‘Different-Different But Same’: The Will To Homogenisation

‘Different-Different But Same’: The Will To Homogenisation

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.

Medieval wooden platters are back in demand.

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.

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Same form, different colour.

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.


Food image by Franek N and stadium chairs by Patrick Mayon. Both used under a Creative Commons license.

Defeating the Object: Public Secrets

Defeating the Object: Public Secrets

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.


Featured Image c/o Tralmer Poster Collection (Plakatsammlung) and used under a Creative Commons license.

All Novels Are Not Novels of Ideas: A Rebuttal

All Novels Are Not Novels of Ideas: A Rebuttal

A not-so recent literary event at the LSE Space For Thought festival chaired by TLS editor Michael Caines considered the following question: Is There Life in the Novel of Ideas? After hearing two considered responses from the academic Peter Boxhall and novelist Jennie Erdal (the latter bringing a philosophical sensibility to what it, essentially, a philosophical genre), the novelist and commentator Andrew O’Hagan sought to negate the debate by declaring that ‘every good novel is a novel of ideas’ (35’11). But for the gentle prodding of the chair, the discussion could have wilted and died there and then, such was the declamatory force of O’Hagan’s proposition. O’Hagan then undermined his own case by conflating the novel of ideas with the avant-garde novel and experimental novel.

Image © Penguin Books

At the time I felt that this was wrong-headed but was unable to articulate my ideas on the spot. Well, a month has passed in which those ideas have had time to gestate, so now I’ll try and put them down here. Let’s take Jean-Paul Sartre’s novel, Nausea. Few would doubt that this is a self-consciously philosophical novel with an all-pervading idea in phenomenology, an idea through which its protagonist and plot are enframed. Likewise, Orwell’s dystopian novel, 1984, is self-consciously tackling the idea of totalitarianism. The idea percolates through every page. Character, plot, dialogue, and setting are all enmeshed within these ideas and help to convey them. Here, then, are two very obvious novels of ideas, one philosophical, the other political. We might also think of the novels of Dostoyevsky and Iris Murdoch. Modern examples might be those that dabble in meta-fiction and deconstruct the idea of trying to write a novel whilst writing one: Paul Auster’s whole back catalogue; Ben Lehrer’s 10:04; Enrique Vila-Matas’s Bartleby & Co., and other ‘novels of the No’, to quote a phrase from the latter novel. There are the self-consciously avant-garde, pseudo-philosophical novels of Tom McCarthy – Remainder, C, Satin Island. There is John Lanchester’s political novel, Capital, tackling the financial crisis. There are sci-fi novels dealing with Articifical Intelligence and android ethics, like Philip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream Of Electric Sheep? The canon is not lacking for examples. What O’Hagan was driving at in his provocative, even wilfully contrarian comment, was that novels necessarily contains ideas, whether or not their authors intend for them to be there.  The thinking here seems to be that when you write down a scenario in which characters engage in dialogue in whatever setting, then ideas will be there, too, in the very fabric of this contrived fictive space. It’s as though he believes dialogue, descriptions, characters, plot are the same as ideas. It seems reductive, far too reductive. More than that, it is a perverse misunderstanding of what is generally accepted to be meant by ‘a novel of ideas’. Which is what, exactly? Interestingly, at no point did anyone in the room, audience and panel alike, attempt to define the term, ‘a novel of ideas’. Neither does the Oxford Book of Literary Terms, nor the OED. Blackwell’s Reference Online uses the term ‘philosophical novel’:

The philosophical novel can be minimally defined as a genre in which characteristic elements of the novel are used as a vehicle for the exploration of philosophical questions and concepts. In its “purest” form, it perhaps most properly designates those relatively singular texts which may be said to belong to both the history of philosophy and of literature, and to occupy some indeterminate space between them. Today the term is often used interchangeably with the more recent concept of the “novel of ideas,” though some theorists have sought to establish a clear division between the two (Bewes).

