Of Aristotle’s six elements of tragedy, spectacle was the least important, plot the most. Danny Boyle’s opening ceremony was devoid of plot but a virtuoso spectacle: lucky for him, then, that he wasn’t writing a tragedy. But what was the ceremony? Under what genre could we class it? The modern world is full of these bizarre performances in which nations riven by class divisions present themselves to themselves as harmonious communities. They assume many different forms – plays, films, advertisements, paintings – but Boyle’s, I claim, was fundamentally a chronicle.
A chronicle, in a nutshell, is ‘one damned thing after another’: a series of discontinuous events whose only mutual connection is that they happen to be united by temporal or spatial sequence. Quite why these things occurred, and why they occurred in the manner that they did, is never explicitly explained. But, as Hayden White has observed, they don’t have to be: “The paratactical style of the chronicle falls short of pure nonsense because it presupposes the capacity of its envisaged audience to apprehend both the significance of the events reported in it and the causal connections presumed to link the events depicted in a comprehensible order of occurrence”. In other words, where no causal connection is represented, the audience fills in the blanks by drawing on what you might call the “political imaginary” – the warehouse of (generally historically unsound) common sense which helps us make sense of the everyday world around us.
Thus, in Boyle’s representation of British history, the rolling hills gave way to industrial Pandemonium without so much as a how’s-your-father, and the Sex Pistols followed the Beatles as peacefully as if John Lennon had never been scandalous and “God Save the Queen” had never been written. In the choreographed scenes of the Industrial Revolution, the workers and the bosses were spatially contiguous rather than politically antagonistic. Time and again throughout the performance, history was shown to be one thing after another, a series of contingent happenings in a timeless vacuum, controllable by no one and on account of no human deed. (At a push – and it is a push – you might infer from Boyle’s potted history that technology, void of all context and social relations, is the driving force of change.) But this is almost never registered by the audience because its storehouse of common sense imposes the feel of a narrative onto what is, in fact, just about as far from narrative as you can possibly get.
What the form of the chronicle can never register is conflict as the driving force of history. Where was the Empire, the massacres, the slave trade, the organised theft of indigenous natural resources which enabled the Industrial Revolution in the first place? (Is it too much to see a return of the repressed in the black monsters of the NHS scene? Shooed away, of all things, by a patronising middle-class white woman…). Where were the strike-breakers? Where were the calculated and imposed Hungers? And that’s just for History. At the level of pop culture, we can spot the same lack of conflict: Boyle’s performance captured none of the drama of these musical events. His rock ‘n’ roll was all roll and no rock: where were the grey-suited patriarchs against whom a whole generation rebelled? Where was the sense of outrage and profound libidinal release so central to those heady years?
Here, then, we begin to see why for Aristotle spectacle was less important than plot, which almost invariably included conflict (and, usually, conflict-resolution). Boyle’s implicit non-conflictual historiography affected the very form of the performance as such, because it voided it of drama. Thus, in the pop music section, where the real drama of the time lay in the communal upheavals of young versus old, of new forms of capitalist organisation rendering old ones obsolete, of the Pax Britannica ceding to the Pax Americana, what we get instead is a young couple flirting via SMS. The genre of the romance is grafted onto the chronicle to conceal the latter’s lack of drama; the fate of erotic individuals usurps the destinies of political collectivities. And this, put crudely, is what literary theorists mean when they refer to the ‘ideology of form’: the ideology of Boyle’s opening ceremony was contained, not in its content, but in the very form itself.
For someone not raised as a practising Christian, a first encounter with the Bible is almost inevitably an anti-climax. If you’re used to reading realist or modernist novels, whose complex hypotactical sentence-structures go unnoticed because they are the very life-blood of what you think of as ‘normal writing’; and if you have even the slightest inkling of the world-historical importance attributed to the disparate texts which make up the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament, the countless millions who have dedicated their entire lives to them, who have loved, lost and died for them, then the sheer sparseness of Biblical prose is one big disappointment:
In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. And just as he was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him. And a voice came from heaven, ‘You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.’
It’s not exactly Tolstoy is it? “Jesus came from Nazareth” – yes, but how? Did he walk, ride a donkey, catch a lift? What was the weather like? What exactly was he wearing? What was his mood? What did he eat for breakfast before he came? What about that annoying splinter in his finger – surely an occupational hazard for any self-respecting carpenter – and what about its symbolic value? And what about God’s “with you I am well pleased” – he could at least sound a little bit enthusiastic! Yet these questions don’t seem to bother pre-modern writers very much, and hence to a modern – or even postmodern – ear they sound simple, naïve, almost childish. (Schiller would have much to say on a topic not a million miles from this…).
For the non-Christian modern reader of the Bible then, just as for the modern reader of almost any medieval or ancient text, the problem is to acclimatize oneself to the resonances of a pared down, paratactic prose. Proust’s language resounds, of course, but not quite in the same way as the two-word “Jesus wept.” The sheer emotional intensity which these premodern words are forced to bear is sometimes mind-blowing. But it can only become so once the reader develops a sense for the depth of significance behind phrases which appear superficially bare, once she has become accustomed to a type of language whose importance resides, not in the profundity of individual sentences, but in the overall moral project of which they are a part.
I was surprised to note, then, that this type of pre-modern or Biblical prose has survived in the unlikeliest of places: football-speak. Take these lines from an interview with Alex Ferguson at the weekend:
I don’t think we have a major problem with Rio […] He has been with us eight years now and has been fantastically consistent, top class. He is still one of the best footballers in the country in terms of using the ball, he can still tackle, he can still head and he still has a great presence.
