February 24, 2006

Optimism of the act


There's a thoughtful response to my last couple of posts over at What in the Hell, which gives me the opportunity to nuance my position a little.

First of all, I want to point out that my pessimism was not a consequence of watching A Grin without a Cat. The bleakness the post registered arose from the contrast between what the film shows and my recent experiences at work. It was the extent to which the film was inspiring that threw the current difficulties of organizing or even envisaging any way out of the airtight bureaucratic cage of the 'third way' into such miserable relief: even the failures of the 60s and the 70s belonged to an atmosphere of heightened expectations that seems to totally out of kilter with today's pinched horizons.

And yet... This pessimism is more emotional than intellectual. Intellectually speaking, there are enormous reasons for optimism, since, as I have repeatedly stressed, Capitalist Realism is not 'really' realistic. There are any number of reasons - economic, environmental, not to mention political - why capitalism in its current mode is not sustainable. Capitalist Realism is best understood not as a projection of 'what can really happen' but as a constellation producing certain (negative) affects and cognitions.

But a genuine event is one which breaks with what is thinkable and possible. The unimaginable is what happens. History, as Foucault observed in 'Nietzsche, Geneaology, History', proceeds via sudden cuts and unpredictable lurches rather than by smooth progressions, an observation which is borne out by the rise of Capitalist Realism itself. You only have to think back to a year like 1975, when neo-liberalism couldn't have looked less 'realistic'.

But, needless to say, neo-liberalism didn't arise from nowhere. It was the result of systematic and deliberated thinking about how to break labour and re-assert capital. We must learn lessons from how it made the Impossible happen. The slogan should be 'pessimism of the emotions, optimism of the act'.

A parallel with clinical depression may be instructive here. In particularly acute cases of depression, it is recognized that no verbal or therapeutic intervention will reach the patient. The only effective remedy is to do things, even though the patient will, at that time, believe that any act is pointless and meaningless. But 'going through the motions' of the act is an essential pre-requisite to the growth of belief 'in the heart'. Much as Pascal famously argued in his Wager, belief follows from behaviour rather than the reverse. Similarly, the only way out of cultural depression like now is to act as if things can be different.

There are a few more things that I want to say - about capitalism and the new, and about the relationship of the above to what is happening at work at the moment - but I'll have to leave that for another post.

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February 22, 2006

Pessimism of the intellect

Reader Noel Douglas takes me up on a couple of points from the last post.

'A past that was not - in one sense - even mine, that was over before I was born in July 1968. Yet the reverberations continued for a few years yet

I think the Italian hot autumn, miners bringing down the government here in 72/3, Chile '73, Portugese Revolution of '74 to name but a few were a little more than reverberations! Anyone of those winning could have altered the course of history...

>Only by a collective action that seems inconceivable now

Well as a fellow natfhe member I hope you're coming out on strike soon! That plus what looks like it could be the biggest strike here since '26 over pensions coming up could make big differences here in the coming months, and I don't think the general situation is as overwhelmingly pessimistic as you make out, having been involved personally in things like Genoa, the general strike in Spain in 2002 (one of a number of one day general strikes in Europe in the last few years), the scale of the anti-war movement, the world social forum process (where Marker is a regular), the 'no' vote in France, the weakness of the US is iraq, and the exciting developments in South America, added to the general crisis of profitability of global capitalism, (hence the neo-liberal assault on public services) means whilst that we are in for a rocky ride in the next few years there is hope. As you accurately described in your piece on the Arctic Monkeys, modernism was about interrupting the norm, and just such 'interruptions' could burst out at any moment, and in fact they often happen when things seem bleakest...

to return to '68 for a second remember people who should know better were saying the working class were bought off and dead 5 months before May, there's no reason to presume Revolutionary ruptures may not be round the corner (even if that corner is a few years long)

as the old saying goes - 'don't moan, organise!' '

Yes, but as another old saying goes - 'pessimism of the intellect, optimism of the will.'

Well, that 'seems inconceivable now' was a deliberately weak claim, and the whole bleak tone, I'll admit, more an emotional response than a rational assessment of what could happen. Events by their nature are unforseeable (even though they do not 'just happen' as spontaneous efflorescences of desire - they can be organised and prepared for). With Natfhe merging with AUT, there is perhaps some hope for a general campaign on education, but even if such a campaign were to happen, it couldn't succeed without a massive cultural shift away from capitalist realism and its assumptions. Which is why Arctic Monkeys on teevee isn't just a matter of entertainment or aesthetics, it's part of the ambience of Restoration (the not-so-hidden messsage: things can never change). The problem is that capital is innately and essentially global (and by that I don't just mean planetary, I mean abstract, irreducible to a particular location) whereas its opposition remains local, tied to specific sets of interests. Capital thought very carefully about how to break labour; it seems to me there's still not yet been enough thought about what tactics will work against capital in conditions of post-Fordism, and what new language can be innovated to deal with those conditions. Because part of the difficulty is that capitalism has appropriated 'the new' as its own, whereas we are largely reduced to clothing ourselves in the shabby remnants of a century ago. To reclaim the 'new' can't be a matter of adapting to the conditions in which we find ourselves - we've done that rather too well, and 'successful adaptation' is the strategy of managerialism par excellence. Paraphrase of a manager (and Natfhe member) at our place after a union meeting today : 'Incorporation was done solely to make our working conditions worse and lower our wages. But all we can do is deal with how things are now. We have to 'manage' things. Anything else is not realistic.'

It's clear: what we need to do is identify a Now that is break from capitalist realism.

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February 18, 2006

Spectres of Marker and the reality of the third way


Watching Chris Marker's Le Fond de l'air est rouge (A Grin Without a Cat) last week made for a somewhat ambivalent experience: even though the film is, ostensibly, a catalogue of disappointments, its registering of a time when there were challenges - no matter how inchoate, messy, contradictory - to the existing order, cannot but offer some inspiration in these much bleaker times. A Grin Without a Cat, originally released in 1977 but given a new post-89 epilogue by Marker in 1992, is an epic montage-meditation on what Marker called 'the Third World War': the hydra-headed revolutionary or would-be revolutionary struggles of the Sixties and the Seventies. Marker constructed the film entirely out of archive material, shooting no original footage, and producing associations, connections, foreshadowings and echoes through masterly editing. The effect, especially if you are not minutely familiar with events in France, Vietnam, Algeria, Bolivia, Cuba and Czechoslovakia is disorientating, vertiginous. You find yourself Quantum-Leapt into the middle of a jostling crowd scene; no sooner have you got your bearings there when you abruptly find yourself in another place, another time. Marker's commentary - spoken by a number of actors - gives you clues, epigraphs, rather than explication. But Marker's aim not to render the period from 67 to 77 as Objective History to be ponfiticated upon by 'experts' for whom the Meaning of the events is already established, nor, even worse, to produce a vanguardist version of I heart 1968, in which sighing former revolutionaries look back on anger with the tender contempt of contemporary 'wisdom'. No, the point was to present the events 'in becoming', to restore to them a subjectivity (in the Kierkegaardian sense) that retrospection structurally forecloses.