It lists Voltaire’s Candide, Rousseau’s Julie, Dostoyevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov, and Jean-Paul Sartre’s Nausea as ‘relatively un-contentious examples of the form’. However, the entry does note that ‘the philosophical novel is marked by an exceptional plasticity’, illustrating this point with other less avowedly philosophical novels, Pride and Prejudice and Middlemarch, whichhave also been read by critics in such terms’. We risk veering towards O’Hagan’s point here, but then the ideas of Austen’s novel are surely made apparent in its title; she has clearly built a romantic drama around the negative human traits of pride and prejudice with both moral and satirical aims in mind. The Oxford Companion to Philosophy (2nd ed.) also finds room for an entry on this subject:

Image © Penguin

The philosophical novel is usually understood as that subspecies of fiction which endeavours to present a specific philosophical viewpoint, sometimes metaphysical, sometimes ethical, and sometimes aesthetic.

It offers the moral philosophy of Henry Fielding’s Tom Jones as one example, before listing others:

[…] the novels of George Eliot or Proust’s analysis of memory and identity in A la recherche du temps perdu. Characteristically, such philosophical ideas are illustrated rather than asserted, as in Middlemarch, where George Eliot shows us various forms of egoism. In the twentieth century the novels of Sartre presented existential themes more memorably and vividly than his philosophical writing, and Camus’s The Outsider is a paradigm of the philosophical novel.

Crucially, this resource explains what difference this makes from both ends of the writer-reader divide:

The free exploration of literary space in interpretation is thereby placed within bounds set by the philosophical presuppositions of the novelist. Interpretation is not only limited by the text but also by the recognition that a certain philosophical standpoint is involved.

In other words, the author of a novel of ideas reasserts his authority over the text, which would seem to nullify Barthes’ assertion of ‘the death of the author’ usurped by an all-powerful reader free to interpret texts as they please.

§

So where does all this leave Andrew O’Hagan and his reductive view of the novel of ideas? In need of reassessment, I would suggest. It seems to me that those novels like Nausea whose central idea can be summed up in a word or short phrase should be used as a genre benchmark. Other parameters for genre classification could also include the following: how much of the novel is suffused by this central idea? Are the characters motivated by it or engage with it? Does it influence the setting, the atmosphere, the lexis, the plot, or the entire fictive world as ‘totalitarianism’ does in 1984? The ‘novel of ideas’, then, is not really a radical piece of classification. It simply states that a particular novel has an overarching idea as its central conceit, which was purposefully put there by the novelist. Forewarned is forearmed. It both aids the reader in his reading and the critic in his interpretation, and helps secure the writer’s intentions from ‘death of the author’-style postmodernist assault. Everyone wins. Where’s the harm in that?


Featured image by Pimthida and used under a Creative Commons license.

Strange Loops: On GIFs

Strange Loops: On GIFs

Eternity is a child at play.

Uncannily, this Heraclitean fragment captures both the form, and often the content, of the short animated image, the GIF.1 Here is a child at play set to repeat every tenth frame ad infinitum. Others show a cat appearing to pull an angry face. A celebrity looking aghast. A funny dance. And so on, looping round strangely long after the novelty and initial amusement has worn off. What happens here is an extreme form of editing, paring back all the inessentials, the great cacophony of life, to hone in on ‘the moment of a moment’.2

Many GIFs provide the same serotonin hit of Schadenfreude as the ostensibly candid displays of accidents on those erstwhile video camera clip-shows likeYou’ve Been Framed. Being often mere seconds long, however, GIFs deal in the ultra-condensed, micro-plots, fragments of mishap, grimace, event, itself a commentary on the reduced attention spans (or expectations) of the viewer. They are also now being used in discourse, as visual short-hand for ‘reactions’, a sort of evolution of the static emoticon. Earlier this week, it was reported that Google responded to criticism in the Wall Street Post with a GIF of a baby laughing.

