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.

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Tarkovsky and Lacan help me explain why I write

I always dream of a pen that would be a syringe … once the right vein has been found, no more toil…

– Jacques Derrida, Circumfession

In Andrei Tarkovsky’s Stalker, inhabitants of a ruinous, unnamed nation enlist the services of ‘stalkers’ to guide them into and through the Zone, a mysterious area of anomalous, supernatural activity said to contain a room which grants one’s innermost wishes. One of the titular stalker’s clients is a writer who professes to be in search of the inspiration that will break his block and propel him to widespread recognition. Yet halfway through the journey, he comes to realize that this cannot really be his true desire at all, saying:

A man writes because he is tormented, because he doubts. He needs to constantly prove to himself and the others that he’s worth something. And if I know for sure that I’m a genius? Why write then? What the hell for?

If the writer gains the unassailable talent and insight to compose flawless, universally-praised literature, he will lose the very thing which compels him to write in the first place: doubt. I would go as far as to say that doubt, radical self-doubt, is the thread connecting virtually all great authors. Catullus called his poems ‘nugas’ – ‘trifles’. Virgil requested that all his remaining manuscripts be burned, unpublished, after his death (Kafka did the same, already having burned 90% of what he wrote during his life). Chaucer famously ended the Canterbury Tales by apologising for the whole thing. In what might be his most personal work, Shakespeare admitted that he felt unable to convey through his poetry the beauty of the object of his first 126 sonnets, writing, “There lives more life in one of your fair eyes/ Than both your poets can in praise devise.” Joyce described the mind of his alter ego, Stephen Dedalus, as “a dusk of doubt and selfmistrust”. Beckett called his work “a desecration of silence”. You get the picture.

Obviously, I am far from proclaiming myself to be a great writer, or even a particularly good one. But I have sometimes turned to people who were, like the aforementioned, to try and understand why it is that some of us are, for better or worse, compelled to write, and to keep on writing. Somehow we got caught up in this compulsion, our brains short-circuiting on language, feeding off the delusion that if we just keep putting down words we will find that one day we have, at last, said what we meant to say.

As a child, I was consumed with self-doubt: I refused to go to playgrounds, quit sports teams, and pretended to be sick to avoid attending parties. It wasn’t because I didn’t have friends – I had plenty – but because of a strange, amorphous fear of public humiliation, of doing the wrong thing, which never manifested itself in imagined scenarios of embarrassment, but rather functioned as the spectre of failure in-itself. This is how Freud defined Angst: fear without object. Growing up, my ability to write relatively well vacillated between being the safeguard of my self-esteem and the apex of an anxiety centred on the prospect of being ‘found out’ as a fraud; everything was a source of fear, especially something that might be construed as a source of pride. As I got older, I became less socially anxious, less concerned about other people’s perceptions of me, and yet the writing-compulsion only grew. I would overstretch myself in assignments, sometimes to the point of being incomprehensible, irritating, even. Praise lost most of its benefit, and I became convinced that only I was aware of the fundamental failure that inhabited all my attempts. My writing had no impetus external to a self-perceived inadequacy, as if every word was a finger plugging a hole in a sinking ship. As Deleuze wrote in one of his last published essays, “The shame of being a man – is there any better reason to write?”

There’s a Slavoj Žižek quote somewhere where he explains that the reason he is so prolific is that every time he finishes a book, he is struck by the feeling that he didn’t quite manage to articulate what he was trying to say. In other words, there is always an elusive part left over, fuelling the next project, in a chain which continues, necessarily, without end. Žižek would be aware that his master, Jacques Lacan, theorised this phenomenon in detail. For Lacan, the subject is itself ‘barred’ as an effect of language, since the chain of signifiers never reaches an end in signification – think of a dictionary: the definition of a word points to another word, and so on and so on, forever. We are split between the collection of images and signifiers by which we represent ourselves to ourselves and the surplus that eludes signification, which Lacan calls the ‘Real’. And it is this surplus that gives rise to desire in the first place. In Lacanese:

[I]t is the connection between signifier and signified, that permits the elision in which the signifier installs the lack-of-being in the object relation, using the value of ‘reference back’ possessed by signification in order to invest it with desire aimed at the very lack it supports.

