Archive for the 'Politics' Category

Book Review: Kill All Normies by Angela Nagle

kill all normiesI bought the audiobook version of Angela Nagle’s Kill All Normies for a bike ride we took this summer. It’s a fairly short book and it did make the ride more enjoyable. The book lists a number of Internet phenomena that have occurred in recent years and links them to broader social and political movements. It starts out strong, has a strong middle, but it does seem to fall into the trap of simply bemoaning various transgressions of the 4chan crowd in its final chapters.

The incidents, memes and hate campaigns mentioned in the book are ones that most of us have lived through. The great thing about the book is that it collects these together in a single work. I was going to say it collects them into a narrative, but that would not be accurate. There are stories to be told when recounting the events, but the larger narrative arc seems to fall apart. I’m not sure it was even the intention of the author to draw one. In any case, the episodes – starting with Harambe – work well by themselves. It goes all the way to Pat Buchanan and introduces his idea of the culture war to younger readers. If there is a longer historical arc here, it does not burrow further than that. Kids reading the book are probably not familiar with the orchestrated effort behind the ludicrous idea of a culture war, and it’s good to have it written out like this.

For anyone who was already familiar with all the events described in the book and who already knows how the culture war (such as it is) has progressed thus far, the meat of the book is in the relentless barrage of examples from the junkheap of the Internet. As with many other books about online culture, it’s heartbreaking. Of course, if you love the Internet and all its potential, you don’t have to crawl through its sewers and participate in the horrors of 4chan culture or the rest of it. But knowing that it’s there matters. The online attacks against women, for example, are something you simply have to know about in order to have an intelligent conversation about what the Internet has become. Seeing all this fuckery laid bare in front of you is arresting, and it should be. It is also profoundly sad.

If the Internet was only the junk Nagle sifts through in her book, we would all opt out. It would simply be the playground for nasty children who shout at people from the bushes. Luckily, it’s not. It is a vast online space you can use for the betterment of those around you and explore to your heart’s content. It is a place of commerce. It provides all kinds of possibilities for everyone who has access to it. The idiotic snark that tries to pollute it may be a trace of the nerd culture that started it all, but it doesn’t really matter where the moronic cynicism came from. The Internet is far bigger than that now, but people who are not to be taken seriously remain. We need ways of discrediting and dismissing them. There are many tools for doing this. “Don’t feed the troll” is one of them. And I don’t advocate punching people, but have you heard of the Nazi blowhard Richard Spencer since he was punched in the face on TV and became a meme? There are many ways of reacting to online bile, that’s all I’m saying. Some of them work better than others in different contexts.

Discussions like Nagle’s book tend to look at surface-level phenomena online that reduce people and issues into one-dimensional memes. Richard Spencer is now the face-punch guy. It doesn’t matter what he says, because he is now the face-punch guy. Violence is an extreme way of memefying someone, but in his case it did the trick. People become simple images, complicated issues hashtags. This process is in itself tragic, because it kills thought in public discourse. It deprives us from any intelligent analyses of phenomena that guide our thought, politics and our lives. What, then, is to be done to counteract this rot? I’m not sure, but I have come to the conclusion that Twitter is for cute animal videos, Facebook for feeding your self-styled Tamagochi-avatar, and Instagram is for holiday snaps and advertisements of luxury items. The serious matter of thought takes place elsewhere and we should quit pretending it can survive on social media or the 4chan-cesspools of the Internet.

The Carters at the Louvre

Flanööri asked me to write about the new video by the Carters. I am not a fan of their music. I’m completely the wrong person to write about the topic, but that might make this interesting. The song sounds like it follows the common theme of bragging about how much money and stuff the artists have, which I don’t find interesting at all. Of course, all this has very little to do with music and everything to do with the video shot at the Louvre. So, I’ll put the new Death Grips album on and have a closer look at the visuals.

carters 1It begins with a very nice panning shot of the ceiling paintings in the Galerie d’Apollon. They look great in fancy lighting. We get a few close-ups of paintings I do not recognize, and then move to the Mona Lisa room with the Carters. They are dressed wonderfully throughout the video and play their part as celebrity royalty very well.