The first half of this extract belies its modernity: the adverb ‘fantastically’ is a give away, as is the apposition ‘top class’. But the second sentence is interesting: ‘he can still tackle, he can still head and he still has a great presence’. For someone who is not a football fan, these might seem strange words of praise; surely, they would say to themselves, 99% of people who play football even in the school playground can tackle and head the ball. They might not be good at it, but they can do it. ‘Great presence’ is presumably rarer, but just vague enough that we could imagine quite a few non-professional players who possess it. The point, of course, is that Ferguson is not just neutrally stating that Rio Ferdinand can tackle and head the ball: he’s mustering all of his managerial authority, drawing on the vast unconscious reservoirs of football history and of football fans’ unspoken presuppositions to make his words mean something like ‘Rio Ferdinand is a superlative defender, an embodiment of the virtuous football player who fulfils the objectives of his position’. This is the meaning which ‘resonates’ in and through the words he actually utters.
It is in this precise sense that football-speak and Biblical language are not worlds apart. They are both merely elements of a whole set of cultural and emotional practices. They are part of a whole way of life and only make sense in that context.
The thesis of this blog post is fairly simple: Lana del Rey’s “Video Games” is a cultural symptom of the demise of the American Empire. Her very name is an amalgam of the golden-age Hollywood actress, Lana Turner, and of the 1980s Latin American cult automobile, the Ford Del Rey. The video for her song “Video Games” is awash with postmodern retro nostalgia and a painful yearning for that black and white iPhone-style ‘authentic’ past. But it is not your average postmodern nostalgia. Usually that entails the unself-conscious, historically amnesiac appropriation of a bygone fashion for the purposes of celebrating a present which has forgotten what went before it. The point is that usually po-mo celebrates; it doesn’t know where it came from, but it loves to party nonetheless. The difference here is that del Rey doesn’t seem too chirpy. Paz de la Huerta is seen staggering drunkenly and despairingly to her knees, the very allegory of a nation whose best days are somehow behind it. It’s as if since the fall of the Soviet Union – aided by a few years of patriotic fundamentalism post-9/11 – the US has been running on air, refusing to look at where it came from and where it’s headed, but now, in the midst of a global financial meltdown and gradually weakening hegemony, it is undergoing the return of the repressed.
Lana del Rey captures the moment when nostalgia mutates from a painless symptom into a full-blown disease. Even commodities themselves are beginning to wonder how they got here. Their surface sheen used to deflect prying eyes, but now the glow is slowly becoming a self-questioning opacity. “Video Games” is sickly, almost post-human; when faced with a historical situation which delves to the very core of things, its attempt to keep on singing the romantic lovers’ 50s pop-song becomes a parody of helplessness. Melancholy and apocalypse vibrate at the heart of all that once was gold. “It’s you, it’s you, it’s all for you” she sings; but who is this you? The video never shows the mockery of a postwar macho male whom she superficially addresses. The you becomes rather the Lacanian Other: “Che vuoi?”, we ask it, “what do you want from me?” God is on his knees, Money and Fame have zombiefied, Success is beyond cosmetic repair: “what do you want from me?” is now historically unanswerable. The corpses of soldiers and natives mount in Afghanistan, oppressed peoples are throwing off their shackles the world over, America is sinking to its knees, desperately preparing one last handful of murderous forays – so many imperial death throes. Lana del Rey looks out across the wasteland, singing the first of decades of swan songs.
Over the last year or so I’ve become increasingly struck by the melodramatic book blurbs which Slavoj Žižek has written for a variety of books. Here is a small selection.
On Eric Santner’s On the Psychotheology of Everyday Life:
“I wonder how many people will be aware, when taking this book into their hands, that they are holding one of the key texts of the last hundred years – that a new classic is being born, on a par with Heidegger and Wittgenstein.”
On Alain Badiou’s Theory of the Subject:
“A rare achievement, a true philosophical classic, comparable to only two or three books in the twentieth century, such as Heidegger’s Being and Time. The difference is that, if Being and Time left its mark on twentieth-century thought, Theory of the Subject announces the thought of the twenty-first century. It opens up the path that Badiou followed in his two later classics, Being and Event and Logics of Worlds, but it enforces this opening with a violent freshness which far surpasses its later developments. So beware, reader: when you open this book, you hold in your hands proof that philosophers of the status of Plato, Hegel and Heidegger are still walking around today!”
On Adam Kotsko’s Awkwardness:
“It is easy to write a deep book on a big crucial concept like anxiety love or evil but it takes a true master to do for awkwardness what Heidegger in his Sein und Zeit did for anxiety and this is what Kotsko does. In his book which combines philosophical stringency with references to popular culture awkwardness is elevated into a universal singularity: a prismatic knot in which our entire historical moment is reflected. If this will not become an instant classic then we really live in awkward times.”
On Terry Eagleton’s Trouble With Strangers:
“Written in Eagleton’s very readable, clear and witty style, this book may achieve the unthinkable: bridging the gap between academic High Thought and popular philosophy manuals.”
On Eric Santner’s The Royal Remains:
“Eric Santner’s The Royal Remains stands out, not only as the most important book on political philosophy of the last decade, but as a classic at the level of Walter Benjamin’s ‘Critique of Violence’ or Ernst Kantorowicz’s The King’s Two Bodies. It prolongs their analyses into today’s world of micro-politics, raising the key question of what happens to the king’s other sublime body in a democratic society where the people-collectively-are the new sovereign. My reaction to reading this book is of wonder and awe; it is as if a new Benjamin (with the added features of Freud and Lacan) is walking among us.”