The difficulty of Lacan’s prose and the arcane theoretical framework he built for himself, replete with unique concepts and neologisms, mean people often take his theories to be more complex and obscure than they are. Think of someone you’ve fallen in love with; if I asked you why you loved them, you might list a collection of attributes (pretty eyes, kind, funny, also passionate about Weimar German architecture, etc.) but you’d never arrive at what precisely it is about them that makes them so special. Any number of people might share those features, but none of them is them. This little leftover bit, this phantom extra thing, is what Lacan called objet (petit) a, the ‘object-cause’ of desire. Our illustration makes it easy to see why this object is not an ordinary one, with qualities and attributes, but something altogether more mysterious, the ‘object proper to the Real’.

I think this surplus which animates desire is embodied by the room in Stalker. When they arrive at its threshold, neither of the stalker’s clients dare enter, because to enter would mean to confront one’s desire head-on. Objet a must always be kept at a distance; this is what Lacan’s matheme $ ◊ a (‘the split subject in relation to objet a) indicates, the lozenge (◊) standing simultaneously for conjunction and disjunction, the mediating factor of fantasy, which facilitates any object-relation, any relationship of desire. In fact, Lacan modified Freud’s theory of Angst by suggesting that it did indeed have an object, but that this was the phantasmic objet a: when an object occupies its place, anxiety is liable to arise. Being in love is an experience which induces anxiety, but so is being loved, because it forces us to ask what it is about us that makes us desirable to the other, and indeed whether we can hold onto that thing when we never fully know what it is. It is as if our partner has taken possession of something in us which we didn’t know was there – Lacan describes objet a in precisely these terms when he says that it consists of what is “in you more than you”. I think Jason Molina hit on a very similar idea in his song “Being in Love”:

Being in love

Means you are completely broken

Then put back together;

The one piece that was yours

Is beating in your lover’s breast,

She says the same thing about hers.

Why all this talk of love and desire? One of the things I think Stalker shows is that the desire that animates creativity and the desire that animates romantic love are not very far apart: the writer is afraid of coming into contact with desire itself, of having something manifest itself in the place of the lack which stimulates his life’s work; the stalker’s wife stays with him despite the incredible grief and hardship this “condemned man” brings upon his family, because he holds whatever it is that sets her desire in motion. In both cases it’s a question of that same obscure object. In the text from which I took the epigraph for this essay, Derrida notes that whenever a writer is asked why he writes, he ends up giving something akin to a confession or a defence, as if his work was some sort of a crime. If I haven’t managed to avoid this, it’s because the ghostly things fuelling our projects, our personal object-causes, are so indeterminate, so structurally out of reach, that to talk about them is to struggle with an impossible question, to place oneself in a Kafkaesque interrogation, in which we are finally left with no answers, only our anxieties and our uncertainties. And if this is the case, why continue? I’ll defer to the last lines of Stalker:

And if there was no grief in our life, it would not be better, it would be worse. Because then there would be … neither happiness, nor hope. That’s it.

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.

We are all castrated, but only Tony Blair is castrated by a Nicolas Cage film

It is not because they turn their back on washed-out existence that escape-films are so repugnant, but because they do not do so energetically enough, because they are themselves just as washed-out, because the satisfactions they fake coincide with the ignominy of reality, of denial.