At one stage in the film, Marker's commentary ruefully notes that while revolutionaries, failed revolutionaries and ex-revolutionaries devoted all their attention to the formation of the New Left, the New Right was coalescing, unnoticed. Cue images of Valery Giscard D'estaing playing football in a carefully-cultivated attempt to look sporty and modern. The PR director of Citroen muses on the 'science of management' (too complicated, he says, for even the most talented Union member to master) and looks forward to the incorporation of leftist desire into Capital that would become post-Fordism.

Cut to now, where the images of even an ultimately failed militancy belong to a past. A past that was not - in one sense - even mine, that was over before I was born in July 1968. Yet the reverberations continued for a few years yet, were an unacknowledged (by me, then) background to the Things that I enjoyed in the late 70s and early 80s. For those of us arriving after the event, the significance of the convulsions documented in Marker's film could only be apprehended much later, once their effects had completely ebbed away and the reality (and the pleasure) principles were Restored. Marcus' Lipstick Traces - whose temporal jump-cutting in many ways recalls that of Marker's film - goes some way to establishing the connections between the events remembered in A Grin Without a Cat and those that began in the UK at more or less the time that the film was completed. A cheshire cat's grin, lipstick traces on a cigarette, spectres of Marx: Marcus, Derrida and Marker come to see ruptures, revolts and revolutions as ghostly residue, thin stains on the seamless surfaces of post-Cold War Capital.

The untranslateable French title of Marker's film suggests possibilities that hovered and haunted without ever making themselves real. At the Marker conference held at the ICA a few years ago, Barry Langford argued that, 'rather than the spectre of Communism famously invoked by Marx in the opening lines of the Communist Manifesto', for both A Grin Without a Cat and Marx's 'The Civil War in France' a hundred years before it, 'it is the phantom of revolution that haunts Marx and Marker alike - that is, the fear that revolution will ultimately prove, precisely, phantasmic'. If Marx and Marker's fear was that revolution would only be a spectre, our suspicion is that it will not turn out to be even that, that the stricken ghosts have been put to flight once and for all. (And even the 'death of communism' is not enough for the guardians of the new status quo, for whom 'communism is not dead enough - ... they will only be content when they have driven a stake through its heart and buried it at the crossroads at midnight.' Seumas Milne, via IT).

The struggles in A Grin without a Cat might have been defeated, might even have contributed to a more ferociously effective Reaction, but the pressures that those events brought to bear almost had very immediate effects - by contesting the Possible, by rejecting 'realism', they could not but have altered expectations about what was acceptable in the workplace, about what could happen in everyday life. The revolutions were cultural; which is to say, they understood that culture and politics could not be conceived in isolation from one another. Both Althusser and the situationist-inspired students of 68, in many ways so opposed, could agree on at least one thing: that cultural products were never merely cultural. In their condemnations of recuperated Spectacle and Ideological Apparatuses, they granted a weight to cultural products which few would countenance now.

I felt the contrast between what Marker's film recounted and contemporary realities especially painfully last week when I went on a TUC training course with members of NATFHE from other FE colleges. The stories of increased casualization, of newly punitive sickness policies, of lecturers being sacked and forced to re-apply for their jobs, of the imposition of more and more targets and 'spurious measurables', each entailing yet more pointless, windowdressing paperwork, confirmed what, individually, we all already knew. The Further Education sector is in crisis; its problems only symptomatic of a wider malaise in UK education as a whole. Further Education colleges, out of Local Education Authority control since 1992, show the way in which a 'reformed' (i.e. part-privatized) education will develop. The recent report which stated that students spoonfed at A-level cannot cope with university study would come as little surprise to few A-level teachers and lecturers. The pressure to meet government targets means that quality and breadth of teaching is sacrficed for the narrow goal of passing the exam: an instrumentalization of education that fully accepts that its only role is to reproduce the labour force. Far far away from 68, at the core of whose conflagrations was education, and the question of what it could be: could it be more than an ideological training camp, a carceral institution?

One thing that occured to me last week, prompted by the contrast between Marker's Then and our Now, was that the third way is not entirely a phantasm, an ideological dupe. There is in fact a reality to the third way, and it is the reality of bureaucracy. That is what is left once politics has become administration.

It's hard to believe that public services are not more clogged with bureaucracy than they were pre-Thatcher. Certainly, education is choked with the stuff... targets, action plans, log books, all of them required conditions for funding by the Learning and Skills Council, and assessed by Ofsted, whose threat no longer takes the form of an invasive external entity arriving every two or three years, but has become introjected into the institution itself, through the permanent panoptic vigilance of a bloated managerial strata determined to over-compensate in order to fully ensure it is meeting central government's demands. This is the reality of 'market stalinism' in education.

Is there a way to challenge or roll back the slow, implacable, rapacious proliferation of bureaucracy? Only by a collective action that seems inconceivable now.... Only by a change in the ideological climate.... Only by a switch in the cultural atmosphere.... Where to start? While we search, desperately, for cracks in the Possible, bureaucracy, that steel spider, patiently spins its grey web....

Posted by mark at 10:53 PM | TrackBack


Dominic Fox's Poetix is a consistently thoughtful site that I should have linked to long ago. Of Dominic's recent posts, this one, on the relevance of the use/mention distinction to the Danish cartoon controversy, is a particularly good place to start.

Posted by mark at 09:10 PM | TrackBack

I only meant to piss on the prisoner, your honour...

There are good reasons to suppose that the al-Ghuraaba march of a couple of weeks ago was infiltrated and indeed organised by MI5. (It was a conclusion Infinite Thought and I immediately leapt to the moment we saw the al-Ghuraaba banners, most of them neatly written in the same hand, all of them bearing screamingly provactive slogans apparently designed to correspond to Middle England's worst nightmares.) But the political truth of this conspiracy speculation resides in the fact that, even if the march was not a government put-up, it might as well have been. Images of the march can hardly have impeded the smooth passage through parliament this week of the government's bill outlawing the 'glorification of Terrorism'. But there is a wider lesson to be drawn here: that it is in the interests of both the War on Terror and political Islam for it to be believed that we are in the midst of a global Jihad. The notion that the US and the UK governments are implacably opposed to political Islam in all its forms is an illusion. The Iraqi constitution is only one example of a series of accommodations that the Bush and Blair administrations have come to with political Islam.