It’s not just young black people being demonised by David Starkey and James Delingpole: it’s the whole working class
In his influential 1948 publication, Notes Towards a Definition of Culture, T. S. Eliot famously stated that “Culture…includes all the characteristic activities and interests of a people: Derby Day, Henley Regatta, Cowes, the twelfth of August, a cup final, the dog races, the pin table, the dart board, Wensleydale cheese, boiled cabbage cut into sections, beetroot in vinegar, nineteenth-century Gothic churches, and the music of Elgar.” In other words, as Raymond Williams wryly noted in his Culture and Society: 1780-1950, it includes “sport, food, and a little art – a characteristic observation of English leisure”. (He suggested adding “steelmaking, touring motor-cars, mixed farming, the Stock Exchange, coalmining, and London Transport”). Eliot had craftily conflated two senses of the word “culture”: firstly, that of the general body of arts and learning (which, during the long industrial revolution and the struggle for the franchise, came to be practically separated from everyday social judgment and associated with a privileged ‘cultured’ elite) and, secondly, culture as a whole way of life. Eliot’s “whole way of life”, however, looked suspiciously like that of the upper echelons of British class society.
I was reminded of this passage in Eliot when I read an article by James Delingpole, in which he defends the dangerous and offensive remarks made by David Starkey on Friday’s edition of Newsnight. Having listed the ways in which, as Starkey argued, the “whites” have become “black” – essentially, “they” don’t speak RP and “they” wear their underpants too high – he goes on to make the following point: “Is anyone seriously going to try to make the case that this isn’t black culture in excelsis? Or does anyone, perhaps, want to persuade me that this is but one tiny and much-exaggerated facet of a broader black culture dominated by opera and madrigal singing and crochet and sonnet-construction and lawn bowls and Shakespeare and new translations of Ovid?” Look at that list of characteristic “white” activities: Eliot himself could have written it. And this should alert us to an important aspect of such ill-considered and offensive discourses. The opposition Starkey and Delingpole construct between a mythical, homogenous “white culture” and a mythical, homogeneous “black culture” is a rerun of the traditional opposition between “culture” and “common”. It is an opposition based on class.
Which is not to say that the white-black opposition is identical to the one which Williams exposed. Rather, as we have seen, each is now mediated by the other. Class prejudice informs racial prejudice which feeds back into class prejudice in a quite literally vicious circle. Thus, David Starkey’s ridiculous and malicious imitation of what he called “a language which is wholly false, which is a Jamaican patois, that’s been intruded in England” combines a patrician disdain for common speech with a reduction of the rich patchwork of intercultural London accents and dialects to a homogenous “black culture”; this is then equated with “violent, destructive, nihilistic gangster culture”, as if a lack of “Standard English” itself had caused the riots.
The only way to interrupt this cycle is for the Left universally to condemn such dangerous simplifications and to expose the complex interrelation of racial stereotyping and economic exploitation. Political temperatures are soaring in Britain, and it is imperative that the Left come together to battle the right-wing media onslaught. In the words of Raymond Williams: “There are ideas, and ways of thinking, with the seeds of life in them, and there are others, perhaps deep in our minds, with the seeds of a general death. Our measure of success in recognizing these kinds, and in naming them making possible their common recognition, may be literally the measure of our future.”
It seems to me that the source of many people’s pleasure when watching 24 or any one of the Bourne Trilogy films lies not where they think it lies. Ask them what it is they like so much about these films/ shows, and they tend to say that it’s a mixture of the extreme suspense (especially in 24, a show in which all time is compressed into an unbearably concentrated present, such that the constantly repeated time-frame of “15 minutes” starts to assume an almost mythical temporality) and of the constant action: fighting, car chases, guns, explosions. On one level, of course, this is undeniable. But I suspect that there’s a deeper source of pleasure at work.
In The Bourne Identity, there is a scene in a café-diner in which Jason, who at this point has no idea who he is or why he can do all these extraordinary things, explains his ‘powers’ to Marie:
I come in here — instinctively — first thing I do — I’m looking for the exit — I’m catching the sightlines – I know I can’t sit with my back to the door –[…] I can tell you the license plate numbers of all three cars out front. I can tell you that the waitress is left-handed and the guy at the counter weighs two-hundred and fifteen pounds and knows how to handle himself. I know that the best, first place to look for a gun is the cab of that grey truck outside. I know that at this altitude I can run flat out for half a mile before I lose my edge .
I think this speech contains the secret to our delight. The dreary, mundane everyday world over which I have no control and to which I submit myself on a daily basis simply to get by – all those streets I walk down, not even looking up from my feet, all those cars, roads, bags, shoes, the top halves of buildings that may as well not even exist since I never look at them, the empty spaces that sink into the grey horizon of habit – suddenly, all of this is electrified by a lightning-bolt of subjectivity. The world which only a moment before was a mere object, ‘out there’, whilst I, ‘in here’, went about my day, has become a field of potentiality. Man and environment speak to one another and work with each other: the world becomes active and controllable. It tells me all the myriad ways in which it resists me, the better that I can team up with it to overcome them.
It is in this sense that, no matter how ‘ideological’ the Bourne Trilogy and 24 might be in other respects, they contain the seeds of Utopia. It is that place of reconciliation between subject and object, where structures are recognized as human structures, the life-world produced by and for man. To borrow the terminology of a young Lukács, the soul finds its home in the world.
In a more extreme setting, this is what the Arab Spring has been demonstrating to us. All those rigid and repressive institutions which confronted the people as menacing objects have now been transformed into potentialities. The world itself has become once more a field of human possibilities to be fought over rather than a crushing wall to be submitted to.
This morning BBC Breakfast ran a story on a study that has been carried out which shows that British youngsters lack the ambition and ruthlessness of their European counterparts (because, of course, Britain isn’t in Europe). After a video report shot at a posh international school down south, in which these findings were unsurprisingly ratified, a ‘discussion’ (for which read ‘mutual appreciation and united front against a common enemy’) was held with the head of OFSTED and an ex-‘businesswoman of the year’. At no point in this discussion was the glorification of ambition and ruthlessness ever put into question: the presupposition of the entire report was that ruthlessness is a positive human attribute and should be aspired to. That British youngsters apparently do not was seen as a grave disappointment. Indeed, it was the trigger for an all-out and decidedly spiteful attack on the ‘youth of today’ and their namby-pamby, mollycoddled upbringing. Schools that do not hold competitive sports days or which demonstrate in any way whatsoever that competition and ruthlessness are not virtuous ends-in-themselves were mocked and ridiculed. At one point, the businesswoman went so far as to suggest that because children are not physically hungry and because they enjoy themselves too much (both of which she associated with the ‘nanny state’), they lack the requisite ambition. The implication was that enforced starvation and a ban on state-provided services would be good for them and ‘Britain’.
