Universal Horror

You think your pain and your heartbreak are unprecedented in the history of the world, but then you read. It was Dostoevsky and Dickens who taught me that the things that tormented me most were the very things that connected me with all the people who were alive, or who ever had been alive. Only if we face these open wounds in ourselves can we understand them in other people.

– James Baldwin 

Perhaps unsurprisingly, Slavoj Žižek has responded to Hamid Dabashi’s piece, ‘Fuck You Žižek!’, which as you can imagine was sent to me by quite a few people, considering my recent history with the Slovenian. In his reply, he is joined by the young philosopher Michael Marder (editor of The Philosophical Salon), who also came under Dabashi’s fire, in the course of he latter’s general attack on Eurocentrism in philosophy.

Žižek’s portion of this short response is in fact largely taken from another piece, also entitled ‘The Breakdown of Rational Argumentation’, published in the International Journal of Žižek Studies in response to (friend of this blog) Sam Kriss. It seems that, whenever someone strongly disagrees with Žižek online, his current favoured approach is to claim rational argumentation itself has broken down. It’s a bold strategy, but does it pay off for him?

 
Žižek’s main criticism of Dabashi here is that he mistakenly attributes a section of text by Frantz Fanon to Žižek himself. It’s a careless and embarrassing mistake, which betrays the fact that Dabashi has an incompetent (or most likely deferential) editor, but this only makes it exactly as bad as most things Žižek has published in the last decade. In fact, to reduce Dabashi’s argument to this glaring error doesn’t do much to address his major point, which of course he has sustained over the length of a book (Can Non-Europeans Think, from which the piece is taken).

 
In truth, Dabashi is an anti-philosopher, in the precise sense, and philosophy must rise to the challenge posed by anti-philosophy, as it has always had to. As Alain Badiou defines it, “Anti-philosophy is any system of thought which opposes the singularity of its experience to the properly philosophical category of truth.” Many of the great thinkers of history have been anti-philosophers: Pascal, Rousseau, Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, Wittgenstein. Dabashi’s is the classic anti-philosophical move of contrasting philosophy’s claim to a universal discourse of truth to the historical and geographical particularity of certain philosophers. And so he writes: “Young European philosophers like Zabala and Marder, who think that as Europeans they own the world of ideas, feign the authority of their colonial forebears as if anything anyone says anywhere in the world is about them.” Or, more generally, in the original Al Jazeera essay that spawned the book: “There is thus a direct and unmitigated structural link between an empire, or an imperial frame of reference, and the presumed universality of a thinker thinking in the bosoms of that empire.”

 
To his credit, Marder points out the obvious shortcoming here: any critique that proceeds from a presumption about the identity, and concomitant privilege, of the person speaking, is doomed to fail. Marder is himself from an Eastern-European Jewish background, and his ‘forebears’ were killed in pogroms and concentration camps. Does that fact mean his thought is more ‘authentic’? Less ‘Eurocentric’? Must we know the biography of any theorist whose work we pick up – a conclusion which seems backward, not to mention intensely reactionary? As a good friend of mine once put it, “if demand for authenticity means that we have to flash our credentials like we’re going through customs and make our personal lives public before expressing an opinion, then maybe ideology is winning out.” Art and philosophy are supposed to be the antidotes to this kind of thinking. As Ralph Wiley famously put it, “Tolstoy is the Tolstoy of the Zulus – unless you find a profit in fencing off universal properties of mankind into exclusive tribal ownership.” By contrast, Dabashi’s mode of critique – proceed first from identity, then to thought – is exactly what reproduces the very thing he has railed against, which is the relegation of literature (philosophical and otherwise) from Asia, Africa and the Caribbean to the status of a particularity, of a special interest group which must be taken separately, as its own canon (ethnographic or postcolonial). It must be maintained that a work by Aimé Césaire or Chinua Achebe or V.S. Naipaul has as much of a claim to inclusion in the universal canon of human culture as anything else. Perhaps Dabashi should take more note of the words of his own intellectual hero, Edward Said:

 
“Let us begin by accepting the notion that although there is an irreducible subjective core to human experience, this experience is also historical and secular, it is accessible to analysis and interpretation, and – centrally important – it is not exhausted by totalizing theories, not marked and limited by doctrinal or national lines, not confined once and for all to analytical constructs. If one believes with Gramsci that an intellectual vocation is socially possible as well as desirable, then it is an inadmissible contradiction at the same time to build analyses of historical experience around exclusions, exclusions that stipulate, for instance, that only women can understand feminine experience, only Jews can understand Jewish suffering, only formerly colonial subjects can understand colonial experience.”

 
Dabashi’s thought, by contrast, tends towards statements like this:

 
“There are emerging measures of truth from four corners of the world, from the cyberspace to the outer space, with fragile earth and a deeply vulnerable humanity in between. We need to allow these realities to expose themselves and teach us how to read them. From Plato and Aristotle (who saw themselves as Greek, not as “European”), down to subsequent generations of thinkers and philosophers: they were reading their own time, with little to no attention to what their predecessors had said. We too need to do as they did—though with a far more cautionary attitude not to universalise too much our passing particulars.”

