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.

Why I avoid Twitter

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Cartoon from xkcd.com.

My memories of the few times I’ve lost my temper about politics when talking to strangers IRL are mostly shameful to the point of trauma. In a cottage in the west of Ireland in early 1999, I was introduced to a friend of the couple I was visiting. I’d worked with my Dublin friend Barry in the kind of stupid software call centre job which everyone was only pretending to pretend that they were doing. He was hugely witty, sharing my predilection for massive acts of seditious timewasting and tactical work avoidance. He was also teeming with goodwill, even towards the idiots phoning up, and was massively gifted in terms of Scandinavian languages and various forms of stringed instrument. I was one of the first people with whom he shared the news that he and his Swedish girlfriend Ana were going to have a baby. However, I don’t want to dwell on self-pity because I wasn’t the victim, but rather the protagonist of an attack of rage. I have no idea what it was all about. Maybe the integrity of the Irish Labour Party. Or the Millennium Bug. Or EU piscine policy and its relation to the price of fish. Regardless of the content, the form was drunken shouting. All that mattered was winning. I regret the whole incident, not so much for its consequences (I never saw my friends again) but because my behaviour was just plain wrong. I was subsequently too ashamed and they were (I presume) too angry to contact me again. I’d ruined a valuable friendship and been a total prick to someone who definitely didn’t deserve it and could herself have become a friend.

There have been other times (not recently, I’m pleased to say). One New Year’s Eve a couple of years ago I got angry with the partner of a friend for excoriating Jeremy Corbyn. Luckily I knew by then that I had a choice, that although I could if I wished give in to the seductive impulse to let my blood boil over, to allow myself off the leash, it was wrong in the fullest sense to do so. On that occasion I was able to reign myself in and treat a fellow human being who happened to hold a slightly different opinion with respect rather than scorn.

Unless (as I often need to remind myself) you’re dealing with someone whose sole motive is to abuse, annoy or in some other way antagonise you, it’s far better to identify points of agreement and try patiently to move forward from them, no matter how swampy or thorny the territory. While it can be great fun to throw off the constraints of politeness, in any sort of meaningful social reality there is no way that you can or should do so. We are after all civilised creatures, socially interdependent beings. Only if you actively want to alienate yourself from a particular social group can you rant and rave to (as it were) your hate’s content.

The first rule of civil debate is not to attack the person themselves. In an attack of rage there’s always an element of the personal. Fury always seeks a target, and almost always finds the wrong one. That’s what’s refreshing about Twitter. There are no real people, only avatars. Thus it doesn’t matter if you hurt someone. It doesn’t matter if someone unfollows, mutes or blocks you, or vice versa. Or, when you prefer, you can join in on ripping to shreds someone who, on the basis on fiften or sixteen words at most, appears to deserve it. Jon Ronson’s book ‘So you’ve been publicly shamed’ is an excellent primer on how pile-ons can resemble rapidfire pogroms or instant witchhunts. Taking part in such orgies of digital violence is like participating in a Milgram experiment being conducted on a planetary scale and producing much the same results. As a Twitter user you have your own microfascist coup at you fingertips: you can eradicate dissent with the tiniest gesture of the thumb. And, of course, trolling is huge fun, creating an imaginary audience for your savage japes, while all the time alert to the danger of being trolled yourself. Thus we all get to be bullies, and then when called out on it pretend to be victims. Or often we’re long gone by that point. We never see our victims again but did they even exist in the first place? Twitter is a world without moral consequences, rather like a dark room of hate.

How am I so sure of this? It’s a game I’ve happily played in the past. My own life on Twitter has gone through several stages, including more than one phase of outright addiction. I used to see myself as scourge of Britain’s far-right, and wasted several months of my life trying to reason with people opposed to reason itself. I was also guilty of all the bad habits described in the previous paragraphs until eventually (in the day after the Brexit referendum, my wife reminds me, when it was clear that the far-right had basically won) I finally deleted my account, which at that point had a balance of around 1,200 followers (who for comedy purposes I referred to as my disciples) and around 47,124,132 mostly angry tweets. I was drawn in again recently by the sweet opium smell of Trump’s catastrophic presidency. Although, of course, Twitter is not so much opium but crack cocaine. Over the course of a few intensely fruitless days I went on a binge, throwing the odd firecracker into rooms that may have been empty, hoping to hear an explosion. It was not by any standards an edifying or improving experience.

If you search for mentions of Trump on Twitter you see immediately that there are two worlds that only skirmish and very rarely engage in any meaningful way. The next civil war is being rehearsed, this time first as farce and then quite possibly (almost inevitably at this stage) as tragedy. Viewed as a game, Twitter is a first-person shooter, in which the main activity is sniping. It involves as little human engagement as two people sticking their heads above opposing walls, acknowledging each other’s existence only insofar as they’re trying to eradicate each other. Just like a baby wishing its parents dead because it has no sense of what that might mean, if I’m arguing on Twitter I want to annihilate the other person.

Then there’s the question of time. A few years ago there was a story doing the rounds about a Korean couple who were so busy raising their virtual baby that their real one died. I didn’t quite get to that point over the last week, but I did come close to falling into that mysterious black hole of time that, as Thomas Pynchon puts it, produces most internet content. Twitter is an intensified form of social media in that even more than Facebook it rewards minimal effort with an infinite abundance of stimulation. My overuse leads to extreme irritability upon even momentary withdrawal. No wonder it is the perfect medium for Donald Trump.