They change into white costumes and there is a wonderful shot of the Nike staircase with dancers lying on the stairs. Then, there is dancing, tilted shots of a few paintings and a bit more ceiling art. And many shots of the Carters who look very defiant in most of them.carters 2

There is more dancing and singing in front of Napoleon’s coronation, Nike and the Sphinx. There is a quick shot of David’s Sabine Women, after which the Carters take another meaningful look at the camera. I don’t know what they are trying to convey, but they look like they mean business.

carters 4Overall, there are not that many instances where our stars interact with the paintings and sculptures in a meaningful way, but I do get some of the points Sarah Huny Young writes about in her piece in Elle: that blackness is an art form in the video. There are a few shots where we see people mimicking the actions of statues, and a strange image of a man standing on a horse that somehow reproduces a Géricault painting. The latter looks interesting, because it obviously carnivalizes the original image of a Napoleonic officer. The man’s clothing mimics the stars and stripes, he’s wearing a cowboy hat, and he is standing on his horse. It would probably be my favorite image in the video were it not for another one that occurs a bit earlier.

carters 3It’s another David, his Portrait of Madame Récamier. Reclining on the floor under the painting, dressed in headgear that echoes the madame’s dress, are two women who also seem to recreate the symmetry of the strange sofa of the painting. There is a morbid parody of the painting by Magritte where the madame has been replaced by a coffin. I would have loved to have seen it in the background instead of the original. In any case, the Neoclassical dress and general setting of the image point to an idealized version of Ancient Greece, the socialite madame to contemporary ideals of beauty. The two ladies point to something else.

The Carters’s strange poses, defiance, intentional vulgarity (the song is called “Apeshit”) and all the rest of it seem to be aimed at creating a new standard of beauty through a commentary on European aesthetics. The plan still rests on the tradition it criticizes, but the critique does remind us of everything that has contributed to it, and of the fact that it’s still an ongoing tradition. The pieces in the Louvre are not preserved in the past. They are here with us in the present.

I guess that’s what I take home from this: aesthetics is never a theoretical exercise and always entangled with history. To quote Death Grips: “It’s a shitshow.”

First We Take Brussels! Then We Take Westminster?

I was happily working on an article and then Brexit happened. (Is it “Brexit” or “the Brexit”?) It seems important  to stop working for a second and say something. I know I am late, but I am not a pundit and it is difficult to say something interesting about this mess. It is a momentous event. Words are trite in comparison.

The EU and England will both be poorer without each other. David Cameron’s political legacy may well be two broken unions, in which case he would go down in history as the lousiest ruler of the country ever. The English (and the Welsh) voted to take their country back, whatever that means, and they may very well end up handing it over to Boris Johnson, an Etonian aristocrat. The ironies run thick and creamy, but mockery is pointless.

The consensus appears to be that this was a vote on immigration. This is probably true. Britain is full of them and it was made by them. It looks like the Empire is finally cashing in its chips and will be happy to close its doors on all the people whose ancestors’ homes were looted to fill the country with wealth and the V & A with stuff. However, immigration will not stop thanks to Brexit. Nor will the NHS be funded by the imaginary figure that was touted by the Leave campaign’s Nigel Farage. Some things did change rather quickly. Costly trade negotiations looming in the future made the markets volatile and crashed the pound. But in any case, old people who want to enjoy their tea (earlier known also as the China drink) in their quaint little villages in peace voted to keep everyone else out.

What really struck me was the amount of lying in the campaigns, especially the Leave campaign. My friends call me naive when I am shocked by the lies politicians tell and I, in turn, am shocked by their impotent cynicism. Lies about supremely important political issues are criminal. Nigel Farage and Boris Johnson both lied to get their way. There were probably many voters who were very well informed and voted to leave, but the vote was very close and every vote mattered. This was not mere election hyperbole. These were calculated lies that were used to manipulate the masses to orchestrate a coup. People seem to think this is a game, but it really is not. Heads should roll, but those who are dreaming of a new referendum are dreaming.

Rosa_'William_Shakespeare_2000'_1The situation is confusing at the moment, but there is hope. We should all remember that the British have a fierce reputation when it comes to representative democracy in their own country. King Charles I lost his head in 1649 for being an uncompromising autocrat. There have been more recent riots in London than I can count. The British love being feared by the establishment and perhaps Brussels was just their latest victim. Maybe, just maybe, Westminster is next. If this is the case, we might see the blossoming of a new kind of democracy in England.


