Saturday, May 27, 2017

Troops on the streets, crazy in the news sheets.


One death-drive turns another. One journalist calls for the "internment of thousands". Another calls for a "final solution".


When the Westminster attacker, Khalid Masood, struck, there was the usual authoritarian frenzy, such as calls for the end of instant messaging privacy, and The Sun demanding armed cops on every street corner -- a lurid Petainist fantasy. But there was also a sub-current of exciting, macho rhetoric. 


Andrew Neil, in a speech he was allowed to deliver to camera by the BBC, derided this "poundland terrorist". Do you, he wondered, have any idea who you're dealing with? We are the British. We conquered half the planet. We have committed untold acts of violence. You are nothing next to us. Bring it on. Send your best, send your worst. Come ahead, square go. This phallic bombast was so thrilling that Tommy Robinson, sharing the speech, said it gave him goosebumps. A visceral reminder that all rhetoric is erotica.


The stirring evocation of armour-plated British omnipotence was, however, only as persuasive as the attack was unsuccessful. Masood's methods were crude and chaotic. His headlong death-lunge at the nominal centre of British power was always doomed to fail. The indications are that he had converted to Islam to get out of a violent life -- he dreamed of blood, as he put it. But he was seemingly never a doctrinaire jihadi. 


Salman Abedi, the 22 year old suicide attacker in Manchester, was a different type of attacker. This we know just from what he did. He used an explosive device, not knives. He picked a soft target, and a large target. Some 21,000 people, not protected by armed police, or even a baggage check, were potentially within the radius of his explosion. And maybe there was also an element of religious sadism, in targeting young people who had been having a good time. It seems obvious what he sought to provoke; exactly the kind of reaction that similar attacks have provoked in France, in the hope that an increasingly embattled minority of young Muslim men will flock to the theocratic far right. They want British politicians, spies and cops to become the recruiting sergeants for Daesh, and also collaterally the recruiting sergeants for Europe's next wave of fascism. Another turn in a depressingly familiar death-spiral.


And so, the Prime Minister gave a speech. The reclusive, gaffe-prone, gurn-smirking Theresa May, finally found her mark. It was, by all accounts, stateswomanlike, dignified, resolute, capturing the mood of the nation -- which is to say, it was exactly the same as any speech any Prime Minister would have given at such a moment. It said nothing, but said it with conviction. The point of such speeches is that, in their authoritative disbursement of information that was already available, in their solemn declarations of the obvious, in their insistence on certain adjectives which do the heavy lifting of explanation -- cowardice, evil, and so on -- they seem to make a superficial sense. Such attacks do not make sense. They are where sense breaks down. But the obligatory Prime Ministerial speech insists on making sense. In saying that we are strong, they were weak; we are brave, they are cowards; we will win, they will lose, it re-asserts a whole order of sense-making that has come into question.


What was far more important, registering the actual tenor of her policy response, was what came after. Theresa May is an ally of hardliners in the state, particularly in MI5. It was a former spook whom she recruited to draft her snoopers' charter some years ago. Her repertoire of responses to terror all fall on the side of intensified authoritarianism. Last time, she used the occasion to once more browbeat messaging services like Whatsapp -- on the preciously thin grounds that Masood may have sent a vital message linked to his attack before dying -- into abolishing user privacy. 


This time, in the middle of an election, she has raised the "threat level" to "critical" and sent armed forces out into the streets. Without attempting to second-guess government claims that there is another terror attack imminent, or inquire into the integrity of those "threat levels" (if it hasn't dropped below "severe" in such a long time, perhaps the war isn't working), this is obviously not going to stop an attack.


It is, like airport security, a superstitious ritual. The point of this sort of terrorist tactic is that it is flexible, unpredictable, designed to upset calculations, and work around obstacles. As long as Daesh and like organisations have the ability to recruit, to summon loyalty, there will always be soft targets. Why? Because the idea of an ironclad, completely securitised nation, with no vulnerabilities, is a sinister totalitarian fantasy. Even if it were possible, it would depend on a repression ten times more ferocious than that which it was called down to stop.


So this is posturing, which happens to serve the interests of Theresa May and of police hardliners who want to show off a bit of British muscle and steel. And the more barbaric and violent the discourse becomes, the more it can be canalised into this statist machismo. The more-or-less civilised, collectivist, solidaristic reaction of Mancunians, the blood donations and free taxi rides, the homeless man rushing in to help the victims, the refusal to 'be divided', the chasing away of EDL provocateurs, is a cultural counterweight to that dangerous and ineffectual strutting. 


But at some point, we need that multicultural conviviality to be conjoined with something which is presently absent, and that is a serious and critical reappraisal of every assumption of every 'counterterrorist' policy that has produced this terrifying impasse. That would mean the Prevent strategy, the various foreign policy interventions, the alliance with Saudi Arabia, everything. It would all have to be on the table, without intimidation. Because that intimidation is coming. The Birmingham MP, Khalid Mahmood, is already using the attack to demand that people stop criticising the hugely discriminatory and counterproductive Prevent strategy. Bear in mind that even such figures as Liam Byrne and Syeeda Warsi have criticised Prevent for the chilling effect it has on Muslim communities and on the enjoyment of civil liberties. The vitriol against Corbyn for his supposed Provo sympathies is part of this offensive, pour encourager les autres


Nonetheless, the discussion has to happen. Because the cost of not having these conversations will probably be measured in a body count.





(Cross-posted from my Patreon account. If you like it, please consider sending me a couple of quid.)