There are several conclusions to be drawn from this. Firstly, the BBC is a key ideological apparatus in the manufacturing of an inhuman way of life: a moral and political disgrace. Secondly, genuine compassionate humanity can find no place in the current state of affairs: if you desire a life worthy of a fully human being, you are condemned to fighting the status quo. Thirdly, if the nineteenth century had have had TV, it would have looked like that.
The condition of mediocrity is not a material tragedy (or, rather, tragic-comedy), it’s a spiritual one. To a certain extent, it goes hand in hand with the class which gave rise to it: the bourgeoisie. Effectively, it entails the vast majority of the world’s population slaving away in absolute misery to provide a privileged few with enough free time to develop neuroses.
Now, as I’ve written before on this blog, part of the problem today is the demise in the West of the two great communal traditions: the Church and Communism. Not only did these institutions provide structures of meaning through which one could actively make sense of one’s life within a given community, but they also provided transformative outlets for mediocrity. Of course, they produced their share of Bonhoeffers and Barths, of Lenins and Gramscis – the outstanding individuals – but they also made being average redeemable. To be mediocre in the Church is something less of a burden when God himself instructs the world that those who are first are last. Likewise, those unheroic, everyday tasks of political organisation are somehow ennobled within the context of realistically bringing about social revolution.
The downfall of these pillars of communal activity, however, did not necessarily result in the withering away of the desires they created. The condition of mediocrity, such as I described it in yesterday’s post, might be said to be the effect of the ghost of Community wandering lost through the tended gardens and the (obsessive-compulsively) shiny cars of suburbia. The danger of such a condition is that the lack of outlets, the lack of redemption for one’s middling contributions to the world, might begin to warp the more honourable desires into an egotistical lust for ‘greatness’ at all costs (hence the dubious tone of yesterday’s post). This then generates those middle-class ‘radicals’ who are radical only in the sense that they long to be the centre of a dramatic revolutionary scene (Romanticisers of the Barricades, we should perhaps call them). It also generates snobs, since snobbery in this context is a sort of internal yanking of the soul such that it can hoist itself above the mire of mundanity.
Those who need meaningful communal life but who are trapped in rows of identical detached houses and work in separate offices; those who long to overthrow the capitalist system in all its brutality (whilst maintaining its benefits) but who live in positively reactionary times; those who want to commit to everyday life, but not to compromise themselves by a life of occasional dinner parties, admiring friends’ new kitchens, discussing decor, idolizing one’s children, relying on alcohol, indulging in a ‘little sport’ and so on: this, too, is the middle-class condition of mediocrity.
Perhaps the only radical response is to keep on keeping on.
To be clear-sighted even through the mist of tears – even then to have to understand, to study, to observe and ironically discard what one has seen – even at moments when hands clasp and lips touch and eyes fail, blinded by emotion – it’s infamous…it’s contemptible and outrageous.
These words come from Thomas Mann’s ‘Tonio Kröger’ (1903). The story is about the impossible task of being both fully human and fully artist (not to mention being a bourgeois artist). For Kröger, contrary to the Romantics, the artist is inhuman, someone inflicted with the bane of an irremediable, calculating distance, a constant rationalising gaze. Even in the midst of great emotional upheaval, he cannot ever let himself go, he is always weighing up how to form the vital, chaotic formlessness of life. An artist is the living dead, incapable of giving himself over to the superficiality of life’s joyousness; he is a social outcast, even while surrounded by his fellow men:
And with the torment and the pride of such insight came loneliness; for he could not feel at ease among the innocent, among the light of heart and dark of understanding, and they shrank from the sign on his brow.
And yet, how he longs for life! How he longs to be just like those ‘dark of understanding’ who sense his secret alien nature! Indeed, a man has no right even to call himself an artist ‘if his heart knows no longing for innocence, simplicity and living warmth…the bliss of the commonplace!’ On the one hand, then, Kröger loathes the bourgeoisie for their superficiality, their philistinism and their mediocrity; but, on the other hand, he has no time for bohemian cultural elitists with their cold-hearted disdain for good old, down-to-earth bourgeois life. It is only at the end of the story that a precarious, just-about-liveable balance is struck: ‘my deepest and most secret love belongs to…the happy, the charming, the ordinary…In it there is longing, and sad envy, and just a touch of contempt, and a whole world of innocent delight.’
The agonies of Tonio Kröger are profound, Mann’s presentation of them masterly. But now imagine this: Tonio Kröger never was and never will be a great artist. He develops this delicate balance, continues his life feeling like a marked man who can never truly fraternize with his fellows, he subdues his alienation long enough to write a novel, but this novel is average at best and he knows it. Imagine, in other words, if the crises of Tonio Kröger’s inner life could not be redeemed by artistic greatness. Would this not be an even greater agony, a far more ignoble condition?
This is the condition of mediocrity. And artistic mediocrity is only its mildest form. To share the essential loneliness of the great modern writer, the absolute alienation from all mankind, but never to sublimate this desolation into the glory of a great work of art: this is a terrible fate. But there is a worse one. Imagine the selfsame loneliness, the same alienation, the same desire for artistic glory, but add to that a desire for critical greatness. (Greatness, by the way, being that for which only the inhuman strain). Not only do you desire renown in Hades, but before you even get there you want to beckon the great shades, to dazzle them with the light of critical intensity in the hope of transforming the aesthetic into truth. But your voice falters, your gaze drops away into despondency, because the call to the shades must be knowing and deep and sure, and you are ignorant and shallow and doubting: you have all the desire of the giant with none of its capacity. The tombs of the glorious dead remain closed to mediocrity.