It is tempting to write them off as the wind-up toys of the digital age, repetitive gimcracks that tire as quickly as they catch the eye, instantly disposable gratification. There is much one could theorise about here: animation and anima; miniaturisation; cartoonification of discourse, all of which link to infantilisation, a theme of modern life I find increasingly prevalent, but I will concentrate on the element of eternity they offer, something between a strange loop and ouroubouros, the snake forever eating its own tail, which itself resembles the modern loading icons, forging an association between itself and the endless falling through links in the infosphere.

Ouroboros

I often return to something the Bach interpreter, Wanda Landowska, said of Bach’s music in relation to eternity:

There is something eternal in Bach’s music, something that makes us wish to hear again what has just been played. This renewal gives us a glimpse of eternity.3

One hears this in the Cello Suites or the keyboard works, and, curiously, the ear never seems to tire of Bach’s harmonic and melodic variations on the notion of unity-in-diversity. It is possible to immerse oneself in Bach for hours, days, weeks, years, and yet such immersion brings not boredom but a constantly renewed interest in the music. Whereas the eternity that GIFs portray has something infernal in its endless repetition – psychotic, demented, unnatural – which disturbs the direct gaze and peripheral vision alike; hence, none are present on this page.

But is there also artistry here in the thought-provoking usage of time? Often GIFs seem to be aesthetic updates of the impossible geometries of MC Escher and Sir Roger Penrose for the moving image:

 A Penrose Triangle

Examples might include the 3D renders of Francoise Gamma, or those uncanny film screengrabs where only one part of the image moves – water shimmers, clouds drift, hair flaps about in the wind in an otherwise static milieu. The conceit is interesting. We are forced to reconsider anew the Heraclitean nature of identity through flux and the notion of panta rhei: everything flows, something so obvious as to be consistently overlooked. Stillness is actually absent from the world.

Whilst ostensibly offering us an escape from our lives, GIFs actually bespeak our reality and return us to the treadmill nature of our days (wake, eat, work, shit, sleep, repeat), the destiny of human existence (Eliot’s biblical chiasmus in Four Quartets, ‘In my beginning is my end […] In my end is my beginning’). In this way, these superficial loops become unconscious depictions of existential despair at finding oneself trapped in the cycle of cycles (news, consumer, seasonal), refresh buttons, and loading icons.

In Walter Benjamin’s The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction, the German critic posited the idea that works of art once possessed an aura through being originals, historical one-offs unique in time and place, usually to a very specific locale: a church, say. With mechanical reproduction, that aura was lost. GIFs, like most digital images, are made to be disseminated, reproduced, go viral, to be non-local and atemporal of the Internet. Such reproduction is a raison d’être – to be everywhere and nowhere, at least as long as the power stays on and the servers remain online. The more they spread, the greater their aura, turning Benjamin’s idea on its head.

If GIFs aspire to art, and others (well, Buzzfeed) have offered this mantle for them, then at some level they have to be able to move you, and, occasionally, these curious amalgams of the Absolute and the absolutely banal do. Take this one of a Chinese street vendor saving a falling infant. Okay, this is film footage, chance reportage, that has been turned into a GIF, but there is drama here, catharsis, humanity, as hope teetering on the edge of tragedy triumphs, foreclosing on Fate and Death for once. It is strangely satisfying and doesn’t diminish with repetition. But is this contingent on its GIFness? Perhaps. The repetition forces us to focus in on its participants: the principle ‘hero’s upwards gaze and outstretched arms, his fixed concentration on the act he has been nudged into performing by chance; the clumsy bumbling shirtless extra trying to help and almost ruining the catch; the suspense generated by the off-screen item which is teetering and about to fall; the woman in the raincoat noticing and screaming; and then, with unexpected suddenness, the successful catch, the panic of it, how its velocity and weight drag the man’s arms down; finally, the reveal: the unidentified falling object is a child.  It startles as all good art should.

But such startling is all too rare in the glowing Technicolor annals of GIFs, where three seconds of celebrity eyebrows being raised, or anthropomorphic cats in beanie hats, constitute the next day-long meme in an increasingly infantilised culture.

  1. Graphics Interchange Format.
  2. Kafka’s Diaries, July 5 1916.
  3. ‘On the Interpretation of JSBach’s Keyboard Music’, Landowska on Music, Stein & Day (1969).