Passion’s Trumping of Reason

Every time I make a political comment online, it feels like a mistake. Stupidly raging against faceless mechanisms of power and the people who manage them may be satisfying for a few minutes, but afterwards you feel bad and that resentment slowly builds and grows into chronic angst. On the Internet, no one can hear you scream. And nobody really cares anyway. There are a few people who make change happen online as well, but mostly the Internet is just a playground for bullies whose mission in life is to make others feel bad.

Hulk_aQUINASI prefer comics and heavy metal to politics. You very often learn much more from them than from professional politicians or political reporting. They have simple moral lessons that can help you in all sorts of ways. They are rarely like the over-emotional and manipulative news stories we are subjected to these days. There really is very little in the news for someone who wants an objective version of current events with which they could assess the political situation of their country. You are better off with the funny papers. Luckily, we also have a fairly good library at home filled with books that can do the job.

With the awful state of the emotional press and the subconscious ways in which I find myself imitating it, I began to think about Thomas Aquinas. Christopher Tilmouth describes Aquinas’ thinking about the passions, reason and will in his book Passion’s Triumph Over Reason very well:

Reason need only present what it deems to be good directly to the imagination as pleasant, and what it deems to be evil as painful. By thus influencing the ‘forms’ of the imagination, the very basis of the sensitive appetite, it can redirect the latter to produce passions which favour reason and the will’s own rational courses. […] One especially important manifestation of this mechanism is man’s ability to set one kind of sensitive passion alongside or against another as the will dictates. According to Aquinas, man has within him ‘not only a bent towards what is beneficial and away from what is harmful’ — this is the realm of the sensitive appetite’s ‘concupiscible’ passions — but also a power of ‘resistance to contrary and destructive forces’ which ‘block’ his aspirations or otherwise ‘menace’ him — this, the province of his ‘irascible’ passions. The irascibles, especially when driven on by the will, may act as ‘champions and defenders’ or the concupiscibles, attacking those ‘obstacles’ and ‘threats’ which stand between man and his desires; but equally irascible passions may be invoked by the will specifically to counteract the sensitive appetite’s initial, concupiscible inclinations, and even to make the soul ‘submit to pain’ when reason judges this the right thing to do.

Hulk_1_coverIn Aquinas’ famous conception of the mind, at least according to Tilmouth, emotions, the will and reason come together to form a web of interaction where we have some form of control of all the faculties relationally. If someone tells you they cannot help the way they feel, you can point to Aquinas. You actually can help the way you feel and make yourself do things accordingly — unless, of course, there is something pathological going on. That is not to say Aquinas got everything right, but to note that you are in charge of your emotions even, and perhaps especially, when you decide to give them power over your rational faculty.

Why is this, then, relevant to political reporting or anything else for that matter? The reporters’ job today is to serve up feelings for readers. Those of us who are into the arts gaze in wonder at their lamentable offerings. Anyone can get a more meaningful emotional experience from reading the Hulk or listening to a Cannibal Corpse song, I promise. Even if you don’t like them you will see and hear something you have never seen or heard before. Because of this, you will feel things you have not felt before and you will have to cope with those feelings using something like the mechanisms outlined by Aquinas. Experiencing art, in this sense, is like going to the gym. Your emotional gains will help you cope with difficulties in your life. They also help you to call bullshit when you need to and, finally, to shut up when it is wise to do so.

Ferrigno_as_HulkDoes this mean I support the notion that art has an instrumental use only and without it art would be just pretty figures and ornaments? Yes and no. Dogmatic approaches to something so central to all of us sound ridiculous. Tilmouth can tell you that a lot happened after Aquinas: Hume and the sentimentalists showed that feelings and moods affect everything we do, Kant tried to systematize how this happens, and so on. If someone accuses me of thinking about art only in terms of instrumental value, I can point to that tradition. Everything we do and everything we sense around us is informed by and filtered through our emotional makeup. If poets and artists are able to influence that in profound ways, they can control the ways the world shows itself to us. That is instrumentality, but it is very different from what is typically referred to as instrumentality. It is one thing to use art to cope with your emotions and the surrounding world, but when you realize you are really coping with how you are in the world and that this howness just is you, things take a more serious turn.

The Stagnated Rhetoric of Political Extremism

m_90621Helsingin Sanomat published an odd story about a Finnish neonazi group this Sunday. Apparently, the reporters infiltrated an online forum where members, several whom were doxxed and had their names printed in Finland’s largest newspaper, discussed the group’s planned propaganda campaigns. The London Review of Books published Slavoj Zizek’s piece on the Charlie Hebdo attacks where he concludes that “we have to abandon the idea that there is something emancipatory in extreme experiences, that they enable us to open our eyes to the ultimate truth of a situation.” He calls this perhaps the “the most depressive lesson of terror.” Tariq Ali has been promoting his new book The Extreme Centre: A Warning where he seems to go Russell Brand on readers who have become totally apathetic with politics. Prince Charles expressed his concerns about the radicalization of young people on the BBC.