 
It hardly needs to be said that this is bullshit. There can be no “measures of truth”, there are only truths themselves, which proceed via fidelity, not ‘measurement’; indeed, how could a truth, eternal and outside the predicates of any one historical situation, be submitted to measurement? Then there is the astonishing move of particularizing Plato and Aristotle, who very explicitly were speaking from the position of what was (is) universal, and not what was specific to “their own time”; moreover Dabashi references other unnamed philosophers who have, like the Greeks, apparently paid “little to no attention to what their predecessors had said”; this certainly isn’t true of Plato or Aristotle, whose philosophy is conceptualised as a break with their predecessors that certainly takes the latter into account – look, for example at both’s repeated engagement with their predecessor Heraclitus. The truth is that to do philosophy is to do the history of philosophy, and the solution to Eurocentrism in the academy is not to reject the contributions made by the canonical philosophers. It is impossible not to sympathize with Dabashi’s complaint that non-European thought has been ignored, or relegated to an object of ethnography, but the solution is not yet more particularism. Indeed, it is not far to go from the idea that philosophers should pay no attention to their own predecessors to Dabashi’s next step, a warning “not to universalise too much our passing particulars”, which is really just another form of the general weakening of philosophy to the status of perspectivism. Here it might be best to point to Badiou again, who writes:

 
“…[I]t is necessary to maintain that every universal presents itself not as a regularization of the particular or of differences, but as a singularity that is subtracted from identitarian predicates; although obviously it proceeds via those predicates. The subtraction of particularities must be opposed to their supposition. But if a singularity can lay claim to the universal by subtraction, it is because the play of identitarian predicates, or the logic of those forms of knowledge that describe particularity, precludes any possibility of foreseeing or conceiving it.”

 
Dabashi is unable to think the universal precisely because he remains attached to a preoccupation with identitarian predicates, with the position from which someone is speaking. A universal is never a sublation of a particularity, but a subtraction from all particularities. In other words, a piece of art or science is universal as a result of the fact that no predicate can pin it down: Greek tragedy speaks to us today because it is not primarily a meditation on the particular experience of an ancient Athenian, but of a human being tout court; James Baldwin’s novel Giovanni’s Room – about a homosexual love affair, and written by a gay black man – is as universal a love story as Romeo and Juliet. To collapse a universal truth into an identity is to deny it all of its potency. As Badiou puts it, with a more overtly political edge, in an interview with Peter Hallward (and this long section is worth quoting in full):

 
“When I hear people say ‘we are oppressed as blacks, as women’, I have only one problem: what exactly is meant by ‘black’ or ‘women’? … Can this identity, in itself, function in a progressive fashion, that is, other than as a property invented by the oppressors themselves? … I understand very well what ‘black’ means for those who use that predicate in a logic of differentiation, oppression, and separation, just as I understand very well what ‘French’ means when Le Pen uses the word, when he champions national preference, France for the French, exclusion of Arabs, etc. … Negritude, for example, as incarnated by Césaire and Senghor, consisted essentially of reworking exactly those traditional predicates once used to designate black people: as intuitive, as natural, as primitive, as living by rhythm rather than by concepts, etc. … I understand why this kind of movement took place, why it was necessary. It was a very strong, very beautiful, and very necessary movement. But having said that, it is not something that can be inscribed as such in politics. I think it is a matter of poetics, of culture, of turning the subjective situation upside down. It doesn’t provide a possible framework for political initiative.

 

The progressive formulation of a cause which engages cultural or communal predicates, linked to incontestable situations of oppression and humiliation, presumes that we propose these predicates, these particularities, these singularities, these communal qualities, in such a way that they be situated in another space and become heterogeneous to their ordinary oppressive operation. I never know in advance what quality, what particularity, is capable of becoming political or not; I have no preconceptions on that score. What I do know is that there must be a progressive meaning to these particularities, a meaning that is intelligible to all. Otherwise, we have something which has its raison d’être, but which is necessarily of the order of a demand for integration, that is, of a demand that one’s particularity be valued in the existing state of things …

 
That there is a remnant or a support of irreducible particularity, is something I would acknowledge for any kind of reality … But in the end, between this particularity present in the practical, concrete support of any political process, and the statements in the name of which the political process unfolds, I think there is only a relation of support, but not a relation of transitivity. You can’t go from the one to the other, even if one seems to be ‘carried’ by the other … It is not because a term is a communal predicate, nor even because there is a victim in a particular situation, that it is automatically, or even easily, transformed into a political category.”

 
In short, “the existence of victims cannot by itself found a political process”. Dabashi himself comes close to a point like this when he encourages a movement “beyond postcoloniality”, beyond an ideology of reaction to the terms laid down by Europeans.

“There is a new condition beyond postcoloniality that these Europeans cannot read, hard as they try to assimilate it back into the condition of coloniality. The task is not a mere critique of neo-Orientalism, which always is commensurate with immediate and short-sighted political interests, but to overcome “Europe” as an idea and make it behave as one among any number of other exhausted metaphors, neither less nor more potent, organic, or trustworthy. Europe was “the invention of the Third World,” as Fanon fully realized – both in material and normative senses of the term. I have already argued that we need to change the interlocutor with whom we discuss the terms of our emerging worlds. We should no longer address a dead interlocutor. Europe is dead. Long live Europeans. The Islam they had invented in their Orientalism is dead. Long live Muslims. The Orient they had created, the Third World they had crafted to rule and denigrate, have disappeared. If only those who still see themselves as Orientals would begin to decolonize their minds too.