Tariq Ali points out that the actual numbers involved in violent protests against the Danish cartoons was actually astonishingly small:

'In reality, the number of original demonstrators was tiny: 300 in Pakistan, 400 in Indonesia, 200 in Tripoli, a few hundred in Britain (before Saturday's bigger reconciliation march), and government-organised hoodlums in Damascus burning an embassy. Beirut was a bit larger. Why blow this up and pretend that the protests had entered the subsoil of spontaneous mass anger? They certainly haven't anywhere in the Muslim world, though the European media has been busy fertilising the widespread ignorance that exists in this continent.'

As Ali goes on to argue, given the ferocious scale of the US-led attacks on Iraq and Afghanistan, the outrage was also curiously misplaced. But there is, in fact, a symmetry between the US racist attack on secular Iraq and the protests of Islamists and other Muslims which make no reference to racism at all. Thus, to understand the current situation in religious terms is not a 'stage' on the way to politicization; it is actively opposed to a political interpretation. It colludes with the view - happily accepted by Bush and Blair, both of whom condemned the publication of the cartoons - that offences against religion count far more than violent attacks upon people.

'Did the Danish imam who travelled round the Muslim world pleading for this show the same anger at Danish troops being sent to Iraq? The occupation of Iraq has costs tens of thousands of Iraqi lives. Where is the response to that or the tortures in Abu Ghraib? Or the rapes of Iraqi women by occupying soldiers? Where is the response to the daily deaths of Palestinians? These are the issues that anger me. Last year Afghans protested after a US marine in Guantánamo had urinated on the Qur'an. It was a vile act and there was an official inquiry. The marine in question explained that he had been urinating on a prisoner and a few drops had fallen accidentally on the Qur'an - as if pissing on a prisoner (an old imperial habit) was somehow more acceptable.'

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February 14, 2006

From 1984


Simon's repsonse to my and others' anxieties about the Arctic Monkeys has certainly crystallized a few things. Perhaps unfairly, I can't help but read much of it symptomatically. It's hard not to attribute his lowered expectations - the palpable sense that 'this is the best we can expect now' - to the effects of a period of cultural downturn. Many of his arguments in favour of the Arctic Monkeys sound more like depressive rationalizations than wholehearted celebrations.

I reiterate that my problem with the Arctic Monkeys is more with the 'phenonemon' than the record itself. It is the cultural politics of their success which trouble me. In Kantian terms, you could say the problem is not with the act (of liking the particular record) but with the maxim - the principle - underlying that act. One of those maxims is neatly stated in Simon's (presumably partly ironic) slogan “be reasonable, capitulate to the available”. The reason Pop was so attuned to the social tumult of the sixties and seventies was not because of any explicit 'political' content but because the axiom implicit in its enjoyment - 'Never be satisfied with the Possible!' - resolutely refused to come to a concordat with 'what was available'. What could be a better argument against the AM phenomenon than that it has led to a maxim such as this, which definitely places the enjoyment of Pop on the side of the reality principle and capitalist realism?

The issues Simon's correspondent Matt Wright raises are particularly worthy of attention, because they allow me the opportunity to offer a few clarifications on the question of modernism. Matt 'wonders whether "advocating for a return to a past aesthetic ideal”--“the modernist principle of pushing forward and advocating the Truly New”--as espoused by K-punk and (most of the time) myself, whether that was in some senses “anti-modernist /nostalgic”, in so far as one of the salient features of modernity as it's been for some while now is the fading away of the idea of the vanguard, its retreat from the centre of cultural life.'

While superficially convincing, this argument, quickly deconstructs itself. On what grounds can it condemn the supposed 'anti-modernism' of holding fast to modernist principles? Only by appealing to the very 'modernist' notion of progression and temporal succession which it at the same time rejects.

But there is a deeper problem with this line of argument. It rests upon a fundamental misapprehension about the nature of modernism. Modernism is not an advocacy of the current or the contemporary. It would be better to say that it is the exact opposite of such a stance. Modernism is about breaks with current conditions. The modernist event is the moment when what appeared to be a seamless 'pre-sent' (Burroughs) breaks open; the Possible shatters into a million previously unimaginable possibilities. There is nothing determinate 'in' this moment; it is a kind of pure emptiness, a nihilation. Each modernist artifact is significant not for what it 'is' but for the possibilities it points to but which itself is not.

To get concrete. Postpunk (and if anything remind us of this, it's Rip It Up and Start Again) was modernist not because it produced 'good records' but because it continually put into question the very notion of what a record is and what it could be. Each new band, or each new record by a band, each new style, posed that question differently and made new posings of the question possible.

By contrast, the postmodernity to which the Arctic Monkeys belong is delimited-defined by a series of closed prescriptions. They belong to a stable genre which forms part of a resolved cultural scene in which the status of cultural objects like records is (ostensibly) settled. There can be endless repermutation within this cultural scene, but no events, nothing which breaks out of the parameters set by the scene. The analogy - or perhaps homology - here would be the 'interpassivity' of computer games: you can play the game in your own way, but the matrix of possible actions is already laid down. All you (can) do is select from a pre-set menu. The Arctic Monkeys no doubt combine the elements which make up their sound in an inventive, even ingenious way, but the elements are already givens, dehistoricised relics. That is why no amount of energy and effervescence will ever dispel the sense of defeat and staleness that their sound instantiates (youthful fizz will only make their undeath sound more uncanny*) and - at a meta-level - legislates. One might say that the record is about defeat and staleness; so it is, but, lacking the capacity to nihilate those conditions, it is reduced to merely expressing them.

On the Dissensus AM thread, some have mocked vanguardism for its supposed interdiction that cultural products should only be enjoyed if they are 'aligned with a correct ideological program'. But this presupposes a separation of politics from culture, and forgets that the default condition for cultural products - especially in a period of Restoration like now - is to be 'aligned with an ideological program', namely, capitalist realism. The very positing of a non-political space is, in fact, the founding act of ideology, and 'entertainment' has constituted the pre-eminent example of such a space in postmodernity (the cultural expression of post-Fordist capitalism). A couple of posts back, Alex Williams described how changes in the market have led to the segmentation of the Pop audience into omnivorous consumers who 'graze' across well-defined niche genres. In the 'generic stability' of IPop and the passive nomadism of its consumers, then, we have 'capitalism in miniature', not because the IPop configuration is in some analogical relation to current capitalism, but because, more ominously, it is one of its structural effects.

It might well be the case that this is to be the final fate of Pop, and that it will never again be the site for a modernist irruption. But we cannot a priori say that modernism is exhausted and finished. In the twenties and thirties, modernism's privileged sites were classical music, jazz, the novel, poetry and film. In the sixties and seventies, they were predominantly Pop and film. The period of retrenchment between these two great outbreaks was precisely that: not, as it might have appeared at the time, a final defeat for modernism, but a time of restoration and restitution. We live again in a period of Restoration, a period when it can seem that the crushing omnipresence of Global Capital has locked down cultural and political possibilities as never before. But the victory of Restoration would be complete if we forget that this is a time of lockdown and resign ourselves to acclimatizing to its privations. That is why the Arctic Monkeys are so dangerous a temptation.


