Poem: Stonewashed Eyes

Stonewashed eyes, bleached sideways, misinformed

by morning and awaiting alignment,

your pupils like black stars in the lonely constellation of your face.

 

There is a quiet dread in the ambience of a sunlit room, a hidden

chaos and

a fatigued lust

That threatens but fails to emerge.

 

But peace will come with the settled 

congregation of sight and sound and the dying of dreams of past lives – 

imagined infidelities with beautiful women,

receding with the soft tones of

headlines, murmured by a human

voice.

Listicles are for Nazis

 

The internet is populated by listicles; they are now ubiquitous, finding their way into every corner of cyberspace. It is true that the listicle has been a key feature of modern magazine journalism, but the infinite space of the internet makes them a particularly attractive proposition for content farms. They are easy to produce and easy to read, making them the perfect form of writing in an environment dominated by content farmers and SEO strategists with their eyes firmly fixed on generating revenue.

 

This is not to say that the idea of ‘the list’ or ‘the top…’ is fundamentally wrong, a symptom of the corrupted modern mind, worn down by late capitalism and all the detritus that comes with it (although it might be). Lists can be wonderful ways of encountering the world. This is something joyfully demonstrated in the film High Fidelity. The core group of characters, a group of men working in a Chicago record store, live their lives through lists. Many of the lists seem to be rather obscure, yet the more obscure, the more intriguing the result. Indeed, the idea of the list comes to form the backdrop of the film, as John Cusack’s character, Rob, deals with his break up from his long-term girlfriend, Laura, by placing her within his list of his ‘top five break-ups of all time’. At first sight this may seem childish. To a certain extent it probably is. Yet while it might demonstrate Rob’s infantilism or arrested development, it is nevertheless shown to be important because it allows him to place his failed relationship within a specific context. So although it might appear immature it is also a way of ‘finding some perspective’ (generally considered ‘the grown up thing to do’). The list becomes a narrative through which Rob comes to terms with the disappointments of life.

 

Umberto Eco has also written about lists. He wrote in Der Spiegel (which I found via this article in Gawker)

 

The list is the origin of culture… What does culture want? To make infinity comprehensible. It also wants to create order — not always, but often. And how, as a human being, does one face infinity? How does one attempt to grasp the incomprehensible? Through lists, through catalogs, through collections in museums and through encyclopedias and dictionaries.

 

Lists, therefore, are an encounter with death, or more specifically a facing up to death –  ‘We have a limit, a very discouraging, humiliating limit: death. That’s why we like all the things that we assume have no limits and, therefore, no end. It’s a way of escaping thoughts about death. We like lists because we don’t want to die.’ It is not difficult to see that the taxonomising impulse inherent in list making is an attempt to make the incomprehensible comprehensible – to understand ‘infinity’. However, it is unclear whether it follows that lists are attractive to humanity because they ‘have no limits’, and that subsequently they become a way of diverting us from the fact of our own inexorable movement towards death. Eco is right in most senses, but wring in this way: lists are not limitless but rather limiting. They are ways of ordering and organising knowledge. Lists are not limitless things that provide an escape from the limits imposed by death, but rather the opposite. They are limiting, ways of comprehending the world. By contrast, death is incomprehensible and unknowable – it is death that is ‘limitless’ because it cannot be conceived or understood (at this point, another video from High Fidelity is apt…)

 

The ability to organise and structure knowledge is one of the beauties of the list, as Eco suggests, yet in the ubiquitous form of the internet listicle, this organisation becomes a way of stripping away the necessity of thought or context. The listicle makes knowledge manageable. Indeed, it tells you what you ought to know. Knowledge is made immediate, digestible even.

 

The sense of ‘order’ put forward by Eco in his discussion of lists is a creative one; it is an order that is made by the curiosity and ingenuity of the human mind. The order that is inherent in the listicle, however, is completely uncreative and ultimately anti-intellectual. Indeed, for the most part, listicles may seem harmless. Yet I recently encountered a listicle that was so inappropriate for its subject matter that it was laughably obscene: ‘The Top 10 Things The Nazis Got Right’. At first sight, a title like this appears to be deliberately provocative. My immediate response was that it was a satirical piece making pretty much the point I am trying to make here. Yet upon closer inspection, it became clear that the piece was too earnest and ultimately lacking in any humour whatsoever that it was a genuine article (or rather, listicle).