 
Ironically, this point, and especially the last sentence, which I have italicized, reads as markedly Hegelian to me, relating to a point in the unfolding of the dialectic described in the Science of Logic, which is summarized pithily in the statement “the activity is essentially reactive against itself”. In his Theory of the Subject Badiou takes up this point, writing that “an individual only arrives at his or her singular force within the given circumstances by entering into conflict with the network of inert habits to which these circumstances previously confined him or her”, and thus that we must “come to understand that what raises me up reactively against the active of the Other must also be the active of a force in which the Other is no longer represented”. But of course, Dabashi would chide me for relating his words back to philosophers working in the apparently homogenous Western tradition. He tells us we must learn “to read other thinkers’ thoughts without assimilating them backward into what they already know – like learning a new language that has its own grammar, syntax, and morphology. We should not approximate and assimilate the new language we are learning back into the grammar of the language we already know.” This is a lofty prescription, but even in spite of its hermeneutic ambition, we might ask ourselves whether Dabashi himself follows through on what he encourages from us. Take this paragraph for example, from the ‘Fuck You Žižek!’ essay:

 
“The transmutation of classical Orientalism to Area Studies and thence into disposable knowledge produced at US and European think tanks, I propose, was coterminous with the rise of an empire without hegemony. This epistemic endosmosis – or interested knowledge manufactured in think tanks and percolating into the public domain – is, I suggest, conducive to various modes of disposable knowledge production, predicated on no enduring or coherent episteme, but in fact modeled on disposable commodities that provide instant gratification and are then disposed of after one use only.”

 
Does this Foucauldian discourse, composed in what has been the lingua franca of postcolonial theory for decades, really represent the embracing of a new language free from contamination by the familiar frameworks of European critique, or does it in fact represent the absolute status quo of the academy, the academy of which Dabashi, installed in his Chair at Columbia, could only be called an elite member? Let us end by returning to Badiou, and to a profound and beautiful statement hidden about halfway through Theory of the Subject. It is perhaps even more pertinent now than when it was written, and it bears returning to it time and time again, as a mantra for what must be avoided and what must be done.

 
“Hand over education to those who got tired of antagonism, to all those who, after joining their fate to that of the workers, have since then come back to their prescribed place as intellectuals, and you will make the wish of state functionaries come true by keeping thought for the next two decades within the narrow confines of the usual course of affairs. It will be everyone for him or herself, nobody will pretend to speak for anyone whatsoever.

 
This is the surest road towards the worst. When one abdicates universality, one obtains universal horror.

 
With regard to this mediocre challenge I see two attitudes among the different people I know: to defend oneself or change oneself.”

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Only a suffering ape can save us: variations on variations

“God is a life, not merely a being. But all life has a fate and is subject to suffering and becoming. Without the concept of a humanly suffering God, all of history remains incomprehensible.” 

F.W.J. Schelling, “Philosophical Investigations into the Essence of Human Freedom”

Sam Kriss’s essay about Harambe, the ape who died, is a weighty intervention into several fields: cultural studies, linguistics, psychoanalysis, hermeneutics, theology, anthropology, ethology. Kriss places numerous dots on the field of interpretation, connects some, and leaves many for us to contemplate – in their singularity, their intersections, their divergences. It is not so much a case of the Harambe variations themselves, but where these several Harambes stand in relation to each other, where they stand in relation to us, and finally what discovery – grave, monstrous, profound – the deceased creature installs in us. This is an essay about salvation, and this is an essay about the dead gorilla Harambe. But we have to start elsewhere. 

Part 1: The ape I am, the ape I am not

The famous and beloved gorilla Koko, who is able to recognize herself in a mirror, understands 2,000 words of spoken English, and can communicate through sign language, is also a deeply unsettling proposition. Does this ape, who has passed through the mirror stage and integrated herself into a symbolic system, actually have an unconscious mind? Baudrillard writes, “Animals have no unconscious, because they have a territory. Men have only had an unconscious since they lost a territory … the unconscious is the individual structure of mourning in which this loss is incessantly, hopelessly replayed – animals are the nostalgia for it.” The unconscious acts as the melancholic organising principle of an existence forever cut-off from the vital, shameless, impassive experience of animality, of a divine unity between inside and outside, a mythical ‘real’ object we never possessed but believe we must have once, a screaming fever dream from within the torture-house of language. Where, then, is the place for Koko, this impossible animal in the symbolic? Lacan says in his very first Seminar: “…at the junction of the symbolic and the real, ignorance”, a passion greater than love or hate, a passion to not know, to remain in the bliss of not knowing. I look at Koko, and I am reminded of the very different animal that therefore I am, who knows all too much, the “animal lacking in itself”, to quote Derrida. The ape becomes as a fairground mirror, revealing to us the fatal shortcomings our ego elides in the specular image. Koko, the liminal animal, illuminates the path between us and our tragic other: Harambe, the gorilla who was shot and died. 

