Jacques Lacan at the start of his seminar on The Ethics of Psychoanalysis states that desire ‘is always desire in the second degree, desire of desire.’ He then discusses how ‘the value of a thing is [in] its desirability[;] the point is to know if it is worthy of being desired, if it is desirable for one ...continue reading "CONSUMERO EX NIHILO: ‘AIR IS PART OF THE RECIPE’"
The mobile phone game sensation Angry Birds needs little introduction. Released in 2009, the game has sold (including free versions funded by advertising) clear of 1.7 billion copies across mobiles, video game consoles, laptops and PCs. To put that in context, the first and most popular Mario game sold only 40 million. There are nearly 7 billion people in the world, so one quarter have played Angry Birds. You can buy Angry Birds toys, t-shirts, lunchboxes, pencil cases, and nearly everything else. What is behind this sensation of mobile phone games, of which Angry Birds is most certainly the epitome? And what is it specifically that makes Angry Birds more popular than the others? What is really behind our enjoyment of this game?
The first of these questions can be answered by a version of Baudrillard’s concept of ‘hyperreality.’ Baudrillard’s criticism of post-modern culture, which he sees as epitomized by Disneyland, is not simply that it is ‘fake,’ but rather that in presenting itself as the world of imagination and fiction, it implies the existence of a more ‘real’ ‘authentic’ experience outside of this world of signs and symbols: a pure and genuine ‘reality.’
When we play these games (on trains, buses, at work, in waiting rooms), viewed by almost everyone as a tempting distraction from real stuff, we partly enjoy doing so on the level that the associated guilt actually re-enforces our sense of being very important people with ‘much more important things to do.’ The distraction supplements that from which we secretly want to be distracted, allowing us to feel that what we ‘should’ be doing is truly ‘worthwhile.’ Indeed, David Cameron, a man who must have anxieties about the worthiness of his work, has completed the game…
Though Angry Birds exemplifies this, such points might be made about all sorts of games. Moving to the second question, that of what explains the specific success of Angry Birds, we have to see that this coherent idea of ‘real life’ which in this model the distraction is supposed to affirm, itself becomes blurred and incoherent.
This is something picked up on by Walter Benjamin, also speaking of modern life, when he coins the phrase ‘culture of distraction.’ But for Benjamin distraction is not simply a matter of a deficit of attention which distracts from an otherwise stable reality, but instead implies a scattering or dispersion, which he sees as constitutive of modern mass culture. Anticipating Baudrillard, Benjamin explains how the individual is bombarded with signs so that no coherent reality can be found, the individual self and its reality become fragmented and scattered because there is so much distraction that there is no normality to be distracted from. So how does one survive in these conditions? One plays Angry Birds, which we now see is a text which needs detailed close-reading.
In the game, your characters are a set of angry birds, who launch themselves at the ‘bad guys,’ a set of green pigs. The pigs are in a structure made up of wood and bricks, which needs to be knocked down to get to and destroy the enemy pigs within. Some of these are small, a single house, where others seem to resemble a metropolis. In short, the pigs are inside, the birds are out. So the birds (which we imagine we are, which children pretend to be in the playground) represent the dream of standing outside the structure, or the city, and bombarding it. The point is that we as modern subjects, as Benjamin explains, feel like the pigs; we are inside the structure, being bombarded with signs that threaten all coherence of meaning and who we are. We cannot make any sense of these signs, lost between illusion and reality, and so we construct a fantasy in which there IS something ‘behind’ those bombardments, some agency, something controlling the signs/birds. In the game this is us, behind our iPhones; in the game, we are the outside controlling force that is absent in the world. Angry Birds is the epitome of a culture of distraction, but it also responds to it. The pigs have less to worry about than us, because at least there is something ‘out there’ controlling the signs hitting their city.
