and of change. But how much richer such thinking, how much more worthy of human beings, than the mere adding of two and two to arrive at a pre-assigned four! Instrumental reason, we have learnt and taught, has made machines out of men.

But times have changed. Now, in the midst of the University's furious activity, into which it would draw all in its jurisdiction, activity that was always all for nought, the idea that human intelligence might be raised up to serve some end, albeit formulaic and pre-given, seems like revolution! The idea that something might be done, or, which is as good, fail to be done, feels like the most radical thing of all. And all of that philosophical high-dudgeon over instrumentalism begins to leave a bad taste in the mouth...arguing as it does against the very thing that the University has gradually eradicated and for a kind of endless, circular process of inquiry that suddenly seems very familiar and more than a little fascinating...

As the University, so its student, who now cannot fail. The grade - fail - is almost completely anachronistic, assigned only when the institution is at a loss to know what to say. And even then, it is only ever a place-marker, a brief treading of water while the incessant splashing about the place begins all over again...

T.J. Clark's call for a reanimation of the experience of defeat is so much more than a piece of gloomy-sounding rhetoric. For, defeat, failure, implies that there were ends, however insignificant, that might have been met. This is why, as Clark says, the tragic perspective is not depressing. Tragedy - greatness come to nothing - presupposes greatness; failure - ends not met - presupposes ends. Oh Lord, in these times, make me an instrument of something...

Friday, 21 September 2012

Against "Artivism": Response to Chantal Mouffe

Chantal Mouffe's recent article "Truth is Concrete" argues against the "exodus" strategies recommended by Italian Autonomists like Paolo Virno, and in favour of an aesthetico-political strategy of engagement with institutions. Her view is that, despite the frequently-aired idea that aesthetic practices and the institutions that foster them are now so utterly in thrall to capitalist hegemony that they are best abandoned, there is still available to and through art practices the possibility of resistance to the post-Fordist status quo. "Artivism" is still an option, says Mouffe: "By putting aesthetic means at the service of political activism, this 'artivism' can be seen as a counter-hegemonic move against the capitalist appropriation of aesthetics."  

But there is, I think, a problem about Mouffe's understanding of the nature of post-Fordist "hegemony." For, part of the force of post-Fordist societies is their utter transformation of the mode in which hegemony operates and the consequent challenge issued to those who would attempt to resist it. Much of twentieth-century philosophy has emerged from the recognition that, as Mouffe puts it, "things could always have been otherwise and every order is predicated on the exclusion of other possibilities. This is why," she continues, every order "is always susceptible to being challenged by counter-hegemonic practices that will attempt to disarticulate it so as to establish a different hegemony." The task, then, has been (and still is, in Mouffe's view) to find effective ways, philosophically, politically, to "disarticulate," that is, to distance ourselves from what is nearest to us in order to gain some sense of other possibilties. 

But what happens when nothing is nearest to us? What happens when nothing has been excluded? What happens when there is no hegemony? This, in effect, is the situation that Virno describes, in "The Ambivalence of Disenchantment", when he says: 
A process of uprooting without end, engendered by the mutability of contexts marked for the most part by conventions, artifices, and abstractions, overturns this scheme [the scheme of "disarticulation" a la Mouffe] and submits it to an inexorable practical critique...Today's modes of being and feeling lie in an abandonment without reserve to our own finitude. Uprooting...constitutes the substance of our contingency and precariousness...It constitutes an ordinary condition that everyone feels because of the continual mutation of modes of production, techniques of communication, and styles of life.
Our "ordinary condition" now is one of utter precariousness, of a constant shifting of perspectives, of fleeting communications and passing commitments. To pitch against what is effectively an ahegemony, Mouffe's artistic/political "diversity of practices and interventions operating in a multiplicity of spaces," creation of "a multiplicity of agnostic spaces...where new modes of identification are made available," "articulation of different modes of intervention in a multiplicity of places," and so on, is rather like trying to mop up water with water. Counter-hegemonic practices are now the stuff of hegemony. In this context, it is worth quoting David Harvey, who regrets the so-far ineffectual opposition to neo-liberal hegemony and mentions as culpable, "all those postmodern intellectual currents that accord without knowing it, with the White House line that truth is both socially constructed and a mere effect of discourse."

