Why I won’t be saying ‘Je Suis…’ any time soon

Watching the news is a Kubrickian nightmare. In fact, having even the mildest inclination as to what’s going on in the world is like being strapped to a chair and forced to watch as bodies are ripped apart by nails and Donald Trump continues to prove daily that there is no reality but fiction and that’s no reality at all. But most of us never enjoyed this murderous Grand Guignol, we didn’t need curing of our fascist impulses, and so we don’t scream or retch, our attempts at escape dissipate and it washes over us, reflected back on itself from the surface of once teary eyes. Susan Sontag says that the image saturated world “becomes a series of unrelated, freestanding particles; and history, past and present, a set of anecdotes and faits divers.”  With each new terror attack, each outpouring of replicated grief, we are anaesthetised a little more. Terrorism becomes mundane.

When terrorists targeted French magazine Charlie Hebdo the outpouring of online solidarity and grief was bound up in the phrase Je Suis Charlie. And in that moment, an unlikely, ugly little modern tradition was born. People who want to show the world whose side they are on run to carry the flag, but first came Je Suis Charlie.

It didn’t matter who or what Charlie Hebdo was or what they have done. All context became meaningless except for the blood on the streets; the oily outcome of death in the office carpets. People were all Charlie Hebdo. It was heresy to even dare suggest that the paper’s attitude to Islam had contributed to the attack. To look for cause, strategy, or any possible ‘reasons’ for the actions of terrorists was unethical and disrespectful. The response must be condemnation attached to unequivocal allegiance to a symbolic emblem of the victims.

But, the horrific book-end to the year of escalating terror, the Paris attacks, showed the folly in this response.  The victims of the attacks in paris were killed for power. Killed in the slaughter-house of the terror industry in clearly planned attacks. The choral reaction was Je Suis Paris, and this time people actually carried the flag, and Facebook was awash with the Tricolore. Again everything was particles without connection, present atoms and past nothings.

The clamour to denounce terrorism, to play your part as the extra in this tedious episode of Homeland is becoming part of the routine. It almost doesn’t matter what’s said, only that the same patterns and cycles emerge and accelerate. It’s a trial and error of destruction and we are the test subjects. When we all rush to condemn, take our ‘little action’ against the enemy, it reduces the choice of rational response, obliterates any other routes to understanding, it satiates us with the illusion of resistance.

Just as the terrorism itself has saturated the news and culture, and has descended into the realm of simulacrum, our responses are sliding out of the real and into a symbolic automation.

When the internet rushes in condemnation, there are implicit, and so often explicit, calls for Muslim people to denounce terrorism. Every Muslim becomes tethered by Islam to the actions of the terrorist until they denounce them. With nothing but a fictional, imagined correlation between their personal religious faith and an act of terror, they are made directly complicit, a de facto collaborator, and expected to prove their innocence.

This view is insidiously myopic. Right now millions of Muslim people are either displaced or living in war zones, their priority is unlikely to be condemning whichever attack the Western Sympathy Wheel has stopped on. If they do take to social media, is it not likely it will be to talk about subjects more relevant to their immediate lives?

We are creating a ritual of condemnation. Subjecting ourselves to George ‘Dubbya’ Bush’s post-9/11 dictum-cum-threat; “You’re either with us, or you’re against us.” So when millions of western people virtualise their condemnation, as unwitting as it might be, it creates an environment that unfairly makes those who don’t look unaffected or uninterested, presenting space for them to be attached to the blame of terrorism, reasserting a westernised hegemony on ethics.

The no doubt honest and kindhearted desire to be seen as ‘with us’ in the condemnation of terrorism, to be sure of broadcasting your ethical stance just to be safe, is codifying the social response to terrorism in rapidly dangerous ways. Complexity is elided completely. There is a singular temporal moment of murder and innocence. One space of victim and perpetrator.

Now I’m not suggesting anything that France or Belgium or any nation has done in the past is justification for wanton murder. But equally it’s irresponsible and dangerously ignorant to believe there is no web of causes, effects, and contexts.

If history is washed away and cleansed like blood from a river, fabricated modern fables take their place. During the Paris attacks, The Guardian, considered to be the most liberal British newspaper, called it the worst attack in Paris since World War Two. This account, repeated many times in news reports and think-pieces around the world, erases the memory of the 1961 massacre of Algerians in Paris, many of whom were thrown into the river Seine. That flag that people were quick to be seen carrying is the flag of the state that murdered those people. It’s the symbol of colonial France.

Most of the attackers in Paris, and more recently Brussels, have been found to be of Algerian descent. This isn’t inconsequential information, it isn’t purely coincidence that a nation with a complicated history of subjugating muslims has a significant Muslim population that might be targeted for radicalisation.

It is understanding factors like this that will be key to understanding who ISIS are likely to be recruiting, which cities they might target, and how they build their networks.  History, both here and in the Middle-East, is not a disconnected relic, it’s an important clue to any real investigation of exactly who and what ISIS are and how they work.

With the attacks in Brussels, how many people writing Je Suis Bruxelles stopped to consider that more Belgians are not French speakers than are? And when putting up the Belgian flag, do you consider the untold terror and brutality inflicted on the people of the Congo under that flag?

Even more perplexing was the hashtag  #JeSuisLahore, which is surely an anti-axiom, showing the western bias of sympathy in a message intended to show solidarity and empathy with the people of Pakistan. It doesn’t even bother pretending to concern itself with the culture or languages of the people it professes to be aligning to. All it does is show how rapidly the responses to terrorism have become ritualised. This is why terrorism is so effective, because its consequences don’t end in the lives and limbs destroyed in the attack, they start there. For every nail sent out in destruction from a bomb there are hundreds on fingers at work on keyboards. Each frantically adding to the hall of shattered mirrors where terrorism does most of its work.