Through Darwin, we discovered that man’s ancestor was not the Adam of Eden but a series of increasingly ape-like primates stretching back to an ancestor common between us and the gorilla, during the late Miocene epoch, 8 to 10 million years ago. An even more startling discovery was that this changed virtually nothing. We see in the ape everything we have lost to gain everything we have gained. St. Augustine thought that sexuality was in fact part of the penitence for the Original Sin; had Adam and Eve stayed in the Garden, they would have performed intercourse instrumentally, as a simple task, free from the shame, pathology, and aporias of human sexuality. What are the great apes if not this Edenic Adam, this image of lost harmony? As Kriss reminds us, the gorilla Harambe resembles the mythical primal father; the violent, hypersexual totalitarian who controls all the women and experiences no shortcomings in desire, an object of envy and then of contempt, who must be killed but only returns, even more malevolent, in the form of the superego. The ape is a symbol of awe in every sense. Freud realized that the totem animal is firstly a surrogate for the father, and only then morphs into a God; Kriss is too quick to elide the diachronicity of this phenomenon. Before we can attempt to reach God Himself, we must pass through something else. In this case, that something is shit.

Part 2: Of excrement

To his credit, Kriss realizes this dimension of the Harambe situation, relating it via Bataille’s fascination with simian anal scrags. But there is more to be said about this. The great apes are famous for their attitude towards their faeces – touching, handling, throwing; they delight in it. By contrast, humans are very embarrassed about their excrement, flushing it away and inventing infantile names for it which turn out to be even more nauseating than the thing itself. These antithetical relationships denote a fundamental asymmetry between man and ape, and it is not for nothing that faeces is listed in psychoanalysis as one of the partial-objects of the drive. In “The Subversion of the Subject and the Dialectic of Desire in the Freudian Unconscious”, Lacan remarks that such objects “have no specular image”, that is, they cannot be assimilated into the subject’s narcissistic illusion of completeness. They are objects which, in the subject’s psychical economy, coincide with their own loss, and thus stand for the loss inherent in castration itself. In Freud’s words, “The surrender of faeces in favour of (out of love for) another person, for its part, becomes the model of castration and is the first case in which a part of one’s own body is renounced in the hope of winning favour from a beloved other. And so faeces, baby, penis, all come together to form a single entity, one unconscious concept – sit venia verbo – that of something small that can be separated from the body.” Serge Leclaire, the first Lacanian, notes that Freud’s “unconscious concept” was the prototype for Lacan’s theory of the signifier, and adds: “every separation, cut or loss, whatever it may be (even and especially that of parturition) necessarily refers back to the time of conception, to the phallus; and the phallus, as master signifier, cannot be other than lost with respect to the efficacy of sexual difference.” 

Here then is the unidentified homology between Kriss’s “ape of tumult” and “ape of fixation”. For when we speak of the signifier in psychoanalysis, we are already also speaking in the register of the somatic; psychoanalysis rejects any nature/culture dichotomy, and the psychoanalytic ‘body’ is not, after all, the biological ‘organism’. The drives are a bodily phenomenon caught up with the signifier. As Charles Shepherdson writes, the erotogenic zones of the drive “are understood not as biological parts of the organism, but as anatomical regions which serve as the locus for representation – regions that are not determined in advance by nature, but subject to symbolic displacement and substitution.” “The symptom,” in Lacan’s own words, is “a metaphor in which flesh or function is taken as a signifying element.” If psychoanalysis has taught us anything, it is that there is not somehow an ape of excessive anal freedom and a separate ape of symbolic displacement, of irony. The two in fact exist synchronically, in the image of that terrifyingly uncastrated creature, slinging its faeces with all the purity of the ethical act: the image of Harambe, the slain gorilla.

(On the subject of signification, Kriss writes, “[The ape’s] differential nature is expressed not as a relation between signifiers but as one between ‘Harambe’ and the systematicity of the signifying system itself. As Laclau points out, however, the outside which is from within the system constituted as ‘pure negativity, pure threat to the system’ is in fact ‘the simple principle of positivity – pure being.’ … Something called irony occurs, but rather than being in the form of any kind of antiphrasis or anything that could be understood as a substitution of meanings, meaning itself is challenged by its other.” It is interesting to read this from Kriss, a Derridean, since Derrida famously proclaimed that “there is no outside-text”, no outside of the ‘system’, just more text. The idea of “pure being” is a fiction inherent to the symbolic itself. I am curious, therefore, as to what he is pointing towards with this ‘other of meaning’. It occurs to me to suggest a Lacanian concept here; Lacan initially placed language and jouissance in opposition, but late in his career came to admit a certain type of jouissance within language itself, lalangue, the (truly Derridean) jouissance of a kind of linguistic chaos: homophones, puns, unintended linkages and resonances. It does not seem inconceivable to me that part of what has happened with the word ‘Harambe’ can be illuminated through this notion of ‘jouis-sens’; read the lyric substitutions linked to in Kriss’s piece – here is a form of enjoyment in the signifier itself, the mere act of substitution. Of course, we are again in the zone between the body and the signifier. As Žižek writes in The Sublime Object of Ideology, “In so far as the sinthôme [the modality of jouissance] is a certain signifier [lodged in an ‘empty signified’, as Daniel Bristow has pointed out] which is not enchained in a network but immediately filled, penetrated with enjoyment, its status is by definition ‘psychosomatic’, that of a terrifying bodily mark.” Inasmuch as jouissance denotes a kind of ‘pleasure in pain’, the storm of Twitter wisecracks denote the strange jouissance extracted not simply from the death of Harambe, but the mass powerlessness, the dull, pointless, quotidian injustice, that the death of this creature symbolises.)