Thursday, May 25, 2017

Writing

I have launched a new project, using Patreon, wherein I'll be writing daily and 'patrons' (anyone who pledges any monthly sum to my account) will have immediate access to that writing. There are already three articles up there, dealing with Labour, the elections, Manchester, terror, and the death-drive. This is an attempt to incentivise people to pay for writing, and to give me a reason to write every day. The pitch is as follows:

What do you do when you write? You give yourself a second body. And when you read, you breathe "air from another life and time and place".
Extended explanation, said the poet Marianne Moore, tends to spoil the lion's leap. I will be brief. You cannot pay for good writing. You can't incentivise someone to lift your day, or to send you out into the streets in a fury. And you can't subscribe to a life-changing experience. All you can do is pay for writing to happen, and see what comes.
If, somehow, you don't know me, I am the author of several books, most recently 'Corbyn: The Strange Rebirth of Radical Politics' (Verso, 2016). And I am a founding editor of Salvage magazine. I mostly write marxist political commentary -- a practiced purveyor of undead ideas. And sometimes I take strange, nocturnal detours.
If you support my writing, you will see daily political commentary (a diary or blog), regular political articles (roughly once a week), and occasional long-form essays before they appear anywhere else.
You will suffer shattering mood-swings, expand your vocabulary, acquire a certain aristocratic disposition, and fall in love twice as often as before. You will be on better terms with cats, and dogs will stop growling at you. The world will end more reluctantly and gracefully, and only after you've had dessert. Everything will be fine; no, it won't.
Please help.

If you 'subscribe' to this blog through PayPal, you are invited to switch, so that you get automated access to daily writing. I'll be continuing to write here, of course, especially the irregular longer form essays. But you can get more for your money by switching.

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If you haven't ever supported my writing financially, do consider dropping a couple of quid my way. It doesn't have to be a lot, provided there are enough supporters.

Friday, May 19, 2017

Eternal Sunshine of a Spotless Centre

My latest long form piece for Salvage is about Corbyn and the snap election:

"Nothing is forever, except absence. And if the bromides of the British pundit class seem timeless, that is because the political centre registers as an absence.

"Credibility, they’re saying. What Corbyn needs now, and sorely lacks, is credibility. How does one get credibility? A sharp swerve to the centre. The capitals of the European centre are collapsing around their ears, from London to Madrid to Athens to Amsterdam. Only Paris has averted the complete collapse of the centre through, as Perry Anderson put, a yuppie simulacrum of populist breakthrough. And even there, it followed the implosion of the Socialist Party and survived only because its major opponent was fascism. Yet nothing can shake a belief that has never even been thought about as such. The answer – cleave centre – is given with the same confidence that spiritual adepts once prescribed trepanning for the sick. Corbyn needs centrist credibility, in other words, like he needs a hole in the head.


"That Corbyn lacks credibility is the implied or explicit premise of almost every report, every editorial, every interview question in this election. When Corbyn supporters are sought out for a grilling on national television, the question is usually put with a degree of polite amusement: ‘do you really, in your heart of hearts, believe Jeremy Corbyn is a potential Prime Minister?’ The interviewee then has to choose between appearing to be unreasonable, in view of the polls, or offering a half-hearted, mealy-mouthed defence which amounts to the patronising idea, indulged by even his bitter enemies, that he is ‘a thoroughly decent person’.

II.

"Let us cut through the bad faith and bullshit. The answer to the question is ‘no’: by their standards, Corbyn has absolutely no credibility, and is not a potential Prime Minister. However, while this should be given its full weight as a material factor, we should also recognise that the British political and media establishment is akin to Standard & Poor’s in their disbursement of ‘credibility’ ratings. This establishment has spent years giving triple A scores to what turned out to be toxic political stock, while regularly using its ratings and public statements to organise the processes it claims to be reporting on. And these last few years have seen a credibility crunch of gigantic proportions.

"This is not to double down on the unworldly claims of some of the Corbynite Left’s social media prize-fighters, who routinely claim that he is about to school Theresa May. As an expression of a devoutly held wish, an animating desire, this is laudable; as anything else, it is ineffectual bombast. The Conservatives may fall short of the 20 per cent leads they began to score after announcing a snap election. Labour’s polling, having been depressed to around 25 per cent post-Brexit and amid the ‘chicken coup’ and its reverberations, seems to have returned to around 30 per cent, which is where it has been in practice since 2010. But the local election results were poor, with the Conservatives gaining seats in the hundreds while Labour shed seats in the greater hundreds. Credibility may be a hugely depleted currency, but it is still a material force in this election. The punditocracy still has its power, and so therefore does its received wisdom. The centrist political establishment is on the back foot, but fighting back with ruthless determination and resourcefulness. The same countersubversive zeal with which May announced the snap election, pledging to crush the saboteurs, expunge division from politics and forge a unified national will, also animates the centre’s war on Corbynism..."

Read on.

Is Fascism on the Rise?

I was asked to post this brief talk I recently gave to a Stop Trump meeting in South London.

It was the Martinican poet and anticolonial fighter, Aime Cesaire, who tried to point out to Europeans that what they called Nazism, they had been practicing with a free conscience in the colonial world for decades. And that this relationship was not incidental.

In fact, the conscience of the European was never free. Octave Mannoni, the French psychoanalyst who famously psychoanalysed the colonial situation, once suggested that there was a surprising pervasiveness of the colonised, in the dreams of Europeans who had never left the continent and never seen such a person. Today, one wonders if provincial, sedentary English men and women dream of the Muslim.