The seemingly increasing frequency of terror attacks, the sense of encroachment into lives that before thought of them only as foreign policy issues, or middle-of-the-paper news, is making us become automated in response: ‘Je Suis [insert city]’. But this flaccid and weakened yang to the festering bile of Islamophobia’s yin, is a piston in the engine of perpetuation. It will become so wearingly cyclical, a new rhythm that quickly fades into the diminuendo of white noise, because we don’t know to react any other way than passing replicant condemnation on social media.

When we as communities, as nations, as people, turn our backs on refugees fleeing destruction and violence, and turn them away at our borders; when we denounce the terror they flee but do nothing to give them shelter from it; when we ignore the greatest humanitarian crisis of this generation and forget the lessons of history; we walk, unsighted by tweeting, straight into the trap of terrorism, with our hearts on our sleeves, and blood running down to our hands.


Some extra thoughts on Essentialism

These are some secondary thoughts on essentialism in modern identity politics, following on from an article I wrote in which I discussed some of the dangers of an essentialist perspective. I used the example of feminism in that article because there were two recent examples to hand, one personal and local to UEA, and one international with the Democratic Presidential Candidate elections.

Perhaps predictably (and not helped by an awful headline attached to the article), some of the reaction focused on a secondary discussion point around safe spaces and no platform policies. To be clear, I have no issue with safe spaces, and am not wholly for or against no platform. I take it incident by incident.

I was criticised for using too many words and not knowing what I was saying and, with some hesitation, I might say this is a phenomenon the internet is making more common. Not every piece of writing is a thesis, nailed to the church door, to be taken as law, cast and set. It can be thoughtful, introspective, and wondering. It is not automatically a sign of weakness or lack of knowledge to pontificate. I would argue that good writing needs some of these things. I don’t mind people not liking my style, and disagreement with the content is healthy, discussion is healthy. There can be no learning without it.

I had no agenda in that piece other than seeking a discussion on essentialism on the left and what that means for its future. And so here I’m just going to quickly use an example which hopefully is clear and accessible and shows just why essentialism is harmful. In the shortest way possible, essentialism is the use of perceived essential (innate, eternal, unalterable) characteristics (skin colour, gender, sexuality, class) to stratify and order people, but it can also be used by different groups of people as a way of guaranteeing their politics. It is the latter I am writing about. It is dangerous when identity becomes the only guarantee that someone’s politics is correct, viable, or valid.

Returning to the Presidential Candidate elections, but this time the GOP, there is an easy way to show the folly of essentialism, and how it becomes a barrier to an intersectional model of resistance.

Almost at the same time as Black Lives Matter protestors were successfully preventing Donald Trump from spreading his messages of hate and intolerance, Ben Carson was endorsing him for president of the United States. Most of the Black Lives Matter protestors, it should go without saying, are black, and so is Ben Carson. An essentialist model of thinking would have to believe that both the views of the Black Lives Matter and Ben Carson were equally valid and viable stances in relation to the black community. That both, almost completely oppositional views on race and racism in America, were correct and equally justifiable just and only because they were both formulated by black people.

It’s hard to believe that anyone on the left would believe that Ben Carson is anything but delusional. This is a man who has a portrait of himself with White Jesus. Who amongst racist and fanatical demagogues somehow managed to appear as the most delusional and unfit for purpose. He is a Fundamentalist Christian Neurosurgeon. A rich black man on the right fringes of the Republican party. Safe to say, a man of contradictions. It would be absurd to believe that his politics would be beneficial to black people because his skin is black.

On the other side though, you have Black Lives Matter. It would be just as wrong to suggest that their politics wasn’t influenced by their blackness. Of course it is. It needs to be. Equally it is made up of a majority of poor black people showing that any single factor of oppression does not function on its own. Black Lives Matter is a movement with a multitude of voices, it is therefore self-critical. This self-awareness is far more conducive to ensuring that the politics are fit for purpose.

As I did in the last article, I’m going to let Stuart Hall say it better, because his theory is so critical to much of modern identity politics in one form or another. He said, when talking about anti-racism and blackness: “It’s not what is in our genes, but what is in our history.” It is that shared history that informs the struggle against oppression. It is that shared history that accounts for what it means to be black politically. And within that shared history there are also differences; of class, of gender, of sexuality, of location, and each one will influence their politics.  Their genes offer no guarantee that any of them will have good politics.

So that’s really it. Who out of the Black Lives Matter protesters or Ben Carson best embodies that shared history and social conditions. The answer is obviously the protesters, the multiple voices of blackness and not the delusional rich man in the Republican Party.

The same arguments can be applied to class. Indeed it was thinking about class politics that led Stuart Hall to develop a lot of this theory. In dialogue with the Marxist Philosopher Althusser, Hall started arguing that your class position was no guarantee that your politics would be positive for your class. Of course being working class influences many people who organise to protect the interests of their class, but equally we know that millions of working class people voted for this Tory government which is attacking the poor with a fetishistic gusto that would have made Margaret Thatcher giddy. And speaking of Thatcher, she is another example. She was a woman but her politics were terrible for women. She was not a feminist just because she was a woman in power. She was a woman in power because she had abandoned the cause of women.

The list could go on. That frontrunner for Most Disgusting Human Being of the Century, Milo Yiannopoulos, is a gay man, but his politics aren’t positive to anyone but his sadistic legion of Troll buddies.

This isn’t to say that the experiences of being black, a women, trans, gay, bi, lesbian, working class, disabled, etc. don’t have a critical role in influencing and directing the politics of any of those people. It’s to say that it alone can never exist as the only guarantee or proof that those politics are good politics for that group or others.

