Is this a transitional object I see before me?

aaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaThis is the opening paragraph from the book ‘Post-Truth: How bullshit conquered the world’ by James Ball:

The US government stockpiled 30,000 guillotines, stored in internment camps – including one in Alaska large enough for two million people – ready to wipe out Second Amendment supporters at a rate of three million an hour. Trump supporters at a New York victory rally chanted, ‘We hate Muslims, we have blacks, we want our great country back’. Denzel Washington endorsed Donald Trump – and Trump actually won the popular vote in the US election, despite the mainstream media telling you otherwise.

I’m sure you can see the item in that list that ‘triggered‘ me. Within seconds I was already drafting an outraged response to shout into the ether. Even though I knew full well that I was reading a book about fake news, I dearly wanted the report in question to be true. As the Italian phrase has it, ‘Se non è vero, è ben trovato’, or as they say in Jamaica, ‘If it not go so, it go near so’. I dismissed those stories that conflicted with my worldview immediately. It took concentrated reflection – System 2 thinking – to realise that the headline which had raised my hackles must also have been false, and then some more mental work to understand that many faced with the same set of headlines would have had the exact opposite reaction, would have found the fake news story about guillotines similarly compelling – and, in a way, comforting.

This blog is not a fake news outlet. Everything on this site makes a claim on the truth; I’m not Paul Horner or Beppe Grillo. Satirical articles are clearly labelled as such. Although satire aspires to be (as Picasso said of art) ‘the lie that tells the truth’, I’m aware that the kind I feel compelled to write sometimes cleaves too close to the truth. Headlines such as ‘NRA condemns mass murderer: ‘Poor guy, must have had a bad day or something’‘Mail editor Paul Dacre to be knighted at long last’ and ’21 facts that PROVE Donald Trump is NOT racist’ are designed to mislead, and I’ve come to accept that any such misinterpretations and any accusations of spreading ‘fake news’ are, to an extent, my responsibility. After all, 59% of shared articles are not read by the person liking or reposting them. Anyone writing online should be aware of how their ‘content’ contributes to the deluge of bullshit. This site doesn’t exist in a vacuum, but among millions of others that are deliberately misleading.

According to James Ball’s taxonomy of potentially dodgy sites, this blog falls into the category of ‘extremely partisan’: it mostly tells people what they want to hear. Nonetheless, unlike operations such as Breibart and The Canary it makes no pretence to be a news site. I found it amusing that when my post about Trump snapping went viral people were arriving at my site by googling ‘Is Internet Coincidence reliable?’. That particular post triggered people’s sensibilities at just the right moment, and probably fed illusions that Trump’s reign would be over before we knew it, a momentary bad dream. The act that such an assumption has been revealed to be bullshit doesn’t, I think, mean that my argument was bullshit, but it does indicate a lack of political acuity, as further evidenced by headlines such as ‘A prediction: Trump will tweet in favour of Catalan independence‘ and I’ve put money on it: Rees-Mogg will be the Tories’ answer to Corbynism’. At the end of the day, Brian, this is not a very reliable source of information. Thank God it’s just a blog.

In any case, the principal currency of the internet is not information per se. Google and Facebook aren’t, contrary to the boast of the former, ‘organising’ but rather editing what we find according to a set of ambiguous but consistently amoral and manipulative criteria. The real dollars don’t lie in accurate detail, but in headlines and pictures which may be misleading but do connect with that sweet spot between outrage and pleasure. Breitbart understands this very well – although by no means all of its stories are outright fakes, the posts that get shared the most are the blatantly dishonest ones, instantly transmissible as memes – and once the lie has been embedded into an emotionally arresting image, the information it contains cannot be countered by rational argument and fact-checking. The internet thus resembles a playschool, decorated in colourful images with clear, simple messages, a place where everything has a familiar and reassuring meaning. Everything we see on social media tells us: these people feel the same as I do. As for encountering other perspectives, we are slowly realising that the conversational model has little to do with dialogue and much more to do with either reinforcement or confrontation. No one changes their mind because of an internet debate, a meme, or a piece of satire. In fact, there is abundant evidence shows that the online sharing of opinions reinforces and possibly even polarises entrenched points of view. One word I haven’t noticed in the articles and books I’ve read about online identities is tribal, but it seems to me that the affirmation of belonging to a particular group fulfills that atavistic need.

So why write satire, or why for that matter produce any internet content at all? Principally, if I’m honest, to cheer myself up. It’s satisfying to feel that I’m part of a tribe, that I have a few twigs to throw on the campfire. It consummates a basic human need for belonging. It’s gratifying to see that people like and share something I’ve created, to the point, inevitably, of becoming, as John Kelly said of Trump’s relationship with Twitter, a ‘habit’. I use my device, as I think most people do, to some extent, as a source of emotional support provided by devices. Posting online is one way of feeling that I exist and that my existence matters. Thus I can relate to Trump’s apparent need to feel triggered. To paraphrase Sherry Turckle, I post, therefore I am. This is not, I recognise, a healthy or a mature condition, but neither is it a rare one. The internet is in its adolescence, so it’s inevitable, if not exactly natural, that so much of it resembles ‘Lord of the Flies’. Hopefully phenomena such as 4chan and characters such as Milo are symptoms of a development which is not permanently stunted. That’s not to blame the state of affairs on the young: neither I nor Donald Trump, to choose two random examples, are ‘digital natives’.