If they do, these hauntings allow them to dissociate: that is, to project all their destructive impulses (the death-drive) onto someone else. It also allows them to dream that, since there is this other figure who isn’t fully human, they are guaranteed full humanity, a plenitude of being, by their whiteness. A certain cosmic prestige. Remember D H Lawrence in his ecstatic passions about nature — the dandelion is a nonpareil, foolish, foolish, foolish, to compare it to anything else. This was also a racist metaphysics of a great chain of being, in which he judged life more vivid in him than in his Mexican driver.

A lethal anxiety can be provoked when the principle of race seems to collapse. Because then you might have to take back your projections. What’s more, you have to confront the emptiness of your identification with whiteness. You may remember the racist tram passenger, Emma West, emotively excoriating black passengers and saying, “my Britain is fuck all now!”

In the summer of 2011, David Starkey complained that the whites have become black. This was his explanation for multiracial, anti-police riots that flared across English cities. Well, five years later, Thomas Mair gave that anxiety the force of arms. In the middle of a Brexit campaign which dramatically represented the country as being at a “Breaking Point”, where that break was clearly linked to race, Mair sought out a 'traitor' to whiteness — just as Breivik did — for murder.

The Breiviks and Mairs, lone wolves of 21st century fascism, are also canaries in the coal mine. They don’t tell us that fascism has arrived, but they do show us what it means.

The question, “Is Fascism On the Rise?,” could too easily provoke us to offer glib answers. Trump isn’t a fascist, Farage isn’t a fascist, so we might think we can set the whole question of fascism aside. But we can only do that if we treat fascism as a scholastic typological question, rather than an historical one.

History is a process, and we need to understand the processes through which fascism arises. There is a traditional schema according to which economic crisis equals polarisation equals extremism. Things are more complicated. There’s a particular sequence which we should pay attention to.

Yes, economic crisis is important, but it has to be metabolised by the state somehow. A crisis of capitalism, has to be a crisis of its political institutions and of its ideological claims. That crisis must manifest itself in a deadlock of political leadership of the ruling class. If, typically, one of its sectors leads (say, the City of London) and imposes its imperatives as being for the good of all, that leadership will come into question.

There will be a crisis of representation, as the link between parties and their traditional social base breaks down. As governments flounder, the state apparatuses will achieve a higher degree of autonomy and salience. There will be profound and pervasive distrust of the existing ideologies and the media outlets which purvey them.

The Left will be weak, and retreating. The labour movement will be weak, employers on the offensive. That offensive will have severe consequences not just for workers but also for the lower ends of the middle class, who suddenly risk being plunged down into the ranks of the poorest — or worse, being made equal to the racialised outsider. The whites will become black.

And then, internationally, the state will be either in some state of relative ‘backwardness’ (as was the case for imperial late-comers Italy and Germany) or in some state of relative competitive decline. A decline which metaphorises the decline of all the downwardly mobile social strata in the nation.

In that context, of comprehensive crisis and left weakness, a fascist organisation can take power.

The traditional way of doing this would be to exploit democratic politics while building paramilitary strength; to forge networks of elite support and covert state alliances while posing as anti-establishment.

But in most cases, no mature fascist organisation exists. The closest we have come to seeing that in recent years was the Golden Dawn years in Greece, where they assembled mass support and rival centres of legitimate violence on the streets, alongside links to state allies — but the confrontation with bourgeois state power came too soon. They were crushed, for now.

But the fascism of the future doesn’t have to be traditional. Nor does it have to respect the sequences observed in the interwar years, or reanimate old cultures. It could even adopt a patina of edgy cool, as with the alt-right: we should never underestimate the erotic glamour of fascism and its appeal to the death-drive.

Nor does it have to always be on the brink of a putsch. Let us not forget the strategy of the Front national, to win mainstream credibility by demonstrating the ability to govern within liberal constraints. The attempt by Bannon and Miller to force a rupture in the American state was premature and voluntaristic. A more competent germinal fascism would take its time, patiently exploiting the fascist potential within the liberal state, to incubate and nurture the fascist monster of the future.

We face a parlous situation. The instability of capitalist democracies will produce both exhilarating breakthroughs and morbid symptoms. Recent polls across Europe showed that surprisingly huge numbers of young people would be up for a revolt against their government. This can be a radical groundswell, but let us not underestimate the space or pure negativity, the possibility for an identification with pure destruction. Polls around the time of Charlie Hebdo showed a surprisingly large reservoir of sympathy for Daesh among young French people — not just Muslims, as was inaccurately reported. How can the Left harness the best and head off the worst — if not to channel it through pointless social media blood-lettings? We know how the Right will respond; by racialising it, and by calling down the force of an authoritarian response ten times more lethal than what it is supposed to repress.

We on the Left are having a good campaign about class and economic issues right now, but to an extent we seem to want to have anti-fascist conversations without seriously addressing the centrality of race, nation, war and the colonial legacy. The national question, which in Britain is always a racial question, has become more and not less central. We would not be facing a Tory electoral behemoth now, had Brexit not completely transformed the terrain. Too much of the Left, including some of the Corbynite Left, would rather not have that conversation for reasons of electoral expediency. It would simply cost too much to have that conversation in the short run. What they don’t realise is what it will cost them in the long run not to have that conversation.

I return to Cesaire, talking about that troubled conscience of Europeans:

“it is Nazism, yes, but before they were its victims, they were its accomplices; they tolerated that Nazism before it was inflicted on them, they absolved it, shut their eyes to it, legitimized it, because, until then, it had been applied only to non-European peoples; they have cultivated that Nazism, they are responsible for it, and before engulfing the whole edifice of Western, Christian civilization in its reddened waters, it oozes, seeps and trickles from every crack.”

Tuesday, May 09, 2017

One must not move too quickly to sense-making.