This is a link to a transcript of a brilliant lecture by Stuart Hall. Page 4 has a great, and no doubt much clearer, explanation of essentialism and guaranteed politics. The lecture can also be found on YouTube. https://www.mediaed.org/assets/products/407/transcript_407.pdf

On Trump’s Trunk: Castrating the fascist, defining the man

Next to ‘your mum’ jokes, questioning the size of someone’s penis was the classroom insult par excellence. It was a plug-in-and-go kind of joke, no tricky set-up, no real user intelligence required. It was also virtually impossible to defend against. Deny it too strenuously and it’s tantamount to admission, admit it and you declare it open season for the bullies.

Just like the ‘your mum’ variety of insults its power lay in its ability to attack a pride system that appears ingrained and natural if not understood. For a boy not to be able to defend their mother is taken as a sign of primal weakness.

Being accused of having a small penis, even from the age when the penis was little more than a piss-hose, was having your entire present and future being re-ordered into a competition of measurement, a weird ranking system of inches and centimetres. In that infantile joke there is a collision between Lacan’s imaginary phallus, and the very real penis. Without having to know much about anything children can verbally castrate any young male and climb the penile ladder, safe until the fate should befall them too. For all the privilege, bravura, and entitlement a teenage schoolboy has, watch how quickly their identity succumbs to a complete implosion if a girl belittles his penis. But step back now, all of you frothing MRAs, this isn’t because of the secret matriarchal agenda, this is, I’m afraid, from your good old friend the patriarchy.

The internet had one of its collective giggles the other day when something  every British schoolchild already knew was seemingly confirmed; Hitler only had one testicle, and more hilariously his penis probably looked like a regurgitated cocktail sausage. I’m all for finding reasons to laugh at Hitler, but he’s been dead a long time and I doubt any of his ancestors are likely to pipe-up and protest that this is a tarnish on his otherwise stellar reputation.

This belated tackling of the issue of Hitler’s tackle was presented as a breakthrough explanation, a perverse excuse for the evils of Hitler. As if after so many failed attempts by the humanities, science had finally explained it; he committed mass genocide because he had a tiny shrew penis.

Not to be a man outdone, and tired of only being compared to Hitler for his fascist tendencies, it was insinuated that Donald Trump might be also be in possession of a smaller sexual organ than most. Of course because Donald Trump represents everything America is, isn’t, and can never be, somehow he managed to slime his way out of that one too. If Reagan was the Teflon president, Donald Trump is the greased-up-deaf-guy candidate.

Talking about American hysteria Joan Copject says that Reagan was untouchable despite constantly being found out and paraded as a liar because “America didn’t love Reagan for what he said, but simply because he was Reagan.” The terrifying truth is that this is perhaps even more true of Donald Trump. He has no real policies, no fixed positions or precedents, he simply turns up where he needs to be and Donald Trumps. He is a verb, a way of doing candidacy that is impervious to critical debate or take down. Copject explains Reagan’s position with Lacan, using the objet peti a. This is what America loved, the Reagan that could never be, but always was. It didn’t matter what the truth about Reagan was so long as Americans loved the objet Reagan, and boy did they love him. They loved the rugged, innocent, cowboy president who hated big government but was a ruthless autocrat. From any watching liberals there were anguished howls, desperately pointing out all of these conflicting points and nobody listened.

Now there is Donald J. Trump. We know the ‘real’ Donald Trump is a shit business man with a history of racism and a capacity for delusional self-worth, but this other Trump is untouchable because he exists in the love of his supporters. They barely know themselves exactly what that is, but they love it unconditionally. He’s so vague, slippery, impossibly detached from all discourses of truth that he becomes untouchable. You could film him fellating a horse or having sex with a trafficked Mexican sex worker and his fawning flock will cry fowl with conspiracies abound. And Trump for his part would deny it, come out Trumping more Trump than ever, denying all truths until there are none.

His rivals were reduced to playground tactics, but a ‘your mum’ joke is beyond even the most bigoted republican (unless your mother is muslim, gay, had an abortion etc) and so that left one option; go for the penis size. Shatter his masculinity and turn the whole republican race into a windmilling contest. “How would you tackle the threat of ISIS?” Donald Trump answers first swinging his junk furiously, Cruz trying to keep pace and poor Rubio trying to swing the other way slaps against his thigh, catching the edge of his testicle sending him hurtling to the ground into the foetal position. The other two sense their opportunity and mercilessly beat his head with their penis heads and Cruz and Trump fight to the bloody death with their meaty fascist swords. Of course all of this will be pixelated, an indistinguishable blur of pink and grey and flabby flesh, narrated by a guilty, aroused Glenn Beck.

Trump predictably denied all accusations. He assured us “there is no problem. I guarantee,” but frustrated satirists everywhere by falling short of describing it as yuge. But the liberal wing of the internet still giggled and gaggled and the #girther hashtag was born. Prominent novelists speculated that Trump’s odious being must be down to his compensating.

It says a lot about how rigidly masculinity is policed that twice in the space of a month speculative penis size has been used to explain and almost excuse fascist behaviour. Intelligent, creative people rejoice in jumping into the mud and slinging some at the already caked Trump. Trump lives for the mud. Trump is the mud. Throw bricks. To borrow from Bob Dylan, Trump “cares not to come up any higher, but rather get you down in the hole that he’s in.

It’s a peculiar double-bind, as we’re either being told that smaller sexual organs means inevitable descent into fascism, or that even if he is a dirty powerful fascist that becomes President of the United States it doesn’t matter because ‘LOLs he’s got a tiny dick’. It is somehow both the cause and nullification of all of his disgusting beliefs. But it doesn’t take a big dick to press the button, only a tiny black heart, a ball of pulsing evil liquorice.