                   – Theodor Adorno, Minima Moralia

In the last piece I posted here, I quoted from Jean Baudrillard’s Simulacra and Simulation by way of an epigraph, and briefly referred to his (in)famous essays on the Gulf War and its apparent unreality. I am always a little wary of referring to Baudrillard, because the reception of his work in the English-speaking world has led to an unfortunate characterisation of the late theorist as a kind of wilfully obscure purveyor of fashionable gibberish, the toast of turtleneck-clad undergrad cod-philosophers worldwide. Worse, Baudrillard will forever be associated with The Matrix, which features and quotes the aforementioned Simulacra and Simulation (Morpheus’ “Welcome to the desert of the real”), and which is based, in Baudrillard’s own words, on a “misunderstanding” of his work. Baudrillard himself realized the poetic irony in the fact that the great philosopher of simulation and (mis)representation was himself the victim of such misrepresentation, and eventually even proclaimed, “I am the simulacrum of myself.”

This isn’t a new idea at all. Lacan defined the hysteric as merely an extreme victim of the “symbolic castration” which assails every human subject from the moment she acquires language. This consists in the experience of a gap between one’s role in the symbolic order – i.e. one’s place in society: citizen, professor, father, etc. – and one’s real, contingent self, the “pissing, shitting, stinking, bleeding bastard” we all, finally, are (h/t Martin Rowson). The locus classicus for (Lacanian) hysteria in literature is more than four hundred years old: the title character’s soliloquy in Shakespeare’s Richard II:

I have no name, no title,

No, not that name was given me at the font,

But ’tis usurp’d: alack the heavy day,

That I have worn so many winters out,

And know not now what name to call myself!

O that I were a mockery king of snow,

Standing before the sun of Bolingbroke,

To melt myself away in water-drops!

The king experiences symbolic castration as a crisis of his very subjectivity: this is hysteria – when my entire existence becomes an experience of extreme doubt as to my place in the world, as to what I amount to once the symbolic titles and names conferred upon me – which always feel somehow external – are subtracted. At the same time, symbolic castration fulfils a crucial, and essentially positive, function in the psychoanalytic account of childhood development. The father can only assume his proper role in the Oedipus complex (his role as symbolic Father, as Father ‘as such’, through whom the Law speaks) if he accepts that he is himself castrated, separated, in his position in the symbolic order, from his substantial being. Within the discourse of psychoanalysis, this symmetry represents the fundamental cycle of civilisation itself: in order to castrate the child, to ensure that the child realises that he or she is not the be-all-and-end-all of the mother’s desire, the father must himself be castrated. The various ways in which this, the Oedipus complex, can go wrong define the clinical structures – neurosis, psychosis, perversion.

This brings us to Tony Blair. There is no doubt in my mind that Blair is, psychoanalytically speaking, a pervert. For Lacan, perversion is not an umbrella category for deviant sexual behaviours, but rather a structure which exhibits certain fundamental characteristics. Where the neurotic represses the knowledge that there is a ‘lack in the Other’, that is, that the symbolic order of language and laws is structured around an impossible, traumatic kernel which cannot be expressed in speech, the pervert goes a step further, disavowing this knowledge outright by identifying himself as that lacking object, as the instrument of the Other’s enjoyment, the object of its drive. So, as the clinical psychoanalyst Paul Verhaeghe writes, “In this respect, not only does he refuse the Oedipal law with its symbolic castration, he will challenge it as well and replace it by his own rules of engagement. The Oedipal law concerning castration does not apply to him, but only to the poor bourgeois.”[1] Because of this, “certain perverts will live their perversion solely within the realm of the propagation and installation of their law, without ever actually committing sexually violent acts.” [2]