The accusation that Tesco use electronic tags to monitor the productivity of their workers sounds like something from a dystopian novel. The tags reportedly measure how fast shelf stackers work, giving them a target that is difficult to meet if one even takes a bathroom break. Clearly, this amounts to poor working conditions, but what ...continue reading "PANOPTICISM NOW"
There’s a status associated with owning a record player and having a great record collection, just like there is with doing anything ‘properly’ or ‘the old-fashioned way’. Owning a first edition of a book or a classic car is a statement, betraying our desire for authenticity in a world that keeps churning out new stuff ...continue reading "DJING: A RESISTANCE TO STANDARDISED COMMODITIES?"
All links in this piece contain graphic images of death.
‘Must we celebrate [death’s] essence once more, and thus risk forgetting that there is still so much we can do to fight it?’ asks Roland Barthes in his essay from Mythologies entitled ‘The Great Family of Man’. It would appear that a photograph that has ...continue reading "TAZREEN FASHIONS FACTORY PHOTOGRAPHS AND THEIR RECEPTION"
It is a phrase which has become ubiquitous in recent years. You don’t feel like having another beer? Man up. Crying because you’ve just been dumped? Man up. Worried about a difficult conversation? Man up. The interesting thing about this phrase, though, is that no-one ever has to have it explained to them. It’s obvious. To man up is to be (more) like a man. What’s difficult about that?
But it is precisely the obviousness of the phrase which makes it so compelling as a comment on our contemporary sense of gendered identity. And because it is so obvious, so blunt even, it is easier to use the phrase in an ironic or tongue in cheek way. In this sense, man up can even apply to women. Stop complaining, be stoic, be like a man. As this (mis)use indicates, there is a contradictory doubleness or duplicity within the phrase, whether applied to men or women, which needs to be unpicked. Judith Butler, drawing on the work of Monique Wittig, points out that popular discourse about gender and traditional philosophy both assign it the quality of ‘being’ (Gender Trouble, p.29). Your gender is what you are, whether you like it or not. This ‘fact’ is what allows us to utter the apparently unproblematic statements ‘I am a man’ or ‘I am a woman’. Language demands that we make this statement about those around us every day, almost with every utterance, whenever we say ‘he says’ or ‘she says’. The phrase ‘man up’ seems solidly part of this tradition, assuming a fixed, knowable core to manliness. It is clear what it means to be a man, the phrase tells us: it is an absolute and unchanging essence, firmly ensconced in the realm of the ideal. This is why the phrase operates as a convenient shorthand, indeed, why it can be used at all.
At the same time, ‘man up’ expresses the injunction that we must become a man, telling us as directly as possible that we are not one yet. In this sense, it operates like the famous Aretha Franklin lyric picked out by Butler: ‘you make me feel like a natural woman’ (30). Aretha does not tell ‘you’ (the man) that he makes her intoa natural woman (the corollary of the ‘natural man’ of ‘man up’), only that he makes her feel like a natural woman. This subtlety of phrasing indicates that the concept of the natural woman (or natural man) is fundamentally alienating, enforcing gender identity as an ideal which it is impossible to attain. This is why for Simone de Beauvoir one is not born, but rather becomes (or, we might add, does not quite become) a woman. Gender is not being but becoming. Nevertheless, ‘you’ make ‘me’ feel like a natural woman. For Butler, the man enforces gender on the woman here as difference (from himself). In the most negative reading of this relationship, we might say that the man imposes upon the woman both the necessity of attaining her ‘natural’ gender identity and the impossibility of ever achieving more than a simulacral approximation of it. Her gender identity must therefore always be one of absolute alienation, something which she is never allowed to forget.
