Thomas Pynchon and postal deregulation


Photo borrowed from Pynchon in Public.

In Thomas Pynchon’s ‘The Crying of Lot 49’ the character Oedipa Maas seems to discover an underground postal network known as W.A.S.T.E. and connected to a shadowy organisation with medieval roots called the Trystero. Or maybe it’s merely a conspiracy to make her believe that there is such a network. This is Pynchon, after all, and it is 1966, on the West Coast, where LSD was beginning to reveal hidden patterns and correspondences beneath the bland surface, “other modes of meaning beyond the obvious…like the matrices of a great digital computer”, another “separate, silent, unsuspected” America. Oedipa suspects she has stumbled upon:

a secret richness and concealed density of dream…a network by which X number of Americans are truly communicating whilst reserving their lies, recitations of routine, arid betrayals of spiritual poverty, for the official government delivery system.


For here were God knew how many citizens, deliberately choosing not to communicate by US Mail. It was not an act of treason, nor possibly even of defiance. But it was a calculated withdrawal, from the life of the Republic, from its machinery. Whatever else was being denied them out of hate, indifference to the power of their vote, loopholes, simple ignorance, this withdrawal was their own, unpublicized, private.

So far, so libertarian. The novel involves a complex metaphor which can be and has been picked apart in various ways*. Here I want to focus on communication in relation to the private and the State. As the reference to a computer suggests, Neoliberalism has realised Oedipa’s dream, in the form of the internet, also a long-term concern of Pynchon. Is it free or controlled, radical or repressive? Is Tristero the heterotopian deep, dark web, as explored in ‘Bleeding Edge’ (2013), or is it Google, Facebook and Whatsapp? At a certain point it contained the potential to be both, and Pynchon explores those historical moments, unearthing the buried wires that could have gone in all sorts of directions.

While it’s hard to imagine a centrally-managed and state-owned internet, it’s not hard to remember when the postal service was run in such a way. When I was growing up there was a single state-owned postal network in the UK. If you wanted to post a letter or parcel, you went to the post office, and receiving post was a matter of waiting until a postman or woman, employed by the same organisation, turned up in the morning. It wasn’t perfect: sometimes he or she would be late, very occasionally missives wold go missing, there was no internet so you couldn’t ‘track’ what you’d sent, and often – horror of horrors – you had to stand in a queue at the post office itself, but on the whole the system functioned well. I never remember any of my friends or family suggested we scrap the whole thing and replace it with chaos.

With the ‘liberalisation’ of postal services around Europe and some other parts of the world, the sending and receiving of physical objects has, rather than being ‘liberated’, become immensely more inefficient and time-consuming. The fact that certain neoliberals love to boast about ‘disrupting‘ settled industries is exemplified in the amount of hassle involved in identifying which kinds of stamps can go in which kinds of post boxes, staying at home all day in the vain hope that whichever bunch of shysters has been entrusted with your package might deign to turn up at whatever time best suits their employers, calling round two or three mobile phone numbers in the hope that whichever subcontracted individual (working for a subcontracted subunit of a global cartel) has your parcel is still awake and hasn’t flown away to Ibiza for two weeks. By contrast, Oedipa’s system of wandering round the Bay Area all night on the lookout for tramps dumping handfuls of letters into posthorn-marked dustbins starts to look like a far more efficient and reliable system.

Still, onwards and upwards. Far more important than the need of ordinary people to dispatch and obtain goods and gifts is the sacrosanct desire of ‘entrepreneurs‘, those modern-day counterparts of Jay Gould, to profit by acting as entirely unnecessary middlemen (or perhaps that should be highwaymen) in any inter-human transaction. Following on from EU-wide deregulation, both Royal Mail and Poste Italiane are currently being privatised, after years of having been, in accordance with Noam Chomsky’s prognosis, run into the ground. For someone who comes from the UK and now lives in Italy, questa non è una buona notizia.

At a generous estimate, 30% of things that have been dispatched to us in Rome over the last few months of friends and family generously dispatching gifts for our new baby simply haven’t arrived. Others have taken months to turn up. On occasion, tracked packages have apparently arrived at the nearest delivery centre and sat there forlornly for several weeks despite my increasingly bad-tempered exhortations to the people personning the Poste Italiane Facebook page to ask someone to pick them up and bring them to the address written on the cazzo label. At one point I posted them a link to the Italian Wikipedia page about the film ‘Il Postino’, so at least they might understand what the purported function of their organisation was. A volta la ironia si perde nella traduzione.