Maybe it is the medium itself that’s the problem, maybe not. Some people make wonderful use of it, and by no means everyone uses it to track down and antagonise political adversaries. Perhaps in a better world where people were in a more cheerful mood…but I don’t think so. Much as has been written of Zuckerberg and Facebook, the ways in which his immature notion of friendship has come to dominate the world, Twitter doesn’t serve our needs, or at least not in any way which we can consider healthy. In my experience, the notion of social media as a community is risible. People in communities share various complex facets of their daily lives. For me, Twitter brings out the very worst side of me – the side which craves instant affrimation and adulation in return for very little imagination or effort, along with an aggressive and sadistic streak which I’d really rather not encourage. That’s why I deleted my account again and will endeavour not to get drawn in again in the future. Tl/dr: instant updates –> instant asshole.

We need a global progressive alliance against the far-right

NB: I wrote this two days ago and now that I am no longer overcome with/by fury can see it has big holes in it. I am starting to accept that the argument for abstention had some political justification and that my own partial and privileged position has, along with my ignorance, prevented me from understanding the importance of certain dynamics. Thanks to those who have corrected me and I apologise for calling anyone who even knew anyone who was thinking of abstaining a connard. I’m posting it without fanfare as I think it has some merit and also because I want to use it to mark my resignation from my self-appointed role as a commentator on French politics.

The fascists lost. That’s by far the most important thing about the French Presidential election. They tried to cheat, hack and smear their way to victory and failed. There is no doubt whatsoever what they would have done with power: installed a regime based on violent repression. I think their defeat is absolutely worth celebrating at a time when so little else is.

Nonetheless, 33% voted for a Nazi and twelve million abstained. That’s twice the number murdered in the Holocaust denied by the family and friends of the candidate they couldn’t be bothered to vote against. I understand there were reasons to abstain or spoil one’s ballot but I think they were invalid. Had circumstances been slightly different Le Pen would have won and been in a position to continue the work of her father, who has a direct connection to Vichy and the Third Reich.

The Front National is now the main opposition and parliamentary elections could consolidate their position and cripple Macron’s administration. Nonetheless the global far-right wanted another figurehead and they didn’t get one. This is a massive setback for their project. Her victory was in the script. Even my political science masters students saw it as inevitable: Le Pen’s victory would be followed by that of Grillo/Salvini here in Italy, then Germany… Supporters of the far-right on social media are right now hurt and demoralised. Such armchair fascists thought it would be easy. Putin’s photo with Le Pen looked threatening a few weeks ago, a ready-made meme lacking only the cartoon toad; now it just looks like an awkward photo of two arrogant people who probably barely even spoke to each other.

As for the Left which actively encouraged people to abstain, I’m left feeling a little like those left-wingers who in previous generations lost faith with Stalinism upon seeing the brutal repression in Hungary in 1956 and Prague in 1968. Just as the initial burst of support for Mélenchon was encouraging, his subsequent abdication of moral responsibility was shocking. Le Pen could actually have won. Macron had no automatic base of support. The establishment right could have swung over (I don’t think by the way they would have supported Mélenchon). An opportune terrorist attack could have created a bloodthirsty atmosphere which Le Pen would have luxuriated in. The desperate attempts at hacking (seemingly started by the US far-right with Russian assistance and then actively promoted by Wikileaks) could have been better coordinated and might have worked. Perhaps a fascist government wouldn’t have damaged the immediate life chances of the teenage edgelords running round Paris last week, but overnight the plight of refugees would have worsened immeasurably and the whole infrastructure of human rights, climate action and international cooperation per se would have collapsed. I find the lack of solidarity with fascism’s potential victims contemptible. Credit to those Mélenchon voters who voted for the centrist to stop the fascist at a time when the arrogance and delusion of a generation of failed left leaders was on unproud display.

On the other hand, Macron (as everyone in the world knows) is a ‘Neoliberal’. This week I got my students to study his English in the form of a BBC interview about what he stands for. He produces neoliberal buzzwords like a windup toy: Innovation, Competition, Markets, Reform, Liberalisation… Nevertheless, he is a highly contradictory figure: he’s also instinctively and consistently socially progressive. His comments on French colonialism in Algeria were principled and brave. To dismiss him as a mere apparatchik of a soviet-style regime is misleading and unfair. Neoliberalism is not a monolith and in any case an appreciation of the role of markets doesn’t make you a neoliberal zealot. If the French Left were to ease off on using that deeply problematic term they could choose to view him as a social democrat and put pressure on him to behave as such.

Such an idea won’t go down well with those who insist that there is no difference between capitalism and fascism, between a ‘banker’ and a Nazi. The notion that voters are being ‘blackmailed’ between the two plays into the hands of the far-right. Žižek argues that we are all being held to willfully held to ransom by an elite and that we should refuse their terms, an argument that quickly gained currency. In reality it’s a deadlock, one in which progressives are objectively forced to join forces with all those opposed to fascism, even those who we judge to be responsible for its resurgence . Evidence of the folly of the blackmail thesis is is all over social media in the form of increasing crosspollination in the discourses of the far-right and the far-left. From pro-Brexit Labour supporters to Jill Stein fans and supporters of Mélenchon I’ve detected a confluence with the far-right, particularly in the escalation in attempts to be seen as something other than ‘liberal’. This is a zero sum game in which only the only winner is the far-right. The frequency with which the antisemitic canard of Rothschilds has been pointedly evoked reveals undertones of anti-semitism. I’ve always rejected the notion that the two ends of the political spectrum meet up, but thanks partly to the inanity of online political ‘debate’ that dismissal is becoming more and more valid.