*It is uncanny I'll grant you that.

I agree with Simon that 'if you tele-transported an AMs song back to 1985, it wouldn’t, actually, fit right in' but that's because it would already have sounded old. Actually, that is in its favour, because, Simon is right, the AMs sound more New Wave 79 than Indie 85. I must confess that when I first saw the video, I really, genuinely thought that the AMs were some late 70s missing link between XTC, Gang of Four and ATV that had passed me by. Not only the music but also the lighting and even the T-shirts convinced me that this was some lost performance from the Whistle Test archives. I thought the 'from 1984' thing was a flashforward to a gleaming future that was still a few years off...

The very fact that the AMs are so convincing - they actually could be New Wavers from 79 - is what makes them infinitely better than inept forgers like the leaden-footed Franz Ferdinand or dull clods like the Kaiser Chiefs. (btw Re: daft comparisons. I.P. compared Kaiser Chiefs, not the AMs, to the Ruts and the Members - entirely fairly, surely; and it wasn't me but Marcello, an AM admirer, who brought up Cud, Kingmaker and Wonderstuff.) They are uncanny because they resemble something that might have existed but never actually did, like a photograph airbrushed into history.

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February 12, 2006

We want it all


What use might Nietzsche be today? Or, to put it another way: which Nietzsche might be of use, now?

It will come as no surprise that I would count Nietzsche the perspectivist - he who questioned not only the possibility but the value of Truth - as the enemy. There will be even fewer surprises that I would reject the Dionysian Nietzsche, the celebrant of transgressive desire. This Nietzsche, in any case, is largely a post-Bataillean retrospective construct (even in The Birth of Tragedy, Nietzsche mourns is the lost tension between Dionysus and Apollo; and in his later writings Nietzsche is more likely to be found extolling the necessity of constraints and limitations than he is to be heard calling for the unrestrained venting of libido). The perspectival and the Dionysiac are far too timely.

The Nietzsche that remains untimely - and by that I do not mean outmoded, very far from it - is Nietzsche the aristocrat. Nietzsche should not be taken seriously as a political theorist, at least not at the level of his positive prescriptions. But the Nietzsche who denounces the insipidity and mediocrity that result from democracy's levelling impulses could not be more acute. Passage after passage of polemic in Beyond Good and Evil seems uncannily aposite in these times of focus-grouped blandness and 'autonomous herding'. Nietzsche's real interests lay with cultural politics; government and social institutions troubled him only insofar as they produced cultural effects, his ultimate question being: 'What are the conditions in which great cultural artifacts can emerge?'

I was reminded of Nietzche's warnings about what would happen to culture if all 'special claims and privileges' are denied, if the very concept of superiority is abolished, when Chantelle Houghton won Celebrity Big Brother a week or so ago (it already seems much longer than that). I was reminded, too, of Nietzsche's scalding admonition that 'harshness' and 'cruelty' must be cultivated if the human animal is to transformed, by hammer blows and force of will, into a great work of art; reminded, especially, when some posters on Dissensus were seriously advancing 'niceness' - niceness, that is - as a desirable trait.

Chantelle's victory wasn't just a popularity contest: as Marcello's excellent Big Brother piece observed, a principle was at stake, the principle that ordinariness must trump any notion of superiority.

'“You are not going to win support or respect by placing yourself out of the ordinary…You need to be approachable but you also need to be yourself. That’s what young people respect.” That’s a recent quote from one Alex Folkes, the speaker for a pressure group named Votes at Sixteen, apropos George Galloway, and it’s the kind of exhausting, fatuous anti-philosophy which tempts me to form a pressure group called Votes at Thirty. Nevertheless it is (un)pretty fitting for an age bereft of desire for godhood. Where once we assembled in front of screens or stages to gasp in awe at people doing and achieving things we could never hope of doing or achieving ourselves – but how we luxuriated, carried ourselves afloat, on the dream of doing so – now all we require is a humbling mirror. This is the sort of thing which stops dangerous people from gaining power, but also the kind of closure which would ultimately forbid all art.'

Where once we assembled in front of screens or stages to gasp in awe at people doing and achieving things we could never hope of doing or achieving ourselves ... now all we require is a humbling mirror. This is Celebreality: the simultaneous desublimation of the Star and the elevation of 'the ordinary'.

The commentary on Celebrity Big Brother treated it as self-evident that people will want to 'identify with' media figures who offer a comforting and unchallenging reflection of themselves at their most mediocre, stupid and harmless. Julie Burchill's endlessly reiterated polemic in favour of Big Brother - that it allows working class people opportunities to break into a media otherwise dominated by the privileged - is baseless for three reasons. First, because the real beneficiaries of Big Brother are not the contestants, whose 'career' is notoriously short-lived, but Endemol, with its coterie of smug graduate producers. Second, because Big Brother trades in a patronising and reductive image of the working class. The dominion of Celebreality relies upon the mediocrats inducing the working class into corresponding to - and 'identifying with' - that image. Third, because Big Brother and reality TV have effaced those areas of popular culture in which a working class that aspired to more than 'wealth' or 'fame' once excelled. Its rise has meant a defeat for that over-reaching proletarian drive to be more, (I am nothing but should be everything), a drive which negated Social Facts by inventing Sonic Fictions, which despised 'ordinariness' in the name of the strange and the alien. On Celebrity Big Brother, Pete Burns, with his casual cruelties, his savage articulacy and his Masoch-furs, was a cartoon symbol of those lost ambitions, skulking and sulking at the periphery, a Glam prince in an age of post-Blairite roundheads.

We all know that the 'reality' of reality TV is an artful construction, an effect not only of editing but of a Lorenzian rat-in-a-mirrored-labyrinth artificial environment which attenuates psychology into a series of territorial twitches. The 'reality' that is designated is significant more for what is absent from it than for any positive properties it is deemed to possess. And what is absent, above all, is fantasy. Or rather, fantasy objects.

We once turned to popular culture because it produced fantasy objects; now, we are asked to 'identify with' the fantasising subject itself. It was entirely appropriate that, the week after Chantelle won Celebrity Big Brother, Smash Hits should have announced its imminent closure.

Smash Hits began just as the Glam continuum was winding down. What Smash Hits took from punk was its least Nietzschean affect, namely its 'irreverence'. In the case of Smash Hits, this amounted to a compulsory trivialization coupled with a kind of good-humoured debunking of the pretensions of Stardom. Behind Smash Hits' silly surrealism was good solid commonsense and a conflicted desire, to both have your idols and kill them. Heat was Smash Hits' successor and what rendered it obsolete. No need to bother with the (Pop) pretext now you can consume celebrity directly, untroubled by Pop's embarrassing Dreams. Chantelle is the logical conclusion of the process: the anti-Pop anti-Idol.