Mozart and the Dormouse: On BBC4 Documentaries

Mozart and the Dormouse: On BBC4 Documentaries

The BBC don’t do book shows, at least not on TV, was a recent (and justified) complaint.

Oh, yes we do! they were quick to retort. What about Wolf Hall?

It was an interesting rebuttal, positing adaptation as literary critique. What, then, is one to make of the Guy Ritchie-fied The Musketeers as a critique of Dumas’s novel? It’s not hard to fathom why the BBC focuses on books as televion drama. Adaptations guarantee an audience, foreign rights sales, repeats ad infinitum, merchandise spin-offs such as DVDs, and ubiquitous media coverage, especially if your cast finds room for a Cumberbatch. How could a show of spoken literary opinion possibly hope to compete?

Furthermore, the once isolating event of viewing television is becoming increasingly communal through social media. Programmes are now hashtagged in media res on Twitter with the viewing public’s extemporaneous punditry. Post-broadcast, these viewers then flock to a newspaper’s episode-by-episode blog to post their long-form opinion BTL.[1] The standard TV critic’s job must now feel rather precarious, at risk of endangerment from the sheer volume and immediacy of ‘citizen criticism’.

A round-table TV show of critics discussing books must, I suppose, be seen as a massive turn-off for viewers by the BBC’s commissioning editors. It’s not something our French cousins have a problem with, not in other European countries. But there the noun ‘intellectual’ is not a dirty word. If its documentaries are anything to go by, BBC TV seems terrified of appearing intellectual or high-brow (not so, Radios 3 and 4, with the gloriously intelligent In Our Time and Free Thinking). I presume they perceive intellectual discourse as being antithetical to its modern-day striving for some wholly arbitrary and artificial notion of ‘balance’ and ‘inclusivity’. Even on BBC4, where anything even remotely challenging to the cerebral faculties gets shipped off to nowadays, the cookie-cutter documentaries all feature Brian Sewell’s much-loathed ‘arm-waggling presenters. The BBC’s film show replaced its serious-minded jumper-wearing critic, Barry Norman, with a slew of increasingly youthful Pretty Young Things (Ross, Winkelman), pop-culture savvy and designed to appeal to some imaginary audience which is always decreasing in age. Perhaps the dream is that, one day, the CBeebies and Arts programme audiences will somehow merge.

Infants certainly stand a better chance of understanding Tom Service’s inane babble in his recent ‘arm-waggling’ Mozart doc, The Joy of Mozart (BBC4). Service was guilty of the very hagiography and hyperbole he lamented in his opening gambit. Highlighting emphatically the hyperbole showered on the Austrian – ‘other-worldly genius!’, ‘divine gift from god!’ – Service sought to remind us dummies that Mozart was a human being, ‘just like you and me’ (thanks, Tom, because I had my doubts). He continues:

‘except he could express the pain and pleasure, the joy and darkness of being human, more completely, and more humanly, than any other composer’.

We are 42 seconds into the programme and after this breathtakingly banal statement, hyperbolic and hagiographic in the extreme, I want to turn it off. Add to this the fact that as he’s saying this piece to camera, a Salzburg waiter is trying to serve him coffee, only underscores the amateur quality of this production.

There were experts in there somewhere – a minute or two of Sir Nicholas Kenyon, the Mozart scholar Ulrich Leisinger – but they were competing with the over-excitable presenter, who even hounded one expert at the British Library until he half-concurred with Service’s intransigent point of view. Banality plumbed new depths with Service using the License Fee to eat a Mozart-emblazoned chocolate in Salzburg, and then speaking with his mouth full, as if this would in any way help to elucidate Mozart for us. The nadir, though, was the accompaniment of the word ‘billiards’ with the sound effect of balls clacking together: a bafflingly infantile addition.