Some times over the last few weeks I’ve found myself thinking: if this is the left, maybe I no longer want to be part of it. But then as a friend sagely retorted when I put the thought to her, where else are we? As a result I’ve finally come round to thinking of it as no longer a helpful category. We need to know who’s really on our side, who we can trust in a context where political feelings are subject to massive manipulation. This has to be the last time that anyone pays any attention whatsoever to Wikileaks. Žižek’s ulraleftist posuring demonstrates yet again that, just as he argues in relation to poets, philosophers don’t make good political leaders. People like him are far too given to iconoclasm and provocative thought experiments. Nor are his political prescriptions plausible: for all his edgy neomaoist statements about divine revolutionary violence, his actual political interventions have tended to be reformist in nature (for example DIEM 25).

We progressives also need to accept that Facebook is not our friend. To quote a former executive for the company, by flicking a switch they can change the results of elections. We are just beginning to understand (too late) how insidious microtargetting is. Monstrously powerful far-right interests are able to tap with eerie precision into secret wells of resentment beneath the surface, to direct psychopathological undercurrents in directions which serve their requirements. Anyone who has not done so needs to read Carol Cadwalladr’s terrifying and riveting piece on just how connected, powerful and pernicious the digital far-right is. Companies like Cambridge Analytica may well be the most dangerous forces on the planet. As repression and manipulation heat up degree by degree in step with the warming climate, we will need to stay out of the hothouse of social media, where our worst innermost fears and recriminations are being cultivated in a way that makes Soylent Green look like a children’s TV cartoon.

I think the global priority for progressives must be to crush the far-right, to humiliate them as Macron did so well in the debate. We have to insist that our media ostracise them rather than allowing them to present themselves as normal. Just as Daesh and their followers are not given access to the airwaves or granted debating rights, our homegrown extremist terrorist organisations should not be either. Europe’s equivalents of Isis are also agents of Putin, who the results of the last few elections (Austria, The Netherlands, France) is far less omnipotent than he and his acolytes pretend. In some ways Putin’s Machiavellianism is a busted flush. Macron’s team’s way of dealing with the hacking was a masterpiece of defusing a powerful weapon and will make it far harder for Putin and his acolytes to manipulate public sympathies via spectacular leaks.

The world is facing a confluence of massive crises and life cannot go on as it is. Nevertheless, as Paul Mason argues, Macron’s victory is evidence that racism need not be a inevitable defining element of the future. To fight back against the forces of the far-right I think we have to (regardless of its complicated history), make full use of the term ‘progressive’. What exactly that term means is not a question that cannot detain us. On certain shibbloths of the left we we will have to accept differences of opinion. There are specific things we could all agree on, unambiguously progressive causes: Climate change, an alternative to a growth-led economic model, an end to the power of fossil fuel companies, internet privacy and much more. I find much to recommend in Yanis Varoufakis’ thesis that it is the job of progressives to save liberal capitalism from the extreme neoliberals. Markets do have a part to play in the economy but the idea that they are always the answer has no credibility. Neither do protectionism and nationalism: some form of social democracy is probably the best we can hope for, and in order to achieve or hang onto it we have to insist on human rights, the primacy of the environment, democracy, and freedom of the press. Protecting the media from political and commercial corruption means subscribing to publications which we consider important.

How does a progressive movement relate to those who are righteously angry about the role and rule of the banks? I don’t know. But as Sunny Hundal points out, contemporary political affiliations are not just about the economy. We can partly undermine the appeal of the far-right, to challenge its self-portayal as voice of the economically disenfranchised, by constantly exposing its contradictions and compromises, emphasising that the Le Pens and Trumps and Farages just represent a deeply corrupt and illiberal elite. While it’s not a question of mounting a naive defence of the EU as perfect, we can also recognise the efforts of politicians like Merkel in trying to stand up for immigrants. Although this is a defensive battle we must also make clear that we have aspirations to a world which is better than this one, as distant as such a prospect may appear.

In doing so we can’t adopt populist language: no sneering at ‘liberals’ and ‘cosmopolitans’. Liberalism is not our enemy. Our foes are Trump, Putin, Le Pen, Erdoğan, Farage, May and all others like them. There is now a broad global movement based on hostility to democracy and liberal values, on racism and climate denial. The opposition to it needs to involve everyone who understand that those things matter, that we live in the space between democracy and fascism. If we allow ourselves to think, as I have seen some argue in nominally progressive fora over the last few weeks, that we already live in a fascist society, then all is lost. Such attitudes are a form of slow suicide. Democracy may in some ways be a facade, but it’s a facade which protects us from the elements in stormy times.