My interview with PĂ©riode about my academic work and writing has been republished, in English, over at Historical Materialism:

"There is a rationalising tendency in all theory, Marxism included: a drive to ‘make sense’ of things. One of the virtues of psychoanalysis at its best is that it is comfortable making do with nonsense for a while — it doesn’t move too quickly to sense-making. And when you have people beating up Mexicans, or Poles, or behaving politically in ways that seem profoundly injurious even to themselves, there is a temptation to try to rationalise and move quickly to solutions. To say, “ah, they’re doing this because of economic insecurity” or “they’re doing this because the media have misinformed them about the real causes of their situation”. It might be worth spending time with the nonsense before moving to problem-solving."

Monday, May 08, 2017

The Night Season

I.
“I sleep, but my heart waketh,” begins a verse in the Song of Songs, “it is the voice of my beloved that knocketh”.

The songs of depression and loss begin as songs of obsession and yearning. If, as Andrew Solomon claims, depression is the flaw in love, it is in part because violence is the repressed truth of romance: it is always a St Valentine’s Day massacre.

The knocking of a woman’s heart becomes the knocking of the door, and the knocking of the bed. It is a dream, and the dream is a wish-fulfilment. Later, the woman goes out walking, after midnight, searching the streets for her lover.

This is a strange interlude in the early biblical texts, one which was included amid controversy, because it has no express spiritual content. It is an erotic poem, laden with superlative idealisation. The language points to qualities that exceed description. “His legs are as pillars of marble, set upon sockets of fine gold: his countenance is as Lebanon, excellent as the cedars”. “Who is she that looketh forth as the morning, fair as the moon, clear as the sun, and terrible as an army with banners?” “I am a wall, and my breasts like towers … Make haste, my beloved, and be thou like a roe or to a young hart upon the mountains of spices.”

The lovers in the Song of Songs find one another, a success story. They are not just idealised, but ideally matched, mirroring one another's desire: “brother” and “sister” in the curious language of the Old Testament. But if, as Michael Eigen wrote somewhere, “desire and idealisation are sisters,” the violence of idealisation appears in its language. She is “terrible as an army with banners,” he sings.  “Love is strong as death,” she sings, “jealousy is cruel as the grave”. We have to imagine that, as with all ideal lovers, they would be an absolutely awful couple.


II.
Idealisation is a success story, simmering with violence which lurks, like piranha, just below the reflective shimmer. One might say, it is the success story of heteronormative patriarchy. Like perfectionism, it is gendered – we all do it, but women lose most from it. It comes from a need to control the unpredictable, to disavow the open and indeterminate. Idealisation is a defence against the future. A woman is terrifying, Jacqueline Rose says somewhere, because you never know what she is going to come up with.

Another side of this story, one of its many failures, might be found in Patsy Cline’s country and western song, ‘Walkin’ After Midnight’. A story told by a woman seemingly deserted by her lover, who goes out walking in the desperate hope that he will somehow materialise along the road, searching for her all along. As if her walking and wanting, tracing what town planners call the “desire lines” made by human footfall, will, like a magical ritual, summon the object of desire into being. The song is a dream, and the dream is a wish-fulfilment.

If, for Matthew Beaumont, night-walking is a tacit challenge to the political and social regime – think ‘Reclaim The Night’ or 'Nuit debout' – it can also be a very individualised rebellion, like depression. The term “night season,” which evokes a state of worldly abjection, is used often in religious language: frequently in connection with the Song of Songs, where it in fact does not appear. It occurs only once in the King James Bible, in Psalm 22. It is the season of abandonment:

“My God, my God, why has thou forsaken me? why are thou so far from helping me, and from the words of my roaring? O my God, I cry in the daytime, but thou hearest not; and in the night season, and am not silent.”

The psalm is a song of being forsaken. The feeling of being forsaken, an “immense and aching solitude” as William Styron put it, even amid crowds, even among friends, even when no real-world abandonment has taken place, is common in depression. (Styron began to experience melancholic depression late in life, after developing an intolerance of alcohol. But his description, in The Confessions of Nat Turner, of the hero's feeling of abandonment by his God in the aftermath of his failed uprising, suggests that he might have known this all along.) But if the song is also a dream, we might ask what sort of wish-fulfilment that could be. What sort of satisfaction there is to be had, or avoided, in abandonment. And whether idealisation can also be a defence against consummation.


III.
The theological term for night-walking, is mysticism. Theologians who speak of the “night season” invoke a state, not only of abandonment, of being far from God, but of total subjective destitution. The removal of all worldly comfort and support. It is a state of being plunged into darkness.

Darkness is one of the first metaphors in Genesis, for matter without form, a world without language or purpose. Lord Byron’s meditation on apocalyptic darkness evokes an eternity without meaning:

“The bright sun was extinguish'd, and the stars
Did wander darkling in the eternal space,
Rayless, and pathless, and the icy earth
Swung blind and blackening in the moonless air.”

It is as though the sun bleeds to death in the heavens, and you wander darkling, blind, pathless, traversing frozen, lifeless tundra in every direction, which you must navigate in consummate darkness. At least the deep freeze is a kind of anaesthetic. We are used to depression as a refusal. This is depression as a kind of exile.

And it is, some believers will have you believe, a necessary pilgrimage. An experience without which faith is never realised, and which ultimately leads, if pursued, not to abandonment but to the more perfectly apprehended presence of God. As if to say, a self-cure for depression might be to relate to it differently, to think of it as the beginning of a voyage to ecstasy. What could this be like? “The end of a world,” says Michel de Certeau. A consummation devoutly to be wished for.