Sure it’s all mildly amusing, until you reach the depressing conclusion that the only way to undermine a powerful man is to join in with limiting and juvenile ‘measurements of masculinity’. To any men doubting the need for feminism, this should make you reconsider, as this whole bizarre episode lays bare just how restricting patriarchal notions of masculinity are, because, let’s be clear, Donald J. Trump doesn’t care. He will shed his lizard skin and emerge undiminished from these accusations like all the others. But when this passes, when Trump’s moment in the sun-bed is over, we’ll still be left with all this sludge and slime, this insidious patriarchy that loves to police and rank us  all by our genitals.

Image from http://imgur.com/wu2eOsm by Illma Gore

Nuclear Heartbreak Beating Down

Some thoughts on Saul Bellow’s More Die of Heartbreak

With a title like that one could be forgiven for thinking it would be a morose novel, and the early pages indicate that it will be a meditative read. A drifting sand-dune of a narrative about loss. And, in some ways that is exactly what it is, but, in none of the ways one might expect. The truth is this is not a sentimental book, not precisely elegiac either, and yet it deals in sentiment and nostalgia. It deals with them so precisely as they are in ‘modernity’, the great thematic linchpin of this novel, as opaque and confused and so often wrought with the conflict of new worlds and old ideas. That alone makes it distinctly American, but there is a more borderless allure to this book; it lays bare the best and worst of our own philosophising, that constant dissonance between the world as we see it, and how it sees itself.

This is the first Saul Bellow I’ve read and it’s only through conversations with others (and a little internet reading) that I know that it is not the common place to start. I first heard of Saul Bellow from the song ‘Put A Penny in the Slot’ by Fionn Regan. In the poetic narrative of that song, the narrator sits alone and disconnected from home in Beckenham Park with “tears like flashbulbs,” a copy of The Adventures of Augie March their only company. From that song I drew a lot of assumptions about what Saul Bellow might be but in the first few pages of the book the assumptions became a bit of a fallacy. I don’t quite know exactly what I expected from him; perhaps something more folksy, indeed the title The Adventures of Augie March  would intimate so. This book isn’t that, but it is ‘of folk’, that is about people, in the most direct sense.

The plot really isn’t a plot, it’s a semi-rambling account by Kenneth Trachtenberg, a Paris born American and professor in Russian literature, of his peculiar ‘project’ of friendship with his Uncle, Benn Crader, a world renowned botanist. Their friendship is an experiment, a work of living art; a last stand by two brothers in arms against a world fast moving away from them (or so Kenneth says) in which there is space for the idealistic, gifted people. These are the ‘men of eternity’, the people of magics and gifts that exist outside of spheres of contemporary issues. Kenneth sees Benn as a  botanist so talented and in tune with the plants he studies that Kenneth calls it clairvoyant.

Kenneth is an interesting character, and really he is the novel. As much as he insists his concerns are for Benn, for their ‘task’ to build a protective symbiotic relationship to buffer against the trampling modernity, it is about him. Kenneth Trachtenberg is drenched in literature, suffocating and choking through on the philosophy of Hegel and Swedenborg; of Europe. He moves to America to the great distain and disapproval of his parents. They are upper class expats living a life of almost perpetual salon. His dinner table as a child is populated by great european thinkers and his dad has a magic just short of making him one of the eternals that Kenneth idolises. His dad is a lothario. Blessed with a gift by Eros so great that his wife, Kenneth’s mother, doesn’t stand in his way of using it. Kenneth, unlike Benn, is not cut adrift of modernity, he seeks it out, moves to America to get some of the “real action” of modernity.

Kenneth’s story, he tries to make us believe, is that Benn, a man of eternity, is gifted beyond compare in his field but punished and inflicted for that gift in the dealing with people, in the ‘arena of love’. We find Kenneth philosophising, constantly sounding off using his Russian literature and sweeping assumptions about the ‘modern woman’ to cast Benn as a victim of love. A man who couldn’t bring his gifts to bear on people. Instead, by getting himself involved in such trifling (and yet existential) matters, he almost loses his true gift. Give yourself to people and expect to die; only the magics are eternal.

Bellow is masterful in balancing the authority of Kenneth’s musings with their own ruinous insecurities. This book is unkind to women. They are judged to be so many cruel and manipulating things. The ones thought highly of are too ugly to love, and the ones highly beautiful thought to be vacuous, schemers of desire – con artists and victims. I don’t know enough bout Bellow to know if this is recurrent in his work, but it seems quite deliberate here, because Kenneth is tangentially reminiscent of Nick Caraway. Fitzgerald’s narrator is famously in awe of Gatsby, everything is presented through this unwavering commitment to Gatsby, but also, Nick is putting himself onto Gatsby, projecting his own hope and romantic idealism onto Gatsby as much as he draws from him. Much the same can be said about Kenneth with Benn.

For all that it may be the case that since the loss of his first wife Benn has been ‘abused by love’, consumed and misunderstood by the shape-shifting sexuality that is the modern woman (according to Kenneth), it is Kenneth’s own inadequacies, his own rejection by the mother of his child, that fuels his cruel misgivings with women. He has a consuming, delirious love for her that he tries to dampen in his telling of the story, but which is apparent in the great lengths he will go to try and please her in even the slightest way. She has his desires, his sexuality – all the gifts of Eros – she is his ultimate jouissance. For her though Kenneth is tame, a nice Jewish man unable to give her the violence her sexual masochism needs. He sees that “her shins were all black and blue” and Kenneth is caught between blaming the rough, uncultured men that make them and her own sexuality, corrupted by modernity to draw violence onto itself. We might see some of the antecedents of the modern Nice Guy™ in Kenneth’s incapability to accept that he should not be reciprocated in his love for Treckie.

