This article neither deeply respects nor violently chastises Martin Amis. As a result, it is going to look pretty unusual on the internet today. Very recently Martin Amis criticized Jeremy Corbyn and he is neither the first not the latest (since this was a whole day ago) to do so. Generally speaking, it’s good to see the left coming out to defend Corbyn against right wing attempts to discredit him in any way it can, and especially against attempts to wheel out figures that people might identity with (i.e. Blair or Amis) who are willing to slag him off. That said, it is worth warning against a culture, which seems to be developing on social media at the moment, of uncritically saying that everyone who criticizes Corbyn is a dick. Anyhow, the Amis case is a more unusual one which needs attention.
Hatred for Amis on the part of the left is not new and it long predates Corbyn. In fact, Amis’s utterly crap new comments (which we should have all ignored) have simply provided another opportunity for the left to vent these old and established feelings. The argument goes (and probably quite rightly, if a bit boringly) that Amis embodies something that is wrong with neo-liberalism and that we should be criticizing and ultimately abolishing this. On the other hand Corbyn stands for the first possibility of an alternative to this neo-liberalism that we have seen in quite a while. Therefore, Amis vs Corbyn in some ways makes sense, and we could be tempted to join the debate.
Yet, every critique of Amis (of which there are a great many) insists that he is a dried up and washed out old writer who hasn’t written anything worth paying attention to since at least the 80s (maybe even since Money in 1984). Amis is the Mick Jagger of literature who is not at all relevant today. This points to a pretty interesting problem: how can Amis be, on the one hand, an outdated writer with nothing to offer the modern world and, on the other, the perfect embodiment of modern neo-liberalism that we ought to attack? It has to be one or the other, or we’ll end up attacking a past we don’t need to engage with any more and treating something which is already dead as if its the true enemy of the present. This is, essentially, what has happened this week.
We have long been living in what Walter Benjamin called ‘a culture of distraction.’ In my book, I made some really heartfelt attempts to show how important mobile phone games are (inside andnearby to the workplace, eg. on the train home from work) in keeping us distracted and preventing us from developing organized opposition to our working conditions. But that idea, in a book that has not yet completed the publication process, is already too old.
We are now living in something more like a ‘politics of distraction’, which is crucially different. Whilst a ‘culture of distraction’ implies that culture distracts from politics (hype about the Superbowl distracted from Bush’s foreign policy for example), by a politics of distraction I mean that we are now distracted from politics by politics. It is often when we feel we are ‘debating the issue’ that we are least political, least critical and most inside ideology.
To get back to Corbyn vs Amis. If we enter this debate, we already take a side: the side of a politics of distraction. It is too late, we are inside it now and so we must care about it (that is how this politics works). The left is increasingly becoming aware that we should pay attention to the right-wing policies that are getting through parliament on the very day that we are in a fury about Cameron fucking a pig, but there is even more here. A politics of distraction ensures that we waste our time becoming angry about things that will be gone tomorrow. Will we be talking about Amis in 2 weeks, 2 days, by the time this article is published online? It is safe to say that we will not. A politics of distraction works to focus us on a moment, on a temporary concern that gives us something to talk about over breakfast but will ensure that we do not think political in a long term way. Frenzied discussions of Donald Trump play exactly this role in the American presidential candidacy, so that the Clinton-Bush legacy can continue unchallenged in a years time.
So why can we not leave these issues aside? Why can’t we realize that Martin Amis is an old sod whose comments aren’t worth even pricking our ears up over, let alone treating them (very bizarrely) as a genuine threat to Jeremy Corybn? (Corbyn really and truly does not need the help of left wing social media to overcome the critique of Martin Amis). Why do we have to weigh in on every piece of crap The Guardian publishes. Why cant we leave Martin Amis alone!??
Perhaps it is because the culture of distraction has trained us to be ready for this politics of distraction. Whilst we might praise the recent politicization of social media, we must be weary of the social media-ization of politics. This is what we must now fight against, a politics which denies us the ability to think carefully about what we care about and what we should discuss and instead forces us to respond furiously and quickly to a debate we see ‘raging’ on social media. Herein we might begin to resist.
In the spirit of Jorge Luis Borges, I am not sure this article is not guilty of the very thing it wants to criticize.