Nietzsche's contention was that the kind of levelling Chantelle stands for was the inevitable and necessary consequence of all egalitarianism. Yet popular culture was once the arena which demonstrated that any genuine egalitarianism is inimical to any such levelling down. I wrote last year of Goth as 'a paradoxically egalitarian aristocracy in which membership [is] not guaranteed by birth or beauty but by self-decoration'; will popular culture ever again teach us that egalitarianism is not hostile to, but relies upon, a will-to-greatness, an unconditional demand for the excellent?

Posted by mark at 11:11 PM | TrackBack

Is it real or is it Ubik?

Special announcement

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Worried that the PRobot will have a limited vocabulary and a weak style? Those features are exactly what make it so convincing and so effective in today's media! The PRobot always uses easy-to-digest phrases that every reader will already be familiar with. For example, if a process is coming to an end, 'the death knell' will be 'sounding' for it. If something is fashionable it will be 'all the rage'. This kind of language has been proven to put to sleep any critical or questioning faculties in readers - so, no distractions from the important message about your product! The PRobot makes allowances for even the least well-informed reader. For instance, HMV will be described as a 'music retailer', Bob Marley will be called 'Jamaican legend'.

We already have functioning model up and running and filing copy at respected left-of-centre broadsheet the Guardian. The 'Natalie Hanman' model has published over FIFTY articles in the past year. Try getting your journalistic contacts out of the pub long enough to be THAT efficient!

Here are just a few examples of Natalie's work.

'Like bits of food in your loved one's beard, leftover lunch in your office keyboard is at best unsightly, and at worst unhygienic. While over the years messy office workers have come up with numerous ways to clear the clutter from in between their keys - blowing air on the keyboard, shaking it furiously or folding up bits of paper with which to dig the damn stuff out - it now could be a simple matter of wash and go.

Unotron's new SpillSeal keyboard can be immersed in anti-bacterial washing-up liquid to remove nearly 100% of germs, with no risk of the water leaking into electrical contact points or damaging your computer equipment.'

'Facebook.com, launched in February last year by three roommates at America's Harvard University, puts a new twist on the growing phenomenon of social networking sites. More friendly than Friendster but with less street cred than MySpace, its focus is on communication between college students - and if academia isn't where you're at, then you are unlikely to get a look in.

'Apple turned the screw further on competitors last week by revamping its iPod lineup and slashing prices. The second generation iPod Mini, which can be charged by USB and claims increased battery life, is now available as a 4GB model for £139 or 6GB for £169. The USB power adaptor does not come as part of the package, and will set buyers back a further £19. The top-of-the-range, colour-screen iPod Photo has also seen drastic price cuts, with a 30GB model now costing £249, bringing it much closer to the price of the classic white iPod. Shoppers wanting more welly can pick up a 60GB unit for £309. Both moves mark Apple's attempt to extend its grip on the music player market and encourage new buyers to hook into the brand.'

Remember, these articles all appeared on the features or comments pages, with a byline...

You can see all of Natalie's articles here.

Safe, if used as directed.

Posted by mark at 06:53 PM | TrackBack

Tails and niches

This, from reader Alex Williams, is well worth throwing into the current discussion of current pop's anti-futurism:

'just a few points that an economist friend of mine and I have been discussing of late re: the demonstrable slowing down of excitement and innovation in music (and not just pop, obviously...)

Your last posting in response to S. Reynolds appeared to be heading off in this direction, with the outlying limbs of pop providing it with its impetus and "thrills" for at least ten, maybe twenty years now, and that these limbs (in the doomsday scenario which you kind of half subscribe to) are likely to gradually wink out one by one leaving only ossified genres and music which moves, but does not live or grow. One thing to consider here though is music as in some senses a business, not exactly like any other, (it certainly has strange foibles and kinks) but a business none the less. The changes in the market are likely to have had an effect on the produce and interrelationships between the interested parties (the companies, the acts, the consumers and the media). There is a term in the economics of the niche (apparently), which is the "long tail". As the technology of replication and distribution improves (along with increased globalisation) it becomes increasingly lucrative to market to ever more esoteric niches. As marketing becomes ever more targeted, media naturally evolves to track these niches (or conversely to rush to the most watery of middle-ground fodder). This can be observed in the changing patterns of British music media- with ever more niche publications it makes less sense economically for, say, the NME to cover as broad a range of music as it did previously-- as it is already being covered in far greater depth than it could feasibly manage. Hence its retreat to its self-perceived "core" values- an endless variation on four whey-faced white boys with guitars, in essence.

The paradoxical thing (and a point which you yourself have raised) is the seemingly growing eclecticism of the average consumer of music. However, as you pointed out, whilst they might listen to a broader range of music, the post-modern instinct is to consume in neat little boxes, a musical buffet where the sauces never mix, just sound files carefully labelled and eternally sub-divided on the hard drive. But why then this lack of desire to see further blending (not necessarily to create mere pot-boiling aimless eclecti-tronica, but to create the seeds of new genres)? A number of answers here...

*Increased availability of music leading to devaluation of intellectual and emotional relationships between consumer and music necessary to create high demands of it... see this
[Results of a normative study on changing nature of music consumption in the UK.]

*The niching of media output leading to a lack of what might be termed "selektas"- in the past due to the far more unitary nature of the media covering music far more genres rubbed uneasily against each other, allowing high profile journalists to "selekt" elements of music along with ideas from outside to create new blueprints for genres yet to exist (see Morley and new pop as the perfect example of this), or to create new terminology to link together previously disparate emergent movements (P Sherburne on micro house being the last notable example of this that I can think of). Also as publications head ever more in the direction of the mainstream or alternatively the niche they become respectively too commercially driven to make such bold statements or too safe in their little niche-cocoons to want to shake the system.

*The increasing historic stability of genre leading to a lack of belief that any further great changes and shifts might occur… This is especially prevalent in what might be termed “rock” or “indie” music, the utter lack of futurity or modernity as a core value. If consumers are habituated to change as the natural course of music then it is natural that when such change does not occur, they will become more demanding, take maters into their own hands, however if they have been brought up as guitar-based music fans have with the idea of an eternal same, then how could there ever be the possibility of change. Genres are in part of course ossifying because they no longer tread on each others toes or call into question the others values and conventions. And not just genre-by-genre, but in terms of the pop mainstream and the alleged avant underground. Each of these is far too stable and unchallenged,

Indeed it seems to be about expectations. In music as in many areas of creative and political life nowadays it is apparent that there is little more than a hegemony of the possible, a self-limiting awareness that “there is no further to go”. Which becomes of course a bitter self-fulfilling prophecy. The major problem is really that the numbers necessary to demand the impossible, to be ultimately utterly dissatisfied and demand and create something better and to disrupt and unsettle the staid conventions of all the mummified tentacles of this octopus of music I doubt exist. To achieve a post-punk/new pop like event (or even rave into the mainstream moment) only requires a relatively small critical number of people for it to take off. But crucially, given the slowing of expectations it seems even this is unlikely. As an example of this, look at The Guardian article recently referred to on Dissensus—not even an inkling of the idea that the central problem in the case of The Arctic Monkeys (especially sonically) is that they exist entirely within the remit of ideas from almost 30 years ago. But when you remark of this fact to anyone, seemingly, the response is simply that there are no new ideas, and it’s all over. And if people only believe in the possible, it’s all fucked.