I read this novel as Kenneth seeking solace in the superiority of his Uncle. Investing himself so heavily to not only learning from him, but to protecting him from the eroding sand and tides of a modernity that simply has no room for the idealist, the man content with his plants, his talent and calling, who can be comfortable on $60,000. But ultimately Benn is a scientist and though Kenneth paints hims as one of the immortals, his earthly utility is not defunct either. Kenneth, so shaped by philosophy and literature, so constituted by ideas, is sure of no reason or meaning to exist “unless you made your life a turning point.” By turning point he doesn’t mean for another person, or even a group of people. To Kenneth human life is without purpose unless it can become a turning point for humanity.

He doesn’t necessarily believe this for everyone. It is a peculiar and snobbish philosophical challenge he reserves only for those who concern themselves with matters of art or ideas themselves. He has a begrudging respect for his relatives who are merciless businessmen. They pursue money, are judged like money and so he leaves them to it. But Benn, for all the immortal artist that Kenneth sees in him, is also a scientist, called in to test the radiation after the Chernobyl disaster, which is when he makes the eponymous remark; “I think more people die of heartbreak than of radiation.” He later escapes on an arctic expedition run by an international team of scientists.

Kenneth would have us believe Benn is too innocent, almost a man-ingenue, to survive modernity with his ‘magics’ intact. Benn is certainly blindsided by the dual rush of self-destructing anxieties and social expectations, but beyond his troubles with love, he has use and utility. He is, of the two, the more usefully modern. Kenneth is so invested in protecting his conception of his Uncle (he accuses him of betraying him when Benn marries Matilda in the troublesome marriage central to the book) as an immortal man of unique importance because without it Kenneth ceases to have meaning in the face of the modern. He draws constant parallels between his uncle and himself. Their love lives, even though contrasting, have striking similarities as the two men’s idealistic romanticisms are met with the coldness of a quotidian reality. But in the end it is Benn who has the magics, and Benn who has use.

With his ‘project’ with Benn, their peculiar relationship of ideas, Kenneth is trying to build himself a case. In the kangaroo court of modernity, and indicted by his own lofty philosophical imperatives, Kenneth faces a fate worse than mortality; an existential null. By extension Saul Bellow is implicating the arts, humanities – all that which is human but not purely utilitarian. It is a lofty question – What place does art have in the age of science beyond the decorative? – and the book doesn’t answer it any more than Kenneth does. Ultimately all that is left is that phrase “turning point.” Such grandiose visions as making one’s own life a turning point for humanity as a Russian literature professor in the American Midwest can seem absurd, bordering on deranged, but it was Saul Bellow’s last call to arms. Ultimately Kenneth is failing as a turning point, not escaping “the general march” as he had hoped to do somehow with Benn. The challenge to us, to everyone, to art, is to do better than Kenneth, and the more modernity, or post-modernity wraps in on us, the more these questions become fixated on our lives. Kenneth could not make his place, but in his effort to do so he sets a precedent to try, and try we must.

Nicotine sleep.

I read recently that sleep is a killer. Like everything else, too much sleep and you’ll die young. Fuck it. Sleep is my smoking. A nap stolen from working hours is my cigar. I drop into an autonomous rhythm without it. The brain begins to resemble a coded computer, repeating tasks and treading the same neural roads until the memory clogs up without distinction. With stolid state and the role of an apparatchik in my own life I roll through the days. That’s when I hear the call, of the gentle rustle of rippled sheets. The see-saw brain, nine rounds down by lunch time, begins to ache, so we gently medicate, with caffeine and paracetamol, wine for the committed. We promise ourselves it won’t be long before we can recline into a singular function. Either one, blissfully uninterrupted pursuit, or down into the crepuscular entropy of a rambling mind. 

 Against the better judgement of the shrinking hours of my life, I tend to manufacture the scenario that encourages the thicket back-roads of my neural wonder to sing out in a choric mania, with flashbulb arias dancing up, catching alight, then burning out. Some, when I’m lucky, get snapped like a negative, caught to return to with targeted focus when I emerge back into more direct thought. 

To find out one has a fireworks display of untapped ideas, ready to crackle into a perfervid symphony when given the chance to wander, is an intoxicating realisation. It’s enough to cause someone to wake up, consider over breakfast the possibilities of reality, and turn back to a heady brew of a slipping consciousness scored by a musician of choice. Every time I nap I enact my own little salutation to Timothy Leary, I tune into music, and I drop out of straight-jacketed function, safe in a more secure guarantee that I’ll see it again soon. Barring a catastrophic napccident of course. I take the slow ascent up the ladder, from the rag and bone shop to…well that’s where it stops. 

I’m a little too accomplished at the the incubation and a bit slack on the extraction. Faced with the gravity of a blank page it’s all too tempting to cut loose into the darkness of a new neural universe. So I do. I wouldn’t call it sleeping, although there is a fair bit of that involved. But in that disconnection there are more rabbit holes than Watership Down, or a Lewis Carroll story. 

Imagine for a second, if you will, the scene: an ocean sky with no froth, a calm marine blanket over a warm rocky city, with wide shutters open to catch the listless breeze, you settle down for a nap with the embracing knowledge it has been culturally sanctioned. I think all of my love for Spain might be a symptom of withdrawals from the nirvana of childhood siestas on a Spanish farm. I’m addicted to napahol; it’s killing me. 

Do You Care…Or Are You Aware? Campaigning For Change in Mental Health Care.