Warnings about political extremism have become a tool for established politicians and media personalities to promote their stale ways of thinking and to maintain their hold on power. An unthinking person might jump to the conclusion that to refuse to participate in this circus is a suggestion to join an extremist group, but this would be missing the point. Politicians have recruited radicalism and extremism to serve their own ends. Anyone who embraces extremism, it seems, will only be a useful idiot to those already in power. The discourse has been appropriated into the system and resistance seems futile. What, then, is to be done when the possibility of a revolutionary vanguard has been pre-emptively neutered by the clammy hands that guide the media?

Perhaps the first thing we could do is to recognize the stagnated rhetoric of political extremism and the even more foul-smelling use of the rhetoric of extremism by those already in power. Politicians who claim to be the only bulwark of reasonableness between us and extremism are not there to keep us safe and spotless. Their job is to get into office and their rhetoric does not essentially differ from the propaganda of extremist groups. Extremist groups, on the other hand, are hardly an option for most people who like to think themselves sane.

We should remember that great old William James quote: “A great many people think they are thinking when they are merely rearranging their prejudices.” We should recognize that what is being presented to us instead of thinking are thinky toys© which we are then expected to play with, preferably in the privacy of our own heads. Their use in journalism and the media to sell papers and books should be made more obvious to everyone. Eventually, the media might do it all by itself just by producing more lazy journalism and spouting tired rhetoric as news. If the ruse becomes grotesquely obvious, people will notice, get bored with them and finally resist them. That’s a big “if”, but where there is banality, there is hope.

Life in Europe Without a Future

While avoiding work yesterday, I wandered to El Pais’s website and found a link to a live feed of the 15-M anniversary demonstrations. Tens of thousands of people were in attendance singing and banging drums. The broadcast included a few inserts and in one of these a reporter asked a young man how he saw the future of the movement. He smiled and answered the silly question: “We don’t have a future.” I’ve been corresponding with a Greek friend of mine and although we have somehow assumed a fairly clinical tone in our discussions about politics, it’s pretty obvious he’s not very hopeful either. He has some plans for the future, but he also sees his country has been ravaged by austerity measures and that they will run out of money soon.

The thought of living without a future sounds melodramatic at first, but melodrama does not motivate tens of thousands of people to take to the streets, move billions of euros within the eurozone, or help elect neonazis into the Greek parliament. Most of us have some idea of what it is like to live with uncertainty, but it’s difficult to see what happens when there really is no future. For my parents the plan was to get married, make babies, work and buy a house. I can’t see myself doing any of these things right now. But there is something even more profound going on in the current crisis. Not many people believe that Europe’s problems can be solved with traditional politics. And the problems are many: the financial crisis, massive unemployment, growing unrest, you name it. We have grown used to the hopelessness brought on by the crisis and we are finding ways of living with it instead.

It might be a philosophical question, but I don’t know what kind of philosopher would philosophize when he can’t see beyond the present. Living fully in the present goes against human nature as well. Dr Johnson famously said that he who makes a beast of himself gets rid of the pain of being a man. Easier said than done. The beautiful Spaniards shown in the broadcast talked of revolution with very human and infectious smiles on their faces. Humorists might make light of the fact that futures were the thing that got us into this mess to begin with, but it’s grotesque to laugh where a smile will suffice. Besides, my Greek friend isn’t amused and I would hate to joke at his expense. Neither of us can afford it.

Assuming either an optimistic or a pessimistic attitude to living without a future is impossible, because there is nothing toward which one should assume the attitude. The answers are not forthcoming and it’s understandable, because the problem is that the answers have disappeared from the horizon. The stalemate has begun to grow into the new norm. Perhaps fairly soon we can feel genuine nostalgia for days gone by, when everything actually was better. That is, if we can forget the mess that became of that better life. Getting used to the crisis is different from accepting it as the norm and this should be pointed out from time to time. The Spaniards have reminded us all how important it sometimes is to raise your voice in protest just for the sake of protesting. Let’s hope they have the courage to continue.