IV.
Mysticism is as old as religion, but it emerged as a substantive concept in the seventeenth century. The early modern mystics were depressives. The economic depression of their social strata, the political depression of their age of religious wars and oncoming modernity, left them feeling abandoned by God. The texts of seventeenth-century mystics use the term “night” to refer both to their dire global situation and to a way of moving in it: night-walking.

The disciplines of mysticism were ambulatory, not doctrinal. They engaged the breathing body: whatever they prescribed was intended to help the spiritual traveller walk in the dark. But to walk where? Away from the self, toward the north pole of the psyche. It is an imaginary, septentrional journey that ends in being taken by force – rapture.

Night-walking in this sense is not something one undertakes lightly. To give up worldly things and embark on a journey whose end-point is a kind of spiritual kidnapping, must be full of peril. And indeed, the religious historian Karen Armstrong describes the terror, guilt and tearful anxiety of mystics on their journey. Perhaps the most famous Biblical encounter with God is that of Ezekiel, who has to be forced into miserable exile before he can encounter the terrifying Almighty. And this is to say nothing of the death-like catalepsy that follows the lucid phase of the trance.

Those who made the trek expecting to find anything like a personal God to relate to would have been terribly disappointed – if not devastated – by what they found. The ecstatic subject, as Amy Hollywood writes, is she who “stands outside herself, encountering and communicating with another”. But it is not even clear that communication is what happens. This other is radically other. Other with a capital ‘O’, from another dimension of existence, defying human categories of comprehension.

To succeed as a mystic is to be abducted by an alien.


V.
Mystics, attempting to communicate with an other, must assume the right to use language other-wise: a modus liquendi, Certeau wrote, valued more for what it does than what it says. In modernity, mystery is something to be resolved. Language is put at the service of elucidation. In mystic speech, language is its effects, and mystery is not to be resolved but experienced. Language must, at any rate, fail if its purpose is to signify that which by definition exceeds signification.

This partly explains the curious status of that erotic, aspiritual poem, the Song of Songs. For early night-walkers like Rabbi Akiva and Gregory of Nyssa, it was the very epitome of transcendence precisely through its delight in worldly things, its breathless ecstasies which push beyond the limits of language to try to grasp the thing-in-itself. This isn’t as paradoxical as it seems. Mysticism is defined by the value it places on knowing through experience; mystical texts, Certeau writes, display a passion for what is. Think of that other ecstatic poet, Hopkins, who glorifies God:

For dappled things –
For skies of couple-colour as a brinded cow;
For rose-moles all in stipple upon trout that swim;
Fresh-firecoal chestnut falls; finches’ wings…

This giddy blast of parataxes, descriptors, comparators and intensifiers, climaxes with one last foot, one last spondee: “Praise him.” As if to give up, and concede that all of these magnificent descriptions simply fail: only awestruck praise is possible. Something like this is true of the Song of Songs, in its superlative excesses. Early mystical texts treat the Bride’s descriptions of her Lover in this poem as an attempt to describe God – or rather, as an attempt to gesture at the failure of description.

The eroticism of mysticism, then, is predicated on a yearning for something that is beyond speech. Armstrong remarks that the reports of early Jewish mystics, as detailed as they are, “describe anything but God”. They provide details of the robe, the chariot, the palace, the stitched lettering reading ‘YHWH’, the gold, the fire, but these are all framing devices. The mystics knew perfectly well that this was just a stock of received religious imagery that they possessed and manipulated to get to the ecstatic place. But it frames, it circles around, a zone of – nothing. Or something so radically, absolutely Other that it manifests as a void.

Here, God resembles nothing like the personal being that appears in everyday theology and crude antitheism alike – the idea of God as some sort of chap, as Terry Eagleton scoffs. Whatever it is, it defies human categories. The psychoanalyst Darian Leader sees a similar pattern in modern art, wherein the negative space framed by image and text evokes nothing but the Lacanian Real – that part of experience which tortures and electrifies us but which cannot be represented.

The terrible joy and pathos of mystic speech is that it strains for something impossible. It tries to say it all, but what it wants to say most is unspeakable.


VI.
The tension in any pathos could be said to be like that of the string on a musical instrument. To make its music, it must be wound up tightly, at two ends, suspended over a carefully framed void. In this case, the two ends correspond to that which the mystic desperately wants to put into words, and that which can be put into words.

Mystics experience two kinds of ecstasy, corresponding to these points. The first is the rapturous sense of wholeness and plenitude, a return to Oneness through proximity to a being that stands for, says, absolutely everything. The second is linked to that religious experience of ‘standing near the cross’. Beholding, as it were, the battered, broken, bleeding body of Christ, and partaking of the fellowship of his suffering. This is an encounter, not with wholeness, but with something that is split wide open.

The human body is not always mutilated, but it is always lacking something. It is, in the psychoanalytic idiom, ‘castrated’. According to the religious philosopher Amy Hollywood, this movement between wholeness and fracture is typical of ecstatic experience. In his later years, Lacan began to give psychoanalytic attention to mystical experience, and the relationship of ecstasy to speech. For Lacan, the tortured doubling of mystic speech corresponds to the sexed doubling of language itself.

The two ecstasies, or jouissances, experienced by mystics were considered ‘phallic’ or ‘feminine’ depending on their relationship to castration. Phallic jouissance is that which is concerned with planetary fullness and plenitude, having and saying it all. Feminine jouissance, is the ecstasy made possible by not having and not saying it all. After all, a world in which there is always more to be said, is necessarily more open and undecided – and perhaps the more overwhelming, the more rapturous for it – than one which has been entirely spoken for. Phallic jouissance totalises; feminine jouissance seeps in through the split.

