Perhaps you, like me, have fallen back on the name of a cosmic abomination as an off-the-peg metaphor for something sprawlingly vast in time and space, monstrously abhorrent to behold, and existing outside of all human notions of morality. No, not Donald Trump but HP Lovecraft’s Great Old One, a horror supposedly even more disturbing than the thought of a Trump presidency: mighty Cthulhu.
Scan the index of a modern text by someone working in a university Humanities faculty and you will most likely encounter this name. Cthulhu has become a metaphor for something wholly other – sprawling, tentacular, supermassive, transcendent of Kantian ideas about time and space as a priori intuitions, the mental framework necessary to apprehend things-in-themselves. When academics reach for Cthulhu, these inhuman qualities are what they hope to transmit.
How did this fictional entity become a lazy metaphor for Humanities and Cultural Studies students and academics to fall back on (myself included)? Just what are they implying when they evoke HP Lovecraft’s creation? And how could such a non-existent object become so entangled in the logic of capitalism that is now available as a wool-knit toy, crocheted balaclava and as a variant of the Che Guevara T-shirt? These are some of the occult mysteries which this short essay will examine.
A series of short essays in which a word, concept, or subject examines itself. Inspired by the title of C.K. Ogden and I.A. Richards’s The Meaning of Meaning.
One short sleep past, we wake eternally,
And death shall be no more; Death, thou shalt die!
The death of death has long been foretold. In John Donne’s Holy Sonnet X (1609), the metaphysical poet chides Death for being proud and concludes that Death will be as good as dead once human souls are resurrected in paradise. Donne was merely drawing on a biblical reckoning for the Grim Reaper, 1 Corinthians 15:26: “The last enemy that shall be destroyed is death.” One is tempted to interject: how can Death die if he never lived?
Today, such prognostications about death’s demise are likely to take a more technological tone. The death of death means life, forever. Mortality is an irksome biological fact that will eventually be overcome by science. Technology will find the way; it always does. So go the certainties of the entrepreneurially-minded, usually billionaires in Silicon Valley who have the ego and money for such a Grail quest, and a vested interest in prolonging their sybaritic lives.
When did the language of job adverts become so arcane? It is a language unto itself – a meta-language that seems to lack referents in what passes for the concrete fabric of reality today. Who can actually point at a stakeholder and say, as Wittgestein once did of a tree, ‘I know that that’s a stakeholder’? But it is a word that persists in its internal and external form. A stakeholder can mean everything from a customer to the CEO, or a school pupil (internal) and their parent (external). These terms have a nasty habit of leaving their parochial domain (the corporate world) and infiltrating all institutions – schools, universities, hospitals, libraries – at least in their job ads.
Workflow is another advertisement leitmotif, its concise vagueness perhaps meant to suggest fluid working methods, a liquid labouring that is as ceaseless as the 19th Century Thames in its outpouring of productivity. Such opaque rhetoric is the language of neo-liberalism – the language of the free market that ‘corporatises’ vocations to better engineer a return on investment. Here is Corporate Realism, Capitalist Realism’s PR firm: a future-oriented, growth-minded, ‘strivers-not-skivers’ tone and lexicon. At work is a brutal anti-poetry, where words become connotation engines, suggesting economic import at every linguistic turn. It is both exhausting and perplexing, since this job-specific language only seems to exist within this strange realm of job applications.
It is a discourse trapped in the symbiotic exchange between advert and applicant. The selection process starts here, with recognition of the rules of the game, the phrases which are to be repeated back at the parental job provider. Only the worthy individual who can pluck these semantic implements from the text and wield them correctly in their application will enter the kingdom of gainful employ. This is your initation into the cult of modern work – the mastery of its esoteric language.
You will be experienced in x.You will implement y. Another noticeable feature is how driven the rhetoric is – as driven as you must be to meet its demands. In keeping with the going-forward-isation of our times, the future is a utopia which you will have helped shaped through continuous improvement. It is a peverse twist on the Heraclitean notion of Panta rhei, where everything flows, nothing stands still: for your new employer, the improving will never be done. At the same time, communication can only ever occur across multiple channels, meaning you must be able to handle audio, video, and written ‘content’. That latter catch-all term is one I have examined already. Elsewhere, the language of business and warfare (‘strategic aims’) permeates even a post for a Special Educational Needs Teaching Assistant. Austerity, meanwhile, is visible in the sprawling duties and responsibilities whereby two or more positions have clearly been sandwiched into one starring ‘role’.