With the phrase ‘man up’, all of us can now take part in a similar process. We allknow what it means to be a man (even if, like St Augustine, we can’t precisely define it when challenged), but we also implicitly recognise that every time we say ‘I am a man’ (if we do) the impossibility of positioning gender as being forces the statement to turn back against us, responding ‘you are not a man’. What the phrase ‘man up’ allows, and the reason why it is always self-ironising, is the ability to point out the alienated identity of those around us, and at the same time of ourselves. Using the phrase makes us into the ‘you’ of Aretha Franklin’s song, telling the other that there is such a thing as a man, but that you (and I) will only ever be in the process of becoming, and never actually be it. We know every time we use the phrase that it is an impossible injunction – it is the injunction of gender itself – but this is why we revel in it. The impossibility does not stop us using it but rather encourages us to use it again, and again, and again.
An Everyday Analysis contributor owns a rabbit who is currently in a stand-off with a cat through a window, as seen here.
This ‘stand-off’ tells us something fundamental about the structure of our desires, and explains a major tenet of psychoanalysis. This is that we do not truly want, nor could we handle, the realization of our deepest and most passionate desires. The cat gazes at the rabbit, occasionally attempting to pass through the window. It is completely obsessed with the rabbit, not taking its eyes off it at any point. If one tries to distract it, it doesn’t work; the cat is in monomania. The rabbit, as the object of desire, is enjoying his position as desirable object. Far from being scared, he safely enjoys the feeling of being desired in the most ultimate way by the Other through the safety of the glass screen which is preventing the traumatic realization of this desire, which would, if realized, lead to consumption and certain death for the rabbit-as-object.
Psychologically, the cat thinks that its every desire tends towards the rabbit; it is completely obsessional. If only it could get the rabbit, the cat would be happy. But another potential trauma is in play. The cat does not realize that should it pass through the glass and realize its desire for the object, the Everyday Analysis contributor mentioned above would be ready to bludgeon the cat to a brutal death with a nearby rolling-pin. There is a traumatic outside to the frame of the image above which would destroy the structure of desire within it.
The point here is that the window is not the blocker of desire or the thing preventing its realization at all, but the very thing which creates and frames the fantasy of both parties, the thing which desire relies upon. Psychoanalysis insists upon this, that we do not want what we truly desire, but rather, we want to hold the object of desire at a distance in order to dream and fantasize about it. The rabbit and the cat need the screen to be in place, in order for the rabbit to feel it is truly desired, and for the cat to feel that it truly desires, giving both a role and purpose. Further, they need the window to protect themselves from the reality of their purer desire which would lead to the traumatic destruction of both. Zizek comments:
Sharpening the paradox to its utmost–to tautology–we could say that desire itself is a defence against desire: the desire structured through fantasy is a defence against the desire of the Other, against this ‘pure’, trans-phantasmic desire (i.e. the ‘death drive’ in its pure form).
The cat vs. rabbit stand-off is in no way unique. Rather, it shows us that we cannot handle the true realization of desire, so we produce a framed fantasy of desire which we hold at a distance, to keep ourselves from this desire to be destroyed. As the Declaration of American Independence tells us, we do not want happiness, we only want to pursue it.
There is an amusing and puerile joke on Twitter. Whenever Richard Dawkins expresses his increasingly unpleasant bile towards Muslims, any other religious believer or, really, anyone who disagrees with him, people tend to respond with the words ‘Your a dick’. Interestingly, Dawkins calls these people ‘illiterate’, and puts a lot of store by grammar. His key demographic of nasty teenage boys, the sort who scoff at people for believing in ‘the sky fairy’, are just the type to shake off criticism by critiquing grammar, or ridiculing somebody who doesn’t have the same God-like grasp of the rules as they do.
Nonetheless, this faith in the clarity of grammar is evidence that Dawkins’s thinking is still theist in character, even if he rejects the usual narratives of God put forward by the major religions. To demonstrate this, I wish to turn to an atheist thinker of a completely different stripe to Dawkins, one who I hope will emerge more atheist than Dawkins in this short analysis, Friedrich Nietzsche.