What is perhaps necessary is for the tail to no longer wag the dog and for artists, media and consumers to evolve new committed positions within the emerging distributive networks and allow a rebirth of the excitement and invention which marked popular music from 1950s onwards in the last century. Because it is doubtful as to whether we could structurally return to things as they were. The other options are to tunnel further into the various niches, or to play ever more elaborate po-mo games (hauntology perhaps?) But that is pretty much an expression of terminal decline into mere classical languages.'

UPDATE: Padraig responds, with a question.

Posted by mark at 12:32 AM | TrackBack

February 10, 2006

With Friends Like these...


I assume most of you have seen this by now.

If and when you stop laughing (and I'll level you with you I ain't stopped yet), watch the unhip young gunslinger put out of her niaserie by snI.P.er shots from the PillBox.

All the young dupes taken down in a hail of bullet points:

. BLOC PARTY and KAISER CHIEFS: 'disturbingly reminiscent of post-punk third-raters like The Members and The Ruts'
. FRANZ FERDINAND: 'more an I-Spy Our New Wave References game than a real and original band'
. BABYSHAMBLES 'represent the triumph of self-mythologisation over smeary, half-cocked substance.'
. ARCTIC MONKEYS: '25% youthful sizzle to 75% formulaic boilerplate and standard teen-boy moan.'

Each one a crack shot, I'd say.

It might seem cruel to mock Natalie, who can only be 17 at the most - surely. But when you bear in mind that was the age at which IP and Burchill joined NME... well, that's a whole other story of decline, ain't it.

It's nice that the Guardian is willing to give va kidz a chance, like, (has she been taken on as a government-scheme trainee?) but surely a kindly member of its editorial team could have performed some emergency surgery on the following ghastly slew of bad copywriting, poorly digested press release and breathless PR: 'With Rupert Murdoch's networking website MySpace planning to launch a UK-specific version any minute now - giving an initial emphasis to the hugely popular and influential music section - the sound of our times will become set even more firmly in history's stone.' In history's stone ... I wince on behalf of the English language...

Wonderful that the Guardian has no qualms about giving a free ad to Rupert M too.

What makes this worrying as well as hilarious is the horrible suspicion that Nataleee's 'doubt-free syntax of excitable PR' is the authentic voice of todaze Yoof, i.e. 'a supine generation of essentially nihilistic unquestioning cocooned and complacent consumers', as Alex, one of Pillbox's commenters, puts it. Jejune enthusiasm, even for remake/remodellers like Arctic Monkeys, would be welcome. But the staggering thing about the article is the absolute lack of ANY comment about the music, about how it makes her feel, about what is striking or novel about it. What we get, instead, is an earnest citation of STATISTICS, as if she's an account manager powerpointing her end-of-year report to a bored CEO.

'It is an overlooked fact that UK acts dominated the best-selling album charts in 2005, occupying all top five positions. While Franz Ferdinand warmed up with an impressive 700,000 sales of their second album, You Could Have It So Much Better, in the UK alone during the four months after its release, the Arctic Monkeys have now confirmed the indie-rock revolution we've been waiting for. Their debut album, Whatever People Say I Am, That's What I'm Not, shifted a hugely satisfying 360,000 copies in its first week and stormed to the top of the album charts, where it has stayed for the second week running. A spokesman for the music retailer HMV summed it up nicely: "We haven't seen anything quite like this since the Beatles."'

an impressive 700,000
a hugely satisfying 360,000

Chilling stuff, which it's hard not to read as symptomatic of a teen unconscious totally captured and colonized by Kapital, so immersed in business ontology as not to be able to see it, still less imagine any alternative to it.

Not to worry, though... Natalie likes Grime too...

Posted by mark at 12:23 AM | TrackBack

February 08, 2006

Night of the Living Indieheads

Simon's repsonse to my Pop Unlife piece is as interesting as you'd expect.

But what Simon calls 'the tiny achiles heel' of my argument is in fact the very point of it. For it to have come to this, where a band is celebrated for 'casually out-groov[ing] Franz Ferdinand' (high praise!), where it is not considered, a priori, a reason for despair and disgust that 'one of the best records of the year' - the year being 2006 - is an 'inbreeding' of The Jam, Smiths, Oasis, Libertines* (an inbreeding of the already inbred): that is a sign that something is over. Pop really is Trad.

My quarrel, after all, was less with the Arctic Monkeys per se (though Simon's right, I willl never permit myself to like them) than with the critical climate that has elevated them into the stratosphere. If the AM album were re-classified as a guilty pleasure, akin to enjoying a good quality Abba tribute band or something, I would have few problems with it. But not to challenge the NME rating - fifth best British album EVER - not to be alarmed by the audience's fervour for it, is catastrophic for two reasons. First, because it colludes in the pretence that Pop is healthy and thriving ('this is as good as it ever was!') Second, because it actively contributes to a lowering of expectations ('it won't get any better than this'). It is, exactly, a matter of principle, of refusing to give up on desire, because to accept either of these positions is to betray (Pop's) desire, to lapse in fidelity to those convulsive Events which made Pop matter, made it more than something pleasant to listen to. It is a betrayal worse than an actual renunciation of those events, since it is a forgetting that anything happened in the first place. For Pop no longer to make demands on the world but to accomodate itself to the world's 'it'll have to do' realism constitutes the very flatlining into undeath of which I wrote.

Because it is incumbent on critics as much as artists to nihilate. It is for critics to cultivate a sense of disgust, of dissatisfaction with what is being offered. It is for critics to insist that nothing less than sublimity will ever do.

Maybe it is over**. Maybe no amount of bile, no amount of vituperation, we can produce can stir the comfortable zombie from its sleepwalk. Simon's right; there are no real resources in present Pop - and I'm using Pop in the broadest sense here -, no contemporary counter-examples to which we can contemptuously compare Indie's retroism, as once we could. But that is precisely what is so distressing: can it be... that all Pop tends towards the condition of Indie - a chilling, dis-spiriting thought. (Mind you, I think Simon's overstating the case a mite: Grime and Dubstep may only be trudging forward, but they haven't yet hit rewind, aren't into their TWENTIETH GLORIOUS YEAR of inherent and constitutive Retro...) That's why the critique must change, why I now will countenance the possibility that things have reached the endzone, a negative plateau, potentially lasting forever, where nothing happens but it doesn't stop. But, if there is to be something after this undeath, what we should judge things against is not what is currently available, but what hasn't yet arrived, what could (still) happen.