And now the inner circle: radical mediocrity. You will never be a great writer, you will never be a great critic (again, you know that greatness should not even be desirable!), and you will never be a revolutionary. You have the passion of a communist but you live in a suburb; you defend the tenets of Marx with only the vaguest of historical knowledge; you write average Marxist theory in the shadow of better men than you. And still you plod on.
And it is not even tragic! It cannot, by definition, quit the realm of the comical, because it is too mediocre! In a constant trail of self-deprecating caveats and deflationary anti-rhetoric, the Sisyphean daily toil trundles on! It is unstoppable, it is pathological and it is trivial, painfully trivial. To read and write (obsessively) about the most communal of human activities, and to be all the while stricken by non-illusions of grandeur which render you an outcast.
The way to life blocked by a fear of finally, wilfully succumbing to the very mediocrity which is nonetheless your fate; the way to art, philosophy and revolution blocked by averageness, reading too little too slowly and – ultimately – by history itself.
‘Where I am, I don’t know, I’ll never know, in the silence you don’t know, you must go on, I can’t go on, I’ll go on.’
The book market is strewn with books on ‘correct English’ or good grammar and punctuation: let Lynne Truss’s Eats Shoots & Leaves stand as the archetype. It is telling that the subtitle to Truss’s work is ‘The Zero Tolerance Approach to Punctuation’ – if ever a signal of the sheer reactionary nature of this type of book were needed, then here we have it. Small armies of conservatives – the type that write letters to the council to moan about the bin men, and whose favourite form of conversation is the mutual complaint – scour the country intent on transforming the demise of the Great British nation by imposing on all and sundry the iron rules of genitival apostrophes. They’re fighting a losing battle.
Each generation since English became relatively standardised some time in the fifteenth century has bewailed the flagging standards of the mother tongue. And for each generation it has been bound up with matters of social status and class. Don’t know the difference between there and their? Foul commoner! Worse still – don’t know the difference between there and they’re? Are you an ILLEGAL?! In an age when the richest one per cent of the country dwarfs the motley sums of everybody else, grammar and punctuation become the linguistic equivalents of Rolex and sports cars: ‘I am superior. I am old-school Bulldog. I belong.’
Judging solely on personal experience, here are my predictions for at least three rules that will fade or change. And I say so with joy:
The main criterion which matters is: can it be easily understood? If it can, it’s likely that the simplest use will prevail; if not, the old rule may live on. The criterion is not correctness. Correctness is historically relative, and alters age by age. Those like Truss will be looked back on as small-time busybodies, before there forgotten forever in the oblivion of time. (That’s right, Lynne – there).
For a foretaste, here is a lecture (audio only) Jameson gave at the 2009 Historical Materialism annual conference in London. A useful critique of Jameson’s lecture is given by the up-and-coming Gramsci scholar, Peter Thomas, here. Thomas’s book, The Gramscian Moment, is certainly one to look out for.
“I owe my years as a jazz reporter to John Osborne’s Look Back in Anger, which made the British cultural establishment of the mid-1950s take notice of a music so evidently dear to the new and talented Angry Young Men. When, needing some money, I saw that Kingsley Amis wrote in the Observer on a subject about which he obviously knew no more and possibly less than I did, I called a friend at the New Statesman. He arranged a meeting with the editor, Kingsley Martin, then at the peak of his glory, who said ‘Why not?’, explained that he conceived his typical reader as a male civil servant in his forties, and passed me on to the commander of the (cultural) back half of the mag, the formidable Janet Adam Smith. Her interests ranged from mountaineering to poetry, but did not include jazz. As ‘Francis Newton’ (named after a Communist jazz trumpeter who played on Billie Holiday’s ‘Strange Fruit’), I wrote a column every month or so for the New Statesman for about ten years.”
Read the rest of Hobsbawm’s article here.
Having recently been pondering Badiou’s concept of ‘event’, I was surprised to come across the following passage in Rowan Williams’s Dostoevsky: Language, Faith and Fiction:
Christ is apprehended when something not planned or foreseen in the contents of the world [which he defines as ‘the ensemble of true propositions’] breaks through, in an act or event that represents the gratuity of love or joy. And such an event alters what is possible by offering the will what might be called a “truthful” or appropriate direction for desire.
In this light, the surprisingly theological tenor of Badiou’s atheism couldn’t be more apparent. But it is not Badiou that I want to discuss here; it is John Lennon.
I’ve just watched Nowhere Boy, Sam Taylor Wood’s biopic of John Lennon’s difficult early years. It portrays his painful adolescence, torn between an aunt who has always acted as his mother, a biological mother who effectively abandoned him, and a general fatherlessness (his biological father abandoned him and his uncle dies when he’s a teenager). Aside from its immediate interest as an insight into the sources of Lennon’s artistic genius, I was surprised at just how powerfully it demonstrated the potential damage that suburbia can do to people.
The problem with suburbia is not just its soullessness, its general conservativism and existential ennui; if this film is anything to go by, the real problem is twofold. Firstly, suburbia is a geography of stymied desire. The architectural economy of the suburbs, with its identical rows of individual monadic homes and its front gardens which act as shields against spontaneous fellowship, is such that humans’ desire becomes penned in and pent up. The Oedipal drama unfolds within a severely restricted space, across a numerically limited cast, and there is simply no outlet for excess libidinal charge. Some of the most touching moments of this film are when characters confront themselves in mirrors over mantelpieces, as if searching for a spiritual enlargement of their world. Lennon, of course, in an age where large-scale communal politics or the Church are no longer liveable options, will find his outlet in the ultimate cathectic substitute: rock and roll.