But let’s not get ahead of ourselves. We are not yet done with faeces. 

Part 3: The death of God, and of Harambe, the gorilla

Responding to Lacan’s characterisation of of objet (petit) a – the (partial-) object of the drive – as “ejected” or “dejected” in Seminar XIII, Leclaire, in his own seminar (‘Reckoning with Psychoanalysis’), gives three alternative models: “One could describe it as the body of the child, as a wailing object, fallen from the body of its mother, or as an object designed on the model of an anal object (dropped, expelled, etc); or even as a detached, separated, cut-off object, which is in itself nevertheless indivisible.” 

Leclaire was not the first to draw a similarity between the imperfect, pathetic human body and the expelled anal object. In fact, this was none other than Martin Luther, who sometimes described man as like a divine shit, which fell out of God’s anus. By incarnating himself as Christ, God came to identify with His own excrement, His own partial-object. This is very close to Hegel’s conception of the Incarnation, wherein God alienates Himself from Himself primarily so that he can examine Himself from the perspective of his ‘excrement’, man – and of course, the gaze is itself also a partial-object according to Lacan. I think this is the point at which the theological section of Kriss’s analysis is lacking. He writes, “Christ on his cross cries out: eli, eli, lama sabachthani? My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? Was he not told the entire plan?” What Kriss misses is the fact that Christ’s abandonment at the hands of God is the plan, he must make this exclamation, because, as Catherine Malabou writes apropos of Hegel, “The suffering of God and the suffering of human subjectivity deprived of God must be analysed as the recto and verso of the same event … consciousness only represents God because God represents itself; consciousness is only at a distance from God because God distances himself from himself.” This is how Jesus Christ differs from earlier spiritual teachers: where they represent the becoming-essential of the accident, Jesus represents the becoming-accidental of the essence, the universal embodied in the individual; as Hegel noted in his early work Life of Jesus, the moment of Jesus’ aforementioned exclamation is the exact moment when He knew sin and evil, for evil is the separation of the individual from the universal.  

So it is not the case that “the Godhead in its entirety suffered and perished on Golgotha”, but rather that, as Žižek is so keen to remind us at every available opportunity, it was God Himself as transcendent being who died on the cross. This is the ultimate case of Hegelian sublation: God and Jesus are sublated into the third term, the Holy Spirit, whose positive content is identical to the community of believers, and does not exist beyond them. Hegel himself writes, “it is in the finite consciousness that the process of knowing spirit’s essence takes place and that the divine self-consciousness thus arises. Out of the foaming ferment of finitude, spirit rises up fragrantly.” This is the material side of Hegel which is often missed. The Holy Spirit is like the Nation, like the Party. It only exists insofar as people act as though it exists, insofar as people are willing to wager their lives on it. 

Two Harambes died in Cincinnati. The first, Harambe the Father – the primal, savage father of the Oedipal fantasy, for a strange moment ambivalent towards the young child he found in front of him, torn between the protective paternal instinct and the violent urge to reaffirm his supremacy as king of the tribe, to embody the substance which finally makes up the superego. The second, Harambe the Son – the emblem of a presymbolic innocence, a beautiful shamelessness, a unity with the body and its partial-objects, free from the deception of the ego. And through this double death, a sublation. What is left? Not a gorilla, but a spirit, a community, which takes as its substance nothing other than the name of this dead ape, ‘Harambe’; a scream into the void of a dead universe in which weaponised irony is the closest thing to salvation. And under his flag coalesce the injuries and indignities of an international mass of people united by the dull, constant pain of living in this hellscape of a world, where injustices only multiply without end, where to participate in the political process, to stand firm in loyalty to even a moderate democratic socialist, is to be smeared as blind, violent, misogynistic, cultist, to be called responsible for the encroachment of fascism into mainstream politics, a fascism which you always claimed to see present under the surface of everyday, damaged life, only to be branded insane, extremist. And all of this senselessness, all of this pointless violence, all of this hatred, it all gathers, and manifests itself in Cincinnati, on 28th May 2016, in one gunshot wound to the head of a 440-pound silverback gorilla. The flesh made word, the ape who died, the dead ape. Harambe.