Yet use these words you must. A university workshop on CVs and cover letters instructed me how employers now perform keyword scans, outsourcing their own Human Resources labour to an algorithm – an irony that is too disheartening to be ever so droll. So I beat on, a solitary boat against the workflow, borne back ceaselessly into the Corporate Realist present.
Featured image by Ed Burtynsky of a Chinese factory.
A series of short essays in which a word, concept, or subject examines itself. Inspired by the title of C.K. Ogden and I.A. Richards’s The Meaning of Meaning.
When did the current fad for crudely conjoined portmanteaus begin? Was it the ungainly moobs that started it all, taking the m from man and supplanting the b of boobs with it? The media delights in coining compound celebrity couples, making mutant nomenclatures, such as Kimye, Brangelina and Hiddleswift. In ‘yoofspeak’, this is called ‘shipping‘, a verb derived from relationship. And now this modern habit has entered political discourse and, disastrously, we all live in a Brexit-ridden world.
Once (how long ago it seems!) it was simply an unhappy marriage of British and exit, and, despite its inelegant etymology and sonorous infelicity, its meaning was fairly explicit. Brexit was born out of Grexit – the Greek exit from the EU anticipated if that nation were to default on its debt repayments. It didn’t and Grexit slipped from view. With the EU referendum, a simple in/out became overshadowed by the newly-minted Brexit, and its over-exposure by a media incapable of refraining itself from jumping on any passing hashtag fad.
Yet Brexit’s once-simple meaning is fast unravelling, as even those who wielded it with confidence seem unsure as to what its two syllables are supposed to convey. The Prime Minister Theresa May, who is expected to know such things, has further fogged the semantic sense by giving it a now-infamous self-referential definition: Brexit means Brexit. It’s as though Brexit itself were trying to wriggle out of meaning anything at all, unhappy at having been brought into the world, like Frankenstein’s monster looking for answers from its thoughtless creator. Brexit is exiting itself, self-sabotaging, divesting itself of lexical content and becoming so empty a signifier that it can mean all things to all people, which is to say, nothing at all.
‘Language is the house of being,’ Heidegger proposed, and we might wonder what being resides in words such as Brexit. A post-truth flexibility enabling permanent political evasion? Of course, Brexit is the latest in a long lineage of sophisms. There is the lexical deception of collateral damage, the smoke-and-mirror beguilement of asset for assassin. George Orwell, in his famous polemic against political language, Politics and the English Language (1946), condemned its use of ‘euphemism, question-begging and sheer cloudy vagueness’ to defend the indefensible.
Meaning, though, has always been precarious, as Alice found out when she wondered into Wonderland and met Humpty-Dumpty: ‘When I use a word […] it means just what I choose it to mean — neither more nor less.’ Naturally, Alice is disconcerted: can words really be made to mean ‘so many differnt things’? Humpty-Dumpty’s retort is that of all tyrants: ‘The question is which is to be master.’ A master-meaning, the one I mean it to mean; I, the one on high with all the power. The Guardian‘s cartoonist Steve Bell makes this point in today’s cartoon on Queen May’s regal raiments:
Nietszche was likewise mistrustful of the disconnect between word and thing: ‘What is a word? The image of a nerve stimulus in sounds.’ In his very accessible albeit nihilistic On Truth & Lies in an Extra-Moral Sense (1873), he looks at these ‘arbitrary assignments’ and draws a rather damning conclusion:
What, then, is truth? A mobile army of metaphors, metonyms, and anthropomorphisms—in short, a sum of human relations which have been enhanced, transposed, and embellished poetically and rhetorically, and which after long use seem firm, canonical, and obligatory to a people.