When Tony Blair gave a two-hour press conference on the day of the Chilcot report’s publication defending his actions – even after that inquiry came out with judgements like, “At no stage did Ministers or senior officials commission the systematic evaluation of different options, incorporating detailed analysis of risk and UK capabilities, military and civilian, which should have been required before the UK committed to any course of action in Iraq” – he demonstrated perfectly the disavowal inherent to perversion; a refusal to assimilate a traumatic fact or experience into one’s psychical economy, instead maintaining that this trauma can be ‘plugged’ by the subject himself acting as the object-instrument of the will of the Other. This is why it is the case that when this structure is imported from the sexual field to the political, the pervert perhaps forms the most dangerous of all kinds of subject. As Slavoj Žižek has written, “The pervert claims direct access to some figure of the big Other (from God or history to the desire of his partner), so that, dispelling all ambiguity of language, he is able to act directly as the instrument of the big Other’s will.”[3] Žižek wants to use this to claim that religious fundamentalists can be ascribed a perverse structure, but the reality is that fundamentalists are much more cynical and ideologically weak than he gives them credit for. In reality, it’s leaders like Blair who believe they are acting on behalf of God and History, which is why they’re so terrifying. The pervert erects a fetish object to stand as a ‘veil’ in front of the traumatic Real; listening to Blair on Wednesday, it’s hard to avoid the conclusion that he has reified the moralistic platitude of ‘doing the right thing’ (in removing Saddam Hussein, who, in the report’s words, posed “no imminent threat”) into a fetish object, obscuring the trauma of an invasion which killed hundreds of thousands of civilians and destabilized a region which remains ravaged by unimaginable violence every single day.

If Blair was a normal person, he wouldn’t have appeared in public waxing lyrical about the “momentous… agonising” decision-making he faced when he plunged the UK into a pointless and stupid war, or have said things like “What I cannot and will not do is say we took the wrong decision”. A neurotic subject (the closest thing to normal in Lacan’s schema) represses the trauma of castration, of lack, so that what is repressed returns in the unconscious, in dreams, symptoms, slips of the tongue. Even the psychotic subject cannot uphold his foreclosure of symbolic castration, seeing the trauma return in the form of delusions and hallucinations. Only the pervert can maintain disavowal, which is why he almost never seeks treatment from the analyst (and why accounts of perversion are often based on analysis of criminals, instead of clinical patients). We all asked ourselves, “How can Blair continue with this charade? How can he be so crass on this of all days?” It’s because he doesn’t realize what he is. As Dylan Evans points out, “perversion is characterised by the lack of a question; the pervert does not doubt that his acts serve the jouissance of the Other.” In other words, Blair will never accept that he is not the instrument of the will of History. He will never recognize the sordid reality; that he is an reckless, messianic warmonger who is directly responsible for apparently interminable chaos and death.

The melancholia that accompanied the reappearance of the Iraq War in the media, not to mention the presence of Blair’s cartoon goblin face on the telly and the front pages, meant that it was hard to muster much amusement at the best and funniest revelation hiding in the pages of the Chilcot report, namely that MI6 intelligence on Iraqi chemical weapons was provided by a bogus source who probably lifted his account of “linked hollow glass spheres” full of nerve gas from the 1996 Nicolas Cage action thriller The Rock, Michael Bay’s least-worst film. This is actually what got me thinking of Baudrillard in the first place. That ‘the truth is stranger than fiction’ is a banal cliché at this point; Baudrillard’s thesis was much more radical: society is now structured and dominated by the proliferation of images and signs, of simulacra, copies which have no original. “It is no longer a question of imitation, nor duplication, nor even parody. It is a question of substituting the signs of the real for the real.” [4] He would not have been surprised by the discovery of details from a Michael Bay film in the documents which justified the Iraq invasion, because he already believed that war had become a masquerade, a performance rehearsed and directed by the world order. This is only an unusually neat case of a general rule: military violence has become indistinguishable from pure spectacle.