As it happens, over the last few months I’ve become a keen student of the process of human physical, emotional and intellectual development. Like my first experience of university, this often involves manic bursts of impromptu studying at very irregular hours. For example, when she was between four and five months old, our baby daughter, who had previously slept, well, like a baby should, developed trouble getting to sleep and staying there. In desperation, responding to advice we’d obtained, oddly enough, online, we tried ‘controlled crying’: letting her cry herself to sleep in her cot, with our reassuring interventions taking place at longer and longer intervals. The method is controversial – some believe that babies should never be allowed to cry, ever*. The most cunning element of the plan was the deployment of two fluffy characters called Bunnywunny and Bunnywunnywunny. With their help she was almost immediately able to sleep for ten or so uninterrupted hours. BW and BWW were examples of comfort or security objects, or as Douglas Winnicott called them, ‘transitional objects‘, which teach infants to rely less on their parents and to start developing emotional independence and their own sense of ego/self. Since then, whenever she wakes up at night, they are the first thing she grabs for. Feeling comforted by their presence, she immediately falls back to sleep.

Some of this should ring a bell, unless that is you’ve got your brain turned to silent or vibrate. Freud argued that the primary function of dreams is to allow us to go on sleeping. As we transition towards a reality which for so many will resemble a living nightmare, it seems to me that the role of our devices is to provide us with emotional comfort, and to enable us to control our waking dreams.

*These seem to be the same people who don’t believe in protecting children from disease.

Donald Trump’s an alcoholic, isn’t he?

“Let’s see…I’ve still got some of that brandy the Saudis gave me…”

Election Night 2010 left me in a Very Bad Mood. Seeing the disaster that had befallen the country, with the Conservative Party and their eventual suitors the Liberal Democrats effectively wiping Labour off the board, knowing that in government David Cameron would very soon stop pretending he would be the “greenest ever” Prime Minister/friend-to-all-the-woodland-creatures and start gleefully ripping apart all that was most precious about British life, I changed my Facebook status to the (ahem) unambiguously jestful ‘I think I might kill myself’.

I should have included a link to something related to the election. When I turned on my phone the following morning around 7am my phone was buzzing like crazy with messages from concerned friends, family and acquaintances. Not nearly as many as I might have expected, but still.

I would never have done it had I been sober. Watching the results in the pub with fellow campaigners for our local far-left candidate had been a despondent affair. I guess I must have thrown caution to the wind and probably had six or seven pints to numb the disappointment and then a whisky or two (I hate whisky) to make the short walk home slightly more fun.

I’ve cut back in the last few years on what a friend calls ‘combat drinking’. Up to a certain age getting inappropriately drunk just for the hell of it ceased to be a permanently hilarious jape and started to look and feel like the sort of lifestyle trajectory that leads to sitting in church halls reminiscing about the nights you spent searching through bins just in case they contained a not-entirely-empty can of Strongbow.

Then, of course, there’s the danger inherent in being addled online. My previous blog died a slow, painful death after I got into the bad habit of sharing my late-night weed-fuelled mental meanderings with the world (or, at least, my website’s dwindling fanbase). I suspect that it may well be the eventual fate of pretty much all blogs to end up as a receptacle for posts whose contents are so unidentifiable that even people with 18 years of solid alcoholism behind them would think twice before imbibing them*.

Thankfully I never did any permanent damage, either to my liver (apparently) or to my reputation. I’m not remotely famous, so embarrassing myself online (as I may be doing right now) has never worried me unduly. I’d imagine that if I somehow found myself in a position of global responsibility it would be helpful to take the edge off with an occasional drink, and there is always the possibility that in these panoptical times that could lead to serious trouble.

Remarkable, then, that the most powerful person in the world has never even tasted alcohol and is apparently able to deal with the stresses of the job with nary a drop of inebriating liquid to help him come down from the inevitable highs and lows of adrenaline that the job entails. Curious, as Hasan Minhaj recently pointed out, that Trump’s barely coherent and often catastrophically unwise 3am tweets are written in a state of total lifelong sobriety.

How on earth is the President of the United States able to combine his laudable dedication to a teetotal lifestyle with the pressures inherent in a) his status of leader of the free world in a time of geopolitical chaos and b) his condition as a pathological liar?



* I’m aware this is quite a confusing sentence, maybe I should have a drink and think about how to rephrase it.

NB: There’s also of course the possibility that Trump is a bit like Obelix, as in ‘Asterix &…’. Obelix fell into the pot of superstrength-granting magic potion as a child, and thus unlike his little moustachioed buddy never requires a top-up before going into battle. He does, however, need constant reminding of this fact, and given that Trump has no memory for anything but slights and grudges, it’s unlikely he’d be capable of remembering that he’s not actually supposed to drink. He may also just be a dry drunk. I don’t really care, I just hope that he gets to hear the malicious rumours that he’s an alcoholic and the resultant rage, shame and anguish cause him to suffer a massive heart attack and die. At this point we have to try everything – it’s him or the planet. Speaking of which, do you really think that someone prepared to lie about something as significant as Climate Change should be believed when he says he doesn’t drink?!

(Incidentally, no offense to actual alcoholics is intended in or by this article. Many of my closest friends are borderline alcoholics. For some reason.)

10 lessons from one month of successful parenting

An old joke has it that if you’re thinking of having a baby, first get a plant. If you can keep it alive for a month, try a cat. If after a month it hasn’t run away and you haven’t starved it to death, then think about a human partner. If after a month…etc.