So it will be with Brexit, which is already being ’embellished poetically and rhetorically’, already seeming ‘firm, canonical, and obligatory to a people’. And still the public and politicos plead, What does Brexit mean? And the only answer they hear is: it means what it means. C.K. Ogden and I.A. Richards’s book The Meaning of Meaning should be exiting the shelves (shexiting?) like a Harry Potter off-cut in the coming weeks.
The painting is Vilhelm Hammershøi’s Five Portraits (1901-02).
Music, always inhospitable to ekphrasis or literary description, seems doubly so when it’s not even typically ‘musical’, which the sound-worlds of the contemporary Austrian composer Georg Friedrich Haas are not. How to capture the ways this weird sonic world emerges almost organically, ex nihilo, like life itself, mutating, growing, pulsing, speeding up, slowing down, or coming suddenly to a stop. These are soundscapes on a vast scale: gigantic rotating planets, slowly warping architectonics, shimmering stillnesses glowing like the aurora borealis. This microtonal music (also referred to as ‘spectral’) finds its forerunner in the micropolyphonic world of the Hungarian composer György Ligeti, the eerie sonic hovering between tones of Atmosphères which Kubrick memorably heard as harmonia mundi, the Music of the Spheres, in 2001: A Space Odyssey.
Perhaps the best ekphrasis would be to quote HP Lovecraft’s vision of the cosmos:
The most merciful thing in the world, I think, is the inability of the human mind to correlate all its contents. We live on a placid island of ignorance in the midst of black seas of infinity, and it was not meant that we should voyage far. The sciences, each straining in its own direction, have hitherto harmed us little; but some day the piecing together of dissociated knowledge will open up such terrifying vistas of reality, and of our frightful position therein, that we shall either go mad from the revelation or flee from the deadly light into the peace and safety of a new dark age.
Here are those ‘black seas of infinity’, the ‘terrifying vistas of reality’, depicted in sublime slabs of abstract sonic pulses. The shards of pseudo-melody which occasionally emerge seem even weirder when they do. It puts me in mind of the new philosophical school of the Object-Oriented: perhaps Haas is composing sonic hyperobjects, or preparing us for the post-human world.
Does the word ‘music’ even apply here? Does it even matter? This will be noise to most, as it would have been to me but a few months ago, when I was all Bach and Beethoven, Mahler and Shostakovich, and this would have irked me into violent vocal derision. But then something clicked and its almost drone-like emergence, continuation, disappearance, anti-melodic swells of sound, pure, impure, but not noise (whatever that is), and not irksome. It now chimes offering a sort of mental consolation for the fuzzy logic of the world, a counterfoil to modern life’s dissonant overload. To quote Kafka in his Diaries, it bears me out like a friend.
It’s Saturday night. You head to the new gastropub which has garnered a reputation for offering something different. You order the smoked pigeon. It arrives on some vast alabaster dish that can’t decide if it’s a bowl or a plate. The food is stacked up in the centre, covered in various flowers, crumbs and savoury popcorn, with several blobs of gel and ejaculates of sauce daubed circumferentially around it.
The ‘Mackerel Marsala’ that follows is no different. And it’s the same story down the road at the more traditional boozer: chips are thrice-cooked and served in quaint baskets; burgers come in the mandatory ‘brioche bun’; wooden chopping boards and slate roof tiles act out as plates. Both pubs foreground the locality of the produce on their menus, ‘local’-ness having become just another brand, another way to market your menu as virtuous, ‘ethically-sourced’. Even the seasons aren’t spared: we drown in pre-festival fanfares – Easter, Halloween, Christmas; we are returned to the medieval with seasonal produce, spring greens, early asparagus, what have you. Here, then, is uniform difference: the will to homogenisation on a plate.
It is tempting to blame MasterChef or one of the many other cookery programmes which cling limpet-like to the TV schedules, to see them as producing a peculiar feedback cycle of demand and supply in terms of proffered dishes and ‘plating up’. The customer has seen those blobs of gel on TV, or had those ‘triple-cooked’ chips somewhere else, and now they want it that way here, too. But I think there is something more fundamental at work here: the will to homogenise isn’t restricted to gastronomy. High Streets, hairstyles, talent shows on TV . . . options narrow down into a blancmange of uniformity. Threatening complexity is reduced to something more easier to categorise and apprehend. The model of neoliberalism and its predatory hyper-capitalism is to assimilate, commodify, monetise until the market is super-saturated, then tweak and repeat. Nothing escapes. Originality, novelty, difference: all becomes subsumed into the homogenising system, fetishised by marketing gurus and media nodes as this season’s must-eat, must-read, must-see, must-do. What begins in one locale eventually becomes ubiquitous, national, transnational: pale baguettes and chewy macaroons on every supermarket shelf.