Mouffe refers to Foucault's insight that, in modern production, not just the control of bodies but "the control of souls is crucial." But our souls are now made up of a constant sense that "things could always have been otherwise"; for that reason, the "artivist" achievement of highlighting that "things could always have been otherwise" has little chance of changing our souls. 

"I strongly believe," Mouffe says, "that in examining the relation between art and politics, it is necessary to adopt a pluralistic perspective." But Mouffe's strong belief is subject to criticism from The Art Kettle's claim that our ordinary condition in post-Fordist societies amounts to a "creativity continuum." The phrase is a version of the "carceral continuum" that Foucault describes as characteristic of early-capitalist societies, which have at their core the prison, a nugget of enclosure that spreads outwards to regulate other areas of life. In our late-capitalist society, it is not a nugget of enclosure, but an outside of free-spirited, playful, pluralistic, "things could always have been otherwise," thinking and acting, that has spread inwards, becoming what is left of a status quo, becoming, in effect, an ahegemony. Our society has "put to work," to use Virno's phrase, the very states of mind that have defined the creative, the aesthetic, in our time. Mouffe's "artivism" would be on the payroll of capital. 

It is possible to show this in summary fashion, by comparing the constellation of feelings that Virno identifies as comprising, now, "ordinary" experience, with the constellation of feelings that Kant identifies as comprising aesthetic experience.

Virno on ordinary experience

Opportunism: so feverish, Virno says, as to be almost entirely absract, disincarnate; particular opportunities are endlessly interchangeable and provide merely the pretexts for “a spirit that grants the dignity of a salvational telos to every fleeting occasion.”

Cynicism: which places in full view, not only the rules that structure the parameters of action, not only our prejudices, but also the unfoundedness/conventionality of those rules or prejudices, so that “abstract knowledge accumulates before experience” – this is no noble mastering of our condition but a general feeling of awareness of the rules of the game, to which we nonetheless adhere perfectly, if only momentarily.

Fear: a constantly operative anxiety/adaptability and insecurity/flexibility, born of our awareness that our most momentary adherances will be undercut by their unfoundedness and exchangeability.

A sense of belonging: directly proportional to the lack of anything to which to belong, a sense of belonging as such.

Now Kant on aesthetic experience:

Opportunism, or a certain form of subjectivism: the object of the experience is merely its occasion, towards the existence of which we are utterly indifferent;

Cynicism or disinterestedness: our human purposes are felt to be mere artifices when juxtaposed with intimations of a purpose that is other than, that is more than, human;

Fear, that the setting aside of human purposes will reveal only a mess of chaos and contingency;

A sense of belonging, to a grand design, a salvational telos, generated by intimations of order, of purpose, when there might have been nothing but that mess of chaos and contingency.

In short, our ordinary experience, the hegemony against which Mouffe would have us pitch aesthetic resistances, is aesthetic to its core; the theoretical and practical "articulation of different modes of intervention in a multplicity of places" would simply add fuel to the post-Fordist fire. 

Harvey's exhortation is for us to trump the postmodern intellectualism that is so compatible with the neo-liberal status quo, and acknowledge that "there is a reality out there and it is catching up with us fast." Because the concrete truth is that things could not always have been otherwise. Things could only have been what they are. Multiplicity, plurality, contingency, contextuality...are for the kind of "high style" intellectual activity upon which post-Fordist hegemony thrives. Much better to develop Clarke's tragic sense that things could not have been otherwise than what they are, and plumb for the kind of "middle wisdom" that responds to this sense with only the certainty of defeat as its guide. 

