Tuesday, 30 October 2012

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, 27 October 2012

The Future Perfect/The Present Lost

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, 23 October 2012

It is right that...


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, 19 October 2012

We are living in an immaterial world...

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, 12 October 2012

Swear More: On the Hyperinflation of Dissent

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, 10 October 2012

Smile, though your heart is aching...

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

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

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

Friday, 5 October 2012

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

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

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

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

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

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