I’d like to begin by stressing that Nietzsche is absolutely, unambiguously, an atheist. His most famous statement, that ‘God is dead’ would probably suffice enough, but since it is a far richer claim than it initially appears, I won’t dwell on it here. Rather, I will turn to the Nietzsche I will be talking about later in this piece, in which he writes: ‘concocting stories [fabeln – fables] about a world ‘other’ than this one is utterly senseless, unless we have within us a powerful instinct to slander, belittle, cast suspicion upon life: in which case we are avenging ourselves on life with the phantasmagoria of ‘another’, ‘better’ life’. Nietzsche rejects any claims of heaven, of God, of a world to come, in favour of life as we live it, now.
In Dawkins’s pronouncements about language though, this is precisely what he does. We find him claim, ‘English is my native language. My words mean what I intend. If you read them differently because of “social context” that’s your problem.’ Who authenticates that one’s words mean precisely in the way they were intended? Dawkins could claim that his words represent an intended meaning because social context has created generally-shared, but still ambiguous, shared meanings, on which he was drawing when he wrote the statement. However, he rejects meaning shaped by social context. Yet, if his meanings aren’t created by social context, then what does he have to draw on? He may believe that his words mean precisely what he intends, using his own sense of them as a guarantor, but they can only mean if they are spoken or written and somebody interprets them, hence we return to the problem of social context. Furthermore, where did he derive these meanings if not from social context? When he says that English is his ‘native language’, he is giving his words authority precisely on the notion that, as a native speaker, he is better acquainted with the social context of his language. Dawkins though is sure that there is a guarantor of precise meaning, hence there must be another, Platonic, reality, above the spoken one, that guarantees the meanings of his words. If Dawkins believes only in life, what there is for us to experience, words must be made to mean by social context. Otherwise, if words mean, something outside of human beings, outside of social context, must make them mean. What is being concocted here is another world where words have perfect meanings outside of the shifting, unstable language of human beings.
This attitude to language is typical of Dawkins’s unshakeable faith in the absolute power of reason. Could we forget that he is the founder of the ‘Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason and Science’? Of reason, Nietzsche writes that ‘the prejudice [note the idea of pre-judging here] called ‘reason’ compels us to establish unity, identity, duration, substance, cause, materiality, Being – we see ourselves to a certain extent tangled up in error, forced into error; as sure as we are, on the basis of stringent checking, that the error is here’. That is to say, reason is itself a social context (Nietzsche mentions that this worship of reason occurs ‘nowadays’, it is historically situated), which guarantees our sense of our selves and the existence of the world we live in by leading us out of error. Yet who decides what is reason and what is error? What is this world that we are led to, out of this world of error? As in the case of language, it depends upon a world where concepts can be guaranteed by something outside the shifting, amorphous zone of things like social context, which lead us into error. For how can we know what reason is without recourse to the language in which we express reasonable things? Yet as Nietzsche points out, just as our eyes are incapable of determining what we see in astronomy for certain, so language too carries the potential for error.
This is of course not to say that science should be dismissed as just another construct of the social world, that these types of critique are claiming that science is invalid, as many paranoid scientists seem to think. Rather, it is about recognising that atheists like Dawkins, and his increasingly godlike pronouncements on the power of what he calls reason, in fact take a theist position, and create a world outside this one to aspire to. It attempts to make the world homogenous and strictured in a way reminiscent of lots of hardline beliefs of religion. True atheism then would be a new world of unreason, and would, we can hope, see our attitudes to the marginanlised radically altered in a way that reason has never been able to do in its three-hundred year history. And this is absolutely a matter of how we view language. As Nietzsche puts it, ‘I am afraid we are not getting rid of God because we still believe in grammar…’
‘In music the only possible abstraction possible [sic] is the sense of TIME-SPACE, and its relation to the human body through the organ of the ear; through the spacing-off and draughtsmanship of TIME-SPACE by the means of various points of sound.’ This is clause VI of George Antheil’s manifesto ‘Abstraction and Time in Music’ (in MANIFESTO!, ed. by Mary Ann Caws, pp.651-652). In so many ways The Flaming Lips have taken these theses as points of radical departure with their 24-hour song 7 Skies H3. 24 hours is no arbitrary track length, but one that reinforces the very insistence and modality of time itself, in music, as in life, as in death (on which the song is purportedly a meditation). As we find in a line of its lyrics – ‘now, a minute’s not a minute, and now, an hour’s not an hour’ – we’re met with a concentration on this (still-)radical NOW; the moment in its simultaneous contiguity with other moments, and continuity within in time. ‘Now’ is a concept so important throughout modernist and avant-garde movements in art, not least to ‘Nowism’ itself, and it is mediated here through a reflection on common temporal measurement – units of time – that become less easily, immediately and complacently graspable as quantifiers of music as we move from the minute to the hour to the day.