In the interest of breaking the stigma, and taking the advice of Hemingway, I’m going to “write hard and clear about what hurts.” Mental illness hurts. It hurts those directly affected, it hurts their family, their friends, and it hurts us all as a society.

Lately we have seen the long overdue beginnings of recognition. National campaigns, such as Time to Change and The Guardian’s ‘Let’s talk mental health’, and more local campaigns, are starting to raise awareness and educate people of the severity and size of the situation.

Awareness is important. Without it, nothing can change. But like each viral craze on the internet, awareness can be everywhere one week and nowhere the next. How many of the people who poured a bucket of iced water on their head are still campaigning or raising money for Motor Neurone disease? How many of us are still talking about Ebola…much less helping?

Awareness is something easy to give. It takes little to no effort. Here lies the success and failure of awareness campaigns. They achieve great results because they ask so little of people but they will always fall short because they receive so little long term support. Awareness is passive participation.

Awareness alone doesn’t help the people who would do almost anything not to go home; those who curl up and lose their days to TV shows they don’t even like; the parents at their wit’s end because they don’t know know to help their mentally ill children; the parents that are at their wit’s end because they don’t know how to cope any longer, but hang on anyway like a suspension bridge losing one wire at a time; the people trapped between isolation and the immobilising terror of social anxiety; or those who live with a constant sorrow and vague dread.

Of course, in time, awareness becomes acceptance, and in time that leads to incremental change; but for anyone suffering now, that is too late. It’s not about stopping these campaigns, or criticising them, this is about making sure we kick off from the start they give us and really work to make change happen.

The best example I can give to support what I’m saying is to talk about loneliness. Loneliness is a consuming, bitter black treacle. It is also something familiar to many with  mental health issues. We all sort of know that we are becoming more lonely and isolated even as we plug ourselves into the internet ‘connection’. Social Media might allow us to talk, but it also lets social interaction and – for many – anxiety, invade our personal space. If I were to launch an awareness campaign about loneliness and millions of people started talking about it, would it eradicate loneliness?  I don’t think it would, because even though loneliness doesn’t need billions of pounds or huge changes to infrastructure to overcome, it still requires honest, long-term commitment from us all.

Talking about mental health, and loneliness, on social media or face to face does brilliantly to unite people, de-mystify it all, and present a truer picture of the state of things . We need to encourage it to become the norm. But we shouldn’t be forced to rely on each other for all of our support. If you have Cancer, talking to someone with Cancer can be comforting and the shared experience can give strength, but you wouldn’t be expected to administer each other’s chemotherapy or remove each other’s tumours.

I sought medical help for depression once. I wasn’t so much as offered an informal chat. I was given small prescriptions for anti-depressants and told to come back in regularly. The outcomes were always the same, only the doctors had changed. Each time a new face to whom you had to explain (again) the intimate details of how you felt and how you lived. The drugs didn’t work. They didn’t work in the doses given so I took them in batches. I drank upwards of three litres a day of cheap cider or wine. I had no internet, no smart phone. I had a freezing bed-sit with no heating, a hair-dryer, and a few books. The drugs weren’t working. I went to tell this to a doctor, whichever it may be.

Once I had told this new doctor, a Hungarian man, about my worsening situation he started asking me some slightly probing but compassionate questions. I thought this was the beginning of something better, some actual treatment. I answered the questions as honestly as I dared and the doctor paused. He then went on to tell me the abridged tale of how his grandparents, along with his infant parents, had managed to escape from a concentration camp during the Holocaust. He told me of their resolve and their hope, but most of all he referred to their grit. Then he doubled my prescription strength, handed me the slip, and advised me that it was my choice whether or not to take the pills, but he advised not. It was the closest to a professional ‘man up’ you can get.

I walked past the pharmacy and I felt like shit. His family escaped the Nazis and there I was…and here I am ill. I never did put in that prescription. I changed alcohol for weed, which in the short term was better. I self-medicated and to this day have gone without the long term support I need.

What I want to say is, that whether you are taking part in the poorly named “It’s okay to not be okay” campaign at the University of Portsmouth, or posting on social media, or even just talking about mental health, don’t stop there. To quote mental health nurse turned novelist Nathan Filer, mental health care is “an utter, God-awful mess” in Britain. It is going to take more than awareness to fix it.

The Eye of the Storm.

My friend, Kathleen Kerridge, started a blog. She did so partly because of a conversation we had in which I advised her to practice writing short pieces. Shortly before I had finished editing her first novel. I was quickly and warmly made to feel welcome in her home.

None of us could have expected what happened next. Sat at her kitchen table watching the first 10,000 views climb up was surprising. Everything after that was incredible. As I write this her blog stands at over 1 million views. That’s one in every sixty people in Britain, give or take. The piece itself started as most blogs do; an ember of rage that grows into a fire of words at the hands of a willing writer.  Jamie Oliver is as good a target as any other. Just another man trying to make money off of the poor. The blog piece was written well and it was raw.

In that short piece is a story of poverty that people can identify with. I don’t agree with it totally but I don’t have to.  By being read by so many it is already engaging people in a discussion about poverty, which can only be healthy. It is also fantastic to see someone living with poverty writing about it and getting read. I don’t have a problem with people like Russell Brand taking about inequality; I’m all for people using their position to benefit the wider population, but it’s  heartening to see a working class person reaching such an audience.

A million views for for anything is staggering. This isn’t a cute cat video or a Thug Life compilation. It is just over a thousand words detailing the realities of 21st century poverty in Britain. ONE MILLION people have read all or part of that piece of writing. If I sound impressed it’s because in reality I am awe struck (and a little ashamed to say, a bit jealous).