Last month, the pursuit of a tardy passport delivery occasioned a visit to the local sorting office. Having negotiated the security system (bloke enjoying a ciggy, listens to my garbled explanation and nods me through) I made my way upstairs into a huge room contained what looked like avenues of undelivered parcels. It seemed to be a mausoleum of things that could be delivered, but probably won’t be. Like with gravestones, the names chiseled, printed or handwritten with misplaced optimism on the envelopes marked only a permanent resting place. Excitingly, on the other hand, it appeared that I could wander round and pick things up – I might even happen upon the parcel of baby clothes my sister sent over a month ago! Perhaps I would come across that book of poetry I’d ordered from a US website three months ago, or the TRUCK FUMP! t-shirt my wife had bought as a Christmas present! Sadly, given the enormous piles of pacchi in ritardo mounted up around the warehouse, untroubled by the attentions of the few yellow-tabarded staff standing around in a desultory fashion waiting for lunchtime, it seemed unlikely. It would have been like looking for a needle in a deregulated haystack.

Maybe I should have just asked them to send the parcels via W.A.S.T.E.

*Pynchon later expressed dissatisfaction with the novel: “I seem to have forgotten most of what I thought I’d learned up until then”.

“Neoliberalism had some good points”: An interview with Momus about Europe, politics, identity and Japan


Momus is a polymath: a musician, novelist, blogger, artist and occasional journalist and curator. Unusually for someone who bestrides different fields, whatever he turns his hand inevitably turns out to be absolutely unique and compelling.

I’ve been a fan since the late 1980s, back when he styled himself ‘the third Pet Shop Boy‘. Since then he’s released over 30 albums (all of them unerringly excellent), six novels (every of one of them a cracking and often uproarious read), and several thousand consistently fascinating posts on his now-defunct but still celebrated blog Click Opera.

Most recently he’s opened his own online ‘open university‘ and continues to produce occasional soundscapes called ‘hearspools’, which frankly defy description, but any one of which could change your way of seeing and thinking about the world. Although he lives in Japan, he’s also doing a series of appearances around Europe and I caught up with him in the really quite magical setting of Swiss Institute in Rome, where he was doing a talk on sublimation in his lyrics and a concert, during which he played songs related in some way to Rome and its history.

Read the interview in full at

Mélenchon and Žižek; Accelerationism and Edgelordism

There’s a particular set of attitudes or postures which I’ve always known as Ultraleftism. A central element of this is the notion that the masses need to hit rock bottom in order to gain consciousness of their plight, that things will only start to get better when they get as bad as they possibly can.

This idea seems to be undergoing a revival, particularly online. I recently learnt a new word: edgelord. It designates someone who, in the words of, “uses shocking and nihilistic speech and opinions that they themselves may or may not actually believe to gain attention and come across as a more dangerous and unique person”.

The term seems to have derived from the forum 4chan, the breeding swamp of the ‘alt-right’. It’s inevitable that in the face of the various crises assailing humanity disaffected teenagers feel inclined to sound like they can tough out armageddon, and hence it’s routine to see expressed on Facebook pseudo-nihilistic sentiments like ‘the human race is a blight on the planet’ or sub-Nietzschian statements like ‘morality is for assholes’.

However, there’s also an ideological rationale for such outbursts: Accelerationism. Derived partly from Deleuze and Guattari, this is a dense and complex theory with a number of variants but in simple terms it proposes that the self-destructive processes inherent to capitalism should be accelerated in order to provoke radical social change, that (as Steven Shaviro puts it here) that “the best way to shorten capitalism’s lifespan is to push it to the extreme”.

Someone else who has written on the subject and who you can see here addressing it in a excerpt from a speech which actually accelerates in speed and incoherence towards the end, is Slavoj Žižek. Although he seems to dismiss the notion of accelerationism in that clip, an exemplary instance of it in a contemporary poltical context is his endorsement of Trump. It’s easy to dismiss this as yet another semi-serious pantomime attempt to provoke his audience. However, if we link it to his purposefully obnoxious statements about those who help refugees, we can see accelerationism (or, as I would call it, ultraleftism, and possibly more than a little edgelordism) at work. It is of course essential to remember that Žižek is cleverer than his audience, and that he wants to stay ahead of it at every turn. When he attacks ‘liberals’ and bemoans the failures of ‘the Left’ it is those who read his books, attend his lectures and share his videos that he is targetting (and blaming). For all his crypto-Maoist invocations of a divine revolutionary ‘event’, he knows that there can be no ‘True Left’ and we are no more about to try to build one than he is to command it. He is leading his (mostly young and in many cases very impressionable) audience on. He is, after all, whether he accepts the responsibility or not (and I believe that his trolling his followers in this way is a characteristically perverse way of rejecting the role), a political leader and the people he leads are, whether he or they accept the label or not, pretty much all left-liberals*.

