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 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.

Saturday, 11 August 2012

The London Hunger Games...Still Wishing

Fisher's 3-part response to The London Hunger Games...I Wish, on Twitter:

"Fair, if ungenerous, point on Virno. But he's not attacking cynicism in the moralistic way that this point suggests."

"Also, point about cynicism being succeeded by sentimentalism is simply an observation of shifts in media-public mood."

"Pity the writer doesn't understand the irony inherent in the term capitalist realism though."

I wonder what is at stake in the term "moralistic" here? Are we to believe that Virno gives an account of the cynicism and sentimentality of late-capitalist societies, and proceeds to give his recommendations on possibilities for resistance to such societies, but does not, in the process, imply that there is a good and a bad in the case, or at the very least, a better and a worse? Of course Virno is attacking cynicism in a moralistic way, even if he is sufficiently aware of the historical and cultural conditions of right and wrong to know that morality in the old style of lists of commandments or absolute imperatives is no longer appropriate. If we know, by now, that there is nothing either good or bad but thinking (and acting, in times and places) makes it so, it does not follow from this that there is nothing either good or bad! It's all in the thinking - and the discussing, the arguing, the persuading. Once one has thought, then all the awareness of historical and cultural conditionedness in the world cannot relieve one of the responsibility of doing precisely what Virno does: making a case for moral right and wrong. The combination of cynicism and sentimentalism Virno describes as constitutive of late-capitalist societies is, of course, anathema to making a case for moral right and wrong. To the cynic, any view put forward as right or wrong is "moralistic" (and it's all in the tone with which that judgment is delivered); and to the sentimentalist, no sense of right or wrong can trump the way things make us feel.

If I am a writer who "doesn't understand the irony inherent in the term capitalist realism," then I am proud. For, irony is the figure of speech most favoured by the late-capitalist cynic, for whom what is said or done may always operate in exactly the opposite manner that one might think, and who, therefore, loves the fluidity of significance for which the tone of irony allows. B. R. Myers, in his brilliant A Reader's Manifesto, identifies appeals to irony as now an almost sure sign of a mediocre writer: "You didn't laugh at the jokes - but that's the whole point, they're not meant to be funny!"; "You were bored throughout - but that's the whole point, you were meant to be bored!" I believe it might now also be said that appeals to irony are beneath a serious thinker. "You disagree that capitalism amounts to a realism - but that's the whole point, I didn't mean that capitalism amounts to a realism!" Two of the most famous ironists in our tradition - Plato/Socrates and Jane Austen - shared at least the following: the conditions in which they wrote were both straightened and unfriendly to them. Socrates was treading on political eggshells, being watched by the men of Athens lest he make a wrong step; Jane Austen was treading on social and cultural eggshells, being watched by all in sundry lest she fall from feminine grace. Both employed the figure of irony to say what they wished to say by saying the opposite of what they wished to say. A brilliant, effective, and understandable ploy. But we do not live in straightened conditions. On the contrary, we live in "post-modern" conditions, where the rhetoric is of anything-goes. These are cynical times, cynical cynical times, when what you say can mean exactly the opposite of what you say and it makes no difference anyway. Why, then, in these times and under these conditions, resort to irony? Resort, instead, to meaning what you say and saying what you mean: that is the point at which resistance must begin. I would repeat, then, that late-capitalist societies do not any longer even deign to ape the conditions of any kind of reality. When people are cynics, ironists, nihilists, even the semblance of a reality may be dispensed with. Realism is now an anachronism.

As for the claim that the "point about cynicism being succeeded by sentimentalism is simply an observation of shifts in media-public mood," this cannot withstand testimony given by the original piece, The London Hunger Games. Consider for yourself:

"As Paolo Virno argues, cynicism is now an attitude that is simply a requirement for late capitalist subjectivity, a way of navigating a world governed by rules that are groundless and arbitrary. But as Virno also argues, 'It is no accident...that the most brazen cynicism is accompanied by unrestrained sentimentalism.' Once the Games started, cynicism could be replaced by a managed sentimentality."