Saturday, 15 September 2012

How Eccentric Was Anna Piaggi?


Anna Piaggi: Anna Piaggi attends the Missoni fashion show Milan Fashion Week

Anna Piaggi, the Italian icon of fashion, died last month aged 81. On Tuesday, The Guardian published her obituary, which described her style as “electrified with eccentricity.” But Anna Piaggi was not eccentric. Anna Piaggi was utterly conventional.

Piaggi’s compatriot, Paolo Virno, describes the conventional mode of living and of working (and, I would add, of thinking) in our times, as virtuosity. For Virno, the lack of an end towards which our activity is oriented (in work and in life), together with the quintessentially public nature of work and of life, the absolute requirement that there be witnesses to our activity, means that we are all now in the mode of performers, active but non-productive, communicative because non-productive, active insofar as we are communicative. In other words, since we no longer typically make things (eg. cars), since we no longer typically do things (eg. eat family meals), all we have are our communications about making things and doing things. To those still in the mode of making and doing things, these communications appear as substitutes and are therefore painful to witness; to such people, communications about making and doing can never substitute for making and doing. But, to those not still in the mode of making and doing (most people in Britain, for example), these communications are glorious, and necessary. Without them, there would be nothing. They are the stuff of our times (not merely substitutes for the lack of stuff in our times). We are all virtuosi, whose activity amounts to occasioning the witnessing of our activity.

And so Piaggi was the most conventional figure of all, one who herded the wearing of clothes, from the 1950s when clothes were still steeped in purposes, through the 60s and beyond, when clothes have come away from all purpose and are worn entirely communicatively. Piaggi “used clothes as theatre,” The Guardian tells us; she was “a great performer.” Piaggi, to use Virno’s term, was a fashion virtuosa, without concern for the ends to which the wearing of clothes has been oriented and, therefore, absolutely in requirement of dazzling a public. Piaggi did not dress to cover herself, to keep warm, to respond to prevailing concerns of her time, to enhance her figure or offend her friends. No wartime “wiggle” here, to make the most of scanty stores of cloth, and, by eschewing excess, to be in sympathy with those in the fight, and to show a full figure to those in need of something for sore eyes. No “New Look” here, to celebrate the end of rationing, and take joy in a new dawn, and return women to near-girlhood following their second great emancipation of the century. Nothing so purposeful. Nothing but the staging of end-less communications. Anna Piaggi dressed to be seen to be dressed. She dressed because she did not dress. She dressed to know she existed. She dressed, therefore she was.

“Spectacle,” in the Situationist sense, is, for Virno, the key to our virtuosic world; the commodification of our capacity for communication is all around, as post-Fordist capitalist societies extract surplus value from “soft” “feminine” “skills” that are still thought of as “priceless” and “personal.” And Piaggi was certainly a spectacle, an instance of the most conventional move of our time, that is, the removal of communications from the contexts in which they might have communicated something, in which they might have made something or done something or been part of something, in order to mummify them as communications in and of themselves. To say it is enough. Because there is now a value merely in saying it. Commodification: that was the business Piaggi was in. She was about as eccentric as a hedge-fund manager.

“Professional play” is how Piaggi described her mode of dress. And she was right. Play may be very serious and involve all kinds of rules (this is not just an anything-goes scenario), but it is without end. Play is not “for” anything other than itself. In all times before these, activity that was not for anything other than itself was, for the most part, consigned to children. But now, grown-ups do it too. In fact, they do nothing else. Anna Piaggi looked like a child who has raided her mother’s wardrobe and daubed on her mother’s make-up. Because Anna Piaggi was a child, just like us all. The question is, when, how, will we ever grow up?

Friday, 7 September 2012

...believing might not be so dangerous after all...

I said it would be dangerous to believe as Zizek would have us believe. But perhaps it would not. Perhaps, we ought to take the risk...