In order for this movement to exist, I believe that those who are not already members should join a progressive political party. Individually we are powerless, prone to snapping up every product that briefly assuages our feelings of fear, powerlessness and guilt. I have rejoined the UK Green Party and will be encouraging friends and family to do the same. I agree with Caroline Lucas, Compass and others that progressive people should campaign for the person best placed to beat the candidate of the increasingly far-right Tory Party. Knocking on doors and handing out leaflets on windy shopping precints may be demoralising but it is one of the few chances we have. Facebook is useful for organising activities but it is emphatically not itself a form of political activity. We will not be able to defend refugees and protect the climate online. In whichever country we live, we have to join together in person with people we disagree with about some of the things we care most about. That will be tough but is is absolutely necessary. After a few years in which the notion of political parties has lost some appeal partly due to a widespread sense that our individual feelings and identities are more important, I think it’s that model we have to return to. That does not mean subordinating everything to election cycles. As Aditya Chakrabortty says of what the British Labour Party needs to do to survive:

It needs to turn itself into a social institution. It should be providing welfare rights advice to those whose benefits are being cut, legal support to tenants battling greedy landlords and arguing with the utilities to provide cheaper and better deals. 

We can’t afford any more ideological purity: no more refusing to vote against candidates who can defeat fascists. And we can no longer pretend that political parties are dead. Macron built one and won, and Mélenchon created a vehicle for radical political change which still has a huge role to play. The far-right organise through them. We need them to exist and the best way to make sure they do is to play an active part, pushing for our progressive agenda where possible. Doing all of this doesn’t mean that we will win; in the words of one of Thomas Pynchon’s characters:

“Maybe it’s unbeatable, maybe there are ways to fight back. What it may require is a dedicated cadre of warriors willing to sacrifice time, income, personal safety, a brother/sisterhood consecrated to an uncertain struggle that may extend over generations and, despite all, end in total defeat.”

Sounds daunting, but we don’t have a choice. 

My days as an early internet scamster (and troll)

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In the British sitcom ‘Only Fools and Horses’ Uncle Albert would always bore the shit out of everyone by droning on about life ‘during the war’. I used to wonder what my generation’s equivalent would be, and I didn’t have to wait long to find out. When I try to explain to my students that life before the internet, smartphones and etc didn’t just involve sitting round in black and white waiting for those things to be invented I can almost hear them groan. As it happens I was involved in one of the first internet scams, and was also one of the first people to realise the potential of the web for what would become known as ‘trolling.

The first ‘proper’ ‘job’ I had (I’d already done about 15 things by the time I left school, from delivering the world’s shittest newspaper and selling dusters door-to-door to being shouted at in restaurant kitchens), was with a company based in Battersea which went by the sublimely Delboy-esque moniker of Business Trade Bureau. My bosses were a resting Islington actor who worked a little on our RP vowels and a dapper elderly gentleman who had a touch of the Frankie Frasers about him; my colleagues included two ribald white Kip Tiwnians who had left Sith Ifrica after the end of apartheid because of all the (ahem) ‘crim’.

Here’s how the scam worked. ‘Our’ ‘secretaries’ would phone round numbers from regional editions of the Yellow Pages: one week it would be plumbers, the next electricians, etc. Their ‘bosswanted to talk to the sole trader about something important, some work, in fact – their company had been ‘recommended. This was the bait, and as it was recession-deep 1993 small contractors usually leapt like adolescent perch at it. Most called back and were put through to a pseudonymous version of ‘me’ (there was much fun to be had doing ‘rallies’ round the office, transferring the call until they hung up. I think the record was sixteen.) We would, sounding as pompous as humanly possible (I’d never seen or heard Boris Johnson at this point, but…), lead them through a bullshit questionairre designed to see if they could satisfy the needs of our ‘subscribers’, who paid us a ‘handsome’ sum to access our ‘website’ (a ‘sort of private computer database’ which they accesed via a ‘modem’, ‘a bit like teletext, but considerably snazzier’ ‘it doesn’t matter what it is, because it doesn’t exist’ – that last explanation I often omitted) and get the details of ‘topnotch’ ‘handpicked’ contractors in their area.

What’s a modem? people would ask, usually sounding a bit tired. I’d never seen one, and I wouldn’t get the chance to go online for another year or so, at which point I would mostly use it to get Simpsons scripts and send rude messages to members of the Wu-Tang Clan (I never got a reply, thankfully). Some people were satisfied to be told that the system was similar to Minitel (I didn’t really know what that was either). I usually explained that a ‘webpage’ was like a fax machine, but with computer information instead of paper. This wasn’t a bad guess as it goes.

My spiel was often interrupted by weary queries as to the inevitable cost of this to them, the contrators. I would imperiously bat away such footling concerns, telling them it was our clients who paid for the service. The trick came at the end when, having obtained their go-ahead, I would tell them I’d be faxing the contract right away and if they could send it back post-haste (suddenly speaking impossibly fast) along with a cheque for £145 plus VAT we’d get them set up asap (pronounced asap). Cue drawing of breath, cursing, remonstrations about twenty wasted minutes followed quickly by my slightly hurt-sounding placatory protest that it was merely the cost of designing their non-existent ‘website’ (I didn’t say ‘non-existent’) which was done by a crack team of (with all the fogeyness I could muster) ‘whizzkids’.

Desperate business. At least it taught me the vitally important life skill of sounding self-important while lying through my gums. Given that we were paid mostly on commission there was a strong incentive to work hard but what we were doing was clearly so sociopathic in nature I often just covered the phone with The Guardian (the desk had no computer on it – how quaint!) and pretended there were no calls. Often, when I was called or forced into action, the acting bit was fun but there was a certain point at which the caller, after a couple of minutes of spiel, would refer bitterly to an uncannily similar-sounding conversation they’d had a few months before with a representative of another telltellingly-banally-named firm which had ended up scamming exactly £145 plus VAT off of them. That firm had, as it happened, operated from the exact same premises on the exact same premise. After I got wise to this I began to anticipate it, saying there were ‘cowboys’ in any ‘trade’ and it was essential to weed them out. I stuck out the job until I got a much better offer consisting of going to live in Dublin and signing on for a couple of glorious but now somewhat smoky years during which my skills at mini-pool and my indepth knowledge of Aerosmith videos developed considerably but my job prospects sort of stultified.