Inevitably the the personal content of the piece attracted some unsavoury responses. But I don’t want to dwell on them. Instead, what really drove me to sit at a bashed-up typewriter (poverty ay!) and write this, was the the number and range of responses to the blog. It is both inspiring and disheartening that the are so many people who live with such force of will everyday. Their determination makes me want to do better, for them and myself, in everything I do. Their invisibility disheartens me. If this many people can take the time to reply to a blog about poverty, why can we not do more to make all of our lives better.

I am a writer. I am not yet the writer I hope to be, but I am trying. Writing and language is so much of what makes us human and yet my relationship with words is uneasy. They are used carelessly and they are used easily. Every time I write on something the matters to me I am left with a nagging question of what use it was; what change will come of it? Truthfully, probably not much. So I try to make my words supplementary to actions (they speak louder, or so I’m told). ‘The Upsetting Reality of Modern Poverty’ has proved that words can do so much, but equally it has shown that action is desperately needed. The success of the blog is like a food bank in demand. I’m glad they exist but I would rather the conditions that led to the demand were eradicated.

If I was to be pessimistic and say that only half of those who read the blog saw something in it that resonated with the way they lived, that is still 600,000 people who are struggling to overcome austerity and poverty. Of course I knew this already. Many of us did. I didn’t need Kathleen’s blog to tell me this, but the visceral immediacy of thousands of people calling out, responding with messages of support, cries for help, or stories of their own, is shocking.

I don’t want this to descend into a political rant. I’ll save that for later. I will though, end by saying to all the people who read the blog and responded; keep going, and fight harder. Don’t be drawn into any blame games. Unite with those around you in similar positions. Each person who responded did so because the article showed them something in which they could recognise their own situation. Kathleen was just someone who articulated it one day. That being the case, imagine what the lives of those around you might be like. They could have been a fellow respondent. Get in touch with each other. Start groups in your own communities wherever you are. Talk about your lives. Support each other, regardless of your differences.

Don’t accept poverty or loneliness. There can be alternatives.



Charlie Hebdo and the responsibilities of free expression.

On Wednesday 7th January two men armed with AK47s killed 10 journalists and 2 police officers in  Paris, in an attack on the French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo. The attack was a heinous, wicked destruction of life. The gunmen were reportedly Islamic extremists. It should go without saying that these deaths were tragic, and that these attackers do not represent Muslim people.

The reaction to the attack has seen the necessary condemnation, but it has also seen the incident framed in a reductive dichotomy between free speech and religious extremism. These murders were an obvious effrontery to freedom of expression, that much is painstakingly clear. But this monochromatic, frantic reaction prevents us from looking at the incident with any nuanced perspective, which is the only way we can move on from this with a purposeful indication of how to prevent such incidents reoccurring. It can also help us understand more fully that in having  freedom of expression we also have a duty to monitor ourselves ethically, to uphold it without recourse to draconian intervention.

The bullets that cut down cartoonists and editors are an all too brutal and ugly manifestation of the links between cultural production and violence. Without meaning to disrespect the dead or their families we should not be deterred from looking at their actions as contributors to the cultural moment. The cartoonists, writers, and editors at Charlie Hebdo were chiefly satirists. Satire is at its best and most purposeful when it is undermining and ridiculing systems of power. Through irony and inversion and the lens of the caricature to illuminate the absurd it can be an excellent discursive tool in the resistance to hegemony.

Satirical cartoons are so powerful because they operate so well beneath systems of oppression. They are easy to disseminate, have condensed meanings and morals, and can be interpreted by most people. They can be completely democratic in the way that they convey meaning. For want of a better term we could call this ‘good’ or ‘effective’ satire. Satire produced in this way will often never even come to the attention of those that are being satirised. It isn’t necessary for that to happen; critically, the satirised subject is not the intended audience. This centres the value and function of satire (more so perhaps in the case of cartoons) within discourse structures used by dispossessed and non-establishment peoples.

It is necessary to understand this to address the responses to the killing that have placed it in an isolated context of free speech and extremism. Charlie Hebdo is assuredly a satirical magazine, existing on the fringes of the French establishment, a position from which it can produce a sort of catch-all satire that ‘offends everyone’. But in a country still impacted by its complex colonial history that traditionally subjugated Muslim people, it is questionable how satirical continued attacks on Islam by a liberal elite can ever be.

I must say here that I fundamentally support and defend either the constitutional or taken right to publish something such as cartoons of the prophet Muhammed. Whilst in principle, I support the protected space that allows the satirisation of Islam, I vehemently disagree with the insistence to publish these deliberately antagonistic cartoons. By reducing the decision to publish the cartoons to a binary choice between a free press and one cowering to the demands of extremists the voices of millions of people are subdued and ignored.

There is more to it than play the strong hand or no hand. There are ways of being satirical that are more subtle, less purposefully antagonistic, and more effective. They were not satirising the violent anti-blasphemy laws of Saudi Arabia or Iran. Instead they chose to use deliberately provocative caricatures of a figure sacred to millions to ‘stand up to extremism’. The folly of this thinking is that it is in keeping and reflective of how Western cultural systems conflate Islam with extremism. Any legitimate opposition to the publication of the cartoons is inflated and grouped with the threats of extremists against the publication.

The cartoonists and editors of Charlie Hebdo chose a subject matter intending to offend a group of intolerant extremists. Satire is often offensive but it isn’t functionally offensive; that is not its defining characteristic. Secondly, who is the intended audience of these satirical cartoons, if not, at least implicitly, the very people supposedly being satirised? Viewed like this it becomes, not a question of rights and freedom of expression, but one of ethical choice and moral direction. Sometimes we become so focused on a single objective it blinds and isolates us from the faculties of our own reason. These journalists persuaded themselves that not to publish these callous cartoons, that not to potentially offend millions of people, not to contribute to a culture of Islamaphobia, was to forego their right to free expression. Instead it would have been an example of expressive responsibility.