As James Joyce’s novel Ulysses is, in so many ways, a life in the day of, so is this: a radical reconfiguration of what we conceive of our day being is demanded by the endeavour of listening to this track, in relation to the most basic constituents of sleep and waking, meal times, routine: our very diurnal spatiality is (momentarily) revolutionised by this piece of music; it transforms (our) TIME-SPACE itself. The necessity of it inhabiting our day spatialises its temporal presence too; rest assured, it will really get into your skull: to have it on for the full 24 hours is to simultaneously enforce the very idea it is also a meditation on – in its links with death – repetition, and its compulsions; desire, continuance, recirculation: ‘I can’t shut off my head’, as Wayne Coyne sings.
Of course, one doesn’t have to listen to it in just one sitting, so to speak. It can be chopped up into segments – or ‘bitesize chunks’ (to put it in old BBC secondary school revision speak) – or even delved into at will: listened to systematically bit by bit, or randomly; whenever, wherever. Stretching these spatio-temporal possibilities even further is its endless repeated circular streaming online: log on, tune in, drop out, whenever – temporally, it’s almost limitless; it’s always there, repeating; wherever – spatially it’s as almost-limitless in that it’s accessible from a multitude of points of modern connectivity and mobility; so many technological devices.
As an instance of recorded sound it is extraordinarily audacious; a humongous work, in terms of length and memory; a timely avant-garde exploitation and exploration of the technological means by which it becomes a possibility beyond imagination: the skies have become the limit in terms of electronic recording and its equipment. There is thus something anti-commidificatory about 7 Skies H3 too, in its redefinition of materiality, or material parameters; yes, it was made available physically on a USB drive encased in a human skull – 13 of which were made and sold for Halloween – at the immodest price of $5000, but it’s also streaming in its nonstop form online, and can be found here and there to download in its entirety.
Thus overall, from the pounding two-two pummels and monk-chants of roughly hours 2 to 4 to the ecstatic beauty – cut in on by awesome guitar-slice sublimity – of the section approximately between 14 and 18, this song pushes at the very borders of art, and in doing so, also at those of time and space, of the human body, and its materiality and condition. In so doing it forces us into an intense a concentration on – and in – our own skulls; one that hasn’t been quite as insistently realised since Samuel Beckett’s radical fizzle ‘For to End Yet Again’.
The Everyday Analysis article below treated Justin Bieber’s recent visit to the Amsterdam Anne Frank Museum, in which he now famously wrote in the guestbook: ‘Truly inspiring to be able to come here. Anne was a great girl. Hopefully she would have been a belieber.’ The article takes issue with what it sees as a particular facet of postmodern culture; the way that we imagine that completely distant and unconnected events can somehow be paralleled, so that that Anne Frank can be thought of in Justin Bieber’s terms. Part of the problem the article highlights is the imaginary way in which we see our world; if everything can be thought of in our terms then the otherness of the past is denied, and the way we think now appears to be inevitable. By extension the article shows that Bieber’s comment shows that our culture ‘doesn’t draw some sort of poetical thread through time’ by using Anne Frank for any political purpose. Instead it depoliticizes, by assimilating the past into the terms of the present.