Anyone who has spent any time in South-East Asia will be familiar with the sales pitch-cum-philosophical mantra, Same Same But Different. The will to homogenisation results in a reversal of this axiom – in seeking to be different-different things become increasingly similar.
Researching photographs for this essay, I noticed how rare real uniformity is: the windows in those vast housing estates and skyscrapers had a curtain pulled to, a sticker, reflected clouds; the stadium chairs either bore an individuating number or reflected the light differently, turning its aquamarine blue more eggshell; one can imagine up close that each would have unique pattern of scratches, unique fungal knots of hardened chewing gum, graffiti, what have you. Objects seem to resist homogenisation even when mass-production forms them as such. Time and light transfigure them into individuated entities. The will to homogenisation, borne of capitalism, and thus, borne out of the human condition, is ultimately thwarted, happily so for those who desire difference. Whereas the complexity of the universe emerged from a singularity, all life on earth from fairly simple building blocks.
Heterogeneity and variation are elemental parts of organic life (evolution through random mutations); the will to homogenise is man-made and finds its purest outlet in the capitalist model, striving for a globalised village of branded stores selling the same branded goods via the same marketing methods. It engenders a dystopian vision of endless rows of sameness on the shelves and on our plates, where the critical room to manoeuvre and think differently enough to critique the system is increasingly diminished. Homogenisation is anti-life, predatory hyper-capitalism a form of hyper-fascism. In the long run, life and difference will win.
On the busy road into Cambridge, as it winds through the suburban village of Trumpington, you pass a pub with a sign that boldly declares it possesses ‘Cambridge’s Best Kept Secret – Great Thai Food’. Of course, for ‘best’ you should read ‘worst’. This self-defeating annoucement was repeated recently in a rather blatant piece of of ‘content’ filler on the Guardian’s website. Piggybacking on another product as so much modern predatory ‘content’ does (in this instance, a new BBC TV series), an article’s headline enquired: What are your favourite secret places in Britain’s countryside? Some below-the-line commentators saw through the ruse, posting comments along the lines of ‘If I told you, it would no longer be secret!’ Others, however, were only too happy to oblige, divulging their hidden Edens to the wider public. These responses spawned a follow-up article, Your favourite secret corners of the British countryside – mapped, compounding the betrayal of these secret paradises, by mapping them with flags on Google maps.
Not only is the object of a secret is manifestly defeated in these two public annoucements, but what is curious is: 1) how capitalism uses the secret for publicity as a marketing tool; and 2) how readily some of those Guardian readers were to reveal their own private paradises. What is particularly cynical about the latter is how the Guardian connived to get this private information out of them and into its very public domain. For, along with the contentless nature of modern content, there is another ‘con’ involved: that of its being outsourced, user-generated. Contributors receive the pseudo-creditability of having their work – photos, short inoffensive articles – hosted on the website in its Guardian Witness section, which the Guardian will use to generate statistics to sell advertising space and generate revenue on the back of these contributor’s unpaid work. It’s a curious economic model for an institution that once bemoaned the rise of internships, but in a world of proliferating digital content, those empty text boxes have to get filled somehow, doncha know! Of course, this is equally true of every reader visiting the site: all visits are converted into discrete data flows – clicks, page views, etc. – which are amassed and repackaged to impress potential advertisers. Since it’s still free to read, how are we to complain?
Still, what is troubling about the Guardian’s articles is the predatory nature of it. In a world where the division between public and private is collapsing through both the ‘lifestreaming’ Instagram culture, a government surveillance assemblage which demands that ‘if you’ve nothing to hide, you’ve got nothing to fear’, and now newspapers encouraging you to feed them content, it would seem that even our secrets are no longer safe.