Presenters weren’t always loudly bland arm-wagglers. One pines for Kenneth Clark and Sister Wendy: serious-minded, quiet-voiced, unaccompanied by bombastic soundtrack, given the time to speak at length as opposed to in 30-second sound bites. 2014’s ‘where is she now?’ documentary of Sister Wendy reminded me of how pleasant it is to spoken to, not bawled at, as in those aforementioned carbon-copy documentaries. Scroll through the TV listings and you can’t help but trip up over several. The titles usually employ lists of three – Maps: Power, Plunder, and Possession; Harlots, Housewives, and Heroines – which the producer learnt were good things during their GCSE English Language class, and have stuck to this credo ever since. What we get is some telegenic, hip academic mooning up at cathedral ceilings in exotic locales, or yawping blandishments and hyperbole over bombastically emotive soundtracks, instructing the dunderhead viewer how he/she should be reacting at this point: SPOOKY! EXCITING! DANGEROUS!

All of which brings me to the recent bookish documentary fronted by Martha Kearney, The Secret World of Lewis Carroll (BBC4), which again displayed the downward trajectory of documentary making at the BBC. In the post-Savile era, this was always going to be interesting and came with a stentorian warning: contains adult themes.

Having thus established that only adults should be watching because of the paedophilia content, we were soon watching cartoon rabbits bounding along a river bank in Oxford and a cartoon Cheshire cat smiling up a tree. It could have been a Chris Morris sketch. Although one could see the point of revisiting the riverbank where Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland was conjured up on a summer’s day, the addition of the cartoons surely only made sense for a children’s audience.

Then there were the repetitions, as if the audience were suffering from short-term memory loss and had to be constantly reminded of the documentary’s thesis statement: Dodgson might have been a paedophile, we just don’t know, because Victorians had different values to ours. The French refer to all this as allonger la sauce: diluting the story down, stringing it out to make up the format length and, one presumes, keep us on tenterhooks for the only new evidence the story had to present: a nude photograph of Alice’s sister, Lydia, aged 13, which required a visit to the South of France with an expert. [2] Such false suspense appended to the end was clumsy. Why not subvert this tediously formulaic narrative frame and work backwards from this revelation at the start, if only for novelty’s sake?

‘It’s a problem when someone writes a great book and they’re not a great person.’ Will Self

The programme reflected all possible views of Dodgson’s proclivity for photographing nymph-like females, fulfilling that essential BBC ‘balance’. It all felt like so much fence-sitting, awkward justifications for liking Carroll’s work but suspecting the man’s peccadilloes, terrified to take a stance. The nub seemed to be Self’s pertinent comment quoted above and Kearney’s questionable journalistic ethics: ‘I’m such a big fan of his work that I’m quite resistant to the idea of any possible dark side.’ The ‘shocking new evidence’ was not set in the context of a Victorian age of consent, ‘within the range of 10 to 12, but in 1875 the age was raised to 13‘, and again seemed to revert to ahistorical indignation in spite of its professed objectivity.

With all the expense lavished on these mish-mash historico-travel documentaries, and their failure to deliver anything like a coherent argument, one rather pines for the simplicity a round-table book review programme with someone restrained, eloquent, and intelligent chairing it would provide. Is Sister Wendy available?

[1] Below-the-line.
[2] In Kearney’s defence, she did say that the photograph was not allowed to leave the museum.

The Mad Hatter and the March Hare putting the Dormouse in the Teapot, illustration by John Tenniel

 

Je suis pas Charlie – je n’ai pas leurs couilles.

Je suis pas Charlie – je n’ai pas leurs couilles.

It happened with Mumbai, with Norway, and now with Charlie Hebdo in Paris. The social mediatisation of terror spectacles seems to evolve like the time-lapse photography of biological growth. The tweets and hashtags multiply and metastasize before your eyes, as everyone has to have their say, no matter how trite. The hypocrisies vie with false declarations and empty sloganeering in a failed gesture of solidarity: Je Suis Charlie now, when it’s too late, but not before, when it actually mattered. Self-expression entwines with self-publicity, as the hashtag is seized by wholly unrelated entities. The mass media vultures quickly pick the bones clean, ensuring every angle is covered, however absurd and inconsequential, as if to lay claim to the narrative, nourishing the story for the readers it brings in. Soon the Islamophobics will claim it for themselves, too.