Zizek urges us to do as Kant urged us to do at the end of the 18th century: to act as if. In his third critique, Kant's argument is that, while we cannot ever know that there is a great purpose to human existence, we must act as if there is for progress to ensue, and make the most of those occasions (experiences of the beautiful and the sublime) on which it feels as if there is a great purpose to human existence. Furthermore, if we act as if there is a great purpose to human existence, progress will ensue! That is the beauty of the experiment. Belief transforms reality by reconstituting it.

It is a risky business, of course. Progress, as Kant conceived of it (the advance of scientistic thinking and acting), certainly did ensue from the belief that it would ensue, but it was not, in the end, as Kant conceived of it, arguably having given rise to precisely the problems - of social, political, economic and environmental collapse - that have left us without a future...

Now that I think of it, The Art Kettle ends with a Zizekian call to belief. How ridiculous it is, in this age of endlessly available and replaceable everything, to, as the children's programmes used to call it, make and do. How ridiculous to start an organic farm! To have a child! To write a word! But, inefficacy can be efficacious - that is where Clarke can learn from Zizek, I think; doing the pointless thing may even catch on. But only so long as you act as if it has caught on, not as if it will. That is where Zizek can learn from Clarke, I think.

Wednesday, 5 September 2012

Believing Dangerously


The final chapter of Zizek's The Year of Dreaming Dangerously appears to argue that next year and future years must be years of believing dangerously. 

While conceding something to T.J. Clarke's argument that left-wing thinking and acting has "no future" - by which Clarke means, not only that environmental and economic conditions are now such that it is nothing but hubris to imagine that any future lies before us, but also that awareness of our human limitations ought now to prevent us from ever again devising schemes or taking decisions on the basis of theoretical anticipations of what will be - Zizek asks for more. In response to Clarke's call for the rejection of "high style" political theory and philosophical discussion in favour of the kind of "middle wisdom" that operates in particular ways and always with a "tragic" sense that nothing good can be relied upon to follow, Zizek objects: "Is that all one should say (and do)? 

The question, it seems, is a rhetorical one, the implied answer being: "Of course not!" But what else can one say (and do)? Zizek is not about to go back on Clarke's (and his own) basic insight, which is, that the finite, historical nature of human thinking and acting means that the effort to establish rules or principles or foundations for thinking and acting into the future are bound to be so steeped in present conditions that they will require to be re-established in precisely the future they were devised to anticipate and domesticate. But there is something other than thinking and acting, some human capacity that, while also finite and historical, allows us to surpass our finitude and loom larger than history: it is believing

The problem with Clarke, according to Zizek, is that his understanding of the "future" is truncated, limited to the-future-that-comes-from-what-is-now (our future, we might say). But there is another sense of "future," Zizek argues: the-future-that-is-to-come, unpredictably, miraculously (a future, we might say). Of course, Clarke is right in the sense that we have no future, Zizek then says; our future is both almost certainly going to involve mass extinction of life, and deeply veiled against our capacities to anticipate it. But what Clarke misses, Zizek continues, is that there still is a future before us, a future that does not merely follow from what is now but that comes from nowhere, as a bolt from the heavens, marking a shift in the course of things of a kind that, by definition, we cannot now imagine. Zizek admits that contemplating a future requires faith, but a future is not merely an article of faith. For, it also requires of us that we begin, actively, to interpret events around us as signs of a future, much as Kant, to whom Zizek refers, interpreted the enthusiasm of those who looked on at the French Revolution as a sign of our human capacity to be uplifted even against our interests (as a sign of enlightenment, in short). By seeing signs of a future all around us, so Zizek says, we will go to constitute a future, and so overcome the tragic perspective to which Clarke would consign us, which would have us relinquish all thoughts of future. We do not have our future, it is true, but we have a future, if we believe in it and perform our belief.