The nightmare of Michaela (Foucault) Community School

The organization of a serial space was one of the great technical mutations of elementary education […] It made the educational space function like a learning machine, but also as a machine for supervising, hierarchizing, rewarding. Jean-Baptiste de La Salle dreamt of a classroom in which the spatial distribution might provide a whole series of distinctions at once: according to the pupils’ progress, worth, character, application, cleanliness and parents’ fortune. Thus, the classroom would form a single great table, with many different entries, under the scrupulously ‘classificatory’ eye of the master […]  Things must be so arranged that ‘those whose parents are neglectful and verminous must be separated from those who are careful and clean; that an unruly and frivolous pupil should be placed between two who are well behaved and serious, a libertine either alone or between two pious pupils.’

– Michel Foucault, Discipline and Punish

Today’s dystopian nightmare comes courtesy of Michaela Community School, a free school in Wembley, whose policy of ‘Lunch Isolation’ for children whose parents are behind on payments has predictably rankled the Twitterati. Aside from proudly outlining a practice that amounts to a kind of junior debtor’s prison, the letter informs us that the regular (non-isolated) meal at Michaela is known as ‘family lunch’, a horrifying detail which reminds us of how the most impersonal, authoritarian institutions are also the most likely to masquerade as an extension of the safe and the domestic: just think of Tories likening the government budget to a ‘household budget’. This is your family, and you just wait until your father gets home.

So what’s the deal with this school? It was set up a couple of years ago under the leadership of headmistress Katharine Birbalsingh, a Tory darling notable for being practically the only teacher in Britain to come out in favour of Michael Gove’s notoriously harebrained educational reform schemes. She also writes trashy chick-lit under the name *squints* Katharine Bing (yeah, me neither). The fact that Birbalsingh read French and Philosophy at university leads me to believe that her school’s choice of motto – “Knowledge is Power” – can only be meant as a cruel swipe at the memory of Michel Foucault, who once wrote, “Is it surprising that prisons resemble factories, schools, barracks, hospitals, which all resembles prisons?” Certainly, the school’s website describes a kind of Foucauldian fever dream, promising prospective parents that, for example, “by the time [their children] leave Michaela, they will read novels for pleasure,” forgetting that you can’t force someone to do something for pleasure, because these are words which have meanings.

But the notorious letter wasn’t written by Birbalsingh, it was written by her deputy, Barry Smith. Luckily for us, like all narcissistic psychopaths, Mr. Smith has a personal blog. There’s a lot of appalling stuff on it, of which I can only scratch the surface, and if you feel your day has been lacking in blind rage, I encourage you to have a read. The most striking thing about Mr. Smith’s depraved transmissions is his unabashed contempt for children as such. He writes, “In my experience most kids are bone idle unless you’re right on top of them” (grow up), tells us that any pupil complaining of stress is “making excuses for lack of self-control”, and claims that every excuse beginning “I forgot” is unquestionably a “blatant lie”. The number of times Mr. Smith haughtily proclaims that, among his student body, “nobody talks”, is astounding. Ctrl-F the word “silence” on his WordPress if you want your computer to crash forever. Mr. Smith and his colleagues are very proud of the fact that their school is apparently devoid of bullying, but don’t seem to have noticed that they have solved this problem by eliminating the entire idea of socialisation, which is actually the most important function of schooling. Probably “socialisation” sounds too much like “socialism” for Birbalsingh.

But wait! It’s not all silence! Mr. Smith gaily informs us that, when allowed out of their panopticonic school, his pupils are permitted to emit some noise, but only in the form of “chanting Kipling or a bit of Shakespeare or Invictus or Ozymandias”. Lots of observations spring to mind here. Firstly, the, uh, interesting image of black and brown children from North London cheerfully reciting the work of a man who called their ancestors “half-devil and half-child” and “lesser breeds”. Secondly, the question of what “bit of Shakespeare” is being chanted here. In my mind it’s Isabella’s speech from Measure for Measure: “But man, proud man, Dress’d in a little brief authority, Most ignorant of what he’s most assur’d”. Or King Lear’s observation that even “a dog’s obeyed in office”. We can only hope. Thirdly, the sublime irony of putting ‘Ozymandias’ in this list, a poem about the folly of pride and the hubris of authority, written by a man who hated his oppressive schooling and was so anti-authoritarian that he was expelled from Oxford aged 18 for promoting atheism. Look upon Mr. Smith’s works, and despair. Despair indeed.

Despair is not a luxury extended to the Michaela students, however. In perhaps his most disturbing scree, Mr. Smith writes:

“The real scourge of society isn’t the supposed epidemic of mental health issues.

What we really need to battle is procrastination, the media fuelled obsession with fame at any cost and in any domain – too many teenagers live for notoriety, the excuse culture that permeates everything, the pseudo medicalisation of normal emotions, the overuse of words like ‘depression’, ‘mental health’ and ‘pressure’. That’s what we need to fight rather than handing out limiting and harmful labels.”

Reading this, I found it hard to maintain ironic distance from the man’s nonsense. I have written elsewhere and spoken publicly about the crisis of youth mental health, and I won’t rehearse all my remarks about the subject here. I’ll only note that the World Health Organization reports that “[suicide] rates among young people have been increasing to such an extent that they are now the group at highest risk in a third of countries, in both developed and developing countries”, and that, in this country, teen suicides have been linked to stress at school (the stress that, let’s remember, Mr. Smith believes to be nonexistent). In his book Shutting Out the Sun: How Japan Created Its Own Lost Generation, sociologist Michael Zielenziger links that nation’s obsession with discipline and ‘pressure-cooker’ education system to its astonishing suicide rate, as well as to the phenomenon of hikikomori, adolescents and young adults – numbering perhaps over a million – who remove themselves from social life and rarely leave their homes. Does it make me a mollycoddling liberal softie if I feel pretty strongly that we shouldn’t follow suit in the UK?