Then the ritual of statecraft begins: the premiers and presidents lining up to say solemn blandishments that say nothing, each trying to outdo the other, so that hyperbole inevitably creeps in, with Sarkozy suggestion not just democracy but all civilization had been attacked. Doleful announcements about transcripts of phone calls being made. Ironies abound that would not be lost on Charlie Hebdo, as authoritarian states who lock up cartoonists profess disgust at the attacks. Videos emerge of ‘how we observed the minute’s silence’ for Charlie Hebdo, a mournful video selfie that is wholly self-serving. ‘We are proud to wear the Je Suis Charlie logo’, writes one newspaper, the safe logo that signifies a lack of courage to publish the very cartoons which you claim are expressions of democratic freedom of speech. And so on, and so on, as Zizek would say.

Satirists and cartoonists respond admirably with bitter satirical cartoons. Journalists appropriate this attack for themselves. Free speech and freedom of the press are wheeled out, as self-censorship takes place: no British newspaper ran with a Charlie Hebdo cartoon on its cover, or even showed pictures of the dead cartoonists. Instead, the propagate the death cult myth of the terrorist agency, showing the assassination of the injured policeman on the street, labelled ‘barbaric’. Isn’t it also barbaric to act as a proxy PR agency for the militants?

Australian cartoonist David Pope’s response.

Commentary, too, tiptoes around the valid issue of Militant Islam, terrified to offend. And there are valid reasons for this. An employer needs to protect its employees against reprisals. But this does mean that speech isn’t as free as it once was. And you can’t claim it is, or uphold it as a foundation of democracy, if you are running scared yourself. And so the terrorists have already gained ground. Je suis pas Charlie – je n’ai pas leurs couilles. I don’t have their balls. We, none of us, have the courage of their convictions, to say like Stéphane Charbonnier better ‘to die standing up than live on your knees’. My own satirical musings picked safe targets: Tom Cruise, Kanye West, Ray Mears – through parody Twitter accounts and blog posts. Not even the Scientologists protested. I played it safe, erred on the side of caution and cowardice.

There will, of course, be questions asked about the protection offered at Charlie Hebdo, but there is no total protection against automaton-like militancy, with its irrational logic. Indeed, the repeated mentions of the shot policeman being Muslim fail to understand that this does not exonerate him from the ‘true believer’: to his skewed thinking, the fact he sports a police uniform and is working for the French state means he is now a ‘legitimate’ target.

Amidst the muddled explosion of expression in the face of the event, there are plenty of wrong notes hit. People revert to selfish stances: what about me? Could it happen here? There were several tweets by Americans asking this, despite the frequent non-terrorist mass deaths caused by gun crime. This in itself is interesting. It is the Other which terrifies. The white suburban mass murder we can fathom. The white Christian fundamentalist (Norway’s Breivik) does not overwhelm the senses. The black flag, the illegible linguistic script, the language, the religious chant, the raised finger…all this fills the mind with sublime notions of terror whose potency comes from its otherness. It is the ideology behind it that terrifies, that is sublime.

Typically, we think of this as something monumentally vast or infinite – the sea, mountains, the innumerable galaxies in space. But sublime terrorism needn’t overwhelm the senses like September 11th 2001 with the vast spectacle of a world-historical event, immense pyroclastic dust-clouds of massive skyscrapers brought down by political ideology – what Zizek calls the sublime object of ideology is in that cloud and the plumes of smoke visible from space. The remorselessness, the anti-humanity writ small and metropolitan, can do this. The image of the policeman, reeling on the floor injured, as helpless as an upended tortoise, rocking side to side, immobile, no threat, and the brutal dispatching – the brief look downwards, a single bullet to the head – his step is hardly interrupted by the act, automaton-like in its mechanisation. Here, too, is the sublime object of ideology. Our expectations of humanity – crouching down to offer assistance, extending a hand to help him up – is cruelly thwarted, and in its place is something unknown, uncivilised. Here is an an incomprehensible anti-humanitarianism. The senses are overwhelmed. Reason cannot grasp the depths of the hatred, of unfeeling, on display.