In language, there is a movement between the two positions. On the one end, there is always an attempt to stabilise language by positing a transcendental signifier (which could stand in for ‘God’). This signifier is supposed to cement the relationship between signifiers and meaning, which Saussure demonstrated was otherwise contingent on traditions of use. But, on the other end, there is the recognition that the transcendental signifier, which supposedly guarantees the presence of meaning, is itself empty. God, as we have seen, is a void. The music of language therefore depends on a movement, or play, along a string suspended between presence and absence. Between having and not having. Between saying it all, and not saying it all.

You could say that the yearning of mystical experience is toward that phallic jouissance, but the void cannot be full. Language never says everything, and there is always heterogeneity. All one can do is accede to that feminine jouissance of not saying it all. All one can do is put some of the Real into words.


VII.
And this is what happens to Ezekiel when he confronts God. He experiences, first, a raging inferno and howl, overwhelming to human senses, which resolves only briefly into a few opaque images and words. A chariot. A hand stretched out. A scroll filled with lamentations and wailings. A divine voice, which commands him to eat the scroll.


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“When he forced it down,” Armstrong writes, “accepting the pain and misery of his exile, Ezekiel found that ‘it tasted sweet as honey’.”

Wednesday, May 03, 2017

Awkward

Sometimes a passing remark tells you everything you need to know about a particular person, or a particular way of looking at things. This is The Guardian's European affairs editor Jon Henley, reporting on the debate between Macron and Le Pen: "Le Pen brings up Macron's clumsy remark about France having committed crimes against humanity in Algeria."

This was not a "clumsy remark". It was one of the few entirely, uncontroversially accurate things that Macron has said in his whole campaign. Not only is it deadly accurate, it is also vital to understanding today's France. You cannot understand the France that allows police to rape a teenager with a baton, then declare it "accidental", without understanding the France that, for example, tortured and murdered captives in Algeria. What is more, you cannot understand fascism, or the campaign of Marine Le Pen, without understanding this context.

Macron doesn't know this, of course. Why would he? But Jean-Marie Le Pen was a Lieutenant in the French paratroopers who helped suppress the Algerian independence struggle. And in the course of that task, he was directly involved in the torture and extrajudicial execution of prisoners. This included electrocution, battering with truncheons, and being force-fed soapy liquid before having a towel stuffed in one's mouth while soldiers jumped up and down on one's stomach. This was a crucial part of the subjectifying experience that galvanised the fanatical nationalist and racist Le Pen, sparking his dreams of fascist revolution, and that provided a base for a fascist movement discredited by the Second World War. Much as the National Front and then BNP emerged from beleaguered and embattled empire loyalists, so today's Front national is a legacy of the French empire.

What is more, the rise of fascism in the first instance could hardly be explained without reference to the colonial experience and its huge, often hidden, crimes, and the racist dreams driving them: Italy in Libya, Germany in south-west Africa, France in north Africa and Indochina, Spain in the Rif, and so on. One could hardly talk fascism without talking about the history of bombing, the history of gassing, the pioneering of efficient methods of genocide, all in the colonies. One could hardly talk about Nazi Germany's campaign for Lebensraum without addressing its ideological inspiration in the British Empire. One could hardly talk of the vicious doctrine of Aryanism, without talking about the British colonial philologists and others who invented it as part of the subjugation of south Asia.

"Clumsy" is an interesting English locution, a way of saying that one doesn't talk about such things. It is also euphemistic, because what is being warded off with such polite coughing and hand-waving is the ghost at the feast -- the mutilated body of the slain who kills the buzz. What is "clumsy," from any other perspective, is being unable to talk about this history. What is awkward is the extent of circumlocution necessary to have a discussion of fascism that omits colonial history entirely.

Above all, clumsy is any attempt to discuss presidential candidate Marine Le Pen, without mention of the palpable, bragged-of atrocities of her father, and their role in the formation of her own politics.

Sunday, April 23, 2017

After the Catastrophe: resistance and the post-truth era


Abstract.
Mourning is movement; melancholia is stasis.

We live, supposedly, in an age of ‘fake news’ and ‘post-truth politics’. This is a misunderstanding. ‘Pre-post-truth politics’ includes the era of the ‘war on terror’ and its deceptions, and the orthodoxies and falsehoods which led to the elite debacle of the credit crunch. It is technique, not truth, which has been found wanting. That is, the idea of a ‘fact’ as an objective measurement of reality, is losing ground in the post-credit crunch era.

‘Post-truth politics’ is what, until now, we have been living under: technocracy, in a word. The “monstrous worship of facts”, as Wilde called it, is nothing other than an avoidance of the question of truth. The category of ‘fake news’ describes a fusion of infotainment, propaganda, public relations and churnalism which has been long in the making, now accelerated by online advertising revenues. The moral panic which blames ‘fake news’ for the rise of fascism and right-wing populism misses the point that these degraded ecologies of information have triumphed in the vacuum of political possibilities produced by the post-Cold War consensus.

What the moral panic also obscures, by displacing it, is the fact that ‘fake news’ is just one symptom of the breakdown of the near ideological monopoly previously enjoyed by large commercial and state media outlets. The fragmentation of content, the rise of ‘narrowcasting’ on social media, the proliferation of producers — more people are published authors now than ever before, rewarded in ‘likes’ rather than cash payment — produces as many opportunities as pathologies. New types of information and new ways of sharing it, new literacies, new modes of writing, are becoming possible.