The manner in which the "observation" about the shift from cynicism to sentimentalism follows immediately from the quotation from Virno, which describes how, in general, cynicism is accompanied by sentimentalism, makes the "observation" into more than "simply an observation." It is quite clearly intended to work as an illustration, or example, of Virno's account. My criticism was that it does not illustrate or exemplify Virno's account correctly, that there is an error. Perhaps I am in error, but I am not in error because I mistook the nature of the claim about cynicism being succeeded by sentimentalism. It is quite clearly not "simply an observation." And I do, at any rate, not think I am in error at all. It is important to get Virno's account right. Fisher sets up the cynical response as rational, to contrast with the sentimental response as hysteria and delirium. But Virno would warn us that cynicism and sentimentalism are now two sides of the same coin, that hysteria is now rational and that reason is now delirium. This is a crucial point, and if it is "ungenerous" to make it, then so be it. The kind of sentimentalism abroad today hears any seriously made criticism as a piece of baffling aggression (a mindless generosity, an "Isn't everything lovely!" mania, is now the only justifiable attitude), just as the kind of cynicism abroad today hears any determinate opinion as "moralistic."

Friday, 10 August 2012

The London Hunger Games...I Wish!

From Mark Fisher's The London Hunger Games:

"Cynicism is just about the only rational response to the doublethink of the McDonalds and Coca Cola sponsorship (one of the most prominent things you see as you pass the Olympic site on the train line up from Liverpool Street is the McDonalds logo). As Paolo Virno argues, cynicism is now an attitude that is simply a requirement for late capitalist subjectivity, a way of navigating a world governed by rules that are groundless and arbitrary. But as Virno also argues, 'It is no accident...that the most brazen cynicism is accompanied by unrestrained sentimentalism." Once the Games started, cynicism could be replaced by a managed sentimentality. The BBC has given itself over to propagating an hysterical PR delirium..."

There is an error here that makes an important difference. Fisher presents the cynical attitude as the only rational response to late capitalism. But what Virno claims is that cynicism is one of the primary experiences that go to constitute late capitalist societies, which have done away with almost all remnants of the demand that what we say and do map onto something real or true. It is cynicism that gives rise to the total disparity between Olympic promises made about the regeneration of East London and the lack of regeneration of East London; it is cynicism that facilitates the coexistence of claims about how wonderful the sporting atmosphere at the Games is and the evident feelings of pressure experienced by athletes who have targets to meet; and it is cynicism that allows for the domination of the Games by sports played almost exclusively by elites in the context of constant assertions that the Olympics is a level playing field of harmony and of hope.

When Fisher describes pre-Olympic murmurs of cynicism as having been replaced by sentimentality, he continues his error. In late-capitalist societies, cynicism and sentimentality go hand in hand; the fact that what we say and do and feel has little or none of the old connection with truth or reality is exactly the thing to be accompanied (as Fisher quotes Virno as saying) by a punctual sentimentality that settles arbitrarily upon this or that - the Star Wars light sabre that you got for Christmas when a child (it doesn't matter if you never got one); the amazing, wonderful, fabulous, incredible moment of victory in the women's light-weight double skull - in order to throw before it a whole horizon of fabricated meaning. Such sentimentality requires cynicism rather than replaces it.

Cynicism, then, is no longer available to those who attempt to reason outside of what Fisher calls Capitalist Realism. On the contrary, it is the opposite of cynicism that Fisher's rational person feels: a sense of outrage when claims are made that are not true; a feeling of horror when things are done that are the opposite of a principle being allegedly upheld; a hunger for meaning when faced with the utter meaninglessness of everything, on which the Olympics roadshow has been running. For, late capitalism never amounts to any kind of realism. Its trademark cynicism has not only set reality at nought, but has also dispensed with the realist requirement that there be correspondence with or coalescence into anything even seemingly real. Things can be said that do not even gesture towards an actual (even a possible!) world. Things can be done that are the opposite of what was done yesterday or is planned for tomorrow. Capitalist Realism has been trumped by Capitalism Nihilism. And the only rational response is faith in something, belief in something, commitment to something, reference to something, remembrance of something, hunger for something. Olympics - London 2012: The Hunger Games only for the rational few!    

Wednesday, 8 August 2012

The Olympics - Lost For Words

There is much talk at present about the "legacy" of the Olympic Games, despite the fact that other Olympic Games have left no legacy other than decaying velodromes and the like. But, really, it is the Olympics that are the legacy, of an age that trumps purposeful activity, real life, and human relation with frothy and fleeting communications that make us pathologically preoccupied by the loveliness of everything.

There is also much talk at present about vacant seats at the Games' various events, corporate allocations not having translated into corporate attendances. This, together with the disgraceful list of sponsors of the Games, the utterly unsporting targets for medals, the endlessly bureaucratic categories of event (women's double light-weight scull etc etc.), shows how deeply in thrall to big business the Olympics really is, just another means of laundering our total beholdenness to the corporate worldview. But the vacancy of the coverage being offered to television viewers is also something to think about, characterized, as it is, by an attention-deficit-disorder style that appears to be aimed solely at obviating any real engagement with the events. True, the BBC is offering a see-everything-from-start-to-finish service via its "red button." But, as if feeling that the need to in any sense present the games is therefore obviated, it is then filling its Olympics - London 2012 programme with a combination of fast-cut sequences, over-dubbed winning moments, music-laden starting line-ups and mind-numbingly repetitive confessional-style emotings. For those of us at home (which is almost all of us) the Olympics is about nothing more than how lovely are the Olympics.