* This glum quartet may be shopworn (and actually pernicious trash in the case of Oasis and the Libertines), but it's as nothing compared to the four bands Marcello mentioned in his AM piece: 'Wonder Stuff, Kingmaker, Cud and Leatherface', acts I hadn't expected to see mentioned again outside the context of a carboot sale. Scratch that, bands I would NEVER even have remembered (repression can be a wonderful thing). To be fair to Marcello, he makes a point of saying that it is 'a quadrant of music which I rarely, if ever, am tempted to sample again in the 21st century', but... come on... surely this is the most dreary array of groups ever to feature in one sentence. Picture this scene. Let's say you are at a jungle event, circa 94. Someone tells you thatin 2006 a group compared to Wonder Stuff, Kingmaker, Cud and Leatherface will have made one of the best records of the year. Think about how you would have felt. Hold onto THAT feeling, please...

** My grim story would look something like this. Mainstream Pop had its years of never-to-return vibrancy between 64 and 82. After that, the engines of innovation all come from Pop's satellite cultures (hip hop, the rave discontinuum), which occasionally impinge on a mainstream that slowly but surely becomes moribund. Gradually, the satellites too wink out, trundling around in permanently fixed orbits, maintaining themselves, but doing nothing more...

Posted by mark at 01:09 AM | TrackBack

February 07, 2006

'Secularism has been forgotten in the West'

From an interview with Hamid Taqvaee, Leader and Secretary of
the Central Committee of the Worker-Communist Party in Iran.


'Political Islam exists because it was created in the final analysis by the policies of Western governments. And, I am not referring to the Iraq war alone or Western intervention in Afghanistan. These are only the most recent examples. Western governments have basically been supporting political Islam for some twenty to thirty years now, including the Taliban vis-à-vis the former Soviet Union. They created the climate for the problems we are faced with today. Political Islam rose to power when Western powers supported Khomeini against the Shah in order to control and in fact defeat the revolution in Iran. These are the roots of the political Islam that we see today. And that is only one aspect of the reality we are faced with.

The other is the way that Islam and religion are promoted as a whole in Western society. With Reaganism, Thatcherism, and neo-conservatism, religion has been given a growing role in education and our system of values in the name of multiculturalism and toleration of cultures.


You must rely on the universal values of civil society, on secularism and humanism and attack political Islam and religion as part of government, the educational system, and a social system with the most backward system of values. The solution is secularism, defending humanism, defending civil society, defending universal values of human beings against any kind of religious political, social, governmental system, including political Islam.


If there is a proven relationship between a group or cleric and political Islamic trends in the UK, they must be condemned and prosecuted. Where does deportation come into it? If British citizens are British citizens and are prosecuted according to the law, deporting them only divides citizens between those who are born here or who are Anglo-Saxon versus others. It is a form of racism. The fact that they or their parents originally came from other countries, and can therefore be deported back there is part of the problem.

The problem is that these governments don't see human beings as human beings - not even their own citizens. Even British citizens are classified as Muslims or Asians or Arabs, or from wherever they came from, or where their parents and grandparents came from; that is exactly the problem. Of course if someone commits a crime, treat them like a criminal; prosecute them according to the law but why deportation?


Secularism has been forgotten in the West. If Tony Blair wants to attack the problem with reason, then one cannot stand against extremism and Islamic terrorism alone without referring its roots, without referring to the environment created by Western policies. That is the root of the problem. That is the real force of reason.


Withdrawing from Iraq is a good move. But, what I am saying is that it is not enough. Do something with religion and Islam in your own country. Do something in the philosophy of your culture. Go back to the French revolution. And attack any religion as a social activity. Religion is a private matter. Everybody has a right to have a god or not. It's their personal problem. Please treat religion as a private matter.'

Posted by mark at 06:56 PM | TrackBack

February 06, 2006

Another way, a way out...

'Take two opposed pressure groups - record the most violent and threatening statements of group one with regard to group two and play back to group two - Record the answer and take it back to group one - back and forth between opposed pressure groups - this process is known as 'feedback'.'

Remind you of anything? Burroughs' description of the cybernetic production of conflict in The Ticket that Exploded has never seemed more relevant than over the past five or six days.

I gained a new persective on the seemingly intractable 'cartoon controversy' yesterday when I went to an inspiring and invigorating - but, significantly, sparsely attended - meeting about women's situation in Iraq. The issues raised at the meeting had implications far beyond the local situation in Iraq. As Nadia Mahmoud of the Iraq Freedom Congress said, a victory against the US and 'political Islam' in Iraq would be a victory that would have an impact across the whole world.

The position that the Iraq Freedom Congress and the The Organisation of Women's Freedom in Iraq (represented at the meeting by Houzan Mahmoud) advocate - secular universalism - is significant, indeed crucial, because it constitutes the Impossible option, the one excluded by the current political 'reality'. Majority opinion in the western media (including majority opinion on the left) colludes in offering us the most unsavoury of Hobson's choices: EITHER western 'civilization' (interpreted to mean US-dominated global capitalism) OR a theocratic but notionally anti-imperialist Islamism. In terms of Iraq, this cashes out in terms of a 'choice' between the US occupation and the resistance.

Houzan Mahmoud

There is a horrible symmetry about the way that emancipatory politics has been skewered by this binary : feminism, grotesquely, has been co-opted by neo-conservatives as a legitimation for the invasion and the occupation, while anti-racism and anti-imperialism have provided the justification for the support offered by some elements of the anti-war left to the Iraqi resistance.

Needless to say, the neo-con claims about women's rights increasing after Saddam have rung hollow in the grim, lawless realities of occupied Iraq. Iraqi women have been betrayed by the occupation and brutalized by the resistance, raped and assaulted by US soldiers and Islamist militia-men alike. Women in Iraq occupy the position of what we might call the 'femmo-sacer': the excluded, the exception that stands in for the universal; the supposedly 'less than human' that stands in for generic humanity.