Well, although I’ve always been crap at remembering to water plants and the only cat I’ve ever had did actually run away, me and my wife have now survived a whole month of having full adult responsibility for a proper human baby, which is a minor milestone worth celebrating. The last 32 days have, to be sure, contained some of the most difficult moments of our lives. After two nights I am happy to admit that I was actually going insane and wanted to take her back to the hospital until we could work out this whole screaming-sleeping equation. At 5am, after five hours of various white noise apps, cooing, shushing, pushing the pram back and forth like a deranged polar bear in a zoo, reasoning, googling ‘STOP NEWBORN CRYING’ (a secular form of prayer, one about as practically helpful and easy to interpret as the foreboding silence of God), we spent forty minutes trying to disengage the top bit of the pram so we could return her to the Maternity Department at Città di Roma and get them to stop her making all that noise

It’s also, of course, been a joyous experience. The baby is hilarious, an endless source of uproarious entertainment. One of my favourite tricks to play on her (one she’s sadly now got wise to) is to pretend my nose is a nipple. When she’s having a tantrum she looks like Phil Collins doing a drum solo while suffering the after-effects of some dodgy fondue. And the faces she pulls while waking up suggest she may have a bright future in Gilbert & Sullivan revivals.

Nevertheless, here are ten lessons I’ve learned over the last 32 days and (it seems like) 640 nights:

  1. While swaddling may have worked for Moses, it does nothing for our child. Luckily she doesn’t seem to suffer from the dreaded Startle Reflex (which apparently causes most unswaddled babies to wake up pretty much every hour on the dot), which means I haven’t actually gone through with my late-night threat to take the so-called Miracle Swaddling Blanket back to the shop, wrap the person who sold it to me up in it and set them on fire.
  2. On the other hand, as promised by the current pandit of getting-them-to-go-to-bloody-sleep Tracy Hogg, shush-pat works. You have to do it for at least twenty minutes and it helps if you do so in a dark room because otherwise she keeps her eyes wide open to take in how amazing everything is. Reducing stimulation is also a good way for me to calm down. One exhausted 4am looking into her eyes I had the paranoid (but not irrational) sensation of looking at myself, and a feeling that our souls were locked into a battle of eternal wakefulness.
  3. It’s not clear whether it’s an urban myth, but I’m happy to go along with the internet fairy tale that Dutch babies sleep more. It reflects a no-nonsenseness that I associate with that hedonistically austere people, and which I admire in preference to silly speculation about what hour Madame might like to be served breakfast. A newborn baby doesn’t have habits or tastes. Without wanting to sound like Dr. Moreau, she’s a blank slate on which we can inscribe our own preferred behaviours. As to her current level of intelligence, I’ve not been able to find out much. I’ve read in several places that a two-year-old baby apparently has the same cognitive sophistication as an adult chimpanzee. With regard to newborns, researchers tend to be coyer. Maybe a lot of them have newborn kids and it’s just too depressing to report that their mental prowess lies somewhere between that of a large peanut and a small hamster. At least we can take comfort in the idea that even if our child never learns to read and write, she could still aspire to high political office, as long as she has a sex change and dyes her skin bright orange, that is.
  4. If there’s one insight I’ve gained is that if your baby is eating and sleeping, you have no reason to panic. For the first few days we, like all new parents, worried that she wasn’t feeding properly, but then we found out how very much weight she’d gained and were Very Pleased With Ourselves, although I have to confess that I then ended up googling ‘infant gigantism’, just in case.
  5. Her existence is a secret from her, one she’s not even close to getting. Donald Winnicott famously wrote that there’s ‘no such thing as a baby’. She’s just a cuddly jumble of impulses with no consciousness of how they fit together. ‘She’ is our invention in more than a physical sense, and will be for some time to come.
  6. Her screeching is as distressing as it can possibly be, having been refined over a period of 100,000 years. It was terrifying at first, then we realised it’s just her equivalent of ‘have we got any nuts’, ‘when was the last time we ordered a pizza’ or ‘I’m absolutely mortified to have to tell you this, but I’ve afraid I’ve soiled myself. Again’.
  7. I was worried about our neighbours, given that the people downstairs once asked us to stop using the floor on Saturday mornings. As it happens, no one has knocked on a door asking us to shut up our screaming child. It’s unlikely that anyone ever has done such a thing. It would demand an almost alt-right level of social autism.
  8. It’s very hard not to impute human thoughts to her spontaneous facial expressions, particularly to what appears to be the curious mix of embarrassment and defiance that appears when she fills her nappy four seconds after it’s been changed. Also, when she closes her eyes when I’m doing shush-pat, it’s difficult not to suspect that she’s merely pretending to be asleep. Her face at such times sometimes looks a bit patronising, like sure, dad, you’ve made me go to sleep, like well done yeah.
  9. I used to suffer from anxiety about things that didn’t matter. For example: for about six years in my early 20s I worried that I was going bald. It was the only thing I thought about between the ages of 21 and 27. I would judge everyone I met on how bald they were compared to how old they might be as against how bald and thus old I thought they might think I was. So the information I was getting in the run-up to the birth made the whole prospect quite daunting. Everybody tells you that you’re about to step through a portal into a world of pure mortal terror. From the moment the pregnancy was confirmed, I paranoically assumed I would drop and break her at some point, or accidentally snap off one of her limbs while nappy-changing. Then there was the concern that my experience of parenting might be like that of the hapless father in James Joyce’s story ‘A Little Cloud’, beset by panic and angst at his failure to calm a screaming child. As it turns out, my attacks of anxiety (so far…) have been pretty much restricted to the occasional 3am tantrum (mine rather than hers). It turns out that both she and I and her hero of a mum are more physically and emotionally robust than any of us feared. The baby herself is an actual embodiment of Schopenhauer’s Will, the life force that animates all matter. She knows how to survive – we’re just here to serve her capricious needs.
  10. Just in case anyone takes the last bit as a worrying sign that I may have been spending the last month sternly reading volumes of 19th century philosophy while a newborn baby screams herself inside out in the background*, I’m happy to reassure them that I actually read about Schopenhauer in a book called ‘Louis CK and Philosophy’, which was considerably less mentally taxing. While previous generations of parents have relied on Hogg, Winnicott, Dr. Spock or Captain Kirk for their insights into how-to-parent, I find his comedy to be an endless source of comfort and wisdom. I’m sure it will come in handy in the years to come, especially when, as it inevitable, she starts to ask us difficult questions.