 

The National Socialist German Workers’ Party (Nazi party) is one of the most infamous political systems in the history of the earth, made famous by their severe acts of cruelty and completely inhuman behavior. Despite that, the Nazi government implemented a number of policies which were for the good of their people and those of the future; many of these policies are now implemented by our own governments.

 

The writer goes on to put in a disclaimer that ‘this is NOT an endorsement of the Nazi regime’; the writer hopes, instead, that ‘this list hopefully shows that even amidst great evil, the good of man is still able to shine through’. The listicle has exceeded its humble beginnings in content farm internet writing, and has now become a force for the redemption of humanity.

 

The problem with the list, as anyone could probably point out, is that it fails to place any of these items into context. When ‘animal conservation’ is listed as one of the things the Nazis ‘got right’, for example, the writer fails to place the policy within the context of Nazi nationalism. Conservation may be admirable, but it is wrong to view such a policy outside of the ideological context of Nazism. Similar arguments could be made for many of these entries. Even where there are potentially interesting points, such as the mention of the development of cinema in Nazi Germany, particularly Riefenstahl’s The Triumph of The Will, the interesting yet problematic nature of the relationship between aesthetics and fascism is not discussed at all.

 

What we have in this listicle is a complete deterioration of thought into soundbites, pieces of trivia. It may be an extreme example, but it is also a useful example as it highlights exactly what is lost in the listicle form. If nothing else, one at least needs to be aware of the limitations of the form: cute animals are fine; Nazis not so much.

Poem: What Words Must Follow Death?

What words must follow death?

What remains to be said even after the eulogies, the voices

of sad storytellers with their anecdotes disguised as wisdom?

What words are left –

What words can be formed in the white noise of passing –

in refrains that quietly sing between images flickering without pause

for breath,

images that would not even stop for death,

ambivalent refrains stretched between the twin points

of hopeless desolation and joy, facing towards an

impossible future?

What words can trace the lines of movement from politics

to theology –

from private tears to new narratives that conceal incessant trauma

inflicted by silent structures that paint and inscribe their names

upon the bodies it collects and collates –

bodies of which one dreams and then quickly forgets?

What words must follow death?

What ideas can be built from the dust on our faces –

ideas that can resist chaotic revenants capable of crying but

unable to laugh?

What words must follow death?

What words can give shape to imagination?  – Words that spit sorrow;

infinitely full of hope.

Spectres of Margaret

I wasn’t keen on writing anything on the recent death of Margaret Thatcher as the event has become utterly ubiquitous in the media. In the past few days, voices from all quarters have been keen to give their two cents (or two pence) to anyone with the inclination to listen or read. It is an event that has clearly caught the imagination of those in charge of creating the popular imagination, and it seemed to me to be futile to try and contribute anything in an already saturated media/politics landscape. In this saturated environment, moreover, it is difficult to add anything which had not already been said. It wasn’t so much the old adage ‘if you can’t find anything nice to say, don’t say anything at all’, more ‘if you can’t think of anything original to say, don’t bother trying’.

Perhaps within this sense of futility there was also a guarded sense of respect, a feeling that because Thatcher was not part of my life, at least in terms of my living memory, quietism was the best and most dignified response, at least for the moment. However, this quietism is certainly not the same as not having a point of view. I might have been able to confine this point of view to passing comments and the muted endorsement of the writing of others, but I have become increasingly aware of a line of argument that suggests I am not entitled to a point of view at all.

It would seem that many people have suddenly had a sense of irony awoken within them. These people believe it to be wonderfully insightful to have noticed that many people with the temerity to suggest that the adulation of Thatcher that has been taking place in the media and politics (which will culminate in the vulgar spectacle of a state funeral by stealth for a woman who despised the state and anyone who had the audacity to believe in its ability to do good) isn’t actually such a Good Thing, weren’t even born when she was at Number 10. Ha! Hilarious!