The second part of the problem is the dreariness of suburban architecture. There is a scene in the film which takes place during a post-funeral get-together following the death of Lennon’s mother. John is confused, enraged, and grieving and takes out his wrath by punching Paul McCartney to the ground. As soon as he does so, it is as if he awakens from a drugged stupor; he apologises, lifts up McCartney, and then the two friends, both now motherless (McCartney’s lost to cancer), hold each other in the middle of the street, weeping. At this point the camera switches to an aerial shot, and we see the pair stood stock-still in the suburban street, lined with identical squat brown semis. And when I saw this, it occurred to me: this street is not designed for this. These buildings cannot bear the emotional burden of what is being asked of them. The two lost boys, in a road in which they should not be stood, have opened up to something beyond the empirical stranglehold of their surroundings. The brown bricks have tried to imprison this unseemly drama, to generate the conditions in which such excess is not even contemplated; but the boys have ruptured suburbia. They have dared to lose and they have dared to love in a situation structured by the will-never-to-love.
And this, perhaps, is what is meant by Rowan Williams when he speaks of that moment of gratuity which occurs in a situation governed by a logic alien to any such gratuitousness.
Embarrassingly, one of my first breakthroughs on the road to taking Marxism seriously was when, as a young boy, someone explained to me that the queen must piss and shit like anyone else. It came as quite a revelation to the embodiment of sheltered suburban decency that I then was (and, depressingly, still more or less am). That she was somehow ‘human’ like the rest of us was almost unthinkable, the discrepancy between regal appearance and faecal truth too much to grasp.
But the saddest thing is that most current political satire hasn’t really moved beyond this infantile act of revelation: in public, politicians are virtuous statesmen, whilst behind closed doors they’re fallible, vindictive, power-hungry maniacs. In public they are eloquent spokesman, in private they shit all over themselves and all over us. The problem is that everybody already knows this, and hence there is no revelatory or liberatory potential in such comedy. ‘Cameron’s a good, immigrant-loving man, nudge nudge, wink wink!’ is not exactly explosive stuff.
As Žižek, following Peter Sloterdijk, has long been telling us, we live in an age whereby ideology functions through cynicism. Everbody knows that politicians are corrupt, that capitalism is unjust, that the poor are being screwed over, but we act as if we didn’t know. Ideology used to be conceived as ‘false consciousness’, which could be remedied by revealing to someone the truth of his or her situation. In other words, it was an epistemological affair. And this, we might argue, was when traditional satire was politically progressive. But now ideology is no longer ‘false consciousness’; it is that which we do despite knowing that what we’re doing is perpetuating a system we know to be destructive of humanity.
It is in this age of cynicism that satire becomes a reactionary force. What do shows like Have I Got News For You? or The Daily Show effectively do? They make us laugh at what we already know. They constitute a sort of balm, soothing the daily pain of knowing that I’m acting in a way contrary to almost all reasonable evaluations of the state of the world. They create an atmosphere of entertaining resignation.
And here I’d like to move on to a related topic. Part of this whole age of cynicism, it seems to me, is that obsession with debunking the aura of greatness surrounding certain revered figures. If you want to make a film of Homer’s epics these days, you can’t present these figures as towering above their epoch; you have to drag them down into the nitty-gritty of the daily grind. If you want to make a TV program about Caesar, you have to show him shagging half the women of Ancient Rome. Even superheroes now have to have a ‘human’ side!
Back in the day, of course, this was progressive. If the Establishment told you that Dante was great, you went looking for the material historical circumstances that made Dante possible in the first place. But today I have the sneaking suspicion that this simply plays into the hands of the enemy.
And that is why I would like to suggest the benefits of the personality cult. Liberals shy away in horror from those massive icons of Stalin and Mao, symbols of dictatorial atrocity, but they forget their hidden powers. In Soviet or Chinese propaganda it was common to be told tales of superhuman heroics – Stalin takes on a whole battalion of the imperial army with his bare, crop-coarsened hands…and wins! – which no one could be expected to believe, and which no one did believe. The point, however, was that instead of dragging these figures down into the depths of bureaucratic mundanity, it swept gazes up and out, and into the impossible gyres of history! What we need now is not to engage in apathetic satire, posting re-runs of the ‘Ten Best Anti-Thatcher Gags’ so as to make us chuckle into our spreadsheets; we need to outsoar the easiness of cynicism and dare to be great, dare to be mocked, dare to be epic heroes in the age of Peep Show.
(The comic bathos of that last sentence should give you some idea of how difficult is our task).
I’ve been speaking to a good friend of mine – Terry Craven of Shakespeare & Co. bookshop (Paris) – and we’ve decided that we’d like to resurrect the form of the letter exchange for the digital age. Ever since we met in Orléans back in 2005, we’ve been sharing our thoughts on an almost daily basis: on literature, our own writing, politics, theory, music, and so on. But now from time to time we’d like to do so in the public domain (i.e. this blog). It will probably consist of discussions ranging from something as deceptively simple as how an author gets a character out of a house (a discussion we had last week), to the grander realms of the very possibility of a politically radical act in postmodernity (something we mention almost every time we speak). We have no idea how it will turn out or how often we’ll write. All we know for sure is that it will be slightly more formal than our usual e-mail and Skype exchanges but much less formal than the great artistic letter-scribes of days gone by.
Hopefully it will be of interest to writers and readers alike: two young writers in two separate countries helping each other to get some words on the page.
The new John Lewis Ad has been making the rounds. Already the legend is surging through the wifi waves that women across Middle England are crying into their John Lewis handkerchiefs and clicking the YouTube replay button incessantly, barely able to control their politely voluble sobs. Uniting The Sun, The Guardian, The Daily Mail and The Telegraph in awed wonder, what is it that this ad has done to cause such a stir?