However, the single-most important thing I’ve come to realise through this whole experience, though, the insight that has more than any other enlightened me with regard not just to infant life, but also in terms of all that we see, think and feel as human beings, is that…oh wait, I’ve got to go. The baby’s just started crying.


* Just for the record, I wrote most of this at ‘work’.

The ideological psychopaths behind Trump, Putin and Brexit

I’ve seen several headlines comparing Steve Bannon, Trump’s Chief Strategist, to the Mad Monk Rasputin, given the coincidence of their seemingly hypnotic influence over the country’s most powerful man and their apparent commitment to arcane forms of Evil. Rasputin also has a counterpart in contemporary Russian politics, in the form of Vladislav Surkov, ‘Putin’s grey cardinal’, a figure who, according to the Atlantic, “has directed Russian society like one great reality show”, often using bizarre means of discrediting anyone who stands up to the Government. A meeting between Bannon and Surkov would put Malcolm Tucker and Jamie from ‘The Thick of It’ in the shade.

Although Tony Blair’s Press Secretary Alistair Campbell was the model for Tucker, his bullying and lying could hardly be called psychopathic, and he seems to have been driven by loyalty and career progression rather than destructive zeal even as his dishonesty and cynicism destroyed the Middle East. The same could not be said for someone who, although he is no longer on the scene, has also had a decisive influence on world events: Dominic Cummings, former adviser to the failed Geek Emperor Michael Gove and, as head of the pro-Brexit camp in the Referendum, originator of the slogan ‘Take Back Control’. He has been described by David Cameron as a ‘career psychopath’ and by Rachel Johnson, sister of Boris, in similar terms. I urge you to read in full Pat Kane’s assessment, in which he calls Cummings an “intellectually committed chaos-merchant” and reports on his mission to subject all aspects of human behaviour (health, education, all public services) to the capricious and/or sadistic whims of the market. This may not suit everyone, but Cummings believes most of us to be a waste of education, as cognitive ability is primarily related to genes. This throwback to early 20th Century ideologies is currently off -stage, back to writing deranged screeds on his personal website, but the ideas he promotes are clearly of influence on a Government which has no better idea than rip-it-up-and-start-again.

Figures like Bannon, Surkov and Cummings may have different visions of a perfect society, but they share a commitment to elite rule and an idea of how to aggressively pursue it: by creating chaos, using what Rebecca Solnit (in one of the best assessments I’ve yet encountered of why Trump won) describes as ‘gaslighting’ to destabilise accepted values and undermine trust in established institutions. I found out about Surkov through Adam Curtis (a very skilled propagandist in this own right), who says that Surkov has “turned Russian politics into a bewildering, constantly changing piece of theater…(creating) a constant state of destabilized perception, in order to manage and control”*. This interest in disruption is something all ideological psychopaths share. An appropriate analogy might be that shaking a baby vigorously enough a) might somehow make it grow up quicker and b) will stop things getting boring. I don’t think it’s hyperbole to say that historical precedents to such projects lie in the Chinese Cultural Revolution and the Khmer Rouge. Figures like Bannon, Surkov and Cummings also have literary antecedents. Kane defines Cummings as “a mercurial figure who could easily stalk the pages of the Booker Prize longlist”. After all, part of the thrill and success of the Booker-winning ‘Wolf Hall’ lay in Thomas Cromwell’s machiavellian machinations. Much of what I’ve read about the three ideological psychopaths in question reminds me of a quote from H.G. Wells’ Doctor Moreau:“Each time I dip a living creature into the bath of burning pain, I say; this time I will burn out all the animal, this time I will make a rational creature of my own.”

They also put me in mind of a series of characters in the later J.G.Ballard novels: deranged scientists and psychologists relieving suburban boredom and stress and shaking up bourgeois lives with doses of ultraviolence. The messianic tennis coach Bobby Crawford in Cocaine Nights (1996) oversees a crime wave in an expat coastal resort while arguing that ‘great men’ should live outside the law and crime can be encouraged as ‘a means to an end.’ Wilder Penrose in Supercannes (2000) is a psychiatrist who promotes psychopathy as a means of relieving stress. Millennium People (2003) features a charismatic and possibly insane pediatrician called Richard Gould, who stirs up his followers to bomb Heathrow, the NFT and the Tate Modern in a “search for meaning”, while in Kingdom Come (2006) Dr Maxted counsels of the need for “elective insanity” and foments suburban revolt based on sporting and consumer loyalties, arguing that: the future is going to be a struggle between vast systems of competing psychopathologies, all of them willed and deliberate, part of a desperate attempt to escape from a rational world and the boredom of consumerism”.