The BBC's dichotomy of "24-hour coverage" and "all the highlights," through which falls the old skill of delivering to the viewer some sense of things, is just one version of what is in fact the structure of our times. No longer involved in the growing of things, the mining of things, or the making of things, our economy, and therefore now our lives, are given over to the saying of things, whose sole purpose lies, economically, in satisfying the markets, and, politically, in preoccupying a population which is not growing things, mining things or making things, a population, in short, for which there is no use and in which there is no value. Saying things, "social networking" of various kinds, is now what we do; there's nothing much at all but saying it makes it so. And if you would object that, even if we are not growing, mining or making, we are at least now consuming, then you should think again. For, with the combination of increasingly virtual purchasing and increasingly obsolete products, buying stuff is really not a lot more than saying you're buying stuff. In our communications age, consumption is just another form of communication, albeit one that is more directly exploited for profit than other forms of communication are. And all of this proceeds with The Great Excuse alongside of it: that you, that we, have at our fingertips now, all of the information we need to understand and to alter the forces that are operating upon us. It is an all or nothing scenario, with the all operating as a constant apology for the nothingness of our lives.

But back to the Olympics, awful legacy of these times. BBC reporting constitutes the games as happening, for the most part, at the level of their communication. That is, the BBC's account of the games is entirely focused upon the extent to which the things it says about the games, and the events and the athletes and the fans and the venues and everything else, are in the spirit of the "Isn't it lovely" orthodoxy into which we are all of us expected to fall. For the first time in my memory, the personal attributes of the athletes are now in the foreground, it being more important that athletes contribute, in interview, to our sense that this is an amazing, a fabulous, a lovely event than that they actually run fast or jump high. The confusion on the faces of some members of Team GB (we're all one lovely family, you know, and not anything so dull and horrible as a state or a nation) who have not realized their medal target is an expression of their vestigial sense, however slight, that sporting effort is not the name of these games (see Rebecca Adlington's post-bronze winning interview): only the communication of sporting effort, in the shape of medals and post-event emotions, and words of support, and feelings of togetherness, is what matters. Other members of Team GB, who have sobbed and bemoaned their failure to achieve target, have been told that they are not failures in our eyes: and they were told right, for crying and saying you can't believe how you've left everybody down when everybody's been so lovely, is now as good as gold.

The poster girl for Team GB is Jessica Ennis. The choice was a simple one. She's a heptathlete, which makes the proliferation of communications around her very easy indeed. And she's pretty, which is always lovely you know. And such a lovely person, which is always lovely too. This, ad (even more!) nauseum, was the tone of Denise Lewis and Gabby Logan on the BBC's Olympics coverage on the day of Heptathlon gold. Despite having already secured first place, Ennis went out to the final event of her competition - the 800m - and won it in good style. She said, afterwards, that she wanted to give people something to cheer, to give them a sense, in the inevitably disjointed heptathlon event, that there was still a moment of victory. What Ennis misses - how could she not - is that it is the disjointed nature of her event that makes it emblematic of the Olympic games, which has managed to make every event seem disjointed (there are 14 different categories for rowing alone and the mode of reporting makes each one appear to have at least 14 episodes). And wanting to galvanize the crowd is the very thing that must not be done. Stunning, that the BBC, in their highlights, showed only the last couple of seconds of Ennis's 800m race. How long would it have taken to show the whole thing!? About two minutes and 8 seconds, that's all. But instead, they dwelt for ten times that long on Ennis's expressions of gratitude and wonderment and love after the race, and on the studio panel's expressions of gratitude and wonderment and love too.

David Harvey, in A Brief History of Neo-Liberalism, identifies social unrest out of a sense of nihilism as a real threat to the neo-liberal emphasis on the individual ("There is no such thing as society," said Mrs. Thatcher). The solution has been to regenerate a kind of cohesiveness on the basis of feelings of terror and patriotism. But it is important, of course, that the feelings of patriotism do not become too potent. That might give way to social unrest out of a sense of purpose! What is needed is just enough to make us feel that we're all one happy (Olympic) family, but not enough to make us feel that something, at last, might just be worth more than words.