Within a few years I had been corralled back into the workforce and was spending all my working day online. The job consisted of helping people with their computer virus issues and mind-numbingly dull problems with (nods off) utility software. The company was located in the uniquely uninspiring setting of a subsuburban business park in comparison with which central Slough would have been like Djemaa El-Fna. I also spent a lot of time trying to avoid answering the phone. At least I got properly paid, although this was Dublin, in 1998, which generally restricted my disposable income to three pints of Harp and a red lemonade for the lady. The day was spent employing the usual skives: donating blood at lunchtime and spending the afternoon in a selfless snooze, urgent private tete-a-tetes which actually just consisted of paper plane competitions, trying to get the French speakers to direct calls my way so I could get in some invaluable language practice, and etc. Luckily I found an original way to perforate the tedium: the virtual version of Schiphol Airport, Amsterdam. I’d passed through the real place a few weeks before on my way to Singapore so was tickled to find that I could return in the form of a (rudimentary) avatar. The trick was to walk up to ‘people’, engage them in innocuous conversation and then let fly a series of uproarious Afrikaans obscenities copied and pasted from another website we’d tracked down (‘Jy was uit jou ma se gat gebore want haar poes was te besig, ‘Ek wens jou vingers verander in vishoeke, en jou balle begin te jeu and the classic ‘Jou ma se hond se poes). This would usually result in the deliriously rewarding sight of seeing their insuffiently-pixellated digital representative wordlessly turn around and totter off ‘in’ the ‘direction’ of another non-existent ‘part’ of the poorly-rendered ‘luchthaven’.

I’m not particularly proud of either of these episodes, but looking back now I do sort of miss those times when I had all that spare time at work to mess around and totally waste my time on the…er…internet. These days, I have to…er…what time is lunch?

In which I renounce blogging

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So far today 3,300,798 blog posts have been written and shared. This is the 3,300,799th, or probably, by the time I’ve finished probably the 3,333,333rd. (You can check for yourself here).

Someone has to read all this stuff and (shamefully) it’s not me. I don’t read many other blogs, or at least not regularly. This one is not part of a community of such sites, with fellow bloggers commenting on each others’ latest thoughts and discoveries. Such things can happen (when I was in China it was the case) but it hasn’t this time round. Thus I feel like I have a direct, individual relationship with the Internet rather than being part of a congregation or community of faith. It’s a Protestant relationship, in that there’s no mediating hierarchy and it encourages hard work towards an unclear reward.

Come to think of it, the Internet shares certain properties with a Christian God:

  • Its existence manifests itself almost exclusively thorough rituals (such as status updates, blogging and posting photos)
  • It offers the faithful the very occasional miracle (see below)
  • It’s omniscient
  • It’s ubiquitous
  • It’s omnipresent.
  • Its mood is alternately punishing and consoling

As you can see, theology is not my forte. On this blog I’ve written mostly about what could broadly be considered political questions and my relation to them. Around twenty years ago, for a period of about four years while I was living in Dublin, I was active in (and occasionally wrote for the publications of) a left-wing political organisation. My individual identity was subordinated to the needs of the party. As a foot soldier my time and energy were given over to hard work and disclipine on the basis of a shared faith in a common project. This necessitated being involved in relationships which were never entirely political and never wholly personal. Arguments ensued whose resolution often obliged me to swallow my pride and accept that I was wrong, that my perspective was too limited to see essential details or to grasp the bigger picture. As for writing, I mostly wrote reviews of films or books, evaluating them in terms of how well they contributed to the revolutionary struggle and stalinistically rebuking the cultural worker who had produced them if they had failed to do so.

Inevitably, I find this activity (blogging) much more satisfying. It allows me to fully express my personality and my identity with hardly any risk of admonishment. It engenders no personal dischord and involves as much or as little ‘discipline’ as I like. I am completely unaccountable, whether in terms of choosing what to wrote about or in terms of how true or how good what results is. There is no measure of success or failure. Whether I scribble some mild satire about Theresa May while my students are doing a test and only 25 people read it, or bash out some anti-Trump diatribe on the way to work that (after my having done the rounds of anti-Trump groups on Facebook) gets a couple of thousand views, what I post here is (for the most part) gloriously/frustratingly inconsequential. At the same time, I’ve got some lovely responses from some extremely knowledgeable and thoughtful people who’ve come across the site and whom if I’d never put finger to keyboard I would never have encountered, I’ve discovered some others who make astonishingly inventive use of the medium, and no one’s spat on me outside the GPO for being a ‘Trot’.

Politically, however, it’s hard to make a case for the usefulness of blogging. (Plus it remains a uniquely unpleasant-sounding word.) Even the most popular thing I’ve written here (by far) was essentially urging passivity and complacency. That explains why it took off as it did. The dream of any blogger came true for me – this was the miracle I referred to earlier. My post went viral, with 750,000 views in about four days. The feedback almost universally positive; very few took issue, which was extremely gratifying if also a little perturbing. Hard to keep up with, because a week later, we had a baby, which put things into some perspective.