But this really is believing dangerously, I think. In the first instance, it denies all of the ways in which our future, far from following from what now is in logical, predictable ways, actually, to a large extent, comes from nowhere! History may be ordinary and endemic, as Clarke argues, but it is nonetheless, in its unfathomable complexity, almost totally mysterious. That aspect of future that Zizek has hived off to give substance to his notion of a future, is, therefore, already accounted for in Clarke's notion of future. That is what is surprising and frightening, precisely because it is so ordinary and endemic: our future is a stranger to us; our future is a future. But there are two other reasons for being wary of Zizek's call to belief. The first is that it can only give rise to the kind of with-us-or-against-us mode characteristic of many belief systems, and all too likely to spring up in our future of scarce resources even without Zizek's assistance! The second is that it seems to be another excuse to put our heads into the sand and not admit the many many very convincing interpretations now available of events all around us as signs of aspects of our future (as virtually non-existent) (look no further than the Royal Society for science, on climate change). Zizek warns against the dangers of our growing to love the drama and apocalypticism of our nonexistent future. But we seem so little in danger of that, at present, that it is dangerous, I think, to warn against it.   

Thursday, 30 August 2012

Government Cuts To The Last Vestiges Of Humanity

Wednesday evening, taking a main route from the city centre towards home and passing along the way the entrance to the city's A&E department, one who seems to be merely a girl, but perhaps she is 16 years old, is wheeled out on one of those hospital wheelchairs by two men, at least one of whom appears to be a member of the police. Before leaving her, in the wheelchair on the side of a busy street - and they do leave her - they roughly rearrange her slumped form, so that she does not fall outwards onto the pavement. She is  clearly under the influence of some illegal substance or other, probably heroin given her catatonic state. And there she is left, to fend for herself after an abandonment that is presumably not illegal even if it is shockingly immoral. A known user, perhaps? A junkie repeatedly in and out of A&E? But what difference does that make here? Whether or not she might benefit from more tender treatment than has been shown to her in this instance (and probably she would not, with poor social provision of all those layers of support from which she would benefit), we - the passers-by and the public at large - could only benefit from not bearing witness to such blatant disregard for humanity and being hardened just a little bit more.

The British government has just announced that there is to be a further £10 billion in cuts to welfare provision. And nothing will be said or done to prevent it. For, as we look at the lives of many of those who live on handouts from the state, we have much the same attitude as we do when we look at the life slumped forward on the hospital wheelchair: what's the point of helping people who will not help themselves?; what's the good of welfare when it has been shown, time and again, to not only not alleviate but actually increase the numbers of people who seem unable to stand on their own two feet? But these questions are utterly misguided. For, whatever vestiges remain to us of the welfare state, are the legacy of a social and political vision in which welfare payments played only a part; a social and political vision in which communities were fostered and full employment was the goal of government. In such a vision, welfare payments had their role, but such were the opportunities, at least being striven for by government, for people to earn a wage, enough to buy a house to live in and support a family in a place that felt like home, that there was almost no question of devising sticks and carrots to stop people "scrounging" off the state. Welfare payments, such as they are in this country (that is, degradingly small), are one of the last and dwindling remnants of this social and political vision. Of course they don't "work"! (the society in which they worked is long gone); of course they don't "help"! (there is no help to be had in a society bent only on damage limitation of its people). But, even if we never again seek to put in place all of the rest of that social democratic vision that is now nearly disappeared, welfare payments at least prevent us from bearing witness to a blatant disregard for humanity that will harden us even more than we have been.

Tuesday, 28 August 2012

Our "Literary" Condition

In The Order of Things, Foucault tells of the transformation that took place through the 17th and 18th centuries, from a world formed by the paradigm of "resemblance" to a world, our world we might think, formed by the paradigm of "representation." It is another of Foucault's attempts to awaken in us a sense of the contingency of reality and of truth, which, in a world formed by the paradigm of "representation," have been taken to be the very opposite of contingent: reality is that against which we have understood contingency to stand forth (often in shame and disgrace); and truth is that which we have defined as the accurate representation of reality.