The implication is that we (ie. me) should shut up: we have no right to talk about something we weren’t even alive to experience. This is plainly ludicrous. If being alive at the time of a particular historical event or period is the prerequisite of judgment then history itself has ceased to be relevant. There is no line of legitimation that separates those ‘allowed’ to speak on Thatcher from those who cannot. There is no point within time that prohibits me from having an opinion.

Image

Hilarious meme

‘Of that which happened before you were born, you must remain silent.’ This type of thinking is ultimately philistine. It suggests a distrust of people who are curious about the world around them, about the past – people who take an active interest in finding things out. Of course, reading a book or watching a television programme does not give anyone ‘authority’ or the last word on a subject. But it does not disqualify them from talking about a subject either. This is not about political disagreements – if you disagree with someone discuss, argue, fall out and never speak to them again. What this is about is an attempt to close down debate and discussion by trying to set parameters on who has the right to speak on a certain issue and who does not.

There is an interesting theoretical dimension to all this. The argument centres upon the notion of ‘experience’ – those with experience of living under Thatcher are able to talk about it precisely because this experience has given them an access to knowledge which they deem to be superior. This is not to say that there is no value in having experienced living under Thatcher’s premiership – anyone who did so would have their beliefs shaped by it, and those beliefs are necessary and valuable in a dicussion of her legacy. But this does not mean that those who did not experience the eighties have nothing to contribute. We might here ask what exactly constitutes ‘experience’, and how it is formed; in what ways does it connect to ideas regarding ‘knowledge’ and ‘authority’? (these questions are perhaps loosely related to this piece of writing)

Regardless of these philosophical and theoretical questions about ‘experience’ and ‘authority’, the fact remains that Thatcher’s legacy exceeds her time as Prime Minister. The society we live in today was undoubtedly shaped by her. Her belief in the free market and her drive towards privatisation is something that has become completely naturalised today. Slavoj Zizek wrote something interesting on this topic towards the end of last year:

When Margaret Thatcher was asked about her greatest achievement, she promptly answered: “New Labour.” And she was right: her triumph was that even her political enemies adopted her basic economic policies. True victory over your enemy occurs when they start to use your language, so that your ideas form the foundation of the entire field. Today, when neoliberal hegemony is clearly falling apart, the only solution is to repeat Thatcher’s gesture in the opposite direction.

Thatcher’s great success is that she has shaped the entire political field as we know it in 2013. She has all but destroyed the left, at least in the sense of it being a presence within political and democratic life. It is therefore not surprising at all that people without living memory of her government should have an interest, and, indeed, an opinion, on her. For those who have grown up with left wing views, Thatcher’s legacy is that these views are no longer articulated in mainstream political discourse. Although she may have died only days ago, throughout the nineties and even more so throughout the New Labour years of the noughties, she has been a spectre that has struck the political left dumb. We may have possession of the culture, but we will never be allowed access to the system itself.

Because of her spectral presence, it is impossible to isolate ‘Thatcher’, as both a politician and a political idea (for she is, of course, both) to the exact period she was in office. This is what those who do not believe in my right to an opinion believe. They believe me to be untouched by Thatcher. Yet it is possible that Thatcher’s influence will be felt more strongly by me and my generation than those who lived through the eighties. This will certainly be true if the present Government get their way.

The fact that Thatcher’s influence remains strong today makes the opinions of those who did not experience Thatcherism directly absolutely vital. The way that Thatcher’s legacy is remembered will affect the future of this country; her funeral will be used as an image through which twenty-first century Conservatism can be consolidated. I have a right to an opinion on that, surely?

Southwark Cathedral

A couple of days ago I visited Southwark Cathedral, hoping to see Nic Fiddian Green’s sculpture Christ Rests In Peace. Unfortunately, the sculpture had gone, as it was only appearing in the cathedral throughout Lent; I was a couple of days late, with Easter Sunday happening only two days previously. However, although I was disappointed not to see the sculpture, the building was nevertheless stunning, and the experience gave me a poem.

Image

Courtesy of pencefn.wordress.com

 

I was too late to see the melancholy head

Of Christ resting sadly on its side –

Resting on the blasphemous thorns of

A blasphemous crown.