Adorno was already aware of something like this in the 40s, in the passage up there from Minima Moralia. The problem with escapism is that it offers no real escape, as a film like The Rock shows. In it, the baddie is a Marine General who seizes control of Alcatraz and threatens to launch those aforementioned containers of nerve gas at San Francisco unless the US Government pays $100 million to the families of Recon Marines who died on clandestine missions and whose deaths were not compensated. So we are supposed to feel sympathy for the character, while also supporting the goodies (Sean Connery and Nicolas Cage) tasked with defeating him. This is Hollywood’s idea of ‘depth’. And of course, the rest of the film does not even try to fake this level of apparent complexity. Nothing is plausible, nobody speaks like an actual human being, nothing looks real – in short, just what we expect from this kind of movie. The result is a sort of unholy chimera: a stupid film that thinks it’s clever. This is the real poetic justice in the ignominious appearance of The Rock in the Chilcot report, the reflection of the “ignominy of reality” Adorno mentions. Even the film’s intellectual character – Cage’s chemical weapons specialist Dr. Stanley Goodspeed – ends up having to assume the mantle of the macho, murderous action hero. On this, elsewhere in Minima Moralia, Adorno writes:

“A certain gesture of manliness, be it one’s own, be it that of another, deserves mistrust. It expresses independence, surety of the power of command, the silent conspiracy of all men with each other. Earlier one anxiously called it, awe-struck, the whims of lords, today it is democratized and is played by film heroes for the benefit of the lowliest bank employee […] In Oxford one can differentiate between two kinds of students: the “tough guys” and the intellectuals; the latter are equated almost without further ado to those who are effeminate. There is a great deal of evidence that the ruling class polarizes itself according to these extremes on the road to dictatorship. Such disintegration is the secret of integration, of happiness of unity in the absence of happiness. In the end the “tough guys” are the ones who are really effeminate, who require the weaklings as their victims, in order not to admit that they are like them.”

The reference to Oxford points to the homology between the exaggerated masculinity of the action film and the exaggerated masculinity of our political leaders. This is something which Jacqueline Rose has written about recently, with regard to Brexit. She argues persuasively that both campaigns were based on an idea of masculine control and assurance which has only hindered the political process, turning it into a homosocial competition between elite males. In layman’s terms, a dick-measuring contest.

So we can castrate our leaders all we want; we can point to their failures, their stupidity, their manifest ridiculousness. We can publish a two-million word inquiry into the most disastrous British foreign policy expedition in living memory wherein it is suggested that crucial intel was provided by a prankster and based on a Nicolas Cage movie. And yet our leaders continue to strut into photo ops, into press conferences, into parliament, waving the phalluses they are certain they possess in front of our now-desensitized faces. Our next Prime Minister will be a woman, but a woman whose policies will hurt the poorest and most vulnerable in society. Anyone sceptical about the Oedipal facet of politics would do well to read Tom Whyman’s exegesis of the strangely maternal relationships at work in the Tory party right now. In Seminar XX, Lacan famously said, “There are men who are as good as women. It happens.” When it comes to politics, we might add that there are also women who are as bad as men. It is obvious to everyone sane that a female prime minister is no feminist victory if her government will be disastrous for those women at the highest risk in the UK – migrants, the poor, the disabled, single mothers. If there is the possibility for a better politics, a politics which might break us out of the terrible rut in which we have found ourselves, perhaps it depends, not on whether our leaders have dicks or not, but on the realization that, in the final analysis, none of us really do.

[1] Paul Verhaeghe (2001). “Perversion II: The perverse structure.” The Letter, 23, 77-95. 89.
[2] Ibid. 84.
[3] Slavoj Žižek (2007). How to Read Lacan. New York. 116.
[4] Jean Baudrillard (1994). Simulacra and Simulation. Ann Arbor. 2.

Brexit is not taking place (and three more theses on what is happening)

The simulacrum now hides, not the truth, but the fact that there is none, that is to say, the continuation of Nothingness.