It’s bizarre that Mr. Smith thinks the real problem is teenagers “liv[ing] for notoriety”. I’m not certain what he thinks he means by this, but when I was diagnosed with depression, it had nothing to do with a desire for “notoriety”. In fact I wanted the exact opposite, to permanently escape the gaze of others, to disappear from the world entirely. My diagnosis wasn’t “limiting and harmful”; it was a lifeline, the first step towards a way out.

Mr. Smith summarises the nature of his unique school as follows: “You send your child to Michaela and he’s going to receive a superb education, in silent classrooms, where kids sit up straight, arms folded, no pen fiddling, no doodling, no gazing out the window or whispering to your mates on the sly.” What he has precluded here is actually school itself. If you take those things away, you haven’t got a school anymore. Michaela trumpets its “private-school ethos”, but Birbalsingh is deluding herself if she thinks the Tory leaders she so idolises didn’t engage in all of the above (plus some altogether more disturbing rituals) at Eton, Westminster et al. 

The teachers people remember are the ones who maintained a healthy distance from the party line; management rules and protocols (both for staff and pupils) have to exist in a school precisely so that they can be pushed against, because otherwise everyone in the institution would go insane, and the sort of eye-opening formative experiences people carry forward from school couldn’t happen. The teacher who had the most influence on me at school was the one who has never once in his career given a detention to anyone. Did people behave in his lessons? Of course. Because he respected his pupils’ intelligence and autonomy, and treated us like individual human beings, and so we respected him. Loved him, even. I’ll never forget teachers like that, who allowed me to develop my writing and critical thought, beyond – perpendicular to – exam requirements and received, parroted wisdom. Meanwhile, Michaela students flawlessly recite what The Great Gatsby tells us about the American Dream. I really worry for these kids. Bound to an institution obsessed with deference to authority, what figures do they ultimately have to look up to? A Tory hack and an arrogant sociopath. Perchance to dream – ay, there’s the rub.

Dialectic of Pokémon Go: A Metacritique

For R.M. and W.J.

One of the most important and striking statements in Theodor Adorno’s Minima Moralia comes early on. In aphorism 7, he writes: “Those who are at a distance are as entangled as those who are actively engaged […] That is why every impulse towards self-withdrawal bears the marks of what is negated.” Those who denounce Adorno as an elitist, a snob who sneered at the America which provided him shelter from Nazism, neglect this aspect of his work. Like all Marxists, Adorno knew that the idea of escaping society, of somehow standing above it in an untainted place from which one could mount an objective critique, is an ideological fiction. We are embedded in the social fabric and depend on it for everything, which is why our attempts at critique are both so acute and so difficult. This is part of the reason Minima Moralia rings with such profound melancholia; if Adorno really harboured the kind of superiority complex he is sometimes said to have, surely he would not have been so concerned about the workings and implications of mass culture? Surely he could have left the ignorant masses to play with their toys? A true snob could never be so emotionally engaged in the object of his critique.

Spurred on by the work of Adorno and the Frankfurt School, the British New Left made cultural criticism central to the work it conducted. One of its most beloved figures, the late Stuart Hall, was instrumental in establishing the Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies at Birmingham University under Richard Hoggart, which became a shining light of social analysis even as the traditional socialist left in Britain declined. It is no coincidence that Hall was among those who stood fast to a radical political vision even as his colleagues drifted towards Blair and New Labour; his analysis of the intersections between mass media and politics meant that the limits of Third Way politics were clear to him from the outset, despite the slick public image machine early New Labour functioned as. Cultural studies, at its best, is one of the great threads running through the fractured world of post-war British leftism.

Which is all to say, I have a problem with Pokémon Go. The game is unquestionably a cultural phenomenon, commanding space on social media even as Britain acquires a new Prime Minister and the most popular socialist in American history concedes the Democratic nomination. People who were never involved in the original wave of Poké-mania are playing it. Scores of think pieces have been written about the app in the small amount of time it has been out, with takes concocted from every conceivable angle. Something this big quite simply demands analysis. There is a need to understand why Pokémon Go has been such a hit, what it is about it that makes it so appealing to so many people. Someone might say, “it’s just fun”; sure, but a lot of fun things couldn’t carve a place in a news cycle otherwise dominated by some of the most significant upheavals in recent political history. Somehow, the summer of Brexit is turning into the summer of Pokémon, and it’s no crime to ask why.