But it was not always thus, Foucault would have us accept. In an age previous to ours, the truth or otherwise of words was not dependent upon the extent to which words represented things. On the contrary, words were things; that is, words enjoyed a kind of reality that we attribute only to things. Far from merely representing real things, words too were real:
In the sixteenth century, real language is not a totality of independent signs, a uniform and unbroken entity in which things could be reflected one by one, as in a mirror, and so express their particular truths. It is rather an opaque and mysterious thing, closed in upon itself, a fragmented mass, its enigma renewed in every interval, which combines here and there with the forms of the world and becomes interwoven with them: so much so that all these elements, taken together, form a network of marks in which each of them may play, and does in fact play, in relation to all the others, the role of content or of sign, that of secret or of indicator. In its raw, historical sixteenth-century being, language is not an arbitrary system; it has been set down in the world and forms a part of it, both because things themselves hide and manifest their own enigma like a language and because words offer themselves to men as things to be deciphered. The great metaphor of the book that one opens, that one pores over and reads in order to know nature, is merely the reverse and visible side of another transference, and a much deeper one, which forces language to reside in the world, among the plants, the herbs, the stones, and the animals. (The Order of Things)
The binary opposition of words and things is, then, a modern invention, as Foucault tells it; in other times, things were like words, insofar as they were signs to be interpreted on the basis of various modes of resemblance between them and other signs, and words were like things, insofar as they had properties unto themselves and not only by virtue of their referential function. Words and things were, in effect, the same kind of thing. During the 17th and 18th centuries, however, this "profound kinship of language with the world was dissolved." Henceforth, words said things, that is, words referred to things and were nothing more than this referral.

But no age dies away completely, and so there are vestiges of The Age of Resemblance even in our times. When we say to someone about to face a difficult ordeal, "Break a leg!" - it is not only that we do not intend these words literally (The Age of Representation does not demand that words say things in only direct ways), it is the words themselves (and not anything they represent, either literally or figuratively) that are intended. In saying the words, we regard ourselves as producing an effect, not because the words refer to something that is efficacious, but because the words themselves, spoken in a certain order, context and tone, are efficacious. The words operate in a manner that The Age of Representation usually confines to the realm of things.

We are half-ashamed of this mode of existence of words, of course, and laughingly denigrate it as barbarous superstition even as we contribute to its continuance. But not always. For, there is something in our Age constituted wholly by this mode of existence of words, which we not only do not laugh at but tend to hold in high regard. It is "literature." Here is Foucault, once more:
It may be said in a sense that "literature," as it was constituted and so designated on the threshold of the modern age, manifests, at a time when it was least expected, the reappearance, of the living being of language...[T]hroughout the nineteenth century, and right up to our own day - from Holderlin to Mallarme and on to Antonin Artaud - literature achieved autonomous existence, and separated itself from all other language with a deep scission...by finding its way back from the representative or signifying function of language to this raw being that had been forgotten since the sixteenth century. (The Order of Things)
We may note that, in Foucault's notion of "literature" are not comprehended the likes of Dickens or Eliot, whose sweeping representations are placed firmly within The Age of Representation; we might say that a Dickens or an Eliot reached the zenith of those creative possibilities designated by The Age of Representation, whose literature, for all its figurative flourishes, cannot but employ materials whose very nature it is to indicate that which lies beyond them, in the realm of actual, possible, or even fantastical things. What "literature" has done, by contrast, is to attempt to reanimate a mode of existence of words that has nothing to do with indicating that which lies beyond them, to resurrect language as itself real, language as itself living. Stephane Mallarme, for example, produced poems that, to The Age of Representation, appear hermetic and possibly frustrating, but these poems might also be read as giving life back to language, as allowing words themselves to speak. In this sense, "literature" has existed as a sort of time capsule, which has ferried, across a great epochal divide, words that are not merely for saying things.