Source: The Guardian (©Steve Bell 2015)

Another flat note was Steve Bell’s cartoon in the Guardian which portrayed the attackers as a Mickey Mouse death cult. It doesn’t work. The idea that satire and free speech can be silenced through terror is laughable, yes, but the terrorists themselves do terrify. Think of it. A typical grey January day in Paris, when you are forced at gunpoint to unlock a front door that you know will lead to a massacre. Forced at gunpoint to reveal the location of the Charlie Hebdo office that you know will lead to mass death. Forced at gunpoint to say your name, which you know will lead to your murder. Assassinated in front of your co-workers. These co-workers aware they are next. The gut squirms at the mere glimpse of the dread they must have faced. Again, this is the sublime manifestation of terror, as defined by Kant and Burke and picked up on by Zizek, overwhelming the rational senses, incapable of being vicariously imagined.

I hope Charlie Hebdo can survive. A French friend described them as ‘shaking the tree, making peope think’, almost anarchic in that they attacked all creeds, religious, political and ethical. Democracy examines itself through its satirists, exposing the hypocrisies, the cognitive dissonance, the bullshit, forcing us outside habitual thought patterns, making you go Huh as well as Ha.

The Lost Scarf

The Lost Scarf
The now-lost scarf with its former owner

Here is, ostensibly, a very short story. My wife knitted me a scarf for Christmas last year. Three months ago I lost it in London. I still feel terrible about it. The end.

But I’m not going to let you go just yet. Let’s start with a cliché. You don’t know what you’ve got ‘til it’s gone. Winsome in their familiarity, these words contain something that is still worth examining. Was it only in losing the scarf did its preciousness, what it signified – the gesture of love, the hours spent making it – become apparent? That which is omnipresent is overlooked, discarded by the beholder.

The lost scarf leads to ontological considerations, too. The scarf exists in time and is made up of time – her time. Like Fates’ braids, the maker’s time was woven into the scarf’s physical existence. Now the scarf is lost, did she lose her time making it? But then the lost scarf still exists. In the above photo. In my mind. In my wife’s mind. And, perhaps, also in the material world itself. Around someone else’s neck. Or draped on a railing, bedraggled by the rain, awaiting ownership old or new.

Or should I be asking: when did this scarf actually come into being? With the wool? With the fleece of the sheep? Or with that sheep’s parents, whose genetic history predetermined the quality of the wool? Or the meteorological incidents and environment which shaped these sheep lives and, thus, their fleeces? Or with the farmer who owned and bred them? Or the diet they subsisted on? Or when these strands of black angora wool were finally enmeshed into the finished length? Or with the Platonic Ideal Form of ‘scarf’? When does any narrative start? At what point on the cosmological timeline do we say – here! here it began?

All of a sudden I am faced with the artist’s dilemma and a variation of Kant’s mathematical sublime: the story stretches back forever into the overwhelming past. Infinity is something that cannot be accommodated by human imagination; it literally cannot be imagined and requires Reason to provide the notion as a concept. So it is with narrative. It is the arbitrariness of all narrative which now strikes you, and which instils in the writer an anxiety which can forestall narrative invention: when to begin our tale if every beginning is a lie? And this anxiety creeps out of fictive realm into fact. When do we begin our histories: with first causes? The Big Bang?

The reason for this essay was an afternoon spent drifting through Routledge’s The Object Reader The final section of the book is entitled ‘Object Lessons’ and comprises essays by contemporary theorists on an object. It led me to consider what I would write about for such an ‘object study’, and the contrarian in me chose an object that had been lost. An apologia. A writing-back-into-existence that which is absent, which is, essentially, what all writing is: a re-affirmation of what really was.

Young Girl Sewing. Anna Hammershoi, the Artist’s Sister Vilhelm Hammershøi (1887)