Leftist support for what both the Mahmouds called 'the reactionary resistance' would only makes sense if the Iraq Freedom Congress and the The Organisation of Women's Freedom in Iraq did not exist. But given that there are secularist communist groups in Iraq that demand women's rights, why should the left have any truck with theocratic militias who shoot women for not wearing the veil? A possible leftist objection - that this is a racist caricature - was exploded by both Nadia Mahmoud and Houzan Mahmoud, who both confirmed that the militias have been engaged in a brutal crushing of women's most basic freedoms. Traditional garb is now de facto mandatory in many areas of Iraq (with the further consequence that many women have stopped attending universities because they do not want to be coerced into wearing the veil); the return of polygamy (outlawed in Iraq in 1958) is threatened; honour-killing is on the rise; rape and sexual abuse is a growing, if largely unacknowledged, problem; prostitution, and child-prostitution, are on the increase, fuelling a trend for the abduction of women. This latter is such a constant danger, Houzan Mahmoud said, that it is now unthinkable for a woman in most areas of Iraq to walk the streets for even ten minutes without an armed male to protect her. Iraq has traded the oppression of Saddam Hussein for a condition of lawless anomie, a sandpunk nightmare in which quasi-medievalist warlords plot the coming of the caliphate in the gleamprog shadows of the US empire.

Given all this, how could leftist apologia for the resistance not itself be propagating a racial, if not to say racist, fantasy that forgets Iraq's recent secular history and which holds that Iraqis are not yet 'developed' enough to deal with the question of equality for women?

The only other justification for continued support for the resistance would be a pragmatic-strategic take on the old, discredited idea that 'my enemy's enemy is my friend'. The fact that this exactly re-capitulates the logic of the Cold War US support for the mujahadeen - itself a version of imperialist instrumentalism ('we can use them for our ends') - ought to give those who advocate it at least a moment's pause. Besides, to think that 'my enemy's enemy is my friend' would only be justifiable in Iraq if a theocratic Islamist state could be thought to be preferable to the US occupation - a dubious claim at best, and one which the Freedom Congress and The Organisation of Women's Freedom reject.

The point is, a choice between the imperialist US and a reactionary militia is not a choice a leftist group should accept. In any case, it is not a 'choice' at all, because the Islamists groups have only come to the fore in the wake of the invasion. Both Nadia and Houzan Mahmoud made it clear that the resistance is more of an effect of the US invasion than an alternative to it. The war on terror and Islamism are in a relation of inter-exciting feedback, not of opposition. In an Iraq that was previously politically secular, Islamism had no real foothold. But the US invasion and occupation have provided exactly the breeding ground for Islamism that many who opposed the war warned that it would. As we have seen above, the results for women have been disastrous. In addition to everything else, the puppet regime has refused to ratify women's rights, which are only accepted in the constitution at all insofar as they do not conflict with Islamic law.

Part of what was so inspiring yesterday was seeing it amply demonstrated, in the context of the most concrete of political situation, that the only rational, coherent and positive position is secular universalism. The shameful fact is, though, that neither the Iraq Freedom Congress and the The Organisation of Women's Freedom in Iraq has much of a profile in Britain. This is no accident; they have been left off platforms or actively boycotted by such groups as the Stop the War coalition because of their critical stance towards Islamism. How can it be that a platform is given to Islamist mullahs but not to these women? Something has gone badly wrong, and it is going wrong again in some of the leftist reactions to the cartoon controversy. Both Nadia Mahmoud and Houzan Mahmoud were predictably dismissive of the Islamist outrage over the Danish cartoons. Is Islam so weak, Nadia Mahmoud asked, that it is to be humbled by twelve caricatures?

We should not forget that the publication of the cartoons in Denmark took place in the context of a political situation in which Islamophobic sentiments enjoy legitimacy. But to deplore the role that the cartoons have played in the local Danish situation, and to deplore the way in which they, and the ensuing controversy, will be used by racists in the UK and elsewhere, should not lead us into the invidious position of defending Islamism, a creed, which, as Houzain Mahmoud and Nadia Mahmoud will tell you if you doubt it for even a moment, is bigoted, brutal and inherently hostile to egalitarian aims. Islamophobia is noxious not because it attacks Islam but because it racialises Muslims, treating them as an amorphous subhuman scourge, whose rights and lives can be stripped away. But defending Muslims from racist attacks should not entail defending Islam as a religion, still less should it involve defending Islamism as a political position, any more than rejecting anti-semitism should mean supporting Judaism and Zionism.


In the case of the cartoons, two causes of outrage have been conflated: first, the cartoons are held to be violating a prohibition to produce images of Mohammed; second, the connection between Islam and terrorism has been deemed to be offensive.

Even if there were an interdiction against images of the prophet (and the belief that there has always been such a prohibition has been dismissed by some as a 'zombie error' - an ill-founded commonplace belief that will not die), so what? There is no right to not be offended, nor should there be. If the cartoons were an insult to Islam, so be it. The only political objection to the cartoons is that they form part of a racist attack on Muslim populations, and the opposition to the cartoons remains political only when it makes a distinction between defending Muslims and defending Islam. Yet the Indonesians who burned Danish flags in the streets were not objecting to racism, they were protesting an affront to Islam. And if the issue is offence, those who defend the Islamist right not to be offended ought, logically, also to support the Christian groups who boycotted the Jerry Springer Opera.

As for the images which connect Islam to terrorism... Some have compared these cartoons with Nazi anti-Jewish propaganda, but the analogy is partial at best. I take the Zizek point that, even if the Jews were guilty of everything that the Nazis accused them of, it wouldn't stop the Nazi persecution of them being racist . But the converse must also be accepted: the fact that particular trends in Islam can be used by racists to justify their delirium does not mean that those trends are not objectionable and wrong.

A better analogy than the anti-Jewish caricatures of the 30s would be cartoons satirising the Catholic Church's tendency to produce paedophiliac priests. If cartoons depicting Christ sodomising children were to appear, and if the Catholic Church responded to their publication with outraged howls about being insulted accompanied by calls for those who denounced them to be slaughtered, I would expect to find the Church supported by few on the left. It seems reasonable to expect the Church to accept that there is some causal link between the institution and child sex abuse. (The Catholic response to the pederasty question has been inadequate and derisory, but that's another story.) In the same way, there is some case to be answered about the links between Islam and terrorism. The fact that these links are not straightforward, that not all Muslims support terrorism, that some terrorism is justified, that terrorism emerges from causes other than religion even when it is carried out in the name of religion, is all the more reason why the best response, rather than demanding the destruction of alll who debased the sanctity of your beliefs, is to call for a rational discussion that will do justice to the complexities of the issue. Not to expect that from Muslims is to infantilise them, to impute a lower level of rationality to them than 'we' supposedly possess, in other words to engage in a sentimental, paternalistic Orientalism.

The temptation, at the moment, is to take a side from those that the Spectacle lays out for us (the media's role as a witting pawn in the escalation of this affair raises a whole set of other, intriguing questions). But racists and protesting Islamists, like occupiers and militia, are not opposing sides so much as twin faces of a moebian band. The Iraq Freedom Congress and The Organisation of Women's Freedom in Iraq show that there is another way, a way out.

Posted by mark at 01:42 AM | TrackBack