There’s also been a lot of talk over the last few months about tricksters: Pied Pipers who lead the masses astray. Ideological psychopaths seem to make use of charismatic leaders, or at least to put themselves at their service. They are often not the figureheads themselves but the powers behind the throne. The Italian populist leader Beppe Grillo keeps himself out of direct political involvement and tries to get someone else to do the dirty work (he’s not very good at choosing). Then there’s the question of which ideology they adhere to. Bannon recently claimed to have once been a Leninist but has very clear fascist and possibly Nazi sympathies. Surkov’s inspiration apparently comes from contemporary art, and both he and Bannon have been associated with the fascist Russian ‘philosopher’ Alexander Dugin, who believes Russia should provoke an all-out world war. As for Cummings, despite his intellectual posturings, he may be stupid enough to be a fan of that ultimate Godhead of failed teenage bullies with megalomaniac pretensions, Ayn ‘Medicare’ Rand. He is an extreme Neoliberal and a reminder that the origins of Neoliberal thought lay partly in nazi belief in the purity and goodness of elite power.

Another common comparison for Bannon has been Goebbels. The Nazi propaganda leader was notoriously interested in and inspired by mystical beliefs and occult rituals. The Trump phenomenon has partly been explained in terms of a hypnotic effect, not least by (stranger and stranger…) Dilbert cartoonist Scott Adams. The (mock?) science of Neurolinguistic Programing may partly explain why, according to several reports, people went into Trump’s rallies curious and came out fuming. Conspiracy theorists find consolation in the belief that all world events, from Brexit to Trump to the war in Syria, are controlled by the CIA; it’s comforting to think that someone’s there behind the scenes watching and learning and will step in when things get out of hand. However, part of the immense value of Thomas Pynchon’s ‘Gravity’s Rainbow’ lies in its exposure and exploration of the chaos and vanity of attempts to control and learn from war, with its groups of scientists competing to use humans like lab rats.

One thing people like Surkov do is to learn from recent developments in marketing and apply them directly to politics. What’s happening politically in the UK, the US and elsewhere is by no means detached from what’s going on in the economy. We are subject to massive and increasing manipulation in the form of disruptive technologies, such as Airbnb and Uber, many of whose creators believe that disrupting settled industries and tearing up patterns of social behaviour is an end which justifies all means.

That ultimate agent of chaos Donald Trump certainly has a way with a crowd, but he’s also stupid and helpless when it comes to understanding world events. He watches the TV news and accepts the simplest and most misleading of explanations. He appears to have no-one to trust and doesn’t seem to have any idea what he’s doing beyond acting out his most sadistic impulses. It may be that he thinks Steve Bannon is his only friend. Bannon certainly appears to know how to manipulate his charge. The plot of this contemporary dystopian parable is starting to resemble Frankenstein, but in this version the Doctor doesn’t care about the consequences of what he’s created, and instead is urging the monster out of the castle to attack the village and take over the world.

Rasputin, of course, ended up being shot dead and thrown into a river, partly undone by his own drunken boasting. As for his contemporary counterparts, they may look and feel like protagonists making their own rules but in reality they are obeying deeper and darker forces which may well destroy them. All of them appear to be deeply narcissistic and probably enjoy being talked and written about, even though it’s public knowledge that Bannon is a wife-beating drunk, Surkov a failed novelist and pictures of Cummings show him posing like a pitiful pastiche of the Bullingdon crew. Maybe he was the one who cleaned up after their parties. Ultimately the three ideological psychopaths I’ve talked about here are not masters, but servants of (to quote Pynchon in ‘V’) a much more ominous logic.

* Curtis explores this in more depth in ‘Hypernormalisation’ (2016)

Some more thoughts on how we come to know ourselves

I’ve been thinking recently about consciousness, about how we come to be aware of ourselves and of the world. In a passage which I think can also be taken as a broader metaphor for how we develop our perceptions of reality, Karl Marx somewhere describes the workings of the economic system (capitalism) in the following terms: the enormous machine is housed inside a building which we can never enter. We can only look through a number of tiny windows – inevitably, only one at a time – to surmise how the whole apparatus might work.

(He might go on to say that we can also study what the machine produces, which is to say immense wealth on the one hand and immeasurable misery on the other. He might say that, but unfortunately I can’t track down the quote.)

The following, from the pediatrician and psychoanalyst Donald Winnicott, describes the view from the inside:

“At the very beginning, the infant is in a state of ‘primary unintegration’: unconnected feeling states and without even a rudimentary ego.”

In one of his most famous quotes, Winnicott also says that “there is no such thing as a baby” – there is only a collection of needs that must be met by the baby’s environment, which in the very early stages is its mother. It’s mainly through the relationship with her that the infant develops a sense of itself as a unified being.

In both cases, the first from outside and the second from within, we can’t perceive a unity. In developing our self-consciousness we rely on others’ reflections of ourselves to develop our sense of who we are. We learn about ourselves by looking at others, particularly when they’re looking at us. Where we feel a muddle of physical and mental sensations, they perceive a unity. For Lacan, the mirror stage is when (starting around twelve months) we start to recognise externally-generated images of ourselves. Some people get stuck in this phase, never surpassing their obsession with their own reflections.