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The internet is a good fit for Herbert Marcuse’s concept of repressive desublimation, in that it allows people to let off fetid bursts of steam while constituting no threat to power structures. On last week’s ‘Under the Skin‘ podcast the filmmaker Adam Curtis argued convincingly that the development of late ’60s hippy counterculture led to an explosion of individualism which consumer capitalism was all too ready to facilitate. Nowadays, the Internet encourages us to believe that our individual feelings, rituals and gestures mean something, that they register on some elusive scale of value. While I may believe that I’m expressing my individuality, my unique perspective on the world, it just so happens that there are probably 30,000 people out there saying exactly the same things. The internet is a perfect manifestation of the power of the spectacle, one adapted to the pretensions and projections of every individual who accesses it and one in which we frantically produce and consume images of ourselves as productive and influential beings; the spider’s web of communicative capitalism eats up all individual protest, all the rants and outbursts and cogently-argued denunciations and feeds upon them. In providing me with a virtual patch of land in which to cultivate my narcissism, it allows me the illusion that I am engaging politically. Who benefits most is wordpress.com, which profits from my (briefly vomits) ‘content’ and that of millions of individuals who are all convinced that what they are doing is unique and important.

The role of the internet in relation to our political consciousness also validates the pessimism of the Frankfurt School, and the subsequent reflections of critical theory as to what Saul Bellow called ‘the late failure of radical hopes’. Our migration to a life lived online is partly responsible for and partly symptomatic of the fact that in the face of the absolute need for immediate and massive political transformation present generations are (in the modern era) unprecedentedly conservative. Adam Curtis hones in on the ubiquity of risk aversion in contemporary finance, and the ways in which this colours our everyday expectations and aspirations. Something I’ve noticed among some of those opposed to Brexit is a sense that everything was perfect before June 23rd and that the vote is a brutal intrusion, an ugly flaw in an otherwise unproblematic reality. For those who benefit from a certain measure of economic stability, any social or political change is something to be feared rather than encouraged. Seven years of talking to (mostly young) exam candidates from around the world, hearing and reading their thoughts about political and social issues, has for me repeatedly confirmed Mark Fisher’s diagnosis of ‘capitalist realism’, the notion that no matter how bad things get there is simply no other horizon to look towards. Curtis gives the example of Yemen – the resignation which which we greet the news that our Governments are funding – indeed, profiting from – what appears to be genocide. Speaking out against such horrors might put our own status at risk. The taboo that governs mentioning climate change on social media is reminiscient of those scenes in which the line-up of troops on parade quivers with fear, terrified that if they stand up against the bullying commandent they will be next to be humiliated. In this case its our peers who we fear might see us overly earnest or excessively serious in a medium designed for irony and levity – or, in the case of Twitter, irony and abuse.

The famous statement that it’s easier to imagine the end of the world that a slight alteration to capitalism implies that we would be unable to respond to anyone who demands to know what our alternative is. Instead we respond to gruesome disasters with Facebook prayers. Some sneer at Twitter hashtags like #prayforparis without reflecting on what a status update or a shared meme is but an invocation of, an appeal to, a higher power. Like Kierkegaard said of prayer itself, it is more useful to the person doing the updating than anything else. And what do memes resemble if not religious icons? The priests of this religion are those wannabe-demagogues who have a sufficient command over the arcane means of diffusing their messages or who already have access to a sufficiently elevated pulpit. Comedians do politics and politicians seek first and foremost to entertain, mostly by evoking outrage and giving it a clear and convincing focus. TED Talks mask the fact that for all that we live in a time of stupendous technological wizardry our age is also one of social stasis marked by economic ruination and a profound and widespread lack of moral and political agency.

Jodie Dean wrote in ‘Communicative Capitalism’ about the illusion that what we share must register in some significant but vague way, and the fantasy that posting online constitutes a meaningful political intervention. Lacan’s Big Other, that invisible and ineffable authority before which we genuflect, is somewhere online, reading everything we write. The Matrix is an increasingly efficient metaphor. FOMO is largely driven by fear of no longer existing. Disconnection means death.

There’s something deeply religious about all this frenetic online blathering, this blind compliance with the rituals of the world’s biggest ever cult. But while most Gods are benign, this one definitely is not. I want no more part in propagating these illusions, principally my own. It’s time to end this vanity project and to get involved in something useful.

Maybe that Louis CK had a point

I come into work about 25 minutes early with my classes already prepared: I’m going to write an essay on the big screen while the students watch, and then they’re going to write similarly-themed essays on their own computers. Yesterday’s lessons with these two groups were frustrating as I was trying to play them bits of ‘Let Them Eat Chaos’ by Kate Tempest but the IT system kept playing up. In the staffroom most pcs are busy. The only one that isn’t takes ages to load – ten to twelve seconds. While I’m waiting I use my phone. I email myself a memo for an article I’ve started writing about music. When the pc is finally ready I open Google Chrome, but then I’m interrupted by a dialogue box, which asks me if I want to restart the computer now or wait one, two or three hours. My patience is already worn thin by the 30 or seconds the whole process has taken so far. I set it to restart in four hours’ time. Someone else can deal with it. I’ve got things to do that can’t wait. Once my email has opened I check my email to myself has arrived and then click on Google Drive so I can paste the contents of the email into a new document. Opening Google Drive always takes an eternity (sometimes up to five seconds) so I look around and greet a couple of newly-arrived colleagues. Most of the other staff are busy on their pcs or phones. When I look back at the screen the Google doc is ready, so I do what I need to do, open another new blank doc and type this. I check the spelling, close it and log off so that I can go up to class early and log onto the classroom pc in time for the lesson.