– Jean Baudrillard, “Radical Thought”

Four theses on Brexit:

  1. Brexit is not taking place.

The referendum was the perfect platform for the expression of abstract anger, because it was a completely abstract proposition. Nobody was ever really clear on what the nature of Britain’s relationship to the EU was – there was a lot of talk of ‘unelected’ politicians, but never a concrete exposition of exactly what impact these people had on Britain’s governance and economy, and consequently there was never any image of what leaving the EU actually meant, beyond empty sloganeering. The figure of £350 million sent to Brussels each week was the statistic most readily bandied around, and it doesn’t even really matter that the real figure is probably only 40% of this, because when numbers are that big, nobody can actually conceptualise them anymore, let alone in relation to the vast sums which characterize the economy of a wealthy nation. At that point all you have is a big number. Of course, it was never in the interest of the Leave camp to provide genuine specificity, when it was so much easier to fan the flames of broad national discontent. ‘Brexit’ became a mercurial signifier, to which could be attached any kind of frustration: with government, with the state of the country’s institutions, with social change, with whatever the British ‘way of life’ had become. Convince people that at least some of their problems are attached to an alien force – be it the EU or immigrants (more on them later) – and they will jump at the chance to excise it.

This is the sense in which Brexit is not taking place: the same sense in which Jean Baudrillard famously proclaimed that the Gulf War did not take place. ‘Brexit’ is meaningless. Nobody knows what it actually looks like. So, immediately after the vote we heard Nigel Farage disavowing the claim, strongly associated with Leave and distributed in their campaign material, that the money Britain provided to the EU could be transferred wholesale to the NHS. Likewise, Leave campaigner Daniel Hannan MEP quashed the idea that Brexit meant an end to free movement of labour from the EU. Nobody seems sure when Article 50 is going to be triggered, and nobody knows who is going to do it. With the Tory leadership in limbo, there isn’t currently anyone in place to lead this strange manoeuvre. Unlike in a general election, there is no manifesto, nothing to explain what the future is supposed to be, what the relationship between Britain and Europe is supposed to look like now. We can’t attach any concrete meaning to the word ‘Brexit’. It’s everything and nothing at all, a simulacrum hiding, not the reality of leaving, but the reality of a political void.

 

  1. The conceptual immigrant is the fantasy at the heart of Brexit.

I am tempted to say that immigration is the Real of Brexit. Lord Ashcroft’s polls, as well as the vox pops across the news channels in the wake of the vote, seem to suggest that it was central to the reasoning behind a great number of leave votes, and while some voices on the leave side have been keen to declare that there were several other reasons to exit the Union, the campaign has certainly been conducted in the register of anti-immigration zeal. The idea that immigrants are the cause of the problems faced by people in the poorer parts of the United Kingdom is one of the most insidious lies ever to gain traction in the media, and its dissemination has been allowed to go unchecked, even to snowball, because it is much more convenient for the government to have the blame placed on a homogeneous foreign body than on the tremendous social damage entailed by austerity and neoliberal policy. Our immigrant is the ‘conceptual immigrant’, much like Zizek’s ‘conceptual Jew’ – an obscure object, an empty framework within which fantasy, in the strict psychoanalytic sense, operates; simultaneously a welfare scrounger and a thief of jobs, dehumanised and yet quietly powerful. As Sean Homer writes (after Zizek), within such a fantasy, “what holds communities together is the attribution of excessive enjoyment to other or alien groups”. It’s the immigrants who are experiencing the enjoyment which rightly belongs to us, the British. Leave voters have spoken of a loss of identity, and one of the lessons of psychoanalysis is that identity is nothing but an imaginary construct, putty in the hands of ideological narratives. The fantasy of a return to a harmonious, pre-EU social whole can only be sustained if the immigrant is imputed this power, the power to both threaten identity and appropriate enjoyment. As demonstrated by the fact that anti-immigration sentiment is strongest in areas with the fewest immigrants, the ‘conceptual immigrant’ of British discourse is an empty fiction.

 

  1. ‘Old people are racist’ is a flawed conclusion.