But that’s my problem. I don’t know why. Sam Kriss’ article in Jacobin yesterday, discussing the prescriptive nature of the game and raising the (I think, worthwhile) point that it subjects the mechanics of childhood play – the mapping of fantastical worlds onto the real – to corporate centralisation, has been poorly received to say the least. Kriss is probably used to being called a pretentious pseudo-intellectual snob, but I’ve never seen him slated like this before (I won’t quote examples, feel free to peruse Twitter if you really want them). Aside from that ubiquitous signifier “pretentious”, prevalent is the idea that this sort of critique is ‘humourless’ (missing, in this case, the fairly obvious humour in all of Kriss’ writing) and ‘sucks the fun’ out of innocent, apolitical diversions. People might agree that capitalism is soul-sucking and unjust, but surely Pokémon Go is providing some relief, some escape from the drab, repetitive life of labour we all endure?

This is another of Adorno’s difficult lessons, and one he puts bluntly. “There is nothing innocuous left.” It’s a distressing thesis, all the more distressing the more you ponder it. But it’s the unavoidable counterpoint to what we’ve already discussed. If there’s no way of escaping ideology, if “every impulse towards self-withdrawal bears the marks of what is negated”, this must extend to all forms of culture, even the most apparently inconsequential. Even Pokémon Go.

In fact, I am not as unilaterally opposed to the game as my namesake. I’m ambivalent about it, in the old sense of the term. Adorno and Horkheimer’s “dialectic of enlightenment” proposed that “Myth is already enlightenment, and enlightenment reverts to mythology”. In this way, the pair problematised any Manichean thinking about the processes of truth and knowledge within the ideological space of modernity, any idea of a strict cut called ‘the Enlightenment’ that transformed mankind’s method of self-reflection and relation to his surroundings. Perhaps I might propose a more modest dialectic of my own, then: a dialectic of Pokémon Go.

On the one hand, the fact that businesses can buy incentives to lure Pokémon hunters into their establishments means the game is, in some sense, another strand of the interminable corporate efforts to turn workers’ leisure time into instances of consumerism. Man’s double identity under capitalism – employee/consumer – is reaffirmed. More broadly, there is something undeniably strange about a sensual relation to the world mediated through a screen which is supplemented by the presence of cartoon creatures meant to be captured and pitted against each other, in the digital equivalent of a dog fight. Adorno and Horkheimer wrote that, “What human beings seek to learn from nature is how to use it to dominate wholly both it and human beings.” Is it the case that, now that nature is thoroughly subdued by man, he must invent a new nature to overlay onto the real, to subdue again, in a new reality collapsed into virtuality? Baudrillard spoke of “derealizing (dematerializing) human space, or transferring it into a hyperreal of simulation”; ‘augmented reality’ is a weird fulfilment of this vision. No longer do we have a real world and a virtual, videogame one; the distinction is elided, the map and territory become coterminous.

On the other hand, there are obvious responses to both these criticisms. It is not as though we ever have the opportunity to escape the injunction to direct our non-labour time towards consumerism; such has been the case for decades. Another method of advertising doesn’t make much difference when we are already saturated with it in our daily lives; people will take their business somewhere, and as we all know, there is no such thing as ethical consumption under capitalism. Moreover, just because something is strange doesn’t mean it’s bad. Lacan argued that all relation to reality is mediated through fantasy: is it really so harmful if this fantasy includes digital animals? More important are the material effects the game is having. There are people with anxiety and depression for whom the game has become a reason to leave the house; as someone who has had to take SSRIs in the past, I can’t ignore this. People are interacting with their neighbors because of it, against the trend of the modern crisis of neighborhood. When Adorno discussed Kierkegaard’s notion of the neighbor as social critique, he wrote: “The neighbor no longer exists. In modern society, the relations of men have been ‘reified’ to such an extent that the neighbor cannot behave spontaneously to the neighbor for longer than an instant.” If Pokémon Go is even the smallest antidote to this depressing reality, it is worthwhile. Kriss worries that within the game, “all routes are already set, all eventualities accounted for, all points of interest marked and immutable”. He misses one of the implications of his own critique: stressing that the game runs up against social realities to which it is “indifferent”, he doesn’t account for the fact that, precisely because the real world is not eliminated, one of the side-effects of Pokémon Go is the necessity of a ‘real’ relation with one’s surroundings. A friend of mine says, “I have discovered so much more of my neighbourhood than I ever knew before.” It is exactly because the game cannot account for the contingencies of the real process of walking around urban areas that it might – in a way entirely transverse to its intentions – act as the frame for a renewed experience of the city.

Whether these spontaneous Poké-relations engender long-term bonds remains to be seen; like all fads, the game will decrease in popularity fairly soon, and it will be up to the hunters to uphold, and to continue to create and recreate, their new correspondences with their environment and their neighbors. Much more interesting than Pokémon Go is what people do with Pokémon Go. The app itself is undeniably another piece of consumerist ephemera, designed and marketed for profit, but there is a surplus here, the part the app couldn’t account for, which is the very contingency of real interaction, of intersubjectivity. If the left harbours any optimism at all, it has to in some small part be in places like this; in the spontaneous creation of unlikely links between workers, in the unpredictable, all-too-human social interactions which might somehow bear the promise of an escape from the mire of alienated capital relations. As always, a better future exists in the margins; apps won’t bring social revolution, but they can be used to illustrate where these margins might lie. This is, I think, why cultural analysis – as obtuse, clumsy, uncertain and irritating as it might sometimes be – has a permanent place in our work.