These points are important ones, and yet, I want to suggest that there is perhaps something else that Bieber’s comment shows us about our culture, which is both more just to Bieber’s misjudged but not truly evil remark, and which also picks up on something not noted by most of the critics, showing us something about our own response to the Bieber-blunder.
Interestingly, a number of people have come to the defence of Bieber over the comment, which first drew a large amount of criticism when it was published via the Museum’s social media sites. Anne Frank’s step-sister, Eva Schloss, has even commented that Anne ‘probably would have been a fan’ of Bieber, saying; ‘he’s a young man and she was a young girl, and she liked film stars and music.’ Schloss implies that being a teenager is a timeless state outside history and therefore brushes over the historical chasm of the Holocaust genocide that separates Bieber and Anne Frank. The question I would like to ask is; what is it that fundamentally divides these two responses; on the one hand the view that the article puts forward, which stresses the problem with assimilating Anne Frank into the life-world of Justin Bieber, and on the other hand the view of Anne Frank’s stepsister, which cannot think otherwise than in the terms of the present.
Remarkably, The Sun, reporting on the Eva Schloss statement, actually carry out the same gesture that has been highlighted by the article below. They open by referring to ‘teen titan Justin Bieber’ and then later to Anne Frank in the same terms, saying ‘the teen hid from the Nazis’. The Sun should have at least some kind of awareness of the issues involved here. Likewise Eva Schloss, who has written a historical book called After Auschwitz, seems to be participating in a discourse of assimilating the past into the terms of the present, rather than reflecting on the issues of historicity that are being raised by Bieber’s comment.
This leads to the main point I want to make here – that we might, ‘save’ Bieber’s comment from the critics, in a very different way to Will.I.Am, who claimed on the subject that ‘there is a lot of shit to do in Amsterdam but he chose to go to Anne Frank’s house.’ The difference between The Sun and Eva Schloss and Bieber’s comment is that Bieber’s remark is, at least in a way, a joke, whether he is entirely in on that joke or not. The ‘selfish’ element of Bieber’s comment, that he focussed on himself even when faced with the trauma of Anne Frank’s life and death, makes a subtle difference between himself and The Sun, who carried out the same gesture accidentally whilst believing themselves to be objective, or even Eva Schloss, who couldn’t see ‘why not?’ Anne would be a ‘belieber.’ Bieber’s anachronistic remark acknowledges the limits our own socio-cultural-historical-subjective positionality; it acknowldeges an issue of historicity that The Sun and Eva Schloss ignore, that he can only ‘read’ Anne Frank in terms of his beliebers.
Bieber’s comment, to return to where we began, shows us that we cannot read the past except in our own terms, so that the idea of ‘authentic’ access to the past is shown to be a problem. Bieber makes a point made academically by Catherine Belsey when she writes that ‘we bring what we know now to bear on what remains from the past to produce an intelligible history.’ For Belsey, to read the past, to read a text from the past, is always to make an interpretation, which is in a sense an anachronism.
The ‘belieber’ comment, very strangely and no matter how unconsciously, has a strange sense, in its anachronism, of acknowledging an issue of historicity that the majority of responses, from The Sun to Eva Schloss, are lacking. Where Bieber makes no pretences of ‘knowing’ history outside his own subjectivity, perhaps his comment points to a dangerous tendency of critics to think that they can. Or perhaps even further, that in insisting on the impossibility of accessing the past, in attempting to distance Anne Frank from Justin Bieber, some readings ignore the fact that a radical otherness of the past is found in acknowledging its creation in representation by the present. Instead one ought to acknowledge as Bieber does, in a way that points out a problem with Baudrillard, that representation is always hyperreality (the inability to distinguish reality from the simulation of reality) whether we are dealing with postmodernity or not. While the past, the real conditions of Anne Frank’s existence, is real, the question of how history should be written and read must also come up against the Bieber in us, we can neither access that past nor preserve it from contamination by the present.