The problem is that we grope toward these opportunities in the shadow of catastrophe. The fall of the USSR didn’t signal the defeat of socialism so much as confirm it, at just the point at which it is clear that the persistence of capitalism means possible species death. Parties, publications, union membership, ideological affiliations, confidence and self-organisation dwindled and fragmented into the scale of atoms. And politics without the possibility of a liberated future, curdles and turns reactionary. New forms of antisystemic politics are emerging to take advantage of new forms of social media, but they can’t by themselves replace what has been lost. Without acknowledging what we have lost, we cannot creatively adapt to what we have left. We need, as Douglas Crimp wrote, “Militancy, of course, but mourning too: mourning and militancy.”



Talk.
- [ ] In the beginning was the lie. Freud points out that it is a condition of our autonomy that we can successfully lie: once we know mum and dad can’t read our minds, we can think freely and rather subversively. Milan Kundera argues that the injunction not to lie is one that can never be made to an equal, because we have no right to demand answers from equals. Adorno argued that, “the injunction to practice intellectual honesty usually amounts to a sabotage of thought.”

- [ ] And if I’m top-loading this talk with quotes and intellectual armoury, it is because I’m aware of how merely common-sensical is, what Wilde called “the monstrous worship of facts” — exactly what we have been living under. A politics exclusively consisting of facts is a tyranny of technique and an avoidance of truth. The relationship of lies to truth turns out to be rather more interesting than we would assume.

- [ ] So when we talk of “post-truth politics”, with the implication that we have just departed from an era of unalloyed truth-telling, from Iraq to the credit crunch, we might be making a huge category error. In truth, it is not truth, but facts, which have been found wanting; facts, as somehow purely objective measurements of social realities which, because intrinsically relational, can never be purely objective. Expertise, as Michael Gove reminds us, has made us sick; its seeming commonsensical neutrality exposed as merely the prestige of the ruling ideology. Sir Humphrey Appleby can sound like a technocrat only for as long as the ends to which techniques are crafted are taken for granted.

- [ ] Those blaming the internet for this state of affairs run up against the difficulty that the internet doesn’t exist. It is by now a cultural commonplace that the Internet, as Internet jargon has it, it isn’t “a thing”: jokes about the internet in South Park and The IT Crowd make light of the tendency to reify the internet by representing it as a single broadband router. And we get the joke, because we know that what we call the internet is a series of processes and relations mediated by its technological bases and protocols. But we forget it, too, if we succumb to either cyber-idealism or cyber-cynicism, by reinforcing too strict a demarcation between the online and the offline.

- [ ] I think it would be useful, therefore, to start with the kind of activity that is involved in the internet, and particularly in social media: that is writing.

- [ ] We are all authors. Interrogate that we: the differential access to the internet is obviously raced, and classed, and in an interesting way, gendered -- it isn't just about affordability and bandwidth, it is about how much work you have to do. A consequence of the internet is that, we all write, and we are all published. Because of email, social media, and instant messaging services, we now spend more of our lives writing than we ever have. We are acquiring new literacies at a ferocious rate. We have yet to grasp the full significance of this vast expansion of literacy, this democratisation (and further commodification) of writing. One thing we do now is that we are all becoming amateur hermeneuticists, scanning quickly through acres of text, learning to discern, quick sharp, how to discern trolling and ‘fake news’, paid advertisements, charlatanry, and scams. We’re also learning the whereabouts of all kinds of invisible and rapidly shifting cultural thresholds; things that can and cannot be said and in what way.

- [ ] We are all, putting it slightly differently, artists of the self. When you write, you invent yourself, give yourself a specific embodiment. By putting some part of your being into the form of words, you're giving it a corporeal shape that it would not otherwise had. You are not just 'expressing' something that was already there, but creating something new. And you're doing this every day, all the time. The format in which you can do so matters. Rather than keeping diaries, many of us now metabolise our lives online, for a public. Our pets, our dating mishaps, our family lives, our jobs, our accidents, the quiddity of experience is inscribed in a public realm in the heavily stylised format of tweets and posts, with current moods, filters, hashtags, emojis, stickers and the rest affording us a convenient short-hand to make ourselves conformable to our peers.

- [ ] Of course, there is another form of writing that is achieving a degree of autonomy from human creators, and that is computer programming and script. It is completely non-phonetic writing which reminds us that writing began with the knot or quipu, read through touch, and it does as much to give us embodiment as what we may write in our phonetic alphabets.

- [ ] Social media is not new -- non-commercial leftwing popular newspapers in the past operated as a kind of social media -- but capitalist social media arguably is. The social media formats in which most of us do most of our writing is so structured as to make petty entrepreneurs out of us. Our writing becomes a form of corporate personality, a sales pitch seeking to attract eyeball attention and 'followers'. This both a democratic opening, and a property-based closure; both an unprecedented opportunity, and an acceleration of the ‘culture of narcissism’ that Christopher Lasch worried about. It supports to an extent Manuel Castells’ argument about ‘creative autonomy’, since it breaks the ideological monopoly of the broadcasters and print media; but it also supports the argument of Philip Mirowski and to some extent Evgeny Morozov that in its networked individualism (or entrepreneurialism), it is a playground for neoliberalism.

- [ ] Technologies are not socially and politically neutral. If nuclear power tends to support hierarchical, secretive structures, social media tends to support the opposite: a panopticon effect. Individually, this has both opportunities and costs.

- [ ] The internet is a rigged lottery. If our capitalist social media accounts are indeed set up like enterprises competing for eyeball attention, then going viral or 'trending' is like winning the lottery. And in principle, anyone can win. The potential audience for your writing literally is the entire internet. In practice, of course, the lottery is mostly won by well-placed media corporations and public relations firms dominating the terrain.