Recently in France there has been a surge of support for a more conventional left-wing political leader: Jean-Luc Mélenchon. He has a proud history of fighting fascism, but in the wake of his failure to make the second round of the presidential election he has refused to back the centrist candidate, leaving wide open the possibility of a fascist victory on Sunday. One common argument from his followers is that there is no point voting against the far-right now as they will only grow in strength over the next five years of ‘neoliberalism’. His failure to pronounce in favour of the only candidate who can beat Le Pen has inspired a movement for absention, with only one third of his first-round voters saying they will vote against her. If the Front National wins on Sunday it will be largely thanks to the ‘Left’.

In Paris nowadays it’s common to see armed soldiers on the streets. The same is true of Rome, where I live. They’ve never bothered me, although more than once I have seen them stop random black people walking into metro stations. They’re there to prevent terrorist attacks, which are by no means a remote possibility. But if there was a sudden change in political power the mechanisms of armed repression would already be in place, and the same is true in France.

Is the French ‘Left’ in a position to resist a militarised fascist dictatorship starting in two days’ time? In the coming years, as the rising tide of racism meets the coming climate crisis, we will all need to engage in acts of bravery and sacrifice. Are we ready, powerful and united enough to do so now? Once they see a hard-right government in power, will the masses be magically compelled to rebel and bring about socialism? No, no and non. As things stand, the Left hasn’t even managed to sand off the hard edge of market fundamentalism. It has failed to cohere and communicate a specific programme, and whether in the US, the UK or France it refuses to accept any responsibility for the consequent rise of the far-right. Letting Le Pen get elected – just like allowing Trump to take power in the States – would be a hysterical response to that failure, a gesture of impotence and despair, not all that different in essence from the empty and petty words of politically frustrated teenagers on internet forums.

In the midst of this petulant quasi-adolescent posturing, it’s refreshing to see that there are still some adults on the Left. This week Yanis Varoufakis laid out clearly why failing to vote for Macron to stop Le Pen would be a catastrophe and a betrayal. He rightly finds the notion that ‘neoliberals’ and fascists are equatable is particularly egregious. The epithet ‘neoliberal’ has become synonymous with the name Macron, as a handy political insult. Up until now I’ve continued to use the term despite the widespread lack of clarity with regard to its meaning. Having read lengthy books on the subject by writers such as Philip Mirowski and David Harvey, I don’t think that its existence is by any means a myth. However, seeing the cataclysmically inane way it is being thrown around in this election (as Mirowski says, it is often used nowadays as “a brainless synonym for modern capitalism”) I’m now inclined to agree with Geoffrey Hodgson that its use should be abandoned**.


We live inside the Temple. If it collapses, we all die. That doesn’t mean we can’t dismantle it, or prepare for our eventual escape. But if we think it’s just a matter of blowing it up we may as well join Isis. Such self-destructive impulses have nothing to do with enlightened or egalitarian values. Such thinking is more a form of Nihilism than anything remotely progressive.

If you have a vote in the French election, use it. Don’t be an ultraleftist connard.

* Some are currently finding that rejecting the label ‘liberal’ and using it as a term of abuse puts them into pretty unsavoury company. Incidentally it’s now been pointed out to me that Žižek is indeed abusing his position to argue the same irresponsible nonsense as he did with Trump. Because Donald’s really been wobbling on his throne of late, hasn’t he. I’d give American cryptofascistneoliberalcapitalism a week more at the very most. In the meantime, fascist victory Sunday, communist revolution Monday, ça marche pous vous?! Don’t forget the book signing! Exit through the death camp!

** Anyone even vaguely interested in these issues should read that article. There’s also a far more articulate and evenly-tempered reponse to this whole depressingly predictable/predictably depressing Zizek-doesn’t-mind-Le Pen furore here.