It shows the life of a white middle-class female from (literally) the cradle to old age – but not the grave, a point to which we’ll come back. The song is a cover of Billy Joel’s ‘Always a Woman to Me’ sung by Fyfe Dangerfield in a hauntingly moving rendition. But it’s a bizarre choice, since it’s about a woman whose character is dubious at best; here are the lyrics used in the advert:
She can kill with a smile
She can wound with her eyes
She can ruin your faith with her casual lies
And she only reveals what she wants you to see
She hides like a child,
But she’s always a woman to me
She can lead you to love
She can take you or leave you
She can ask for the truth
But she’ll never believe you
And she’ll take what you give her, as long as it’s free
Yeah, she steals like a thief
But she’s always a woman to me
She is frequently kind
And she’s suddenly cruel
She can do as she pleases
She’s nobody’s fool
And she can’t be convicted
She’s earned her degree
And the most she will do
Is throw shadows at you
But she’s always a woman to me
They miss out such lines as ‘Then she’ll carelessly cut you/ And laugh while you’re bleedin’. Understandably. Indeed, the literal sense of the lyrics, which is essentially that of a masochistic lover serenading a bitch whose capriciousness is such that he has to reassure us every 30 seconds that she is in fact a woman despite her transgressions of conventional expectations of femininity (passivity, politesse, consistency etc.), is transformed by the context of the mournful melancholia of the voice and the sun-bleached images. And so what was originally an odd meditation on the limits of the feminine in the form of a pop song becomes, uncannily, a pure embodiment of the middle-class woman.
I don’t want to focus too much on the content – the obvious points about the commodification of modern life, how we effectively live even the most personal, private experiences via the medium of large capitalist corporations etc. etc. (just think Fight Club Ikea scene) – but rather on the form. Firstly, those sun-bleached tones: they have about them the aura of a dream, but also of aging and authenticity. Like the enthusiasm for sepia-toned photos, which is effectively a symptom of a society with no sense of history, for whom sepia is the colour of all things past and fulfilling, this bleached feel gives it that blurred-edge lightness of nostalgia. But it is the sun that is crucial: in almost every scene of this 90 seconds, the sun is present, bathing the girl-woman in a constant maternal light. And it doesn’t take a genius to figure out that the sun in this ad becomes coterminous with John Lewis (‘Our lifetime commitment to you’): there for us come youth or old age, in sickness and in health. Like a certain Mr Yahweh used to be back in the day.
But even this doesn’t explain what has made people cry. On one level, yes, it is the content – those maternal instincts, the growing old, the family and so on. Yes, it is the memory of loved ones present and past and those carefully chosen moments (marriage, university, career, retirement). But I don’t think that this alone can account for the dramatic reaction. I suspect it has more to do with the form: the presentation of an (idealized) human life in its entirety. This is something one almost never sees in real life: normally, we die after our parents and before our children. So to envisage a whole life in a single meaningful unit is moving in itself because we are not accustomed to it. But more importantly: the rhythms of late capitalism are such that the only periods we can think in tend to be either those of fashions or of decades. Beyond that, we are unable clearly to conceptualize a total human life, we are unable to find the narrative tools to recount it. Not that this is that new a phenomenon: Walter Bejamin wrote a long time ago that such was the cause of the demise of the traditional folktale.
In the same essay, he wrote about the disappearance of death from our daily lives. How in the Middle Ages it was almost impossible to be in a room where someone hadn’t died, whereas today it’s impossible to be in one where someone has – death is confined mainly to hospitals and hospices, isolated buildings away from the high street, away from John Lewis. And the advert doesn’t show the woman’s death, which is crucial: John Lewis commits to you when you’re alive because when you’re alive your designer purse is too. But when you’re dead, the John Lewis sun cannot transform your reeking corpse into the beautiful money-trees of Middle England.
Only those cartwheeling granddaughters can do that, when they step forward to chuck dirt on Grandma’s shiny coffin in their brand new JL shoes.
If there is one essay which captures all the contradictions currently at work in the literary world, then this is it. Sven Birkerts, with admirable eloquence and integrity, has unwittingly mapped out the extremities of the situation in which we find ourselves. I want, not only to challenge particular points of his essay, but also to suggest that each one of them is a star whose total constellation remains just beyond his purview.
His essay divides into roughly two halves. The first half deals with the effects of that incessant digital hum of information which constitutes the fabric of our everyday lives:
I find myself especially fixated on the idea that contemplative thought is endangered. This starts me wondering about the difference between contemplative and analytic thought. The former is intransitive and experiential in its nature, is for itself; the latter is transitive, is goal directed. According to the logic of transitive thought, information is a means, its increments mainly building blocks toward some synthesis or explanation. In that thought-world it’s clearly desirable to have a powerful machine that can gather and sort material in order to isolate the needed facts. But in the other, the contemplative thought-world—where reflection is itself the end, a means of testing and refining the relation to the world, a way of pursuing connection toward more affectively satisfying kinds of illumination, or insight—information is nothing without its contexts. I come to think that contemplation and analysis are not merely two kinds of thinking: they are opposed kinds of thinking. Then I realize that the Internet and the novel are opposites as well.
Two kinds of thinking are opposed: the type we use on the internet, when we click from one page to the next at breakneck speed, skimming the surface of the screen with nothing but a cursory glance and on-the-spot makeshift turbo-hermeneutic, and the more leisurely, self-indulgent act of meditation or contemplation which is an end in itself. This reminds me of nothing so much as the two narrative codes Roland Barthes outlined in S/Z: the proairetic and the hermeneutic. The former is the sequence of actions that constitute a plot (the what happens of a novel) while the latter is what constitutes the mystery or questions (the what does it mean or the whodunit). At the extreme, the schoolboy adventure story can stand for the proairetic, whilst the detective novel can stand for the hermeneutic. What Birkerts is referring to is a sort of wrenching apart of the two codes (if we think of them now as more general cultural phenomena) achieved by the digital age of late capitalism. Actions and deeper meanings come apart at the seams.