It’s a staggering experience to witness the first flickerings of the awakening of consciousness. In the beginning our brand-new daughter was just a jumble of nerve endings united by a vague sense of need. Then she learned that she has a voice, two organs that let in light, a mouth and the opposite of a mouth. She still has little use for her hands; her favourite part of herself are her breasts, which she has no way of knowing aren’t part of ‘her’ body. She’s very much in the phase of not knowing she exists and (although her eyes are not yet able to focus) she looks to us for clues about what she is. We will tell her what and who she is, and she will tell us what and who we are.

In fits and starts I’ve been reading the novel ‘How to be both’ by Ali Smith, which describes the flowering of adult consciousness in a teenager in the midst of the brutalising world of social media. Our daughter is (hopefully) tens of thousands of days away from (whatever survives of) that, although our initial plan of keeping all connected devices out of her sight proved to be absurdly unrealistic. (I’ve tried to explore these issues here). The fact that nowadays so much of our notion of who we are and what we are worth is mediated by these black mirrors means that we obsessively try to control what we share of ourselves and what is shared of us in order to create a self-portrait we can live with, or at least one that doesn’t trouble or shame us too much.

It’s interesting, therefore, to consider what perceptions visitors to this website (the overwhelming majority of whom haven’t met me in person) receive of me as an individual, and how my perceptions of their (your) perceptions affect my perception of myself. (I’ve tried to articulate the relationship between self-consciousness and social-media-as-spectacle here.) It’s startling to realise that tens of thousands of people are simultaneously reading your thoughts. Most will just be fleeting visits but it’s gratifying to read the extremely thoughtful and often bewilderingly generous comments of those who say they’ll be back – after all, every creative act is an attempt to create unity in the form of the community of those who experience it. As for the experience of having an article go viral the week before my first child arrives, it’s thanks to my daughter that my head is still attached to my shoulders. Anything that can happen online is inevitably of secondary importance when compared to the birth of a new human being.

We also learn who we are through the mass media, which teach us morality tales about who we should and shouldn’t be and how we should and shouldn’t behave. A lot of those offered up for public approval and/or opprobrium are paranoid and/or sadistic caricatures, grotesquely insecure narcissists who seem to have got stuck in the mirror stage and who depend on media exposure to feed their bloated but poorly-nurtured and hence ultimately insatiable egos. I hope that what I write here isn’t perceived (that you don’t perceive it) as a manifestation of any burgeoning megalomania on my part, but rather as an honest (albeit from now on more occasional) attempt to usefully explore aspects of our shared reality and, in doing so, create a community of those who share those perceptions. As for any impulses I might harbour towards world domination, I confidently expect to take first prize in the World Nappy-Changing Championships to be held later this year. I just hope that I won’t fall asleep on the podium.

Donald Trump is going to snap very soon, and here is how I know


I believe that rather than smashing our own glass houses to pieces in the act of destroying Donald Trump’s Presidency, we need to be aware of our own inner Trump, to reflect on our own tendencies to think and behave in catastrophically immature, venal and insecure ways. I therefore offer up this short account of my own personal emotional development, and then explain why I think it helps explain why Trump is heading for a breakdown very, very soon.

I used to suffer from a quite disabling insecurity, particularly when it came to things like being creative and forming relationships with other people. I got better, partly by virtue of living in and studying Portugal, learning about its people’s tendency to swing between moments of self-aggrandisement and self-abnegation, from ‘we are great’ to ‘we are nothing’. I also learnt about my own habit of projecting my own feelings onto others, both people and countries. The work of the Portuguese poet Fernando Pessoa showed me that we’re all characters on a stage acting out different roles, and that that is okay. I identified strongly with the philosopher Eduardo Lourenço’s diagnosis that Portuguese people tend to suffer from taking on too many identities, and I took enormous inspiration, consolation and guidance from his insights that Portugal is ‘marvelously imperfect’, ‘no worse and no better than anyone else’, and that progress comes from accepting one’s limitations.

Living in China taught me to accept the existence of other perceptions of my own identity, even if I feel embarrassed about it, particularly in terms of my national identity. Everyone has one and I can’t let the fact of my British or Englishness inhibit me unduly. Writing about my misunderstandings of Chinese society and about my role there helped me accept that I, like everyone else, have an ego, and also that I can use writing as a vehicle for making connections between things and to help find people who’ve noticed the same things, who share my perspective. Spending time with a Lacanian psychoanalyst in London helped me develop confidence in my own voice while also teaching me about the foibles of my tendency to overthink. I got better (although not necessarily good) at identifying and cultivating friendships with other people. I met the woman who later became my wife, who loves me for who I am rather than who I pretend to be. Through my job I became better at listening to people and more accepting of others and myself. I learnt that honest self-reflection is a more effective medium for personal development than alcohol is. Through acquiring other languages I discovered that learning is one of the things I most enjoy and value about being alive.

I still screw up, as we all do, but I accept that doing so is part of life, and when I do or get something wrong I try to apologise without fear or recrimination. I know that I’m not mad in any meaningful sense. I accept that I have some ability to write entertainingly and insightfully, and I have less fear than I did before of saying what I want to say. I have a wonderful editor in my wife and I accept that I sometimes miss things and perhaps expose some parts of myself to criticism and ridicule. I know that what I write doesn’t and doesn’t have to please everyone. I accept that everyone is fallible, and that it takes hard work to produce writing of quality. Sometimes I don’t put in enough hard work, and that’s my fault. I try hard not to depend emotionally on the responses or lack of responses to what I write. In a nutshell, I’ve matured, to the point where I can now face the prospect of becoming a father, something which, say, 15 years ago was (so to speak) inconceivable.