I will admit that I was one of many young people whose immediate reaction to the vote was a feeling that my future had been hijacked by a generation who won’t have to live with consequences of what has happened. But complaints about ‘old, white racists’, which have become the go-to for certain factions of the liberal commentariat, are extremely limited. For one, they demonize a social group who are in the most vulnerable position they have ever been, victims of the scythe of austerity slicing through social care. But more fundamentally, they eschew any kind of structural analysis of why anti-immigration and anti-globalisation fervour has gripped so much of the population (and not just the elderly). One elderly leave voter interviewed by the BBC in Sheffield referred to the lack of industry in the city: “everything’s gone, everything’s going” was her summary. “We should come first”, said another. Clearly what has animated these voters’ decisions is not blind racism, but the feeling that vast swathes of the country have simply been left behind. These people feel they count for nothing in the grand scheme of Westminster politics. The vacuum left by the gutting of industry in the 1980s has not been replaced with anything at all, and austerity has only intensified national inequality. While we can say that this abstract frustration was misdirected at the EU, converting it into a free-floating xenophobia, devoid of any relation to economic conditions and government policy, is equally shortsighted, and anathema to the kind of analysis which the Left should be conducting.

 

  1. The centre cannot hold.

Mao wrote that “everything under heaven is in utter chaos: the situation is excellent.” The idea is that moments of uncertainty open up gaps in the social fabric, in which radical movements can install themselves, capitalising on the fragility of the political edifice. I wish I could share his revolutionary enthusiasm at this moment in British history, but all signs seem to be pointing towards Brexit being a boon for the far right, not the far left. The tenor with which the campaign was conducted, and its inescapable association with Nigel Farage – the loudest and most long-established Eurosceptic in current British politics – mean that the vote will be (and indeed already has been) taken as a sign that far right politics is back on the table in Britain. Already, we have heard numerous reports of racist abuse across the country. Far right demonstrators in Newcastle have called for repatriation. Eurosceptics Tories, emboldened by this result, generally represent the right wing of their right wing party. David Cameron, the emblem of the management-professional Tory, the soi-disant “liberal conservative” who supported causes like gay marriage, has been dethroned by a gamble he took in the belief that the Eurosceptic wing of his party could never rally the national support they needed. This moment has to be read as a collapsing of the centre of British politics.

 
This is why the behaviour of the Labour right in the aftermath of the vote has been so craven and foolish. An apparent mandate for quasi-fascism does not signal that it is time to kick out the socialists, and chatter over Jeremy Corbyn’s “competence” is meaningless. Corbyn was elected with an enormous majority, and in his time as Leader of the Opposition has attracted a party membership boom, instituted a majority-female Shadow Cabinet, helped force U-turns on Saudi prisons, blocked Osborne’s £4.5bn welfare cuts plan, got firefighters to re-affiliate with the party after 11 years, reinstituted nationalisation of the railways as party policy, and exposed Cameron’s weaknesses time and time again in PMQs. He was consistently clear on Labour’s position: remain and reform. The fact that he refused to base Labour’s campaign around immigration is a credit to him, not a weakness. A return to the centre means giving up ground to neoliberal economic policy and legitimised xenophobia. This move failed spectacularly for Miliband, so it is hard to understand why members of the PLP think it will work now. A Labour party which assumes the position of ‘conservatism with a human face’ will only ensure Tory power for decades. What is needed now is thinking on a bigger scale. ‘Reconnecting with voters’ cannot be used as code for drifting rightwards. The misery of the British population is directly related to the effects of austerity, and only unabashedly socialist policy is able to address this. A centrist Labour party will only prolong the wider national problem; it cannot conceivably solve it. Whether the parliamentary Labour party is going to be the platform to deliver the opposition needed is uncertain: although the membership are clearly in favour, so many of Corbyn’s MPs are so vehemently opposed to their leader, so rabid in their pursuit of any opportunity to oust him, that it will be difficult to cement Labour as a truly socialist organisation. But a socialist opposition is the only Left solution, and it is the only solution left.