*   

But we are now, I think, on the cusp of another epochal divide, as great indeed as that which Foucault describes as having taken place during the 17th and 18th centuries, a divide between The Age of Representation and an age in which the binary structure of words-and-things that has been so utterly dominant is giving way to a unitary structure of words-and-more-words. We are now entering The Age of Public Representation, in which words are all-in-all, concern with their accurate or otherwise representation of things increasingly anachronistic. Many forces are constituting this shift, to an era in which merely saying it makes it so: the explosion in communications technologies; the outsourcing from Western economies of the mining and manufacturing of things; the rise in obsolescence as a basic principle; the objectless ways in which profit is pursued; the imminence of environmental collapse...all conspiring with doubtless many other factors, to bring about the unimaginable: the severance of that link between words and things that had appeared to us unbreakable, and the obviation thereby of the very concepts of "reality," "realistic," "realism," and so on.

Time travel is a dangerous pursuit; there is the possibility of carrying with one, things and thoughts whose potential for good or evil is largely dependent upon time and place. We sometimes say - "Be careful what you wish for, it may really come true." What we mean is that something that is desirable in one situation may have startlingly negative effects in another. Perhaps we might wish we had said it to Mallarme, or to Holderlin, or to Artaud. For, however liberatory it may have been to champion the "raw being" of language in an age in which language was no more than a means to an end, the "raw being" of language is now the bedrock of our human condition, our condition of talking and talking but to little effect, of saying this and saying that but to no avail. If "literature" was the time capsule in which living language traversed the desert of words, then living language has arrived at its Canaan, a place and time, our place and time, in which words live so fulsomely that everything else is left for dead. Be careful what you wish for...

Foucault describes the mode of being of language in The Age of Resemblance as simultaneously "plethoric" and "poverty-stricken": plethoric, because, without The Age of Representation's real world to put a stay upon potential for meaning, meaning is infinite, generated laterally, as it were, between words and words, and words and things, and things and things, without any word or thing being capable, for more than an instant, of operating as the guarantee or foundation of meaning; and "poverty-stricken" for precisely the same reason, precisely because no word or thing can operate for more than an instant as the fountain of a wisdom that is any deeper than the next formulation of words or arrangement of things. And plethoric and poverty-stricken is our condition in The Age of Public Representation, in which there has been an explosive increase in communications, proportionate to a dramatic decrease in the likelihood of their containing anything of worth. Worthless wordiness: that, it turns out, is the condition in which we, surprising inheritors of the legacy of Mallarme, Holderlin and Artaud, now find ourselves. It turns out that we are what they wished for...

You see, a pivotal distinction between the mode of being of words in The Age of Resemblance and the resurrection of that mode of being of words by "literature" is that, while The Age of Resemblance posited an albeit eternally absent Word (of God, of Nature), which operated as an ideal limit upon the endless proliferations of meaning that characterized the age, "literature" in the age that followed had no such notional foundation. All forms of religious or quasi-religious belief were closed to it, even as it often indulged in a longing for such forms of belief. And, by nurturing the "raw being" of language in circumstances other than those in which such "raw being" had its ideal limit, we might say that "literature" created a monster, almost as if it had reared a wild animal in a situation bereft of the predators that would usually keep it in check. By its "literary" nurture, "language," Foucault says, "was to grow with no point of departure, no end, and no promise." And we are what resulted, dedicated as we are to saying things that have no point of departure, no end, and no promise. We are "literature"'s monster.

"Literature"'s "futility" is, for Foucault, yet "fundamental"; The Age of Representation, after all, needed something to undermine its certainties. Our futility is fundamental too, but in a different sense from Foucault's; for, The Age of Public Representation has, not certainty, but futility, as its horizon. How, then, to undermine futilities..? Not with "literature," at any rate.