All this means that I understand something of the fragility of Donald Trump’s ego. Having struggled to maintain friendships in the past, I can see how Trump can get to a point where he has, according to a piece in Newsweek based on several months spent around him, no close friends. As I’ve acknowledged before, it’s essential for us to have the humility to recognise that we don’t have the ability to diagnose Trump at a distance. But that there’s something of the manchild about him is inescapable.

These first two days of his ‘Presidency’ saw paranoid and recriminatory tweets, a speech to the CIA in which he ranted bitterly about media reports of his coronation, and his press spokesperson being sent out to deliver another paranoid self-pitying rant. People are mercilessly taking the piss out of the piss-poor attendance at his pitiable inauguration, and Trump appears to be following every single one of them on Twitter. It’s clear to me that whatever means he’s used to survive up until this point aren’t going to work in his new role. There’s simply too much scrutiny and ridicule, and it’s going too deep. He’s too much of a shallow narcissist to ignore it. Trump is going to learn the wisdom of Jacques Lacan: “the madman is not only a beggar who thinks he is a king, but also a king who thinks he is a king”. Whatever monster he has buried in his mind is going to rise up to bite off huge chunks of him from within.

Trump is famously hostile to the notion of learning: no-one has anything to teach him. He was born rich, and that means he’s a genius and that everyone must respect him. He appears to have no ability for self-reflection. The mirrors he has in his mansion may be framed in gold, but he’s never been able to bring himself to look into them for more than a few seconds. Instead he’s surrounded himself with people who tell him what he wants to hear, who repeat back to him his inner mantra: you’re the richest, the best, the greatest writer, builder, statesman, etc etc etc. But it’s his inner voices that are the problem, the ones that tell him that he’s nothing, a failure, that everyone sees him as a joke. The ones that (presumably) sound a lot like his father.

His tweets in particular reveal that at some level he knows that his self-aggrandising self-image is hollow and brittle. So he lashes out, including physically. And it’s getting worse. People are laughing louder. He’s now put himself in a position where the entire world knows that he is venal, insecure, stupid and deluded.

He’s become in two days the paranoid and deluded ruler of so many novels by Latin American and African writers. Usually this point is reached after several decades of rule and the imposition of terror and a cult of personality. He’s the kind of leader that the U.S. has imposed on so many other countries; there is an element of chickens coming home to roost. He obviously took enormous consolation from his media image, the idea that he was ‘America’s CEO’. He believed this and seems to have internalised it, but is also taunted by a nagging awareness that it was little more than a joke, a stupid slogan to sell a TV show. His supporters may not know that, but some will learn. He’s already starting to turn some of them against him. As he attacks their standard of living and doesn’t have the political skills necessary to calm their anger, they will see through him to the delusion, insecurity and vanity within. He’ll have no more defences and will be unable to hide from the stark fact that his flatterers don’t respect him. Putin in particular is evil but not stupid. He knows that Trump is an absolute moron. And he can’t control that smirk of his.

Lacan said that what matters in psychoanalysis is not so much what the client says, but what falls out of his pockets while speaking. Trump appears to have absolutely no idea what he has in his pockets, and now everyone on the planet is picking up things, inspecting them and telling him what they are. They are teaching him things about himself that he cannot bear to learn. He also knows that he is President in name only, and that’s not enough to sustain his ego.

He will snap very, very soon.

Our job is to increase the tension.

New post: ‘Trump is going to snap -a rejoinder’.

Shame, Self-awareness and Zinedine Zidane

downloadWriting teaches you some salutary lessons about yourself, the world and the relationship between the two. Last week someone gave me an article about the ten phrases Italians most hate to hear in their own language, the equivalents of ‘literally’, ‘basically’, ‘shouldn’t of’, ‘at the end of the day’, ‘going forward’, etc. One curious example of an infuriating phrase is ‘piuttosto che‘, which means ‘instead of’, but instead of using it to mean ‘instead of’ increasing amounts of people (particularly in the north) use it to mean ‘or’, which causes obvious confusion and widespread rage. I thought it would be fun to write something in Italian which contained all those expressions, partly as a laugh and partly as a means of exploring questions of language and identity: who does a langauge belong to, who has the right to make mistakes, who defines what a ‘mistake’ is, etc. However, I screwed up. I overestimated myself. I didn’t (get Chiara to) check what I’d written properly so it didn’t work, being full of my mistakes, the typical ones that foreigners make. The sixteen people who read it will not have been nearly as amused or impressed as I wanted them to be. Che imbarrazzante! – how embarrassing, indeed shameful. I exposed my pretensions, the gap between what I want to be able to do and what I am able to do, who I want to be and who I am, who I am on the inside and who I am to others.

This often happens when speaking other languages. In making a claim on another identity I risk being seen as an imposter, a fraud, an outsider. (I wrote about how this feels here). A language learner can use this to their advantage – shame can burn itself into your brain so you never make the same mistake twice. Hence self-consciousness can be a source of self-awareness, the former implying shame and the latter a sense of control. Interacting in another language partly comes down to learning one’s lines, knowing how to act in a given routine situation so as not to lose face.

One of the people who has best developed this metaphor is the sociologist Erving Goffman, particularly in his book ‘The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life’. His ‘dramaturgical’ analysis of social interaction distinguishes between front and back stage behaviour. The goal of our performance as human beings is to be accepted by the audience.