- [ ] Even if we do win, it can be the worst thing that happens. While most of us dream of going viral with that one insightful tweet or post, few of us are equipped to maximise any opportunities that arise from positive publicity, or to cope with the costs of negative publicity — which might include shaming or trolling campaigns, themselves a devolved form of tabloid expose and bottom-feeding culture. We may be treated as if we're small enterprises, but since we are not corporations with public relations budgets, we are vastly under-resourced to handle the attention we may potentially receive.

- [ ] Far from simply challenging the ideological power of the old media, moreover, at critical moments it arguably amplifies and exacerbates it. The rise of narrowcasting and the proliferation of content producers helps to disperse the concentrated spectacle of broadcast news into the diffuse spectacle of Twitter and Facebook. This can even be more effective in securing consent, as Guy De Bord pointed out, because it works through seduction and commodity competition, rather than simple top-down violence. This is to stipulate a different form of presence of violence within the organisation of consent, rather than a withdrawal of violence.

- [ ] This is in part because capitalist social media isn’t an organised opposition or alternative to the mainstream but a formal extension of it looped into new economies of attention. If one thinks of the England riots and the role of social media in allowing certain points of view to be ‘spontaneously’ organised — pro-police and counter-subversive attitudes and campaigns — one can also call to mind those attitudes which were more effectively identified and punished, by looking at the case Azhar Ahmed, the #twitterjoketrial or any number of instances wherein social media users have been prosecuted under public order legislation.

- [ ] Whence then the fear of post-truth politics? And the moral panic about ‘fake news’? The category of ‘fake news’ starts to collapse from the inside when you examine it up close. The Washington Post, in its war against Russian-inspired fake news stories, has repeatedly published untruthful claims about Russian subversion in the US. It would be stretching credulity to say that Post’s falsehoods are less fake because well-intended: as if the newspaper of the DC establishment doesn’t have its own propaganda goals, or its own record of disseminating intelligence falsehoods. In truth, what we call ‘fake news’ is often either infotainment, PR, rumour, celebrity gossip, military or state propaganda, churnalism, or a combination of all of these — tendencies that were already well underway in the old media. So in what sense are we ‘post-truth’?

- [ ] We could start with the lies we tell, and the truths they inadvertently tell. Why should it be that the shift in political imaginaries means that people are more likely to be taken in by the idea that Mexican immigrants are rapists, than by fuzzy satellite imagery of weapons laboratories? Both of these lies displace colonial desire in different ways, but the shift almost repeats the shift from global white-supremacy to defensive white nationalism: each different ways of preserving racial distinction organised around the signifier of whiteness, as a signifier of limitless being, omnipotence and plenitude.

- [ ] And we could go back to Freud here: because lying on the couch, one can’t help but tell the truth one way or another. Indeed, it is when the patient stops reeling off the banal facts, whatever status they may have, and starts to lie, that the truth of her desire begins to emerge. The lies we are prepared to speak, and believe, says a lot about our desires, often thwarted and displaced: and that is why correcting a lie, fact-checking and all the rest of it, is often useless by itself. Though necessary, it does nothing to get to the other place, the place of desire, which is the place of political truth. That is how a well-informed but politically inept Nick Clegg could be so comprehensively defeated by a facile liar attuned to the dreamwork of politics named Nigel Farage.

- [ ] This place of desire is the nocturnal side of reason, on the side of what Adorno referred to as “pleasure and paradise”. But if desire is excluded from politics, if it becomes simply a matter of management of the status quo, and of assembling coalitions to prevent major changes, then desires which might project into the future, curdle and turn nostalgically reactionary.

- [ ] That is the real relationship of post-truth politics to the new far right. Post-truth politics is the triumph of managerial politics, of a politics in which after 1989 the long-standing defeat of communism was finally registered, with an immediate drastic contraction of the horizon of possibility. As Enzo Traverso put it, “an entire representation of the twentieth-century”, in which the disasters of the age were also the ground for revolutionary hopes, fell apart.

- [ ] One reason why social media couldn’t ever the Shangri-la of a new radically horizontalist activism predicated on a democracy of writing, is because of what it does to our writing. Twitter, for example, aims to mimic in some ways the patterns of speech, especially with its multimodal, digressive tendencies -- ironically, it is the non-phonetic aspects of writing that come to aid here, above all the emoticon. But of course, it also reduces speech to its tiniest molecules, 140 characters, and generates such a rapid turnover of content that it produces a tremendous pressure to fire off concise, immediate tweets and replies. And since the only incentive to participate in a conversation like that is because of the likes and retweets, attention and approval, this tends to mean that to an extent, people are only paying attention to what you are saying insofar as it gives them something to say, for the likes. This results on an insidious barbarisation of discourse, fractured, ungenerous, unrigorous, grandstanding, bullying, trolling, performances of whiteness, masculinity, repetitions of trauma -- if we are artists of the self, think what selves, personal and collective, this kind of writing permits us to fashion. We somehow have to be both in and against (capitalist) social media, somehow swimming against its currents, it's timelines, its temporalities and tendencies.

- [ ] But even if its protocols and structures had anything horizontal about them, even if they didn't favour marketing and accumulation, it emerged in the shadow of catastrophe. The eclipse of socialism was confirmed, at just the point at which it is clear that the persistence of capitalism means possible species death. Parties, publications, union membership, ideological affiliations, confidence and self-organisation dwindled and fragmented into the scale of atoms. And politics without the possibility of a liberated future, turns reactionary. New forms of antisystemic politics are emerging to take advantage of new forms of social media, but they can’t by themselves replace what has been lost. Without acknowledging what we have lost, we cannot creatively adapt to what we have left. We need, as Douglas Crimp wrote, “Militancy, of course, but mourning too: mourning and militancy.”