 

All that remained was the vacant space

Of a holy interior half lit by dim electricity

And half lit by an urban daylight, filtered

Through coloured glass.

 

This light cast intricate shadows, a performance engendered

By a luminous dialectic with darkness – the shadows

Emerging from the crevices and folds of a

Whispering architecture.

 

Like my visit, the building was structured around

Absence,

A holy nothing gently and occasionally disturbed

By a dozen faces made religious

By unseasonable arctic winds.

 

There was a cat too: restless

And in pursuit of absent mice,

Resistant to my language and unsure of

My gestures of affection –

It moved, solitary and sad,

Safe with the knowledge acquired through its multiple lives.

 

I was too late to see the head of a late Christ;

Too late to bear witness:

All that remained was its flattened image,

A bloodless centrefold laid out before me.

Austerity Always Works

The recent budget (Wednesday 20th March) was inevitably met with anger and dismay; arguments fell on deaf ears unwilling to listen and insults were hurled at Osborne. The chancellor’s decision to make himself available to his critics via Twitter facilitated this process quite wonderfully. However, there was nothing particularly remarkable about this budget. In terms of stories, Osborne played it safe. There were no attacks on pensioners; pasties were left well alone. In many ways, it might be said that there were aspects of the budget that played to the crowd; cutting fuel tax and the duty to be paid on beer, for example, will surely have widespread appeal.

The key point, however, is that life continues as it always has done – for many it gets worse. Yesterday’s budget may not afford the press the big headlines that it would have liked, but the very absence of these big stories should in fact be more shocking, particularly to anyone who considers themselves of the left. It is the feeling that things simply pass by – that life goes on –  that is dangerous. For the violence wrought by the economic decisions made by Osborne nevertheless goes on; it is still felt by the most vulnerable, only it cannot be attached to a larger story. There is nothing on which to pin the feeling of desperation experienced by the poorest – and even those not quite so poor – in society. It recedes into the backdrop of British life. It is the tinnitus of social decay.

Walter Benjamin once wrote somewhere that it is the continuation of life as it is, rather than its end that is the real catastrophe. This is the catastrophe of the present moment – the budget is ultimately insignificant, for things will continue as they did before.

The problem for those on the left is how this state of affairs can be changed. This is not a simple problem of course, and it is made worse by the fact that in the current situation, austerity always works. When I say this I obviously do not mean that the economic doctrine currently be pursued by the British government – and many other government around the world – is the only possible course of strategy to save us from an economic disaster. After all, we are already in that disaster, and figures suggest that the economic situation is growing even worse. What I mean is that austerity will always work because those responsible for implementing it, even those responsible for talking about it and discussing it in Think Tanks and the media, never feel the effects of it. Austerity will always work precisely because their lives always work; the immediate world around them functions properly. The signs of economic distress and human struggle are beyond their field of vision; at the very least it is something peripheral.

It goes on; austerity continues. Nothing in the current discourse is able to count against austerity. Even those on the centre-left, including those in the upper-echelons of the Labour party have no real argument against austerity. The debate is focussed on the nuances of policy, the details of how to tax, where to cut, and where to spend. This is not to say that there is no value to debating these nuances, and it perhaps betrays my lack economic knowledge that I should be sceptical about the debate being situated in such a way. But the current political predilection for the minutiae of policy is an ideological smokescreen that hides the fact that austerity has its hegemonic grip on political life and there is little chance of anyone twisting its fingers.

If austerity is always working, this is nothing to do with economics. Instead, it signals a failure within our democracy. For those responsible for austerity are those with political control; they have power but they do not feel its consequences. The voices of those who are directly experience the struggles forced on them by austerity are largely absent from the political agenda. Indeed, the narrative largely seems to be one in which economic struggle is merely a fact of our lives in 2013. Economic struggle becomes an add-on, a side piece. They are small, personal stories: a footnote in the grand narrative of British and global politics.

Yet these stories underline the fact that austerity doesn’t work. The catastrophe of continuation is perhaps inevitable –  what is needed is an articulation of the violence of austerity to come together, to unsettle the comfort of the hegemony.