This leads him to the following argument:
This idea of the novel is gaining on me: that it is not, except superficially, only a thing to be studied in English classes—that it is a field for thinking, a condensed time-world that is parallel (or adjacent) to ours. That its purpose is less to communicate themes or major recognitions and more to engage the mind, the sensibility, in a process that in its full realization bears upon our living as an ignition to inwardness, which has no larger end, which is the end itself. Enhancement. Deepening. Priming the engines of conjecture. In this way, and for this reason, the novel is the vital antidote to the mentality that the Internet promotes.
What we have here is essentially a rerun of an argument that can be traced back to the early 18th century and the foundation of that great discourse which Baumgarten named ‘aesthetics’. With the demise of political absolutism and the rise of a new bourgeois order, the cold Enlightenment reason which had been necessary to overthrow the mystifications of kings and popes alike now threatened to turn back on itself. What had once seemed a new and exciting scientific rationality, a genuinely liberating force against the dogmatic slumber of incense and mitre, was, on beginning to achieve its aims, struck suddenly hollow. It had become a frigid instrumentalism, incapable of binding a people under a global hegemony. And so, without more ado, enter aesthetics: a form of reason with the capacity to insinuate itself into the deepest fibres of our being, into our very bodies, hiding the iron fist of pure reason inside the velvet glove of sensation. Aesthetics, in other words, was a new form of ideology. (That it was an ambiguous one which also harboured a certain revolutionary potential is undoubted, but I have no time to go into that here).
So it is that every time a ruling ideology gives way, aesthetics or literature must step in to bear the brunt of those dying mechanisms of control. In England, for example, from at least Matthew Arnold’s Culture and Anarchy (1869) onwards, literature was called upon to assume the hegemonic burden which religion was no longer able to carry. When your people demand bread, educate their sensibilities through books so that they don’t shout quite so loud.
Unfortunately, Birkerts is in danger of unwittingly suggesting just such a solution to our current dilemma. He correctly deduces that certain shifts in our social and technological make-up (notice that emphasis on technological changes is almost always a way of not talking about economic changes) have altered our capacities to think and to perceive, and he understands these changes as negative or debilitating in some human sense; his solution to this is not to challenge the concrete historical situation, but to offer literature as a sort of supplement to appease our alienation, as a humanizing palliative in a world of dehumanizing machines.
But having done so, he then squares the circle in the second half of the essay by attempting instrumentally to justify reading novels – those very ‘antidotes’ to the ills of instrumentality! Not that you can blame him. This problem is the classic one confronting all literary scholars: how do you justify getting paid to read books? The truth is that, historically, it really is unjustifiable, so any justification is likely to be pure ideology. A non-scholar (i.e. unsalaried non-professional reader) could answer the question on the point of reading thus: ‘There is no point: reading is an end in itself, a revelling in language for language’s sake, a joyous bathing in that invisible extension of our bodies in the world’. But if you said that to the Vice-Chancellor of the university (who in all likelihood is also on the board of some oil company), the very man paying your wages, it is unlikely you would achieve tenure. And so you clutch at straws: you do a Birkerts.
What is a ‘Birkerts’? A Birkerts is when you quote approvingly Nabokov’s talk of reading as ‘aesthetic bliss’ and then immediately admit that it sounds ‘trivial’, and so try to shore it up with yet more of that very instrumentality you set out to overcome: you engage in a project which attempts to deduce the rational (maybe even neurological) ingredients of aesthetic bliss!
The contradictions at work in this wonderful essay are the contradictions of our current historical situation. They will not be overcome until the latter itself is radically transformed.
The following was inspired by a post by Ben Myers:
I recently wrote a paper on the concept of cliché in Proust. Without getting into the boring minutiae of the paper itself, it might be interesting simply to point out the history of the word ‘cliché’, which had three main stages.
The word first arose with the advent of stereotype printing. Unlike previous forms of printing, stereotype used type-casts (often made from plaster of Paris) taken from a plate rather than the plate itself. The net effect of this technique was massively to increase rates of productivity and total output. ‘Cliché’ was the word French print-workers coined to imitate the sound of the matrix dropping into the molten metal, and it soon became synonymous with the copies themselves. In other words, cliché was originally onomatopoeic. (At this point in the paper I made all sorts of pretentious comments about onomatopoeia constituting ‘sealed, impervious phono-monads in which the tessellation of sound and sense is so exact as to deny all alterity’…). Cliché printing was effectively the copy of a copy; it was originally a simulacrum. (Cue postmodern canned cheers).
The second stop on the fateful journey of this outcast word was in the world of nineteenth-century photography. Here, cliché was the word photographers naturally turned to in order to name the new-fangled photographic negatives, since the principle of material inscription appeared sufficiently similar to the world of printing. Finally, it was only towards the end of the nineteenth century that cliché became used regularly as a synonym for ‘banal commonplace’. This was thanks primarily to the associations of cliché in both print and photography with mass reproduction, and hence with mechanical repeatability.
In terms of Ben’s taking notes of his own clichés the better to avoid them, it might be worth remembering that this insidious fear of repetition only really arose (in France at least) with Flaubert. He was the first to instigate what Barthes calls ‘writing as craft’ [écriture artisanale]. And this was mainly due to the revolutionary upheavals of 1848-1850, which made it impossible for bourgeois writers to go on writing in the manner which until that point had been undergirded by outright class hegemony. For Fredric Jameson, following Barthes, this was the moment at which rhetoric, a precapitalist mode of linguistic organization, a preindividualistic standard of fine speaking shared by a ruling class with a homogeneous public, gave way to what we now know as style: a truly bourgeois, highly individualistic, quasi-physical, solution to ‘the sapping of the collective vitality of language.’ (Jameson himself is a fine stylist).