San Francisco: Why I hate TED Talks and love Rebecca Solnit

dsc_0530From LA to San Francisco I take the train. This feels like a novelty because I didn’t know the US still had trains. In Mexico (where I’m living at the moment, viz. November 2015) the train network was broken up and sold off in the early 1990s, and I assumed that the whole train network in the States had long ago suffered a similar fate. It’s one of the many things that surprise me on my inaugural visit to the US.dsc_0445San Francisco feels like a greatest hits of some of the nicest places I’ve ever been to. In Chinatown I have an uncanny sensation that I am back in China. I understand that this is kind of the point of Chinatown, but still. The sights, smells and sounds seem to be those of a place that exists in itself, rather than a mere stopping-off point for tourists.dsc_0419The layout of the hills reminds me strongly of Lisbon, with sudden stunning glimpses down into the bay. Strolling up from where I’m staying on the morning of thanksgiving, I find the streets mostly deserted. I sit in a café surrounded by big-brained young people murmuring and tapping away on laptops and drink coffee so strong my head actually falls off. I’m reminded of Hamburg in terms of the quality of life. There are lots of people carriers and I catch glimpses of yachts on the water below. I find the presence of a caterpillar sanctuary comforting and make a mental note to direct any exiled lepidoptera I should meet up this way.dsc_0474On the way to the Golden Gate park, around the corner from Haight Ashbury Primary School, I stop and watch a game of American football. Americans don’t call it American football, in the same way as the Mexicans don’t talk about Mexican food. It’s a college game, someone explains. I manage not to embarrass myself in conversation with the local enthusiasts, and briefly try my hand at sports photography. In the park itself, I pass the National Aids Monument and then come across two friends from ‘home’: Goethe and Schiller. The statue was dedicated by the German community in 1901. Partly because it’s a port town, SF has always been a huge draw for immigrants, and it’s easy to see why.dsc_0530Up at the bridge I enjoy a stunning view across the bay. I’ve missed the famous fog by a couple of months. In any case it’s diminished somewhat over the last couple of years. The climate is, after all, changing.dsc_0370The next day I spend in Oakland and Berkeley. Mention of Oakland often evokes the famous phrase from Gertrude Stein: “there’s no there there”. Actually, the most powerful association it has for me is with hiphop. Back in the 1990s I listened to a lot of g-funk and was particularly enamoured of a local revolutionary rapper called Paris who was best known for bragadaciously fantasising about assassinating the then-President. Hence as I wander round my head is full of lines of street poetry about shooting cops. Up in the hills above the bay I go for a woodland walk with Daniel, the brother of an old friend from Dublin. Although he wasn’t born here, he embodies a soft-spoken wisdom about the world which I quickly come to associate with this part of the country. We talk at length about the drought and what it means. Daniel was an agronomist before retiring, and now spends a lot of his time volunteering on a collective organic farm. Hence he is very well-placed to talk about what climate change is doing down at the roots of nature.dsc_0364I get the bus down to Berkeley. My new friends Jan and Steve kindly take me on a walk around the university, which is probably the most climate-aware place on the planet. Because of the drought the grass on the lawns has been replaced by wood shavings, along with a notice explaining why. In the Sciences building there’s an advert for a Survival 101 course (‘the next 50 years will be radically different from anything we have ever known’), a special board for ‘activist jobs’ and more Bernie Sanders graffiti that you can shake an organic placard at. Afterwards we have beer and pizza in their garden and talk about climate awareness strategies.dsc_0512The person who most embodies the radical Bay Area spirit for me is the local writer and activist Rebecca Solnit. Although I’ve insisted here multiple times that climate denial is connected to racism, she points out more clearly and coherently that it is also very much about patriarchy. She’s best-known for writing the essay and subsequent book ‘Men explain things to me‘, which gave birth to the term ‘mansplaining’. Solnit encapsulates the notion of an engaged intellectual: honest about the difficulties of staying active and hopeful but facing up to reality without flinching. I hope I won’t be doing her a disservice by saying she’s like a cross between Naomi Klein and Erich Fromm. In addition to being hugely prolific, she’s well worth following on Facebook. Last year her (in these times) must-read book ‘Hope in the dark’ was reissued. Shortly before visiting the States I read her history of walking, ‘Wanderlust’, in which she makes a connection between walking and writing that I find truly inspiring. Her work is a constant reminder that if is there is to be a future, it will be a feminist one, as another heroine of mine has also pointed out.dsc_0428Another woman I associate with the Bay Area is Oedipa Maas, the heroine of Thomas Pynchon’s novel ‘The Crying of Lot 49’. Looking for an underground postal service which may or may not exist, she follows a series of homeless men through the night as they appear to deposit and collect mail from trash cans. The network may or may not represent another level of reality subjacent to the official America. Oedipa has visions of connections and communities that lie beneath the surface. She sees Californian suburbs laid out like circuit boards and notices arcane symbols used to communicate between those in the know. My father-in-law has a cute theory about how the visions she experiences may be the result of epilepsy. In any case, there’s something extremely prescient about a book published in 1966 anticipating the acid-fuelled flowering of consciousness that was to come.dsc_0484Maybe in the future awareness and empathy will be luxuries, like yachts and, well, houses. In the Bay Area there’s a drought of affordable places to live, which means the cost and scarcity of housing is by far the number one topic of even the most casual conversation. Whereas in London it’s partly the