It must be stressed that whatever criticisms of the cartoons and their publication are put down here, they in no way justify the extreme violence subjected upon the victims of the attack. They were not to blame for their deaths. The causation is not so linear, but it remains critical that the consequences of meaning production and media representation are not dismissed as negligible. The definite and deliberate obfuscation and manipulation of information about Muslim people creates an unnecessary and toxic culture of distrust and ignorance.

The massacre at the offices of Charlie Hebdo is best looked at as a point in a cycle of violence and extremism. The extremists were not acting on behalf of Muslims, and neither were they directly incited by anything published by the magazine. Like most acts of extremism, we can legitimately assume that it was orchestrated to provoke retaliation, which in turn foments further extremism.

Making this an issue of free expression denies the possibility of rupturing this cycle, since it neither seeks to understand the complex tributary conditions that lead to extremism, nor inspect the widespread misrepresentation of Muslims that contribute to those conditions. 

The right to freedom of expression is a pillar of democracy in the same way that checks and balances are. Necessary to ensure that freedom are, either legislative controls and press restrictions – which few favour – or a process of self-monitoring and editorial rigour. When we use this right we are making ethical choices. They should not come at the expense of tolerance and a socially responsive society. I am not Charlie. I do not believe in causing deliberate offence in the name of satire. I say that because it is not freedom of expression that is most at risk in the aftermath of this attack. Already we are seeing the violent backlash on Muslim people in Europe.

If we don’t begin to challenge the ways in which Western cultures contribute to extremism the cycle will only escalate. Part of this is to understand the responsibilities of free speech – an ethical awareness – and to resist the capacities of mass media to misrepresent and demonise. We must stand with Muslim people because they are part of our society. As long as there is a continued culture of Islamaphobia the conditions that lead to radicalisation and extremism will grow. Stand up against this. Stand up against racism. Retaliation doesn’t work. Your freedom of expression makes you free, but so does your right to choose. The choices are hate or tolerance.

Caricature is the work of Carlos Latuff

20000 Days on Earth: A memorable journey

20000 Days on Earth is a Nick Cave vehicle. As much a method of transport and transformation as the classic Jaguar he prowls the Brighton streets in. It is Nick Cave playing with the character Nick Cave, and not just the stage persona. In doing away with tradition and letting Nick Cave be heavily involved in writing and production, the film is at once a more narcissistic adventure and yet less of an industry love-in. Eschewing and experimenting with conventional Rockumentary/Biopic forms it settles on a metaphysical, dramatised ‘day in the life’ format. Following Cave from an overly-staged awakening through therapy sessions and studio visits, lunch with band-mates and fleeting conversations. Consciously staged and intended to aestheticise the prosaic it maintains but subdues the enigmatic filter between real life and mythology.

Continue reading

Sketches of The University Interlude

In Gil Scott-Heron’s autobiography there are scattered poems, new and old. Unsurprising given who he was. But reading them was surprising. It was pleasing to see rhythm that grew from the page and didn’t fit into, or get trapped by, the guarded confines of poetic metering. The structures of the poems were precisely aligned with their meaning and tone. I thought then about his effortlessness in pitching the self as a photo negative of larger conditions. I hoped then, and still do, that I would find a coterminous instinct in my writing. I read the poems and I tried to bounce in loose synapses of a private silence a few improvised lines. A few prototype rhymes of mimicry. The first step is to master the masters and then create, or so an artist probably said according to a motivational meme. Those words that shot up like fireworks soon dissipated that way too. But one thing stuck, one name that just sounded right. Sounded like a poem, or a spoken song. It was ‘The University Interlude’. I never wrote it. It found its way to a purgatory of ideas. But unlike others, the term stuck. Maybe soon I’ll get to writing it.

The reason I say this is that the name alone is true. Four years ago I was 19 and drifting. A poor job in stasis. I turned down what could have been a comfortable but unorthodox life in favour of satiating an infectious nagging that I had to get an education. That part was easy. It was too early in the reign of the Tories latest monstrous incarnation for them to have butchered the welfare state completely, so university was reachable with a little luck and graft. It went quickly. Three years of grants, subsidies, loans moved by a lot quicker than the three years of benefits, poverty, and localised itinerancy. It felt like being pulled in from the cold to a party you had watched from the distance of a busy road. Hitchhiking to Spain, and Bestival, and Spain again were my experiences, not vague fantasies or the teasing anecdotes of contemporary strangers. There are any number of platitudes that could be said about my transformation at uni. Like many of us it changed me, but it always felt temporary. It was pitched as the right of passage, phase-like finishing school of an archetypal maturity. But, at some point, through the bubble of comfort I saw the thinning of the membrane.

The reason that title latched itself to a stronger memory than the other flittering names that burn up like dust, is that it formed on the cusp of the interludes finale. I am suspiciously close to where I was before it began. The three things I have more of now than I did then are; knowledge, books, and debt. The other securities dried up with the loan, the opportunities with the institution. Like a zealot pepped up on rum and romance I was forceful about the value of uni and education for education’s sake. I have slowly come to realise I was just a man protecting the first home he’s had in years. One that would leave as quickly as the others, but one which had given more than any of them. I suspect that’s an idea a few of you will understand. Equally, there are those for whom I know university is nothing but a Wonka bar with a tip to be the one, that holds the golden ticket.

It’s a shame about the show, when you dig the interlude.