As we develop we learn to play the role of ‘ourselves’. By the time we become adults we should, in theory, have become aware of who we are and how we should act. Hence being a teenager involves a lot of self-consciousness and shame. Teenagers shame each other, ridiculing each other’s pretensions and pretences. In my own cultural background (the north of England) ‘getting ideas above your station’ was scorned. A common source of shame is being exposed as fancying someone, wanting what you can’t have. Celebrating shame, enjoying one’s exclusion has long been a central element in youth culture, as the deathless popularity of figures such as Morrissey and Jim Morrison attests. Shut out of mainstream society, disaffected teenagers develop their own theatrical rituals and codes.

I have always admired people who surpass those fledgling anxieties about being who they want to be, who write their own scripts and improvise without fear. Two prominent examples died this year: Prince and Bowie. A less commercially recognised example is Momus, who has written very perceptively and eloquently about the English tendency to anticipate and thereby ward off shame by deprecating oneself*. The artist Grayson Perry, in his Reith Lectures of 2013, talked with his customary brazen wit and charm about the risks young people take in declaring themselves ‘artists’. Creating one’s own character can be a hazardous undertaking, but going off-script is essential for living a meaningful life**.

George Michael is a curious case. As he grew older he was notable for his total lack of shame in his private life but he remained conventional and conservative in his artistic endeavours, seemingly driven by fear of the market. Then there’s Trump, who appears to have no shame. It’s shameful to be completely shameless. It makes you look like a very bad person indeed.

Another very interesting case study of the absence of shame and self-consciousness is the documentary ‘Zidane: A 21st Century Portrait‘, in which the camera follows the footballer throughout the course of an entire match, only very rarely cutting away to show the rest of the action. It shows him completely absorbed in the game, caught up in the flow. The footage (which mostly consists of him scratching his nose*** and looking a bit énervé****) is accompanied by his gnomic insights into the profound business of kicking a ball around some grass*****. On one level it’s a study of someone at work, a time-and-motion study of a global superstar. He doesn’t look at the camera; the world is a camera. What’s interesting about Zidane is not his skill but his visibility. His work is not so much trying to create chances and score goals as to be watched. The film is therefore more interesting as a reflection on spectacle and self-consciousness (and, given our awareness of his spectacular headbutt in the World Cup Final later the same year, on shame and its absence). How does it feel and what does it mean to be constantly observed, contemplated, regarded? What is it like to exist solely as an image? What does life as spectacle mean?

Sometimes, when I remember to, I like watching strangers out in public and imagining that they’re acting. People are simultaneously very good and very bad at playing themselves. What they are particularly good at is depicting self-consciousness. Cinema and photography (and now selfies) mean that we are constantly producing and consuming – literally and mentally – images of ourselves. I notice this in myself, when stepping off a plane, or leaving the cinema. Goffman called these ‘dramaturgical moments’. Images, particularly those in adverts, teach us how to act. When consuming products and services we are not just being watched on CCTV, we are also monitoring ourselves. We aspire to be images. We fantasise about being part of the spectacle. Hence the Zidane film is partly a voyeuristic morality tale, about how we are to behave as images of ourselves. It has elements of both going to a zoo and of watching pornography, and is also an anthropological study of spectacle that is itself spectacle.

There is a curious dimension to these issues, which is our use of smartphones. We increasingly use them to escape from awkward situations, ones that could cause us shame. Awareness and awkwardness are closely related, and conversation and eye contact make you vulnerable, potentially involve you in a tangled web of social obligations. Hence we employ our device as a shield and a screen to ward off psychic interference from others.

What does this do to our awareness of our actions? Are we self-aware when we’re online? Do we believe at some level that our devices render us invisible? What happens to our self-consciousness when we’re scrolling through our Facebook feeds on a bus? Does shame exist online? (There’s certainly shaming. One reason I stopped using Twitter is that the medium knows no shame when it comes to lying, being wrong and shaming others). It would be interesting for an artist to make portraits of people absorbed in using their mobile devices. When we do so are we on or offstage? Are we in public or in private? Does Goffman’s metaphor break down at any point? What would a film of someone famous texting for ninety minutes be like? Would a documentary featuring Kanye West playing with his iPhone 8, accompanied by a hauntological soundtrack and captions in which he reflects on fame and self-awareness, be a big hit?

I’m aware that these thoughts are not original. Perhaps I need to read some more Susan Sontag or Jean Baudrillard or something, or maybe just some more books about the joys and horrors of child-rearing. One point of writing these things here is to think things through. Another is to start conversations. I find it curious that people will occasionally praise what I write but rarely respond to the actual content. Maybe that’s because it’s boring, or not very well-expressed, or incoherent******, or blindingly obvious. It would be shameful, mortifying to be told that. But thankfully I’m 44 years old now, so I don’t have to worry so much about such things. Or at least, I shouldn’t. So why am I so excited about getting a new pair of spectacles? Is it about seeing better, or being seen better? Che presuntuoso.

* I would never do that, anyway I’m German.

** I feel very self-conscious about the fact that all of the people mentioned in this paragraph are men. I’m also aware that the last sentence sounds a bit like Alan de Button. I could change it but at the end of the day, Brian, I tend to write these things quite quickly so I can dedicate more time to thinking about what to put in the footnotes. 

*** Although not as much as Žižek, another supposed philosopher whose name also begins with Z and who also had a documentary which was just called by that surname, does.


***** I wrote about my somewhat ambiguous relationship with football here.

****** Eg. obvious criticism of this article: shame and self-consciousness are not the same thing.