influence of the finance industry making things much more expensive for everyone else, in SF it’s the tech companies. In 2013 local activists started protesting the shuttle buses used by companies like Google to transport their workers to the corporate campuses, like the one described by Dave Eggers in ‘The Circle’. Everyone else is allowed to stay in the city under very stringent conditions. It puts me in mind of an essay I once read by Brazilian sociologists called ‘the return to the medieval city’. In modern cities there are so many exclusions in operation, partly through technology, screening creating invisible walls. The globalised market functions as an particularly efficient repressive tool. Anyone could get removed at any time. Just as undocumented migrants fear the immigration authorities, most people in cities like San Francisco live in terror that their landlords will sell up or raise the rent.dsc_0405Increasing amounts of apartments are given over to Airbnb. The new economy is a battleground. The Bay Area may be one of the places from which field operations are directed, but it is also very vulnerable to their effects. Just a couple of weeks before my visit protestors occupied the company’s headquarters in support of a (subsequently unsuccessful) proposition to limit short-term rentals. The tech industry is a reminder that smart doesn’t mean intelligent. Back in Mexico City I’d noticed that the British Council has a weekly session of TED Talks, open to all its students. These are becoming as ubiquitous in TEFL as they are online. They represent ‘progress’ divorced from politics, entirely mediated by the market, with technology as its stand-in article of faith – after all, it was Friedrich Hayek himself (the father of Neoliberalism) who called the market a kind of technology. The TED ideology is based on a religious faith that the existence of African mobile phone entrepreneurs will somehow save the world. It’s all very slickly packaged and presented, to the extent that The Onion does a very clever parody. (Here‘s a much more serious critique by Evgeny Morozov.) For me, TED talks put me in mind of Mao’s Little Red Book, in that they imply total devotion to the helmsmanship of the Global Market. There are, truth be told, some brilliant TED Talks (inevitable, given that they appear to come off a pretty speedy production line) but the fact that they are sponsored by car companies often gets in the way of any enjoyment or inspiration. At best they are persuasive and informative, and at worst irritatingly smug and extremely complacent; they are almost always deeply neoliberal in outlook.dsc_0551Down at Fisherman’s Wharf there are actually people fishing. I try to figure out if they’re doing it for food or fun. If it’s sustenance they’re after, they’re in competition for survival with some of the biggest seagulls I’ve ever seen. The scene reminds me of Durban, South Africa, where we saw Indians without rods fishing for whitebait in polluted water. It’s easy to romanticise going off-grid, but surviving outside the walls of the global market is hard. Still, many have no alternative but to escape its dominion and seek out or build alternative communities. José Saramago’s novel ‘The Cave’ is about a shopping mall that dominates every aspect of life in the area around it. Work, food, security and leisure are all increasingly centred on it. At the end the protagonists pack up and drive off the page to an uncertain but more independent future. In the final pages of Pynchon’s ‘Vineland’, set in 1984, Zoyd Wheeler leaves the politically repressive atmosphere of LA and heads up to Northern California, where new communities of hippies and other dissidents are being established. Contrary to the example set by countless backwoods myths and log-cabin yarns, surviving on one’s own is not an option. Cormac McCarthy’s protagonist in ‘The Road’ wanders a devastated post-apocalyptic landscape with a shopping trolley, and the book ends up with a incongruous epiphany which resembles nothing less than an advert for Coca Cola. The motif of the shopping cart put me in mind of the avatar that so often stands in for us on the internet. In McCarthy’s novel there is no more online and no more consumerism, so the future is dead. It is ‘welcome to the desert of the real’ made (barely) flesh. There is no community, with little fellow feeling between the isolated individuals who drift into contact. They are reduced to little more than isolated pixels in a ruined computer game. By contrast, in another of Saramago’s dystopian fictions, ‘Blindness’, the only seeing character literally strings the group of blind people together and manages to preserve some sense of a community in the midst of the shredded social fabric. The final words of the novel are ‘The city was still there’.dsc_0526There are examples of offline communities which protect those expelled or repulsed by the workings of the Matrix; wherever there aren’t, we have to try and establish them in the face of the confluence of climate breakdown and total corporate control. Climate Camp and Occupy were attempts to set such up places, to establish havens where people could identify and belong. Significantly, Rebecca Solnit spent some of her younger years as part of the Women’s Peace Camp at Greenham Common. And although it’s set further down the Californian coast in LA, Pynchon’s ‘Inherent Vice’ (set in 1970, at the waking from the hippy dream presaged in ‘The Crying of Lot 49’) closes with the following passage, one which I personally find of some comfort when contemplating what lies ahead:

Doc wondered how many people he knew had been caught out tonight in this fog, and how many were indoors fogbound in front of the tube or in bed just falling asleep. Someday there’d be phones as standard equipment in every car, maybe even dashboard computers. People could exchange names and addresses and life stories and from alumni associations to gather once a year at some bar off a different freeway exit each time, to remember the night they set up a temporary commune to help each other home through the fog.

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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.

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.

****https://www.google.it/webhp?sourceid=chrome-instant&ion=1&espv=2&ie=UTF-8#q=%22pissed%20off%20in%20french%22

***** 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.