*** This article didn’t go down too well on one particular Zizek fanboy forum. Oh well, if you can’t beat em, join em:

A few lines on Rio and the Olympics

Sérgio Buarque de Holanda wrote in Raízes do Brasil that south of the equator, there is no such thing as sin. When one thinks of Rio de Janeiro, it is this unboundedness that comes to mind: the spontaneous coming together of bodies, whether in pleasure or in pain, a visceral sensuality and brutality, everything in glorious excess: sex, violence, heat and rhythm; excitement and danger; glamourous wealth and spectacular poverty. Whereas the international Rio of the 1950s was a suave tropical paradise, a playground for the rich, today’s updated image of Rio also acknowledges and, up to a point, celebrates the danger in the form of the stylised violence of Cidade de Deus, and the vicarious, pornographic horrors of baile funk.

Less popular outside Brazil but exponentially more popular inside the country was the film Tropa da elite (eleven million people had reportedly see the film even before it was officially released), which shows the city up somewhat in a much more brutal and far less picturesque manner than Cidade de Deus, making it resemble a tropical Baghdad or Baltimore. The film shows and, according to some, exalts in the violence unleashed by a special police force (the notorious BOPE) in the attempt to clean up the favelas in preparation for the visit of the Pope in 1997.

More upheaval was to come ten years later with the hosting of the Panamerican games, with the then governor of Rio reportedly embarking on a campaign to ‘retake the favelas‘. The games brought new stadiums and a great deal of investment to some of the wealthier parts of the city, but, in the words of a community activist in one of the favelas, delivered ‘nada para os moradores‘ – nothing for the people who actually live in the poorer parts of the city.

Now Rio is to host not just the World Cup in 2016, but also play a major part in the hosting of the Olympic Games two years later. No surprises then at the reaction to the shooting down of a helicopter in one of the favelas late last week. This attack took place despite, or possibly because of the fact that ‘has spent the past year expelling drug gangs and vigilantes from four slums and setting up “pacification” projects by which the slums are permanently occupied by police.’ in response to the attack, the authorities have renewed their promise/threat to clean up the favelas before the VIPs arrive. Comments on Brazilian websites have suggested that the BOPE will have their work cut out over the next seven years.

Megaevents such as the World Cup and the Olympics are now widely understood to involve a very high degree of often very brutal social control. The city must be made safe, negotiable and above all mediatic. Undesirable and unpredictable elements must be airbrushed out of the picture in the bid to produce wholesome and marketable images. But the effects of this process are more than merely cosmetic. The ritual process of evictions, displacements and general corruption that accompanies these events is widely documented elsewhere on this site.

Mega-events transform the city into spectacle, and the airbrushing that gets rid of the evidence – but never the reality – of poverty and inequality is an act of great violence. The brutal forced removals of shanty-town dwellers in South Africa – another society with breathtaking inequalities, largely organised along racial lines – give the lie to the idea that the games in either South Africa or Brazil will be a meaningful celebration of multicultural diversity, one huge party to which everyone is invited.

Rio is a city in which, to paraphrase Andy Merrifield, people would rather stay and be poor than go and live somewhere else. Not that the people of the favelas want to be poor: they would like to have accessible and affordable health and sanitation facilities, proper public transport, investment in education. The same things that the poor would benefit from in any other city, in fact. But the neoliberal city is not about providing these things. It is about getting rid of the poor and appropriating urban space in order to develop an exclusive, private infrastructure: world-class facilities for world-class people.

Sporting megaevents (along with international expos, cities of culture and so on) have a particular role to play in neoliberal urban development. They are an increasingly powerful tool with which cities are remade according to an agenda of transforming the urban environment from a place of spontaneity, unpredictability and the encounter with difference into a much more controlled, homogenous, sanitised space, a theme park and a site of privileged consumption which benefits, primarily, a tiny elite of property developers and large corporate interests (and, one might add, their political servants). Throughout the world the places that poor people are permitted to live are, in a series of orchestrated seismic shocks, shifted away from the centre of the city (and, we might mention, the beach). In the process, that spontaneity, that unboundedness, that constitutes the identity of a city like Rio is destroyed, replaced with a calculable, controlled and entirely dead environment of luxury apartments, shopping malls, private entertainment complexes, and, of course, the ubiquitous empty stadiums, places built by the people who can no longer afford to live in the city, and who could never in their wildest dreams afford to go and see a game. The World Cup and the Olympics, wherever they take place, are not about three weeks of media spectacle. They are about violently taking control of and remaking the city in the interests of the global elite.